Ecliptor first pages

Part Nine: The Hunter

Chapter Sixty One: A World in Ruins

She lay beside him in the night, half entwined with him. They had pushed the beds together firmly, so that there was no chance of slipping into the crack between them. She was happier than she could remember ever being, physically relaxed and content, linked so closely to Tondorre that she could almost share his mind. Almost. Close enough.

They were together, committed to each other, and would not have to say goodbye. They would be going together —

But not home. Not his home, or her home, or a new home they would build together, but back to the pursuit of her enemy, of their enemy, back to conflict and danger in some strange place.

She could not give it up. No matter how much she wanted to stay here, or anywhere domestic, there was too much invested in her. Her happiness and content became tinged with regret. She could take him home where he could help her run the bookstore. Or she could go with him off on his minor adventures until they found a place that suited them. Or she could accept her responsibility. There wasn’t any question, really.

He pulled back from her a little, just enough so he could see her face. He was as aware of her conflict and uncertainty as she was of his concern for her and the subtle anxiousness that he might somehow be at fault. His eyes searched her face and he said, “Are you all right?”

It took her a few seconds to find her answer. “We have to go on.” 

He put his hand on her cheek, then brushed her hair off her forehead. “I know.”

Her happiness became sorrow. “I don’t want to.”

He kissed her forehead, the tip of her nose, her lips. “I know.”

He pulled back again so they could see each other more easily. He was so beautiful. 

“We could die,” she said.

“I know. Once I make up my mind I don’t think about it. It’s part of the deal. But could you go back home now? Knowing that there’s another Arkenome out there, doing terrible things to people? It would break you.”

She untangled herself from him and rolled onto her back, then onto her other side. He stayed with her as only a lover could. After three heartbeats he put his hand on her waist. She liked that. He touched her self with his self, and she liked that too, so much that it almost hurt. “It would. I have to go.”

“And I’m going with you. You don’t have to go alone. Whatever happens, I’ll be with you.”

She sat up on the edge of the bed. There was just enough to light let her see the room. She knew that Tondorre was looking at her back, and liking what he saw. Some of it was erotic. Much of it was aesthetic, a masculine appreciation unfamiliar to her. But most of it was affection. She would do almost anything to save him from fear and strangeness and pain, except abandon her obligation. He knew that, and he was with her on that, and he supported her completely.

Everything would be different now. “Come with me,” she said. 

She let herself become aware of the greater reality, timeless, dimensionless, a meaningless context for everything that had meaning. She gave him a subjective moment to perceive it as it was. He didn’t understand it any more than she did, though he had been into it with her. That was okay. She chose a metaphor, something not completely incomprehensible, something they could talk about and work with together.

It was a weave of all that was, long strands and short, twisted, or knotted, or just crossing, or not touching at all. She chose another metaphor, a vast structure of places and the pathways between them, platforms and walkways, with a center and an outside. Or another, a white space plane, the intersection of what was with what was not. Or a new image, the growing face of a crystal, of a vast but surprisingly not infinite number of crystals, each face the present of a different world. Or it was a sea of possibility, out of which grew the worlds of mundane reality. Looked at this way, she saw that her own world was so close to this one that she could almost reach out and touch it. 

It makes me feel so small, was his unspoken thought.

Everything is small compared to this. Even worlds as vast as yours and mine are mere specks of dust in all of this. But we are a part of the pattern, and worlds like ours give it meaning.

Their perception had nothing to do with the senses. It was all an intellectual construct, a product of the imagination that was, nonetheless, absolutely real. They did not hang in a void. She was sitting on a bed, and he was lying beside her. There was no darkness, no light, no direction, only existence. Time did not flow, it grew, and her perception in the mundane world was only of the growing tip.

Everything was different now. Tondorre was so close that they all but overlapped, sharing awareness, almost sharing thought as they could not do in a mundane reality, even as closely linked as they were. He was sorting things out, keeping her metaphors distinct from each other, finding a way to see that they were all true at the same time. And he could do it, even as he clung to her. 

He wasn’t clinging, he was protecting her. It surprised her, and it pleased her. She was protecting him too, and he knew that. She was the hero, and he was her companion. He was with her, not she with him. In time they would be equally with each other, each with their own strengths, their perceptions, their senses and abilities, protecting each other while she did what she had to do.

