The uncontrollable shivers caused his bow and arrow to clack against each other. Jaquan tried gripping them tighter, but it only made the noise louder. He’d be embarrassed if he weren’t so scared - or if his family weren’t too immersed in the scene to notice him.
The monsters barreling their way resembled Fleahorn in several ways, but their differences were somehow even more terrifying. Most all of them walked on two legs, just like people. The armor looked similar to his, glinting in the sinking sunlight and segmented in similar plates. These monsters had more edges, though, with spikes or blades on every joint and at the end of every limb.
Those limbs were plentiful, too. Most still only had the two legs - or at least, only seemed to be bothered to run on two of their many misshapen legs. Their arms were far more plentiful. Jaquan couldn’t spot any with less than three, and they varied in function as much as they did in number. His gaze kept coming back to a creature leading the charge; one arm was thick and unjointed with an enormous axe blade sprouting from the end and doubling back along the shaft, its opposite was long, thing, ridiculously multi-jointed and tipped like a hunting knife. Its third arm arched over its head and ended in a needle, like a scorpion’s tale.
Each individual seemed as different from the others as any of them were from humans, but they all charged the clan with singular purpose. They made no sound, save for that of their feet; their charge was silent yet somehow frenzied, and it made them seem even scarier. Jaquan was grateful he wasn’t supposed to engage them, but the gratitude was smothered in dread.
The first to make contact was Evan; Jaquan’s senses were sharp, everyone told him so, and even at this distance he could tell. Long before the scorpion-man’s limbs could reach him, Evan hurled a hatchet end-over-end in his direction. The monster ignored it, even as the blade stuck in his forehead. Its eyes sparked and its legs halted, pitching him forward to hit the ground face-first. As terrifying as he was, he seemed to lack any sense of self-preservation.
“First blood’s important.” Dahlia smirked. “E’eryone says so, even Svara.”
“Since we drew it, I hope you’re right,” Idris said.
The apprentices stood among the tightening cluster of their family, watching as the battle lines reached each other and the carnage started. To Jaquan, the numbers looked to even to judge. He would have given the advantage to the enemy for their terrifying anatomy, but the first collision resulted in several more instant kills from his hunters.
How did they do it? Faced with such nightmares, how could the hunters - his fellow warriors - manage to assess the enemy and strike a lethal blow with one attempt? Could he really be expected to do the same one day?
“Yer fear’ll help ya, Jaq.” The matron had repeated throughout their first week of training. “It’s half o’ what ya need ta fight. If somethin’s scary, it’s yer body tellin’ yer brain it can hurt ya. All ya need ta do is learn how not ta be par’lyzed by it, ta be able to think through it. That way, you can figure out how yer enemy means ta hurt ya, and then ya can know how to avoid that hurt.”
“How can I learn to think through it?” Jaquan had asked the first time the matron claimed his fear could help him. “The fear comes from my tummy or my heart or something, not from my head. It turns my brain off. How am I supposed to use my head when it’s the first thing I lose control of?”
“I told ya fear’s only half o’ what ya need, remember?” Cascata had donned that cocky smile. “The other half is un’erstandin’ your enemy’s gonna be scared o’ you too. Well, the worthy ones will be. It’s gonna take some time, be one day we’ll teach ya how scary you can be, lad. And ye’re gonna love that day.”
It had to be madness. Jaquan had obsessively told himself so every day since. Today, he might just be able to believe the matron had a point. Evan, funny, kind, daddy-of-bearhugs Evan had slain one of the most terrifying things he’d ever seen with ease. Echoes of that shock came with each monster that fell.
Jaquan didn’t understand this new feeling - it was a fleeting thing - but pieces were coming together. He’d boggled over the idea that anyone could rush to face this tide, but maybe if they knew beforehand, knew it would trigger this strange new rush he’d discovered tonight…
“This won’t end anytime soon,” Svara called as she drew closer. “There’s at least as many of them as there are us. Did we always know the woods had an army?”
“Nah,” Dahlia shook her head. “We never seen anything like this, I’m pretty sure o’ that.”
“I’ve got to know how they do this!” Trent, tiny Trent of all people, seemed ecstatic by what he was watching. “How do they design their own anatomy?! How can I decide to grow my own armor, should I choose?!”
Jaquan glanced at Trent with a look of amazement. Is this why Cascata hadn’t chosen him to be a warrior apprentice? Did he lack the ‘fear’ half of the qualifications?
