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KAZA STARED. Did he groan? He wasn’t sure. Perhaps it was only the heavy swaying of the branches over the ditch. He was too weak to expend the energy to go and check, only to find it was his imagination. He sat heavily on his butt and waited, taking regular visual sweeps to verify that no soldiers or demons were coming for him.
Minutes passed. Suddenly the man twitched. Kaza couldn’t imagine that. He felt a wave of guilt for not having gone to his aid sooner; he crawled to his side as fast as his exhaustion allowed. The man was groaning with every exhale of air, in fact, but so quietly that Kaza could only hear it here, right next to him.
He was old, old enough to be his grandfather. His white hair was matted and littered with dirt and detritus. Where the left half of his bushy moustache should have been was a nasty injury, as though something had grabbed it and yanked it from his face. Purple blood had dried over the wound, down his cheek and neck.
“Sir? Sir?" pressed Kaza. "Here—let me help you—”
He kneeled behind him, fed his arms under his shoulders, and tugged to free him from the ditch. The man didn’t groan this time, but yelped in pain. Kaza released him immediately: not because he thought he might be hurting him, but for the sheer volume of the cry—it was loud enough to alert any soldiers nearby. He impulsively said “Shhh!” and, standing, backed away quick, glancing around. But … as far as he could tell there were no soldiers or demons in the vicinity.
Presently he returned. The old fellow was conscious, his eyes open. He stared upward at him. “My … foot, dear boy. It’s … stuck. You don’t need to move me; but if you would be so kind as to free it, I’d be most appreciative….”
His voice was low and kind and filtered through pain. Kaza nodded wordlessly, then crawled to the bank, gazed into the bloody water. The man’s foot, just visible under the red swirling murk, was stuck between two roots. It appeared twisted grotesquely out of true. Broken.
Kaza stepped back into the water. He tried bracing himself against a half-submerged white slab of rock, his other foot burying itself in soft mud, and reached under the surface. The old man’s foot was scissored securely between two thick roots. Kaza thought this task hopeless. He had nothing close to the strength required to free him.
He was pleasantly surprised when the top root gave way relatively easily. He grabbed his leg—
The elderly man bellowed in agony.
Kaza, alarmed, hissed “Shhh!” again, but it did not matter: the old fellow was unable to swallow back his cries. As swiftly as he could, he moved the injured leg out of harm’s way and then hurried out of the water, where he tugged with all his might under the old man’s shoulders until he was completely out of the ditch and his back propped minimally against the tree. He fell back on his butt, winded beyond the point of caring anymore if the man’s yelling had given their presence away. He fought for air as the bellows continued, which subsided only after entire exposing minutes had passed. After some whimpering, the quiet groans resumed.
“You still with me, my boy?”
Kaza looked up. Lifelessly—“Yeah.”
“Thank you. You didn’t have to move me. Thank you … I can’t thank you enough … Please, come here.”
Kaza crawled back to him, to his side.
“No. I need to look into your eyes. Come around front here.”
Kaza did as told. The elderly man’s eyes were gray and bloodshot. He reached a wizened hand out, gently touched his forehead and cheek with his index finger and thumb. He whispered something—Kaza couldn’t make out the words—and then limply dropped his hand.
“I’ve always found it ironic that the Healing Aecxis is a purely externally sourced agent.” He laughed, coughing. “How I wish it wasn’t!” His smile was pained and trembling. “Feeling better?”
Kaza came to himself, startled—for he was feeling better. The old man’s touch on his forehead had released a very pleasant warmth into his body, moving from his head down into his mouth—his tongue suddenly stopped stinging—and then his neck and shoulder—he reached behind his head to scratch at a sudden itch and pulled out a bunch of serrated thorns—and then into his other hand (he watched as his broken pinkie straightened before his blinking eyes), and then into the trunk of his body. The pain of drawing a breath faded away. He took a huge, intensely satisfying lungful of air as the warmth descended into his lower back and then into his legs, where it stayed for a long time.
