The lights overhead whirred at the armored figure with a root staff slung over his back, gripping tightly to Curi with the searing blade inches away from her neck. Cleo and Durrus stepped forward, weapons drawn as Horrus held tight to Caelos’s staff behind. The bandit drew the sword closer to Curi’s neck.
“Weapons down, or her head comes off!”
Tears slowly welled up in her eyes as Durrus slowly placed his gladius and scutum on the floor. Cleo merely gripped her sword tighter, and Caelos surged forth inches in front of him, fury burning in her eyes.
“Release her immediately, I order you!”
“You aren’t exactly in a position to be ordering me around. Is this girl that special to you?”
She still stared him down.
“I guess so, all the better for me.” He glanced towards Cleo, still poised to kill, and raised an eyebrow at the tree insignia carved into her chestplate.
“Oh, from Naha’Ja, are you? I didn’t know they were so desperate to actually start sending women here to die.”
She took a sudden step forward, causing him to move the blade even closer to Curi’s neck.
“You’re the desperate one here! Robbing others, kidnapping… You’re nothing compared to Naha’Ja!”
He openly laughed. “Naha’Ja’s the one comparing you to nothing here, and you should know that well!”
Durrus pre-emptively stuck his arm in front of her, looking at her dead in the eye.
“For the love of God Cleo, don’t risk anything.”
The bandit sneered. “If your country values you oh so much, why are you all the way out here in a hellhole like this?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” She leaned over Durrus’s arm like a railing.
“In my life, I’ve seen hundreds of fools from Rexius and Naha’Ja alike come into the wastes seeking some treasure or glory, but not a single one I found to be as foolish as you miss Cleo. They at least had homes to return to.”
“What are you stupid? I wasn’t exiled or anything! I can return whenever I please!”
He shook his head. “And what? Announce to everyone about your journey? Show them what you found out here? Do you not know what consequences await a decision like that?”
Durrus suddenly butted in. “Where the hell are you going with this?”
“I’m simply giving your companion a good reason why she should give up and leave. Perhaps I should introduce myself to you all. My name is Ibn Arafa, and I’m sure a woman as faithful to Naha’Ja as you should recognize it.”
Cleo suddenly took a step back, pausing for a few brief moments before raising her sword, pointed directly at him.
“Liar! Don’t try and fool me!”
Durrus simply stood still, arms crossed. “I don’t understand, is he something special?”
“Well, remember that Naha’Jan expedition to Chidetah a decade ago I mentioned? He’s the leader of that expedition, and one of few survivors. The only trait of Ibn’s that this scum matches is his delirium.”
Ibn smiled back at her. “Ah, perhaps you forgot that history books can be written however one pleases? It wouldn’t look nice if they wrote about what they did to me.”
“Hmph. And what would that be?”
“Perhaps it wasn’t noted that my family disappeared after my return. Perhaps it wasn’t noted that I was whipped and beaten to make sure I didn’t disclose any of Chidetah’s secrets to the public. I can even still show you the scars if you don’t believe me.”
Cleo lowered her sword, yet hatred still burned in her eyes.
“How about you answer this question: Why was Naha’Ja so interested in the Chidetan Wastes?”
“It’s obvious, isn’t it? The rumored riches-”
“Naive! An entire kingdom wouldn’t chase after rumors. They were more interested into unprotected back roads into Rexius from the wastes. They sent me there to plot out such routes since I always knew how to survive. Next you’re probably going to mention how a benevolent nation such as Naha’Ja would never invade Rexius, correct?”
She stared silently, hatred building up even further.
“I thought so. I do have to thank them for sending me out a few times before foolishly sending me to lead a raiding party of Thueban to sneak into Rexius. Those few expeditions taught me an important lesson: These wastes are very much alive, with creatures to provide water even for humans, and beetles deadly enough to deal with even a squad of Thueban. Those ‘demons’ mentioned in your history books were actually beasts who could turn an entire human body into several days worth of water.”
She gripped tightly onto her sword. “You..”
