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The Quarz Soldier
“Hidden in the Quarz Desert lies not an oasis of water but a lie that gives hope to life only to take it away soon after.”
Jess took the last sip of water from her canteen, then pulled up her cloth to cover her face and protect against the dust. She walked towards an older woman who was travelling in the same group and who, like Jess, was slacking a bit behind the rest of the party.
“Excuse me, hi,” Jess said with a still parched voice, tapping the woman on the shoulder, “would you have some water you could share, by chance?”
“Of course,” the woman gracefully handed Jess her canteen. She took in Jess’s loose tunic and black pants, the thin cloth wrapped around her face to protect against the dust, and commented, “By the way, loose, airy, bright colored clothing would have been more suitable for the sunny trek.”
“Lila, we don’t have water to hand out like that,” a man wrapped in white, walking a bit ahead of the woman, shouted back, clearly annoyed. Another man in brown grunted.
Lila rolled her eyes. “I see you two finally have something you agree on,” she replied before turning back to Jess, “Don’t mind them, youngin’. But what are you doing on the way to Quarz? You don’t seem to be from around here.”
“You’ve got keen eyes, Lila — is it?” Jess started, friendly. “I’m Jess, a journalist looking to write something about the Quarz Soldier. I live in Yeren, which is a lot more forest than sand and a better match for a tunic and pants. I guess I didn’t do enough preparation before coming here.”
“Oh, what a coincidence! We’re actually looking for the Quarz Soldier ourselves.”
The man grunted again. Jess surveyed him from the corner of her eyes. He seemed to keep his distance from everyone else, walking with purpose, not looking back but surely, keenly, listening in to the conversation.
“Don’t mind Simon. He likes his space and maybe grunts a bit too much around new people.”
“Did you say you’re a journalist?” the man in white walked back towards Jess this time.
“Mik! Your manners!” Lila scolded him, slapping his arm, almost like a mother would a child.
“That’s quite alright,” Jess said, giving a small laugh. “Yes, I write for the National Query.”
His eyes seemed to sparkle. The National Query was distributed at all the major cities in the country. News articles were deemed credible, no questions asked, conspiracy theories had slightly more standing, and people they wrote about were deemed celebrities. She could tell: Mik knew.
“Have you heard of the Treasure hunter Michael Lorrez?”
Jess frowned. “I’m sorry — first time. Would that be you?”
Mik cursed. “That lying piece of… He said he would write an article about me.” He offered Jess a pitch. “How does this sound: an article about the treasure hunter who discovered the Quarz Soldier’s gem.”
Jess smiled. “If I can see it with my own eyes, I would be honored. Especially given that the Quarz Soldier is still much unfound. It would rise to quite the fame.”
“Actually, youngin’,” Mik imitated Lila, “it’s just kept under wraps.”
Simon grunted a third time, again not looking back at the chatty party. Jess knew she would have to keep an eye on him. He may become troublesome.
The group proved to be more useful than she originally anticipated. Mik knew the way through the desert as if it were his personal backyard. Before long, they fell so behind the crowd that no one noticed four travellers’ disappearance. Soon the wispy sand behaved, hills became stable, dust no longer flew into her eyes, and grass began to sparsely appear. Grass — yes — but its green lived but a moment. Only short, yellow, dried stalks peeked from the ground.
It was exactly as the stories said. The sand would lose its freedom, and life would lose its glow. And within the blighted area lay the Quarz Soldier’s gem if you dared to seek it.
Some people believed that the gem was magic, that if they held the artifact, they held the power. It took life; therefore, it could give. Some believed that the gem was cursed, that it drew life to it as people were drawn to the mystery. It took but would never give. Others simply wanted riches. Many would pay a hefty price to own it.
And Mik had led them to the front door of the gem’s den. Yet he didn’t stop there. He continued navigating the barren land, Lila close behind him, reminding him to slow down and not exert too much energy in the heat, offering food and water to keep him refreshed.
Jess had thought that Lila was his mother.
“No, no,” she laughed, “my children would never turn out like these mischiefs. Mik there would cut down anyone who gets in his way. If he were my son, I’d cut him down first — make him a better man. He won’t listen though, but he knows how to appreciate someone’s effort. He doesn’t take care of himself enough, and I miss taking care of my own son, so I guess we two puzzle pieces just match.”
“What is your son doing?”
Lila smiled sadly. “He’s in the skies, probably watching over me since my husband left after beating him to death — accidentally!” she reassured Jess. Jess knew that accidents like that do not happen, but she did not pry. The information would not aid her anyways.
“May the gods help him,” Jess offered customary condolences. She eyed Simon taking up the rear. His brown cloak covered him entirely but seemed to fall flat on his left side. Simon returned her gaze, focused and ready to pounce at any second.
Lila patted her back, urging Jess back to the front. “Don’t mind Simon. He means well.”
“You say that a lot.”
Lila laughed. “Perhaps to others, I do. He’s kept us safe throughout the years, so I will always vouch for him. He was a war veteran, you know — lost an arm when he decided to throw back an enemy grenade. Then they kicked him out because he wasn’t 100%.”
He would know how to fight. Jess filed that information away. Staying away from him would likely be a smart choice.
“And there we have it, boys and girls, the Quarz Soldier,” Mik announced. The sand piled up into a small hill, some parts seemed stable enough to hold a climber while other parts looked like it would collapse with the wind. At the top of the hill lay a platform of rocks, perhaps a basic statue.
“That’s not a soldier,” Lila pointed out.
“Idiot,” Mik chided. “You think the soldier would be holding the gem as he died? He kept it hidden here, on this little mountain.”
