It used to be a city, that much was clear. The remnants of the walls were still standing, the sand hadn’t yet covered all of the cobblestones. We’d thought the place was empty until we saw the old man, sitting in the blazing sun.
“Who’s there?” he asked, one hand raised to shade his sunburnt face.
“Please, we’re only looking for water.”
He looked at us for a long moment and then said, “There’s no water left anymore, but I have some ale inside.”
“I can’t -” I began, but he cut me off.
“Take it. I won’t need it after tonight anyway. The sands have come for the rest of the city and it won’t be long before they take me too. If I were you, I’d be out of here before nightfall.”
I opened my mouth, but he cut me off.
“You have to understand, it was war. You do things you don’t want to bring home to your family. That’s why no army was allowed to enter the city gates until they’d sacrificed a scapegoat. One man, chosen to bear the sins of us all.
His voice dropped almost to a whisper. “We were humane about it; used a sharp blade, always took care of the family. But the man would beg all the same. Only this one, he didn’t beg. He just smiled as the executioner brought down the blade. And there was no blood, just a kind of black smoke that rose up where he had been kneeling. Rose up and choked everything in sight. Some of us ran then, back to our homes and our families, but it was already too late.”
He looked up and blinked at us, as if he had forgotten we were there.
“You should run,” he said simply.