At least it was an interesting country. Unfortunately, it was also an old one. Its cities were full of merchants who had long since learned how to ignore wide-eyed street urchins begging for food and a little spare change.
That was all right, though. The redheaded boy preferred to give storekeepers an honest choice about whether or not to part with their wares, but in a pinch, he wasn't a bad thief.
He wasn't a very good one, either. This explains why he was now running full tilt through the stifling Indian heat, a skewer full of some kind of meat (he hadn't bothered identifying it before taking it) clenched between his teeth and a handful of spilled change in one hand. Behind him, angry yells got closer and closer.
He bounded over a low fence and ran down an alleyway and--
--a gauzy curtain fell over him. He brushed past it and entered the strange little shop beyond, noting with relief that there was another curtained exit on the opposite side.
For a moment he thought the shop was abandoned. Then he saw the tiny old man staring at him from partway behind a huge urn.
"Hi," the boy said. He tore a chunk of meat off the skewer and chewed.
"You shouldn't eat in here," the old man said peevishly. "There are priceless artifacts--" He paused. "No, most of it's junk. Just stay away from the books."
The boy ate some more, and while he ate, he looked around the shop. "What is this place?"
"I told you," said the old man. "It's a shop full of priceless artifacts."
"Or junk," the boy said.
The old man sighed. "Or junk. But not the books; those are mine."
"Isn't this whole shop yours?" The boy studied a rather mediocre carving of the Buddha in a material he couldn't identify.
"I'm just watching it," the old man said.
The boy rubbed the Buddha's head absently with the fist he held clenched around the stolen coins.
"Don't do that," said the old man.
The boy scowled as he chewed the last chunk of meat. "Guess I'll be going then, old man. This place is no fun." He started for the exit opposite where he'd come in.
"Don't go there," said the old man. For the first time, he sounded surprised, as if the boy wasn't even supposed to know that the curtained doorway existed. Which was odd, because it wasn't as if it was hidden.
The boy with the red hair rolled his eyes. "Is there anywhere I can go?"
"Out the way you came."
"Well--" The boy hesitated to consider that, and in that moment, the sounds of pursuit returned from the way he'd come. "No time, old man! I gotta go!"
The boy turned to go, then paused. There was something in a corner that caught his eye--something bright and entertaining amidst the gloomy, serious junk that lined the small room's walls. "I'll take that hammer," he said, and he tossed down the skewer the meat had been on and grabbed the hammer by the handle.
"No, you won't! You can't take--"
"Fine, I'll pay for it if you're that worried," the boy said. He hurled his loose change in the old man's direction and ran out through the curtain, clutching the hammer tightly.
He'd been fleeing for almost a minute when he stopped basking in his triumph for long enough to realize that something was wrong. The narrow, winding alleys around him were empty. At first he'd assumed that this was just because they were backstreets and alleys, but by this point, he knew that there was something more than that going on.
"Hey?" he called.
The silence answered him by not changing one bit. It did tell him, though, that he was lost. Or maybe he came up with that conclusion himself.
"Maybe I should have brought more food," he said. He was getting nervous, and he thought that maybe if he talked, he could bludgeon the silence into defeat. It wasn't working. "I could have a picnic here. Of course, there wouldn't be anyone else to have a picnic with, but that's all right, because other people just eat all the food, anyway. Right?"
The boy clambered on top of a wooden crate and started trying to climb up the wall on one side of the alley while still holding onto the hammer. It didn't work. Annoyed, he sat back down on the crate. "Fine," he said, "I can enjoy myself without food. It's--"
He stopped. There was a scurrying sound nearby. "And I'm not hungry enough to eat rats!" he yelled into the barely-broken silence. "So don't bother sending any my way!"
The scurrying intensified. The boy gripped his hammer tighter. It sounded like a lot of rats.
But it wasn't. What rounded the corner and paraded (insofar as scurrying things could parade) into his alley was perhaps distantly rat-like, in that somewhere in its sordid genetic history, something with rodent parts had married into the family and produced some spawn. But while it might have provided the twitching nose and naked grey tail, no rat could be responsible for those many grasping hands, all clawed, bulging from the thing's body, or its mad--but very human--eyes.
The boy looked at it.
It grinned with broken teeth that still managed to be sharp. "I didn't know the Bookman and the boy exorcist were planning on sending dinner to me in my maze! I shall thank--wait!"
The boy was halfway down the alley at this point, running furiously with the hammer clutched tight to his chest.
"Wait!" The thing skittered after him. "Food isn't supposed to run away!"
"I taste terrible!" he yelled back. "I haven't bathed in two years, and that time was an accident!"
The monster did not seem deterred. The boy ran faster. Unfortunately, his speed became a moot point when he found himself facing a stone wall.
He looked at the wall, and then at the monster. Then he considered the hammer in his hands.
The boy turned around, ran back at the monster, and began hitting it with the hammer.
This was not at all what it expected from its food. After the first few furious blows, it merely shrieked. After the fourth hit, though, it started to fight back.
Unfortunately, its many claws were considerably more effective than the hammer. The boy felt his hard-won (he'd danced until people threw things at him to make him stop) clothes being shredded, the skin underneath being sliced into. He lifted the hammer to block another blow--
--and it worked. The monster screeched. "That ridiculous hammer broke my claw! I liked this claw--"
The boy took advantage of the momentary distraction to sweep the hammer in for another blow. This time, though, the monster caught it. "Oh, no, you don't!" With one of its free hands, it swiped a claw down the right side of his face.
