Shida slept fitfully. At some point, someone passed by her, but she ignored it. Finally, when the fire had gone out and the sun was no longer in the sky, she fully woke. There was a small bottle near her and a note. “You cry too loudly.”
She winced at the stiffness and gave a small cry at the pain in sitting up, but she quickly situated herself. Yvette and Zeno were asleep around the embers of the fire. Shida carefully went over and started the fire again, then investigated the bottle as best she could with one hand. She took the lid off, a more difficult task than she expected, and smelled healing herbs. Oh, that was a heavenly scent if ever there was one.
It took her over an hour to boil more water and unwrap her shoulder with one hand. She tried to be quiet, but short whimpers and gasps happened anyway as she had to pry the bandage off. It had bled some more, and dried, and it was hell getting off. She should have used Yvette’s handkerchief between the wound and the bandage… She could do that now, though.
She let her bloody bandage soak in the boiling water, and by that time Zeno and Yvette were awake, grudgingly. She convinced them to help her dump and get more water to clean the bandage and handkerchief with. Another hour or more later, she finally had the medicine on her wound, and fully wrapped it again. They didn’t ask where she got the medicine.
Shida sighed in relief after everything. She could already feel the medicine doing something, which meant it had to have some magic in it. She wouldn’t complain. She didn’t know who it was from but she didn’t care. Relief was wonderful.
“Do you feel… antsy?” Zeno asked in general. “Or like you should be making patterns or something?”
“What? No,” Yvette said, even as she was tapping her foot.
“Ah… no reason…” Zeno said.
Shida didn’t like either of those implications. “What kind of patterns?”
“Like circles,” Zeno replied. “With symbols and—Oh hell it’s that—thing isn’t it.”
“Well don’t listen to it!” Yvette said, stamping her foot.
Zeno jumped. “I—I’m not!”
“Then stop tracing in the dirt!” Yvette snapped.
Zeno retracted his hand like a child being reprimanded, but then stared at his hand as if it were not his. “I…” He looked up at Yvette, wide eyed. “How come you aren’t like this?”
“Because I’m too damn stubborn, that’s why!” Yvette argued, though she was definitely ornerier than Shida had seen her so far. “You can’t just let it tell you what to do!”
“I’m not trying,” Zeno argued.
Shida saw Chuki watching in the firelight from closer. She narrowed her eyes at him. “Enjoying yourself?”
“You all haven’t come to blows yet…” Chuki said, disappointed. He eyed Zeno warily as Zeno started absently tracing circles again as he continued arguing with Yvette. Then he sighed and stood, and came more in view. Yvette and Zeno stopped arguing.
“Chuki!” Yvette exclaimed happily. “Come for our fire?”
“As much as I’d rather see you all burn,” Chuki muttered, “Since things seem to be much worse this time than that other traveler, or a least moving quicker… I did some digging through my scrolls. I found one that talks about gems which can protect your mind.”
Yvette, Zeno, and Shida perked up.
“It’s black, and usually in jewelry if it’s anywhere. I’ve collected a few, pieces, but they’re in another part of the catacombs,” Chuki said.
“Catacombs?” Yvette asked.
“That explains the bodies…” Zeno added.
“Why are you telling us this?” Shida asked warily.
“Because,” Chuki said, “I don’t want the world to end yet. I thought it would be enough to keep it from happening if you couldn’t get to the obelisk again, but apparently, the shamblers can still get in here… So I will help you with this.”
Shida was shocked. Did he actually mean that? Could he?
“Really? You care?” Yvette asked.
“About not dying? Yes!” Chuki retorted, then stood up. “Let’s go. Leave everything here. I’ll know if you take something,” he intoned.
Yvette rolled her eyes, but Zeno dropped something immediately. “Course,” he said.
Shida just hoped that Chuki did really mean what he said…
An hour later, Shida was having doubts. Chuki had lead them through almost half as many traps as they had encountered in their multiple-hour trek through the catacombs before, and they were having harder times escaping them. Shida’s arm was paining her, but she wasn’t collapsed on the ground even with her arm moving accidentally at times, so the medicine was doing something. Blood hadn’t bled through again either.
“You know, I’m pretty sure he’s trying to kill us anyway,” Zeno muttered as they caught their breath from almost falling down a fake floor which Chuki easily flew up from, saying he ‘forgot’ it did that. It was even harder when Shida’s flame kept going out every time she tripped.
“As long as the gems do what they’re supposed to,” Yvette said through gritted teeth.
“Yeah…” Shida panted, then looked at Yvette. She was sweating a lot more than usual, and seemed to be having a hard time. Not like she was one to talk, but… “Are you… okay?”
“Just these damned traps!” Yvette retorted, then wiped sweat from her face and started walking again. “We better be there soon!”
“Just in the next corridor,” Chuki assured.
“You’ve been saying that for the past four corridors,” Shida muttered tiredly. “Maybe we’d be better off looking for them without you.”
“Excuse me?” Chuki said, stopping and turning.
Shida was tempted to snark, but rolled her lips instead. If it really was the next corridor… “I’m just saying I hope it’s in the next corridor. Or I’ll just go looking for it myself,” she muttered at the end.
He apparently still heard her. “You wouldn’t last a day on your own,” Chuki sniffed, but then continued on.
Gratefully, the corridor they went down next did have a small room they entered. Chuki rummaged in a few boxes that were falling apart before finally finding something. “Ah, I knew it.” He held up a large black pendant. “This should stop the… well, put it on.” He set it on top of the box, and its dark surface reflected in Shida’s firelight.
Yvette stalked over and put the thing over her neck. “…it’s—Oooh,” Yvette’s tone immediately changed, and her body relaxed. “Wow… I—Huh. I didn’t think it would do that much…” She smiled at Chuki and winked, then beamed at Zeno and Shida. “This will be my new fashion statement.”
“Good to hear,” Chuki said. “There should be another one in there, if you look…”
As Zeno started looking, Shida noticed Chuki was by the door. When did that happen. He was the closest one to the door, actually, and was already stepping through the doorway.
“Chuk—!” Shida started after him, but he closed the door too quickly. She banged into it with her good shoulder and her face, losing her flame and jostling her bad shoulder. “Aaaaaaauuuuhhhhgghh!!” She let out a satisfying yell of both pain and frustration into the dark.
“… be fine…” Chuki was saying through the door, Shida caught some of it through the pain. “… I don’t let… treasure go! So you’ll be staying here!”
Shida caught her breath yelled at him again through the door, an incoherent mash of sounds and maybe some words. Then she threw a fire at the door. It was wood, it would work.
Wrong. It was old, very dense wood, and despite being dry as a tomb the flames hardly even left a char mark. Shida yelled again and threw another flame. Same result, unfortunately.
“Chuki!” Yvette said. Her voice was much less strained now, but it still held snap to it. She came over and tried to open the door to no avail. “Chukiiii! Open this door!” she demanded.
All they heard was laughter. “Door’s enchanted. Bye.”
Yvette banged on the door. “Chuki you—”
“Byyyeee….” Chuki’s voice and steps retreated.
“You know,” Zeno said from behind them, much calmer now, “he almost makes me want to let that Kahileh or whatever open that dimensional door again. Knowing he went down too, you know?”
Why was he calmer? Had he found another stone? Or had the creatures gotten more hold in his mind? Shida looked, and his calm face was no indication. “N-no…” Shida said, “Not… I don’t want the end of the world.”
“Ah; guess you’re right.”
A small black stone ring was on his finger. Shida let out a breath. Good.
…. At least for that problem.
“Chuki!” Yvette banged on the door more.
Shida turned to the door again. “Does the enchantment keep it from catching fire?”
“Don’t know, don’t care,” Yvette said as she stepped back and pulled out her umbrella gun. Shida quickly stepped back and out of the doorway before a volley of gunshots blasted the door. Shida jumped and dropped her fire to cover her ears, but let out a cry of pain because she’d moved her damn shoulder.
