The Wheel of Glory: Part Three
Miles rewrapped his makeshift turban around his head as Thag and Plesio rowed the boat up the River Sakh. Some sailcloth from the Passing Fair had washed ashore overnight, and as they floated under the relentless desert sun, it provided invaluable protection against the heat and light.
It still felt like he was sitting in a furnace.
Thak moaned, “Ugga ugg-gug.”
Plesio nodded as he wiped the sweat from his brow. “I’m starting to miss the rain and the wind, too.”
Britta lighted in the boat, hair and dress dripping. “I managed to get all the salt out of my hair, but there’s so much sand in this water! I feel disgusting – if my friends on the cloud could see me, they’d laugh themselves silly!”
The Doctor leaned back, a dark shadow in the prow in the blazing noontime. “I can laugh myself silly right now and save you a trip, if you’d like.”
Miles sighed. He felt a lot like Britta at the moment... he was becoming aware just how used to comfort he was. Rags were tied around his feet in place of shoes, his tunic and trousers were sandy and salt-stiffened, and the rough sailcloth was irritating his covered skin almost as much as sunburn would have. “Don’t worry, Britta. We’ll get all of us clean clothes and baths as soon as we get to Sakhmet.”
Plesio asked, “You sure you can’t save that map?”
Miles pulled the soggy atlas out of his pack. “This is only good for firewood now. And I need a map that’ll show us hills and oases.”
The Doctor snapped his transparent fingers. “Well, we have our work cut out for us if we’re going to reach Sakhmet tonight, so you two stalwarts had better get going!”
Plesio didn’t translate what Thag spat at the Gelert, but Miles decided that it was okay – he really didn’t want to know.
The next morning, the five keepers wandered through the city of Sakhmet. Britta kept them all on track with a definite list. “We need a map – maybe a couple maps, so we can compare them. That old guide said that we’re probably going to need to look in the mountain foothills over west. We need food and we need water, though if we follow the river we shouldn’t need to break into our stores for a while. We need real desert clothes, not just sailcloth rags. Oh, I’m glad that the bag with our Neopoints got saved! We need...”
Plesio muttered, “You need to be quiet. People are staring, Britta.”
Miles sighed... he liked Britta, but it was really hard to defend her when they were all hot and rather sore from spending the previous day in a rowboat.
Then he saw a cobbler’s sign. Shoes! He said, “I could use a new pair of sandals. There’s a cloth merchant over there – I’ll meet you there. Okay?” And I’ll have some peace and quiet.
Left alone, he looked at the shoes hanging from the booth. With a rush of sentiment, he found a pair that looked just like the ones he had lost at sea.
But then he remembered all the times he’d tripped over them as King Hagan and his courtiers laughed. They didn’t stay on his feet well – they were too wide, and the one strap wasn’t enough.
He looked around on the same wall, and picked out another pair. These were made for Draiks – intended to fit well and stay on even when flying. He ran his hands over the sturdy material, and for a second, he second-guessed himself. What am I doing? These are an adventurer’s shoes, not a scholar’s.
Then he grinned. But I’m not just a scholar now. I am an adventurer. He noticed a walking stick leaning against the wall, and took that as well. I’m an adventurer, and I’m going to show that to everyone when I get back to Brightvale!
The coins were exchanged, and Miles walked away whistling – something he hadn’t known that he could do before.
In the shadows of a nearby shop-front, two dark figures conversed.
“It seems the bookworm has followed us – we should tell the boss, Heermeedjet.”
“You find out what they’re doing, and I’ll go report back, Merouladen.”
Once the keepers had gathered their supplies, they found a quiet, not-too-sandy corner and sat down to plan. Miles spread out the map and pulled out a pen. “These six oases fit the bill – they’re all on hilltops. We’re going to have to journey west tomorrow... we can reach the closest one tomorrow night. Sandman’s Castle, it’s called on the map. It’ll probably take two more days total to cover all of them.”
They were almost done with the route plans when they heard a fight breaking out. “Hey!”
“Leggo my tail!”
There was a scuffle on the rooftop above them... Miles, Britta, and the Doctor immediately shot into the air to see what was happening.
Miles blanched as he saw the Meerca in the blue hat who had stolen the parchment about the Wheel of Glory. He was in a fight with two ragged children – a pink Ixi and red Lupe. But as he flew to try and catch him, the Meerca pulled away and ran for it, quickly disappearing into the distance.
Britta cried, “I’ll follow him!” and shot off as well.
The Ixi gave the Lupe a high-five. “We got his wallet!”
Miles asked, “How long was that Meerca up here? I really need to know.”
