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[GB Fiction] A Night in the Desert

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[Sometime before Blood and Steel]

 

The Nevada wastelands were not a welcoming place by any stretch of the imagination. If it wasn't empty, baking deserts or abandoned cities being steadily reclaimed by a natural order no longer subservient to a human race very firmly with it's collective tail between it's legs, it was monsters or bandits or even monster bandits, a hundred and one encounters out of the oldest fairy tales. And not the nice ones either, the kind where the witch ate the curious child in the woods and used their bones to make her utensils afterward.

Still, there were people out here making their way from one water source to another, and one of them paralleled the concrete pathways from Before, cutting their way across the desert. They passed the bones of those who had fled the cities enmass, entombed in the rusting hulks of their cars or feasted upon by neighbors turned ghoul by the First Dark Night. Six of them wore white robes over scavenged clothes and stitched-hide armor, guiding a pair of laden mules forward with encouraging words and the occasional prod. The remaining four bore rifles as well as armor and looked outward, tense with the anticipation of danger, anticipation that ratcheted upwards with every mile marker they passed.

One of the six, an older man with more salt than pepper in his beard, took note of this, and called over to the one leading their little group, “Kamala? Our friends are getting restless. We're getting pretty close to the edge of their hunting range.”

“Are we? Must have gotten distracted enjoying the quiet,” the pettite figure replied in a melodious tone, lowering her hood to reveal bright purple hair, blue eyes, and dusky skin that defied the harsh conditions that weathered body and soul around her. She closed her eyes a moment and sighed before opening them again, turning a smile on the senior most member of their protectors, “Please forgive me, Mr. Marcus. Here I am abusing your good nature. If you wish to return to your camp, go. You've done more than enough for us.”

The man nodded a touch hesitantly, torn between fear and duty, “If you're sure, Misstr... Miss Kuhn. My boys and I should be getting back before sunset.”

“Go,” she insisted with an ever-slightly-so-mocking of laughs before adding, “And be sure to remember the herbs we showed you. I want to see healthy babies next time we pass through.”

She watched Marcus gather his men and return the direction they had come from, to a camp of troubled people slightly less troubled for her labors. “Everyone else still good to go? Its a good few hours till it gets it gets too dark travel safely and we need to find shelter. We have a lot of ground to cover to the next village and people to help before we return to the dam.”

The rest of the party seemed cheered by mention of the dam, nodding ascent And so they set off again on their journey.

Maia had gotten bored, not the most uncommon occurrence, to be sure, and had hit the road from the arcology.   Not a long trip, she had duties, but she needed a few days away.   She'd strayed from the roads, and was riding cross country,    She knew all the monsters and such of the area, and none of them would really challenge her in either of her forms.   At the least none of them had, save the manticore, and she'd only ever encountered the one of those.

She could smell people on the wind, as she'd stopped looking over  the river valley.  Making up her mind, she head towards them, to make sure they were alright.  They were likely headed to the Arcology, and with night fall coming soon, it was indeed better to not be alone in the wild, even for a dragon.

Kamala liked traveling. She felt better on the road, rested, full, and happy, and when things were well, she could relax with the knowledge there was no one to help and no harm done in doing nothing for once. Her earlier slip was more often than not habitual, spacing out on the knowledge that she knew where she had been, where she was, and where she was going next like a golden path of dancing lights in her mind. 

"Kamala. Something's coming," Doctor Joel Niven declared with a firm yet gentle touch to her shoulder, stirring her fully back to herself in a way her four other companions wouldn't really dare any more. She looked up at her mentor and immediately realized exactly what he was talking about, the droning rumble of an engine coming from behind a ridge. Probably directly closer, too, the way it was getting louder.

"Thank you. I'll handle this, Doctor," she offered back.

The mules were starting to react to the unnatural noise, Francis and Hans peeling off to sooth the animal's incipient panic. The dusky-skinned healer's thoughts soured slightly behind her usual serene smile. Arcology dwellers no doubt, so few outside them could keep a machine running.

