The full moon shed light on the silent desert. Boundless land, endless dunes, unlimited emptiness. There wasn’t even a blade of grass in sight. Amon stood in front of the tent, watching the barren horizon.
“Did you find something?”
Metatro frowned and listened carefully for a while, “There’s a small yet unceasing rustling sound coming from all around us, like sand falling on shields. What do you hear?”
Amon stretched out his hand and produced out of nowhere a staff with seven parangons inlaid in a spiral. It was the staff he got from Abham Ramose. He handed it to Metatro, “Take it. It’s yours now. Use the [Detection Eye] again.”
The young noble took the present with surprise, “Hey, it’s the exact same one as Lynk’s! You are so generous, my Lord!”
Amon smiled bitterly, “Don’t be happy so early. Get ready to fight now! Can’t you see what we are facing?”
With a better staff in hand, Metatro’s [Detection Eye] saw much more clearly what was making the noise. He cried, “Damn! They are coming from beneath, these scorpions! And they are coming from all directions! We are surrounded!”
Before he finished exclaiming, Amon heavily poked the bottom of his staff into the sand. A strong shockwave spread out, sent deep into the earth. He shouted, “Your turn, Metatro!”
Countless dark spots emerged from the silver dunes, swarming towards them from every which way. Amon and Metatro were practically standing on an islet in a sea full of black tides. Amon had just startled out all the scorpions from underneath the sand.
Each of them was about a foot long, waving their pincers and shaking their long fearful stinging tails. A traveler might easily stomp on normal scorpions if there were only one or two of them, perhaps at the cost of being stung once, which normally wouldn’t be fatal. Facing thousands of big scorpions, however, was a totally different thing.
Still, Metatro wasn’t scared by this horrifying scene. He shouted and wielded his new staff, raising a sandstorm around them. Wind blades formed a spiral, shooting all over with sand. The solid grains of sand made the wind blades more powerful. Spinning like awls, they penetrated the scorpions’ carapaces. Lined like sawteeth, they cut their bodies into pieces. The circle of sandstorm enlarged steadily, leaving mutilated scorpion bodies everywhere. Some of the bodies were still convulsing.
Wind magic always became more aggressive in lands surrounded by sand. However, the creatures didn’t flinch seeing their fellows’ deaths. More scorpions popped out from the sand and simply crept towards them over the others’ corpses. Amon still did nothing but counsel Metatro, “They are big with solid shells. Wind magic is not the most efficient magic you could use.”
Metatro raised the staff again. Threads of flame appeared in the wind like incandescent hairs, swirling between the dunes. The mutilated bodies were the first to burn, then the living ones. Their solid carapace couldn’t protect them from the heat. The fat in their bodies in turn fueled the flames further. Smoke billowed in the wind as the air was filled by choking rank fumes.
Amon spoke again, “The poison in the scorpions is vaporizing. The smoke is toxic.”
Metatro seemed to have already noticed it. The whirlwind was pushing out the smoke, dragging in the clean air from above. The scorpions were more resistant to fire than initially thought. Some crawled with their mutilated bodies for several feet before being cut into pieces by the wind blades.
He was already performing two advanced magics at the same time, but Metatro still felt that it was still not enough. He shouted after a while, “Did we happen to camp on top of their nest, my Lord? It’s a waste of energy and time staying here. I think we should keep moving. These pests could never follow our speed.”
Amon wielded his staff and the tent disappeared. He nodded, “Let’s go then. Find us a way out.”
The young noble pointed his staff ahead, where the storm converged to form a stream, ploughing a wide furrow on the sand. The scorpions were thrown to the sides, which were then frozen. When the swarms were numbed by the chilliness, Metatro took the chance and strode forward. Amon followed him, carrying the leather bag on his back.
Generally, it was not a good idea to perform water magic in the desert, but the Ice Magic doesn’t need much water, and it obviously worked well in stopping the scorpions from moving for a short while. And that was what they needed: some precious time to get away.
The two walked calmly and composedly between the dunes. Metatro wielded the staff from time to time to clear out the scorpions on their way. When the sky started to turn bright, there was hardly any scorpions around them. Watching the endless sand ridges, Metatro let out a sigh of relief and turned to his Lord, “I don’t understand. Why were there so many scorpions? I have never met that many of them.”
Amon shook his head, “Neither have I. I’ve heard of people being stung by one or two scorpions when crossing the desert. Some even lost their lives. But never nests of scorpions like that. Something has changed after the flood.”
Metatro furrowed his brows, “These scorpions are much bigger than any I’ve seen before. They look very poisonous too. They are certainly not the ordinary scorpions I’ve met previously.” He suddenly stomped his foot and crushed a scorpion that had just emerged next to him, “There’s another one! They just won’t stop!”
