Chapter 9

We looked up in surprise at the voice, Firo stopping in his tracks. Instantly my gaze homed in on an amexplr emerging noiselessly from the shrubbery a few feet* away. She looked at us calmly, her tails curled at her sides in an expression of nonchalance.

I remembered her name. "…Kymylah?" I asked incredulously.

She nodded. "So, this is where you went. I didn't appreciate being knocked out, you know."

"…We didn't exactly have a choice," I countered.

She shrugged. "I know. And I don't have a choice either."

Aema spoke suddenly. "…How old are you, anyway?"

Kymylah blinked. Even I had to admit, that was an unusual question. "Um, three years, seven months…" she answered uncertainly.

I stared. That was the same age as me. "Aren't you a bit too young to be doing this?" I realized now that she really didn't look that old.

She glared. "Be quiet, my age has nothing to do with it." Taking a deep breath and closing her eyes momentarily, she then glanced at Firo. "What are you doing with him? The prince is helping you, too?"

Aema stepped forward quickly. "N-no, he's not. He didn't know we'd done anything wrong…"

Firo shook his head. "No, I'm helping them of my own free will. I don't believe they did anything wrong, although I know about the charges against them." I blinked in surprise; he was showing a lot of maturity all of a sudden.

Aema glanced at him, hissing, "You're not helping…"

I turned my attention back to Kymylah. "How did you find us?"

She glanced at me and grinned. "I can find hidden buildings under the ground, so it's easy for me to follow your trail."

I realized that she really had no plan, she was just trying to rashly do what she thought was the right thing. "Alright, then, what are you going to do now?"

"I'm going to wait for the authorities I called earlier to show up here." Darn it.

"You can't do that!" Aema said, sounding almost panicked. "We didn't actually do anything!"

"Can you prove it?"

"Um… no…"

"Well, in that case, I still have to report you."

Firo whispered something to Aema. She nodded, and motioned to me to follow. I gave her a confused look, before returning my attention to Kymylah. "Please, you have to understand…" I pleaded.

Her gaze softened, and for the first time she looked uncertain. "I'm sorry, but…"

Firo suddenly bolted, disappearing into the vegetation with a crashing noise. Kymylah jumped in surprise and started to go after him, but I instinctively stepped into her path and grabbed one of her tails with my own to stop her. She stopped, straining against my grip, and glared at me when she was unable to break away. "Argh…"

I glanced at Aema. "Go!"

She watched uncertainly. "But…"

"Just go."

She nodded quickly and disappeared after Firo, leaving me alone with Kymylah. I stared at her, and she glared angrily at me, still straining futilely to break my hold on her. "Let me go now," she hissed.

I looked at her. "How did you manage to get away before?"

She froze. Instantly I felt her body become filled with nervous tension. "What do you mean?"

I glanced back at the way Aema and Firo had gone. "Somehow you knocked me loose, only I didn't see you do it. How?"

She only glared at me and didn't say anything else. The next moment my ears pricked up as I heard a noise from beyond her, in the vegetation. I realized that I didn't have any time left. I let go of her, turned, and rushed off through the black plant growth as quickly as I could make myself go.

I looked back once. I saw Kymylah, still standing there, staring after me. Then she vanished behind a screen of trees*.

~.~

I made my way back to the home we had stayed at the night before, without any trouble. I figured that that would be where the others would go. I was right. They were sitting in front of the door.

Aema looked up, and her expression brightened, as I approached. "Xyno!" She started to stand up, but stopped when I sat next to her myself. I panted for breath, recovering from my escape.

"Heh, it looks like someone's glad to see you, Xyno…" Firo grinned.

Both Aema and I glared at him.

He laughed. "No, really, we're glad you made it. We thought you had been caught."

"I almost was." I glanced at Aema, then at him. "We need to go. Now. This incident has made me realize that it isn't safe anymore."

Aema nodded thoughtfully. "But…"

Firo sighed. "I guess I'm coming with you now, since someone knows I've been helping you."

"I guess you are…" I said, shaking my head. "But the question is, where can we go?"

Aema glanced at her brother. "Like he said, I think the closest place where we would be safe would be Raeraa."