He didn't scramble back in time to avoid the blow. Pain exploded in tiny red sparkles all over his skull, but mostly where the thing had struck. He staggered. The monster advanced.
Then a shadow flickered over him, and behind him, someone dropped to the ground from a rooftop. "Idiot," said a man's--no, a boy's--voice, "I should just let you die. Of course, you'll be dead from the virus soon enough, and if you aren't, then I will have to kill you..."
The boy couldn't focus anymore. He had the feeling he was losing a lot of blood. He fell back to the ground, still struggling to wave his hammer menacingly at the monster.
Then something moved, and suddenly a pretty lady was lashing out at the monster with an elegant Eastern sword. The boy would have liked to watch the fight, because it looked interesting and that was a very pretty lady indeed, but he felt his grip on consciousness sliding away, even though he still held tight to his hammer.
It was a shame. He'd hoped to die in--well, this actually was a pretty exciting way to die, but he'd rather have gone down fighting, not lying in a puddle of blood while someone else did the fighting for him.
He was orbiting the sun--not like the Earth did (he'd been told), but right over its surface. If he held his arms out, he could fly like a bird while he zipped around and around the bright yellow ball of light. It wasn't too cold and it wasn't too hot. It was perfect.
The boy waved to the sun below him. "Is this where dead people go? It's fiery, but it doesn't look like hell to me. It's actually pretty nice here."
The sun laughed, although he couldn't quite hear it with his normal ears. "No, this is where special people go. You're not dead yet."
"Oh, good," the boy said. "I want to beat up more monsters with that hammer. Do I get to keep it?"
"Maybe," said the sun.
He felt himself drifting towards the flaming surface of the sun, but he wasn't afraid. He just balanced a little on the solar winds and let himself drift into a good landing position. His feet touched down, and the ground was bouncy beneath them. He reached down, pulled out a handful of sunstuff, and took a bite. It tasted like some kind of tropical fruit.
"Don't eat in here," chided the Buddha figure from inside the old man's shop.
"I'm not in anywhere," the boy retorted. He threw the remains of his handful of sun at the Buddha, and it split open along an invisible seam. Scrolls with arcane writing on them poured from inside. Instead of burning up in the flames around them, they floated up into space.
The boy leaped after them. He wasn't sure why, but he wanted to track them down and figure out what they said. Within moments, though, the sun was a distant ball in the sky, and the scrolls were nowhere to be seen. He reached for the sun again, but it was too far.
Then, from out of nowhere, a clawed hand grabbed the sun and wrenched it from its place. The boy yelped. "Hey! That's mine!" He paused. "No, it's not, it's everyone's! That's one thing you're not supposed to steal--"
Another claw grabbed him by the shoulder, holding him steady. Before he could say another word, the first hand jammed the sun, now quite small, into his right eye. He screamed.
And he screamed some more, and suddenly he was somewhere different, clutching his hammer too tightly.
There were bandages all over the right side of his face, and someone had been soaking alcohol through them. "That hurt," he said reproachfully. Then he thought to add, "But it didn't bother me much. Not really."
"The noises you were making said something else." It was the voice from just before he'd passed out.
The boy twisted around to peer at the source of the voice. "Hey! You're the pretty lady!"
The other boy stared back at him in disgust and disbelief. "You should be dead. I wish you had died."
"Oh," said the boy with red hair. "I guess you're not a lady after all."
"You could still die now if you keep it up," said the dark-haired boy, reaching for his sword.
"No, Khanda," said the old man, "he won't, and don't suggest it."
Khanda snarled and glared at the redheaded boy, but moved his hand away from his sword.
"Hey, old man," said the boy, "I didn't see you in here. You can't have my hammer back. I paid for it fair and square."
"I'm not here to take the hammer back," the old man said, irritation in his voice. "You get to keep the hammer."
"If he doesn't get himself killed on the way to the Black Church," Khanda said sharply.
"Aw, don't worry about me," the boy said. "I'll get there just--what's the Black Church?"
"It's a place that's going to want to make you its own," said the old man. "I think you might be better off elsewhere, though."
"Really? I don't like staying in one place."
The old man stood up, then, and walked over to the boy. "You had a vision while you were out, didn't you? While the virus was trying to kill you or transform you."
"...I was flying around the sun," the boy said uncertainly. "Then the Buddha came by and there were scrolls inside him, and I tried to get them, but--"
"Enough," said the old man. "You'll do."
"Do you know what fruit the sun tastes like?" the boy asked him.
"Idiot," muttered Khanda.
"That's not a fruit," said the boy. "Wait, what do you mean, I'll do?"
"I'm coming with you to the Black Church," said the old man. "Then you're coming with me."
"You're both idiots," Khanda elaborated.
"It sounds fun," said the boy. "When do we go? Oh, I should tell you two something about me. I'm twelve years old and my name--"
"Your name is not your name anymore," said the old man. "And my name is not Bookman, but that is what you and everyone else will call me."
"Whatever, old man," said the boy. "What am I going to be called?"
"You will choose."
The boy's gaze slid hopefully to his hammer.
"Not 'Hammer,'" said Bookman. "Or anything like it."
"Well," said the boy, "I guess I'll think about it, then. Are we ready to go yet?"