The Lupine Saga 51

The trip soon ended as they arrived in Rising. It was mid-afternoon, and the group had all fallen asleep. Var decided against waking them until he had dropped Va’il off, since he knew where Va’il lived. With all of them still asleep in the cart, Var knocked on the door he had knocked on years ago. He could hear the loud bangs that his fist made on the door, and hoped that the resident wouldn’t be too startled. It happened too often for Var to count.

“Hello? That knock is familiar,” a soft voice said from behind the door. It slowly opened to reveal Mai’ou. She looked confused, and her normally sharp eyes were very soft.

“Afternoon, Ma’am,” Var said.

“You are? I’ve seen you before. You brought Va’il back before. Va’il.” Mai’ou stopped and hung her head down. Var could hear her breath in deeply. He panicked at the sound, since he knew what would soon follow.

“Wait, Ma’am, don’t cry. Va’il, I’ve come to deliver him to you,” Var said as quickly as he could, for he didn’t want to upset Mai’ou further.

“Deliver? Deliver? Oh my, no, what do you mean deliver? My child, what condition was he in so that he has to be delivered?” Mai’ou was getting more upset at Var’s careless words.

“No, no, I mean. Wait, wait a second here.” Var moved to the cart and picked Va’il up out of it. Va’il was still sound asleep, and the journey had taken a toll on him, so he didn’t wake when being carried.

“He’s, he’s!” Mai’ou said as she looked at the sleeping Va’il.

“Just asleep, Ma’am. Just tired from the journey, nothing else. Dirty and smelly as well, I imagine.” Var handed the sleeping boy to his mother.

Mai’ou looked down at the dirty face, the bushy tail, and the hands that she hadn’t held in a while. She fell to her knees with Va’il in arm and cried, as any mother would, in a long and sobbing way. She held his head close to her chest as she wept just inches from him. He slowly breathed, and the warmth he emanated reassured Mai’ou that this wasn’t a dream. Var looked down at the couple as each tear washed dirt off Va’il’s face. He didn’t wait for thanks. Mai’ou surely would have thanked him profusely, if she wasn’t clenching Va’il in her arms. By the time she calmed down, she realized that Var had already left. She took her child inside the house, and closed the door behind her.

Va’il dreamed of a summer’s day. He stood in a field full of tiny hills and small trees, and considered what animals he should chase. The thought of rabbit stew crept into his mind, but was quickly pushed aside by the sight of pears. Then he felt the overwhelming warmth of the sunlight around him. He closed his eyes and embraced the feeling. The sweet smell of the fruit filled his nose in the dream, but it wasn’t the smell that a pear usually has. It was much more familiar, but he couldn’t describe what it was like. It was unique and pleasant, and it came from the warmth that surrounded him.

He opened his eyes, and noticed that it was dark. He was being held tightly by someone in the darkness. The dream he just had was already being forgotten, except for the smell of the pears. As his eyes adjusted to the light, he realized that Mai’ou was the one holding him, and she was the one he could smell. Why pears, he asked himself. He then fell asleep again.

The next time Va’il awoke, it was early morning. The sun had risen. He was alone in his own bed, the one he had been missing for a while. Light filled his simple room as he rubbed his eyes and cheeks. He got up as he thought about washing his face and taking a bath. Even he couldn’t stand the dirtiness that seemed to permeate him. Quietly, he left the room and entered the washroom.

“Va’il, are you up now?” Mai’ou called upon hearing Va’il’s steps.

“Yes,” he said in reply as he scrubbed his face.

“When you’re done there, I’ve made breakfast. Come and sit,” she said.

Va’il finished what he was doing, and then walked into the kitchen. He sat at the small table and stared at the braised meat and eggs waiting for him. It was an amazing sight to Va’il, since he hadn’t been eating well for the last week. He had earlier decided that fruit made a poor diet for a lupus.

“Thank you, Mum,” Va’il said very quietly. He couldn’t say anything else. He remembered that he had been very warm while asleep, but now there was a cold fear that surrounded him. He dared not look directly at Mai’ou, who had sat across from him. He couldn’t help but notice she was sitting without any food in front of her. She was looking at him. He ate quietly while she watched.

“Is it good?” Mai’ou asked.

“Yeah.”

