Drake (Book 1)

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[62]-Ghosts in the desert

Iraq

8:25 a.m.

Ella stumbled through the scorching desert in a hysteria of heat and thirst. Her feet sank in the sand and hungry vultures circled above her. Every gust of wind blowing towards her carried infernal heat with bits of sand assailing her face like tiny needles. She stopped amid a dune and scoured every direction. To the east loomed a blazing sun; to the west, an ocean of sand; the north, more sand, and to the south, high dunes with her tracks already absorbing into the desert, erasing any evidence of her existence.

She succumbed to the heat and collapsed, her body lying in a blanket of sand.

Ella blinked and in front of her stood an oasis of palm trees rocking side to side as if beckoning her to wriggle towards it. She dug her hands into the sand, pulling and slipping as she squirmed towards the oasis. An opening in the brush revealed a body of water, its surface a deep blue, lily pads and swans floating across.

"Ella…"

Her lips cracked and bled as she licked them with a dry tongue as white as snow. She stopped at the fringe of the oasis and looked behind her. Nothing.

She turned and resumed crawling; the oasis faded, and she could see the desert floor through the other side.

"ELLA!"

She gasped at the sight of Lyn standing before her, a sardonic smile etched on her face. Lyn wore her ballet dress; the same one from their childhood.

"Sister, help…"

She blinked, and Lyn was gone. She watched each palm tree fade from existence, replaced by the desert. The water remained and with the last bit of strength she crawled towards its edge, determined to drink from its vitalizing substance. She reached the shore and cupped her hands, scooping what appeared to be water. As she brought it to her mouth, grains of sand trickled from her hands.

“What! No! This can’t be happening! I’m going to die here!”

She pounded the ground and bellowed, her cries carried by the winds into nothingness. A murder of crows surrounded, their feathers falling like black rain and dark eyes resembling the deepest pits of hell. One landed near her head and pecked her forehead. She swatted the bird away, setting off a domino effect and dispersing the entire flock.

"ELLA HELP!"

A wall of flames flashed in her mind, accompanied by charring corpses. Ella stood petrified at the church’s iron gates. Walking cadavers still ablaze reached through the gate, pieces of their skin falling and withering into ash. Their tormented moans renewed in her head, forsaking any moment of tranquility.

She remembered the soldiers gathering around the church, cackling and smoking cigarettes. The inferno dried her tears, and she turned and ran, ripping off her cross and tossing it aside. Gunfire cracked like whips throughout the entire town, plumes of smoke bursting in every direction.

My family devoted our life to God and prayed every day. Yet when I watched my friends and neighbors burn alive, he did nothing. This was the reward for our prayers. I was the one that never took all that prayer stuff seriously anyway…

Her eyes closed, and she drifted off to sleep, her tormenting past accompanying her dreams. Lyn’s face appeared, her eyes like rain shimmering. She shouted from the top of her lungs. "Ella, breathe or you’ll die!"

She awakened with a gasp as cool droplets of water fell into her mouth. Her vision dimmed, but she could discern the dark countenance of the man above her. He supplied a steady stream of water that cooled her parched throat.

The man formed a grin. “It would seem you were almost claimed by the desert. It would turn a sane man mad.”

Ella groaned.

Abbas hoisted her barely conscious body over his broad shoulders and carried her away. Robes the size of blankets covered his massive frame, and he trekked the desert for miles without wavering or ever slowing his gait. He reached a caravan of camels, resting at a desolate outpost under a canopy.

He greeted his animals and placed Ella beneath the canopy and soaked a rag to cover her forehead. She opened her eyes and realized the man’s powerful voice matched his size. Abbas removed his hood and scarf, revealing soot colored skin with golden piercings embedded into his ears and eyebrows. Scars covered his arms from shoulder to wrist that resembled a crocodile’s scale.

He snorted derisively before closing his flask. “Allah has found favor in you.”

Abbas muttered in Arabic, steepling his hands before averting his gaze to her.

“Araha…”

The giant rose and gathered his camels. Wind whistled as it traveled through the hollow buildings behind them; an old trading post long since forgotten. He lifted her by the armpits onto a camel and handed her its reins. He tapped her legs and yanked the reins.

“Keep your legs tight to the camel and do not let go of the reins. If you stray from the caravan, the desert will consume you. Do you understand?”

She nodded meekly, inducing slight irritation in the giant.

Abbas gritted and said with calm authority: “Do you understand?”

“Yes! I understand…”

Abbas straddled the lead camel and pulled its reins. He uttered another phrase in Arabic, and the camel picked up speed, guiding the caravan.

Ella called from behind, wrapping a white smegma around her head, curls of violet hair peeking beneath. “Where are we going?”

Without straying from the path ahead, Abbas said: “We are going to meet my master…”

“Master?”

A dust storm brewing ahead blackened the sky and obscured the sun. Fierce gales collided against the caravan.

“Yes,” Abbas replied. “His name is Drake-”

As they reached the eye of the storm, deafening gusts cut across Abbas’ words. She secured the reins, their existence only recognized by her touch.

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