By day they took shelter, hiding away from the merciless sun under thin canvas, the day’s heat kept at bay by a single enchanted stone, a shard of the frozen south. It was by night that they travelled, boots scuffing over dusty stone. What course they followed, Darrin did not know, but his guide never faltered. From time to time the fennec would pause, pushing back her cowl and gazing up at the stars before drawing it back over her ears and continuing; other times, many hours and many turns would go by without a moment’s hesitation. At some of these turning points Darrin could see something that might qualify as a landmark – a distinctive peak or a kink in a ridgeline, or some such thing. At others, all around looked the same. But Shari was confident, and in four years of journeying, in the rocky wastes and elsewhere, she had never led him astray. It was no great thing to put trust in her now.

Though the stars did not give guidance for Darrin as they did for Shari, at least they cast enough light to keep the jaguar from stumbling. Resting by day, leaving momentary footprints at night when the best ward against the biting cold was to stay in motion – thus they made good time, better than if they had brought a night-blind companion.

With the eastern sky starting to grow pale, they came over the lip of a wind-swept ridge, and then what they saw laid out before them stopped them cold, heedless of the bitter wind.

“This,” said Shari, sweeping her gloved hand over the expanse before them, lit green by the approaching dawn, “is not natural.”

“What? It looks like a great deal of nature to me,” Darrin protested. From their perch atop the ridge, he could see leagues of lush growth, full of life and colour even in the dim twilight. “I’ve seen oases before.”

“Little pockets of growth where there is water, yes, but not this,” Shari insisted. “Five years ago there was such a one, nestled in the deepest heart of this tangle. In a good season, you might walk round it in a handful of minutes. The world does not change so swiftly as this, Darrin.”

He frowned, and squinted into the growth. Perhaps Shari was right. Some of the things he could see closer to them, some of the great leafy trees, were like nothing he’d seen in any oasis. Instead they reminded him of his youth, of huts made of woven branches and roofed with leaves, of rope bridges from bough to bough, platform to platform, where an adventurous kit might journey for hours and never once set food on the ground. All of a sudden, he felt a deep yearning for those vanished days, an urge to return to the lands he’d left behind years ago. “So what do you suggest?”

“We should find what is causing this,” the fennec replied, “and put a stop to it.”

“Stop?” he blurted. “But it’s beautiful!”

“And it should not be.” Shari folded her arms and shook her head. “Even in the deepest corners of the desert, there is a balance of life, delicate and fragile. Such as this could shatter that balance. It must end.”

He sighed, still looking over the vista of green. But Shari usually did know best. “All right,” he said, and followed her to make camp. In the evening, they’d get some answers.