Sorry that this is so late. It would have been out a week ago, but the recent patch messed up my future plans for Fade, forcing a rewrite for Parts 2 and 3. But it’s out now, though, so no harm done!
Abaddon’s blessings, everyone! :D
The harsh, unyielding sun was what awoke Fade from his tired slumber. Rays of pure heat stung his face, prodding him with hands unseen. Mustering his strength, he opened his eyes.
Fade was laying on solid rock. Much of the sand had been scattered when he’d played his trick with the Aspect Crystal, leaving a perfect sandless circle around where he rested. Wreckage from the Zephyr Sanctum was scattered about, still smoldering slightly from the explosion that had crippled the airship. One bamboo stalk was still on fire, sticking out of the sand like a torch.
Fade stood. His muscles protested with pain and stiffness, but the monk knew he didn’t have much time. He had no food, no water, no way to defend himself. If he stayed where he was, he would be defeated by either a passing monster or the dread sun itself. Knowing time was of the essence, he began to scavenge through the wreckage.
His quest proved to be in vain, as Fade found very little of use. There were some quartz crystals, prized for their beauty, but they would only help him if he stumbled across a market in the middle of the desert. For some reason, he found that unlikely. He took them anyway, though, just in case. There was a broken table and a few chairs that had miraculously survived the fall, but he could hardly lug them through the wastes, could he? Fortunately, though, there were also provisions—a day’s worth of food and water, soiled by the sand but still edible, as well as a very tasty beverage they’d picked up at the Festival of the Four Winds. The hylek that brewed it had a name for the drink, but Fade couldn’t quite remember it. Sparkling Luminescence? No, that didn’t right.
One discovery, while useful, came with a layer of tragedy. Very near where the monk had been laying, Fade rediscovered the Aspect Crystal… or what remained of it. The magically-charged gemstone that had saved his life did not receive nearly as soft a landing as Fade. It had been shattered into several fragments, glowing sadly and dimly as its magic seeped away into the desert air. Fade scooped up all the pieces he could. They still held some magic, and could still whip up a gust or two if he found himself in a tight spot. And leaving it here to be swallowed by the desert sands just seemed… wrong.
Fade wrapped his supplies up in the remains of a decorative kite that had once flown above the Sanctum. As he was finishing the job, he suddenly felt on edge, as though he was being watched by some malevolent force. His gaze bolted up, hoping to catch his watcher off-guard.
The Zephyrite saw no potential assailant. He saw exactly what he expected to see—a harsh arid waste with nothing to offer but sand and stone for miles around. There were no signs of civilization to speak of.
Except for one. In the distance, beyond many dunes and a sandstone ridge, a great pillar of black smoke rose into the sky. Such a sight couldn’t come from a natural fire—Fade hadn’t seen any trees on the way down. That left one explanation.
What remained of the Zephyr Sanctum was that-a-way.
Fade finished his makeshift pack. It wasn’t particularly strong and it was far from pretty, but it would do. He set off silently eastward, but couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched by something. That was impossible, though. He was alone in the desert.
Fade had been walking for nearly an hour before he saw the lightning.
It simply wasn’t possible. There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky, and yet he saw it as clear as day. Three bolts of lightning struck a spot out of sight beyond the nearest dune, each exactly a second apart. They stopped for ten seconds, and then struck again in the same pattern, like clockwork.
Could he be hallucinating? Fade didn’t think so. His didn’t feel delirious, though he did feel a little thirsty. No, he was in his right mind, which meant that something very peculiar was going on behind that hill.
Should he investigate? The Zephyr Sanctum was still a little under a day’s walk away, judging by the smoke, and night would fall soon. He couldn’t waste what little time he had chasing lightning. And whatever it was might be dangerous, too. This far from safety, risking injury was a bad idea.
And yet, those bolts were familiar. The Zephyrites harnessed the power of lightning to propel the airships forward and scare off potential threats—this could be another survivor, signaling for help among the arid sands.
