A Drifting Wasteland (Peregrine x DotCom)

Discussion in 'ROLEPLAY GRAVEYARD' started by Peregrine, Jun 24, 2015.

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    “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
    ― Ernest Hemingway

    “We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope.”
    ― Edward Abbey

    “And I will show you something different from either
    Your shadow at morning striding behind you
    Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you
    I will show you fear in a handful of dust”
    ― T.S. Eliot,

    ---​
    It was less than ten minutes before full dawn, and the eastern sky had already turned the pale blue of day under the morning glow of the clouds. The two night shift guards posted in front of the south southeast gate into the merchant city of Crolis were thus less than ten minutes away from being relieved and getting to go to bed when a silhouette appeared out of the haze of the desert that surrounded the city. One guard interrupted himself mid yawn, quickly straightening to a more professional posture, before nudging his coworker and pointing towards the figure. The second guard, in turn, quickly picked up the long-barreled rifle that was sitting by his feet, leveling it at the backlit figure of the stranger.

    Crolis posted guards mostly as a formality. While they did have to deal with the occasional wild animal that got too close to the city, the bandits in the area well knew the reputation of the infamous Gunpowder City, home of one of the most influential weapons merchant in this portion of the world. Any bandit group that tried to attack the city would quickly find themselves outmatched both by numbers and by firepower. The rewards weren’t worth the risks. Far better to hit one of the caravans that came to the city on a regular basis, bringing the supplies needed to create their infamous weapons that could not be gathered from the area, and leaving again with a stockpile of guns and rifles. The caravans might be well guarded, but at least it wasn't pure suicide.

    The guard had picked up his weapon mostly as a formality, just in case the person was mad enough to attack, but they both knew, if there was a lone person approaching the city, there were only two types of people it could reasonably be. Either some insanely lucky bastard had managed to walk through the wasteland from one city to another without stepping into a single voider and being killed by something within it, a nearly impossible feat, or an escort had failed in his duty and lost both his passengers and his partner, something that was, unfortunately, all too common.

    The two guards waited, all weariness at the early hour forgotten, for the stranger to draw closer. But when the two guards were finally able to resolve the silhouette into a person, both of them recoiled by instinct. The stranger was easily six and a half feet of lean, hard muscle, with a long mass of tangled black hair, and if his statue alone wasn’t enough to be intimidating every inch of his skin, arms, legs, torso, and face was wrapped in bandages that looked as though they had been torn from the bloody corpses of fallen bandits. But all of that was nothing compared to the wrongness that seemed to surround him. It was like he was some twisted monster that had stepped right out of their dreams, and even though there was nothing about him that could truly be described as wrong, he was terrifying beyond all reasonable measure.

    A tremor raced through the guard's body, causing the barrel of the gun to shake and his finger to twitch spasmodically. The sudden, violent report of the gun shattered the silence of the morning, and the lone escort staggered, clutching at his chest as the already filthy bandages were stained a blackish red.

    The other guard grabbed the gun from his partner’s hands, yanking it away before he could pull the trigger again. “What the bloody hell was that?”

    “I... It doesn’t matter,” the other replied, clearly trying to shake the trauma still coursing through his body. “We can make something up. No one is going to care about a lone stranger coming from the wilds.

    “At least,” he then shot a glare at the other man, and pulled back the gun, the very real fear of losing his job overwhelming the nightmare fear of the dead stranger, “we can as long as you keep your fucking mouth shut.”

    “You...” but whatever the other guard was going to say, whether insult or agreement, was lost as they both noticed that the staggered form of the stranger escort was righting himself, one blood-darkened hand being withdrawn from his chest. He rolled his shoulders, tested the wound with gentle fingers, and then began walking forward again.

    This time the guard wasn’t able to pull the trigger, even by accident. The gun fell from nerveless fingers to the ground with a thud as both of them felt their legs turn to water underneath them. The two guards stumbled away from the gates, desperate not to get in between the monstrous stranger and his goal, allowing him to reach the heavy metal gates that blocked entry to the city. If their captains had witnessed the display they would have undoubtedly been killed for incompetence and cowardice, but that was, at the moment, the farthest concern from their minds. All they wanted was to keep the hell out of this monster's way.

    The stranger leaned up against the door, pushing against the gate. It was heavy enough that it normally took two men and a winch to open the door, but under the stranger's hands it began to move. Finally, he was granted entry to his goal. The guards offered no protest.

    “Freaks, all of them,” one of the guards said shakily after the gate was closed again, sealing the monstrous form of the escort safely on the other side of a foot of metal. “Anyone who goes out there on their own is an absolute freak.”

    The other guard could only nod in agreement.
     
    #1 Peregrine, Jun 24, 2015
    Last edited: Sep 14, 2015
  2. Half a mile from the city gates, in a small, unruly bar yet dragging itself from the last dregs of night, a skirmish began in the back corner of the largest room. A table was knocked over; stale beer soaked into the floor boards. One man called another a name, and got a fist and a mouthful of blood in return. Kaya Strong spared only a moment for her handiwork before slipping away and into the dark, unnoticed.

    Loyalty, she thought, was a fine thing. But ambition was better.

    She kept her pace even as she wound her way toward the city walls, now topped in a foam of golden sunlight. The fresh scar on the inside of her right thigh had more or less ceased to ail her, but her destination -- an abandoned sentry point on the southern wall -- was yet a good distance away. She strongly suspected, though, that the two men from the bar, if both of them made it there, would be late. Like all men, they poured too much pride into their physical strength. An admirable quality, yes, but only when wielded wisely. It was true of any power. She could not respect those who did not see that.

    Strike one.

    Still. As she came upon the watchtower, Kaya felt lifted from her shoulders a weight that would have been called anxiety in lesser men. It was going on near 36 hours since last she'd slept, and the home brewed mix she'd taken just before leaving the tavern was souring in her stomach. Beneath the heavy travel cloak she had "borrowed" from Sam (nothing he would hold against her, she thought, once he found out what else she had borrowed from him), she could feel oily beads of sweat rolling down her back, wriggling like beetles between thick wool and skin. And yet she could not help but feel light. Sixteen years she had waited for this moment. Sixteen minutes seemed a small price to pay.

    When at last the crunch of boots on cobble emerged from the darkness, Kaya was faintly annoyed, but not surprised, to see the larger of the two men from the tavern staggering toward her. Men and their pride, she thought, but she said only, "You're late."

    The man stopped abruptly, as do all men who were so assured of one thing, only to find another in its place. He squinted into the darkness where Kaya stood shrouded in shadow beneath the sentry post. The tall tower glowed golden at the top, aflame in sunlight peeking over the city walls.

    The man growled, "Who's there?" and Kaya stepped forward.

    "You're late," she said again, pointing behind him, and watching as he tottered to turn and look. "The last of the gas lamps has been cold nearly twenty minutes."

    The man stared at the light for a moment, then rocked forward, studying Kaya's face under the cloak's hood. "You...you're Strong?" he said dubiously.

    Kaya allowed a faint smile to touch her lips. Going by her surname had, she'd found, many benefits. "I am. Are you Mr. Carter, or Mr. Burnham?" she asked. She already knew precisely who he was. The question was a test.

    "Carter," the man mumbled, still looking around as though he were missing something. "Where the hell...I was supposed to be meetin' 'bout some kinda contraband, they said it was somethin' big...who're you?"

    Kaya ignored the question. "And where is Mr. Burnham, Mr. Carter? I thought I was paying for two escorts. It's my understanding that is the standard for traveling the wastes?"

    Carter brightened considerably at the word 'paying', suspicion temporarily -- predictably -- abandoned in favor of greed. He swaggered forward with a smile Kaya could guess he thought to be handsome, perhaps even charming.

    "Jacob's...late," he slurred, drawing closer to her. The smell of whiskey pouring off of him threatened to turn her stomach. She did not let it. Not yet. "Later," he corrected after a moment. "But you'n'me, darlin', I think we can work something out. It'll be...be cheaper this way."

    He was lying. Jacob was unconscious, maimed, or worse. Kaya had been watching the two men for weeks, had seen the dissent growing between them as they looked for work in a city that was perfectly content to stay where it was. Burnham had been the business man, Carter the muscle. And the temper. And he had already cost her whatever the time it would take for him to find a new partner, if he could.

    A second strike against his character.

    "Oh?" Kaya said drily. The new scar on the inside of her right thigh throbbed in indignation.

    "See, Burnham...he was...he was always chargin' too much to take folks through the voiders. Makin' us go slower on purpose so he could up the pay on poor, unsuspecting travelers...like yourself, ma'am." His voice took on a tone of affected empathy. Kaya struggled to keep her expression open. He was trying to manipulate her. She found it both repulsive and amusing.

    "Have you ever been through the wastes, ma'am?"

    "I'm afraid not." She watched his expression brighten with the lie.

    "Oh, well, then, maybe be can work out a special startin' rate. Where was it you was tryna go?"

    "West," she answered simply.

    "...right," said the man, clearly put out, but undeterred by the answer. "Well, see, Burnham and me, we always agreed on some advance payment, just in case -- "

    For the first time, something flashed in Kaya's blue eyes that was not cool apathy. If the man noticed, he gave no sign.

    "Mr. Carter, you may recall I laid out a payment plan in our first missives. I believe I was very clear in stating payment was non-negotiable."


    Carter blinked, for a time too stunned to be angry. But he was, as she had seen, a man driven by his pride. That made him predictable. It made him weak. Kaya hated weakness.

    Strike three.

