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It was never going to be a fair game.

The little knowledge I had was very much limited to the things within my immediate peripherals. Like a floodlight cast around me, moving when I moved while everything beyond that radius remained dark and obscure. Considering my memories went as far back as minutes, this ‘ability’ was kind of a blessing.

The blessing in this case, one look at the bird and I knew what species he was, what it looked like and sounded like, or what it should look and sound like, in the same way I knew how to breathe. If I had to describe it, it felt like all kinds of information was kept locked away in a vault in some obscure corner of my brain, until it became relevant to what was happening around me. Who put them there or why–

–was a problem for another time.

The problem right now was the game, his game, and this was where the blessing ran out. Because there was a great possibility of the answer to his riddle being something outside the spotlights. Something not intuitive, or something that was an outright abstract. The things that wouldn’t trigger the phantom memories, tripping the vault’s doors open.

It wasn’t a fair game. I knew that, and I still bet my life on it. Ask me why, and I’d probably say something like not having memories meant I had nothing to lose. Which was the justification I wished I had.

In truth, I was just too scared to be alone.

 

Wrong. the bird said on my third, last guess. You lose. Now I get to eat you.

My heart skipped a beat as I responded. Okay.

He tilted his neck at an angle that could’ve tipped him off balance. Okay?

I nodded. Okay.

I glanced around. There were four exits, the nearest one about twenty feet away, but it required me to go past the creature and I wasn’t sure he’d let me.

There was one on the left about thirty feet away, and another on the right, fifteen feet, much narrower than the others. Small enough that the bird wouldn’t be able to spread his wings.

Best path of escape, if it came to that.

As I contemplated, my ears caught a sound coursing in the air, a low volume indicating it came from a distant place.

A low hum, a few high whistles mixed in.

I chalked it up as the wind, despite how there hadn’t been the slightest breeze since I came to. That thought occupied me for no more than a second before more urgent thoughts replaced it.

Well?

Just like that, my focus was entirely drained by this creature that apparently wanted to eat me.

I turned my attention back to the raven, perused him top to bottom. The red of his eyes that seemed like they’d glow in the dark, with little black dots in the middle of the ominous crimson, were unwaveringly fixed on me. His feathers were thick and puffy where it went from the neck down towards the chest, forming a big lump that moved whenever he talked or croaked.

I’m hungry, he said.

I turned my attention to the beak, which looked potentially harmful for normal-sized ravens. Something of his size? Potentially lethal, if aimed at the right places.

Um, which part do you want first?

Which part?

I slapped myself mentally. It was a train of thought I couldn’t help but blurt out. Why would he want to eat me? What part of me seemed edible to him?

And how in the world would I fit in his belly?

You can’t be thinking of, um, eating me whole, are you?

No, he hopped closer, and you can’t be thinking of running, are you?

I’m not.

Liar. I can hear you scheming. I don’t blame you, though, and this just proves that you’re real. All living things has that hardwired into their instincts. If you’re a trick or a trap, you wouldn’t have that.

His words puzzled me.

I’m not a trick. Or a trap, whatever that means.

Really? I doubt anyone alive would be stupid enough to make that bet.

I… agree with that. It was stupid so can we just, um, maybe forget about it?

He answered with a definite shake of head. Weird to see a bird doing what was, as far as I knew, a very human gesture.

He studied me, moving around me in the only way he could move without taking to the air – hopping on his feet like a rabbit.

That was when the distant noise came back. It sounded more like a roar this time, more engine than animal because of how it sustained, growing ever so louder by the minute. Ominous and sinister enough to draw my attention away from the flesh-eating bird.

The wind, I thought to myself.

The bird made a full circle around me. There was something comical about the way he jumped around like he was frolicking, eagerly waiting for its meal. Surreal, even, because I was the meal.

Won’t you be bored without someone to talk to?

Even weirder that I was commiserating with it.

A bit of a bore, yes. I got it, he exclaimed.

Um, you got what?

Which part I want to eat first. He stopped hopping. If you try to run, it’s your eyeballs.

Of course. No need to take an arm or a leg, I wouldn’t be able to run or fight back without the sight. It was a perfectly rational choice to pick.

