“ Do not heed the words of every thirsty fool.”
“Ubdet, the Axewalker, est 1254 B.R (Before Reseph)
The rest of the expedition came neither late nor early, occupying an impasse that was not to Alu’s tasting. The plants were, of course, always fashionably early, having woken up the moment the ultraviolet rays of dawn shone upon their chlorophyll skin. They swayed roots and leaves in greeting before sitting at the expedition. Next came the dromads, the mutants, the odd fish and a few villagers who Bacter had offered contracts to. Alu was,of course, initially miserly with parting with the limited funds available. During the night of their arrival, when they argued about it, Bacter parried Alu’s screams with the fact that they had dwindled severely in manpower after crossing the South Rim of the Moghra’Yi before retorting that he had been insane to recruit the likes of a child from the Black Shelf.
Victarius had come first. The iron cat that normally was by his side was nowhere to be seen. Alu gave a small wave to the True Kin as he came to the table and took his helmet off, revealing a porcelain white face that was unmarred from the blights and miasmas that plagued most of the known world. The True Kin was a dying breed of True Kin, the kind that ventured out from their hermatically sealed castles down into the world below. More and more arcologies were becoming infested with the ideology of the Putus Templar, returning to isolationist policies as their crusade intensified with purpose. As Victarius took one of the first bites, Bacter leaned over towards Victarius. He pretended to look around skittishly, before whispering into the True Kin’s ear as though he was spilling an ancient secret.
“ Do you know in Isachaari culture, whoever takes the first sample of food must offer a sacrifice to the salt gods of the Moghra’Yi. I praise you for having the courage to do so, Occian, but I had no idea that you were so willing to strip yourself naked together with me and run into the - “
There was a pause before Bacter guffawed and slammed the table with his hoof.
“ Oh, just kidding!” Bacter then slid a hollowed horn of sap mead towards the True Kin. “ But lighten up a little. It’s not everyday that we get to enjoy such fine delicacies. Think of this as a cultural learning experience for you, man of the Sky Lattice. Few wayfarers have the opportunity to dine on Isachaari cuisine.”
He needed something to take his mind off the dreary past. Smashing open a shale oyster with his septatuple fingers, Alu bit into its soft pearl-white flesh, his tongue curling as the mineral zest of its juices coated his mouth.After an eternity of hardtack and pickled jellysquid on their long voyage from the Crustal Mortars of the Yawningmoon Sea, this was virtually heaven. Trickles of glistening oil dripped down his claws as he took another large bite, this time with more gusto.
The various sentient plants of their party almost seemed to shudder when Starfield arrived. Though they weren’t members of the Consortium, every culture of plants seemed to abhor the concept of fungi, especially one that arrived from beyond the astral heavens. Just as Cyanin, the hitherrose navigator of their expedition, began to complain, Bacter coughed and gave them all a dreaded stink-eye that shut them up. Conversely, the villagers who had decided to join them in the feast shouted words of gratitude, showing no ill will towards the bipedal fungus, raising their mugs of salted water.
The last member was easy to distinguish amongst all the others, a beacon in the sea of smells, sensations and winds that Alu had been acquainted with for his 30 years of raccoon life. His nose wrinkled as the scent of rock and mineral pervaded the air, his mind still struggling to reconcile that a living being could not be composed of the flesh, bone and blood that was common in the air. Alu gingerly accepted the rock from Bacter and bowed his right head low respectfully towards Efere. His left one, however, couldn’t resist taking a nibble of the vinewafer on his plate.
“ Thank you for your gift. I hope that the light of the Many Moons continues to shine down upon our quest, just as you do, lady Efere.”
“ As do I, even more for the child over there.” Bacter spoke up, looking at Alu with an accusing stare as he nodded towards Ongu and Bogavahnaa, the only Black Shelf tribals in the entire expedition. Alu shrank in his seat and tried to search for another person to converse with. Luck wouldn’t be on his side today, though. The people near him and Bacter were busily engaged in private dealings of their own.
Why did he have to bring this up now?
“ She decided to accompany us,” Alu replied, cool anger in his tone. “ She wasn’t forced, she wasn’t coerced, she came to us.”
“ You trust the judgement of a child?” Bacter said.
“ I trust the judgement of an esper.”
