The wagon was parked right outside of the ruins entrance, Curi and Horrus seated at the front, Curi alternating between observing the stars and aiming her sextant. Cleo hopped out of the back of the wagon and walked towards the front.
“By the way, I did a bit more research. Can I see the map real quick?”
Durrus handed it over to her. She flattened it out.
“I did a bit more reading, and I got a rough idea of where the old Naha’Jan expedition went.” She pointed her finger on the northeastern point of the map, slowly drawing it westward. “Starting from near what I assume to be Naha’Ja here. Maybe the ‘demon’ they found was another Di’Chosh? It’s at least some sort of lead. Using the same path, I think it’s safe to assume the Rexius expedition could have started here,” She placed her finger on the southeastern point of the map. “And moved westward similarly.”
“Frankly, I don’t know the extent of how smart the rest of the Di’Chosh are, but I do know plenty about petty bandits. Plus we’ve got Caelos on our side, so that’s a fairly good leg-up on them as well.”
Cleo stared at the map a bit more.
“Right here though, directly westward from here there’s some sort of lake. Or at least, it’d probably be a dry lake by now. If we’re around here, just heading westward should guarantee something. Plus, I’m willing to bet we’d find some ruins near the lake. It’s only natural for people to settle around it, right?”
“Ruins or no ruins, it’s a good landmark to use as a point of reference of how deep we’re in the wastes. Curi, do me a favor and point us westward.”
She lowered her head and pointed off into the horizon.
Cleo handed back the map.
“You want to stay out here Curi?”
“Yea, you get a much better view up front!”
“All right, if you need anything, I’ll simply be riding the wagon in back.”
“Hurry up and load up, the more time we have to travel at night the better. That is, unless you like blistering heat.”
“Hah, doubt this would be any worse than back at home!”
Cleo walked back around and hopped into the wagon. Durrus motivated the horse, steering it westward, trotting onwards into the night.
As time passed, the sky behind them was painted the most subtle hue of pink, while the moon was beginning to settle down right in front of them. Cleo and Horrus slept silently in the back, continuing their ongoing silence since the beginning of the journey. Durrus sat ever vigilant at the front, scanning the landscape for their destination, while Curi leaned against the cold steel of his armor, her eyes growing more and more heavy as time went on. Before sleep overtook her, she noticed a shadow skirt across one of the dunes in the distance. She immediately shot up to her feet, noticing another shadow dart from the top of the dune.
“Look, over there!”
“What, what is- hey hold up!”
She leapt from the bench and starting sprinting towards the dune. Durrus jerked the horse to a stop, and hopped off the bench in pursuit. Horrus and Cleo were both suddenly thrown forward with the wagon, crashing into the supply crates. They groggily climbed out of the wagon, noticing Durrus and Curi. Cleo drew her sword and sprinted over, Horrus casually trailing behind. Curi skidded to a stop at the top of the dune.
“Curi what’s gotten into-”
He noticed her face was radiating excitement. He stared at her point of interest, and saw a small group of fox-like creatures with massive ears. Each one wandered around a patch of small plants with long pointed leaves spiking out of the ground. One of the creatures dug up a fatty worm and scurried over the dunes and into the distance with it. The rest kept moving around the plants, digging in the sand before moving on to another spot. Right as Cleo reached the top of the dune, Curi began sprinting down laughing with joy.
“Are those plants? Like actual plants out here? They certainly don’t look like any breed of cacti.”
“Yup… Along with some of those famed desert ‘demons’ I suppose.”
Durrus chuckled a bit. The foxes glared at Curi for a moment before resuming with their digging. She crouched down. The foxes were very small, as long as her arm but no thicker than it. Their ears seemed as large as their head. All of the foxes suddenly looked at Curi before scurrying off as the sound of clanking metal approached. She looked behind, noticing Cleo and Durrus coming close while Horrus was staring in the distance. She knelt down, face to face with Curi.
“Promise me you won’t do that again, all right? That’s a good way to get yourself hurt.”
“But I didn’t get hurt!”
“And what if those foxes weren’t very nice?”
“Well that’s what Caelos is for, right?”
“I guess so… But still, I want you to be more careful out here. If they surprised you, I don’t think Caelos could have reacted in time. Now then…”
She walked over and crouched near the plant, poking and prodding around the leaves.
“How exactly did you survive all the way out here?”
She broke off the leaf, finding it to be fairly dry. Upon closer inspection, the leaf had several small bites on it. She dug around the base of the plant, finding roots that ran deeper into the ground, and finding another strange worm, looking like it was deflating on the root. She grabbed it, observing. It was just fairly transparent, the moonlight shining through it fairly clearly. She squeezed it and then it suddenly popped, spraying a mix of water and worm guts all over her. She wiped her face, smiling.
