Esilio was bursting at the seams. Adal could scarcely fathom it. For a town the size it was on the map, they’d expected a few hundred people, maybe a thousand. And the permanent structures built into the slope of the foothill looked as though they were meant to accommodate about that number, in line with his expectations.
Yet for some reason, the hamlet teemed with activity. Tents stretched out in every random direction. Every patch of shade, every scrap of shelter from the desert wind was occupied. Wagons were circled on the fringes of the largest encampments; the proper wagonyard was packed. Someone had hastily assembled some lean-tos against the stable, providing shelter for horses that were tied almost shoulder to shoulder.
In their larger-than-average wagon, they had a hell of a time finding somewhere to park. In the end, Riss managed to tuck the thing up against the side of a reddish butte, though their campsite was only sheltered from the wind on one side. She angled the wagon itself to provide a bit more shelter for the galania and a fire, Adal helping direct her from the ground.
“Did I miss a pilgrimage or something?” she asked as she hopped to the ground.
“I kept an eye out while we were rolling around,” said Adal. “But I can’t figure out for the life of me where all these people hail from or why they’re here.”
The people who walked Esilio’s dirt roads were as varied a bunch as their shacks and tents. Many had the tell-tale dark coloration of Alkali Flats nomads, camped out in clever, easily-transportable shelters. But there were moneyed merchant wagons among their number. And plenty of paler faces that could have come from any one of the northern cities. Apart from the market yards in a major port like Medao, it was as cosmopolitan and diverse a crowd as one could get.
“At first I thought they must be refugees from some conflict I hadn’t heard of,” Riss said. “But we aren’t that uninformed. If a scuffle broke out somewhere and it was large enough to displace this many people, we’d have heard.”
She banged a fist on the wagon’s door, hollering to those inside that they were walking into town. A moment later, Gaz emerged, squeezing his large frame through the small access door with an amusing degree of care.
“Gotta stretch my legs,” he said. “You two mind a tagalong?”
“Hardly.” Riss smiled.
They left the wagon in Calay and Torcha’s hands. Adal was quite confident the two of them could fend off any would-be thieves. Apart from the fact that Calay was the single most dangerous individual he’d ever crossed paths with, he and Torcha would likely scare the piss out of any brigands before they even had to resort to violence.
“Weird,” Gaz said, of the crowd. That was all he said, but it captured Adal’s thoughts on the matter succinctly.
Then the screaming started.
The sudden high, piteous shriek was such a contrast to their peaceful sunset surroundings that at first Adal wondered if his mind was playing tricks on him. Perhaps he’d heard the scream of a diving falcon or the whistle of a kettle or something. But then another scream pierced the still, dry air and Gaz was looking at him sideways with big, wary eyes and he knew he’d heard correct.
It was the sound of a man in absolute agony. Adal’s hand crept to his sidearm.
The family parked by the campfire closest to where they stood glanced up and toward the direction the sound had come from. Interestingly, none of them stiffened or panicked.
Up ahead, Riss sped up. She jogged the last few steps into the town’s perimeter fence, where several oil lamps aided the fading sun in illuminating the village proper.
A man and a woman hurried up the road, carrying a stretcher between them. Upon it was a shirtless figure, all shriveled skin and straining tendons, curled in against himself and whimpering shrilly. They hustled past Adal in a hurry, so he couldn’t catch much in the way of detail, but he saw the shade of the man’s skin and the shine of sweat on his face. Disease-stricken. He screamed, clutching at the arm of one of his carriers.
Riss backed up until her boot bumped into Adal’s.
“This is bad,” she said. “This some kind of plague village? I hadn’t heard anything…”
Gaz stepped in closer to them, looming protectively nearby.
“I don’t get it,” he said. “None of the others look sick.”
And once Adal stopped to consider that, he saw it was true. The huddled crowds in their shelters and tents and fires, the kids sitting on the rooftops of the wagons, the old woman fussing with a chicken coop… they’d all stopped to watch the sick man go past, but none of them looked particularly scared of what was happening.
