The next several days into their trek across the desert, Camon and Achara had gotten used to the routines of the day. They would wake up in the morning and take care of the horses, check the supplies, and take care of anything that needed cleaning, mending, or sorting. The task of foraging had primarily been fulfilled by hunting small game with Achara’s skill with a crossbow coming in handy. She was able to track and bag a few birds, which was usually enough to last for a couple of days. The trek across the desert had continued southwest. They deviated from this course as little as possible and traveled as much as was permitted by the daylight with little time for rest. Jorn rode with a sack over his head, continually complaining about his treatment and the rough conditions of his ride. He bounced all over the place when the cart would go over a rock or into a rut, which made the ride miserable.
Finally, after five days into the trek, they came across the path the Camon had been looking for. It was midmorning when they arrived. The track was hardly noticeable, overgrown with shrubs, and washed out in places from torrential springtime rains. It was only a few feet wide and barely enough for even the small cart to fit on, but to the observant rider, it was not hard to follow either.
“This should take us to the Kelubehn Salt Flat, which goes right up to the Seedeng Mesa,” Camon said. “We follow the base of it west until we get to an obscured ramp hidden in a crevasse. That will allow us access to the top, where we will journey for another day atop the mesa until we get to the library.”
“This path doesn’t look any more navigable than the terrain we’ve been crossing,” Achara said.
“It’s an old mining road that was used centuries ago when caravans used to go down to the flats to harvest minerals. It will lead us to some old ruins on the side of the flats, which also has a water source for us. The next one we should reach today because there’s not another one between here and there, and it will take us the better part of a month to get there.”
“Thus, the reason for all the casks,” Achara inferred.
“Exactly,” Camon said.
Jorn then spoke up, “Where there’s no water, you’re not going to find any game to forage.”
“Shut up,” Achara barked. “No one asked you!”
“He does have a point,” Camon noted.
“Listen, take this bag off my head, and I can show what plants you can and can’t eat,” he offered. “You can forage them. They will keep longer than meat anyway.”
“How do you know about the desert?” Camon asked.
“I grew up in The Watch,” he said. “I’ve made half a dozen round trips across the desert to the west escorting caravans. I know this area and its flora.”
“How do we know you won’t try and poison us?” Achara said.
“Listen, if you die, I die. It’s pretty much that simple. I’m not getting out of here alive unless you do. So, it’s in my best interest to make sure you live.”
“That’s also a good point,” Camon said.
“Yeah,” Achara mumbled. “I just don’t trust him.”
“What does your sense tell you about his intent?” Camon asked.
“That he’s not lying to us,” she admitted.
“I don’t blame you,” Camon said. With that, Camon dismounted and walked over to Jorn and snatched the bag off his head. Jorn blinked in the bright sun coming down. After his eyes adjusted, he popped his head up and tried to sit up in the wagon.
“How’s the leg?” Camon asked.
“It hurts,” Jorn retorted. “What do you expect? Riding in the back of this cart doesn’t help matters.”
“Listen, I can’t carry you, and you can’t walk,” Camon said. “I am going to put you on a horse.” Camon then helped Jorn out of the wagon and over to his horse. Using the prisoner’s good leg, Camon helped him mount the horse. “If you attempt to flee, I will have her put a bolt in you as she did already. And believe me, she won’t hesitate to do it,” he warned. “Now, show us something that we can forage for food.”
Camon went to the wagon and got his sword and shovel, and then they went off the trail with Achara and Jorn on horseback and Camon walking. Achara had her crossbow loaded and ready. They went about two hundred yards while Jorn looked about and then pointed to a plant with long blade-like leaves on the ground, “That’s a yucca plant. Just about the whole thing is edible. You’d do well to harvest it.” Camon used the shovel to dig up the plant and put it in a bag he had brought with him. “There’s another one,” Jorn said, pointing to one about thirty feet from their current position. Camon again dug it up, then put it in the bag. They went further on and came to a ravine. They looked down. Jorn pointed to a stand of pine trees, “The cones off those trees have pine nuts and are quite tasty,” Jorn said. Camon went to the stand and rummaged around looking for cones that had dropped. He found some that still had nuts in them. He put them in his bag with the yucca plants. They climbed out of the ravine and worked their way in a circle back towards the cart, when Jorn pointed to a small leafy growth and said, “Nettle. That’s a good one.” Camon then harvested the nettle and also found a few more yucca plants. The process of foraging went on the rest of the morning, and when they got back to the cart, they had harvested at least fifty pounds. Camon was sweating when they did.
