11/25/367 Dirty Hands

Abantey Date: 11/25/367

15 miles WSW of Century Point, Plajet Territories

“Come on, all together now!”

Sabrine was becoming impatient as she yelled – she didn’t like standing out in the open this far away from the heavily patrolled Ring Road.

The dozen or so workers heaved and pulled at the wagon – its wheels sliding with a sloshing sound in the muck of the dirt road. The cold rains of late had made ranch roads like this one, usually dry and passable, into endless traps for their wagon.

One worker, a young Wa’la man, lost his footing and slid face first into the mud with a splash, cursing as he fought to wipe the fetid-smelling mess off of his ragged clothing. He threw a dirty look at Sabrine.

Tambir, her comrade, let out a snarl and brandished his baton at the youth: “Get back up now! Or you’ll be staying down there in the muckl!”

Sabrine did her best to hide the wincing on her face. Why in the name of Os’Plajet was I sent here… she thought. Don’t fool yourself Sabrine, you know why.

One of the workers – a haggard-looking woman with her head wrapped thickly in dirty bandaging – gingerly offered her hand to the Wa’la boy. He took it and got back up, breathing heavy with eyes down. Sabrine couldn’t tell where the woman was looking – she only had two darkened, finger-poked holes in the bandaging where her eyes were. But she got back quickly in line with the other workers without a word and immediately readied herself against the wagon. Her silence was obedience. She was broken.

With Tambir’s less-than-gentle urging, the work crew freed the wagon and the party continued on its way. Sabine in the driver’s seat of the wagon, the work crew sitting in the back with cuffs rattling. Within an hour or so, the wagon had reached its destination: the Wall of the Hybrid Zone.

Sabrine gazed upon the burnt and blackened ridges of the barrier that had once held back the armies of the Overfiend. If only I had held my tongue… I wouldn’t have gotten the worst assignment in the Lands of Plajet.

The wagon kicked up clouds of cloying dust as it trundled into the bustling work camp. The camp was a sorry sight; several rows of tattered tents radiated out from a central hut, all of which was encircled by a makeshift barricade composed of twisted wreckage and other salvaged materials. Behind the hut stood the wall of the Hybrid Zone, covered in hurriedly-constructed wooden scaffolding. The sound of picks, hammers, shovels could be heard, along with the shouts of workers, emanating from the wall.

Sabrine pulled the wagon next to the central hut, the door swung loosely open with a swoosh – in the doorway stood a tall and heavyset Marked Plajet man. Despite the thick layer of dust that covered his armor, she could tell from the distinctive banded ruok scale, the elaborate harness, and the strangely curved bow that this was one of the Hooves of Plajet. We didn’t even know they existed until Os’Plajet called upon them… uncouth horse riders from the central steppes.

A grin curled across the man’s face: “Ahhh… the muscle I requested – I been running low between accidents, sickness and aberrants.”

Sabrine grimaced: “Corporals Allester and Froh, and you are…”

“Uldin”, he chuckled in response as he took a swig from a goat fur-lined canteen.

“We expected regular updates by Emerald…”

“Hah,” Uldin grunted, “I’d be right stupid to do that’, this dust is everywhere…”, he kicked up a whirl of soot from under his foot, “…and you’d be stupid to do it too.”

Sabrine gazed down – her uniform was already covered in a thin layer of the inky black dust that had been drifting in eddies through the camp. The grave dust of the Creators… It had appeared anywhere in the world that had once contained the wonders of the gods. Sabrine clenched her jaw darkly… she knew that any magic she casted now would go horribly awry.

She turned her gaze back to Uldin: “You’ve been behind quota for over a month now.”

Uldin’s took another swig. “We collect dust. We collect rubble. We collect bits of bent metal and broken gems. We send it back for them Sojur to pick over. Day in. Day out. What’s the use? Why aren’t we fighting Core like we used to? There’s no joy or use in digging through the bones of Ash’s wall.”

Sabrine: “Os’Plajet has ordered – “

Uldin shrugged before she could finish. “You have your orders. You can make sure this camp meets our Creator’s esteemed quotas, Corporal. I know my brothers and sisters will welcome me at the front. I ride at first light tomorrow.”

