Nothing but sand as far as eyes can see. Sure, there are dunes and some hills, but in the end they are still made of sand. Beneath the clear skies, scorched by burning heat from the sun, are the red-hot sand of Rhas Vargas and nothing else for who-knows-how-many kilometres away.
It was at the time that this realization popped into his head that Omiro Jaller finally admitted he probably took a wrong turn at the last oasis.
The young merchant halts his steps and turns toward the camel-horse Rutu, his constant companion. From the saddle pocket Omiro takes a parchment – a cheaply made papyrus map he bought a few weeks ago when he first take on this delivery request. Back then, he thought he only needed the map to find his way from his hometown Nayim to a remote farm, two-oasis-and-a-half far in the south to take the ‘precious cargo’, as per the instructions of his requester. Then he would return to his usual route during his bi-weekly trips to Abunro, the capital city and trade hub of the eponymous region, to deliver the cargo to the ‘important client’.
Such vague directions and secretive nature of the delivery would usually ring alarms of dirty business in Jaller’s head – he had his experiences with such things - but the ringing was immediately silenced when the requester put forward a loaded coin bag. 50 gold khirs as the upfront payment was simply too tempting for his greed, and he gladly accepted the delivery when promised a total of 350 gold khirs as the reward. At the time Jaller didn’t know that he and Rutu would be hauling a chest full of dirt, four-oasis-and-a-half far, only to help a rich eccentric fuel his obsession with gardening. Nor did he know that the eccentric would also pay him in three cannonball cabbages, which the man estimated to be worth the remaining 300 gold khirs. Sure, each cabbage was as big as his torso in diameter, but they’re no coins. And selling such mutant vegetable proved to be no easy task, seeing that one cabbage ends up as Jaller and Rutu’s dinner last night. The other two are still strapped to Rutu’s back, baked in the harsh sun of Rhas Vargas.
In the end, the frustration brought by the cabbages clouded Jaller’s mind, and when two travelers he met at the last oasis joked about the ‘balls’ on his camel-horse, Jaller immediately led Rutu and his cabbages away without checking directions to the next oasis. Now he is somewhere between Nayim and Abunro, with the emphasis on ‘somewhere’ and without direction to either city.
After flipping and rotating the cheap map a few times, Jaller comes to a conclusion that it doesn’t help his situation at all. With a sigh, he slips the map back to Rutu’s saddle pocket and turns his head up toward the sun. The blinding light shielded by his right hand, Jaller tries to determine the cardinal directions from the sun’s position. Which is not exactly helpful, seeing it is only a little past noon and the sun is still above his head. Nontheless, Jaller decided on a direction and tugged Rutu’s rein to follow him. Gotta get somewhere, anywhere, before the sun is down, after all. The desert during the night is not a pleasant place.
And so the young merchant and his camel-horse walked kind-of aimlessly before a rumbling sound was heard from beneath the sand.
With a surprised “Hm?” Jaller once again stops his steps, and Rutu follows shortly. And just as they stopped moving, the rumbling turns into tremors, and the sound of something collapsing reach Jaller’s ears.
At that moment, before Jaller can react, the sand he was standing on crumbles, and the young merchant falls into the newly-opened crevasse together with his camel-horse.
As Jaller slowly comes to consciousness, his vision was still blurry. It seems he has fallen on his back, as he can see the blasted hole where he fell through when he opens his eyes. Groggily, using his hands as support, the young merchant rouse up and blinks a few times to adjust his vision. It seems the sand has somehow managed to cushion his fall, as he assess that there is no pain of broken bones from his body. Looking around, it seems that he has fallen into one of the various underground caverns beneath the desert, which are known open up during earthquakes. As he stands up, Jaller sees his camel-horse Rutu standing silent a short distance from the sand pile where he was laying on a few moments ago. The animal seems to be completely unharmed, and a snort from its nose makes Jaller feels as if it is mocking him for passing out.
“Keh, what a companion you are.” Jaller shot Rutu a glare before turning his sight upon the hole. Sunlight was still shining through, indicating that he has passed out for an hour at most. A little bit of sand was still falling from the desert surface to the sand pile, but Jaller can see that it’s going to stop at any moment. From where he was standing, there’s at least a five metres distance between him and the hole’s mouth, which means it is kind of impossible to come out the way they come in. Knowing this, Jaller sighs once again and walks toward Rutu.
