Chapter 3 - The Path through the Desolations II

Chapter 3 - The Path through the Desolations II

A Chapter by Kuandio

Back to the present. The ranger is on a perilous path that weaves through remnants of the world's past as well as his own. There's no way but forward, into enemy territory, the brutal Warkhan tribe


During the vertiginous instant that the tract of the ground sagged and gave under his boot, Raiden pitched away from the sheer cliff drop. A jumble of rocks and pebbles tumbled over the edge and into the wide whispering chasm, thousands of feet deep. If he hadn't been holding onto the reins he would've fallen clear of the rim. He released them now. He didn’t want Night-Wind following him onto the narrow and unstable bit of ground he was trying to administer. His entire body worked together like strands in a rope, taught, trying to find balance. He pressed back firmly against the afternoon sun-warmed granite escarpments that rose solemnly. Standing stock-still, his eyes traced the trajectory of the dislodged quarry as it fell and disappeared into the atmospheric void.
    “Stay back boy” he said to Night-Wind, his voice issuing as more of a whisper choke-held by fear. The horse was a few meters back on the bluff, where the ground was firmer and not as cramped. With more conviction he ordered, “Don’t you move, not an inch you hear!”
    How long will it take those rocks to fall to the bottom? He figured it’d be awhile for their trip to end in the Broan river. From this vantage point the river was a silvery gleam of a thread-thin ribbon. The tips of his rawhide boots looked a lot bigger, being as they were just centimeters from the crumbling brink. Sweet savior!  He exhaled as if trying to blow out a candle with a whole lot of pent up sadness and tension.
    Making their way through the canyons, there’d been spans along the precipices that’d been dizzying to behold, even for a seasoned ranger such as himself, who’d crossed nearly every sierra there was. This here was just such an unmanning vista. Surefooted as Radien was compared to the average man when it came to heights, this here was simply an awful place to be stuck for any length of time.
    He was sweating it, and it was getting difficult to control his breathing and heart rate. The confounded view threatened to send one’s senses reeling into shambles, loosening one’s grasp on everything, causing it all to sway precariously, daring him to let go and try for that epic flailing belly flop that was less than a shuffle step away.
    Screw that man! Stop looking down there! No need for it. He chugged a few deep breaths and focused. Digging his heels into the gravelly ground he steadied himself against a cleft in the granite. The breeze cooled his perspiration, caressing him like the soft breathing of a woman. If he slipped what’d follow would be as opposite of gentle as it came. A few more pebbles came loose, along with a little streaming fall of fine sand that sifted and dispersed into gorge winds.
    “I’m ok bud” he reassured Night-Wind who was snorting his concern, “Don’t you worry about me” 
    Breathing deep, and making sure not to take any more peeks downwards, Raiden gingerly sidestepped up the trail a few yards, taking his sweet time and proffering a couple prayers while he was at it. When he finally made it to safer footing, he eased up some, and called to Night-Wind, “Come on bud, I know you can do it”
    The horse approached the perilous stretch and paused. What followed thoroughly dismayed Raiden. Night-Wind first primed his muscles and unified his coordination, and instead of cautiously stepping it, he took a single leap that cleared the danger zone altogether, causing Raiden to catch a wild shout midway in his throat. He patted his bestial companion, sighing, and smiling anemically.
    “Like to make it exciting eh? Come on. The better it‘ll be the sooner we get gone from this place“
    The ranger and his steed continued on the winding cliff path. He gripped the reins a little tighter, but not too tight. If he fell, or if Night-Wind did, one could haul down the other. Man, he really didn’t like this stage of the journey. Since coming by the first series of sunken chasms a few hours back, navigating the giant canyon country had only been getting harder. He’d been considering turning around and going west another route, but by the time he’d come around to thinking that, he feared they’d probably gone too far already. To outdo that quandary, this was the doorstep to the region rumored to be Red Skull territory. Sure wouldn’t be a convenient time to get attacked, what with only one way in, and one way out, less you counted chucking a dive into the rockbound river as an escape route.
    For the next couple hours Raiden and Night-Wind edged along the precipitous trail. The trek was impressive as it was daunting. Over the course of eons, the surging power of whitewater rivers had carved out layers of lime and sandstone sediment to create a colossal rift at times over a mile deep, a space in which the wind stirred to speak in its language of primordial creation. There were spans where the contours of the cliffs were inclined to a degree minus vertical, so that the ground which they trod actually protruded over the emptiness, like treacherous balconies. It was impossible to shoo away the thought of one of those declivitous decks breaking off with them still on top, like an impossible bottom-bound raft. On the other shoulder was a towering wall of uninterrupted stone bluffs, stolid guardians that acceded them little footing, and whose sheer size and staggering weight threatened to overwhelm them off the precipice. More than once after the first time, Raiden deemed it necessary to press back against the granite again, as he carefully lead Night-Wind.
    Last time he’d come to the Broken Horns it‘d been easier going. That‘d been up north, coming off the Cimrel river in the Yucah valley. He remembered the Broan river to be a lot fuller back then. Sure, it looked smaller from where he was standing, but he gauged ten times more water in it that year. Aiyanna had said that even the big rivers might’ve run dry. He was glad that wasn’t the case, but the way it was looking, the water supply around these parts was near terminal.
    What’s happening to the land? Wasn’t more than a few generations gone that the Broken Horns were said to have harbored woodland and plenty of wildlife. Glaciers sluicing rivers and creeks. He wouldn’t have believed it had he not come across all the parched channels and big petrified husks. There was nothing to be done. Things had changed in many places. A lot of greenery had been blighted off the face of the earth. More than half of west world was dominated by expanses of scarred up and scorched desolations.

