Savage: Part One, Chapter One

As a teenager, Sophia Andrews had had plenty of “worst days ever,” and each time, she was utterly convinced that nothing could make her retract her declaration. It was almost a given that she would say the phrase at least once a week, being the only daughter of a highly regarded mad scientist did that to her. Everything that seemed to go wrong around her took on a heightened degree of importance. If her tutors were even ten or twenty minutes late, it was a sign from the great Gods of the future that her father was not to keep fiddling with his time machines.

She considers it the cruelest kind of irony, then, that she’s now stranded in time.

She had thought her father’s sponsors were kidding. What kind of monsters, she had thought, would send a seventeen-year-old out into the seas of time with nothing but a hunk of metal to help keep the sharks away?

She was betrayed in an instant, her naïve ideals broken before her very eyes, and she found that it was with the lightest of sensations that she had been ripped away from her home, her time. One minute she was standing still, trembling and surrounded by big men with even bigger guns, and the next, she was here, feeling as light as a feather. Wherever here is, that is.

As far as she can see, there is only white. There’s nothing around her, no walls or doors, no living or non-living thing to assure her that she’s not actually just dead or in limbo. She’s just standing, or lying, there’s no real distinction for her to tell which it is. She simply is. Perhaps because she doesn’t know what’s happened to her or where she’s going, she’s painfully aware of the fact that there’s nothing she can do to get away, nothing to change the fact that she’s been sacrificed, condemned to share the same fate as her mother.

Her lungs spasm violently against her rib cage, forcing a cough to tear through her chest. A thick lump appears in her throat, unyielding to her attempt at swallowing it away. Reflexively, her arms coil around her stomach at the reminder of the woman who gave birth to her; the very same woman who died because of her.

Sophia had been six at the time, playing hide and seek, when the lights went out.

It started out just like any other day. Her mother was supposed to come into her father’s lab and look behind the pile of boxes Sophia was hiding behind. She was supposed to chase her, catch her, and praise her for being so good at hiding. Instead, the power turned off.

Much like the light that suddenly swept Sophia out to sea, the darkness had descended upon them like a curtain finally set loose of its bonds. There was a moment, a brief flicker of one really, where her six-year-old self had made eye contact with her mother. She was too young to understand, to even notice, really, that her mother was standing in the dead-center of the time machine’s platform. Her mom knew, though. She gave a soft, barely there smile when their gazes met, and that was that.

The generator kicked in. Her father’s project started humming, coming to life in seconds. Three magnetic rings lifted out of the ground. They created a thin barrier between their trapped victim and the rest of the world, a bright white light filling up the gaps between them. The blinding veil spread out between each ring, consuming what little space there was and creating a cylinder of pure light in the darkness – an effective wall that has since haunted Sophia’s every nightmare.

There was no screaming or tears or pain. Her mother was just there, somewhere behind the light show that was playing before her daughter’s eyes. The rings were spinning, whirling in place in a feverish, rhythm-less dance. The room was filled with the sound of a million fans gaining power, reaching their peak, and then gradually dying as the rings sank back into position on the floor, taking the curtain of electricity with them. The only difference when the lights came back on was that her mother was nowhere to be seen. And all Sophia knew back then was that her mom was gone and her father was saying she’d never come back.

She had always thought of death as something slow, drawn out. Something she could adjust to with time. That’s not how it was. It was a flash. A bang. A light turning on. And then, off. One second, a person’s alive. The next, they’re not. And everyone is calling them dead, but it doesn’t feel like they’re dead. It feels like playing peek-a-boo with the boo part suddenly yanked away.

The people around Sophia had called her the daughter of a hero, of a woman who would make the unthinkable sacrifice in order to further science’s progress. Her father had been sure to tell the world that it was on purpose. Most thought he meant that the couple had planned it. Sophia knew the truth. If her mother was the hero, then that made her the villain. And she lived with that for the eleven years following her mother’s passing.

