PART NINE: 5th July to 23rd September 2004
Chapter Twenty Eight: Deserts and Demons
"Okay, this trip is officially no longer fun," Xander yelped. His fragile manly bits were being crushed repeatedly as he bounced about. "The Fabulous Ladies Night Club was a more relaxing break than this!"
Two days and nights on his trusty steed were taking their toll. Actually, thirty minutes of it had taken its toll and for the other forty-seven and a half hours his body had been calling him all the nasty names under the hot, Tunisian sun.
"I can't be riding you wrong," he griped. "Everything else is neck or hump!"
He got a grumbly-grunt in reply.
"If I ever see that used camel salesman again he's getting a piece of my mind, I can tell you."
To be honest, he wasn't mad at the salesman. At the time he'd actually wanted to get down and kiss the salesman's feet. He hadn't because the man had been walking barefoot around a camel enclosure at the time, but the thought had been there. The camel man was most certainly a finer gentleman than the one who had sold him the shiny Suzuki Samurai for a hundred dinars an hour before. The Suzuki Samurai whose engine had fallen out less than an hour after he'd bought it in a hurry.
There was probably a lesson in there about buying cars without getting them checked out by a mechanic first, but there hadn't been any mechanics within shouting distance - unless the demon assassin trying to put a spiky yellow spear through his neck was, but he probably wouldn't have helped no matter how nicely Xander had asked.
"Should have paid extra for the saddle," he said, wincing as his balls took more and more punishment from the hump. "This rug is not as comfortable now as it was for those first long ago ten minutes. And not, unfortunately, in any way magic carpet-y. Unless it only understands Arabic commands like you," he added.
That had been fun. In possession of a lethal, lumpy, galloping camel-mobile with absolutely no way of knowing how to stop it or even slow it down. The scenery in the mountains was probably beautiful, but he couldn't know for sure because he'd spent the entire day with his eye closed, reins in a death grip while he hugged the hump like his life depended on it.
He'd felt safer when he came across a fair sized town halfway through the mountain passes. Safe enough to laugh with a young boy about his riding skills and learn a few useful instructions like 'Stop' and 'Go' and 'Please don't kill me' while he bought a two litre canteen of water.
Not that he had thought he'd need the camel anymore. He could get a bus from there or a train, or even a sheep wagon. Anything with an engine that stayed on the inside, didn't spit at him and could get him quickly to the nearest city with an airport. He had been so confident his troubles were over he had been about to hand the reins of his camel over to the boy as a gift.
The demon in chainmaille popping up from behind a cartload of oranges and lemons and waving a mace above his head made him hesitate. The way it bellowed and ran towards him made him jump back on his camel with a shout of 'Giddy-up', which wasn't the right command at all, but it turned out the camel was pretty intelligent - or at least as exactly as intelligent as he was - took one look at the spiky weapon wielding creature coming towards them and went from naught to gallop instantly.
Xander had cheered with his eyes closed as they left the demon behind in the dust.
After that he'd realized the first demon hadn't been a coincidence and as easy as it might be to put the two occurrences down to his demon-luring aura, he had to assume Troy had caught wind of him.
By the third town and, consequently, the third demon, Xander had realized Troy's minions were not only everywhere they also weren't giving up. So he'd kept riding, town to town, demon assassin to demon assassin, but now his third day on the trail was nearing its end and while he'd had just enough time to buy water here and there he hadn't eaten more than a crusty loaf of bread and some slices of watermelon since he'd been chased out of Tunis. It got cold out here at night too and his jacket was in his suitcase that was still, helpfully, on his bed back at the hotel.
Plus he didn't know how much longer his camel could go without a drink - he definitely seemed to be slowing down and sputtering occasionally - and if they had to start sharing... he'd end up drinking camel backwash!
He pulled his cell phone from his pocket and tried it again, but he still couldn't get a signal - stupid cheap crappy thing! He could see another town rising out of the now thankfully flattish land and he was stopping this time, demon or no demon. He had been dodging the things for eight years; surely he could keep dodging long enough to find a payphone.
"I just need enough time to say I lost Sarah somewhere back in Tunis and send the damn helicopter already!"
He spoke to the camel, who he was calling Humpwun because Humphrey was too predictable, not to mention inaccurate, but the camel just grunted again. Not much of a talker but at least he made noises in the right places.