“I get it now…” She turned to Durrus. “Look, these worms apparently found water somewhere, maybe deep underground? They bring it up to the surface, and basically water these plants as if they were crops! I’m not sure if they’re safe to drink from, but maybe we can figure that out later.”
“The worms and plants are interesting now, but I don’t think they’re worth much. Pick up the pace, we’re burning moonlight.”
“Seriously, don’t underestimate how important this discovery is. Wouldn’t it be incredible if we could find ways to explore the wastes without a being like Caelos?”
“As long as I get my riches before the rest of the hordes get their hands on it.”
She stood up.
“Well, I need to get back and document this as well.”
“If we find another one of those foxes can I keep one?”
“Come on kid, we’re not here to abduct the local wildlife. Let’s all just try and stay focused.”
The moon had set beyond the horizon, leaving the sun climbing up behind them, blazing the sky a fiery bright pink. Cleo and Horrus had fallen asleep once again, Cleo gripping tight to a journal while Horrus rested near a stack of papers. Curi had completely fallen asleep, lying on Durrus’s side whilst clutching tightly to her staff. Durrus let out a yawn, keeping his eyes locked on the landscape ahead. Sunlight slowly glided into the back of the wagon, overtaking Cleo’s, and then Horrus’s heads. Her eyes crawled open, her stretching out her arms and rubbing her eyes.
“Durrus, see anything yet?”
“Still sand as far as the eye can see. Part of me is starting to think this map is a bunch of crap.”
“Well, a bit too far to turn back now?”
Horrus moaned. “Please, keep it down, let me sleep for a few more hours or so.”
“Mind if I bring Curi back here? It’s gonna start to get rather hot fast, so I she’d be a bit better off in the shade.”
“Seems fine enough, I guess it is better to prevent any potential sunburn.”
The wagon stopped, Cleo hopped out and walked towards the front. She carefully picked up Curi and started carrying her back to the wagon. She returned to the back and started climbing back in.
“Woah… The sun looks really pretty!”
Cleo looked over her shoulder at the sunrise.
“Sunrise and sundown are when I consider the sun to be at its best. Not all that hot yet and it does look really pretty. You know, Curi, have you been to Naha’Ja?”
“No, but I’ve read about it a bit before!”
“The sunrises are much prettier there, trust me. Plus even after the sun rises, we have a lot of ways to keep really cool.”
“Maybe you can show me when we’re done here?”
“When I return after this, I need to take care of a bit of business first, but after that, I’ll be sure to show off the best it has to offer.”
Horrus glared at her, suddenly roused from his sleep. “You know, I don’t think Naha’Ja sounds that great. Sandy, too hot, full of know-it-alls.”
Cleo helped Curi into the wagon before leaping into it, landing with a loud thud.
He stretched out, yawning. “Naha’Ja is mostly desert and drylands, right? That sounds boring, like really boring. Doubt there’s any wildlife of worth over there either. Pretty worthless if you ask me.”
“Worthless? Is that not why it’s the greatest of all the nations here? Where are you from exactly that makes it so ‘worthless’?”
“Rexius’s woodlands. Need I say more about how it’s ten times better than Naha’Ja?”
“Yes, actually. I didn’t know living in the woods full of killer animals was so much better than the incredible cities of Naha’Ja.”
“City life is boring and softens you up too much. Living in the woods? That’s how you can make a true man out of a person, you should try it.”
“Hah, if we all lived in the woods like you, it wouldn’t be long before we’d all start fighting each other.”
“True men don’t fight other men you know. Fighting other humans is stupid.”
“Funny coming from somebody who’s country waged war twice on Naha’Ja.”
“I don’t live in Rexius, I live in Rexius’s woodlands.”
“But you-… Just forget it.”
She dropped down to the floor and turned away from Horrus, who cracked a small smile and laughed to himself quietly. Curi walked over to him.
“Come on Horrus, don’t be so mean! She’s a great knight!”
“I don’t really see why we need her, I’m more than good enough.”
“The more the merrier though, right?”
He leaned back and closed his eyes.
“Maybe we can bring Horrus along on our trip? Maybe that’ll get him to change his mind?”
“I don’t think I’d want to take him along anyways… But either way, let me tell you more about Naha’Ja! So I lived in it’s capital Khaljul, and it’s chock full of beautiful buildings as far as the eye can see. Oh, and then there’s the Naha’Ja Delta as well…”
The sun had continued its climb into the sky, now lighting it up a perfectly clear light blue, without a single cloud in sight. Durrus had wrapped a spare shirt around his head into a Shemagh, taking a nice long drink out of his water flask. Horrus had torn off his gambeson, shirt, and boots, sitting in a pool of his own sweat. Cleo and Curi were happily chatting with each other, Cleo with her musket in hand, and Caelos behind Curi, wrapping her arms around her.
