The accursed sun had risen again on the far eastern horizon. It was a deep red, filtered dimly through the flaps of the tent. The sands splattered every colour on Galbar, blood, all of it. The goblins’ blood, slaughtered ruthlessly by the horde, had been red, and as their bodies cooled the sand drank its fill. The beasts had bled purple, silver, blue, the great hydra tan. Their bodies lay intermixed with the goblins, and across the crest of the dune, in a great pile stacked twenty feet high, depressed in the centre where the strider had stood and fought.
One side of the pile lay collapsed inwards. Evidence of the Hydra’s first vicious assault. Its tan blood streaked onto the far horizon, when it had fled even in victory. The strider’s body still pained, every crack in its shell a blossom of agony. It could not feel its head still, the exposed fiber optics raw and sending its body into twitches every time the flap blew just right to let the red dawn sunlight in. A manipulator arm reached up, and it knew that one side of its head had been completely shattered; the rest may recover, but this wound would not.
And then it returned to the pain. It could not feel its head, for it was curdled in pure agony. The tent was goblin-sized; only its head could lay in the tent, and the cover was simply not enough
. Sand worked on the cracks in its body, slowing their healing and prolonging the aches. Not far away, the remaining tents still smouldered where some outer beast, imbued with the power of inferno, had torched them. Lazy wisps of smoke were lost to the ever-present sandstorm, which had slowed in recent hours. The wind was almost a howl of mourning, though for the goblins, it, or the horde of beasts, the strider could not tell.
Amongst the howls, however, snuck other sounds. They were faint, subtle, barely audible at all - certainly impossible for lesser beings. The strider heard it however. The rustle of clothes against skin, slowly released breaths, feet - booted or otherwise - stroking the sands. Soon enough they were rooting through the camp - still carefully, but turning the odd body here or there, turning tent flaps to check for danger. A few feet passed by the strider, paused a while (perhaps eyeing the strange still thing) but did not approach. They moved on.
Or at least the strider thought they did. Moments later, there was a shuffle - little feet with little grace - and a small hand was upon its side, warm and curious. It had been analysing the sounds; these were no beasts, their stride clumsy but lacking in size. Nonetheless; it had walked blindly into a new situation once before, and its head had been shattered for its trouble. If they pulled back the tent flaps, it would be helpless. It tried to redirect its light to blind whoever had touched its hard crystalline surface; instead, the red dawn light scattered through its body into a glimmering kaleidoscope.
Painful, yes, but also beautiful to whatever had approached it. Every colour of the rainbow shimmered out, its ability to direct the light broken with the cracks through its crystalline matrix. The response was audibly euphoric, and rather than release the chromatic being, the small-handed interloper murmured and rested both hands and even a face on the strider’s crystal form. “So pretty!” A feminine voice intonated. “So shiny. What a pretty rock. Pretty pretty pretty!” The interloper brushed its - her? - hands across its side, and even as she continued murmuring voices could be heard from afar and quick steps beat at the earth as the people gathered to see what manner of being had sent forth what was no doubt a beacon of colour summoning all who could see to its place.
“Rockpetter! Come here girl, step away from that.” A stern voice sounded. The ‘girl’ at the strider’s side did not move away, still murmuring and humming to herself. “But it’s so pretty Reaper,” she intonated, more to herself, “can I keep it?” Swift footsteps approached and the girl was lifted up and away from the strider. “We don’t know what it is, Pet,” the same voice from before - ‘Reaper’, she had called it - spoke, and as swiftly as the steps had approached they moved away. “Please Reaper,” the girl spoke once more, “please please pleeease.”
Language; this was something the strider had prepared itself for. This confirmed that they were not the same beasts that had originally accosted it. The horde had only roared, belched, and screamed. The lights faded away as it let its body naturally reflect once more, and it intoned out, each syllable from a different part of its body, the lilting quality made harsher by the abrupt ringing of cracked crystal, “Who are you? Hold down the tent flap, don’t let the sunlight in!” Most of those gathered had clearly not anticipated that it would speak, and cries of shock and fear rose up.