“How did you get unharmed, you big lug?” Jallers says as he walks toward his ride. As its master pulls the reins, Rutu once again let out a proud snort. Jaller replies with another “Keh,” before inspecting his cargo. Which, as he only realized now, was missing from Rutu’s back. Another look at the sand pile reveals the answer: the two cabbages have heroically cushioned Rutu from the fall. They now lay smashed, leaves flattened and half buried within the falling sand.
Jaller’s left eye twitches at the prospect of basically losing 300 gold khirs of mutant vegetable to a freak accident.
“Just. My. Luck.” Muttering some profanities under his breath, Jaller rummages Rutu’s left side saddle pocket – the right side pocket and its contents was smashed when the camel-horse fell – and takes out a lantern, which fortunately is still intact. From the same pocket he takes some matches and lights one of them, before bringing it toward the lantern. The crystal core of the lantern reacts toward the heat from the match and begin to emit a bright light, enough to illuminate the whole cave room. Putting out the lit match, Jaller then takes the bright lantern with his left hand and surveys the room. Two exits in opposite directions; with no clue which exit to take and no way to get out through the hole, Jaller simply chooses the nearest exit and tugs Rutu’s reins with his right hand, signaling the animal to follow him as he walks toward the chosen exit.
It was during the walk through the cavern tunnel that Jaller finally admits in his mind that taking the delivery request was a stupid decision. His greed did get the better of him when he was paid upfront with 50 gold khirs – which is more than a builder’s monthly wage - but after hauling a chest weighing about one-third of a ton through the Vargas sun for three hours and gets paid with mutant vegetables for his troubles, the upfront payment feels like a scam. Should have asked for 150 khirs instead, the young merchant thinks as he looked back to that time.
Yet on the other hand, Jaller really needs the money. His business was really slow in the past two weeks and his money was running low, low enough that he considered to not make his biweekly trip to take new merchandise in Abunro as he didn’t have money to buy the provisions. The upfront payment allows him to make his trip, but it also makes him end up lost in the desert’s underground caverns, not much richer than he was before he took the request. And now he didn’t even know whether he can safely get back home to Nayim or not.
“…just my luck.” Jaller once again utters some profanities under his breath as he keeps walking. Rutu follows him silently, only occasionally lets out a snort or two, as if it’s sighing alongside its master.
After walking for what feels like hours, the duo find the tunnel getting smaller and narrower to traverse. Rutu is having trouble passing through as the tunnel walls starts to scrape his saddle when he walks. Jaller himself was getting worried that if the tunnel gets even smaller, they would have to go back – he’s not getting out of the cavern alone, not without his companion. And yet, before the tunnel gets too small for Rutu to pass, the duo has reached the end of the tunnel.
However, what they find is not a simple dead end. Shining some light upon it, Jaller finds that the end of the tunnel was cut by human hands, and then blocked by a stone slab on the other side. He didn’t know how heavy the slab door is, but maybe a push would do the trick. So he starts to push the slab with all his might.
He spent about five minutes pushing before concluding that this isn’t going to work.
Jaller thinks about using Rutu’s strength to help push the slab open, but it’s rather hard to do so in the narrow passage of the tunnel. Thinking for a bit, Jaller pauses for a few moments and puts down the lantern in his left hand before stepping back, then suddenly breaking into a run. With a thud he tackles the stone slab, which still doesn’t budge in the slightest. Jaller takes another few steps back, and once again tackles the slab.
Rutu watches as his master repeats the feat for several times. When Jaller’s breath starts to wheeze from all the fatigue he started to feel, the proud camel-horse once again snorted. Then, as Jaller starts to run to once again tackle the slab, he didn’t expect his ride to follow him head on.
Charging in with the speed it can manage within the narrow tunnel, Rutu headbutts its master in the back as he tackles the slab, giving him enough force to slam it open.
Jaller ends up with his face planted upon the slab as Rutu, snorting proudly once again, struts to the newly opened room.
