Shrai, a young priest, seeks to avert a terrible tragedy in his homeland before nature takes its vengeance on his village.
Shrai crouched in the shadow of the jagged outcropping. The great slab of crimson rock jutted out over the sand, providing some measure of relief for anyone wandering the dunes. Overhead, a raptor circled, its iridescent tail sparkling in the orange sky. The sun, in the middle of the day, took up half the sky, searing the ground below, and it was dangerous to be exposed to its glare for too long; even Shrai's skin, evolved over centuries to reflect light and heat back into the environment, began to burn after more than a few hours in the heat. And so Shrai crouched on his heels, rocking slowly, waiting for cooldown.
Without haste, Shrai reached around his naked torso to the pouch on his back. Twisting it around and holding it to his lips, he squeezed a mouthful of the viridian liquid into his mouth. He swished it around tenderly, then swallowed. The bitter juice burned going down, made his insides contract violently around his heart. He did not vomit; there was nothing to give up. One of the tenets of the Dust Ritual was a four-day fast, and Shrai was glad now that he had abstained. The juice settled in his stomach, and he wedged his mouth and eyes shut while the elixir did its work.
Three hours had passed. Shrai reopened his eyes to see a shrinking sun ahead of him, the great orange sphere sinking towards the horizon. Soon, the Rage would appear. Soon, Shrai would have to prove himself once more.
Rising from his rest, Shrai straightened up under the crag, stretching his body, preparing for battle. Red, brown, and gold tattoos covered his shining body, depicting the past, the present, and wishes for the future. All these, in the elegant, artistic script of his people. Each one, a memory of pain and power.
He walked out from the shade, squinting into the dying sun. With a sudden flex of his legs, Shrai burst into the air, shooting up and above the crag. Controlling his descent carefully, he alighted on the very tip of the rock. While keeping a close eye on the desert in front of him, he removed his mal'yakh from its case. It was a fine specimen of weaponry, crafted by his sister for his priesthood rites. The cured cactus shone dull red, the wicked spikes glinting. It was a weapon with one purpose. He hefted it, examining a spike that he had recently replaced. Hopefully it would hold up during-
Shrai stiffened. Then he addressed the dusty air.
Sssooo...haaaaaave you cooooooome to...ssssssss...killlllllllllllllllllllllll me?
"You know that I must."
Shrai listened to the deep, rattling voice on the wind, expecting anger and violence, as he had experienced with the Dust Rages before. But this one was different.
Sssssssss...yesssssss...I knoooooooow of your pact...with the Rrrrrrrrrrain Raaaaage...it mussssssst be done....
Shrai was startled.
"You will not fight?"
A dry chuckle issued from the wind.
Ooooooohhhh...I will do my bessssssst to killllllllllll you...but noooooot...with anger in my hearrrrrrrrt....
Shrai simply nodded.
"Then let us duel, Dust Rage."
The desert around Shrai exploded. The sand and dirt, whipped into a frenzy by the power of the Rage, slowly coalesced on one spot. It looked like a dust devil...but much larger. A pair of glittering black eyes appeared on the front of the vortex, and a pulsing black heart beat in the center. Shrai stared it down for a heartbeat.
And then he attacked.
With another burst of energy, Shrai leaped into the sky, brandishing his mal'yakh above him, screeching a war cry. He had enough of the green cactus in his system to last him five minutes. Maybe less. He had to make it count. Juicing his arms, he swung the mal'yakh directly at the cyclone's heart. A ripple of green energy raced down his arms, flaring when it reached the heart of the club. The spikes sucked up the green light, glowing wickedly.
The spikes redirected the energy into 9 focused beams of pure power. The sudden onslaught of viridian beams slashed through the sand and dust around the Rage's heart, severing the Rage's hold on its surroundings. The sand, cut off from the power, fell to the ground in a dusty shower. Shrai smiled.
He cut off the beams, focusing the power instead in the heart of his mal'yakh. The ground rushed up to meet him, and he slammed the club down. The sand blasted up around him as a pillar of green light erupted from the contact, searing the air and rushing towards the Rage's heart.
But the Rage wasn't there.
Shrai pulled his limbs around him, but he was too late. A blast of hot wind rushed over him, ripping his arms and legs away from his chest, flinging him up into the air. Gravel rushed around him like angry hornets, gouging deep furrows in his skin. Blood ran freely down his body, into his eyes. Stinging. Through the haze and burning, he could see the vortex beneath him, the heart pulsing, sucking him in for the kill.
Shrai knew how Dust Rages killed. They ripped you apart. It wasn't pretty.
Mustering his strength, he brought the mal'yakh to bear, focusing all of the juice into one flare. This was a step below suicide. As the wind grew stronger, the voice reentered his head.
Sssssssss...now let meeeeeee sssssssshow you...our paaaaaaaaain...our misssssssery...and your follyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy....
The pulsing black heart appeared before Shrai's eyes, sucking him in, his head and shoulders already gone....
A flurry of images, sounds, and smells assaulted his brain. Pain...unimaginable pain...and a sense of loss...loss of comrades and family...to beings too powerful to exist....
Shrai tensed his arms.
He released all of the built up power in his mal'yakh, slamming it into the Rage's heart. There was a brief moment of silence as the explosion blew out Shrai's hearing. Then he was rocketed backwards, hurtling across the sand, bleeding freely. The tattered remnants of the Rage's heart floated down from the sky, like voids in the orange stretch.
Shrai stood. And, for the first time in his existence, for the one thing he had never expected, he wept.