There was a small pop, a whoosh of air, and a crack thundered in the distance. In the time it took to blink, one of the soldiers’ heads disappeared. A mist of warm blood trickled down over us, the droplets streaming down my cheeks.
The dead man’s body collapsed into the sand in front of us and rolled down the dune. As the body spun down the hill, blood spurted out of the neck, which left a speckled trail staining the sand a dark crimson.
The last soldier looked at his decapitated comrade and, without hesitation, sprinted back towards the ramp.
He dove through the air and landed on it. “No, not me, not me ... not me!”
The pilot must have noticed the commotion, for the turbines began to whirr, preparing for take-off. A small gun turret under the nose of the ship sprung to life, and it shifted left and right, seeking a target.
There was a distant thud, followed by another whoosh of air as a projectile smacked into the side of the aircraft’s fuselage. The rocket exploded on impact and debris flew in all directions. Flames spewed out of the cracks, coating the aircraft in a red glow.
A low-pitched creak groaned as the metal frame collapsed and exploded. One of the turbines flung into the air, narrowly whizzing past us. Another loud screech. A massive eruption of fire and flames shot the remaining pieces of the aircraft outwards.
Horrified,I sat in the sand, trying to process it all. I looked back down at the decapitated man and felt nauseous. Eno was already spewing onto the sand. I looked back up to the wreckage to take my mind off the headless body.
“Both of you, stay down, okay?” I said.
Cinders and fragments of the ruined aircraft were still falling around us. A large plume of smoke drifted upwards and falling ash blackened the scene. I looked back down and followed the smoke trail left by the devastating projectile. I had found its source.
Approaching from behind the wreckage in the nearby dunes, a group of Nomads were running towards us. Were they bandits, here to loot and kill? Or were they Rebels, fighting against the Dominion? I wasn’t sure, but what would they do when they discovered that Tau was our prisoner? She was still entranced by the carnage in front of us and hadn’t noticed the Nomads yet.
“Listen to me very carefully, Nomads are coming and they cannot know who and what you are,” I said as her eyes widened and looked into mine. “If they do, there’s no telling what they’ll do with you.”
She continued looking at me with a stunned expression, as if she had forgotten how to speak. But then: “My streaks!”
“You’re right, this isn’t going to work.” I pulled out my knife and strode up to her. “They have to go.”
Tau looked towards the approaching strangers with trepidation. “Fine. Quick!” she said as she knelt down into the sand.
I brought my knife to her forehead, clumped one of the streaks together in my hand, sliced it off as close to the hairline as I could, and then started on the other streak. I clenched the cut hair in my palm as Tau rose to her feet and lifted her hood over her head. Where would I dispose of it? Should I bury it or should I put it in my bag? What if they searched it?
It was too late. Like an apparition, a face emerged and peered through the flames, so I scrunched the hairs into my left hand. The man’s face was scarred and covered in unkempt, black facial hair. His skin was tanned. His thick brows were lowered, and when he saw us his frown changed into a wide grin.
He held a giant rifle. It was camouflaged, had an elongated barrel, and a large scope on its top. The camouflage was consistent throughout his brown clothing. The man walked around the wreckage and approached us.
Behind him, several others followed and spread around the debris.
“Salvage anything useful,” the man shouted back at them. “Remember, nothing traceable. Reinforcements are probably already inbound.”
The team of Nomads sprang into action; they holstered their weapons and pulled out tools instead. They scavenged the wreck, separating what they could from the burnt and twisted frame. Their leader, satisfied with his instructions, turned his attention back to us.
Eno shot up from the sand, wiped the puke from his mouth, clenched my right hand with his sticky one, and then tried hiding behind me.
“You three pulled off a convincing job as bait for us,” he said as he raised his weapon and pointed it at me. “Now tell me who you are, Acolyte. Whose side are you on?”
We all put our hands up.
“Don’t shoot!” Eno squealed.