Yvette stopped and shoved at the door again. It still didn’t budge. She yelled at it. Then she pulled out something that barked threw it at the door and it exploded—
But the door didn’t move. Yvette yelled again.
Eventually Shida brought up her flame again. The door had a few divots in it, and a small pile of spent bullets at the floor, but not anything to get excited about. She sighed.
“Try hitting it with your flames again,” Yvette said.
“What? But it didn’t do anything,” Shida said.
“Not by itself,” Yvette said. “I’ll throw some Chihuahuas at the same time.”
“W-h…?” Shida started asking.
As a demonstration, Yvette pulled one just out of her shirt and threw it at the door. It exploded and Shida jumped just a little and hissed in pain. “Like that,” Yvette said.
“O-oh…” However that worked. It wasn’t a bad idea. And she was glad she asked because if Yvette had just started shooting Shida would have yelled again and possibly thrown flames at her.
“I could shoot it with your gun,” Zeno suggested.
“What about your gun?” Yvette protested.
“What about it?” Zeno asked.
“Why not you use yours?”
“Because yours is bigger.”
“You have your own big gun.”
“Yeah but it doesn’t fire as quickly as yours.” Zeno raised his eyebrows.
“And your handgun is fine!” Yvette argued, and put her umbrella on her belt. However that worked. And she said she didn’t do magic.
“Alright, alright,” Zeno said, getting up from the ground. “I’ll use my handgun.” He pulled it out.
“On the count of three,” Yvette said.
“Like, on three,” Zeno asked, “or right after three?”
“On,” Yvette said. “One, two, –”
Zeno shot. Shida quickly threw her fireball, a fairly large one with help from her necklace. Yvette threw her Chihuahua.
After a moment, Shida lit up the space. The door was still standing, but it looked a lot less… sturdy. Zeno went up and kicked at it. The door shook. Zeno kicked more, and the door shook more, pieces of wood came off. Shida brightened.
Yvette joined him, and soon the door rattled and opened, just hanging on to its hinges.
Yvette and Zeno high-fived. “Weren’t expecting that were you, door!” Zeno said triumphantly.
Shida wished she had more energy to celebrate with them, but the fact was she didn’t. She just smiled and gratefully stepped into the corridor again.
“Now let’s go get that bastard bird!” Zeno huffed.
“Chuki deserves a good couple of bullets to the face,” Yvette agreed.
The two were much less argumentative now. That was good. Shida just smiled tiredly at them. “Ah, go ahead… I’ll catch up.”
Yvette and Zeno looked at her. “You sure about that?” Zeno said. “I mean, this place is a maze. And you look pretty tired.”
“I didn’t sleep great earlier,” she said honestly.
“So you think staying behind will fix it?” Yvette said.
Shida sighed. “Look, it’s not the best plan, but I can’t go with you right now, I just can’t, and I really don’t want to go to the pyramid either. And that’s where you’re trying to go.” She’d been curious about the whole possible prisoners thing Zeno had brought up when they first met, but just like a lot of things in this desert, it was probably just a hoax. She didn’t have time to deal with hoaxes when she needed a real way to get home.
“… Are you sure you don’t want us to stay with you then?” Zeno asked. Yvette looked reluctant to agree, but she didn’t argue either.
Shida thought about it. She needed to find a way out of this place, and so did they. But they were more intent on getting places, and had more energy to do it. And whatever was in that little room, the door was taken care of; she could probably use it as a makeshift nap area for a short time.
“Yeah; I’ll be fine,” Shida said with a reassuring smile. “That medicine is really helping my arm, but I still need rest. This room will work.”
Yvette and Zeno looked unconvinced.
“Look, get something flammable from that room, and I can send you off with a torch, yeah?” Shida said. “I can take care of myself after a little sleep.”
Zeno narrowed his eyes, and then went back into the room. “Bring your light here so I can see.”
Shida obliged, and he looked all over that room. For what, she wasn’t sure, because there were very flammable pieces of old boxes and crates lying all over. Eventually he picked two of them up. “Alright,” he said. “Nothing going to kill you in here.”
Zeno smiled. “You can rest for a bit and then find your way, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Shida said, appreciative.
She looked around a bit more and wrapped some dusty cloth around the piece of wood. “This will last longer,” she said as she lit it on fire.
Zeno’s eyes widened. “Ooooh; right.”
“Are we going?” Yvette asked, leaning in the doorway.
“Of course,” Zeno said, grinning.
“Give Chuki some hate for me when you see him,” Shida told them as they headed out. “In the form of pain.”
And then they were gone.
Shida listened to their footsteps, and was sure they’d be fine. Now that their minds were clearer, they’d evade traps easier, and work together more.
And that was really all she had the energy to focus on before her mind started reminding her it needed sleep. So Shida sat very carefully against the crates and large vases, finding the least painful position possible, and fell out of consciousness almost as soon as she did.
“What’s that?” Zeno asked.
“What?” Shida asked from behind Yvette. The woman had insisted Shida go first for a long time, but then slowly crept to the front and stayed there, making decisions about where they’d go. She jumped back at almost every trap, but she seemed to care less as they went on.
“Don’t you feel it?” Zeno asked, quieter.
“Feel what?” Shida asked.
“I feel it too,” Yvette said, walking faster now.
“What is it?” Shida asked impatiently as she sped to catch up.
“There’s something in the room up ahead,” Zeno said.
“What?” How could they know this? What were they ‘feeling’? What—
Yvette turned, shoved open a door that Shida hadn’t even noticed they were going to pass, and then stepped into…
A treasure room.
It was lit with a few skylights, and two basins of fire at either end of the very, very large room. There were coins and statues, artefacts, and—
“Water!” Shida exclaimed quietly when she saw the fountain. Moving, fresh water. She hustled over to it, letting her little hand fire disappear.
“We’re rich!” Zeno shouted. “Pyramid or not, we’re rich!”
“Oh, it’s all so beautiful!” Yvette swooned.
Shida quickly filled up her recently-empty canteen.
“This is my nest!”
Yvette gasped as Chuki rose above the piles of treasure, no longer tied up. “You’ve got so much!” she called. “You won’t mind if we take some!”
“I do!” Chuki shouted.
“I wasn’t asking!” Yvette retorted, and whipped out her umbrella gun. Shida put the lid on her canteen and shoved it back into her bag as the gunfire started.
Shida had no reason to get involved in the fight; she was just trying to get out, and if she happened to pick up some treasure along the way, great. But she wasn’t—
“Aaaahh!” Zeno yelled aggressively as he ran past Shida and chucked small statues and coins at the harpy.
Shida dashed behind a pile of things, out of the way of both parties. This was not what she was here for. Would it be better to just sneak away and hope she could find her way out, leaving Yvette and Zeno to their endless battle with Chuki? Or should she try to help them…?
Chuki landed on top of the pile Shida was behind. She tried to shrink and held her breath.
Unfortunately, he looked down. “You,” he hissed.
“What about me?!” she immediately defended herself. “You left us for dead!”
“Which you obviously aren’t!” He dived at her, talons out, and she rolled out of the way just in time.
“It was your idea to stop by that stupid obelisk!” Shida argued, shooting flames at him.
Chuki flew up out of the way, and another volley of, well, everything was hurtled at him from the other two. He turned his attention, and Shida bolted.
“Grab the glass vase!” Yvette shouted at her.
“Wh—What?” Shida shot back, nearly tripping in confusion. She looked around, what did she mean by glass vase? Wait, why was she listening?
“It’s got a long neck, and—”
“Get it yourself!” Shida retorted.
“It’s right there!” Zeno pointed.
