A Day in the Desert
Written by Stuart Thaman
Jikun let his last piece of mail armor slide from his fingertips and clunk into the sand at his feet. He trudged onward, placing one foot mindlessly in front of the other and squinting to keep the harsh sun out of his eyes. He had lost the strength to lift his hand to his brow hours ago and at the rate he moved, he would not crest the next sand dune before dehydration overtook him. He had survived a massive amount of blood loss, but the lack of water was not something his strong will could overcome.
In the sweltering heat of the blazing sun, Jikun collapsed to his knees. He sobbed and his dry throat felt like ash. In all of his centuries of life, the once-proud elf had never been so damned thirsty. When he rolled to his shattered side, the sun once again found its way into his eyes and this time, Jikun did not care. He let the searing rays continue their unholy work and roast his flesh like a butchered sow.
He felt the hot sand running in tiny rivulets gently down the furrows of his muscled back. Under other circumstances, the sand might have felt wonderfully relaxing and he might’ve even paid a fair-skinned elven female to massage him with it.
Jikun’s thoughts drifted to a seedy brothel on the southern side of Elvorium and his cracked lips formed a meek smile. His skin was stretched so tightly it hurt to laugh. Despite his desperate situation, Jikun forced a grunt bordering on humor to pass his lips.
As delirious visions of female elves and massage parlors flitted through Jikun’s darkening mind, a shadow fell over his face. At first, Jikun did not take notice. Then, suddenly, the shadow moved and Jikun opened his eyes.
A hungry vulture circled overhead.
“A fitting death for a defeated general…” Jikun whimpered as he closed his eyes for the last time.
Several days earlier…
“Lift the palisade into place!” Jikun yelled over the din of battle before him. He gripped the hilt of his sword and cursed his luck. The elves were too slow. They were going as quickly as they could, but they were still too slow.
Jikun rushed to the section of wooden wall and wedged his shoulder beneath it, lifting with his legs to help the twenty other elves right the palisade. The wall slid into place with a loud crack as the forty or more other sections had done before it. Jikun had pushed his soldiers to their breaking points for two days to construct a fort and now, it was finally coming together.
But it was far too late…
“These walls should’ve been raised hours ago!” Jikun spat at the nearest officer. There was still a massive amount of work to be done and the minotaur army had appeared on the horizon sometime in the night. All-out war would be begin within the hour and Jikun’s defenses were still dangerously incomplete.
“This damned sand…” he muttered, running along the interior fortress wall to see the progress of his command tower. Jikun was not used to fighting on sand. His battle-hardened elves were not used to it either. Although he commanded thirty thousand of Elvorium’s best soldiers, Jikun knew it would not be enough to hold back the rapidly approaching horde of beasts.
In the desert west of the fabled human city of Reikall, sturdy timber was sparse and the dunes offered no protection of their own. In fact, the shifting sands worked against them as much as the minotaur army surely did. Hundreds of elves had fallen victim to the dunes in the past several days. They had not brought enough water for the unbearable heat of their campaign and even their clothing and shoes were wholly unsuited for desert combat. Under the sun’s blazing rays, their metal armor sizzled and burned their skin.
“They will be upon us any minute, general,” one of Jikun’s commanding officers barked.
Jikun inspected the half-built command tower with disgust. “Tell them to stop,” he said, pointing to the elves hastily assembling it. “If it isn’t ready yet, it won’t be necessary.”
“Bu-” the male began.
Jikun cut him off. “I will lead from the front.” The officer nodded and shut his mouth. “Tell the archers to assemble on the western flank. Have them hold behind the dunes until the battle commences in full. When we have the filthy swine locked down against the walls, destroy their rear guard with arrows.” The officer gave Jikun a quick salute and ran as quickly as he could on the loose sand to transmit the order.
With a quick running start, Jikun leapt half the height of the palisade and grabbed onto the lashing near the top. He pulled himself high enough on the makeshift wall to peer over the sharpened stakes and get a view of the minotaur army. The horizon stretched for miles and still… Jikun could not see the end of the enemy war formation.
“There must be millions…” he whispered breathlessly. Jikun jammed the toe of his leather boot into the tight lashing of the palisade and turned to address his soldiers from his elevated position.
“Elves!” he shouted. The nearby males stopped working on the defenses and quieted, sending a ripple of silence through the gathered army.
