TWO

Jett's eyes slowly blinked open, his mouth stretching wide in a yawn. He reached out with both hands, trying to stretch out the sleepiness that invaded his body. Strangely, he didn't feel rested and his muscles ached as if he'd slept on a hard dirt floor all night. Had he rolled off his pallet while he slept?

Wait a minute; he was on the floor.

Why wasn't he in his bed? Why on earth did he sleep curled up in the corner? Jett blinked in confusion for a minute before it suddenly hit him. The stranger! His head jerked up and his gaze shot over to where his pallet lay –

He froze.

Cool gray eyes met his own, trapping him in their icy depths. Jett went rigid. The strange man's helmet was gone, having disappeared to who knew where. Now propped up on one elbow, he merely regarded Jett impassively. The man had the strangest features Jett had seen – a young, rugged face crowned with cropped white hair.

There was no way to tell what he was thinking – for all Jett knew, the man might have been planning to skin and cook his host for dinner. Or maybe just give him a grateful hug for saving his life.

. . . Probably option one, Jett morosely thought, growing extremely uncomfortable beneath the weight of the stranger's stare. Maybe it wasn't a good idea to bring him here.

Jett swallowed nervously, afraid to tear his eyes away from the stranger. Barely aware of what he was doing, he pressed his back against the wall of his hut in an attempt to get as far away as he could. Yet he still couldn't break their locked gazes, couldn't move - the man was simply watching him, but he might as well have been sitting on top of him.

For a long moment, he struggled against rising panic, his heart jumping into overdrive. Then mobility suddenly found him and he leapt to his feet. Grabbing his unstrung bow, Jett rushed outside, letting the three deer hides fall quietly into place over the hut's entrance behind him.

He paused just outside the door, trying to calm his nerves. The cool dawn air helped to clear his head, as did the peaceful silence of the wildlife around him. He let out a shuddering breath.

The man had one frightening stare. It was nearly cold enough to freeze the blood in Jett's veins. Couple that with freakish silvery-white hair - old man hair – and there was an A-class super creep. Jett wondered what he had been thinking yesterday. Maybe the village boys had done the smart thing when they ran away to tell their daddies.

A frown crossed his face. That still didn't mean that the creeper deserved to fall into the villager's hands, though. The Elders would probably string him on the giant oak tree in the middle of their little market square, while making up all sorts of false reasons why he had to die.

Just who was this man, anyway? Why did he fall from the sky, and why was everyone so afraid?

It made no sense at all. Jett sighed, his brain growing tired from all the thinking. What a mess this was turning out to be. The sooner the strange man left, the better.

Feeling a bit better, Jett leaned his bow against the side of the hut then went over to the stone fire pit. Kneeling down, he used a stick to poke around in the ashes, seeing if there were any hot coals.

As he did so, Ravia swooped down to land on his head. With a friendly crawk she nestled down, her talons scraping gently against his scalp. She began preening. Jett barely noticed her arrival as he was used to her comings and goings. Since the day he'd found her beneath her nest, she had immediately latched onto him as her favorite perch and nothing he tried could dissuade her.

Throwing on dry grass, and then progressing to splinters of wood, he got the fire to a healthy, roaring size. He worked quietly and methodically, creating a stew of sorts out of the liver he gotten the day before.

When the stew was finished, he served it up into two misshapen, clay bowls that he had made himself. He ate one and the other he prepared to take to the stranger. As creepy as that man was, he would get better faster if he had some food.

After taking a deep breath, he pushed aside the deerskin door and stepped inside. Like a magnet, his eyes were drawn to the pallet. To his immense relief, the man appeared to be sleeping. Quietly, Jett set the bowl down by the pallet, careful to not disturb the man. Then he went back outside.

Shivering, he scooted closer to the fire. The morning wasn't that cold, but he felt a strange chill that just wouldn't go away.

xxx

Ravia exploded off of his head in a flurry of feathers, squawking loudly like someone was boiling her alive. Startled by her sudden noise, Jett fumbled badly, and accidently stabbed himself in the leg. A yelp tore past his lips, more from the shock than pain – the knife he was using was dull, so the wound was minor.

"Ravia!" He looked up to scold her, but the words died in his throat as he noticed something. A small army of villagers were marching up his hill, bearing stony faces and makeshift weapons. Some of them were the male elders from the village council, who were responsible for making and enforcing the rules, and the rest were a collection of villagers.

Slowly, Jett got to his feet, unable to take his coal-colored eyes off the group as they reached the top of his hill. They formed a long, grim line in front of him, outnumbering him twenty to one and looking ready for war. Ravia flew in circles above them, squawking and screeching frantically.

Jett shifted back a bit, his throat so thick with nervous fright that he was unable to speak. All of those villagers...all of their eyes bored him with such grim intensity! His legs trembled badly, knocking against each other as they struggled to hold him up. His dark eyes grew huge, a shocking contrast to his pale face.

Why were they here?

Were they finally going to kill him? Like all the village children had promised him, over and over again? Jett didn't think they hated him that much, but . . . the elders were a bit unstable.

"Where is it?" The head elder snarled suddenly, making Jett cringe. The old man, despite his perfectly combed white hair and great age, seemed as strong and huge as a mountain. He thumped his smooth, carved cane against the ground to emphasize his question. "Where is it, boy?"

Jett could only stare helplessly. He was never good with crowds, especially when they consisted of a bloodthirsty mob that hated his guts. He quivered, feeling like an insignificant piece of slime before this grand army. A cowardly insignificant piece of slime.

Ashamed and afraid, he lowered his head, hiding his face from the villagers. If he survived this, maybe he'd move into the Putarc. At least they wouldn't dare to bother him there.

