Embers still glowed around the outer edges of the building, flaring briefly as small breezes of wind passed around the ravaged structure. The supports which had been used in the renovation of it were completely destroyed, only bent and twisted poles of metal remained. The walls looked to be half melted from the heat, long drops of solidified magma coating both the inside and outside of the building. It shone bright, a beacon in the darkness to let all those around know that something had happened here.
Auron had left earlier before any major attention had been gained to take to the rooftops, preferring to have a height advantage when using his bow, that and he wasn’t supposed to be seen with Harken. This left the other two down below on the street, deftly weaving through the crowd that had gathered to see what had caused the explosion earlier. The fire from earlier had even managed to scorch the dirt and gravel around the house, leaving it charred and ashen. The sound alone had been enough to draw attention to it, but the sight of the area itself caused rumours to spread through the crowd.
Eran winced as he heard some of the more farfetched ones, such as a demi-human arsonist or serial killer on the loose, but looking up at Harken, he saw that the man was tense, jumpy even. As they began to reach the outer edges of the crowd, the older demi-human froze for a second, his eyes narrowed as they scanned a couple of the bystanders.
“Well at least thanks to that we were able to get away easier,” Eran smiled at Harken as they exited the gathering throng of people, who ignored the child’s positivity. Instead his vision was fixated on the alleyways that they were passing. He had covered his eyes with a thin wrapping which dulled the glow, but was almost translucent enough to be able to see through with his demi-human gifted vision. That combined with the hood that he had pulled over his head almost completely obscured the tell-tale glow.
“We’re still not out of the woods yet,” Harken replied, a touch of annoyance in his voice as he threw a glance back at the crowd. Eran turned to see a few people that had their eyes locked on the pair as they left. “Right now, we have three dangers facing us, the militia, the Hunters, and the pillars.” Eran looked over at him in confusion, surprised that the pillars would be counted amongst their obstacles when they were even of the same race.
“The militia are the most harmless, there should only be a few night patrols out, and they don’t respect the Hunters enough to organise more forces to help them. If we run into them, Auron can most likely take out a couple and divert their attention away from us. Unfortunately, the water pillar will be targeted for a little while because of it, but you get out of here safe. Easy enough.
“The Hunters are dangerous, but we can work around them. They seem to be very eager to find you, but at the same time, there are other test subjects quite literally everywhere in the rest of our kind still lying around on the streets. The problem is that they have the most resources out of all of the others, which makes them the most versatile enemy, however luckily they have no distinct method of tracking us as far as I know, so we should be safe as long as you don’t have any more displays of your power. They’ll get drawn to the explosion like the others around here, and then they’ll search the immediate area because they don’t have any way of following us, then they’ll either give up, or just fail. Not so easy, but manageable.
“The pillars, though, are a very large problem. While desolate band together to protect each other, there is one other unspoken rule amongst us, pillars come before everything else, even family. The fire pillar will most likely be here soon, looking to gather you within their ranks and take you back to their home, wherever it is since your ability is quite powerful. As tempting as that might sound, I’m here to bring you to Elgen, so unfortunately I can’t have you running off with them, and the least you could do after he broke you out of that place is to pay him a visit. And their leaders are a little… how to put it… I don’t think you should get mixed up with them just yet until you can handle yourself. If they catch up to us, we won’t be able to just run.”
Eran reeled from the large amount of information, but slowly wrapped his head around it. Placing a hand over his temple, he nodded as he processed all the information, struggling to remember all of the exposition that had just been thrown at him. He wished that there hadn’t been so much at once, but he knew that they didn’t have much time.
“Alright, I think I understand it all, so what should I do then?” he asked, looking up at Harken. He noticed that the young man had tensed up, gritting his teeth as he looked around. Try as he might though, Eran couldn’t find what was bothering him.
“Auron? Auron!” Harken called out, trying to speak with his comrade through an earpiece that he had been given. “Damnit man, why the hell won’t you talk to me?” a sudden crackling in Harken’s ear made him visibly recoil as his eyes widened. Taking a deep, rattly breath, Harken calmly placed a finger on the communicator, pushing down a button. “Alright, I’ve got it already, you can stop now.”
“Then pay attention when I’m telling you how equipment works,” Auron’s crackly voice drifted through the communicator. “By the way, I already know, I’ve knocked out a few of the ones on the right hand side, but I don’t want to open fire on the ones on the left and actually injure them, that might start something I don’t really want to finish.”