    "You're an uppity little bitch, aincha?" he said, lurching toward her again. Kaya did not so much as move. "Anyone ever tell you you talk to much for such a little girl?"

    The young merchant surprised herself by giving a genuine laugh. Any other time, she'd have been almost sad to see Carter go. Almost.

    "Of, frequently," she said coolly.

    And then he was on top of her, pinning her nearly against a wall as he snarled in her ear: "I'll show you some negotiatin'," he said, and pressed himself against her.

    Kaya didn't resist, in fact, did quite the opposite, leaning forward as he kissed her, hard, on the mouth. A second passed between them, and Kaya, keeping a careful handle on her rage, let his tongue find the inside of her mouth.

    He had the nerve to be angry when she bit him, reeling back in surprise as he struck her across the face. She tasted blood. But then, so did he.

    In all of two seconds, he was staggering again.

    "You dirty bitch," he said, and his words were slurred this time for another reason entirely. Kaya still hadn't move. Her lips felt pleasantly numb.

    "What the hell did you do to me?"

    "I haven't done anything to you, Mr. Carter. But I suppose that poison won't be reacting too kindly with your system."

    His eyes widened in stark fear as his legs went out from beneath him. His own lips were going slowly blue.

    "P-pois--" he choked, spittle tinged with blood speckling his lips and chin.

    "Poison," she said sweetly. "A family recipe, so to speak."

    "B-but you -- h-h-h -- " He coughed again and clutched at his throat. Kaya, carefully board, leaned almost casually against the watch tower, inspecting her nails.

    "You can build a tolerance to almost anything, Mr. Carter. Given you have patience and discipline." She looked down at him, something lethal in her eyes. "You, Mr. Carter, have neither. And so, here we are."

    "Y-y-you'll -- pay -- " he choked, though she doubted he believed such a thing. The man had to know he was moments from death. She knew precisely what her poison was doing to him. She had subjected herself to it every week for three years in perfect preparation for this moment.

    "M-murder!"

    At this, Kaya laughed again, a genuinely mirthful sound, and Carter found himself wishing, idly, he could have been on the right side of that sudden burst of joy.

    "Murder?" she repeated coyly. "Ask anyone, Mr. Carter, you forced yourself on me. Surely you can't deny that?" Her lips and throat buzzed. Her stomach roiled. She ignored it as she turned to leave the man.

    "W-w-why--?"

    She turned back impatient, the look of disgust now clear on her face. "Mr. Carter, you've already cost me more time than I was willing to spare. Had you told me the truth about your partner, or simply agreed to stick to my plan, you might not be here. But you are short-sighted and stupid and greedy, and I cannot have you slowing me down anymore. I have great plans, Mr. Carter. And you are no longer a part of them."

    She was away before she could hear his last strangled breaths. She thought about voiding her aching stomach, but decided against it. The poison she'd imbibed would not kill her, and she'd found long ago everything else only strength her resolved, whetted her discipline.

    Besides, she needed to find a new pair of escorts, and quickly. She was behind schedule, and if there was one thing Kaya Strong hated, it was inefficiency.
     
    #2 DotCom, Jun 27, 2015
    Last edited: Jul 1, 2015
    • Love Love x 1
  3. It was lucky that it was still so early in the morning. While the sky was starting to brighten with the light of day, behind the walls of the city it was still dark. People had yet to start moving, still fearing the lingering remains of whatever might have lurked in the city at night. Had it been more busy, he might have found himself in a situation he couldn’t get out of. It was one thing to face down two tired guards at the gate into the city. It was quite another to face a mob. He had faced a mob once before, and had found that people gathered the kind of courage when they were together that they could never find alone. Even with the bandages that covered every inch of his skin, hiding him completely from any eyes, people would have panicked at the sight of him. A dark stain, near black, was slowly spreading through the bandages like molasses, turning the already dirty strips of rags near black.

    He hated the feel of his own blood. It was hot and sticky, clinging to him like a coat of oil. It was nothing like the smooth, sweet blood of the little animals he caught for food. Sometimes he wished he had that blood, even though it cascaded from the body like rain sometimes fell from the heavy skies. If he had that blood he’d probably be dead by now. Perhaps that wouldn’t have been such a bad thing.

    But he knew that was a lie. If he truly wanted to die, all he had to do was wait out in the wastes. It would have taken him in a couple more days. Or he could have simply let those insane, toxic men who managed by some miracle to stumble out of the voider in the middle of the night finish what they had begun, ripping him to shreds. He hadn’t done either.

    Instead he had come to a city where, one way or another, he would be able to find food until his wounds healed. He hadn’t guessed that the guards at the gate would have shot him. That was another wound he would have to let heal before he could return to the wastes, where things actually made sense.

    He walked along the wall, clinging to the shadows, one bandaged hand pressed against the metal and stone barrier. He walked, one foot in front of the other, as his rags got steadily blacker and blacker, until it seemed that the shadows would simply swallow him up, and he would vanish from the world altogether.

    On top of all the other wounds he had suffered in that desperate, clawing, maddened fight, wounds that had been severe enough to drive him to a city in hopes of survival, that one, final, pulverizing gun shot seemed to have tipped him over the edge. When he tripped over his own foot it took him nearly a minute to gather the strength he needed to push himself back to his knees, and then lift his bulk back into the air.

    This wasn’t the first time that he had been in a desperate situation. Three times before he had been driven to a city, twice for food, once for water. Yet this time felt worse. He was wondering if he had waited too long, if the time he had spent trying to find a safe way to eat the void toxic men, and then the time to try and catch his own food, was in the end going to cost him his life. It felt like it right now.

    But, as it had so many times before in his life, fate intervened. On the far side of an abandoned watch tower, ignored in favor of the new, tall, steel constructs that clung to the edge of the city and provided an unparallelled view of both city and waste, he found the body. It was a man, still freshly dead, and for a moment he vacantly puzzled over what had killed him, as there seemed to be no wounds on his body. Then a faint gust of stray wind touched his body, causing him to remember his wounds. He needed food. He sniffed the air hesitantly, squinting through the weave of the scrap of shredded clothing that mostly obscured his vision. But if there was anyone around his eyes could not detect it, and the smells of shit, piss, sweat, and sex that permeated the city covered up everything else.

    If he was to heal he needed food. And, more than that, he needed it now. Better to die fighting against a mob of furious, terrified people than bleed out on the street because of fear. He half ripped one rag away from his face, revealing a long, jagged scar of a mouth, dark, fleshless lips, and a row of needle-sharp teeth. Without hesitation he crouched down and began his feast.
     
    • Nice execution! Nice execution! x 1
  4. She did not give herself permission to vomit.

    The night had been long, and the heat of the day was now more oppressive than it had ever been. She pressed one hand over her mouth to stifle more than a scream, and felt her stomach, already tightened by terror and toxin, begin to twist and turn. But she did not allow herself to be sick.

    Kaya Strong was many things. Weak was not one of them.

    She had heard footsteps approaching as she left the body, unbothered, in the street. Had anyone been watching -- and she doubted anyone had -- she'd been true to her word. They'd have seen a man attack a young woman in the street and then fall to his death inexplicably a few moments later. Even if they suspected foul play, that only made it all the more unlikely they would come forward. Those still about at this hour, in this dark corner of the city were best to be avoided. Bodies turned up with a fearsome enough regularity that when she heard someone approach, she thought it best to tuck herself away for a moment. Kaya was a formidable woman, and confident in her many abilities. But she was not stupid, nor was she willing to test her luck by pushing her plan any more than she already had.

    She might have simply turned and disappeared down the nearest, darkest alley she could find -- and might well later wished that she had done just that anyway -- but two things occurred to her at once.

    The first: these footsteps were, somehow, not quite...normal. There was nothing particularly off about them, or at least nothing she could put into words, save that they came heavy and far apart, making her think a large figure, probably a tall man was approaching, albeit slowly. And yet the sound set her teeth on edge, made her stomach twist in a way that had nothing to do with the poison.

    The second: they were headed, somehow, directly for the corner on which she had left the body. Which meant someone had seen her. And that person was not content to lay still.

    Against her better judgment, Kaya had stopped, ducked into the darkness, and turned to watch.

    She was not sure how long she spent there, or when the trembling began, or when she had to bite down -- hard -- on her tongue to keep from screaming. She only knew that even when at last as she turn and ran, those wet, sticky sucking noises followed her into the dark. And they would follow her, she realized, for much longer than that.

    --

    Kaya allowed herself the relief of voiding her stomach only once she was safely within her workroom, away from prying eyes -- and it was a relief by then. That she'd not had time to make it to the outhouse was of little concern to her then. What mattered more was the tang of blood still hanging thick in the air, so thick she could nearly taste it, could imagine it flowing down her chin and throat, sliding into her belly --

    She tripped, or else her legs gave out, or maybe neither or both happened. Either way, she went sprawling to hands and knees and was blessedly, mercifully, violently ill at last. There hadn't been much in her stomach before -- she always tried to keep a light stomach when she knew she might be ingesting the poison; if it was going to wreak havoc on her belly either way, she'd found it far preferable to keep nothing but water around -- but that didn't help this time. Sam must have been to work early this morning, because she could smell hot gunmetal, and the tang of iron was entirely too much like the smell of blood. She moaned in a faint horror she could only sort of explain as her belly rebelled again, bringing up black toxin, and then green bile, and then nothing, retching quiet and miserable, and, she realized abruptly, terrified.

    And still, she could only hear the sound of the creature devouring the man she'd killed.

