Chapter 108 Pillars of Salt

Deep in the Aiy Dry Desert that lay between Vallis, Garghent and Ophir, under a blazing and unrelenting sun, existed a tiny yet deep oasis. Hundreds of years ago a man found respite here, drinking from the pure waters that quenched his cracked lips and soothed his burnt flesh. Newly hydrated, this forlorn man discovered how hungry he was. He saw a snake and some birds, a beetle and a swarm of flies and gnats. There was some tall grass and a great and ancient cedar tree. The man felt bad for the other critters that had braved the desert to finally reach this place and decided he could not rob them of their lives for his sake.

A camel was munching on a stalk of cactus nearby, seeming to enjoy with odd vigor a meal of a bizarre looking cactus.

In fact the only thing in abundance here was a strange cactus he had never come across before. It was smooth, and stocky with skin that felt firm but not too hard. It bore none of the typical signs of a poisonous species and so he chanced the cactus and tore off a piece.

It ripped without difficulty and to his surprise the cactus was hollow inside the stem. Not only hollow, but filled with liquid. A familiar stench filled his nostrils.

The smell alone took all feelings of hunger away.

What rumbled in his belly was nothing compared to the emptiness of his soul.

Inside this strange cactus alcohol had fermented! The purest water from the oasis, with little chance of spoiling in the desert inside a unique cactus.

The man pulled out the cactus and tipped only a few drops into his mouth. The taste repulsed him at first, the strength of the brew and the bitterness souring his tongue. Yet the aftertaste soon took over and it was oddly floral, like a breath of spring in this wasteland.

He took another sip. This time the bitterness was pleasurable and contrasted with the strong sweet aftertaste so that to rebalance the flavor in his mouth he desired yet another sip. The cycle repeated and the man knew he had made the discovery of his life.

The man and the camel both were drunk off the cactus and the euphoric effects of the cactus crept in on him and he slept from exhaustion and the intoxication.

He had such vivid and wonderful dreams that night from the strange cactus beer.

The man drew up a sketch of the map and swore to the heavens he would return to this place. The camel as it turned out was trained as a mount and so the man rode off with the beast. Years later he made true that promise and built a home in that oasis to start a cactus farm and brew the special desert beverage.

That was the story Qortiko had grown up hearing of his ancestor. The family that man started lived in that oasis still, farming and selling cactus beer.

Life was not easy, toiling in the sun all day to grow cactus and then traveling through the desert to sell to the nearest merchant village who would then ship the barrels out into the cities.

Their cactus beer was highly sought after for its unique flavor and euphoric effects. The family had guarded this oasis for generations, protecting the sanctity and cleanliness of the oasis as a spot for traveling wildlife and the rare cactus that grew nowhere else in the world but here.

Qortiko’s family were the only permanent residents here, numbering only fourteen, and five of them were half-brothers and sisters. The tradition of the family was to go out into the world when adulthood was reached and find a bride or husband to bring back in order to continue the family business.

Qortiko had only left the desert once, and that was after hearing of a tournament for Specters going on in a nearby city from a merchant who had told him about it on one of his cactus beer sales. Qortiko’s awakening of an Aspect spread fast among the scattered villages of the Aiy Dry Desert and he became famous in his small world. Qortiko had gone to the city, won the tournament and returned without a wife, to his father’s disappointment.

Qortiko’s own mother had passed shortly after his birth and in the last few years, his father decided that Qortiko was hopeless and so remarried and already had a few children.

Other than that, Qortiko had a few aunts and uncles and a grandfather. That was his life and his world. He loved them all dearly and enjoyed the craft of brewing cactus.

It was a careful method as the yeast needed to ferment the cactus seemed to have a special relationship with the cactus and no other type of yeast could draw out the complex flavors of the cactus and euphoric properties. His grandmother had cleverly married a bartender who ran his own meadery from a northern city and was well versed in the chemical and biology of brewing. Together they did research on the cactus and took the business to another level, selling to other metropoli and expanding the farm to include more modern applications and developing their own brand.

The family amassed great wealth over the generations and most of this was hidden and buried, invested into keeping the farm running and the oasis clean or else lost in gambling.

Qortiko was a teenaged boy when he awakened his Aspect, and despite his love for his home and family, the fulfillment of simple and hard work in the desert sun, something greater gnawed and pulled at his fate strings, something born of his Aspect. His grandmother had called it a curse.

Qortiko’s curse.

The Aspect of Salt was no curse to Qortiko himself.

Certainly not today. 

Qortiko dismounted from his camel and tried to calm it with soft words. The camel was having none of it. Fear shone in its black eyes.

“Shhh.” he reassured. “Leave this place.”

The camel needed no further instruction. It bolted off at once, not risking a glance behind where an army marched through the sandy dunes. 