Right now what she had to do was find and get to the being called Diapollion, who styled itself the Ecliptor. That was all they knew. They had no hint of what Diapollion was, or where to look for him in the vastness of the greater reality, or which metaphor would serve them best. But they, she, had to start somewhere. 

She thought of the evil she had known, the Arkenomes and the would-be Arkenomes, and the evil beings who did not need or use such appellations. Just plain people most of them, perverted by their cravings or their weaknesses, exploited by a greater power which seemed to have no power of its own in the mundane. It had to seduce and pervert a mortal for it to be its hands. 

She had believed that there was just one Arkenome at a time, but perhaps she had dealt with only the most dangerous at the moment. The thought of a multitude of incompetent Arkenomes, fumbling their way to an evil they could never achieve, was laughable. Tondorre did laugh at it. It had to be just one at a time. That was a severe limitation. But it was like saying a freight locomotive was limited to having only two hundred cars of iron ore, and having to stay on the tracks. If you were standing in front of it as it bore down on you at ninety miles an hour, its limitations were meaningless.

Her guide had never actually touched the physical world. It had touched her mind, ever so lightly, had showed her how to do whatever needed doing. Or at least it had given her hints. How many other people could have been touched in that same way? How many had the same latent abilities? What made her different from all those other people? Even that first fall through her back yard into the cavern of blue flames must have been something she had done herself. If Diapollion was like her guide, then how would she ever find him, or her, or it, except by working through an Arkenome?

She knew of no higher order beings who could help her. Even Gedeon, a far greater being than those paltry authors of evil, could not do what she could, else there would have been no crisis in the wither. She looked for him and felt him, not in one place but in the whole of reality. He wasn’t a creator, he was a guardian, of the principle of life, and of the death which was a part of life. He was helpless against what her enemy was doing.

She pulled back. Gedeon was too vast to be comprehended, and Tondorre had had no experiences to prepare him for such a being. Jeanette showed him where, inside herself, Gedeon had touched her that one time, and how, because of her, Gedeon was aware of him, and offered him, too, what protection he could. It wouldn’t be much.

Where was her guide? What was her guide? Nothing like Gedeon. She was connected to her guide through the black ring, a connection of which she was almost never aware. She could follow that connection back — except that she couldn’t, not now, she was not ready for that. There were secrets she would uncover eventually, but not now.

She looked for and found her companions, and those who were nearly her companions and, if she really worked at it, other people whom she had known, all out of context, like a dim photograph of scattered people, but with no background. Some of the people were those who were important to Tondorre in that special way, of which he had been aware only emotionally. She felt his yearning to see them again, and his acceptance that he almost certainly never would.

They were so few of those special people, of whatever kind or degree, compared to the vast but not infinite number of those whom they had never known, corporeal or spiritual. The Ecliptor was among them, but which one? That, of course, was the problem to be solved. But not tonight.

She looked down at Tondorre, rather exotic, attractive to her beyond any meaning of that word. He looked back at her with an expression only she could see, that told her far more than words. She leaned down and kissed him, softly affectionate, only hinting at passion, and he kissed her back the same way. Then she lay down beside him so that her head rested on the hollow of his shoulder.

“Can we actually do this?” he asked. Then, “Can I say that? We?”

“We can say that,” she said. She put her arm across his chest, and let the present reality fade into sleep.

#

They woke early but did not get up right away. They did not intrude on each other in the water closet. They watched each other dress but they did not stare. Jeanette very much liked to look at Tondorre, and knew that he liked to look at her, and she liked it when he did. 

She watched him shave. He brought a bowl of water into the bedroom, where the light was better, and set it down on a night table. He sat on the bed, took a small package of oiled silk from his kit, unwrapped a bar of soap, wet it, and rubbed it over his cheeks and throat. He held a mirror as big as his palm in one hand, and with the other he used a little straight razor, its blade barely an inch long. When the skin of his cheeks and throat were as smooth as he wanted them to be, he used a small comb on his beard and moustache, then a small scissors to trim off anything that was too long. The whole process took only fifteen minutes or so.

