"Are you entirely sure this is safe"— Marcille starts to say, before the portal out of the golden city cuts her off with a horrible VOIP. When it spits the entire party out several hundred feet above a barren expanse of sand, and when she realizes how quickly that distance is closing as they fall, she can't even bring herself to be surprised.
"Do something!!," screams Chilchuck. In her peripheral vision, Senshi flails. Laios makes some inarticulate, high-pitched screech. She does her best to shut them out, focusing instead on her staff. SLOW ! she tells the air around them, and YOU DON'T WANT US YET, she tells the ground. It's difficult without any runes to clarify her intent, and a detached, academic part of her mind notes that the results will probably be a little rough. She focuses her will, reaches for the reserve of strength she'd only just regained from a genuine, uninterrupted, peaceful night of sleep in an actual bed, hoping it'll be enough—
— And it is, just barely. The spell kicks in just in time to drain their momentum, the energy from their fall turning to heat that causes the air to shimmer bright around them, and they land in the desert not with a bone-crushing SPLAT but a merely-highly-uncomfortable SLAM.
For a little while, they just lie there. Someone groans. Senshi's back makes a horrible CRACK as he tentatively rolls over off, but he doesn't follow it up with a scream, so he's probably fine.
Izutsumi is the first to recover. Predictably, she landed on her feet, and had since been cozily curled up in a little divot of sand, unbothered by the noise of the rest of them struggling to regain their breath. But when the tether of influence from the golden country, stretched to its limit, finally breaks, she leaps up with a hiss and a start.
Marcille raises her head, wincing at the pull of strained muscles in her neck. "Izutsumi...?" she asks, tentatively. "Are you—"
"What? No. Yes." Izutsumi says, ears pinned backwards as she frantically rips at the ribbon delicately tied around her neck. "I'm fine. I'm just," she trails off, looking around for an excuse to get some distance. "The packs landed off that way. I'm gonna go check it out."
"Thank you," Marcille thinks Laios says in reply, though it might've just been a groan. "We'll meet you there in... in a minute," he continues, slightly more clearly, but Izutsumi's already gone. Shreds of pink ribbon drift gently down in her wake.
When they finally collect themselves and make it over to where their gear made its equally unceremonious landing, it seems to be mostly intact. It is, however, scattered over a wider splash zone, and the sun beating down makes the work of picking through rocks and digging out armor harsh and slow.
"It's... not as bad as it could have been," says Chilchuk, dumping a pile of sand out of a sock. "I've still got unbroken eggs, somehow. Did that spell cover our packs, too, Marcille?"
"What? No," Marcille says. Her own bag is still mostly together, carefully buckled and braced within an inch of its life. She's distractedly checking its straps, making sure nothing's tumbled out. "Or not explicitly, anyway."
"Mm," says Senshi, adding another scattered tool to the growing pile inside his pot. "So the spell did it on its own? Seems like a dangerous cast."
"It's not!" Marcille says, indignant. "I was aiming for us, but when you carry things for long enough, you start to think of them as yours, and sometimes there's a spillover effect. Sympathetic magic isn't my forte, but it mostly works through that kind of subjective connection." She sighs, looking at her wilted staff, which seems to be turning crispy under the harsh sun. "It does explain why it took so much out of me, though. That's a lot of stuff to slow down."
They work quietly for a while. Izutsumi sits cross-legged in the shadow of her own gear a little ways off, refusing to make eye contact with anyone as she sorts through her slightly fuzzy memories of the past few days. Laios checks his boots for scorpions and seems disappointed to find none.
Marcille saves investigating the smallest side pouch of her bag for last, and of course it's the only one to have fallen open in their descent. When she sees that, she freezes for a moment, not wanting to search for its contents and find them gone. She finally manages to gather her courage and reach a tentative hand inside, and her relief when she feels the tiny packet of dry, brittle things tucked at the very bottom is even greater than it was when she realized she'd managed to slow their fall. She sits for a moment, just holding it in her hands, before carefully depositing it in an inner pocket of her robe, tying its laces up tight.
"Well," Senshi says, startling her out of her reverie, "...I'm glad you caught everything, however it worked. This isn't a friendly place—"
"Is anywhere in this dungeon friendly?" interjects Izutsumi, grumpily.
"— and we're going to need to use all we have to make it out. We should take inventory and see what we've got."
"Yes!" says Laios, heaving his pack to his shoulders and standing with a grunt. "I've been meaning to dig through all the monster parts we meant to sell after our first descent. I'm sure they'll be useful."
Senshi prepares to upend his pot and start counting, but Laios interrupts him with a heavy hand on his shoulder.
"But first," Laios says, his face shining horribly with sweat and his heavy armor gleaming in the sun, "let's find some shade."
"We can certainly use... some of this," says Senshi, looking at the little pile of goods they've built up under a rocky overhang. The harpy eggs have mostly survived; they have a decent stock of flour and rice. There's a container of frozen fish from the ice caves, and some precious sugar, butter, and cream from the golden village. They're all out of vegetables from the golem, but some cabbage and carrots from the villagers managed to make it, plus a few previously-walking mushrooms, and a small amount of oil. Senshi's knife is as sharp as ever, the mithril pot undamaged, and a little plate pounded into a pie tin has joined their stock of flatware. When Chilchuck asks why she has it, Izutsumi only shrugs and mumbles something about its shine. Slightly less promising are a stack of trophies from various creatures they'd fought on their first descent— pegasus feathers, kelpie hooves, the shiny, heat-reflecting hide from some ice-dwelling beast it's better not to think about, a variety of teeth and bones.
"Most important, though," Senshi continues, "is water, since we're out of range of the castle fountains. How many whole canteens do we have?"
They all have a number of empty ones, but that’s no good. Marcille, Izutsumi, Chilchuck, and Senshi each have two full skins, but when Laios pulls his from the side of his bedroll, it's just in time to watch a last drop of liquid fall out of a rip and sizzle onto the sand.
"Laios!" says Chilchuck urgently. "Are you completely out of water?!"
"No," Laios says, sinking to his knees and staring despondently at the ground. " Worse ."
Senshi's eyebrows raise.
"I filled both my canteens with minotaur milk," Laios says, his voice cracking. "I was going to let it ferment for weeks ! It's supposed to be a delicacy! But it's barely been a few hours and it's GONE !"
Izutsumi stops digging restlessly in the sand and slowly turns to glare back at him over her shoulder. Chilchuck only sighs.
"Give them here," Chilchuck says, pulling out a small sewing kit. "And if anyone else has old skins from an earlier trek, hand them over and I'll patch them up. We're going to need more water, and we'll need a way to carry it, too."
Laios reluctantly obliges.
"Senshi," Marcille asks slowly, "do you know for sure that we're outside the castle?"
Senshi hesitates, then nods. Then shakes his head. "Yes... and no. We're still connected to the sixth floor, but the nature of the barrier here means it's a totally separate climate. There were rumors that the old king had several... diversions set up, when this castle was still alive. The east wing of the 6th floor was linked up with a desert. There used to be… parties, where visitors would view its inhabitants safely, from a distance."
"So it's fake?" pipes up Izutsumi. "Like an illusion? Can we break out of it?"
"No," says Senshi. "It may have been linked artificially, but it's very much a desert... just a contained one."
"If it's the east wing," Chilchuck says, "then we should be able to head straight west to get out of it... right?"
Senshi picks up a few of the straighter bones and takes them into the light. "Yes," he says, arranging them into a rough semicircle, with a single one upright at its center. "Fortunately, the linked door lies directly in line with the setting sun. It was meant to be dramatic. If we wait an hour, we can track the sun's movement and follow that path to the exit, back into the castle ruins. But..."
"... but if we can't see it from here," Laios continues, "it may be several days' walk away, and we certainly don't have several days' worth of food."
"There's always something," Senshi says with confidence. He brushes sand off his trousers, stands, and returns to the others under the shade of the overhang. "We'll make do."
"Here?!" Izutsumi says, disbelieving. "It's a desert !"
"Mm," says Senshi. He squats down and pokes gently around a cluster of smaller rocks at the base of a larger boulder. "But even in a desert... look."
Izutsumi peers over his shoulder. There's a tiny cluster of scraggly plant life hanging on under a rock. Chilchuck's sharp eyes catch a line of tiny crab-mites marching along the edge of a leaf blade, and he can smell that there was water here, not all that long ago. Laios reaches out a hand and catches a single creature on a fingertip. He's contemplating whether it might taste like a cricket, but Senshi says sternly, "not raw , please," and for once, remembering the squid's parasites, he agrees.
"Oh, says Marcille. "I didn't think anything could live out here, even things this tiny!"
"I've heard horror stories about giant sand-dwellers on drier islands," Chilchuck says wryly. "I'd be glad they're only small."
Marcille shudders and scoots backwards.
"In any case," says Senshi, "we should wait and rest here for about an hour. It's good to be out of the sun at its hottest, and it'll take that long to be sure of which way to go."
So they do. Chilchuck patches up their waterskins and rolls up his pant legs, sighing. Laios reluctantly packs his armor away, shedding layers down to his padded gambeson in the heat. Izutsumi stretches out in the sun, but when she catches herself making a contented, cat-like rumble, she quickly stops.
While they're waiting, Senshi hands around chips of ice from a small container. "This isn't... from the fish... is it?" Marcille asks, and when she gets no response, wrinkles her nose and pops it in her mouth anyway before it melts.
