I took hold of the Olgoi Khorkhoi and split it open. From within, the body had found its exit through the wound, gushing outward onto the sand. It's stomach acid melting away in the fine grain, I still held on to the worm until it no longer struggled. Unsure of its hostage, I went to examine his condition. Covered in its poisonous mucus, the man was nothing more than a dessicated corpse and it would seem I would have to find another guide. There was nothing but desert for miles, I would need to find my way to Rinsaad before nightfall. I began rummaging through the man's belongings in hopes of finding anything of use. Inside the bag he carried dried meats, familiar vials of an alluring liquid, an assortment of tea leaves and medicinal herbs, and twigs for tinder. The dried meats and tea leaves would serve as nourishment on my journey, I pocketed the vials, and I collected the herbs in the event of an injury. On his body I was lucky enough to recover a compass along with a map of the region. I made sure to grab his journeyman permit as well, his family would want to know. I offered a prayer in thanks, the sun still high in the sky, I took the opportunity to consult the map. Despite it being covered in mucus, I was able to make out the markings etched on its surface. Tracing my finger along the clay tablet a familiar name stood out, Anuba Outpost.
Not too long ago I had received information from an anonymous source, an associate of mine, regarding ruins unearthed by salvagers in the Kalhani desert. There was excitement in the air as the salvagers participating in the excavation believed that they had discovered what might possibly be a new entrance into The Network. An enigma, it is a vast underground labyrinth with unknown purpose, from a time before the Oracle gave unto humanity the ability to kindle. It's depth unknown, the network is littered with artifacts that possess unique qualities, a cache of untold fortune. My associate had also informed me of mummified remains discovered in the ruins, possible ties to blood worship, but they were uncertain. If this was true, I had to confirm it for myself.
I began my journey and trekked through the drylands to the southwest. I observed that the foliage around me had become more and more scarce the further my journey took me. The ground beneath me made its transition from dry soil to fine grain, the clear skies devoid of wet weather. The sun above bathed the land in its light, while the arid climate would help inform any traveler that there would be no source of water for miles to come. Though I had an ample stock of water and travel rations, it was still a day's worth of walking before I reached my destination. However that was the least of my worries, should somebody decide to spend a night in the desert, they would likely fall prey to the beasts that prowl in the dark. Having been well-rested, there was no need for me to spend the night on the desert floor. As time went on, I felt myself being cooked under the desert sun, I persevered onward until at last I was greeted to a flag raised high on a tower in the distance, I had arrived at Anuba Outpost.
The outpost stood at the border between the Republic of Kindoria and the Kalhani desert. The people stationed here were an infantry of kindorian soldiers and Kalhani natives to serve as local guides for any travelers. Having established a waypoint, they had also employed the use of a wind turbine to help power their makeshift radios along with a pair of an aerometer and barometer to measure atmospheric conditions in the region. I met with the local guards stationed here seeking passage through the desert. I was directed to meet with Kalhani nomads holed up in a tent south of the outpost. It was there I met Julian, a journeyman from the cartographers guild.
"The fee, as we discussed, guarantees your rental guide. However we do not cover any supplies you may require while traversing the desert. You will have to purchase those goods elsewhere." Julian explained, engrossed in his work.
The tent had a smoky smell, a dim candle illuminated his workstation. Cluttered with letters, an inkwell, a knife and a curious crested stamp. A shelf stood behind him filled with rolled parchment. It was hard to see, what seemed to be a black feather adorned his desert cap, I explained that I lacked the coin for a trip. In response Julian offered a discount in the form of a favor in dealing with a troublesome asset that would help settle the remaining fee. The discount he offered me in exchange for my services helped set aside enough coin for supplies. He handed me a small pouch, inside it held a vial of liquid. I was given a written slip of parchment confirming our agreement.
"That's fine. Are there any merchants here that would supply me with food and drinking water?"
"The quartermaster up by the barracks should have what you need."
"I'll be sure to stop by and check their stock."
"Very well. Moving on, many of our guides are currently engaged escorting other guests. However I will have someone ready for you by tomorrow morning, and I expect you to deal with the asset accordingly."
"I understand. I'll have dealt with it before reaching the town."
Julian advised me to be wary of travelling at night, the desert was home to a variety of nocturnal wildlife. He suggested I head to the barracks should I need lodging.
"Remember, I expect you to be on time for tomorrow." Julian lifted his head, changing his focus, he brought his full attention to me.
"I will. Till tomorrow."
Julian sent me off with a nod and resumed his work. I exited the tent, an end to that discussion. I set off to buy travel rations from the quartermaster before renting bedding at the barracks for the night.
