TsuYa didn’t realize that he was so concerned until that moment. His dark eyes focused on the treeline, watching the trails of fading smoke plume like fingers into the sky. The smell of ashes and blood draped heavily over the forest. He hoped and hoped and hoped that JouKa’s trail wouldn’t lead into it, but as they drew nearer, the trail told them that this was the direction she went.
I should have gone after her.
He kept playing the scenario through his mind from the night before. Over and over again. The things he said and done. The things he wished he could take back. What he would do differently.
If I just went after her, she wouldn’t be in this danger.
They began the hunt for her as soon as TsuYa realized that she didn’t come back to the camp. Though he didn’t mention what really happened, there was a stiff silence, as if they had their own ideas about the situation. Even Zazo was more quiet than usual as they made their way between the trunks of the tall trees.
If she’s hurt, I don’t know what I’m going to do.
The forest was deep and unending, full of lush plants and scampering life. Everything looked the same to TsuYa, so it wasn’t difficult to imagine JouKa getting lost in the winding vines and frondy leaves. Both Zazo and Aur could track the girl, saving a lot of guesswork and grief.
At first, he was just angry at her carelessness in running off. Anger soon gave way to guilt, and guilt turned into fear. Especially when Zazo noted that she felt the presence of others along with JouKa, strange people and creatures from the Outter Lands.
If they’ve captured her, they’re in for a big surprise.
His fists balled, holding tight to the fur along Zazo’s scruff.
And what’s with the smell of burning and dead people? Is there some sort of sacrificial sacred place up ahead?
Zazo’s voice suddenly invaded his mind, -Tsu, will you please calm down?-
“Huh?” he breathed, realizing that she could hear everything that he was thinking.
-We’ll find out what’s going on when we get there. Until then, you need to stay calm.-
TsuYa closed his mouth, pressing his lips together. The She Wolf was right. He needed to keep a clear head just in case something terrible really had happened. Losing himself to a bunch of “what-ifs” wasn’t going to do anything to help JouKa.
“Okay… okay…” he stared ahead in agitation, trying to confirm all would be well. “Okay. Okay.”
-Yes. Yes.- Zazo echoed in her own way, bounding along. -Earthians are so weird sometimes.-
Aur simply gave a low-throated rumble as he sped at her heels. The Watcher said almost nothing the whole trip, and TsuYa couldn’t help but think that maybe Aur was annoyed at him for not heeding his advice and putting strain on the wardings.
Hey, how was I supposed to know that an argument could cause something like that to happen to me?
The string of disgruntled thoughts fled from his mind as they crested the final hill. There, stretching below was a scene of such tragedy and anguish that TsuYa felt the breath catch in his throat. All speculation came nowhere near the terrible truth of the small village that lay in shambles along the path.
Streams of quiet smoke wafted into the sky, signaling the aftermath of an attack that ravaged the land not long ago. Colored banners lay trampled and burned. Buildings bled out across the packed dirt ground in flat splotches of black. Broken piles of darkness and lay on the outskirts of the village, the remnants of those who had not survived.
Zazo drew to a stop as TsuYa leaned back, covering his nose with one hand. The scent of death was so overwhelming. Nauseating. He witnessed battle and death before, but something about this struck his senses powerfully.
His voice caught in his throat, “What happened here?”
“I sense the passing of darkness,” Aur intoned somberly. Probably the first thing he had said all day.
“And JouKa is down there?”
-Yes. From what I can sense, this is where she is.-
“Come on! Let’s go!” TsuYa urged, motioning towards the village.
Zazo complied with a great bound down the hill. It wasn’t until the first shouts from the village rang in his ears that TsuYa realized that a man riding into a recently destroyed town on the back of a giant She Wolf was probably going to cause a bad reaction.
And that, it did.
Large, red-haired men poured out of the tilted remains of buildings, brandishing weapons and angry eyes. Some of them were already blood-soaked and bandaged from the first struggle.
“What kind of people are they?” TsuYa leaned close against Zazo’s neck as the She Wolf stopped. That’s when he remembered how far away from home they were.
-I don’t know. But they don’t seem very friendly.- Zazo observed, ears lying flat as she took a slow step back. -We should teach them a thing or two.-
“Are you kidding?” the warrior hissed. His eyes fell on another pile of bodies that was stacked against one of the leaning walls. “This place has already seen its share of violence.”
-They are about to see more, if they keep acting with such insolence towards one of the Trine!- the She Wolf proclaimed, showing cold, glittering fangs.
There was a face off. Zazo’s snarling versus the harsh, grating voices of the strange red-haired men. Neither was willing to back down, and TsuYa could feel the She Wolf getting antsy under his palms.
Just when he thought that the situation was going to escalate, a voice echoed out into the street, “Wait!”
It was a familiar voice, and a familiar accent. One that TsuYa was surprisingly happy to hear.
He watched as JouKa stepped out of one of the doorways, draped in a strange skin-hide hood and cloak. Her green eyes reflected out at him with a cautious and weary expression. It seemed as if she was looking him over for any sign of threat.
When she finally judged that all was safe she turned to address the tall red-haired warrior who followed her outside, “They’re my friends, Oren.”
“JouKa?” a flood of relief swept through TsuYa’s voice.
Though she seemed tired and a bit afraid, the girl appeared unharmed. In fact, she seemed to be taking refuge with the people in the village, which was far better than his fear of her captivity.
“Alright boys, back off,” the one called Oren ordered quietly.