"Stay calm. I doubt it will come to violence," she concluded to her small white-robed caravan, stepping forward so as to be the first thing that the mysterious riders would see upon clearing the ridge, one hand flitting over her belt pouches and sheathes in case she was wrong, the other tracing the embordered symbol on her chest. 

Maia saw them as she drew near, the throaty roar of her perfectly tuned bike its own special kind of music, and pulled up short of the people.  Keeping her hands visible, she moved to pull up the goggles she wore to keep the grit from her eyes and smiled.  "You folks heading to the next town?  If so you're really going to have to pick up the pace if you want to get there before dark."   She called out with an almost lyrical voice, one speaking of a fun-loving attitude, and a life well-lived.

She wore a long duster jacket, boots and shorts.   her midriff was exposed, and her hair formed  a flowing mane of lustrous golden hair.   

"Very impressive vehicle. Not something many can claim to have or know how to use these days," opened the smaller, darker woman with a wondering smile, voice softer but no less enchanting for that, "My name is Kamala Kuhn. my companions are Francis, Hans, Marisa, Robert, and Doctor Niven."

Her voice tinged with extra flavors of respectful affection on that last name, azure gaze locking back on Maia's after her introductions, "And you'd be right if our intention was to reach the next town before dark. There's a nomadic caravan meeting us to the north who need help, and I know a place that's as safe as anywhere with the pace dear Pride and Wrath force us to keep. But I'm rambling rudely... What is your name?" 

She waited for a reply, indicating the two mules as the troublesome duo in question.

"I am Maia St. Croix, a roving problem solver in these parts."  She seemed totally comfortable despite the setting sun.  "If you've got a safe place, then I suggest we head there now, those mules are probably not going to be able to go much faster, so we probably won't make the next town by nightfall."   

She seemed quite at ease despite being nearly sunset.

"An impressive problem solver to travel alone and without a weapon, unless I miss my guess," Kamala replied with a nod, giving her companions a chance to get back in order, "It's only a half-hour so's walk up this ridge. Cave, single entrance with a bit of a curve to keep the light of a fire from leaking out to inform the unknowing and potentially unwelcome."

As the blue-haired healer spoke of the trip, gesturing at her intended destination, an aura of comfort swept out, the feeling you'd expect after a good night's sleep and a light but refreshing meal. The mules and the other healers obviously felt something like it, visibly refreshed smiles on their faces. 

Maia just smiled,  "I am far from unarmed.   I just don't wear it all out in the open to maintain the element of surprise in my favor.  You can never be to careful out here."   

She looked off towards the Ridge, and nodded.  "Alright, well let's get going, as refreshing as that breeze was, a good meal will likely be best, Give the mules a chance to rest along with everyone else, and we'll be good to go in the morning.   If any monsters come out, I'll handle them for ya."

The aura continued to flow out in a soft steady stream as they set out, bolstering them all without visible effort from the young woman. She laughed at Maia's assertion, gaze considering, "Hmmmm, I find I have the opposite problem. I can walk forever to anywhere given enough time. It's mainly what we find when we get there that makes me sad or mad. Work to be done, lessons to teach, harms to heal, and wrongs to right."

"But tell me about yourself. That... 'Bike', is that the word, correct..? Promises at least one good story."

She shrugged, and smiled.  "I'll tell you when we get there."

Once she started it, it was obvious why, it was rather loud, so there's no way to talk over it.  Once they got there, and managed to get a fire going to cook with and the animals inside, she smiled, as she and Kamala were near the entrance.  "I got the bike when I was younger, on one of my first trips to the Arcology.   After fixing it up, my teacher showed me how to make it so I don't have to worry about gasoline.   No big fancy story, just something I got to make normal travel abit easier.   There are some times when it gets in the way though, and it really doesn't let me sneak up on things.   Still that's not really my style."

"What about you?  You're way to sure of yourself to be traveling with so few companions, and not be like me.   I'm sure you've got weapons, but there's things out here mundane weapons just don't work on."

Kamala leaned her head against the stone, watching the gathering dark. She chuckled, the noise like a silver bell.

