The cold desert floor heated up abruptly with the appearance of the HMS Clarent. Sand and dust kicked up in a storm around the airship as it landed on a relatively flat patch, its thrusters aimed at the ground, guiding its descent. The wheels emerged from their hatches; and with a gentle bump, the airship came to a complete rest.
‘And here we are,’ Rayna announced, leading the way out of the pilot’s cockpit and into the chilly desert night air. ‘Looks like they haven’t moved at all – I thought they’d declare me dead and moved on, by now. There’s gotta be something for your shoulder right in my tent over there.’
They trekked over to where a clutter of small tents and sand-terrain vehicles were settled. In the middle of the camp, there sat the blackened remains of a campfire. The first thing the Swordsman noticed about it was that it wasn’t smoking – just a pile of ashes and dust.
‘Wake up, everyone!’ Rayna announced with a note of triumph as she walked right into the center of the camp. ‘Rayna’s back! That’s right – y’all people can stop crying and come on out now!’
Only silence greeted her. She didn’t notice that the Swordsman had stopped following her, choosing to stand just at the edge of the marauders’ campsite. To the untrained eye, there was nothing but sand all around; but the Swordsman saw the disturbance in the sand like reading the writing on the wall.
Her steps slowed, and she stopped to look at the silent tents all around her.
‘Why is it so quiet…?’ she wondered out loud, though she feared that she already knew the answer. She took a hesitant step – then broke into a sprint for the nearest tent, pulling the entrance flap open.
‘Hello??’ she called, racing for the closest tent, tearing the entrance flap open, and again finding no one inside. ‘Anyone here??’
Another one. And another one. She began pulling at the canvas with such force that some of them tore upon the force of her tug. ‘Hello??!’ she cried, her voice breaking that fragile line between anxiety and desperate terror. ‘Not funny, guys!’
Rayna pulled open the flap on the last unopened tent, and still there was no one to be found. Everything was as it should be – the supplies they had brought with them, their canned food, their essentials – but it looked like everyone had simply got up and left, leaving everything behind.
A glassy expression came over her face, and she sank to her knees, the confusion and hurt setting in.
‘W- Where’d everyone go?’ she asked – no longer with the bravado of a toughened marauder, but with the soft fragility of a frightened girl with nowhere to go.
The Swordsman came up, the soft sand crunching underneath his heavy boots as he did; and Rayna held an empathic hand upon her shoulder. How do you tell a girl that everyone she knew has either been devoured alive, or transformed into mindless killing machines?
And perhaps it was better this way – she doesn’t yet know how lucky she was to have left this camp when she did. He bent low, grabbed her by the elbow, and hoisted her to her feet.
‘Come, Rayna,’ he said. ‘Let’s not waste time. We must find them before they get too far.’
‘F- Find them?’ she asked. ‘What do you mean?’
‘I imagined they were ambushed in their sleep,’ he lied, ‘There is no blood, and all their belongings were left behind. Your friends must have fled into the desert, away from their attackers. They couldn’t have gotten very far, unless they someone found their way onto another airship.’
She just looked up at him with watery eyes, offering a broken smile.
‘You take me for an idiot, Stubs,’ she laughed a little, wiping away at the tears in her eyes. ‘The zombies got them, didn’t they? Every one of them have been turned into flesh-eating monsters in their sleep. Paps included.’
He fell silent, stunned.
‘You’re a terrible liar,’ she said, giving him a light punch in his good shoulder. He raised his hand, ready to offer an apology – but then she stepped him and wrapped her arms around his back in a warm hug, surprising him.
‘But thanks for trying,’ she said, then broke away, beginning to walk back towards the HMS Clarent. ‘C’mon; time’s a-wasting.’
The Swordsman took only two long strides before finding himself walking right next to the newly-orphaned girl. ‘It seems that we will be traveling together for a little while more,’ he said, ‘So you may as well know.’
‘Sarah’s my wife.’
There was a little silence, and then Rayna broke it: ‘Wife. Nice,’ she said. ‘What happened to her? She pretty?’
‘A tale for another day,’ the Swordsman said. ‘And yes. The prettiest lady I have ever known.’