The Myst linking book had fallen into the fissure. His unforeseen ally had made a desperate grab for him as the ground beneath their feet crumbled.
Everything after that...
Atrus stared at the shadows flickering on the rock wall. One in particular stood out, strong and tall, and cast by a pale sun. His friend – his savior, in many ways – stood at the mouth of the overhang, leaning comfortably into the stone. The concave the dip in rock could scarcely be called a cave, but it did offer a semblance of shelter from the elements.
How he got here....
And everything after that...
He struggled to sit up, and she was immediately at his side, one hand hooked around his arm to support his effort, the other flat against his back.
“The linking book...” he managed. “Myst. Did you...?”
His friend’s soft, reassuring smile faded. She sighed a touch dramatically, and cast a meaningful glance out into the forest beyond their small sanctuary, then looked back to him.
It was lost in the forest, then. Although, if the star fissure had brought them here, so too should it have carried the book. His first impulse, then, was to try to find it; but when he tried to stand, there was a firm but gentle insistence that he stay seated as the woman pressed down on his shoulders.
She vanished from his side, pausing only to rummage in his satchel – which had been removed to the far wall – for something. She then disappeared entirely around the wall itself, only to return with a cup of water... where she had gotten the cup was a mystery, until, upon further examination, it seemed to be half of a very large nut shell.
His friend was right, of course. He needed rest and to restore his strength. And he was still so very tired. But, whatever strange Age they had found themselves in, Atrus also knew he wasn’t alone. Not this time.
For that, he was grateful.
And for the time being, they appeared to be safe.
Licking his lip, he glanced at the woman now crouched against the wall. She was watching him, quietly; but a faint smile touched her lips when their eyes met, and Atrus couldn’t help but smile wryly in return.
“Well, my friend; I suppose this would be as good an opportunity as any to get to know one another better.”
Small parcels of understanding began to unfold, faster and with less effort, as Atrus regained his strength. His friend never said a word, and, thinking back, he realized that she hadn’t in all of the brief time they’d known each other.
It was a strange thing that he hadn’t thought of before, so focused had he been on his work.
But she knew how to survive this place, that much was obvious. As she had survived the hardship that had entangled them together in the recent past.
Meals were composed of gathered nuts, roots, berries, and some form of water flower with thick, fruit-like leaves. The berries and flowers she had to forage often, as they didn’t last long before turning to mush once she’d gathered them, but the nuts and roots she had already built up a small stockpile of. And of the nuts in particular, there was great variety. Some were smaller; some were sizable – and it was these from which with she’d hulled the shells she used to gather water. The nuts within the shells were perfectly edible, though she hacked them to more manageable bite-sized pieces with a small pocket blade.
Once, he asked her to show him where they had appeared in this Age. She led him to a thicket; hidden thorns in the overgrowth pulled at the his tunic and her loose-fitting shirt, and scratched their skin. There was a break where she had forced her way through the first time.
Of the book, there was no sign.
Atrus had lost count of the days, in part because of the recuperation his body demanded. In part, because many had been much the same.
The first that defied the pattern, after the trip to the thicket, was an long evening under an overcast, almost raining sky. Almost raining, because there were no actual raindrops, just a heavy humidity that coated everything in water that appeared – to his eye – from nowhere.
His friend returned from her explorations with his satchel full of some manner of fruit she had discovered. It was pale blue, the size of a small melon, and cut with grain like an apple under her knife. With interest in the process, though not necessarily the results, Atrus watched her test it, first the juice from her blade, then a miniscule portion. Finally, after several minutes she cut a slice and simply ate it.
When it didn’t seem to have an adverse effect, she cut a few more pieces for herself, then came over to sit by him. Fairly confident that the fruit was harmless, it seemed, as she offered some to him. He took the slice with a modest, “Thank you.”
It tasted familiar, but Atrus couldn’t place it. Thick-pulped and more than faintly sweet. The thought he was chasing was chased out of his mind when she offered him a second slice, and he caught sight of the soft, slightly wry smile on her face.