“Thank you, my faithful companion.” Jaller says, his words dripping with sarcasm as he lift his head from the slab. The animal snorts and seemingly grins at the verbal jab. Jaller quickly gets up to return to the tunnel’s mouth and take the lantern he left there, but suddenly he realizes that the room they broke into is fully lit. A look to his right side shows that there are torches, lined along the cavern walls in quite an orderly fashion. Following the torches, Jaller observed that this spacious room is a part of another cave tunnel – albeit a very wide and spacious one, as it seems wide enough for a sandworm to go through. The line of torches stops after a certain distance, as the rest of the tunnel right in front of him was still covered in darkness, but it was when he look to his left side that Jaller feels his jaw drops.
Right to his left is a very large circular pit, which Jaller estimates to be more than 30 meters wide in diameter. Approching the pit, on its walls Jaller sees a spiraling walkway carved in, lined with torches, that goes in quite deep down into the darkness. The walkway has its start right near the mouth of the tunnel where they come in. Turning once again to the darkness of the tunnel, Jaller quickly grabs Rutu’s reins before he wanders too far, then take the lantern he left before starting to walk down the spiraling way.
As the duo descend down, they found there are rooms carved into the pit walls – some are adorned with cheap rugs, some has food leftovers and remains of a fire, and some has chains and weapons strewn about. All points that this particular cave is inhabited – and likely by a lot of people, judging from the amount of leftovers and number of weapons in the cave. And the only group of people that lives remotely in the caverns while needing this many weapons are… the Roc Raiders.
A group of bloodthirsty, elusive bandits wanted in most of the regions in the desert, the Raiders is said to have enough men to completely pillage and raze a small village. Ever since he was little and still living in the streets, Jaller has heard news about them and their exploits; about how they once rob a wealthy merchant en route to Abunro and drops him in the city outskirts completely naked, or about how they once raided the caravan of a minor sheik, held him captive and asked for his treasury as the ransom, and about how they always disappear into the desert when night comes. Well, this secret hideout in the underground caverns answers how they disappear. But now that Jaller knows about the secret, it’s almost assured he will lose his neck if he was to meet of the Raiders.
Yet the young merchant presses on, descending down the spiral walkway. After all, traversing the hideout and finding how the bandits can get in and out of the caverns is the fastest way to find an exit to the desert. With that train of thought and an increase in caution for fear of alerting any bandits that maybe guarding the place, Jaller and Rutu continue their path down.
After several loops down the pit and meeting not a single soul, the duo find themselves at the front of the last room. They are not in the bottom of the pit yet – the walkway still continues, spiraling down into unknown depths, yet there are no torches lined up beyond this last room. The Raiders doesn’t seem to use the remaining depths of the pit as hideout it seems, so this last and deepest room is their last bet of finding an exit. All the rooms they’ve inspected as they descend were mostly single rooms carved into the walls, connecting to nowhere other than the spiraling walkway. So, if the bandits do have an exit right into the desert, it must be in this room.
Jaller leads Rutu into the room, which he notices to be a small corridor - likely used to be a small crack in cave walls, before being widened considerably by the bandits. At the end of the corridor is a rough drape made from animal skin, concealing the room beyond.
At this point, Jaller gulps. They have been very lucky to encounter no one in the hideout – Jaller suspects that most of the Raiders are out in the desert, doing what they do best – but are the bandits really that confident in their secret location that they spare no one to guard it? Jaller has been hoping that they are, but his anxiety still has its doubts. Yet there is no other option but to push forward now, and with that decision Jaller swipes the drapes away and is met with a sight he never forgets.
He finds himself in the treasure hoard of the Roc Raiders, with piles – no, hills - of gold glittering all over the room, illuminated by crystal torches. A fruit of who-knows-how-many years of crime, the hoard is comparable to the Sheik of Abunro’s own treasury. Or maybe even surpasses it.
The sight of so much gold awakens Jaller’s bottomless greed, and once again it knocks his reasons out of his head. The man drops his lantern and his companion’s reins and rushes directly to the nearest pile of gold, laughing ecstatically along the way.
Rutu can only snort in mild disapproval of his master’s behavior.
When Jaller finds himself in front of the pile, he finds it to be about five meters tall. And looking around, there are at least three more piles like this one, and a few others which are even taller. Feeling giddy as a kid in front of a stall that gives out free candies, Jaller thrusts both of his arms into the pile, and grabs out as many gold khirs he can, shouting “I’M RICH!” in repeat at full volume.
