It was unclear how long Slate and Arianna had been riding in the searing heat of the desert before a towering rock formation in the form of a bull’s head came up from the sand to block the afternoon sun. The shape was represented on the travelers’ map, one of the few things in the desert that were, as the southern edge of Saityr’s Quarry, the town Ginny had made clear no longer existed.
A bizarre scene revealed itself to the riders as they came under the bull’s horns. Dozens of points of light sparkled about the hills rising up to the formation, reflections from what revealed themselves to be scattered ruins. Around the collapsing buildings built into the mountainside were blast-holes gaping like sores, with rails and platforms running in and out and trails of scree trickling down like gore, the remains of a massive mining operation.
“My Gods…What did they do here?” asked Arianna. “It’s like Alm is bleeding.”
“It’s ruined,” Slate agreed. “What do you think they were mining?”
“I don’t have the slightest idea,” Arianna said, “All this destruction, what could possibly have justified it?”
Slate and Arianna dismounted when the path became too littered with stones for Patch and Chestnut to navigate easily, continuing on foot to lead the horses through the ruins.
As they passed closely by the tin skeleton of an operations building, corroded and full of hole, a loud bang of metal on metal sounded from somewhere in the near distance. Chestnut reared up in fright as two figures, then three, appeared from over a low hill.
“What’s that?” Arianna yelped.
Slate studied Pilotte to see if the wulf appeared worried, which he did not.
“Hello?” called out Slate. His voice echoed loudly off the mountain.
One of the gaunt figures gave a wave.
“Do you think we should go talk to them?” Slate asked Arianna.
“I don’t know,” she said. “What could they be doing here?”
“Maybe still mining? Hunting?” Slate guessed. “Maybe they know of a well?”
“We have plenty of water from Ginny,” Arianna said.
“We could always use more. Let’s go talk to them,” Slate said. “Keep your distance, though. Be ready to run.”
The two left Pilotte waiting with the horses, though the wulf still followed halfway after them as they went to meet the strangers, ready to defend if he had to.
“Do you have anything to eat?” the oldest of the group, an exhausted-looking man, begged as soon as Slate was within earshot. The two others with him were a frail woman and an even sicker-looking child.
“We do,” Slate answered.
“Do you have any to spare?” the man asked.
Slate looked to Arianna, who nodded to say that they did.
“A bit,” Slate answered hesitantly.
“Bless you! Oh, bless you both! Please, please, Come with us,” the ghost of a woman said weakly but happily.
Slate and Arianna followed the three to a patchwork tent riddled with holes and worn thin by the rays of the unforgiving desert sun.
“Please, can you share your food with me and my family now?” the man begged as soon as Slate and Arianna were inside.
“Of course, of course,” said Slate. He reached into his sack and brought out crackers and sausage, which the family accepted with ferocity.
“Careful not to eat too fast, Dora, you’ll hurt your stomach,” the mother cautioned her child.
Slate and Arianna watched the family eat, until the father looked up with eyes more present, sharp, and full of life.
“Praise the Gods, thank you, thank you,” he said.
“Of course,” Slate said. “Here, you can have all you want. How far are we from food that you are starving so badly?”
“We aren’t too far from food, but we can’t get to town,” said the woman.
“Why not?” asked Slate.
The man ashamedly lifted his pant leg to show a malformed limb, thin at the top, with bubbling folds of skin at the bottom.
“What happened?” asked Arianna.
“It’s from the mines,” the man said. “It’s all from the mines. We’re poisoned.”
“What was mined here? What happened to you?” Arianna asked.
“Opal Pools happened,” the man answered.
“Opal Pools?” Slate repeated.
“None other,” said the man. “At first, they were alright, even good for us. We had always been a goldquartz quarry, and we were blessed with a good spring and a lake. Lots of folks from Proterse would buy our goldquartz and vacation here. But then Opal Pools found tynarium in the mountain, said they found lots of it. We didn’t know what it was, tynarium, still don’t, but the attention it attracted was even better for the city than the goldquartz. Lot of money came in, lot of new work for the men and women around here, for the people from down in TkLawt, for traveling workers coming down from Aurora Falls. Opal Pools built us schools, a firehouse. Dammed up the river for electricity and gave us glowing streetlamps.”
“I was able to get an oven, a real, hand-wrought oven,” the woman interjected. The idea still seemed to excite her.
“But then everyone got sick,” the man continued. “Started to get so sick. Coughing up the strangest stuff after being in those mines. Then people started to die. Of course, certain bodies held out longer, so the foremen pointed to them and said, ‘See, nothing’s wrong here.’ But it was obvious. Obvious to anyone who didn’t want to ignore it and keep getting richer.”
“And then all the babies born weren’t moving,” the woman said sadly. “The schools they built just sat there. There weren’t any children to fill them.”
“Except Dora,” the father said proudly, grasping his frail daughter tightly. “And Faim, my son. He’s in back.”
