He closed his eyes and still the orange glow of the headlamps shone like a sun in his mind. He could feel their radiated warmth on his face as the light silhouetted the surfaces of the shuttle van; showing off the peeling paint and each attached armour piece. When he opened his eyes again, nervous flashes of a muddy colour searched around the van to inspect the other passengers though more often than not he had to push his matted hair to one side. The black locks blocked his view just as well as the brown highlights.
This reddish tinge was the only source of light for miles on the dusty landscape. The twinkling stars hung: their dim light could not reach the ground. The next moon wouldn't rise for four hours or so and the sun's harsh gaze had gone leaving a lasting burn that could still be felt on his skin. Hollow eyes stared forward onto the meter or so of light that lit up the sand, with the occasional rock or patch of grass to accompany it. All seven of the shuttles passengers were quiet, rocking in time to the rhythmic sliding and rumble of the van. The smell of dry sweat and motor oil was pungent but distracted the mind from unsightly thoughts. They all stared out front at what little they could see of the outside. As all side windows and holes had been blocked up staring forward was the only option. Only a few of the passengers knew what little protection their chosen transport provided when as others clutched at seatbelts to provide some peace of mind.
Donovan's seat had no seatbelt or even headrest to speak of. His seat was in fact a chair strapped in place with a blanket over it. He pushed thoughts of what happened to the original seat and its owner out of his head. Shuffling in his seat- chair- he tried for only a third time now to push back part of the wooden frame which had broken and stuck into his back. Again it was another failed attempt. Changing his focus, he decided to rearrange his baggage for the umpteenth time. The bag had been sitting at his feet and swung over one shoulder. It was moderately sized and made of what could have been brown cotton. His scratchy, leathered hands fumbled at the ever loosening buckles. His whole life fitted in the bag now. It was hard for Donovan to believe. Yet most people down here had very few possessions.
One mousy boy near the front of the van didn't seem to have much with him at all; no bags, no cloak, not even shoes. The little thing shivered and shuddered in the front seat. He, like almost everyone else in the van, had the luxury of sitting alone. And he, like everyone else, had been told to stay silent for fear of attracting the things outside. Occasionally the boy seemed to ask the driver questions to which he got one or two word replies. The only other noise from the splutter of the engine was two sister quietly chattering to each other at the back of the shuttle. Another group was a family of three; definitely a mother but then father and son look so alike it was hard to tell which was which. Among the strange collection of travelers was what looked like one of the Kai- the fire watchers that protect the big cities and the Sah'méra, or Sand people. With her face wrap on, he figured it was a her, she was hard to distinguish but that was part of the masks appeal, along with protecting the wearing face from the worst of the heat. But it was highly unusual for the Kai to move or even change cities. Donovan knew little about the Kai and they ways but thought it was dishonourable to break the strict self imposed rules. Compared to everyone else she seemed almost calm sitting in the seat closest to the door. Maybe she young enough to think she would be safe from the outside, but a Kai should know better. Looking back around and finally getting fedup of his broken chair, he decided to move.
With his decision made Donovan carefully made his was over to the boy and covered him with his shawl. The little thing shrunk and pushed away, not understanding the warmth was an act of compassion rather than something malicious. Now that Donovan was closer he could see that it was in fact a young girl of maybe 11 or 13. Her blond hair was thick, dirty and clearly hacked off at version points creating the effect of a distressed piece of furniture. She looked at him with wild green eyes which made Donovan freeze. So much pain could be seen in those eyes and it looked, for a moment, like she was going to cry. But then she sat straight, pull the shawl fully around her and muttered something like "fire protect you". She seemed angry in acceptance of his shawl and he wondered if he was ever getting it back.
With less layers on him Donovan felt cold. Rubbing his hands together he created a cup of warmth with his hands and felt the scratchy, sady lines on his face. He was tired. It had taken him twelve days to find a transport bus out of 'Khinerart' as none of the official vehicles were around and would take three months to arrived. His chosen transport still cost him far too much but still only a fraction of the 'safer' cars. It would get him to the capital in one night.
"What's your name" The little girl whispered beside him interrupting all of Donovan's thoughts. He looked down to his left and saw she was staring straight at him.
"Donovan" He said, amazed. "Donovan of house Sah'méra". He had always felt proud using his full title but now it seemed empty and meaningless. Her eyes, somehow grew two sizes and she spluttered:
"Of house… Wow, are you a lord?" with this question all her fear seemed to flow away now thrown into a new world of wonder.
"No, no" He replied shaking his head. "I'm the son of a lord. But just between you and me" He leaned in, her anticipation palpable "it's actually quite hard to become a lord."
"I knew it" The girl said out loud making some of the passengers stare frantically at her. "Sorry" she said meekly. Returning to the conversation she looked back at Donovan and said, quietly: "So are you like prince of the people? Where did you come from? Why are you down here? Why are you in this bus if you can fly?" Her sudden willingness to talk through Donovan off guard a little but it was pleasant to finally speak to someone who still kept the old world views of the sky islands.
