a blogfic by Darkwing!
I clung to the tree as if clinging for my life. I was, in a sense.
My fingernails dug into the rough bark, hard enough for one to break. Hissing quietly, I wiped the thin trickle of blood from my finger onto my jacket, smearing the gray fabric with crimson. I peered down through the feeble wooden limbs to observe the battleground. I couldn’t see much other than a few bloodstains on the snow-covered ground and one or two dead bodies near the tree I was hiding in.
A tall girl with a quiver of arrows dangling from her back and clenching a bow in her hand crouched over one of the corpses, struggling to lift it up. Another stood behind her, shivering irrepressibly from the biting cold, and I presumed that she was going to help her teammate out in carrying the body; however, the girl with the bow and arrows whispered something to the other and the latter nodded and dashed away with a slight limp, an expression of horror printed on her face.
I climbed up farther away from the trunk of the tree I was sitting in, the limb flexing ominously. Twisting my head around and causing blood to ooze from a wound on the back of my neck, I suspended myself between two branches, letting myself hang there as I looked around for any other remaining Dawndwellers. I hoped desperately that nobody would see me sprawled in the bare, leafless tree.
A shudder racked my body as I caught sight of another carcass in my peripheral vision. There was a deep stab wound in the victim’s side, along with several other injuries that could have caused her death, and nobody appeared to claim it. My breathing stilled sharply as I examined her face, partially expecting to recognize the girl.
I let out the shaky breath I had been holding and shifted around in my position in the tree. She was nobody I knew from my side. Watching her for a moment longer to see if anyone was coming to collect her body, I balanced on the limbs without using my left arm and held it against a rip in the flesh of my other arm, staunching the blood as best I could. After a few seconds and I still didn’t see anyone, I turned so I could see where the other two Dawndwellers I had seen currently were.
The one with the bow and arrow was now slowly heading into the forest, making an effort to keep hold of her lifeless teammate. A third, whom I hadn’t noticed before, followed her silently, glancing all around them to make sure none of my side were still lurking around, waiting for the right time to pounce.
That was basically what I was doing: trying not to get killed by any Dawndwellers still lying in wait. I untangled myself from the branches and crawled backward on the thicker one, squashing myself against the trunk, several of the wounds on my limbs reopening from the movement and commencing to bleed.
A frigid wind blew past, sending another tremor down my spine and inducing the tree to shiver as if it were chilly as well. It howled in my ear, as loud as the shrieks of pain or terror ringing out in the air during the gruesome battle that had ended only minutes ago. Snow began to fall again, turning the world white, covering up the blood splashed on the ground like it didn’t want it to be seen. I squinted my eyes against the stinging snowflakes and, as the snow continued to obscure my vision, I unzipped my jacket halfway and ducked my head into it.
Several minutes had gone by before the wind died down, and, as I drew my head out of my jacket, I decided that I should be able to get out of the tree and back to the Dark side’s base without getting injured or killed on the way, so I zipped my jacket back up and gingerly slid down the trunk. I landed on my feet, though stumbling a bit, and immediately jerked my head up to survey the forest around me for any sign of the Dawndwellers. Negative.
I slipped my sword out of its sheath, just in case one of them appeared nearby, poised and ready to kill me. As I ran soundlessly into the Darkhunter territory, I felt an icy breeze blow past, sending another chill through me, and I began to shiver nonstop. Clenching my teeth so they wouldn’t chatter, I slowed down to a fast walk and slunk as quickly and quietly as I possibly could through the forest. Once I figured I was close enough to the base, I stopped and backed up against a different tree, trembling from the cold, my sword pointed at the ground.
I jumped as I heard a crack close by, the distinct sound of a twig being stepped on and snapped. I whirled around, my heart thumping hard. My hand flipped my sword upward and I clenched it with the other as well, ignoring the pain that ignited in my injuries as I moved.
A Dawndweller, wearing all black and holding a sword not unlike my own, was standing only a few feet from me. I recognized her as one of the double agents that I wished would stop pretending to be on both sides; standing taller than I already was, I grimaced in what I hoped looked like rage, bracing myself for a kill.
Foreboding and dread shadowed the girl’s green gaze as she tilted her head up to look at me, blood staining my sword and numerous wounds. “I’mーI’m on your sideーI’m just heading over to the base,” the girl stammered, her eyebrows twitching as if she were confused at why I was acting hostile towards her, backing away from me as I paced closer, her leg appearing to bleed more than her other injuries and staining the snow blood-red. I raised my sword, completely prepared to ignore her and impale her through the heart.
She stumbled backward and lost her footing, her back thumping into a tree. The girl cringed and held up her hands to shield her face as I pointed my sword at her. After a few satisfying moments of watching her brace herself for a blow, I gripped her shoulder in my hand and threw her to the ground. “Leave now,” I snarled, towering over her, “or I will kill you.”
The girl lay there half a second longer, then scrambled to her feet, whispering what sounded like “I’m on your side” again, and turned and sprinted away, leaving a trail of blood in her wake. I glared after her, partly wishing I had just killed her.
“You! Get over here!” growled someone from behind me. I gave a start and jerked around, lifting my sword. With a surge of anger, I identified the leader of the Dark side: Blue.
“What do you want?” I shot at her, storming past her. Blue caught up with me, only to stop me in my tracks. Glowering at me furiously, she snapped, “Get back to the camp! We’re getting ready for the next battle.” She let out a huff of irritation, blood dripping down her face from a thin cut. “And don’t murder Darkie, she’s on our side. Unless she betrays us to the Dawndwellers, killing her would not be ideal. So don’t.”
I said nothing in reply; I enjoyed coming up with battle plans. That is, unless Blueーor someone elseーhad to criticize me about everything I suggested. My fists clenched at the thought of the double agents again; their loyalties were completely uncertain and I knew for a fact they couldn’t be fully trusted. Rage curdled in my gut.
Instead of following her, I veered to the left and stalked away, heading for the edge of the Darkness territory. As much as I wanted to help make the battle plans, I wanted nothing to do with Blue or the two double agents back at the base.
Looking around at the wintery forest, I walked slowly toward my destination. I felt another cold wind blow past, seeming as if it were reminding me to be cold. I refused to acknowledge it, forcing myself to keep still and stop shivering.
I glanced up as I caught the sound of footsteps on the snow. My eyes widened and my heartbeat increased rapidly when I realized I had no idea where the person could be, but I made sure my expression didn’t show any fear. I tilted my head back, looking in the trees, but snapped it back down and blushed slightly when I remembered that someone wouldn’t be walking around on the treetops like they would on the ground. As I stared in every direction and at every hiding place I would think possible, I began to think that I had just imagined it and was being overly cautious.
Shaking my head and muttering to myself, I began to turn away, but froze when an obvious crunching sound of shoes on snow sounded about twice and a figure appeared from behind a tree. I let out a snarl and raced toward her, brandishing my sword. The other girlーthat third Dawndweller who had followed the one holding her teammate’s carcassーslid an arrow against her bowstring.
I had originally planned on ripping her open with my sword before she could release the arrow but quickly came to realize that I was too late as she pulled the string back, the arrow set in place. I tried to get myself to run as I heard the faint twang of a bowstring being plucked, followed by the sound of the arrow flying through the air, but I was frozen in place and my legs refused to move.
I wasn’t fast enough to recover.
I shrieked as the sharp tip drove deep into my stomach, blood spurting out and splashing to the ground. My legs threatened to buckle beneath me but I kept standing, enduring the agony that shot through me from my gut. I knew I was going to die; it wasn’t very hard to figure it out with an arrow embedded deep in my stomach, blood relentlessly pouring out, but like I always did when I got badly injured in battle, I felt the need to get her back.
Letting out a weak groan, I ripped the arrow out of my body and let myself slump to the ground, hoping through the thick haze of pain that the girl would come closer to finish me off. Faint relief flashed inside me when she indeed took a few more steps toward me and nocked another arrow to shoot at me. With more effort than I thought it would take, I pushed myself back onto my feet, staggering again and nearly collapsing back to the ground.
I swung my sword at her, but didn’t hit my target. She jumped back and fumbled with the arrow before slinging it at me and landing it only an inch or two away from the other wound she had caused. Howling in pain, my grip on the sword slackened as I tore the other arrow out of my gut, but I somehow managed to continue holding onto it.
I whipped the weapon back at her with more force than I probably needed; the blade sliced off a bit of skin from her thumb and forefinger, smearing the shiny metal with blood. Twisting my wrist around, the sword severed the bowstring cleanly in half and cut deep into the wood, only just missing her other hand. The girl hissed from the pain, then noticed what I had done to her bow and flinched, keeping as far a distance from me as she could.
Weakly, I let my sword drop to the ground and crumpled down next to it, blood gushing from my fatal wounds onto the metal. The pain came in intense waves, and I wished that I didn’t have to die so slowly as all the blood inside me drained out, drop by drop. Through clouded, blurry eyes, I stared quietly at the surrounding trees. Each breath sounded shuddery and raspy and my chest heaved as I fought to get air into my lungs. I tasted blood in my mouth and let it open slightly, the metallic liquid dripping from my lip and melting into the snow.
Quick, hurried footsteps in the snow. “What the─what are you─” growled a familiar voice from nearby.
I wasn’t even sure if I had heard her right, as my hearing was going in and out as well as my vision. The Dark side leader watched me coldly with her blue-gray eyes, watching me bleed out onto the snow, gasping for air.
“Leave me alone,” I muttered as Blue clenched her jaw.
And then she left.
Just like that.
“Leave now, or I will kill you.”
The Darkhunter’s ominous voice echoed in my head. I clung harder to the trunk of the tree, feeling anger swamp over me. Why had I acted like such a coward? And why was she so aggressive?
Shifting my weight on the branch on which I was sitting, I felt my confusion continue to increase when I thought more about it. I was a double agent─I was on her side. Of course, it’s always possible that she just hates me. I turned my head down to face the ground and watched my blood drip from my leg, descending quickly and soaking into the snow far below.
Something made the tree sway. I narrowed my eyes and glanced upward.
A pile of snow fell on my head.
I shrieked and lost my balance, falling backward from the branch. I managed to grab hold of it before I hit the ground and snapped my neck. Shaking snow out of my hair and pulling myself up on the limb so I was lying on my stomach and holding on with my elbows, I looked back up.
“Wavey!” I groaned, then broke into a fit of laughter.
A girl with purple-tipped dark blonde hair dropped onto the branch I was holding onto, shaking it slightly and causing one of my arms to slip. I squeaked as I dangled several yards above the ground, hanging uncomfortably on the bough by one arm. As she resituated herself in a more relaxed position, I realized that I would have dropped if I hadn’t been holding on with my other hand, and faint relief went through me that I had.
“Hey,” she murmured, turning her head to look at me, her long hair catching on the hilt of one of the swords hanging on her back. “Did you get hurt very bad in the battle?”
“Not all that badly,” I replied in a strained voice, moving my other arm back onto the branch. I stole a glance at my leg. “Mostly just a hit there.”
I dangled from the branch and Wavey perched on top of it for a few more minutes, saying nothing. Swaying back and forth in the air, enjoying the feeling in my stomach it gave me, I pondered about the Darkhunter, her menacing voice haunting my mind. I hated acting like the underdog, even if it were for survival. The other girl took hold of one of my arms, jolting me out of my thoughts, and dragged me back up.
“Who died?” I asked once I was no longer hanging from the tree by my elbows.
There was a silence. When I glanced at her, she met my stare, misery and pain and fright clouding her eyes. “Three.”
A pang of grief caused me to rip my green gaze away from hers. Three more Dawndwellers killed, while the Darkhunters had only lost one. My breath caught in my throat at the thought; I could very well know who the slain Darkhunter was. Gritting my teeth hard, I pulled my sword out of its sheath and swung it through the air, propelled by a sudden anger.
Wavey clutched the branch with her hands and flinched away as the blade flew past her and cut into the trunk. I tore it back out and held it, just held it. I gripped it hard and stared down at it, my gut churning with a mix of anger and hatred. It was both our fault and theirs that four of my teammates─counting the Darkhunter─had been murdered.
Without another word, I slid down the trunk. I drew my sword through the snow behind me, stalking deeper into the darkness of the forest. Trees loomed up around me, creating shadows that loomed all around in the pale light of dawn. Glancing around behind me, I saw a long, twisting line snaking through the snow, growing longer and longer as I walked on. I turned my head back around and saw a large tree that split into two toward the bottom and with elongated branches distorted in the light hazy fog that settled upon the forest. Resting in the crook where it split was a huge treehouse. The Dawn base.
I climbed quickly up the trunk and threw myself through the small doorway, landing on my side. I stood up as quickly as possible and headed toward the ladder in the back. In my haste, I ran into someone and fell into the wall, dragging her with me.
“Darkie!” my friend laughed. “Watch where you’re going!”
I couldn’t stay angry when my friend Rosie was around. I gave a hollow laugh, still stirred up by the previous attack, and brushed myself off.
“Where are you going?” she asked, standing up as well. “And why is your sword unsheathed?”
“Later,” I muttered, walking back to the ladder and climbing up. Rosie followed me.
On the top floor of the Dawn base were the majority of the bunks; only a couple lined the walls of the bottom floor. A sharp pang shot through my gut as a bitter thought struck me. There wasn’t exactly any need to keep the bottom floor bunks anymore. All but a mere third of them remained painfully empty and had for days, weeks. Months. Years. Nobody had the heart to take the dead kids’ bunks.
I nearly tripped over Wavey’s cat, Melodie, as I walked toward mine. She mrrowed at me in surprise and padded away, her dappled black tail flicking. I stifled a sneeze with a hand, wrinkling my nose at the scent of dried blood on my skin, and began to shove my sword into its sheath.
My sword had barely touched the scabbard when a scream split the frigid winter air.
I let out a shriek of dread and shoved someone aside as I threw myself down the ladder. Someone else pulled me back up to my feet. When I turned to look, I saw that it was one of my other friends. Luna. Luna, wearing her signature unicorn onesie. Had the situation been different, I would have laughed, like I always did. However, her face stayed completely serious. I turned away and
I followed the Dawn leader─Icy─out of the base and jumped out. I somehow landed on my feet. Wavey dropped onto the ground from the tree next to me and did a barrel roll before getting back to her feet, raising her swords and running forward.
“Attackers, forward! Defenders, stay back! Everyone else, follow suit!” Icy howled, leading the attack.
It was the Duskhowlers. The two sides clashed together, blood flying. Someone already fell to the ground, dead. Panic clutched at my stomach.
A Duskhowler nearby held a sword like mine and was sneaking up around me. Her dark russet-colored hair was thrown about in the wind, as was my own. I raised my sword and circled her. Our eyes met; hers were a shade of hazel and were fogged with cunning and fury. Tugging the hood of my hoodie over my head, I watched her carefully as she feigned a leap to the right and lashed the air to the left of me with her blade, deliberately missing me, doing nothing more than trying to scare me.
She swung her sword at me and I ducked, taking a swipe at her leg while she regained her balance. I hit it and spattered blood on the snow, earning myself a satisfying shriek, but the blow had snatched the last of my stability. My feet slipped out from under me and I fell to the ground, lying on my back, helpless and utterly vulnerable. For a dark moment, I saw the glint of my attacker’s sword as she raised it, about to rip it through me, tearing me into two.
I rolled out of the way just in time. The sword sliced into the ground, but the Duskhowler quickly slashed back at me. I felt an explosion of pain and I let out a howl as the sword tore into my side, blood spilling from the wound. Cringing at the agony it caused, I got back up on my feet, shaking, and stabbed my weapon into her arm. The Duskhowler let out a yelp, then ripped it out of her arm and shook my hand loose.
She threw it aside and advanced on me.
No. I can’t die now.
I crouched down and backed up, the snow getting in the backs of my shoes and melting on my heels. The Duskhowler took a swing at me and caught me in the shoulder. I gasped in pain and fell onto my back, my hood slipping from my head, but I managed to get back up quickly and dart away. I looked around for my sword.
It was when I realized that there was a Duskhowler holding a flamethrower aimed at me that I saw my sword on the ground. I could die either way.
A burst of heat flew overhead as I dived for the sword. Blood splashed around my ankle as the Duskhowler behind me ripped it open, and I let out a shriek at the astonishing pain. I landed on the sword instead of next to it, but I found the handle underneath me and jerked my wrist around, tugging out from under me, ripping my black hoodie in the process. Whirling around, I stabbed it into someone’s leg.
The screech of pain from behind me told me that I had hit my first attacker. A faint smirk spread across my face.
I ducked as the flamethrower wielder shot another blast of flame at me. Pain ripped through my arm and an ear-piercing screech split the air; the Duskhowler had cut me again, her sword deeply embedded in my flesh. I realized that my own jaws were parted and that I had screamed, my agony-charged voice echoing throughout the forest. Wrenching the blade out of my arm, I whimpered audibly and my legs buckled beneath me again.
“Get away from me!” I shrieked, dodging the Duskhowler’s sword as she advanced on me. It stabbed into the ground just inches away from me, right where I had been milliseconds ago.
“This is a war!” the Duskhowler yelled back. “I’m not backing down!”
Gripping the helve of my sword hard in my hand, I pushed myself back to my feet, blood gushing from my ankle and various other injuries. While I was not completely steady on my feet, the girl shoved me back to the ground and I was knocked breathless as her weight pinned me down. Her elbow was lodged uncomfortably between two of my ribs, her knee digging into my gut. Squirming fiercely beneath her, attempting to get away, I gasped as the tip of her sword poked me hard in the neck.
“Make another move and I kill you,” she growled, digging the point in deeper. I felt blood drip down my neck.
I just lay there, panting, when I saw someone in a black hoodie─Wavey─leap toward me. The weight was shoved off me; blood splattered my cheek.
When I turned to look, the Duskhowler was holding onto Wavey, crushing her arms against her sides and wounding her while she was incapable of moving at all. Finally the Dawndweller broke free of her grasp with a screech and pounced, cat-like, onto the other girl. The two wrestled for the top, their swords clashing against each other and causing ear-piercing screeching sounds to echo in my head.
Shaking still, I twisted my head around toward where the flamethrower wielder had been standing, but she was gone. In her place was a tall, broad-shouldered girl, holding a bow, pressing the nock of an arrow against the string and pulling it back, aiming it at my heart.
No… oh, no… It was the Dusk leader, Wistep, notorious for her skills with a bow.
I yelped and ducked away as she released the arrow, but it luckily only hit me in the arm instead of any rather important organs. Tearing it out of my flesh, I winced, taking hold of it in sweaty hands and snapping it in half.
I swung my sword around, hoping to possibly wound her, but she was too quick. The blade cut through the freezing air, completely failing to make contact with her in the slightest. I ducked another arrow, whirling around in that one free moment before she set up another arrow to stab her through the shoulder. She shrieked in pain and fell back, but managed to recover fast enough to dodge my next blow.
I took another arrow, this time to my own shoulder. I hissed, a throbbing pain beginning to spread around the spot, and grasped it, about to rip it out. The Duskhowler’s face betrayed no sign of fear as I raised my sword with my other hand.
The arrow splintered in my hand as I wrenched it to the side, unintentionally breaking it before ripping it out, resulting in the sharp tip being lodged in my shoulder. As I hissed angrily at my negligence to get it out, Wistep took advantage of my second of pause and shot a third arrow at me; it landed in my other shoulder, an inch away from the base of my neck. I gasped in pain and fear; she was getting dangerously close to where she could kill me.
I stole a quick glance at Wavey and that other Duskhowler. The Dawndweller had stuck her two dual swords through the sleeves of the Duskhowler’s sweater and into the ground; Wavey was holding her enemy’s sword, pointed at her throat, visibly breathing hard. The Duskhowler just lay there, glowering at Wavey furiously, a look that I would not want aimed at me.
Another arrow stabbed into my back, though fortunately not deep enough to puncture my lungs or heart. I managed to actually tear it out, cracking it into two soon after. I whirled around and aimed a blow at Wistep’s neck, my sword cutting through the air in a similar fashion to the way I would with a softball bat. She jerked away as quickly as she could, but my sword lightly grazed her cheek before she had fully gotten away. A shallow cut, but a cut nonetheless.
I slashed at her again, and Wistep retaliated with an arrow to my other shoulder. I had missed my target, as she had ducked and sidled around behind me. Blood soaked through my hoodie, and as I touched the wound I felt the liquid well up against my fingertip. I felt a flash of pain as she shot another arrow into my back, in about the same spot as the other one. Ripping it back out, I let out a yowl.
Since I couldn’t think of anything else to do, I threw myself backward onto the Duskhowler to get her on the ground. The girl fell beneath me with a yelp. Quickly, I drew my sword up and shoved it against her throat.
Behind me, there was a ripping sound and then a yowl. I whipped around to see the Duskhowler Wavey had pinned to the ground holding both swords, one of which was splattered with blood. Wavey was lying on the ground, sides heaving, her leg spilling a heavy amount of blood from a deep cut.
While I was distracted, the Duskhowler leader beneath me shoved my sword back toward me. I wasn’t holding it down, and it sliced across the right side of my face. I screeched, pain tearing through me. I regained control of the sword and poised it to stab it into the girl’s heart, when a yowl split the air.
“Retreat! Dawndwellers, retreat!”
I was rendered helpless as Wistep shoved me off her, picked up her bow, and glowered at Icy as she led her side away from the battlegrounds.
I felt the cold penetrate my skin as I lay there on the snow. Luna hopped toward me. “Hey, are you okay?” she asked, pain hidden behind her attempt at a lighthearted voice. It was impossible to not laugh when you saw her in the middle of a bloody battleground and she was wearing a unicorn onesie, so I laughed. “I’m fine.”
She didn’t appear to be very hurt, other than a few cuts and scrapes bleeding through the pink fabric. I saw Rosie pass by, dragging her bow behind her, and she dipped her head, greeting me. I nodded back.
Wavey was still lying on the ground, limp as a corpse. Staring after her for a moment, I saw her slowly pick herself up and make an effort to stand; as I watched, she collapsed against the trunk of a tree nearby. I turned away and dragged myself toward another tree, leaning against it; pain was beginning to crawl through me, as if reminding me that it was there.
I stood there, panting loudly, watching as the Duskhowlers retreated and high-fived each other. The flamethrower wielder shot a blast of flame into the sky while staring meaningfully at me, as if trying to brag about their victory.
“Darkie? You okay?”
I jumped and wheeled around to see a girl with her long black hair in a ponytail watching me. A jagged scar was slashed across the right side of her mouth, a telltale sign that made it easy to recognize her.
“Dawn,” I whispered, ignoring her question. “Why did Icy call a retreat?”
“Fawny was literally about to die,” Dawn replied, “and Icy was right there. From what I saw, Icy was in deep trouble as well and couldn’t help her at all.” She furrowed her brow. “But Fawny’s a double agent for them… Why would they want her dead if she’s pretending to be on her side?”
“Maybe some Duskhowler really hates her and wants her dead,” I mumbled, looking away, vividly remembering my encounter with the Darkhunter this morning. Leave now, or I will kill you.
Dawn gave a weak shrug. “There’s always that.”
I glanced at the crumpled carcasses on the ground. Only two total this time. Someone from the Dusk side─the leader who had fought me─leaned over one of them and lifted it into her arms, then turned away, slowly bringing the carcass into the shadows of the Duskhowlers’ territory.
I assumed the other one was one of my teammates and felt my chest tighten.
I slinked toward the carcass for some reason, although all my instincts screamed at me to go back, to leave the cadaver alone. I ignored them and stopped next to the corpse.
It turned out that the dead body wasn’t even dead, and I screeched and leaped away as it moved.
Blood was gushing out of a deep wound in the victim’s neck. I felt my eyes well up with tears, blurring up my vision. I didn’t know this girl’s name, but I recognized her from my side. Her cool blue eyes, one of which had been punctured by something sharp, flicked toward me. Fear and pain, so much of it, gleamed in her eyes. I knew for a fact that she couldn’t be saved, but, of course, I tried.
A tear rolling down my cheek, I picked up a handful of snow and packed it into the wound on her neck. It started soaking up the blood, but not stopping it. The girl just watched me, and, to my surprise, smiled slightly.
“Don’t,” she croaked, and a tear of her own trickled down her face from her one good eye. “It’s no use. Go. Leave.”
“No,” I whispered, my voice cracking, now resorting to just pressing my hand against the wound. The bleeding relentlessly continued to spill between my fingers and stained my skin with a dark shade of crimson. “No.”
The girl’s blue eyes then just went blank, and her smile faded. I felt the pulse in her neck thump just twice more, and then it stopped.
I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t even think. This was a war. People die in wars. I had seen dead bodies before, but this… I haven’t just watched someone die right in front of me ever in my life.
Especially not a teammate.
I stepped back. I turned and ran away from the corpse.
Followed by Dawn, I climbed up the tree and jumped into the treehouse. Everybody there saw me and wondered what the big deal was.
“Someone’s dead!” I shrieked, panting hard. “She wasn’t dead before but I─I watched her─she was dying and she died─just now!” I could tell my breathless screaming wasn’t doing much to describe the situation, so I broke off, as I had already gotten my point across.
This caused a tide of murmurs to ripple around the group of Dawndwellers. Icy walked toward me. “Who?” she breathed. “And where?”
Holding onto the end of my hoodie’s sleeve and pulling my arm out of it, I wiped my bloody, tear-streaked face with it. The cut on my face I had accidentally given myself stung fiercely as the black fabric raked against it. “I have no idea,” I choked out. “But she’s somewhere in the forest.”
“That’s helpful,” Icy mumbled, probably thinking that I couldn’t hear her. She gave me a weak smile and went off on her merry way, probably going to retrieve the body.
Trying not to feel everyone’s gazes burning into me as I stood around by the entrance of the base, blood dripping from my ankle and pooling around my foot, I remembered that I should probably be going to the Dark side to see what they were up to. I didn’t hear any battle cries or anything like that, so I guessed that it was peaceful at the moment. I hoped desperately that the Darkhunter from this morning wasn’t hanging around, waiting for me to come back so she could actually stick her sword into me instead of letting me go.
“See ya,” I mumbled to nobody in particular, then ducked out of the exit, landing on my injured ankle with a feeble grunt of pain, and sprinted toward the shadows of the Darkhunters’ territory, sheathing my sword on the way.
Screeches split the air.
It was like the sky was actually being ripped in half, with shrieks and yowls tearing through the originally still and quiet forest. It was snowing again; dark gray clouds plowed into each other and blotted out the pale sun. Silhouettes of trees twitched and shook in the frigid air. Flitting snow landed on the battleground, obscuring the grass with an icy white and concealing the puddles and splashes of blood.
I had perched beneath a hazel bush, observing the battle through my glasses from there. Racking my brain, I supposed I had seen her there, wearing all black and fighting with a sword. She hadn’t looked too good; someone was shooting her repeatedly with arrows, but didn’t appear to have the best aim and kept striking her where she couldn’t be killed.
I just lingered there, achieving nothing, while the battle raged before my eyes.
Now I paced around quietly, dragging my bow through the snow as I did. I felt a droplet of sweat drip down the side of my face. Where was she? She should have been here a while ago.
Unless, of course...she had been murdered in the clash. A shudder racked my body and I halted in my tracks, my eyes widening, poking the snow-covered ground with my shoe as the dark thought crashed over me.
I hoped not. Darkie was one of my good friends, and it would have killed me if I found out that she’d been slain.
She can’t be dead. I know she’ll be okay. I swallowed hard. I hope so.
“Hey, Ottie, you coming or what?” a harsh voice growled from behind me. “Battle planning over here.”
I swiveled around, eyeing the broad-shouldered Darkhunter leader as she stood a few feet away from me, her arms crossed, evidently irritated with me. “Coming, Blue,” I sighed, glancing around to see if my friend was prowling out of the forest in her usual creepy way and toward our base. “Do you know where Darkie is?”
Blue rolled her eyes. “Are you blind? She’s right over there.”
I twisted my head around the other way to see her standing there, wearing all black, her sword’s sheath hanging on her back. “Darkie!” I exclaimed, my voice crammed with relief.
I surveyed her condition. A bit of blood dripped from her neck; a puncture wound, almost certainly performed by an arrow. Several more were scattered over her body, blood splotched around each wound. Slashes brought about by a sword marked her limbs, all of them steadily bleeding, and there was a shallow, clean slice across her face, on the left side. I also noticed that the palm of one of her hands was streaked with blood.
Despite her unfortunate state, she managed to give me a weak smile. “Hey,” she murmured, waving at me slightly.
“Are you okay?” I demanded immediately, almost surprising myself. It was then that I became aware of the sharp point of an arrow deeply embedded in her shoulder, and I shot her an annoyed but concerned look. “What did you do?”
