"Funny how things work out." Ash gave a weary laugh to hear that cliche come out of his mouth. "What I mean is, I can't get my head around it."
"Don't have to, I guess." Kieran glanced up at the clouds that had been creeping out of the west for the past hour or so. The sun had gone behind them, and the shade eased the heat a little. Ash was still not sure he could keep walking. He hadn't asked where they were going. Kieran seemed to know, and that was good enough.
Since leaving Churchrock and the former prisoners behind, they hadn't talked much. There would be time to talk later. For now they needed their breath for walking. Ash had very little power left. Kieran seemed to be worn out as well. What little they could gather as they went was just enough to keep them upright and moving in the face of their thirst and hunger.
There was a time, Ash thought bemusedly, when being this hungry, this filthy, this tired, would have been the peak of misery for me. But I have my Kai, I have his hand in my hand, and so the rest of it isn't important.
Though he hadn't sent his thoughts out, Kieran turned to smile at him. "I'm sorry it's such a long walk. It'll be like when we busted out before, I'm afraid. Eating snakes and sleeping in caves. At least until we get there."
"Is there food where we're going?"
"Um." Kieran's smile turned wry. "I thought we could steal something from the miners. But it just occurred to me that the rail spur that went there -- well, it would be part of the new Burn, now."
"Maybe it spread out enough..."
"Hope so. There were people there. They had nothing to do with this." Kieran bit his lip, bowing his head. After a few minutes, he went on, "I'm sick of death, Ash. I must've killed more than fifty men today. More in one day than I did in my whole life before. I'm so tired of being the bad guy."
Ash raised their joined hands to his lips, kissed the tattooed dots on Kieran's skin. "I don't want you to start beating yourself up over this. They were Watchmen. Soldiers. And I -- I killed someone too, you saw -- even if the first shot was yours, I set it up, and then I finished him."
"It had to be done."
Kieran nodded. "I have a lot to tell you before it'll make sense. You were sending me strength when I fought with Ka'an, but I don't know how much you understand of what he was, what Thelyan was..."
"And what you are now? And what I am now?"
Questioning, Kieran turned to him, step faltering. "You? Is that how you did those things?"
"It's confusing as hell. The thing you saw curled up in me, that was a sort of goddess, a thing like Ka'an but not cruel like he was -- an old woman, not so powerful, and there was Chaiel in the bubble -- he woke her, and she told me things -- gave me her power, what there was of it, and I think I have a new way of doing magic, I'll have to show you later -- so we got out, and there was this little girl with wings, and then we ran into the ward -- that's when you helped -- and I guess Shy thought I was dead, but I woke up with so much energy and it all seemed so obvious --" He broke off, finally realizing he was babbling. He gave Kieran a lopsided smile. "What I mean is, I don't think I've become a god or anything. But I'm not just an empath anymore."
"Yeah." Kieran chuckled. "I gathered that."
"It's a little scary. I don't know what I can do. I have a new theory, though. About how magic works, I mean. It's how I got out of the bubble."
"You realize none of this is making a damn bit of sense to me."
"Start at the beginning. When I left you -- god, I hated doing that."
"I know. I didn't think you'd be able to come back for me. I just wanted you to get away. I figured I could handle whatever happened, as long as I knew you were free somewhere."
"Anyway, when they found me, I started shooting. I got one of them in the hip and clipped one across the scalp. Then my rifle jammed. I'm surprised it worked at all, it was so full of mud. I got shot in the arm, right here." He showed a scar just above his elbow. "It didn't hurt, though. I was too worked up. They dropped some kind of spell on me. Next thing I know, I'm floating in the middle of a little stone room, with a naked kid sitting on my chest. That Chaiel person I mentioned."
"What? Why was he naked?"
"We both were. I guess Thelyan took our clothes so we couldn't use them to make a rope or something."
Kieran's face darkened. "How old was this 'kid'? Was he attractive?"
"Are you jealous?" Ash laughed, but the laugh faded as he realized how he'd have to answer Kieran's questions. "Um, he looked about fifteen. And yeah, I guess he was cute. And -- just to get all the unfortunate implications out of the way, the bubble that imprisoned us shoved everything in it toward the center, so we were sort of stuck together. You don't seriously think that was anything but an inconvenience to me, do you?"
Kieran gave him a wry smile. "I get a little irrational about you, you know that. Go on. You were stuck together."
