They waited in the heat of the desert, listening to the angry howl of a sudden gale as grains of sand pelted against their faces. The camels grew anxious, whining and starting at some unforeseen threat.
Ronny tightened his beast’s reins in one hand then pulled his scarf over his face with the other, turning away from the headwind.
“They should have been here by now,” he said, squinting to gauge the sun’s position overhead. Fiery oranges and fuchsias streaked across the sky.
Kyra, unusually quiet of late, said nothing at first. Then calmly: “Patience, they will come.” Her vowels carried on like the horizon, her “Ls” rolling as effortlessly as the surrounding dunes. Such was her Borellian accent.
Ronny glanced at her, noting also the finality in her tone and how she did not meet his gaze.
The distant nuzz of camels carried over the shifting sands, exciting their animals. Three riders appeared on a hill opposite of the setting sun and paused to look down at them.
Kyra’s eyes smiled triumphantly up at Ronny now, her writhing red curls ignited by the sunset. “See? I told you they would come.”
Ronny looked uphill. He didn’t like the aura he was receiving from those riders. What was worse was how obscured Kyra’s felt–conflicting sentiments cancelling each other out so as to transmit no clear message at all. It used to be he could always read her, though not today, it seemed.
The brown-skinned riders — two lighter Kesh, a darker Maelt — rode their camels to the pair’s position, scimitars kept at their sides. They then dismounted, bidding their animals to kneel and rest.
Their leader, a scarfed Kesh, approached Ronny and said in Keshema, “You have information.”
Ronny nodded, his eyes scanning each of the men, as the ambiance of the group felt cloudy. At least one of them was trying to conceal his aetheric signature.
Ronny locked eyes with the leader, remembering himself at last. “Right, the maps.” He went to reach for his satchel and…
Something swung at his temple and he flew towards the ground, sand filling his mouth. For a moment he stared blankly then blinked, dazed. Pain belatedly settled in.
The metallic slice of unsheathed swords rang through the air.
Ronny groped for his holstered pistol, though when he had it a boot kicked this out of his hand. Frowning, he turned his head, his gaze following a leathered calf up to slender thighs. Kyra stared down at him, breathless and wild-eyed.
His astonishment kept him from reacting immediately. “What the hell is going — ”
The sand suddenly shifted beneath him, forming into slithering probes which encircled his body. As the Maelt rider lifted a hand, a grainy arm also rose from the ground then plunged itself into Ronny’s mouth, smaller tendrils reaching into his nostrils. He thrashed himself about violently, trying to shake off the elemental attack, though the sand won out, pouring in through his facial orifices.
With Kyra’s command, the phenomenon to cease. The sand begrudgingly retreated.
Ronny rolled over onto his side, heaving sand out of his lungs. A brusque hand grasped at his hair from the scalp, wrenching his head back as he still labored for air.
The Haran riders surrounded him, scimitars held ready.
The leader looked to Kyra. “He must be dealt with.”
“Let me do it.” She turned to Ronny, considering him with a swallow.
Ronny was too exhausted to put up a fight. Instead, he wheezed her name, urging her to reconsider. At this his captor jerked his head painfully, and he fell mum.
Kyra knelt carefully before him, ungloving a fair hand. She narrowly observed his rising and falling chest while he awaited an uncertain fate. Next, she reached for one of her boots and procured a dagger, though he didn’t flinch.
She wouldn’t do it; they’d been working together against Haran elementalists for over five years.
He kept telling himself this, even as she grasped his shirt and sliced it open with the dagger. Afterwards, she slid the weapon back into her boot sheath. Her bare palm approached his chest.
Ronny held his breath, unsure of her intent.
The warmth of her palm over his heart was calming at first, as he’d grown fond of her touch, though it soon grew hotter with a spike, only to cool off again.
“What is it?” the Haran leader demanded.
“Nothing,” she said. “A false start.”
Ronny exhaled then took in fresh air as she made a second attempt.
A shock went through him and he gasped. His heart responded with a skip, followed by a tingling draining sensation–energy flowing to her, from him.
His body’s systems slowed against his will. He whispered her name until he was too tired to speak any more. When his captor released his limp frame, his head fell sideways onto the sand.
Her lips drew close to his ear, her bittersweet Borellian song cutting through the whistling wind; they were the last words that registered as his consciousness waned: “Forgive me.”
Ronny closed his eyes as a dark place called to him and eventually gave in to silence, not knowing why she’d betrayed him — or what those last words truly meant.
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