It had been almost a week since that fateful day; where my world would change forever. I had been escorting them through the city and the surrounding woods with extreme caution. The first thing I had done was make a straight line out of the Hive territory. At the least, as straight as I could make. There were several times where we would have to backtrack to avoid a chance of running into its dangers. Between more packs of Hive Hounds and bypassing hunting grounds of a Domra Brute, (a terrifying mass of muscle, teeth and anger) we lost several days straying from the path. I couldn't risk running into anything with the group as inexperienced as they were.
Once on the outskirts I finally found myself relaxing. Knowing little of the area, and wanting to explore the area less so, I was always on guard for unfamiliar and unfriendly noises. Night had fallen and a fire had been built in the open for the first time. The wildlife was sparse in this area of Hive Territory. What creatures lived there were far tamer than those located closer in and those that wandered in from outside the territory were more likely to flee when encountering danger. It was time for me to answer the questions that these folks had.
Once we had gotten through the chaotic nature of our first encounter, I had lead them back to my original camp site where that Soul had attempted to snatch my belongings. The trek had been an unpleasant one. Something wasn't sitting right with these people. Whether it be my overall dismissive and cautions nature, the situation they had been forced into after waking up, or was it something far darker? I couldn't know then; not that I wanted to at the time. Thankfully we had made it back without further incident I took the time to explain the situation they were in.
I explained to them that we were all currently deep within Hive Territory; a deep rooted ecosystem filled with the most vile and vicious creatures I had ever come across on the remains of this planet. It was also located within the ruins of the biggest metropolis I had found. Which made it the perfect breeding grounds for ambush hunters and small aggressive vermin with all of its toppled sky-rises and overgrown streets.
"Normally it wouldn't be a problem for me." I began as I stared into the fire rekindled I had made. A small one given our situation. "Two days flight for me at the most and I would be out." I looked up at them as they huddled around the heat in an attempt to dry off. The feathered one, Vermillia as she took to calling herself, was having a harder time at it than the others. Having to figure out how she could ruffle herself up to get easier access to her drenched downy underneath. The others simply resolving to sit and wait. Their small bag clutched in his hands as if its contents was the most precious thing in the world. They yet declined to disclose what was inside, so I was inclined to believe that it was. "As long as you follow my lead without question, I can get you out of here without recreating the incident from earlier."
"Isn't that a bit extreme?" Thran, the large, furred one asked indignantly. "We've just met you and you want to boss us around like mindless subordinates?"
"First of all, you need to keep your voice down." I hissed at him. "From what little I've seen, the predators in these parts have highly sensitive hearing. Second of all, in case case you've forgotten I just saved your life."
"And we saved yours. So lets call it even."
With a glare in my eyes I retorted with. "Regardless, if only have memories from the past day as you've said, then you won't last more than another day without my help." I sighed and dropped my gathering hostility. "I will get you out of this territory. Once we have gotten a safe distance away, you may do as you like."
He looked over at his companions. Vermillia looked at him as if dumbfounded he was arguing with the person who just saved them. Meanwhile Elmira looked over at Thran with those large scared, worried eyes she couldn't seem to shake and slowly nodded her head. Then she continued to stare absentmindedly at the small fire.
He couldn't look at me straight as he answered. "We will follow you. But we would like some answers. Why-"
I raised a hand to halt his sentence. "Talking to a minimum from now on." With that I got up and made my way to the door of our room. "I'll take first watch. Get your rest while you can. Thran, you take the second half." With that I left and positioned myself just outside the door as a sentry. It was a long night and an even long few weeks until we made it out.
Tensions grew between myself and the others as I refused to answer their curiosity and my own cautiousness of the situation. I needed to quell those tensions now that we were in a safe enough location. We had set up in the foundation of an old home. The only one that still had some viable walls in this age, even if they were only a few feet tall. Vermillia mad managed to climb up and was perched on the wall behind the fire and was taking in the surroundings. "Taking first watch." As she insisted. Thran was across from me and finishing up the last of the provisions I had with me after making sure the other two had their share. Elmira was still absentmindedly drawing in the dirt with her finger as she sat by the fire trying to find some meaning in her art I would imagine.
