Watch Me Burn – Chapter Four

Four –

Not something you ignore

So, naturally, I ran like a chicken with its head cut off back to the house, screaming wildly as I went. I disturbed the shinecows and the cindersheep from their placid food-fest and scattered a flock of flitterwings nesting in the long grass of a side paddock. I think even Winter was a little shocked by my reaction. In fact, I don’t think he knew what was going on. Neither did I, truth be told.

Remembering suddenly my conclusion, I skidded in the dirt in my haste to turn around. Winter collided into the back of my legs and we both tumbled to the dirt. I picked him up and placed him on my head as I trotted back over to the fence. Sure enough, in the dirt near the hole was a pair of tyre tracks. Filthy big ones too, not your average car tyre, these were massive. A truck then. But definitely a theft and judging from the faint prints on the ground around the tracks, it was a pair of men. I carefully placed one of my feet into the print, but the foot that made that print was at least twice the size of mine. I didn’t hesitate a moment longer.

I ran back to the house as fast as I could. Winter was holding onto my hair for grim life, I don’t think he was enjoying being up there half as much as he had been before. I threw the back door open so hard it banged loudly on the inside of the wall.

“Mum!” I called. “Dad! There are cindersheep missing!”

They appeared in the kitchen faster than they ever had before. “What?” asked dad. “What do you mean missing?”

“I mean there are three cindersheep that aren’t there,” I explained. “We only have one hundred and sixty-one.”

Mum and dad exchanged worried looks. “Were there tracks?” asked mum. “Was it theft?”

I nodded. “There was a set of dirty great tyre tracks leading away. I think it was a truck.” As I spoke, I grabbed an atomiser from the drawer and put Winter in it before he had a chance to complain. Leaving him out was dangerous, especially if someone saw him. Like mum had said earlier, he’s valuable and lots of people (mostly the bad kind) would do anything to get their hands on a firesong. A marked one would be even better. Cheap atomisers like the ones we kept at home could be bought at a supermarket and was basically a small black thing with two buttons that could be clipped to something with a karabiner. One button would atomise the Phantom and suck it into the device, the other would release it back into the world. The standard supermarket atomisers can only contain one Phantom each.

“What are you doing?” asked dad.

“I’m not going to let them get away with our cindersheep,” I said, moving into the kitchen to grab some food that I stuffed in a duffle bag we kept in a cupboard in the dining room. “I’m not going to just let them take our Phantoms. They might have stolen Phantoms from the Valley and I’m not letting them get away with that either. I’m going after them.”

I clipped the atomiser onto a belt loop, slung the bag over my shoulder and snatched the ute keys from their hook before dad could say another word. I was out the door and in the car before they could think too hard about what I’d said. If they thought about it they’d probably come up with about a million reasons for me not to go. Sure enough, as I was gunning the engine mum walked up to the window. I had it wound down because it was rather warm.

“Rin,” she said pleading with me. “It’s three cindersheep.” See, reasonable arguments.

“Mum, there might be Valley Phantoms with them,” I countered. “It might only be three cindersheep, but who knows what else they took. I’m not letting them do that. Especially because the government trusts us to keep the Phantoms safe and this isn’t doing that. I’m going, end of the story.”

I revved the engine and she backed off a little. Then she grinned and chucked me a pair of atomisers. “Some empty ones just in case,” she said with a wink. “Take care of Winter. You’re so much like I once was.” That last was almost a whisper; I don’t think I was supposed to hear it.

With that I put my foot to the floor and roared down the driveway. Along the straight bit of road leading into the rest of town, I drove with one hand on the wheel while the other clipped the two empty atomisers to my belt. Maybe I shouldn’t have been doing that, but I was just so angry.

