And so it was that in the four hundred thirty-first year of the Septim Era the Imperial Legion saw fit to capture the bandit king of the Alik’r Desert. Captain Desalius had heard the stories, most of them, anyway. His given name was Cyrus, after Cyrus the Restless, but all the desert folk and a few of the city-dwelling redguards called him Lobusu-alik’r
, in the Yokudan tongue. Desalius didn’t know exactly how it translated into his own speech—indeed, it was unlikely that an exact translation existed—but he knew that it meant something like Wolf of the Eastern Sands, and perhaps more. The local merchant caravans simply called the fellow the Alik’r Raider.
For two and one-half years the Alik’r Raider had preyed upon the merchant caravans of western Hammerfell. At first he had struck only at night, his small cadre of bandits sweeping through merchant encampments as they rested along the road from Gilane to Hegathe. Seldom had anyone been killed or even injured in the raids, but the merchants paid dearly in lost gold, weapons, armor, and the more mundane trade goods. In recent months the raiding parties had grown larger and raids subsequently bolder—day or night, mercenary escort or not, the merchant caravans were besieged. Most surrendered right away. The few that fought never fought for long.
Desalius well remembered the last raid. Cyrus and his band, perhaps thirty strong, ambushed a party of diamond merchants where the road nearly overhangs Hunding Bay. The merchants did not resist, but when they reported the raid in Gilane the city guard endeavored to track the Wolf of the Eastern Sands.
It was a disaster.
That Cyrus’s trail vanished, obliterated by the wind, amidst the dune sea that is the southeast Alik’r was bad enough. This was typical and to be expected—no one had ever managed to track Cyrus and his band for very long.
But in the absence of the city guard, Gilane was left undefended. And somehow, Cyrus had known.
Desalius had seen it himself. He had just arrived in Gilane then, in the company of the new ambassador, a distant cousin of the countess of Anvil. They were riding outside the city gates—talking about the Wolf of the Eastern Sands, as fate would have it—when the raiders struck.
It was breathtaking. The bandits swept in from the desert like the high summer thunderheads, full of sound and fury and light. They were dressed in the old Yoku style of the Alik’r nomads, red flowing robes billowing in the wind, shouting, “Lobusu-alik’r et van-ehka
! Cyrus is come!” over the thunder of their horses.
As they reached the stables the body of raiders split, one group seizing away the many horses kept by the merchants, another riding for the city gates. At the head of this second mass of riders was Cyrus. It had to be—he was riding a huge white stallion and wearing flowing red-orange robes the color of the Alik’r sand, tangled black hair blowing in the wind, a crescent-curved steel saber in hand, glowing like fire in the afternoon sun.
The bandits forced open the gates and the city was madness.
* * *
It was an unenviable mission. Queen Ako’r-Isthi of Gilane was apoplectic. Cyrus and his bandits had forced their way into the castle, slew her honor guard, and taken her father’s sword from her own hand. King Huttu of Hegathe was equally fed-up with the raiding. Even mighty Sentinel, whose roads were seldom troubled even by the Wolf of the Eastern Sands, was offering 5,000 drakes in blood money. Hammerfell’s western shore was in agreement: Cyrus must die.
That was how Captain Calaxes Desalius, Knight Errant in the Legion, found himself riding into the desert with a corps of twenty men, plus a redguard tracker of some local renown. They made for an odd expedition, and Desalius knew it. He knew that the soldiers, Colovian heartlanders all, resented his own Nibenese upbringing. He also knew that, whatever resentment might exist between soldiers and commander, it would pale in comparison with that of the tracker toward the soldiers. He was a weathered old fellow who called himself Ansu-haka; he’d spent most of his life in the desert, only to retire in the city. He would bear watching.
They rode in full steel plate on their black-brown legion horses, baking in the heat of the sun, save for the tracker who wore traditional robes of thin tan cloth and walked ahead leading a paint horse and peering down at the sand.
The expedition was already ten miles into the sea of dunes and Desalius didn’t think that he had seen any sign from the bandits for at least seven of those miles, but evidently the old redguard saw or knew something and so their pace had not slowed much. That was good; already he could see where the sand abutted the rocky badlands where, by rumor and legend, Cyrus was said to make his home. Desalius wanted to reach that solid ground by nightfall if possible, as the dunes would make for poor camping.
One of the soldiers, a fellow from Kvatch, asked the old redguard about Cyrus.
“Cyrus, he always doing. He’s like Cyrus of old, but maybe he sees more than old Cyrus, you know? He sits up in the rocks and he sees the world.”
Desalius listened to the old man talk and felt vaguely uneasy. He had studied the revolt of Stros M’kai at the University of Gwylim and knew much about Cyrus the Restless and his victory over Lord Richton and, by extension, Tiber Septim. Cyrus was not a name given idly, and he could not help but note the mythopoetic significance of his own role in tracking down the Wolf of the Eastern Sands.