He felt completely renewed, as though he hadn’t just spent hours in desperate flight from soldiers, hadn’t been injured and exhausted beyond all human limits, but just as if he’d woken from a very pleasant night’s sleep.
He looked into the old man’s eyes. “Y-Yes. Yes. Yes! Thank you! Are … are you a Healer?”
“I was,” said the old man with a dark, blood-spattered smile. “I believe I have just Healed my last patient, however.” The injury to his face, and the blood on it, gave the wistfulness in his eyes a distinctly tragic tint.
Kaza didn’t know what to say. What wanted to come out was, “I’ll get help; you’ll be all right, you’ll see,” but knew such statements were gross falsehoods. There was no help to be had. And after the Healer’s generosity, offering him soothing lies seemed somehow as brutal and heartless as the soldiers and demons they were hiding from. The helplessness of it all pressed upward into his cheeks, made his eyes sting. “I’m so sorry,” was all he could utter in reply. The boy in him bubbled to the surface, and he couldn’t swallow back, “I don’t want to die … I’m so scared …”
The old man’s hand lifted weakly off the earth, fell on his. For a long time neither said anything. Kaza, his vision blurry, maintained his vigil, looking here and there as he sniffled. But most of his attention was on the man’s hand. It was cold … but it was alive. He felt an almost overwhelming urge to save him, and damn the cost to his own life. The canal gurgled, and the breezes rustled the leaves above them. From the distance came random, barely audible snapping noises and voluminous roars. Puowbalpom was burning; where the city’s skyline should have been was an imposing, roiling wall of gray-black smoke just visible between the low boughs of the tree. He tried not to look at the smoke, or consider what those noises might signify. The midday heat was most welcome; he could tell that the old man felt the same way.
The Healer blinked up at him. “My name is Normalas,” he said. “What, my brave friend, is yours?”
Kaza sniffled, said, “Kaza.”
“Stay with me just a little longer, Kaza?”
He nodded and shrugged. “Where else can I go?”
“I have a few ideas about that. But first, let me ask you: Why haven’t you Transformed and escaped? Are you unable to?”
Kaza nodded again. “I’ve never been able to. My parents, too. I’m so worried about them …”
Normalas didn’t respond. His silence told Kaza unequivocally that his parents had perished as well, that he knew it but was too decent to crush him with what both of them already knew. More to keep the tears from returning than any real concern that soldiers or demons may be about, Kaza stood and went to the edge of the tree’s shadow to look around. He had never felt so alone and cut off in his entire life. He couldn’t help but think of Lesa. He hoped he could one day remember her smiling face, her laugh, her sweetness—instead of the image … that image … that had branded itself for all time on his brain, the one that made him screw his eyes closed and grit his teeth and shake his head as he stood there.
When he felt like he had at least a workably minimal grasp on his emotions, he turned and went back to Normalas the Healer. He sat facing him. Then he rose again and went to the ditch. He tore off a piece of his already torn shirt and soaked it in bloody ditch water and returned to his side. He reached out with the cloth and gently dabbed away the dried blood on his face and neck. Normalas thanked him. “Are you thirsty?” asked Kaza.
Normalas nodded. Kaza took off his shoes, returned to the canal with one, and filled it with bloody water. Came back. Normalas drank greedily. Kaza repeated the cycle six more times before the Healer said, “That’s quite enough, thank you, Kaza. Please, sit now and keep me company.”
The two sat in silence for a long time. “So much waste, so much destruction …" commented Normalas. Kaza could tell he was trying not to look at the ditch, at the corpses floating by, but couldn’t help himself. He brought his attention to him.
“May I say, my young friend, that you seem an odd sort.”
Kaza smiled weakly at him.
“When I touched your forehead, I sensed something very compelling about you. Are you certain you are not possessed of Mathematical abilities?”
Kaza nodded resignedly. “I’m quite plain. No abilities at all.”
“Oh, I beg to differ,” said the old man. “Look around. You are still alive when your countrymen are dying in numbers to numb the imagination.”
Kaza thought of the cold lens-shaped object in his pants pocket. He was startled that he’d forgotten about it. He reached impulsively for it, pulled it out.