I’m not sure I managed to convey the extent of my anger before. Basically I was seeing the world through a red film. The government had trusted my parents with that land and its Phantoms, they gave my parents so much it wasn’t fair that these thieves could come in and steal the native Phantoms. It was wrong, and I just couldn’t bear the thought that my parents would be kicked off the property or… I don’t know, blamed somehow for what happened. I just felt like injustice would come roaring into our peaceful Valley and glower down on our roof while government minions knocked our door down. It seemed like the government would have to blame someone… punish someone for what happened and my parents were the likely candidates. That seemed so wrong to me and it made me mad. Just like that. I was fuming all the way to Carissa.

A trip like that would take five hours or something. But I ripped through Echo going about one hundred and fifty kilometres an hour the whole way and my speed only picked up as I went. At one point on the trip, on a particularly straight stretch of road I believe the speedometer hit two hundred and twenty. Possibly more, I was too focused on the road to care what the speedo read. Needless to say, my crazy speed cut the trip down to two hours I think it was. I didn’t even slow down for corners or chicanes, my parents are so lucky they didn’t lose me that day, but don’t tell them that.

I slowed as I entered the outer districts of Carissa. The tray-back ute jounced over the bridge and then I was in the city. We didn’t come down much; it was too far to come for just a day trip. Well, too far if you obeyed the speed limit.

Honestly, I had absolutely no idea where I was going or where to start my search. I found a truck with Kalidor-Loreth Shipping painted on the side as it pulled out from a side street. I figured they must have a shed somewhere to keep their stock, so I followed them. They turned off on the south side of the city and headed towards the ocean. I held way back so they didn’t think I was following them, I didn’t want to raise suspicions.

Anyway, I think I hit the jackpot with them, and if I didn’t well I don’t remember what happened. Let’s just run with this, even if it is very convenient for me. The truck pulled into a drive, and as far as I could tell, the only buildings on the property was a super huge mansion looking house, an equally huge shed (that I presumed was for the large number of cars that a person with enough money to afford such a big house would have) and a large lot of empty space. I honestly didn’t even know that such big blocks of property were available for sale so close to the centre of town, but there you go.

So as the truck pulled into the drive, I pulled onto the curb a little way down the street. Then I got out, hitched my bag onto my shoulder and set about walking down the street. As I was walking I thought of something made of pure genius and went back to the ute. I popped the bonnet and pulled at a few of the plugs until they were loose. Growing up on a farm, I knew what pretty much everything under the hood of a car was for and how far off they’d have to be to stop the car from working. I knew what I’d done was enough to cause a breakdown but it was also relatively easy to fix, yet obscure enough that someone not as car savvy as me wouldn’t have a clue as to why the car wasn’t starting.

Then I walked down the road towards the big house. I walked down the driveway and followed the great tyre tracks that could only have been made by the truck to the shed. Surprising me, the tracks didn’t lead into the shed but around the side and into what looked to me to be some kind of small forest. It was bigger than a simple stand of trees, but not large enough to be classed as a full blown forest. There was a rough dirt track leading into the trees and the tyre marks went straight down it.

I followed the track as best as I could, but I didn’t walk on the track itself. If someone walked along there they’d see me before I had a chance to react. As I was walking it occurred to me that I hadn’t even considered the possibility that the truck was delivering or picking up goods for someone moving in or out of the house. It hadn’t even crossed my mind; I’d just assumed that this truck was the one that’d robbed us. That was bad; this was trespassing.

Yet I continued to follow the path and in the end it led me to a clearing in which there was another shed, smaller than the other one. The truck was backed up to the entrance and I couldn’t see what was happening so I moved around a bit. Do you know what I saw that day? You’ll never guess. I saw a pair of men with really big boots unloading cages full of Phantoms and putting them in the shed. As I watched, a cage with a stonehorn was removed, then one with a pair of plainrunners and then a cage with three cindersheep. I almost gasped, I was so surprised.

Rather than stick around and get caught, I fled. I ran faster than I’d ever run in my life until I reached my car. Then I stood leaning against the bonnet of the car, panting as I caught my breath. What happened next shocked me just as much as seeing the men with our cindersheep had.

A car pulled up in front of me.

