The computer's alarm tone slowly increased in volume as Justin continued to slumber. When it had moved up from ear-splitting to deafening the teenager finally awoke and tumbled off his bed onto the floor.
The tone ceased instantly.
Justin pushed himself up with a groan. He hurt everywhere ; his body felt like one big bruise. He was also completely exhausted, more tired than he could ever recall being. He wanted nothing more than to go back to sleep, but when he looked at the computer clock he saw it was already 8:30 .
Wincing he rose shakily to his feet and headed into the bathroom. The mirror there showed bags under his eyes and his complexion was sallow and sickly. Grimacing he discarded his shorts and undergarments and stepped into the shower. Soon warm water was raining down on him. It helped, a little.
He remained in the shower for almost twenty minutes before he emerged, dried off, brushed his teeth and got dressed. Then it was a jog down to the cafeteria to try to get a little food in before Archon took them to the Battlefield. He'd thought he might be too nervous to eat, but he was able to wolf down twelve slices of bacon and four sausages without a problem. To his surprise he felt calm, almost at peace. One way or another the nightmare he was trapped in was nearly finished. A few hours from now he would be free of this place forever. He would at last be able to see his Dad again.
Or his Mom.
The Warrior Prince awoke in a foul mood. With a growl he flung back the covers and stalked into the bathroom. Submerging himself in warm water lightened his demeanor somewhat, but could not fully lift his spirits.
Yesterday's conclusion had shown him his limits. He was . . . less than what he had envisioned himself to be, a revelation which still burned in him like a flaming brand. He was frustrated, disappointed, and determined to never find himself in such a situation again. He would do everything he possibly could to improve himself. Physically he would continue to hone and develop his skills. Mentally he would remember the virtue of caution and he would keep a watch for the daggers aimed at his back.
Treachery had cost him too much already. In all his life there had never been a single person he could fully trust. Even Archon, who had done more for him than anyone else, had failed to warn him of Kenny. The only one he could truly rely on was himself.
That was a lesson he should have learned years ago, he reflected bitterly. Rising from the tub he dried off with one of the feather-soft towels before slipping on his boots, briefs and cross-belt. He let out a breath, momentarily reassured by the feel and fit of his warrior's garb.
When he emerged back into his bedroom the same table and chair from yesterday's breakfast and dinner was waiting for him. As he began to eat he wondered why Archon continued to serve him in his room. At breakfast it had been necessary to surprise his enemies, but only then. He thought of asking the entity, but they hadn't spoken since yesterday afternoon and he had no real desire to talk to Archon now.
No, his focus was on Justin. Doubtless the teenager had enjoyed his humiliation yesterday. Perhaps it had given him hope that he could win their fight, but if so he would crush that hope along with the Ranger. He might not be all that he had wished, but he was still more than Justin could ever be. He would demonstrate that for the last time.
As he shifted into the Blue Turbo Ranger Justin felt somewhat re-energized, but he hardly felt up to fighting. Fortunately that wasn't his plan.
He had barely morphed in time. Only seconds later he found himself standing in an ancient arena.
The bowl-shaped structure was a perfect fifty by fifty circle. Both the walls and the floor were constructed of polished white marble. There were tiers upon tiers of empty seats and no apparent entrance to or exit from the floor of the coliseum. Overhead an all-encompassing blackness was reminiscent of a starless night, while illumination was provided by a single globe of pure light shining a few feet above the royal box. It wasn't what Justin had expected, but it was an undeniably appropriate setting for the last act of Archon's sadistic, gladiatorial game.
Directly opposite him Solan stood beneath the royal box, a scowl on his face.
“ LET THE FINAL BATTLE BEGIN!” Archon decreed. His opponent swiftly advanced while Justin stood his ground.
He swallowed nervously, his calmness slipping away from him and being replaced by the fear he'd expected. What he was about to do might seem insane, but it was the only way. He'd convinced himself of that last night.
Taking a deep breath, the teen powered down. In a flash of light he went from being the Blue Turbo Ranger to being Justin Stewart. Then he hurled his Turbo Key away to the right, hearing it clink off the curved wall. Unstrapping his morpher, he threw that device to the left. Finally he sat down on the arena floor, his legs crossed in a position that would make it impossible for him to get to his feet quickly.
Solan's cerulean eyes were wide with shock, an emotion also detectable in his voice. “What are you doing?” he demanded incredulously.
“I'm not going to fight you,” Justin explained.
The young Warrior Prince stared in open disbelief at his opponent. Justin's action had taken him completely by surprise and he was at a loss as to how to respond.