They packed up their things and went down to the main hall. Jeanette had the Tash Griaf on her back, but carried the sword belt and scabbard in her hand.

Sufake Fumumesa was already there, eating breakfast. He looked up as they came in and gestured to the table. Jeanette put the sword under her chair.

“You are leaving, then,” Fumumesa said.

“We are.”

A footman came up and waited beside Tondorre. Tondorre told him, after a brief hesitation, what he would like for breakfast, and Jeanette did the same.

“My family has not come down yet,” Fumumesa said. “I hope you can wait for them.”

“Of course,” Jeanette said, smiling. “We are not in that much of a hurry. It’s just that there are things we have to do.”

“Chasing down evil.”

“Yes.”

“Otherwise,” Tondorre said, “I, for one, would certainly enjoy an extended vacation. I could all too easily get used to the attention you have shown us.”

Fumumesa laughed. “You should come back some time when my staff is up to full strength, and our routine is fully settled.”

“I’m sure I would become hopelessly spoiled,” Tondorre said, grinning.

They were finishing when the rest of the family came down. These were Fumumesa’s mother, his wife, and his two sons, who were about eight and twelve years old. Jeanette and Tondorre stayed at the table while they ate, talking about their adventures, which Tondorre embellished a bit, and Jeanette understated drastically. Then it was time to leave.

“Before you go, Enidako Tondorre,” Fumumesa said. “You have no sword. May I give you one?”

“That is very kind,” Tondorre said, with a small, formal bow. “I will accept it gladly.”

Fumumesa went to one of the cabinets at the side of the room. Inside, neatly arranged on pegs, were a number of weapons, mostly swords, but some knives, daggers, and even two small bows. “I was quite surprised to discover that Shederote hadn’t stolen any of this. In fact,” he turned to them, “except for those rooms which he converted to, well, whatever it was they were supposed to be, he left the house pretty much intact. I understand,” he turned back to the cabinet, “that he spent a lot of time away.” He took out a sword with a scabbard and belt.

The scabbard was of dark maroon leather. The fittings were of brass and needed polishing. The belt was also maroon, with a brass buckle and black stitching. Tondorre took the scabbard and pulled out the sword. The blade was quite plain, and also needed some polishing. He held it away from Fumumesa, tested its weight, made a few small parrying motions, then took the blade in his left hand, and presented the hilt to Jeanette.

She took it. It was not much heavier than her own, and almost as well balanced. She carefully touched the edge, which was very sharp. She handed it back.

He returned it to its scabbard, then buckled on the belt. “Thank you,” he said to Fumumesa. “It will be put to good use.”

“I am sure it will.”

They said their goodbyes to the family, and thanked Erivamo Vomado for all he and the staff had done. Fumumesa walked with them down to the great front door. A footman opened it for them.

“You have only one horse,” the footman said.

“We will walk,” Jeanette said. “I would not take a horse where we are going.”

“It is my horse,” Tondorre said to Fumumesa. “Consider it a house gift, for your hospitality.”

Fumumesa made the same kind of small, formal bow. “I will take good care of it for you.” Then he made a gesture to the footman, who went toward the gate. “I will never see you again,” he said as they followed, “will I.”

“I don’t think so,” Jeanette said. “If it makes you feel any better, think about the people whom I have gone to help.”

“Of course.”

The footman pushed both halves of the gates, then stepped aside. The gates swung more than half way open, plenty wide enough for Jeanette and Tondorre to pass through side by side. They each shook Fumumesa’s hand, and went out —

— into a place that looked like the pictures Jeanette had seen of bombed out cities. The sky was mostly dark, but shaded to gold and red toward the horizon. 

Tondorre was astonished at the abrupt transition, breathless and speechless, and again at what they were seeing. Brick, concrete, plaster, and less identifiable rubble filled the street. Pieces of building, bits of wall — especially corners  of buildings — stuck up sometimes two, maybe three stories above the ground. No building was intact. The scene was the same behind them where, maybe a mile away — it was hard to say among the ruins — something much taller, jagged and broken, stood against the the orangey sky. 

“What happened here?” he said, not expecting a reply. “It’s — how big is this place?”

“I don’t know,” Jeanette said, answering both questions.