Why were they both fixating on it? Shida saw it and finally grabbed it because it was close. “Why—”
Chuki dived at her then, and she almost dodged. His talons sliced through her sleeve and skin. She screamed, throwing a fireball at him as she fell forward. He was unable to dodge at such close range, and he immediately rolled away, falling to the ground and howling.
The vase hadn’t shattered when it hit the ground, somehow, though there was apparently a lid that came off. That was all Shida noticed as she cringed and yelled in pain while getting up; she now had a major gash and hell it hurt! She felt it across her left shoulder, searing and bleeding, and a painful glance told her the same. Sands, that was going to hurt every single time she moved her arm. The pain was dulled at the moment, if she didn’t move that arm. That gash was going to need some help soon, though, and the pain was going to come back worse. She grimaced.
“Nashida!” Shida heard Zeno yell her name and he must have thrown something at Chuki because she heard a thud and more yelling from the harpy. Shida focused again and quickly moved, her back near one of the treasure piles, keeping Chuki and the others in her sight. Chuki was flapping angrily, chasing a continually-disappearing Zeno and trying to avoid more shots from Yvette. She moved around and to the side of the pile of treasure, out of sight unless she peeked around the edge.
Shida got out her shawl, folded it around itself and pressed it on her shoulder to stop the bleeding, whimpering in the process. It was very awkward, and painful, but she managed. She breathed pointedly as she put morepressure on it, exclaiming at the air intermittently and staring at the glass vase she’d dropped to distract her, how it had a strangely opaque sheen to it. The a little bit of silvery-looking liquid had come out and stayed condensed on the ground. Definitely looked like silver. It couldn’t actually be silver but it sure looked like it. Maybe it was. Maybe there was magic in the vase. Damn it, couldn’t it have been a healing vase? Was it? Probably not that stuff did not look safe to put on wounds.
She exhaled forcibly a few times, focusing harder, and finally had some semblance of composure as she straightened. Until she actually straightened, anyway, then she winced hard and fell a step forward again, jostling her hold on her shoulder, crying softly just a little, but she pressed through the pain and looked around the treasure pile again. “Chuki you bastard,” Shida hissed as she saw the harpy still evading attacks. The pain was manageable for now, but for how long was the real question.
“Get back here!” Zeno shouted. Chuki climbed onto a pile of coins and things, and pushed a statue over towards Zeno. Some of Chuki’s feathers definitely looked singed, and Shida got some satisfaction from that.
“Oh gods, that’s nasty!” Yvette complained, suddenly beside Shida.
Shida jumped and hissed in pain again. “Ugh!”
“Right, painful as hell too, I’m sure.” Yvette’d apparently grabbed the glass bottle from the ground, as it was in her hand now, and put the lid on it again. “C’mon, let’s get—”
Chuki yelled something that the bracelet didn’t catch, but Shida thought might have been a mixture of Arabic and something else. She looked and he held a necklace of some kind… It glowed.
That couldn’t be good.
“Sh—let’s go!” Shida started heading for the door, and just growled on the way to deal with the jostling bits of pain. Yvette wasn’t far behind, and Zeno too. Then a buzzing noise filled the hall in front of them, and suddenly a horde of locusts came swarming into the room. They were glowing in the same manner as the necklace.
Shida stopped cold. These insects weren’t the I’ll-just-eat-your-food kind; they looked even more dangerous. And Chuki was chuckling.
“These locusts will devour flesh,” he intoned, “and I’m the only one they’ll listen to. Say goodbye—”
Suddenly a long, leathery limb stretched out from nowhere, in the middle of the air, between Shida, Yvette, and Zeno and the locusts. Chuki’s voice died as the air rippled and more of a… creature emerged. It was tall, not as much as Chuki at full height but at least twelve feet. It had long, long arms ending in sharp claws, and a body that walked on two legs but looked as if it might have trouble keeping it that way. It was covered with what looked like leather before it’d been properly tanned but still attached to bones, looser than it should’ve been, folds everywhere. The head was a simple round shape, half-open mouth showcasing nastily sharp teeth, and eye sockets that held pinpricks that were probably eyes but it was so, so difficult to tell and even a glimpse triggered shivers and an immediate face-turn.
It looked at Yvette, and slowly reached out a clawed hand.
She screamed, dropped the vase, whipped out her umbrella gun and started shooting.
The locusts attacked the creature, and started eating away at its flesh, or trying to. Its hide was thick, and the insects did not seem to be making much progress. So they increased their numbers of attack.
The leathery creature made a sound, something between a growl and a cry of protest, though the sound also vibrated through more than a single dimension of air. It echoed, but not only in the room; through various levels of existence. It unnerved and shook Shida’s very being, and it was all she could do not to fall on the ground.
It reached a claw out again, and as Yvette kept shooting, she backed away. Shida was closer to the creature, but it had no interest in her and she held her shawl against her wound, unable to move elsewise. The creature did not pursue Yvette, but picked up the vase as the locusts continued swarming it. Once its claw was retracted again, the space around the creature’s body seemed to… shimmer, no… ripple. Then as strangely as it appeared, it vanished, taking the vase and the locusts with it.
Yvette stopped shooting, and was panting. Everything else was quiet.
“What in the hell…” Zeno muttered.
“What did you do?” Chuki said.
“Wh—what?” Shida askd, turning to face everyone else. She let out a small whimper as she moved her shoulder on accident; the full pain wasn’t there yet, but it was working on it.
“You!” Chuki accused all of them, walking forward and standing closer to his full height, glaring. “All of you! That was a dimensional shambler! I’ve only seen two others in this desert, ever, and that nearly ended in the destruction of this world!
“What makes you think we’re the ones who—” Yvette started.
“What other explanation is there?!” Chuki argued, stepping forward and gesturing. “You all looked at that cursed obelisk and—”
“Cursed?!” Shida interrupted. She shouldn’t have been surprised. But she was; and outraged. Pain was easy to channel into anger. “You—”
“What did you expect an obelisk in the middle of a damned desert to be, blessed?” Chuki retorted.
“And yet you’ve looked at it before and been fine?” Shida retorted, breathing heavier.
“Is that how you became a harpy?” Yvette demanded.
“No! I was born this way, human,” Chuki said. “And I haven’t personally looked at the thing, I’ve just seen a traveler do it! He went mad after a few days, and disappeared somewhere or another.”
“Oh? And what about the sand, and the tremors? That always before too?” Shida asked.
“No!” Chuki shot back. “Otherwise I would have stayed and watched you all murder each other!”
“Oh, right, because you have nothing better to do,” Shida said.
“Actually, no!” Chuki responded.
“Then what— Nngh!” Shida gritted her teeth as a wave of pain radiated from her shoulder.
“Nashida,” Zeno said worriedly, though didn’t come closer. Chuki was still leering.
“Hurts, doesn’t it?” Chuki said in a somewhat smug manner. “I missed major arteries, but that won’t be pleasant to live with. You should just let it get infected and kill you before the madness does.”
“I didn’t even look at the stupid—Aaagh!” Shida exclaimed, and breathed a few more times before continuing. “I didn’t look at it, these two did, and they managed to find your secret little nest without even a map!”
Chuki looked up, alarmed, and started glowering again. “What?”
“Shut up—” Yvette started saying, then abandoned her thought. “Yes, we did. Wasn’t even all that hard. Just followed my amazing treasure sense and my feet.”
“And they couldn’t have led us through less traps?” Zeno asked.
“We’re here,” Yvette snapped.
“Yeah, well… A lot of good that does you,” Chuki said, backing off some and watching Yvette and Zeno warily. But only for a moment. Then he smirked at them. “There is only one exit, in this entire labyrinth. You’ll never find it before the other creatures in this place find and kill you, or you kill yourselves.”
“You mean the door we came in from?” Shida asked, exasperated. She had no idea how to get back to that.
“What? No,” Chuki said. “That’s—that was an emergency side door, it doesn’t count.”
