“ I reap for what others sow in the salt.”
Reseph, The Above, unknown source
Reseph, The Above, unknown source
18th of Uulu Ut, 3 A.R, The Shallows
The heavy purples of the Shallows were fading gently into the blues of the Harvest Dawn, like a painter mixing together a palette. The Moghra’Yi glittered in the shallowlight, briefly resembling a phantom of the once mighty waters that cut through the Rust Shelves. With the sun spilling over the white sand, the light inexorably dripped into a rising tide that luminated the caverns and canyons, millennia of history whetted in each stripe of dried sediment.
Atop a withered witchwood log, Alu thought it was the most remarkable sight he’d ever seen in his travels.
The raccoon stood a lonely vigil on his haunches, his phosphorescent blue fur twitching in the cold shadow of the canyons. He wore a vestment of burnt ridgebark tapered together with strips of skin with a green steelsilk cloak shadowing over his heads. Tied around his waist with his tail were two steel-quenched stilettos the length of fallen twigs. Two bracelets, inlaid with copper whorls, were clasped around his wrists. His scarred paws were clutched on an oblong pipe carved from a crab shell. His right head took a deep breath from the mouthpiece and puffed out a series of cloudy hoops whilst his other head acted the part of a sentinel. The vapor, scented with dried urberry, trickled down his maw and electrified his nerves, blinding his hands and feet with heat before simmering down into a mild sweetness. They floated upward, bobbing up and down like jellicines, before dissipating into thin air.
He peered down to Hagashem on top of the rocky outcrop he was on. From this point, he could see the entirety of the slumbering village. The sandstone huts were built on different canyon shelfs, making use of the limited space as best as they could. Decks had been built at the edge of each of the geyser pools, lines and nets hung from them into the still waters below. The highest one, where the elder stayed in, was gated behind a wall of thatched brinestalk with guard goats patrolling the battlements. The only sources of light he could make out were the now fuming cinders of the sconces erected around the village and the prowling ray cats that skittered along the pebbled paths.
Suddenly, his whiskers twitched. He could smell a rustle in the cat bristle bushes behind him. He unholstered his brinewood derringer and fired off one warning shot into the shrubline.
“ Who goes there?” growled Alu’s right head. “ Reveal yourself before I reveal your corpse.”
The bushes parted. Alu lowered the barrel, his fur now glowing a brighter shade of blue in embarrassment. No, it wasn’t a snapjaw. It was a dromad. Specifically, a very annoying dromad that had been one of his most faithful companions throughout the entire expedition. Ivory robs swaddled his entire upper body, decorated with the tapestries of one of the Argent Fathers, Alu couldn’t tell which, knighting a Mechanimist. His ungulate face was sandscratched and veiled in a fleece scarf that was weaved in the highlands of Mercalli. Down his neck swayed trinkets that hung from flaxen necklaces, chiming raucously with every turn of the head. Pouches and skins could be seen stuffed underneath every corner of his body. Alu’s whiskers could pick up the thick odor of perfumes that made him gag, even, though he’d warned him a dozen times that it would attract stray predators.
“ By the Argent Fathers, I’ve been looking all over Hageshem for you! No wonder you were so hard to find, you weren’t even in the village in the first place! ” The man-camel spoke in a rich accent that had been refined and forged in the dying heat of desert bazaars. He then looked down at Alu’s pistol with amusment. “ If you are going to shoot me, I recommend aiming to my right instead Dromad hearts are located ipsilaterally to most races.”
“ Live and drink, Bacter.” Alu’s right head sighed, rolling its eyes, whilst his left still peered at the sunrise, its molten light cascading down on the saltmarsh.
“ Live and drink, Alu.” Bacter replied back. The orange light was now spreading across the red sands of Hagashem, reminding the raccoon of the soft blaze of a campfire. “ What are you doing perusing the salt winds this early?”
“ Taking watch,” he lied. Well, half-lied. It was said that the Spindle was the most magnificent during the Harvest Dawn, a chrome tendon between two planes of existence. He’d also done it to get away from the prying eyes and questions of the villagers.
“ That or wasting your time away with that shisha.” Bacter’s took a draught of the humid air around Alu, nostrils flaring “ Is that scented water I do detect? Of course a plebian like you couldn’t handle raw, undiluted water.”
