10. Lowered Guard

Chapter 10

Lowered Guard

            The station was nothing more than a two room building with a wooden platform in the front to help passengers board a stagecoach. The building itself was made of a type of clay that withstood the heat and made it feel cool inside. Because of the material, there was no need for a traditional roof- it was just a flat top that made it appear like a long rectangle in the middle of the heated desert.

Cegil and I had been walking along the packed dirt path to reach the station and we stopped once we reached a four-foot post with two colored boards nailed to it. One of them was obviously a sign for the station, as it had a picture of a horse drawn carriage, but I wasn’t sure what the other one was.

“The… The…” I squinted at the letters as I tried to make sense of those Elit forsaken scribbles.

“Sound it out,” Cegil encouraged me patiently, hoping that I might make a breakthrough. We still never had a real chance for me to sit down and study, so I was no better at reading than I was last year. But, I gave it my best shot.

“The… D…D…Dancing Doofus?” I gave up after the first word and simply guessed. I was never going to get it.

“Very good,” he praised me with that patronizing tone of his. I sighed and ran my fingers through my hair.

“What does it really say?” I inquired with a grumble.

“The Drunken Dragon. It seems to be a tavern for travelers as they wait for the next coach,” he explained before he reassured me that I would learn to read someday.

“Feh.” I glared down at the sign before I kicked the post. The only word I recognized was ‘the’ and I wasn’t even close on the second one. “Reading is stupid.”

“Do not worry yourself- you simply need more time to study. You will be able to learn,” he told me as he climbed up the crude wooden steps to reach the top of the platform. He had a lot of confidence in me, but I wasn’t so sure about it- he tried to teach me for seven years and yet I wasn’t getting it. But then, I wasn’t really trying that hard. I was living just fine without the ability to read, so it wasn’t that important if I did learn.

Still, Cegil was going out of his way for me and he stubbornly tested me every now and then to ensure that I didn’t forget what little I did grasp. I should try harder- if not for myself, then for him. I know it would make him happy if I could attempt that much.

“Let us go inside and wait,” he suggested, beckoning me over. I gently kicked the sign one more time before I headed over and followed him to the entrance of the station. He held open the simple wooden door for me and I walked in.

From the outside, the building appeared to be the size of two rooms, but it was actually one large space with a small enclosure behind the bar on the far right side. Within that enclosure were a few people preparing food or cleaning the bar. Even though it was a giant room, there was a clear divide where one side had hardwood floors and the other was carpeted. The bar and tables were on the hardwood side, giving me indication that it was ‘The Drunken Dragon’ mentioned on that sign.

On the carpeted side, the entire wall (directly opposite from the bar) was glass and pane, giving a clear view of the Wastelands outside and bringing in enough sun to light up the place. I could see a few benches and chairs strewn about and quickly assessed that that was the waiting area for those wanting to ride a stagecoach. Chances were that it was once a two-room building, but they decided to tear down the wall so that those waiting could enjoy a drink or get something to eat to pass the time.

“It’s you!”

I paused at the sound of that loud voice before my eyes narrowed. I heard that voice once before…

Before I could register anything, my hands were caught between two large, leathery ones. I raised my eyes to find a pair of familiar hazel-green eyes and promptly cursed in my mind. It was that idiot from Ranosia- what was his name? Leilos?

“My dearest goddess! I am so glad to see you again. I had feared the worst when you had disappeared from the tavern that night- you missed my glorious victory against that terrible monster,” the hunter proclaimed as he tried to lean in closer to me. I moved my head back and put on a disgusted face to further deter him from getting too friendly.

“Oh great, you’re still alive?” I muttered under my breath as I resisted the urge to hurt him. I couldn’t believe he was boasting like he defeated Satel- then again, I never did learn what happened that night after I left. Could he have simply toyed with the hunter and then faked defeat before he left? I figured the blonde falucite had more pride than that. I was certain what really happened was that Leilos was knocked out and only assumed victory because Satel chose not to return to his territory for a while. That made more sense to me.

“Leilos? Is that you?”

I froze for a moment before I glanced back at Cegil in shock. They really did know each other? I thought the idiot was making all of those stories up! But even if there was some truth to them, they had to have been exaggerated. I just couldn’t see Cegil weak and desperate for help like the hunter had claimed in his story, back in Ranosia.