"I need to put more work into my reputation if you still need to ask me that question. I like to think that a reputation for helping anyone who needs help is deterrent enough for most people. Guess I'll have to make it so," she mused, "And what do you mean, 'like you'? I know a little magic from the elves, a Word or three, but I'm just lucky to have the chance to be trained how to save lives. no big fancy arcology to call home. *This* is home to me and mine, the nowhere and everywhere. I've heard so many stories growing up out here... I'm going to keep all their tellers talking." 

"The Arcology isn't home, it's just where I'm staying now.  The city of Dracian, within the mountains, that's my home."   She smiled almost wistfully.   "Still my duty takes me all over, so hear I am.  I had heard of a wandering healer, but this is our first meeting.  It's a noble calling you have, moreso than mine i think at times."

She looked out the cave, to the dusk-darkened lands.  "I was trained to dispense Swift Justice, to protect others, and always strive to better myself.   Abit more self-centered, but with my family, well, its quite understandable."

She shrugged.  "Even so, I mostly enjoy meeting new people, except those who are shooting at me, or trying to attack me with some sort of weapon.   Those meetings I could do without."

The dusky healer nodded sadly, "I've run into too many who would rather fight than talk, so I can't claim a bloodless record myself. Besides, without it's loyal, watchful hunters, even the largest tribe would fall. We need only look at the ruins of the Before to see that."

"I'll have to consider visiting your city. If the rest of them are even half as kind as you..," Kamala trailed off, seeing a golden path of lights heading out of the cave and into the mountains in her mind's eye, the waypoints, the trails, the waterholes.

She shook her head to push the fugue away, focus on the here and now, "Well, to be honest, I'm looking to set up a base camp of sorts. A center point for my travels to go from and head back to. The Vegas Arcology is one option, but..."

"It's probably one of the best options.   Several Godbound call it home, it has power, clean water and arable land nearby.   Much of what we took for granted is still there, carefully preserved and maintained.   We're much closer to it than to my home, which is east, high in the Rockies."

It was true that most of the Rockies was monster territory now,  very few human settlements remained in the Southern Rockies, so it was easy to tell something was very special about Dracian.    Maia chuckled.  "Not all the "monsters" out there are bad though."

"Bit of a rough hike to Dracian then," Kamala conceded to the blond with a lazy smile, "Not that'll stop me from trying it one day. The arcology probably is a better bet though. My mentor makes some of the same points you're making and despite my reservations he's... not... wrong."

"And a good chunk of the 'monsters' were people before the First Night. If they weren't driven too crazy by their changes... A lot of them would remain friendly, not to mention the old ones who only came out once the world changed. Or maybe changed back. That's the question ,isn't it?"

"I was only a few months old when it all happened, lost my parents when I was 4, and grew up fighting for scraps from the communal pot before Dr. Niven took me. He talks about hospitals and drugs and dialysis machines, and *they're* the magic to me," she added with the honesty of tender, but long-healed pain, "You?"


Eerily similar.  I was an infant during the "Event" and my folks died shortly after.  I was found and taken care of along with others by The Bright Dragon clan.   Only a few adult humans survived, and they helped raise all of us.   The dragons themselves took active roles in raising us, and carving Dracian from the lands themselves for us to live in together."

She smiled   "They scoured the countryside for anything to help us grow and grow up as normal people.   It's a paradise in my opinion, and no other monsters are foolish enough to attack it."

"Still, it's not the same as the Arcology, which seems to be abit more of a free society.   As the human population of Dracian has grown and grown up, we open abit more, like my position.   Technically I'm an assistant emissary to the arcology from Dracian, though i'm not always there."

Well, I'm definitely going to pay Dracian a visit NOW," the dusky healer laughed, leaning back against the wall, "And it will be good to have a friend to show me the best their is to know in an arcology if that's not too forward of me. When I let myself listen, I hear death whisper in my ear, I know the who and the where and the how and, most importantly, how to stop the deaths of everyone around me. A family or a caravan? I can get to everyone in time. A village? Well, that's why I have my volunteers."

She closed her eyes, shaking her head, "...An arcology? Too many, too much."

"Only for now, Kamala.  One day, it won't be."  Maia  smiled.  "I'll show you around the Arcology, and should you make it to Dracian, well then i'll go there with you too if you want."