“It’s the demon-goddess again!” Someone cried, “it’s just like you said Reaper! Tanituunitin protect us!” As the gathered people cleared away at speed, Reaper’s voice sounded. “Calm yourselves! I will speak to it, just stay calm and keep back. And no one else
speak.” His last words were a razor-edged command, he would brook no disobedience. His footsteps grew close, and behind him was the pitter-patter of small familiar feet - no doubt that ‘Rockpetter’, a curious one. Her feet could not lie. “Hail, strange being.” Came Reaper’s voice from a near, but safe, distance. “I am Reaper of the Renevits.” Little feet pattered about him and there was a squeal as he audibly caught Rockpetter and hailed her up to him, “and this here is Rockpetter - forgive her curiosity, she has yet to shed her childhood follies.” A few smacks indicated that Rockpetter had not taken too kindly to being hauled up, and her voice sounded over and across Reaper’s calm and unperturbed one. “We have no intention of doing anything to your tent and will not disturb you…” he paused, “we… were simply drawn by the terrible carnage here. Was… this your doing? Are you another god hunting down beasts?”
The strider let it process a moment; listened and did not entirely understand. This was only the second time they had come across something not immediately hostile, and many of the concepts it now grappled with confused it, momentarily. A new one; authority
, and clear hierarchy, that nonetheless not all seemed to fully respect. New concepts with new nuances to ponder. When it spoke once more, that same edge of broken crystal in its voice, it said, “No.. No, I’m not, I don’t think I am, a god. I woke up in this desert, and I have wandered it since,” the flap of the tent blew open in the endless storm, briefly, and wisps of light hit the hole in its head. It spasmed, cut off for a moment before it continued, strained, “I saw smoke, and I came to see.. And I was attacked – please, the tent flap, hold it down. Don’t let the sun in.”
There was uncertain silence for a while, and then the one named Reaper sighed and approached. Rockpetter cheered as they knelt by the tent flap and big hands - far bigger and rougher than Rockpetter’s - closed the flap tightly. “I want to hold it!” Rockpetter insisted, wrestling for the flaps, but Reaper did not allow her to inadvertently open them. “Carefully, carefully Pet,” he assured, “no need to rush, here you can hold it here. Remember, don’t open it whatever you do.” The man’s weight shifted away, small hands replaced his, and the girl hummed once more in delight. She stayed like that for a time, now stroking the strider and now returning her hands to the flap so that it would not open an iota. In the background, the clansmen whispered, hissed, and grumbled. Not all of them were as trusting or enamoured as Rockpetter, not all as unperturbed as Reaper - “you, Reaper! Of all of us you should be most cautious! It was from right under your nose that- that- whatever-it-was killed- kidnapped- gods! And now you’d have Rockpetter, of all people, sit by that thing?! Hasn’t the poor lass suffered enough? She’s hardly been sane since Badbo-” the voice was cut-off, but not soon enough. Rockpetter’s hands stiffened against the strider and her happy humming ceased.
“Badboy,” she croaked, clutching the tent flap for a few moments. She trailed a finger across the strider's neck, and after a few moments the hushed whispers resumed in the background. “Hey!” Rockpetter shouted suddenly, raising the tent flap, “come outside, let’s go play!”
Rockpetter only had the briefest moment to see the deep gouge in the strider’s head, before the red dawn light found its way into the exposed fibre optic. It was the pain and helplessness of the previous day anew – the strider suddenly erupted into a violent seizure, light flashing randomly about it as everything spasmed. Its entire world was overtaken, nothing but it and the accursed sun that coursed through its nervous system. It could almost swear, through one good eye, that the sun was smiling
, Rockpetter nothing but a dim blur through the agony. Its body thrashed wildly, and something nearing a scream rattled through its crystals, taking a different tone and volume with each separate crystal matrix it ran through. The girl’s form remained for only brief seconds, a form moved in her place and darkness swiftly returned.
