“Are you sure they can't be ridden?” Bone asks for the tenth time. The first time he asked earned a few chuckles. The second, a few concerned looks. By the fourth, the caravan understood just how badly the young man in front of them wishes to die.
And now, the dandy man in a mask is irritating his audience.
Jusuf throws another treant-wood log into the campfire. The flame engulfs the log, adding several more hours of heat and light to keep the cold at bay until dinner is ready. “Once again, vermis travel below the sands. Even if you were on top of one, you’re liable to get a face full of dirt.”
The man scratches his chin. “So, in theory, if there was a way to keep the vermis traveling above sand, then it would be possible.”
Jusuf snorts. He takes a moment to look at Bone’s companions. Other than the [Slave], the masked group is ignoring Bone. Unfortunately for Jusuf, Bone is a guest to whom he must show utmost respect.
“In theory, yes. But please note that the vermis only travel above ground when they are actively hunting a fleeing meal,” he explains.
“Which are usually sand-striders,” Bone points at Jusuf’s beasts of burden. The sand-striders are larger than camels, have several dozen legs, and enough stamina and speed to outrun a vermis for several straight days.
“No no no,” Jusuf says with a wag of his finger. “Only certain vermis actively hunt sand-striders,” he lectures, and then frowns as Bone seems to zero in on this.
“There are different types?”
“Several, actually,” he raises his hand with extended fingers and starts counting down. “There are the hunters, trappers, armored, swarm, gargantuan, and finally, imperial.”
“Fuck!” Bone exclaims. “This desert sounds like a goddamn deathtrap.” He frowns for a second, deep in thought. “Which one would you suspect is the easiest one to ride?”
The thin man named Abernick chuckles. “[Caravan Master] Jusuf, I suggest you humor him,” the man comments snidely. “It’ll be easier that way.”
Jusuf shakes his head, but obliges. “Well, if we must continue this asinine conversation, then you should understand the different types.”
“The hunter vermis are the fastest of the lot. They grow as big as carriages and like to travel in groups of two or three. Since they move so fast under the sand, you may not be able to get out of their path before they’re beneath you. Then they’ll come out, screeching and hissing, and start wrecking the caravan.
“Trapper vermis are the ones to watch for. They wait around in groups of about a dozen and ambush anything that travels over them. Since they lurk in the sand for months on end, absolutely still, they are the most successful caravan killers, especially if they target and kill the [Runed Slave] first. Unfortunately for you, Mr. Bone, they grow only as large as an adult human, so I doubt they are rideable.”
Bone nods slowly. He waves his hand for Jusuf to continue.
“After them, we’ve got the swarm vermis, which are kind of like the trapper vermis, but less lurky and more of them. They swarm by the thousands; individually weak and only as thick as your arm, but as they say, quantity is its own quality. I don’t need to explain why you can’t ride them.
“Fourth are the armored vermis. They are usually the easiest to deal with. They are a bit larger than a hunter, but much slower. As their name implies, their bodies are armored with a hardened bone exterior that allows them to hunt other vermis without getting killed. Since they are so slow, moving out of their path during the daytime is very easy.”
“The fifth type and arguably the primary reason that [Rune Slaves] are necessary, are the gargantuan vermis. Those monsters are hundreds of meters long and large enough to swallow my entire caravan whole. If one of those notices us, they’ll burrow underneath, then open their maw and consume everything above them, sand and all.”
“And the imperial vermis?” Bone asks.
Jusuf smiles mirthlessly. “Army killers. City destroyers. Think of them as gargantuan vermis but a hundred times bigger. They rarely move except to feed on gargantuan vermis, or, if rumors are true, to serve the [Empress]’ command.”
“Damn,” Bone folds his arms, “sounds like the best way to travel would be through flight.”
“Many have tried to fly over the desert, but that just makes you easy prey for the phoenixes.”
At the word “phoenixes,” a squawk comes from inside Bone’s hat. Barglesmash hops out of the burned opening at the top of the headpiece and flutters through the air in a circle before landing on Bones shoulder. The Slayer of Waffles announces his presence with a mighty caw and a tongue of bright blue flame.
Bone reaches up and pets the bird on the head. “I’m not sure how this little guy would be much of a threat.”
Jusuf smiles at the bird, one of the most glorious and respected beasts in the empire. Hunting them is a crime worse than death, not that it would be easy. “Your Phoenix is just a baby. Feed it well, and in the next five years, it will grow to the size of a house.”
Bone looks at his pet. “You hear that Barglesmash? You’re going to get really big. We’re going to have to find someone who can make house sized waffles.” Barglesmash puffs out its chest and releases another mighty, fiery caw, proclaiming it could easily destroy such a foe even now.
Bone smiles at the bird's enthusiasm. “Well, I’d like to see what a fully grown Phoenix looks like, but that can come after I get a mount. So, Jusuf, the armored vermis, you said it has bone armor, which implies an internal skeleton. Does that apply to all vermis?”
Jusuf shrugs. “I’m not an expert. None of the smaller vermis have bones, but nobody has come back from inside of a big one.”
“Damn. Well, looks like I’m settling for an armored vermist. I’ll have to keep my eyes out for one, though that might be a bit difficult since they’re always underground.”
“Actually, armored vermis are the easiest to spot. Their armor is covered in long spikes which often protrude above the sands. You should be able to see them from a good distance away.”
Bone raises his hand to his mouth. “Perfect. We’ve chosen the mount, but,” he turns his head towards the sands, “the next question I have is, how many?”
