Things had changed for Sadja, and not for the better.
She followed the daughter, brother and father as they walked through the tick trees, their boots creaking over hardened sap and glistening resin. Sadja sniffed the air and she did not like what she found: the usual scent of too-ripe peaches mixed with the metallic hint of blood, and there was something else… a lingering, malignant will that made her skin shiver and her tail stand up straight behind her.
The daughter shook her head and patted it, trying to make Sadja pull it down. In fact, it stood out quite a lot, between the three moth-people covered in dark and brown colors and her huge tail impossible to miss.
She frowned, pulled it in front and hid it beneath her coat. The daughter chirped (was it a laugh?) but she seemed satisfied enough.
Sadja surely felt less so. Her aching stomach did not see to give her any pause, and that surely did not help her mood; on top of that, her mind wandered with scary images of the same wardens that threw their spinning nets at her, and how narrowly she managed to avoid them only a few days before.
Were they back for her now? Which meant it would also put these people in danger, and just as she managed to make friends with them…
“Tracesss,” the brother huffed, pointing his spear at the large section of burnt-up terrain that led to a broken circle of rocks. Two series of huge imprints collected night’s rainfall, passing through bent trees and disappearing into parts of the forest where the trees were farther from each other.
At the centre of the circle lay the scattered remains of a bonfire.
The father walked around it, passing his fingers all over the ground, as if it was trying to take its temperature, to understand what had happened.
The daughter just poked her spear at the huge, black corpse laying to the left.
Sadja cringed at the smell. It was still fuming, though the wounds and holes peppering its body did not seem caused by any flame. It was a contorted mass composed of two human bodies (or something that had once been human), joined at the hip, but with too many legs and far too many arms, all of them clawed. It had no head, its neck ending in a stump. Maybe it had been cut off.
“Eerie,” the daughter hissed, jumping back and making a sign for Sadja to come closer. She did as she was told, covering her mouth as much as she could. The stench was overwhelming and it made her eyes sting. “Uuhn-thers,” the daughter explained, pointing with her spear at the many holes, the ruined skin, the inwardly-cracked bones.
“I know no hunters,” she replied, thinking back to her chase. They were trying to take her back, but they were her usual wardens, with no special tool save for their sticks, their nets and her will guiding them and clouding her mind.
The father stood up. He walked up to Sadja, leaned over and took a long sniff from her head.
She did not understand why. She just got cleaned, and she surely could not stink as much as this corpse could.
He withdrew and they shared more words in that click-like language of theirs.
After that the father shook his head and pulled back, seemingly as eager to leave that place behind as she was.
The rest of day saw her followed by lingering gazes from ever member of the family. She did not like it, and though her stomach and head kept killing her, she tried to redouble her efforts and make the best of a bad situation, even though she was as worried as they could be.
The hunters, whoever they might be, had seemingly left, and she would like to hope they wouldn’t come back, they surely wouldn’t for her… why would they be here for her? She was being silly. They were just after the big ugly monsters like that one she saw that morning.
At around supper time, when the world turned grayer and the cold wind from the north began to blow, Sadja was dirty, tired, cranky and pulling on mangled plants as she shook her head. The daughter joined her and the two worked for a bit, without sharing a word.
It was so different from yesterday’s friendship, that feeling of warmth in her heart seemed to have gone completely.
At supper nobody spoke. They sat at the table looking down at their meagre plates, and Sadja withdrew to her corner.
That evening, the moaning and groaning started sooner than usual.
The family took turns. They stood vigil as something outside scratched against the door, sniffed from the cracks, and stinky clouds of breath hissed through the holes in the walls.
Sadja watched as the brother and then the daughter sat in front of her door, weapons at the ready.
She tried to stay awake, if only to show she did care. They must think she was a burden. Was it not what She always told her, while Sadja lay in her arms and let her tail be groomed by expert, nimble fingers? There’s nothing out there for you. You wouldn’t survive one day alone in the wood. The Fae are a dangerous and capricious lot: they’d take you in at dawn and cast you at sunset.
Her eyes met the daughter’s.
“It’s not my fault,” she let out, dragging her legs closer to her torso.
