- Jack?.. Jack!.. Jack!!! Where in hell could he be? - the heavy set woman with tired face looked around and let out an exasperated sigh.
- Don't worry Martha, - a middle-aged man said quietly. His eyes were the eyes of the man who hasn't slept in weeks. - He'll come.
- He is turning sixteen tomorrow! - she said angrily. - I understand that he feels very happy about that event…
- Wouldn't you, Martha? - the man smiled with a very weak, exhausted smile.
- I guess I would, - she admitted. - But is it so hard to help out here, at his own home for the love of God!.. Is it so hard to help me just once in a while?…
- He is young, - the man said in barely audible voice.
- David, you need to get at least some rest, - she said, looking at him with concern. - They are going to work you to death!
- I know, Martha… After this run there will be no more.
- You say that before every run, - she said starting to roll the dough with the rolling pin. - One of those runs can actually become your last one.
- Martha, I promise you…
- No! - she shot him a dark look. - Do not promise anything. Breaking promises is the worst thing for the soul…
- Martha… - he whispered, his eyes almost closed when suddenly someone kicked the door of their little house open.
Martha looked up, startled and her dough fell on the floor.
- Oh for the love of…. Jack!!
- Hello Mother, hello Father, - a tall boy walked into the house. His light brown hair falling on his face.
- Hello son, - David said quietly.
- Jack! Where were you? - Martha demanded retrieving the dough from the floor.
- With Peter, - the boy shrugged. - And Sue, - he added with a wide grin.
- Still friends with those kids, - Martha muttered, furiously pushing the rolling pin against the dough. - After all those times I told you that they are no good…
- They are the best, - Jack grinned and grabbed a biscuit from a big plate that was sitting by the window.
Martha shook her head and kept working her rolling pin without looking at him.
- Jack, - David said softly, getting on his feet. - I need to talk to you.
Martha stopped rolling the dough and stared at her husband, her eyes squinted angrily.
- Are you going to talk about that nonsense again? - she demanded. - David, I told you already! I don't want our only son to get all that trash in his head! It's bad enough that you are… - she turned away without finishing the sentence.
- It's quite all right Mother, - Jack said lightly. - I don't think I am in any danger of becoming one of Dad's followers, - he grinned. - Besides, - he added - Sue told me that she wants me to be a banker or something…
- Walk with me, Jack, - David said quietly.
They walked outside and David looked up in the blue sky.
- It's a beautiful day, - he said with a smile. - I never notice lately how beautiful the sky is…
- I guess, - Jack shrugged indifferently. - What did you want to talk to me about?
David sighed and looked into his son's pale grey eyes thinking that Jack is going to be a handsome man one day.
- Have you had any strange dreams lately? - he asked softly.
- Depends on what you mean by strange, - he grinned. - I dream of Sue a lot…Sometimes those dreams turn quite strange.
- Sue… - David muttered. - No, that is not what I mean. Have you dreamed of anything… very unusual? Anything out of ordinary? Anything…
- No, Father, - Jack interrupted him rather impatiently. - We've been through this already! I am not one of… you, - he finished with a wince. - If I were, I'd figure it out by now. Didn't you say you knew who you were when you turned thirteen?
- It's different for everybody, Jack, - his father said quietly. - But I guess you are right… If you were a Jaeger, you'd know by now.
- Well then, I am off the hook, - Jack grinned and threw a rock into a tree. - And to be honest, I am quite happy about that, - he added. - As I said before, Sue wants me to become a banker.
- Right, - David nodded. - A banker… You are serious about that girl, aren't you?
- Very, - Jack nodded. - As a matter of fact I am going to ask her to marry me next week, - and he smiled.
- Jack, - David said carefully. - Why won't you wait a little bit longer…
- No! - Jack interrupted him. - Father, I am almost sixteen. I am not a Jaeger, face it! You said that once you turn sixteen, there is no chance for you to hear whatever you call it…
- The Calling, - his father said with a sigh.
- Yes, that… And, frankly, I'd much rather to become a banker than some dubious demon hunter who can't make enough money to move his family into a decent house…
David winced at that. Jack shrugged.
- That's what I think, Father, - he said. - And I am sure that Mother will be happy with my choice.
