Camon woke long before sunrise. He gathered his things in the room and prepared for the flight to the East that they would be taking shortly. He left his room and knocked on Achara’s door, who opened it and was already dressed and ready to go.
“I didn’t expect you to be ready,” Camon said.
“I woke up and couldn’t go back to sleep, so I figured I’d just get up and get ready,” she replied.
“Good thing. Let’s get moving.”
They went downstairs and out into the courtyard where Camon had parked the cart the day before. The air was crisp and still and the moons were bright in the cloudless desert sky. Camon brought out all the horses and hitched the cart to Tangmaw, then tied a lead rope to Tangmaw and saddled Appon. Achara saddled Soam all the while, then they mounted and set out onto the street. They met up with the avenue leading down to the plaza, then through the plaza where the vendors at the market were getting their wares set up for before the plaza got busy. They trotted towards the east gate, which was now open. They slipped out of the city with hardly an acknowledgment of their presence.
About a mile out of the city, Camon picked up the pace to almost a canter. They maintained this pace for the better part of the early morning as they watched the sun come up and turn the sky from indigo to azure. Near midmorning, they stopped alongside the road and ate some food and waited until the road was deserted in both directions for as far as they could see. When the opportunity came, they turned southwest, going cross country through the scrublands. The terrain was generally flat but rocky. Where plants didn’t cover the ground, loose gravel or large boulders did. The passage was not difficult for the two riders and their horses, but Tangmaw had to contend with scrub that grew close together, dips in terrain, and large rocks. The larger, wider, more rugged wheels did help ease some of this as they went on. Progress was slow but steady. Near mid-afternoon, they came to the southbound highway out of the West Watch. They stopped again for some food and drink, and Camon checked the cart and tied down any loose items.
“From here, it’s all cross country until we find the path,” Camon said. “That will be about two or three days to the west. We should pass well south of the West Watch.”
Camon and Achara remounted their horses and set out again, this time due west across the scrublands. The passage was slow as before. They stopped shortly after sunset and made a camp. The horses foraged from the surrounding plants while Achara and Camon ate a small meal. They did not light a fire. Even so, the light of the moons was more than enough to see their way around the encampment. They slept peacefully under the open sky, each one taking a watch for half the night.
Early the next morning, as Camon was finishing his watch, Achara was awakened by the sound of a flock of quail taking off. They saw the quails fly up out of the scrub to the east of the encampment as if they had been scared. Camon shot to attention when he heard it. Achara took a minute to gain her composure, but as soon as she saw Camon’s attentive state, she became vigilant.
“Any way you could get eyes on whatever caused that?” Camon asked.
“I’ll try…” Achara said. She sat on the ground and started her focus to get some sort of idea what caused the quails to scurry. She probed several nearby animals, including a field mouse, a small kit fox, then one of the quail that was spooked. It was now circling above its nest below. Achara watched it as it darted back and forth overhead trying to pick out whatever had scared the birds. She saw the fox nearby from the quail, and then she broke her link with the bird.
“I think it was a small fox bothering some roosting quails,” she said.
Camon sighed, then stood up. As he did, he heard the “thwock” of a crossbow and a bolt whiz past his head. He dropped prone immediately.
“I don’t think that was a fox unless foxes know how to shoot crossbows,” he commented.
He crawled over to the cart and got behind it, then stood and reached inside. As he did, he heard another crossbow, and this time the bolt thudded in the side of the cart. Camon ducked, then stood up again and grabbed the two crossbows that he had taken off the bandits near Kankahkoh, a quiver of bolts, and his sword. He loaded both of the crossbows and crawled prone back over to Achara and gave her half of the bolts.
“Those shots came from the east. Do you know how to use one of these things?” he asked.
“Better than you do,” she said with a smile.
“I hope so. I’ve never shot one in my life,” he said. “We need a diversion to flank them. I think I know just the thing.”
Camon picked up a small stone and held it in his hands and started chanting. As he did, the stone started pulsing, and occasionally it would shake in Camon’s hand.
“What are you doing with that,” Achara asked.
