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Flock

(For the reader's purposes, this translation has been altered for a(n) [American/English human]'s frame of reference, as to not create unnecessary misunderstandings and untranslatable jargon.)       Wahasha lifted her arm, wafting the sickening-sweet smell of sweat toward her nostrils. She then quickly lowered it and scrunched her face, wondering when it was that she last had fish for dinner. Never fish for lunch or breakfast. Only dinner. Wahasha had standards. She slipped her hand back under the folds of her robe- a large garment that made her look twice as wide as she would without it, but something entirely necessary for the extended stay out this far in the L'hinea desert highlands. Her worry creased her face as she looked across the dunes. None of the waterseekers had returned. Not a cloud remained in the sky, a sure sign that her friends would have trouble finding anything to drink. Already mid morning, her silent fear only grew stronger.       Her job as a watcher was simple. First rule? Be exceedingly huge. At this, she excelled, being taller and stronger than almost every Ausran for miles around, and could easily give other watchers a run for their honor. Second? Protect the flock. The first rule was always a given- one had to be tall, even for a L'hinean, which is anywhere between 9-12 feet tall, of which she was on the side closer to 12 feet. This made it easier for her to see over the red dunes that surrounded her on all sides, like the viscous sedimentary blood of a fallen giant. Strength was also important- an empty waterseeker isn't nearly as heavy as a full one, and she had to carry 15-20 on any given day.       She took a drink from her hip flask. She'd managed to keep it well above the level she'd marked as "danger- 300" and just below the "danger- 400" marking. She'd mapped out the distances on her previous treks into the unforgiving ocean of sand that lay before her. She trudged along, looking for signs of her seekers. The signs could be anything ranging from shed skin to damp spots in the sand, both of which could mean something unfortunate may have transpired. She scanned the sky above her again, making sure to watch for any would-be assailants. These would be the massive tonkai, vulture-like beasts with predatory tendencies. The seekers would be able to fight back, but it was better not to risk any of them being hurt.       Her gait was slow and lumbering, in an attempt to save as much energy as possible. Her heavy robe almost rivaled her rifle in weight- she carried with her a weapon akin to an anti-tank gun, a weapon that would normally have to be set up on the ground to be usable by anyone else. She prayed to Balmorra she wouldn't be forced to use it today, as more sweat beaded on her forehead, not out of heat, but of nervous exhaustion. She suddenly stopped. In front of her was a rocky cliff face she hadn't seen before. She groaned. Just more work to map it later, she thought to herself as she continued around the outcropping.       As she reached the other side, a smell other than her sweat caught her attention. It smelled of a certain dampness, not unlike that of a carpet wet with sweet-scented soap. Finally. Her angst was replaced by relief as the first of her waterseekers floated lazily into view.       She wondered how strange she would look to anyone not familiar with the symbiotic relationship the L'hineans and seekers shared. She took a moment to identify it. Its long, dainty limbs hung off of a surprisingly supple body, with strong thighs and well toned upper torso. Not nearly as tall as Wahasha, if it were standing on the ground, it would be roughly up to her crotch. Its most striking feature was its face. This one's was soft, flat, white, and almond shaped, with two holes where one's cheeks would normally be located. No mouth, nose, or ears were present. Lines of black flesh etched up from these dark pits toward a set of large, slanted red eyes. No pupils or irises were present, as was typical of this seeker's bloodline, hailing from the northernmost regions of L'hinea. The flagella, characteristic of most Ausran, was replaced with long, wide ribbons of lightly colored skin, which draped from its head and wrapped around its body like a poncho. Its slender legs ended in nubs of light-tan flesh. Each seeker has mild psionic powers, allowing them to direct energy through their bodies to keep afloat in the air. This is on top of the fact that they are incredibly light, weighing in at a marvelous 17-24 pounds unladen. With water, it was a different story. This seeker was "full", its normally well-muscled belly region mildly distended, its water bladders stretched slightly to make room for more liquid.       It was so full that it seemed to lurch, even in the air. It floated semi-gracefully to Wahasha, putting its next-to-featureless face to hers in a gesture of gratitude and affection.   "Fyse. You cute little bread-face," she crooned, cupping her hands around the seeker's downy face and lightly kneading, much to its apparent satisfaction, as it made a sound not unlike leaves rustling in the wind. Fyse wriggled herself free and used her spindly hands to crawl over Wahasha's back. She pulled on a hidden string, releasing the latch hidden deep within her robes. Metal and wood clanked together as a contraption sprung from Wahasha's back. A large circle with 20 holes, each made of a doughy substance similar to that of Fyse's face, were present within a frame of thick wood and thin metal struts for support against the watcher's robe. The size of the robe allowed Wahasha to have a decent range of motion while carrying her cargo- it wasn't just for looks. Fyse crawled inside one of the holes, perfectly sized for her then plumpish body, and closed her eyes.   Wahasha reached her hand back into the squishy canvas sack, playing around with its pudgy new occupant as it made occasional swishing noises. "Tired already? That's fine. I'll do the heavy lifting for now," she assured her pint-sized companion.       As this transpired, more waterseekers appeared on the horizon. Some were full, whiles others weren't nearly as much. Wahasha paused to watch them approach. A few had the same facial components as Fyse, but other seeker bloodlines were present. Some had a head that was more egg shaped, their flag-like skin ribbons wrapped like a scarf around the lower half of their black faces, with smaller, less pronounced orange-almond eyes peering over the folds. She knew that under those wraps lay two cheek holes, much like Fyses. One more was horned, a more exotic bloodline from a far-away desert isle, with a rounder black face and the same big red eyes that Fyse flashed in its direction. Wahasha watched the horned seeker closely.       "Hei-hei-za," she motioned toward it. "Come here."   Hei-hei-za looked at her wearily. She sighed. This seeker was the second most recent addition to her flock, and the least experienced. As a fairly young seeker, she posed a bit of a threat to the older ones, since she wouldn't have as much trouble finding a mate among the village inhabitants, should she have chosen to do so. She floated silently to the watcher, not breaking eye contact. Her belly wasn't as distended as the others. While they playfully shared water between each other in the back, Hei-hei-za had made the choice not to mingle. She noticed an anxious aura around the horned seeker, as it broke her gaze for a second to glance back at the others, then quickly back toward her. Wahasha put her hand on Hei-hei-za's coarser head, gently massaging her. She tensed at first under her hand, but then slowly pushed her head into it and let out a crinkling sound, like paper being crumpled in a warm fire.   "Go ahead." Wahasha gestured her thumb over her shoulder and toward Fyse. "Don't worry yourself over this grump. She's just jealous." She smiled at Hei, who in turn chattered lightly back and turned to join the majority of the flock.       It was almost hypnotic watching the seekers tumble through the air. Heavy mist showered from their cheek holes, while other seekers floated through the fog clouds and absorbed them into themselves, sharing equally the fruits of the night's labor until all were full. Wahasha chuckled to herself. This was always the funniest part, watching a bunch of fat little angels waft around in spit clouds without any real sense of style- it's not easy to levitate oneself gracefully on a full bladder, but it is quite entertaining to watch, and entrancingly so.       As the rest of the seekers settled into their respective pouches, Wahasha took a quick second to count them. She'd come out here with 18 waterseekers, and she was missing two. She knew exactly which ones before she'd finished counting. Feeling heavier, she turned back toward the far dune. Minutes passed as she felt her passengers settle comfortably into place, but there was still no sign of the last two seekers. She began to worry again. The smell of her perspiration had grown stronger up to this point; she thanked the gods that her companions had no true sense of smell, or else they would be treated to the rancid scent of rotten vegetables mixed with 6-month-old moldy socks, and for good reason. The last she had a shower was three days before she'd left. Her eyes watered as she searched the horizon, making her vision hazy enough without the help of the sweltering heat.       She spotted her last two seekers a short minute later, alleviating her of her unease. She knew these two well. Kotra was of a southern bloodline, a dome-headed seeker with a cheerful personality. Her lameness was not a result of her nature, but rather of a weakened psionic ability to keep herself afloat, costing her speed and often alignment. Her sluggish pace was expected. She never collected enough water- all the other seekers would beat her to it, and she would be too late to make the water exchanging ritual. Although she was well loved by the other seekers, she would almost always be the last to return. She moved lackadaisically to sit on Wahasha's broad shoulder and rest her head in her patch of satin-skinned flagella.       Palahi was a different situation altogether. Her northern almond face was marred by a single black scar, going from above her left eye all the way down to her right cheek. Her back was in equally ragged condition, covered in pitch-colored old lesions. Wahasha had employed her after an ill-advised and contentious trade with a nomadic group called the Hendija. She didn't know much about them. What was apparent to her was their distaste for seekers, and their ironic reliance on them. They didn't treat their seekers with the respect afforded to all the sentient races, instead torturing and imprisoning them. Their connections with the Jusanek were equally apparent, judging by the crest upon their caravan. She didn't like to use the word "buy" when referring to Palahi. Money was exchanged, but only out of concern for the law- if she had her way, the nomads would be flogged. She couldn't bear to look at such a tortured soul in the hands of those that sought to harm for personal gain rather than nurture for the same reward. Palahi's past still weighed heavy on her shoulders; she was taught how to collect water on a leash, and to collect competitively, or else she would be beaten with gods-know-what, seemingly anything within arms reach of her captors.       She advanced, a strained whimpering escaping her as she half-tumbled through the air. It was obvious to Wahasha that she was experiencing extreme discomfort. She was exceptionally swollen, her tight skin almost translucent.       "Oh, gods," she said, and gave an exasperated groan.   Wahasha walked forward to meet her, her arms outstretched to catch the distressed waterseeker, should they fall. It was standard procedure at this point to her. Every time she'd gone out with Palahi, she'd overindulge and refuse to share, such as she was instructed most of her life. Wahasha practiced the same method with younger seekers, who themselves were often prone to binging and competing with one another. As Palahi drifted into cradle of her right arm, Wahasha used her left to position Kotra directly in front of her. No water could be wasted- there had to be a perfect shot. She poked at Palahi a bit, ignoring the quiet-yet-high-pitched whines of protest.       "I'm sorry, sponge-head. You know I have to do this." She situated her arms underneath Palahi's thighs, allowing her to sit on her forearm as she placed the other atop her bloated water bladder. Although she vocalized her discomfort, she didn't struggle. She had accepted Wahasha's help for once, a point which Wahasha gladly took note of. "You'll be fine, soft-sweet. Just hold Kotra's hand..."       Kotra grasped Palahi's palm as Wahasha gave a firm squeeze. Instead of a thick mist, Palahi's cheeks let loose a wide spray water as her red eyes went wide with shock. Kotra caught as much of the sudden discharge as she could, using her ribbons to capture any mist that happened to miss her body. Every droplet mattered out in the desert, as all in the group were well aware of.       Kotra, looking significantly fuller, happily appropriated her own pouch and went to sleep. Palahi carefully freed herself from Wahasha's hold. "See? You're getting better about it. You didn't gorge yourself nearly as much as last time." Palahi crossed her arms, as it was now within her comfort to do so. Her thin fingers gestured in sign language to say 'I hope you had fun. I didn't. No one likes to be wrung out like a wet rag.'   Wahasha kneaded Palahi's shoulders and chuckled. Although waterseekers couldn't speak, she'd heard stories of those who gotten close enough to their flock or mate and been able to hear them talk. Some male villagers had claimed to hear their waterseeker spouses' voice. Rumors always have a habit of spreading, though, she thought to herself. One day, she might find out. Or it wasn't true and she already knew. Either way, she was happy with her job, and content with their preferred form of communication, which happened to be Eskan sign language.       Taking her by the arm, Wahasha lifted Palahi over her shoulder and placed her in the pouch right behind her head. She then licked her finger, holding it to the sky to find a favorable wind. It was ironic to her that her favorite part of the journey was always prior to the worst part: the long trek back home. Traveling from the town wasn't so bad, but going back, she had to account for the increased weight of her living cargo. Every once in a while, her companions would relieve her of some of that weight, leaving their pouches to frolic and shake out all their extra energy, but it was little help. If she wanted to, she could set down her rifle, which would definitely reduce her workload, but she wouldn't have access to a weapon if she needed one. She sighed and turned back toward the outcropping. The wind always blows from the sea to the mountains, she thought as she kept her finger raised over her head.       