Fuck me.

If– if I don’t, uh, try to run?

Then I’ll start with your hair, your fingers after that. I’ll move up from your less important parts.

I was made conscious of my hair, long enough to touch the small of my back, and of his beaks and the width of his neck, the amount of volume that could go down at a time.

I made my decision.

Okay, I said. This time I meant it.

He wasted no time and croaked. Then gimme.

Scampering, staying as calm as I could, I grabbed strands of hair from my back and bunched them up into one icky ball of white hair. I didn’t have anything to cut them with and so offered it to him as is, still attached to my scalp.

He moved in.

I watched wide-eyed as he opened his beak, revealing the red of the insides of his mouth, and snapped them close where it was coiled up around my wrists, cutting the strands like a pair of razor-sharp scissors.

His throat bulged as he turned skywards to swallow.

Hm. Pass.

Pass?

Was it the taste? Or was it me – my submission to his bidding?

It’s a pain, but I’ll stick with you as promised. I say it’s a pain because your kind is the type this place eats up whole. By your kind I meant noisy brats, like you and your yappings, and since I’ll stick with you, you’d do well to listen to me, do things as I tell you to, if you want to have the chance to…

The hum. The roar. It had gone louder, or closer.

It wasn’t the wind.

A prick on my hand caught me off guard.

Ow!

His beaks were placed close to the back of my hand. He’d pricked me. I told you to listen.

I pulled my hand away. S– sorry. That sound is distracting me.

Ah, yes. That would be the Janitor.

The Janitor? Is that what’s making that noise?

There are other things you should be worried about right now which, thanks to you, I no longer have time to explain about.

What things?

He looked at a certain direction, alarmed as if he’d heard something. Start running and stay close. Follow my cues, don’t stop unless I tell you to.

Um, run from what? Hey.

I turned my head at what he was seeing. A corridor with tall walls of stone on either side, the end of which was obscured by some kind of mist. There were shadows moving, an illusion to the eye caused by the darkness.

Probably.

The noise sounded like it came from there, one corner away from a straight path to where we were.

Not even allowing me a second to process, the bird unraveled his wings and beat the air with it. Taking off in the other direction.

Hey!

I took to my feet urged by a dread, like I instinctively knew he’d left me behind if I didn’t.

As the noise grew, from a roaring hum to a chorus of human-like screams, I ditched all coherent thought and ran after him.

 

 

▬ ▬ ▬

 

 

It was still a drizzle when I woke. Streaks of raindrops could be seen on the canvas where lanterns projected light from the outside.

Kaelyn and Farica were fast asleep, their silhouettes outlined by the faint glow of the heating device that barely staved off the cold. On the other side was a caterpillar pile of a blanket which, by elimination, could only be the madame. She’d been the least tolerant to the cold and standing in the rain had probably been worse for her than it had been for me.

Latasha aside, they’d been so shaken up earlier that I hadn’t been sure they could fall asleep. I guess anyone would be knowing dozens, if not hundreds of beasts, had been swarming on our camp. It was the cold that lulled them in the end.

One of the girls was missing. Melory.

I fumbled around and found her at the back of the wagon, leaning against the side, her arms hugging a knee close to her chest. The first rays of day defined the delicate parts of her face, the point of her nose and the lines of her cheek, as she gazed out through the curtain’s opening.

I struggled out of my blanket. Moving lights could still be seen in the direction of the barricade – the drifters standing guard, presumably. It hadn’t been long since the raid, just mere hours ago when the drifters cheered thinking they’d chased the enemy away.

Only the younger drifters had been festive about it, however. The older, more veteran ones were too experienced to think they’d won.

“I figured you’re awake,” Melory said without looking.

I sat across from her, raising my brows.

“The thrashing stopped, so I’d figured you’re probably awake.” She turned to face me.

It freaked me out a bit how her eyes glowed in the dark. They made me feel like the mouse under a cat’s gaze and that, for a short moment, messed up my danger-sense.

“It’s okay. I have night terrors too,” she told me, probably taking my silence as something else.

I shook that false sense of danger away.

I wanted to talk to you about something.

