Dawn broke and we gathered our last-minute supplies. Zeno, naturally, went for more brewing tools for his kit, stating that we hadn’t had good beer in a while during our travels, and Felegum had Dronie flatten the sand castle outside of the inn. This made me a little sad, since I thought it was great, but hey, not my castle, not my familiar.
Now that the immediate problems of food and lodging were solved and we had a way to Csipherus (a way that was paying us, even! sometimes I could not believe Zeno’s talent with negotiations), I figured that I could spend a little coin. I made my way back to Jacquard’s, but his shop was closed. Still too early for him to be open, I resigned myself to yet another person thinking I was forever a jerk and found another clothing merchant.
I purchased from them an orange-yellow scarf, dawn-colored if you will, that I could wrap around my neck or head if things got too hot. It was flashy and easily the brightest thing I owned, but I liked to think it looked like a sun rising amidst all the dark, night-hued colors the rest of my stuff was.
Once we met up with the others from the inn– Harry had a new application of the poultice from Mo’s on, Helli was packing up her globe from Egonia, and Awk had finished up another chapter in his book on cacti– we met up with Pinjin at the caravansary and we left.
It was weird being back in the desert after all this time. I’d seen it in my dreams, sure, though that was often from great heights. It looked as wide and vast and unforgiving as it had then.
The first morning we didn’t run into much issue. There were some dark shapes in the sky, and some of Pinjin’s crew swapped stories with us about how whole caravans had been swallowed by flying creatures. This obviously did not bode well for us, and things only continued to worsen when the winds picked up around us and a sandstorm brewed in the afternoon.
Pinjin called for a tent to be pitched and we all crammed inside with the crew and the camels. Lankin, as one might reasonably expect, was enamored. Feeling thirsty and eager to try out Zeno’s new supplies on our long journey, the mage and the bard enlisted Lankin to slice into HFVNN to bring forth a barrel.
Felegum shoveled some sand back into HFVNN before the bag closed itself back up. “Well, maybe it’ll balance out.”
But when Zeno and Felegum cracked upon the barrel, we got a rude surprise.
A good amount of the water evaporated. Like, immediately. This was pretty bananas to me, as a desert person, since like, I knew water was important and I’d been telling Felegum not to worry about it since I wanted to be cool and show off my new skills later, but like, this was new.
Pinjin absolutely lambasted us, though. I don’t know what I’d been expecting, but it wasn’t to get a thick scolding about the “tithe of the desert” from a visibly upset man who liked flatbread.
Things did not improve when Zeno tried to make beer. Felegum had used his magic to transfer the water into a pot and started the boiling process for Zeno’s mash or whatever, and this also, as one might expect from previous evidence, drove Pinjin totally through the roof.
“What are you doing?” he yelled from across the tent. “You are wasting your water!”
“Oh, Pinjin, darling.” Zeno waved it off. “It’ll be fine.”
Pinjin made incoherent noises.
Meanwhile, Felegum, sensing perhaps that there needed to be some de-escalation for everyone to survive this journey, found a spigot and gave it to Helli, the most mechanically talented of our party, to try to attach to the barrel. The idea was that we could get water from the barrel more easily using the small hole of the spigot instead of taking the top off every time, losing water to the tithe in the process.
Unfortunately, Helli and spigots did not prove to be a fruitful combination. She got it in the barrel, but it cracked. “Still functional, though,” she said, surveying her handiwork.
“In defiance of the gods above and the land below!” Pinjin seethed from his side of the tent. “You are almost as bad as the folk of the wastes.”
We talked a little bit with Pinjin and his company about what water sources were here and he brought up oases. These seemed like a great idea, but they were as he put it “like honey to flies” and often attracted many predators. Harry asked Awk if he’d learned anything good from the cactus book and Awk said he’d need to keep reading.
This was where I stepped in.
Sensing a rift beginning to form between us and the caravan, I stepped forward and offered my services. “I can fix this,” I said, knowing that I would not fail.
And, holy symbol in hand, I cast a spell to create water. Zeno, meanwhile, was doing Zeno things: he ate a hop from the boiled mash and struggled a bit to maintain a straight face as he swallowed it. He offered the concoction to Awk, who ate some and described it as “quite the experience.”