“Let me prepare that for you,” Jorn said. Camon then handed the sack of plants to Jorn and then gave him a short knife. Jorn went about cutting the plants up and removing the unwanted parts. When he was done, he had neat piles of pine nuts, nettle, and different piles for the various parts of the yucca plants.
“Thank you,” Camon said. He then took the knife from Jorn and helped him back onto the cart, then stored the food in a box.
Camon remounted Appon and then took the lead rope for Tangmaw. They started back down the trail, but this time Camon did not have the bag over Jorn’s head. It was nearing sunset when they came to the watering hole that Camon had mentioned. It was not evident in plain sight, but Camon dismounted and went around to the back of a large boulder and cleared some shrubs that revealed an opening to a cave that Camon had to duck into. He went down into the cave with a candle looking for any vermin that needed to be cleared. He didn’t find any. At the bottom of the cave, they entered into what was like a room with a pool of water. The bottom of the pool was visible. Camon bent down and sniffed the water. “Fresh,” he said to himself. He then went back up out of the cave and unloaded the casks. One by one, he brought them down to the pool and filled them then used a rope and a horse to pull the casks back out of the hole. With Achara’s help, he was able to load them back onto the cart. He filled eight casks this way, and the cart was now heavy and creaking under the weight of the water.
“Is that cart going to hold?” Achara asked.
“It’ll hold,” Camon said. “I’m more worried about the casks breaking than the cart.”
They set their camp next to the watering hole that night. Achara prepared a meal from some of the quail she had hunted and some of the nettle they had harvested. It was bland, but for them, it was food. Even Jorn seemed to be in a better mood after they cooked it.
“You said you’re from the West Watch,” Camon said. “You’ve lived out here your entire life?”
“Yes,” Jorn said. “My entire life.”
“What got you into being a mercenary?” Camon asked.
“Lack of options,” Jorn said.
“Lack of options, eh? You mean you didn’t have a choice?”
“Out here in The Watch, men live by the sword,” he said. “It’s an unforgiving environment, and you can’t be weak. If you’re weak, you’re dead.”
“Well, it looks like your days of being a mercenary are done,” Achara said. “You’ll be lucky if you’re able to walk when that leg heals. But you can forget brawling, fighting, or anything that requires the use of a weapon.”
“Piss off girl,” Jorn scorned.
“Easy now,” Camon calmed.
“I don’t expect I’ll live much longer anyway,” Jorn said. “Going into the Pustos Wastelands is suicide, and I reckon I’ll meet my demise there.”
“Don’t be so sure,” Camon said.
“Why do you say that,” Jorn asked.
“Because I’ve been there and I’ve lived to tell about it. How do you think I knew about this place and this trail?”
“I dunno. Maybe some old map. What are you looking for? Treasure? Gems? Gold?”
“None of that,” Camon said. “Just information.”
“Information!?” Jorn exclaimed. “You are crazy. Who travels out to the middle of nowhere in the face of sure death to look for information? That’s about the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”
“It does sound pretty absurd,” Camon admitted. “But it’s the truth.”
“What could possibly be out here in the desert that would give you information?” Jorn balked.
“You’ll just have to wait and see,” Camon said.
“Yeah, right,” Jorn mocked. “I’ll be seeing buzzard circle above me. I’ll be sure to ask them.”
“I’m surprised you don’t know about where we’re going,” Achara said. “Seems like a desert fox like you would know everything there is to know about this place.”
“I may know a thing or two, girl, but I’m no know-it-all,” Jorn scorned. “I get by. That’s what I do. And whatever knowledge I need for that, I get and use. Anything beyond that is just trivia for the sages to navel-gaze over.”
“A pragmatic man,” Camon noted.
“Well, it would seem that way. Most mercenaries are.”
“Do you have family in The Watch,” Camon asked.
“Not in The Watch,” Jorn answered. “At least not right now. My brother joined the Imperial ranks and is stationed somewhere in the east. I’m no soldier, though. Too much structure. Too many rules. I’m a man of fortune who enjoys freedom.”
“Achara was right about your leg. If you do get out of this alive, then you’re going to need to find a new career.”
“You mean to let me go then?” Jorn asked.
“I can’t keep you prisoner forever,” Camon said. “The only reason you are with us now is that it was too risky to let you go or to carry you back to a place where you could get help. But when the opportunity arises, believe me, I will let you go. But don’t expect me to make it easy.”
