On the road to nowaste land

Kal awoke to a light in her face. An odd siren raged nearby. Her fox-beast, Gella, scratched her stomach as it scrambled for cover under her bedsheets. Its sharp claws tore skin and she sat up screaming. 
      The lantern shifted and she saw her brother standing next to her father. Her brother wore a devilish grin. Their father cuffed him on the ear. “Renard, I told you no.” 
      “I wanted to see how she would react in a real emergency.” 
      “You are not her teacher,” their father said. “Kal, we’re heading to the overlook for a report. Up and at ‘em.” 
      Gella calmed down as Kal did. A little fox-face peeked out from underneath the bundled covers. In a few places, the linen was streaked with red from beads of Kal’s blood. Kal coaxed Gella out and rubbed its sides. The girl tended to the beast’s discomfort, noting tenderness on its underbelly. Together, they calmed down. 
      Not long after, six beings walked up desert switchbacks in the dark. A father, son, daughter, and each of their beasts. The sun had not yet risen, but the moon hung like a lamp in the starry sky. Renard led the humans, and his terrier-beast, Deno, sprinted out ahead to surveil. Gella ran ahead with Deno, doing its job to secure their perimeter. Despite Kal being the younger sibling, she got satisfaction seeing her beast assume the more important role. To the untrained eye, it appeared that Deno was leading, but Kal saw that the terrier never ventured beyond the boundary that Gella subtly set. 
      “Anyone can sneak two steps into a bedroom and pretend they’re clever,” Kal said to her brother. “I’d like to see you sneak into the compound from outside. You wouldn’t make it through the gate before Gella and I were on you.” 
      Renard took the bait. “You wanna bet?” 
      “I do.” 
      “You think I would take the gate?” Renard scoffed.
      “How else are you going to get in?” 
      “Climb the wall?” Kal laughed at the thought. “You can’t even get up three rungs on a ladder before your legs start to shake.” 
      “Okay, now you’re even,” their father said. 
      As they came over an initial hill, their father’s wolf-beast’s ears snapped to attention. The wind blew into their faces, bringing a multitude of sounds and smells over the desert. Without slowing, their father gave them a simple report. “I don’t detect any Pios. There’s something else, Kal. A Striderweb. Still a ways out, likely beyond the lookout.       Can you hear it?” 
      Kal instructed Gella to listen. Her fox-beast charged to the top of a nearby esker and pointed its ears north. Through Gella, she heard what her father was referring to: the crystal tinkling of sand rolling over itself, and within, the occasional musical reverberation, like a taut string plucked. 
      “I don’t hear anything,” Renard complained. 
      Kal said, “That’s because Deno’s ears suck.” 
      “Kalihan!” their father barked scoldingly. 
      “I don’t hear the Strider itself. Do you?” 
      “No,” Father said. “I don’t think it’s in its web.” 
      The walk to the lookout was another mile. For the rest of the hike, the beasts kept their ears and noses up. There was no fear amongst them, but an alertness kept the chatter to a minimum. They marched on, and before the sun rose they arrived at a limestone headland overlooking the sands of the Thornerie Desert. The sun was minutes from appearing, and in the interim, Kal enjoyed the view. Renard kept his distance from the cliff’s ledge, instead choosing to dig holes with Deno. Their father scanned the horizons. 
      As a thread of red emerged from the sand, man and beast listened. A couple minutes passed. 
      Kal said, “Why don’t we hear anything?” 
      Father said curtly, “The sun rises earlier on the ridge.” 
      “No, it doesn’t.” When nobody contradicted Renard, he elaborated, “The sun rises when the sun rises.”
      Now the entire sun was above the horizon. Father was beginning to shift uncomfortably from foot to foot when his wolf-beast, Harbyr, reacted. Gella heard it, too. A shrill howl, carried on the wind over tens of miles of desert. 
      “Travelers coming tomorrow,” Kal said. 
      “You understood,” Father said praisingly. 