“Maybe you should rest for now.”

Her voice told me she knew what I wanted to talk about. She was putting it off for some reason.

But why?

I’m fine.

“That tall guy… um, I forgot his name. He seemed to think otherwise.”

I gave her a shrug. Aenir thinks I’ve strained myself, but I really didn’t. We can talk now.

Her position shifted. She clasped her arms and brought both her knees in. Defensive, now that she knew I had no intention of postponing this. Or she was just cold.

She started first, “You heard it too, didn’t you?”

I nodded.

“The voice said it found someone. Who do you think it meant?”

I don’t know. You said you heard something too back at the stream. Is it the same?

“This one was… stronger, for a lack of better word. Louder. We, um, we have to tell someone.”

Then you’d have to tell them about how you hear things. Other things.

She tensed. It took me a second to connect the dots.

Ah. Right.

An accidental segue to what she was being defensive for.

“…You made me look like a goof, you know that?”

I took a deep breath, buying time to compose as a reply while watching her face contort deeper into a frown.

Questions leading to dangerous questions, isn’t that what you said?

She nodded after a moment of pause, her expression turning back to neutral somewhat. “I’m taking that back.”

You’re not worried about that anymore?

“That’s not what I meant.” She glanced at the others inside the wagon. “Walk with me?”

Sure.

I’d needed to move my body to alleviate some of the anxiety brought about by my sleep. I couldn’t even remember the last time I had a good sleep, and chances were I never had any.

I pulled my hood on as we hopped out the wagon.

Our breaths fogged the air in front of us. The ground beneath our feet felt hard as blades of grass were layered with thin ice, turning the hill itself white to match the dull grey of the sky. The sun was probably above the horizon but still below the glaze-covered treetops, if I could judge by the amount of light permeating the clouds above.

Forecast: no clear skies anytime soon.

As we walked with no clear destination, I noticed people were up, restoking flames to warm their freezing bodies or tending to the horses, also freezing.

The barricade was still there, as was the oil they’d drenched the trench with, telling by the smell, even though they’d tried their best to salvage every last drop.

“The problem with questions is still there,” Melory said. “Not right away, maybe, but eventually people… well, people wonder. It’s what they do. Then they speculate, make their own conclusions, and from there it wouldn’t be far from a decently smart person putting two and two together. Do you get what I mean?”

Just don’t tell them if you’re so worried.

“Except we have to. It’s not just our lives at risk, and we could be keeping information that could’ve helped with–“ she stopped and gave me a look. “…You don’t approve? Is this something about you?”

Something on my face must’ve caught her on.

I glanced at our surroundings to make sure no one was nearby, and because I needed a second to make a straight answer while looking at her in the eye.

There was a couple of guys looking our way at a safe distance. Drifters, swords on their hips. One of them had a familiar scarf or kerchief wrapped around his neck.

They gave us a wave. We waved back.

“Is it the stuff about your name?” she continued, smiling at the drifters.

Maybe, among other things.

Explaining why I never had a name, or what kind of life I’d been living until now. Being unable to speak or write had been a good excuse to avoid that mess.

Melory shot me a look that I couldn’t recognize at first. She gave me a pat on my shoulder, as if it would comfort me in any way.

“I understand,” she said softly. “You can tell me.”

Pity.

It was a look of pity.

I felt irritated.

Drawing your own conclusions.

“Within reason, and just because you’re a total blank. I don’t know what kind of life you’ve lived up to this point, but you can’t survive on your own. I know that much. You need allies, friends you can trust.”

Is that what you’re seeing in me? A friend?

She shrugged. “Only if you want to. It can be me, or anyone else, as long as you have someone on your side.”

You talk as if you’re not in the same position.

“That’s not–”

Right. It’s the avlarks, isn’t it? Are they here for you?

Her hand switched from my shoulder, snatching my hand, cupping it in hers. It felt too aggressive to be considered an act of affection than it was to shut me up. I was right on the mark.

“Tell me your story and I’ll tell you mine. We can be each other’s confidant.”

That’s hardly fair when one of us can’t talk or write. No risk on your side.

She winced at that and pulled away. “Wow.”

