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Desert Rot

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His fire was a bluff of life in the withering carcass of his company. Walton stood staring at the sands around him. The dunes rose and fell with the hypnotic rhythm of ocean waves, gusts of wind scattering the nighttime sand through the air like a silver whip. Above him the sky opened in a vast display of constellations he had forgotten the names of, each star pulsing a small but vibrant light.

He had led them out here. Three hundred men wrapped in crimson robes with a sword and spear in each hand. There had been complaints of bandits in the Middling Pass; robbing, killing, raping. The Legion had been sent to quell the bandits, Walton had been placed in charge.

He had ordered a group of twenty to enter the Middling Pass at nightfall. “Bring back four or five of them,” Walton had told his Lieutenant, Jory, “We will hang them from the ravine overlooking The Pass. We will send a message to the others.”

“What of the rest, Commander?” Jory had asked.

“Kill them and burn their bodies.”

Eighteen of the men sent into The Pass returned with five of the bandits in chains; three women, two men. Jory reported back to him, his face swollen with ugly red veins surrounding a deep red gash underneath his left eye. “It was the old man at the end, Commander. He bashed a stone against my cheek and stove another boys head in through his helm. He’s got a strong arm.”

Walton examined the old man. His face was small and the lines that etched its surface were caked with sand and dirt, his eyes were deep set in his head. Drool ran steadily down an uneven, knotted beard.

“We caught most of them off-guard, Commander.” Jory continued, “Most of our men made it out unharmed aside from one boy who caught an arrow through his throat.”

“Did you bury our dead, Lieutenant?”

“Yes, Commander, and we burned the dead refugees.”

“Good.” A single bead of sweat ran down the old man’s skin leaving a muddy trail in its wake. The old man made a low guttural noise and retched over into the sand. The sun hung unwavering the sky.

“Hang them.”

They were hung from the ravine that overlooked The Middling Pass; Three women, two men. A message to all others.

A strong gust of wind rushed through Walton as he stood in the moonlight. His fire wavered, its heat disappearing momentarily and leaving a heavy, cold feeling of despair in his chest before snapping back into place.

There were only thirty or forty men left now, it’s been so hard to keep track. The twenty he had ordered into The Pass had been the first to go. Their skin blistering and turning black, falling off in long, pulpy strands. Their eyes yellowing into a grimy, opaque stain set far back into their skulls. Then came the vomiting, the dehydration, and the hallucinations. They would keep up with the marches at first but eventually they would just drop. More each day, more each night. Until only the bones of his camp were left. What was once filled with the sounds of drinking and laughing and gambling now echoed a terrible silence. Each night more and more fires would go out. Until only his was left.

The night before Jory died he had come to Walton’s tent. “The bandits, Commander.” He said. “Some of them had been sick, sick with this Rot. Black skin, blisters, vomiting. It was them.” Walton didn’t reply.

“The men, there a whispers throughout the camp that we are lost. Whispers that you are leading us out west. We aren’t lost, are we?” There was hope in his voice. Jory had wrapped himself in the robes of the Red Legion but the tips of his fingers had peeled away to reveal stringy red stumps, and Walton thought that if he were to lift up the robe that the soft flesh of his throat would be blistered and black. Again Walton didn’t answer. Jory left without another word; the next day he had been found dead in his tent. That’s when the fires started going out at night.

The camp was quiet. Walton’s fire was alone. Clouds rolled into the sky and suddenly Walton thought that the silvery dunes around him had become hostile and cold, no longer a visage of beauty but a frigid cage surrounding him. Walton removed the glove on his left hand and the skin of his palm had begun to turn an unnatural purple color, the tips of his fingers bleeding slightly.

“No Jory, we aren’t lost.” He whispered.

And his fire went out.

 

Bio: My name is Timothy Morgan Rock. I am an aspiring novelist and short story writer. I am a college sophomore who is studying to become an attorney in PA. I enjoy exercising, boxing, basketball, football, and reading.

 

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