"How does that work?" asks Laios, curious. "Is that jar magical? Could we use it to preserve monster parts? Something to do with stasis? Or... does it freeze things in time?"
"Messing with time ?” says Izutsumi from her patch of sun. “Of course . Let's use some of the worst dark magic there is just to keep things chilled ."
Marcille looks at her in surprise, then asks, "Have you... studied ancient magic, Izutsumi?"
Izutsumi shrugs. "It was one of the things we looked into when researching what happened to me. Whether we could reverse it. But..." she continues, her tail tucking in around her feet, "everyone we asked said the same thing. It's too difficult. Not to mention dangerous. Whenever you mess with... potentiality, the side effects and ripples are unpredictable."
When she notices Marcille's tense gaze, she smiles, baring all her sharp teeth. "It's tempting, right? Everyone has something they wish they could go back and change. But no one we spoke to was even willing to try."
They're silent for a little while. Marcille stares off into the hazy distance, one hand clutching the little packet in the pocket of her robe. She hadn't included it in the inventory of their goods. It’s selfish, she knows, but she's had it for years, well before she joined their party. It's one of the few things she carries that's all her own.
"It won't last forever," says Senshi, standing over her.
"What?" says Marcille, startled and guilty.
"The thermos. It's not magic, it just reflects heat. The fish will keep, but the ice won't last, so we'd better finish it now."
She hesitates, then takes the last piece from his outstretched hand.
"Senshi," Laios calls from the sundial, comparing marks he's made in the sand as the sun has marched on. "We've got a direction!"
"Well," says Senshi slowly, "time to pack up." He arranges his gear, dawdling, trying not to think about the last time he was down this far in the castle and why he rarely returns to this zone.
"Mff," Marcille says around a mouthful of ice and a numb tongue, and then, trying again, "Are you okay? You seem... off."
"Do I?" Asks Senshi. "No matter. Let's go."
They march slowly west. The path takes them past several rocky depressions that might have been oases, once, but if so, they’ve long since dried out. At first, they're their usual upbeat selves— or doing their best to be, anyway. Laios pesters Senshi about self-contained ecospheres and broken biomes, but Senshi's unusually quiet on the subject of what else might be on this floor. Chilchuck starts to make a joke about giant sandboxes, but cuts himself off at a dangerous gleam in Izutsumi's eye.
Around their fifth break, though, a couple hours' steady walking in with still no sign of water, even Laios seems subdued. They've paused just below the first dune they've come across large enough to cast a shadow, taking a moment to rest in the shade cast by the low afternoon sun. Marcille catches him opening a canteen, hesitating, and closing it again.
"It won't do any good unless you drink it," she says, and her voice comes out a little more exasperated than she meant.
He smiles. "Ah... true," he says, unscrewing the cap and taking a sip. "Thanks for looking out for me. Falin would—"
Laios cuts himself off sharply, but Marcille's ears have already fallen, and she's holding her arms tight against her chest.
After a minute, he tries a different tack: "We've spent so long worrying about where our next meal is coming from that this is... a bit of an adjustment."
"If the dungeon really wanted to shut adventurers out," Chilchuck adds, looking thoughtful, "cutting off the water supply would be an easy way to do it..."
"But the monsters would all die off, too," Izutsumi points out.
"Yes," Senshi agrees. "And well before that, all the dungeon's plants, and the things that eat them, and the things that eat them . The foundations of the food chain don't change."
"Well," says Laios, packing away the waterskin and stretching as he stands. "We'd better keep an eye out for a real oasis, then! Although," he continues, his face taking on a cast that pings Marcille's entire system with DANGER!, "I've heard rumors that there are some monsters that can survive for weeks by drinking their own—"
"No," says Senshi.
"NO!!!!" chime in Chilchuck and Marcille.
Izutsumi's already vanished over the next rise.
For a while, they trudge onwards over a series of identical dunes. Izutsumi and Chilchuck are light enough to scout ahead easily, while Senshi packs down a path through the sand that Laios and Marcille can follow. They've been moving in silence for some time when Chilchuck calls back to them from the top of a dune, saying there's something up ahead.
"What kind of something?" Marcille asks, hesitant.
"I don't know!" Chilchuck answers. "Hurry up and come help figure it out."
When they finally make it up to the top, he's looking ahead at a line of spiny plants in the desert below. They look well above Laios-sized, but they're a little too far off to make out any detail.
"Senshi," Izutsumi asks, tail twitching as she peers into the distance, "...does that mean there's a spring around here somewhere? I can't see anything..."
"No. There'd be animal trails if we were anywhere near a body of accessible water," Senshi says, and all four of the rest of them feel their hopes plummet.
"But," he continues, surprisingly upbeat for having just consigned them all to an early grave, "This is lucky."
"What could POSSIBLY be lucky about no oasis?" asks Marcille.
"Well," says Senshi, "We should be able to fill up enough water for several' days trek... right from the cacti themselves."
"How?" Laios asks eagerly.
From one of his many pockets, Senshi pulls out a small, bright, metal tap. His eyes crinkle in a smile.
Up close, the cacti are surprisingly bulky; they're composed of multiple stacked segments, each the same width around, so they tower untapering to well above the height of an average human. The base of each one is surrounded by a group of thick, winding roots, branching out several yards along the ground before they dip into the dry earth. Each cactus is covered in long, thin, dangerous-looking needles, but they're spaced out enough that Izutsumi can reach a careful hand between them, and after a nod from senshi, lay it gently against a cactus's green hide.
"Oh," she says, surprised. Her ears flick forwards. "It's... softer than I expected."
"Mm," says Senshi, who's knocking on the skin of another one, listening carefully to the echoes as he circles around it. When he finds a spot that seems right, he nods and makes a small mark with the barest edge of his kitchen knife. He marks another four in similar ways, then gestures for the party to watch.
He passes out taps to each of them. "Like this," he says, lining the sharp tip of his own small spigot up to the mark, and giving its other end a strong, confident tap with the hilt of his knife. Once the tap is in, he lines a waterskin up underneath it. When he opens the tap, they all hold their breath, wanting but not daring to believe this will work— but it does, and a clear stream of water rushes out, filling the skin in seconds. Senshi closes the tap, takes a careful sip, swallows, and nods. He passes the canteen around, and they all drink gratefully. The taste is a little sweet, somehow.
When the skin is empty, Izutsumi reaches to open the tap up again, but Senshi cuts her off gently, shaking his head. "We can tap as many as we need, but only take one skin from each," he says. He pulls out the tap, and a thick sap covers the wound instantly, hardening in the sun.
After a warning to be very certain not to touch the needles, they all take their own taps and follow suit.
"That happens so quickly," Marcille says, surprised, watching the hole her tap left behind fill itself immediately in, glazing over. "I didn't think plants could do anything so fast! It seems much more like an animal healing... almost like a scab forming over."
"Yes," says Senshi.
"Senshi," Laios says, looking up from his tap in delight. " are these wandering cacti?!"
"Mm-hmm," Senshi says, distractedly, making another small-knife mark for a tap.
"Laios," Marcille says, staring suspiciously at her cactus, "what does that mean…?"
Laios claps his hands together in glee, waterskin forgotten on the ground. "These are so rare! I’ve never met anyone who’s seen them— it's a plant-animal hybrid."
"But they're … mostly plants, right?" Izutsumi says, tail starting to puff up. " Living on water and sunlight, sort of thing?"
"Oh no," says Laios. "They're definitely carnivorous."
"UM," says Marcille.
Laios pulls a small scrap of leather out of his pack, carefully brushes it against the very end of a spine, and then nods in satisfaction when it hangs there, stuck. "See?!" he says, triumphantly. "The spines are barbed, hollow, and contain a paralytic agent- anything impaled on the tip is frozen, then slowly drained and digested."
"UM!!!" says Marcille.
"Oh no, no," Laios continues hastily. "They're not dangerous unless you somehow impale yourself, so no need to worry!"
"...okay," says Chilchuck. "Anyone who wants me to take over—"
"Yes," Laios says, as Marcille and Izutsumi dump their remaining unfilled skins hastily in Chilchuck's arms. "It's really just a matter of fine motor control.”
"Right, says Chilchuck."
"But we should probably be well away before night falls and they wake up," says Laios.
"WAKE UP?!" shout Marcille and Izutsumi. Chilchuck flinches and narrowly avoids impalement.
"Oh yes! They're dormant during the daytime; it's not until the temperature drops that they become active hunters. See the tentacles?" he continues, pointing to a pile of what the others had assumed to be merely gnarled roots. "They're supposed to use those to glide smoothly along the desert floor, like an octopus or squid underwater. Or a kraken," he adds, thoughtfully.
"Are we... is this their BLOOD?" asks Izutsumi, holding up a canteen and sounding troubled.
"Oh, NO," says Laios with confidence. "You couldn't possibly tap a vein! Senshi must have been marking right over their primary storage stomach."
The THUNK of Marcille dropping a waterskin echoes through the still desert air. Chilchuck looks slightly green. Laios adds hastily: "But it's not as though we're drinking digestive juices! It's a storage stomach for food that's already been processed. The closest analog is probably fruit juice... or coconut milk. It's very nutritious!"
"Are there...more... stomachs?" Izutsumi asks in horrified fascination.
