What better way to start a new year than with a knife in your gut?
The blade, a crude meat knife rather than a proper dagger, had stabbed into Yonah’s stomach beneath and to the left of his navel. He intended to catch the accursed thing with his right handーforged from meteorite iron and skeletal in appearanceーbut someone else swung at the eight-year-old girl hiding behind him and clutching at his left arm. At that moment, Yonah’s protective instincts decided both his and her fates; his steel hand grabbed the incoming sword and shattered it with one twist, and he grunted as the meat carver speared his belly from the other side.
From there, Yonah remembered everything up to his current moment in a frantic blur:
While radioing for help, his Peacemaker comrades fled up a side passage with several other kidnapped children. Meanwhile, the elemental masters among the officers used their powers of earth and water to impede the pack of equally resourceful body traffickers pursuing them. As for himself, however, Yonah hoisted the girl onto his shoulders, kept the knife in place with his left hand, and bolted in another direction. Two smugglers chased closed behind, but fortunately, the Peacemakers had subtly marked the way out in advance, and Yonah followed their signs while also evading his pursuers.
Right before charging into another tunnel, the young officer triggered a trap that collapsed the ceiling of the cavern behind him. Never before had he admired and thanked the vicious craftiness of smugglers; the fallen debris blocked off the two hunters from their prey with a rumbling crash. However, not knowing the full range of the traffickers' powers, only several seconds of sprinting later did Yonah finally decide to stop and catch his breath, and he leaned against one wall before easing himself down to the ground.
At his request, the girl slid from his shoulders and stayed next to him, but he blocked her view as he peeled away the bits of shirt around his wound. To Yonah's relief, though, he didn't see any excess bleeding as he assessed the damage.
“Are you okay?” the girl asked, her big blue eyes finally leaving his exasperatingly famous and strange-looking right arm and blinking up at him. Beneath the ambient illumination of the flashlight strapped to his shoulder, he then remembered her name: Ailitah.
“I'm fine,” Yonah grunted while retrieving a piece of tough cord from one of his pockets and then tearing a strip of cloth from his right pant leg. Then, he tied them both around his midriff to hold the knife in place while also stemming blood-flow. “I’m an Endurance Class Nephilim, so don’t worry.”
“But…” Little Ailitah looked between him and the knife, her hands soon pressing against the same spot on her own belly. “Doesn’t that hurt? I... D-Did I—?”
“It’s fine, I promise," Yonah said, managing his most sincere smile, "and it's not your fault. Don’t worry.”
“Don’t. Worry. Alright? I’ve been through worse; I’ll be okay.”
The girl nodded but still seemed unsure, and as Yonah's heart slowed, the more his gut wound throbbed with pain. Nevertheless, he noted that, of everywhere to be stabbed, the knife’s location was one of the best for his survival. As long as the weapon stayed where it was until he reached a Healer, he expected to make a full or nearly full recovery—and it looked like he didn't have to retell the story of "Yonah the Adamantine" right now, either, so that was a nice bonus.
However, as that analysis passed, Yonah also felt a strange burning sensation in and around the woundーa burning that spread ever-so-slowly as the minutes passed.
"Oh, that's lovely..." he groused under his breath—though, thankfully, the girl didn't seem to be listening—before saying, "The exit isn't far from here; we should make it out within the hour."
"Okay. A-Are you sure?"
"Definitely. Now, let’s get moving.”
After bracing himself, the young Peacemaker stood, gritting his teeth against the pain. The girl fretted as she watched but said nothing, and wordlessly, he thanked… Well, Yonah didn’t know who to thankーthe Triune, he guessedーfor his night-black clothes that concealed the seeping bloodstains in his shirt and pant leg, but he sent up his gratefulness anyway.
“Come on,” he said, holding out his steel hand. “Hold tight and stay close.”
