Legion of the Sands
Part One – The Empty City
Coarse grains of dust and sand swirled along the length of the colonnaded boulevard, picked up and driven ahead of the hot, dry wind that swept in from the hungry deserts. Atop the tall and elegant columns perched the imperious marble forms of emperors and generals long since dead. Their blank faces, worn and weathered, looked down over a silent city, home only to the dust and sand and winds, and the ghosts of the past.
Beneath their regal majesty along that boulevard had once marched the feet of conquering Legions. The rumble of chariots and clatter of the hooves of horses had echoed above the victory parades, as had the cheers of jubilant crowds. Now none but the dead inhabited the city and the Legions were no more. The city had fallen not to a mortal foe, but to the remorseless encroachment of the desert. The old river that the city had been built upon lay dry and choked by dust, while banks of sand rolled slowly through the streets and buildings. The eastern half of the city was almost lost beneath the sands, a fate that in time the rest would endure.
Nhaqosa looked down along the empty boulevard, towards where it led out onto the Grand Plaza which formed the heart of the city and contained the Governor’s Palace. The giant minotaur, a full head taller than most men, his white hide stained red and brown from dust, shifted of cloven feet and frowned. A tail lashed the air behind him, disturbing the flies that buzzed about.
Even though he knew the place had been abandoned, deep down a part of him still expected to hear the familiar sounds of a living city, not simply the moans of the wind through empty buildings. The stillness that afflicted it was like a mournful pall, one that struck at the heart. Scant years had passed since the city had been a living, vibrant place, just one among many in a vast Empire, but now it was barren and filled with the melancholy of forgotten memories.
Now, at least for a while, life had returned. Nhaqosa was not alone in the city. Spread out around him were a small band of warriors; hard faced, weathered men and women in travel stained clothed, and armour of chain and leather. They kept a wary eye on their surrounds, never relaxed or at ease, theirs hands to a variety of weapons, from spears to swords and axes to bows. No two of the company were a like, being a motley collection ranging from black to pale and all the shades in between, as different as their arms and armour.
Two figures made their way back down the sand strewn boulevard from the Grand Plaza, headings towards where Nhaqosa and his companions waited. One was a short, slender and graceful woman, the other a wiry man with a droopy red moustache.
Before she had been forced to become a gladiator slave, the woman, Niati, had been a court dancer for a southern prince, and she still moved with the same elegance with which she had danced, though now it had been honed towards a more brutal purpose in the fighting pits. The man with her, Lakach, had always alluded to having been a simple poacher as his crime that had seen him condemned to the pits. Nhaqosa had never been convinced as to the veracity of those claims and yet he didn’t pry. Few wished to dwell on the past and what had been done to them. Whatever the case was, he and Niati were the two best of the band for scouting ahead, being light of foot and keen of eye.
Given their rather open display of returning, it indicated to Nhaqosa that they had found no signs of any danger exploring the Grand Plaza. A deep rumbling emanated from him as he spoke to the pair upon their rejoining the band. “What did you find?”
“Nothing,” Lakach replied. He tugged at the corner of his moustache while he spoke. “The place is empty, abandoned, deserted. It has been for some years by the looks, left as an abode for just lizards and snakes.”
Nhaqosa nodded a bull’s head that was tipped by great arcing horns. “Did you find a source of water?” That, more than anything, had drawn them to the city and was their major concern. They had enough left for a few more days, but as always when travelling the dying lands and deserts it was prudent to restock whenever possible.
“Not in any of the places we looked,” Niati replied. “That isn’t to say there isn’t any. The city is a big place and we still have much of it to explore.”
“We’d best find a spot we can use for a camp for the night when it arrives,” Nhaqosa said.
“The plaza ahead is a good a place as any,” Lakach pointed out.
“Very well,” Nhaqosa replied. He glanced upwards at the amber hued sky, the air laden with fine dust borne aloft by the winds. “We have a couple of hours left before dusk,” he added. “Enough time to make camp and try and find a source of water.”
The band gathered up their packs and belongings, shouldering them before starting down the boulevard between the columns and statues, following the giant minotaur towards the plaza.