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Chapter 21: Through the Desert

    As soon as everyone was ready, and the horses were dragged away prematurely from the oasis, Valkyria led the group away from the open water and into the desert again. Following the underground river would be easy enough, and with some luck and pushing the horses a little more than they were used to, they’d reach the small outpost in the sands that held food and water for the horses and people alike. She didn’t like the sounds that whispered on the sand however, it was far too quiet, no stirring of animals, no sign of life except for the caravan led by her. It was as if death had taken its toll on the desert during the storm. Not the scuttling of a scorpion or the surfacing of a snake from its burrow made an appearance while the group moved away from water. Valkyria sucked in her breath and bit her lip. Now was not the time to get paranoid even with the unearthly quiet.

    As the day wore on, the signs of life remained stilled, unnervingly so for the desert worn Valkyria. Still, she soldiered on trying not to show how nervous she was at the lack of sound. After an hour of silence, Valkyria called for the stop of the caravan. In her nervousness she had lost the feel of the underground river, and with that, her bearings. Hopping down from her horse she stuck her fingers in the sand and sifted through a few handfuls trying to feel for the moisture that should be down below.

    Air sighed, bored as she was sitting beside Y’ezela on the wagon’s bench. “What do you think Valkyria’s doing?” Air whispered to Y’ezela.

    Y’ezela was at ease on the ride. Valkyria warned of raiders, but the bard was just happy that the storm was over. As her newest half-sister stopped to check the ground, Y’ezela pulled the wagon team to a stop. “I don’t know,” Y’ezela replied to Air as she tried to see exactly what Valkyria was doing. She didn’t want to question their guide after their conversation earlier, so she just trusted Valkyria’s guidance.

    As the wagon came to a halt, Estas slowed his own horse and looked ahead to see Valkyria bent in contemplation over the sand. The high elf, being the joint leader of this expedition, knew that it was his responsibility to check their progress, but he was reluctant to speak to involve himself with Valkyria. Only as long as we’re in the desert, he told himself, and with a slight sigh, he urged his horse ahead to come up alongside Valkyria. “Is there a problem?” he inquired to the half-elf.

* * *

    Inside the carriage, Seri was wilting. The heat was getting to her now that the winds had stopped and she had nothing else to really focus on. Breathing a hot, exasperated sigh, the high elf fanned herself with her hand. “Ugh...this is unbearable...” she muttered, then the carriage gave a slight lurch as it stopped. “What now?” she groaned.

    “Don’t worry Seri, it’s probably nothing to worry about,” Sairina assured her, patting her knee. “Is there anything I can do for you?”

    “No... There is something I can do though,” the high elf grumbled, and then folding her hands in front of her, she spoke a summon to Flau in elven. It took some focus to get the ice spirit to manifest in this environment, but Seri was a powerful shaman, even with her physical energy sapped by the growing child and impending heat exhaustion. Little blue spirits began to appear in the carriage and darted around the ceiling. The temperature inside began to drop dramatically, and frost formed along the top corners of the carriage.

    As chill pervaded the carriage, Seri relaxed with a contented sigh, the breath visible as a puff in the air. Sairina, on the other hand, was now chilled to the bone. The lean dark skinned priestess in nothing but silk was certainly not acclimated to much cold, nor did she have the higher body temperature that Seri was suffering from. Sairina’s skin rose up in goosebumps and she wrapped her arms around herself to try to keep warm, but she wasn’t going to rob Seri of her comfort, so she bit her tongue.

    After relaxing in the cool air, Seri looked over at Sairina to see the priestess shivering. “Oh, I am sorry,” she said, realizing that the girl was uncomfortable. “There is a blanket on top of all the supplies.” The high elf pointed up at the stack of boxes and eagerly, Sairina was up and rifling through the supplies until she found a nice blanket to wrap herself up in.

* * *

    “I lost it,” Valkyria admitted. “The river isn’t below us any longer. I can’t figure out where I lost it. This has never happened to me.” At least not since I was a child. She made a face and sifted her fingers through the sand. “I’d hate to say it but we might have to rely on the recently stirred spirits for guidance back to the river.”

    Her disposition soured. Asking the spirits for help when they were recently excited was inviting danger, they could go feral and attack them all if not careful. Even the strongest shaman couldn’t fully control the spirits when excited. That’s why it was best to leave them till they calmed down. “I’m loathed to ask them for help right now however. It’d be best if i can find the trail within the hour. If you packed feed for the horses, now is a good time to feed them while i work on finding us.”

    Estas frowned. Of all the times to lose you way, now when we depend on you? he thought, but he didn’t dare voice this. Turning on his heel, he addressed the group, “We are taking a break. Get the horses fed while we wait.” After making his announcement, Estas strode forward, his blonde eyebrows still knotted in frustration, then returned to his horse. He didn’t mount it, he only stroked its nose, offering it some comfort while someone else found the grain they had for the horses somewhere.

