An ox-drawn wagon moved through a dry landscape, dominated by mostly sand and rock with small patches of vegetation dotted about here and there. The contents of the wagon constantly bounced and bumped against each other as it moved over the dusty path, much to the dismay of its sole passenger: A tanned woman wearing a polished, well maintained breastplate inscribed with the image of a tree with sprawling roots, and a sirwal with combat boots. She had a water flask and Kilij strapped to her hip, along with a musket, knapsack, and a wrapped up tent slung over her back. She stared out the back of the wagon, taking in the dry, hilly landscape. The further and further the wagon moved down the path, the more and more sparse vegetation became. It wasn’t until the moon began to peer over the horizon that the wagon finally jolted to a halt.
“We’re here lady, hop on out!”
After feeling around for her equipment, she hopped out of the wagon, stretching out her limbs as much as possible. To her, The Louiseville settlement didn’t seem like the place where rumors of riches originated from. Huddled together in one part was a collection of a few dozen tents of varying sizes and conditions, some looking like war tents while others being a simple patched up rag being held up by a few supports. A few men were scattered among them, chatting with each other or simply dozing off. Not too far away was a setup of several tables and chairs, outside of a small collection of wagons. There, even more men were talking amongst each other with plates consisting of breads meats, cheeses, and nuts, as well as drinking from tall tin cups. Strewn about the settlement were a few other wagons of varying sizes ran by sophisticated or intelligent looking men alike, other adventurers showing off curious looking trinkets or ancient pieces of jewelry in hopes of profit. She walked closer towards the tavern, taking in a mixed scent of sweat, alcohol and dust. She gazed at all the other men around here, them clearly eying here and muttering to each other, a few smiling and chuckling as well. She stopped once she arrived at the vendor’s cart. Observing the menu, she thought that with the prices, perhaps going an entire day without any food wasn’t such a bad idea. She still pulled a small sack from her knapsack, plucked out a small handful of coins from it, and dropped them down on the counter.
“Just some bread, cheese, and water for here please.”
The vendor quickly served up her plate. She was heading for one of the empty tables near the back until a gray-haired burly-looking man waved to her with a half-eaten plate of food in front of him.
“Hey newbie, over here! Come over here, don’t eat alone!”
She walked over and sat across from the man. Upon closer inspection, his arms and face bore quite a few faded scars, wearing nothing more than simple cotton garments.
“You’re an odd face to see here lady! Nonetheless, hope you find what ya came here for!”
“Now, you probably don’t know this, but here I give advice to newcomers around here, making sure they don’t just rush into the ruins and get themselves killed and all that. I’d hate to see somebody like you end up like that.”
“Please, I’m more than prepared for this. I really doubt a few bugs in some ruins can really do much to me. I don’t need any help, especially from you.”
She took a bite out of her bread as the man let out a hearty laugh.
“I have no doubts about your abilities lady, but there’s a few things you should know before just hopping down into there all willy-nilly, yea? Like for example, did you know that loud noises such as rifle fire ends up attracting a nice amount of animals? Or did you know that exploring alone isn’t a good idea unless you’re very heavily armored, as scarabs prefer to attack from the shadows or behind?”
She swallowed her food.
“You know, fine then. How about you just clear up everything since you know OH so much?”
“Gladly. First, let me know who ya are.”
“Cleo Akila of the Naha’ja Kingdom.”
“Pleased to meet you Cleo. I’m Durrus Nardovino, and I know how these ruins work like the back of my hand. You’re acting just like a few other newbies that came here before, and they’re nothing more than scarab food now. I don’t wanna see you end up like them, you understand?”
“Yeah, and? Like you said they were newbies, that’s probably why they didn’t make it in the first place.”
“You’re rather cold, aren’t you? Some of them I used to know, even escorted once. Former warriors from their countries as well. They just ran ahead too far or were careless, and one slip-up is all it really takes for the ruins to claim a life.”
“Well like I said earlier, just let me know what I need to know so I can be on my way.”
“I can do you one even better. How about I accompany you down there for your first excursion? It’s what I usually do with the newcomers anyways. All I ask for is a cut of the treasures we find together.”
“And if we don’t find anything of value?”
“Oh trust me, we’re bound to find something down there. But if by some off chance, I won’t ask for any compensation.”
She stared at him for a few moments.
“That’s the spirit! Now you still might want to set up your tent before we go, nothing is worse than getting out of the ruins exhausted and having no place to sleep. I’ll find you when I’m geared up to go. Also, do me a favor and leave that musket of yours back as well, I would hate for that thing to misfire or something.”