Rather unceremoniously I began with what I knew Thran's first question was. "I was there because I was searching for someone." Everyone abruptly stopped what they were doing to stare at me. Thran put down his remaining morsels, Elmira stopped drawing for a moment only to adjust her ears in my direction, and Vermillia turned and sat down on the wall facing the fire. "I knew the risks of following them into the horrid place but I followed because I thought there would be safety in numbers."
"Did you end up finding them?" Thran followed up.
"I tracked them for a long while. Following their tracks and finding innumerable places they made rest. Places I would not have found if I wasn't actively looking for them. I was close to meeting them. Very close. But if they willingly travelled into this place then I figured that the ones being chased by a pack of Hive Hounds would need my assistance more." They didn't need to know that the Soul had in fact found me, almost stole my belongings, and then proceeded to knock the wind out of me.
Thran didn't seem pleased by my explanation. "What if they came in here to try and get away from you?" I looked up at him quizzically. "It sounds to me like you were stalking them. Like they were some kind of prey."
I furrowed my brow. "What I was doing," I explained slowly, "was trying to reinforce the chances of mutual survival. I do not wish harm on any person that is only trying to survive in this husk of a world."
We proceeded to have a staring competition for a minute or two before we were thankfully interrupted by Vermillia. "How long has it been then?" I slowly shifted my head to face her, then pried my eyes away from Thran afterwards.
I thought to myself, 'Doesn't trust me. Good to know.' Before I asked out loud, "What do mean by how long?" for clarification.
"Well," she continued, "how long has it been, since everyone else in this world... just, sort of... disappeared? And why?"
I was quite for a moment. I knew this question would come yet still I hesitated to answer. "I'm afraid," I began slowly, "that answer is something I am still looking for to this day." I turned away in shame and stared at the fire. "I am sorry."
She leaned back against the wall and huffed in mild frustration. "The least they could have done was leave a sign or something. 'Aliens invading. Be back in seven hours.'" She jested but it was obvious how it concerned her.
Things were quiet for a while longer as we all listened to the crackle of the fire and the small fauna explore the night. I was almost startled by her suddenness when Elmira started talking. She had been keen on her sketch the entire time I had thought it would be her only focus.
She was very hesitant to talk. Maybe she was still shaken from the events of the past few weeks. I assumed it was all she could recall of her life.
"Do you... remember?"
This question caught me completely off guard. Yes I did know much about the world as it was in that moment but, "What do you mean if I remember? There is much that I remember from my life here, but there is also much I would wish to forget." I finished solemnly.
She shook her head quickly. "No, no. Not from now. I meant from before." I looked at her quizzically. She looked up at me as she exasperatedly explained what she meant. "From before all of this. Do you remember who you were? What life was like back then? Do you remember anything from, before?" She stared back at me with those big eyes of hers and I got lost in them.
The years I had spent wandering the overgrown streets. Finding clues in the rubble and hints about what life was like before I took my first breath in this world. I had uncovered scraps from homes and remnants from the once bustling city streets. I wanted to search more for answers, for some semblance of the key to what made it worth it before. But before I could, I had lost my only reason for continuing forward. Then I simply focused on existing for those innumerable years after that.
I had found myself again after reflecting and turned away in shame from her gaze. "I do not. There is nothing from the world of before that I can remember." I glanced up at her from the corner of my eyes. "Forgive me."
I could see she had lowered her head and turned her attention back to her scribbling. "It's okay, I guess." She mumbled towards the ground. "Maybe," She perked up a bit. "Maybe one day, we. We can find out together. What happened."
The pain I felt in response to her disappointment hurt more than almost any broken bone or laceration I had received in recent memory. Yet, it felt so familiar. Something that made me feel remorse and, something akin to joy. Both emotions I thought I had long since given up. "I do not know what happened," I tried to muster as much compassion as my worn out heart allowed, "but I am willing to tell you what I have learned in my long years surviving."
She seemed elated at the prospect. While Vermillia seemed content at the idea and went back up to her perch peering into the darkness, Thran seemed to peer on in, satisfaction. Something I did not expect from him so soon, and something that made me uncomfortable out of instinct. A though I pushed out of my head quickly and passed off as being a little too paranoid after my time alone.
