As Salvation faded into the dust behind us and the desert stretched out endlessly in front of us, I couldn’t help but wonder about my traveling companion. “So, they knew you back there,” I ventured, trying to cautiously broach the subject.
All I received in response was a wordless grunt, but I decided to press my luck. “Did you do something against them in the past?” I asked, trying to keep my tone light and nonthreatening.
Cain grunted a second time, but he slowed his pace slightly, falling back to walk alongside me as we trudged through the sand. “This place, Outworld, it changes a man,” he said. I fell silent, waiting for him to continue. “Or maybe it doesn’t, and we were all this broken before we got sent here. But the gods would have to search a long time to find a good, honest man here. Everyone’s got an agenda. Everybody’s after something.”
I didn’t speak, but I could feel the unspoken question hanging palpably in the air. Cain must have sensed it too. “These days, I’m just out to survive,” he said with a bitter, cynical laugh. “But back then, I was after answers. I was a fool, thought that if I just learned enough, I could make sense of this whole place. Get a handle on it.” Staring down at his feet, he shook his head. “But Outworld doesn’t have answers, just more questions. Everybody’s spirit is broken eventually. Now, I’d probably settle for just some refuge, someplace safe.”
“An oasis,” I said.
“Yeah, exactly. An oasis from the insanity of this place.”
“No,” I interjected. “Look, over there. I think that’s an oasis.”
Cain followed my pointing finger. “Looks like it,” he agreed.
As we changed course towards the small clump of green that I had spotted, I watched him ready his rifle with trepidation. “Are we in danger?”
“Never hurts to be cautious,” he replied, his tone barely above a whisper. As we drew closer, he changed his gait to a predatory stalk. “Around here, if you’re not cautious, you’re a dead man walking.”
As the sand beneath our feet turned to clumps of grass, however, the oasis continued to appear serene and peaceful. A small pool shimmered in the twilight, surrounded by several tropical palm trees. Thick clumps of grass blades were crushed beneath our feet, only to spring erect after our passing. A cricket, hidden somewhere in the tall grass on the edges of the pool, chirped softly.
I stopped at the water’s edge, lowering the pistol in my hand. “Wow, this is really calm,” I said. “I was expecting a monster or something, but this is just relaxing.”
Cain glared around at the deepening shadows, still clutching his weapon. I watched with some bemusement as he kicked at the trunks of the palm trees. “It’s never this easy,” he insisted. “There’s something here, something hiding. The razor blade’s hidden somewhere.”
When I knew that his back was turned and he couldn’t see my expression, I allowed my eyes to roll theatrically. “You know, maybe you just need to unwind, let out some of that tension,” I said. “I’m looking around, and I don’t see anything out of the ordinary at-”
My companion spun around as my sentence ended abruptly, his rifle rising into a firing stance. He followed my gaze into the center of the pool, where a pointed shape jutted up from the water. In the long shadows of the setting sun, I had assumed that there was a rock at the center of the pond. Now, with the moon’s rays starting to shine down upon us, we could see that the protrusion was clear, like ice. We could also see the unmistakable shape of a hand, trapped inside the frozen prison.
Although the muzzle of his weapon didn’t move an inch, Cain let out a low chuckle. “Rule of Outworld,” he commented. “If there’s one thing you can count on, it’s a surprise waiting somewhere.”