Epitaph Seven: The Gods Are Against Me
By Zach Wheat
“I have to stop, Stradanis,” Joth gasped. “Call your dog. He’s crazy.” Joth slowed his horse and dismounted, stretching his saddle sore muscles.
Stradanis yelled out to his dog and clapped his hands, but Tawn, smug with satisfaction, didn’t look back as he continued to streak across the salted wastes. The sky greeted them with putrid yellow tones as the stars faded into an apocalyptic, vomit-colored sunrise.
“He’s chasing the Warro, but he wants us to chase him,” said Joth. “He’s crazy.”
“He’s a dog, Joth,” said Stradanis. “And if I remember correctly, you were very much sold on the idea of him tracing Dust’s trail back to Ghostblade.”
“I figured he would get tired at some point,” Joth protested. “I didn’t think we’d be stuck in the middle of the Flats at sunrise.”
“Well,” said Stradanis, dismounting his own horse, “We can’t camp here, but we have to be making good time, at least.”
Joth pulled the water and oats out his saddle bag and refreshed his miserable horse. Tawn trotted near, and sat near Joth, tongue out in half a pant and half in mischievous smile.
“You nearly killed these horses, Tawn,” Joth chided. “That’s really not nice.”
Tawn yawned and neared the canvas bucket the horses were drinking from, waiting for the right moment to dart in, and stuck his snout into the water, lapping it with vigor.
“He’s ignoring me,” Joth complained.
“We’ll rest a few minutes once everyone’s watered and try to make it to somewhere to camp,” said Stradanis. “Try to hold it together.”
Joth stood eating near his horse as Tawn stared at him, licking his lips. “You’re not getting anything of mine, Tawn,” he told the dog, shaking his head. “Maybe Stradanis will give you some of his, but I’m not sharing a bit of mine.”
Stradanis whistled quietly and the dog ran to him and sat. Stradanis tossed him a dried piece of meat, it’s flavor neither agreeing with him or resembling any animal he was familiar with. Tawn chewed on the salted meat with great delight, and turned his head to look at Joth out of the corner of his eye as he chomped the meat.
“I see you Tawn, but I’m not jealous,” said Joth. “I have my own meat.”
“She’s probably back by now,” said Stradanis.
“It must be nice to be a Warro,” Joth said. “To move that fast…it’s a technique?”
“Yes,” said Stradanis. “The Warro call it Velocity Stance.”
“Using the Outer, just like I do with Distriction?” Joth asked.
“More or less,” said Stradanis.
“But I can’t learn it, right?” he asked.
“That’s right,” said Stradanis. “Each Breed uses a unique spectrum of the Outer.”
“It isn’t very fair,” he complained.
“Does anything in this world remotely resemble fair?” asked Stradanis.
Joth thought about it. “No,” he surmised aloud. “Can we go now?” he asked. “I mean, before it gets hotter?”
Stradanis nodded in agreement and mounted his horse, as Joth broke down the makeshift feed and water station back into his saddle bag. Tawn, seeing this, began to prance around Joth and his horse.
“I see you, Tawn,” said Joth, mounting his own horse. But before the Dajenfel was fully in his saddle, the dog broke into a hard sprint.
“He’s going a different way,” said Stradanis.
“I wonder why?” Joth asked. “Should we follow?”
“Yes,” said Stradanis, pointing up and left. Joth looked and saw a menacing black cloud moving toward them.
“Pale Carnival?” Joth asked.
“It’s an ash cloud,” Stradanis said.
“Like from a volcano?” Joth asked. “There are no volcanos around here!”
“I’ve seen a few in the wastes to the south,” said Stradanis, breaking his horse into a trot. “We should hurry. An ash storm could kill the horses.”
Joth spurred his horse to follow. “Were there volcanos?” he asked.
“What?” asked Stradanis.
“In the Southern Wastes, were there volcanos where you saw them?” he asked.
“No,” said Stradanis, “but they rained ash just the same.”
“That’s because the Gods hate you,” Joth said.
“Why would you say a thing like that, Joth?” he asked.
“Because I see the way they look at you, Stradanis,” he said. “They really hate you.”
“If that’s true, why do you follow me?” Stradanis asked.
“Because they are awful and you were right to rebel against them,” the Dajenfel said. “And still you survived.”
“It’s not quite that simple,” Stradanis said.
“They hate you for the same reasons I follow you,” he said. “That’s all I need to understand.”
Stradanis looked over his shoulder. “This storm is gaining on us,” he said, “and that’s in spite of the fact that Tawn has already changed direction three times.”
“See, I told you,” said Joth.
“That looks like a road up ahead,” Stradanis said.
“I don’t recognize it,” said Joth. “It wasn’t the one we came on.”
“I think it’s the north road into Ghostblade,” said Stradanis.
“If Tawn goes south, we know you’re right,” Joth said.
“You have a lot of faith in his ability to navigate,” Stradanis said.
“He’s smarter than either of us,” Joth said. “He’s kept you alive so far.”
As they neared the road, Tawn sat in the middle of it, barking, then, as they entered the well-worn road, he broke into a southerly trot.
“The storm is still going the same way,” Joth said. “I think he bought us some time.”
“Let’s not waste the opportunity,” huffed Stradanis, breaking his horse into a run.
After twenty minutes of sprinting their horses down the road, the storm changed direction a fourth time and headed directly for them.
“What’s that ahead?” Stradanis asked.
“Looks like a caravan,” said Joth.
“A caravan?” asked Stradanis. “Really?”