    Another wave of nausea swept over her, and as she reached up a hand to sweep off the cloak that suddenly seemed half a hundred times heavier, she saw that her hands were shaking. There was a sound at the back of her throat that came between heaves, something that was perilously close to a whimper.

    She found this as fascinating as she did unacceptable.

    For the first time in a long time, Kaya was really, truly afraid.

    It was only when she lay there after, sweating her eyes, one cheek pressed to the cool dark of the floor, one hand massaging the spasming muscles of her belly, that she realized what she had seen.

    The creature had consumed a poisoned body, and whatever it was, it had appeared immune to the toxin that had killed other men in mere minutes. There could be any number of reasons for that, but she didn't care, nor did she want to think on any of them too long. As it were, only one thing really mattered.

    This creature had survived. And she needed a guide into the wastes.

    With a muffled moan, Kaya hauled herself to her feet, swallowing back the acrid burn of bile in her throat. Her head ached. Her stomach churned. She ignored it. Once again, there was work to be done.
     
  5. That first bite had nearly driven him to lose the last vestige of self-control he posessed. Only the much stronger instinct of self-preservation was able to control the hunger and desperate need as the first morsel of flesh had passed his lips. All the same, he had known that he needed to eat as much as he could as quickly as possible, and the hunger agreed with that completely. Only the unconscious desire not to waste anything that might prove valuable as food, and there was very little organic material that did not qualify as food in this state, kept him from turning this feeding frenzy into a messy slaughterhouse. He knew he might need to flee at any minute, so he targeted the best parts first, leaving everything else to be consumed as time permitted.

    It was only after he had consumed those most important parts of the meal that he began to notice that something was wrong with it. And, now that he had consumed it and his body was breaking down the food and storing it away where it could be put to use later, something was wrong with him. His vision began to swim, his hands tremor. This only slowed him down a little bit. It was a toxin that had been created from this world, not from one of the voiders. And, in his (quite frankly, limited) exposure, he had never found anything on this world that could truly harm him. It might slow him down, that was for sure, but it would only add a bit more time to his wait before he could get back into the waste.

    In the end he had been quite lucky, as no one drew close to the location, and by the time he had finished his meal all that was left was dried blood, a few scraps of hair that could not be scraped off the ground, and a few scraps of fabric that had not also gotten consumed in the process. He could still feel his blood slowly leaving his body, only now it was joined with the faintness of head and limb. It did not really seem to matter. The panic had left him. With a meal like that, as long as he was left alone for a few days, he would be able to heal from all of his wounds and the poisoning. He was going to live.

    His next priority had been finding a dark hole in which to sequester himself until such a time as he could leave the city. He had tottered away, unbalanced and over-full, even to his standards, to look for a place that would meet his requirements. Out in the wilderness he could sleep near anywhere with comfort. Neither the cold nor the heat bothered him, and most of the critters had the sense to leave him alone, feeling through some innate animal sixth sense that he was not a creature to be bothered. But in the city he had to be a lot more careful. He had to find a place where the city guard, whether they be employed by merchant or criminal lord, would not find him. He needed a place that would escape attention, while still having at least one or two extra bolt holes so that, should something go wrong, he would have a way to escape.

    Most of the time it was not easy to find the perfect hiding hole, especially not when his head was swimming from the aftereffects of a near full feeding frenzy and some foreign poison, but, just as the city had presented the body to him nearly as soon as he started looking, so too did it provide the ideal hole. Some beggar had managed to break away the planking from an old house, leaving a small, cozy little den underneath an occupied house that was easy to overlook if you weren't looking for it specifically. When he had hauled his bloated form into it, the bandage carefully folded back over his face so as to hide his bloody teeth, the vagrant that had adopted the residency took one panicked look at him, pissed on the dirt, and fled as fast as his wobbling legs could carry him. He did not think it was supposed to be an insult, but even if it was he was in no position to try and repay the offense. For now, he had found a safe place that was even relatively comfortable, as a collection of the space's former occupants had gathered piles of smelly blankets to soften the dirt. He was sorry that his rags and the wounds on his body were like to ruin the soft things, but the beggar should have taken them with him if they were important. They would make nice bandages to replace some of his more filthy ones, once he was done healing. Assuming any of them were any cleaner by the time he had finished healing.

    Curling up into a little ball and resting one bandaged hand across his distended abdomen, he settled in for the sleep of recovery.
     
  6. It took her another four nights to find the creature, and that only because she was not quite sure she trusted herself to return too soon -- at least not without protection. Indeed, the first three nights, if she was being carefully, brutally honest with herself, were spent gaining the courage to go and look for the creature. Finding it had, somewhat paradoxically, put her off the trail for another day and a half until she was at last able to return, her face as pale as it was rigid with an almost otherworldly determination.

    Kaya had never been quite able to find a motivator that worked so well as fear.

    Her journey had begun simply enough, figuring that even a creature such as the cannibalistic horror she'd stumbled upon -- that 'cannibalistic' might not be precisely the word to describe the thing occurred to her only once, and fled just as quickly as she realized she might be better off not knowing whether the thing under the bloody rags was human or not -- would have had to entered the city somewhere. She began at the nearest city gate, waiting four rounds of guard changes before the two coward posted in the morning gave her the answers she was looking for. She had guessed correctly that a creature that took such...sustenance to survive was not one which could simply spirit itself through stone walls, no matter how terrifying. Moreover, such a creature would not enter the city unremembered. And though the men who eventually shared their story seemed none too keen to recall their cowardice and (admittedly deserved) fear, a few well placed words -- and more than a few gentle strokings of their egos -- put the story in her hands soon enough.

    The details of the creature's arrival served to do two things:

    The first was an immediate assurance that this was most definitely the creature she needed for her task. The thing had survived God only knew how long in the wastes, despite apparent injury -- and had proceeded to enter the city, unbothered, after being shot in the chest. If anyone could get her through the wastes quickly, efficiently, unharmed, it was this thing, and so, like it or not, she needed it. And she would have it.

    The second was to identify the strange, yet familiar feeling that had been writhing inside her since first she'd laid eyes on the thing. When she had woken, feverish, trembling, exhausted and testy, from her three-night vigil ending in the creature's feasting, she had thought herself still ill from the poison. She understand now this was her mind's way of justifying what she now recognized as fear.

    Or rather, this was her fear's way of justifying her mind.

    It had been a long time since Kaya felt so helplessly terrified, and she was finding she did not like it. It made her belly queasy, and her hands shake. It threatened to steal her otherwise iron focus, her mind drifting into vibrant, yet uncommon daydreams of dark creatures lurking in the dark. The nightmares were even worse, and after waking herself in a screaming, sweating terror on that first night, she elected not to do so again until she had found and protected herself against the creature.

    She already had an idea for that.

    A clear, or a clearer, recollection of what she had seen that first morning, had required one long night spent with some of Sam's other friends. Not those who dealt in gunsmoke and iron, but those who made their living with a much softer, if more potent, fare. The stuff was called dragon's breath for the vibrant red flame it put off when burned, but it was not the color for which most sought it out. The plant, the leaves of which were a deep and hearty green, had some loosely "medicinal" effects that were said, depending to whom you spoke, to do any and everything from heal a toothache to aid in the discovery of new world.

    Kaya used it to keep her hands from shaking when at last she went to sleep and drifted back to the scene she had found near the city gates. It was risky, she knew, using a tainted memory to form the idea that the creature might be susceptible, however slightly, to her poison, particularly when she knew it had already survived a bullet. But it was all she had left.

    And she was growing desperate.

    Ultimately, she returned to the creature's hovel twice. The first time, in the dead of night, once more hidden under Sam's cloak, her entire body awash with tremors and a thick, cold sweat. She had double dosed herself with the poison, and brought a knife doused in the same, though she had no intentions of being near enough the creature to let it feast upon her. She needed to know only that it still lived and where to find it when it did wake.

    That -- and what else she might bring to sate it before it could let her flesh stand in.

    The second time she returned, it was at dawn, nearly four days to the minute since she'd first seen the thing eating. This time, like the first, she had double-dosed herself with the poison and waited until the loopy lightheadedness of it told her it was coursing through her bloodstream. She could not risk more than that without illness or unconsciousness, at least not with how much she'd imbibed since first having set eyes on the creature. Such recklessness was not like Kaya...but then, neither was the fear and uncertainty that had taken up semi-permanent residence in her belly.

    Instead, she came with one of Sam's pilfered rifles, a risk in and of itself, but one she was willing to take. Losing the first escorts and happening upon this third had not been part of her original plan, and she was itching now more than ever to leave Crolis behind her. She had avoided Sam for the last week, telling him she was ill (and having the evidence to back it), but she could only be patient to a point, and it had reached a place where it now vied even with her fear.

    When the creature woke, it would be to Kaya half crouched at the entrance to its little subterranean hideaway, tense but determined, a loaded rifle in one hand, a dripping sack of raw desert fox in the other. She tossed the meat at the creature's feet, and in a cool, practiced tone, she said:

    "Before you move, creature, know that the poison you took from the body four days ago was one of my own creation. What you ate was less than a quarter of what is coursing through my blood now. It may not kill you, but it will incapacitate you." She kept the rifle trained on the creature, but made no other reference to it. She had already seen bullet's had near no effect on it.

    "Instead, I propose we make a deal. If you comply, you will be well rewarded, you have my word on that." She ran her free hand down the barrel of the rifle and let it rest meaningfully on near the trigger. "If not, then I will be forced to alert local authorities to your location as soon as possible."

    A pause. A breath. The cocking of the gun seemed to echo like an explosion in the quiet.

    "Will you hear what I have to say?"
     