This, understandably, was not improving things with Pinjin, who probably thought we were fools.
But luckily for us, the group had me.
I cast my spell, prepared to amaze them with my new skills courtesy of the divine. I spread my hands wide and waited.
And it was a total bust. I got one kind of sad, sandy-looking globule, which plopped into the barrel with an underwhelming sound. Someone laughed.
I, as might be expected in such trying times, stormed out.
I didn’t go too far, because obviously it was still sandstorming outside, adding insult to injury, but the whole thing was just so embarrassing that I needed some time alone with the terrible weather to drown out my thoughts. I was supposed to show off my new powers in a cool way and amaze everyone. Not be laughed out of a tent.
Anyway, for some reason there was a bagpipe call, so I kept close to the entrance of the tent. It turned out to be Zeno setting the key for some storytelling.
What followed was a tale of two dragons, siblings who had killed their mother for control of the wastes, a brother and sister. The sister was named Atarka and she was renowned for her ferocity and her love of oases. Suddenly the warnings about dangers at oases made sense. The brother, Ojutai, dabbled in magic, and was known both for his ingenuity and his pursuit of power.
Awk, though it was hard to hear him over the wind, asked where they were last seen and Pinjin said it had been several weeks ago, east and south. So basically, toward Csipherus.
I shook my head and re-entered. My city had enough problems as it was without the addition of a pair of dragons brutal enough to murder a parent.
Pinjin seemed to think that it was more likely that we’d run into more natural hunters than dragons, though. Bands of the undead were common the closer you got to the city, and there were always non-undead opportunists out to rob a caravan. Pinjin did not seem particularly jazzed to get into combat, though. “All that fall,” he said ominously, “always rise.”
“Always?” asked Zeno hopefully.
Awk asked me about the condition of my bedroll, and I had to remind him that, while upset, I was not a complete idiot to try to sleep in a sandstorm. Zeno prestidigitated some sparks off me to add a visual to this anger. Then Harry joined in on the teasing, because I guess these two were finally bonding over my incompetence with water, joy, and Zeno made sparks pop off of the monk too.
We set watches and spent the night waiting out the sandstorm. Lankin and Helli took the first watch, then Awk and Felegum, and then me, Zeno, and Harry at the dawn shift.
I felt a little bit like I was upsetting the vibe of dawn patrol, but seeing as how I’d been waking up the past few days at dawn of my own accord and also that my dude was associated with this major solar event, I didn’t want to miss it. I’d promised I’d be devoted, and this was the price I’d sworn to pay. Anyway, it turned out to be a lively conversation.
I brought up the girl in my dreams, briefly, wondering if we’d run into her here. When Pinjin had mentioned creatures in storms, I’d gone still, wondering if I’d see her riding in on a bay of storm clouds or something. I still wasn’t totally sure if I’d done what she wanted or if I’d upset her. Either way, the danger seemed close enough that I didn’t want Harry and Zeno walking in blind.
We also talked about the inevitable, which was the dragons and Awk. It had been a pattern that, without fail, if there was a dragon, Awk would attempt to talk to it and convince it of the goodness of his master’s ways, no matter the odds and no matter what danger it put us in. This had been the case with both Nightscale and Calcryx. I’d had to haul him out of Nightscale’s pool to revive him and yell at him to use his shapeshifting (before my poor lizard got melted by that same dragon) and then he called our bluff on Calcryx after Lankin had done some truly staggering work pulling the wool over her eyes.
It seemed a good bet that if there were dragons in the desert then he was going to do his best to find them and do something.
And who knows, maybe his wild plans would work! Maybe, after all this time, I would be forced to concede that there really was hope for rehabilitating dragons and that I had hurt a lot of creatures that could have helped us instead.
However, we had a caravan to protect. Dragons at the moment were the antithesis of protection.
The three of us meditated on this for a while and concluded that it was a tricky problem. It sucked to continually rain on Awk’s parade when he seemed to genuinely believe in the goodness of his cause, but we couldn’t just keep testing his theories and keep getting screwed over in the process.