Qortiko released all thoughts from his mind. There would be no room for error. This army of undead dared to threaten his family and the other communities of desert folk.

Qortiko alone would face them.

He removed his headwrap and stripped off his outer robes. His skin felt the direct heat of the sun.

He sparkled like a jewel in the sunlight, the piercings of salt crystals that decorated his whole body reflecting that scalding desert light back at the sun.

Qortiko unsheathed his two scimitars. Their perfect edge of damascus steel tracing swirling patterns of cold metal. In the center of the guard above the hilt of both blades was a gemstone carved into the shape of a scorpion. The pommel tapered off into a snake’s open maw. They were exquisite weapons, used by his great great grandfather in a war before the time of guns.

Qortiko watched the undead horde approach through the pulsing heatwaves.

He had heard of the war ongoing between some of the nearby city-states from the merchants his family sold the cactus beer to.

A villager from a community further south had come sprinting into the oasis just minutes ago, weeping and warning of a great army of the dead rampaging anything in their way. It seemed they were on a destructive path through the desert, likely to flank their enemy after passing through.

Qortiko rolled his shoulders and went through the motions of striking with his scimitars, preparing the movements and muscles.

In the Specter tournament Qortiko had not been allowed his weapons. Despite that handicap he had still claimed victory and then left without acknowledging any of the offers of employment from the many groups that had seen his performance. Qortiko needed only to gauge his own strength.

He had left satisfied.

Scanning the horizon, Qortiko estimated many thousands of undead. He would need to draw them all to himself.

Qortiko’s even footsteps left a trail that spoke of a lone warrior going out to meet an army to defend his home.

“Salt.” He activated his Aspect.

The undead noticed him and started to converge on his location. Qortiko flicked up some sand with his blade and chopped at the falling grains. A sculpture of sand, in the shape of his blade, projected out to his left some twenty meters. He repeated this on his right side, creating two thin sand formations that resembled his scimitars. This caught the attention of more of the horde which reacted to any sort of combative or human movement.

Every manner of skeleton, corpse and bone machination broke into a disorganized and shambling charge. The speed and coordination was highly dependent upon the preservation of the corpse, Qortiko observed.

The first was less than a hundred meters away. Too far for Qortiko’s Aspect.

Seventy… 

Fifty…

Forty…

Qortiko took one final deep breath.

Held it to thirty meters away and exhaled.

Qortiko scooped up a pile of sand with both scimitars together and tossed it up. He sliced down with both blades, sending two sand swords out, razor sharp sculptures that split the first two undead in half.

Qortiko flicked more sand up with one sword while slicing with another. This time he struck the grains horizontal, sending a sideways arc of sand that tore into several corpses at once.

The way Qortiko’s Aspect functioned was by striking grains of sand, the projection of the shape he hit expressed itself in the way the sand burst out, expanding many times the size of what he used, whether it was his fists or his swords. The distance the sculptures reached, along with the size and velocity they erupted into, were all based on how forceful he struck the falling grains. Something like a fist created a larger sculpture due to the surface area of his fist and the amount of grains hit on the impact while his sword made finer and therefore sharper sand sculptures that could cut and slice.

Qortiko was proficient in hand to hand martial arts but he preferred his blades that could swiftly flick up sand and flow from strike to strike.

Each sculpture lingered in its place, like unnatural growths of sharpened sand. The undead barreled through the sculptures as they charged, clawing through the thin sand swords.

Qortiko tossed sand high enough to get in several slices at a time, expertly chopping at grains in a cyclone of desert blades that tore into the undead and provided a barrier that slowed them.

Qortiko saw that he would be surrounded in a moment. He flicked some sand and punched it with his fist and hilt. The sculpture projected the shape of the fist and hilt, creating a sort of pillar shaped to his fist with a platform extending beyond it from the hilt. The sculptures always started small and grew exponentially from the point of impact.

Qortiko leapt onto his fist sculpture and ran along it. Meanwhile the undead began to climb it, a sea of corpses milling under the Salt Aspect.

Qortiko pried off a piercing with the tip of his sword, a feature in the design of his piercings that allowed for this to be done on the fly when he wielded both scimitars.

He smashed the salt crystal in mid air and then sliced the falling pieces in a downward arc. This sculpture was pure white and cleaved into a line of undead at an angle. Qortiko slid down the white sculpture as the undead scrambled up the fist sculpture he had previously been on.

Qortiko cut into one undead, decapitating its withered and brittle neck. He cut into another two undead before having enough room to toss more sand up. Qortiko created several sculptures in quick succession, destroying everything around him in several curved arcs of sand scimitars.

One corpse with half a face staggered behind Qortiko, clawing into his back. Qortiko turned and delivered a chop that removed the other remaining half of face from the corpse.

