Where the Wind Carries the Dust
by Jordan Anderson
The ornery groan of a camel echoed out of the labyrinth of red dunes, up into the darkened evening sky. The last of the desert sun radiated from the west as shadows grew from under the curled corners of the infinite hexagonal dirt clods underfoot and the surrounding sparse vegetation cast long shaded streaks as they reached up for rain that scarcely arrived. An old man rode the camel around a bend in the hard trail that snaked through the dry hills of the timeless desert, between dunes of sand and through ancient creek beds.
The dusty trail faded into a crater or shallow dirt bowl surrounded on all sides by towering dunes. At the far end of the crater was an obsidian platform with a large stone crescent rising from it, dark as the approaching night and with its points directed upward like the devil’s horns. Behind the crescent, a titanic dune ascended toward the darkening sky. Almost too large to comprehend, it stood ominously above all other surrounding forms by half, at least.
Hardened dirt marked the old man’s weathered face, the whites of his eyes having gone yellow from hard years and even harder memories. The camel shuffled, exhausted and salivating, through the crater toward the platform and, as they came within a few feet of the crescent monument, the man slid off of the matted leather and rags wrapped over the animal’s hump. The dirt crunched coarsely under his feet and the camel groaned once more. Mismatched trinkets and bags hung from the worn leather saddle and some crude cups clanged against each other while the man tugged at one of the packs. The belted loop around the satchel was unlatched and his hands affirmed a gentle grip on something inside. His movements slowed as he pulled out a small, lumped wad of rags with something like reverent care, easing it gently out of the satchel as if it threatened to turn to dust at any moment. Fresh tears dripped from the wrinkled corners of the man’s eyes. His hands trembled slightly and a faint sob escaped his clenched mouth, his lips scaled and chapped from prolonged exposure to the grainy winds of the lonely desert.
He held the lump of rags to his chest, and began rocking back and forth as he stood there next to the camel, his face grimacing with the insurmountable weight of misery, and of a deep growing desperation. After a few moments, the man took a deep breath, wiped his eyes on the rags he wore, and moved toward the black platform and the crescent rising from it. His shoulders racked with deep heavy sobs as he gently placed the small bundle onto the cold black stone platform under the monolith. His shaking hand pulled away a layer of cloth to reveal the emaciated, still body of a young infant. The man’s cries could not be stifled any longer and he fell to his knees in front of the platform, his weeping face looking toward the heavens.
The sky had grown even darker, now. The sun could no longer be seen, but the wisps of hazy sand at the tops of the dunes still reflected the dying western light, appearing like fire above, dancing in the high winds. Due to its immense size, the gigantic dune behind the monument was still lit by the sun from halfway up. The crater below, bowled in the middle of three or four smaller dunes, was engulfed in shadow.
The man stood and sauntered back toward the exhausted camel and rummaged through the other pack. Before he could see the object, he felt it on his fingertips; the worn leather and the carved symbol like frayed flesh, the wrinkled page corners and sticky substance congealed on the binding. His hands emerged with the black book; a thick tome that, even after having been wrapped in cloth and saturating in the evening desert heat, felt cold to the touch. It was chaos in book form, with shreds of pages protruding from it as if entire sections had been torn out and reattached inside in mismatched positions. The substance stuck to the black leather along the binding was a thick pitch of some kind with a texture like sap, seeming to ooze from the book, itself.
