Maxi was about to make a teasing comment on Kilik's lack of fire wood, but when he saw a very distressed countenance on his friend's face he decided against it. Maxi crept closer, staying in the shadows as he overheard Kilik talk in such serious tones to Xianghua.
Upon hearing Astaroth's name, Maxi was over come with a wave of anguish for his lost comrades, but also revengeful glee at the thought of Astaroth being so close. Kilik was convincing Xianghua to pledge to secrecy. Kilik doesn't believe I'm strong enough... neither does Xianghua... Maxi thought with resentment and a bit of crushed confidence.
Maxi waited a few moments longer, crept back down the path, and this time when he returned, he was whistling, wearing a mask of a man who hadn't a care in the world.
"No luck with the firewood, eh Kilik? Never thought that would happen in a forest!" Maxi said in a lighthearted tone.
"Nonetheless, I'm afraid I was rather unlucky," Kilik replied in an equally false carefree voice.
"I better chop some then if we want to get this fire hot enough to cook anything," Xianghua smiled, walking over to the closest dead tree. Once out of Maxi's sight her smile dropped to a worried frown. I hope I can keep this up... for Maxi's sake. She used her swordplay, cutting limbs, hearing them thump on the ground. Kilik picked them up and put them on the fire as Maxi pulled out the stew pot, vegetables and a cutting knife.
"About our heading..." Kilik began. We can't go near Astaroth. He thought to himself.
"Yeah, what about it?" I'm a big boy, I can make my own decisions. Maxi thought irritably.
Kilik continued, "I think we should head northwest and avoid the mountains. Remember what happened last time?" Why does his face seem bitter?
"Oh yeah, I don't think I'll ever forget." Smile. I have to smile, he's catching on. "All right. North it is." Maxi said, dropping the vegetables in the pot.
He agreed to that awfully fast. What's his game? Or am I just imagining things? Xianghua thought before saying. "Unless you want to go south, maybe visit some of the seaside villages, huh?"
Nice try, China Girl. "It's a longer way south though isn't it?"
"Yeah, but I think we deserve a scenic route for a change." He sounds as if he's patronizing me! Am I that obvious? Xianghua thought sitting down by the fire pouring the tea.
Kilik sat down by her, thinking, Please, we're doing this be cause we care about you. "Really, it's all right to go south if you want to visit the ocean for a while, Maxi. It's been a long time since you've seen the sea, hasn't it?" Kilik asked. I guess I shouldn't be so bitter, they're just looking out for me, Maxi thought. "Well, all right if it's really ok...?"
"It is," Kilik and Xianghua said in unison. Thank goodness!
The rest of the evening passed like any other evening as the three laughed and talked until the moon had rose high in the sky. Then, bidding one another good night, they doused the fire and laid down ready for a night's rest and sweet dreams.
An owl's hooting woke Xianghua only an hour later. Rolling over and trying to find a comfortable position, her eyes fooled her for a moment in the darkness. She squinted hard to prove them wrong. But it was true.
Maxi was gone.
"KILIK!!!" Xianghua screamed, hitting Kilik's shoulder with the palm of her hand. "He's gone! He's gone!"
"Wha!! What? Who's gone?" Kilik shouted coming to his waking senses.
"Maxi! He's gone!" Xianghua pointed furiously at the empty spot where Maxi had bedded down. Kilik breathed deeply as he tried to clear his thoughts. It couldn't be...
"Are you sure he isn't just relieving himself again?"
"Feel his bed it's cold! He's been gone too long for that!"
"He wouldn't just go like that."
"Why not? Maybe he knew what we were trying to keep from him, didn't he seem to act kind of weird?"
"Well I suppose he was acting a little suspicious, but so were we."
"Forget that now! Ohmigosh, he's probably in that castle right now bleeding his guts out getting his head bashed in by Asterisk!" Xianghua shouted.
"Astaroth," came Maxi's voice.
"Whatever!" Xianghua snapped back immediately before the reality set in. "Oh... Maxi?" Without the aid of moonlight, Maxi had to practically step on Xianghua's toes before she would believe him.
"Maxi, you're all right!" Xianghua suddenly touching his head to convince herself completely that it was Maxi.
"Hey, watch the hair! Of course I'm all right."
"Where were you!" Xianghua demanded as if her Maxi was her little brother sneaking out of the house after curfew.
"I was thirsty. The canteen was dry, so I went back to that stream we passed a bit up the road before we set camp to fill it up. So what's with the thought of Astaroth bashing my head in?" Maxi tested.
"Oh that, Xianghua was having a bad dream," Klik said quickly.
"Y-yes, a horrible dream, Maxi. I'm sorry I made such a fuss."
Maxi didn't say anything as he took to his makeshift bed again to fall asleep. Xianghua and Kilik did the same. But they didn't sleep.
"Maxi?" she whispered. Maxi ignored her, hoping she wouldn't try to make up more cover story. "Maxi?" she whispered more loudly.
I don't want to hear anymore of it, he thought. I don't care if it is for good intentions, I don't want to hear anymore lies.he thought.
A gentle shaking of his shoulder didn't let him ignore it.
"What?" Maxi said in fake grogginess.
"Can I..." Xianghua started out shakily, "Is it ok if I sleep by you?"
"What? More bad dreams about me getting mutilated?" he accused. He looked at her with a sneer , but that dropped off his face at the sight of her lips pinched, her brow furrowed slightly with concern. She really was worried about him. She didn't want to tell him lies anymore than he wanted to hear them.
Maxi gave her a small half-smile. "Yeah. It's ok."
Xianghua laid down on his right resting her head by his shoulder. Kilik walked to Maxi left, removed his coat and sat down.
"Don't tell me you dream about me dying a horrible death too?" Maxi said.
"Actually I do," he said, "Although it's not because I think you're weak, it's because I think Astaroth is too strong for any one man," Kilik said without any apparent reason. But Maxi appreciated it.
Kilik spread his coat over the three of them and put his back to Maxi. They fell asleep in minutes.
The sky was a pale gray in the early hours of the morning. Maxi cautiously opened one eye to see Xianghua breathing steadily, still fast asleep. He gently turned his head to see Kilik also sleeping.
With slow, soft movements, Maxi brought himself to a seated position and slipped out from in-between them.
Without making a sound, he packed a day's worth of food and water in his knapsack. His boots were still by the sleeping duo. Maxi stepped softly to retrieve them.
All that was left to do was to write the goodbye note.
Thanks for reading. :-)