8 days before...
I held Barken tight that night. Something told me that scent I detected near our home didn’t belong to anyone from around here. My mind wouldn’t sleep. My dagger was close by, an easy reach in case something dared to come near. The wind created a draft in our home. Every sound put me on edge. Eventually, my body would allow me to sleep.
At dawn, I wandered around the outskirts of Orion admiring the dark teal horizon that was only beginning to see the sun. The dry steppe that surrounds our land is far reaching with cedar brown barren fields and spots of olive green bush that go on forever. Winds were calmer this morning. The air smelled fresh. Birds with wide, expansive wings soared like the sky was theirs, preying on critters burrowing into the dirt. As I prowled the grounds, I found my own prey.
It was a miraculous beast. Its black fur stood out against the bare backdrop, traveling aimlessly. The beast’s thick legs held up it’s wide, expansive torso. Two bone colored horns stuck out its elongated head. I had a great urge to witness its strength.
I whistled to the air. It took notice of my call. Its hooves dug into the dirt, ready to charge over. And when it took off, the beast shot at me like a cannon, a whirlwind of dirt in its path. I closed my eyes. Hearing, sense of smell, and taste were magnified. My aura became more pronounced, manifesting in black flames that outlined my body. My eyes opened. My sight, in particular, had become more focused. The beast closed in. I swiftly dodged to the side, it flying past me and nearly knocking me to the floor. Stopping was no issue for it as it slowed to a halt. The beast became engulfed by the column of dust and dirt that it kicked up. I braced for it to come once more.
Breaking through the dust, the beast rushed through with its horns pointed in my direction. I stood my ground. I grabbed ahold of the horns as it attempted to skewer me. Its nostrils on the other end of its long stout flared. Its large black eye conveyed one single thought at that moment: To kill. A strong opponent, it attempted to wrestle away from my grip, jerking me in different directions. The beast let itself loose and lunged forward, lancing me in my side.
I felt a sharp pain on the right side of my belly. Touching the wound, I noticed blood trickling down. The beast gave me no time to recover as it charged at me again. I dodged and swiftly grabbed the daggers in my cloth. When it’s horns came to strike me again, my daggers collided with them. The handles, designed as tightly coiled black vines, made for an easy grip. It’s wide blades glimmered, emblazoned by my aura. I shoved the beast back, pushing it on its hind legs. It was taken off guard by my strength, it’s two front legs dangling in the air. I jumped up, daggers aimed forward, pointing them towards the beast’s chest. My feet pressed hard into the beast’s belly in an attempt to push it on it’s back, then I shoved my daggers into the beast’s chest. It fell backward to the ground, a heap of dust brushed up after it’s fall. The beast’s limbs went limp. I pulled my daggers out, using the dirt to wipe them. I shoved them back into my cloth, grabbed the beast by its legs, and headed home.
Barken was pleased by my catch. The beast’s size provided a meal for us and plenty to share with the others. He was taken aback by the laceration I had on my side. He always said I played too much with my food. He invited Sapphire and Cosmo over to share the meal with us. Sapphire brought nasturtium to eat and calendula for my wound.
“It’s huge!” exclaimed Cosmo, marveling at my catch. “Diego, you must train me to conquer these kinds of beasts.”
Barken treated and bandaged me up before we had our meal on the floor.
“Diego,” said Sapphire, “You spoil Barken too much. Your eyes must’ve been much bigger than your stomach going after something like this!”
Barken said, “I told him he should bring it to the market today.”
Sapphire sighed. “Do you still plan on going?”
“Why wouldn’t I? I never miss the exchange. Nor do you. Something worrying you?”
Sapphire started playing with her hair. Cosmo began eating more feverishly like he hadn’t eaten for days.
“...Cosmo’s been picking up foreign scents all morning. Possibly outsiders. I don’t feel safe having him wandering around with all the goings-on.”
My ears perked up.
Dropping the bone he was gnawing on, Cosmo said, “Mother, I don’t want to spend all day trapped inside! I want to go to the market!”
Sapphire regarded Cosmo with a stern look. “I’m not letting you out there. It’s best we keep a low profile, at least for the time being…”
“What did you smell?” Barken asked.
Cosmo directed his attention away from his mother. “I don’t know. It was acrid, a foul stench.”
“Sour?” I interrupted.
Barken’s eyebrow lifted.