In the same heartbeat, Qortiko launched more sand into the air with his other sword and swiveled into the chop, creating a massive sand blade, like an angry wave of dune that stood frozen in place, having wasted everything in its path.

Qortiko climbed up the sculpture and looked around. He had maybe defeated a couple hundred of them. Hardly a dent in the thousands that kept streaming in.

This was going to be an all day affair and the sun would be here for it.

Qortiko jumped down, rolling and kicking up sand which he sliced in one fluid motion, sending more sculptures into the charging legions. 

Qortiko needed to lead the group or else be surrounded and mobbed. He cut a swathe through some undead with a vicious double sand scimitar. He sprinted in the same direction, hundreds of undead tailing behind him and still hundreds in front and closing in. 

Qortiko was faster and his boots provided a better surface to run on sand than the bare feet of the skeletons. Qortiko dragged one scimitar along the sand as he ran, leaving a line beside his footprints. 

This was so he could toss up sand on the fly, using his other sword to cleave the grains. He did this several times to groups of undead that came in front of him.

Qortiko continued running sideways along the rows of undead. He used his Aspect when he could, whittling down the legion in groups. 

Qortiko planted when he knew he had a moment of separation from the horde. He blindly tossed, cut, tossed, cut, tossed, cut sand with both swords. Not sticking around to see the damage, Qortiko went back to sprinting with one sword dragging in the sand. 

He led the horde to the crest of a dune that descended sharply beyond the horizon. Running up the dune, his breathing hard and sweat drenching his body, Qortiko turned around once he reached the top. 

Qortiko took two salt crystals and crushed them, hilt-punching the salt grains straight up to form a pillar on either side of him. Chopping at the sand, Qortiko created a platform angled so that he could climb to the top of his salt pillars. 

Qortiko took another salt crystal piercing and smashed it sideways, bridging the two salt pillars and building a sort of megalithic dolmen. 

Qortiko stood on top the center of the dolmen.

The undead scrambled up the dune.

“Come on!” Qortiko shouted defiantly.

He stuck his scimitars into the salt bridge right beside his legs. Qortiko pulled out more of the crystal piercings that adorned his body and crushed them in one hand, but keeping the grains in his closed fist.

He raised that hand and let the salt grains trickle down in a shower. Using his free hand, Qortiko pressed all five fingers into the falling grains, creating a salt sculpture of five finger-like pillars that crushed multiple corpses.

He repeated this action, aiming down from the salt dolmen, allowing the salt to shower down before finger pressing it. 

Five, ten, fifteen, twenty pillars blocked off the pathway to the top of the dune, among the destroyed corpses that piled underneath them as Qortiko sent more and more, destroying scores of skeletons.

The undead circled the dune, crowding around and trying to reach the Specter at the top.

They clawed and scraped their way up, moving sand and trying to break through the salt pillars, though these proved to be much tougher than the sand sculptures. 

Qortiko did not relent. He continued to rain pillars of salt down below, targeting places where the undead were beginning to breach through.

So numerous were the undead still, that they began to noticeably flatten the dune by digging and scraping sand away. 

The top of the dune was growing narrower as the surrounding part of the dune withered away. 

Qortiko had only moments before the salt dolmen collapsed under the dune and he’d be swallowed by the horde.

Qortiko grabbed his scimitars and chopped at one of the salt pillars that held up the bridge part. He cleaved through chunks of the pillar before it finally lurched free and toppled over to crash down on the undead. 

But because the dune was still a mound, the sideways pillar that Qortiko stood on, fell without its support under it and slid down the mound. Qortiko chose to topple the dolmen on his own rather than wait for the undead to bring it down. 

It kept him on the offensive.

Riding the pillar down, Qortiko saw several bodies get pulverized by the pillar sliding through. It came to a crashing stop when it collided with some of the finger pillars that he had projected out. The undead wasted no time turning on him, the mindless thralls seeking the best route to catch him.

Qortiko ran back up what was left of the dune and kicked hard into the top of the sand. The undead climbing on the opposite side of the dune found themselves flying through the air by a massive sand leg.

Qortiko crested the dune and found a different angle to punch into. A great sculptured fist erupted out, blasting many undead to pieces. 

Qortiko moved around the top of the dune, angling himself to unleash these massive sand sculptures. Because the sand was at the top, it was loose and could be hit into his sculptures. In a flat plain, hitting the sand would only cause the sculpture to smush itself against the ground. But on a hilltop or the crest of a dune, the sand at the peak could be turned into his sculptures. 

Qortiko kicked, punched, elbowed, shouldered, even headbutted the sand at different angles whenever he got the chance amidst the overwhelming legion of undead that bit and scratched and shoved him while he focused on sending the larger attacks out.

