Special thanks to MrDrP for his review! There is also a sprig of celery (which is both a powerful restorative and a classy accessory for any clothing ensemble) on its way to him for beta-reading this chapter!
Thanks to everyone for reading!
No matter how Hegemon held his head, it was assaulted with spasms of searing pain. Unfortunately, he had already taken the maximum dose of levina prior to the Ceremony of Justice. Ingesting any more of the powder prior to dawn could prove fatal. The only remaining remedy for his affliction would be to lay motionless in his sleeping chamber with all the shutters closed. Perhaps, after laying in the cool darkness of his room for a protracted period, sleep might be possible. Sleep that might assuage the pain. However, the day's events precluded this remedy.
With his eyes closed, he sat rigidly still in his chair within the Synod's cavern. He was careful to have his upper eyelids lay gently upon their lower brothers and not shut tightly. In his present condition, strains upon any muscles of his skull or face could exponentially increase his anguish. His listened to the two outraged voices echo throughout the large chamber, sifted out any rational meaning from these cries, and tried to remain calm. For if he allowed his own emotions to be riled by those being expressed by his fellows, the pain in his head would surely overwhelm him. And he would then be unable to prevent the torrents of tears from staining his face.
If that were to happen, a bowl of poison would be the only honorable option left him.
"Dredge the pool at the bottom of the falls," the angry voice of Bruvile shouted at his left elbow. Although a prudent proposal, it was delivered like a war cry.
"And when her body cannot be found," Gogcider bellowed, "what then?" From the direction of his voice, Hegemon could tell that Warhok's brother was now standing. Such a move was unnecessary since he was already a head taller than Bruvile. "The War Criminal has duped your troops and backtracked into the forest. By the time the dredging is complete, she will be dug deeper into the wilds than a bur in a Thorgoggle's hide."
"Then we shall search every inch of the forest with flaming battle staffs and smoke her out!" Bruvile petulantly retorted.
Hegemon raised his hand at this point. Fortunately, he did not need to voice his objection to Bruvile's rash stratagem for flushing out the fugitive. All three Synod members knew the dire consequences if the forests were to burn. His confederate's incendiary suggestion was merely an emotional flourish to save face. Provided they were not carried out, such outbursts were considered honorable debate tactics.
In the oasis of silence his gesture produced, Hegemon spoke in a reserved monotone that not only conveyed his years and wisdom, but also, he hoped, would aggravate his pain the least. "Bring the schematics for the falls. I wish to inspect them."
"Why?" Bruvile protested. "Hegemon, we cannot waste time on such trivial details!"
"Agreed, Bruvile," Gogcider spat. "Either the War Criminal went over the falls, or she is still in the forest. There is no third path!"
"Indulge me," Hegemon replied from the corner of his mouth. Fully opening his jaw to speak, as he had with his previous statement, had unexpectedly sent a sharp pain radiating from his hard palate to his crown. "Bruvile, you may begin your dredging as soon as you wish."
Although looking over the ancient designs for the falls was the rational path, he dreaded following through with it. Necessarily, he would need to open his eyes to examine them. He could only hope he could withstand the pain. Perhaps, it would be almost night by the time the documents were delivered. He could hope.
The door to the chamber slid open and then with a grinding scrape closed again. It was a sound Hegemon was used to, so he was able to bare it quite easily. From the vibrations that shook the table, he could tell that Gogcider was pacing in an agitated manner around the chamber.
"How's the eye?" he asked carefully. The War Criminal had struck the large Lorwardian with a stone before disappearing down a ventilation pipe.
"Perfect," his confederate snapped.
"What did the physician recommend?"
"Physician?" Gogcider scoffed. "I have no use for that fool. It will heal of its own accord within two dawns."
Knowing the folly of pointing out that a 'perfect' eye shouldn't need two dawns to heal, Hegemon remained silent.
"As soon as we kill the War Criminal," Gogcider's voice continued as it floated behind Hegemon's aching head, "we shall deal with those guards that let her escape!" He pounded his fist into his open palm.
Although he had prepared himself for his confederate's brutal inflections, Hegemon had not anticipated the sound of the violent gesture. He winced but maintained his composure.
