The foursome tiredly carried on through the savanna. With no sleep from the previous night Vylasgarden could barely keep her eyes open. The morning breeze was warm and dry and as the sun reached higher into the sky she noticed her mammalian companions beginning to sweat. Eventually they were forced to stop at a river to water their horses and fill their waterskins. The river was wide and the clay soil made the water opaque. “It would seem that the entire animal kingdom had come this morning,” Vylasgarden stated as she observed the banks which had a variety of strange animals drinking and congregating: She recognized the water buffalo from a variety she was familiar with back in the Heavenly Province. She also recognized the cranes that browsed near the banks, but it was the wild horses and other smaller hooved animals she was certain was only native to the Zion region.
While Riker and Kruzco rested under a tree, Vylasgarden braided Llorva’s hair at the river’s edge. Halfway through braiding, Llorva decided to take off her boots and rest her blistering feet in the water. “I am in need of a hot bath,” she said as she swirled her legs in the murky water.
“A bath would be nice,” Vylasgarden agreed. “Thankfully I stopped molting in my adolescence.”
“Yuck! You mean like snakes and lizards?”
Vylasgarden chuckled, “Exactly.”
“Suddenly acne and body hair doesn’t sound so bad.”
“Yes, count your many blessings,” Vylasgarden said with a smile.
“What else is different about us?” Llorva asked. “I notice you do not sweat when it is hot.”
“Yes, my body is well adapted to hotter climates, though I have a certain vulnerability to the cold.”
“Really? How is that?”
“I first noticed this when I went to live at the monastery. It was high in the mountains where snow and chilling winds were common. The first few years were miserable. I slept almost like I was in a state hibernation. I had a ferocious appetite too.”
“I would like to see that,” Llorva said with a giggle.
“It took a long time, but eventually I got used to it. The first day back in the sun was like…was like being born again. Do you know what I mean?”
Llorva did not answer. She seemed to be pondering something. Eventually she said, “Fascinating.” When Vylasgarden finished braiding Llorva’s hair, she wrapped the braid up into a bun on Llorva’s crown. “How did you learn to braid hair when you yourself don’t have hair?
“I spent a lot of time basket weaving and braiding hemp some years ago. I myself am impressed with the work I’ve done,” Vylasgarden replied.
“Indeed,” Riker said from behind them. He had woken up from his nap. “It looks really good.”
“Thank you, Riker. I take it that you had a good rest?”
“Hardly with the sun beating down like this, but it will have to do.”
“I suppose you and Kruzco will be taking over now?” Llorva asked. Riker looked back at the snoring Kruzco, who somehow was sleeping soundly against the tree.
“Nah, I’ll let the old man sleep. I’m sure I can handle watching a few bags and food for an hour or so.”
Baron Von Riker
As noon approached and the heat became even more unbearable, the party eventually left the river and traveled further northeast. It seemed as though the wilderness was endless; for four days and four nights they rode across the savanna. On the fifth day, they found refuge underneath the first tree they had seen in hours from their last resting spot. The tree’s large branches made for decent shade. “We will rest for only a moment,” Riker said as they all dismounted and went to sit in the cool shade. The moment turned to minutes and the minutes turned to hours as they rested in semi-comfort. As Riker slept, he dreamt of the hands of a forger hammering a red-hot piece of iron against an anvil. The hands were rough and stained with grime and coal. Large blazing sparks came from the hammering and one spark grew to a kindle in the darkness that turned into a flame that grew into the shape of a fiery birdlike creature. It flew into Riker’s perspective screeching and he felt the burning heat as it swooped into his face. He woke abruptly in a sweat. Riker squinted and looked up into the sky. The sky was so blue and the sun was further west than he last saw it. “What time is it?” he groaned.
“Later,” Krozco mumbled while nibbling on a bone from his rations. Llorva slept on the ground near the horses and Vylasgarden was nowhere to be seen.
“Where is Vylasgarden?”
“How long ago was that?”
“Not know. Minutes ago.”
“Let’s get our things together and be ready when she gets back,” Riker groaned sitting up. He looked up into the sky again and noticed something; it looked like a pair of vultures were circling above them. They seemed to be very large, larger than any bird of prey he had ever seen. He blinked hard and rubbed his eyes because what he saw next seemed to confuse him. It appeared as if people were riding these giant vultures. “Wait a minute,” Riker said. “Those aren’t vultures.”
“Huh?” Kruzco questioned with a piece of meat dribbling down his lip.
“There are people up there,” Riker said as he went to nudge Llorva awake. “They must have been watching us for a while!” Kruzco sprang to his feet and looked directly up at the creatures. As they swooped downward, Riker got a better look of the people riding the creatures. They were zionder tribesmen armed with sharp weapons and shields.
“What is going on?” Llorva mumbled as she stirred awake on the ground.
