Startled awake, Jaycee slapped away the hands that rattled him. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes, and the once blurry field came into view. Evidently, nighttime was still upon them. He could almost make out the outline of the moon shining behind the fog of midnight. The dew underneath his palms was wet to the touch.
Before him, Alec had his hand held out. Begrudgingly, he took it and got pulled up by a firm grip. The sudden shift made him dizzy, but it faded quickly. He steadied himself and lightly patted his cheeks to rid the sleep from his person.
Despite the amused look Alec gave him, he didn’t comment on his methods. “Nap time is over. They found us quicker than I expected.”
Fioma’s military would follow them to the ends of the world, if possible. Though Jaycee was a tad confused. “I thought they had less pull down here?” In his experience, the few times he had spotted Fioma’s army, they were for diplomatic reasons. The World Above and the World Below never launched an all-out war, but they walked a very fine line.
“A lot happened while they had you locked up.” Alec paused, eyes downcast. “Commander Jin craves more land, and there’s only one way to get it.” There had been rumors flying about in prison, but he communicated particularly little with anybody but the occasional guard. They confined him to a one-person cell in an almost empty block. It limited his knowledge on the subject.
“He wants to start a war,” said Jaycee. The thought made his head throb, an intense ache blooming from his forehead to the back of his skull. From Fioma’s point of view, he could see why, as they had little land and no alternative to gain more. But was war the only means?
Just then, an ear-piercing howl forced them back to reality. They didn’t have the luxury to relax and chat with the military one step behind them.
“I sent Kyla to divert their attention. We need to go. Now. The village we are meeting the others at isn’t more than half a day’s journey.” Jaycee nodded, unable to find any reason to oppose. Assuming they survived the night, there would be more opportunities to discover what he missed.
Without another word, the two continued forward. They escaped the field for a scenic rock path lined with trees and shrubs on each side. It must have been a pedestrian route at some point, one that withered and became ravaged with time. The trail had weeds growing through the cracks and grass thrusting up in random spots. They detoured around a couple of fallen trees, rotten and left to be devoured by the land beneath it. The dark of night made it burdensome to traverse, but Alec moved like he had the route memorized with how easily he avoided any potential disaster.
The deeper they went, the denser the woods became. A light fog rolled in, making the previously intricate trail riskier. Odd sounds reverberated around them, from crickets to low growls that felt like hot breath in his ears. Jaycee honed his senses and kept his eyes on the man in front of him, whose black hair blended in with the night. If it wasn’t for his bright red robes, Jaycee was sure the twilight would have already swallowed him whole.
Moments later, Alec’s voice filled the air around him. “Duck.”
Jaycee was about to question him when he sensed movement from behind. He ducked and rolled out of the way, kicking up dust particles as he did. He glimpsed something furry from the corner of his eye, zooming right past him. Alec headed to him and helped him back to his feet. They stood together, both staring at a wolf baring its fangs, a hissing noise vibrating from its throat.
“What the hell is that?” asked Jaycee. He reached for his sword, eyes never leaving his target.
“A rabid wolf. I can smell its rotting flesh from here.” Alec was right. Now that he had a moment to survey the beast in front of him, a foul stench emanated from where it remained on all fours. Its dark-colored fur blended in with the surrounding landscape.
“This is strange.” In Sheol, living was a struggle for humans and animals alike, but nothing like the wolf that exposed its fangs. It was as if it had mutated and lost all sense of existence.
“The world is dying. Anymore, this sight is commonplace,” said Alec. His vision never left its mark, but his lips tugged down slightly. Although it was different, being side-by-side with him like this felt natural to Jaycee.
Seconds passed before either side made a move. Suddenly, the wolf lunged forward, teeth displayed as it threw its body at Alec. He stepped out of the way, and Jaycee watched as saliva frothed from the animal’s cavity. It did a complete one eighty, claws digging in the ground as it reached for Jaycee, who narrowly dodged it. His foot caught on a rock jutted out from the below and it sent him crashing face first. The volume of dirt in his mouth had him coughing as he used his arms to push himself up. His strength and agility weren’t what they had once been. He was a washed-up assassin with no clout to his name anymore.
The taste of iron reached his lips. He licked them clean and spit the remaining out. Without wasting another minute on pointless thoughts, he unsheathed his sword. Behind the creature, Alec stood watching him, fan at the ready to strike. It was now or never.
They both leaped at their target, weapons raised and fury in their spirits.