Ailitah obeyed, and she and Yonah set off again. While not at his preferred speed, their pace was still a brisk trot, but the girl kept up despite her labored breathing soon panting over their footsteps. Though he wished he could accommodate her more, Yonah pushed onward, merely hoping she wouldn’t need too much strength later. The knife seemed to be staying in place within its ties, though, and he let out a small breath of relief.
“Y-You’re the man I met at breakfast last week, aren’t you?” asked Ailitah, struggling for the breath to speak.
While his attention remained on the path ahead, Yonah responded quietly, “I am.”
“I knew it," she said, her words coming in puffs. "I like you better with black hair, thoughーand green eyes. The red hair and brown eyes just made you look like my stupid older cousin.”
An amused chuff escaped Yonah. “Did they now?”
“Mm-hmm. I don’t like him, though. He’s mean.” Then, after a pause, she asked, “Why didn’t you write with me?”
“When I gave you—” she waited to catch her breath, “—my notebook. At the eating house. Remember?”
With his well-honed instincts indicating the way was safe, for now, Yonah allowed his mind to drift back to a few days ago. He’d come to Ailitah’s town undercover, his mission to sniff out a den of child traffickers plaguing a group of interconnected, rural settlements before the criminals moved on. His first stop in the village was for breakfast, and though the food was only above average, he’d picked up some useful information from both his server and the other folk inside. However, as he paid for his meal, he suddenly found his face full of notebook scrawled with half-legible scribbles and heard a child’s voice urging him to write something down.
Returning to the present, and noting how much more the burning and blood had spread, Yonah relented his pace and stopped for a moment. “What were you writing, again?”
“My new year's resolutions,” the girl eventually replied with a huff. “Don’t you remember?”
Pleased at Ailitah's quick lack of worry, Yonah asked, “...why?”
The girl sent him a strange look before slowly but steadily gasping out, “‘Why?’ It’s the new year; you have to have at least one new year’s resolution, and you have to write it down! It’s practically a law! Don’t you know? I mean, you have one, rightーa resolution, I mean?”
With a quiet snort, Yonah replied, “I have a resolution, yes, but I’m not writing it downーfor this or any new year. It’s the only one I’ll ever need anyway; everything else is just...unnecessary.”
“What? Why not?”
“Maybe I’ll tell you, later,” then, a wave of uncomfortably hot weakness rushed through him, and he finished, “but now, let's just be quiet for a while, okay? Save your breath for the rest of our journey.”
There came another huff, but the girl said nothing else as they moved on.
Soon afterward, Yonah both heard and felt the air flow of the tunnel change. He signaled Ailitah to stop with a gentle squeeze, and she wordlessly did so before nervously crab-stepping behind him. Switching off his flashlight, Yonah next tuned his hearing toward the opening he estimated to be about twenty or thirty paces ahead on the left. He then approached the stone ingress while pulling the girl along, one of his father’s daggers held ready in his left hand.
No breathing. No footsteps. No rustling of clothing or anything else. It was enough that Yonah’s intuition screamed with suspicion, but there came no attack. As he and Ailitah crept past the opening, however, he held the girl very near his side, close to the right-hand wall but slightly ahead of him, and hoped the exit would appear soon.
Several tense moments later, he smelled fresh airーnot a lot of it, but enough to know the way out was close. Then, not long after, a light appeared up ahead, andー
A lyrical voice suddenly knelled from the darkness behind Yonah and Ailitah, the pitch, tone, and cadence lullaby-like in quality. Almost immediately after, something intangible gently assaulted the young Peacemaker’s spirit; the drive to keep moving started draining out of him, and his steps almost slowed to a stop. Then, beside him, Ailitah halted completely and, at a change in the song, tried to turn to run back the way they’d come.
“Vile intoner,” Yonah growled, managing to hold onto the girl as she struggled against him. “Keep your soul-singing to yourself!”
