“Jesphan. Psst, Jesphaaann.”
Still he sat with his back turned, facing the decrepit city.
Jesphan whipped around and his organge hazel eyes burned through him. He could even feel the proverbial heat inflame his body.
“We should move out,” he weakly said, trying hard not to make contact with those flames.
Jesphan sat for a moment longer, his gaze locked on his companion as if he could penetrate the dark secrets hidden away. Then, Jesphan merely tipped his head and moved for the path leading into the city. He uttered a sigh and hastily moved after him, grabbing the bulking pack and clumsily shifting it onto his back. Dust puffed up as their boots slapped the earth. Jesphan slipped his face wrap up around his nose and mouth as the dust gathered in a sudden breeze. There was nothing but dirt and dust around this struggling city stabilized by enormous walls of stone reinforced with metal. They arced over into an open dome above the city, the top quarter reinforced quartz that filtered the blaring sun and shielded the city from the worst of dust storms.
Niikam had seen inside those walls only once, before he had partnered with Jesphan. Jesphan, a name voiced in hushed tones of awe and mixed with unexplained fear. He was the unknown. The unknown stranger that wandered the land and somehow survived its monstrosities. Niikam even doubted whether Jesphan was his real name. In this city’s language, it translated as “forgotten wanderer.” That was the way every town liked it. To forget that Jesphan had passed through.
He shook his head, both to remove the dust from his eyes and to clear his head. Jesphan was an intimidating figure, no doubt, and Niikam found himself more than once trembling from the man’s stubborn silence and piercing gaze. But Jesphan didn’t commit half the deeds most villagers put upon him. Sure, they looted and robbed abandoned places when they needed supplies, but who didn’t? In fact, Niikam had been a petty thief in another city far from the one they now approached before Jesphan took him in. Niikam the Loose Hand, they used to call him. He had seen the inside of a jail cell far too many times and cringed at the idea of ever having to face another. Jesphan had taught him a new way of life, a life that involved passing from village to village, a drifter. And that supplies could come from other places rather than people’s pockets. People might remember you, they might not. That was fine by Niikam. No one needed to identify his face, he didn’t want trouble anymore.
Even in the few years that they had been together, Niikam had seen his partner save others from misfortune. Gangs also roamed the desolate lands outside of the cities and those on the outskirts were ignored by authorities. It was gang rule and that was one thing Jesphan did not stand by. He might be a mysterious stranger that took what he needed and lived without any connections to the city, but he did not believe in taking people’s lives or dignity. He had watched on one such occasion, late at night, when a gang had happened upon a lone farmhouse where a mother and daughter waited vigil for the father. Instead, these gruesome men happened upon the house, malice and savage thoughts clear in their eyes. Jesphan had waited patiently in the shadows until the group had descended upon the house. Niikam, out of fear, had sidled back deep behind a dead tree and when he had turned to see if anything had happened, his companion was gone. There was a short flash of light and a low, bang, almost like thunder, that rattled the window panes. Then, Jesphan had stepped out and walked past into the plains with no acknowledgement to the mother and daughter or to Niikam. He had thought about asking Jesphan in regards to what had happened, but thought better of it. Something about his partner’s stoic expression bent him to silence.
Niikam looked up nervously at the approaching city gates. Guards in tan, bulky armored suits stood with angry steam guns propped in their arms. He shivered at the sight of the weapons. He had felt the singe of those once and that was enough. Niikam briefly glanced at his companion as they made a straight line for the closed gates. Jesphan looked ahead, his eyes focused and unwavering. What had the city heard of this stranger? What would be their reactions to a company such as theirs? Some cities were willing to accept outsiders for the right price, but others…Well, by the look of those steam guns, Niikam was not about to make any hasty decisions. He side-stepped behind his companion, trying to hide his lanky frame behind the man’s stouter figure.
They would find out soon enough.