With a lot of effort and snarling, they managed to get Cascata draped over Moondancer’s back. Jedrek was terrified for her sake, but she was just angry.
“I’da snapped ‘im in two if it wasn’t fer Stinger!” she raged. “I’d keep ‘im alive, but only ‘is head, and I’d carry ‘im around on me belt and jab ‘im in the eye every time it felt right!”
“Heads don’t live without the rest, dummy,” Kirana patted her on the head, and the apprentices looked at her like she’d stuck her head into Bo’s mouth. “Ya’d be better served puttin’ his were yers goes.”
To the children’s relief, the matron just chuckled. “He was a bit better at math, weren’t he?”
“Aye, when he wanted ta be. He did some things dumb.”
“As you imply,” the Speaker shrugged. “It would seem his impulses got in the way of his judgment. We should count ourselves most fortunate.”
“He should count hisself fort’nate,” Cascata grumbled. “With two arms, I’da broke his arms ‘n legs off and wore ‘im like a pack. ‘e’d do math fer me on th’ hunt, and if ‘e didn’t, I’d backflop into a dung pile or six.”
“Ya gonna fantasize about ways he wouldn’t o’ beat ya forever?” Kirana taunted. “I’ma get th’ elder ta sew yer mouth shut. She’ll need the practice if we’re ever gonna get Evan’s closed. Ye’re startin’ ta sound like ‘im, y’know.”
Cascata tried to laugh, but the attempt obviously hurt. She chuckled through gritted teeth. “I’ma have you beggin’ fer mercy when I get mended.”
“Git on that, wouldja brats? The elder’s only got all night ta lecture her over this.”
Cascata moaned her dismay about facing the elder as Moondancer shambled off with the apprentices. Kirana and the Speaker stayed behind; Kirana got the impression they wouldn’t be seeing him again, and figured someone ought to say goodbye.
“So ye’re free now, right?” she asked. “Tha’s gotta feel good.”
“You’ve no idea,” he said wistfully. “Life had just been waiting until he sent me to my death, before. The only reason it didn’t happen was because I was more… usefully rare than the others. You’ve no idea what life is like in there. If you serve, they use you until you break. If you don’t, life is a constant battle royale against the other madmen who roam those woods.”
“I wouldn’t think talkin’ was so rare, the way you carry on. Where’d ya learn all them stuffy words, anyway? Us hunters’re known ta talk bad ‘cause we practice fightin’ more’n talkin’. Fer someone came outta the most fighty place we know, ya sure got some practice with the talky bit.”
The Speaker gave her a sly smile. “My gift came with both fortune and mis-. Talking isn’t my only skill, you see, so the leadership had some unique roles for me. Not unlike my role in this attack, I suppose, but… well, suffice to say: talking is not like walking, is it? It doesn’t come naturally. Obviously I learned somewhere, from someone, just as you did.”
“Fair enough,” Kirana shrugged. The story probably would have bored her anyway. “What’s the first thing you’re gonna do with ya new freedom?”
He inhaled deep and slow, then let it out all at once. “I haven’t the faintest idea, and I love it.”
“Well, if it don’t feel too much like servin’, the Elder really wants to talk to ya,” Kirana suggested. “I mean really bad. I’m startin’ to think she fancies ya. Ya might like the rest of the fam’ly too, and they’d warm up to ya. Ya can’t be worse than our normal talky monster. Ya wouldn’t believe how much Evan yaps. On and on, and yet ‘e really never says nothin’...”
“There’s no chance of that happening, neighbor,” the Speaker interrupted. “I appreciate the sentiment, but I’m done even looking at these woods. You asked me about the first thing I will do with my freedom, and I now realize the answer is ‘travel.’ The Curator wasn’t the master of masters, you see; that master is still in there, and it would be in my best interest to stay far, far away from it. With the loss of this Curator, I might recommend you do the same.”
“Talk about things that ain’t happenin’,” Kirana smirked. “That ain’t one of ‘em. This land runnin’ along the woods be our home, no master’s master gets a say ‘bout that.”
