The badlands came to a flat and unenterprising conclusion after two days, leaving only ochre earth and blue horizon stretching over rolling dunes.
A shapely silhouette, "The Calamity", hovered over her gathered mischief, with her guardians Caliban and Ariel floating on either side, awaiting the return of their third sibling.
Compared to the stretch of sandy space ahead, the rock-strew valley had provided much-needed shelter against aerial and subterranean predators. Above the valley, very few flying creatures were a match for Golos. Below, her Familiars, Hounds and Centurions took care of business from terrestrial predators like the Goanna-shaped Basalt Basilisks.
The Ascension of her Centurions had greatly lubricated the passage of her rat-tag stream of refugees through the twisting intestines of the gorge. By now, she had rewarded most of the worthy. And though she had Essence to spare, Gwen decided to save such opportunities for reinforcing positive behaviour, such as in the case of Ix, who finally received his just reward after throwing himself into "public service" with a zealous fervour.
The extra caution meant the transit took more time than anticipated, unduly taxing her limited resources.
First of all, day four marked the end of her Cure Disease potions.
Her Healing Potions were also running low.
Her supply of rations was at its last pallet, as was most of her SPAM.
When they entered, there had been no visible means to provide food for the rats on the scale necessary, at least not during their slow meander through the badlands. That said, according to Strun, there were Bactrian camel herds in the hundreds of thousands meandering between Smarkland and Ashgabat. Likewise, in the rocky hills of Dushanbe, hundreds of thousands of rock goats scaled the basalt cliffs, while further out, innumerable Saiga ranged just outside the dunes.
The problem, alas, was getting the food to her people, or vice versa.
"Priestess. Once past the stone forest, we must tread lightly on the sand," the well-travelled Strun had supplied her with additional information for the journey beyond, including the lands surrounding Shalkar. Over the past few days, she had extensively relied on the whiskered Demi-human, whose title of "Shadow Runner" proved more than just a cool moniker. When she had inquired about its meaning, Strun's grandfather had informed her that the title meant courier. Within their Clan, those who possessed the strength to fight, the agility to obfuscate their presence and the cunning to evade foes in the desert trained to be the bearer of messages between the settlements. The Runner's fighting prowess, Strun had explained, was a necessity of the job rather than their primary function.
"...Between the herds and us, the Sand Wyrms reign. None may pass peacefully without the means to fly, and even then, there are Rocs and Harpies reigning over the skies. Shalkar is a place with water and shelter— but it is also a natural prison."
Curious, Gwen asked the rats how the tribe had reigned in the Wildland's past before they became Tasmüyiz. Stian the Elder wistfully informed her that in the days before the Beast Tide, when their numbers were in the tens of millions and more, Clan-kin would swarm their enemies and pick them apart, each armed with the teeth-blades of the Afaa Al-Halak. Many would perish in such battles, but given enough bodies, their hunts were seldom unsuccessful. However, when the desert rapidly expanded after the descent of the Fire Sea, extensive droughts decimated the Rat-kins' fields. Consequently, Clans warred among themselves, after which the survivors chose bondage.
"Strength in numbers..." Gwen recalled feeling ill, coming to understand a small part of why the Centaurs were so keen on pruning the rats' numbers, as well as why they saw death as utterly pedestrian.
Thankfully, she had immediate endeavours to distract her.
Her Wyvern was on its way back, communicating through thoughts imposed via Empathic Link.
Unlike in their arboreal adventures or Shenyang, the Wyvern thoroughly enjoyed the open terrain. When her creature landed, she verified his enjoyment from the crimson gore around his mouth and on his hind claws.
"What did you run into?" She inspected her Planar Ally for damage and was satisfied that the Wyvern was unharmed,
"The rat speaks true." Her Wyvern dipped its head, blasting her with his foetid breath. "Camels, horses and deer range in the lands beyond the dunes."
"How was the oasis itself?"
"Hee," Golos snorted. "Occupied."
Gwen raised both brows.
"By Centaurs, naturally." Golos huffed. "And no, I didn't eat them."
