It was nearly dawn and he could see the stone walls surrounding a town in the distance. The sight brought him a small sense of comfort; his wounds burning from the sand and his running. They had spent the majority of the night running, only finding a few moments to rest when it was needed. He hadn't wanted to linger too long though. He felt as though something was watching them… following as they made their way across the vast amount of sand.
His ears perked upward and his run slowed to a stop before his nose was to the sand.
"Caesar what's wrong?" he heard Tári huff from behind him.
He continued to sniff the sand until his jaw tightened and he let out a snarl.
"Something's under the sand," he growled, his blood red orbs glancing around the area, "Keep running!"
He started off into a run first and was happy to hear her following close behind him. Under his feet he could feel the sand starting to shift.
"How can something be underneath the sand?" Tári hissed lowly.
He didn't have an answer. Whatever it was he knew that it was large and was burrowing at the same time it was following after them.
The quake became rougher and more violent as it drew closer before it completely stopped. He stopped with it, knowing what was to follow. As he turned, he returned to his normal form and drew his sword from its sheath. He could barely hear Tári's growl from behind him as an explosion of sand surrounded him and a force pushed hard against his blade. He pushed back, parrying the force away and dodging to the side before it slammed hard against the sand where he had been standing.
As the sand and dust cleared his brows furrowed as he could now see his attacker. It was a large black scorpion.
'From the force of its tremors I thought that it would have been bigger…' he thought to himself, his grip tightening on the hilt of his sword.
Again he dodged to the side, avoiding a large claw that stabbed into the ground. The ground shook beneath him from its force. Scowling, he swung his blade against the scorpion's arm, cutting through the edge of its shell. A high pitched hiss escaped its mouth before the claw was swung toward him.
In an instant he had been knocked from his feet and thrown across the sand. He winced and coughed as he had collided with it. For being sand it still felt like he was hitting solid ground. His hand still tight on the hilt of his sword he rolled to the side and forced himself to his feet; limbs shaking. The creature came after him, its feet quick across the sand. Standing, he spun his blade to the side and caught a pincer as it clamped down onto the metal.
Jaw tightening, he pushed against the creature's force; his feet sliding backward.
"Damn it," he hissed lowly, the pain in his shoulder making itself more defined.
The creature twisted itself to the side, pulling his feet off balance and nearly ripping the sword from his hands. Its other claw was then brought down upon him. He had no choice but to let go of his sword to dodge. Not a moment later the spike of the tail, barely missing his feet. It came down again and as he went to the side to dodge it, the scorpion's claw swung to the side and threw him across the sand.
It was quick, this creature. It had no trouble footing against the sand or counter balancing itself.
'My sword barely cut through its shell… I would be no match for it in my wolf form,' he thought bitterly, wincing as he got to his feet.
His brow pushed together as he turned his gaze to the scorpion and it was surrounded by a cloud of dust. A small sense of frustration was sent through him then, realizing that Tári had jumped onto the creature's back. Her cloak could be seen falling through the wind to the ground. Her crimson red hair caught the rays of the rising sun as the scorpion thrashed to get her off its back.
Tári had a hand nearly to the back of the creature; her dagger driven fully into its flesh. In her other hand was his sword. She was swinging it forcefully against the base of its tail, making the creature scream in pain. A few moments later the tail was lying on the sand, its blood pouring from the wound.
"Caesar!" she cried, throwing the sword in his direction.
He went for it quickly, grabbing the hilt as it landed on the sand. The creature was preoccupied in trying to get Tári from its back, giving him the chance to find his opening.
Running, he slid underneath the scorpion's head, thrusting his sword upward. In an instant its feet buckled and he had to roll out from beneath it so it wouldn't crush him. He got to his feet and turned his gaze onto his companion as she bent down to rip her dagger free. He let out a sigh before shaking his head. There was no helping the fact that she was involved in danger. He just didn't know what he would do if something were to happen to her because of it.
She hopped down from the creature's back and he heard her kick it forcefully.
"See, and now you're dead," she hissed hatefully before going to pick up her cloak, "You stupid creature."