    Orion dismounted softly, his gentle landing further cushioned by the sand below him. Soiff had been struggling with the sand, as he imagined most of the other horses. She was no camel. Deftly slipping open a saddle bag, he withdrew a waterskin he had cut open. Pouring a mix of bran and oats into it, Orion added a little bit of molasses and mixed it. Like many other elves, Orion was fairly concerned for the health of any animal that served him. They were friends and companions, not servant and master. Thus, Orion did not feed Soiff. He prepared meals for her. Soiff far preferred her travel rations with molasses, something that Orion often spent extra for. “My apologies,” he said as he came back around to Soiff’s front. “I am running low on variety.” Cupping the waterskin in his hands, he presented the food to his mare, who accepted it without remark. Orion always held the waterskin, so Soiff need not crane her neck down. “For both of our sakes, I should hope Valkyria finds her way...”

    Happy that the horses could finally be fed, Y’ezela secured the reins of the team, then eagerly hopped out of her seat and hurried to the back of the wagon where the feed had been stored. Opening up the trunk on the back of the carriage, Y’ezela found a sack of grain and two feeding bags for the wagon team. Taking the knife her mother had given her, Y’ezela slashed open the sack and pulled it out of the way, filling the bin with grain. She then filled up the two feeding bags and brought them over to the wagon team and hooked bags to their halters so they could eat.

    “There’s feed in the back of the carriage,” she announced to the group while she stroked one of the wagon’s horse’s necks.

    Kitsa watched the activity on the ground from her position on the roof of the carriage. The quarter-elf ranger sighed and rubbed her hands against her tattooed thighs; they were starting to burn from the direct sunlight and her skin had probably become the darkest it had ever been. Afraid of actually getting the first sunburn of her one hundred and thirty year life, Kitsa donned her cloak again to cover her skin. It was hot, but she hoped that the breezes would be enough to keep herself cool. She took a long drink of fresh spring water from her waterskin, then looked down at Orion tending to his horse. As much as she wanted to keep her eyes on him, she tore her attention away to scan the desert for signs of trouble from within the shadow of her hood.

    Sure enough, she saw something. There was movement in the sands, and for a moment, she thought it might have been a mirage. Kitsa kept watching though, and soon enough she saw more movement, a distance away on either side of the caravan. There were people out there, and she soon realized that they were dressed in sandy-colored clothing for camouflage. “We are not alone,” she spoke, loud enough for most of the group to hear.

    Orion looked up instantly. From his perspective, he couldn’t see a thing. Dropping the remaining food, he swept up his bow and knocked an arrow. Footing would be difficult if it came to a fight in general, so range would definitely be appreciated. Jogging over to the carriage, he started to scale the back of it. “I’m coming...”

    As Orion climbed up, Kitsa nocked an arrow on her own bow and pulled back the string, aiming at some of the moving figures. They were near impossible to aim at, as soon as they stopped moving, they as good as disappeared. She couldn’t fire yet though, until she knew their intentions for sure; she wasn’t one to ‘shoot first and ask questions later’. With Orion joining her though, she felt a tingle of excitement thinking of fighting alongside him.

    At Kitsa’s warning, Estas’s attention was drawn out to the dunes. The high elf’s hand went to the hilt of his sword as he watched, catching glimpses of the camouflaged threat out there in the sand. “Valkyria...” he called, hoping that the half-elf banditress had some way of assuring him that these people were of no threat.

* * *

    After his, well, to be blunt, exile from the group, Albedo had chosen to shadow them. At least, that had been the initial plan. They hadn’t exactly made it easy, and truth be told they had not had the best of experiences while on their little search... but, then again, things always seemed to work out for them, which was the reason why he was still following them. Still, it had taken a bit of effort to simply stay out of it, and not be forced to intervene, he had been almost forced to show himself when that brat Air had been taken by bandits. He would have to report those sand rats later, the shadow guild hated competition, and if they choose to interfere with business, reports of their hideout would probably make up for his absence. Still, he had managed to hide himself, although he was forced to keep quite a bit of distance between himself and them.

    But, now that they had come to a stop, he had been forced to stop as well. Covering himself up in a sandy colored blanket, he watched from his vantage point, and gave a frown at what he saw. Someone was about to make things interesting... bad luck once again it seemed. Although the way things were, they’d find another one of dear old dad’s offspring.

* * *

    “This was exactly what I didn’t want to run into,” Valkyria growled. “Don’t rely on shamanism, disturbing the spirits will make it harder to find our trail back. We’ll have to fight them off when they close, so don’t bother wasting munitions shooting at them.”

    Nodding to Valkyria’s instructions, Estas moved back to the sides of the carriage and knocked on the door. Sairina opened it up for him and cold air poured out of the carriage. Seri had summoned Flau to keep herself cool, apparently. Sairina wasn’t as warm as Seri, however, and the priestess was wrapped in blankets.

    “What is it?” Sairina asked.

    “It seems as if we have another battle with bandits,” Estas replied. “Stay in here with Seri.” He began to shut the door, but Sairina’s arm shot out to keep the door open.

    “Wait!” she called. “I might be able to help... I can cast a rack spell again, and I can fight a bit.”

    “Fine. I want you to get a high vantage point then so you can cast that spell,” Estas said, then moved around to take his place at the side of the wagon, beginning to bark orders to the mercenaries. “Anyone who can’t fight, get to the inside of the group. Everyone else, position yourself around the wagon. Orion, Kitsa, we’ll need you in close combat.”