    A hefty load came off the ranger and his horse when the path diverged away from the canyonous abysses and onto a plateau that angled westward. The mesa gradually lifted towards gentle sand hills and steep slopes. Here Raiden came across an ancient road. Covered almost entirely by beige alluvium, the track’s hard baked ground could barely be discerned, but the dilapidated rocks that lined it gave it away. It was the vestige of an olden trade route from a bygone era. Despite its disintegrated state, it remained a decent pathway, and it stretched out in the direction he was headed, so he followed it.
    Could it be this was a road left over from the time of industry and machine? If so, then it’d been a real long, long time ago since anyone had passed through on this old forgotten highway. Raiden felt an eerie overlapping of past and present, a mystery. He didn’t know much about the distant past except vague histories he’d heard by hearth-fire. He suspected most of it was hogwash. There wasn’t anybody still around from way back then to say what it’d been like. The bit he believed most was what White Elk had told him. He never knew exactly how old the Gold-Eagle medicine man was, but he figured he was way up there in oldness, like his forefathers. One of them down the line had to have known the truth.
    “Before this age there was a time remembered as the age of Mechanization” said the medicine man one afternoon as they’d sat in the bison skin hut by the embers of a fire, “During that time much was invented, and much promised, but it was short-lived, for people overreached with their ambition, and the age was brought to an end, like a train that runs out of track and derails itself, burying itself in sand and ruin. There the great iron-horse has lain. Since then all we have known is this - the age of gun and steel“ and the old Gold-Eagle medicine man had smiled, his face creasing in many places, and he waved aside all the talk of history as inconsequential as he filled his pipe, “But the tribesmen have always held to the more ancient ways, and you will see Dream-Walker, perhaps in this lifetime, that when this age passes, the way of earth and spirit will continue to outlast all else”
    Raiden hoped that was true. The tribes-people were still here. Whatever remained of the achievements and glory of the industry epoch, he reckoned it resembled the past in the way that the charred timbers of a once strong house did after getting nearly burnt to the ground. One thing was for sure - there was a lot less people today than there used to be. The ghostly ruins of a few faraway towns and metropolises he’d passed through attested to that. The echoes of the multitudinous populations that had resided there had been carried away by desert drift. People in this time of gun and steel were scattered throughout the world, separated by gulfs of dangerous no man’s land. They built outposts and city-states. Unfortunately, after years of exposure to these more remote stations of civilization, Raiden concluded that living in the wastes wasn’t much worse off. Most such outposts were governed by corrupt councils and despots. They were lawless and violent places where all too often you had to make your own justice.
    What had caused it all to get so messed up? Not even White Elk could say for sure, “It’s hard to see that far back. There’s a haze of smoke. War, plague, and the sickness that is in the soul of the world. But I say we are fortunate. If the age of Mechanization had not broken down, what would’ve come next would’ve been far worse, especially for the tribesmen. This era, of horse, gun, bow, empty countries, and visions of power, is the one that is destined to us to bring about the Sacred Work”
    White Elk had always been optimistic. He’d seemed to know things that were secret to most folks. Nowadays, lots of people, maybe the majority, held to the creed of doom. The Lord has forsaken this world! - cried out the pious-crazed - Leaving it at the mercy of the ungodly. - It was a purgatory of sorts others said. Just a matter of time before the whole s**t-house went down in flames forever. Then the night would fall. That’s why many also called these times the crepuscule, or the reckoning.
    “Bunch of saps” said Raiden, patting Night-Wind as if the big mustang were a drinking buddy, “We’ve got more right to be gloomy. We’ve seen things no one should of. And sometimes it feels like all the hard work is for beans, but here we are, still rambling. We’ve got to believe there’s a sunrise over the hills, somewhere. Leave the pessimism to those who’ve got nothing better to do than hear themselves gripe“

