Camon and Achara prepared the horses as well as travel provisions for the journey east the next morning. Camon, Achara, and Jorn went to sleep before noon and were up by dinner time after everything was set. They ate one last meal with Laoren, who then bid them all firm farewells. Camon, Achara, and Jorn walked the horses out of the stables, back through the garden and up on to the mesa.
The wind blew the manes of the horses. Achara let down her hood as she enjoyed the warm breeze coming out of the southwest. She observed the purple sky on the horizon to the west before mounting up along with Jorn and Camon. Camon took the lead on Appon, followed by Achara on Soam, then Jorn on Tangmaw. The moons were soon out, and Camon spotted the first waymarker glistening in the moonlight against the darkness to the east. Camon then set his sights on it and sped up Appon to a trot as they went into the night. Upon reaching the waymarker, he spotted the second one and rode on, continuing this pattern.
After traversing a dozen or so waypoints, Camon slowed and walked his horse. Achara came alongside him as they rode east.
“You mentioned the Heavenly Way being marked by these waymarkers,” she said. “I thought they were unusual, but it makes sense now. Do you feel like we’re moving any faster?”
“Not really,” Camon answered. “But it’s hard to tell without any major landmarks to gauge it from. Up here, all you see is where the sky meets the mesa, and that’s it.”
“You should see it through the eyes of Soam,” Achara said. “They can not only see the waymarkers, but they can see the road itself.”
“The road itself?” Camon balked. “There is no road.”
“The road is actually marked in much the same way that the waymarkers are,” Achara noted. “We can’t see it, but the horses can. I was seeing through Appon’s eyes a moment ago, wondering how she knew where to step. She seemed so sure-footed and wasn’t making a beeline for the waymarkers.”
“Fascinating. I’ll rely more on her senses then to help get us where we need to go.”
Camon then set out again at a trot, this time being more passive and letting the horse choose the way rather than trying to steer her. She wove in sweeping arcs between the waymarkers making the path much more fluid and with less issues with terrain. She continued this pattern waymarker after waymarker, and the other two riders and horses followed suit. After about nine hours of riding, they came to a larger waymarker that glowed in a reddish hue in the moonlight
“This is where I believe we’re supposed to stop,” Camon said.
“It’s not yet day,” Achara noted.
“I know, but according to the instructions on the leaf that Laoren gave me, we are supposed to stop and rest at these waymarkers.”
“Fine by me,” said Jorn. “My leg is a bit stiff, and I could use a break.”
The three riders then dismounted. They then unsaddled and rubbed down their horses. Camon searched the area for anything suspicious but found it was clear.
“I feel we may be sitting ducks up here on the mesa,” Camon said. “There’s nothing around here, but that can all change rather quickly as we learned out on the salt flat.”
“Do you think there’s another amphiptere around here?” Achara asked.
“I don’t know anything about them, but I can’t rule out the possibility either. Drakes as a class of species is not well studied because nobody wants to risk their life trying to study something liable to kill them. But general observations suggest that they are territorial, so the one I killed is likely the only one in this area until something else figures out that it’s no longer occupied.”
“Not to mention other things like wolves and coyotes,” Jorn said.
“I doubt they would come up here,” Achara said. “They need a source of food and water, and from what I’ve seen, this place is barren. The horses are quite at ease, so I don’t think there’s anything to worry about.”
“Good call,” Camon said. “It’s almost morning. We’ll rest here and resume our trek at nightfall tomorrow.”
Camon took the first watch and watched the sun come up over the eastern horizon as the sky went from dark blue to purple and red. There were clouds in the east that made the sunset look like a painting with the sky as a canvas. Camon tried to remember the last time he enjoyed watching the sunrise, but he couldn’t. Even so, this one made him glad to be alive. He ate some food out of his saddlebags for breakfast and wondered about the area a while before Achara awoke and took the next watch.
Camon went to sleep, and Achara got to watch the sun pass overhead. The day warmed significantly to the point where it was almost hot. She was glad to be up on the mesa now. The day was most certainly a scorcher. She passed the time working on the exercises that Laoren had taught her, finding anything alive that she could work with. Unfortunately, only the horses were available.
Near sunset, they all awoke. Camon got up and again checked the perimeter and noticed something out that he hadn’t seen the night before. He went over near the pillar to get a closer look and noticed a large satchel leaning up against the pillar. He opened it and inspected the contents. There was fresh water, food, and feed all in the satchel. He called Jorn and Achara over.
“Did you see anyone out on the mesa today?” he asked.
“No, why?” Achara answered.
He pointed to the satchel then said, “Someone left this here, but it’s fresh and it is exactly what we need, enough for everyone.”
“Is it safe?” Jorn asked.
“Best I can tell,” Camon said. “The leaf that Laoren gave me speaking about the Way mentioned provisions, but I didn’t know exactly what that meant. It was quite literal.”
“So someone put this here for us?” Achara asked skeptically.
“I can only assume so,” Camon said. “It wasn’t here yesterday. Of that, I am sure.”
“But who?” Jorn asked.
“Laoren mentioned that the library was actually part of a network of tunnels and rotundas that spanned the entire mesa and that the Heavenly Way was built to traverse the mesa quickly. I suspect that whoever lives here is the one who made this.”
“But who lives here?” Jorn asked.
“Laoren didn’t know,” Camon said. “But he suspected it was a people called the Gemedim.”
“Never heard of em’” Jorn declared.
“I wouldn’t have expected you to have,” Camon said. “It’s only a conjecture. The Gemedim are a secretive and reclusive people about half the height of a man that live underground.”
“Then why give us provisions?” Achara asked.
“I don’t know,” Camon said. “I can only speculate. Perhaps it’s a gesture of goodwill? Maybe it’s a sort of offering? I have no idea. But needless to say, I think we should take advantage of it.”
