Kalo’s grim description of the terrain that made Soren Desert was spot on. We each had coughing fits, choking on the scarlet clay sands caught in the wind. Gauging how far we traveled was measured by our footsteps if they hadn’t already been blown away. Kyro faded in the distance, and we were alone to bear the valley’s relentlessness. It didn’t help that we were already exhausted from fighting and fleeing the city’s takeover.
“It’s as before, Diego,” I said, “we’re instructed to go west, but know nothing of where the path leads. Who’s to say we’ll be in descendant territory?” As I spoke, it slipped my mind who might know. “Any idea, Antares?”
Antares clumsily traversed the sands, using his scepter as leverage and making slow, methodical steps. His face was stiff.
Antares’ attention didn’t shift as he said, “Beyond here, we will reach the city of Yureesha.”
“Yureesha,” Diego repeated. “Never heard of it.”
“Is it Deko-occupied territory,” I inquired.
Antares nodded. “No. Very few of our soldiers have come close to it. Most who inhabit it are often refugees. There’s much Deko seeks to uncover about it before he wishes to proceed. From my understanding, an ally of the descendants resides there.”
I nearly tripped over myself hearing him. Diego and I looked to one another determining if we heard correctly.
I said, “Antares, are you certain of this? An ally?!”
“Of course. The world is big, yes?”
Antares’ casualness stood in stark contrast to the elatedness Diego and I felt at that moment. Who knew what awaited us? The possibility enriched our hope. Were the allies anything like descendants? Suddenly, I wasn’t so fatigued. Antares made mention of another important fact: Yureesha wasn’t occupied by Deko. Absent of Royal Soldiers, Diego and I could shed our statuses as fugitives completely.
“...We’ll be free,” I said. Diego, hardened by the turn his life has made due to my capture, revealed an ecstatic smile and he let out an emphatic roar. “We will, of course, try to make you as comfortable as possible, Antares. Regardless of your past ties with the Royal Soldiers, I won’t abandon you.” Antares said nothing, appearing puzzled that I would even consider his comfort through all this. He smirked modestly. Maybe even he will find a home in Yureesha.
The sun was on its way to setting and rest was upon us. We tried cactus and succulents for food, a far cry from Diego’s preference for meat. Without much water, a walk through the night wasn’t advisable. To make matters worse, the falling sun brought an unexpected bitter cold.
“Our best bet is sleeping somewhere hidden,” said Diego. “If we stay out of sight, we’re unlikely to be caught off guard.”
“I agree,” I said. “Our options feel limited, I wonder if we can-”
I heard something fall into the sand. Behind us, Antares’ scepter was lying on the ground. Diego and I were only steps away from him when we turned back, and he became eerily still.
I approached him. “Antares?”
His body gradually fell forward, face stuck in place. Diego pulled me back as Antares’ body collapsed into the sand, and behind his head, we’d find an arrow lodged in. I shuddered, unable to stop.
Diego sliced at another arrow coming towards us. I could hardly see where they originated from.
“Quick, Barken,” he said, pulling me along. “We have to find cover!!”
Diego successfully dodged more arrows coming our way. Antares was killed and our pursuers gave us no time to recuperate from the loss. We found ourselves underneath an acacia tree, ducking from another arrow that pierced into its trunk. When we looked beyond us, we were surrounded.
They were beings far smaller than we were with flesh-colored skin and piercing yellow irises staring at us, gradually taking over our space. Despite wearing heavy hoods, their speed in ambushing us was unfathomable.
“We’re golems,” one of them spoke, though I wasn’t sure who. “You’re kind has been intruding into our territory as of late. We don’t allow trespassers here.”
I was frightened as I was infuriated. They gave no recognition to the harm they’ve caused.
“You’ve killed our companion,” I cried. “You didn’t give us a chance!” Diego kept his daggers in hand, likely laser-focused on each of them. The golems held their bows to their sides preparing to kill at a moment’s notice.
“...We will do away with you as we did them.” It was as though they didn’t hear me or thought nothing of their kill. There may even be more. Did they truly murder the Kyro citizens that came before us? This was awful, they were sick! How do we get out of this?
“They have bows, Barken,” he said quickly, charging forward. “Kill them before they can use them!!!”
It happened so quickly. Diego managed to take out one, and several others aimed for him. I threw myself into the mix, pressing myself to Diego’s back. An arrow cut through my temple, skinning the edge of my head. I didn’t conjure a counter in time. Diego was able to slice away several arrows that came for him, and their split halves fell on the ground around us.
“AHH!” An arrow lodged into my shoulder, the stabbing pain nearly bringing me to my knees.
I absorbed the arrow’s blow, my hand radiating marigold as I shot the counter at the golem. A few backed away, but their hands kept at their bows.
