A courier transports a crate of unknown contents across the Star Glass Desert.
| In all his travels, Kaustryx would have never believed he could be so cold in the middle of a desert. Yet there he was, shivering in his worn leather coat as he trudged on in the dead of night. The flickering orange light of his lantern guided his way, dancing in the protection of its glass casing. Foggy streams of his breath flowed over his shoulders as howling winds from the eastern mountains chilled his ears and hurt his eyes. A worn, browned map fluttered in the wind, tucked loosely in Kaustryx’s belt strap. The crunch of breaking glass followed every step of his heavy iron boots. The boots had seemed an absurd purchase until he was reminded of the route he would take to make his delivery. If not for the unexplained, urgent need for the package to be delivered, he would have chosen any other route. |
The Star Glass Desert, a vast expanse of glittering dunes which spanned from the east mountains to the western sea, was a dangerous and inhospitable environment. Kaustryx slowly began his ascent of the large glass dune in his path, stepping firmly down and pushing up and onward as the crystalline daggers flowed to fill his footprints. The glass shards would serrate anyone foolish enough to cross it in unprotected attire. The skeletons buried in blood-stained shards attested to this fact. It was best to travel under the dark, cold cover of night, since the heat of the day was unbearable. Even were it not, the glare of sunlight reflecting off its splintery surface would make it impossible to see where you were stepping.
Had Kaustryx remembered how cold it would get, he would have purchased another layer of clothes back at the mountain base village where he had received this dangerous job. Yet he wouldn’t have to worry about that for long. Thankfully, his mysterious employer had left him a map showing a quick route through the Star Glass Desert. Kaustryx paused at the dune’s apex, taking the map out and holding it close to his lantern. Looking up from the parchment, he could see the great blue pillar, the Azure Star Heart, to his North. Legends from long ago said the desert was once kissed by the presence of a brilliant white star, which burned so hot all the sand in the desert melted in its presence, and what little life which blossomed there was reduced to naught but ashes. When the star faded away, all that remained was the towering heart of the dead star, and a giant glass mirror. Years passed and cutting winds had carved the great mirror into a sea of sharp and deadly glass shards.
Just beyond the Azure Star Heart, Kaustryx could make out the canyon that separated the Star Glass Desert from the pristine plains of the tropical Guellmund Coast. According to the map, he was close to reaching a cave where he could rest during the blistering daylight hours. Hopefully, he would be able to finish crossing the desert by the end of the next night. Eager to find refuge from the biting gales and lacerating landscape, Kaustryx marched onward across the sands, which glittered like gemstones in the moonlight.
Kaustryx suddenly stopped, curious about an unfamiliar sound building behind him. It wasn’t the howling of the wind, nor was it the crackle of the puncturing particles the wind blew across the dunes. As he turned, a pit of fear welled up inside him. He saw an enormous wall of debris in the distance. Glittering flickers of light broke through the surging desert wave, and a cacophony of splintering sounds was quickly approaching. Even under the burden of the weighty package of his back, the heft of his protective boots, and the exhaustion of a long night’s travel, Kaustryx was amazed how fast he could run. How could he have forgotten about the glass storms? In his deliveries near the desert border, he had heard the stories of ill-fated caravans being blended into a fine red mist by this dreadful desert phenomenon. Tearing over the dunes, he knew his only hope would be to reach the cave – but could he make it in time?
Frantic fear drove him on as the growing roar of the shredding storm grew ever closer. Kaustryx scaled another tall dune and spotted the cave’s entrance at the base. As he began his hurried descent, the weight of his footwear tipped his balance, and he fell headlong the crystalline desert fangs beneath him. Screaming from the iron hot pain shooting through his body, he came to rest by the cave’s mouth. Despite the agony shooting through his limbs, he managed to grab his lantern and stand up. With searing pain biting at his face, hands, and knees, Kaustryx managed to limp into the underground sanctuary. Still uncertain of his safety, he trudged onward until he could no longer hear the shrieking of wind and crunching of glass.