Now that she’s finally seeing for herself where her mom had gone, she feels the beginnings of a smile come over her. This, she thinks, is exactly what Ma had seen. The empty space around her starts to blur, so she looks up towards her forehead, blinking hard to try and dry her eyes. There’s no time for tears. The time for them had come and gone while she’d been trying to reach a shred of humanity left in her father’s house.

With weak hands, she lifts the metal cube she’d been sent with and looks it over for the nth time. It doesn’t tell her where or when she’s travelling to, it just blinks its red light at her. There’s no sound. No voice trying to tell her what’s going on. It’s just a bunch of unlabeled knobs and buttons and switches, and that one central red blot. She looks away from it, tries to quell the red-hot boiling sensation churning in her stomach, but all she sees is the whiteness around her, the nothingness. Her chest constricts, pupils dilating, and then she’s screaming into the void, daring it to say something back. Her arm lifts, draws back as her throat is scratched raw. The hunk of useless metal sent flying.

The lights go out.

~ | ~ | ~

A basin – the people have always called their little world such – with tall, jagged edges in the form of unconquerable mountains for walls. Above, a covering of mottled beige clouds reign supreme, a reminder of why the Laws were put in place. Below, the land is divided by one long, tumultuous river that begins at the base of one mountain and snakes along the scarred, blackened earth where a vast forest once stood only to die at the base of another.

On either side of the great body of water, that charred soil is known as the land where soldiers go to fight for their kingdoms out of the way of civilian eyes, and, eventually, where they are all hoping to die. The place where most deaths occur is surrounded on either side by a thick layer of densely packed, prickly never-green trees. They grow tall and thick, in bunches and circles, patterns many a traveler have tried to master, but once a person enters the woods, it is one thing to have as good a map as you can and quite another to traverse the forest without ever having a drop of sunlight.

Beyond the woods, on both sides, are villages consisting of clusters of tiny clay huts, gathered in tight around one long, oval-shaped building, protected from the outside with tall, wooden fences. Both kingdoms have four gated groups beyond their capital’s walls, each specializing in one particular source of food. A tradition originally started when metal birds still flew in the sky and the entire world was within reach. The time before Earth was destroyed, before the sun went away and sealed them into the prison they call a basin.

The people living beneath the clouds do not see the symmetry of their world, cannot grasp how alike both territories are. They see only the Fenza Kingdom to the north and the Jinza Queendom to the south. They see that one celebrates the life-giving powers of men, and the other pays homage to the female’s ability to carry children. And where the Fens have a king who must never marry, the Jins have a queen who will never reproduce. They know that the stretch of burned land between the two territories is long and hard to get around and that the people opposite to them are not like they are. They look different and speak in odd ways, and that upsets the faint-hearted people of either side. Thus, the battle wages on, the citizens of either side demanding that blood be spilt, but that they never see a drop of it.

In this land marred by inescapable wars, a female Champion of the People has been ambushed.

Her encampment lies on the outskirts of the northern territory, Fenza, stashed away along the edge of the forest. She stands before the battle, observing her warriors with a placid, almost uninterested, expression. If she so chooses, she won’t have to engage in hand-to-hand combat this day. She is decorated with His Majesty’s favor, carrying all of his gifts on her person to broadcast how important a captain she is to her nation. The enemies will not dare to test her strength unless she enters the fight of her own will.

Upon her hips, she carries four different daggers, the shortest being twelve inches in length and the longest twenty-four. Each is from His Majesty’s personal collection. Upon her back, four swords. Two hilts hook over her bare shoulders – dyed red for the army she laid flat for her king – their blades curving down behind her arms and coming around to protrude out under her ribs. They’re the type to be clutched in her fists and then swoop backwards over her arms, descending far past her elbows. The other two swords are her preferred weapons in battle: twin scimitars. They cross over her back, creating a familiar x with their sheaths, the blades wickedly hooked just before the handle, creating a nice surprise for her enemies.