Later that afternoon, the six of them gathered in the small sparring ground in the center of their outpost. Kal began running through her kata, a sequence of warm up exercises. Her feet danced over the dirt, making uniform shapes in the dust as she dragged, twisted, and leapt between motions. She was the picture of grace, cycling through her warm-ups, effortlessly re-planting her feet in her tread marks. 
      Renard and Deno were digging again, always resistant to follow Father’s instructions.
      Kal paused her kata to scold her brother on Father’s behalf. “Ren, get with it!” 
      “No,” Father said. “Not today. Renard, you are free to do whatever you wish.” 
      “What?” Kal said. “That’s not fair.” 
      “Gather around,” Father instructed. 
      Once his children had come close, he spoke to them in his serious manner, the ends of his words planting themselves in the ground with finality. “Kal, you have never fought me on anything. You understand these ways. This Path speaks to you, as it spoke to me. It does not matter what Renard does or does not do, you will awake tomorrow and the days beyond, and I will find you here, doing your kata. You are still so many years from defense contracts or maintaining an outpost or otherwise, yet you live the Path like a dutiful Defender. Someday…”
      “I am not so many years from contracts, Father!” Kal argued. 
      “And yet Renard has no interest in katas or contracts, do you, son?” 
      Deno still had one paw in a hole, but Renard had stood to listen. “I’m sorry, Father. No.” 
      Father nodded. “Tomorrow, travelers are coming. I sent for them. They are from Metropolia. When they leave, Renard, you will be leaving with them.” 
      “You’re sending me away?” Renard nearly shouted. 
      “Your place is amongst them.” 
      “I don’t want Ren to leave,” Kal said sadly. 
      “Children, I have raised you to be Defenders. The Path is a fit for Kal, but I have tried to force it upon Renard without success. I am reluctant to remember…There are other Paths.”
      “I don’t want to leave!” 
      “It is not important to care what others want for you, Renard. Neither is it important what you want for yourself, son. The god has spoken to us through Deno. My stubbornness has only made it worse. The simple fact is: You are not a Defender.”
      Tears pooled in Renard’s eyes. “I am your firstborn, but you treat me like a spare.” Deno kicked up a cloud of dirt in anger, and then the two of them fled. 
      Kal moved like she wanted to go after them. Her father’s gentle arm blocked her path. “Finish your kata. The boy needs space.” 
      Kal nodded. “Your words are not cruel, Father. They are hard but true.” 
      “You understand.” 
      “There is something else, Father.” 
      Kal’s father studied his daughter. 
      “I felt it. The auric buildup during my kata. It felt like electricity, like running my feet over the carpet.” 
      “Keep practicing,” he said. 
      She planned to. 

Renard was back for dinner. The sadness had gone from his eyes but he remained solemn, eating his food without his usual banter. 
      Father said, “Remember our trip into the city?” The man pointed north, away from Nowaste, toward the overlook where they had received the morning report. 
Renard looked up at him, but quickly averted his eyes. He nodded. 
      “About 60 years ago, a Defender-” 
      “Is this the story about Roman Ocelot?” Kal wanted to know. 
      “No, no. This is the story of a Builder named Quincy Rylander. The road between Main City and Metropolia is known for its frequency of azighra attacks, so Builders who make the trip never go without extra security. Quincy hired Roman. Many travelers going between the two cities never see a single azighra, but Quincy was not so lucky.                They walked into one of the most concentrated attacks in recorded history. Tens of azighra of all types: howlers, cinders, terrorots, and thundrums. Out of hundreds of people, only two walked away unscathed. Quincy and Roman.” 
      “So, this is a story about Roman Ocelot.” 
      “He’s in it. It was after this attack that Roman left Main City. He had become disheartened with the abilities of many Defenders, and so he moved down into the desert with his first class of pupils to study the Defender arts. As a thank you for his service, Quincy built him a school so they all would have a place to train.” 
      “I don’t remember seeing a school,” Renard said between bites. 
      “You saw it.” 
      “The Coliseum?” 
      Father nodded. “It took Quincy five years to build, and when he was done, it was the greatest achievement of all time. No structure in Main City was its equal.” 
      “What about in the other cities?” Renard asked. 
      “At that time, Metropolia was barely formed. The Explorers in Basecamp had barely assembled structures, preferring a more earthbound lifestyle. And Nowaste Land did not even exist yet. It was a tremendous gift for Quincy to give. It may still be the greatest structure in Bastunia.” 
      Renard nodded. “You think I could build something like that?” 
      Father said, “Perhaps. Or an ever better structure. Could be a system of tunnels with the way you and Deno like to dig. Could be a mine. Could be something that nobody has ever thought of.” 