A young man got out of the car and I almost fell over. That was partly from surprise and partly from the fact that my legs had turned to jelly as soon as I’d stopped running. He was tall, probably a full head and a half taller than me (but like I said before, that really isn’t all that difficult), with broad shoulders, slender rectangular frame, and a head of messy black hair. As he walked over, I saw the frown on his face. Really, I’m not sure how to say this, these are the best words I can find to describe him. He was… chiselled… I think perhaps that’s the best way to say it. You know when you see a man all muscled and gross because you can tell that he worked on getting them to look good but they probably don’t do much? Like a bodybuilder? Well he wasn’t like that. He looked like a statue carved from granite, like every, line, muscle, every inch was toned from hard work, rather than hours in a gym. I like that much better than the ‘blow up’ muscles most guys get. I won’t say he had perfect features, but by god they were close. He was probably one of the best looking guys I’ve ever met… maybe…

“Is your car broken?” he asked and his voice was just as perfect as the rest of him. Actually, now that I think about it, there are probably plenty of guys I’ve met who could give him a decent run for his money. Forget what I said earlier. “Uh, yeah I think it might be,” I said. “It just stopped.”

“Do you mind if I have a look?” he asked, stepping closer.

“No, not at all.” I moved to one side so he could open the bonnet. Then he bent over the car and started poking around in there. Sorry, I forgot to tell you what he was wearing, all good stories detail what characters are wearing. Well I’m really sorry, but I don’t remember. It was dark pants, probably jeans and a jumper, but I can’t for the life of me remember anything else.

“It looks like you’ve got some loose plugs,” he said, pulling back. “Do you have any tools with you?”

I shook my head. “No sorry.”

He sighed. “What about a rag?” He indicated his now greasy hands.

“Nope, I’m afraid,” I replied.

“Would you like a ride?” he asked. “I live up there, I’ve got tools.” He pointed to the huge house I’d just been at and I started.

“Yeah, sure,” I said hesitantly.

“What are you doing out here?” he asked as he opened my door. I could have fainted. “I’ve never seen you before.” He turned the statement into a question.

“Oh, I’m from further north,” I said, getting in. “The name’sKirin.” I wasn’t sure whether I should give him my last name or not so I withheld it for the time being. There’d be time enough for that later… if ever. “Truth be told, I’m here because someone stole some of our cindersheep. I didn’t know where to start so I was just driving around, I ended up out here and then my car stopped.”

“Our?” he asked, turning the key with a frown at what I’d said. “You’re a bit young to be married.” Then he went bright red. “Sorry, it’s not my place to say things like that. My apologies.”

I laughed. “No don’t worry about it. Though I’m sure my friends would be interested to hear someone say that. I mean me and my parents.”

He smiled, but it looked forced. “My name’s Ben, by the way,” he said. I think he was just changing the subject.

“Just Ben, or is it short for Benjamin?”

“It’s short, I just hate being called Benjamin,” he said. “That’s what my dad calls me when he’s angry.”

There was silence in the car for a while. Unlike me, Ben was doing the speed limit. Actually, my car was probably damned happy I’d stopped; otherwise my speed would have killed it. Then I really would have been stuck.

“Do you know who stole your cindersheep?” he asked me. I don’t think he actually expected an answer.

“Yeah, it was a Kalidor-Loreth Shipping truck. There were two guys driving it and the number plate had the letters H-J-T on it in that order.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Wow, you got a pretty good look at it, huh?”

I nodded. “Sure, we don’t get K-L Shipping out our way much. Everyone takes notice when something different happens.”

“Tight knit community?”

“Yup.”

More silence, then he pulled up in front of the shed. He got out so he could open the doors so I followed. I didn’t know per say what I was supposed… no, allowed to do (in polite society there are limits to the liberties one can take while on someone else’s property). But I followed him into the shed anyway. He didn’t seem to mind one way or another.

He went to the far end of the shed where a corner bench was set up with cupboards and shelves above, below and to either side of it. There were, like I’d thought, five cars lined up neatly in the shed. Each one had custom number plates and varied from sports cars to high end, old school roadsters.