It was a trick, it had to be. He halted ten yards away from the sitting boy, studying his foe suspiciously. Justin simply sat there, legs crossed and hands resting on his thighs. The long-haired youth was forcibly struck by how small the older boy looked. In his Ranger uniform Justin had always seemed (to him at least) larger than life; without it he seemed diminished in a way the bemused Prince of Warriors couldn't quite define.
There was no ambiguity or uncertainty about the awfulness of Justin's appearance, though. The effort he was visibly putting into holding his back straight, the fatigue in his eyes and the slackness of his features told the tale all too clearly.
He would need his weapon and armor now more than ever, yet he had cast them away. Was he sincere, then? Did he actually plan to go passively to his death without lifting a finger in resistance?
The prospect angered the Grecian preteen, and disappointed him. He had expected much better of Justin than this. He would've thought a suicidal surrender to be beneath the Turbo Ranger.
“You're just going to give up then?” the other boy asked, scorn, doubt and dismay all mixing in his tone.
Justin's mouth was bone-dry and his heart was pounding against his ribcage, but things were working out so far: Solan hadn't killed him yet.
He'd decided that the best and perhaps only way to forestall immediate violence was to render himself completely defenseless. He would present no physical challenge whatsoever and so give Solan no excuse to prove his physical superiority once again. Regardless of what happened, he would not fight back. If Solan wanted to kill him, it would have to be a butchering in cold blood. If he was willing to do that . . . well, then Justin had probably never had a chance of reaching him anyway.
“I'm not giving up,” he answered. “I'm refusing to play Archon's sick game. The same way you did, before he made you so good at it.”
His foe's face darkened and Justin had to fight to keep from wincing. He needed to persuade Solan that the latter was wrong, but this could not be done without angering the twelve year-old. He had gotten a glimpse yesterday of how much rage was locked away inside his onetime friend and if he tapped that well too deeply the Warrior Prince would probably rip his head off, whether he resisted or not.
“Archon only gave me back what is mine!” Solan insisted, striding forward. “And you began playing his game the moment you killed Morthos! You're only stopping now because you know you'll lose!”
“Listen to me!” Justin pleaded. “I killed Morthos because he was about to kill me. I didn't want to do it! I didn't want to kill anyone, you know that! I thought we could band together and keep from hurting each other.”
“I was wrong.”
“So you decided to win the tournament yourself,” Solan sneered, drawing dangerously close now.
“No! The night before last Alexander and I promised not to kill each other!”
That was enough to bring the extremely built blond boy to a temporary halt, but then his lip curled in contempt.
“He would never agree to that,” Solan said dismissively.
He was losing him, Justin realized despairingly. Nothing he was saying was getting through.
“You saw me try to save Alexander yesterday! Why would I do that if I was only trying to win myself?”
Solan had come to stand over the adolescent, blotting out the artificial sun and engulfing the Turbo Ranger in his shadow. This close he seemed to radiate strength and energy, and looking up at him remained as intimidating an experience as ever. More so, without the protection offered by his lessened Ranger powers.
“So he could be your shield,” the Warrior Prince responded harshly. “With my promise to save you until last you needed someone else alive to hide behind. You no longer have that, so you cower here and try to deceive me. Enough!” he declared, lashing out with his right boot and kicking Justin in the chest. Pain exploded in the Ranger as he was knocked backward.
He was so weary of being lied to and manipulated. It was past time Justin stopped taking him for a fool.
“Go get your morpher,” he commanded the prone boy, “and face me!”
The teenager rolled over onto his stomach, lifted himself up on his hands and knees, and began to laugh. To the Warrior Prince's astonished ire the laughter continued as Justin sat down again. He was holding a hand to his chest and in obvious pain, but he kept laughing. It was inexplicable and the sound was starting to madden him.
“What are you laughing at?” he asked. “What are you laughing at?” he repeated in a louder tone, taking a threatening step forward.
“I-I was remembering when we met,” Justin said, still chuckling, “and I was thinking of how we've changed places since then. Now you're the big tough warrior and I'm the scared little kid. The only difference is that I wanted to help you, and be your friend. You just want to kill me.”
He turned his anguished gaze up to meet his opponent's.
“Don't you think that's funny?”
The infuriated twelve year-old acted without conscious thought, moving forward, seizing Justin by the front of the shirt, lifting him up, and taking two more steps to slam the teenager's back against the wall.
“I was a pet to you!” he shouted furiously. “Never an equal, never a real friend!”
