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Aug 13, 2022 2:35 PM
An exile fails to die
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Taharqi feels like it is very unaesthetic for his last thoughts to be about how unaesthetic his last thoughts are, but so it goes.

He really didn't think this would be how he'd die. Executed in front of his compatriots to be made an example of, sure. Sent to exile to eventually just die of not having a civilisation around him, sure. But sent to exile and then nailed to a cross so that he'd die of exposure or being eaten by carrion birds is just adding insult to injury. And doesn't really make any sense, does it? If being exiled was a fate worse than death, as they always claimed, then why kill him at all? And if it is not, then why not just kill him in front of everyone so that he also serves as an example?

They want people to think that exile is worse than death, but they don't actually think it is, and they want to make sure he can't come back to stir shit up again, is what Taharqi thinks.

...kind of. Except it doesn't fit with the gods cursed magic bracelet he had previously just discounted as mad rumours. If the Kushite nobility had access to such sorcery, they surely would not use it just to trap prisoners.

Yet here he is.

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So he waits for death, not exactly patiently because have you met him, but quietly just the same. He knows there's not actually a point in trying to pull his hands free, he will just hurt himself further and bleed out.

(Which might not be so bad an idea, now that he thinks about it; why wait for death to take its sweet time in coming for him when he can jump into her embrace on his own terms.)

And so it is for being lost in contemplation that he fails to see the man walking towards him. He wouldn't have believed his eyes if he'd noticed it, anyway. Why would a random person be walking around a random patch of unmarked desert? Madness. A hallucination, at best. A mirage, though in his experience those tended to be more like "it looks like water in that direction" than a whole-ass hunk with an axe.

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    "Are you thirsty, dead man?" asks the hallucination of a whole-ass hunk with an axe, and all Taharqi can do is lift his head and stare. He's going crazy, he thinks. Or maybe this is death? He thought death would be a lady with the head of a jackal, not a - Cimmerian? why in the hells is death a Cimmerian? - guy in a ragged skirt. Not that he's complaining, he's rugged but not unpleasant to look at, and if Taharqi gets taken by this piece of meat to the rivers of the dead - "Shall I cut you down from that corpse tree?" the man says, interrupting Taharqi's thoughts entirely and jarring him back to the present.

"What?" he says, inanely, and the man snorts then takes a few steps closer before starting to use his whole body to push against the cross.

Which hurts like hell, he was not meant to be jerked around while attached by his hands and feet like that, but then the cross is tilting and falling and actually not being pulled down by gravity is much better for the state of his extremities w.r.t. nails.

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    "Where I come from," the man says, heedless of Taharqi's disorientation (and scream of pain) as he starts pulling the nails out, starting with Taharqi's right hand, "we kill our enemies in battle; we don't leave them in the desert to die like dogs." And he spits onto the sand in disgust.

Taharqi shivers violently but tries to hold himself still when the first nail comes clean through - moving too much will worsen the bleeding - and tries to process what's happening. Whole-ass hunk with an axe is real, is actually getting him out of the cross, and - for what? "Who are you?" he croaks, then tries to not let the coughs shake him too much. Dehydrated, right.

    "Conan," he replies, and then pulls and now Taharqi's other hand is free. "No other names. No need for those." And before moving to Taharqi's feet, he detaches a waterskin from his belt and drops some water into Taharqi's lips. He drinks greedily, and instinct causes him to try to sit up, which is a mistake he will not be making again anytime soon, especially given the way Conan snorts at him for it. "Don't move yet. Give me a moment."

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So Taharqi obeys, drinking as much water as he can and hating every drop that drips past his parched lips and down his chin, and once he's done he remains still while the Cimmerian uses some more water to wash Taharqi's hands.

    "I have poultice but it will only last you a day or two." Another bag attached to his waist, pat Taharqi's hands dry then apply the substance and bandage. And now to get the nail on Taharqi's feet and then do the same there. "So, you live again, dead man."

"Bit too soon to say, really," Taharqi manages, still lying motionless on the cross.

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    Conan snorts again and shakes his head, and when he's done with Taharqi's feet he stands back up. "You are not wrong. It might have been kinder to leave you on the cross."

"Ohhh no it would not, trust me on that." He dares to try to sit up, again, this time using his elbows rather than his hands for it.

   The Cimmerian's eyes alight on Taharqi's bracelet and he says, "That thing. Sorcery." He spits again. "It will not allow you to leave. Do not try. Or do, and die."

"I am well aware."

   "...so you are. Who are you, dead man?"

"No one. Not anymore. But you may as well call me Taharqi."