“ Starfield already serves that role.” Bacter pinched his bulbous nose. “ I have humored you this long because I believed you would drop her off at a neighbouring village, not offer her membership on this expedition.”
“ Humor me?” Alu snorted. “ Have you forgotten who is the leader?”
Bacter didn’t say anything. Putting down his fork and knife, he took out a rough-cut agate from his robes which glinted eerily in the sun. He then eyed Alu’s roughshod vest and gestured with the gem in his hoof. Alu dove his paws into the breeches and only held grains of sand and grass chaff in them.
“ Alright. You’ve made your point.” Alu grumbled, crossing his arms. “ So, what would you want me to do?”
Bacter gently picked up a ripe starapple from a fruit bowl, the distinctive white speckled skin responsible for its name glimmering in the heat. He tossed it towards Alu who juggled it in his paws, unaccustomed to its slippery surface.
“ Stop ignoring the child. If she is to be a member, then, treat her like one.”
Alu strode from the table towards where Ongu was. She was a few paces away from the table, on a sparse clearing on the hill. The plate of food felt like a sack of fullerite bricks in his hands as he stared at her, her eyes seeming to pierce into his raccoon soul. His whiskers quivered as he thought about what to do. He couldn’t just leave the plate here for her without saying anything. Finally, Alu made a decision. The dialects of the Black Shelf weren’t his speciality but he would do his best for Ongu’s sake. He cleared his throat and began speaking in the broken tongue of Ongu’s tribe with pronunciation that would make Boghvana, her interpreter, cringe in embarrassment.
“ Ate.” He pointed towards the plate and then, pointed towards where the rest of the expedition were eating. “ Stay, no going.”
He set the plate on the ground near to her and stood there listlessly for a few moments, indecisive about whether to speak more before giving a single nod and turning his back to the Black Shelf child, back to where the remainder of the expedition was.
After much loud boisterous consumption, the feast had now settled into the death throes of boredom and snacking on piecemeal leftovers. Most of the villagers that had joined them had now left, leaving only the various members of the expedition who were busily picking over the remains like circling dawngliders in the Moghra’Yi.
“ Caramelized snail shells?” Bacter offered a plate to him. Alu shook his head as he set aside the ruined shale oyster shell.
“ No, I’ve had my fair share already.” Alu said, wiping his paws on a napkin “Besides, we are already behind schedule. I’ve done all I can to bear this procrastination, Bacter. We must continue on with the journey.”
He stood up on top of his stool and spoke out loudly.
“ Everyone! If I would have your attention, please….?” Rolling his eyes, Alu made a few more half-hearted attempts to catch his expedition’s attention such as snapping before whistling out an ear-rending squeal that was like a knife scraping against a cave wall.
“ Thank you for your attention. Before I begin, I must state the obvious. Our journey has been treacherous and full of surprises that we would never even consider. Nevertheless, in spite of these circumstances, I have never been prouder of you, all 23 members of this expedition, mutants and True -” Alu glanced at Efere momentarily, stumbling over his speech. “ - True Kin alike.”
“ Yet, we must not rest on our laurels. Whilst we have made a feat, being the only successful expedition in the last years to have stepped foot in these chrome steepled caverns - “ A series of cheers passed around the table as mugs were raised. “ - our journey has only begun.”
Alu then tapped his bracelet once, the device shuddering once before a holographic projection erupted from its circuitry. The blue light that emanated from the bracelet was pure chaos, coiling like a glowworm, before coalescing into a large scale map of Qud and its surrounding territories. The map zoomed in on two rivers that cut through Qud's landscape.
“ As some of you might know, I originally began this expedition as a part of my thesis on the architectural migration of Yypian tribes into Qud. My original theory was that the Yypians transitioned from an artifact gatherer tribe into a polythiestic agricultural tribe after Mechanimist missionaries were sent to contact them in 900 B.R. We can see this from the composition of the carbide adzes I found in -”
Bacter gave a small cough and nodded towards the rest of the expedition. A few were paying attention but most were either dozing off, glass-eyed or seemingly distracted with other matters. Alu’s eye twitched as he adjusted the
“ …..But I digress.” The image of Qud’s rivers then shimmered into a rocky coal mural, depicting a multi-armed horned individual engaged in combat with a fearsome Salt Kraken. “ Nevertheless, I found a remarkable number of Yypian shoal murals that all depicted him.” Alu pointed towards the individual in the image. “ Many of you have heard his name before. The locals here call him Ubdet, the Axewalker. The Slaughterkin of the Squalid Marsh. The Fourteen Limbed Man of the Gore Tribes.” Alu paused for effect , his voice becoming slightly tremulous.
