I sheathed my sword and stood with my toes curled over the piers edge.
“He’s going to swim for it.” I heard behind me. Followed by a patter of their feet. I leapt into the water.
Frantic, I pulled myself to the surface and clawed my way through. The water didn’t sting, and it was pleasantly warm. No biting pain from heat, acid, or something else but I kept my mouth tight shut all the same. The whole swim couldn’t have been longer than twenty seconds.
As soon as my feet found the sand, I trudged through the water and–once released from its wet hug–kept running. The gremlins must still be after me. The name basin did this place justice. Running uphill and in sand was not east. The sand stole the spring from my step. The fog cleared once I reached the crest. The climb-run was around twenty stories.
Fatigue hit me all at once. My heart popped over and over. I collapsed into my footprint, tossed over, and gazed over the sea of fog. Captured in a huge bowl. Like incense burned in a plate. A thought of beauty cut through my panic. I knew no matter how tired the gremlins were, I wouldn’t be able to put up a fight. I wasn’t exact sure where I was. Somewhere on the east-south point of the basin. The only way to get to the west and the citrus harvest on time was through the basin. There is no way I’d return there. In fact I now feared for any traveler like myself who didn’t mind taking a short-cut through the basin. If I was forced to go around I would miss the beginning of the harvest and wouldn’t get a foreman position. The cut in pay could mean I would only scrape by in the winter, hungry most days. if I missed it completely, my stomach would miss the chance at food completely. There would be no other work. Except for cleaning, but the women cared for their men and weren’t about to let some transient take their work. Or the gremlins could catch up and put me out of my misery.
Mount Raven and Mount Carvel were out west. Not couldn’t recall how near to the great Patterson orange fields. It was worth asking about for, if I asked causally enough. Couldn’t let others know what I knew, I had paid a tenth of my grasp for the treasure clue.
My breath returned and I meandered a way to a glade of trees. The shade coupled with a tinkling breeze. A blackberry bush was there. It’s fruit would serve as my dinner. I unfurled my sleeping bag. If the gremlins were on my trail they would have caught me by now. Only the edges of the sleeping bag were damp thanks to my tight packing. I stripped and laid out my clothes in the sun. Idly, I ate the blackberries. I laid out my scarf and piled berries onto it then knotted it on top. The sun set and I stopped foraging. The light was too low and I was getting thorned by the bushes more often than plucking a berry.
I put on my clothes, snuggled into bed, and slept.
Later. I ate breakfast off the bush. Years of stomping around in the wild has made me impervious to repetitive meals. My fingers were stained. Sparse trees dotted around in lumpy clumps. All the trees were small. The breeze picked up and took the last of the moisture off me and long grass flicked my legs. I traveled like this for a week, hugging more or less to the rim of the basin. Walking south more than west and curving till I walked west more than south. There was an east-west road that kissed the south rim of the Vapor Basin. That road would take me all the way to Wagnotville and the Patterson orchard.
Below, in the fog, I heard sandy footsteps. I went up to the edge and peered in. Sword drawn. The gremlins have caught up. Likely a small group. I couldn’t let them send a messenger to tell them where I was. Either I would slay them all or be ready to flee. I held still, crouched behind a dry bush that didn’t complain of being rooted in sand. Voices came next from the fog. They were not gremlin voices, which were over pronounced. Big vowels to climb up and around their tall teeth. These voices were human, casual. I couldn’t make out what they were saying.
Then five hoods peeked from the fog. Long grey robes followed as if the hand of a god was lifting a grey candle from a bucket of molten wax. I could hear them clearly but they were speaking a foreign language. The words merged together in an unending low chatter. They stopped and looked around. I froze. Needless to say, I didn’t trust five grey robed men coming form the Vapor Basin. For all I knew they had something to do with the gremlins.
if they looked harder, they would have saw me. But their attention waned and they walked south into the woodlands. For a while, I kept still. Once satisfied with their distance I continued my journey.
They must have something to do with the gremlins. The gremlin told me the smell of blood directed them to the surface. Surely someone or something had bled before in the Vapor Basin. Why now? This was a time to be far away from here. I was tempted to flee south from the basin but there was nothing for me in the south.
As I walked, I kept looking over my shoulder to see if any grey hoods would appear behind me. Growing paranoia fueled my rush. I traveled for one last day and came to the road. I climbed onto it and followed it west. I was hungry, but in either direction there was nothing for miles. My hope was to meet someone honest on the road willing to trade. I would pretend I wasn’t hungry, of course, so they couldn’t drive up the price. Not that I worried for my survival. If the worst came, I could find a bee hive and plunder it, or scare an anthill and eat ants. There have been worse times in my life.
The road was paved before my time and it still held up. The stones fit so well together, large areas were still smooth toped. No beveled edges.
The raised stone road meant I could get to Wagnotville mostly in time. I preferred work and company to eating ants alone.
Nobody appeared on the road for hours. It was getting late. My feet pounded misery up my legs. Signaling strongly a time to rest. Start again tomorrow, we are done for today. The lack of travelers put me on edge. This was the main road east and west. When I left Tokenpoint out east, I heard of no trouble on the road. And if there was trouble on the roads, why hadn’t it caught up to me yet. The road felt less and less like a safe place.
Behind me, far off, I heard voices. Certainly not an ambush but I stepped off the road regardless. I took care to step lightly from rock to root to rock again. My boots were clean from the road and would leave no dirt on those. Once away from the road, I wedged myself into the thicket. Thorned twigs scrapped and crunched. Safely inside my twiggy bunker I listened to the voices. Suddenly loud and clear to my eats as I became silent.
I desperately hoped for a normal caravan. I could introduce myself. Explaining my reasonable caution as to why I was jumping out from the bushes at them. Then travel with them. I needed news of the outside world. Was I the only one to come across gremlins and grey hooded travelers? Something had changed in the last month and I needed to know what.
Foreign language, the same tonality from before. As sure as silver shines, grey hoods were attached. Through the thicket and trees, I saw another five of them. Perhaps it was the same group from before. They may be tracking me somehow.
They stopped exactly where I stepped off the road. They talked. This was as close they could come to me without stepping off the road. Low chatter continued. I desperately wished to understand them. It surely some joke. Like they already saw me and were laughing with themselves on how I thought I was avoiding them. They held still. I tried to discern the swirl of shadows under their hoods. More than ever I desired a friendly face–not that they would provide.
Then, as one, turned and went the way they came. I waited until the voices lifted away and then returned to the road. I had not walked five steps before the danger I was in struck me. If only I knew what those cultists were. They could be peaceful monks, or looking for food sacrifices for the gremlins. I couldn’t know until it was too late. I was sure they knew about the gremlins. They had come from the fog. There could be worse in the Vapor Basin. The very knowledge about the gremlins could be reason to kill me. Was it just coincidence they stopped where I was and turned around?
I had two choices, both I hated. I could stay on the road and risk encountering the cultists. Or I could travel south a ways and then west, in the wild. Slower, dangerous.