The desert stretches out before me, beautiful and austere under a ridiculously blue sky. We toil across the dunes, a red-gold sea of still-life waves that stretches to the horizon between mesas of dark red stone. Buttes and hoodoos rise out of mirages like ships on a phantasmal sea. It’s a sight to stir men’s souls and fill them with dust. I sigh and my camel trudges forward across the sand; beautiful, interminable drudgery. Not even the prospect of caravan consuming worms can save me from boredom.
“Hm? Oh, sure.” I accept the canteen from Naunet and drink the contents. I hand her back the empty bottle. “Thank you.”
She bows. “Do not thank me, master. As your [Slave], it is my duty to lessen your burdens in every way, shape, and form.”
“Heh,” Jusuf chuckles with a nod to Naunet. “You found yourself a good [slave]. I don't suppose you are willing to sell her?”
Doesn't matter to me.
“Not my choice,” I answer and point at Naunet, “It's hers.”
“Oh?” Jusuf smiles and looks at her. “Well, what do you say about joining me? If you’re as competent as I think you are, I may be willing to make you my third wife.”
Without even deining to debate the thought, Naunet shakes her head. “My duty is to my master. His wishes are my own.”
Jusuf frowns but slowly nods. If it were easy to obtain a high-quality [Slave], then he would have replaced most of his own by now. Instead, he must deal with their whining about knives and such.
“Jusuf, you mentioned a third wife?” I change the subject.
The man beams. “Yes, did I forget to mention? I must have.”
He lets go of the reins to his camel and reaches into his side bag. “Allow me to present…” he says dramatically, pulling out a scroll. He unfurls it, revealing-
“My family!” he cries and reveals the portrait with a flourish.
“Damn,” I say in surprise as I look at it. Jusuf sits between two women at his sides, which I can only believe are his wives. Both women are pregnant and each hold two babies in their arms. Around the adults are eight other children, the oldest of whom appears to be no more than ten.
“You’ve been busy.”
The [Caravan Master] puffs up his chest and guffaws. “Well, of course! A successful merchant should have as many children as they can feed.”
Before I can comment, I hear the roar of an inferno descending from the sky. I twist my head, looking for the sound, and find a ball of fire soaring low across the sands in our general direction.
“Uh, Jusuf,” I point at said ball, “what’s that?”
Jusuf turns to the sky and blinks. He shields his eyes with his hand, then looks below the horizon. “Ahhh, I see. Look below it. There's a vermis running away. Considering its speed, it's probably a hunter type.”
I blink and focus my vision. Indeed, beneath the ball of flame and a bit closer to us, the sand sprays to the side as a gray worm rides above it. But further up in the air, the ball of flame is quickly gaining on it.
“Um, what about the giant ball of flame?”
Jusuf smirks. “Just watch. Few are lucky enough to see them hunt.”
I stare at the flame and the worm.
The flying inferno overtakes the fleeing worm and plunges down upon it. An explosion lights up the horizon like a second sun and I squint into the glare. In the heart of the conflagration, a brilliant bird spreads its wings.
“Ah,” I say with a nod. “Phoenix. Should’ve seen that coming.”
Jusuf looks at me strangely for a moment before turning back to the spectacle. The monstrous bird beats its wings and ascends from the river of molten glass, the unlucky worm in its talons. It wheels and flies back whence it came, presumably to its nest. The light fades with the bird’s departing majesty.
“Holy shit,” I mutter, “that was beautiful.”
“And a bit too close,” Jusuf flips his cape over his head. Naunet turns her back while covering her face with her arm.
“What are yo-” I don't get to finish as a wave of heat slams into the entire caravan. I feel my skin and eyes dry. I breathe in the hot air and feel my lungs burn.
Thankfully, the heat-wave lasts for only a second and my eyebrows and lungs are only slightly singed.
“Master Bone?” Naunet calls my name worriedly. I frown at her, my skin starting to itch from the light burns.
“Naunet, mind going to the carriage and asking Jessica to come here? My uh, face hurts.”
The vermis adjusts itself in its spot one meter below the sands. Its whole body acts as a receiver for the most minute of signals. Rhythmic vibrations, varying in length, are growing larger. Prey is coming. The target is nearing, nearing… At this range, it can feel the vibrations of the prey's heartbeat. A small heart, the vermis concludes, but beating with strength. A tasty morsel for the vermis, especially after lying in wait for-
The prey is above. It is time to strike.
The vermis spears upward through the sand, mouth open, sharp teeth questing for meat. Up it rises, sand falling off its rapidly ascending body as the sun glints off of its glorious armor. As it climbs towards the prey, it finally pauses, confused.