    #6 DotCom, Jun 30, 2015
    Last edited: Jul 1, 2015
  7. Except for the rather large family that lived in the house overhead, and where were still blissfully unaware of the individual who had taken up residency under their floor, people avoided the hole he had chosen to inhabit as though it was the gateway to hell. Obviously the hobo he had disturbed that morning had quickly spread the word of the blood-soaked, bandaged behemoth that had chosen this place as its new residency. There were enough other dry, clean places for them to hide that it was not worth the risk to disturb him. Had he been aware enough to recognize that he had remained undisturbed he would have been glad, not just because it meant his sleep would be uninterrupted, but because he truly had no desire to hurt any of them, should they come to attack him.

    But it was for this reason that he was nearly dragged out of his sleep the first time she came by. The people who lived above him never stopped, and they certainly never did so smelling of fear and blight. He was just starting to stir, instinct rousing him from a sleep that would have otherwise been uninterrupted, but only moments after his movement she vanished, and he stilled once more, to finish his healing. But, the next day, when she began to actually make her way towards one of the openings, he fully awoke. He tensed, pressing against the rags that were tightly wound against every part of his body, looking for weakness in his body almost instinctively. The rags had solidified into something reminiscent of aluminum with his dried blood, but he seemed to be nearly healed, if not completely well again. The action had provoked no threads of pain to lightning through his body, and while there was a residual stiffness that probably had as much to do with the bandages and the lack of activity rather than a failure of his own body.

    She was almost in the opening now, and it was only at that moment that he recognized the distinctive tang of iron and gunpowder. She was carrying a weapon. In that moment he nearly bolted, prepared to scramble through one of the escape holes that left this place, and trust to the fact that he was well enough healed to be able to head back out into the wastes once more. He didn't know how anyone who would care about this space had come to get their hands on a gun, but she had done it. The last thing he wanted was another injury, but one to the leg as he fled would be better than another blow to the chest.

    Before he could act on the instinct, however, a taste of air from outside carried her smell into his little space. Much to his surprise he recognized it. Her smell had been all over the clothes of the man he had eaten. She had been with him. Maybe she had even killed him.

    This brought a much greater fear to him, and it was that fear that froze him in his tracks. The body had still been remarkably fresh. He had tried to figure out if he had been watched, and he had thought he had been alone, but at the time he had been so desperate for the food that the concern had seemed so small. What if she had seen him? What if she had alerted the guards? There could be guns trained on every exit out of this place, and while he might be able to survive the encounter, the return to the wastes would undoubtedly kill him.

    He nearly missed the first part of what she said, so desperately was he trying to figure out whether or not this place was now surrounded by guards. What he couldn't miss, though, was the sack that was dropped at his feet. He sniffed curiously, and immediately recognized what was in the sack. Desert fox. A pretty young one, if the size was any indication. One bloody, over-large ear was poking out of the top of the sack. Ponderously he started fishing through his memories, trying to track down what she had just said, even as more words spilled out of her mouth. Was she talking quickly, or was his brain simply not keeping up yet? Most likely it was a combination of both.

    All the same, he got the gist eventually. What he understood both made him amused and anxious. She thought he was going to eat her. The anxiety was easy enough to trace. The fact that she thought he was going to eat her, though it well enough to dose herself with poison, steal a gun, and carry a sack of dead meat through the city, meant there was no doubt she had seen him eating the dead man. Who knew what she thought right now. To him it was perfectly justifiable. The man had already been dead, and nothing was going to change that. He had also disposed of the body for her, in a manner of speaking. Maybe she should be thanking him instead of pointing a gun at him and threatening him.

    The amusement came a trace later. She hadn't already alerted the authorities. There were no guards surrounding this hovel. If he wanted, he could be out of this place, and probably well out of the city, before anyone came close to finding him. Poison also wouldn't do anything to stop him from snapping that pretty little neck before she managed to pull the trigger. Of course, then she cocked the gun, and the time he had shortened. He'd probably get shot. At point blank range it would undoubtedly hurt him a lot. She'd still be dead, though.

    Of course, he didn't really want to hurt her. She was threatening him, but she'd also come alone (apparently) and brought him good food (supposedly). He grabbed the sack, sniffing it curiously, before dipping in a finger and licking the blood from underneath the bandage. He waited curiously. It didn't seem to be poisoned. Maybe she was telling the truth.

    It was only at that moment that he realized she was still waiting on an answer from him. His immediate thought was something along the lines of "It doesn't seem as though I have any choice," but the idea of trying to find words to express that idea seemed like far too much effort. Instead he grunted out a short "Yes," before turning back to the sack. He wasn't really hungry, not anymore, but he should hardly turn his nose up at the offering. Especially not if he was about to be shot again, and would need to flee to the wastes.
     
  8. "Good," she said shortly, and lay the gun down beside her (its barrel still pointing straight ahead) before clasping her hands in her lap with a white knuckled grip. It would not do for the creature to know how close she had come to pulling the trigger, just out of sheer surprise. She did not know what she had been expecting, and indeed, would hardly have worried about it at any other time. But the last three days had worn her nerves away to nearly nothing, and she was hardly in the position to show weakness to this thing before her. She did not know much about it, but she was smart enough to understand that anything that had survived what this thing had was probably a decent hunter. It was unlikely she'd have enough time to move for the gun, aim, and pull the trigger if it decided to attack. She could only hope she could wound it before it killed her.

    "I am here to hire you to take me to a city called Riven, three days west of the Ridgeback Mountains. We will take the fastest route possible to get there, and I've already been briefed half a dozen times on the dangers, so I have no interests in hearing your concerns on that front. I am trusting you -- " she paused, then reconsidered her choice of words: "I am paying you to see me hale and whole to Riven, upon which time you will receive payment in full. I cannot pay you in advance, but I will cover standard traveling prices for both of us, including food and lodging. Whatever weaponry or..." She looked him up and down once, truly taking note, for the first time, of the dirty bandages that covered not just his face, but his whole body, "...or medical supplies you may require will be your own responsibility."

    Swallowing hard, but maintaining an otherwise open, if stoic, expression, she rocked back on her heels to look her potential companion dead in the eye. So to speak. He (she was not sure when 'it' had become a 'he', but now that the label had made itself known, it seemed to stick) did not seem terribly interested in her at the moment, though she wasn't sure whether she ought to feel good about that or not. Had she made a mistake coming here, trying to bargain with something that may not even be a man? From what she had heard, creatures did not simply wander out of desert voiders and into the city, or not without being recognized first. But neither was it exactly common for men to recover from gun blasts and poisonings, or to dress completely in stained bandages. For half a moment, Kaya even considered just leaving the dead fox and leaving, gun in tow. Whether or not her plan worked wouldn't matter if she died in her sleep, her innards running in dark down the front of some sort of undead cannibal.

    But she had already wasted too much time in trying to re-recruit for an escort pair to take her into the wastes. She should have been gone three days ago. Sam had never been the suspicious type, and certainly not of her, but Kaya was nothing if not prepared. Her plan was meant to work down precisely to the day, with little leeway on either end. If she did not move her cargo now, she was going to lose everything she had worked so hard to prepare. And Kaya Strong did not lose.

    "You will have near complete autonomy with regards to making decisions about my safety and your own," she went on after a moment. "If you say we must wait or backtrack a day, I will take your word for it. I assume you must be very familiar with the wastes to travel on your own." She paused again here, the last line having held a question as much as a somewhat forceful statement. "But understand these two things, and understand them well. The first is to do with your payment. I have laid aside a certain -- significant -- sum of gold, which you will receive immediately upon my more-or-less healthy delivery at Riven. By this, I mean I am able and willing to enter the city and sort my affairs there. I expect this will take no longer than a day or two at most, during which time I will cover your lodging in the city. You may also receive an additional bonus, which will shrink for every day we are in the wastes. That means you get paid more the faster we get there. Obviously, my safe arrival is paramount, but you know you will only be hurting yourself if you attempt to lengthen our journey.

    "And secondly," Kaya kept her voice even, level, refusing to rush through this last part, which she had practiced several dozen times when she ought to have been sleeping last night, "make no mistake -- I do not underestimate you, whatever you are, creature. To be very frank, I think you'll come to find you and I have a lot in common. We are...ruthless. We will do whatever it takes to survive. And there needn't be any enmity between us. But make no mistake: you will receive payment if and only if I am delivered safely to the city of Riven. I have already taken steps to ensure this. Additionally, I have told you of the poison, and I will continue to take such precautions until I believe I can trust you with more than the promise of gold. If I suspect danger, I will act, and I cannot promise either of us will like the outcome."

    She let the words lie cold and heavy between them for a long moment, for her sanity as much as his understanding.

    And then, perhaps bizarrely, she smiled and put out a hand. She was impossibly proud to see that it did not tremble.

    "My name is Kaya," she added lightly. "Do we have a deal?"
     
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  9. It was nearly too much for him to follow. He had already been through several years of life before he had grasped the basics of a spoken language, and even that had only been simple nouns that had eased his communication with a band of adventurers who had stumbled across his then-still-small form out in the wastes. They had thought that his heavy, dark, leathery skin was a small price to pay for a child who had survived alone for an uncertain length of time, and had tried to bring him back to a city and find a family to adopt him. Various interactions with caravans and pairs of escorts had since taught him some of the basic rules of human interaction, but at the time he had known nothing of the proper etiquette. After nearly a week of travel even the young woman who had recently lost a child and had wanted to protect him from all harm could no longer deny that he was not a human child, and the escorts and her husband had driven him away with stones and warning shots. He knew they had planned to come back and kill him once the young woman was out of range, but he had never given the opportunity to them. Since that point he had grasped more and more of the spoken language of humans, and was even able to carry out full, if somewhat slow, conversations, but this woman...