The sun had finally cleared the horizon and a full moon was slowly climbing into the sky as Cleo wiped the dust from her hands. Her tent merely consisted of a few poles holding up a patched up piece of cloth, with barely enough room to fit her bedroll. Her belongings, consisting of a few historical texts, ammo, whetstones, the little gold she had left, were messily shoved into the back of the tent. She turned around, scanning the area. A carriage was arriving with a few newcomers, a few men were still eating and chatting at the now closed food carriages, and a few were returning to their tents, their eyes stained with fatigue. She eyed her bedroll, and dove into her tent atop the bedroll, letting sleep overtake her. It didn’t last too long, at least she thought it didn’t, as a distant sound of shifting metal plates roused her. They grew ever closer and closer, until an armored figure stood right outside her tent. It bent over and peaked in, revealing the face of Durrus.
“Hey sleepyhead, you ready? This is prime exploring time!”
She groggily crawled out of the tent, standing up and rubbing her eyes. His armor bore several scratches, a few dents, and was covered in dirt and dust. He had a scutum slung over his back, a gladius at his hip, a lantern, and large sack strapped to his hilt. She patted around herself, feeling her kilij, bent over and made sure her boots were tightened, and reached back into her tent to pull out an oil lantern along with her knapsack.
“All set. Let’s get a move on”.
The full moon overhead lit up the site of the ruins. It was a miracle that anyone came across it. There was barely any difference from the ruins entrance and the expanse of sand around it, the only identifiable marker being the stone foundation of a structure that once stood there eons ago. At the center were sand-covered steps that lead into the true expanse of the ruins. Cleo wondered how insane it was that some men dared to brave even the outskirts of the Chidetah Wastes, simply to try to save time on traveling. She didn’t care much for the details of the story, however, as there was a more important task she had to attend to. She lit her lantern and followed Durrus, the duo descending into the ruins. They continued going deeper, deeper, and deeper still. Only when the moonlight was barely visible did the ground finally level out. The room wasn’t too big, several cracked, yet hopefully still stable pillars of stone stretching to the roof. There were quite a few empty pedestals up against the walls. Forward a hallway continued into the darkness.
“All right, before we move on, you just need to know a few things about the wildlife here. The ruins are full of bugs called Scarabs. They vary in size but don’t get too large, never larger than a pot lid. They wedge themselves up in every dark crevice they can find, and strike anything that that gets too close. It may be tempting to reach into cracks, but keep that in mind and thoroughly light up any crevice you find before reaching in. You also might find a few big lizards in here called Ahzaks. They shouldn’t be too much of a bother if you don’t bother them, and trust me you don’t. They have a mean bite and have rather tough skin to boot. There’s also a few bigger beetles called Scroungers, no bigger than a dog. Again, don’t bother them and they won’t bother you, unless you want to try and pry that shell off of them. They sell for pretty good money since it’s strong and malleable stuff, but you probably won’t get through it at all with anything less than a polearm. Last, if you see a room with any sort of cracks in the roof, you might want to reconsider your choice of room, and it should be obvious why. Any more questions?”
“No, I’m sure I can handle this. That’s simple information anyone could have figured out.”
“Very funny. I’m sure you’d figure that out through trial and error along with a few scars from an Ahzak, maybe a lost limb? Anyways, you watch my back and I’ll keep the front covered.”
The two continued down the hallway, entering another room which branched out into three different directions. They headed down the leftmost hallway, which bent around a corner and lead into a larger chamber than before, containing several bedframe-like wooden structures lined up down the walls side by side. The two slowly walked between them, checking over and under each frame. Halfway down the hall, however, as Cleo reached under one of the frames,
“Hey, I got something!”
“Show it, i’m honestly surprised there’s anything left in this room here… Been through about a dozen times before.”
Cleo reached under and with a sudden crack pulled out a strange, completely rusted knife-like object, with a grimy yet precious looking hilt decorated with gemstones.
“This thing was literally stuck to the underside of the frame…” She wiped at the rust a bit and continued to observe it before looking at Durrus.
“How old are the people who built these ruins anyways?”
“Do I look like some kinda scholar to you? Hah, not even scholars know as far as I’m concerned, but they sure as hell would like to. Some say they were our ancient ancestors, others say a lost people who were all mysteriously wiped out, some even say something not human built these ruins! But to hell if I know. But boy, were they vain, I mean look at that knife of all things! It’ll at least fetch a pretty price with either historian or merchant.”
“It will do well in the universities back home.”
She put the sword away in her knapsack.
“Now, where to next?”
The two returned to the fork, this time heading down the rightmost path. They entered a room filled with wooden tables and broken chairs, a large wooden door further back. Cleo quickly began checking under the tables, carefully and slowly feeling under each and every one. One by one, however, they yielded zero results, until she had finished scouting the entire room. The duo moved on and pushed the wooden door open, leading into a kitchen-like area, filled with wooden bowls, various wooden utensils, a few cabinets, and a few crates. Cleo hurried over and threw open a cabinet, only for a large scarab to suddenly jump out at her. Instinctively, she drew her kilij and thrust it into the thing. It pierced right through it’s head and skewered it. Cleo let out a deep breath, and pulled a cloth from her knapsack, pulling the scarab off, letting it land on the floor.
