The Desert Queen

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The sand rippled like a rock skipping across water as the wind stirred. As if the sun's painful rays were not punishment enough, heat rose from the ground itself to envelop the caravan battling through the unforgiving desert.

War had ravaged their home, leaving the residents little choice but to flee their Babylonian empire, leaving it in the hands of the reapers. Someday, perhaps, they could return, but the priority was to save those who could escape.

Towards the head of the procession stood a man touched by fire. His grief-filled eyes surveyed the long line of citizens trudging through the bitter sand. "Lord Krats," one called, and the man turned to regard a creature who at first glance seemed human but held the angular facial features of a wolf.

"What is it, Locke?" Lord Krats replied.

Locke inclined his head slightly. "Her Majesty requests a word."

With a barely suppressed eyeroll and groan, Lord Krats began descending the dune, passing dozens of battle-weary bodies. Some afforded the tired Lord a grateful smile, but more held nothing but bitter glares. He sighed quietly, lacking the energy to lock into verbal battle to defend his actions. Grief could do awful things.

Roughly midway along the caravan was a series of large four-legged muscly creatures with the heads and manes of horses and leathery skin. The leviathans were capable of making the treacherous journey across the desert due to how scarcely they needed water. Of course, when they did drink, especially after such a long journey, the creatures could practically empty the water reserves. Perched atop the first one was a litter made of light, airy, mesh fabric to protect the inhabitants from the sun and wind.

A tap from the driver's guiding rod guided the leviathan out of the procession. The giant creature dropped to its front knee, and the driver tossed a rope ladder along the side to allow Lord Krats to ascend. As the fiery lord climbed, he tried to prepare himself for the sight that would soon greet him.

When he reached the top, he nodded at the driver who was also the queen's consort. "How is she?" Lord Krats inquired.

The driver rubbed at the crest on his shoulder, face drawn in concern. Yet a fierce pride shone out from beneath his visor. "She's a fighter, sir," came the gruff reply.

Lord Krats clasped a hand on the other man's shoulder but said nothing more. Despite his own sense of loss, he couldn't begin to understand the pain. He had been away from the city when the raid on Babylon began, and, though he returned as quickly as he could, Lord Krats had nearly been too late to help anyone. With a gulp, he steeled himself and pulled back the opening of the litter.

A resounding growl met his ears immediately. A mid-size bobcat flicked his tail dangerously, ears flattened against his head. "You," he growled at the intruding lord.

The Babylonian queen, despite the blood-soaked bandages that even her gown couldn't cover, was still rapturous. Her dark hair fell from its pins, making her seem younger than her years. She winced as she tried to straighten her posture, and Lord Krats pretended not to notice. Guilt coursed through him at the sight of the queen's state. He pushed it down, knowing it wouldn't be helpful for the conversation at hand.

Averting his eyes, he said, "You summoned me, Your Majesty?"

She rested a hand on the bobcat's powerful shoulders to signal to the protective creature that he needn't attack. Clearing her throat, the queen attempted to capture some of her usual authority. "I need to know. How is everyone?"

Lord Krats ran a hand through his hair. He'd been expecting this question, but he still didn't like the answer that he would have to give. The queen had been unconscious for the better part of two suns, but that wasn't nearly enough time to quell the despair in his own heart after the attacks. "They are weary and hungry. The thirst will take us soon if we don't find sanctuary."

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