Ash told the story carefully, relating conversations as close to verbatim as he could manage. Kieran listened quietly until near the end, when Ash explained how he'd tried to break the ward and swallowed it instead.
"I got some use out of what you sent me," Kieran interrupted. "Just about killed me, though, before I got it broken down into something I could work with. How did you do it?"
"Math," Ash answered simply. "It's all mathematical. I'd explain, but I think I'd have to teach you calculus first."
Kieran shook his head. "Never mind. You're a genius. Let's just leave it at that."
"For now. I bet you could learn, though. You're smarter than you think you are, love. It's just that nobody bothered to teach you."
"You think so?"
"I'm sure of it."
"And you'd teach me?"
"If that's what you want."
Kieran gave a crooked smile. He seemed surprised by his own joy. "We have time, don't we? There's... there's a future. I have a future, and you're in it. Sorry, I'm getting sappy."
"You think I mind?"
"Go on with your story."
"There's not much more. I walked around, found myself in the cell block. The place was wrecked. There were some... I found some dead men. Falling rock killed them. I found Sona alive, with a rock on his leg. I helped him. I just meant to stop the bleeding, but I found I had so much power, it was easy to fix it all the way. If there'd been anything left of his leg I could've saved it, but the flesh was dead. I went out looking for other people to help -- I wanted to come to you right away, but you seemed to be winning, and there were injured people everywhere. Then I found where they were fighting, and I stopped them."
"Just like that."
"Well, yes." He shrugged. "It was just projective empathy. I thought it was pointless for them to be fighting, when all any of them wanted was to get away. So I showed them what they really felt, and they stopped. I sent them in opposite directions."
"And at the end there -- I'm afraid to ask. Did you know what you were doing? Did you know what it would do to you?"
"I saw the shape of his shield. It blocked solid matter. If I'd had a bucket of water or an apple or something, you could have shot through that. I considered using my hand or some other part farther from vital organs, but I was afraid you'd cripple me. I tried to put the path through the same place where you were shot, because you survived that -- or would have, if we hadn't been on the run -- but I guess my aim was a little off." He hung his head. "Sorry about that. I didn't plan to sacrifice myself, I swear."
"You're saying your blood breached his shield?"
"Just long enough to let the bullet through."
"You are really something, Ashes."
"We used it all up, though. All that power. If we have to deal with anything else, we're in deep trouble."
"Only if it happens tonight. We'll build up our strength again. You are taking in power, right?"
"Just enough to keep walking."
"Maybe I'm better at it, because I'm getting more than that. Want to try taking some?"
When Ash nodded, Kieran closed his eyes for a moment. A trickle of strength flowed through their joined hands. Ash's fatigue abated. They shared a smile, and went on at a better pace.
"So where exactly are we going?" Ash was only curious. He was getting to enjoy the walking a bit, now that being tired wasn't a problem.
"You remember how you told me once, if we got out of prison, we should find a lake and swim around until we get all pruney?"
"Yeah. We swam in the river, but only for a few minutes. If we're going back to that temple, it'll be all mud still..."
"Nope. This place is better. It's got this lake in it that's just -- you'll see."
Nodding, Ash didn't have to reply. This was all right. Walking. Talking or not talking. Night beginning to come down as the clouds rose up.
They trudged on into darkness.
Sometime after full night had fallen, rain came. Spatters at first, then a downpour. They tilted their heads back to drink it, caught it in their hands. It washed them clean, washed out their tracks. Chilled them, then tapered away to a gentle spattering that didn't keep them from drawing enough power to warm themselves. Kieran wrapped his shredded coat around Ash's bare shoulders, and they went on.
They reached a stream as clouds cleared and released the moon. "This is Burn River," Kieran told him in an amused tone, before hopping across.
"Is it safe to drink?"
"It should be now."
So Ash waded into the water, warmer than the air, tendrils of mist curling around his legs. He scooped up handfuls to finish off his thirst. It only came up to his knees at its deepest point. When they had both drunk enough, they moved on, upstream.
It took Ash several minutes to figure out what he was seeing: a lake, an endless sheet of still water running out to the horizon. He breathed his amazement, and Kieran's smile was proprietary, proud to show off his discovery. And there were further wonders; circling the lake's barren shore, they encountered tumbled walls, ruined buildings that hinted at a forgotten grandeur. Toppled pillars, slumped jetties and seawalls, stairs that led down toward the water and ended ten feet above its surface.
"This wasn't always a desert," Ash guessed.