- Yes, - his father muttered. - She'll be very happy…
- Oh! - suddenly Jack slapped his forehead. - I forgot! I need to tell Sue to come here tomorrow at noon… - he smiled. - I want her here before everybody else starts to show up… I'll come back soon! - and he almost ran out of the gate.
David watched him disappear around the corner and sighed.
- I suppose he is off the hook, - he muttered.
… Jack was walking fast down the dusty trail. He was whistling to himself softly, his hands shoved into his pockets. He was thinking about Sue, about her fine blond hair and porcelain skin. He thought about how her blue eyes are going to light up when he gives her the ring tomorrow. He was planning on proposing to her before the next week. He planned on doing it tomorrow at noon. He didn't want to tell David about it because his father was obsessed with Jack's becoming a Jaeger and Jack loathed the very thought. He didn't find the idea of hunting some demons or creatures of the night for the rest of his life very appealing. Especially since Sue firmly told him that he'll need to be able to make enough money so she can spend as much as she wanted and anytime she wanted. And Sue knew how to spend money with a flourish. She was so good at it that Jack who's been working two jobs for the past six months never had a penny in his pocket that she wouldn't spend on clothes or shoes. He didn't mind that. He liked to spoil her.
… He walked into their house without knocking and Peter who sat by the table immediately jumped on his feet, his face almost panicked.
- Jack! - he said fast. - What are you doing here?
- I need to talk to Sue, - Jack said with a grin.
- She is…. - Peter's eyes were the eyes of a trapped man. - She is sleeping, - he said so quickly that Jack immediately knew he was lying.
- Sleeping? - he frowned. - What's wrong, Peter?… Oh God… Is she sick?! She is sick, isn't she?
- Yes! - Peter nodded so fiercely that something snapped in his neck. - She is really sick… She's been throwing up ever since you left… Not a pretty sight. She finally fell asleep so just let her sleep, okay? - he was jabbering non stop while trying to push Jack out of the house.
Suddenly there was a loud moan from behind Sue's bedroom door. Jack looked at Peter, his eyes wide.
- She is awake, - he said. - I am going to go say hello…
- Jack don't! - Peter cried but Jack just pushed him out of the way and opened the bedroom door.
- Jack!!! - Sue cried, her blue eyes wide with horror. - What are you doing here?!
She sat up in bed pulling the sheets up to cover her nakedness. Jack slowly moved his gaze to the naked man next to her. Jack didn't know him; the man was in his middle thirties, his hair dark and thin, his skin was so white that it was almost funny.
- Jack… - Sue whispered.
- Who is this? - the man demanded angrily and suddenly Jack laughed.
- Well, - he said chocking with laughter. - That explains why you wouldn't let me even touch you before the wedding! You figured that after we get married, I'll just deal with the fact that you slept around…
He laughed again, this time harder.
- This is great! - he cried. - You have a hell of a sister, Peter! - and he slapped Peter on the shoulder so hard that the boy hissed from pain. - Get her more clients, - Jack said in a calmer voice. - This way you both have enough money to buy anything and anyone… - he turned on his heels and walked out of the house, ignoring Sue's hysterical crying.
… He walked into a tavern and ordered ale without looking at the tavern keeper.
- You have the money, kid? - the keeper asked him and Jack shoved all his coins towards him.
- I want enough ale to drown myself in, - he said in a gruff voice and the tavern keeper nodded.
- All right! Just don't start any fights.
- I won't, - Jack said darkly, seriously contemplating suicide after he'll drink himself to enough courage.
He drank for several hours and could still feel the pain deep in his heart.
- You've had enough, kid, - the tavern keeper said after Jack signaled for another refill. - Here, take your money… - and he pushed several coins towards Jack.
- An honest tavern keeper… - Jack laughed feeling awfully light headed. - That's a new one…
- I know your father, - the keeper said patiently. - And he is a respected man. Get out of here, kid. Get out before you get sick.
Jack swiped the coins off the counter and got off the stool. The floor suddenly tilted at the very steep angle and Jack grabbed the bar counter with a surprised "Oomph!" sound.
- That what ale does to you, kid, - the tavern keeper nodded wisely.