The hunter’s eyes practically lit up as he gazed at the giant falucite behind me. “Cegil! Goodness, it’s been almost fourteen years since I had last seen you! I’m surprised I still remember what you look like.”

It was then that they both decided to fill me in on how they knew each other. Leilos’ story was consistent from last time, but Cegil revealed what really happened. The hunter was once a so-called ‘hero in training’ and traveled to the coast from the northern grasslands to start his training. My guardian never really needed help from whatever menace decided to terrorize the coast and it sounded more like Leilos was in the way most of the time, but the hunter seemed to have accidentally saved the day. From then on, that victory must’ve bolstered his obnoxiousness.

Cegil’s version was much more clear and believable than Leilos’ and most of his details contradicted the hunter’s. It only occurred to me then that falucite must’ve had a better memory than humans and that what happened to Leilos was a blur from fourteen years ago whereas Cegil’s was a mere recount of yesterday morning’s meal. Perhaps all of Leilos’ crap was merely the infamous nostalgia that warped old memories into something positive.

“But why are you here? What business do you have in the Wastelands?” my guardian inquired politely to keep the conversation going.

“I originally came here to fight one of your kind, but now I wait for my companions. We’re heading back to the coastal regions to help some of the cities with their pirate problem. Hah! Those poor fools are so behind! With all the new inventions, you’d think they would come up with something to fight off those ignorant sea rats!” Leilos guffawed over his words, thinking his little name-calling was funny.

“Wot di’ye say?” I demanded as I fisted my hands. My blood wasn’t boiling over his callous stereotyping of seafarers, but over the mention of pirates and his name for them. I may have had a complicated relationship with pirates, but there was a shred of pride in me that I was never able to extinguish. It made me stand up and defend them at times. Insulting pirates was like insulting one’s mother to me.

His eyes widened for a moment at the sound of my accent before he took in my furious features. All at once, he appeared repentant and took off his wide brimmed leather hat to give a proper apology for the wrong reason.

“You’re a seafarer, huh? I’m sorry- I didn’t mean to insinuate that you were like them. You’re clearly an exception and I know someone else who is like you so-”

My fist found its way to his jaw and he twirled around from the force of my punch. He nearly backed into one of the tables behind him. It was bad enough that he recognized my accent, but it was even worse that he had the audacity to excuse some people for being of a particular race. There were no ‘exceptions’ when it came to a certain type of people and I was by no means an exception as a seafarer or as a human.

Even though it was a result of being unable to control myself, I felt some self-satisfaction over hitting him- at least until Cegil reacted.

“Dantia!”

I flinched from his tone and then began to feel guilty. I wasn’t one bit sorry over what I did to Leilos- I was sorry that I had upset my guardian. For the first time I had actually seen him get angry at me. It wasn’t one of his usual ‘disappointed’ look in his eyes or a weary ‘must you really?’ expression. I could see an unsuppressed frown on his lips as well as a furrowing of his brows. I wanted to see more expressions on his face, but not that one.

“But…but he-” I began, trying to justify my actions, but he wouldn’t hear of it.

“Enough. A man should not be struck for saying something you did not like to hear. He was not aiming to harm you in any way- furthermore; he was seeking your forgiveness. What you did was reprehensible,” he told me in a controlled tone. I bit my lip and glared at the hardwood floor near his feet.

Elit, I hadn’t been genuinely scolded since I was ten- and it felt just as horrible as I remembered. I hated having my loved ones get mad at me and I wanted to do almost anything to make Cegil happy again. I knew he wanted me to apologize to that idiot hunter, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do so. Leilos would probably get some sort of satisfaction out of it and assume that I liked him in some way.

Still, if Cegil was that upset over my reaction to Leilos, I almost feared what he would think if he witnessed me fighting men at bars. I was under the impression he was okay with it, but then he never really seen me in action before- at least not to my knowledge.

Leilos recovered with a groan and approached us again while cradling his sore jaw. Cegil tried to say sorry on my behalf but he just waved him off.

“Don’t worry about it. I’m used to women speaking their minds with their hands- though I’m more accustomed to a slap than a punch,” he said before he attempted a weak grin and glanced at me. “You got a nice right hook! I’m impressed.”

I blinked at him. What kind of an idiot would take a punch from a woman and be impressed by it? Other men would get offended and try to ‘put me in my place’ (as they so often called it). Though despite my initial reaction of thinking he was stupid to say that, deep down I was a little perplexed and somewhat happy to feel some kind of acceptance.