Laios looks to Senshi with a questioning eyebrow raised. "Actually, yes," says Senshi, closing a final canteen with an unusual red cap. "The very old ones have a secondary reservoir of highly fermented juices. I've collected some samples for later."
"Wait," says Chilchuck, taking a sniff, interested against his own best instincts. "Are they... do they make... is that beer?!"
"In terms of the internal function it serves," Laios chimes in, happily, "the carbonation—bubbles— allow for smoother transportation of nutrient packets around the body of the cactus. It's more like humanoid species' plasma than—"
"Not quite," says Senshi, smoothly cutting him off. "It's a liquor with an extremely high alcohol content. It would dehydrate you far too badly to try it in the desert, but it's considered quite a rare treat... it isn't often you see a cactus old enough for it to have properly brewed. Let's save it for a special occasion."
Marcille shudders. Chilchuck reluctantly agrees.
"Actually, I'm surprised to see so many ancient cacti in one place," Senshi says. "They usually don't overlap hunting territory... it means that they may have been crowded out of their old grounds, and there must be other areas that are overpopulated with creatures they’d usually consume. Something here is out of balance."
"Well, that doesn’t matter for us, right?" asks Marcille. "We’re not staying. And anyway, we need to get a move on," she says, glancing at the lowering sun.
"Oh," Laiso says, disappointed. "Are you sure we can't wait? Can you imagine how it must look when they all rise up at once and start to move ?!"
The horrified look on Chilchuck's face says: yes .
Hours later and miles away, Senshi declares that they should be out of the hunting range of the cacti. They trek on a little further, just in case, with Laios casting longing looks back over his shoulder and pouting the whole way, before finally settling down to camp for the night. The sun is barely below the horizon (how does that work, with the castle somewhere in between it and them, Marcille wonders, reaching for the threads of the magic that connect it and feeling them skitter away), but already the temperature's falling sharply, and in unspoken agreement they all replace the layers they'd shed throughout the day. Senshi digs out a firepit and carefully sets up some precious kindling. They have a little coal, but it’s reserved for true emergencies; the bulk of the fuel he's working with is long, thin sticks. When he breaks one in half to better fit it in the growing fire, Izutsumi sits up with a sharp snap, sniffing.
"Is that from the poisonous, meat-eating, man-hunting cactus?! " she asks, voice rising in pitch as her ears flatten back.
"We weren't likely to find other plant matter before nightfall," Senshi says calmly. "These burn hot and slow, but they're hollow, so it's easy to carry enough for several fires." When Izutsumi makes a noise that's almost a hiss, he continues: "— and once you break them off of the main body, they're cut off from the paralytic agent, so the smoke won’t harm us."
Izutsumi's ears stay pinned to her head, but she returns to digging out her bedroll, casting glances over her shoulder whenever the barely-sweet scent of steadily burning needles drifts in her direction. By the time they're all set up, Senshi has unloaded their supplies in front of the roaring fire, running a hand through his beard and considering what kind of meal would best suit their circumstances and supplies. The party gathers around him— it's not freezing, yet, but the fire is a pleasant bulwark against the oncoming evening chill.
"Ah," says Laios, seeing the small pile of spillover monster parts set off to the side from their stock of food. “Senshi, may I take these?” He asks, picking up several small bones and a piece of hide leftover from a pegasus they’d had to battle on their earlier trek through the dungeon, some impossible length of time ago. “I’d like to try making something,” he adds defensively, when he sees the rest of the party glowering. “I’d need a spare pot, some water, and a little sugar...”
Senshi absently hands over a pot and an extra canteen, then picks out a sack of rice, several harpy eggs, the chilled, cooked fish, a small sack of mushrooms, and miscellaneous greens from the golden city.
“...do you want any help?” Chilchuck asks, hesitantly.
Senshi nods. He passes Marcile the sack of rice and another canteen and pot; to Chilchuck and Izutsumi go the vegetables, the third-and fourth-best knives, and a request to chop them roughly. Chilchuck speeds through his pile of onions— white and green— and peppers, but Izutsumi’s moving more slowly. When Chilchuck leans over to see if there’s a way he can offer assistance that won’t hurt her already-wounded pride, he’s shocked to see how pale her face is.
“Chilchuck,” she says, looking up from her work. “Do these mushrooms have… feet?”
“Ah. Better not to think about it,” says Chilchuck. He gives her shoulder a small pat. She grimaces, but that might only be because of the mushrooms.
Marcille’s cooked the rice through and is spreading it out on a sheet by the fire to dry, but Laios’s pot of horrible monster discards is still bubbling merrily away. It’s a sharp contrast with the tinier vessel in which he’s delicately boiling sugar and water down into syrup, dropping little bits into cold water every few minutes to check whether it’s ready.
“I think we’d need to be lost in the desert for a few days longer before glazed kelpie hoof sounds worthwhile,” she says wryly.
He gives her a tired smile. “No, it’s— well, I wanted it to be a surprise, but I think it might take too long to boil down into what I need… I’d hate to waste all these bones, though.”
Marcille shudders to think what else the bones could have been used for.
She shifts her rice around and considers that Laios, like all of them, is out of his depth— and probably more so than the rest, given what the residents of the golden country asked him to consider. “If you only need that stuff to break down,” she says, shaking the pan a little so all the grains have a chance to dry, “I might be able to help.”
“Really?” He asks, a dangerous spark returning to his eyes. “That would be— yes, I just need the connective tissues to— to come apart,” he concludes, making a wiggling gesture with his hands that reminds her so strongly of Falin’s expressiveness that her whole heart aches to see it.
“Well, let’s see,” she says, and crouches over the pot. She considers the task for a moment: the agitated water is doing most of the work already, and destruction is one of her specialties; it’s a much more focused version that she needs to consider here, but given how short a burst she’d need to channel, she thinks she’s up to the task. Placing one hand on her staff, she reaches out through the aether, probing how the forms of the hides, bones, and hooves feel . There’s a natural set of behaviors they want to follow, but overlaid on top of that are all the artificial laws of the dungeon, shining brightly in her peripheral vision, trying now more than ever to distract and draw her in. She tunes these out and turns instead to the small bonds that hold the bones together in their natural shape. Holding as many of these in her mind as she can, she carefully walks through a different arrangement, a different pattern they could fall into, and aligns what is with what she’d like it to be. With the staff channeling her focus, she reaches out and says, LET GO—
There’s a harsh GLOOP as everything in the pot falls apart at once.
Marcille startles backwards. “Oh no ,” she says despairingly, “Laios, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know it would all happen so fast—“
But his tired smile has become a real one. “This is perfect ,” he says with glee, and strains the gel-like liquid into a larger bowl, leaving the few last bits of bones behind. “Here, quick, the sugar’s ready too—“ and he pours the sugar syrup into the larger bowl, whisking with a large, dented fork as he goes. Marcille watches in fascination as the mixture thickens, breaking only to bring the dried-out rice over to Senshi, who’s working industriously over a second fire, smaller but burning hot. The harpy eggs cooking in his shield look wonderful , and the sauce he’s whisked together smells savory and good. Laios calls Marcille back over to pour his strange mixture into the empty rice-pan, but Izutsumi and Chilchuck remain crouched over Senshi’s work, the smell of frying eggs joining the sizzle of the vegetables and fish as everything comes together at last.
“There,” says Laios with satisfaction, standing proudly over the pan.
“Now what?” Marcille asks. The soft mix smells lovely— he must’ve found vanilla somewhere, she realizes— but she’s not certain if he means to bake the whole sheet somehow.
“Now we wait,” he says. And it’s just in time; Senshi calls them over to the main course. The bowl he hands Marcille is so appealing, perfectly-cooked egg and rice glistening alongside the tiny fish, fried vegetables adding a bright pop of color, all drizzled over with a light touch of sauce, that for once, she doesn’t even think to ask what’s in it.
Once the bowls are cleaned down to the last bits, and the leftovers packed carefully away for tomorrow, they sit resting around the fire. It’s the first time all day they’ve really felt relaxed, and Izutsumi is struck again by what a difference a hot meal makes, when compared to the reliable, but uncomfortable, rations her old group had been subsisting on. Chilchuck breaks the peaceful silence with a horrible coughing fit; he’d opened the red-topped canteen, meaning to try a tiny sip of the cactus liquor, but the scent alone was enough to stop him.
“The fumes are basically pure ethanol,” Senshi says mildly. “You really have to let those dissipate before you try a taste. It’s better to filter the strongest layer out completely, or it’s risky even then.”
“Better to wait until we’re out of the horrible desert, I’m hearing?” Chilchuck asks reluctantly, already closing the canteen and tucking it away again. “First thing I want to do when we get somewhere safe is really try it. The beer in the golden village was good, but this is going to be something else entirely.”
“Mm,” says Laios, mournfully. “I wish I still had that minotaur—“
“Yuck,” says Izutsumi, then realizing she’ll need to steer the conversation in a different direction entirely to avoid another monster lecture: “Senshi… what do you want to do when we get out of here?”
Senshi looks taken aback. “Out of the desert? I suppose... I’d like to check up on the golems… I’m worried about how one made it down out of their usual range.” It’s a shorter answer than she’d hoped, but the set of his hunched shoulders tells her better not to pry. Marcille’s drawing something in the sand, a faraway look in her eyes, but Chilchuck chimes in to add that he’d like to send a letter to the surface. Izutsumi wonders aloud how her old party is doing up there. Laios, somehow sidestepping all her best efforts, wants to find a legendary salamander that can store heat in its liver and dissipate it later on, in case they’re ever dropped into another unusual biome.
