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This ficlet is one that can be considered to be a refashioning of the Benandanti's 'night battles', an idea that just wouldn't leave me alone until I finally spat it out on paper. I am more than a little rusty, I'm afraid - it's been almost a year since I've written anything substantial (asides from essays, oh the horror), so this, as well as the oneshots that preceded this, will probably reflect that. Hopefully not, though. We will have to wait and see. :) It's been all too long since I've last been here, in any case.
The pokemon elements should immediately make themselves clear (hopefully) although the explanations will take a little longer in coming. It's all in the fun of it. ;D
On content: The rating is Teen currently. :3 There's a graphic description, a mention of nudity but that's about it. x3
The Ember Days
 A Howl in the Night
 Bated Breath
A Howl in the Night
The glow of the crescent moon burned over the mountain range, gilding the tendrils of fog that curled through the forests with silver fire as it swept down the rocky slopes. Washing the surrounding foothills in monotone, it flooded the valleys and creeks, glancing over the small city nestled in their grasp before turning towards the plains. The city slumbered on as trails of smog crept from it's sprawling suburbs, the fumes twisting away from the glow of the streetlights to straggle across the surrounding grasslands. As it reached the distant pines that covered the mountains feet, the evergreens silently drunk it in.
A small boy crouched in the dust of one of untended fields at the forest edge, the flickering flames from a camp fire beside him slipping across his red straggles of hair as he scratched letters into the soil with a twig.
The child seemed enraptured by his work, his eyes, dark against his pale, dirt-smudged features, narrowed on the task. Minutes slipped past as he hovered over the patch of ground, the small breeze that crept from the city rifling through his dank locks and the matted fur of the emerging pointed ears. Finishing the word – the name – with clear satisfaction, the child sat back on his heels with a soft huff and gazed down at it.
His voice, when he spoke, was thick with excitement.
“Two days left.”
Elizabeth awoke with a start, dark eyes flicking open, black curls of hair trickling across her pillow as she shifted in her blankets. The comforting sight of her bedroom greeted her, unchanged and determinedly pink since she’d first demanded a décor change four years ago, but she couldn't seem to focus on it. She blinked upwards. That was... weird. The dream had felt so real– the touch of the breeze on her back, shivering through her shirt, the bite of the grass beneath her feet as it pricked and tickled her ankles – yet here she was, safe and cozy in her duvet. Just as she had been since she’d collapsed on her bed earlier that evening after another long, satisfying conversation with Julie. She frowned, the image of the little boy hunched above the dirt flickering through her thoughts, the taste of pine smoke seeming to linger on her tongue. He'd been so... young.
The crescent moon’s light played on the pocked paint of her ceiling, dancing through a gap in her curtains. She watched its flicker for a few second, entranced, before turning and huddling into her blankets once more.
There was no point worrying about dreams. In the end they were just that - fantasies. She allowed her eyes to close, tucking herself deeper into her duvet, breaths already evening. It was way too early for this sort of thing anyway.
Her alarm clock, unnoticed, flashed the time on her bedside as she slipped into sleep, the digital screen sending a red glare across the worn wood of her side table.
It was exactly 3 AM in the morning.
Final comments: This has been posted before in a slightly different form by me under the pen name evil bunny king. <3 Recognise it from there, then prepare to be glomped. :3
Second point - this is not a pokemorph story, per se. ;3
Third point - ...The three AM thing is relevant, although I do believe I have to tone down the references to it, haha.
And it's great to see you back here on PC! This gives me better opportunity to read and review your fanfic.
I love your description in this fic. Particularly:
Other than that, this was delightfully mysterious, and I can't wait to see more of this! Over here on PC, that is. Haha.
*hugs to oblivion* :D It's great to see yoooooou! x3 Haha, I've been meaning to come back - I forgot my password for the longest time though xD; All remembered now...
x3 I'm glad you liked it~! Grr, I still have that wordiness problem - it's something I fall into all too easily. D: Thanks for pointing them out, I gave it a little spiff - hopefully it won't rear up too much in the rest. :) Haha, and of course~! I should be lurking around here much more now. x333 <3
Sunlight oozed through the cracks in Elizabeth’s blinds, easing across her sheets in a warm spray that brushed her hands and painted stars and stripes across her eyelids. Groaning, the twenty-year-old stirred and frowned, tossing to her other side in her sleep in an attempt to escape it. Her alarm clock chose this moment to start its caterwauling, however, and with a sharp intake of breath Elizabeth threw herself into a sitting position. It was too early, way too early for her alarm to be going off. Someone must’ve reset it and opened her curtains, she knew it. Must've been Anthony; he'd known she hadn’t been sleeping well, the conniving-!
It took her a full five minutes before she was able to recognize the numbers that were being flashed in red across the digital screen.
8:30 in the morning. Her first lecture started at 9. Her alarm must’ve been sounding its ‘you’re in trouble’ notice every ten minutes since she’d first slept through it at 7:15.
She really was in trouble.
Yelping, the woman lunged out of bed and started dragging on the clothes she’d prepared the night before. At the same time, she called down to her mother in the sweetest, most imploring voice she could devise that if today she could, pretty please, ask a lift to her university. No response. Groaning, she bolted from her room, racing down the flight of stairs towards the front door and her bike. Her mother always left early for her spa trips on Wednesdays. She always forgot.
As the tittering girl slipped slowly into the distance, her hair billowing in a tangled weave behind her as she cut across the grass for time, a holly bush beside the house porch shivered, reducing itself in a wisp of smokeless flame into weed-clogged grass and a small pile of sweet smelling ashes.
Across town, a small boy smiled.
Sliding carefully behind the latter-most row of seats of the tiered hall for her second lecture of the day, a nice afternoon affair, Elizabeth slotted herself into an edge seat a flight down beside her friend Lily. The rest of the sociology undergraduate students roved past her in a murmuring herd to their respective seats. Fishing out her notepad and pencil case from her bag, she quickly noted the title of the lecture – thankfully unlinked to the one she may missed that morning - and turned to her best friend with a smile.
That smile faltered on her lips as she saw the expression on Lily's dainty features.
This did not bode well.
“You skipped this morning~!”
Lily's eyes were almost twinkling with mischief as she cocked an eyebrow at her companion, tapping the eraser of her pencil knowingly on her paper. A guilty blush immediately flushed Elizabeth’s cheeks as she dropped her eyes to her notepad. She hadn’t meant to ditch her class, it was just that after finally arriving, panting, at the gates of the University for her hour lecture, she’d just… thought through her options and decided to head to the library to study instead. She'd even promised herself to steal the notes from Lily later.
If she was honest, the thought of the embarrassment she’d have faced as she’d slipped in almost half an hour late might of have played a small hand in it as well.
“I didn’t mean to, I swear!” she protested, fiddling with her pencil. She looked up into her friend’s green eyes imploringly. “I just, I haven’t been sleeping well and I slept straight through my alarm...”
Lily's eyes widened and, to Elizabeth’s surprise, she shuffled immediately closer, nudging her with her elbow. She even winked.