Shoving her own slice in her mouth, she glanced off under the weight of his stare, then met it again, mouth full. Then shrugged. Whatever happened next looked like a brief chuckle, but without the sound that went with it, Atrus wasn’t sure.
Atrus was still trying to puzzle it out when his stranger-friend-benefactor kissed him.
There was something altogether odd about all this, but it wasn’t coming to him easily. Then it hit him, or at least he thought it did, and Atrus laughed, himself. The woman pulled back, eyeing him quizzically.
“I’m sorry, I just... it’s only occurred to me now, I haven’t even learned your name.”
A smile pulled at the edges of her mouth as she thought about it. With a decisive shrug, she retreated, brushing the dirt off her knees as she moved to the wall, to where his satchel was. A short rummaging later, and she returned with the inkwell and pen from the bottom of it.
Trapping the inkwell between her feet, she dipped the pen in the ink, and, pulling his hand across her lap, traced several letters across his forearm in quick, elaborate calligraphy.
She let go to topper the bottle, Atrus tilted his arm. Together, the letters spelled a word. VOICE.
“An unusual name indeed,” he mused out loud. “Particularly for someone who doesn’t appear to have one.”
Her eyebrows raised, and her expression grew pensive. One hand rose to her chest, and, with a deep sigh, she untangled the scarf around her neck.
The scar on her throat told its own tale of silence.
She could hear, she could read, but the absence of her words snapped into gut-wrenching clarity. A visceral sensation gripped him; an anguish that someone would do such a thing, made worse by the fact someone he knew and... felt close to had been one to suffer it firsthand. “This was done to you intentionally.”
Voice smiled, a matter-of-fact expression, combined with a nonchalant shrug that together read clearly as what can you do?
It must have shown in his face, because her expression clouded. Atrus’ fingers brushed the scar, and the tentative connection between them, along with whatever had come over him, snapped like a thread. She slid back, away from him. Climbing to her feet, she disappeared past the light of the campfire. Atrus could see the shadows of branches move in her wake, and hear her moving through the brush.
At a loss, he didn’t follow her, and felt her absence sharply the remainder of the night.
She hadn’t returned by dawn. Nor the hours after. Atrus busied himself with taking care of the small camp, for what little care was needed, and with taking stock of his resources.
It would have been easier if he had the materials to build.
Restlessly, he dug into the small stockpile of food. A selection of familiar nuts staved off hunger, and for the sake of novelty he added to his meal one of the blue fruit things, of which there was a rather healthy selection in the cache.
It was a good find, he thought; thus far they hadn’t proven poisonous, and from the looks of it they would keep better than the berries.
After the first few bites, his mind began to drift. His thoughts returned to the night before; and rather than the dim worry that had worn at him off and on throughout the day, he began to wonder what would have happened if-....
Atrus squinted at the blue fruit in his hand.
“Ah,” he remarked in a burst of understanding, to no one in particular. That... did go a lengths to explain itself, yes.
By the next dawn, Atrus was worried. His satchel was gone, suggesting Voice had returned at some point while he slept, but of where she had gone, then or now, there was little trace.
There was little choice but to go after her; she had been the one to do most of the exploring, and Atrus hadn’t yet become familiar with much of this world at all beyond their little nook of stone and its campfire. And if harm had come to her because of what had happened...
Atrus refused to dwell on it.
Most of the creatures were gathered in the center, clustered around the woman standing at their heart, with one whose white feathers had been dyed and banded in black.
His escort, carrying primitive weapons by any civilization’s measure, led him towards the wooden platform. They had found him in the woods, as he wandered, far from aimlessly but with no direction of what it was he sought, and he was hesitant to judge himself lucky – or not – until now.
There was a formal-ness to it, but to Atrus’ observation it was ultimately informal. The creature Voice was conferring with was certainly important, and the guards were there to assure no trouble, but the rest were intrigued about this curiosity in their midst. Apparently, she had broached an understanding with them. Or, at least, was in the process of doing so with the banded one. Every so often, they seemed to stumble, signing back and forth at one another until a common meaning was found.