Normalas’ bloodshot eyes went wide. “What do you have there? May I see?”
He handed it to him. Normalas examined the object very slowly, his eyes growing wider and rounder by the second. Kaza joined in the examination. It was the first time he’d really looked at it.
The object was see-through, colored forest-green with intricate veins of silver throughout. It was just wide enough to fit in the palm of his hand, and thick enough to be the lens of a telescope or some other sighting device.
“A demon almost got me,” he said, “but then this thing flashed—I think it was this thing—and the demon missed me. I … don’t know how. And … the soldiers … they looked right at me, but it was just as if they couldn’t see me. I’m surprised I’ve forgotten about it. It’s cold like ice … right?”
“Yes … yes,” said Normalas absentmindedly, “cold, very cold indeed …” The object seemed to consume all his attention, even distracting him from his own pain: the ever-present groans had completely ceased. After what seemed many minutes later, he said, “I’ve never seen a free piece of Infinitum this large before. I daresay no one has.”
Kaza gasped. “Infinitum? Are you sure?”
“Quite sure,” said Normalas. “Its value … Well, this piece is beyond value. How in the name of the Samanlainen Guardians did you come by it?”
“Lesa,” answered Kaza with a quaver in his voice. “My sister. It was … somehow she had it … I don’t know. She … she threw it to me before …” He couldn’t continue.
“Your sister, you say?”
Kaza nodded. His eyes burned again.
“I’m sorry, Kaza,” said the old man gently. “It is very important however that you answer the following question, if you can. Do you remember thinking or saying anything specific before the demon got to you, the one that the Infinitum flashed at?”
Kaza thought for a long time before shaking his head. “I … I’m not sure. It all happened so fast. I might have said something like ‘Go away!’ But I’m not sure. It’s possible I said nothing at all.”
“You wouldn’t have to vocalize anything. But if you thought ‘Go away’ as the demon was coming for you, then you have your answer as to how you survived that encounter. If you thought ‘Go away!’ at such a moment, your mind was surely quite focused and intent, no distractions, nothing to get in the way of the thought. That’s how you survived. The Infinitum connected with your soul and from it drew the power necessary to fulfill your wish.”
“I thought that was all just fairy-tale stuff,” said Kaza, goggling at the lens-shaped object.
“Indeed, no,” said Normalas. “The soldiers and Mephastophians couldn’t see you because you didn’t want them to. I have no idea how long the effect lasts; it would be foolish to presume that your wish is still in force.”
He continued staring at it, but also now at Kaza.
"Compelling indeed," he said, looking up at him.
Kaza barely registered the comment. His mind was burning with a single question:
How in the world did Lesa come to own a priceless piece of Infinitum?
Normalas handed the object back to him. Kaza held it up, felt the cold of it numb the flesh of his palm. He looked down hopefully. “Do you think … I mean, if I tried … if it could—?”
Normalas cut him off. “No, my young friend. It cannot Heal. And beyond aiding you in that capacity, I wouldn’t wish it to even if it could. I’ve had a long life. I won’t be with this pain for long. Besides,” he shook his head emphatically, “I have no wish to exist in the world as it will be hereforward. I just ask for your company, dear boy, for as long as your own personal safety can spare it. If the soldiers should come I would ask only one more favor of you.”
“Sure, anything, anything,” said Kaza.
“Throw me in the ditch,” said Normalas. “I can’t swim. I’ll drown before they can reach me.”
He must have seen the horror blanch Kaza’s face, for he gave his hand a couple hard pats. “The ditch for you, however, Kaza, is your route to survival. It is time for you to set aside your emotions, my friend. Your life is all that matters now. If you survive this holocaust there will be time enough to mourn me and your sister and your parents. Do you understand?”
Kaza took a deep breath, swallowed heavily, and nodded. At that moment Normalas became an anchor for his entire being, and he felt his spirit grasp as desperately for the old man’s inner strength as it had the Infinitum moments before he thought the descending demon would tear him to shreds.
