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Westward

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Zulf wakes up in a Bastion restored. He can almost pretend it never changed. But the sky feels closer now, and the land below vibrates ever so slightly with the power pushing it onward. Wherever they’re going doesn’t make much difference to him. It’s fine, he supposes.

The Kid sits next to the tent flap, blocking most of the sunlight. He presses a health tonic on Zulf’s hand, wrapping his fingers around the bottle. Zulf has never been fond of the way they smell. They’re bound to taste even worse. But everything hurts badly enough he knows he has broken several somethings. So Zulf winces past the smell and swallows it. The Kid slouches in relief and stands away.

Zulf goes up to his knees and then his feet, wobbily. The Kid grabs his arm and leads him to the path at the edge of the Bastion. Pyth stands guard still, which is a bit reassuring, even now. The sea rolls steadily under the passing Bastion. They’re headed toward the lands in the west. Not much is known of the people who live there, other than they exist.

Usually, the Kid doesn’t talk unless he absolutely must. This time he’s so thrilled to explain what he did with the Bastion, the words end up stumbling out of him like a landslide. He stops, though, when he realizes Zulf might have a completely different idea about undoing the Calamity. His explanation comes to a close awkwardly. Zulf just looks into the horizon, saying nothing.

Then, when the Kid is wondering if the polite thing would be to just leave Zulf alone, he says, “Thank you.”

The Kid doesn’t know what he’s being thanked for, and his confusion must show in his face, because Zulf adds, “For making sure the Calamity won’t happen again. I couldn’t—I just couldn’t have it happen a second time.”

Zulf squeezes the Kid’s shoulder and leaves for the distillery. The Kid stands there for a moment, unsure of what to do next. He couldn’t let Zulf die knowing his own people caused it, so he brought him back. He was sick of so much death, period. That much is true. But it’s in this moment that he realizes how much he would’ve hated the idea of going on without Zulf, too.

The Kid has never been particularly close to anybody, though, and he wouldn’t know what to do. It’s too soon for him to even consider asking any of the two other inhabitants of the Bastion for advice.

 

***

 

Everything that happened since the last time Zulf was in the Bastion has been firmly left in the past, it seems. He doesn’t feel like bringing it up and nobody else does. At some point, he should talk to Zia about a few loose ends left about their people. Right now, all that anybody cares about is the place they’re going to. Zia isn’t exactly smug, but she has a certain self-satisfaction about doing the thing she wanted to do. Which means she’s in a good mood. Rucks tries not to be optimistic, just in case. Surprisingly, he is a bit relieved to hace Zulf with them—where they’re going, they could use a go-between, and Zulf hasn’t completely lost the knack for it, has he? Even more surprisingly, Zulf sort of feels the same. Sure, so much has changed since he might as well not be the same person, and it’s not like he knows the language of the people beyond the sea, but things can hardly be worse than the last time.

Their Squirt takes to following Zulf like a comma. Hopefully it’s not something about the way he smells. The little guy hangs around the kitchen and watches Zulf chop tubers, so Zulf gives him a tiny apron and sets him to do whatever tasks one can do without hands. A lot of the time, the Kid comes in and sits in a corner. He listens whenever Zulf feels like speaking, which isn’t often. There isn’t much to discuss. They have just about enough water and food left until they reach land—some more than that of water, thanks to a sudden rainstorm.

Once, the Kid brings Zulf a sea fowl of an unknown-to-them species, big and blue-black, speared neatly through its head. It’s the first thing they’ve met and it’s dead, but it turns out to be pretty good so nobody’s complaining. The Squirt helpfully consumes its blood.

The land is so close they can feel it in the air. This is the last night before their arrival, and Zulf spends most of it getting up to check everything he wants to take is in place. There’s four of them, so it makes sense for two to go down and two to stay in the Bastion, just in case things aren’t looking so good upon landing. Every time Zulf slides out of his tent, he sees the Kid sitting somewhere around, awake. The Kid has a habit of falling asleep anywhere and anytime, which can’t be faulted when you remember the Calamity happened after he went to bed. Zulf had always assumed that out of all survivors, the Kid was likely the one who lost the least to the Calamity. Even if that might not be a fair assumption. The Kid doesn’t volunteer to talk about his feelings, and that suits Zulf perfectly fine, because he doesn’t have to talk about anything either. But when you think about it, being so lonely can’t be much more cheerful. No wonder the Kid spends almost all his time in the Bastion in the forge, taking care of his weapons.

Or rather, spent. Because lately he’s been hanging around Zulf a lot more. Maybe he’s just bored or maybe he’s just worried Zulf will do something the others wouldn’t like. Or he just appreciates the company of someone who isn’t uncomfortable with silence, like Rucks seems to be. Luckily, Zia seems to enjoy the old man’s talk, and things never get too awkward.

Zulf nods to the Kid and goes back inside his tent.

