Published on 06/03/2022, 3340 words, 13 minutes to read
Tosen did a final check of his backpack. It was a very hot day in Tashei, but the river radiated an aura of cool air that protected everyone from the heat of the harsh sun. He had his backup cloak, a hydroflask and some fish jerkey, not to mention the package for the client. Not exactly the best equipment but this will work. Riltash is a half day away at worst, Tosen thought to himself. He squatted down and fit his arms into the pack's straps. The pack easily weighed a quarter of what he did, but as he regained his catlike balance he secured the waistband and got ready to head out.
The oracle predicted that there would be a sandstorm late in the evening, but it wasn't even noon yet. He pulled out his compass, let it settle and then set out to the southeast.
Walking in the desert always has its own unique rhythm to it. With the unrelenting heat of the sun pounding down on the sand, the ground itself can feel like a million angry daggers with every step. Tosen thought ahead of this issue. He got himself a pair of sandshoes from the fancy magic item store. The only downside was that his main connection to the earth was significantly weakened. Chee paws are some of the most finely tuned sensory organs on Malto (second only to Snep paws), and they were his main warning about sandstorms. The oracle isn't wrong most of the time. I'm fine, I'm fine. I can't feel the desert but I'm fine.
He kept walking past all different kinds of cacti. His favorite ones were the ones that were made up of a bunch of spiky ovals built on top of eachother. He'd never want to get stung by one and risk the wrath of the serrated needles, but he'd always thought that they had such a unique look. If I had a house of my own, I'd grow one of them.
As he continued walking he started to focus on the patterns of walking. Every step was taken one after the other. With every step, his foot slid to the side ever so slightly. The sand wrapped around his shoes and warmed his feet. The worst part of the sandshoes was when sand trickled into the back of them. This required him to stop every so often to purge the sand out of his shoes, because otherwise it would hurt a lot.
This continued for what felt like hours. He checked his compass every so often and made sure he was on the right path. It started to move a bit weird compared to normal. It was taking longer to find north. Normally this would be concerning to him, but the desert had entranced him. Left, right, left, right, left, right. Each step bringing him closer to his destination.
Then the sky changed color. The brilliant blue started to get stained with a light brown that worked its way across what Tosen could see. Tosen instantly noticed this change and pulled over his face veil. The sandstorm had started early. The oracle was wrong.
Tosen looked around for some kind of shelter but all he could see was the remains of a broken wagon that looked like its better days had seen better days. It was barely enough protection. With his spare robe to patch over the biggest holes just enough to ride out the storm. He took the leap and hunkered down. It's only a level 2 storm. It'll be over in an hour. I'll make it to Riltash today. Everything will work out.
As he sat down he reached for his compass and couldn't find it. He reached into the pocket that his compass normally lives in and felt it conspicuously empty. He looked up towards the path he walked in on and saw a golden glint in the sand. It was so close. If he could get to it, he'd know where to go. He'd find his way to Riltash.
But the sandstorm started to kick up. The sky started fading towards darker and darker shades of brown and he could feel the sand beat against his makeshift shelter. The hot sand was whipped up and he could hear it pitter and patter the wooden and cloth walls.
After an hour, the sandstorm started showing signs of slowing down. This is nothing close to a level 2, Tosen thought to himself. His spare robe was totally ruined, but he survived. As things died down, he remembered his compass and tore down enough of his shelter to be able to find it. It wasn't where it was before. Okay, it's made of gold, it can't have gone that far. He grabbed his pack, almost fell over from the sudden weight and started to scan around him in 360 degrees. He saw the familiar glint of its knob and walked over to its resting site. The looking glass was cracked. Rotating it did nothing. The compass was broken.
He was lost.
It took every ounce of strength Tosen had to avoid shouting out in anger. He needed to conserve the water. Miau was huge. He needs to extend his supplies to last as long as possible.
He couldn't resist the urge. He shouted out in anger for an instant before realizing what he did and covering his mouth.
It took a while for Tosen to regain his senses. The shock of the event wasn't sitting well with him. His mother's compass was destroyed. His rendezvous time with the client was surely shot. At least it wasn't the solar apex anymore. Okay, I can deal with this. I should stay put until sunset. The sun sets to the east. I can go diagonally into the sunset to get to Riltash.
He more confidently went back to his makeshift shelter. It was in worse condition after the storm, but at least it would give him shade. The sun was on its way down, but it was still a deadly laser that he needed to worry about. It's just me and you, buddy.
Some time passed and the sun very visibly was in the eastern portion of the sky. Tosen grabbed for his hydroflask and took a sip. It was still cold. At least that oracle was good for SOMETHING. He stood up and grabbed his pack. He left a bit of red cloth as a flag on the southeast side of his makeshift shelter to tell anyone looking for him where he went.
Then it was back to the rhythms of the desert. The desert felt confusing without the comforting pulse of nature under his paws. But, he continued taking steps and continued walking forwards.