Camon stamped out the fire they had used to make their dinner and with it went the light. The moons shown down now, giving a soft, almost inviting glow to the plain they were crossing. After a while, they got a good night’s sleep and were up and moving before the sun rose. They stopped one more time for an hour or so the next day to forage then got back on the trail.
Over the next few days, the vegetation all but disappeared. They were then crossing a rock-strewn plain with not even the slightest hint of precipitation. There was no cracked earth from mud, ravines from flash floods, or even the slightest hint of dew. It was just the three travelers, the cart, and the horses on a plain that stretch from horizon to horizon covered in rocks. The only break was the path that snaked its way through the field of boulders as they went on.
Days passed as they made their way across the boulder-strewn landscape. Not much in terms of scenery changed other than the terrain itself becoming flatter the further south they went. After two full weeks, they came into view of the Seedeng Mesa, or the Red Wall as Camon called it. For as far as they could see to the east and west, they saw the sheer cliff that towered thousands of feet over the surrounding terrain. It got its name from its reddish-brown color that stood in stark contrast to the dusky yellow of the plain. Being that the cliff was the north face of the structure, it got no sunlight making the contrasting effect even more dramatic. Achara rode in the front and Camon behind her, leading Tangmaw with Jorn in the cart behind him.
“We’re still at least a few days out from the wall,” Camon remarked as the cliffs came into view. “We’ll reach the edge of the Kueblehn Flats probably by midday tomorrow. We’ll stop there for a rest, then start the trek across the flat early.”
“I’ve never been this far south,” Jorn said. “I’d had only heard legends of The Wall, but I never imagined I’d see it myself. I honestly didn’t believe it existed.”
“Much of what I’m learning on this journey is that way,” Camon said. “A lot of what we call ‘legend,’ so it would seem, has some basis in reality. But no one has ventured this way in quite some time. After the mining operation shut down, there was little interest in coming here. “
“Most people don’t think sight-seeing at the risk of certain death is exactly a good proposition,” Jorn remarked.
“We’re not dead…” Camon said. “Not yet, at least.”
“You don’t sound optimistic,” Jorn said.
“Getting to the salt flat is the easy part,” he said. “Getting across the flat is the challenge.”
“What’s the challenge in it?” Jorn asked.
“Let’s just say that it’s not what you see, rather what you don’t see that makes passage across the flat dangerous,” he answered. “Moreover, the faster we can do it, the better off we are.”
They continued riding on the rest of the day and pitched camp among some boulders. Camon prepared a meal from some of the foraged vegetables and cheese that they had brought in their provisions. The odd assortment of foraged food with prepared food made the conversations that night interesting as each member made culinary remarks about the other’s cooking. In any case, they all agreed that the foraged food was not as bad as they thought it might be, even though it was certainly not their preference.
After a night’s rest, they awoke the next day and set out early before dawn. The sun rose in the east over the towering cliffs and made them looked all the more forbidding. As the sun climbed and they got closer, the cliffs seemed to taunt them with its sheer size and breadth. Near midday, the ruins of the old mining operation came into view against the glare of the sun coming off the salt flat beyond. The ruins themselves were nothing more than a few walls of stacked boulders without mortar. There were about a dozen buildings surrounded by a waist-high stone wall. The roofs of the buildings had long since caved and portions of the walls on many of the buildings had fallen. It was strewn with the remnants of machinery and anything of value though had long since been removed.
The travelers rode into the compound and dismounted. Camon took out his sword and went building to building, inspecting them for any sort of unexpected company. After the search, he announced, “The place is empty, but you can never be too sure.”
“That building would make a good place to set camp,” Achara said, pointing to a nearby building with most of its walls still intact.
Camon helped Jorn off the wagon and seated him over in the building as they unloaded provisions from the wagon, including unused water, food, and equipment. Camon led Achara to one of the buildings that had a cellar, and they stored the extra provisions there.
“What are you doing?” Jorn asked as they were unloading. “Setting camp to stay for a long time? You’re taking off more than we need.”
“Lightening the load,” Camon said. “We made it this far, so all we need is enough for three more days. We’ll be crossing the flat tomorrow, ascending the wall, then we will be at our destination.
“On top of the wall?” Jorn asked skeptically.
“Yes, on top,” Camon said. “It’s a mesa, and where we are going is on top of the mesa.”
“You still haven’t told me what is up there,” Jorn said.
“Get used to disappointment,” Achara remarked.
“I suggest you try to gather what strength you can and stop worrying about where we’re going,” Camon said. “Crossing that flat is going to be hellacious.”
