Red filtered sunlight lit up the tent as Durrus rose from his sleep. He climbed out of his cot, stretching out his arms. Following a quick rub of his eyes, he looked around: His gladius and a few spares were still stored on a rack off in the corner, his armor was neatly piled right next to it. Not too far from that was his sack of gemstones and other valuables, still full from last night’s excursion. Behind him at the foot of his cot was a hefty locked chest. Lastly, he looked down near the entrance, catching sight of Curi and Horrus, sleeping the floor. While Horrus slept in his torn tunic on the sandy ground, Curi had opted to spread out her cloak as a makeshift blanket. Her curly red hair spilled on the floor, her rather freckled face snoozing oddly comfortably. Near Horrus, however, the sand was stanied with bllod. Durrus rolled him over onto his back. Revealing the gash he had received the night prior, poorly bandaged by a spare piece of cloth. The sizeable cut near his stomach had at least clotted up. Durrus took a few steps back.
“HEY YOU TWO, IT’S TIME TO GET UP!”
Horrus flew up and Curi awoke with a small yelp.
“If you wanted to sleep in, you should have brought your own tent. Remember, I’m not letting you sleep here for free!”
“Oh yes, give me a real quick moment Durrus!”
Curi got up and picked up her cloak. Rummaging through it, she pulled out a sizable sack.
“How much do you want?”
“Five gold for each of ya.”
She plucked out ten coins and presented them to him.
“No problem! Thanks for letting us stay for the night!”
“Now hold up, don’t scramble off just yet. There’s a few things I need to take care of. First is Caelos’s offer. For now, Horrus.”
He looked down at him.
“You really need to properly disinfect and bandage that wound. If something like that gets infected, you can kiss your days hunting goodbye and spend the last of them in bed.”
“Fine then, just give me the bandages and I can do it myself.”
Durrus turned around and unlocked his chest. He pulled out another small sack and a roll of bandages. He tossed it to Horrus, who caught it. He began to unravel it before Durrus held up his hand towards him. He dug through a chest a bit more, pouring out a bottle of alcohol.
“Sorry, I don’t drink.”
“This ain’t for drinking kid. You sure you don’t want me to help with that bandage as well?”
“I can do it.”
“Fine then. Hold still, this is going to sting a bit.”
Durrus uncorked the bottle, letting a small stream of it trickle over the wound. Horrus suddenly leapt back, letting out a yelp.
“I thought you wanted this disinfected?”
“But that hurts!”
“Dear lord on high kid… Just stand still and we can get this done quickly, all right?”
He poured the alcohol over the wound again, Horrus now wincing visibly instead.
“There, now dress that wound up. Consider that as payment for your help last night. Now then, we can grab some breakfast before I talk with Caelos about her plan. You both have some clean clothes, right?”
“Well uh… I was kinda in a hurry when I left home…”
“Sheesh, you two wouldn’t have lasted a week here.”
Horrus took off his shirt revealing a rather athletically built yet terribly scarred body. All over his back and chest were various scars clawed into his body.
“You’ve been through quite a bit haven’t ya Horrus?”
“Yea. Nothing much to be honest.”
He finished bandaging up his cut, before slipping his shirt back on.
“Look, after breakfast you both need new clothes, you especially Horrus.”
“Haven’t you heard of common courtesy son?”
Curi piped up. “I don’t mind! Come on Horrus.”
Curi sat down with a plate of beef stew with a loaf of bread, while Horrus sat down with a plate of meat only. Durrus set down his plate of bread, vegetables, and salted meat, looking around the now more crowded dining area.
“I don’t see Cleo anywhere, I’m gonna head over to her tent and get her over here.”
He stood up and began to head back to the tents. It wasn’t long until he returned to Cleo’s familiar shanty tent. He crouched down and looked in, noticing her sleeping almost cradling her new rifle. Her armor and clothes were shoved in the very back of the tent, and a few of her history books opened on the floor.
“CLEO! WE’RE ALL WAITING ON YOU!”
She flinched upwards.
“Seriously, it’s not safe to sleep with the thing like that. You’ll probably blast your head off in your sleep.”
She shook her head around.
“Oh, I must have fainted last night. I was doing a bit of research.”
She turned around and grabbed an new set of clothes. She quickly slid into them and slipped her boots on before climbing out of her tent.
“I found a few interesting things last night at least. If Caelos is the means to breach the wastes-”
“Yeah yeah, landmark discovery stuff come on, get something to eat. Horrus and Curi are waiting on you.”