"And the marauder! How did it not occur to him to check her person for weapons when he first extracted her?"
The way Gogcider's voice carried as he spoke let Hegemon know that his confederate was walking to the far side of the room. Pock-marked with dozens of holes made by his fists over the years, the wall that composed this far side of the cavern was a favorite target of Gogcider's. Therefore, the noise of his fist creating a new hole was not wholly unexpected.
"They shall all face Atonement!" he exclaimed.
The cruel glee Gogcider took whenever he arranged punishment for his fellow Lorwardians had long been distasteful to Hegemon. Even so, distaste could be tolerated for a necessary cause.
The grinding of the door announced the return of Bruvile. From the shuffle of a second pair of feet, Hegemon could tell he was not alone.
What so soon?
"It is underway," Bruvile cried.
Assuming "it" referred to the dredging of the pool for the War Criminal's body, Hegemon didn't ask for clarification of his confederate's statement.
"The schematics as requested," Bruvile stated with aggressive disinterest.
"Spread them out before me," Hegemon muttered slowly. He heard the shuffle of papers and then the tale-tell crinkle consistent with the unrolling of older documents. This was followed by a moment of silence. Silence, that is, save for the periodic annoyed drawing of breath from his confederates.
Hegemon cautiously opened his eyes. Thankfully, the day's light had sunk behind Advent Peak. The only remaining light that caused him pain was the dim light in the center of the table. This he could withstand for some time. He lowered his eyes to the document, taking a few moments to familiarize himself with the various symbols.
"Satisfied?" Gogcider barked.
"Almost," Hegemon replied after a pause.
"I need to get back to my men," Bruvile announced brusquely. "They will have located the body by now."
Before he could make it to the door, Gogcider suggested he try his comm device, so he wouldn't have to leave the chamber. Burvile sighed heavily and admitted he could wait a little longer.
"What is this symbol?" Hegemon asked, his finger touching a faint rectangle located just to the right of the symbol for the falls.
"A closed portal, sir," the frail clerk explained.
"When was it closed?"
"It doesn't say precisely, sir. But the fact that it is so faint indicates that it must be several generations by now."
"I see," Hegemon replied. Because he could not nod without producing indescribable pain, he blinked his eyes to acknowledge the clerk's statement. "When it was open, where did it lead?"
The clerk rolled up the document, stuck it under his arm, and shifted another document on the table close to Hegemon. He traced his finger along a red line on this document until it connected to a large green triangle that had a diamond inscribed within it. "The shield generator, sir," the clerk said hesitantly.
"Bruvile," Hegemon said in his even monotone, "send a squadron of your best guards to inspect that closed portal."
"Why?" Bruvile protested.
Hegemon struggled to maintain his composure. He swallowed his anger and stated simply, "To verify that it is still closed."
"It is not possible the War Criminal could breach that portal," Gogcider sneered.
"Or that she could even get to it!" Bruvile exploded. He seemed particularly angry that he and his rival were actually agreeing on something.
Hegemon closed his eyes and let their anger pass through him. He calmly instructed the clerk that he was free to go. By focusing on performing this act of dismissal as well as upon the sounds of the small man collecting the documents, he was able to control his temper. When the door's grinding informed him that the clerk had left, he turned his attention back to his seething confederates.
"Were you two not present at the Ceremony of Justice today?" he asked.
They made unpleasant noises, but neither uttered a word.
"The War Criminal has proven to be a most cunning and resourceful adversary. Nothing should be taken for granted as long as she remains alive."
"Do you actually believe she poses a threat to the shields?" Gogcider asked. Since the question was posed without violence, Hegemon knew that he was taking the possibility seriously.
"No," Hegemon said without hesitation. "Yet, nothing should be taken for granted as long as she remains alive."
"Very well," Bruvile and Gogcider said in unison. With the grinding that accompanied both the opening and the closing of the chamber's door, they departed.
Hegemon released a sigh and allowed a few tears to trickle down his cheeks. He sat in the silent, gradually darkening room and tried to remain completely still. No matter where the War Criminal was located, he knew that he would be unable to retreat to the darkness of his sleep chamber until her death was confirmed.