A breeze piqued her sense of touch, and she was off. It had taken several days to make it as far as she had, but the trip back had no stops; just a straight shot toward a warm bed and... and... Kehme. Wahasha blushed at the thought. She hadn't picked out a gift yet. He would be hers. She knew it. The way he always helped her tend the seekers, his kind smile, his graceful gait- and most of all, what he told her when she left. He said he'd wait for her. He spoke to her! Males didn't speak to her often, but he did! She caught herself salivating at the thought of him without his robes. Thoughts like these helped her on the heaviest parts of the trek, as they would distract her from her own bodily limitations. She wiped the spittle from her cheek, poured a bit of water from her canteen to cool off the metal implants on her forehead, and with the water level edging closer and closer to the "danger- 300" mark, carried on.       . . .       The smell of her own bodily fluids would have been overpowering to anyone else. Thankfully, no one else with a nose was anywhere in sight. Wahasha had gotten used to her scent- it tended to happen towards the end of the journey, or at least until she reached a working mud bath. Using the seeker's water was too risky, as it isn't just water- the cocktail of nutrients created in their bladders would keep a whole village of tradespeople running for months without much food to supplement themselves. It was too great a commodity to abuse in something like a shower or bathtub. She'd only been to Beljensik twice, and in one of its famed bathhouses once; in her opinion, it was little to write home about, and it made her feel like a fine coat of adhesive had been applied to her lower half (she remembered that she had been to tall to fit in the communal tub, so she had to sit up the whole time while her friends splashed about in what she could only assume was water that hadn't been cycled properly in 4 years). The mud bath felt so much better to her. It cleansed the skin, the pores, the flagella- oh! especially the flagella- and it didn't leave her feeling like she'd bathed in glue, oddly enough. She supposed it was all about upbringing. Her mother had raised her, alongside her one surviving brother, bathing entirely in the hot mud pits nearby her home village. When those would bi-annually dry up, she was taught to take a sand-bath. It wasn't nearly as effective, or as much fun, but it did help to mask the stench and make her feel slightly, if at all, cleaner. She'd heard of "showers," a bath that was taken while standing, like under a waterfall or a heavy rain. She'd have to try that out sometime- after, of course, she found out what heavy rain felt like. She snorted, imagining herself trying to fit inside the tiny rooms she'd seen in the advertisements buried in her digi-magazines she'd buy from wandering traders. That was if she could even fit within the dwellings- she reasoned that she'd more than likely get her ass stuck in the front door frame before even getting near the showering room. Her laughter seemed to echo back to her across the wide expanse laid out before her as she plodded along.       She held her canteen to the sun, attempting to gauge the water level. She normally could tell how much was left simply by feeling the weight of the bottle in her hands, but her arm had gone numb from the weight of her passengers on the straps under her massive robe, so that method of measurement was spotty at best. It was below the 300 mark. She'd adapted to being short on liquids, but she knew she had about 250 iops* to travel, based on her surroundings- she'd recognized one of her landmarks, a rock outcropping with a white flag shoved into one of its crevasses, not a few minutes before, and she'd walked 200 iops. Although she wasn't under much pressure most of the time, her town needed this water as soon as possible. She could survive on just the water left in the canteen, but she might have to rest more than 2 nights. She could only walk so far in the 28 hour day, and not having enough water would make for a slower return, and another possible rest. At her normal pace, she could walk 114 iops in 19 hours. Without water, she would be slow enough to cost her precious time that she could be spending with Kehme... She shook herself out of a love-addled stupor yet again, recalculating the times in her head. This, she thought, would not do.       Wahasha reached behind her head to harass one of the seeker pouches. She told herself she didn't care which, but that wasn't true; she would much rather poke a seeker that would converse with her to distract her from a building pain in her legs, than one that would simply retreat back into its hole as soon as it had fulfilled her request. Her prodding bore fruit soon enough. A southern bloodline seeker soon poked their head over the lip of the carrying circle. She looked up to see which passenger she'd roused. She recognized this one as Lek, one of the more mature seekers. Lek blinked and revealed her hands.       "You needed something?" Lek signed. If she was agitated, she did a commendable job hiding it, thought Wahasha.       "I need some of your water. I'm afraid I'll run out in a bit, and I think we might shave some time off of our walk if I had something fresh to mix in with what I've got in here." She raised her canteen, shaking it to show how much was water was left. If Lek could frown in disapproval, she would have. "Just this once," she gestured, snatching the more-than-half-empty bottle from Wahasha.       "Thanks. I just don't want to have to spend another night this far out, you know?" Lek put the canteen up to the lip of her cheek orifice as a small stream of liquid flowed from it, seemingly ignoring Wahasha's expression of gratitude. She knew the seeker was more than happy to provide, even if it was for such an insignificant purpose; Lek had a reputation of being playfully manipulative for the sake of the odd laugh or two. Wahasha reached back and tickled her underarm, causing her to spit the last drops of water into the canteen in a fit of laughter that mimicked the sound of a crackling fire. Lek closed the bottle and retaliated swiftly, diving low toward Wahasha's legs. Her fingers reached for the spot directly behind her right knee, a known weak point to Lek, who had a habit of play-fighting with watchers and exploiting their weak points- especially ticklish and tender spots. She had to be quick. If Wahasha had enough time to react, she would, and she understood full well that Lek would choose the back of her right knee as a target.       Wahasha's arm swung back, but it was too late. Lek pressed her thin digits into the back of her knee, drawing forth a yelp at first, then a continued stream of hysterical laughter as she pressed more, aware that Wahasha was no longer trying to reach her. The watcher collapsed forward on the sand, leaning on the carrier's frame and frantically fumbling for a grip on her mischievous assailant under the robe in between bouts of uncontrollable giggling.       "NO!" She gasped. "We're losing time- AHAHAAAAAAAAHAHAAAA!"       After a couple minutes, she managed to get a hold of Lek's arm and pull her out from inside her clothes. The other seekers poked their heads out of their holes to observe the disturbance that had just shuddered them out of their sleep, only to find a sheepish Lek and a sour Wahasha. Her frown soon gave way to a more lenient grin- Wahasha just couldn't stay angry for long. After all, she'd asked for it by messing with Lek in the first place. The other seekers quietly retired to their pouches, self-assured that they were in no danger from bandits or large predators.       "Oh gods, what am I gonna do with you?" said Wahasha as she lightly shook her ticklish antagonist.       Lek gave a windy chuckle in response. Wahasha carefully placed her back on the carrier, where Lek slipped back into her pouch and fell asleep. Wahasha looked at her full canteen in the afternoon sun, took a quick swig, tossed a few water droplets over her shoulder as an offering to Balmorra, and pressed on.       . . .       