The journey from the Western gate was a long one.
What had once been a well-maintained highway stretching from the City of the Emperor to the ports of the coastal populations, was now a far cry from its former glory. As the wagon rolled along, Alem could see that maintenance was long over-due.
It was the sand, mostly.
Covering parts of the road, wind-blown soil buried long stretches of laid stone, forcing the wheels of their wagon to slip, or catch. As if that wasn’t enough trouble, though, every so often there were also sunken portions. Places where the road was not only buried but dipped into the ground, missing entirely. Perhaps this could be attributed to the earthquakes of late, but to say the highway could do with a few Royal Mages who specialized in stonework, was an understatement.
Still, as they rode on into the late evening, it was clear to see why the Empire hadn’t bothered: no one else passed them by.
Not by wagon, or cart, or even by foot. It seemed that the farther along the road they went, the presence of human life became all that more difficult to find. No traders, travelers, or even Guard patrols to keep the peace, they were entirely alone. Alem had known that the situation had been growing worse over the last few years. It was hard not to acknowledge such things when the price of bread was rivalled only by its scarcity, but it appeared the last great migration towards the City had left the Western area entirely stripped of its purpose
Alem couldn’t help but feel a little startled by this.
It wasn’t as though he never left the city for work, after all. Often enough, he might take a contract on some monster, or joined a hunting party for stray [Construct] sighted near a human settlements. He’d been leaning more towards the quicker jobs, recently, so as not to fall behind on the Guild’s local needs, but Alem hadn’t realized how out of touch he’d gotten.
This was horrible.
Hitting another divot in the road, the wagon groaned, loudly, forcing another correction to keep the wheels on course. How had he not known about this? Only a few years stuck in the city, occasionally taking jobs in the opposite direction… things shouldn’t change this quickly, should they?
Contracts almost always originated from the East, was the problem. Where coin flowed more freely, brought in by soldiers and Empire funding along the Front lines near the mountains.
Alem couldn’t even remember the last time there was a worthwhile posting. If there was any money to be made, it was by escorting convoys for the Merchant Guild to and from the port cities. Painfully long trips which sometimes took months to complete. Roads being what they were so far, Alem found he now understood why with greater clarity. It was much tougher going than he’d anticipated, and as the night stretched on, Alem was unpleasantly surprised to find the conditions only grew worse the farther out they went. Soon, things had gotten to the point where, at times, Alem found himself completely losing sight of the road. Spans of distance where he was simply forced to maintain a direct path, until the road reappeared. Often, coupled with no small amount of correction, lest they wander off the highway entirely.
Regardless of his struggles to navigate the early half of the trek, though, Alem found that it paled in comparison to the route Tuth was soon signaling him to take.
"You realize that the wagon isn’t meant for that." Squinting at the map, Alem looked up ahead, towards the lone, withered, tree that was waiting beside the highway. “You’re sure?”
Tuth pointed, again.
It wasn’t that heading in the North was particularly a problem. Alem knew he could eventually find a cross road in that direction. The issue was that Tuth indicated they shouldn’t find a crossroad.
Or any road, for that matter.
“You’re sure?” Alem asked, again.
Tuth reached for the reins.
"Alright, alright. Hold on then."
The Ro' let out a bellow of complaint as the journey became ever so slightly more treacherous. He grimaced, painfully alerted to every bump and jostle along the way by the stiff bench beneath him. Only a few moments later, the road was no longer visible. All that remained was the starry night sky above, and the wastes below.
Thus, they began the second stretch of their trip.
When he was younger, Alem would never have imagined this terrain could have been possible. With the ongoing front to the Eastern mountains, a battleground for as long as the Empire existed: lives were hard. The coasts were much the same, often enough: an ocean of storms, holding the loose promise of the distant continents beyond them. Only between these, in the heartland of the Emperor’s own city, did Alem feel mankind had true heritage. The lands and soil that generations had fought and died for. Untold thousands, perhaps millions, of soldiers- fighting to protect…
On a cold night like this, Alem knew these were dangerous thoughts. Yet, he felt their pull all the same. More and more, he’d been coming across them often as of late. Each occasion, with they held just a little more bite than the time before. Alem, himself, had fought to protect these lands, just as all the men in his family once had. His father, a man he’d respected more than anyone, lost his life on the Eastern Fronts. He had been taught that his Grandfather had done the same: died with a hammer in his hands, and a smile on his face. Such was the Stonewalker legacy, for as along as any could remember. Death and glory, fighting for the sake of the Empire.