“What does he mean?” Eran asked Harken, who looked straight ahead, his expression unchanging as he stared down several approaching figures, blatant in their approach with their attention fixed on Harken. They were confident in their approach, unafraid of garnering attention with the red patterns blazing across their bodies.
“The fire pillar was attempting to ambush us,” he replied. Glancing off to the side at Auron, who still stood on the roof of a small building, watching the approaching demi-humans warily through his mask and crouching down to avoid getting too much notice. “Or at least they were trying to threaten us with numbers, though their leader should know by now that it wouldn’t work.” Eran glanced at him for a moment before turning his attention back to the three.
They all wore the rags that were so commonly associated with the desolate, but patches of metal were visibly strapped onto different areas of their body, protecting their vitals and organs that they would need to stay out of harm to continue fighting. The armour was bare, but it was clear that they considered themselves warriors.
Each of them seemed to be unique in their physiology, which was strange in itself. Although their build was the same, it was clear that the one on the left had trained as a warrior their whole lives, their large muscles almost seeming too big for their frame. His hair was short and trimmed, a bloody red colour that seemed to reflect his murderous disposition. It was clear that he wasn’t happy to see them, and his eyes flashed a dangerous red that showed he was ready to fight. His attire reflected it, with a much heavier armour than the other two. It looked as if it had been collected over years and melted down to form seamless patches that were separated, but larger than the usual plates that the others sported.
The middle of the group was toned, but not as hulking as the other. His hand rested on the pommel of a blade that hung across his back, it’s edge saw toothed and wicked. His face was scarred, a depiction of the experience he had gathered throughout his years as a fighter. From the way that the other two stood, it was obvious that he was the leader of the three. He also wore bright red robes that had been banded together underneath the armour to give him an imperious image while still retaining the protection that he needed.
The last looked like he didn’t belong with the group at all. His expression was relaxed and fell naturally into a charming grin. He also seemed to be the youngest of the group, slightly younger than Harken even. His body was slim, too slim for a regular fire pillar. It told of his reliance on his power rather than physical training. His hands were stuck into the pockets of his jacket, from which a tag still hung. It looked like he hadn’t paid for it. The clothes that he wore were light, and allowed for a greater range of movement than the others. Rather than the heavy steel plating that the other two wore, this one wore thick leather instead.
“When I tell you, get ready to run in the direction of Auron, he should be able to take you the rest of the way to Elgen,” Harken muttered, quietly enough so that even Eran’s enhanced hearing almost didn’t pick it up.
“But you’ll be left here all alone, and you can’t fight them,” Eran whispered back, worried for him. Glancing over to where Auron lay in wait, he could tell that the man was ready for an attack, and his hands shook slightly when his gaze fell over the three.
“No, I can’t, but I don’t really intend to fight them anyway, so that shouldn’t be a problem,” Harken replied, his eyes flicking over to the third of them, who grinned widely at the two demi-humans in front of them.
“Harken, it’s been too long, man, you told me that we were gonna catch up sometime soon,” the youngest of the three fire pillars called out to them. He broke stride with the other two, clearly annoying them as he did so, moving to clap a hand on Harken’s shoulder. “Hey, why don’t you introduce us to your friend here?”
“Well, meet Eran, newly freed from a Hunter facility,” Harken said to what felt more like a demand than a question as Eran shrunk back nervously from them. The fire pillar slipped his hand from Harken’s shoulder to drape it around his neck and drag him closer. Harken adopted an annoyed expression and tried to pull away in vain as the fire pillar examined Eran.
“Something seems off,” he murmured, looking closely at the young boy. “Hey, you sure you’re a fire pillar?” Eran appeared to be offended by the statement, enough for his original personality to show slightly.
“I can’t really help it if they fucked with my head, can I?” he growled, the young fire pillar’s eyes widened at the statement, then narrowed as he slipped his arm from Harken’s shoulder to cuff the child around the head.
“Watch your mouth when you’re around elders,” he snapped, turning back to see the other two looking down at the exchange with mild interest. “Well, it looks like you’re not too far gone, so I’ll be happy to take you out of Harken’s hands. My name’s Niselt, and these are my brothers, Igrein, the big one, and Solas, the puffed up one.”
