We sped through the woods, making it three-fourths of the way in just a day. My thighs were on fire, and my calves were so strained, I thought they’d tear in two. I didn’t know why we were going so fast, but I didn’t like it. And what was that town called again? I couldn’t remember, but I was too winded to ask.
At sunset, we neared a different place called Deyang, a large city brimming with supplies where Jareth actually had a friend in the outskirts—a shoemaker named Paionia. He arranged on the way for us to stay with her that night, which I actually didn’t know he could do since he never mentioned it. But surprisingly, he had hunting genes and could tame animals at will—as well as smell the energy inside blood, which was weird. But anyway, he used one of his special spells to subdue a peregrine and send a message asking to crash. Not even an hour later, it returned with an acceptance, and I was beyond relieved, as I did not want to sleep outside again.
After washing our disgusting selves at a bathhouse in town, then buying some bread and fruit as a thank you, we made the 20-minute trek to her house. It was a humble, well-kept, red-brick cottage about ten miles past the western gate, and she sat waiting for us in a rocking chair on her covered patio. She greeted us warmly as soon as we appeared, and Jareth gave her his typical bearhug in response, as well as the basket of goods. Then, she ushered us inside for dinner—a wholesome spread of hummus, flatbread, grilled fish, and fresh vegetables. We thanked her for the hospitality, then sat at a small, round, cedar table.
Throughout the meal, she softly chatted about everything imaginable, from how she liked to grind her chickpeas to the history of the boots she crafted, as well as the people who first created them. Both her and Jareth were their descendants, something obvious now that she mentioned it. Their looks were so similar, but Paionia’s light, terracotta-brown face was much rounder than Jareth’s—and a lot more endearing, too, glowing brightly with joy and compassion. She also was way less wrinkled, with a few charming crow’s feet next to her dark, brown, almond-shaped eyes and two lovely laugh lines carefully caressing each side of her mouth. Her thick, shoulder-length, black hair wasn’t graying, either, and shone beautifully compared to Jareth’s dull, stringy locks.
She must’ve put a lot of effort into her appearance, and it suddenly dawned on me how different their lifestyles were. Jareth’s unimaginably tough time at war versus her rather sheltered years as an artisan… Of course, his aging was so advanced, but at least he wore it proudly, like a badge of honor earned in service.
Paionia’s calming soul also uncovered a somewhat gentler demeanor in Jareth, which was shocking but definitely enjoyable. We took our time eating and relaxed after, relishing every second together. I truly never met anyone like her, and as I finally made my way to bed after begrudgingly dozing on her couch, I hoped to visit again in the future.
As I collapsed under my sheets, she and Jareth left for the city. They typically partied when together, and they originally invited me, too, planning to hit a café instead of the bar. But I was beat after my week of training, so they changed back to their tradition. And I didn’t mind. I was dying for peace and quiet, and the soreness melting from my bones the second I rested instantly put me out.
Bum! Bum! Bum! Bum! Bum!
I opened my eyes and rolled over. Was that a dream?
Bum! Bum! Bum! Bum! Bum!
I sat. It definitely was not.
I stretched and yawned, taking my time to get up. It was either Jareth or Paionia, and given the loudness of the knock, I assumed it was Jareth. The dummy probably got too drunk and was trying to get in the wrong room. I rolled my eyes and threw off the thick, turquoise quilt, then lazily dragged my feet across the floor, whipping the door open and preparing to scold him.
In my confusion, that was all I could muster. The man before me was not Jareth. He was Kryor’s age, and I never saw him before. But just looking in his silver-gray eyes sent shivers down my spine, standing my hair on end. Then, suddenly, even though I had absolutely no reason to, I grew scared—as well as realized I never saw anyone so attractive.
Really. He was out of this world. His jet-black, middle-parted hair draped in soft layers over his ears and perfectly framed his teardrop eyes that sat prettily beside his straight, button nose. Rose-pink, slightly thin, heart-shaped lips were painted delicately on his smooth, pale, canvas-like skin, and from his cheeks as high as Heaven to his gorgeously pointed chin, every inch of his oval structuring was perfectly proportioned and carved like a sculpture. With a tall, lean, broad build to boot, he was beauty personified—handsome in a way totally unimaginable—and I wondered if it was his good looks that chilled me. Or was it something else? I couldn’t figure it out, as his striking eyes were so…distracting…I almost couldn’t think…
Then, movement from behind caught my attention, and I reflexively glanced its way. Shivers ran down my spine again, but for a different reason. The most hideous creature I ever saw came into view—a giant, green, scaly beast with short, straw-like, black hair and beady, slanted, black eyes. His pupils were nothing but tiny, green dots the same color as his skin, and instead of a typical nose and mouth, he had a lizard-like snout where his orifices joined and opened. To top it off, crossed in front of him were two long, thick spears of bone.
I looked back at the other man, a definite sight for sore eyes, but…he was also frightening—to say the least. He put that reptilian thing to shame. Heck, he put even Kryor to shame, making the legendary captain seem like a schoolboy rather than a battle-hardened soldier. Yet…this man didn’t even have a scar. The intense intimidation was entirely from his aura.
And then, it hit me. He sort of looked like…an older version of…Kaeta…