Left. Right. Left. Right. Left. Right. Things felt more deliberate this time. There was a frustration to his walking. He was so frustrated at the whole situation. As he walked, he felt his emotions fuming over this whole debacle.
He walked and walked. The sunset had started to peek out its head and show Tosen a display of fantastic colors as he continued to walk. This isn't right. I should have reached Riltash by now. It's only a few miles from Tashei. He took another swig of his hydroflask and felt it notably lighter than it should be. He was low on water. This was especially dangerous out here. This is going to be a long night, isn't it.
The sunset continued and the colors gradually started to fade to the black night sky. Starts started to peek out without the sun to hide them. Tosen scanned over the constellations and found the North Star. From there he worked out that he was going to the southeast like he thought he was. He looked around and found a few miserable bushes to use for firewood, but they were in a sea of thorns. He had talents in fire magick, but he didn't trust using it with so many dry thorns nearby. You know what, what's the worst that can happen? I get warm? It's going to be so cold soon, I need to do something.
He held out his hand and mentally started to trace out the triangles like he learned from school. Each triangle stacked on top of each other and then built up into a viable casting circle glowing a brilliant orange in front of his hand. The area around him was illuminated from the magickal force, the thorns casting long evil shadows against cacti and other miserable little bushes.
A weak puff of flame came out of his hand and tickled one of the thorny vines. There wasn't much of a response and it looked like the fire was going to go out so he cast a fireball in its place. The triangles shifted into squares and a baseball sized orb of energy started to form in his hand.
The fireball formed around his fingers and he chucked it right into the pit of thorns. They were all set on fire simultaneously. After a brilliant blaze, the fire petered out into nothing as fast as it started. He looked over to see if the firewood was still there, his spell circle was still active as a flashlight but that kindling was nowhere to be seen. It was incinerated with everything else.
He had to resist shouting out in anger again. Okay, okay, calm down. I set off a massive signal fire. That should alert someone. I can't keep this spell circle up, I'll mind down and then I'll be in worse trouble. He killed off the spell with a flick of the wrist and the darkness crept in. He was alone. I need to keep walking. So he started walking, not realizing that he changed direction after the incident with the thorns.
Left! Right! Left! Right! Left! Right! Each step felt angry and defiant. Tosen started to feel legitimate anger at the desert. It was normally his home, he grew up in the sands of Miau, but tonight it was his enemy. He defiantly marched towards where he thought Riltash was, but got no closer.
It was a very long night walking towards town. It was a desperate, angry march. He stopped a few times to take a bite of jerkey and swig it down with the bare minimum of water he could get away with. He thought it would be colder, but it turns out all that fur ended up going towards something.
The night continued and was broken by the inklings of a sunrise. Tosen looked up in dismay. He had walked all night and he was nowhere closer to his destination. An overwhelming feeling of sadness blanketed him and he broke down to start crying.
He looked forward and saw something different. He saw what looked like the faint outline of Riltash's signal statue. His sadness was instantly transmuted to a mixture of relief and joy and his second wind started to hit. He trudged forward towards that statue. Towards his salvation. Towards his client. Towards his paycheck. Towards the next step to move out to Zhalram with his friends. Towards his future.
He kept up his pace and got closer. The statue looked wrong. Riltash has the visage of one of the water goddesses in the region. This looked different, almost like a Chee. He wasn't aware of any local Chee deities. He looked down and saw shimmers. It almost looked like a mirage, but then he remembered something. There were rumors of an oasis south of Riltash. Could this be that? Could there be water?
His second wind became a third and then a fourth wind. He got close enough to take a better look at everything and it was that oasis!
His walk became a sprint and the sand started to be diluted with grass. As he walked on the grass he suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of calm. It was as if all of the anger, all the vitriol, all the hatred towards the desert vanished in an instant. He paused for a moment but then continued on. The promise of fresh water was too great. He was so thirsty.
He put his pack down, took off his shoes and tested the water with a paw. It was cool to the touch, about 10 degrees celsius. It was the real deal. It was water. He took off his robe, folded it haphazardly next to his pack and grabbed his hydroflask. He opened it and shoved it under so it could be filled. Once he was satisfied that it was full, he bent over and started to lap up the water greedily.
A figure vaguely resembling the statue was watching from a nearby house. The figure chuckled to themselves. They decided they should intervene. They donned a white robe and walked out to the weary traveler.
Tosen was enamoured by the water. His exhaustion had finally caught up to him. He looked back at his pack and saw a figure walking towards him from some kind of house. He instantly jumped to alertness, but didn't feel the fear that generally came with being startled like that. The figure felt familiar yet alien somehow.
The figure looked at his pack and his visibly broken compass. They looked right into Tosen's eyes. "Rough day?"
Tosen stammered a few times and eventually managed to come up with a reply: "Y...yeah. I was caught in that sandstorm yesterday. I hid from it in a broken wagon."