“Even so, I will not tolerate such behavior from my charge,” Cegil announced with a gentle shake of his head. He then gestured toward the bar and faced me. “You will sit over there and behave yourself until our stagecoach arrives.”

I opened my mouth to protest, then thought against it. I wanted Cegil’s forgiveness and this was the least I could do without having to humble myself to that …man. Strangely enough, I was starting to feel bad about calling him an idiot. I wasn’t sure if it was because of that scolding I received or if I had developed some grudging respect for the hunter.

I sullenly headed for the bar and sat down on one of the stools while Cegil and Leilos headed for a table near the wall furthest from the entrance to talk. I could hear Leilos plead for my guardian to be lenient to me, but that was the last thing I was able to decipher. They were too far away for me to listen in.

I took the chance to glance around the room again and noted that it was rather empty save for the employees. One came around to ask if I wanted anything, but I declined. Guilt was still welling up in my belly and it took away all desire for food and drink.

I risked a side-glance back over to the table where they were talking and wondered what was so special about the hunter that Cegil had to defend him like that. Were they good friends or something? I wasn’t sure what to feel about the him anymore- I should accept any friend of Cegil’s, but there was something about him that I really didn’t like. The new development lessened my loathing of him, but not my overall opinion.

It was then when the door flew open again to allow two more people to enter. They were a man and woman duo that almost appeared like twins in the body mass area. They didn’t seem to be related, as they held radically different features. The man had ginger hair and dark blue eyes- a combination most often found from the people born on the continent of Rynrir to the west of here. He seemed to be taller than Leilos, but massively dwarfed by Cegil.

The woman made me pause for a moment. She was clearly a seafarer by her dark grey eyes and her thickly toned body. I wasn’t trying to insinuate that all women from the coast or the sea were as bulky like she was- it was just that it was rare to find a weak or overweight lass due to the average workload we had. Her hair was nearly the same color as mine, but darker. It was chopped to her shoulders and kept back with a simple rope tie. Everything about her screamed ‘trying to look manly’, but she still had enough feminine features to distinguish her as a woman.

These were the companions that Leilos was waiting for- I knew because he jumped up to greet them and then ushered them over to the table. I listened to their loud, unintelligible voices as they introduced themselves to Cegil and then settled down for a quieter conversation. I soon lost all interest in them and lowered my head to rest on my arms on the bar. I let out a small sigh as I realized that Satel was right about me being Cegil’s obedient puppy- here I was, sitting quietly like a good girl after displeasing my master. It was a little humiliating, but that’s what discipline was meant to do.

Of course, what else could I do? If I rebelled against the man who helped me, I could lose him forever. I feared that more than any bloodthirsty human or beast.

“‘Ey.”

I glanced up to find that the woman had left the others to sit next to me at the bar. I tried hard to ignore her as she requested for some strong drink. She looked to be close to her late twenties and I was certain that was how old she was, so she could get away with drinking whatever she wanted. So unfair…

I wanted to believe that she was only over here to order something, but she didn’t have to walk over to me to do so. It was obvious she wanted to talk since she stared intently at me the entire time, even after receiving her drink.

“So yer the ‘earth bound goddess’ Master Leilos was talkin’ ‘bout, huh?” she prodded after taking a swig from the wooden mug. I was a little tired of being compared to an earth goddess- again, I wasn’t that pretty and I was a seafarer. Elit was my god, not that earth god, Kajros.

“Aye,” I replied absent-mindedly before I corrected my speech. Being around fellow seafarers made it hard to control myself. “I mean- yeah, I’m the one he’s talking about, but I’m no daughter of Kajros. He’s deluded and mistaken.”

At this, the woman frowned at me and I instantly thought it was because I snubbed her precious ‘master’. But it seemed she was just as prideful as me and was upset with how I answered. “Show some Elit-damned pride, lass! Yer no landlubber, so don’t speak like one!”

It was my turn to frown as I gave her a side glare. I couldn’t see her that well through my bangs, but at the same time, she couldn’t see my expression. I wanted to tell her that I could speak however I wanted, but what came out instead was: “Shut it, ya crusty ol’ sea witch.”

I didn’t mean to revert back and acquiesce her demand of speaking like a seafarer. She ended up nodding in approval even though I accused her of being old and ugly. I suppose she was more concerned about my actions than my opinions about her. It was typical of our kind- we cared about others and the community over our personal gains. Come to think of it, perhaps that was why I got along so well with Cegil- he came from a family-oriented culture.

