The appearance of a fortuitous pass made travel out of the Allovastian Valley east for the group. When they reached the other side, they entered into the sparsest desert of the trip so far. There was the occasional tree, but the vast majority of the landscape was white sand desert dunes. The dunes were raked by the wind in such perfect lines so as to appear to have been tended by humans, but there were no animals in sight. No birds, not even any tiny scitterchats, which had been present in every other environment so far. The dunes were so unvarying in their perfect whiteness that progress was impossible to measure. The team plodded along, stumbling up one shifting dune and then sliding down the back of another, for hours, with no remarkable thing to interrupt the perfect whiteness of the seemingly endless desert.
“Well this is boring,” Mills said, expressing what the others were all thinking.
“It really is,” Anaxis agreed. “Beautiful, but so monotonous.”
At the top of a dune he had reached before the others, Orn turned around and said, “Not so fast, friends.”
“What, we need to slow down?” asked Mills.
“No, I meant, don’t be sure our day’s hike is so boring. Come, see what’s waiting for us on the other side of this dune.”
As the others came to the crest of the sandy peak, each were equally surprised to see what Orn had found.
“An oasis!” Xala shouted. “Oh, it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen!”
Surrounding a crystal-clear pool of water were lush green palms and ferns, the scene looking like a jeweled broach bedecking the whiteness all around it.
“Did you know this was here?” Laquin asked Orn.
“I had no idea,” he answered. “What a happy surprise!”
The group ran and tumbled down the sand to the oasis, then pressed through the heavy growth to the water, which tasted fresh and felt cool on their sun-scorched skin.
“I’ve never been so happy to see water in my life!” Mills said joyously, splashing Anaxis and Xala.
“It’s magnificent!” Xala cried. She drank from her cupped hands and laughed.
“It really is!” Laquin agreed. She started to fill her canteens. “And all the better for how unexpected it was.”
A small school of silvery fish swam through the water, darting about in synchronicity.
“Anyone for fish?” Mills asked.
“I could have one or twelve,” Anaxis answered.
“Coming right up!” Mills said. He waded into the water and started stalking the fish, plotting out how he might catch them.
“Don’t catch them all,” Orn advised. “It’d be a shame to leave the pool empty.”
“There are plenty,” Mills said. “Besides, I’ll be lucky if I can catch one. They’re so fast!”
“Don’t worry if you’ve can’t catch them, Mills,” Laquin said from the brush. “It looks like we’ve got gligs and tunnis growing here, too!”
“The shade…” Xala said, stretching out beneath a palm. “The glorious shade! It feels so good!”
“I wonder why those people in Allovast haven’t come out here,” Anaxis said. “It seems much nicer than the valley.”
“Maybe they have,” Orn said. “We wouldn’t be able to know; the wind would wipe away any trace of their footsteps.”
“Funny you should say that,” Laquin said from where she was crouched in the bush. She stood up holding a basket weaved of etral fronds. “Look what I found. It looks like they’ve been here before.”
“I imagine it’s an important food and water source for them,” Orn said.
“I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if we shared it for a bit,” Laquin said.
The team languished and played for an hour or so, enjoying the shade and the water. The sun moved through the sky as they relaxed, watching over their recreation.
Xala ducked into the deep brush to relieve herself. When she stood back up to rejoin the others, she was startled by what she saw coming over the surrounding dunes. “Heads up,” she said, “I think we’ve got company.”
A group of a dozen or so of the inhabitants of Allovast were headed straight for the oasis.
“What are we going to do?” Mills asked, leaving his fishing behind and running up to where Orn was standing.
“As much as I hate to say it, we should probably leave,” Orn said. “As quickly as possible.”
“Oh, but that’s not fair!” Mills said. “We just got here!”
“True. But we weren’t expecting to be here at all,” Orn said. “We are lucky to have been able to get more water, and whatever Laquin has collected. But remaining here and facing possible conflict wouldn’t be worth it. We should appreciate that we got to enjoy it at all, and move on.”
“Really?” Mills whined, looking to the others for a contradictory opinion.
“I think he’s right,” Anaxis answered. “It’s theirs. I mean, they have so little. We should leave it to them. I’m feeling much better now.”
“Great, just great,” Mills said, sulking.
“I’m no happier than you about it, Mills,” said Xala. “But Orn is probably right.”
“Get your shoes back on,” Orn said. “We can still make the Wash by nightfall.”