The sand is everywhere. It itches under my clothes, it screaks in my boots, it gets under my mask and makes it hard to breathe, it sifts through my hair. And yet the journey could have been worse. For the hundreth time, I offer silent thanks to the unknown Elven artificer who made my cloak and thus saved us from the brunt of the heat. The sun glares mercilessly from a sky so blue that my eyes hurt from a single glance upwards.
Ah, the salve must be wearing off.
I slow my pace, and reach for a small jar, then smear a bit of dark blue, cool-smelling salve on my eyelids. Alchemical glare protection. I am lucky. When the Indifferent one and his clerics had taught me, an unnaturally long ten years ago, a general stragegy for taking care of yourself in an unknown environment, they included the following: "Your senses are vulnerable. Eyes can be blinded, ears deafened, skin burned or frozen, nose nauseated. Take care of your senses, and you'll have less of a chance to blunder into your doom." The rule has saved us countless times.
But sometimes doom arrives just while you are preparing for it.
Sharp-eyed Jelita yells a warning, and Cypher, next to me, throws a hand up in a defensive gesture. Ambush!
And then the world is fire and pain. Taali screeches in fear from his resting place in my cloak, and I stagger, but somehow hold my ground. All of us do.
But while we stand there, blinded, hurt, it rises from the sands. A humongous armored worm with a gaping maw, the sharp spikes protruding from its scales gleaming with green ichor. It looms over us, ready to pound us into the sand.
I've seen those spikes, that mouth. Where? Where!?
We react fast. The sharp twang of Jelita's bow tells me the rogue has already sent a few arrows into the beast. Cypher sings out a phrase, and his pure, clear magic envelops me, envelops all of us, raising spirits and driving doubt and fear from our hearts. Fai takes to the skies, and Katarina - brave Katarina - calls out a prayer and closes in with the beast.
Can we kill it before it kills us?
It is hurt already, and badly. Katarina's mace, Cypher's sword, Jelita's arrows. A simple magic missle should give us enough of an edge.
But something scratches in my mind, some fact I must remember about this creature, something I specifically paid attention to when reading those scrolls. Something is wrong, very wrong.
I follow Fai's suit and take to the skies. Last out the seconds I need to see it, to understand, please, friends!
It winds around Katarina, its spikes breaking through her armor, its venom eating away at her skin, and she falls limp in its grip. Poison. Fire-breathing poisonous worm!...
"Fai!" I shout. "Your staff! If it dies, we all die!"
The warlock understands me instantly, and draws the stave from the leather loop on his pack.
"Charm Monster!" he cries. "Do not eat her!"
Luckily, the creature is smarter than a mere animal. I know not if it understands Common, but it certainly knows intonation. It freezes, heeding Fai's warning.
Our warriors stop in mid-swing and mid-notch.
"Get her out!" Fai shouts.
Cypher takes a step forward, but the creature bristles threateningly, instinctively biting down on Katarina. The paladin backs away again.
"Fai, your call. It's charmed to you." I note. The obvious is hardly obvious when your beloved is unconscious in the mouth of some creature.
The warlock swoops down to the worm. I stay aloft to study the creature.
I was right. It is *that* worm. Those ridges really are unmistakable.
Fai murmurs soothing words as he carefully extracts Katarina from the worm's mouth, and passes her to Cypher. He concentrates momentarily, and Katarina opens her eyes, and stands shakily.
"It's not over," I say. "Back away. Slowly. About a hundred feet should
"What's wrong with it?" Fai asks in that same soothing tone, petting the creature with a gloved hand. It arches under his soft touch, having finally found a friendly soul in this hungry world.
"When they die, they explode. Sharp, poisonous pieces. It'd tear us to shreds."
Fai nods and confirms: "Back away. I'll take care of it."
"If it's friendly now, then maybe we could ride it." The paladin offers. "We've a long way to go, and no mounts."
I and Fai exchange dark looks.
"No." I say. "If the spell is dispelled - and in these sands, this is more than just a possibility - it'll attack again, and at a most inopportune time, too."
"I don't want to risk it either." Fai nods.
"Jailin, how far is it to the city?" Katarina asks suddenly.
"A day's travel. Our walking speed." I answer.
She shakes her head. "We cannot leave it so close to the city. It is a threat."
The paladin spreads his hands, conceding to her logic.
"I'll do it." Fai says. I hear the reason behind his words, and I would have done the same in his place. You charm it, you kill it.
I float to the ground, and we retreat. Once we are out of range, Fai once more spreads his charcoal-colored wings, and soars upwards, until he is a mere silhouette against the all-too-bright sky. The worm raises its head longingly to where Fai disappeared, too far for its blindsense. And then a lance of sharp green light falls from the skies, and where there was a living creature, there is now a whirling storm of poisonous blades, spreading to where we had stood or flown mere seconds earlier.
I draw my cloak tighter about myself as I watch the storm slowly subside, seeing in my mind's eye, against my will, Katarina, Fai, Cypher. Broken and poisoned. My own body, rended and torn. I would not even have lived to be poisoned in my current state. Jelita would probably live - the half-elf is quicker than most of my full-blooded brethren. But alone in the desert, would it take her long to join us in the afterlife? I think not...
Taali tugs at my hair consolingly, and I stroke his soft fur, in turn relieving his fears. Not even singed. That pocket was a good investment. But even a magical pocket would not do well in that sharp whirlwind.
"How glad I am that we were not in there..." I mutter.
Katarina looks at me knowingly and nods.
And then my body reminds me just how hurt I am. The pain that left me during the battle rush returns, and I have to cling onto my own staff to keep standing. I wouldn't have lasted long even with a staff, but, luckily, warm friendly hands are there to catch me as I fall. Katarina's healing touch soon returns me to my senses.
Fai, unusually solemn, lands with a soft sweep of his wings. He folds his wings and returns the staff to its loop.
"Why so serious?" Jelita asks him, shouldering her bow. "We won!"
"I still had to kill it." He answers curtly.
"Oh, c'mon!" The half-elf laughs. "It wanted to eat us, and we fought back!"
"I know," Fai nods. "But that was hardly fair."
"What, did we hurt its feelings?" Jelita throws her hands up in the air. "Oooh, Fai, think about the feelings of the baby worms. Mommy was catching travellers to chew 'em and spit 'em up for her young, and now that she won't ever come back, they will have to dig themselves out... And HUNT!" She makes a scary face.
Cypher and Katarina exchange looks that say "Children will be children."
"I think someone's missing the point of how a charm spell works." I comment offhandedly. "Fai, doesn't your staff have quite a few charges remaining?" The warlock nods. "We could always demonstrate, Jelita."
The rogue sighs in exasperation, but quiets.
And I start waiting for night to fall and finally be over. This is not going to be a pleasant night to trance.