“Yes,” he said. “Almost acidic. I doubt it’s anything. Probably came from these scum guards prowling around...”
Hmm, Cosmo noticed it too. Deko’s presence couldn’t be more apparent. Even before dawn as I was headed out to hunt, guards were wandering around Orion. What would guards be doing snooping around Barken and I’s home? Cosmo was holding back, he knew something more. I’d press him, but I doubt Sapphire would appreciate me evoking his curiosity.
“It’s precisely why I’m keeping this one close,” said Sapphire, her arm over Cosmo. He frowned as he continued eating.
“It’s understandable why you’re concerned,” said Barken. “No need to keep Cosmo stuffed indoors. With everyone’s eyes wide open, we can watch out for each other.”
I tore off a large piece of meat before saying, “Keep him near me.”
“WHAT?” Sapphire exclaimed. “After one of them almost killed you yesterday?! You’re ill-tempered, and there’s no telling where your mouth will get you if those guards push you too hard.”
“Diego has always kept Cosmo out of harm’s way,” argued Barken. “You can trust him. Diego would give up his life before anything happens to your son.”
Sapphire nodded. “That’s what I fear…” she said, trailing off. Barken edged closer to Sapphire as though he didn’t catch everything she murmured. I heard her quite clearly. That’s what I fear, watching another one of us die.
Festivity was in the air. Warriors put on display their selection of beasts, comparing the rewards of their hunt and showing off their prowess. If openly carrying weapons wasn’t a criminal offense, I’d imagine these women and men holding their axes, javelins, and swords alongside them, putting on demonstrations of their physical strength. Elementalists had their veggies and fruits along with spices and herbs, creating potent scents that flourished through the corridor. Sapphire brought her snapdragons, dill, and chicory, their vibrant petals creating rainbows. The children who came to see her flowers were given honeysuckles to taste as they bounced around from stand to stand. Barken and Ramon held hands with the people, offering them counsel and guidance as well as blessing their goods.
Cosmo helped me handle my captured beast, bringing its voluptuous body to one of the stands. Villagers passed by, admiring its size. While I stood near the front with my back turned, I felt a body shove into me hard. I spun around quickly, ready to charge.
“Nice catch, big dog.”
I was happy to see it was Zuri, another warrior who did labor at the same post as myself. Her large hand held my shoulder tight. She was mauve skinned with two boysenberry colored braids that came down her chest. She wore a short sleeve white shirt that cut off before her belly button, and a long, bumblebee yellow skirt. It was unlike her to wear something with frills.
“Where’s your catch?” I asked, moreso to compare and gloat.
“I have my other managing our stand while I greeted everyone. Nice to be away from the mines and among our people.” Zuri’s lover was a clairsentient named Bebe whom Barken knew well. As small as Orion is, it’s hard not to know who everyone is. “Speaking of others, where is yours? Usually, you keep him close.”
I noted Barken across the way, speaking with Bebe. “I’m looking out for him. I’m keeping watch of the little one at the moment.”
Cosmo was bartering animatedly with another villager. The villager carried a sack of what appeared to be produce over her shoulder. Zuri smiled at the sight, then noticeably frowned. Villagers were spreading out at the end of the market, replaced by tall figures that forced themselves in the crowd.
“Watch him closely. The guards are among us.”
Zuri said this before walking off in their direction. The villager bartering with Cosmo had been concluding their transaction when I came towards them.
“I tried convincing a friend that I caught the beast with you and they accused me of being a liar,” said Cosmo, handing the villager a portion of my catch. “Do they think I’m inept? I’m tired of this doubting of my abilities!”
“I’ll bring you on my next hunt. We’ll find something to show off to your friends.”
Cosmo seemed satisfied with this. Barken made his way through the corridor with Ramon no longer at his side. Zuri had joined Bebe at their stand, interacting with the other villagers. Sapphire seemed to have a change in spirit, downplaying her magical abilities as she interacted with customers. One of her eyes was trained on the guards that moved deeper into the crowd. Even I found myself getting tense.
“Want to go around a bit?” asked Barken finally reaching us. “I’ll keep watch over your stand. Cosmo and you can go play.”
Cosmo ears perked up as he moved away from the stand.
“... Okay. I’ll return to relieve you.”
The sun was high. A ferocious heat settled in on us. I play wrestled with Cosmo, relieving my angst as well as his. The marketplace doubled in size as time passed us. The clairsentients were regrouping. Elementalists retreated home to replenish any materials they ran out of. This free time was much needed, being able to enjoy myself and not be under Deko’s thumb. I cared less about the guards’ presence.
