Let me tell you a story, child. A story of the Desert. The story of Eshai.

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Eshai shielded her eyes from the sun, looking across the sand as her father had taught her, up into the rocks of the hills along the old troll road where it wound between the great brown stones. The caravan banged and creaked as it swayed along the broken stones – her mother said they “grew worse every year” every time they crossed them, but she could never tell a difference.

“Mama? There are so many birds!” And there were – more than usual; the bonerippers wheeled above the stones in a dance that numbered them in the hundreds.

“Shh. Eshai – I am listening. Veres, Kyrin! Go ahead and see if the road is clear?”

“Yes, mother -” Eshai’s two brothers swept forward on their hyena – flanked by their hunting pack. Veres readied his bow. She watched them go with an envious curiosity – she’d always wanted to be a hunter, but Grandmother never let her, and it never seemed fair. Why did she always have to be the one that stayed in for lessons? Writing, reading, magic – she never got to go explore and see. It just wasn’t fair!

Eshai’d already started working up a good pout when it was interrupted by Papa. He was talking to Mama – “Neesha – I don’t like the look of that.” The gravity in his voice caught her off guard – and the girl started paying more attention, deliberately tucking her tail beneath her so that it wouldn’t be distracting. “This isn’t anywhere close to the ripper grounds.”

“They’re waiting – see the circling? Something is going on up ahead.”

“Would our water last to the northern pass?”

“Not without dropping the cargo – and we need that. You know that – and the Faithless have made that road no safer than any other.”

Papa growled, wrinkling his nose, his tail flicked. Eshai knew that he was considering options – that was his ‘I don’t like this face’, and she’d seen that more often than she wanted to admit. “There’s no help for it then. I’ll let your mother know – you should get your knives. Just in case.”

“Eshai, take the reins – easy up the road now.” The young vulpera did just that, clucking to the Alpaca bouncing along up the stones. She was uneasy. Was it her imagination, or were they uneasy too? They seemed alert, heads turning at any sound. She didn’t like it at all.

They went up and around the broken stones, barely visible under blown sand, cresting a hill; Mama sucked in a breath, Eshai stared.

The valley was at war. Strange humans in blue armor, and great, tall people with hooves and horns like noble goats were burning the caravans in the valley. All of the families were meant to gather, and they had – some had even set up for the gathering, with campfires and awnings already set out, and alpaca pens driven into the loose scrabble below the shelter of hillsides. Through this swept the blue armored ones, with their lion-banners, throwing torches into caravans, killing alpaca, driving vulpera away and into the desert. Already, the red-armored horde were fighting a desperate rearguard on the southern side of the rocks, getting those they could into the lea of a great stone where the archers and warriors in blue could not reach them.

Flaming arrows *thunked* into the side of Eshai’s caravan; the one behind was lashed with ice and the wheels shattered by a great glacial spike that tore through the front axle. From the hills on either side, the goat-people swept down into the three caravans, and then Eshai could make out nothing. THe reins were pulled from her hands – Dawn, her favorite alpaca, reared and spit and lashed out while tangled in the traces. She saw the sword blow that brought the animal down, and just sat staring, uncomprehending.

Her brothers were down ahead of her – they were fighting! Papa shouted something to her left – and then she was snatched off the seat and put down in the sand. “Run!” He shouted in her face – and she did. Scrambling, turning, blindly tearing up the loose rock toward the top of the hill. There was a roar, and a goat-man built like a door blasted past her with a hammer larger than three of her stacked together, capped with a purple-glowing crystal.

It’s pretty she thought, uncomprehending.

She ran, and ran – until breathless and her side ached, out across the blasted rock. There were others around her – she heard them, crying, calling for families, for friends – she turned, too, and called back, eyes blurry. “Kyrin! Papa!” There were six with her – her little sister and her older one, there they were – she gathered them together while still calling.

Yulli clung to her, digging claws deep into Eshai’s fur. “What happened? Why did they attack us? Where’s Mama!”