    "Kushite. I thought so."

Conan left the waterskin by a rock, so Taharqi reaches for it, careful not to move his hands too much, and drinks some more - drinks it empty. "I owe you my life."

    "You owe me nothing. I do only what any man with a drop of honour in his blood would, which means you will never find anyone else who'd do the same." He snorts, then detaches his axe from his belt - well, one of his axes, now that Taharqi's looking it seems he has two - and drops it next to Taharqi.

"You're going?"

    "I have given you your life back. You will seize it, or you will not. But you will have no more help of me. Let it be your test." He starts walking again, towards what now that Taharqi is less in the land of hallucinating from thirst turns out to be a horse. "I have a feeling we will meet again."

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Well. Okay.

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Taharqi's life is not, yet, saved. He will in fact die if he just stands around like an idiot. But trying to walk under the desert sun sounds like not the greatest of ideas on that front either.

Thankfully, this is a desert with... a bunch of weird ruins. 

...right, then. Probably those ruins behind the dead people will be best for shelter until the sun is lower.

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Before he's walked twenty steps (and what laborious steps they are, the stone is hot hot hot and his feet are not the best right now, what with the holes) the weird monolith-like thing to the right of the path lights up at the same time as the gem on his bracelet, bright green. A voice sounds from the stone, then, warped and high, almost painful to hear:

Behold, bonded one, the very boundaries of civilization! Beyond the passage of our highways lie the wild places of the world where untamed savages make endless war upon each other. You cannot pass into the endless wastes, enslaved. Your bonding prevents it. Return! Follow the road. Any road! All roads lead to the city.

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"...what in the Serpent's name," Taharqi says, staring at the fading light of the stone open-mouthed, but it does not repeat its message or reply. His eyes drop to his bracelet, which is likewise no longer lit up, and once again he wonders if he's going mad with dehydration and exposure.

Well he has a lot of meat in his body that will last him a while of not eating and he just drank some water, he should be fine for now. Waterskin in one hand and axe in the other, he hops over to the bits of ruins that look like they offer more shelter than this.

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He's not dripping with sweat when he gets there, because this is a desert and the water evaporates off his skin faster than that. Being completely naked is also not helping. That's the risk of deserts, is that you don't feel the way the water is leaving your body until it's too late.

But he was born and raised on a desert and he knows how to deal with them.

He looks for some grass, whose existence implies either underground water or frequent enough rain. He's betting on the latter, but since he has no tools to dig it'll have to be magic.

(There would be no way he would be able to survive here without magic. He came prepared, he knows there's a river to the north, he has a rough map of the Exiled Lands memorised, and the river is a good hundred kilometres away. That's several days' walk, especially if he only walks at night, and he would die of thirst first. He has no idea if Conan knew this but suspects not, and thinks that Conan may be kind of an idiot.)

The magic is simple enough. He pokes around the grass with the axe to make sure it's not hiding any scorpions or anything similar, and once he's satisfied with that he sits, places his waterskin strategically, and then starts folding leaves over each other then unfolding them back, in fairly precise patterns. He keeps doing that, over and over and over, without tiring, without pausing, without slowing, until eventually he can see thin water tendrils start to crawl up the leaves from the ground.

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By sundown, he's managed to fill his waterskin twice, and has collected enough plant matter to have something to do with his hands while he walks.

He gets up, dusts himself off, wraps the cord attached to the waterskin around his wrist, and starts walking.

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He's holding the axe with one hand while making repetitive movements with the other, squeezing some of the leaves he collected in sequence. It hurts like a bitch but he can feel (or he thinks he can feel) the hole slowly closing.

Come to think of it, Conan said that the salve he made was only going to last a day or two, which is another point for the "dude has no idea how durable victims of crucifixion in the middle of the desert are" theory. Taharqi is pretty sure most exiles who get crucified alive (and he's passed by more than a few skeletons hanging from stakes and crosses already) would in fact not know as much magic as he does. He specifically sought out all the hedge witches and herbalists he could find and paid unreasonable sums (not all of them in money) to be taught as much survival magic as he could find, in addition to what he was taught growing up. The healing spell he's invoking right now was one of the bought ones. He's also memorised some alchemical recipes for healing draughts but those will require the sort of plant that only grows around water, so he can't do anything here.

He's growing hungry faster than he otherwise would, though. The spell doesn't create energy from nothing, he's still healing using his own physical reserves; he's just faster about it. But he's not sure he'll have enough in him to fully heal without finding some food, and conversely if he gets too drained from this he might not have the energy to acquire food. And he has yet to see any cacti, which would have been his best bet for nourishment.