The mention of heat reminds them all that it’s getting colder; the temperature has dropped significantly as they’ve sat and chatted for a couple hours over dinner. As Senshi builds up the fire, Laios sits bolt upright. “Oh!,” he says. “It should be ready— hang on—“
He bolts over to the covered tray, and busies himself with a knife and a small bowl before returning to the group.
“What are those ,” Izutsumi asks suspiciously, but at the same time, Chilchuck sniffs the air and says incredulously, “did you make marshmallows?”
“ Oh ,” says Marcille, reaching out to take one. It’s slightly crumbly, and the color is a little… off, but she smiles despite herself. “I haven’t had these in years. ”
“Are these raw?” Asks Izutsumi, holding one up to her face and peering at it. “Are we meant to just eat them straight?”
From somewhere under his armor, Laios produces a handful of sharp, long, dangerous-looking bone fragments. The others lean instinctively away, but he only grins, stabs a marshmallow on a pointed end, and gestures towards the fire.
It takes some convincing for Marcille and Izutsumi to use the makeshift spears, but a turn in the heat sterilizes the bones thoroughly, and eventually they’re all seated around the roaring fire, slowly toasting marshmallows from a comfortable distance.
“This is cozy, ” Izutsumi says, almost involuntarily. She’s propped her bone up just outside the range of the fire, and is turning it absently, roasting her marshmallow like a chicken on a spit. Senshi nods in agreement. The warmth has made them all sleepy, slow, unguarded.
“Falin used to—“ Laios begins, then clams up. Marcille has one of her hands clutching a pocket, but otherwise doesn’t react, and he starts again: “She’d catch the warmth from the sun in a rock and... store it for later, somehow. It was just like having a hot water bottle in a sleeping bag. Marcille, if we set some up near the fire, could you…
“No,” she says softly, but she’s smiling. “Falin— Falin is special. Do you know how difficult it is, to convince matter to do something so out of its own nature? You have to understand all the usual things— rate of heat absorption, maximum safe temperature— but then you have to tell the rocks in their own language why they should ignore everything they know and do what you want, instead.” She looks up at the stars, toasting fork forgotten in her hand. “I was never any good at it.”
“Of course not,” says Chilchuck, grinning. “It sounds like it takes persuasion and subtlety. You’re much too blunt.”
“I can be subtle!” Marcille says indignantly. The marshmallow she’s toasting catches fire with a WHUMPH.
The rest of the party howls with laughter as she panics and leaps up, finally remembering to just blow the fire out. By the time she returns to their circle around the pit, she’s laughing, too.
“Well,” she says to Chilchuck, apologetically, and smiles, turning her blackened dessert around in her hands. “Falin’s always been better at diplomacy, after all.”
Izutsui has eaten three marshmallows raw and has a further three halfway through cooking. She’d never admit how close the noise she’s making is to a purr. Senshi finally eats his own dessert, toasted perfectly golden brown around the edges. He gives a small nod of approval to Laios, who glows like a fire all his own.
Marcille stares at the husk of her own attempt, before sighing and taking a tentative bite. The outside is crispy, completely burnt, but inside it’s soft, and she hadn’t realized how much she’d missed the taste, slightly smoky and light. She thinks back to other campfires, other times she’d felt warm and safe and comfortably known. The sweetness lingers on her tongue.
They break camp just after dawn. Senshi pauses in frying up breakfast and calls Laios over from packing up his bedroll to show him another cluster of the tiny creatures they’d seen the day before— but these are busily getting tracked and devoured by slightly larger insects, which look like nothing so much as bulky, large-jawed crabs, each only the length of a single joint of a finger.
“ Fascinating ,” Laios says, watching a whole line of the smaller vanish into a larger one’s maw. Izutsumi makes a face. “A whole micro food chain! I wouldn’t expect to see so many out at once, though…?” He asks, looking to Senshi.
“They’re the most active at dusk and dawn. Most things are,” Senshi says. “Only something really efficient with its water consumption— or really strong and dangerous— could be out in the middle of the afternoon. And speaking of,” he continues, looking up at the rising sun, “we should eat and get going.”
They finish off the last of the fish, fried alongside another few eggs, bury the remains of the firepit in the sand, and head off into the day.
Now that they have a full stock of water, their hike is hard, but much less stressful. The security of several canteens means they can take frequent breaks, sip when they need to, not heedless of rationing but without the worry of oncoming scarcity, either. The terrain becomes slightly irregular as they march west; sand is interspersed with more and more rocky outcroppings. Some are tall enough that they can walk through the shade for half an hour at a time, and overall, the mood is much better than it was the previous morning.
Noon finds them tucked away under one such rock face, hiding from the sun in the hottest part of the day. The bare, flat rock layer they’re sitting on is cool and refreshing. Senshi distributes packets of leftovers, and they munch in companionable silence. Laios wonders if he could feed some of the smaller insects to his sword. Izutsumi moves to the edge of the shade and curls up for a nap, half-in, half-out of the sun. Marcille, chasing a last bit of egg yolk around her bowl, thinks about souls and mixes, about separation. Senshi considers how long a body can go without water. He carefully doesn’t think forward to what the next zone of the dungeon might be.
Chilchuck is slowly nodding off when a soft noise out in the sand catches his attention. The rest of the party are mostly napping by now; only Laios is up, cleaning his armor and staring off at the horizon. Chilchuck waves a hand at him, holds a finger up to his lips to ask for silence, and then, leaving his pack behind, creeps light-footed out to investigate.
The sand is hot under his toes, and he walks carefully, doing his best not to shift or disturb its surface. He makes a slow circuit of the rocky plateau that forms their camp, but doesn’t hear anything further. He’s just about to return when a sudden BOM! BOM! BOM! heralds Laios, stomping out onto the sand. Chilchuck grits his teeth and waves his arms frantically, trying to get him to return, but he strides out anyway, armor back on and sand shaking with every step he takes.
“STOP!!” Hisses Chilchuck. “Don’t follow me! You’re making WAY too much—“
“My sword,” Laios says, gesturing, still not used to talking openly about the living armor. “is reacting to something, so I thought you might need help? And you didn’t say nobody should come out here!”
“They’re all asleep!” Chilchuck says desperately, turning his head back and forth to try to pinpoint the vague shifting he can hear drawing closer to Laios by the second. “I thought it was UNDERSTOOD!”
The noise under the sand pauses at his last shout, and he backs away from Laios, pointing downwards as he continues to shout, earnest, but also trying to distract whatever-it-is, divide its attention. “What are you PAYING me for if not to be the sneaky one? Don’t you TRUST me?!”
“Well, what could it possibly hurt—“ Laios starts to ask, but is rudely cut off by the pit that opens under his feet.
The sword must have warned him, or maybe he’s just lucky, but he throws himself to the side just in time. A horrible mouth snaps closed where his feet had just been, and a long, chitinous, jointed neck quickly retracts, the sand closing over its head. There’s no time to be relieved, though; another pit opens, and another, but Chilchuck’s running and shouting, trying to draw them away so Laios can return to the group.
“ANTLIONS!” He yells.
“They’re not antlions,” Laios shouts, distracted and retreating a little less hastily than Chilchuck would like. “Antlions spit acid to break down and digest their prey. These mouths— Ah,” he yelps, dodging another pit. “These mouths don’t have the acid gland! It looks like the same basic hunting pattern, but they must have a different way to draw energy out of their victims—“
“ANTLIONS!!!” Chilchuck repeats. “Everyone off the ground level!! UP!! Get on top of the overhang!!”
Marcille is sleepy, but scrambles without question, leaving her bags behind. She pulls Senshi up behind her, struggling a little, but the two of them together easily lift Laios. He’s panting and out of breath, having just dodged a straggling trail of holes.
“Where’s Izutsumi?” Marcille asks, desperate.
Senshi points, and then Marcille can see her, too, a small shape sinking downwards on the edge of another yawning pit. “Chilchuck!!” Marcille shouts desperately. “Can you—“ but Laios has a rope out, one end looped around his waist, and is already throwing the loose end. Chilchuck grabs it of the air almost automatically. He’s running towards where Izutsumi’s small hand is vanishing, against all his better instincts, almost before he has time to think it through.
He dodges quickly around opening maws, using all his skill and lightness of step to stay one precious leap ahead of the chasing pits. They’re so fast, and they seem to be herding him with a skill he hasn’t encountered in insects before. He doesn’t have time to wonder, though, because he’s already there, and sees with a start that Izutsumi is desperately tearing off a chunk of her cloak to get free from a twisting jaw. He shouts and throws her the rope, pausing only to make certain that she’s holding it before he tugs on it, yelling “Laios, PULL!”
Above them, all three of Marcille, Senshi, and Laios yank on the rope, dragging their party’s two lightest members quickly back across the sand. Chilchuck grimaces as the heat burns the soles of his feet but doesn’t protest, instead reaching back to grab Izutsumi around the shoulders, helping her to stand. When they reach the bottom layer of rock, he hoists her up ahead of him, finally leaping up to the top of the cliff and collapsing face down in sheer exhaustion.