That night, Renard slept in fits and starts. He woke up before Kal, and was down in the sparring ground before the sun came up. When Kal arrived to do her kata, she had to find a spot away from the holes and mounds of dirt that Deno and Renard had created in their miniaturized arena. 
      She was midway through her kata when Renard noticed her. “I would dig my way in, little sis.” 
      Kal was confused. “What?” 
      “You said that if I were trying to break into the compound, I would take the gate because I am afraid of heights.” He shook his head to indicate how wrong she was. “I would dig.” 
      Renard remained in good spirits throughout the day. When he got tired of digging, he spent a couple hours inspecting the architecture of the compound, analyzing the columns, archways, and rooftops, and asking Father questions that he did not have answers to. He delighted in the ever-growing obscurity of his line of questioning, taking a special pleasure in realizing just how much he did not know about building. With each “I don’t know, son,” Renard got a little more exuberant, while Father’s patience slowly dwindled. Around dusk, one of Renard’s questions elicited an outburst. There, Kal saw something else was at play in their Father. Something was bothering him. 
      It was not difficult for Kal to guess. “The travelers should be here by now.” 
      Father nodded. 
      “Should we go looking?” 
      Father shook his head. “It is still too early for alarm. Though I would have preferred them to arrive with daylight to show the way down the switchbacks.” The moon hid behind a veil of cloud cover. It was shaping up to be a dark, cold night. Kal’s words lingered between them, gaining strength as the light dwindled by the minute. After a little bit of thought, Father said, “We shall escort them.” 

Immediately, Father went to the stables. The only natural animal on the compound was Elvis, their mule. He grabbed two lanterns, filled the saddlebags with overnight gear, and sent Kal to the kitchen for foodstuffs. Not ten minutes from the decision to find and escort the travelers, they were walking through the gate that led north, toward the overlook, toward the Coliseum, toward Main City. 
      Renard met them at the gate. “Leaving me behind?” 
      Father said, “Yes. You will have many days on the road ahead of you. Stay here and rest.” 
      “I can be of assistance.” 
      “Of course you can, son. If by chance we miss the travelers, it will be good for you to be here to greet them and make them welcome.” 
      “Are you planning to leave the road?” Renard asked inquisitively. “There’s only one way in.” 
      “We intend to guide the travelers on the last, more dangerous stretch of road. That’s all.” 
      Renard eyed the mule and the packs. “You are packed for a night in the desert.” 
      Kal beat Father to the punch. She said, “It is better to have and not need than to need and not have.” 
      Father nodded, said, “Save it, Renard. You are the welcoming committee.” They closed the gate behind them and proceeded up the rocky slopes. 
      It did not matter to either of them that the night was a special shade of dark. The winding network of trails around the compound had become extensions of them both. Unlike the ever shifting dunes, the valley in which their outpost was built was formed from stone and old, squat trees. The tangled trees pointed with knobby fingers, each its own friendly gesture, reassuring them both that they were still within the boundary of home.  