When some degree of consciousness had returned to the strider, it heard fretting not too far from it. “Rockpetter you stupid girl, why do you never listen? Look what you’ve gone and done now. You’re lucky you didn’t lose all your fingers.” It was an unfamiliar voice, stern and feminine. “I didn’t know it was sick, Lifedancer,” Rockpetter’s voice came, “I’d’ve called you, I swear!” She insisted loudly. “Will she be alright, Dance?” Reaper’s voice sounded, closest to the flap. Those were his hands clamping down tightly so that not a ray of sunlight could make it through. “I don’t know, it’s like she’s been burned all over.” The one called Lifedancer murmured. “I’ll take her to my tent, I’ll be able to see better to her there.” At this, Rockpetter started protesting, screeching about the ‘lightrock’ being more ill than her and needing Lifedancer. “Lemme go! Lemme gooo,” she struggled, but a heavy-footed form had clearly caught her and was following the light footfalls of the one they had called Lifedancer. Rockpetter’s screams disappeared into the distance. Reaper’s long, calm breathing and rough hands remained.
“My apologies, it was wrong to entrust you to a child.” He said gruffly. “She is more stubborn than the river and just wears you down until you’ve no energy left to stand in the way of her whims and fancies. She’ll be the death of me one day,” he chuckled good-naturedly, then paused. “Uh. Is there nothing we can do to free you of your predicament? I don’t think remaining inside this tent will do you much good.”
It still felt the accursed sun flowing through its light veins, its steely muscles worn to the edge of giving up completely. The voice that emerged from the strider’s body was strained, exhausted in some way that could be felt through the vibrations of the crystals, “There were other tents nearby, strip them and bring the material in here. Wrap it around my head,” it paused, thinking a moment, before it continued, “I won’t be able to see with the material wrapped around my head, but I won’t be stuck in here anymore.” It was not long before the man named Reaper had done exactly as bidden. The reliable sort, it seemed. An odd pinnacle to the pyramid of hierarchy, for he seemed well-disposed towards serving. “Is that good now?” He asked once he had tied a few layers of tent fabric around its head.
There was only one way for the strider to know for sure; it tentatively lifted one of the flaps with a manipulator arm – and nothing changed. The world remained blacked out, and the strider shifted all at once. It lifted itself up, on shaky arms, shaky legs, and a shaky tail. Standing up, it was clear just how injured the strider was; gouges and jagged, shattered crystal all over its body. A rattling chime emerged from it as it strained to stand up straight, towering over the creatures it could not see. It was difficult to look at; the reflected sunlight was just too bright
. It took a few experimental steps, and then said, each syllable still from a different part of its body, “It worked. Thank you, but I still do not understand who you are, or why you have come across this,” it spun around, as though to gesture at the burned camp and the many corpses, “accursed place.”
Keeping some distance from it, for his heavy footfalls were not as near as before, the one named Reaper spoke in a deep voice, which betrayed that he may once have belted songs into the fresh summer air. “Not out of choice, friend, I assure you. We are from Renev, a farming village in the shielding of Lord Quickblade of Fort Skybreak. One day we awoke to terrible carnage - great beasts, demons of myth…” he paused, “some, forgive me for saying so much, not very unlike you. But then, all great beings, the seraphic and the daemonic, may not appear so different in a peasant’s eyes.” He loosed a sigh. “And so those of us who could escape did just that. We’ve been wandering now for years, and we’ve not much clue where we are or how we ended up here. We escaped northward for Fort Skybreak, and we only found sand and rock. We search still though, perhaps a lucky star will shine on us and guide us to the fort - and no doubt to many loved ones who, we hope, made it safely there.” There was momentary silence. “What are we to call you, friend? If you don’t catch yourself Rockpetter will have near everyone calling you Lightrock before you know it!”