He shook his head—poisonous thinking. To get out of his skull Desalius asked the tracker about the chances of reaching solid rock by sundown.
The old raga
shook his head. “Eight miles away, boss. No sir, won’t reach them rocks until morning.”
The tracker was good as his word; black night descended and the expedition was still four miles short of the rocks. Desalius considered continuing the march through the night, but the moons had not yet peeked over the horizon and without them the desert was dark. With little alternative, they set up a simple camp in the protective hollow between a pair of fifty-foot dunes. There they laid bedrolls between patches of scrub—aloe, bitterbrush, and snakeweed—and built a tiny cooking fire where they roasted venison and boar meat.
They were already down to only enough water for another day’s travel, but the Ansu-haka said that there was a spring atop the first ridge in the rocky hinterlands to the northwest, a place they would reach before noon the next day. How far beyond that was Cyrus’s hiding place?
“Can’t say, boss. Cyrus, they say he lives in the heart of the Alik’r.”
Further prodding revealed nothing more, so Desalius let it be. He knew that the old man knew more than he was letting on, and suspected that he might even be a confederate of the Wolf, but that would likely be true of anyone who knew the Alik’r. There nothing that could be done save to keep a sentry at all times, and keep an eye on the redguard.
* * *
The night was quiet and then it was not. Desalius woke up, heart pounding, and then the shouting and the pounding of horses’ hooves ripped the night apart. He staggered up from rest clutching his steel and was nearly run down by a bandit on a bay horse. The raiders were in camp, were everywhere. All the soldiers were up now with their weapons and the sentry, a young highland lad with some nord blood, was bellowing something about the horses. The horses
. The bandits were taking the horses.
Desalius ran over to the scrub ironwood tree where his own horse was picketed and found it gone, as all the others. He spat and swore in disgust, and shouted.“CYRUS!”
And it was then that he saw the great white horse atop the dune, Cyrus raising his purloined sword into the moonlight and smiling. The bandit king shouted—“van-i-khamos!
”—and the raga
horde melted into the night.
The recriminations began. Desalius heard the whispers. Only one mattered.We can’t keep going, can we
Desalius kept his gaze on the northwest, the badlands where Cyrus had disappeared. Where he lived. The heart of the Alik’r.
“Move out. Back to Gilane. Without me. I’ll take Cyrus myself.”
* * *
“It’s good to see you boss. Figured you’d be coming.” the old tracker greeted Desalius as he staggered up to the spring in the rocks.
“And I figured you’d be here,” Desalius spat through clenched teeth. “Where’s Cyrus?”
They walked, Desalius and the redguard. After almost twenty miles of wading through sand, trekking the bare stone of the badlands—what Ansu-haka, the tracker, called the mal-i-pah do lobo
—was easy, and by nightfall Desalius was lost, twenty miles in, with no concept of which way was what. The mal-i-pah
was a maze and he was in the center. The redguard and the cyrodiil scrambled to the ridge top, up what could only be charitably called a trail, and Desalius knew that they had arrived.
Cyrus stood at the other end of the small plateau, robes flowing like water in the wind, gazing over his demesne.
Ansu-haka called out to Cyrus, softly, and the bandit king turned, slowly, and looked over Desalius with green eyes that burned in the dim light. The eyes gleamed, but the face was grave. Cyrus gestured to the imperial’s sword and Desalius understood, had always understood that it would come down to this.
Eternal foes in mortal guise, rebel and king faced each other across a divide of twenty feet. Desalius was sweating and he thought it odd because the night air was blissfully cool after the heat of day, when he had left all armor but his shield by the spring because the steel was killing him in the sun. But now it was cool and the star-night was all black and white and gray like a sketch in charcoal and Desalius was sweating red blood, or so he thought.
Cyrus drew the jeweled saber of Gilane and solemnly intoned, “Prepare to Make Way
Desalius was tired but ready. Cyrus wielded his blade like one from Akavir, not charging but through space but just… moving
. No action, just ideal. The first blow nearly knocked the shield from Desalius’s grasp; the second sparked and rent the steel. The cyrodiil aimed a counterstrike and Cyrus ceased to be there, spinning away like, like… Desalius knew not the words to describe it. It just was. The redguard thrust forward his saber and Desalius’s ears rang, the world resonated in his mind, and then he ceased to think.
* * *
Captain Calaxes Desalius, Knight Errant in the legion, awoke with a headache. He heard running water, felt the grit of sandstone and the heat of the sun beating down on his skull.
He felt a sword in his hand but it was not his own. He looked. It was a saber, encrusted with jewels. The queen’s father’s sword. How?
The question came unbidden and could not be answered. He stood and saw his horse standing beside him. It could not be answered.
There was something out there, in the Alik’r, and it could not be explained.