The first sun was beginning to rise by the time Palan returned to the camp. The four angels were sitting around a small fire underneath their shelter with bleary eyes, boiling a pot of soup in a metal cauldron. Owen had gone back to bury the dead throughout the previous week and salvaged some supplies. Emergency Victuals raised its head, ears swiveling towards the approaching footsteps. Raea rubbed the sleep out of her eyes and followed the dire wolf’s line of sight. “Palan!” she said as the demon’s figure came into view. She frowned and crawled out of the shelter before standing. “You were injured?”
“No,” Palan said as he yawned and took Raea’s spot in the shelter. “Let me sleep until noon.”
Raea frowned as she nudged Emergency Victuals away and sat next to Palan, her hands glowing white. Palan’s body shuddered as she placed her hands on his chest—the region with the biggest bloodstain. A low groan escaped from hiss lips as his left shoulder contorted and stitched itself back together. “You said you wouldn’t get hurt,” Raea said and bit her lip as sweat rolled down her forehead. The white light spread from the demon’s chest until his body was completely enveloped in a white film.
“I don’t see any injuries,” Palan said as he undid the bandages on his body and rolled them back up, placing them in his bag. Raea rolled her eyes as the light retreated. A short yell caught the duo’s attention and Raea turned her head to the side. Carmella was holding Cleo by the back of her neck, her arms and legs dangling in the air as she squirmed.
“Let go of me,” Cleo said as she tried to scratch Carmella. “I’m with him.” She pointed at Palan. Carmella raised an eyebrow in Palan’s direction.
“Kidnapping children?” Carmella asked. “Is that what you’ve been doing this whole time?”
Palan snorted. “I thought you got stuck at the wall,” he said towards the orange lizardman.
Cleo pouted. “That was really mean. You don’t know how long it took me to climb that,” she said as she stopped struggling in Carmella’s grip. “And then following after your tracks; I almost got eaten.”
“So you do know her,” Carmella said and placed Cleo onto the ground. “I was not expecting you to be so … kind.”
Palan shrugged. “Children are innocent,” he said as he leaned back against the tree trunk. “It’s not their fault that their parents are crap. Now shut up and let me sleep.”
Cleo’s stomach gurgled as she stared at the pot of soup suspended above the fire. Raea blinked and pat the ground in front of herself. “Are you hungry?” she asked. “You can sit here.” Cleo nodded and dashed over to Raea.
“We do not know if it is a spy or not,” Owen said and frowned as he gazed at Cleo. “Should we be trusting it this easily?”
“Well, if Palan chose not to kill the child, then I think we can trust it,” she said and smiled at the orange lizardman. “What is your name, child?”
“I’m not a kid,” Cleo said. “And my name is Cleo.”
“Are your parents okay with you being out here?” Raea asked as she frowned at the bloody handprint that Palan had left on Cleo’s head. “He”—Raea’s eyes shifted towards Palan—”did not really kidnap you, right?”
“My parents are dead,” Cleo said and shook her head. “It doesn’t matter where I go.”
“That…,” Raea said and bit her lip. She hugged Cleo who squirmed. “You poor child. I’m so sorry.”
Cleo wriggled out of Raea’s embrace and puffed her cheeks out. “What are you apologizing for? And I’m not a child. I’m twelve summers old.”
“Really?” Gerome asked and raised an eyebrow as he stirred the soup with a ladle. “I thought lizardmen matured earlier than that. Why are you so tiny?”
Cleo stared at her feet as her tail swished back and forth, smacking Emergency Victuals on the nose. It sneezed and shook its head before wandering over to Palan. Cleo mumbled, “I couldn’t get enough food for my growth spurt.”
“You’re really twelve?” Palan asked as he pushed the dire wolf’s head off his lap. “My sister stopped crying after she turned three.” The scales on Cleo’s face turned pink as she pursed her lips.
“I wasn’t crying,” Cleo said and stamped her feet on the ground.
Owen stared at the diminutive lizardman. “I think any child would cry after seeing his face,” he said as he gestured at Palan. “It is not unreasonable to be terrified by his countenance.” Palan glared at Owen and threw a rock at him. Raea slapped Palan’s wrist.