The street wasn’t completely filled with rubble. Smaller stuff had been kicked aside, making a kind of path. There were people here somewhere. She let her senses open up, but she was aware of only the tiny sparks of animals. It was either dawn or sunset. She hoped it was dawn.

Tondorre’s astonishment faded, only to be replaced by apprehension bordering on fear. He held his stick like a sword, ready to strike if he had to. Jeanette touched him with her calmness, but he also felt her dismay at the destruction around them.

She watched him as he slowly turned in place. He was different, but not completely so. His skin was dark, his hair was nearly black, his beard completely black. His face was broad, his forehead high, his chin small. His eyes were wide set, his ears were large and set low. He was broad of shoulder, deep of chest, his torso was short, his legs were long. At least his feet looked more or less like his own. His arms were the right shape, but his hands had only three fingers and a thumb. Despite all this he was still beautiful.

“What — how big is that thing?” he asked. The tall ruin rose three or four floors above anything else near by, maybe six, or seven, or eight stories altogether. 

“Nowhere near as big as it once was.” Her voice was something like a cat’s purr vocalized. “Before … before whatever happened here knocked it down.”

“I’ve never seen anything so tall. How could they possibly —?” He heard his own voice, and looked at Jeanette. He was so startled by her changed appearance that he took an involuntary step backwards.

“It’s me,” she said gently, her voice lower than ever.

“I know, but — You told me about this. I didn’t really understand.”

“You might feel a little clumsy at first.”

He looked to the left, then to the right, then back to Jeanette. “Ah, okay.” He glanced around again. “Ah, where are we?”

“I don’t know. This wasn’t my intention. I think we’ve been sidetracked.”

He reached up to touch his own face, even as she was speaking. He stared at her, comparing what he saw with what his fingers felt.

She smiled at him. Then she kissed him, and he kissed her back. “It doesn’t really matter does it,” she said.

“It’s so strange.” He searched her face, different and familiar at the same time. “You’re still you.”

“And you’re still you, too.” She kissed him again. “Wherever I go, I look like the people I’m supposed to help. My size stays the same — conservation of mass, I guess. I keep my clothes, and they always fit. And I keep my weapons. I have no idea how that works. But our changed appearance doesn’t change who we are.”

He looked at her a moment longer, then around at the ruins again. “So, ahh, why are we here?”

“There’s something for me to do. For us to do. But not right here. Whenever I’ve gone to some other world, I’ve always arrived somewhere that’s not exactly where I’m supposed to be. Sometimes I feel that it’s my enemy trying to divert me, sometimes I don’t. We’ll know where we really supposed be when we get there.”

He looked around again. This wasn’t at all the adventure he was expecting. It wasn’t what she had been expecting either. He was distressed, and angry, just as she was. He felt helpless, too, but he didn’t share her barely suppressed feelings of guilt and failure. That was what was hurting her most. That was where she would really need his help. “All right, so where do we go now?”

“In the direction we were going when we got here.”

“Um, okay. Um.” He looked around. “I’m glad we’ve had breakfast. Now, what do we do about, um —”

She laughed. “We improvise.” Which they did, each going to a different part of the ruins.

Jeanette finished first. When Tondorre came back she realized, for the first time, that his wound would never completely heal, that he would have a noticeable limp for the rest of his life, even on level ground. “Does it hurt you?”

“Not much. It was a bad cut. I was bracing myself to have to use crutches. That surgeon was very good. But … do you heal this fast?”

“I do. Mostly. I still have scars.”

“On your face. On your side. And those faint marks on your hip and leg. Okay. Don’t worry about it, I can live with it. It’s just that my leg doesn’t work quite the way it used to.” He tapped his stick on the ground. “More for balance than for support.”

They walked, shoulders nearly touching, until they came to a cross street, which was less well cleared of rubble. “I really don’t understand all this,” he said. They went on. 

The sky on their right got brighter, and the colors of dawn began to fade. The cleared path, after another block, made a curve around a huge pile of broken masonry, where a large corner building had once stood. “This is all concrete, isn’t it,” he said. The cross street on their left was well traveled, the way ahead was less so now. “Do you know where we’re going?”

