Greetings to my amazing readers! You guys are so awesome for taking time out of your busy lives for reading this little work of mine and I appreciate each one of you for doing so! Sorry for taking so long; things have been Crazy busy as of late, and I've been putting a crap-ton of thought into this (and a few other works I'll hopefully be publishing at a later date), so thank you all for being patient. A special shout-out to Asian Inkwell, CommChatter, Smonorkith, and Gorilla0132 for the advice and inspiration to keep this story going. If you haven't already, go check out their profiles and read, read, read! Trust me, you will be glad you did ;)
On a special note: This will be the last chapter I post for this draft of the story. I've read your reviews, taken some of your thoughts and requests into account, and spent basically my whole summer thinking of ways to make this story better, which hopefully, it will be much, much easier to read and just better over-all. I have already begun work on the next draft, and have taken great care to fix the faults you have no doubt found throughout. I have also heavily revised the last few chapters, so if you wanna go back and read what I meant to put in there, feel free to do so.
Again, thank you all so much for your support, your opinions, and most importantly, your patience. Please, keep up the good hopes, and lets make this post-apocalypse one of the best that ever graced a keyboard!
Thank you for your consideration, Stormynormal119
Crowe found himself completely at a loss. "Several," he asked incredulously, "What do you mean several? There was only that one!"
"That you killed directly," Smith finished. "But we believe you may have been indirectly responsible for killing the rest of the raiders."
"Me?" Crowe asked dumbfounded, "Indirectly? Didn't you hear me, I said the lightning killed them. Ask Carlos, he was right there when it happened!"
"We're not saying the lightning didn't kill them," Soul said reassuringly.
"Then what are you saying?"
Soul hesitated before answering, she then looked around at the people around her, then to Sensei for a few seconds. Something passed between them, Crowe didn't know how, but he was sure of it. He really wished these people would use their words more instead of passing glances.
Soul took a deep breath, then looked to Crowe and said, "What we're saying is, to put it bluntly: we think you were connected to the lightning. Possibly even responsible."
Crowe let her words sink in for a moment. "That's absurd," he retorted.
"Is it really?" Sensei asked him. "Is it absurd that the weather that day seemed to come from nowhere, and change alongside your emotions? That when you hurt, rain started falling? Or that the exact number of lightning bolts needed to kill the raiders came to do just what you wanted - to stop the fighting? Or maybe, when you fell unconscious, the rain suddenly stopped afterwards. Now does that sound absurd to you?"
"It was... it was a coincidence," Crowe said, "There wasn't supposed to be any rain that day."
"And yet there was!" Graves shouted.
"But not because I brought it!" Crowe said, getting up out of his seat, "I mean, for someone to... to conjure up a storm on a whim? That's impossible!"
"Impossible?" Smith repeated, "You saw this girl," he pointed to Varna, "heal from what were supposed to be fatal wounds in seconds; she healed you with ordinary water, straight out of a bottle with her own hands; you killed a grown hyena-man with a rock after you'd been bleeding out. After seeing all that, I don't think 'impossible' would still be in your vocabulary."
The man had him there. While Crowe had actually noticed the weather seemed to react to his emotional and physical states, he never presumed himself to be the real cause of it. "Even if it were possible, it doesn't mean I did it," Crowe said. "To control rain and lightning? You'd have to be a.. a..." he trailed off, trying to say a word he had been raised his whole life to fear.
"A what, Evan?" Audrey asked him.
"A mutant," Crowe said finally, "You'd have to be a mutant." He slowly sat back down in his chair and rubbed his forehead. "But you guys don't actually think I'm a..."
"While you were unconscious," Soul said, not meeting his eyes, "I ran your DNA through a few tests for any mutagen cells... Your blood tested positive every time."
For a few moments, there was silence in the room as Crowe tried to process what she just told him. Finally, Jethro broke the silence when he got up and said dryly, "I need a drink."
"Same here," Audrey said, getting up with him, and together they went behind the bar at the other end of the room.
