Several attempts, and some of them going bad enough Monica had started forgetting about the tail and was mostly just looking at you in amusement as you struggled to light the chunk of wood on fire. The lighter you'd use for Alice's cig was handy, but you were still inexperienced and it had been several 'poof's worth of nothing before you got it right.
"I'm not going to ask if you're sure of what you're about to do." Mr Gabriel spoke at the same time he was feeding the half-berry to an eagerly hungry mouse. You grimaced slightly at the thought that this was the tail of... no, don't think about it. This was for Monica, as an apology, and maybe as a way to convince her to move away from...
Focus. "Monica?" You called out to her.
She tensed, frowned, looking into your eyes as she got close, glancing at the fire and then back at you. She focused on your extended hand, then the tail she was holding. With a 'thump', she sat down in front of you, an indignant yowl followed, and then, she placed the tail on your outreached hand.
Though she looked at it with the same misty eyes the lizard-girl was probably making right now.
You got to work, piercing the piece with a stick, you placed it over the flames, hearing a choked sound above, and from Monica who now looked half panicked half angry, switching between deep concern for the meat and then looking at you with something like a look of betrayal. She kept approaching the fire, hissing, looking at you, stepping back, huffing, her eyes were hurt and she was pouting, she kept looking at you, almost reaching out to take it out of the fire.
"Wait." You practically begged her. And with some visible effort, she did, now pacing back and forth and looking at the tail with deep concern. She actually yowled once or twice. All the while, you carefully kept it from getting burnt.
And ignoring the hissing lizard-girl.
Eventually, the smell began to waft, and... it smelled great actually, meaty, even though you couldn't quite pin down anything quite like it. It was definitely something you didn't want to think about too much. "Uh..." You muttered, fighting against the very idea of tasting it.
Monica wasn't fighting though, as soon as she'd gotten a whiff she'd stopped pacing and began drooling, she'd crouched close, watching it carefully as it spun over the flames. Her eyes were glued on the tail as the fatty melted and boiled and slowly cooked everything.
Eventually, you considered it was done. "Here." You said after deciding this was as far as you were going to make it and handing the tail-wrapped-around-stick-kebab to Monica. "Just be careful it's..."
"OW!" Monica screamed the moment she'd bit into it without waiting a single second.
She hadn't dropped the tail though, holding firmly to the stick and looking at it with eyes filled with betrayal though clearly aimed at the food that should NOT have hurt her. You noticed someone else was giving exactly the same look but aimed at you instead, a certain reptile-girl that was on the lowest branch of the tree now, her gold eyes wide and misty, her lips turned downwards, small sad whimpers.
All you could do was shrug at her, returning your attention towards Monica as she'd managed to discover the secret of blowing on things to cool them down. As soon as she took the first bite her smile practically split her face and she let out a loud pleased meow followed by purring. Making sure not to burn herself, she dug in, one bite after the other. She seemed quite intent on finishing the meal, bits of meat and juices sticking to her face as she kept on eating.
As she was reaching a little past the half-way point, she stopped abruptly. She gained a thoughtful look in her eyes as she stared at the dying fire and then at you. "Sorry." She spoke, stretching the hand holding the meat-on-a-stick towards you. From above, there was a chocked cry-like sound. In the background, you heard May gag, and you had to wonder just how crazy things were going that you weren't already emptying your stomach and instead seriously considering the gesture.
A moment of hesitation, you grabbed the stick and look at the meat. It looked so succulent, the smell so tempting. Your stomach growled, you haven't eaten anything that wasn't candy-bars or berries for over a day. You swallow saliva, feeling unable to look away from the delicious meat. But you stop. This meat came from the lizard girl.
This was uncomfortably close to being human meat, you really really shouldn't eat this.
Closing your eyes, you sigh and return the stick to a confused looking Monica. "Bite." You say simply, watching her grab the stick and glancing between you and it. "Monica." You speak her name softly. "Bite."