Durrus and Cleo returned to Horrus already working through a second plate of meats, while Curi had only eaten bits of her bread, her stew barely touched as well. Durrus headed over to the carts as Cleo sat besides Curi.
“Hey Curi, are you gonna finish that stew?”
“Nah, it tastes honestly nasty. You can have it though.”
Cleo took the bowl from her and began to dig in.
“Sometimes you gotta hunker down and eat stuff that tastes like crap out here kid. Good food is hard to ship out here anyways.”
She took a little nibble at her bread.
Durrus returned with a mixed plate of meats and bread. After finishing her final gulp of soup, Cleo pushed the bowl aside.
“Now, I did a bit of research last night to find anything on the Wastes and as expected, still nothing. Although, there was a Naha’jan force sent out a decade ago on a month-long expedition. In just one week, two or three men returned alive, and they were deemed hysteric. They babbled about how demons came from the sands and tore them to shreds. One man even said he saw a demon devour a fellow soldier’s soul right in front of him. Another said that the amount of water they brought only lasted a few days. I never doubted them when I was younger, and even still I still think there’s some truth to their words.”
Durrus swallowed a bite of bread.
“I used to work for the Tortoise Mercenaries back in my time. When I was stationed in Rexius for a job, I heard about their official expedition into Chidetah as well. Apparently, there were a lot of rumors about how bandits found out how to hole up in there and a bunch of crazy thoughts like that. It ended exactly like the Naha’jan, except instead of ‘demons’ that got them, bandits ambushed them. Only one man returned, claiming that the bandits were actually servants of the devil, using weaponry that cut through their armor like butter. My best bet at this point is they found some nice ancient weapons to toy around with.”
Cleo turned to Curi.
“Has Caelos mentioned anything about demons in the deserts?”
“Well the thing is, Caelos told me Chidetah was once a beautiful, rich, lush land with green rolling hills as far as the eye can see! Prettier than anything Rexius or the coasts of Marrite can offer.”
“You know, I can accept the ancient ghost thing kid, but how the hell did this place once support life?”
“The thing is, Caelos and her kind, the Di’Chosh. were once united with humans in the past. She doesn’t know why, but something happened and all of the humans fought using the Di’Chosh’s powers. All she knows is that it ruined Chidetah.”
“Christ, and she wants to find these things again?”
“Caelos thinks that if we’re reunited with them, we can try again and be prosperous together again!”
Cleo gazed up into the sky. “The achievements we can make with beings that break reality as we know it…” She snapped her focus back. “Now Curi, Caelos mentioned these compounds were once her home as well, what does she mean by that? I thought that staff of yours was her home.”
“No, the staff just allows her to exist with us. She was once a creature like us long ago! She said she was part of a species called Ya’Chosh, and they all lived in those compounds. Her and a few others found out how to “ascend to a new plane of living”? I dunno why anyone would want to do that, I mean I like living here. Then the Ya’Chosh built staffs so they could also be with each other! Unfortunately, a massive earthquake long ago wiped them all out unfortunately.”
“And any remains of the Ya’Chosh were probably cleaned up by those weird bugs we saw long ago maybe?”
“I don’t know. Caelos doesn’t know everything either.”
“Then the answers lie out there in the wastes. I really hope Caelos has a good idea on how to get us all through alive.”
“Same. I say we find that central compound, chart our path there, and make several trips to and from excavating as much treasure we can get our hands on. You get to study your history and technology stuff, Caelos gets together with her friends again, it’s a win-win-win. Well, what about you Horrus, what do you seek out of all of this?”
He swallowed his food.
“I simply want to challenge myself and keep Curi safe.”
“Hah, if it weren’t for Durrus you’d be bug food. Seriously, if you want to challenge yourself, there’s plenty of skilled Naha’Jan warriors who could easily best you.”
Horrus slammed his hand down on the table. Durrus
“Come on, now ain’t the time to be getting up at each other. Now hurry up and finish eating, I wanna hear what Caelos has to say soon.”
They finished their meals in silence before returning to Durrus’s tent. The four of them all crammed inside there, shoving some of his equipment out of the way to properly sit. They formed a circle, and Curi’s staff lit up, revealing Caelos in another bright flash of light. Durrus poked his head outside, scanning the area. Only a few sleepy adventurers mindlessly passed on by. He returned inside and sat on his cot.