Nightfall came swift, setting over the large hills behind Wahasha. For the most part, she ignored it. It didn't take that much energy to see in the dark, and the more dangerous beasts of the night wouldn't be out for the next few hours. During this non-predatory window, she'd continue her journey. Other more passive creatures took advantage of this "friendly gap" as well, as a chorus of chirps, growls, whoops, and howls sounded aloud all throughout the desert night. She knew each of these calls as well as she knew her seekers. A loud, repetitive whooping call was that of a trail walker, a small amphibious critter that acted as a sort of alarm for travelers on foot. They had the innate ability to sense danger, and could be taken advantage of by skilled wanderers and nomads. She used them to gauge the terrain ahead, listening in for their eerily Ausran-like voices. She had spent years training herself not to disturb them, as to make sure she wasn't unknowingly detected by someone- or something- else using the same technique. Her strenuous practice paid off on expeditions, as they let her pass without much a sound. Their giant marble eyes poked up from the sand as she walked briskly by, following her carefully. She had never seen one in full view- they were much too fast to catch by hand, and there was no reason to do so in the first place. Their meat was fabled to be as foul as the sand itself, salty and tough, with very little nutrient payoff, since the creatures themselves didn't have enough meat to begin with, especially not for her. She imagined it would take more than a bucket of them to keep her sated.       Still, her mouth watered at the prospect of food. Although the seeker's nutrient cocktail could keep her going, she still missed having something solid to sink her teeth into. She salivated to the visions of a steaming hot bowl of tonkai soup, maybe with a side of thoroughly aged cheese curds in whey, and a glass of warm seeker-water broth to wash it all down... she could almost smell it on the night wind. Lifting her nose to the air, she soon realized she wasn't envisioning it- the smell was real, and it was accompanied by a small lamp-lit caravan.       The sour aroma of tonkai soup wasn't the only thing, either. Smoked meats of indeterminate origins, heady spices from the far countries, fragrant flowers only found deep in the jungles to the east; she even caught a faint whiff of her favorite dessert, a distinctly sweet scent, but light enough that only the nose of a familiar party could discern. It was a creamy substance extracted from Kadek bushes known to grow in the northernmost regions of L'hinea, lovingly called Kadesa. It has a similar taste to sweetened condensed milk, but slightly thicker. The best recipes had clumps of coagulated extract mixed in with the slurry, meant to be eaten by hand with fingers dipped in a small bowl of salty water. She hated how much she loved it. When her last challenge went badly and she had lost her mate, she'd eaten a whole tub of the stuff- a mistake she was not exactly eager to repeat. Besides, eating too much of it made her lazy.       The caravan itself was unassuming, simply a bunch of tents atop hovering platforms dragged by a half-exhausted looking sandswimmer vehicle. It was rusty and old, most likely pre-Red Snow. While they live for a long time, Wahasha thought, they were often reminded about their merely temporary existence by their constantly degrading technology. Most of it lasted, but not nearly as long as it's owners. A strange concept for sure, she continued musing to herself. The tents were made mostly of tightly woven plant fibers, and were shaped like the scales of a great reptile, angled down toward the front of the train. The bottom-most tips of the tents were weighted, as to prevent them from flying away in the rough winds, and were given a modest edge to help in breaking said wind. The back of each of these tents was open, letting the food air out. Nomads quietly milled about between the tents, some cooking and preparing, others sampling, and some sitting back and observing from a distance. Only specific nomads were actually allowed to set foot inside these tents. Unlike the traditional nomadic garb, these ones were dressed in white robes. On their heads they wore one-eared hats, only to the right, as was standard to them for reasons not fully understood by any outside their operation.       Wahasha had seen these wanderers before. Bands of merchants like this cropped up now and again at the village to sell exotic foods at more reasonable prices than the more frequent and consistent northern traders. Not only that, but they were much better cooks. They were completely random, and always worth it. She strayed closer, trying to keep herself as quiet as the nomads themselves in an attempt to be respectful. A few of them saw her close in, but paid her no mind. Watchers weren't known for being aggressive, and for good reason- they're job is to take care of people, not hurt them. Wahasha was only daunting in height, and the nomads were familiar with this concept. She recognized a few from previous visits, although they were too busy to give her any attention aside from a quick glance or a flashed smile here and there.       The head merchant sat at the very end of the last tent, a long pipe protruding from underneath his hood. He was the person that organized the nomadic cooks almost every time, and would always be in charge of selling the goods. Wahasha took him as a man that knew very well the value of money, and was a smart enough businessman to make sure that those that needed their wares could afford it. Not much skin showed from beneath his deep cloak, but what was visible was brownish-orange with yellow splotches. His face was the same array of colors; it was clear that his lineage wasn't L'hinean, due to its shape, a more rounded head with larger eyes akin to those found on residents of the jungles to the east.       "How does the evening find you, tireless one?" he asked without looking, a hint of mirth in his voice.       Wahasha approached from his left. "As good as it finds you, friend. It's been months since your last visit. Smuggling not a profitable business venture anymore?" she joked, fully expecting the dry laugh that came afterwards. He turned himself to face her, the Jusaanel crest now visible in the dull light cast upon his chest.       "Indeed!" he exclaimed sarcastically. "This is just a hobby of mine, you see?" -he pointed to a short cook, most likely of Eastern persuasion- "I collect them like one does colorful rocks, or strange shoes, or awkward fur coats that they never wear!" He let out a long, wheezing laugh. "Who ever said it was about profit, anyhow? Am I not allowed to take pleasure in granting you traditionalist stiffs access to the finer tastes in life every once a twin moon? Heeheeheeee! Without me, you'd all be mummified with all the sand you guzzle out here!"       She snorted like mad, trying to cover her purpled face. After regaining her composure, she put on her business mask. It was a rudimentary carving, an oval with two eye holes and a grille for which to speak through. She didn't have to wear it to interact with anyone, but it was customary to use it during transactional conversations. "Well? Do I look ready to trade?"       The head merchant grinned, showing off teeth yellowed by the light of the lamps around them. "I don't care how you look. I only care if I've got something you want, and you're willing to give me something I want." He looked around her at the seeker pouches. "Looks like a full load," he deduced out loud. "Care to see if you can persuade one of them to give up some of the goods?"       