Long gone were the harvests of green, and the pastures of grazing animals he remembered. In such a short time, the span of a few decades, and so much had been erased. All that remained was barren soil. Useless land, left to burn beneath the hot sun in the day, and then freeze beneath the chill which followed each night. Around the travelling wagon, fields once carefully marked by property lines were now merged and buried beneath the frequent wind storms.
“Hard to believe, what this used to be.” Alem muttered.
Beside him, Tuth barely nodded in response. The man had been staring at the sky for some time now, eyes focused on the stars. Every so often, he pointed to the right or the left, but seemed unconcerned with what the wagon might run over on its way. Were Alem not the one holding the reins, it was likely they might have run them into several decently sized boulders by now.
Poor company, but Alem supposed he should just be thankful the man seemed to know where they were heading.
While the wagon creaked uncomfortably loud at times, with Alem guiding, it held together well enough despite the less than favorable terrain. Enough so that, he assumed its structure would hold until their return journey.
Or, so he hoped.
As the night stretched on, he had to wonder about the truth in that assumption. Moonlight was only so effective for spotting rocks before he ran them over, and the wheels were taking enough of a beating to tempt an early stop and wait for the sun to rise. Were it not for Tuth's continued persistence that they carry on, Alem might have called it early. Eventually, though, after what seem an endless wander through barren fields, Tuth signaled them to halt.
It seemed the journey was over.
Bleary eyed, Alem turned back to squint as the sun crested the Eastern horizon. His shoulders were aching, and the plank of a seat hadn't come with a cushion. After riding through the night, he found himself more than happy to set the reins down. In the light of early morning, stillness of a rising dawn cresting behind them, he dropped silently from his seat, setting about tying off the wagon to a few decently sized stones.
"Wake up, everyone." Alem announced loudly. "We've made it."
Stirring among the wagon’s cargo, several lumps of cloth moved. Dren was the first to poke his head out from beneath a thick blanket, tired eyes peering out at the landscape.
"We're here?" The healer asked. “Already?”
"Huh." That was about all Dren mustered, as he rose from his spot on the wagon, leaning over, and carefully lowering himself down to the ground. Groggily, surveying the landscape.
"This is the place?" Eveth was the next to rise, covering her mouth to hide a long yawn. "Doesn't look like much."
"Tuth says we're here."
"And where's that, exactly?" Stretching, Eveth picked up her staff. "Nothing but dirt and weeds, far as the eye can see."
"And a rock." Dren added, scratching at his chin with a yawn of his own. He strode away from the wagon to a hand to the rough surface of the giant boulder nearby. "A big rock."
“Aye, it is.” Alem replied. “Mighty big rock.” He reaching over the wagon’s edge to retrieve his hammer, as well as a spare bed roll. "Now, help me set camp. Tuth will show us where the entrance is after we're done."
"You’re certain this is the place?" Eveth dropped down from the wagon, joining Alem. “I really don't see anything, mana or otherwise."
"He says it's here." Alem gestured in Tuth's direction. "Right?"
From of the wagon Tuth waved absently over his shoulder. Beside him, the ro’ snorted loudly, pacing at the sand before dropping to the ground with a loud thud.
"That's that." Alem stated. "We’re not going anywhere for a while, regardless. Someone wake up Imra. We need to set camp."
"Fine." From Eveth's expression, it seemed she wasn't particularly satisfied with that answer, but she didn't press the issue. "Dren, help with the..." She stopped. "Where's Dren?"
"What do you mean?" Alem turned back from the wagon, setting down a sack of equipment. "He's right here."
"No, he's not.”
“What?” Upon closer inspection, Alem realized Eveth was right: the boy was missing. "Dren?" Alem asked, voice raised. "Dren?" He shouted.