"Mutant," Crowe said under his breath, his hands shaking with the revelation. "Mutant. Oh no. No no no," he pressed his hand against his forehead, trying to dismiss what the physician just told him. "I can't be a mutant."
"Yes you can," Smith told him firmly, "Is it really that hard to accept? It's not exactly rare these days."
"But how? I was tested, my blood was tested the day I was brought to Elkhart when I was an infant, and every six years since just like everybody else. They've never told me anything about me being a mutant. Ever. Unless the entire settlement was lying to me the last sixteen years."
"Probably," Varna said looking at him with her hands on her lap, "but probably not. The mutant genes don't fully develop until the body reaches adolescence, or sometime after; until then they lie dormant, undetectable as they mature. They never told you anything was amiss because, technically, there wasn't."
"And there still isn't," Carlos said quietly. Crowe had almost forgotten he was even there, despite the big guy sitting right next to him since he had been so quiet since he mentioned the fight in the woods. "I'm sorry," he said, looking at Sensei.
"Do not apologize," Sensei told him, "If I don't let my people speak their minds, then I'm no better than the Authority. Please, share."
Carlos sat up in his chair, "Alright, well... I said there wasn't anything wrong with him because there isn't. Being a mutant isn't a curse, Evan, like the Authority says it is; it's a gift. It's all about what you make of it."
Varna looked to Carlos with a thin smile forming on her face. "Well put," she said.
"So," Crowe said, "I'm a mutant. Great," he sighed. "I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing at this point, but what am I supposed to do now? I can't go back to Elkhart, or any of the other settlements; the Authority has mutant-detectors at all the gates. And I don't know if you guys would take in a mutant after what happened in the forest."
"What happened in the forest," Soul said, "wasn't your fault; it was a chain reaction caused by your emotions affecting weather particles for the first time, which you, in no way, could have anticipated. And don't think that simply because you're a mutant that we wouldn't take you in."
"That's right," Smith added, "We can teach you how to control your gift so you couldn't hurt anyone else. There are almost as many mutants here as there are regular humans, and they get along almost perfectly if you couldn't tell on your way in."
"Almost?" Crowe asked.
"We get a little amnesty from the newcomers," Varna said, "but that's typical human nature. And they get over it after they see their fears aren't justified here."
"Do you get newcomers often?"
"Not this time of year, no."
Crowe nodded, then took a deep sigh. "So what about you guys?" he asked the Circle, "Are you mutants too?"
"I am," Soul said, "as well as Varna and Carlos, which you already knew I'm sure, as well as Sensei." She pointed to the older man, who nodded after she spoke.
"Mutants leading a village," Crowe said idly, "You guys don't... look like mutants."
The Circle and Carlos chuckled at this, even Graves, whom Crowe was surprised learn wasn't a mutant. "Well what did you expect mutants to look like?" Smith asked him.
Crowe felt himself turn red at the thought and tried to think of what to say. "Well... I don't know. Tall, weird skin colors, extra fingers and eyes, stuff like that. I mean, not totally human-looking like you guys." They all laughed some more.
"Well, Mr. Crowe," Sensei said after they calmed down a bit, "I don't suppose you would mind having dinner with this group of human-looking mutants, would you?" Crowe didn't even have to think about it.
"No sir, I wouldn't mind at all."
"Excellent!" he said, smacking the table and standing up. "We eat later this evening. Mr. Smith, what time is it now?"
"Time to get a watch!" Audrey called from the kitchen.
"It's a quarter to three, sir," he said, actually checking his watch.
"Already?" Crowe asked, amazed at how much time had passed since he entered the house.
"Time flies when you change species," Carlos muttered to him.
"Yeah, no crap."
Soul stood up and told Sensei and Graves, "I need to speak to Earnest and Sanjita about the preparations for tonight, we still have things to finish before," she stopped herself when she remembered Crowe, "before the burning," she finished.
"Burning?" Evan asked Carlos quietly.
"Yeah, you'll see tonight. Just don't bring it up."
