“Bloody beastly women!” Veracity falls in a heap on the sand, lifting his burned feet awkwardly into the air like some sort of unwilling yogi. A desert rodent runs pell-mell across the sand. Mid stride it begins to balloon, morphing, cartoon like, into a camel, its legs thrust out in four different directions. I stifle a laugh as the creature tumbles to a stop and collects itself.
“You thry it, then! Good Lord, thape thifting thwice in the thpan of a few minuteth!” The camel, shaking its head vigorously, speaks in a soft voice with a pronounced lisp. “Nexth you’ll be wanthing me tho carry thith thack of ethcrement.” The camel lets fly a gob of spit that lands squarely in the center of Veracity’s forehead.
Wiping his face with his sleeve, Veracity shoots me a venomous look. “A pair of shoes would have been just fine, really.”
“Conthtanth ath your thervith.” The beast lowers himself onto his front knees, then bends his rear legs and sits on all fours expectantly. “Leth geth going.”
Veracity and I exchange glances and start to take our places on the camel’s back. At the same moment, the camel grows a second hump, which then disappears and reappears again, throwing Veracity against me. The tall man recoils sharply.
“Thorry! You prefer one hump or thoo?”
“Dromedary. You can ride on the front of the hump if you don’t mind, Beloved. Wherever we end up, you’ll get there first.” I open my mouth to answer, but Constance is quicker than I am.
“One hump ith ith.” The second hump slides away so violently that Veracity nearly ends up on the ground behind us. I smile as I catch a gleam in the camel’s eye.
“Thank you, Constance.” I resist the slightly ridiculous urge to hug his furry neck.
“Don’th menthion ith.”
A dark shape races through the desert, across landscapes barren as the moon. At last darkness falls and the valley spreads itself before her eyes, a single, solemn mountain standing guard on either side. Delighted, she approaches her home, which she had long thought lost to her. The Beloved had done this thing, had she not?
Sable slows, unsure how her people will greet her and the news she carries. Listening carefully, thankful for sensitive feline senses, she descends into the system of ravines and slot canyons that crisscrosses the desert plain. Precious water had cut these hidden passages across the valley, small pools remaining in some corners and pits. The dirty pools and the lonely piles of bones, mostly animal, but some human, are reminders that a sudden rainstorm here would be fatal. The Guardians had worked charms that did not allow anyone to shape shift here. Sable checks the sky above for clouds, but it is blessedly clear, the stars shining like sapphires and diamonds above her. A sheer rock face bears claw marks where someone, or something, had tried desperately to get out. The marks stop suddenly about three fourths of the way up, culminating in a deep groove which descends sharply. Four claws protrude from the face of the wall just above Sable’s head, broken finger joints gesturing in an eerie warning.
Three soft, throaty bird calls, scarcely audible, announce the intersection with the Shadow Highway, built by her ancestors, the Guardians, long ago. Sable raises her eyes. Above her towers a magnificent double arch of red sandstone, shimmering in the sun like a bonfire. A miraculous bird seems to smolder and glow in the rock, each of its wings draping over an enormous opening. She pauses, admiring the Phoenix Gate. There is a sudden sense of helplessness, as if she is drowning in the very air, but it is gone in an instant. She has been permitted passage. She takes the opening on the left and ascends a winding trail of steep switchbacks. Clambering out of the ravine, panting heavily, Sable is greeted by the white city of Zerzura, flung before her in broad daylight, towers gleaming, reaching to the sky.