“Using it as a focusing stone,” Camon said. “The difference is that this is a common rock. Doing so causes it to become unstable, and if I throw it, it will make a small explosion. It’s not enough to do any damage, but it will get their attention.”
Camon chanted a little longer while the stone was shaking back and forth in his hand now more violently, and with that, Camon lobbed it towards the source of the bolts. When it hit the ground, it released a loud pop. Camon then heard the crossbows go off again, and then he stood and darted behind a boulder to the south of their position nearby. He then crawled on his belly more than fifty yards to another boulder southeast of where he was before, then he got up on the boulder and peered out. He could see Achara on the ground near the cart to the northwest, and then he saw the source of the bolts. There were two men, one lying atop another boulder about sixty yards towards the northeast and the other nearby low to the ground trying to flank from the north side. Camon signaled Achara and pointed towards both men. Camon then leveled his crossbow and fired at the man on the rock nearby. The shot went low, striking the boulder below the man. He slid back off the boulder out of site.
The other man stood and ran towards the cart, and Achara saw him. She leveled her crossbow, took aim, and fired. The shot was true, catching the man in the neck. He fell to the ground instantly. Both Camon and Achara reloaded their crossbows. Camon signaled Achara to go north towards the man she just shot, so she got low and worked her way around to that position. Camon retreated about twenty yards to the south with his weapon up, trying to get a bearing on the second man. He worked his way more east, keeping low and checking his rear. He then spotted the man again who was coming straight at him.
Camon stood up and leveled the crossbow again and fired. The bolt flew wide of the man as he dashed away. He then heard another crossbow shot, then saw the man drop as a bolt caught him in the back of the knee. He looked north, and he saw Achara standing with her weapon still pointed at the man. She lowered it as they both rushed over to him. He was crawling on the ground when they got to him, trying to escape. Camon removed his sword as he got closer. When they got next to the man, Camon tossed the crossbow aside and put his sword to the man’s back. “Don’t move,” he commanded.
The man stopped crawling and placed his hands out in front of him. “Please…” he pleaded.
“Who are you?” Camon demanded.
“Nobody. Just a mercenary,” the man said.
“Who hired you?”
“He wouldn’t say.”
“At least tell us your mission,” Camon demanded again.
“He said get the girl and get her alive,” the man said. “He said he didn’t care if you were dead or alive. Please, that’s all I know.”
“Check him,” Camon said to Achara. Achara patted the man down, looking for weapons or anything else of note. She found some coins, a few daggers, some crossbow bolts, and an amulet.
“And your partner, who was he?” Camon demanded again.
“Just another mercenary like me,” he said.
“How did you find us?” Camon inquired further.
“We had staked you out in the Watch,” the man said. “After you left, we tracked you east. When we didn’t catch up to you, we went back and looked for where you might have gotten off the road, and we found your tracks which we followed through the night.”
“The man who hired you… what did he look like?” Camon asked.
“He was an oily, little man. Bald in all black. He spoke strangely,” the man said. “Look, I don’t know who he is or what his business with you is. All I know is he wanted the girl.”
“And your timeline?” Camon asked
“He didn’t care, as long as we delivered,” the man said.
Camon removed the sword from the man’s back and put it back in its scabbard. “Keep an eye on him,” he said to Achara. “I’ll be back in just a minute.” Camon went back to the wagon and got some liquor, rags, and bandages and went back to the man. He knelt beside him. “Stay still,” he commanded the man on the ground. “This is going to hurt.” Camon poured liquor around the wound on the back of the man’s knee, then gripped the bolt firmly and pulled it out. The man let out a scream that echoed across the plain. Camon then took a bandage and immediately placed it on the man’s wound, holding it firmly in place. He took out one of his stones and started chanting. The man’s injury stopped bleeding rather quickly, then Camon ripped the man’s pants leg back and placed a clean bandage over the wound.
The man looked back over his shoulder in astonishment. “What are you? Some kind of priest?” the man asked. “It doesn’t even hurt anymore.”
“Something like that. The wound is cauterized and disinfected, but the damage to your knee is something else. You’re not going to be using the leg for a long time,” Camon said. “Now stay put, or I will have her put another crossbow bolt in you.”