"But—"

She continued, cutting me off. "The only problem is that it's hard to get there. I think it's illegal for anything except traded goods to go there…"

"Maybe there are some people who would still be willing to take us there anyway. Isn't there any sort of criminal underground…? I know there is in Jivirina…"

Firo paused, then nodded. "Yes, there is. But if we were caught, we would be in even more trouble…"

"I don't think we have any other option," I said gravely.

~.~

We wandered through the city. We had decided that we needed to get out of Vriannia, and the best place to go would be Raeraa. But how could we get there? Because of the war, travel between Vriannia and Raeraa was difficult. Raeraa was across the ocean, too, so it wasn't as if we could just walk.

Gradually, we began seeing more people. They appeared among the buildings, simply going about their business. None of them looked at us more than once. We were still soaked, but had dried off enough that it wasn't apparent, so no one asked about that. We were, however, still cold and shivering. As more and more people appeared, I began to get nervous, worrying that one of them might recognize one of us. My heart pounded. The sooner we got away from here, the better.

Firo suggested that we ask around to see if we can find out a way to get to Raeraa. This worried both me and Aema, for fear that we would be recognized, but we decided to follow his advice anyway. Since Aema was the one who was most likely to be recognized as a criminal, we were careful to make sure she stayed back when interrogating people.

We asked a few people, none of whom knew anything. One of them said he thought transport was blocked between Raeraa and Vriannia, except for trade. We thanked them and moved on.

Eventually, we found someone who seemed to know something, leaning idly against the wall of a large silver building. She was young, between my and Firo's ages, and her fur was slightly darker than Aema's. She looked away when we approached her. When we asked her how to get to Raeraa, she immediately stiffened and turned her head toward us. "Why would you want to go there?"

I blinked. "Uh…"

She shook her head and stood up. "Follow me." She turned and started off through the city.

I glanced at my companions, who shrugged in confusion. Then, cautiously, we followed her. She went a short distance away to another, much smaller blue building, and stopped at its entrance, turning to beckon to us. We joined her a moment later, and she opened the door, then moved aside to let us pass.

Looking inside the doorway, I saw that it was a dark, plain room, with only one chair for furniture, built into the wall. I hesitated, then entered, the lights turning on immediately afterward. Aema and Firo also came inside hesitantly, and our informant closed the door behind us.

"Are you people idiots?" was the first thing she said.

I blinked, turning and glancing at her before answering, "No."

She sighed, rolling her eyes and leaning against the wall. "You must be if you go around asking people about going to Raeraa. No one goes there, and no one comes from there."

"What do you mean?" I asked, glancing back at my friends. Aema was watching in curiosity and Firo appeared to be lost in thought, his eyes staring at something I couldn't discern.

"Raeraa and Vriannia are isolated from each other. They won't just let anyone in. You have to be someone special… or you have to be getting there illegally. …And why would anyone want to go there unless they were running from the law?" She smirked triumphantly.

I was silent with shock for a moment. "…Uh…"

She winked. "Don't worry, I won't tell anyone," she assured.

"…Why not?"

"Because I'm not exactly on friendly terms with the government either." She shot a glance at my two companions, and they looked up. "Can you two talk, too?"

Aema nodded, fidgeting uncomfortably. "…Yes."

Our host smiled, though it looked more mischievous than friendly. "Oh, that's good to hear. It's not good when a princess loses her voice."

Aema froze. "Wait, you… you know who I am?"

"Well, of course. And I know your brother, too." She nodded at Firo.

He shifted uncomfortably. "If you know us so well, then who are you?"

"My name's Jaea," she responded with a smile.

"Well, then, can you help us, Jaea?"

She gave a mischievous grin. "Well, I could help you. I know some people… What'll you give me?"

My heart immediately sank. "We… don't have anything we could give you. We don't even have anything to eat."

Jaea glanced at me inquiringly. "What's your name?"

"Huh? Oh, uh, Xynophin."

She nodded. "I haven't ever heard of you before. How'd you end up with royalty like them?"

I shrugged, glancing at my companions. "I met Aema in the Illucton, and well…"

"Oh, so you get to call the princess by her name, huh?" Jaea smiled smugly.

I froze, turning purple. Was I supposed to call her something else?...

Aema saved me. "He doesn't know anything about our customs. He's not from Vriannia, he's from Jivirina." She glared at Jaea.