Fatigue claimed Kaustryx’ s body, and he could no longer stand. Falling to his knees on the cave’s hard stone floor, he gently slid his travel pack off his back. Reaching into it, he lifted the small, heavy crate out of his bag and placed it on the floor. He rummaged around inside his pack until he found his emergency kit. In an arduous process, Kaustryx began to pick the shards of glass from his body; he used the medical supplies to disinfect and bandage up his pierced flesh. After he determined he would no longer bleed out, Kaustryx laid down on the floor, too exhausted to continue. The floor’s cool embrace led him into a deep sleep.
Much later, Kaustryx slowly opened his eyes to see a burning torch flickering on the wall, revealing a grid of thick metal bars. Slowly pushing his aching body off the floor, he found himself in a prison cell. To his left, a short elderly figure in a dusty grey cloak was hunched over a wooden table laden with papers, bottles, and jars.
A gruff voice rose from the old man, who turned to look at Kaustryx with sunken, tired eyes. “Oh, you’re awake. I am glad that you were able to make it here, despite your injuries.” A small smile curled up under his wild, unkempt mustache.
Kaustryx took a step back, confused at the man’s disposition given their surroundings. “I’m sorry? Who are you? Where are we?”
“You’re right where you need to be young man, and not a moment too soon. I feared you would not arrive with my package in time.”
Kaustryx noticed the package sitting on the opposite side of the table, opened and full of bottles of various powders and liquids. “Wait, slow down – YOU’RE the one who needed this stupidly heavy package as soon as possible?”
“Sorry you had to lug it through one of the most dangerous places on the planet, but I promise you that in the end, this will all have been worth it.”
“No. No! NO! What you just said explains absolutely nothing. I understand that you might understand the situation we are in, given how ABSURDLY CALM you are, but I don’t. WHO are you, HOW did I get here, and most importantly WHY are you so calm that we’re in a prison cell??”
The sound of footsteps echoed through the dark passageway outside. The elder grabbed the collar of Kaustryx’s coat and pulled him closer with a strength you wouldn’t expect from such thin old arms. “Hush now. Bad company is drawing close, and I don’t need your quibbling making this difficult. I’ve been planning for this too long for some foolish courier to make a mess of it all!”
Kaustryx stumbled back, confused and somehow intimidated by a man less than half his height. Before he could respond, the jangling of metal and the sound of voices behind him caught his attention. Kaustryx turned to face two robed figures approaching the cell, one stout as a barrel and the other lean as a pole. The short one wore a boar skull with sharpened tusks, and the tall one wore a large bird skull. The short one spoke first.
“Hello, dear guest. We trust that your new accommodations have been adequate?”
“Cease your pretentious theatrics, Baste. It’s clear this young man doesn’t grasp the magnitude of our… generous hospitality,” the lean one interjected. “But we do hope our old friend Horace has been a good host.”
Stepping forward, the old man grunted, “Enough of your jeering. You can see I’ve kept my end of the bargain. Now, keep yours.”
The two men looked at each other silently for a long time through the hollow eyes of their masks. Finally, the thin one sighed. “Very well, Horace. I suppose after all your years of service to the Cult of Iggothol the Binder, it is time we release you from our service.”
“Aw, come on now Dimock, do we have to? I was almost winning during our last game of cards!”
Dimock sighed and turned to his stout companion. “Come now, Baste. He was letting you win, and we both know it.”
“What? How dare you! You’re accusing me of being a worse card player than this decrepit old man,” the round one protested.
“That is precisely what I am saying, you boulder-brained buffoon. Regardless, this is the man who has helped us uncover our ancient worship grounds. The dark master would not be pleased if we denied him his freedom after completing the terms of our agreement.”
“But Iggothol is the Binder!” Baste protested, as he fumbled with the keyring on his waist. “What kind of demon lets his prisoners, his sacrifices go?”
“Oh Baste,” Dimock said condescendingly, “You know our grim master spares those of great use to him and his followers. Do I need to ask master Grendwurn to lengthen your time studying the unholy doctrines?”
“Oh no you don’t you conniving crane! I’ve studied those dusty scrolls for far longer than you have! I don’t need to dump any more of my time into that while you suck up to Grendwurn so you can seem “OH so LOYAL” while SLEEPING during our dark communion sessions!”
