John cradled the woman in his arms, as tears ran down his face. Her features were dimly lit by the torch bracketed on the cave wall. "Please, please don't leave me, I'm begging you!"
She smiled up at him, but her eyes were already losing their light. She reached up with one hand, touching his face. "Thank you, for… for everything… John," she whispered.
"Stop, you can't say goodbye to me like this! You can't!"
Her smile waned and her hand fell to the earth.
"Mada? Mada!" he cried, but this time there was no response. John gritted his teeth anger building inside of him. He slowly looked up to see Mada's killer. The monster stood several feet taller than the average man. Unlike other demons, this abomination had blue skin and eyes to match. The demon had two broken horns atop his head and every inch of his body was rippling with muscle. The monster stood, watching, a grin painting his almost human features.
"Maybe you should have listened to them. Now you will die here." The demon cackled.
John laid Mada down, gently, then took his sword from where it had been dropped beside him. John stood, his entire body burning with rage. "I'll kill you!" John lunged towards the blue skinned demon.
"John!" a woman's voice nearly shouted.
John opened his eyes, brought back to the present. He was glad to be shaken from his memories of the past. He only prayed that Thailog would never again be released.
Three pairs of eyes turned to regard him. He was an older man, with gray hair. John was the image that would come to mind when one thought of a grandparent, small and full of mirth, his back slightly stooped because of age. He often had a broad grin for everyone, but at the moment, a deep frown creased his face. His memory and the topic at hand, were both dark matters.
The council was made up of four people, three men and one woman. The speaker leaned forward in his chair. They were meeting in his study, which was anything but small. It was a good eight paces from the front wall to the back and was just as much from side to side. A huge desk, cluttered with papers and books, separated the gray-haired man from the other three who sat in front of him. A window behind him let the sunlight filter in, giving light to the large study. He couldn't understand why it was so bright when they were discussing such a dark topic.
"Sir, sir? John!" the woman spoke loudly again, likely thinking she hadn't been heard the first time, if that were possible.
The gray-haired man refocused on her. The woman was the only one of them that wasn't in her older years, still with shining golden hair. She was probably half their age and still was attractive to many of the younger occupants of the compound. She acted as if she held nearly as much power as he did, though that wasn't the case with her just being a counselor.
"So? What are your thoughts?" she asked, once noticing he was paying attention again.
John shook his head slowly. "I don't like it Vain…." Her real name was Vanessa, but the woman was rather self-absorbed, so he had taken to calling her Vain and for some reason she didn't object.
"Whether you like it or not, sir, a decision needs to be made and this is the most logical one that we have contrived as of yet." One of the other two men spoke this time. His bushy eyebrows were scrunched together over the deep hollows that held his eyes. Not only his eyes, but the expression that never changed and even the way he held himself, made the man a solemn looking character, quite the opposite of John.
John ran a hand over his face, then through his hair. "You want to force others into military service? That goes against our very purpose." He was silent for a moment observing the three faces staring back at him. The men were impassive, while Vain was stubborn. John stood up and took a handful of his uniform, the same that they all wore, which was made up of a black shirt and pants, splashed with red in what seemed like random places. "This is a symbol of protection and you want me to go against that?! Instead of offering protection you want me to offer the chance of death!?"
"John," Vain said in a patient tone which was clearly over-exaggerated. She meant to show him how unreasonable he was being. "Look, I know how you feel about this place, but all that it stands for, will mean nothing if we don't do something." Her declaration was unfortunately true.
John turned away to gaze out of the window. The cheerful light mocked his dark mood and he sighed. "I know your right Vain… but…." She was right, but he had something else in mind, though it would take some time to put together.
"John, we have gone over every possible way to get around this, but the simple fact is that we are far too understaffed. Most of us are already taking on more requests than we can handle. And if that were all, then we would be fine, but it isn't. Eetan is threatening an all out war. We need to be strong, now more than ever." With that, Vain lounged back in her chair, certain her point had been driven home.
John ran his hand again through his hair, a habit when he was displeased or worried. "I realize all too well what could happen if we don't act, but." His conclusion made the others look questioningly at him. "We haven't sought help from every source. We will just need some extra coin."
The councilors stared at him, unsure of exactly what he was implying.
John grinned. "Let me enlighten you."
