The next morning before dawn they were ready to strike camp. They were used to it by now and were ready to go by the time the first sliver of sunlight rose over the horizon.

“We’re heading further into Dark Territory,” Kristoph said. “I’ve worked out a wide circular route, taking in the Great Omegan Escarpment, the Aeolian Depression and another oasis almost as glorious as this one to camp beside. And the next day we’ll make our way back to where we left my TARDIS and take an easy trip back to school.”

The boys were enthusiastic. The day by the oasis had refreshed them and they were more than ready for the challenge of a hike in the desert. They were over their awe and shyness towards Kristoph, now, and talked freely with him, not only about the terrain they were walking through, but other subjects, too. Kristoph asked them about their school work and their daily routine at the camp and they talked happily about the subjects they liked best. When that topic flagged, the boys questioned him about his life. Riven and Salika were especially interested in his work for the CIA. He was careful not to make it sound glamorous, emphasising the hardship and the danger and the fact that nine of his lives had been lost in service to Gallifrey during his career as an assassin.

“If you don’t want to find out what it is like to have both of your hearts cut out at once, then the CIA is not the job for you,” he said grimly after relating one of his misadventures. The boys laughed as he meant them to do. But they fully understood the message he was trying to get across to them, too. It was a tough career. It was one not to be entered upon lightly.

“But then you renounced violence and became a diplomat,” Adred said.

“I didn’t renounce violence, as such,” Kristoph said. “There are times, when diplomacy fails, or the enemy is such that diplomacy has no hope of success, when the only recourse is to the sword. When the Sarre threatened us in my youth it was such a time. Riven, your grandfather was one of those who fought in the same battalion as me. When he returned from war, he became a philosopher, the author of great works on the existentialism of life. Adred, your great-uncle was one who joined that campaign, too. He forged a career as a micro-biologist. We would all choose peace first. The sword is the last option. But the nature of the universe is that it always must be there as an option.”

He thought they understood - at least as much as boys their age were expected to understand something that only brutal experience could really teach. Then Mica asked him a question about the diplomatic corps that took a good mile of hiking to fully explain. All the boys listened intently, but Mica and Adred most avidly of all. Kristoph smiled. Yes, that was where those two boys saw their future. Each of them had an ambition to be pursued. Kristoph made a quiet vow to himself to ensure, one way or another, that they all had a chance of reaching for those ambitions. Their recent troubles had been a setback, but on the other hand the desert camp was proving to be the making of them. Free of the petty rivalries of the great Academies, the boys all applied themselves to their academic work, enjoyed the exercise afforded them, stretched themselves to overcome the difficulties of living in such an environment. It was making young men who were strong of body and of will, and he had every good hope for their future.

“We won’t let you down, sir,” Riven said.

“I know you won’t,” Kristoph assured them.

There was more than just desert to look at on this journey. As the sun rose higher and the day grew hotter they were able to keep on going because they were in the deep shade of that landmark called the Great Omegan Escarpment. It was a high, sheer wall of rock that cut across the desert for three hundred miles. It was made of the same red, iron rich rock that the whole desert was made of, but this was part of the impermeable and erosion resistant bedrock that lay beneath the sand. It had been thrust upwards many millions of years ago when a fault line shifted and a great earthquake rocked the northern continent. The desert itself continued high above on the shelf.

“Do we have to climb this?” Mica asked, looking doubtfully up at the near vertical plane broken occasionally by cracks and clefts, but too far apart to be handholds for an ascent. “We didn’t bring equipment for a climb.”

“No, we didn’t,” Kristoph confirmed. “If anyone has a yen for such a challenge we could do that another time. But there IS a path. It’s a bit of a challenge in itself, but requires no special equipment, only a strong pair of lungs and well-trained leg muscles.”

The boys looked up again and Kristoph decided that a climbing expedition would definitely be an adventure for another weekend with the young Arcalians. But for now they walked in the shade of the cliff face and listened to the rather fanciful legend from which it became known as the Omegan Escarpment. That brought them to the place where their ascent began. It looked at first like a crack in the wall, but it was the start of a steep, narrow path up the side of the escarpment. They formed a single file. Kristoph let Riven and Gynnell go ahead, the eldest and strongest of them. The other four went next and he brought up the rear. They walked carefully, keeping close to the rugged wall and away from the edge. It was hard going. It was hot, because it was close to noon now and there was very little shade. It wasn’t high enough to cause altitude sickness, but there were some moments of vertigo when they looked down and saw how high they had climbed.

It took three hours to reach the top. When they did, they rested. They drank water and ate some ground fruits, and got ready to carry on.

The Aeolian depression was the next landmark. It was a virtually unknown wonder of the Red Desert. Again, it was formed millennia ago, some believed it had been formed even before the Desert had become a Desert. There was a theory among Gallifreyan historians that there had once been a fertile plain where there was now near lifeless wasteland. Great winds had scoured the land, it was believed for over ten years without ceasing. Vegetation was swept away, even the very topsoil. The same winds scooped out the Aeolian Depression, a ten mile wide, one mile deep bowl. But afterwards, when the rest of the desert was sand and rock with just a few hardy plants hanging on, the bowl was a catchment for the little rain that ever fell on this part of the planet. A lake formed. Plant life flourished. Animal life sought it out.