They reach land just after noon. The ground below, verdant growth interrupted by well-kept paths leading to a cluster of buildings in the distance, is definitely more inviting than anything they’ve left behind, and Zulf manages to keep his spirits up. He’ll handle the language barrier and the Kid’ll handle whatever tries to take them down. There aren’t any Skyways this far from Caelondia, so the only way to return to the Bastion is to lower it to the ground. But the Kid has a different exit in mind. Standing with a foot against the platform, he stretches out a hand. Zulf grabs it without thinking, then realizes what is going to happen, then grips the Kid’s hand tighter. He feels warm and solid and pleasantly reliable. And it’s then when Zulf admits what he’s been pushing out of his mind all this time, because he has too much in his mind already and everything could change on the new land—

—but there’s no time for anything now. They’re pulled into the sky, and because there’s no Skyways they go flying off, unable to pick their direction. They hit the vegetation pretty hard, but somehow manage not to let go and end up in two opposite ends of the jungle, so there’s that. They pick themselves up and brush themselves off. Zulf rejects the offer of a tonic—this time because he’d rather save them, as this continent isn’t strewn with the wreckage of a civilization like Caelondia, and they don’t know what they’re going to find—with a shake of his head that makes his brain rattle even more inside his skull, and they set off.

Despite the heat and the bugs, this place isn’t completely unpleasant. It helps that they’re not so far from inhabited ground and the local flora and fauna are relatively well behaved. The only danger are some particularly aggressive little frogs that stick out their stinging tongues at them, but they’re no match for a Cael Hammer. Soon enough, the town looms before them. It looks utterly foreign. It’s made of adobe rather than stone, and strange four-legged animals pull carts through its streets. And there’s so many people, calling out in a language neither of them understands. Out and about in the streets, gathering on lighted porches, on walkways. Zulf hasn’t seen so many people in one place since the Calamity, and for a moment he just stops and tries to take it all in, almost convinced it’s going to break down if he so much as breathes. The Kid is so close their arms almost brush together. It seems he wasn’t ready for so much life and movement. Zulf’s first impulse is to grab the Kid’s hand for comfort, but he’s suddenly way too conscious of everyone staring at them. Everyone can see they’re not from around here, but judging by the confused frowns, nobody can pinpoint where they are from. Zulf does his best to project a pleasant and nonthreatening attitude. His best seems to still be pretty good.

The Bastion can’t be seen from the town. It’s best to let these people wonder where the strangers dropped from until their intentions are clear. That may be overly wary, but Zulf has reasons to be it, at this point. They can’t do much at this point, but take note of the stores and other important places. Eventually, some of the locals are curious enough to try to talk to them, even though they don’t share a language. They’re interested in knowing where the strangers come from. Zulf gestures to the east beyond the sea. The locals shake their heads and mime something that has to be an explosion. Nobody could come from that direction, because of the Calamity. Zulf nods and repeats himself. The locals roll their eyes and shrug. It seems the people here believe Caelondia is nothing more than a devastated wasteland from which nothing alive could come from.

It doesn’t take much longer for Zulf and the Kid to leave the town. They’d rather return to the Bastion when there’s still light, after all. But first, they take a detour through the jungle, in case they find any supplies. They almost get lost a couple of times, and panic accordingly, but locate a stream that’s not overly far from the beach. A wild boar of some sort attacks them, taking them by surprise, and takes a few hammer blows before it goes down. On the plus side, there’s a lot of meat in it. The Kid takes a look at the fallen boar, then another at Zulf, who sticks to the biggest tree in case there’s another big aggressive creature close. The Kid hands him his army carbine. Zulf takes it, though he isn’t entirely sure he can use it if he must. It rests heavily in his hands, even more than a weapon, a symbol of the army of Caelondia. For any Ura, even one who once devoted himself to reconciliation, it feels strange to recieve it from one of them. But Caelondia and its army are no more.

Luckily, they’re left alone for the rest of the day. The Kid could probably eat roasted boar every day, but Zulf makes sure to pick some fruits by the way. Getting out of the jungle takes them long enough the sun is going down when they do it. Now it’s best to wait for the moon to come out. The Kid has been carrying the boar all by himself, so Zulf asks if he needs help. Maybe they can bring the others down after lowering the Bastion. The Kid just shakes his head.

They sit down on the top of a slope leading to the beach. Nobody can tell what will happen when they learn the language of these people, or someone who understands their language shows up, whatever happens first. Sooner or later, someone will want to go back to Caelondia. Which means they will reach out to the remaining Ura. Zia may be there, if she feels like it, but Zulf won’t. He’s permanently done with the past, like it or not. It’s not a comforting thought, conflicted as his feelings are on the subject. Despite the near darkness, the Kid realizes Zulf’s mood has changed, and tentatively rests a hand on his shoulder, but only briefly.

Zulf could ignore that and keep pretending they’re not becoming increasingly tuned to each other. He wants to panic, knowing he’s headed toward the path of caring about someone or something again. He’s not ready to have it come crashing down on him again.

But then, if there’s anybody at all in the world who is good at surviving, it’s the Kid. And he even seems to be brave enough to risk caring about someone else. It almost seems too good to be true. Which, in Zulf’s experience, means it is. But he might not pay it any heed this one time.

“What do you want to do now?” Zulf asks, in case the Kid wants to take this chance to forget about it.

“Keep going until I find somewhere I want to stay,” the Kid says. That’s a very reasonable thing to do, and Zulf is about to say exactly that, but the Kid keeps talking. “Stay with you.”

“We can keep going until we find a place we both like, then.”

The Kid nods.

That could be enough for some time. After all, the rituals they used to have mean nothing in this new land, and they haven’t had any time to pick up new ones. But Zulf is an old-fashioned kind of person and there’s something he needs to do before anything else, before they kiss and before they start sharing a tent and before it feels weird when they’re not waking up next to each other. Zulf takes one of the Kid’s hands in both of his own. “My dear gentleman, may I ask what is your name?”

So the Kid tells him.