He watched her move. Remembered, in a flash of insight, every instance since he met her of her raising her hands, starting a gesture, sometimes following through, before resorting to more universal means of communication. He should have seen it before, but he’d been too busy with Riven, and hadn’t been seeing.
Voice glanced over at him as he came to stand beside her at the center of the assembly, offering a slightly apologetic smile. Atrus smiled back, and gave their hosts a second look from his new vantage before asking, “Are you alright?”
The entirely of Voice’s shrug-and-expression suggested she had reached the epitome of I don’t know.
Their new friends seemed... friendly enough.
“Did you ask them about the book?” Atrus ventured.
Voice blinked, eyeing the sky vapidly for a moment, and he took it to mean, she forgot rather than she was ignoring him. The former became self-evident when she turned back to their host and began signing again.
The creature didn’t understand the first sign for book she attempted, but – knowing what he was looking at, Atrus found it remarkably simple to understand. The rest of the signs, not so much, as the effort between the pair devolved into more and more erratic attempts of understanding what they meant. Finally, Voice huffed; glancing around, her gaze fell on the satchel she was carrying.
There was a startled hiss that permeated the crowd as she pulled the prison book free, and Atrus’ eyes narrowed.
“Be careful with that,” he warned, although he made no move to stop her. Voice gave no indication of hearing him as she flipped through it, indicating book in a way that couldn’t be mistaken.
It certainly took. There was a lot of hissing, a lot of flicking tongues tasting the air, and quite a few ruffled feathers.
What followed was a lot of reverence among the creatures not on the platform with them. The banded creature cocked its head, tasting the air, before making a humbled gesture of its own. Their reverence made Atrus markedly uncomfortable.
It was a short trek, from the creatures’ village to the remnants of a technological monument that had been all but buried in the forest floor. The highest room, however, was still accessible – and carried all the devotion of a shrine.
Their banded guide led Voice forward past the open threshold, but the two warriors became agitated when Atrus tried to follow. Voice returned, took his hand, and led him inside anyway.
That smoothed the ruffled feathers.
They made their way deeper into the converted-shrine. Atrus cleared his throat; it echoed in the crumbling passage, and earned a strange look and a couple of muted hisses from the guide.
“I would like to learn that language of yours, if... you would be willing,” he said quietly. Voice glanced at him, and he added quietly. “I think I already know book,” Atrus added, “But there are quite a few... ah... all of the rest in fact, I haven’t been able to decipher yet.”
She almost tripped over a root that had grown over the floor, recovered her stride, and blinked at him.
“No one should be cut off from their words.”
Her entire expression closed off.
At length, the tension left her movements again. She shrugged, entirely noncommittal.
The passage opened into a room, with light pouring down through a hole in the ceiling. On the pedestal it cut across, there was an open book. It had been sealed under glass, but the mechanism to release it appeared whole. They were made to last, after all.
There were two books in the slots beneath it. One was crumbling, the linking panel hopelessly blank. The other, Atrus found, was also a linking book, and he could only venture it would lead back to this Age.
“Allow me,” Atrus said, shooing Voice away as she fussed with the mechanism. Discovering that it wasn’t a lack of know-how, but that the contraption was stuck, he relented to Voice shoving him out of the way again.
She managed to jury-rig something in the paneling, but still couldn’t figure out the process. When he wasn’t sure what she did that made it function, and he was sure, once the mechanism engaged and the glass rolled back, that the feeling was likewise, as he knew the process and she didn’t.
Their guide was eyeing them back and forth, knowing nothing of either.
Voice eyed the linking panel critically. She glanced at Atrus, then turned to their guide. They signed back and forth, before the guide scurried back out.
“What did you say to him?” Atrus asked, curiosity piqued. After a handful of minutes, when he hadn’t gotten anything resembling an answer, he began to ask again, only for Voice to raise her hand, waving him silent.
She flipped through the broken book, and ripped out a page. Reaching into the satchel, she found the ink and pen again. Her script was simple and measured, and Atrus rubbed the mark of her name under his sleeve.