After a while, he’s able to raise his head again, and finds the rest of the party clustered around the edge of the outcropping, gazing down at the churning sand below.
“Look how coordinated they all are,” Laios says.
“I noticed,” says Chilchuck, dry.
“I think…” Laios says, “I think this might be one main body with multiple heads? The way the sand lumps up after each retracts,” he continues, both hands making inchworming motions in the air, “it seems like they’re returning to one central core....”
There’s a THWUMP and a much, much larger pit opens up a little ways away. At its center is a surprisingly fuzzy head and a protruding pair of unsurprisingly dangerous-looking massive jaws. Eight crablike legs are partially buried in the sand around it, and beyond those, many horrible —tentacles? Body segments? Necks? — extend underground in the directions of the smaller surrounding pits.
“I was right!” Laios says. “it IS one animal! So there’s only one thing we need to take down!”
“Looks like,” says Marcille. “Lucky us.”
“Senshi,” says Izutsumi, unsteadily. “If we wait, will it… just... leave… ?”
“Not now that it knows we’re here,” Senshi says. “We’ll have to find a way to deal with it, or we’ll run out of supplies eventually. We can’t outwait a desert creature.”
Laios hefts a rock experimentally, then chucks it at the main body of the not-antlion, where it glances harmlessly off its armor plating and lands ineffectually next to its jaws. He sighs.
Marcille idly flicks a smaller rock towards one of the many smaller mouths. The rock lands just beside it, and the head pounces immediately, swallowing it down. They can trace its movement through the neck and down into the larger waiting stomach by the bulge it leaves behind.
“Don’t tease it,” Izutsumi says, grumpily.
“Anybody know if these things have any weaknesses?” Chilchuck asks, almost by rote. He doesn’t seem to be expecting an answer, which is good, because nobody seems especially familiar with giant desert bugs.
“Hm,” says Senshi, finally. “Well, it seems like a crab, so it ought to work to... boil it…?”
Izutsumi’s expressive gesture indicates the vast, surrounding expanse of absolutely not enough water to boil a 1-foot crab, let alone the 20-foot monstrosity they’re facing down.
A soft THWUMP draws their attention back to Marcille, who sits back with a huff as a tiny fireball glances harmlessly off the armored plating of one of the heads. “No good,” she says. “If I could get under the armor somehow, I’m sure I could blast it… but the main body’s even better-protected, AND it hasn’t gone for any of the things Laios tossed.”
“The main head doesn’t,” Chilchuck says slowly, “but the other heads chomp on anything that lands near them and draw it back in to the center, right…?”
Izutsumi shudders, considering how closely she’d escaped that very fate.
“Oh,” says Laios. “Oh!! Marcille, if I throw another rock, could you set that on—”
“We’ve been over this,” says Marcille, sounding somehow even more fatigued. “ I’m not Falin. It would have to be something that wants to burn. Even then, we’d have a better chance if we had an actual bomb…”
“Well,” Chilchuck says, with great reluctance, “I kind of think we do.”
They all turn to look at him. He’s holding in his hands the red-topped canteen, full of fermented booze so strong it is, as Senshi happily informed them, illegal to sell without draining off a large percentage of what amounts to pure ethanol.
“I really wanted to save it for when we got— for a special occasion,” he continues, “but unless we get past that , we’ll never have a chance to drink it at all . What do you think?”
Marcille gives him a grim, determined smile.
“So you just want me to throw it…?” Laios asks, eyeing the canteen dubiously.
“Yes,” says Marcille. “BUT NOT YET,” she says, yanking it away from his grabbing hand. “I have to prime the spells. Once they’re ready, all you’ll have to do is get it within reach of a head.”
“Okay,” Laios says. “So… now…?”
“Just give me a minute,” says Marcille. “A quiet minute,” she adds, when Izutsumi starts to ask something else.
She is, as they’ve all seen, very good at unmaking, unraveling, at wild outflung force to break things down into their component parts. This, however, is dangerously close to the limits of her ability to be— subtle , she thinks wryly. She tells the liquid and its fumes: NOT YET, BUT: using that directive to build a complex, cage-like framework for her second request, which is a much more straightforward: IGNITE . She grips her staff more firmly and sets another frame against the first, which will slowly break down the halting command unless she constantly renews it. She can feel the suspended heat gathering in the air around her, but is still surprised when she opens her eyes and sees the waterskin shining in her hands.
“Is it supposed to…?” Chilchuck asks, but is interrupted by Marcille’s sharp “ Laios!”
“So, now?” Laios asks. “You’re sure?”
“ YES!!” Marcille yells. She’s gritting her teeth with the effort of suspending the process, repeating: NOT YET, NOT YET, NOT YET—! , as Laios heaves the skin into the sand. A smaller head swallows it whole, and at once something strange happens to her spell; some unknown power pushes back against her magic, greedily trying to— speed up? what she’s asked for. Desperately grappling, frantic with worry, she reaches through the tenuous connection to hold back the building fire with sheer force of will as it travels down the neck and towards the main body, until at last she sees it absorbed, and says, NOW—
The creature exploding is like a second sun.
Marcille covers her head just in time to avoid a mild concussion from the hail of chitinous parts landing all around them. Senshi isn’t so fast, but his helmet protects him from the worst of it. Laios does his best to block out Chilchuck and Izutsumi, both of whom are speedy enough to dance around the falling bits without his help; for his pains, he takes a giant leg to the stomach with a solid THWUNK. The indignant face he makes while catching his breath, combined with the sheer relief of survival, sends them all into fits of laughter, and for precious minutes they just sit there, wheezing and cackling and glad to be alive.
“Well,” says Laios, finally, “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m going to go see what’s left of the main body.”
And, shocking them all, Marcille chimes in: “I’ll go, too.”
The two of them approach the largest pit with caution, uncertain what’s left, not quite willing to believe the danger’s entirely past. “Marcille,” Laios says, peering over the edge, “are you certain you—”
“Yes,” she says, face hard with determination. “It did… something to the spell I cast. It was like everything accelerated all at once. If this is some new trick of the magician, I’d much rather find that out now.”
“Mm,” Laios says. The two of them carefully descend, picking their way over fallen legs and bits of hard shell. “Well, I’d like to know how it digests its prey without the usual stomach acids common to every other antlion species. Maybe there’s a rune that speeds decay…?”
The rest of the group has gathered their packs and followed, but wait at the top of the pit. Senshi collects a couple of smaller jointed limbs as they go, tying them to the top of his bedroll like a bundle of dangerous firewood. Laios and Marcille pass what looks like a human or dwarven skull, but only half of one; its edges are ill-defined and softened, somehow. They pass more and larger bones, but none of them quite retain their shapes, and it’s tough to guess what they’re from. The main body of the creature, exposed, lies at the very bottom of the pit, curled up around something they can’t quite make out.
“Look at this,” Laios says, pointing at a shell fragment. “Usually anything this large will have scuff marks, dents, healed-over edges— but the only damage on this is from the, uh. Last big hit. Based on the size, it HAS to be at least a hundred years old, but if I didn’t know better, I’d say it was just born yesterday!” He picks up a leg, cradling it with something like reverence. Above them, Chilchuck rolls his eyes.
Marcille follows her sense of ambient magic towards the source of the distortion, right at the center of the main body. She uses one of the longer bones to turn over a last fragment of husk, and there it is: a pulsating, beating, blackened organ, still moving under its own power. Tentatively, cautiously, she reaches out with the very tip of the femur to try to turn it over—
— but the second it makes contact, the bone crumbles to dust in her hand. She drops it the instant the process starts, but still feels a horrible jolt, as much in her sense of the fabric of things as in her arm itself.
“Oh,” she says, and then, “ OH, ” as she realizes all at once what this creature’s lingering magic is doing.
“What is it?” asks Laios, excitedly, and she holds out an arm to keep him back. “Did you figure out how it works?”
“It drains… potential,” she says, a little short, staring down the impossibly powerful thing writhing on the desert sand. “ Don’t go near it— I think you have to touch it, but I don’t want to risk a wider range.”
“Potential?” asks Izutsumi, who’s made her way down the slope. “Like… like what?”
“Possible temporal energy,” Marcille says, peering through the aether at a half-understood set of rules. “Potentiality. Not only what something is, but what it could have been.”
“So,” Izutsumi continues, “like… the soft parts, or…?”
“Time,” Marcille answers, shortly. “It eats time. And when you drain that, what you get left is…” she trails off and gestures silently at the desert sands.
They all stand behind her, staring at the antlion’s remains.
“Well,” says Senshi, “that.... explains why it was such an indiscriminate eater. Everything has a past… and a possible future.”
“Could you… use it?” asks Laios, with great hesitance, pointing at the still-beating heart. “If we ran into something worse...?”
“No,” says Marcille. “Absolutely not. I can’t understand the magic on it, so there’s no way to control it… it could kill us all in a second.”
Izutsumi looks at her, startled, then laughs. “Well,” she says, “if there’s a more serious warning than Marcille thinking something’s too dangerous to use, I don’t know it.”
“We’d better go,” says Chilchuck. “Sun’s on its way down, and I don’t want to be here if any more of those things show up.” Senshi nods, and they all trudge upwards and onwards, shouldering packs as they move on towards the west and their way home.