    Kaya. She had said her name was Kaya. He’d never had a name, although he’d been given some. Names seemed important to people. Sometimes he wanted one, a real one to call his own.

    Kaya spoke too much. He had thought this when she had first crawled into his small space, shotgun in hand, but now he knew it for sure. He desperately sorted through his recollection of her words, trying to grasp the most important pieces. The places on which she’d placed the most emphasis.

    ‘I am here to hire you... fastest route possible.. paying you... food and lodging... medical supplies... we must wait... very familiar... understand two things... significant... additional bonus... paid more... hurting yourself... I do not underestimate you... ruthless... if and only if... I will act.’

    It made so little sense. But she wanted something from him. Her hand was floating there in the air, only a little ways in front of his nose. He knew it wouldn’t take much to get rid of her. If he made a move to bite that proffered hand she would flee, and he could escape back into the wastes. He would never be able to return to this city again, but that hardly mattered. At the moment it seemed the most sensible solution. What use did he have for money? But he was also sure that, somewhere in there, was the promise of food. That made him tempted to take her offer, whatever it might entail.

    The details were starting to sink in a little further as his mind slowly processed the words, gathering real meaning from the combinations of sounds. She wanted him to take her from here, to some other city out in the wastes. Like one of the escorts that he met on occasion. They were hard people, always focused on the land around them. It was the only way they could survive. None of them were ever able to feel the edges of a voider like he could. The only chance they had was if they could catch the subtle signs of the transition before it was too late to walk back out. He was no escort, though. That seemed important somehow. Perhaps it was because he had no clue which city she wanted to go to. He roamed through the wastes, but unless he had a great need he did his best to avoid cities. He couldn’t have even told the name of this city if the guards caught him and that was the only way they would let him go.

    Maybe if he told her this, she would let him go. She would understand that she had made some mistake, and would back out of his small space. He would wait until near dark, and then flee the city, hopefully not to return to any of these tight, smelly spaces for years to come.

    “Is no escort.”
     
  10. To say that she was taken aback by the response -- though less now its taciturn nature, and more the mere familiarity of it -- would have been an understatement. In fact, it was so bizarrely unexpected, Kaya found herself having to hold back a quiet yelp of laughter.

    It -- he -- was saying no? Not "hello, I'd like to eat you," or "your threats will mean your death," but a simple, unadorned no? And not even that, so much as an excuse, which was all for the better. Kaya was used to no. She was a woman of basic, if somewhat audacious requests, few as they were at he current level of acclaim. People were forever telling her no...and forever changing their answers once she'd spent a few moments changing their minds. To Kaya, 'no' was not no so much as it was a pending yes.

    The young gunsmith simply smiled and relaxed into a seated position, feeling on familiar ground for the first time in days. She crossed her legs and examined a bit of dirt beneath her nails and spoke.

    "Understood," she said, raking a hand through her short, dark curls. "But that isn't what I asked. I believe I asked if we have a deal. Said deal need not require Guild approval, only mine. Which, pending acceptance of the proffered deal, you will have." She watched him curiously for a moment, then continued, "I've done my research on you. You are clearly not a Crolis resident, which means you've come from somewhere in the wastes. To have survived out there, plus the gun shot from the guards at the gate, and my poison and -- " she gestured vaguely to the blood-stained bandages that covered the whole of his person, " -- and whatever caused all that, well. Your knowledge of the outside is vast to say the least. Tell me if I'm wrong."

    She paused, though she didn't really expect an answer, or at least, nothing outside of another excuse, and she only had so much patience for those.

    "I have dealt with Guild-approved escorts just twice in my life. You ate one of the second pair, and my encounter with the first pair ended quite a bit worse than that. So, if you'll pardon me saying so, I think I'm done with the Guild for the moment. In any case, I don't want the Guild. I want you."


    Now she looked straight at him, doing her best to hold his gaze, though she could only guess at where it lay.

    "I am embarking, Mr....what-have-you, on what I hope will be a life-changing venture here, and if my suppositions are correct, the wastes may be the very least of the dangers I may face. This move is one I have been planning for years, and I do not make such plans lightly. They have already gone awry once. To wait much longer is to risk my life. My request is not unreasonable. This city is not your home, and we both know it will not welcome you. It seems to me you are very far from home, if you have a place that you call home at all. The point is, we both know you will be setting out soon enough. All I ask is that you take me with you when you do. I am more than capable of taking care of myself. You needn't hunt for me, nor do much more than perhaps find suitable areas to rest at night, should we be too far from habitable villages in between. We will make a...modest detour to see me to Riven. You will be paid for your services, and then free, perhaps never to take a job again." She smiled wanly. "The choice, to me, seems a simple one.'

    After this, she was quiet. Or as quiet as she could stand to be -- there was not much that was difficult for Kaya. Listening had always been something of a struggle, though she did not think she would have much trouble on that front with this one. Currently, she was more interested in reading whatever personality lay beneath the grim visage of a well-worn hunter. If logic and veiled compliments did not work, she would have to try something else.

    Usually, guilt or fear.
     
  11. She still talked too much and too fast, and used words that he barely understood, but the flow of words was having the effect of slowly reminding him of the things he had learned about language. He no longer had to sift through her words like he had dropped a lump of meat into a pile of cactus. Most of the words he didn't understand he could at least guess at, just through the context of the rest of her sentence. Assuming he had actually understood correctly, which he was pretty sure he had, what she was saying to him hadn't changed at all. She wanted him to take her out into the wastes, and lead her... somewhere. At least this time he had gotten the name. Riven. That meant nothing to him.

    He didn't want to approach cities. He didn't want company, especially not one person who would be following him for days on end. It was hard enough when he met people out in the wastes for short periods of time. Most of the time he saw them coming from far enough off that he was able to wrap himself up in some sort of tattered fabric to hide himself from their eyes, but even the short conversations it was polite to share with passing people were trying on him. How would he manage days on end?

    Why did he have to want him? He was no good for what she wanted. Sure, he could survive in the wastes. He had been doing it his whole life, even though he hadn't given her any indication of that when she had paused to see if he would answer her query. The only truly dangerous things were the occasional rainstorm that flooded the wastes with enough water to wash even him away, and the voiders. He hadn't walked into one of those on accident for many years. Keeping her from walking into one wouldn't be all that difficult.

    It caught him quite by surprise to realize he was actually contemplating what he would do if he were to take her along. He caught himself at it, and promptly reminded himself of all the suffering it would undoubtedly bring as well. What would he do if his bandages got even more damaged than they already were? Out in the wastes, most likely on edge as it was doubtful she had spent a night out in the wilderness in years, how would she react to him?

    She said all she wanted was for him to take her with her. That wasn't so bad. But it was so much more than that. He didn't even know where she wanted to go. How could he take her somewhere if he didn't even know where they were going?

    Maybe that would get her to leave.

    “Don't know R... Riven. Can't take where never been.”
     
  12. Right. So, it -- he -- was going to be stubborn. Kaya felt her temper flare for a moment, but only a brief one. Her new escort still hadn't actually denied her, hadn't even said the word 'no', really, or not in any way that mattered. As it were, his arguments seemed...conciliatory at best, almost apologetic, even, though that well could have been her imagination. He was not angry, was not arguing, just patiently laying out a list of reasons why he felt he was not up for the job -- which was simply not true, as Kaya had already decided that he was.

    She might have gone on to explain that someone as clearly experienced with survival, the wastes, and the survival of the wastes would likely have no real difficulty in tracking such a large city, particularly when it lay on well-traversed trade routes and the like. She'd have informed him of her eagerness to aide in whatever ways she could, simply procuring as accurate a map of the the cities in relationship to the waste, if not the trade routes themselves. She'd have added that she was a fast learner, and a faster mover, and that she had absolutely no intentions of merely getting lost allowing her to fall short of her goals.

    Instead, she paused for a moment, considered, then played a hunch.

    Kaya allowed a long quiet between the creature's last words, and her first, imagining what she might say -- what she might have said -- and his responses, before at last allowing her expression to morph into one of frustration, resignation...and hurt.

    "Fine," she snapped, smoothing an imaginary crease in the loose linen leggings she wore. "Don't help me. If you were as intelligent a guide as I needed you to be, you'd have taken up my offer. Stay here and get caught, then."

    She made to gather up her gun, half considering even snatching the fox away, just for spite, or the appearance as such. She held the shotgun in her lap, and the creature in an imperious glare for a second before turning to go. She was on the hearth of the make shift hovel when she stopped, appearing to brace for something that was difficult for precisely none of the reasons the creature might assume.

    She kept her back to him as she spoke. It was easier that way on a number of levels.

    "I don't like asking for help," she said bitterly. "So, I will tell you a story instead."

    The gunmetal was cool under her fingers. She wrapped one hand around it to keep it from trembling. She did not hide the action -- not from the creature, and not from herself.

    Kaya was toeing a very fine line.

    "I...knew a girl once," she said quietly. "She meant, or rather, she was made to travel the wastes by herself. Alone, or near enough. She...it was thought that since she was so young, so small, maybe she could avoid..." Kaya gave a small huff of real irritation and turned aside brusquely. Her free hand tightened in her lap, fingernails pushing pink crescents into the soft meat her palm. She clenched her jaw and made herself think of what lay at the end of the desert. It would be worth it. It must be.