Fade would have to choose: move along as though he’d seen nothing or take a risk for great reward.
The monk felt a shiver on the back of his neck. He whirled around. Still nothing to be seen for miles. Maybe some company is overdue, he ceded. If he kept going like this alone, he would drive himself mad. Steeling himself, he walked over the sandy ridge.
The first thing he saw was the wreckage. Strewn about the desert and still smoking, this little slice of the Sanctum had fallen very far from the main wreck. A large part of the stern was here, as were the ruins of several cabins. Over a dozen dead bodies were scattered about, already rotting in the steadfast sunlight. Several were barely recognizable as human; their bodies were twisted at odd, unnatural angles, their dying expressions of Lucent and terror slowly withering away. Fade looked upon them with sadness.
The lightning was striking at the peak of the largest chunk of debris. When he saw the cause, he wanted to cry out in joy. There at the top, sitting calmly with her legs crossed, was another survivor.
As he drew closer, he could make out details. For someone that spent her time above the clouds, she was surprisingly pale. Her hair was black like Fade’s, but longer and haggard, hanging loosely over her shoulders. Her robes and much of her body were stained with sand, ash and grime, though she looked calm and peaceful. Her hands were raised, and floating between them was a purple Aspect Crystal, still intact. That crystal was the lightning’s target. Bolts rained down from the sky on the small translucent stone, somehow not frying the woman in the process.
Fade had made it to the base of the wreck, and he realized abruptly that the strikes had stopped. “It looks like my little signal worked,” the woman observed, smiling. She opened her eyes and looked down. Those eyes were a peculiar shade of light green, like Canthan jade. He found them mesmerizing.
“Uh… hello?” he called up.
A man’s head popped out of the wreck. He was a tall, black-haired Canthan like Fade, but he wasn’t nearly as serene as the woman was. In fact, he looked terrified. “Is it over?” he asked. “I’ve never liked lightning.”
“Yet you travel with us?” Fade inquired.
The man gave him a guilty frown as he climbed out of the wreckage and into full view. “Wasn’t exactly my choice,” he admitted. “My lover’s a Zephyrite, convinced me to join you. You haven’t seen her, have you? Short, Elonan, always has a playful little twinkle in her eye—”
The man cringed as he heard a particularly loud crack of lightning. The woman at the top of the wreck disappeared in a flash. A moment later, she appeared right next to the man, her Aspect Crystal floating above her left shoulder. “She’s probably fine, Lucent,” she told him in a soothing voice, as though trying to calm a panicking dolyak. “I know her. Sparrow has survived much worse.”
“You’re… probably right,” Lucent replied. “She’s fine.” He seemed as though he was trying to convince himself more than anyone else.
The woman turned her green eyes back to Fade. “You look familiar,” she said. “But I can’t place you. What’s your name?”
“Fade,” replied the monk. “You?”
“Oh, yeah!” Fade exclaimed with recognition. “You’re that woman that likes to meditate on the tip of the bow.” He frowned. “Weren’t you ever afraid you’d fall?”
“I had no fear of falling, and that is why I didn’t,” replied Aura.
“I have no idea what that means.”
“Think on it,” advised Aura. “You’ll figure it out.”
“Glint knows I have the time for it,” muttered Fade. “Do any of you need food or water? I have plenty of supplies.”
Aura shook her head and flashed him a small smile. “Very kind of you,” she said. “But we already have plenty.” She gestured toward a pile of scavenged supplies near the edge of the wreck. “About a week’s worth for us. You?”
Fade rubbed the back of his head awkwardly. “Uh… a day,” he admitted. “Do you know if anyone else survived the crash? Or is it just us?”
“Didn’t you come from the Sanctum?” Lucent asked. “I thought there would be survivors at the Sanctum.” His eyes widened. “What if we’re the last ones left?”