Jack muttered something and carefully walked outside, feeling sick. The cold air outside made him feel better immediately. Suddenly there was an image of Sue in his head. She was looking at him with horror, clutching the sheets against her naked body… Jack squeezed his eyes shut and pushed the image out of his head. He limped towards his house but somewhere in the middle he decided that the bushes on the side of the road look very appealing and cozy, so he collapsed into one of them and fell asleep almost immediately.
… He was in the woods and he was running. He could see the light of the fire ahead so he was heading towards it. Finally he got to the clearing in the middle of the woods and stopped, suddenly frozen in his tracks. There was indeed a fire in the middle of the clearing and there was man kneeling in front of it. Jack immediately knew that it was his father even though man's back was all he could see.
- Father… - he called uncertainly and took a step forward.
David turned slowly towards him and smiled weakly.
- Jack… - he whispered and suddenly there was blood flowing out of his mouth.
- Father! - Jack screamed lunging towards him only realizing that he was too late and his father was dead.
- Welcome home, Jack, - someone said with a laughter and suddenly David's eyes flew wide open and he stared at Jack.
- Flauros… - he said and his eyes turned blood red.
Jack woke up choking on his own scream. He sat up feeling his heart beating wildly against his ribs. For a couple of minutes he thought that he's going to get violently sick but he managed to keep his stomach under control. He looked up at the dark sky and was surprised to see a pink smile of the newborn sun.
- It's dawn… - he croaked and coughed, feeling as if his throat was worked over with sandpaper.
He got up, his legs shaking and started walking unsteadily towards his house.
… When he got back he saw his mother sitting in the yard, her rigid back towards him. She was just sitting there, without moving.
- Mother?.. - Jack called carefully, pushing the nightmare he had out of his mind.
- Welcome home, Jack, - she said indifferently and Jack suddenly felt very cold.
- What's wrong, Mother? - he whispered already knowing what she will answer.
- You father is dead, - she said simply, her voice unemotional.
She finally turned towards him. Her face was completely white as if all the color was drained from it. Her eyes were dry and very shiny, like two shiny silver dollars. Jack shivered seeing the madness that was trying to rip through the thin veil of sanity in her eyes.
- Turns out it was his last run, - she said in the same unemotional voice. - I told him not to go up against Flauros alone but…
- Who?… - Jack said feeling numb.
- Flauros, - she repeated. - The demon that killed your father… - and suddenly she laughed in a loud shrill voice.
Jack stumbled towards her and hugged her as tight as he could. She continued laughing, her eyes finally flooded by the sheer madness.
- I -
Steven spat into the fire and looked at his apprentice who was smoking silently, staring into the dancing flames.
- We have to leave in the morning, - Steven finally said with a sigh.
- A job? - his apprentice asked, his eyes suddenly lighting up with interest.
- Yes, - Steven nodded and poked the fire with a long stick. - A big one, - he added in a few seconds.
- Where? - the young man asked throwing his cigarette into the fire.
- A village several miles to the south from here - Steven said. - A demon named Flauros… - he said and looked up in surprise when his apprentice let out a sudden hiss.
- Flauros, - the young man repeated, his pale eyes turning into slits.
Steven nodded slowly, studying his face.
- You know the name, Jack? - he asked.
- Oh yes, - Jack nodded slowly. - I know the name…
… He waited until Steven was asleep and got up swiftly, grabbing his bags. Soon he was marching down the dark trail, his eyes determined. It took him several hours to finally get to the village where he was greeted by a heavy man with scared eyes.
- Where is the demon? - Jack asked him, feeling eerily calm.
- Are you alone? - the man asked him with a frown.
- Yes, - Jack replied.
- You look awfully young… - the man said with doubt in his voice.
- If I get killed you can always call for another Jaeger, - he said indifferently.
- He is in the woods, - the man stuttered. - He took my daughter…. - he whispered with fear in his eyes.
- All right, - Jack nodded and threw his bag on the ground. - Hold on to this until I get back, - he said and started walking towards the woods, his hand on the sheath of his sword.
… He walked for a while now, noticing the eerie silence around him. He realized that he couldn't hear any birds for the last half an hour or so. He wasn't surprised when he finally saw the fire deeper in the woods.
It's been almost thirty years since his father died and Jack left his village. His mother never came back to sanity and Jack knew that she died in the asylum three years after his father's death. At first Jack wanted to get on the first ship he could find and get as far away as he possibly could from that place, his memories and his dreams that started to haunt Jack every night. But before he could follow through with his plan he was cornered in the tavern by a silent grouchy man who said his name was Steven and he was taking Jack with him.