Morning turned to afternoon, the guards now changing shifts. I found myself waiting longer than I had anticipated for my guide. Other clients stood nearby, they came and went as they were escorted to their destination. By the time the sun was high in the sky, I was the only one left waiting, the rest having departed. Convinced he was not going to show, I felt my discounted fee was all but void. I had been prepared to confront Julian to discuss my purchase only to see a husky man rushing over. He held up his journeyman permit to notify me of who he was, my guide had arrived.
"My apologies, before I knew it the sun caught up with me. I awoke to my wife's home cooking, she always makes it with love. The best way to return her affection is to eat it, you know? I'm getting ahead of myself. May peace be upon you, I am called Talal, I hope we get along."
He heaved wiping sweat from his brow. I couldn't help but be dumbfounded at how aloof this man was.
"Likewise. Just call me Grit."
"Ah, a great pleasure to meet you Sir Grit. Well then, no more delays, shall we be on our way?"
"It's past morning, I don't believe we would make it to Rinsaad before nightfall."
"No worries, not a problem sir, not a problem."
He assured me that we would make our voyage across the desert without issue. We headed west from the outpost. We wandered the desert, the heat beating down on us. The occasional gust of wind provided us minor relief which pushed us on. A flock of birds flew overhead on the lookout for potential prey. What seemed like hours passed and the sun began to set over the desert dunes in the distance. No sign of civilization in sight, we were not going to make it to Rinsaad before nightfall.
"I apologize sir, it appears you were right, the sun will soon set. It would be wise for us to find some place to rest before it becomes too dark to see."
"It's alright, I understand, and since it's only for one night I'll help in setting up camp."
He had admitted to his lack of guidance and experience. But I did not fault him for it, it would not matter soon enough. We found a nice spot to set up camp nearby, flat terrain to lay down our sheets and a large rock which provided shade for when morning comes. I helped start the campfire by gathering dry shrub from nearby. Talal offered to start the fire seeing as I lacked the ability to do so. I provided to share some food. Palms clasped together, he offered a prayer and muttered a powerful word.
He had conjured a small fire from within the pile of dry grass and sticks. It caught fire and the tinder began to burn.
"That was a nice display of skill."
"Haha, that is very kind of you sir. But my ability to kindle pales in comparison to others."
Kindling is a mysterious thing, a form of sorcery, the ability to Kindle is a natural gift many are born with. It lets the individual borrow power from the goddess, the Oracle, to perform miracles. However not many people are as adept at it as others, and there are those who are born into this world incapable of kindling at all.
"Still, you should be proud of your skill, Invalids like me would kill for your ability to do so."
"Is that so? Well, Invalid or not, your inability to kindle is not something to be looked down upon. In our culture, children born with deformities are accepted for what they are and will always have a place in society, even the dregs plagued by the curse. Though of course there are some who disregard this notion, nonetheless under the rule of Jochi Khan all are respected and welcome."
"If what you say is true, then an Invalid like me might never want to return to the Republic." I scoffed. "But your Khan seems to be quite the revolutionary, I can only imagine the difficulties he faced ruling over the many countries he's subjugated, all with diverse cultures."
"This is true! He likely rules with an incessant headache!" He laughed. "In any case our little chat and your kind words have warmed my heart. Let me not forget to thank you for the meal!"
"It's the least I could do, though I'm sure it can't compare to the meals your wife makes."
"Though I love my wife, I'm afraid she can't cook very well, so the food you shared was quite the treat." He chuckled, eyeing me down. "Now I don't mean to intrude, but I couldn't help but notice that I see you carry a dagger. Are you a soldier, or perhaps am I in the company of nobility?"
"No, nothing like that." I chortled.
"Ah, I see. You are a man for hire then, a mercenary!"
"You could say that."
"If so, maybe I should be hiring you to guard me, not the other way around!" He laughed.
We continued the conversation from before in regards to invalids, Talal elaborated on other religious teachings within their culture and those that disregarded it. There were some who would abandon children as they felt themselves better suited for a child-free life. As for the children, no longer part of the family household they were sometimes picked up by the local soldiers and taken care of in exchange of indentured servitude to the military. However not all children were lucky enough to be in debt to the military, in most cases they would be left at the local dump where they were picked and sold into a life of slavery. Despite the intriguing look into Kalhani culture I was beginning to tire of what had become a one-sided conversation. I would prefer it if he kept his mouth shut. Seeing as I became more unresponsive against his efforts to make small talk, he eventually went quiet, I managed to finish my meal without interruption. However, I could see Talal still had something on his mind, he kept his eyes locked on me, eager to get me to look his way. I begrudgingly gave him my attention.
"Hm, I don't mean to be rude, but would it be alright if I could take a look at your dagger? I'd like to see it up close for myself, I would never get the chance otherwise."