Camon went over to a nearby building with Achara and pointed to a large pile of rocks in the middle of the building, “Here’s the well. We can freshen our water supply here.” Camon removed some of the rocks and exposed a large hole in the ground. He then rummaged through some nearby junk and found a long length of rope. He found an old pulley in the ruins of one of the machines and a length of sturdy weather-worn timber. Achara helped Camon put the wood between the two walls and then fashioned the pulley to the timber. He then got one of the empty water casks and tied it to the rope. He used the pulley to lower the cask into the hole. After the cask hit bottom, the rope went slack for a moment, then the tension returned. “It’s ready to raise,” Camon said. Achara fetched Tangmaw, and they attached the rope to the horse, who then walked the rope out of the building for almost one hundred feet until the cask finally reached the top. Camon and Achara lowered the cask down. Camon got a cup from their supplies and dipped it in the water and drank deeply. Achara did the same.
“Ice cold,” she commented.
“Refreshing, isn’t it?” Camon said.
“The best I’ve had in a while.”
“We’ll need a few casks, but we’ll leave the rest here. We can get them when we return along with the rest of the gear,” Camon said. After filling a few more casks, they loaded them back onto the cart and tied them down securely.
After finishing refreshing the water, Camon replaced the stones over the well, removed the timber and pulley, and placed the rope back where he had found it.
“Do others come this way?” Achara asked.
“It’s the only way that I know of to get to the library, so I can only imagine that people do,” Camon answered. “I don’t know who or how often, but all I’m doing is repeating what we did the first time I came.”
Camon and Achara returned to the encampment, where Jorn was sitting with his back against the wall snoring. Camon and Achara together fixed a quick meal of some of the foraged food and ate it before they too found a spot each. Camon took the first watch and went to sleep and woke a few hours and Achara took over. While it was still night, Camon awoke and then woke Jorn. Achara was up without hesitation, but Jorn grumbled and complained all the while as he woke, “Really? Up already?”
“Sleep in the cart,” Camon said. “The way over the flats is relatively smooth, even compared to the paved roads of the Empire.”
Camon hoisted Jorn up and put him in the back of the cart, which was emptied of supplies that Camon and Achara had removed and stored in a cellar save a few casks of water and some food. Camon hitched the cart while Achara saddled the horses. Camon and Achara then mounted their horses and set out from the ruins. They entered the salt flat about two hundred yards south of the ruins. The white surface reflecting the moons overhead appeared to have an iridescent glow to the east and the west as far as the eyes could see. The surface was flat, but the coarse salt was loose like a thin layer of sand. But against the southern horizon, the Red Wall appeared dark and foreboding. Once out on the flats a way with Achara leading, she gave Soam a light kick in the flank, and the horse began to canter then went into a full gallop. Camon did the same, and Tangmaw followed, pulling the cart.
They rode steadily for hours while it was still yet dark before the first hint of dawn came over the eastern horizon. The sky began to glow purple, then went to red then pink before the sun peaked over the Red Wall to the east and started its slow arc across the sky. By midmorning, the light reflecting off of the salt flat was almost blinding, but they kept riding at a gallop. They stopped only briefly to give the horses a rest and drink, but they did not tarry before resuming the trek southward. As the afternoon bore on, the Red Wall came more into focus with all its details. What appeared as almost a solid wall from across the flats now looked jagged and uneven. The strata of rock looked like a stack of ragged colored papers stacked one on top of the other, thousands of pages thick. Evening came, and the sun started sinking in the west again, painting the sky.
Cirrus clouds had gathered on the horizon and appeared yellow, then pink and red as the sun got lower. By this time, the travelers were all most upon the Red Wall. It felt as they could almost reach out and touch it. They were still riding hard, though, not slowing until they were sure they were there.
Then they heard something overhead that let out a screech. Achara looked up and didn’t see anything, “What was that?” she shouted over the thundering of hooves.
Camon shouted back, “I don’t know, but I don’t want to find out. Ride!”
Achara kicked her horse in the flank and took off. Camon did the same, but Tangmaw could not keep up while pulling the cart. They started to lag behind. Camon heard the screech again from the west this time, and he turned and looked. He saw the shadow of something against the western sky coming towards them. He encouraged the horses to move faster, but it didn’t help. The thing came into view as it got close. Camon saw its limbless, charcoal gray, snake-like body careening towards him with its mouth spread bearing its long, dagger-like teeth and its yellow eyes wild with frenzy. Its wings were spread wide and slightly swept back, and its tail was swaying behind with a flared tip and another wing-like structure.
