The heat from the desert sun beat down relentlessly, the shimmering waves rose in the distance as the convoy of carts winded through. All around, dunes rolled through the landscape, their image being cut by protruding stone and limited flora. The guards on the carriages wiped the sweat from their brows as it dripped into their own eyes. Most of the guards sat rested with their heads in between their knees, trying to shake their heads and allow their sweat to drop from their noses. One individual looked up to take a drink from his water skin, something catching his eye before he did. He nudged the individual beside him.
“Hey man, look at this.”
“I don’t care about funny-looking cacti anymore.”
“Na, the Dead-men are geniuses.”
The second individual looked up.
“How do they make walking look more relaxing than sitting?”
The Dead-men were still walking behind the carts, but Jester had moved to one side and Marcus to the other. They both held their weapons high by their side; attached to the top was a lightweight fabric, creating a sun shade for the four of them.
The second individual looked down back into his knees.
“Na, we have been traveling for hours; no way a little shade would make it better than sitting.”
“I could be convinced; they don’t look that tired.”
Heas looked over to Marcus, his arms were shaking, but he was persisting.
“Time to swap, Marcus; I’ll take the next shift.”
Marcus looked across to Heas, his eye being caught by Jester staring at his muscles.
“I have this, don’t worry. It has only been a few hours. Plenty of power left.”
Mesca noticed the exchanged eye lines; he nudged Heas and gestured to Jester. Piecing two and two together, he let out a sigh, wiping the sweat off his forehead; he walked across to Marcus. With little effort, he yanked the hammer from Marcus’s weakened grasp. The weight of the hammer sank into Heas’s grip.
“You carried a pretty heavy weight for the last how many hours. You did well, champ; I know I will be passing this on before then. Take a drink, you beast.”
Marcus took Heas’s place under the shade, his arms relieved to be done carrying his hammer.
“God, those guys up there look so damn relaxed; look at them just sitting their heads on their knees. Some of them look like they’re sleeping.”
“None of them have shade, though. We can thank Heas for having everything in that tiny duffle bag.” Mesca chipped in as he patted Heas on the back.
“Yea, but the genius made us walk.” Jester said as she kicked out her feet for emphasis.
Marcus rubbed at his arms. “Yea, but this is when he tells us the reason why.”
“I actually have three reasons.”
“Told you so.”
“So first of all, we need the commander to think we are strong. I’ve heard about him; he does not respect any of the recruits. Secondly, those carts make a lot of noise, and there are some big things in this desert that don’t like noise. Things I would like to avoid.”
“The third reason?” Mesca asked.
“I wanted to go for a walk, but I wanted shade also. I needed you all to come along to help on that one.”
Jester dropped her bow and stopped, turning herself towards Heas.
“You mean one of the reasons we are walking in this crappy desert is because you felt like a stroll? I am pretty damn hot and tired at this point, and we don’t seem to be stopping anytime soon. I should kick your book wormy ass.”
Heas dropped the hammer, dragging the cloth over Marcus and Mesca. Stopping fully, he turned to Jester.
“I know you know us mages use our stamina to cast spells, but we do have other ways. Which means I have at least two other avenues before I start draining my energy. Last time I checked, everything you do requires your energy. A valuable resource when walking in an unending desert.”
“Neither of you will fight here.” Commander Fain’s voice boomed from the carts.
“You can fight when we make camp, which, lucky for everyone here, is just up ahead. Now hold your hate; we will be camped in just a few minutes.”
Jester glared at Heas as she wielded her bow like a bat.
“You ain’t using my bow as your shade prop.”
She untied the cloth and threw it on the ground.
“Have fun with your little walk.”
Jester walked ahead of the other three, following the carts closely.
“Three…Two…One.” Mesca said as he looked at Marcus.
“Why are you counting down?”
“I assumed it would only take three seconds for you to follow her, consoling her and making her feel better.”
Heas gave a little laugh that started Mesca’s. Quickly Marcus joined in.
“Oh god, I need to meet another woman. Jester is not who I want to be with.”
Both Mesca and Heas yell in unison.
“Hey, it was like a week and a bit of a crush; people have done stranger things on the ocean.”
“I can hear you, you jackass.”
All three of the guys broke out in laughter as they picked up the cloth and packed it away.