“Excellent, excellent,” said Normalas. “There’s a strong young man. Now: the canal: when the time is right, you must get back in it. The bodies will serve as camouflage. The canal goes right through Puowbalpom on its way to the sea. I have a singleship docked in Bossool …”
“Bossool?” asked Kaza, listening very intently. “The capital port reserved for government officials?”
With hesitancy Normalas nodded and said, “Yes, that’s the one. You could ride the canalwater out to sea. From there swim east. Bossool is just a mison, no more than that, from the mouth of the canal itself. The singleship is in the fourth dock as you approach from that direction, in the third slip. It is unlikely the soldiers will have molested it or any of the boats around it. Not yet, I pray. The ship’s name is Arilyceum. You can’t miss it. Can you sail a singleship?”
The enormity of Kaza’s task made him miss the question. He had caught himself up considering what it would be like to float through the middle of an occupied city and not be captured or killed … and then out to sea. Would he be too tired to fight the current pushing him out, farther and farther, to the vast and deep waters beyond? If he could overcome the current, would he have the strength to swim an entire mison to the docks fronting Bossool? What if those docks had been destroyed, or the ships? What would he do then? What if those docks and the ships were still there, but heavily guarded? How could he get to Normalas’ singleship, the Arilyceum?
“Kaza? My boy? Can you sail a singleship?”
Kaza returned to the moment. He exhaled, nodded.
“Good,” said Normalas. “It is at this point, however, that we run into the first snag of my plan to see you to safety …”
Kaza couldn’t help the incredulous laugh that escaped his lips.
Normalas chuckled with him. Then, very seriously, he said, “Optimism, Kaza, is a survival skill. It is an art. The world is shit, and everything dies. It takes no art to see that, only open eyes, what everybody employs to greater or lesser degree. So let us rise above the mundane and obvious and be artful and consider your first snag, shall we?”
Far from feeling reproached, Kaza felt deeply relieved. Normalas’ honesty somehow made reality—the swirling, bloody, corpse-filled ditch, the burning city, the armored soldiers and black demons—seem dishonest, unreal, fake.
“The first snag?” he asked. He didn’t want to hear the answer, but pressed on anyway. “Go on …”
He prepared himself for whatever was about to come out of Normalas’ mouth with a large breath, which he held in anticipation.
“Kaza, my friend, the Arilyceum was not made for crossing the open ocean. But cross the open ocean you absolutely must if you want to survive.”
He gave a helpless shrug.
“Where am I to go?” asked Kaza after a long silence. The breath he had been holding seemed stuck now in his lungs. “Galen? Saturnius? Have they escaped invasion?”
Normalas shook his head very sadly. “No one has escaped invasion.”
Kaza didn’t ask how he knew this. He didn’t need to. After all, the Arilyceum was docked in Bossool—the place where very high-ranking government officials lived. He had visited there once. The entire district covered three lush hills that overlooked the
and ran down into it, the homes on those hills palatial, huge. As a boy from a
small farm, he couldn’t understand why the area itself was walled off, with
guards patrolling at its entrance. It was at those gates that his father had
pointed out that Bossool was where those who ran the Thesean government lived,
and that they were very important: so important, in fact, that their homes and
property required their own guards and walls. Kaza left feeling very small and
unimportant. Senecum Ocean
“Where then am I to go?” he asked, wondering just how important Normalas was. (Did he know the Prefecture himself?) “How can I sail away without being spotted?”
“The Infinitum will clear your way should that eventuality arise. Just remember, it will only work when you are totally focused, as you were with the demon. My guess is that its effects are indiscriminate, especially within a close radius. Where are you to go—?”
Normalas started coughing up blood. Kaza drew near him and put his arm around his shoulders, holding him until the fit subsided minutes later. He returned to the canal, soaked the same torn piece of shirt, and then cleaned him up to more thanks. Normalas’ countenance had shifted to a deathly gray pallor. Kaza knew the old man had little life left in him.
“The Prefecture …” croaked the Healer, “before he died, he informed his staff that the new Vanerrincourtian monarch was sailing east along Ae Infinitus with his navy and any nation that wished to join him. It is rumored the new king is a Mathematician—a good one. Not …” he shook his head, shuddering, “… not like the nightmare responsible for what you see happening all around you.”