"You do that," Graves told Soul after lifting his massive body out of his seat, then turning to do a quick bow to Sensei. "I have another training session this afternoon and I'm not gonna be late for it. Am I, Carlos?" he asked as he picked up his sword off the rack began to leave.
"No sir." Carlos stood up and bowed to Sensei as well, then looked at Evan with a thin smile and pat his shoulder as he turned to leave after Graves. "See you later," he told Crowe.
"Adios," Crowe replied, to which Carlos smiled wide as he left with Graves. Just when the two of them left the room down the entrance hall, Audrey and Jethro emerged from the kitchen on the other side of the room.
"I gotta go too," Audrey said. "I'm teaching the kids 'tracking by scent' today." She bowed to Sensei, who returned her bow with his own. "Don't wanna miss that now." She waved to the others after she picked up her own sword then turned to leave, but not before passing a side glance to Crowe before she left the room.
"Is Crowe gonna be joining us for dinner tonight?" Jethro asked as he picked his hat up off the couch.
"I believe he will," Smith said, standing up and smiling wide.
"Sweet," he laughed as he put his hat on, then pat Crowe's shoulder with his free hand. "I can't wait."
"Me neither," Crowe muttered to himself. He was still praying to whatever gods were listening that these people weren't cannibals.
Some time after Jethro bowed and left to go about his duties, leaving Crowe alone with Smith, Soul, Varna, and Sensei, Crowe asked what he was supposed to do until that night. Smith offered to show Crowe around the village more, but Sensei told him no, saying Smith should rather "see to the proper 'post-burning' arrangements" planned for that night; whatever that meant, Crowe had no idea, but Smith seemed to understand as he left with his sword from the rack and without question. At the point, Crowe assumed the curved swords were a Circle-member only kind of thing, as none of the other villagers he saw on the way in were carrying any. Soul followed shortly after, saying again that she was needed in the infirmary for preparations, and left after Smith, leaving Crowe alone with the old Eastern man and the blonde girl who saved his life.
There was an awkward silence when Sensei sat back down, giving Crowe a quizzical look, while Varna sat shifting her gaze from the center coffee table to Sensei, then back again, having not moved from her seat once the entire time they were there. She looked like she was thinking hard about something, trying to make a decision, while Sensei looked as if he was examining Crowe for something. Crowe, not knowing what to do, tried looking around the large room for points of interest and whatever caught his eye. Finally, he could not take anymore and looked at Sensei, who seemed to almost have a sad look on his face. Varna's didn't look much better.
"So I uh.." Crowe said, trying to think of what to say, "I'm sorry if you think I was rude earlier."
"I do not think you rude," Sensei told him, his voice gentle, "just uneasy, as a dog is to a new pack. Yet I can see you are not afraid, are you?"
"Should I be?" Crowe asked him.
"That is up to you. Fear is an object of the mind which drives us from knowing the unknown. I can promise you have nothing to fear with us, as no one here wishes you harm; and if there are any that do, justice will be swift. I guarantee it."
Varna looked up at Sensei and raised an eyebrow as he spoke. There he went again, using 'promise' like it held little meaning for the expectations of the mind. She was definitely going to have to speak to him about it later.
"You still didn't answer my question though," Crowe told the old man. "What am I supposed do? Should I stay here, or go back to the infirmary until tonight? Do you want me to leave, go back to my own village?"
Sensei chuckled, "Do you honestly think you can walk the entire way across the valley and through the mountains as you are now? With no food, no protection, no way to tell north from south? And even after that you would have to journey through the entire forest on foot, and only during the day, because the night hunt is what the skin-walkers and Nyah Gwaheh live for. You're certainly welcomed to try, but I do not recommend it." The man was not taunting Crowe, but he had a point. He was in no condition to make such a journey, let alone one where he would be by himself, unarmed, and without proper means of transport and sustenance. And even if he made it back to the village in one piece, what would happen? His friends, even his 'family' would reject him upon finding out he was a mutant, which they would eventually. And then there was what the Authority would do to him, which was another matter entirely.
