C2 Chapter 2
Running the forest was an exciting experience. And in wolf form it was even more exhilarating...when one was not weak with hunger and lack of sleep. For Adda, it was like pushing too hard against an unmovable stone. Her muscles ached and her body begged her to slow down, or maybe collapse into an unmoving pile of fur and bones.
Roots entwined with thorny brambles and fat-leaved shrubs slowed her progress and created obstacles for tripping over. Already, she had slowed from her mad dash to the constant, ground eating trot the wolf form was known for. She wanted to make it to the base of the mountains by daybreak. That should put enough distance between herself and that cabin to rest for a few hours. Convincing her muscles of it, though, wasn't going too well for her.
A chorus of insects chirruped alongside the path, interspersed with a pop-popping that echoed through the night air from higher in the trees. Wings fluttered above her, the flight path of some very large moth, or perhaps a bat out seeking its dinner. The noises gathered in the distance until it was an underlying hum.
It was driving her insane. How she missed the calmer nights of the Onyx Aerie. In the forest, there was so much noise. How could she pick what was important from the cacophony? Because there was something within it, she was sure, that contributed to that feeling that she was being hunted.
A crash of branches to her rear had her swirling, certain that death had come to meet her head on. Hooting and little screeches followed the sound and the silhouette of a furry creature climbed back into the branches. A monkey, by the stench it left, slipping...or falling...to the ground amidst the jeering of its troop.
Adda heaved a sigh and turned back to the narrow game trail she followed. It would be faster to return to the mountains via the Quatori's canyon, but so long as she lived, she would never draw near that place again. Instead, she aimed for Breakfoot Path, a common enough passage to the north. Even human traders sometimes wandered through it, if they were brave...and slightly suicidal, but only when they found rogue Shifters to hire as guides. And the use of Rogues was another indication that, as a race, humans were not the smartest bunch. As stupid, no doubt, as to travel for any long distance through the forest, especially at night.
Yet, here she was.
Strangely, the voice, Nex, had remained silent since her escape. She spent the time she wasn't tripping over vegetation trying to determine if that meant he approved of her course of action, and what it meant for her if he did.
The ground before her rose up a steep incline, and then dove down into a gulley. The night was dark with partial cloud cover, but she could see the reflection of the sky at the bottom. Her trail had led her, as all game trails did eventually, to a water source. The trees here were more widely spaced, the firm composition of the soil giving way to a softer mud that squished up between the toes of her paws. Her tracks going to the water would be highly visible. She tried to decide if that was a problem or not. It still felt, in the most paranoid part of her mind, as though she was being pursued. Maybe she could swim the little lake and come out somewhere unexpected. That would delay anyone from behind. Not for long, but it should cause confusion.
Before she could make it to the water, a shadow slithered out from the trees to her left. It lurched toward the path, but not, thank the Six, toward her. The way it staggered and oozed itself forward left no doubt what was hiding in the shadows.
A cowering form, and small, even for a Shifter. Six, it was probably no more than a child when it had been turned. A shock of blond hair stood out on its head, but that, and the way one arm dangled, held to the body by a mere scrap of flesh, were the only features she had time to note.
Adda crouched as low to the ground as she could, heart climbing her throat, slinking away from the trail and anywhere that thing might notice her. Memories of fear made it hard to breathe, and she knew she was close to panicking. She had to stay hidden, but she wanted to be downwind, as well. She knew from experience that they could smell as well as a Shifter in their possessed bodies.
'You worry for no reason. It will not dare to harm you, not while I am with you. In fact, it has been aware of your presence for some time now.'
Great. Of all the times for the voice to return.
'If you say so.'
Maybe if she stopped acknowledging it, the voice would simply go away. She watched from the little furrow she found behind a root, as the creature snuffled at the air. What did it want?
'To serve me, I imagine.' The voice sounded smug.
Nex obviously didn't get the hint that he wasn't wanted.
'You could command it away. Tell it to be gone and it will obey.'
Listening to him seemed like a bad idea, so Adda remained where she was. Half crouched in the swamp, with moisture leaking through the fur on her belly and mud caking her paws.
She was not dead. Whatever was following her hadn't caught up. Unless it was the creature that was following her. She bared a tooth. Fine, the creature hadn't caught her. And, well, that was about all the positives she could think of. She decided, though, that the part where she wasn't dead yet counted for a lot.
She worked down the panic. She could be stealthy. If she moved slowly, she would easily sneak away from the creature, leave it sniffing about the bushes. She hadn't witnessed them in the open, only in the cavern where she had been held, but it seemed to her that their speed gave out after a short burst and that they were not equipped for long dashes. If she had a good enough head start, she would out pace it for sure. Of course, the underbrush would make it a tad more difficult, the beast was blocking the trail she had been using. But if it hindered her, it should hinder the creature, as well. So long as she didn't make a sound within its striking range.
A loud snap had Adda bewildered. She hadn't moved yet. Her mind whirred for a moment before processing that it hadn't come from her, at all, but the trees next to her. More monkeys?