She had a hunch that he would ask for seeker water. She had to be careful while haggling with the man. To him, she was carrying the equivalent of a platinum backpack adorned with jewels bigger than her head. Seeker water was always in demand, and some people would easily be willing to kill for it. If she gave him the chance, he'd short her faster than she could enunciate a non-contextual conjunction. His eyes glowed with a dim greed- a look exclusive to those that only thought in the language of the deal. She looked past him as well, towards a rack of cured jerky, and pointed. "How much for 3 sticks and some oil?"       The merchant's covetous eyes became a little brighter at the request. "Alcohol and a half-rack of..." He gestured to one of the cooks behind him. "What did we get this off of?"       The cook didn't even look up from her cutting board. "Baklineyt. Mountain behemoths. Tough, but worth the jaw-ache. Killed it myself with a dull soul-knife and my left thumb."       Ignoring the last statement, the Jusaanel merchant turned back to Wahasha. "Well, I'd say that it's worth... a quarter bladders worth."       Typical, she thought. If she hadn't been carrying this rig, he'd start at least somewhere close to a more reasonable price. "You know, I've heard stories of watchers that can go for months without solid food. Think those tales are true, friend?" she teased.       She saw his face tighten slightly, but the expression was gone as soon as she had perceived it. She'd need to dig a little deeper.       "I have heard those stories, sure. But I can also see your mouth watering, even with these shit lanterns. You don't need it, but you certainly want it, yes?"       "An eighth bladders worth," she replied. "If you want the quarter, add another stick and a half and I might be willing to talk to the ladies in back."       "Oh, that's far too much. You know how much time it took to..."       "I suppose I don't need to ask the ladies..." she started with a shrug.       "Well, when you put it that way, how about 3/16ths?"       She smirked, victorious. "Desperate now, aren't we?" He gave a half-frown and crossed his arms, as if to protest, but then steeled himself and switched to a more satisfied expression. She pulled a vial from the depths of her robe. Measurements were present on both sides, in Ausran standard iopin measurement and L'hinean measurements, respectively. Reaching down, she jostled a pouch to her left. Hei-hei-za slunk around the pouch rig, her red eyes only partially open and ringed by tiny yellow sulfur particles. Wahasha tended quickly to them, using her thumbs to rub the sleep out. She then gently scooped Hei-hei-za's legs out from under her, cradling her like a child. The seeker didn't protest, either too tired or too apathetic to do so.       "Hello, sleepy. I need something firm to chew on for the home stretch. Could you spare... I dunno..." She motioned to the vial, pointing to a dash on the side with her finger. "That much?"       Hei-hei-za didn't seem to mind. She took the vial and put it to her cheek orifice. After filling the tube to the specified dash line, she handed it back and slipped back to her happy place. The merchant couldn't help but betray his pleasure.       "Excellent." He stood, brushing the ashes from his pipe off his robes, and fetched the requested wares. "This right here," he held up an ornately designed glass bottle, "is a rare vintage from the seafaring northern isles. You know? Those ones. I can't pronounce their names, but they make a damn fine liquor if I do say so myself!" Even in the dim light, the metal decorated bottleneck glistened gold, and a red wax seal could be seen just under the merchant's fingers. She didn't care what kind of booze he chose for her, as long as it wasn't poisoned. Or spiced rum, which to her meant basically the same thing. If it was spiced rum, at least she'd be able to strangle him later.       Wahasha corked the vial and tossed it to the merchant, who in turn threw her the bottle and a sack full of her cured Baklinyet meat. He tucked the vial away in his cloak, looking both ways before doing so, and sat down.       "I have another town to hit before I pass through Ahsna. If you still have that damn bottle by the time I come around, you'd better pour me a shot or two, huh?" He chuckled to himself as Wahasha removed her business mask.       "IF I still have this damn bottle. Farewell, roamer."       "Good travels, watcher! When you don't think about the road, you're always closer!"       She didn't bother to ask him what that meant. She nodded to the other nomads, and took the next opening on her left to split from the caravan and into the eerie half-darkness of the desert night once more.       The merchant watched her disappear into the dunes, then looked back to his digimap. He picked up a roasted hoof of indeterminate origin to nibble on, only to have it smacked from his hand a moment later by a stern-faced cook with an extraordinarily long spatula. "Come on! Just one bite won't hurt!"       "This is my kitchen," she snapped back. "You'll eat what I tell you you can eat." She then held up a loaf of bread. "This is your meal. Don't ask for more from me. Talk to Mahashna, I'm sure she'll be willing to spare some vegetables."       The merchant frowned at her coldness, but didn't argue, for his mouth was already full of stale bread.       . . .       Wahasha stopped, straining her ears for a sound, any sound, to pierce the unnerving silence that gripped the night. This silence marked the end of the non-predatory window. Only dangerous beasts would roam at this hour, she reminded herself. It was time to find a watcher hole, and fast. Judging by landmarks, she'd set a new hole up not far from where she was- without the seekers, a trek out this far didn't take up much time at all- sprinting without the rig made all the difference in time, and she would often prepare new holes before each expedition. Planning was the key to surviving past her early 20s, she thought. So far, so good.       She had to be careful in her advance. The wastes were unforgiving in the light as well as the dark- as long as she paid attention to her surroundings, she wouldn't join the many that disappeared before her out here. If any of the stories her mother told her when she was little were true, she decided, she'd list her fates from least-to-most likely to pass the time. As she weighed her options, it grew more and more apparent that this was a terrible idea. Least likely? She was going to be swallowed by a worm that could wrap around the planet three times over. Most? She'd be torn limb from limb by hungry opashas- ferocious pack animals with endless hunger. As far as she knew, none of those were even real; that didn't make the thoughts of what they'd do to her and her flock if they were any less unsettling.       The sharp crack of a rock caught her ear. She whipped around toward the noise, cupping her left hand around the bottom rim of the rig. A hulking figure shifted around a boulder to her left, it's dusky fur gently reflecting the moonlight as it strode slowly toward her. Her heart calmed, and she breathed a large sigh of relief. A few more of the creatures crested the dune behind the first. It was a herd of chernabog. The one in front of her was a cow- she could tell by its size compared to its companions. Their heads were hard to make out amongst their thick pelts, but their chins had a single long, prehensile tendril that when not in use would curl back toward their mouths. They were harmless, as long as she didn't try to provoke them, and even then, that was easier said than done. In fact, she was safer than she had been before they'd crept up on her. Their padded hooves made their movements silent and left no prints in the sand behind them. This led to the nickname "ghost herders," as it is incredibly difficult to track herds of chernabog, much less an individual one. Their size also made them great wards for small groups of travelers, as most predators wouldn't dare stray too close for fear of being trampled.       