Four days across nothing but sand and more sand. The path used by sporadic travelers was less than noticeable, marked only by broken, wooden wagons, wheel spokes sticking up, and the occasional remains of sojourners who never made it through to the other side.
Now, on the eve of day four, their waters began to run low. Only two skins had any water left with no sign of water. On day two, one desert spring had been found, thanks to a fellow traveler who had the thoughtfulness to make an arrow. On a whim, they decided to see where the arrow led, and were pleasantly surprised to come across small stones marking the spring and a broken wooden pail. It took ten descents per skin with the pail barely able to hold water but it was better than running out.
Their faces burned, reddened and raw by the constant wind blowing sand in their faces, along with cracked lips. More than once, Edward had considered the consequences of turning back, believing there could be a better way, but the final conversation with the Great King left him with little hope beyond the success of their journey. And even then, there were no guarantees.
“Surely there is someone else with the knowledge Elder Mayavin possesses. He cannot be the only one.”
“I wish there was, son, but he has been privy to information that he kept to himself at my insistence. If he told the people, then the Elders would also know. If they knew what he knew, they would exploit it, bury it, or use it for their own gain instead of the advancement of the people. I told him there was a time and a place for such sensitive information. He agreed. But when it became obvious that the other Elders had grown suspicious of him and wished to have him killed, he retaliated by releasing some of what he knew among those who frequented taverns. Rumors, true or false, spread faster than truth told plainly and when the rumors circulated back, they were solid enough for the Elders to want to be rid of him. I negotiated his release with them to garner the support of the Elders while freeing him to research and seek further into what he had already found. The only place for him to find more information, to come across truths of the forgotten histories that the Elders have been contorting and twisting for generations to their own selfish gain, was to travel to the land of Havarth.”
“How do you know he even made it past Paschar?”
“I do not know. But I hope. And it is the same hope I will keep for you, that you will survive. And you will find Mayavin.”
“And that he’ll have found the information we need to save ReAnne.”
“Yes. This is my greatest hope. But don’t be fooled, he was a man to be reckoned with then. I can only imagine what the years have done to him.”
Benjamin had dismounted and was now walking beside Tuens, staring straight at the horizon line. Edward followed his gaze as shadows began to form, dividing the gold sand from the golden sky.
“What is that?”
Benjamin shook his head and glanced at Ottelo, who held his hands up in protest.
“It’s not me. I can’t throw that far. Can you feel anything?” Again, Benjamin shook his head, steadying his gaze even more as the shadows loomed closer.
“Well, I am of no use with the sun so bright. The only things that make shadows around here are broken wagons, and even then, their shadow is light.” The shadows drew closer, and seemed to wave among the horizon line, like the ocean rolling in its tide upon the shore.
Pitney, still atop his mount, drew in a breath. “Whatever it is, it is making good time. Wait. Are they-“
“They’re flying?” Ottelo grabbed his sword from the sheath.
“Vex!” Edward bellowed.
“But, I thought-“ Benjamin began but didn’t finish, for in an instant, they were overhead and all around, encircling them and diving towards them, then swooping back up into the sky. The wind from the wings blew open their cloaks and blew off their hoods as the four struggled with drawing their mounts into a ring and standing beside them.
Four swords swung when one came near, but they were too fast to meet metal to flesh. Vex flew in jagged lines, their bat-like wings allowing them to dodge attacks as quickly as they were able to make them. Their collective shrieks startled the horses. They reared up, snorting in protest, fighting against the reigns still holding them together.
“Ottelo, these are all commons! Can you throw a Grand Vex?” Edward recalled from his studies that a Grand Vex can subdue a common one into submission. He wasn’t sure if it could subdue well over a hundred vex, but it was worth a try.
“I’ve never seen one-“Ottelo choked on sand, then flung his sword up, barely missing a diving vex on the head.
“They are just bigger,” Benjamin offered as he flew his body onto the sand, avoiding a wing that threatened him at his neck. Another vex screeched from high above them.
“I’ll try, but I’ll need cover, then.”
Pitney dropped his reigns and somersaulted, narrowly missing the open jaws of one, and stood up in from of Ottelo. “I’ve got you. I hope this works.”
Ottelo lowered his sword and let his mind conjure up the image. Orange eyes, black, reptilian skin, a single horn between the eyes, another on the snout. Wings and legs, smaller arms. Sharp teeth. Big. Bigger. Bigger.