“Is this something we should be helping with?” Gaz stared off down the road in the direction the stretcher had gone. “We have a physik with us…”
That was true enough. Adal looked to Riss for an answer.
Gaz was right, they had a talented medic with them. But there were a hundred tactical reasons why offering assistance was a terrible idea, each of them leaping into Adal’s mind with greater fervor than the last.
“Let’s feel this situation out first,” said Riss. “If it’s one sick guy, perhaps Calay can help. If there’s a hundred, his presence here could start a riot.”
As a close-knit trio, they started backtracking toward the wagon. Several of the encampments on the outskirts of town looked to be fairly communal, with families sitting close together and big cooking pots beckoning groups of weary travellers. Adal searched the crowd for someone on their own. Someone who looked like they’d know what was going on.
Finally, he spotted a solitary woman smoking a long-stemmed pipe by the side of the path. She was darkly tanned, her hair done up in an elaborate weave of braids. Several silver and copper rings glittered on her fingers, a mark of substantial wealth in these parts. If he had to choose someone from whom to pry information, he’d pick haughty and wealthy over small-town and hard-bitten every time. Closer to home.
“Pardon me,” Adal stepped away from the others to approach her. “I couldn’t help but overhear all that, uh, screaming.”
The woman glanced past him toward the ramshackle buildings. She shrugged, shoulders bundled away in many layers of loose linen robe.
“Eh,” she said, “probably stepped on a scorpion. Happens.”
She sounded like she couldn’t possibly be less concerned.
“Sounded pretty painful.” Adal gave her a quick smile, happy to be appraised as a well-meaning foreign bumbler. “Are the scorpions in these parts that bad?”
The woman gave him an odd look, her head tilting. She puffed on her pipe, then turned her head and politely blew her smoke away from his face.
“The stings are quite painful,” she said. “I mean… that’s why we’re all here, aren’t we?” With a wave of her bejewelled hand, she indicated the clusters of camps and shelters.
Adal blinked. “Pardon? That’s why you’re all here?” He tried to work out exactly what she meant by that. “To… get stung by scorpions?”
The woman threw her head back and laughed, a low and scratchy sound. She snickered into her sleeve, peering at him through the haze of sweet-smelling smoke that wreathed her face.
“Many people here have been stung,” she said. “But I wouldn’t go so far as to say on purpose.” Something seemed to click in her mind then. She scrutinized him more closely. “You don’t know, do you. About the migration.”
Now they were getting somewhere. “Afraid not,” he said. “But I’d be mighty grateful if you could enlighten me.” There was no use trying to bribe someone wearing that much glitter; he had to hope he’d paid her well enough in amusement at his own expense.
“You’re lucky you stopped to chat,” she said. “If you rode east tomorrow morning, you’d encounter a wave of scorpions as thick as the Flats are wide.” She punctuated her words with occasional tokes from her pipe. “They burrow up out of the salt at the end of the rainy season. Great, teeming masses of them. Makes travel impossible.”
That… sure was something.
Adal had never even heard of that before. The idea of a scorpion wave sent such a strong shudder of revulsion through his body that he thought he heard his very skeleton cry out in anguish. He fidgeted, digging his thumbnail into his palm, and settled on letting out a bleh of distaste.
“Yes,” he said, “that sounds… ill-advised.”
“They’ll sting anything in their path,” said the woman. “Strip the flesh straight down to nothing. Leave the cleanest bones I’ve ever seen.”
Really, she could stand to cool it with the details. Adal listened to all that with a forced, tremulous half-smile plastered on his mouth like a bandage.
“So that’s what everyone’s doing here, then? Camping out and waiting for them to pass?”
“Aye. Shouldn’t take longer than a week, maybe as little as seven or eight days if you’re lucky. Riders say they’re a couple days out.”
That would put a damper on their schedule. He glanced back over his shoulder, toward where Riss and Gaz had nearly reached the wagon. They’d stopped, though, choosing to watch him instead.
“And… what if one happened to have a time-sensitive meeting on the other side of the Flats?” he asked. “Would there be any alternate way around?”
