Black was all Adi could see when they stepped onto the sands.
She had heard the rumors, but she couldn't bring herself to believe it was really as bad as they said. But as she looked upon the land before her, she realized that the rumors were no exaggeration. If this was the Second Blackening, Adi thanked the heavens she was not around to see the first. Sand that had once been as white and vibrant as diamond was now stained pitch black. Even the sky was blotted out by an endless curtain of ash; the famous everlasting sun of the Violet Sands dared not shine its light here anymore. The entire land seemed dead; the clumped, soot-stained earth beneath Adi's boots reminded her of rotting meat.
Adi broke herself out of her reflection long enough to take notice of her companions. They were not unaffected by the scene either – even Havan's stalwart conviction faltered as he stood stock-still, gazing at the ruined land in horror. They had seen ruin before, when the waves came to take Wadassia, but it was nothing compared to this. Wadassia had survivors, remnants. Wadassia could rebuild. What would happen to this forsaken place? Did any fih'jik even remain?
Havan's eyes refocused suddenly. “Right, then,” he said, though his voice seemed weaker than usual. He motioned towards their ship. “First things first. What should we do with the artifact?” Adi bit her lip and forced herself to hold back a scathing retort. Even now, of all times, he was still concerned with his bauble?
“We can't carry it all around the desert with us,” Adi said carefully. “Cort will get exhausted, and we need all the energy we can get if we're going to search this place.” Havan mulled this over, looking distant.
“But...what if...a bandit, or...”
“No one is going to find us here, Havan.” Adi motioned towards the wasteland before them. “If there are any survivors, they won't go far from the remaining cities. Our ship is safe here.” Havan gazed across the sand, still looking uncertain. Adi rolled her eyes. “Fine,” she said. “I'll set up a ward. Even if someone stumbles across the ship, they won't be able to get in. Happy?”
Havan reluctantly nodded an affirmative.
“Good,” Adi said, drawing her wand. A simple warding spell was all they needed – a physical barrier would keep out any vagrants that stumbled across the ship. Adi began to form the spell in the back of her mind automatically, though she couldn't help but let her thoughts wander as she looked towards the ship. It was one of Wadassia's finest vessels – a windless one, too. She briefly thought of what her countrymen would do without it, but quickly suppressed the thought when it dug up pangs of guilt. It wasn't stealing. They would return it when they came back. It was the only way. They had to know the truth.
Adi didn't know how long they had been wandering when they came across the first survivor.
Under normal circumstances, the fih'jik would have been hard to spot. But the contrast between its bright orange pelt and the dead black sands was stark. It almost looked unnatural, out of place in its own homeland. The creature had its back to them, and appeared to be digging for something.
“Stop,” Havan said when they saw the survivor, crouching behind a nearby rock. “It could be hostile. We don't want to alert it to our presence.”
“Havan, what threat could it possibly be?” Adi protested. “It's probably just a gatherer looking for food. It also knows these sands. It could direct us –”
“Help us?” Havan scoffed. “Why would it do such a thing? Common courtesy is dead, Adi. We are strangers to it.”
“I...agree with massster Adi,” Cort murmured from beside them. Adi was somewhat surprised; it was rare for the shra to express an opinion of his own. Havan turned to look at him and raised an incredulous eyebrow.
“Really?” he said. Cort looked down at his feet, looking chastised.
“The...the fih'jik...they are nice to the shra people. I...trussst that this one will not be unreasssonable.”
Havan mulled this over. “They did have good relations with the shra,” he admitted. “But that was before the catastrophe. We don't know...”
“You didn't used to be this distrustful, Havan,” Adi said coldly.
The words made Havan wince. A reminder of the easier days was always painful when contrasted with the ruined life they now led.
“Fine,” he sighed, throwing his arms up in defeat. “Two against one. You win. Let's –”
A ragged voice spoke some words in the fih'jik tongue. Adi took a moment to dig up memories of her old language classes. She was fairly certain it was expressing confusion about the presence of a shra. The wind must have shifted and carried Cort's scent towards the fih'jik.
“It can smell Cort,” Adi said. “It wants to know what a shra is doing here.” Havan cursed.
Cautiously, Cort stood up and faced the direction the voice was coming from. After a moment's hesitation, Adi followed suit.
“What are you doing?” Havan hissed. “You don't know –”
“We agreed on this,” Adi said flatly. “Get up.” His face dark, Havan stood up from behind the boulder.
“Humans also?” the fih'jik said, switching to the human tongue. His accent was thick and his pronunciation was stilted. It probably hadn't needed to use the language in a long time. It had stepped closer to them, and Adi could now see that it was clearly thin and malnourished. A crude bow was slung across its back. A hunter, then. Its stance was not hostile, but nor was it completely relaxed; the creature was still suspicious of these strangers.
Havan spoke up first. “We are the Blue Guard, a guild of Wadassia. We are...looking for something. If you point us in the right direction, we will trouble you no more.”
The fih'jik stared at the group unblinking, reflecting on their words. “What are you looking for?”
“Does Do'Ssha still stand?” Havan asked.
