“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” Anaxis whispered.
He and Mills crept through the dark toward Xala’s instruction hut, packs on their backs and rebellion in their hearts.
“I doubt my father will even notice I’m gone,” said Mills. “Can you see? I can hardly see.”
“I can’t see very well, no,” said Anaxis. “But the clouds are dispersing and the moons are rising. It will get easier.”
“How long do you think it will take?” Mills asked. “To get out to the desert and back?”
“Two days, tops,” Anaxis said. “I’ve been spending so much time in my room, there’s a possibility my parents won’t know I’m gone at all.”
“Your brother or sister probably will,” said Mills.
“Hey, let a guy have his irrational optimism,” said Anaxis.
“Fair enough,” said Mills.
“Here we are,” said Anaxis.
The two entered the instruction hut to find Xala crouched over a lantern giving off a strange, green glow.
“Hello, children!” Xala said. “Are we excited?”
“We are,” answered Anaxis. “Or, I am, anyways.”
“I’m excited, too,” said Mills. “But tired. What’s that green glow you’ve got there?”
“Bioluminescent bacteria,” Xala answered proudly. “I’ve been cultivating it in my greenhouse. It will last longer than any candle could.”
“It’s beautiful,” said Anaxis.
“Thank you, thank you,” Xala said proudly. “Alright, so we’ve got to go before night patrol comes back around. They should be on the the northern edge right about now. We’ve got a small window for escape.”
“Understood,” said Anaxis. “You ready, Mills?”
“Ready as I ever will be,” Mills answered. “Let’s hit it or quit it.”
The three snuck out of the instruction hut as the clouds overhead started to disperse and the light of the rising moons began to bathe the desert village in moonlight. They crept along silently past the rock dwellings at the farthest end of Talx, headed toward the Hunting Valley.
The three said nothing as they took the well-worn trails down the sides of the valley. When safely in the moonshadow below, Xala stopped the other two.
“I hope you don’t mind if I have something to drink,” Xala said. “We should be safe from patrol now.”
“No, I could use a drink myself,” Mills said.
“I brought vib steep,” Anaxis said. “Anyone interested?”
“Ew, no,” Mills said. “You’re the only one in Talx that likes vib, Anaxis.”
“I’m afraid he’s right,” said Xala. “I can’t stand the stuff.”
“Fine,” Anaxis said. “More for me.”
“We’ll drop down the cliff at the same location you came up it,” Xala said. “I trust you’ve brought the rope?”
“Right here,” Anaxis said, patting his bag after he put his container of steep back into it.
“Excellent. I hope the two of you wouldn’t mind giving me a hand, lowering me,” Xala said. “My upper body strength isn’t what it used to be. Who am I kidding, it never was! I’m weak in body. But strong in mind!”
“Of course, we’ll lower you down, and then climb ourselves,” said Anaxis.
“Are we hydrated?” Xala asked.
“I’m good,” said Mills.
“Me, too,” said Anaxis. “To the cliff!”
The three returned to where only days ago Anaxis had been rescued from the desert. Mills crept to the edge of the cliff and stared over it, down at the river below.
“It’s really far down,” he said with a gulp.
“Can you believe I fell the whole way?” Anaxis asked. “Lucky I didn’t smash my head on the rocks.”
“You’re not making this any easier,” Mills said.
“You’ve got this, Mills,” Anaxis said. “Just hold the rope tight.”
“Okay. So I’ll keep my foot in this loop,” Xala said of one end of the rope Anaxis produced from his bag, “And we can wrap the other end around that slender boulder over there.”
“We’re going to have to climb back up, aren’t we?” Mills groaned.
“The two of you will, yes,” said Xala. “Then you’ll pull me up.”
“I can’t wait until I’m old,” Mills said.
“You’ll have to,” Xala retorted. “Alright, now, I’m depending on the two of you. Don’t let me fall, alright?”
“Don’t worry,” said Anaxis. “We’ve got you.”
Xala hung the green-glowing lantern off her bag and stepped into the rope loop.
“That’s it, then,” she said. “Here I go!”
Anaxis and Mills lowered Xala down the side of the cliff slowly, until she let them know she had reached the bottom with a small cry of success.
“Who’s next?” Mills asked.
“You go,” said Anaxis. “I’ll make sure the rope holds.”
“Okay,” Mills sighed. “Here goes nothing.”
He made his way down with his legs wrapped around the rope, and let Anaxis know he had reached the bottom with a whoop.
“My turn,” said Anaxis.
He started down the rope, sliding with his legs, hand-over-hand, until he, too, was next to the river with the others.
“What’s that horrible smell?” he asked. “Mills?”
“Funny,” Mills said. “I think it’s the rotting cannar.”
There were two of the beasts, which had been rotting in the heat of the sun for days, festering nearby. Anaxis felt a pang of guilt looking at the animals.
“Poor things,” he said.
“How did you get across the river?” Mills asked.
“There are some rocks…” Anaxis said, searching the watery stretch for the bridge he had taken. “Hard to see in the dark, though.”
“We don’t want to wait until sunrise,” Xala said. “The heat will be too great. I’ve just the thing.”
She went into her bag and produced three leather bags, which she passed out.
“What are these?” Anaxis asked.
“Buoyancy hides,” Xala answered. “Find the intake,” she said, demonstrating for the others the valve on her own bag, “And fill them with air. They will allow us to float over the river.”
“Wow,” Anaxis marvelled. “You’ve got a whole bag of tricks, don’t you, Xala?”
“That I never get to use in backwards Talx, yes,” Xala said. “But we can use them now, can’t we? Go ahead, fill your hides.”
The three used their flotation devices to cross the slow-moving river easily. They were wet when the reached the other side, but the night was hot and dry, and so they wouldn’t remain so for long.
“Alright, you show us the way,” Xala said, deflating her hide.
“I remember the rocks,” Anaxis said. “Follow me. Here we go!”