Amon muttered thoughtfully, “I had heard that there were monsters frequenting the desert after the flood… These scorpions must have something to do with those monsters. Previously I’ve read a story in the Archive called ‘Marduc’s Land’. It says that Duc used to be the battlefield of the gods. At the time, the gods had created nine monsters to fight for them. They were Bashmu the Venomous Snake, Mushmahhur the Seven-headed Serpent, Mushhushu the Scaly Eagle-Snake, Uridimmu the three-headed dog, Nahmu the Sea Storm, Ugallu the Mad Lion, Girtablullu the Scorpion-Man, Kulullur the Fish-Man and Kusarikku the Bull-Man.”
“Seven-headed Snake? Sounds like Humbaba the patron of the Euphrate River. Legends say that he was the guardian of Enlil’s realm. But Humbaba has already been killed by Gilgamesh and Enkidu.”
“Humbaba must have been the Seven-headed Snake. Enlil must have vanquished him and made him his lackey, forcing him to guard his realm. Humbaba had many offsprings and many of them are still living in the Euphrate River. I have already encountered one of them. I think the other fiends also exist and have progeny as well. Remember that one of the monsters is called the Scorpion Man. These strange scorpions may be his brood.”
Metatro gaped, “Then we must be more careful. Those behemoths were created to fight gods.”
Amon nodded, “Indeed. Therefore, we should not spend too much time with them. Avoid them when possible. We are here to survey the land, not to eliminate monsters. That would be too much for just the two of us. We should focus on our task and get to Duc as soon as possible.”
The two advanced again, but soon found that they had to slow down. Every now and then there would be scorpions crawling out from the sand, sometimes a dozen, sometimes in larger numbers. Every day they had to fight several battles. Metatro was even almost stung once. Amon just followed him and did nothing.
They walked like that for a week. On the eighth day, they started to see wetlands and reeds.
“Can you still hold on?” asked Amon.
The young noble panted, “I have cast more spells in the last week than in my whole life. The scorpions, they are everywhere. I have to concentrate all the time. Hadn’t I known that you were always with me, my Lord, I might have already collapsed…”
The same day as Amon and Metatro decided to turn north, in the magnificent temple of Enlil Shrine in Syah City, an old man was talking with his two apprentices.
Sporting a white beard, Golier hadn’t changed much in the last years. His face was seamed with wrinkles, but his eyes were even clearer and sharper. He looked at Raphael, his youngest apprentice, “Have you ever stopped practicing magic power since I told you the last time?”
“Never,” answered the apprentice, “It is my pleasure to practice magic. I have already gotten used to it. It is a part of my life now. Two years ago, when Master sent me to Duc, I have had to stop magic practice for a while because of some accidents. But I have never stopped practicing ever since.”
“Half a year ago, I sent you to the Charcoal Marsh again to collect information about the emerging monsters. It was even more dangerous than two years ago. Did you stop practicing magic at the time?”
“Never,” answered Raphael quietly, “As Master had taught me, the more I practice it, the more I understand myself and the force of nature. With time practicing became a necessity. I only needed to meditate to recover from fatigue. It is akin to sleeping, but more efficient. It thus became the only way I could survive the dangerous situations and fulfill my mission.”
Laughing, the old mage asked, “Do you know why you would always fall on your feet?”
Raphael was submerged in his thoughts, “I have questioned myself about that as well. There were times when the encounter was indeed very dangerous, but every time I managed to get through it. God must have been watching over me.”
His tutor laughed and shook his head, “That is a possibility. But the one who had actually helped you was Warret. I sent him to follow and look after you. It seems that you weren’t aware of his presence.”
In response to the surprise, Raphael stood up and bowed to Warret, “So you are the one who saved my life! And not only once but several times! Why didn’t you tell me?”
Warret smiled, “I wasn’t allowed to let you know.”
Raphael kneeled down to him, “I feel terribly sorry for not having noticed this earlier and I hereby offer my gratitude to you. I owe you my life!”
“This is what I ought to have done and what I was willing to do. It’s not important to talk about it. Anyway, Master told you today, so I’m glad to accept your gratitude. Now get up, my brother!”
Golier was satisfied with his elder apprentice, “I like your attitude. I chose to not mention this affair and you are apparently unconcerned. Warret, have you thought of the time when you will become a supreme mage? I have taught many students in the Kingdom and you are the one who has the most potential to reach the supreme phase.”
The sixth-level mage answered modestly, “I do not think it is a question of wanting or not. I am certainly not the only sixth-level mage eager for the supreme achievement, but dreams will not come true without due effort. While I set the supreme phase as my goal, I only care about what I can do, and nothing more.”