“LIAR!” Justin screamed back at the top of his lungs. “I always thought of you as my friend! I liked you. I trusted you! When I saw you were alive it was the happiest I've been here. Even after you attacked us I told myself that it wasn't your fault, that Archon had to be controlling you and I only needed to find a way to set you free. Then you'd be back with us.”
“I never betrayed you; you betrayed me,” Justin finished roughly, unshed tears glimmering in his eyes.
The two stared at each other and, try though he might, the deeply shaken Grecian could not discern any falsehood in those eyes. He felt the bitter, rock-solid belief he had based his actions on began to wobble and teeter. Like a man on shifting ground his mind scrambled for purchase, desperately seeking some proof of enmity to cling to.
“You tried to kill me with your Turbo Blade,” he charged, almost in relief.
“I was trying to save Alexander,” Justin spat out as he wiped at his eyes. “But yeah, I wanted to kill you then, after I realized you'd turned on us willingly. When I had my chance, though, I couldn't do it. You were lying right in front of me and I could have broken your neck, but I didn't! I hit the grass next to you instead.”
Hurriedly his consciousness spooled back to yesterday, to the awful moment he had wanted so much to forget. He'd been utterly consumed with rage and terror at the time, expecting each second to feel the impact of a finishing blow. Had he felt something hit the ground near him? Maybe; he couldn't be sure. He did remember thinking, though, that there had been more than enough time for Justin to strike.
“Why?” he asked urgently.
Justin did not answer for almost a minute. Finally he spoke.
“Part of it-part of it was because you were helpless. The rest was remembering how I'd thought of you as my friend, even if you had been using me the whole time.”
When his shirt was released and its collar stopped cutting into the back of his neck Justin landed on his feet, but his legs were unsteady beneath him. He slumped against the arena wall.
Solan had fallen back one step, then a second. His expression showed complete and total bewilderment, with a hint of genuine fear. Slowly he shook his head from side to side.
“No, this cannot be! Archon told me I was no more to you than a primitive inferior. He said you'd eventually kill me for your freedom,” the Grecian youth insisted, though his voice wavered with lack of conviction.
Justin's careful plan of measured persuasion and logical arguments had fallen apart. Since his bout of near-hysteria he had been operating almost solely on the basis of emotion. With this latest revelation his emotions overwhelmed him.
“You believed Archon over me? He's the reason we're here in the first place! He's the one responsible for everyone who's died, for all of this suffering! Why would you listen to him?!?”
“Because he helped me!” Solan roared back. “He told me of my real parentage, and of my destiny. He gave me back myself ! This is who I am,” he declared adamantly, striking his developed right pectoral muscle with a clenched fist, “not the weak, pathetic child you first met.”
“You weren't weak or pathetic!” Justin disputed, momentarily diverted from further expressing his own outrage. “You just didn't know how to fight.”
“And here what could be more pathetic than that?” he replied, his tone thick with self-hatred. “Thousands of years behind you, unable even to defend myself . . . I was worse than useless! Why wouldn't you look down on me, despise me?”
“You're more than just how well you can fight! When you were Solan you were a good person! Since you became the Warrior Prince you've acted mostly like Kenny.”
The comparison visibly stung the golden-haired lad.
“I was always honest with you and everyone else!” he protested hotly. “I never tried to take advantage of another's trust to stab him in the back!”
“No, you stabbed us in the front! That's not a big improvement!” Justin shot back with angry sarcasm.
“I thought you were going to kill me! I never even suspected the truth about Xena; how could I be sure you weren't fooling me too?”
“You should have trusted me! That's what friends do!”
A brief silence ensued while the two glared at each other. The bigger boy broke eye contact first and when he spoke he was so quiet that even at a distance of a few feet Justin had to strain to hear him.
“So you,” his Adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed nervously, “you really were my friend, then?” he asked, as though he could hardly bring himself to believe it.
“Yes!” Justin cried emphatically.
With this the mask of arrogant self-confidence at last slipped fully away. Guilt and remorse softened the young Prince's brutally handsome features. In spite of his size and power he suddenly seemed lost and alone, more like the Solan Justin had known. His hands shook ever so slightly and he would not meet the teenager's gaze.
“Justin, I . . .” he stopped, floundering for words, for a way to express himself. “I'm sorry,” he whispered helplessly, and his apology loosened the knot of tension in Justin's aching chest. He was attempting to frame a reply when another voice echoed through the arena.
“You have come so far, only to fall short at the end.”