Camon gestured towards Achara, and the two walked a short distance away from the man.
“Shades,” Camon cursed. “I kind of wish you had killed him.”
“Because killing someone is good?” Achara asked.
“Killing in battle is one thing, but letting someone die is another. This puts us in a bind. There’s no way he can make it back to anyone who can help him in his condition. He would die of exposure, thirst, or eaten by some animal out here. If we leave him to his vices, then his death is on us. We either have to take him with us or take him back to some place that can help him.”
“If you take him back to a place where someone can help him,” Achara said. “He will be able to report back to whoever hired him where we are headed, well at least what direction we are headed. He knows we tried to backtrack for deception. And we’ll be doing this same song and dance in a few days, but probably against more than two men.”
“And if we take him with us, we risk exposing the library and its secrecy,” Camon said. “Moreover, I didn’t plan provisions for three people, only two.” Camon sighed, and there was a long moment of silence between him and Achara.
“We could just tell him where we are going,” Achara suggested. “Conventional wisdom says that a journey into the Pustos Wastelands is a one-way trip. If we take him back to somewhere like a village and tell him that, then he will think we are crazy, and when he tells whoever hired him, whoever he is, will not be able to find anyone who in their right mind who would follow us there.”
“That’s a risky gambit, but I like the idea of finding a nearby village,” Camon said. “If we take him with us, we could get supplies enough to make the trip. But I fear that these aren’t the only two he hired. If he wants you bad enough, he likely dispatched multiple teams to find us. Any presence near one of the outlying villages puts us at risk.”
“I wonder if he is our tracker?” Achara said.
“The description he gave sounds like the guy Behar mentioned back in Rahtneua,” Camon said.
“That seems like eons ago. But why now? Why choose the West Watch to strike? If it is the same person, he’s followed us across the Empire.”
“I don’t know,” Camon said. “And what interest does he have with you?”
“I wish I knew,” she said. “So, what’s our plan?”
Camon shrugged, “I don’t know. I think we might be able to forage for some food. With your aim, you could probably snag us a few of those quails. By the way, where did you learn to shoot like that? It was impressive!”
“I learned it while I was living on the streets with the gang before I went into the orphanage. They taught me all kinds of stuff about small arms.”
“Remind me never to get in a duel with you then. There’s a water source along the way where I plan to fill up our casks. He should have a canteen or waterskin of his own somewhere, and maybe some provisions.”
“So you plan to take him with us then,” Achara inferred.
“Yes, that’s the best I can think of. I plan on blindfolding him, though, so he doesn’t learn the path.”
“A prisoner. This is going to be fun,” she commented.
“Well, let’s try to stay optimistic,” Camon said. “It’s our best chance of not running into any more of his ilk.”
With that, Camon walked back over to the man. “Do you have a name?” Camon asked.
“Jorn,” the man said.
“Well, Jorn. It looks like you’re going to be our prisoner. Given that you can’t run, I don’t have to worry much about you trying to get away. But we can’t be too sure.”
“Where are you going?” Jorn asked.
“Southwest into the Pustos Wastelands,” Camon smirked.
“You can’t take me there!” the man objected. “That’s a one-way trip! I’d just assume die trying to get back to The Watch or somewhere else than die out there!”
“Well, that’s where we’re going. And since I won’t leave you here to die, it looks like you have no choice in the matter. But if you want to kill yourself, then that’s your prerogative.”
“Do you have a horse?” Camon asked. “Any provisions? A water skin, perhaps?”
“No horses. Just gear,” Jorn said. He pointed east, “About two hundred yards that way you’ll find where we dropped it.” Camon went over and searched for their gear and he found two packs. He brought them back and placed them in the cart. While at the cart, Camon got a piece of rope and tied Jorn’s hands and legs, who was cursing Camon all the while. Camon then picked him up and carried him back to the wagon and placed him in the back. Camon then went and inspected Jorn’s companion’s body and found a few coins and a few knives. After doing so, he buried the corpse. Achara used the crossbow and was able to score a few quails, which they cleaned. By the time they started back, it was midmorning. With the battle behind them, the trek west seemed to pick up speed, making haste to get ahead of any trouble that may be following them.