Then, hearing scales scraping quickly against the floor, Yonah picked up Ailitah bodily and wheeled around to stare up into the eyes of a massive serpent. The creature’sーor, rather, the Nephilim’sーrearing head almost reached the tunnel ceiling, and the remaining sinuous body stretched back into the darkness untouched by outside light. Immediately, though, Yonah also noticed the gashes through the Nephilim’s scales, including its head, and guessed he once again had the traffickers’ own trap to thank for this gradual ambush. He would’ve smirked at the irony, but smoldering weakness flowed through his veins again, and it took all of his endurance to stand firm.
“Give up, Peacemaker,” hissed the serpent-formed Nephilimーfemale, it seemed. “I know what ails you, and you cannot escape me.”
Yonah snorted. “I’ll take that bet.” Then, his resolution beating through him more powerfully than poison, he snarled, “Give me your best shot.”
With another hiss, the serpent advanced. Its head weaved from side to side, seeking an opening for attack even as the hidden intoner kept singing. The temptation to give up, lay down the girl, and take a nice, long sleep pressed in on Yonah even as he matched his nearest enemy movement for movement, waiting for the first strike. However, the merest suggestion of surrender stoked a stubborn fire within him, and as he drew strength from it, he thought he heard his father whispering directions in his ear.
The serpent Nephilim struck, but Yonah dodged and slashed in response, slicing his enemy across the nose. Thus began a heart-pounding dance in which Yonah’s enemy feinted, struck, and slithered, trying to swiftly maneuver around him and unleash her coils. Meanwhile, he ducked, sidestepped, rolled, flipped, and slashed to barely remain one step ahead of her, and though the intoner’s power harried his spirit, more blood seeped out of him, and the poison spread even faster, he forced himself to keep moving and his focus to center on the fight at hand.
Then, right when the exhaustive effect of the poison hit Yonah again, he tripped over a rock. Despite his best efforts to stay standing, he fell and hit the ground hard, his hands barely managing to both grip Ailitah and keep his head from smashing against the floor.
The trafficker seized her chance. Her body whiplashed around her victims, and with a hiss of victory, her coils constricted for the finishing blow.
Slipping nearer to exhaustion, Yonah almost didn't notice the bit of loose scale on his enemy’s belly as it slipped by. However, when he realized what he’d seen, the hand holding his dagger lashed out desperately and struck home. Immediately, the serpent Nephilim shrieked with anguish, her coils writhing and stopping short of entrapping her prey. Then, her head whipped in a fury toward Yonah, and two arm-length fangs speared at his face.
Briefly letting go of Ailitah, Yonah’s steel arm lashed out with a split-second to spare. He backhanded his foe across the face with a loud crack, and her head then slammed against the wall, where she crumpled bonelessly.
Regaining control of the girl, Yonah pulled them both free of the serpent Nephilim’s coils and, after failing to get back on his feet, crawled one-handed toward the exit. The leafy outside scenery showing through the opening was tantalizingly close, lit with moonlight and rustling with a soft wind. If...only...heー!
Yonah rolled onto his back as a pair of footsteps drew near, his dagger shaking but ready. Through fogging vision, he finally saw the intoner, who held a spiked club in his hands but still stopped a few, cautious paces away.
“You’re a tenacious one, I’ll give you that,” he said, his power still flowing through the air, “but now the fun’s over. Release the girl, and you can be sure of a quick death.”
Through panting breaths, Yonah growled, “Take her...from my...cold...dead hands, intoner.”
“Hmph. As you wish.”
Suddenly, as the trafficker stalked closer, his club raised, shouts and sprinting footsteps clamored from outside. Yonah nearly groaned in relief as he recognized the voice of his eldest brother, and in seconds, a squadron of backup Peacemakers thundered into the tunnel.
“Saved,” he murmured as several people flooded the space around him. “Saved…”
Then, exhaustion, poison, and blood-loss caught up to him at last. Despite the vestiges of his will fighting with all their might for victory, everything around him spun before fading to black.