“Good to have you back; let’s get the hell out of this heat.” Heas said as he handed over Marcus’s hammer.”
Up ahead, the carts started to head into a small outcropping of jagged stones, the center of which had a small natural spring littered with greenery. The carts parked up next to stone walls that had water trickling out of them. The carts were left so the convicts had access to the running water.
“I don’t want to hear a word from you, scum bags.” Fain yelled as he dismounted the cart.
“You have water and food, and we have already completed most of our journey. This goes for the scum bags in the cages and those wearing the uniform. Now let’s set up camp.”
Keeping quiet, everyone unpacked all they had, setting up sleeping areas in small groups.
“I am glad you all know to group up for the night. It gets very, very cold here at night. Once set up, you can join me over here for anyone interested in a short story about these lands.”
Fain sat down by the small fire that was started. Heas immediately walked over and sat down opposite him.
“Figured you would be here first.”
Heas did not reply; he simply opened a journal from his duffel bag. Looking back, he watched as the rest of his group were getting ready for sleep. Looking around further, he noticed everyone else getting ready for bed.
“Guess it is a small audience tonight; still feel like telling the story?” Heas said as he turned back to Fain.
“This is actually a bigger group than I am used to. Not often do people have the energy for a story at the end of a grueling day in the desert. Especially that one.”
Fain gestured towards Fole, who had fallen asleep while unpacking.
“I did notice he was spread over a cart before we had even set up our shade.”
“Lasted longer than I thought, still has actually. The way he was drinking I was sure he would die, either by heatstroke or others trying to stop him drinking so much.”
Heas gave a shallow laugh. “Yea…” Moving around the fire a little, Heas sat himself so he could stare at Fain. Holding his journal against his knee, he pulled out a charcoal pencil and waited eagerly for the story.
“Persistent you are. You know you would have suited a scholarly role better; why take on the guard recruit? I promise I will share my story if you share yours.”
Heas threw his pencil into his journal and slammed it shut.
“Well, it is simple, really; I love learning, traveling, and collecting items of interest. When I was young, a traveling merchant visited my town; he had a massive backpack filled with rare-ish items. With him, he had two followers who wielded some crazy-looking weapons; one was an enchanted decorative spear. The other had a staff with orbs that floated around it. I thought he looked amazing.”
Heas touches at his spell books. He continued talking at a quickened pace.
“I wanted and did follow his path of weapon. I knew I would have to be strong to be a magic user because of how demanding it is on the body, so I figured having a role that involved sitting was stupid. This was the role that would train me the most, physically, that is. As far as learning magic goes, I have had to do a lot of that myself. Now I collect anything I find, and with the help of my partners, we keep each other alive. Just as that wandering merchant and co did.
Heas re-opened his book and picked up his pencil. Fain grinned and raised his hands.
“ok, ok. I can see you don’t care too much for that story. But I feel like you will like this one.”
Fain adjusted himself, leaned over his knees, and began his story.
“Have you ever been told the story of those who lived here before we came along?”
“No, I know nothing about this island. Other than it is ridiculously tiny as far as islands go.”
“It is not the smallest island; it still takes around nine days to walk edge to edge. But yes, it is not the biggest of islands. But more importantly, it used to be inhabited by powerful mystics. They transformed this seemingly dull island into one of intrigue. Originally the only thing of significance on this island was the large inert crystals. Crystals they altered.”
Fain pulled out a small gem from around his neck, wrapping a hand around it like someone trying to shield a small flame from wind; he chanted. After a moment, the crystal started to leak water out of every surface it had.
“Not much from a small fragment true, but this is but a tiny shard which peeled off a colossal one buried under our camp.”
“Is that how you get the water for the camp?”
“Yes, it is the reason we built the camp where we did. It is how we can keep everyone alive in the middle of the desert. Don’t take those words so seriously; we are not in the center.”
“I figured; you said the island takes nine days to walk across. Considering the walk to the camp is only two from where we landed, I used very basic math to determine we were not going to the center.”
“I get it; you’re smart. Now let me get to the good part. We know that the mystics used this particular stone as a place of spiritual worship, but they had to move when they accidentally created abominations that threatened their existence. Namely, the gargantuan sandworms that burrow in this desert. Consuming wary travelers and fools.”