He knew only a small portion of his soldiers could hear him, but he trusted the males on the fringe to relay his words exactly as he spoke them. “Elves of Aersadore,” he continued. “We are far from home… It has been over a year since we gazed upon the fertile land of our kingdom. Over a year since we have seen another elf!” Jikun thought of the filthy goblins who inhabited the land and had convinced his king to send him to such a desolate continent. One of the creatures stood not far from his perch and Jikun leered at the beast, hoping his gaze adequately transmitted his distaste.
“Our foe is upon us!” Jikun yelled, waiting a few moments for the words to fully be absorbed. “The minotaur army will be here within the hour. When they come, we will cut them down. They will die on the edges of our swords and their blood will stain the sand beneath our boots!” Cheers rose up all around him, but Jikun knew most of it was insincere. They were outnumbered by more than ten to one – impossible odds.
Before he could say another word, a warhorn sounded not far from the palisade, and the minotaur charge began. The elves felt the ground rumble beneath the weight of the beasts and their crushing hooves. Everything shook with their might. The wooden palisade vibrated in the ground and Jikun had to clench his jaw to keep his teeth from clacking together.
In an instant, the first wave of minotaurs crashed into the wooden wall and the world exploded with sound. Jikun was thrown from the palisade, landing painfully with his back to the sand. One of the horned beasts crashed through the wall with a shower of splinters. Its black hide glistened with sweat, and Jikun noticed it did not wear armor. As he tried to get his feet solidly beneath him on the ever-shifting sand, Jikun understood why. His own chain and plate mail was too heavy to be useful on such foreign terrain – every movement he made was far too slow.
The minotaur before him was quickly swarmed by elves, but Jikun watched in horror as they were thrown off the beast one by one. The creature, a towering monstrosity of horns, fur, and muscle, knocked the elven swords away with its hands as though they were mere toys.
Summoning a blast of icy magic to his fingers, Jikun shot the bolt into the minotaur’s chest, momentarily stunning it. The elves cheered and swarmed back in on the enemy, stabbing it with their swords until the minotaur went down.
It was a victory, but Jikun saw that it cost his soldiers dearly. Killing a single minotaur had brought all manner of injury down upon the handful of elves. Several of them suffered broken bones or cuts from the creature’s horns as it thrashed, but they all still stood. Sadly, Jikun knew the rest of his troops were not faring so well.
“Hold the wall!” he screamed to the soldiers, seeing three more minotaurs coming hard for the breach. Jikun scrambled backward, climbing the sand dunes and cursing his metal boots with every step.
At the top of the dune, a small wooden portal marked the entrance to a mining tunnel where the goblin commanders resided. Their army, a sea of diminutive, filthy beings who could barely fight, waited just over the next rise.
“What the hell are you waiting for?” Jikun yelled into the mine. He ducked under the low ceiling and stormed into the lightless chamber the goblins used as their command post, flinging curses as he went.
“Send your army!” he bellowed. “The damn minotaurs are overrunning the palisade! Send the damn army!”
In response, all Jikun heard was a soft laugh – a human laugh.
Jikun drew his sword. As far as he knew, no humans resided on the continent, only goblins, minotaurs, and the occasional band of orcs. His mind whirled through the possibilities. A stowaway from Aersadore? A development he had not foreseen? Some hidden enemy sent by the minotaurs?
Several paces to his left, a small flicker of light began to spread on the ground as a metal lantern shutter was slowly opened. Jikun gasped. Corpses filled the small room. They were the goblin commanders, the only ones with the magical ability to command the army of goblin drones which awaited their orders. Without the commanders, the drone army would never take a single step.
Behind the lantern, Jikun saw a pair of leather-clad legs. As the shutter continued to move and more light filled the small space, he recognized the lantern’s bearer. He didn’t know her name, but he had seen the woman several times before on his ship. She was one of the cooks, or perhaps a seamstress who had travelled with the army to mend their sails and uniforms, Jikun could not remember exactly. He had seen her face before, of that much Jikun was certain.
“You’ve killed us all,” the elf muttered. In that moment his fear had subsided, replaced by a strange sense of calm.
“More importantly,” the woman began, “I’ve killed you.”
Jikun sighed. He had figured as much. Although he didn’t know which of his enemies had sent the assassin, he knew he had made enough enemies to warrant such a blade in the darkness.
“Who do you work for?” Jikun asked, though he wasn’t exactly sure why he cared. He held his sword steady in front of him, levelled at the woman’s chest. In her own hand she clutched a bloody knife.
The woman smiled, revealing only a handful of rotten teeth protruding from her blackened gums. In an instant, the woman flashed her knife over her own throat, sending a wave of crimson blood down her chest.
Jikun thought of rushing to her out of instinct, but he simply watched her die instead. When the assassin had breathed her last a few moments later, Jikun exited the tunnel with a profound sigh.