In this shed there was a sport’s car, a newer model that looked so fast it hurt my eyes in a nice charcoal colour. A pair of collectors cars, both antique looking things that I wasn’t entirely sure would actually drive. Nice cars though. A higher end every-day car from the previous decade, but arguably the nicest, fastest and all round best car that company had ever produced. And one boxy luxury cruiser that made me want to drool; it was the kind of car that gets custom made to each person’s preference and you have to be a millionaire to afford one. Either way it looked awesome, not something I’d drive simply because it’s so ostentatious, but nice just the same.

There were posters and framed photos and paintings hanging from the walls. One was quite perplexing to begin with. It was a picture of an amateur race car driver as he got out of a car. Beneath his photo were the words: ‘Derek wins Knight Ride’. He was holding aloft a trophy and the only reason there was light in the background was because of the floodlights illuminating everything. Derek Knight, heir to the Knight Industries fortune in a race car. What’s more was the trophy he was holding in the photo was on a pedestal under the photo. It blew my mind for a moment there, until I remembered some things.

I turned back to Ben who was banging around under the bench looking for god knows what. At first I was going to say something, but then I changed my mind. You never know when that kind of knowledge would come in handy.

Then there was banging on the door to the shed. Ben straightened a little too fast and hit his head on the bottom of the bench. Rubbing his crown he turned to the doorway. Slowly, I did too. Do you know who was there? No?

The two guys from the K-L truck.

“Hey Ben,” one of the guys said. “When you’re done there do you want to give us a hand with something? We can’t find your brother.”

“He’s not here Gerard,” Ben replied, smiling at me. “But sure. I might be a while, but I’ll come. What do you need a hand with?”

The two men exchanged nervous glances then the other spoke. “We’d rather not say.” His subtle look in my direction couldn’t have been more obvious if he’d pointed.

“Whatever, just give me a minute.” Then he opened a cupboard and began looking for more stuff.

“Ben,” I said lowly, not sure how to say something against the guys he seemed so friendly with. Somehow he picked up on my anxiety and turned to look at me. “Those two guys were in the truck that stole our cindersheep.” I figured the worst he could do was call the cops. Unless one of the guys had a gun, in which case I was probably dead meat.

“Gerard and Wilfred?” he asked. “But they…” he trailed off, his face going white. “Ah…” He stood stock still for a moment, the thing he had pulled from under the bench (I think it was a wrench, I don’t remember) hanging forgotten in one hand. “Let’s get your ute fixed.”

Surprising me again (straight after his evasion of what I’d said) we walked back to my car. “I hope you don’t mind giving me a lift home after this,” he said as we walked. Like I would.

“Sure thing, it’s the least I can do.”

He smiled. Then with tools in hand, he plugged everything back in and turned the key in the ignition. My car purred to life perfectly. Then we got in and I drove him back to the shed.

“Just go a little farther,” he said, indicating. “No, past that track.” He led me, slowly, quietly, around further until a second track appeared. “Go down that way.” I did and I ended up at the other end of the shed I’d seen earlier. Clever. “Get your cindersheep from this end, just back up and load the whole cage onto the tray. Can you do that by yourself?”

“Sure,” I replied, trying to keep my voice level. “I’m a farm girl.” I felt my heart beat faster; my hands start shaking and my voice quaver just a little. I was terrified, but I didn’t want Ben to know that. He smiled again and slipped out of the car.

“Just don’t let them hear you.” Then he was gone.

I backed the tray of the ute up to the shed door, got out and carefully rolled it up. It made rattling noise as it retracted and I cringed the entire time, just waiting for the two men to come through and blow my face off. Nothing happened. As I stepped into the semi gloom of the shed large cages slowly formed around me. To my right were the three cindersheep, but further in were more Phantoms, many more than I’d seen earlier. The truck must have been full, that or there’d been Phantoms in here to begin with. There were quite a few water classes in cages on the left, but in a row down the middle and lined up beyond the trio of cindersheep were Phantoms from the surrounding land, Echo andSingingValleys.

