The Gray Boy's captors marched him through the canyon, a maze of twists and turns so numerous he began to feel nauseous. Every time he slowed down, the butt of a rifle slammed into his back, causing the boy to stumble forward. The masked figures said nothing. No "move it!", no chatter amongst themselves. Just stoic silence. The Gray Boy found it unnerving.
The sun had set, and the entire canyon was dark except for starlight from above. The people who captured the Gray Boy seemed to have no problem navigating the darkness; they didn't use flashlights or torches. The boy kept his eyes on the person in front of him so he wouldn't go blundering into a rock wall.
They eventually arrived at a wider part of the canyon; in a large groove was a series of massive boulders. The boy's captors headed for the boulders; as they approached them, the boy saw that the boulders have been hollowed out and turned into makeshift homes. Windows and a door had been carved into each boulder; the settlement was dark except for small lanterns in each dwelling.
The Gray Boy was taken to the largest boulder and shoved inside. He was untied, shoved into a chair. The soldiers tied his legs and arms to the chair and left. The rock was very spartan; only a basic desk and some folding metal chairs were inside, as well as two crimson banners. The banners each had an image of a snake coiled around a sword, fangs bared. Below the image was lettering the Gray Boy didn't recognize. It looked a bit like a cross between Arabic and Russian.
The boy didn't know how long he was waiting alone in the room. He could hear some talking outside, but it was very muffled, even with the door and windows open. The stone walls did a very good job of keeping sound out. In any event, they were speaking a language the Gray Boy didn't understand, so it wouldn't have done him any good even if he could have heard it more clearly.
The Gray Boy heard footsteps behind him, and two masked figures approached opposite sides of the desk, training their rifles on him. Softer footsteps approached from behind, and the boy was shocked to see a very pleasant-looking woman sit down on the other side of the desk. She looked to be in her late fifties, with her graying hair tied back in a ponytail. In the dim light, her skin seemed to have a reddish tint. She appeared as though she was from somewhere in eastern Asia. While the woman had a grandmotherly appearance, clad in soft-colored robes, the Gray Boy could see in her eyes that she was not someone to trifle with.
For a few moments, the woman just stared at the boy. The Gray Boy shifted uncomfortably in his seat, the woman's gaze making his heart pound. Finally she spoke, in the same heavy accent as his captors. "Who are you?"
"No one," the Gray Boy answered quickly.
The woman shared a glance with the masked figures. "I want your name."
"Trust me, my name wouldn't interest you."
The woman nodded to one of the figures next to the Gray Boy, and a rifle butt collided with his skull. "Shit!" the boy yelled out.
"Now…who are you?"
"I just told you, damn it!" The boy's head was pounding.
The woman's eyes narrowed. "Who are you with? The 181st? The 72nd?"
"The…what?" the boy asked, his vision still blurred from the rifle strike.
"We know you are a spy, or part of a recon patrol. Where is the rest of your team?"
"What the hell makes you think I'm a spy?! Look at me! I can barely lift my water bag!"
"We've been tricked by people who appeared weak before," the woman replied calmly. "As well as by children. Just because you are both does not make this any less likely a trick."'
"I…I'm a child?" No wonder everyone looks so tall.
"Not young enough to not be a spy, or a soldier," the woman said. "Now tell me, where did you come from?"
The boy shook his head. "You'd never believe me."
"Oh, I'm certain of that. I'm sure you have a lie all set up."
"Look, I swear I'm not lying to you! I'm not a spy, or a soldier, or anything else that would hurt you! I don't even know where I am!"
"Then you should have no problem telling me where you're from."
"Fine," the Gray Boy let out with a sigh. "A couple of days ago, I woke up in the desert a few miles south of here after an extended stay in Nonexistence. Before that, I was in a different universe, until I died saving a boy from a fire."
The woman stood up angrily. "That is the stupidest thing I've ever heard! It's bad enough you are a Slaver spy, but to insult my intelligence with this ridiculous story?!"
"It's not a story! I swear to you, it's the truth!"
"Really! Where did you get the wineskin? Where did you get those robes?"
"I found them in the desert!"
"Oh, is that right? You just happened to stumble upon them?"
"Well, no…I had to dig through the sand first."
"And how did you know where to dig?"
The boy closed his eyes with a wince as he said, "Um…a rattlesnake showed me. The same rattlesnake that guided me to the canyon."
The woman roared orders to the guards, in the strange language the Gray Boy had been hearing all night.
The youth was yanked up by the guards, chair and all, and carried outside. The guards slammed the chair into the ground. There was a lot of shouting. A group of masked figures, all armed with machine guns, stood in front of the Gray Boy. The woman joined them, armed with her own rifle.
"Do you have any last words before we execute you, spy?" she spat.
A strange sense of calm washed over the Gray Boy. Maybe it was because he had already died, and this was a chance to actually get to the universe he wanted to go to. Or perhaps it was because he just didn't care anymore. "No, go ahead," he said to the woman.
The woman's eyes flashed with rage. "Ready!" The soldiers cocked their weapons.
"Aim!" Seven barrels aligned with the boy's eyes.
Then the Gray Boy heard the sand around him shift. He looked down, and saw a score of rattlesnakes erupt from the ground. They slithered up his body, coiling around his legs, then his torso…his arms. The boy tried to stay perfectly still, even though he was extremely close to screaming. Soon, he was up to his neck in rattlesnakes. The snakes rattled and hissed; the sound was deafening, causing him to wince. Two serpents were level with his head, hissing toward his executioners.
The firing squad reeled backward in shock; the woman stared at the Gray Boy with her mouth hanging open, eyes wide with either surprise or fear. The Gray Boy wasn't sure. The woman finally barked something to the soldiers, and they lowered their weapons.
The snakes gave one last collective hiss, then uncoiled, slithering down the boy's body and back amongst the rocks of the canyon. While the youth very much had the urge to vomit, he managed to force it down.
The woman barked more orders, and the Gray Boy was untied. As the boy staggered to his feet, the woman slowly approached him. The Gray Boy couldn't tell if it was in fear or some kind of awe.
"Who are you?" she whispered.
The Gray Boy almost said his name, but then looked behind him, at the last of the rattlesnakes disappearing from sight. He thought about what had just happened, what it possibly could have meant. He only had one response to the woman's question, the answer that now made the most sense.
"I…I don't know."