He grabbed Kaza’s hand, nodding emphatically. “That is where you must go, Kaza, my young friend. Sail north to Galen, through the Tingefeor Split—you can’t miss it, huge cliffs on both sides—that’s the most direct route. The
Split’s cliffs should conceal
you: the Split
itself is often fog-filled. I’ve been there many times, I know what I’m talking
about. It’s very dangerous at such times for that reason—but the singleship, if
you can get it there, should be able to negotiate it in relative safety. The
bigger warships would be foolish to attempt to chase you through a foggy
Tingefeor Split. There are excellent navigational aids aboard the Arilyceum; if you truly do know how to
sail, they’ll come in very handy, especially then. The Vanerrincourtian navy,
Kaza. Catch up to that navy, and you may just survive.”
“But … but …” Kaza stammered, shaking his head, “but that navy is hundreds of misons away, at least! And they must be sailing full speed out of harm’s way! How can I possibly catch them in a singleship—one that wasn’t even designed to cross the open ocean?”
Normalas' deathly pallor was accented by the grave look he gave him. “My dear boy,” he answered, “I didn’t tell you this was going to be easy—or even possible. Of the impossible, however, I know this without a doubt: there is no place you can land, no island, no beach, no pathetic pile of seaweed-covered rocks out in the middle of nowhere that will not have Gyssian soldiers crawling all over it. That’s the name of those murdering sons of bitches burning and pillaging our land—Gyssians. Remember it, Kaza. I’m trying to give you the best available option I know of. It’s the one with possibilities. The odds may be very long on you, my friend, but that’s what makes optimism an art form. The rarer the paint of possibilities, the more beautiful the picture of success when it is completed. It will be upon the canvas of your courage that that picture shall come to life. It’s a canvas I already know exists.”
Kaza turned to look back at the canal. Before him swirled and gurgled the very last chance for him to survive. Bodies floated by in ghastly clumps, ferrying the dead out to sea as though the sea were the Afterlife. A part of him cried out to join them—not as a desperately living being, but dead, inanimate, uncaring—like them. Their cares were over, done. The Gyssians could do no more harm to them. Fear had no meaning to them, hunger, fatigue, love, loss … even meaning itself was void. Only the quiet, incessant, and restless current spoke for them now. And to survive, he would have to entrust his living person into its soggy grip.
Normalas started coughing up more blood. Kaza helped him as before—which was to say very little—wiping his mouth and shirt, and offering him more water, which the old man refused. After many minutes the fit subsided, and the Healer rested his head presently on his shoulder and fell into a fitful, groaning sleep.
After another hour or so he stood, very gently easing Normalas down onto his back—and that’s when he saw the stab wound. The gash was thin and wide, purple and filthy with dirt. The Healer’s white shirt was stuffed partway into it. Kaza winced, fighting back nausea-tinged helplessness. It was a miracle the old man had lived this long.
He came to the very edge of the tree’s shadow, crouching, peering out. Did he just hear a noise—a crash of metal, voices? Or was he imagining it? He couldn’t be sure. He held still for a long time, waiting. The afternoon light was finally waning, the shadows in the fields beyond lengthening, deepening. One of those fields, perhaps a quarter mison away, held row after row of bushy cosi trees hanging heavy with fruit. From here he could make out the bright orange orbs hanging off the limbs, and drooled. Dare he chance it? Between him and those trees was nothing but barren earth and a broken waist-high fence. He looked for a drainage ditch leading out of the field, or something similar that would provide continuous cover, but couldn’t identify anything suitable.
He glanced up. No demons, no seagulls. But then that sound again: metal grinding on metal. He waited for the voices, but heard nothing.
No. It was too risky. He’d have to just ignore his hunger as best he could. He considered Normalas. Would food help him? He glanced back at him. The old man was unconscious and groaning with each breath again, his breathing shallow and rapid. Kaza went back to him, sat, and propped his head up on his thigh. That seemed to steady his breathing a bit; it also reduced the groans. Kaza leaned back against the tree and closed his eyes.
