The smell of burning wood greeted Ryou on his return to consciousness.

Since as far back as he could remember, he had never had the fuzzy transition between sleeping and wakefulness he'd read about in stories, where the mind wandered dreamlike between who, what, where... Ryou was either asleep, or he was awake and in full possessions of his faculties such as the memory of crashing the rented Honda through dimensions accompanied by a refugee from the Tokyo police to end up in a place where islands floated through the sky.

Staying asleep was really tempting right now.

The stranger shifted and leaned forward. It seemed Ryou was currently wrapped in a blanket, curled up against the man's chest and with the stranger's legs on either side of him, one bent knee helping to prop him into place. This was a complicated situation which even higher mathematics couldn't adequately handle, and Ryou really wished he could go back to sleep and not deal with it now. He still felt amazingly tired.

The nearby fire crackled as it was prodded, then his companion leaned back once more, cleared his throat absently and settled down.

Ryou's eyelids opened a crack despite his best intentions.

It was nighttime. Ryou felt a rare impulse of anger, all the stranger for being totally irrational; day, night - make up your mind!

He'd stiffened unconsciously. The man holding him shifted again, this time with intent.

"Magian? You awake?"

"Yes," answered Ryou, instead of asking a few questions of his own starting with, "Is that ridiculous headache of an island still floating out there?"

"Good, you had me worried there. You've been sleeping half a day and a whole night, or near enough. The moon's about to set."

Ryou focused his eyes at the night around them. Then he squinted and felt at his nose.

"My glasses-"


"Oh. Thanks."

He put on his glasses with a shaking hand and looked around. The two of them were leaning against a large rock outcropping which partially sheltered the fire from the night breeze. The blaze was pitiful, one medium-sized branch blackened in its middle with a clump of twigs around it, more smoke than fire. The spots it sullenly warmed on his hands and face just made the night feel colder. But he was comfortable enough, leaning back against the other man and wrapped in a stiff blanket whose pattern and color looked faintly familiar...Oh right, the back seat cover of the Honda, cut off with a jagged-edged implement by the looks of it. That rental was never going home...

Ryou tried to move and couldn't, either because of his overtired and sore body or because of the arm looped around his waist and keeping him where he was. He decided he was too tired to think about that closely.

"Are you hungry?"

Hungry? Come to think of it, there was a faint smell of yakiniku in the air, almost hidden by the prevalence of the smoke.

Ryou stirred. The arm at his waist didn't relinquish its hold, but it tightened and propped him up more. His companion leaned forward, holding a two-foot long metal tube that looked like something from the car's axle, with a sharp bit of metal bound to the end with strips of cut out car-seat cover. The weapon - technically it had to qualify since one could certainly kill with it if one tried - nudged a nearby flat rock, bringing Ryou's attention to the lump of what he'd thought was a charred branch upon it.

"Quick little bugger, but I found some good throwing stones and brought him down in one shot," said the man with an air of satisfaction. "Hardly anyone ventures into the Broken Lands, I bet the squirrels around here have never even seen a human before. They let me get too close."

With a twist of perception that turned his stomach along with it, Ryou realized that what he'd thought was a charred twig sprouting from a thick branch was a tiny, well-burnt paw belonging to the bottom half of a rodent.

"I'm not hungry," he managed to say.

"It's probably the strain," the stranger said sympathetically. "You can have it in the morning."

"Right." Ryou had never managed that fuzzy delusion that stopped people from fully comprehending that the meat in their plate had been trotting around some time before, but the notion had never disturbed him either. He was just feeling tired and vulnerable and not really hungry at this moment. By tomorrow morning, the fact that this thing looked like it could crawl away on its own would not bother him at all. No, it would be the notion of badly charred flesh, tiny bones and unsanitary cooking and refrigeration conditions that would see him fast for breakfast.

The fire sparked briefly under a gust of wind. Ryou's eyes were drawn towards the sky, but the moon was behind a bank of what he was going to assume were clouds, and he couldn't make much out. It was darker than any night a Tokyo dweller could even imagine. The stars were prickles forming clouds of light that illuminated nothing. There was only the fire and the two of them.

"Looks like we're going to be stuck together for awhile," said the man, as if their proximity had allowed him to follow Ryou's thoughts. "I don't even know your name. What do they call you back home?"

"I'm sorry, my name is Ujiie," said Ryou, mouth half on automatic. "Ujiie Ryou."

"...Uchee Rio?"

"No, Ujiie- you can call me Ryou, that's my given name." Even the most basic propriety seemed out of place when one had a small island floating above one's head. "It's written with the character for 'distant', not 'understanding'."

"Whaaat?" said the stranger with a chuckle. "Your name's too short to sound like either of those."

"It's-" Ryou glanced around, and then picked up one of the sticks waiting for its turn on the fire. "Here," he said, making scratches in the dirt near their legs. "This is the way my name is written. This is the more common spelling. And this is mine, with the character for 'distant' right here."

"If you say so." Ryou could hear the smile in the other's voice. "Looks like a bunch of lines to me. So your name is 'distant'?"


"Suits you."

"Call me Ryou," said the latter with a swallowed sigh. "What's your name?"

"My name?" answered his companion as if he hadn't expected the question in return. "Darius," he finally said after a small pause. "Darius Bher Polenius."


"What? No, Darius Bher- here." The stick was taken from Ryou's fingers. "Darius. Like this. Oh, but I guess you can't read that."

"I can," said Ryou, surprised, looking at the letters scratched into the sand beneath his own name. "It's romaji- roman alphabet."

"It's the Imperium's letters." There was a faint distaste in the tone. "It's spread even to the Inlands, has it? I guess I'm not surprised."

"Darius," Ryou read out. "And the rest?"

The stick scratched idly in the sand, and then Darius leaned forward an inch until his breath tingled along Ryou's ear. "Just call me Darius."

Ryou shivered, suddenly acutely aware of their respective position. He tried to move away casually, but the hand at his waist held him tighter than was required.

"That is three times you've put yourself in harm's way for me, Uchee Ryou. And if I was a better man," Darius added, overriding Ryou's automatic attempt at disclaiming any obligation, "I'd have found a way to stop you. But I didn't, and so here we are."

The breath left his ear as Darius turned his head to look straight ahead, at the fire or at the night around them.

"It's better if I don't tell you much about myself. I don't want to get you any more mixed up in my mess than you already are, but you've already guessed I'm not the safest man to be around. I'm involved with something that's bigger than the both of us, and my first duty is to get back to the army and talk to General Terentius. So I won't make any promises I won't keep. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

Ryou stared at the fire as well. "Yes, you have to get back home."

"That's right. But..." the arm around his waist tightened. "We'll see if we can get you back to yours too."

Silence. Then the branch in the fire popped, sending a tiny spray of stars up towards the heavens.

The hand at his waist patted him on the hip. "Go to sleep, magian. We've got a long way to walk tomorrow and an even longer way to get to safety."

Ryou nodded, not having anything else to say. Sleep was the best course of action at the present.


About the author

Mal Chants


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