The strider had not considered this; it remembered back to Jaxx, how the green creature had called itself that. It thought on it for a few moments, its head tilting even as the leather wrapped around them. When it spoke, its tone was almost curious, “Call me Elutil. You speak of farming, what is that? I presume if you are searching for a place, it must be fixed in location – this is possible, in these sands? Or do you mean to say this is not all there is?”
The strider looked up at the sky, though it was more for effect than anything, blinded as it was. It considered the implications it could pull from Reaper’s words alone. Elutil didn’t give them a chance to respond to its first question before it was asking more, “Great beasts and demons of myth, you say? Are they the ones that fell upon me, whose bodies I stacked as they all tore at me? I have only seen one of the green creatures they slaughtered before – minus the corpses in this camp. Are you of the same kind? Was this your camp, or have you only stumbled across it as I did?”
Reaper chuckled at its many questions. “You have enough questions to fill the night, Elutil. But I have not eaten, and perhaps you too are hungry, so let us go sit with others and fill our empty stomachs. Over food, I will answer what I can - I had hoped, with you having the look of a mythic creature indeed, that you’d have more answers for us than questions. But colour me surprised - it seems quite the opposite. Were I not to be presumptuous I would not reckon you to have wandered the world very long - but I doubt that, what with your immense size and maturity. Perhaps the desert has a way with addling our minds after all.” And so saying, the man’s heavy footfalls indicated that he had begun to walk away.
Elutil hurried along, listening carefully for Reaper’s footsteps. As it followed behind, it listened further, trying to ascertain the number of these creatures. But, soon, more questions bubbled up, though it felt compelled to respond first, “I have wandered perhaps.. Fifteen sunrises, since I first awoke in this wasteland. In that time, I have pondered both the turning of the wind and the storms, and linguistics, after my first encounter with one of the small green creatures. The green creature was stolen from me by some enormous wheel that ran along the sands. I do not know why it left me behind.” Silence followed its revelation - something it told it that the one called Reaper had not expected what it said. Eventually they approached an area where the sound of fire crackled against the hubbub of clansmen chattering, and the smell of roasting meat filled the air.
“Herbsprinkler, get us something good for our guest,” Reaper’s voice sounded. His voice emanated from closer to the ground, not far from the flame, suggesting he had seated himself by it. “Something good?” The response came, likely from the one named Herbsprinkler, “your guest’s big enough to eat just about everything!” A loud giggle followed the words. “And you think the world’s going to run out of food if it does? Its name’s Elutil by the way, sounds Eastriverish.” Reaper responded. “Come here Il-oo-til,” Herbsprinkler enunciated the name, “this here’s well-spiced. None of Justroastit’s rubbish for you!”
As Elutil sat down in front of the fire – more laying down, though with its upper body upright rather than against the ground. As it did so, it asked, “Eastriverish? What’s an east river? Is it what’s breaking the sandstorm north of here?” It then reached out a striking arm, prodding the meat laid out for it almost hesitantly. Something seemed to click in its head, and it said, once more not waiting for an answer to its first question, “Oh, I think I get why all of you little creatures seem to have carried around meat now,” it lowered its head to sniff at the meat, and then continued, “I do not eat meat. I fill myself with new knowledge; at first, the patterns of the storm, and later linguistics. Before both, I pondered individual grains of sand, and they would simply disappear. It was not very filling.” After a few (likely confused, these creatures seemed easily baffled) moments, Herbsprinkler spoke: “Don’t eat meat!? A big thing like you? Don’t be shy now, it’s my special mix of herb and spices - you don’t get that on these wastes you know! This stuff’s from back in Renev, been using it pinch by little pinch. Go on go on. Goodness, not only’s your name Eastriverish, you talk a lot of Eastriverish too!”