“I’m assuming you’re probably questioning how I got my hands on such firearms as well? Your kingdom graciously provided them originally for a squad of twenty. Some of them I recognized as a few of my torturers. Justice is sweet, no?”
“I swear, if you didn’t have Curi I’d cut you clean in half! Why would you betray your kin?”
“Kin is such an awful word to describe them. Your country treats us no differently than you’d treat a sword. Considering your sex, they’ll probably treat you worse, perhaps call you a raving lunatic and execute you publicly, yet log what you said in secret.”
Her anger was now visible, teeth clenching to the verge of breaking, eyes boiling with the rage of a thousand stars. She wanted so badly to cut off that head of his, shove a rag into it, and toss it into the depths of some cavern, so she could never hear his stupid voice ever talk again. Durrus caught all these signs and moved in front of her.
“Since you’re answering questions here, answer me this Ibn: The hell are you doing all the way out here still? A living as an outlaw in Rexius would probably suit you better if I’m being brutally honest.”
He nodded, still smiling. “An outlaw in Rexius can never rise in the ranks enough to get back at his captors, no? But beneath the sands of Chidetah lays opportunity; The fact that you have a Di’Chosh of your own says that. First, I taught other bandits fleeing here how to live. With enough bandits and a streak of raids, I foiled Naha’Ja’s intentions by forcing Rexius to establish guard posts and watchtowers on their unwatched borders. What lies next is for Naha’Ja to be ripped out from the roots by my hands, and establishing a less abhorrent order.”
“And how does Curi work into your master plan?”
“She isn’t all that important. However, she’ll be very useful in advancing my plans tenfold. Hard to establish any sort of power without wealth, correct?”
Suddenly the door behind them began to clank and slowly clamber open.
“And it looks like your time to negotiate is up. You’re all a bunch of over-ambitious fools, you know?”
He slowly backed away towing along Curi as Horrus made a charge for the door switch, slamming it. The door suddenly ground to a halt, but only for a few moments. Following a fury of footsteps from behind it and another distinctive click, the door slowly began opening once more.
“Caelos, you have any clue how to lock this thing?”
She quickly glided over to his side.
“Yes, you should be able to do that from here. There should be another set of switches to the side of it, you just-”
Suddenly she felt a small jolt as her staff was tossed aside, slowly rolling towards Durrus. Horrus brazenly charged forward towards Ibn, screaming with murderous intent in his eyes. Ibn quickly drew his sword in front of him, but he deftly moved to the side and tackled the armored bandit to the ground, sending the three of them and the sword flying. They crashed to the ground, with Horrus on top and Curi rolling a few feet away. Taking full advantage of his position, he started mercilessly wailing on Ibn’s head, beating down as hard as he could, ignoring the pain his wounded arm brought. Dazed only momentarily, Ibn managed to catch one of his punches and threw him off, quickly leaping back to his feet. Horrus was only fazed momentarily and bolted back towards the bandit, animalistically launching blows towards him. However, that made them all the more easy to anticipate, as Ibn easily dodged each assault, often launching a quick counter-blow to his injured shoulder. Blood began to run from his bandage and his arm throbbed worse than anything else he felt before, but in his mind he knew he had to win: It was do or die. He threw himself at Ibn for one last assault, only to be met with a powerful kick to his stomach. He coughed out every bit of breath he possibly had left and fell to his knees, clutching his stomach tightly. He opened and closed his mouth over and over, futility trying to suck in any amount of air. Ibn stared only for a few moments before slowly walking over to grab his sword. Multiple cracks suddenly resounded through the halls and he instinctively hit the deck as multiple bullets whizzed past his head. He turned, noticing Cleo had brandished her rifle, pulling the trigger rapidly, the gun responding with a dull clicks. She threw the rifle to the side and drew her musket, him sprinting from the sight. She took another shot at him, barely skimming him as he suddenly fled around a corner. She threw the musket to the ground.