One of the people that waved at us was approaching our way, the one with light-colored hair and blue kerchief. Something about the way he walked with purpose felt disconcerting.

I turned my attention back to the luphaen.

What would you tell them, Melory? That you heard a voice? Even if they believe you–

“Us. You’ll testify with me.”

Fine. Us. Even if they believe us, they’re too busy preparing for things like snowfall and beasts. The tangible threats. No one’s going to care about an invisible voice talking in your head.

“So what, we keep quiet?”

For now, just until we know more.

“Keep quiet about what?” Luise cut in as he walked up to us.

He should’ve been well out of earshot from the speed he’d been walking in and must’ve ran a short distance of the way.

I hadn’t noticed him closing in.

Judging from the way Melory was eyeing him, neither did she.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt. Did you girls get a good sleep?”

“Sure, considering the circumstances,” Melory answered for both of us. She looked tense.

“Are the others up?”

She answered in a single breath. “No, they’re still asleep when we left, why?”

“I’ve got something to talk to the madame about,” Luise said.

“If it’s her, she’s awake.”

I sent Melory an addled look. Awake?

“Thank you, Mel,” he said. “It’s kind of important. Want to tag along?”

“Um,” she glanced at me, “sure.”

I nodded to confirm.

We started heading back with him in tow. I watched him: his hair and clothes had been smothered in frost, and he had that off-putting smile as always. Something in his walk felt hurried somewhat, enough that we had trouble keeping up with him.

My eyes trailed down to his sword, to the stains on his blade that didn’t look too old. I didn’t remember there being any close combat last night.

“Yes?” He noticed me looking.

His eyes looked bloodshot. I almost missed it because of how he was acting; animated, never missing a minute without flashing a smile. He creeped me out.

No, Sallis creeped me out. This guy was different.

Whenever he was around, my heart started drumming like crazy. Alarms went off as I became hyperaware of everything, second-guessing every small action, concerned of how he’d react as if my life depended on it. My magic hadn’t worked on him, which was a reason of its own for caution, but that wasn’t enough reason for this kind of reaction. He had been nothing but friendly since then.

For reasons I didn’t understand, he scared me.

“Is there something on my face?” He bent down in front of me, forcing our eyes to meet in close distance.

I looked away by reflex.

He seemed like a normal person on the surface, but my instincts weren’t one to get this kind of thing wrong. Not a monster, maybe, but a hazard. Something to stay away from.

“Mel? Your friend seems to be on her toes around me. Can you tell her I’m one of the good guys?” he said with a half-joking tone.

“She’s mute, not deaf.”

“Ah,” he said, “wasn’t sure. Nothing I say ever seems to go across to her.”

“You, um, you did give her brain damage.”

“Yes I did, and she did try to kill me. Twice. Would’ve been damned and blasted to bits if I didn’t have Thyra’s luck with me.”

I frowned. Luck? Are you kidding me?

I remembered how he’d evaded my magic, waltzing through them like he knew with pinpoint accuracy when and how I would–

Our eyes met again. He smiled, I lost my breath.

He knew I didn’t buy it. And he smiled.

“Can we consider it even? Me hitting you on the head, you trying to kill me?”

…Sure, I nodded.

He reached out. I stared at the hand he offered for a couple of seconds.

“He wants you to shake his hand,” Melory, pointing out the obvious. Like I was some sort of backward moron.

I guess I technically was.

I know, I answered, not letting that small irritation show on my face.

I flexed my fingers, checking the strength of my grip. I didn’t want to appear meek but shaking it too hard could appear like I’m trying to hide my own weakness. Then there was the matter of being seen as a pushover if I accepted the offer, and antagonistic if I didn’t.

Of course, refusing it wasn’t an option either way. Sallis, and the way the drifters in general acted around me, hinted that my position was too volatile as it was. There was a chance that any sign of noncooperation, even something as small as turning down a handshake, could be taken as aggression.

Or maybe I was making an earthquake out of a silly little handshake.

I took his hand, gripping as hard as I could, and gave it a couple of solid waves.

“Thanks for accepting. And sorry for hitting your head.”

