“If I’m dead, how am I still feeling pain?” Amar muttered as he more stumbled than ran.
“Just got to keep moving until we literally can’t anymore,” Jon panted out. “They can’t land the airship anywhere around here, but still the further the better.”
“If the ground is so soft, why does my body feel like one giant bruise?” Amar whined.
“You’ve been in much nastier situations. I’ve heard stories.”
Amar grunted. “Those were then. This is now.”
Jon looked around. It was dusk and a chorus of insects rose up to welcome the night. All he could smell was his own sweat. He wished he was in his suit. At least the Technocrat designed them to absorb and negate the smell of sweat.
As they kept moving, Jon noticed the storm clouds were starting to gather. Just when the need for shelter was about to get real urgent, Amar tugged on his arm and his voice whispered in his head. Over there.
Growing out of the side of a gently sloping hill was a cabin.
“There,” Jon said. They moved toward the cabin at a snail’s pace. Jon knocked and called out, but there wasn’t even the sound of footsteps. They waited for what seemed like an hour with Amar resting on the ground.
Jon muttered to himself and started searching the pockets sewn into the interior of his robes. As Amar watched him in total confusion, Jon pulled out a lockpick and began work on the cabin door.
“Superheroes typically pick locks?” Amar asked, amused.
“No joke. It’s required for all Final Guard members on the field. I guess it was too low-tech to get changed by the reality warp.”
It took some tries, but eventually the door creaked open. Amar looked reluctant to cross the threshold.
“Are you sure about this? People who live out in the middle of nowhere tend not to react well to trespassers.”
Looking around, Jon noted that the somewhat spacious cabin had walls were decorated with stuffed birds and a couple of deer heads.
“It’s not a home, it’s a hunting lodge…I hope.”
Amar could smell the rain on the wind and see the sky getting darker, so he did not argue the point.
There was no other furniture in the entire cabin except a wooden table and some chairs, so Amar kicked off his mud-caked shoes and made a beeline for the bed. He would have probably fallen asleep right there if Jon hadn’t shouted triumphantly, “Amar, I found food!”
“In the back, there’s a….whatever you call it, a really old-timey pit to keep food in storage. And some wine too.”
“I guess they don’t have toilets too?”
Jon groaned, then laughed. “No. Why? You got to go?”
“Actually, not right now, but I’m already dreading when I have to.”
Jon came back within view with fruit, cheese, and a peach wine. For the first time, Amar noticed how easy smiles came to Jon’s pale, red-bearded face, much like how the experiences from the past day had curiously made him aware how Jon pulled at his own long hair when he was nervous or afraid. “There’s not much, which I guess is a good sign they won’t be coming back anytime soon. It still looks safe to eat, though.”
Amar sighed. His exhaustion outweighed both hunger and thirst. “Good.”
Jon waited a moment before he asked, “Don’t they use earth closets or something where you’re from?”
“Yes, but I didn’t realize until now that your vastly superior civilization has spoiled me.”
After they ate and took care of their bodily functions (to a reasonable degree of satisfaction), Amar and Jon sat down on the bed and talked through the pouring rain outside. Not once did either bring up the mission they were on. Their discussions ranged from that time when Jon and the Rooks stopped Amar from copying his consciousness into a organic supercomputer (which turned out to be a scam being run by a cabal of mad scientists they all had to fight against, anyway) to the ridiculous cost of rent in Chicago.
“But do you like it here?” Jon, who was reclining on the bed and resting his against the wall, wanted to know. “I mean, not here, but my world, I guess.”
“I don’t know if I’ve just been there so long or I’m trying to cope with the fact I’ll probably never see home again, but…yeah, I do like it here for the most part. Still, though, I think of Kadingir every day.”
There was an awkward yet pleasant pause. Jon broke it by gently asking, “Do you mind telling me about it?”
Seeing Amar’s surprise, Jon stammered out, “If you want to. I don’t…”
“No, it’s fine! I just…I’d like to. I forgot you’ve never actually been there like most of the Final Guard has. I guess the place on Earth that I’ve been to I’d compare Kadingir to is eastern Europe. Gorgeous blue mountains, deep forests, ancient villages tucked away in valleys…” Amar didn’t look sad as he talked, but his words certainly took a bittersweet tinge.
“How did your people get there?”
“Oh, that’s a whole epic right there, but I guess we’ve got time.”
“I know I do.”
“Well, okay, like anything, there’s variations, but the basic story most of the temples still teach is that our ancestors were created by the gods over the sea. That’s literally their name in my language. The gods over the sea were proud and cruel and wanted to be worshiped by all beings in the world, but they were opposed by the gods of the land who were more or less the gods your people know as the Babylonian pantheon: Ishtar, Marduk, Sin, and the rest.
There was a terrible war between the gods of the land and the gods over the sea that nearly split all creation asunder. The gods over the sea forced our ancestors to fight against the gods of the land, but the gods of the land convinced them of the wickedness of the gods of the sea and allowed our ancestors to settle among their people after the gods over the sea were finally defeated for good.”
“That’s kind of a weird creation myth, though.”
“Yeah. Like, claiming that these evil gods made your people to fight for them.”