Along with the decrepit book, a small glass bottle was removed from the front pouch of the satchel, filled with a clear liquid that was tinted with a slight yellow hue through the stained glass. The man held the phial in front of his face and swirled the liquid around, then returned to the platform, wiping the still drying tears from his face. He kneeled down in front of the black monument, his face inches from the small wad of cloth and the vacant face of the infant. His fingers gently opened the book to a specific page toward the middle and he began reading it and chanting under his breath, gliding his fingertips along the ornate text on the old pages, barely visible in the shadow of the coming night. The cork in the top of the stained glass bottle popped and he poured the liquid over the small corpse, his eyes still on the pages in front of him. The infant’s cloth wrappings darkened as the fluid soaked through, and the man cried harder as he finished the last passage on the page. A tear streamed down the bridge of his nose onto the book’s worn page, but the old ink did not run. Instead, the black text appeared to absorb the single tear without leaving so much as a mark on the page. His eyes returned to the infant and there they stayed while he sat in silence. Minutes passed agonizingly and desperation turned to defeat, hopelessness. He threw the book into the dirt beside the platform and sat back onto his calves, burying his face into his old hands and smelling the dirt caked into his calloused palms.
The man’s meditations were interrupted by a noise; a choked wailing sound of some kind. His eyes darted up toward the source of the noise, back behind the crescent monument and high above.
The sunlight had all but died and the desert was dark now, the giant dune no longer wore the sun’s light and appeared as a black juggernaut against the purple dusk sky. From up in the center of the front face of the dune, a small head had emerged from the sand. It was screaming and, in the all but dead evening light, the man saw that it was a small head – a child’s head, perhaps aged ten or eleven. The child’s face was warped and covered in a layer of sand, its mouth gaping as it screamed and its eyes hollowed black holes. The man’s breathing stopped as he watched, the lone head whipping back and forth in sporadic motions as it cried, the wails sorrowful and curdled and the neck bending into unnatural angles. Then the child appeared to be pushed out, its shoulders emerging from the sand. Another head surfaced next to it and this one, too, called out into the night. It was a woman’s head, her hair greased and matted, covered in sand. She was screaming obscenities and harshly gagging on sand that filled her mouth and there was a rough hole where her nose ought to have been, mangled in some unknown torture.
The old man shuddered, then looked down as subtle vibration started below his feet. Runes he had not seen before, carved into the crescent of the black monument, began to glow a smoky green and the sand on top of the great dune started to tumble down the front and sides. The dust rising into the night sky made the dune appear to be erupting like a volcano. The camel scrambled off into the desert, the contents of the saddle-packs jangling as it fled.
Another screaming voice joined the other two from a third head that appeared out of the shifting sands. Then a fourth head. Then a fifth. Within moments, countless bodies and heads protruded from the sand, all cursing and yelling and grimacing in eternal anguish. Cacophonous screaming bubbled out of their collective rotted mouths and the man stepped back away from the platform, terror hardening itself into the crevices of his mind.
All were in agony. All were suffering.
The heads and bodies squirmed and shook and jerked, but none fell from the vertical mound in which they surfaced, stuck onto each other by a binding mortar of ectoplasm or some force against gravity of which the man could not see. The collective were held together, the old man realized, in the shape of a giant hollowed human face, with deep black pits for eyes. The tremendous simulacrum was fully emerged now, extending almost the entirety of the front face of the massive dune. The man looked in horror upon the giant form, incomprehensible and nightmarish, and the screams of the collective sufferers grew louder with each horrific moment. And then, with a climax as loud as thunder, the hellish chorus was silenced with a loud clack! The ground’s vibration diminished and the man stood still.
Out of the dark of the giant visage, two small green orbs glowed from the nose area, from the face of the child, the first of the heads to originally emerge. The old man stood in silence below, unable to move, unable to blink, as septic fear had its icy grip around his throat. Two more green orbs appeared in the darkness. Then two more. In moments, each one of the countless heads was faced downward, hundreds of glowing green orbs staring down at the man in silence.
The back of the old man’s foot caught a rock and he fell onto his rear, trembling and encompassed in a cosmic horror unlike anything he’d ever experienced. The massive face slowly began to open. The heads and bodies that made up the mouth remained completely quiet, still staring with emerald eyes, as the abyssal maw stretched further. The old man was awestruck, and the fright deep in his chest seemed to stretch with the mouth, devouring his thoughts and threatening to tear him open from the inside.