I gave him a small nod, then let out a deep sigh when they weren’t looking. Along the way I kept hoping no one was hearing the loud beating in my chest.

Returning to our bunk-wagon, I could see the little glow of our heater through the white canvas. Everything from the wheel spokes to the wooden boards had been swathed with frost flakes.

Luise made a skip towards the back. He opened the curtain and hollered, “It’s sunshine, sweeties! Wake up, or I get in there and mush you up!”

A second later something flew out. A boot, it seemed like, which Luise caught. Another second and Latasha’s head appeared, glares fixed at the man in front of her. He in return beamed at her.

She really was awake. How did you know?

I saw Melory’s ears make an up-down movement. She’d heard the lady moving around in her ‘sleep’, presumably? Which could be why she asked for that walk.

Avoiding an eavesdropper, only to run into another.

“You better have a good reason for invading our privacy,” Latasha said, her voice slightly hushed, “This being our place to sleep effectively means it’s become our–“

“You wanted me to keep you in the loop. This is me, looping you in.”

“On what?” She glanced at me and Melory, then with a tone as if it was the most ridiculous thing in the world, she said, “You told them before me?”

“I haven’t told anyone yet. This is more of a better-show-than-tell thing.”

“Oh, okay. Good. Can we at least get breakfast first?”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea. It’s not pretty.”

Latasha looked over her shoulders, into the wagon. The lack of voices inside probably meant the other two were still asleep. She almost-whisper-ed, “How bad is it?”

“Severe mutilation.” Luise dropped his smile and turned to us, “If you’ve never seen that kind of stuff, it’s better not to come.”

Melory looked to me for a cue.

The avlark scout from last night, probably, torn to pieces by the horde. Could be that they found something on the corpse, maybe something that sheds more light on the enemy.

Melory shuddered around where I said ‘pieces’. “Um, I think I’ll stay,” she said. “Sorry.”

“It’s fine. You don’t have to apologize for it,” Latasha replied. “And you? Are you coming?

It took me a second to realize she was addressing me.

Uh, sure, I nodded curtly.

“Then it’s two of us.”

“Wait, why her too?” Melory protested.

“Why not? She’s got a right as much as the rest of us.”

Melory was left speechless.

I kind of get what she was trying to say, though. There was nothing I could contribute to even if I went, which essentially made me nothing but a bystander sightseeing a mutilated body or whatever it was.

But that was only if I decided not to open a channel of communication, which was still in the air, and I wanted to see regardless. There’s nothing wrong with knowing more.

As Hadda used to say, ‘ignorance is opposite of survival’…

–which weren’t the exact words, but something along those lines. Yeah.

“If that’s settled, come with me,” Luise said. He turned around and went ahead.

“See you at brunch, Goldie,” Latasha, coming after Luise.

Melory grabbed my wrist before I could follow. Her eyes swimming around, she asked me, “Should I come after all?”

You can stay. I’ll let you know what’s up and then we can decide if we should pitch in. Deal?

There was a telling pause on her part. “…Promise you’ll tell me everything?”

Promise. I gave her an assuring nod.

She let go. I left her and caught up with the others.

In my own convenience, I’d taken her ‘everything’ as in everything Luise was going to show us, instead of the ‘everything’ she may have actually meant. It was easier that way.

We headed towards the far side of the camp, near the steep parts of the hill where it was mostly barren of people.

The cirque could be seen from up there: a great ridgeline formed by a mountain range that surrounded a series of narrow valleys. The Dread, I assumed, must be referring to this natural barrier and the gorges within.

There was a small, lone tent standing near the rock face. An avlark was hanging around the entrance. He gave us a wave when he saw us.

“Wolf,” the avlark greeted. Brown-furred, slash mark on one eye, a half-intact ear. The avlark captain.

It was so goddamn hard telling them apart sometimes.

“Aldwan. Anything new?”

“He’s sill dead if that’s what you’re asking,” he said, the ‘still’ missing the t. He leered at Latasha, then at me. “Bet’er keep out, lass. This is some’hing that’ll burn into your eyes.”