'Those you might be in danger from.'
Monkeys? He wasn't serious was he? Was there some kind of inherent weakness to primates once one was possessed?
But it wasn't monkeys that jumped from the branches of the trees. Dark clad Shifters leapt down, joining those that were popping forth from the undergrowth. Men, to be exact, lean and fit looking, their faces hard with determination. They did not speak, likely to keep the creature from tracking them, but it intimidated Adda, as well. Alarm grew with each new presence that emerged. They carried a variety of weapons, the hilts and uncovered blades gleaming in the moonlight, and several had longbows, as well, complete with quivers stuffed full of black fletched arrows.
They moved with the grace of those well experienced with fighting in a pack. Thankfully, although a few looked Adda's direction, they paid her little attention, advancing toward the creature, surrounding it. The possessed Shifter had heard the snapping, as well. It stood, as straight as its mangled form would allow, and snuffed at the air, swaying slightly.
Had these warriors followed her? Or had she happened upon them? She was highly concerned that she had not scented another Shifter since she left the cabin, yet here they were, within a stone's throw...or an arrow's strike...if they were so inclined. They were downwind. Had she been so distracted with her situation? That could have been a dangerous mistake.
'It was a dangerous mistake. You should run, while they are distracted with the youngling.'
Adda crouched lower. Run? She did not see why. Though their presence, and the fact that she had missed it, was alarming, surely it would be better to linger with others of her kind until daybreak?
The creature most definitely sensed danger as the group approached. It hunkered in one spot, but did not appear alarmed. If Adda could judge a face without lips or eyes, and...how charming, this one was missing most of its gums, as well...she would have to say that the beast was grinning.
Until an arrow slammed into its chest, followed quickly by two more. Furious shrieks filled the night, silencing the forest noises Adda had wished away earlier. She found herself rapidly changing her mind, forest noises were much better than this. It thrashed its arms around blindly, teeth bared and elongated with the beginnings of change. The Shifter warriors did not flinch. They might not have loosed the arrows, but they had expected it.
Adda, however, had not. She whipped her head around, trying to track the arrow's flight.
“Finish it,” a sharp, feminine voice barked.
Her stomach dropped. She recognized that voice.
The woman stood, shrouded by long slender spires of leaves, her bow still held out before her, a new arrow knocked. She had silver hair that was bound tightly from her face, adding to the pinched, angry expression. Her lips pressed into a firm, determined line.
Adda swallowed. Maybe it was time to leave.
The warriors leapt into action, dodging inward at the beast with a variety of smooth attacks reminiscent of a graceful and carefully planned dance. A twisting of forms striking and retreating so rapidly, simple eyesight could not follow.
A screech rattled from the creature’s chest, it swung its head from side to side, snapping its jaws, but not making contact. Enraged with the attacks, it lurched toward the closest warrior, hands extended. Its fingers curled like claws, some of them so ruined that the flesh hung uselessly, exposing the bone beneath.
Adda flinched and stepped back, her paws trembling. Shots of electric energy vibrated through her, adrenaline. The warriors seemed to know enough to stay out of reach, which would suggest this wasn't their first encounter with the possessed. Yet they should know that arrows and blades were useless. The woman, she knew with certainty, had dealt with possessions before...the same way she had dealt with Harvok.
'So what are you still doing here?'
Good question. Except she hadn't determined an option that would leave her safe. All evidence pointed to the fact that the woman wanted to kill her, but then this pack just saved her from the creature. Adda struggled to file the two conflicting actions into a plan for herself that made sense. Were they friend or enemy?
'Enemy. And they didn't save you. You weren't in any danger. I told you that.'
'Of course, since you have my best interest in mind I will trust that you are telling the truth,' she thought.
The voice had no trouble reading her sarcasm. 'I have my own best interest in mind.'
'Exactly.' Besides, even if Adda wanted to run, the woman had proven she could find her. She was exhausted, she wouldn't keep ahead of a hunt again. Reason might get her farther. The woman couldn't know she was possessed...she didn't have any of the signs.
'Yet. And I don't think that reason matters to this one.'
One of the warriors jumped forward, knees bent, and delivered a kick to the creature’s chest. How he managed to do so without disturbing the arrow shafts there, Adda couldn't make out. The kick launched him away from the creature, while simultaneously laying the beast on its back. Instantly, two Shifters were on top of the beast, using the arrows to pin it to the ground. A third made quick work of the neck, dislodging the head, with some effort, from the body. Shadows swirled violently, the Quatori in a full panic. An unmistakable bitter scent reached her nostrils, the Quatori's scent. The warriors must have freed it from the mortal body.
She expected it to lash out, to hunt those surrounding it, especially since there was no Dragon to harm it, but instead, the scent dissipated slowly, as if the Quatori fled.
'It is young, it was unprepared to lose its host. It flees to protect itself.'
'So even once the possessed are defeated, the Quatori remain?' Dark times, indeed.
The feminine voice startled her from her thoughts.
“This would have been easier if you hadn't run.”