Were these Centaurs a part of the Khanate? Gwen thought to herself. How would the residents treat her rats when they arrive en masse? Hopefully, the Khan had sent a message across via his eagles; else, things could get awkward.
"How does our passage look?" Gwen continued. "Sand Wyrms?"
"Lots of young ones with their sand pits here and there." The Wyvern drew a quick map with the tip of its wings. It didn't take a stretch of the imagination for a flying creature to visualise what could be seen from above. "Just so you're aware, Calamity. There must be a bastard somewhere either to the north or south, where the land turns to Dragon-teeth."
Gwen took Golos' meaning to infer that a lower-tier Dragon likely occupied the more mountainous regions. That much was within expectation, as the general rule applied to Wildlands everywhere. However, compared to the Yinglong, the desolation of the desert and the badlands spoke of their "bastard" cousin's poverty, reinforced by the fact that the Sand Wyrms here were infinitely more "Worm" than "Wyrm", both pointing to the end-product of a multi-generational dilution of divinity.
When Golos finally finished his etch-a-sketch map, Gwen turned to her crowd and invited her Prefects. "Gents, take a look. What do you think?"
The Ascended rats shrunk their bodies as they huddled beside her, wary of Golos' lean and hungry gaze. Now that they had taken on her aspect, their flesh was far more gratifying than ordinary rodents.
"This isn't good— the Afaa al-Halak has multiplied," Stian remarked while Golos roughly marked where he had seen the enormous nests. Unlike its far-ranging adult form, a young Sand Wyrm remained in its nest-burrow until it had gained enough vitality or Essence to morph. These, according to Stian's description, ranged from creatures a dozen segments in length to elder variants a century or older, with burrows thousands of meters in length and tremor-senses covering four to five kilometres. That the Sawahi was overpopulated was interesting as well, for it meant the ecological pyramid of the Eastern Steppes had essentially collapsed without the Rat-kin. "This will not be an easy trek, Priestess. It may take weeks if we wish to be safe."
Strun's job, together with other volunteer hunters, scouts and half-trained Shadow Runners, would be to fan out in front of the great column, using their survival skills to test the path before them. It was a selfless task, for a mishap would mean falling into the maw of a Sand Wyrm.
Looking at the "map", Gwen had to concur.
If Golos was even remotely correct, "avoiding the Afaa al-Halak nests" would involve crossing the Sawahi in great loops and swirls, like finger-painting a Van Gogh rendition of "Swirly Swirly Sawahi".
In that time, how many would collapse from the extreme heat and cold?
While the upper regions of the Caspian froze and the southern coast boiled, the desert's climate meant that at noon, temperatures reached the mid-thirties, while at midnight, the surface could drop below zero. With the phage further weakening the stamina of her followers, she possessed scant confidence that they could dally in the desert for long. In the open Sawahi, the probability of running into an adult Sand Wyrm also multiplied. In that case, Gwen could only pray that their enemy was a younger Wyrm and not the ancient beast that the Khan had bested with the help of ten thousand Horse Lords.
"Our best bet is to punch through," Gwen suggested. "Gogo, how strong are these larval Sand Wyrms?"
"I could take them if they're exposed," her Wyvern grunted. "If you can lure enough of it out, I'll tear it from its hiding hole."
"The young Afaa al-Halak will retreat at the first sign of danger, Lord Golos." Strun's voice drifted toward them. "They're quick— very, very quick for their size. A few breaths, that's all it takes for the larvae to retreat deep into its den."
"I'll have Cali provide backup," Gwen thanked the rat for this advice, then motioned to her salivating Big Bird. "His Afaa al-Halak form should be able to chase down injured specimens or flush them from the burrows."
"As you wish, Priestess." The other rats joined Strun's heartfelt supplication.
"Shaa-Shaa!" Caliban extended a pair of twisted, lolling tongues in blue and red.
Gwen received the gooey lick without flinching, wiping the slime off her bodysuit with no more bother than a nursing mother brushing milk from her sleeve.
"EE-EE!" Not to be beaten, Ariel nudged her arm, demanding a pat.
"Right, anything else?" Gwen obliged while addressing her thoroughly impressed Prefects.
