Quivering on the horizon between the two sinking Suns of Gemorn Da, the rock tower of Shabbath Dak cast a mocking gaze over a vast plain of red sand.
Arjuna and IronSpleen, two warriors of the clan ‘Atomic Cthulhu’ had just slain an elder thunder bear and were now standing over its huge carcass. The battle had cost them much energy and without further supplies there was little chance they would make it to the oasis that day as planned. Arjuna sheathed his sword and sighed. “That was harder than I expected.”
“I didn’t mean it like that… well, you could have stepped in a few more times when he had me by the head. Those things are pretty hard to shake off.”
“As soon as we get to the oasis, we can rest. I’ll be able to heal up a bit there and I promise I’ll take the next one all by myself.”
“Sure you will. How far do you think we’ve travelled so far? 1,000, 2,000 leagues?”
“The village is long gone, man,” IronSpleen said. “I hardly even remember the ant caves anymore. What was that, like, a week ago? Then there was that detour through Shabbath valley – that was way bigger than I thought – along the dead river, where you picked up that pretty sword of yours, and now a couple of days in the desert. So yeah, I’d have to say about 2,000. Yeah, that’d be about it.”
“And we have at least another 1,000 in front of us. I can’t go on like this. Too slow by foot – your leather boots are almost worn through and we’re both getting pretty low on mana. If we don’t find a well or something soon, I might have to find a place to rest before we try for the oasis. Let’s just hope this place stays quiet in the meantime.”
“What were we thinking when we agreed to this?”
“How else are we suppose to get 10,000 gold so quickly? All we have to do is get to the tower and deliver the scroll. It’s probably the easiest mission we’ve been on if you look at it from a logistical perspective. We go from A to B. Simple.”
“A to B? B’s not even on the friggin’ map! I can see the tower all right, but it’s been looming out there for the past 1,000 leagues or so and it’s not getting any bigger.”
“Look, I don’t know about you but I’m not gonna become like those full-time mercenaries and do nothing but raid dungeons and slaughter the undead all day. They’ve all got cool gear now, but grinding’s a total bore. No, I want to earn smart gold, you know? Get rid of this sandpit cloak and toothpick spear.” IronSpleen thrust his shaman’s spear three times into the air. A team of blue, sparkling lights sputtered around its end, grew brighter and faded out with a metallic hiss. “Piece of shit,” he spat. “Probably time for a new one.”
“Here, take some mana.” Arjuna handed IronSpleen his last bottle of mana. IronSpleen drank its contents in one gulp and then cast it aside. A faint whiteness glowed around his arms and legs, crept to his head and his entire profile shone against the red sand.
“Thanks,” said IronSpleen.
“It’s okay. I’ll pick up some more somewhere along the way and besides, I’ll need some of your fire for the next pack of hostiles.”
“Do you think those suns ever sink? I must have spent months in this place and I’ve never seen the damn suns sink.”
“I don’t know much at all about this place. I heard Fido and his lady made it through, no idea how long it took them.”
“His ‘lady’ is an elephant.”
“And he’s an imp – fast. One thing’s for sure, if I don’t make it to the tower tonight, I’m out. Too much to do this week.”
“Puss.” IronSpleen flared up his spear and twirled it at Arjuna.
“Put it away. We can try again in a few weeks when things have quietened down. Unfortunately my family can’t live off thunder bear meat and I’ve got a regular day job – if you remember what that is – and the bloody mother-in-law is around every second day.”
“What the hell? Your mother-in-law? You should hear yourself, man. Now you’re afraid of your mother-in-law. What’s her name again? Gerald?”
“Yeah, Gerald. Gertrude, you dick. And she’s not all that bad. My mum’s an absolute ball breaker compared to her. And the best thing is, she can cook. Like a pro. Why don’t you come around to our pad for a proper meal sometime?”
“And hang around to watch you and Gerald fawn over your stinking baby? No thanks.”
“Nice one, man. Really nice,” Arjuna said.
“I didn’t mean it like that. Little Tobster’s fine. He’s cute! And he likes fantasy and all that. You know, it’s just that, I wanna hang with you, not your family. You know, like old times. Katie’s nice, but you have to have some guy time sometime don’t you? You know, where you do fun stuff.”
“What fun stuff? I have a baby for Christ’s sake. Do you know how much they poop? I’m wiping its reverse pie hole every two minutes. What is this fun stuff of which you speak?”
“Hey,” IronSpleen said. “Do you remember that time we caught that bush rat behind your uncle’s house and you put it in a tin can and set it alight? He really blew up like a champion. Rat’s guts all over the back fence and all.”
“Ha, yeah. That was like ten years ago, wasn’t it?”
“I miss those days, man. Gotta love it retro.”
Arjuna leapt over the animal and began carving its belly with his dagger. “How much meat are we gonna get off this thing?”
