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After the Slide


by 77thbigby

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The silence was deafening.

      Just moments ago, a flood of earth and rock had thundered down the mountain. In sixty seconds, a small village had been obliterated. There were no survivors.

      Well, almost no one.

      Lan, a middle-aged Camouflage Skeith, had been returning from a trip and saw the disaster from a distant ridge. Helpless, he could only watch in horror as the only home he ever knew was completely buried. He hurried to the site, stopping at the edge of the slide. His village had been wiped away as if it had never existed. The loss weighed heavily on his shoulders, and so did the silence.

      Until a shrill cry broke through the quiet.

      The Skeith headed out across the landslide, large feet sticking in the mud. He sank deep but with great effort kept moving, urged on by the distraught cry. It was hard, slow going but, thankfully, he didn’t have far to go. The sound was coming from the very edge of the slide. It took some searching, but he finally found the score.

      It was a baby Stealthy Draik, hidden in a brick alcove. Though she was screaming at the top of her lungs, she appeared to be unhurt. Most remarkable of all, she clutched a golden choker with an emerald pendant. The village was small enough that Lan knew everyone by name, as they had known him. He knew this baby was Jin Lee, daughter of Kai and Huan Lee.

      Unlike most of the other villagers, the Lees had only been in the village for a couple generations. Before that, they had come from Shenkuu as a disgraced noble family. They had been banished to the remotest mountain village for some slight, whether real or imagined. They had struggled to adapt to village life, clinging to the hope that their banishment was temporary. The only trace left of this once noble family was the golden choker…and now this baby.

      Lan had been a bachelor his entire adult life. He had no experience with children and certainly none this young. Though, they were the lone survivors of the landslide. He was woefully ill-equipped to care for a baby, but he wasn’t about to abandon her to- He didn’t finish the thought, scooping up the baby into his arms, mud, tears, choker, and all.

      It was now late in the day, and Lan looked for a place to spend the night. It was spring, but nights could be freezing in the mountains. Thankfully, Lan had been born and raised in these mountains and knew them better than anyone. It also helped that he had his travel pack with him. It wasn’t long at all before he settled them in a sheltered alcove with a crackling fire.

      Now, what to feed you? Lan wondered as he looked at the still fussing baby. Of course, he was hungry, dirty, and in a strange place without a familiar face to comfort her. Not to mention, she was stuck with some Skeith who didn’t know the first thing about babies. Thankfully, he could see that she had some teeth. That meant she could handle solid food, right?

      All Lan had was a cup of rice, two dumplings, a handful of mixed nuts and an orange. Hardly enough to feed himself, but it would have to be enough. Slowly, carefully, he fed Jin. She ate a little rice and dumpling eagerly. After that, she was content to gnaw on an orange slice before spitting it out. At last, mercifully, she was quiet.

      Lan tried settling Jin into his now empty pack, but she fussed almost immediately. After some trial and error, the big Skeith discovered the baby Draik wouldn’t be content unless she slept on his chest. He was unused to the weight and worried he might accidentally drop her. Though, she wasn’t happy with anything else. At last, they settled into a restless sleep.

     Now what to do with you? Lan fed Jin and cleaned up camp. He was tired and hungry, but that would have to wait. He needed to figure out what he was going to do with his life now. Most importantly, he needed to figure out what he was going to her with her.

      The baby’s dark scales blended in with the shadowy interior of their rocky shelter, the only visible feature her big, sky-blue eyes. They were two of a kind now, survivors of a landslide without a home or family to turn to. Of course, that’s where their similarities ended. Their shared experience didn’t mean they were stuck together for the rest of their lives.

      Right?

      Lan had never planned to have children, content with his life as a bachelor. He was well aware of his inadequacies as a caretaker for someone so small and dependent. He would have to hand her over to someone else far more capable and willing to raise her. Of course, there was no one around here to do that. The best place to find that would be the Imperial City.

      He hated the city. It was far too big and crowded for his tastes. He had just come back from a trip there and had no desire to return so soon. Not to mention it was a weeklong journey to get there. Unfortunately, there was no help for it.

      They had to go.

      With a plan of action set, Lan quickly created a makeshift sling from his blanket to carry Jin with. She weighed no more than his pack usually did. Then, he set off on the familiar trail, turning his back for the last time on the place he had called home. The loss, he knew, would stay with him for the rest of his life. Already, he was adjusting to its added weight.

      For the next two days, Lan travelled along narrow, winding mountain paths carrying Jin on his back. They didn’t see any signs of life other than the occasional track of a wild Petpet. In that time, they adapted to each other. Jin smiled and babbled at him. He no longer feared accidentally crushing her during the night and learned that she liked it when he talked to her.

      On the third day, they made it to the nearest village.

      “Lan? What are you doing here so soon?”

      “Why do you look like you’ve been wallowing in a mud puddle?”

     “Is that a baby?!”

      Naturally, Lan’s sudden reappearance and with a baby in tow was quite a shock. As the villagers crowded around, he told them about everything that had happened since he saw them a week ago. The villagers broke out in horrified gasps and murmurs at the news.

      “That’s enough talk for now,” Bo, a Camouflage Yurble and a village leader, said. He gave Lan a sympathetic look. “You’ve been through a lot, and I can see you’re exhausted. Both of you need a good meal, a hot bath, and a safe place to sleep.”

      “Give me the baby, Lan,” Hua, a Pastel Yurble and Bo’s wife, said. “We’ll take over her care. I’m sure you could use the break.”

      Lan gave them both a grateful look. “Yes, thank you.”

      Jin squirmed a bit, but Hua was a natural with two children of her own. She rocked the baby Draik and cooed, pacifying Jin before she could break into a fuss.

