The figure came over the dune with the sun at its back, with long hair that blew wild in scintillating effervescent strands. Its silhouette carried something in its right hand, a bludgeon of sorts. Perhaps a length of pipe, or a cricket bat. The wind shifted, and carried with it the unmistakable slither of fine chain mail.

"She's armored," Horace grunted, and rolled a dusty fingertip over the focus knob of his rifle's scope.

"How do you know it's a she?" I asked.

"I don't. Just a guess. Won't matter much if she, or he, is hostile."

We waited. The chemical packs spread across our shoulders and backs provided a sliver of relief from the relentless beat of the desert sun. The dun-colored tarp that covered us rippled in the wind, its corners snapping and clicking their metal eyelets against the pegs that held them down. We'd been there for three sunsets and as many sunrises, had slowly sipped at the dwindling water supply and chewed away the hard and tasteless wayfarer's bread. We hadn't been waiting for this stranger, though.

"Could it be a scout?" I asked.

"If it is it's a stupid one. Coming at us like this, I could put a round between its eyes at this distance with little difficulty." Horace's calm was preternatural. The man had been born to carry the rifle.

"Look, it's coming straight for us." Since cresting the sandy rise, the figure had moved in a straight line toward our position. Within the shadow of the dune, it was easier to make out features.

"Definitely a woman. Or one with a woman's parts," Horace said. "Chain mail, ayuh. Good stuff, too. The bits I can see look polished and mended. There's a lot of blood on her, though. It's covering that club she's carrying and there looks to be a big splash of it across her midsection. Can't tell if it's hers though. Fuck it," he said, and picked up the microphone.

"Wait," I hissed, and grabbed at his arm. But it was too late. He'd made up his mind and there'd be no way for me to overpower the stronger man.

"Attention, stranger!" Horace announced. His voice carried over the sand, amplified by the speaker system he'd set up some three days ago.

The figure stopped with one leg braced forward to prevent slipping down the face of the slope.

"Announce your intent!" Horace's rifle had a directional microphone attached to its barrel. We were reconnaissance after all, and the device had come in useful in the past. We'd hear whatever he was aiming at.

The figure out on the sand raised one arm and made a series of rapid hand signals.

"Roh… toh… me… nah… je," Horace read. "Friend in need."

The figure then raised her three last fingers and bent the ring, a known gesture with only one possible translation given the situation.

"Plague," Horace breathed, and the crack of his rifle shattered the world.

2014.08.13 – 2023.04.12

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