“It’s okay,” I tried to say, though the pain was immense. I couldn’t use my right arm. Diego lifted me from behind and flew towards the golems that opposed him. Heads rolled.
“We can do this, Barken,” he said, “we can-”
But more came. The sinister beings encroached on us as though entranced, trying to surround us.
“You’re blood is enticing, descendant,” one of the sadistic creatures spoke.
“...Barken, they’re blood seekers. We have to cover your wound!” As if they would give us the chance. The arrow was still pierced into my shoulder, plugging whatever blood would’ve seeped out. A string of arrows volleyed our way. Diego and I made the perfect team as he sliced open the arrows before they could hit us, and I struck my counters whenever I could absorb their attacks. We faced their relentless attacks head-on, inching closer. And once Diego was close, he could take out the remaining with his blades. By the time we took out several of them, more would appear.
I said, “Diego, I can’t seal my wound like this. They’re not giving us a moment to spare!” Diego understood as he grew exhausted repelling the rapid-fire arrows.
“GAHH!” Diego dropped his dagger and squeezed at his right arm. A devastating wound showed on his skin, pierced by one of the arrows that impaled him. “Barken, careful!” I managed to move only slightly before an arrow lodged into my hip. My legs fell into the sand I heard Diego’s cries. When I lifted my head, more arrows had pierced into him.
“Diego no!!” He became more sluggish and unfocused, his eyes hardly able to keep open. When I reached for him, an arrow cut into my arm opposite my already injured shoulder. “Ahh…” I groaned. I didn’t have the energy to scream. I saw an arrow flying our way, and before I knew it, it was lodged in Diego’s abdomen.
Time moved in slow motion. I heard him make gurgling sounds, saw the blood that came from his mouth. He held a hand to his abdomen, then fell back into the sand. I couldn’t breathe. The intense pain that wracked my body had vanished. I’d gone numb. Pauline, Antares...Diego. Not my Diego!!! Please Ida, not him! And an arrow shot into my back.
We were truly surrounded. I could see, feel the golems in my periphery waiting to devour us as they did the other descendants that came before. If they couldn’t survive, how could we? We were added to the body count of refugee descendants who had nowhere to call home. What did we do to deserve this?!
I should’ve fainted from the pain and loss of blood. No normal descendant could endure all this. In my daze, I found myself on top of Diego. I could hear the bows being pulled and released, and I screamed to the sky! My shaking hands stiffened with marigold and a dome of energy blasted itself out of me. The arrows volleying toward us incinerated instantly. I swore I heard the cries of the golems. My marigold glow traveled around my body. Every arrow that impaled us disintegrated. I held my breath the entirety of it.
When the blast faded, I choked from the lack of air. When I recovered, I pulled myself up to take a look at Diego. The blood from his mouth was gone. But after assuming my healing circle recovered him, I noticed he wasn’t springing back to life. Panic consumed me.
“Diego, no…” I pressed my palms into him in an attempt to heal him again, but severe pain pulled me away. Every wound from the arrows that pierced me ached terribly. I couldn’t heal him, not in my condition. I put my head to his chest. At least he was alive. I wanted to hold him, rest until the morning. Yet, we were unprotected and vulnerable to another wave of those golems. As much as I ailed, we needed shelter.
The two of us were left near the acacia tree. The night was approaching quickly and I couldn’t get us far in my condition. A rock structure was some paces ahead of us. I hauled Diego on my injured shoulders, acknowledging how imperative his physical prowess was in these instances. The rock structure had a pitch-black space within it. We were in luck as I thought I stumbled upon a natural-made cave. I inspected inside, laid out a blanket given to us by Rayne, and placed Diego on top of it.
As he said, the creatures smelled our blood. Even if we couldn’t be seen, our scents could be detected. Kalo’s book of clairsentients that came before me was our greatest resource. Clairsentients traversed the Soren Desert seeking ways to be under the radar of the golems. A warding off spell was needed. Using Diego and I’s blood, I marked the corners of our cave-dwelling and shot my energy into the air materialized as small, white beams. The small, white beams made a crown above us and splintered all around us, coating our scents within the boundary I laid out. My exhaustion was getting the best of me, but I wasn’t done yet.
Also provided to us were rags from Yowson. I didn’t know how long my healing circle would keep Diego from losing blood. I wrapped his wounds and my own as best I could. My head rested close to his chest, ready to act if he went into distress. Diego, please hold on.