The old man pressed his hands to his ears as blinding emerald light shimmered out of the deep pits for eyes and gaping maw, and an incomprehensibly loud horn rang out from it, reverberating off of the surrounding dunes and echoing out into the vast desert.
Pain shot through his ears, the tremendous trumpet vibrating him to the core. And, as the man reached his last ounce of resistance and was breaking down, ready to let the pain take him, to let his hands drop from his ears and allow terror to saturate and obliterate him completely, the horn stopped. His eyes slowly opened and his shaking hands fell to the ground beside him. The emerald light still radiated from the giant visage, blazing down on the old man’s ritual, the gaping green maw appearing like an otherworldly gate to some necromantic nightmare.
The wad of cloth on the black platform stirred. The old man’s breath caught in his throat. He stood slowly and, with careful steps, approached the platform. The head of the infant lolled back to the side, its eyes open and wandering. Tears flooded down the man’s eyes, not in pain but in joy. He crouched down once more next to the platform and smiled, seeming to altogether forget the hollowed face up in the sand, as he watched the infant’s small chest rise and fall with renewed breath.
The dark night sky hung overhead, but the green light reflected in the infant’s now open eyes. The old man gently stroked the infant’s face and cried in elation, not noticing the infant’s eyes rolling back into its head, and the flesh of the stomach shaking and pushing. The skin of the stomach stretched like a thin membrane and the flesh of the infant’s back tore with the sound of slick rupturing. The infant was rolled onto its side by rigid black joints splining out from the spinal column, eight obsidian legs unfolding out of themselves. Trembling and falling back, the man’s eyes grew wide with terror and he screamed.
And then the emerald light from the great visage went completely dark.
The man’s eyes struggled to acclimate to the darkness. The popping and cracking of unfolding joints came from the dark platform in front of him, now appearing as a haze of shadow in the night, and a sour smell, sulfur of some kind, permeated the air.
Then the crystalline emerald light beamed out of the giant mouth once more, and began to flicker, strobing from light to dark, light to dark. The infant’s arachnid legs pushed against the ground as the light glimmered faster and its full body emerged from the cloth, with its tiny head upside down as it hung in the air, suspended on its back by the sharp black legs. The man’s eyes spread wide as the infant’s head curled back under and its tiny jaw unhinged. A garbled scream erupted from the hanging mouth, distorted by some invisible influence and speckling the dirt below with putrid vomit.
In the distance behind him, the man heard what sounded like hooves against the ground, but his eyes did not move for the creature was descending the platform toward him.
The evening was late and the sun had begun to sink behind the far western mountains. The sound of horse hooves clodding against the cracked earth gave way to a set of riders emerging from behind a small mesa. The spurs on their heels glinted in the orange light as they jingled in unison. They rode toward the darkening Eastern sky and the horses heaved with heavy breathing and streaming saliva from the corners of their mouths, their flanks rippling with each stride.
The dunes were getting larger as they took a turn in the beaten path ahead of them, directing them into the shadows of a few larger dunes. The front rider was a grizzled highwaymen in a blackened, worn duster and wide-brimmed hat. He wore a hardened expression and a low brow and scars crisscrossed the skin of his right cheek and jaw, cutting pink paths into greying whiskers. A loosely fit leather belt held a six-shooter on either hip, but the holster on his right was more worn, being his favored side. The guns bounced with each heavy stride of the horse he rode, glimmering with oil-slicked iron.
The other rider, whose face was obscured by the high collar of a tan duster jacket and the low brim of a pale hat, only exposing a pair of smoky grey eyes to the elements, rode swiftly behind. The polished wooden stock of a long rifle bounced behind, sheathed in a larger leather holster strapped to the rider’s back, which also held the ammo belt wrapped around the torso. A black sash floated off of the neck, rippling in the wake behind.
