The desert of Liloppo was an infinite expanse of arid white clay. The peat like soil forming a glassy plane with only rippling currents of air and a blinding reflection for a horizon. Wherever Anx took a step, his foot broke the bleached crust and sank into clay the colour of a grapefruit’s flesh. Days before he had watched the caravan prepare for this crossing with hushed reverence: the strange nomads burning noxious incense while praying in an awful chant. The following morning, mothers prepared their crying children by wrapping them head-to-toe in plain cloth and leashing them to their waists. Able bodied men grabbed swords, spears, and bows, and then taken up strategic positions in the caravan. Anx, thinking he’d be expected to help had reached for one of the curved blades but was stopped by the caravan leader.
“The desert is dangerous,” the strange man told him while leading Anx to a spot between an old woman and a fat ox. “Put one foot in front of the other, do nothing else. Liloppo is too dangerous for foreigners, you understand?”
Even now, as Anx plodded along in the otherworldly heat, something about their superstitious mutterings frustrated him. He’d spent the day staring at the distance, hoping to see something unusual on the sea-bed of a dried out ocean, but for hours he was unrewarded. Just as Anx wondered if Liloppo was a featureless, near-eternal, void he finally glimpsed something unusual passing by. It was a half-buried cloak, and at first Anx believed it to be the corpse of some lost traveller, but as each step took him closer he realised with utter horror that the body was still clearly moving.
“Look,” Anx cried. “Look! They need help.” The old woman behind him reached over and slapped his hand hard enough to hurt. “Ow you miserable hag,” he hissed. “Someone out there needs help! Look! They’re still moving!”
The old woman went to grab Anx’s arm but he resisted, swore at her, and created a temporary pause in the caravan’s movement. The old woman’s toothless mouth twisted with contempt as she replied in her belligerent tongue, shouting strange things at him. In an embarrassing turn, Anx tried to push her away but lost her footing and fell over his own feet. Pushing himself up, spitting salt out of his mouth and swearing under his breath, Anx cursed the strange foreigners who had all stopped to stare at him.
“You stupid old bitch!” he shouted. “Can’t you see? They need help!” He pointed to the body that still shuddered and twitched in the oppressive heat, like a sobbing child.
Frustrated, Anx ignored the cries of the caravan leader who was begging him to return. The closer he got to the body, he saw that there were no foot prints showing how they got there. Perhaps the travellers were right, Anx thought. This person must be dead.
Then how were they moving?
Nervously, Anx reached out to pull the robe back when he was suddenly bowled over. The old woman had, for some reason, run over to Anx and shoved him over. Anx was already crying out in anger when he suddenly stopped. Behind her, the strange robe had blown open revealing a misshapen pile of bone and mottled grey flesh. Whoever it had been, their corpse had become a hollowed-out home to a writhing mass of white marbled ticks that bubbled over one another. Anx cried out in horror and immediately began kicking his legs, trying to push himself further away. Suddenly the old woman began to cry and yell in pain, swatting violently at her face and the air. A few ticks had broken away from the corpse and were making a bee-line for her feet, and some had already crawled up her ankles and were now deep inside her robe.
The caravan were shouting in a mass panic, but no one broke formation to help. Stranger still, Anx noticed with great concern, a few of the men had armed their bows and watched the scene suspiciously.
“What’s wrong with you!?” Anx screamed. Already the ticks had started to swarm around the old woman’s feet. In the hysteria she stood on a few of the ticks but succeeded only in allowing even more to race up her feet. A steady stream of the skittering ticks already stretched from the corpse to the old woman like a river made of stones, and visible lumps had formed beneath her skin.
In only a few minutes she was covered by them. When she fell to the floor, blood was leaking from her robe and her eyes were glassy and lifeless, but her body still twitched. Anx gave up any hope of helping her and backed away.