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He walks into the night, and of course it gets freezing. But that's better than melting, so he endures. When the sun is once again threatening the horizon, he finds a hole to slip into (after once again checking for venomous denizens) and lets himself sleep. Most things in the desert will be nocturnal, so he's not too concerned about wildlife. Worst case he does get stung by a scorpion which would be annoying but a combination of mundane and magical healing can take care of it and furthermore then he gets scorpion meat.

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The sun is not yet set when he wakes up again, but nor did he expect it to be. With the last hours of light to see by and some more collected grass he starts fashioning a harness on which to attach his axe so he doesn't have to keep holding onto it in his hand. After that he can go for a torch because while moonlight here is bright enough having a more local light source would be great.

And then onwards.

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His first lucky break comes in the form of a scream. It's not a human scream, but it's a scream nonetheless.

It doesn't look like a lucky break at first, though, because the source seems to be a fuckoff huge sandstorm.

This does not look like a normal sandstorm. It is too big, it is too wide, it is too tall, and most importantly the screams of the damned come from it which in Taharqi's experience is just not a thing that happens in sandstorms, at all.

He's naked, exposed, and there is an unnatural sandstorm coming his way from the west. He has perhaps five minutes to find shelter and even then he'll probably not get through it unscathed. If it's some kind of supernatural storm where the spirits of the dead will tear the flesh from his body, well, he's even less likely to get through it unscathed, but there's no point in dwelling so he'll get another hole.

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Now, you see, the way in which this is a lucky break is that apparently the storm does not have any ghosts or other forms of undead. At least that he can identify. With his back to the storm and a large piece of megastructural ruins to hold the brunt of it, what he sees running past these ruins is jackals. Evil-touched violent jackals foaming at the mouth, sure, but jackals.

(It's not just jackals, actually, but the things that are running past where he is are jackals.)

And the thing about jackals is that they're food.

After a few minutes' deliberation (and after confirming that the jackals don't seem to stop coming), he puts his waterskin down, grabs his axe, prepares to cover his face, and steps out into the storm.

All he needs is one good swing...

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All he needs is not one good swing.

So the thing about evil-touched violent jackals foaming at the mouth is that when you hit one, suddenly there are four of them (including the one you hit!) deciding to go against the grain of the storm to go after you. Which, really, he should have predicted, but somehow did not.

He retreats to his partial shelter, rolling out of the way of a swipe by one of them and keeping his back to the massive stone, making sure he has all of the animals within his field of view. The jackals don't keep still, seemingly jumping around at random to try (and mostly fail) to avoid getting hit by the sand. Which is very stupid of them, in Taharqi's opinion, but if the way they're balanced is extra evil to compensate for a lack of brains that just means he gets more food.

The first jackal to jump at him is the one he injured, and that one is easy to take down for good by just dodging at the right moment and letting its momentum drive its head onto the axe, slicing its skull - well, not clean through, it's not that sharp an axe, it's iron and seems to have seen its fair share of use, but nevertheless, organic matter was not meant to survive this.

It gets harder after that, though, as the other three start actually coordinating and trying to get him to let his guard down. Which is admittedly easier than it would've normally been, his reflexes are much duller and he's tired and weak from the lack of food and reduced access to water. One of the jackals gets a good swipe at his leg and another scratches his back deep enough he is not actually sure even his healing magic will be able to deal. But he gives as good as he takes, better even, and after a short while he's standing there, panting, surrounded by the bodies and the mixed blood in the sand.

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He waits a bit, still, tense and ready for any latecomers, but the other jackals seem content to ignore him and just follow the flow of the storm, and eventually he slides back down to a seat, groaning in pain from the strain.

After he thinks he's rested for long enough, he uses his axe to pull the bodies closer so they won't be too damaged by the storm. And then he starts undoing the bandages around his hands and feet - yeah, mostly healed now, his skin is still not entirely fixed and he can see the angry red of the underlying tissue but he's got worse problems right now. Mostly he wants to recover the poultice Conan made - it smells disgusting but beggars can't be choosers - and eat it.

It, of course, also tastes disgusting, but that's not the point. After he's eaten all of it, he also cleans some of the jackal blood from his axe into a finger and then licks it clean. This would work best if one of the jackals were still alive -

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- one of them is alive! Kind of. Breathing raggedly and bleeding out slowly, but that'll do just nicely.

He brings that one closer (it ineffectually tries to claw at him), mutters a prayer to Set, then slices its chest open and pulls on its ribs until he can see its weakly-beating heart. He rips it out with his bare hands (which is annoyingly difficult, it's almost like muscles are not built to be easily broken), drinks the blood from it until it's only dripping slowly, and then gets to eating it raw.

