The wind was a brief reprieve from the heat that ravaged the dunes of the Xurian Desert. Sarissa had thought the nights would be the reinstatement of fortitude to persevere during the day, but Cecily had been proven right in that the nights, instead of the scalding heat of the day, merely sizzled.
She hadn't eaten in days, and if the trio happened to fall behind schedule by even three hours, would die of dehydration. As a serpentkin, she knew that she had an innate resistance to the baking heat, so she could scarcely imagine how Reginald was holding up as a ratkin. Cecily seemed unfazed by the heat, but then again, nothing seemed to rattle those emerald gemstone eyes.
Reginald let out a a whisper of a raspy cry just then, causing both Sarissa and Cecily to halt their mounts and turn back. Apparently, his mount had collapsed in exhaustion, throwing him face-first into the sand. Within seconds, second- and third-degree burns begain appearing on what little exposed skin he had.
"Gods damn it," hissed Cecily, hopping off her riding lizard and running to her fallen student. She scooped Reginald up in one arm and laid him on the back of Sarissa's riding lizard.
"We cannot even apply the salve until nightfall. Burns will appear faster than we can soothe them." Cecily looked around. "Five hours will he have to survive as is. Meanwhile, we'll make for that oasis in the distance."
Sarissa looked in the direction her mentor was pointing in. She didn't see anything, but Cecily's eyes, or rather the gemstones in her eye sockets, had some sort of magical capabilities that Sarissa could barely comprehend. Also, Cecily wasn't the "false hope" type.
So they did the only thing they could: ride on.
About an hour later, the oasis Cecily mentioned came into view. It had been over the horizon when Reginald had fallen, but Sarissa had managed to keep faith in Cecily and was once again rewarded. The medusa stopped and stared into the distance beyond the copse of palm trees for a few minutes, looking concerned.
"Be careful, child," Cecily warned, "for there is some kind of powerful magic at work beyond the pond. I am having difficulty identifying it." The last sentence sent a chill down Sarissa's spine, which only served to underline the gravitas of the situation, as she hadn't felt any sort of chill since before the desert.
It was another two hours before they arrived, and all the while, Sarissa had tried to calm her friend's whimpers by lightly singing one of their favorite songs, but her voice turned to a rasp and gave out after the first hour after his fall, so she resorted to whispering words of strength to him until her throat strained with a dry ache.
Sarissa wordlessly laid Reginald down in the shade of the trees, in a spot that was hidden from the sun throughout its whole trek across the sky, while Cecily had the giant lizards tied to the tree closest to the pond. There, they sat and drank before dozing off.
Cecily unpacked their gear and handed the glass jar with the burn salve to Sarissa. She watched her pupil apply it with a tenderness she thought Sarissa didn't even know she had, and turned her thoughts toward dinner. Based on how she was feeling, and watching her charges, it seemed like it would be a liquid dinner.
As they rested, the sun crawled closer to the horizon, bringing with it the promise of a restoration of sanity. All of their empty jugs, bottles, and vials, whatever they had that could carry water, were filled. Sarissa dove head-first into the improbable spring, opened her mouth and just drank.
Once she had drank her fill, she surfaced to check on Reginald, but was hesitant to fully remove herself from the water. It was just too comfortable, too welcoming, after trekking through the desert the gods forgot for little more than a week.
While Reginald rested and Sarissa cavorted in the water, Cecily stood at the edge of the oasis and stared outward, trying to decipher what she was seeing. It was an incredible weave of magic, seemingly too ornate to be naturally occurring, and in the middle of nowhere.
"Right, then," she said to herself, "as soon as we're rested and rejuvenated, we'll check it out." Cecily then put it out of her mind and focused on setting up camp.
Sleep came easy for them that night, being road-weary and almost continuously sleepy from the heat. It was a restful sleep, filled with dreams of what each considered a place called home, where no one would hound them or chase them out of town.
The next morning, despite finding it to be slightly more difficult than it should have been, the trio left their shelter in the middle of the desert to go explore the intricate magics that lay ahead.
