Slate awoke early with the crest of a brilliant sunrise and decided to take Pilotte into town, to see if he could find some folds or glint as a surprise for Arianna before she woke up.
The sprawling logging operations just outside town told Slate that TkLawt was booming. The streets he came to were wide, built for the massive carts that hauled towering stacks of lumber from the woods to the mills, of which there were dozens, all bustling with activity.
The storefronts lining the sawdust-strewn streets of the city’s downtown appeared slapdash, built quickly of whatever material had been available at the time. The dusty citizens crowding these few, small buildings were hard-faced, and cast hostile looks at Slate and Pilotte. It wasn’t until he saw his reflection in a filthy window that he realized how ragged and burnt he looked.
Anxious to escape the suspicious townsfolk, the young man stopped at the first food cart he reached. The humorless merchant sold him glint in two small, dirty cups, and a dry, broken fold, then got angry when Slate questioned the quality of his merchandise. Another man who had been in the queue stopped Slate to apologize for the merchant’s attitude.
“Sorry, outsider. Don’t take it personal,” the bearded man said.
“Oh, I don’t, ever,” Slate said. He began to walk away.
“Where ya in from?” the man asked after him.
“Aurora Falls,” Slate answered.
“All the way up there? What are you doing here in TkLawt, of all places? Thought you Aurorians didn’t like our working with Opal Pools.”
Slate stopped and turned around. “We’re looking for work,” he said after a moment’s hesitation.
“Plenty of that here. Wait a second, I have to pay the man,” the stranger said, dropping some coins on the merchant’s counter before he joined Slate and Pilotte near a hitching post.
“The pay is terrible,” he continued, “But the work is steady. Though first, I have to ask: What exactly do you call that thing you got there?”
“That’s Pilotte, he follows me everywhere,” said Slate. “He’s a snarlingwulf.”
“A fine-looking animal. Never seen one near that big before. Anyways, if you want work, you should come over to my place. It’s right here in town. We’ll get you set up. You a hard worker? You know trees?”
“Sure. Who doesn’t know trees?”
“Good deal. I’ll see if we can’t find something for that beast to pull around, too. Clyde Batch is my name, what’s yours?”
“Dahzi Juke. Good to meet you.”
“We’ll see how you feel about me after a couple weeks sawing wood, Dahzi!” laughed Clyde. “I’m at the corner of Line and Alat. Look for my name on the sign when you come ’round.”
“Sounds good,” Slate said.
“Say, who’s that other cup of glint for?”
“For my partner, back at the camp.”
“Well you should bring him on by, too. Remember, thanks to Opal Pools, there’s plenty of work, plenty of work,” Clyde repeated as he shuffled off.
Back at camp with two cold, dirty cups of glint, Slate and Arianna ate their breakfast and listened to the cries of ‘Timber!’ echoing through the trees.
“They’re cutting the whole forest down. For Opal Pools,” Slate said.
“How far away are we now?” Arianna asked.
“Still a few days. After we sell the horses, it’s going to be a long, long walk,” answered Slate.
Arianna thought for a moment and then asked, “Slate, how do you think all this wood gets there?”
“Oh, I guess they usually float…” Slate explained without thinking, before realizing what he was saying. “…It down a river!”
“So there’s probably a river that flows from somewhere near here all the way to Opal Pools, right?” Arianna asked.
“Or real nearby. Look at how clever you are,” Slate said.
The two passed Patch and Chestnut off to Ginny’s friend Murtle, who they located by asking Clyde Batch. The horses seemed happy as Murtle led them off, even stopping to rear up good-bye as they went.
Just as Slate and Arianna suspected, the O River flowed just outside the town of TkLawt, and could be reached at the end of any of the logging roads. After sliding down a muddy log flume to the riverbanks, the group hopped onto one of the hundreds of booms of felled trees floating downstream. They were clear of TkLawt before they knew it.
The soot, sap, and gnarled bark of the boom didn’t make for the most comfortable transport, but it was free and fleet. The team drifted past the countryside, watching trading posts come and go along with forests and animals along the riverbanks. The river was jam-packed with log booms, yet the travelers only ever occasionally saw a lumberman separating the logs with their long, hooked, wooden poles. Even so, during the day, the friends hid. When night came, Arianna used one of her scarves as a net to catch fish under the stars. The three days it took to reach Opal Pools were passed in relative relaxation.
Word that the metropolis was approaching passed along a chain of lazy calls from the lumbermen over the stowaways’ heads. Peering out from their hiding place, Slate could see the skyline of Opal Pools, its lean skyscrapers as strange as the rock formations in the Glass Desert.
It was clear that the time had come to get off the log boom, though how exactly that was to be accomplished remained unclear.
“I don’t think we can make it all the way to the bank if we jump from here. We’ll have to jump into the river and then swim over,” Slate said.
“Right… I think I’ll go second,” said Arianna.
“Your humor is as dry as anything’s going to get around here for a while,” Slate said.
“Oh, that hurt. Terrible joke,” Arianna said, shaking her head.
The two stood poised, watching and waiting for the best moment to jump, when at once their senses were overtaken by a horrendous noise that roared up all around them.
Slate couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw a giant steel cart come barreling down the side of the river. The cart was moving at an impossible speed, quickly revealing itself to be not one but a series of carts, all linked and tearing along as one. The monstrosity whipped and wound along the riverbank like a strake, before it turned toward the river and bore down on Slate and Arianna.
It tore past their boom with such velocity that they were thrown back onto the logs as it went by, appearing as a terrifying blur of metal and lightning. The roar it emitted was ear shattering, louder than the greatest winds and thunder Slate had ever heard. Pilotte had never looked so bewildered, if he had ever looked bewildered before.
The nightmare seemed to last forever, and then was gone as quickly as it had come. Slate’s entire field of vision changed in an instant from a metallic blur to bucolic countryside again, as the monster rumbled off into the distance spewing smoke and steam and squealing, leaving Slate’s ears ringing.
“What was that?” screamed Arianna.
“What?” Slate screamed back.
“What was that?” Arianna hollered.
“I don’t know!” Slate hollered back. “Do you still want to get off the river?”
Just then, he spotted an embankment wide enough to risk attempting a jump. He didn’t wait for an answer from Arianna; he leapt to his feet and ran, gaining what speed he could before diving off the boom. He overestimated his abilities, and fell immediately into the water. Arianna failed her jump as well, and so the two had to slog their way through the marsh, up the side of the embankment, and finally to level, dry ground. Pilotte, of course, had no troubles with the jump at all.
It was at the top of the embankment that Slate found the secret to the great metal monster’s flight: an interminably long pair of rails, which stretched out in either direction until they looked to converge, like huge arrows pointing north and south. The metal monster had left these runs of steel hot to the touch, as Slate discovered when he tried to feel one.
“Careful! It’s hot!” he cautioned, jumping up and shaking his hand. “Whoa… put your foot on it, though, you can still feel it vibrating!”
“I don’t want to touch those, Slate,” Arianna said. “Have you ever seen something like that before? What was it?”
“These are kind of like mine tracks, aren’t they? It was just, like, a giant mine cart, that could propel itself somehow. Incredible! And do you see that skyline? Those buildings are enormous! Just imagine what the rest of the city must be like!”
“Oh, I can’t even!” Arianna gasped.
“We’re not too far off now, are we?” Slate asked, standing up tall. “Let’s go see this Opal Pools.”
“Are you scared?” Arianna asked.
“No,” Slate said. “A little. Are you?”
“A little,” Arianna confessed.
“It’s okay,” said Slate. “That makes it even more exciting! Here we go.”