"Must you yell?" Imra's accent lofted over the side of the wagon. Though her head wasn't quite visible, Alem could see a slender blue form poke up from the hood of her cloak.
“Sssssss.” The response came immediately.
Eveth took a step back from that wagon, as the serpent emerged to taste the air. It looked about the surroundings with an eerie sense of perspective.
"The Great One says that the boy is fine." Imra translated from the wagon.
“Sss.” The Basilisk glanced at him before slithering back out of sight. “Sssssss.”
“Did it say something else?” Alem asked, looking to Eveth.
“Don’t speak snake.” The Mage shrugged. “I told you.”
“He said that you’re too loud.” Imra translated. “And the boy is nearby, behind the suspicious stone.”
"I'm over here!" Dren's muted shout reached them. “I’m fine!” He added.
Alem realized it was coming from behind the boulder.
"Dren, get back over here and help us set camp." Eveth yelled back.
"But I found something!" Dren replied, his head appeared from out beside the large boulder. “Come see.”
"What do you mean, you found something?" Eveth asked. “Another boulder?”
"No, come look!" Dren gestured, excitedly.
"Gods, I’ve been up for too long to be dealing with this nonsense." Alem sighed, rubbing at his eyes. "Help us unload the wagon. We need to make camp before the heat hits us."
"That what I'm trying to tell you: someone already has! There are some boxes, too."
“What?” Alem looked towards Eveth.
She shrugged, uncertain.
"Boxes of what, exactly?" Eveth asked.
"I don't know, hold on!" Dren disappeared behind the boulder once again.
“You sure it was alright to bring him?” She asked.
“Not sure of much, at this point.” Alem replied. “Dren, get back here!”
"But, there are… oh." Dren’s voice got quieter. "Wow."
"…What is it?" Eveth asked.
"I really think you should come see." Dren replied.
"Light." Eveth muttered, shouldering her staff as she passed Alem by. "I’ll go."
"Alright.” Alem ran a hand over his scalp, sighing in frustration as Eveth abandoned the wagon entirely to head around the boulder. “I guess I’ll do this alone, then. Unless you plan on helping, Imra?”
No further reply was granted.
“I thought not.” Alem nodded, before setting himself to the task at hand. He even managed to pull free another cloth sack of equipment and start on unravelling a tent, before Eveth’s voice joined in Dren's previous sentiment.
"Holy." Alem heard Eveth yell out in surprise.
“I know right?”
“Alem, come over here!” Distantly, Eveth’s shout reached him again. "Alem!"
"You know what they're on about?" Alem asked, as Tuth walked past. “Some equipment you left here last time, or something like that?”
The man didn’t seem to hear, not slowing down as he made his way to the large roll of cloth in the back of the wagon. It was as if Alem didn’t even exist.
"Come look! You're not going to believe this." Eveth shouted. “Alem, I’m serious!”
“Ssss.” Another complaint issued from the wagon, Imra getting up and jumping free of the vehicle with an irritated scowl.
"Emperor's mercy- fine!” Alem dropped the bag of gear to the ground with a loud clatter. “You win, what is it that just can’t wait?” Alem left the wagon to Tuth, and made his way around the boulder to where Dren and Eveth were standing.
He stared at them, holding back a frown.
Small and organized, there was a camp in place. Or, perhaps what was left of one. Sand had swept over some of it, but Alem could see two burnt out firepits, a few bedrolls beside a simple lean-to tent. Some boxes of varying sizes.
From their expressions, Alem thought he wasn’t nearly as impressed as they clearly expected him to be. There was nothing all that extraordinary about any of this. At least, not extraordinary enough to make a man who’d driven through the night unload a wagon by himself.
“A camp.” Alem stated, plainly. “It’s a camp.”
Eveth and Dren, though, clearly thought otherwise.
“No.” Eveth crouched down in front of a small crate, waving him closer towards one of the tents. “Look at this.”
"It can’t wait?” Alem asked. “If I wanted to see a box of gear, I’d just get one of the ones we brought with us.”
“Shush.” She turned the box, so the lip was no longer blocking his line of sight. “Just look.”
“Fine, I’ll- Holy, merciful, Gods!” Alem almost choked. "Are those…?"
“Yes, they are.” Eveth answered.