“Who’s the guy?”
Who’s the…? Elizabeth blinked at her, uncomprehending - she hardly understood half the things her friend said these days - before Lily's insinuation clicked. Wait- “N-no! It’s not like that-“ Cutting herself off as the lecturer walked in, a balding Kantoan in his late fifties, she turned to face the front. Nevertheless, she dropped her voice to a whisper to continue defending her honour. “I really haven’t been sleeping well, I keep on waking up in the middle of the night. I swear! I think it’s because of some dream or the other, you know, because when I wake up I’m covered in sweat, and…”
Her voice trailed off as Lily slowly leaned away from her, eyebrows disappearing in the sweep of her black fringe.
“Oh. Ohhhh. Those kind of dreams.”
Lily's expression morphed into one of kindness as she patted Elizabeth on the shoulder in reassurance, although for what she couldn’t fathom.
“Don’t worry hun, it happens to all of us – although I must admit, I never thought you were one for them. That doesn’t matter at all, though – although it does mean that… well…?”
Elizabeth just stared at her, ignoring the silence that was falling over the hall as the lecturer began to speak. Her friend's sanity had definiteiy been slipping of late. “What?”
Lily waved her hand impatiently, mindful, at least, to keep the movement to a mere flap, opening her notebook with her free hand. “Your dreams are obviously a cry for help, girl. Go get yourself laid already!”
The lecturer – Guest Speaker A. Hickory, delivering a talk on social stigma and sexism in the early Orreon church – chose that moment to switch on his presentation with a burst of fanfare, and Elizaveth was therefore forced to swallow her further protests. Turning, stiffly, towards the front, her cheeks burned once more as Lily giggled beside her.
Lily was dead.
The evening was drawing to a close when Elizabeth finally stumbled to her bedside, tossing her purse and coat carelessly on the floor before slumping into her mattress. She sank gratefully into her pinstriped sheets. The night had been long: after finishing up the first draft of an essay due in a week, she’d allowed herself to be dragged by her ever persistent friends out on the town, where they’d proceeded to hit every tourist spot in a ten-mile radius before hunting for a bar.
There really was a limit to how many hours you can sing Karaoke.
She coughed as her sore throat flared at the reminder, a smile breaking through her wince nevertheless. Julie sang like a drowned dog.
Sighing contentedly, she wormed her way under the covers, shedding her clothing at the same time until she was left in nothing but her leggings and her white tank top, her chilled blankets sapping at her warmth. She could already feel herself sinking into her duvet. Tomorrow she started late (she always looked forward to thursday) and that meant that she could, blissfully, sleep in. Screw her initial intentions to proof read the essay draft, of course. You only lived once, after all.
Sighing once more, she allowed her eyes to shut, sleep swamping through her senses as she huddled into a warming ball in the center of her sheets.
An uncountable number of hours had slipped past before she found herself stirring once more.
Shifting in her sleep, Elizabeth shivered as a chill seemed to creep across her arms, sinking into her muscles and bones until every inch of her seemed to be tingling with it, her breath coiling in a thin mist across her cheeks. A small frown crumpling her forehead, she delved deeper into her duvet, her teeth beginning to chatter.
A warm, heavy weight settled on her wrist.
She jerked awake instantly, breathing hard and scuttling up in her bed until her back was pressed against the headboard, clutching her arm to herself protectively. Drawing the covers and her knees closer, despite the childish allusions, she scoured the room, heartbeat humming in her chest.
What-what was that?
She continued her search with bleary eyes, frowning as she saw nothing out of the ordinary. Her eyes strained to pierce the shadows as a new shiver crept over her skin. She huffed out a shaky breath. She was freezing.
Her eyes caught hold of her billowing curtains, her dazed mind focusing on their movements, and understanding dawned.
Her window was open.
But she was certain- positively, positively so, that it had been closed when she’d fallen asleep.
Her clock gleamed the time from the corner of her eye, the display flashing the time as it did every night.
3 AM on the dot.
Katie! I want to know what's with the time! There's something about 3 AM that's important, and I can't wait to find out what the significance is. And about this small boy that's attached to the times mentioned, like 8:30 and that 3AM.
And who this Anthony is.
This chapter did better with the wordy sentences, in that there weren't a lot to get stuck on. The main one is
Still, this was quite a fun chapter to read. I liked Elizabeth's interactions with Lily. Even in their short scene together that had dialogue, it's clear that they're friends.
The mystery's getting deeper, and I'm looking forward to finding out what's in store for Elizabeth, and what the small boy has to do with it.
And that Anthony.
Also, the lecture on the Orreon Church sounds like an interesting one to me!
Ee-yep, I thought it might be fun to respond to Ember Days here. And yes, it's me; you inspired me to join PC. =3 Your PC thread needs more love. Post the chapters from SPPf. >=D
The definition of a SPPf oldie is easy: anybody who can remember the names of the previous Fanfic Mods and the details of Dragonfree's previous avatar. xD
Astinus: *hugs to oblivion* :D TIMES ARE FUN *shot* I emphasise them a lot, don't I...? :x I'm glad I've sorted out the sentences a little more - I'll split that sentence, though. I'll defeat those rogues eventually...! x3
Woops, forgot to put who Anthony is - I think I say it properly in the next chapter...? If not EDITS WILL BE MADE x3 The little boy comes back too (just maybe :x) x3 Haha, I'd be interested in the lecture as well - must resist urge to write oneshot detailing such history. :x x3
I'm glad you like Lily~! She was all too much fun to write, I must admit. :x
Thanks m'dear! *snugs*
I've got a good three more chapters to update - I'll put one up every two days until it's all caught up so I don't suddenly toss them all in - they get a little longer after the one below.
Draco~! :D I'm sorry I didn't see this! D: I have to check this site more... *gives cookies* Haha, I'm glad I did get you to join~! It's a good forum. x3 <3
...THEY ARE STARTING AVATAR AGAIN SOON? :D x33 I did notice that you had Zuko-Katara avatar on sppf. <3! I've been a little slow catching up with the show, but I did see there was going to be a sequel, it's good to know it's coming. x3 We can wait for it together~
Thank you for bringing the love here - I'll be happy to bring more love to yours~ You should post it up here! I've been really enjoying it so far - your characterisation is delightful. x3 PC would love it, I'm sure.
Haha, we do need to stand together - create a grand alliance. x3 <3 Oh Chesh! I still have Ledian on skype, but Chesh is gone D: Good times, good times. xD Ah well. :3
Thanks for your review on sppf, by the way - I'm going to respond to it a little later (not that I use such responses as well-timed bumps ;x), but I appreciate it. x3 <3 Edits are all incorporated~ Your scissors do me a great service. <3
A/N: Aaaaaand as promised. x33 The mystery deepens a little more here - an explanation is on its way, though, I promise. x3
Shuffling her self cautiously forward, Elizabeth bundled herself firmly in her duvet before slipping her feet to the carpet and darting to the window. She dragged it shut with a little snap and turned to slump back into her bed, her teeth still chattering a discordant tune. It wasn’t much warmer with the window closed, but the gesture, at least, was comforting.