The only thing that sets His Majesty’s gifts visibly apart from all the other warriors before her is the gems embedded in their clear hilts, making them glint and shine no matter where they are or how little the lighting. The stones within her weapons are of incredible value, rare finds that can only come from His Majesty ordering the mining of the mountains, and are contained within a special binding element reserved only for the royal family. The red-hilted weapons, the ones that never fail to draw her the most attention, were crafted with some of the precious rocks that were given to the Fenza Kingdom during the times when the sun still washed over the land.

The captain, a woman by the name of Slédaun , catches the eye of a Jin among her men. She holds the contact as she pulls her scimitars free. They make a pleasing, ringing sound when she draws them across the metal lining at the end of their sheaths. The sound lingers in her ears, a familiar lullaby to her senses. On light steps, she descends from the lifted platform of her tent, entering the fray with a peaceful feeling in her chest. The Jin watches her carefully, his gaze dipping, taking in the amount of His Majesty’s belongings she has. This one, she knows, will not dare to underestimate her. Most men she’s ever fought saw only a woman on a battlefield full of men and missed the scattering of bodies at her feet. This man is not such a fool. He will offer her a good fight.

She pauses and watches as her nearest warriors spread out away from her, offering a more open pathway to her. Their aim is not to endanger her. They are honoring her prowess as a warrior, showcasing before their enemies that she has earned her right to lead them. Slédaun sets her feet and hefts the weight of her blade, a pleased warmth spreading down her arm and branching out through her stomach. For four days, she has missed the gentle dance of battle, has longed to clash with the enemy sooner or later.

It is with tangible glee, that she joins the Jin warrior in a dance to the death, matching his steps with hers and twirling within close range of his sword. He does not dual-wield like she. His attacks will cost him more in defense. She keeps that in mind, letting him strike at her, hack at the black plated armor traveling up the sides of her legs. The ringing of mountain-made armor on metal, draws her own blades down on reflex, taking a dip into the inner muscle of his forearm. His dancing falters, his steps falling out of sync with hers.

She takes over, steps closer and increases the pace, pressing him backwards, deeper into the pairs of dancers around them. Slédaun lets her weapons move freely, like extensions of her limbs as she pivots around him, tucks in close and pushes one arm straight out. Her blade slides in under his ribs, and she can’t fight the biting sting of disappointment at having ended his life so quickly. He jerks when she pulls back again, his body going stiff. Not wanting him to suffer on his way, she aims higher this time, going straight for the heart.

Slédaun pauses mid-thrust of her scimitar to look towards the sky overhead. For a moment, when the tip of her blade had pierced his skin, she thought she’d seen sunlight, golden and fair, shimmering at the edge of her vision. Her mother had told her of the ball of fire hidden away from them, had vividly painted in her mind a giant glowing warmth hanging above the trees. Expectantly, she watches the sky, her lips pinched together in concentration.

There, her eyes narrow, fixing on the sight of a white thread cutting through the thick covering of clouds and smoke above, cutting through the darkness. It is not sunlight though, the warrior recognizes that. This light is different, rigid and sharply lined and not glowing so much as flaring angrily against the absence of light. It carves a straight path through the dense mottled gray overhead, and hurtles towards…

Slédaun tracks its trajectory with her eyes, frowning when the tops of the trees cut off her view. It’s while she’s backtracking, searching for where the light has gone, that she notices something irregular: a flicker in the corner of her eye. Her interest piqued, she turns away completely from the battle overcoming her camp.

If today is her day to die, then it will happen whether she’s paying attention or not.

Sheathing her blades over her shoulders, she squints at the sky, knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that she’s going to see something. Her eyes strain against the darkness blanketing the basin, determined to view whatever it is that managed to catch her attention. Huffing, she raises her hand back to the handle of her sword, and is about to return to fighting off the ambush when she spots it. Further down than the first light she saw is a thicker strand traveling perpendicular to the ground. This new one is brighter at the end pointing towards the ground and tapers off at the other. This one, she knows, is going to land in the forest.

While she watches it fall, it dims, becomes less white and almost a pale yellow, barely visible even to Slédaun who prides herself on having great vision. It flickers in and out of her sight, sometimes giving into the dense fog that hovers just above the treetops, and other times repelling it. Until at last, at long last, it succumbs and vanishes from view.