“I know we’re going the right way, but I don’t know where we’ll wind up.”

They went on another block or so. He said, “This place is huge. The streets are so wide.”

“We’ve seen only a small part of it. It’s many times bigger than any city you’ve known, though it was probably nothing special here.” 

They went on for several more blocks, came to where another street angled off it to the right, and went that way. “There’s no smell of decay,” he said. “This happened a long time ago.”

“Some years I’d guess. But not generations, or thousands of years, like some of the other places I’ve been.” 

He glanced at her, trying to imagine what those places must have been like, but he said nothing. She had told stories. He was beginning to understand that they were real.

There was a tiny sound off to the right, of rubble grating under a foot. They stopped and looked that way. The sun was just coming up and shone in their eyes. The source of the sound was in deep shadow. Tondorre moved his stick from his right hand to his left.

“Don’t draw until you have to,” Jeanette said softly. She felt sparks of life, but what there was could have been just large animals. She let her arms hang loose. Tondorre leaned on his stick with both hands, his right hand on top so he could draw his sword if he had to.

There was only silence for a long moment, then the sound came again, from several different places this time. Then a small piece of concrete came flying through the air toward Tondorre’s face. He was about to duck when Jeanette reached out and caught it, just before it hit him and, in the same motion, threw it back. Somebody scrambled in the shadows. The bit of concrete hit the rubble and bounced away.

Her instant reaction surprised him, though it shouldn’t have by now. “Will I learn how to do things like that?”

She smiled, but kept her eyes on the rubble. “I think you will. Give it some time. You’re just a beginner.”

“Well, I’ve been traveling for — ahh — no, you’re right. It feels like I’m starting all over again, almost.”

There were more sounds and whispers now. Then out of the shadows, from gaps and holes and collapsed windows, came three, five, eight small people. Each of them carried a piece of pipe. Their faces were obscured by the light of the sun rising behind them. It wasn’t by accident.

“They’re children,” Tondorre said softly. He didn’t like thinking that he might have to defend himself.

The children spread out as they came. They were nearly a head shorter than Jeanette, no more than ten or twelve years old. Their clothes were makeshift, their hair was finger-combed, their faces were not all that dirty, but their expressions were determined and dangerous. They spread out further, to make a circle around them. 

Jeanette drew her sword while they were still some fifteen feet away. She kept it pointed at the ground, but it glinted in the morning light and the children stopped. “I don’t want to hurt you, but I will defend myself, and I will kill you if I have to.” She twisted the blade slightly, so that the light caught it at different angles. The reflections struck the children’s faces. 

Tondorre leaned more comfortably on his stick. He was enjoying her command of the situation, but he kept himself ready to strike at anything, at any moment, with stick and with sword if necessary.

“Wha’d’you want here?” one of the children asked. There were five boys and three girls, not that easy to tell apart.

“I haven’t figured that out yet,” Jeanette said. “Usually I’m supposed to go someplace before something like this happens.” She waved her left hand at the ruined city around them. 

It came to her all at once. Her dismay was so sharp that it hurt. If she was supposed to have prevented this, she was too late. 

Her distress that Tondorre could feel it without trying to, and it hurt him too. He didn’t say anything, but he tried to reassure her with a thought. His own dismay made it difficult.

“What’r’you,” another child asked, “some kinda hero?”

“I’m supposed to be,” she was too late, “but it doesn’t always work out that way.”

“Yeah’ll bet,” another child said.

She pushed the thought of failure away. “Do you run this town, or just this street?” 

Tondorre tried to give her strength, but the question of what they were going to do now distracted him, and made him less effective than he wanted to be. Why were they even here?

“This part of it,” a girl was saying.

“Were any of you alive when this happened?” Jeanette asked.

“Just barely,” the tallest boy said.

“I wasn’t,” another boy, not the smallest, said.

“I’d like to talk to someone who could tell me about it,” Jeanette said.

The children exchanged glances but didn’t say anything.

Tondorre stilled his thoughts and asked, “Are there any older people?”

“Not many any more,” one of the boys said.

“Do you see them very often?”

“Yeah, somebody’s gotta feed’m.”

“What do you hunt?”

“Whatever.”