The sound of scrambling claws pulled her up short.
What was that?
She fixed the dark room with a nervous eye, her fingers twisting themselves in knots before her. The rest of the household was soundly asleep, bundled away in their respective rooms, and apart from their cat Smudge (who stayed, without fail, curled around Anthony’s feet for the night) they had no other pets.
Another tumble of movement.
She smothered a small shriek, shuffling backwards frantically against the windowsill as a scrambling, accompanied by a snuffling noise, rose from the direction of her bed. Hands rising to grasp at her heart, Elizabeth reckoned, as her own breath caught, that she could hear the pants of small, slightly wheezed breaths.
An animal must have crawled in when the window was open, she realised numbly. Some creature must’ve tottered on in and crawled, wonder of wonders, under her bed, taking advantage of the darkness to make itself a nice, cosy nest.
After a moment the noise stopped again, a final sniff marking its end, but she remained as she was, poised. Her heart skittered as (she swore) the animal's smell of musky smell of earth and dead leaves finally reached her. After a further minute of being frozen in the same position, however, she allowed herself to relax.
It must’ve fallen asleep. Even rabid raccoons needed to sleep.
Mustering up her courage, she stepped carefully towards her door and the light switch beside it, circling wide to keep the bed and its new inhabitant as far from her as physically possible.
Another shuffle, a strange clicking noise that made the hair on the back of her neck rise, and suddenly a high, boyish voice piped up from her bed, curiosity lifting the end of the light tone.
“Elizabeth, what are you doing?”
Elizabeth screamed and bolted for the door, all earlier pretences forgotten. There was an intruder in her house, in her room, and all she could think of was all of the horror stories of women kidnapped from their family homes, dragged into an alley and raped and murdered in the silence of the city streets. Those stories of entire households slaughtered for their petty jewelry, men, women and children together. Oh Anthony, grandfather-! She thought wordlessly, and cleared the distance in two inhuman steps. Shaking, she grasped forward for the door handle- only to feel two small hands already clinging to the knob firmly, a small shadow the height of her midriff braced in front of her only escape route.
“El-Elizabeth, wait, wait…”
Withdrawing her hand as if bitten – why was the rapist so small? - Elizabeth recoiled backwards, reaching out blindly with her other hand for the light switch on the wall.
There was a delicate click, and then the entire room was illuminated, the stark light revealing a small boy in a torn, mud-splattered shirt clinging desperately to her door. A mop of russet hair flopping untidily across his eyes, he fixed her with an imploring look. His pointed features were tightened in an expression of misery.
“Now just wait,” the boy panted out, releasing the door to hold up out his palms soothingly, nevertheless remaining where he stood. She swore each finger ended in a blunted claw. “ I need to explain a few things, alright, Elizabeth? I have this big speech I get to say and all, you’ll see, it’s really cool, I just gotta, gotta remember it. You’ll really like it, I promise, cross my heart.”
He also sported, Elizabeth noted dimly as the boy placed a hand on the wrong side of his chest, an equally-red tail that drooped down between his legs to his bare, dirtied feet. It brushed against the dark-stained wood of her door with a faint rasp, its cream tip flicking occasionally from side to side.
She was dreaming. She had to be. She had screamed loud enough to raise a cremated corpse, as her throat supported with a well-timed throb of pain, and yet a calm silence filled the house, the hum of crickets and the roar of the occasional car below continuing, uninterrupted. Where was her family? Her grandfather, in the least, was a notoriously light sleeper, woken up by the slightest misstep on the squeaky floorboards of the stairs, and more often then not it was Anthony, before anything else, that woke her from a nightmare due to ‘all the noise you’d been making, sis’.
Opening suddenly dry lips, she made to clarify her thoughts out loud, the movement catching the attention of the boy, who turned his attention back towards her eagerly.
“This is a dream, isn’t it?”
The boy’s face brightened considerably at her words, and he provided her with a huge grin, his two canines standing out in particular from where they hung slightly over his bottom lip. She felt faint at the sight. “Yeah! Well, not quite, more of an adventure, but you are sleeping! In a sense! How did you guess, do you know a bit already?”
The confirmation seemed to lift a weight off of her shoulders, and she found herself relaxing, the boy’s age, in any case, sweeping the rapist equation out of the window.
He… was just a kid.
Elizabeth attempted to understand the boy’s question, but gave up after puzzling over his use of the word ‘adventure’.
Her thoughts felt like they were sloshing around in treacle.
“About how spirit goes wanderin - nahh, don’t worry, I’ll just start from the beginning.” He flapped one of his hands dismissively and approached her with a grin, abandoning his post without a second thought. Her gaze flicked immediately to it, her exit temptingly close, but for reasons unbeknownst to her, her fear and anxiety were fading. It no longer seemed important. “But for that, it’d be much, much better if we were outside – come on, it’s alright, the meadow is really close, and we’re not going to be doing anything tonight, anyway.”
He had an honest smile.
Relieved grin still plastered across his features, the boy slipped his hand in hers in an action that was so akin to Anthony’s that it felt that she like she could just blink and see her brother standing there, impatiently tugging her towards the arcade an excited gleam in his eyes. That image clinging to her mind, she yielded to the boy’s encouragements, following him to the door.
It couldn’t hurt.
“You’ll understand in a little bit, Elizabeth – no more screaming, though, alright, that was really freaky...”
The easiness with which he used her name struck her nevertheless, as it had the entire evening, and she voiced her confusion, her hand remaining, limp, in the child’s hot grip. The cold still lingered, her breath hissing out in chattering cloud, but he, for some reason, seemed immune.
“How do you know my name?"
The boy just simply shrugged.
“Just knew – was told I had to meet you to get you all initiated and stuff…”
He tugged open the door and pulled her along with him down the paneled hall, past the chipped, painted doors that led to her slumbering family. She still couldn’t find it in herself to resist.
“Who are you?”
He looked back with a crooked smile, brown eyes barely visible in the light of the moon that flooded through the wide window above the staircase. Something about that image triggered a faint wisp of memory, and Elizabeth frowned, grasping at the feeling. “I’m Nathaniel, of course!”
They’d reached the stairs by this point, and the kid- Nathaniel – flounced down each one, bare feet slapping lightly on the polished oak and managing to hit every single creak in the steps in the process. The sound of their descent echoing throughout the house. Elizabeth smiled wryly at this renewed testament to the unreality of the situation. In the world she remembered, her grandfather would be on them in a second flat.
She almost tumbled into Nathaniel as the boy skidded to a halt in her shadowed entrance hall, and she waved her free arm for balance, grasping at the banister. Her movements slowed as her eyes found the flashes of red that poked out of his hair, uncovered by his uninhibited, joyful descent.
Twin canine ears.
She struggled to comprehend this alongside the tail and the teeth, sorting the new information into a mental compartment she aptly decided to name dog boy.
“What are you?”
Nathaniel drew to a stop at her last question, turning around to face her. His expression was only just visible in the reflected moonlight that slithered through the front windows, a strange emotion twisting his features, and he gazed at her with those large eyes, tail coiling around his tattered jean leg.
