Chapter 14 - In Its Element

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Cannon fire rumbled like thunder through the misty mountains. As they returned from the high mountain Brothers to the small town in the late afternoon, the smoke of the burning rainforest had turned the sun into a musty orange eye.

A young boy dashed up to them, the small attendant they'd seen before with the old man. Jaylina waved, but the boy motioned them for silence and quickly shepherded them off the path and into the deep brush, where they huddled on the ground. Jaylina exhaled long and slow, fighting a dread that threatened to enmesh her.

Michael quietly asked the boy about the man he and Jaylina had spoken to. The boy made the sign of a cut across his neck. Jaylina's eyes grew wide at the horrific image.

From below their vantage point, they heard the shouts of angry voices and screams cut short as men armed with bayoneted rifles made their way up the path toward Michael and Jaylina. The men wore tattered uniforms and each one had a bright red bandana tied to his right arm.

Jaylina could see in the town square other soldiers, dressed in similar clothing, setting fire to houses and kicking over baskets of grain. A young man with a fresh jagged scar across his otherwise smooth face directed soldiers with a bloody finger to inflict damage and terror.

When the assailants found a coven of peasants hiding among sacks of dried coffee beans, the scarred man killed one while the rest scattered. Many were shot and fell. The soldiers gave chase, leaving the plaza silent but for soft moans of the dying.

Michael sat still, as if waiting for something. Not a soul stirred in the plaza. The boy began to move but Michael stopped him. Jaylina followed Michael's eyes to the remains of the confrontation below.

Shadows slunk between rows of fired buildings, hardly notifiable at first. They crawled from the mouths of the dead. A few at first. Then dozens. They churned and amalgamated around a column of darkness that came down from the sky and touched the ground. A grotesque profile appeared, silhouetted by the burning village. Around the shape, the shadows hissed and snapped their jaws in frustration.

"Have you found them yet?" asked the great shade to its ghostly minions in a voice of iron wrapped in cloth. Jaylina recognized it instantly and felt her bowel turn ice cold.

The voice belonged to Zyzzyx.

The shadows hissed.

"Quickly then. I want them captured," the demon said. "The Dark Light alive, the woman in pieces. Take what souls you can for the Shadow Queen."

Jaylina dared not breathe.

The column of smoke dissipated and the shadows melted into the world.

The boy stood and signaled for Jaylina and Michael to follow him deeper into the bush. Jaylina immediately grasped his plan. They would skirt the perimeter of the town and continue down the mountain.

Michael nodded and led the way. They had gone almost a quarter mile before Jaylina froze in her tracks. Ahead, a group of red-sleeves were beating the brush for any surviving townspeople who might still be hiding.

Michael stumbled and fell to the ground and the boy went instinctively to help. Jaylina couldn't tell if the soldiers heard. She was sure that within moments she and Michael would be spotted. The soldiers would be upon them and all would be lost. If Michael were discovered, the red-sleeves would kill them all.

What would become of their souls? More playthings for the Shadow Queen.

In a frozen moment, Jaylina realized she could distract the soldiers from Michael and the boy, saving them both. She looked down at the yellow ribbon, the one the old man had given her to hold.

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