Reginald rode on the back of Sarissa's lizard, less indignant about riding second to a woman than he'd have been had he not been forcibly evicted from his throne two years ago. The idea still didn't sit right with him, but this was his life now, and Sarissa had given him a home when none other, even his own subjects, would.
They rode in silence, each lost in his or her own head, dreams lingering in their minds. So absorbed their thoughts were they, that when a castle the size of a city shimmered into view before them, they almost missed it. The riding lizards reared up, almost throwing their riders into the scalding sand, but they were quickly subdued.
Both Sarissa and Reginald's jaws hung slack in awe of the sight. The only expression Cecily showed was a widening of her eyes as the veils of the illusion, and of the construction of the spells, were parted. There was a vague path before them, heading to a guard tower.
"Shall we go, then?" Cecily asked with a smile. Sarissa just nodded, still awe-struck. They rode for no more than ten minutes before approaching the tower. As they drew close, five guards came filing out, ready to inspect the travelers. They appeared to be human, save for two very obvious differences: each guard possessed two sets of arms, one above the other, and once close, Sarissa could see small lines resembling tattoos all over their bare skin, which didn't seem to mind the sun, in the shape of scales. She dared to get her hopes up. Could they be serpentkin?
"Halt, travelers! State your names, destination, and alliance!" barked a guard, the leader, Sarissa assumed. He was the mosf decorated, anyway. She also noted that his tone was not angry or assuming, but inquisitive and curious. Cecily cleared her throat and spoke.
"I am Cecily Aspdottir, and these are my charges, Sarissa Aspdottir, and Reginald Sloan, the third, ex-prince of the kingdom of Stahl, to the south. Our destination is the port city of Masthead, on the other side of this desert, and we have no allegiance to anyone other than ourselves and our deities, The Serpent Lady, goddess of snakes, Lyca Moonbeam, goddess of lycanthropes, and Curtana, lady of the blade, respectively."
"Why are you deposed, young ex-prince? And why such a peculiar pantheon between the three of you? I've not heard of the first two." The guard looked uneasy, having to ask the questions.
Reginald swallowed hard. He looked to Cecily for support, and received a nod of encouragement.
"I was chased from my kingdom while I was leading a troupe of soldiers to clear out a dire rat infestation. I wasn't careful enough, and I received a curse when one bit me. I now belong to Lyca Moonbeam, but pledge myself to Curtana out of my twenty-odd years of loyalty."
"Lycanthropes? You mean shifters, were-creatures? I thought they were the stuff of myths!" The other guards began murmuring to themselves, and Sarissa felt a lump forming in her throat. They were going to have to run, she was sure of it.
"I assure you, soldier, they are quite real," began Cecily. "We also mean you no harm. We were just passing through when we detected a great source of magic, and decided to inspect it."
At that, the guard's demeanor changed from merely inquisitive to quite happy. He turned to the others and told them to inform the sultan of the guests.
"Come, my weary travelers! It is indeed a joy to have you join us! We have never had guests like you in Xu's Castle! He will be overjoyed to see you."
"Uh..what?" asked Reginald, dumbfounded.
"We thrive on being a melting pot here, Xu says we need to welcome all kinds of folk into the castle, as the many different forms that life takes is all sacred, and to have you here is joyous, indeed, as who else can say that they have the most diverse culture on the planet?"
"What is going on here?" Reginald asked again. "How do you stay safe with such an open-door policy? This doesn't make any sense!"
Sarissa turned back to face her friend. "Do you want them to run us out or something? This is amazing! Being welcomed because of our differences! Ha ha, I never thought I'd see the day."
"Yes, Reginald," started Cecily, "let us take this at face value until the people here prove otherwise. I do not detect any deception at current, so I shall enjoy the hospitality of our gracious host, Xu."
The wererat raised an eyebrow, unconvinced. "I shall reserve judgment until we meet this 'Xu' person." Sarissa just sighed in exasperation, and looked to the guards.
"We accept your offer, dear guard. Take us to Xu, if you please."
"Right this way, m'ladies and sir."
And with that, the gates opened.
(To be continued...)