Day came with only a slight lightening of the sky. A dense ceiling of clouds and a heavy fog obscured the sun and any prying eyes. Billy didn’t know if the weather was Kratia’s doing, the Crystal’s, or a whim of fate, and in his dark mood didn’t care. Only Sarral was present to see them off. Just as well. Billy did not want to see Kratia’s face any time soon. Unless to kill her.
Billy, Drake, and a squad of twelve men were on horseback; another two horses carried additional supplies. The fog was cool and clammy against Billy’s face and the inability to see more than a few feet in any direction added fuel to his foul mood.
Drake rode point, with Billy next and the rest of the troop following close behind. They descended the access road and crossed the bridge, then turned north along the banks of the Moen. They followed a narrow dirt road that was overgrown with grass and weeds. The fog slowed their initial progress only slightly. The road was straight and relatively smooth and they made fifty miles by midday. The fog dissipated but the day remained overcast and a light rain fell sporadically. Drake ignored the weather, and when one of his men complained about the wizards slacking off on their weather control duties, Drake gave him such a withering look that all conversation stopped for an hour.
They reached the foot of the Needles before dark and Drake ordered camp set up. Drake posted sentries but the night passed uneventfully. Billy had ample opportunity for escape, but without a plan to free Nexus there was nothing better than to stay with Drake.
The following day the weather improved and a pale sun greeted the troop at dawn. They ate a quick breakfast, saddled the horses, and begun the crossing of Anro Pass. Like the previous day, the group moved quietly and without incident. The wind was at their back and relatively calm at only forty miles per hour, so they stayed mounted. Just after they had past under the giant rotor blades one of Drake’s men squeezed past Billy and pulled up next to Drake.
“What about the demolition?” asked the young man.
“Jeez, Paul. Pay attention at the briefings. That’s the other power station,” said Drake. “Get back in line.”
Their progress was remarkably fast during both the ascent and the descent, although conversation was sparse as the narrow pass forced them to ride single file. They crossed the worst and highest portion of the mountain ridge easily and reached the western foothills before sundown. From high up on the last large hill, Billy looked out on the vast expanse of barren plains that was once Aloria. From this vantage the Desolation was an almost featureless brown that stretched to the gently curving horizon. Only one small portion a few miles away showed a patch of green. Billy smiled grimly as he realized that some plant life had been rekindled by Nexus’s spell was still managing to hang on.
Billy saw Drake looking at the same spot of greenery; Drake announced that it would be their destination for the evening camp. There were grumbles from the men about spending the night in the Desolation, but another scowl from Drake quelled any complaints. Two hours later camp had been set. The night passed without incident, save for the repetition of Billy’s dream: the same Rauder woman from before now stood waving a dagger slowly in front of him. “Don’t waste your chance, utaka ushema,” she said. “Turn back while you can. Death waits for you in the North.”
Billy awoke with a jerk, droplets flying from the thin layer of sweat that covered his body. It was an hour before dawn. In the dim light of the campfire he saw Drake staring at him.
“I’ve been told that this place can cause nightmares.” Drake smiled, his teeth shining in the ruddy light cast by the dying embers of the night’s fire. “I don’t get any myself, not anymore. I’ve seen too many things, done too many things – bloody, horrible, god-ugly things – for me to get nightmares. When I sleep, it’s just dark and empty. Like the sleep of the dead.”
“When I come after a person, I become their nightmare,” Billy said. He sat up and stared at Drake. “If you continue to serve Kratia I’ll be coming for you.”
Drake laughed, waking the rest of the troop. “That would be an interesting show, Billy. One I’d really like to see. Too bad you’re never going to get the chance.”
The troop mounted up early and headed due north, staying within the boundary of the Desolation where the hard-packed ground and barren terrain afforded ideal travel conditions. By early evening they had covered nearly the entire distance to the River Glorian. They waded across the shallow river, some of the horses pausing to drink the sweet water. Then they left Aloria behind, climbing up the northern bank. On this side of the river, grasses, shrubs and trees grew in abundance, and their progress slowed accordingly. They had pushed on a few miles when Drake suddenly raised his hand for a halt. Billy rode up next to Drake and saw the reason for the delay.