“All right now Caelos, I hope you aren’t pulling my leg here. If we really want to traverse the wastes, we need a good supply of water, a good way to navigate, and in case things go southward, a fallback plan for food. So?”
“Water is of no issue. Please watch.”
Caelos raised her hand into the air and an all to familiar distortion appeared. However, a chunk of ice suddenly materialized out of nothing, slowly gliding down to the ground.
“In the skies above, there’s thousands of these small chunks of ice, giving us a limitless supply of fresh water.”
“Holy mother of… Hell, next you’ll tell me that you can summon treasure out of thin air as well?”
“I once did that with the humans of old. The skies above contain riches beyond that of this planet.”
Cleo lowered her head, tapping her finger on her chin.
“That must explain why your tribe got so rich…”
“That is only half the reason. There’s plenty of minerals below the surface. Now then, Curi, just like I asked of you.”
Curi ran over to her cloak and pulled out an assortment of folded papers, and a sextant. She quickly unfolded all of the papers to reveal various star charts, save for one other paper. It was significantly larger than the chart, and revealed a massive, sprawling landmass dotted with several mountains and a few large rivers cutting across it from the north to south.
“Back at home, I learned how to navigate using the stars during my own time. When I was digging through my family’s books to learn this, I also managed to come across this map. Caelos told me that it’s a map of old Chidetah!”
She pointed to a point marked mostly eastward on the map.
“Right here is where her old tribe used to be. We can use that as a starting point for our adventure! I also know a bit of basic cartography, so I can make changes to the map if we need to!”
Cleo kneeled down to her. “Curi, How did your family get your hands on something this important?”
“I dunno, my family has a lot of old stuff, like old looking books that only Grandma could read, Caleos’s staff, and all sorts of goods and awesome looking treasures. They don’t really care about most of it though, too busy with ‘running the family house’ or whatever.”
“Enough of the historical stuff, how about food?”
“It is not something I can guarantee, but the best you could hope for would be the vermin you fought in the compound. As disgusting as they look, they are actually edible. Simply one of them could keep all of you fed for a day.”
A wave of disgust overtook Curi’s face. “Eating bugs? Eugh, you never said anything about that earlier!”
“Please Curi, I can promise they taste just fine.”
“To be honest, I’m not too keen on bugs for dinner either, but it’s at least something to eat out there. If we ration our food properly we should be able to last fairly long on just salted meats and bread for a while, hopefully long enough to find a compound. A bit risky, but hell we actually have a damn good shot with Caelos on our side.”
Cleo studied the map intently before looking up.
“You already know what I think about risks. Let’s start preparing right away!”
“Right, now before we go, I think I should mention that let’s try to keep this as low profile as possible. If anyone here’s we’re preparing this large expedition into the wastes and we come back weeks later alive, they’re not gonna leave us alone for a second. In case you forgot, word spreads insanely fast from here, and we might get some higher ups keeping a close eye on us to figure out how we did it. So unless you want our second expedition into the wastes with thousands of others following to plunder what should be ours. Now, as for supplies, I’ll barter with some of the merchants to see if they’ll hand over their trading wagon, and get us replacement gear as well. Curi, I want you to come with me as well.”
“All right then!”
“Cleo, I want you and Horrus to go get us food. Get us twenty-five kilos of salted meats, and eight kilos of bread. Also, get enough horse feed as well. You two can hoist all that back to my tent. When we’re all done, we can buy some new clothes for a certain two…”
“Whaddya mean you want my whole wagon? How can I get back home then?”
Durrus stood in front of a flabbergasted arms merchant, leaning out of his cart.
“There’s a supply cart that usually stops by daily with crates of food. They give free rides to and from a town in Rexius. From there, I’m sure you’d have no issue hiring a carriage to go wherever you need to.”
“Well it’s still five hundred for the horse and an extra five hundred for the wagon and its contents, and I really doubt you have that much on hand.”
Durrus pulled out a small sack and dumped out several colorful gemstones.
“You tell me.”
He inspected each and every stone, holding it up, watching as their colors beautifully reflected inside the wagon behind him.
“All of those should amount to around twelve hundred gold, more than enough, no?”
“My good sir, you have a deal! How much longer until that wagon arrives by the way?”
“It doesn’t come till around sundown. Safe travels!”
The merchant ran back into his wagon, quickly shoving several of his belongings before leaping out, straight on his way to the tables. Durrus turned around to Cleo, chuckling a bit.
“See kid, you never want to take things as they seem. All of those gems actually tally up to around seven hundred. You gotta be careful of people who are willing to take advantage of you.”