    The ranger and his horse moved on up the olden road, towards the steeper slopes, going machinelike, one foot in front of another, grating along, one two, one two. It was getting later in the day, a few hours shy of sunset, and the sun was in his eyes. The highway ruin pushed past bigger knolls that looked kind of like giant dunes. Revealed around a set of slopes was a ridge yonder, riven by abrupt crags. The high altitude winds picked up. Raiden squinted from under the wrangler hat. The clouds fluctuated faster, merging, condensing, then spreading, giving the eerie impression that time was quickening.
    On the way he was gazing absentmindedly at the sky and thought he caught a glimpse of something up there. It was as ephemeral as a faint watercolor in the sky, and it faded before he could be sure. He didn’t think he’d seen it with his spirit vision, maybe not his physical eyes either. No, it was more felt than actually seen. But for a few fleeting instants he was pretty sure he’d contemplated the most beautiful pair of Lasura tribalwoman eyes, like those of a benevolent sky goddess.
    Dove-Song. He only saw her eyes on days like this, trudging the hard trail, and always after he’d gotten to thinking she’d never reappear. A memory glimmered silently. A time ago, when she’d been sitting by the pond at the hidden mountain spring they used to meet at. The sunlight danced flittingly on the lapping rings of the clear waters that she was dipping her feet in. She turned to him. There was a powerful recognition in her smile, one which chided him for all his seriousness and grief.
    Don’t go, not this time. I’m sorry. Please, let me know everything is alright... It was when he wanted to reach out, make the memory-mirage crystallize so he’d never lose it, that the remembrance receded, undulating liquid like. He fought against it, but inevitably, what replaced the memory was another mirage - vast desert - the harsh reality that he could not find her. She was still waiting on the other side of that dream desert, but in neither memory nor requiem had he ever managed to make it all the way across to her.
    Dove-Song. For most of his life, Raiden had felt like a man without love, but when he remembered her, he realized there was an ember left of it which he carried like a firefly cupped in his hands. From time to time, as it did now, that ember flared a little, a memory of a fire that had once kept him from freezing in the all the cold shadow, had illuminated a happiness, showing him it could be real.
    I’m going to make it there, just wait for me. I promise. But the mirage was gone. Above the Broken Horns, where he’d thought he’d seen the Lasura  eyes, a golden mist gently dispersed, perhaps just the play of sunlight on vapor of cloud. Again, she was unreachable in the azure. The past couldn’t be rescued. He never had enough time for her to give him a clearer sign.
    Come what may, I’ll never forget you. And that was why, after all these years, the memory of bliss haunted him in the form of the semitransparent phantasm of her alluring eyes. Wherever you are, I’ll find you one day. We’ll be together again Dove-Song.
    Raiden wanted to believe it wasn’t just a projection of his yearning, but that she was watching over him in some way. The Powers were enigmatic. Therefore he had to consider the possibility it was a warning. It had been before. He was suddenly hesitant to head up to the cuts between the big scarps, but there was no way around it.
    Not long after they came to the steeper sand hills, alongside the way they encountered a series of bulky dust-laden wrecks. He slowed his step as he passed by. What had once been a caravan of covered wagons and a first-rate stagecoach, were sprawled out on different sides of the road, their dismembered parts weather-blasted, buried, and smashed. Here a sturdy axle obtruded, there a splintered backboard, a couple empty water barrels, and the bows that had held the canvas like broken ribs jutting - all the detritus akin to the remains of big beasts’ skeletons made of wood, strips of rusted iron and bolts. He ran a gloved hand over a big iron rimmed wheel that stuck halfway out of the sand bank. Couldn’t tell how long the wrecks had lain. Could be a few years, could be ten or twenty.
    What the heck were the people bumping along in these clunkers trying to do? Maybe they’d been on their way towards the same place he was headed, to that mining town when it’d been in its booming heyday - Rokeden Grames. Probably got caught by a big storm, a flashflood that had knocked over and sepulchered the wagons in a landslide, forcing the pilgrims to abandon their wheels and foot it.
    They continued on. As the old battered highway neared the top of the ridges the winds gusted stronger, and he had to tilt his hat forward so it wouldn’t be blown back. During this hour the currents always picked up, gathering force in the low ravines to funnel with multiplied force through the high sierra. As they came night the zenith of the gap between the opposing promontories the wind whistled steadily through the passage, a horizontal drizzle of fine minerals that blew against his leather coat.
    Raiden almost passed by without taking notice of the bones. He paused and realized that the white-ivory washed skeletal remains didn’t belong to animals. They were human, and there were quite a few sets. The gritty sand had piled, burying most of the skeletons in smoothen drifts, but the continual gusting had also uncovered others. Raiden reckoned there were at least a dozen different people’s disjointed and fractured remains sown through the sands. At least a couple had been kids.
    “I know. I don’t like it either” Raiden said to Night-Wind.
