The sun beats down on the caravan as they cross through hills of red sand. Everyone wears protective eyewear and scarves over their mouths, but still the red dust seems able to find ways into their mouths and eyes. The groduns snort and shake their heads of the dust while the long eyelashes of the jubequis save them from the invading particles.
The wind calms as they move through the hills, but the heat continues to rise. Vesna rides ahead, keeping eyes open for any signs of danger. Kemp rides a distance behind her. Vico and Ari cover the right side while Crofton and Guto cover the left. The rest bring up the rear or are spaced between the wagons.
Turner rides at the head of the first wagon, his eyes scanning the hills around them. His jubequi snorts, uneasily.
“Fine, if you’re the first’un to find any beasty not dead on the ground, I’ll give ya twenty pieces,” Guto’s booming voice fills the uneasy air.
Crofton shakes hands with the larger man. “Deal.”
The two men had been coming up with ridiculous bets since waking up that morning. Both were already down fifty “pieces” each or what they chose to call coins.
Crofton’s eyes search the red earth and he suddenly points ahead, near Vesna. “There! Right there!”
“What? I don’t see nuh-thing,” Guto says, shading his eyes with his hand.
“You’re blind. There’s a tiny thing crawling along underneath her animal.” Crofton leans forward. “I think…or that might be a shadow.”
“A shadow within a shadow? I think the sun’s got you goin’ blind.”
“I’m telling you, right there!” Crofton shouts, pointing at Vesna.
Vesna collapses to the ground, her jubequi rearing back in a sudden fright. The caravan falls silent.
“Vesna!” Vico urges his jubequi forward.
Ari follows as Kemp leaps from his jubequi. Vico jumps from the back of his own jubequi and lifts Vesna up. An arrow is lodged into her side and blood rolls down the side of her head where she hit a rock.
Vesna’s beast runs forward, shrieking in fear. The ground beneath it gives way and it disappears into a large hole. Its cries fade and soon fall silent as it hits the bottom.
“Ambush! Raiders!” Turner bellows, drawing his weapon.
The men immediately move the wagons into a tight circle and surround it, facing outwards. Kemp grabs the reins of his, Vico, and Ari’s jubequis to lead them into the safety of the circle.
“She’s still breathing,” Ari says, placing a hand on Vico’s shoulder. “Let’s get her out of the open.”
Vico lifts his sister and he and Ari move towards the caravan. Shouts echo around them as men appear at the tops of the surrounding hills. Arrows are shot into the caravan hitting men and beast. Then the men charge, weapons reflecting the sun’s light.
The men of the caravan meet the bandits head on and fighting erupts everywhere. Ari uses her wind to keep Vico safe until he can get Vesna under cover. Kemp draws weapons from his bag and throws a blade at an approaching bandit. The weapon lodges into the man’s chest and as he falls to the earth, Kemp grabs the blade and tears it from the dead man.
Crofton holds his father’s weapons in his hands, easily managing to fight two handed against the man aiming for him. Guto joins him and the two soon start shouting out the number of men they’ve killed in a mini competition.
More and more men appear from over the hills, replenishing those who fall. The caravan loses men and beasts lie slaughtered on the ground, their blood turning the red sand black. Arrows fly from above and Ari releases a wave of magic to protect those around her.
Magic fills the air as more magic users resort to their magic to fight off the attackers. Two wagons are set afire by arrows and two men rush to save as much as they can from the flames. Ari tries to reach the burning caravans to help put out the flames, but three bandits surround her and separate her from the rest of the caravan.
She tries to fight them off, but one of the bandits is dulling her magic with his own power.
A man grabs her arm and twists it behind her back. “Enough!” His voice is amplified by magic and the fighting stops.
The only ones left of the caravan are Guto, Vico, Vesna, Kemp, Crofton, and two others. Turner lies dead beneath the bodies of two bandits. The bandits surround the small group and hold their weapons at them.
“Your caravan is now ours. We have no use for the men, but the two women are ours.”
Ari twists forcefully against the man’s grasp, but he nods his head at the man to his left. The man steps in front of her and punches her in the stomach. She gasps and stops struggling, instead using all of her strength to keep from collapsing.
The man pulls her close. “For that, you’ll now watch as your comrades are killed before your eyes.”
The bandits tighten their circle around the caravan’s survivors. Before any of them can attack, an arrow flies through the air and hits the man holding Ari between the eyes. He falls to the ground, his grip still tight on Ari’s arm. She’s dragged to the ground with him and lands on top of him. She looks at the arrow sticking out of his head and notices it’s red, as though made from the very Redlands around them.
The men around her step back in shock as they recognize the arrow.
“Lost Raiders!” the magic user dampening Ari’s magic gasps.
The bandits hear him and panic. More red arrows fly into the crowd, killing men left and right. Before the men have the sense to run, a wall of people appears at the tops of the hills. A much larger group of people has already surrounded the group and sitting on the back of a large riding animal with a long mane is a man holding a sword high above his head.