"Not that we have a helicopter. We should think about getting a helicopter. I'm putting it on the agenda for the next Council meeting. I hope Sarah's alright."
His Slayer bodyguard had left the hotel before him to window-stall shop. Before he'd had time to get worried about her no-show at lunch the demon had attacked. He hadn't seen her since and could only hope she was fruitlessly scouring the city for him and hadn't met an uglier fate. If she had, Troy was dying, somehow, Faith's fiancÚ or not.
"Town's getting closer," he observed, just for the sake of talking. "We'll find you a drink first, I promise."
The sun bleached buildings grew as they approached. There didn't seem to be many of them. Not so many places for a demon to hide then. Not so many places for him to hide either.
Humpwun's hooves made no noise as they walked down the dusty road but Xander could make out snatches of people-sound from up ahead. The rev of a motorbike, a dog barking, a bell ringing. It all sounded wonderful after hours of nothing.
"Okay, water, phone, then some nice quiet spot for us to sleep the sleep of the dead in while we wait for extraction," he said as they passed the first houses.
He gave little waves and big smiles to the locals that stared as they walked past. One man shouted to him in what appeared to be a friendly greeting and Xander pulled on the reins a little to stop. After a dozen more steps and more pulling, Humpwun got the message with a grunt.
Xander turned on the rug a little to look back at the man that had hailed him. ""Hi. How are ya? I think my camel needs water. And possibly some gas and an oil change too. Do you know where I can...?"
The man turned to his friends laughing. On turning back he spoke quickly and patted the top of his head a few times.
"I'm sorry. I don't understand. But if you could..."
The man laughed and spoke some more, patting the top of his head again.
Xander grinned good-naturedly, still clueless. "Well, maybe just a phone then? I have a really urgent call to make."
The man repeated his actions as he came closer and opened his coat wide. Xander shirked back, worried for a second there was a weapon hidden beneath. There wasn't, and he relaxed, laughing himself as he took a closer look.
Pinned to the inside of the man's shawl-like coat were half a dozen or more baseball caps.
"You buy?" The man asked, speaking in English for the first time.
Still chuckling Xander shook his head. "I have plenty of those back home."
"You buy." The man repeated and it sounded less like a question this time. "Sun bad on head."
"I'm okay." The worst of the sun was over for the day anyway and he hadn't suffered much so far. "But thanks anyway."
He got the camel moving again figuring he'd find what he needed faster on his own. Unfortunately the man kept pace with him easily.
"Sun out there bad," he said, pointing in the opposite direction to the one Xander had come from. "Kill you. Need protection." He held the coat open again. "You buy!"
"No, I'm not buying," Xander said, half-amused, half frustrated.
He tried to urge the camel faster, but Humpwun wasn't buying either.
"You buy I sell you water."
"That sounds like a fair deal," he said sarcastically.
"You buy I sell you phone," the man offered next, producing three or four used cell phones from his pocket. "Give you good price."
Xander kept going a little further. It looked like they were in the middle of what was a really small town. Other people were around, also selling stuff, but the more traditional way, but no one took any notice of the westerner on the dehydrated camel.
Eventually he pulled Humpwun to a stop. At the end of the day, like right now, he needed a phone, and if buying a stupid baseball cap was the only he was going to get one in a hurry, why not.
"Fine. I'll buy the hat and the phone, but you have to throw some water in for free."
"Okay, okay. Water over there." The man pointed at an open water-butt on the other side of the street.
It was probably free anyway, but what the hell.
"How much?" he asked.
"How much you have?"
"No way. You tell me how much and I'll tell you if I can afford it."
"Three hundred dinar."
Xander laughed, but the man looked serious.
"You have to be joking. I'm not paying that for a baseball cap I don't want and a cell that probably doesn't even work."
"Two hundred dinar."
The man hesitated and then said optimistically, "One hundred dinar. Final offer."
"Then this is where we part ways, my friend," Xander told him, still chuckling over the ludicrousness as he turned on his rug to get Humpwun moving again. "Oh crap."
There was a demon in front of him. A ten foot horned demon that was blocking the road and looking straight at him. With extra menace.
"Give me the phone!"