“I’m with Camon on this one,” Jorn said.
The two men lifted the satchel together and carried it over to where they had slept and unpacked it. There was more than enough food for them and the horses to eat. When they had finished, they refilled their waterskins, and Camon took the satchel back over to where he had found it and laid it by the waymarker. Not long after they ate, they readied the horses who were eager to get underway. After they watched the sunset, they mounted up again and started back east. This time, Achara took the lead, coaxing her horse along and riding waymarker to waymarker as they rode across the mesa under the moonlit skies. The southwest wind had returned, keeping the breeze at their back and making the ride all that much warmer.
A few hours of riding past, and then Achara noticed a light nearing them at high speed that was not the glint of the waymarker in the moonlight. She came to a halt with Camon and Jorn behind her.
“What is it?” Camon asked.
“There,” she said, pointing to an orange glow still a way off. “I don’t know what it is, but it looks like it could be a fire.”
“That would be unusual for up here,” Camon said. “We’d best proceed with caution.” Camon dismounted his horse and walked carefully along the way until they were close enough to tell it was a fire surrounded by several people. “I’ll go investigate,” Camon said. “You two stay here.”
“It can’t be good whatever it is,” Jorn offered. “Anyone that comes up here is either lost, stupid, or hiding from something. Let’s hope it’s either lost or stupid.”
“Wait till Camon comes back before making any judgments. It could be nothing,” Achara said. As silently as she could, Achara reached behind her and removed her crossbow and discretely loaded it.
A few minutes later, Camon came back. He was walking low and quietly, keeping his pace brisk. When he got back, he was panting. “Not good,” he whispered. “Not good at all.”
“What is it?” Achara asked.
“Slavers, best I can tell. There was a holding pin with some girls in it about fifty yards the other side of the fire. There are about eight people at the fire and about that many horses nearby.”
“Slavers!” Jorn exclaimed. “They’re hiding up here.”
“Keep it down,” Camon whispered. “What do you know about slavers?”
“They are hiding up here, like I said,” Jorn said. “They are probably using this as a staging site where they collect slaves for shipping them west. Nobody is going to come looking for them up here.”
“Staging site?” Camon asked.
“Yeah. The way it works is teams will go out into the surrounding areas and look for targets. They do all kinds of nasty things – straight up kidnap folks that wander too far off from their homes, ambush travelers, or take them in their sleep. When they get what they want, they bring them back here either to sell or be collected. It’s a rancorous business,” Jorn explained.
“That’s terrible!” Achara exclaimed. “We have to do something.”
“You’re going to take on eight elite abductors?” Jorn said. “That’s suicide. You’re no match for them. And if you think you can take them on Paladin, then you’ve got something else coming.”
“There’s three of us against eight of them,” Camon said.
“Three?” Jorn objected. “Sorry, but I don’t have a death wish. You’d best sit this one out. Besides, it’s not your way to kill, and unless you are willing to do that, you will not help anyone. Even if you do figure out a way to free those girls without taking them out, they will hunt you down and kill you.”
“You seem to know a lot about this business,” Camon noted.
“I’ve known a lot of people who have worked in these rings,” Jorn said.
“I’m surprised he’s not one of them,” Achara said.
“Girl, even I have standards. Slavers have no conscience. They will do anything to make a coin, and they do.”
“But trying to kill Camon and kidnapping me is somehow different?”
“You listen here—” Jorn said
“We can’t be far from the end,” Camon interrupted.
There were a few seconds of silence before Jorn asked, “How does that help us?”
“Once we get off the mesa, we should be in the territory of the Gypsies,” Camon said. “If we can find an encampment, we should be able to seek help there.”
“That’s a lot of ifs,” Jorn added.
“We wait till they go to sleep, and they post a watch,” Achara said. “Once they are sleeping, we can take out the watchmen then free the captees.”
“You mean kill him?” Jorn asked.
“No, just knock him out.”
“Achara is right about them going to sleep. That’s our best shot. If we could spring them from the cage and steal the horses, we could get out in front of them, and they would be on foot.”
“I don’t like the sound of any of this,” Jorn said. “You risk yourselves and their lives if you fail.”
“If you’re not going to be helpful, then why don’t you just shut up?” Achara snapped.
“Let’s try to keep a level head,” Camon said. “Any kind of plan is risky, but Achara is right. If we don’t attempt to help these girls, then who will?”
“You two let your self-righteousness guide your every move,” Jorn said. “It’s going to get you killed one day.”
“It’s what I do for a living,” Camon said.
“Isn’t your business with the demon more pressing?” Jorn asked.
“More pressing? Not necessarily. Look, I need you on my side. If you don’t want to help, I get it. But your experience as a mercenary can speak into this.”
“If you’re not willing to kill, that makes it hard. But what they typically do is put a watch by the fire and one by the prisoners. They will both trade off in the middle of the night some time with someone else. Your best odds are to do it a few hours after they post the first watch. This will ensure that everyone is asleep, and you can just dust off the two watchmen. But then you’ve got the problem of trying to break the prisoners out without waking them and getting away with the horses. I can tell you that it isn’t going to happen.”
“All I need to know is if it’s even remotely possible,” Camon said.
Jorn thought for a moment, “In theory, yes. But since you want my ‘professional’ advice, which I know you will ignore, I think it’s crazy, and you shouldn’t do it.”
“Noted and understood,” Camon said. “Here’s what we’ll do: Achara, you take care of anyone guarding the cell, and I will take care of the watchmen at the fire. If all goes well, I’ll grab the horses, and we’ll free the prisoners, and break for the end of the mesa. So since we’ve got some time, let’s go hurry up and wait for our demise.”