There's a complicated look on her expression, taking the stick, looking at you one last time before scarfing down the meat that was left in short order. You hear a collective sigh of relief, and you're quick to realize the others had come back.
"Seems it'll be a while longer before we're on the menu eh?" Kat's voice spoke first, looking more upbeat than when you'd seen her last. She made a gesture to the others. "We found enough berries for a quick meal, and..." Extending a hand from behind her, she showed you a new large purple berry. "The bushes these grow on are weird, they're in bloom even though there are berries growing at the same time."
Grabbing the berry, you marvel at it for a long second, this was what had closed scars in seconds, you had to wonder how it worked.
"Saaaaah." Above you, the lizard-girl was looking intently, though definitely much less pouty and teary-eyed than before. Her naked ass wriggled in the air as she almost seemed to be considering whether to jump from that branch or not, her focus on the berry.
"How's Tessa?" You asked towards Mr Gabriel, noting he was more relaxed.
"Her wounds have mostly stopped hurting, it seems." He spoke after a second of consideration. "Her legs though... they'll have to be reset, they don't seem like they're going to heal straight."
"I'm sure she'll be taken well care of once we get to a village or town." Alice spoke softly. "We should depart and not waste more time."
A round of nods followed, and everyone began moving. Monica looked just happy to come along while licking the remains off of the stick. Your eyes wandered towards the lizard girl, she was still looking at you from that low branch, curious and something else, cautious? Probably. It seemed as if her indecision about what to do was growing by the minute.
Well, you did put all that effort to keep her alive, and though you wouldn't mind much if she decided to go her own way, you still would rather she came along instead for added safety. Not sure what to do, you went for the classic 'offer food' technique and see if you could tempt her.
So with an extended hand, you held out the remaining handful of the not-magically-healing berries. You thought she'd either ignore you or come down and agree to your offer. What you didn't expect was that, while still on the branch, she'd get close enough to be within two meters or so and then...
Her tongue had shot out like a dart, wet and gooey, it lathered your palm in her saliva, leaving no berries behind as it retracted just as fast as it'd shot out. Everyone present had to blink multiple times. "I like her," Kat spoke, dodging a slap to the back of her head from her grandfather.
You, on the other hand, had to wonder just how was it possible for someone to have that much tongue and not be choking on it. "You can have her, then." You shrugged.
That made everyone blink in surprise. "Wait, really?" Kat cheers.
The only reaction you could muster is to shoot her a deadpan. "She doesn't 'belong' to me, Kat, I'm not sure what's going through your head..."
"I think you do..." She sing-sang, skipping towards the tree and making shooing motions towards you. "Now go away a bit, she's obviously scared of you and 'your' kitty."
"Be careful, Kat." You said, a warning on your voice, but you comply.
"Are you sure about this?" Alice asked nervously, you note Tomas was next to her and very tensely looking in Kat's direction.
"I think the lizard-girl isn't the aggressive sort, at least not in the same way Monica is."
"Meownica?" The person in question asked in curiosity as her name was pronounced.
"Besides, it's not like it's guaranteed she'll-."
"Ha!" Kat's voice drew your attention, making you turn around to look at her. The lizard woman was currently leaning into Kat's hand as it scratched her head, her face stuffed with some berries the young girl had likely offered. "I'm going to keep her all for myself!"
"Careful there, or you'll make Tomas jealous." You pointed out much to the younger man's abrupt blush, you relaxed a bit.
"Oh, don't worry..." There was a definite glint in Kat's eyes as she grabbed the lizard-girl's hand and began walking.
The lizard-girl appeared to not fight much against that, looking at Kat as she licked her lips, then at Monica and lastly your way. She was looking at you a lot before turning back to Kat. The newest addition to the group followed, albeit not allowing the teenager to get her anywhere close to Monica.
Thus everyone started moving once more.