“He didn’t come from the Sanctum,” Aura answered for him. “He came from the west. The Sanctum is to the east. Don’t you see the smoke?” She pointed toward the black plume that conveniently marked Fade’s destination. She grasped Lucent’s shoulder and looked him in the eye. “If we survived,” she told the panicking monk. “Others will have too. The Masters probably saved hundreds on our way down, and Sparrow will be among them. Now, please calm down.”
Lucent closed his eyes and took a number of deep breaths. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s just… hard, not knowing where she is.”
“Is he always like this?” Fade asked.
“Every day,” Aura answered.
Fade couldn’t help but chuckle a little. It was a nervous chuckle, born of hardship and fear of what was ahead, but a sign of mirth nonetheless. Aura smiled a bit too, then sobered. “This has been hard for all of us, but especially for him,” she said. “His home fell out of the sky. He’s lost in the desert. And the woman he cares about more than anyone else is nowhere to be seen.”
“And on top of that,” Lucent added. “My lucky coin fell out of my pocket on the way down!”
“Lucky coin?” inquired Aura. “Made of bronze, about two inches across, has an image of a Saltspray dragon on the head?”
Aura pointed. “It’s just next to that pile of rubble about ten feet to your left.”
Lucent scrambled over to the spot and retrieved it with ease. “How did I miss that?” he marveled in wonder.
“We all miss things when we don’t know where to look,” Aura said wisely. Her jade eyes drifted over to the ridge. “Speaking of which, we should probably leave.”
Lucent looked fearfully at the desert, then at Aura. “But—but what about all that you said about ‘staying put’ and ‘waiting for rescue?”
“Our new friend has changed the situation somewhat,” the woman noted serenely. Her tone was completely matter-of-fact—there wasn’t a hint of accusation in her voice.
Still, Fade couldn’t help but feel a little offended. “What’d I do?” he asked.
Aura turned her emerald gaze to him. “You’re being stalked,” she informed him. “There are devourers burrowing through the sand as we speak. Coming for you.” Just as she finished speaking, the sand at Fade’s feet began to churn.
“I knew I was being followed!” Fade shouted in twisted triumph as a massive clawed insect lunged out of the desert.
Devourers were similar to the giant spiders Fade had sometimes met back in Cantha. They had the same beady black eyes, the same spindly legs, the same feral aggression. But the devourer came with added features. It had a set of razor-like pincers that clacked together like organic guillotines. A hardened carapace covered it like a set of armor. Last but not least, two curved, barbed tails arched above the creature’s body, each tip dripping with green venom.
And both of those barbed tails were moving toward Fade’s face at frightening speed.
For a moment, the monk froze, like a soon-to-be-dead mouse staring into the eye of a serpent. A sudden rush of shock and fear had rendered him all but useless. He would have died there had it not been for Aura. Her Aspect Crystal glowed, and a bolt of lightning arced from the magic-infused gemstone to the eight-legged menace. The devourer was thrown away by the force of the blast, its badly scorched carcass landing in a sand dune.
The air was suddenly thick with the sound of clicking pincers. More devourers burrowed their way into view, two, then four, then seven, then ten. Soon, no less than fifteen giant, desert-dwelling insects were bearing down upon them. They advanced as one, clearly infuriated by the death of their comrade. Yet Fade couldn’t help but notice that they weren’t headed for the strange woman and her magic lightning.
They were coming for him.
Fade looked around for something to fight with. Finding no conventional weapons laying conveniently at his feet, he decided on a particularly sharp shard of quartz crystal. Lucent didn’t have much better luck—his weapon of choice was a small branch of bamboo that had once been a part of the Zephyr Sanctum.
Overall, things looked grim. I will not panic again, Fade resolved. The wayward Zephyrite raised his shard of quartz and twirled like a dagger. It actually felt rather comfortable in his hand. A ghost of a smile crossed his mouth, but it vanished instantly when he realized that he was still hopelessly outnumbered and had nowhere to run.
The devourers took that moment of uncertainty as an invitation. The closest three charged.