Kieran just nodded.
They threaded their way through the traces of narrow streets, heading for an area where the buildings looked a little more intact. They were moving west, toward the mountains that were just now tipped with gold, toward some flat-topped ruins from which a thread of smoke climbed...
Kieran stopped, hauling back on Ash's hand. He gave a faint groan. "Oh hell. I don't want to fight anyone right now."
"There's not supposed to be anyone here, is there?"
"I'll go look."
"No!" Kieran's hands clutched his arms, unwilling to let him move any closer to the mysterious smoke. "We are not going through that again!"
Warmed to his soul by those words, despite their impractical implications in this situation, Ash took a moment to lean against Kieran's shoulder before answering. "With my mind, I mean. I should be able to tell what kind of person it is. At least, whether they have magic."
"I'll do it."
"We need you alert if it comes to a fight."
Kieran nodded, but he didn't look happy. "Be careful. Be so goddamn careful, Ash."
"I will." Ash closed his eyes, and sent his senses creeping out. Gently, tentatively, ready to sink away at the first sign of recognition.
A moment later, he opened his eyes laughing.
"What?" Kieran demanded.
"It's Chaiel. And he has that little kid with him."
"The one who was in the bubble, right? What the hell is he doing here? Can we trust him?"
"He's a friend."
"A friend?" Kieran frowned at him for a moment longer, then relaxed, sighing resignation. "I should've figured. You could make friends in Hell. You could make friends on the moon." He let Ash tow him toward the rising smoke.
When the smell of cooking food reached them, the last of Kieran's resistance crumbled. Soon he was the one leading.
They got a bit turned around when they got close enough that the mostly intact walls around them blocked the sight of the smoke. Ash was about to cast out again with his mind, weary though he was, when a tiny figure bobbed around a corner and waved to him. A tiny figure with wings.
"Whoa." Kieran faltered. "That's not normal."
"Hello again," Ash said as brightly as he could manage. "You're here to take us to Chaiel?"
The child nodded. Solemn-faced, she grabbed their clasped hands and tugged. When she turned away, he saw that the infected swelling around the grafted wings was gone. The scars of stitches were clearly visible, but other than that it looked as if the wings had grown there. She took them through a maze of dust-choked alleys, brought them into a courtyard strewn with piles and bundles.
Beside a small cookfire in the center of the courtyard, Chaiel was just in the act of standing up. Ash smiled to see how different he looked. He'd cut his hair neatly at his shoulders, and was wrapped in layers of mismatched, ill-fitting clothing. He nodded welcome, gesturing to the objects piled around him, and the pot full of what smelled like stewed chicken.
"You'll want to eat first, no doubt, but I've clothes for you when you've finished. Medur, please set out blankets for these gentlemen."
The child nodded. She went to scramble among the baggage.
"You named her Medur?" Ash sank gratefully down beside the fire, reaching for the bowl Chaiel offered.
"It's the best name I know."
Ash passed a bowl to Kieran, whose questioning frown was threatening a tirade. "Kieran, this is Chaiel. He's an immortal, Thelyan was keeping him prisoner. Try to remember not to shorten his name. For some reason that's hard for me. Chaiel, this is Kieran, who is absolutely not Ka'an."
Chaiel nodded. "That's obvious. It's in the eyes."
The corner of Kieran's mouth quirked up. "Thelyan didn't think it was obvious."
"He needed you to be Ka'an, I suppose. It justified him. You do realize, don't you, that you haven't destroyed him? You've only bought a few years of peace."
Kieran chuckled, spoke around a mouthful of food. "Years. Hell, I can't think past sleep, just now. I just might be able to wrap my brain around the concept of tomorrow."
"Besides," Ash put in, "he won't know who he is, will he? If he's reborn at all; I gathered that they aren't, always."
"You can count on that, if you like," said Chaiel. "I won't."
Ash gave half a shrug. "Anything can happen in a few years. Hell, anything can happen in a few months."
"Yep." Kieran grinned. "But I never saw a kid grow wings before, what's up with her? And not to be ungrateful for the food and all, but how the hell did you -- what was your name again?"
Chaiel rolled his eyes. "Oh, for the love of mercy. Why can't you people manage to remember my name?"
Kieran dismissed this with a wave of his spoon. "How'd you get ahead of us, and with all this junk? Ash can't have told you to meet us here, he didn't know about this place." He turned to Ash, frowning. "Did you?"