"We're ready to march!" the gathered crowd of red-cloaked rats attempted to reply as one, though their timing made the spectacle more comical than grand. "Will us into the desert, Priestess!"
"Right. Perform a head-count," Gwen gave the command, then took to the air once more. "Check equipment. Pack the camp. We leave as soon as the roll call concludes!"
When the sun reached its zenith, Strun's scouts encountered their first juvenile Afaa al-Halak.
Her Void dogs sallied forth at Gwen's command, "tumbling" and "stumbling" as the sand turned liquid, sending her creatures downward into the bottom of the bowl-shaped dunescape, which from the air resembled a hollowed-out circle.
Mid-tumble, parasitic Shell Scarabs that lived within the Afaa al-Halak's domain burst from the sand in an attempt to hijack their host's prey. But, when her dogs snapped back and consumed the beetles, the swarm quickly discovered more amicable game in the mischief stickybeaking at the pit's edge.
The Shell Scarabs converged into a swarm to her relief, making it easy for her to disperse the buzzing spearhead with a Void Maelstrom. Together with the Centurions and her hounds, the Rat-kins escaped with many injuries but no deaths.
Nearer the centre of the Sand Wyrm pit, the eye-less, larval monstrosity emerged as a pale-white stalk six meters across and covered in ghoulish chitin. If Gwen had to give the thing a terrestrial parallel, she would say it resembled a Sand Lion Bobbit Worm chimaera. Golos, who had been circling the whole while, instantly accelerated into a supersonic dive, striking with equal grace and power to harpoon the creature as a living bolt of Wyvern-shaped lightning.
The sand shifted as Golos landed with outstretched claws gouging the crushed carapace. Then, with purple ichor spraying in every direction, the Sand Wyrm larvae lifted into the air.
"Yee—yee—YEE—YEEEE—!" the larvae's weeping was like a babe's as Golos dragged out its prawn-like lower body, snapping cartilage and crushing exoskeleton as the Sand Wyrm rapidly ascended.
"Screee! Screee—!" came the cries of worship and awe from below.
With the whole hog exposed, Gwen could see that its entire lower half was without armour and semi-clear, like larvae in the middle of moulting. Evidently, the older the Sand Wyrm, the more segments it grew and the more armoured it became.
Once her Wyvern reached a suitable height, it let loose a sadistic cackle, then allowed the creature ten seconds to learn flight.
"THKREEEEEEE—!" came the sound of a semi-trailer meeting a sudden stop on un-compacting sand. Though the larvae's outer armour held, Gwen could see that its internal organs had ruptured from the impact, if not outright exploded by the shockwave of its landing.
Gwen and her company of Centurions observed the gory results, then with a mightly "SCREEE—!" from Stian, the swarm converged on the deceased holy beast.
Above the Rat-kin, their Priestess suddenly realised she had made a terrible mistake.
"Fuck!" Gwen howled with sand-stomping frustration. "Gogo! You need to kill it IN-RANGE! Farrrrrrk! My Afaa al-Halak CORE!”
Strun walked among his assigned Centurion, followed by two of his Contubernium, each carrying hefty plates of steaming Wyrm meat.
Following their successful hunt of the Afaa al-Halak larvae, the Elders made good use of the carcass, letting nought go to waste. The Priestess was happy to see her people acting industriously, encouraging the Rat-kin to recover the crystalline flesh she jokingly called "Manna".
The carcass of a holy Afaa al-Halak was full of treasures. The meat would keep for weeks when dried. Its chitin could be bent and moulded into armour and tools, while its teeth and mandibles made primitive but deadly weapons.
Watching his kin feast, Strun considered his preference for the rations and the salty, fatty cans of ambiguous flesh his Priestess bestowed. For his meek people, however, the steady stream of white-jade meat was something that happened only in the Rat-kins' illustrious past.
"If we survive." One of his Contubernium adjusted his grip on the enormous platter. "We'll be telling this to our children for generations. The Great Trek from Nukus to Shalkar— with our Priestess conjuring the flesh of the Afaa al-Halak from the air."
"Manna," Strun corrected his officer. "She called it manna."