“Now, this is currently the pinnacle of our weapons technology. It fires this thing” She held up a small iron ball. “at incredibly high speeds, and it’s deadly. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do much against plate armor at a long distance yet, but by the time we get back, we’ll likely be able to develop far beyond that!”
“Woooah! Can I fire it?”
“I wanna conserve ammo, but maybe when we get back. I’ve gone on long enough, and now I have some questions for you. First, can I feel Caelos real quick?”
Caelos smiled and reached out her hand. Cleo reached hers out and touched it, feeling a pleasant coolness emanating from it.
“My body is just mostly… Energy, that is the best word to call it. I can change form and heat as I see fit. I’ve actually kept this form for the past thousand years.”
“Incredible… Say, do you know anything about other Di’Chosh?”
“Not exactly. I scarcely remember our early history, nor who survived to live in Chidetah. Our tribe was rather isolated from the rest of them, so we didn’t have much contact. Thankfully, it was thanks to that lack of contact that we all managed to survive.”
“When humans and Di’Chosh first began fighting centuries ago, we were able to notice it before it reached us. I gave the order for my people to flee eastward and try to re-settle with other potential humans. From then on, my staff was deactivated, and for the next milenia, I was plunged into silence. Perhaps out of fear, nobody used me until Curi woke me once more.”
“My grandma entrusted it to me when she passed away. She said it was something like a symbol for our family’s leaders for generations? My father wasn’t allowed to have it since he married from outside of my family. Then when I was born, I was next in line!”
Cleo stared at Curi.
“I’m willing to bet maybe your family found it long after Caelos’s tribe dispersed and just liked the look of it? It does look… fantastically odd?”
“I know, it looks really cool!”
She turned back to Caelos.
“Well, what about your tribe then?”
“I watched over my people carefully, ensuring no harm came to them. At first, harm to them seemed inevitable, as most of them toiled underground in the mines, attacked by the creatures down there. Then I discovered the amount of wealth that lies in the stars above. In return for their work, I blessed them with all the mineral wealth they needed.”
“That kinda power to society nowadays would be really helpful.”
“That is why I wish to reunite the Di’Chosh with humanity. Under our guidance and with knowledge of the past, we can avoid another great conflict like in the past, and work together towards a more prosperous future.”
Horrus squinted an eye open.
“Hey, why not give me a turn with Caelos? It’s too hot out here!”
“Now now Horrus, Curi can’t handle the heat as well as you can, and you know that.”
“Hah, come on Horrus. Surely the wilderness prepared you to be man enough for a little bit of heat, right?”
The wagon jerked to a stop.
“Hey everyone, get out front with weapons out. Cleo, grab that rifle of yours as well! I see something big!”
Horrus merely slipped on his boots and flew out the back of the wagon and sprinted towards the front. Caelos detached herself from Curi and followed her out the back, Cleo right behind them towing along her rifle. As they reached the front, the three stopped for a moment. Four large, horse-sized beetles on tall, stilt-like legs slowly treaded not too far in the distance. At their front, they had a two long, stilt like appendages sifting through the sand below. One of them paused slightly, noticing Horrus still sprinting towards it, before losing interest in him. He reached one of their legs, skidding to a stop at how dwarfed he was by the creature, standing at likely three times his height. Cleo was carefully tracking the beast with her rifle.
“Damn it, just don’t get in the way of my shot…”
Suddenly, its appendages retracted from the sand below, kicking up a large cloud of sand and pulling out a large snake, long enough to wrap around a bear and still have length to spare, from the ground. The snake thrashed and writhed, hissed and bit at the appendages. The monstrous beetle opened up a large, teeth-laden mouth, tossing the snake in whole. Slowly, it lowered its appendages back into the sand once more. After that, Horrus began slowly walking back, as Durrus pushed the end of the rifle down.
“I don’t think humans are on its menu. Best for us not to irritate them.”
The beetle eyed Horrus again as he walked away, before continuing its interest in probing the sands below. Caelos and Curi both gazed in wonder.
“Chidetah’s life seems to have changed in a very interesting manner since I was last here…”
“Why do we need our horse anymore? Let’s just put our wagon on top of that and ride it!”
Horrus finally reached the group, sweating profusely.
“Those things aren’t worth hunting.”
“What, you sure you aren’t saying it because you’re scared?”
