Highsun, The Year of the Defiant Priest
Rumors said that the path might be dangerous – vague threats of ssurran causing trouble on the roads leading from Altaruk to Tyr had kept others from risking the trip. But the overseer was insistent that commerce could not wait, and the offered pay for guard duty had been…adequate. After the first day of travel, a subtle shower of meteors was seen among the stars in the chill night sky. The caravan master, a practical man, dismissed the omen, but others in the train were uneasy.
Early the next morning, a sandstorm erupted and quickly turned deadly. The scouring sand was filled with unnatural obsidian shards that tore through the travelers and pierced the thick hide walls of the wagons, shredding most of the cargo. Some of the handlers were killed instantly. Still others ran to the imagined shelter of nearby rock structures before they died. Five of the hired guards wisely sought the shelter of the sturdiest and least damaged wagon – the one carrying food and water supplies. The storm raged around them for a time, and as the winds lessened they came to realize that they were likely the only survivors.
“This isn’t natural,” grumbled, a short human woman in light hides.
The wiry gith smirked casually. “Not natural? Whatever gave you that impression?”
The woman glanced at the gith. “Sorry, I was talking to…myself.” He snorted derisively in reply.
“You mean this is not normal for the desert?” asked a burly half-orc.
In a lofty voice, the androgynous eladrin said, “I’ve not seen anything like this before.”
The thri-kreen kept his own council chittering nervously with something unseen in the language of the mantisfolk.
The deafening clatter of the obsidian shards began to subside, and they could see through the flaps of the hide-covered wagon that small bipedal reptiles leapt from the surrounding silt. They were light on their feet and seemed keen to pick through the remaining cargo. Scanning the area quickly, many more of them could be seen lurking on all sides. The clearest path to escape both the horde and the worst of the storm appeared to go directly through the nearest foes to the north.
“Well, that’s unfortunate,” whispered the eladrin, quietly drawing a longsword and dagger.
Frowning, the gith strung a massive bow and muttered, “I was hoping that sound was just you talking to yourself again.”
“Not this time,” the woman said fiercely. “I’ll be damned if I let those scavengers take my supplies, though.”
“Little lizards steal in front of Vrack?!” demanded the half-orc.
“We will never survive without these provisions,” the kreen said, surprising everyone. “We must protect it.”
The archer nodded, then turned to scan the wagon for anything useful. His eyes widened slightly as he spotted something in the corner of the wagon. “Sweet,” he muttered, drawing the kreen’s gaze. The mantisman also noticed the magical healing fruits stashed there.
The eladrin and human began gathering food and water and stashing the precious supplies into their packs. Despite the stinging of the obsidian shards, the woman noted the silt depression blocking passage to the south and warned the others to avoid it. Vrack ignored the shrapnel of the storm, scooped up a handful of desert rations, and then rushed at the nearest lizard, flail held high. In retaliation, the two nearest silt runners shot him with poisoned darts from their blowguns. A third and fourth joined the fray against him, and his bold charge turned perilous.
The fifth silt runner impaled the kreen to the wagon with its bone spear, sneering in glee, but its mirth was short lived. The shaman summoned two spirits in rapid succession to heal himself and then burn his enemy before lashing out with all of his clawed hands, dealing serious injuries. The gith leaned out of the wagon long enough to blast one of the lizard’s on Vrack with a flickering arrow, which dazzled the target and its nearby allies. The eladrin vanished into the kreen’s shadow and reappeared beside the same silt runner, slashing across its belly then reversing the stroke for a lethal blow with a poisoned blade.
The human woman dispatched the nearest spearman then dashed across the battlefield on foot, lobbing a shadowy noose around a lizard with a bone sword. She dragged it between a rock and a hard place known as Vrack. Despite his many wounds, the half-orc never stopped grinning as he dealt death to the scavengers that had dared assault the caravan. Still, the fight was lasting overlong and there remained the uncounted reinforcements nearing their location. Dispatching the remaining silt runners and snatching up the last few provisions they felt they had time to retrieve, they fled the sandstorm and its reptilian inhabitants.
A mile or so away, they stopped to catch their breath in the shade of tall stony outcropping. The kreen, agitated at being healed by the eladrin during the fight seemed calmer but still wary. He stared at nothing across the open desert. The human woman eyed the mountains, taking a long time to recover her stamina. Clavis leaned against a large rock, stowing his bow at his back and stowing the supplies he’d gathered from the wagon. The others sat silently, eyeing their new companions warily.
The eladrin said broke the silence. “Kreen? What is your name?” The shaman jumped at the sound intruding on his thoughts. Gesturing to the half-orc, the eladrin continued “I believe I’ve only had the pleasure of hearing our warrior shout his as a battle cry… Vrack, was it?”
The beefy warrior grunted. “I am Vrack, Crusher of Foes, Scourge of the Arenas.”
Extending a hand to him, the eladrin said, “Les. My full name is a bit difficult to pronounce.”
Taking the offered hand in a crushing grip, Vrack said, “Well met, good sir…ma’am…” He sounded uncertain, but largely unconcerned. Les simply smirked, then turned back to the thri-kreen.
Seeming afraid to answer, the shaman softly replied, “My name is Kikrik.”
The eladrin turned to the shaman, hand extended. “Leslie, or Les as my friends call me,” said the androgynous eladrin with a soft smile.
Kikrik tentatively reached out one of his arms slowly, trying to be polite. Before their hands met, however, he was knocked from his feet by an unseen force. Vrack laughed at the sight. “Bit clumsy, huh?” The human woman leapt off her rock, hand on her scimitar’s hilt and seeking Kikrik’s attacker.