There were ashooves, the plainrunners and stonehorn I’d seen earlier as well as a pair of adult rollerocks and a pup that looked only a few weeks old and a lazy old firepaw and a puppy, both asleep. There were earth classes, both defence and offence; water classes in large tanks along one wall, even a wateroller like Patrick had; a few fire classes; wind classes up in cages along the walls, the further in I went, the more I found. I even saw a burnbear, it looked to have been drugged from the way it was slouched and drooling in its cage. All by itself, slightly isolated from the other Phantoms in its row, was a strongclaw, a female by the look of it. The wild look in her eyes told me that she had a cub out there somewhere, separated from her and in danger, probably half staved to death. She looked at me, the only Phantom there that actually looked at me in a way that said ‘help’, the others glanced my way and ignored me, or they glared out of hate for humanity, no doubt due to what these poachers had been doing. I felt my anger rise again.

“I can help you,” I whispered to the strongclaw. “If I let you out will you help me with the others?”

She seemed surprised by what I was saying, probably because most people treat Phantoms like dumb brutes, creatures that can’t understand ‘civilised languages’. Either way, she was keen to be out of the cage. She stepped back from the bars and I let Winter pool in the red light on the floor, he was probably just old enough to start breathing fire. At first he just stood there leering at me, then he noticed the Phantoms in cages around him.

“Can you melt some of the locks here Winter?” I asked him. “We’re getting these poor souls out of here.”

His eyes softened and he started turning the locks on the nearest cages to slag. It was slow going because he hadn’t had much practice with breathing fire yet but he coped. I put my hand over the lock and let the heat build up in my palm as I summoned on my gift (I did mention that I have a Greater Fire Affinity, right?). Soon enough the air around the lock was shimmering from the heat and metal began to drip from between my fingers. The strongclaw looked ready to burst out. That much noise would alert the poachers to my presence and I didn’t want them coming in.

“Be as quiet as you can,” I told her. “I don’t know if the poachers are still about.”

She nodded her shaggy brown head and pushed gently on the door. It swung open easily and she stepped out, rolling her great shoulders and flexing her claws. I looked about, wondering where to begin.

“First thing’s first,” I said. “There’s a cage at the end with three cindersheep in it. They belong to my family; could you load them onto the back of the ute outside, I can’t lift such a large cage by myself. And then will you give me a hand releasing the rest of the Phantoms in here?”

She seemed pleased that I believed in her strength and she immediately went to do that. I looked at Winter, who was opening a cage with a rollerock in it, and decided that it would be better to release the Phantoms that could help open the other cages first. So he opened the cages of the ashooves, firepaw and burnbear. The old firepaw rolled his eyes at me and stood, his pup panting eagerly from between his paws.

“We’re getting everyone out of here,” I told them. “Will you help?” They nodded, all except the burnbear, still unconscious.

The ashooves seemed to know exactly what to do though. They released the wateroller and a pair of bellflowers and the three Phantoms went straight to the burnbear. The bellflowers released a tantalising smell while the wateroller spat water gently onto the face of the great fire Phantom. Eventually, it roused, magma pooling in the corner of its mouth as it prepared to blast us all with fire.

“Hey,” I said lowly. “We’re getting you out, you were given a drug but you’re free now.” He nodded, his fiery fur glowing brighter with every passing minute. Then, without even being asked, he went to the nearest cage and turned it to a pool of liquid steel.

At that moment the strongclaw returned, more freed Phantoms at her heels. She said something softly and from what Winter had taught me and the look on their faces I understood what she wanted: a lift home. They all needed a way home.

“Free the flitterwings,” I said to Winter.

Soon the room was filled with the small feathered forms of bird Phantoms. Flitterwings, six swiftwings, the nighteyes, a seabeak, bobtails and a pair of grand greatalons, all of them ready to do whatever was necessary. It didn’t take too much longer before the rest of the Phantoms were released from their cages. Ruined steel frames, nothing more than twisted remnants of what once had kept these creatures trapped. I felt my heart swell as I looked at them all, Winter by my side and the strongclaw at my shoulder.