Before Sabrine could say a word, Uldin sauntered off to join the rest of his cackling riders at the dining bench. She looked over at Tambir, but he was too busy unloading the workers and barking orders to them to get to their tents. Great.

The sun began to set as Sabrine finished setting up her space in the officer’s hut. Certainly not where I thought I’d be a week ago when I volunteered for a diplomatic role to negotiate with the Rogues…

She sidled out of the hut and gazed west at the last embers of the sun, sighing as she sipped water from her canteen. Then she did a double take. That can’t be… She blinked and squinted, then looked again. Several miles down the crumbling ruins of the wall, now blazing with crimson reflections of the sun’s last glow, there stood the melted hulk of one of the many towers that had once dotted the wall. It was unmistakable now…. there were two humanoid figures at the top the tower, and by their shape they appeared mounted. Two riders… watching.

“Tambir… you need to take a look at this,” Sabrine said out of the corner of her mouth.

Tambir strode quickly over.

Uldin had heard her as well and looked up from the game of dice he was playing with one of his riders. He spoke in a hushed whisper: “Scared now Corporal? We’ve heard rumors that those aberrants ride steeds that are faster than lightning. We’ve heard that they live inside the skeleton of one of great fallen beasts of the Overfiend. We’ve heard that they wear the skin of those they slay… hybrid or not… as armor…”

Then he broke out in a guffaw, spittle flying: “…but that’s just what we’ve heard.” Uldin then casually whistled to his riders: “One last ride before we leave this hellhole lads.”

He then turned back to Sabrine. “We’ll ride out and scare em’ off. They usually run off before we even get within a mile. Just make sure to keep the lanterns lit at night… they usually don’t come too close to camp.”

In a few minutes, and a cloud of dust, the riders had galloped off west.

Now Sabrine waited… and waited. The sky grew dark. The workers returned from the scaffolding of the wall, exhausted, ambling into their tents to fall asleep. More hours passed. Sabrine gazed out into the field of black, trying to make out the Hooves’ torches. Nothing. Frustration filled her every breath. Without this damn dust everywhere, Emerald would solve this stupidity.

Just when her unease and heightened awareness had begun to wane into vague wakefulness, the buzz of insects and bats in the night was pierced by screams and the unmistakable crackle of Agate in the distance. They continued for several seconds, and then stopped.

Sabrine immediately stood up and peered out once again into the night. She picked up the loaded crossbow at her side. “Tambir!”

Tambir had already rushed passed her, waking the drowsed and confused workers to line up.

Tambir shouted back at her: “Get the cuffs!”

Sabrine ran toward the back of the wagon and ripped off the tarp that covered the sealed equipment crate. She busted off the lock with the butt of her crossbow and kicked the lid open. But there were no cuffs in the crate… just the cold, lifeless frame of a Rogue plajet woman. A worker… What is this…

Before she could think to yell to Tambir, an arm came out of the darkness and hit her weapon-holding arm – knocking the crossbow to the other side of the wagon. A second arm flew out and hit Sabrine squarely in the the neck. Gasping for air, Sabrine instinctively grappled her attacker and a scuffle broke out.

Sabrine was able to get an arm free and reached upward to her attacker’s face… snagging a handful of bandages. She tore and she pulled at them – hoping to make contact. A Plajet…. And she’s smaller than I would’ve expected

In desperation, she reached out with Emerald… without thinking, without hesitation. Instead of the immersion of Emerald’s calm silence, she was greeted by a head-piercing pain and the loud buzz-pop of lightning filled the interior of the cabin. As Sabrine collapsed to the floor, she could finally see her attacker’s face… an un-scarred and emotionless one… a Baluud-Plajet with a red hand tattooed upon each of her temples, and the Mark of Os’Baluud on her forehead.

Impossible.

The woman said nothing, but in a flash had moved her hand towards Sabrine’s face. Sapped of magic and muscles spasming with Agate, Sabrine could do nothing but gaze at the palm of her attacker as it descended. A bright, bright star… with eight points.

– J. Albers

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