Not for the first time, he regretted his leniency during the Ceremony of Atonement. If he had let the ritual play out to its conclusion, the Ceremony of Justice would not have been needed and all that followed from that fiasco would not have occurred. Including that ridiculous rumor of "The Great Blue" returning. He refrained from shaking his head. Whenever there was any disruption in the Empire, that rumor always circulated through the lower classes.
If only he had not stayed the Atonement Custodian's hand, he would presently be in his sleep chamber, sinking deep into a balm of complete darkness. His loyal Banga's wet nose nuzzling his hand.
However, Hegemon knew such a fantasy was useless. Each time his mind revisited the instant when the Thorgoggle whip struck the earther child, he felt his rage retreat deep within himself. Even now, when considering all the trouble and anguish the War Criminal had caused him since that moment, he found that the worst fate he could bring himself to wish upon her was a swift and painless death.
Behemoth could not find the cudgel.
The collapsible basket was sitting in its normal spot by the front entrance; the invisibility panel, tightly rolled, was also inside. The only thing missing was the cudgel. If he couldn't locate that, he might as well not bother going out. And he had to go out tonight.
He suspected the weapon had rolled under a piece of furniture in the main sleeping chamber. However, he didn't want to go into the room to look. Chances were good that he'd awaken his mother, and she would forbid him to go out. And he had to go out tonight.
Cautiously, he tiptoed into the sleeping chamber. From experience, he knew that the only section of the floor that did not creak was the part that was adjacent to the near wall. Fortunately, this was on the opposite side of the room from where his mother was sleeping. He glanced at her motionless form laying on the mat. She was facing away from him, and he could make out her faint snores. Still, he had to be careful; she was a light sleeper. However, if he could make it to the midpoint of the wall, he would be able to kneel down and see underneath all the pieces of furniture in the room. Hopefully, the weapon was under something nearby.
As he reached his target, the dwelling's one window came into view. His heart sank. It was almost night. He was already running late. Slowly, he got down on his knees and surveyed the empty spaces beneath the room's few pieces of furniture. The cudgel wasn't under any of them.
"Were you looking for this, Moth," his mother sighed. Without turning to face him, she held up the cudgel in the air.
"Yes," he admitted after a moment.
"I don't want you going out tonight," she said simply. She lowered the weapon back to her side.
"But what are you going to eat?" he asked.
"They still haven't caught that alien War Criminal," she explained without inflection. "It won't kill me to go hungry one more night."
He sighed in response.
"Understand?" she asked.
"Yes," he nodded and walked from the room.
Despondent, he sat next to the basket and leaned his back against the entrance. There were no more pearls. Well, none that weren't rotten. He had collected too many the last time. As a result, she had only eaten half of them and, even with the few he ate, that left several to wither, shrink and turn black. It was so difficult to figure out how many to gather. Sometimes, his mother would feel well enough to eat four or more a day. Other times, she could barely choke down one over the course of two days. Still, he had to keep trying. She needed to eat if she was going to get better and be honor-worthy once again. When that happened, she could rejoin her regiment, and she'd never have to eat another pearl in her life if she didn't want to.
He mused sullenly that it was probably nearing the shift change. Back when his father was still alive, he would be sitting in this same spot and fall into the hall on his back when his father slid open the door. His father always laughed when that happened. Even on days when his father wasn't in a pleased mood, he would still laugh.
Something occurred to him. He stood and walked quickly to the dwelling's only closet. Sifting beneath layers of unwashed uniforms, he located his father's tool chest. He lifted its cover and took the ratchet. It was much heavier than the cudgel and, as he discovered when he gave it a test swing, much harder to wield. Still, it would do. He placed it in the basket.
He tiptoed down the hall and stopped in the doorway of the sleep chamber. His mother's snores had grown deep and sonorous. He retreated down the hall.
His pulse thundering in his ears, he stood at the front entrance and pressed the open button. It always made more noise when it closed then when it opened. Chances were his mother would be awake before he even left the floor of their building. Still, he had to go out tonight.