His blood red orbs went over the scorpion and his brows pushed together. He had never seen anything like it before. A scorpion in the desert wasn't unnatural, but they were never any bigger than the palm of one's hand. What made this one so different?
"Let's go Caesar," Tári's voice broke him out of thought, "We need to get you looked at."
Nodding his head, he turned and followed after her.
I sat outside and waited, my brows furrowed as I rested my head on my knees. I had had to help Caesar walk through the town. The wound in his shoulder had reopened after the fight with the scorpion and for that I hated the creature even more. When we had arrived to the mortal healer I was grateful that there had been no quarrel to help us. There had been times where we had been turned away for our appearances.
Letting out a sigh, I closed my green orbs. Why did it always have to turn out this way? Why was Caesar not allowed to come out without being wounded? Was it really too much to ask for; just one safe journey across this forsaken realm? I grit my teeth at the thought. Nothing had ever been easy for us. There had never been any easy path for us to follow. Would it always be like this? A path of struggle and opposition that never seemed to have an end…
I got to my feet and turned away from the small structure behind me. Caesar would be in there for a while, the healer most likely telling him to rest. I could take care of myself for more than a few hours on my own. Pulling my hood over my head, I walked out into the streets of the mortals. I could get away with going unnoticed.
The streets were filled with people; the crowds loud as they passed by opened vendors. There were wooden stalls standing every so many feet down the dirt street. Some were flocked with people while others went unnoticed, their items either expensive or less impressive.
'It's rare to see so many open in one place,' I thought, walking past a stand.
As I came upon another one, something caught my eye. My steps slowed as I looked at the objects spread on a blanket of the wooden counter.
"Hello there," the man behind the counter greeted me, his hands clasping together pleasantly, "Has something caught your fine lady eyes?"
'Mortals… their flattery is still less than impressive,' I thought dully, ignoring him.
In the middle of the counter there were a few leather bracers; both small and large. Picking a shorter one up, I looked over its dark brown leather.
"Oh that's a fine thing there miss," the merchant said pleasantly, "All of these are made of genuine leather and are handcrafted."
'Genuine my ass... There are not enough cattle in this desert to be spared for making leather.'
Placing it back on the counter close to me, I reached for another; a larger black one. It looked a lot like the one that Caesar always wore on his right wrist though it looked newer and fresh. This bracer had been what had caught my eye. Caesar's bracer was starting to show its age and was looking worn.
'I don't think there's been a day since I was a child that I haven't seen him wear it,' I thought, my brows narrowing.
I could hear a man not too far away raising his voice. His tone sounded stressed and as if he was about to lose his composure. It brought a small smile to my lips. If I loitered here long enough, it might be possible for me to get these bracers for free.
"Genuine leather you say?" I questioned, raising a brow, "Then surely you must know how they get the different colours of leather. Would you be kind enough to explain it to me?"
"What a curious young miss," he chided, "You see, it all depends on the kind of leather and the different ways that it can be tanned…"
The merchant trailed off, his eyes turning to the man at another stand – having now become rowdy – and he frowned.
"I'm sorry, please excuse me a moment miss."
The merchant stepped out of his stand and from the corner of my eye I saw him walk out of my line of sight. Smirking, I swiftly brought my free hand across the counter and grabbed the smaller bracer. Tucking both of them under my cloak, I turned and walked away from the merchant's stand.
'Caesar might be better at stealing from people's houses, but I'm definitely better at pickpocketing.'
I made my way back toward the alleyways. If that merchant saw me again he would immediately know that I was the thief that stole from him and the guards would once again be on my trail. The voices of the crowd started to become distant as I walked with my head down, strapping the smaller bracer to my right wrist. Pulling the last strap tight, I paused in my steps before slowly raising my head. Sitting only a few feet away from me was a desert fox.
My brows narrowed at the sight of it as I looked over the markings and colour of its fur. It was the same one as the previous day. As I took a step toward it, the creature rose to its feet and turned to stride away before looking back at me.
"You want me to follow you?" I wondered lowly, taking a more cautious step toward it.
