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The Lost Desert Dagger: Part Four


by scarrift

--------

Redemption

"Dellia. Dellia, wake up."

     I saw the shadow Kougra's eyes flutter open, the dark green orbs clear and unfocused. She gave a tiny groan and struggled to pull herself together. Then her gaze fell upon my face and she bolted upright in the cushioned armchair she was sitting in, her head glancing left and right in panic. I locked my paw over her shoulder to prevent her from rising, staring evenly into her eyes.

     Her head suddenly snapped around again to face me. "Ma … Maladgar," she stuttered in shock. "You're … you're real. I … I thought you were a -"

     "Ghost? I've never felt more alive, Dellia," I answered earnestly, my grin now more pronounced. "Especially when I saw you tonight; you were the least likely person I had expected to meet."

     The shadow Kougra suddenly pointed over my shoulder to the two Kyrii standing nonchalantly behind me. "Who are they?" Dellia hissed, one paw reaching for her belt, though it would do her no good; I had removed her weapons only moments ago. I gently squeezed her shoulder to regain her attention.

     "Those two are Seth and his cohort Lady Ruka," I introduced them. "Whose home you just happened to intrude upon this very night." I then stepped aside and turned to face the two Kyrii, beckoning towards the leather clad Kougra. "And this is Delliana Curtis, once, and I hope still, the Desert Dagger's finest infiltrator with skill rivalled only by my own."

     "Just say thief and be done with it," Ruka scoffed scornfully, throwing another meaningful look at me. The Desert Kyrii had been rather put-off when Seth had allowed me to interrogate the intruder rather than turn her over to the guards.

     Dellia shot a glare that would have melted stone at the Kyrii and I hastily stepped between the two. The last thing I wanted was another fight. "Calm yourself Dellia, neither Ruka nor Seth are going to hurt you," I said calmly. "As will you not hurt them." I ignored the snort of disdain behind me and continued. "Now Dellia, I need to know something important: what happened to the Desert Daggers?" I must have sounded excited but I couldn't help it. Could it be? Could they all still be well?

     Dellia looked uncertainly at me and I caught her glancing over my shoulder. "Never mind them," I admonished. "I trust them as I trust you, Dellia. Yes, even Lady Ruka," I added, seeing the Kougra's dubious looks. "Now answer my question, please, it's very important to me."

     The shadow Kougra looked defiantly at me for a moment before sighing. "As you wish, Maladgar. Though I am forbidden to discuss such matters but I suppose you of all people should know," she said in a low voice. Dellia took a deep breath and started, her eyes turned to the floor. "After the … incident, we Desert Daggers, that is to say those who survived, escaped out into the desert, those less skilled in stealth and lacking guile into the grottos of various cities. It was in the mountains to the North that I hid, all the while worrying about you and pondering my failure to protect you." She looked up into my eyes. "I wanted to come for you, Maladgar, I really did, but -"

     "I thought all thieves looked out for themselves," put in Ruka suddenly.

     "Shh, quiet, Miss Ruka," rebuked Seth.

     "You didn't have to, Dellia," I said quickly before the Kougra could open her mouth in response. "I served my time, I wouldn't have it any other way, and I came to realize the folly of my old ways. Oh how cruel those days were, cruel but sobering. Sometimes I wished I never became the Desert Fang …" My voice trailed off.

     Dellia simply stared at me in disbelief, speechless.

     "No, it was better that you didn't rescue me from that dungeon. You have not failed me once, Dellia, and I doubt you ever will," I went on in a stronger voice. "But we can talk about me later. Now please continue, Dellia."

     She stared incredulously for a second longer before finding her voice. "Of … of course, Maladgar. About a week later a messenger came to my hideout and requested that I come to Sandstone for an emergency gathering. I thought it was good news - that you had somehow managed to escape or that someone managed to help you do so - so I quickly made my way to Sandstone."

     "Sandstone?" came the sound of two voices, Seth and Ruka's.

     "The Desert Dagger's primary guild stronghold," I answered matter-of-factly.

     Dellia looked aghast that I had told them our most guarded secret but I motioned for her to continue so, too shaken to object, she picked up where she had left off. "I made it there and found that all the guild lieutenants had gathered but there was no sign of you anywhere so I assumed the worst. Kattan called everyone to order and solemnly, officially announced that you, Maladgar, had been captured and was now incarcerated in the Sahkmet Dungeons for your failed attempt to kidnap the princess.