But the compound had tall stone walls for a reason. The familiar trees offered reassurance, a partial abatement of the knowledge that they had carved out an existence in a wild place. They were not the only ones that called it home. Which was why Gella and Harbyr, and Kal and her father by proxy, were the outpost’s primary stewards. The beasts had keen noses, which allowed them to coexist with the desert’s true natives. If Kal had her way, and it was the way she was taught by her father, coexistence was synonymous with avoidance of the desert’s monsters at all costs. 
      As the four of them came over the wind-breaking ridge, their roles quickly morphed from mere escorts into something more serious. Harbyr smelled it first, and not more than a few moments later, a sense of dread washed over Kal. Ripe for their sensing was the unmistakable stench of Pios. 
      “I know it’s a small consolation, but I do not detect any traces of blood in the air.” 
      Kal nodded. Harbyr narrowed the beasts’ perimeter greatly, instructing Gella to keep close at Kal’s side. “Do we risk calling out for them?” 
      “If we can get a better fix on the Pio, yes. It might be below the cliffs.” 
      “A cliff won’t slow it down much.” 
      “We’re still downwind, that much we can be certain of.” 
      Kal sought a touch of reassurance. “And I’ve never seen two of them in the same vicinity. Have you?” 
      “Not this time of year.” 
      They walked slowly, conscious of the vibration made by each footfall. Kal knew better than to be comforted by the noisy crystal music made by the windblown sand. Pios had survived in the barren desert for hundreds of years by being expert hunters. Not only were they able to move silently despite their size, but they had hypersensitive footpads attuned to the vibrational patterns of mobile desert life. So Kal kept to the rocks as much as possible, leaping from one to the next, but it was for her own sense of control more than anything. Two beasts, a mule, and her father’s labored steps were plenty for a Pio to hone in on their location. 
      With nervewracking slowness, they finally made it to the overlook. By then, the sky was darkened as much by clouds as blowing sand. Father unloaded Elvis, placed the saddlebags over a tree branch, and hid the lanterns in an alcove. 
      “I know this is not what you want to hear, but the conditions are perfect for Pios, Kal. We are as good as blind, and they-” 
      “I know, Father. You have taught me all of this.” 
      “Why don’t you keep your eyes on the desert. If there are gaps in the galls, moments when the clouds part, we might catch a glimpse of our Pio down below.” 
      Kal turned to face the cliff. 
      Not a second later, Harbyr emitted a throaty sound, a growl just loud enough to alert them of something in the dark closeby. Elvis erupted into a fit of nerves, but Father was there to stroke his mane and calm him down. Kal noticed her father’s hand slide to the clasp on his harness. If the outline of a scorpioning tail or snapping pincers appeared in the gray before them, Father would not think twice about using Elvis as a diversion. As callous as it seemed, as much as Kal loved the mule, it would be done with an emotionless abandon that could be grieved over at a later, very much still alive, time. 
      Harbyr faced the northern road, teeth bared. Gella was at its side, forming a barricade. The noises they were reacting to were now audible enough for Kal to hear with her own ears. Scratching, sliding, scratching, sliding. In her mind’s eyes, Kal concocted an image of a bloodied Pio, dragging a corpse or two over the road. 
      But when the silhouetted shapes appeared, they were human. 
      “Travelers!” Father greeted them.  
      “Have we arrived?” a human voice called out. 
      “You are not home free yet,” Father responded. “There is a Pio out here somewhere. Have you seen it?” 
      “You have chosen a strange place to eke out an existence,” one of them said. “Please, how close are we to shelter? I fear this is nearly as far as our legs can carry us.” 
Father went to them with urgency. He checked them over carefully. He clasped hands over forearms with each of the Defenders, exchanged the Greeting, and then hastened to the mule. 
      With shaking hands, Father resaddled Elvis, packed up their gear, helped one of the members of the caravan onto the mule’s back, and they set out. The travelers exchanged turns riding, which allowed the slightest increase in pace. By the time the compound appeared over a hill, each of their nerves were fried. Hours of hypervigilance combined with uncompromising terrain had worn them to the bone. 

