The refugees hiked through the forest, the dense foliage impeding their progress. It took them the rest of the daylight hours to walk approximately twelve miles. The group found a cave, made of two rocks jutting at an angle over them. They settled for the night.
Adish studied the remaining survivors. Most of them seemed downcast; then he saw Ekram.
The man hadn't been coping with the raid well. He blamed himself for the loss of the other survivors. His tired gray eyes wouldn't look up from the ground, and his shoulders were slumped. The man was the image of depression.
Another survivor, a woman called Gersemi, took notice and sat next to him. The woman, being the second oldest survivor under Ekram, was around thirty-six.
"Hey, it wasn't your fault, y'know. They came out of nowhere."
Ekram's head snapped up and met the woman's eyes. She smiled tentatively at him, and he turned back to the ground.
"I didn't see them, and now three of us are dead. I have their blood on my hands."
Gersemi paused, thought for a moment, then grabbed his hands and slid his gloves off.
"Hey, what do you think you're-"
She turned his hands over, and traced over his palms, pretending to search for something.
"Hmm. That's funny, I don't see anything on your hands. No blood. Maybe you have something smudged on your glasses."
She tossed his gloves at him and stood up, heading back over to her fellow refugees. Adish shot her a grateful look. She simply smiled and ran her fingers through her short black hair.
The next day, the group packed their meager belongings and started, once again, on their trek through the jungle. Ekram, always the loner in their group, hesitated before sidling over to Gersemi, who greeted him warmly.
The refugees traveled in silence, casting wary looks into the shadowy foliage. Natural predators were as much of a danger as the Rebellion. The silence grew unbearable. Suddenly, Achada started to sing. A few of the others recognized it, and sang along. Eventually, the whole group was singing and laughing to the tune, and for once in a long time, were enjoying themselves.
It's such a sad thing that happy moments can't last forever.
The trees were thinning. It was hard to notice at first, but now light filled almost all the space around them. The only remaining child- a girl, still small enough to be carried in someone's arms, looked up and tried to smile, but the bandage encasing most of her face only permitted her a little grin. It was her one uncovered eye that expressed her joy.
The small little group finally broke free of the tree line. Stepping forward into an open meadow, there was no movement in the group. Suddenly, Gersemi grabbed the little girl- Mina, she said her name was- and began laughing, spinning around the opening. She grabbed Ekram, and together they danced across the field. Achada and Adish joined them, and soon everyone was twirling around the meadow. They didn't know what was going to happen to them, but they were alive. The future was clouded, but it was better than their all too clear past.
They would never give up.
They didn't notice the columns of smoke immediately. No, they noticed the faint explosions first. Achada and Ekram sprinted to the top of the hill and froze in horror. There was a town below them.
Smoke rose snakelike from the town square. Explosions rocked the outskirts. Faint screams could be heard- screams of the dying, sick, and hopeless. The Sickness had been released upon the town, along with the Rebellion's wrath. Those who tried to escape were ensnared by explosions, shrapnel shredding them unmercifully.
Achada and Ekram tore themselves away from the sickening sight. They raced back to their group. Adish saw the lack of color in their faces, the expressions of fear. He knew.
"Adish, we need to get out of here. Let's go back into the woods, or towards the mountains. We can't stay anywhere near here." Ekram was frantic. It was too much like their old town.
All of their joy was gone. There was nothing to be happy about anymore. The town had reminded them.
They walked miles that day. The mountains were far to the west, but they needed a goal. Something to motivate them. Living was no longer good enough of a motivation.
Then, they found the children.
They were sitting alone under the shade of a lonely tree. One had her arms wrapped around the other. No one else was in sight.
The oldest could not have been over thirteen. She had dark rings under her eyes, and her wild green eyes were filled with terror. The boy lying in her arms was unmoving. His face was turned towards the girl's stomach; they couldn't see his face, but judging by his size, he couldn't have been older than four.
She studied them from her spot, as still as a statue. Her arms tightened around the boy.
Achada slowly moved towards her. The girl recoiled, hissing.
The woman stopped, then resumed her careful advance forwards.
The girl glared at Achada under her matted hair. She was dragging the boy back now, away from the woman.
Achada's heart sank as she noted the trail of blood following the younger child. The girl saw her staring at her companion, and she tugged at him frantically, trying to get away from Achada. Then, the boy's head lolled back, and Achada saw.
She saw the flesh on his once chubby face had turned a dark green mottled with purple. She saw the sores around the boy's neck that had burst open, saw the shoulders that looked like ground meat. She saw everything. She saw the unseeing eyes, the empty, expressionless eyes, and the jerky flailing of his arms, on which the skin had split open, releasing a steady trickle of blood.
Achada stumbled back, horror filling her heart. It was the Sickness. They both had it; the girl wasn't showing signs yet, but she would eventually.
The boy would probably live for a few more hours. The girl had a day before her signs appeared.
A member of their group stepped forward. Idris. The man's face was grave. He approached Adish.
"You know what we must do. We cannot allow them to infect anyone else. It will end their suffering sooner."
Adish glanced up at the giant of a man. Idris met Adish's gaze with his own. His grey eyes betrayed no emotion. He was right; they all knew. Yet, no one was willing to kill this strange girl and her dying brother.
Idris' sister, Arvid, stepped forward. The short woman was wiry, and was perhaps the most experienced fighter in their little group. She carried her rapier and at least two pistols on her person at all times, and her cold, unfeeling eyes showed no feeling. The two had nothing in common besides their olive skin, but were capable of holding their own.
" I will dispose of the children."