“Yeah,” another child said, “there’s rats and dogs and cats and like that.”

“Sometimes we can get brownies and grays and red-tails.”

“Birds?” Tondorre asked.

“Yeah, what else?”

“Blackwings too,” another child said.

“What about things like, ah, vegetables and fruit?”

“There’s others ‘at go outa town,” the middle sized girl said. She sat down on a piece of brick wall.

“Yer not from here, are ya,” the smallest boy said.

“From way off that way,” Tondorre said, pointing.

“Didja come pas’the tower?” another boy asked.

He looked back at the tall ruin. “That thing? No, we didn’t. What’s there?”

“Some old folks,” the tallest girl said. “Or there used to be. They try to keep us away. Killed Lemmy a year ago. We don’t go there any more.”

“We go around,” one of the boys said.

“Why do you go that way?” Tondorre asked.

“There’s water in the green place. You didn’t come through there?”

“No, we didn’t.”

His calm and comfortable conversation suggested to Jeanette that he had more than a little experience with children this age. She liked that, but she said, “Look at us. Our clothes fit, they’re not whatever we happened to find lying around. Where we come from, there’s water in every house, like there used to be here.” She was too late. “You could get meat and vegetables from people who did the hunting and growing for you. It’s a long way away from here.”

“Yeah,” one of the boys said, “I seen pichures ‘a people wearing whole clothes. Not like yours, though.”

“Have you ever heard of someone called the Arkenome?”

Again they exchanged glances, only this time there was fear and anger in their faces.

“We heard of’im,” the tallest boy said. “What’s he to you?”

“We’ve come to kill him.”

“He’s gone,” the tallest girl said. “It was him ‘at made all this happen. Then he went away.”

She was too late.

#

The children led them along an almost invisible side path, to stairs going down to a nearly intact cellar. There were four people sitting on scavenged and makeshift chairs and beds, their clothes just as makeshift as those of the children. There were two youngish men, heavily bearded, their hair tied back. One was missing his left arm below the elbow. The other sat staring at a blank place on the wall. A woman in her early forties sat to one side. There was a piece of cloth wrapped over her eyes, but she turned to face the children as they came in. An older man, anywhere between sixty and eighty, without legs from above the knees, sat back on some cushions on the bed. The place smelled unclean, but not foul. Light came from two small windows high in one wall. There was a closed door on the far side. The children went in while Jeanette and Tondorre hung back.

“Hey,” the one-armed man said, “wha’ja find?”

“Us,” Jeanette said from the doorway. Her words startled everybody except the staring man, who just took one large breath.

“And who are you?” the old man cried out.

“You’re not from here,” the one-armed man said. He stood from the box on which he had been sitting.

“A’course they’re not,” the old man said, “look’a their clothes.”

The blind woman kept her face turned toward Jeanette. Tondorre kept his attention on the one-armed man.

“May we come in?” Jeanette asked.

“We ain’t got nothin’” the one-armed man said.

“I don’t want anything. Just to talk for a minute.”

“What’re those, swords?” He had been looking at Jeanette’s chest and crotch. Under the circumstances, she couldn’t really blame him. As long as he didn’t try anything. She didn’t want to have to kill him.

“They’re swords,” Tondorre said. He changed his grip on the stick in his left hand.

The blind woman turned her face to him. “How many?” she asked.

“Just two of’m,” the tallest boy said. “We found’m out onna tower road.”

The staring man took a long, slow breath.

“So where’s the rest’a your people?” the old man asked.

“We’re all there is,” Jeanette said. The one-armed man smiled with obvious intent. He was eight or nine inches taller than she, sturdily built, and he was a survivor. “Do you want to lose the other arm?” she asked him softly. She made no gesture to her sword, but her tone was enough. He scowled and turned away.

“Zebby!” the blind woman snapped. “What’cha doin’? Behave yourself.”

“Sorry, Meggo,” Zebby said. He sat back down on his box. Tondorre relaxed and crossed his arms and held his stick less aggressively.

“C’m’on in then,” Meggo said to Jeanette. “What’d’ya wanna talk about?”

“About what happened here,” Jeanette said. 

“What’a’ya crazy?” Zebby shouted. “Where were you when the war happened?”

