Before long she was back up and ambling around in circles, despite her aches. Settling down had led to her starting to drift off in no time. She plodded around like a thing half dead. Her ears were drooping, eyes half-open, head hanging, tail dragging, and to top it off she was ravenous. She eyed a spot of moss on the ground with longing.

Please wake up soon…

Her wishes shortly became reality, as she finished a circle and checked her siblings again. They were stirring.

It’s finally time to go.

She tried to perk herself up a bit, but she was running low on available adrenaline at this point. She really didn’t feel like running anymore, but it was necessary.

She turned out of the cave and started off.

The world outside was fully dark at this point, back to the land she was used to. She got some distance and then stopped on a small hill that would give her a good view of the cave entrance. As she turned to look she saw her siblings pouring out. She watched, heart pumping as they coalesced and... moved in her direction.

It’s working. It’s working!

She felt some life come back into her, and set off. She set her pace at a reasonable clip, trying to match how fast she would normally move in the swarm. She didn’t want them to catch up, and have no trail to follow, but didn’t want them to get too far either, for fear she’d lose them. She was heading directly away from where she guessed the tree eater had stopped. By the time she’d gotten back, it was no longer thumping, leaving her a bit uncertain as to its exact stopping point.

It was a few more minutes of running before she realized she should probably pick a destination that was a little more concrete than “away from the tree-eater”. The swarm needed to eat, and her siblings wouldn’t return until they were sufficiently full. For that matter, she could really use some food herself.

Perhaps I could go for the fire horns.

She thought about it. It made sense given that she currently smelled like one, and they were some of the less dangerous beasts. However, she decided against it. Because now she was leading them. Last night she would have been glad if they’d come across fire horns, because it meant she would only be losing a few. But why choose to lead them to a beast that would result in only a few deaths rather than something that would likely result in none?

She smelled as she ran, hoping to catch the scent of a safe target.

Every time she found a good vantage point she glanced back, catching glimpses of the swarm to make sure they were still following her.

A few scents made their way to her, but she steered the group away from them until at last, she smelled something acceptable.

The stripy skittish ones would do. They were a type of animal that came in small groups and were tall but not that thick. They were a lot faster than the fire horns, but massed less and didn’t try to fight even when caught. All they would do was try to get away, making them one of the safer creatures to hunt.

She led the swarm in the right direction.

If only I’d thought of this sooner.

There was no reason she couldn’t just continue with this every night. There was slightly more danger to her she supposed, as she would need to gather more scent-skin, but it’d be good for the swarm in general.

When she reached the next rise she managed to spot her targets sleeping in some thick foliage. From what she could see they were a decently sized group. She rubbed herself on a tree to get off her scent-skin.

Her siblings would be close enough to spot the real prey once they made it up the hill and she wanted to join them. Although... She quickly dragged the skin patch over to some foliage and covered it up. Then sat on it. She would need it later and she didn’t want a sibling to snag it on the way by.

She looked back to see them coming up the hill, and in a moment, she was surrounded.

The swarm had stopped, milling about, looking a little lost.

But those near her were quite focused, sniffing, eyes locked on her.


She was suddenly a little nervous.

She got up and started pushing towards the striped ones below.

Come on, the food is this way!

A brother nipped her. With his teeth. She swiped him back with a claw and hissed.

I reek of flame horn.

Nervousness was quickly shifting to fear.

She got nipped again, this time a sister. It drew blood.

She started running.

They started chasing.

She sped up.

I’m your sister!

She willed the concept at them in her mind. How couldn’t they see it!? She looked nothing like a flame-horn!

She leaped forward as fast as she could, crashing through brothers and sisters, desperately trying to make it to the edge of the swarm. More and more were looking at her, joining the chase.

One of the bigger brothers kept up, and pounced. He grabbed her tail with his teeth and tore a chunk out of it. She screeched in pain, almost staggering but for the building panic. Only a last moment juke had kept him from shearing the whole thing off.

Her thoughts were filled with terror.

I’m going to die.

She had to escape. Run faster. Hide. Anything!

Please not like this!

Something tore a chunk out of her right shoulder, she staggered, barely managing to keep from falling.

She had been saving them. Helping them. Keeping them all from running off to be slaughtered.

But they didn’t care. Their minds were blank. A simple scent and they couldn’t see she was one of them.

Her mind filled with simple calm amid the raging panic.

But I’m not one of them, am I? Not really.

She’d been different from the time she was born. No one else was waking up. They were beings of instinct that ate, ran, slept, and shat. Mere automatons that performed the same actions every day with no will of their own.

She felt claws in her back, dragging her to the ground, splaying her to the side.

I’m going to be alone forever, aren’t I?

That small flicker of hope died in her chest.

She saw greedy eyes and open mouths converging on their meal.

I don’t want to be here anymore.

Something responded.

Like spreading ripples of water in a pond, that tingling feeling that had been accompanying her lately calmed and spread. The energy infused her, a distinct feeling of oneness spreading where there had been none. It felt so right in a way it hadn’t before. And then, like a dream, she could feel herself pushing that energy into the world.

Deep shadows pooled around her.

The swarm piled forward, but she was no longer there.

She was suddenly in a tree.

Her mind was blank for a moment in sheer shock at the sudden change in location.

Then she started sliding. She screeched, twisting around, clawing at the wood to get secure. Her slide stopped, and her body screamed in agony.

I’m very hurt.

She thought, feeling oddly detached from the situation. She slowly turned her head to survey the situation.

She was bleeding from many small wounds. There were teeth marks and gashes all over her. There was a chunk missing from the side of her tail, and her right foreleg hung uselessly. Her shoulder was torn up, blood seeping from visible muscle. Any attempt to move it was met with agony.

She found herself giggling, little chitters working their way up her throat.

I’m still going to die.

Whatever reality twisting event that had put her up here and saved her from the swarm wouldn’t be enough.

She’d seen other sib... others hurt as bad as she was. She was bleeding too much.

She pushed herself up with trembling legs, getting to a more stable perch.

Just... Gotta keep the blood in…

She laid down on her shoulder, getting it pressed against the branch, slowing the bleeding.

It was like fire and claws tearing through her. She would have screeched in pain but couldn’t muster the energy.

She was so tired. Surely now she could sleep.

Her eyes fell shut as she drifted away.

A note from Zat

Sorry for the cliffhanger here, but it was a good stopping point.

Support "Shade Touched"

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