Once back to the compound, Kal took an honest stock of their guests. The caravan consisted of five humans: three Defenders, one Builder, and one Explorer. Each of them had one beast only, and under the light of the compound, Kal saw that they were all of moderate development. She was intrigued, but she felt their stature fell faintly short of impressive. 
      Renard turned out to be a lousy welcome committee. The bunks were always ready to accommodate unexpected travelers, so rooms were no issue. However, the five of them had worked up a hunger and nothing had been prepared. Father, per usual, assumed the role as cook while Kal went to fetch her brother. 
In the amount of time it took Father to set the table and prepare a stew, Kal was able to scour the entire compound. In doing so, she found no sign of Renard anywhere. She approached her father with trepidation. 
      “Renard is not here,” she told him. 
      Father pulled away from the group. “What do you mean?” 
      “I looked everywhere.” 
      Father accepted the news without argument. He just nodded. His face did not show any sign of alarm, but Kal knew what was stirring just below the surface. He went to a corner to think, and then disappeared down the hall. 
      Their guests sat enjoying their meal, chattering amongst themselves as men do after a stint of long, hard travel. Their beasts were curled up nearby. Nobody noticed the old man’s departure, but they noticed his return. 
      He re-entered the parlor, popping the cork on a bottle of dark purple liquid. The men clapped each other on the backs and held out glasses. Father topped off the Explorer’s and the Builder’s cups, but stopped at a small portion for the Defenders. After doling out all that he was going to pour, he set the bottle on the table, and addressed them. 
      “My son is still out there,” he said. “I am taking Kal to search for him, but an extra set of eyes, or several, would be welcome.” 
      “The son we have come for?” the Explorer asked. 
      Father nodded. 
      Before the Defenders could react, the Explorer pushed his glass away. He said, “What are we waiting for?” 
      The Defenders stood at once. One of them threw back the shot of purple spirits, but the other two left them sitting on the table. The Builder looked at them as though wishing to become invisible. He sipped his drink with dreadful eyes, doing his utmost to keep them averted from his companions. “You should stay back,” one of the Defenders told him. “In case the boy returns, someone should put up a signal.” 
      The Builder nodded eagerly. “I will. I certainly will,” he said. 

Five Defenders and an Explorer snaked up a windshorn gulley toward the overlook. The night was a few shades deeper than before, but the wind was in the process of driving in an electric storm. Lightning danced on the horizon, revealing in flashes a curtain of torrential rain charging toward them. 
      Father saw the same danger in it that Kal did. “If we don’t find him in the next hour, we should be prepared to hunker down for the night. The road becomes impassable in the rain.” 
      One of the Defenders said, “We’ll spread out. Between the four of us, our beasts can canvass several square miles of desert at a time.” The one who had spoken had a canine-beast like Kal and Father. The other two were more deer-like, each with a large rack of many-pointed horns. At once, the three beasts dashed off into the night. A flash of lightning illuminated them as they disappeared over the ridge. 
      No sense could be made of the smells delivered by the wind. The approaching storm blanketed their noses in petrichor and ozone. If the Pio was still in the vicinity, they had no way of knowing. Kal thought she heard the thrum of the Strider’s web again, but no sooner had she pinpointed the sound than a crash of thunder reverberated across the landscape. When the commotion settled, she did not hear it again. 
      Father’s beast howled. They were well beyond keeping a low profile. They had not brought Elvis, which told Kal that she should not plan to run or hide. If a Pio appeared, or a Strider, or any other of the desert's many predators, she should be prepared for a fight. 
      “Father, what do you think happened?” 
      “Do you have a theory?” 
      “I do,” she said. 
      He looked at her expectantly. 
      “We never ventured from the road. We came up here, and then turned back with the caravan. If Renard followed us, he must have been forced off the road somewhere between here and the compound. I don’t think Renard is in the desert…I think he’s back there, somewhere in the boulder field.” 
      Father nodded. Harbyr howled, this time a fearful and angry sound. An idea floated into Kal’s awareness, devoid of words but perfectly clear in its meaning. We’re coming, Renard. 

      The plan was communicated to the rest of the search party. Kal and Father would stay out as long as they needed to locate Renard, but unless he was spotted, everyone else was to return to the compound ahead of the rain. That gave them less than half an hour to search, and even that was cutting it close. Any longer and one would trap themselves in the middle of the switchbacks, exposed to slick rocks and dangerous ledges. 
      Before they separated, Father had them each confirm aloud that they would return ahead of the rain. Then each of them went in their own direction. Despite everything, the Explorer maintained a spritely demeanor, as though he had spent his entire life on the road. Which, Kal thought, was likely not far from the truth. Father and Kal stuck together, heading for the boulder fields. 

