Harper could not remember the last time he had seen a flower, tree, bush, or even a weed. For a sea captain, used to seeing endless blue, the ocean of yellow sand was getting to him, as it was the rest of the men… all but Warren. Even with his burned and scared skin peeling, he continued their forced march across the endless desert.
Not taking the advice of the Isilians, Warren had insisted on taking horses instead of camels, believing they would allow him to travel faster across the giant dunes. It was not long, however, before he learned how wrong he was, as the horses died from the heat and lack of water.
For Harper, walking on foot across the hot sand was bad enough, but not as punishing as breathing in the fumes from the tar and oil pits that speckled the desert. Everyone but Warren complained of the headaches, dizziness, and the nausea they caused. The High Inquisitor marched on, determined to reach his goal regardless of his suffering and that of his followers.
Warren did one smart thing in his rush to reach the Lahorian Empire; he carried a ship's compass and the best map the Isilians had of the Desert of Flames. With those tools, he led his Inquisitors halfway across the desert to the only known oasis in the middle of the endless waste.
Having learned early on it was better to travel at night, Harper gazed across the moon-lit landscape, his eyes searching for any sign of a settlement, or life of any sort. It took seven weeks of traveling before he saw the gathered fires of the oil traders' camps around the only known source of water for hundreds of miles.
Harper's hopes rose, only to find them dashed when he discovered the settlement was under the firm control of the Lahorians, who charged small fortunes for access to the three wells that made up the oasis.
Still, Harper handed over his officer's insignia, made of gold, to the Lahorian well guards, just for the pleasure of having a few buckets of lukewarm water dumped over his head to wash away the sand and sweat, and cool his sunburned skin.
Using his black shirt to keep his hair wet, Harper returned to where Warren had set up camp. On seeing the sea captain in some resemblance of cleanness, and the captain's new dark tan, Warren waved Harper over to his tent, where he took his pleasure from his body.
After his near burning at the stake, Warren kept his body wrapped in white bandages; his face behind a Centurion mask to prevent the scar tissue from becoming more burned or dried out as the skin slowly healed. That had made the sex Warren demanded difficult at best. It was done while Warren remained clothed but Harper naked. The only skin Harper was allowed to touch or look at was Warren's manhood, which he allowed to slip out of his pants. When it was over, Warren handed the Sea Captain a small diamond as payment.
Harper understood a little of what Warren was feeling. Back in his youth, he had taken on an older lover for a few months. Years later, when the man was in his sixties, Harper found out that he had to pay three gold standers just to have a younger man touch him.
It was all part of living in the past, a man who was once sought after by youths in their twenties one day finds that they will not even talk to him. A man's skill at seduction,
once a source of pride, was now seen as an act of desperation. That was where Warren was now, his only means of seduction being his power over his men.
Harper was not willing to reject his superior's advances, however, and not just because he knew Warren could order him killed. Warren's machinations, manipulations, and charisma went well beyond his looks. Harper no longer believed in the dream of the Inquisitors rising to power. He did believe that Warren would get his revenge and, when that day came, Harper would be there. After years of service as an Inquisitor spy, betraying his Admiral and the Church of the Mother, he would one day have a chance to redeem himself; all it cost was his body.
It was on the third day at the oasis that the Lahorian clerics came. For days, Warren had demanded to be guided to Purrsha, the capital of Lahore. Not speaking Lahorian, he had been forced to use the oil traders to speak with the Lahorian soldiers.
The Lahorian clerics did not come bearing warm greetings from the emperor, however. Instead they arrested Warren and all of his followers, tying them together with leather ropes, and setting them to marching eastward towards the end of the desert that very night,into the empire.
As he followed the man in front of him, Harper was at least relieved that the Lahorian guards kept them well fed and stopped often for rest. Still, the eager looks the Lahorians gave him and the rest of the men worried Harper. He was sure they were being led to Purrsha, but for what purpose he only had his nightmares as guides.