His voice sounded slightly altered when he responded, something darker, sadder, tempering his usually light tone.
“I’m me, like you are you.”
The emotion flickering out of his eyes, he straightened and tightened his grip, a feral smile of renewed excitement creasing his lips.
He had his free hand on the handle of the front door, clawed fingers curled tightly around it. She nodded mutely, despite the questions that still mulled in her mind, enraptured by his childish enthusiasm.
His grin cracked wider.
“Then let’s go.”
A/N: Nearly caught up - this is where the **** starts hitting the fan. x333
Beta'ed by the amazing ejunknown~! :D
Coyote - The Lonely Forest
Your Rocky Spine - Great Lake Swimmers
The night air was chilled as Elizabeth and Nathaniel emerged onto her porch, a faint breeze flitting across her arms and sparking another shiver as she blinked in the faint light. Shreds of cloud blocked out the stars above them, their shadows winding across her unkempt lawn. She huddled into herself, realising as she began to shiver anew that she hadn’t changed from her nightclothes before she’d left. Then again, she remembered, she hadn’t even thought before agreeing to follow Nathaniel out here, had she? Let alone about what she’d need for a trip.
She cast an eye on the boy that stood poised beside her, examining the stars as they fluttered into view through the patches of clear sky.
Now outside, the ridiculousness of her decision, dream or not, was beginning to hit her.
There was a faint tug as Nathaniel pulled lightly at her hand, and she turned towards him, the hot, firm pressure of the boy’s grip comfortable against her palm. Naive trust clear in his eyes, he offered her another grin. The sight almost made her cave to his request to follow him again, if only to ensure he got back home safely.
Lily was right: Elizabeth really did have a soft heart.
“It’s just this way,” he told her excitedly, pointing out towards the forest that encroached on her grandfather’s land. The pines he highlighted leant low over an orchard her mother kept, their thick branches overshadowing the olive trees. Elizabeth nodded, a small frown crumpling her forehead nevertheless. The way he pointed led out only to the lower, uninhabited slopes of the mountains, she was certain of it. “We just need to head up through that little bundle of trees, and then we’ll run straight into it.”
“Run straight into… what?”
“The meadow, of course! Remember?” He pulled her gently down the stairs, his strength surprising her. She cast a lingering glance behind her as they marched across the grass, eyes catching her bedroom window, the one that was impossible to reach from the outside. “The ceremony starts there, you see – wait, you still don’t know, do you? Well, have you’ve heard about old man Wotan, or Odin? There are a huge number of myths and stuff about these guys, but in Norse mythology, Odin was said to go out on these hunts on his eight legged-horse, joined by the dead and… what’s wrong?”
She’d finally stopped in her tracks, her shock from the ordeal faded enough to allow her to comprehend the situation, leaving her thoughts clearer as she pulled her hand free from the boy’s grasp.
What was she doing?
“A ceremony.” Her tone was flat, expression hardening as she crossed her arms. She’d been forgetting herself, she realised. She’d been letting herself get carried away as if this was just another game she was playing with Anthony. “Nathaniel, just what is going on here? Why are you out here, alone, in the middle of the night?”
“I told you, I was sent to come get you. The ceremony- it’s, it’s this traditional thing that’s been going on for centuries, between people like me, and people like you. Between the wild hunt and the caul bearers.”
They were in the middle of her garden by this point, the tangled weeds brushing against their calves. Nathaniel hunched his shoulders defensively as he spoke, drawing back his hands to jam them in his pockets.
“It’s the re-enactment of a truce, of sorts, the peace treaty that first allowed the hunt and humanity to co-exist. It’s pretty much just a show now, but both sides are supposed to appear, at least for their first one, it’s their duty- it’ll make a lot more sense when we get there, I promise-”
“The hunt? Caul bearers?” He flinched at the sharpness in her voice, a tremble noticeable in his shoulders. She softened her voice at that, gaze softening somewhat. He was just like all kids, all too fond of fairy tales. “Nathaniel, this isn’t a game. Where are your parents, and why do you have the… the…”
She gave up her final line of questioning about his genetic abnormalities as her mind began to roll back onto itself again.
“You were born with the caul,” Nathaniel repeated, voice sounding strained. His hands appeared to be clenched into fists in his pockets. “It means that when you were born, you still had the ‘birth’… stuff on your head, or something like that. You did, didn’t you?”
He tilted his chin up in a slight challenge, and her mouth snapped shut.
“You mean… the amniotic sack.” It wasn’t a question.
Nathaniel nodded, a tight grin ripping across his lips, his shoulders continuing to shake nevertheless. She stared at him in shock.
Her mother had been telling her since she’d been a child about how she’d been born with the amniotic sack still covering her head and shoulders; the tale was one of her family’s great ‘near-death-experiences’.
But… how did he know?
“I told you, that’s how I knew who you were.” He was stepping closer, she realised through her shock, but she didn’t move, still staring at him. The chill from earlier was scraping deeper into her skin. “It’s what allows your soul to go walking like this, don’t you get it? It’s what will allow you to travel with the hunt, with me.”
There was a strange, almost feral light in his eyes as he said the last words, and she met his gaze, trying to figure out his expression.
“It means more than you can imagine, Elizabeth, really, it does! It means you can be one of us, in a way, if only to keep an eye, yeah-“
He cut himself off with a huff of a laugh and tightened his grip on her hand, raising it until it was level with his eyes.
“Just watch this, alright? Don’t worry, you won’t feel a thing.”
He smiled crookedly, excited once more, and before Elizabeth had a chance to draw a breath, blue flames roared from their clasped hands, tearing up both of their arms in a cackle of sparks.
There was no time to think.
Elizabeth screamed. Throwing herself backwards, she tried to pull them both out of the flames, beating at her burning arm, but somehow Nathaniel held on to her, his continued smile momentarily visible before he was swallowed by the fireball. She fell to her knees, tears creasing down her cheeks. The flames were crawling over her skin, biting up her chest and licking at her neck in an icy caress. Within moments it would be all over.
Then, as quickly as they came, the flames were gone.
Eyes clenched tightly closed, she felt a small hand on her head, burying itself in the charred remnants of her hair, Nathaniel’s breathy, excited tone reaching the bloody mess of blistered skin that used to be her ears.
“You- see what I mean?”
She cracked her eyes open slowly as she felt Nathaniel move to crouch before her, anticipating the onslaught of pain as her body became aware of her burns - and gazed down at her unmarked skin in confusion, raising her hands to run her fingers through her untouched hair.
She was completely unharmed, and so was he.
…What just happened?
Nathaniel poked at her tears with a failing smile, the dangerous light that had fluttered in his eyes replaced with a nervous glimmer. Breathing raggedly, he offered her an apologetic smile.
“Eheh, I didn’t mean- to scare you, I swear! Smile, eh, Elizabeth? It was just a lil bit- of fun, and it didn’t hurt- at all, did it? And wasn’t it cool!” He smudged the tear tracks gently away as she blinked at him uncomprehendingly, briefly stricken mute. “You wouldn’t been able to do- that with me unless you hadn’t been- born with the caul, see? And that’s just- a midget bit of it all, I swear.”