Marcille, last in the line, lingers for a moment. The oil-slick color of the grotesque thing yawns wide in her vision. She’s about to turn away, but something else catches her attention: a bright shard of something crystalline, spat out from the dark heart when she’d poked it with the bone. Unlike that organ, it doesn’t have any active spells emanating from it, so she tentatively reaches out her mind to feel what it might be. Its structure seems like… a storage medium? She thinks, and then quickly on the heels of that thought, has a sudden moment of understanding. Before she quite processes what she’s doing, she wraps a cloth around her hand, picks the crystal up, and tucks it away in her pocket. Her hand brushes against the small packet already nestled there, and she quickly ties the pocket back up and runs after the others, up the slope and away.
They hike several more miles onward to the west before finally stopping for the night. It’s Chilchuck who finally declares them safe to pause, having run out of signs of any additional not-antlions some time ago. “Not,” he adds wryly, “that you should go running back in their direction looking for trouble. I’m sure you could find some if you really tried.”
Laios laughs along with the rest of them, but rubs the back of his neck and says, almost shy: “Chilchuck… I’m sorry. I ought to have let you—”
“It’s fine,” says Chilchuck, smiling. “I should’ve known you couldn’t resist. Next time I’ll get Senshi to hold you down.”
Truce declared, they start the work of setting up camp. Laios, Marcille, and Izutsumi dig a firepit and set up their bedrolls, while Senshi and Chilchuck make a circuit of the immediate area, and they end up on a dune overlooking their coverlet, chatting for a while as they’re silhouetted by the setting sun.
“It’s funny,” Chilchuck says as they return to the group, “but there’s almost… a semicircle boundary where even the oldest tracks of larger predators stop. Maybe we’re out of range of water resupply…?”
“I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about,” says Marcille, and only the set of her ears betrays her. “Except for the water— Senshi, are we going to be okay?”
“More than,” he replies. He digs out his shield-pan from his pack and sets it up on top of the fire, laying out several canteens and a lid alongside it. “I had us all carry far more than we’d need for a week-”
“THAT explains why my pack is so heavy!” Izutsumi cuts in grumpily.
“—and I’m positive we’ll reach the exit by the end of the day tomorrow, so we have several days’ additional supply.”
“Oh,” says Marcille with real longing. “Could I use the extra to take a bath?”
“You could,” Senshi says, “or—” and he holds up the bundle of smaller, crab-like legs he’d gathered from the antlion, gesturing expansively towards the pot.
Laios’s stomach growls, and they all realize at once how long it’s been since that brief leftover lunch.
“Well,” Marcille says grudgingly, digging out the canteens from the bottom of her own pack, “I suppose I could hold off one more day.”
They boil the antlion legs as if they were real crab, finishing them in a pan of the last of their butter, melted with salt, pepper, and a little bit of dry-but-still-good garlic. The once-boiled water they use to steam a pan of broccoli, adding to it a little of that same sauce. When everything is done, they fall on it with a will. Marcille delights in showing Laios how to crack the shells open and fish out the meat, Chilchuck once again sacrificing his lockpicking tools to a purpose entirely removed from their original one. Izutsumi polishes off her serving and, surprising even herself, asks for more. Laios digs up the final five marshmallows for a last treat. Marcille lets Chilchuck grab and toast hers without complaint, smiling when he hands it back perfectly golden.
“So,” Laios says, as they’re all sitting happy around the fire, “tomorrow we’ll be out of the desert… Senshi, do you know which part of the castle we’ll end up in?”
“No,” Senshi says, shortly. “I haven’t been down this far in… years.”
“Well,” says Laios, after a pause, “I’ll be glad to get back in range of the fountains.” He holds up a canteen and swirls it around. “The cactus-water is nice, but the fountains are a real gathering place— everything visits them! Do you know,” he continues, growing more and more animated, “I once saw a phoenix drink from one right before I refilled my waterskins, and I swear I could taste —”
“Ew ,” says Izutsumi, but her voice is fond.
“We’d better get some rest,” Chilchuck says with a yawn. “We should be out of range of any more underground attacks, but I’d feel better if we post a watch, just in case.”
They draw straws— well, cactus needles— and Marcille ends up with the first shift. It passes uneventfully; the worst startle is when she wakes Izutsumi to take over, and is nearly greeted with a handful of claws for her trouble.
“Sorry!” Izutsumi says at once, as startled as Marcille is. “I wasn’t— I didn’t think I’d be able to— that surprised me.”
“Oh?” asks Marcille.
“I don’t… I wasn’t sleeping very well or very soundly, before.” Izutsumi says slowly, voice still heavy with sleep. “But being around all of you— it’s… comfortable.” Her ears twitch and her tail lashes. “ Don’t tell them I said that.”
“Sure, sure,” Marcille says, smiling a little under her hand. “I’m wiped anyway. See you tomorrow.”
Marcille wakes, once, in the small hours of the night. The air smells a little like lightning. Something howls, off in the far distance, but she can see Senshi patrolling, and she knows she’s safe. She falls back asleep dreaming of a storm.
Their final march through the desert is shockingly uneventful. They seem to still be out of the range of any predator tracks more recent than several years old, and while they remain on guard, the mood is lighter; Senshi even lets Izutsumi try balancing carefully on his shield and riding it down a steeper sand dune, whooping with delight as she zips along. There are faded barrier runes visible under the sand in places, where the wind has blown a top layer away, but no sign of what they’re keeping out. Marcille sniffs one delicately and declares it dormant; it seems like whatever powered it has run down, and as they continue, they pass a series of shrinking semicircle barriers that lie fallow in much the same way.
After a brief lunch break for leftover antlion, shredded with carrot, drizzled with sauce and wrapped up in broad cabbage leaves, they reach the door in the early afternoon. It’s framed by large sand dunes sloping down to it on three sides, but otherwise unassuming; if it weren’t for the perfectly straight line between it and the sun, Laios isn’t sure they would have noticed it at all.
“Well,” Chilchuck says, “that could’ve been worse.”
Which is when the surrounding sand dunes rumble, shift, and fall apart, and reveal themselves to have been hiding a creature as tall as a 2-story building.
It looks like a lion, Laios notices first, but with wings, and a woman’s head— Marcille gasps, but quickly realizes this is something entirely new. The creature tosses her head, shaking off the last of the sand, and roars. Her voice is not like thunder but like lighting; Izutsumi’s ears flatten and her hair stands all on end.
“A Sphinx ,” Laios says, delighted. “I thought they were extinct! Look at those claws! Those teeth— ”
“Marcille,” Chilchuck hisses, “the barriers— can you hold her back?”
“There’s one more between her and us,” she says, tense. “It’s already held.”
Izutsumi relaxes marginally, tail still puffed out wide. “So it’s just here to scare us? We can go on through?”
“No,” Marcille says, and points to a circle in the sand, revealed when the dunes all shifted. Within it is the Sphinx, and several old piles of bones, breastplates, lances. The oldest are neatly stacked, the newer—only possible to know by the detail and paint still left on the armor— discarded everywhere, carelessly. “It used to have a wider range, maybe… but all those other barriers broke, and the only one left holds her in with the door. Maybe— maybe another mage could repair them, or shift the lines, but I can’t.”
“Trespassers ,” says the Sphinx, and Marcille startles. It’s an old speech, older than the dungeon, but she knows it; she’d made a study of lost languages in her quest for abandoned magic.
“Guardian ,” she says, then stops, not knowing how to continue. The taste in her mouth is like ozone.
“Wait,” says Laios, “Can you understand her? Can we talk with her?”
“I understand you very well,” says the Sphinx. There’s a note of contempt in her voice.
“I don’t think her voicebox can form common, but she can parse everything we say,” Marcille says, urgently, hoping to cut them off before someone (Laios) suggests something rash. “But it’s much more polite to respond in the old tongue.”
Laios, though, is already racing ahead. “If we can talk, then— I know this one, there are whole stories about how to handle this! Sphinx,” he says, raising his voice, “If you cannot answer my question, you will let us through, yes? What walks on—”
“No,” says the Sphinx, in a dangerous rumble. Marcille translates.
“...No?” asks Laios.
“No,” says the Sphinx, her voice crackling. Marcille can feel an echo of lightning even as she repeats her words in a language the rest will understand. “ No. I have been here too long. I am grown bored of riddles.”
They all stand silent for a moment. “Okay,” Chilchuck says finally. “So what are we supposed to—”
The Sphinx speaks again.
“She says,” Marcille begins, hesitant. “...if we give her something… precious, she’ll grant us safe passage in return.”
“And what— “ Izutsumi cuts herself off, and gestures at the piles of discarded armor and long-dried bones that share the small circle of the barrier with the sphinx herself. “We’re just supposed to trust her?!”
“The old language is binding,” Marcille says, shortly. “When you speak it, it’s impossible to lie.”
They all look at her, stunned. She shrugs. “I said it was more polite to reply in the same tongue.”
“This is a trap,” says Izutsumi. The Sphinx snorts.
“Depending on how you approach it, yes,” says Senshi. “Adventures can’t understand her, or ignore her, and attack her— and she eats them. That’s probably how she’s survived with such limited hunting grounds.”
“Yes,” Izutsumi says, surprisingly patient, “and look at what we’re about to do. Laios, take your hand off your sword. Chilchuck, stop fiddling with those smoke bombs. Marcille… I don’t know how you manage to hold a staff threateningly , but stop. ”
Abashed, they do.