“Are we not at risk of these beasts?”
“Oh no, we are very much at their mercy and the other monstrosities that the mystics made. That is why we are paid so highly out here; we could be swallowed any day and replaced the next. But besides the great pay, there is one other incentive to take on this job. On our days off, we are free to explore this island. Recovering the artifacts that the mystics left behind, I have raised more than a little coin from these; I even kept one or two for myself. Giving me quite the advantage over others in the desert.”
“Like a stone that gives you unlimited water?”
“Like a stone that gives me an unlimited water supply, or shoes that make sand act like stone beneath my feet. Allowing me to move at maximum speed through the desert. Before you ask, I like telling this story because it is my job to get new permanent recruits. Competent recruits. I get a pay bonus for everyone who joins because of me. And all new recruits get the chance to find their own artifacts.”
Heas closed his book and started walking back to his group.
“You seemed so much more in-depth before I found out you are just a money-grubbing jarhead.”
“Hey, you said you wanted to do the same thing yourself, Mr High and Mighty. It was just a short moment ago you said you wanted to be a wandering trader who held rare items. Our motivation really isn’t different.”
“You can think that.”
“I can what, sorry?” Fain leaned in, turning an ear to Heas
“You are no different than any fool who walks into my desert and claims he is hardier than the rest. If you want to be a purveyor of exotic goods, you must take that which is wanted. It is not like we are claiming their belongings from them; the mystics are long gone.”
Heas stopped; he walked back to Fain and stood directly in front of him
“We are not so different, but you are motivated by money. A motivation for the weak, I had heard such great things about you, and you seem to fall flat as an individual. You made a mistake in my drive. I enjoyed the fact that the individual I saw sold rare goods, but it was his magic that I enjoyed the most.”
Fain noticed as his surroundings were covered by a black veil. All he could see was Heas and the fire.
“While he was in my town, he told me a few things; one, money is useful but not necessary.”
The air started to rapidly cool, Heas’s breath started to show as he spoke.
“Two, in order to be a great mage, you have to have a mental and a physical strength beyond others.”
Fain stared at Heas with fear as Heas’s eyes erupted like eggs giving birth to thousands of baby spiders.
“Three, in order to take that step ahead of everyone else, you have to work hard and obtain power. He then went on to say that any one form of power is strong, but getting many makes you unbeatable.”
Heas dropped down to eye level, letting Fain stare unblinking into where Heas once had eyes. As he stared, he noticed that they had been replaced by two large spiders that stared towards Fain.
“You can focus on the power of social status, weapon mastery, arcane knowledge, strong connections, fame, infamy, fear over those around you, or best yet. Obtain all and rule over the lesser people around you. Notice how wealth was not on my list? Because money is not power, it is a hobby.”
The environment returned to normal; Fain tried to hide his fear but was unable to keep it from Heas.
“I am going to bed. Thanks for the story.”
Heas wandered off to his group and once again stopped.
“Oh, sorry, I forgot to pay you for your time. Here.”
Heas flicked over a gold coin before finally lying down for the night. Fain caught the coin, pocketing it immediately. After pocketing the coin, he noticed his hand was shaking; he steadied it by forming a fist while he glared at Heas.
“You will not make a fool of me again.” Fain whispered under his breath. “Enjoy your sleep because starting tomorrow, I shall test you and break you every day you are here.”
Fain stocked up the fire, then went to bed.
Come morning, Heas found himself awoken by something touching his face. Eyes blurry, they opened to the sight of a large lizard. Its tongue flicking out as its head shifted from side to side. Heas lurched forward just as the lizard bit down where he lay. Now out of harm’s way, he calmly grasped his spell book and spoke.
The lizard shifted backward at high speeds; once stopped, it ran away from the camp. Heas turned to see a pile of lizards all lying upon the ashes from the ashes.
“Ah , shit.”
Fain stood from his sleeping position, screaming.
“Everyone up; we have guests.”
Everyone rose to their feet, expecting a raid of their camp. But what lay before them was a collection of large lizards.
“Don’t let them bite you; their bite is rather infectious.”
As everyone rose, the lizards realized that they were not welcome, and quickly, they scurried away, trying to avoid the now weaponized recruits around them.