The salesman had spotted the demon and his voice rose a pitch or two. "One hundred dinar."
"No, just give me the damn thing!"
"One hundred dinar!"
"I don't have that much on me. Look. Give me the phone and if I get back home alive I'll send you the one hundred dinars. I'll send you the three hundred! Just give me the..."
"No! See cash, get hat."
"I don't want the hat! I want the phone."
"No buy hat, no get phone."
Something made Xander look sharply to his left. It was another demon. A different species to the first but no less dangerous looking and no less focused on him. He looked from one to the other. They both held bows and on the one to his left he could see a quiver of arrows poking over his not so broad shoulders. Presumably they both had them. This was not good. Weapons you had to swing, even weapons you had to throw were easier to avoid than weapons you could fire.
"Tell you what," he said in a panicked whisper. "I'll buy the hat, the phone, the water and your grandmother if you can distract these guys long enough for me to make a run for it."
"Five hundred dinar."
"You said one hundred a minute ago!"
"Okay, forget the granny. I have a couple back home already." Xander started to fish for his wallet. "Just give me the rest for... for..."
Humpwun stamped forward a little, swearing in camel speak. Xander looked around warily. There were two demons behind him on horse back and bows abounded.
Xander hunched over the hump a little to get as close to an ear as possible. "Can you outrun a horse?"
Humpwun stamped a hoof silently on the sandy road and grunted.
"Is that the truth or just pride talking?" he wondered as he went back to his wallet in a hurry.
He pulled out all but one bill and waved them about. It was just over a hundred dinar but he was desperate now.
"Give me the..." The man snatched the money and counted it while he handed over a phone. "You promised you'd distract them," Xander reminded.
"Yes. Yes. Which color?"
"What?" The man pulled his coat open again to show the caps. "I don't care about the hat!"
"No, must choose. I not a thief!"
Another demon on horseback appeared on his right. People were looking at them warily now, but no one was interfering. Xander took the stupid blue baseball cap and stuck it on his head.
"Look good. And head safe." The salesman smiled as he put the money away and pulled a large curved sword from a sheaf on his back.
He shouted something that sounded like a war cry and several of the spectators and the friends he had been laughing with before gathered about him, most of them producing swords too.
"Now that's more like it," Xander said, feeling a little better with backup as he gathered the reins and got ready to spur Humpwun into action.
Looked like he'd be sharing his water after all, but at least he'd still be alive.
"When I say go..." he began through gritted teeth.
The hard bargainer gave another cry and ran towards the demon in front of them, several of the others joined him, the rest split off and went for the others.
"Okay, when you say go."
Xander didn't waste any time; as soon as the demon in front was surrounded he shouted what he hoped was the correct Arabic word and gave the camel a soft kick in the sides. Apparently Humpwun was just waiting to be asked and they were galloping away immediately.
He held the reins in one hand and hugged the hump as he used his other hand to dial the number for home. Screwing it up the first time he had to start over again and they were leaving the town behind by the time he had it to his ear. He could barely hear the 'Your call is unable to be placed at this time' message over the sound of many horse hooves behind him.
There was nothing but open road and sand in front of him, so after a quick look behind, Xander closed his eye and clung to the hump, urging his camel faster as he prayed to God they could outrun the horses.
He closed his eye even tighter at the sound of an arrow whistling past his ear.
Another whistled past his other ear, but he didn't hear the third because it never made it past an ear. He yelled in pain as it pierced his shoulder and crouched even lower over the hump.
"Oh God, come on!"
He felt the sensation of something swooping behind him and wasn't sure if it was a flying demon or if the vultures were already counting him as dead. Then Humpwun missed a step as something landed on his back behind Xander.
Freaking out now, Xander loosened his grip on the hump to shoot an elbow backwards, but he missed whatever was there.
"Don't do that please."
At the polite cultured voice behind him Xander dropped the phone and nearly fell off the side after it. Firm arms folding around his stomach kept him on.
"I'd forgotten how uncomfortable these things are. Why did you not get a saddle?"
Xander opened his eye. He felt... not relaxed - it was impossible to feel relaxed with demons chasing you and an unknown entity hugging you from behind - but better, almost good in fact.
"Uh, who are you?"
"Ow! Arrows hurt, don't they? Ow! Would you like me to pull this one out of you? Ow!"