Glancing back at her men valiantly driving away the Fens, the warrior looks towards the edge of camp, her gaze connecting with that of her observer the Council demanded she take along. He doesn’t try to hide the fact that he’s watching her, so she doesn’t try to hide her escape. She simply places her fist over her heart to send him her regards, and then walks away, heading into the bowels of the forest. His Majesty will forgive her. Especially, when she brings him the meteor.

Her mother had told her about things like this: burning drops of light that used to fall during the time the sun ruled the skies. Meteors, she called them, rocks that were pulled down to the ground.

Slédaun was not a stupid child. She did not think her mother to be useless like the other children. An unmarried female warrior is a smart one, whether they have children or not, at least they still have the right to battle. So, she listened, because her mother was smart, and her mother was strong, and those were all the things that Slédaun had wanted to be.

Yes, she muses to herself, His Majesty will forgive me. I will fetch him a gift from the sky.

~ | ~ | ~

When the world stops spinning, Sophia opens her eyes. At first, all she sees is a dark nothingness. She squints, rubs her eyes, and tries again. Fuzzily, she can just barely make out a tree-like object towering over her, but it looks burnt, completely black and lifeless. She tries to get up and take a closer look, but her limbs twinge sharply when she attempts to move. Reluctantly, she stays where she is, trying to be as still as possible to avoid causing the pain to get any worse.

Around her, there are only trees as far as her eyes can see, or at least that’s what she assumes are the source of the pitch-black shadows lurking behind the nearest ones that she can see. If she could turn her head, perhaps she would be able to make out the wilderness around her, the wild tangle of tree trunks and shrubs and pointy, prickly underbrush all woven together on the forest floor, creating almost a shield between her and the nasty little creatures hiding in the shadows.

Sophia’s never been afraid of the dark. She could sleep just fine without a night light when she was a child. But, as she’s coming to realize, being in her own bed and in the middle of a patch of black trees are two completely different things. Here, she can feel the fear unfurling within her like an eager poppy for the first drop of sunlight after a long, restless night. It is not a pleasant feeling, and she is not happy in the least to experience it. To her, it serves as an unnecessary reminder that, for the first time in her life, she’s not on her father’s compound and there isn’t the slightest chance that she’ll randomly stumble upon someone she recognizes.

The thought is enough to make her cringe, her very soul curdling at the idea of being so quickly and completely torn away from everything she’s ever known. Her fingers spread outward, thoughtlessly seeking out the solidity of the ground beneath her to steady the raging of her heart. It gallops within her chest, beating against her in waves of stampeding horses. That’s how her mother had always explained her irregular heartbeat to her. Tiny horses, she’d say, naysayers to your desires.

Sophia laughs, humorlessly, dryly.

She wiggles her fingers, testing the waters. When no pain interrupts the movement, she stretches them, points them as far out as they can go. Her hand is unusually stiff, but there isn’t the faintest pinprick of discomfort, so she rolls her wrist. Nothing. Pleased, she attempts to sit up, deciding that the pain from earlier must have been a residual effect of time travel. Almost as soon as she reaches the halfway point, approximately forty-five degrees off the ground, her lower back constricts on a muscle spasm. Crying out sharply, she drops back down, curling over onto her side in an effort to ease the strain.

“Ow, ow!” She mutters, one arm reaching back to rub soothing circles into her irritated back. With a last, almost accusatory throb, her body finally relaxes, and she’s forced to admit that perhaps she shouldn’t try to move around for a good while.

As if in mockery of her decision, the treetops shake violently and a massive dark cloud propels itself from their straggly branches and into the far off, brownish-gray distance. Birds, Sophia thinks bitterly. Being envious of a tiny brained organism is not something she’s used to, but then again, so is being curled up in the fetal position on the forest floor. Beggars can’t be choosers, but they certainly can be spiteful, she acknowledges as she listens on with a touch of glee as one bird gives a harsh, grating squawk of a noise followed shortly by an unusually satisfying thump.

