We were following the main road, with moonlit fields and the dark shapes of trees and farmsteads on either side of us. Our footsteps were loud in the silence, that was otherwise broken only by the sound of the wind in the trees and the occasional call of a nocturnal bird.
I began to breathe easier, feeling the muscles in my neck and shoulders relax.
"What did you expect?" It was the voice that I had heard in my vision of the burning palace, the voice of the worship of Urduk.
I wondered about that. What had I expected? A tiny flame, leading us off into the wilderness? Some communal descent into madness?
"Something more - cathartic, I suppose."
"Ah, catharsis. The one moment of release and redemptionů interesting concept."
"I'm so glad you approve."
He chuckled, and then he was gone.
I took a deep breath and took in my surroundings. The young servant from the farmstead was walking beside me, seeming much calmer than he had been when we left. I tried to catch his eye to give him a reassuring smile, but he was looking straight ahead and didn't seem to notice me.
Jared, Rodan and the soldier were in front of me and for a while I watched them, wondering what was going through their minds. Were they happy, to be nearing the end of our journey? Did they have any idea what would happen next? Were they frightened?
It's no use asking these questions, I told myself. Just stay alert. The enemy can be anywhere.
We walked on, in silence.
There was something about the steady rhythm of our footsteps on the dirt road that seemed to lull my mind to sleep. In spite of my efforts to remain aware of my surroundings my thoughts kept drifting to the events of the past few days, and to my son. No, I told myself. Don't go there. The grief and anger will destroy you if you do.
When I became aware of my surroundings again, I noticed Jared had fallen back somewhat and was now walking beside me.
"How are you holding up?" he silently asked me.
He chuckled. "I'm getting there."
I looked at him, wondering what he meant, but his face was unreadable.
He quickened his pace to join Rodan and the soldier, and when my eyes followed him I noticed that the sky ahead of us was getting brighter. A new day, I thought, finding the thought strangely comforting. I guess there'll always be another day.
Again, the voice that had taunted me in the burning palace.
"Are you going to start threatening me again?"
"Why would I do that?" His surprise sounded genuine. "As I told you I no longer desire your death."
He was quiet for a while, but I could still feel his presence.
"It's true, you know. Another day may not come."
"And then, what?"
"Eternal darkness, of course. The end of everything."
"The end of everything," I repeated. "Is that what you want?"
"It may be what you want. You may even get it."
No, I thought. That's not true. Then I remembered what the older man at Jarvik's prison had told me as I lay in my bed, still blind. He had told me that the red stone was something called a troth, and that by creating it the earth goddess had made a pact with me to grant me my heart's desire at the time - no more, no more pain, no more suffering, no more.
"Are you sure a world without pain and suffering can even exist? Are you willing to take the risk?"
I stumbled, feeling dizzy and sick to my stomach. The boy reached out his hand to support me, and I made a gesture to tell him I was alright.
I can't do it, I thought. I can't go on.
On this page Transitional HTML 4.01 and CSS 1 are used. If you're seeing this text you either have CSS switched off in your browser, or you're using a browser that can't handle CSS. If you're using an older browser version, you might want to consider upgrading.