The apprentice hunter was impressive. Svara thought Dahlia resembled her enemy as they charged each other; sculptures of muscle, thickness, speed with weight. For a moment, she envied them. Wielding that sort of power had to be intoxicating.
She shook her head and smiled. Since when did she envy the drunk?
Dahlia had implied that the two of them were racing, but Svara would use a more cooperative approach. While the monster was occupied with the clan’s monster-in-training, Svara would exploit the weakness she’d found. As the collision approached, Svara wondered if Dahlia would survive long enough to be the distraction she needed. She pushed these worries from her mind and moved into position; the clan had crushed every doubt she’d ever had about them.
The leader of her pursuers had been the first to die to the fleas, and thankfully, he’d wandered a good distance away from the human battle. She tried not to think about his withered corpse as she retrieved his scimitar.
The monster didn’t react to Dahlia’s rush, sights apparently set on something behind this tiny obstacle. Likewise, Dahlia didn’t seem to give much regard to how her target might react. She leapt with all four limbs in front of her, collapsing against them to cushion the impact against its crest. Svara winced, but Dahlia half-grunted-half-growled as she scrambled to secure a foothold. All according to plan, it would seem.
Dahlia braced herself with her left hand and foot on the blunt backside of the creature’s horn. Once her right foot was secure on its crest, she raised her axe and brought it down with as much force as she could muster.
The blade struck a metallic tone off the armored skull. Svara couldn’t detect any damage, but the blow must have startled the beast. It planted its feet and skidded to a stop, nearly dislodging Dahlia in the process. Its stunted neck didn’t have much range of motion, so its young passenger managed to recover even as it tried to shake her loose.
Svara chuckled before Breathing. Axe blows were raining down as Svara sprinted towards her own target. She doubted Dahlia could ever get through that skull, but the monster wasn’t enjoying its head doubling as a drum. It would never notice the whispering footsteps at its flank.
The strategy was as much Trent’s as it was hers. Any assassin would need to know about armor and how to circumvent it. Breathers were no exception. Those lessons had included the exploitation of joints and seams. The monster’s armor wasn’t the kind a blacksmith would make, but Svara knew it wouldn’t be able to move without weak spots of one sort or another.
Trent had guessed that the blood was being deposited in the host, and Svara knew that humans had a lot of blood. Breathing lessons had included the importance of armor fitting its wearer, and taking so much blood would surely affect the host’s size. That change in size would have to affect the host’s armor.
Now that she was closing in, she could confirm. Its abdomen was swollen, revealing seams between armor plates. As the host expanded, those cracks had widened enough to fit her scimitar through. She was sure the membrane would be easy to puncture with so much blood pressing against it. This would be her first kill, and she was grateful it was this easy.
Without slowing, she slipped the scimitar into a seam that ran from flank to flank. She applied just enough pressure to slice as she ducked under its belly and emerged on the other side. The sound and scent of blood followed her.
As the stolen blood flowed, its abdomen contracted, eventually causing the different armor plates to lock together. The gushing stopped, but Svara was sure the internal bleeding would continue. The beast continued its attempts to buck Dahlia off its face, but the thrashing was sluggish now. Even as it collapsed, the monster was unaware of the wound that killed it.
Dahlia could scarcely climb down before the rest of the clan mobbed them. If Svara had any regrets about what she’d done, they were lost in the jubilation. As many as could manage embraced both of the young women, jumping as they did. Others crowded the kill; an older sibling had to stop Trent from burning himself as he tried to climb behind the crest with a makeshift torch.
Svara didn’t expect her first kill to be like this. The crowd’s energy was intoxicating, and she was just as giddy as they were. The clergy had told her this would be sacred; her parents said it would be somber. Was this uninhibited joy because it was only a beast?
Whatever the case, this was okay. This was more than okay.
“‘ow’d ya do it?” Dahlia had managed to push her way through the crowd. She had a strange look on her face, like she was both defeated and overjoyed. “I couldn’t see, was too busy tryin’ not ta get tossed!”
“It got too big for its armor,” Svara shouted back. They could barely hear each other over the clan’s celebration. “Its belly started poking through, and I was able to slice it open.”
“Good thinkin’, stranger!” Dahlia clapped her on the shoulder, but Svara could still sense her wounded pride. “Ya won the race.”
“I never agreed to a race, Dahlia,” Svara countered. “I couldn’t have done it without you. If it hadn’t stopped running, I couldn’t have made such a big wound.”
From the look on her face, this was exactly what Dahlia wanted to hear. “Really?”
“Really! Why do you think they’re praising you so much?” Svara put her own hand on Dahlia’s shoulder. “This kill is as much yours as it is mine.”
The apprentice hunter beamed at this. Her eyes glistened a little, and Svara got the impression that Dahlia wasn’t really listening anymore.