I gave him a long hard look, hesitant to allow him the opportunity. Though it would seem he just wanted to take a look, after all it was only for a moment. I unbuckled and unsheathed it off my belt and handed him the dagger. He grinned.
"This is a fine dagger, sir. It's got weight to it!" He gleefully exclaimed.
"Copper or Cast-iron?"
"Neither, it's a mix of carbon and iron, bought from a salvager."
"Really? Unbelievable. That's quite an uncommon combination, I wonder how well it performs."
While examining the hilt and handguard, he began to pull the blade from its sheath. I was a little surprised but retained my composure. The blade gleamed in the sun, Talal's reflection could be seen off its surface. He then took a moment to pull up his sleeve, then proceeded to gently drag the blade at an angle against his forearm. Clumps of hair fell off its edge, his skin shaven clean. His eyes met with mine for a moment. Satisfied, he resheathed the dagger, returning it to me.
"Truly amazing, sir. I thank you for the opportunity." He grinned once more.
"Don't mention it."
It was dark now, the moon now high above us. The air was dry and cool in the desert night, almost freezing. We would shiver if not for the campfire that had been stoked to keep us warm.
"I suppose it's about that time."
"Ah, yes. Please, rest awhile, sir. I will keep watch."
"That's alright, I'll take first watch."
"No, I cannot allow that. Sir, you are my responsibility so please, sleep."
"Look, I'm confident in my abilities to ward off any beast that wanders by. I can't say the same for you."
I was met with irritable reluctance on his behalf. Again, he insisted I sleep and again I refuted his offer. I was keen on observing my surroundings all night. Nothing was going to change that. He finally understood that I would not change my mind on the matter, he had given in to my demands.
"Alright sir, despite my obligations I will put aside my better judgement. I trust you are capable of standing watch."
"I can guarantee our safety, so please rest well."
He had surrendered his vote to stand watch and reluctantly settled into his sheets. With my position as night guard secured, I positioned myself leaning against the large rock to serve as my outpost. The campfire brightened the surrounding area. In its warm light Talal could be seen resting on his side, his back facing the campfire. Occasionally adjusting himself, I would catch him peeking his head over in my direction. Seems he would be a greater nuisance than any monster.
Some time had passed, I had been keeping a lookout for any signs of danger. I focused on the sounds of the night. The quiet breeze gently blowing by, small insects chirping and scuttling about, the distant cry of birds and the familiar sound of snoring. I pulled out the vial Julian had given me. Despite knowing the truth, I was to explain to others that it would help ward off any beast. He recommended I offer it to my guide as a sign of gratitude. In turn it would hasten my travel to the next town. Unlike Talal, I was capable of holding my own against any wild beast. On behalf of the journeyman, It was for the best that I should use the vial on him. I uncorked the vial and was greeted to an alluring scent which embraced me. I approached the sleeping guide and doused him in the vial's contents. I could rest easy now. I headed back to the large rock and chose to rest upon its head. I layed back against its surface and gazed upon the stars. I then felt myself dozing off to the sound of moving sand.
I awoke to muffled screams, my attention pulled toward the campsite. A Olgoi Khorkhoi, a large poisonous worm, had burrowed its way out of the ground, it stood three men tall. It had caught Talal in its gaping maw, too focused on its meal I was left unnoticed. I leapt off the rock, from safety, and rushed over. Dagger in hand I took my stance and began hacking away at the monstrosity. Its outer shell reflected my hits back to me, slashing away would do me no good. I would need to pierce its shell. With that idea in mind, I motioned to get around the worm as it flailed about. I lunged and took hold of the creature from behind. With a dagger in hand I struck deep, using the tip of the blade, I had pierced its thick shell. The worm let out a wincing screech. It thrashed about and I was flung off its body. It was no longer occupied by its meal, its full attention on me. My weapon still lodged in its shell, I had no means to protect myself. The worm was ready to launch an assault in an attempt to consume me. I evaded its attack and made plans to retrieve my dagger. Narrowly avoiding each of its attacks, I found my opening. I lunged once more and grabbed onto the daggers handle. I held it with two hands and motioned my body so that my weight would propel the blade downward. Its wound dragged open. The worm began forcefully flailing about while I managed to maintain my grip. It let out a wild squeal then collapsed onto the sand, no longer a threat.
To think my troubles began there, I found myself coming to terms with past events. Having overcome the obstacles leading up to now, I felt a sense of relief. I did not dare stall any longer for parents would come for child soon enough. I examined the map and found a path to my next destination. On lookout for landmarks to guide my way, I took one last look at Talal and nodded goodbye. A fate owed to him thanks to his misdeeds. With the compass in hand, I headed west.
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