The walking had become very quiet after that. You and Monica were in the lead, the feline having stopped her usual antics in favour of paying attention towards the woods with quiet stillness. But she wasn't the only one, the Tessa had stopped squeaking and paying all her attention towards Monica and instead had shrunk herself as much as possible into the jacket Mr Gabriel had given her and was looking everywhere at once.
And that had made everyone else realize something didn't quite feel right. Alice and May walked close of Tomas and Mr Gabriel, holding each other firmly. Well, everyone save the lizard-girl and Kat, both of them were still going hand by hand, and though not talking, there was a definite cheery mood about them... even if the lizard had a slight limp to her. You briefly wondered whether what you'd seen last night had been truly a broken bone or rather a dislocated joint...
The thought was pushed away as the forest began to thin out, you spotted the house, and so did everyone else. "Final-!" Kat was shut up by a gesture from your hand, even the lizard had abruptly become tense and quiet.
Monica's ears were aimed straight ahead, and as you came closer to the end of the forest and the start of the fields surrounding the house, you noticed her eyes becoming narrower, eyes shifting one way and then another. She was looking for whatever was making her tense. The whole group stopped at the edge of the field. All eyes silently scanning the area.
The fields didn't look well kept, that was about as far as your thoughts went before Alice paled and gasped, covering her mouth instantly before making some wild gestures for everyone to crouch.
You all instantly complies before looking at her oddly. "House." She declared with a very hushed tone. As she says this, the mouse squeaks and shrinks further. You follow her finger and spot what she was pointing at.
The house was covered in scorch marks, all the windows were broken, and there were several other subtler signs of deterioration throughout its structure and surrounding area. You could only guess it had been abandoned, but you can't really say it was ancient. Maybe in the last couple of years? The thought was taken away as heard a sound from one of the windows, followed by seeing something moving inside.
Well, less "something" and more "someone", even though their appearance seemed by far something that was less human than the others you'd seen so far, her figure covered in dark black fur, her face something akin to a muzzle even if not quite, her body wreathed in flames.
Most shocking was how the female creature didn't seem to react to the fire, as if it didn't burn her.
She seemed to be doing something inside the house as her eyes gazed out through the hole that used to be a window just as the flames abruptly stopped, without a moment of hesitation she turned, vanishing from sight as she moved through the building. "She's hot." Kat said. Everyone glared at her and she flinched, raising her hands apologetically before mouthing a 'sorry' and sticking her tongue out.
The others (yourself included), shared a worried look. The presence of the fire-woman was certainly not something that made things easy. But at the same time that house was the only sign of civilization you'd seen since getting to this world. And all of you were equal measure hungry and tired.
A heartbeat of pause as you looked the others over, the decision was made before anyone spoke. "All of you, stay here." You stated after a moment's consideration. "Monica and I will get closer." There was some attempt of a complaint, but they go quiet, nodding silently at your decision. "If things go badly..." You bite back your tongue for a moment and then shake your head. "...if things go badly, circle the fields. This place feels like a farm, there should be a road here somewhere leading... anywhere else."
"We'll wait for you here, teach." Kat said, hesitating before moving in to hug you. "You're a cool teacher, don't die on us."
Her words are accompanied with the others nodding. Monica, the lizard-girl, and Tessa just look at the odd behaviour with apparent confusion. "Monica?" You call to her, and she reacts, tersely, but she's quick to stick to your side as you start to move towards the house.
As soon as you entered the field, crouched, Monica moved to stand in front of you, eyes and ears firmly pointed at the house, her paw pressing against your chest. Her body lowers against the floor and the small noises she'd been making before abruptly halt, her tail flat against the surface while she begins stalking her way towards the structure. You followed more clumsily several steps behind.
The field ends and a small cobblestone path with overgrown weeds marks the small road past a fence and towards the main of three buildings, only the central one being an actual house.
You reached the fence just as the fire-woman appeared in one of the windows in the upper floor. She's startled, freezing on the spot as she sees you. You're nervous, freezing on the spot. Monica growls and extends her claws, her tail becoming incredibly stiff as her legs crouched slightly in preparation to pounce.
