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“So how long are we going to be trekking through the desert?” Jason asked. “I’m not saying there isn’t a stark beauty to it, but I’d like to go someplace where even the sunshine isn’t actively trying to kill me.”

They’d left the manor at noon while Jason was still unconscious after his summoning ritual. By the time they stopped for the evening Jason was feeling battered by half a day of riding the wagon over rocky desert terrain. They camped in tents taken from Farrah’s magic chest and set off again in the morning.

The wagon’s progress along the little-used trail was slow but steady, only pausing occasionally to water the heidels from a barrel in the wagon. The creatures could handle the arid conditions well enough, but couldn’t forego water entirely. There were a dozen of them between Rufus’ string and the four pulling the wagon. Rufus had insisted on taking them over Anisa’s objection, refusing to leave them to starve in the stables of the abandoned manor.

They had taken a wagon because the lord of the manor had taken the more comfortable carriages when he fled, only leaving a few uncovered wagons behind. After waking up in the back one, Jason had joined Gary on the driver’s bench so he could take in the landscape. Luckily Jason’s slight build required little room, as Gary’s huge frame occupied most of it.

“It kind of looks like parts of my homeland,” Jason said. “We call it the Outback.”

“Out back of what?” Gary asked.

“Out back of everything,” Jason said.

“We’ll reach a village this afternoon,” Gary said. “Not sure how long we’ll stay. The guy that set us up lives there.”

“We’re going to pay him a little visit,” Farrah said.

“After that, we’re about two days from the river valley. From there, it’ll be a nice boat ride down to the coast. That’ll take a couple of days and bring us right into the city.”

“I’d like to take a couple of days with the prick that served us up to those cannibals,” Farrah said.

“We should be leaving that man to my church,” Anisa said. “His betrayal to my god was greater than his betrayal to you.”

“No one was going to eat your god,” Farrah said. “We’re going to peel this prick like an apple.”

“You have apples in this world?” Jason asked brightly. “I love apples.”

“Me too,” Gary said brightly.

“Remember not to kill him,” Rufus called over from where he was riding alongside the wagon. “He has questions to answer.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Farrah said. “I’m going to take it nice and slow.”

***

“Is the heat getting to me?” Jason asked, “or is that mountain green?”

The hills and mountains they had seen were largely barren, with a few scraggly trees at best. The trail was leading them in the direction of a dark green mountain. On the lower reaches it was largely plant life, more verdant than elsewhere in the desert. Toward the peak it was bare stone, which was also a deep green colour.

“Green marble is a regional specialty,” Farrah explained. “They export a lot of it through the city on the coast, which is where we’re going. They even named the city Greenstone.”

“There’s a village on the other side of the mountain,” Gary said. “That’s where we’re heading now.”

“The village is based around quarrying,” Farrah said. “We’ll see more traffic from here on as they cart the stone to the river and boat it down to the coast.”

The trail improved as it curved around the base of the mountain. It became wider and smoother, making the wagon ride less bumpy. As they made their way around the mountain Jason spotted rapidly increasing signs of life. The occasional patches of yellow grass became thicker, with more of the rare, scrubby trees.

They passed several quarry faces before the village came into sight. The trail had become a proper road at that point and their wagon become one of many. Jason noticed magic was being combined with manual labour, resulting in a more modern operation than he would have expected. There were even huge slabs of stone floating over the ground, along mine-cart style rails that glowed with magic.

When the village itself came into view, Jason was agog. From high on the mountain water sprayed out from a hole in the mountain itself, catching the light in a gorgeous waterfall that spilled hundreds of metres to a pool below. The pool fed a wide channel, stretching the better part of a kilometre into a small lake. There was a village built up around the shore of the lake. The lake was ringed with green, rich grass and some kind of palm tree. The village buildings were nestled amidst the lush greenery, buildings of stone, white plaster and occasionally vibrant green marble.

“You could make some real tourist money here,” Jason said.

“Pretty, isn’t it?” Farrah said. She had got up on her knees behind Jason and Gary to look out.

Jason’s gaze drifted up to the waterfall spraying out of the mountain.

“Aren’t they worried about digging into the water source?” he asked.

“Almost every oasis in this desert has a magical water source,” Gary said. “They could tear this mountain down to the ground and the water would just fall from the sky.”

“How does that work?” Jason asked.

“There’s an astral space connected to this desert,” Farrah said. “I’m assuming you have no idea what that is.”