“I ... I’m Sacet,” I began, and he raised an eyebrow. I gestured at the others. “... and... and they’re ...”
“Out with it already, girl!” the man bellowed. “What are you doing out here? I bet you’re spies sent to infiltrate us.”
With that the man lowered his head towards his scope and took aim. My heart was pounding and I held my breath. I closed my eyes and cringed.
"Ha! That look on your faces. Brilliant,” the stranger said before he cackled. Some of the Nomads collecting salvage behind him joined in and laughed, too. ”Hahaha! I know who you are, Sacet.”
The man’s face relaxed and he lowered his weapon. Tau let out a sigh of relief and I managed an appreciative laugh. The others behind him continued to laugh as they collected scraps.
“You ... know us?” I asked. “How?”
“I was part of your village a long time ago, before I decided to take the pilgrimage alone. I used to know your family, too, like little Eno there. I’m surprised you two don’t remember me?”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t,” I said as he walked over to me with his arms spread wide. “We thought that you were bandits.”
“Us?” he said as he embraced me before pointing towards the others. “Take advantage of three innocent children travelling alone in the desert? Not on your life. Although I suppose that would defeat the point a little.”
He bent to the side and took a peek at Eno. “Besides, I’m sure your bodyguard here would have sprung to your rescue. Right, pal? Eno, last time I saw you, you were still a tiny toddler.”
Eno came out from hiding behind me, but he still gripped tightly to my hand, now as sticky as his.
The man now looked Tau up and down, his eyes narrowed and his smile faded.
“Didn’t catch your name from your stuttering friend over here. Come here,” he said as he made his way over and embraced her, too.
“It’s ... erm ... Tia,” Tau said trying to shrug him off.
“Tia? Well, Tia, sorry for the scare. Part of my sick sense of humour, I guess.”
Confused, Tau raised her arms around the man and tried returning the sentiment with an awkward smile of her own.
He loosened his embrace and took a step back. “So, how do you fit into this, Tia? Where are you from?”
Tau glanced back at me and was about to respond, but I interrupted. “We met her in Teersau. She’s making the pilgrimage, like us.”
The man’s face lit up and he pointed to the green mountains. “Well you’ve made it. Well done! A wise idea travelling together, too. Speaking of which, where’s the rest of your village, your family? Your parents, and that old coot, Aberym? I was hoping to swap some stories with him. It’s been ... what, six cycles?”
Eno looked down at his feet and kicked the sand.
“Our parents died a long time ago, after you left,” I explained, and his smile changed to a frown again. “And ... our grandfather ... the Necrolisks in Teersau ... he didn’t make it.
"Oh, that’s terrible. I’m so sorry,” he said, looking at the ground with us. After a long pause, he looked back up and gave a more reserved smile. “I’ve heard some interesting stories about him, so I'll tell you a few on our way back.”
Eno let go of my hand. “To where?”
The man turned back to the wreckage. “Alright, enough faffing about,” he said as he jogged up the dune and cupped his hands around his mouth. “We’re done here! Not enough time for anything else. Grab anything not bolted down, let’s head back.”
I led Eno up the dune after him. Maybe things were going to turn out okay after all, so long as they didn’t discover Tau’s real identity. Tau looked around at the empty desert, as if weighing her options, before following us up the rise.
“So you know our names, but we don’t know yours,” I said.
The man turned back to me with another toothy grin. ”Ah, my name is boring and often mispronounced. How about you just call me Pilgrim? Everyone calls me that.”
One of the female Nomads interrupted: “What he isn’t telling you is that he tells us to call him that, and not because we want to.”
She had long black hair and tanned skin. She was quite beautiful. The Nomads all laughed at the woman’s joke. Pilgrim grinned even more, if it were possible, and blushed.
He laughed and raised an eyebrow at her. ”You can call me anything you like, Sabikah.”
The Nomads picked up their tools and salvaged materials and slung them over their shoulders. They led us away from the wreckage and back in the direction from which they had come. We scaled up and down several dunes before Pilgrim stopped us all.