“I have to take you down at least once,” said Cosmo. “We can’t be done until then. It’s the only way!”
As we grappled, I observed my stand again to check on Barken, who was speaking with another villager. The man seemed to be giving him a hard time.
“You have good discipline,” I said. “This will help you in the long run.”
We had a hold of each other’s arms, trying to pull one another to the ground. I used my leg to trip up Cosmo, who fell on his back.
As I lifted him up, I checked back again at the stand to find Barken missing from it. A good amount of my beast was still unclaimed. I played with Cosmo some more. He was growing stronger. While it was customary for a child to receive training from a parent, Cosmo would receive training from me. As close-knit as we are on Orion, descendants are never without any form of direction as there is always a warrior, elementalist, or clairsentient that could cultivate the child’s inherited abilities. Sapphire and Barken’s relationship made way for me to step in as his mentor.
After grappling with Cosmo some more, I noticed Barken still hadn’t appeared.
“Barken knows not to leave the beast unattended. Let’s take a break, Cosmo.”
The heat had us both sweating profusely, breathing hard, sticking out our tongues and catching the drops of sweat that fell down our faces. At my stand, Sapphire showed up with her acquired goods.
“We’ll be having a wonderful feast tonight, little man,” said Sapphire proudly. “Plenty of beast and veggies for you.” Her attention went to me. “I lost track of Barken. Have you two seen him?”
“I was going to ask you the same,” I said. “I’m going to try finding him. Can you wait here?”
I separated from Sapphire and Cosmo, attempting to find a less congregated area. The mix of scents and noises were distracting, rendering me incapable of using my senses to their fullest extent. When I found a secluded space, my nose lifted itself in the air. Surely I’d pick up on Barken’s scent. I sucked in the air like a vacuum, frantically moving around to different spots as if it would make a difference. Barken’s scent was always within Orion; I was always able to track him. My inability to do so infuriated me.
I returned to the marketplace. Cosmo and Sapphire were parsing out their goods in the back of the stand. When Sapphire noticed me, her face grew pale.
“...You couldn’t find him.” was all she said. Cosmo’s eyes darted between Sapphire and myself. He picked up on our worry. “He was just here. No guard came near him, I saw for myself. What could’ve happened?”
“I haven’t checked in with the others. Let me see if I hear anything.”
I didn’t gather much info. Bebe noted she hadn’t seen Barken since they last spoke with each other at Zuri’s stand. Zuri hadn’t been paying attention to notice Barken having gone missing.
“I’ll come with you.”
Nothing unusual was noted by the testimonies of the villagers that were near him. Zuri was having a hard time keeping up with me as I barely gave anyone time for small talk.
We ventured outward. When I found Ramon, he expressed his concern as well. Barken was supposed to meet him here at this time. This was worrisome. During our discussion, he mentioned seeing a villager talking to Barken. I concluded that would’ve been the last person to see him before he disappeared.
“The man seemed very distressed,” said Ramon. He caressed his chin while staring upward. “He started tugging on Barken’s arm, that much I remember. I turned away for a short moment only to find the two gone, leaving behind the remains of a beast with black fur.”
“Who was this man?” Zuri asked.
“It’s hard for me to say. I know I got a good view of him. For some reason though, I couldn’t identify who he was.”
“I know it may not seem possible, however, I could’ve sworn I never seen that man before. His posture, the way he approached Barken... It was quite strange.”
Zuri cocked her head, trying to make sense of Ramon. The mere thought of the statement left me unsure of his genuity. I wondered if the old man might’ve spent too much time in the sun.
“There are no outsiders in Orion,” I said. “What you say couldn’t be true.”
“I’m quite aware that what I say doesn’t seem right. But I meant what I said. That man could not be from here.”
“Would you be able to identify him again?” Zuri asked.
“I can try… I know if I saw him again, I could find him.”
We were wasting time. I was tired of entertaining this wild goose chase. Then again, what choice did I have? I was no more capable of finding Barken than anybody else. The sun was no longer on top of the sky. Evening was nearing...
We reappeared on the market grounds. Stands were beginning to close. The crowd was thinning out, followed by an unsettling emptiness. Sapphire was burning sage as she paced around the space with Bebe at her side. Cosmo squinted at his mother, sneezing and scrunching up his nose whenever the smoke blew his way. He gave the impression of keeping his distance from the two. Zuri, Ramon, and I interrupted their stroll.