"We could give him a ride," Varna offered, "or at least a weapon and enough food and supplies for the trip. Maybe even an escort."
"We could," Sensei replied. "If that is his choice," he looked at Crowe, "Do not think we are keeping you here as a prisoner, Mr. Crowe. If you can promise to keep my village's location secret, and you wish to leave, you may; we'll even help you as best we can. If you would like to return to your own village, or any of the neighboring settlements, we will take you; or if you prefer a life of solitude, away from the Authority and the world, we will understand that."
"But Sensei-" Varna objected.
"It is his choice," the old man repeated sternly.
"And even with winter coming, you would send him off into the woods alone?" she interjected.
"That is not for me to say!" his voice was suddenly harsh, his accent more pronounced, and enough to shut up the girl. She looked at the floor in regret and folded her hands on her lap.
"I apologize," she told him. Sensei grunted in reply and looked back at Evan.
"So what would you have from us, Mr. Crowe? What is your decision?" he returned to his gentle tone.
Evan thought about what he wanted, then remembered decision making was never a strong point of his. "I don't know," he said. "She's right though," he gestured to Varna sitting next to Sensei, "winter's coming, which means travel will be more difficult, on foot or with transport... And I don't think I can go back to my home, or the other villages, can I?"
"Of course you can," Sensei told him, "but I would not recommend it. You are a mutant, Mr. Crowe, that much is clear. Simply because of this, the Authority will mark you as an enemy of the State and an affront to humanity, and if you are not killed immediately, you will live out your days belonging to them. Either way, your death will be imminent. And it will not be quick either."
Crowe swallowed hard as he thought about what would happen if the Primicerius found out he was a mutant. If he returned home, the Authority would surely learn about his mutation, one way or another, and he would most likely be branded, then shipped off to wherever mutants dangerous enough to kill were sent. He would spend the rest of his life as a slave to the Novus Primicerius, which he knew would be short indeed.
"There is another option," Sensei said, "You could stay with us, here at Silverleaf. You would be given food, shelter, and promise of a life without the Authority's rule. Granted, you would have to live by our code, our lifestyle, but I think with time, you could grow to accept us."
The offer was too good to pass up: a life without the Authority. Something Crowe had always dreamed of. Yet there was still one small problem.
"Aren't you worried about what could happen if you kept me here though? I mean, I caused all those men to die in the woods, and I don't know how it happened, but... I'm afraid it might happen again. I am dangerous. Too dangerous," as he said it, Evan accepted in his heart that that's what he was. A mutant. A danger to himself and those around him, a blight to humanity. Maybe the Authority was right in wanting his kind kept away, locked up someplace where they couldn't hurt anyone. The potential for destruction was just too great to ignore.
That's exactly what they want you to think, Evan, his conscience told him. Or more like shouted; he thought someone was literally screaming to him from outside the house. Almost sounded like someone he knew. And to him, it sounded like a girl. Evan had never noticed before, but in the back of his head, he always assumed his inner voice would be more... masculine. And stranger yet, the voice had been more pronounced, much more active since he entered the house only a few hours ago.
"We could help you with that," Sensei said, which got Evan's attention. "We could teach you to control your power. How to hone your gift and use it for the greater good."
"You would do that?" Crowe asked him, genuinely touched by the offer.
"It is what we do. We are a haven for humans and mutants alike, and we strive to keep it so by showing humans that mutants are not the mindless murderers they are often thought to be."
Crow mulled over the man's words, then without thinking twice he looked up at Sensei and said, "Alright. I'll do it, I'll stay with you guys. Besides, I still have questions."
"I can imagine you do," Sensei chuckled. "And we will have plenty of time for answers tomorrow. But first, we must get you settled in. Ms. Varna," he addressed her, "would you mind showing him to an appropriate cabin?"
"A cabin, master?" she asked him, suddenly thrown off by his request.
The old man grunted in reply. "I am nobody's master, girl. And I know we have several beds not being used, and I believe Mr. Crowe would like some rest before tonight."
