With plenty of careful carving and a decent amount of time, Cleo and Durrus managed to free yank Curi from out of the fleshy ground. She clutched to Cleo, still sobbing, as Horrus climbed out of the hole, noticing the corpse of the queen crawler.
“I thought the plan was me killing the queen, come on!”
Cleo shot a deathly glare at him.
“Quiet you, we should all at least be happy the thing is dead. Speaking of which, wait here for a minute Curi.”
She ran over to the entrance. Horrus noticed Curi’s tear-stained face and ran over to embrace her. Cleo soon returned with the two halves of the shattered staff poking out of the top her knapsack. Worry suddenly overtook Caelos’s face.
“Wait, what happened to him?”
Durrus spoke up. “Suicide I think. He was rather distraught, screeching about purpose before he destroyed himself with his own power. At least he saved us the effort.”
Worry turned to despair, and she suddenly vanished into thin air. Curi looked over Horrus’s shoulder.
“Caelos? Caelos where did you go? Where are you?”
“Calm down kid, she probably just needs a break from all this crap. She’ll be back soon. Now let’s get out of here, all right?”
By the time the party finally clambered out of the of the steel compound, they felt a sudden wave of humidity as they stepped back into the great marble temple. Merely standing in the main room, they could feel the sunlight beating down harshly through the slits, the air beyond the doors visibly distorted by the heat. They left the building, working their way through the maze of marble buildings once more towards the mountain. The paths were mostly devoid of life as they traveled, the only semblance of it flying overhead in the form of the strange bulbous vultures. Occasionally, they’d dive down into distant parts of the town, quickly swooping up a corpse of a fox or a large chunk of meat, chewing and swallowing it mid-flight. Soon the horse and wagon came into sight. Horrus dashed towards the shade as Cleo began to unhook and unbuckle her armor and gear. He dove into the sand, taking in its coolness, as she tossed her equipment to the side of the wagon, plopping down next to him. Curi marched up to the two of them, arms crossed.
“Hey, you still said we would take a bath when we got back!”
Cleo lurched up. “Oh yeah, that’ll be a great way to cool off! Hold on, let me grab all the pots we have, all right?”
“But I want a proper bath…”
“Trust me, this will at least be as refreshing.”
She leapt up to her feet, dusting off some sand and climbed into the rear of the wagon. As she walked towards the rear, she heard a sudden shifting noise in one of the crates. She pushed aside a few sacks of vegetables, noticing a hole had been chewed through the bottom of them, along with its contents being mostly gone. Looking at the crate, it also had a rather decently sized hole chewed through. She peered in, and suddenly four foxes darted out, each with a loaf of bread or vegetable in their mouth.
“Foxes got into the food supply!”
Everyone perked up and turned towards the wagon as the four foxes bounded out of the wagon. Horrus quickly grabbed one of his axes, hurtling it towards the furry thieves. Curi shrieked as it struck and killed the fox at the very rear who was carrying a sizeable loaf of bread.
Durrus hurried over. “Crap, Cleo how much did they get?”
“An entire sack of vegetables is mostly gone, and they got into one of the crates as well. That’s the least I know, they could have gotten more.”
“Lord…” He turned to the others. “You two just hold on, we’ll make something to eat later. Cleo and I need to take inventory first.”
Durrus climbed into the back of the wagon, as Horrus walked over to his kill. Curi looked with disapproval.
“You didn’t have to kill it Horrus.”
“Well it was taking our food, and now we just got more back.”
He drew a small knife from his belt and began to skin the fox.
“You don’t need to do that either, that’s just gross.”
“Are you hungry?”
She scrunched her face up. “I’m not gonna eat that!”
“Trust me, it’ll be much more appetizing when it’s cooked.”
Cleo and Horrus re-shifted the contents of the wagon, tying up holes in sacks and moving around more sacks within crates.
“That’s about half a week’s worth of food. I was hoping to give us a day off today to rest, but looks like time is a bit more of the essence.”
Cleo dropped and opened up a sack, pulling out a helping of vegetables and bread.
