Pilotte led the way over sand dune after sand dune until he finally found a way out of the Ojikef Delta. A dirt road ran near the exit, along which Slate and Arianna found a small general store.
“We should stop here for supplies,” said Slate.
“Aren’t you worried that the Protectorate might have put out a search for us?” Arianna asked. “Shouldn’t we keep in hiding?”
“Even if they are looking for us, it’s not as if they can go screaming to the police or the press. What with their whole ‘secret organization’ thing. I think we’ll be alright.”
“Perhaps. Still, I don’t think we should be seen together, especially with Pilotte. Anyone would remember Pilotte. We don’t want to leave a trail of witnesses.”
“That’s smart, you’re right. You stay here with Pilotte, while I go across the street and get supplies.”
“Why should I stay?”
“Why should you go?”
“You forget, Slate, that we women have an easier time disguising ourselves.”
“Just a minute.”
Arianna began rearranging her still-wet hair around her hairpins. Soon, it was up in a bun and the young woman was rummaging through her bag. After a quick application of lip pigment, eyeliner and a brush of rouge, Arianna looked at least five years older and completely different than she had just a moment before.
“What witchcraft is this?” Slate joked.
“I’m still Arianna, Slate. Stop drooling. I’ll be back soon.”
At the general store, Arianna managed to procure a waterproofed map of the area, a tent, a fair amount of food, a water filter, and a first aid kit. With the new supplies, and a meal in their stomachs, the explorers set off down the wildflower-dotted path to Opal Pools.
The vista changed dramatically as the team moved south. The terrain near the delta, lush with vegetation and small ponds, turned to sparser clumps of grass and the cracked mud of dead lakes after less than half a day’s travel. Giant, red rock formations arose from the sandy ground. The day grew hotter and the air drier. All signs of life faded, eventually even the buzz of flies.
Pilotte’s tongue lolled out of his mouth and his throat clicked as he panted in the overwhelming aridity. A muddy puddle marked on the map as a watering hole was all that Slate could source for the thirsty wulf, and no filter was going to extract hydration from the muck. The next source of water marked on the map was still some five lengths away.
“Should we turn back?” Slate asked.
“Well, we need water. Do you want to turn back?” Arianna asked.
“No,” Slate said.
“Me either,” said Arianna. “Let’s keep going. Saityr’s Quarry is next. It looks to be a city of some size. We should be able to find water there.”
“I really hope so.”
There shone a sparkle from the haze, something in the distance gleaming like a diamond. Slate had read about how the desert could make people see things that weren’t really there, and so didn’t say anything to Arianna until they had come close enough to where she confirmed what he was seeing. The gleam was coming from a silo, one rising over a plot of farmland somehow full of vegetation in the middle of the otherwise lifeless desert.
Coming closer still, the two saw a farmhouse, albeit a small one, built low to the ground, with a barn nearby for sheltering the horses and muus that lay asleep in its shade. A metal windmill spun slowly over the farm, pumping dirty spurts of water into a mucky pond whenever the erratic wind rose up. At least twelve faded signs on display around the fencing told would-be trespassers that they should reconsider their plans if they valued their lives.
“I think someone actually lives out here,” Slate said.
“Yoohoo!” a voice cried from behind the fence. “Hey! You two! Where’re you going?
“There she is,” said Arianna.
“We’re just passing by!” Slate called back. “Don’t worry, we’re not trespassing!”
“You kids are going to die if you keep going like that,” the voice said.
Slate and Arianna exchanged looks of concern.
“What do you mean?” Arianna asked the stranger. “We’re not entering your property…”
“No, I mean, if… Oh, forget all this shouting, come on inside for something cool to drink!”
Slate and Arianna might have stopped to discuss the idea first, but Pilotte made their decision for them when he started trotting back toward the farm. He ran through a gate and up the path toward the farmhouse, where a woman met him on the porch. Deep lines in her sunburnt face pulled around her smile, and sparkling, green eyes shown from within their thick folds.
“Well, howdy!” she said heartily as Slate and Arianna approached warily. “Sorry if I startled you, but I don’t see too many people out here, you know? Least not but fyreheads, or criminals runnin’ away. But you three aren’t criminals, are ya?”
“No, ma’am,” Slate said.
“Don’t look like it, anyways,” the woman said. “But listen, you kids need to sit down here and have some lemon ice and hear a thing or two before you head off into the desert like you’re settin’ to.”
“I know I can’t refuse an invitation to lemon ice,” Arianna said.
“Me either. That sounds wonderful,” Slate agreed.
The woman nodded. “Well then come on in, make yourselves at home.”
The two followed her inside the house, stopping first in the kitchen, where a bowl of water was put down for Pilotte. The farmhouse was dark and cool, and filled with the faint aroma of prairie flower.
“Please,” the woman urged, waving her visitors to an old, worn couch. “Sit down.”
Slate and Arianna took a seat, as the old woman poured lemon cider over ice cubes that cracked and spun around their glasses.
“Good timing you all have, why, I had just set up the tray,” she said, handing a glass to Slate.
“Iced and everything. Incredible,” Slate said. He took a sip, and the cool, sweet drink coated his tongue and the back of his parched throat. “This is such a treat.”
“Well, thank you,” said the woman. “It’s my mamma’s recipe.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Slate said, “I’ve been rude. My name is Slate, and this is Arianna, and the wulf is Pilotte.”