"No, you'll make it worse!" Xander said in a hurry. "OWWW!"
He slumped a little, feeling the pain worsen and blood soak his tee-shirt front and back.
"I said no!"
"They sometimes poison their arrows. The longer it was in the less chance there would be of me healing you," said the calm voice from behind.
"Okay, then thank you. WHO ARE YOU?"
"Ow. Right now you can call me your guardian angel. Ow."
Xander wasn't in the mood to quibble. "Fair enough. Aren't you worried about getting poisoned?"
"No. But I cannot abide being shot at forever. It is time we left."
"That's what I'm doing!"
"You must come with me."
"No offense, and I appreciate you taking the arrows for me, but I don't know you from Adam."
The mysterious stranger found that amusing for some reason. "Nevertheless..."
"No, for all I know you're working for Troy too. Humpwun's found his second wind, so if you don't mind; we're just going to keep going."
"You do realize you're heading straight into the Sahara, don't you?"
"I did not." Xander said a little less sure of himself. "There's towns out there though, right?"
"Yes, but you have no water, no food, you'll be dead before you find any of them."
"Come with me now. Ow! I can have you in Madrid in an hour."
"What's in Madrid?"
"Food, water and an airport."
Xander breathed a sigh at just the thought. "Okay, you convinced me."
"When I say, let go of the camel."
"What? We can't leave Humpwun behind to get shot at!"
"They will not shoot at an empty camel."
"But he needs food and water and... okay, maybe not an airport, but he's been a trooper, we can't just leave him..."
"He will be fine. Oww! He is a camel; they are born to the desert!"
"Okay," Xander said reluctantly. "Humpwun, you've been a loyal beast. May your offspring be rich and plentiful of humps." He risked letting go to pat the hump a few times.
"Are you ready now?"
"I'm ready." Xander thought he saw feathers spring out in his periphery vision. "I think."
"Then let's go." He felt himself being tugged upwards, but they didn't go far. "Xander, let go of the camel!"
"Oh, right." Xander let go of the reins and relaxed his limps. "Bye, Humpwuuuuuuuun!"
Shaking a thousand feet in the air, Xander watched as the camel kept running and the demons on horseback ran right after him, all looking around bewildered. It didn't take them long to catch on and a shoal of arrows hit the sky. They fell short by a mile.
"Whoa! Man, what the hell are you?"
"I already told you."
There was the soft whistle of swiftly displaced air and then suddenly they were rocketing across the sky towards Spain.
"Oh God!" Xander cried as he left his stomach behind.
"Not exactly," Quantiaro grinned.
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Part Nine Quick-Jump:
Chapter One ||
Chapter Two ||
Chapter Three ||
Chapter Four ||
Chapter Five ||
Chapter Six ||
Chapter Eight ||
Chapter Nine ||
Chapter Ten ||
Chapter Eleven ||
Chapter Twelve ||
Chapter Thirteen ||
Chapter Fourteen ||
Chapter Fifteen ||
Chapter Sixteen ||
Chapter Seventeen ||
Chapter Eighteen ||
Chapter Nineteen ||
Chapter Twenty ||
Chapter Twenty One ||
Chapter Twenty Two ||
Chapter Twenty Three ||
Chapter Twenty Four ||
Chapter Twenty Five ||
Chapter Twenty Six ||
Chapter Twenty Seven ||
Chapter Twenty Eight ||
Chapter Twenty Nine ||
Chapter Thirty ||
Chapter Thirty One
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Part Nine Quick-Jump:
Chapter One || Chapter Two || Chapter Three || Chapter Four || Chapter Five || Chapter Six || Chapter Seven Chapter Eight || Chapter Nine || Chapter Ten || Chapter Eleven || Chapter Twelve || Chapter Thirteen || Chapter Fourteen || Chapter Fifteen || Chapter Sixteen || Chapter Seventeen || Chapter Eighteen || Chapter Nineteen || Chapter Twenty || Chapter Twenty One || Chapter Twenty Two || Chapter Twenty Three || Chapter Twenty Four || Chapter Twenty Five || Chapter Twenty Six || Chapter Twenty Seven || Chapter Twenty Eight || Chapter Twenty Nine || Chapter Thirty || Chapter Thirty One