The human battle had been nagging at her ever since the monster collapsed, but she recognized several of the hunters inspecting the carcass. Even Kirana was perched on its back, pondering ways it might be put to use. Svara figured if she was here, then all the Breathers had either been killed or routed.
It was over; Svara was free. Sending this unit after her had already been an over-commitment, the Destroyer would not devote more resources to her. She doubted he even knew this pursuit had happened. He wouldn’t make that choice when he didn’t even know there was a choice to make.
Just yesterday, Svara was ready to die. These people wedged their way into her life and trampled her resolve. She couldn’t be more grateful.
There was much to think about, but the clan was slow to let her start. She lost count of the times she explained the wound, and the only injuries she suffered that night came from overzealous congratulations. Some of the children even asked her and Dahlia to critique their reenactment of the kill.
“What should we call it?” Evan asked, motioning at the carcass.
“You’re asking me?” Svara raised an eyebrow at him.
“Why not?” Evan shrugged. “Ya killed it, ya can name it if ya want.”
“I’ll pass.” Svara glanced around and spotted Trent inspecting the creature’s skull. “Trent, what should we call him?”
“Who cares?” Trent was as terse as ever. “I have better things to do.”
“Come on, we need your brain for this one, Trent!” Svara coaxed, hoping she wasn’t cruel for teasing him. “Do you need me to beg?”
Trent groaned. “Fleahorn. There, it’s named. Leave me be!”
Those who heard shared a good laugh. The name was terrible, but as the story spread, the name began to stick.
As the night wore on, she began to realize why they were so focused on celebrating the kill. They were stalling. The dead still needed dealing with, and Svara could understand why nobody wanted to get started. The hunters - outnumbered three-to-one - accomplished a miracle that night, but that did little to mitigate their grief for those who fell.
Three hunters were dead and one was low on blood, or so she was told. There were no signs of a live enemy, and the last report she heard numbered their dead around thirty; nine or ten had been crushed or drained, the rest slain by human hands. None of the human deaths were being celebrated. Enemy or no, the dead should be mourned.
Svara wondered if even Fleahorn’s death was a tragedy. Were they right to celebrate it? None of them knew what it was like inside its head. Were they sure it was so different from them?
She shook the thought away. This is the harshest home I’ve ever seen. This is the kind of kill that allows them to survive in it. There’s no other choice, so what’s left to regret?
Home. The word reminded her of how much she had to consider. The last few weeks had acclimated her to being homeless. While she didn’t watch it happen, she was sure her family was dead. Even if they weren’t, she couldn’t return to the monastery.
The pursuit had gone so long, and the pursuers were of such a caliber that she thought the chase would never end. Like the wind, she’d rush across the world’s surface until she was physically incapable. Svara still gusted, but her wake was empty now. What came next?
“Ya miss the North?” Dahlia asked. The elder had offered her tent to Svara, but she’d lost her apprehensions for sharing one of the apprentices’ tents.
“No,” Svara replied. “I miss my family, but not the North. I’ve always wanted to see the rest of the world. I wish I’d had time to enjoy the places I’ve been, and I still wish I could share them with my parents. But no, I don’t hear the monastery calling me.”
“What was the East like?” Idris asked. “The South?”
“Big,” Svara laughed. “So big you can’t describe the whole thing the same way. Especially the South! The North is like that too, I’ve never been to most of it. There’s so much out there. I can say this much: the East was dry, and the South was hot.”
“It gets hotter as we go South too,” Jaquan observed. “Why is that?”
“You guys travel a lot?” Svara asked. “Do you have more than one camp?”
“You could say that,” Jedrek said. “We’re nomads. We travel along the woods’ western border. We even dip into southern and northern territory at our route’s extremes. What are the names of those nations, again?”
“The North is Matorbihumi.” Svara grinned when she thought of the South. “I don’t remember the South’s name. I like that you guys have more than one home. I always wished I could leave the monastery.”
“Was it bad there?” Jaquan asked.
“No,” Svara admitted. “I just like moving. It feels free.”
“Well, we move a lot.” Lyn didn’t even try to be subtle. “You could always share our home. We carry most of it with us, sort of like turtles.”
Svara resisted the impulse to decline. She had to refuse when she was being hunted. Now she found herself on the opposite extreme, inundated with infinite choices. Sure, she was used to fine clothes, sturdy walls, and soft beds; but this wasn’t so bad. Among infinite options, what could she say to disqualify the first one?
1.) Anticlimactic? I'm happy with a sigh of relief, but if you were never worried or feel disappointed, then I have problems to fix.
2.) Is the flow okay? Y'know, pacing. The beginning of the chapter is an action sequence and by the end we're jumping between highlights of the aftermath; does that work for you, and can ya help me make it work?