“Good. Never again, alright?” she said with soft intensity.

“Yeah,” Va’il said. He moved each bite to his mouth just a little slower.

“I’m very lenient, you know that. I don’t mind if you go off and do things,” she said with warmth and compassion.

“I know.”

“It’s just, I have to know beforehand. You can go to the ends of Fervi, as long as I know more than a single sentence.”

“Sorry, Mum.”

“You don’t need to apologize, dear.”

“But I should.”

“Va’il. You’re mine.” Mai’ou stopped. Va’il was unsure if she meant to say anything more. He finally looked up. Mai’ou was staring at him intently. Her eyes were just as sharp as ever, but her expression was soft. She didn’t look upset or angry. Her hair was still straight and wet from being washed a short while ago. Her eyes did have a soft red glow around them, but the washing from earlier had erased the look she had the night before. To Va’il, Mai’ou looked normal, a realization that made his chest hurt.

“Was it amazing?” Mai’ou asked.

“What?” Va’il didn’t understand what she meant at first.

“The trip. Where you went. What happened. Was it amazing?” Mai’ou asked again.

“Oh. Hmm. Yeah. Incredibly.”

Mai’ou reached across the table and placed her right hand on Va’il’s left shoulder. She squeezed it hard as she spoke with a sweet smile.

“Good. Tell me everything later. I’m glad for you. But if you ever, and I mean, ever, do something like that again, you won’t freely get away with it. I won’t restrict you right now, since I know you respect that I don’t place many limits on you. In return, you’ve always been good. But if you do something without telling me, disappearing and worrying me and making me cry day after day, I’ll be angry afterwards. Right now, you silly boy, I’ve been too upset to feel angry. I’m just glad you’re safe, and home,” she said with tenderness.

As Mai’ou spoke, the claws in her hand extended and pierced Va’il’s shoulder. The way Mai’ou was, Va’il wasn’t sure if she even realized what she was doing. He was too frightened to cry in pain as the claws dug deeply into his skin. Mai’ou finished what she was saying and smiled. She was obviously holding back tears. Her grip relaxed, and she pulled her hand away from Va’il. Blood flowed out of each of the five holes in his skin and quickly soaked the shoulder of his shirt. Mai’ou quickly got up and pulled the shirt off Va’il. She went to work at once, finding bandages and wrapping the wounds. She didn’t look surprised to see the flowing blood, but Va’il knew better than to assume Mai’ou had meant to do that. It’s a small, far too small, punishment, he thought.

“Oh, you should get ready. But you’re still early, you can stay a while longer. The teacher will probably give you a stern talking, so you should be prepared,” Mai’ou said nonchalantly. She had thrown out the ruined shirt, and was finishing the last of the several bandages she had wrapped around Va’il’s shoulder.

“School?” Va’il was surprised to hear that word. It had, of course, occurred to him earlier that he would be returning to school after an unplanned vacation, but he hadn’t thought of it much.

“That’s right. School. You’re going. Today. Soon. Then you’re coming home after that.” Mai’ou’s tone left no room for misinterpretation.

“Right. I understand,” Va’il said obediently. Mai’ou patted Va’il’s shoulder. Va’il felt a small flash of pain that quickly subsided.

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The Lupine Saga 50

“You don’t know? But you knew everything else! Wait, who are you, why do you know all that?” Kelin asked. Va’il and the rest were still incredibly confused.

“I should clear that up,” Geon said. “I’m from a small tribe that keeps knowledge of the maroon alive. Though, since it’s been thousands of years, we can only guess at the cause of the maroon waking, and we don’t know what the item is, exactly, anymore either. But because of what we do know, I’m sure that the reason they are doing this is exactly what I’ve said.”

“That inspires confidence,” Kelin said sarcastically.

“And that’s also what they say when I speak with them, for part of my duty is to be a communicator with the maroon,” Geon said.

“You communicate with those things? Then why do they attack the city? Didn’t they tell you what the item is?” Va’il asked.

“My xylophone lets me,” Geon said. “They communicate by resonating via various sounds and vibrations. But unfortunately, they are simpler, and don’t understand when I say the item isn’t here. They think much too slowly, and it takes me a few hours just to convince them to stop attacking. Lately I’ve been quicker, but I doubt they will listen to me much longer. They also aren’t able to describe the item. Their way of communicating is too different. They can only think of it as what it is, but are unable to describe it. It’s the same as trying to describe a color to a man blind from birth.”