“Plenty. That will keep us going until close to the tower. Thunder bear meat is the best you can get around here.”
“They’re a bastard to kill, though. I probably slashed at his head a hundred times before I saw him tire. I wonder if those antlers are worth anything. ”
“Thank God there was only one of them. I’ve heard they roam in packs in the Gemorn Da mountains.”
“They’re in the mountains too? I wish we could just nuke the shit out them. Preferably remotely, from the village. Then I wouldn’t even need to buy any armour let alone lug it across this hellhole.”
As Arjuna sliced off the blue meat and placed it in his carry bag, IronSpleen scouted around the perimeter looking for herbs and insects and other items with which he could brew potions. He came across some scattered purple stones, which he collected, but nothing that he could use to any effect. Around him were only desert bracken, a thunder bear skull and the long shadows that never seemed to move or change in size. He wandered further down a bank to the edge of a dead pond. From there he could still hear the cracking of steel on bones – Arjuna would be cutting meat for at least another five minutes. Time alone will do him some good. There had never been any conflict between them before, especially on these types of jobs. Arjuna had always accepted that, as the stronger and more experienced member of the duo, he’d have to pull a little more weight in battle until they’d earned more gold and IronSpleen had gained mastery over the use of his magic. They’d come far together on that understanding. IronSpleen had done most of the trading to get them what they had of course, but it had really been Arjuna, experienced and wise in the matter of fighting, who had grinded a path for the both of them through that world. On that journey alone he’d taken down seven giant centipedes with only two stabs of his sword, felled a cave full of ice cobras with one of his gigantic hands while IronSpleen had darted to and fro like a dragonfly nipping at their ankles. But Arjuna was getting tired. It was plain to see. Even butchering seemed a chore for him now; if he were forced absorb another bear attack he would probably call the mission off all together, and all their work would have been for nothing.
The cracked bed of the pond kept just as few treasures as the open plain: there were some fish bones and more of the purple stones, but as he went through his inventory he found no utility for either of them. He tried polishing the stones with a mist cloth, adding them to his water bottle and even caking them with the oily swamp mud he’d picked up in the basin of the valley. No combination of items worked. He was concentrating so hard that he nearly didn’t see the two objects galloping towards him from the other side of the pond. Two shadows – shifting angles across the very top of his line of sight. His heart jumped and he wanted to retreat, but the gargling thrum, like the sound of a trombone being played underwater, made him realise it was too late. They were upon him.
The females had smaller teeth and antlers than their male counterparts but they were faster and just as tough. IronSpleen gasped and began slashing the air with his staff. All of his shots landed foul. The bears moved into attack position. IronSpleen fumbled through his inventory looking for a blocking spell, he knew he’d stored a small charm somewhere – a vial of stone blast or wind shield – but the panic made his fingers slow. The bears were staring at him with red eyes.
“Arjuna!” he shouted.
As if startled by his cry, the two beasts sprung over his head and tractored up the bank behind him.
“Arjuna! Incoming!” IronSpleen cried and scrambled up the bank.
The she-bears were quick but Arjuna still had time to abandon the carcass and draw his sword. The first one launched itself, mouth open and gurgling like a steam engine. Arjuna swept it away with a brush of his steel. Before he could draw the blade back again the second took him by the leg and jerked him to the ground.
“Arjuna!” IronSpleen shot a blast of fire and caught the bear on its rump. It howled, released Arjuna’s leg and turned to face him, its eyes flaming with wild rage, it’s rear still ablaze. IronSpleen sent another fiery volley, this time directly into the bear’s head.
“Their eyes!” Arjuna shouted. “You’ve got to shoot them in the eyes!” The first bear had recovered and was now circling them both.
“I’m trying! I’ve only got a few shots left. Can you take the other one?”
“Watch out!” A bear raced around IronSpleen’s legs, tearing at him with her antlers. Arunja raised his sword and slashed outwards, this time managing to land two deep cuts. The bear fell back, giving way to her sister, who came flying in from the flank. She took Arjuna by the arm and rolled him to the ground. Arjuna swayed, attempting to remain standing but the bear was too strong. Her head cranked up and down on him, driving the diamond-hard antlers into his side, scratching and mincing into his flesh.
“Hey, a little help?” Arjuna said.
IronSpleen impaled the air with his staff. A shower of blue fire fell on the heads of the two assailants. This stunned them. They reeled and retreated, gurgling to each other in foul echos.
“I’m out of mana, man,” IronSpleen said. “And this staff is about as good as a wet candle now. What about you?”
“Done for. They’ll put me down again and eventually break through my torso armour. What a waste of bloody time that was! You run for it and I’ll take one last shot at them. Go! Go!”
IronSpleen looked around him, searching for a direction in which to flee. “Go where?”
“Go for the oasis. You might outrun them. No chance if you have to wait for me. I can’t even land a shot on them. Ouch!”