     "Then he declared that he would put the entire guild's efforts to secure your release and punish those who dared to imprison you. 'I shall return our guildmaster to our midst, that I promise!' said he, 'And our enemies, those fools who dare stand in our way and humiliate our guildmaster, will rue the day they crossed scimitars with us!'. And with that he laid out a series of plans for us; one for your release and another a map with villages marked out for raids."

     "Seems only half the plan was carried out," Seth mused to no one in particular, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.

     "The lieutenants and I quickly made preparations for the siege upon the Sahkmetian Dungeons and reached out for the street soldiers in hiding to prepare for the raids," Dellia went on, now animated in the telling of her story. "Then Kattan suddenly recalled everyone, even the street thieves, to Sandstone. 'Fellow Desert Daggers,' he started solemnly when we were all there. 'I have just received grave news from our Spymaster's agents. The Desert Fang is no longer with us. Lieutenant Grega's spies have also confirmed it; Maladgar the Desert Fang will no longer return to our sides.'"

     Dellia's gaze suddenly became forlorn. "I remember when I heard the news; it was as if the desert sands had swallowed me whole. The rest seemed to be just as overcome as I was and a great pandemonium broke out. Kattan eventually restored order before continuing with his announcement. 'Now is not the proper time to grieve for our fallen leader,' said he angrily. 'Now is the time for our enemies to suffer for their defiance. Let us strike now while they still think they've won. Doom to the enemies of the Desert Daggers!' and with the whole guild riled up he led us to pillage and plunder the outlying cities and villages around Sahkmet. I wanted to object, wanted to break into the Sahkmet Dungeons to see the truth for myself, but I was only one and could not hope to succeed by my own. So it was that I followed Kattan and the other lieutenants."

     "I think I know the rest," I murmured, the words of Malmud the Tuskaninny coming back to me. "A good deal of trouble the Desert Daggers stirred and eventually King Coltzan sent out his army to stamp out the troublemakers once and for all. Not even the most skilled assassins could withstand an attack by a regiment of trained and armoured soldiers."

     Dellia shook her head dolefully. "Those days were a blur; I hardly had time to think for myself with all the looting and fighting, like I was watching myself in some hazy nightmare. When Coltzan's troops made their appearance I had enough clarity of mind to run, and just in time too for Kattan had issued a withdrawal order, himself routing to Sandstone in stealth. But his order came too late and most of the Desert Daggers were caught in the battle between Coltzan's forces. None came back alive.

     "After that we continued to operate in silence, raiding when we could and fading away again into the desert. I am ashamed to admit that as the years went by I began to forget about you, Maladgar, but in your memory I continued to work for Kattan. In fact I was sent here to retrieve a dagger by his order and it was fate that I met you." Dellia now smiled. "I'm so glad to see you well, Maladgar."

     I shared her feelings but something heavy was weighting me down, a suspicion that had grown with every word. "Hmm, I believe you, Dellia," I said, walking to a nearby window with my arms crossed. "But why did Kattan lie about me, I wonder?"

     "Perhaps his spies were to blame," Seth remarked helpfully. "They can't be right all the time."

     I turned back to face the three, shaking my head. "I've been underground for a long time and I would have noticed a spy. No, Desert Dagger spies never mislead their masters into unconfirmed facts. I must be missing something here." Then a thought came to me. "Unless …" I turned to Dellia. "Did you know what you were sent to retrieve?"

     She shrugged. "I was just told that it was an ornamental dagger and that its recovery was very important." She looked thoughtfully at the ceiling. "Then again there's been some dissent in the guild recently and I think the dagger has got to do with that. But what -"

     "The dagger you seek, Dellia, is the same dagger that poisoned me," I stated, to Dellia's surprise. "Seth, may I see the dagger please?" I asked the red Kyrii hastily. He shrugged and passed me the blade without a word.

     I placed one paw upon the green steel then ran it along the flat edge till it reached the hilt. Then, to everyone's surprise, I sniffed at the blade and examined my fingers. Understanding came to me at that moment and with it came cold anger. I raised my eyes to the others and they gave a shudder. "It is said that every poison leaves traces of its maker," I began in a low, barely controlled voice, though my eyes were flaring with emotion. "All this while I had dismissed Kattan's power plays within the guild to be harmless; he would never dare lay a finger on me, or so I thought. None of you may know this but Kattan, that foul Eyrie, was also known by another name. It was the Jade Lotus, creator of the venom which shares his name, used in this knife."