“Well that was really mean…”
“Well he seemed pretty happy so again, it’s a win-win.”
Durrus climbed into the wagon. There wasn’t much left other than a few swords piled in the corner, some whetstones, a few dusty shields, and a neglected chestpiece of armor. More than enough room to store a few large crates worth of supplies, and still have more than enough room to house four people. He walked over to the sword pile, observing it for a quick moment before pulling a rapier from it.
“Hey kid, I got something for ya!”
She clambered into the wagon.
“What is it?”
He handed her the rapier.
“You said you used one before so here you go. How long has it been since you’ve used one by the way?”
“It’s been a while but, I don’t think I really need this. Caelos is all I really need to protect myself.”
“I’m not sure if you noticed, but she doesn’t exactly provide the most silent form of protection. Not to mention, have you ever thought about how you’d protect yourself without Caelos?”
“Well, there’s Horrus-”
“Or without anyone at all?”
“We’re about to plunge right into the unknown kid, you gotta be prepared for any problem. Speaking of being prepared, you need a better form of protection as well.”
He grabbed the breastplate and helped put it on her.
“Feeling safer yet?”
“I feel… heavier. This thing is kinda loose as well…”
“Well, get used to it. This isn’t going to be all fun and games. That is, unless you just want to hand over Caelos and you can stay here?”
“I would never! She’s supposed to keep me safe!”
“Then getting used to a bit of armor and working a bit with a rapier. It shouldn’t be too hard, yea?”
“I guess not…”
“Ha, where did your enthusiasm go? Anyways, this place is still rather lacking in necessary weapons. We need to visit a few more shops for other supplies.”
“Christ that’s a lot of food. What exactly do you have planned?”
Cleo dropped a large handful of coins into the man’s hand.
“A long trip home with some of my friends far eastward.”
“All right then. Need any help carrying this? For just a bit of extra gold-”
“We’ll be fine.”
The man returned into his cart, and returned with a second man helping him carry the crate. They lowered it into the hands of Cleo and Horrus.
“We still got two more crates of food. You sure you don’t want us to help?”
“No, just keep them back here, we’ll be back in due time.”
The duo lugged the crate back towards Durrus’s tent. They stayed silent, only shooting occasional glances at each other until they finally reached their destination, setting the crate down. Cleo broke the silence.
“Look, sorry for what I said back during breakfast, but just really, you confuse me. You seek challenge but refuse to fight humans?”
“Yes. Humans are naturally afraid of me, nor can they fight with the ferocity of animals. I seek a true challenge.”
“Pah, and what makes me afraid of you? My father trained me in the ways of the Naha’Ja Thueban, and you’re trying to tell me that you hunting out in the woods makes you better than me?”
“Naha’Ja’s elite defense corp. I mean, I didn’t get the full training experience, I hoped to. But I’m willing to bet what I learned would make you more than enough of a challenge for you.”
“Nah, you’re nothing special.”
Horrus began to walk back to the food cart.
“Excuse me? Get back here!”
She hurried behind him, placing a hand on his shoulder.
“Tell me, what makes you so much more special then?”
He continued to walk forward.
“I am fearless, and others fear me. I doubt saying to anyone that you were trained in the ways of Thueban would cause anyone to fear you. At home, I didn’t need to say anything for everyone to fear me. I was too good for everyone at home. You went through cushy military training while I fought bears with nothing more than the clothes on my back and my axes. You challenge other humans to stupid fights while I fight for a true challenge. You should be happy somebody like me is even with you.”
“Stupid fights? You hail from Rexius, right?”
“Yeah. What of it?”
“You do shame to your country! Calling the brave men and women who put their lives on the line to keep you safe stupid while you just… play around with animals? That’s deplorable.”
“Wild animals are not for playing with, they’re for truly challenging a man. Their meats and furs are an additional benefit.”
They reached the food cart and each picked up the last two smaller crates.
“So you’re gonna go through hell and back just to hunt animals just to challenge yourself?”
“And protect Curi. She’s worthy of me.”
Cleo shook her head.
“I’ll at least be honest, you’re a damn good fighter, more animal than man. Whatever you did to get that way, I’m damn sure it’ll be handy. Just, please don’t do something that’s gonna get the rest of us killed, all right?”
He stared at her for a moment before looking forward. They finally reached the tent again, placing the crates next to the larger crate. They sat down, backs against the crate.
“Again, apologies for getting rather… worked up back there. I don’t think you and I have the most compatible personalities.”