As if on cue, the fox began a steady pace forward and I started to follow after it.
'I guess I still have some time to kill…'
Its pace quickened from a steady walk and into a run, forcing me to do the same. I tried to watch intently as it darted quickly around corners only to have it turn around another as soon as I got it within my sights.
With some frustration I climbed to the rooftops in hopes that I would be able to catch up to it. I ran as steadily as my feet would take me; catching sight of the fox from above and only to once again lose it entirely. I looked at the rooftops around me and upon seeing nothing I jumped back down into the empty alleyways.
"Damn that thing's fast," I murmured, wiping some sweat from my forehead.
I continued to walk around the corner ahead of me to see if it was there.
'Maybe it's a good thing,' I thought to myself, shrugging and turning back the way I had come, 'Knowing my luck it probably belongs to a mortal.'
I scrunched my nose at the thought. I had no use for these mortals. Very few were kind in nature and it didn't take much for them to betray one another. It reminded me too much of my own kind that had cast us out into this forsaken realm.
"Useless," I muttered.
Taking off into a run, I could feel the mana starting to flow through my body. A wide grin spread across my face as I leapt forward and the surge spread further. As my paws touched the dry ground, I started to run quickly though the passage of stone houses. To be able to transform like this was almost a sense of release. It was like the entire body became completely relaxed. My body felt full of strength; like I could accomplish so much more in my panther form than I could in my normal flesh.
The voices of the people in the market were loud in my ears. I could hear people laughing and their murmurs between one another. Slowing my run to a walk, my ears perked up with the sounds of close footsteps. I ducked back behind a stack of worn stone blocks to hide myself. Two people walked through the alleyway; forcing me to keep still. They passed by – engulfed in their own conversations – and I lightly stepped forward before turning around another corner. My paws were quiet stepping across the ground. It was an attribute that I was grateful for.
As I neared the healer's home, I reverted back to my elven flesh; my long red locks falling down against my face. I pulled my cloak up to cover my pointed ears and as I rounded the corner, I froze in my tracks. There stood Caesar; his expression less than impressed. His cloak was down, revealing his short dark hair and his pierced ears. His blood red orbs gazed into my green ones intensely while his arms were crossed at his chest.
"Where have you been sneaking off to?" he asked me, his tone low and controlled.
My brows furrowed at his question, it striking a nerve within me. I hadn't been gone for very long which also meant that he hadn't spent much time resting.
"You were supposed to be resting," I countered, "You could barely walk this morning."
"Once the healer was finished I came to bring you inside and you were nowhere in sight," he continued, reaching up and pulling my cloak down, "After what happened this morning I didn't want you to be wandering around this place alone."
His tone held its edge but at the same time was filled with his concern. I could feel it though; feel that he was talking to me like I was a child. It stung at me just as it always would. My brows pushed together and turned my eyes to the side as I tried to force the feeling away. I felt Caesar's hands on either side of my face before his forehead rested against the top of my head. In an instant my frustrations disappeared. No one else that I knew of got to see him act this way.
"I saw that fox again," I said lowly, "I chased after it across town but it was too fast."
"Next time we can chase after it together," he murmured, nuzzling my forehead with his nose, "For now just come rest with me."
His hand held tightly to her wrist as he led her through the curtain that covered the doorway of the healer's home. It was a dim place; dark cloth covering any windows that could be seen.
"Why's it so dark in here?" Tari questioned lowly.
"To help the ill sleep," he told her, gesturing to an unconscious mortal they were passing, "I guess many of the people have been coming here with the same symptoms recently."
His brows narrowed at the mention of the mortals within the town's walls. It was distant from other towns; more so than one would normally consider. How was it possible to seem so content and prosperous when every resource was so far away?
They walked past the room full of the sick and into another room; its doorway also covered with a dark cloth. It was a small room with no furniture. On the floor was a large pile of hay covered with a couple sheets. After spending nights sleeping on the ground he wasn't about to complain about the quality of the makeshift bed.
"How did you get the healer to let us stay?" Tári wondered, walking past him to the window.