“From the name, I’d guess some kind of interdimensional pocket,” Jason said.

“Um, yeah, actually,” Farrah said. “It’s connected to various places around the desert and produces a bunch of water, therefore, oases.”

“That sounds awesome,” Jason said. “Wonder if I could get up there for a closer look.”

“Astral spaces are actually pretty common,” Farrah said, “but normally they’re sealed off and you need magic to track one down and break in. Being naturally open like this is rare, especially with so many apertures. The river we’ll be going down comes out of the biggest one.”

“You can’t just constantly introduce new water,” Jason said. “Even if it takes a long time, it’ll eventually start messing with the climate.”

“No,” Farrah said, “the water coming out of the astral space has a high level of magic. When too much accumulates it turns into water quintessence. When it forms, it condenses huge quantities of magically-imbued water into a little crystal.”

“Is the crystal super-heavy?” Jason asked.’

“No,” Farrah said. “Why would it be?”

“Conservation of mass,” Jason said. “Or energy, or something. Physics isn’t my thing.”

Gary and Farrah glanced at each other and shrugged. They were quickly getting used to not knowing what Jason was talking about.

Farrah pointed out boats on the small lake that looked like fishing boats.

“Those are all people scouring the bottom of the lake for it,” she explained. “As forms of quintessence go, water is a common one. It’s one of the most useful, though.”

“Especially in the desert,” Gary added. “Being able to find it reliably means there’s real money to be made.”

“Yeah,” Farrah agreed. “There’s whole villages along the coast dedicated to hunting up water quintessence that forms after the river water washes out to sea. Funnily enough, this desert is one of the best sources of water quintessence in the world.”

The wagon was drawing closer to the village. They passed by what looked to be a staging area for exporting the marble before reaching the village itself. Rufus separated himself from the group to find somewhere to stable the string of heidels for the night. An inn would have livery room enough for the ones pulling the wagons, but not the extras ones as well.

The village was made up of a single, circular street running around the entirety of the lake, paved in tan-coloured brick. It looked like sandstone, but for all Jason knew, it could be some weird magic rock. It was close enough to yellow that if it didn’t loop in a circle he’d expect to find a shady fake wizard at the end.

“Or a real one,” he said to himself. “I wonder if I count?”

There were buildings on either side of the ring-road, the ones fronting onto the lake being larger and nicer. The smaller buildings were made from the same brick as the road. The larger ones were coated in a white plaster, with green marble embellishments.

The buildings were pleasantly placed among the trees and bushes growing around the lake. It was a stark contrast desert, with its dry dirt and spiky scrub. The smaller buildings had their own appeal, with an inviting homeliness to them. The street was busy with people, but more than broad enough that neither wagons nor pedestrians were inconvenienced. Looking around, everyone seemed happy.

Gary pulled the wagon to a halt in front of an inn and everyone climbed off. After hours of riding the wagon over bumpy ground, Jason’s body was creaky and sore. He took in a luxurious breath, heavy with moisture from the lake. Compared to the dust and heat of the open desert, it was like drinking in nectar.

“Think I might walk off the stiffness of bumping along in this wagon,” Jason said. “This is my first piece of civilisation not full of cannibals. Hopefully.”

“They’re not cannibals that we know of,” Farrah said with a laugh.

“Good,” Jason said. “I think I’ll have a look around.”

“Sounds good,” Gary said. “I’m going to get us some rooms and get these heidels unhitched.”

“Then Anisa and I will go track down our little friend,” Farrah said. “Don’t want him spotting us and running off.”

Anisa nodded her assent.

“Will he still be in town after selling you out?” Jason asked.

“Should be,” Farrah said. “He wasn’t expecting us to ever come back.”

“Do you need any money?” Gary asked Jason.

“I have some gold spirit coins left,” Jason said. “The rest are lower ranked, but I have a lot of them. Will that be enough?”

Gary and Farrah started laughing, even Anisa had an amused look on her face.

“Jason,” Gary said, “A gold spirit coin would buy the nicest building in this village, and I doubt there’s enough currency in it to give you the change. Unless you’re buying magic items or bulk trade goods, most people use lesser spirit coins, iron-rank at the most.”

“What’s the exchange rate between coins?” Jason asked. “Actually, I’ll figure it out myself. That’s part of the fun in coming to a new place, right?”

“That’s the spirit,” Gary said.

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Shirtaloon

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