This is a shorter chapter (although still longer than some of the first ones), but part of a set that would have been much too long. Enjoy! And as always, comments and feedback are welcomed. Apologies also, as my copy editor (aka my girlfriend) is out of town. I believe I found all of the typos on my own, but there are always a few.
The Northern Wastes - Part 1
Roshan left the city of Dak much more comfortably than when he arrived. For one, he was not in a small, cramped crate, but rather riding in the open air. He might have been on a camel, but he would happily take that over his bumpy wagon bed – no matter how it smelled.
Their time in the city was brief. After leaving Ater-Volantis, the party traveled to a bustling caravanserai on the outskirts of the city. There, Simon and Trentor unloaded the group’s belongings (and the crate containing Roshan), and then Syd and Trentor headed off to sell their load of slate. Roshan was then carted up to their rooms, a very bumpy, uncomfortable process, before Isa and Rika cracked the crate open and spilled Roshan out onto the room’s thin carpet. Looking concerned as he lay there blinking in the sudden light, Rika asked, “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” Roshan said, stretching, and then wincing as he felt the bruises. “Where to next?”
For the moment the answer was nowhere. They waited, with Isa pacing back and forth, for Syd and Trentor to return. The suite of rooms were bare, small, and dusty, with thin, faded carpets covering the hard-tiled floor. Looking out the tiny window, Roshan could see the rest of the caravanserai. Despite being several stories tall, the main building was a squat, wide structure made of some sort of brown, hardened mud that Simon said was called adobe. Surrounding the central structure were several smaller buildings, consisting of extra rooms, stables, and storage sheds, all of which were surrounded by a sandy-colored wall about twenty hands high. The roofs were painted white, and presumably formed of the same type of slate that they had hauled off of Ater-Volantis. There was a constant flurry of movement in the courtyard, as people of all colors, shapes, and sizes moved from stables to storehouses and back again, and in and out of the simple wooden gates.
However, despite assurances from Rika that Syd and Trentor would be back soon, it was almost half the day before Simon spotted them leading a team of laden camels into the caravanserai’s crowded courtyard. While Trentor stabled the mounts, Syd returned to the room, smelling strongly of camel and frowning. “We leave in the morning,” she snapped. Rika, Isa, and Simon all nodded without comment, but Roshan felt lost.
“Where are we going, again?” he asked.
Syd spared him a glance. “We’re going home” she told him. “If you chose to join us, you will be welcomed. If not, this is where we part ways,” and she went into her room and shut the door.
Trentor reappeared a moment later. “Who put sap in her scarf?” Isa asked.
“Oh, we didn’t get quite as good a price as she had expected.” Trentor said, grinning and shrugging. “Apparently some damn fool of a merchant had just hauled some slate in the long way around, beat the city by several days. Syd took it personally. You know those desert tribe-folk, they’re prideful about their trading prowess.”
“What are we carrying out of the city?” Roshan asked, still trying to find out where they were going.
“Oh, this and that,” Trentor temporized. “Whatever they need at home, really, the last group out left a message for us.”
Rika perked up at that, “a message?”
Isa smirked. “You looking for a message from anyone in particular?”
Rika stuck her tongue out at her, the tips of her ears turning red.
“And where is home, exactly?” Roshan interjected, ignoring the byplay.
“We’re not trying to be mysterious,” Simon said, taking pity on him, “but we are not permitted to say. It is geis, forbidden. I promise that you will not regret coming with us, however.”
“Yeah!” Isa chimed in, as she and Rika made faces at one another. “Come! We always want more Fòrsic theorists.”
“Absolutely,” Rika said in agreement. “We need you!”
Roshan looked from one to the other, and felt a warm feeling of gratitude for how welcoming they had been to him throughout this whole ordeal. He smiled back, “what can I say, but yes.”
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“Alos damn all sand,” Rika muttered to herself as she spit to the side, trying to dislodge the face-full of grit the wind had blown in moments prior. On the camel beside her she thought she heard Isa chuckle, but it was hard to tell since everyone was bundled from head to toe in light, linen coverings. According to Syd, the clothes were designed to protect everyone from the harsh sun, for all that they traveled mainly at night. ‘That may have been true’, Rika thought, ‘but what they also did was, in addition to making everyone look like a ridiculous mummers’ troupe, trap sand in their layers, leading the wraps to become scratchy, irritating, and thoroughly detestable’. You had to pull them down from your face to drink, too, which was how she ended up with sand in her mouth despite that being what the clothes were supposed to prevent. Everyone else looked perfectly happy though, Syd wore hers like a natural, which she was, but Isa had also taken to the clothes and looked smugly comfortable to Rika’s jaundiced eye.
“At least Roshan looks miserable too,” Isa leaned over and whispered-shouted over the wind. Rika had to give her that, though it was hard to tell with his face bundled up. As far as either of them knew, this was his first time riding anything, let alone the shaggy, two-humped, stinky monstrosities that were their camels. He was slumped miserably on his seat, although he must have heard his name, because he raised his head and gave a sad little wave.
They had left Dak behind five long and tiring days ago. Syd was driving them hard, for no reason that Rika could see, but they rode from late afternoon to early morning, spending the hottest part of day hiding in their tents. She was already sick of it, and Syd had intimated that they still had much further to go. They were heading for the headquarters of the Resistance, tucked away in a hidden, fertile valley high up in the Cnoic Iaranna, the massive mountain chain that divided Alis-Dak (and the continent). Rika had been there many times before, but she’d never come from this particular direction and she wasn’t quite sure how long it would be.