They caught me in their orchard, her note explained. Those blue apple things were theirs. They’re used to help facilitate some kind of bonding ceremony.
“I see,” Atrus answered, chuckling at her wry, apologetic smile that left things far less awkward than he feared they would be.
She gave his shoulder a reassuring pat.
The guide returned, along with one of the warriors, carrying a basket full of supplies – food and winter furs, by the looks of it. The banded creature paused at the sight of Voice with the book and Atrus’ pen, but then hurried the warrior forward to set the basket down in front of the book-altar. They exchanged a few more gestures, and following the guide and the warrior left again.
“You shouldn’t take advantage of them like that.”
He didn’t understand the series of gestures that followed, but the taut, sarcastic smile that faded one second to the next, along with the way she pulled one of the furs out of the basket to wrap around her shoulders, got something of the point across, I would rather not freeze.
The link deposited them on an unfamiliar linking platform in the middle of a blizzard. There was a bridge connected to it, leading across a chasm to a dark shadow of a building that loomed up out of the mountain of snow.
The shock of cold was immense.
The door had been frozen open a crack, which, both narrow and frozen over, proved difficult to get through.
But not, ultimately, impossible.
It was, however, only mildly less cold inside.
Once beyond the door, Voice tipped over the basket she’d been loathe to abandon, searching for... something. Atrus didn’t ask, and didn’t let her find whatever she was looking for before grabbing her hand and leading her deeper into the compound.
She dragged her feet on him, more than once, but he insisted, up stairs and down more, and past more closed doors until he found one that still had the power on. It opened easily, with a rush of warmth, and he ushered her inside.
The garden was the only part of the building with its own perpetual power supply, to protect the plants. Atrus didn’t know this Age, but he had seen enough of this technology to know what he was working with.
“The main generator should be in the... there’s usually a mechanical sub-basement, built into the building as it’s own compartment, where it can’t get easily damaged.”
Voice bundled herself up tighter under the fur, and dropped to the ground.
“I’ll need your help to get it running again.”
Blearily, she eyed him for several long moments, then yawned a pointed yawn, and buried her face against her knees. Atrus kneeled beside her, resting his hands on her arms.
“Please. Trust me.”
She stilled. Pouted. Eyed him for several more long moments, before relenting.
It would take days of work to get the outpost up and running again to its full capacity.
Once they did, however, they would have warmth, water, and a garden that was built to sustain indefinitely whoever had lived here and had overgrown in those explorers’ absence, and a library of books that led across space and time and Ages.
Learning her signs was fast at first, then – as the more common signs eclipsed those more rare – Atrus found himself learning new signs slower. By then, it seemed, he understood as much simply from context, even those he hadn’t yet grasped yet.
Voice also liked to whistle, Atrus found. She could carry a tune for a blessedly long span of time, and the ups and downs were most akin to song. Eventually, there were several of those, too, he could recognize, and he grew accustomed to after hearing them whenever she was nearby.
They worked together – for the most part, she explored the Ages, while he worked to unravel the library itself, along with what she had found.
The only thing they didn’t yet have in this place was a link home.
For either of them.
There was enough spare paper on hand and then some, that she often wrote him notes. A more robust method communication than they currently had, for clarity at times he didn’t fully understand what she was signing.
One evening, she set a tray of food on his desk. When he noticed her there, she made a sign for him to giver her the pen, and he watched as she pulled a blank sheet from his notes.
The question that bled from the pen was as pensive as the expression on her face. Would you teach me, she scribbled out that thing for the more specific, how to write the books like you do?
Either his hesitation to answer, or the expression on his face must have telegraphed what he was thinking. She started to withdraw, mentally at first, and Atrus caught her hand before she could follow through physically.
“It... would take years, Voice.” She licked her lip, and he let go of her hand. “I still have much to learn, and when I started, I was perhaps even a decade younger than you are now.”
The flurry of hand signs fly past him, too fast for him to catch, and Atrus shook his head. He tapped the paper, and Voice hesitated, then leaned over the desk to quickly scribble the translation.
I got time.
