"Catch my eye? Does anything catch my eye? Jenna look where we are right now! Everything catches my eye!"
With a sudden wave of realization, it finally struck Charly where exactly she was. So many tales and stories heard about this place growing up, most of which to scare her out of exploring. But of course, the tactics had the complete opposite effect on Charly as it did most of the children in the tribe. The Ruins had become a place of wonder and amazement, the lost city of an unknown civilization, ready for secrets to be unearthed and adventures to behold.
"There's only one thing we can do in this situation!" Charly exclaimed as she grabbed Jenna by the shoulders, "We have to explore! We have to search every inch of this place and find all the hidden secrets and treasures!"
Charly grabbed Jenna by the hand and began running in no particular direction.
Charly's response came as a shock to Jenna; the latter rarely rushed headlong into anything, the exceptions being in cases when she knew she was one hundred percent right. As a result she found herself being towed along, desperately trying to get her bearings on where the two of them were in relation to their previous location. Charly's hand was surprisingly strong, though it was to be expected given that she only had one arm.
Jenna occasionally struggled to keep up with her new companion; her skirt occasionally hampered her movement. It was only now that she saw sense in wearing long pants or shorts like the boys did when venturing out into the woodlands or playing games that required physical activity.
The pair was running from one destroyed building to another when noises reached Jenna's ears. Some kind of loud bang... faint, but definitely there. The bang was closely followed by another, identical to the first. She stopped, tugging on Charly's hand to get her attention. "Did you hear that?" she asked quietly, now wary of the land around them. She began to wildly speculate scenarios in her head; there could be natives among the Ruins, defending territory they had claimed. Or a defensive structure with some form of automated mechanism inside, and it had just closed its doors on an unwitting victim. Or maybe a building had collapsed under its own weight, crashing to the ground after standing tall since before Jenna was born.
Whatever the source was, those noises had not sounded good.
The girl turned towards the man who had intruded upon her conversation with Michael. His tone was accusing and harsh and it surprised her to the point that Michael disappeared for a moment to let her speak. She was slightly shy though and highly stressed, she didn't like sudden introductions into her environment. She moved to speak, but the words became tangled in her throat and a strange gargling came out instead.
She coughed to clear her throat and moved to speak again; it seem though that this too would be interrupted as explosive sounds erupted around them; and a sudden pain in her leg drew her attention away from the other person; the wound was round and small, but the pain was unlike she had ever felt before; blood leaking out of the small hole.
The hunter nodded at her and both began to run, the hunter making better pace than the girl. She limped at a brisk pace, the only thing keeping her going was the fear of death and adrenaline that pumped through her veins. She looked back and saw them, the Men of steel and death marching quickly and methodically; their image as terrifying as the weapons they carried. Another crack and more pain and Katie doubled over as blood leaked from her stomach. She looked up one more time and saw the red eyes of the Metal Men before all was taken from her, dead and alone in the Ruins.
Caelan knew they had to leave. Metal men were getting closer. And yet...
"Leave him?" Caelan echoed in disbelief. He took a step toward Alexis before continuing in a low voice. "We can't leave him!" Out here in the Ruins? All by himself? When he was dying?....they couldn't! Caelan looked at the messenger and abruptly the dying man's face was replaced by that of Drohan. An veteran warrior and friend of Caelan's father. Though he'd spent most of his life in battle the man had died in his sleep peacefully. Evander had chosen to take his child to the ceremony.
"We burn the bodies." Evander's voice was slow but serious as he explained why the ceremony was important. It was past Caelan's bedtime but he stifled a yawn so that he could listen. Evander's gaze was fixed on the funeral pyre. "We burn them so that their spirits can be released and sent to heaven." he said. "This is why we never leave our wounded behind in battle."
Caelan had nodded solemnly. And then given in to the yawn. The discussion on helping injured comrades had been earlier that day, and came with a saying that was oft repeated by Evander. "If you can't run, you walk. If you can't walk, you crawl. If you can't crawl...you find someone to carry you."
"But what...what if you have to leave them?" Caelan asked the question while looking at the fire many feet away. There was a crowd of people in front and behind, but the pyre was raised and easily visible by all.
Evander paused for a long moment. "If you absolutely must. If there is no other way to survive, then you may leave them. Even the villages we war with know that the fallen should be burned. They must be burned. Or else...." There was another long pause.
"Or?" Caelan turned to look up at his father. Unaccustomed to the darkness he had to squint to see clearly.
There was a strange tone to Evander's final words. "Or..." he said at last. "their spirits are left to wander...forever."
Caelan looked down at the messenger. Really looked. The wounds were horrible. Most of the messenger's clothing was dark with blood. That same blood now coated both Caelan and Alexis' shirts. They couldn't save him, they didn't have the means to.