He watched as she slipped her cloak from her being and tossed it to the side. She had grown so much since they had arrived in this place. It was becoming harder for him to convince himself that she was still a child.
"Caesar?" she asked, looking back at him.
Reaching behind him, he pulled out the bag of loot that they had stolen from the baron of the last town and held it up.
"Bribery works well for various different things," he said, smirking at her.
"So does stealing," she mused.
He raised a brow as he watched her rummage on her person before throwing something at him.
It was a leather bracer, much like the one he was already wearing. He felt his heart tighten at the thought of it before he looked back up at Tári's grinning face.
"Where did you get this?" he asked, holding it up.
"A merchant in the market was selling them. I thought that since yours was starting to get so old you could use a new one," she explained, "I got one for me too."
"Let me see yours."
She pushed away from the window and lifted her right wrist to him. Reaching for it, he began undoing the straps. He could feel her eyes on him; questioning what he was doing. As the leather slipped from her wrist, he traded it for the one she had given him.
"What are you doing?" she asked with confusion as he began doing up the straps.
"As much as I appreciate your gift," he said; a small smile forming on his lips, "This old bracer was something that your grandfather had given me. There's no point in me having two that look alike."
Tightening the last strap of her bracer, he held out his left wrist before handing her the one she had been wearing.
"Okay," she agreed, her own smile reaching her face.
He knew that even though Tári despised her clan for what happened, she could never hate her own grandfather. He was a kind man full of stories and the silly adventures of his time. She had always been the apple of that old man's eye and made no secret of it. She had been cherished and even she had to know that there was nothing one elder could have done to change their fate.
Looking down, he could see her fingers tracing over thin white lines along his forearm. Her touch was gentle, only using the tips of her fingers.
"There are so many," she murmured.
"Scars on the body are less harmful than scars on your heart," he assured her, casting his gaze up to her face.
Her brows were pushed together and her green orbs sullen. He knew that she blamed herself for many of those scars.
'I can't tell her not to blame herself for them,' he thought as he reached up and brushed her hair to the side of her face, 'because I do the exact same thing.'
"What?" she asked; her eyes meeting his.
"Nothing," he said, smiling, "I just wanted to see both of your eyes."
Tári openly scowled with his words but he could see the small blush form on her cheeks.
"You know I have to hide it," she nearly murmured, turning toward the makeshift bed.
His gaze became sympathetic with her words, "I know."
He wrapped his arms around her waist and hugged her tightly for a moment. It was all he granted himself before falling onto the pile of hay and taking her with him. She squealed loudly in his ear before trying to wriggle free of his hold.
"Caesar no!" she pleaded with a laugh, "Let me go!"
"We are staying here," he stated, poking the girl in her sides to hear her laugh, "We came here to rest."
"Then stop tickling me!"
He smiled inwardly before granting her wish and releasing her. She scooted a couple inches away, as if trying to make sure that he wouldn't do it to her again before rolling over to face him.
"It bothers me," she admitted, her eyes looking away from his, "Every time I see a reflection of myself I'm constantly reminded of why we're here; why you're trapped here with me."
Reaching around her, he pulled her against him before once again brushing the hair out of her face.
"There's no reason for you to feel that way," he stated; both his tone and gaze nearly pleading.
They had been in this desert for ten years; enduring many things together. The thought that she didn't blame her clan for herself but did so instead for him had never occurred to him.
"I would have been fine with being banished alone," she told him, her brows pushing together, "I can't stand the fact that you're suffering because of my stupid mistake and -"
He covered her mouth with his hand and shook his head. He had not suffered through any act of hers. He had suffered for many reasons in his life, but not once because of her. She was his whole reason for living.
"Tári, do you think that by staying with me, you've caused me pain?" he asked her, his own brows pushing together, "I do not regret being banished from your realm. If I did then I would have abandoned you long ago."
Her hands wrapped themselves around his torso and she pulled herself to him; tucking her head under his chin. He closed his eyes and hugged her waist as he tried to push away unwanted thoughts. He knew that there was nothing left for him in Alatariel if she was no longer there.
End of Chapter