The cow lifted her fuzzy hoof toward Wahasha. Its smell almost knocked her out cold; she couldn't comprehend the language she'd need to speak to describe the horrific odor as she scrabbled to find a handkerchief to shove in her tortured nostrils. She noticed halfway through this that it hadn't put its foot down yet. Leaning in closer (and adjusting her new nose-plugs to block out as much of the stench as possible), she inspected it. She felt her flock shuffle around in their pouches, clearly distressed by the hoof-pong that had ruined their perfectly crisp night air, and ignored it. The bottom of the hoof was a dusty gray- by all appearances, it wasn't dirty. She wondered about her own sense of smell, and how she smelled to them. It was relative, she assumed. I probably smell like three-week-old meat to them, too, she speculated. After searching for a bit, she found the issue: the creature had a stone chip embedded in the soft part of its heel. She knew better than to be believe that it was asking her to pull it out- more likely, it wasn't paying her any mind and was simply making sure that the rock shard didn't cause too much pain. The boulders in the desert were made up of many different minerals, some soft and crumbly, like a finely aged cheese, and some hard and sharp, like blades sticking out above the sand. This chernabog had been unfortunate enough to stumble upon a flakier rock, a blackish-red striped stone that Wahasha would have considered beautiful had it not been stuck in a giant animal that smelled like the sweatiest bra in existence. It almost seemed too convenient to her, and perhaps too familiar. Whatever. She'd have a good story when she returned... and she'd tell Kehme first. Short, sweet, pretty little Kehme...       She gagged again at the stench, putting her mind back on track. She felt the bottom of the hoof, careful to find any more splinters. She could vaguely recall seeing ads in digi-magazines with videos of eastern farmers tending to hoofed livestock of some kind, removing burrs and gums from their feet to improve their mood. Of all people, she was among those who understood this best- all livestock have feelings, and can get depressed without proper care and attention. Of course, she was dealing with an extra-specialized breed of Ausran, and not a creature that hadn't the space in its brain for critical sentient abstraction, which is to say she was dealing with people. Did this make her a people person? She scoffed. That was the kind of language used by Beljensiki socialites who thought way too highly of themselves and never did an honest day's worth of work in their lives. The padded skin behind the hoof was surprisingly pliant, like fresh dough. Satisfied with the null results of her search, she gingerly fingered the stone splinter. The hoof moved a bit, but went still again, as if the creature was waiting for her to pull it out. It was remarkably well behaved for a wild animal. She gripped the stone firmly and yanked.       The chernabog's bellow echoed throughout the dunes. Wahasha leapt back as the hoof came down hard, very nearly stomping her head. Its chin tendril flicked angrily as it started forward, lashing down at her ankles. She leapt again out of its reach. She tried and failed to ignore the immense pain in her back as the rig's wooden beams dug into her. She shut her eyes for a second, bracing for a collision. When it didn't come, she cracked her eyes open to see that the cow had lost interest and was again off on its own path.       "Thank gods," she said aloud to herself. She checked the pouches. No seekers had fled in the excitement, but three were awake. She spent the next several minutes reassuring them of their safety, patting their heads and cooing st them until they eventually sunk their heads back into the depths of their holes. She let out a breath and took a look at her hands. One of them was still holding the stone. It was much prettier there than it was in the foot of a giant mammal. The red-lined rock was smooth on one end, like it had been beaten soft by a flowing river. The other end was jagged but beautiful, cracked open to show the stunning veined geode inside. It was rather viscous, and Wahasha wasn't exactly sure how many lines were blood and how many were mineral veins. She loved it. Cleaning it off with her robes, she was pleased to see that much of the red remained. This would make for a wonderful offering to Kehme. He'd be as awed by it as she, it was meant to be! His smile would be like the moon on a warm summer evening just above the setting sun, his lips like silvery pillows, his body like a statue chiseled from the finest gray marble. She didn't feel herself drooling all over her hand as she continued to stare deeply into the scores of the geode, letting it bewitch her mind with promises of love and acceptance.       She then felt a tap on her shoulder. Turning, she met Kotra's plush face. "What? Can't you see I..."       She trailed off. On the dune above her, a tonkai perched, its eyes firmly affixed on her and her cargo. This was unusual- they mostly hunted during the day, and slept by night. This one was far from the usual. Instead of a dull brown, it's scales were a shady maroon color, much like the sand around it. It's hooked beak snapped twice in her direction. It's eyes were a menacing blue, cold gemstones against a sea of red. It walked on the wrists of its massive wings. She slowly backed away, being sure to put herself between the seekers and the large predator that stood before her. She loaded a shot into her rifle, careful not to be too quick about it, and aimed right between it's eyes. She knew this would draw every creature in an iop's radius to her location, but if she didn't defend herself then, she'd die, or even worse: lose a seeker. That wouldn't happen, she told herself. Not on my watch.       The tonkai waited for her to take one more step back, then lurched forward, it's bladelike wing swinging like a cleaver straight for her neck. It never got close. In an instant, its fierce beaked head was replaced by a cloud of red dust. The sound nearly busted Wahasha's eardrums. She'd never had to fire it in a pinch before, and she'd put the mechanism too close to her ears. She couldn't ignore it, but she already heard the calls of much more dangerous beasts, alerted to her presence. She knew for a fact that the sounds were closer than they sounded to her. She felt the seekers squirming in the pouches, all awake now, all frightened and all whistling like mad. She moved as fast as her legs would take her toward the large outcropping that she knew to be her safety. She didn't look over her shoulder to see what was making the panting, heaving, wheezing breathes behind her as she raced toward a circular hole, now visible in the shadow of the colossal boulder. Tears stung her cheeks. Her legs burned hotter than they ever had before in her life. Her flagella flapped against the light breeze. If this were in any other context, she would have considered this fun.       