Sarah looked at her friend, sitting on her bed. Sarah was short next to Jean, who was nearly five and a half feet tall, whereas Sarah was a good five inches shorter. Though shorter, she had a bigger build, whereas Jean was slim, but both their eye color and hair color matched: a dark brown. The dark eyes and hair made lots of people think they were sisters, but they weren't related in the least, which was a little strange in a small town like theirs. In fact, Sarah didn't know anyone Jean was related to. Despite Jean being a little aloof, compared to Sarah's over social manner, the two of them were often found together. They were both near their nineteenth year. The closest people to their age, in the villager, were either a few years younger, or a few years older.
"Just put something on, would you?" Jean complained. The closet was just large enough that she could walk in, but two people would have been one to many. Jean was used to this small house and small room. She was here more often than at her own empty home. She didn't like being alone too much, so she always ended up at Sarah's.
"But I have to be ready. You never know what could happen," Sarah told her friend, mostly focused on her possible wardrobe. She was eyeing a narrow blue skirt and a matching shirt.
Jean huffed. "Come on, we know everyone who will be there and they all know you. There isn't exactly a lot of people around here and they all have seen you, so you can't really make another first impression." Jean was dressed in a simple pair of brown pants and a brown top. She didn't aim to impress, because she really didn't think much of the boys that lived around town. Sarah, on the other hand, seemed to be trying to impress someone every time they went to a group activity. Jean had her suspicions, but wasn't positive on the person just yet.
"That doesn't mean I shouldn't care what I look like." Sarah strode out of the closet holding the blue clothing and gave Jean a questioning gaze. "What do you think about this one?"
Jean chuckled, causing a frown to cross her friend's face. Three times out of five her friend would settle on that same outfit. She couldn't understand why. Sarah had a lot more flattering things she could wear that would more than draw the other boys' attention. She still most often went for the simply colored and not too revealing outfit. Jean didn't really know why Sarah ever asked for her input, seeing as Jean never dressed to impress. What was more, even if she did comment, Sarah never changed her mind.
"The blue outfit looks great. Can we go now?" Jean's words were purposely bored sounding.
Sarah stuck her tongue out, then turned to the side so only one of her eyes were visible. "Here I am just wanting my friend to take some interest in my life and what do you do?" Sarah's voice was innocent, but Jean knew better than to believe it.
Sarah giggled. "Maybe I should just stay here and try to find something else, since you don't seem to like this one."
At the threat, Jean stood up. "It really does look good on you," she complimented. The last thing Jean wanted to do was wait around while Sarah tried to decide on another option. They had already been there for a good thirty minutes, which boggled her mind. The girl only had at most, nine outfits, but somehow, she took up so much time choosing one out. In contrast, it hadn't taken Jean more than five minutes to get ready.
Sarah turned a friendly smile on Jean, calming her fears. It looked like she was finally going to be able to leave this small room and get out to the bonfire. The fire had likely already been started and unfortunately, starting it was one of Jean's favorite parts. She liked to tease the boys about how long it took them to start the fire. She probably should have been nicer, because she didn't know how long it would take her. She couldn't help it though, the boys were either stupid or pretended to be so and she wasn't too fond of either possibility.
"Okay I'll be ready in just a second."
Jean gave a thumbs up, then headed outside, too eager to wait for her friend any longer. She only just managed to keep herself from running off before Sarah came out, almost dancing as she waited. She always enjoyed the nights when the town had bonfires going on. None of the older folk attended, so they were free to do just about anything short of killing each other. The last time she had gone, two boys had the bright idea to sword fight with burning sticks from the fire. It was a spectacle everyone enjoyed, though the two left that night with a few pretty bad burns. Jean thought they got what they deserved for being idiots, even if she secretly would have liked to try.
"You ready?" Sarah asked.
The voice seemed to come out of nowhere, because Jean had been lost in thought. At the sound of Sarah's voice, she jumped slightly.
"Did I scare you?" Sarah asked, with a giggle.
Jean crossed her arms in front of her. "Not a chance," she covered.
"Whatever you say."
The sun was down by the time Sarah had gotten ready and come outside, which meant the fire would have been started for sure. Jean could only see the small houses because of lights that filtered out from the windows. It was a very dark night with the sky overcast. They went towards the meeting place as quickly as Sarah's skirt would allow. The town and pond were on a prairie, whereas the place the bonfire was held was to the north, heading into a woodland.
Jean was glad she knew the way by heart or else the darkness would be a real pain, with the clouds overhead blocking out any light from the moon and stars. She was in the lead, gliding across the grassy earth, Sarah a pace behind. Something struck Jean as odd, but she couldn't place her finger on it. Once they could see the light of the fire, it struck Jean like a physical blow. She halted and Sarah hit into her back, almost knocking her over.