“I’m not dead,” she whispered, struggling to comprehend. She was blinking at her hands, twisting them back and forth, bending each finger in turn.
Why wasn’t she?
The fact defied all of her logic, frustrated her reason, confusing her.
“What- what did you do?”
Nathaniel let out a little laugh at that, reaching out to rustle her hair. She flinched instinctively away from it, thinking of the flames, and a streak of pain crossed his features. Squatting before her with his hands tucked firmly into his armpits, he regarded her quietly, despair in his eyes.
“It was just a little- magic, alright? Fox fire. It couldn’t hurt you, not at all and I wouldn’t, anyway – not ever. Not ever.” He reached forward again, and this time she didn’t flinch, remaining as she was as he crept forward, expression imploring. Despite herself, she was reminded once more of her brother. “It was just- just to show you, nothing more, I swear... Come on, Elizabeth, please?”
He gently grabbed her shoulders after that and, straightening, pulled and encouraged her upright, once more surprising her with his strength. His grip shook. “Just… come with me. It won’t take long. But I- we have to go, now.”
But- why should she listen, and why should she go? The small voice persisted in the back of her mind, arguing her back, reminded her of her reason, her doubts. It was subdued by something else, however, a force that swallowed her fear and smothered her doubts. Her thoughts were just too thick, too clumsy. He gazed down at her with those bright, trusting eyes, his nervousness so clearly painted on his features, the trembling weakening his grip. There was pain, too, she realised, physical pain in the sharp twist to his mouth, and it was that, more than anything that dissuaded her from fear.
“Please.” His voice was heavy, pleading.
She allowed herself to be coaxed upright, taking a few steps with him towards the orchard.
“Nathaniel,” she murmured quietly, acting on one of the questions that had managed to break from the tangle the filled her brain. He glanced up at her, eyebrow quirking, eyes alight. “What’s wrong with you?”
He gave her a strangely wry smile, hiding his hands in his pockets as they continued forward. “I’m fine, I swear, it’s just… I just have to get home.”
She regarded him quietly as they staggered forward. “Is home this way, then?”
He blinked, and then grinned wolfishly. “Yeah, it is.”
She ignored the sudden switch, too wrapped up in her sluggish thoughts. “And you’re… you’re not human, either, right?”
Nathaniel hesitated as he did before, but he answered her question this time after a breath, his smile fading slightly. “No, I’m not. I’m… part of the hunt. We’re not really human at all, I guess.”
He tugged her into a faster pace, and they jogged towards the forest, reaching the orchard in a matter of minutes and slipping beneath their well-kept branches. Ripened olives tumbled around them as they brushed past the laden leaves, pattering to the floor like fat rain drops, bouncing off of his back. Inhuman.
“And what is… the hunt?”
He shrugged, not looking at her as he shimmied to the end of the grove, his tail swishing behind him, his claws scratching faintly against the tree trunks as he swung past. “I guess you can say we are… we are like spirits, a mix between men and animals. You used to call us gods, you know. We were more than you deserved”
They had reached the final barrier between them and the wild of the forest, the aged fence seeming almost fragile as it bent under the weight of a lazily cast pine limb, its faint smell of vanilla filtering through the air. Not waiting a moment, Nathaniel clambered onto the branch with an air of experience, rising to his feet immediately and padding across it with arms outstretched. “Then again,” he called back as he reached the end, spinning around regardless of the height and beckoning. “You started calling us demons and stuff after that!”
It was with numerous little cuts and bruises that the two of them finally emerged from the arm of forest onto the lower slopes of a grassy knoll crested with orange light, the breath of a breeze sighing past them, sending a shiver across her bare arms. Drawing in on herself, all too aware, once more, of her ill-chosen clothing, she cast an inquisitive glance at the boy beside her. This, she realised, must be where Nathaniel had been aiming all this time. If she concentrated, she could just hear a clamour of sound coming from over the ridge, the sound of voices raised in excitement or anger, she wasn’t certain which, threaded with the warmer tones of music. What waited for her up there, however, she was still uncertain of.
What she did know was that Nathaniel’s affliction seemed to have been growing all the worse. The boy in mention’s eyes seemed to be fixed on the sight, a twitch flicking his tail from side to side as he examined the slope. A dull glaze had coated them since they’d entered the forest, but nevertheless he turned to her practically shimmering brightness, excitement bursting from every inch of him.
“We’re here!” he confirmed, a grin splitting his lips.
An answering smile attempted to twitch up the corners of her mouth, unbidden, and she regarded the hilltop once more, examining the flickers of light that speared above it. The glow seemed to claw at the surrounding darkness, plumes of grey rising from it to blot the stars – they must’ve lit bonfire, she guessed – and the sight seemed almost alien to her, terrifying in the sullen silence of the night. She huddled further into herself.
“Don’t worry.” Nathaniel’s voice cut into her thoughts almost as if he’d read them, a comforting, yet trembling hand resting on her forearm. “We can just slip in through the back, no one should notice us at all. From the sounds of it, we’ve only missed a bit of food, anyways.”
It was the reminder of his weakness as much as his words that pressed her onwards.
They ascended the hill slowly, crouching as they neared the top, Nathaniel’s body warm beside her against the chill of the grass. The sounds of a celebration grew steadily louder, the outline of actual flames now visible against the clouded sky. They were very, very close now. Every fibre of her was aware of it. Her stomach was flipping, but she kept her breathing steady and her feet moving. She could feel Nathaniel’s shaking growing beside her, occasionally wrenching through the young boy until all he could do was collapse and wait for his breath to return.
She would see him home. No-one deserved to suffer alone.
It was with her heart in her mouth that they finally made it that final couple of meters up the slope, only a stone’s throw separating them from the loud revelling going on beyond. At their proximity she could almost make out human voices, words, intermingled with a chorus of what she could only describe as howling and barks, as a string quartet and a drummer trilled out a tune in the background. Nathaniel turned to face her, ears twitching, excitement dancing in his eyes.
“Now, wait here a sec’, alright? I’m just gonna pop my head up and see where everyone’s at, and then we can skedoodle up there, kapish?”
She nodded, a newly formed lump in her throat preventing her from speaking, and he cast her a smile, before turning to crawl up the slope. Before he could make it more than a few step, however, another series of trembles wracked his frame, twitching through his limbs. Arching his back with a wordless cry, the boy began to jerk uncontrollably. He ground his forehead into the grass, his shoulders straining as he attempted to brace his arms against the slope. Crying out his name, Elizabeth leapt to her feet and staggered forward- only to leap back with a whisper of a shriek as icy cold blue flames burst into life along his arms, tearing across his body with a soundless, smokeless roar as it consumed every inch of him.
She stumbled backwards, only able to grasp at the air as Nathaniel writhed into a foetal position, his cries deepening into guttural growls, falling once more to her knees as the boy she knew as Nathaniel shuddered from view. Shock rendering her speechless, she watched as the flames quickly consumed the boy she’d gotten to know and care about, the one who reminded her so much of her little brother.