“Yes,” the hunter said tersely. Adi was surprised by the speed and sharpness of the response. She sensed that this was a sensitive topic. The city could not have escaped unscathed, but for many fih'jik, it was all they had left. They didn't want to betray weakness.
If Havan noticed the fih'jik's tone, he pretended not to notice. “What we seek is not far from the city. If you direct us to it, we would be able to find our way from there.” The hunter gave a sharp, mirthless laugh.
“Direct you to my peoples' last bastion of hope and salvation? You cannot even tell me what you search for. How do I know you will not simply slaughter the inhabitants and take all we have left? No.” Havan gripped the black stone until his knuckles shone white, and his face flushed with anger.
“Pleassse,” Cort begged. “They are not bad people. They will not hurt you. I promissse.” The hunter shook his head.
“Even if you have a shra-friend with you, the risk is too great. Please, leave. Do not trouble us further.” Havan quivered with rage. He opened his mouth to speak a retort, but Adi quickly placed a firm hand on his shoulder to silence him.
“Would you accept a gesture of our goodwill?” Adi said. The hunter narrowed his eyes.
“We do not need your charity. The people of Do'Ssha can support themselves.”
“You're starving,” Adi said. “I can tell. You're thin and frail. I don't know what food you're hunting out here in the desert, but I can tell it's not enough.” The hunter froze, saying nothing.
“Yes,” Havan said, composing himself. His face suddenly relaxed, and he put on his practiced smile. “I can't let you waste away like this, even in these trying times. If we give you food, will you help us?”
The fih'jik's eyes flitted between them cautiously. “What will you give me?”
Adi dug through their travelsack. In, truth, they did not have many rations left to spare. Most had been eaten during the voyage to the Violet Sands. All that was left was some stale bread and a few strips of dried meat. However, a small, ruddy orb caught her eye.
“Dried apple,” Adi said, holding up the fruit for the hunter to see. “A luxury from Wadassia.”
Quick as lightning, the hunter lunged towards Adi and snatched the apple out of her hands. He sniffed it cautiously, then devoured it hungrily.
“Very well. I will direct you to the outskirts of the city. But after that, trouble us no more.” He bounded off to the northwest, and the Blue Guard followed.
“Fruit. You gave him fruit,” Havan grumbled. “Gods know how long it'll be before we get another one of those.”
“He needed it more than us,” Adi said. “There's no way they can grow anything here.”
In truth, the journey did not take long. Most likely, the hunters did not dare stray far from their shelter. When they at last arrived at the gates of the city, Adi could tell it was in advanced disrepair. Many of the older buildings had crumbled. The roof had caved in on what could have once been a library or hospital. A large, domed building – presumably the city hall – was one of the few constructions still standing, though it was now caked in sand and ash. Most of the huddled residents had constructed crude tents to ward off the elements. Adi idly wondered how they would survive in the future.
“I have directed you to the gates, as per our agreement,” the hunter said tersely. “Now leave.”
“Thank you for your assistance, friend,” Havan said. Their guide turned away without another word.
“Well, here we are,” Adi said when the fih'jik was out of earshot. “Are you sure you can find the ladder from here?” Assuming it still exists, Adi added silently.
A pause. “It's been two years, but...yes. Yes, I think I can,” Havan said. He turned to face the desert. “The crowd was led this way...”
The ladder was still there.
Adi was amazed they hadn't been able to see it at a distance. It stretched infinitely skyward, disappearing behind the black ash clouds. The celestial material it was made of even seems to glow faintly. It was probably only because of the clouds that they hadn't seen it sooner – and perhaps, if not for its distinctiveness, they would not have seen it at all.
Havan's countenance had been dark all throughout their journey, but at the first sight of the ladder, his expression immediately changed. He even looked giddy
“Behold!” He laughed, his arms spread wide. “We found it! The gods never bothered to remove it! Oh, they will pay for that mistake...”
“Yes. They will pay us in information,” Adi warned.
Havan went stiff, and paused for the briefest of moments before replying. “Yes, of course. That's exactly what I meant.”
Adi was not convinced. A deep anger had been incited in Havan every since Fell's “betrayal”. Again and again she had blamed herself for not convincing him to part with that cursed object earlier, but now it was too late. Havan wanted vengeance, Adi could tell – despite his reassurances, his blue eyes ran ice-cold with anger when he looked up towards the heavens. If he actually tried to attack one of those “Watchers” – or, heavens forbid, the gods themselves – it would ruin everything.
Adi clamped a hand on his shoulder, startling him. His rusted armor was ice-cold to her touch. “Havan,” she said sharply. “Promise me you won't do anything stupid.”
“W-what's that supposed to mean?” Havan sputtered, drawing away from her. “I know the plan, Adi. We extract the information we need from the gods. By any means necessary.” He punched his hand to punctuate his point. Adi sighed.
“Alright. But let me go first.” An expression of confusion worked its way over Havan's face.
“But...but I'm the Prime C–”
“Oh please, Havan, do you really still think those titles hold any meaning?” Adi brushed past Havan and clamped one hand around a rung. She looked up, seeing the endless glowing metal rise and fade into the skies. She took a deep breath. “Let's go.”