“What happened?” Raea asked and bit her lip. She was looking at the carnage from above as she clung onto Palan’s back while he descended from the tree. Palan didn’t respond as Emergency Victuals whined. Palan was carrying the dire wolf by the scruff of its neck using his mouth. Raea’s mouth quivered. “Everyone’s dead?”
Palan grunted as his feet touched the ground. Raea tried to get off his back, but Palan stopped her. He picked up the greater demon’s skull and exited the poisonous area before dropping his cargo unceremoniously onto the ground: Raea, Emergency Victuals, and the skull. He picked up the skull, ignoring Raea’s protests, and handed it to the dire wolf. “Good job; here’s a snack.”
The dire wolf tilted its head before biting the skull by one of its horns. “Palan!” Raea said and grabbed her contracted demon’s shoulder. “What happened?”
“The greater demon’s dead,” Palan said and pointed at the skull Emergency Victual’s was gnawing on.
“What about everyone else? Owen? Carmella? Gerome?” Raea asked as tears formed in the corner of her eyes.
“Dead,” Palan said as he looked Raea in the eyes. Raea brought her hands to her mouth and sobbed as tears rolled down her cheeks. Her knees bent and she fell to the floor. Palan didn’t say anything as he wandered off alone, but not before telling the dire wolf to watch over Raea.
Forty minutes passed before Palan returned with the greater demon’s axes slung on his back. Raea was sitting on the ground with her face buried in her knees, hugging her legs. She raised her head and peeked at Palan while sniffling. Her voice was hoarse as she asked, “Was it my fault? If I weren’t so stupid, then they wouldn’t have died. Tell me; how did they die?”
Palan rubbed his chin. “The greater demon killed them. They died valiant deaths in order to protect you,” he said. “The demon wiped out the majority of our forces, so I applied poison to the whole area in an attempt to weaken the demon and kill the remaining lizardmen. It’s also why I stuck you in that tree. After poisoning the demon, it was a simple matter of stalking it until it showed an opening.”
“I see,” Raea said and lowered her head. She hugged her knees to her chest tighter and stared at the ground in front of her with a blurry vision.
“They would’ve died regardless of your ability to lead,” Palan said as he dropped the axes onto the ground, startling Emergency Victuals. “That demon wasn’t something cannon fodder could’ve killed.” Palan cracked his neck and lifted one of the axes with his right hand. His brow furrowed as he said, “Hey, mutt. Try to lift that up.” He pointed at the axe on the ground.
Emergency Victuals dropped the skull in its mouth as it licked its lips and trotted over to the axe. It bit the handle and attempted to lift it by straining its neck upwards. The axe didn’t budge. It let go of it and sat down, whimpering at Palan. Palan nodded as he looked at the dire wolf. “Go back to eating.”
Raea watched the dire wolf trot back to the skull. She tilted her head and focused her gaze on Palan who was testing out the axes. She looked back at the dire wolf and said, “Emergency Victuals, come here.” The dire wolf ignored her as it cracked off one of the skull’s horns. “Palan.”
“You’re done moping? That was quick,” Palan said as he lowered his axes and gazed at Raea.
“I’m not moping! It’s grieving,” Raea said and furrowed her brow, staring at Palan with puffy red eyes.
“Whatever. What’d you want?”
“Can you talk to animals?”
Palan stared at Raea. “Did you hit your head?”
“Of course I can. What kind of stupid question is that?”
“Really? You can understand them?”
“Are you messing with me? Animals can’t talk.”
“But you just said you could talk to them. Please stop looking at me like that.”
Palan snorted and looked at Emergency Victuals. “She’s being weird, right?” The dire wolf barked in agreement.
“Um, Palan,” Raea said as she stretched her legs in front of herself. “Talking to animals and having them understand you is not normal. It’s actually a sign of wisdom.”
“Really,” Palan said in a monotone voice and raised an eyebrow. He glanced at the dire wolf. “Do you understand what she’s saying?” Emergency Victuals shook its head before continuing to feast on the skull. It cracked the bone open with its teeth and licked the marrow out.
“See?” Raea asked.
“Damn. I’m amazing,” Palan said and glanced at Raea. “My sister can talk to animals too. I guess that’s why she’s more competent than you.”
Raea flinched and looked at her hands which were in her lap. They turned white as she grasped her armor. “That’s right,” she said and bit her lip. “I’m not competent at all. Owen was always there for me when I had to make decisions. It’s my fault he died; if I didn’t decide to set up camp right outside their territory, then none of this would’ve happened.”
“That’s right,” Palan said and nodded, causing Raea’s lips to tremble. “It’s your fault for choosing to camp there. It’s everyone else’s fault for not informing you of your stupid choice. It’s Owen’s fault for being too weak. It’s the demon’s fault for being too strong. You can blame anyone or anything you want, but you can’t change what has already happened.”
“Are you”—Raea furrowed her brow and raised her head to look at Palan—”consoling me?”
“Yes,” Palan said and nodded. “It’d be terrible for me if you decided to kill yourself or became useless because you were depressed. I refuse to die because of something as stupid as that.”
Raea sighed. “I guess it’s the action that counts, even if it’s for the wrong reason.”
“Correct. Are you thoroughly cheered up yet or do I have to lather on some praise to boost your ego?” Palan said and snorted.
“You’re really excited about that wisdom thing, huh?” Raea said as she stood up and dusted off her pants.
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing,” Raea said and shook her head. She slapped her cheeks and took a deep breath. She looked at Palan. “What do we do now?”
“For now,” Palan said and slung the axes on his back, “we survive. You still haven’t fully recovered, right?”
Raea nodded. “I think I’ll need some time to come to terms with what has happened also.”
“There’s a decent looking shelter by the place I killed the greater demon,” Palan said as he walked forward. “We’ll rest there until you’ve recovered and decide after.” Raea nodded and took in a deep breath.
“Stop right there!”
Three figures stepped out of the woods as Palan and Raea turned around. Raea brought her hands to her mouth as tears formed in the corner of her eyes. Palan narrowed his eyes and snorted. “So you were still alive, old man.”