"Hey" he stopped her by carefully putting his hand over her mouth and asked "I can only answer one question at a time, what would you like to know first?" He removed her and and she sant silent. Thought for a moment then, with a glint in her eye she asked
"Why are you in this bus if you can fly?" This remark made Donovan chuckle to himself.
"I can't fly, ships can fly but I cannot." She seemed displeased with the answer but then carried on.
"Why are you down here? Did you fall? Or wanted a break from the sky?" She asked with genuine curiosity. Donovan paused, he realised that in all of the twelve days he had been down he never really thought about what had happened on his last day in 'Torus, city of light'. He took a deep breath and rubbed one eye. "I'm sorry if i asked too many questions" the girl said seeming to start to get upset. "I didn't mean.." He cut her off
"No it's fine" he said "I did something that some people think is bad and now i'm trying to go to the capital of… down here" After a pause he smiled at her as he realised she was trying to shrink away again. They both looked away and sat in silence for a moment. The van continued to rumble on in the background. They were picking up speed, perhaps on better roads.
"What are you gonna do when we get to the big city?" she said at last breaking the silence. Donovan was thankful she did.
"Well, I want to start a farm... or something" he said not truly wanting to disclose his plans to this tiny girl. "I think it could be fun!" she then leaned in this time and said:
"Do you have dirt? Is that what you did? stole dirt?" she enquired quietly.
"It's my dirt by right and I think it should be shared" He smiled almost maniacally at her but she did not move away. "How about you-" Donovan asked but he was cut off by the Kai girl who said just loud enough for all to hear.
"You need to be quiet" Her accent was thick, clearly not from these parts but the authority was there. Another random passenger joined the conversation and said
"He's talking quiety, it will be fine, get off his back deserter." The Kai girl seemed taken aback. "We can see you don't have your staff, so you're no longer a proper Kai, so leave them alone."
"Be quiet" The Kai girl whispered viciously again. "We are no longer alone. A beast is watching us."
"Oh, this is bird crap" The mother with the two men said, still hard to tell which was father and which son. She looked like she was about to start something when:
"Shes right" The van driver said. Everyone froze. "There are markings on the ground." and with the the warmth of the orangey glow had vanished and it took a moment for Donovan's eyes to readjust. It was nearly pitch black outside and Donovan could barely make anything out. He saw what he thought was the shape of the Kai girl move towards the front of the van, past him and the girl to then be next to the driver. He felt a little arm wrap around his own and knew it was the little girl. He couldn't tell if it was him shuddering or her.
"Speed up" the Kai whispered quickly so only the driver and the two at the front could hear.
The van was put up a gear and the engine clearly wasn't happy. Strange creaking noises could he heard all over the van and it struggled to stay in one piece. The little girl held on tight and the shuttle rattled through the night, everyone on the edge of their seat. As his eyes adjusted Donovan could just about make out the mountain ridge ahead and see where the road lead on. They will still far way from the city as it was the other side of the cliffs. Then part of what he thought was mountain moved and slid out of sight.
There was a bang and part of the rear back section of the van began to spark with a small fire starting over what must have been the engine. With effortless speed the Kai girl moved to the back section and in one movement of her arm fanned out the flames. The van began to slow down and wobbled around the road which through some of the passengers from side to side. Donovan and the girl held on tight managing to stay in their seats. He wrapped the strap of his bag around his leg. He was not letting that go. Then, outside the van, was then a low rumble which turned into a trill shriek. Donovan guess the sound was still some way away but it echoed and reverberated across the sand. It was hard to make out exactly where it was. The little girl buried her head in Donovan's arm. As the bus began to slow down Donovan could see the damage the engine had made. There was a hole in the back right of the van now, not far from where his other seat had been. With his eyes fully adjusted he looked at the Kai girl for help but she had her eyes closed and was muttering something under her breath. She stood remarkably still on the slowly crashing van. A small patch on Donovan's arm began to feel wet and he realised the little girl was crying. He wrapped his free arm around her and held her tight as he could. He watched in horror as what looked like four giant legs stamped menacingly towards the van. As it got closer the ground rumbled with each step. The paw like feet where the same size as the van. As the beast drew closer a young man, one of the passengers, run to door. No one stopped him. He flung himself out of the vehicle and it's limited protection and tried to make his way to the nearest sand dune. On his fifth step a huge beek loomed into view and snapped up the scampering man. After an unsettling crunch there was total silence. Donovan could hear the sound of the sand forcefully moving under the gigantic monsters feet as it moved closer. He could feel tears rolling down his cheeks now as he realised there was no way out. The sour taste of his last meal was still in his mouth as he held onto the little girl. He didn't even know her name.