“It may not agree, but I respect your resolve.”
“So ya leavin’ right away, yeah? I guess I oughta say thanks ‘fore ya do. I know ya did it fer yerself, and we respect that, but ya still done us a favor. So: thanks.”
“No, it’s I who should thank you! In fact, may I thank you, Kirana? I have a reward I think you can appreciate.”
“You have stuff?” Kirana raised an eyebrow. “Where ya keepin’ it? I don’t see no pockets.”
“My reward is less tangible, I’m afraid. Well, no, I suppose it isn’t!” He laughed. His fingers made a clacking sound as he flicked them against his forearm. “This exoskeleton - chitin, armor, whatever you’d like to call it - can you think of any creature you’ve ever encountered who didn’t have something that looked similar to mine?”
“Nah, ya’ll got that. It’s what marks ya as woods-dwellers.”
“Indeed!” the Speaker seemed excited. “It’s because this material didn’t exist in this world before Midway went dark. This substance is only a hundred-odd years old, Kirana. Isn’t that astounding?”
Kirana shrugged. “I guess. I seen harder stuff. Other armor c’n protect better, and our steel cuts easier.”
“Indeed. I wouldn’t argue otherwise. But that’s not what makes this special. Would you like to learn, Kirana? It could be of great use to your family.”
“Ye’re gonna give me yer skin?” Kirana was skeptical. “What am I supposed ta do with it?”
“I can’t tell you; you must discover that on your own, because nobody ever uses it exactly like anyone else. It’s a reward of your own choosing, of your own making. I can’t really describe what it can do for you because I’m not certain.”
This was confusing. Kirana didn’t need a reward, he’d been a big help already. About the only possessions she cared about were her bow and her body, and she doubted he could improve either of those. Didn’t the elder once tell her it was rude to refuse gifts in other cultures? That shouldn’t matter, monsters didn’t have culture.
“Nah, I don’ really unnerstand the point, and I’m good with what I got. I don’t see no reason to hurt ya fer a reward I’m not sure I’ma use.”
“Hurt me?” The Speaker asked. He laughed and scratched his claws against a portion of armor. “No, this won’t hurt, there are no nerves in there. Besides, where I’m going, I need to get rid of most of it. I insist, Kirana; hold out your hand.”
She shrugged and held her right arm towards him. It was her draw hand, so he’d better not betray her trust; she’d kill him for it. Huh, me index be bleedin’. Didn’t think I shot that much, me quiver must be near empty, .
“Alright, now this will take a few moments. It’s not a liquid, but it can behave like one when it needs to. Ah, look at that! You’re bleeding, that should actually speed things up.”
“Whatever ya say. I still don’t get it,” Kirana watched him put his index fingertip against her own. It didn’t hurt, so whatever he was doing was probably fine. “Why ya gotta ditch yer skin where ye’re going?”
“Well, this isn’t really skin. But I’ll need to blend in, you see. Look more like all of you! I’ve done it before, it’s actually kind of fun. I get to make a new face and pretend to be somebody new for a while. Good trick, right? It’s how I put this gift to use, when it was given to me.”
“You getta change yer face? I got, like, a hunnert family who’d be jealous.” Kirana teased. “Oi, this be in or on any critter in th’ woods, right? Couldn’t I just take it off them?”
“I’m afraid not, this only works if both parties are alive. Well, or if you’re a lifespeaker.”
“Life be somethin’ ya speak? I don’ get it.”
The Speaker chuckled. “Then I suppose you’re not a lifespeaker. That’s okay! I know enough for the both of us. I suppose that means you’re not schooled in magic, then.”
“Nah, never seen much o’ that. The Elder knows a bit, an’ some o’ me other kin. I ain’t go th’... whatever I would need ta use it.”
“Nonsense! Everyone has an affinity. That’s neither here nor there, I suppose, I’m just making conversation while we wait. Did you know life magic transforms the other types? It transforms earth into bone, water into blood, and air into breath. Our bodies use life magic without us ever thinking about it.”