She snickers to herself. That’ll teach them to mock me.

Her pleasant mood lasts for all of two more seconds before it dawns on her: birds don’t have a tendency to just drop out of the sky. As far as she knows, that hurts, and primitive animals are prone to avoid things that cause them pain. Why then, did that one give a death cry and then plummet to the ground? Sophia curses under her breath, and slowly, gradually uncoils her body. Her torso doesn’t protest this time. Instead, it’s her legs’ turn.

Her palm connects with her forehead as she falls limply upon her back, her thighs and calves feeling as unyielding and rigid as brick, tremors of tension rolling through her lower back. Somewhere out there is the source of that animal’s death, so, of course, it stands to reason that her ability to run far, far away is gone.

She lays in absolute stillness. The best defense she has without her legs is playing dead, something she did often as a child, but was always discovered to be alive when she had to breathe. Determined that she’ll actually manage to go without oxygen this time around, she digs her fingertips into the ground for strength and tries to still the increasingly rapid beating of her heart. She doesn’t have to wait long for her resolve to be tested.

Almost as soon as she stops moving, there’s a vibration travelling up her fingertips, followed by another. And another. The pacing of the vibrations is slow, spaced out evenly as if someone is tip-toeing around, trying to be as noiseless as possible. She feels it in her bones, it is here. Whatever took down that fast-moving bird has arrived to claim another head to mount on its wall. Sophia’s worst fears are solidified, when the tremors become near and strong enough to travel up her fingers and into her palm. The sound of dirt crunching under a delicate, slow step sounds nearby and she can’t help but think that the murderer must be right beside her now, some unfathomably dangerous weapon aimed for her throat.

The visitor creeps closer and closer until they come to a stop beside her, one foot settling in the gap between her arm and her side. Sophia tries not to squirm as she feels a light caress against her ribs and a puff of cool air skimming over her face. Unfortunately for her, her mouth is open, so she has the good fortune of tasting instead of smelling the metallic cloud of blood surrounding her curious observer.

If she should open her eyes, she would scream at the sight before her: the face of a painted native hovering so near to hers. She’d take one look at their pale, almost silver looking skin and the golden glow of their irises, and never stop screaming until her lungs gave out.  But her eyes remain closed, so all she can do is sit and wallow in her own thoughts. Her imagination quickly paints her guest as having crevice-filled, bloodied teeth and burned, rotting flesh, stray splatters of blood painting their flesh.

The thing sniffs her again, this time daring to poke at her cheeks and hair, and the young girl desperately tries to quiet the frantic, irregular drumming of her heart. It palpitates in her chest, banging against her ribs as if to shout to the heavens, “I’m here! I’m here!” Her lips dry.

A silent plea fills her head for her entire being to lie still and wait. It grows and grows until she fears it may burst free of her numb throat. Something thin and sharp touches down on her neck as if aware of the words struggling to break free from there. A knife intent on helping them along. There’s no doubt in her mind then that if they escape the exact opposite of what she wants will happen. She wails internally, wanting nothing more than to screech out her anxiety and curl up into a ball to await her fate.

In spite of her despondent thoughts, a pitiful whimper of a noise claws up from the depths of her stomach, refusing to abide by her demands. The thing above her jerks back. Instead of cutting her throat open as she’d expected, it backpedals a few steps and vanishes. And then there are no tremors, no vibrations — just a penetrating stillness in the earth and air.

Sophia can’t help the sigh of relief that leaves her. She sits up, clutching at her throat with one hand. She feels on the verge of collapsing with thankful tears when something rustles through the leaves above her. Her head whips up, sending a swarm of black fuzz before her vision. The world tilts precariously. She sways to the side, the hand at her throat lifting to clutch at her head, to try and balance the Earth once more.

Her vision clears just in time for her to see a blurred shadowy figure pass between the outline of bushes beyond her patch of land. She tenses, legs tucking up close beside her, more than prepared to throw caution into the wind and run for her life. It doesn’t matter to her what direction it’s in. So long as it’s far from where she is now, she doesn’t care.