“Heas, did you not put the fire out last night? I told you, if you are last awake, you have to put the fire out. You just risked everyone’s lives.”
Heas glared across at Fain, his hands laid upon his books.
“I am sorry, Commander.” Heas said, keeping his jaw locked. “I must have fallen asleep reading.”
“As punishment, you are to sit and think about what you have done. While the rest of us do our job.”
The other groups glared at Heas as they started to pack up for the day.
Marcus walked over to Heas.
“Don’t worry, this is nothing. People won’t care that much if you miss Half an hour of work.”
Fain, overhearing these words, walked over.
“If you are still tired, you should take a rest today; you are to ride in one of the carts. I am sure the others won’t mind escorting a carriage of prisoners while you rest in a nice shaded cart.”
As Fain walked away, Marcus leaned in. “But that might piss some of them off.”
Heas reluctantly stood still as everyone worked around him; the whole time, he directed his eyes towards Fain. Nearly un-blinking, he focused on Fain, a hate burning in his stomach.
“All right, sleepy head, hope in.” Fain pointed into the emptied prisoner transfer, smiling at Heas. Heas slowly stepped forward, and someone from the other groups shouted out.
“Take your time, your highness; we live to serve.”
Heas kept his head down; he could feel the eyes of everyone around him as he climbed the small step into the carriage.
Fain leaned in as Heas made his way into the carriage. “I have power, and I will use it to ensure you gain none.”
Heas reluctantly sat down as his cage door was closed behind him. He peered out of his cage at all the angry faces that were looking back. Once again, the convoy started to move. The mass of the guards surrounding the now walking prisoners. The other Deadmen walking beside Heas.
Jester taped her bow against the cage bars, pulling Heas’s attention.
“I am pretty sure I saw you go to bed before Fain; am I wrong?”
“Of course, you are wrong; there is no way our leader would throw blame at anyone. What probable reason could he have to hate me so much?” He said sarcastically, staring at Jester rolling his eyes as he spoke.
Mesca chimed in after Heas finished replying to Jester.
“I get the feeling like the initial plan has changed. Something clearly happened last night. What are our goals now?”
Heas widened his eyes and shook his head slightly.
“The overall goal stays the same, but we no longer strive for the Commander’s approval. We need to find someone else to use. This one will give us nothing but trouble, I am sorry, but I misread his mettle.”
Mesca stared past Heas into the distance.
“Commander, is that dust storm natural or being stirred up by something?”
The commander stared across and groaned.
“All right, it is time to test your strength; we have a fight on our hands. Keep the carts moving, and get those prisoners back into their cage. We can’t be herding cattle and fighting.”
Heas was removed from the cart, and the walking prisoners happily re-entered as the initiates stayed behind. Fain jumped from his cart, leaving only the drivers to take the prisoners away.
“Sorry to say, but we are only paid if our cargo reaches the camp; that makes your lives worth less than those we carry to the prison. So form up in your squads and pray that you survive this fight, Deadmen; you are to take the lead. Let us see what you are capable of.”
Heas looked at his group.
“I am sorry, looks like my little demonstration has gotten us on the front lines.”
Marcus raised his hammer into both hands.
“You drag us to the front line of every conflict; how is this any different?”
Jester stepped forward and nocked an arrow.
“Because it was not his choice, he always wants to choose the most dangerous route. Not be forced into it.”
Mesca laughed as he drew his sword and raised his shield.
“Regardless, we know the rules. The first one to sustain a wound owes the others a gold piece.”
Touching Jester lightly, Heas cast a spell. “Oot risk Veesh”. Her eyes swirled and changed to those of a hawk.
“I can just see into the dust cloud; we face tribal lizard people. Next time Heas, try using the eyes of something that lives in a desert. These eyes strain to see through the sand.”
“Tell me the word for lizard in the arcane language I use, and I will happily alter my spell for you.”
Jester focused her eyes and let loose her first arrow; it sailed past her target and hit a smaller lizard behind it.
Mesca looked across at Jester.
“Did you hit oh hawk-eyed archer?”
“I hit a target.”
Jester dropped her hawk eyes as the enemy drew closer.
“This looks like a damaged scouting party; they have no ranged units, I could see.”