Fire-woman notices Monica, eyes widened. "Wai-!" The word registers in your head just as Monica launches like a rocket. A cloud of dust explodes from the ground, the next instant she's impacted the window and debris flies in all directions as the feline had punched through the open window.
"Lucy!?" You hear someone scream from your right, and immediately you spot the young man, maybe a teenager, rushing out of the small building at the right.
Right behind him was someone else, the young woman looking flustered but overall more nervous and agitated than anything else as she moved to place herself between the man and you.
"Hey, you!" The kid yelled at you; you had to wonder how old he was, 16? 17 tops? "Mister! Call your girl back! Lucy's mine, she's not feral!"
Your brain immediately kicked in. "Monica!" You shout, taking a pause. "Monica!" You add more urgently.
The rumbling sounds that were coming from inside the building cease as Monica exploded out of one of the upper windows in a rush, landing in front of you and spinning on the spot to face the other girl, you barely had the time to touch her shoulder before she'd leapt into action.
"Monica!" You said sternly, making her freeze, look at you, then the others.
The snarl that she lets out is blood curling, it makes the new girl take a step back in shock and the boy to freeze. "Monica, wait." You call out, touching her shoulder more firmly. You notice there are a handful of burn-marks on the fur on her right arm. Your firmer touch made her stop the snarling, but not the glare nor the extended claws.
"Darwin!" Someone calls out from inside the house, the fire-woman stepping out, bleeding from... most places, her fur matted in it, some of the gashes looked deep.
"Oh shit." The teenager declared, grabbing a familiar red and white sphere from his belt and pointing it at her. "I'll let you out at the centre."
Then the most incredible thing happened. The fire-woman turned into a burst of red light that was sucked into the sphere.
Your jaw almost dropped. Monica looked slightly distracted by the lights, but otherwise didn't turn away much from the other girl.
"Wait, what's that?"
"The capture-sphere?" The young man asked.
"What's this about?" The short-haired girl spoke, changing the subject. "I thought only we had taken the quest?"
"Quest?" You blurt out, the gears in your brain not yet connected as they try to spin.
"If you're not here for the capture quest, then why are you here?" The boy took one long look at you. "Though you clearly seem to have been away from the city for a while. What happened? Got ambushed by a feral pack or something? Also, what the fuck, your girl almost killed Lucy! Where the hell was the three-tap check?"
You could only blink, but not speaking up, understanding something was not quite right and that the kid was making assumptions you weren't too sure you wanted to clear up. Could you trust him? The adults behind him? You couldn't tell.
Ok, ok, be calm. Your hand was on Monica's shoulder and the lack of an aggressive attitude from the other two made her very very slowly start to relax, but she had yet to really come to trust them. "Yes, we were attacked." You carefully you measure your words, though there was this odd notion to ask the boy to answer questions, you suppress the teacher inside you. "If I hadn't found Monica here, I'd have been in a lot of trouble."
Her spoken name draws her attention slightly at you, and as she does, you notice the boy bring out his phone and aim the camera at her. There's a soft beeping sound and his eyes widen slightly. "A Wildcat?" The girl glanced at you with an odd look you weren't all too sure whether was good or bad. "You lost everyone else?"
Your face darkened without you realizing it, your jaw clenched slightly. "It's been a pretty horrible couple days."
The girl grimaced. "I'm sorry for your loss. My father had lost auntie Claire to a buzzbreast swarm and he's never been the same. I can't imagine how hard it must be losing your whole harem like that."
"Especially at your age." The boy spoke, and instantly got a glare from the girl.
The confusion in your face was hidden as you tried to puzzle together what the hell a 'buzzbreast' was. Or why your age was important about this in any way.
"Do you need any help?" The girl stepped forward but stopped when Monica levelled her glare at her. You noted the boy glanced at her too and... pouted? He looked jealous. That... was weird.