He was startled when an arrow whittled through the air and landed by his feet. He turned to find that the nomad leader was standing half-way between him and the caravan. He was grim-faced, and had his sword drawn with several armed men by his side. A few of them even had their bows nocked and ready, aimed squarely at Anx’s chest.
“Do not come closer,” the leader shouted. The caravan, seemingly unchanged by the spectacle, was already moving on. Anx took a step forward but another arrow flew past his head. “Do not come closer,” the leader screamed. “Were you not warned? Were you not told to stay still? We gave you every chance we could. Now they will follow you wherever you go. They are slow, but they will not stop. They will never ever stop. When they find you, if you are near us, they will spread from person to person, killing everyone until nothing remains.”
Anx took another step and this time the arrow passed between his legs, ripping a small hole in his robe. He couldn’t say if they had missed him intentionally or if it was just luck on his part.
“Do not take another step!” the man screamed, his face reddening. “You have cost us one of our own already and we will do whatever it takes to protect the others.”
“What?” Anx shouted. “You can’t be serious? You can’t honestly expect me to… to what? To stay here and die?”
He took a step forward and another arrow flew into his robes. This one did not miss but embedded itself into the fatty side of his calf muscle. Anx fell over immediately and screamed out in pain. Already, the men were walking backwards while the caravan receded into the mirage-like horizon. They were moving quickly and as Anx tried to crawl a step in their direction he saw one of the men nock another arrow. Tears welling in his eyes, faced with an unspeakable death in a hopeless desert, Anx stopped and watched the last of the caravan disappear behind the shimmering heatwaves.
“No,” he cried. “No, no, no, you can’t leave me!” It was like a nightmare come true.
Not far from him, the old woman’s skin had already begun to turn grey and dry. Even worse, Anx saw that she was being dragged back towards the other corpse by thousands of the swollen, bloated ticks. They moved her like ants moved detritus back to their nest.
Strangely, some of the ticks were running in circles. Anx clutched his leg to soothe the pain and began to pull the arrow out, crying in agony as he inched the shaft out of his flesh a small bit at a time, but was stopped by his own morbid curiosity. The lone ticks, the scouts he thought, were running in a series of outward spirals until one finally stumbled into a footprint he’d made while falling over. It immediately jumped out and ran back to the swarming body from which it had came. Soon, it ran back out with dozens of other ticks and this time it took them straight to the print it had found. They all went tumbling in, like children into a pool. Slowly, others began to follow the trail and soon a steady stream of ticks were running back and forth the old woman and Anx’s trail.
More scouts emerged from the footprint and ran in a spiral until they found another step in the trail and repeated the process of leading others to their quarry. They were systematically leading each to Anx’s prints when one of the ticks came within a metre of Anx he realised the danger he was in. He reached down and tore the arrow out of his flesh, wondering if he’d ever experienced as much pain in his entire life. He quickly pushed himself up, cursing the gods, and began to hobble away.
He quickly found the caravan’s trail and became determined to follow it out of the desert. He just hoped that the stream of ticks that connected several of his footprints would be slow enough to let him.
Anx had tried his best to stay on course but as the merciless heat took its toll his mind had started to wander. During the first leg of his journey he was constantly glancing over his shoulder at the chittering army of ticks that dogged him, and each time he turned his head back he had to take a moment to clear his mind and find the caravan’s trail. Eventually, a time had come when he had looked back and found the caravan’s trail completely gone. It was impossible to concentrate for long in the heat. Sweat tickled his face and he wiped it regularly, and dust caught in his throat constantly forcing him to cough until he felt sick. The heat was abominable and there was no shade or break in its unrelenting torture. If he had his wits about him, Anx figured he had a chance at finding the trail again, but as exhaustion set in he struggled to even remember his own name.
Some small gifts had been granted, at least. A few miles into the trek, he’d found several flasks of water, and some flint and driftwood, left behind by the caravan. They’d even left some cloth so that he might bind his leg. This wasn’t to help him though, Anx realised, but to keep the ticks occupied chasing him for as long as possible. Now that he was lost, he would do just that, wandering deeper into the desert and taking the ticks further off-course than if he’d died within arm’s reach of the caravan’s trail.