The door opened, and he pressed the button to close it again. Stepping through the opening as it began to shut, he paused outside and whispered, "Good-bye" before it could close. He took off down the hall.
It didn't take him long to realize his task was going to be more difficult than usual. Considering his diminutive stature, he typically used the crowds of people switching shifts as cover to make his way down to the lower level. However, the streets were deserted. Then he recalled what his mother had said about the alien. More than likely, the shifts had been cancelled, and everyone had been ordered to stay at home. Getting caught during a curfew would mean Atonement. He seriously thought about turning back. Then he realized that the guards were missing as well. If he was lucky and very, very quick, he might be able to make it to the lower level without being spotted.
He decided to take that risk. Besides, he reasoned as he ran along the empty boulevard, the guards were probably too busy tracking down the alien. Unfortunately, this reassuring thought did awaken a fear that was more powerful than that of Atonement. What if he ran into the War Criminal?
He hesitated at the top of the stairwell that led to the lower level. For a long moment he was paralyzed, trapped between two powerful emotions. He thought of his mother; he thought of the alien. He reached into the basket and confirmed his father's invisibility panel and ratchet were still inside. He paused another second, made his decision, and proceeded down the darkened stairs.
Fear whispered, "What if the panel doesn't work on the alien? What if she can see through it?"
I'll use the ratchet.
Fear whispered, "What if the ratchet can't hurt her?"
He thought of his mother and shrugged.
Then I'll be eaten.
By this time, he had made it to the lower level. He removed the loose cap on the pipe near the floor, tossed in the basket and followed it into the dim tunnel. Once he replaced the cap, he was in complete darkness. That was fine. He knew the way. Besides, he always felt safer in dark, confined spaces.
He normally determined when he was at the right juncture by the amount of time he had been crawling. However, he had been crawling quicker this evening to make up for lost time. Therefore, he had to rely on his sense of smell. The sweet scent of pearls was almost overpowering at certain points along the abandoned pipe's route under the forest. However, he had to choose his point of exit wisely. If he were to emerge at the wrong location, the cultivator, the cultivator's children, or even a guard might spot him. The penalty for stealing pearls did not end with Atonement.
He attempted to lift the cap right above his head. It wouldn't budge. He crawled further on until he felt the next one above him. It, too, refused to open. When he reached the next one, it gave at the slightest touch. Swiftly, he pushed it off and was blinded as the pipe filled with hot light.
Fortunately, he did not cry out. However, he was sure he'd been found. He cowered in the pipe under the intense light and waited for the cries and screams he knew were coming. But only silence followed.
Gradually, he lowered is guard. After a moment's hesitation, he poked his head slightly out of the opening. There was no one around. Only trees as far as he could see. But the forest was in day mode. Had he crawled so quickly that he had arrived before night mode began? That couldn't be. It was even less likely that he had left so late that the night mode had already ended. Something was not right.
Then he remembered the War Criminal.
The forest was in day mode probably because they were searching for her in the forest. The prospect that the guards or the alien or, likely, both were nearby chilled his blood and made his mouth go dry. And yet, he had to go on.
Not three steps away from the opening was a ripe pearl. Its silver blotches were especially large. Cautiously, he climbed from the opening, snatched up the fruit and dropped it in his basket. Quickly, he combed the nearby area. Using the trunks of the trees as resting spots he would dash from one to the next, picking up any pearls he found in between. In what seemed only a handful or moments, the basket was mostly full.
As he was about to retrace his steps, he was startled by two voices. One near. One far.
"Halt!" cried the near voice.
"Did you see her?" called the far voice.
"Not certain. There was something," the near voice spoke softly.
Moth crouched behind a tree and, as quickly as possible, removed the panel and the ratchet from the basket. He fumbled with the panel, unrolled it, and draped it over himself. Unfortunately, it was not large enough to cover both him and the basket. He listened as heavy footsteps crunched through nearby leaves; he tried not to breathe.
"We've been ordered to report to the falls," called the far voice.
"I'm not leaving until I check the area," the very near voice cried back.
"As you please," the far voice cried.