     "But it can't be," Dellia gasped.

     "But it is," I replied, my voice rising. "For years Kattan the Jade Lotus has been planning a coup to overthrow me after his first failed and I was too blind to see it the first time. Now he's covering up his mistake to ensure none of the other Desert Daggers find out. Oh foolish pride! If I had known! Now the Desert Daggers are in the claws of a monster and it's my own doing!" I slammed the dagger to the floor and it buried itself point first into the wood, quivering slightly.

     "How many of my loyal lieutenants are still at Sandstone?" I asked. "Presio, Thedgar, Goldwin?"

     "They're all long gone, Maladgar," she answered quietly, seeing the picture for the first time. "Since the assault by Coltzan's troops …"

     "Just as I suspected. Dellia, are guildmaster Kattan and his lieutenants still at Sandstone?" I demanded, rounding on the shadow Kougra. She nodded blankly and I turned to face Seth and Ruka. "Then I must leave immediately. You were right, Seth; I cannot wallow forever in my grief and nothing has given me more purpose than what Delliana has told me tonight. It was my own folly that led to the current events and I shall redeem myself by righting this wrong. I'm going to destroy the Desert Daggers before they cause any more harm. Dellia, are you with me?"

     The shadow Kougra looked torn, as if she couldn't decide. Then a smile appeared on her slender face. "I have always been loyal to you, Maladgar; I will go."

     "And so would I!"

     I was shaking my head even as I spun around to see Seth looking defiant. "No, Seth, please stay here where it's safe. You may be an Odesias but you're no thief." I suddenly heard a sharp intake of breath.

     "Odesias? Did you say this Kyrii is Seth Odesias?" she said in surprise. "Son of Kaseem Odesias?"

     "What do you know of him?" Seth exclaimed, striding past me to Dellia's chair before I could interrupt.

     She stared down at the red Kyrii's face in disbelief. "Yes, you resemble him greatly," she declared incredulously. "Your father now dwells at Sandstone, Seth, as Kattan's right hand lieutenant."

     The final piece of the puzzle fell into place.

     "He didn't fail the first time either after all. I was wondering why he gave me the anti-venom for his poison, but then again I never expected his plans to be this elaborate," I muttered thoughtfully to myself. "So he took Kaseem into his confidence after he disposed of me, thus gaining the powerful Erisim Mask's favour."

     Seth strode up to me, a hardened and obstinate look on his face. "Then I shall go with you even if you refuse. Nothing you can do will stop me meeting with my father, Maladgar!"

     "If he goes, so shall I!" Ruka said finally, an equally unforgiving flicker in her eyes.

     I looked from one person to the next, glancing into each of their faces before giving a grim smile. "Then we shall all leave, tonight."

     ~*~*~*~*~

     "Why do we have to approach the stronghold at night?"

     "Because Sandstone is less well guarded then for many thieves would be out doing their nightly duties," I whispered impatiently. "Now keep your voice down, Seth. You insisted on coming so please heed my advice." The red Kyrii fell silent and I turned to continue my watch over the Desert Dagger fort from my vantage point on a rocky shelf facing the structure, a journey of three days and two nights by Apis from Kievmed.

     Rising abruptly above the sandy plains, the sharp pillar of yellow rock jutted out like a claw, jagged and crooked. Hidden inconspicuously in the centre of a crescent-shaped ridge, Sandstone was the most secure of the Desert Dagger strongholds, both in design and in location. Its name was derived for its colour rather than the integrity of the implied rock, for the granite-like walls yielded to nothing short of magical bombardment and the cunning array of natural and unnatural tunnels winding through its core provide much advantage and comfort to its occupants.

     Sandstone could withstand any siege, I smiled grimly, but it could never keep me out.

     Dellia raised her head slightly to survey the sky. "Lady Luck seems to be smiling at us Maladgar," she remarked quietly. "Already she sends hosts of clouds to mask our approach." True to her word wispy cloudbanks were drifting lazily across the night sky, obscuring the sickle-shaped moon.