    "That, of course, was a foolish thought. You know that much, I trust. She survived three days without saying a word. Not of hunger or cold or fear or family. She'd heard such stories of the wastes growing up, had thought her survival at the outset so unlikely...well. She had begun to imagine herself as something of a miracle. That maybe she'd had a guardian angel." Another pause, another beat. "She was four."

    Moving very carefully, Kaya half turned back to the creature behind her, trying to ignore the smell of blood. The pendant beneath her shirt stuck to her chest, coated in sweat. Her right thumb made a soft curve over her thigh.

    "It was her birthday, her fourth, when she finally went. It was quick, so maybe she felt no pain. But there was fear, I think. And a scream. Just one. Sometimes I think I've heard the story so many times, I've just imagined it. But I can hear it either way."

    The trance from which Kaya slowly recovered in the long silence after her short tale was not entirely fabricated. It was only when the gun shifted on her lap that she remembered where she truly was and what she was doing. And with whom.

    She held his gaze another long moment as best she could.

    "You are under no obligation to take me with you when you go. But I intend to survive my next venture through the wastes. And when you leave, I will follow you, and I will not be stopped. I do not need your permission or your cooperation for that much."
     
    #12 DotCom, Jul 25, 2015
    Last edited: Jul 25, 2015
  13. The guards at the gate were more than willing to let him pass. More often than not he did his best to avoid having to encounter people, but it was nearly impossible to avoid all contact when leaving the city. The guards took an interest in him. Of course they did. He was a walking bear covered from head to toe in bandages and ragged clothing. But they stayed out of his way, and didn't question his desire to leave. It was their job to stop anything from coming into the city that didn't belong there, not keep people from leaving. Of course, it was also possible that rumors of his entrance into the city had circulated far enough that no guard was willing to get in his way, for fear of what he might do.

    Of course, there was another possibility, and it wasn't one he particularly wanted to think about. It might have had something to do with the young woman following along at his heels, who had waved sweetly at the guards as they had approached.

    He still wasn't certain on why she was coming along. No, that wasn't true. He knew exactly why she was coming along. For some reason she had great need to get to a different city called Riven. The only way to get there was through the wastes, and the only way to get through the wastes was to follow a guide. She had convinced herself that he would make the perfect guide for her, and there was simply no dissuading her or chasing her away. He didn't know whether it was bravery or stupidity.

    What he didn't know was what had possessed him to finally agree to taking her along. Of course, it wasn't that he had actually agreed. It was more a matter of he hadn't found a way to convince her to leave, and he couldn't bring himself to outright attack her to try and drive her away. He also knew that once he was out in the wastes and she was along with him, he would lead her to that city without fail, because anything short would be the same as killing her. Of course, he had no interest in her promised money, he didn't have any way to store it, or any use for more than a few coins, so he would take his sweet time about it. That would be his mild revenge for her forcing him into this situation.

    He had honestly thought she was going to leave after that strange little story of hers. He hadn't said anything, and she had simply sat there, waiting. He too had waited, certain that she would leave eventually. She had seemed on the brink of leaving just before she had decided to tell him a story for some reason. He wasn't concerned about her threat of following. He was certain he could evade her within the confines of this city, and there were too many gates leading out for her to watch them all.

    Eventually she seemed to grow frustrated with his game of silence. She had promised him that, no matter what, she would follow him out of this city. He had remained silent. Finally she had left. He had relaxed.

    But he had made the mistake of assuming she was gone for good, of not taking seriously her promise that, one way or another, she would leave this city in his company. He had remained in the little hovel long enough to finish the desert fox she had brought him, and when he finally left he had found her waiting nearby, a giant pack strapped to her back and a thin, aged gelding standing to her left, swaybacked under the weight of several packs. He had been so stunned he hadn't even though to run. Instead he simply turned his back on her and started walking towards the gate. The sound of two booted and four hooved feet followed after him.

    They made it out of the gate only moments later, before it sealed shut behind them. There was no way that she was going to be getting back in now. He could hear the bars dropping, sealing it up once more. He was stuck with her now. At least until the time when he could leave her at Riven. Why couldn't she have chosen someone else?

    When she started walking in a different direction he paused. This was his last chance. He could turn and run now, and she would likely lose him. He had longer legs, and he was used to traveling long distances at high speed without rest. The wastes waited ahead of him, flat and dry, only the occasional bush or cactus to disturb it. It was a harsh place, but it was nothing compared to the Voiders. She would die without him. He turned to follow her.
     
  14. She heard him hesitate and knew, even before he began to follow, that she had finally and at long last, secured her escort through the wastes.

    It had, of course, until that precise moment when he paused as she changed direction with an intentional lack of warning, been the final and largest risk of her venture thus far. Not that Kaya had any doubts as to the dangers of the wastes...but they seemed to loom much smaller than the inherent riskiness of bedding the walking paradigm of chance. To have left the creature's hovel at all without any real certainty that he would guide her had left her with a nearly painful tension in her chest that was only now unwinding until a dull thud that made her ears ring. She had grown anxious, impatient, and at last decided that if the creature had seemed more interested in the dead fox than in her, it would not leave the city without eating, barring provocation.

    Kaya had sprinted back to her quarters at Sam's shop, gathered her bags -- which had been packed and hidden away for weeks -- and finally put into place the final piece of her plan, just enough to slow down sales for for a few weeks, without looking too suspicious. Not that Sam wouldn't eventually come to suspect her, but Kaya planned on being far and away by that point. It had been this, or set the entire store of gunpowder aflame, and while she held no great love for the man with whom she had worked for more than half her life, neither would she see him completely destroyed. At least not yet.


    And now she was at last on her way, having departed on the longest, if not the most straightforward portion of her journey. She had supposed right in guessing the creature would not leave without his meal, and in that time had managed to return to attach herself firmly to his coattails whether or not he appreciated it -- and she could likewise guess he did not. But when they had left the city gates (with no small amount of casual, if cheeky flirting to the otherwise stunned guards on Kaya's part), he did not, as she half suspected he might, make a dash to leave her. And he could have. Of that she had no doubt. She'd have found a way back inside the city eventually, perhaps, but she might have lost days again, and worse, she would not have been able to return to Sam's. No, this moment was pivotal to say the least. First the hesitation, showing him a more gracious host than he'd wanted her to believe; and then following her, though she'd chosen a direction deliberately different than his own.

    For whatever reason, be it the gold, or the story, or even a decency belied by his appearance (though the latter had not been forgotten; Kaya still carried a vial of her toxin strapped against a thigh), the creature was beholden to her. She was free of the city. She had her guide. All there was left was to live.

    --

    A forty-minute walk -- in a silence unusual for Kaya -- brought them to her destination: as it were, the remains of a waypoint that had once been erected outside the city. Now, it was little more than a crumbling shack, half buried in the sand, unassuming enough to hide a small wagon Kaya had paid a man to leave for her nearly a month ago.

    She exhaled quietly when she saw it, though gave no other outward sign of relief. She had, for her own sanity, had no doubts that the cart would be precisely where she'd meant it, with its contents full available and intact. Her short, dark curls were plastered to her forehead, though the sun had not yet hit its zenith in the sky, and the sand-colored blouse she wore was nearly transparent where her pack had bade her sweat through her clothing. But Kaya did nothing without thought, having even gone so far as to have strapped the selfsame pack to her back and circle the city...albeit during Crolis's more cool and quiet night hours. Still, the anxiety that had burned within her was beginning to turn to excitement as she tied the gelding to a post and pulled the dusty blanket from the wagon.

    The wagon contained mostly dried meats, hardtack, lukewarm skins of water, and blankets, but buried beneath of it was another small lockbox. Almost greedily, Kaya seized upon this and hefted it up out of the wagon. It showed no signs of having been damaged, or even touched, and the weight felt familiar and comforting. But she dropped to her knees none the less to unlock the thing somewhat out of sight of her new travel companion.

    It contained little more than one very small sidearm, a handful of projectiles in varying shapes and sizes, a pile of papers and sketches, and a sack of gold. This last she seized and held out to the bandaged creature with a wry grin.

    "Your first downpayment," she said, with not small hint of smug victory.
     
  15. They had been walking long enough that it was possible to see the gradual transition of the sun through the sky through the length of the shadows to their side, yet the walls and towers of Crolis were still easily distinguished behind them. They rose out of the floor of sand, dirt, and dust like some sort of desert obelisk that left little doubt to the strength and power of the city. The curve of its walls was finally visible, and desert was beginning to peek out around the edges. When he had first seen it many days ago he had almost changed his mind about approaching. There were no small cities in this world except for those that were able to be completely picked up and moved when a voider began to approach, but the Gunpowder City had to be by far the largest place that he had ever seen. It was a relief to finally be leaving it behind. In the city everything was complex. It had to be, in order to accommodate the varying lives of so many individuals. The wastes, on the other hand, were simple. There was no need to constantly question in the wastes. All there was instead was act or don't act. Kaya also had finally seemed to be finished talking. Perhaps that was another, less definable, feature of the wastes. It swallowed up words in the size of its emptiness.

    The building they approached was a familiar one, more in nature than its actual identity. There were many scattered buildings in the wastes, remnants of an age where people had tried to find a way to build cities in impunity of the voiders. Most of them were swallowed up when a voider drew near, leaving behind no trace of their existence. But the occasional ruin managed to sit in a small, blessed spot where the voiders never passed, and it existed long enough to crumble away under the quiet erosion of the desert. They were one of the few places it was safe to shelter for the night out in the wastes without having someone on watch to ensure that no voider found you in the middle of the night, and he had often used them as shelter when he was sure that the building had no other inhabitants.