“Are you kidding me? Those two need rest and to wash up for at least a day! We can at least restock, right?”
“Reminder that the only safe passage we know back leads straight to Louisville, and I don’t want to exactly be hounded by lord knows who about how we breached the wastes. We’d never be able to return to the wastes without being followed. Does that sound good at all?”
“I guess not…”
“Exactly. Next compound we’ll probably stock up on a few crawler corpses, if Caelos is right about their edibility. God be damned if it’s a dead one of those bugs that gets the better of me.”
“Let’s just hope we find another one soon then… wait do you smell that?”
A light smoke drifted into the wagon. The two looked out the back to notice Horrus had skinned one of the foxes, impaled it on a rather splintery looking stick, and was beginning to roast it over a small fire. Durrus smiled, returning to the wagon as Cleo quickly hopped out and ran over.
“The hell do you think you are doing?”
“Making lunch.” He slowly turned the animal over the fire.
“You’re just going to eat one of those foxes? What if they’re poisonous or whatever? They could be dangerous!”
“Not dangerous to be the local predators.”
He carefully roasted it over the fire. A lovely smell of cooked beef soon overtook the air, bringing a bit of drool to Curi’s mouth. The mesmerising smell even seemed to bring Cleo to a halt, considering trying a bite herself. After a few minutes of careful roasting, the fox was a burnt brown but slightly charred. He sneered at her. “Let me prove it.”
He held the fox like a cob and took a bite out of the side of it, chewing nonchalantly. Curi watched with want as Cleo watched with worry. He swallowed.
“See, I’m not dead. It’s perfectly fine to eat.”
He used his knife to cut the spit in half, handing the other half to Curi. She stared at it reluctantly for a few moments before biting in, glee overtaking her face.
“Finally… something that tastes good! Thanks so much!”
Cleo inched closer. “Hey, can’t I get some?”
“I thought you didn’t want to eat it.”
“I never said- ugh! I’ll be fine with…”
She looked at her handful of vegetables and somewhat stale-looking bread.
“These I guess. Think you can ask Caelos to wake up so she can get me a bit of water?”
“Oh yeah I forgot…” She shook her staff around. “Caelos are you there? Cleo needs water.”
She briefly appeared in a flash, quickly bringing down a chunk of ice into the sand before disappearing almost as soon as she appeared. Cleo picked it up and tossed it into a pot, slowly melting it over the fire. She tossed in her collection of vegetables and began stirring, constantly eying her stew and the succulent-looking foxes the duo feasted on.
“If that stuff is really safe to eat, maybe we should go hunting when we’re free.”
Horrus perked his eyes up, sneering.
“Perfect, you can leave all that to me.”
Durrus soon hopped out of the wagon, chewing on a piece of bread with an armful of dried meats.
“Well at least Horrus took the fall for us here in testing out food, right? They already hole up in the abandoned towns, so finding more of them shouldn’t be an issue.”
Horrus smiled and nodded as Durrus took another bite of bread and beef.
“Even with this new food supply, let’s hurry and load up the wagon the moment we’re done. We still have lord knows how much desert to traverse before we arrive at another settlement.”
The two scarfed down the last of their fox, Curi especially happy at the end of the meal, and tossing the remains to the side. A few of the vultures quickly swooped down, snatching the scraps and flying back high into the sky.
“You two, just start loading up whatever you can out of my tent into the wagon, I’ll help disassemble it when I’m done.”
With stomachs full and the wagon loaded, Horrus and Curi sat in the rear as the other two hauled a few chests and crates full of various other supplies from the site back to the wagon. Horrus stretched his arms and legs out, leaning back against a stack of crates.
“You know Curi, I think you’re thinking right about this adventuring stuff. I don’t think I’ve had this much fun in my entire life!”
“It’s kinda scary, but I’m at least happy you’re all here to help me stay safe!”
Cleo suddenly hopped in, holding onto a crate also being hefted along by Durrus. The two hauled it in.
Cleo hopped out the back, heading for another heavy looking chest as Durrus paused between the two, squatting down to their height.