“Shh. Shh – I don’t know. It’ll be okay. You’ll see. It’ll be okay.” They tucked into the shelter of the last rock, there at the edge of the great sand, under the sun, and Eshai worried. They had no water, and none of the desert-clothing for daytime – and what would happen when the sun set and the temperature dropped? As with all things in the desert, survival came first – and she’d never felt quite so unprepared.

That night was cold, and they huddled together for warmth – and no one truly slept. Come the hour before dawn, when it was easiest to wake? They rose, bleary and unkempt, taking stock of the things they brought with them.. And their water, of which there was far too little. Yulli knew better than to cry – crying in the desert was a grievous waste of water, and they were too water poor for it, and Eshai was proud of her for holding her head up high.

Before the light came, the small group marked a pillar of rock a few hour’s walk from where they were, and struck out toward it.

They lost their first to one of the deep wyrms, erupting out of the sand and carrying him away without a chance to scream. The second, to a tumble down the dunes and a touch of bad luck that left her neck broken. They divided her things among them quickly and moved on.

The Sethrak didn’t come until they reached the great rock, swarming down out of the hills and demanding they surrender, that they lay in the sand – tired, thirsty, exhausted, the three vulpera remaining did just that. There was nothing to fight for, and they had no real weapons, and the Sethrak were rested and warriors, their weapons shining with stormlight in the rising sun.

They gave out water with the chains, just enough to keep the thirst from being overwhelming. The vulpera were marched so, ever north, through the heat of the day where another fell with the delirium and frothing that came with a lack of salt and too much terror. The sethrak killed her, took her tail, and shoved the others on.

They came to the rocks of the old valley, where they were cleaned by other vulpera, fed.. And then bought.

So began a time of tedium – of too little water and too much work, of terror each day and masters known for their cruelty. It was during this time that Eshai lost track of her sister, sold to another master, and lost her ear as punishment for dropping a priceless jug of water when she tripped over her chains in the sand. It grew worse when they discovered she was a spirit-speaker, and they made sure they gave her just enough water to survive – for water is precious to the spirits, and they wished to keep her power at bay.

For two years, Eshai labored there. She faded as the thirst never left – dull and listless she worked.

There came a day when she was sent to the rock fields to the southeast, where the slaves were made to mine the glowing stones that burst from the earth for the Sethrak. It was there that the dullness and pain gave way to rage. She knew then that this was a thing that could no longer be – and so, now trusted and considered nearly worn-away, the Sethrak did not watch her closely. She chanced across a bit of the old blackstone, during a dig – the rock that is harder than any, and can be shaped to be sharp on its edges; she worked with it and another stone when no one paid attention, and soon had a knife.

The overseer came and gathered a group to deliver yet more water to the miners – and she struck. She stabbed, again and again and again, and the Sethrak’s blood sank into the sand, and she discovered the hot joy that was in the killing. It was then that she went into the desert, and then that everything changed.

She met a human in the desert – one of the Blue Lion people who nonetheless took mercy on her, and removed her chains. She called herself Doryn, a Templar, and spoke words of peace that seemed at odds with the fire and pain and war Eshai remembered from the goat people, whom she learned were Draenei. Regardless, when Doryn shared her water, Eshai knew that she owed a great debt, and so led the scout to the hidden springs to the southeast, mostly dry then, and showed her paths through the ruins and the Exiles in exchange. She taught the human how to find the troll-roads, and how to read the waysigns, and the secret of how to travel the sand, all for protection and water, and they discovered that they became friends, however unlikely that truly was.

She left Doryn at the edge of the jungle on the eastern side of the Sand, where the Zandalari roads cut across the great mountains, and the Golden City shone in the distance. There were tears in that parting, promises made that both would soon forget, but Eshai had traded for armor and an axe, had some small amount of coin, and a grim purpose – her people would be free.

The slave markets would burn. The sand would be stained red with the blood of the Sethrak. The fire in her refused to die – it burned hotter and hotter and, though she was young then, and no warrior, Eshai was restless and hot with it, and she carried that flame with her.

Author Aunne
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