"Ow! What are you doing?" Sarah said with annoyance.
Jean clamped a hand over her friend's mouth and put a finger to her own lips, though her friend may not have been able to see the gesture very well. Jean had finally realized what was nagging at her. There was no sound. Once the fire was going, the kids were always making a ruckus that could wake the dead. Sarah must have caught on because she nodded. Jean went to her stomach in the nearly knee-deep grass. Like this, no one at the fire would be able to see them coming. Jean guessed they were planning some sort of prank, unless all of the kids had ventured off into the woods for some reason.
The fire was only a stone's throw away from the trees that loomed above, reaching into the night sky. That forest always gave Jean the willies and she wouldn't go in there alone if someone offered her the world. She never thought about it too much when they were here at the fire, unless the games turned into tests of courage. The boys, mostly, would do things to show how brave they were, such as entering the dark forest. She was fine with everything until it involved that place. She wasn't normally afraid, even in the dark, but there was just something about those woods.
"Where is everyone?" Sarah asked.
"I'm not sure… let's get closer." At this point, Jean wasn't all that scared, still thinking this was all some kind of game. The other kids were probably lying in wait somewhere nearby.
The two girls inched closer and closer, Sarah complaining once about how hard it was to do so in a skirt. Jean just had to smirk to herself and be glad she didn't care for dressing up. When they were on the edge of the firelight, Jean came to an abrupt stop, staring wide-eyed at the flattened earth around the crackling flames. Motionless forms were strewn across the ground, some close to the fire and others further out.
"What?" Sarah said, the fear making her voice crack. All the motionless heaps were the other kids from town. A dozen of them lay there, some of their eyes staring in horror and others with their cloths torn.
"Shh," Jean hissed. She could see blood on some of the bodies and knew this was no prank, it was a massacre. What in the world had happened here? Jean was frozen in place, not daring to move. She knew the faces that were now lifeless and knew whatever had done this, could still be around. Bile rose in her throat at the horrid scene and Sarah started to sob beside her. She couldn't bring herself to silence the girl, even if it might give them away. Sarah was doing exactly what Jean wanted to, but for some reason couldn't. She must have been in too much shock for tears to come. Her parents had always warned her the forest was a dangerous place, but the adults said it would be okay with the fire, because the creatures that lived in the forest were afraid of the flames. Was it all a lie? No, she knew parents wouldn't want anything to happen to their own children.
Sarah started to get up, but Jean pulled her back down and just in time too, for a shadow appeared opposite them, across the fire. When the shadow came closer to the fire, Jean's breath caught in her throat. It wasn't human. The creature stood upright, though its back was hunched. It resembled a man, however, the basic shape was where the commonalities stopped. The creature must have been seven feet tall and its pale skin looked tough like the caulis that forms on one's hands from hard labor. It had a wiry looking strength to its muscles that were all bare, because the only article of clothing was a loincloth. The hands were topped off with long claws. The face was the most gruesome part of the creature. The mouth was too big and fangs stuck out randomly past its lips. The nose was only two holes and the eyes were nothing but hollow sockets. It took only a moment for Jean to take all this in, but hardly noticed the creature was holding something, because its eyeless gaze seemed to be fixed on the two hidden girls. She couldn't make herself turn away, just stared into those gaping sockets.
The creature took a huge step closer to the girls and dropped its load. The body of Zack's friend hit the ground and lay still, like all those around him. Jean finally was able to wrench her gaze away and see who it had been carrying. Sarah suddenly gripped Jean's arm, hard. The creature took another slow pace in their direction and Jean was about to bolt. The third step put it on the closer side of the fire and only several yards from the girls. It must have known they were there. Jean knew they had to get away. She tried to get up, but found herself frozen. Try as she might, Jean wasn't going anywhere, because of the fear that completely immobilized her. The creature opened its huge mouth showing dozens of misshapen teeth, most of them not even pointing the right way. It was a wonder the thing could chew without biting itself.
Jean knew it was over and she couldn't even run, couldn't even scream. All she could do was lay there and watch her killer stalk closer. Suddenly a flash of movement streamed past them, racing to meet the pale figure. The arrival wasn't large, maybe Jean's height or a little taller, but the cloak that billowed out to either side made the character look much bigger. There was a rasping sound, like metal on leather, then the newcomer held a long blade out threateningly. The newcomer's back was to them, hiding its identity.