The Lupe shrugged. “What’s it worth to you?”
The Ixi screamed as the Doctor rose up next to Miles in his “menacing” pose. “I’ll let you live, buddy-boy.”
The Lupe said quickly, “Quite a bit – we’ve been watching him for a while to make our move.”
Miles sighed. “He must have heard everything... if I were you kids, I’d make yourselves scarce. You don’t want to be anywhere near us when that Meerca brings reinforcements.” He threw them a coin each and lifted into the air. “We need to go fast – I have my doubts about Britta being able to catch up to him.”
The next night, they camped at the foot of the hill known as Sandman’s Castle. As Thag lit the fire, Plesio fretted, “The fire’s going to lead them right to us.”
Miles reminded him, “They know we’re here anyway, and there was no other good place to camp.”
Britta apologized for the third time, “I wish I was better at protection spells, but I can’t do much besides make light. I’m really, really sorry...”
The Doctor snapped. “Quiet, or I swear I’ll let Vile get you.”
Miles saw Thag’s eyes widen, and realized something was wrong an instant before a deep voice behind him said, “I’ll oblige, if you like.”
The Doctor’s shadow flared up, and he grabbed a flaming branch from the fire. “Up the hill – to the oasis!”
Miles took his walking stick, slung his pack over his shoulder, and grabbed a torch with his free hand, all in time to follow his comrades up the hill.
Britta threw a light into the sky when they had reached the edge of the water... Miles’s stomach sank as he realized that Vile and his henchmen weren’t alone. Behind them were a dozen hooded and cloaked figures fairly bristling with weapons. Bandits. Oh, sweet Fyora protect us, he’s allied himself with bandits!
Plesio sighed. “Oh, great, we’re outnumbered five to one.”
Britta corrected, “Three to one.”
“I wasn’t counting you or Miles.”
Miles hissed, “I’m not as useless as everyone thinks I am! Now, does anyone have any sort of plan?”
Thag said gloomily, “Ugga ug-ug gar ug-ugga ugg.”
Plesio sighed again. “He says that we’ve got no hope of outrunning them, and since we’re out in the desert with only two knives between the five of us, we can’t fight.”
Britta’s eyes widened. “Do we have to surrender?”
Miles felt sick. I tried to keep the Wheel of Glory from Malkus Vile, and we’ve played into his hands anyway! We can surrender to him, or we can fight and certainly lose. And either way, he wins and we’ll be lucky to live!
The Doctor said, with a degree of respect that Miles had never heard in his voice, “You’re our leader, Miles. I’ll do what you do.”
Then he realized that the others were all looking to him as well. These people all followed me – they actually respect me!
I can’t get them all killed. I owe that to them. He said softly, “The only way we’re going to live is if we surrender.”
Britta took her white hood off her head and waved it in the air. “We surrender!”
Vile called, “Put your hands in the air and drop your bags – we’re coming up!”
Miles stood very still as Vile ripped his cloak away, picking up his staff and his bag. The Meerca in the goggles went through Britta’s pack, tossing the stained-glass window the Wheel of Knowledge had given her to the ground where it smashed on a rock. Three bandits approached the Doctor with caution, murmuring under their breath about curses. Thag and Plesio growled and spat insults at whoever came near.
The Meerca in the hat said, “We’ve got everything, boss.”
Vile pushed Miles to the ground. “We’ll leave these pathetic nobodies here.”
A bandit asked, “Isn’t that dangerous? It’d be better to get rid of them.”
The green Skeith rolled his eyes. “They’re wheel-keepers, Harad. They’re the epitome of useless. They stand by wheels all day because there’s nothing else that they’re fit for. It would be like killing Petpets – amusing, but not especially worthwhile.”
Miles winced as Vile kicked him. “If I were you, I’d keep far away from me, bookworm. Following me was rather funny, but I won’t be amused if I see you again.”
The Draik really wanted to spit back a reply, but he knew that he was in no position to mouth off – we’re trying to all stay alive right now, even though we’ve failed.
Miles watched glumly as Vile, his henchmen, and the bandits disappeared into the distance. Britta started picking up the pieces of her shattered window. “I liked this one.”
Plesio asked, “What was it?”
“The Altador sun – it was really pretty, all nice and golden...”
Miles didn’t hear what she said after that – he was seeing the parchment that had described the Wheel of Glory’s location. A green-shaded hill in the land of the sun...
He looked up. “I see now – the Wheel of Glory isn’t in the Lost Desert at all!”
The Doctor asked, “What do you mean?”
“It’s in Altador!”
To be continued...