This was not Archon's impersonal, electronic tones; it was a deep, rich baritone, and it seemed to come from the far end of the arena. Solan spun instantly to search for the source, and Justin moved to his side to join him.
As they watched the ball of light descended to hover just above the surface of the throne in the royal box. Then it began to warp and expand into the shape of a human. When the light faded (although the level of light in the arena remained unchanged) a man sat there.
It was hard to be certain of his height with him sitting down, but Justin figured he had to be at least six foot four. He looked to be in his early twenties, with brilliant blue eyes and long, blond hair that cascaded down past his very broad shoulders. He wore a leather cross-belt and his physique was at the point of perfection, his muscles sculpted and as large as possible without being bloated or overdeveloped.
Justin gasped as the boy beside him snarled. The man on the throne looked as Solan might in another eight years.
“You should have killed the Ranger at once instead of allowing him to prattle on,” the adult observed coldly.
“Archon,” Justin breathed.
“Why do you look like me?” Solan growled.
“I don't; you look like me,” Archon corrected with a razor-thin smile. “This was the appearance I had before I transcended physical form. It was an ascension I hoped to someday see you make yourself.”
Solan didn't get it, but Justin thought that he did. He couldn't even begin to try to grasp all of the implications involved; right now the simple, stark fact was more than enough for him to try to take in. If he was right, their captor, their torturer, was . . .
“You're an alternate universe Solan, aren't you?” Justin asked. Solan's head snapped toward him so fast Justin thought he might have hurt his neck, but Archon only brought his palms together thrice in a slow, mocking clap.
“Very good, Ranger. But say rather that I am the primary Solan. My parents raised and trained me together, teaching me all they knew. In my early teens I helped to expand our empire to every corner of Europe . No mortal could match me, not even Xena.”
“Then the Twilight of the Gods began.”
“The Greek gods are not eternal. In most of the realities in which they exist they are destined to be destroyed by a single warrior. I was that warrior. I slew the gods and then in their own hall I feasted on nectar and ambrosia.”
“I became a god, and my power grew far beyond your limited understanding. Eventually I achieved dominion over my entire reality and for millennia I have had no more worlds to conquer.”
“Recently I began peering into other universes. In the process I looked into the pasts of those worlds akin to my own and saw other versions of myself. And out of all those I viewed, your short life was the most unjust and terrible,” he proclaimed, indicating Solan with a nod of his head.
“Your father dead before you'd drawn your first breath. Your mother forsaking you, giving you away out of pride and jealousy. Being forced to grow up as the sole human in that Centaur village, never knowing your true heritage and potential. Then Xena's return, her lies, her dissuading you from the path of the warrior. Finally her second coming and your shameful and ignominious death at the hands of an enemy you would have been able to defeat if you had been trained!”
Archon's voice had risen almost to a shout, outraged fury vibrating in ever syllable. Now he returned to a more conversational tone, almost soft.
“You were never given even one chance to grow and succeed; I resolved to offer you that chance.”
“I devised the tournament, an environment of intense physical competition and mortal danger for you to seek to excel in. It was a crucible in which you could purge yourself of everything inside you that hindered you and held you back.”
Up to this point both boys had stood spellbound, listening in mute fascination to Archon, but Justin could keep silent no longer.
“You're saying that this entire contest was all some kind of-of boot camp for Solan?” he asked in a tightly controlled voice.
“In effect,” Archon casually confirmed before turning back to his other-world counterpart. “By the time of your death you were so confused and misled that you didn't even know who you were anymore. This experience was the only way you could hope to break through to your true nature and self.”
These words flowed over Justin, but he paid scant attention to them. Distantly, as though from a long way off, he heard the Warrior Prince shout, “If you wanted to help me, then why did you lie to me about Justin? Why did you tell me he wasn't my friend?”
Jo's death. Josh's death. Alexander's death. The fear and pain they had endured before dying, the anguish Justin himself had felt. Everything endured and sacrificed solely in order to have an effect on one individual.
“If he survived long enough, Justin was intended to be your final test. Slaying someone you knew had saved your life would have hardened you, toughened you mentally and emotionally. Then I could have sent you back to your world confident that you would allow no one to stand in your way. The determination to prevail at all costs, to strike down any person between you and your goal, is vital for your future!”
“And for this you would have had me take Justin's life!” the twelve year-old bellowed.
“Yes! Killing him will help you to become all that you can!”