“Now, I don’t mean to be unfair, but I can’t take all of you home with me. There are just too many of you. I’m sorry.” They accepted that easily. “But if you all want to get home, you’ll need to cooperate just a moment longer. Strongclaw, if you would be so kind as to hold onto the fish tank so I can take the fish home and release them into a river somewhere, that’d be great. Ashooves, firepaw, burnbear and any other Phantoms large and fast enough, you will have to carry some of the smaller folk. I don’t doubt your strength, and as much as I would love to take you all home with me, I don’t have the space. Some of you may be able to sit on the back of the tray, or on the backseat with strongclaw and the tank. If you are so inclined and have the ability to hold on, feel free to sit on my roof.

“Those men could come back at any moment, and the light of today grows shorter. For those of you who aren’t fast enough to get away from here before night falls find a Phantom willing to carry you. I will leave you to decide that amongst yourself, you’re all smart enough.

“Now though, those who wish to ride with me, strongclaw would you be so kind as to grab that tank? We’re leaving. I don’t have any real desire to be here when those men get back.”

I put Winter back in the atomiser so there would be more room in the ute for others. Strongclaw loaded the fish tank into the backseat, then she helped others into the tray with the cage holding our cindersheep. We got quite a few in there, leaving just a couple of others, larger Phantoms and those who couldn’t squeeze into the car proper with me. The flying Phantoms grabbed some of the smaller ones and flew as fast as they could while the ashooves and firepaw were bearing others home on their backs. The little puppy was grinning happily from his place between the firepaw’s teeth, the safest place for him.

As soon as I’d started the car, the runners bolted. I looked over my shoulder at all the Phantoms there and I smiled at them.

“Hold on,” I said. “It could get rough.”

Then I floored it. It was tight getting through that track again, but I made it. As I came out the other side I saw Ben. He was inside, with the two men, none of them were looking my way and I silently sent my thanks his way. He would never know how much his help that day meant to me. Even though he couldn’t see me, I smiled and waved shortly to him.

“I hope you guys aren’t averse to speed,” I said as the car bounced onto the road. The tyres gripped the asphalt and we took off. Underneath me, I felt the car strain for every ounce of strength it had. I know technically you can’t measure strength in ounces, but just run with it, okay?

The trip home was much like the trip down. Only faster. Now that I knew the road somewhat, I knew where I could floor it and where I had to be a bit gentler. Stress on ‘a bit’. I was also in a rush because the sun was just hitting the horizon. I think I may have lied when I said it only took me two hours, it must have just felt that way. I know that when we hit the highway the sun was almost touching the horizon and when we pulled into our driveway however long later, the sun was letting the barest rays of light back up above the horizon. Two hours my left foot. Maybe three and a half… four at the worst. I know I trimmed at least an hour off that journey.

Mum was standing on the front porch as I pulled in, dad at her elbow and I’m not sure how I knew this, I couldn’t see her at the time, but I knew Lara was there too. The tyres crunched in the gravel as I pulled the car to a stop. Mum was down the stairs before I could blink. I have never seen that woman move as fast as she did that evening. Not ever.

She did stall about three metres away from the ute though. I peered over my shoulder to see strongclaw glaring at mum something fierce. The Phantoms seated, standing or otherwise wound into something resembling a secure arrangement, were also giving her death’s best welcoming.

“It’s okay, guys,” I said. “She’s my mum. She won’t hurt you.”

They relaxed a little, but not much.

Kiff and Auth were standing not far away, both looked more ready for a fight than I’d seen them in years. I’m sorry, but this next bit may shock you, or it may not. The thing I learned from this trip is that a car on a road is only just faster than a Phantom going cross country. But maybe they’d been following us, they didn’t know the way after all.

Not a minute after we arrived than the flying Phantoms landed in a nearby paddock. Then only bare moments after they got there, the ashooves and firepaw arrived. All cargo intact.

