Kirana was told she had unique technique with the bow and arrow. Archers were traditionally supposed to select targets from high ground behind their infantry. Hunting in the Dawnless Woods didn’t accommodate infantry, negated the advantage of high ground, and neither woods nor clan had existed long enough to entrench themselves in tradition. Could the clan even use a traditional archer?
She supposed it was only ever meant as a compliment. Useless.
Kirana developed her style because it worked for her. As luck would have it, it was useful should the squatters ever attack - they wouldn’t expect her to fight in closer quarters. Not that these enemies expected anything of her. They just threw themselves at her without regard for their own survival, clawing and slashing in desperate attempts to hurt her in any small way they could.
Deplorable and boring. Maybe that’s why she felt so pensive right now. The enemy was dying off so quickly that she had thoughts to spare. Maybe she should focus on the strange ones who stood just behind the enemy’s front line, watching their comrades die with a curious look in their eyes. Perhaps the enemy wasn’t as one-dimensional as they seemed? That individuality could explain why she’d been thinking of squatters.
“...could hardly be deemed an improvement.”
Or maybe it’s ‘cause they brought such a loudmouth.
‘Loud’ wasn’t the right word, she knew; if it weren’t for her famously-sharp senses, even among the hunters, she wouldn’t be able to hear him. He stood far behind the enemy lines and hadn’t shut up since the battle started, so ‘loudmouth’ just felt appropriate.
I must really be bored.
Kirana resolved to concentrate on the battle. Or, failing that, on the loudmouth. Everyone was dying to know why these critter-people thought this was a good idea. If one could speak, he’d be the one to ask.
Her old bow was ruined when she fought the first wave of Breathers, and while her new one was a big improvement, it was proving difficult to master. The craftsmen had installed an extra piece, a frame for the wood made of the metallic bone from Fleahorn. The handle was tight around the shaft, extending into two symmetrical blades flanking the bow along its length. It was much more convenient than trying to switch weapons mid-fight, but wielding the larger blades required more finesse than a knife.
An enemy, taller by half and fully-armored, wound his club-arm back to strike. She slammed her shoulder into his chest, throwing him off-balance. His upper half bent back, exposing the seam over his belly. Kirana managed to wedge a blade in deep enough to eviscerate. His eyes sparked and he toppled backward. This was good practice.
“This is not a new experiment to them. They wouldn’t take such a half-measure - none of the different groups would. That’s because, again, this is not new to them. Are you blind as to how that could be?”
Who’s he talkin’ to? Does he know I’m listening, or is this speech for one of his own?
The answer didn’t matter much. Unless he stumbled onto the answer to her questions, this was all just rambling. She needed to reach him.
Kirana was towards the center, and most of the fanatics had either died or moved to the edges in their blind attempts at slaughter. With a quick two shots to bring another monster down, she and her neighbors had reached the monsters who’d done nothing but observe.
The groups stared each other down for several seconds. Kirana never knew who made the first move, but it caused both sides to commit.
Each hunter engaged one monster, true to the battle’s rhythm thus far. Their opponents surprised them by reacting - none of the horde had given any regard to the hunter’s actions before then. They blocked attacks, instead of just throwing their own. The combat was no longer decided by whoever landed the first blow.
Kirana jumped back when her opponent finally fell. She found two of her comrades dead and the rest forced back. They must have noticed what she did: these ones watched, learned, adapted. Her own opponent had tried to exploit a perceived weakness in her fighting style. Admirable, for monsters, but the surprise was gone. The clan, too, would adapt.
She feinted towards one creature, but raised her bow and shot his neighbor. The wound was shallow, straight through armor, but it affected his balance. Kirana’s ally got under his guard and stabbed through the chin. Was that Evan? She’d have to pretend she didn’t see it.
Without a word to one another, the hunters coordinated against their foes. Even then, the enemy fared quite well. Kirana wasn’t sure who got the better end of the trade when she broke through, but supposed her success was a good sign.
“Kirana!” Evan called from the other side.
“Ah’m fine!” She yelled back. “An’ I’ll be fine! Just do yer duty!”
“Aye. You best not be lyin’!”
Kirana scoffed. She wasn’t lying, but what was he going to do if she were?
“A lifetime of discovery can be taught in a decade. What is a couple centuries compared to the history of civilization?”
He wasn’t far now. The enemy wasn’t paying any attention to her; was this speaker not the mastermind? Was he being guarded?
The battle had shifted a good distance. In fact, she was sure they were fighting with their backs right against the caravan now. She hoped she was making the right decision.
As good as I am, will my presence be the only thing that decides this?
No, she was certain that wasn’t the case. She may as well investigate this speaker.