“Blue told me that whenever I get hit by an arrow I should pull it out and break it in half so the jerk that shot me can’t use it again if they somehow manage to get it back but when I tried to I accidentally broke it before I pulled it out,” she replied quickly, looking embarrassed. Blue snorted in amusement, but quickly forced a stony expression as I glanced at her. I reached over and clutched onto the little bit of wood sticking out, then wrenched my hand to the side. I heard a feeble ripping sound.
“Ack,” Darkie hissed, gritting her teeth. I winced; blood was beginning to well up from the tapered cavity in her shoulder, the scarlet liquid leaking from the wound like tears breaking free from the eyes.
“...you good?” I whispered, my breath clouding up in the icy night air. Grimacing in pain, Darkie gave me a muted, brisk nod.
“Come onnnn,” Blue groaned, glaring at both me and Darkie, and stormed away, muttering something about how none of us seem to care about battle planning and stealth.
I trailed her, Darkie on my heels. A chilly breeze swept through the forest, forcing a shudder down my spine.
Why does Blue want to attack the Dawn side so much? I mean, sure, they’re weak for now, but why is she so desperate to kill them?
“Blue,” I began, looking up at the dirty blonde-haired girl as she twisted her head around to give me a nettled expression. “Why are you so intent on having us devise new battle plans?”
I could see that I had asked something that would probably cause the Darkhunter leader to either snap at me or ignore me altogether.
But to my surprise, Blue didn’t snap. She sent me a hard look with her cold blue-gray eyes, and an even harder one to Darkie. Glaring at the two of us, she replied, “We’re fighting the Dawndwellers. And to do that stealthily, we need plans.”
“But─” Darkie choked out. “We─they just fought the Dusk─”
“Exactly,” Blue snarled, a murderous glint in her eyes, and curled her lip. “They’re weaker now, so we can bring them down easier.”
I wasn’t surprised to hear this answer, as that was exactly why I guessed we were attacking now, but Darkie’s response was completely different than mine. She looked away quickly, down at the pure white snow on the ground, then back up, but she didn’t meet Blue’s gaze.
“I should probably let you do your thing,” she mumbled, and turned to leave, but Blue seized her wrist, forcing Darkie to stop.
“No,” Blue hissed, her voice barely audible, but menacing enough to make me glad I was on her side and not fighting against her. “I trust you enough to let you stay here with the Dark side, but not enough to let you go running off to the Dawndwellers after I told you that we were going to attack them. So you’ll be hanging out at the base until we pull it off. Got it?”
Darkie said nothing, only nodded and blushed slightly. She twisted her hand out of Blue’s grip and followed us back to the base, her green eyes dull with worry. I felt a twinge of suspicion and I narrowed my eyes, staring at her warily through my glasses. If she was really on my side, why would she be so scared for the Dawndwellers?
As we headed down a steep, rocky slope, toward the Dark side base, I heard the other Darkhunters seconds before I saw them.
“If they somehow hear us before we get to them, we should figure out a way to sneak around behind them and attack them from there."
“But what if they see us doing that? We should climb trees and drop down on them from there.”
“Yeah. We can’t just fall out of trees and expect to land on them. We’ll just break our necks and the battle will be over as soon as it started. It won’t work.”
“The Dawndwellers aren’t that stupid, anyway. They can climb trees as well as we can.”
“Okay, so? We can still use them to our advantage.”
“Lay off it, Lion, we need to think of something else.” I heard someone stab what sounded like a knife into a tree.
Darkie entered the clearing first, and the three Darkhunters who had been arguing looked up. “Hi, Darkie,” the teen who had spoken last called.
Darkie nodded. “Hey, Crow.”
Crow reached toward a nearby tree with a big fat kitchen knife stabbed into it and wrenched it out. “Blue, can you pleeeeeeeeease help Minty and me convince Lion that we can’t use the trees to help us in the attack? I mean, we can if you want us to, but the tactic isn’t new to them.”
Blue smacked her forehead with her hand. “Lion,” she groaned with a harsh edge to her voice. “They’re right. We need new strategies.”
I tried to compromise. “Lion’s right,” I reasoned, ignoring Blue’s furious glare. “We can climb trees and drop down on them, but we also need new strategies. We should send a few people to climb trees, a few others to circle around them, and everyone else go full force on them.”
Darkie shrugged and looked away. Blue nodded slowly, her blue-gray eyes glittering with menace. Crow gave me a thumbs-up, and Lion grinned at me, glad I had agreed with her idea. The last girl, Minty, looked as if she were annoyed that she hadn’t come up with the plan.
“We leave in five minutes,” Blue announced after a moment. She left the glade and appeared to be going in the direction of the base, but none of us followed her.
We all stood around in the clearing without speaking for a few minutes, doing nothing but examining our swords and bows and knives and other weapons and looking at each other and looking away.
“Um,” I piped up out of nowhere, shoving my glasses farther up my nose. “Aren’t we attacking soon?”
My question was answered in milliseconds when Blue, followed by eight other Darkhunters, emerged from the forest and appeared to be prepared for battle.
“Alright, Berry and Darkie, you’ll be sneaking around on the left, and Ottie and Minty will be on the right. Jazzy, Lion, Crow, and Shade will be falling from trees and breaking their necks. The rest of you and I will attack from the front. Got it?” Blue yelled, and I wondered with dread if the Dawndwellers had heard her.
“Got it,” we all mumbled half-heartedly, though I could tell everyone but Darkie was bristling with excitement.
Blue shoved me forward, and I followed Minty and Berry as they led Darkie and I into the forest of twisted, eerie trees, my shoes discreetly crunching on the dried leaves. I raised my bow and crept after Minty. I felt a twinge of nervousness; what if my plan failed?
If it did, it would be all my fault. Blue might have to kill me.
I shook my head, trying to force away that dark thought. No. It won’t fail.
Even if it did, Blue probably won’t kill me.
“Ottie!” Minty hissed from ahead of me, her dart gun clenched tightly in her hand. “Pay attention!” I swallowed and nodded, knowing that I should probably watch for the Dawndwellers to appear so I didn’t screw everything up.
I heard a bush rustling, and I jerked my head up. A girl with a black hoodie and jeans, clutching a sword in each hand, was apparently watching for any Darkhunters. From what I could see, she was alone. Minty poked me quickly and aimed her dart gun at the Dawndweller.
I situated my bow and aimed the arrow at her leg, so as to slow her down if she managed to get away. But as soon as I shifted my weight to get into position, the girl’s head snapped right in my direction, her green eyes glittering with fear and surprise.
I released the arrow, observing triumphantly as it drove halfway into the Dawndweller’s leg, blood dripping from the wound. I parted my jaws to screech a battle cry, when an arrow shot at my face.
I had no time to duck. Dread and horror rippling through me, it struck me right on my tongue, and I felt blood explode in my mouth. I gasped in pain, and blood rolled from the corner of my mouth and down my chin.
Minty had jerked around to make sure I was okay, but swiveled back in time to dodge another arrow. Squeezing my eyes shut, I tore the arrow out of my tongue, agony tearing through my mouth. The force released a surge of blood, and I gagged on its lusty, metallic taste. The Dawndweller’s eyes widened and she averted her gaze.
I glanced upward and saw Crow crouching on the edge of a branch on a nearby tree. As I watched, the Darkhunter inaudibly shifted the branch out from underneath her and dropped through the air, landing right on the Dawndweller’s shoulders. She twisted her head around, her face contorted with alarm. I saw Crow’s kitchen knife fly through the air, aimed at the girl’s neck.
I quickly looked away.
The sickening sound of metal ripping through flesh and the howl of anguish that followed made my stomach churn. I dropped to the ground and shielded my eyes as the tearing continued. I heard the distinct sound of blood splattering the earth, of a body crumpling to the ground.
When I dared to look again, my heart thumping hard against my ribs, I realized that Crow had not killed her. Instead, the Dawndweller lay in an awkward position underneath her, and the knife was driven deep into her shoulder. Blood soaked the ground, and Crow wiped their bloody hand on their shirt.
Pretty soon more of them will be coming to her aid. This isn’t good…
I lifted my bow again as I heard Blue’s voice hissing in my ear through clenched teeth. “More are coming. Get going.”
We were right. I eyed the band of Dawndwellers as they emerged at the top of the hill that led down to our base. They didn’t appear to see the four of us creeping along the snowy forest floor, just Crow. The Darkhunter attacker gave me the impression that her knife was stuck in the teen’s shoulder; they were wrenching hard at it but doing nothing more than making the wound bleed more.
I glowered at each of them; the Dawndweller lying still and bleeding beneath Crow didn’t use a bow and arrow. It was one of the others that had shot the arrow into my tongue.
It was one of you… I thought, my gut curdling with pain and anger.
One of the Dawndwellers, wearing a blue hoodie, seemed to notice for the first time that the dark blonde-haired teen was pinned beneath Crow, blood pouring from the slash in her shoulder. I opened my mouth to warn my teammate that the Dawndweller was aiming the softball bat she was wielding at them, pain stabbing through my tongue as I did so.
The blood that had been building up in my mouth caught in the back of my throat as I tried to scream a warning to Crow. I gagged and coughed up the mass of dark red liquid, the blood bubbling at my lips and dribbling down my chin. “C─Crow!” I choked out, releasing another gush of blood from my mouth. They whipped their head around, their curlyish light brown hair flipping over their shoulder. I tried to say more, but the blood was choking me.
“Turn─look!” I retched, the pain in my tongue sharper, blood leaking from my jaw and staining the snow a dark reddish color. Crow hesitantly looked back, just in time to dodge the bat flying at their head. I decided that I should try and be useful; I picked up the arrow that had been shot into my tongue and put it up against my bow. I caught sight of a teen in a unicorn onesie, and I aimed my arrow at her.
“For the ramen!” the girl screeched, then launched an arrow at me. I gasped in pain, blood gurgling from my mouth, as it drove deep into my shoulder. The other Dawndwellers flooded into the battleground, and the sounds of swords slashing through flesh and bodies falling to the ground shattered the silence that had only moments before charged the air.
A shiver racked my body as I heard bone snapping; Shade had dropped from the tree and crushed some Dawndweller’s arm.
I stood up and flung myself up the slope, landing on my back. I crept up behind the Dawndweller with the blue hoodie and bat. I jerked around and shot an arrow at her. My tongue throbbed as I attempted to smirk triumphantly: the arrow had landed in the Dawndweller’s arm and knocked it aside, preventing me from getting clobbered in the head by the bat.
Something tore into my leg and impaled it completely through. I let out a muted scream, muted thanks to the blood clogging my throat. I glanced down, blood dripping from in between my teeth and onto the ground, and saw the blood-spattered arrow sticking out of my leg.
Agony worse than the hole in my tongue gripped me and I lashed out with a fist. My hand collided with a Dawndweller’s nose and blood splashed onto the snowy forest floor. My knuckles stung suddenly; I realized that my victim was wearing glasses. I had broken one lens, slicing myself with glass in the process.
I caught a glimpse of the other Dawndweller swinging the bat through the air, and I heard a dull thud as it bashed into my head.
Black spots suddenly swirled in front of my eyes, fogging up my vision. Pain blotted out all of my thoughts, and I crumpled to the ground, lying uncomfortably on the bag of arrows hanging on my back. Blood trickled from my mouth, the flow lighter than before.
Through the corner of my eye, I saw Darkie sprint toward me and the two Dawndwellers. I let out a feeble sigh of relief.
The Dawndweller with the softball bat narrowed her blue-green eyes to slits and swung the bat at her. Darkie skidded to a halt, and soon after was given a blow to the side and knocked off guard with a shriek. The force of it threw her aside, and I caught my breath as she banged her head on the trunk of a tree and slumped to the ground, completely motionless for a moment.
She got to her feet and held her sword up, poised to kill the Dawndweller with the bat, but seemed to ignore the other one.
The Dawndweller mirrored her. I watched as they faced each other off for a moment, eyes blazing with fury. I pulled myself to my feet and leaned against a nearby tree for balance.
“Darkie,” the Dawndweller suddenly murmured. I jerked my head up in alarm.
“Oh, it’s you, Swan,” Darkie breathed, lowering her sword, and I took in a sharp breath. Is...is she actually on their side? I thought, aiming the arrow at her.
The Dawndweller, Swan, glanced at the bat she was holding; she twirled it in her fingers for a split-second, but stopped immediately with a sharp inhalation, staring at a few small patches of missing skin from her thumb and index fingers. She turned her head back toward Darkie. “Hope you don’t mind I’m using this,” she chuckled, briefly looking my way. “My bow got done away with by that Darkhunter I killed earlier this morning.”
Darkie shook her head. “Nah, it’s fine.”
I opened my mouth to ask what was going on, but Swan swung the bat at me again and shoved it against my chest, pinning me to the tree and knocking the breath out of me. I groaned and struggled against her grip, but she held me there, just talking to the possible traitor.
“Anyway, sorry I clobbered you. Didn’t recognize you at first. You okay?”
“Yeah, fine,” Darkie replied.
What’s going on? What is she doing?
As if reading my thoughts, the girl snapped her head toward me. “Don’t think I’m not on your side, Ottie. Just here for blackmail.”
I gave her a confused look, Swan doing the same. I shoved harder against the bat, only shifting it slightly. The Dawndweller was relentless. Darkie smiled innocently, her eyes cool. Swan shivered slightly from the cold sinisterness in her green gaze, but I was beginning to get what was happening.
I observed the staredown between the two girls. The baleful smile disappeared from Darkie’s face, and Swan showed not a shred of emotion in her blue-green eyes.
Without warning, Darkie slashed at Swan’s face with her sword, slicing a straight line beside her mouth. Swan jumped back, releasing me from the bat, then snorted threateningly. “You wanna fight?” she snapped, her eyes flickering with disdain. “I’ll give you one if you want one.”
I promptly remembered that the other Dawndweller was still there, and I shot an arrow at her, hitting her in the shoulder. I got one right back, digging deep into my leg, the same one that had been shot before. The wound throbbing painfully, I groaned softly.
It was then I noticed that the hand the Dawndweller was using to hold the bow upright wasn’t a hand at all. It had been apparently sliced off and replaced with a sharp metal hook. I shuddered.
An arrow embedded itself in my arm, blood spurting out. I yanked it out with a wince, only to feel another stab into my shoulder. I ducked a third, and in that moment I hoped I had enough time to see what Darkie was doing.
She had pinned Swan to a tree in the same way her opponent had held me there, thrusting the bat up against her, giving her no room to get out. She had multiple bruises along her limbs, while the Dawndweller was slashed up and bloodied from countless attacks from her. Darkie’s green eyes gleamed with fear as she stood there, shouldering the bat against the girl, slitting her leg with the edge of her sword, her gaze averted and staring at the ground.
Pain scorched through my leg, and I whipped back around to face my opponent; blood stained my leggings a dark shade of red from where I had been shot. I squeaked as my brain registered that she was flying at me, her hook aimed at my throat. I dropped to the ground beneath her, though she was surprisingly lightweight. Her hook dug into the side of my neck, and panic burst inside of me as the sharp metal tip drove deeper in, blood trickling from the wound. My heart thudding hard against my chest, I shoved her off me, attempting to stand up, but she went back for me, hurling me to the ground.
With a surge of dread, my sweaty hands let go of my bow. I heard a dull thud as it hit the ground, muffled from the snow. I felt my heart skip a beat when I noticed that we were about to fall off the slope.
Before I knew it, I was tumbling head over heels down the slope until I was ultimately pounced on by the hook-handed Dawndweller. I struggled to flip over onto my stomach so my attacker couldn’t rip out my throat. When I finally rolled over, I was able to see Crow.
They had brought about some remarkable wounds to the Dawndweller that had first appeared. They had somehow gotten their knife out of the teen’s shoulder, which now held a large, gaping, bloody hole and looked as if her arm could be ripped right off with a couple more blows from a sword or knife. Stab wounds littered her limbs, blood oozing from each. While I was staring at the Dawndweller, Crow had left and gone off to fight someone else, obviously seeing that the Dawndweller couldn’t be any more harm.
An arrow spiked into my back, and I realized that, with a jolt of pain, my previous opponent had also ran off.
I yanked it out, feeling blood drip down my spine, and turned to see the Dawndweller with the unicorn onesie aiming her bow at me.
“Creamy chicken is the best kind of ramen!” the teen yelled, letting another arrow fly at me. I looked around for my own bow, and saw it lying on the ground nearby. I bolted over and snatched it up, planted an arrow against it, and plugged it at her. She pranced out of its way with ease, her blueish-green eyes flickering with dark exhilaration. Fed up, I dropped the bow again and vaulted at her, but she jumped away again.
The onesie-clad Dawndweller was almost as bad as Swan with her bat and that other girl with her hook. She slung another arrow at me, then a third. Both landed in nearly the same spot on my arm, the pain causing me to gasp in pain, and I resolved that eluding the arrows would do me more good than just letting them maim me farther. I lunged to the side, pounding my head forcefully into a tree, as the teenager fired another arrow at me. It streaked past me and ripped into the heart of a young Darkhunter, blood splashing the ground as the victim keeled over, never to get up again.
My heart thumping harder than before and feeling like it would rupture any minute, I came to the conclusion that it would be better to just let the arrows hit me instead of sacrificing my teammates. I wasn’t worth it.
Amidst the confusion and fear swamping over my mind, a decent idea crashed over me, a jolt of strength lurching through me. Taking hold of my bow again, I fired an arrow to the right of opponent. She sprang to the left, and I vaulted back at her. I shouldered her to the ground successfully, though she struggled hard.
“I’ll take her,” snarled Blue’s voice in my ear. I took a single pace off of the Dawndweller, who was thrashing about like a crazed animal, to let Blue handle her.
Promptly, she pounced on her, gouging at her arm with her sword. I crept backward and watched as Blue pressed her bloody sword against the girl’s throat and dragged her back to the Dark side prison.
“Luna!” some Dawndweller shrieked, and a dagger was chucked in Blue’s direction. I heard a yowl down there and assumed that she had been hit. However nasty she could be, I felt a pang of fury and the overwhelming urge to take down her attacker engulfed me. I located her, standing on the edge of the slope, craning her neck to see where her dagger went. She was shorter than me, her long brown hair up in a ponytail. I swung my arm around and struck her on the back of her leg. She squeaked and fell to the ground, and I lunged at her, easily bringing her down; she was startlingly lightweight.
I soon realized that there was no point in trying to maneuver my bow and arrow toward her; bows were for long-range combat, and my enemy had chucked her weapon at my leader. I let her get up.
She glanced up at me as I stepped off her, lowering my bow, then sprinted toward them at the speed of light─the kid was fast. Freaking fast.
A feeble hiss I could only just hear told me that the girl had attacked Blue again. Why did I let her go?
I remembered again and dashed after her.
Gotta run gotta run gotta runnnnnn─ I thought in a daze, shoving the bandana on my head farther back, belting after the fleet-footed girl. Once we had two of the Dawn side’s attackers, they would retreat.
Hopefully they will.
The girl had halted abruptly and I barrelled right into her, shoving her to the ground, tripping over her and going down as well. She squirmed out from underneath me, alighting my wounds with sudden pain as I was dropped onto my back, confounded and dazed. After a moment, I regained my strength and jumped to my feet. I stumbled, the hole in my leg bleeding again.
I crept in the direction I had seen Blue, the teen in the onesie─Luna? Was that what she’d called her?─and the other Dawndweller go. I could see Blue’s footprints in the snow, and her prisoner’s as well. A streak of red from the Dawndweller’s plaid sweater told me she was darting ahead of me, trying to take Blue by surprise.
That won’t work, buddy, I thought, gathering my legs beneath me to lunge at her. Too bad for you.
“Blue!” I yowled as loud as I could, hurdling myself at the girl. I brought her down, but she was struggling as hard as Luna had. I squeaked and tried to jump away as she kicked at me with her blood-spattered sneaker, but she got me in the mouth. Hard.
I gasped in pain as blood dripped from the reopened wound in my tongue and onto the snow. The teen kicked me again, in the jaw, and I recoiled, my mouth pulsing with agony. She got away from me again, but I gave chase.
“Bluuuuue!” I screeched again, coughing up blood, and almost immediately after, the dirty blonde-haired girl hurled herself right into her pursuer, thrusting her to the ground. The Dawndweller wrestled with Blue to get her off, but I could see that it was a lost cause.
“There you go, Ottie,” Blue hissed, taking a pace backward off her victim. I grabbed hold of the girl and dragged her with me as I followed Blue to the prison. I caught sight of a dagger impaled completely through the Darkhunter leader’s arm, blood gushing from the wound. She paid it no mind.
We headed down another steep slope until Blue led us to the Dark side base. It was a long structure made up of fallen pine trunks with only one hole cut in the side, a doorway with a willow screen hanging in front. Beckoning with her hand, Blue took us to a hole in the ground near the base. I let go of the Dawndweller in my arms, who was promptly shoved into the hole by Blue.
“We should probably get back,” I choked out, blood trickling from my tongue. Blue ignored me and started heading back to the battleground. I followed, not finding any reason to argue with her.
The shriek that greeted us when we returned brought a wave of relief crashing over me.
“Dawndwellers, fall back! Leave now!”
I halted in my tracks and leaned against a tree, looking up at the night sky. Dark clouds covered the stars, and a light snow had commenced to fall. I began to feel the sharp jolts of pain in all my wounds, the blood trickling down my skin.
I glanced back down and realized that the Darkhunters in the battle were trekking back to the base; I fell into step with them, sharing the faint sense of victory over winning. I noticed that Crow was clutching their left hand, their face twisted in pain. When I looked I nearly threw up; the majority of their pinky finger had been reduced to a bloody stump. With a shudder I looked away, my stomach churning.
One by one we crept into the base, ignoring the sound of Luna’s voice as she pointlessly informed us that creamy chicken ramen was better than our lives.
I found the corner in the back of the hollowed-out pile of wood where I slept, and I exhaustedly fell onto my knees. I dropped my bow and the bag of arrows and slumped down onto a blanket.
Darkie curled up and twisted around so she was lying partially on her back, examining a slice on her hand, blood welling up from it.
Completely fatigued, I collapsed onto my back. After a last glance at the ceiling I shut my eyes.
Before I knew it I was asleep, despite the sound of the two Dawndweller prisoners yowling for help.
An involuntary shriek tore through my dreams, the panicked cry wrestling its way out from deep in my lungs. Shuddering violently, I wrapped my arms tightly around my body, a defensive posture. Like that would protect me from whatever was in my head.
My gaze flickered about and I turned in circles, taking in my surroundings. A dense, jungly forest of bare trees behind me. Aspens and birches and willows ahead. Darkness and shadows blanketed the earth, hiding the moon and stars from view. Taking a couple of shaky steps forward, my black shoes crunched on the fallen leaves and snow underfoot. This was the border between the Dawn and Dusk territories, I knew. Swallowing, I listened for the sound of rushing water. The creek.
But it was silent. Everything was silent, I realized. No crickets. No owls. No water.
I whipped around, my heart lashing hard against my ribs, searching for any sign of life anywhere. My ears picked up on a muffled pounding and I jumped. Footsteps? No, I remembered, my ragged breaths catching in my throat. Just my own heartbeat. My fingernails dug into my forearms where I gripped them. Calm. Down.
Those were the only thoughts in my head that I could comprehend. Everything else was a blurry muddle of confusion and chaos and fear.
“Hello?” I tried softly. Was anyone there? Stepping slowly backward, my back thumped into something solid and smooth, and I jerked around. It was only a tree; a silky white birch, its black-striped bark peeling in strips. But something was wrong, I realized, as my hands brushed against the tree. The bark was sticky and wet.
Leaping away from the tree, I stared at where my hands had been. The hot stench of blood touched my nose and I took in the sight of a dark liquid splattered messily across the bark. Rolling down in droplets. Dripping onto the ground. I folded my arms against my torso again, unnerved, but pulled them away as my hoodie suddenly grew warm and damp beneath my hands. Shaking, I opened my palms to observe them closely. They were covered in blood; not just as if they’d smeared it off the tree, but as if the source had bled all over them. Terror, cold and bright, flashed through my body as I gingerly touched the front of my hoodie. It was soaked with blood. Alarmed, I patted myself down to check for any pain or wounds. But there was none.
It felt familiar, almost. This moment. Almost as if I’d experienced it before.
“You stupid rat,” came a rasping whisper, echoing in the trees and hissing between the branches. I yelped and whirled around, my gaze hunting fruitlessly for the mysterious speaker. “You’re all alone, as you should be. Traitors deserve to be all alone.”
Traitors. My eyes burned with tears. Swan. The Dawndwellers. The battle.
All around me, unintelligible screeches arose from the forest, piercing my ears with their shrill cries. I flinched with a whimper, ducking my head, and pressed myself back against the blood-stained tree, trying to ignore the fierce stench of blood. It was firm, and it was there, and it provided a small amount of protection in case someone attempted to attack me from behind. The mindless screams grew louder, shrieking with laughter at my obvious fear, and I crushed my eyes shut.
Then, my brain took notice of exactly what they were screeching at me. “Back-stabber!” they howled. “Snake! Coward!” The words ricocheted through my skull. Striving to block them out, I focused my mind on the singular thing I could think of right then─the tree. I gulped. My fingers pressed against the rough knots in the otherwise sleek bark, memorizing the texture. Things were fine. It’d all be fine. As long as I focused─
Sword. My sword, I remembered abruptly, and I clutched behind my shoulder for the smooth leather hilt. But my hand grasped thin air, and panic gripped my chest with claws of ice. It wasn’t there.
Heart pounding, I whirled around toward Dawn territory, my fingers fiddling with the two brooches pinned to my hoodie. The urge to run washed over my body, tugging me in the direction of the base. I glanced back over my shoulder for a second, wincing at the horrible screeches, before forcing my feet to start moving and sprinting away.
The moment that the shadows of the oaks and maples ahead began to conceal me, an arm whipped harshly around my torso, knocking the breath out of my lungs. Letting out a winded yelp, I struggled as more and more hands and arms yanked me away from the Dawn base. Taunting and mocking and screaming. Finally, my legs gave out from under me and they let me go.
There was a barely perceptible swishing sound, and something sharp poked my back.
A crunch. A strange tearing sensation in my chest. I jerked my head down to watch as the tip of my own sword ripped through my heart, protruding from just below my collarbone with an arc of blood. Horror exploded inside of me and I gave a piercing scream. They lifted me off the ground, letting me dangle from the blade as blood poured down my front from the cavity in my chest, soaking through my clothing and puddling on the forest floor.
The stunning darkness seemed to swallow me up as I felt myself rapidly grow weaker and weaker. Numb with defeat, I felt the tears fall from my eyes. I deserved this.
“You traitor,” they cackled maliciously, and my body went limp.
I awoke with a jolt, gasping for breath.
The first thing I made myself check was my hands. They were clammy and hot, but there was no blood. A shaky, relieved exhalation rushed from my lungs. Struggling to correct my ragged, harsh breathing, I swallowed to wet my parched throat and pulled my legs out of my sleeping bag, holding my knees to my chest. Cold sweat dripped down my face, giving me chills, and I wiped it off with the sleeve of my black hoodie. It was okay now. I was awake. It’d only been a dream, and nothing more. But my spine tingled persistently where my sword had skewered it, and I shivered, resting my chin on my knees. It had felt so real.
And the knowledge that the voices had been right hurt almost worse than the actual injuries I had. Because being a double agent meant being a traitor.
Patting the soft, cold earth that made up the floor of the base, I fumbled around for my flashlight. As my fingers brushed against the squishy rubber handle, I gripped it with a trembling hand and flicked it on. Cupping a palm around the harsh light, I aimed it down at where my sword and scabbard lay. The light flickered onto the elaborately carved metal of the sheath and the leather strap curled in a limp pile. My gaze caught on the guard and the hilt of my sword poking out of the sheath and I slid part of the blade out as if to reassure myself that it was still there and it wasn’t covered in my own blood.
I shoved the sword back in and clicked the flashlight off, dropping it onto my lap as I wrestled the baldric over my head and secured it to my body. Popping the stiff joints in my neck, I tucked the flashlight into the pocket of my hoodie and ran my fingers through my dark brown hair. Unease still rippled through me, leftover from the dream, and I relished the idea of going outside alone. With peace and quiet and no reason to be scared.
Blinking to adjust my eyes to the darkness that swamped the base, I surveyed my surroundings and noticed that I was the only one awake. Though it was hard to tell who was who with the lack of light, I made out the faint forms of each of the Darkhunters in their respective sleeping bags, minus the few that stood guard around the territory. Gentle breaths, soft snores, and the occasional shifting of fabric were the only sounds I could hear. Everyone was sound asleep.
Shoving my feet into my tennis shoes, I tightened the laces and stood up. The pale moonlight seeping through the crack under the woven willow door seemed to draw me toward it as I crept silently past the sleeping Darkhunters. Once I reached it, I gingerly pushed the door open with a shoulder and ducked past it, careful to lower it back to its previous position without making a sound.