“So, in other words, you’re not much help,” Zeick said bluntly. There was much disappointment in his voice.

“You’re probably right,” Geon said. He sighed, and then continued. “But that’s why I need to go to Rising and meet with the king. The king would be able to conduct a full-scale search for the item. The maroon are headed that way, so the item might be in Rising’s territory. I’m sure I could explain it to him. Unlike this governor, whose guards wouldn’t let me have an audience at all. And now his city is about to fall.”

“You think you can explain it better to the king than you did to us? Will that really be useful?” Va’il asked.

“I’m sure of it. Definitely, something will work out. And the library that the king of Rising has access to is supposed to be the greatest. Something might be there. That’s all that I can hope for, at this point. Do you believe me?” Geon asked.

“Believe? I’m still unsure of what’s going on. But we saw what those things were doing. And now things are starting to make a little more sense. This is why our soldiers were sent here,” Va’il said.

“Yes,” Geon said. “We were notified a few days ago that a group was coming from your city to take refugees. The way it looks now, the entire city might have to move.”

“What?” a startled Teena asked. No one had noticed her open the door. She had failed to knock either.

“Yes, the city is going to fall either way,” Geon said without thinking.

“I knew it,” Teena said in a surprising twist, “especially when the soldiers came with all those supplies. So, who are you?”

“Let’s say he’s a friend, for now,” Kelin said.

“Fine. Well, he’s welcome to a meal, at least,” she said with a faint smile.

The group thanked Teena, whose curiosity was peaked. They explained, as best they could, everything that had happened. Eventually, they realized just how late it was, and turned in for the night. Va’il shared his bed with Geon, since he was the only one that could. Sleeping in the same bed as Pete was just a bad idea. Zeick didn’t want to turn Geon into a scratching post. And no one asked Kelin to share his place of sleep.

#

“One, two, three, four, and, oh, five. Well, get up kids,” Var said while standing in the midst of the room. “Must have miscounted before. I could have sworn there was a different number.”

The five boys woke up to Var’s huge frame standing amongst them. None of them were awake enough to realize just how little sleep they had received, though the fog in their minds gave them some idea.

“Just five more meat buns,” Pete said sleepily, “and tartar sauce. Mom?” Pete woke when he realized his pillow was not edible.

“I said get up!” Var roared. He was extremely loud, and within seconds all five boys were wide awake and standing up. Var smiled at this. “Great. Now, baths. Then, we go. Back to Rising, young lads. Commander is getting us out of here as soon as possible. Be glad, you’ll see your parents soon enough.” Var left the room after that.

Teena was already up and about, serving food and helping other people in the inn get around. Her hair was braided in back and messy in front. She still smiled, though she looked very tired. The boys, for their part, summoned enough strength and willpower to eat, shake out their clothes, and bathe. All of which were temporary solutions to their recent hygiene. When they had finished bathing, Var was waiting for them. All of them, including Teena, were grouped together by Var.

“You’re Teena, right? Innkeeper told me about your situation. You’ll be in the first group to go. That all right by you?” Var asked.

“Yes. I prepared my belongings already in preparation for this. Thank you, Sir Var.” Teena did the same curtsy she had done before. The boys were confused at the meaning of the exchange, as usual, but were nonetheless happy that Teena would be coming with them.

“So, we won’t ask,” Kelin said abruptly, “instead, play with us. I guarantee you I will win over you at this one game. It’s cards, but your reflexes will be challenged.”

“You’re on,” she said with a mischievous smile.

Time passed slowly while they traveled. The cards the boys had taken from the room saw a lot of play, but soon they ran out of games they could play without going crazy. Pete and Zeick were nursing some punctures on the back of their hands, a result of playing games with several lupus. Geon kept quiet for the majority of the time, and sat at the back of the cart looking out. He’d play on the xylophone from time to time, but he never stopped having a melancholy look.

Eventually they found out that Teena was with them because she had no family. Her parents had died, which everyone had guessed long before she said it. The innkeeper took her in soon after, and she had been working since then. She said it happened long ago, but otherwise she didn’t expand on the details. It was enough to appease everyone’s curiosity. In like manner, Va’il talked a bit about how he only lived with Mai’ou, and never knew his father.