But they must know. The hunters were her for her, with some sort of machinery or weapon like she always saw in the hole she believed she managed to leave behind. And they were looking for her. And the moment they did…
Something heavy hit the wall with a bang. The daughter aimed her spear at the source of the noise, but it did not repeat.
She shook her head and, after a few more minutes of silence, went up to give her shift to the father.
Sadja looked at the door, barred and locked. She stood up. If she was quick… sure, whatever was outside might do short work of her, but she was fast. She could run. She’d find a new shelter, she’d find more food. She’d miss having a full belly and a coat to cover her shoulder, but it would be worth it. She unhooked her coat and ran at the door, covered only in the ripped white dress she had when she first tried to escape.
Her heart beat so fast it rumbled in her ears. Nothing seemed to move outside. She reached for the closest beam. She could lift it up and then then the other one and then pull the door open and disappear in the cold night.
Someone grabbed her wrist and pulled her back and up. She yowled and found herself looking at the face of the father, whose golden eyes burned like twin suns. He looked at the door, at where her hand had been, snarling, he threw against the ground.
“Whhhat’s Founndling tho dho?” He snarled.
“I’m sorry,” Sadja snapped back, covering her face. “I didn’t… I just don’t want to be any trouble…”
“Trrouble? Thhhen Foundling don’t opennn the dooorh!” He raised his arm as if to slap her, but his eyes shifted and caught the discarded coat.
His four arms came back to rest against his side, together with his saber.
“You cannnot go outssside.”
He knocked on the door.
As if on cue, the snarking, yowling, scratching came back with a vengeance.
Something beat against the door, once, twice, three times.
Then, with a snarl that Sadja felt aching through her body, it withdrew once again.
“Trrrick. Now ssshtay put.”
Sadja nodded, her eyes stinging again.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” She disappeared under her coat, her heart still roaring in her floppy ears and her stomach burning and a thin trickle of blood running down her thigh, but she couldn’t think about it now. She was just as useless as Mastra Verna always said and she’d been a fool. She shut her eyelids trying not to cry but she couldn’t hold the dam. Her breath broken by fits and starts, she tried not to move and to be as small and insignificant as possible.
She was not a good girl.
Never had been.
Bit by bit, she disappeared into uneasy slumber.
There had been a time when the Hunter valued sleep. When he was four, maybe. Or five. He couldn’t really remember. His eye stung. Everything was red, but he could see. He pulled the sled forward, sliding over the cinders of a recently-abandoned outpost. There had been a battle of some kind. The huge Eerie corpse left no room for doubt… it was even bigger than the one he had fought himself.
Air smelled so bad each breath was gulping needles. He cupped his good eye and scanned the surroundings.
Six people. Ordinary. And… someone else. A Venator. Couldn’t really see who or how old. Skilled.
The tracks disappearing downhill also seemed to belong to some sort of walker, or vehicle. Maybe a tank?
And someone else had come. He looked at the newest set of footprints, at the weird traces left behind, as if whoever did had a wide tail. Or a pair of wings? Wouldn’t be the strangest thing he had seen that week.
And then. Another kind of trace. This one silver, it made the crimson string that pulled him up here dance up and down. He was close.
He lifted his gaze from the scene.
The string of light pulsated all the way uphill, to a place where trees were a little more spaced apart, a little more regular. He could make out the outline of walls against the chaos of pines and bushes.
He let out a long sigh through gritted teeth.
Sleep was surely a valuable commodity.
But he was close.
As the first rays of the incoming sun kissed the tips of the hill, the Hunter drove his sled forward, toward the mysterious girl and his only mean to, one day, know peace.
Pic by The PandaAuthor’s Note: please do your part protecting local wildlife. Only you can help wolf girls.
All jokes aside, I am far more satisfied about this chapter than I was for the previous one. I feel like Sadja just… flows better, and I’m really happy we have finally reached the point these two can meet in person. Laying 30,000 words of groundwork can seem exhausting, but I did have a blast of a time, especially considering this challenge’s rules and the fact I can’t just go back and edit (save for some minor typos here and there if necessary), so mistakes can truly wreak havoc. Approaching the end of the very first arc, I think we so far avoided disaster.
At any rate, thanks for reading!