The so-called holy land of humanity is a desert that stretches listlessly beneath a blistering-hot sun; the horizon shimmers with the heat. People here don’t really look anyone in the eye, suspicious and uneasy of their neighbors, let alone the tiny handful of strangers that trickle in and out throughout the year. Money is money, though, and the Earl’s pockets are as deep as they need to be: it takes some searching, but they manage to find a tiny inn that lets them have a single room for twice the going rate.
Devit peers out the window as dusk comes and turns the sky dusty violet, and then deep black. He watches people hurrying to their own homes, and his arms prick into goosebumps as the day’s heat leeches out of the sand. Under the rising yellow-white eye of the moon, the entire world looks like it’s been carved out of rotten muscle and old bone.
“Gross,” he says.
Noah’s Grief is a skinny old man with beetled brows and a thin pinched mouth. One side of it droops unattractively and gives the illusion of a permanent frown. His eyes are narrow and bloodshot and he squints all the time, thrusting out his jaw as he does. He doesn’t tell them his name, just grunts that they’re to follow him. His bones creak audibly when he walks, but he moves easily and lightly: this is another part of Noah’s legacy. Those who inherit his name and his blood cannot afford to be weak, no matter what age they are when they’re called.
Still, it’s annoying. It’s irritating. He smells like sour milk and old meat and he’s spent nearly his entire life in this place of hot sun and freezing nights, because for some reason the Earl thinks it’s important to keep watch on a place where the son of a false god lived his brief life. Devit thinks he’s probably never killed an Exorcist in his life, though Jasdevi’s less than six months awakened and has already killed three. (Never mind the first was an accident, that some idiot Exorcist hadn’t recognized the scars on ther foreheads or the bright-gold of their eyes, that he’d laughed drunkenly and called them freaks for their clothes, too young to be in a proper drinking establishment — he’d laughed and laughed until he’d screamed, devoured alive by Jasdevi’s grudge. His Innocence had made no sound as it was destroyed, but it had felt better than anything else. If the old man was a Noah, he had to understand — but he lives in his tiny home and avoids everyone — humans and AKUMA and Noah and even the Earl himself, at times. It makes no sense, it’s stupid; Devit doesn’t understand, and it pisses him off.)
He leads them down, past the narrow low buildings and into the desert itself. Jasdero has traded out his fur-lined vest for a thin white shirt, and Devit carries his coat rolled in his arms; the idea that he could have left it behind does not occur to him until old man Grief looks at him and spits the words: Boy, if you want to carry that damn thing around like some damn fool, that’s your own doing. Then, rather than be frightened by Jasdevi’s threats, he keeps walking, until they’re forced to run after him, just so they’re not left behind.
Their final destination is a small rounded building, out away from everything and everyone, so battered down by the elements and time that it’s barely any different from the rest of the desert. Devit almost walks past it, but Jasdero snags his sleeve and pulls him back in. They both stand and watch as old man Grief sets his bent back against a heavy old stone and begins to push. His wrapped feet sink deep into the sand and is obviously straining, but he does not ask for help and Jasdevi does not offer it. When it finally begins to roll aside, it goes with a grinding groan, like the voice of the rock itself was protesting.
“In here,” he says, and walks ahead of them, into the door that has been revealed. As irritating as it is, there is little choice but to follow him.
The building has only a single cramped room, made smaller by the heavy stone slab pressed against the far wall. Old man Grief kneels upon this, pressing his wrinkled hands to the crease where the two meet. He mutters to himself in the language of the people of this land, which neither of them have bothered with, beyond a few choice phrases about food and swearing. There is an oddly echoing quality to his voice now, and it almost helps to make the room feel larger. Jasdero stands to the left of the door and Devit to the right, and they watch with their hands on their guns in silence. Eventually, old man Grief finds what he’s looking for; his fingers push, and a small rectangular portion of the wall rolls aside, revealing a cobwebbed little compartment. He reaches into this and pulls out two tightly-bound scrolls, which trail fine dust and spidersilk in their wake. In his hands they look small and insignifigant, just like everything else about this land and its people.
“Here,” he says to Devit. He gives the scrolls to Jasdero. “Just like the Millennium Earl wanted. Rhode has the translations.”
Jasdero shuffles the scrolls between one bandaged hand and the other. He looks at Devit. Devit looks at Grief. He pulls his gun from its holster and points it straight at the old man, eyes narrowed.