“Someplace else.”

“Shit.” He turned his face to his own part of the wall.

“It was a war,” the old man said. “It was crazy. Everybody fighting everybody else. Bombs and guns and rockets.” His voice broke. “And then he took all the metal and went away.”

He couldn’t really mean that. “What about the pipes the children carry?” Jeanette asked.

“We found them after he left,” one of the boys said. “He didn’t go crawling through the ruins.”

“The Arkenome.”

“Yeah,” Zebby said to the wall in front of him. “The Arkenome.” It was a dirty word.

“When did this happen?” Tondorre asked.

“This guy,” Meggo said, “big guy, fair, handsome, a little younger’n me, came about, oh, twelve years ago I guess. To Doghill, not here. He was very popular. Everybody liked him. You look back on it now and you wonder, what was he doin’? He had no job, he didn’t hold office, he was just — everybody knew him. He was in all the papers, videos, what he said. I saw him myself once. Think back on it and it gives me chills, how could we think he was anything but evil. By the time we figured it out, the war was almost over. That would be nine years ago. Then he got his people to collect all the iron and aluminum and copper and other metal, if it wasn’t buried too deep. Then he left.”

The staring man took another slow, deep breath.

Jeanette had to take a deep breath of her own. “Did he have a name?”

“LeShaw,” the old man said. “Nobody could say it right, it just sounded like that. LeShaw. Le. Shaw.”

#

They did not stay long. There wasn’t any point. Jeanette had lots of questions, but she didn’t ask them, and Tondorre had none. They found their way back to the tower road.

“This isn’t the same as what Shiloret was doing is it.” Tondorre said.

“Not at all.” She was empty. She was helpless. Why was she here?

Tondorre kept his arm around her shoulders as they walked toward the tall ruin, and occasionally gave her a light squeeze, but he didn’t interrupt her thoughts. She knew he believed in her, but she had to work through this herself.

The sun rose higher, the day got brighter, and Jeanette’s mood slowly improved. They stopped twice so Tondorre could flex and rest his leg and, withut the sound of their footsteps, they heard small animals moving somewhere in the rubble. Once they saw a bird, and once they heard one singing. If there were other children out hunting, they didn’t show themselves.

The extent of the destruction was depressing. Ninety percent of the people must have died, maybe more. How had the survivors been able to hang on? The staring man had responded, sometimes, but only with a breath. The children were reinventing everything. The others? Neither she nor Tondorre wanted to think about it.

She was too late. “I spent too much time at Fumumesa’s house.”

“You don’t know that,” Tondorre said. “Didn’t you say that time works differently in different worlds?”

“Maybe if I’d come here as soon as I defeated Shiloret —”

“You don’t even know where here is. If you had left then, would you have come here? Or would you have gone somewhere else? And where is the Arkenome now, whoever he is? Should you be there? How can you tell?” He put his hands on her shoulders, made her look at him, and let her feel his confidence in her. “This is not your fault. It’s his fault. Maybe he was doing this while you were fighting Shiloret. Maybe that was Shiloret’s job, to distract you for a while. Would you have sacrificed my world for this one? And what about your own world, if you hadn’t saved that golden child-thing?”

Her guilt and uncertainty were so deep, that it wasn’t easy to encourage her with just a thought. He put his arms around her and held her. She let him, then she leaned her head against his shoulder and put her arms around him. It was comforting to both of them. Tondorre was right, and Jeanette knew he was right, but there was an aching hollow he couldn’t touch. The extent of the Arkenome’s destruction was overwhelming. “I used to wonder whether I was on the right side,” she said. “Maybe the people I was hurting and killing were the innocent ones. I always had some reason to argue myself out of that.”

“And now you don’t have to doubt any more.”

“— no.”

“When you left my world, you left people happy and alive. When LeShaw left this world, he left death and destruction.”

She let go of him, took a step back, and searched his face. “I’ve seen a lot of things to make me think I was doing the right thing. That golden creature for example. But …”

“There can be no answers for what we should have done, or what we could have done. We need to decide what to do now.”

“I want to talk to the people in the tower. If there are any left. They kill children. They will have a very different view of what happened here. Maybe I can learn something from that.”

#

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