"We shouldn't leave him..." Caelan said again. But his voice lacked the conviction it had to begin with. Caelan shot Alexis a confused look and drew his cloak around his arms. The red stains became covered by soft green cloth.
Michael sprinted like he never had before, wind clobbering his ears as his feet pushed against the ground in a blur of swift motions. He did not even look back when the crackling thunder found its target and his companion's footsteps stopped abruptly, followed by a crumpling noise. I would rather not mourn the dead if it means joining them. His experienced ears picked up on the frightened cries and pitter patter of the forest's animals fleeing the scene. Smart critters.
A second bang sent a wave of anxiety coursing through the hunter's veins, quickening his pace even further. He almost slammed into a decayed wall as he tried to stay on course. Crumbled stone structures whizzed by him. Michael pressed his hands against a fallen pillar of grey rock, overgrown with ivy. The leaves were squished between his hands and the stone as he lifted his body off the ground, swinging his legs over, then his torso, then his head, all without missing a beat. As soon as his eyes were over, he spotted two girls running around foolhardily across the ruins, one stopped and gazing, alarmed, in the direction of the explosions.
Michael's reflexes took charge, his lower abdomen and hamstrings straining to bring his legs to a stop, but they didn't kick in in time. He slammed into the blond girl, his shoulder shaking and searing with the sudden blunt trauma, and he stumbled before stabilizing himself against a wall. He spun around to see that the girl had retained her footing.
The impulse to run hit him again, the fight or flight chemicals rushed into his belly, but he suppressed it to warn these two; a strange decision for him, as what could be considered the act of a good samaritan was usually not usually the kind of act he went through with. However, this was not an entirely selfless decision. If the hunter were to face a crippling accident, say, a broken or sprained ankle, he would have aid. If the others were merely slowing him down, he could ditch them at a later point to ensure his survival. Whatever it takes. He took a moment to catch his breath, gasping desperately to fill his arid lungs.
"You two! We have to run!" he whispered harshly, suppressing the urge to shout so that his assailants would not find him, "There are murderers in the ruins!"
Alexis saw the look in his cousin's eye. He had forgotten that Caelan came from a military family; he knew how important the burning of the bodies was to him. It was strange for him; the only thing he had noticed about the burning was the smell. There was no enlightenment for him, no fulfillment that was supposed to happen upon seeing the ashes return the Heavens. He had heard the stories after all; the spirits forced to walk the earth forever as their bodies rotted into the earth. They then joined the Underworld as their bodies did.
Alexis looked at the dying man and tried to calculate some kind of way to bring him peace without sacrificing himself and the rest of the people with him. He could come up with nothing; the Metal Men were moving too quickly to build any kind of flame. No materials, no sources, just them and the forest and beings that were coming upon them quickly. Alexis had no answers; he didn't know what to tell his cousin, what to tell these people; he was no leader, he had always worked alone, his actions were only felt by him. Now his actions would be felt by the entire group he had assembled around him.
He turned to his cousin, the one he knew would hate him for this decision, "I don't know what else we can do for him; look at him, he's too weak to walk, too slow for us to carry and too close to death, in my opinion, to be able to save, even if your mother looked at him," he took a deep breath, the hardest part was about to come, "The only thing we can do, is grant him a small mercy and kill him now," this last bit came as a whisper in Cael's ear, "Its that or the Metal Men kill him and I'm sure that it won't be pretty, we need to do something for him; I do agree, but we cannot burn him; I'm sorry Cousin."
The Metal Men moved through the Forest, their arrival still known as long as the children remained alive in the Ruins; their cover blown, they would not have the element of surprise that the numbers they had, in this case too few, would need in order to mount a successful attack; as long as the children survived, these two Metal Men were committing their own suicide by being here. They stepped towards the carcass of the small girl that had fallen to them; a slight hiss came from one of the Men and the being leaned over the small body, feeling for some sign of life. When none could be found, the Man stood up straighter and sighted up the device in his hands once again. He searched for the other boy that had run when they came upon the two of them; another hiss escaped his armour and the other being turned toward them, an exchange of muffled sounds and hisses continued as the two decided what to do.
One of them gestured towards the obvious disturbance in foliage and moved to follow it, while the other shook his head in protest; the argument of whether it was safe or not, remained too vague for him to make a decision about. Instead, he removed something from his bag; a small piece of technology from before the Ascension. Flicking a small switch a crackling began, the feedback loud and intrusive to the actual message being sent. He pressed a small button and the static cleared for a moment and a muffled voice echoed through the ancient machine, "What do you want?"
One of the Men grasped the Mask that shrouded his head and lifted. With a squeaking protest and a burst of compressed air, it left the attachment to his body and the being took a breath of native air, "Do we continue to press towards those who saw us? Or do we retreat; I do not wish to calculate the risk associated with this."
