Badlands III: Boat on the River
(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)
He'd looked at her and at the rock, and remembered that he'd been about to touch the point.
"Thank you," he'd said, inadequately.
"Save your thanks till we're out of here, Man."
"Where are we going?" he asked her, as they made their way down off the plateau, and left the battlefield behind. "Why didn't we go back the way we came?"
She glanced at him. "Because this thing, whatever it is, is spreading, Man. Haven't you noticed? Even if we were to stand here for a while and look at this sky, you'd see it growing redder and lower. It's spreading, and it has to be stopped."
"How do we stop it?"
She didn't reply for so long that he would have asked again if she'd been human. "I don't know what's doing it, but it's in the direction where we're going. We'll have to find out when we get there, I suppose."
So they went down from the plateau, and finally they came out on to the plain. It was a featureless plain, except for the black trees with leafless branches, which sometimes rustled and moved though there seemed to be no wind. And there was the tower, in the distance, a slender spire of stone rising up from the plain.
Without speaking, he turned the beast in the direction of the tower, and the demon made no attempt to object. It had been much further than he'd thought, and by the time they were close enough to make out detail the hills they had left had faded to a smudge in the red haze of the horizon.
Once it had been a wonderful structure. Even the passage of time had failed to wipe away the smooth clean lines of the stone, unmarred by carvings or damage until the point, so high that it could barely be seen, where it snapped off like a broken stick. Only a jagged point of rock pointed up at the sky, like an accusing finger.
"What do you think it was?" he asked.
"I don't know," the demon said, "but I wonder what one might be able to see from up on top. Wait." In a moment she had disappeared, and all he glimpsed was a shadow gliding up the stone.
While waiting for her to return, he rode the beast around the base of the pillar. It was much broader around than he'd thought, too, though of course it would have to be, to support something so high. There were no doors that he could see, no aperture of any kind. By the time he'd returned to the starting point the sky was definitely an angrier shade of red and the demon was waiting for him.
"There's a river not far away," she said, pointing. "We've got to make for it. Whatever we're looking for, it lies downstream. I saw something that looks like docks."
"What's that?" He pointed at the object she was carrying.
"I found it up at the top, where it's broken." She showed it to him. It was a book, bound in old leather that had turned almost black. When he took it he found it was so heavy that he almost let it fall. "Take a look."
He opened it. The pages were of parchment cracking at the edges, and inscribed with characters which seemed to change and shimmer before his eyes. "What does it say?"
"I can't say yet. I haven't had a proper look, and the language is strange to me. But I think that I can understand it - given time. Let's make for the river, and we'll see."
He'd looked at the demon, and suddenly it was as though it was the first time he'd ever seen her; not as a supernatural being whom he resented as much as accepted, but as something else; a vulnerable, sensitive soul with her own insecurities, someone who was as much finding his way as he was. "Let's go," he said, more gently than he might otherwise have.
"There's one more thing, Man."
"I don't think the river is water," she said.
He stared at her before turning the beast's head away. The demon stood watching for a few moments, and then followed slowly.
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