She chuckled a bit. Horrus still stayed silent.
“Well, hopefully you’ll change your attitude and be a bit more respectful, and we’ll have no problems during our expedition.
They sat there, resting until Durrus and Curi returned, guiding a horse and wagon. Cleo hopped up to her feet as Horrus slowly climbed to his feet. The two hoisted the crates up and into the wagon.
“All right then. I bought a few spare kilijes for you, a few brand new axes for you since those things are looking rather worn, and some gambeson as well.”
He tossed it at Horrus.
“I understand you like your clothes but something is better than nothing, right? Now speaking of clothes, come on, there’s a few tailor wagons not too far from here as well.”
The sun was past its apex, beginning its descent as Cleo and Horrus got the last crate into the wagon. Horrus had finally gotten himself newer, non-damaged clothes that looked almost identical to his older set; A basic tunic and pants along with wearing his gambeson over them. Curi wore a similar set, except opted for a more thin cotton shirt and pants, still wearing the chestpiece over them, along with a belt and sheath for her rapier. At the back of the wagon were the three supply crates, and neatly lined up against them was Durrus’s weapons rack with all of the new weapons organized. Right next to the rack was Durrus’s chest, which had Cleo’s books placed neatly on top. On top of the crates were several folded sets of clothing, a few rolled up bedrolls and a few pots. To the side were a few lamps along with lamp oil. Shoved inbetween the wall of the wagon and the crates was a large bale of hay and an ample stack of firewood.
“Hold on, we need one more thing.”
Cleo hopped into the wagon and pulled out the bale of hay, tossing large clumps of it all over the empty floor.
“Don’t worry, we can always buy a bit more, this is just rather important.”
She hopped out again, and hurried away. She returned carrying a large cloth, and tossed it over the hay.
“As somebody who spent several days hitchhiking cargo carts to get here, trust me when I say you want some padding. It’ll hurt really bad after the first hour or two of sitting on it.”
“Aw yea, good thinking Cleo!”
“Well, I hope you don’t mind carrying that bale of hay alone as well for that.”
“Hah, no problem!”
“Wait a second, where did you get that cloth from?”
“Oh just my tent. Why so, we’ll be leaving soon anyways right?”
“Not exactly, remember what I said about keeping this expedition secret? We’ll be leaving in the dead of night.”
“Oh crap… Well then, I guess I won’t mind sleeping in the wagon just for tonight. I have a feeling the sooner I get used to the feeling, the better.”
“Speaking of sleep, if you all want to buy anything else or make any last preparations, do them now and get some rest. I don’t want any of you exhausted when we set off.”
“I’m all set though!”
“All right then. Curi, Horrus, I’ll let you sleep in my tent free of charge only for this time.
“Psst… Durrus, it’s dark out! Let’s go!”
Curi was shoving him a bit.
“Come on! Let’s go!”
Durrus clambered up and poked his head outside. The moon was just barely rising, along with plenty of adventurers at the tavern enjoying dinner.
“I said the dead of night Curi, not just night. You sure seem eager to get out there though.”
“Yeah! I’ve always dreamed of going on an incredible adventure like this!”
“What do you expect to find out there?”
“I don’t know, and that’s what excites me so much!”
“To be honest, that’s why this whole expedition terrifies me, but only a bit. I’m just hoping the bandits didn’t find the central compound first.”
“Well they’re bandits, not explorers!”
“Now go on, head back to sleep.”
“Actually, I didn’t notice because I was too excited, but… Are we gonna eat before we leave?”
Durrus paused for a moment.
“Well, now that you mention it… Let’s go rouse the others. One last meal here sounds reasonable enough. After, we’ll double check our supplies and wait for everyone to clear out.”
Curi hurried over to Horrus and began beckoning him to get up.
The moon was high over the sky, the tavern had finally closed up, and Durrus’s tent was no longer where it once stood. It was now neatly folded up and stored away in the back of the wagon. Durrus and Cleo were geared up in their armor. Durrus climbed up into the Coachman’s seat, as the rest of the group climbed into the wagon.
“Everyone all settled in back there?”
“All here and ready to go!”
“All right. Enjoy the cold while it lasts. Once we hit the ruins, I’m gonna need Curi to come up here and help navigate.”
Durrus clutched the reins tightly, pausing momentarily before motivating the horse to start moving. The wagon slowly started moving before finally hitting a decent pace, heading down the dusty path towards Chidetah.