“Woah now, you all right… Well I’ll be, that’s a damn beautiful kill you got. Wait, let me see.”
Durrus hurried over and inspected the scarab.
“Hah, you managed to kill the thing and not even damage its shell! Quite the precision you have there lady…”
“Years of training. I told you, I’m more than prepared for this.” She said, cracking a wry smile. Durrus kneeled down, using his gladius to carefully cut the shell from the corpse, and tossed the corpse aside.
“I always wonder how merchants find uses for these things. Ah well, at least they pay decently for them, especially one that’s flawless.”
“Good to know, you can keep it.”
“Well don’t mind if I do!”
He tucked the shell away in his own sack.
The two continued perusing through the cabinets and crates to no luck. After, they returned to the fork. Before heading down the center path, Durrus stopped.
“You know Cleo, I have a question. What brings you out here? I’ve seen a few Naha’jan soldiers and explorers come and go, but last time I checked they didn’t allow females into their military?”
“Well I’m on important business for them. When I heard of the ruins, I had a theory that there’s much more than it truly seems. Think about it, how did these ruins built in a wasteland of all things manage to get so wealthy? I doubt any of our scholars will find it out, so i’m here to do some field research, to bring back the secret of the ruins to my country.”
“Working for your country eh? You certainly are an odd one here…”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Back on topic… The ruins do go down a few more levels, interestingly enough. The lowest level we know of, time hasn’t been kind to it at all. A few more scarabs tend to sleep down there, and you’ll begin to find more Ahzaks than usuall.”
“Well that’s good enough for me, show the way!”
“I highly advise against it, and if things go southward I don’t think we’ll be able to make it out.”
“That’s implying things will go southward in the first place. Come on!”
“Well, as you wish…”
Durrus and Cleo traveled down a few more staircases until they arrived at a horribly dilapidated room. Rocks and rubble were scattered throughout the room. The walls were badly cracked, sand slowly pouring through some of the holes. TIme had even taken its toll on the massive pillars, some looking like they could break at any moment. Two hallways lined the sides of the walls, one of them blocked off by a mix of sand and rubble. At the front of the room was a stone altar, with two pedestals on it’s side. Cleo walked over and inspected the altar, before pulling off the top of it, revealing nothing inside. She walked over to the caved in hallway, kneeling down, noticing something peculiar beneath the rubble. Barely poking out of it was a human hand, clutching onto a valuable looking necklace.
“THAT is precisely why I don’t want to linger around here for too long. What good is treasure if you’re dead anyways?”
She turned around.
“Well we aren’t exactly going to find anything new if we play it safe on the upper floors, are we? I can just feel it, we’re bound to find something magnificent.”
“Might I also remind you about the fine line between bravery and stupidity?”
“Wait until you see my “stupidity” lands us the finding of a lifetime!”
They slowly moved down the hallway, and leaping back as a few scarabs leapt out of a crack in the wall. With a quick thrust through it’s head, Cleo took out one as Durrus sliced the other in half. Durrus quickly pried off their shells, and the duo continued on. They passed through another room, just as badly worn down by time as the last, with a few wooden crates, closets, and baskets, along with a few scroungers slowly sifting through the floor. The two worked together to pop open the tops of each and every crate, revealing several jewels and ores within. Durrus took a few handfuls of the treasures as Cleo only put a few in her knapsack, whilst egging Durrus to move on with the next crate. In the closets lay ancient looking mining pickaxes which Cleo gladly threw into her knapsack. After sufficiently clearing through the room, the two continued down, Cleo and Durrus’s sacks jingling loudly with their bounty. Their lights soon brought in the sight of an Ahzak’s tail. They began to sneak around it, until Cleo halted.
“Hold on, this thing isn’t even alive…”
She pointed. The Ahzak’s head was completely flattened and charred, the surrounding stone cracked and charred as well. She drew her Kilij and gave the thing a few hard stabs, piercing it’s hide after a few attempts. No reaction. She knelt down closer to it’s head, prodding it with her kilij, taking off her glove and feeling the floor near it as well.
“The floor is still somewhat warm. You know of any other beast down here that could have done this?”
“I think I would have told you if there was something that could crack Ahzak skulls like that.”
“Well, if something did smash it like so, that would have made a lot of noise right? You said something about noise attracting others?”
“Yeah about them…”
Durrus stared further down the hallway, where three more Ahzaks lay, all dead in the same way. Even further down the hall was a room lit up with a softly glowing white light.
“Stay behind me, and stay as quiet as possible.”