A fierce hiss pierces the dusty brown air, silencing Sophia’s thoughts of escape and drawing her petrified attention. Her body trembles uncontrollably at the sight of a slender-faced human perched within the entanglement of tree branches. She would call them a person, but the more fitting word that comes to her mind is savage. In the glint of the little bit of light managing to sift through the thick storm clouds overhead, Sophia can just barely make out the sharpened canines peeking out of the thing’s glistening, ruby red lips. The hissing noise, she quickly notes, is coming from there.

“Oh God, I’m gonna die!” Sophia moans, tucking her legs tightly to her chest and lightly rocking herself back and forth. The motion is soothing, distracting from the harsh reality of the absolute whack job surveying her from above.

All at once the hiss shifts into a lilting hum. The leaves rustle agitatedly as the person within them leans forward, one hand extended to the thick, low-hanging branch below them. Sophia looks up again, and chokes on a sob. She can see more of the other person now, but the sight is not exactly comforting.

Above the lips, that are still wet from the bird they killed, is a small nose with thin, long slits for nostrils. Their eyes are almost rectangular in shape and narrow in height. The dim lighting doesn’t allow for a great view of them, but she can at least see the whites, something that although small, still brings her a bit of comfort. It’s human, one with oddly shaped features, but a human nonetheless.

She’s far more transfixed by the person’s skin than their face, though. It’s whiter than newly made paper yet verging on an almost unnaturally strong, luminescent silver color, as if it’s been bleached and bleached to the point of not even looking alive anymore. A thick, hollow diamond of red covers most of their face, coating the already bizarre colored skin in what Sophia can only hope is paint. Between their eyebrows is another diamond but smaller and filled in.

Something flutters and settles beside its head, but Sophia has to squint to see what it is. Resting on their shoulders, are thick, dark dreads with flashes of sleek, wide ribbons interwoven over their surface. The bands of hair are bigger than any that Sophia’s seen, looking about as round as three of her fingers compressed together.

It’s while she’s focused on the native’s unusual features that there’s a flash of silver. Her gaze catches on the most important aspect of the person before her: the wickedly curved blade in their hands.

The sword is practically double the length of their forearm and narrows down into a fine, deadly point at the end. The part that steals Sophia’s breath away though is the sharpened edge turned in her direction. It gleams with a fresh, wet coating of liquid, some gathered into a thick droplet on the deadly tip, on the verge of being pulled to the ground by gravity. It killed something. Breathing hard and unable to focus on anything other than the weapon, the girl almost misses the smooth, effortless glide of the person as it moves to the ground – almost.

It lingers between the tree and the forest floor, free hand on the low hanging branch and a foot extended towards the ground, as if intent on denying gravity and taking flight instead of landing. The moment can’t last forever. The hand releases its hold, and the savage to touches down, the action disturbingly noiseless. Head tilted and pale-yellow eyes appearing to flicker in the tree’s shadow, it remains where it is. The movement is beyond graceful and so far out of Sophia’s uncoordinated league that she feels a spark of admiration for the creature that could pull it off even as her throat closes up, a deep anxiety rolling through her stomach at the thing being that much closer.

She looks away from its face for relief, hoping to deny its existence altogether if she must, and notices something she really should’ve earlier: boobs. It’s a she, a very half-naked she. Her torso is crisscrossed with thick, vibrant strokes of the red paint. It creates one giant diamond that starts between her prominent breasts, fans out across her abdomen, and ends just as her skin tight pants begin. Around it are slightly thinner branches that disappear behind her back but reappear to curl upwards along the slight v shape at her hips. Much like her face, there’s a smaller diamond, this one covering her belly button.

Sophia’s eyes lift warily, pausing in stunned horror on little spikes of whitish-gray bone extending lethally from the unknown person’s elbows and shoulders. It’s a dangerous, incompletely dressed she. Its mouth opens and a stream of incomprehensible music emerges.