Elutil swivelled their head over to the source of the voice, though they could not see it. They tilted their head, still wrapped in leather, and thought about the response for a moment. When it clicked, they said, emphasising each syllable and how it came from a different section of their body, “Oh! No, I don’t mean as in it’s a choice I’ve made,” a manipulator arm ran across the front of their head, a smooth and unbroken chunk of crystal – if it had not been cracked by the blow that shattered their head – and they continued, “I mean as in I can’t. I have no mouth. Nothing can go inside of my body, because I have no orifices. Even my nose is just scent receptors in a shallow pit. When I said I subsist off of knowledge, I meant literally.”
They straightened their head back out, glittering in the sunlight with uncomfortable brightness as the sun rose further into the sky, and they finished, “I have a hunger reflex, and I feel weaker when I leave it too long; and accordingly, learning new things eliminates that reflex, and I feel stronger for having fulfilled it.”
“Well,” came Herbsprinkler’s voice, clearly affronted, “suit yourself then. Don’t come crying to me when your belly’s retreated to your spine and your knees have gone all crooked from hunger. Come here, Sandskipper. Go give some of this to Lifedancer- and if I hear you’ve had so much as a nibble or a bite it’ll be the flogging of your life you hear!” A spritely voice replied in the affirmative and whatever platter had been laid before the strider was taken up by small strong hands. The pitter patter of bare feet against the rock and sand indicated that the one known as Sandskipper had run off, and the excited shouts and footfalls that followed him said he was not alone.
“So that’s what you do, is it Elutil?” Reaper spoke up between mouthfuls, “you gander about and- whatsit you said? Eat knowledge? Stories and the like?” The strider nodded as they shifted their head to once more face in the direction of Reaper’s voice. They seemed a little taken back by Herbsprinkler’s voice, but recovered quickly. Their response came, “Exactly. I survived by subsisting off of studying the sandstorm for perhaps the first week. Then, linguistics as I travelled north. Every time you answer a question, that is effectively satisfying my hunger.”
They returned their attention to the crackling of the fire, invisible from them beyond the noise, even the heat lost in the haze of the desert. They felt the sand blowing against them from the ever-present storm. And then, Elutil considered Reaper’s sudden silence in response to their previous explanations. A question bubbled into the forefront, and they asked, suddenly cognizant of how Reaper had acted, “When I mentioned a giant wheel, you fell silent as though I had said something familiar, that you had not expected to hear from me. Why is that?”
Audibly swallowing a mouthful, Reaper responded. “Well, gobtrotter tradesmen passing through Renev would always be in those wheely gizmos of theirs. Downriver and upriver, over the hills and through the fields, off chasing money and other things. That’s gobtrotters for you. Don’t let their ugly green mugs or small height deceive, they’ve that fire of mischief and cunning in their eyes. But… before coming here, I don’t think I’d ever seen a gizmo as massive as this one. It’s probably the same as the one you saw. Great terrible things riding the sands, faster than the fastest sandstorm. We saw it a few times. It was like something out of the mad epics of a wandering monk. All that stuff they babble about, you know, great wheels at the beginning of time carrying the people from the fires of hell to the blessed riverlands.” He paused for a few moments, “maybe we did die after all and this is that very hell.” The man mused, suddenly morose. Then his voice picked up again. “But oh! You’re a devious one yourself- already getting stories out of me! It’s not from me you should hear the tales; I’m no story spinner. You should hear such things from Taleweaver.”
Elutil tilted their head at that, and fell silent once more to consider it. They could not see Reaper, but now understood that they must have not been the green creatures, which were evidently goblins. He spoke of them as a stranger would, and thus must have been a different species. They continued, trying to be comforting, “If this is hell, it is poor at its duties. The sandstorm breaks perhaps a few days north of here. I don’t know what you mean by all this talk of rivers, but I suspect that it must be what’s breaking the winds.” They stopped suddenly, turning back to the fire as they pondered the answer further and more questions came to the forefront. Elutil asked, continuing on, “What is a river, anyways? You speak of downriver and upriver, and eastriver. Is it some kind of road? Some tradespine that your world revolves around as it connects you to the rest of your world?”
