The Maggot shook his head, "No, we are leaving. We've lost too many people, the town is being left behind."
"You mean, we're giving up," Haden sounded annoyed.
"Yes," the Maggot sighed, running his fingers through his hair. He had a three-day old beard, he'd hardly taken the time to eat and he looked haggard. I didn't dare look at myself, I was probably a sight. Not that I cared anymore. Stupid femininity. It made me feel so weak at times. My hand and arm had been burned by the fire, not severely enough to be crippling but bad enough to need the attention of a doctor.
"But sir," I objected, "if we just leave, then they'll win! All the lives that were lost defending this place-"
"Will have bought us the time to get out," he interjected, "and I'll need you to help me. Can you do that?"
I ground my teeth together, "They've got Boy. My Boy! I can't just abandon him!"
The Maggot stood, "I have to abandon every one of my own children that died in the field!" He thundered, "Do you think that I want to do this?!"
"But he could still be alive!" I shouted back, ignoring protocol and tradition.
"Or he could be dead!" Maggot wasn't shouting now, just angry.
I bit back the retort that was on the tip of my tongue, quivering with anger. It was a possibility. But I didn't believe it was reality. I couldn't think that right now. I'd go stark staring mad if I even dared think along those lines.
"Sir," Jik said calmly, "Haden and I have gone and made it back alive. With three of us, we have a better chance of making it back with the child."
Maggot frowned, "I don't want to send you three out there, not when we'll be pulling back. You'll be searching for an infant in the middle of enemy territory with no way to keep in touch with us. If anything else, I won't know what will happen if you disappear on me. Selfish, isn't it?"
Endearing more than anything, "A bit," I nodded, "but please, sir. We'll help protect and patrol but I need to find him. He could be out there, waiting for me."
The Maggot sighed, "Alright, go ahead and go."
We buried Katiq before we left. Next to Kai and the rest of the men of her family. It was somehow a better funeral than Kai's. I didn't think that was possible. I thought it would be worse, harder to bear. But then, as I watched the line of the families that came to give their respects- even though the city was emptying- I realized that she had lived a full life. And it was a good life too. Not just a life that she lived on her own, she lived a life that helped others. It was a beautiful thing to see. A good conclusion to the life of a good woman. For her, death had not been as harsh as those who had gone before.
I swallowed the tears that threatened to fall as we saluted the grave, Jik placed her phosphorous lamp in the headstone to glow next to the line of other headstones. Poor Jik. The last of his family.
When he stood beside me once more, I let my hand slip into his. It was my burned hand but the pain was a dull throbbing now.
He glanced down at the hand he now held and then up at me, confused.
"I'm here," I said softly, "for you."
He understood the emphasis on the word, recognizing the sincerity behind it. He didn't say anything though his eyes glimmered with tears and he squeezed my fingers with his own fight-weary palm. I held onto his hand, even though the ceremony had ended. Jik stood tall, only his head bowed with sorrow. He'd made it clear that he was interested in me, this was when I could show that I reciprocated that interest and care.
Haden noticed but had the good grace not to say anything. For now. I was sure that when the somber mood lifted, he'd be back to his usual self and would definitely mention the hand holding.
For now, I was content to just let Jik know I was there in my own silent way. I wasn't much of the hugging type but I could tell when someone didn't need to be alone. The mood that emanated from Jik was screaming for someone to keep his mind off of everything that had happened.
We had plans to make, a city to get out of, and a child to rescue. My child. Katiq had died to protect my boy and I had to get him back. While somehow still keeping hers safe. That was going to be difficult, to say the least, since he had volunteered to go and help save my kid. I really had a knack for getting into weird situations.
Somehow, we found that we had drifted back to the house we shared. We were quiet, not saying anything. I wanted to tell him that it was alright, that he could get past it. But I wasn't going to lie. It hurt losing someone you loved and he'd been dealt a double blow this past month alone. First his cousin, then his grandmother. We got inside the house, he closed the door behind us. Shutting out everything else. I let go of his hand.
I asked, "Do you want to talk?"
"No," his voice was rough, "no, I don't want to talk. I just. . ." He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, "I don't know what I want."
I knew all too well what he was going through. The emptiness, the persistent feeling that it was a dream, the knowledge that while one could still sense the presence of the deceased that the person was gone. Forever.
He sat down on the couch and I sat down next to him, not close enough to touch but close enough so that he was aware of my presence.
"Does it pass?" he asked.
"The loneliness?" I clarified. He nodded and I shook my head, "No, that stays. But there is a peace that follows. A peace that there won't be any more suffering for her. It's easy to say but harder to accept sometimes. Especially the first few weeks."
He gave a sharp snort, "Yeah, that is hard to believe."