The click of the cell door’s lock was almost drowned out by the stick-like man’s retort.
“How DARE you! Grendwurn simply recognizes my devotion to the cause and knows that you need to focus more on your lacking faith.”
Baste walked away from the cell door and looked right into Dimock’s eyes. “Everyone could hear you snore, Dimock! Grendwurn almost made you a sacrifice, just to make an example! You should be grateful that fool Reemus was laughing his head off at you, and Grendwurn chose to relieve him of it.”
The elder, apparently named Horace, shook his head, and whispered to Kaustryx, “Come. They’ll be distracted for a while. Let’s go”.
Horace then pushed the creaking cell door open, as the two goons’ argument began to turn into a tirade. Grabbing Kaustryx’s hand, the old man pulled him from the cell and walked past the two goons. The two had lost all perception of the world outside of their argument. And since they were busy, Kaustryx decided it would be best to follow this peculiar old man.
Horace guided Kaustryx up winding dimly lit corridors carved through stone. Kaustryx was surprised that the elder was able to guide him so easily through such dark passages. How did he know where he was going?
The petty arguments of the two halfwits were almost inaudible at this point. Still confused as to his situation, Kaustryx opened his mouth to speak, but Horace beat him to it.
“You’re lucky that you came to when you did. Otherwise, we would both be in serious danger.”
“You still haven’t answered any of my questions.”
“Yes,” Horace conceded. “I suppose you’ve earned an explanation for keeping your mouth shut long enough for them to work themselves into their usual bickering storm. But first…” the old man turned to face him as they stopped at a torch, “you DO still have your lantern, correct?”
Kaustryx sighed, exhausted by the elder’s constant demands. Nevertheless, he reached into his travel pack and took out the small spherical object, holding it in front of him.
“Fantastic!” the old man chuckled, opening the lantern hatch. “This is going far better than I had planned.”
Horace took a small twig out of his belt and held it to the smoldering hallway illuminator. He guided the little light he had captured into the orb and lit the wick inside. An orange glow began to reawaken within the lantern as he closed the light within it.
“There’re no lights from this point on. I’ve walked these halls for so many years, but even I get lost in the dark near the surface.”
Frustrated, Kaustryx grumbled. “Yes. Good. Now I believe I am overdue for some answers. Good ones.”
“Right,” Horace replied. “Now, we still have quite a way to go before we make it to our next obstacle, so ask away!”
“First of all, where are we?”
Horace held out his arms in a dramatic fashion. “Welcome to the buried temple city of Amur. Home to the wretched Cult of Iggothol, servants to the dark god of bindings and weakness.” He said in a gruff, sarcastic tone.
“How did I get here?” Kaustryx asked as they began to climb a long set of stairs.
“…Well to be perfectly honest,” the old man turned and gave a weak smile as he huffed from exertion, “that might have been my doing – not directly, though.”
“Let me start from the beginning. A few years back I was an alchemist making my way to Guellmund after a long trip on the opposite side of the desert. My son was getting married, and I didn’t want to be late to his wedding, so I decided to take a huge risk. That night, I bundled myself up and traveled into the desert just like you did. I took shelter in the same cave I marked on your map, but I didn’t get to rest for long. The Cult had made these underground tunnels their hideout, and I had walked right through their front door. They had dug themselves into the old city ruins to get close to the Azure Star Heart. They hoped to harness its latent magic power to break the seals of their dark master’s prison.”
Horace wheezed, stopping at the top of the stairs. “I-I’m sorry, I know you might not have recovered from your journey here, but do you think you could carry me? I can’t walk any further.”
Reluctantly, Kaustryx agreed to carry the old man. Passing by him, Kaustryx bent down and let Horace climb onto his shoulders. He was surprised at how light he was.
“Thank you,” said Horace. “I begged for my life, and rather than sacrifice me, Grendwurn, the leader of this gaggle of goose-brained simpletons, decided to let me live as long as I helped excavate their precious temple. They had scavenged enough materials from the ruins for me to make explosives to clear the way for a while- “
“Wait, explosives?” Kaustryx asked.