      Lan got himself cleaned up and into fresh clothes. Then, he joined his hosts for a meal. They were not a wealthy village, not much bigger than Lan’s. Yet, their generosity knew no bounds. They willingly shared what they had with those that needed it.

      It was here he was reunited with Jin. To his surprise, Lan found that he had missed her. She looked clean and happy but eagerly reached for him when she saw Lan. He settled her in his lap with practised ease. For the first time since he became her guardian, he didn’t have to worry about going hungry to keep her fed.

      Lan had missed adult conversation, and it flowed easily, staying light until dinner began to wind down.

      “Any idea what you’re going to do now?” Bo asked.

      Lan shook his head. “Not really. I have no family to speak of. I have nothing to keep me here but nothing to draw me away, either. I guess I’ll figure it out as I go along.”

      “You’re always welcome here. We could find something for you.”

      “Thank you, Bo. I appreciate the offer.”

      “What about her?” Hua asked, nodding her head towards Jin, who was chewing contentedly on a rice cake.

      “Well, she’s an orphan now, so I was going to take her to Imperial City to find her a home. Unless someone here wants her,” Lan said quickly.

      “Most folks around here would love to but either have enough on their hands already or simply can’t afford to,” Bo said.

      “Why don’t you keep her, Lan?” Hua asked.

      Bo turned to his wife. “Don’t be silly, Hua! He’s only been a bachelor his whole life. What could he possibly need or want a baby for?”

      “Bo is right, I have no business raising a baby,” Lan said.

      “Perhaps not, but you did save her life,” Hua pointed out. “I know you don’t have experience, but none of us do at the start. Bo and I can help you with advice and supplies as needed.”

      Lan looked down at Jin. She looked up at him, hands sticky from dinner and smiled, one fang poking out and a spot of drool glistening on her chin. Could he? He looked back up at their hosts. “No, I’ll see her safely to Shenkuu. Someone there will be sure to take her.”

      Their hosts didn’t try to argue, and dinner ended. Lan settled down for the night, Jin already fast asleep. Yes, he had grown to like her, but it was only temporary. He wasn’t about to get used to it. They would be parting ways soon enough.

      Their journey to Shenkuu continued. Each day they drew closer to the capital brought increasing signs of civilisation. Villages grew bigger and closer together. The road became broader, rutted with cart tracks, and they had company along the way more often than not. Then, on the seventh day of their journey, they arrived.

      Shenkuu stood tall on closely clustered peaks, connected by wooden bridges. Shrouded in mist, it was rarely full visible. Gone were the scents of crisp mountain air and evergreens. In its place was fried food and incense. Lan’s belly rumbled expectantly.

      In no hurry to get rid of his young charge, the Camouflage Skeith stopped at a familiar food stand.

      A Pear Chia greeted him warmly. “Well, this is a surprise! What brings you back to Shenkuu so soon?”

      “It’s a long story,” Lan began, as Jin popped over his shoulder to wave at the Pear Chia.

      She gaped for a moment. “Well, I’ve got time to listen. You want your usual?”

      “That would be wonderful. Thank you, Lí.”

      Over a bowl of steaming ramen, Lan shared his story for the second time since the landslide.

      Lí frowned, expression full of sympathy. “How horrible! For both of you.”

      Lan flinched as his gaze drifted to Jin, seated next to him. She had somehow gotten a hold of the gold choker and was waving it around in delight. He hadn’t told anyone about that. He quickly removed it, appeasing her crow of protest with a rattle gifted to her by Hua. He quickly stuffed the choker into the bottom of his pack.

      The Skeith glanced around uneasily and only relaxed when he realised the street was empty. He looked back at Lí, who had raised her eyebrows in surprise but didn’t speak. He had known the Pear for about a decade now, and he felt he could trust her. Even so, the incident unsettled him. As long as he was in the Imperial City, he would feel on edge.

      “Thanks for the ramen, Lí, but it's time we were going,” Lan said.

      “Any time, Lan,” Lí said, waving goodbye to Jin as they left.

      Lan didn’t get very far before he sensed he was being followed. He kept up his regular pace and didn’t look around but was alert for danger. One of the many things he hated about Shenkuu was the fact that it had tall buildings and narrow streets. It offered many opportunities for ambushes. Too many.

      The Camouflage Skeith came to an abrupt halt as a Starry Grarrl blocked his path. Looking back, a White Kyrii and Yellow Ixi cut off any hope of retreat. Three against one. He could handle that.

      “Are you going to let me pass?” Lan asked. “I have nothing of value.”

      “Whit here saw your baby playing with a shiny bauble. Hand it over, and nobody gets hurt,” the Grarrl said.

      “You’re mistaken.”

      “I saw it, Butch!” the Kyrii piped up.

      “Just not about the bauble, but my baby and I will pass.”

      Mindful of Jin on his back, Lan charged forward. The Grarrl braced himself, and Lan grabbed the Grarrl about the shoulders. While the Grarrl was heavier, Lan had greater upper body strength. They grappled before Lan got in a good hit, knocking his opponent out.

      Looking over his shoulder, he could see the way was clear once more. The Grarrl had been the biggest threat. He had guessed the other two wouldn’t stick around once he had been dealt with.

      “Looks like I was right,” Lan grunted.

      Jin cooed in response.

      The Skeith reached up to clasp one of the baby Draik’s hands.

      My baby.

      In the moment he said it, he realised it was true. Somehow - he didn’t know when - Jin had become his, and he had become hers. He couldn’t give her up. He understood that now. He didn’t know where they would go or what they would do.

      All he knew was that they would do it together.

     The End.

 
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