"I'm the last thing you'll ever see." The voice was deep and strong, definitely belonging to a man. The cloaked figure was obviously confident, even though the creature he faced was larger and seemed to emanate fear. It roared at the new arrival, a sound like a man's shout and a bear's growl. The sound was unnatural and sent new goosebumps down Jean's arms. Sarah's grip on her arm had only tightened and Jean thought the circulation was probably being cut off.
The creature leaped forward, throwing both of its arms out to catch the man in a death vice. He dodged nimbly to one side and left a gash down the creature's side, with his blade. It howled in pain, spinning and lashing out. The creature's attack missed by only inches and Jean heard a chuckle come from the man. When its arm drew back, a line of red showed where the creature had been struck yet again. Watching the spectacle, Jean was starting to get feeling back and thought she might be able to move. The creature lunged yet again and Jean couldn't help but think how unintelligent it must be. Without warning the sword the man had been carrying, was sent spinning through the air and sank into the earth a foot away from Jean's face. She jumped, which was a good sign. If things went sour, she now knew she could make a break for it. That seemed to be the case now that the newcomer was unarmed. There was no way he could stand up to those cruel looking claws without a weapon.
The creature let out a cry of triumph and advanced on the smaller man. It swung both hands down, trying to chop him in two. Jean almost turned away, she couldn't watch someone be mutilated right in front of her. There was a loud clang as the creature's claws met the man's upraised arms. Jean was confused. It was almost as if his arms were made of metal. The pale figure drew its hands back, also apparently befuddled, and as it did so it took pieces of the man's sleeves. He was turned sideways now, so she was able to see what had stopped the creature's attack. Where the sleeves used to be was a black material that caught the firelight rather than skin. If the material caught the light, that meant it could be some sort of metal, but Jean didn't know of any type that was that dark.
"Such an abomination can't be allowed to live, especially when it targets innocent children." The disgust in his voice was more than clear. He knocked his arms together and a small blade sprang forth from the dark metal, past each of his gloved hands. The blade was roughly a foot long, much shorter than his sword had been, but still longer than the creature's claws. Jean found herself wanting to see his face, but just barely couldn't because the hood he wore cast darkness over the side that would have been visible to them.
In a split second, the exchange began again, except this time the man initiated the attack. He darted forward jabbing and slashing with his new weapons. The creature slowly gave ground under the onslaught of blows. It roared in frustration. The man was much smaller, but somehow he was winning, even if Jean didn't know how that was possible. She couldn't help but think the battle almost looked like a dance with the way each participant stepped and leapt. In this partnership the smaller figure was clearly the better dancer.
"Sir!" a new voice called out. Jean turned her head for a moment to see who had spoken. A group of men, though she could hardly tell in the dark, were rushing towards the bonfire, ready to assist in the fight. She turned back just in time to see the man take the creature down. It had been distracted by the new voice just as Jean had, but the man had taken advantage of the distraction. He danced to one side and kicked the back of the creature's knee, throwing it off balance to stumble back. He then spun a kicked it in the belly, knocking it flat to the earth. One last swing of his arm found the creatures neck, ending its life.
The man wiped his weapons off on the pale figure's loincloth, then knocked his arms together again, making the blades vanish. Jean stared at the corpse and marveled. That man had been able to best such a horror and had hardly been touched. She glanced up catching a glimpse of the clothing he wore under his black cloak, but it was just as dark. Who is he?
Four men, all dressed in black and red clothing, came into the firelight. They were all heavily armed, though it would appear the danger had been dealt with.
"Was that the only one?" the silver-haired speaker asked.
The man nodded, then headed straight for the two girls. Jean wasn't sure what she should do, so she just laid there. The man stopped a pace away and retrieved the sword. He glanced down at them, but she couldn't see his face because he was turned away from the fire. She felt sure, even if she couldn't see them, the man's eyes were trained on her. It only lasted for an instant, then he turned back to the others. "Two of you stay here and help the children, the other two come with me. There could be more slinking around the town."
The prospect that there were possibly more of those things prowling the night made Jean shiver anew. She started to get shakily to her feet, pulling Sarah up with her. Before Jean thought to thank their rescuer, he and two of the men had vanished into the night.
"I can't feel my hand," Jean told her friend. Sarah didn't compute the meaning and Jean had to pry Sarah's hand away from her arm. The blood rushed back into the limb making it itch.