"I asked you a question, boy. Didn't you hear me?" The old man thumped his cane angrily on the ground.

"If you aren't going to answer the Esteemed One, we'll make you talk," a huge man growled, his fingers caressing the fine axe he had hanging from his belt. His pale blue eyes clearly told of what methods he'd use to make Jett talk.

Jett tried to make his legs move, tried to make them take him away, far away from this place. But they only wobbled, threatening to give out.

"Boy," the old man hissed darkly, his pale eyes dark with anger and something terrifying. "I'll not ask you again: Where is it?" He enunciated the last word so fiercely, spittle flew from his mouth.

Jett's eyes blankly tracked the short flight of the spit through the air, finding a strange sense of relief when fell out of sight before it reached him. He stared at the ground and wondered if the grass would die where the elder's spit had hit it.

"It is right here," a low voice said from behind Jett's shoulder, clearly amused. Jett's head jerked up, as if a bucket of ice cold water had just been thrown over him. The villagers gasped, their expressions instantly turning fearful and horrified. They stared at something behind Jett, who could only guess at what it was.

Slowly, he half turned, looking over his shoulder. The stranger stood in the hut's doorway, looking perfectly healthy and completely intimidating. He leaned against the supporting frame of the door (which suddenly made Jett nervous, for the thin wood wasn't meant to hold that kind of weight), but despite his relaxed stance, his very presence screamed of a dangerous strength. There was a lazy curve to the stranger's lips, yet his gaze was keen as it travlled over the array of villagers.

"This - this is - !" The old man sputtered and stammered, and leaned on his cane for support. He swung his terrified gaze to Jett, jabbing at him with a wavering, bony finger. "Y-you did this! You brought this horrible thing upon us! You!"

Jett stared in surprise. What did he do? He just took in a stranger that he now wished he hadn't. The man was a scary guy, but . . . could he really be something that bad?

The man chuckled then, a dry, amused chuckle, and shifted his attention from the villagers to Jett. Jett froze beneath that gaze, feeling like a tiny insect pinned down by the biggest, hugest insect eater ever known to man.

His legs were no longer shaking because they were frozen solid with fear. If the man had reached out and poked him, Jett probably would have fallen over.

"They don't seem to like you much," the man remarked, his tone quite friendly

.

Jett could only stare. He had forgotten how to breathe.

The man smiled, showing strong white teeth. "You know, I think I have a solution here." His cold gray eyes flicked briefly over Jett's form, making Jett shudder uneasily.

"W-what are you talking about?" Jett whispered, finally having found his voice.

The man took a step forward then, moving towards Jett with slow, precise steps. His smile was a feral one, a cunning, predator kind of smile that made Jett's blood run cold.

"See, it's rather simple. These people don't like me, and it's just as obvious that they don't like you. So. . ." The man now towered over Jett, looking down at him with those intent gray eyes. "I think I'll just take you away."

Jett's mind blanked. Paralyzed with stunned disbelief, all he could do was stare up at the stranger with wide, frightened eyes.

Abruptly, a hand snaked out and suddenly, Jett was pinned against the man with a huge arm tight across his throat. The arm cut off his air, and he struggled weakly, his hands tugging at the offending arm uselessly. His vision filled with little floating stars, which he oddly paused to admire before suddenly remembering that he was being choked to death, but it was futile, for he felt the world fading away and against his will, his entire body went slack. As he floated off into darkness, he heard Ravia croaking faintly in the distance.

And then, he heard nothing at all.

xxx

The room was small, but a perfect example of a sterile medical facility. The air was cold, the lights naked and bright. Several people in white clothing gathered around large steel table, observing the small boy who lay asleep on its icy surface.

"What was he thinking?" One asked in a soft voice. "Picking one like this?"

"I don't know," another replied with a shrug. "This one'll probably be the first to go - I mean, look at him! He looks like he'll break if you drop him."

A third person snorted. "Maybe that's what Gray wants. To get this all over with as quickly as possible."

The first person sighed. "Yes, that sounds like Gray all right – the laziest man alive. It's almost a shame that he's a Talon."

"Tch," A fourth person let out a disgusted sound. "Stop talkin', and get to work. We've gotta process a lot more after this one."

"Yeah, yeah."

"I still want to know what he was-"

"Get to work!"

The people fell silent as they set their attentions on the task at hand. Within minutes, they were completed, and the boy was carried from the room, while another was brought in.

xxx

Jett opened his eyes and noticed two things immediately. One, the ceiling was far above his head. It was a solid gray surface, unlike the straw and wood that he was used to. And two, his head pounded with a violent headache.

A little disoriented, he maneuvered himself into a sitting position. Jett rubbed his temples, trying to massage the ache away, then lifted his head.

And froze.

He was not alone.

He was in a huge room. A room with four solid gray walls and a cold concrete floor. No visible door or windows. And inside the room were at least twenty other boys. They appeared big and sturdy – a lot like the village boys that Jett was familiar with, but there was no face that he recognized.

Jett blinked, a dazed sort of confusion filling his mind. They all wore the same clothing, he noticed. Black vests, black pants, black boots, and a wide black bracelet on the left wrist. We all match, he thought slowly. Like a flock of ravens roosting in a tree. Only it wasn't a tree, but giant box that trapped them inside.

Why was he in a box full of ravens?

Looking about, he noticed that each boy had a black symbol on their right cheek. The design varied from boy to boy - from a crooked triangle to a warped half moon to a fancy, scribbly line. A faint twinge of pain on his own cheek made Jett raise a hand to his face. He was marked as well. . .

He stilled, suddenly remembering.

The villagers – the creepy stranger! His brain nearly exploded before he fell weakly against the wall, his mind overloaded with confusion and shock.

Just...what did that strange man do?