A voice, deep, gentle, and familiar, stirred Yonah from his slumber. However, something was wrong; everything around him was dark, and there was no light wherever he looked. For a panicked moment, he feared he was still trapped in the tunnelsーor worse, caged within the loveless abyss of his mother’s domain—and began to struggle.
“Yonah. Wake up.”
A note of extra urgency filled the call, and Yonah fought to free himself from the blackness. However, he could barely move, and his eyes wouldn’t open.
Part of him wanted to return to sleep then, to seek a rest from which he never had to awaken, and for a moment, the thought was so, so tempting...
“Wake up, Yonah. Wake up, and live.”
Yonah's strength renewed at the last command, and he spurred himself through the darkness. Finally, after what seemed like a small eternity, his leaden eyelids then began to open.
“F…? Father?” he whispered.
“Hey,” someone else said, “I think he’s coming to.”
A few seconds later, Yonah’s eyes opened, and he squinted against the light streaming in from a grated window. For a moment, he also thought he saw a tall, dark-haired figure standing there and smiling proudly, but then the apparition vanished, replaced instead by the forms of three real people: his older brothers, Jaik and Jonathan, and their Peacemaker teammate, Camran.
Jonathan breathed, “Thank the Triune…” before saying, “Morning, Yonah. Good to see you awake again.”
Yonah tried to reply, but only half-intelligible rasping scratched out of his throat. “Morn’n. Where…?”
“Where are you?" asked Camran. "In the Sanctuary Grand Healing House, little bro, safe and sound. Though you really gave the Healers of Dhamasscus a scare.”
After seeing and feeling his bandaged body lying in a Healer’s bed, Yonah asked, “How…long?”
“Three months,” said Jaik, frowning for a moment. “You’ve been out for three months. That nasty poison did a number on youーthe Dhamasscan Healers thought you’d die for sure.”
“Actually,” Camran added, “he technically did; his heart stopped three times during that first night.”
Somehow, Yonah found that morbid little tidbit funny, and he was laughing before he knew it. However, his reaction drained any lingering tension from the room, and his brothers all joined in.
“But we weren't worried, Yonah,” said Jaik. “You’re just like Dad: too strong and stubborn to lay down and die on a criminal’s account.”
Yonah smirked. "'M not givin' anyone the satisfaction of killin' me."
With another laugh, Jonathan looked toward the door and said, “Oh, by the way, you have some other visitors here, Yonah. May they come in?”
Yonah nodded, and when his brother opened the door, Ailitah and her parents walked inside. To Yonah’s relief, the little girl looked no worse for the wear despite her traumatic experience, and her face split with a smile as her gaze met his. Then, in the next moment, she was gently hugging him, and he returned the embrace with his flesh-and-blood arm.
“We can’t thank you Peacemakers enough,” said Ailitah’s mother, her eyes glistening with joyful tears.
Her husband nodded. “She’s right; you didn’t just save our little girl, but all the children that night, and those who kidnapped them are behind bars. For that, we and all the other families are eternally grateful.”
“Always happy to serve,” said Jonathan. He, Jaik, Camran, and Yonah then gave the family a formal salute.
“Will you tell me your resolution now, Mister Yonah?” Ailitah asked. “Will you? I don’t wanna wait another month! Can’t you sleep in here less longer next time?”
As everyone else chuckled over the girl’s precociousness, Yonah simply nodded. However, before he answered, he looked around the room againーat his three loving brothers, Ailitah’s thankful parents, Ailitah herself, alive and well, and then at the flowers and many other get-well gifts brightening the room with a vivid rainbow of colors. Finally, he glanced back to the window, where the dark-haired figure appeared only whenever he was caught within the corner of Yonah’s vision, and heard his resolution spoken softly and with joyous pride.
Feeling his father’s wish engraved on his heart, his soul, and every other fiber of his being, the words trumping all others and never needing to be written down, Yonah said, “To live, Ailitahーlive, love, and thrive.”