The beast came swooping down, picking up speed, aiming straight for them. Camon took out his sword and dropped the lead rope for the cart and wheeled to face the beast, but the creature chose the cart over Camon and his horse. It crashed into the cart at the bow but was unsuccessful at grabbing anything. The packhorse screamed in terror, shaking at her hitch and harness furiously. She tried to run again, but the damage to the cart caused the hitch to pull the cart counter to the direction of the horse. She was more dragging the cart as she furiously tried to escape. Jorn likewise was screaming in pain and terror. He had been thrown around in the back of the cart with the impact.
The beast climbed and let out another scream, then circled back around from the west. Camon, with his horse, positioned himself between the cart and the creature. He whirled and ignited the blade, which flicked and flashed against the white ground like lightning. The beast charged again, merely flying over Camon. The mare at the cart went up on her hind legs, doing her best to face the beast despite still being tangled in the tack. The beast came down this time at the horse snapping at her. She tried desperately to defend herself, but the beast snatched at her in his charge, ripping her over her back legs onto the ground. Her weight carried the cart with her, and the whole thing tipped and fell. All of the casks, provisions, and supplies tumbled out along with Jorn, who screamed in pain.
Camon rode to their side. He could see the beast climbing to the east again, preparing for another pass. Camon inspected Jorn, “Praise the Light, you’re still alive!”
“No, thanks to you!” Jorn screamed.
“Can you ride?” Camon asked.
“Ride?” Jorn asked scornfully. “Ride what?”
“A horse,” Camon said. “My horse.”
Jorn nodded in pain. Camon then sheathed his sword, which was not lit at the time. He then picked up Jorn and put him on his shoulders and quickly carried him to his horse. Camon hoisted Jorn into the saddle and helped Jorn get his legs in the stirrups while Jorn screamed in pain. “Stay low on his back and hold the reins close,” Camon said. He then slapped the horse on the flank and yelled. The horse took off south with its new rider. As he did, Camon dropped to a prone position as the beast swooped down, trying to snatch at him. The beast climbed again, and Camon again removed his sword and ignited it, then went around the debris to face the creature who was circling for another pass.
The beast then caught sight of Jorn making his escape to the south, and the beast began to deviate in its path. Camon picked up on this change in course, then began to hum guttural notes that built inside his chest. He then released the magic, and it came out as a loud shout that echoed across the plain. The beast turned its attention back towards Camon, who stood facing down the beast this time with his sword lit. The creature was much closer now, but still quite high. He swept back its wings and dove straight for Camon, who stood staring the creature down with an intent glare and gritted teeth. Camon could see the light from his sword flickering in the beast’s eyes as it came closer. Then, in an instant, Camon dropped to one knee and brought the sword low just as the beast was about to fly overhead. The beast snapped its jaw at Camon and missed. Just as the beast flew overhead, Camon leaped from his crouched position with fury, thrusting his weapon straight into the air at the creature. The blade went into the beast’s underbelly. But Camon did not let go, expecting the blade to cut the beast. Instead, he was jerked off his feet by the beast’s momentum. He was dragged along in the dirt for a while until he felt his feet leave the ground.
The beast screamed in horror and pain, thrashing wildly in the air to dislodge Camon, who was now dangling beneath the beast. The beast climbed higher and higher, writhing all the more. Camon refused to let go, seeing everything get smaller as the creature climbed yet higher. On one of the writhing motions, Camon used the momentum to his advantage as he managed to wrap his legs around the beast’s narrow body, then get on top of the creature instead of dangling beneath it. All the while, the beast flew wildly about with no particular course or direction trying to dislodge the sword and the rider.
After several minutes of this, the beast had climbed high into the sky. Camon could see for miles over the flat, but not quite as high as the top of the mesa. The beast then turned towards the mesa and was flying straight towards it for what looked like a collision course. Camon stared in horror as the cliffside approached. Just as he was sure they would crash into the wall, the beast made a sharp turn to the left and dove. The dive made Camon feel weightless and lose all sense of direction. His head felt like it was spinning, and his vision faded as if he was about to blackout. But then there was a sudden change in direction. The beast crashed into a surface, making a deafening commotion. It threw Camon from its back. Camon flew through the air for several feet before he landed. He wasn’t quite sure what he hit, but it was hard and full of debris as he skidded across the ground. His head then smashed into a hard object, and the skidding stopped, leaving Camon a motionless heap.