"What just –" Sarah didn't get a chance to finish her question because the two men left behind, caught sight of the girls.
"You two. Are you hurt?" one of them asked as he hurried over. The other man busied himself checking the fallen children, letting the first attend to the girls. The speaker, a silver-haired man, stopped in front of them and repeated his question.
Jean stared and it took her a moment to form the proper words. "Y-yes. That man got here before anything happened to us."
"That's a relief. We need as many of you as possible," he said.
Jean didn't know what to make of his statement, but it sounded like the soldiers had come here just for them.
"What's going on?" Sarah peeped.
The man smiled and put a hand to his chest. "I'm sorry, I did not introduce myself. My name is Shen." He emphasized this with a bow. Shen was a head taller than Jean and didn't look particularly strong or weak, in fact he looked average in every way except for his hair. It must have been dyed. Two shafts stuck up to either side of his head. The shafts just looked like pieces of wood, possibly a bow, but she didn't know why he would have two bows on his back.
"That's not what she asked," Jean pressed.
Shen tilted his head to one side, then sighed. "There is no need to be worried. The two of you are safe now and the others will protect the town."
"Not be worried? Did you see that thing? And what about all the people here? Do they look okay? With all this, you are telling me not to be worried?!" Jean was almost shouting by the time she finished.
Shen gave her a suffering look. "You are in shock. Everything will be sorted out and besides, most of these children are okay."
Jean was taken aback by how easily he spoke. If only most of the kids were unharmed, then logically some of them were.
"Jean," Sarah said, holding on to her friend. She looked like she was about to faint.
"Three casualties," the other man announced.
Shen glanced back to take in the scene.
Jean felt sick. If three of them were dead, that meant a fourth of the children's lives had been taken away. Her condition must have shown, because when Shen turned back to regard them, he winced. She would have run if Sarah wasn't clinging to her.
Shen scratched his head and appeared almost embarrassed. "I'm sorry to do this, but I think you need it." The statement was barely out of his mouth when Shen reached forward, holding a needle. Jean reacted quickly, saving herself from getting pricked. She threw a backhand and the needle went spinning into the grass. Surprisingly Shen didn't look angry, only a little confused.
Jean stared daggers at Shen. "What was that?!" She pulled her friend away from the man, in slow steps.
Shen shook his head. "You don't have to be afraid, it was just a sedative. Both of you look like you need it, her more than you."
Jean took another step back, then stopped. Sarah was clinging to Jean tighter than ever. "How can I trust you? You just attacked us without warning. You could have been trying to kill us for all I know!"
"Look at the facts… we just saved your life and that of your friends. This being the case, why would I then turn around and try to kill you?" Shen's question was very blunt and made sense to Jean. "I thought it would be better to just give it to you, because people in shock or hysterics mostly refuse to let people help them." Shen's simple polite tone made Jean feel like she was being very unreasonable. Not only that, but his logic was hard to argue with.
Jean stood there holding her friend, not sure what to do next. Shen's eyes focused on something behind her, making her decision for her. Jean glanced back and saw what caught the man's attention. Flames were erupting from the town. Jean gasped. The scene almost made her forget what had just happened.
Shen sighed. "Wait here, I will go help." Shen punctuated this statement by dashing off towards the blaze. Jean's mind raced. What was happening to the town? she thought. Jean wanted to chase after Shen, but looked down at Sarah. She didn't really want to leave her friend with the other man and wasn't sure Sarah would be too keen on the idea of going back.
"I'm going after him," Jean told her friend. Sarah, as expected, didn't look too pleased. "You can stay here, if you don't want to."
Sarah looked even less pleased with the prospect of being left behind and shook her head. "I-I'll go."
In the next minute, the two friends were dashing over the grass lands. The town looked a lot like the bonfire they had just left, but on a much greater scale. A few screams echoed from somewhere inside the flames. Jean saw Shen charge in between the blazing houses and she had to admit the man wasn't a coward.
"My parents!" Sarah shouted. Jean's parents had disappeared years ago and now Sarah's parents were the closest thing there was to having a family of her own. Sarah bolted for home, Jean right on her heels.
The heat from the flames was intense as they ran through the empty streets. She started to sweat almost immediately as the heat came at her from every side. Jean briefly wondered why no one was trying to put out the flames, but her main focus was keeping close to Sarah and avoiding the sparks that exploded from the nearby structures.
Jean thought she saw a figure dart behind one of the houses as they neared Sarah's, but couldn't be sure.