She looked out at the land, and her smile seemed wistful.  "There's something out there, Something big."  her voice was more hushed now.   "I'll keep watch, but you may want to go get some rest for abit.  I'll call if it doesn't just pass us by."

Let me sleep any longer than midnight before relieving you, and I'll make sure to show you why you should have let me take the watch," Kamala commented without an ounce of venom or change in her smile, getting up and dusting off her robes. She waved over her shoulder and walked deeper into the cave to claim a place by the fire, already shrugging out of the white garment.

For well over an hour Maia stood watch, and scowled finally.   She left the front, and went to Kamala.  "Can you fight?  We've got company outside, and they're waiting for us to come out.  You may want to rouse the others, so they're awake and aware, and in case a little one gets by us."

She frowned  "I do believe it to be a swarm of deathstalkers, though I couldn't tell you exactly how many.  I've hardly ever seen more than three together, but this sounds different."
Kamala was up and awake in a heartbeat, nodding seriously. She had used her bundled up robes as a pillow and was clad in a leather tunic fit to deflect the odd slashing blow and sturdy pants that had seen much stitching. "Will you start waking them? Better we go out together. If they're in a swarm... Could be a new mother. Some of them protect their young for a while after hatching in the deeper wastes. They'll be hungry in that case. And fearless long as she's alive," the dusky healer mused out loud as she slipped on her shoes and secured her belt around her waist.

She pulled out one blade and smiled at it sadly, twirling it in her fingers, sharpened steel from Before catching the fire light as she girded herself for the worst part of her new gifts.

Maia moved to wake the others.  "You should all wait here, in here, only the little ones can get in."  Once they were awake she moved near the entrance, The darkness no obstacle for her vision, and she saw several smaller ones,.  "You're right, it's deathstalkers.   Probably a mother and half a dozen smaller slightly larger than hatchlings.   I'm going to draw them abit away if I can.  If you see an opening take it."

With that the Blonde warrior took off on foot out of the cave and began to glow, immediately beginning to emit light, drawing the attention of all the Deathstalkers, and scowled.   There were six, but it was five hatchlings and two grown adults, each over twenty feet across.  "Damn they're huge.   Don't let them sting you!"

"I won't. Watch out for yourself, too," Kamala offered with a smile as if holding back a private joke, breaking to Maia's left and loosing two throwing knives with easy grace. She was a native daughter of the wastes and as heavy as the alabaster shell protecting their heads was, it had weak points. Eight of them to be precise, glowing faintly with reflected light from her companion.

Shunk. Shunk.

The foremost of the hatchlings screamed in pain as old world steel sunk into it's eyes twice, hilt deep. The cry galvanized it's broodmates, and they pounded forward as battle was joined.

With the aura of light radiating out around her Maia was at the center of two hatchlings and one of the adults.   Brilliant golden armaments sheathed her forearms on both hands, and even as she punched at a distance, a blast of energy shot forth, exploding in the face of the first hatchling, decapitating it in her opening shot.   The second moved in behind her, with claws parried by swift seemingly effortless feats of strength, even as she used the momentum of the hits to spin the young deathstalker away, sending two blasts after it, one severing the poison stinger of its tail, and the other taking out several legs.   The adult moved to take the first one's spot, easily twenty five feet across, and momentarily Maia considered using her true form, It would be more than enough to make quick work of this fight, but she didn't yet know how Kamala or her friends would react.

Facing down three oncoming monsters, Kamala cut their numbers down to two as a third flashing knife snapped out into and through one of the remaining eyes of her pervious target, a kinder angle enabling the blade to penetrate some vital nerve cluster. The deathstalker spasmed, limbs and tail flailing without control.

The remaining two boxed her in against the wall of the mountain. Once, twice, thrice she managed to avoid their snapping blows in a dance with death, Maia's sun catching her calm expression in flashes as she moved. The dusky healer wasn't quite so lucky with a fourth blow clipped her in the ribs, knocking her against the wall.

She kept her feet and simply stared at the two monsters, reaching down to her belt and coming up with a 3" blade sticking out straight out of each clenched fist. 