The other men looked a bit reluctant at first, but there wasn’t much they could do when the girl broke through their ranks and approached the man riding the giant wolf. They lowered their weapons and watched quietly.
The warrior slid down from Zazo’s back, landing on the balls of his feet. “Are you alright?”
“TsuYa,” JouKa almost whispered. Then she followed up with an attempt at humor, “Ya almost sound concerned fer me?”
Surprise rippled through his mind. Surprise that she talked to him at all, much less, so pleasantly. It was enough to make him pause and take a good, long look into the girl’s eyes. Something was changed there. The fire that had once burned, unyielding, was gone. There was nothing to replace it but a deep, terribly sadness, as if everything that once drove her spirit was stolen away.
“I was,” TsuYa answered, trying to hide his scrutiny from her. “I was worried sick. Did you..?”
He didn’t want to ask too much. He didn’t feel like he had a right to criticize her for running off after what happened.
“I made a mistake,” was all she said.
“Mistake?” he furrowed his brow with a puzzled look.
“I was wrong, TsuYa. I was so, terribly wrong,” JouKa choked. She was breathing heavy, staring at him as if she didn’t know whether to be afraid or to ask for comfort.
“I don’t understand,” the warrior shook his head, voice lowering. “What happened?”
“You were right,” the girl seemed on the verge of tears.
He had no idea what to do. So he simply stood there, waiting for her to finish her explanation.
JouKa drew closer. He could smell the depth of her sadness. She swayed a little bit, under the influence of great exhaustion. As she stumbled, he reached out and caught her, holding her up.
The girl was openly crying now. Holding on to his shoulders and weeping. “It was KoGuRai.”
“What?” TsuYa’s dark eyes widened.
“KoGuRai and ‘is beast,” she sobbed. “They did this to this village.”
It felt as if a cold weight had dropped to the bottom of his stomach.
“TsuYa,” the girl looked up at him after a moment. Her face reflected in fear. This time, she wasn’t as afraid of him, as she was for him. She lowered her voice, “This… isn’t what’s going to ‘appen to you, too. Is it?”
The question took him by surprise. He couldn’t decide if it was because he didn’t have the answer, or if her unexpected concern threw him off. His dark eyes flicked around, searching for the words to respond.
He found darkness waiting, looming in the corner of his mind. His thoughts strayed back to feeling of power and strength that the Marked abilities gave him. How he lost himself. How the rage could so easily sweep him up, swaying him closer to the edge. Stealing his senses. Stealing his time.
“No. Of course not.” TsuYa had to force his voice to stay calm as he answered, “I’m fighting this until the end.”
-Ahem?- Zazo’s muzzle poked straight in between their faces, separating the two of them with a snuff.
TsuYa took an embarrassed step back. He didn’t realized how close he was standing to the girl, or what it probably looked like to the dozen onlooking red-haired men from the village. They watched in rapt interest at the exchange.
At least they’re finally at ease.
The warrior took another step back, brushing off the front of his shirt.
“JouKa,” Aur’s deep voice intoned from behind. He stood there, in his normal form, with just the slightest hint of questioning concern in his eyes.
At least Aur had enough sense to realize a giant talking lion alongside of the giant white wolf was probably not a good idea.
“Did ya all come?” the girl asked, looking a little surprised. “Fer me?”
“Of course we did,” he replied. “You were missing. We couldn’t just leave you out in the forests.”
“She was fine,” a sure and steady voice broke in. Before anyone knew what was happening, the man called Oren strode up and put his hand on JouKa’s shoulder. “She was with me.”
TsuYa sucked in his breath, waiting for the explosion to erupt. JouKa was never a touchy-feely type of girl. Especially not to someone she hardly even knew. It was to his great surprise when the girl hardly reacted at all. In fact, it was all he could do to not stare openly at the whole thing.
Is she really that torn up about KoGuRai? This is seriously not like JouKa at all.
If the others took note of it, they didn’t show any sign. Aur simply nodded to the red-haired man, “We thank you for looking after her. This has been a difficult time for many of us.”
“Yeah, well, we were just as lucky to have her here with us,” Oren answered. “I had no idea that I rescued a Healer.”
No wonder she looks so tired. I bet she just needs a good sleep. When she wakes up, she’ll be just as cranky as ever. And she’ll forget she was ever nice to me.
“Is there something that we can do to assist you as well?” Aur inquired.
Oren leaned back, studying the strange group of mismatched companions. After a moment, he nodded, as if they passed some sort of inspection. “Sure, we can use all the help we can get. Right now, we’re just trying to round up the wounded and get them treated. We’ll worry about the dead later.”
The way he said it was so matter of fact. So straightforward. It was obvious that this man witnessed a lot of death in his life. That he was a survivor. It was also obvious that there was a different sort of light in his eyes when he looked at JouKa. Something softer. Filled with a certain kinship and understanding.
TsuYa couldn’t help but wonder what had exactly happened while JouKa was away.
Then, they were led into the heart of the village. Everywhere he looked, the hand of darkness left destruction. Each step that TsuYa took deeper into the chaos only worked to steel his resolve.
“This isn’t what’s going to ‘appen to you, too. Is it?”
The sound of JouKa’s quivering question still echoed in his mind. His hand closed around the medallion that hung at his throat as the burning scent of ashes made his eyes water.
I have to fight this. I can’t end up like KoGuRai. I just… can’t allow it to happen.