Eventually night came and he dreamed of being lost in the desert chased by nightmarish insects that buried their way into his flesh. When morning came he wasn’t sure if he’d even slept at all, or if he’d just spent the night, dazed, staring at the horizon as the skittering shapes came closer. They had never been more than a hundred yards behind him, and they were slowly tracing his steps with terrifying patience.
At least he got to see the desert up close. With no caravan to badger him, and no trail to follow, Anx was free to stumble across the blinding desert floor to stare at whatever strange things caught his eye. After a full day’s trek the desert started to reveal strange things. There were fossils half buried in the orange clay. There huge glittering ammonite fossils the size of houses, skeletal remains of dragon-like monsters, and mountain ranges made of needle-like volcanic rock that turned the horizon into some kind of hellscape. A few sights even offered a distressing glimpse into mankind’s deep history; frightful humanoid shapes with finned legs and distorted bodies. It would have been easy to dismiss the fossils as the remains of peculiar animals, were it not for the fact that a few still clutched spears in their bony, prehistoric claws.
Another time in his life and Anx would have stood in awe of the staggering implications of the find, but now all the secret truths of the universe meant nothing to him.
He carried on, wandering past strange bubble-like ruins buried in the soil. A quick glance through a half-buried doorway—one that was curiously no more than three foot high—showed that there was no hope of taking refuge inside. Even if he could have, the ceilings were obscenely low and clearly these homes were not built for men of a normal stature. Venturing further into the desert he began to notice more overt signs of aquatic life, including barnacles larger than a palace, the jaws of ancient fish that could swallow men whole, and even distant shipwrecks speared on distant volcanic formations.
But no matter what, it was all dead. The strange spear wielding merman, the goliath fish, whoever had built the diminutive homes; they were all dead. The only living thing in the entire desert was Anx and the ticks that relentlessly hounded him.
Looking back at them, Anx was ready to consider whether it was better do die of thirst or to be eaten alive when his foot broke through the desert floor and he fell forwards into terrifying darkness.
He awoke, screaming. He batted at his body, crying hysterically. In the few fleeting moments of unconsciousness, he had dreamed of being hollowed out by the nightmarish ticks. It took him a while to catch his breath and realise that it had just been a dream. As his eyes adjusted he saw that he had fallen through a rickety wooden structure from which sand and salt now poured like a waterfall. It looked as though he had fallen into the cargo hold of an ancient ship. There were wooden beams, crates and barrels stacked to the roof, and nets and fishing gear tossed carelessly onto the floor.
Anx cracked one of the barrels open and was staring at the black tar within, when a strange clicking noise caught his attention. A tick had come charging after him and fallen straight into the ship, landing on the floor with a strange thok. There was only one at the moment, but Anx knew more would follow. He also noticed, with great distress, that the tick’s movements were erratic, faster, and more aggressive than usual. Clearly the fall had disoriented it, and it seemed desperate to find his trail, running in unpredictable patterns.
Just a few short feet away was a stairway leading to a manhole. Anx reached down into the barrel with an empty flask and collected as much of the tar as he could, and then bolted for the stairs. Between him and the exit, the tick ran in manic circles until he came closer and leaped over it. As soon as he came within a metre of it, the tick somehow orientated itself and made a beeline for the very stairs he had landed on.
Anx thundered up the steps, suppressing his fear and slamming into the closed hatch, hoping with every last fibre of his body that some boulder or unseen rock wasn’t blocking it. It took some effort, a great heaving force that nearly drained him completely, but he finally managed to move it. Through the slight crack he made, dust began to flood into room along with blinding light. He forced it open further and then dragged himself through the gap he’d made. There, on the desert floor, he shuffled backwards and then finally stopped, lying there to catch his breath.