Moving quickly Maia broke free of the adult, better to kill the hatchling first for less surprises later.    Launching herself into the air, she rained down a barrage of attacks at the last of the hatchlings facing her and quite literally blew it to bits.  Upon landing she once again was met by the adult which seemed enraged by the death of its young.   She could understand, but that didn't matter right now.   They had after all, attacked first.   

She dodged the first swipe and bat away the second, the stinger only narrowly missing impaling her and She shot another blast at point blank range, severing the poison tip and drawing a shriek of pain from the adult deathstalker.   The venom was paralytic in nature, and would be a death sentence in a fight like this.

Kamala needed to get in close. And she knew just how to get there. She darted directly towards the leftmost deathstalker, dropping into a slide under the claws that reached forward to grab her and coming to a halt just behind it's head. Left, right, left, right, left. The blades protruding straight from her clenched fists traced not-so-loving incisions along the joints in it's underbelly armor. Tainted hemolymph splattered down from above onto the furiously striking young woman, her victim's screeching interrupted by the thud of the second beast headbutting it's broodmate in it's eagerness to get at the dancing food.  

Maia struck with claps of thunder, smashing the Deathstalker squarely in the face in quick succession even as claws came in to grab her.  She blocked  both with twin blasts from her gauntlets, cracking the armor on both claws, even as she bright her foot up and then down in a savage axe kick to the monster's head, knocking it flat.   She jumped back and away, and loosed a barrage of attacks aimed at the head of the beast.  When the explosions ceased, and the smoke cleared it was dead, and she turned to where Kamala was, seeing if she needed help.
Slash. Slash. Stab. Kamala's world narrowed to the underbelly of the creature she was both fighting and using as a shield. She saw the creature more by it's encroaching death then her eyes, smiling in grim satisfaction as she finally severed the nerve line in it's belly.

Then it began to fall towards her and she rolled to try and get clear.

The dusky healer didn't quite make it, finding herself half-pinned under her victim as it's sibling pinned her to the ground with a stinger through her shoulder and screeched in her face.

"Kamala!"  There was a brilliant flash of light, and within two hundred feet of Maia, it shone like the noonday sun.   She was there in an instant, wings of light blazing even brighter than the aura of light she already had, and those gold-clad arms easily heft the dead deathstalker off Kamala, her eyes having shift from rich indigo to a blazing red.  Tossing the corpse aside, she Punched at the tail of the remaining deathstalker, severing it with a single blow and sending the creature into a frenzy,  it's left claw clamping down around her midsection, cutting into her, but not as deeply as one might think.   There was definitely something more to the young woman than she let on.  


Maia caught it only out of the corner of her eye, but in a heartbeat, Kamala's eyes flooded with darkness and a mask of purple light shaped like a skull flickered into being over her face. She pointed at the last deathstalker and spoke a single Word in a dozen voices at once, ever so slightly out of synch with each other.

The last deathstalker stopped moving another heartbeat later having died trying to live up to it's name.

The dusky healer swayed in place as the effect faded, dripping blood from her shoulder and good hand groping through her pouch full of medical supplies, "You okay? I have some clean rags and alcohol in here if you need it..." 

"I'll be fine, it got me, but not too deeply.   How about you, that thing stung you, and their venom is pretty nuts for its paralytic effects.     I can't believe you're actually up and around after that really.  That's pretty impressive."   

She did take the rags and alcohol to disinfect the wounds where she'd been grabbed, and then bound her sides to stop the bleeding.   

"We should head back inside and get some rest, and find a way to draw the venom out."

"No need. One of my Words allows me to bring health to others. I'd be a much worse healer if I feared sickness or poison in my work," she offered with a smile tinged with pain as she tested her injuries, walking towards the cave entrance, "Be sure to wake me a little before dawn, and I'll take care of those ribs for you, Maia. Least I could do for so helpful a companion if I'm not pushing it..."

Maia smiled, taking Kamala's good arm around her shoulders to help her back to the Cave.   "Sure, that will be great."   She gave her a smile that felt like a warm summer day.   "Let's just make it easy, and say we're Friends, Kamala."

 

deathstalker picture

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