I proceeded to explain in as much depth as I was able about the world of the past. How the rotting husks of metal were used for transport to and from the seemingly bustling cities of before. Where there was a seeming plethora of materials and resources for use and how they were used as a centre for the past population to gather and exchange information and items alike. Those places were now a diverse ecosystem with innumerable creatures filling the empty streets and overgrown structures, most of which had now collapsed. Those were the most dangerous places. The creatures living there were typically the largest of the predators as it housed the largest prey.
I talked about how many of those from before would set up shelters with one another. There was little left of those except the base and some meagre walls. Similar to the location we now found ourselves in. The only thing that lived in these ruins now was the trees and the smaller creatures. The largest of which being only half a size larger than myself. The once connecting pathways had turned into migratory routs and streams after years of corrosion and lack of maintenance. The larger connecting pathways had mostly collapsed like the cities, but they still acted as good guides on the surrounding environment and wildlife therein.
The most prevalent biome around these was a planes of sorts. These places were the safest. Not because of the lack of creatures, but for the abundance of them. The only thing that needed to be worried about where the stampedes. It was hard to tell what was out in those fields.
I talked and talked about what I had learned and my thoughts on what I had found. They would chime in every so often and I would clarify or expand on what I was talking about. Vermilia would perk up every so often once she saw or heard something in the darkness, however nothing ever came from it. The fire had dwindled to dim embers by the time I had finished and we had chewed through our gathered supply of wood.
"It must have been a wonderful place to live in." Elmira mused. She had a smile on her face as she had listened intently to my ramblings. I then realized I too had a small smile on my lips, something I had not done for quite some time.
Leaning back into the structure I spoke once more. "I can only imagine what a life those fortunate few must have lived." As soon as the words left my lips I felt something was wrong.
"Fortunate few?" Elmira questioned. "But, you talked about how there was so many."
"I, don't know. It's just something that came to mind when thinking so much of the past..." I looked about the group absentmindedly as I thought about why I had said those specific words. I saw Thran looked, concerned. About the sanity of the person he and his group had trusted I was sure.
"No it," Elmira was deep in thought, "sounds familiar, somehow..." She trailed off and I shook my head to clear it and get refocused on where we were.
"We need to get some sleep. Vermilia." She turned towards me. "Would you mind taking the first watch?" she nodded. "Thank you. Wake me at the first sign of sun up. I'll let you all sleep in tonight now that we are out of immediate danger." She nodded again and turned back to lookout with a sigh.
After I had grabbed a small supply of fire wood to keep us going for a bit longer, the remaining three of us had settled into the makeshift beds of ours made from leaves and the small amount of pelts I had brought. It was soon after that that I started to dream. It had been awhile since I had dreamt and I considered every night without it a blessing. I dreaded the nights I dreamed, as it was always the same one. The same nightmare played on repeat every time.
I was running through a city. One that had only just started to decay, but was still ripe with the wear of time and overgrowth all the same. Where I was running to I could not say, just that I needed to get away from the monster that was chasing me. That was chasing us. We were the last two people left and this, terror in the skies, was relentless in hunting us down.
I looked back and saw the fear on her face as we stopped at an opening. It would be a miracle if we could get away, but we were not about to abandon hope and give ourselves to that thing. I heard a roar in the distance and decided to run for it across the path to more cover in a building. She followed close behind and I saw the beast overhead as it found us again.
It pivoted in the sky and dove straight for us, crashed into the opening just moments after we had squeezed ourselves past. It's jaws snapping at our heels as we rushed further into the darkness and safety of the building. The creature wasted no time and quickly withdrew to return to the air. We had to get underground at this point. It was safer than the surface right now
As we rushed through the stone jungle, weaving back and forth to throw it off our trail, avoiding open areas as much as possible, we ended up coming to one of the only access points in this territory. Not wanting to waste any time we made a mad dash for the entrance as we head the wing beats overhead.
It wasn't that far.
There was nothing in our way
We should have made it.
With a loud crash the creature slammed into the ground with such force it threw us off our feet and a short distance into the air. I flipped over only to see it slowly approaching her with teeth bared as she shuffled backwards away from it on the ground. The mass that it had was more than any creature I had seen, but I couldn't let that stop me. I drew the weapon from my back and charged at it head first. I couldn't let it take her away from me. All we had left was each other.