IronSpleen looked down at Arjuna. He was on the ground being mauled by two fully-grown thunder bears. The last of his energy was fading and his sword twirled uselessly about him. What a way to end. Where was the point when it all ended like this? He could not let them exit this way. He would not. After having come so far together. After all that time. No, he would not waste it.
“If we go out, we go out together,” IronSpleen said and charged at the bears. He began tapping the dull wood of his staff against the bears’ heads. “Take that, you meat sack!” The bear gouging Arjuna stopped and with a mighty paw slammed IronSpleen to the ground. Her sister came at him again from behind. “Argh, you bitches! This does not look good at all. Arjuna, now’s your chance. They’re on me now and I’ll probably only last another 30 seconds. When I go, take my gold and you get outta here, you’re the strongest, you can take it further. I know you can. Arjuna?! Are you still alive? Oh shit!”
A shadow rocketed across IronSpleen’s field of view, and suddenly one of the bears was torn off him. Then the other. The shadow whooshed down again and a colossal force sent him flying back towards the pond. The mighty trumpet of an elephant roared and the scraping of metal on crystal crashed through the air.
“It’s Fido!” Arjuna called. “Fido’s here!”
Fido’s sleek frame sprung from the top of a mountainous grey mass, swum around the bears and started shooting arrow after arrow into their skulls. A trunk the size of an oak tree’s thundered blows from above.
“‘Ello ‘ello ‘ello,” Fido said, his silver hair flicking about his waist as he dodged the bears’ giant paws. “What are you chaps doing all the way out here wrestling two bears? Like a hand?”
“You can say that again,” IronSpleen said. “Just found out that whipping them on the backside with my magic twig here doesn’t work. What are you doing out here? Thought you’d already made it to the tower.”
“Made it. Saw it, delivered my scroll and then cleaned the whole joint out. There might be a couple of troll heads left if you get there fast. Ha! Get back, you cretinous beast! I’ll use my last nightshade arrow, watch out.” Arjuna and IronSpleen dragged themselves a few paces away from Fido, who shot a flaming purple arrow into the air directly above him. The arrow sailed upwards, decelerated then exploded into hundreds of tiny purple darts. The darts arched upwards, then suddenly zipped down onto their targets at deadly speed.
“Powah!” Fido cried. “Look at those porkers hit the dust! I must have killed about twenty of the suckers by now. Should I let you clean up, Arjuna? For the gold? I’ll call off Trudy.”
“Trudy? Don’t tell me you called your elephant Trudy,” IronSpleen said.
“Um, duh. She’s only the biggest and most expensive familiar out there.”
“Hey, let’s take one both,” Arjuna said. “I wouldn’t say no to some extra meat though – we’re pretty busted up. So, you’ve been to the tower. Is it worth the effort? I was thinking about packing it in soon.”
“Puss,” IronSpleen said.
Arjuna ignored him and sidled up to the two wounded she-bears. He lopped the head off the closest. Thud! Fido slit the other once in the face. The bear let out a yowl and flopped to the ground like a sandbag.
“Sure is,” Fido said. “But you really don’t have that far left to go and those thunder bears are a cinch with the purple stones. Idiots running out here for weeks not even knowing what they’re for, getting drilled by middleweight thunder bears and wondering why.”
“Yeah. Just stick the things to your weapons. Bears seem to hate them. Like poison or something. See how easily I took out those two potato sacks? I fitted all my arrows you see.”
“What are you still doing hanging around here then?” Arjuna asked. “There must be better jobs than this around.”
“I camped out at the oasis for a few days. Had some things to take care of, you know? Back to camp. In for an all-nighter so I’d better get a move on. If you’ll excuse me.”
“How far is it to the oasis?”
“Just around the bend there. There’s a gully. Full of friendly types. Just ask one of them or follow the bracken. It gets greener as you make your way down. Sorry to save you and leave you but I’ve gotta make up for some lost time. Maybe I’ll see you both at Tom’s place next week.”
“Count me out,” Arjuna said.
“See you there, Fido,” IronSpleen said.
Fido climbed onto Trudy. The elephant gave out a whine and then hurled itself into a frantic sprint in the direction of Shabbath valley.
“Man that thing can run,” IronSpleen said. “We gotta get ourselves an elephant, yo!”
“You don’t wanna know how much he paid for it. Dunno why he wastes his money. Let’s go then. I’ve got as much meat as I can carry. Take yours and we’ll get going to the oasis.”
The two warriors faced the suns and took up their journey at a brisk pace. Not one of them spoke. Somewhere in the interminable distance a bird squawked.
IronSpleen wanted to speak: to plan and strategise their next move, but he dismissed the thought. “Hey, Arjuna…”
“Are you still coming all the way? To the tower, I mean.”
“Let’s just get to the oasis. Then we’ll see.”
IronSpleen pulled out a handful of the purple stones and handed them to him. “Let’s go. I’ll lead.”