“Did everyone else die?” Arianna asked.
“Not everyone,” the man said. “When the tynarium was gone, which was almost as soon as it was found, they decided that the best thing to do was to flood the valley, to try to wash away the sickness. They tore up everything they could, barely even left the buildings, tore up the mine tracks and the streetlamps, even the fire station. They hauled it all away, broke the dam, and flooded the valley. Didn’t give us but a half a week’s warning beforehand. We couldn’t leave, Faim was too sick. We sat right up there on the mountainside and watched the town get washed over. But all the water did was wash more waste out of the mines and onto the plains, destroying the lake. You see what’s left. All we’ve got now is our spring.”
“Is there anyone else left here, other than you?” asked Slate.
“Maybe,” said the man. “It’s hard to move, though, so I don’t know. We hear things, especially at night, but I don’t get around much. Can we have more to eat, please?”
Slate gave the family the rest of the food he had brought to the tent. After it had been devoured, the man stood up.
“We are so grateful for your help, friends,” he said. “I can feel some of my strength returning. Please, I want you to meet my son.”
He beckoned for Slate and Arianna to follow him through a tattered fabric partition to the back of the tent. Slate saw the faint outline of a body there, covered by blankets in the dark recess.
“Faim?” the man asked the boy in a whisper, “Faim, I want you to meet Slate and Arianna. They have brought us food to eat!”
An almost undetectable ruffle signaled life within the blankets. Slowly, a bony hand reached out and pulled down the fabric to reveal two huge, blue eyes staring out from a sunken face.
“This is my son, Faim,” the man said as he knelt next to his boy. “How are you feeling, Faim?”
The boy’s body tensed, but he couldn’t speak. As Slate’s eyes grew more accustomed to the dark, he could see the child more clearly: pallid as the moon, his skin stretched taught over his bones. Whatever muscle tissue he once had was gone. Dark veins ran in visible striations all over his translucent body.
“He’s feeling better. Aren’t you, Faim?” asked the father.
The boy’s eyes bulged in terror like the deadened eyes of the itchy fish Slate had helped Hid Hidli catch.
“He’s so strong, my boy is,” the man said, trying to hold back tears. “He’s so good, he never complained. He’s like an angel, like a gift from the Gods. See how beautiful he is? How his skin turns clear? He’s like an angel.”
Slate and Arianna watched as the man washed his son’s ghostly face with a damp cloth, speaking inaudible words of comfort. When at last the father had covered the boy and dried his own eyes, he showed Slate and Arianna back out of the dark space.
“If you’d like to stay the night, we can find you something to sleep on,” he offered. “Though, you shouldn’t stay long. Death is all around.”
“Perhaps we should leave now, while there’s still some light left,” Slate said.
“When we reach TkLawt, we can tell the authorities you are out here,” Arianna said. “They will come to rescue you.”
“There are no authorities in TkLawt,” the woman said. “No one cares. No, that’s not fair. You care. Thank you for your kindness.”
Sad that they couldn’t do more, Slate and Arianna fled back to Pilotte, Patch, and Chestnut. They led the horses back out of the ruins, the mounted and raced from the shadow of the Bull’s horns as fast as they could.
“Awful,” Arianna said, nearly despondent. “Those poor people. That was just so awful.”
“I feel so bad for the children,” Slate agreed. “All of them. What’s tynarium even used for?”
“Nothing that I know of,” Arianna answered. “Not anymore. It hasn’t been used since before the Fall. Since the age of the Gods. It was an ancient power source, but we didn’t know how to activate it.”
“Not until now, it would seem,” said Slate. “But at what cost?”
The landscape began to change once more, now from desert to the area labeled on the travelers’ map as the Benoit Buttes. The Benoit Buttes were a disorienting place, all ups and downs around a rocky maze that left its visitors scratching their heads every time they reached the bottom of a gulley, then again when they crested a hill they thought would be an exit. Rounding any one of the hundreds of corners through the confusion led to various surprises, such as prismatic bacteria pools, and exotic creatures like viraliers and giant grelt. There were hundreds if not thousands of grelts, rolling in the dirt, scraping their matted fur against boulders, and grazing on the tall grasses around the hundreds of water holes pooled around the buttes. Patch and Chestnut had to be careful not to step in any of the thousands of doryholes that pocked in the ground, and Pilotte made a game out of chasing the little creatures as the team made slow progress.
Just before nightfall, the buttes became plains and travel became smoother. Water came flowing to the traveling party from a river that sprang up not far from a road they found, and Pilotte was able to scrounge a fat gammit out of the low grass for dinner.
The team arrived at the outskirts of TkLawt under starlight. There, trees and forests began to reappear, and the air began to carry smells again, something Slate hadn’t noticed missing in the desert. He and Arianna decided to camp just outside the city, as it was already late. With the promise of a fresh start and warm food the next morning, the two fell asleep in each other’s arms.