They swooped right on a sharp turn in the trail and came out from behind another mesa to reveal a monumental dune in the distance, larger than any either had ever seen, rising up to the darkening sky. The heavens had turned a deep purple, and only the very top of the dune was still exposed to light, red sand glistening under distant stars that were just beginning to come into view. At the base of the titanic mound, a black crescent sat upon a black platform. Someone was kneeling on the ground in front of it. The rider behind unholstered the long rifle and held the scope up, gazing into the distance in front of them. After a brief moment, the rifle quickly returned to the holster with a smooth leathery sound.
The grey eyes glanced toward the front rider.
“Yea…” the highwayman sighed in response. His grip hardened, knuckles tightening, and he let out a hyah!, kicking spurs as they moved faster toward the platform. A long stretch of packed ground lay ahead of them in path, and the front rider estimated it would take them just over a minute to reach the black crescent at their current speed.
The ground began quaking under them. The horses remained steadfast and determined, heaving heavy breaths as they rode. The last of the sun’s orange light was dwindling fast and had all but disappeared from the front face of the large dune, only now illuminating the floating dust rising from the very top. Streams of red sand were flowing in swaths down the sides of the dune, and, from the shifting sands, a massive dark shape pushed forward out of the surface. Its features hung still, but the surface appeared to be moving and squirming, like the wriggling bodies of a thousand maggots.
The riders continued to close the distance. “Hyah! Hyah!,” the highwayman called out. The figure at the base of the crescent monument had fallen back onto the ground and was scooting backward, away from the platform, and the riders could hear screaming and shouting from high up on the dune. The mouth of the colossal visage tore open and the pits for eyes cracked. A green, necrotic light beamed out from the holes over the surrounding desert, and a loud horn rang out.
From the closing distance, the highwayman could see something stirring at the base of the dune, from the black platform on which the large crescent rested. Splined jagged legs cracked forth, raising a small emaciated body into the air. The cloth fell from the creature and infant’s head snapped back on itself, now facing the man scooting back in horror. The front rider’s hand disappeared into the inside pocket of his own duster and returned with a glass phial. Clear liquid sloshed around inside of it as he brought it down, smashing it against his own chest, glass shards and liquid sprinkling in the emerald light. The green glow began to strobe slowly; darkness, emerald, darkness, emerald. In one of the moments of light, the arachnidan infant appeared to be descending the platform towards the man. Then darkness. Then the green light revealed the creature already on top of the cowering man, one of the rigid legs sunk through the man’s skull.
The slick sound of oiled iron escaping holster barely preluded a crack as loud as lightning, with a flash of blue light erupting from the barrel of the revolver held in front of the highwayman. The bullet zinged through the dry air and obliterated the creature’s leg, and the old man’s body slumped to the bloody sand below. The creature stumbled back, then turned the small infant head toward the riders, dangling upside down, its jaw distended.
The strobe of emerald light pulsed faster. Darkness. Light. Darkness. Light.
The creature’s small body quivered violently and a shriek curdled out from the limp head as the skin of its stomach tore open, exposing a maw of jagged little ribs, the flesh sliding off to the sides in rivers of pus reflecting the green light. The stomach snapped open and shut like a decrepit mouth, chomping at the air. The black legs speared into the ground as it pushed toward the riders, scrambling and kicking up clods of blood-soaked sand.
Both riders unmounted their horses, their boots scraping into the dry ground below. The second rider’s long rifle slid out from its holster once more and was immediately fired, a blue muzzle flash spewing out into the strobed distance ahead of them. Another one of the creature’s legs vaporized. Both riders continued to fire with accuracy, blue flash after blue flash, the second rider chambering another round after each shot.
The strobing light continued to increase in speed, the loud screaming chorus still ringing out from the gigantic face hanging in the dune. The decrepit infant appeared to be moving in stop-motion, blinking closer to them with each strobe like some phantom.
Bullet after bullet shattered the other legs at the joints, and in a moment the creature was reduced to a wriggling mass on the ground before them.