“But it would open again?” Zeno asked.
“No it’s locked now!” Chuki snapped.
“What about those skylights?” Yvette said, pointing, then waggled her hips. “Could we convince you to fly us out~?” She winked.
“No!” Chuki yelled, backing away furher.
“So what other exit!” Shida yelled.
“I’m not telling you!” Chuki retorted.
Shida wished she could put her good hand to her face but just close her eyes, breathing through her mouth. “Look, Chuki… We hate you and you hate us. You probably haven’t killed us yet because you want to watch us fight it out as we go through this place. Would telling us where it is really make that much of a difference if we’re going to die before we get there anyway?” It was a longshot, but it was something. She had to do something before her wound and pain started making her lighthead—oh sands there it was. She focused everything in her on staying upright until it passed.
“... and furthermore,” Chuki was lecturing, “I still haven’t decided if I’m going to kill you all or not.”
Shida opened her eyes, tired and done with this stupid desert and the creatures and people who made everything even more difficult inside of it. “Then do it.”
All of the others looked at her.
“Just do it, damn it,” she said clearer. “I’m tired of these stupid hallucinations tormenting me about my brother,” which she had been ignoring relatively effectively around Zeno and Yvette, but especially in the darkness of the corridors, it was hard, “and being told I’ll never escape, and all these sanded near death experiences—” She cut off as another wave of pain hit.
“Nashida, it’s not—” Zeno started to argue.
“Your life ain’t that bad, bitch!” Yvette interrupted. “You’re still alive, and so’s your brother, desert or not!”
Shida glared at Yvette. “Yeah you so sure about that!?” She wanted to be, but she was just all argumentative right now and the pain wasn’t helping. How did Yvette even know about her brother? They hadn’t talked about him.
“There’s some way outa this hell hole,” Yvette continued. “And we’ll find it. Just like we’ll find whatever creepy-ass creature is trying to invade our minds.”
“How heartwarming…” Chuki sneered.
Shida wanted to yell, to argue, to fight, to do something. But that wouldn’t help right now, so she was trying to calm herself. Breathing helped.
“Fine,” Shida eventually muttered. “Then can someone help me with this gash…? I’ve got blood all over my arm, and…” She winced with another bout of pain. “The pain is getting worse.”
“Chuki; have any medicine around here?” Yvette asked.
“Why would I help you?!” Chuki argued.
“Because we’re stuck in your precious nest, and if you want to watch us wander to your heart’s delight, we have to be able to move,” Yvette crooned.
Chuki shivered and stepped back. “No. I don’t have any.”
“Liar.” Yvette pouted.
“If someone could… use my water,” Shida said. “Just help me clean it off…” She carefully peeled the shawl off, hissing as she felt the air against it again. She set it on her bag, then got her water out, glad the bag was over her non-injured shoulder. And now it had lots of blood on it, wonderful.
Zeno approached and took her water. He grimaced as he looked at her arm. “That is not lookin great…”
“Yeah, really,” she retorted. “Just… get the blood off…” And whatever else was on it. She didn’t want to think about it.
Shida grabbed her partially bloody shawl from her bag and bit into the cleaner portion as Zeno carefully worked on washing the wound. Shida could hear Yvette and Chuki’s voices bickering, but not specifics; damn it what was—Why did this have to hurt so much! She growled into the fabric.
“I, ah…” Zeno’s words finally filtered through as he paused and Shida breathed easier. “Nashida. Your… ah, arm. It’s got a lot of blood on it. Got a lot off, but… your shirt…”
Damn it, of course the shirt was causing an issue. “Just cut the damn sleeve off,” she said. “I’ve got a knife if you don’t.”
“It’s on your shoulder too.”
“Then cut farther up!” she snapped. She rummaged in her bag again and got out the knife, shoving it at him in its sheath.
“Woah, hey,” Zeno said, carefully taking the knife.
“… Sorry,” Shida muttered, calming again.
“Ah… yeah…” Zeno said. “Hurts a lot, I bet… Man, you’re gonna have one epic scar, though…”
While Zeno tried to carefully, if awkwardly, slice the fabric from around her wound, Shida tried to focus again. “Yvette!”
Yvette looked like she was about to get into another real physical fight with Chuki, but paused. “What?” She sounded impatient.
“You have a sewing kit?” If any of them was going to have one, it would be her.
Yvette looked surprised. “Wh… Sewing?? Why?”
Chuki wrinkled his nose. “You’re not doing that much, are you?”
“Yes I am!” Shida snapped. “Unless one of you pansies wants to do it for me!” Which she honestly hoped they did because sewing her own shoulder was going to be insanely awkward and painful and she wasn’t actually sure she could do it.
“Ugh,” Chuki sniffed. “I’m telling you you’re wasting your efforts. Just take your infection and madness and die in a trap already.” He flew off to a pile farther away.
Yvette made an appalled face. “Chuki! We were—”
“Yvette,” Shida repeated with gritted teeth.
“I don’t have a sewing kit,” she responded.
“Are you sure?” Zeno said. “You seem to have almost everything else.”
“I would know,” Yvette returned.
“Can you please at least… check,” Shida plead, trying not to sound like she was yelling.
“Alright,” Yvette said, and came over. After a short time of searching, she actually did pull out a small kit. “Huh; what do you know.”
“Good,” Shida said, and after a few breaths, continued. “Now, if you could… thread the needle, with a lot of thread…”
Yvette made the connection and practically dropped the kit. “Ooooohh no, I’m not sewing this through—your skin! Ugh!”
“Fine,” Shida snapped, “Then how about you gather some flammable things and I can get a fire going for the water?”
Yvette looked at her warily. “For what?”
“For cleaning my damned shawl and the needle alright! You can cook something on it after if you’re desperate!” Shida retorted.
“Oooh, aren’t we smart,” Yvette said before turning around.
“You wanted food, didn’t you?” Zeno said after her. “Warm food! Come on!”
Yvette groaned, but did start gathering some things.
“Hey!” Chuki protested from a few piles of treasure away. “I never said you could stay!”
“And you never explained more about doomsday, you stupid bird!” Zeno shouted back. “What’s this about that leather monster!”
Chuki ignored them.
By the time they actually had a fire going, had found a metal vase for the water, and were waiting on it to boil, Chuki cautiously over to them.
“That is my vase, you sniveling little—” Chuki stared.
“We’re leaving it here!” Shida snapped.
“We are?” Zeno asked.
“You want to carry it?” Shida retorted.
Zeno changed the subject. “You going to tell us about the doom-walkers now?” Zeno asked Chuki. “Or are we gonna have to—”
“I’ll talk if you shut up.” Chuki glowered.
Yvette patted a space beside her, but Chuki stayed where he was. “Decades ago, there was a wanderer who looked into the light of the obelisk under the full moon. He didn’t seem too different at first, which I was disappointed by, but I continued to lead him through the desert. A few days later though, after increasing mumblings and ramblings about this Kaajh’Kaalbh and an Azathoth, he just breaks off from me! Totally ignores when I try changing his path, attacks me, and barely escapes my wrath. But he did. The next time I saw him he was mostly starving, creating magic circles around the obelisk, and had some quicksilver. I tried to approach him but he ignored me, even when I attacked him. At least, he did himself. One of those—creatures came out and started after me. I left, obviously. But when I felt a tremor not a day later I went back.”
While he talked, Shida cleansed the needle and thread, as well as her shawl. She’d have to let them dry, and managed to find a place for them to do that. She wanted to be watchful of Chuki as well, but she was too tired and staring to feel too much pain to care enough. She could focus on the words though, she had to get through that.
“It was night, but even for the desert it seemed to be oddly quiet and unsettling. He used the quicksilver and the dimensional shamblers were standing at points of the circle. He did this weird magic chanting and the sand started shifting, the circles started glowing red… The sky even seemed to quiver.”