Trees shivered in the cool night breeze, branches rustling and snow drifting to the ground. I closed my eyes and took in a deep, shuddering breath, listening to the crickets sing their nighttime melodies as I walked. Enveloped by darkness and all its beauties, I felt safe and secure. For once in whatever life this was.
"There's a tree right in front of you," someone nearby informed me, and I jumped, blinking open my eyes just before I slammed face-first into a sturdy oak.
Blue was perched on one of the several fallen logs surrounding the empty fire pit. She was hunched over herself, gripping her left arm tightly with one hand. The glint of a bloodstained blade protruding from the sleeve of her black jacket caught my eye and I cringed. How long had that been there? The whole night since the battle?
"Thanks," I replied softly, pocketing my clammy hands. Blue nodded and looked down, grimacing in pain. The anguish in her face was bright and fierce. Approaching her with slow, quiet steps, I asked, "Can't sleep?" My gaze flickered back toward the dagger in her arm. “Um, do you need help getting that out?”
"Never can," she breathed, flashing me a humorless grin. "And no." Her blue-gray eyes glazed over and the half-smile was gone. After a moment, she met my gaze again with a cold expression, making a point to change the subject. "Where're you going?" Her voice was icy, laced with pain and well-hidden anger. Not at me, I figured, but I couldn't help but feel intimidated.
"To the Dawn base." I shrugged weakly, wincing as I jolted a deep arrow wound in my shoulder. "The forest seems calmer at night."
Blue nodded in understanding, the movement barely visible. A long moment passed before she spoke again. "Don't set the prisoners free while you think I'm not paying attention, Darkie. That's all I ask," she growled, her tone dark as her slitted blue gaze fixed on me.
Fawny. The other double agent's name popped into my head at Blue's words, and guilt pierced through my chest. I remembered that battle a year ago. I remembered hearing a loud crack and turning to see her with a dead Darkhunter at her feet, their neck twisted at a sickening angle. She'd been trying to avoid fighting her friends on the Dawn side, and she'd accidentally killed that Darkhunter. Blue's expression was chillingly serious as she stared at me, and I nodded quickly. She trusts me, I knew. She’s just… making sure she can.
“I won't,” I promised, swallowing. The Darkhunter leader turned silently back toward the fire pit, resting her chin on a hand. Wheeling around, I kept my footsteps light as I headed away. She was thinking deeply about something, probably a traumatic memory. An owl hooted from somewhere above me and took flight, disturbing the previous stillness of the trees, and I startled at the sudden sound. Blue had that frosty aura about her when her thoughts were on memories of pain.
My shoes scuffed at the snow, crushing the dead leaves underfoot with a distinct crackle. The frigid winter air cut through my hoodie and chilled me to the bone. Breathing in, the crisp scent of cold filled my lungs, and I suddenly paused in my tracks. The prisoners, I thought with a flash of worry, glancing back over my shoulder, at where I had left Blue. Lush green pines, their branches dappled with snow, hid the Dark base from view. The memory of Ottie and Blue tackling two of my Dawndweller friends and dragging them into the prison flashed before my eyes. Luna and Silver.
I swallowed hard. Were they okay? Were they alive?
Wrapping my hands tightly around my wrists, I hunched my shoulders against the cold and changed direction. The Dark prison was well-hidden, dug out between the massive roots of an ancient pine, disguised by the fallen leaves and snow. From having dragged a Duskhowler or two into it myself a couple of times before, I knew vaguely where it was. I took slow, deliberate steps, listening carefully for the telltale sounds of someone trailing me.
A harsh snore broke the silence and I flinched, whipping around to look behind me. My gaze settled on nothing, at first, until a rustle in the bushes caught my eye. Panic flared in my chest for a moment, but as I stepped closer to the source of the movement, the feeling died down. A figure in a navy blue hoodie was slumped on the ground beside a hulking black dog, both sound asleep. Faint amusement rippled through me and the corners of my mouth turned upward in a brief smile. Blue had instructed Crow to stand guard over the prisoners, and they'd brought their dog, Max, to help. Neither appeared to be doing too well at their jobs.
“Luna?” I whisper-shouted as I prowled toward the hole in the ground, my voice low enough to avoid disturbing Crow and Max, hoping desperately that at least one of the Dawndwellers was awake. “Silver?”
“Hey, Darkie,” someone rasped from inside the prison. Dropping into a crouch, I settled down beside the gaping pit, relief washing over me. Snow melted against my knee, soaking into my previously warm sweatpants, but I gritted my teeth and tried to ignore it. My hand reached into my hoodie pocket and pulled out the flashlight; flicking it on, I shone it directly into the hole. Silver had been standing at the bottom, and she flinched as the bright light illuminated her freckled face without warning. I lowered the beam to avoid blinding her.
“Heyo,” I whispered, waving. “Is Luna up?”
Silver shook her head. “No, she’s still asleep. We’re taking shifts.” She glanced down, where I noticed a shred of pink fabric and recognized her unicorn onesie. “Want me to wake her up?”
I nodded and she turned away, kneeling down beside Luna. She whispered something and gently shook the other girl’s shoulders for a moment. Finally, Luna’s exhausted voice joined Silver’s and both of them stood back up. “Hey,” I called softly with another wave, jarring the flashlight’s glow with the movement.
Luna waved ferociously back at me. “Are you getting us out?” she asked, sounding concerned. She pulled the hood of her onesie over her head. “Uh, are you sure that’s a good idea? I mean, I’d really like it if you did. It’s boring down here. But…”
“I…” I trailed off, tilting my head upward. My gaze flickered back over my shoulder, where the Dark base was nestled among the trees a long way off, hidden from my sight. Turning back to Silver and Luna, I swallowed. “I can’t─I’m not going to break Blue’s trust. She’d know it was me, anyway. Sorry.” I glanced at my wrist and huffed as I realized that I’d left my watch at the Dawn base. A quick glimpse at the moon, its pale light peeking between the branches of the pine just beside me, told me that it was around one or two in the morning. “I’ll tell someone to get you guys later. Do you mind continuing to be bored until, like, noon? Or something?”
Luna opened her mouth as if to complain, but she paused, furrowing her brow. Glancing at Silver and back at me, she nodded. “Sounds good.”
Silver pointed at my flashlight. “Can we borrow that? So we can send someone a signal that we’re here?” she piped up, putting her hands back in her pockets. “I’ll give it back to you when we get to the base.”
“Like, SOS?” I asked, and Silver nodded. Holding the flashlight over the hole, I opened my hand up and let it drop down. The beam of light bounced wildly around the walls of the prison before abruptly going still as Luna caught it in midair.
The sight of Luna holding my flashlight ignited a memory in the back of my brain, and I snapped my fingers. “Oh! Real quick,” I whispered to Luna, grinning widely. “Did you do the ramen dare?”
Luna laughed, a mischievous smirk on her face. “Yes! None of the Darkhunters really gave any reaction, though, so it was kind of anticlimactic.” She glanced at Silver, who looked supremely confused. “Remember? When we played Truth or Dare the other day and Darkie dared me to scream about my love of ramen three times during the next battle with the Darkhunters?”
“Ohhhhh,” Silver exclaimed, nodding. “Yeah. I remember now.”
“All right,” I announced after a short moment, pushing myself to my feet. “I’m gonna head back. I’m so tired.” Forcing a half-hearted chuckle, I dusted off my sweatpants and waved down at the two teenagers. “Adios.”
“Bye!” both of them called back in unison. I flashed a last smile at them, glanced at the still-asleep Crow, and swiveled around. Back in the direction of the Dawn base.
My shoes dragged through the undergrowth, my muscles aching with leftover pain from the three battles I’d just fought in. I heaved a shuddering sigh. Most of the wounds scattered across my body had managed to scab over during the night, apart from the exceptionally vicious blows to my ankle and shoulder. Experimentally, I leaned down to brush a couple of fingers against the deep cut across my ankle. Instant pain seared through my leg, and I cringed, gritting my teeth. The flesh was still raw, the slice barely healed. Holy heck, I thought, grimacing, as I gingerly set my foot back onto the ground.
A nauseating scent stung the back of my throat as I breathed in, and I swallowed hard. Harsh and overpowering, the stench of blood enveloped me, crawling through my body and cutting through my lungs. I gagged quietly as the potent taste of it settled on my tongue. A hesitant step forward resulted in a tiny plop at my feet; I jerked my head down, stomach churning, to watch my shoe sink into a puddle of blood. Shivering, I tugged my foot from the half-congealed blood and dragged it through a patch of ferns to clean the clumps of blood and mud from my shoe.
I let my gaze travel back upward. At the discarded arrows embedded in trees and in the bloodstained snow. At the pools and splatters of blood sullying this area of the forest. I held my breath, arms hugging my body tightly, as the reek of blood choked the air with a ruthless grip. A pang hit my gut from the lack of air in my lungs, but I fought to ignore it and plowed ahead.
Something caught the toe of one shoe, and I plummeted forward with a yelp of surprise as my balance was snatched away. As my forearms took the brunt of the fall and I collapsed onto the ground, I let myself go limp with a groan of pain. The countless nasty bruises along my limbs pulsed with a relentless aching, not made any better by absorbing the impact. Huffing to myself, I turned my head slightly to see what I’d tripped over.
The slope, I realized. The short slope that snaked through the center of the main Dawn-Dark battleground. I snorted to myself; I hadn’t remembered that it was there. Clenching my jaw against the reignited pain in my arms and legs, I dug my fingertips into the bark of a pine tree just to my left and hauled myself to my feet.
And suddenly, without intending to, my eyes flicked toward the oak. Massive, dappled with snow, dark and twisting. Painted with Swan’s blood.
My heartbeat sped up. Eyes darting about the area as if to make sure I wasn’t being watched, I took a couple of shaky steps toward the spot. The bruises hurt worse by the second, as if the mere memory of the fight was causing it. The metallic scent of blood grew strong enough to make me gag again as I neared the tree. Wrapping one hand around my nose and mouth, I swallowed and stopped in front of the tree. Abruptly, I froze as my gaze locked on an unnatural groove in the wood. At the base of the trunk, I realized that a thin slash had been carved into it. Surrounding the gash was an appalling amount of blood.
It hit me in a sharp, startling pang. I had driven my sword into the tree. Right behind where Swan had been standing. The blade had torn all the way through her leg and into the tree.
Guilt crashed over my head like a wave, drowning me and yanking me to the depths of its clutch. Chest tight, my lungs struggled to breathe. Oh, gosh. We’d just been sparring. With no intentions to have a serious, real fight. Right? My palms began to sweat as my gaze swept over the pools of dark blood staining the snow and grass. I forced myself to picture the moment when I'd thrown her against the tree. The bat she'd borrowed from me pressing into my shoulder as I pinned her there. The shuddering rasps of her breath, the rise and fall of her chest. The searing pain in my ribs and my head from the blow she'd dealt.
The throbbing bruises in my arms, making my head go light from the pain, prompting me to lean more and more heavily on the blade impaling her leg.
How hadn’t I noticed how deep my sword had gone? Why hadn’t I been paying attention? Swallowing, I ran my fingers through my hair, hand settling on the back of my neck. Sweat, hot and clammy, was slick on my skin. If taken advantage of, leg trauma could be very bad. And if Swan’s was as severe as I thought, any further injury would be drastic. As well as entirely my fault.
There’s nothing I can do now, though, I reminded myself with a shiver. I ducked my head down, hunching my shoulders against the cold as I turned back around.
The wind began to pick up. Another shudder rippled down my spine as the chilly air bit through my hoodie, and I pulled my hands into my sleeves to keep them warm. Bits of snow sailed through the air and prickled where they hit my cheeks. I shook my snow-flecked hair out and removed my hands from my pocket only to pull the hood over my head, returning them to their previous position a moment later.
Every so often, the sharp reek of blood would emerge from the cold-scented air and a familiar pang of fear would hit my gut. Someone’s there, someone’s nearby, my mind kept worrying, the thought causing me to stop in my tracks and look around. But after a moment, I’d remember the battles yesterday and the number of casualties and all the blood that had soaked into the snow, and I’d keep going.
After all, it wasn’t that common for kids to be wandering the woods at this time of night. It was hard enough to get sleep as it was.
An orange flicker in the distance caught my eye suddenly. I jerked my head up and froze, squinting against the flurry of snow, alarm causing my heart to pound. What was that? Blinking fiercely, I pressed my body against the bark of a nearby pine, the sap sticking to my hoodie. Between the forest of dense, nearly-bare trees, my gaze caught on the light again. It cast long, wobbling shadows across the snowy ground, and it occurred to me that it was likely a fire.
But out here? In─I swiveled around, scanning my surroundings with a flash of dread─the middle of the woods this late at night? Swiping my tongue across my cold lips, I felt myself shiver again and my brows drew together abruptly. The middle of the woods. Shoot. I gulped and scanned the surrounding area for the umpteenth time. I was far too close to the creek and therefore Duskhowler territory for my liking, and investigating the fire up ahead was only asking for trouble.
Snow and fallen leaves crackled under my shoes as I stepped away, taking a quick glance at the moon to get a sense of time and direction. The Dawn base would only take about ten or fifteen more minutes to reach if I hurried. Sharp pain hissed through my ankle as I stepped through a patch of ferns, and I cringed, pausing to suck in a breath of cold air. It’d better only take that long.
I gritted my teeth and turned away, but movement flickered in the corner of my eye before the fire had completely escaped my vision. Curiosity drew my gaze back toward it, and a surge of dread swept through me. A figure was standing just beside a tree, silhouetted by the orange glow of the flames. Staring. Right. At me.
My heart began to pound, but my feet felt as if they were rooted to the ground. Adrenaline hadn’t kicked in yet. “Oh, great,” I muttered quietly, my voice shaking, and finally managed to force myself to take a step back. But as if they’d noticed that my attention was now on them, the other person seemed to straighten up a little and they began to wave their arms frantically in the air.
Their movements were jolted and ragged. Meaning they were probably injured.
I hesitated for a moment, reaching back to slide my blade from its sheath. The figure continued to wave incessantly at me, and from a quick glance, they didn’t appear to have any sort of weapon on them. Or… I squinted, making out the faint outline of a strap crossing over their front. They had something, but it was impossible to tell what it was from this distance.
Swearing under my breath, I started toward the person and raked my fingers through my hair with my other hand, my shoulder twinging as I stretched open the puncture wounds there. This is stupid, I’m being stupid, I grumbled inwardly as pain seared through my body at every unnecessary step away from the camp, away from the base, away from my sleeping bag that I really, really would have liked to be inside right then. The bruises and cuts and slices all along my limbs pulsed with a deep, collective ache that pierced into my bones, and I choked down a whimper of pain as my foot rolled over a pebble hidden in the snow and jolted my ankle wound.
Fierce annoyance rippled through me once I’d gotten close enough to the teen to see her more clearly. She stood several inches taller than me, with her light brown hair pulled into a messy bun and her gray-blue eyes staring almost… cheerfully at me? Blood trickled thickly over her mouth and chin and dribbled onto her pale blue t-shirt from a nosebleed that showed no sign of stopping, but she didn’t even seem to notice it. The fire glimmered around the edge of a circular piece of metal pinned to her shoulder, and I jerked my gaze down toward it; a smooth bronze brooch with etchings of a setting sun and clouds in a light shade of goldenrod yellow. The sight of the object seemed to trigger a memory in the back of my brain, and my hand tightened around the hilt of my blade as I recalled the battle that morning.
The teen with the flamethrower. Who’d tried to burn me alive less than a day ago.
I whipped my sword around to point its keen tip directly at her throat, poising myself to run in case she decided to attack. The other girl recoiled slightly. “What are you doing?” I hissed, my eyes narrowed in confusion. Gesturing toward the small bonfire behind her and the creek a little ways away with my sword, I took up a defensive stance. “You’re obviously a Duskhowler, you’re not on… either of my sides, and you do realize you and your fire are on the Dawn side of the creek, right?”
She was silent for a moment. Then, she chuckled darkly. “‘Either of your sides’? You’re on two?”
My skin began to crawl at her words, and I glanced hesitantly at the pair of brooches pinned against my hoodie. One silver, one gold. Darkness and Dawn. The air suddenly felt colder. “Um…” I tilted my head back up, feeling her scrutinizing gaze on me. A droplet of blood seeped out of the corner of her mouth and rolled down her chin as I watched her. Her brows knitted as her pale irises flicked back and forth between mine. Swallowing, I shifted my sword back to aim at her.
“You don’t know who I am, do you?” the Duskhowler asked quietly, her voice growing more monotone with each word. She sounded almost disappointed. About what?
“You’re… a Duskhowler, and you’re camping out in my territory instead of your own for some incredibly, unbelievably stupid reason. And you also tried to kill me earlier today.” I held her gaze as she continued to stare blankly at me, and my eyes narrowed into slits, unease rippling through my gut. “Why were you trying to get my attention? You’re obviously not incapacitated by any sort of injury.”
Again, the teen took a long time to answer. Crickets and cicadas sang all through the forest to break the silence, and paired with the distant rushing of the creek tumbling over stones and the occasional hoot of an owl, it was almost easy to forget that I was waiting for this girl to finally speak.
She drew my attention back by leaning against the sleek birch tree beside her and giving a shallow huff, shifting her flamethrower so it poked out behind her shoulder. “Great. That’s awkward, then,” she murmured through pursed lips. Before I could ask what she was talking about, though, she smiled tightly and swiped her tongue over her upper lip to catch another drop of blood. “Are you gonna chase me off now or something?”
“What─” I began, but the rest of the sentence died in my throat as my gaze locked on what she was leaning against.
That birch tree. Hadn’t that been the exact one in my dream? There… there wasn’t any blood splattered on its papery white bark, I realized, but its knotted surface, its peeling strips, its smooth, sturdy trunk─it was the same.
My skin began to prickle all the way down my spine, apprehension creeping through my chest at the memory of the blood, all the blood, and the screaming… That’s not weird.
I suddenly remembered what she’d said, and I whipped back to face her with a steely glare. “You can chase yourself off,” I growled, brandishing my blade. “And if you don’t, have fun dealing with the guards.” Stepping back, my gaze lingered on her infuriatingly calm expression for a few seconds before I ripped it away. Something was very off-putting about that Duskhowler. I clutched my sword more tightly and held it close to my chest as I whirled around and began to run.
The cover provided by the dense trees sent a rush of relief pouring over me. Close to the creek, the forest thinned out a little and felt immensely… dangerous. Far too open. Tiny flecks of bitterly cold snow stung my face as they flitted between the leaves and branches overhead, a biting chill seeping into my skin. Each heavy breath billowed out into a pale cloud, warm against the icy wind. I sucked in several long gulps of cold air, slowing down to a walk. Weariness and exhaustion from blood loss and a lack of sleep sapped the strength from my limbs more and more with each step, and I was reminded of how much I just wanted to go to sleep. Swiping my fingers against my cheeks to wipe the snow off, I felt the rough scab that crept all the way across the side of my nose and stretched over my right cheek. I snorted half-heartedly; that had been caused by my own blade when I’d been fighting Wistep earlier.
My knee smacked into the rough trunk of a tree while I wasn’t completely paying attention, and I cringed at the sudden onslaught of pain from the already existing bruises all over the area. I let my body slump heavily against the tree as my leg buckled from beneath me. Mmmm, ow, ow, ow.
For a moment, Swan was there, pinned between my shoulder and the gnarled bark. My sword tearing through skin and muscle and sinking into the tree. Blood gushing down my blade and the trunk and her leg and pooling on the ground around my shoe. Her strangled whisper barely audible through the sounds of the battle raging around us, barely more than a soft rush of breath against my ear.
She’d had to repeat it at least four more times before her words registered in my head. The majority of that memory was fogged with white-hot pain from my bruised ribs and splitting headache, and I hardly remembered the subsequent few seconds after that as I’d ripped my blade back out and loosened my hold on her. The next thing I knew, she’d crumpled in on herself and collapsed onto the snow, the bat forgotten and lying on the ground beside her.
She hadn’t moved when Icy had called the retreat. I’d stood there for several minutes before another Dawndweller pushed past me and hauled Swan to her feet, hardly even sparing me a glance in my direction.
I shoved myself away from the tree with a sharp inhalation and stumbled away on my injured ankle, suddenly finding it hard to breathe correctly. I didn’t need to think about that right then, there was nothing I could do, I just had to get back to the base and─
A rustle. The familiar scrape of an arrow shaft against a bow.
Whirling around, heart thudding, my gaze latched onto a tall, lithe figure with a longbow drawn and the sharp metal tip of an arrow aimed at my chest. Her long black hair, tied up in a ponytail, stirred in the chilly wind, but otherwise, she stayed still enough that I found it difficult to see her clearly against the forest behind her. Brown eyes narrowed into slits and shadowed by a baseball cap, she glowered forebodingly at me. I slowly shifted my gaze down, past a smear of bruises dappling her cheekbone, and settled on her lip. A conspicuously thick scar, dark against her pale skin, sliced across the right side of her mouth and ended at her jawline.
“Dawn, it’s me,” I hissed upon recognizing the teen. She blinked at the sound of her name and lowered her bow a little, visibly searching my face. Finally, her shoulders slumped and she reached back to shove the arrow into her quiver.
She took a couple of steps toward me and planted one end of her bow onto the ground before speaking. “Darkie, hi,” Dawn murmured quietly. From this close, I realized how exhausted she looked; dark circles hung below her eyes and her hunched posture suggested what little energy she was running on. “Why are you still out? It’s almost three in the morning.”
I shrugged, not having noticed how much time had passed. “Just heading back to the base. And accidentally taking a stupid long route.” Fresh annoyance at the Duskhowler flared up in my gut, and I rolled my shoulders abruptly. Meeting Dawn’s distant gaze, I added, “I could ask the same of you. You’re not even a guard─you don’t need to be out here.”
Dawn’s eyes shifted away, and the bow slipped out of her hand and clattered to the ground. “I can’t sleep,” she replied finally, her voice barely more than a whisper. “Not after…” She trailed off, and not bothering to pick her bow back up, she dropped down onto a fallen log and crossed her arms against her torso.
After… oh. That fight a week ago.
I hadn’t been there, but I recalled Maple and Dawn dragging themselves back to camp days ago, the former afflicted with multiple injuries and the front of Dawn’s dark purple shirt soaked through with blood. Maple had gone to take up aer post near the Dusk border, ae’d explained, only to run into a pair of Duskhowlers heading to spy on our base. They’d jumped aem to ensure that they could get to the base with as little trouble as possible. Both had knives and were well on their way to tearing Maple to pieces. Dawn had heard the commotion from where she was hunting and, as soon as she found them, she’d slung an arrow directly between the eyes of the first Duskhowler and tackled the second to the ground before they could finish Maple off. And snatched the knife from their hands. And ripped open their throat from chin to collarbone.
She’d never killed someone before then, had she? I thought, wincing. Sure, this was a war. Sure, I’d seen kids die. But I couldn’t imagine the emotional burden of knowing that you’d been the one to kill them.
“What happened?” she asked, looking back up at me and interrupting my thoughts. Her brow furrowed. “Today, I mean. With Swan.”
A lump formed in my throat at her words, and I quickly searched for accusation or hatred or anger or something in her brown eyes. But instead, there was only a question. Curiosity. Confusion. “I…” I began, my voice choked. I swallowed hard. “I don’t─I don’t know. I don’t know what happened.” A shudder rippled down my spine, and I twisted my arm back to jam my sword into its sheath. “I was just… we were fighting, we were sparring, we weren’t─it wasn’t─it wasn’t on purpose. Y’know?” I risked a glance back at the Dawndweller, but her expression didn’t change. Swallowing again, I mumbled, “Is it bad?”
Of course it’s bad, I reminded myself inwardly, curling my hand into a fist and letting my fingernails drive into the base of my palm. You stuck that thing all the way through her leg.
“Yeah, it is,” Dawn replied, distractedly scraping a dried blood splatter off her forearm. Her thumbnail caught on a small cut there and she flinched. “You’ve generally not injured your teammates this badly before. She doesn’t trust you at all now.” She glanced up to make eye contact from beneath her cap. “You should have seen her when she got back. Once the adrenaline wore off. You could tell that it hurt.”
A pang hit my chest, hot and searing and almost numbing me to the cold. She doesn’t trust you at all now. I swore under my breath, my heart pounding against my chest. “She thinks I’m gonna stick with the Darkhunters permanently.”
“Yep,” the teen replied, popping the p. She paused for a moment, then sucked in a shuddering breath to speak again. “I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to hit a nerve.”
“No, it’s fine,” I murmured with a weak shrug. Dawn was silent, I noticed, so I turned my attention to my ankle. Raw and open still, it burned to the touch, and the skin all around it was bright red and inflamed. Clumps of dried blood caked around my shoe and the bottom of my sweatpants. Biting my lip hard, I reached down to pry the edge of my pant leg out of the sticky blood that glued it to the wound. A quick, sharp jerk of my hand and it tore free without reopening the cut too much, but dazzling pain shot through my leg and I pressed the back of my hand to my mouth to keep from making a sound. Blotches of blue and green poked out from beneath the black fabric of my sweatpants as I clenched it in my fist. Gingerly, I tugged the pant leg over my calf to reveal the bruises marring my shin. They’d blossomed over much of my lower leg, pulsing painfully with each thump of my heartbeat.
Beside me, Dawn cringed suddenly and jumped into a standing position, swaying on her feet. “Mind if we go? Now?”
Concern flashed in my gut as I followed suit and stared worriedly around. “Um, yeah, sure,” I answered, and I made myself ignore my screaming muscles as I crouched down to pick her bow up from the ground. “You okay?”
“No,” she hissed, grabbing hold of her bow when I handed it to her, and I looked up at her abruptly curt tone. Her eyes were stretched wide, her pupils constricted in horror. “Their ghosts keep following me.”
Oh. Dear. I tried to imagine the reanimated Duskhowlers according to Maple’s description standing nearby, invisible to everyone but Dawn, and my stomach clenched. Snatching a last glance at the forest behind me, I nodded quickly. “Let’s go.”
The teen stayed silent the whole way back, wheeling around in circles, staggering back and putting on sudden bursts of speed, her gaze darting back and forth between the trees. Secondhand unease caused the hair on the back of my neck to stand on end. Either Dawn was just being extra careful, or the Duskhowlers she’d killed were right on our heels. Shivering at the thought, I brushed a hand against the hilt of my blade to make sure I knew where it was.
The scent of charcoal and smoke touched the air as we stepped into the camp─someone had put the fire out while it was left generally unattended overnight. Just past it, the tree in which the base was perched stretched up into the twinkling night sky. Dawn slung her longbow over her shoulders, then rushed forward and vaulted herself onto the rope ladder that hung down from the treehouse. I waited for her to climb a majority of the way up before grasping hold of it and hauling myself after her.
I dragged myself through the entrance and instantly felt the lack of freezing cold wind as I stood up. Without the natural light of the moon and stars peeking through the half-bare treetops to illuminate my surroundings, it was impossible to see how many Dawndwellers were asleep and how many of them had gone out to stand guard. But as I stepped forward, footsteps soft to keep from making too much noise, I accidentally thumped directly into Dawn. Squinting into the darkness shadowing the treehouse, my eyes adjusted to the dim lighting and made out Dawn’s outline against the bunks lining the wall.
She was standing in front of her own, her bow in one hand and her quiver in the other. Hesitating. I can’t sleep. Not after… I held my breath; I’d never killed another kid myself, but I could only imagine causing the death of two at once after trying so hard to avoid it. Recalling Maple’s gruesome description of the Duskhowlers’ deaths, I bit my lip. I wonder if that’s what she’s seen every time she’s tried to sleep since then.
Dawn jerked me from my thoughts by dropping her bow and quiver at the foot of her sleeping bag, perched on the bunk just above the very bottom, and wrapping her arms around me in a tight hug. Bright pain flashed through my bruised ribs, but I forced it down and hugged her back. She stood there for just a few seconds more before wordlessly letting go and turning back toward her bunk.
Sucking in a deep breath, I crept to the other end of the floor and climbed up the creaky wooden ladder, crawling out onto the second story of the base. More bunks and sleeping bags filled up the perimeter of the room, with a few lying around the center. Out of habit, my feet began to carry me to the back corner, where my own was located, but I froze at a sudden thought.
Why don’t I just talk to her?
I gulped and glanced around, locking my gaze on one particular bunk. A figure lay inside, her shuddering, ragged breaths making it quite obvious that she was not asleep. My heartbeat sped up anxiously. Here goes.
“Hey, S─” I whispered softly, but I broke off as the Dawndweller lifted her head just enough to shoot a vicious blue-green glare over her shoulder. My chest felt tight and numb with cold suddenly, and I faltered. Right. Goodbye, I thought sullenly, hurrying away to clamber into my own sleeping bag. Great. That did not go well.