“ It allows me to concentrate better.”
“ Whilst I do applaud your vigilance, Warden Iya is more than capable of standing watch over this little canyon hamlet..” Bacter gave a little chuff of amusement as he approached Alu’s vigil from behind.“ Unless you are not confident of her abilities…..?”
“ I do not lack faith in the quillipede.” Alu’s left head looked at the dromad with a hard glare “ Regardless, this expedition is my responsibility and I am the leader. I should be the first to wake and the last to sleep.”
Bacter settled down next to Alu, sitting cross-hoofed in a hunched stance. The dromad took a deep breath, the sound of wet throttling in his lungs, as if he was preparing to undertake a pilgrimage.
“ Alu. You haven’t relaxed since we strode a parasang past Joppa. Look at the sky. Taste the salt in the air. You are breathing Qud’s air. Your paws are awash with its soil.” The dromad took a scoop of soil with his three digits and tilted his palm, letting it fall back to the ground. “ When we started this journey,my kin believed we would die crossing the Yawningmoon. I believed we would be skinned alive and our corpses butchered into sweetbread by the scorpion-men in Satur.” He then chuckled distantly, rubbing the wispy hairs on his chin. “ I remember at the beginning when our journey nearly failed because you couldn’t hold yourself from strangling a water merchant who overcharged his prices. We’ve come so far, Alu, and yet, still you are unhappy?”
“ Bacter, I am unhappy because we still have so far to go.” Alu pointed a finger towards the left, beyond Hagashem, where the mottled swamps of the salt marshes began to mix with the outlying fortification of trunks and trees that made up the borders of Qud’s jungles. Behind it, Alu could see the green hills and mounds, imagining the buried chrome that laid underneath the bed of roots, desiccated leaves and loam.
“ In spite of your penchant for realism, you pay little attention to the other members of our company.”said Bacter. “ Have you ever thought about how far they would be willing to go for your dream?”
“ Our interests align, Bacter.” Alu looked away from his friend, hunching in discomfort. “ It’s not as complicated as you make it out to be.”
“ You made them think your interests aligned with theirs. You sweetened the deal by offering them shade and water. You concealed your lofty dreams as theirs, like baiting a madpole with blood.The True Kin from the Cloud Temples......The moon priest....” Bacter palmed his face in shame. " I thought you had gone half mad when you allowed that Black Shelf calf into our expedition...."
“ Do you not think I have thought of that?” Alu snapped. “If they knew what I was grasping for, the very stuff of the Eaters… Why doubt me now? After all we’ve been through.”
“I do not doubt, my procyonid friend. I offer reflection in a journey that you are determined has no mirages. We have made it this far thanks to your careful guidance. Do not let your obsession, whatever it may be, endanger this expedition.”
The raccoon and the man-camel sat in silence as the sun continued to rise and split the salt-spangled sky into fragments.
“ Oh, that’s right. I almost forgot to ask you.” Bacter’s voice now was lighter, scented with curiosity “ Will you be joining us for the meal mid-Harvest Dawn?”
“ I don’t see the point of such a event in the first place.”
“ Perhaps, you don’t but the true Kin, mutant, plant and fungi you have brought hundreds of parasangs over to Qud would appreciate it.” Bacter groused. " I've made dietary preparations for Efere and Starfield already."
“ Of course you have. Useless…” Alu pinched the bridge of his beady nose in frustration“ Wasting time when we could be half-way to the Stilt by now. Can’t we just use our rations and make off before the waxing salt sun?”
Sighing, Bacter instead took a different tact by appealing to Alu’s inflated sense of logic.
“ It is not a matter of nutrition. It is a matter of morale. To merely eat rations is to avoid starvation. To eat together is to celebrate, to feed the soul as if it were. It would do good if you were there with them.”
Alu sat unmoving, contemplating Bacter’s words. He made several tired nods, shoulders sagging in surrender.
“ You’ve made your point. Now, leave me be.”
“ Very well.” Instead of leaving, Alu watched as Bacter produced a thermal pot from under his robe with a smug grin. “ I’ll very gladly help myself to this tasselwort tea in my tent.”