Dad called Jeremy and Lara out from inside. As I helped some of the smaller Phantoms off the tray and out of the cab, they staggered down the stairs to stare in wonder at what they saw. Burnbear, the last to get off the tray, with a little help from strongclaw, lifted the cindersheep cage down. When burnbear opened the latch and melted the cage, firepaw herded the placid animals into the shed with the rest of their friends and family.

Mum, dad, Jeremy, Lara and I all stood there, staring at the Phantoms around us. Firepaw howled and out of the forest, not a moment later came replies. Then a pack of the great dogs trotted out across the paddocks, stepping or hurdling our fences. They were accompanied by a herd of ashooves, a family of bellflowers, stonehorns of various ages, a rollerock, another burnbear, and many others. More Phantoms than I’d ever seen in one place poured out of the forest that evening to welcome home those who had been stolen. Strongclaw roared, the echo fading slowly into the mountains. All noise elsewhere ceased.

Strongclaws were anti-social Phantoms which explained why none came out with the others. But in response to strongclaw’s roar, an answer came. A deep bass rumbled from within. Faster than I would have believed, a strongclaw emerged. He stood on the edge of the forest, squinting into the dying light as he looked around. She roared again, but he hesitated, then he stepped out into the full light. He was a massive Phantom, taller than the girl by two heads and broad, a deep chestnut colour with a splash of white on his chest. His ears twitched as he walked between the deep rows of Phantoms, silent as they watched, yet bubbling with the excitement of having friends, family home safely. As he approached I saw something I hadn’t seen: a small puff of light brown fur on his shoulder. He lifted a clawed hand and plucked the puff off his shoulder and held it out to her.

It was a cub. A tiny little thing, barely a month old I thought. She took the small thing and cuddled it tightly to her face, crooning softly. I let Winter out of his ball so he could see what was happening and hated myself instantly for not thinking of doing that earlier. The cons of atomisers…

I was watching Winter’s face as he reacted to the scenes around him, sound returning in soft murmurs as Phantoms were reunited. So intent on the general scene that I almost missed the soft tap on my shoulder. I turned abruptly and immediately wished I hadn’t. Strongclaw was standing before me, holding her little baby out to me.

Hesitantly, I reached out and stroked the soft fur on his small head. He purred at my touch (I’ve never heard one purr since). She pushed him gently into my arms and I hugged his tiny form. He was so soft to touch. Strongclaw straightened and turned, a tear forming in her eye. I frowned, not quite understanding what was going on. When she took a step away from me and towards her partner, though, it clicked. She was leaving her baby with me. I was so stunned for a moment that I didn’t move.

“Hey,” I called to her. Her shoulders were slumped, resigned. “Hey.” I stopped in front of her, the other Phantoms watching again, intent. “Thank you, it’s a lovely gesture, but I don’t want him. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea from that, he’s a beautiful strongclaw and I’m sure one day he’ll be as ferocious and intimidating as his father and as understanding and strong as his mother, but I can’t accept him. I don’t want payment, besides; I couldn’t take him from his mother. I’d feel horrible. Just knowing you’re all safe and happy is payment enough.” I held him out with trembling hands, towards his mother. Winter stepped up beside me.

The father indicated Winter and made a rumbling that wasn’t all that hard to interpret.

“He was abandoned by his mother while he was still an egg,” I explained. “Her society would not allow her to keep him even though she loved him dearly. When she saw me there as she left him, she looked positively horrified by what she was doing, I could tell she didn’t want him to die. So I took his egg, which was the only way he would live. I didn’t steal him; I was allowed to take him by a society that rejected him.”

The mother touched her partner’s arm and drew a circle over where her heart would be with one claw. That was something Winter had taught me. It was a confusing statement with many meanings, and only one at the same time. It means something along the lines of (and excuse me a little if I don’t quite capture it exactly but I’ll do my best) ‘She saved him and asked nothing in return. She loves us all, protector, saviour. She means us no harm, and hopes to preserve our freedom, that which means most to us. She knows there’s no one with the power to decide who lives or dies, colour is not a determining factor, and all deserve a fair chance. Good soul.’ I feel like I’m tooting my own trumpet writing that, but that’s sort of what it means. I think I really got it with just those last two words actually, but the rest is all true as well. It can also mean ‘this is a good person who will help us and protect us and save us when necessary, they fight on our side, they believe in us, we should always be there for friends like this person.’ It’s a feel good thing. It made me feel really warm on the inside that she would say that about me.