- Why? - Jack asked him, startled.
- Because I promised your father, - Steven replied shortly and Jack had nothing to say to that.
Jack spent almost thirty years with Steven who taught him the difference between different species of demons, told him all he knew about the vampires and other creatures that were out of this world. He taught Jack how to fight and how to stay alive. Jack still considered himself to be Steven's apprentice but Steven dropped several hints in the past few months that it was time for Jack to travel on his own. Jack sometimes wondered why he looked so young. It seemed that he stopped aging completely once he turned thirty three. Steven just shrugged and said that every Jaeger is different but eventually each one stops aging at some point. For some it happened sooner rather than later and apparently Jack was one of them. "Consider it a gift", - Steven said to him with a crooked smile. Steven himself looked well into his fifties.
… Jack finally got out of the woods and wasn't a bit surprised when he found himself in the middle of the clearing that was an exact copy of the one he dreamt of thirty years ago. He smoothly pulled his sword out and walked towards the fire. Suddenly he heard sobs. He wheeled around and saw a young girl who was tied to a tree. The girl didn't look older than thirteen. She had long dark hair and freckled skin. Her slender body was shaking with sobs.
- Please… - she choked on her tears when she saw Jack. - Please… Help me!..
He silenced her with a quick gesture and swiftly cut the ropes. She fell on her knees, shaking from silent sobs.
- Do you know the way back to the village? - Jack asked her very quietly.
She nodded, here eyes huge with fear.
- Go, - Jack said and she ran away like a scared doe.
Jack looked around and closed his eyes when he saw nothing. He stood still for several long minutes, his hands gripping the handle of his sword. His breathing slowed down and for a minute he resembled a statue when his eyes suddenly flew open. He turned around with incredible speed and brought the sword down after drawing a perfect arch in the air. The blade reflected the dancing flames and smoothly went almost handle-deep into the chest of a man who appeared out of thin air right behind Jack. Man's eyes immediately glowed bloody red and he pushed Jack away. Jack stumbled backwards, losing his grip on the sword.
- Imbecile, - the man growled and pulled the blade out of his chest.
- Flauros… - Jack muttered and the demon threw him a dark look.
- You've heard of me, - he said and his features suddenly became very hazy.
Jack shook his head thinking that he is hallucinating. Flauros' head suddenly started to change into one of a leopard.
- Stupid, stupid Jaeger… - the leopard purred. - Didn't you know that…
Suddenly he was interrupted by a low growl and Jack blinked in surprise when he saw somebody almost fly by him in a silver splash. The leopard suddenly howled in anger and pain and he dropped Jack's sword. Jack picked up his blade and without thinking twice swung it in the perfect arch and drove it into the demon's neck.
- Move! - someone barked in his ear and suddenly Jack became airborne.
He landed on the ground, hitting his shoulder on one of the rocks and saw the demon's body burst into bright blue flames. Jack shook his head and sat up.
- What… - he started saying when he was interrupted by a very angry voice.
- What kind of Jaeger are you?! Trying to kill him when he is in his human form? Are you suicidal or just plain ignorant?!
Jack looked up and suddenly was speechless.
- What?! - she barked angrily and Jack just stared at her.
She was pretty tall, her eyes blazing green in the gleam of the fire. Her hair was so impossibly red that Jack thought she was wearing a wig. Her mouth was a little too wide but Jack thought it was perfect. Finally he realized that he's been staring at her for the last several minutes and he blinked.
- I have no idea what you talking about, - he said getting up.
- Oh for the sake of… - she took a deep breath. - What were you thinking when you trying to kill him in his human form? Didn't you know that he is at his most vulnerable when he is changing?!
- No, - Jack said simply and she shook her head in disbelief.
- Then why the hell did you decide to take him out by yourself? - she demanded.
- He killed my father, - Jack said and she winced.
- Well it wouldn't do either of you any good if he killed you here tonight, - she said finally.
- Who are you? - Jack asked.
- Nobody, - she said shortly and started to walk away.
- Wait! - Jack ran after her and grabbed her by the shoulder.
She swirled around.
- Let go! - she screamed at him and suddenly her eyes were burning red.
