Jero scrambled up the side of the dune, exhausted, sliding in the hot sand, but pushing for more speed. She could hear Meya below her cautioning her to slow down or she’d get hurt. She knew the sand under her feet was rolling down the dune behind her, making Meya’s climb that much more difficult, but she didn’t care. She could not listen to his carefully soothing voice and irrefutable logic any longer. Panting, sweating, and muscle sore she crested the mountain of sand. She stood in the strong mid-morning sun gazing around. Nothing. She could sense no life, no water anywhere. There was nothing to be seen in any direction but an endless sea of sand and dunes and rock. If there were any more hidden oases out there she couldn’t find them. As she stared despair, anger, and desperation rose another notch within her. She was vaguely aware of waves of patience and condescending understanding pounding her softly as Meya joined her on the dune-top and resumed his lecture on excess exertion and conservation of resources in desert heat conditions.
She closed her eyes. “Stop”, she said. As Meya paused for breath she faced him. “If you want to turn back then go. Take enough water to reach the eastern edge of the desert and go back where you came from. I’m going on. West. Until I find … something, or die trying.”
Meya sighed. “You know I cannot let you go on alone”, he began. “I am responsible for your safety and…”
“No you’re not!” Jero shouted, her temper rising quickly. “You are not responsible for me at all! We just met a few days ago! I was doing fine on my own till then.”
“You are too young to roam the wild alone. You need guidance and protection.”
“I AM NOT A CHILD! I don’t care what your fancy city culture says. Where I come from I am an adult. I was supposed to be married by now! And I can fight and hunt 10 times as good as you! You would have starved or died of thirst by now if it wasn’t for me!”
“Jero”, Meya began patiently, “let us get out of the sun. Perhaps we can rest in the shade between this dune and the next.” Grasping her shoulder, he began steering her toward the steep, shadowed valley between the dunes.
Jero snapped. “NO!” she screamed. She ran from Meya blindly. All the anger, fear, and desperation, all the need, doubt, and frustration that had been building in her for days and weeks burst forth in an uncontrolled explosion of emotional psychic energy. As Jero lost herself in the wash of her own power, she was aware of a howling wind, and swirling, stinging sand. She heard thunder in the sudden darkness. The ground lurched and heaved beneath her feet, and she was falling, falling… then nothing.
Jero shivered in her sleep. Meya tucked his cloak around her anxiously. He had found her unconscious on a rock ledge part way down the valley during the storm and had carried her with difficulty to an alcove carved into the valley wall which offered some shelter. The brief torrent of rain had formed a swiftly flowing river on the stone valley floor, from which he had filled their water skins and every empty vessel he could find in their packs. The river was already dry, but a few puddles of warm, gritty water remained. He drank from these to conserve this precious resource, but he knew they wouldn’t last long in the desert heat.
Jero had been unconscious for two days and he was gravely concerned. Putting aside all thoughts of impropriety, he had examined her for signs of physical injury, but could find nothing more serious than small scrapes and bruises. He lay close beside her in the cold night to keep her tiny body warm. There was little else he could do for her. She needed to eat, and more importantly, to drink soon, or she would die.
Meya suddenly scrambled back and sat up, watching her closely. Jero stirred slightly and sighed. She whimpered and curled up in a ball. “Cold”, she whispered.
Meya inched closer. “Jero”, he said quietly, “can you hear me?”
She opened her eyes. “Meya?”
Relief flooding through him, he reached for a flask of water. “Can you sit up?” Seeing her struggle, Meya could almost feel her weakness. Awkwardly he put his arm under her shoulders to help her. “You must drink this slowly.”
Jero took several sips from the flask. “I’m so cold”, she said, and leaned against his chest. Feeling distinctly uncomfortable, but realising Jero needed warmth, Meya held her. As they sat, the moon crested the rocky wall behind them and flooded the valley with light. “Where are we?” Jero wondered. Meya released her as she moved to look around.
“Ah”, he said. “It seems the dunes here are built upon a foundation of sandstone. The severe wind and rain from the sudden storm we experienced scoured the sand from the floor of this valley, thus exposing these fascinating rock formations.”
“Oh… yeah. I’m sorry. I hope I didn’t hurt you.” Meya was confused. Against all logic, he sensed that Jero was greatly ashamed of herself for some reason. Surely she didn’t think she had caused the storm? Certainly her explosive temper tantrum had coincided precisely with the unexpected weather phenomenon, but even in her primitive superstition it should be clear that human beings do not create weather. Meya shook his head. Jero’s obstinate belief in the Talent was frustrating, but there was little point in arguing about now.
“Though I have not studied the storm patterns of deserts specifically, I do know that extreme environments often produce extreme weather events…” He broke off, frowning. Jero had wandered away, staring intently down the valley, clearly not listening at all.
Suddenly she pointed. “Look!”
Meya stood beside her. “What am I supposed to be looking for?”
“It wants us to go that way.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“The colourful lines and curves in the rock are all pointing that way. That’s the way we should go.”
Meya was puzzled. How could she believe that a rock formation had intent? “Ah. I see. Viewed a certain way the different coloured layers of sandstone do appear to form chevrons, but I assure you this is simply the pattern of erosion by wind and rain over a multitude of years, not a deliberate attempt by man or nature to guide lost travelers.”
Jero stared at him in her peculiar way. “I don’t care how it got there, it still means something, and that’s the way we will go.”