The heat is like a hammer.
Out on the desert, all you can see is red rock and hardpan, basin to range, the kind of desert that seems to stretch up into the sky and fill it, until the whole universe is made of baking rock and dust, and weeds in the wind, and white sun that rolls on forever in roaring silence. The desert is the step-mother of all deserts, standing to the sky for eternity, white and red and hazy, with only the sketchy outlines of the mesas and the mountains in the distance against the pale-dust sky.
The desert is hardpan, and even the feral winds that blow from the East when darkness comes raise only an aggravating harsh dust like scouring powder.
My mule keeled over and died a salt-pan death the hour after Fort Final passed beyond the horizon. I was left only with the desert, and emptiness, and the whistling of sageweeds in the hot wind. I had seen the last abandoned earth-houses a day ago, it's tiny rows of corn long ago gone to white dust and hard white kernels, the stalks folded across the hard red earth like stiffened funeral vestments, grayed with time. The doorbeam had fallen into the stairway, and the darkness within spoke of a momentary respite from the hammer of the sun. But I knew better. Something was in there, a desert creature, a luhi like the Bull Tribes spoke of. I left it.
I had bought the mule in St. Alcha, having had my horse relieved of me in the alkali flats past Broken Creek City. I could see that Amdza was making for the Coach Road, cutting through the old abandoned lands of death, left empty and sad in the advance of the Plague Line. The sparse stands of dying forest were long gone now, replaced by monotonous flat prairie country: endless, desolate fields gone to sage and low shrubs; eerie, deserted estates guarded by brooding, shadowed mansions where dark things squatted in the ashes of long-gone finery; leering, empty shanties where people had either moved along or been moved along; an occassional settler, stubborn by newness or old family tradition from before the Plagues or stubborn by fear, betrayed in the darkness by a single flickering lamplight, and in the day by sullen, inbred, muddy-looking clansfolk toiling in the dying fields. I once saw an ancient ornate ballroom chair, still retaining flakes of gold leaf and scraps of upholstery, sitting and greying under a tree, a remnant of the frantic exodus of the original settlers. It was ugly country, pass-on-by country, and I knew it would get worse the farther I followed Amdza towards the Plague Line, and beyond it.
At Kundzaville, a gruesome ancient town where the skeletons of the plague dead lay in heaps on the collapsed boardwalk, Amdza began to follow the Coach Road, heading northeast.
Soon he had crossed T'ho's Parallel; somewhere along the way I was stopped by F'lorine soldiers in uniforms of tattered elegance, who guided me back onto the Coach Road from where I had strayed; I knew then that I was somewhere near the Nahar Hills, where the F'lorine mine at N'hhe vomited up gold for the Southland.
In the heart of the abandoned territories, somewhere near the hopeless town of Tull (which I instantly disliked and wished strongly to leave), I spoke to a surly F'lorine farmer, who sneered down from his bucka at me and my mule (whose eyes were already beginning to show the bulge of exhaustion from weeks of travel) and spoke of Amdza and his "shoot-up money", half-shaved gold dollars given in exchange for a large waterbag. I thanked him for the tip. He laughed spookily and asked the way to Fort Exhaustion, a collapsing plague ruin which I knew by ill reputation. I left him to his voodoo.
At Fort Final, they warned me, like they do everybody. "Last Chance" establishments were everywhere; I got whiskey and a hot paddy of meat at one of at least nine Last Chance Saloons. Once again, I was told of Amdza's shoot-up money; this time, it was wads of Confederate pounds, their pinkish paper stained a deeper pink by blood, and a small shaving from a bar of F'lorine-stamped gold. I saddled and headed out.