"I'd really appreciate getting in contact with... anyone who can help." You let out a deep sigh, feeling yourself crumbling slightly inside. "I came as part of a group and though there are a couple with me here, the others I'm sure aren't in a good situation."
Both boy and girl look surprised. "Wait, who else is with you?"
Turning your head, you make a gesture towards the treeline. It takes a minute, but the others slowly make their way out. "There's a second group that went south." You further explain. "I doubt they have any way of defending themselves."
The girl placed a hand on the teenager's chest and nudged him away from you, very suddenly looking extremely anxious but hiding it behind a smile. "Darwin, could we... talk for a second?" She asked tersely. She pulled the boy further back and got closer as she started whispering into his ear.
"Um, miss?" You asked, noting how tense she was becoming, more so as the others got closer, you sensed you'd fucked up, given too much information in one go. The frayed nerves from the whole mess felt like they were scratching at you.
"No, it's nothing!" She promptly declared, stepping away from Darwin with very 'it was something' looking eyes as she coughed loudly. "We, um, were just wondering how you got here? Just curious, you know, since the nearest place is New-Bark town..."
"Look, yes, we're not from 'around here', but we need help." You said dryly, feeling your patience running very thin.
Monica had picked up on that, tensing again.
And, of course, the girl did what young teenagers did and you could almost see her mentally blocking everything that had come out of your mouth after 'around here'. "I told you! He's one of them!" She declared.
"One of who?" You asked, exasperated. "Look, all I'm trying is to get help! There are people who're going to die! Please!"
"Bri!" The tamer shouted, and the girl froze, the next she was being pulled into a beam of red light, leaving him alone. The young man placed the sphere on his belt, clipping it in place. "Mister?" He looked at you with a face that was equal parts nervous and determined, it was an odd mix. "Look, Bri told me that when someone appears that's not from 'this place' we're supposed to tell the police about them. She said you were too dangerous."
You kept from saying that the most dangerous one around these parts was Monica, and she was a local. Still, you realised he was trying to be earnest if nothing else. Removing the potential defences when Monica was right there? That took guts. Keeping quiet, you recognize that he's not finished and let him continue.
"I don't know much about those things, but I don't think I should ignore that either. Uncle was always someone to stick to the law and Bri got that part of her too, sometimes I swear she's more of a jenny than..." He quiets down and quickly shuts his mouth at the realization he was babbling. "I'm going to go now, and I'm going to tell the Hunters that I talked to someone who's not from this place. Because as a tamer that's my duty." His words made you feel slightly surprised, doubly by the fact they came from this young boy. Then the confidence faltered and he shrunk slightly. "So, could you... please not kill me?"
"I'm here asking for help, I'm not a killer." You replied, feeling absolutely exhausted now. "So make sure to tell them there's at least twenty innocent civilians out there, probably being chased by those ferals you mentioned." With a pause, you touch Monica's shoulder and nudged her back a step.
The amount of relief that shot through him was palpable. "Thank you!" He nodded eagerly, turning to leave.
"Just one thing." You asked, and it immediately makes him freeze again. "What are those ferals you talked about?"
The boy blinked, then pointed at Monica. "You know, like... them?" He makes a vague gesture with his hand, becoming anxious again. "Just make sure to be careful, the quest said there was a feral cat-type around these parts!"
He turned to run the instant he got the room for it, which was leaving you increasingly sure that what the boy had shown earlier was not so much a large amount of character but of stupidity.
Feeling dejected that whatever was going on seemed to go past what anything you could've ever expected, you opted to watch him start running out of the farm and down what looked like the ruined remains of a road that was by now completely wrecked by the local flora.
You were careful to remain focused on him, watching as he brought Bri back out once well away from earshot, talking to her and her appearing to berate him. She saw you looking her way, became nervous and hurried the young man along until you lost him from sight.
You committed the direction to memory.
That HAD to be the route to civilization.