He tried to hold the panel as steadily as he could. A race of laughing worms had given millions of these panels to Lorwardia. The panels made Lorwardia's mighty ships invisible. And the worms had only asked for useless dirt and rocks in exchange. At least that was the story his father had told him when he had given him this 'extra' panel as a present. However, he had always wondered why the worms were laughing. Was it because they were so happy to be helping the Empire? Or was it because they were playing a joke? It then occurred to him that he had never used the panel to hide from a guard who was so close before. Would it work the same way?
The footsteps drew nearer. And then a shadow fell over him. He closed his eyes, held his breath, and hoped the guard could not hear the beating of his heart.
"What's this?" the guard's voice boomed.
Horrified, Moth watched the guard's hand picked up a pearl from the basket. The guard tossed it back inside and went to pick up the entire basket by its handle.
The guard screamed as the ratchet impacted the side of his head. As the guard clutched at his wound and rolled on the ground, Moth hastily rolled up the panel and stuffed it and the ratchet back into the basket. As he ran toward the pipe, he heard heavy footsteps coming from behind him. Whether it was the guard he had injured or another, he did not know. All he could focus on what getting back to the open cap and crawling as quickly as he could back home.
When he reached the cap, he stuffed the basket in first and then followed it. Unfortunately, his momentum had pushed the basket along the pipe in the wrong direction. Instead of going toward where he had come, it was further along the pipe toward where he had never gone. As he crouched in the pipe and debated whether he should risk crossing under the opening, the pipe was suddenly filled with flames. The guard was using a flaming battle staff against him!
Moth screamed and patted wildly at his singed eyebrows. He backed away from the shooting flames as quickly as he could and headed down the darkening pipe towards the unknown. As he passed beneath each subsequent cap, he feared that it would suddenly be lifted, and he would be doused in flame. These thoughts drove him forward for a very long time … even after his hands grew sore and his knees began to ache. Finally, he collapsed and lay in the darkness trying to control his breathing.
After a few moments, he righted himself, retrieved a pearl from the basket and munched hungrily on it. He was tempted to have a second, but, instead, decided to push on. Within a few moments, the pipe grew wider and then, quite suddenly, dead ended with a mesh grate. He pushed at the grate, and it gave a little. He took out the ratchet and hit the grate hard. It popped off and fell somewhere below. The echo it made came swiftly, so he imagined it wasn't too far of a drop to the ground. He squeezed past the basket and looked out.
The room was a tangle of pipes. All different widths. Many expelled steam, but some, like his, seemed old and unused. The floor did not look too far below. However, it was hard to judge because the room was illuminated by crimson lights that turned on and off at odd intervals. Finally, he decided to lower his basket as close to the floor as he could and then let it go. When he did, he heard the ratchet inside clang against the floor. When the light returned, he could see that the basket had fallen on its side and spilled the pearls everywhere. He sighed, backed up into the pipe, turned himself around and crawled out. Holding onto the edge of the pipe, he lowered himself as far down as he could and let go.
The floor turned out to be further away than he had anticipated. He landed on his rear hard. After a few moments, he stood and attempted to collect all the spilled pearls. This proved a difficult task since he was dependent on the randomly pulsating light to find them. Once he believed he had gathered them all and confirmed the panel and the ratchet were also in the basket, he tried to orient himself within the strange room. If he could figure out where he was, he might be able to determine the most likely exit. And which direction home was.
There were letters inscribed on several of the pipes and when he made his way to one of the room's walls, there was a good amount of writing on it as well. Unfortunately, since he did not know how to read, this wasn't helpful. He continued to wander about the room and soon realized he was going in circles. He felt like crying, but that only made him think of his mother. And that made him want to cry more.
Then he heard footsteps. They weren't heavy like those of a guard, but they sounded like they were headed in his direction. The crimson light came up again, and he spotted a crawlspace beneath the large pipe next to his hip. He shoved the basket into the space, took out the racket and unrolled the panel. Unfortunately, when he tossed the panel over his head, he realized there was a large see-through hole in the middle of it. He tried to arrange the panel so that the undamaged portions hid most of his body, but it was far from perfect. The footsteps were much closer now.