He wasn’t religious, at least not as defined by his society, but he found himself praying anyway, his petition silent and urgent. He found himself praying at least as much for the dying man at his side as he did for himself, and was surprised that this was so. He gripped the Infinitum in his pocket, gripped it hard, felt the cold of it numb his hand.
He prayed for the new Vanerrincourtian king, for his fleeing navy. Was he a merciful king? Was he kind? Granted that he could make it that far, granted that he could even find the Vanerrincourtian navy, would the king take him in, accept him as one of their own? Or would he have him put to the sword, just as these Gyssians wanted to do? He had never left Theseus before, had never ventured beyond her shallow and warm turquoise waters. The open ocean beyond, deep-blue and limitless, was reserved only for men with courage ten times his. If he had any chance of survival, Normalas had assured him, he would have to cross that vastness by himself, in a ship not designed for that deep-blue, for that limitlessness. He gripped the Infinitum harder, felt the thin edge of it bite into the flesh of his fingers. Where would he find the courage to attempt such a monumental venture?
Normalas jerked conscious as the last vestiges of purple daylight faded away. In the distance, orange-yellow flames from Puowbalpom lit up the horizon, licked high into the sky, the smoke concealing them making them look like angry ghosts dancing over the forgotten dead.
“Kaza,” the old man rasped, “Kaza … thank you … thank you for staying with me. My eternal thanks … You are anything but plain, my boy …” And then he said something that made his stomach drop into his heels. “Men … soldiers … Mephastophians … they are coming … I can sense their approach. It is time for you to go. They are on their way here … they’ve located me …”
This time the crash of metal was quite distinct, as were the voices. It was a language Kaza had never heard before.
He lowered the Healer’s head to the ground as quickly and gently as he could and hurried to his feet. “I … I was not a good man, Kaza. I … I profited from keeping the people ignorant of the Tracluse, and then the invasion … I became very wealthy … Bossool … the power, the prestige … the Tracluse … they controlled everything … they bribed me, and I accepted their money … all of it. Oh, Kaza, forgive me … forgive me … I’m as responsible for this destruction as anyone … as anyone … I lived very well, but I can see now I was not alive … not like you, my dear boy … not like you….”
He grabbed his ankle, said desperately, “Please, Kaza, do not let them find me. I’m a wanted man; they’ve been looking for me. If they find me …” He coughed—far too loudly. Kaza heard shouts, as if the soldiers had heard the cough, too. “Get in the canal, my friend. Take me with you. Let me die there … please … Hurry now, time is very short—”
Without considering what Normalas was asking him to do, he scooped him up in his arms. The Healer cried out in pain. Normalas had indeed lived well—he was probably double his weight—but the adrenaline surging through him seemed to make the Healer’s limp bulk irrelevant.
The soldiers were very close—an ear-splitting screech from above—demons! The sounds of armor, the unmistakable noise of metal blades being drawn out of scabbards—
“The Arilyceum, Kaza …” grunted Normalas in his ear, “… the Ari … she’s a good little ship, she is … she’ll guide you … Protect that Infinitum, protect it with your life … Bless you, my boy … bless you … may the spirit of the great Infinitus guide you safely to the Vanerrincourtian king …”He had no intention of letting Normalas drown. He was determined to float him on his back as they both made their escape. But as he stepped into the ditch he slipped on the same half-submerged slab of rock he had braced himself against earlier to free the Healer's foot and fell backward against it, losing his grip on him. Normalas rolled out of his arms, disappearing under the black, swirling surface almost instantly. Kaza, claimed by the current, floated free, his head knocking painfully against the lowest bough of the tree a second later. He submerged, pushing himself out of the way of its entangling roots, coming up for air only when his lungs demanded it. Torch-bearing soldiers had appeared at the tree and the bank directly opposite him, shouting, weapons raised. All of them were looking at the water, searching. He didn’t dare call out for Normalas, didn’t dare try to locate him, save him. He sank until just his face appeared at the surface. As he floated away he cried silently for his lost friend Normalas the Healer.