“Much better. Ne’er hide who ye are to one o’ yer kind. We’re all family,” she stated kindly before taking another drink of her ale.

‘We’re all family’ was a common motto in the coastal regions, but it was also a misleading concept. There were actually many types of ‘families’ and we warred against one another just as badly as most kingdoms did. They encompassed towns, a group of clans, or even seafaring types (like fishermen or pirates)- and any outsider could either be adopted or shunned.

Chances were that she was no pirate- meaning that she could foster an innate hatred of me if she knew what I once was. I fully glanced back at her to make certain of that- she didn’t cover her tanned arms or most of her legs, allowing me to see that she possessed no tattoos. Her ears weren’t even pierced either. I could tell her that I was most certainly not part of her ‘family’, but I chose to remain silent. I caused enough trouble for one day, so it was better to keep my mouth shut and hope she would go away.

“Yer not that talkative are, ya? Hard ta believe yer supposed to be Leilos’ future woman.” I detected a hint of scorn in her voice- did she actually like him or something?

However, I was more focused on the last statement and felt myself get angry rather quickly. “Who said ah was goin’ ta be his woman?”

“The Fates,” she replied matter-of-factly before she recited the reading the hunter had received several years ago. “They say he’d meet a brown haired lass whose beauty rivals that o’ the goddesses.”

“It ain’t me,” I responded flatly after she gave a defeated dry laugh. It figured that the whole problem with that hunter resulted from some moronic Oracle. “Any lass with ‘brown hair’ could be the one- fer all ye know, it could be ye.”

I wasn’t sure where I was going with this, but I figured that if I could get her to stand up and take him, then that would be one less headache I would have to deal with. I didn’t have Cegil’s knack for twisting one’s words, but surely I could confuse her into believing that she was the ‘goddess’ of Leilos’ prophecy.

“Aye, but lass, ah ain’t exactly the ‘goddess’ type,” she told me as she held out her arm and gestured to herself. She had thick muscles and larger hands and feet like a man, but she also had a pretty face and curves in the right places. As a former pirate, I knew how to appreciate the beauty of women- though I never picked up any interest in them, much to the disappointment of my ‘tutors’.

“But ye be no hag either. Hadn’t ye heard the sayin’ ‘Beauty is but a perception’? Maybe ah fit the popular idea o’ a goddess, but that don’t mean ah’m right fer him,” I pointed out before driving my argument further. “Ye know him more than ah do.”

She let out a small grin that didn’t really reach her eyes before she faced the polished wood of the bar where her mug sat. “Kind of ye ta say, but… ah promised me heart to another. Had ta after he got that readin’. Ah jus’ want him ta be happy.”

Well, crap- if she already threw her life away, then my little plan was shot. I could try to convince her not to give up if she wasn’t already married, but then I wasn’t sure how loyal she was to whomever she was with. Also, I had no idea how long ago Leilos had gotten that reading. It could’ve been long enough for her to get over him.

The seafaring wench then let out a real smile as she glanced back at me. “Ya know, yer a kind and wise lass. Ah think…if ye end up with Master Leilos, ah wouldn’t mind. Ye could be good fer him.”

Wonderful- now I had her approval. I should’ve kept silent and let her continue to dislike me, though I doubt she had any real say in Leilos’ relationship. Suddenly, her large hand landed on the top of my scalp and began to rub my hair into a mess.

“‘Ey!” I shouted in indignation as the woman laughed.

“S’matter? Yer hair is already coverin’ most of yer face. Ah’m only helpin’ ya out,” she said as she tried to shift more of my hair out of its braid.

“Don’t touch me!” I meant to sound threatening, but my voice came out lighter than I intended. I tried ducking out of the way, only to have her try to reach for me again. Before I knew it, a laugh escaped me and I realized I was smiling. I was…having fun. For the first time in twelve years, I was getting along with a human enough to truly enjoy their company.

But it soon came to an end when I felt her freeze in place. I stopped my struggling and found that her fingers had been brushing the hair away from my ear, giving her a good view of the ear hugger.

“Yer a pirate,” she growled quietly as she slowly withdrew from me. The warmth in her eyes shifted into a cold, harden gaze as she carefully stood up and backed away from me. She was acting as if I would attack her at any moment. I soon noticed that she was reaching for her weapon, a well-polished harpoon, that she left beside the door as she came in.