Oh, and also there was a wet spot in the tent.
I was really not sure of the nature of this spot– knowing Awk, it could have been anything– but after Harry, Zeno, and I watched it for a while, a small forked tongue poked out of the sand. This was deeply concerning for obvious reasons, but Harry had recalled that Awk had said not to step on the spot and we steered clear as a snake popped up, head first, then bodily swinging itself out.
I kept Kheryph close because I did not want anything getting any ideas here.
The snake was unperturbed and swished out into the predawn dunes, a desert, we realized, no longer bothered by sandstorm.
Inspired by this vision of natural beauty, Zeno blasted out a rousing new song, titled “Sandstorm”, to wake the group for the day’s travel.
Before we left for the second day of travel, we took a brief and mostly unsatisfying breakfast of dried fruits and bread; Awk made another valiant attempt at getting us to eat goodberries, but they were even more awful after the Tithe of the Desert took its toll. The berries looked like little more than potpourri, or at best, really old leather.
Pinjin and his crew were kind enough to teach us basic water safety, because by now they had come to terms with the fact that we were pretty hopeless (Felegum was not happy that I’d been telling him for ages not to worry about the water, only to find out that I could not in fact make good on these promises that it would all be okay), and Helli took a look at the water spigot to see if it could be repaired.
Zeno and Felegum did their patented HFVNN opening technique again to store the water barrel again, and Harry had a quick word with Pinjin to determine if the rumbling he’d sensed a while away from us was going to be a larger issue.
Pinjin shrugged. “Could be trouble, below, above, the heaving of the sands. We’ll have to see.”
“Good, good,” said Harry, laughing in a way that made it clear that this was very far from good.
We set out and Helli caught up with us after she put her tools away. “Have you heard of the Glutton of the Desert and the Mage of the Sands?” she asked. “Some of the crew talked to me and Lankin about them on our shift last night.”
These, the two had learned, were the titles of the dragons. Atarka, famous for her avaricious guard of oases and their resources, was the Glutton of the Desert. Ojutai, with his arcane knowledge and quest for power, was the Mage of the Sands. It was good to know, though it made the pair no less intimidating.
We traveled on for the second day, the dunes around us growing larger and larger.
Someone out ahead of us from the caravan was scouting and let out a cry. “The dead! The dead are walking!”
Something chilled over my skin and I gripped the hilts of both daggers. Just like home.
I’d always run from them– who wants to be turned into a zombie? — but maybe now would be different. My first instinct, though, was still to get as far away from them as possible.
Reports from the scout were that it didn’t look like a huge group of them; we might be able to get away if we take a longer, more out of the way route. Felegum summoned Dronie and had the monodrone fly off to do some reconnaissance of his own, learning that there were ten shapes coming from the east and south.
East and south. Csipherus again.
I wanted to spend as little time engaging these things as possible. They were, as I had said time and time again, not nice dudes when I’d run into them back home. But Zeno made a compelling point: we were going to have to face them at some point and we might as well know what they could do and how much we could handle.
So, we sent the caravan off a distance and we separated to meet the band of undead. We attempted to be strategic about it, hiding on top of a dune so that we’d have the advantage of terrain on our side and trap them in the valleys.
Zeno, rising to the occasion, delivered a motivational speech. “This is what we signed up to do,” he said. “We’re here to save the city. This is how we do it. We’re going to take these out and we’re going to do great.”
And surprisingly, I felt better about all this. It was still unpleasant as hell to contemplate, but he made good points. We were going to need to do this and it would let us know our enemy and their capabilities better. It would let us get better at saving my city, and that was all I needed.
Anyway, according to Dronie, the band was keeping their course. We waited a little more and then the battle was on.
Helli spotted them first and sneakily crept down a dune to get into better position. Harry, also opting for stealth, crept down the dune after her and got ready to defend himself if any should come his way. A few, we could see at this point, were carrying bows.
Next, Zeno tried to move past me, but his footing was a little less sure than the other two members of Team Evasion, and I slid down five feet in his wake. “Sorry,” he whispered, clasping my shoulder for balance, “but I think you’re gonna do a really good job.”