Like the earlier time, the flames faded suddenly, petering out with a final spark.
Robbed of its light, the hill’s slope returned to darkness, a great shadow hiding the space where Nathaniel once lay. She could just make out a soft crooning reaching out from its depths, the sound almost swallowed by the cacophony above. Catching her breath, she took a careful step closer, blinking the light spots from her sight. The form of a tawny dog curled where Nathaniel was just visible in the darkness, it’s small ribcage rising and falling in the jagged rhythm of its pants. Fixing her with large, golden eyes, the creature gave a dwindling whine, a familiar taint of sadness in its eyes, before it staggering to its feet, shirking the cover of a now over-large shirt and scrambling up the slope.
Leaping to her feet, Elizabeth bolted after it, its- his name tearing from her mouth before she realised it as they burst into the outskirts of a huge campsite, where a menagerie of different beasts and humans creatures frolicking in the light of a collection of bonfires that roared at the sky in the center of the clearing, their collected cries and roars swallowing her call whole.
In the warmth of a bonfire at the opposite corner of the clearing, a stir of cobalt shifted in the firelight, watching the otherwise unnoticed new comers with a vivid, ochre eye. A plume of white fur tumbled across his chest, flicking at the spiked, amber tufts that followed the lines of his shoulder blades. Lazily running his tongue across his glistening teeth, the great stag watched as the woman tore after the growlithe cub, her ebony hair whipping out behind her, swallowing the amber light of the flames.
The Cobalion's jaw quivered, his lip curling.
So the boy was back.
Cobalion! *flails* My favorite fifth generation legendary.
You're right about the **** hitting the fan in this chapter. I'm excited about this ceremony, and just what the hunt is about, and how Elizabeth now fits into it. It was interesting to me to see that she's different from others for being born with her caul over her head, since I read a book series with the main character having the same characteristic.
And now I'm rambling!
Anyhow, these chapters did much better with the long sentences. But I did notice a few typos here and there.
Nathaniel's speech patterns when Elizabeth first meets him is adorable. I can easily picture him as a rambling little kid all excited about finding her, with his little tail swishing. Cute kid...until the end of chapter three, when his little whine made him rather adorable. Ha.
Oh, and now I know who Anthony is.
*pokepoke* Looking forward to more!
I HAVE TO LEARN HOW TO TIME MANAGE - whenever it hits Uni I just get swallowed xD Thank you so much Astinus! Editing now - it's really stupid how the 'its' always escape me haha! Damn, I wish I had more to give you then just this chapter - I wrote this during the summer time - but with a little bit of luck I'll be able to hammer out some more before Easter? xD; Anyway, you should hopefully enjoy this? If a couple months late :x
Love you, m'dear! This one's for you. <3
Beta'ed by ejunknown.
With a shrug of movement, the great stag shifted from his prone position and leapt effortlessly over the fire, landing with a scuff of earth in the cub’s path. Allowing his momentum to thrust him forward, Tobias easily sideswiped the growlithe as he fled past him, ignoring the boy’s surprised yelp and pinning him lazily to the floor with a single paw. The surrounding demons ignored the disturbance, as he’d expected – they knew better than to meddle in the affairs of their betters - and he lowered his muzzle towards the cub, growling a soft warning as the growlithe struggled beneath his grip.
He watched as the human girl stumbled to a halt a few feet away, dark eyes shining with sudden fear, her shoulders shaking as she drank in the sight of the two of them.
The boy’s first catch. He considered her with emotionless eyes, his lips pulled back in a partial snarl. The boy had chosen well.
He tightened his hold and the boy shuddered beneath him.
“Are you afraid, human?” he asked quietly.
She trembled at the sound of his voice, wrapping her arms around herself and her strange attire, her eyes not leaving his.
He saw his answer in them.
“Then run home.”
She refused to move, her gaze flicking to the cub in his grasp. He growled his disproval, raising his hackles. Her trembling increased satisfactorily, her dark hair trickling across her features, brushing against her lips – but she remained where she was, against his expectations. She was stubborn, it seemed.
As if in response, the cub began to writhe beneath him, bucking against his weight. Tobias afforded the youth his attention, baring his teeth in a snarl.
“Leave her alone!” the boy growled, clawing at the dirt beneath him for purchase. Desperation shone in his eyes – a fool’s determination, he noted with a faint touch of disgust. “She-she’s- part of the truce, so you can’t- touch-“
A heavier paw bore down on the cub, cutting his whimpering off with a sharp yelp. A flicker of movement before him, however, distracted him, and he turned back to the woman. A pained expression painted across her features, she inched closer, despite the fear that steeped her scent. He gazed at her in surprise.
The mortal was brave.
He snarled at her, mocking her strength.
Her voice was barely above a whisper, trembling as much as she was, but the defiance was still there, burning, her protest barely audible over the collected cheer of the revellers.
He stared at her with a hint of surprise, examining her across the ash-streaked grass.
He’d underestimated her.
With a yelp of bark, the cub took advantage of his distraction to wiggle free and throw himself before the girl. Not noticing her flinch, he scraped to a halt before her. Foxfire flaring from his nostrils and the edges of his mouth, the growlithe arched and with a soft roar of flames was a boy again, crouched on his hands and knees, a grimace painted across his features.
Tobias’s disgust stirred once more at the sight, and he lowered himself onto his haunches, a growl rumbling in his chest.
The boy besmirched his blood with his obsession.
“Would you rather be a human, child?” Snarls curled around the question, stunted claws clenching into the soil.
Nathaniel’s answer was forced between gasps, and the boy swung himself upright, oblivious to his nakedness, placing himself between the stag and the girl.
“I’d rather not be a beast.”
“Fool.” He took a step forward, lowering his muzzle towards the two, hackles raised. The growlithe’s beliefs unnerved him, an emotion he was unaccustomed to experiencing. “You are what you are born. Why do you idolize an inferior race?”
Nathaniel’s features set in a very human frown, the child shrinking nevertheless in his place, ears pressing down against his skull. The scent of his fear filled the night air, mingling with the bitterness of the smoke. “They… are not inferior.”
“They are weak, child.”
The stag’s claws tore up the soil and grass in the easy flex of his grip as Tobias took another step, illustrating his point, irritation emphasising the movement. Nathaniel flinched at the display, shuffling backwards to the girl’s side.
“There- there are other ways to be strong, you know-”
“Their lives are short. They have no power of their own, only that they’ve taken from others, and even that they abuse.”
The cub was giving away ground, as expected, edging back towards the hill slope, the girl retreating with him. Her eyes were fixed on Tobias’s- but it was not only fear that held her gaze to his, he noted.
The boy’s faltering response drew his attention from the observation.
“They’ve created their own, haven’t they? The boy’s lips were quivering, and he reached for the girl’s arm, weaving his fingers in-between hers. Cowering. “They’ve made cars, electrical appliance-things-”
“That is inconsequential.” Tobias allowed his disgust to colour his words, eyes flashing. The boy’s breath caught as he bared his teeth further in a soundless snarl. “Humanity fears us and calls us monsters because they covet what we possess. Do not be fooled, child.”