When his reasons return to him, Jaller finds himself at the top of pile, half buried in gold khirs, wearing multiple bracelets and necklaces full of precious stones, as well as a gold urn on his head as a crown. With a “Heheh” he stands up, takes off the urn and most of the jewelry, and slides down the hill right in front of Rutu, who seems to be standing silently in disapproval.
“Oh my dear friend and companion, truly a beautiful day this is, yes?” Jaller says like he was fully drunk as he wraps his right hand around Rutu’s neck. “All this glittering treasure, and no one guards it. May as well help ourselves.” Jaller continues. Rutu grunts in reply.
“Oh I haven’t forgot about the exit problem, really.” Jaller seemingly replies to Rutu’s grunt. “It’s just, we’re gonna fill up those saddle of yours first…nothing much, just a few jewelries, a little bag of coins, and they won’t notice a thing. The rest, are for another time.” Jaller motions to the two emerald necklaces and three gold bracelets hanging on his left hand. With a quick move, he dumps it all into Rutu’s right saddle pocket. The animal sighs, but lets his master do as he wishes.
A few moments later, Jaller has filled his coin bag full of gold khirs, so full that one can easily spot it bulging in his robes. Jaller doesn’t care the least bit, however. “Now, where is that exit…” he mutter to himself as he grabs Rutu’s reins and begin to walk to the back of the treasury.
“Ummmm, if you would be so kind, sir, can you add me to your, uh, spoils?”
Hearing a voice other than his, Jaller’s reasoning kicks in, his stance becomes guarded and he turns as fast as he can toward the direction of the voice. On top of a gold pile to his right, sat a kid with silver hair tied into a single bundle which hangs from the right shoulder. The youth in question looks no older than fifteen, wearing a robe in a style that Jaller has never seen before.
“Uh, please, sir? I, I have something that I have to do and so I can’t waste my time getting kidnapped by bandits, so… help me, please, sir.” The youth continues to beg as Jaller and Rutu approaches the pile. Upon closer inspection, what Jaller notices about the youth is how they look pretty pleasing to the eyes. Grey eyes with a soft gaze, fair unblemished skin that makes the face shine, and small pair of hands, bound by a bracelet of ropes. Which also binds the youth’s feet. Yet the youth’s fair features outshine the predicament they are in.
“So, uh, sir, please?” The rather high-pitched voice begs again. Jaller and Rutu is now in front of the pile of gold where the youth is. Yet rather than climbing to reach the troubled kid, Jaller instead looks up and frankly replies:
“Eh, why should I?”
“EEEEEEEEEH?!! B-but I’m in a big trouble here!!” The pitch gets higher the youth half shrieks at the reply.
“Look here, kid. Consider this from my position.” Jaller looks at the exasperated youth, wriggling at the top of the pile of gold, and starts to explain. “Me, I’m a poor merchant, lost in the desert caverns, and stumbles into the legendary Roc Raiders’ hideout. After these round of misfortunes, fate decided to deal me some good luck, and here I am, in the treasure room rivaling the Sheik’s without a guard in sight. I’m free to take what I want, and the bandits won’t even know I’m ever here.”
“Y-yeah, that’s why you can take me…”
“Not so fast, kid. Listen, I don’t know who you are, or why you’re captured by the Raiders, but one thing I know for sure: you’re important to those barbarians, so much so that they didn’t do anything else other than tossing you on their hoard. Thinking about your value to them, do you think they wouldn’t notice if you are gone?”
“Umm, they would, but it’s my problem…”
“No, no, it’s also my problem. The bandits don’t know I’m here. If I were to let you escape, they would know their hideout got an uninvited guest, and they would start searching for the ‘accomplice’ of your escape. Sure, nothing exactly points to me, but I hate to spend my days fearing the bandits suddenly knocking on my door. You understand?” Jaller ends his explanation, then continues. “So, goodbye.” He waves his hand as he turns his back to the kid, who is still sitting dumbfounded.
“…uuuuh, wait!” The kid shouts at Jaller, who is walking away. “You-you can’t escape without me!”
Jaller sighs. “Look, kid, I’m sorry for your situation, but why should I take you with me when it only paints a target for the bandits on my back?”