“Alright.” Lila brought up her hands in defense. “Do you know exactly where this soldier kept his valuables? Or where do you want to start looking? The top seems like a good idea.”
“Journalist with me. We’ll scale to the top. You two check the perimeter to see if there are any hidden entrances and passageways.”
Simon grunted in disapproval.
“Got something to say, mate?”
“Hey now,” Lila stopped Mik, “we’ll do it. Meet back down here in two hours.”
Mik smiled and turned to begin the ascent, Jess close behind. She turned back once to see where Lila and Simon were headed, and she saw Simon was still looking at her from below.
Mik did not disappoint. He knew exactly where the gem was hidden and how to get there. The easiest route to the top platform was through a winding path, past a seemingly “dead-end” that just required the traveller to climb a short distance to the higher ledge. The top platform had various chests made of stone to hide valuables, but the gem lay under a random slab of stone by the northern corner.
He moved the stone and plucked the gem out of the dusty crevice meant just for the gem. He laughed, showing it to Jess.
“See here: the Quarz Soldier’s gem — now mine.” His smile widened as he showed her. He likely thought of his lavish future, believing he now had both money and fame once she wrote an article about him. His eyes were so focused on the gem and its vibrant red and green colors that Jess was easily able to hit the pressure point on his neck. His eyes widened before closing, his body fell to the ground with a thump, and the gem slipped from his grip.
“Gods, he’s an idiot.” Jess shook her head as she picked up the gem and inspected it. She didn’t believe in the rumors that said the gem was magic. She was much uninterested in the item and its rumored abilities, but she did accept a job, and that job paid handsomely.
She turned the gem in her fingers and saw that the colors remained unmoving. She held it against the sun and did not see a gleam, so she threw it to the ground.
The man was not entirely wrong. All her sources led to a hill with a stone platform atop it, the gem hidden within the hill. Perhaps there were secret tunnels below her. It would not be a surprise since this hill was able to support a stone platform at the top.
“You can have your gem,” she told Mik as she found another path to descend the hill. Jess saw no possible entry points on their way up with Mik’s path. She needed to check if there were any on other routes. If none, perhaps Lila and Simon would have been lucky and found an entrance from the bottom perimeter.
Jess did not find anything on her way down, but she saw the other two travellers waiting for her at the bottom.
“Jess!” Lila exclaimed when she saw her, happiness visible in her eyes until she noticed a party was missing. “Where’s Mik?”
Jess frowned. “A stone collapsed on his leg while we were searching. We couldn’t get it off, so he told me to come down and fetch Simon to help.”
“Of course he’s careless.” Lila shook her head.
“He also asked if you two found the gem.”
“And of course that is what he cares about the most.” Lila sighed, patting the bag along her side. “Well, let’s go tell him we did.”
Jess hoped it was the real gem, but she would have to check. “Oh, can I have a look? I’d love to see.”
Simon grunted again, but Lila shushed him, digging the gem out of her bag to give Jess. She gave an excited gasp as she thought they would expect it from her. As she turned the stone in her fingers, the reds and greens moved with the motion. She held it to the light, and the colors gleamed brighter. Satisfied, she handed the gem to Lila. She couldn’t take it now. They were more familiar with and equipped for the desert.
Jess commented, “I’m actually a bit tired from the climb up and down. I’d like to wait down here. Could you keep me company, Lila?”
She smiled. “Sure, just give the gem to Simon though. Mik would want to see it once Simon goes up.”
Jess turned to Simon with the gem outstretched. As he reached to grab it, Jess attacked his neck with her free hand. But Simon knew how to react. His arm blocked her first blow, his leg her follow-up kick.
“Jess!” Lila screamed.
Jess tucked the gem into her shirt as she moved to make space between her and Simon. She could not simply run. Simon would catch her. She had the advantage of two arms though, she hoped. She ran towards him, striking with her palms, aiming for the nose, the jaw, the soft tissues of the face, kneeing his stomach, kicking his sides and his ankles, sending him off-balance by aiming at his lower body.
But Simon had experience. He pivoted, blocked her strikes deftly with one hand, dodging other attacks, stepping back and jumping so her knees wouldn’t reach. He pushed back for the offensive, attacking with one arm, bringing his whole body to slam her. It took Jess by surprise, and she slumped to the ground, her opponent atop her.
A few of his punches connected until Jess managed to grab his arm and return the blows. She head-butted his jaw and used the sudden shock to roll them around. She kept him to the ground as she kicked his sides. She brought a fist with the weight of her body down on his head to knock him out.
Simon spasmed momentarily until he lay motionless. Jess let go of his limp arm and watched it fall to make sure he was not acting. Once satisfied, she turned to Lila who was watching, wide eyed in horror. She didn’t know how to fight. Her body told as much.
Jess walked to her as Lila stepped backwards, uncertain, shaking.
“Why?” she uttered.
“Sorry. I just had a job to do. They’ll wake up, don’t worry.”
“Are you going to knock me out too?”
Jess stopped in her tracks at the question, thoughtful. Normally she took out everyone involved, usually they were guards on duty to protect. But something about this generous, helpless woman made her think for a second.
“No,” she decided, smiling, “just tell them not to follow me. I won’t be holding this for long anyways.”
Jess turned away from Lila, planning her way back to the city — she just had to retrace their steps. She remembered the general direction.
“Is your name even Jess?” Lila asked out of the blue. Jess had adopted many names and pretended to be many people in her life, so much so that she no longer had a name she considered hers. Perhaps she could take an adopted name this time.
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