“ The Second Sultan of Qud.”
There was a moment of silence. Then, Cyanin raised a wavering leaf and then, warbled with a touch of doubt in her voice.
“ I thought he was the first.”
“ No, he was the third!” A three-fingered mutant spoke in annoyance.
“ By the Argent Fathers, Arakash was the -”
“ Quiet!” Alu thundered out loud, quieting the commotion. “ I will not entertain this debate. Needless of your beliefs, Ubdet was a Sultan and most importantly, we are the only ones in Qud who know the location of his fortress! This will be an exciting archeological opportunity to learn about the history of our forefathers and find…..”
Alu’s voice trailed off glumly as he spotted that most of the expedition had glassy looks on their faces, even Bacter. The raccoon hated that this sort of business attracted philistines with no academic sensibilities.
“ Treasures. Artifacts. Treasures and artifacts for our taking. Enough drams to last you entire centuries” Alu palmed his face as several expedition members began to converse excitedly amongst each other. It was the cost of doing business with rogues and brigands, he supposed. He then unfurled out a large map of Qud and placed it at the center of the table where everyone could see it.
“ Regardless, our first destination will be the chromehold of Tziappur. It’s located to the north-eastern rim of the Moghra’Yi. We’ll need to cross into the Crimson Truncheon, lest any of you want to be eaten alive by a salt kraken or cooked alive by a snapjaw warband in the Red Canyons. However, if we were to wander in there right now without a geosynchronous compass coded specifically to its coordinates, our bodies will be naught but bone by the time someone found us in there.”
“ And where is this compass?” Bacter asked.
“ Where do you think?” Alu spread out his hands and looked around Hagashem. “ My dear Bacter, don’t think I ventured out to this little canyon hamlet just for dinner? No, there is evidence to suggest that Ubdet stepped on these lands and his footprints are evident as all of you will discover.”
Alu then stepped off his stool and tapped his bracelet again. The holographic image of the mural shimmers into a wire diagram of Hagashem. He swipes the pad of his thumb on the bracelet in a fast pattern that causes three sections of the diagram to glow.
“ Bacter, I require you and the other dromads to take stock of our supplies for the journey ahead. Cyanin, you and the other navigators will chart a proper course with your brethren to ensure that we do not roam errantly into snapjaw territory."
Bacter and Cyanin nodded, the two leaving their seats, with other members of the party, mostly dromads and plants, following them. Alu continued onwards.
"For the rest of you, I require volunteers to investigate these items of importance in Hagashem before we take our leave.”
“ I require some of you to investigate Hagashem’s canyon barrows located south of the village’s geyser pools and enter Ubdet's grave. Be careful not to desecrate the burial sites there. There are rumors of void spirits that haunt the grounds. Rumors, I remind you. Take that as you will. ”
“ The second task is considerably more difficult. Some of you must volunteer to talk with the villager’s head tinkerer, Yaran Urz, an artifex from Ibul. I believe he has important information that pertains to what is contained within Tziappur. However, he has rejected all attempts to negotiate with the mutant members of our party. I would recommend any True Kin here to meet with him, although, a mutant from the right temperament may be able to persuade him as well. ”
“ Lastly, there exists an abandoned temple in a rust cave that was once occupied by members of the Church of the Many Moons." Alu pointed over to his left, at an outcrop of shale where limestone ruins of a abandoned building could be seen. " Many of the murals in Yyp had remarkable similarity to the iconography associated with the Many Moons, with Ubdet in them. Investigation of these ruins may reveal clues about the compasses whereabouts."
“Upon completion of these tasks, you will receive a lump sum payment of 500 grams of hewn nymphous ruby..” Alu paused, looking at Bacter for permission. The dromad merely sagged in his chair, as if resigned with the financial future of the expedition, before nodding in confirmation. “ If all of these tasks are complete, you will all receive an additional payment of 200 grams. Each.”
“ So, which one of you would like to volunteer for these tasks?”