“Huh, tha’s neat,” Kirana didn’t know if she should believe him, but she didn’t care enough to say so.
“There’s another type of matter, did you know? Not many people do. It’s a fascinating thing, really, we don’t understand it well, and thereby, we don’t understand what life transforms it into.”
Kirana raised one eyebrow. “Wha’s the matter now? Ye sayin’ there’s somethin wrong? With life, ‘r what?”
The Speaker laughed heartily and pulled his hand away. “Oh, neighbor, you’re a gifted punster. Nevermind that, we’re done here. You must forgive me, if you can: there’s a sizeable amount of danger to go along with this. My omission wasn’t mean-spirited, I assure you; I just couldn’t have you following me for some unforeseen reason. And it’s not like I lied; there’s tremendous benefit, if you survive.”
“What’re you on about?” Kirana asked, feeling aloof. She inspected her finger. It had moved so slow that she never saw it drip, but the armor had formed a cap over her fingertip, like she’d dipped it in melted candle wax. She still didn’t understand how it was much of a reward, but she supposed it would protect her skin better than a callus. “I ain’t gonna follow ya. Got too much ta do here and no reason to bother you.”
“You won’t go telling the Miracle about this, will you?” The Speaker was talking to the sparrow that landed on his shoulder. “Oh, that’s right, I offered to let you come with me. Have you decided to accept?”
It chirped like it was answering him. Kirana thought that was kind of cute.
“Farewell, Kirana,” the Speaker gave a small wave and turned away. “Please take care of yourself.”
“Uh-huh,” Kirana replied, distracted. Mentioning her responsibilities to the Speaker had reminded her of all the tasks she still needed to do. She suddenly felt motivated to get started on them. “Catch ya later, neighbor.”
The clan had suffered a lot in recent weeks. The difficulties and casualties just kept rising, and now even Cascata numbered among them. Kirana was needed more than ever, and she planned to rise to the challenge. They were a sorry lot, bunglers and cowards clingers. They were so helpless without her. So adorable.
How many hunters were left? After tonight, she wouldn’t be surprised if they numbered half what they did when winter ended. There’d be even more cries for change now, more demands to give up and join the squatters.
She wouldn’t have it. She’d provide enough to compensate for every hunter who’d fallen before her.
Though weary and wary, her family was almost done preparing the night’s camp. There was still plenty of night for their rest, and they could probably afford a late start to their journey. For all they knew, the attacks would cease with the Curator’s death.
If protection was covered, then she should get a head start on providing. They had enough food, but it couldn’t hurt to have more. Kirana could find better fare! Meat was much more energizing, would carry them much farther. They needed more meat, much more.
“Oi, Kirana,” Svara hailed her, looking exhausted. “The Elder wants to see you. She was hoping the Speaker would be with you, but I guess he must have run off, yeah?”
Kirana patted her on the shoulder as she moved past. Svara was a good lass, would make a fine warrior with her breathing skills and a few months’ dancing. Kirana would provide her with all the food she needed to grow even bigger and stronger.
“Should I tell her you need a bit longer? Kirana? Her tent’s this way tonight…”
Kirana broke into a run. The night was young, she should have plenty of time to secure something big enough for the entire clan to feast on for breakfast. That was sure to raise morale!
“Hey, Kirana!” Svara wasn’t as toned, but her Breathing let her catch up to Kirana. “Where are you going? Is something wrong?”
They left the camp behind and made for the woods. Kirana pulled her bow over her head and nocked an arrow. Better game usually waited further in, but she’d be ready just in case.
“What is it, Kirana?!” Svara sounded desperate now. “Surely it can wait, can’t it?! If not, then take someone to help you!”
It didn’t take long to reach the woods. Kirana heard Svara’s steps slow and stop as she plunged into the darkness. It occurred to her that she didn’t prepare a pack, hadn’t brought Lummush or many arrows. It was fine, she wasn’t about to waste any time going back to camp. The clan needed her now, needed her to do what she did best.
Her family needed her, and Kirana would provide.