      Renard had nicknamed the boulder fields the Hall of Horrors. The “halls” were slot canyons between granite boulders piled up like a pyramid of rough marbles. Some slots were large enough to walk through, others required one to shimmy through small crevices. Tight tunnels often led into room-sized chambers. Kal and Renard had spent a lot of their childhoods mapping out the field, playing hide-and-seek, making forts, and having make-believe wars. On a few occasions, they used the slots to hide from striders, pios, or other predators. There were hundreds of excellent hiding spots, but in a rainstorm, the rapid accumulation of water would make many of them ill-advised. 
      Once in the field, Kal and Father had to move by the intermittent flashes of lightning. The bolts were coming with greater frequency. Kal tried not to dwell on the implications of that fact. As they arrived at the entrance to one Hall, the rain began to spit. 
      They sent their beasts ahead. Kal knew the slot canyons well, but not by heart. The network was far too complex to memorize, and in the slate blackness, one could easily miss walking their head directly into an overhanging or protruding rock. The task of scouring the likely hiding spots was better left to Gella and Harbyr. All they could do was watch out for the ominous shapes of predators when the belligerent thunderheads flashed their crooked, white smiles. 
      Within Kal, a blossoming of excitement. A flood of olfactory warmth filled her. She felt a swirling of recognition, followed by glee. She exclaimed to her father, “They found him!” 
      Father had sensed it, too. He inched his way into the narrow canyon, calling out for his son. He and Kal got far enough in to leave behind the overwhelming sounds of the storm. The rocky envelope provided them a place to listen to the sounds deeper in the Hall. They heard shuffling, and the unmistakable sound of Renard bumping toward them. In a moment that stretched into an eternity in the darkness, they waited. Gella returned, then Harbyr, then Deno ran into Kal’s outstretched arms, followed by a sheepish looking Renard. His forehead and cheek was slick with blood. Father wiped it away and pulled the boy in lovingly. 
      “I am sorry, Renard,” he said. “We should have taken you with us.” 
      Renard made an apology through heaving sobs. They held him and Deno close, but the rain was starting to patter on the rocks, and they all knew what that meant without discussing it. Once the boy regained some composure, he said, “There was a Pio.” 
      Kal said, “We smelled it.” 
      “Is it gone?” 
      “We haven’t seen it.” 
      “It’s stalking me,” Renard said chillingly. 
      “You were right to come here.” 
      “Thank you for finding me.” And then after a moment of tight hugging, “As soon as you left, I realized how soon I would be leaving. I did not want to waste a moment of togetherness.” 
      “So sweet,” Kal said lovingly. 