“Mana crystals!” Dren announced proudly, as he loudly dropped another crate down beside the first. “All of them are full, see?”
Alem did see.
Several of the contents from the latest box had spilled out into the dirt. In the sunlight, they were unmistakable.
As Dren returned with yet another crate, and then another after that, it was to the point where Alem felt his jaw slowly going slack,
“Are these all real?” He forced out the words, as he knelt down to pick one up, staring at it in amazement. “Not glass, or some convincing forgery?”
"No forgery.” Eveth plucked one carefully between her fingers. With a soft glow, the crystal began to sprout a series of small fractures almost immediately. It misted off, like a trail of vapor. “These are real.”
“How many… Alem began to count on his hands for a rough estimate, before shaking his head. “This is a fortune.”
“Judging by the size, they can’t have been found far from the surface.” Eveth replied, lifting the piece up to the sunlight, squinting. “Normally, this kind of crystal would have been picked clean a long time ago, but…” With a quiet "pop" the crystal in Eveth's hands finally broke under the pressure, turning into a puff of discolored light. She inhaled some of that, as it reached her: grinning. "I take it all back, Alem: we're in the right place."
"Aye." Alem replied, staring at the box. By the tent, he could see Dren gaping at another opened crate, before closing the lid as quickly as he’d opened it. There were several additional chests, waiting there in a stack.
“Who do you think did all this?” Dren asked, excited. “Tuth and Val?”
“No, I don’t think so. If they did this, I’m sure Tuth would have showed us himself.” Alem looked over his shoulder. Tuth was walking away from the wagon, into the distance. Squinting, Alem could see that he was carrying something wrapped in cloth.
He couldn’t quite place what it was, but…
“Oh, light. That’s what he was up to.” Alem rose. “We forgot about Val.”
“Stop.” Eveth grabbed his wrist. “If he wanted us, we’d be there with him.”
“You say that.” Alem watched as Tuth’s figure grew smaller in the distance. The morning was already giving into the afternoon heat, mirage forming above the sand and stone.
“Leave him be. Tuth’s made it perfectly clear this is something we’re not going to be a part of. He’ll take care of things.”
“Maybe.” Alem frowned.
“Focus for me, Alem.” Rising, Eveth put a hand on Alem’s shoulder. “If not Tuth, or Val: who did this?” She motioned to the camp. “Who did all this?”
“Who cares?” Dren interrupted, running a hand through an open crate with a wide smile. “We’re rich!”
“I care, and you should too, Dren.” Eveth replied. “If being an Adventurer is as easy as finding a bunch of boxes filled with treasure, we’d wouldn’t be in this mess.”
“In the Dungeon, I heard people have found plenty.”
“If we were on a dive, and not on the surface, this would be an entirely different story.” Eveth cut him off. “But, if we were in the Dungeon, I guarantee half of those boxes would probably be mimics.”
“I told you to stop messing with me, Eveth. Everyone knows that mimics aren’t real.”
“Sure, they’re not.” Eveth gestured towards the remaining crated in the tent. “Watch out, sometimes I hear they can show up on the surface, too.” She turned back to Alem, leaving Dren to eye the cargo nervously. “Alem, I’ve got a name, but I want to know what you think, first.”
“There’s only one other person who comes to mind.” Alem answered. “Varar.”
“Varar.” Eveth nodded in agreement. “He’s been missing for weeks, but you told us that Val mentioned him, before he died.”
“What did he say, exactly?”
“That they met him.” Alem thought for a moment. “That they met Varar, and that they set the ropes.”
“So, Val was saying that Varar was here, then?” Eveth asked.
“Either he was here, or they met him before coming here.” Alem answered, uncertain.
“Matches what I was thinking.” Eveth pointed to the boxes. “To me, this is proof that he’s been out, ahead of us.”
"Alright." Alem agreed. "But why not contact us, then? Why not just bring everyone, in the first place?"
"Isn't that what happened? Albeit, with our people getting ambushed.”
“Maybe.” Alem frowned.