A Rauder on horseback was blocking the rough trail they had been following. Trees and underbrush concealed whatever companions might be lurking nearby. The Rauder was clearly aware of Drake and his soldiers, and was waiting for them to draw nearer. Drake ordered his men to ready their arms; Billy was surprised to see the men pull automatic assault rifles from their packs.
Billy dug his heals into his horse and yelled at Drake to hold his fire as his horse shot past. Drake cursed and called for Billy to get his ass back where it belonged before it got shot to pieces, but Billy was already nearing the Rauder and was directly in the potential line of fire. Drake fumed and waited, ordering the men to hold their fire.
The Rauder was one that had been in the band that Billy had encountered a few days before. The man nodded to Billy. “I greet you, Takashema. You may pass. But the men that are with you, I know them not. Perhaps they should prove themselves worthy as you did.”
Billy considered the situation carefully. The prospect of having the Rauders tackle Drake’s band was tempting, but Billy didn’t give the Rauders much chance against automatic weapons. Nexus had told him that firearms wouldn’t work in Salmineria, but it wasn’t like Drake to bluff. Hell, how could Drake bluff, when no one here even knew what a gun was? He had to assume the guns were functional. Given that, it was better to avoid bloodshed and keep a potential ally for future needs.
“I remember you, Staggar of the Tree Mist tribe,” Billy answered. “The men are with me. They bear no ill will towards your tribe.”
The Rauder looked hard at Billy, then past him at Drake and the other men. “They were not with you before.”
“I defeated your chief only five days ago,” replied Billy harshly. “Is there a time limit on my right to travel in your lands, or on who I choose to bring with me? Must I fight you every time I return?”
“They were not with you before,” stated the Rauder stubbornly.
“They are with me now. Stand aside or I shall defeat you as I did your chief.”
The Rauder glared at Billy, then broke into a smile. “Another time, Takashema,” he shouted as his horse reared up. With a leap the huge animal vanished with its rider into the woods. The sound of other horses could be faintly heard as the unseen band galloped away.
Drake rode up to Billy, eyeing him coldly. “What did you say to scare him off that way?”
“Be thankful that I was able to avoid bloodshed, Drake.”
“They ain’t so tough, Billy. Bullets take down anybody, and I got plenty of bullets.”
“We should set up camp soon. We’ll be safe as long as we stay within the territory of the Tree Mist tribe. I won’t have any influence with the other tribes.”
“So you tangled with these guys before?” commented Drake, his eyes reappraising Billy. “You ought to tell me about it. Must have been a hell of a row.”
Billy refused to say any more, and Drake ordered the band to set up camp at the next clearing, which they found about a mile further. The night passed without incident and without dreams.
Drake roused the troop before dawn, saying that he wanted another early start to be sure of making it to Bors Pass before nightfall. The temperature had dipped during the night, and even with the sun shining in a clear sky it remained noticeably cooler than it had been at Hornblower. Hearing some men grumbling at the weather, Drake laughed and told them to enjoy it. There would be much colder times ahead. They made good progress until they reached the base of a tall rocky cliff that ran parallel on their right for as far as they could see. The ground was rubble and cracked rock, making it a slow go for the horses.
After a few miles, the rushing white rapids of the river Nurnen blocked their forward path. The river had cut a wide path through the cliff, creating Bors Pass. They turned east into the pass, riding on the southern bank of the river, the sheer cliff again on their right.
Less than a mile into the pass, Drake called a halt. Billy rode up next to Drake and raised an eyebrow.
“I don’t like it,” Drake muttered in response. “High cliffs to our right. Impassable river on our left. Narrow passage. Perfect place for an ambush.” He barked out a command to his men, and guns were pulled out again. Drake ordered a careful watch on both the cliffs and the far shore.
But no attack came, and after trekking at least sixty miles into the long pass, Drake halted and set up camp for the night. It had grown even colder, and began to snow heavily.
“Bundle up, Billy boy,” said Drake. “And sleep well. Tomorrow we have a long fast march to get to the border of Purgatorius.”