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Old Guy

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Kratos sat before his hut, skinning a rabbit. He froze at the sound of heavy footsteps. Pale moonlight gave the twisted trunks of his olive trees a ghostly appearance. An armored man stepped from the shadows and stopped.

He raised one arm in greeting. "Pardon, grandfather. I intended only to savor the night air. I am called Hulin." The man's accent was strange, his voice raspy.

"Truly, it is -- a fine night." The old man gestured toward his hut. "I am Kratos. Would you take wine? I have bread and this fine rabbit."

"I will share your fire, though I have no use for your food or wine."

Hulin followed Kratos inside and settled down on the far side of the glowing brazier. He watched his host spear rabbit chunks and place the spit over the coals.

Kratos eyed the boxy helmet squatting on the man's shoulders. It was a poor thing, with a round grid affixed to the front and a pair of crystalline eyepieces side-by-side above that. "Your armor and helmet are of a design I've not seen before."

Red light flickered in crystals. "It is not a helmet." One gauntlet touched the side of the box. "And the armor is my body, not -- I cannot take it off."

The old man sat perfectly still for several heartbeats. "I have heard tales -- old fables."

"Yes. So have I." Moving slowly, his guest opened a small door where a man would have a stomach and withdrew a thick rod. Kratos tensed. His legs knotted as he pushed back against the stone wall of his hut.

Hulin shoved the rod into the glowing coals. A thick black rope led back to the door in his belly. Kratos tried to relax his aching legs. He lifted the wineskin to his mouth, dribbling only a little as he drank. "You -- you are of the gods?"

A grating laugh filled the hut. "Nay. I am of Atua. I was the fifth of twenty metal men. We were soldiers of Atua."

"Atua?" Kratos laid the wineskin aside and turned the spit. "Is it beyond the edge of the world? Never, in all my travels have I heard of such a place."

Hulin shifted slightly. His fists closed -- opened. "Atua lay far to the south, in the sea. It was destroyed long, long ago."

"Atlantis!" cried Kratos. "I have read of Atlantis." He studied Hulin. Dents and patches of rust marred the metal torso. Rot and age had gnawed his gauntlets and boots. "The years are written on your body. Where have you been?"

"Asleep, mostly, in a burial chamber above your little orchard. My maker built a tower -- high up on the plateau. Slaves dug the burial chamber."

"There are heaps of quarried stone atop the plateau. I have long thought they were from some kind of ancient structure. The burial chamber was for your maker?"

"Aye. We were living in the tower when -- when Atua was destroyed. Great waves smashed many cities along the Inner Sea. Ashes darkened the sky for months. Atua became nothing -- nothing but ashes on the wind."

Kratos turned the rabbit again. "When your maker died you went into the tomb with him? Why?"

"He called it the Waiting Room. His tomb was further inside -- sealed off. I was told to await the reappearance of mechanos like myself." Hulin tapped his chest. "Metal men with crystalline centers of thought."

"Legends aside, I believe there are no such creatures." Kratos remembered certain stories learned at his mother's knee. "You have wandered among men at times?"

"Yes. I had to watch, keep up with the language." Hulin made a vague gesture. "It is hard to be alone forever inside silent stone. Ages I passed in a kind of sleep, awakening only when earthquakes shook the mountain -- or when I dreamed of Atua's death."

Kratos shook his head. He lifted the spit from the fire and laid it aside to cool. "I eat food to live. Is the flame your food?"

Hulin's head creaked as it rotated side-to-side. "Not directly. As fire heats the stones of your hearth it also provides a kind of heat -- not unlike lightning -- for my body."

For a long time neither spoke. Kratos ate some of the rabbit, wiping the grease from his hands on the hem of his chiton. He swallowed a little wine and leaned back. "So here you are. What do you intend?"

The man of Atua stared at the coals. "I came out to say farewell."

"Surely not to me?"

"No, but your presence is welcome. I wanted a last view of the night sky."

"But -- you speak as if you will die."

"All things pass away, Kratos. A hundred lifetimes is too long. I grow weary. My joints creak and rust invades the inner workings of this body. It is time to cease."

Kratos sighed. "Of creaking joints I know much." He set the wineskin aside and leaned forward. "I can read and write. Linger awhile. Let me record your story."

"Those who would understand such a tale are not yet born." Hulin restored the rod and cable to the space in his belly. "I shall return to the Waiting Room and collapse the access tunnel. Eventually, an earthquake will reduce the burial chamber and all in it to dust." He rose to his feet and stepped outside.

Kratos followed. They watched the silent stars. A crescent moon hovered low on the horizon.

"The moon and stars light my way," said Hulin. "A mountain will be my shroud."

"Passage money," said Kratos, offering a small coin. "For the boatman."

"He will deny me passage."

"You have the fee. The boatman does not decide who is a man and who is not."

Hulin clenched his fist, enclosing the coin. He stood in silence for a long time, then turned and vanished into the olive grove.


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