Badlands IV: The Beginning
(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)
"Here?" he repeated. The pain in his body had flared up again with the effort of talking, but he made the effort. "Where...here?"
"Wait. Lie back for a bit. I've got to heal you as much as I can." The voice receded. He felt something touching his midsection, the centre of the pain. "This may," the voice said with cool irony, "hurt a little."
It hurt more than a little. It hurt so much that it made the former pain seem nothing at all, a minor ache in comparison. It hurt so much that he tried to push himself up, to get up and stumble away if he could. But his arms would not obey him at all.
And then it was over. At first he did not realise that it was over. But the pulling and prodding at his belly had stopped, and suddenly the pain was much less. He could still feel it, but at one remove, as though separated from it by a thick sheet of armour.
Armour, the thought came to him. There was something about armour...
"You should be feeling a little better," the voice said. "I'm sorry I had to hurt you, but there really wasn't a way otherwise. Open your eyes now."
He hadn't realised that he'd had his eyes closed. When he tried to open them, he found he couldn't. The lashes were stuck together.
"Let me get the dried blood off them for you," the voice said. He felt fingers on his eyelids, rubbing. "Try now."
Warily, he opened his eyes. He was looking up into darkness, but it was not the night sky. Nor was it a room. Far, far above was a curved vault of rock, which reflected a faint greenish glow. Slowly, still flinching in anticipation of pain, he turned his head.
Something squatted by his side. He could not see it clearly. In the darkness, he only had an impression of long talon-tipped fingers, blazing amber eyes and a head full of tumbling red hair.
"Don't be alarmed, Man," she - it was quite definitely a she - said. "If I were going to harm you, I wouldn't have saved you." She held out a muscular arm for him to hold. "Can you get up now?"
Holding her by the arm, he pulled himself up. Now he could see more of her, of the heavy horns on her head, her naked golden skin and the tail whipping behind her.
"What are you?" he whispered.
She cocked her head to one side, studying him. "I'm a demon," she said. "What else but a demon would you expect to find here?"
"Here? Where's here? Where am I?" He looked around. He was sitting on a rough plain of rock. Far away, on all horizons, a pale greenish-blue glow flickered. "What is this place?"
"It's...not the battlefield you were on. You can probably figure that out for yourself."
"The battlefield? What battlefield?" But a faint memory came to him, of a head in a helmet covering the entire face, swinging a spiked ball on a chain. He heard yells, curses, screaming. Swords and maces rose and fell.
"You don't remember, do you? It's probably better that you don't. It doesn't matter anyway, who won or who lost, or who died. You're alive. It's all that matters." Her arm, round his shoulders, lifted him easily to his feet. "Can you walk?"
"And I am...?" Cautiously, he took a couple of steps. His shoulders were weighed down, he discovered, by chain mail. When he touched his face his fingers felt the metal of his nosepiece, and the skin of his cheek felt the leather and iron of his gauntlet. "Who am I?"
"Does it matter, really, who you were?" she asked. "That life is over, Man. You can never go back again." She stepped close to him, her arm round his back, careful lest he fall. "It's a whole new beginning that lies ahead for you."
"You said you were a demon," he told her. "You said only a demon would be here. But you don't look like a demon to me."
She laughed. "I could look quite different if I wanted, Man. If I'd wanted, I could look like..." For an instant, she vanished, and something rock-skinned and spiky stood by his side, looking at him through faceted eyes. "...this," she finished, reappearing. "I'm a demon, all right."
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