Seventy-three

I rubbed my eyes, trying to become more fully alert. This is it, I thought. I reached into my pocket and clasped my fingers around the stone. I'm here. I'm willing - or maybe I don't have a choice, but that's quite alright, my life wasn't going anywhere as it was. So, lead the way, and please let me do what is right.

I looked out. Though the sky was still bright the shadows were getting longer, and the light was beginning to fade. It wouldn't be long until sunset. Apart from the three men, who were still lying there without stirring, the courtyard was deserted. I listened, but the only thing I could hear was what might have been a mouse scurrying among the boxes beneath me. It's so quiet, I thought. How can it be so quiet?

"Come on," the boy said, tugging at my sleeve.

I looked at the three men outside. "Are you sure they're waking up?" I felt like I was surrounded by fog, unable to think or to see clearly. I need to wake up, I thought. I need to see.

"There is nothing for you here," Agromas told me. "You must choose. You must act."

We were back on the mountain path, were I had seen him as I lay on the floor, bleeding to death. I felt strangely distant, like I wasn't really there, like I was seeing a memory, or a projection. I chuckled. A memory, I thought. A projection. As opposed to what, exactly?

"Agromas?"

No reply came and his image faded, and then I was alone in the mist.

"Please," the boy said, and I thought of how I had followed a little flame into the other world and of where it had taken me. But it hadn't taken me anywhere, had it? I had lost it somewhere on the path, and I had ended up in a vision reliving the destruction of my farm, my family and my life. I shivered at the memory, and looked around. Maybe things would have been different if I had followed the flame until the end.

I slid down from the pile of boxes. "Lead the way," I told the boy, and I followed him out.

When we reached the courtyard Jared was sitting up, and I could see that the two others were stirring. Apart from the five of us, the courtyard was still deserted. I turned to the boy. "Where is everyone?"

"Hiding," he said. "Waiting for them to leave."

I knelt next to Jared. "Old friend," I said. It was true, I thought. He'd been more of a friend to me than anyone I could remember.

He looked straight ahead, apparently not noticing me. I turned my head to follow his gaze and saw that the gates were open.

"It's alright, I'm here." I put my hand on his shoulder.

A hunger, not physical but spiritual, so intense that it sent red-hot spikes of pain through my soul.

"Don't touch him," the boy said.

"It's alright." I took a deep breath. Concentrate, I told myself. Feel where you are and where you're not. Feel your centre. Feel the earth under your feet and connect.

"Are you coming with me?"

"Jared?"

"It's difficult to talk. I can't think clearly."

I took another deep breath and squeezed his shoulder. I felt the boy looking at me and I looked up, giving him a smile that I hoped would be reassuring.

"I'll come with you. Where are we going?"

He looked at me, and for a moment our eyes met. "Help me up," he said, and reached out his hand.



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