Chuki let the pause last, and Zeno prompted, “What happened?”
“A portal started opening, I think,” Chuki said, lost in the past. “The air, no, the obelisk itself rippled, phased. I saw glimpses of… something. It kept changing… it was dark. And… I don’t know. I… I don’t actually know what it was.” Chuki swallowed. “But then, it suddenly stopped.”
“Why?” Yvette asked.
“The man had fallen over, dead,” Chuki stated regaining himself and his attitude. “From dehydration, or starvation, something. It was hard to tell, and I wasn’t going any closer.” He shivered. “Not while those things were still around. They stuck around for a few hours, but then they also disappeared. I waited a month before I poked closer. All the circles were gone, the man was just skin and bones really. But the obelisk stayed.”
It was quiet for some good, long moments.
“And why would you take us there?!” Yvette demanded.
“And how did you know the end of the world was coming?” Zeno added.
“Look I just felt like it was beyond this world, okay!” Chuki retorted. “I have senses for these kinds of things! It was going to destroy this place!”
“So again, why would you take people there??” Yvette repeated.
“Like I told you, that was years ago!” Chuki continued. "I thought maybe it had changed!”
“Yeah, well, apparently the sand didn’t change last time, so congrats!” Shida said as she tried to thread the needle without dropping the damned thing. Which had already happened. Three times. And she had to put it through the water again it every time.
“Well none of us does dark magic like that, so we’ll be fine,” Yvette sniffed, crossing her arms.
“He didn’t do magic either, before!” Chuki insisted. “Not like that. He had some minor healing I think but—”
“Well there you go, I’m not magical, and neither is Zeno. No magic at all. So there.” Yvette made this final.
“And yet the damn shambler still showed up!” Chuki enunciated, feathers bristling. “And took that container! It was probably quicksilver wasn’t it!”
“How should I know?” Yvette said with a wave of her hand.
“… It was,” Shida said grimly.
It was quiet again.
“Well we’re not getting ‘invaded’,” Yvette maintained.
“Yvette, how did you know how to get here?” Shida pointed out.
“I just did,” Yvette retorted.
“And did you hear Zeno muttering strange names and ominous words while he was sleeping?”
Yvette and Zeno stilled.
“He said ‘he’s coming’ and ‘they’ll get what’s coming’,” Shida repeated. “And that name, Kaajh’Kaalbh. Or part of it anyway.”
“…shit,” Chuki said, then stood up to leave.
“Where are you going?” Zeno demanded. “Is that it?”
“I’m going to enjoy my riches while I can, cause we’re all doomed!” Chuki threw back.
“Isn’t there—isn’t there something you can— Oh god not like this,” Yvette fell to muttering. “I’m too pretty to die like this, I can’t summon an ancient—I can’t die of starvation, that—”
“Isn’t there something, bird brain?!” Zeno retorted. “You’ve been here forever, and you’re telling me there isn’t something to stop this thing invading our lives?”
“No!” Chuki retorted.
“Noooooooooo!” Yvette groaned, hands on her face.
Damn it, was Shida the only one thinking clearly when she was the injured one?!
“Chuki, Chuki get back here!” Zeno was demanding, starting to crawl after him.
“I’m watching you, don’t worry!” Chuki retorted. “If you steal any bit of my stuff I’ll slice your stomach!”
Shida took her canteen and got some of the hot water on it, and quickly poured it over her wound, because no one else was helping her. She screamed. Hell, damning hell that hurt! She scrunched her eyes and was glad there wasn’t anything else in that gash because no way in hell was she going to touch that thing right now!
Shida breathed, panted, and opened her eyes. Yvette and Zeno were staring at her. She worked on catching her breath for a few moments. “Look…” she said, “I know it’s not pleasant, but I can’t—really see… or get at this stupid gash someone gave me…” She took a few more breaths. “I can help tell you how to do it. Just—help me, please.” She blinked hard. Damn, the pain was getting worse.
A few more moments passed, then Zeno came over.
“I guess…” Yvette said, then rummaged and got some cloth out. “You can have this handkerchief. Bite on it or whatever.”
“I can stitch,” Zeno said. “I have stitched patches, this will be no problem.”
Yvette made a face. “Patches?! That was you? Oh, you are no going near this bitch’s skin! Out of the way!”
Shida didn’t care who did it, or even how ugly it looked, by this point. She just wanted to get it done and over with. She explained how it should work, and Yvette insisted she knew what to do. The first time the needle touched Shida’s skin she pulled away, but then she steeled herself and they went again. She screamed into the handkerchief. She screamed and she bit and she tried to hold as still as possible, gripping her pants and her bag. By the time they were nearing the end, she had used most of her energy and was just crying, quiet tears falling down her face. The pain was still there, just not being jostled by the needle and thread anymore, which was a small relief.
They helped her wrap her cleansed shawl around her shoulder, arm, and top of her torso to keep it all in place. She thanked them and, exhausted, tried to fall asleep.
“What. The hell,” Yvette said after regaining her breath, “was that?!”
Shida stayed on the ground, trying to feel if any other tremors were coming. “I have no idea.”
“Think it will keep coming?” Zeno asked warily.
It was silent for a few moments as they all wondered the same.
“Well I don’t want to be here if it does,” Shida said, finally standing. She conjured a flame in her hand to give them some light.
Yvette and Zeno looked startled at the magic, but recovered quickly. “So we head further inside,” Yvette stated, and started walking. Zeno and Shida followed. “Chuuukiii!” Yvette called, but there was no answer. Shida didn’t expect there would be. Even if he was still tied up, the harpy knew the desert’s traps like his feathers; abundant and varied. She wouldn’t be surprised if they ran into some while Chuki laughed at them.
After a few moments, Yvette slowed behind Shida. “Keep the light up front,” she said.
Shida rolled her eyes, but did.
She wasn’t sure what the inside of a pyramid was supposed to look like, but she was pretty sure this wasn’t it… the rock walls were columned along the sides, some had long shelves, and there were a few skulls here and there… The whole thing had more of a cave feel than anything else. She didn’t like it.
She needed something else to focus on than unease.
“So what had you two so mesmerized back there?” Shida asked.
“What?” Yvette asked.
“At the obelisk,” Shida clarified. “When the moon hit, you two just… stared. Like you were hypnotized or something.” She threw a glance back at them.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Yvette rebutted.
“I don’t really remember that… “ Zeno added. “Just the sand suddenly changing and that damned bird running off.”
“Yeah, and the tremors?” Shida reminded them. “And the black and red glooping sand?”
“I said the sand changed,” Zeno retorted.
“It was horrible!” Yvette moaned. “I almost lost my shoes to that mess!”
“That’d be the least of it…” Shida grumbled. “But seriously, I had to throw sand at you to snap you out of it.”
“I’m still getting it out of my shirt,” Yvette grumbled.
“Yeah, you’re welcome,” Shida threw back.
“What?” Zeno said, stopping.
“I said—” Shida started, but Zeno shushed her.
Shida did stop to listen, but heard nothing. Yvette looked around, but didn’t seem to be hearing anything either. Zeno’s eyes were wide.
“Zeno,” Shida said quietly, recognizing the fear and disbelief. “It’s a hallucination.” She remembered Galun calling through the other cave, and was glad Zeno’s hallucination wasn’t as intense right now.
“No, I swear—”
“It’s the desert,” Shida re-asserted. “It’ll whisper one moment and then scream the next, and no one else even hears it.”
Zeno frowned, eyes staying wide. “… How long have you been here?”
“Too long,” Shida muttered, and started walking forward again. Zeno and Yvette followed.
Not too much later, the pathway branched into three passages. Shida tried to look down them, but they didn’t look any different except for the location of the columns along the wall.
“Chuuukiii!” Yvette called again, hands cupping her mouth. Shida winced. Yvette’s voice echoed down the passageways.
