The chill night air draws them to the campfire, its light dimming the stars above for its immediacy. They heat small portions, though still more than Uza had eaten in any one sitting for weeks before coming upon them. Had it really been that long? Maybe it was simply that his perception was warped, that he had been so trammeled by the forces of the desert that his ability to mark time had fled along with his name and much of his past.
Some memories, though, remained. A few scattered thoughts that Henya soon made it her cause to uncover.
She slides next to him on his makeshift cushion—the pile of worn rags that separated him from the ground upon which he sat—and offers him a hot cup. He thanks her with a gentle nod of the head and delicately removes the small vessel from her grip, holds it in callused fingers and blows across the surface of the murky liquid within, darker in hue than the earth upon which they subsist. Its taste is bitter, but the warmth that runs down his throat is pleasant and, in a way, even the bitterness of the beverage is somehow something to be savored. It brings an almost involuntary smile to his lips. He’d been doing that more since he’d started traveling with Henya and her father. Smiling, even laughing occasionally, and otherwise lowering his guard. It is that last that makes him anxious when her fingers brush his wrist.
“Uza, tell me about them. I want to know.”
“Mm?” his eyes land upon her, half of her face flickering in the light from the fire and the other all the darker for it, consumed by its own shadow.
“Earlier, when you spoke of this land and called it Gehenna, you also mentioned others. ‘Us’, you said. Who were these others, Uza, and why do you no longer travel together? Why did you call this land such a name?”
There is a pleading in her eyes, visible even in the one hidden in shadow. It eats at her, from the back of her subconscious through to the immediate present, the now.
“So you know that name, then. Gehenna. It’s a concept with which you’re familiar?”
She nods, “You saw this as a punishment, then?”
He confirms it with a nod.
“And a trial?”
“Then you believe that you are dead. That we have passed on and simply await the end of our punishment.”
“I don’t think we’re so lucky. I think that this is a punishment, yes, but that we are very much alive, that it is only our souls that are dead, our consciences and, soon, our consciousnesses consumed by the ground upon which we walk, sucked into the cracks and crevices between the solid fabric of this reality. That this is death in life.”
Her hand still against his wrist, he can feel her shaking, trembling.
“And this is what they believed, too, Uza?”
“Yes, and so we named it for that punishment, and we tried to weather it. As the days passed, though, and time wore away at our minds and our sanity, we stopped speaking, we stopped interacting and, eventually, we each faded away in turn until, one day, I woke up and found that I was alone with only my memories. Soon, even those began to fade.”
“You became a shell, an empty husk.”
“Then they are dead.”
“I don’t know that. Some might have simply kept walking when others did not until we had all gone our separate ways, but I don’t hold much hope of ever seeing them again.”
She removes her hand from his skin, jerks it away as though his flesh has suddenly burned her, stung her. He sees something else in her eyes—a pain that is tempered by what he can only assume to be fear. Her footsteps stir the stand beneath them, crunch against the soles of her sandals as she runs away and ducks into her tent, away from him. Uza remains, for a brief time, out by the fire, heating his body and sipping at his coffee. When he has finished it, he puts the small cup aside and smothers the flames, then retires to his tent.