Now I climbed a crusty hill of alkali which loomed over the Coach Road, out here in the mysterious depths of the deadlands. I knew that somewhere along this parallel (known as Kikla's Parallel) to the east, there was the wild city of Warhorse, where the horse gangsters battled it out, and Dead Hand, somewhere nearer to T'ho's Parallel, where Blood F'mai, the Ribcage City Gunman, had his mansion. Bandit cities, outposts of brutal humanity where men showed the cruel wilderness how cruel they could be. No man knew whose wagon it was carved the Coach Road out here, past all reason and all human sanity into the great furnace. It stretched even beyond the Western vagabonds' towns, and not even the savages knew where it went. Somewhere into the twilit ruins of the north, we all supposed.
I shook off my reminiscence. Looking down the slope of the hill, I saw a hollow, separated from the Coach Road by a hard shelf of rock with itching bitterweeds clawing in it's shadow. A delapidated shack lay in the hollow. Once it might have been the small, proud, stubborn dwelling of a lost settler, carving his initials in the world in the most inopportune of places as if to challenge the East itself; now it seemed to lean in upon itself, it's roof sliding off, it's walls caving inward, surrendered, finished. In the shade of it's crazy lean stood the fine horse which I knew to be Amdza's.
As I stepped into the doorway of the house, a step collapsed without a sound, apologetically crushing under my bootheel. Amdza sat in the midst of the tiny shack, his boots up on the sagging table (they were far too clean to have been through that desert, I thought, almost jealous of his careless elegance). Across from him, a skeleton in a tattered overshirt sprawled against the table. In the remnants of the bed (now a pile of slivers and wooden chunks and rotten cloth) lay a second set of bones.
Amdza had a strange expression on his face, a thousand-mile stare which suggested disillusionment and sadness. As I shadowed the doorway, he looked up, abruptly grinning. "Need some water?" he said, his voice full of sardonic humour.
I licked my cracked lips. "This is too far."
"All y'had to do was follow the Coach Road. And a man of yer' talents, no doubt, had more than enough skill to track me," he offered.
"Thank ye, but I do believe I shall take you now," I snarled, leveling my pistol. "Yer' worth too much to let go, but it's too God-d**ned hot to leave you alive."
He didn't seem to react. Instead, he reached out and lifted the skull of his gruesome partner off the table. "Lookit' that. No jawbone. The one in the bed doesn't have one either." He smirked. "Jawbone's a powerful thing. Powerful voodoo, powerful mojo. Sometimes the savages take 'em, to do demon magic with. Most of the time, though, it's... desert things." He sounded disinterested, left this ambiguous.
"Godd**nit, Amdza Ghadolai, if you don't get up..." I grimaced, feeling fury rising. The still air of the hut was oppressive and sweltering, and the color of my vest seemed to reach strangling fingers around my neck.
"This yer' first time this far out? I'm not surprised. We ain't actually so far off from Fort Final, but the desert... it has a way of changing how you feel yer' miles."
"I am gonna' take that @!#$ing sword and cut you up, you bastard!" I roared and rushed toward the chuckling man. From out of nowhere he swung a spar of wood at me, dashing it off my quickly-lifted arm. I smashed through the chair, now absent, and whirled around, saw him leap out the front door of the hut.
"Yer' covered, yer' covered, git' yer' hands up, you bastard, you sonofa&^%$@!" I roared at the top of my lungs, flying down the front steps (now reduced to matchwood). I let fly with two burning shots, using up my pistols (going too fast to reload) in two wild shots at his horse. As the animal leapt onto the Coach Road, Amdza turned in his saddle and shouted out to me:
"If yer' gonna' follow me, head for Nalgafar Springs!"
Before he vanished over the hill, he hurled a leather sack, a waterbag, I realized. It thudded into the dust of the Coach Road, miraculously unharmed.
I stood, alone again. I whipped out my hatchet, and with vitriolic, helpless rage, reduced much of the blameless hut of the dead to a pile of spars and smashed wood.
I spat, and spoke a blasphemy against God, shaking my fist at the sky.
Lost him again.
I hauled up his waterbag, put it over my shoulder. Nalgafar Springs. I knew the way. Why was he headed back south, though? Where was he going?
That was the second time I ever met Amdza Ghadolai.