     "Then let us make haste while she still favours us," I declared, moving bent at the waist towards a tiny crevasse where Ruka, and now Seth, had holed up for cover. "The time to leave is upon us," I said hurriedly, a tinge of worry in my voice. "Remember all that Dellia and I have told you and should anything happen to the two of us you two are to escape as planned …without us. I trust you will carry out my wishes," I concluded, looking particularly hard at Ruka. The Desert Kyrii nodded grimly, knowing her duty in this matter, the thought of seeing Seth safely far outweighing her satisfaction of abandoning me. I gave a curt nod and motioned for them to follow.

     I led the two quickly down a short, winding path that ended behind a large boulder. As the two Kyrii followed I couldn't help but feel dreadfully afraid, not for my safety but for Ruka and Seth's; they were not as skilled in stealth as Dellia and I were and they would never make it out of that Buzzer's nest without any help. I shook the thoughts away and willed myself to focus on the task at hand. Dellia was waiting for us at the bottom and as I neared her she pointed out towards the moon-gilded dunes.

     "Two Ruki patrols pass by the door every 15 minutes," she reported, fingering the hilt of a dagger nervously. "It's going to take us half that to get to the door and that doesn't include finding it." I nodded thoughtfully. The 'door' was actually a buried crack set into Sandstone's wall. A hollow vein travelled upwards straight to the core of the stronghold, bypassing most of the guarded corridors to the inner sanctums.

     "We'll have to risk it then," I said finally. Just then a dark shadow rushed over the land, throwing the region into darkness. "The time's at hand. Go!" I hissed and sprang onto the sands. I felt and heard the others follow close behind and my heart jumped a notch. It was just like old times; running free over the cold desert sands, feeling the night breeze whip through my hair, such exhilaration I have not felt in many, many moons. I was alive! I decided there and then that this was how I wanted to live the rest of my life, always on the move, forever seeking adventure!

     A darkness darker than that of the surrounding night appeared over the shadowed dunes; the ominous claw of Sandstone. The dark shape grew as I approached and I soon found myself in the true shadow of the rocky peak. But there was no time to stare in admiration. Leaping upon the cold sand at the base of the cliffs, I sifted and scrabbled through the soft sand in search of the tell-tale hollow. Behind me I hard the shuffling of feet fast approaching and my paws moved even quicker.

     Suddenly my paw slipped through a gap. "Lady Luck smiles upon us indeed," I snickered to myself. The sand dune that clogged up the tunnel had shifted greatly, revealing enough of the hole that an Eyrie might enter untroubled. I turned and saw the three approaching silhouettes. My heart leapt when I saw the tide of moonlight trailing closely behind them. "Hurry, come on, hurry," I groaned, waving my arms rapidly for them to quicken their pace. Moonlight was fast approaching and Desert Rukis have keen eyes.

     They came a tumbling into the gap, almost bowling me over, one after another. And not a moment too soon for a breath later the moon shone brightly again and the shape of a Ruki and its rider materialized from the gloom. I breathed a sigh of relief and moved deeper into the hollow to meet the rest.

     The three sat together upon the chilly floor, out of breath after the long run over dragging sand. I glanced up the dark slope before turning my gaze towards them. "Count your lucky stars that we got here in time, but now's not the time for rest." I paced back and forth. "We must finish this business this very night for we may not get another chance ever. Ruka, when we reach the top of this passageway I want you to take Seth down the left tunnel; that should lead to the lieutenants' quarters. Dellia shall go with you to -"

     "By Coltzan's teeth I will!" the Kougra snapped. "You can't take on Kattan and his lieutenants alone."

     "As do Seth and Ruka," I pointed out calmly. "They need you to guide them through the maze of burrows." I paused and continued in a lower voice. "And to protect them. Please, Dellia, do this for me as a final favour for a childhood friend."

     Dellia opened her mouth to object but no words came forth. She swallowed hard and nodded slowly. "As …as you wish, Maladgar." Then, almost in a whisper, she added, "And please be careful."

     I smiled and turned to Seth. "Are you ready to go, Seth?"

     The little Kyrii nodded gravely, a strange fire burning in his youthful eyes. "Ready as I'll ever be," he answered bravely, the knowledge of his father strengthening him. Ruka nodded in agreement but I also saw a flash of fear in those amber eyes. And with one last look at Dellia I moved past and led the way up the narrow tunnel.

     ~*~*~*~*~

     I watched them intently as they moved down the tunnel and rounded the corner. I breathed deeply and reached for my staff; the only weapon I carried with me, not wanting to be weighed down. Silently I emerged from shadows of the crack and leapt lightly to the floor. Again I wished Dellia, Seth and Ruka luck before darting in the opposite direction, moving from one shadow to the next.