The old mage nodded with satisfaction, “Great. I hope you can do as what you say. You two will have a new mission. This time, you are going to cross the Syah Desert together. Then you will separate and send these two letters to Uruk and to Cape accordingly. You have to make sure that the letters are sent to Gilgamesh the Lord of Uruk and Rod Drick the governor of Cape. You must bring back to me their replies, no matter what kind of response they are and what the contents are.”
The supreme mage then brought each of his two apprentices a sealed leather canister, “You shouldn’t read the content of the letter, for it could bring trouble to you. And you will have to solve enough troubles on the way. Return to me with the responses.”
“It is still dangerous to cross the desert. You should be careful and don’t spend too much time dealing with the monsters. Stay safe and pass through it as quickly as possible. Warret, here are some scrolls and a magic boat. If you are in dire danger, use them to flee with Raphael. Remember, it is also a journey of trial. I hope you overcome your struggles with your own hands when possible. The scrolls and the boat should be your last resorts.”
Amon and Metatro were at the edge of the desert. Amidst the damp sand, weeds and other plants that usually grew in moister places could be seen here and there. In their estimation, they were only one day’s journey away from the lake. This was a better place for the scorpions. Metatro was nervous and vigilant, but for the next half a day, he couldn’t find a single scorpion, so he couldn’t help but express his confusion, “Where are all the scorpions?”
Amon laughed, “Are you starting to miss them now?”
Wearing a fatigued look, the young noble laughed too, “Of course not. But even their absence is making me nervous. This kind of environment should be more suited for the scorpions, but I can’t find even one of them. If I had a choice, I’d prefer to fight them all here and get away with peace of mind.”
“Indeed. The enemy you don’t see is the most dangerous one. It’s tormenting to wait for the other shoe to drop. But you have to know that the scorpions are just the first trouble we’ve met. There will be more dangers waiting for us… Wait, what are those traces on the sand?”
There were some strange tracks on the dunes ahead of them, like fixed ripples on the water. Metatro went closer to observe the marks and gasped with shock, “It’s a trace left by scorpions, but so much bigger! They must be three times bigger than the ones we’ve seen these days! Can they still be called scorpions? Looks like they all went in that direction. What’s happening? Let’s go and have a look!”
“Don’t act in a hurry,” Amon waved his hands, “Let me see what they are doing now.”
He took out a flat square stone. It was the ‘Sheuthe Tuspir’, also known as the ‘Shadow-soul Chasing Lamp’, which he had obtained from Vitru. Placing the artifact on his palm, he flicked the staff in front of the traces. A faint, circular ring of light arouse around the parangon inlaid in the center of the stone. Images appeared in the ring of light. It was the trace on the sand. Then the image started to change, as if they were chasing the trace in the air.
Crossing dunes and more dunes, the virtual chase went all the way to a place miles away. Amon and Metatro finally saw the ones who had left the marks. It was a pack of giant scorpions, three-feet long counting the tail. Their shining black carapaces were like well-made armors. Gusts of azure flame were spurted out from their rising tails from time to time. These creatures were certainly not common beasts.
The flames shot out from the tails could fly for several yards. They were burning venom that could be fatal with just one touch.
There were hundreds of them, positioning themselves in formations like an army so that they could protect each other when they attacked. The venomous flames were a long-range deterring force while the pincers and the stinger were the direct weapons.
Their target were two young men in the middle of the crowd. Staffs in hand, both of them were well-trained advanced mages. They had laid large-scale defense and attack magics, and cooperated in a way that evidenced experience. The older mage was attacking while the younger one was protecting them. They focused their offence on one direction, trying to fight a way out, but it seemed that they had failed several times.
Hundreds of bodies of scorpions were lying behind them, paving a horrible path of death. Some were scorched, some were cut into pieces and some were exploded from the inside. The two mages must have tried many kinds of magics.
Amon flicked the staff again. The ring of light enlarged. He examined the bodies carefully. Contrary to the scorpions they had encountered recently, the stingers and the pincers of these scorpions survived the heat of advanced Fire Magic. There weren’t many burnt examples because like Amon and Metatro, the two mages had found that the venom would vaporize under high temperature and had quickly switch to other magics instead.
He also noticed that among the different parts of the carapaces, there was one piece on the back of the scorpions that would always resist the cutting power of the wind blades. Being the student of one of the best artificers in the world, he could tell at first sight that these intact parts would certainly be good materials for magic artifacts.
Craning his neck to get a better view, Metatro gasped in surprise, “Seems that there are other people traveling in the desert like we do! They are in big trouble now. Those big bugs are not easy to tackle. They can even shoot fire arrows! Should we help them, my Lord?”