I didn’t know how long I lay awake, my thoughts dancing around every possible thing my brain could think of. Blue. Swan. The Duskhowler. Luna and Silver. Dawn. But before I knew it, the pain roiling through every inch of my body gave way to nothingness and I succumbed to the heavy, numbing clutch of sleep.
I drifted awake hours later. Groggy and tired, I rubbed my eyes and rolled over. My head began to throb as I put pressure on the spot where I’d hit that tree during the fight, and I stuffed down a pained groan before it could escape my throat. I patted around blindly with a hand until it grasped my watch, and once my fingers wrapped around the small object, I peered at its screen. A little after eight.
A horrible aching had spread through my arms and legs throughout the night from laying directly on the bruises, and I tried in vain to wriggle into a position that didn’t cause immense pain. The vicious arrow wounds along the meat of my back and shoulder suddenly twinged as I flopped down onto my back. “Mmm, great,” I grumbled to myself, cringing. My gaze flitted to the right and swept over the room. A couple of Dawndwellers stood around here and there, talking idly, but my stare fixed on one particular empty bunk. Swan’s. She wasn’t anywhere in here, I noticed, meaning that she’d probably be on the bottom floor. I bit my lip. I really did not want to face her again, not yet.
Luna and Silver.
The thought popped into my head of its own accord. I blinked, then sat up abruptly. Shoot. Did Icy even know where they were? Slinging my sheath over my shoulders and fastening it to my body, feeling its familiar weight against my back, I rolled out from under the bunks above me and hauled myself to my feet. Maybe, if I could find her, I could tell her. She’d likely appreciate that.
I crept across the felled tree trunks that made up the floor, perching quietly at the top of the ladder. Instantly, a strangled, agonized cry split the air, and I flinched. That was Swan’s voice, almost certainly. Someone’s probably trying to clean out the wound, I realized. Heart pounding against my ribcage, I swiftly made up a plan in my head and bolted for it. My feet thumped against the floor as I sprang down the ladder, and in three long strides I was at the exit. Before it could register in anyone’s brains that, oh, wait, that’s the one who stabbed her in the first place.
With barely a second thought about it, I threw myself from the hole and sailed through the air for a long moment, stomach lurching. My feet slammed into the snowy earth and instantly buckled from beneath me upon taking the impact. Grunting, I smashed painfully against the ground. Fierce pain ricocheted through my body, and it took several seconds to pick myself back up.
Footprints caught my eye, squished into the snow and mud, with a speckle or two of blood harsh red against the white. They’d been covered up a little by fresh flurries of snow, but the precipitation had since stopped, allowing me to see them. Judging by the size and shape, they certainly looked like Icy’s. I tilted my head up to follow the prints with my gaze; they snaked between the dark trees and disappeared from sight before they could lead me right to the Dawn leader. She always went hunting early in the mornings, I knew. Meaning she’d probably be on her way back now.
Leaves and twigs crunched beneath my shoes as I jogged alongside the footprints, ducking between trees and under branches. Finally, movement flickered just behind a vast oak, and I heaved a soft sigh of relief. Dashing toward the tree, I stopped to take a breath and emerged from behind it.
She gripped the forelegs of a dead doe in both hands, face tight with pain as she struggled to haul it after her. Blood blossomed around a rip in her tan pants just above her knee from a stab wound that had been recently reopened. Her long, dark hair shifted in the faint breeze and flew in front of her face, and when she reached up a hand to draw it back, her green eyes settled on me and she yelped, startled.
I jumped as well from the sudden movement and smacked my shoulder painfully against the oak. “Sorry! Sorry,” I blurted out, heat rushing to my cheeks. “Um, belated hi.”
Icy regained her composure and took a visibly deep breath before settling her gaze back on me. She blinked, silent for a long heartbeat. Eyes flickering hesitantly. Her hand brushed against a jagged scratch over the left side of her face and smeared half-dried blood across her cheek. “Hey,” she murmured eventually, voice distant. “Do you need something?”
Conscious of her delay to answer, I stared down at my shoes, mind suddenly blank. What was I going to ask her? Heck. “Uh… need help with the deer?”
“Yeah. Sure.” As soon as I’d grabbed hold of the deer’s back legs, Icy looked away, straining to heave the animal’s body across the ground. She flinched and let out a hiss of pain suddenly, but continued walking almost instantly. My shoulders slumped. Wariness radiated from her like heat on a summer day. Oh, fantastic.
The memory of my two friends standing at the bottom of the deep hole underground resurfaced abruptly, and I took in a sharp breath. “Luna and Silver’re in the Darkhunter prison,” I exclaimed, prompting Icy to glance over her shoulder. “They’re, uh, fine. Just really bored. And can’t exactly get out on their own.” A chilly breeze raced past and I began to shiver. “And, um, their guard was sleeping on the job, so I can’t say that they’re being exceptionally well-watched. Although, wait, it’s been hours, they’ve probably switched her out by now. I don’t know. I figured you’d want to know.”
She nodded slightly, eyebrows drawing together. Quickly, I added, “Blue would have known if I freed them. I… don’t want to break her trust─” The word yet hung on the tip of my tongue, but I couldn’t bring myself to say it. Yet. I didn’t… really want to have to do that. Ever. “─um, so I didn’t bother trying to get them out myself. Just so you know. It’s not like I was, y’know, leaving them on purpose. Or something. Y’know?”
Icy sucked in a shuddering breath, and I saw her hands tighten around the doe’s legs at the mention of Blue. She began to pull harder on the deer, jaw tensing. Her tongue flickered out to catch a droplet of blood bubbling up at the end of the cut on her face. “Yup. Thanks for telling me,” she replied in a heavy exhalation. “I’ll send someone out to get them here in a bit.”
She turned back away. Chest tight, I waited for her to continue with something else, anything else, to break the silence. Pain lurched through my shoulder and ankle and shins with each step, burdened with the doe’s weight. I bit my lip hard, drawing blood. Icy rarely acted so taciturn around her own teammates.
I slowed my pace, halted in my tracks and dug my heels into the ground. Held on tightly to the hoofed legs gripped in my hands. Forced Icy to stop and glance back at me.
“You blame me, right?”
Locking my green gaze on hers, I searched her expression for confirmation or denial, for a subtle narrowing of her eyes or a clenching of her teeth. She met my eyes and swallowed, pinched her dark eyebrows together and shifted her stare slightly downward. Thinking.
Despair clawed at my insides and I dropped the deer’s legs. “Hear me out, please,” I cried, running a hand through my hair. “I’m not─I─it wasn’t intentional. I wasn’t purposely trying to stick my sword all the way through her leg. My… I hit my head, I was so dizzy, I could barely stand. I─we were fighting and I just happened to lean too far on my sword, and…” I trailed off, realizing I probably just sounded like I was making excuses. My lungs squeezed and I looked away.
“You realize…” Icy spoke slowly, considering each word. “You realize that she’ll likely have a permanent limp. At best. If the wound somehow manages to heal completely without a Darkhunter or Duskhowler ripping it back open.”
I flinched, having already thought about that. “I know. I’m sorry.” Daring to tilt my head back up to face her, I wrung my wrist with a hand. “Icy, you trusted me enough years ago to make me a double agent because you needed a mole on the Darkness side,” I ventured quietly. “And Blue trusted me enough then to let me do it. I… I have to fight for her too if I’m supposed to be effective at my job.”
Her brow furrowed, and after a painfully long moment, she let out a deep sigh. “I did. I do, I mean,” Icy amended quickly, closing her eyes briefly. She stepped around to face me and opened them again. “…I’m not mad, Darkie. I’m sorry if you thought I was.” Surprise flickered in my gut at her words and I blinked, gripping my wrist more tightly. She slipped her hands into the pockets of her black leather jacket. “I’m just… worried, to say the least. I’m the leader. I’ve been in charge of more than a hundred kids for the past few years. It’s my job to strategize battles so we can have the least amount of casualties possible, get wounds taken care of quickly, and generally keep them all safe. But that’s impossible. We’re in a war.”
A heavy silence hung in the air. The only sound in the whole forest I could hear was the rasp of my throat as I swallowed.
“What I’m trying to say,” she continued, rubbing her temples, “is that it’s just a little more stressful when a casualty happens to be my friend, and a tad more stressful than that when their attacker also happens to be my friend.” Her green eyes flickered away for a split second, vacant with memory, and I felt a chill run down my spine as they returned to fix on me. “Fight who you have to when you have to. But please, don’t do anything… more than this.”
More than this. I stared at Icy, realization settling in the pit of my stomach. More than… My mind flashed back to Swan, to the jagged cut through her calf. That I’d caused. My throat tightened. She means directly maiming them. Killing them.
“I won’t,” I responded in a hoarse whisper. “I swear I won’t.”
Satisfied, Icy offered me a soft smile and turned back to the deer. I sucked in a deep, shuddering breath and leaned down to grasp the legs in my hands again, my sore limbs starting to throb at the addition of the deer’s weight once more. But just as we’d begun to walk again, dragging the doe across the forest floor, the Dawndweller leader stopped in her tracks.
Her long hair whisked over her shoulder as she glanced back at me. “How often have you gone to spy on the Duskhowlers?”
I blinked. “Um, I mean, not often? Like, not on purpose that I remember. But I’ve been captured by them a couple times? And I’ve listened to what I could in those instances?” I shrugged my right shoulder─the one that didn’t have the vicious arrow wounds. “And stuff?”
“Why don’t you go do that now?”
Confusion rippled through me. “What? Me?”
Icy raised her brows. “Yes, you,” she answered, and she began to keep walking with the deer, straining to pull it after her. “Most of our spies are out of commission. A bunch of them are injured. Two are captured. Several are asleep because it’s just too hard to wake up early without me having to do it for them.” She narrowed her eyes, looking me up and down. “Are you horribly injured and not saying anything?”
“Uhhhh,” I replied, tilting my head down to examine my injuries as well. Dull pain rolled through my left shoulder blade from the four arrow wounds scattered across it, the slice along my shin, the shallow cut across my right side. The blood-splattered gash on my ankle, open and gaping and still very painful to the touch. “I think my ankle’s the worst of it. Everything else’s scabbed over.”
She nodded and dropped into a crouch before me, pulling out a thick wad of navy-blue cloth from her jacket pocket. A pang hit my chest; it was likely the remains of a dead kid’s t-shirt. I swallowed down the thought as she pulled off my shoe and wrapped a generous amount of cloth tightly around the wound, then tied the end in a fat knot and stood up.
I shoved my heel back into my shoe and dropped the deer’s legs back onto the ground. “What do you want me to listen for?” I asked. “Anything in particular?”
Considering, Icy rubbed absentmindedly at the jagged cut on her face. “See if you can’t find out when they’re attacking us next. I don’t want to fight them again soon because they’ve only had one or two battles in the past few days, while we had precisely three yesterday, meaning many more of us are injured than them. Which is not good for us,” she sighed. She grabbed hold of the doe’s forelegs again. “I want to try and prevent it if they do plan to attack. Or at least know ahead of time. Both would be great.”
“Sure thing,” I puffed, cracking my elbows. “Shall I leave now?”
Icy gave me a thumbs-up. “Now’s good.”
A chilly gust of wind rushed back toward me as I stumbled away from Icy and the deer and began to run. I squinted my eyes against the harsh blow, gooseflesh creeping over my skin from the cold. Sparse flakes of snow flew between the half-bare treetops and stung my cheeks. My feet pounded the snowy ground, pain lurching through my limbs at each step, but I bit my lip and pushed on. Lungs burning and muscles tight, I ducked through the maze of snow-dappled trunks, under low-hanging branches, and down the hummocks as the ground began to slope toward the creek. A stitch formed in my side as I leaped over a tangle of roots; stumbling over my feet, I slowed to a walk and pressed a hand against my torso, face twisted into a pained grimace.
How quickly are spies supposed to get to where they need to? I hissed in my brain, breathing hard. Hopefully it wouldn't be a problem if I walked the rest of the way to the creek. After all, I reflected, I didn’t often run between the Dawn and Dark bases. Maybe it’s the same with normal spies? I hope?
The murmur of rushing water soon greeted my ears. I staggered down the slope toward the creek, trying not to lose my footing on the slick snow coating the ground, and stumbled to a halt near the bank. The icy water gurgled past, streaming between and splashing against the large stones that protruded from its bed. Inching closer, I gingerly stepped on top of one and tested my weight. It didn’t shift from beneath me, so I hopped all the way onto it and balanced carefully on its uneven surface. Freezing cold droplets sprayed my ankles and shoes, soaking into the cloth tied around my injury and sending a chill through my body.
I glanced at the rest of the stones; they looked about as sturdy as the one I was standing on. Shrugging to myself, I bunched my muscles and sprang quickly between them, landing on the other bank and promptly slipping on the snow again. I managed to catch myself before I thumped into the ground, the bruises along my arms throbbing in pain. A groan escaped my lips as I forced myself back to my feet.
My gaze snatched on the birch tree, back on the Dawn side of the creek. There was no sign that that Duskhowler had ever been there─the previous night’s snow appeared to have completely blotted out the bare spot in which her bonfire had been, along with most of the footprints around it. I narrowed my eyes, remembering her rather disconcerting question. You don’t know me, do you?
Was I… supposed to?
“Fallen, look!” someone whisper-shouted from up ahead. “There’s one right over there!”
I whirled back around to face the Duskhowler territory, and my gut lurched. Oh, heck. Movement flickered between the birches and willows up the hill from at least two other teens. The trees around the creek were sparse, far too sparse, and the lack of cover meant I was doomed if they came after me. My heart began to pound. I was already on the Dusk side, meaning there’d be a greater distance to run if I wanted to head back to the Dawndweller territory.
Nerves humming with simultaneous panic and pain, I almost tripped over my feet sprinting up the hill to the nearest willow. A strong leap onto the thick trunk brought me a few feet above the ground, and I clung tightly to the bark to keep from sliding down. Sharp pain tore through my left shoulder blade as I stretched out the arrow wounds, but I bit my tongue against the groan that threatened to slip past and hauled myself upward. Once I’d found a sturdy branch that was hidden well enough by the snowy curtain of draping willow leaves, I crawled onto it and wrapped my sore limbs around it to hold myself steady.
My pulse thrummed in my ears as I stared through the gaps in the thin leaves, and I fought to keep my ragged breathing as silent as possible. A dark shape flickered between the willow leaves and I jumped as a teenager suddenly skidded to a halt directly beneath me, planting her hand on the trunk of the tree. I clutched the branch harder, pressing a hand against my mouth to muffle my still-too-loud breaths.
Bronze caught my eye from the shoulder of her gray hoodie. Definitely a Duskhowler. She was motioning furiously at someone with a hand, jerking her flattened palm up and down as if trying to signal for them to get down. Apparently they got the message, and the Duskhowler stopped, lowering into a crouch herself and whipping an arrow out of her quiver. Her attention was focused elsewhere. Relief washed over me; she was probably hunting some kind of prey animal, not me. They still had no idea I was there.
I allowed myself a little smile of relief. Maybe this’ll be easier than I thought it’d be.
The Duskhowler nocked the arrow to her bow and drew it back, creeping forward through the undergrowth, barely rustling the plants as she went. I held my gaze on her, hardly daring to move while I waited for her to get away. My heart drummed against my ribs as I realized that the sound of her quiet footsteps was gone. The coast was clear.
Unwrapping my appendages from around the branch, slowly and carefully to prevent as much pain as possible, I crawled forward. Just next to this willow stood another, hopefully close enough that I could jump into it with no trouble. The limb beneath me began to flex ominously under my weight, clumps of snow dropping down through the leaves, and I paused. Resituating my feet to use the branch as a springboard, I rolled my shoulders and prepared myself for a leap.
Cold stung my face as I broke through one, then another, veil of snow-covered leaves. And the next branch was suddenly already there. And my arms snatched fruitlessly at the slick, snowy bark. And I slipped.
Dazzling pain seared through my back and skull and I found myself lying on the ground. Not in the tree. Oh. Heck. The forest seemed to have gone completely silent. Oh, heck, oh, heck, they might’ve definitely heard that. Dazed, I rolled back onto my hands and knees and staggered into a standing position, vision speckling with black, awful pain rolling through my body. The ground wobbled beneath me and I slammed back against the trunk of the tree, crushing my eyes shut and panting hard.
“Um… did you hear that?” came a distant voice. Not distant. Too close. Heck.
I opened my eyes wide, staring straight ahead. They were right behind me. If I stayed absolutely, perfectly still, they might not see me. Shifting subtly to alleviate the pain from my sword’s sheath digging into my back, I bit my lip. Okay, well. That didn’t go as planned.
Uneven footsteps. Snow and leaves crunching beneath shoes. “Yeah. I definitely heard that,” another replied warily, the same voice as the Duskhowler I’d heard by the creek. Her tone shifted to a low, irritated grumble. “Whatever it was just scared off that rabbit, though.”
My fingernails dug into the willow bark as I heard them come closer. The first Duskhowler hesitated. “Do you… think it could have been a wild animal? Maybe?” She sounded dubious, like she didn’t even believe herself. The other snorted.
“Fallen, name one wild animal that can both climb trees, suck at it, and hit the ground that hard,” she remarked. “It was probably just a… oh. Oh, great.” Silence. Heart thumping, I pressed myself more tightly against the tree, trying to ignore the white-hot pain scorching through my entire body. The Duskhowler’s voice rose in pitch, edged with panic. “Um, Fallen?”
“Yeah?” A crackle sounded, then a subtle fumbling noise. She was trying to nock an arrow.
“That had to be a Dawndweller or Darkhunter. There’s someone here. And I─I shouldn’t be fighting,” the teen continued, words quavering. I stiffened and swallowed hard. “My ankle’s still sprained. Hunting’s fine, Wistep said, but fighting…? I don’t know, it still hurts.”
That’s good, at least, I thought, letting out a shaky breath through my nose. They don’t want to fight, either. Blinking, I darted my gaze around at the snowy Duskhowler forest, its mostly-bare birches and not-really-bare willows heavy with snow. Is this how spy missions typically go? Do they regularly get seen by people? …Y’know, probably not. This might not have been one of Icy’s best ideas.
Smooth wood slid against smooth wood. Fallen had drawn her bow. “It’s okay, Aqua,” she breathed, a tremor of fear audible in her tone despite her attempt to cover it up. “Here, um, I’ll watch your back. Hopefully there’s not more than two. If there isn’t, we can take them. Probably,” she added under her breath.
“‘Probably’? Not helpful,” Aqua hissed, and I heard as she stretched her own bowstring back.
More silence. Straining to hear them over the wind, I caught the faint rustles of footsteps. They sounded as if they were growing farther and farther away. Tentatively, I twisted around to my left and glanced over my shoulder, past the gray-brown bark, holding my breath. My gaze scanned the forest, the trees stirring gently in the breeze, the snow drifting softly from the branches. No anxious teenagers in sight. A long sigh rushed through my teeth and I let my shoulders slump, the corners of my mouth twisting into a dazed grin. They’re gone.
I twisted my arm back to grasp the hilt of my sword in my hand and slid it out. The trees in the Duskhower territory were obviously not well-suited for climbing, I noted─or maybe I just, like, suck at climbing them─so I’d have to travel the rest of the way to the Dusk base by foot. Stumbling forward, I brushed a finger against the scratch across my face. Speaking of, where even is it? It’s been a hot minute since I was last captured by them, so I barely remember what it even looks─
A startled gasp, the twang of a bowstring, the whistle of an arrow. Pain suddenly scorched through my right arm as the tip of an arrow drove deep into my bicep, just above my elbow, and a sharp cry escaped my jaws. My fingers slackened and my sword clattered to the ground. Slapping a hand around the arrow embedded in my bleeding arm, I whirled around to stare past the other side of the tree. A teen with long dark blonde hair stood with her blue eyes stretched wide and her mouth slightly parted in surprise, a bow hanging from her hand. Behind her, another girl in a gray hoodie stood back-to-back with her─the one from beneath the tree.
“Fallen?” she yelled, whipping around to see what her teammate had shot at, then locked her dark brown gaze on me. “Oh, crap.”
My lungs squeezed as I flexed my fingers, cringing at the bright pain spiking through my arm, horrifyingly conscious of the emptiness of my hand. I’d dropped my sword. Shoot. Heart pounding, I sidestepped toward it, but Fallen swiftly whisked out another arrow and aimed it toward me. “Aah!” I yelped, dropping to the ground moments before it sailed over my head. They’re gonna kill me if I try to run. Thinking fast, I darted forward and wrapped my arms around Fallen’s knees, then jerked them out from under her. Fantastic. I’ve gotta take them out if I want to actually get to where I need to go.
The Duskhowler gasped in pain as her body smashed hard against the ground, dropping her bow. Blood splattered my face and my own breath hitched in my throat at a sudden horrible pain and tearing sensation in my bicep; she’d landed on the arrow and levered it right back out of my arm. I bit my lip against the pain ripping through my limb as blood gurgled from the messy wound and rushed down to my fingers.
A fist bashed into my mouth and snapped my head back. I let out a mangled shriek at the fierce pain that shot through my face as my teeth pierced into my lip and a surge of blood filled my mouth. The forest danced before my eyes, and my head smacked against the cold ground, my heartbeat roaring in my ears. Blinking blearily against the agony roiling through me, I spat out the blood and lurched forward. Aqua, who I assumed had been the one to punch me, hefted her bloody hand back for another blow, but I ducked before it landed.
Fallen rolled onto her hands and knees just beside me and I threw myself onto her, thrusting my injured shoulder into her ribs. She collapsed under my weight with a grunt, fear flickering in her blue eyes. Droplets of blood dribbled onto her collarbone from my lip as I fought to catch my breath. Inhaling sharply, I saw Aqua stumble toward me with an arrow clutched in her hand, and I lashed at her with my elbow. It hit her square in the gut, fresh pain searing through the still-bleeding wound in my arm, and she cried out, doubling over and dropping the arrow to wrap her hand around the area. Had she been wounded there already?
“Aqua,” Fallen hissed, twisting around to glance back at her teammate. “Are you oka─” Before she could finish the question, I stomped down on her torso, just between her ribs to knock the breath out of her. She gave a choked wheeze and fell back onto the ground, landing hard on her quiver. Heart thumping, I whipped my head around to snatch another glimpse of Aqua myself. The teen was still crouched on the ground, trembling slightly as she fought to pick herself back up. I had time, I realized. Crawling off of Fallen, I let her sit back up while I swept my gaze around the area.
Gray sky, heavy with clouds. Ground patchy with snow and mud and several splatters of blood where we’d fought. Towering, draping willows and spindly white-and-black birches. There. A little bit behind Fallen stood a thick birch, its trunk solid and sturdy and its bark peeling in strips.
I slammed my fist against Fallen’s cheekbone and earned a pained groan in reply, her voice edged with a faint whistling sound. Gripping her shoulders in both hands, I dragged her backward across the ground. Pain throbbed through my limbs from the bruises and the cut in my arm and I gritted my teeth, blood streaming down my chin from my gashed lip. In my peripheral vision, I spotted Aqua smearing the blood from her hand onto her pale blue leggings and reaching for the arrow she’d let go of. Fallen squirmed beneath me and attempted a punch to my ribs, but I kept her upper arms restrained and the hit barely landed. Grunting with the effort, I dug my fingers into her skin and slowly pulled her toward me.
Thump. The Duskhowler’s head smashed against the trunk of the tree as I thrust her backward. She moaned in pain, leaving a dark blotch of red on the pale bark as she slumped away, probably quite dizzy.
“Fallen!” Aqua screamed, and she scrabbled with her bow and arrow for a moment before slinging it at me. I cringed in anticipation for another explosion of pain somewhere in my body, but instead, Fallen jolted beneath me and let out a feeble hiss.
“Aqua, that was me, ow,” she whimpered, and I glanced down. The arrow was lodged in her calf, blood splotching her jeans around the wound.
The other Duskhowler paled and reeled back. “Oh, crap. Sorry,” she shrilled, voice bordering on hysteria. Fallen’s eyes squeezed shut, then slitted open to look back at me again. Blood rushed from a cut on her right temple from where she’d hit the tree, staining her dark blonde hair with crimson. Tensing my muscles, I clutched her shoulders more tightly and threw her backward again. Another thump.
Fallen groaned and hung her head, her body crumpling in on itself as I let go of her. A trickle of blood leaked from her open mouth, and her eyelids flickered as she struggled to stay conscious. “Oh, my gosh,” Aqua croaked from behind me. Sides heaving, I glanced over my shoulder to see her. The Duskhowler’s brown eyes were wide as she stared at her teammate, slumped on the ground beneath me. “Fallen?”
My heart leaped into my throat and my blood went cold. I thought of Dawn, the ghosts she saw, the other teenagers she’d killed. That… I hadn’t… She’s still alive, right?
But as Aqua shoved past me and gently shook Fallen’s shoulder, the barely-awake teen gave another weak moan in reply. I let out a shuddering sigh. I just needed to subdue them enough to keep them from chasing me or stopping me from doing my task. Because I was not going back to Icy empty-handed. …But I can’t kill them. I can’t.
Aqua rounded on me all of a sudden, and I barely had enough time to even look before her fist knocked into my mouth again. Crushing pain ricocheted through my jaw and I choked on my bloody saliva. Blood surged from a strange new gap between two of my molars; spitting the metallic liquid from my mouth, I probed the spot with my tongue and realized that she’d knocked out a tooth. I coughed hard and the bloody molar dropped onto the ground.
The Duskhowler snarled and wrapped her arms around my ribcage from the back. I gasped at the pain the pressure on my bruises caused, which Aqua seemed to notice, and she only squeezed more forcefully. Panic fluttered in my gut, and I struggled to free myself from her painful grip. She held on, though, and after a moment, she threw me across the ground. Colliding hard with the earth, I rolled over a few times before slowing to a stop flat on my back. A horrible aching spread through my whole body as I lay there, and I cringed at the headache that began to pound against my skull.
A flash of metal caught my eye and I blinked. My sword sat only about an arm’s length away. Heart lurching, I lunged for it, but Aqua seemed to have seen it as well and stomped down on my forearm before my hand could wrap around the hilt. Pain spiked through my limb from the bruises and I choked on the blood in my mouth, fingers curling into the snow. Aqua cried out, too, and I glanced over as she stumbled and collapsed beside me. A memory resurfaced and I straightened up. I shouldn’t be fighting. My ankle’s still sprained.
She’d probably stepped on my arm with her bad ankle. Shaking slightly, I got into a crouch and swung my leg around. My heel made perfect contact with her ankle and she shrieked, flinching. I heaved a couple breaths as I regained my balance, swaying a little from the awful pain in my limbs and head and torso and pretty much everything in my body. Swiping my tongue over my bleeding lip, I darted forward and snatched my sword up, then turned back to Aqua.
The Duskhowler’s eyes shot wide open as she saw that I had my blade and she whipped her hand out to the side, patting the ground as if searching for something. I aimed a hefty blow to her shoulder and swung downward, but before it hit, Aqua grabbed hold of a thick branch from beneath a layer of snow and thrust it upward to deflect. Grimacing, I pressed my sword down against the damp wood, hoping to weaken her enough that she’d let go, but she bore my weight and shoved back with equal force.
Abruptly, she sucked in a breath. Oh, no. “Dawndweller!” she screeched at the top of her lungs, voice strained as her gaze flickered down towards my two brooches. “Or Darkhunter, something! There’s─”
I whipped my sword back, releasing the pressure from her branch, and delivered a vicious punch to her throat. Aqua choked on the rest of her words and dropped the branch, her head lolling back and her breaths ragged and quick. Before she could scream again, I shoved her over onto her belly, hooked my elbow around her neck, and yanked her back to pin her head against my chest. The girl gasped and dug her fingernails into my arm, painfully close to the arrow wound Fallen had given me.
She soon felt the blood soaking through my black sleeve and shifted her hand up to claw at the raw injury. I cried out, pain spiking through the wound, but forced myself to squeeze my elbow harder around her throat. Aqua let out a garbled yelp, her muscles tensing up as she fought desperately for air, but as the moments ticked by, slowly, slowly, slowly, her body began to go limp.
Finally, her hands dropped from my arm and her head rolled to the side as she lost consciousness. But not a second later, a distant yowl split the air. “Oh, joy,” I muttered to myself, words slurring around my missing tooth and busted lip. More Duskhowlers were probably on their way. Releasing my hold on the teen, I thrust Aqua’s body away from me and hauled myself to my feet, sheathing my sword.
A little ways away, the rise and fall of Fallen’s chest was hardly visible as she lay at the base of the bloodstained birch, blood soaking the snow from the arrow in her leg. Aqua, collapsed just next to my shoes, was already beginning to wake back up, fingers twitching feebly. I’d better go now, I reasoned, and, taking one last glimpse of the blood-spattered copse of trees in which I’d just fought, I staggered clumsily into the thicket and crept away.
[...I'm working on rewriting this chapter and I'm not done yet so the rest of it atm is old skldfj]
“What was that screaming I heard? I know it was here somewhere…”
I stopped dead in my tracks, then crawled into a bush for cover.
