Book 3 Chapter 43

JouKa did her best to balance along the crook of Drok’s neck, holding tight to the leather-strapped reigns. They travelled the better part of the afternoon, and despite his outward appearance, Oren was enough of a gentleman to let her ride while he walked.

All the while, Oren worked to impress her with colorful descriptions of his home town — the food, the clothes, and the people. Who she would love to meet. Who would love to meet her. Curiosities about her wings. Where she came from and what sort of people were in her own homelands.

She answered his questions, vaguely entertained his attempts to impress and flatter. But, her thoughts were always ahead of her. Somewhere else. Over and over again, she ran it through her mind. What she would say when she saw him again? How it would be? How she would act? How should she act?

How would he act?

After twenty turns passed, so much came between them. Would KoGuRai recognize her still? Would he care? Or was he so lost to the power of the Marked that he was nothing of the person he once was?

“Hah, there we are!” Oren finally proclaimed, motioning forward with a grand sweep of one hand.

JouKa could see the first signs of life on the horizon. Sifting smoke rose up into the air, the sign of village fires and totems in the distance. The very thing that she yearned to see all day. The very thing she was most afraid to face.

KoGu, are you really just over that ‘ill?

Drok was already picking up the pace, making his way down the homestretch. Eager to get back home.

If I could just see ya again. Talk to ya fer a while. I’m sure that we can figure a way out of this mess. There ‘as to be something we can do. Afterall, they were able to find a fix fer TsuYa.

She paused, thinking about what had happened the night before.

Well, a temporary one, at least. But it’s still something! It’s still possible?

“You’re really going to love the smoked perth, I promise you. Just you wait,” Oren chatted as he jogged alongside of Drok. Then he gave a scowl. “Hey, slow down, now! There’s no rush, is there, Drok?”

The creature didn’t respond. It simply plunged on ahead.

“Drok?” he repeated, tone turning worried. “What’s a matter?”

“Huh?” JouKa stirred at the sound of Oren’s voice. For the first time, she realized that her mount was shivering, a reaction that was more than just eagerness to get home.

“Oh boy,” the red-haired man ground his teeth. Then with one practiced lunge, he took a hold of Drok’s fur and launched himself up the arched back, just behind JouKa.

She turned to protest as his arms wrapped around her for a hold on the reins. The serious expression on his face was enough to silence her. There was certainly something more going on than a creepy guy trying to cop a feel.

“Ha! Ha!!” Oren whooped to Drok, leaning forward against her wings. Though she had very little experience riding, she instinctually leaned forward, too, allowing him to take the reins.

Drok bounded forward without the need for further encouragement, a sense of urgency in his gait. Trees and bushes became nothing more than a blur as they sped, the sky bobbing up and down drunkenly. Not used to the motion, JouKa eventually had to force her eyes shut, feeling woozy.

The smell of smoke grew thicker the closer they got. It wasn’t until they finally crested the hill that she realized that the smoke was far too dense to be from just normal village cooking fires.

“No!” Oren’s voice rumbled in her ear as he pulled his mount to a sharp stop. “NO!!”

JouKa swallowed, opening her eyes again. A chill rushed over her body as her gaze rushed over the scene below.

What’s happening?

The village was in flames. The cries of frightened, wounded and dying people choked the air as thick as the smoke. She could smell the pungent odor of burning flesh. Her eyes could make out the sprawled and mutilated bodies of people in the streets. Everywhere JouKa looked, there was death. Horrible, horrible death.

KoGu! Is ‘e ‘ere somewhere? Is ‘e safe?

Something within her gut turned cold.

Or did ‘e…

Oren wasted little time in urging Drok forward. With a few long bounds, they were down in the street. JouKa couldn’t bear to look. All she could do was grip the fur with eyes clamped shut, body hunched, shaken and ill.

No. NO! This couldn’t ‘ave been…

“What happened?” the red haired man bellowed.

“The monster! The black winged monster!” cried one man as he ran past.

“What?” Oren pressed, catching the man’s grubby collar. “Did it do this?”

No… ‘e wouldn’t…

“Yes! It got free! It just started killing everyone!” he stuttered, shivering all over. “Not even the Locks held it. There was nothing we could do! It was just too powerful!”

“Is ‘e still ‘ere in the village?” JouKa’s voice wavered. She leaned forward trying not to seem too desperate.

“No, thank the light that it’s gone!”

JouKa’s eyes watered as she stared down at the terrified man. When Oren released him, he stumbled off in a craze, dodging the bodies that littered the path back towards the forest. Then she began to search, eyes flicking over the smoldering structures. Both hoping and dreading to catch a glimpse of the dark winged shadow.

“JouKa,” a voice sounded in her ears, pulling her out of her thoughts.

Her green eyes lifted, searching the lines of pain in Oren’s face. It was the face of a man who was watching his home turn to ashes. Seeing people that he knew lying scattered. Dead. Even though JouKa didn’t have anything to do with causing this travesty, she felt like she should apologize.

I’m sorry. I’m so sorry… This was not the way ‘e used to be.

“I’m taking you outside. You don’t need to see this,” his tone was solid and serious. JouKa realized that even in the middle of all this destruction, Oren was taking care of her. “It’s probably safer out there.”

Then with a flip of his hand, he threw one of the hide-skinned blankets over her head.

“Huh?” she gave him a surprised look.

“I wouldn’t show your wings around too much. Not until we get this all cleared up.”

That made sense to her, she decided, clutching his blanket. He took her to the edge of the village clearing and gently let her down from the creature’s back. JouKa wanted to raise her voice. To tell him that she would do whatever he needed to help his people.

Before she could protest, Oren was already spurring his way through town, urging Drok down the streets. She watched them vanish into the clinging black tendrils of smoke. Then, she realized that tears were pooling in her eyes again, not from the stinging of the thick air.

Off to one side, she could make out the huddled forms of women and children. Frightened. Sobbing. Clinging to each other as the distant crimson of the dying flames reflected from their faces. Some cradled the broken, unmoving forms of loved ones in their arms, begging for their return.

He would have never just… murdered… not like this…

JouKa watched them, distantly sharing their misery. Her mind reeled as she fought her own tears and the sick feeling welling up within her chest. She had no right to cry. These people were the ones that lost so much. Not her.

Why…? Why…?

She couldn’t stop her mind from falling back to the things that TsuYa said. The terrible things about KoGuRai, and how he was nothing more than the dark Champion of Zeromus. How he would kill them all if he was not stopped. How he robbed Nefol of its leadership and sought to bring the nation down to its knees because of bitterness.

That’s not the KoGuRai that I knew.

She didn’t want to believe the things that TsuYa said, even though she saw KoGuRai’s Marked form with her own eyes. She didn’t believed a word of it until now. Now she was faced with the dying and the dead. Innocent people who lay slaughtered by his hand.

This is not… like…

There was no denying what her own eyes told her. No fighting the terrible truth of what KoGuRai had become.

Have I…

The last spark of hope and light that she had carried with her, the very reason that she journeyed to the Outter Lands to begin with, faded among the cries of despair. All the doubts that she held back since the first time she saw KoGuRai’s dark winged form began to flood in. Overwhelming her.

I’ve lost ‘im…

Her hope withered. Then died.