Qortiko cut and sliced his way through, moving around the diminishing peak of the sand dune until at last it had flattened beyond use.

Qortiko could hardly see the ground, let alone kick up sand with his sword. There were too many defeated corpses and too many pillars and limbs of salt and sand.

Qortiko used the remaining jewelry on his body, taking off rings and bracelets made of salt and crushing them for a salt scimitar or pillar constructed just to put a barrier for the undead to move around. Anything to face fewer skeletons at a single time. 

In what looked like the ruins of a great city, swallowed by the desert eons in the past, Qortiko battled the dead with his two scimitars, singing passionately though less and less coherent with each passing minute. 

Qortiko was tiring and bleeding openly. His footwork was growing sloppy and the energy needed to sever a head seemed to have doubled. He knew he was dehydrated and his vision grew blurry.

He tried to focus his eyes but all he could see were the images of hundreds of undead with skeletons glinting in the sun and approaching eagerly toward him. 

Qortiko forced his body awake. Fighting his own body at the same time he fought the undead. To stop moving, to rest the eyes, to lay down for even an instance meant death and the cold nothingness.

Qortiko cleaved one skeleton, breaking through old ribs and smashing its skull into pieces with a follow up strike. Another skeleton poked at Qortiko with sharp finger bones that had long and crude fingernails still attached by sections of decayed flesh. Qortiko turned on this skeleton and lanced its vertebrate, separating the neck halfway up the spine and splitting the skeleton in two. Qortiko stomped on its skull.

Wheeling around, another bone corpse almost managed to shove Qortiko to the ground but he had turned in time to balance himself. This skeleton threw punches and palm strikes and tried to chomp with its exposed jaws. Qortiko took several hard hits and struggled to bring his swords up.

The skeleton charged Qortiko again, tackling him and sending them both to the ground. Qortiko landed on something hard and a few sharp objects and grunted while one arm was caught underneath the rest of his body. The bolt of pain was enough to keep him going. The skeleton was trying to tear his face open, crush his windpipe and stab out his eyes. Qortiko struggled with one hand to keep the skeleton from accomplishing any of those tasks. 

Qortiko’s pinched arm managed to touch sand. He grasped as much as he could between his fingers and turned his body to the side as far as possible. The pinched arm was now behind and under him, his hand had a clear path.

The skeleton with pure knuckle, smashed Qortiko’s chin, then smashed his lip and was about to smash his nose when a flick of sand erupted into a large finger that obliterated the skeleton.

Qortiko struggled to rise, retrieving his scimitars and turning to face the next undead.

He swiveled to another direction. Nothing.

Was that it?

Qortiko had won.

He could hardly believe it. His eyes had deceived him in showing hundreds more when only there were a handful left.

Qortiko was exultant. He cared not to retrieve his salt piercings. He could always make more.

No, he would leave this battlefield as it was. The large sand limbs and salt pillars and the massive face in the desert would appear as if a giant had died here, battling a great army all alone in the desert, the reason and cause of the fight unknown to the world. Only the epic remains of their encounter, the giant and the army, would survive through legend.

Qortiko alone would know the truth of this mystery, a secret that would die with him. He battled the undead legion and claimed it as a conquest. Future historians would debate the possibility of the existence of giants and myths would form and Qortiko could not help thinking of this as he retraced his steps, seeing the fight play back in his mind as the trail he took was littered with bodies.

Whoever attempted to send an army through the desert would be disappointed to know they did not reach their destination.

They’d find only pillars of salt and the disjointed body parts of a giant.

Qortiko’s lifetime in the desert conditioned him enough to go through the motions of walking as his mind occupied himself on his victory so as to forget the life threatening thirst that could claim him at any moment.

There was a soul weariness that settled over him. Adrenaline began to wear off and a deep sorrow crept in, perhaps born from the isolation of victory.

Would he ever experience a moment like that again? A moment no one witnessed. There was some intangible sadness in the Salt Aspect as he traveled. There was no happiness in his home. Only in the fight did he understand this to be true.

Qortiko walked another kilometer before the familiar sound of trotting made him smile and take him from his bleak thoughts momentarily.

“It is over.” Qortiko told his camel.

The camel stared at him oddly and smacked its lips and laid down, allowing for Qortiko to mount him easily.

Qortiko’s supply of water was attached in a pack on the saddle which he gingerly took sips from.

When Qortiko reached his oasis home, the family was hard at work with the cactus farm and moving barrels of water or beer.

No one said anything about his torn and bleeding body nor his lack of piercings. To them, he had merely done his duty of protecting the home and they could exchange stories later. They carried on with their work while Qortiko found a bottle of their personal supply of cactus beer, popped it open and settled down by the water of the oasis, cooling off in the shade while drinking the bitter sweet desert brew and forgetting bad things.

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