We had been hanging from bell-shaped cages for two days in silence before our pale, green-eyed captors spoke. The tallest one seemed to lead the company of twelve, and it was he who stopped the horses and approached our swinging cages, taking a long look at us before asking politely if we were comfortable, if our appetites were sated. Staring for the first time into his eyes I realized that his irises might be planets of their own, densely populated, with a violent history that culminated in a lasting peace. After a long look I replied dully that I was thirsty and my companion echoed the sentiment. One of his men came by with the canteen, let us drink long and lustily from it. The tall one let us know that we would only be traveling for a few more hours before we made camp for the night. I nodded, surprised at my politeness.
They ambushed us our first night out of the library. We’d emerged from the darkness into a tiny shack half sunk into the marshes that surrounded it in every direction, mad for the sun and air that wasn’t caked with decay. It had been more than a month since we’d experienced either. We made little progress that first day, knee deep in mud, following the morning sun and retreating from it in the afternoon. We set up camp on slightly more solid ground and I took the first watch. The insect hum was deafening, but it was otherwise quiet and still. Past midnight I awoke him and fell into a primal sleep, the mud trembling tenderly, rocking me gently, or so I imagined. They overtook us without struggle. I practically awoke inside the cage, my companion already resigned to his. Suspended from a steel pole balanced between two stout horses, they swayed in complementary arcs. Seeing that they were heading in the same direction, I put up no fight. I had escaped prison once already. I would find a way.
The bonfire was a mountain of flames, casting strange shadows onto our captors faces as they sat around it quietly. Once they’d all taken their places, the tall one walked over to us and calmly opened our cages, motioning for us to join them. None of his companions batted an eye when we joined the circle, and their confidence terrified me. A few muttered to each other in an incomprehensible language, and the youngest one began scampering about the camp preparing food and drink. One of the stockier men, whose gaze always seemed to find its way back to my companion, addressed us first. “We are honored that you have joined us.” I watched his eyes in the flame’s light, alternate Earths, all flora no fauna, each continent a silent savannah. “To have coincided with you in time and space was no easy feat, you who have conquered both.” I looked to my companion, his expression inscrutable, not the plain confusion I wore. “We will be spending some time together, it seems. Be generous with your stories. Tell us of your subjects.”
His expression remained unchanged and he seemed to look through our captors into the distance. Finally, I answered for him. “What do you want with us? With him?”
The tall one answered with a patient smile. “He is not ignorant to our intentions and if you wander with him, likely you are not either. Forgive us of our poor manners – come, we will feed you and talk of more mundane matters until the night is darker and our hearts lighter. Perhaps there shall be song as well.” The youngest came by with bread, wine and some unrecognizable legumes, pausing in front of each of us, meeting our gaze as he lay it in our hands. The planets of his irises were more unsettling than the others– there had been a cataclysmic event that destroyed almost all life, and the few species that survived were nightmares. The wild energy in his movements made all the more sense, and I found myself avoiding his eyes throughout the night.
There was something in the food. It made us talkative. Our captors revealed more than I expected. They had been hunting my companion for some time – whether it was months or decades I wasn’t certain but either was equally plausible. It was clear that there was some substantial reason or reward, though nothing about them made them seem bounty hunters. As the night drew on they began telling more meaningful stories. Sad ones. Great losses they suffered in a war of some kind. A mass migration. A scattering of tribes and people. A separation of families. But the sadness passed and the stories began to grow more recent and lighthearted again. I started the evening analyzing our surroundings, our captors and potential escapes, but soon I was drawn into the conversation. I manufactured my past, but was surprised at the level of detail I went into. My companion commented on the stories he heard, his tone familiar and friendly, but said there was little he could remember, and wasn’t challenged by any of them.
The oldest of the bunch, a wizened, pale thing, crossed through the fire and sat cross-legged in front of us. The green in his eyes wasn’t planet, but vacuum, a void with nothing more than floating detritus and the ghost of a galaxy at its edges. Something more primal than gravity drew me to them, had me reach out towards them until my companion gently guided my hand back down to my lap. Their desolation made us both very cold, brought down the temperature of the night, was a knife to my throat. “Tell us a story, old man,” he said with a wicked grin. “Tell me a story. I have worked long and waited longer. Tell me about one of them.”