    This particular building was inhabited by an old wagon, built from old and cheap gunmetal scraps that were strong and durable despite their previous consignment to the scrapheap. It was also filled to the brim with travel food, and he eyed it curiously for a moment before relegating a good chunk of the supplies to a category of food that, along with plant matter and animal dung, were reserved for the lack of any other, more eatable food. All the same, there were definitely pieces of food in there that would be, if not strictly enjoyable, certainly satisfactory. It would be nice to spend a few evenings where he didn't have to worry about where his next meal would come from. And the scraps might lure in a few coyotes and vultures who wouldn't recognize the bits as the trap they were.

    He was caught by surprise when Kaya suddenly thrust a bag at him that had emerged from within another, notably smaller, box. For a moment he thought it was another offering of food, before realizing that the bag contained not meat but metal. Gold. Payment. The thing for which he was supposedly conducting this whole venture. He took it not so much out of any need for it, but rather for appearances sake. It would inevitably end up in some corner of the wagon when Kaya wasn't looking, because he certainly had no intention of carrying the little bag the entire time they were traveling.

    He ended up helping her drag the wagon out of the little storage unit. Kaya was strong, but at one point the wheels got stuck in the loose sand that had piled up over the doorway, and dug itself into a rut as she continued to try and wheel it out. But, once it was out, it was easy to hitch the wagon up to the swaybacked horse, and set out into the desert. Kaya was considerate enough to give him a general sense of the direction Riven was in, before settling back in to walk beside the horse, heavy pack still on her shoulders. At this point he was finally able to take the lead of the little procession. There were roads through the wastes, little more than sun and foot-hardened paths that had been found to generally avoid voiders, but he strayed away from these quick enough. The fact that they were used more often meant that roving groups of bandits, madmen, and cannibals were far more likely to set up a camp that had a view of such roads. He made a few concessions for the wagon, realizing very quickly that such a contraption would not be able to make it up and down the berms and river channels he normally traversed, but otherwise left the horse to struggle through the labor of hauling the thing through loose dirt.

    It was doubtful they would make very good progress, but he didn't care. It wasn't as though he had anywhere to be.
     
  16. They day grew long, and the shadows longer, and Kaya began to notice, first with fascination, then with mild irritation, what it was to exist at length outside the city. She was no stranger to hard work, or even to heat, working, as often as she had, with smiths and hot gunmetal. But she also utterly refused to lay down the pack on her back, nor could she risk overburdening her horse and killing it this early in their venture. She trusted herself to subsist on force of will alone, but she also knew she could not expect the same of those around her...and just now, it was probably better to save her energy for the trip, anyway.

    They kept up a decently steady pace throughout the day, Kaya humming quietly to herself every now and again, though as long as she could see the walls of Crolis, she could not relax. As the day drew to a close, she felt hunger, then fatigue begin to make itself known. She had figured the journey, at least until she acclimated, would be difficult, especially if she were to walk the whole time -- and that was the plan, carefully arrived at after calculating the max amount of weight the horse, wagon, and her own back could carry. Still, she was strong Sent from my iPhone

    In any case, against all odds, the pack on her back, right along with her stride, grew lighter and lighter still.

    For much longer than the six months since she'd initiated the more active parts of her plan -- the parts that were not just waiting and watching and stealing and scheming -- Kaya had felt the weight of a somewhat uncertain future on her shoulders. She'd never once doubted she'd get there eventually (or at least not so that anyone could hear her), but she knew there were a great many risks that went into, and arose from, such a venture. It'd had never been enough to cow her. In fact, when she felt what might have been called doubt in a lesser woman began to sink its claws into her belly, into her mind and back and everything she was, she only fought back all the harder, relentlessly so. She'd spent countless nights crouched in alleyways, researching escorts. She'd fasted days to save money, risked physical injury to hide away merchandise, sold more of herself than she was willing to remember to pay for all of it. And through it all, the worst of it had been that maddening uncertainty, because try as she might, she could not ignore the cold reality that the wastes, above all else, were unpredictable. She could know Sam and his wares, his habits, and the habits of every thief and merchant in and out of Crolis. But all of it could amount to nothing if even a shred of her sanity was lost in the desert.

    And now she was here. The challenge was far from over, some might even say it was only beginning...but it had, at least, begun. There was no turning back from here. There would be success, or there would not, but nothing could make her go back.

    She could not tell whether the feeling in her belly was anxiety or relief, or, more likely, a sickly combination of both. But she felt better than she had in long months, toxins or no.

    She was not ready yet to regale her travel companion with quite as many casual and not-so-casual questions as she might have already -- she felt better, perhaps, but not calmer. Not yet.

    Still. Silence didn't sit with her much better than unease.

    "You don't seem much a talker," she said suddenly. Her tone was bright, though the sidelong glance she gave him was more wry. "I suppose, then, it will be up to me to make conversation?"
     
  17. After Kaya started talking she didn't stop. Not for extended periods of time anyways. Sometimes she would pause, seeming to gather her thoughts to enter into a new line of conversation, but she would inevitably resume again, his silence seeming to do absolutely nothing to discourage her. He ignored her as best he was able, and eventually the sound of her voice did go somewhere in the back of his mind, fitting in with the drone of insects and the endless rush of the wind. At first it had bothered him to no end, fearing that he would miss the sound of something subtle and important under her droning. But, as the day wore on and no catastrophe fell upon them, he began to relax a bit. This was, after all, why he had chosen the route he would be taking. It was improbable that they would encounter anything out this way except for the occasional rattler, which would be just as likely to flee as to fight, and the voiders, which it would be possible to detour around.

    He stopped them in the heat of the day, hiding under a large rock which he had spotted protruding above the ground many hours ago, and towards which he had gradually worked while they walked. The prevailing wind from the north had scoured the front, leaving it partially striated, but its shape was such that, as the wind went around it, the sand carried by the wind was deposited on either side of the rock, leaving a slight depression in between two banks. This was where he settled, bringing in both Kaya and the horse, but leaving the wagon out in the sun. Even in the shade the day was blistering, and it wasn't hard to imagine how much hotter it would be under the full strength of the sun. But as soon as the sun had passed its zenith and was making its way back towards the horizon he stood again, walking them onwards.

    Almost as soon as he started walking again he began to look for a place to stop for the night. It was many hours of walking later that he finally came to a stop, but there was still a good hour or two of light in the sky. He didn't seem the least bit concerned by this fact, though, and instead descended down a shallow inclination to a short bush that was growing in a small valley between a ring dunes. It was one of the few plants they had seen all day that possessed any true leaves, and it was by far the largest. The few others they had seen had been in little depressions similar to this one, where the force of the wind was broken and the leaves would not be scoured by blowing sand. Such a thing also meant that the two people, and, more importantly, the horse and wagon, would be offered some protection for the night.

    He couldn't help but wonder when Kaya would stop talking, or if she would continue it even in her sleep.
     
  18. --

    By the time dusk found them on the fourth day, Kaya was no longer feeling quite so chipper. Her initial pensiveness and the subsequent pressured speech had since come and gone in the two days' time it had taken for Crolis to release her from its grip. She'd reasoned if anyone was going to catch up with them, they'd have done so by now. Her guide had taken neither the most obvious, nor most direct route from the city, and the chances of anyone finding them were small. Or rather, if anyone did find them, Kaya knew she'd have much greater troubles than simply having been caught, and it would have meant more than the loss of her entire plan and livelihood. But as they'd seen very little in terms of other life in the past four days, she had begun to relax.

    Relaxation, however, quickly gave way to boredom, frustration, and, as it always did, impatience. She had, of course, known the trip would take far longer than a few days. Had prepared for it in any number of ways: training herself to walk long distances with great weight upon her shoulders; saving money by cutting corners, skipping meals, tightening the proverbial belt to ready herself for the brutal realties of the wastes; acclimating to heat and sun typically not found in the cities by spending hours on the city walls, flirting with guards until she was flushed and lightheaded. She had anticipated a journey of some length and packed accordingly. But she had still somehow overlooked how very long and boring it was going to be.

    It was true it had been many years since last she'd seen the wastes with her own eyes. And the last time, she had been young and frightened and very, very ill. But even so, she could have sworn she remembered more...life in the sand dunes around her. There had been life and color and passion. Fear, yes, and hate, but what child did not fear what they did not understand? She had done her research this time, and while she was not at all eager to happen upon a voider, she'd have guessed at least there would be more to look at than endless hills of sand and brown scrub! There weren't even any notable landmarks to pass the time, let her knew they were getting closer to Riven, or that her guide was not leading her astray altogether. She had counted four days in the small journal she carried with her -- used for little more than bookkeeping and a few unlabeled numbers -- but it already felt like she'd been walking for several weeks. Her training had not prepared her for making her way up and down sand dunes, and even less so for lugging that blasted gelding along behind her. The sand was unforgiving as compared to stony cobbles, which were kinder to her knees, but less likely to sink her half a foot into burning rubble when she least expected it.

    So, too, did the sun insist on trying her. Halfway through the third day, tired, bored, and irritable, she'd ripped off the light fabric she'd been tying over her head after the third time it had fallen into her eyes. Her vision cleared -- for whatever good that did -- but by day's end, her cheeks and shoulders were flushed and sore, and blistered by the next morning. Her mouth forever tasted of dust, and she could not seem to find a place in drinking her water that did not leave her bloated and nauseas or lightheaded and thirsty. That her new companion seemed altogether unbothered by this and still refused to talk did not help. Kaya did not typically think herself a petty person, but boredom and frustration had circled back into close anxiety, which itself was more properly called fatigue and irritation, and she began to resent him for taking so long and arduous a path. It had been four days now, and they hadn't come upon so much as a nomadic village where she could stop and bathe! She had been told the wastes were wild and willful, but this was just beyond imagining.