The figure reached out a hand to him. "Come with me. You need a rest. I'll come back to take care of your things. I have a spare bed for travelers like you."
Tosen didn't have enough energy to argue with the stranger's offer of hospitality and followed them into their house. They guided Tosen to the guest room and sat on one of the chairs. Tosen collapsed on the most comfortable bed he had ever felt in his life. All he could get out was a weak "thank....youuuu" before his lost sleep caught up and he was out like a light. The figure pulled a blanket over him and closed the shades to make the room nice and dark.
Tosen was asleep until the late afternoon. The figure had moved his stuff inside, done his laundry, mended a hole in the pack and was lounging in a chair for a nap of their own.
Tosen woke up, stretched out and yawned loudly. He looked up at the ceiling and realized how unfamiliar it was. That angel in his dream was real. Had he actually walked through the night? The figure knocked at the door. "Hey, come and have a meal. You must be starving." He was. Tosen stood up and opened the door. The figure was wearing a white robe and a golden necklace. They looked like the archetypal vision of Chee beauty. Tosen noted that he was unable to refer to that figure with any pronoun but "they". That's weird...
The figure started to speak: "I am Shal'tash. I saw you hurting and I decided to intervene and help you. Come, I have some food almost ready." Shal'tash started to walk towards the kitchen and Tosen followed. He made his way to a rather ordinary looking wooden table and took a seat. His stuff was near the table and he was grateful for his host's gratuity.
They were making pancakes. The batter was being poured into a metal pan in little groups. Tosen noticed that the stove seemed to be powered by its own magic circle, a non-organic magic emitter was being used to create the fire needed for cooking. It was a weak burner, but it was enough for Shal'tash to cook with.
Tosen was befuddled. He had never seen such a thing in action. He got up and looked at it closely. Shal'tash looked back and smiled, "Never seen a stove burner before?"
"Not like that no, it looks like it's casting a weak fire spell, but constantly."
"This is a lot more efficient than the coal burning stoves you have. This lets you use the energy equivalent of a fireball to get a half hour of cooking heat, or an hour or two of torchlight. I'm surprised you didn't know about this."
Tosen looked confused. "You mean you can use the square level spell to supercharge the triangle level spell? No, they never taught us this. But how is the burner even working?"
Shal'tash laughed. "It's nothing special. I just rooted the circle under the pan instead of on my hand. Here, you try it." They flicked their wrist and banished the magic circle. "Now cast a fireball but focus on the pan instead of your hand, let it simmer a bit, and then kick off create fire."
Tosen was confused but nodded and tried to comply. After a moment Shal'tash piped in: "no, don't think about where the pan is relative to your hand. Think about where the pan is relative to the pan. You're so close. I know you can do it."
Tosen nodded and started over. The circle started to be inscribed below the pan and Shal'tash's face lit up like a Christmas tree. "Toor sha!"
The burner was lit. The fire was continuously burning and Tosen didn't feel the sting of a continuous cast. "Perfect. See how easy this is? Spend the mana on the fireball, then use it for the weaker spell. No need to waste any."
Tosen was astounded. It normally took him ages to learn magical skills, but here he was on the second try with this person and their vague instruction and he did two things he thought was impossible. It was like magic was all new all over again. Can I use this to make a bunch of fireballs when casting a firestorm? How far does this go?
"Be careful with this, you could really hurt someone if you do displacement foolishly. They must have stopped teaching it for a reason." Shal'tash finished the stack of pancakes and put the plate in the middle of the table. "Now let's eat!"
They shared a meal. It was just what Tosen needed.
The meal was finished. Shal'tash looked over to Tosen. "So where are you headed? I can point you in the right direction."
"Riltash, I have a delivery that I'm incredibly late for by now."
Shal'tash chuckled and pointed towards the statue. "The statue points towards Riltash. Just go straight north and you'll get there in 20 minutes."
Tosen looked incredulous. "I was really that close?"
"Yeah, though it looked like you needed to get lost. It can be good for you."
He didn't understand what they meant by that, but he didn't think he needed to.
Shal'tash walked with Tosen to the north side of the oasis. Tosen looked towards his saviour and was suddenly overcome with emotion. "Thank you so much. You saved me."
"You are welcome. I saved you because I was in a situation worse than yours when I found this oasis. I don't want anyone to experience the pain that I have felt, so I saved you before it could get that bad."
"What can I do to repay you?"
"You don't need to do anything right now. Just save someone else when you can. If you want, come back here and give me a visit. It'd be fun to catch up, Tosen."
"Thanks again! I'll be back!"
Tosen walked off towards his payday. He looked back every so often and the oasis became more distant and then faded completely from sight into the rest of the sands. He was alone again, but not in spirit.
He never noticed that they knew his name without him telling them his name.
Shal'tash walked back towards their house and stood by their cactus. They watched as Tosen faded into the sands and then headed inside. Their job was complete.
Facts and circumstances may have changed since publication. Please contact me before jumping to conclusions if something seems wrong or unclear.