"Fuck no," Roaxon grumbled, lodged in the hollow of a tree. The morning sun was rising, spilling its rays over the forested land.
"But Roaxon," Adril pleaded, "the town is just over the next hill, and I really want to go shopping!"
"Well, go yourself," Roaxon grumped. "I'm not going out in the sun again."
"Roaxon…" Cri whined.
The young healer groaned irritably. "If you don't, she won't shut up for the next—" he glanced at the sun "—nine hours. I think even Arnelle might get annoyed by that."
"Why don't you just go by yourselves?"
"W-what's all the noise?" Varn asked from his perch in the lowest branch of the tree.
Arnelle grinned from a branch that should not have held her weight, slight as she was. "Roaxie here won't take Adril to Harodun, and she really wants to go!" Everyone except Adril groaned; Roaxon glared at her for the nickname.
"Arnelle…" Cri muttered from the branch next to Roaxon.
"Otherwise, you might end up as lunch."
"It's not Harodun, silly," Adril interrupted before things could get bloody, which was a distinct possibility. "That's still days away."
Roaxon groaned. "Don't remind me.…"
"Just over the hill is the great merchant town of—" Adril paused for effect, smiling brightly at them all "—Pazzio!"
"What?" Cri and Arnelle asked in unison.
"Pazzio is the best place in the whole world to buy furs and beautiful clothes!" Adril explained, excited. "All the best clothing merchants come through there." Adril glowered at the tree again. "But if Roaxon won't take us there 'til night, we'll miss all the sales!"
Arnelle perked up at the word "sales," but Cri winced. Before she could add her arguments to Adril's, the young Kascha looked over at Roaxon. "It would be better for all of us to just go. I don't want to deal with Arnelle and Adril whining all day."
"Fuck. No," Roaxon growled. "I'm staying curled up in my nice little tree and away from the sun. The rest of you can do what you want."
Cri sighed deeply and looked down at Varn. "I'm guessing you share his opinion?"
"Yeah, I'd prefer to stay in the shade too," Varn said with a shrug.
Cri cursed silently as the two girls proceeded to bombard the poor nightwalkers with pleas. "Come on, the sun's not even that bad today!"
"She's right! She's right! Please?"
"Go without me," Roaxon snarled, growing more impatient by the second. "Besides, there might be Defenders in Pazzio. You'd be safer without me."
Cri shuddered at the mention of the Defenders. They were, apparently, in contact or even in league with the Hunters, and he preferred to avoid both groups at all costs. 'Last night was close,' he thought. 'Too close.'
What if they had taken him back to the Hunters? He put his hand over his mouth.
Roaxon shifted slightly within the tree and whispered, "You're afraid, Cri?"
Cri jumped at his words. He didn't realize he had been whimpering during his reverie. Apparently, he had, and it had been loud enough for the nightwalker to hear despite his clenched jaw and covered mouth. "Yes," he admitted. "But not of what you're thinking."
"You are afraid of the Defenders, and of what they may do to you. It's alright. I fear them too." Roaxon turned enough so that he could look into the boy's eyes. "But even though I fear them, I still fight them."
"I am not afraid of the Defenders." The boy's voice was hard and old. "Whatever they can do, I've already been through it." A couple branches below them, Varn looked up in confusion, but a good look at Cri's paper-white face told him at least some of what he wanted to know.
"If not them, then what are you afraid of?" Roaxon asked.
"The Hunters." He was quiet for a moment. "If they find me, what they did before will seem merciful. I escaped once. They'll kill me before letting it happen a second time."
Roaxon scowled. "These Hunters … are they divine beings? Demons from hell, perhaps?"
Cri shuddered slightly at Roaxon's harsh tone. "No…" he whispered, suddenly not sounding old anymore. He sounded young. Young, and tired, and frightened. "They're human."
"If they are human, then you need not fear them. Compared to other creatures, they're nothing but mewling cowards." He stood up, shrugging his cloak over his head. "I will come with you. And pray, Cri, that these Hunters show their faces. I will show them what a true demon is."
This time it was Cri who refused to move. "They might be human," he said softly, "but they're more dangerous than you think."
"Bah!" Roaxon spat. "They only think they're strong. I will show them true strength, and more for harming you. Where are they? I'll kill them all!"
"I don't know."
Roaxon stood for a moment longer, before jumping to land on the branch Cri was sitting on and sitting next to him with a slight grunt. "Right, well, if they ever do show up, you can count on me…"
Cri smiled slightly, but before he could say anything, bright red hair blocked all sight as Arnelle's bright voice asked, "So, did I hear that you'll come with us?"
Roaxon sighed. "Alright," he said. "But don't expect me to buy anything for you."
"Well, if he's going…" Varn slid out of the tree with grace. To their surprised faced he said, "I suppose I can tough it out too."
"Yes!" Arnelle whooped. Everyone except Adril winced and covered their ears. "Shopping!"