"Ma-nuh." The Contubernium mouthed the word. "I like it. What does it mean?"
Strun shrugged. "I do not know, Bizth, although I suspect we'll be eating Manna for some time if she has her way."
The crowd laughed, some nervously, others with fragile hope.
"Eat up!" Strun commanded. "Eat until you're bursting! The march ahead is long, and you will need all your strength when the time comes to flee."
Dozens of dirty hands reached out and retrieved their share.
The sound of slurping and gnawing filled the camp. Usually, the Rat-kin tasted flesh once a month, and that's if they're lucky to receive scraps from the Centaurs. In winters of great famine, tribes less civil than the Gold Pavilion straightaway saw their slaves as two-legged sheep to fortify a stew, turning mouths into food.
Now, watching his fellow Rat-kins eat and laugh despite the fomenting illness brewing inside them, Strun wondered what would happen if his people, who were experts at growing grain and sowing wild seeds, could have a land to call their own. Would their children still die from milk-less mothers? Would their bones still be brittle and their arms and legs the likeness of stark branches washed up on the shore of the Caspian Sea?
"Calamity!" Golos' Empathic Link stirred Gwen from her meditation. "Get up. They've returned."
Gwen forced her leaden lids to open, revealing bloodshot eyes.
After six days of vigilance over her charges, even Almudj's Essence struggled to keep up with her psychic fatigue. While she did attempt to take catnaps here and there, inevitably something would require her attention, such as yet another sick Rat-kin bursting like a virulent pustule, coughing and hacking until they expired.
From observable evidence, the manifestation of the "phage seed" inside the Rat-kin progressed in stages. First, the seed took root in the rat's starved bodies. Then, the incubation period brought on fatigue, weakness and mild hyperthermia. Finally, the last stage involved violent expulsion and an all-consuming fever.
With the early sufferers, she had felt obligated to offset the illness with motes of her Essence.
But on the second night, Strun and Stian had approached with the disheartening news that many in the lower ranks now looked forward to the ripening of their phage seed and had neglected hygiene in the hope of being unduly transformed.
Gwen had felt dispirited by the news, though not surprised by the low ambition of the mischief's entrepreneurial spirit.
After that, she restricted herself to the hierarchy she had inadvertently created, dispensing Essence-infused Maotai through her network of Prefects, Centurions and Contuberniums. Her concoction wasn't enough to Ascend the rats, though it did stave off the worst of the ripened phage, catalysing a robust recovery. That and Gwen prayed the bounty of Sand Wyrm protein she piled into the hungry swarm would keep their overall health buoyant.
After Gwen's priestly duties were delegated, she did her best to rest, entering deep meditation for no more than an hour when their next item of woe appeared on the horizon.
These weren't the fair-faced birds of paradise like Gogo's pretty Phalera, but vicious, vulture-feathered beasties in black and brown with mien the likeness of Troll-hags. By Strun's confession, the Harpies were the Rat-kin's principal predators from time immemorial, regularly picking off stragglers in the field or those too young or weak to hide in a burrow in time. Occasionally, when either sides' numbers grew too great, all-out battles would break out, with either the Harpies emptying Clan warrens or the Rat-kin swarming up the badlands for bird roasts and omelettes. After the Tide, when the rats' numbers fell, they became fodder.
While crossing the Badlands, their first encounter with the Harpies had been brief. Golos had told the Harpy to "Flock off". They did not, to which Golos answered by reincarnating their Priestess with a single Dragon Breath.
Now, the birds were back with a vengeance, both for blood and for the meals on legs under Gwen's charge.
"Calamity, I think they brought the whole tribe." Her Wyvern's voice brimmed with anticipation.
In the distance, where the red-rimmed sun struck the flat horizon, she could see a thin-black horizontal line growing larger.
"… That's a damned bird Tide!" Gwen's temple throbbed. This time, unlike with the Big Birds, it was her fault for not entertaining the idea of eradicating all witnesses. She had even chuckled when Golos dispersed their avian foe with a Draconic-flex. "The same shit we saw in Amazonia..."
Gwen regarded her surroundings. "...Only now we're exposed."