(At least it tastes better than the salve.)

This is not the actual worst thing that he's ever had to do in the name of survival and, even though by the end of it his stomach is complaining about toxic foreign objects and he's having to fight his heaving instincts, he's satisfied to note that the wounds on his back and leg no longer sting, and underneath the blood his hand is actually almost completely fine, tender pink skin covering intact muscle and tendons.

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When that's all done, he moves on to more practical matters. Axes are not the best at doubling for skinning knives but this will have to do, and he methodically separates the hide from the meat and bone.

(Sometimes a jackal or two from the storm stops and turns to look in his direction and growl menacingly, but when he growls back, face and hand covered in blood, they back off and resume their stampede. He thinks at least part of the reason is residual divine magic marking him as a proper threat that their dumb brains can understand.)

Entrails are mostly useless, except the livers are very very good and will be kept. Meat is good, obviously, but so is bone, he can make some great arrows from bone for later. Chop chop separate everything out, useless entrails get dumped into a hole and covered in sand, until he's done and now just waiting the storm out.

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It keeps up well into the night, and Taharqi decides this will probably be it in terms of walking for tonight. Not a bad trade, all in all, the jackals were weirdly thin for how ferocious they were and their meat is stringy and hard, but there were still four of them, and he even got one to count as a bonus sacrifice to Set to speed up his healing. This will make getting to the river much less dangerous.

And it does indeed turn out to only be a little while before sunup that the storm starts thinning out (long after, actually, the pack of evil jackals is past), and by the time the wind is once again sufficiently reduced that Taharqi is willing to start a fire the first rays of light are already threatening the horizon. Dry grass, wood he needs to go out in the sun to gather, bark he can use to dry the meat he is not going to eat just yet. He wishes he could make better use of the hide but he does not have anywhere near the time or the materials for this, and just carrying animal skin around in hopes he'll be able to make use of it by the time he gets to greener land would be a dumb idea. For now, what he'll do is let the skin dry in the sun (after making sure to shave off all of the extra fat and meat) and use it as temporary cover from the cold for later. It'll eventually rot off, but oh well, it's only a couple more days of walking.

He eats what parts of the meat he's planning to, drinks some of the water he spent most of the night magicking up, leaves the rest of the meat to get bark-dried, and goes to sleep.

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The following nights are much less eventful on the whole. No more talking monuments, no more wicked sandstorms, he does make some use of the bones and wood to create some makeshift arrows and bow that he never gets to use because he crosses paths with no more animals, and he's entirely run out of food by the time he thinks he's about to get to the river. He almost wants to sprint but tells himself it would be horrendously stupid to die just as he gets to the river because he ran himself ragged and could not defend himself against some threat.

It had not occurred to him that one of the forms "some threat" could take would be... uh...

...what the fuck even is that?

The creature, looking from this distance like it could be about twice as tall as him while standing up, seems hunched over something, rustling and shifting as if it's... eating something.

Whatever that something is, Taharqi wants it to remain not-him, so he tries quietly shuffling away to the side, keeping the thing well within his sight in case he needs to make a run for it...

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But something, his smell or a noise he makes or something, alerts the creature to his presence. It stretches upright and turns around to look at him, eyes glowing in the night like a cat's, and roars like a lion before extending its arms to the side and taking flight using the membranes connecting its arms to its torso as wings.

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Taharqi froze the moment the creature noticed him and readied himself for combat or, or something, but the thing just fled and flew off into the distance.

It's dark. He couldn't quite see. But those wings, and its outline, and what little he could see of it's face...

...it looked like a frankly gigantic demonic bat.

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Once he's certain the thing is gone for good, he cautiously approaches the ruins it was perched on, ready to bolt at the first sign of necessity.

Instead, what he finds is the corpse of a man, looking like it's been there for several days at least, maybe weeks, going by the rate of putrefaction (which is admittedly not that high, in the desert). The man was wearing clothes, proper clothes, even somewhat armoured. Taharqi is beginning to guess being nailed to a cross naked might have been an exception rather than the rule; maybe other exiles are sent with more resources than he had, some way to survive, or something.

Regardless. Clothes are something he desperately wants, right now, in the unforgiving sun in the day and relentless cold of the night. He's used to robes that allow for more freedom of movement, but being protected from the elements at all here would be great.

While he diverts the corpse of its belongings, he notices a leather bag with a journal inside. He'll keep both, and see if he can find anything of interest in the journal, at least for a bit, before resuming his walk.

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