The words are light and upbeat, dancing through the listener’s ears to the most exotic, fast-paced rhythm the time traveler has ever heard. It’s a seamless blend of high and low pitches, as if two people are speaking together but with one voice. It’s like nothing I’ve ever heard, Sophia admits, drawing on old memories of her mother’s records only to come up short. There’s nothing she can compare it to.

Then the person stops and waits, its eyes fixed earnestly on the prone girl. A response then, the crazy knife-bearing native wants me to respond. Breathing in deeply, Sophia briefly considers the idea of trying to sing back to the woman, but quickly relinquishes the idea. She very strongly doubts that her unused vocal cords could produce anything even remotely similar to what she just heard. They’d snap trying.

Instead, she pulls herself upright, tries not to let her fear show, and says, “Hello.” It doesn’t come out quite as elegantly as whatever the woman had said and, in comparison, sounds more like a cross between a hiccup and a croak than an actual person’s voice.

~ | ~ | ~

Slédaun eyes the mutant before her, watching as it gives a pathetic little squeak and flops to the ground, eyelids drifting shut. If she were a better Fens, she would’ve tried to catch the poor little creature, but she is not such a person. She sheathes her dagger and purses her lips, a hiss bubbling up the back of her throat. She came here for a rock, and instead, she’s found some dying breed’s weak spawn. Will His Majesty accept such a gift? What use are small sky things of unknown origin?

Lips curling in distaste, the warrior looks towards the sky for an answer. Why send something so unnecessary? Puffing up her chest in indignation, she steps up to its sleeping form and nudges it once with her foot. It gives the same little wailing sound it made when she’d originally tested its throat for life and rolls over.

Once it’s lying flat before her, Slédaun takes a moment to look it over more carefully.

Before, she’d been convinced that she’d have to bury the dead intruder, and was taking its measures with her eyes, missing the opportunity to assess it as closely as it had her. But perhaps, on closer examination, it will reveal that it at least carries something of value. She crouches down beside it, reaching out with one exploratory hand, and hooks one finger in the creature’s poorly managed hair.

The warrior’s jaw almost unhinges at how soft and light the strands are. She pulls the pleasing locks up higher, and this time her mouth does open, her grip faltering and letting them fall. Before her is a golden-haired mutant. Her eyes drift to their chest, brows knitting at the appearance of swells in the flimsy covering there. A female mutant.

How fortunate. Slédaun almost smiles, assured that His Majesty will forgive her. The only thing left to do now is sneak her in past the man observing the camp. If he sees the girl, he’ll definitely try to lay claim to the warrior’s find. Thankfully, he judged the woman as an easy target due to her sex, so there won’t be an extra sets of eyes that she has to avoid. The task before her is an easy one. She’ll wait until the sky reaches its darkest and then carefully return to her men. Of course, she’ll have to find an extra mat somewhere and store her in the tent of blessings set beside the captain’s. Her soldiers are loyal, so she feels secure in the fact that none will touch something she’s so obviously trying to keep to herself.

Satisfied with her strategy, the warrior scoops up her prize, tossing it over one shoulder and draping one hand over its—

At the touch of bare skin on her palm, she drops it.

Heart racing in her throat, Slédaun eyes the brazen little creature before her, watching it make more noises under its breath and roll over away from her. Quickly dusting her hands off on the sides of her hips, the warrior avoids looking at the female’s bare legs. It’s valuable, she reminds herself, so I can’t abandon it for being inappropriately dressed. Just pick it up. Pretend it’s a child. A dumb, germ-infested child.

Gaze lifting to the clouds overhead, she counts slowly under her breath, bracing herself for the degrading act of touching an unconscious female’s legs, and hesitantly reaches for it once again. Sighing deeply at what she does to keep His Majesty happy, Slédaun hefts the dirty, disgusting thing over her shoulder and draws her dagger with her free hand. This time around, there will be no avoiding the forest dwellers by taking to the trees.

How wonderful indeed, she thinks sarcastically.

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