Amar laughed. “Yeah, this scholar actually wrote a book about that where I’m from. She argued that it was an allegory for original sin or something like that. Maybe she’s right.
Anyway, there really isn’t much about our early history when we still lived on the First World. But the legends do agree that there were never very many of us and we kept to ourselves from the normal humans. ‘The Strangers’ is what the old accounts call them. There are stories that we helped them against invaders or we were complete jerks to them and made them worship us as gods or whatever, and there’s this entire genre of legends about the Strangers tricking us or stealing from us, but the bottom line is that in the really old days our tribes kept away from their tribes.
But then while our ancestors stayed semi-nomads, just building temples and shelters we’d return to every now and then, the Strangers started building cities, and out of them came city-states and next kingdoms and finally empires. And the more organized they got, the more they feared and outright hated us for our powers.”
“Didn’t your people have an advantage, though?”
“At first, sure, but even 20 of us can’t hold out against a trained army of hundreds that knew how to make and use weapons of metal. And it got so bad that they literally did send armies to hunt us down, even when we fled into the most inhospitable deserts and mountain ranges. Then one day a woman named Kutalu traveled to all of the surviving tribes and promised them that she could take them all to a new world like the one they knew, but where there would be no Strangers who would track them down with their horses and bronze weapons.
A few refused, but most did listen because Kutalu was apparently already famous. See, through our entire recorded history, most of us just get one of a few powers, what you call telepathy, telekinesis, pyrokinesis, and clairvoyance. A few of us each generation have two of those powers. But Kutalu…she could manipulate the very fabric of the universe itself.
In fact, we’re…I mean, my family are descended from Kutalu or so they say. Kadingir was founded right at the point where my people crossed over into the new world. Kutalu’s descendants were tasked with protecting the gateway between worlds, hence my family ended up ruling Kadingir.”
Amar paused, as if considering something. “Hey, do you mind if I share something telepathically with you for a bit? It’s going to disorienting, but I think you’ll find it worth it.”
Jon was confused, but nodded without hesitation. Suddenly, as if a switch was thrown, his view of the room around him went away. Instead he was standing in the midst of a rocky desert. He could feel the dry heat weighing down on his skin. All around him was a crowd of hundreds of people in simple tunics and robes, whispering to each other in a language he could not understand. A few were crying. He could taste his own fear.
Stay calm, Jon. I’m just broadcasting a memory to you. A very, very old memory that telepaths have been preserving and passing down across many generations.
Wait, Jon thought, finding it somewhat difficult to distinguish his thoughts from the long-dead person whose memory this was. You mean this is…
Yeah. This is the memory of a man named Ipqu, who watched Kutalu perform a miracle.
Jon could not control Ipqu’s eyes, but eventually Ipqu turned his attention away from the people around him to a woman near the center of the crowd, whom none had dared stand near. She was a young woman in her twenties with olive skin and raven-black hair whose clothing was distinguished from the crowd only by a silver necklace bearing the image of a star. She bent her torso, as if deep in meditation and prayer. Then, slowly, she lifted her arms to the cloudless sky. There was a flash of light that Jon at first thought was a trick of the sun, but he quickly realized it was actually coming out of thin air. The bright, cloudless sky started overlapping with a night sky full of unfamiliar stars, the desert sands impossibly giving way to lush grass. As the transition unfolded, many of the people either started excitedly talking between themselves or fell to the ground, praying. Suddenly, she collapsed, and several people rushed forward and helped her up. A voice Jon did not recognize, certainly her voice, could be heard inside his, actually Ipqu’s, head. Jon didn’t understand the words, but they were clearly soothing, triumphant.
When she finished speaking, the memory ended as soon as it began. Once again, he was in a hunting lodge in a moor in a country that shouldn’t actually exist. Already Ipqu’s memory felt like an odd daydream.
Amar, who had been sitting with his feet to the floor, flung his legs onto the bed and rested his head on his knees.
“Sorry if that was—”
“No, it’s okay.”
Amar didn’t look convinced. “Are you sure?
“Of course. It was beautiful. I’m just surprised you shared it with me.”
“Yeah, well…” Amar abruptly stopped. Even though he had nothing to say, Jon saw that Amar’s dark eyes remained fixed on him. It was ridiculous, but he did have the sensation that he was actually seeing Amar for the first time, from the small, u-shaped scar on his left cheek to the flicks of gray in his black beard to the occasional dark brown freckles on his skin. He noticed he actually did bear a slight resemblance to Kutalu herself.
Finally Amar broke away and shattered the silence. “I guess I was just trying to show I trusted you too in my own way.”
“Really? But you don’t—”
“It’s just that before you tried helping me, I thought I lost everything and that I didn’t even have hope for any kind of a future.” It was there that Amar’s voice cracked. “It’s just odd. I blamed you for taking away my chance at a new life, but if we get out of this alive it’s going to turn out that you gave me a real one. How can I not trust you now?”
Jon gave what was meant to be a brief pat on Amar’s hand, but his hand lingered. Their eyes locked again. Amar’s fingers lightly touched his hair. And then, without thought, he was pulling Amar close for a deep kiss.