Atrus looked at the paper. Then to her. Voice shrugged, but there was a forced nonchalance to the motion, and he sighed.
He’d thrown himself into the work, like always, and it had left her alone. In this place, an eternity away from whatever it was she’d known in her former life. There were plenty of Ages to link to in this place, but that didn’t necessarily make for a less solitary existence. And it was true that the Art could use practitioners.
“Maybe...” he ventured, “it’s not such a bad idea. I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to go over the basics together.”
Besides, maybe he’d forgotten some things himself.
The barest hint of a grateful smile raised his spirits. As though to hide it, Voice swiped one of the rolls she’d brought him off the tray, and was gone.
The desert came into view around him, and sand shifted underfoot. It was dark, moonless, with an impressive expanse of stars providing light from overhead. She’d gotten into the habit of exploring for leisure, more and more often now, and always left a bookmark in the Age she’d ventured to in case he needed to find her.
Although, if Atrus were being honest, he’d never really needed to find her. So far, he’d simply wanted to. Wanted the company.
Voice had thrown down a blanket to watch the stars. She sat up when she noticed him, stretching her legs out in front of her.
“I see you’ve grown tired of the cold,” Atrus observed.
It looked a little like the place I came from. She almost looked about to add more, but then she shrugged. Noncommittal.
Stretched right back down again.
Atrus sat beside her. He’d long since found he didn’t mind the silence.
Dawn arrived, a slow and painted sky. Blues and greens and pinks and yellows.
Voice shoved herself upright abruptly, eyeing the near dunes. Atrus followed her to her feet, more slowly.
It was immediately evident what had her so alarmed.
A band of men, using the night as cover, had surrounded them. Near enough now, they closed the circle, and one man stepped forward.
“Give us that.”
When she merely glared, Atrus sighed and relieved her of the satchel herself. He wasn’t sure what world, what offshoot of humanity they were dealing with, but primitive weapons were no less lethal than advanced ones.
The man took it, and handed it to the man behind him. He then goaded them a short distance away, while his men searched the blanket, shaking it out and claiming it, and rummaged through the bag.
“Who are you?” the leader demanded, “What are you doing in our land?”
Atrus understood the language, but couldn’t place where he had learned it. In an armed standoff, understanding was an advantage.
“My name is Atrus. We’re travelers here... and if you return us our things, we can be on our way.”
“We mean you no harm,” he assured the man, whose expression was openly skeptical at best. His gaze shifted to Voice, half a step behind Atrus, whose expression was openly unfriendly.
The man laughed. “What’s your name, then?”
“Please, she’s rather...” Atrus wasn’t sure how to explain it. Or what, ultimately, he was trying to impart. “That is to say, she-...”
“What, she can’t speak for herself?”
Atrus grew silent. Voice hadn’t stopped glaring. The leader of the band squinted at her in confusion. She signed, and he drew back a step.
“What is that’s she’s doing? That some kind of black magic?”
Atrus glanced at her, and caught at least part of what she was saying.
“I believe it was an... insult,” he translated haltingly. “Aimed at your foremothers.”
Which went over about as well as could be expected, in any language. Atrus stepped between them, his attempt at a smile strained. “Now, I’m sure we can talk about this.”
Voice grabbed his sleeve, and Atrus glanced, first at her, then to what she was looking at. Panic gripped him. They’d been using the satchel back and forth so often and for long enough now, he practically forgot what danger it contained.
“Wait, wait, that isn’t-...”
All at once, everything was moving. Voice lunged from his side. The band of would-be thieves were running. Gehn stood, momentarily stunned while he got his bearings, but free, and recovered well enough to reach for one of their weapons.
Atrus swallowed. His body didn’t seem to want to do anything more than that. He barely noticed Voice reappear behind him. Or the book she’d secreted from under her shirt, until she’d grabbed his hand.
The last he saw of her in that Age was a faint smile.
The bandits fled into the morning.
Gehn’s eyes were on her.
As was the brunt of his anger.
She held up the book.
Smiled cheerfully at him.