“Beautiful creature, that wulf. Nice to meet you, Slate. And you too, Arianna. I’m Ginny.”
“Do you live here? In the desert?” asked Arianna.
“I don’t know who else would work the farm if I didn’t,” Ginny cackled.
“You’re here all by yourself?” Slate asked.
“All by myself,” Ginny said proudly. “Though, I can defend myself, so don’t try anything funny.”
“We wouldn’t think of it,” Arianna said.
“Good,” Ginny said. “Yep, all alone. Ever since Sam died.”
“Your husband? I’m sorry for that,” said Arianna.
“I appreciate it, darlin’. We never got married in the eyes of the law, but we were hitched, that’s for certain. I miss him. It’s alright though, they’re on the greatest adventure of them all now, those who’ve left us. Good old Sam,” Ginny reminisced, staring into her glass.
“Do you have any family or friends nearby?” asked Slate.
“Nearby? Where nearby?” Ginny asked.
“Isn’t Saityr’s Quarry just to the south of here?” Slate asked.
“Son,” Ginny said, shaking her head slowly, “Saityr’s Quarry doesn’t exist anymore.”
Arianna gave Slate a worried look.
“No, thank you, sir. Alone on this farm is where I want to be,” Ginny said. “I don’t much care for most people, anyways, thank you. I have no interest in towns, cities or any of the rest of the burning mess that humanity calls society these days. I’m completely out of the system. I don’t want their food, their water, or their fancy technologies. I don’t want none of it!”
“Why not?” asked Slate.
“Because, kids, there comes a point in your life when you realize you’re a cog in a machine. You work and you buy and you work and you buy, but you aren’t happy. Civilization these days just sucks up the whole world so it can sell it back to you. They’re gonna kill the planet, worse than any Fall ever could. When they can’t live in their scorched world, I’ll know how. I’ve always done it. I can live off nothing, like a strake, like all of us desert creatures are the toughest, the hardest. We’ll still be here.”
Slate nodded. “I understand,” he said.
This caught Ginny by surprise. “You understand? How so?”
“Well,” Slate said, “Arianna and I are from the far west, originally, from the island of Aelioanei, actually. In my village, at least, we always lived very simply, off the land, like you do here. Things there are changing for the worse, and quickly. Not just there, everywhere, really. And all along my travels from home I’ve heard these stories, of the forbidden wonders and technologies of Opal Pools. How they’ve developed some horrible weapon that they’re going to use to take control of the world or something. It’s hard to know what to believe. So Arianna and I are travelling there ourselves, to see it with our own eyes, and decide what’s really going on.”
“A quest to make sense of this crazy world?” Ginny asked, her green eyes wide and bright.
“Exactly,” Slate answered.
“I don’t know, kids,” Ginny said. “I hear you talk like that and it stirs me. But I’m no fighter. I don’t like leaving the house. I’m a survivor. But just because I’m out of the race doesn’t mean you two have to be. You still got your youth, your fighting spirit. You should follow your dreams! Go to Opal Pools, see things for yourself.”
“That’s the idea,” Slate said.
“All the way from Aelioanei to Opal Pools through the Glass Desert,” Ginny said, envisioning the trip in her mind. “Now, that’s an adventure. Did y’all know it’s a couple lengths to any watering hole? I don’t see you carrying much supply.”
“No,” said Arianna, disappointed. “We didn’t know that about the water. Our map said that Saityr’s Quarry was our next step, that’s what we were relying on. But now you say it’s not even there anymore. Is it even possible to make it to Opal Pools through the desert?”
“It’s possible, sure, but you’re gonna need some help. Come on, now,” the old woman said, grunting as she stood. She waddled out the back door with Slate and Arianna following after.
“You kids ride horses?” Ginny asked, heading to the stable.
“No,” Slate and Arianna answered simultaneously.
“Well, you’re gonna,” Ginny laughed.
Inside the stable were three horses, two brown and one mottled. Ginny chose one of the small, brown horses, named Chestnut, for Arianna, and the spotted one, Patch, for Slate. After a hurried crash-course in equestrian fundamentals, Ginny told Arianna and Slate that they were free to take the horses for use over the rest of the Glass Desert and beyond.
“That’s… Are you sure?” Arianna asked, astonished.
“Course I’m sure,” Ginny said, petting Patch softly.
“That’s so kind of you, Ginny. We really cannot thank you enough,” Slate said.
“And you don’t have to, kids,” Ginny said. “Sam loved these horses and would be proud you’re using ’em to search for truth. When you get to the city of TkLawt, after the buttes, you can sell ’em to a man there, named Murtle. He’ll take good care of Sam’s horses. I’m getting too old to take care of them all anyways. Now, daylight is running out! You must go! You must chase down your dream! Ride wild into the night! Question and demand an answer from this mad world. Live, children, live!” the dazzled-eyed woman cried. She began jumping up and down and howling at the sky. Pilotte began to howl with her, and so Slate and Arianna joined in, losing themselves.
After a snack and more lemon ice back in the farmhouse, the horses were saddled with packs and some small supplies, and then Slate and Arianna thanked Ginny again and bid her goodbye. Ginny whipped the horses into a gallop with a whistle, and they charged forward from the farm into the wide-open desert ahead.