Chapter 3

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Really? Like...really?

The elf snarled at me, her gun steady and eyes fierce. The gun wobbled in her grasp, slipping enough for her to fumble and drop it. She snatched it from the ground and re-centered, attempting a stubborn glare.

   “What is your name?” she demanded. “Where is Darius?”

   I rolled my eyes, ignoring the gun. Unless the comically-sized bullets in that gun were silver, they wouldn’t do much damage. They’d hurt like hell, but otherwise she was basically threatening me with rubber balls.

“I already told you that Darius is waiting for us,” I said steadily, digging through the bag. “Canned peaches?”

She stared. “What?”

I shook the can at her, showing her the label. “Peaches. Peaches that are canned. Want any?”

She gave a hard shake of her head, reasserting the gun in her hands. “Darius isn’t here. You’ve...you’ve kidnapped me so you can steal my sword!”

I sat on the riverbank with a snort, settling the bag in my lap and tearing open the can. “Why would I do that?”

“Because…” she faltered again. “Darius told me --!”

“Darius probably told you a lot of things,” I volunteered, fishing around the can with two fingers. The juice was thick and felt slimy, but the slice I pulled tasted fine. Whoever stockpiled this depot was a decent supplier. “Things like ‘don’t stray too far’, ‘don’t trust anyone’, and ‘never give up information’, right?”

She growled and shook the gun at me. “How do you know so much? Who are you?!”

Wow. She was new at this.

Finishing off another peach slice, I decided to save us both time and answer. “Olyvia. Ex-mercenary, ex-assassin, used to be a part of Darius’ pack.”

“His pack?” She studied me up and down. “You mean you’re a…?”

I nodded. “I’m Ononisrare, same as him.”

Her confused stare let me know he hadn’t told her that much of himself. “A Marwolaeth,” I explained, “from the wolf clan.”

She gave her head a small shake. “But he’s...he’s not a…”

Oh for the sake of the stars.

“No, he’s not a wolf. Not a Terran wolf. But it’s the closest word on this planet able to describe something that looks like a rabid canine, and after a long long while the clans got tired of trying to explain the word ‘Ononisrare’ so we just went with ‘Marwolaeth wolf’.” I left out the part where the pack members decided to keep using ‘Marwolaeth’ because somehow ‘death wolf’ didn’t give off the right vibe considering they were a bunch of shifters that pretty much wanted to be left alone.

I pointed at the ground under her feet. “Darius asked me to keep an eye on you while he lost persuers. He’ll manage a way to find us again and take you back on whatever mission it is you’re on. In the mean time, I’m going to take you to a safehouse, and I can’t do what I need to if I’m hungry. So you can either continue to wave that gun in my face, or you can sit down and each canned peaches.”

The gun lowered as she considered my ramblings. She hesitantly sat, because evidently any ‘don’t trust anyone’ speeches Darius gave her hadn’t quite sunk in. Even if I was telling the truth. Folding her legs, she made a face at the can. “Don’t like peaches.”

“Ah.” I dug around in the bag for a minute, pulling out a can of string beans and a shrinkwrapped package of dried meat. She hesitated, picking the meat and struggling with the shrinkwrap. With a sigh, I took it from her and tore a short rip in the packaging before handing it back. “What’s wrong with peaches?”

She gave her head another little shake, picking at a corner before tearing a piece of meat with her fingers. “Nothing, really. They’re just…” she watched me with a look as I slurped another one down. “...slimy when they’re canned.” With a short glance around, she asked, “so, what is this place?”

“Supply depot for wanderers,” I answered, fishing around for the last elusive peach. “A local Community probably comes out here to keep it stocked for any non-humans passing by. Keeps those of us unwilling or unable to get inside fed and medicated.”

“A…” she glanced around, chewing slowly. “A community of what?”

I stopped drinking the peach juice to look at her. Wow. She really was new at this life. “A Community, capital ‘C’. It’s anywhere a group of non-humans or magic-born can set up shop and live in peace,” I explained, trading my empty can for the full one of beans. “Sort of a shelter for those rejected by the human world, usually set up in human-abandonded places.”

She looked closely at our surroundings, as if she thought she’d spot one from the back of the ferry. “...What kind of places?”

“Any kind of places. Old factories usually attract sellers and makers, abandoned or ruined towns and cities attract domestics, hospitals and forgotten asylums are usually made into healing centers. Really anything that’s been left alone by humans long enough is taken up by the rest of the world.”

“And the humans don’t find them?”

I shook my head.

“...how?”