As she neared the entrance, she flipped around and pulled a switch on the rig. The seeker pouches suddenly went taut, launching them toward the cave opening she'd dug a week or two prior. She didn't have time to think about when she did it. That done, she flipped back around just as she reached the entrance. It was just wide enough for her to fit through, but not quite so for the rig. However, instead of breaking, the rig folded to cover the entrance. She pulled the lever to her left and the rig came off her back with a pop, taking the coat with it. Voila, she thought. Makeshift tunnel block. She couldn't see very will in darkness this deep, but at least they were safe. The rig trembled with the weight of a few small predators slamming into it, but held steady. The rig was designed for situations like this. She'd dragged the rig only a few feet further in away from the entrance, and this prevented larger beasts that could possibly break the rig from doing so, and the thing was already tough enough to withstand an attack from anything small enough to get into the entrance. During the planning phase, she'd measured out every inch of the tunnel to make sure it would work this way- she just never thought that she'd have to do it in such a hurry. Thankfully, the rig had held together as she dragged it against the cave walls.       Through her panting, she could hear the whimpers of some very distressed seekers. She had only one source of light, and it would require a decent amount of energy. In hindsight, it was wise to purchase the jerky, she mused to herself. She concentrated for a second, feeling the warmth of her body flow through her hands. They started to glow, faintly at first, then just bright enough to see the whole cave. The seekers huddled on a bed of specially dried mud- she'd made it at home for the trip and brought it over when she dug out the cave- leaving just enough room for her to sit. She looked at the flock with concern. The whole group shuddered as one, a bunch of terrified pot-bellied cherubs on a sponge-bed made of poly-dirt. Their shivering died down as the light from her hands became brighter. "Hey, girls. We're safe now. No need to fret." She turned back toward the rig. Her robes dangled from it, their shoulders still stock-straight. Whatever was attacking it had discontinued their immediate assault, although she assumed they'd be back later.       Seekers could defend themselves quite well from any would-be antagonists, but Wahasha didn't trust untrained younglings to defend themselves from the horrors of the desert night. She seen spectacular skirmishes out of seasoned seekers, and walked the electric sand where they fought. A seeker that knew itself well enough to use its power was a formidable opponent. These seekers were no warriors. The most experienced seeker in her flock was Palahi, but she'd never been taught to make anything of herself besides a sentient water tank. Fyse could make a fairly decent arc of electricity once in a while, but it made her too tired to do it more than once. She'd seen her fry the eyeballs out of a tonkai once. If she absolutely had to, she could conjure a little localized lighting storm for a few seconds. This wouldn't be enough to stop more than two attackers, and Fyse knew it.       But she didn't have to worry too much. The rig would hold. She laid back into a few seekers, who were glad to offer themselves as improvised plush pillows. She didn't know why they were always so willing to let people lie on top of them. She'd asked the question many times, only to get snide and sarcastic remarks. The general consensus was that it simply was comfortable to them. Nehani, one of her other northern seekers said to her once, "Doesn't everyone like being... squeezed, just a little?" Wahasha thought that this statement summed it up quite well, although she thought she was too heavy to be laying down on them. They squirmed under her for a second, trying to get comfortable as she obliviously pulled out a small object from her shirt pocket. She looked at it. The small orb, translucent in appearance, stuck to her fingers. Then, she threw it lightly at the ceiling of the cave. Instead of bouncing back, it held fast, quickly lighting up the area. She let the energy drain from her hands- they were starting to get all tingly again, and that sensation made her more uncomfortable than date anxiety.       Date anxiety, she thought. She pulled a pocket mirror from the same place that she'd just pulled the sticky lamp. She gazed into her own eyes. Her pupils were massive, almost completely overshadowing her amber-colored irises. A flagellum hung in her face, but she didn't move it. She'd styled her fat tendrils to look like Trouble Skedrow's own classic 'do. It looked good on her, as she felt it made her facial features stand out. She chuckled at her own vanity- she was thinking in Terran terms, and she knew that her face was nearly indistinguishable from the actual Trouble. At least she was almost a head taller. The raised bump on her face that was her nose, the shaped ears, the wide mouth, the large eyes- they were exactly like everyone else's. If a Terran looked at her and any other female villager side by side, they wouldn't be able to tell the difference. She saw the twisted metal bits in her forehead- her only defining marks. The largest bit was in the shape of a V, like an arrow pointing down the center of her face. It had small pieces at each end, three shiny nuggets in a line. She had two more nuggets on the points of her cheekbones. They weren't there to look handsome. Her coming-of-age ceremony had been difficult, but she toughed it out better than any of the other younglings she'd been sent out with.       She remembered the ceremony with a dull sorrow. Every year, younglings came of age, and every year, they be sent out to survive. They had to come back in three days. Most never did. It was romantic to think that they somehow escaped into the desert, joined a nomad band, and became a world-traveler. It was realistic- no, correct- to think that they perished. She'd seen the bodies, or what was left of them. The wasteland was unforgiving to those that didn't properly understand its ability to overwhelm, confuse, and obliterate. She'd gotten the metal because she was the only one to survive the ceremony that year. She stacked it up to dumb luck, while the village council attributed her success to the favor of Balmorra. She didn't feel blessed then, and she didn't feel blessed now. She was grateful, however, to be in the presence of friends.       Her face fully examined, she moved to the rest of her body, stowing the mirror gingerly as not to break it. Her shirt had no sleeves, showing off her scarred biceps. The scars were ceremonial in nature, but they looked more like they'd been put there by some ravenous monster. Assuming that was the purpose, she'd asked no further questions at the time. It was easier to get a mate if you looked more on the rugged side anyway, she reasoned. She flexed absently, ignorant to what could only be described as frowns from her living cushions. Pulling up her shirt, she examined her belly and hips for any before-unnoticed wounds or abrasions. Surprisingly, she was undamaged. She checked under her collar. No support inside- just the shirt- and unharmed, save a bruise from a strap on the rig catching her right breast. Curious as to why there was no pain, she prodded the blue splotch, only to wince as a wave of pain advanced through her chest. She gasped in discomfort, jostling her pile of seekers. Kotra popped her head up, slipping away from the others and floating under her arm. She wrapped her scrawny limbs around Wahasha and nuzzled close in an attempt to ease her sudden outburst.       "I'm alright. A bruise, nothing more," she said. Kotra whistled in response, but didn't let go. She sighed and continued inspecting herself.       