The rising sun shone its first light through a rock arch that framed the blaze of the waking day with fiery orange. Anaxis was awake to see it rise, as he hadn’t been able to sleep.
“It’s pretty for about a half an hour,” Laquin said when she noticed Anaxis was awake. “Then it gets real hot and real annoying, real fast.”
“I’ll enjoy it while I can, I guess. Should I wake the others?” Anaxis asked.
“Yes,” Laquin answered. “I’ve got something going for breakfast.”
“I’m awake, I’m awake,” Xala groaned, rolling over and sitting up. “That was the worst night of sleep I’ve ever had.”
“At least you slept,” said Anaxis. “I gave up about two hours ago. Great stargazing, though. Mills?”
Anaxis shook his friend. Mills didn’t budge.
“Mills, wake up.”
Mills choked on a snore and rolled over.
“If we could bottle his drool we wouldn’t have to worry about dehydration,” said Xala.
“Come get it while it’s hot,” Laquin called from where she was stooped over a small pot.
Xala got up with a pained groan and waddled over to see what Laquin was cooking.
“Mills,” Anaxis said, shaking his friend’s foot. “Come on, wake up.”
Mills jumped up with a start and a shout.
“What? What is it?” he gasped, ready to fight or run.
“It’s just me, Mills,” Anaxis said. “It’s just morning.”
Mills took a second to remember where he was. When he did, a look of regret and disdain settled over his face. “Awww. Morning’s the worst thing of all.”
“I think there’s some breakfast waiting for us,” Anaxis said.
“Oh, great. Yuta in Yuta blood?” said Mills. “Gross.”
“I’m not sure what it is, let’s at least go see,” said Anaxis.
Xala was tasting the sludge Laquin had prepared from the tip of her finger when Anaxis and Mills approached.
“Well?” Anaxis asked her. “How is it?”
“Not terrible,” Xala answered.
“It’s high in energy,” Laquin answered. “It’ll see us through to sundown.”
“Why isn’t he eating any?” Mills asked of Orn, who was packing up camp.
“He already did,” Laquin answered. “Didn’t you, Orn?”
Orn grimaced and nodded. “Hurry up,” he said. “There’s no time to waste.”
After the breakfast sludge had been choked down, the team finished preparations and began to move. The desert was sandy, but there was enough growth here and there to keep movement easier than it might have been without it. Scrubby green and pink grass broke up the patches of deep sand, which acted like mud on the traveller’s feet, sliding them back a half-step for every step they managed forward. Tiny finz hopped frantically about the grass, searching for whatever food they could, and trying to avoid the occasional snarr attack. The pitch-black snarr would dive-bomb the finz, rarely hitting their target, but when they did, the pitiful screams of the furry little finz were something terrible to hear in the stark emptiness of the waking desert.
All around the desert floor were rock arches and rock walls, painted colors of orange and pink that changed hue and radiance as the sun continued to rise. Some of the taller, pointier formations appeared like static licks of fire, lolling up from the sand to taste the cloudless sky. The arches framed each new coming stretch of desert for the travelers like an invitation to what was next, and made for little check-points that kept the walking from feeling too monotonous, as every window passed meant a new vista to aim for and feel rewarded for having passed.
“It’s very pretty out here,” Xala said.
“Truly,” Laquin agreed. “Funny how a place so deadly can be so beautiful. Usually nature makes the deadly things ugly. Or, we’ve adapted to see them as such. Thorns. Swamps. Bazzebs. Yutas. But the desert, despite its complete disregard for our survival, remains beautiful.”
“I’d agree with that, for only the sunrises and sunsets,” Orn said. “But I doubt you’ll be saying it’s pretty come high noon.”
“How do you know where we’re going?” Mills asked.
“I plotted our course by the stars last night,” answered Orn. “All of our electronics are disabled, so that the drones can’t find us, but a good old barkplate map and a compass will do the trick every time.”
“How long have we been walking?” Mills asked. “Three, four hours?”
“Maybe one and a half,” Laquin answered. “Why, tired already?”
“I’m always tired,” Mills groaned.
A leaping finz scared the boy to yelping.
“If a finz frightens you,” Laquin laughed, “Just wait until we get to the Midnight Valley.”
“Why?” Mills asked.
Orn laughed with Laquin.
“Why are you laughing?” Mills demanded. “What’s in the Midnight Valley?”
“You’ll see when we get there,” Laquin answered. She unscrewed her canteen and took a drink. “Anyone thirsty?”
“Sorry, I don’t like blood,” Mills answered.
“Well neither do I,” Laquin said. “You don’t think we’re drinking pure blood, do you? We filtered it.”
“Oh,” Mills said. “Well, that’s a lot better.”
“Of course,” Laquin said. “We filtered it, and what we took out was breakfast.”
Mills stopped and grabbed Anaxis’s arm to keep himself from vomiting.
“Come on, buddy,” Anaxis said. “She’s probably just messing with you.”
“Sure, that’s it,” Laquin said.
“There it is,” said Orn. “Great Vaulting Arch.”
“What does that mean?” Anaxis asked.
“It means we’re on the right course,” Orn said. “I was a bit worried.”
“What about your barkplate and compass?” Anaxis asked.
“Valor has some magnetic abnormalities that can mess with a compass,” Orn explained. “I didn’t think there were any here in archland, but I wanted to see Great Vaulting to be sure.”
“Can we stop to pee?” Mills asked.
“If you have to pee, go ahead,” Orn answered. “But we’re not stopping. Catch up.”
“And I’d recommend holding that water as long as you can,” said Laquin. “If we can all go together, we can run it through the filter.”
“What a nightmare,” Mills said. “I hate the desert.”