Cora had forgotten how unforgiving the sun in the middle of the Lost Desert was. It shone down on her back, bent with the weight of her knapsack and the effort to keep the tiny cactus blossom in her hands out of the scorching sun. It was just a baby cactus blossom, after all. With each step, she drug a scaly green foot through the scorching sand, glad that she had grown up under and was used to the fiery Sakhmetian sun, and that her armored exterior protected her from burns other pets would bear after walking half a day on the blistering desert sand.
Being a messenger of Princess Amira certainly had its perks. She tortured her dry throat and aching back with the thought of large banquets with light, crunchy Sakhmetian Grapes and refreshing Sakhmetian Brew, which could quench any thirst and was Princess Amira’s favorite for the elegant design of the cup it came in. The hall would be bustling with pets from other lands. Koi and Flotsams from Maraqua, Kacheeks from Neopia Central, and even Myncies from as far away as Mystery Island. To a young Ruki who had never been out of Sakhmet, these places were the lands from the books she had read as a child. It was hard for her to imagine them as real places. Especially Terror Mountain, from where the guests of honor of last week’s banquet had come. They had told her about temperatures so cold one had to wear a heavy coat at all times. Cora had read of that, but had thought it was just a fascinating and creative faerie tale.
That was why when Princess Amira asked her to travel to Altador to bring King Altador a cactus blossom in exchange for his generous gift of Altadorian Nectar at last week’s banquet, she jumped at the chance. But she was growing very fond of the cactus blossom. The more she cradled it in her hands and protected it from the sun, the more she wished she didn’t have to give it to King Altador to eat.
She brushed one hand against the Ruki Dagger at her side. There were strange creatures and even bandits that would love to get their hands on the neopoints in her knapsack.
Her head was getting heavy. She had been walking the better part of the day, and the sun was beginning to get to her. The two glass bottles of water that knocked against each other in her knapsack with small clinks weren’t going to last her the whole journey; she could tell that much. One of them was almost finished. She yelled at herself for not bringing the third bottle, for overestimating her own stamina and strength.
To either side of her she could see towering mountains with snow on the top. This was the farthest she had been into the desert and the closest she’d ever been to snow. She marveled at how something cold could survive in this sweltering heat, and decided she would like to be a pile of snow. Or at least play in one. She thought about clambering up the mountainside to see snow, but she knew her business and the importance of the cactus she held in her hands. Even though she wished King Altador wasn’t going to eat the cute little thing. The slender green of its stalk and perfection of the five pink flowers that grew out of it made her heart melt like chocolate in the hot desert sun. Cora stopped in her tracks and turned as if to go back home. She couldn’t give this helpless plant to King Altador. She opened her knapsack and took another sip of water. The first bottle was now one swig away from empty. There was no way for her to get to Altador on one bottle of water.
“It represents the friendship between two nations,” Princess Amira had told her before her journey, placing the tiny blossom in Cora’s hands with care. “Treat it as you would a personal friendship. Guard it at all costs.”
Cora would not risk a friendship, including the one she shared with Princess Amira, by refusing the orders given to her. She would just have to drink and think about the poor cactus’s fate less.
One hour and no water later, Cora’s head was pounding and her throat felt like she had swallowed a burnt Scarab Cookie whole. She had no saliva left to swallow. Still, she pressed on. She would wait another hour until she took a drink. That would be a drink every two hours, which might leave her enough water to get to Altador. She kept her back bent to cast a shadow over the cactus blossom, and kept her eyes on the sand in front of her feet so she couldn’t see the endless expanse of sand in front of her. Maybe she could tell King Altador that the cactus blossom was meant as a decorative gift. She hoped he had an empty vase laying around.
The force of the blow made Cora hit the ground hard. She felt all the wind go out of her lungs, but clung to the cactus blossom. She grabbed for her Ruki Dagger, but it was missing. She tried to get up, but her muscles were limp with dehydration and she still couldn’t breathe, which made her panicky. She cursed herself for not looking where she was going and leaving herself open for attack. Her breath returned slowly and she took gulps of air, as big as she could manage. She thought she saw a swirl of fabric against the sand--or was it her own shadow? Her eyes were closing too fast and her thinking was too muddled to let her get a good look.
Cora woke. The sand was cool beneath her. Without opening her eyes, she decided night must have fallen. She knew she should get up and try to find some shelter beside a sand drift, as the desert was even more dangerous at night than during the day. She rolled over and a sharp pain shot through her cheek.
“Ow!” She opened her eyes and found that she was bleeding. She had rolled into a piece of glass and cut her cheek enough to draw blood. She held her hand to her face and saw from the pieces of glass scattered next to her that her bottle of water had broken when she had been attacked.
The fear and frustration made her throat close as if it had swollen shut. She knew her pack and neopoints were gone. There was no way she would make it to Altador or back home without any water. She would fry and then so would the cactus blossom.
She noticed the desert around her was still bathed in full daylight except right around where she was sitting. She looked up and gasped, stunned. Towering above her was the cactus blossom she had been cradled in her hands before. She followed its wide stem down to the ground with her eyes and saw that it led into a puddle. A little further away, she could see pieces of broken glass that belonged to the bottle of water she had been carrying. In the heat and on top of the porous sand, the puddle should have evaporated almost instantly. Yet it had not.
Cora gazed up at the gigantic cactus blossom, trying to decide if she was seeing things. She tapped the cactus’s green stalk. It didn’t seem to be a mirage. She dug her fingernail into the plant’s flesh. It gave way and her fingernail came back with a little green underneath it. Cora sat next to the cactus blossom and waited for help to arrive. Preferably with a large wagon.