Another step – his flickering shadow fell across their feet, lapping at their ankles, electricity sparking, roiling across his twisted antlers, crackling, into the night.
“Don’t think to deny what you are.”
The boy held his gaze for a moment more, wide eyes glistening – before his nerve broke.
The child fled along the hill, dragging the girl behind him, as a decoy smokescreen exploded soundlessly on the hillside. Coiling wisps masking their escape, the faint layer of ash licked at the crescent moon overhead, breaking free of the forest in tauntingly flippant coils.
The stag snarled and snapped after the pair, a measure of personal restraint the only thought that prevented him from following. The electricity that gathered between his horns clawed at the night sky as his pride thundered within his thoughts, urging him to catch the coward, sparks arching down his neck to writhe against his skin.
The orphan, while pitiful, infuriated him. The child embraced a truce that served as a permanent embarrassment to his race, casting aside his pack ties for the temporary, insipid affection of humans. His subordination was insurmountable, the boy trailing ever farther away from the hunt’s territory as the days past, burying himself within humanity.
This was not the time, however, to settle their misunderstanding.
Forcing himself to turn on his heel with difficulty, Tobias returned to his spot by the fireside through a crowd of Rapidash, his seat remaining suitably unadulterated, the mere hint of his scent warning enough to any who might’ve sought to take it. He did not rejoin the celebrations, however, as he sank back into the grass, his eyes settling back onto the flames of the fire.
If it were a millennium ago, he would’ve torn down the slope and challenged the boy for his insolence, slaughtering the girl before him as proof of his victory. A millennium ago, the girl would be only a whisper of an old legend told to the young as they suckled at their wet nurses breast, a frightened traveler’s dying wish as he was run down by the hunt, the lead hounds braying as they nipped at his already bloodied heals.
A millennium ago he would still have been a lord.
He tucked his feet beneath himself and gazed into the flames, banishing the image of a pair of soft, dark eyes moistened with fear, tempered with another emotion he refused to recognize in the gaze of a human, that rose, unbidden, from his thoughts.
The fire twisted and spat at the sky, a shower of sparks hissing into the grass as a log slipped in the depths of its embers.
All history, all of his history, had ended with the ‘truce’, and humanity had began, flourishing in the hunt’s retreat, forcing the dwindling communities to assimilate or extinguish themselves. The once great ‘Hunt’ was reduced at last to a mere formality, an occasion to feast and to observe traditions long since rendered obsolete, its primal, joyful violence lost.
There had been an honour in it, he remembered vividly; a strength in the mastering of the blood-haze of the chase, a thrill in the taste of the host’s excitement bleeding into the breeze. An energy that had coiled and twisted in every sinew, every bone, pushing the pack onwards.
Tobias shut his eyes and relived those moments, recalling the salty, metallic heat of a boar’s lifeblood as it pulsed over his lips and tongue, flooding his throat. It calmed him as he drank in the heat of the campfire, the electric crackle settling in a shroud around him, sinking into his fur like a second skin.
His past was now myth, a folk tale clouded by the centuries and the liberties of licentious story tellers. It was a fact he’d been forced to acclimate himself with. It had been their own civil wars that had led to their fall, after all. He was no fool.
The child knew nothing.
The child in question hurtled the few feet down the slope to where he’d abandoned his clothes, throwing himself down onto the slope. He pressed into the grass in an attempt to hide, his ears straining to catch signs of further pursuit. Elizabeth followed after him, her slippers scrambling over the slick grass, dirt scraping under fingernails as she wrapped her fingers around the stalks and pressed herself into the earth.
“What- what was that?” she whispered after a moment, squinting at Nathaniel in the shadows. Her eyes slowly adjusted to the change in light, filling in his slightly hollowed features. “Or- who…?”
The glowering, ochre eyes of the stag filled her mind, her thoughts stumbling over the memory of the coldness of the burnished depths, and the iridescent, ice-blue flecks that swarmed around the pupil. She was struggling to catch her breath as they lay there, panting, her chest heaving. Her heart still hummed with left over adrenaline, sending her pulse trilling through her veins, fluttering in her neck.
She’d felt those eyes swallow her up as he’d looked at her, shred her apart like a rabbit under a lion’s teeth, with her neck snapped with a simple jerk of the head.
Yet they were so… beautiful.
“That- was Tobias,” Nathaniel managed after a moment, fixing her with a shaky smile. He reached out to grip her hand, his fingers trembling in an all too familiar pattern. “He’s, ah… one of the older ones. Older gods. He shouldn’t follow us down here, though.”
She managed a smile at that, squeezing his hand despite the lump that refused to shift from her throat. “Gods again?”
This was insanity, she knew.
He cracked a smile back, eyes twinkling with a fragment of his earlier joy, before his head jerked as a tremor wracked through him. Recovered his composure, he fought to replace the smile, clinging his shirt to himself nevertheless, fingers digging into the fabric. “Of course!”
She regarded him with watering eyes (a delayed response to her fear) as he shook once more, his grip tightening periodically in hers. Whatever had effected him before was apparently returning – his- metamorphosis (she supposed) starting anew.
They lay for a moment against the hillside, his shuttered breaths the only sound that broke their silence, waiting for approaching steps that didn’t come.
“Na…Nathaniel,” she began softly, shuffling carefully towards him. The grass fronds were cool against her stomach, their dew seeping through her shirt to graze her skin. “You need to explain everything, now, alright? All of it.”
He nodded as best as he could, eyes shining with a slight glaze of pain, and let out a little laugh. “It seems a lil late now, doesn’t it? Haha, alright, though.”
He pushed himself into a seated position, ignoring her unconscious intake of her breath, tugging lightly on her hand. “He’s not coming, don’t worry, I can smell him – he’s moved away, not closer. But I’ll start- from the beginning.”
She listened for a moment more, ignoring the questions that had arisen at his use of ‘smell’, before forcing herself to relax, placing her trust in the boy. She felt that she could, after this mess.
He released his grip after she relented and sat up, moving backwards as best as he could until there was a decent space between them and bunching his shirt in his lap.
She watched him as he took a deep breath,
“…I guess it begins with the hunt. As I said before, we aren’t… human. We are ‘magical’, ‘supernatural’ beings, or… I guess we are similar to werewolves, which is kinda cool, but that- that is off topic, haha. We aren’t werewolves, although I think werewolves were actually some of us. Rather, we are creatures who have existed alongside humanity for centuries, millennia even, and are just a little bit different.”
Elizabeth nodded as he took another breath, trying to follow his words, Nathaniel shutting his eyes briefly before continuing.
“You’ve given us all sorts of names over the years, and depending where we are, the names change. In this part of the world, we were always called ‘the hunt’. And indeed, we do a lot of that.”
He gave a toothy grin.
“Our natural forms… also aren’t human. They differ from species to species – I, for examble, am a Growlithe – a kinda of dog, I guess. Tobias, the big scary guy, is a Cab- Cobaleo, or something, I believe, similar to a lion."