That caught his attention. Alu’s ears perked up, watching with rapt attention as a hydrolytic cell was inserted into a small port. The bottom of the heating element began to turn a shade of red, boiling water whistling from underneath the cap. The raccoon began waving his stubby paws over for a cup.
Bacter tried best to hide his smile as he poured two cups for both of them. Perhaps, his friend wasn’t lost to the chrome completely.
18th of Uulu Ut, 3 A.R, Harvest Dawn
Alu whistled loudly and waited.
Maybe, that time was too quiet.
Alu gave off the same rattling whistle again to release the anxiety bottled up in him. One high-pitched and two low-pitched. Just as he had memorised. It was the expedition’s code signal for group meals or urgent meetings. Alu did it once, waiting on the balls of his feet as he looked out into Hagashem for the members of his expedition.
“ You needn’t try and wake them up, Alu.” Bacter spoke off to the side, nursing a cup of water. “ I already informed them of the meal beforehand and where to meet.”
“ Well, I’ll know who to blame if they don’t show up on time.” Alu peered behind, trying to ignore the grumble of his stomach and the temptation to dive headfirst into what laid on the table.
The brinewood table was caked in a stack of dishes and plates of a hundred feasts. There were charred spits which speared through greasy char-broiled chunks of meat, jugs of congealed honey and sugar water along with numerous entrees which, in accordance with Hagashem’s ischaari origins, had copious amounts of salt. Tureens of poached glowpads surrounded an absolutely monstrous beast whose yawning jaw was filled with chopped dread roots and julienned starapples. Bacter took a slice of milled vinewafer, dipping it into a saucer of sap before biting off the soggy end.
The Harvest Dawn burnt above brightly, casting its white rays on the pale expanse of the Moghra'yi. The geyser pools of Hagashem glittered in its radiance. Alu watched as a hooded villager of Hagashem hooked bait on their line and threw it deep into the cave water. The Harvest Dawn was known as a time of good fortune, the gentler twin of the more temperamental Hindsun by the Ekuemekiyyen Sun Priests. Issachari nomads claimed their moisture nets were coated with enough drams for a week. Watervine farmers believed their stalks were more turgid and riper during this period. The beetlebums, dew-wings, glowcrows and other pests lied asleep and with the sun out, the conditions were perfect for all manner of labor. Superstition soon led into habits and then, tradition. down via cultural osmosis into the consciousness of humble watervine farmers and ranchers everywhere.
“ What a feast indeed.” A voice rumbled to Alu’s left. A giant shadow swept over him. “ You’ll have to thank our best hunters for that big one over there. It took over two hundred and twelve slugs and that was before we had to drag the bloody thing out of the Yonth.”
Alu coughed in surprise and glanced quickly at Bacter who simply smiled and turned the other way around. Damn the dromad. He was not one for diplomacy and negotations. He usually left that up to Bacter. Alu stood up straight and then, bowed respectfully to the towering man in front of him.
“ Elder Chokes-By-Quicksalt, you honour us with this salt you have procured. We apologise once again for the disturbance we have brought to your village.”
Chokes-By-Quicksalt did not reply at first. Standing 7 foot tall, his sun-burnt complexion was a token of parting from his life as a Isachaari. He still held onto the trappings of his former culture like a snake held onto its shed skin. His frayed crimson sun veil shadowed his head to the point where only his grinning mouth was visible, a crusted beard of grey salt surrounding it. Fading scars of salt burns pocketed his meaty arms and his eyes were scowled, slit shut as if the sun was eternally cursed to shine in his eyes. For a while, he didn't say anything before slapping Alu’s back, laughing boisterously.
“ Nonsense! You have brought more trade to Hagashem than we have seen in the last few moons with your salt-weathered companions. We offer you thanks, wayfarer, and our water if you have need of it.”
“ Your kind hospitality is enough. Live and drink, Chokes-By- Quicksalt.”
“ Live and drink, raccoon Alu.” The elder tipped his hood before leaving the scene.Alu rubbed his aching shoulder which had been almost dislocated by the force of the elder’s blow. He then took a look at the Spindle, which glinted an eerie sliver in the shine of the Harvest Dawn, its tip blocked by the murky blue of Qud’s skies.
Hopefully, the rest of the expedition would arrive soon.
Qud’s chrome would be his, no matter what.