All around him, his army of elves struggled to hold back the minotaur tide. The palisade had collapsed and lay in splinters atop the dunes, barely distinguishable from the growing mountain of corpses. Jikun knew there was no chance of victory. Without the thousands of goblin soldiers supplementing his army, there were simply too many enemies. As he watched the battle rage, he knew he had lost.
A glint of sunlight stabbed into Jikun’s eyes and he raised his sword to shield them. Before he could refocus to see what was before him, a giant beast with razor-sharp horns barreled into him and sent him flying to the sand.
Jikun gasped for breath. The beast had launched him through the air so suddenly he had not found the time to position his landing, and he knew his ankle had broken from the sound it made when he came crashing down. His sword was several paces away, partially submerged in the hot desert sand. Between him and his weapon, the largest minotaur he had ever seen blocked his view. The creature wore no armor, but its hide shone like coal and looked tough enough to stop boulders.
The once-proud elf general summoned as much ice to his fingertips as he could in the arid environment and sent it hurtling toward the beast – where it dissipated into harmless steam against the minotaur’s rage.
"I submit,” Jikun yelled, painfully swallowing the last shred of his pride. The minotaur didn’t seem to care. If minotaurs even spoke a language, Jikun did not know. He fought against his broken ankle and the shifting dunes beneath him to escape.
The minotaur dropped to all fours and charged once more, angling its horns toward Jikun’s chest. The elf rolled to his side at the last possible moment, but one of the beast’s horns caught him in the ribs as the creature passed. A gout of blood burst from Jikun’s side. He clutched his broken ribs, feeling the dislodged bones shifting beneath his shattered skin.
He feared a compound fracture. Jikun stole a glance at his torso that confirmed his suspicion. The ends of three broken ribs poked from his flesh like bloody shards of ice rising from the desert. Luckily, the minotaur must have considered him dead. Jikun watched the beast stomp off toward the rest of his nearly defeated army without another glance.
Jikun yelled in pain and pulled himself to his knees. He held his ribs tenuously together and tried to use magic to seal his flesh, but he did not have the energy.
After several moments of excruciating pain, Jikun came to rest at the top of a dune overlooking the goblin army. He saw the horde of pale creatures, perhaps a million of them, standing blank-faced in the sand. They moved idly, shifting their weight back and forth, and each of them wore a listless expression.
“Fight!” Jikun screamed, his breath ragged. “Damned bastards! Fight!”
He thought he saw one of them turn to look at him, but perhaps he was delirious from blood loss and only imagining it.
“Fight!” he roared again. Every breath he took sent more of his blood into the hot sands.
One of the goblins took a tentative step forward, but Jikun’s consciousness fled before he could see anything else.
When Jikun awoke, he had no idea how much time had passed. At first, he was surprised that did awaken, though his fears of mortal injury were quickly confirmed. Dried blood was caked around his ruined chest, and he saw his stark white ribs still thrusting forward from his armor. His throat felt as dry as the desert surrounding him.
The broken ribs moved a little with each breath he took, the pain constantly threatening to send him back into the quiet darkness of unconscious again. Struggling to even get on his knees, Jikun forced himself to turn, to look for the goblin army, to look for some inkling of hope among the devastation.
Behind him, Jikun saw what was left of the goblin soldiers. Thousands and thousands of their corpses were scattered among the sands. Some of them had been buried by the wind, leaving ghastly hands and feet clawing up from the dunes like some sort of horrific graveyard scene.
He heard a fire crackling off to his right that caught his attention. He dragged himself hopelessly across a small section of the dunes to where he could get a better look. Down below, perhaps only twenty feet away, a band of victorious minotaurs had made a camp among the goblin corpses. Much to Jikun’s dismay, one of the dead creatures had been skewered and a burly minotaur sat near it, slowly rotating the body as it burned over the fire.
I should yell something and beg for a swift death, Jikun thought, feeling a fresh spasm of pain shoot through his body. The prospect of being roasted and eaten quickly pushed the notion away, and Jikun turned back to slide down the small dune he had crested. Above him, the sun was oppressively hot. It beat down on his skin without mercy, without a speck of shade in sight.
Piece after piece, Jikun unstrapped his armor and let it fall to the ground. He felt a hint of comfort with each piece he shed, but it was never enough. “I have to,” he sputtered, coughing up more blood and further dislodging his ribs. “I have to get back home…”
A hungry vulture circled overhead.
“A fitting death for a defeated general…” Jikun whimpered as he closed his eyes for the last time.