“Oh gosh,” the owner of the voice exclaimed when she saw the two unconscious Duskhowlers flopped on the ground. “What happened here…?”
I scrambled farther away and speeded up to a run, not wanting to stick around.
“What’s wrong, Dusk?” someone else inquired, terrifyingly close by. I squeaked and flung myself onto the lowest branch of a nearby tree, hauling myself up farther, in a position that I could still see the people below.
The first Duskhowler glanced up from the two light brown-haired girls lying at the base of the tree. “I have no idea what happened,” she murmured, so softly I could barely hear it.
Another girl stared at Aqua and Fallen, shock briefly clouding her green gaze. “Guys, we need to bring them back,” she exclaimed, jerking her head up to face the girl called Dusk and the other one. “We can’t just leave them here.”
“Yes, but I thought I heard screaming,” Dusk hissed, desperate to figure out what happened. I gripped the branch harder as the girl pointed at the jagged cut on Aqua’s leg, blood steadily spilling from the wound. “Shivy, they were attacked.”
The two other Duskhowlers exchanged glances.
“We’ll find whoever attacked them later,” the second one to speak, the one called Shivy, told her. “We need to get Fallen and Aqua back before we do anything.”
Dusk nodded, and I watched as she and Shivy lifted Fallen up. I saw blood oozing from a scrape on the side of her face from where I had threw her into the tree. I pushed away the twinge of guilt that followed.
“Great,” the remaining Duskhowler growled once the others had left, frowning at Aqua. “I have to drag her back to the base by myself. Sure, it’s only around half a mile away, but this might take a while… Whelp, might as well get going, Foxie, you don’t want to be attacked too…”
I felt way too weak to attack anyone else. I didn’t feel like dying at the moment. Then I realized that she had said the base was a half mile away, and I made sure to remember that so I wouldn’t completely fail at finding it.
“Wow, you came all this way to visit me? I’m flattered!”
I shrieked, then snapped my jaws shut with an audible click, and I felt a jab of pain where my tooth had been. I lost my grip on the branch, luckily not falling off. I whipped my head around to face the girl I had met with last night.
I took a few deep breaths. “Oh, it’s you,” I gasped, then registered what she said. “Wait, what?”
“I am the only person you’ve actually met from the Dusk side, right? So you’re here to say hi?"
I nearly laughed out loud. Can a person be any more oblivious to everything in existence than this one? Yeah, I nearly died trying to get past your teammates so I could simply say hi to you. Right.
“Uhhhhhhmmmm, sure,” I replied.
“Yay I’m special!” the girl exclaimed.
I looked away. I still need to spy.
“Follow me,” I mumbled, thinking up an excuse that someone like her would easily believe. I glanced at her to make sure she heard me, then jumped down. “Someone’s going to see us in that tree.”
She landed clumsily behind me. I dived into the undergrowth and stalked after the girl dragging Aqua behind her, the one who had called herself Foxie when complaining about having to drag the girl back alone.
“I’M THE QUEEN OF STEALTH,” the girl behind me yelled, her flamethrower spitting a few feet of fire into the air.
Uh, no you are not, I thought in reply, and decided to sneak away before she got me caught by the Duskhowlers. I tried not to imagine what would become of me if they found me spying.
Behind me, I faintly heard the girl ask, “Am I really annoying enough to drive people off?”
I crawled through the undergrowth a few feet away from Foxie, careful not to snap any twigs in my path. A thorn snagged my hoodie, and I went rigid as I waited for the Duskhowler to pass me before I got it off.
When I followed the girl for a few more minutes, I stopped in my tracks as we reached the base.
It was so ridiculously small.
I raised my eyebrows as I stared at the dozen trees all leaning against each other at the tip. How exactly is a single person going to fit in there, let alone a whole side?
Shaking my head subtly, I turned my attention back to the Duskhowlers lounging around the place.
“Is Wistep planning on fighting again anytime soon? The Dawndwellers and Darkhunters don’t stand a chance,” a girl leaning against a tree growled, examining a half-healed wound from her elbow to her wrist.
Another girl with black hair, scribbling something in a notebook with a pencil, glanced at her. “I hope not. We’re all starving. And only partially healed from yesterday’s battle with the Dawndwellers. It might be a good idea to just wait until we’re mostly healed. That way we’ll have the advantage over one of the other sides─the others just fought in quite a few battles in a row.”
“Wistep made Aqua and Fallen go hunting,” a girl I felt like I recognized from somewhere added. “But I’m not sure if they’re back yet or not.”
“Oh, they’re back, alright,” someone muttered, loud enough for most of the Duskhowlers to hear. I looked and realized that it was Shivy, and she and Dusk were holding the limp body of Fallen. The girl with the notebook widened her eyes.
Foxie stepped out from behind the three of them, clutching Aqua’s wrist tightly. “Someone attacked them. Someone who definitely didn’t want to be caught.”
Yeah, no kidding, I thought, crawling around a tree.
A girl I recognized as Wistep walked toward the base, dragging a couple of limp rabbits with her. “What’s going on?” she demanded when she saw the two motionless girls on the ground. “What happened to them?”
Dusk shook her head. “We don’t know. We found them by a tree.”
Wistep quietly made her way toward them, her brown eyes glazed over with fury at the girls’ attacker─me─and concern for the two. She stared at them for a moment, then shoved her glasses farther up her nose. “You three. Find the attacker. Now.”
The trio nodded and ran off in the direction I had come from, knives and bows drawn. They looked perfectly ready to kill whoever had attacked Aqua and Fallen. I swallowed hard.
My head began to ache again, and I felt myself slipping from consciousness as the pain grew stronger. I whimpered faintly and squeezed my eyes shut. I had been so occupied with stalking Foxie that I hadn’t noticed that a few of the wounds from recent battles had reopened, blood trickling from each. I felt a thick root on the ground nearby and clutched it hard, trying to take my mind off the pain, though causing the bruises on my arms from the fight with Swan to throb. Guilt flashed through me, and I let go.
I flicked my eyes back toward the Duskhowlers. Wistep was now pacing the camp, muttering softly. I moved to go forward again, flinching at the pain, but stopped as Wistep spoke again.
“Thund, Iris, and Riv, go hunting, we need food,” she called. The girl with the long cut on her arm looked up, then nodded.
She poked her head into a large gap between the trees that apparently acted as their base. “Riv, Thund, come on."
A boy and a girl climbed out of the miniscule base, and then I felt like a complete idiot for not realizing that the base was underground. I wanted to facepalm so bad, but I guessed that it might attract unwanted attention and I didn’t.
The girl with the cut on her arm, who I assumed was called Iris, led the other two into the forest. I wondered for a moment if I should follow them, but decided against it. I had to see what was happening at the base.
Wistep stood up and took a step back from the two Duskhowlers I had attacked. I was then able to see Fallen’s face clearly. Although she couldn’t see me, her blue eyes stared blankly in my direction. I stared into them; the fear and pain still glimmered there, and I flinched hard, my guilt growing.
I watched as Riv, Thund, and Iris split up and headed away from the base, weapons raised.
Should I go back now? I wondered, twisting my head around to make sure nobody was watching me. I bit my tongue to keep from screeching at the pain. I can tell Icy that the Duskhowlers are planning on fighting soon.
“Streamy, Blaz,” Wistep yelled into the small wooden structure. “Go spy or something.”
The girl with the notebook looked up. “Where?” she replied, standing up.
Wistep turned; her dark brown eyes flicked toward the girl, her expression thoughtful. “Head over to the Dawndwellers’ base. Blaz’ll go to the Darkhunters.”
I nearly screeched in fury when the girl clambered out of the base. I easily recognized the girl that had attacked me yesterday. Both sleeves of her red sweater were ripped, the result of Wavey’s swords being used to pin her to the ground. Blood stained her jeans where I had wounded her before. I touched my arm where she had hit me in that battle, blood still trickling from the gash, and ignored the pain that followed.
My brain registered what Wistep had said. Head over to the Dawndwellers’ base.
I cringed when I realized that I had to take Streamy down in order to keep her away from my side.
Streamy nodded and placed her notebook and pencil on the ground, then tugged a knife out of a sheath on her back. I turned to follow her, wincing as pain crept through my multiple wounds.
I let out a soft groan as I tripped over a bit of uneven ground and fell onto my wounded shoulder, alerting the girl to my presence. She jerked her head up and looked around frantically before spotting me, now standing up and raising my sword. She widened her brown eyes and stumbled back.
Streamy suddenly lunged at me with her knife, but I blocked the blow with my sword and shoved her away. I whipped my sword around at her, catching her in the arm. The girl yowled and fell back as blood splashed the ground, melting some of the surrounding snow. She immediately got up again and rammed her shoulder into mine, causing me to shriek in pain. I fell onto my side with a dull thud.
I felt my arms being pinned behind me and my sword being torn from my hand. After a moment of fruitless struggling, I elbowed Streamy hard in the stomach. She loosened her grip with a whimper and I ripped my right arm free with a burst of agony in my shoulder, jerking around to punch her in the jaw. Streamy let out a screech and recoiled, dropping my sword. I grasped its handle, lifted it and aimed it at the girl’s leg, hoping to slow her down in case she tried to run. She anticipated my blow and vaulted herself at me, thrusting me into a tree behind me. The breath was forced out of me and I cringed in pain as I slid down the trunk.
Streamy pounced on me and maneuvered her knife toward my throat. I flung her off me with a grunt, feeling blood begin to spill more heavily from my shoulder. She stood back up, her brown eyes glinting angrily. I held onto the tree and pulled myself to my feet, wishing that the fight could end soon.
The girl jumped into the undergrowth then, and I stopped. Is... is she retreating? I wondered, startled. Somehow, I don’t think so.
Streamy shot out of the undergrowth and gave a dizzying blow to the side of my jaw, wrenching my head back. I shrieked as she bashed my head into the tree, similar to what I had done with Fallen and Aqua, and I collapsed, twitching slightly.
Though my sight was now fuzzy and unfocused, I could see the girl hold up her knife to stab through me.
Next thing I knew, someone shot an arrow into Streamy’s shoulder, then lashed out with a fist and flung her to the ground. Her screams pierced the air, but were cut off abruptly as one of us blacked out.
I assumed it was me; I didn’t hear or see or feel anything else after that.
Other than a fresh wave of guilt and fear, I felt nothing.
A feather floated down from the treetops.
It was rather beautiful, a light brown color dappled with darker brown and white. Sunlight silhouetted the fringe of the feather, flickering slightly as it flitted down from the tree where it came from.
A faint breeze stirred the air, causing the feather to be blown aside, gently fluttering down. A cat nearby caught sight of it, her dark eyes glittering with excitement, and leaped for the feather.
The cat fell back onto her haunches with a snort of impatience, incapable of reaching it. She pawed furiously at the air, her small paws about a foot short of it. The feather was tossed in a different direction as the gentle wind cast by the cat’s paw blew past.
The cat began to seem more frustrated when the feather slipped past her paws twice more. I laughed quietly, watching her. The movement sent a blinding jolt of agony through my shoulder, and I let out a cry of pain.
Wincing, I gingerly tugged my hoodie and shirt sleeve off my right shoulder, pulsing with intense pain. A deep cut had been slashed into it, splattered with sticky blood. It hurt like heck, blood still pouring from it. I drew my hoodie back up and clutched my shoulder tightly, trying to stop the agony and blood flow. Instead, I felt it soak through the fabric of my shirt and hoodie, felt the warm liquid bubbling at my fingers and seeping in between them. Gasping at the pain, I jerked my hand away and stared, a dark sense of alarm settling at my stomach, at the blood that dripped from my palm.
The feather landed on my bloody hand, the soft edges soaking up the dark red liquid and becoming matted and wet with the blood. I raked my palm on the rough bark of the tree I was lying against, leaving a smear of blood and the feather sticking to it. The cat vaulted onto the tree, her hind paws scrabbling to get a good hold on the trunk. She slammed her paw on the feather, triumphant that she had finally caught her prey, but she pulled back and hissed as the blood smudged on her pad.
I stood up abruptly, wobbling slightly on my feet and clenching my teeth, and planted my bloody hand on the tree to balance. The cat leaped into my other arm, causing me to wrench my injured shoulder to the side. I groaned as a sharp throbbing jolted through the wound, but kept hold of the cat.
As I silently stroked the cat’s head, I remembered the battle last night, how I had gone off alone, right into the middle of an ambush by the Darkhunters. How could I have been so stupid? I thought, furious with myself. I had completely given away where I was, being so careless while heading through that part of the forest. I had intended to spy on the Darkhunters, but instead I was attacked as if I had been a real threat. Apparently they had been planning an attack on us, and I had been their first victim.
With a shudder that caused me to stumble from the sudden anguish in my shoulder, I recalled the moment when the Darkhunter with the meat cleaver had dropped on my back. The dull crack that had sounded from my back when she had landed, the distinct sound of a weapon being swung through the air, steadily getting louder as it neared its target, and my shriek of pain after she had driven it into my shoulder still echoed in my head.
When the meat cleaver had gotten caught in my shoulder and stuck there… I would never forget the agony I had gone through.
After finally ripping the knife from my shoulder, the Darkhunter had attacked me further and ultimately left me there, battered and bloody. I had been so scared of dying then, bleeding heavily from my shoulder, crumpled on the ground, vulnerable to any attacks that might come my way. But after Icy had called the third retreat that day, someone had dragged me back to the Dawn base. I had been too weak and dazed to tell who it was, but I vaguely remembered being half-dragged, half-guided away from the battleground.
I limped toward the base, the cat purring as I rubbed her fur, and tried to ignore the fierce throbbing in my shoulder. Glancing behind me, I winced as I saw a trail of blood in the snow.
The cat climbed onto my other shoulder and crouched there as I slowly made progress toward the base. A breeze lifted the cold, still air, causing the spindly branches of the trees around me to sway slightly. I sensed my light brown hair being tugged at by the gentle wind, felt it brush softly against my cheek.
I jumped slightly as a feeble crack broke the silence, a sound I’ve heard before, distinct to a human’s shoe crunching on an unseen twig in their path, and I felt the cat tense.
Being careful not to touch the cat, I slipped one of my dual swords out of its sheath and took a few steps back, warily surveying every inch of the area around me to see where the person following me was hiding. Snow drifted from the leafless branches of a large bush as something moved through it. I peered through the frail limbs to see if I could spot whatever was shifting the undergrowth. I caught a flash of black and red plaid, a color combination one naturally wouldn’t see in the forest.
Someone’s definitely here, I thought, anxious and slightly scared but still vigilant, bracing myself for an attack. Someone… could be a Darkhunter, or Duskhowler, or pretty much anyone.
“There you are, Wavey!” a teenager exclaimed in relief, clambering out into the open. “I’ve been looking for you!”
I lowered the sword with a shaky hand. “Maple,” I breathed, jamming it back into the sheath.
Maple nodded. Xyr brown eyes suddenly stretched wide and stared at the hole in my shoulder, and I looked at it as well. It looked just the same as before, blood splashed all around it and still steadily dripping from the wound.
“Are you okay?” xe demanded immediately. I clamped my hand over the cut and nodded briskly, dislodging the cat from my shoulder.
Maple reached down and picked up Melodie, and she mewed in protest. “Did you get it last night?”
“Yeah. Note to self: Don’t cross paths with someone with a meat cleaver.”
I took Melodie back from Maple’s arms and held her more tightly. Maple then snapped ots fingers, as if a thought had just occurred to ot. “Oh, I almost forgot─Icy needs to see you.”
“Why?” I asked, glancing up at mim.
The teen shrugged. “I have no idea. She just told me to find you.”
I paused, raising my eyebrows. “Is it important?” I murmured, settling my chin on Melodie’s neck as I stroked her fur.
“I’m guessing so,” Maple replied, his voice edged with annoyance. “She sure sounded like she wanted you to come soon. So you should probably leave now.”
Fey whirled around and ducked back into the undergrowth, leaving me standing alone with my jaw partially open, about to question feir further. I shut it and limped in the Dawn base’s direction, trying as hard as I possibly could to ignore the blinding pain in my shoulder. The cat jumped out of my grip suddenly, sending a jolt up my arm. My hand immediately flew to the wound and pressed down on it so violently that the movement briefly caused more pain than it had been in before. I gritted my teeth and halted in my tracks as the agony grew sharper still.
The cat padded ahead and looked back at me as if to urge me to keep going. I nodded mutely and stumbled after her. I glanced blankly at my leg and realized that the arrow that had been driven into it in last night’s battle was still there. When I yanked it out, the breath caught in my throat but I still barely noticed the pain, as it was practically nothing compared to my shoulder.
I staggered slightly when I finally got up to the tree that held the base. Blood trickled down my arm, soaking through my sleeve and dripping onto the snow. I whimpered and dropped my head into my hands when I realized I had to climb up the ladder and actively use my injured shoulder in order to get into it.
My breath felt warm on my face, contrasting with the sharp, cold, still air. My chest heaved, my breathing taking on a raspy whining noise, each inhalation shallow and quick.
I forced my thoughts onto the faint heat on my bloody hands, the breath seeping out from between my fingers and clouding up in the bitterly cold air, the gentle breeze tugging at my golden hair and whistling softly in my ear, the muffled pawsteps the cat made when her small paws sank into the snow as she pranced around off to the side.
It helped slightly; it seemed to take my mind of the blinding pain in the cut in my shoulder as well as the knowledge that the anguish stabbing through my arm would escalate to at least a hundred times worse if I tried to climb up to the base. I took in a few shuddering breaths, evening them out steadily, and slowly maneuvered my hands away from my face. I wiped the blood off my face with a sleeve, my breathing level and me feeling a bit more at ease.
I slid my gaze toward the cat, bouncing around in the snow with more energy than I thought possible, her feathery tail lashing from side to side. I exhaled softly and watched the breath condense into a faint cloud that hung in the air before being swept away like a wisp of smoke.
“Wavey! Glad you’re here.”
I yelped in surprise and whirled around, grabbing hold of my shoulder as I wrenched it painfully to the side. Icy stood a few feet away, her long black hair being pulled at by the chilly breeze. A crooked, shallow cut had been scratched over her left eye, bleeding slightly, but despite her squinting it partially shut, she appeared not to notice it much.
Her green eyes shifted slightly from my own gaze to my shoulder, battered and dripping with blood. “How much does that hurt?” she asked softly, her stare calm and willing me to answer.
I wiped my bloody hand on my jeans and flinched away from her as she stepped closer. “I’m fine,” I lied, backing up quickly and nearly tripping over the cat.
Icy regarded me sympathetically. “If you don’t feel up to it, you don’t have to.”
“Up to what?” I demanded after a moment.
She sighed, glancing in the direction of the Darkhunter territory. “Darkie told me that Luna and Silver had been captured, and I think she knows where they are. Can you try and get them back?"
Neglecting the burst of agony in my shoulder, I nodded swiftly. “Sure thing. Where is she? If she knows, she could tell me where.”
Icy suddenly snapped her eyes wide open. “Oh, no...”
“So...you don’t know where she is.” I felt dread curdle in my stomach.
“I sent Peto out a while ago to get her back, but that was like an hour ago.” She rubbed her temples, then took a breath. “I’ll go find a few others to search for them. I hope nothing bad happened.”
I nodded weakly. “Yikes. So where do I start looking for them?” I mumbled, sliding my hands into the pocket of my hoodie. The cat rubbed herself against my leg and I jumped away as she put pressure on the wound I had gotten from that one Duskhowler Darkie had been fighting with.
Icy shrugged, sighing again. “I guess in the forest somewhere. Just go find them, get them out of the prison, whatever and wherever it is, and come back. If you’re noticed by a Darkhunter or two, try to fight them off or just run.”
“What if they follow me?” I murmured.
Swiping a drop of blood from the jagged cut on the side of her face and wincing slightly, Icy shot me an anxious look. “Then lead them away from the base. There’s too many people injured. We can’t post a very effective guard to kick butt if anyone comes after you.”
My eyes widened as the words began to sink in. Hearing it shocked me, though some part of me expected it. There’s too many people injured.
We’re going to be so much more vulnerable to any attacks than we already are if I don’t do this right.
I hadn’t realized how uneven my breathing had become until I noticed Icy watching me with an attempt at a comforting expression, which would have worked if she weren’t so nervous-looking herself. “You don’t have to─” she repeated, but I cut her off.
“I’ll do it─I’ll be fine,” I told her, a bit too harshly; I didn’t think I sounded that convincing, but if she noticed, she didn’t say anything.
“Take Melodie back.” I nudged the cat toward her, and ran off.
The forest blurred around me as I ran. Everything was a haze of dark holly green, pale brown, and white, so much white, enough to make my head hurt. Blood dripped down my back from my shoulder wound, the affliction becoming almost unbearable. My vision went temporarily in and out of focus, my eyesight muddled and blurry for a moment. I nearly ran into a tree I had no idea was there, my vision flicking back to normal suddenly, but when I leaped away from it the wound in my leg ripped back open from the force. I was required to slow my pace to a walk as blood began to pour from it so my injured leg didn’t buckle beneath me and make me hit my shoulder on something.
I limped as quietly as I could so that the only thing I heard was my ragged breathing and the dry leaves softly crunching beneath my boots. The pale daylight filtered through the snowy treetops, dappling the white ground with blotches of sun. Small drops of blood littered the snow in one area, specks of darkness against the bright white. I crept in the direction of the blood, and as I progressed, the patches of blood grew larger and the trees grew darker.
The wind began to grow louder, shrieking in my ears. I squeezed my eyes shut and pressed on, my shoulder’s bleeding beginning to thin gradually. My long hair was blown back, and I realized with a jolt that I wasn’t well hidden if the wind could reach me. I moved to duck down into the undergrowth when something cold to the touch grasped my ankle and I stumbled and lost my balance. I landed directly on my injured shoulder, blood splashing around it and pain surging through me. I chomped down on my tongue with unnecessary violence to keep from screaming out loud, and I tasted blood in my mouth from biting so hard.
I twisted my head around to see what had tripped me, slowly standing up as I did so. I vaguely noticed the throbbing in my leg and the blood trickling from the wound as I put weight on it. I took in a shaky breath, and I didn’t realize I was holding it until I gagged hard and coughed up the blood from my tongue I had tried to swallow down. My eyes narrowed, catching sight of something small and bloody slumped on the ground.
Once I had stared at it long enough to figure out what it was, I shrieked, unable to bite my tongue again.
I tore my gaze away, my heart hammering against my ribs. A girl of no more than eight years old, dead.
Another kid, dead.
Ackkkkk, I thought, crushing my eyes shut, clamping my hands over my face. I shuddered multiple times, breathing hard, thoroughly horrified. Breathe, just breathe, look at something else. Just not at the… dead Darkhunter…
Mutely, I opened my eyes and let myself look around at the battleground. I recognized it now. The small hill near which I had been first attacked. The puddles of blood everywhere, smeared on tree trunks and on the grass. A broken arrow lodged into the ground, blood surrounding it, the place where I had seen that Darkhunter with the hole in her tongue. A few other arrows just lying on the ground, deserted and forgotten about.
Taking a few shaky paces forward, I identified the spot where I had first entered the battleground. My footprints were still imprinted into the blood-spattered snow, my blood still soaked the ground where I had been attacked. My shoulder began to pulse with a fierce pain as if to remind me that it was still there. I remembered with a pang the moment the Darkhunter had dropped onto my back, how I’d thought she would be perfectly capable of ripping open my neck and letting me bleed to death. Instead, she had somehow misjudged where her knife was going and had thrown it into my shoulder.
I absentmindedly crept my hand underneath my hoodie and pressed it against my shoulder, flinching at the pain. I felt blood gush from in between my fingers, the right side of the back of my hoodie now wet with blood. I took a few steps backward and leaned against a tree with a streak of blood on the trunk.
A bright light flickered through the trees, followed by two other flashes, all three cut short. I jerked my head up, searching for the source of the light. I couldn’t see where it was coming from.
Three more flashes of light flared, held out longer than the previous three. I squinted my eyes, momentarily blinded, my heart thumping.
Another blink of light, then another, then another. They were all short, quick flashes like the first three. The breath caught in my throat when realization hit me. SOS. Luna and Silver are somewhere near here.
I parted my jaws to yowl some sort of reassurance that they were being rescued, but quickly thought better of it and snapped them out. Some Darkhunter would probably definitely hear if they hadn’t already heard me when freaking out about the dead body.
I stepped forward, sinking down onto all fours so the flashlight’s light wouldn’t shine right on me and create a shadow. I followed the flashlight through the dark trees, trying to put as little weight on my right arm as possible. When the pattern started a third time, it seemed to be directed right at my eyes; I carefully lifted my arm, willing myself not to trip again and jar my shoulder more than it needed to be, and shielded my eyes from the glare.
I reached back with my left hand, shifting my weight back onto my legs, and slipped one of my swords out of its sheath. I held it up into the light to reflect it back toward where I guessed Silver and Luna were.
The SOS paused for a few moments, and I thought I heard someone saying something to another. From what I was able to hear, they sounded alarmed.
I jammed the sword back into the sheath and crept on, holding my right arm close to my body. Dim orange light shone directly into my eyes, and I thought it was the flashlight again for a split-second, but then noticed that the sky was partly visible between the trees. Down by the horizon was bright with red and orange, while above it was a darkening blue. I didn’t realize how long I’d been out. It was dusk.
I hope I find them soon.
Then, as if answering my thoughts, my hand rested on a smear of blood on the ground. A few tufts of pale pink fabric were caught on a bush nearby. Luna.
I followed the blood, a dark thought creeping into my mind. What if they’re dead by now? What if the Darkhunters killed them? I clenched my teeth and forced it away, but it kept returning to me. Alarm shot through me as I comprehended the fact that I might be following a trail that would lead to their carcasses.
They’re not dead.
With one hand, I parted the bushes in front of me and dragged myself through. Wincing as I put pressure on my right arm, I tried to climb out of the undergrowth, but something was preventing me from moving any farther. A vine of some sort was caught on my leg, cutting off the circulation and making my foot feel tingly. I groaned softly and yanked hard on it, sending a dull impact through my leg, loosening the vine only slightly.
I then whipped out my sword and brought it down on the plant, snapping the taut green stem in half. Because I had still been wrenching on the vine, the fact that it suddenly gave way caused me to trip over backwards and tumble head over heels for a second or two. My head banged painfully onto the ground, and I lay there for a moment while I recovered.
“Who are you? Leave us alone.”
I let out a yell and sat bolt upright, then slapped my hand over my mouth and swung my head around, searching for the source of the voice.
Then I saw Silver, her blue-gray eyes hard and glaring at me. She was standing at the bottom of a deep hole in the ground, arms crossed. Once I stared at her long enough and she stared at me back, her eyes softened as she recognized me.
“It’s Wavey,” I called softly, though it was evident that she could already tell.
Luna prowled up behind her, watching me warily. I looked away and observed my surroundings to make sure nobody was nearby, specifically any Darkhunters lurking around. I stood up, shaking the vine off my leg, and stretched out my limbs, which had begun to feel stiff from crouching on the ground for so long.
I turned back to them. “Do you have your weapons still?”
Luna nodded curtly, showing me her bow, not uttering a word.
“The Darkhunter leader still has my dagger,” Silver hissed quietly. “I stuck it in her arm, but I didn’t get it out before she threw me in here.”
I felt a prickle go down my spine, and I hunched my shoulders slightly to keep from shivering from the biting cold, which didn’t work. My wounded shoulder started to bleed again as I moved. I clenched my hand into a fist for a moment, then let my arm go limp.
“What?” I asked, my voice faltering at the end when neither of them said anything more for a few minutes.
“Be quiet,” Silver mumbled, backing up a few steps.
My eyes narrowed. “What?” I demanded again, sounding stronger and slightly more snappy.
“Dog,” Luna murmured and ducked back into the shadows.
I barely had time to register what she meant when something flew into me from behind, throwing me to the ground. The breath was knocked out of me, and I groaned softly when my shoulder struck the hard earth with a dull thud. Something heavy pounced onto me and pinned me there.
I tried to move my left hand back to get my sword, but my attacker held it down. Worry rippled through me as the thought came to me that it might be a Darkhunter, but suddenly Luna’s warning and the startling weight of the attacking creature came together in my head. The Darkhunters had a dog, a guard dog, to make sure that the prisoners wouldn’t escape.
The dog’s foreleg was pressing down on my left arm, but my right one was still free. A fierce agony blazed through my shoulder as I shifted it to reach back for the sword. A shrill cry forced its way past my gritted teeth, and I felt the black creature on top of me stiffen as it sensed the sharp scent of blood. My hand closed around the handle of the sword and I wrenched it out of its sheath.
Both the dog and I whimpered in pain as I stabbed my sword into its foreleg, me jarring my shoulder at the same time. The blow forced the animal to adjust its footing, and it decided to plant one paw on my shoulder wound.