And with that my companion told them two stories, both those that he’d already read to me. Immediately their attention grew rapt, and they all drew a bit closer to better hear every word. The story seemed to feed them, it was more than mere listening. They grew fat off every word until finally, after the second, they were full to bursting and exhausted. The youngest put out the fire, brought out their mats and gave us each one as well. We slept in a circle around the fire. Escape seemed so easy I knew not to attempt it. My companion made no move to leave either. And so we slept a full night at last.
For days it was the same ritual. We walked towards the morning sun, stopping only for a light meal when the sun was highest. At dusk the youngest would set up camp and a roaring fire. We exchanged stories every night. My companion recycled those he knew, and they spoke more of a past too ancient and alien to exist. By the third day we were walking beside them and the cages swung empty. I continued studying them, the environment, trying to fathom why I was certain escape was impossible. My companion spoke little, and only with a volume that was audible to the entire party – he shrugged off any of my whispering.
He would awaken most nights hours before dawn and write furiously in his book. Translating, I imagined. His focus was formidable. He also studied the paper in his pack before the sun rose, unfolding it hastily and tracing patterns on it with his fingers, scanning the area as he did so. A few more nights into our journey I stole a look while he slept and confirmed my notion. It was some sort of map. The language matched that of the book. Apparently we were traveling in the right direction. Perhaps that explained his submissiveness.
A week later our captors gathered around the fire and eagerly awaiting my companion's next story, we realized at the same moment that he was out. He told them as much and their reaction was identical smiles, both patient and pitying. The tall one rose from across the fire and strode over to us. “I see you have chosen to continue this charade. Very well then, perhaps you need a reminder.” He drew a long, black blade from his back. I tensed, gathered my plan of attack, and watched his tranquil eyes which betrayed no cruelty. Before I could react, he sliced the blade upward in an impossibly quick motion. I gasped, fearing an especially grotesque disemboweling. Instead, my companion’s shirt was halved, and slid from his body. The scars I noticed first – old lacerations across his back and shoulders at all angles and depths. The tattoos followed, covering most of his arms and torso. At first it seemed gibberish, a messy scrawl of ink, but studying it for a few more moments I realized that it was the same language from his book.
“That should remind you of quite a few more tales,” the tall one said kindly. “Hopefully you can still read that language, as it won’t exist for a long time.” He took his place around the fire and waited patiently as my companion took in the text from his arms in amazement. The company’s eyes grew wider and more expectant as he continued reading the ink, tracing it, mouthing words silently to himself and nodding from time to time. Finally he looked up. “It appears I have a few more stories for you, yes.” And with that he began. His tales were hypnotic this evening, and as the night grew deeper it grew more and more still. By the time he told his fifth tale the entire planet seemed silent, the listeners and landscape the story and the storyteller creating reality around them. When the stories ended I was not sure, and I had no memory of falling asleep.
In my mind I was watching my companion’s face in the fire’s glow one moment, and waking up to his screams the next. The daylight was blinding, and before my eyes got accustomed to the scene in front of me, I knew his screams were of anguish, not danger. His kneeling body came into focus amongst the corpses of our captors. Surprised as I was at his sorrow, it confused me more that he continued stealing glances at the sky, trying to locate something in it, as he crept from corpse to corpse looking carefully into their eyes.
Callous as my first words might have been, they were all I needed to express. “We are free, it seems.”
He shook his head, anger gathering and then spent. “This is genocide. She must have known how many millions were destroyed. How many civilizations were extinguished in an instant.”
Knowing he would not elaborate, I asked a more mundane question. “How were they killed?”
He looked back at me for a moment, noting my existence for the first time this morning. “There is only one way to do it,” he muttered. I waited for him to continue, but he merely went back to exploring the sky.
“You’ve certainly woken up cryptic today.”
“We are being hunted.” He stood up, his face assuming a harshness I hadn’t yet seen. “They hid us well, sacrificed themselves to offer us a bit more time. But this is her oldest, greatest hunter. It is only a matter of time now. Days. Weeks if we are lucky.”
He answered below a whisper. “The one I have been running from since the beginning.”
He ignored my next question so I spent a few minutes exploring the camp, checking its perimeter, looking out into every direction. “He has covered his tracks well.”
Again he met my eyes. “She. She has covered her tracks well. Yes. She has had much practice. Come now, we have horses and supplies to last us a bit. We continue on our path and stay vigilant. I am not sure what else we can do yet.”
As he gathered their bodies atop the pyre I found myself suffering from vertigo. I sat and watched him drag the corpses one by one, their eyes open, black voids that seemed endless, his stories from last night echoing inside them, playing themselves out again in my mind.
Illustration by Chris Baily