It’s already twenty meters up, but its senses tell it that the prey is still higher.
Then it feels it. The heartbeat has moved directly atop its head. Frozen by uncertainty, the vermis waits. It feels more vibrations, some stronger and different, but the feeling is confusing. It is already above the sands.
After a moment, the vermis decides to descend again. Clearly, something is wrong, but it does not understand what. Then it pauses as it feels the sand shift right in front of its head.
“Prey?” it thinks, but the only answer is another shift. It moves forward, but the prey moves away. Clearly, it is still there, and thus can be consumed. The vermis accelerates, and the prey retreats once again. But this time, the vermis knows where its prey is and continues the chase. The ground churns as the monstrous armored worm chases its meal.
Jusuf can't believe it. The sight is completely baffling. “That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen…” he says to nobody and everybody. The entire caravan is halted. Nobody else even whispers, all eyes are on the distant figure.
“My master is amazing,” he hears [Slave] Naunet murmur in awe. Which, grudgingly, Jusuf has to admit. Such a thing should be impossible. Well, in theory, it is possible, but nobody would ever be so stupid as to try it.
“Somehow, I expected this,” Abernick muses. “Ever since he first mentioned it, I was left skeptical about his sanity, but never did I think he would go back on his words. I wondered how he would make it happen, but he would do it. I just wanted him to shut up about it.”
Jusuf listens intently, but his eyes are still glued to the scene before him.
“I expected him to make one an undead. At his level of [Necromancy], Bone can raise almost anything as an undead. Of course, that was the obvious solution, and Bone’s solutions to anything are rarely obvious.”
The man shakes his head as he wistfully watches the distant sand spurt to the sides.
“It seems that once again, my expectations have been thoroughly squashed.”
Jusuf nods slowly.
Everyone in the caravan is engrossed by the spectacle before them.
Everyone except for one person.
[Priestess] Jess yawns. The sight, for reasons Jusuf cannot comprehend, leaves her unimpressed. Jusuf would even say that she is bored, as though what is happening is hardly worth note. For some reason, this attitude perturbs him.
“Miss Jess, is something the matter?”
The woman shakes her head, which causes her short golden-blond hair to sway slightly. The woman’s hair, Jusuf thinks, is her only flaw. A proper woman should have long hair that is properly covered by a Hijab and should only be shown in the presence of close family or their master.
“Nothing. I’m just worried how far he plans to take this.”
“Take what?” he asks, confused.
The woman raises her hand to point at the scene, but pauses as a crimson cloud crests the horizon.
Darude feels the churning in the earth. He has senses like the vermis, making every slight tremor of the sands as vivid to him as anything he can see. He can feel the life below the sands, some of it lurking, some of it meandering, all of it searching for prey.
They are all beneath his notice. He elects to pay attention to what lies at the edges of his perception; a distant hunt the likes of which he has never observed before. A vermis tracks its bizarre quarry across the sands in an erratic path, acting utterly abnormal… though not outside the realm of explanation. It seems that a [Caravan Master] has gotten themselves into trouble.
Darude opens his honey brown eyes and exhales. He smoothly rises from where he had been sitting cross-legged atop a dune, sand falling from his thin trousers, and lets his mind return to the now. He takes a step, bare foot striking the sand and informing the local fauna of his presence. With his next step, his domain exerts itself upon the world and himself. He guides the sands and the sands guide him. He feeds the desert, and the desert feeds him. The man is as his home; carved by water, moved by wind, hot and cold in equal measure, yet always dry, always thirsty.
Another step, and the dune comes to life, wind whipping against his bare back, sand roiling under his ministrations. A final step, and the wind lifts him with the sand. Darude is borne aloft by the winds and the winds blow as he wills. He feels the desert denizens flee his path as the desert lifts him skyward and he carries the desert with him. Within a minute, his [Simoon] reaches its maximum speed. He flies towards the anomaly. Whatever the vermis is chasing is staying just out of reach.
The approach takes him five minutes, enough time for a vermis to have slaughtered most if not all of a caravan. He expects the worst when he nears the location, but instead finds an untouched caravan. The entire caravan is safe, though stationary. Around the caravan, a single armored vermis circles the convoy, but does not attack.
Then Darude gets close enough to make out the vermis clearly and in his surprise, his storm collapses in its tracks. He climbs the crest of the dune he fell upon and stares down. He squints his eyes in disbelief at the temerity.
On the head of the Armored vermis, a young man rides along, comfortably ensconced on an ivory throne. The man lazily controls a long pole anchored to the base of his throne that reaches several meters ahead of the vermis’ mouth. From the tip of the pole dangles a large vibrating bauble that drags across the sand.