He was shaking with terror, his heart sinking as he felt a strange stabbing sensation in his leg. He pulled his robe away and saw that a bloody gash had been torn in the bandage around his calf. A fat white body was jammed into arrow-wound, and fresh blood trickled down his shin. Overcome with revulsion, Anx reached down and immediately grabbed the tick with his hand and began to pull as hard as he could. When it finally came free with a sickening pop, the pain in his leg only grew worse. In his hand there was just the fat grape-like body of the swollen tick. Its head remained embedded firmly in his skin and when he tried to push his thumb into the open wound, nearly passing out from the pain, he saw the black arachnid head bury itself so deep into his skin that it disappeared from sight.
Anx wanted to tear his leg open to find it, but he looked up and saw that the ticks had circumvented the hole leading into the ship and were already approaching the drag marks he’d left as he’d clawed his way free of the cargo hold. He cried out in frustration and pulled himself up, watching as blood pooled onto the floor from his leg. He had no choice but to carry on, his leg dragging behind him as it throbbed and itched. He did his best to ignore it and took out the flask full of tar and began to wonder how, exactly, he was going to use it to set a trap.
Anx had spent a long time observing the ticks and figured out that, while they were utterly unstoppable in their pursuit, they could still be slowed down. Now he watched the ticks follow the convoluted spiral he had danced across the dusty clay floor, one he hoped would take at least an hour for them to clear while he prepared the tar. He poured it around him in a circle, wide enough to let him sit and rest while he lit a small fire close to him.
He hoped to turn the ticks’ relentlessness against them, wondering if they would follow each step with such blind faith that they would walk straight into the flame one after one until the whole hive was burned to a crisp. They were so dogged, he imagined it just might work.
But the bait had to be good.
Night fell, and against every instinct in his body Anx sat and waited. He watched the ticks follow his circuitous path and still he didn’t move. He counted the steps between him and the ticks, counting them down from fifty to a meagre ten. The bubbling horde was so close now he could hear the sounds they made as they clambered over each other in desperate hunger. His leg itched and burned hot with infection and he had to resist the urge to tear the rotting tick out of his flesh with his bare hands.
He had to focus.
When there was five steps left between him and the ticks, he lit the fire. He waited anxiously as the first tick ran into the open fire and popped, almost instantly, from the intense heat. Slowly, more and more of the ticks marched forwards into the flame where they were cooked alive, bursting open with terrifying pressure as the bubbling tar set them alight. Even better, Anx found himself cheering as some of the ticks retreated while still alight and ran straight back to the writhing hive. The dry insect bodies, all huddled together, must have made good kindling because it took barely a minute before the whole hive was burning like a bonfire. Anx found himself whooping with joy and crying with mad pleasure as lone ticks tried to flee, only for others to follow bringing the flame with them. They were driven by an evolutionary instinct that they couldn’t escape, a hive mentality that Anx had exploited with glorious results.
Eventually, the movement stopped, and the fire continued raging as the hive popped and crackled like the fires Anx remembered from home. When Anx was finally sure they were all dead, when the charred mass no longer gave off any heat, he collapsed from exhaustion and dreamed of the lakes he swam in as a child.
Anx awoke in the sun and smiled slyly as he remembered the great victory of the night before. He lay on his back, slowly staring at the crystal blue sky, wondering how strange it was that he was thankful for the chance to die of thirst, when he finally noticed that, somehow, he felt as though he was moving. He tried to sit upright but his legs were unresponsive, almost as if someone had wrapped them in dozens of thick sheets. He could barely move his arms above his chest and was horrified to see that his arms were swollen and lumpy. Panicking, he tore open his robe and saw that his torso had inflated to bizarre proportions. Unable to stand, Anx turned his head side-to-side and began screaming at the nightmarish vision before him.
He was surrounded by an endless sea of white marbled ticks that carried him, like ants from a picnic.
Written by ChristianWallis