“So,” Izutsumi continues, “what have we got that’s precious? Any leftover gemstones? Fancy armor? A magic cooking pot?”
“It’s not magic,” Senshi grumbles.
“I don’t think that will work,” says Marcille.
“What do you mean?” asks Chilchuck, clutching the strap of his bag to stop his hands from fidgeting. “I thought she couldn’t lie?”
“No,” Marcille says, “but… that kind of precious might not be exactly what she meant. It’s a messy language.”
“Great,” says Chilchuck.
“Excuse me,” says Laios, hesitantly addressing the sphinx, “what would be precious enough, for you?”
Marcille translates as best she can.
“How precious are your futures?” asks the Sphinx. “How dear to you is the path you wish to take?” She bares her teeth in a cruel smile, and they all take an involuntary step back.
“Wait,” says Laios suddenly. “Look at her teeth!”
“YES, LAIOS,” says Izutsumi. “We’ve all noticed the fangs . This really isn’t the time—”
“No,” says Laios, “those back teeth. She has molars- grinders. That means she’s an omnivore . But she can’t leave this circle, and you saw how nothing ventures within miles of this spot. I bet she hasn’t had anything other than…” he swallows, waving a hand vaguely at the pile of ex-adventurers, “...meat… for years .”
“So…what?” asks Izutsumi.
“Remember how good those marshmallows were?” asks Laios. “And that was only after a couple days without much of a varied diet.”
“You want to bet all of our lives ,” Chilchuck says slowly, “on making a Sphinx a nice dessert?”
Senshi lays out a tarp, and they pile all of their hard-earned supplies up on it for inspection, just as they had when they first arrived in the desert. There’s their usual spread of equipment for cooking and baking, but a few unusual additions to the mound of goods: a small paper twist of leftover dried gelatin from the marshmallows— and a small amount of sugar, but not nearly enough to repeat the trick. A tiny bit of minotaur cream and butter, spelled fresh, a few final harpy eggs, a little flour.
“Oh ,” says Marcille, and grabs Izutsumi’s dented tin out of the pile. “Senshi , a pie —” She hesitates only a moment and mostly manages to mask her grimace before adding the long, thin bones from the antlion hoard, and the shiny, heat-reflective hide of some forgotten water creature, defeated long ago. “Could you build a frame from this? Make an oven?”
“Hm,” says Senshi. “We could bake the crust, but the key is the fruit for the filling, and half-measures won’t do here. So what do you think—”
“I can manage the fruit,” Marcille says, desperately, her hand closing on an inner pocket. “Please— trust me. If you can all handle the rest— ”
“I grow weary,” the sphinx interrupts.
“Will it work?” hisses Izutsumi.
“I’m almost certain,” says Senshi, “So—”
“Lady,” repeats Marcille, translating everything except Izutsumi’s muffled curse. “You’ve been waiting for so long. We believe we can bring you something very dear indeed, but will you grant us a little more time to prepare it? Just until sunset?”
The sphinx waits for just long enough that they all grow very nervous before she gives a single, regal nod.
While Marcille starts drawing a series of complex runes, Senshi scrapes off the backs of the bright, reflective hides until they’re barely-there thin, and Laios and Izutsumi stretch leather scraps over thin bones into a large box shape. Izutsumi, making a horrible face, is boiling the remaining kelpie hooves down with a small amount of acid from the stomach of a kraken. When the box is ready, Senshi covers it with several layers of the thin, pounded, reflective foil, Izutsumi securing it down with her makeshift adhesive. They leave a front flap open to fill their little oven, laying a small grill down over four metal cups, then layering the bottom with the last of their precious, dense coal.
The Sphinx watches silently, unmoving except for the very tip of her tail, which occasionally twitches when Laios drops a cup or Chilchuck swears inventively in Halfling.
Marcille checks and rechecks her work, drawing a second circle for limiting, for containment. The others are too occupied to notice how complicated it’s become; they’re busy mixing the harpy eggs and flour, rolling out a pie crust, and maneuvering it into the oven. Izutsumi very carefully mixes a little sugar, cinnamon, and the densest part of their cream together with a little bit of the gelatin to thicken it. When the lightly-baked pie crust emerges safely, lightly golden, Laios lets out a cheer. Senshi thinks the sphinx might have flinched.
“Okay, Marcille,” says Chichuck. “Now the rest of the filling…?”
Marcille wipes her brow and gives him a tired smile. She pulls the horrible frog-suit gloves out of her pack. “We’ll have to burn these, after,” she says distantly, and she looks almost happy at the thought as she draws them on. She sets a small bowl down in the center of the circles. From the deepest pocket of her robes, she removes the tiny paper packet she’s protected all this way. She carefully pours its contents into one gloved hand: a few tiny, precious, dessicated seeds.
The others all stare. “Marcille,” says Laios, finally, “what…?”
“From a raspberry,” she says, distracted, rummaging in her pack for the final ingredient. “Falin gave them to me, a long time ago.”
“But they’re seeds ,” Izutsumi says, desperately. “So we what, crush them up and hope the taste is in there somewhere? Plant them ? We can’t wait, and even if we could, we couldn’t grow them here!”
“No,” says Marcille. She fishes out a leather-wrapped bundle, and holding it in her other hand, steps into the center of her prepared circles. “But they could have grown, somewhere.”
She lets the leather fall to the ground, and she’s left holding a small, bright crystal.
“Marcille,” Senshi says slowly. “Is that... from the antlion?”
“It’s okay,” she says brightly. “I’ve got it covered.” She settles her mind into sharp focus, and draws a final mental line between the crystal and the seeds, until the air between them hums with possibility.
“Are you sure—” Laios starts to say, and Marcille closes her hand and crushes the crystal into dust.
The heat of the sun is too much, and the seeds ignite. Or they don’t; or they crumble into nothingness, if Falin forgets to give her the raspberry, or they never visit that dungeon together, or they never meet at all. Or they wither, forgotten, if Marcille doesn’t save them; or they fall out of her bag on the way to the desert; or they are lost in a hundred different ways— but FOCUS, she tells herself, trying through the haze of what was not to see instead what could have been. And there are so many paths, that way: a passing bird eats them, and later, they fall by the roadside, and later burst burst into bloom; they are cultivated lovingly in a small, shared garden; they grow forgotten deep in a dungeon; they are lost and found and span a hundred generations—
— she reaches out her hands, and from a million million possible worlds, she plucks a summer’s worth of perfect raspberries. They fall through her fingers in a gentle rain until the bowl is filled.
The party stands around her in silence. The crystal is gone, and the seeds with it, as if they never were. Senshi has a hand on Laios’s shoulder, preventing him from breaking through the circles of protection and warding. The sphinx is crouched, cat-like, watching with great interest.
“So,” says Izutsumi. “...time… magic…?”
“It’s fine,” says Marcille.
“I thought,” says Chilchuck slowly, “it was much too dangerous to use?”
“I was very careful,” says Marcille.
“But,” says Laios, “you're sure it's okay to just...make the Sphinx a pie out of these… future raspberries?"
“They’re here now,” Marcille says, shrugging. “And it won’t affect her. The language I used to draw them out was about… personal potential. Subjective connection,” she says, wry. “There’s no link to her personal timeline, so there won’t be any effect. To her, they don’t mean anything,” she continues, almost wistful: “they’re just berries.”
“Lady,” she says to the Sphinx, realizing she ought to put it into formal words: “ to the best of my knowledge, these will have no ill effect on you.”
The sphinx only watches.
“Well,” says Marcille brightly, “we’d better finish up! NO,” she says sharply when Chilchuck reaches for the bowl, “...better not. Just in case. Can you bring me the rest of the filling? And a board, and knife?”
She slices the berries carefully, still in her bulky gloves, and mixes them in with the filling Izutsumi had prepared. She pours it into the first crust, covers it with the second, and Senshi walks her through cutting a small design into the top to release the steam. It’s clumsy, but it should do. Still gloved, she slides it into the oven. And they wait.
When Senshi calls time, Marcille pulls the pie out of the oven. It’s beautiful; golden on top and the filling shining underneath. Chilchuck sighs as the smell hits him; he wouldn’t have thought he’d miss the heat of summer, here in the desert, but something about this scent is the entire season wrapped up all at one.
The sun is almost setting. “Bring it to me,” says the Sphinx.
“It should really cool first,” says Senshi, hesitant.
“I will not wait any longer,” the Sphinx says. Her voice is calm, but edged with that same touch of lightning, and of course, Marcille knows she means it. She walks the pie carefully to the edge of the circle. It’s light enough to carry in one hand. A little of the filling has dripped over the edge, onto her glove, and without thinking, she brings her thumb to her mouth—
—and she’s back in the dungeon, in some abandoned hallway. She’s in a nightshirt. She pulls it forward, looking at her bare hands, thinking, is this real, am I here, where is this, WHEN is—
Around the corner walks Falin, putting her hair up in a bun.
Marcille freezes. The house they’re staying in is silent; the dragon just defeated, the others must have stepped out to set up the protective wards. Did they? She wonders. Is this how it went? But then Falin stops before her, very close, hands still up to tie a few last strands away, and she stops thinking anything at all.
“Oh,” says Falin, biting her lip. “I thought you were already in bed…?” She lets her hands fall to her sides, but doesn’t move away.