“Ah was a pirate,” I corrected her, hoping that it would calm her down.

“Doesn’t matter! Once one, always one- yer kind never changes! All ye care ‘bout is yerselves ‘n yer treasures- damn the innocent lives o’ others!”

I should’ve been angry to hear that, but instead I felt like my stomach had dropped. This was Port Sibest all over again. The townspeople treated me just like she did- all kind and warm-hearted until they found out my origins. They treated me like some murderer and I hadn’t done anything. Was it too much to give someone a second chance?

The worst part of this situation was the fact that we were getting along so well just seconds ago. For a moment, I had forgotten my hatred of humanity and let my guard down for her- only to have her remind me why I loathed everyone.

I knew I wasn’t a good person and I wasn’t about to defend all pirates with some dumb excuse like ‘we have to survive somehow’, but I didn’t like to be judged until I actually done something to earn it. Of course, I wasn’t perfect and often judged others prematurely, but at least I kept my opinions to myself unless confronted directly.

Before I knew it, both Cegil and Leilos ran between us, shielding me from her.

“What is the meaning of this?” the hunter demanded, sounding angry at his companion.

“Stand aside, Leilos! That yon cur be a pirate! She be behind all the raids on the coast!” the woman shouted with sheer abhorrence in her eyes.

“Wot!” I yelled incredulously as I glared back at her. She was already accusing me of crimes I had nothing to do with- it took Sibest at least a day or two to blame me for something.

Leilos tensed up before he glanced at me from over his shoulder. His hazel-green eyes expressed shock, disbelief, and a little disappointment, then his bushy brows furrowed as he appeared hurt to learn this. I almost wanted to gesture at myself and say ‘See? I’m not the lady you thought I was’, but I was still recovering from the woman’s reaction to my past. I had thought I would be used to this by now, but it had been a long time since I had last spoke with genuine seafarers. Without my hostile walls to protect me, I was quite vulnerable.

“I-Is this true?” he asked me in a crestfallen tone. It seemed the news bothered him as well, but there was also a hint of confusion and uncertainty.

“Yes, she was once a pirate when she was younger, but she has not been on a ship for many years. I swear on my life that Dantia has not pillaged a town or wrongfully taken a life by her own greed. She has spent seven years under my guidance and could not have possibly done the crimes you accuse her of.”

I numbly glanced at the back of the long haired falucite as he said those words. Cegil knew I was a pirate and yet he didn’t shun me- I was both surprised and relieved to know that. I was scared to tell him the truth of my past or the meaning behind my earring because I thought he would abandon me like the other seafarers. I thanked both Elit and the Maker that my fears were unfounded.

It took me a while to really register it, but I noticed that Cegil chose his words carefully. He was trying to acquit me of the raids and being a heartless murderer, but he wasn’t lying about me either. He and I both knew that I wasn’t a model law-abiding citizen, nor was I an honest person. I was still a thief on occasions and I was well aware that there was no real excuse for most of the things I’ve done in the past. Still, he wasn’t bringing my actual sins to light and it was better if they didn’t know about them right then.

“Well, there you go,” Leilos replied as he turned back to his companion. He seemed much more relieved to hear that and was willing to look past what I was. “She’s not our target and there is no reason to fault her for things she may have done in the past. I believe Sir Cegil when he says that she’s innocent.”

Now I was staring at the back of the hunter’s head, shocked to hear what he had said. Was he really serious? Or did he worship Cegil that much to believe anything he would say? I knew I shouldn’t get my hopes up- all because he seemed to not care about my past didn’t mean he wasn’t harboring some resentment deep down.

“Aye, but-” She wanted to protest, but the ginger haired man walked over to her and placed a hand on her shoulder to stop her. She gave a defeated look before she lowered her weapon and chose to stare at me hatefully.

“I’m sorry about this,” Leilos apologized in a genuine tone as he first faced me, then Cegil. He then turned back to his friends and added, “There’s a town not too far from here. Maybe we should stay the night there and head out tomorrow.”

“Tch- whatever. Ya know I’ll follow ye where’re ye go,” the woman answered grudgingly while maintaining her watchful gaze on me.

The hunter nodded to the other male, giving the order to lead the woman out of the station. Leilos then let out a sigh before he placed his wide brimmed leather hat on top of his slicked back hair. He then spun around to fully face us and gave a beaming smile, showing his off-white, but perfectly straight teeth.