“You have no business telling me what to do, Aldwan. Pada,” Latasha snarked back, the impact she’d intended mitigated by the space between ‘Aldwan’ and ‘pada’.

I could see Aldwan’s fangs poking out. Not a snarl or even a grimace, just a neutral expression except with two of his four fangs bared. He replied in a voice contradicting his words. “My apologies, La’hasha-arleda.”

“I’m… letting that slide.” Her expression turned softer along with her voice. “I understand you’ve had a recent loss. Barruk-pada, was it? May his soul be at peace. You have my grievances.”

There was a moment of silence that lasted a second too long past the boundary of ‘awkward’ and ‘worrying’.

The avlark set his jaw, disappearing the pair of fangs that I saw. “Much apprecia’ed,” he said. “Come on in. It doesn’t smell as much because of the cold, but brace yourselves anyway.”

I sneaked a peek at Latasha, at the corners of her mouth faintly curving up. A small victory. I was starting to figure her out, I thought.

Aldwan opened the drapes leading into the tent and immediately a foul odor poured out. The smell of blood and rot. Suddenly I understood why he’d been hanging outside. Through the open entrance I could see Orlev and Aenir inside, as well as parts of a wooden rod that could only be the magus’ walking stick.

The madame went in first, me following half a step behind.

The air was worse inside. Not nearly as bad as I thought it would, but still worse. The source of the smell, a barely decomposed corpse stripped off all clothing, was laid down on a blanket.

A human male. Around middle-age, with scruffy hair and facial hair, pallid from the lack of warmth both within and without the skin. Minimal signs of decomposition, on a surface level. The body was mostly free of damage aside from the large cavity where his midriff would’ve been.

The cavity, in an arbitrary order, started below the chest, extending outwards and down along the flanks in a large bowl-shape. The loop, the cut, whatever, closed around where his loins should’ve been.

The red ‘bowl’ was empty, organs missing as if someone or something had cut them out.

“Goddess.” Latasha was transfixed.

“His name was Carleigh,” Orlev introduced ‘him’. “One of our veterans. I sent him away to scout ahead two nights ago when we decided to use the old road. We found him just the next day by the side of the road, not one league away from camp.”

Latasha looked sick. She crossed her arms in front of her chest, her shoulders shrinking down on her form. She asked, “What’s so strange about this?”

The question awarded her with incredulous looks.

Luise cleared his throat. “What she means is, what points of interests have we found that made this case abnormal.”

“It’s abnormal because it wasn’t a nirhound that did this,” Aenir said. “No claw marks and too much of the body left intact.”

“No signs of struggle either, which I find to be the most perplexing part,” Luise added.

“What killed him, then?” Latasha said.

The people in the room paused as they glanced at each other.

“We don’t know,” Orlev said. “We’ve never encountered anything like this before.”

“Do you use that line often?”

The drifter chief shifted his weight, caught off guard by the question. “Every other week or so,” he answered. “Unknowns like this are part of the job and we have time-tested procedures for them.”

“Cases like this, nine out of ten we learn new behaviors,” Luise chimed in. “Mutations, variables caused by different ecologies, maybe even new breeds of beasts.”

“So nine out of ten times it’s not a big deal. Just something to add to your encyclopedia,” Latasha said.

Not a big deal. It rather amazed me how she managed to say that phrase while staring at what laid on the ground.

“…More or less,” Orlev said. There were hints of a grimace on his face that he tried to hide. Offended, probably, of how she belittled the death of his subordinate.

“I’m guessing we’re here for what happens outside those nine then,” Latasha concluded.

“Sharp lass,” I heard Aldwan’s voice from outside. The shadow of his large frame was cast on the curtains. “Exactly as you said. We’re here to discuss whether or not we’re fucked.”

“Ald, we talked about this. Ease up,” Orlev warned.

“The girl’s got guts, Orlevha. She ain't mincing words, I 'hink she’d appreciate it if you do the same,” the avlark said, decidedly not coming in.

“Please don’t speak for me,” Latasha snapped, then she turned to Orlev. “He’s right, though. I don’t need this hum and haw. I have a dead body in front of me, for Thyra’s sake.”

Orlev drew both his hands in surrender. “Alright, your points taken. No more beating around the bush.”