“With all that's been going on, maybe Varar was worried someone was after him.” Eveth pointed towards her heart. “Drothers was murdered, not all that long ago. Just yesterday, I was was shot in the chest. Dren and I, Tuth and Val: all of us were attacked on the day before- and someone burned down the Guild down, with you and Val still inside.”
“Why would Varar prioritize just a few members over the whole team, though?” Alem asked. “We’ve known him for years. You’d think he would have told us.”
“Considering how badly someone wants Farstrider Guild gone? I think caution is more than justified." Eveth checked another box, confirming the contents and dropping a few crystals into her pocket. “Someone wants all of us dead, and this is probably why.”
"It just seems like an awful lot of secrecy."
"I’m not convinced Val and Tuth knew much more than we did, until recently.” Eveth reached down and lifted the box. “Varar must have come out here immediately and expected us to follow. Val and Tuth got ambushed before they could share the news.”
“While that’s true, I still don’t like it.”
“You don’t have to like it.” Eveth replied. “I’ll bet he’s probably in the dungeon right now: filling more of these boxes and wondering what in all the light is taking us so long.”
“Fine.” Standing back up, Alem inspecting the other remnants of a campsite still present as Eveth began stacking the boxes into Dren’s waiting arms. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe that’s all it is.”
“Glad we agree. The only other thing I can think of…” Eveth shook her head. “Let’s just say, I like this option, better.” She said, stopping to watch Dren as he edged around the remaining boxes in the tent. The boy was clearly uncomfortable with their presence. “Should I come clean about the mimics?” She asked.
“No.” Alen kept his expression neutral, as he resisted the urge to grin. “We should let this play out for a little while longer.”
“I’ll have you know, pranks like this aren’t in the spirit of the Guild.” Dren turned, catching them watching him.
“Oh, please.” Eveth snorted, as she headed over to him, plucking one of the boxes from the tent. “You scared of the big bad mimic?”
“No, because I’m well aware that there is no such thing!”
“How are you sure?”
As they argued. Alem turned about the rest of the camp. Crates of mana crystals might have kept his attention, but not enough to keep him from recognizing what Eveth hadn’t said.
Everything that had happened… the Guild… the attacks… There was another possibility.
They could ignore it all they liked, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t real.
“You going to help?” Eveth asked, breaking Alem from his thoughts. Under her arm, she held a box already walking backwards towards the wagon. “We should load these into the wagon now, then set up camp like you said.
“Why would he come here, alone?” Alem asked.
“Varar: he’s not the type to take on a dungeon without help.”
“He’s been a Guildmaster for decades.” Eveth replied. “Maybe he thought it was worth the risk.”
"No. It’s a dangerous sort of gamble, and he’s much too cautious for that.”
“Maybe he hasn’t needed to go that far in. If this place is completely undiscovered, this could just be from scouting the entrance.”
“Then, why is the camp so large?" Alem pointed. “I see three… four… why would Varar need so many bedrolls?”
"He was nice enough to try and prepare for our arrival? Does it really matter, Alem?" Eveth grumbled, awkwardly adjusting crate of crystals under her arm as she began following Dren around the boulder back to the wagon. “We’ll ask him when we find him. Sooner we find the entrance, the better."
Alem sighed, as he watched them go.
“Maybe you’re right.” He muttered. “Maybe that’s all this is.”
Despite what Alem had hoped, repeating it out loud did little to convince him. He scanned the camp again, looking closer at what was left.
There were some scraps of food left in a cooking pot among the ashes. Evidence of a few meals, at least. Far as he could see, there wasn't any other wagon nearby, or cart, but there were some foot prints visible... No, whatever those were, they were ruined. It almost seemed as though the wind had swept them over. Not all of them, but closer to the boulder, the prints were wiped away.
Dren and Eveth walking every which way hadn't helped much, in that respect.
The camp still didn’t feel right, but there wasn’t anything specifically wrong, either. Just as Eveth had chosen not to voice her own doubts. Much as the situation irked him, he didn’t have any proof to justify it.
With a long sigh, Alem crouched down to pick up the last of the crates.