“You mean it will help me become as you are,” the Warrior Prince spat out contemptuously. “You're no different from my mother! Both of you manipulated me, striving to make me into who you wished for me to be! No more! I will not be your puppet, or hers! I am Solan, Warrior Prince, and I am myself! I shall NEVER be you!”
The fire and certitude of the declaration was enough to rouse Justin from his horrified contemplation. Nor did he miss the fact that the Grecian boy had reclaimed his birth name, the name Justin had known him by.
There was a long pause, fraught with tension, as the god gazed down at his younger doppelganger.
“You know I could reduce you to dust with less than a thought,” he announced in a low, dangerous tone.
“Then do so!” Solan urged, no trace of fear in his voice or mannerisms. “I would rather die as myself than live as you would make me!”
“I would not then spare the Ranger,” Archon added threateningly.
In a single fluid motion Solan took hold of his chakram and hurled it up at Archon, who casually plucked the circular blade from the air before it could bite into his throat. For an instant a smile flickered across his face.
“A good effort,” he conceded, “but the power to destroy the divine is not yet within you.”
He tossed the weapon into the arena wall to his right. It struck the surface, rebounded toward them, and was deftly caught by Solan. The look on the twelve year-old's face was easily one of the most frightening things Justin had ever seen.
“Although you have failed your final test, I will not kill you. You have made great strides here, but in your youth and foolishness you cling to the wrong things. Perhaps in time you will acquire the necessary wisdom, if your lack of it does not doom you first. Now I release you both. Farewell!”
Justin saw Solan turn his head and open his mouth. Then they were gone.
Afterwards the arena itself dissolved into nothingness as its creator relinquished his corporeal form.
He had feared it would end this way. This Solan had been raised with a host of foolish ideas, one of which was to value his friends out of all proportion to their actual worth. That was why it had been so important that he see Xena and Justin as false friends, and slay the latter. Such an act would have effectively destroyed his ability to care for and trust another person, and he would have been all the stronger for it. Instead the weakness remained intact, a potentially fatal flaw in his character.
It would have been easy to alter this Solan's mind, but experience had taught him the folly of stripping mortals of their free will. Free will was the source of all of the conflict, all of the excitement, all of the meaning of humans' lives! Without it they were no better than a colony of ants, and there was no pleasure or satisfaction to be found in ruling such beings. Besides, he could not bear to degrade his other self in such a way, even if it was ultimately for the boy's own good.
No, as he had resolved yesterday, he would simply have to accept that his protégé had failed to fully meet his expectations. Solan had nonetheless still come a long way from where he had started. His spirit and courage at the end had been a pleasure to behold, and conditions in his world were now very favorable for him.
He had taken great care to return Solan to his Earth AFTER Xena and Gabrielle had perished battling each other. Before he had intervened the Powers of Solan's reality would have used the boy subsequent to his death to create Illusia, a dream world where his mother and her companion could learn from their mistakes and resolve their lethal differences with each other. His discovery of this ploy had enraged him more than anything else in the last century.
On top of all the indignities and hardships his other self had endured, to be used after his demise as a mere prop for his foul mother's benefit, as if SHE was the important one, as if her main purpose in life hadn't always been to give birth to her son! Such a tremendous insult could not be allowed to stand.
It was Illusia which had given him the inspiration for the tournament. The Powers of that reality had seen fit to send Xena to a special world right before she would have died, a place where she could experience growth and alter her fate. He had resolved to do the same for his alternate world self.
He had spent a long time searching for the other participants. It had pleased him to choose other child warriors who were about to die, each of them selected for their ability to fulfill at least one purpose in Solan's awakening. Aside from that damnable bolt of lighting, the process had proceeded better than he could have hoped.
Now the changed Solan was home and his worthless mother had died the death she deserved. This Xena had done her son a monstrous disservice by leaving him with the centaurs, and a far worse one by encouraging him not to be a fighter. The difference between her actions and his fictional account of deliberate betrayal was a miniscule one in the eyes of the god.
Solan had been born to do battle! How could it be otherwise for the son of Xena and Borias, and the grandson of Ares, God of War?
With his warrior potential now fully realized and Xena gone the gods would need the new Warrior Prince to take over the Warrior Princess' role in fending off the threat of Dahak. They would not dare to kill him, not yet. His mother's death would also serve to keep his younger half-sister Eve from ever existing. In that reality she would have been the child of Xena destined to destroy the gods, but now that destiny would most likely be Solan's. Fate required that a mortal descended from a god be the one to end their existence, and the only other real possibility left in that world was Hercules.