“Sir Cegil, I do hope our paths cross. I would be honored to fight by your side once again,” the hunter announced as he held his hand out to my guardian. Cegil gripped his arm in a friendly shake, his giant hand easily wrapped around the hunter’s arm.

When the buddy gesture was over, Leilos sidestepped around the falucite and grabbed my hands once again. “Dantia, wasn’t it? I hope we do meet again someday. Maybe we can also fight together in the name of justice.”

I wanted to get irate like I usually did, but something was different this time. He was still his obnoxious self, but I had to admit that he wasn’t that much of a moron. Even after all that, he still wanted to see me again and even acknowledged that I wasn’t like an average woman- he was treating me like a fellow warrior. I couldn’t get upset knowing that he at least accepted me without prejudice- though I was both shocked and disappointed that it had to be him.

He seemed to be listening for once and I had to make my position clear to him in the event that we did meet again. I pulled my hands from his grasp and told him, “Ah’m still not int’rested in ye ‘n ah’m not much o’ a justice seeker.”

He took that in with a nod and still looked me in the eye to show his earnest intentions. “Even if you were a dastardly pirate once, that doesn’t mean you can’t reform and become a hero- Sir Cegil thinks very highly of you, you know. And… I’m still interested in you, regardless- maybe not as a future wife, but as a comrade in arms.”

I couldn’t respond to that- I didn’t know how to. It wasn’t often that I was invited to join some moronic ‘hero brigade’ let alone be considered a comrade. Leilos soon backed away and let out a loud laugh as he headed for the exit.

“May the Fates guide you on a peaceful path!” he called out to us before leaving.

I soon recovered from my sudden bout of speechlessness and narrowed my eyes at the area where the hunter was previously standing. “Idiot…”

I wasn’t even sure to whom my scathing remark was directed. It could’ve been to Leilos, or to that woman who slipped past my defenses and harmed me emotionally. Then again, I could’ve been calling myself an idiot for allowing it to happen. I hadn’t even learned her name and yet I somehow let her get close to me. Though there was something else I should think about- could I really trust Leilos after he proclaimed us being friends? He could turn against me just as easily.

Cegil let out a sigh before he turned and craned his neck to look down at me. He appeared both tired and a little remorseful- almost as if he knew what I was feeling at the moment.

“I apologize that you had to go through that. She had no right to accuse you of such things. But- if she had to react that way, then something severe must have happened to her that involved pirates.” He then raised his hand to my head and gently rearranged the strands of my hair into something less messy.

“I didn’t do anything,” I mumbled as I leaned into his touch. I felt terrible and my eyes were burning- that woman did more damage than I would have liked. Even though I detested humanity, some part of me wanted to be accepted. I wanted a family, like I used to have in my early days, but all I had was Cegil and he wasn’t human. I appreciated his presence nonetheless- it was frightening to think of life without him and I knew that my life would be empty if he hadn’t taken me under his wing.

“Cegil, how long did you know I was a pirate?” I inquired, wondering when or how he found out.

“From the moment I met you. The people of Port Sibest warned me, but I discarded their concerns. All because pirates raised you does not mean you are a bad child. You are still growing and could be a productive member of society if someone gave you the chance- I am sure of it,” he replied before I moved closer and pressed my face against his rough frock coat.

I didn’t cry, though a few tears did escape my eyes and got absorbed in the black material. Cegil rested his arm on my upper back and held me against him to comfort me. My life was a complicated mess and I honestly didn’t know what I wanted out of it. I reviled all humans for shunning or hurting me and yet I still had those vulnerable urges to try and be accepted.

I believed that what I really wanted was that second chance- for others to recognize that I was something and could be something else. Humanity didn’t seem to offer that, but the falucite did. The experience with that seafarer only served to push me further away from my kind and closer to Cegil and his race. I swore then to never let a human get that familiar with me again. As long as I didn’t let it happen, I won’t get hurt like this again.

       ****************************

The ‘stagecoach’ was actually a simple covered wagon that was drawn by a pack of gazots. A gazot was something of a distant cousin of eneavra, falling into the same canine family, but they possessed some feline-like characteristics. Their bodies were toned and they were rather fast on land. They bore coarse red coats of hair with blackened colors on the tips of their pointed ears, paws, and fluffy tails. They were also much taller than eneavra, being three quarters the height of a full-grown horse.