I felt better. I was not so annoyed to have slid a little– it brought me closer to Harry, who normally tended to be in the center of a fight. The undead were still too far for me to get to, so I figured, hey, here’s another shot at a great opening salvo.
I grabbed my medallion and summoned a burst of holy energy to fry those bad dudes (and obviously look very metal while doing so).
However, because Set was trying to look cool and the universe had determined that this was totally not allowed by any means possible with this new divine stuff, my spell missed its target. Totally let the undead know where we were, blew our cover completely, just no actual effect. Very cool of it.
I wrote it off as the sun being in my eyes.
Lankin, though, seized this opportunity with open arms. He shot a crossbow bolt right through one of the skeletons, sticking expertly through some vertebrae. Seeing that we were no longer being stealth by any means, Awk took out a little fuzzy ball from that one bag he’d gotten in Paripas and threw it at the undead. The fuzz hit the sand and transformed into an ape, menacing the zombies.
This did not last long though, as the zombies made short work of the ape with some nasty looking weapons. Another skeleton shot an arrow at Zeno, who gave it an affronted look and said, “uh, excuse me!” which caused it to go astray. Another arrow soared toward Awk, who dodged it, and then a final one at Zeno, ricocheting off the shoulder of his armor. However, since he’d currently set his enchanted armor to look like a robe hanging off his chest, it looked like he’d just flexed the bolt off his bare skin, a la Lankin.
Felegum, perhaps in defiance of the desert’s exacting toll, summoned a tidal wave to wash over a swathe of zombies, knocking two over. The water, alas, disappeared almost immediately into the sands, but it seemed as effective as it usually was. Overhead, Dronie continued to scan the area for any new attackers.
Helli swung around from one side and took out of wand, peppering the zombies with magic missiles, and Harry closed in on a pair of zombies, again in a defensive posture after trying to hit.
We were about to find out how bad these things could hit. They’d made short work of the ape, and we were nervous. Sensing this, Zeno called out “that monkey wasn’t even real!” and one of the skeletons looked visibly less proud of itself and its achievements.
I decided that this was an all or nothing situation and summoned my wings, flying ten feet in the air.
Having had success with his bow before, Lankin went in for another round of ranged attacks, but this time the bow betrayed him, bowstring snapping in his face. He winced and took out his greataxe, very much done. Awk summoned a dust devil, this little mini tornado to harry enemies, and ran up the next hill. This was somewhat difficult, as the hill sloped down and he found he couldn’t move as fast up it as he had going down.
As a flying dude, I became a pretty easy target for arrows, but all things considered, they weren’t awful. They were tinged with death, but me being what I was meant that death wasn’t as huge a deal for me as it was for other people, so I was happy to draw fire. A spearman got Harry, who also looked strong enough to withstand whatever weirdness was in their weapons, and another went for Lankin.
Felegum flicked another line of sweat off his brow and a second tidal wave crashed through the zombie ranks. So many were knocked prone that they piled up in a mess– one dude’s rapier ended up going through another different dude’s skull’s eye socket and he croaked. Like I said, Felegum was vibe checking them en masse.
Helli stabbed one who was lying on the ground and the dry heat of the desert crackled through it, turning it to dust. The second one she stabbed with her poison blade. Harry moved away from the zombie pair he was next to, telling me to get them, and headed off to make trouble for the archers.
Zeno played him a parting tune as the monk dashed off. “Harry, you’re far away but near our hearts.”
And I sliced into those zombies like a hot spice knife through butter. My first slice downed one of them and my second did not go quite so far, but made the other one look worse for wear.
Lankin hefted his great axe and sliced through one in a single swing and Awk’s eldritch blasts fired into some of the more distant attackers as his dust devil moved tantalizingly near Harry.
The undead once again made a play for me and failed, they did manage to land a strike on Lankin, one tried to hit Zeno except a well placed “I make better zombies than you!” kept it at bay, and then an arrow got Harry. One last one tried to move away from me and Lankin and I cut off its arm while the elf distracted it with a massive swing.