“Ya got some funny questions there, Trent,” Dahlia mussed his hair. “Ya talk like they were normal once, like they were people. How ya figure that?”
Dahlia was also supposed to be a warrior, and she didn’t seem afraid. Maybe she was just thinking through it?
“Well, granted, I have no proof,” he tried to force her hand away. “Mark my words, though. People are not, these creatures were designed. I don’t know whether it was by their own mind or not, but my hypothesis is officially ‘design.’”
Dahlia chuckled, a hint of affection in her voice. “I have the world’s weirdest li’l brother.”
“The fight is shifting,” Svara observed. Jaquan could tell she was scared, but there was determination in the stillness of her scimitar. “It’s moving towards us.”
“Look at the edges!” Jaquan pointed and squinted. “The monsters are trying to get by!”
There was no mistaking it. The monsters - the majority of them - who couldn’t immediately engage the hunters had moved around the sides of the battle lines and were trying to get past the hunters and attack the rest of the clan. The rearmost hunters and those with projectile weapons were peeling them away from that goal, but there was no doubt that the melee was shifting in their direction. It had already moved far enough down the slope for Jaquan to see the wake of bodies behind it.
“Ya know we got strict orders, Svara,” Dahlia noted. “We ain’t supposed ta partic’pate, no matter what.”
“Of course,” Svara nodded.
“Any intention of obeyin’, if they get much closer?” Dahlia shot her a smirk.
To Jaquan’s surprise, Svara mirrored the cocky grin. “Of course not.”
“Just like we practiced, then,” Dahlia produced some scaled gloves and began to pull them on. She didn’t have to wait long for an opportunity.
A hunter near the left edge stretched out to tag a circumventing monster with a glancing blow. The impact spun both of them off balance, but by the time their older brother reclaimed it, he found himself surrounded by three enemies. Though his last thrashes were valiant, he fell, and one of his opponents took the opportunity to charge the clan.
“Bastard!” Dahlia bellowed and ran to meet it. Svara Breathed and sprinted away too, but at an angle from Dahlia’s course.
As Dahlia and her enemy met, its four bladed arms wound back for a strike. Dahlia was too fast and leapt at too close a range for any of them to reach her; in fact, she managed to hold all four in place with either a hand or a foot jammed against where each arm joined the body.
It struggled to shake her loose, but Svara flanked it before it could. Slipping her scimitar between the combatants, she managed to slide the blade along a portion of unarmored neck. Both women backed away as it staggered and fell, then prepared to intercept the next abomination.
More leaks were getting through, and it was clear that Dahlia and Svara couldn’t catch them all. Jaquan gulped and took several steps backward. Why was this happening to them?
A couple fell to arrows, and another few were swarmed by adults with weapons they didn’t even know how to hold correctly. One - with five flagella instead of arms - still made it through to the apprentices.
Most retreated, but Trent stood his ground. For a moment it just stood over him, meeting the boy’s gaze. Then two tentacles trapped Trent’s arms at his sides and the other three whipped the air in anticipation.
Idris dove to tackle it, but didn’t manage to knock it off its feet. It flailed and twisted, trying to shake him loose.
Despite the mind-numbing fear, Jaquan knew he should shoot. He even lifted his bow to try, but he couldn’t nock an arrow through all the shaking. What could it do, anyway? Even Jaquan could break the dumb thing over his knee if he wanted to, what could such a flimsy thing to do such a monster, even if the pointy end did hit?
I should just run. I need to run.
Meanwhile, Idris kept attempting to force the monster to the ground, but the difference in strength was obvious. It wasn’t long before it shook Idris loose and snared him with all five tentacles.
Arms pinned and legs bound with a pair of tentacles each, its last retracted at the to reveal a bony spine. It plunged into the left side of Idris’s chest. He screamed.
Svara hacked halfway through the appendage, and as the startled monster retreated, Dahlia connected with a haymaker to the jaw. The creature collapsed, but so did Idris.
Jaquan rushed to Idris’s side as Dahlia and Svara determined their next target. Idris sat up a little, but only enough to place a hand over his chest and panic at the amount of blood that stained it.
The heart was there, Jaquan knew that much. Was Idris dying?! A new feeling, unfamiliar and even more unpleasant was washing over him.
Idris got stabbed, and I might have been able to stop it. I should have tried!
This wasn’t just any family member, either. It was the only one who tease him for being so fearful, the one who’d keep him safe when he needed to leave the tent at night. This was his big, stoic, kind Idris, and Jaquan had just watched as a monster put a hole in his chest.
This is my fault!