Cri called after her as the Cat-Shifter leapt down from her branch. "But no stealing, Arnelle! You always get us in trouble!"
Arnelle glared up at him with a feigned look of hurt. "Can I at least steal coin to buy stuff?" she asked. "If I promise to only steal from the people who look like they can afford to lose a few silvers?"
"You'd better not attract any attention, you sticky-fingered Cat!" Roaxon shouted to her from up the road. Arnelle just waved a hand back at him, and Cri and Roaxon groaned at the same time. They exchanged a long-suffering look before following the Cat-Shifter out of the tree. Roaxon made sure his hood was firmly in place before stepping out of the canopy's shelter.
Adril followed a moment later and ran after Arnelle, calling, "Hey! Wait for me!"
The sky was blessedly cloudy, but even so the filtered sunlight stung Roaxon's skin as he trailed after the girls. Varn, too, hissed under his breath as he stepped out into the brighter part of the path.
Cri walked along the shady path, his eyes glued to the dirt under his boots. Every once in a while he peeked through his dark brown bangs at the nightwalkers walking on either side of him. He barely resisted the urge to latch onto Roaxon's hand and stay there, or even hide under his dark cloak like a small child. Varn's presence made Cri distinctly uncomfortable, and Roaxon was the only source of comfort he could think of. 'At least, the only source that will actually help if something happens…'
Roaxon cast a glance down at him. He knew more or less what the young boy was thinking. Truth be told, Roaxon kind of wanted to let the lad do as he wished. But even though he never lied, there were some truths he couldn't bear to tell. If he were to ever admit that he considered this boy to be like him, then there were other unpleasant truths that he would have to face about his nature—and he was not ready to do so.
Cri just happened to sneak a glance up at Roaxon, and barely caught the vague, baffled, and slightly distressed look in his blood-red eyes. The young healer tilted his head to one side and promptly tripped over a gnarled root.
He yelped slightly, but two pairs of black-gloved hands reached out to steady him. Once he regained his footing, Cri grinned sheepishly up at the nightwalkers. Both Varn and Roaxon had an odd mix of amusement and concern on their faces, but before either of them could say anything—and before Cri forgot or tripped again—he asked Roaxon, "What were you thinking about? Just now, when you were looking at me funny."
Roaxon recoiled involuntarily from the question. Though he knew what the words should mean in theory, no one had ever directed them at him. At first he thought to say, "Nothing," but that would be a lie. And he'd be damned if he was going to ruin his record on something as trivial as this.
Instead, he decided to answer with the catch-all. "Don't ask."
The young Kascha almost snorted but stopped just in time. "In case you hadn't noticed, I just did."
"Well, you shouldn't have," Roaxon asserted. "I don't want to lie to you."
"Then don't." Roaxon stared down at the young Kascha's face as the kid stared back. He couldn't lie to Cri, but he didn't have to speak. After a moment of silence, he harrumphed and turned away, continuing his march behind the girls, who were streaming babble at each other in their typically incessant manner. Cri glared after him, growling deep in his throat. "Oh, no you don't…" he grumbled, picking up his pace. "Two can play this game."
Before Roaxon had any idea what was coming, Cri launched himself at the unsuspecting nightwalker's back. He slammed into it with enough force to throw them both forwards, rolling head over heels for a minute before they crashed into the base of a tree. Roaxon's cloak slipped slightly, but he yanked it back before any damage could be done.
Behind them, Varn was having a hard time suppressing his laughter, and from the path ahead, high-pitched, girlish giggling drifted back to the pair struggling to untangle themselves from a knot of legs, arms, hair, and a long black cloak. "What the hell did you do that for?" Roaxon snarled, baring his fangs.
Cri was unimpressed. "You weren't going to answer me!"
"And I'm still not planning to!" the nightwalker protested. "Just what was your plan? To pummel the answer out of me?"
"What the hell made you think that was a good idea?" Roaxon grumped, brushing himself off and continuing down the path.
"Because it works on my si—my sister, and she's one of the most close-mouthed, stubborn creatures on the face of the earth." Cri bit back the emotions his memories of his older sister brought. 'East wind…' It felt like it had been years since he'd last seen her, and it might have been that long anyway. He had no idea how long he'd been held down there, in the depths of what the Hunters called Illagron. It could have been mere months—it could have been far longer.
"Cri…" Roaxon said, kneeling down to the young Kascha's eye-level. The boy shuddered slightly and gave Roaxon a slightly irritated glower. He knew he looked like little more than a child, but that did not mean he liked being treated like one.
"What?" he asked, in a far harsher voice than normal.
"Perhaps…" Roaxon halted. He was not much for the discussion of feelings, but if it would help, not to mention get Cri's mind off him for a minute, then he would try. "Perhaps you should tell me what's bothering you."
Cri's expression turned slightly calculating, and Roaxon gulped. If a healer looked at one like that, it was almost never a good thing, regardless of the healer's age. "Maybe," the lad said a moment later with a thoughtful tone. "Just maybe…" He smirked openly at Roaxon. "How about a trade?"