“They don’t have those in the Southern Wastes?”
“No,” said Stradanis. “I haven’t seen a thing like that since the war.”
A man stood in the middle of the road, waving his arms and yelling to them for help.
“Looks like Black Cog,” said Joth. “Corruption everywhere.”
“Perhaps,” said Stradanis, “but this is probably the break we needed.”
The man ran to them as they slowed their horses behind the stopped wagon train. “You aren’t company men?” he asked, when he saw the messenger insignia on their saddles. The man, balding and haggard, was covered in dust and sweat, wearing the unmistakable dark cloak of the Black Cog, it’s insignia clearly on each lapel.
“No,” said Stradanis.
“You’re…messengers, then?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Joth. “We aren’t Cog.”
“You’ll have to excuse me, sirs,” the man said. “I don’t often see Breed that aren’t Cog.”
“That’s not going to prevent us from helping you.” said Stradanis. “Do you have storm tarps?”
“Aye,” said the Cog man. “but we don’t have enough strong bodies to hold them in the wind that’s coming.”
The caravan was composed of three black wagons, two in a standard steel configuration, with white canvas covering them everywhere but where the driver sat. A third car was all steel, but with thick black tarps being audibly hand cranked outward from an apparatus that sat on the roof, as the other two were inching in to each side of it to get under them.
“Each of you boys grab a line and help us make a box to cover it in,” the Cog man yelled. The black clouds neared and sucked all the light out of the sky as the wind began to whistle and howl.
“No poles on the sides?” asked Stradanis.
“No,” said the Cog man. “The wind’ll knock ‘em down. I’m gonna need you boys to hold on and keep the tarp over the wagons.”
“Won’t the tarp rip?” asked Joth.
“No, no. It’s fine, “the man assured him. “It’s Black Cog technology. Rip proof.”
After a few minutes of chaotic yelling and fussing, Stradanis found himself anchoring the left side of the improvised black-sheeted box as the storm rained black ash on them. Side winds blew it through the protective barrier and the abrasive force tore through what remained of his ragged armor and clothes.
Daring to open his eyes a moment, he could see that the tarp was keeping the worst of it off the wagons and the horses, however. He shut his eyes tightly again as a new gust of black soot tore through his hands and face, and settled in his ears and nose. The misery continued for a good hour as he strained every muscle in his body to keep the tarp folded down.
Then the quiet came, and a few minutes later, the light slowly returned. The Cog man appeared with two other men, one with a pole and and another with steel pegs. He took the tarp from Stradanis and directed the others to secure it.
“You and your Dajenfel friend have done a spectacular job,” he said. “I’ve never seen one of those quite that nasty.”
“We have water in the first wagon,” said the man with the pole. “They’ll get the soot off you.”
“Don’t you need it to drink?” asked Stradanis.
“We’re only a day from town,” the Cog man said. “Water your horses, your dog, and yourselves. Use as much as you need. You earned it.”
As Stradanis approached the rear of the first wagon, he saw the horses behind it lapping up the water from large buckets. A man with a hand pump and a hose doused Joth as Tawn ran around him, barking, and rolling in the filthy black mud.
Stradanis stood silently as the man hosed him as well. He then took the hose and despite protests from Tawn, hosed the dog from snout to tail as the man pumped the water vigorously. He then picked the dog up off the muddy ground, who looked a good deal smaller with his fur completely soaked.
“You boys can rest back here,” the hose man said.
“You don’t mind a wet dog in your wagon?” Stradanis asked.
“Hells no,” said the man. “That dog of yours barked at the Dajenfel the whole damn hour. Directing the work, if you will, making sure he was doing his job.”
“I couldn’t hear him,” said Stradanis.
“I could,” said Joth, wet and weary.
“Just sleep back here, mate,” the hose man said, dropping out of the wagon and holding the flap back for him. “And don’t mind the little boss, there,” he laughed. “He’s welcome in my wagon. You guys look like you need to rest. I’ll fill up another bucket here and take the saddles of your tired horses and give them a splash as well.”
Stradanis, Joth, and Tawn flopped inside the wagon. At nightfall, Joth awoke to the sound of Tawn snoring in his ear. Stradanis was gone.
He looked down at the black mud behind the wagon and saw that it had dried in the brittle desert air. He gingerly laid his feet upon it and exited the wagon.
“Tawn, said Joth. “Tawn, wake up and make yourself useful. Help me find Stradanis.”
The dog’s ear’s twitched at the name and opened an eye. He then groaned as he stood up and jumped out of the wagon and had a good shake and stretched out and yawned. Then he walked away.
Joth followed him, meandering at first until Tawn caught the scent, and led him to the other side of the caravan camp, where Stradanis was lying on a large rock under the stars, strumming on his varytonos, lost in thought.
“What are you doing?” Joth asked. “A technique?”
“No”, said Stradanis, still strumming lightly in time. “I composed a new song.”
“Can I hear it?” Joth asked.
“It’s in Valendorian,” Stradanis warned.
“It’s ok,” he said. “Does it have a name?
“I call it, The Gods Are Against Me,” he said. “I needed a better song for Sanctification besides burial rites.”
By the first three chords, before his voice even began, Joth felt the familiar glow of Sanctification burn pleasantly through him, and he watched as the last straggler of soot burnt right off the three of them, into nothingness.
He looked up at the stars and saw the angry faces of the Dark Gods looking down at Stradanis and he laughed a deep, fierce, and terrifying laugh as raised he raised his fist at them in defiance.