- You are not human, - Jack said slowly without letting her go.
She glared at him silently, her eyes blazing like two rubies.
- But you not a demon either… - Jack muttered. - Who are you?
- Let go, - she hissed and shoved him away.
He was surprised at her strength and he finally let go of her shoulder. She turned around and almost ran through the woods.
- Wait! - he called running after her, shoving his sword into a sheath.
- What do you want? - she muttered when he caught up to her.
- Where are you going? - he asked keeping up with her pace easily.
- Back to the village, - she answered unwillingly. - My mother is there, - she added in a few seconds, her voice suddenly tense.
- Your mother is human, - Jack said slowly, struck by sudden revelation.
She glanced at him, her eyes some strange brownish-green color now.
- Yeah, - she said softly.
They walked together in silence when she finally said:
- Don't worry.
- About what? - Jack asked with a frown.
- I won't take your glory away from you, - she said with a crooked smile. - You are the Jaeger that defeated the mighty Flauros.
- Glory?… - he muttered. - I don't care about glory…
- Right, - she snorted.
He shrugged without arguing with her. They were almost back to the village when Jack grabbed her by the shoulder again.
- Wait, - he commanded sharply.
She glared at him.
- What? I wish you'd stop grabbing me like that, I hate it!
- Just wait a second, - he said looking forward intently. - They are burning something there, - he said softly, frown changing his face into a worried mask.
She shrugged indifferently.
- They are always burning something, - she muttered.
- No… - he shook his head slowly. - They are burning something…. That was recently alive.
- Mother… - and she took off so fast that Jack blinked with surprise.
- Wait! - he shouted running after her.
He finally caught up to her when she was running into the village.
- Just wait! - he barked grabbing her by the arm.
- Leave me alone! - she hissed.
- God, you can be so irritating! - he muttered shoving her behind his back. - Can you just stay behind me please?
- Why? - she demanded staring at him.
- Consider it a favor, - he said.
She muttered something under her breath but stayed behind his back. Jack took a deep breath.
- Thank you, - he said quietly and slowly walked forward.
- Is the demon dead? - the same heavy man that met him when he first got to the village asked eagerly when he noticed Jack.
- The demon is dead, - Jack nodded, his eyes cautious. - Did your daughter return to you safely?
- Yes! - the man cried. - May the gods smile at you…. - he suddenly stopped talking and his eyes became angry slits. - What is she doing here? - he asked staring at the girl who stood frozen behind Jack's back.
- She came for her mother, - Jack answered calmly, his hand casually sliding on his sword's grip.
- Her mother? - the man laughed shortly. - Her mother was a witch who has finally faced the divine justice, - he pointed towards the bonfire behind him and the girl gasped lunging forward.
- A witch? - Jack asked in the same calm voice, easily intercepting her and pushing her behind him once again.
- Yes, - the man nodded, his face extremely unfriendly and worried now. - She is evil! - he said staring at the girl. - Can't you feel it? - he looked at Jack pointedly. - You should feel it! You are a Jaeger!
- She's not evil, - Jack said slowly.
- She is the demon seed! - one of the women cried and the crowd behind a heavy man murmured, stirring.
- She is evil, - the man repeated stubbornly. - Her mother was evil too! You are a Jaeger, kill her!
Jack threw a quick glance at the agitated crowd realizing that if they charge at them now, he won't be able to hold them back. "Well", he thought coolly. "Let's hope that Jaeger myths are really exaggerated… " He pulled his sword out and the heavy man stepped back, looking at Jack with wide eyes. Jack casually drew a line in the dirt front of him with the tip of his sword.
- The first one crossing this line is going to die, - he said in a dull voice.
The crowd stirred angrily. The heavy man looked at him with disbelief.
- She used demon magic on him! - he cried. - She used the demon magic on the Jaeger!
Jack gripped his sword tight and lifted it above his head. The heavy man stumbled backwards.
- We are going to leave now, - Jack said calmly. - Please don't do anything stupid…. - he slightly turned his head to the girl. - Go, - he said very softly.
He was relieved when she did what he said without arguing. Jack started to walk backwards very slowly, without turning his gaze away from the crowd. Finally when he was sure they won't charge at him he slid his sword in the sheath and turned away, catching up with the strange redheaded girl soon.