Chapter Eighteen – Sandy Horizons

Darkness is not always something to fear

The surrounding forest started to thin out with every step the group of three took. The plants were shorter and had much smaller stems and leaves compared to the previous lush trees. Diurnal critters that were common earlier had disappeared only to be replaced by unusual looking arachnids. The sun above slowly became unhindered by emergent vegetation allowing the full blast of heat to punish the party's heads. It seemed like many hours had passed before Elsen raised his hand to halt his companions.

Mary and Terbino looked ahead anxiously as the spectacularly bland view of the Unnamed Desert fell upon their eyes. The change in vegetation was fairly significant, around them there were weathered looking trees and small leaved bushes, while odd divaricating shrubs and bloated cacti were scattered further ahead.

"We are on the border of Shining Forest now. By the looks of it we have actually made exceptionally good time," the advisor commented as he kneeled down. "But we won't know for sure until…" With a quick flick of his finger the sand-mixed soils in front of him formed a perfect circle indentation. There was a brief pause as he stopped to look for something. Terbino and Mary looked at each other then back at the small project.

"Here we are," the advisor mumbled as he magically bound a leaf to a random stick. Taking care not to disturb the indentation in the ground he placed one end of the stick into the middle of the circle. "And done…" he added as he stood back up.

Terbino leaned a little closer to inspect the creation while Mary smiled thoughtfully. Elsen rubbed his hands together then arched his muscular shoulders.

"Alright we'll set up camp here for a while. Looks like it is just passed midday," he said before perching against a particularly old tree.

"It's a sundial Tino," Mary explained with a smirk.

"Oh wow, that's clever Elsen," the prince exclaimed with a rare smile.

"I don't mind taking a break but why are we setting up camp Elsen?" the archer queried looking slightly confused.

"Take a seat my dear. One should not travel a desert during the day, especially this one," the advisor started. "You'll get dehydrated far too quickly. You'll also get sunburnt to hell. However, the main reason is Drodilian. It thrives off the desert's heat; however it does not dare surface during the night whilst it is cold."

Terbino found a relatively comfy patch on the ground and was joined by Mary. Elsen sat opposite them rubbing his left hand over his patched eye.

"So we'll be travelling during the evening? Aren't there beasts out there that only come out at night?" the archer asked, looking at the advisor then back out to the formidable desert.

"Not a huge amount of large dangers out there, maybe some poisonous critters which you'll need to be cautious of. I can think of only two things to worry about out here, Drodilian and Sand Mantises," he said before pausing. "Actually that is a point. If you run out of water and happen to discover an oasis of sorts make sure you stay on your guard… Sand Mantises are very common around them and they're fast buggers." Terbino's furrow lowered in concern.

"What are Sand Mantises?"

"Cretin Sand Mantises are the full name, they're nasty things. I remember when you were younger you were fascinated when you came across a praying mantis feeding on a fly. Imagine something much bigger, almost our size. Sand Mantises are much stouter and often attack prey as a pack. You may remember those barbs on the mantis' arms back then." Terbino nodded uneasily. "They have similar arms except they're sharp and serrated. Unlike the praying mantis they don't hold their prey, they lash out and cut them down," Elsen concluded before readjusting himself to get comfy.

"Lovely,' Mary commented looking slightly disgruntled at the possibility of facing such creatures.

The day wore on as the advisor acted as a silent vigil over the resting site while the two young friends attempted to sleep. The baking heat from the sun didn't help matters as they tossed and turned. They only started to get partial shuteye when the sun descended behind the west horizon. The air temperature rapidly dropped making the party of three shiver slightly. By the time Both Mary and Terbino felt they were actually getting a good rest Elsen stood up and raised them.

"Forgive me but it is cooler now and much safer to traverse the desert. As I mentioned earlier I will not be accompanying you both as I must return to Marble City – both to help Drake, his family and for other matters." Terbino gave an involuntary yawn while Mary groaned uncomfortably.

Both arched their shoulders and stretched their arms releasing several cracks and clicks. The advisor helped them both to their feet before rubbing his hand through his hair.