Anyway, then she hugged me and made the circle again. Every Phantom in the area that could do it as well made the circle. Those that couldn’t have a modified way of making that mark because every Phantom uses it, it’s a common thing, they just do it differently due to… fins, wings or lack of limbs depending.

Then all the Phantoms did a cry that seemed to merge and… uh, come alive? It seemed that the sound had a life of its own. Winter later told me that this was something they did to accept ‘outsiders’ into their culture. Strongclaw and her family had officially made my family plus Lara and Patrick, too honorary Phantoms. How cool is that? That day they made a vow to protect me and my family and friends so long as I continued to do the same for them. It’s a very symbiotic thing. It shifts and changes as it grows, much like everything else. And I’m pretty sure we all still hold to that pact today. All of us, that includes the people who joined our ranks after that day. It made me happy.

That was my first ever selfless act and my first step down the road less travelled. My path, set in stone now because I loved the feeling I got from doing right by those Phantoms. It was the first thing I ever did in the face of anger, it was the first time I walked into a place where death was absolutely an option. I didn’t know it at the time, but there were two or three ways I could have died that day. Actually there’s probably more.

My driving skills were one. Gerard and Wilfred were both armed that day, even if I didn’t know it and they were two. The Phantoms, if they had taken me for a threat not a single one of them would have hesitated in slitting my throat, which makes three. And believe it or not, Ben was number four. I won’t tell you how just yet, it’s a good story, if one with no plot at all, and it makes up quite a lot of antagonistic behaviour thereafter.

Also, I’ll tell you a little of what happened after that.

Not a lot. I received word through the post office at Echo from Ben saying that Gerard and Wilfred had found the shed empty and deduced that the drugs must have worn off the burnbear and he went crazy, releasing every Phantom in the shed. He hadn’t told them otherwise, though apparently they were a little confused as to why an entire cage was missing. Strange…

After that was also my first clue into the whole conspiracy thing. It turns out I was right about that, it just took a long time for me to work that out and the conspiracy wasn’t local. Again, I’m not going to spoil anything for you, just be prepared for twists and turns in this plot that will have you scratching your head for days. I’m still scratching mine.

Luck. That day was my first encounter with luck. It was lucky that Gerard and Wilfred hadn’t walked in on me. It was lucky that I stumbled across just the right truck as I rolled into town. It was lucky that Ben sided with me. It was lucky there was enough time for me to get to the clearing and back before Ben arrived. It was lucky that the Phantoms were so cooperative. It was lucky there were no cops on the road. Lucky that my car didn’t really break down. All sorts of lucky you see, the list goes on. But if you really think, my luck started on the day I found Winter.

Or not, depending on whether you’re a cynic or not.

I was lucky that day and my luck hasn’t run out yet. Fingers crossed. I guess that’s my saving grace really. Well… that and a knack for impromptu acting skills. I’m giving you a heads up now: I’ve never in my life taken acting classes. Just so you know. I think I’m babbling now.

Well, days passed. Gerard and Wilfred didn’t come back. I didn’t get any more mail from Ben (who Lara was at the time referring to as ‘le mystery boyfriend’. This was because he signed that one letter with just a B). I did however, pick my path out. Which I mentioned above before I sidetracked myself.

I decided about two weeks after the cindersheep thing with absolute certainty that I was going to try out at the winter SPIRIT runs. I’d spent the two weeks thinking it through, you know, did I really want to, it opens up a lot of doors, but could I be bothered? It’s such a long way and all that. Boring stuff.

In the end, it was a group decision.

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~ by reliquiaen on April 12, 2012.

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