“Hey bud, if I were you I’d start thinking about a future other than adventuring, because we only got a few more weeks out here.”
Curi suddenly stood up.
“Wait a few weeks? Are you crazy? We can’t explore all of this in just that long!”
“That was never the plan you know. Find the compound, find the loot, ferry as much out as possible, and done. Besides, I’m pretty sure a few other brave souls are much more well prepared than us to explore.”
Horrus let out a chuckle.
“Well then, if you think ending this early is such a good idea, what are you going to do after this, huh?”
“Pawn off everything I find here, buy a nice manor, perhaps try and start a family, and live the rest of my life in peace. The riches the wastes hold are a nice easy key to that, you know?”
“Wow, and I thought you’d be a lot less boring.”
“It ain’t boring. It’s probably what I’d like best in life at this point. Louiseville was the closest I got to an actual stationary home you know.”
“Durrus, get over here! I can’t haul this chest alone!”
“I’ll be back in a bit.”
He hopped out of the wagon, Curi returning to her seat as Horrus shook his head.
“Man, they just don’t understand, right?”
“I don’t wanna go home in just a few weeks…”
“Hey who said you had to go home? Just, you, me, Caelos, and the wastes. Durrus can go buy his boring old house or whatever while we can keep exploring, right?”
“I guess so?”
The duo returned, hauling the chest into the rear of the wagon.
“Hey Cleo, do you want to leave the wastes?”
The duo let the chest down with a thump.
“Easy, I’m gonna present all my findings to universities at home. I’ll be known as the woman who breached the wastes and go down in history you know.”
“Why don’t you wanna stay out here? Isn’t it fun exploring?”
“Admittedly, there is a kind of exhilaration that goes along with every new discovery, but part of that exhilaration comes from wondering how everyone at home will react to these discoveries. I belong to Naha’Ja, not Chidetah. I am going to return someday, but not for a long while.”
Durrus leaned over to Cleo.
“These two don’t wanna stay here, if you can’t pick it up.”
“Ahhh… Not sure why he doesn’t wanna return, but for you, perhaps I can take you home with me Curi, if that’s all right. I’m sure we can find a place for you where you’ll be happy. Caelos would be a big help there too.”
She looked down at her feet.
“I’m not sure yet…”
“Speaking of Caelos, where has she been?”
Cleo pulled the few shards of the root staff from her knapsack.
“I wanted to ask her if she knew anything about how we could possibly repair the staff or something.”
“Oh uh, sure.” Curi brought the staff close to her. “Cleo wants to ask you a question Caelos.”
She appeared in the now familiar flash, her face wracked in grief. She glared down at the shards of the staff.
“Why do you have that out?”
“Well uh… I was wondering if we could repair it or-”
“It’s no point. I killed all of him.”
“But I thought you said-”
“Even if by some miracle you managed to repair it, I’ve destroyed his purpose for wanting to exist, right in front of him. For the third time this has happened to him, and I’m responsible for one of them.”
“Caelos, please, what are you talking about-”
“The vermin queen. It was purpose from the most pitiable of places, but it was still something that gave him a want to exist. I ripped that away from him. Do you know how much pain he would have had to endure to willingly want to return to a void of nothingness?”
Durrus suddenly butted in. “Well, his loss if he ain’t searching for a purpose anymore.”
“He had been searching for a purpose for centuries at a time by this point! We were merely lucky humans were the one who gave us purpose after the fall of the Ya’Chosh. Perhaps you would love to feel a century in isolation to feel the pain we all endured? How would you feel if you were forced to destroy everything your companions loved?”
Durrus suddenly took a step back, his hand reaching for his shield. Curi sputtered. “Caelos, please…”
She turned to find tears beginning to stream from her eyes. She let out a sigh.
“I’m sorry Curi… I will at least bring water when you ask, but I must isolate myself. I do not wish to harm any of you out of my grief.”
She quickly vanished. Durrus sighed.
“That’s some insane self-control she has, thank god.”