The highwayman approached the shredded infant’s corpse, stumps jutting out from the spine, oozing a dull yellow fluid from the husks where the arachnid legs had protruded. He reached into a pouch dangling from the front of his belt and pulled out a handful of fine powder. His fingers flitted back and forth as he sprinkled the dust over the gurgling creature. And without pause, both riders turned toward the platform and approached it with unhindered focus. The infant abomination behind them cried out once more as the remaining flesh disintegrated from the powder, dissolving the tissue on contact. The hundreds of faces screamed and moaned once more, but the strobing had stopped. Necrotic light beamed out of the mouth and eyes of the collective face.
The riders approached the crescent-shaped monument at the base of the dune, the black platform still glistening with the putrid fluids of the infant’s mutation. The highwayman stared up at the titanic face as the other rider reached into a pack and returned with a four-stack of dusty dynamite and a crusted, black stone that – even in the encompassing emerald light – glowed a faint ghostly blue.
The highwayman pulled out a rolled tobacco cigarette and set it between his lips. His fingers reached once more into small pouch at his hip and returned with just a pinch of powder. He held it in front of his face, whispered a quiet incantation, then snapped his fingers and produced a small blue flame. The wisp of fire seemed to float just above the man’s fingertips and he lit his cigarette with it, blowing it out afterwards with a quick exhale.
The shrouded rider knelt at the base of the monument and placed the dynamite into the corner divot in which the crescent met the black platform, thin pale fingers moving with care and accuracy. The ghostly stone was shoved in next to it and the wick of the dynamite was unwrapped and pulled out toward the highwayman.
The shrouded rider glanced at the other as the wick was drawn across the ground.
…You shouldn’t have wasted the Crone’s Oil.
The highwayman shrugged, then said, “Don’t forget the book,” nodding toward the bloody tome on the ground next to the platform rather than responding. He picked up the end of the wick for the dynamite, then took an extra-long drag as he watched the other rider grab the book, then shoved the glowing end of the cigarette to the wick and sparks spattered as it began to burn. They turned back toward the horses and the screams of the collective crippled, sorrowful bodies rang out in anticipation of the explosive inevitability. As the wick grew shorter, the woes and curses grew louder. The giant mouth stretched even further, tearing at the bodies that made up the corners of the lips and cheeks. One of the bodies split from the groin up to the center of the chest, and another separated at the waist from its legs as the colossal horn rang out once more from the maw.
The highwayman looked back at the grotesque face and flipped his middle finger.
As they moved toward the horses, the riders passed the infant abomination’s body once more; a puddle of putrid goop, still steaming and hissing from the burns, gleaming in the green light.
Both riders mounted their horses. As they finished their ascent out of the shallow crater, the dynamite erupted, obliterating the monument and showering bits of glowing blue stone and powder in the immediate area. The boom echoed off the surrounding dunes for miles. And, in an instant, the emerald light vanished and the dunes were encased once more in the black of the clear night. The highwayman looked back and the massive face was gone, the wailing and screaming silenced, and the dune appeared undisturbed. A plume of dark smoke ascended from the rubble of the black monument to the stars above.
As they looked out into the desert night, the shrouded rider glanced toward the highwayman.
…We need to tell the others.
The angelic voice echoed gently in his mind, but the highwayman did not look back. After a moment’s pause, he said, “I know… I just didn’t expect this to begin so quickly.” He pulled another rolled cigarette out of his jacket and put it between his lips. He pinched some more powder from the pouch at his hip, chanted and snapped, and produced another blue flame to light it with.
Both riders stared off into the distance ahead. The dust from the explosion had settled, and silence lay on them like a dark blanket. The night sky was completely cloudless and thousands of stars floated in the infinite abyss. The glowing cluster of the God’s Milk galaxy lay unfathomable and immense above them.
“Sometimes, I wish we had more time to sit and enjoy the view, you know?”
After a quiet moment, the shrouded rider nodded silently in response.
The highwayman took one last long drag of the cigarette and threw it to the dirt below.