“Yes, yes, I originally made and sold them to miners in the eastern mountains. Eventually, however, they ran out of explosives, and the lackeys weren’t digging up any more saltpeter. They had finished digging out the main altar chamber, and Grendwurn had decided to make me their first offering. In a moment of desperation, I came up with a plan. I told him we could make a request for the courier service to deliver the supplies from the mountains in the east. Whoever took the job would bring more materials, I would continue making the explosives necessary for unburying their wretched temple, and they would get a sacrificial offering…”
A long pause followed that sentence. Horace slyly laughed, “I hope you aren’t too sore about that...”
“So not only was I never going to get paid, but I was to forfeit my life for yours the moment I stepped into this awful hellhole. FanTASTIC.”
Horace casually dismissed my complaint. “You’re FINE. The two twits were guarding the cell tonight, so you got to escape too.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better? Since a pair of pinheads were on guard duty, I JUST avoided becoming an evil abomination’s dinner?” Kaustryx stopped and looked around. “Speaking of which, where are the rest of the cultists? It isn’t just the three of them, is it?”
Horace sighed. “No, if it was just them, I could’ve escaped a long time ago. The rest are in the altar chamber preparing for their little ritual.”
“…That’s awfully convenient timing, if you ask me.” Kaustryx said, walking on through the winding tunnels and half buried brickwork of the temple city. They entered a large hollow chamber with a tall thick stone pillar.
“Yes, it is,” Horace responded. “Remind me to pay you extra once we get out of here.”
Kaustryx stopped dead in his tracks as a figure in a leather cloak wearing a golden six-horned cow skull appeared from the darkness, holding a wicked curved dagger.
Horace groaned. “Grendwurn. I suppose our luck was bound to run out eventually…”
Grendwurn sighed, shaking his head. “I knew you would try to escape again, but I had hoped you’d learned your lesson by now. We were even going to give you your freedom this time. Will you hand over our offering, or do I need to walk you back to your cell once more?”
“Lies! You couldn’t keep me here forever, Grendwurn. But don’t feel too bad. I was always going to repay you for my ten years of slavery.” As Horace grabbed the lantern out of Kaustryx’s hand, he pulled a cylinder out of his cloak pocket and lit the fuse.
“You old fool,” Grendwurn lurched forward, “you wouldn’t – “.
The old man lobbed the lit cylinder over to the base of the pillar, the cult leader franticly chasing after it.
“MOVE, COURIER!” Horace barked.
Kaustryx realized that they were now in a new kind of danger – being buried alive from the impending blast. He bolted down the closest tunnel entrance.
“Which way is the exit?” Kaustryx asked.
“Take the next left and follow the stairs down.”
“DO IT YOU HALF BRAINED IDIOT OR WE’LL BE SHARING A GRAVE WITH THIS WRETCHED LOT!”
After the turn and a hurried descent down the stairs, Kaustryx could see moonlight at the end of the passage. A wicked boom echoed through the twisting tunnels, and the earth around him trembled under the weight of the desert above. Pushing on, Kaustryx left the shadowy maze and found himself running across a decaying brick bridge over a large gorge.
The familiar crunch of breaking glass was soon drowned out by a loud din. Looking behind them, Kaustryx realized that glass shards were falling from the Azure Star Heart pillar into the canyon below as it sank into the earth. He wouldn’t have thought that he would ever welcome the sound of those shattering stars, but the noise reassured him as he ran. They were almost to safety! Kaustryx just had to make it to the other side of the bridge.
The old man was gripping Kaustryx’s neck as hard as he could, and the pair barely made it across the bridge and under the overhanging rockface on the other side. Adrenaline giving way, Kaustryx dropped to his knees, feeling the walls of his lungs pushing against his ribcage. For a moment, the sound of splintering crystalline stars drowned all else, and then the canyon was silent.
“That… was close,” Kaustryx gasped.
“Indeed, young man! You managed to save both of our lives!” Horace said laughing
“Just give me… a moment… to catch my breath…”
“Take your time,” Horace said, slowly getting off Kaustryx’s back. “I’ll just head back home now –“
Kaustryx’s hand firmly gripped Horace’s arm. “You are not going anywhere until I get paid for the best damn delivery service of your life, old man.”