Atrus paced back and forth along the bridge, undecided. The time it would take for him to return to the Age he’d just now departed weighed in his mind, yet – if he was needed there. Before he could decide, the choice became void.
Voice appeared at the linking point. She slid a step back, and, seeing him as he started towards her, she shook her head, signing desperately for him to stop.
And then he was facing his enemy. His father.
With his back turned, his full attention on the revenge that had just been dropped into reach, Voice took Gehn by surprise; enough to knock the weapon he had scavenged from his hand, sending it skittering to tumble over the icy edge of the platform. Not enough, she must have realized too late, to knock him down.
Gehn recovered. Turned on her. Blocked her next strike, to clamp a hand down on her throat and shoved her backwards. Just far enough her heels took some of the weight off his arm as he dangled her over the frozen chasm.
“Is this a new pet I see you’ve found for yourself, Atrus?”
Atrus, who had taken a sparse, cautious handful of steps forward, stopped cold as Gehn turned his attention on him.
“She has nothing to do with this, Gehn,” Atrus said, raising his voice as the wind threatened to overcome his words. For all that it mattered. They would, he knew, prove as effective unheard. “She’s done only what I told her to do.”
“What you told her to do,” his father sneered. “Well now, you haven’t answered me. We haven’t walked such different paths after all, have we? You see what age does to a man? The lessons it suffers him to learn? I suppose you understand, now, how what I have done I do only because of what needs to be done.” He loosened his grip, marginally; enough, at least, for Voice to gasp, and subsequently choke, on a lungful of icy air her body desperately needed. “I wonder, would she follow me, then? If I explained it to her, her place in life, would she choose me over you?”
Voice glared at Gehn, who only eyed her coldly.
“No... I don’t think she would.”
One of the woman’s shoes caught the edge of platform, giving her leverage with the other. Gehn’s knee cracked as she stomped on it, with as much desperate strength as she could, and his foot slipped out from under him.
Together, they grappled. And, together, they fell. A book landed flat on the platform.
Atrus rushed forward.
Voice lunged upward, and her hand landed on the book’s cover; the effort it took to claw it open left her dangling by one hand, and before she make another desperate reach for it, Atrus was there to catch her arm, hauling her up to safety. Gehn abandoned all thought of them, and made a desperate grab for the escape the book promised. It slid closer to the edge as his fingers skimmed blindly across the linking panel.
It toppled and fell moments later, as Atrus dragged Voice back from the edge.
Atrus hovered over her as she collapsed against the wall. His mind was spinning circles; he could hardly think. Hardly focus.
“Perhaps it would have been best had you not brought his attention to the book,” he managed, his thoughts beginning to move with more lucidity as the warmth returned to his limbs.
Harmless, she managed to sign. Trapped.
Atrus squinted, wondering at how she’d accomplished that.
All the same...
“You don’t know him like I do,” he said. “Whatever it was he might have told you on Riven, had you believed him, had you trusted him, he would have-...” All the ways it could have gone wrong since the day he handed her the trap book collapsed in on him. All the ways it could still go wrong. “We-... I have to get that book back.”
Sighing, shivering dangerously, Voice lurched to her feet.
“No!” Atrus caught her by the arms as she staggered towards the door and he realized what she was forcing herself beyond the human capacity to do. “No. I’ll figure something out. Don’t try it, don’t go... rushing yourself into it. I already almost lost you once out there, I... with everything else, I would be driven out of my mind if I lost you, too.”
Still here, she pointed out.
“Hardly at that,” Atrus sighed. “It can wait. For now, it can. But....”
Still out there.
“Gehn? Trapped, like you said.”
No. The other one.
Then it struck Atrus. The man who had swapped places with Gehn in the Trapped Age.
And a very fortunate man, indeed. He had landed on the linking platform itself as the book fell. Half-frozen as he was, and Atrus still spared the time and patience to rescue him and drag him to the linking hall and send him on his terrified way.
Atrus returned to the entry hall, and found Voice on the floor where he had left her. Groggy and distant. Cold still lingered on his skin, but he realized almost too late, she was in genuine danger from it.