“Thanks for being straightforward on me, chief.”

“Likewise, madame,” he gave her a curt nod. “The attack last night strengthened some of our conjectures. Nirhound don’t usually swarm like that unless there’s an alpha around, which could be the case if it weren’t for their behavior being off. Canines and lupines communicate through a range of vocal and body languages and from what we saw last night, there were none of–“

Latasha interrupted by clearing her throat. “In layman’s terms, please.”

Orlev narrowed his eyes, the sides of his lips twitching as his patience was tested. He continued explaining in short, carefully worded sentences. “We think they were being controlled. All of them. By nothing short of a Sideral-class threat. We’re going forth in that assumption, but semi-active. That means our lives may not be in immediate danger for now. Because our decimation may not be its goal.”

The lady, if anything, looked even more lost. “Are you saying we’re safe for now?”

“Otherwise we’d be dead already,” said Aldwan. “The young’uns are saying we’d drivhan them off, but blast me to jivhak if that’s true. We’re livhing because we’re being let livhing.”

“Okay, wow.” Latasha made a sound that was halfway between a snort and chuckle. Nervous, which she tried to hide by deliberating, “Let’s assume you’re right about this, how does the body fit into the equation?”

“Could be a coincidence,” Luise said. “Could be there’s no connection between this and the nirhound mob, or the abnormal behavior I saw, or the missing reports. At this point, though? Too many things going on that the chances of it being simple accidents isn’t higher than, say, a Sideral-class at play.”

It was the same thing Latasha had told us. Too many coincidences and they stop being one.

“’It’s not too late to ‘urn back,” Aldwan pointed out.

“We’re not equipped for winter,” Orlev stated. “The eastern pass was cut off by the landslide. There’s nowhere to go but forward. I remember there’s an old route that skims on the mountainsides…”

While they were discussing the next plan of action, Aenir was crouching near the body, turning Carleigh’s head left and right with gloved hands.

“No signs of magic, you say?” he addressed Sallis.

The hooded magus, who’d been quiet until now, answered, “Marginal to say the least. Not enough to claim either way.”

I observed the body. It was well-preserved, I noted, aside from the big gaping hole on its belly.

Luise mentioned how he found the lack of scuffle marks to be the most confusing part, but I had to disagree on that. The kind of beasts I’m familiar with would never leave perfectly edible flesh to rot unless there was an aim to it, assuming they were sentient enough to have another goal than eating their fill.

As a message, for example, to scare people away, or to induce fear as an effect. To weaken the next preys on a psychological level. I knew of one creature that did it for the latter and this–

Fuck. Bad memories.

This felt oddly familiar to that, is what I was thinking. Without a way to get more information, though, I couldn’t say if it was either case.

Except, I did have a way to find more clues.

Nexy, old friend, you there?

 

    I’m here.

 

I couldn’t help but smile.

I’d been avoiding it because I knew that man was listening in with it. But fuck him. He would find another, worse way to spy on me with anyway.

With a mental image of Nexy at my side, I crouched down beside the gore and reached in.

Sallis grabbed my wrist, hard. “What are you planning?”

“Wait, let her do her thing,” Aenir said. He then took off one of his black gloves and offered it to me. “Put it on. Just to be safe.”

For consideration’s sake, I accepted the glove and wore it, two fingers in one slot because of the difference in size.

I reached into the man’s belly and, using the index of the glove operated with my index and middle finger, swiped a clump of viscid gunk from the linings of the belly.

I pulled my hand near my face, stared at the goopy mess on Aenir’s glove for a second, and licked it.

There wasn’t any particular taste or smell to it other than, I guessed, iron? The texture, if I had to describe it with one word, was slimy.

Nexy, I’m being attacked. Help.

 

    Identifying foreign substance…

 

It was cooperating, at least. Along with the subroutines set to spying on me–

Sallis abruptly grabbed my hand a second time. He had an alarmed look on his face, which was a first.

“Huh,” Aenir said with a blank expression. “How was that?”

I gave him a shrug.

“Crazy brat,” Sallis said, in a tone opposite of friendly, as his hand still gripped mine.