A shriek split the air. Tears sprang to my eyes at the searing pain the dog sent through my shoulder, like it was being ripped clean from the rest of me. Crazed from the agony, I tore my other arm out from under the dog to try and wrestle it off. My efforts did nothing; it was like the creature was half horse and it wouldn’t budge.
Now panicking, I fumbled with the sword for a moment and passed it to my left hand. I kicked hard at the dog’s underbelly, causing it to squeal and recoil slightly. It was enough for me to be able to shove it off of my arms, but it pounced back on me, thumping its huge black paws into my chest. The breath was forced out of me, and I wheezed with the effort of trying to get the thing off me without any air in my lungs. I remembered the blade in my hand and swung it at the dog again, cutting into the same leg as before.
“Wavey!” Silver whisper-shouted from somewhere in the hole.
I glanced down at the sword, removed it from the dog’s leg, and hurled it past the dog in the direction of the hole with a grunt. “Climb up!” I gasped. “Then run!”
I craned my neck around the dog. The sword clattered to the ground close to the hole, and I sighed in faint relief that it hadn’t gone farther. Luna, being the taller of the two, jumped up and slammed her hand onto it, hooking her fingers around the blade and closing her hand over it. She fell back into the hole, dragging the sword down with her, and disappeared from my sight.
The dog gripped both of my shoulders suddenly with a ferocity that nearly made me shriek out loud again; its huge claws sank into the wound and I felt a muscle or tendon or something in it tear. Warm blood pooled around the spot, and I fought against the overwhelming urge to screech a third time from the writhing agony in my shoulder.
I bit down on my lip, barely noticing the fact that I was drawing blood. I could only just see Silver clambering out of the hole, my sword in her right hand. The girl hauled herself onto the ground and dropped the sword back down so Luna could get out.
I lashed out with a leg again, landing a hard kick in the dog’s ribs, but it did nothing more than flinch and shift its footing. I let out a groan and went limp, my head dropping back onto the ground.
The dog is going to kill me… or a Darkhunter’s gonna come… or I’ll just bleed to death… oh gosh, this is terrifying.
I’m going to die, aren’t I?
I shifted my gaze back toward the hole. Luna was already out, clutching the sword hard. She turned toward me, her blue-green eyes watching me steadily. “Help,” I whispered hoarsely, though I was sure she couldn’t hear me.
Then a blur of pale pink appeared before my eyes, and the weight was lifted off of me. Luna had taken the dog by surprise, now chasing it out of the clearing. I leaped to my feet, a little too quickly; my vision became speckled with black, and I stumbled back, feeling lightheaded.
A glint caught my eye, and I looked down to see my other sword on the ground. I snatched it up, clenching my teeth at the stabbing pain in my shoulder that followed. Squeezing my eyes shut, I slipped it back into my sheath so I could just use the sword in my left hand.
I vaguely saw Silver motioning frantically at me in my peripheral vision, and I tilted my head up to meet her eyes. They were wide, glimmering with fear. “Come on!” she hissed, and without hesitance I bounded to her side. Both of us immediately looked around for Luna, who then jumped out of the bushes and sprinted toward us.
I jerked my head toward the undergrowth and crawled in. Feeble cracks behind me told me that the two girls were following, and I continued to creep through the shrubbery for about a minute, my shoulder throbbing.
I twisted my head back to face Silver. “Do you know the way back?” I whispered, my voice taking on a faint note of despair.
Slowly, she shook her head. Yikes.
I swallowed back a groan and fought to stay calm. “Alright, just follow me. And don’t get separated.”
We crawled as quickly and quietly as possible through the undergrowth. I reopened a wound somewhere along my spine as we went, and I clenched my teeth hard so I wouldn’t make a noise.
The wind rose from a gentle whispering to a deafening howl. I ducked my head and pressed myself closer to the ground, feeling the breeze stir my purple-tipped hair and drift past. The distinct chirping of crickets rose up around the three of us, startlingly loud and close by. I was barely aware of the fact that blood was beginning to drip from my shoulder again, the flow growing heavier as we went, but I was so focused on getting back to the base that I wasn’t planning on acknowledging the pain at all.
It became impossible to ignore it after a few more minutes of creeping on all fours. A sharp, conspicuous anguish crawled through my whole right arm, and I shifted my weight onto my other three limbs before I could vocalize the pain again. I paused for a moment to press my arm hard against my side and clench my hand over my shoulder to staunch the bleeding. It all did nothing, the agony just as fierce as before and blood leaking between my fingers and smearing my palm with the sticky, dark red liquid.
I heard the crackling of twigs and leaves and snow behind me stop abruptly, and I twisted around to see what had happened. Luna and Silver were staring intently to the right, narrowing their eyes to better observe whatever they were looking at.
I recognized the sound of voices. That meant only one thing, with us probably being exceptionally far into Darkhunter territory.
The Darkhunters are here.
Luna elbowed me sharply in the rib. “Wavey,” she hissed through clenched teeth, her voice low and grim-sounding. “We’ve gotta spy.”
My expression blank, I stared at her emotionlessly. She shifted her blue-gray-green gaze from my right eye to my left and back again. For a long moment, I felt nothing at all other than the ripping sensation in the gaping wound in my shoulder. I shook my head slightly, opening my mouth to refuse. We have to get out of here.
“Wavey!” Luna whisper-shouted, gripping my shoulders with violent force and shaking me hard. “Come on! We’ve got a chance to spy and we’ll leave right after!” I came to my senses at the stunning pain she caused and twisted free of her grasp, nearly landing on my back but still managing to hold myself up.
The girl jerked back, her face a clear image of guilt. “Oh, gosh, I’m sorry, I─”
I shook my head. “It’s okay, I─get down. Get down now,” I hissed suddenly, hearing the voices get louder and dropping to the ground. The two rolled over and into the undergrowth in unison.
“...how else can we attack them, then? If we’re not going to just reuse a previous strategy, then how are we supposed to attack?” one of the Darkhunters demanded, and I saw her clutch her head in exasperation. I pressed myself as close to the ground as possible, laying on my left side and sprawled out.
“What do you think, Fire?” another snapped. “Why don’t we just attack the base?”
I caught sight of Luna and Silver exchanging quick glances, alarmed. I felt the same way and hoped they were talking about attacking the Duskhowlers and not us.
A third’s eyes flicked up at the last statement. “Yeah. But where is it?”
Most of them shrugged, turning to stare at the second one I heard speak.
Through the dense plants and shrubbery, I could see the Darkhunter adjusting her hold on something in her hand, a dart gun. Flinching indistinctly, I recalled seeing her right after the one girl had gotten shot in the tongue by a Dawndweller, about to fire a dart at me. She replied after a long moment. “It’s─it’s somewhere in the forest, to the east...I think it’s in a tree.”
I slapped my hand over my mouth to keep me from making any sort of reaction that might indicate my shock. Silver shot me a look.
The Darkhunter lifted her head slightly as if she had heard me and shifted her brown eyes toward where I was laying on the ground. I went rigid with alarm.
The other Darkhunters seemed preoccupied with the idea, but the girl who had suggested attacking the base didn’t appear to be paying as much attention. She eyed the undergrowth suspiciously, her jaw clenching. I felt a wave of cold fear swamp over me when her gaze swept right over me.
She flicked her eyes back at me suddenly and locked her gaze with mine. Her expression melted from wariness to sheer panic, and her previously relentless grip on the dart gun diminished rapidly, leaving her only just being able to hold onto it.
I tried as hard as I could to stay still, to not make a single movement, my breathing shallow and with long gaps between each inhalation. The girl held my gaze, staring at me and sending a chill down my back. She regained her grasp on the dart gun and raised it with a shaky hand, aiming it at me.
“Um...guys,” she mumbled, finally looking away. While she wasn’t watching me, I scrambled backward as silently as possible, my heart pounding and shoulder bleeding. To my relief, Silver had begun to follow me, Luna on her heels.
“Later, Minty,” a different Darkhunter snarled at her, starting to step away from the group. I recognized her as the leader. “Come on, we’ve got to go. If we’re going to attack, we’d better tell our plan to the others before we do. Less confusion that way.”
The girl the leader had addressed as Minty spoke up before she was completely out of earshot. “Blue,” she called, switching her dart gun from her right hand to her left and back again. “You do realize that there’s a dagger in your arm, right?”
I glanced at Silver. Yours? I thought. Silver met my gaze with a quick nod as if she had read my mind and looked back.
The Darkhunter leader shot her an annoyed look. “Not at all,” she snapped. “One of those Dawndwellers we captured stuck a knife in me and I didn’t notice in the slightest. Of course I did. Just can’t particularly get it out.” I winced as she wrenched on the weapon to emphasize her previous statement.
“Here,” Minty mumbled, grabbing hold of the handle of the dagger. I ducked my head, not wanting to be able to witness her removing the knife from the Darkhunter leader’s arm. There was an indistinct ripping sound and then a lusty, sharp intake of breath, edged with pain. The girl loudly flicked blood off of the blade and I heard as each and every drop splattered the ground.
The leader, whom Minty had identified as Blue, shook out her arm and stared down at the other Darkhunters. “Let’s go. Chop chop.”
I carefully shifted my position so I was half crouching, half laying on my stomach. I became vaguely aware of a trickle of blood running down my arm and pooling on the ground, melting the surrounding snow.
The three of us turned to leave but decided to listen for one more moment when we heard one Darkhunter ask why they had come clear out here to make up battle plans instead of just doing it at the base.
“Well, I was planning on having us practice what we were coming up with out here, but now that we’ve got something involving a different side’s base, we can’t exactly do that.” Blue beckoned for the others to follow as she headed away. Before she and the others were completely hidden behind the trees, I barely heard her whisper something to Minty.
“Before she leaves, go do something with that spy. Kill her, capture her, just do something.”
My heart sank and I felt my head go light. No, please no.
Minty nodded slowly, slipping the dagger into a hole in her pant leg just above her knee, and waited for the rest of the group to vanish. Once they had gone, she took a quick look at where Silver, Luna, and I used to be, then whipped around and dashed into the trees.
After stealthily creeping around for about three more minutes, we gave up on being quiet and sprinted toward where I thought the base would be─east, like Minty had said, which meant running in the opposite direction of where the sun was at the moment. Wind rushed through my long hair and blotted out every other sound one would hear in the forest, the volume of its shrieking almost deafening.
It grew more piercing in pitch, rising and falling rapidly. My head spun, feeling giddy from blood loss, my subconscious leading me to think that the howling of the wind was one of the kids screaming, distracting me from running for a minute. I stumbled over something in my path, presumably the branch of a nearby tree, and completely lost my balance. I hit the ground with a groan of pain as my shoulder was further ripped into by bits of rock and tree poking up from the surface of the uneven ground and more blood than before immediately began streaming from it. For a long moment I couldn’t bring myself to get up and undergo the agony anymore, but I gathered up the little strength I had and pushed myself to my feet.
I heard a muffled crack. I jerked my head up and stared at where I thought the sound had come from, my eyes losing focus momentarily. My mind was blank briefly, then it clicked.
Minty. Minty’s here.
Seconds ticked by, agonizingly slowly. I flinched at every little sound; a leaf shifting in the wind, a bird taking flight from a tree, branches brushing up against each other in various places in the forest. Fright crawled through me, the knowledge that I would be attacked at any moment making my fisted hands shake.
A figure suddenly slipped into view. I moved to scream, but was cut off by a hand taking hold of my neck and crushing my throat with a strength I didn’t think possible. The teen held onto me with a vicious grip and thrust me backward, throwing my balance off and causing me to stagger. My head crashed into a tree and she pinned me there, pressing her palm down harder. Scorching hot panic surged up through my gut as I tried vainly to get air into my lungs, the little oxygen left in my body running out quickly. I lifted my gaze and met Minty’s, her brown eyes blazing fiercely with a strange mix of determination and utter, blatant terror.
Trembling with fear, I remembered that my hands were still free and clutched weakly at Minty’s wrist, trying as hard as I could to shove her away from me and get her off. Instead of letting go, though, she pushed down harder against my throat and tightened her grip. My lungs burned, screaming for air, as I stared desperately at Minty's unyielding expression. Black creeped around the edges of my vision. My pulse roared in my ears. Horrible pain clutched at my neck and filled up my chest and stabbed through my wounded shoulder. I cringed, feeling incredibly lightheaded, and dug my fingernails into Minty's wrist. She winced, but she held on.
Without a warning of any sort, she threw the hand she wasn’t using to choke me around the back of my neck and adjusted the position of her arms so she could snap it, keeping both thumbs on my throat and squeezing it hard.
I let out a strangled cry, my voice butchered by my half-crushed windpipe, and jerked my head to the side to dislodge Minty’s hold on my neck. Her hands shifted slightly and she moved one completely away from me, letting a thin trail of air into my lungs. I struggled to breathe it in, my vision speckling with more black and my head still light, a rasping sound emitting from my throat.
A click. A sharp sting in the back of my hand.
An astounding agony blazed up through my whole left arm, making it feel as though it were on fire. I forced a shriek through my distorted throat as another wave of it surged through me, though slightly less powerful than before. Wrenching my hand away from Minty’s wrist, I clenched my teeth forcefully enough to make my jaw ache as I turned to stare at whatever the Darkhunter had shot me with.
Before I could even catch a glimpse of the object, Minty had ripped it from my hand and plugged it into her dart gun─it must have been one of the darts. What I saw where it had been was a small chunk missing from my hand, slightly blackened around the tiny hole in the center, and a diminutive rivulet of blood pooling up in the hollow. My fingers tingled and fierce pain continued to rush through my arm, the ferocity weakening swiftly, until it dwindled to a dull throb. I balled my hand into a fist and released it again, trying to diminish the last of the burning sensation, though ultimately just making it worse.
Minty gripped my neck harder, with both hands, and hurled me downward. The greens and browns of the woods blurred before my dizzy eyes; then my body smashed painfully against the ground, breaking the trance, and a fresh, awful agony blazed through my flesh and bones. For a moment, the remaining air in my aching lungs was forced out in a soft whuff from the impact, but I soon realized that Minty’s hands were no longer around my throat and I could breathe. I inhaled deeply, greedily, gulping the air down, eager to feed my lungs with oxygen. Panting heavily, I gingerly let myself go limp. I needed to breathe, to ease the hollow aching feeling in my chest and breathe.
Through my bleary vision, I saw the pale tan sole of a shoe lift into the air. My reflexes didn’t work quickly enough to roll out of the way or at least curl up into a ball to protect myself, and splitting pain cut through my torso as Minty stomped down onto my rib cage. A sickeningly loud crack resonated from one and I screamed, tears of pain pricking at my eyes. Thinking swiftly, I grabbed hold of her calf and swung my own leg upward to land a kick in her gut. The abrupt movement jolted my newly fractured rib, igniting another wave of awful pain, but it was worth it. The Darkhunter reeled back, clutching her stomach, and fell backward onto the ground with a grunt. She started to roll over, trying to get up, but I launched myself at her before she could, planting a foot on her collarbone.
“Aah!” she hissed hoarsely, struggling to get out from under me, but I held firm, my teeth gritted. My body hurt so badly, and I needed to finish this fight quickly. Before I passed out or... died. I swallowed hard, a shiver running down my back. I don’t want to die.
I reached back to slide one sword from its sheath. My shoulder screamed in agony as I twisted it back, but I clenched my jaw harder and wrestled down the shriek my vocal cords were trying to force out of me. Minty’s eyes flickered as I revealed the blade, a terrified look in her brown gaze, and she fought harder to escape. Clutching her wrist with my left hand and settling my knee down onto her torso, I held my sword above her arm. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of Minty finally giving up her struggle and turning her head away. Brief guilt flashed inside of me; this girl thought she was going to die. I took a deep, shuddering breath. I won’t kill you. With that thought, my sword flew forward.
I crushed my eyes shut as a hot spray of blood splattered against my cheek. Minty gave a crazed howl, her body tensing up beneath me. Angling my sword away from me, I dragged it downward, trying to block out her screams of agony. The metallic tang of blood filled the air. The liquid puddled up against my hand where I held her wrist. After a few seconds, I felt the keen edge of my sword as it pressed into the side of my palm, and I pried open my eyes. My sword was drilled deep into her wrist, just barely touching my hand. A horrific cut snaked up her arm, from the meat of her shoulder down to her wrist. Blood gushed from the wound, warm and slick, staining my hand with red. Tears streamed down Minty’s cheeks and her cries of pain died down to faint, breathy whimpers. Her head rolled back to face me, expression dark with anger and fear and pain.
She suddenly lashed out with her other hand, landing a weak punch to my ear. I winced and loosened my grip a little bit, but not enough to let her get away. There wasn’t much she could do to escape. She was in a terrible position to hit me accurately, and there was no way for her to kick me off. I panted softly, still trying to recover from earlier. All I needed to do now was to knock her out so she couldn’t chase after me again, so she’d maybe be free from her pain for a little whileー
Minty lunged forward and sank her teeth deep into my forearm, blood spritzing against her face. Fierce pain shot through the wound as her teeth broke the skin, causing me to yelp sharply. While I was distracted from holding her down, she wriggled out from under me a little bit and bashed her fist into my cheekbone. I let out a cry of surprise and pain and she shoved me off of her, the tip of my sword slipping out of her wrist. Quickly, before she could catch me by surprise, I leaped to my feet and geared myself up to fight her again. But when I turned back around to face her, she looked about ready to pass out right then and there. Her expression was defeated, pained. Blood soaked her entire right arm and dripped down onto the ferns and snow. I paused, letting both of us catch our breath for a brief moment.
Someone in a red plaid sweater suddenly rushed out from the cover of the trees and pounced on Minty, snatched the dagger out of her pant leg, and dug its point into her throat, just enough to induce a negligible trickle of blood. I jumped, startled, and whipped my sword up. But after a second, I recognized the girl and lowered it again. Silver.
Luna appeared next and shot Minty thrice through her already badly wounded arm. The Darkhunter screamed in pain and tried to slip out of Silver’s tight grip so she could get away. Silver caught her and shoved her forward, removing her knife from her throat.
Moving out of pure instinct, I whipped out my fist and socked her in the eye. Minty let out a hushed cry and collapsed onto the ground against a tall cedar tree, flinching away and pressing her back against the bark as Luna rounded on her, prepared to thrash her again.
The girl in the unicorn onesie punched her in the jaw, a hollow thump ringing out. Blood began to trickle from the side of her mouth; Luna had knocked a tooth out. The Darkhunter’s hand twitched and she moaned subtly before going completely limp. I watched her for about a minute after she stopped moving, making sure she was unconscious.
“Should I stab her?” Silver asked me in a whisper, brandishing her dagger and stepping closer to the figure sprawled on the ground.
I shook my head quickly and held an arm out in front of her to keep her from getting any more within stabbing range of Minty. “We need to get back to the base, tell them what’s happening, make sure nothing happened. ’Kay?” I rasped, my voice hoarse and faint, still trying to recover.
I didn’t wait for either of them to answer before taking off in the direction we had meant to go originally. Behind me, I heard the two girls’ footsteps as they followed in my wake. Good.
Clenching my fists, I felt blood dribble from my fingers and drop onto the forest floor. I turned my head to see my thumb and forefinger stained red, a long stream of blood leading up my arm. I touched a finger to my shoulder and snatched it back immediately at the fierce pain that followed. I hadn’t even noticed it for a while, but now it hurt like heck, blood pulsing from the wound. I rolled my shoulder, shifting my hoodie; the wetness of the fabric was easy to feel once I was paying attention to it.
The moon was beginning to rise, a sharp silver crescent that resembled some sort of blade. I hadn’t even noticed that it was turning toward night now, I had been so preoccupied with rescuing Luna and Silver and not dying. I lowered my head from the sky and toward the thick undergrowth and dense trees. The three of us ran through the forest, focusing on one thing: get to the base alive.
It hurt to breathe. Every gulp of air I sucked in made my throat burn and my rib seethe with a strong, harrowing agony. Blood rolled down my limbs and my back from the exceptionally large number of wounds I had gotten. I hadn’t realized I had stopped running and was trying to staunch the blood pulsing from my shoulder until Luna stopped as well and whirled around to face me.
“Come on!” she exclaimed, waving her hand hysterically. I lifted my gaze to see the base around fifty yards away.
We ran like we had an entire side after us, clearing the distance in less than a minute. Silver tried to stop herself before running into the tree, tripped, and banged her shoulder and head on the sturdy trunk. She stumbled back, dazed for a moment, until Luna helped her up the tree and went after her.
Struggling to climb up only using my left hand, I was scarcely able to climb more than the length of one of my swords before dropping back onto my feet. Luna stretched out her hand and I took hold of it a bit more forcefully than I probably should have. She didn’t seem to mind and pulled at my arm; realizing that wasn’t particularly working, she yanked quite hard on me before successfully getting me up to the base.
All eyes were on us as we headed further into the treehouse. I glanced around, feeling uncomfortable being the center of attention all of a sudden, all discussions cut off abruptly.
A ragged, shuddering breath came from on my left; I turned to see Silver looking dreadfully pale, all the blood having drained from her face. “We’re─we’re alive,” she announced in a raspy voice, before her legs buckled beneath her and she collapsed onto the floor.
Icy dropped down from the upper floor, nearly tripping over her long hair but staying upright, and bolted toward us. “What happened? Are you okay? Is anyone coming? Nevermind, get over here.” She grabbed hold of Luna’s arm and dragged her to a corner of the room. I didn’t move and just looked at the unconscious Silver, who had been joined by Rosie and Rainy; the two girls were trying to revive her, but seemed to have no idea how.
“Did─did anything important happen while we were gone?” I asked nobody in particular, just intent on getting some sort of answer.
A girl with purple glasses and shoulder-length brown hair pushed through the other Dawndwellers to stand in front of me, keeping her weight on her right leg, as the left one appeared to be severely mauled and the skin mangled and bloody. “Darkie and Peto still aren’t back, but that’s pretty much it. I think?” she added, her voice straining from the pain, looking at the others for help.
Icy didn’t remove her gaze from Luna as she wrapped a pile of cloth around her arm. “Fawny, we’re going to send out a few people to find them. You can come if you want.”
Fawny shook her head immediately. “Nope. Nope. Nope. I will fail and get everyone killed.” Though the words trembled with pain from her leg, she sounded so confident, so confident that she would mess everything up.
I glanced at her sympathetically and she stared back blankly, her brown eyes hard, her jaw set.
“I can help,” I offered, then instantly wished I hadn’t said anything as soon as the words were out of my mouth. Blood coursed down my back and arm, and I absentmindedly forced down on the wound to staunch the blood flow.
“Nope!” someone else yelled. I recognized Maple, xyr dark brown eyes flashing. “Wavey, oh my gosh, you literally almost just died on an extremely dangerous mission to get Luna and Silver out of the Darkhunter prison. I will personally make sure you stay right here and not make your arm fall off.”
Maple bounded toward me and clamped bees hand hard on my arm, strong enough for it to be impossible for me to escape bees grip. Even as I struggled to get aem off me, ae managed to hold me still enough to get a good look at my shoulder. I cringed at the keen throbbing the movement caused.
“Uhh, I can go,” piped up a small voice from the back. The girl pushed through to the front of the crowd, her hand in the air. Rosie looked up from her stance next to Silver’s limp form and her expression brightened slightly.
“I’ll come too,” she volunteered, standing next to and linking arms with the red-haired girl who had stepped forward first.
I turned to face Icy as she shifted her gaze between the two Dawndwellers. “Thank you, Goldie, Rosie… anyone else?” She looked terribly anxious and accidentally tied the cloth around Luna’s arm much more excessively than needed while she was looking away. Luna gritted her teeth and flexed her fingers, not saying anything.
A third girl, who I recognized as Dawn, adjusted the position of her cap and whispered “I’ll do it” at the same time as Maple practically yelled it, the latter shooting a meaningful look at me as xe did so.
Icy retied the cloth around Luna’s arm, much less tightly this time. After a moment, she finally acknowledged the two girls’ offering to help. “Alright. Go quickly, and please don’t get yourselves killed.” Her long hair hung in strands across her face as she stared sharply at them, her green eyes glimmering in the pale light and flicking back and forth between them.
I watched as Rosie led the other three toward the exit and jumped out.
“Did you happen to spy while you were there?” I heard Icy’s calm voice ask quietly. Shivering slightly from the cold, I turned toward her.
“Yeah,” I replied. “Yeah, we did.” I took a breath before continuing. “The Darkhunters are attacking the base. They know exactly where it is, and they’re attacking soon.”
Most of the Dawndwellers went pale as soon as I finished talking. Rainy had given up on resusicating Silver but stayed by her side, and now shaking with what could have been cold, fear, anger, or all three. Fawny seemed as if she had no idea how to react. Luna stayed quiet and subtly adjusted the cloth around her arm.
Icy wrestled her hair out of her face as the wind rushed through the entrance of the base. “How many of them were there? In the group you saw, I mean?”
I racked my brain for memory of the patrol. Minty’s bloody, fearful face flashed before my eyes and I shut them so hard it hurt. I remembered Blue, her hard blue-gray gaze something one wouldn’t want to be glared at with. Another, a girl with golden hair...I recalled seeing her before the others, arguing with Minty...Fire, she had called her. Finally, I was able to think clearly and remembered two last Darkhunters, unnamed by the three others in the group.
“Five,” I replied, prying my eyes back open.
Nodding quickly, Icy began to tie another cloth around Fawny’s butchered leg. “You three should go sleep. So should the rest of you,” she advised. She glanced at Silver’s body crumpled on the ground, Rainy poking her repeatedly with the curved part of her hook. “Except for Silver,” she added, “obviously.”
I hadn’t really paid attention to how exhausted I felt. My muscles ached from running, my rib and throat as well. “Good idea,” I agreed, stretching out my left arm. I turned around and headed toward the ladder. Deciding to just deal with the pain for half a minute, I forced myself up; surprisingly, the throbbing in my shoulder wasn’t as bad as I had predicted it would be.
A creak sounded behind me, startling me; I spun around, my eyes Luna and Rainy struggling to carry Silver up the ladder. I reached out to help, but they succeeded just before I reached them, bringing her somewhere else in the base and laying her down.
Before I had even realized it, I was already crawling into the hole in the wall between Swan’s and Peto’s. Situating myself so none of my weight was resting on my shoulder, I fell asleep almost instantaneously.
For whatever reason, I woke about an hour later. I found myself distorted into an incredibly weird position, Melodie curled up on my face, and I immediately wrestled my limbs apart from each other and moved the cat. Wet blood ran down my back from my shoulder; I glanced down and saw a dark puddle beneath me.
I tilted my head upward to see the sky, then remembered that I was under a roof. From the twisted shadows creeping along the walls, I assumed it was still night.
Peto’s still gone. And Darkie, and Goldie, and Rosie, and Dawn, and Maple… oh, no…
I craned my neck around so I could see Swan, who was currently chewing on her arm in her sleep and mumbling subtly. I reached my arm out and poked her shoulder, disturbing the cat as I did so. Swan twitched, grumbling what sounded like “move your face you evil child let me sleeeeeeeeep,” and removed her mouth from her arm.
Seeing that she definitely wasn’t fully awake, I prodded her again. This time, however, she offered a different reaction, murmuring “don’t make me bite you” and chomping on her own arm again.
“Swan?” I hissed, jabbing her a third time. “Swaaaaaan.”
“Go away I need more sleeeeeeeeeeeeeep─”
“Swan!” I whisper-shouted, tugging her limp arm out of her mouth.
She finally woke up at that and jerked her head upward, her blue-green eyes staring right at me. “I’m awake, I’m awake,” she groaned. “What do you want? I’m tired.”
I rolled my eyes. “Is the group back yet?”
“How would I know? I’ve been busy sleeping! Until you woke me up, that is.” Swan shot me a disapproving look, though I could tell she was amused.
She squinted at me. “You do know that if they were back Peto would be hibernating on your other side right now, right?”
“Oh.” I swiveled around, found the hole empty. Cold fear pressed down on me from all sides. Where are they? This can’t be good… I shook my head and took a breath. They’ll be fine. Perfectly fine.
“She’s not there.”
“There’s your answer, then,” Swan sighed, cracking her back and laying down again. “None of them are back.”
Melodie curled up next to me and tucked her nose under her tail. As I watched her, I couldn’t shake off the forbidding feeling I was getting about the group. Peto and Darkie had been gone an hour already; four others being missing as well was not a particularly good turn of events.
I slowly circled back around to regard the girl on my left. Her eyes were locked on a random spot in the base, the expression on her face going from pretty much unconcerned with the issue to rather uncertain but grim determination. “I’m looking for them,” I vaguely heard Swan announce in a whisper.
My hand whipped out and snapped around her wrist as she tried to move. “No. You’ll get lost as well.”