"Well, I call that suspicious."
Ash leaned to scoop more stew out of the pot, and to hide his smile. "Kieran's tired, and it's making him a little snarky. But I'm pretty curious about that myself."
"I know spells you don't. Spells I don't intend to teach," Chaiel added quickly as Ash opened his mouth to ask.
"I'd teach you how to use math for magic," Ash said in a hurt tone.
"That's up to you. I won't strike a bargain. All this --" again he gestured to the piled baggage -- "is my way of repaying you for freeing me. No doubt we'll meet again someday, and perhaps that debt can't be repaid, and perhaps you'll have a favor to ask of me then. But I can't make extravagant gestures of gratitude today. I have Medur to think of. I have..." Chaiel's eyes went distant, a little bit frightened. "I have the future to think of. That will take some getting used to."
Kieran grumbled, "You're saying you don't trust us with this stuff you know."
"Not at the moment, no."
After a long moment, Kieran shook his head and went back to eating, not interested in arguing. Ash finished his second bowl of stewed whatever, and offered the bowl and spoon to Chaiel. That one gestured refusal and stood up, reaching for the child's hand. Little Medur came to him instantly. Ash could sense the trust in her malformed mind; she'd imprinted like a baby bird.
"Good luck to you both," Chaiel said.
"Wait." Ash stood as well. "Before you go... I'm not sure how to explain this so it won't sound condescending or stupid. But I just want you to know, I don't think we should owe each other anything. If there's anything you need, or even if you just feel like talking to someone who has half a clue what your world is like... you see?"
A smile spread slowly across Chaiel's face. "Medur was more eloquent, but I see her in you nonetheless. As you wish; we part as friends, with no debt between us." He offered his hand, and Ash clasped it.
Then, draping a frail arm around the child's frailer neck, he turned away and began walking, and the two of them grew distant much more quickly than the ground they covered allowed. Within moments, they were wavering in haze, and then gone. He hadn't spoken a spell, or made any gestures, and Ash had felt no spill of power. Kieran made an appreciative sound.
"Not bad. Your buddy there is quite a mage."
"He's been around a while." Ash reached for Kieran's hand. "Oh Kai. I'm so tired. Are we done now?"
"Yeah. We're done."
They helped each other to the blankets that little Medur had spread for them in the shade of an intact corner of roof. Too weary even to undress, they flung themselves down, curled together, and closed their eyes.
Several minutes later, Ash admitted with a sigh what they were both thinking: "I'm too tired to sleep."
"So just lie here. We can lie around all day."
"For how many days? How long until something else comes along to mess with us? I can't believe we're safe now. I can't believe the world will just let me spend my life with you. Things that good don't happen. Do they?"
Kieran whispered a laugh. "So that's where my cynicism went."
"I'm not being cynical. I don't think I am. I'm just trying to reassure myself. Where are you going to live, Kai? Because that's where I'm going to live too, if you'll let me. Burn River? What about those gangsters? And there are still warrants out for us, even if Churchrock's wrecked, and --"
Kieran silenced him with a kiss. Drew back to catch his eyes, brushed away a curl of his hair, smiling. "You worry too much about stuff that doesn't matter. Between us, we have just about all the magic there is. There's nobody in the world who can beat us now, except maybe that Chaiel kid, and he seems decent enough. And don't start with that 'if you'll let me' crap. You want me to promise? You want a ring? I'm not giving you up. Not for anything. I'll swear on anything you want."
"I thought you didn't like to make promises."
"I changed my mind."
Sighing happily, Ash settled into his favorite place on Kieran's shoulder. "Even with this new magic, though, we can be hurt if we're not paying attention. Wherever we go, things will get dangerous. We can't be on our guard every moment."
Kieran was quiet for a while, toying with Ash's hair, turning something over in his mind. Something that filled him with hope, but which he thought Ash might not like. Ash didn't mean to eavesdrop on his feelings, but when they lay together like this the bond was too strong for anything to stay hidden.
"Whatever you're going to ask for," Ash said, "the answer is yes."
"Well, I was just thinking -- how would you like to stay here?"
"If you want to. Yes. But... there's nothing here."
There was a smile in Kieran's voice when he answered. "There will be."
-- END --
[Once again, if your wallet's so fat you can't sit down, please consider buying the dead tree version. The ISBN is 1847288650, or you can search it by name on Amazon, Powell's, or any other online purveyor of tasty verbage. Thanks for your support, y'all!