She almost didn’t notice the door behind them suddenly stopped whirring, Durrus sighing to himself. He turned around to the sight of Cleo looking at the floor in rage, Horrus writhing on the ground, and Curi climbing back to her feet. He scooped up Caelos’s staff and walked towards Cleo.
She looked down the halls.
“Ibn got away… That piece of…”
“Well that’s fine then. We got Curi, so let’s find a way out-”
She turned towards him with a facefull of fury.
“I’m not leaving here until he’s dead! Scum like him shouldn’t be allowed to live!”
“Cleo, get ahold-”
“Shut up! I already made myself clear!”
The two caught the attention of metallic whirring echoing down the halls. She immediately began a full-blown sprint down the halls. He tried to grab her, but barely missed her.
“What are you doing? You don’t know what else he has- Dammit!”
He started to sprint forward until he froze, taking in the sight of Horrus. He was terribly bruised on his chest and arm, his bandage having loosened significantly with a worrying amount of blood streaming from it. He glanced towards Curi, who’s eyes traced the sound of Curi disappearing footsteps. He turned back to the hallway, noticing she had ran around the same corner. He looked back to Horrus who finally started breathing again, but now began to cry.
“God dammit Cleo” he muttered under his breath. “Curi, I’m going to borrow Caelos. Just, watch over Horrus and tighten his bandage, and wait for Cleo and I to get back!”
He dashed down the halls in pursuit, leaving earshot of Curi as she asked “But what if you don’t return?”
Cleo had passed through a massive mechanical door, entering a room that towered higher into the ground, several metallic platforms erected on the walls above her leading to more and more doors. Each of the platforms had a small stairway to reach one, each interconnected in a spiral up to the top. Resounding through the room were metallic footsteps from a higher floor, Cleo promptly beginning a full on sprint up the stairs. She passed door after door, climbing ever higher and higher into the earth. Her legs screamed at her to slow down and stop, her heart felt like it was going to explode
I’m not going to let him escape! He has to pay!
She passed a few doors that looked to be broken open, glancing quickly only to find a few rooms filled to the brim with wires and strange devices. Dissatisfied with her work, she continued higher and higher until she reached the top, where a door was wide-open. Drawing her sword, she stood still for a minute, taking several deep breaths until her legs stopped screaming. Her heart still thumped harder than it ever had in her life, threatening to burst out of her chest. She closed her eyes and breathed a bit more before stepping into the room. She had to walk through a small hallway before she entered a dimly lit, house-sized room, the only lighting coming from a plethora of screens,with a massive panel covered in several foreign buttons sitting in front of all of them. Each screen displayed a different room; One showed the room they entered in, one was tinted a bright green, showing a large group of bandits banging at the door, another screen displayed a curious set of lines, several of them with X’s inbetween. Each screen took her attention away for a few moments, before she continued to look around for her target. The room suddenly lit up for a millisecond, followed by an even more deafening crack. She suddenly felt like fire ran throughout her body as all her limbs sized up and she collapsed. Footsteps approached from behind her, and a mysterious voice spoke from the screens.
“So this was the being who was causing you trouble? I should punish you for not being able to deal with such a pitiful being. At least it brought itself to us and saved me the trouble of entering that wretched staff of yours.”
Ibn spoke up.
“She was traveling with three others and was armed with a rifle Fulgous. They managed to outmaneuver all of us and outnumber me. The rest are still below, planning an ambush as we speak.”
“I will oblige you just this once Ibn.”
With another sudden flash, a now etheral figure stood in front of her, staring her down.
“With you Fulgous, they should be of no issue. Now then, before we go…”
He walked in front of Cleo with a root staff in hand and kneeled down to her level.
“Consider this a favor from me to you Cleo. You’ll die here forgotten rather than be made a mockery of by Naha’Jan historians.”
Cleo wanted to scream but her body refused to respond. She tried to will anything to move; Her head, a finger, a toe, but her internal screams all went unheard as she watched Ibn approach the door. A figure suddenly skidded into the hall: Durrus, and soon even Caelos hovered into focus. Using the last of the will she could muster up, she screamed.