“Any sign of him?” asked Bebe.
“No,” I said. “Our Elder claims to have seen a man with Barken sometime before he disappeared.”
“Are we sure this has nothing to do with the Deko Guards?” Zuri inquired.
“I’m sure of it,” said Sapphire, waving around her sage. “The guards’ never left my sight. If one of them accosted Barken, I would’ve surely been witness to it.”
“Then all we have is Ramon’s word,” I said, unable to hide my lack of confidence. “We’re still investigating. I’ll do my best to inform you if something comes up.”
Sapphire frowned. She separated herself from the group and returned her focus to cleansing the area. She spoke low, praying for Barken’s return. I told Bebe what Ramon had seen. Ramon seemed occupied scrutinizing the dwindling crowd among us.
“If what Ramon says is true,” said Bebe, “Either someone in Orion is not who they claim to be, or one of our own is responsible for our friend’s disappearance.”
“You believe him?” asked Zuri.
Bebe glared at her.
Zuri nodded. “You know that’s not what I mean. Do you believe an outsider is among us?”
“...I’ve never had a reason to disbelieve Ramon, and I certainly don’t now.”
“I think that’s him!” Ramon interrupted excitedly.
I scanned the area. A wide-eyed villager seemed to be watching us from the distance, moving away swiftly when he noticed me.
“The man with skin like mine and orange irises?” I asked.
“Yes! It's most definitely him!”
And before Ramon could finish, I ran towards him. The spooked man seemed to think he’d be able to escape from me. He pushed in between a couple, ran into a stand, and started exiting the market grounds. He was no warrior. I caught up to him quick. I grabbed him by his arm and he gasped. He tried to yank his arm away like he didn’t care if it ripped off. Ramon’s assertion was correct, this man did not live here.
“Who are you?” I demanded. “Where do you come from?”
The man kept breathing hard. His eyeballs rapidly moved around while making intelligible words.
“Have you seen a clairsentient with umber skin? Copper bracelets? Green loincloth?”
The man stopped struggling. He began shaking as I held him. I unleashed his arm and made him face me.
“Dammit, you answer me or I’ll-”
The man didn’t even look me in my face. I tried pinpointing the end of his stare. His attention was directed at the three guards.
I bore down on him. “You gape at them like you expect them to save you. I’ll let you go if you tell me what I need to know.”
Tears formed in his eyes. “I don’t mean to deceive you, my brother.”
Brother? I loosened my grip on him. Zuri came up slowly behind us. What was that smell… The sour stench?
He said, “I was only doing what I was told, I-”
“Told?! What were you told? By whom?”
The man started sobbing. He kept directing his attention to the guards. I had all the evidence I needed. Releasing him, I marched through the market towards the trio of bumbling overseers. I was in luck, there wasn’t a crowd. A hand grabbed my shoulder hard.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Zuri asked, trying to hold me back.
We were closing the distance on them. Sapphire was still praying when she noticed what direction I was moving. She froze. Cosmo came to speak to her, but realizing he wasn’t being paid attention to, observed where his mother’s attention lied. He stepped towards my direction before being jerked back. When Bebe discovered me, she had a horrified expression. She pointed Ramon to my direction and the two rushed toward me.
“Hey!” I screamed.
The guards lifted their heads, staring dumbly at me. Zuri yanked me hard enough so I wouldn’t make contact with the three.
“Got something to say, mutt?” a male guard said, gripping his scepter with his two hands.
Zuri kept holding me back, her arm encircling my torso. “Diego, don’t-”
“You all have communication with each other, don’t you? Tell me where Barken is.”
The guards looked among one another.
He said, “Who the hell is-”
“HOUSE THREE! BARKEN FROM HOUSE THREE! TELL ME WHERE HE IS!”
My scream echoed through the vicinity. I was seeing red. Bebe and Ramon were on the sidelines and I couldn’t get out of Zuri’s hold.
“You have mouths. Open them!”
“Diego, stand down,” pleaded Ramon.
“You think you can demand anything from us?” A female guard said. “He must be stupider than he appears.”
I spat, “Tell me that without the fucking scepter in your hand.”
Bebe called out to me. “Diego, no!”
“GIVE ME BACK, BARKEN!”