     Stealthily I made it past several roving patrols and idle thieves, none of them perceptive enough or alert enough to care. I couldn't help but grind my teeth; the Desert Daggers had indeed been reduced to a band of mindless brigands.

     Kattan would pay dearly for this.

     My anger carried me past several more natural caverns, gliding through the shadows with ease, calling forth from my memory all the ways and means of Sandstone as only a guildmaster could, ascending gradually through the maze of twisting passages. Then I came to a great empty hall ringed with many arching windows carved out of the living rock from ceiling to floor, the chill wind whistling and the faint moonlight shining through the arches positioned between four small alcoves. Looking around carefully and seeing nothing amiss, I moved through the shadows to one of the four alcoves aligned to the points of a compass.

     Suddenly a loud voice boomed. "So you have returned, Desert Fang!" Steel flashed in the shadows and I leapt aside into the light, turning the sudden, thrusting blade away with the tip of my staff as I went. A dark shape emerged with the green dagger and I gazed once more into the face of the Erisim Mask.

     "I'm sure the both of you have met before," came the voice again, cold and cruel. I swept my glare upwards and saw Kattan leaning casually upon the wooden rail of a walkway encircling the upper level of the chamber - or arena, as I came to notice. They had expected this.

     Kaseem suddenly lunged forward, his jade blade darting in and out rapidly. I turned aside as many thrusts as I could, dodging an equal number, slowly being forced backwards by the assault. "Stand still!" the Kyrii roared attacking me with a fury, his face screwed up in rage.

     Among the thud of steel and wood, the sharp, mirthless laughter of Kattan the Eyrie rang out as he strolled round the walkway. "You dance well, Maladgar, but how much longer can you dance?"

     "Kaseem, you can stop this madness now!" I exclaimed desperately, deflecting another wide slash. The Kyrii snarled and pressed the attack.

     "I'll never forgive you for the humiliation I've suffered from you!" he growled. I barely managed to meet his blade this time as it flashed towards me, the stab drawing another notch in my staff. "And because of you my son will never know his father!"

     "I admit my rashness, Kaseem," I cried, turning his weapon wide over his head and pushing him back with my staff. "But I'm not to blame! It was Kattan that forged the venomous dagger and sought to hold you responsible!"

     "Lies, the lies of a desperate Usul!" Kattan laughed.

     Kaseem roared again and came forward, weapons closing like a crab's pincers. There was a dull thud and our weapons crossed, caught in a test of strength. "Kattan whispers lies to you Kaseem!" I growled, gritting my teeth as I strove against his blade. "And your son thinks highly of you, whatever you may think! He's even risked his and his guardian's life to come here!"

     "LIAR!"

     "He's not lying, father!" came a smaller voice. The Kyrii's eyes registered shock and his dagger paw went limp as he spun around to the source of voice. A young red Kyrii in a white, travel stained robe stood framed in the nearest doorway, a happy smile on his face. Ruka stood fearfully behind him but her eyes shone bright and clear.

     "What trickery is this?" demanded the Eyrie, his voice drained of confidence as he clutched the rail.

     Kaseem remained speechless, his weapons falling limply to the floor with a clatter as he rushed towards Seth. The Kyrii held Seth's face in his paws, recognition finally dawning upon him, and the next moment he had the little Kyrii in a fierce hug.

     "My son!"

     "Father," Seth cried.

     I smiled triumphantly up at the enraged Eyrie.

     "No more than the unravelling of your treachery, Kattan," I declared calmly, pointing my staff at him. "Your grand lies have come to naught. Now everyone shall know the truth."

     Kattan gave a short, keening howl and flew towards me like a dart, wings outstretched, both dagger and scimitar flashing towards my heart. In one swift movement I spun gracefully about, turning his blades aside and continuing the swinging motion of the rod as I spun. The staff connected solidly into Kattan's back and sent him sprawling into an empty alcove with a loud thump.

     I heard movement behind me and saw that Dellia was rushing towards me, her eyes burning with the desire for battle. Kaseem too seemed to reach for his weapon as he set his son aside. "Hold, this is my fight!" I declared loudly. "Leave this treacherous worm to me!"

     "This is as much my fight as it is yours!" Kaseem growled.