      They left the Hall of Horrors and made their way out of the boulder fields. Kal explained how they had brought the travelers back to the compound, how she had discovered that he was missing. She explained how Father had prepared a stew, and how that stew would be waiting for him back home. 
      The silhouette of the compound appeared head. Lanterns burned in the windows of the gatehouse. They were so close, so fixated on the stew they would soon be eating, the new friends they would be making, the warmth they would be enjoying while relaxing in the parlor, that they did not see the Pio until it was over the esker and right on top of them. 
      The Pio towered over them, an engine of destruction. It had grasping pincers and a segmented tail that scorpioned overhead, ending in a razor-sharp stinger. It was armored in oily-black carapace. 
      It snapped a pincer at them, but Harbyr was ready. The beast leapt between the slicing pincers, solidifying itself in an instant, and stuck like a pebble in the elbow of a pair of shears. The monster struck again, but Harbyr deftly positioned itself in between them. It leapt in the way of the attack, changing from flesh to stone at the necessary moment to parry the Pio’s advance. All the while, the tail hovered, ready to sting in a window of vulnerability. 
      Auraed stones sailed over their heads and stuck the creature, driving it back. The rest of the search party had returned. They formed up into ranks, joining Father and Harbyr at the front to hold the line. Slowly, the four adult Defenders drove the Pio back. The Explorer hung back with Renard and Deno, while Kal, eager to help but less equipped for close combat, hung back waiting for her opportunity. She connected herself more deeply with Gella by moving through her kata, and after a couple cycles, felt the tickle of accumulating Aura in her feet. Auraed stones continued to pummel the Pio, but its carapace was iron-thick, and they did next to nothing. The antlered beasts searched for weak points in the joints of the Pio’s eight legs, but their antlers were easily repelled. They collided with massive power, somehow avoiding injuring their necks. Each time they were thrown back, each time they regained their feet, each time they circled up to charge again at perfectly opportune moments. At times, the Pio teetered on the edge of a small cliff, but it was an accomplished climber. They hoped by pushing it back that they would clear the road, open a window to rush back to the compound. 
      Kal was paying little attention to what her companions were doing. Gella was running circles around her, protecting her perimeter, while she moved through her kata with precision. The traces beneath her feet carved uniform shapes in the sand, a sequence of looping and overlapping knots, and she duplicated those same patterns in the motion of her limbs. The tickle around her feet became a field of sparking energy. Overhead as much as underfoot, the air filled with electrified ions. A field formed around them. It was conical in shape, tapering upward. At its zenith, electricity licked at the thunderheads in arcing cords. A finger of lightning began to stabilize, grounded in the cone around Kal and extending upward to where it disappeared in the clouds. Gella whined, rose onto its haunches, and charged the Pio. 
      The cord followed her beast. Gella jumped, seeming to defy gravity, and rose to a position overtop of the giant scorpion, where all at once, blazing light poured through the conduit from the sky like a concentrated bolt of lightning. It pierced the Pio, superheating it from the inside. It exploded into a black mist and innumerable pieces. A putrid foulness assaulted their nostrils. 
      When the mist cleared, Gella was standing in the ruins of the monster. The Defenders were lying on their backs, knocked off their feet by the explosion. Renard and the Explorer peeked out from behind boulders where they had sought refuge. Everything was coated in a layer of oily slime. Kal saw Harbyr still holding its stone form, rendered gray by the gunk that dripped from its rigidity. 
The only person Kal did not see was her father. 
“No!” Renard shouted. The boy ran out from behind his hiding place, straight to an amorphous form lying limp amongst the gooey wreckage of the Pio. “No, no, no,” he whimpered. Harbyr still had not moved, the implication of which struck Kal the instant she saw her brother cradle their father’s lifeless body. 
Renard lifted him up. He pulled him close. Kal was at his side then, staring down with disbelief at the Pio’s stinger pierced through his chest. 

Father was laid on the table in the dining room. They swaddled him in blankets, having removed the stinger and cleaned his wound. It was concluded that he had died instantly. The strangers attempted to offer other simple comforts, but none of them took. Both children felt like his death was their responsibility, and there was no convincing them otherwise. 
Eventually, their guests retreated to their bunks. Kal and Renard remained, and would remain. Unconsciousness took them in the wee hours of the night, sleeping with heads on forearms, refusing to leave the immediate side of their father. No words were spoken between them. No blame was shared. Each of them silently shouldered the burden of absolute fault. 
When morning came, the children faced the impossible inevitability. Father’s body was carried into the sparring ground, where he was lowered into one of the holes that Deno had dug the day before. The duo swallowed a sickening lump then, considering the spirit in which the hole was dug, seeing it become a grave. They all helped pile dirt overtop of him. Once the grave was plane with the surrounding dirt, Harbyr, still frozen in its brutal stone posture of its final moment, was dedicated to the eternal role of headstone. 

A couple days later, part of the caravan departed. The Explorer, the Builder, Renard, and Kal stayed behind. Despite Kal’s insistence that she would be fine, Renard refused to leave her alone. The Explorer did not specify the length of his stay, just ensured them that it would not be permanent and he would know when it was time to leave. The Builder, a surprise to both of them, suggested that he stay behind as well. He gave an unconvincing argument about the condition of the compound, saying that he could improve their living conditions, but what sealed the deal was his offer to school Renard in the Builder Path right there. That had overcome Kal’s argument, and the matter was settled. 

Year 277
Outpost in Thornerie Desert
25 miles south of the Coliseum