Finishing her smoke, the woman lowered her pipe and gave him a big, plump-lipped smile, its friendliness utterly at odds with the bite of her words.
“I would say one was a bit of an idiot to schedule it then.”
Laughing awkwardly, he conceded that with a muttered, “Fair.” Then, composure regained, he gave her a parting smile. “My thanks for your assistance. You’ve been very helpful.”
“We’re all stuck here together,” she said. “Breeds a certain camaraderie, doesn’t it.”
Adal thought back to the swamp, living shoulder-to-shoulder with a sorcerer and his skull-cracker in tent-sized quarters. You don’t know the half of it, he thought. He thanked her again and hurried back to Riss.
In the bowels of the wagon, the mood was grim.
“Scorpion migration,” Calay said, deadpan.
They sat around the big circular table, kicked back after their evening meal. Adal had just relayed the finer details of his conversation with the Flats woman to the others. They were all doling out dashes of a highly-alcoholic wine into their cups. Torcha had found it stowed away in a storeroom; it had all but turned to vinegar.
“Scorpion migration,” said Riss.
“This is the stupidest thing that has ever cockblocked me,” Calay declared. He drummed his fingers on the tabletop, looking annoyed.
Riss had the map spread open across half the table. She tapped a fingertip to her chin, considering it from a few different angles, as though viewing it upside-down might unlock some hitherto unknown secret route. Tracing a line from their current position, she followed the jagged arc of some geographic feature or another on the map.
“This ravine might slow them down,” she postulated. “We could ask the locals in the morning. See if there’s a chance we might get through. Waiting a week is…”
“It’s a bit shit,” offered Calay.
“—it’s not ideal,” Riss said, slightly more polite.
“Why can’t you just take care of them?” Torcha asked, swirling wine in her cup and staring across the table at Calay. “Just rip a fireball at ‘em or something.”
Calay looked mildly offended. “I’m not sure what stories you grew up hearing,” he said. “But I can’t just rip a fireball at anyone. My talents are a little more nuanced than that.”
“And I don’t like thinking about how much blood he’d need to light thousands of scorpions on fire,” said Gaz. “Who’s gonna donate it? You?” He kicked Torcha’s foot under the table.
“The locals think the swarm is about two days out,” Adal said. “If you think we could reach the ravine in two days…” He looked down to the map, following where Riss’ finger had traced. “Then we can travel along its western edge.”
He hated to admit it, but the prospect of a race against time ignited something in his belly. Adal loved a good deadline, a race against time. He was subtly less excited about how intimately that excitement tangled itself up with dread.
“That guy sounded like he was in a lot of pain,” Gaz said. “Are we sure we want to risk this?”
“We’ll talk to the locals in the morning,” said Riss. “See if they think we’re being unreasonable. Hells, we can even hire a local scout if we have to. Isn’t like we’re lacking for room.” She gave those gathered at the table a reassuring smile. “You all know me. I’m no fan of unnecessary risks.”
“And I’ll do some research while we’re here,” Calay said. “Learn a bit more about those scorpions and what if anything I can prepare for the venom.” He flexed the fingers of his gloved hand, studying it for a moment.
Adal’s mind flashed back to the needle-like jab of fangs in his calf, the way Calay had sprung into action to get the antivenin into his system. Back then, he’d had no idea that Calay could have wiped the wound away with a wave of his hand if he’d so desired.
It was all just a puzzle to him, wasn’t it. Medicine. He didn’t need it to live. But it appeared to be a matter of intellectual curiosity. Of stimulation. Adal could relate to that.
“On that charming note,” Adal said. “I’m going to bunk up and try not to have eight-legged dreams.”
When trying to get to sleep, Adal often ran through the day’s events in his mind, a sort of mental checklist of what he’d accomplished and what needed to be done the following morning. That night, muddling along the blurred boundary between sleep and awareness, he struggled to leap the final hurdle into unconsciousness. Each time he drew close, he snapped awake with a jerk of his leg or his arm, convinced he felt tiny chitinous legs skittering along his skin beneath the covers.