Aura’s lightning struck down two in a split second, but the third reached Fade with little trouble. Unfortunately for the devourer, the Zephyrite was ready. He plunged his makeshift dagger into the creature’s carapace, just below the eye. This, as it turned out, was the right place to strike; the devourer convulsed and let out an odd mix between a hiss and a shriek. He pulled the quartz away, and the devourer fell, presumably dead.
While this was going on, though, another two decided to take advantage of his distraction, attacking before he had the chance to full raise his weapon. Aura once again struck with lightning, eliminating one foe, but it was Lucent that really shined. Rushing forward with a surprisingly intimidating battlecry, the timid monk brought his bamboo rod down on the devourer’s back. Caught off-guard, the devourer could only lay there as Lucent struck again and again, eventually cracking its carapace and dealing a death blow. “Did I win?” he asked when the deed was done.
For one moment, the devourers hesitated, seeing how poorly their friends had faired. Aura used this opportunity to go on the offensive, smiting two more before they could let out a surprised hiss. The remaining seven, half of their fighting force gone in an instant, fell back to the ridge. Aura manage to strike one more as they retreated.
Safely out of range of Aura’s blasts, they regrouped at the top of the dune. They all glared at Fade with merciless beady eyes, paying his allies barely any notice at all.
“Why are they after me?” Fade exclaimed in frustration.
“It’s how devourers hunt,” answered Lucent. “They find a target, then pursue it mercilessly until it keels over and dies. The only ways out are either killing them or going somewhere they can’t follow.”
“How do you know that?”
“I do a lot of reading.”
The sand near the devourers churned. Three more appeared. “They’re gathering their forces,” Aura observed. “Once they have enough, they’ll charge and overwhelm us.”
“Can’t you stop them, though?” Fade pointed out as another two devourers appeared. “You have the lightning.”
“Not all of them,” she said. “There’s only so much an Aspect Crystal can do. I can kill some of them, hold them for a little while, but if enough of them attack, it will all be for naught.” There was no trace of fear or sorrow in her voice—it was as though she was talking about the weather instead of a marauding insect army.
“So we run,” Lucent suggested, his hands trembling slightly.
“We’ll never clear the ridge,” pointed out Aura. “And if even if we did, they’d run us down until we collapse from exhaustion.
It was at that moment that an idea struck Fade. It was an unorthodox idea. It was a moderately insane idea. But like all unorthodox and moderately insane ideas, it had a shot at working. “Unless we have the wind at our backs,” he said.
Lucent stared Fade like a madman. “What in Glint’s name are you talking about?”
“These.” Fade opened his makeshift pack and brought out the shards of the Aspect Crystal that had saved his life. “These shards still have magic left,” he explained. “I can use them to summon a tempest that will take us far away from these devourers.”
“Or slam us into a wall of sandstone a mile away,” Lucent noted. “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“It’s a risk,” Fade admitted. “But it’s either that or take our chances with the…” He did a quick headcount. “…seventeen devourers waiting to kill us all.”
“I’ll take the wind,” Lucent said immediately.
“I thought you might.”
“They’re charging,” Aura reported grimly. Fade and Lucent looked back up at the ridge and saw that she was right. They were clamoring over themselves, a wave of impatiently clicking pincers and barbed tails eager to horribly murder the Zephyrite defenders. “If we’re going to do this, we should do this now.”
Fade couldn’t help but agree with that sentiment. Cupping the crystals in the palms of his hand, he closed his eyes and cleared his mind of all thoughts. He let every sensation he felt slip away—the smell of the burning desert air, the bloodthirsty hissing of the devourer army, his own fear of death and dismemberment at the hands—claws?—of giant angry bugs. He thought only of soaring away from this wreckage, away from the devourers and away from his troubles.
Fade felt the wind pick up, slowly at first but gaining strength quickly. He opened his eyes. The three Zephyrite survivors were surrounded by a swirling wall of wind, tossing away any devourer that got near. Debris from the Sanctum was being thrown about the desert with ease, kites and quartz crystals and chunks of the hull taking to the sky. And the gust was only getting stronger.
