Distant Reaches - Rochi: The Menace of the Sand Wastes

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Rochi: The Menace of the Sand Wastes

Rochi: The Menace of the Sand Wastes
Artist's depiction Rochi gazing down at a maiden from the Sand Wastes.

From The Pantheon Fantastical, by Silvana Rhinebeck

Silvana Rhinebeck was a Binder, Professor Emerita at the Magist Imperial University, and Imperial Magus to the Emperor. Her life’s work culminated with The Pantheon Fantastical, a rigorous encyclopedia of the Uncanny Beings of the Meridian. Although it is unfinished due to her sudden disappearance, The Pantheon Fantastical remains the foremost authority on Uncannies and is a key text for all students, scholars, and professionals engaged in the study of the Meridian.

For centuries, tales have floated through the Sand Wastes — predating those of even the Stonelayer — concerning a bird.

Having all-too-recently returned from Mother Silver, I would have been quite content to put off this excursion for yet another avian Uncanny. Unfortunately, a former student wrote me about some new stirrings around this ancient lore. And I am called to wherever myth meets reality. This particular living myth is called Rochi.

Before the diaspora that resulted in the founding of Amalcross, the people of the Sand Wastes told of Shamesh the Sand Reaver, a sometimes-pirate who sailed the dunes rather than the seas. Following the fate of many folk heroes, he could never quite remain retired (a trait he and I both seem to share!). One of his many adventures led to the Lodestone Crag and, at its peak, a great scarlet bird with long talons and short patience: Rochi.

Often called a “nation-nester,” Rochi was known to seek out roosting grounds and — if any kingdom, village, or caravan were unfortunate enough to reside on those grounds — raze everything in the area to nurture itself and its hatchlings. Given the Crag’s relative proximity to both the City of Glass and Amalcross, the nation-nesting claims are dubious. But even the most fanciful lie carries a kernel of truth.

I arrived at the tavern in Mooreton, a small village nestled beneath the sere ridges of the Wastes. My former student, studying the silt mice of the region, welcomed me with a lukewarm drink and introduced me to the man at the end of the bar: a private of the Unified Militaries. He was reluctant to tell me his story. It took him a few drinks on my coin to get him to answer my questions.

His regiment, on a routine survival exercise, intended to set camp in a basin south of the Lodestone Crag. Near their intended site, they came upon the ruins of a shepherds’ camp where, in the midst of the shredded canvas and splintered staves, three seven-foot-tall birds with heads as big as their bodies feasted on a ram’s carcass. Noticing the regiment, one bird cried an ululating, shrill song. Without thinking, one of the soldiers drew a sword and slew it. Then, a shadow fell over the men and a wail worth thousands of the dead bird’s cries rang out before they realized their mistake.

Blades and bullets, steel and lead and magic. Everything the regiment threw at a creature meeting the description of Rochi rolled off its crimson plume. The private said its form “swallowed the sun,” so vast was the creature. He was the sole survivor. I was unable to ascertain how he lived, as my means of eliciting his tale had brought him to simultaneous tears and laughter, his voice only clear enough to order another round. I settled up with the bartender and asked about anyone who could guide me toward the ruined camp.

I found a guide willing to take me through the Wastes, who laughed when I explained what I was after. Despite how clearly he made it known that I was chasing bedtime stories, that Rochi was a less likely sight than his dead grandmother in a pleasure house, that I was wasting my coin, he led me on horseback to the basin.  It was clear and startlingly bright, and sand snaked across sandstone in the wind. Just past a small ridge, the remains of the shepherds’ camp sprawled.

There was a strange, spiral organization to the refuse, carcasses and canvas and the like lining themselves around and around a central node. Beside the middle, sand-ragged and fly-coated, a cluster of bones and sand-dusted feathers and viscera wavered in the heat. And yet, I saw no circling vultures. There were only sandy ridges and blue skies beyond the debris.

My guide approached the half-consumed remains and brushed away the flies and dust. A streak of red plumage revealed itself. And the sky darkened.

We heard then the wavering cry — the WHA-WHA-WHA of the Rochi. My guide panicked and fled before I could say a word. The talons, sharp and brutal, snagged him at once. A storm of sand filled my mouth and blinded my eyes.

When the dust settled, the vast form of the bird crouched low with its hooked beak and prodded the body of my guide. Rochi’s head bobbed and it cried out again, and the world shivered under its call. Beady eyes the size of boulders stooped to meet my own.

I cannot rightly say what it was that happened between us then. The nearest I can manage is knowing. In an instant, and for an instant, I knew: that which is unknowable, that which my words are but shadows and ashes of, I knew. I saw my young blossom beneath me. I saw vermin, strange and industrious and brutal. I saw my children die, and the world turn over again and again, and the sun and moon and stars drift, and everything change. The only constant was the sorrow and loss bound to my bones, and the changing world being ever too small.

In a daze, I saw Rochi’s head bob, its cry not so jarring this time. It flew off with the guide ensnared in one set of talons and his horse in the other.

I rode to Mooreton alone and stayed the night. That morning, while waiting for the train to Amalcross, I watched an ant skitter toward the tracks. When the tracks began to rumble, the ant skittered away, having not the faintest idea what it wandered across.

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