Eveth was right about one thing: these were worth more than just a small sum. Chances were, they might be sitting on a few thousand gold, just with what had been waiting for them here. In fact, with what they already had, there was a good chance Farstrider Guild could clear their bounties. So long, of course, as they could convince the guards not to attack them immediately. Alem could only shudder at the paperwork which might come after such a hurdle. It would likely involve time in custody for their own protection, probably behind bars. Even after that, would be the nightmare. Publicly being known as a Guild who revoking bounty by payment... As if they were the sons of rich noble families, who just happened to cut down a few too many peasants during a drunken night out.
The Empire was a lot of things, and though justice wasn’t always one of them: people talked.
Business might be difficult after that.
Lost in thought as he was, when Alem rounded the boulder, he was surprised to find that Imra had joined the others. Not in helping load or unload the contents of the wagon, but at least in having left it. The Elf stood by the Ro’ running a hand through its coarse fur.
He couldn’t help but notice her ears.
Not that he was trying to look, or anything.
It would be a lie to say Alem wasn’t at least slightly tempted to try and catch an extra glance or two. More to say that, well: they stood out. Especially now, with her hood down and no cloth wrapped around her face. Unlike their time in the city. It seemed entirely strange how normal they fit her.
They were just so… large… and pointed.
Imra turned towards him, and Alem realized he was staring. He looked back ahead of himself, and almost tripped.
Of course, the only thing that could possibly seem stranger than a real living, breathing, Elf, would be the monster often hanging around her neck. In this case, though, it was slithering about on its own. Looking at Alem curiously as he managed to stretch his step to avoid the creature.
“Apologies.” Alem nodded, continuing as he’d been.
“Sss.” Came the reply.
Alem didn’t speak snake, but he interpreted that to mean the serpent either didn’t mind, or hadn’t noticed. If Alem thought about it, the creature seemed preoccupied with something else.
As he reached the wagon and set the last of the boxes down, Alem confirmed as much. The Basilisk was staring intently at something. Turning to follow its line of sight, though, Alem couldn’t tell exactly what. There was nothing even remotely dangerous. No poisonous insect, or death-tooth lizard, or some unexpected traveler, or anything of the sort.
Just the large boulder, and the now-pillaged camp he’d just come from.
He continued with the tasks at hand: retrieving the items needed for camp, pitching a basic half tent, setting a cooking station. Imra took to caring for the Ro’, passing the hungry animal grain from the feed bag they’d brought along. Still, even as Imra moved about, eventually picking the creature back up, the Basilisk continued to stare in the same direction.
Alem checked in from time to time, and each time it was the same. Like a compass, the serpent seemed set on this.
The morning stretched on into afternoon, and this didn’t change. Even after Imra joined them around the newly established camp, or when the first meal of rations was handed out. It simply kept its eyes glued in the same direction: towards the boulder.
Alem stared at it, too, for a time.
It was a boulder.
He couldn’t think otherwise.
Large, certainly, but that was all it seemed to be.
A large stone, of no specific interest to anyone beyond the Basilisk.
[Intuition] didn’t provide any further insight into the matter. It hummed at a low level, but not nearly enough to concern him. Such was the nature of being outside the city walls where dangers were known to roam.
Eventually, Alem decided it was best not to concern himself further.
The day passed slowly.
While Eveth made certain the wagon’s stock of crystals was carefully inventoried, Alem stripped the same of whatever other contents remained. Under his supervision, an additional lean-too tent was pitched. The spare bed rolls unraveled. Equipment was pardoned out, and a fire pit was fashioned. Then, with nothing further left to do, Alem began to search the surrounding area. Meticulously, he made a slow circle about the camp. Nothing was overlooked, no stone left uninspected. His hammer, personally, made short work of three scorpions and one rock lizard.
The results were less than satisfying.
He found what might have once been wagon or cart tracks, leading East. He happened upon an old property marker, half buried in the sand. Aside from that, though, he only found sand.
Sand, and rocks, and then more sand.
After two hours in the hot sun, and the supposed Dungeon entrance still eluding him, Alem was forced to call off the hunt. So, it was that their first day away from the city walls found itself coming to an end: with no leads to speak of, and afternoon heat much too oppressive to be bothered to try if they did. He settled for resting under the shade with the others.
Alem shut his eyes and sought a few hours of sleep as he waited for Tuth to return.
Night came first.