Zeick also picked up on the mood, and decided to talk about his situation as a half as well. This was surprising, since the other boys didn’t know much about his situation before this. Zeick explained that the man he lived with was not his father. His mother had fallen for a felis man, even though she was married at the time. His father was always concerned with prestige, so at times his love was lacking. Things happened, and the felis man disappeared soon after. Zeick was born a few months later. He had human ears and hands, which his parents considered divine providence. When he was younger, his teeth were human at first. When his second set started to come in, fangs appeared, and the idea to file them down was considered by his parents. They did not attempt it. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief at that, since just the thought of having their teeth filed was maddening. Especially to the three lupus, each of which felt twinges of pain at the thought of having filed fangs. Va’il was proud of being lupus, even if he didn’t have as many fangs as Teena and Kelin. Zeick went on to explain that the reason he was kept by his current father was because of prestige and status issues. Zeick said he still doesn’t know exactly what Kelin did to allow him to stop hiding his identity, and Kelin wouldn’t speak of it either. No amount of prodding by Teena would reveal it.

Several days went by as the trip went on. They stopped briefly in Nopass, where another hot meal awaited them. This time, Var kept a close eye on the group, though it wasn’t really necessary. Teena got to sleep in a bed, and the five boys slept on a floor. It was far more comfortable inside a house and on the floor than camping outside.

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The Lupine Saga 49

A final note hit the xylophone. The boy put the instrument down and looked out past the city walls. The boys, broken from their trance, quickly followed suit and looked over the walls. There below them stood several creatures that they had trouble seeing in the darkness. The maroon had stopped moving, and were instead staring up towards the tower where the boy was. He surveyed the sight below him, then went back to pick up the xylophone. He gripped it once more and tapped a single note. The boys then looked down again as the maroon had suddenly started moving away. They quickly ran off, leaving the boys more perplexed than ever. They looked up in unison at the boy in the tower. He was smiling widely as he stared down. He nodded to himself, and then turned. Instead of walking away, like he had planned, he stopped upon noticing the group of spectators. His mouth opened and closed a few times. He obviously had thought he was alone, and now was in shock from seeing the audience.

“How are you?” Va’il said in a very unnatural tone. The receiver didn’t respond. Apparently, the situation was quite awkward for him.

“Well, now that the surprise is over, you want to speak?” Kelin asked in a coarse manner. Va’il looked at Kelin disapprovingly. Kelin responded to Va’il’s look. “Well he wasn’t speaking.”

“Still, that’s kind of rude,” Pete said, “since we haven’t met him yet.”

“Oh come on. We’ve been here for an hour, at least, and he hasn’t noticed us at all,” Kelin said.

“Who are you to speak? You’ve been mesmerized for the past hour as well. Why haven’t you spoken?” Pete asked, but the argument was broken by a loud growling sound.

“Excuse me,” the boy said shyly as he covered his stomach with a hand. The four boys stopped their small argument to look again at the foreign boy.

“Hungry?” Zeick asked quietly. The boy nodded in response.

A few minutes later, five boys waltzed into the inn where four of them had been a few hours ago. It was still just as vacant as it had been before. They made their way up the steps towards their room on the second floor. Inside, the room was as they left it, though there was now a sleeping lupus girl in one of the beds.

“Your bed, you get to wake her,” Zeick said to Kelin with a smile.

“Since when did we decide?” Kelin asked with a grumble.

“Since you spent most of your time reading there, earlier,” Zeick said.

“Why don’t we just let her sleep?” Kelin asked.

“Ah, that wouldn’t be right. Though she seems to like that spot. Wouldn’t be appropriate, with this bunch of males. Besides, who will tell us where the food is?” Zeick asked reasonably.

“Fine.” Kelin shook the girl’s shoulder, and she slowly came to.

“Oh, you’re back,” Teena said as she stood up and rubbed her eyes. She blinked a few times, and then rubbed them again. “Odd. If I was seeing double, there should be eight of you, not five.”

“Pete sometimes looks like two people. He eats for two people as well. Speaking of which, Teena, can you please prepare five plates of food? It’ll be much appreciated.” Kelin talked while he held Teena’s arm and led her to the door.