    Y’ezela gulped as she heard trouble coming. She was in no way a fighter, but at least she had a weapon if it came to that... The half-elf bard scurried over to the wagon and hopped up into the seat.

    Kitsa was unsure of Valkyria and Estas’s order, and glanced at Orion for his reaction, but she realized the bandits lurking around were too hard to see as it was, even with the sharp eyes for elves. They were far more familiar with their environment than the travelers were. Kitsa quickly put her arrows back into her quiver, and slipped her bow in as well. There was no time to worry about unstringing it it for proper storage. If she needed ranged weapons, she still had throwing daggers. The quarter-elf hopped off the top of the carriage and landed in the sand. Put her hand on the hilt of her sword, she was ready to draw it.

    Sairina dashed around to the side of the wagon, sending up flurries of sand as she struggled to run. She hauled herself up beside Y’ezela and plopped down. Her first act would be to cast a blessing across the while group. The elves may not have been able to use their shamanism, but her holy magic could at least do something. The priestess began to pray for luck from Cha Za and broke out into a hymn. It was a rather long song, as covering so many people would require focus, and strength of spirit.

    So much for strategy, Orion thought to himself. Unnocking his arrow as he moved, he stepped off the side of the wagon and into the sand. Pulling himself free, he slid the bow onto his back and joined Kitsa’s side. As usual, Orion did not start out with his weapons drawn, but let his hands hang gently on the handle of each dagger. The goal was their perceptions: he was an easy target. The unfortunate mistake they would make was most certainly a deadly one. Besides the High Elves, Orion was one of the oldest present. Though he did not turn to look at her, Orion whispered to Kitsa. “Be careful.” His eyes scanned the sand endlessly.

    Kitsa gave a nod to Orion, but the warning went without saying. The quarter-elf was ready to fight, whenever the fight finally came to them...

* * *

    At the head of the caravan, Phaeton swung himself out of Ikhen’s saddle and moved toward Luria. Following the example of the others, he didn’t ready his weapons just yet. Perhaps these bandits would make demands before attacking, but considering Valkyria’s warning, they may just slaughter the group and take everything of value. At any rate, the bandits had still not come into view. Phaeton took a hold of the haft of his spear as it was slung across his back, ready to pull it out. “Do not fear, Luria, I will protect you,” Phaeton said. He knew she had no real melee weapons, short of daggers. Though Valkyria warned not to waste munitions, perhaps Luria’s archery could still be useful...

    Luria gave a thumbs up. She didn’t like the situation one bit from start to finish, but reminded herself that this is why she and her friends were here in the first place. “I’m supposed to be conservative with my ammo, so I’m counting on you, Phaeton!” She readied her bow in case it was needed. “Don’t worry, I’ll watch your back. If push comes to shove, I can throw a pretty mean punch, too!”

* * *

    Glimpses of the bandits sulking through the desert came closer, occasionally their movements were seen behind dunes before they disappeared again into the sand. The group pulled tighter together around the wagon, almost subconsciously, trying to eliminate their dangers from behind and protect their small caravan. Suddenly, the unseen bandits leaped out of the dunes, tossing aside their sandy colored cloaks and rushing the group. They were mostly natives to the desert, swarthy men in leather and armed with scimitars and sabers. All in all, the group consisted of eighteen men, which outnumbered the party by almost two to one. They had no interest in bargaining, or making demands, it was obvious that their only desire was the raid the caravan and take their valuables.

    The battle ensued, and though the best fighters of the group were out numbered, luck was in their favor. With Cha Za blessings on several of their weapons, and the spells of Sairina, the small caravan defeated all eighteen of their attackers, with little of their own causalities. Some bruises and scrapes were all they had suffered, but despite the blessings of Cha Za, they were still victim to exhaustion. Once the bandits had been dealt with, they had little time to rest—they could be grateful to their mounts, however. The horses, now well-watered, carried them onward after Valkyria’s lead.

    The bandits were not the only enemy they had to deal with. Along the way, they encountered several giant scorpions scavenging in the aftermath of the storm. They were dispatched by Estas, Kitsa, Phaeton, and Orion, but with each confrontation, exhaustion became a far greater threat. As the sun began fall for the night, the party was sucking the last few drops of oasis water from their canteens and water-skins. Soon, however, the light of a fire rose in the horizon below the darkening sky. It was a camp of the Sand Wolves, and with Valkyria’s guidance, they easily gained access. The group kept to themselves, mostly, though some of the mercenaries were able to find a place around the campfire to share tales and meat.

    They were now a good day’s ride from the mountain road that would lead them into Valis, and most of the group was looking forward to a reprieve from the heat and sand. Thanks to exhaustion, many slept soundly, trusting in Valkyria to keep them and their belongings safe from the bandits. Others yet slept lightly, or not at all, fearing a knife in the back or robbery, despite being under the protection of the half-elf bandit. Morning came without incident, and after drawing water from a well the bandits had dug to the underground river, they were able to replenish their water and tend to their horses before setting out for the main road again.

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