In the frozen tundra, the child of monster hunters finds herself the captive of monsters.
|The girl pressed her nostrils against the crusted snow and inhaled. The air sheared her throat at it went down, chilling her lungs and wrenching a cough from her lips. She snorted and inhaled again, sifting out the scents of ice and coniferous trees. She caught a whiff of warmth, of heat in a space of confined ice, and with it the musk of a rodent.
The girl scampered on all fours, her scarred fingers and bare feet cracking the surface layer of frost as she pursued the scent. A brush of wind slithered over her, suffused with the other odor; it was cloying and heavy, like old grease, and seeped through her clothes, sullying her skin. Her fingers curled in the snow, stabbing down with cracked nails as her hackles and her hair rose. She arched against the stench, but refused to look back and continued her advance.
The smell of warmth strengthened and she slowed, listening now as much as smelling. Birds shuffled in the boughs overhead, their claws scratching against the bark and their heartbeats thundering in terror. She discarded those sounds and sniffed again; the smell had diminished. She crept back, listening, smelling and stopped. She heard them, there beneath the ice, a family of heartbeats, slow with hibernation but loud with number.
The girl attacked the snow, stabbing her fists in and ripping them clear with handfuls of snow. She dug, stomach tightening with hunger as the scent thickened. The last layer cleared with a rush of warmth, searing her frozen hands as she dove for the unearthed burrow.
A meaty, jiggling appendage smashed into her shoulder and the Dagar crouched over the burrow, its bulbous, doughy body a pinkish-yellow. The girl scrambled aside, hissing at the monstrosity as it braced itself on two fingerless, trunk-like appendages and stabbed two more–these skeletal and barbed–into the burrow. They emerged as a blur, each having impaled a thrashing rodent of some kind, and stuffed their prize into the Dagar’s chest, which split toothlessly open to accept them.
The girl turned away, burying the white-furred rodent into her shirt. Its deadweight bulged within the loose cloth as she rubbed it frantically against her midsection, masking its scent with her own and praying to her ancestors she had not rent its skin when she broke its neck.
The Dagar heaved itself upright, soundless but for the slapping cascade of its flesh. One of its thin, blade arms snapped out, directing the girl back along her tracks before folding in on itself and squeezing between the mounds of fat.
The girl scampered in front of the Dagar, shriveling herself inward and around her prize. The black tangle of her hair tumbled around her face, further exposing her hunched shoulders and completing the lie of docility. The Dagar staggered along behind her, its body devoid of heartbeat and rushing blood but putrid with the stench of rotting gore and tree sap.
The forest dwindled as they retraced the furrow of the Dagar’s path and eventually emerged onto the bank of a shallow lake. The girl crouched low on her hands and feet, sniffing the air and scouring the lake for sight of the other Dagar. She saw only the Decayed One where it dragged itself through the water on two long, many-jointed arms. It was tall, thin and rotting, its upper body wrapped in dangling, thread-like skin, and it’s lower body a grotesque knot of legs: human, insect and mammal. A rack of antlers ran from its stag-like head to the end of its body.
Easing from her crouch, the girl crept aside as the Fat One lumbered into the lake to join the Decayed One in fishing. The Dagar were always eating, always hungry, and when the land failed to satisfy their appetite, they ate from their flock: the humans.
The girl straightened fully, relinquishing her deception in accord with the Dagar’s disinterest, and padded along the bank. The other captives roused at her approach, peering out between the weaves of their cell. The Small One had woven it on the first night of her capture, binding elm branches with the barbed strands of rose bushes to fashion a sort of basket. Now, the ‘civilized’ humans huddled within, waiting to die and too cowed to do more than stare at the open ceiling.
Attaining the basket, she leapt deftly onto and scaled the enclosure, cautious to avoid the engorged cysts riddling it, for they were fragile, lethal when popped and the only font of warmth they possessed.
The girl paused at the top, her feet tangled in the weaves and a hand braced for balance. The humans gazed at her with a distant, hopeless curiosity as she crouched their and inhaled, dousing her senses in the odor of their offal, sweat and fear, inuring herself to them so they would not mask other more perilous or new scents. She also looked for the boy. He slept in a distant nook, shielded from the other humans by a young woman in a liveried dress. The woman resembled the rest with wan, colorless skin and incessant, frigid shivering. The boy differed. A subtle flush warmed his cheeks.
She crawled along the top, disdaining the pressed space below to reach her destination. The young woman watched her like everyone else, gradually straightening from her hunched posture as the girl neared until they looked directly at one another.
“What do you want, savage?” The woman’s voice snapped out, devoid of shudder or qualm.
The girl dropped down, sniffing the air and parsing out the faded scent of woman’s perfume in search of boy’s. She caught a whiff of it, the smell of his blood almost as strong as that of his sweat and tinged with something ashy.
“I asked what do you–”
“Wake him up.”
“Excuse me! I–”
“Wake him up or I will cut you.” A death sentence, for the Dagar could not resist the smell of blood.