“Do you really think he’d answer?” Shida snipped.
“Well it was worth a shot.” Yvette shrugged.
“If we do find him,” Zeno said, “it’ll be a one-way trip to the fire!” His stomach growled in agreement.
“No!” Yvette snapped, backhanding the shorter man. “If he’s still tied up, we make him lead us to the center of the pyramid! That’s where the treasure is.”
“What, like we can’t find it on our own?” Zeno rebutted, rubbing his jaw.
“You want to point the way?” Yvette asked, gesturing at the passageways.
“I don’t think this is the pyramid…” Shida said as Zeno considered his options seriously.
“Then where else would we be?” Yvette countered.
“I don’t know,” Shida said. “There’s ruins all over the place! Just haven’t seen any go underground…”
“This one,” Zeno said, pointing to the left.
“Alright,” Yvette said, and promptly started walking down the right-hand passageway.
“Hey!” Zeno argued. “You don’t trust me?!”
Yvette paused. “… What? Oh. Um… Well when you put it like that.” She stared towards the left-hand arch, but ended up going down the middle path.
Zeno sighed heavily, but followed.
“Come on, Coin Queen,” Yvette called.
“Coin—what?” Shida muttered. Oh. She wasn’t wearing her robe. She was all kinds of flashy with her bracelets and everything. She sighed. “My name is Nashida,” she said as she moved towards the front.
And so they continued.
For the next several hours, they meandered through various turns, drops, dead ends, and several traps that nearly killed one if not all of them. Spikes, moving walls, false floors, all sorts of devices that Shida had to be in front to see because she wielded the fire.
“Maybe this is the pyramid,” Shida finally gasped, catching her breath after they narrowly escaped a dead-end tunnel that had tried to close up with them inside. “It’s dangerous enough…”
“Zeno, I blame your navigation skills,” Yvette complained, leaning against a wall.
“Me?” Zeno retorted. “You don’t even listen to my directions half the time!”
Shida groaned; they were almost as bad as her brothers. “Look,” she said, sitting on the ground. “How about we take a break?”
“Finally!” Yvette said, and dropped to the ground. She had complained a few times earlier, but refused to actually stop.
Shida had let her flame go out temporarily while catching her breath, and didn’t feel inclined to light it up again. Her hands were starting to cramp.
“Some light would be nice… Nazira…” Yvette whined.
“It’s Nashida,” Shida corrected. “Is it that difficult to remember? Yvette?”
“Well, excuse me,” Yvette retorted.
“Sorry, Nashida,” Zeno intervened. “Could we have some light? Please?”
Shida sighed. “Maybe if you’ve got something to burn…” She didn’t; she was not burning her map.
She heard Zeno rummaging around in his bag. “Mm… No… Hey Yvette; throw me one of your bandanas.”
“No!” Yvette shrieked.
“I know you have like fifteen of them!” Zeno shot back. “Just one!”
“Do you want light or not?!”
“We’ll sit in the dark,” Yvette sniffed. “Since Nashida won’t just conjure up some flames again.”
“I’m tired okay?!” Shida snapped back.
Zeno’s stomach growled again.
“… I’m going to open up a can of beans,” he announced.
“In the dark?” Yvette muttered.
“If I have to, yes,” he responded, and Shida heard him rummaging in his backpack again.
She sighed heavily. She turned to lay on her back and put her hand straight in the air, then held a small flame in it.
“Oh, thank you,” Zeno said, surprised.
“So now you—” Yvette stared.
“Just hurry it up,” Shida growled. I’m only holding it long enough for you to open your can or whatever.”
“You expect us to eat in the dark?” Yvette argued, voice rising.
“I’m sure it’s not the first time!” Shida retorted.
Zeno was busily opening the can of beans. “You want any Yvette?”
“Aren’t you heating them up?” Yvette asked.
“What do I look like, a servant?” Shida retored, then continued before Yvette could answer. “I’m not going to. The sun probably heated it up plenty during the day.”
“She’s right,” Zeno told Yvette. “It’s been a while since the sun was out but they’re still perfectly f—”
“I’m not eating cold beans!” Yvette snarked.
“They’re not cold!” Zeno responded.
Shida groaned. Zeno had stopped using the can opener, so she let the flame die and her arm drop back down. She wasn’t entirely sure what was on the ground, but at this point she didn’t care. Nothing was stabbing her, so she was probably fine.
“Hey!” Yvette and Zeno protested.
“I’m done,” Shida said. “You two eat your beans if you want. I’m going to sleep.”
“Just… right now?” Yvette asked.
“Here?” Zeno said.
“Ugh, yes,” Shida said, turning on her side away from them, using her bag as a pillow. “I’m tired and we haven’t gotten anywhere, and I’ve been walking all night.” Even if it was a little colder under the sand, she didn’t feel like unpacking anything.
“Aren’t you—” Yvette started, when Zeno interrupted.
“I’m eating the beans.”
“You little pig, share!”
Shida heard Yvette scrambled over to him.
“Nashida!” Zeno said quickly. “Did you want any!”
“No,” Shida said, arms crossed over herself.
“Good, because there’s only one can,” Yvette growled, and Shida heard Zeno scoff as it was probably taken from his hands.
“If you could eat quietly, that would be appreciated,” Shida continued.
“Oh, sure thing, Nashida,” Yvette said and proceeded to clank a metal utensil against the can before it was abruptly stolen by Zeno.
Shida jolted up into a sitting position and threw a fireball at the space above both of them, snarling. “I’m trying to sleep!”
They both ducked, and the fire dissipated into the rocks above them. Some dirt rained down, and Yvette made disgusted sounds of protest. However, no tremors occurred, and nothing else fell.
“Why you little—”
Shida lit another fireball in her hand and glared at Yvette, daring her to finish her sentence. “Is sleep really that much to ask?” she growled.
Yvette actually considered that for a few moments before sniffing. “… I guess not.” She stole the beans back from Zeno before Shida let her fire go out. She laid back down as Zeno just looked at Yvette, upset, but quiet.
Good. Maybe they would settle after eating some…
Some time later, Shida woke up. She had no idea how long she’d slept; there weren’t even shafts of light to be able to tell down this far. It felt like enough, at least. It wasn’t pitch dark, though; her eyes could make out some shapes along the corridor. She wondered where the ambient light might be coming from…
Shida turned to the sound. A small, huddled form: Zeno. Yvette was curled up with some more clothes over her like a blanket. Zeno used his backpack as a pillow.
Zeno was mumbling in his sleep. Shida could only hear him because the rest of the place was deathly silent. It hadn’t been this quiet before, but then again, they hadn’t been sleeping or staying still before….
“He’s coming…” Zeno repeated, more of a rasp, “and they’ll get what’s coming…”
What did that—
Zeno started shivering then, violently, and Shida immediately went over to him. “Zeno?” She touched his arm. He didn’t respond. She shook him.
He immediately jolted upright, gasping. “Kaajh’!”
“Zeno!” Shida said, voice commanding though she felt unnerved at the same time. She couldn’t tell if what he’d said was jibberish, or an attempt at a word. It felt like the translation bracelet was trying to do something, which didn’t really help.
Zeno sat there, panting, and Shida brought up a small flame again. His skin shimmered with sweat, and his eyes were wide, staring into the darkness.
“Zeno…?” Yvette muttered as she crouched up into a sitting position.
“It was a dream,” Shida told Zeno. “A nightmare.” Whatever it was. Maybe it had been his siblings, too. She’d been blessed to only see her brother lost in the sands in her dream, not being dismembered. This time.
“Are you kidding me…” Yvette muttered, and Shida saw her silhouette lookd a little different. She put her hair back on, and it fixed itself. Well, no time to think about that.
“Zeno?” Shida asked. The man was still staring wildly at nothing.