Without knowing what else to do, he shut his eyes.
In the darkness he heard a soft voice. It was so close that the person could have been whispering in his ear. Reflexively, he opened his eyes and turned his head toward it. The corner of his eye latched onto the hole in the invisibility panel at the same instant the crimson light illuminated the room.
The alien War Criminal was hovering directly over him. She was opening her mouth and extending a hand toward him.
Screaming, he swung his father's ratchet wildly. It ripped through the panel, and he heard the alien's awful cries. Tossing aside the ruined panel and dropping the ratchet to the ground, he covered his head with his arms. He was too frightened to think, let alone give voice, to a complete sentence, so he muttered the only word he could find over and over.
"Please, please, please, please …"
He ceased a few moments later when he realized that the alien had stopped making that awful sound. Instead, she was speaking to him. This was a surprise for several reasons. However, the two biggest ones were that he could understand what she was saying and that what she was saying was ... kind.
"It's all right. I'm not going to hurt you. It's all right."
Although still very much afraid, Moth dared to hope that he might not get eaten after all.
Kim's right wrist was shattered.
There was no need for X-rays to determine if a bone was broken. She could tell that several were. Fearing what she might find, she was hesitant to even look at it. But she couldn't just leave it laying askew on the cold floor. With great difficulty she lifted it, then cradled it in her left arm, and slowly lowered it into her lap. Although she had tried to perform the motion carefully, the pain had been such that she did cry out twice. Not to mention the horrible faces she must have made.
The whimpering of her young companion confirmed that the faces she had made were, at the very least, frightening ones.
"It's okay. It's okay," she said in as soothing a voice as she could manage under the circumstances.
It wasn't only kindness that compelled Kim to calm the terrified Lorwardian child who was trembling a few feet away from her. Although he seemed more scared of her than she was of him, he had effectively crippled her with a single blow. If he had aimed his weapon a little higher and a little to the left, she would have been dead. The last thing she wanted to do was give him a reason to take another swing.
As the crimson lights went through a few more cycles, she took a hard look at him. Although he was curled into a ball, he appeared to be the smallest Lorwardian she had encountered. His hair was exceptionally short, and he did not possess the ubiquitous ponytail that she had come to accept as 'standard issue' for all Lorwardian males.
Perhaps he isn't old enough to have one.
When she had first regained her composure after the attack, she had heard him repeating the word "Please" over and over. She had initially assumed this had been an audible hallucination caused by the extreme pain in her wrist. However, when she tried to calm him, he appeared to understand her as well. Of course, it could have been merely the tone of her voice that produced this effect.
Time to put it to the test.
"Hello," she said.
His trembling faded, and he looked intently at her face.
Okay, now what, Possible?
"A-are you the alien War Criminal?" he managed in an uneven voice.
All right, I can understand him, too. Unless this is all a hallucination.
She reflected on the intense pain radiating from her arm and dismissed this possibility.
She gave the young Lorwardian a nod. And then, before he could amp up his trembling, she said quickly, "My name is Kim. What's yours?"
He opened his mouth and then shut it quickly.
"It's okay. What's your name?"
"B-behemoth," he replied.
The name did not suit him. Although it was likely that he would "grow into it," it was comical to hang such a monstrous name on someone so short and thin.
"My mother calls me Moth," he ventured.
"'Moth'? I like that. Good to meet you, Moth."
Moth shot a look at her wrist and then back to her face.
Oy, Possible. Could you have thought of a stupider thing to say?
"I mean," she stammered, "I wish that we'd met under different circum—"
"Are you going to eat me?" he blurted.
"What? No, no, of course not. Why would you think that?"
He shrugged. And, then over the next moment of silence, a wave seemed to pass over his whole form. He straightened out his body and even half sat up, supporting himself with his elbow.
As the silence became protracted, Kim tried to restart the small talk. "So, do you work here?"
He gave her a puzzled look and then shook his head. "I'm too young." He then added, "I don't know what 'here' is."
"Well," she began, "'here' is this building that we're in."