Eran stumbled as Niselt took his hand and pulled him forward, it was hard to stop himself from being caught in the young man’s pace, and he couldn’t get a word in edgeways as the fire pillar began to forcefully guide Eran back to the other two. However, it seemed that Harken was used to this sort of exchange.
“Hold it,” he snapped, his hand snaking out and smacking against Niselt’s, breaking contact between Niselt and Eran. The former looked back in annoyance at Harken as he rubbed his hand gingerly, who folded his arms and manoeuvred himself in between the two. “This is a job between me and Elgen, so I would appreciate it if you didn’t stick your nose in where it didn’t belong.”
“You’re working for Elgen now?” Niselt asked, his tone turning slightly threatening. Patterns began to light up across his body as he stepped forward, attempting to intimidate the unmoving Harken. Needless to say that it didn’t work, and the latter looked up at him evenly.
“Well, if I had to choose, I wouldn’t, but as it turned out, he really wanted my help to do this, enough to try and manipulate me, so I thought I’d play along for a bit,” Harken replied, glancing sidelong at Eran. “The beating was annoying, but honestly, I’m thankful for his interference with the Hunters, it seems he believes that the crime lords have a stake in the matter if the Hunters become too powerful, which I know that you agree with.”
“I would if I didn’t know how much he valued his own pockets,” Niselt growled, placing a hand on his temple as he looked sidelong at Eran. “You have no idea, do you?” At Harken’s raised eyebrow the young fire pillar continued. “He’s planning to sell the kid back to them for a profit.”
“Do you truly think that he would risk his contacts within the Hunters, and then continue with all of this troublesome business, just to make a tiny profit?” Harken asked, clearly not convinced with the argument. “That would be stupid at best, and cataclysmic at worst. If the contact gave him up, the Hunters would chase him to the ends of Estrangia, maybe even further if they felt particularly offended by the action.”
“What else would he do with her then?” Niselt demanded angrily. “It’s not like the kid’s good at fighting, can’t read, can’t be employed, if he tossed Eran out on the street then the Hunters would just hunt her down. The only thing he can do after that is sell Eran to the highest bidder. If not the Hunters, then someone else will just taker her away.”
“Well then, here’s an idea, how about you come with us to Elgen, and we can have him explain the plan in front of you,” Harken suggested, however no sooner than the words had left his mouth Auron descended from the roof, his landing graceful, and stood next to Harken. The action surprised the fire pillars who hadn’t noticed him yet, and drew an irate look from Harken as Eran’s escape route suddenly disappeared.
“No way is that going to happen,” he growled, looking at the fire pillars threateningly.
“Is that an admission of guilt?”
“It’s preventing you bastards from attacking him when he’s vulnerable,” Auron shot back. “You’ve been wanting to have a go at Elgen for a while now, and I will not facilitate any opportunities to injure him.” The other three looked dissatisfied with the response, but neither did they dispute it.
“Why does it feel like I’m being the parent here,” Harken sighed as he looked between the two parties. “I’m going to give you guys one final offer. You can come with us to Elgen, but I’ll be the only one to talk to him, and if I find out he’s going to sell Eran again, I’ll abandon the mission and let you guys take care of her, is that better?”
“I’m not sure how I feel about you being ready to abandon the mission,” Auron grumbled, but Harken shot a look at him.
“The alternative is being complicit in slave trading, and somehow I feel better about losing some standing with Elgen in order to make sure that Eran doesn’t just fall into the same situation as before,” he replied, to which Auron could not disagree. It was clear that he felt the same way, but his loyalties to Elgen stayed his tongue.
The fire pillars seemed reluctant to agree and put all of their faith into Harken, but with the distinct lack of suggestions and Harken staring them all down, they slowly began to agree. The three older pillars of fire still looked like they wanted something else, but they knew that this was the only middle ground that could be achieved.
“Alright, I’ll do it ‘cause I trust you,” Niselt grinned at Harken, trying to lighten the mood, it wasn’t really too successful.
“Don’t worry about them by the way, they respect Harken as much as I do, so they won’t try anything either, not yet at least,” Niselt told Auron, noticing his gaze constantly shifting to the three older pillars, his suspicion clear on his face. Auron wasn’t so worried about them trying anything so much as them giving the order to the multitude of their subordinates that were following at a close distance. His gaze was to try and make sure that there weren’t any secret signals being passed between them.