“We have company, on your feet,” Riker ordered just before Kruzco fired an arrow at one of the large creatures in the sky.
“Why did you do that?” Riker blurted and the creature the arrow was meant for just folded its wings and spun downward, dodging the attack.
“Hippogriff,” Kruzco said plainly. Riker looked up at the creatures again and had a better look at them now that they were closer; they were not vultures at all. Instead they were strange looking beasts that looked as if it were part horse and part eagle. Kruzco shot another arrow at the creatures and missed again. “Argh!” Kruzco sputtered as he took aim again with another arrow but Riker reached for him to stop.
“They may not want to attack us,” Riker suggested before he was shot at with a javelin from above. “Son of a banshee, Kruzco!” The javelin connected with the tree. Riker cursed before arming himself with his magic flute. “I can’t reach them from here with a wave.”
“I got this,” Kruzco exhaled as he released an arrow from his bow. The firefight continued as Llorva took cover behind the tree and Riker reduced Kruzco’s attacks with his magical music. Every arrow Kruzco shot was accompanied with a magical effect that exploded the arrows into splinters. The hail of splinters proved to be a good distraction against the tribesman’s attacks, however, it did minimum damage. “What doing!?” Kruzco shouted at Riker.
“We don’t want to kill them!”
“Speak for self!” Kruzco exclaimed looking up at the attackers from the sky.
“Riker look out!” Llorva yelled as Kruzco suddenly leapt toward Riker. Was he that mad at Riker for weakening his shots? It was so sudden that Riker did not initially see the javelin connect with Kruzco’s shoulder as he tackled Riker to the ground.
“Kruzco!” Riker shrieked. He rolled Kruzco off him and took Kruzco into his arms as the man slumped to the ground moaning. The creatures landed with grace as the riders dismounted midair, shields up and now armed with spears. Llorva took shots at them with her daggers but the tribesmen’s wooden shields collected them as the metal daggers stuck into the wood.
“Stop!” One of the men shouted in common and his hippogriff screeched and spread its wings intimidatingly. The horses neighed and bucked and Llorva went to calm them.
“Who are you? What are you outsiders doing off the merchant roads?” the second tribesman demanded. Both of their accents were heavy.
“You first! You shot at my friends,” Llorva spat back.
“They shot at us first,” the first tribesman said.
“Be that as it may,” Riker started. “Is my friend going to be okay?” Riker asked.
“It depends if you answer our questions,” One of the tribesmen said threateningly. Riker and Llorva then looked at each other and Riker gave her a nod.
“I am Baron Von Riker, this is Kruzco and that is Llorva. We’ve come to answer the emperor’s quest.” The men look at each other then back at the trio.
“You are late,” one of the tribesmen state while lowering his shield. “Very late. That notice was sent outside the province over a month ago,” he said as he came to Kruzco’s side.
“Kruzco was threatened by your mounts,” Riker said pointing at the creatures. “He said they were called Hippogriffs.”
“Yes, they are very dangerous in the wild,” the tribesman said breaking off the elongated part of the javelin in Kruzco’s shoulder. Kruzco screamed in pain.
“Is he going to be okay?” Llorva asked.
“Maybe not. Those javelins were poisoned.”
“Poisoned!?” Riker exclaimed. “You really were trying to kill us.”
“We suspected you to be bandits. Thieves usually travel off road,” the second tribesman said.
“We were trying to get to the city faster than the main route permitted,” Riker explained.
“None of that matters now,” the first tribesman said. “We all must be going,” he said as he helped Kruzco to his feet and carried him to his hippogriff. “I will take him ahead to the city while Hassan escort you and your horses to the walls,” he said reffering to the second tribesman.
“Wait, there is a fourth of us out in the wilderness. She should be back soon,” Riker said to him.
“We cannot wait. Your friend has been exposed to a deadly toxin that will kill him if we do not get him proper treatment.”
“I will wait for her Riker. You and Kruzco go ahead,” Llorva said as she helped support Kruzco onto the hippogriff.
“No, you come with us. We need to stay together. We will have to leave her a message and hopefully she will meet us there,” he replied and together they wrote on a piece of parchment a brief note as the two tribesmen tended to Kruzco who began a cold sweat and started mumbling franticly.
“Your friend has already started symptoms. We must go now,” Hassan urged.
“Right,” Riker agreed as he and Llorva left behind their letter to Vylasgarden under a rock near the horse they would leave behind. Llorva went over to the horse and kissed its mane.
“Vylasgarden will be here soon to get you. Just hold on my dear,” and with that she and Riker mounted the second horse and took off toward the city with the Hassan the tribesman. The horse and the hippogriffs ran into a gallop until the one with Kruzco picks up speed and spread its wings as it lifted into the air. Riker and Llorva watch as Kruzco disappeared into the mirages ahead of them and into the sky.