The girl paused before nodding. "Yes, Sensei," she said as she stood up. She bowed to the old man, then turned and went to pick up her white-wrapped sword from the rack next to the wall.
"And as for you, Mr. Crowe," he said getting up and walking to Evan to shake his hand, "we shall meet again at the feast tonight."
Crowe shook the man's hand in reply; he had a firm grip, the bases of his fingers were rough with callouses. "I can't wait." He released the man's hand, then attempted a bow just as the others had done. It was awkward to him, as he had never bowed to anyone before, but Sensei seemed to appreciate the act anyway, and bowed in return.
Evan had turned to follow Varna outside the building, who was already standing at the threshold of the strange sliding door, sheathed sword in hand. She nodded for him to go ahead, and he did so, walking passed her and into the dimly-lit entrance hallway. She followed, picking up a brown coat on a hanger nearby, then slid the door shut behind her.
As he reached the front door with minimal trouble (after he stubbed his shoeless foot on the wooden corner of an low hallway table), he picked up his leather shoes off of the shelf and placed them on his feet, then went out the front door, Varna close behind. He was unprepared for the light of the sun, which was well past its zenith and now shining directly towards the front of the Blue House, and winced as he cupped his hand over his eyes and slowly made his way to the steps.
"Evan Crowe," a voice croaked to his left. Crowe turned to see Giles, who he had almost forgotten about, still sitting on his rocking chair, looking directly into the sunlight, his hands resting on the rounded wooden arms of the chair. "You be careful out there. World's tough enough when you have a roof over your head. Don't need to make it worse by collectin' enemies, hear?" Crowe had no idea what the man was talking about, but before he could comment, Varna put her hand on his shoulder.
"Don't worry about him," she said quietly, putting on her jacket, "He just loves spouting off nonsense when anyone will listen." She nodded down the steps, and Evan understood and resumed walking.
"Nonsense?" Giles called behind her as she reached the bottom of the steps. "Do you think demons are nonsense too now, gal?" She stopped in her tracks, turned and shot him a glare so fierce, the old man would have turned to stone had he been able to see it. Crowe wondered what Giles really said to earn such a look.
"Goodbye, Giles," she said calmly. The girl then whipped back around and marched to the gate, hands balled tightly into fists. Once she reached the gate, she stopped just short of opening it, closed her eyes and took a deep breath, then regained her calm demeanor. She looked at back to Crowe, who she realized was nervous after seeing her death-glare. Well, from one side anyway.
"Sorry you had to see that," she told him. "He just... frustrates me sometimes. The way he says the first things that come to mind, and how he talks about personal problems like they're no big deal."
"And demons, apparently," he said, raising an eyebrow.
Varna closed her eyes, breathing deep, forbidding herself to react emotionally. Don't let it out again, she warned. Don't, especially not to him; he's too new, too important. "Like I said, personal problems," she said it casual enough, but she hoped he could have taken the hint not to mention it again; thankfully, he said nothing. Varna slid her sword into her belt, then opened the gate, allowing Crowe to go out first. She followed, closing the gate, and taking a long look at the house she knew as home. Her first one in a long while.
"So, Varna," Crowe started.
"Wait," she cut him off, making him stop before her on the trail. "Before we keep going, you should probably know that Varna's not really my name."
"What?" he asked her, completely caught off guard by the statement. "So, that's not your name? Then what is it?"
"Well, Varna is my name. My surname."
"Ahh," Crowe figured as much when he heard the name earlier; he thought it was a strange name for a young girl. "So what's your first name then?"
She walked up until they were standing beside each other, then looked him in the eyes. "Lori," she said. "My name is Lori." She raised the tip of her mouth into a smile, then resumed walking.
"Lori," Crowe said to himself in a low voice, still standing in place as he processed the name. Lori Varna. He smiled at the discovery, then realized she was already almost at the bottom of the hill. He jogged after her, meeting up with her just as she reached the base, saying her name over and over in his head. Lori...