“Sure, just leave it to me,” she said while still rubbing her eyes. The door closed behind her. The group kept silent as they waited for Teena’s footsteps to leave.

“Okay,” Kelin said.

“Yes, okay, let’s start,” Zeick said. Zeick and Kelin looked at the foreign boy.

“So, there is probably a mountain of questions that those two have. It would be best to start talking about who you are and what’s going on as soon as possible,” Va’il said in a serious tone. The boy was taken aback, but he answered nevertheless.

“Though I’m not sure which of us is the rude one, pardon me. But I don’t think telling you will really matter. Surely, you already have seen the effects of the recent battles. I’m someone who’s trying to help, but now I’m completely stumped as to what I can do. I can only hope I run into someone helpful in Rising,” the boy said.

“Wait, what? That was completely random. First, your name. I’m Va’il, this swine is Pete. That’s Zeick, and Kelin is that fiery lupus. You?”

“Geon,” the boy answered.

“Geon? Well, I’ve heard stranger. Next, well, hmm, I’m not sure where to start. Ah, I know. We’re all from Rising, you mentioned Rising. We live there, and came with the soldiers.” Geon’s face lit up at Va’il’s words.

“You do? That would help me a lot if, maybe, well, no, never mind. You’re just kids,” Geon said as he ran through a range of emotions.

“Just slow down. Besides, you’re a kid as well. Now that you know we aren’t local, how about explaining a few things. Like what’s going on in this city, why you don’t seem to be local either, and what you did before,” Va’il said calmly.

“Well,” Geon said, “I guess it won’t hurt to say everything. Even if you can’t help. First, this city is under siege by the maroon. Those are creatures that you saw attacking the walls. To put it simply, they are men that look like they are made of mud. They need the item, so they are attacking various places. They prefer to sleep, you see, and that’s what the item makes them do. For thousands of years they have been asleep, but they just recently woke up. They must be missing the item, and so they are searching for it. They aren’t very fast thinkers, so they have trouble searching, and they also don’t pay attention to anyone that isn’t a maroon as well. They can probably feel the vibrations of the item from time to time, and have been searching each city they come across because they aren’t sure of the distance.” Geon took a breath.

“We’re confused,” Zeick said.

“That’s big. So maroon are mud men that like to sleep, but the thing that lets them sleep is gone and they are looking for it. That’s about it, right?” Va’il asked.

“Exactly,” Geon replied.

“And just what is the item you are talking about?” Kelin asked.

“I don’t know,” Geon said while shrugging his shoulders. The other four stared at him.

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The Lupine Saga 48

The boys could hear the shouts of men coming from various directions. Requests for supplies, curses, and calls for help littered the air of Tendal. The boys had escaped from their confinement, yet they still were unsure of where to go. More shouts could be heard in certain directions than others, and the corresponding shakes and crashes from those directions confirmed where the action was. Nevertheless, they didn’t simply rush to the scene and risk exposure.

The boys had noticed that their caretaker, Var, was nowhere to be found. The group of soldiers that should have been relaxing at the inn were nowhere to be seen. The master of the lodge must have gone to his room, for the boys were able to walk into the darkness without anyone noticing.

“Hey, do you think that there is no one else left?” Kelin asked while turning to look back at the inn. He looked lost in thought.

“It’ll be fine. She’s safer there anyways. It’s near the middle of the town,” Va’il said while looking around. “Alright. Where shall we go? Towards danger and malice?”

“The usual,” Zeick replied.

“The usual, right?” Va’il smiled. “Of course, the usual.”

The usual thing to do, when deciding which direction to head, was to find the highest spot and look out over their surroundings. Whether it was a tree, a house, or a tower, the highest spot was usually the best place to observe from.

The boys wandered around the town, looking for an appropriately high place. That proved difficult, as Tendal didn’t have that many tall buildings, and it was difficult to see far in the soft light of the moon. They also had to keep their steps quiet, and avoid the people that were running around. Somehow, they eventually ended up at the west side of the city’s walls, where they stopped.

“The wall is pretty high,” Zeick said as he looked up.

“I don’t know, it’s too close to the outside. If something happens, it could be bad,” Pete said.