“RUN! HIS DI’CHOSH IS GOING TO KILL YOU DURRUS RUN!”
Ibn looked back, grinning wryly at Cleo before looking back at him.
“He’s one of the pests Fulgous. Destroy him!”
Fulgous’s voice boomed through the small room.
“You have no right to command me! This ‘pest’, you did not mention they had a Di’Chosh, no? Let alone the knowledge of us?”
“Fulgous, it was not important. They were here to kill-”
“I did not ask for excuses!” The ethereal figure floated in front of Durrus. “State your name.
He swallowed, trying to maintain a stern face. “Durrus.”
“How do you know of the Di’Chosh, and how did you find one of us?”
Caelos hovered between the two, turning towards Durrus.
“Please, let me take it from her.” She changed focus to Fulgous. “I am Caelos, and I seek to re-unite humanity with the Di’Chosh.”
“Then we are of the same mind. How do you propose to do this?”
Ibn butted in: “Please, they’re tying to decieve you-”
“I SAID SILENCE.” His voice rattled the screens in the room. “You will regret it gravely if you dare speak over me again. Now then, Caelos, answer my question.”
Caelos looked down, pondering the question before locking eyes with the being. “I have found a band of good-hearted explorers who are here to help me with this. They can transport us through the wastes, to and from each old compound to find all the lost surviving Di’Chosh. When they do, perhaps we can find more people like them. We can work in tandem with the well-intentioned and bring forth a golden age for both Di’Chosh and humanity.”
The figure paused for a few moments. “I am disappointed in you Caelos. Do you really expect ruling over humans as equals would benefit us?”
“I don’t understand, it worked well with my people.”
“And where are your people now? Buried beneath the sands, along with every other person who worshipped a Di’Chosh. How many other tribes do you think were full of good-hearted people, only to be wiped out by men of malice? Humans are far from deserving of our power or benevolence. They need our guidance and strict discipline. With our ability to easily eliminate the worthless and the threatening, only then can we be safe of the mistakes we once made.”
“Who are you to deem worthless?”
“Simply like this.” He glided through Caelos, staring face to face with Durrus. “Your Di’Chosh has brought me a worthless offer. You are no longer necessary.”
With a flash, lightning arced from Fulgous’s hand, running it’s way through Durrus. He shook and jittered uncontrollably as the thunder ran through him, until he collapsed to the ground face-first. Tears began to run from Cleo’s eyes and despair filled Caelos’s. Fulgous turned to her.
“May your ideals lie in the wasteland they created Caelos. Goodbye.”
Ibn chuckled to himself before working his way down the hall. Casually, he began speaking.
“Ah yes, I also lost one of my infused swords in a scuttle with the pests. I request a new one when we deal with them-”
He took his first step over Durrus’s body when suddenly a sharp pain shot through his stomach. He looked down, noticing his very sword sticking into it. He slowly brought his head up, seeing the same animalistic eyes he faced before: Horrus. He removed the sword and thrusted it through him again and again and again, all until he fell forward, bleeding on the steel platform. He let out a primal scream as tears streamed from his eyes, Curi cautiously watching from a distance. Fulgous stared down at him and called out: “Child, take my staff.”
Horrus obeyed and picked it up.
“What is your name child?”
He sniffed and wiped his eyes.
“Horrus, you have done well in dealing with my insubordinate. I choose you as my new champion.”
Fulgous continued to drone on about the responsibilities of wielding him as he stared into the hall, seeing the bodies of Cleo and Durrus.
“You… Did you do this to them?”
“Do not worry yourself. They were pests in my way-”
In a split second, he swung the infused sword at the staff, cleaving it directly in half. The ethereal figure disappeared to the void in a flash, but Horrus kept cleaving away at the staff, tearing it apart piece by piece. He hacked away, crying into his carnage, leaving several marks on the platform. When there was nothing left of the staff but bits of dust, he threw the sword aside and fell to his knees, weeping. Curi approached him from behind and hugged him, her crying a bit as well.
“Please Horrus… It’s all right. You defeated a villain.”