“That’s it?” he asks. “That’s fucking it? All of that walking and shit and this’s all you’ve got to show for it?” He gestures widely with the gun; Jasdero leans back to give him more room. “What the fuck was all that about, then, just a bunch of stupid paper, that’s it?! What was the point of us coming here in the first place?? Fuck that!” He makes a brief gesture with his wrist towards Jasdero — and fires at the wall. The bullet that had not existed five seconds before grazes old man Grief’s cheek as it flies past, and spiderline cracks appear in the wall from its impact. The old man’s expression never changes.
“You have your orders,” he says. “I have mine. The Earl wanted these kept safe, and I protected them. He wants them back, I hand them over. If you want to argue, you take it up with him.” His bloodshoot narrow eyes travel from one face to the other, then look straight ahead, like he’s already dismissed them. “It’s late. I’m going back. I don’t want to be caught in the desert at night.”
He walks past them, back into the blinding sun and brutal heat of the day. Jasdevi stands there, looking at each other, until they hear the grinding noise of the stone being moved back into place. Together they dash out themselves, and there are things Devit thinks he could say — things he wants to say, things he should say, because fuck if they should let anyone think he can get the better of Jasdevi — but he looks at the old man and hugs his coat to his chest. It’s the desert, he thinks; it’s dried his throat out until he can’t speak.
It’s a long walk back.
this is hell, or something close to it: he can hardly move for the animal closeness and the stench of flesh all around him; they are closed in here, they are trapped here, they will die here. already some of them have taken sick; he does not think they will survive to see the end of the rains.
he does not know if he will survive to see their end–or, indeed, if they ever will. the boat creaks and groans like it too might fall apart someday. even the animals, pitiful dumb things, are beginning to realize something is wrong. he is a father, he is a husband, he is a man: he cannot stand to see his hard work wasted like this, the people and creatures he was sworn to protect slowly falling apart.
in the warm moving stifling silence, he thinks: i will outlive them all.
outside, the rain continues on.
Devit surfaces briefly from the dream, scrubbing at his face with the heel of one hand. It comes away damp. He looks at Jasdero and sees matching tears on his other half’s face, though he sleeps on. Outside, the moon is nearly swallowed up by the horizon, unblinking at him from across miles and miles of sand. The bed has sandy, scratchy sheets and a thin blanket that is barely enough to ward off the night-chill. For some reason, he finds himself reaching under their thin pillow for the scrolls, just to assure himself they’re still there–and breathes in the smell of dust till it chases the stench of animals from his memory.
For the rest of the night, he dreams of nothing else.
The Earl smiles when they hand over the scrolls — but he’s always smiling, that’s like cheating. Nothing in his expression is any different from how it ever is, his toothy grin spread from ear to pointy ear, his glasses glinting. He examines the tattered yellowed edges of the paper, the places where Devit and Jasdero left careless fingerprints, then finally unrolls it. It crackles like old dry leaves when he does.
“Ah,” he says, and then, “Yes, yes, very good ♥ You both have done well ♥”
“It was boring, hiii,” Jasdero says. “Next time, send us somewhere interesting!”
“Aren’t there Exorcists we can kill?” Devit asks. He pours himself partway onto Jasdero, leaning until Jasdero bends to accomodate his weight. “Maybe a General, you could send us after one of those bastards–”
“All in good time ♥” says the Earl. He adjusts his glasses and looks at them from over the rims. “You two are still quite young. It wouldn’t do any good if you two were lost this early, right? ♥”
“That wouldn’t happen!” Devit says. He looks down; Jasdero looks up. They grin at each other. “You can count on us!”
“Perhaps in time,” says the Earl. He folds the scroll up again and tucks it away, somewhere in the deep pockets of his coat. “Meanwhile, our Sherril is having a dance party tonight ♥ I expect the both of you there ♥”
“Ehhhhh,” they say at the same time, with twin expressions of distaste. “But–”
“No buts♥” says the Earl. He doesn’t move, but he certainly gives the impression of looming. “Dress nicely, please. I’ll have Rhode come fetch you when it’s time. ♥”
He leaves on that ominous note, humming to himself. They watch him go, and then Devit slides off Jasdero, stretching and folding his arms behind his head. There is a silent moment where he thinks about the heat of the desert they left behind, the callused thin fingers of Noah’s Grief. He thinks about the scrolls that the Earl took with him, and wonders what was written in them. More lies, maybe; he can only speculate. Beside him, Jasdero’s breathing is even and steady, and this is the story he knows best, the one he knows by heart. The only one that matters, really.
Devit reaches out and finds Jasdero’s hand with his own and squeezes it. He takes a breath.
“Wanna hit the next train outta town?” he says. “Before we get caught.”
Jasdero grins, so widely that the threads stitching his mouth creak. “Hiiiiiii,” he says, which is all the agreement Devit needs.
He grins back, and they run.