Palan and Andrea walked along the uneven road with a trail of sticks left behind them. There were only three scorpion kebabs left in the younger sibling’s hands. She nibbled off a scorpion claw while speaking, “Tell me the story.”
Palan grunted. “That man’s name is Bogar. According to him, he was running through the desert, being chased by a herd of wildebeests when he saw a portal appear in the air next to him. He jumped inside the portal, figuring that it would be better than being trampled to death.”
“The portals you throw things in to get stones?”
“Yes,” Palan said and nodded, “those. He’s the only person I know who claims to have returned after falling inside one of them that actually has some sort of proof, the glowing stone. Of course, he could be lying and found it somewhere else. He said he was teleported to another world where the people he met were like children. They didn’t have any sins and they didn’t kill each other. Everyone worked together to help each other, even perfect strangers. He called them angels.”
“What? No way.”
“Exactly. That’s why I said he was a liar. It’s impossible for a place like that to exist.”
“Good thing I didn’t give him my scorpion,” Andrea said and finished her last kebab. Her ears twitched and a scream rang through the air. More screams followed along with curses and shouts.
“The boss is probably filtering the group now,” Palan said as the two continued towards the gate. Palan saw the gatekeeper in the distance, slamming two men into the ground while holding them by their necks. “Let’s wait a bit.”
Andrea nodded and the two sat on the side of the road, waiting for the screams to end. She turned towards Palan. “Was that the end of the story?”
Palan raised an eyebrow. “You still want to hear it, knowing it’s a lie?”
Andrea frowned. “Well, how did he get back?”
“An angel opened a portal by drawing a picture on the floor and sent him back. He said that the portals were opened by the angels in the first place.”
“There is no reason. He’s a liar,” Palan said and looked towards the gate. “Even if he was telling the truth, he’s not exactly the smartest person around.” Andrea nodded and stared up at the moon. Palan’s nose crinkled and he frowned.
“I smell something strange,” Palan said and stood up. He leaned his head back and wind rushed into his nose as he inhaled. “It’s coming towards us.” Andrea stood next to him and cupped her hands over her ears.
“I don’t hear anything,” Andrea said and tilted her head. “How far away is it?”
“Very far,” Palan said and frowned. “If you stood on that wall and looked for it, you wouldn’t be able to see it. It’s moving extremely fast; maybe it’s flying?” He grabbed Andrea’s hand and pulled her towards the gate.
The gatekeeper sat on the ground, staring at a group of hunched over individuals. The winged-man was crouching over a man’s body, biting his neck. He glanced upwards when the gate creaked open and Palan walked out with Andrea. He released the body and frowned. “You can’t have any.”
“Don’t want,” Palan said and shook his head as Andrea’s stomach gurgled. He raised the leather sack by his waist. “We got what we came for.”
The winged-man grunted and resumed snacking. Andrea pouted as she walked past the corpses decorating the ground while holding Palan’s hand. After they were out of earshot, Andrea asked, “You’re not going to tell them?”
“No need,” Palan said. “I was thinking of migrating more to the south. The boss and I haven’t been on good terms recently; it’s about time to find a new town.”
“Oh,” Andrea said and nodded. “Let’s go somewhere with lots of water. Like that underground cave from before.”
Palan sighed. “It would be nice if we could find someplace like that again,” he said and frowned, “stupid Dad.” The two climbed up the hill that overlooked the town. Palan stopped and turned around once they reached the peak. A bird’s shadow appeared in front of the moon, gradually growing larger.
“That’s the thing,” Palan said and pointed at the growing shadow. His nose wrinkled as he unsheathed his dagger. “It smells like death.” As the bird flew closer, its full size could be seen. Its wingspan was wider than the town and its silhouette blocked out the bottom half of the moon. Its body was completely black, including its eyes. Dark specks fell from its feathers onto the ground below, which made the night seem like it was snowing.
“It’s huge,” Andrea said and stared at it with sparkling eyes. A line of drool leaked from her mouth. “I wonder what it tastes like.”
Shouts echoed through the area as the townspeople noticed the oncoming bird. Palan dropped his dagger and grabbed Andrea, shielding her with his body while dropping to the ground. “Let’s hope it doesn’t notice us,” he said as the bird passed over the town and headed towards them. The flapping of its wings caused the sand around them to swirl around and knocked Palan’s dagger partially down the hill as it passed overhead, completely ignoring the pair of siblings.
Andrea raised her head and watched as the bird shrank before disappearing in the distance, while Palan dashed down the hill to retrieve his dagger. A mote of black light drifted down from the sky in front of Andrea’s face. She tilted her head and extended her palm.
“What’s this?” she asked as the speck of darkness landed on her hand. It disappeared when it made contact. Her hand turned blue and she let out a scream as her hand throbbed. The bones in her palm wriggled and tiny white protrusions grew out of her skin.
Palan ran back up the hill and grabbed Andrea’s shoulder, whirling her around to face him. His eyes widened when he saw the needle-like bones sticking out of her palm.
“It hurts,” Andrea said with a whimper and looked at Palan’s face. Tears formed in her eyes. She sniffed. “I’m going to die, aren’t I?”
“No,” Palan said and gritted his teeth. A bloody tooth fell out of his mouth and dropped to the ground. “I won’t let you. You’re not allowed to die without my permission!” He unstrapped the tent from his back and picked Andrea up, placing her on his back. She struggled, but sweat formed on her brow and she stopped resisting. Palan tied her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist.
“You’ll get sick too,” Andrea mumbled next to his ear. Tears fell from her face and landed on his collarbone.
“There’s a town in the east,” Palan said as he double checked the leather knots holding her in place. “I’ve heard that a shaman lives there. He can cure you.” Palan turned his head towards Andrea, but saw that her eyes were closed and her breathing was ragged.
“I won’t let something as weak as a plague take you from me,” Palan said and narrowed his eyes. He sprinted down the hill, leaving the discarded tent behind.