“If one works, maybe you can throw more?” Benjamin was barely holding on to Tuens, who was slamming his head side to side in protest. “Sorry pal, I can’t stop them,” he said, but Tuens reared up and ripped the reigns from his hands, sending Benjamin straight into the path of a vex.
“Benjamin!” Edward screamed, running towards where he lay on the sand, sword flying from side to side, averting the vex.
Ottelo threw his mirage to the right of them.
Then, they saw it. The Grand Vex. Orange eyes. Red, reptilian skin, a row of horns from the snout and over the top of the head. The wingspan alone blocked the blazing heat from the sun and cast a shadow on the sand that seemed to stretch for miles. Slow, deliberate beats of the wing sent sand flying up around them as it descended, resting onto a sand dune on the path in front of them.
“Hey…that’s pretty good,” Pitney patted him on the back, but Ottelo shook his head in protest.
The common vex stopped diving towards them and instead began to swarm around them in a circle that funneled to the sky. Edward and Benjamin stared straight up, finding no end to vex above them, enveloping their party in shadow. The horses calmed, retreating back into their safety circle, hind quarters butted up against each other.
“No.” Ottelo stared.
“What do you mean, no? It’s incredible. I didn’t know you could do-“
“That’s not mine.”
Pitney swallowed hard. “What?” Benjamin and Edward looked at Ottelo.
“How do you know?” Edward asked.
“Something’s not right…” Benjamin took in their captors. “Why can we see them in daylight?”
“I don’t know. Can you read them, Ben?” Edward swung around at a wing. Screeches and guttural sounds of sickening delight came at them from every side.
“I don’t feel anything, but I don’t have experience with vex. I don’t know if I can, period.”
The Grand Vex expanded its wings and flapped them a few times, blowing billows of sand in their direction. The smaller vex continued to swirl.
“So, it is real then? And it is holding us hostage here?” Pitney blocked his eyes from the sand thrown in his direction.
“We can’t just let it keep us here. What can we do? If you can’t read their intention, Ben, we can only assume it is for harm.”
Pitney ducked under his arm when one dove in his direction. “I don’t think that is in question, Edward.”
“Right. We need a distraction. Ottelo, did you try to throw your mirage, yet?” Edward yelled against the piercing shrieks of the vex around them.
“I tried, but I was distracted by that one.” He gestured to the ominous red creature with his thumb. “I’ll try again. Now that I’ve seen one, it will be easier.”
All three huddled around him, gauging the enemy from every side as Ottelo once again conjured the image up in his mind. Black, reptilian scales, horns now going from the snout to the back of the neck, massive wing span, heavy thighs, claws on both hind and forelegs.
They heard the wings before they saw it, menacing and looming to their left, its shadow fallen over even more than the real one.
“Woah.” Pitney gave his friend another, but now deserved, pat on the back.
Before they had a chance for more congratulatory remarks, the red Grand moved in what seemed like slow-motion towards Ottelo’s. Through the wall of circling vex, they saw Ottelo’s take flight and the red Grand meet it, mid-air.
“Do you have anything, Benjamin? Is it working?” Pitney asked, but Benjamin just shook his head.
The two Grands flew around each other, as if sizing each other up, then, put distance between them to face each other. The red yanked open its wings flapping and blowing smoke and sand out its snout. Ottelo’s returned the gesture in kind.
“Are they going to fight?”
“Either that, or the exact opposite. Was yours a girl, Ot?” Pitney snickered. Edward and Benjamin chuckled, welcoming the chance to laugh.
Through the wall of common vex still surrounding them in a tunnel, they could see both Grands take a final push as they went towards each other at full speed.
“What happens if they collide? Will Ottelo’s actually interact with real objects?” Benjamin asked Pitney, assuming he had seen Ottelo’s abilities before.
“Only once has he ever been able to do that and it wasn’t on purpose. It is mastery with his gift. Most never get there, to that level.”
“Ottelo?” Edward inquired, but Pitney violently shook his head.
“Don’t break him. He’s concentrating too hard.”
Six, wide eyes watched as red and black streaked through the air, closing the distance between them with what felt like lightening speed. When they were sure to collide, everyone braced for impact, even Ottelo.
What should have been an epic mid-air collision, dissolved into mist. Silence surrounded them as the vexes shrieking also suddenly stopped.
The company of four stood there, dumb-founded, as the encampment of common vex that took up space all around them billowed into a shadowed fog.