The bandits realizing there’s no escape prepare to fight for their lives. The man with the sword swings the blade down and the group attacks, running down the hills screaming with excitement.
Vico, Guto, and the last two of the caravan grab Kemp and Crofton and hide under the last wagon with Vesna, who is slowly regaining consciousness. Ari frees herself from the hold of the dead man and is immediately grabbed by the magic user blocking her magic.
“You have to save me from the Lost Raiders! They’ll kill you, too!” he rambles quickly. “They’re demons! Demons!”
The man with the sword appears next to Ari and the magic user. He stares down at them from his beast and looks from Ari to the man. He swings his blade quickly, killing the man before climbing down from his animal. The last of the bandits are killed behind him.
“Who are you?” Ari asks, her magic creating a small whirlwind around her.
The man’s eyes move up and down Ari and a smile plays on his lips. “It would seem I’m your savior. You’re welcome.”
“A bit presumptuous of you. How do we know you aren’t more dangerous?”
“I never said we weren’t more dangerous, but we won’t kill you over immaterial things.”
Ari looks past the man and sees the other raiders surrounding the last of the caravan group. She stops her magic and stares into the man’s eyes. “But you might kill us over something else.”
Shrugging, the man eyes the group behind him. “Well, if you prove yourselves dangerous, too, we might feel the need to protect ourselves.” He leans close to Ari. “But I don’t think you’ll try anything stupid like that.”
“That man you killed called you the Lost Raiders. What does that mean?”
“Names are simply things people use to try to define things they don’t understand.”
“In other words, it’s what everyone calls you, but you don’t have a name.”
“We’ve lived in these lands for many generations and we keep to ourselves. Those who’ve encountered us spread stories and those stories spread further and twist with each telling. If you wish to call us the Lost Raiders, fine. We’ve never had a true name. Normally, we don’t like getting involved with travellers, but these bandits have grown more aggressive and bold. They’re beginning to claim lands for themselves and that puts my men in danger.”
“We have no intention of endangering your men. Our only intention is to cross the Redlands and reach the coast.”
The man steps closer to Ari and stares into her eyes. He circles around her, placing her between him and his riding animal. “Why are you trying to reach the coast?”
“We’re heading for Deirak. There’re rumors Myldea isn’t safe for magic users anymore.”
“What makes you think that?”
“We heard Kellahn was attacked by someone claiming to be the reincarnation of the Blood King,” Ari says, her eyes lowering. “If it’s true, we figured better to leave than risk becoming slaves to a madman.”
One of the raiders approaches, sheathing his weapon. “Radhri, one of them’s injured. She’s losing a lot of blood.”
Radhri looks at his man and nods. “Check the damage of the wagons. It looks like two of them are immobile. Salvage what you can and put it on the other wagons. Are any of the beasts still alive?”
“Two still able to pull, one with an injured leg and now blind. It seems it was hit by a fire arrow.”
“Will it slow us down?”
“It doesn’t trust anyone to get close enough to tie it up.”
“See if one of those from the caravan are willing to help. Let’s hurry.”
The man bows his head and heads back to where the group is. The raiders quickly begin following Radhri’s orders. Water mages put out the last of the flames on the wagons and search for anything still useful.
Turning back to Ari, Radhri motions towards Kemp and Crofton. “You may want to explain to your friends that we’ll be taking all of you back to our camp. We have healers who can help the woman.”
“Her name is Vesna,” Ari corrects.
Ari cautiously walks away from him towards Crofton and the rest of the caravan. Vico holds his sister close to him, his eyes watching each raider who passes too close.
“How’s everyone?” Ari looks from one tired face to another.
“Alive and confused. Who are these guys?” Kemp asks.
“Lost Raiders,” Guto says. “That’s who they are, right?”
“Yeah, but they don’t really call themselves that. They’re going to take us back to their camp. They can help Vesna and I trust them,” Ari says. “Are we all that’s left?”
Guto motions his head to the two others who survived. “Link and Sten were in charge of the groduns and wagons. They managed to save two of the groduns from injury.”
“Can you help the raiders with the injured grodun? They want to take it with us, but it won’t let anyone near it.”
“Of course not. They’re murderers!” Link squeaks out. He attempts to say more, but Sten slaps a hand over his mouth.
“Shut it. We don’t have a choice.” Sten nods his head at Ari. “We’ll take care of the grodun. It should recognize us by our scents. If the raiders are willing to help when we calm it down.” He and Link head off towards the wounded grodun.
Crofton moves close to Ari, his eyes locked on Radhri. “Can we trust them?”
“They saved us from the bandits and they’re offering to heal Vesna. Besides, what else can we do? I have the feeling they know the Redlands better than anyone.” Ari glances up at Radhri and realizes he’s watching her with a wide smile on his face.