“Falin,” Marcille says, quiet. She takes a step forward and takes Falin’s hands in hers. She’s missed her so much . Falin’s face is very close to hers, but she freezes there, wanting so badly to touch—
Falin leans in and kisses her, and Marcille wonders why the hell it’s taken them so long. Her hands grip Falin’s shoulders, trace the delicate line of her collarbone, rise up to graze her neck and land restless in her hair. In her haste, she moves forward, backing Falin up until she’s pressed up against the wall, wanting more than she knows how to ask for. She breaks away, breathless, when she remembers how this night ends.
“Don’t go ,” Marcille says, desperately, holding her as if this contact were enough.
“Marcille,” Falin says, laughing. She takes Marcille’s face in her hands, and smiles, soft. “Why would I leave ? This is the only place I want to be.”
If she can only stay, if she can only hold her, she can make it right, but there’s something shining at the edge of her vision, and she only had the briefest taste, raspberry on her tongue. It’s falling apart. There’s a flash, and they’re back at school, in a quiet cave, and she reaches out a hand. Another, and Falin is warm skin and feathers underneath her, but she doesn’t mind; she threads her hands through her hair and is glad of the yielding softness. When she kisses her, there’s the barest taste of metal, old copper, and Falin’s teeth are sharp. Marcille’s been sharpened, too, through worry and hurt; she bites her lip right back, and is rewarded with a soft, desperate noise of want. There’s another flash—
Somewhere in the dark, a chimera stirs. It’s quiet, where she is, the only noise a light breeze rustling her feathers. She lifts her head and sniffs the air, once, twice. She thinks she’s forgotten something important.
“Marcille…?” she says, hesitant, but she’s already gone.
Back in the desert, Marcille falls to her knees. She lands just inside the sphinx’s final binding line. “MARCILLE!” shouts Laios, and she thinks she’s dropped the little tin, all their effort wasted, but no: she’s still holding it, somehow. Chilchuck runs forward towards her, but she holds up a hand. “ Don’t cross the barrier,” she says. “It’s still intact, I’m okay—”
The Sphinx is standing very close. Marcille freezes, fight-or-flight suppressed entirely by some long-lost feeling of prey . Behind her, the rest of the party halt, too, not wanting to startle the creature into action.
The Sphinx is directly overhead. Her huge mouth cracks open. Each single tooth is longer than Marcille’s forearm, and she notes detachedly that yes, there in the back are the flat teeth for grinding, Laios was right. Closer, and there’s hot breath on her face, and she remembers that molars or no, it does still have those fangs. She can’t look at anything but its cavernous maw, and all she can think is— when the dragon— when Falin— is this what it was like? Is this the last thing she saw…?
The Sphinx sniffs. Laios sees her lip draw up, and is temporarily distracted from the calculus of which is faster, her teeth or his sword, by observing how very cat-like the behavior is. “Ah,” she says, and her voice is softer. “I see.”
She leans forward. Surprisingly delicate, her teeth take the pie out of Marcille’s hands and into her mouth, tin and all. Izutsumi makes an involuntary noise of complaint. There’s a faint metallic CRUNCH as she chews it thoughtfully for a minute, swallows, and sighs.
Marcille sits frozen, hands still raised. The Sphinx lowers her head until it’s as level with Marcille’s as it can be. She sniffs again, looking from the tiny blotch on Marcille’s thumb back up to meet her eyes.
“Yes,” says the Sphinx. “That is very dear indeed.”
She moves gracefully to the side, out of the line between the party and the door.
“You may pass through,” she says, settling down onto the sand and lowering her head onto her forepaws. When they make no movement, she raises it again, and there’s a dangerous gleam in her eyes when she continues: “Hurry before I change my mind. ”
“Marcille,” asks Izutsumi in a whisper, “can we…?”
“Yes,” says Marcille, standing up, disbelieving that it worked. “But we need to move quickly. You all go— I’ll follow.”
So they do. The sun is dipping below the horizon, outlining the rusted edges of the door, which stands alone without visible support. Laios sees a discarded fragment of claw on the ground and goes to pick it up, but Chilchuck swats him lightly on the arm, and they hurry on through. “Thank you,” says Senshi, rushing past, and the Sphinx blinks languorously in return. Izutsumi looks up as she passes, ears flattened back against her head, and doesn’t know how to feel when the Sphinx nods to her in some kind of acknowledgement of very distant kinship. Marcille lingers, bringing up the rear, looking back the way they’d come. The rest of the crew is well ahead of her, almost at the door, and she’s startled when the Sphinx speaks again:
“There is something that you want,” says the Sphinx.
“Yes,” says Marcille, then hesitates. “Did you see…?”
“No worthwhile hunt is easy,” says the Sphinx. “You should pursue it.”
Marcille stands silent for a minute. “Thank you, Lady, ” she says, finally, her voice shaky, but clear: “I will.”
She catches up with the rest of them just before the door. There’s a final circular rune surrounding it, and they look to her, uncertain whether they can cross.
“It’s okay,” she says, studying what’s written here. “This stops creatures from the desert from crossing through the door,” she says, pointing to an inner pattern, “and this,” pointing to the outermost line of runes, which glow with a brighter light, “powers all the other barriers keeping the Sphinx in check. But it’s lost power over time, so the area it covers has shrunk down to… well, this,” she finishes, gesturing at the Sphinx’s final tiny hunting ground.
“Great,” says Chilchuck. “So we can just go through?” At her nod, he jumps over the circles and heads to the door. Laios and Senshi go after him.
Izutsumi looks back. “I think... it must be lonely,” she says, very quietly, then shakes her head and walks on.
Marcille follows her across the border, then stops. She can feel the Sphinx’s eyes on her. Before she can think too hard about what she’s about to do, she whirls around, raises her staff, and slams it into the ground, sending out a shockwave of sheer force that breaks the runes powering the barriers. She can feel the echo in her teeth and her very bones as a well-established rule just stops working .
Somewhere in the distance, something’s magical awareness turns in her direction, sharp as an arrow, and she knows she should be worried, but the joyful yell as the Sphinx realizes what she’s done is all that she can hear. The force of her wings flapping is like a thunderclap as she rises into the air. “ Strangers ,” she says, “ you have my thanks—!” She circles overhead once, twice, then races off into the sky.
“Marcille!” says Laios, sharp. “What did you do?! We can’t get sentimental about monsters !”
“Laios,” she says desperately, “she speaks. She’s a monster, but she’s sentient, and she’s all alone here; how can you agree with that?!”
“That was a blunt, careless, and destructive action—” Senshi says, and Marcille flinches away from what she fears is disapproval, before he continues: “—and it was right.”
Laios huffs. He stands there for a minute, arms crossed, then turns his back on them and stalks off towards the door.
Senshi places a hand on Marcille’s shoulder, surprisingly gentle. “Everything off about this desert has come from someone disregarding its natural ecosystem,” he says. “We’ve seen evidence of the damage this whole time- too many of one thing, too few of another. With the barriers broken— with her restored— this land will have a chance to heal.”
“So if we come back to visit,” says Izutsumi, “it’ll be back in balance? Oases refilled and all?”
“Well,” says Senshi, “yes, in time. Maybe let’s give it a few decades.”
“Or,” says Laios, with too-bright gaiety, “maybe we’ll get to see those changes firsthand!”
Marcille looks over, worried. Laios is twisting the doorknob with increasing desperation, but she realizes with a start that there’s a giant keyhole below it, and none of them have seen anything remotely resembling a key.
“Okay,” she says, resigned. “Okay. If we go back to where we first fell through, and find a way to investigate that spot up in the air, I can probably reverse-engineer the portal in a couple weeks, and we can maybe use that to get back to—”
“Absolutely not,” Chilchuck says, stomping over. “We are leaving. Right now. ”
“Chilchuck,” says Laios, relieved. “Can you—?”
“What else do you keep me around for?” he asks, with an exhausted grin. He pulls a set of lockpicks out of his pocket, and brandishing them, says: “Let me just get the last of the meat off of these— then we’ll be good to go.”
By the time Chilchuck manages to beat the locks, night has fallen. Laios is adding tufts of fur to a growing heap, wondering if there’s a market for spun Sphinx-yarn. Senshi quietly sharpens his knife, doing his best to prepare for whatever might come next. Izutsumi reluctantly admits to herself there are parts of this she’ll miss: the wideness of the world, the open sky. It speaks to a wildness in her she’d hadn’t known was wanting.
Marcille is watching the stars come out, one by one, bright in a way they’ve never been before. Laios joins her, watching in silence for a time.
“Marcille, I didn’t mean—” he starts to say.
But she cuts him off, saying only: “I know. It’s okay.”
“We’ll figure it out,” Laios says, doing his best to sound confident. “We’ll get her back.”
“Yes,” says Marcille, and her smile is real. “We will.”
Chilchuck calls them over. The door is open. There’s a familiar glow beyond it, the candles of the dungeon giving off a warmth that feels like home. A wind rushes past them, out of the desert, carrying scents the castle hasn’t known in a long, long time.
Marcille takes one last look behind her. From deep in her pockets, she pulls out the singed remains of a frogskin glove, unwrapping it to reveal a single, perfect raspberry. For a moment, she stands there, considering.
Finally, she takes a breath and lets it fall onto the sand. Almost at once, the breeze takes it up, and it’s buried, gone. Together, they all step forward, into the light.