"Now you remember it is a two-day trek across this desert. Tomorrow morning I advise you slow your pace considerably and try to seek whatever shelter you can. Regain your strength and use the cacti water stores to rehydrate yourself… An oasis may look tempting but they are incredibly dangerous out here," he said staring boldly out into the vastness of the desert.

"We will be cautious Uncle. Thank you for everything. When will I next see you?" Terbino queried.

"Hopefully within two days but if not then continue into Dead Wood and follow the sun. Either my father or I will return to you to help you with the next part of the journey." Both teenagers nodded. "Again, be careful the both of you. I will see you soon I hope. Farewell," the advisor reiterated before a burst of blue light engulfed him. The two shaded their eyes with their hands while bidding their own farewells.

The area around them suddenly seemed to be thriving with different forms of life. Disinterested snakes slithered around several metres away from them, while scorpions and spiders roamed the ground eagerly anticipating unwary prey. One particularly large spider caught Terbino's eye as it scurried out of sight. He could have sworn it looked identical to the spider he saw while leaving Marble City.

"Something on your mind Tino?" Mary asked upon seeing the prince's furrowed brow.

"A lot of things, all of which you know," he said at last before turning away from the spot he last saw the spider to face the darkening desert. "Guess we better get ready." Mary nodded glumly and followed her oldest companion's lead while staring into the vastness that was the Unnamed Desert.

(Sub-Chapter 18.a – Desert Talks)

The two started by equipping more clothing to attempt to retain some of the fading heat. Terbino paused suddenly as he pulled out the luxurious noble clothing from his pack.

"The tailor at Peasant's Encampment made this for me," he said softly. "And these…" he continued, pulling his cloak to the side to reveal the gambeson and the lorn-hide cuisse. Mary could not help but run her fingers over the gambeson.

"They are lovely…" she whispered. The prince released a sigh and bowed his head.

"I cannot let Lokken be king. Good people like Hement and Lurown will suffer at his hand." Mary subtly moved her fingers from the gambeson to the prince's hand. Comfortingly she gave it a squeeze while lifting his chin back up.

"They saw the real Terbino, someone worth fighting for. The same person I see," she said confidently. "Elsen will protect them as well." The prince gave a weak attempt at a smile as he squeezed her hand back. "You're right."

Soon the prince was dressed in the clean red tunic and light brown breeches Hement had made him. Over the top he re-equipped his gambeson and cuisse. Finally he placed the cloak from Marble City over the rest. The combination of clothing made Terbino look much bulkier than he actually was. Mary had equipped a Lorn-hide coat over the top of a fur jerkin.

"You are much less modest Tino," she commented with a smirk. Terbino gave her a sharp jab in the side as retort. She laughed and retaliated. "I mean you didn't even ask me to turn around." The prince grinned before stretching both arms out.

"Neither did you Miss Mylan… strange to think of you as a woman now," he said slyly. Mary gave a mock growl before sending a forceful punch into the prince's shoulder. He merely laughed.

"Hement did a wonderful job with this gambeson… didn't feel a thing. Oh wait, that may be because it was you who punched me." The archer straightened her back and lifted her chin.

"You have three seconds to run Terbino Tarrenay. After that point I shall unleash a world of pain upon you." The prince did not need to be told twice. Quickly he raced off into the desert soon with the wild archer close in pursuit.

Both laughed in a carefree fashion as the archer chased after the grinning prince. They raced passed plump cacti and dead-looking shrubs. After several minutes of sprinting Terbino's close friend puffed out a defeated sigh.

"Since… since when are you fitter than me," she whimpered as she bent over with her hands on her knees. The prince back tracked and patted her mock comfortingly on the back.

"I was always fitter than you," he whispered in her ear before jumping back. She merely waved her hand at him half-heartedly.

"You and I both know that's a load of Lorn crap," she retorted before stretching upright. "How much running have you done lately?" Terbino stared off into the distance as memories of the last few weeks hit him. Slowly his smile faded and a dark sadness replaced it.

"Too much Mary. Come on, let's go," he said abruptly before turning on the spot. The archer picked up on his changed mood and fell silent. Unobtrusively she slipped by his side while looking awkwardly at her feet.

The quiet seemed to last for almost an hour as they walked in the steadily darker desert. Contrary to before, the ground seemed littered with various insects and arachnids. The two avoided intentionally stepping on anything as they headed towards the faded remnants of the sun in the west. It was Mary who eventually broke the silence.