She snorted, wrenched herself free of my grip, and stood up. “Lost?” she chuckled darkly, her eyes flashing. “Not lost. They’re probably caught in a fight. Captured. Something like that. I’m not going to just wait for them to get back.” Blood trickled down the side of her face from a cut next to her mouth, and she smeared it away hastily. “Well? Are you coming?”
I pulled myself to my feet in front of her. “Swan, I know they’re probably definitely not fine at the moment, but I feel like Icy would disapprove if there were more of us missing when we’re already getting short on fighters.” My eyes fell to her leg, where there was a relatively long gash that went completely through her flesh, blood gushing out. “I have no idea if you’ve even noticed what terrible condition your leg’s in right now but it looks like you won’t fare well if you tried to run around.”
“Of course I’ve noticed, Darkie did it to me, and I’m not going to be just running around willy-nilly. I want to see where they are, make sure they’re not dead, and if they’re getting attacked by someone I can help.” She spoke in a menacingly low tone, her voice trembling with rage.
“I will personally fight you to keep you here,” I snapped, breathing hard. “What good will you be to them if they’re already captured or dead? You wouldn’t be able to do anything about either of those scenarios, especially with that leg. That thing is a bloody mess and will be a perfect target for the Darkhunters or Duskhowlers to permanently maim you!”
Swan rounded on me. “I don’t see how your shoulder’s any better,” she snarled. “You literally just got back from rescuing Silver and Luna from the Darkhunters with the one side of your hoodie saturated with your blood and what looks like a burn or something on your hand. I seriously doubt that’s not bad in the slightest. And what point are you trying to make about me not being able to do anything because I have a hole in my leg? Your shoulder sure didn’t stop you from doing anything crazy.”
I didn’t reply. She’s completely right. My fists were clenched, the right of which dripping with blood from my shoulder. Swan’s gaze was smoldering as she glared at me. With a faint grunt, she shoved me aside, sending an explosion of agony through my shoulder, and the weight of the swords on my back lessened suddenly. Something sliced through my cheek, and, as my hand flew to the shallow cut, I wheeled around to watch Swan drop down the ladder with one of my swords in her hand and sprint away.
Horror gripping my throat so I couldn’t breathe normally, I launched myself down after her and bounded out of the base, somehow managing to land on my feet. It seemed as if Swan had not, as there was a blotch of fresh blood on the ground that obviously hadn’t been there before.
Swan, why are you doing this? Why can’t you just leave them alone and let them do their job?
She had left a thick trail of blood in the half-melted snow, which was convenient for me to follow but probably intensely painful for her. I ran nearly as hard as I had only about an hour ago, my throat aching and my rib throbbing with every breath. Glancing behind me, I could tell that I was adding onto the blood in my wake, and I could feel still more trickling down my back.
When I turned back around, I was startled by spotting Swan about two feet in front of me. I shrieked as she sprang at me, both of us falling to the ground with a hollow thud. She had pretty much half her weight on my fractured rib, causing a pain almost worse than my shoulder to pulse through it.
“Swan… do you mind?” I hissed, struggling to push her off.
She ignored me for the most part, the only exception being the fact that she elbowed me hard in the chin to shut me up.
After a moment, she twisted around to face me. I wiped a dribble of blood from the cut she had given me, and Swan finally spoke.
“Sorry about that,” she whispered, only barely audibly enough for me to hear. “I’ve never tried to steal someone’s sword out of the sheath before…” She nodded to her left. “They’re hiding in a tree somewhere over there.”
I strained to spot them in the incredibly dark trees, finally catching sight of Rosie gripping a branch with her knees and trying to inch backward so she would be hidden better.
Nobody appeared to be coming, which the group appeared to notice and they murmured quietly amongst themselves. I let out a breath I didn’t know I had been holding, and Swan moved to get off me. Goldie and Dawn slid down the trunk of the tree after a few seconds, Rosie and Maple simply jumping from the branch.
“Let’s go,” I scarcely heard Maple say to the others.
They weren’t able to go very far before a figure came dashing toward them, terror written clearly on her face. She skidded to a halt and nearly tripped over her feet in front of them. Not knowing who it was, Dawn instinctively whipped out her bow and plugged an arrow at the girl.
She held up an arm to shield her face from the arrow, indistinctly yelling something at them. I watched her rip the arrow out of her arm and drop it to the ground, then shriek, “RUN!”
A silhouette leaped out of the undergrowth, followed by several others. Swan positioned herself on top of me again, and I fought to shove her off. “Wavey… stay… down…” she snarled, but soon I broke free and ran into Peto, catching her in a bone-crushing hug.
None of them are dead.
“Are you okay?” I breathed. Peto kept her mouth shut and jerked her head slightly to the right, indicating that something was behind me. I felt a blade stab into my shoulder before I could move and I screeched, spinning around to face the same Duskhowler I had fought yesterday, the identical gashes in her sleeves a distinct difference from the other Duskhowlers. Blood flew from my shoulder, agony tearing through me, and before I knew what I was doing I lashed out with my remaining sword and heard the Duskhowler scream as the blade cut into her face. I ducked my head and braced myself for a retaliation from her but received nothing. When I looked back up, the girl was gone.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the same Duskhowler throttle Peto for several extensive seconds. Peto’s dark eyes were wide and deathly scared, begging me for help. Without thinking, I threw myself at the Duskhowler, raking at her hand with my sword, forcing her to let go of Peto. She flung me off her like I weighed nothing and I crashed to the ground, my head pounding and blood pouring from my shoulder. Shaking, I raised myself to my hands and knees, but before I could do anything, the Duskhowler took hold of Peto and slashed open her face, the girl trying hard not to scream, tears rolling down her cheeks. I finally got to my feet, holding onto a tree for balance, and Peto’s gaze met mine. Utter terror shone in the depths of her eyes, but it flicked out like a light as the Duskhowler punched her in the side of the head, rendering her motionless. I shrieked as the girl fell limp in her arms, and the Duskhowler unceremoniously hurled her to the ground.
My stomach clenched in alarm as I heard another girl howling just behind me. I swung my head around to see Dawn, pinned to the base of a tree, her brown eyes dull with pain, blood streaming from her nose and from a jagged tear in her arm. The laceration ran from her shoulder to her elbow and was lengthening rapidly as a different Duskhowler with golden-brown hair repeatedly stabbed a knife into the gash, Dawn whimpering softly and eventually letting out another cry.
“Wavey, please,” she choked out, retching up blood and her voice husky and weak. I moved to help her out when someone took hold of me and pinned my arms against my body, squeezing tightly so it became hard to breathe correctly. Something sharp poked me in the neck and I flinched, realizing that a Duskhowler with an arrow in hand was purposely keeping me from getting to Dawn. I gritted my teeth and elbowed the Duskhowler in the ribs, getting her to slacken her grip on me but dig the arrow into my skin. I grappled with her to evade her restraint, but I could easily tell that she was bound and determined to keep me away from the girl being held down and her arm mauled.
“Please,” Dawn mumbled, more quietly this time, then coughed up a startling amount of blood and her head lolled to the side. The Duskhowler thrust me to the ground and I stayed there for a moment, knowing that I was too late. She was out cold, or worse. Guilt shrouded my thoughts.
Standing up, I caught sight of Darkie wrestling with another Duskhowler, eyes blazing. Both were bleeding from countless wounds but were remaining strong as they fought. I winced as the Duskhowler clipped Darkie under the jaw, snapping her head up, causing her to lose her balance and fall back.
An arrow drove into the wound I had gotten from Minty’s dart, and I shrieked as I tore it back out, blood spurting into the air and dripping from my hand. A boy standing near Dawn’s limp, bloody form shot another arrow at me, landing it in my arm. I gritted my teeth and slashed open his leg, the Duskhowler letting out a scream. He socked me in the gut and I fell backward with a groan, clutching my stomach.
My vision blurred when I tried to stand up again. The boy let a third arrow fly at someone else, and I quickly rubbed my eyes so I could see more clearly.
The victim turned out to be Swan, and as soon as she snatched the arrow out of her shoulder, the Duskhowler who had knocked Peto out viciously hacked into Swan’s leg while she wasn’t paying attention.
I tore my gaze away before I could see what happened, but I could easily guess by what I heard. A sword ripping through flesh, the Dawndweller letting out an agonized scream, blood splashing the ground. Tears pricked at my eyes.
The Duskhowler who had been gouging into Dawn’s arm before was now sneaking up on Swan, brandishing her knife and appearing to decide how to attack her. I lifted up my sword and swung it at her, making contact with her arm. She barely acknowledged the blow and simply shook her arm out before jumping onto Swan’s back.
Swan shrieked, her bloody leg buckling beneath her and causing them both to crash to the ground. The Duskhowler pressed her knife to Swan’s throat, a few beads of blood welling up next to the blade. I aimed my sword at her arm, then stopped dead as the girl craned her neck to lock a grim stare directly on me.
If I try to hurt the Duskhowler… she’ll kill Swan.
I took a few steps back, only to feel a dagger thrust into my shoulder from behind.
An arc of blood spurted from the wound, and I screeched in pain, whirling around and clobbering my attacker in the head. The Duskhowler grunted and ducked as I lunged at her with my sword. I tried again and stabbed her in the leg. She jumped backward, her green eyes wide and pleading for me to let her go.
Just behind her, I saw Rosie balling her hand into a fist.
She cuffed the Duskhowler hard in the back of the skull, and the girl stumbled and collapsed at my feet, blood trickling from her mouth.
I gave Rosie a small smile, and she nodded in return. She ran off somewhere, while I headed back toward Swan.
The boy with the bow had gone─when I looked around for him, I saw him getting pounded by Goldie─but the other two Duskhowlers were still there. Swan was now rolling around with the girl with the knife, the two tearing into each other with their weapons, while the girl with the sword and the other with the bow were shredding Maple to a bloody pulp.
I kicked the girl with the bow hard in the shin, causing her to howl madly and drop her bow. Before she could recover, I drove my sword into a half-healed wound on her forearm, blood spewing. Agony blazed through my face as the Duskhowler with the sword slugged me in the mouth, painfully wrenching my head to the side.
“Come on,” she growled to the others, slinging an unconscious Maple across her shoulders. Blood ran down xyr face from a laceration from the side of xyr head to the corner of xyr mouth on the opposite side. “Let’s go.”
The girl I had just stuck my sword into picked up her bow and turned to leave.
“What about the other three? We can’t take all eight,” the boy coughed, blood dribbling from his nose and lip, struggling to hold onto Goldie, who was thrashing hard to escape his grip. He took hold of her arms and folded them behind her, rendering her helpless.
The girl with the sword glared at me. “Leave them.”
Darkie had apparently been knocked out by the Duskhowler she had been fighting, the latter standing over her angrily. “Heh. This is the one who attacked Fallen and me.” She struggled to pick her up. “We really bloodied each other up.”
The girl with the bow was carrying the Duskhowler Rosie had knocked senseless and shoving Rosie around in front of her, though she made no effort to get away. She turned and met my gaze for a split-second, then looked away.
We outnumbered them and we failed.
“Swan?” I murmured, my voice shaking.
Swan fought to stand up, her face contorted with pain. Blood gushed from her leg and several other deep wounds on her limbs. It was only now that I noticed what the Duskhowler had done with her leg─a chunk of flesh had been completely torn out, almost definitely aided by the hole that had already been there. I helped her to her feet, trying not to notice that I was standing in a puddle of her blood.
She fell back against a tree and wiped some of the blood from her nose. “You were right,” she mumbled. “Looks like I’ve been permanently maimed.”
I didn’t answer and walked toward Dawn, her arm bloody and torn up, blood dripping from several other wounds as well. I tried to lift her up, but the moment her weight rested in my arms I let out a shriek from the pain in my shoulder. Swan limped toward me and took the girl from my arms, her expression betraying how much it hurt her, but she said nothing and turned away.
For about ten minutes, we made slow progress toward the base, Swan fighting to keep up with me with her mutilated leg and a motionless girl in her arms. We would have gotten back more quickly if she hadn’t crumpled to the ground abruptly, blood staining the grass a sickening scarlet color.
They still aren’t back.
It’s been hours. And they still aren’t back.
Why aren’t they back?
It cost more effort than it needed to to put one foot in front of the other; right, left, right, left. My guilt seemed to strangle me, constricting around my throat, choking me so I couldn’t breathe. I clutched my head in my hands. This is all my fault.
Blood from the cut over my eye smeared on my hand. The wound stung, but I did my best to ignore it. It was nothing.
Absolutely nothing compared to what could have happened to the group.
Anything could have occurred in the hours that had passed. Anything at all. They could have died, they could have been captured, they could have been mortally wounded by a pack of Duskhowlers or Darkhunters and left to die a slow, painful death. A cry of remorse forced its way past my clenched teeth. Why did I send so many out? I thought, rubbing my temples with my thumbs.
I should have just gone myself.
I squinted my eyes and tilted my head back to observe the position of the sun, letting my hands drop to my sides. It was mostly hidden by the dense treetops, but I could tell that it was just above the horizon. Early dawn. An entire day since I had first sent Darkie out.
My left eye suddenly went red. Blood had dripped in from the cut, and I instantly crushed my eye shut, rubbing at it furiously. I paid the burning pain caused by my touching the scrape no mind and tried harder to get the blood out of my eye.
Not paying attention to where I was stepping, I stumbled backward and felt my elbow smack against a tree trunk, jarring my hand and making me stab myself in the eye. I cringed as the pain briefly spread across my face. The blood leaked from my eye all of a sudden, and my vision was cleared. I shook my head stiffly, blood dribbling down my cheek, my breathing shaky.
Something dark caught my eye. I jerked my head toward the ground, regretting it immediately.
Blood. So much blood.
The image of a shiny silver table flashed before my eyes, faint blood stains visible. A tiny, fresh puddle of blood at the edge. A needle, the tip soaked in the bright red liquid, small droplets rolling off it and falling to the ground.
My hand gripped fiercely on a tree I hadn’t known I had been holding onto. My heart pounded rapidly, skipping a beat once in a while. No. Not the room.
I forced myself to come back to my senses and found myself still staring at the blood. I turned my head up and realized there was a thin trail of it that wound through the trees, occasional splatters on the trunks. Dread rose up inside me, forming a lump in my throat. “Whose…?” I whispered out loud.
Flinching away, I bolted in the opposite direction, following the blood where I assumed it started. The base.
I caught sight of a smear of blood on a tree. Memories flooded back; a smudge of blood not unlike the one I’d just noticed on a pale white wall. Blood streaked on the smooth marble floor. A screech of fury and the sound of shoes scuffing the ground. A crack, cutting the scream short.
Keep it together, Icy. Just get to the base.
Drawing in breath after shuddering breath, attempting to calm myself down, I took several paces along the bloody path. A blinding agony shot through me and I stumbled, gasping like a beached fish, my hand clasping over my side. I felt blood welling up against my palm, staining it a dark shade of red. A faint groan emitted from somewhere; I glanced up, my eyes glazed with pain, until I realized that the noise had come from me. My breath caught in my throat as I lifted my hand from the wound.
It was relatively small, but I had no idea how deep. I couldn’t tell at all, with the blood clogging the cavity. Gritting my teeth, I rested my fingertips against the edge. Slight heat radiated from it, another jolt of pain following.
A shudder racked my body at the stabbing sensation of the wound. It’s definitely starting to get infected.
Looking away from the hole in my side, I continued to follow the blood. After a few moments I noticed for the first time that a large portion of the snow on the ground was melted away. I sighed in unqualified relief. Spring was coming.
I caught sight of a speck of yellow at the edge of my vision. I narrowed my eyes, not sure what I was seeing. Crouching down, I peered more closely at the specimen. It was a tiny yellow flower, leaning slightly in the faint breeze. I racked my brain, trying to remember whether it was edible or not, and recalled that it was.
Crouching down, I ripped the plant out of the ground. My stomach growled; I had barely eaten anything aside from an occasional clover or dandelion for the past two days. As I shoved the stem into my mouth and stripped the leaves off with my teeth, I heard a faint crackling sound.
Stiffening completely so I wasn’t moving in the slightest, I listened. There it was again; a crunching distinct to something trampling fallen leaves. Absolutely silent, I pressed my elbow against the stab wound and reached back with my other hand to draw my bow from my back. While I concentrated, the cracking and snapping grew louder and more rapid. Someone was running in my direction. Panic rose up my throat, clogging it so no air could easily pass through it, my heart hammering against my chest. It could be anyone. Anyone at all. Sliding an arrow from the sheath, the metal tip scraping against the wooden shafts of the other arrows, I fumbled with it for a moment before placing the nock against the bowstring. Lifting my bow, I curled a finger around the string, holding onto the arrow, and pulled it back.
A girl hurled herself out of the bushes and collapsed in front of me, blood gushing from her mauled calf. Weakly forcing herself to her feet, she inhaled and exhaled quite noisily, spitting blood from her mouth several times. Her brown hair hung in strands across her face, the rest of it bedraggled and messy with multiple leaves scattered through it. Finally, she lifted her head and her brown eyes met mine through a pair of purple glasses. A terrified, hunted look gleamed in them, pain flickering there as well.
“ICY!” she shrieked, more blood spewing from her lip. “WHERE WERE YOU?”
I let my bow drop to the ground. “Fawny,” I whispered, not answering her question, “what did you do to your leg? I bound the cloth there tightly, I thought I did─”
“WHERE WERE YOU?” she screamed at me. “SOMEONE’S DEAD!”
Her words sunk in as I stared at her, feeling like a huge weight pressing down on me. Someone’s dead. My mind became muddled with cold fear, the knowledge that one of the kids had died while I was gone, igniting utter guilt inside me. I opened and closed my mouth once or twice, trying to ask how, but no sound came out. Fawny watched me, not bothering to shift the curtain of messy brown hair from her face, blood pooling around her leg, a droplet of blood rolling from the corner of her mouth and dribbling down her chin.
“Where were you?” she repeated, more quietly, with an abnormal edge to her voice.
“Mostly pacing around,” I answered curtly, thinking about the room and the group and the wound in my side. “What happened? Who died?”
Fawny fixed me with a glare. “I don’t know his name. I turned around not long ago and he keeled over.” She finally reached up and clawed her hair away from her face. “Where’s that deer you killed? I thought you were bringing it back yesterday!”
The color drained from my face. The doe.
I left it somewhere in the forest. After I had sent Darkie to the Duskhowler territory, I had grown increasingly worried about Silver and Luna and ultimately decided to leave the deer and find someone to get them. By that time I had completely forgotten about it and stayed at the base to treat the worst wounds of the other Dawndwellers.
I dropped my head into my hands. “Starvation.” It wasn’t a question, it was a statement. A disconsolate hush hung in the air. I killed that kid.
Keeping her jaws shut, Fawny nodded.
For several moments, neither of us uttered a word. Fawny eventually broke the silence with a question I didn’t want to answer. “The group… are they back yet?”
“I don’t know,” I snapped, my voice choked with restrained tears. “I don’t know where they are, whether they’re on their way back or not, whether they’re even still alive.” I turned away, collapsing against a tree. They could all be dead right now. And it would be nothing but my fault.
Why didn’t I do it myself?
And why didn’t I just take the deer back and then make Wavey rescue Luna and Silver?
Realizing how harsh my tone had been, I shook my head mutely, closing my eyes briefly. “I’m sorry.”
I glanced down at the blood at my feet. “Do you know whose blood this is?”
As she slowly tilted her head down toward the bloodstains, Fawny’s eyes widened and she stumbled back so abruptly her horribly injured leg nearly buckled beneath her. “No,” she replied, shaking her head quickly, “no, I do not.” She met my gaze, fear written all over her face. “When did you find it?”
“A while ago. I’ve been following it to get back to the base.” I touched a finger to the slice over my eye. It stung as my fingertip brushed it and I felt blood bubble up against it. “We should get the deer before we go back.”
The girl didn’t reply and followed me as I walked in the general direction of where I thought the doe might be. After a few minutes I turned around and she was several paces behind me, her leg pouring blood. She refused to meet my eyes and kept her head down, limping along, trying to catch up. I stopped and waited for her to get closer behind me before I continued on.
At last, the short, sleek fur of the deer could be partially seen through the dense undergrowth. I bounded toward it and checked it over to make sure it hadn’t started to rot. Arrant relief washed over me when I was sure that it hadn’t. I stretched out my hand and gently removed the arrow I had killed the doe with from its chest. Fawny was still a little ways away, her expression brightening slightly when she saw that I had found the deer. I took hold of its forelegs and yanked hard on them, shifting the body only a few inches from its previous position.
Fawny picked up the hind legs and we were able to move it a bit farther and faster than me alone. The doe caught on bits of thorny brush on the ground and we had to carefully maneuver the spines from the fur before moving on. It wasn’t until several minutes later that I noticed the blood staining Fawny’s side of the deer’s body dark red and realized that the girl’s leg was still badly bleeding.
“How long have you been bleeding on the deer?” I asked her softly.
She looked up at me. “About as long as we’ve been dragging it.”
I stopped. “Are you okay? Why didn’t you say anything before?” I let go of the deer’s legs and crouched next to Fawny to take a better look at her leg. She stepped away from me, releasing the other pair of legs as well.
“It doesn’t matter. I’m fine.”
“That has to hurt at least slightly,” I asserted.
“It does. It hurts a lot,” she argued back. “But I’ll survive.”
I huffed, giving up on the dispute. Grasping the doe’s forelegs again, I began to haul it back to the base, Fawny soon doing the same with the hind legs again. It didn’t take much longer for us to find the trail of blood again, and we followed it. I was right about it leading back to the base, but whose blood it was was still a mystery.
Fear gripped me with its icy claws as I stared at something up ahead. Dark blood was splattered around wounds on a corpse not far in front of me, but none appeared to have been fatal enough to kill him. The kid. The kid who died. I swallowed hard. I’ll bury him later.
“Icy!” someone gasped. I jerked my head up, my heart thumping, and saw Rainy poking her head out of the treehouse nearby. She pulled it back in and yelled to the others, “Icy’s got food!”
Very soon after that, most of the Dawndwellers were collecting firewood and bringing it to a pile near the deer carcass. I insisted on rebandaging Fawny’s leg with another piece of cloth I found in the base and she was forced to suffer through my marvelous cloth-tying skills while the others continued to dump wood onto the mound. After I judged my tying job as acceptable, I used someone’s knife to skin and gut the deer, throwing the entrails at the two cats and three dogs who had been taken out of the base to eat. The bloody meat was gone almost immediately.
Luna picked up a pair of rocks from the base and smashed them against each other over the wood. Sparks flew onto a small pile of dry grass and eventually caught. Once we had a decent fire I cut away pieces of the deer and cooked them separately.
After a while, we had stuffed ourselves sick after going with barely any food for three days or so. A pair of kids threw up from eating too quickly.
Nobody spoke for a long time. Looking around, alarm rose up inside me when I realized a few Dawndwellers were missing. Carefully, I observed everyone’s face to make sure I wasn’t missing anyone, but I knew someone─two someones─were gone.
“Where are Swan and Wavey?” I inquired quietly.
Most of the others shook their heads or shrugged. They’re definitely gone.
I went pale in horror.
In no time I was running. My boots crushed the blood-spattered leaves underfoot. The stab wound in my side began to bleed again, the pain causing me to miss my footing numerous times. I nearly face-planted as I ducked under a low-hanging branch but managed to keep myself from falling, somehow pulling off a barrel roll in the air in the process. My shoulder thumped into a tree and I was thrown off balance with a grunt.
Blood flew before my eyes as my head rammed into another tree. I crumpled to the ground with a moan and waited for a moment to catch my breath before attempting to stand up. My limbs buckled beneath me and I rolled over again. Trying to staunch the wound on my side, I held onto a tree and forced myself to my feet. I have to keep going. I bit my lip and sprinted as quickly as I could through the forest, blood streaming from a wound on my leg I’d forgotten I had. A clump of partially melted snow landed on the back of my neck, probably coming from a branch high above my head, and I cringed at the sudden cold. A shiver crept down my back and I almost ran into a third tree while I wasn’t paying full attention. Glancing down, I could easily discern a patch of scarlet blood on the ground, several other bits splattered around.
The room flickered in my mind. The blood dripping from multiple knife wounds all over the girl’s body, her blue-gray eyes glazed over with pain but still defiant. I flinched as I remembered her punching someone in the nose to evade his grip on her. Another man in a white lab coat took hold of her neck with one hand and chucked her head-first into the wall, abruptly halting her fighting, blood splashing onto the floor in a pattern similar to the one at my feet.
I shook my head, clearing my mind of the memory. Not now.
I had stopped running while reliving that moment in the room and came to realize it soon after walking away from the blood puddle. Taking another step forward, I let out a squeak as the ground dipped beneath me. I rolled forward and smashed my bleeding leg into a rather large rock in my path with a hiss of pain. I gripped the rock with a hand and pulled myself back to my feet, but froze when I heard a splashing sound.
Listening carefully, I could hear someone coughing feebly and water rushing. A cry of agony split the air and I winced.
Quietly, I pushed through the trees and ended up on the bank of a creek. Stepping down into the water, it lapped over my boots and drenched them almost completely. I lifted my head and gasped when I saw a pair of limp forms slumped on the ground across the creek, blood pooled around them. Movement caught my eye and, looking upstream, I saw a third figure collapsed in the creek. Blood stained the water around her dark crimson as she crouched down in it, shaking slightly, and stared hard at it for no obvious reason.
“Wavey!” I croaked, sloshing against the freezing cold current toward her.
The girl startled so badly she lurched forward and went completely under the surface of the creek for a moment. Blood-red water dripped from her long blonde hair when she jerked back upward, fear shining in her green eyes. I stared at her briefly, willing her to recognize me.
“Icy,” she choked out finally, coughing up blood. “Icy, there was a fight, and─” She broke off, turning around, and vomited over her shoulder.
Wavey dunked her head under the water, washing the puke and blood from her mouth. Surfacing again, she met my gaze, a haunted look in hers. “There was a fight. I think the Duskhowlers were chasing Peto and Darkie and they were running back and there were so many of them and─”
She threw up again, but I glanced away while she did; I wasn’t particularly in the mood to have the first actual food I’ve had in days come back up. She continued to gag and retch for a minute or two until I was sure there was absolutely nothing left she could possibly throw up.
“And?” I prompted gently as she lifted her head again, her face white as a sheet. Wavey groaned weakly.
“They─they fought us and I don’t know if the others are okay but they left Dawn and Swan and me and we tried to get back but Swan just dropped to the ground and I think she’s unconscious but I don’t know for sure.”
I shifted my gaze toward the two bloody figures on the other side of the water. Alarm jolted through me. “And Dawn?”
“She’s just knocked out, I think, but she’s bleeding a lot,” she explained hoarsely, blood trickling from her mouth. She clutched her stomach and barfed into the creek a third time, too quickly for me to look away. My own gut heaving now, I ducked my head and shut my eyes.
“Sorry,” Wavey rasped, now sitting up in the creek with the water up to her waist. I opened my eyes and inhaled with a shudder, hoping the venison would stay down.
It was only now that I noticed the steadily thinning flow of blood coming from her injured shoulder. My eyes went wide with horror. “Ohhh my gosh, Wavey, what happened to you? You’re bleeding so darn much.”
“I got stabbed twice in the same spot,” she mumbled, her voice edged with pain.
“What about the others?” I pressed, ripping my gaze away from the gory tear in her shoulder. “What happened to them?”
Wavey lowered her head, beginning to shiver uncontrollably. “They─they all─” Her answer was suspended as she commenced to retch again. I turned away in time before I could see anything but I couldn’t hear anything that would have indicated that she had thrown up. I guessed she had already vomited up everything that might have been in her stomach before.
“That’s okay, we’ll talk later. Can you walk?”
“I can, but it’s relatively painful.”
“Can you carry someone about the same size as you?” I asked, then stopped, feeling stupid. Her shoulder is a few inches away from being ripped off, you idiot, she can’t carry an unconscious kid without getting herself hurt. “No, of course not─”
“I might,” she coughed hoarsely. “Depends on how far I’m taking her.”
“It’s not too far,” I replied.
Wavey nodded. “Alright, I’ll try.”
She pulled herself to her feet, grimacing in pain, and clambered up onto the bank. She was completely drenched, water and blood dripping from her body. I waded through the creek, slipping on several rocks but not completely losing my balance. Pausing in my trip across the water, I remembered slipping around on the bloody marble floor, struggling to get away from a man holding a syringe. The sharp sting in my arm as the needle sunk into my skin. Collapsing to the ground as the venom inside coursed through my blood.
Jolting out of the memory, I found Wavey staring curiously at me. I shook my head slightly and walked toward the pair of unconscious girls, rubbing my left upper arm. Where the three injections had gone in.
I felt a buzzing sensation there, like the liquid was still inside me, working like it had two years ago when I first got it. When all the kids had gotten it. I wondered for a moment if anyone else still felt it, or if it was just me.