I saw it's eyes catch my movement in it's peripherals and it slowly turned it's head towards me. I was too focused on it's innumerable razor sharp teeth that I neglected to notice it shift its weight around and whip it's tail into me. I was tossed into the nearest building as one would swat a pest. My body ached from the impact and trying to move only made it worse. I had to move though. I couldn't let he die.
I stood on shaking legs as I gripped my broken arm, my vision obscured by blood, my weapon thrown somewhere I couldn't see. The beast returned to it's quarry as I stumbled my way towards it through the growth. She continued to scramble backwards as it it slowly advanced, seemingly enjoying this moment. The ever growing fear showing on her face.
"You stay away from her!" I shouted at the top of my lungs. It didn't even flinch. I continued my assault on it's ears as I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. "You're nothing to me! An overgrown abomination!" I picked up a rock and threw it with the effort I could muster, careening down in the process. I watched it bounce off it's hide and ignore me still. With one last effort, I got up again and ran towards it, stumbling as I went. "I'LL KILL YOU!" I screamed. My voice turning horse and cracking as the words left my throat.
I had planned on sinking my makeshift claws into it's flesh once I reached it but I never did. Before I could get close enough to do so, it lifted its formidable forearm and slapped my away. I tumbled to the ground and I spun away. I was forced to look on in horror as it forced her up against a wall. She had nowhere left to run and I was helpless to stop what was to come.
"I'll always love you." I heard her whisper as my vision started to fade.
I reached out towards her in desperation and forced a single word past me lips. "Please..." A finale attempt at escape. An attempt that was met with a scream, a crunch, and a flash of red.
I woke up in a cold sweat, like I always did when I dreamt. My hand was raised above me as I opened my eyes. I sighed in frustration and promptly lowered it. Shaking my head, I slowly pushed myself up and moved towards the fire to dry and warm myself. Vermillia had taken care to portion out the firewood properly. I was grateful for the small flame that danced in the middle of the pit.
The sun was still hiding behind the horizon at this point as I searched for our lookout sure enough she was still perched on the same spot I had left her. After a minute or so I made my way over to her.
"I'm not going to be sleeping anymore tonight." I whispered to her as to not wake the others. "I can take over for you now."
She didn't move just kept looking out into the night. "Who's Yami?" She asked. I didn't expect her to have heard me in my sleep, let alone have been talking.
Wearily, I asked, "What did you hear?"
She shrugged. "Just their name." She turned and looked over to me with sternness in her eyes. "So who where they?"
I sighed deeply. I could tell that she needed an answer now or she would not trust me in the future. Hanging my head and with a heavy heart I answered reluctantly. "She was my companion. The last person I had felt safe around. We looked out for each other. Cared for each other. But in the end she, was killed. By a, by a monster." My voice was starting to crack as I thought back to her face. I would not be able to properly give her an answer tonight. I gathered my emotions and continued looking back to her, "I can't. That's all I can tell you tonight. Tomorrow. I will explain tomorrow once we are on our way."
She nodded a few times and turned around from her perch. She looked me in the eyes and made to move past me. She reached out and patted my shoulder a few times before moving to my previous place in a bed. I sighed to myself and took Vermillia's spot atop the wall. It didn't take long before I heard the gentle sound of her breathing mixed in with that of the others.
It was far longer than I had hoped for sunrise and longer still before anyone began to stir, letting them wake on their own instead of the strict schedule I had them follow while still within Hive Territory. The wildlife had stirred long before my new companions had and I took the opportunity to catch some to refresh our supply of food. A supply that diminished slightly when everyone was awake and needed a good sized meal to get started. It was late morning, almost afternoon, before everyone was awake and packed up.
We still had a very long way to travel so I decided to take them on one of the larger paths I had talked about the night before. It was a decrepit place, like everything else in the world. Metal husks littered the path and some of the surrounding areas. There were still elevated places to them where old ones intersected, but those were mostly a pile of rubble with the odd pillar making a small haven of sorts for avian.
The surrounding area was very open in comparison to the overgrown city we had ventured from. Where the pathway had trees of a vast verity growing close to it and creeping into the surrounding area, the remaining space outside of it was grasslands and shrubbery that stretched out for ages, only being broken up by yet more patches of forests and towering metal structures with an unknown purpose.