“Did Whitey do something?” Latasha said, pulling away from her conversation with the chief.

“Yes, she took a sip of that… stuff.” Aenir indicated at the body.

“She did what?”

“It was just a tiny lick.”

She turned to me, eyes wide, wrinkles between the brows the most I had ever seen on her.

“Why didn’t you stop her?” she said with an intensity that was a fraction away from shouting.

“I thought she was just going to smell it,” Aenir said. “I made a mistake, clearly.”

“Whitey–“

 

    Foreign substance identified.

 

A flood of information hit me.

Words I’d never heard of, connections forming between them as they popped up. Compositions. Chemical structures. Drowning everything else.

I felt dizzy and nauseous, and I wasn’t sure if it was caused by Nexy’s package or because of something I ate.

Muscle tissues. Fascia. Fat. Membranes.

Too many to remember. Too many trivial. Most were lost in the stream, maybe everything would be were I not able to centralize. I had to boil it down, condense it by focusing onto a single subject or theme.

What doesn’t belong.

The theme.

There was another torrent, a smaller, runaway flow from the original flood. Pieced together they created a story, with the narrative centered around two substances. Silk and venom.

My tongue was numb. Had been for a while.

Strong neurotoxin causing full neural shutdown, thus no signs of struggle. Cause of death, respiratory failure?

Silk – it had been enveloping something within Carleigh’s abdomen.

Eggs? Reproductive behavior, perhaps, to store the sacs inside a warm host. For protection, and food as soon as they hatch.

Nausea and headache were getting worse. The toxin? This bad and this quick from one tiny lick, even after mixed with a bunch of Carleigh. Correction, extremely strong and very fast-acting neurotoxin–

Irrelevant. Back to speculating: egg theory not possible, because that would mean there was but a day between placement and hatching – unless the eggs were moved in from somewhere else, placed there hours before birth.

Possible, then. But where were all the hatchlings? Why the leftovers?

Control.

What Orlev had said, something about the demon controlling the horde, making them behave unnaturally.

Could that apply to the newborn creatures too? If so, in what motive?

Maximize terror with the body, boasting its power with the attack, all to… to what?

I felt a hand on my shoulder.

“Everything okay?” Aenir asked.

I nodded. I stood up and paced out the tent, noting the weakness in my legs.

“Whitey,” I heard Latasha call out.

I nearly crashed into Aldwan who was standing right in front of the entrance. He had his arms crossed in front of his chest, gave me a weirded look when I came out.

I went around him and gazed around for a particular face. I found her standing not that far away, golden hair standing out at the edge of the exclusion bubble around the tent with the corpse.

She had said that she wasn’t coming, but I knew she wouldn’t be far away. She couldn’t help it.

Melory noticed me. I waved her over and met her halfway.

Let’s do it, I told her.

“Huh?” She said.

I spoke to her with little space between the words. Let’s do it. Open a dialogue.

“Wait, hold on, you, uh,” she fumbled, “What in the world did you see in there?”

Clues. I think I have an idea of what we’re up against.

“Okay,” she nodded, eyes down. She continued with erratic hand gestures, spinning one finger around the other. “Okay. And the questions? The, err, the name stuff? You’re okay with them asking?”

We don’t even know if they will–

My legs failed. Melory caught me in her arms. “Hey?!”

Oops. Sorry, and thanks. Anyway, situation has changed and–

I slumped further into her, my face on her chest, forcing her to bear my entire weight as she tried to keep me from outright tumbling face first into the dirt. “Um, did something happen to you in there?”

I looked up at her face. Her pupils were dilated, which were much more obvious on her eyes than that of a human’s. Night vision and all.

I’m fine, I think. The poison was already diluted in–

“Poison?”

I’ll explain everything, I assured.

Melory said a word that sounded like a swear in a foreign language. “I knew I should’ve gone with you.”

I offered an impish smile. Or I was thinking I did, hard to tell with the area around my mouth going dull.

From the corner of my eye I could see Latasha and Aenir coming out of the tent and making a beeline towards us.

I looked back at Melory. Shall we?

 

 

 

 

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Derthian

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