“Alright, that’s far enough. Tern, scanner,” Pilgrim said.
A man stepped forward, pulled out a strange-looking device and handed it to Pilgrim, who proceeded to flick and poke at some of the controls.
“Scanner?” Tau inquired.
The woman called Sabikah turned to face her. “We need to make sure the things we salvaged aren’t carrying tracking devices, or we would lead the Dominion right to our home.”
Upon hearing this, Tau focused on the device. The Nomads held up the various pieces they had salvaged, and Pilgrim ran the device over them one by one. The scanner made a number of different noises, beeping and clicking as it was passed over each piece.
“Sacet, if I may ask, what made you travel so close to the nest anyway?” Pilgrim asked as he continued to scan. It was as if he knew the answer already.
“We didn’t,” I lied. “We went by the safe route, around the edge of the city’s surface. Something must have made the Necrolisks hunt farther out than usual.”
"Hmm, that ain’t good if even the Necrolisks are becoming more desperate for food,” Pilgrim said as he finished scanning the last piece of salvage.
He raised the device up to his face and looked at the screens on the gadget. “All good, although there’s some background noise. Could be that we are still too close to the wreck. Should be fine, let’s head back.”
As the group continued to walk, Pilgrim handed the scanner back to another Nomad and faced the others: “Okay guys, sweep it up. Get to it!”
Sabikah turned around and walked beside us. She threw her hands towards the sand where the trail of our footprints had been left. The sand churned and sifted until the tracks were erased. This woman was an Acolyte like me. Another man, the one called Tern, sighed, spun around and did the same as his comrade.
I looked ahead to the rocky bluffs I had been eyeing earlier, and then down to Pilgrim, who walked by our side.
“Shouldn’t be too long. You are going to love it there,” he said.
I glanced back to the other Nomads and made sure they weren’t looking. “That’s great. We could use a rest,” I said.
I couldn’t exactly stop to bury the hair that was still clenched in my left hand, they would have seen me, and so I slid it into my bag.
As we turned into what I hoped would be the last corner of this labyrinthine tunnel, the passageway opened up and revealed a bright cavern. Open skylights allowed in the natural light from above, down onto the simple shacks and sheet metal that made up the Nomads’ homes.
The shanty settlement had been here for a long time. There were almost a hundred huts. It was all lit up by torches, evenly spread among the settlement’s pathways. It was certainly better than lying on the cold, wet floor of a cave like our usual accommodation.
Tau gasped. “You hid this whole thing here?”
Eno’s jaw had dropped. “This is ... amazing!”
Pilgrim turned back to me and smiled, then to Eno: “I knew you’d love it. Welcome to our home.”
The entrance to the town was blocked with a makeshift fence constructed of metal scraps, and the fences were broken up every so often by stalagmites jutting up from the ground. There was a guard patrolling at the top of the main wall – a teenage girl. Another child, not much older than Eno, approached the chain-linked gates to open them for us, and they scraped along the rocky cave floor as they were drawn back.
I smiled back at the boy as we walked through. He had an eye-patch and a large scar on his face. My smile faded.Tau had noticed it, too, and her happier, amazed expression quickly sank. Once our group was in, he closed the gate behind us and resumed his guard duty.
“So, how long were you guys thinking of staying?” Pilgrim asked. “Because as you can see, we could use all the help we can get around here. That’s Teelo − kid lost his mother and an eye to a Necrolisk. He’s been doing whatever he can to help ever since.”
I glanced back at the boy, who was speaking to the girl on the wall. He had something in his hand and was showing it to her, but I couldn’t make out what it was. We walked to the far side of the village and towards one of the larger buildings.
“He doesn’t have anyone left?” I asked weakly.
Pilgrim shrugged. “What? Of course he does! You’re looking at his new dad. Everyone’s family around here ... I mean, you know ... so long as they aren’t trying to kill us.” He turned to Sabikah. “Isn’t that right, sweetie?”