By the time he got her to his bed, she was lethargic. Atrus could feel the cold moving beneath her skin like a heartbeat, and wrapped them both in the blankets he had on hand. He didn’t dare leave her, and spent the night wide awake, listening to her shallow breathing.
He wasn’t sure she slept, but she couldn’t be called awake. At times, her fingers traced his arms, or the seams of his tunic, but her awareness was gone.
It would have been unfair to think the only reason he wanted her to live was that he feared being alone, here. In this place. Indefinitely.
Nevertheless, it was a thought that gnawed at him. Every time her breathing hitched.
For two days, he could only rouse her enough to drink water.
By the third day, the cold had left her skin, but she was still lethargic. He left her to the bed, but retreated no further than the reading sofa. On the fourth, he managed to get her to eat, and by the fifth she was ravenous.
But she was alive.
Her awareness improved with her body. By the last stages of the chill, the experience had left her practically hung over.
Once Voice had recovered, a semblance of calm had returned to their existence there. Recovering the book was a project that weighed on Atrus until it was done, but it proved a simple one.
The labyrinthine path of Ages was a different project altogether. One that, ultimately to have any chance of success, needed a return to the beginning. Either they needed to find the right path to D’ni, which undoubtedly existed, but was obscured through either another outpost among the uncounted Ages at hand...
...they needed to find his Myst book, which ought to have still been in existence, if lost in an alien forest.
She was stargazing again, this time on a tiny island’s beach, with nothing more harmful than a few palm trees to contend with. When Atrus appeared, she sat up and dusted the dark sand from her clothes.
Voice smiled up at him, and pointed to one particular star. He looked down again, and she sketched letters in the sand.
She pointed to another.
And a third, a bit of an arc apart.
Atrus stared up at the sky.
Listened to the ocean.
She could have been right. They had no way of knowing.
He asked, “Are you ready?”
Voice shrugged. As in, Life had become strange, who was she to say?
“This will take you directly inside the outpost.” he handed her the linking book as soon as she had found her feet. “No more shivering on the doorstep.”
She tucked it under her arm, and offered him a different book; one he’d never seen before.
I don’t believe he can be saved. But... there’s... still something in him that didn’t deserve to die.
Tilting it this way and that under the moonlight, Atrus studied the beaten, soft leather-bound journal, at a loss. She waited until his back was turned, and added, You don’t deserve to be the one to have to kill him.
Atrus sighed, dropping the journal into his satchel. Digging around for the linking book to the first Age that they had fallen into, he glanced up when Voice planted herself in front of him, and again when realized she was signing.
What if it’s ruined? she was asking.
“It’s still worth finding. I might be able to fabricate an amplifier of some sort.”
I’ll find it. Who knows? I might have help. Those – Atrus didn’t understand whatever sign she used for the local lizards, but he understood in context – looked like they’d be happy to. Before he could argue, she had segued into, and maybe we can find a way to repay the favor.
“Just... don’t take advantage of their belief,” he warned. “Or their kindness.”
Have I proven unkind, then?
His hand was on hers before she’d even finished the question. “No.”
She stared down at the touch for a long moment. Then swapped the book between arms, displacing his hand.
You know, I... she paused to smooth her hair behind her ear, sort of liked it.
“...sort of liked...” Atrus shook his head. She’d lost him. “What?”
Voice gave a noncommittal bob of her head. Atrus found himself utterly baffled at the gentle touch of her fingers on his cheek. Softly, she kissed him.
That didn’t explain anything at all, but Atrus found himself not disagreeing.
“I suppose if... I am to be completely honest,” he admitted, “So did I.”
He cleared his throat, flicking the book open for her.
Her mouth moved around a word. Not just a word; for all that there was no sound behind it, he recognized his name on her lips.
I am coming back, you know?
Her fingers brushed the panel, and she vanished before his eyes.
“I know you are.”
It took him a long moment to close the book again. Sliding it back into his satchel, he reminded himself that she had long since proven herself nothing if not capable.
Rubbing his arm, where the ink had yet to fade, Atrus gazed up into the stars.