     "No! Bring your son and his companion out of Sandstone with due haste, Kaseem!" I snapped back. "It's too dangerous for them to stay here! Think of your son, Kaseem! Do you wish to deny him his father again?" I added when he hesitated. "And you, Dellia," I continued, turning my attention to the Kougra beside me. "Take them to the secret passage and lead them to the camp. Kattan's stirred up Sandstone and Kaseem will need all the help he can get."

     "But Maladgar!"

     "Don't argue with me now!" I snarled, spinning around and bringing my staff to bear as Kattan, having recovered himself, launched himself into another frenzied assault. "Go now! They'll need someone to tell them the whole story when this is over!" I barely had time to see her nod her head before another series of slashes drew my attention back to the deadly Eyrie.

     "They won't get far, Maladgar!" Kattan spat. The sounds of the retreat faded away completely and I allowed myself a grim smile.

     "I'd think about myself if I were you," I taunted and stalked forward. The Eyrie set himself in a defensive position - scimitar held high while the dagger stayed low - as I came at him but I was undaunted; I was the master of the Twin Weapon fighting style and no rotten Eyrie would best me!

     "I should have known that you'd betray me, Kattan," I growled, slowly circling the Eyrie.

     "You are weak, Desert Fang! Weak!" he snarled angrily, mirroring me. "You're a disgrace to the Desert Daggers! The guild crumbled slowly under your leadership, grew soft with your self-righteous honour and silly little games while the rival guilds gnawed at our base of power! The strong were meant to command the weak but you were too blind to see it so I replaced you to show the Desert Daggers the truth of their power, and they embraced it! Those that did not were discarded like the weaklings they were!"

     I sneered. "Weak are those who follow morals but weaker still are those intimidate and overpower the defenceless and the unarmed." My eyes narrowed dangerously. "Don't lie to me Kattan, I can see right through you. In truth, you feared me because I was stronger and more skilled than you; because everyone respected me. You used deceit to overthrow me, too afraid to face me by yourself, hiding behind the might of the Desert Daggers. It is you who are the disgrace!"

     I saw something flare in his eyes and leapt aside just as he came fiercely for me, stabbing with the scimitar while the dagger trailed behind to follow through.

     His first and last mistake. Everything happened as if in limbo; my staff swept downwards to trip the Eyrie's large forepaws while I ducked beneath the slashing blade, rolling around to avoid the second dagger. Then, as if by reflex, I reversed the motion of my staff and brought it heavily across his back. I watched aghast as Kattan stumbled in a daze towards the edge of a gaping window. I leapt forward and grabbed him by the trailing end of his cloak. The Eyrie jerked in midair as the fabric went taut with his weight before tearing with a loud ripping noise.

     I could only watch helplessly as the Eyrie fell farther and farther until he was swallowed up by the gloom of twilight surrounding the tower. My eyes closed and I muttered a silent apology; despite his treachery I had no desire for it to end like this. Then a glimmer of light pierced the sky and I looked up to see the sun peeking over the horizon. I put aside all other thoughts and went to the westernmost alcove. A heavy sadness settled in my heart but I had to do it.

     There in the alcove stood a pedestal and upon that stood a shapely chunk of ochre rock. As my paws grasped the rock old memories of the Desert Daggers and of Sandstone came back strongly: my first successful heist.

     Decades ago the earliest band of Desert Daggers and I had stole into an old hermit's lair and carted away many valuable treasures. I had carried away nothing but a dull, yellow rock. While the rest were celebrating the good haul I ventured out to the desert, walking aimlessly till I spotted a ridge of rocks. It was there that Sandstone revealed all its secrets to me, including how to raise its true form from the featureless desert and ever since the Desert Daggers have dwelled within the sheltered body of Sandstone.

     My gripped tightened on the rock. No, there was no turning back now. The Lost Desert would be a much better place without the Desert Daggers, not that they still existed. The real Desert Daggers were long gone, lost out in the shifting sands because of one Eyrie's greed and thirst for power, replaced by the shadow of its former self. I stared out towards the East and saw small figures scrambling towards the rocky hills and a sad smile crept on my face.

     "Delliana, Seth, Kaseem, Ruka; whatever the future may hold I wish all of you the best of luck. May this repay all my debts. Farewell!"

     I slowly raised the yellow stone, the rays of the young sun coursing over its smooth surface, as it had been decades ago when I first raised Sandstone from its tiny totem. Then in a clear voice I chanted:

     "Sandstone, o' stone of yellow bright,

     Steadfast and sturdy; ever watchful, ever loyal.