Jaea responded calmly, turning to address Aema. "…I see. Well, in any case, I'll help you."

There was a silence. Then Firo spoke up uncertainly. "Why? I mean, thanks, but why'd you suddenly change your mind?"

She stood, turning away from us and facing the door. "Because I want to come with you." She grabbed the door's latch with one tail, preparing to open it.

Aema spoke, sounding as thoroughly confused as I was. "Why?"

Jaea stopped and turned back toward us slightly, still holding on to the latch. "Because, I…" For the first time she faltered, but soon she continued, "Because I'm in a bit of trouble, too, and I want to get away, like you do. I would go by myself, only I need your help. Follow me, you'll see what I mean." She pulled the latch and the door slid open, revealing the outside world. Then she slipped through the doorway without another word.

We followed, still slightly confused, and the door closed behind us. Before us, people walked around, going about their business, not even paying attention to us. Jaea motioned to us from the left, disappearing around a corner a second* later.

We followed her for a while, cautiously. Soon the populations thinned out, and finally we were alone. Still we continued.

"Come on," Jaea whispered, turning her head to survey the area. I was uneasy, and the others, even our guide, looked apprehensive as well.

"Are we almost there?" I asked tiredly.

She nodded, gesturing at a dome-shaped building. It was silver-colored. "Here we are."

I glanced over said building. It looked just like any other. "Does anyone live there?"

She nodded again, starting forward. We followed warily, unsure why we were so uneasy.

Jaea took hold of the latch and pulled it, and we watched as the door slid open. Then we all froze as someone stepped out, aiming a projectile weapon at Jaea. Another amexplr emerged a moment later, aiming another weapon at the rest of us.

We all froze in surprise.

"None of you move," the first one said. "You're under arrest."

I cursed inwardly. "What for?" Aema asked from next to me, sounding just a little less calm than I was.

"For escaping punishment for past crimes, and some of you for associating with known criminals."

She swallowed, shooting a glare at Jaea that made it apparent she thought she had brought us to them on purpose. Jaea, however, was too busy staring at the weapon that was pointed at her to notice.

After a moment, Jaea demanded, "What did you do with Capsarh?"

The two officers glanced at each other, and then the first asked, "Who?"

She blinked, starting to slowly pull her tail away from the door's latch, which it was still gripping. "Oh, um, never mind then."

Suddenly, without warning, the ground shook, trembling violently.

I stumbled and fell to the dirt, getting back up almost immediately and covering my ears to block out the roaring noise that surrounded me. The roar grew louder. It was soon accompanied by many screeching and crashing noises. I had no idea what was going on. There was chaos everywhere. People screamed in terror, their voices mixing with the other noises and instead of being drowned out, combining with them to form a continuous cacophony. Vibrations jarred me, and I felt myself being smashed against something hard. Flashing lights filled my vision. Dirt was kicked up and filled my nose and throat, making me cough. Flames appeared in my vision as I was blasted by a wave of heat. Tiny sharp pieces of metal and glass hit me, although none of them penetrated my fur.

Then, abruptly, it stopped. I blinked in surprise, stunned for a moment, before realizing that I was curled up on the ground. I uncurled and stood again. Then, coughing out the debris that had collected in my throat, I gasped, "What just… happened?"

Firo was on the ground like I had been, and he was just starting to stand up again. Jaea was still standing, though she looked dazed, and the two law enforcement officers were on the ground near her. The building they had emerged from, where we had been trying to get to, had collapsed inward. A short distance away, Aema lay, her eyes closed and her back to a building's wall.

My heart stopped for a moment. "Aema?" I called anxiously.

She didn't respond.

The next second*, the ground rumbled again. It wasn't nearly as bad as the first time, merely making me lose my balance and almost stumble. I ignored it and started toward Aema, worried.

A creaking noise caught my attention, and my gaze snapped up. The building next to Aema was… swaying. In horror I jumped toward her, right as, with a screeching and a crashing noise, the building collapsed. A wave of debris hit me. I was covered instantly, the sunlight disappearing from my vision. An explosion of intense pain ran through my right foot and leg, and I gave a muffled scream, my vision fading. Then I was unaware of anything but blackness.