This was the oasis Kristoph promised the boys. They walked in the shade of trees to reach the cool water, picking fruits that their leader identified as safe to eat. When they bathed they disturbed a flock of large plump water birds called vellik. Later Kristoph set Salik and Riven the task of culling two of them. Plucked and prepared they made a roast supper when the sun went down and the camp fire was built. It was only the second kind of real meat the boys had ever tasted, after Leonate steaks. It was another new experience for them.

When they were ready to sleep, all six of them did so quickly and easily, the exertions of a long day had worn them out. Kristoph lay awake a little longer, thinking about all that he had learnt about the boys while they were learning from him.

Near midnight a sound outside the tent made him alert. He left the boys sleeping and moved quickly in the dark, finding one of the crossbows by touch alone and making it ready in case some predator was about.

It wasn’t a predator. It was a man. Kristoph’s CIA training stood him well as he recognised the concealed figure within the trees.

“Show yourself,” he whispered loudly, though not so loudly that it would disturb the boys in the tent. The figure came closer, revealed in the moonlight. He was wearing nothing but a loincloth of leonate fur. The rest of his body was tattooed with symbols, some of which Kristoph recognised, some he didn’t.

It was an Outlander.

“We mean you no harm,” Kristoph said.

“Likewise,” replied the Outlander in an accent that surprised Kristoph. He had met the wild men of the desert before, and they had a dialect all of their own, only loosely based on Low Gallifreyan. But this man spoke like as city dweller.

Kristoph drew closer. The Outlander’s face was tattooed, also, obscuring his features, but something about him was familiar. The eyes, perhaps.

“You used to be Marvic Braxietel,” he said.

“A very long time ago,” the Outlander replied. “And you… were The Executioner. I know you, de Lœngbærrow, even though your face has changed many times.”

“After you left the Agency it was whispered that you had gone into the desert. It is never spoken of openly, of course. If it were commonly known that there were Time Lords who so disdain our social order that they choose to live as wild men in the wastelands, it might destroy they very fabric of that society.”

“I doubt it,” Braxietel said. “Is my brother well?”

“Pól is very well,” Kristoph answered. “He is Castellan, now, though that would not mean anything to an Outlander, of course.”

“And you, old friend? You bring children into the desert. They cannot all be your own. You have become a teacher?”

“I am teaching them something of the ways of the desert,” Kristoph answered. There was little point in telling this man that he was Lord High President of all Gallifrey. That ‘all’ did not include the Outlanders. It was officially denied that they even existed, and whether native born or dropouts from ‘civilisation’ they had no use for the hierarchy of government. “You must have seen us before nightfall to know that my party consists of children. I was not aware of your presence. But that is as you chose.”

“My tribe is camped three miles to the west,” Braxietel told him. “We were aware of your progress even before you started up the escarpment. Your boys did very well. Did you bring them all the way across Dark Territory?”

“I did,” Kristoph answered.

“There is a pack of Pazithi wolves a little further north-west. We expect them to water on the north side before morning. If you intend to break camp around dawn you would be advised to travel around the east side of the lake and avoid running into them – or our camp, for that matter. Doubtless the youngsters have heard stories about the naked Shebbogins in the desert and would like to know more, but we would prefer not to be objects of their curiosity.”

“I quite agree,” Kristioph said. “Our route tomorrow takes us down the escarpment and back by an easterly way out of Dark Territory, so we should have no need for our paths to cross.”

“We understand each other. I shall take my leave of you now, de Lœngbærrow. Good journey to you and your charges.”

“And to you, Braxietel. May your days be fruitful.”

Braxietel bowed his head slightly in respect of his old friend. Kristoph did the same before they parted company. Kristoph came back to the tent where the boys still slept soundly. Before he, too, slept, safe in the knowledge that the Outlanders had them in their sights and no wild creatures would disturb them this night, he remembered Marvic Braxietel. He was a good agent in his day. He wasn’t entirely sure what had left him so disillusioned with Time Lord society that he chose this other life, but he felt his friend had made what, for him, at least, was the right decision.

They rose before dawn and breakfasted on cold meat and ground fruits. They filled their water packs and packed away the tent and set off in the still cool air. They didn’t meet either wolves or Outlanders as they passed the lake and made their way down the wide gentle slope of several miles that brought them from the escarpment at a different place than where they started – a place that left them only fifty yards from the edge of Dark Territory and their rendezvous point with the TARDIS.

“We didn’t meet any Outlanders,” Salika pointed out when the TARDIS materialised in the parade ground in the middle of the school camp. For the boys, that was probably the only disappointment of the trip.

Kristoph smiled as he thought of his own encounter the night before.

“Perhaps you will, yet,” he told the boy. “Away you go, now. Work hard, obey your teachers. And remember that you all still have your futures ahead of you.”

When they were gone, he stepped back into a much quieter TARDIS and prepared to head home to the southern continent. He was surprised to see a message from Marion on the communications console. It told him that she had packed for a weekend on Ventura as soon as he got back with the TARDIS.

“Your heir presumptive was born today,” she added. “His name is Remy and I can’t wait to see him and Rika.”

Kristoph sighed happily and set his course for home, if only very briefly.