The dinner fire had nearly burned out when Dahlia emerged from the tent. The orange tint had receded from all but the closest of the clan’s tents, and the pale moon was barely providing enough light to see by. Most of her family was reluctant to move about at this hour, but she aspired to join the group who could still function when the sun was gone. Sleep wasn’t coming, so she’d make whatever use she could of these extra hours.
The greenish glow of lummush drew her eye to one of the hunters on watch. The matron had spaced them out along the woodside of camp, far enough apart to be efficient, but close enough that each hunter could hear any warning from his closest colleague. Dahlia doubted this duty would be very exciting, but she doubted there would be any harm in practicing it.
She tried to identify the hunter as she approached, but his painted back was all she could see of him. It wasn’t until she stooped to sit at his side that she recognized Nikhil as the cross-legged watcher she’d be keeping company.
“Oi, Dahlia.” He had been sitting with his eyes closed and his hands on his knees until she arrived. “S’matter, too scared ta sleep?”
“Take a guess.” Dahlia injected extra anger into her tone.
Nikhil laughed, but there was a sense of understanding to the sound. “Most the clan be givin’ themselves nightmares o’er this. I ‘unno if they gonna feel what we’ve lost ‘til we either move on or claim the beast that took ‘em.”
“They wouldn’t be scared if it were just another beastie.” Dahlia crossed her arms over her knees and rested her frowning chin there. “Those who’ve seen ‘im are gonna be dreamin’ o’ Stinger when they wet the bedding. Either that, or they gonna be too mad ta sleep, and watch the moon go by and think o’ revenge, just like us.”
“Oi, revenge ain’t right, Dahlia.” Nikhil scolded. “You may be righ’, it may be war, but that don’t mean we gotta fight it for revenge’s sake. We’ll kill it ta survive, or if it stops makin’ survival hard, then we’ll let it go its way.We start makin’ sacrifices fer revenge sake and we might all die fer the cause without ever winnin’ it.”
“So what, we just let ‘im have the kin ‘e’s taken and laugh?!” Dahlia’s eyelid twitched angrily. “The idea makes me sick. ‘e has ta pay.”
“Yer rilin’ yerself up with yer own fantasy, Dahlia.” Nikhil wasn’t falling for her provocation. She wanted a good, loud argument, but he didn’t seem willing to provide it. “We weren’t there ta see what happened, neither time. Fer all we know, Conan and Gelilah attacked an innocent leaf-muncher an’ lost. Maybe Kadmus jus’ ain’t done huntin’, and he never ran inta that thing at all.”
“That one’s the fantasy,” Dahlia argued. “And you know it.”
“Aye, it may be too hopeful,” Nikhil conceded. “The point stands, tho’. There be two sides ta e’ery fight. We can’t claim th’ enemy ain’t valid when we don’ know why he took ‘em. There’s too much we don’ know. We can’t convince ourselves o’ false truths jus’ so we feel right actin’ on our first instinct.”
“Ain’t a reason in the world valid enough ta take my kin.” Dahlia wasn’t feeling whatever it was Nikhil wanted her to.
“It’s true.” A hoarse voice confirmed from behind them. “We’ve lost something we can never replace today.”
Dahlia and Nikhil looked back to find Jedrek approaching. Moonlight glinted off the water in his eyes, and his lower lip trembled a bit. He looked just as sad as Dahlia was angry.
“Wha’s a matter, Jedrek?” Dahlia teased. “Too scared ta sleep?”
Jedrek scowled at her, but only for a moment. Dahlia was surprised when he moved to sit on the opposite side of Nikhil. Apparently he was in such need of company that he’d even abide hers.
“When’s the last time something this bad happened, Nikhil?” Jedrek asked.
“I ‘unno.” Nikhil shrugged. “It hasn’t ever, at least while I been old enough ta know.”
“Why aren’t you two as affected as I am, then?” There was a curious amount of spite in Jedrek’s voice.
Dahlia scoffed. “ ‘Cause we ain’t as weak.”
“Or because you didn’t love them like I do!” Jedrek snapped.
“Ya get so weak that ya gone stupid too?!” Dahlia snarled back. “I was closer to ‘em than you ever coulda been!”
“Oi, you two tryin’ to ruin’ me hearin’?” Nikhil rubbed his temples with thumb and fingers. “I kinda need that for huntin’.”
Dahlia grit her teeth and sought to suppress the urge to tell Jedrek off. Jedrek averted his eyes.
“Ya got nothin’ ta argue about. Nobody handles loss the same way, but we all lost taday. Jedrek’s sad, Dahlia’s mad. Ain’t put you on the wrong side of each other, ya both suff’rin’ the same tragedy. Team up on it, don’t fight oe’er who gets ta beat it.”