What she meant was that they lacked the cover of the forest. Without the trees to block their foe, even Golos would eventually be taken to task like a Sand Wyrm brought down by wild Rat-kin.
"How long until they get here?" Gwen decided they may as well prepare for the worst.
"Another five minutes or so," Golos replied. Unlike the Harpies, the Wyvern flew at a much higher stratum of atmosphere to perform its favourite tactic— barrel-rolling its whipping mace-tail into his enemies, crushing their bones and bodies and hearing the lamentation of their flesh.
"Use Dragon Fear to delay them," Gwen commanded. "Buy me more time."
Her Wyvern obeyed.
"Prefects!" she commanded the chittering mischief with a word. "Your natural foes are upon us! Dig in as you've been taught! Protect your wards!"
At once, the swarm burst into furious activity.
The survivor's kits Walken had procured came with military-spec spades enchanted with Minor Earth Moulding cantrips, allowing the user to expend an LDM to slice stone and shape the earth. In the hands of the Centurions and Contubernium, they served as weapon and tool for shelter and defence. Together with the Rat-kin's natural tunnelling instincts, it was possible for most of the rats to hide in makeshift dens while the battle above took place.
Once sheltered, each burrow would be guarded by an Ascended Centurion, whose newfound strength should rival that of a Vulture-kin.
Without the need to worry her head over the rats, she could concentrate on dispersing the birds.
"Alright." Gwen redoubled her attention on the approaching line of hungry avians. "Ariel, Cali, Gogo— clump up those bloody bin-chickens. I want that flock nice and tight and ripe for a Maelstrom!"
The terrible screeches of a tempest-tossed heaven strained the limits of Struns' hearing.
Hungrily huffing at the ozonised air, the Rat-kin wondered if the Old Ones in the lost annals of his people spoke of similar cataclysms when they carved the Tribal Totems of his people.
Above his burrow, two swirling Maelstroms had transformed the golden dusk of dying day into bruised mauve. From the lightning layer, lashing bolts of fulminating emerald arced across the churning heavens, tossing Harpies like paper planes. Below, a second eye glared down, its pupils the very stuff of the abyss, sucking in anything that flew close enough to be touched by licking tendrils of Void-born wind.
Bathed in alternating hues of light and darkness, Strun fought tooth and nail against the wayward Harpie raiding their borrow to make off with his helpless kin. Already, no less than three Vulture-kin lay by the entrance of his makeshift shelter.
The first had been foolish, entering headfirst with its violence-maddened eyes. Strun had allowed the creature to pass; then, as it menaced his Contubernium, he had descended with his teeth-daggers, striking the Harpy near the collarbone, instantly disabling its serpentine neck.
The next assailant attempted to dismantle the burrow itself, forcing him from his shelter. Strung had parried the Harpy's claws, taking full advantage of his Essence-fed dexterity, then lopped off the bird's feet from the ankles before proceeding to decapitate his foe.
His latest kill was a Harpy Matron, a bird-woman capable of using innate sorcery. When the creature disabled an adjacent burrow with its screeching curse, he dove into the shadows then emerged from below the bird. To his dismay, his daggers proved ineffective against the steely feathers on the Matron's wings and legs. The hen's abdomen and lower organs, however, were a much softer story.
When finally Strun returned to his burrow, he was crimson with gore and steaming with offal. Around him, hundreds of his kin perished, but ten times that number in Harpes had paid the price.
With eyes dyed red with worship with reverence, his gaze swept upward for more prey.
"Ariel! Empowered Chain Lightning!"
"EE—EE!" came the thrilling trill of death by electrocution.
As a goddess of vengeance, his Priestess walked on air, directing the heavens to denounce the Vulture-kin, cooking the birds by the dozen as they sought to close in and strike her down.
"SHAA—!" Strun turned his gaze southward, where a giant bird half-melded into the uncertain light snatched Harpies from the air as though hapless mayflies, cramming its mouth with screaming bird-kin even as its slender finger-claws mutilated more victims. No matter how many instances the Harpies scored gouges deep enough to kill a Rat-kin outright, the dark falcon continued its flight, cutting a swarth through the panicked flock.