A day before the present…
The rest was helpful, but I woke up terrified out of my mind. Diego was already bleeding through his rags. I quickly nursed him, but I found my wounds bleeding out as well. The repel spell worked and we were lucky to still be alive. Though I fretted exiting our enclave, Diego won’t survive another day without intervention. I let Diego’s body get some sun as I borrowed the blanket we used for rest. Within Kalo’s book, the warding off spell could work on clothing as well. With the little amount of clothing on my person, the blanket was a better bet. I used the same spell to ward off the golems from the cave and infused them into the blanket. With it wrapped around me, I was more confident about venturing out.
My predators couldn’t smell me. But I knew they could see me. Overheated by the blanket, I traversed through the desert in search of water for drinking and creating a healing potion. My immense worry for Diego, defenseless against an attack, made it hard for me to migrate too far. I’d find a few desert trees hiding tiny ponds for me to collect from, likely from the rain.
Doing all this wasn’t without complications. Even with a warding spell, golems were all over. The blanket made for a good defense as the arrows stuck themselves to the thick fabric, giving me ample time to absorb and fire counters. I was surprised at myself for still being able to fight with my wounds. My hatred for these beings and my desperation to survive only added to my tenacity. My fear was taken over by revenge, I hardly recognized myself in this state. In one particular battle, a golem did away with its bows and arrows and revealed they had a similar ability to clairsentients’ counters; they could manipulate energy to strike an opponent. After one blasted me, burning the side of my face, rage took over me. I dashed toward the perpetrator, grabbed it by its hands, and formed my counters. The golem screeched, feeling its hands burn from my power. It’s skin illuminated intensely as I held onto it for dear life. And in due time, the being burst with marigold light. I yelled out throwing my fists into the air and throwing myself atop the sand. My tears were ice-cold as they came down my cheeks.
I couldn’t forget. I found the exact spot where we were ambushed yesterday and tried looking around. I kicked something hard. When I saw what was sticking out, I found it was a scepter. He was here. I brushed away the clay sands, sticking itself to my arms. I uncovered his armor, then his face. Antares…
There was hardly a time to mourn him. He left us from this world near-instantaneously, and Diego and I didn’t have the chance to get him away from Deko, to experience life outside of being a Royal Soldier. A neku supportive of the descendants’ cause! Kalo and Rayne’s story imbued me with great hope and losing Antares crushed me. There would be more death; there will be others who join us and risk their lives doing so. I didn’t know how much I could take.
The night would come again. My warding off spell worked impeccably, keeping Diego secure and hidden in the cavern. I soothed our wounds with a healing potion from Kalo’s texts, a useful trick when in a situation where a clairsentient was unable to heal. They truly thought of it all.
Amidst rubbing the potion in Diego’s wounds, he cooed. When awake he was profoundly delirious, making short, nonsensical statements and threats to an invisible enemy, tossing and turning. He’d make faces when I would try and feed him succulents to keep his strength. Never easy to please even when unconscious. Sometimes I would rub his ears, only to see them flutter and twitch.
I could hold him without him reacting with pain. I kissed his head and looked out in the stars. Maybe Sapphire and Cosmo were looking at the same sky, along with Bebe and Elder Ramon. I could see Elders Yowson, Kalo, and Rayne on the lily pads marveling at the stars reflected on the water, Pauline watching over them. And Antares... Though I found myself grieving his absence, something told me another was on their way to take his place. Slumber would interrupt my thoughts.
I was too late. My father had invaded Kyro without mercy as our ships settled and departed from the city at will. Soldiers roamed the area, doing body counts of our own. Not a descendant in sight. My search for them constantly came up fruitless. I knew too much about these descendants who may want nothing to do with me, likely killed. In my frustration, I wandered along mindlessly throughout the ghost city, questioning again why I’d come so far?
The golden-eyed descendant’s presence was faint. Someone like that couldn’t die so easily. My head faced the desert landscape to the west. If I didn’t know better, they were entering a space outside Deko territory. It seems now I must be on guard. The golems of Soren have allegiance to no one.
Diego had healed. It was time we took steps to claw out of this desert once and for all. When I awoke, however, a large figure appeared before us. I pulled myself up to get a better look.
“D-Diego,” I stuttered.
Diego shook his head awake before peering up. When he saw the figure, his eyes flew open. He leaped for his daggers, practically like a bear crawl, and got himself in a battle stance.
The figure lifted their hand, “Are you afraid of me?”
“Anyone would find alarm from you standing over them,” Diego barked. “What do you want from us?!”
I was still taken aback by the figure, I couldn’t speak. They seemed strikingly familiar...
I put my hand up towards Diego. “Wait.”
Diego glared at me, nearly lunging towards the neku that stood in their place. “What now, Barken?!”
“Diego, she-” I took a long look at her, only to make sure my hunch was correct. I was gaping. “It’s the Princess. Princess Xandra.”