Elizabeth nodded numbly, the memory of the glistening, polished teeth flickering once more into her mind - the flash of the canines as a growl rumbled from behind them. Tobias. She fought a shudder.
"We have many, many different species, basically. The hunt itself is made up of mostly horse-types and canine, feline types, though, its just what makes up our community and always has. Oh, and the occasional bull, although they aren’t quite nimble enough, see."
His expression spoke of an amusing past memory, his lips curving as he continued.
"It’s just a quirk we have. All of these different species, however, are separated from the rest of the animals by one more thing, mmm? Each one has a different ‘power’, a different ability. It’s usually something that ties them to an element or the other, like fire, or water, or wind – I don’t know why we have them, but we do, and it’s pretty specific depending on the species. I can create and control fire all by myself, for example, as you’ve seen.” He paused to peer into her features, “Following alright so far?”
She nodded. He smiled back.
“These abilities occasionally allow us, or well the stronger ones of us, to even change our form at times, to that of another creature, such as normal animals and eventually humans, although the process is… painful, and hard to maintain.” He adopted a wry expression at that. “It was developed first as a power display, I believe, although it eventually became a survival measure. It was just an adoption of a shape, a body, with out any of the powers that shape would normally possess– and of all forms, a human is the easiest, I think because our minds are more similar. Whatever shape we adopt, you see, we adopt all of their limitations. The greatest shape shifters of our kind could take the shape of birds – but only at the great risk of losing themselves.”
He paused to take another deep breath, screwing his eyes up in a moment of concentration as another ripple of trembles sunk through him. When he opened them, she noticed that his eyes were brighter, the gold sinking more into a rich scarlet.
“Anyway, a couple thousand years or so ago, though, humans and our kind lived separately in joint territories, only occasionally overlapping, and regarded each other with animosity but peace. Well, kinda. The hunt used to possess all of the forests (they were much larger then, I’ve heard) and the lands around the mountains, and we built our homes up in the peaks, the places that most creatures did not have the strength or ability to reach. On certain occasions, however, when we needed to, or just when we wanted to, we went out ‘hunting’.
“The hunts would be bloody and long, these wild chases after boar and deer and other such things, whatever caught our eye. The pack was ruthless, and proud – the lords would lead, followed by their nobles, and then the rest of us, and the ‘aristocracy’ demanded complete respect. Still does, really. Anyone who didn’t show proper respect when the hunt passed would be run down. Sometimes the horde even took itself through the human settlements, charging down their little dirt streets in the night, and the like. You have many legends and myths about the ‘raging horde’, or the ‘wild hunt’, as we eventually called ourselves.” He grinned a little toothily. “As I said before, you’ve named us both gods and demons.
She watched him with wide eyes, her breath huffing out before in little clouds. “What happened?”
“I’m not certain when it all changed, but it did, at some point. We were never the only bunch of our kind out there – there were millions more living across this continent alone, joined by others across the world. Our numbers began to go down, though, while yours, humanity’s suddenly… exploded.”
He poked at the soil with a toe.
“We… live a long time, you see. If we aren’t physically killed, or taken down by a particularly strong disease, we can linger for centuries. The stronger ones even more than that. As a result, we have fewer kids.” He shrugged again at that. “Dunno why, we just… don’t. We take longer to grow up too, by your standards.
“So there was that, and then there was also the civil wars. The different clans waged wars against each other, slashing down our numbers. By the time peace had been restored, the balance had already shifted, and the humans were grabbing at our borders. I don’t know what century that was in, but it was a good long time ago. I wasn’t born until long after.
“And then there are the caul bearers.”
They were huddled against the slope’s side at this point, Elizabeth gazing at the boy with a mixture of fascination and faint mystification as he spoke, ignoring her hair as it fluttered against her neck with the cool touch of a breeze. At his last words, however, she blinked, glancing down at her hands curled in her lap, the thoughts spinning in her mind.
That term again, as bewildering as this entire situation and somehow, apparently, linked directly to this. The story was unbelievable as it was, but-
Somehow, she was caught in this fairy tale.
“What exactly does it mean to have been born with the… ‘caul’? She asked with a frown, looking back to the boy. He watched her with a twist to his lips, evidently working to keep his hands still as they clasped together in the folds of his shirt – and her frown deepened, a thought striking her. He mentioned they lived long. “and… how…old are you?”
His lips twisted into a rueful smile, evidently despite himself and he shrugged again. “We don’t keep count as you do, really.” He withdrew his hand from hers to grip his knees, cocking his head slightly as if listening to the hubbub above. It continued as it had the entire night, a warm wash of raised voices and the crackle of bonfires, mingled with the flickering orange light that blurred into the darkness. “I was born seven summer cycles ago, though, so around... seventy years ago? Yeah, seventy three of something.”
She stared at him in shock.
“You’re seventy years old.”
He laughed, a blush colouring his cheeks. “Yeah, by your count, but really I’m only seven cycles.” He grinned. “Just a kid. If you were like me, you’d be hitting two hundred by now, fogey.”
She blinked at him in wonderment, rousing herself enough to stick her tongue back at him in response. “Look who’s talking!”
He giggled, wriggling his toes, before another tremor ran through him, shaking through him to the ends of his fingertips. Grip tightening on his knees, he cast his eyes down as he began to pant, the trembles increasing until they sent chatters through his teeth.
Elizabeth reached out gingerly for his shoulders, clasping it awkwardly as the attack swelled to its crescendo. It was happening quicker this time, she realized. Discarding the fear that rose at the memory of the icy flames, she drew the boy towards her, cradling his feverishly hot, shaking body against her chest. The transformation was forcing itself sooner than it had before. The previous time must’ve worn him out.
He glanced up at her gratefully, his eyes now a pure, deep shade of scarlet streaked with gold, and her heart broke at the expression within it.
He still seemed so young.
“Can’t- really hold this anymore,” he apologized through gritted teeth against her shirt, renewed pain straining his voice. “Can’t- speak in the other- form, but there- are people you should meet- anyway. Follow- me, ‘k?”
She nodded, and after a moment he tugged himself lightly from her grasp and raised himself onto his feet, his pale skin shining dully in the dark. Waving his hand to stop her following him, he took a couple of slow, faltering steps before he shuddered to a halt. Despite the number of times she’d now witnessed the process, Elizabeth still flinched at the flare of the heatless flame, her heart wrenching as a soft keen shivered into the air. Within seconds the blue light faded and he was the small dog again, trembling paws shuffling in his discarded shirt, claws catching at the fabric.
Picking himself up, the dog shook out its fur, sneezing a light spray of sparks, before turning to her with a short rasp of a bark, his ears perking as he waited for her to rise. Getting unsteadily to her feet, Elizabeth gathered Nathaniel’s clothes after a small thought, and followed him around the crest of the hilltop, farther and farther from the reach of the forest.
She felt a strange sense of loss when the last of the pines slipped from view.
Wherever she was going, there was little to no turning back now.