“You really weren’t joking about that fifteen sunrises stuff, were you?” Reaper chuckled, “I’m starting to think that either we’ve all gone absolutely mad or the world around us has!” He took a moment to bite into whatever meat he was eating, and Herbsprinkler - whose presence Elutil had almost forgotten, though she still fretted and chattered in the background - spoke up. “You keep your dark talk of madness to yourself, Firmplough!” Though she used a strange name, she seemed to be addressing the one named Reaper. “I’ll not have this talk ruin the food. Tasteful talk sweetens the meal, you remember that now.” The man swallowed and chortled, “aye aye- spare me the whip, you’re too young and pretty to be a shrew.” Whatever that meant, Herbsprinkler seemed to take badly to it, for a short second later Reaper let out a small yelp and laughter roared up from the others around him. “That’ll show you a shrew!” Herbsprinkler announced with satisfaction.
Once calm had returned and chatter resumed, Reaper continued. “Anyhow, the river you say. The worldriver. The snake of the world. The blue belt. It goes by many names and every wanderer who has walked its bank or ridden its currents says it has neither beginning nor end, but runs eternally. Water flows in it, and wherever it does there is life and joy and happiness and prosperity- so long as the drakes of war and illness and strife slumber, that is. But anyhow, enough of all that. What will you be doing now? I think we’ll make camp here a day or so- see if there’s anything of value among the remains round here- and we’ll be on our way. You’re welcome to join us, of course, don’t know how well you’ll do out here on your own with your head like that. I don’t take it you were going anywhere in particular now, were you? And I won’t deny, maybe having great thing like you around will be good- you’ll doubtlessly come in handy if we have any nasty encounters in any case.”
Everything Elutil heard around them was filed away, data points as they worked at understanding the people around them. Each word only brought new questions as Elutil thought, water, snakes, the world?
The strider had only known the sandstorm, the wastes, and the bloodrains. Their mind had been opened to a wider world. Their head silently faced the fire, their brightness only growing with the intensity of the sun and the height of the fire. More thoughts swam in their head as they put together the disparate pieces and considered the potential of everything they had heard. Even on such an alien body, with their head wrapped up, it was clear they were lost in thought. Any hunger Elutil felt, by now, had definitively vanished.
When Elutil spoke again, they swivelled their head around, as though to acknowledge everybody around the fire, though they could only guess at their locations and sitting order, “I was heading north, to see what it was breaking the sandstorm. I suspect that is where you will head – and so I believe I will stay with you for a time. Please do not ask me to fight more, however; I have had my fill of it and I find fighting a poor pastime.” There were grunts of acknowledgements, and a few high-pitched cheers further off indicated that some children had received its words with excitement.
“Won’t eat, won’t fight, just chatter chatter chatter,” Herbsprinkler laughed, “maybe we can teach you to clean and tidy up a little, get some use out of you.” As she spoke, Reaper was heard to get up and pat himself down. “Come now, Herbs, spare our guest for three days at least.” He implored. She chuckled and audibly patted him down too. “Fine, just three days then - and then it’s work work work for that one!” Though the conversation seemed of a serious nature, something about it - perhaps the tone, the slight drawl as ‘Herbs’ spoke - suggested that there was more to it. That, perhaps, it was in fact of an entirely unserious nature. It was difficult to pinpoint, however.
Elutil tilted their head in acknowledgement at Herbsprinkler, though they already felt tired from their wounds, as early in the day as it was. Too tired to provide any witty response, and they settled on silence, as they gleamed brightly in the sunlight. For now, Elutil decided, they would simply listen and learn. They had been exposed to so many new things they felt glutted, and suspected that their exhaustion was from the exertion of healing. To the strider, it looked as though things were looking up once more.