A flash of loathing contorted the woman’s features. “If you touch a hair on his head…”
“You will do nothing. Wake him.”
Deprived of any alternative, the woman gently shook the boy. “Come on, dear, you must wake up.”
His eyes flicked open, briefly unfocused then fastening on the girl. He pushed himself to a seated position. “You’re the savage, the…Tahkar.” His avid eyes explored the length of her, devouring every detail.
She crept closer, inhaling his scent more deeply. “You’re warm.”
“Savage, you will address him as ‘my lord’!”
“The Blood of the World runs with the beat of your heart…” she scoured for the proper word, “…Mage-Born.”
The woman hissed, but the boy inclined forward excitedly. “How did you know?”
The Tahkar girl wordlessly retrieved the rodent from her shirt. “I will feed you, half of everything I find, if you help me.”
“You have food!”
The woman clapped a hand over his mouth. “Young master, please, we don’t want to attract their attention.” She reverted her attention to the girl. “We should share that with the others, we’re all hungry.”
“They get nothing. You get nothing.”
“And why is that?”
“I do not need them, I want him.” She extended the rodent toward the boy. “Half of everything I find.”
“I can do whatever I want with my half?”
“I am not feeding everyone.”
“Just Dyla then?”
“Until you need it more.”
“…All right, I agree.”
“Then follow me.” The Tahkar girl vaulted on the weaves, resuming her anterior perch.
The young woman, Dyla, caught her by the ankle. “Stop, you silly girl, where are you going?”
“Outside to eat, they will smell the blood unless we disguise the scent.”
“But we can’t leave! They’ll follow us.”
The Tahkar girl dropped to the other side. “Climb the wall if you want to eat.” Her focus shifted to the boy. “Climb the wall or I will drag you out.”
Dyla’s face flushed red and her lips contorted. “Do not speak to the young lord in that way!” She shoved the young boy behind her. “What do you intend to do with that? Where do you intend to cook it?”
The young boy’s eyes widened in sudden realization. “She means to bury it. In the snow to mask its scent.” He tugged on Dyla’s sleeve. “We can cook it there with my power!”
“Is that really your plan? To dig us a hole like we’re animals!”
“Yes. Now. Follow. Me.”
Dyla sagged. “Very well. Young master, please wait here while I make sure it’s safe.” She awkwardly began her ascent, her skirts snagging on the rose thorns and her breath hitching on stifled whimpers when they bit through her gloves. Nevertheless, she attained the summit and fell over the other side, landing in a puff of snow. The Dagar paid her no heed. She straightened, casting about for their reaction and nursing her hands.
“All right, young master, it seems safe enough.”
The boy scaled the basket with ease and vaulted over, his blood rushing with excitement. “Are we doing it here or moving away? And how do you plan on skinning it? We don’t have a knife.”
“We don’t need one.” The girl crossed to the forest’s edge and knelt to dig. The snow parted willingly after she broke the surface, but it still gnawed at her fingers, its bite seeping through to her bones and then crawling up her arms. The boy and his servant watched, her staring impassively and he shuffling his weight.
She dug a hole deep enough to crouch in and then excavated a secondary cavity in its side for the rodent, piling the snow above her. “Push it down,” she commanded, gesturing at the snow with her head while her quivering fingers stuffed the rodent into the aperture.
The boy scrambled around her and shoved the mounded snow over the edge, engulfing her arms and burying the entrance. “What’s next?”
“Just wait for me to finish.” Her fingers bent and slashed, opening the rodent from throat to tail. Blood, still lukewarm with the remnants of life, spilled over her fingers, but she ignored it, and excavated further into the creature, excising all that the civilized humans could not eat.
When she finished, the girl cleansed the partitioned meat in the snow and retracted her hands from the cavity. “It’s ready.”
“What are you going to do with that?” Dyla indicated the raw entrails.
“The Tahkar do not waste meat.” She bit into the entrails. “Can you cook it, or do you need fire?”
“I can cook it.” The boy dropped into the hole and shoved his hands into the cavity. He arched forward, muscles tensing as a breath of visible heat swelled off his form. His heartbeat slowed, but the scent of him and the pace of his blood increased.
As the boy labored, the Tahkar girl fastened her eyes on the Dagar in the lake, searching for a reaction. Her other senses she focused on the woods, hunting for signs of the other Dagar. None betrayed themselves and in time the boy stirred from his pose, glistening with sweat. He stood, retrieving the charred rodent from their makeshift oven and presenting it to the Tahkar girl. “It’s done.”
“Then eat it.”
“What about you?”
“I eat when you are done. For now, I watch.”
The boy remained hesitant but gradually relented and ate. He bit into the rodent, intentionally overcooked so it smelled more like char than meat, and ripped at the back half, tearing the meat with such force the bones cracked.
Starting at her quiet hiss, he compelled himself to cease with a visible effort and proceeded with greater restraint to measure out and consume his portion. Dyla accepted the rodent from him when he finished and daintily ate her portion, before passing the remnants to the Tahkar girl.