“What bad could possibly happen? The walls are solid. Are you afraid that they may come crashing down?” Kelin asked sarcastically. He walked over to the wall as he spoke, and put a hand on it.

A loud thud against the wall caused Kelin to jump as far as he could away from the wall. The others would have laughed, if they hadn’t been so shocked by the sound. Kelin looked back at the wall, his eyes wide from the surprise. Another loud thud was heard, and the ground shook slightly.

“Do, do you want to go up?” Va’il asked. He was summoning bravery from reserves he didn’t realize he had.

“It’s still standing. It’s solid.” Zeick said in a voice filled with awe. “We should see.”

“No, absolutely not.” Pete said forcefully. That was all the prodding that the rest needed in order to lose their summoned bravery.

“Fine,” Va’il said while sounding dejected. He felt relieved.

“Yeah, I think I saw a high place more towards the middle of the city. We can go that way. Away from the walls,” Zeick said. Realizing that the walls might not stay standing, he lost his desire to see what was going on. He also felt relieved.

They all nodded in agreement, and started walking back towards the middle of the city. As they started, Va’il stopped and again looked at the walls.

“Did you hear that?” Va’il asked while twitching his ears. He looked towards a certain tower sitting at the top of the walls.

“What did you just say?” Kelin asked as he and the other two returned to Va’il’s side.

“There it was again. Did you hear that?” Va’il asked again. Kelin was already looking up.

“That sound. Yeah. I heard it,” Kelin said in the same dazed manner as Va’il.

“Oh, that. I heard it now, too,” Pete said. The three of them stared up at the walls while Zeick was left scratching his head.

“What is it?” Va’il spoke as he started to walk towards the wall. He walked until he came to the stairs that led to the top of the walls. Behind him, Kelin and Pete followed. The three of them disappeared up the stairs, and Zeick stayed behind trying to figure out what the rest were doing. Eventually, he shrugged to himself, and ran up the stairs in pursuit.

Halfway up the stairs, Zeick heard a sound that made him stop. He didn’t hear it well enough to describe it, so he quickly ran up the stairs. He arrived at the top and nearly bumped into the group already waiting for him. There, the three of them stood motionless, staring into the opening of a tower. Zeick stood at Pete’s side and looked in.

There was a person there. He wore colorful robes and sandals. His hair was brown, and so was his skin. He was human. His face had two stripes of red and yellow on each of his cheeks. In his right arm, he held a xylophone unlike any that the boys had seen before. In his left hand was a rod. His eyes were closed, and every so often, he would tap on the xylophone, making a strange sound. The plates on the xylophone were made of glass, and the rod was metal. Each note resounded as it traveled through the air. The boys felt something inside them vibrate each time the sound hit them.

#

Darius was frustrated. Every time he sent a group of soldiers to attack a group of maroon, they would return a couple minutes later with broken bones and several bruises. He could only watch helplessly from a distance as a group would charge in, plunge their spears and swords into the muddy bodies, and then be thrown aside by the maroon. The maroon, for their part, didn’t pay much attention to the attackers. Even the largest rhinos was thrown aside by the maroon as they continued pounding at the city walls. They were slow, but single-minded in their objective. If it weren’t for the constant distraction that the soldiers provided, the walls would have already fallen.

Darius was still somewhat relieved, even through his frustration. The maroon made no overt attacks against the soldiers. They simply threw the men aside and removed the weapons from their strange bodies. It was a process that repeated itself ad nauseam. Fire had no effect as well. Flaming arrows pierced the bodies of the maroon, but the fire was extinguished when it realized there was nothing flammable in the muddy bodies of the maroon. The men who returned from the lines complained that neither sword nor spear felt any impact upon hitting the maroon. It was a truly pathetic battle, Darius realized. Yet he couldn’t stop and let the maroon continue their relentless assault on the city’s walls.

The maroon had come in droves a short while after night fell, and had broken through a few feet of the walls in some places before Darius could steady the defense. In the midst of the night, the battle continued for a couple of hours. Then, suddenly, it stopped. The maroon appeared to look up with their featureless heads, and then stayed that way for ten minutes. They were all motionless as the soldiers and Darius tried to figure out what was going on. Then they left, disappearing quicker than they had arrived. They moved too quickly to be followed, disappearing in the east. It left everyone in Tendal speechless, wondering what had just happened. The commander of Tendal’s forces quickly met with Darius for a strategy meeting.