“There are advantages, to be sure. Falsehoods can be reinforced to ridiculous extremes when the scale is this enormous. Considering the night’s length, it’s fair to say we’ve experienced those benefits.”
His words didn’t seem like orders. If not his comrades, who was he talking to? Did he know she was listening? If so, she had no idea what he was trying to tell her.
Kirana spotted him as soon as she crested the ridge. He was also on top of the hill, surveying the battle from above like a commander might. He also didn’t look like the fighters she’d been killing; while his body was armored with the same dark substance, it was shaped like a cloth smock.
He looks like that one thing I heard about… the ones like the elder. The ones who preach.
“Consider the priorities. The most fit are fighting, are taking the most risk for the sake of the least fit. It’s the opposite of our approach. One strategy derived from vicarious experience, the other from personal. Intuitively, personal would emerge the victor. As you see it now, is intuition correct?”
He liked to wave his arms around as he spoke, and this allowed Kirana to notice a sparrow clenched in one fist. It was unharmed but trapped. Why? Perhaps there was no reason. Kirana didn’t recognize a good majority of the words he was using, was it possible he was just mimicking speech? Did his words make sense?
Hunters were patient, they had to be in order to qualify. This wasn’t a hunt, and this might not be where she was needed most. Seeing him also made her doubt he could answer her question. She’d take this opportunity to eliminate him and move on.
Kirana nocked an arrow and fired. It struck the speaker in the side of his head and stuck. It staggered a few steps and teetered on his feet. It wasn’t an instant kill, but it might still be doomed. There was no need to leave things to chance.
She nocked another arrow and fired. The speaker raised his arm and let it embed itself in his forearm.
“Rude.” He grinned at her and pulled the arrow out of his head. She returned the smirk; maybe he could speak sense after all.
She lowered her bow but watched him warily. “Can ya blame me?”
“I suppose not. I will not retaliate, so please do not do it again.”
“No promises.” Now that the arrow was out, Kirana could see it barely penetrated the hood-like armor. “Why’d you lot think this ambush was a good idea?”
“Oh, that’s far from unanimous. In fact, I doubt any of us would have chosen this.”
“Then why didja?”
“Because we had no choice.”
Kirana took another shot, which the speaker sidestepped.
“Only if ya stop dancin’ round me questions.”
The speaker sighed. “No promises. You do raise a fair point. Our survival hinged on this. The more specific I get about this question, the less likely I am to survive. Surely you understand how existence can force us into difficult positions.”
Survival. Are we food? They don’t act too hungry for our flesh. Then it’s about surviving some other threat.
“Who ya been talkin’ to?”
The speaker chuckled. “You seem fond of questions I can’t answer.”
At least that one narrowed it down. Someone scarier than the clan had threatened them if they didn’t attack the clan. Kirana wasn’t versed in politics, but she knew they would need a name.
“Ya reckon they’re scarier’n we are.”
“In a sense. It’s not so much about prowess… no, the distinction isn’t important. Yes, they are scarier than you.”
The words weren’t meant as an insult, but she felt insulted. Luckily, she could marry her wounded pride with a smart response.
“If I change ur mind, y’know, about who’s scariest. You’d tell us who ya scared of?”
The speaker sighed. “Your logic is misguided, but at least you understand our motives.”
I don’t much care for this fancy word-dance. Why couldn’t he just say ‘yes?’
Kirana nocked another arrow and charged. The speaker held the sparrow protectively against his chest and readied himself.
Clothes or skin? The nature of his armor would make a big difference. If it wasn’t part of his body, he could hide weapons in that baggy attire. She supposed natural armor might be able to, but that was harder to imagine. It was safest to assume he had tricks.
His eyes were locked on her bow, which meant he hadn’t been paying much attention to her earlier battles. If he wanted to win, he’d best be a quick learner.
The kick caught him by surprise, and while the armor prevented all damage, she did knock him off-balance. It also helped her understand its rigidity. It had to be part of his body.
She abused his momentum with a leg behind his foot. As he tripped, she shot the arrow into his side. With a grunt and grimace, his free hand reflexively grabbed the shaft. The armor was effective, but it wasn’t thick enough to stop a close-range shot.
“Whatcha think, scared yet?” Kirana drew another shot.
The speaker laughed heartily. “Among those present today, I respected your kind most. Yet even I underestimated you. Care to help me prove a point?”
“Pretty sure I was already on me way ta provin’ one.”
He laughed again and pulled the arrow free. Kirana was a little disappointed with the meager amount of blood on the tip. “I suppose we can race, then. The same path can lead to different goals.”
Kirana smirked and drew the string. “Just don’t go dyin’ ‘fore we reach th’ end.”