"Mom, Dad!" Sarah cried. Her house was a mass of flames, though it appeared the fire was mostly on the outside.
"Sarah!? A man's voice called from inside the house.
"Dad!" Sarah took a few steps closer to the fire, but was forced to retreat because of the heat. "Mom! Dad!"
"Get out of here before they come back!" her father ordered.
Jean heard something above the crackling of the fire and glanced back. Two men were watching them with wild eyes. Their appearance matched their eyes. Both had long unkempt hair and held huge axes. They both were garbed in nothing more than a loincloth, which revealed all their rippling muscles. Though they were men, they didn't look any less dangerous than the monster they had left behind. Before Jean decided whether or not to be afraid of the wild men, the matter was decided for her.
The men shouted a battle cry and lumbered towards the two girls. Jean screamed, alerting Sarah. They watched in fear as the men closed in. They could have fled, but that course of action didn't even occur to the terrified girls. Suddenly one of the two attackers toppled with a cry, clutching at his leg. From somewhere an arrow had pierced the wild man's calf. The attacker left standing, searched with furious eyes, trying to find the archer.
The wild man let out another roar, catching sight of the archer. Another arrow whizzed through the air, but the savage was ready for it this time and deflected the projectile with his battle axe. He shouted a challenge at the archer who Jean finally saw. The archer just so happened to be Shen.
"Good eye, but a bow isn't the only weapon I can use." Shen replaced the bow on his back and took the other shaft. It was nearly as long as he was tall and had a curved blade on one side. Some kind of spear. "It would be best if you just left, I won't be as kind to you as I was to your friend." It was odd that Shen used the same polite tone with this savage as he had with them. The wild man wasn't having any of Shen's talk and bellowed as he charged.
Shen flourished his weapon, but the wild man didn't falter. When they met, Shen didn't try to block the battle axe, not directly anyways. He knocked the weapon to the side each time, or at the last moment would sidestep. It was amazing how quickly the savage was able to bring the axe to bare. The weapon must have weighed as much as a toddler, but the savage made it look light.
Shen kept dancing out of the way and misdirecting his opponent's axe and before long the wild man seemed to be slowing down. Shen took advantage of his enemy's slowed state, slashing down the savage's side. The wild man howled, but didn't go down, in fact the pain seemed to reenergize him and he started his assault anew.
Jean had been so focused on the fight that she hadn't notice the first wild man move. He was missing when she looked over for a second. With a start, she caught sight of him crawling up behind Shen. "Look out!" she cried.
Shen reacted immediately, jumping to one side and only just avoiding a blow that would have taken him in the leg. The crawling foe growled his anger at the interruption. If he could have moved, quickly the wild man would probably have come for Jean.
The standing savage charged and, to his surprise, Shen took a step forward rather than back. The surprise made his attack less accurate and Shen easily knocked the axe aside with the back of his weapon, then in the same motion spun the spear to slash across the savage's throat. The wild man fell back, landing on his comrade.
Shen shook his head. "I did warn you." He then focused on the savage still drawing breath. It felt wrong to Jean that he was going to kill a man who couldn't even stand. She thought she should say something, but waited too long. Shen thrust downward with his spear making the angry grunting from the savage cut off abruptly. Jean saw, with relief, that when Shen pulled back his weapon the blade was pointed upward. Shen must have felt the same thing she did about killing the enemy. He then did something odd. Shen spun his spear, leaving a gash across each of the wild men's hands. He glanced up at the two girls with a smile.
"Never a good idea to leave an enemy able to fight." Shen trotted over to them. "Why did you come here, didn't I ask you to stay?" The question hung in the air, but neither of them answered. Now that the danger of the wild men was gone, Sarah was again focused on the burning house. Jean took the opportunity to avoid Shen's question and held her friend.
The house's windows had shattered from the ferocity of the flames and the blaze wasn't confined to only the outside now. Sarah's parents could be dead by now…. Sarah screamed for her parents, but there was no response this time. She tried to get closer, but Jean held her friend back. There was nothing she could do and Jean wasn't about to let her go into that blaze.
"Her parents are in there?" Shen asked. Jean thought the question was unnecessary, wasn't it obvious? "I'm afraid it's probably too late. The fire is already inside the house."
The simple tone Shen always used, was definitely out of place in this situation. Jean stared daggers at the soldier. Can't he show a little sympathy, or, or something? Instead he just pointed out the painful truth. No one needed to be reminded of the fact. "Why don't you do something other than making her feel worse!?" Jean spat.