“Darius, Rising’s highest military commander, correct?” the local commander asked.

“Yes,” Darius replied.

“Not to tread on formality here, this being our first meeting, but first to business. This was the first time those creatures have left so quickly. It’s been getting shorter and shorter ever since they first came. But usually only a few minutes earlier each time, never have they left this quickly after arriving. Do you have any thoughts, Commander?” the commander asked.

“Darius is fine. No, honestly this is the first time I’ve encountered them, and I was hoping you could enlighten me,” Darius said.

“My apologies, Darius, but we were hoping Rising knew more about this enemy. We’ve been struggling with the defense for a while now, and nothing seems to work. We can keep them off the walls for a while, but stopping them has been impossible. Those bodies just don’t take any kind of damage. What are those things? It doesn’t seem like it’s possible for them to exist,” the commander said.

“This is ridiculous. We’re all clueless, apparently. All I know about those creatures is that they are old. Probably older than us humans. Rising’s archives really only say that they were lost in history. Not much more. I’d hope that one of the ancient species would know more. But anyways, this just reaffirms what I need to do for this mission.”

“That would be?” the commander asked.

“Evacuate,” Darius said.

“Abandon the city? We couldn’t!” the commander cried.

“I’m sorry, sir. It’s something that I discussed with the governor already. I’d assess whether we could help or not, and then start moving people. At first we were planning on taking Tella’s refugees, one way or another, but we came prepared to take people from Tendal as well,” Darius said. He sighed and shook his head.

The man was knocked speechless by Darius’ suggestion. He looked back at his beloved city, but he didn’t have words, strategies, or weapons that could ease his mind. He felt as if he had no choice but to accept the fate given to the city he tried so hard to defend.

“If that’s the way it is. Another week and the men would be too injured to continue. The fields have already been untended for long enough. Things will only get worse from here on. We don’t know if these shorter battles are just a test by those creatures to see how much force they will really need to take us out. I would die to defend this city. But if it’s going to fall whether I die or not, then my choice is to save as many as possible,” the commander said with a heavy heart. He sounded proud, yet on the verge of tears.

“I apologize. I wish there was more I could do,” Darius said as he placed a hand on the commander’s shoulder.

“It’s fine. I’m a soldier; I’ll accept what was given to me. But, now forgive me for mentioning this, taboo as it may now be, but what will Rising do when these creatures come? They seem to be coming your way, after all,” the commander asked with every bit of concern he had shown for his own city.

“I wish I knew. But that isn’t part of my orders. I trust our ruler to do something. King Fidel of Rising will surely find something. You and I can have confidence in that.”

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The Lupine Saga 47

Aoi turned and walked effortlessly through the people surrounding the sick man. She swam through the crowd like a stream of water. No one seemed to notice as she glided past them. However, the careful eyes of Jane Melonscone were following Aoi’s every action and expression.

Aoi arrived at the table and grabbed a glass of water. She pulled a bottle out from her pocket and poured a small bit of its contents into the glass. The water turned green as the substance mixed with the fluid. Everyone stared as she caught their attention with a single line.

“This will cure him.” Aoi quickly pulled the man’s head back between coughs and poured the green water down his throat. The man swallowed the liquid before he could think to object. Aoi put the glass back on the table, turned, and walked back towards the table.

“Excuse me while I go wash up,” Aoi said. She excused herself and walked towards the lavatory. The entire room went silent as Aoi walked off. Not a sound was heard, not even a cough. Eason was dazed as he watched Aoi walk off. When she disappeared from sight, he awoke. He quickly stood and rushed over to the sick man. The man’s eyes were clear and white, his coughing had stopped, his fingers were fat and fine, and his lips were perfectly pink. He was smiling as he wiped blood away from his mouth. Eason was almost too startled to talk. He managed to get out a few words.

“How do you feel?” Eason asked.

“Perfect. No, better than perfect, hungry. I really want a steak now,” replied the man happily. Not even two minutes ago had he been on the brink of death. Eason went back to his chair, dumbfounded. By the time Aoi returned, everyone had gone back to their seats and settled down. She calmly walked back to her seat, though no one paid her any attention. Apparently, Aoi had been too quick to make an impression on anyone, and the room in general was simply happy that the man had been cured. Aoi sat at the table and then took a drink of water. She didn’t eat anything else for the rest of the night.

