Boulders started to grow up out of the scrubby desert soon after the team started their hiking the next morning. At first the mounds were low and easy to traverse, but the boulders soon grew so large than they necessitated scrambling over, and keen assessment and plotting to avoid reaching an area where progress was impossible.
“No, back the other way,” Orn said unhappily when he reached such an impasse.
“Boooooo,” Mills griped.
“Sorry, but I’ve never crossed these outcroppings before. And there aren’t any markers or a guidebook,” said Orn. “We’re all making this up as we go along.”
“Ah!” Laquin shrieked.
“What? What is it?” asked Xala.
“Some sort of lizard, that’s all,” Laquin said, shaking her head. “Just startled me, that’s all. Watch out for that pocket in the boulders there. It looked nasty.”
The team crawled back down to where another option forward presented itself, and Orn did his best to survey a new route.
“I think this way will work,” he said. “But only time will tell.”
Thankfully, the second route did work. And at the top of the boulder mound, it was clear that there was a long stretch of level ground ahead.
“Thank goodness,” said Anaxis, relieved. “My calves are killing me.”
“Yes, but just think how healthy this all is!” Xala exclaimed happily.
Mills grumbled something nasty under his breath.
Spiky cacti were scattered over the coarser sand comprising the new stretch of desert. Fuzzy little insects buzzed about the cacti, seeking what little nectar they could from the muted flowers that grew on the undersides of the plants. Strakes occasional slithered in front of the team, appearing like moving mirages glowing in the rising sun. There were occasional birds, too, very small ones that didn’t sing or chirp and flew very low to the ground. Despite being an arid wasteland, the desert was fairly alive with activity.
“Life thrives,” Laquin observed. “No matter where. If it can at all, life thrives.”
The day grew hot, intolerably hot. There was little discussion, as every member of the traveling party was trying to conserve what little energy they had that the heat didn’t sap from them. There was one stop, for the last water the team had, and during it no one wanted to speak to address the fact that they had run out.
“Yes!” Orn shouted out of nowhere an hour or so after the rest stop.
“Oh great, he’s lost his mind,” said Mills.
“No!” Orn shouted. “Look! Look!”
He raced toward a new plant that had sprung up in the distance, a squat, bulbous-bodied cactus with pink needles.
“What’s that, Orn?” Laquin asked.
“We’re in luck!” Orn said. He took a knife from his belt and cut into one of the cacti, being careful to not cut himself as he did so. Despite his best effort, some of the pink needles made their way into his hand anyhow.
“What’re you doing?” asked Laquin.
Orn excised the needles and then started to suck the blood from where they had punctured his skin.
“Don’t tell me we have to drink our own blood now,” Mills said.
“No,” Orn said, using his boot to knock the top off the plant he had cut into. “Look!”
Crowding around the cactus, the others could see its body was hollow, and filled with water.
“Woohoo!” Laquin shouted. She dipped her cupped hand into the cactus carefully, then tasted some of the liquid inside. “It’s sweet!”
“The desert provides!” said Xala. “What fortune! Though I think I have a better way to get their tops off.”
She went into her bag and removed a folding blade, which she unfolded to three times its length. She swung it at one of the watery cacti and the top popped off and landed, spinning, in the nearby sand.
“That’ll do much better than my knife, I’m sure,” said Orn, who was wrapping his wound in a piece of cloth.
Xala went around lopping the tops off a number of the cacti as the team members followed her and each got one of their own to drain.
“This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Mills said happily as he drank and drank.
“I’ve got a ladle, we can fill our canteens,” said Laquin.
“We really lucked out,” said Orn. “I was pretty worried about our water situation.”
“We still don’t have any food,” said Mills
“You can survive a lot longer without food than you can without water,” said Anaxis.
“It’s true,” said Orn. “We’ll make it to our destination before the need for food becomes a serious concern.”
“If I don’t get food today, I’ll be concerned,” said Mills.
“You’ll be hungry, but that’s just a warning signal. Your body can use the fat stored on your bones to keep you alive. And then, it will eat the muscle.”
“So I can eat myself?” asked Mills.
“Basically,” Laquin answered.
“I tell you,” Mills scoffed, shaking his head.
“I would love to see some clouds,” Anaxis said. “If only for the shade.”
“It would be nice,” Laquin agreed. “But the sun will go down, eventually. As long as we’ve got water, and this slight breeze, the worst thing we have to worry about is sunburn.”
“That’s why we’ll keep wrapped up tight,” said Xala. “The desert may be harsh, but it allows for life, if you follow its rules.”
Just before sundown, after crossing over a rather difficult pile of boulders, a strange sight came into view.
“Is…” Anaxis said, rubbing his eyes. “Is everyone else seeing that?”
Down in a valley, far from where the team stood, were the crumbling forms of ancient walls and the wasted outlines of city streets.
“Oh, good, you see it, too,” said Xala. “I was worried the heat had overtaken me.”
“No, I told you we’d come to this,” said Orn. “It’s the ruins of Allovast.”