Shen held up his hands in a placating gesture. The man looked slightly confused, just as he was when Jean had knocked the needle from his hand.
"Move!" a voice called unexpectedly. Jean turned to see the same cloaked figure that had fought the creature, barreling straight for them. She pulled her friend to the side and the man sped past them. He crashed through the front door of the burning house and a jet of heat and flames erupted outward. With how strong the heat was from this distance, it was a wonder the cloaked figure didn't simply burst into flames.
Every second that passed felt like an eternity. It couldn't take too long to search the house, not with how small it was. After a full minute had passed, Jean expected the worst. There was no way someone could survive in there for that long, which also bode ill for Sarah's parents.
Suddenly a dark form appeared, shooting out of the inferno. The cloak trailed behind him, singed along the edges. The man laid a form down, near the two girls. Jean let go of her friend and they both went to the still form. The cloaked figure stood up, revealing Sarah's mother. She was darkened by the smoke and soot, but her chest moved up and down. Sarah clung to her mother, sobbing. After a moment she glanced up.
"My dad?" Sarah whispered.
The cloaked figure lowered his head. "I'm sorry…."
His face was visible now, but Jean wasn't paying much attention to that. She was to shocked by the news and trying to comfort her friend to really take notice of what he looked like.
Sarah buried her face against her mother, her shoulders shaking with the cries that racked her. Jean's heart sank. She had cared a great deal about that man and it felt like a physical blow being told he was gone.
The man looked up to regard Shen. "Why are they here?"
"I'm sorry sir –" Shen cut off from a look he was given. "Sorry, Rift." When he amended his words, the cloaked figure's expression didn't change. "David?" This time it was almost a question.
Finally, Rift's expression softened.
"They came on their own. I told them to stay at the bonfire and wait, but I guess they must have disregarded what I said."
"… Fine, just make sure to keep an eye on them, there could be more savages lurking around or more of their beasts," Rift ordered.
Rift shook his head, then darted off into the fire lit street, heading further into the town. Shen stood there watching the two girls, not speaking or even blinking. It was a little unnerving that he was taking Rift's order so literally.
Wood splintered and moaned inside of Sarah's house. An instant later the roof collapsed, sending a shower of sparks into the sky. The sound made Sarah's sobs intensify. Jean held her friend, trying to comfort her with the contact. She felt terrible, but what Jean felt must have been only a fraction of what Sarah was feeling. She knew because she had lost her parents too, though she had been much younger.
Jean looked up to see Shen still staring at them. "Can you not do that?" Jean asked.
Shen tilted his head. "Do what?"
She couldn't decide if he was oblivious or just acting like it. "Staring like that. It's creepy."
Shen looked confused at her reply and shrugged. "If that's what you wish, I was merely following orders."
Jean shook her head. "He said to keep an eye on us, that doesn't mean you have to stare at us without blinking or anything. You're like an emotionless statue."
Shen chuckled, then shook his head. "People can pull out the most interesting things from a simple action."
Jean frowned. This silver-haired man was strange. "You can go help the other guy," Jean offered.
"Oh, that wouldn't go well. He asked me to protect you three and if I disregarded his orders I could get into a lot of trouble," Shen explained. Rift or David or whatever his name was must have been the leader of these soldiers. From the way he didn't like formality and the expressions he gave, he didn't seem to like the position.
"But we are safe now and there could be other people that need your help," she argued.
Shen shook his head again. "There are two other men helping him. They will be fine."
"There are at least sixty people that live in this town."
"Not anymore," he pointed out in that polite tone of his.
Jean almost lashed out at him. He could speak of death like it was nothing and she didn't like that one bit. A scream echoed from the other side of the town, barely audible over the crackling of the fire.
"That's a good sign," Shen commented.
"How is that a good thing?! That means someone is in trouble!" Jean hissed.
Shen smirked. "You are correct, but you are also missing an important fact."
Jean didn't answer, afraid she would say something she might regret. This man was making her more and more frustrated, but she didn't want to alienate their protection.
After a short pause he held up one finger. "If someone is screaming, it means there has to be someone left to scream. So," he continued, probably thinking she didn't yet grasp his meaning. "Hearing that means there are still some people alive and the sound will lead the others straight to them… though it will bring the savages as well…" he finished in a thoughtful tone.
When he explained, Jean was almost happy, but when he added the last part it only darkened her mood again. He could have just left off the last part.