“I wasn’t scared of him either!” Cleo said. Her voice quavered and fell to a whisper. “It’s just … he was the first person to talk to me in a really long time.”
“What was that?” Raea asked as she turned back towards the lizardman. “You have to speak properly.”
“Nothing!” Cleo said and shook her head. “You’re all bullies.” She crossed her arms over her chest and pouted. She glanced at Palan, but his eyes were dull and staring at the dire wolf’s ears. “Is he alright?”
“He is just sleeping,” Raea said and nodded as she glanced at Palan. “He has been wandering at night a lot.”
“I know,” Cleo said and nodded. “He’s the shadow hunter.”
“Shadow hunter?” Raea asked and furrowed her brow.
Cleo blinked. “Yeah. He’s the one who’s been killing people at night. They say that by the time you realize he’s there, he’s already standing in your shadow.”
Raea’s face hardened. “Tell me more about this.”
“Don’t you two know each other?” Cleo asked and tilted her head. The angels stared at her in silence. “Okay, okay. Um, after the chieftain died, lots of important elders starting dying overnight. Then the chieftain’s brother took over as the new chieftain and announced a few rules. He said that the city was plagued by a demon and the only way to get rid of him was to listen to its demands. We weren’t allowed to be in the streets when the moon came out, and we had to paint a cross of blood on the doors.
“A lot of people didn’t listen at first and formed patrols to catch him, but they were killed when they were careless. To be fair, all the warriors went out a while back and haven’t come home yet. And when the people really grouped up, he killed their mates inside their houses instead. It was a lot easier to steal food at night when no one was around.” Cleo nodded. “Soon, everyone listened and stayed home at night, but the few people who still didn’t paint their doors were killed. He talked to the chieftain tonight and said that the killings would stop and angels would visit them tomorrow.”
Raea’s face was pale. “That’s—”
“Impressive,” Owen said. Raea glanced at her head guard and frowned. “I heard that most subjugations come with a large cost to the angel’s forces. He was able to subdue a whole village, albeit through some dishonorable methods.” Owen frowned at the sleeping demon. “He is still an insufferable asshole though; that will never change.”
Raea mumbled as she lowered her head. “Surely there could have been a more peaceful way.”
Gerome ladled out the soup into five wooden bowls. “They’re halflings,” he said. “They can’t be learned without force. No one’s going to cry over a few dead lizardmen.” Cleo frowned, but didn’t say anything as Gerome sheepishly passed her a bowl. “Sorry, forgot you were here.”
“Your language is becoming more and more informal as time goes on,” Owen noted as he received a bowl.
“Well, we’re all friends here, right?” Gerome asked. “It just doesn’t feel as stuffy as Captain Ishim’s squads.”
“Captain Ishim may not be here, but you still have to conduct yourself properly,” Owen said as he took a sip. “Not bad.” He nodded.
“More please!” Cleo said as she held out her empty bowl. She licked her lips as her stomach gurgled louder.
Gerome gaped at her and said, “I haven’t even finished passing the rest out yet.” Cleo blinked at him, holding her bowl out in front of herself. Gerome sighed and ladled another portion for her.
“I thought you disliked halflings?” Carmella asked as she sat down and picked up a bowl.
“I don’t dislike them,” Gerome said and shrugged. “I was just stating facts. Everyone knows that their main emotions are fear and aggression. You have to show them who’s boss before they’ll consider talking to you.”
“Is that true?” Raea asked Cleo, placing her bowl down in front of herself as she waited for it to cool.
Cleo nodded as she held out her bowl for a third serving. “The strongest warriors have the loudest voice,” she said. “We only stay attached to our parents until our growth spurt. After that, it’s attachments to our mates. Everyone else has to be bullied or yielded to.”
“That sounds like a less extreme version of Palan’s world,” Raea said and frowned. “Are angels really the only ones who can function as a proper society?”
Cleo snorted as she stared at the soup pouring into her bowl from the ladle. Her tail swished behind her.