He stared at the other two. Horrus was still laid back, but Curi was shivering. Cleo kneeled to her.
“I guess I never thought about it that way. Curi, snap out of it, everyone is gonna be all right.”
“B-but Caelos… Sh-She’s not gonna be around…”
“Give her a few days, and I’m sure she’ll be back to help us. I promise. She’s still around to give us water, right?”
“I guess so…”
“She isn’t gone, she just needs a break.”
“And a long break isn’t exactly something we can afford right now.”
The two turned to Durrus.
“The only amount of rest we’re all gonna get is from now till when the stars start shining. Once they do, I want you to point us south, and we’ll get moving.”
The following night, Durrus roused the group from their slumber, bringing Curi to stare down the starry skies with her sextant and point southward. He reared the wagon around and began tugging it into the distance. She climbed into the rear with Cleo, as the two watched the marble village disappeared over the horizon, followed by the massive spiked mountain. Horrus merely snoozed silently, his head lying on a rolled up bedroll. The wagon continued deeper into the wastes throughout the night as the party silently sat with each other, the only noise coming from the constant turning of the wagon wheels. The rolling desert landscape seemed to be dotted more and more by the curious worm-fed plants, some even stalked by Ahzaks or the strange sand-camouflaged creatures. To Curi’s delight, a few of the foxes happily ran up to investigate the wagon. Maneuvering around more of the giant beatles hiding beneath the sands. the sun began its climb up again, the last of the night air giving way to the expected Chidetan heat. By the time the moon had completely disappeared and the sun overtook the horizon, they were passing through a massive patch of the plants. Cleo stared out at most of them, all devoid of animal life, and scratching down more notes in her journal. Continuing deeper south as the sun now shinned directly overhead, Durrus brought the wagon to a halt. The rest of the party popped their heads out the front to see why: A singular sandstone house stood curiously among the dunes, along with a few distant mushroom-like stalks sticking out of the ground. Durrus turned to the others, showing a sweat-soaked face and sleep-stained eyes.
“I need a quick rest, and luck has seemed to provide us.”
He brought the wagon close to the house, and leapt out through the back with a bedroll in his arm. He drew his gladius and walked towards the wall, carving an arrow pointing south into it. At his work, he walked in, set up his bedroll in the sands, and promptly passed out. The others followed, finding nothing more than sand. They took the time to start a small fire outside, quickly cooking a pot of stew for everyone to enjoy. Later, Cleo and Curi scoured out the surrounding areas, finding no compound of interest however. By the time the sun began its descent, Durrus finally rose from his slumber.
The journey throughout the following night passed similarly to the previous: Nothing more than sand, strange plants, scattered desert wildlife, and a few scattered shade beetles waiting for the foolish. The group in the back slept soundly as Durrus continued diligently navigating through the endless sands. He looked off into the distance, noticing another small pack of sandfisher beetles also wandering through the wastes. He thought to himself if maybe they could lead him to someplace habitable, chuckling at the thought. He returned his focus on the horizon ahead. Hours passed, and finally his diligence was rewarded: There was a few structures in the distance, all surrounding what looked like a strange dip in the earth. He motivated the horse a bit more, speeding towards the potential village. Finally arriving, the dip in the earth was revealed to be a massive sinkhole, barely lit up by the moonlight, surrounded by sand and a collection buildings both intact and in ruin. He threw his head back and let out a hearty laugh. Cleo soon emerged from the back, rubbing her eyes at the sight.
“You think that’s-”
“I see a thing underground, that’s gotta be a compound of the sort.”
He let out another laugh, steering the wagon around to one of the more intact structures.
“Rouse the others, let’s just unload what we can in here and explore during the morning.”
He hopped into the back, grabbing a few of the bedrolls along with a pot and a few pieces of firewood as Cleo roused the others. He walked inside, taking in the sight of this structure. It was completely empty yet larger than the old marble houses, divided into what seemed to be a kind of living are along with a kitchen. The kitchen even had a built in fireplace along with space for a pot to perfectly fit. He quickly tossed the logs in and lit a fire, followed by laying out the bedrolls in the living area. Soon Cleo and the others emerged, she and Horrus working to carry a heavy chest in as Curi carried a small sack of vegetables. She saw the fire, and quickly asked Caelos for some water for stew. Caelos obliged before disappearing again. The two dropped the chest in a clean corner.