When the sun was high into the sky and starting it's return journey to the horizon, I then addressed the group as I had promised Vermillia last night. "There is something you all should know." I began without introduction. I looked back as I continued onward to ensure everyone was paying attention. Vermillia intent, Thran displeased, and Elmira curious as was common now. "I wasn't always alone."
"You mean, there are others?" Elmira seemed to beam as she spoke. "In like, a town or something?"
Thran knew what I had meant. "No." He looked over to Elmira and spoke plainly. His words acting as daggers to her heart with seemingly no recourse for her. "There where others. Presumably they have all since, perished, as our other companions have." He turned to look at me with contempt plain in his eyes. Elmira was crushed by his words and went back to a sombre state.
Trying not to start a confrontation that he was looking for, I replied calmly to Thran. "Yes, I am the last of my group. It is a lonely existence. One so long that there are time I struggle to remember them all." I stared up at the sky thought about those I was talking of. "Thosgir was always quick with a joke, making light in the toughest times and getting us through some of the worst experiences. Ataro could be a stubbern in a good mood, but never letting us feel like we didn't contribute to survival. Lyse, being the smartest of us figured out how to use the local floral and fauna to our advantage, from medicinal cures weapons construction. Silmond had a knack for finding things, knowing which rock to turn over for the choicest of supplies and keeping a running memory of everything we ever had. Then there was..." I trailed of as I got to her.
My thoughts were interrupted, or rather displayed, when Vermilia asked me "Who was Yami?"
I stopped myself in my tracks and sighed as I tilted my head back down to earth. The others abruptly stopped and I could tell they were staring at me intently. I stayed quit for a few moments and Elmira spoke up in that time.
"How do you know about her?"
Vermilia seemed dismissive in her reply. "He had a bad dream last night and he kept mumbling that name over and over again. All he told me was he'd explain who she was today."
"Did she mean something to you Darusk?" More silence as I contemplated what to say. She continued. "I can tell, she meant a lot to you..." She reminded me so much of Yami in that moment. Being able to tell the emotions of others with alarming accuracy.
I took a deep breath and explained as best I could without thinking. "She was the last. The last one, to... She always knew what to say to break up an argument, or, cheer us up when things started to look rough. She was the heart of our group. I honestly believe that if it wasn't for her," I turned to look at Elmiria, her face staring back at me, "none of us would have made it as far as we did." I shut my eyes and turned back around. "Her memory is the only thing that's kept me going after all these years."
The only noise that proceeded my voice was the sound of nature. The breeze through the trees tops, the distant singing of animals, the trickle of a nearby stream. It took me back to the days I spent with her before everyone...
I was broken out of my slight trance by Elmira. An almost whisper of "You loved her."
A few moments later I replied similarly with "I did. More than anything I know."
I don't know how long it was before any of us moved but it was Thran who did. I heard him move up behind me and was surprised when he simply put his hand on my shoulder as he passed, not once looking back at me. I appreciated the gesture at the time as it gave us a break from our constant animosity but thought we would be back at odds by nightfall. I heard a set of footsteps behind me quickly followed by another. They quickly walked past me as they moved to catch up with Thran. Vermilia looked back and motioned for me to catch up.
"You're still going to have to lead us. The others may be gone but we're going to stick around for a long time!"
Elmira turned around as well and waited as Vermilia caught up to Thran. She looked at me with a slight smile and I was reminded of why I needed to help these people. I started up and say her gaze shift from me to the sky and squint in concern. "I hope we don't get caught up in that storm." she giggled slightly as she pointed up towards it.
"Storm?" I questioned myself. I turned around to see what she was talking about. I immediately spied what she had; a large front hung in the sky out in the distance. It wasn't unusual for large storm to pass through this time of year, but for one to form so quickly without my noticing was rather concerning. To make mattes worse, the formation was an ominous, swirling mass that blocked all light from passing through casting an unnatural shadow underneath.
I turned back to her and stated with as little concern as I could muster "You three keep following the trail, I'll be back." Before I could see her reaction I leapt into the sky and unfurled my wings. If this storm was what I thought it was I needed to act quickly.