“Keep watch,” she growled and slipped into the pit, scrunching against the wall for maximum protection. Her companions adjusted their positions, Dyla to face the forest and the boy to observe the lake. Only then did the Tahkar girl eat. She pressed the rodent’s head into her mouth and bit down, crunching through it spine at the neck.
Dyla jolted about with a gasp. “What are you doing?”
The Tahkar girl ignored her and tore into the rodent again, muffling the cracking bones with a hand clasped to her mouth. She ate faster now, devouring the meat and proceeding to the bones they left, agitated by Dyla’s inattention.
The maid hastened closer. “Slow down, you’ll choke on the bones!”
She snarled at the woman and surged to her feet, slapping her hand aside. “Keep watch–” and the words wilted on her tongue. Her eyes scanned the vast absence behind Dyla to the towering forest where a path of rent and shattered trees lay in devastation. Her ears twitched and hunted, but heard only Dyla and the boy’s measured heartbeats and breathing. Her nose flared but caught only their sweat.
“What is it, girl?” Dyla demanded before twisting to follow Tahkar girl’s gaze. “There’s nothing there…” Just as the Tahkar’s, her words died.
Neither of them moved or spoke, waiting. A gush of moist heat washed over them from above, berating them with the truth that their senses lied. They could not see it, but they felt it’s breath and saw the enormous footprints it made: the fifth Dagar, the Big One.
The boy stood as well, his hands slipping behind his back. The Blood of the World that ran in his veins woke within him, answering his unvoiced fear. The Tahkar girl felt it burgeoning, at first involuntary then sprinting forward as he summoned it. Before she could warn him, the orange flames billowed from his fingertips and took root in his palm, burning with an unnatural, deep hue. The glow spread across his apparel, highlighting him as the air distorted.
Discarding all hope of avoiding the Dagar’s notice, she flung herself at the boy, tackling him with a grunt. They struck the ground and rolled, his flames snuffing out on the snow. An instant later, a shudder a voiceless shudder passed through the ground as a new footprint slammed into the snow where the boy had stood.
Scrambling to her feet, she heaved the boy up, half-throwing him toward the basket. “Go, hide among the others!”
“Go!” Without delaying for his response, she spun to the empty air and snarled, baring her teeth in challenge. Before the sound even finished escaping her lips, something immense brushed against her, flinging her to the ground as a new footprint appeared: It wanted the Blood of the World that flowed in the boy; against that her challenge meant nothing.
Then a high-pitched shriek rent the air and it stopped. Both it and the Tahkar girl turned to Dyla, who still screamed. Blood spilled down the maid’s hand, blooming from lacerations she had dealt herself. She screamed again, waving her bleeding arm overhead and spraying blood. The Dagar in the lake perked up and the Big One shifted to face Dyla, entranced by the scent of blood.
Dyla’s courage broke then, and she fled, fighting with her dress to reach the woods. She managed three steps before her arms clamped taught against her body and she rose, screaming. Up, Up she went, ten, twenty, thirty yards until, with a final shriek, she vanished.
The other Dagar arrived moments later, snuffling at the ground before pawing the air and yipping at something she couldn’t see. The Tahkar girl ignored them however, exploiting their inattention to diminish herself as she had when returning earlier.
The Dagar didn’t reason like sentient beings, they reacted on instinct and desire, yet still maintained an ambiguous purpose concerning the humans. They consumed their captives only when starvation compelled, or when a human contested their dominion by flight or confrontation. As such, the Tahkar girl cowered and mewled, prostrating herself in scent, sound and aspect until she reached the cage.
The Dagar, all thoughts of the boy erased by Dyla’s blood, resumed their gluttony. Recognizing their dismissal of her, the Tahkar girl eased her deception and dropped into the basket. The captives cringed from her, huddling together to distance themselves from her and the boy.
She approached where he sat against the wall and knelt. “Do not touch the Blood of the World in your veins while the Big One is near.”
He lowered his hands, exposing red, but tearless eyes, and swallowed. “Why?” The word came out malformed, distorted by the effort it took to speak while stifling his emotions.
“Think: Can you feel its footfalls land? Smell the rot on its breath? Hear the trees its passage breaks? The Dagar are unnatural, but that silence is not a result of its body. Just as you hold the Blood of the World, it holds the Blood of the Sky; like the Fae of the Unseen World use.”
“It has magic?”
“Can the other’s sense me when I use my power, the Blood of the World?”
“The Decayed and Fat One cannot. I do not know for the others.”
He released a shuddering breath. “We have to live, for her. Dyla sacrificed herself for me; I can’t let that go to waste.” He stood and faced the Tahkar. “I don’t even know your name?”
“Hello, Autra, my name is Balen.” He proffered his hand and she grudgingly accepted. “So, when do we escape?”
“Escape?” She cocked her head. “We’re not escaping, we’re hunting them.”