“Eh, because leaving me here paints a bigger target on your back?”
“Um, well, you can’t be certain I won’t say anything about you when the bandits return, right? So it is safer for you to take me, because by taking me…”
Jaller stops listening when he hears the words ‘say anything about you’. At that very moment he realizes that in his haste to take the stolen treasure back home, he has made some leaps of logic in his reasoning, leaving a gaping mistake that could cost him his life. It’s true, the brat could tell about me to the bandits, right? I would be dead if that were to happen. How could I miss this fact?! Jaller berates himself in his mind.
“…so, uh, you see it’s best for you to- WHOA!” The youth, continuing to explain the reasons why Jaller must take them, is startled when they realize the man is already untying their feet. “You win, kid. Now let’s get out of here.” Jaller says as he slides down the gold pile before the youth even has a chance to reply.
“I-I have a name, you know!” The youth exclaims as he slowly climbs down the pile. “It’s Ain! Ain Salze.”
“Very well, miss Ain.” Jaller replies without even turning. “Would you kindly hurry a little bit and show us the way out, please?” He continues rather sarcastically.
“…s-sure.” The youth answers while rummaging through the gold pile, as if searching for something. A few moments later they take out a simple, curved wooden staff out of the pile and begin running toward the young merchant and his companion. “And mister Salze would be more appropriate, sir intruder…” Ain catches up to his savior, only to find him and his animal companion freezes in their steps. “Sir…? Um, I don’t know your name yet…?”
Jaller’s right eye twitches before he finally blurts out a response. “…uh. So, you’re a boy?”
“Mm, yes, what of it?” The youth, who is now ahead of him, seems to be puzzled at his question. Jaller pinches the bridge of his nose while his face shows a mixture of confusion and bewilderment. A few moments later, he strides forward in big steps, tugging Rutu’s reins and pushing Ain out of the way. “Nothing. Just tell which way to go.” He says as he continues walking. “And it’s Jaller. Omiro Jaller.” He adds. An “Okay!” is heard in response.
“…so, why are you captured by the bandits anyway?” Jaller finally asks Ain something that has been nagging in his mind since some time ago. The two of them, together with Rutu, has left the treasure room through a tunnel on the back part of the room. The tunnel leads to a rather large cave opening, which has been converted into some kind of stable, with hay piles in one corner and fences on the other. This is likely where the Raiders let their rides rest after returning to the hideout.
“Ah, well, I guess it’s because I fought them?” Ain answers with the first thing that comes to his mind.
“…I’ve never known anyone who fought the Raiders lived to tell the tale.” Jaller expresses his doubts.
“Well, that must be because none of them are magicians!” Ain replies with a big grin. Jaller can feel his right eye twitches again.
“Seriously? You just claimed you are a boy, and now you claim to be a magician?” One can hear the heavy skepticism in Jaller’s words. “I can accept the first one, but I thought magicians have all died out in the last war fifty years ago.”
“Not quite! We still live in small settlements throughout the desert. Out of jurisdictions of any government, that is.” Ain explains.
“…yeaaaah. Being a magician is certainly a reason why the Roc Raiders doesn’t simply kill you when they managed to get you.” Jaller continues to voice his doubts.
“Oh? Let me show you what I can do, then!” Ain suddenly gets pumped up. “Look at that! There’s the exit!” Using the staff in his right hand, the youth points to the big, circular stone slab not unlike the one that Jaller slammed open when he first enter the hideout. Except of course, this one is far bigger, with a diameter that could reach 3 meters wide.
“…These Raiders sure love their stone slabs.” Jaller comments with a hint of dread in his voice. “So? How do we open it?” He asks Ain, who looks as excited as a boy who wants to show off his work to his parents.
“Well, when they brought me here, I see ten of them pushing and rolling this slab aside.” Ain recounts. “But watch this, mister Jaller!”