"I did not mean to upset you Tino. I'm sorry," she whispered to her feet. The prince grimaced and slowed his pace a bit.

"I know you'd never hurt me Mary. Since my father passed everything has been chaotic. I did not want to ruin that small moment of fun. Yet it's hard to just enjoy myself anymore," he explained almost too calmly.

"No one can fault you for that. After all that monster has done to you!" Her voice grew angry and defensive. Terbino rubbed his right eye half-heartedly.

"Can we just talk about something else?" Mary gave a small hope-filled smile.

"Of course my king," she answered with her back straight. Both gave a laugh at her reply, slightly relieved for the awkward tension to be alleviated.

Despite the coldness lurking deep within Terbino's stomach, he felt genuinely content now that one of his oldest friends was by his side. The night passed quickly with the good company. The further away from the edge of Shining Forest they got, the less vegetation they saw. Even the small critters seemed to be less abundant. Once every few hours they'd have a small snack or refill on water yet travelling in the evening did not have such a big impact as travelling during the day. By the time the sun had started to rise on the Eastern Ranges of Sendurius, both were utterly exhausted both physically and mentally.

It was only when the sun was fully visible above the ranges that Mary lifted her left hand to signal her defeat.

"I think I need to sleep Tino. I'm just too tired," she groaned, throwing her pack to the ground. The prince nodded uneasily.

"I'm pretty dead myself. Alright let's set up a makeshift shelter," he said pulling off his coat. Mary looked at him in confusion as he withdrew Elsen's blade. "The sun hasn't heated the desert yet. If we can shelter a small section from the sun it won't heat up as much and we shouldn't get as burnt." The archer nodded slowly but still looked confused.

"I get that but we don't exactly have the right equipment to make a camp or tent," she said bluntly. "Nothing decent, we're not making something spectacular… just something to cover us really," he finalised as he stabbed Elsen's blade into the ground.

Mary watched in fascination as the prince hung his coat over the guard of the sword and extended the coat outwards towards her. She looked at his grasped hand then back up to him still utterly confused.

"Greater good Mary, hand me your bow. De-string it first," he exasperated. The archer did as she was told. She slightly whimpered as he rammed one end of the longbow into the sand. Aggressively he wriggled it deeper in until he was content it wouldn't fall over.

"Okay now I hang the coat over your bow and my sword. Tie my other clothes to each arm of the coat and… done," he said adding to the shelter. Carefully he placed his pack on the makeshift shelter at the ends for added stability.

"This is the most terrible tent I've ever seen," she jested truthfully. He grinned as he went under. "It only covers your upper torso! Your legs are sticking out," she added with her own grin.

"That's what pants and boots are for. Get in here!" he commanded while suppressing a laugh at his own inadequate creation.

Slowly Mary crawled in beside him before flipping over onto her back. Terbino let out a pleased sigh, putting both hands behind his head.

"Well I suppose when the sun gets higher and this place gets hotter it'll be nice. But until then I'm making fun of you!" she warned sincerely.

"Suit yourself, I'll be sleeping. Good nigh… uh." He paused for second. "Good morning," he corrected before closing his eyes. The archer scoffed before placing her head down. It took no time at all before both were deep in sleep.

(Sub-Chapter 18.b – Drodilian)

Through the blood of your friends will you give yourself unto us

In their dying screams, will you know our embrace

Their echoing cries branded eternally into you

Terbino… Terbino… Terbino

The prince cried out to the nothingness around him. Soon yellow-eyed glares pierced his being making him shake uncontrollably. They bore no silhouette or figure, just soulless yellow eyes beaming from the darkness.

Terbino… Terbino…

"Terbino!" the familiar voice of Mary cried in a croaky panic-stricken voice. The prince snapped out of his nightmare to find he was on top of his friend with his hands wrapped around her throat.

Immediately he released her and stumbled backwards outside of the makeshift shelter. His friend lay on the ground clutching her throat with tears brimming in her eyes.