As Jester finished, Mesca leaped across Marcus and stood directly in front of Heas, raising his shield, splintering an incoming arrow.
“Again, you gave me hawk eyes. Eyes of an animal that does not actively look into upturned sand.”
Jester let loose as many arrows as she could before sheathing her bow and drawing a sword from her side.
Marcus began to grin.
“This is my favorite part, Heas; I am heading in.”
As the large lizard people began to draw close, Marcus started to run in, but his movement slowed from moving on the sand. Picking up his pace, he roared as he charged in, challenging the high pitch screams of the lizard people running towards him. Mesca followed suit on his left flank, Jester on his right. Heas stood at the back. Unable to see, he cast a spell on himself.
Heas jumped impossibly high into the air, giving him a scope over the battle.
“Five enemies, four charging, one archer. Easy”
“Kei tor O esh”
Heas teleported behind the archer with his dagger in hand, burying it into his neck, dropping the archer before it could let another arrow loose. As the lizard form fell from in front of him, he watched as his friends were but a second away from conflict.
Shouting three times, he pointed to each of his companions. “Corse”.
All three started to glow with a red aura. Their muscles each swell to an unnatural size. As they collided with the lizard men, their new strength bowled their scaly enemies to the ground. Three enemies grounded, but two moved in to flank; Jester parried the blow against her. Mesca received a strike to his shield, holding his foe’s attention as Marcus caved in its skull. Heas watched on, out of breath, taking a moment to regain his composure. With three still prone and only one standing, Mesca and Marcus made quick work of those on the ground as Jester engaged with the last standing one. Heas flicked his fingers towards Jester and muttered.
Jester started to move at an increased speed, her strikes doubling in speed, overwhelming her foe with her new-found speed. She quickly cut them down. Once again settling the sands as the Deadmen stood among dead Lizards.
Marcus raised his head towards Heas, noticing that he seemed to be exhausted.
“Already out of charge? I am sure we have had fights longer than this before.”
Speaking between heavy inhales, Heas Replied.
“We have, but I don’t know teleport that well; it takes a lot out of me.”
Turning away from Marcus, Heas watched as Jester and Mesca had already started looting the creatures. Head spinning, Heas looked down at the ranger he killed. He noticed a thin piece of material around its neck. Pulling it off, he saw a familiar pendant.
In his hand, he held another water crystal with the exact same ornate decorating that Fain had.
“Marcus, come here. Give me a hand; I am out of breath.”
Marcus wandered over and gave a shoulder to lean on as the group made their way back to the convoy, the convoy that had already started to move along. From the near distance, they heard Fain yell out to them.
“Those who stay behind fall behind. Catch up, or stay in the desert.”
Jester raised her bow in the air and imitated the noise a bow makes when it fires.
“If I was a better shot, I would do it.”
Mesca bumped the bottom of her bow with his sword. “Yea, because we live by the law of combat. Once you kill him, you will become the next commander.”
Jester turned to Mesca, silently she stared for a moment before moving on.
“Hurry up, we have to catch up.”
Heas stopped leaning on Marcus for support, covering his new pendent with his whispered arcane gibberish. Eventually, the symbols lit up, and the gem started to pour water. Taking a drink, he stopped the flow of water and pocketed his new trinket.
The other two watched Heas use his new pendant before pocketing it; Mesca spoke up about it.
“How is it you always find the good stuff? The others had nothing on them. Even their weapons were shit.”
Heas laughed. “Looks like my luck is just better than yours. Now we really should move, or we will be left behind.”
Marcus pushed Heas slightly, testing his balance.
“You ok to run? Because we are a fair bit behind. Never realized how much teleport drained your energy.”
“Technically, it doesn’t. I don’t know the official teleport spell; I made a less refined one which is very energy intensive. But fortunately, it is not a lingering exhaustion, just temporary. So yea, I am good to go.”
“Guys, hurry up; we have not finished yet.” Jester yelled as she let loose an arrow over the sand dune she stood on.
The others ran up as fast as they could; as they reached the peak of the dune, they looked down upon a small hoard of lizard men that had engaged the rest of the initiates.
“Form up and move down.” Heas yelled as he charged down the dune, his companions following in tow. Jester let loose arrows as they all descended.
“We need to make sure we protect those carts; now move.”