Roaxon hung his head, causing Varn to chuckle behind him.
"Fine," the nightwalker grumbled, not wanting to abandon Cri to hold inside something that he looked like he really needed to get out. "But only if you go first."
"Just to be sure: you promise you'll talk to me if I do the same?"
"I never lie," Roaxon reminded Cri.
"I know. I was just checking." An impish grin appeared on the healer's face, making him look decades younger than he actually was. It only lasted for a moment, however. The grin faded slowly, and a slightly haunted look came over his eyes. "I miss my sister," was all he said, but it carried several hours' worth of conversation and several months' worth of homesickness and pain with it.
"Me, too…" Varn piped up from behind them, his voice distant and sad. Roaxon shot him a look. What exactly, Cri did not see, but Varn only shrugged in response and continued down the path to catch up with the girls.
Roaxon looked into Cri's eyes, asking the unspoken question: "Is that all you want to tell me?"
Cri shuddered slightly, really not wanting to talk about this. He had enough nightmare-inducing memories to keep even an Ancient awake at night, and he was just supposed to talk about them? He usually did his best to avoid even thinking about them, let alone talking about them. Even Arnelle didn't know what had happened to him before he'd ended up in the hands of the Hunters. What had happened to him and… Rianadra. His sister.
A bitter taste rose in Roaxon's mouth. He feared he'd gone too far. "You don't have to. I understand."
"All right…" Cri sniffed and rubbed his face with his hands. "What about you?"
Roaxon cringed. There was that question again. "I…" he started. "I'm not sure… I like you, Cri. You're a good kid. But all my life I've tried to avoid forming any emotional attachments to humans, or whatever may look human." Roaxon sighed deeply, using the pause to collect his thoughts. "Cri, if I were to face the fact that people are as intelligent as me—maybe even equal to me—do you know what that would mean for me?"
Cri nodded slowly. "Humans are food. They have to be, in order for you to stay sane." Trying to lighten the mood, he said, "If it would make you feel better, I have a way to rectify the looking human part."
"You—you do?" Roaxon asked, thankful to be off the 'I'm a monster' line of thought for any reason. "How?"
Cri smirked then, most of the darkness in his eyes either gone or simply buried again. "Give me about ten feet or so, maybe a little more."
Roaxon took a few steps back, and watched.
Cri allowed his smirk to widen a little, but then he closed his eyes and focused. His mind dove deep inside his spirit until he found the ball of … 'The ball of myself.' It was the only way he could describe it. It was his other half, the part of him that was more instinct than rationality, the core of his being as one of the Kascha, a child of dragons. Mentally, he touched it warily. It was always wise to approach such power with caution, after all. Seconds later, that power shot through him, from his mind outward, to his body.
Fire exploded through his blood, his muscles, his bones, and he felt his form disintegrate from the inside. Biting back the pain, Cri stayed silent as flames of blue and violet burst from his body in a vortex of extreme heat and Power. The tornado of colored flame expanded slowly as he felt his body shift and change. The entire thing took ten or fifteen seconds, and then the fire vanished just as suddenly as it had come, leaving something very different in its place.
Roaxon took several more steps backwards, and nearly fell over his own feet.
Before him stood a mighty beast, nearly twice the size of the huge working horses that pulled barges and worked mills, with four powerful legs and two membranous orange wings. "Dragon," Roaxon whispered. Spreading his arms, he began to chuckle, then to laugh in the presence of such a beautiful and mighty creature. Finally, when he was done laughing, Roaxon stepped forward, drawing very near the dragon's snout. "My friend," he said, "would you like to fly with me?"
Cri's orange eyes—the only thing about him that hadn't changed—glowed with pleasure at that. Slowly, he nodded his great, scaly head and turned to offer Roaxon access to his broad back. A long, dark brown mane, similar to a horse's, though nowhere near as long, flew around his long neck as he turned to give Roaxon what he probably thought was a grin. To the nightwalker, it was a little more disconcerting than even he wanted to admit. Regardless, his face broke into a smile and stepped back a few steps, shaking his head.
"No, I could never," he said. Instead he closed his eyes and breathed deeply.
As Cri watched, Roaxon's tall, lanky form slowly shrank, gradually disappearing until it was nothing more than a sizeable lump under all his clothes. The lump began to shift until finally a huge bat, roughly the size of an owl, wriggled free of the pile of clothes.
Roaxon took a moment to marvel in the sensation of relief. In this form, he was not susceptible to igniting in sunlight. With a meaningful nod at Cri, the ugly black bat propelled itself skyward, flapping frantically. Cri snorted after the silly, tiny creature. Tucking his legs under him, he spread his wings out to their fullest span. Not sparing a second for doubts, he pushed down with his wings and up everywhere else, and in seconds, he was nearly twice as high as Roaxon, heading for the clouds above him.