But finally, his eyes normalized, and his breathing regulated. He turned to both Shida and Yvette. “A-ahh… haha…” He chuckled sheepishly. “Guess it was a nightmare…”
Shida nodded. Yvette fixed her hair and clothes.
“Right…” Zeno said, then started readjusting himself. “Thanks,” he told Shida in passing.
She nodded, and retreated to the other side of the passage again. She wondered what ghosts haunted him, and how based in reality they were. Though, his… word…
“Let’s get going again,” Yvette declared, and stood up, perfectly poised and prepared as if she hadn’t just been woken.
Shida huffed. “Yeah, alright…” She got herself together and they headed out again. She wanted to ask about the nightmare, but shook her head to herself. His nightmares were his business. Just like hers were hers. She took out a piece of jerky to chew on as she walked with the flame.
“Hey, what’s that?” Yvette asked.
“Mine,” Shida responded.
“Oh, alright,” Yvette retorted. “Not like we didn’t share.”
“Yeah, I said no,” Shida said. “And this is mine and I’m not offering.” Mostly because she knew they had their own food.
“Fine,” Yvette sniffed, crossing her arms.
Shida rolled her eyes. I was going to be a long trek.
There was a tall shadow on the horizon, growing taller in the clouded moonlight as they approached. This must be the next object she’d been heading towards on her map. Whatever it was…
Shida must have blinked, or zoned out, or something, because the next thing she knew they were practically beside the massive structure. A pure black obelisk, rising into the sky, floating on a triangular point. Beneath the point lay a black pedestal with another triangulated point nearly meeting the other save for a small space between them. The pedestal’s points were covered in metal, and looked sharp enough to split bone.
“This isn’t the pyramid,” Zeno protested warily.
“Oh, no, it’s not,” Chuki agreed readily. “This is just on the way. It’s a structure that’s been here longer than I have, than anyone has, really.”
“What is it?” Yvette asked, trying to see to the top of the smooth black stone. The moon was hiding still.
“An obelisk,” Shida said, still bewildered by the incredible magic keeping such a thing floating. The pedestal was as tall as she was, perhaps a little taller, and at least 10 feet wide. “But what is it commemorating…?” She approached it cautiously, keeping an eye out for any creatures or traps.
“No one knows,” Chuki said. “It’s just… here.”
Shida saw engravings on the pedestal that looked… strange. Almost like Arabic, but… not. They started shifting, apparently the translation bracelet was at least trying to work, but it was having a hard time. The words she managed to make out were strange, to say the least. ‘Azathoth’… ‘despair of the world’… ‘Kaajh’Kaalbh’… ‘dimensions’…
“I’ve heard that something incredible happens when moonlight strikes the top of it,” Chuki went on saying.
That did not bode well either. “What do you mean ‘incredible’?” She looked accusingly at him, and he was watching her at the base.
“Well, that’s just the thing. No one’s seen what happens,” Chuki intoned.
“And what about the pyramid?” Yvette asked.
“Oh, there’s an entrance near here,” Chuki said. “I just thought you’d want to explore this first.”
“Explore what?” Shida asked, tension rising. She started stalking towards him when the sand beneath their feet shifted, throwing her off. Everyone immediately looked around, but no creatures rose from the sands. The clouds drifted away from the moon, though, and it shone on the obsidian obelisk without hindrance. Shida couldn’t help but look up briefly, and managed to glimpse some round almost window-like orbs on the top; it was difficult with how close she was to the bottom. They were… absorbing the moonlight.
Then from the corner of her eye she saw Chuki turning away. Automatically, she shielded her eyes and looked away as well. “Don’t lo—” A stronger tremor cut her off, and she fell into the sand on her knees. She tried to get her feet under her again, but the sand kept moving, and then it was black, and warm. It rose over and between her fingers, and then started congealing like a liquid, but with flecks of red that glowed. They pulsed, the warmth pulsing with it, and it made her think of a heartbeat.
She quickly pulled her hands out, fell backwards, nearer the obelisk’s base. It was warmer there, and… the sand more goopy. Shida yelped, trying to scramble forward again, before the sand sucked her down. She looked to Yvette, but she was staring mesmerized at the obelisk’s top. Zeno was in a similar situation. They didn’t even realize the black and red sand was roiling up over their shoes.
Chuki was trying to walk away through all the liquefying sand.
“Chuki!” Shida yelled, panicking. “You bastard get back here!”
Zeno stirred, but couldn’t tear his gaze from the… whatever was going on up top of the obelisk, Shida certainly wasn’t going to look. She fought up through the sand and threw globs of it at Zeno and Yvette, because it was globbing now and she needed to do something. “Hey! Hey!”
Yvette broke first, stepping away from the assault. “You b—” Then she blinked hard and almost fell over, but caught herself.
Zeno shook his head after a glop hit his face. “PFgfhgb—”
Shida managed to finally get out of the sand soup that was slowly becoming warmer and redder, and grabbed Zeno’s arm because he was closer. She was gasping, and he was aware enough to grab her arm back and help her, stepping backwards.
“What—” Zeno started.
“What in the hell is all this?!” Yvette yelled, disgusted as she lifted her boots.
“Ask Chuki!” Shida snipped, trying to use her momentum to keep going.
Yvette and Zeno immediately locked onto the reddish harpy’s retreating form, which was gaining speed back on normal sand again. His arms were still tied, or Shida was sure he’d be flying by now. They both yelled after him, and Chuki just stared fleeing faster.
Shida, Zeno, and Yvette all hustled to get out of the glooping sand and after the runaway harpy. The sand sucked at them, pulled, pulsed, but finally they managed to escape. Of course, normal sand wasn’t a whole lot better, and Chuki was rather far ahead of them, but that didn’t stop them because the… pool was just increasing behind them, and the heat starting to radiate out above the slushing sand.
Chuki approached a landslide-looking mass of sand and some ruins and managed to find a door in the mess. He worked to balance and try opening the door with his feet.
“Chuki!” Yvette called out.
This just startled him and made him grapple harder for purchase on the door. Another tremor hit, and he fell over.
“That must be the pyramid entrance!” Zeno said irately as they all tried not to fall.
Shida wasn’t as sure about that, but it was better than the mess of who-knew-what behind them. Shida could feel the warmth trying to catch up to them again, and a brief glance at the ground behind them proved that the black sand really was increasing its reach. “Chuki!”
He’d gotten back on his feet and, even as they closed in, he managed to get inside the door. He didn’t even try to close it, just disappeared into the dark. Yvette reached the door first, and jumped in after him. “Chuuuuuki!” she yelled. “Get back here!” She shot a few rounds that echoed inside.
Shida and Zeno weren’t far behind her. Another tremor shook the ground and Shida fell into Yvette, making them both fall to the ground. Shida accidentally pulled on Yvette’s hair in the fall, and Yvette made a panicked sound.
“Hey!” Yvette shoved Shida off and scrambled as Zeno came inside and closed the door.
It was completely dark, and he tremor stopped instantly. The only thing Shida could hear were herself gasping, and the other two trying to catch their breaths.
Damn that bird.
Nashida hated mirages. They tended to look like her brother, or tents, or occasionally even a caravan. Oasis mirages were almost worse. She usually didn’t have any issues when she traveled a night, since heat was tended to be the culprit, but now and then one popped up. She blamed the desert’s desire to destroy anything living inside of it.
When she saw three figures walking in the sands like her, she definitely expected them to be a mirage. One was tied up and walking awkwardly compared to the other two… After some studying she realized it was Chuki, tied up around the arms. She snorted; if it was a mirage, at least this one was entertaining. After a short time passed and they didn’t disappear, though, Shida figured they were probably real.