The driver happened to be one of Cegil’s many cousins. He was half falucite and greater gazot. Unlike a pure blooded falucite, he possessed a darker tone of hair that was as red as his pack’s- assumedly a trait from his greater gazot mother. His hair was also much shorter than his cousin’s, coming only past his shoulders, but it was still longer than what most males of the human species would wear.

Faxus was his name and he and his pack ran between his monster clan grounds and Cec’re to trade goods. At Maetira’s request, he stopped by the station to pick us up, even though his wagon wasn’t made for guests. He had to move things aside so I could sit inside the wagon while Cegil sat up at the front with him. It wasn’t the most comfortable ride, as every bump in the road made the wooden crates run into me, but at least I wasn’t out in the Wasteland heat.

The thick beige canvas kept most of the sun’s heat from reaching me and the breeze coming from the open front was keeping me cool, even though there was a lot of dirt mixed with the air. They say the center of the Wastelands was the driest and hottest point in the whole area- there was no water for the sun to suck out of the ground and just a hint of wind could create a massive dust storm. It wasn’t that bad today, but I couldn’t see that far out in the distance when I glanced out the front.

I wondered how the gazots were able to handle the heat and be able to run with a lack of clean air? Though I suppose a better question was how did Faxus know where he was going? Any human could get lost without good visibility- but then he had the falucite sense of smell and whatever special senses gazots had. Maybe he was able to smell his way there.

With no other option or way to amuse myself, I settled against the crates the best I could and rubbed at my sore knees. They were still hurting since this morning and I couldn’t figure out why. I hadn’t fallen or ran into anything that could’ve caused it. Perhaps I was finally getting that old to have joint pain… not possible- I’d have to be really old for that.

My bottom was beginning to get sore from the hard wooden surface, too, but I still managed to close my eyes and drift asleep. It was about time for my daily nap anyway.

When I had awakened again, it was already sunset and the wagon wasn’t moving anymore. There was an appetizing smell in the air and I found myself drawn to the back flap of the wagon. I curiously lifted the thick material to see out and discovered that a small camp was set up. I recalled Faxus mentioning that it would take more than a day to reach Cec’re and that we would have to stay the night out in the Wastelands.

He swore that while he wasn’t as powerful as a full falucite, he was still formidable enough to chase off eneavra if any should bother us. Luckily for Cegil and I, gazots and eneavra were natural enemies, so the lesser monsters should avoid us because of Faxus’ pack.

It was already getting close to sunset and a small fire was set up. I wasn’t sure where the wood came from since there was only cracked earth, elevated stone, and green prickly plants as far as the eye could see. The air was clear around here, unlike earlier, so I was able to tell. It was still fairly hot outside, but not enough to kill me. With the sun going down, it was getting a little cooler, but not nearly enough to need a fire for warmth.

Hovering over the blaze was a large iron pot that had some kind of fragrant food cooking within. Off to the side, I could see a long rectangular feeder that was put out for the gazots and it was already emptied of its contents. The beasts were now sleeping in a large furry pile to regain their energy for tomorrow.

The men were sitting near the fire on logs that were cut to the right height. I realized then that most of the camping materials must’ve been stored in the wagon and they took them out while I was sleeping. Faxus was scooping out what appeared to be a lumpy brown sludge into a wooden bowl and handed it to Cegil. He soon dished out some food for himself and sat down with his back to me.

Faxus had some fairly distinct clothing on. He wore a leather vest over a white shirt and had leather cuffs at the end of the long sleeves. He also wore leather chaps over his dark blue trousers. Finally, he had a bandanna the same shade of deep blue as his eyes tied around his neck. It was loose enough to where he could arrange it over the lower half of his face and protect his mouth and nose from the dirt in the air. I’ve seen some other men wear a similar style, so I had to assume that it was normal wear for the Wastelands.

“Hey Cegil, I’ve been meaning to ask, but what’s with the human? Is she your pet or something?”

“She is family,” the large falucite replied as he stirred the contents of the thick stew with a metal spoon. “I have adopted her, though it is not an official one.”

Even though I was considered his charge, I wasn’t legally his falcie. I believe there was some kind of ritual that involved the approval of the clan elders. Unless Cegil ever went home and rejoined his family, I was never going to be his legal daughter. That was fine- we didn’t need anyone’s approval and it wasn’t anyone’s business. It wasn’t as if we needed any proof anyway.

Faxus let out a short laugh as he gestured over to the mountain of gazots. “I know what you mean- my pack here is like my family, too. They’re all my brothers, right boys?”

