Seventy-seven

"Badur's a wraith," Rodan said. "An empty, broken shell, washed ashore at high water. He's nothing." He spat. The boy looked at him, his face without expression. Rodan wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "I don't know why I even care anymore." He turned away from us, rubbing his face with both hands.

Jared drew me aside. "Badur is was one of the gods. When the war started, something happened to them. Some say that the gods died, some say that they were shattered upon the face of the earth." He gave the boy a quick look. "The truth is that things are roaming the land - things, some good, some evil, and all beyond our comprehension. Things that may be the remains of our gods, or something else entirely." He swallowed. "When we first encountered them we rejoiced, thinking the gods had returned to us. But we've learned to be careful."

I glanced at the boy. He stood motionless, watching us. "Tell him," the boy told me as he saw me looking at him.

"Tell him what?"

"You know."

I did, and I wondered how to tell Jared. He had never spoken about our experience in the burning palace, and neither had I.

"Jared?"

"Yes?"

"There's something you need to know." I sent him an image of the vision we had shared, of the fire that had nearly killed us. For the first time I wondered whether, had we died, our deaths would have meant anything in the real world.

He gave me a puzzled look.

"Please," I said. "Do you remember the voice we heard?"

"What voice?"

"He said something like, the master is gone and we must mourn, and after a while you began to chant along with him." I sent him another image of what I had seen and heard, recreating the experience in as much detail as I could.

"A voice." He sounded surprised. "That's interesting."

"You do know what I'm talking about, don't you?"

"Yes, I do."

"I don't know how to explain this, but that voice is still with me. I get the impression that - whatever it is - wants to share our journey for reasons of its own." I tried to remember the conversation that I had with the voice earlier. "It seems curious about us."

He said nothing, and I began to replay the conversation that I had overheard between the boy and the voice.

I waited for him to respond, unsure of what to say or do. "That's interesting," he said eventually. He chuckled. "I won't kill the boy just yet, then."

"What?"

"You don't know what some of these things are like." With that, his presence was gone.

Rodan had grabbed my shoulders and was shaking me. "What did you tell him? What could you possibly tell him?" I could see the anger and the despair in his eyes, and for a moment I panicked.

Find your centre, I told myself. feel the ground under your feet. Connect. Gradually I began to feel calmer.

He let go of my shoulders and took a step back.

"It's alright," I told him. "I understand."

"He may kill us all." His voice lacked conviction.

Jared began to laugh. "So what? We wouldn't be the first to die, nor the last."

"Yeah, go on, mock me."

"Rodan, the truth is that we've got no idea where we're going, or what we'll find when we'll get there. I don't know how we've come to hook up with our friend here," he nodded in my direction, "and yet I believe it is for a reason that we have." He shrugged. "For all we know Badur here might be with us for a reason." He gave a brief smile. "Who knows, he may even be Badur." He looked at the boy's scrawny form. "In any case, I doubt that he can do us much harm."

Rodan shook his head. "May the gods help me, I'm actually inclined to believe you." He chuckled. "We may not have to kill you just yet," he added to the boy.

"Why, thank you."

I know you, I caught myself thinking. I've met someone who talks just like you, and I don't think the similarity's a coincidence. For a moment I felt my muscles tense as I searched my memory in vain. We've met before, I thought. I'm pretty sure you didn't look or sound like this then, and yet I know that our paths have crossed.

When I looked up the boy was watching me, and he winked when my eyes met his.



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