"I'm so sorry Mary. Oh greater good," he cried out to the skies above. She merely lay there coughing and staring at the underside of the prince's coat. The prince stayed outside the shelter in the now-sweltering heat of the desert. No words were spoken, as the two kept their respective distance from one another, for some time. It was the prince who first broke the silence.

"I'm so sorry Mary."

Before she could reply, something appeared to hit Terbino like a Lorn-stampede. He suddenly cried out in agony and begun writhing on the ground.

"Tino! What's wrong?" the archer cried, regaining some of her composure. Her question was soon answered as a glimmering blue figure came into view. It looked translucent as though its body was smudged and encased in ice. A blackened blue cloak twisted around the immensely tall figure with a mind of its own. Mary watched with terror transfixed on her face as it casually made its way to the agonised prince.

Upon reaching its intended victim, the ethereal figure carefully lifted him almost in a toying manner with its slender blue-black arm.

"Haunted by demons… you shall not be their prize. You shall be mine," it whispered in a coarse quiet voice. The prince could not reply as pain rippled through his being. Very slowly his body looked to grow thinner as any fat reserves and muscle tissue slowly faded away.

"Release him foul creature!" Mary cried out as she ripped her bow from the sand destroying the temporary shelter. As quickly as she could she restrung her bow and equipped an arrow.

"Wait your turn mortal," the creature ordered with a hiss.

Dangling by his ankle, Terbino's vision started to blur as he grew steadily weaker. A shimmering arrow head whistled passed him and struck the monster grasping his leg. The effect was less than desirable as it bounced back as if hitting a castle wall. The smudged face of the ethereal creature twisted to stare unnervingly at Mary. No expression could be made out beneath the icy blur.

"Then die first," it uttered as if affronted. Terbino felt himself released. He crumpled on the ground, his hazy vision witnessing Mary backing out of the collapsed shelter.

Soon her cries of pain pierced through a high-pitched whistle in Terbino's ears. He felt more exhausted than he had ever felt before but the sound and blurred sight of his best friend's agony spurred him up. The knowledge of what they were up against hit the prince like wave of hope.

"Mary! The stone! It's in one of the pockets of my breeches!" he cried as he stood up wobbling. The creature took no heed to his words as it gracefully floated towards its crying victim. "Drodilian!" the prince cried out angrily. This time the blurred figured twisted to face its previous victim.

"No longer… Drodilian is forever lost to you," it hissed angrily. The spell upon Mary seemed to fade as she attempted to regain her composure.

"The stone Mary!" Terbino yelled again. In a desperate effort to stall for time the prince charged towards his offender. Drodilian appeared to laugh in an awkward coarse way at the foolishness of his attack. Calmly it raised a lone index finger and pointed it at the prince. Part way through the charge the agony reacquainted itself with him. He could not contain a shriek and by the time he had reached the monster, his charged faltered making him instead, collapse onto it.

"Suffer now," it demanded placing its crystalline hand onto his forehead. The pain was immense and he could feel every part of his strength leave him. Within seconds he drooped like limp doll completely at the mercy of the creature clutching his face.

As his eyes begun to close, he witnessed one final image before everything grew too blurred. A sharp arrow pierced through the back of Drodilian's throat emerging on the front where the prince could see it. The tip of arrow was blue and steaming as if a pot of water were boiling. The next feeling was of him falling again. The ground greeted his body but this time he did not try to rise up. He felt no energy left in him. There was a high-pitched shriek somewhere in the distance, or maybe it was close. Terbino could no longer tell where he was. His mind appeared to be falling into nothingness again. Menacing yellow eyes stared at him but there were no words.

'Maybe this was death?' the prince wondered to himself. 'Maybe it was all finally over.'

Terbino… Tino… "I'm sorry Elsen… I'm sorry Mary," he whispered to the nothingness.

(Sub-Chapter 18.c – Saviour)

A warm sandy breeze brushed over the prince's face slightly stirring him. The blissful sleep that had previously claimed him relinquished its control as pain and fatigue became more predominant. It felt as if clumps of sweaty sand had been put down his back, slowly forming attrition marks. His face burnt as though it'd been placed into a blacksmith's fire. It was only after a few dazed minutes that he realised he was moving, even if slowly. Something was clutching his ankle and dragging him. A terrible revelation hit him. Drodilian was dragging him away to finish the job. Guilt weighed down on him as Mary's smiling image invaded his mind. What became of her? Were her desiccated bones lying back at the improvised camp site?