Sabikah scoffed. “Stop pretending we’re in a relationship in front of newcomers. You’re embarrassing yourself.”
Teelo was running over to us: “Pilgrim! Guys! Wait up!”
“I told you, Teelo, you can call me dad, remember? What’s gotten you so worked up?”
Teelo pulled up in front of us. “Your new friends dropped this, dad,” he said as he opened his palm and showed a small tuft of blue hair.
How did they get there? I thought I had ... no. The rip in my backpack!
Pilgrim walked over to Teelo and plucked the hairs from the boy’s hand. He held them up close to his eyes, as if scrutinising their authenticity, then turned to us. His face was now absent of his heart-warming grin ... he knew.
“Sacet, Eno and ... Tia ... it looks like you can’t be a part of our family after all.”
There was a rustle of robes and drawn weapons as the Nomads surrounded us. One of them came up behind Tau and pulled down her hood, which revealed the incomplete cuts of the streaks at the top of her forehead. Now that the hood was lowered, her under-suit collar was visible from the back.
“Please, she’s not a threat, she’s our prisoner,” I said.
“Take that one to the holding cell until we know what to do with her. You two, move!” Pilgrim ordered as he gestured towards the entrance of the nearest building.
Eno stood close to me again, and we moved without questioning him. I looked back to Tau as she was led away by Sabikah and three others.
Tau glanced over her shoulder at us, horrified and confused. “Wait, stop! I’m not one of them anymore, please!”
Pilgrim and two remaining Nomads escorted my brother and I towards a large hut. We entered through a curtained doorway, and Tau’s wails were drowned out.
The room was filled with animal pelts that hung from the walls and carpeted the floor. The walls and ceiling were made up of bits of scrap metal that had been crudely welded together. On the far side of the room, an old man slept on a bed covered with more furs. The dank and musky smell was overpowering.
“Elder. Elder Hati? Wake up, this is important,” Pilgrim said as he strode ahead of me to the old man and shook him awake.
Hati awoke with a snort and stared up at Pilgrim. “I was sleeping, haven’t you any ... urgh ... haven’t you any respect for an old man’s rest? Hmm?” he said. The old man, decrepit with age, attempted to focus his gaze on us. “And who might this be?” The man struggled to raise a frail arm, before pointing a shrivelled finger in our direction.
“This is Sacet, the teleporter I told you about from my old village. Her little brother, Eno, as well. But Elder, they have betrayed us.”
“I find that hard to believe,” Hati said. “Two children as young as they, knowingly fighting against us?”
“Elder, they led a Female Dominion spy into the camp,” Pilgrim continued. “She’s bound to have a tracking device inside of her. What do you want us to do?”
“What?” I said. “A tracking device? But ... I got rid of her armour. Please! She is our prisoner. We’ll leave if that’s the issue. I promise ... I would kill her before she could ever tell the Dominion about this place. I swear it!”
The old man cleared his throat. “Sacet, was it? There’s something you’re not grasping here. Tracking devices are often implanted inside enemy’s bodies ... and it doesn’t matter if you lead her away. They will know she’s been here already. You’ve left a trail for them to follow right to our home.”
The old man’s eyes widened. “And now everyone here is in jeopardy. Diyon! Yori! Instruct the others to pack their food and essentials. We need to leave for the cavern lake as soon as we can. Go!”
“Wait!” I interrupted. “What if she doesn’t have a tracking device?”
“We can’t take that risk,” Hati replied, raising his hand at the others.
The other two Nomads rushed outside and the old man turned his attention back to me. “As for you two, you’re obviously not working for the Dominion, you’re just genuinely ignorant. In either case I can’t allow that girl to live, knowing what she knows. You, on the other hand, will accompany us to the cavern lake.”
He looked up at Pilgrim, who was still standing by his side: “Pilgrim, you will need to take the enemy soldier out into the desert as far as you can and execute her.”