The air was still, stifling. Though it was still morning, the sun had already heated the rocks so that they were warm to the touch. In the distance,sand trickled between two stone pillars. The sound was eerie.
Mai’iil squinted towards the horizon, one hand shielding his eyes from the light. The sky was a pale blue and the sun painted everything beneath it in a blinding white light. The rocks were white.The scattered crystals of salt were white, reflecting the light, drawing the attention of the nomad despite himself. The bleached bones that littered the ground beneath him were white.
He lifted his scarf, tucking it beneath his turban, leaving only the slightest of sliver through which his long-suffering eyes could see.
He was looking for the hulk. A metal ship that crawled across the desert on metal tracks. It was abandoned, had been for decades, perhaps longer. But is was also large enough to act as a marker to travellers. Sometimes travellers would make camp amid its sprawled carcass, turning it into a settlement, if even for a few fleeting days.
Mai’iil had sojourned there before. The metal rooms heated to unbearable temperatures during the day, but retained the heat long after sunset, making the otherwise frigid nights bearable. All parts of value had long-since been taken, and all that remained was the hollow cadaver, rusted solid, a reminder of the wars that were once fought there over umbra.
The merest thought of umbra caused him to make the warding gestures that had been ingrained into him during childhood lessons. He didn’t even think of it as he ran through the motions.
The place was empty, and the sterile landscape surrounding it betrayed no clues as to whether or not it had seen any recent travellers.
The sun was rising and the shell of the ambulant would provide good shelter from the heat. Mai’iil stopped and made camp there.
He woke to a twilight sky and the rising blood moon. It was a crescent in the sky, waxing, its light still dim.
Mai’iil gathered his things and continued along his route, winding through an outcrop of tall rocks that rose steadily from the dirt.
And that was when he heard it. Something moving to the north, below the ridge he was cutting across. He knew straight away what it was.
He fell to his chest and crawled forward, hearing the sounds of its movements in the sand.
Where did it come from so suddenly, he thought?
He rolled onto his back and removed a long-barrelled single-shot rifle from his bag. He checked it quickly, trying desperately to be quiet. It was loaded.
He removed the bag from his back and rolled back onto his chest and crawled forwards with the rifle held in his forearms.
He heard it moving again.
The movements were slow, but not methodical. Lumbering. He was amazed that such a beast had made it so far east from the cloning ateliers in Venthir. It was not unknown, but still, what could have possessed it to have taken the 800-mile journey through sun-parched desert?
He crawled through the rocks and risked peering down the crest of the hill to the source of the sounds.
Though he knew what he’d find there, he had no idea quite what it would be. Mkisihs were born of the empire’s dabblings into the mutagenic properties of the umbra that was pumped and mines across its territories. Bred in vats, no two were alike, but they were in many ways the fierceness of nature given form through mortal meddlin. Were they natural? No more-so than the animals mutated from exposure to the Atramenta. Regardless, they were beings of the material realm that had never asked for life, much like all other life.
This example had a greyish hide covered in patches of hardened skin, almost like a shell. It had five limbs, two of which were atrophied and misshapen. One of the others was large and strong and it walked with an odd gait, using the arm as a third leg. Its face, if such it could be called, was distended, its cranium bulging, with throbbing dark veins and wisps of thin hair. It had one eye, and in the place of the other was a gaping sore-filled wound.
Mai’iil felt disgust and pity in equal measure, but they were insignificant to the sense of awe that overcame him. The mkisih was the size of an oghur - probably 8-ft. tall and though emaciated and below the 800-lbs. that most oghurs would commonly reach, it remained an impressive being.
The mkisih stopped and sniffed the air and turned to the north, rising temporarily to its full height on its hind legs.
There was a gunshot and a puff of smoke in the distance.
Not me. Thought Mai’iil. He stood and saw the mkisih recoil from the impact of the shot. It grunted and fell back onto 3 legs and began running away from the source of the attacker - towards him!
Mai’iil ran away as the mkisih approached him.
But it was unnecessary. A second later another shot fired and the creature fell to the ground, silent.
Mai’iil turned and saw the mkisih lying there, its arms struggling to move, its chest rising and falling in laboured breaths. The 2nd bullet had hit it in its back and one through its chest. Dark blood faw pulsing from the wound into the sand.
Hai’iil sat on his haunches and looked towards the source of the gunshot. He could just about make out a few figures coming towards him in the distance. He wasn’t sure if he’d seen them yet, but had no intention of finding out.
He slid away and took cover behind the largest stone pillars he could find. Then he waited.
“Is it dead,” said a male voice in the imperial tongue.
“Bloody well should be. That was a direct hit from an elephant gun,” came another voice. The accent was familiar, probably Sarastoran.
“This is an mkisih. I’ve seen these brutes survive stepping on a mine. Without their legs, of course,” laughed the first man. “Looks dead to me.”
“Careful Serend, don’t get too close.”
“Pah! I didn;t come here for my trophy to stop -”
His words were cut short. There was a series of noises that Mai’iil could not make out. A scuffle. The mkisih was up. Men screaming. A pistol shot. Another. The crunch of bone.
Then half the body of a man landing with thud on the ground near Mai’iil. He jumped but remained silent.
Mai’iil looked out from behind the rock. One of the men - a white skinned man. Trophy hunter from the empire, no doubt. Was pasted to the ground, a large part of his body destroyed, his entire chest caved in.
The other had been ripped in two, the lower half of his body held in the hand of the mkisih.
It fell to the floor again, dropping the body. It brought an atrophied hand up to its chest and mouthed, groaning.
Mai’iil emerged fully from his cover. The mkisih saw him but made no sign of acknowledgement. Its eyes were closed more than open now and blood was pouring not only from the rife wound in its chest, but from two pistol wounds - one in its neck and the other its arm.
Mai’iil moved around the ailing beast and stopped in front of it, lowering his rifle.
The mkisih saw him and nodded its head.
Is it possible, thought Mai’iil. Can it know what I am about to do? Can its diminutive brain comprehend the meaning of mercy?
He lifted the rifle and aimed at the mkisih’s head.
It closed its eyes one last time.
Mai’iil slung the weapon behind his back and fell to his knees, eyes closed.
“To Elyden I send the. Noble creature. You asked not to be brought misshapen into this world, but asked for death to end what pain the hubris of the empire has caused you. To Elyden I send the. May your death bring you peace.”