“Miss Aoi, that was incredible. Are you a doctor?” Eason asked.

“Well, I am from the water kingdom, after all,” Aoi replied shyly. The water kingdom was known for having some of the best medical expertise in the world. Eason smiled again in recognition of his colleague, and didn’t ask more. However, he did make a note to himself to consult with Aoi in the future, assuming that he would be allowed to meet with her.

“So, you are a doctor, after all.” Jane said quietly.

“Madam, did you say something?” Duke Tourney asked. Aoi didn’t catch what Jane had said either. Eason heard, but didn’t pay any attention to its meaning.

“Oh nothing, just commenting on the crab to myself. It was good, but I don’t think I’m interested in your fishing spot after all,” Jane said.

“Well, although I’d be willing to sell it, I’m quite glad that I’ll be able to keep that land,” Duke Tourney said while laughing. At that, Jane and he went into another random conversation that Aoi found herself becoming strangely immersed in.

The night ended, and the four of them eventually parted ways outside the restaurant’s entrance. A carriage had been prepared for Aoi to be taken back to the castle. Eason helped her up the step and into the carriage.

“Goodnight Miss,” Eason said. “It was a pleasure. Well, enough of it was. I do hope you’ll send for me sometime. A man of my status cannot meet with someone so close to the king so easily. I suppose I must thank Madam for arranging this odd encounter. Secretly, never to her face.” Eason bowed once.

“Isn’t your carriage here?” Aoi asked.

“No, I prefer to walk. I’m still young, this cane is for show and status,” Eason said with a smile. He waved, and then walked off. Aoi couldn’t help but smile as she thought of Eason’s age. At over one-hundred, he was several times older than her, and at an age she would probably never reach. Though Aoi was young and a citizen of Ens, she was only human, and Eason would probably outlive her. She hoped that she would have a chance to meet Eason again.

As Aoi’s carriage left, Jane and Duke Tourney said their goodbyes to each other. The duke took his leave first, at Jane’s insistence. She was the host, she reasoned, therefore she had to be the last to leave. The duke acknowledged Jane’s decree, and sped off towards his estate. Jane waved until he was out of sight.

Jane looked around to see if anyone could see her. The night was well along, and no one was traversing the street in front of the restaurant. Jane walked to the side of the restaurant, an alleyway. Inside there was a figure standing in the darkness.

“You’re there? Excellent.” Jane said.

“The other portion?” the person said dryly.

“It’s all here.” Jane reached into her large dress and pulled out a large bag that jingled with the sound of money. It was just large enough to be hidden inside the dress.

“Of course, I wouldn’t expect you to cheat me. Of course, I won’t cheat you either. Not that I could, if I wish to live. Thank you, Madam. Though it was tougher than I was expecting. My wife, it’s going to be a while before she gets over this.” The person took the bag of money from Jane. He opened it quickly, saw that everything was in order, and then walked out into the light. It was the man that had been sick. “Though, I could have died there. Did you really know that I’d be saved like that? You have a cure, right?”

“It was a gamble. And you profited. I profited just as much, probably. So many plans to make now. And yes, I have a separate cure. I would have provided it, somehow, before you passed that point of no return, but there was still quite a while to go, even if it would be painful.” Jane reached into another pocket and pulled out a small bottle. She showed it to the man, and then put it back into her pocket.

“So, do you mind telling me what that whole fiasco was for? This sudden shift in lifestyle is more than fantastic for me. I suppose it’s probably no more than pennies in your coffers though,” he said, secretly hoping that Jane would reveal some precious piece of knowledge he would be able to profit from.

“That is a secret. Ah, now I know. Anyways, you’ve been instrumental towards the future of my family. That’s a secret you will take to the grave, no matter what. So, you should enjoy your time, with less questions. Correct?”

The man nodded vigorously, bowed, and then walked back into the darkness. Jane left the alley, found her carriage, and rode off. She sat contemplating things in the silence of the night.

“A doctor, after all. But, I don’t have time to be sad. I’ll have to use it won’t I? How much time do I have? Not much, I think. Your hair just lost its color, after all.”

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