I probably needed to work with my consoling tone. I was better with a sword. Then again, I had spent most of my life practicing with a weapon than I had with consoling. I stood, it was probably better for both of us if I stayed my usual self and didn't try to be anything other than that, "You can be self-pitying if you wish," I said firmly but without anger, "but I need to go save Nate."
"You think he's alive?" Jik looked up at me, his gaze tortured, "you saw what they did to Katiq. Why would they spare him? They could have taken him for food for all we know."
The thought of all the hungry brutes outside was enough to make me shiver. But I wasn't going to give up, "Then I'll find his bones and kill the beasts that ate him. It's my job, killing. It is what I am good at and if I can, I will find and protect him. You don't have to come," I stood and headed toward the door, "I owe you a debt. You saved my life," I told him over my shoulder as I put my hand on the knob, "and if I survive I will repay you somehow."
I risked a glance back at him but he still sat on the couch, only now he was staring at the floor. I needed to leave him alone. He cared for me, obviously, but didn't trust me the way I fully trusted him. Maybe it was better for both of us if things between us didn't progress any further.
I turned the knob and wandered out into the night, my swords strapped to my back. The night had gone chilly. Summer was leaving. It was nearly fall now and the days were becoming brisk. I shivered, wondering momentarily if Boy were warm or if he were cold. . .
That was a thought I shouldn't have wondered about. It was all I could think of at the moment. I didn't realize that I was walking towards somebody till I bumped into the person, "Oh, sorry," I apologized, looking up.
An older man in his late thirties, thin and wearing glasses, stumbled back, "It's a- OH!" The last word of surprise was punctuated by a recoil backwards in horror. He had brown eyes and his hair was white. Not normal white, it was dyed white. Odd. He was probably average but I couldn't tell, not with the look of horror on his face.
I didn't realize I had that sort effect on people, "Are you alright?" I wondered, hoping I hadn't hurt or offended him.
"Ye-yes," he nodded, pushing his glasses up his nose with a finger, "a-aren't you. . . um," he looked me up and down, probably noticing the hair pulled back in a band, bandaged calf and hand, not to mention the scabs from the laceration I'd sustained when I'd been captured. I didn't even want to think about my hygiene.
"A mess, yes," I grinned sadly, "been a rough couple of days."
"No," he shook his head quickly, "aren't you that girl? Zora, the one that injured the enemy general?"
Oh. That was unexpected as well. This had been a day of unexpected surprises. Not all of them good.
"Yes, I'm Zora," Nodding, I glanced around. We were the only ones in the street. Not ideal, "What can I do for you?"
His eyes lit up and his horrified look to turned to delight, making him look like a kid not much older than Nate. Nate, the name brought a taste of worry back to my thoughts.
"Take me with you!" The stranger blurted.
Nonplussed, my mouth dropped open. With me? With me?! Was this guy insane?! "Uh," it was a pathetic attempt to buy time for my mind to catch up with what I'd just heard.
"I know how to defeat the monsters, depending on their species," the guy went on, "I just want to assist you! There have been other captives, I've seen them! They've got a plan and I need to talk to the general but he refuses to see me! Please, Ms. Zora, I can help," the last statement was said with a desperation I recognized.
"Tell me what you know."
Since our mission was a civilian one, we could hire whom we wanted to go with us on our journey. The stranger I bumped into was named Erolind and I took an immediate liking to him. (Once I got past his weird hair color and his odd habit of pushing up his glasses when there was no need to do so. I guessed it was a nervous tick more than anything.) He was a writer and literary soul with the excitement of a scientist who discovered a new twist to some old theory.
Jik and Haden, however, weren't thrilled at the new addition to the party when I introduced them. We had decided to meet at the bottom of HQ and the extra companion wasn't exactly welcome.
"He's a civilian," Jik commented, frowning as he took in Erolind's book bag, backpack, and ancient handgun that was strapped to the writer's thin waist. In comparison, Jik was wearing a pair of long daggers and had a brand new gun strapped to his shoulders. Next to him, Jik's hover board carried the supplies he would need to survive the journey. They were as close to polar opposites one could see visually.
Haden nodded and added,"He's old," with thinly veiled disbelief.
"Thirty-seven is not old!" Erolind retorted, sharply, brown eyes flashing behind his glasses.
"Are those bifocals?" Narrowing his gaze, Haden looked closer at Erolind.
I shoved Haden back from Erolind, almost carelessly as I pushed between them to get to my own board, "He's got information that could be invaluable and he actually wants to come with us. We won't find anyone else in this entire city who would be willing."
"Or crazy enough," the snide retort hidden beneath a cough did not help matters.
I glared at both my team members, hands on my hips as I turned from my work and stood next to the little guy. He held his bags easily, despite his frail appearance, "This is not a vote. He's coming with us."