Mostly, she was miserable because she was bored. The landscape was stunning, with beautiful, epic vistas, but the Northern Wastes were dominated by a persistent, keening wind, making it difficult to hold a conversation. The wastes were steppe country, covered in short, stubby grasses, and covered in craggy hills and harsh defiles. It was viciously hot in the summer, just as cold in the winter, and for the life of her, Rika could not imagine why anyone would choose to live there. Which is why she was surprised on the sixth day when they were attacked by bandits.
They were riding single file across a wide plateau, covered in scrub brush and not much else, when Syd suddenly held up a hand and froze. Everyone else halted as well, although it took Rika and Roshan several extra steps to stop their camels. It was just after sunrise, the sky was filled with a riot of pinks and blues, and rapidly retreating violet, and Rika felt the weight of her need for sleep pressing down on her. Still, she looked on with interest as Syd swung herself down from her own mount, and pressed her ear to the hard-packed earth. She held her ear there for several moments, and then bounced to her feet and beckoned them all to move closer. Once they were close enough for a quiet conversation, despite the stinging wind, she announced, “Bandits, a score, maybe less, and heading towards us.”
“Do you want to try running?” Simon asked, his voice calm.
Syd shook her head. “Their ponies will run down these camels easily,” she punctuated her statement with a slap on the flank of her beast, who wuffed in response. “We have to fight.”
“Uh…you did say twenty bandits, did you not?” Roshan enquired quaveringly.
Syd gave him a savage grin, just visible beneath the wraps on her face. “Stay back, and watch how it is done.” She turned back to the others, “Rika and Isa, Fòrsic attacks and defenses. Trentor and Simon, take care of any who get through. I’ll be the reserve.”
Rika nodded, along with everyone else except for Roshan, who said “what?”
“We’re about the best group the resistance has,” Trentor put in. “Four to one odds are nothing when you have a crazy theorist and a crazier engineer backing you up. Those raiders won’t know what hit them.”
Rika snorted, refraining from sticking out her tongue, and instead turned to Isa. “Offense or defense?” she asked.
“Hawk, snake, mongoose you for it?” Isa responded.
Rika shrugged, “you take the offense side, you’re more… temperamentally suited for it anyway.”
“Hmph,” Isa said, but leaned over and began rummaging through her saddle bags.
Meanwhile, Simon had slung himself down from his camel, and was pulling an impressive array of weaponry from the saddle bags. He tossed a sheathed short-sword to Roshan, who juggled it, but managed not to drop it. “Stick them with the pointy end,” he advised solemnly.
The bandits were visible now, coming up out of a hidden arroyo and riding hard towards the group. Rika could see about fifteen of them, dressed in furs and hides and riding stubby mountain ponies. They were armed with horse-bows and swords, and she couldn’t see any evidence of Fòrsic equipment. Maintaining Fòrsic weaponry, especially without formal training, was both time consuming and expensive and only the most successful of bandit gangs used even salvaged equipment. “Like fish in a barrel,” she murmured. Rika pulled on the reins, and her camel knelt, allowing her to hop off easily. She opened up her saddle bags, and pulled out a metal buckler studded with five crystals in a pentagram formation. Looking around, she saw Trentor and Simon standing in front of the clustered camels, in the path of the raiders. Simon had a long, two-handed flamberge slung onto his shoulder, and Trentor was making throwing knives appear and disappear in his hands. Isa was off her mount now, too, unfurling a telescopic staff that she had had secured in her saddle bags.
Isa swung the staff in a complex pattern, whipping and swirling it around her, as the air around her began to feel static-y from built up Fòrsa. “Wait for them to get closer,” Syd ordered. Isa nodded, but didn’t halt her pattern.
Rika stepped forward out of the circle of camels as well, touching the crystals studded in her buckler. The bandits were in arrow range now, and as one they raised their bows and shot a volley toward the group. Rika triggered her shield, sweeping it in a wide arc across the sky. A gust of wind blew with sudden violence, blowing the arrows to the side. Immediately another volley was in the air, and she gusted those arrows out of the sky as well. Her shield was already starting to heat from the energy discharged from the crystals, and the air in front of her shimmered.
“Isa, now!” Syd shouted, commandingly. Isa brought her swinging staff pattern to a halt, bringing the staff down in a slashing motion that ended with it pointed at the group of bandits still riding hard towards them. With a booming thunderclap, the staff discharged a blinding bolt of energy towards the raiders. It struck the front ranks like a sweeping scythe, and men and ponies tumbled to the ground. The remaining bandits split up, no longer charging in a pack, but instead circling like wolves. Isa went back to spinning her staff, occasionally leveling it to fire off another bolt, though none to the same effect as the first. Rika, too, was struggling, as she was now having to deflect arrows from several directions at once. They were all dismounted and backed into a ring now, with Roshan in the middle, kneeling camels in front forming a wall.
There were still seven or eight bandits surrounding them, riding in a cantabrian circle, when, with an almighty CRACK Isa’s staff shattered, splintering up from the fist sized crystal embedded in its end. Isa flew backwards from the force of the explosion, and slammed into Rika’s back on the far side of the circle. Both of them flipped over the camel in front of Rika, and tumbled to a tangled heap on the ground. By the time Rika realized something was wrong, she was already on the ground with a splitting headache and bright flashing lights occluding her vision. Grimacing, she lifted her head off the ground to observe the circling riders suddenly turn and charge toward. Through the ringing of her ears, she heard Syd yelling, but her head felt heavy, so she let it drift back towards the dirt and closed her eyes. It was more peaceful that way.
Chapter 9 can be found here.