"Kill me now creature…" he whispered weakly.

"Terbino?" a familiar voice cried. He felt it drop his foot and a blurred face lowered down in front of his. An immense feeling of relief washed over him as Mary's sunburnt face came into view. "Oh thank greater good! Tino," she cried out with tears flowing from her eyes.

The prince forced his arms up to pull her into an embrace. She collapsed gratefully onto him crying deeply. He would have wept as well had he any spare moisture in his body left.

"I thought you were lost to me! I refused to believe it!" she cried into his gambeson. He rubbed her back softly for a time before giving his head a quick shake.

"Wha…" he croaked before his dry mouth refused to continue.

"Here, here!" she said quickly, backing off him to withdraw one of his lorn-sacs filled with water. He was grateful as the water flowed partially into his mouth and the rest over his face and down his neck. Despite his complete lack of energy, he attempted to sit up.

"Slowly Tino!" Mary ordered as she supported his back up. He appreciated the help and gave her hand a weak squeeze.

The sun continued to attack any exposed skin on the two but was much weaker as it appeared to be well past midday. The archer withdrew some dried meats and bread given to the prince by Hement and handed him some. He slowly put some lorn meat into his mouth but quickly found even chewing was too much effort.

"You saved my life," he whispered softly. "Thank you." Mary merely smiled and wiped away a lone water droplet on his chin.

"We saved each other Tino, we need to stay together. It chills me to the bone to think of what would have happened had you come through here alone," she whispered back. He nodded a reply before fluttering his eyelids to get his eyes to work properly. Very slowly he twisted his upper body backwards and forwards hearing several clicks.

It took him several minutes after sitting up to notice the immensely long dragging trail behind him disappearing behind a sandy bare hill.

"Mary! How far did you drag me? Greater good, you must be exhausted!" he said with astonishment evident in his tone. Mary sat backwards rubbing her face and arms. It was only then that he also noticed small bite marks on all of her exposed skin. He also had them on his cheeks and neck adding more discomfort to the sun burn. "What happened?" he asked looking at his friend in a new light.

There was a brief pause as the archer attempted to withhold a new stream of tears rushing down her cheeks. The prince wanted more than anything to just go and hold her for a time but it also looked like she needed to explain what had happened; not just for the prince but for herself.

"I imbued one of my arrows with the stone. I shot it… and it dropped you," she started before shaking violently. "You were completely limp. I thought it had killed you. You weren't moving at all." There was a brief pause as she wiped her nose and eyes on her sleeve. "The thing exploded… Sort of. It turned into a bunch of bugs… locusts. They started biting us. I grabbed your coat and covered us until they went away," she explained. Small dried patches of blood covered her neck and exposed forearms.

Again there was a pause as she looked at her friend with sad but dedicated eyes. Terbino returned the look but with a weak smile to comfort her.

"After they were gone I checked you… I couldn't find a pulse. I mean I was never good at that stuff but at the time you were limp and you didn't move. I thought you were dead," she stifled a whimper as fresh tears flowed down her cheeks. "But I couldn't leave you. So I packed up everything and started dragging you. I couldn't take it all though… My pack, your pack, my bow and Elsen's sword were just too heavy together. So I dropped my stuff and took yours," she said trying to smile. Terbino looked at her with such admiration.

"That's incredible Mary. How did you find the energy to drag me? I mean how long did you drag me for as well?" he queried feeling slightly guilty for her pain.

"I don't know how long. Time didn't seem to matter anymore. But I know how I kept going… You hear of mothers getting strength when their children are in danger…" she started before Terbino interrupted.

"But I'm not your child Mary."

"You are my king, and you are my best friend," she yelled out. "I could never leave your body to this place, you deserve to be in the Hall of Kings… with your father." Terbino could no longer control himself. He leapt forward with all of his energy and pulled her into a fierce hug.

"You are an amazing person Mary Mylan," he whispered into her ear.

"You inspire me to be one," she replied. For what seemed like almost half an hour, the two remained in that tight embrace under the relentless heat of the sun.

7