"Where will he get a hover board?" Haden snapped, "he is a citizen! He can't ride a board!"
"No," I agreed and grinned at him, "but he can ride with you."
That shut him up.
This was not going to go well if I forced them to put up with Erolind, it would be the same as acting as the captain or commander and while that was a useful role it was not one I wanted to play. I needed it to be a team effort with everyone on board. (No pun intended.) Or it would never work.
I turned to Jik, "Please," I appealed to him, "we need him."
He glanced at Erolind, "What could he tell us that we don't already know? How could he aid our journey?"
"He has an answer to that," Erolind piped up, briskly, referring to himself in third person, "if you'd let him speak."
Haden crossed his arms and leaned on one leg, "this I got to hear."
"There are several ways in the fairy tales to kill monsters. The classic holy water or wooden stake for vampires, silver bullet for werewolves or an ax, knowing the name of some animals, or potions for witch curses, etc, etc. The key, I found, is not magic. It's science and mythology!" Erolind's eyes sparkled with excitement, "See, holy water isn't actually holy, it's just had some time to set. The chemical processes of letting the water rest and all that fun stuff is what makes it deadly to the Bloodsuckers. I can't explain why, a mortician could probably do better than me."
"And the stake through the heart?" I asked.
"That would kill anybody," Erolind sounded cheerful, "even me."
"What about the name thing?" Jik wondered, tilting his head to the side as he thought about the information Erolind had been discussing.
"For creatures summoned by witches? Not sure about that one, actually," Shrugging, Erolind admitted, "I've been experimenting and it works if you can figure out it's name. Normally, the name is something secret about the creature itself. If you know what it is, you're halfway there."
I smiled smugly at my companions, knowing that Erolind had won them over whether they liked it or not. He was personable, persistent, and was a sort of jack-of-all-trades. He had a whole different strata of hobbies that he hadn't yet mentioned but I was aware of them and figured the less they knew the more they'd appreciate him when he surprised them.
Haden sighed in frustration and glanced at Jik. Jik returned the look and then turned to me and Erolind. I could sense that we'd just about got this over with.
"Can you fight?" Jik asked.
Erolind nodded, "Yep, I know some hand-to-hand, fought several creatures myself in a pinch and survived. I was one of the lab techies when we first started fighting these creatures and when I got fired I continued to try to figure out how to beat them."
"Wait a second, fired?!" Worry creased Haden's forehead and his relaxed stance grew tense with worry and he straightened, "Why did you get fired? You didn't kill anyone, did you?"
Anger flashed in Erolind's eyes as he turned on Haden, "You're the soldier, not me," he said, voice low with unconcealed fury, "and no, I did not get anyone killed. The military took over. That's when idiots like you took over and made a mess of the research."
Haden pulled back a fist to punch, but with a blocking arm that was quicker then a thought and an energetic succession of rapid punches to Haden's midriff Erolind knocked him back and off his feet.
"Enough," Jik ordered, "you're going to have to work together. Get used to it, Haden."
Haden coughed from where he lay on the ground, sitting upright, "Didn't expect that," he glanced at Erolind with a new respect that also held wary amusement.
Erolind nodded at Jik, "Yes, sir. I take it you're in charge?"
Jik's eyebrow went up at the question, "I didn't really think of that," He admitted, "but do we need a leader figure?"
I nodded, "Yep, I think so. Should we be captured or disagree on something, we need someone to have the final say since there are four of us."
Looking uncomfortable, Jik turned to Haden, "You feel the same way?"
A chuckle, pained but a chuckle nonetheless, left Haden, "Shockingly, yes."
Erolind just grinned.
Jik nodded, "Alright, then. Let's load up, we're flying out behind the enemy lines and we'll work our way towards the city from their unprotected back. Any prisoners should be put there for protection and they won't expect us to go behind their lines with the forces they have, especially not a small team like ours. The things we have to remember is that they have better senses. Our advantages are desperation, surprise, and determination. That's about it."
Talk about cheerful.
"Will we be rescuing the infant only?" Haden wondered.
That was a good question. I hadn't thought about the other prisoners we could find, much less if we should save them.
Jik shook his head, "Any survivors we can help without getting killed ourselves, we will rescue them. Any information we can glean, we memorize. We're going to have to get to safety on our own, unfortunately, so that will make this mission ten times harder. If any of us are captured, then torture and death are what you have to look forward to. So I'll give you a moment to decide if you want to go. I won't feel bad if you decide to remain and take the train out of here."
There was an awkward silence as the four of us glanced at the person on our left or right to see if they were looking like they were about to leave.
"That settles it, then," Jik smiled, something was starting to be a pleasant surprise when it occurred, "we're all insane."
So, apparently the holidays are busier than being in school. I do hope you forgive the lateness of this, I'll be posting more as soon as I can.