The hiss and crackle of an open fire brought her back to full consciousness slowly, like a swimmer rising to the surface of some vast ocean.
She found herself looking at a campfire, blazing a flickering orange-gold light in defiance of the cricket-filled symphony of the night. In her half-awake state, the swaying flames held a terrible fascination in her eyes, with its comforting heat and familiar light…
“Oh, so you’re awake then.”
At once she sat up in a clatter of moving armor parts, her right hand reaching up to the sword strapped over her back-
-that was no longer there.
“You didn’t have any weapons on you when you arrived,” the stranger said.
She lowered her hand, squinting a little from across the campfire. The man who sat opposite her had positioned himself comfortably cross-legged on the grass turf, with his back against a sizable hunk of boulder. He had his arms folded, and his head tilted downward at an angle that, in the fire’s light coupled with his long white hair and distance from the fire, cast a shadow over his face.
“Who are you?”
He was silent for a moment, and she felt the weight of his disapproving frown in that frown. “I should be asking you that question,” he said slowly. “Since you’re the intruder here.”
She felt a sudden spike of fear drive through her, as some the long shadow of memory crossed her mind. “The monster...the shobatsu. Is it - ?”
“Gone. It couldn’t breach the circle.” The stranger elevated his gaze a little, and she caught a glimpse of a pair of sinister-looking crimson-gold eyes. When he spoke again, there was a dangerous tone in his voice that bespoke of his dwindling patience. “Who are you?”
“I’m Aria. Aria Seraphine of Syboria.”
“Right.” He gestured to a spot about two feet away from her, where a broken log rested. “Since you’re here and you can’t leave until morning, there’s some food and water left over there. Help yourself to as much of it as you can, Ms. Seraphine. I’m turning in early for the night.”
And with that he promptly dropped his head, and went as still as the stone behind him. Aria sat there in stunned silence for a moment before picking up her dropped jaw long enough to say, “What?”
He refused to respond, and she raised her voice a little higher. “Who are you?”
The stranger sighed. “Listen. I’ve been having some difficult circumstances lately, and I’d like to sleep and recover my strength while I can. So, if you could kindly do me a favor, Ms. Seraphine and keep mute until daylight? That would be very kind of you.”
She opened her mouth to say something, stopped and tried again. “Can I trust you?”
He looked up at her, and she could just make out a fair, somewhat handsome face to go with the eerie eyes. “I’ve offered you food and water,” he stated simply. “And my fire, despite your rude intrusion. I’m armed, and I can kill you if you take so much as two steps towards me, no matter how sleepy I am. You’re totally free to leave if you wish it, and I’m sure the shobatsu would be very pleased to enjoy your company. I will not rape or kill you in your sleep, and I doubt that a false knight running around in this part of the woods at night would have anything of value to steal. In this case then, I don’t believe you really have an option.”
“Goodnight, Aria Seraphine of Syboria.” He settled back down into repose, if it could be called that. This time the silence between them stretched for far longer, and she could only stare at her host in complete shock, her mind awhirl with multiple questions and unspoken demands.
Eventually, she broke out of her stymie and asked, “Can I at least know what I can call you?”
For a moment, she feared that he had actually fallen asleep on her. Just before she managed to convince herself of that, he spoke, “The name’s Reon.”
And with that, the stranger stayed silent for the rest of the night, the gentle rise and fall of his chest being the only indication that he was alive.
When she fell asleep, her dreams were filled with jagged recollections of her ordeal before meeting the stranger named Reon. She woke up more than once from them, shaking and sweating in fear only to meet the reassuring warmth of the campfire and the almost utterly still figure of her temporary host. The fact that he could be that fast asleep while somewhere in the forest, a monster roamed hunting for warm, living blood annoyed her.
He’s probably just an outlaw on the run, she thought as she tried to tuck herself in for the fourth time. Father had mentioned on more than one occasion how such criminals would hide in places that no sane being would think of, and feel not a pinprick of fear or respect in doing so. Father. The mental image of her old man, barking orders at his men while he lead them on a hunt for her, worried sick out of his mind made her throat clam up in grief. Aria sent a silent prayer to the good spirits, and asked for their aid in keeping him and the others safe from the monster. She turned over on the ground until she was face up, staring at an open expanse of star-speckled sky. She had managed to remove most of the armor she had been lent, keeping only the boots and the remaining gauntlet on her left arm, and the feel of the soft bed of forest foliage relaxed her a bit. Starlight, shining bright, she recited. Wish I may, well I lay. Bless this child with her humble request…
She remembered running in the woods, with the wind rushing past her, howling with madness. The moonlight lit the dark forest like the lamp of the Goddess herself, and she caught flashes of badgers and owls fleeing before her as she raced through the tangled maze of ancient trees.
No, they were not fleeing from her. They were escaping the gaze of the creature that was after her.
A roar broke the stillness of the night, and not far off behind her, she could hear as the shobatsu crashed through the woods, unheeding of the obstacles that stood in its way. Adrenaline made her blood thrum in her veins, and she poured more energy into her run, even as a calm and logical part of her mind warned of oncoming fatigue. Branches lashed out at her, scratching uselessly at the hard steel surface of her armor. She splashed into a puddle of mud at one point, but slogged through it with a fierce determination born out of fear. A glance behind her and she saw a bulky yet muscular creature racing on four limbs towards her, its three eyes glowing with an eldritch green light, yellow fangs dripping with what could have been blood…or perhaps venom. Moonlight flashed on skin that while looked like flesh, yet bore an uncanny resemblance to some odd metal. It was only ten, maybe eleven feet away, and when it bellowed, the sound was a terrifying mix of a bat’s screech and a human-like wail.
She turned her gaze forward, but then she tripped on an exposed root, bringing her down with a cry…only to find that the fall went on for far longer than it should have as she plunged off a cliff…