Her legs were next. Long and well-toned, they were the pride of any watcher. After all, a watcher's legs got them to where the needed to go, and much faster than anyone else could do it for the matter. She wore tight white shorts, what she considered to be the most comfortable garment she owned. She'd always look for more when traders came by. Unlike most of the villagers, she preferred more clothes. She massaged her calves, feeling the tightness in them fade away as she kneaded them. Next came her poor feet.       She wore a set of toed shoes she'd found in the last trading caravan; they fit well, and even though they looked goofy, they protected her feet from the hottest sands. She'd forgotten to remove them at nightfall, though. Her feet were a darker red, covered in a grime comprised of crystalline sweat and sand. She wished she had a pool of mud to dip into. Although she'd gone nose-blind to her other odors, this one nearly knocked her dead, which could never mean anything good. She hadn't felt any pain before, but the open air brought feeling back into her feet, and along with it, more tenderness. She sucked in a breath through the sides of her mouth- she wasn't about to use her nose any time soon- and reached into a different shirt pocket, this one containing a silvery box with an emblem on top of three straight horizontal lines. Opening it, she removed a length of stretchy fabric. Quickly, she wrapped her tortured appendages. After biting off the end to finish the last foot, she breathed in deeply through her nose, which was still a mistake, but not as bad as it would have been beforehand.       The bandages were soaked with hot blood. She'd worked her feet too hard. Damn it. She finished the wraps too rapidly to examine the extent of the wounds, but she felt the blisters on the sides and heels of both feet, as well as some in between toes. She cursed again, this time aloud. How could she not have noticed the burning sensation all this time? It was recent, and this she knew. As the pain died down a bit, she decided to scrutinize more closely the severity of her affliction.       The bandages were already soaked through. They stuck to what was left of her skin as she ground her teeth together in pain yet again. She bit onto one of her seeker's skin ribbons, graciously provided to her in her time of need. It was more springy than she thought it would be, and the seeker, an older subject named Olko, didn't seem fazed. Kotra, still snuggled under her arm, wrapped her arms around her waist in an effort to ease her. The other seekers had positioned themselves behind her so that she was sitting more upright. The sores in her feet weren't hard to locate- the soles weren't too badly burnt from friction, but the sides looked awful. She cringed as she massaged her heels, pulling her hands away to reveal dark blood coating her fingers and palms. The smell was unholy; if she'd had anything in her stomach to toss up, she would have. She apologized quietly to the entire chernabog race for thinking that they had the world's worst funk.       Shoes weren't all that important out in the wasteland. The sands caressed ones feet with soft sedimentary hands, cradling them on their travels. During the brightest days, however, it became a burning hellscape of burnt toes and prolonged sadness. If anyone should know, it'd be Wahasha. The last time the northern traders passed through, she decided that she wouldn't go barefoot on the next water run. No more tip-toeing over the searing hot dust- saved time that way. She'd gotten these shoes cheap, only a 1/16 vial for the pair. The merchant was wearing a set themselves. Somehow, he'd found one in her size, which she'd promptly forgotten after the transaction. How often did she need to remember the size of her feet?       Now, she was in a bind. A skilled hux could heal this expeditiously, but she wasn't very adept in her abilities. The power to heal at that level was beyond her. She'd seen it done, but when she tried to do the same, all she could do was heal tiny scrapes and sores. This disappointed her. Almost as much as losing him for the same reason. She sighed through the pain. She'd been tamping the memory down for a while. Sweet, gentle Kehme was all that distracted her from those horrible, rending recollections.       Fyse squeezed out from under the rest of the seekers, wheezing and oozing from her twin mouths as she advanced toward Wahasha's damaged appendages. She was no stranger to wounds and treatment, as she took care of Palahi whenever Wahasha was out of action. In addition to being a primary source of sustenance, seeker amalgam could be utilized for many different medicinal purposes, including...     Wahasha watched and felt the prickling fingers picking away at the remnants of her bandages.     "Fyse. No..." she objected. It was a waste! She'd be fine by morning, for the most part. Her abilities could heal her slowly over the night, but it would be a gamble. Not that it mattered now. Fyse positioned her face above her feet and let the watery spittle drip down into the open sores. It burned more intensely at first, but that pain soon subsided, leading into a dull tenderness. The sores had gone from glistening red to pale pink, the fresh new layer of skin already lightly callused.     Wahasha's eyes narrowed. "That was wasteful." Fyse scuttled away anxiously, eyeing her for any sudden movements.     "I'm not mad. Come here." The seeker obeyed, approaching carefully. She saw the fear in her eyes, and softened her tone more still. "Don't look at me like that. You know I wouldn't ever dislike you for helping." She reached out her arm, her hand meeting Fyse's pleasant chin as she inched forward. "It's fine. Be more considerate of the village before you race to my aid."    Fyse gestured back. "This was for the best. You would be late tomorrow, should I have sat idly by." Wahasha closed her hand over Fyse's, only to have Fyse remove it and continue. "Your stubbornness is no excuse to lecture me, watcher."   Wahasha smirked. "Ah, I give you leeway and you use it as an opening to get lippy with me?"   Fyse responded by throwing her hip to the side and whipping her head to the opposite angle, letting out loud breath while doing so. Wahasha knew this to be an improvised 'harrumph' of protest. Seekers couldn't grunt, but the body language and slight exhalation seemed to get the point across.     . . .       Her silky scarf draped down past her navel over her most proper vestments- a vest of fine leather lined with a unique threaded interior, a pair of white diagonal single-strap suspenders, and a single dark red glove. Covered stalls surrounded her on all sides, each with a different combination of curios, tools, hobby items, and trinkets. The system of currency wasn't something one could hold in their hand- rather, it was favors, promises, and services to be rendered. Sometimes, items were bartered, but there was always something to do, and there was always something to be obtained from even a few minutes of labor.       She wore her clothes like armor for her self esteem- these pieces made her feel confident in her appearance. She thought she looked noble, like a white-breasted avian goddess, her long legs elegant instead of awkward, her skin smooth instead of scarred, her eyes brilliant instead of dull; best of all, it made her feel oh-so-sexy. And who better to be sexy for than...       She felt a tug on her pant leg. This would set the rest of the memory in motion. The things she had been repressing were to be laid bare to witness, coming back to flagellate her like a bundle of whips all cracking at once upon her mind, flaying deep into mental blemishes already present.

Iops: Notation for the Ausran measurement of distance in iops. Pronounced eye-awe-ps. For reference, an iop is roughly 1.07 miles, or 1.7 kilometers.   Iopin: Notation for Ausran standard measurements.

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