And without warning, a scepter swung at us. Zuri pushed me hard, catapulting me into the air. I thought I heard bones breaking. My back crashed into the ground, scraping against the dirt. Bebe screamed. I lifted myself up to find her running north. Sapphire held Cosmo. Cosmo’s eyes were wide. Zuri was lying on the ground, her body was twisted unnaturally as she laid there. A braid swayed in the wind.
Heads were going to roll. I used my arms to jump to my feet and sprinted the guards way. They watched me coming. I was ready to pull out my daggers when a guard called out, “Get your hands away from her!”
I halted. I found Bebe who was crouched at Zuri’s side, her palms glowing as they hovered above Zuri. The female guard briskly moved towards the two.
“You know the law, Ida Dynasty whore.”
“Fuck you!” screamed Bebe as her palms moved closer to Zuri.
“Don’t, Bebe!” Ramon called for her.
Bebe’s eyes glittered with tears. “Ramon!”
“You know the consequences. We can’t lose you.”
Bebe’s fists hit the ground. Distraction. I charged at the two male guards, my fists itching to break into their faces.
“DIEGO!” Ramon yelled at me.
I jumped in the air, my fists held back. The guard I targeted swung his scepter at me. I dodged it, jumping onto it and about to break his neck before he said, “Touch me, and he dies.”
I froze. A leg came to my face and struck me hard, neck twisting. I flung wildly towards Bebe and Zuri. My body skidded on the ground, my shoulder and head grinding against the dirt. I was wracked with pain, I could barely move. Ramon ran to my side.
“Gentle, my child, gentle.”
One hand held my head, the other cradling my stomach as he lifted my torso up. The guard I nearly attacked was sniggering while the female guard re-joined the other two, smirking superiorly. Sapphire and Bebe assisted in bringing Zuri out of harm’s way. Cosmo was standing away from the scene, lips trembling. A small crowd of descendants surrounded the scene. They stood idly by.
I heard a ship above us. It hovered in the air, it’s wide, dark lavender shape blocking out the sky. We all watched it. A door beneath the ship opened up. Something was pushed out that I couldn’t identify. Seeing its arms swaying, I realized it was a descendant. And when I saw it more closely-
Ramon appeared shocked to life. “What was that-”
I tried standing but fell back down. “It’s Barken! Barken’s falling! Someone catch him, please!”
“I got him.”
A male warrior came onto the scene, separating himself from the crowd. Barken kept tumbling to Earth. My heart stopped. The male warrior watched him fall, going to the spot he expected him to land. Barken landed right in his arms.
His head fell back, arms dangling. Those guards had a death wish. Expecting to find them still in the same spot, ogling us like vermin, the three had disappeared. The large ship above us started taking off. And the three guards flew into the opened door they flung Barken out of.
Then it occurred to me. Vigorously I started scanning the area around us, seeing if he was still present. The outsider, he was the one with the sour smell! What was he doing around our home? What is his relationship with the Deko guards? It didn’t seem I’d get any answers today: He had vanished as well.
It was Sapphire I heard. Ramon helped lift me up as she ran towards him. The crowd seemed to be holding their breaths. Please, Ida, don’t let him be…
“He’s alive,” said the male warrior.
My hand grabbed for my chest and I breathed a sigh of relief. Barken’s okay, at least physically. The small crowd approached the male warrior. Ramon put my arm around him and helped me move closer.
“He’s exhausted but unharmed,” said a voice.
“My son and I can take him home,” said Sapphire, her voice trembling. She called out, “Cosmo, come here son.”
When we reached the edge of the gathering, Ramon announced, “Please, make way.”
They created an opening for us. Ramon brought me to Barken. Sapphire stared sadly at him, her hands caressing his face. I scrutinized that same face, his lips, his nose, motionless though I heard him breathing. He lied in the warrior’s arms as if he was sleeping.
“Zuri will be okay.”
Sapphire was speaking to me. “Bebe was given assistance taking her home. They’ll be alright.”
I nodded to her. “Thank you.”
Darkness fell over Orion as night time come. The quiescence created a modicum of peace. A villager handed Sapphire her sack of goods before we left home, with Ramon still holding me up, and Cosmo carrying Barken. The remaining clairsentients calmed the crowd, immersing themselves in song, singing in response to Barken’s safe return. In the end, I couldn’t get the damn faces of those guards out of my head. I could’ve killed them. I could’ve killed them all!