Again, Felegum called forth a tidal wave. Again, more zombies bit the dust. “There’s something coming from the sand! Off west and underneath it!” he yelled.
Helli had more immediate concerns, like taking a green cloak out of her bag and wrapping up a rusted, pock-marked dagger drinking pus. I did not question this; it was good thieving practice even if it was hella gross in this instance.
Trusting in her, a professional, I returned my gaze to the battlefield. Harry had bludgeoned a skeleton to its second death and then punted the last one into the heart of the dust devil. He mumbled something that sounded like “getting stronger” but I was too distracted by Pinjin and all the caravans arriving to ask what that had meant.
“Your little familiar told us all clear!” Pinjin waved.
“It’s not all clear!” Felegum yelled back. Dronie, dispatched earlier to warn the caravan to stay put, it seemed, had miscommunicated. “Turn around! There’s something coming!”
At this, Pinjin asked a few more fast, clarifying questions. What was it? A rumbling. Where? A gesture.
“Everyone, freeze!” he shouted.
And everyone froze, silent and still. Awk moved the dust devil away from the group into the distance.
And then a massive segmented brown wurm, long and headed with row upon row of gleaming white teeth–not unlike my dagger– flowed out of the sand and into the air in the direction of the dust devil. Awk continued to move it into the distance away from us until it passed the range he could control it and it dissipated and the wurm disappeared.
“Quiet, soft steps,” Pinjin whispered.
At this point, with a lot of standing around and nothing to do but look nervously at each other, it had became very clear that Helli could not let go of the drippy pus sword she was holding. It looked very gross and uncomfortable and also like she really wanted it gone. Also, a blackness was starting to spread up her arm from where she clutched the weapon, always a bad sign.
Felegum carefully and slowly went over to her and dispelled the magic. She dropped it with much relief and her arm returned to normal.
Slowly and quietly, Pinjin directed us forward. “We shall move.”
That was terrifying, but we all had made it out okay, and furthermore, we’d actually done okay with the undead. I felt pretty good about that. Awk asked Pinjin at length about oasis plants and Pinjin obligingly dissertated on the matter for a long while, and we stopped for a break at the height of the afternoon sun for some water.
Helli covertly inspected the barrels the caravan was using, maybe to see how their spigots worked for inspiration. Awk appeared to be casting some location spell, possibly in quest of plantlife and additional water, which was nice of him to think of.
We continued to walk, Awk on the lookout for more plants, Zeno for (usable) dead bodies, and Harry for information about what to do regarding keeping wounds clean when water runs scarce. It did seem like a pity that we had a poultice and no way to keep it on his face without it drying out in the sun early.
When we finally stopped to make camp, Lankin took the opportunity to fix his bow and Helli checked the wine she’d acquired that one time from the Loving Lettuce. Opening it caused more of it to poof out into the air, per the Tithe, and when she drank it it tasted stronger.
Thanks to Felegum’s culinary inspiration, we had a nice stir-fry for dinner, using the moose meat that Lankin had hunted, as well as squash and greens that Awk and Felegum had bought from the market in Tormani. The caravan crew looked very happy to have received such fine fare and I made a mental note to study Felegum’s Fallow’s Reach cuisine.
Zeno offered to play lo-fi beats with dinner, but was shut down by Pinjin, who insisted on quiet after the wurm incident earlier. Felegum put up his dome as usual and Awk gave up his spot to be kind to a camel. We were actually able to fit two camels in the dome, which made Lankin very happy and further endeared us to the crew. Awk spent some time talking to the camels about their life with the caravan, and while I couldn’t understand it, the general tone seemed happy.
Zeno and Felegum tried the water transfer inside the dome, since it was temperature controlled, and while the Tithe still took some water from them, it was a little less than normal.
Awk discovered that the very sand of the desert seemed to be magical and Harry commented wryly that dragons had been known to affect large-scale areas with their auras.
“No, I mean, the whole desert is enchanted,” Awk said.
I watched his face as I prepared a scrap of paper for a new spell, his head turned toward the grains of sand cupped in his hands in an attitude of wonder.
And I felt a kinship there, because this place had always been that way to me, even before I left it.