     Now descend evermore into darkest night,

     Your debt ends hence; from now till time eternal."

     The sandstone block crumbled with a faint, mystical tinkle in my paws, the dust swept away in the gentle, high-altitude winds. Then the floor beneath me gave a mighty rumble and clouds of dust and sand raced up to the sky. Even as fissures materialized and split the walls asunder, as chunks crumbled and tumbled through the air, as the desert reached up to reclaim the spire of stone, I stood among in the centre of the chaos and smiled as darkness came for me.

     And I remembered nothing more.

Epilogue

     "Seth, stay here."

     "But father, Maladgar's still inside!"

     Kaseem took hold of his son's collar and held him back, shaking his head slowly. "It was his last wish that we get away safely. Please do not dishonour it by doing otherwise."

     The red Kyrii stopped struggling and looked helplessly at the swirling maelstrom of sand and dust over the crashing tumult of falling rocks in the distance. Kaseem took that moment to glance to his side where Lady Ruka was seated. Their eyes met for a moment and both concurred mournfully; no one could have survived that, not even the legendary Maladgar.

     Kaseem gently pushed his now silent son over to Ruka. "Take him back to the camp and make sure he gets some rest," he instructed with a stone-faced attempt to appear unconcerned about Maladgar. It failed miserably and Ruka, knowing what he was about to do, grabbed his paw.

     "We'll both take Seth back to camp," she said softly, eyeing him knowingly. "I'm sure you have much to explain to your son … and to me."

     A hint of anger crossed his features but it was instantly replaced with resignation. "Let's go Seth," Kaseem said, taking hold of the red Kyrii's paw. "We'll set off for Kievmed after we rested up a bit." He then put a fatherly paw on Seth's shoulder. "Then I'll make it up to for all those years we missed." Seth barely smiled as he was led up the small rocky path by Kaseem. Ruka followed close behind, threading the pebbly ground in silence.

     Then a sudden thought came to her and she grabbed Kaseem's shoulder. "Where's Delliana?"

     ~*~*~*~*~

     Dellia braved the howling winds and thick air, heavy with the course sands thrown up by Sandstone's fall. Her feet sunk deep into the now loose sand, the churning grains trying to drag her down like a rock thrown into a quagmire. Still she strove ever forward, her face steely and her heart pounding with fear, not for herself but for Maladgar.

     He has to be alive, I just know it! she thought furiously, wading through knee-deep sand, coughing out more dust.

     Then she could advance no more. In the midst of the dust cloud, an enormous swirling crater of shifting sands presented itself, lapping away at its perimeter and drawing it ever downwards. Dellia carefully stepped to the edge of the sandy depression and ventured a look in - and gasped.

     In the centre of the depression was a broken staff, its shattered tip pointing skywards. As she watched, the broken piece of wood slowly sank beneath the sucking sand before disappearing, forever. Dellia wrenched her eyes away and stolidly circled the pit, refusing to believe the ill omen.

     Then she stumbled across a short length of cloak, one end trapped beneath a sharp boulder, a short ways away. Dellia shrugged; it could've been anyone's cloak. A dull glint at the foot of the slowly sinking rock drew her attention and she curiously reached for it.

     Before she could touch it she recoiled, her face pale. The object was a curved dagger, a hairline crack splitting it down the centre and various chips dulling its edge; the hilt lay broken and useless, barely attached to the blade by a sliver of wood. A fairly common dagger, if not for the trickle of greenish liquid oozing from the cracked blade.

     Kattan's dagger. She searched a moment longer around what was remained of the boulder above ground and found no trace of the Eyrie. He must have sunk beneath the sands already, she reasoned, walking away from the rock. Serves him -

     She stopped dead in her tracks, disbelief and doubt written all over her face. No.

     Before her were two footprints, once deep and now covered by a light dusting of sand. Clawed footprints.

The End

Author's note: And so ends the tale of the Lost Desert Dagger. Yes, this is the end. I hope you enjoyed the story, or at least read it till the very end. Feel free to Neomail me with any comments, brickbats or suggestions. On a parting note, thanks to all those who helped me edit this. You know who you are. See ya!

 
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Other Episodes


» The Lost Desert Dagger: Part One
» The Lost Desert Dagger: Part Two
» The Lost Desert Dagger: Part Three



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