In the center of camp, several pots of boiling water are placed around a circle. Amongst the pots, a dozen [Caravan Slaves] are hard at work preparing dinner. They chop the vegetables and toss them in the pots with the meat. While their hands work, their mouths gossip.
“Master Jusuf has been very happy recently. Does anyone know why?” a [Slave] asks.
“I heard it was because of a successful trade agreement,” one comments.
Another scoffs. “Can't be. Only seven sleds have goods in them. That’s much less than what the master usually takes with him.”
“I saw him cradling a small box filled with crystals. Maybe it has something to do with that.”
“Oh! That could be it. The [Guards] were talking about a foreigner selling millions of Drachme worth of crystal for cheap. Maybe the master bought some?”
“That could explain his good mood.”
“Hmmm…” one of the [Slaves] hums as they pick up a carrot. “Master Jusuf was beaming after he made a deal with the foreigner,” she points the carrot at Naunet, “I don't suppose you can share any details with us?”
All of the [Slaves] turn to Naunet, who elects to peel her potato instead paying them any mind. With technique born of years of work, her knife cuts through the potato at speed, expertly as she can with the poor knives afforded to them.
“Master Bone offered [Caravan Master] Jusuf his carriage in exchange for a trip to Luxor,” she says while frowning at the chips in the knife. She holds up the blade so the others can see. “When you can, please inform your master that he should focus on buying quality steel.” She then holds up the potato with small dots of skin that weren't removed from her first pass. “Otherwise, food preparation will take longer.”
Many of the [Slaves] blush at her words. One of them speaks up. “Master Jusuf dislikes wasting coin on [Slaves, and it is not our right to question the master's decisions.”
Naunet sighs as she works on the pieces of skin. “A [Slave]’s job is to serve their master to the best of their ability. If your ability to serve is inadequate for any reason, then it is imperative that you inform your master about it. If he denies your request, then you are not putting enough effort into it.” She quickly nicks the last piece of skin and then starts on the next potato.
One of the [Slaves] rolls her eyes. “Our master is too cheap to ever buy anything expensive for us.”
Naunet shakes her head. It’s that kind of thinking that leads to slow leveling. She can already tell that none of them here are above level forty.
“You all act like [Servants],” she sneers at them, “and you disrespect your master with your words.”
Another [Slave] chastises her. “Naunet! You don't need to be mean.”
Naunet huffs. “None of you have studied Ptolemaic Law, have you?” She looks at the dozen [Slaves], and from their expression, it's clear to her that they only know the very basics.
“The law is built to guide [Slaves] to serve and level. They have clear guidelines of what a [Slave] is, their role, and how best to be of use to their master.”
She clears her throat. “You say your master is cheap because he refuses to buy expensive knives. Your master is a [Caravan Master] whose class and skill are all based on buying cheap and selling for high. I imagine the knives he bought for cooking came in a large set and for an extremely low price. Your master is clearly looking to create as large a profit margin as possible, which means that you must understand his ideals and come up with a solution.” Naunet raises the chippied blade, “For example, the quality of this blade makes it difficult to peel the skin as closely as a good blade does. Because of this, food is being wasted, time is wasted, and thus, the master's money is being wasted. If you speak with your master and inform him that investing in quality knives will lower the quantity of wasted food while also increasing the speed at which dinner is prepared, then the master will understand he will save money in the long term.”
The [Slaves] look at one another. They are interested, but unconvinced.
She sets down the knife next to the twenty or so potatoes that still need to be peeled. She then stands up. “Since many of you are skeptical, I will demonstrate how it is done.” Naunet looks around and finds Bone sitting with his companions, the [Runed Slave], and [Caravan Master] Jusuf. “When I asked my master if he needs me to assist with anything, he informed me that he does not and that I am free to do as I wish. When a [Slave] is given such freedom, then it is imperative that I take the initiative to do something that will benefit my master.” She points at the cauldrons of boiling food. “In this case, assisting with meal preparation will allow my master to eat sooner than he otherwise would. But, if there is a way to speed up the process, then it is my duty to do so.”
Without another moment, Naunet turns away and walks to her master with her head held high. She can feel the eyes of the other [Slaves] on her back, but she ignores them. She arrives at his campfire and bows lightly.
Her master immediately notices her presence.
“Oh, hey, Naunet. I saw you helping out the other [Slaves]. Did you need something?” Bone asks.
All eyes turn to her, but she doesn’t react to them or show any nervousness. She is in her master's presence; weakness is unacceptable.
“Master Bone, I apologize for the interruption, but I have come to ask if you have any high quality knives available so that I may better prepare tonight's dinner?”
Bone raises an eyebrow at the question, and then shrugs. “Sure”.
The shadow under Bones feet glows violet before expanding next to her. She doesn't move. She had seen him take her clothing and then throw them into his shadow, while also producing items out of it. When she asked, he had explained that it’s a skill which allows him to store things.
Bone’s shadow spreads out farther and farther behind him till, to Naunet’s utter astonishment, a two story log cabin emerges, complete with a steeply pitched, tar shingle roof, iron stove-pipe and glass windows. It settles primly on the sand, firelight dancing over the front porch and bench-swing.
“I’ve got all my cooking stuff in the kitchen. Take what you need,” her master orders before turning to Jusuf who’s staring strangely at the luxurious accommodations.
“Now, Jusuf, back to my question.” Bone waves his hand in front of Jusuf and the [Caravan Master] starts out of his daze. Bone grins. “How many armored vermis did you say you usually come across?”