“I like the way you said that, Nikhil.” Lyn’s voice wasn’t the kind that could startle anybody, but none of them were expecting it. They all looked over their shoulders to find her sitting behind and to their right, hugging her knees and shivering a little.
Dahlia felt a little apprehensive; Jedrek and Lyn had both been in the same apprentice’s tent as her. Dahlia hoped she hadn’t woken everyone in there when she left.
“Thank ya, Lyn,” Nikhil chuckled and turned his eyes back towards the woods. “If ya weren’t affect, ya’d be asleep. None o’ ya stay up this late on normal nights. That’s how ya can know yer both suff’rin’.”
“You’re right, Nikhil,” Jedrek sighed. “Sorry, Dahlia.”
“Don’ sweat o’er it.” Dahlia felt Jedrek’s eyes on her, like he was expecting something more. After a moment, she decided that if he wanted what was on her mind, she’d speak it. “I jus’ felt like you was puttin’ on a show. They weren’t the type ta like drama, though, none o’ the hunters are. If it were me that died, I wouldn’t need ya ta cry fer me…”
“I would though!” Jedrek interrupted. “Why would you say I wouldn’t? Is your love broken or something, of course I’d cry for you! Would you not cry for me? Are ya jus’ completely numb?”
“Who’re you to talk about broke?!” Dahlia found herself taken off-guard. She supposed she wasn’t surprised that Jedrek had misunderstood, but she was surprised to find herself flattered that he would cry for her. It was a warm feeling, but exactly the sort she and the other hunters weren’t good at. It caused her mind to fumble. “Ya can’t even ask a sens’ble question! Ya ain’t gonna die ‘fore I do ‘cause whatever kills ya has to get through me first. Tha’s what hunters do, Jed.”
“That’s not the point!” Jedrek retorted.
“Oi!” Nikhil’s face was in his palm again, and he exaggerated his exasperation with volume. “Yer mad ‘cause ya’d cry and die fer one another? Jus’ go share a tent already, ya clearly needa take the tension out.”
“Huh?” Lyn cocked her head to one side. “They were sharing a tent, Nikhil, with me and three other apprentices.”
“Not like-” Nikhil paused, chuckled, then broke into a boisterous laugh. Dahlia, Lyn, and Jedrek shared confused glances. “Six together, eh? I’m sorry, tha’s funny. Nevermind. Yer more n’ old enough ta be outta the kiddie tents, ain’t ya? Don’t ya know… I mean, yer still growin’, but ya passed... ferget it, jus’ quit fightin’, I’m tryin’ ta watch fer monsters, ‘member?”
“Oh, so it’s a monster now?” Dahlia was teasing, but she noticed Nikhil seemed oddly relieved by it. “Ya scared, Nik? Need me ta take over?”
“Oi, that’s fresh, comin’ from a girl named after flowers,” Nikhil chuckled.
Dahlia scowled, then smirked. “Doe’n’t matter. There’s a flower named Dahlia an’ a person named Dahlia. They as diff’rent as two people named Nikhil migh’ be. Go on, lemme take yer watch. I’ll change wha’ Dahlia reminds ya of.”
“Aye, aye.” Nikhil laughed again. “I been in’n out them woods more times’n you seen the moon, but tonight I’m scared. Save me, Dahlia.”
“Sure thing, child.” Dahlia joked. Nikhil was at least twice her age. “Git yerself to a nursin’ tent, I’ll take o’er here.”
“Don’ tempt me now,” Nikhil laughed. “A guy could find himself in worse company.”
“I do like to be around the babies,” Jedrek admitted. For some reason, Nikhil found that even funnier.
A low grunt brought everyone’s attention to the new arrival. Much of it was lost to the black, but its teeth caught the moonlight, making the inhuman smile seem as though it was floating in the darkness. Somehow, in their banter, they’d missed the lumbering figure’s approach.
Jedrek scuttled backward as Nikhil sprang to his feet. Dahlia rose and took a step back, unprepared for the intimidation she was feeling. She’d heard her peers’ descriptions, but somehow, its actual presence was even more imposing than Jaquan had claimed.
One of Nikhil’s hands found its way to his axe while the other came to rest on his cheek. Dahlia anticipated the planned alert for several seconds before realizing it would never sound. His eyes narrowed and his breathing quickened; with an inhuman bellowing, he drew his axe and charged.
To Dahlia’s bewilderment, the blade seemed to melt from its handle before it could make contact. Nikhil swung the headless axe without heed, clubbing uselessly against the creature’s bulk. Lost to his rage or fear, he didn’t make any attempt to avoid the massive hand grasping at his collar.