Durrus brought his scutum in front of him, peering over the top as he slowly advanced with Cleo trailing close behind. He halted at the entrance to the room, peering around. It was not much larger than any of the previous rooms, and the front wall looked like what was supposed to be a massive stone door. There was still plenty of rubble scattered throughout the room, and among the rubble were a few figures digging amongst it. One of them was wearing nothing more than trousers and a commoner’s tunic with two axes strapped to his sides and a linen sack hanging over his shoulder. The other figure was much smaller and cloaked, holding a strange staff from whence the light originated. Durrus sighed a sigh of relief.
“Hey, you two!”
Both of the figures jumped up and whirled around, the cloaked figure revealing their face to be that of a very young girl, and the other figure revealed as a young male, but still older than his companion. The shock quickly wore off from the cloaked girl, a beaming smile suddenly forming on her face!
“Oh, adventurers! Hello, my name is Curi Avitum! That’s my friend Horrus and well, we’re here because in this room there’s a hidden place called a Compound, and it’s supposed to be behind this big stone door! We’re just trying to find some kind of switch or something to get it to move. Do you wanna help?”
Cleo and Durrus stood there, dumbstruck for a few moments before Durrus regained his composure.
“Hold up there, first of all, what in the ever loving name of god are you doing down here? I hate to be blunt to somebody as young as you but this place will literally chew you up and swallow you whole! Especially because something is lurking about around here that’s been smashing Ahzak skulls like nothing. You too… Horrus is it? But in all honesty, going down here without a shred of armor is practically suicide. You at least want some protection if a scarab jumps ya. Come on, you two need to get out of here before whatever the hell is lurking down here pays us a visit.”
“Wait Durrus, what did she say? Compound? Where did you hear this?”
“Please, she probably heard it from some lunatic at a tavern… How far out did you come out anyways?”
“First, Caelos isn’t any drunk! Don’t be rude to her! And I hired a carriage to take me all the way from my home in Rexius!”
“Lord, that far? Look kid, I know it was a long trip but the sooner we get out of here the better. It’s not safe.”
Durrus tried to reach out for her but she quickly lept back
“As long as I got Caelos and Horrus with me I’m sure i’ll be fine! The lizards and bugs here weren’t any problem anyways.”
Cleo walked over and knelt down to Curi.
“Okay well, first, my name is Cleo, pleased to meet you Curi. That there is my… guide, Durrus. I’m sorry, I just want to clarify. Who did what to those Ahzaks back there? And who is this Caelos you keep talking about? And the Compound?”
“Ahzaks? Those lizards? Oh yeah, they were a bit too tough for Horrus so I had Caelos help a bit. Caelos says she’s something called an “extra-dimensional being” who lives in this staff. She tells all these cool stories, and one day when we learned of the ruins discovered, she told me about how these ruins were built on top of her home, these underground Compounds, and how we could find more of her people in there!”
“Cleo, this kid is crazy, we need to get them out of here before something happens.”
“No i’m not! Caelos is real and she keeps me safe, here wait! Caelos, please show yourself!”
The room suddenly grew brighter, and a strange light began to emerge from Curi’s staff. Cleo and Durrus lept back, hands on their swords as the light slowly began to take form. With another flash, the light returned to normal, revealing a ghostlike yet beautiful long haired woman, glowing warmly with light wearing long flowing robes.
“In all my years… Kid what the hell is that thing?”
“She’s not a thing, she’s Caelos!”
“Please, I understand you must be scared, but I promise no harm to any of you.” She spoke with a powerful yet calming voice. “I can assure you, everything Curi has told you is the truth. If you would just leave us be so we can continue with our journey.”
“I’m sorry, I’m not buying it. We must be inhaling some kind of fumes or whatever.”
“Well, i’m seeing exactly what you’re seeing, right? I can’t believe it either but there it is!”
“I know, she looks amazing! And soon, we’re going to find more of her kind!”
Cleo’s ears perked up.
“More of her kind? Um, what exactly does that mean Caelos?”
“That is my hope. A long time ago, us and mankind were united, and I have hope we can return to that era.”
“Wait, how old are you exactly?”
“Over one thousand years old. These ruins used to be my home, you know.”
Cleo whirled around to Durrus.
“You hearing this? We’re on the brink of a groundbreaking discovery! This girl’s staff alone should probably be more than enough but she’s the key to so much more! We just gotta keep following along!”
Durrus walked up to Caleos.
“I’m sorry, I just still don’t believe any of this. So you managed to fool me with this hallucination.”
He turned to Curi.
“Just tell me, how can this thing of yours even protect you? Is she going to scare away the monsters?”
“Please, i’m more than just a ghost you know. In fact, Curi, I think I can help open that door for you. Please everyone, stand back.”
Everyone but Durrus moved back, as Caelos raised her hand up, the space around her hand beginning to distort, and then suddenly she lurched it forward, a flaming object suddenly launching out of the distortion, smashing through the stone door.