The look in her eyes was distant, almost longing. As if she were trying to wish herself into a Community just by learning about them. She barely looked at me now, hardly touching her meats.

“Same way this bag was hidden from view,” I answered, trying to glance where she was looking in case she saw something I hadn’t. There was nothing there. “Disguise magic.”

“Daruis can’t take a human shape.” Her jump from one subject to the next nearly rocked me off the bank. “How come you can?”

“I’m guessing he never took human form around you.” She stared, which was a ‘no’. “There’s a trick Marwolaeth learned a while ago about taking different shapes,” I began, setting the can down and tapping at my right cheek. I wasn’t sure how well she could see it, but there should have been a faint white line, wide as two fingers trailing around both eyes and down along my cheek. It had been there so long, sunken into my skin it probably looked like a complicated set of scars or something. “It requires a token mask you put over your eyes to change your form, but it has its...side-effects. You can tell when something’s not what it looks like if you can spot a white ring around the eyes.” She switched from looking around to staring at my face, peering as if trying to memorize the lines.

“What about you?” I asked, going back to my beans. “What’s with your eyes?”

She immediately pulled back, concentration snapped. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Yes you do, or you wouldn’t have pulled away like that.” She was silent, staring down at the meat in her hands. I waited, grateful for a moment to eat in silence.

“I was born like this,” she finally said, voice nearly a whisper. “I don’t know why my eyes look this way.”

“You’re not blind, I take it?”

She shook her head.

“But you have no pupils.”

A hand went to her cheek, fingers playing at the edges of an eye. “I have them. My eyes are silver and so are the centers. I think it’s just...how I’m supposed to look.”

“And the gun?”

She shook her head.

“Then what about Daruis,” I asked. “What was he helping you to find?”

“Is this an interrogation?” she blurted, looking up. “What does any of it matter?”

I shrugged. “You’re my problem until Darius picks you up. He seemed to think the Keepers that attacked were after you. I’m just trying to figure out why.”

“Well don’t,” she snapped, curling her knees to her chest and hiding the dried meat behind them. She began harsly picking at them, tearing pieces off and shoving them in her mouth. “You’ll survive longer if you don’t.”

Well. Now I really was intrigued.

But I knew enough about paranoia and anger and betrayal to see them all in her body language. She sealed herself away from any further questioning on the matter, and I had no real cause to keep pushing her on it. So we ate in silence.

We were finishing up our prospective rations when we both heard someone walking down a nearby path. I listened closely, trying to judge gait, footfall, and weight. The gait was steady, confident. Our stranger knew these roads. The footfall was heavy, gravel crunching with every step; the feet were fairly wide, or at least the shoes were.

I snatched the meat from the girl and shoved all evidence of our presence back in the bag, trying it tightly and setting it back into its river hidey-hole. The girl got up, torn between being fighting off the strange noise and hiding behind me.

   “Is anyone there?” came a slightly unsure call. The girl jumped at the voice. I blinked and she was behind me, holding fiercely to the handle of her sword. I recognized the voice, although I hadn’t heard it in a long time.

“Keepers.” I turned to the elf, unable to stop myself. “You’re running from Keepers?

   The kid didn’t respond. She was frozen, staring at the dark. Her knuckles were turning white against the dull metal handle, jaw clenched so tightly I doubted she was able to talk even if she wanted to.

“Hello? I’m looking for someone. I think she may be in this area. Her name is Layla. Mine is Omar.”

At least I knew her name now. But this wasn’t going to go well aside from that.

I glanced at our surroundings; there wasn’t much in the way of cover. It was either flat-out fight or flat-out flee, and against this Keeper fleeing only worked if you could do it very well. The crunching came closer, a faint scent of magic wafting down the trail. He was charging up a spell.

Do or die time.

Spinning, I flung an arm right into the girl, sending her backwards into the middle of the river. She fell with a splash and disappeared, mist spraying into the air. The Keeper advanced and I yanked a single smoke bomb from my pocket, throwing at my feet. It had been enhanced by an old friend, and was pretty much only for use in special cases.

Like now.

I threw the bomb and ran for the river, leaping from the edge to the middle in one push. Thick gray smoke plumed over the area behind, coating my exit as the current pulled me away. I could see Layla flailing ahead, and swam my way towards her, grabbing at her arms to hold her still. If we were going to get away clean, she was going to have to stay still.

She fought out of reflex, but I muscled her limbs down while we both bobbed our heads above water. The current was strong and fast enough that the bank was gone by the time she subsided, water carrying us away.

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