Its index finger pushed one way and the thumb another. There was a snapping sound in Nikhil’s neck as he went limp. Dahlia saw a tiny eruption of sparks from his eyes, and his body seemed to deflate as a rush of wind escaped his nose and mouth.
She’d been told that all creatures bodies’ to the elements when they died; most of the vessel did so slowly, but parts would flare at the moment of death. Dahlia had never watched something as big as Nikhil die before, but now she was certain the stories were true.
The world was impossibly silent for a few moments. Dahlia felt rooted to the spot, and she couldn’t tell if Jedrek or Lyn were still behind her.
The cry was staggered and seemed to come from everywhere. Despair began to sink in as Dahlia realized the watch had been fatally flawed; with all the hunters calling at once, only the closest watchers had any chance of finding them quickly. The confusion was made even worse by the frightened shouts coming from the tents.
The beast straightened to full height and draped Nikhil’s corpse over its shoulder as it turned away. Even while it retreated, Dahlia had to struggle with the urge to run in the opposite direction. It was as tall as two men and thick as three when it stood straight, even the bravest hunter would want to keep their distance.
The body over its shoulder had a very different effect on Dahlia, though. He was a member of the clan, a member of her family. Moments before, he’d been laughing his great heart out. As enormous as the beast was, it would have to find its way through the darkness by the same means anyone else did; their conversation had probably lead it right to them.
Meaning this was her fault.
Her mind retreated and something else came bubbling up; instinct, she expected. The bone knife at her hip was in her hand and a sound was booming from her throat, louder and lower than she would have thought she could manage. She charged.
The blade plunged into the flesh that was soft enough, sawed when she slashed muscle. She was twirling and jumping, grabbing with her free hand to get leverage and stab higher. The dance was savage and entirely new, like nothing she’d ever practiced. It was the dance of a hunter who wasn’t sparing any thought for whether she’d come back home.
The ground against her knees killed the instinct. Her mind came rushing back to the surface, and it concentrated on sucking as much air as she could. Each breath hurt, her throat was ravaged from the screaming, but it eased the cramping in her legs.
She raised her head to inspect her work. The creature had half-turned back, and the shadows of its eye sockets stared down at her. The strap of Nikhil’s pack had been wedged between his corpse and the creature, but gravity finally pulled the bag free and to the ground.
Its back was bleeding, in places, but its posture told her that the enemy wasn’t truly harmed. She felt like a badger who’d attacked a hunter. The claws and teeth would hurt, but they weren’t a real threat.
The futility fed her exhaustion. She fell forward to rest on hands and knees and curse at the ground as the creature took another step away.
“It looked at you with the matron’s eyes, Dahlia.” Lyn said.
She propped herself up and looked back. Jedrek had crawled backward, was frozen in mid-crawl as he stared at the retreating beast. Lyn was still in the same spot, and instead of fear, she seemed awestruck.
“Wha’?” Dahlia managed.
“It looked at you the same way the matron looked at Moondancer,” Lyn replied. “With that hunter kind of mercy. Like it didn’t want to hurt you if it didn’t have to. Like, if the world were better, it wouldn’t have needed Nikhil.”
Dahlia considered as she continued catching her breath. This had seemed like war; after all, the beast had the teeth of a leaf-muncher and had abandoned the meaty tuskridge. Still, maybe there was something else to people, something useful. Like the hide or the tooth or the bones of the hunters kills, maybe this thing was killing for need.
The thought didn’t make her feel merciful, but it might lead to a weakness. If she’d been a badger, then Nikhil had been a wolf. If one wolf wasn’t enough, the pack surely would be.
The other hunters would still be confused, and the growing chaos in camp would lead them away. But if this creature wouldn’t hurt her…
“Fin’ the elder,” Dahlia ordered. “One of ya find her, and the other stay ‘ere. Call ta any hunter ya see, and tell ‘em where I gone. Tell ‘em ta follow the trail.”
“How will they do that?” Jedrek was still half-panicked.
Dahlia forced herself up and grabbed Nikhil’s fallen pack. She was glad they’d prepared for this watch like they would a hunt. “Don’t be stupid. It’s what we do.”
She slung the pack over her shoulder and loped after her lumbering target.
1.) Were you entertained? Did you ever feel like the illusion was dispelled?
2.) Any trouble grasping what was going on?
3.) Any difficulty telling which character was speaking? Any trouble with the hunters' rough grammar?
4.) It wasn't excessively violent, was it?
Extra Credit: the meta-critique
A.) Were you able to connect this chapter to previous chapters? Did you remember who Jedrek, Lyn, and Nikhil all were?
B.) Does it feel like the plot is coming together? Are you interested in the clan's survival, and feel like you want to know where this will lead them?