The voice on the other side of the speaker sounded annoyed and snapped back, "If they have seen you and already escaped, they are beyond our reach; return to the South; we cannot risk mounting an attack on this population, not with our element of surprise ruined," the feed immediately went dead and the man returned the device to his bag.
Coughing once and noticing the thin layer of blood on his hand, he immediately adjusted the mask back onto his face, feeling the comfortable feeling of the pure stale air that moved through his system once again. The two beings nodded in understanding and turned on their heels moving back towards the South in a silent retreat. However before they left the scene completely; one of the two took a silver metal piece out of one of his pockets. He clicked it a few times until he saw a bright yellow flame appear from its mouth. Setting it to the dry dead grass that surrounded the Ruins, he watched as the fire danced in front of him. Nodding in silent approval he turned around once again and vanished into the corpse of the structure in front of him.
The readings had begun, the grounds in front of the Cog were crowded with thousands who had come to hear the voice of the Elder Rickard. As he droned on about the new threat of the Metal Men and what it meant for the Village, the parts they all played and the precautions that had to be taken, Alexis's mother saw Caelan's parents and moved towards them. In a hushed voice, as not to draw attention to the conversation they were having, she whispered to her sister, "Have you seen Alexis? He was gone this morning when I woke up and I haven't seen him all morning? Is he at your house with Caelan?"
Ilmar had been looking through a promising area within the ruins when he first heard the unusual sound spread through the decrepit landscape. The sound lasted but an instant, but was sharp and powerful, much like the sound of a collapsing building, but condensed into a single moment, at least that was what his mind compared it too. Feeling suddenly exposed and alone, Ilmar slung the now weighty bundle of salvage over his shoulder and retreated back the way he had come from through the maze of rock and debris. The sound had been too unnatural to allow him to just carry on with his task, and it had quickly transformed the ruins from a place of relatively quiet safety into an inhospitable and dangerous area.
More sounds rang out, sharp cracks momentarily reflected by the gray rock and corroded metal, making Ilmar quicken his pace. He needed to get out of here now, this terrible feeling of unease wouldn't stop before he had distanced himself from the ruins and entered the woods. An unusual idea for him as he normally would prefer the former over the latter, but the current circumstances were not usual.
And as if to further add to the odd turn of events, he thought he could hear several voices echo from somewhere near him. Continuing retracing his steps to return to the path he had used to enter the ruins, he attempted to pinpoint where the voices were coming from, which soon made him almost stop in his tracks. Because whoever they were, they were smack in the middle of his intended route. Seeing as he actually had to take that path back to even have a chance of getting back to the village, Ilmar started inching himself closer to the voices, making sure the metal he was carrying was making as little noise as possible. Finally arriving at a fallen section of wall, he carefully moved to look over it to see who the voices belonged to.
He wasn't sure if should be relived or not from what he saw, on one had there were a gathering of a couple of young people, some he was sure he had seen in the village. On the other hand, there was also a person, and adult from the looks of it, who seemed severely wounded with them. And with some of the people his age covered in blood, the situation seemed difficult to discern. Thinking about what to do next, Ilmar adjusted his footing and was greeted by the sound of shattering glass beneath his soles. Looked like he wouldn't exactly have the time to think about what to do for very long.
Alexis straightened, "We need to go," and said it with such conviction that his cousin was distracted for a moment, "You can hate me later Cael but for now I'm getting everyone out of here and going to the Elders with this technology; they'll know what to do."
He looked at the group, a firm look that crept over his face, "You're all coming right? This is bigger than one of us after all," with silent acknowledgement from them all, he began to run the course he knew home, wines whipping against his face and a musky feel over his skin. They were going home now, they were going to save that home from the Metal Men.
They stumbled into another smaller group, Alexis recognized one of them, a girl with only one arm, though he could not remember her name, "You," he began, "What are you doing here in the Ruins? Are you hurt? Did you see or hear Metal Men?"
Things were happening a little too fast for Jenna's liking. First the strange noises deeper into the Ruins, then people emerging out of nowhere jabbering about things she didn't understand... nonetheless, she tried to make sense of the situation as best she could. Evidently the people who had recently arrived, none of whom she recognised, had had some sort of encounter... she shivered involuntarily when one mentioned Metal Men. So the stories were real, then, and they did exist.
"I, uh, no, I didn't see anything," she stammered to answer the boy's question, instantly losing the composure she had had when it had just been her and Charly. "Heard - heard something, though. Loud noises. Then you all showed up. Haven't been in here very long. Should we get out?"
As she spoke, Jenna's speech began to fragment even more as she tried to figure out what to say in the half-second or so that she had between sentences. Speaking with people she didn't know, who had fired questions quickly at her, normally didn't get a good, thought-out response from her. If what they said was true, and Metal Men were nearby, then they had to get out as soon as humanly possible.