Ain slams his staff to the ground once before pointing it to one side of the slab. While at first nothing seems to happen, gradually Jaller hears some kind of faint whooshing sound, that comes from the other side of the slab. As the sound grows louder, Ain moves his staff as if he’s using it to pull something tied of the staff. A few moments later, the slab moves slightly aside, and from the opening enters the blinding light of the sun… as well as a massive torrent of sand, gushing and slithering like a giant snake, pushing the giant slab bit by bit. When the slab has been moved aside, creating an opening large enough for Rutu to get through, Ain brings down his staff, and knocks it gently to the ground. The whirling torrent of sand instantly collapses, and what is left is nothing but a pile of sand.
Ain turns to face Jaller and Rutu, whose jaws are still agape. “I can control sand with my magic. Pretty useful, right?”
Hearing Ain’s explanation, Jaller closes his jaw and tries to compose himself. After a few moments trying to make sense of what just happened in his mind, he finds himself with no other option but to accept Ain’s claims that he is a boy magician, and quite a powerful one at that. “…I can see now why you are important enough for the bandits to be let live.” Jaller finally blurts out a comment. “That sand control is certainly… useful. In many situations.” He continues, thinking about how dangerous it would be were the Raiders managed to make use of Ain’s magic.
“I know, right? My magic impressed those bandits so much, they asked me to work for them after pining me down. Of course I refuse, as they first come to raid the caravan I was on. I have a mission to do, and I’m not interested in becoming a criminal.” Ain excitedly tells Jaller about his first meeting with the Roc Raiders. “They won’t have any of it, so they haul me back to their hideout and left me there on the pile, like a simple loot. Rude!” Ain huffs at the memory as he once again commands the sand to push the giant slab back to its position.
“Huh. So you’ve been sitting on top of that gold for some time, huh?” Jaller asks as they walk down the canyon they come out to from the cave. Ain shook his head in response. “Not really. Just last night, after my caravan was raided last sunset.”
“Well, good thing I saved you back there. Your magic could be very dangerous in their hands.” Jaller says offhandedly as he surveys their surroundings. The trio has managed to get out of the bandit canyon and now find themselves back in the vast desert. “Now where to go. If only I know where Nayim is…” Jaller grumbles, but then he sees Ain kneeling into the sand, clutching his staff tightly with two hands. After some silence, the youth stands up and points a direction, saying “That way to the town of Nayim.”
“…Even seeking directions, huh?” Jaller asks.
“Yes! Magic is quite convenient, right?” Ain nods, seeking approval.
“Another reason why it’s a good thing you’re not with the bandits now.” Jaller tugs Rutu’s reins and starts to walk to the pointed direction as he says so. Ain follows them closely.
“True, mister Jaller! Which is why I owe you, umm… my life, I guess. What can I do to repay that?” Ain said nonchalantly. Jaller pauses as he hears what the boy has just said. The brat really says various unexpected things.
“…your life, you said…” Jaller chuckles, rather darkly one might say.
“Mm hm, my life.” Ain reconfirms it. “So what can I-“
Suddenly, Ain feels two hands clasping his shoulders very tightly. In front of him is the so-called ‘mister Jaller’, who is now grinning rather mischievously. Rather than Omiro Jaller, the rather abrasive man who saved him, Ain finds himself face-to-face with Omiro Jaller, cunning merchant extraordinaire. “Then, you work for me until that debt is repaid.” Jaller declares.
“Eh? Ummm, work?” Ain can feel sweat starts to fall from his temple. Behind the man, Ain can see that Rutu, ‘mister Jaller’s’ camel-horse once again snorts his disapproval of his master’s behavior.
“Yes. A boy at your age fetch a price of about twenty five hundred gold khirs in the slave market.” Jaller continues without paying mind to the boy’s creeping anxiety. “Add to your features and …special skills, I think your debt to me for saving your life is about five thousand gold khirs in total.” He adds.
“S-s-slave market?!? Fi-five thousand gold khirs?!” Ain begins to get exasperated once again. Jaller, however, is having none of it.
“Your wage is ten gold per month, with some bonuses for good work. With that, I believe you’ll pay your debt after about forty years. Pretty good deal for a life debt, yes?” Jaller’s eyes are now staring down Ain’s with a rather crazed look. Ain himself has gotten so confused and bewildered that he can’t respond with more than “Huh?!” and “Eh?!?”.
In the end, Ain, unable to refute Jaller’s reasoning, ‘accepts’ the deal. The two of them, together with Rutu, walks for a few hours before finally reaching Nayim at sunset.