Almost as if to answer his rhetorical question, one of them lifted their tail and farted. Faxus thought it was cute while I struggled not to snicker. I wasn’t sure if I found the gazot to be funny or Faxus’ reaction to the creature. My attempt to not make a sound caught their attention and both turned to glance at me.

“Oh, you’re up? Come on over and have some ha’ra- you need to eat up while you can. My boys will clean the pot come morning,” Faxus offered while holding up his bowl.

Since I was a little hungry, I climbed down from the wagon and headed over to him without much delay. He already had a bowl ready for me by the time I made it over.

“Heh, you’re pretty brave for a human,” he commented as I took the food from him. “Most of your kind would never get this close to me or my boys- though they have good reason to. We eat humans just as much as any other race.”

I suppose that meant he hadn’t hunted me down because I was a friend of Cegil’s. I walked over to the third log that was set out and sat down so I could eat. I then remarked in a dismissive tone, “I’ve witness scarier things.”

That could’ve been an insult, but thankfully he didn’t see it like that. He just laughed it off while eating a spoonful of the brown mixture. He gazed at me with some interest and then commented good-naturedly, “I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing. Being cautious is vital to survival. If you don’t pay attention to the smaller threats, you could end up someone’s meal.”

I understood the advice he was trying to give, but he misunderstood my reasoning. Just about anyone could eat humans- that was a constant, but it was also the Natural Order at work. Humans could kill me for almost no reason at all and that was more frightening than being eaten. Though I suppose there were a few rare cases of humans eating one another.

…Speaking of cannibalism, I had to thoroughly examine the ha’ra when I realized that the thick ‘sludge’ was actually some kind of meat sauce. After hearing about Faxus’ diet, I had to wonder what kind of meat it was. I hated humans, but not enough to want to eat them. And if it wasn’t that, was it something I could digest? I had monster meat once and became sick for days.

Faxus noticed my look and quickly clarified that it was beef. He didn’t want to poison me by accident and chose something else that was also universally consumed. Dear Elit, did that mean I was in the same rung as cows?

The ha’ra looked revolting, but it smelled wonderful. I was glad to find that it possessed a savory and bold taste that I really liked. Cegil made a distasteful face after having a bite, but it apparently wasn’t disgusting enough for him to spit out.

“This has too much meat,” he muttered before taking in another spoonful. I couldn’t help but stare as I witnessed him eating in front of me for the first time. I knew it was a little silly, but I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the rare display. He was formal and elegant even when doing something as mundane as taking a bite of meat stew. The gazot-falucite mix grinned some before he shrugged.

“Sorry about that- I actually need meat in my diet. If you’re that worried about your figure, then run alongside the wagon tomorrow. That should burn off the extra fat,” he replied teasingly before he turned to me and added for my benefit, “For him, it’s like having desert for dinner.”

I recalled Satel mentioning that meat was like sweets to falucite. I later learned that it was because their species had no need for the nutrients that it provided. It was more or less a tasty junk food that caused obesity to them if they ate too much of it.

“Do not be ridiculous- I would have to consume much more than one bowl to be worried.”

I held back my grin. Was Cegil really worried about his weight? I didn’t think that would be among his main concerns- but I guess it would be a hindrance to him if he got too fat to fight. I had to wonder if all falucite were conscious of their diets. Now that I thought about it, every falucite I had met possessed healthy physiques that would drive any human into a jealous rage.

After that moment, Faxus lost interest in me and started to talk to Cegil about old memories. They apparently shared a falciehood together, though I wasn’t sure if they were close to the same age. Come to think of it, I wasn’t even sure how long a mix breed lived. Did they live as long as a falucite or a greater demon? Did they even age the same way? Ironically, no one ever bothered to study interracial offspring even though it was a common occurrence with falucite.

When we all had our fill of ha’ra, we settled in for the night. Faxus claimed that we would leave at first light, so we needed to get to get as much sleep as possible. Since I had my nap not too long ago, it wasn’t easy for me to drift off. In the silence of the night, all I could do was think about Cec’re and what we hope to accomplish there.

Exactly when was Maetira’s reading coming true? And what role did I have to play in it? I was beginning to wonder if I had to confront Satel first in order to get things started.

Of course, the reading was going to be the least of my worries- Satel will soon have to make one of the hardest choices in his life …and it involved me.

To the Next Chapter

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