Elsewhere, her Wyvern barged through the scattering bird-Tide as a flying battering ram, shedding down, bone and blood with every passage of its brutal body.
In the past, Strun had seen the Khitani Horde do no less.
But here was one Human female.
His lone Priestess, against a Clan of Harpies!
Such confidence flowed through Strun that his veins felt like conduits channelling her viridescent Essence.
"SKREEEE—" The Shadow Runner let loose a battle shout, the cry of the free Rat-kin, a cry of anguish and gladness with the pent-up frustration of three decades of abject misery.
"SKREEEEE—" another cry echoed from a burrow not far from Strun. Another victor emerged, missing an arm but munching on the wing of a splayed bird.
"SKREEE—!" More of his kin announced the end to Rat-kin's humility.
"Priestess!" Strun cried out.
“SKREEE— SKREEE—! SKREEE—!”
More voices joined Strun, some buoyed by victory, others using the collective resonance to strengthen their body against mortal injuries.
Louder and louder, the chittering of the Rat-kin swarm overcame the maddening song sang by the Harpy Tide, informing their foe that the Rat-kin had returned to reclaim the Sands of the Sawahi and that without terrible bloodshed and incalculable violence, they cannot be made meek ever again.
"… Calamity…" Golos' warning came for the umpteenth time.
"What is it now?" Gwen dispersed her Wall of hovering Void and retaliated with a fire-and-forget volley of Ball Lightning in the Void variant. Her eyes followed the trailing balls of hungering Void ink until they splashed against her intended targets. "Did the Harpies call for a Roc or something?"
"No." Her Wyvern's tone was curiously wary. "I think our battle has attracted the attention of the one I spoke about in the southeast."
"What do you mean?" Gwen squinted her eyes, perceiving nothing on the southeasterly horizon.
Clicking his tongue, Golos turned her in the right direction. "An old Wyrm. I can smell its bastardised Essence stink even from here."
Gwen's electrified fingers grew arrested at the news. "You're shitting me. That the Dragon you talked about?"
"No," Golos assured her. "This thing's Essence is lower than mud— know well, Calamity, that only dumb and hungry things will be attracted to our ancient Essences. Even a bastard would think twice about our Patriarchs before showing themselves."
"Then why is it coming here?" Gwen furrowed her brows. Assuming Golos was correct, they were woefully equipped to deal with the Death Worm.
"Probably the sound, the mana and the spilt Essence. We are causing quite the stir—" Golos pointed a wingtip to her Warding Bolts, Thunder Storm, Maelstroms and her Familiars, each adding to her brilliance in the night. "How many times have you used the Ancient One's power? I could probably sense your presence from a few mountain ranges away."
Fighting off a wave of spell fatigue, Gwen doubled-checked the Harpy swarm, noting that, at the very least, the bird brains were scattering. Her present resources were unbalanced, for though her mana ran on fumes, her vitality was brimming, flushing her cheeks and making her insides all strange. To offset the distracting overflow, she had bled the excess into her Centurions via Death March. "So it's smart enough to find us. Do you think we can frighten it away?"
"That's assuming it's also smart enough to think." Golos' thoughts transmuted into her mind. "More likely, if the bastard's bastard is dumb and desperate enough, it'll charge right past us."
"Why past us?" Gwen willed her Familiars to return to her side. Below, her rats were emerging from their holes and chanting in as though communing with some netherworld power. "Are we not morsels that could hasten its evolution into a higher-order Draconoid? Help it shed its worm-like coil, that sort of thing?"
"For one, we True Dragons fly." Golos laughed with undisguised arrogance. Then, observing Gwen's confused consternation, his tone grew mocking. "Foolish Calamity! Have you forgotten? Your Essence isn't just in you anymore."
Gwen glanced down at her mischief. "My rats? There's barely a hundred of them! Surely it's got camel herds to devour?"
"Ah— but the Primordial One's Essence is exquisite and nourishing," Golos reminded her, shaking the gore from his silvery scales. "And for an Essence starved bastard living in a place like this with no mountains and no patron, even a mosquito is meat!"