She wondered how the other two had tied him up, and why, though reasons weren’t difficult to come up with, when the sand in the next dune in front of them shifted. Not just a little, more like… the entire dune shifted. Sand slid to the side, moonlight reflected off of something shiny. Then a massive scorpion rose up, shaking itself off. Shida paused; she’d only seen them at a distance before, and always avoided them. But this one was headed right for the group.
The group with Chuki saw her and paused. She pointed frantically. “Scorpion!”
They turned, but didn’t seem nearly worried enough about the massive creature headed for them. Shida ran towards them, always difficult in sand, conjured a small fireball and threw it, hit—
It right through. The creature paused, then dissipated in the moonlight.
A damn mirage.
How could she have believed it so easily when she’d doubted even about the people—
Wait. Were they actually there?
They were staring at her now, still a distance away. But they seemed solid. She squinted her eyes.
The shorter one in the group suddenly pulled out something which reflected the moonlight and—
PAM! PAM! PAM!
The handheld gun’s shots flew off. She jumped out of the way, but apparently they were actually not that close to her. She did hear them thud into something behind her, and the awful screeches of a large creature in pain. As she rolled in the sand, she saw—
A giant scorpion.
It wasn’t even twenty feet behind her! What—
It shook itself and glared at the offending shooter, bleeding.
Quickly, Nashida conjured up a larger fireball, concentrating as the creature started to scurry across the sand, and flung it at the scorpion’s side. She heard the exoskeleton crack and another shriek as some of its legs burned off. Its tail thrashed, and Shida scrambled to get out of its range. She could hear sizzling as she struggled to get farther away.
PAM! PAM! PAM!
PA PA PA PA PA
Two guns now.
The beast flailed more, then turned around and dug itself into the sands.
PA PA PA PA PA PA PA
The taller one, a woman, fired after the scorpion and into the sand as it disappeared before stopping. The group was close enough now Shida could hear them.
“Damn desert!” the woman yelled after the scorpion.
Shida stood and tried to get sand out of her sleeves as she approached. “Thank you,” she told them. She meant it, but she wasn’t sure she sounded like it. The desert’s despicable tendencies had warped her perception of, well, almost everything, including her own voice.
“Don’t mention it,” the woman said, waving a hand. “Really. Don’t. Unless you want to give up your pretty necklace as payment?”
Shida stepped back, hand going to her necklace. “No,” she intoned. It had saved her life more times than she even counted anymore, not including the attack just now.
“Then we can all be on our way,” the woman returned, and started walking.
“You are welcome, Miss,” the man said, as if trying to make up for the woman’s attitude. But after looking around, he asked, “Where’s Sadria?”
“Who?” the woman asked without stopping.
“Sadria!” the man returned. “The girl who we rescued last time, who—”
“Nashida,” Chuki cut in easily. “You’ve survived.”
“And you got captured,” Shida retorted. Last time she’d seen Chuki was several days ago, and really she’d thought he’d disappeared and she’d never see him again. This was an interesting change.
“Back off, girl,” the woman said, suddenly stepping between Shida and Chuki. “This handsome devil’s mine.”
Shida grimaced as she backed up. “You know he’d sell your soul for a potato skin, right?”
“Yvette!” the man interrupted, “Sadira. She was about this tall, you yelled at me for bringing her, she helped us capture this chicken meat—”
Chuki ch’d his disapproval.
“I don’t know who you’re talking about, Zeno,” Yvette countered, folding her arms.
“Chuki!” Zeno turned on the harpy. “The girl who distracted you and helped capture you!”
“Hm?” Chuki responded. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you mean.”
“The girl!” Zeno repeated, getting more frustrated. “Sadria! She—she was talking about slavery, and mentioned people being trapped at the pyramid—You said you would take us to the pyramid for the prisoners!” He pointed accusingly at Chuki.
“I don’t remember a thing about this chick,” Yvette insisted.
“What prisoners?” Shida tried interrupting.
“In the pyramid!” Zeno insisted.
“There are no prisoners or girl, Zeno,” Yvette insisted. “Except this woman here.” She narrowed her eyes. “Since you’re still here, who are you that we had to save your ass?”
Shida huffed at her. She wasn’t sure if she was grateful for the translation band right now or not. “There was— Ugh, there was a mirage, okay! And my name is Nashida.”
“How do you know Chuki here?” Yvette was still suspicious.
“Is no one worried about Sadria?” Zeno asked, nearly frantic.
Shida took pity on him, though her voice came out more clipped than intended. “There were only three of you when I saw you walking.”
“What?” Zeno asked, voice quiet in disbelief.
“There are only three of us,” Chuki restated.
“Then—how did we capture you?” Zeno accused.
Chuki narrowed his eyes and didn’t speak for a few long moments. “You shot me with underwear.”
Shida physically drew back at that. What? What??
“I was throwing Chihuahuas at him and then you hit him with the underwear,” Yvette explained.
Shida looked at Chuki with an open mouth of disbelief, trying to figure out what had happened. Chuki was glaring at the ground as if the memory pained him, muttering about ‘stupid humans’ and such.
“But—You and Chuki were fighting,” Zeno was explaining. “And then hit your hair off. And I was stuck but then Sadria distracted Chuki and then I hit him with the underwear, and—”
This man wasn’t even arguing the particulars, just who all was involved.
Shida wasn’t sure she should stick around to find out more.
Shida turned to Chuki.
“Help me out of here,” Chucki whispered, “and I’ll get you to an oasis.”
“Like last time?” she hissed at him, teeth grit. She’d even paid him and the creatures at the oasis had nearly killed her save for her fireball necklace.
“No!” he retorted in a hushed tone.
“Well I want out, not games!” Shida returned. Suddenly she got whacked upside the head. “Ow!”
“What’re you two talking all hush-hush about? Hm?” Yvette sneered, wielding her umbrella.
“How utterly useless he is!” Shida shot back.
“Don’t talk about my bird-man like that,” Yvette pouted, putting an arm around Chuki.
“Get away from me,” Chuki hissed, backing away.
“Well I’m tired and upset that apparently, I have been hallucinating someone for an entire day and no one cared to tell me!” Zeno interjected. “I say we cook up the bastard bird and eat!”
Yvette put herself between Zeno and Chuki. “No!”
“I’m leading you to the pyramid!” Chuki protested. “That’s what you imbeciles wanted!”
Shida stared backing away; she had a map. She hadn’t figured it out entirely but she trusted it more than Chuki or either of the others. Unfortunately, Chuki was still close enough to do something about her leaving. He managed to trip her and drag her back with his clawed foot.
“Hey!” Chuki barked. Yvette and Zeno paused arguing as Shida tried to pry herself out from under his foot. “Let me go,” he said, “or— aah!”
He let go of Shida as she burned his foot, and she rolled away. He hopped on one foot. “What the hell?!”
“Don’t grab me!” Shida shot back, flames around her hand still dancing.
Chuki wobbled a little in his tied-up state, shaking his foot out, but didn’t fall. He did, however, glare at Shida.
“Ugh, all of you, stop it!” Yvette said, irate. “We’re going to the pyramid, end of story! That’s why we’re walking at night, and here, and you,” she said, pointing at Shida, “can do what you like but don’t lay a hand on our guide.” She turned and looked at Zeno. “Either of you.”
Shida scoffed, affronted. But she was just met by a look from Yvette that said she’d whip out her umbrella gun again. Shida closed her mouth and narrowed her eyes at Chuki. He was standing on both feet now, and aloof once again. He straightened despite his bonds and started walking.
“This way to the pyramid…”
Shida had a choice to go with them. She didn’t have to follow Chuki’s lead. But… what had they meant about prisoners? There’d been too much arguing to get anything solid about that. And… while it was none of her business, Chuki could be leading them to… well, maybe it really was the pyramid. He’d been honest in pieces before. But certainly not in the way they wanted, she was sure of that.After a few moments, she walked to catch up with the small group. That had been the direction she’d been headed, anyway.