No other enemies approached the four of them as the fires burned lower and lower. After another hour, Jean finally let go of her friend, who was now sprawled out across her mother. "Sarah?" Her friend didn't respond. "Sarah?" she said a little louder, but still nothing. Jean shook her arm and when that didn't work, she panicked. Shen was at her side in an instant and put two fingers to the girl's neck.
"No need to worry," he told her, pulling his hand back. "She must have just fainted.
Jean let out a breath and nodded her thanks to the silver-haired man. He stood up, taking a few steps back. It was almost as if he wasn't too comfortable being close to her, but there was no reason she could see that would make him feel that way. The man could do whatever he wanted to her and she didn't think she would be able to stop him.
"Don't worry, we will be leaving soon," Shen assured. Despite him trying to comfort her, it did the opposite. She had no clue where were they going and she didn't want to leave either. Everything she knew was here.
"I don't want to leave."
Shen raised an eyebrow. "Why?" he glanced around at the burning houses to emphasize his question. "Do you want to keep the forest men company?" It seemed like he was trying to make a joke, but he kept the same tone as usual.
Jean scoffed. Shen could really use some tact. "You could be a little nicer. We just lost our home, friends and family and you're talking about it like it's nothing!" She couldn't help snapping at the silver-haired man. His attitude was infuriating.
"I'm sorry. I was merely pointing out the reasons it would be unwise to stay."
Jean wanted to say something more, but she really didn't think he could understand what she was feeling. The guy was just clueless.
Footsteps were clearly audible nearby, because the fires were less intense now. Jean turned her head to see who was coming. Relief filled her when she saw Rift. She had too much going through her head last time she had seen him to notice any of his features, but now that she had had time to get her head a little clearer, Jean was taken aback. Rift's face though stern at the moment, was very young. From the way he spoke and the fact that Shen took orders from him, Jean had thought he must have been older, but he couldn't have been much older than her, maybe in his early to mid-twenties. His eyes were a very dark brown, almost black. He was definitely a lot better looking than any of the boys who she had grown up with. He was thin looking, but not scrawny and if he let his features soften it would probably melt any women's heart. The strands of hair that weren't covered by his hood, were a dark brown that matched his eyes. Oddly, she found herself wanting to see a smile on that face.
"Sir," Shen said instinctively, making Rift shake his head. "I kept them safe, as you ordered."
Rift nodded. "We're leaving," he announced.
Jean didn't want to argue, because of the stern look on Rift's face, but how could she leave? "What about all the other people?" she asked. For just a moment, sadness was evident in the cloaked figures eyes, before they hardened again.
"You three are the only survivors. Even the other soldiers and the children were carried off or killed."
A gasp escaped Jean's throat. "All of them are dead? Everyone? There are dozens of people living in the village."
Rift looked at her. "What's your name?"
"It, it's Jean, Jean Shawn…." It felt like it would have been wrong not to answer this man for some reason. The soft, but strong commanding tone he used, made it seem like that was the best thing to do.
"Jean," he said kneeling down next to her. "Look at me."
Jean did as directed.
Rift's gaze drew her in and didn't let her turn away. "This can't be taken in all at once."
He was definitely right about that. Seeing one's home in ruins and all the inhabitants dead, was enough to make a person snap, which is exactly what was starting to happen to Jean.
"I need your help," he told her and Jean felt the desire to help him, burn inside. It was almost as if he was using magic on her. "Both Shen and I will be carrying someone and we can't carry another. I need you to get up. You can think about all of this once we are safely away."
Jean felt stronger than before, the desire to help Rift pushing her forward. He stood and held out a hand that was crisscrossed with dozens of scars. She took the proffered hand and he pulled her up.
"Shen, you take the older woman. I'll take Jean's friend." He immediately crouched down and lifted Sarah into his arms. Shen took the girl's mother an instant later. Sarah roused from the movement and peered up with frightened eyes. "Don't be afraid," Rift spoke in a soft voice. His tone was so kind that it was as if he was talking to someone he cherished a great deal. The way he spoke had a visible effect on her. The fear in Sarah's eyes disappeared and she buried her face against his chest.
Jean felt a little jealous, then had to scold herself. First, why am I jealous that my friend is being helped? Second, why am I even thinking about a man when my home is turning to ashes around me?
"Keep a lookout, there are still savages about."
"Will do, sir," Shen responded.
"Why can't you just call me David?" he mumbled. With that, they sped into the night, leaving the sea of flames behind.