Les’ smile morphed into a smirk. “Are you hurt?” s/he asked, offering the thri-kreen a hand up.
The gith didn’t smile; he seemed annoyed as he asked, “Is there something we should know about, kreen?”
“Good question,” said the human. “I’ve never really known any.”
“Nor I,” said Les, smile growing once more. “Such a peculiar fellow.”
Kikrik picked himself up from the ground, eschewing the eladrin’s aid. “I am sorry for the distractions,” he said. “My masters are not too happy with me right now. Give them time, and they will calm down.” The gith nodded as if that answered everything.
“Masters,” scoffed the half-orc, spitting disdainfully. “No one tells Vrack what to do.”
“And the rest of you?” prompted Les. “Vrack the warrior. Kikrik the…kreen.” The eladrin gestured hopefully at the gith and the human woman.
“Clavis,” the gith said bluntly.
“I’m Rayne,” replied the woman. She nodded, once.
With a cheerful smile, Les nodded and said, “Clavis. Rayne. Pleasure to meet you all. I hope we can ease our nerves here for a moment.” With that, the eladrin pulled out a lute and began to play a quiet and gentle tune.
Clavis’ face clouded in anger and he snapped at Les, “Put that thing away! You want to draw the runners’ attention?”
Pausing the song a beat, the eladrin said, “I’m sorry my music does offend you, Clavis, but those things are in the sands and wind. My song is no louder than your barking.”
Clavis shook his head. “I don’t take chances. Not while I’m stranded in the frakkin’ desert.”
“Then perhaps you should take your own advice, and keep your voice down,” Les replied, smiling sweetly and continuing to play. Clavis narrowed his eyes, but said nothing, instead turning his attention to the expansive desert, and the storm that seemed to be following them.
Rayne sat back down, seeming distracted. Abruptly, she asked the eladrin, “Did I see you walk through shadow? Back there?”
“Hmm?” Les’ replied, stopping the song to stand and stretch. “Perhaps you did, but one sees many things in the desert.” With a smile, the eladrin vanished from sight only to reappear behind Rayne. Tapping her on the shoulder playfully, the bard sauntered a few steps away. The human looked annoyed at first, but finally smiled.
The gith grumbled under his breath, then brought up the subject of survival. “I hope everyone managed to get enough rations,” he said coldly.
“All that I could carry,” Rayne replied.
The others quickly took stock of their gathered provisions, and Vrack complained at how few he’d gathered. “Only enough for four hard days of marching. This desert will be the end of us!”
Kikrik said, “I also carried as much as I could hold from the wagon. I also know how to forage, should that prove necessary.”
Rayne nodded, adding, “I’ve spent time in the desert, too. I wouldn’t lose hope just yet.
The half-orc’s mood didn’t seem improved. “I hope you’re right. I’ve never been this far from the walls of any city.”
“The desert can be traversed with less danger than you think, provided you are respectful of its power,” intoned Kikrik.
“Well, we aren’t dead yet, folks!” Les said cheerfully. “I, for one, have no real need of being dead either.” The bard sat back down and went back to tuning the lute.
“Play a tune, Les?” asked Rayne. “It’s helping me think.”
. . . . . . . . . . . .
After they’d recovered their strength and shaken the battle from their systems, the companions began to travel once more.
“Should we be looking for shade to escape the sun?” Vrack wanted to know.
“Many do travel at night,” replied the kreen.
“That’s a good idea,” agreed Les.
“Or a cave at least,” added Rayne. “Getting caught in the storm again would be the end of me. It could be that the mountains would provide us with shelter.”
“Perhaps we should find a high-point for a scout to look from?” suggested Les, glancing at Clavis. The gith nodded at the practicality of the suggestion.
Clavis and Kikrik took point, working together to seek out landmarks, dangers, and hazardous terrain. Les dredged up half-forgotten memories from times long past about a pathway through the rocky badlands north of Altaruk. Rayne proved her desertcraft, plotting a course though the terrain, identifying hazards spotted by the others and guiding them away from dangerous flora. Vrack humped along, carrying extra packs, his great stamina helping him endure the heat and exhaustion that threatened the entire group. His tenacity was both a physical help and an inspiration to the others.
A few hours passed as they made their way between the shadows of large stones to find places to rest for a few moments before continuing on. A bit of bad luck in the form of a silt storm struck, courtesy of the fickle desert winds. “I used to see these in the Sea of Silt all the time,” Rayne informed the others. “Cover your mouths!” Kikrik casually pulled a filter mask out of his pack and placed it over his mandibles. Weathering the minor setback, the new companions kept the darkened sky at their backs and moved forward. Far from any known trade routes, the adventurers discovered a copse of petrified trees in a small valley.
From their vantage point at the edge of the valley, they saw that it was littered with exotic bones from long-extinct creatures. As the sun passed overhead, a small flame spirit appeared in the clearing and waved in their direction. “Wha?!” exclaimed Vrack. Rayne and the others looked to the shaman for an explanation, their thoughts mirroring the half-orc’s outburst.
“Kikrik, do you know what that is?” asked Clavis.
“When the elemental spirits choose to take form, they tend to appear as pure fire, sand, and the like. Everyone be respectful,” intoned the thri-kreen. “The spirits can be very violent if brought to anger.” Following his own advice, Kikrik began to approach the spirit humbly. The others followed slowly and at a distance.