    As he found them yet another shallow, unimpressive ditch in the sand for them to rest for the night -- something Kaya both needed and utterly despised for the selfsame fact -- she glared ruefully at his bandaged shoulders, taking a long pull from her lukewarm water skin, scowling as she wished for wine instead.

    "We ought to look for real shelter tomorrow," she said curtly, crouching to ease her pack into the sand. Despite her frustrations with the rest of the trip, she had insisted on carrying the pack, and had done so with a care she now afforded little else. Likewise, she went over and checked first the cart, then, somewhat more begrudgingly, the poor creature she'd purchased to haul the whole thing, before sitting down hard in the sand.

    "There ought to be some small town around. It's been days and we haven't seen anything." She knew she was somewhat overexagerating. She also didn't care. This, of course, was the slightly less gripping side of her otherwise persuasive charms. She had spent the previous three days telling him at length about anything and everything that popped into her head. Mostly a somewhat modified version of her history with Sam, and what she planned to do in Riven when they arrived.

    Now, though, neither of those things seemed nearly so appealing as a bath and a good night's sleep in a soft bed.

    "If you're concerned about your...appearance, and spending another night in a town...well, you needn't be," Kaya said simply, as though the matter was moot simply because she wished it so. "People out here can't afford to turn down good gold, and I'd be willing to pay my weight's worth for a thimble full of good liquor."
     
  19. Kaya had said many ridiculous things in their days together, but he had felt perfectly safe in ignoring all of them. Most of them had been nothing but attempts to provoke some sort of conversation from him, even if it was just a few words. Sometimes he had even found himself obliged to respond, although it was nothing more than a few words. This was, however, the first outburst from Kaya that he knew he had to take completely seriously. It wasn't just a comment, or a request. It was an order, and it didn't matter that Kaya was in no position to order him around. She believed she was, and that belief was dangerous. If he didn't do something about her certainty that small villages littered the wastes she might think it worthwhile to go traipsing off on her own, and that would get her killed.

    He had to completely and totally convince her, not only of the dangers of the voiders that littered the wastes, but the reason why they weren't about to find a city out here. He stood without warning. "Come. Leave pack." Ignoring any objections or comments she might have, he turned and set out in a random direction.

    She of course, didn't oblige. It would have been remarkably irritating if he hadn't expected it. The entire time they had been traveling Kaya hadn't let that pack get further away from her than arm's reach, and during the day it never left her back. He doubted she was going to be able to move fast enough to keep up with him for what he had in mind, which meant he would have to come up with some other plan. Most likely he would have to pick her up. Hopefully she wouldn't think it was an attack and do something stupid that would get them both killed. Then again, he was the only guide she had out here. He had the nagging suspicion that she would risk many things before harming him, because if he died she would likely succumb to the desert as well.

    They walked for a good ten minutes away from their camp, moving at a much brisker pace than they usually adopted. It wasn't as fast as he would normally travel alone in the desert, but he also knew Kaya wouldn't be able to maintain it for extended periods of time either. Right now, though, he didn't want to waste time moving slowly. He had a point to make, and he wanted to make it as quickly as possible so that they could settle in for the evening.

    He felt it as soon as they began to approach the voider, a sensation that he knew was completely foreign to anyone else. It was a tug at his being, a drawing of his soul that urged him to return. It urged him to return to where he belonged. The visible signs, the signs that most escorts used to recognize the fact that they were approaching a voider, didn't begin for another couple minutes. They were subtle at first, but they quickly hinted at how unpleasant the voider ahead of them would be. Good. That would make his point even better.

    Little lights began to emerge from shadows, tongues of flame that leaped up from invisible pools of magma. The tugging was getting stronger, but he kept up the quick pace, pushing hard enough that Kaya would likely be too tired to notice what they were approaching. If he didn't know exactly where they were, he would have missed them too.

    When the moment came he came to an abrupt halt, swinging around and scooping Kaya up in one quick motion as the sand in front of them suddenly dissolved into a roiling pool of magma. They were mere centimeters away from fully walking into the voider, and if they stood still for a moment longer it would have them. Digging his feet into the falling sand, he pushed away from the edge as the pool erupted behind them, a towering pillar of flame boiling into the sky and turning it bright red. The voider seemed to chase them, reaching after them, desperate to draw them into its fiery depths. When they burst free he kept on running, stride smooth and long, for another minute, when the camp came into sight.

    He set her down, before turning around again. "Come."

    He repeated the process three more times, ignoring her protests and even physically dragging her along if ever she refused to come. None of the voiders were pleasant. Every time it seemed as though he danced along the very edge of the voider, scant millimeters away from crashing into a world that would undoubtedly kill them. Every time the voider seemed to chase them as they fled, unwilling to relinquish new prey that had come so close.

    By the time they finished Kaya seemed numb. She was limp in his arms. He set her down heavily in the sand, before taking a seat himself. Behind his bandaged face his eyes locked onto hers, holding them in place with an invisible stare. "There are no villages out here."
     
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  20. "There are no villages out here."

    She supposed, technically, at least, she heard his words. That is to say, sounds were coming from somewhere, and if she focused hard enough she could almost distinguish them as words, maybe even words in a language she understood, maybe even words she herself knew. And, if she focused beyond that, she could string them into sentences, short as they were, and perhaps eventually even meaning, if there was any such thing anymore. But the moment her attention drifted, and it seemed all it was able to do just now, the words evaporated like less than mist, leaving no trace that they had ever been there to begin with. It was a feeling strange as it was familiar, and it was that -- that inexplicable familiarity -- that finally broke through to Kaya.

    She had been staring at her guide, equal parts expectant and wary, when she'd demanded a nicer place to sleep. In the past four days, she'd grown quite accustomed to his silence and pleasantly surprised by the occasional turn of conversation, if one could call it that. But the sudden tension that had risen in him seemed neither, and for some reason she could not explain, it made her anxious. She'd just been about to abandon the topic, or make some joke, or interrupt with another thought -- anything, really, the break the tension -- when he'd lurched to his feet.

    "Come," he growled, "Leave pack." And then, with no warning whatsoever, taken off all but running.

    It was strange in more ways than one. It had taken her only a few days to figure out his routine, and this was not part of it. It was true she'd complained about their slow rate of travel, that they stopped too early in the evenings, and Kaya was still inclined to feel that way, whether it was healthy or not. But her complaints had fallen on deaf ears for three nights now. Why was he suddenly inclined to listen? And why did he want her to leave the pack?

    Startled, annoyed, and begrudgingly impressed, Kaya lurched after him, wondering if he'd spotted some danger nearby. She glanced back after the horse and cart, wondering how quickly the poor beast could run, and found when she looked back to her guide, he'd nearly disappeared over the peak of the nearest dune. Swearing, she abandoned wagon and horse and sprinted up the hillside, swearing again when her feet slipped in the sand.

    "Wait a minute!" she cried after the rapidly retreating form, half indignant, half nervous. She wouldn't recognize the raw tang of fear at the back of her throat -- what if he left her? -- until much later, and then only under duress. At the moment, she was experiencing a tense amalgamation of adrenaline and anger --

    "Dammit, slow down!"

    -- and then nothing. Or nearly nothing. It was...impossible to explain. One moment, Kaya had been huffing along, feeling her calves cramp and her side begin to stitch and burn, the next...it was as if she'd taken an actual, physical step outside her body. Somewhere, down below her, she could see an abnormally tall figure, half running, half floating below her. Further along, a girl with short, dark curls carrying a pack half her size, slowed to a trot and then stopped altogether. At the same time, farther away, she could see a horse and wagon, a bustling city in the dead of night, a large man running his hands through dark, wet gunpowder. The could see it all, everything, at once.


    Kaya only remembered flashes after that, and even those were hazy. She was aware, vaguely, of being exhausted, more tired than she could ever remember being, as though there were weights pulling on her body, dragging her down into the sand. Sand? She thought she could remember sand, but she'd blinked or slept or winked out of existence altogether, and the there had been snow and fire and water and sky.

    And the remembered the figure, though the couldn't recall who or what he was. He was behind her sometimes, in front of her at others, beneath and above and all around her. She was aware, too, that she did not like him. She couldn't remember why, only that she knew that she had to get away, and she couldn't.

    And then at last it was over. She had no concept of how much time had passed, or even what precisely had happened. She found herself sitting on the sand, her knife -- her knife? -- in one hand, a thin trail of blood on the other. She thought she could hear or smell or see the horse nearby, but she couldn't look away from the only constant of the last five minutes or ten hours or twenty years. He stood before her, and he was speaking, but she could not, for the life of her, decipher what he was saying.

    She ought to have been angry. There was a very small, very insistent voice in the back of her head telling her that. Something like, "what sort of game does he think he's playing?" and "...see this come out of his pay, that's for sure..." but she couldn't distinguish whose voice it was, or whether it was spoken or imagined or both or neither, and anyway, she'd forgotten them the moment they trickled through the sludge that had accrued between her ears.

    For once, Kaya didn't say anything. She stared at the bandaged figure before her a moment longer, her expression having shifted ever so slightly from blank apathy to fatigued confusion. Then, without bothering to remove the pack from her back -- indeed, appearing to have forgotten its existence altogether, she curled on her side in the sand, shut her eyes, and was dead asleep in seconds.
     
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