“What is going on?” The three turned to look at Edward.
“I have no idea. I have never seen anything like this before. My best guess is a mirage…but…”
All four turned their attention to the horizon line, the sun setting to their right cast a fiery glow in the desert sky. The line of horizon and earth now shadowed only by the lone image of a man walking towards them.
“Draw your swords,” Edward commanded them. Each did so without question.
“Will you slay me by sword, Prince Edward?” The man asked, his voice exceedingly clear for the distance he was from them.
“Impressive mirage, Prince Ottelo. Not many can imagine such a beast and successfully throw it to fight so concretely. Perhaps wise choices have been made this time, after all.”
“Did you guys hear that?” All of them nodded agreement in Ottelo’s direction.
“You won’t need swords, I assure you,” the man said when he was close enough for the swords to be used against him.
White knuckled grips lessened and swords were sheathed when they could take in his poor form. He was old. Older than anyone they had seen before. His back was hunched over and his white beard was full and long, halfway to the waist of his brown robe, tied with green and gold twisted rope. He lifted spotty and wrinkly hands to remove his hood revealing long, hollowed cheeks whose skin fell below his chin and bushy eyebrows atop tired eyes in a dull shade of blue.
“Prince Benjamin,” the old man nodded. “You, too, are to be commended. Your gift has served you well on this journey.”
Benjamin didn’t ask how he could have known that, so confused was he by this old man’s presence in a deserted sand trap. And no matter, because the old man didn’t wait for any questions to be asked.
“Lord Pitney, your skills at the sword precede you. Your name is known in many lands. Even Havarth.”
Red faced, Pitney nodded at the old man’s compliment.
Edward didn’t wait for any accolades. “Who are you?”
“Ah, yes. Prince Edward. The one destined to defeat the ever present Vex. Tell me, do you believe you have it in you? One does wonder just how well those stories have been told, do they not? There are quite divided opinions concerning them. Perhaps you have heard some in your travels? The Great King has done you quite the service in your young age to have had you travel so much. There is much in the world to see. But perhaps it would not have been so great for you, Prince Benjamin?” The old man turned and addressed him once more.
“I don’t prefer travel, no.”
“And yet, here you are.”
“I would travel to the ends of the earth for the sake of my sister, my L-”
“I am not a lord.” His voice turned sharp.
“Then, who are you? Were you directing those beasts?” Edward took a step towards him.
“It would behoove you to step back, Prince Edward. Though I may speak plainly, or in riddles, I do not wish you harm. Perhaps Benjamin could tell you about the beasts?”
Edward reluctantly stepped back as all eyes turned to Benjamin. He fidgeted with the hilt on his sword, deep in thought. “I could not feel them.”
“No.” The old man raised an eye-brow. “But think for me. What could you feel in that moment?”
“Fear. Hatred. Anger. Frustration. A flight response from the horses.”
“So you know how to use your gift here, in the dishonored lands. That’s to be commended. Yes, to all those emotions. And yet, from Ottelo’s Grand Vex, you felt nothing?”
“No, nothing. Nothing from any vex.”
“Tell me, what is the difference between a vex and a horse?”
Benjamin thought for a minute. “Nothing? They are both creatures.”
All four of them jumped when the old man let out a hearty chuckle. “Yes! Very well, Prince Benjamin. Therefore, one could deduce that if you felt nothing, it is because nothing was there. Pitney, did you, in all your skills with a sword, ever once meet metal with a vex this day?”
“No…” Pitney reluctantly admitted.
The old man chuckled again, as he stroked Regal’s neck. “And yet all of you were quick to dodge, quick to let a bunch of non-existent vex corral you into a circle. I expect it of the horses, but the four of you? It is comical!” And he let himself give in to uproarious laughter. When he’d had his fill, he straightened his robe and replaced his hood, taking on a more serious tone. “In this place, it is always wise to question that which your eyes see. Even more so, what it is making you feel when you see it.”
“Who are you?” Edward repeated, unsure of their safety with him the more he spoke.
The old man looked at each one of them, staring deep into their eyes with his own blue ones, resting them lastly on Edward. “I am the one you seek, I suppose. But I do not have what I suspect you need.”
“I am not an elder any longer, my boy. Around here, it is safer to call me Yavin. Come with me,” he commanded as he took up Regal’s reigns and started leading the horse away. “I have water.”