“I’m actually surprised,” Auron commented, drawing Niselt’s attention. “I didn’t think that you would have held someone who has so little power in such high regard.” Fire pillars were notorious for their pursuit of returning the system of balance back to the might of right that had once ruled the continent.
“Well, the thing that you need to remember with Harken is that his emotions aren’t missing,” Niselt replied, looking over at the young demi-human. “They’re just hidden, buried beneath the surface. It’s not the same as you water pillars that have their emotions boiling away beneath the cool and calm façade that you put up, but they are there, if only quietened.”
“So you’re interested in what his power could become,” Auron extrapolated from the statement. “I suppose that would be interesting for you guys to see, but even still, do you have any idea how he might be able to develop his emotions?”
“No, not really,” Niselt shrugged, causing Auron to look at him in surprise. “He thinks that he might be able to find someone that would lighten his heart or some shit like that, he told me himself when I first spoke to him, but I think differently. I’ve seen how he acts when he’s singled out by the militia, he just doesn’t have a fighting spirit yet to drive him to feel something for anyone, even himself.”
“Aside from you he doesn’t have too many people that he’s close to, does he?” Auron asked quietly, glancing at Harken briefly. He thought he saw the young man tense for a second, but passed it off as just a shiver in the cold night air.
“The kid’s a mystery even to my brothers and I. I’ve tried to recruit him before, but each time he just refuses and disappears for a while,” Niselt replied, frowning slightly as he watched Harken’s back as he walked and chatted idly with Eran. “I can’t remember when I found him, probably years ago. He was completely alone on the streets, just staring up at the sky and waiting for the next morning where he would collect more water, so I initially passed him off as worthless. It wasn’t until a few nights later when I saw that-.” It seemed that Harken had heard the statement, and a look from him caused Niselt to hesitate and cough uncomfortably.
“Well in any case, I saw the potential in him that I figured might be stronger even than me.”
Auron glanced over at Niselt in confusion at why he had concluded the story so anticlimactically. What he saw surprised him. The fire pillar’s tanned face had paled and his eyes looked slightly wild as he remembered whatever it was that he had seen on that night.
“Well, that’s surprising that one of the strongest fire pillars in the city could be scared by a young kid,” Auron joked. Thinking he had found a chink in the man’s armour, he was surprised by Niselt’s sudden and terse reaction.
“Don’t joke about that,” Niselt growled, his expression still grim. The two of them continued in silence as Auron looked away, knowing that he had stepped over a line he shouldn’t have. The man sighed as he looked back towards Harken. Although he wasn’t sure of it, he entertained the possibility that Harken had repressed his emotions to some degree on his own. Whether this was the cause of his current state or a symptom of it, he couldn’t tell, but there were some parts that Harken would not or could not tell anyone else.
“Alright, we’re getting close to the warehouse,” Harken told the rest of the group, holding up a hand to signal them and the others following behind to stop. They were in the middle of a crossroads with a large open space in the centre of it, where portable vendors and caravans sometimes stopped to deal for the day, “This is as far as you all go until I get the full story from Elgen, so stay here and make sure that you aren’t discovered by any Hunters. I do not want to have to retrieve Eran in the middle of a blood bath, so behave for five minutes, please.” And with that he set off apart from the others once again.
The group collected back in the centre of the crossroads to rest, moving around boxes that were padlocked to hold wares to be sold the next day, as well as public containers that could be used by the vendors to advertise their stalls. Others sat on the paved ground that served as a small forum in the centre of the vendor ring for civilians to relax and enjoy the wares they had just purchased.
Igrein and Solas stepped off to the side to talk between themselves while Niselt bent down to chat to Eran, leaving Auron to stand on his own and think about the situation. Although he wasn’t entirely certain of Elgen’s plan, he knew there was a part of it that the man wasn’t even telling him, and it made him feel uneasy.
He was sure that his employer wouldn’t just sell Eran off again, after all, in all of his time serving the man, he had never once seen him take part in human trafficking, in fact often he slandered it and took measures to stamp out any group trying to start it in his territory.
But now that he thought about it, why would he tell a demi-human servant about it and give cause to possible mutiny, and wouldn’t it be natural for a crime boss to try and eliminate all of their competition in a market. There was something about this deal that didn’t sit well with him, and he knew that in at least some part of it Elgen was definitely playing them.