The gale tightened around the three monks, spinning faster and faster and faster. Fade braced himself, knowing what was about to happen a second before it occurred. And then… the trio was launched into the air with the force of an asuran megalaser.
They flew low, but fast, zooming far to the east in a matter of seconds. They flew past great sandstone cliffs and canyons, and even the wrecks of other airships. Lucent cried out in terror and covered his eyes. Fade closed his eyes too, but only to shield them against the wind and the sand. He wasn’t terrified at all.
In fact, he was happier at that moment than he had been in years.
They had begun to slow and descend when Fade heard Aura’s uncharacteristic shriek. He glanced back. His happiness fell faster than the Zephyr Sanctum.
One devourer had made its way through the gale, and now clung to Aura’s leg. Its twin tails were thrashing against the winds, trying to sting. If it succeeded, Fade knew Aura wouldn’t leave this desert alive. Though he didn’t know how potent a devourer’s venom was, they had neither an antidote nor a place to get one.
Fade was close enough to help, but he didn’t know what to do. His Aspect Crystal shards still had a trace of magic in them, but he needed what was left for the landing. He no longer had the quartz crystal he’d been using for a weapon—it had slid out of his hand as they had taken off. Lucent was too terrified and too far away to do anything of use. Out of desperation and lack of a better idea, Fade lashed out with his foot.
His kick struck the devourer’s unprotected stomach with full force. It was nearly flung from Aura’s foot, though it just barely managed to keep its grip. For a moment, though, that grip had slackened, and that was all Aura needed. She shook her leg fiercely, and the devourer flew free, arcing off in a different direction.
Aura smiled at him, but it quickly disappeared and her eyes widened with alarm. Fade glanced toward the ground and realized it was approaching much faster than he had planned. He brought up the shards of his Aspect Crystal and cast his spell.
The winds worked to slow them down, but Fade had acted just a little too late. They landed hard, rolling at least thirty feet across the sand before sliding to a rough stop. Fade took a moment to catch his breath and cough away the sand that had lodged in his mouth.
For the second time that day, he stood and examined his new surroundings. This time, he found himself not in an open desert, but a maze of sandstone formations. There was still plenty of sand, likely blown in by the constant barrage of harsh winds, but at least he found himself among actual landmarks this time. No more barren, featureless wastes for him.
Lucent was still down, half-buried in a dune. For a moment, Fade thought he was injured, but quickly realized he was only cowering in terror. “It’s over, right?” he asked. “I can open my eyes now?”
“It’s over,” Aura assured him. She was already on her feet, dusting off her robes. The usually serene woman was breathing heavily, still recovering from her quick succession of near-death experiences. “You can get up, you know.”
The terrified Zephyrite uncovered his eyes. A look of delighted shock came over his face, as though it was a pleasant surprise that had turned out fine. He let out a cry of joy and began jumping up and down with mirth. “I’ve never seen him do that before,” Aura told Fade.
Fade shrugged. He couldn’t blame Lucent; if he wasn’t so exhausted at the moment, he would probably be doing the same thing. It wasn’t every day that one cheated death twice.
Eventually, Lucent calmed down and cast a quizzical glance in the direction of his allies. “So what now?” he asked.
“Excellent question, troublesome interlopers,” a sinister voice answered before Fade could open his mouth. All three of the Zephyrites whirled toward the sound’s source.
A small, gray figure with massive ears stepped out from the great shadows cast by the sandstone formations. Fade recognized it instantly as an asura. He also recognized what it was holding in its hands: a rifle, clearly modified with asuran technology.
“There are two options for those that are found trespassing on Inquest territory,” the asura continued. As he kept talking, more armed asura appeared, cutting off any escape route. “One option is to surrender and live. The other is to fight and die.” By this point, several large, nasty-looking golems were standing behind the armed asura, ready to defend their master at the slightest movement.
The asura levelled his rifle to Fade’s head. “Which will it be, human?”