“All right, what’s the plan now Durrus?”
“Eat and sleep. There’s a potential compound down there, and I want some sunlight before we dive down there. It’s gonna be hot, but at least well-lit. Curi, go grab some meats as well, I wanna at least make this stew taste slightly better.”
Soon the entire group was all spread out on separate bedrolls, snoring the last vestiges of the night away. Curi still held close to her root staff, wriggling about.
She suddenly jolted up, looking around. The rest of the party was still sleeping, and Caelos was nowhere in sight. She stood up, quietly slipping on her boots and cloak. She wandered outside, finding absolutely nothing stirring as far as she could see. Behind her, however, she could hear galloping. She whirled around, noticing a group of 8 men on horses riding straight towards her, each with torches and sword in hand.
The men quickly approach and surrounded her, each one of them wearing simple garments or sometimes gambeson, holding strange swords rippling with lightning. One of the men grabbed her with his free arm until a loud bang emanated from the house. A pained expression overtook his face as he slumped over with a hole in his back. Through the window of the house, Cleo had mounted her rifle, the barrel still smoking from the shot. One of the men suddenly barked out “You four, storm the house! We’ll focus on getting the girl!”.
The first group surrounded Curi, one of them grabbing her again and yanking her up. She tried swinging her staff at the man before he grabbed it, tossing it away into the sands. The other four dismounted and hurried towards the house, met suddenly by Durrus with scutum and gladius in hand. He up his scutum, preventing them from entry. The frontmost man laughed, thrusting his sword forward straight through it. Durrus tried to yank it away, but it easily melted through the rest of the shield, akin to moving a stick through water. He quickly tossed it aside and leapt back as the men charged into the house.
“Cleo, I need help right now! I’m down a shield!”
Cleo quickly rotated her gun, firing point blank at one of the men, sending him flying back into the wall. One man kept approaching Durrus while the other shifted sights, charging towards Cleo. She tossed the rifle aside, drawing her kilij and charged in turn. She tried to parry a strike from him, only for his sword to cut straight through hers, slicing her shoulder in the process. The wound felt like she was burning, both literally and physically as steam rose from the wound. She let out a yelp, staggering as the man sneered in response. Durrus took his time to dodge blow after blow from the first man. The man reared back his arm and thrusted it forward, which he deftly dodged, following by a strong thrust to the chest of his own. The gladius pierced his flesh easily, and the man let out a sudden gasp before falling over limp. In the chaos, he suddenly realized somebody was missing. He turned around, noticing Horrus standing in the corner, axes drawn yet paralyzed.
“The hell are you doing kid? Look, Curi’s been kidnapped! I want you to run over, grab Cleo’s rifle, and try to shoot them! Do it now!”
He still stood frozen as the words bounced off of him.
“Kid, you still asleep? Snap out of it!”
Cleo moved more to try and dodge the man’s blows. Suddenly, she moved forward moments before he struck. Parrying him at the wrist instead, she stabbed the broken blade into his stomach. He keeled over, and using this brief moment she dove near her bedroll, quickly swiping up her flintlock, lining up and firing a shot into his chest. He finally slumped over dead as well. She tossed aside the flintlock and grabbed the rifle and ran outside. She lined up a shot on the bandits, but suddenly they rode downward into the sinkhole, disappearing from sight.
She tossed her rifle to the side and returned to the sight of Durrus shaking Horrus by the shoulders. She shoved him aside.
“Some kinda awesome hunter you are huh? So awesome you just sit and stare while Curi gets kidnapped! Thanks to you, who knows what the hell is gonna happen to her! You could have intercepted them for a while on foot, thrown an axe, helped Durrus, just something! But you just had to-”
“I’M NOT A MONSTER!”
He suddenly dropped his axes and ran back into the house.