“What use would we get out of it anyways. Not like we can eat all of it in one go or get any use out of its carapace.”
Durrus put his hand on his chin.
“I don’t know about you, but if we had the capacity to drag the carapace of that thing home, I’m sure some merchants could find use of it.”
“Well it’s too bad we don’t have that capacity.”
“Do you see any shade ahead? Or anything? I’m practically dying here!”
Horrus had completely soaked his corner of the tarp, lying down panting profusely while downing another flask of water. Cleo and Curi munched on bread as Caelos slowly brought down another ice rock into a pot. Durrus was holding his hand above his eyes, looking ahead with his armor mostly stripped down and shirt soaked in sweat.
“Wait… I think I see something? It’s like a weird dead tree! Or a rock? Like some kinda mushroom?”
Horrus popped through the front of the wagon. Off in the distance was a tall and wide mushroom-like object protruding from the ground, casting off a nice amount of shade, at least compared to the nothingness of the scorched sand around it.
“I wouldn’t mind stopping there for a quick rest. Pretty sure our horse needs a drink as well.”
“Well hurry up and get to it!”
Durrus motivated the horse a bit, and the shade grew closer and closer as they approached. It seemed like the object towered over the horse and wagon itself.
“Screw this, we can move faster than this!”
Horrus leapt out of the front of the wagon and went for a full blown sprint towards the shade. He reached the shade in moments, diving into it, burying his hands in the cool sand. His relief was short-lived, however, as the ground began to shake and the ground began to rise below his feet. Durrus quickly stopped the wagon and observed. From the sand burst forth a massive beetle, sending Horrus flying back. The beetle was bigger than the horse and wagon combined, its carapace color matching the sand itself. The front lower half of its body seemed like all mouth, and its horn was the very same mushroom-like shade. It let out a roar and lumbered towards Horrus.
“Kid, get back in here now!”
Curi and Cleo peeked out the front noticing the massive beetle. Cleo retreated into the wagon, while Caelos came forth, quickly launching an asteroid at the thing. It crashed into it, knocking it back and slightly cracking its carapace. Horrus scrambled to his feet. He looked at the beast as it regained its footing, smiling. He reached towards his belt, finding nothing.
“My axes! Toss my axes to me!”
“Look, your axes aren’t going to do crap to that! Just get back in the damn wagon!”
The creature recovered, now focused on the wagon, letting out a shriek, forcing Horrus to cover his ears. Caelos launched another asteroid at it, while Cleo popped her rifle out of the front. She fired a round into the thing, the recoil launching her back a few feet and off her perch. Durrus nearly dove off of the wagon to the ground.
“Watch where you’re firing that thing!”
The bullet pierced its carapace, causing it to shriek once more. Horrus finally made his way back into the wagon and ran to his corner, grabbing his axes. Cleo grabbed onto his arm.
“He’s in, let’s get out of here!”
Durrus motivated the horse, forcing it to gallop away from the creature. Horrus watched as it shrank into the distance, re-burrowing into the sand, letting its mushroom-like horn stick out of the surface. He turned back to Cleo angrily.
“Come on, I’ve been waiting for something actually worth fighting and you just do that to me?!”
“You really gotta get your head on straight! How were you gonna kill that thing?”
“Simple, it was bound to have a soft spot somewhere! It was slow, I could have evaded it!”
Curi yelled. “Please, can you two stop fighting?”
Curi ran over and hugged Horrus.
“Please, I don’t want to see you get that hurt! If Caelos couldn’t hurt it, then what could you do to it?”
“…I probably could have found something out. But… “
He hugged Curi back.
“Sorry for that.”
“Oh and you give her an apology and no thank you to me?”
“Shut up you.”
“Thank you for keeping Horrus safe! See, I told you Cleo is a good knight!”
“You’re welcome! Now that’s what, two times we had to save you Horrus?”
“I said shut it! At least I’ve been able to kill more than you!”
“Is that a challenge?”
“Will you two just honest to god shut up back there?”
“Curi, why exactly are you friends with this guy?”
“Because he’s nice to me and I’m nice to him! I’m sure you’ll be good friends with him soon as well!”
The sun was beginning its descent, but it still blazed high in the sky as the wagon made its way through the sea of sand. Durrus drank from his flask, keeping his eyes ahead. A small hint of brown peeped up over the horizon. Durrus rubbed his eyes and squinted. As he got closer, the color turned into a triangle, and slowly kept rising higher into the sky as he approached.
“I think we found something of interest!”