He gave her another puzzled look and then smiled. "No, I mean I don't know where we are."
"Oh, sorry," she mirrored his smile. Then she posed the question that had been burning in her mind for the past five minutes. "Are those your … fruits?"
"In your basket-" she pointed with her chin.
So, that's what they're called.
"There my mother's," he replied.
"I gather them in the forest. She is very weak."
Kim looked over his emaciated form. It was obvious his mother wasn't the only one in poor shape. She realized that his expression, that had up to that moment been approaching agreeable, suddenly looked tormented.
"What is it, Moth?"
"My mother didn't want me to go out tonight," he replied.
After another excruciating moment of silence, Kim ventured, "Was that because of me?"
He nodded. He seemed even more sad.
"Don't worry, Moth," she said, "I won't tell her we met, if you won't."
She had meant it as a lighthearted joke, but the confused look on his face told her that it hadn't landed.
"A-are you g-going to see my m-mother?"
"No, no, no." she said, emphatically shaking her head. "Forget I said anything."
He relaxed a little, but still looked majorly confused.
"A-are you going to let me go?"
She paused a second, but then nodded. "Of course. I won't force you to stay."
The relived sigh he released was so strong that it fluttered her hair.
But then a funny look crossed his face. "I don't know how to get home from here."
"I know how you feel, Moth," she said softly.
She wasn't completely sure if he had heard her, but he asked suddenly, "Where is your home?"
"Far, far away," she replied. On the second 'far' she almost broke down. As she tried to recompose herself, it occurred to her that if Lorwardia was somewhere in the Orion constellation, then it was likely that Earth's sun was visible from Lorwardia, too. This small realization made her smile. "My home is near a star that you can probably see at night."
"A real star?"
This wasn't the answer she was expecting. "Y-yes, it's a real star," she confirmed.
"I've never seen real stars," he replied. "Only the ones in the forests. You can only see real stars from the arena. We cannot go there, and I'm too young anyway."
Every new thing she learned about Lorwardian culture made Kim hate those in charge of the planet more.
"You should get back to your mother, Moth," she said finally.
"I don't know how," he sighed. "I don't know where we are."
"I thought I saw words on that wall before you-well, earlier," she said, realizing she didn't have a euphemism for 'before you attacked me'. Again, she indicated the direction with her chin. "Maybe they say."
"I can't read," he admitted.
"Oh? Well, let me try." It wasn't easy to read the words from her position. They were high up and the light kept going off and coming back on. Finally, she pieced them together. "Shield Generator #1 and #2," she announced finally.
"We're in the shield generator building?" Moth asked, his features breaking into a smile.
"I guess so," she nodded.
"That's just two flights down from the lower level."
"So, you can find your way back?" she asked.
He nodded enthusiastically. "I just need to leave this building and it'll be fine." He stood and began to gather his weapon and his strange mirror-blanket-thing.
"Good," she said and lowered her head.
"What are you going to do?" she heard his voice ask.
"Oh, me?" she said looking up with the approximation of a smile. "I'm just going to sit here for a while."
"Are you going home?" he asked.
"Hope so," she nodded.
"Moth?" she asked.
"Yes …" he began and then stopped. " … alien?"
For whatever reason, being addressed as 'alien' by an alien, made Kim grin. "May I have a pearl?"
She took her first bite as she watched the young Lorwardian disappear into the tangle of shadows in front of her.
A small part of Kim was screaming inside her head not to let him leave. To convince him to stay. To make him stay if necessary. Even if the notions of using the small boy as a bargaining chip or a hostage were totally out of the question, there were serious risks to letting him go. In fact, it was possible that this small act of compassion might end up being the one thing that led directly to her recapture. That led to her death.
Kim gave voice to the greater part of herself when she whispered, "I wouldn't die of anything else."
To be concluded …
Author's Note: The names 'Hegemon' and 'Behemoth' were snagged from Mikhail Bulgakov's novel The Master and Margarita (1967). Although my Hegemon also shares that character in the novel's general temperament and terrible headaches, Behemoth (who in the novel is a demonic cat with a proclivity for martinis and handguns) is a namesake only.