Would this Solan outgrow his childish softness by the time Twilight fell? Perhaps. The left-handed gift which he had bestowed could lead to such growth, depending on how things transpired between them. More likely it would forestall growth, but it was better to take that chance than leave the boy a sacred, idealized picture to cling to. And the poetic irony of this gift was indeed satisfying.
Still, this outcome was a poor substitute for the success he would have enjoyed without that errant bolt of lightning. Such a fantastically unlikely event almost made him suspect another Power's interference . . . but no, that was ridiculous! He reigned alone in his universe. Hadn't he banished the Creator himself? The prophecies of His return were nothing more than the ravings of a few deluded fools. He would never be cast down, and there would be no salvation coming for these pitiful Christians!
With that erroneous certainty firmly in mind the god turned his attention to the next Solan he planned to help.
Solan knew he was back. He had played often in this section of the woods, only about a hundred yards from the village. He had seen these trees less than a week ago, and despite the brief passage of time it seemed surreal that they should still be exactly the same.
He was not. His homecoming would be an awkward one, and after he had found and dealt with the inhuman little girl there would be no reason to stay. What was left for him here, with Kaleipus gone? Nor could he travel with Xena as he had originally planned. He would confront his mother with what he had learned, and if he survived he would set forth alone.
The sound of his name came from very close behind him and his reaction was entirely reflexive. He unsheathed his sword as he whirled around, his left hand snapping his chakram up to a throwing position. The speaker stood not three feet from him, a brown-haired boy dressed in distinctive blue clothing: Justin!
Letting his weapons fall as quickly as he had drawn them he gazed stupefied at this impossible sight. Shock was quickly followed by happiness. Justin was here! They hadn't been separated without a chance to say good-bye! He could tell the Ranger how sorry he was for what he had done, for the terrible way he had treated his friend. Maybe, just maybe, Justin would find it possible to forgive him. To part in real friendship would mean a great deal to him.
“Where are we?” Justin asked.
“We are near the Centaur village, in my world,” Solan explained. The look in Justin's eyes drove away the wild happiness he had been feeling. It was the look of a person devoid of hope. Not even in the arena had Justin seemed so desolate, so beaten.
The teenager twisted his left wrist in the motion he used to summon his morpher. But this time nothing happened. Apparently “Archon” had not returned the device when Justin had been teleported away.
“Archon!” Solan shouted, starting to understand now, starting to panic. “Archon!”
No one answered.
“Don't do this! Send him back to his own world!”
He screamed pleas and insults which blew away unheeded on the wind. His cried out until his throat grew raw and sore. Justin stood there as though paralyzed, not moving or speaking the entire time.
“Justin?” the Warrior Prince rasped worriedly. “Can you hear me?” The teenager said nothing. He didn't even flinch when a hand was waved in front of his eyes.
Solan bit his lip hard enough to break the skin. He couldn't get a reaction. What was wrong? What could he do?
At least he could get Justin out of the woods, to someplace safe. He tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to coax the Ranger forward. In the end he gently lifted Justin into his arms, cradling the smaller boy like a newborn, and carried his burden down into the village.
The Centaurs shied away from him, visibly awed. He asked them what had happened to the human children, and to Xena. Upon finding they had all departed he made his way to Kaleipus' hut, the place where he had almost died.
The Centaurs seemed to think he HAD died, and he explained curtly that he had been with the gods, and had been sent back. He promised go into more detail later and disappeared into the hut. He laid Justin down on his bed and wrapped the boy in a warm blanket.
He spent the rest of the day intermittently talking to Justin, hoping in vain to get some response. He went out only once, to borrow some food for their meals. Justin showed no interest in eating.
After nightfall Solan lit the hearth fire. He was in the midst of cooking dinner when he heard a loud sob. He was at Justin's bedside an instant later. The teen was weeping copiously, tears running down his cheeks.
“Dad,” he whispered brokenly, and Solan's heart contracted. The Warrior Prince hesitated, not sure how an attempt to offer comfort might be received. He had been the one to betray their friendship. He had beaten Justin badly more than once and had nearly killed the Ranger. It was an alternate version of himself who had stranded Justin here. Would his support only make things worse?
Gingerly, prepared to pull away, he slowly reached down and tentatively embraced the teen. “I'm so sorry,” he said.
Half-sitting up Justin threw his own arms around the twelve year-old and hugged back with hysterical force. He buried his face in Solan's broad left shoulder, and wept for all he had lost.
The two boys maintained that position long into the night, eventually drifting off to sleep, but still holding on tightly, as though each one was all that the other had left.
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