    Although it was plain to see that the killing site was very old, and the perpetrators were nowhere nearby, his right hand had instinctively set on the  grips of one of the Roan 45s. To one side of the road was a cracked skull. Missing its lower jaw, it mocked his unease, for it gave the impression that the fellow was trying real hard to make a goofy bucktoothed face.
    What in creation happened here?  The wagons. Suddenly he saw it replay. Years ago, not sure how many, but the flash of the extraneous memory crossing his spirit vision made it feel like it was happening in real time. Raiden’s head spun as if hit by a gnarly migraine squeezing all sides. S**t. Dry-gulched by Warkhan on their way up the road. Arrows had fallen, hacking, cracking, ripping, and hysterical laughter had followed. The people had screamed whilst the dead, dying, and the very much alive and kicking were snatched up, then dragged like worthless sacks up to the place where they were to be tortured then eaten, as was the Red Skull custom. For those folks, those last moments had been when the big table of life with everything on it had been flipped upside down, the moment regular everyday waking experience had turned into a lucid walking, breathing, bleeding, and weeping nightmare.
    Raiden sighed as the flashback faded. His headache was clearing. The screams of the afternoon massacre had been stilled, their clothes and belongings stolen, decomposed, their bones picked clean by varmints. The sands had tried to cover it all up. Only the slow lamenting moans of the winds sounded like they hadn’t forgotten these unfortunate souls.
    “Don’t worry about them bud. We’re too late. Anyhow, they got less to worry about than we do I reckon”
    One thing was for sure. It was a pretty sure bet they were on the cusp of Warkhan territory, if they hadn’t set foot in it already. Before forging doggedly ahead, it was best to give the compass a look.
    Upon studying the apparatus‘s findings, Raiden’s eyes dilated and intensified. I’ll be darned. There was a signal indicating an unidentified energy source. Its location was roughly fifteen miles afield, near the rim of the compass’s radius, and a few degrees northeast - again.
    He couldn’t prove it, but with so many coinciding factors he figured it had to be the same signal he’d detected three days ago on the Burned Flats. Unable to assay it further, he got to gravely wondering if he was being followed. No, don’t wonder man. You are being followed. Question is - by whom? Got to be ready for anything. No bullets in the back.
    “Look alive” he said to Night-Wind, “Someone wants to make our acquaintance. Let’s just make sure we’re the first to say howdy”
    Raiden stashed the compass back in his coat pocket. In any case, at this distance no threat was yet posed. When he cleared the apex of the pass, his eyes sharpened. As far as could be seen was a vast landscape of writhen gorges and lofty crumbling plateaus, some that looked like they‘d had their top chopped clean flat by an angry god‘s axe. Then higher chains of mountains reaching for miles and miles. All that ground yet to cover, but on the other side of it his destination slept, maybe with one eye open that was watching him.
    And there were the Warkhan. Yep, he thought as he adjusted his coat against the arid gusts- they’re out there somewhere. He was downright sick of dealing with these freaks. Every time it was getting more difficult to cross the desolations. In just a decade bands like the Red Skulls had grown more powerful, their numbers increasing. Various Warkhan tribes and other clans and crews that had once been concentrated in the deep hidden wastes, now ventured boldly at the frontiers, raiding further, even cutting off some of the smaller city-states. In the dead of the night people were stolen from their ranches and never seen again, or at least, not recognized if they were. All of this marauding had ruined efforts to settle propitious lands, and forced more outland dwellers to wall themselves away in terror. Raiden knew that the evil b******s were just moving in to take bites of flesh. What the big orders had their eyes on was the jugular, the whole shebang’s carcass. That’s why the rangers had to keep on rangering. Try to bring down a hammer on this chaos. The world needed more folk that weren’t going to turn tail when it got rough, more big-game hunters willing to bring the madness to the murderous cowards that hid in the desolations like the ones before him now.
    They might even know I’m coming already. F**k them if they do. I got something for them if they want it.
    “Fun is about to begin I reckon” he said to Night-Wind, “Time we pick it up a notch”
    On one side of the saddlebags, next to a rolled tarp he almost never used, Raiden unlatched the high powered Strider-hawking .50 and loaded it to capacity, then slung it over his shoulder. Having this badboy primed at his side provided him with a comfort no pistol could quite supply. The Strider-hawking had higher accuracy over a much greater distance, and power to bring down just about anything no matter how big and ugly.
    With one hand on the black mustang’s reins, and the other supporting the big rifle, the ranger traversed the pass and forlorn dusty sighs of sundowner winds, and entered the Red Skull country.

© 2013 Kuandio

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Author's Note

My main concern is whether or not things are moving too slowly, but maybe this is necessary at this point, to add to realism and depth. Let me know what you think

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Added on August 24, 2013
Last Updated on August 27, 2013
Tags: western, horror, science fiction, native american, mythology, fantasy, epic, adventure, love, romance, spiritual, new age




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