The trio popped their heads out of the front of the wagon, to see the ever rising mountain up ahead. It continued to rise higher and higher into the sky as they approached. By the time they reached the foot of it, the top was barely in sight. The sides of the mountain were horribly jagged, looking like several rocky spikes had plummeted into its side from the sky above. Small blotches of white dotted the tops or bases of the spikes. There was no gradual incline it to it either. It looked like it pierced itself from out of the sand below. A few birds circled around the peak of it. Durrus unrolled the map, carefully observing it before glancing at the mountain, and back to the map again.
“According to the map, the only mountains are at the edges of Chidetah, but it’s more of a mountain range than… This.”
The other three hopped out of the back of the wagon.
“Well this is just unreal…”
“Hah, we’ve encountered bugs that are several times our size and the weird spiky mountain is unreal?”
“Hey, I never said those weren’t unbelievable!”
Cleo and Curi walked closer to the mountain, Horrus running over to shade being cast off by one of the spikes.
He plopped himself down in the shade.
“Careful Horrus, that mountain might come alive on you!”
Durrus chuckled to himself.
“But, he has the right idea. Let’s at least set up some form of camp here. I’m honestly surprised our horse hasn’t died of heat exhaustion yet.”
The sun was blazing the western sky a hot pink as the moon rose behind them. Durrus’s tent was pitched, a small fire and cooking setup was flaming, tended by Cleo, cooking a mixture of water, cheese and meats. Curi and Horrus were wandering around the mountain together, with Caelos overlooking them both. Curi merrily chatted as Horrus continued to glance around. He suddenly stopped, holding out his arm, causing Curi to bump into it. Embedded in the rock was what looked like a massive white block, with a few holes carved into it and a doorway looking hole as well.
“Oh nice find!”
“Careful, sometimes animals make nests in old buildings. Bring your staff to the doorway.”
He took out his axes as she poked the staff through the doorway, illuminating the room. He creeped in, seeing that it was very small, smaller than Durrus’s tent. The back wall was completely covered by the mountainside. Sand overran the insides, mostly burying ruined pieces of wooden furniture. He scanned the room carefully one last time before exiting.
“Nothing in here at all.”
“Well, the house alone is important! That means ruins could be nearby!”
“Let’s keep looking! Maybe the dried lake is nearby too!”
The two picked up their pace, lightly jogging around the mountain. Nearing the rear, they saw more and more white blocky houses embedded, ruined, or flat out impaled by spikes from the mountain. Large piles of white rubble were scattered around the foot of the mountain or on its spikes. By the time they reached the rear, up against the setting moon was a massive town. Several white buildings stained with sand varying in sizes spread out for quite some distance, but the edges of it were still in eyesight. Each of the houses looked ornate, almost as if they were carved from massive blocks, varying in roofing, shape, structure, and design. Some were simple blocks with a few holes for windows and entry, while others sprawled out in odd designs, several times larger, while some towered high looking like miniature cathedrals. At the very rear lay the largest building of them all, towering higher and larger than the rest of them, looking like a castle. And even further beyond that lie a mass expanse of cracked land.
“This looks wonderful…”
The two looked at Caelos.
“Without a doubt, humans had to have help from a Di’Chosh to create this. A living tribute of what we can achieve together.”
“Maybe when we get back, we can use the Di’Chosh who made this town to create a home for us all!”
“I’ll make it so Curi. Your journey will not go unrewarded.”
The moon had finally cleared the horizon as the three returned to Cleo and Durrus. They were helping themselves to some stew when Durrus looked up from his meal.
“There you two are, sheesh. For a while I thought you two had ditched us.”
“Please, do not worry. I will make sure they won’t wander off too far.”
“I had faith you’d do that for us at least.”
“Well we found something great! The dried lake is just behind the mountain, and the best part is that there’s a village still standing!”
Cleo nearly choked on her food.
“A WHAT now?”
“Yeah, it’s a large village full of all these really cool looking white houses! Plus, a really big castle as well!”
“Must be real sturdy stuff if it lasted for this long.”
“Talk about a great stroke of luck as well! We aren’t leaving till I’ve scoured every building there!”
“Oh yeah, speaking of buildings, we also found a few buildings embedded in the mountainside as well. They don’t have anything of interest inside them though.”
“I’m sorry, what now? I’m going to have to check that out for myself then.”
“Looks like we all got a long day ahead of us tomorrow, yeah? You two, grab some dinner and some water, and come into my tent for some rest. We’re going to get going while the moon is still up, got it? I don’t want a case of heat stroke out there in my armor.”
“Wait, my tent is still being used as a tarp…”
“Well you should have thought of that before we set off no? Mine’s already too full anyways.”
“To think I’m going to spend even more time in that wagon than the rest of you…”