“Icy,” Wavey hissed, brushing her finger against a cut on her cheek.
I forced away all my thoughts about the injections and the kids and stepped out of the creek. The Dawndweller was shivering fiercely as she crouched down to pick one of the girls up. When I saw them up close I could do nothing more than gasp weakly.
Blood pooled around Swan’s calf─or what was left of it. A chunk of flesh was completely missing, partially exposing bone inside. Mutilated nerves, torn tendons and muscles, and chipped bone were all that remained of her lower leg, and I nearly ended up losing the deer meat anyway. A thin red line had been scratched over her throat, though too lightly to do any real damage. Numerous stab wounds littered her body, blood coursing from the holes. Looking more closely, I could tell that most of them weren’t very deep, and the few around her torso had luckily missed the vital organs. She must have hit the ground hard in the fight Wavey had mentioned, as there was a blotch of dusky red blood on the side of her head, the liquid dripping into her brown hair and down her cheek.
Flicking my eyes toward Dawn, I felt my stomach drop to my feet. Blood streamed from vicious rips and tears all along a laceration on her left arm from her shoulder to her elbow that cut deep enough for the bone to be easily seen. She, as well as Swan, had a severe nosebleed, and was bleeding from many other wounds scattered over her limbs. Her brown eyes were painted with sheer terror, her mouth partially open in fear, still there from when she had first lost consciousness. There were various dark crimson drips from her lip that ran down her chin to her throat; dried blood. It stained most of her lower jaw and the middle of her upper lip from her bloody nose, and as I tilted my head back toward her mauled arm, I began to really notice the sticky blood splattered all over the injury. It welled up in the gash and rolled out like overflowing water, soaking up in the grass beneath her, staining it red.
I slid my arms underneath Swan’s limp body and lifted her up, trying not to reopen the hole in my side. Her appendages dangled lifelessly over my arms as I stood all the way up. Twisting my head around, I saw Wavey dragging herself to the other Dawndweller lying on the ground. As she tried to raise the girl up, I could tell she was struggling hard with her mangled shoulder. Letting out a sharp cry, she jerked into a crouching position and paused to take a few breaths.
“Do you need help?” I whispered, knowing that I couldn’t really help her at all with Swan in my arms.
Mutely, Wavey shook her head and forced herself to her feet, lifting Dawn up. She clenched her jaw so tightly I could see the muscles in her face straining. Blood trickled from her shoulder and her feet threatened to slip out from beneath her, but she bore the girl’s weight and the unimaginable pain she was probably experiencing without uttering a word.
One cautious footstep at a time, I began to cross the creek. It was a grueling process; I had to gingerly place each boot on the muddy bed and test my weight and how slippery it was before taking another step. I couldn’t risk anything while carrying Swan across along with me. Despite my attempts to be careful, I continually misplaced my feet and almost fell into the water more than once, but made myself keep standing upright, as going under could mean certain death for the girl in my arms.
Behind me, Wavey had barely gotten a quarter of the way across the water. She shuddered with every movement she made and nearly let go of Dawn copious times. I couldn’t watch her anymore and quickly swiveled my head back around to face the few feet of water between me and the other bank.
Finally, after several long minutes, I leaped out of the creek and onto the bank, stumbling on my bleeding leg as I landed. I momentarily forgot about Swan and I tripped and collapsed on top of her. I flinched as I sat up, seeing her head lolling to the side, her blue-green eyes glazed over, her body limp. Wavey slumped down next to her with Dawn lying in front of her in an uncomfortable-looking position.
“Are you okay?” I asked her. “So far you’ve thrown up three times and you are currently bleeding a lot from that shoulder. Neither of those really seem like a good thing.”
“I don’t know,” she groaned, digging her fingers into the grass. “But my shoulder’s mostly clotted, and that’s only bloody creek water still coming out of it.”
I figured I would check her over once we got back to the base, but for now our goal was to take Dawn and Swan back there as well. But seeing the Dawndweller in front of me hunched over and shaking intensely, I knew we had to stop for some time.
Trying to set Swan onto the ground without actually dropping her, I twisted my head around toward Wavey. “When’d it start? The vomiting? You don’t look good at all.”
Wavey swallowed, then shook her head. “No idea. I just remember feeling really nauseous, stumbling across the creek, falling into it, and throwing up.” She sat back on her haunches, cringing slightly.
“Might be a concussion. You’re sure you’re okay?” I asked softly, eyeing her now not-bleeding shoulder.
“I’m… fine,” Wavey breathed, her voice shaking. She stood up, much too quickly for the state she was in, I thought, as she squeezed her eyes shut and clutched her head, stumbling back. “Perfectly fine,” she forced out between her teeth. I watched her through slightly narrowed eyes, knowing very well that she wasn’t perfectly fine.
Although it was quite plain to see that she wouldn’t fare well if her stomach continued to try and vomit up what wasn’t even there and her shoulder began to bleed again, I knew we had to keep moving. The two unconscious Dawndwellers were in terrible shape and would have to be taken care of straightaway. They might die if we don’t hurry.
The thought brought me to my feet as speedily as I could without affecting the hole in my side, though I could easily feel blood dripping from the wound. “Let’s go.”
Wavey nodded and limped toward Dawn. I dashed toward her and lifted the girl up myself, steadily lowering her into Wavey’s arms. She cringed but kept hold; once I was sure her grasp on her was good enough, I turned back around to the Dawndweller crumpled on the ground behind me. Leaning down, I slipped my arms underneath her, trying hard to ignore the blood that smeared on me as my skin brushed against her wounds.
Glancing up, I met Wavey’s eyes. She stared back, her green gaze dark and clouded with pain and exhaustion, seeming to burn a hole right through me. I wrenched my eyes from hers and started walking back through the forest.
My foot slid on something wet on the ground and I bit back a yell; glancing down, I caught sight of a thick line of dark red. The blood. It stained the grass, dripping from the blades once in a while, soaking into the soil beneath. It smothered the undergrowth, choking it, keeping it from escaping and taking in the air, weighing it down. I regained my balance and stopped where I was, my eyes fixed on the blood, my face going white.
A girl was being dragged across the floor, bleeding from countless wounds. Her eyes were shut in a slightly relaxed way, indicating that she had been knocked out. A streak of blood smeared on the pale marble floor in her wake. My own hand coming into view as I crawled backward on all fours, blood trickling down my skin from a cut on my arm.
I remembered the pain as someone’s shoe came flying at my face and I was thrown backward, the thick stream of blood from my nose pooling up on the floor as I lay there. I remembered someone touching my shoulder gently, and turning my head to look into weary and pain-filled yet determined blue-gray eyes. I remembered how she’d helped me up and ran off toward the unconscious girl, punching the man dragging her in the side of the head and knocking him down. How another took hold of her by the neck and threw her to the ground, rendering her senseless.
Thinking back to the last time I saw the girl, her eyes were cold, unforgiving, hateful. They glared through the falling snow at me, distracting me for a moment while she lifted her sword and flicked it across my face. Absentmindedly rubbing at the cut over my eye with my shoulder, I felt tears pool up in my eyes. I hastily blinked them away. I wouldn’t let them fall.
“Icy?” came Wavey’s voice, cutting through my memories. I jolted back to reality, jerking my head up to see her standing several yards away, Dawn on the verge of dropping onto the ground.
I stepped over the blood, smearing it off the soles of my boots onto the grass. “Whose is this?” I whispered, staring over Swan’s limp body at the dark scarlet puddles staining the shrubbery. Before any of my thoughts took me over again, I ripped my gaze away from the blood and met Wavey’s.
Or tried to, at least. Her eyes were fixed on the blood, wide as the moon. “I didn’t realize how much we bled,” she rasped, turning back to look at me. “I was running after Swan, and her leg wasn’t as bad as it is now, and my shoulder as well…”
“You’re telling me that you left an entire trail of blood from the base to clear across the creek?”
She nodded briskly.
I nearly forgot I was still holding Swan for a second, starting to reach up to clutch my head, but managed to remember in time. “Oh, gosh, I mean, I know we’ve had those injections, but how is it that you can bleed so much and not be dead?” I adjusted my hold on Swan. “Did they somehow figure out how to make us not bleed to death? How are you two not dead from bleeding so much? How are any of us still alive?”
“Icy? What do you─”
“I mean we should all be long dead. Haven’t you noticed that people are being stabbed in the side, in the back, wherever, and they aren’t bleeding to death?” I blurted out. “It’s got to be in the injections they gave us.”
Wavey looked down, realizing that she was about to drop Dawn, and tightened her grip on her. “Of course I’ve noticed. You’re still standing.”
I blanched. “It’s─it’s nothing, really─”
She broke me off with a shake of her head. “We’ll talk about that later. I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what was in those shots for the past two years, and I keep coming up with more and more things they did to us. A bunch of kids who were literally six years old survived for a year or two longer than a lot of the older ones. Like you said, we’re not dead. And then─”
“Wavey, I hate to stop you from theorizing, but we should probably get moving.” I stole a glance at Swan’s bloody face. “They don’t have all that long.” My voice grew choked with fear for them toward the end of the sentence. I won’t let them die.
She inhaled, then nodded. “Right."
The wind caught my long hair and lifted it off my neck, drying up the faint sheen of sweat that had beaded up on my face. I narrowed my eyes against the strong gusts, listening to the leaves in the trees all around rustling and shaking. A small yellow leaf shaped like a teardrop flitted down from one of the trees, soon followed by many more. They flipped around in the wind and landed gently on the ground around us. The faint whiff of a coming storm hung on the air. I breathed in the cool, crisp scent and watched the yellow leaves flutter to the ground.
Thunder rumbled overhead, making both Wavey and me jump. I snapped my head up to see dark gray clouds roiling ominously through the treetops, a flicker of white light flashing and briefly illuminating the sky. When the rain began to fall, I was not prepared for the size of the drops. The first one drove into my eye, as hard as the eraser end of a pencil, and I let out a faint yelp. All the rest came pouring down, each one fat and stung when it landed on bare skin.
The rain clung to my eyelashes, dripping into my eyes so I couldn’t see at all until I twisted around to rub my face on my jacket, and the cycle repeated countless times. “Let’s go,” I told Wavey, a lot of water getting into my mouth as I spoke. The girl nodded with a wince and walked alongside me, soon developing a limp and struggling to go fast enough to keep up.
Soon enough I noticed the blood washing away from my wounds, revealing a number of various sized scratches and holes along my limbs. Swan’s nosebleed was nearly completely gone now, the reddish water trickling into her partially opened mouth. Looking back at her mauled leg, it appeared even more gruesome without any blood to hide the muscles and tendons inside. I jerked my head away so I wouldn’t have to see it any more than needed.
With the brutal rain lashing hard at my face, I felt practically blind. Everything up ahead was just a gray mist, blurring every so often when the raindrops plunged into my eyes. We were drenched in minutes. I began to shiver from the cold water seeping down my back and into my boots, soaking into my clothing and saturating my hair; it looked as if Wavey felt the same, shuddering violently enough that it seemed like Dawn might soon drop from her arms.
“Exactly how far away is it at this pace?” Wavey hissed, her voice strained. She stopped walking and turned to face me.
I shrugged, which was kind of a hard thing to do while holding Swan. “It didn’t take long for me while running, but we should get there around dusk. We’re about two-thirds of the way at the moment, it shouldn’t take too much longer.” Pausing for a moment, I glanced at the wet grass and back again. “You want to find shelter?”
“Why not?” she coughed out.
I began to observe the forest more carefully now, searching for something that could get us out of the rain. Thunder boomed loudly in my skull, making the ground vibrate slightly. A flash of bright white lit up the forest momentarily, followed by another soon after. I shook my head, clearing my vision of the blinding light, raindrops being thrown off my face in multiple directions.
When I realized Wavey was trying to get my attention, I ran over to where she was standing. A large rock was tilted up about a foot above the ground in front of us, a small hole in the muddy earth beneath it. Wavey carefully slipped into the hollow, doing her best to not let go of Dawn. Once she was fully inside, I made my way in as well. My feet slid around in the mud and I let out a squeak as I almost fell to the ground. As diligently as I possibly could, I regained my balance and crept into the hole. I lay Swan’s body on the wet earth, sedulously stepping down after her, when one foot slipped and I landed hard on her injured leg.
“OW!” the girl suddenly choked out, blood spurting from her mouth.
Wavey and I both startled and jumped away. Swan groaned and propped herself up on her elbows, her legs splayed out in front of her. She gagged on a clot of blood and spat it out, then twisted her head around to look at us, pain written all over her face. “Wavey? Where are we?” she rasped, letting her head drop to the ground and wriggling around to get comfortable. She cringed as her leg brushed against the mud and pulled it closer.
“I have no idea,” I told her, unconsciously fingering the wound on my side.
Swan yelped and shoved herself against the wall, looking terrified. “Who are you?” she whispered, blue-green irises flicking back and forth around me as if trying to see where I was sitting.
My eyebrows lowered, confused. “It’s Icy.”
After a moment, recognition spread over her face, her body relaxing, and she slid back from the wall. “Sorry,” she murmured, shaking her head, “I couldn’t see you at all in the dark there.”
I nodded. “How’s your leg?”
“It feels terrible.” She turned around to see how bad the wound actually looked. In the white light that flickered in the cave from time to time, I could see her eyes grow wide. “Oh, my gosh, I didn’t see it that well before.” She inhaled through her teeth, making a shh sound. “Dang, does that look bad. And it hurts, it hurts a lot. Wow, that’s a lot of blood.”
Sure enough, a puddle of the crimson liquid was pooling up around her leg, mixing with the rainwater that seeped into the hollow. As the plashet grew larger, it began to run down to the back of the cave, toward where I was crouched. Shifting my position so I wouldn’t be sitting in the blood-water, I dug into my pocket and pulled out a thick wad of cloth. “Here, I’ll tie it up,” I offered, looking up at her.
She hesitantly moved her leg closer to me. I narrowed my eyes so I didn’t have to see much of the grisly injury and wrapped a strip of cloth around it. Immediately I could see dark red blood staining through the white fabric, and I quickly added more cloth to try and cover it up. It didn’t end up working all that well and simply soaked up more of the blood.
“Is Dawn here?” Swan rasped, sucking in a deep breath. “She’s not… dead, is she?”
“Yeah, and I hope not,” Wavey replied. She poked Dawn’s limp body. The girl didn’t answer, her head rolling back.
I exhaled loudly through my nose. “She’s not dead.” I reached out and pressed my fingers to the side of her throat. After a short moment, I felt a thump. A second. A third. Relief crashed over me and I removed my shaky hand from her neck. “There’s a pulse.”
In a brief flash of lightning I caught sight of Wavey brushing a finger against her own throat. There were multiple darkish marks on her neck, and I was slightly surprised I hadn’t noticed before now. I opened my mouth to ask what the marks were, but Swan beat me to it.
“Are those bruises?” she asked quickly.
Wavey jerked her head toward her. “What?”
“On your neck.”
“Uhh,” she mumbled, thunder booming outside, “I got choked by a Darkhunter.”
That caught my full attention. “Wait, what?” I demanded, my eyes wide. I hugged my knees to my chest and pressed the side of my finger to my forehead. What did I send her into? Lifting my head and leaning against the wall of the cave, I wiped some of the rainwater from my face with my sleeve. “Okay, since your escapade was obviously much more eventful than I thought it’d be, start from the beginning. What happened?”
Wavey swallowed. “I found Luna and Silver relatively easily. It took a long time to get there─I found the remains of that battle two days ago and a nice dead body as well,” she added with a shudder. “They had a flashlight and were flashing the SOS thing in my eyes. Once I got there I gave them one of my swords to get out of the hole they were stuck in. Then a dog pounced on me and opened up my shoulder a bit, but Luna tackled it and it ran off. We were crawling away when we found a Darkhunter patrol and we spied on them for a bit. Like I said after I got back, they were planning to attack the base. But one of them saw me and followed us as we left. Luna and Silver were up ahead, and the Darkhunter attacked me and choked me for a solid minute or two. When she let go of me she stomped on my rib─I think it’s fractured─and we fought a bit and Luna and Silver joined in eventually. Luna clobbered her and she dropped. I don’t think we killed her, but she was definitely unconscious when we left. Then we ran for a while and got back to the base.”
“Wow, Luna is a beast,” Swan commented after a moment.
A pang of alarm shot through me when she reminded me about the future attack on the base. It could be happening soon. “When did the Darkhunters mention the attack?”
Wavey leaned back against the wall. “Not long before we got back. From what we heard, it sounded like they had just come up with the plan and still need to flesh it out a bit. They probably won’t actually attack until later.”
“Makes sense,” I mumbled, but still felt a flicker of doubt. Blue could just throw all her fighters at us whenever she wanted, whether she had a full-fledged plan or not, I thought, and they could still fight us well.
Swan shifted her position, getting Wavey’s and my attention. “And then the fight.”
I groaned. “For the love of coffee, how on earth did you even get out of the base without anyone noticing, let alone all the way to the Duskhowler border?” I sighed, flicking my gaze between the two of them.
Swan looked uncomfortable. “Um,” she began, “she woke me up to ask me if the group was back, but they weren’t, so we yelled at each other over whether we should find them or not and I just left. Obviously she followed me. Then Peto came sprinting toward us like she was being chased by death itself─”
“Woah, you met Death? Did you ask him for the Wand, the Cloak, or the Stone?”
“Of course not and none of the above.” She gave me a look, but the corners of her mouth quirked as if she were trying not to smile. “She and Darkie were being chased by a bunch of Duskhowlers, and then we found the group, and we all started fighting them. Even though we outnumbered them by like, three, they knocked half of us out and took everyone they could carry prisoner. Aaaand of course that one girl chopped a piece of my leg off, so that’s great.”
I took note of Swan’s silence after that last sentence. “The others… none of them are dead, are they?”
Both of the other girls shook their heads.
“No,” Wavey whispered. “At least, not as far as we know.”
We didn’t say anything more for a minute or two. I noticed that the stab in my side had fully coagulated, and utter relief washed over me. As gently as I thought possible, I touched my finger to the cut over my eye and felt only a dull sting and no blood. I took a closer look at the wound in my leg that had opened up in my wild run through the woods; the flow of blood issuing from it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had thought it might be and it seemed as if it could be stopped completely by a bit of pressure. Pressing my hand against the wound, the water and blood mixed together and dripped down my palm.
Swan wiped the blood from her nose with the sleeve of her blue hoodie, staining it with a dark red color. The movement appeared to start up the bleeding again, and the red liquid spurted out of her nose again as soon as her arm left her face. With a groan, she leaned back against the cold earth, blood dribbling down her chin and throat.
Thunder grumbled loudly, followed by an extra-hard onslaught of rain. Mud billowed up around my hand as rainwater began to spill into the cave. “Get Dawn off the floor,” I ordered suddenly as I realized with a jolt of panic that the unconscious girl could drown in the pouring rain, but Swan was already on it, awkwardly tugging her to a sitting position while trying to keep her injured leg straight in front of her.
Shaking mud and water and blood off my hands, I clambered toward the hole and popped my head out. I squinted as the rain splashed onto fallen leaves around my face and sprayed droplets at my eyes. The storming seemed to have subsided slightly, as there didn’t seem to be much lightning, apart from the fierce rain. I pulled myself further out of the hole and rested my head on my hands, my elbows sticking out on either side, my long hair draping down my back. The cool, crisp scent of rain and storms flooded my nose, along with the different smells of the forest floor. Fat raindrops beat down on my head and arms and I struggled not to shiver from the biting cold.
Ducking my head back in, I flicked my gaze between Wavey and Swan. “Ready to go?” I asked in a quick breath. Both nodded in unison.
I turned back and crawled out of the hollow, standing up in the rain. As I looked out into the wet, cold forest, I began to notice how much my legs ached from all the running. My arms hurt as well from carrying Swan for an extended period of time, and I let out a soft grunt as I stretched them out, preparing myself for another half hour of carrying an unconscious girl through the pouring rain as quickly as possible. Oh, what I would give for just a single cup of coffee.
Swan dragged herself out and pulled herself to a standing position, keeping all her weight off her right leg. Wavey followed, hauling Dawn out after her, using mostly her left arm. I leaned down and lifted the girl up into my arms, a breath hissing through my teeth as my muscles began to hurt more. Swan slung her arm around Wavey’s shoulder, the latter hesitating before doing the same. Unable to find the breath to speak for a moment, I jerked my head in the direction of the base.
“Think it’s that way,” I wheezed finally, and began walking back. I wobbled slightly on my feet, my legs still burning with every movement. Turning my head, I saw Wavey grimace in pain as Swan leaned heavily on her to keep her injured leg off the ground. A sudden clap of thunder caused me to jump, rolling over our heads and fading in the distance. I found myself shivering from the cold rain drumming against me, soaking me from head to toe. I shook out my long hair, trying to keep it from clumping up at the nape of my neck and dripping down my back, but the action appeared not to do much, as it stuck right back against my skin. Gooseflesh went up my arms and legs and I shuddered again, shifting Dawn’s limp form.
A rustle and a crack brought the three of us to a sudden halt. Looking around, I didn’t see anything immediately other than the trees and the rain and the occasional lightning, and mumbled, “What was that?” quietly, though not expecting anyone to answer. Glancing at Wavey and Swan, I noticed that they were staring darkly at something to my left. I turned my head and my eyes rested on a teenager’s body slumped in the bushes nearby, completely limp and blood splattering numerous gashes along their back. Wavey gave a low, throaty groan, ducking her head.
And then, the corpse… oh, gosh… moved. Swan and I startled as the teen jerked into a crouching position, then stretched out their limbs one by one. I stared at them, not at all sure what to do other than repeating they weren't dead, they weren't dead, they weren't dead over and over in my head. Finally, after a long moment, they cracked their back and tilted their head to look right at us. Horror drained their face of any color that might have been there before. “Shooooot,” they groaned, drawing Wavey’s attention. “Oh, shoot.”
They stood up and bolted away in the direction of the Darkness territory, repeating “shoot” over and over as they ran.
“Well, shoot is right,” Swan grumbled, rubbing at her upper arm, where an arrow was embedded inside. “We have absolutely no idea how long that kid has been there and they are probably a spy and currently headed back to report everything to Bul─Blue, if they're a Darkhunter.” Her firm expression slipped for a moment at Blue's name, betraying an emotion unrecognizable to me, but shook it off right after. I felt my own gaze harden for a split-second, opposing Swan’s reaction to her name, and pushed away the twinge of suspicion that followed.
Wavey raised her eyebrows. “We can deal with that later. We should probably get Dawn back to the base first, though. Just because she looks like she could be dead right now.”
I quickly reached up with my left hand to poke the side of her throat, felt a pulse, and shifted it back down. “Once again, she’s not dead,” I reassured her, fighting down the shred of doubt that rose up inside me, and took a step forward, igniting a flicker of pain in my legs. “Let’s g─”
“Icy?” someone yelled. I jerked my head up to see Fawny standing several yards ahead of us. I took in a breath to sigh in relief that another Dawndweller had found us, but it caught in my throat when I noticed the look of urgency printed on the girl’s face. “Something’s happened,” she gasped, spitting blood. I opened my mouth to ask what but was cut off almost immediately. “You’ve gotta come. Quickly!”
Only one thing went through my mind before clutching Dawn more tightly to me─what is it with Fawny and bad news?─and I found myself sprinting after Fawny as she led me back to wherever the thing had happened, whatever thing it was.
The stone was smooth in my hand. Cold. Damp from the rain. It scraped against the blade held tightly in my hand, slipping in the water, over and over. My arm ached from dragging it back and forth across the edge of my sword for such a long time, opening up the gaping wound in my bicep further and further, but I pushed away the urge to stop or at least simply shake it out. Come on, Blue, you can keep going. It’s not that hard.
Blood smeared on the shiny metal sword, mixing with the rain and rolling down in droplets, a stinging pain in my right hand. Flicking my gaze from the stone to the blood, I noticed a shallow cut about halfway across my palm. The sword fell from my bleeding hand onto my lap and I pressed the wound to my knee, letting the blood soak into my sweatpants, clenching my teeth. As soon as I felt the bleeding stop, I gripped the sword in my injured hand again and the stone in my other, refraining from acknowledging the pain that flared up around the cut when the sharp metal pressed into it.
I set the stone on the ground and swept my fingertips down the blade, feeling for any more nicks to smooth over. Finding none, I leaned my head back and let it thump against the tree behind me, my injured arm flopping to the ground like something dead. Rain dripped into my eyes and I flinched, squeezing them shut. The drops pummeled my face, hard and quick. I felt blood dribbling down my cheek from a slash on my temple, warm against the cold rain forcing it open and refusing to let it clot.
Leaves and twigs crunched nearby, nearly inaudible because of the rain pounding on the forest floor. I instinctively jerked my head up, searching for whoever or whatever was causing the noise. Realizing that no non-Darkhunter would be reckless or stupid enough to stomp through Darkhunter territory without any fear of being heard, I calmed down a little and stood up, giving my arm a single shake before letting it go still.
Someone stumbled out of the bushes and stared, wide-eyed, at me as I brandished my sword, just in case it was in fact a reckless and stupid non-Darkhunter. Narrowing my eyes, I looked them up and down. Tall, forest-green eyes, bright blonde hair. Jazzy. I let the blade drop to my side, and the teenager’s expression relaxed.
“Hahahahey, Blue,” they slurred, a dazed expression on their shadowed face. There were dark circles beneath their eyes and they wore a lopsided grin. They missed their footing several times as they headed toward me, one eye half-closed, both unfocused. I raised my eyebrows as they stopped in front of me, swaying slightly on their feet.
“Um, how long has it been since you last slept?” I asked, not really wanting to know.
Jazzy paused, then shrugged. “If you’re wondering when the last time I closed my eyes and dozed off for a couple of minutes was, it was about, uh, two days ago. If you’re wondering when the last time I actually slept for a few hours was, I think it was sometime last week.”
“You think it was sometime last week?”
“Could’ve been longer, could’ve not.” They shrugged again.
I became unsure of whether it was possible to raise my eyebrows any more or not. The hilt of my sword began to slip from my hand as the rainwater seeped between my skin and the leather; switching hands, I wiped my wet one on my jacket to get the majority of the water off. I caught sight of Jazzy furrowing their brow at me. “How many swords can you hold in one hand?” they asked, blinking one eye at a time.
“More often than not, just one,” I replied.
“You’re holding, like, four,” they informed me, then shook their head fiercely. “I need to sleep.”
My sword slipped easily into the sheath, helped by the water and the newly sharpened edges. “No kidding.”
“Can I go sleep now, Lion?”
“I'm Blue. Lion's back at the base.”
I turned my head up to see the sky, but the sun was nowhere to be seen through the thick mass of dark clouds dumping rain on the forest. I guessed it was around dusk, based on the last time I had seen the sun. An hour or two had passed since then, and I wondered whether the storm planned on ceasing anytime soon or not.
A crack emitted from behind me, followed by a loud moan. Whipping my head around, I saw Jazzy pressing their hand against their shoulder blade, their face twisted in pain and exhaustion. “Didn't realize how much getting your back sliced open multiple times by a knife would hurt,” they forced out through their teeth. “And dozing off briefly during a spy mission didn't really do anything, surprisingly.”
“You just said that you last dozed off two days ago.” Letting out a loud sigh, I stuffed my hands into the pockets of my black jacket. But after a moment, I stopped, squinted my eyes, and turned slowly to look back at them. “How long had you been sleeping during your spy mission?”
Their eyes shot wide open, actually looking awake for a moment. “Shoot, I forgot about that part,” they hissed. “Uhhmm, well, Icy and the other two were walking around and stuff and I’d been in basically the same spot for a while because they were moving really slow and I kind of fell asleep─”
“What did you find out, if anything?” I demanded, holding up a hand to break them off.
Their face fell, taking on the previous look of weariness that had shadowed it before, and their forest-green eyes flicked to the side. “Can we get to the base first?”
“You start talking and we'll start moving,” I retorted. Jazzy sighed and rubbed at their eyes.
“Well, I think the Dawndwellers have a stomach flu going around, first of all.” They made a disgusted face. “Four of them were walking around with two bodies each… or maybe there were just two with one body each. No idea. Aaaand eventually it started to storm and they went to find shelter. Then they found this hole in the ground and dragged themselves into it, and I hid behind this rock on top of it. And… I don't really remember what happened, but they said something about us attacking the Dawn base and─”
“How did they know about that?” I hissed, turning sharply to face them.
Jazzy's gaze slowly slipped toward me, confusion beginning to shadow their expression. “How would I know? I can't─” they fought to stop a yawn, ultimately failing and getting a lot of rainwater in their mouth “─I can't remember everything they… they said… wait, uh, the one said that she got choked by a Darkhunter right before she went on to mention the attack. Does that help?”
I stiffened, my eyes widening in realization. “Choked by a… Darkhunter. Minty.” My fist clenched and I gritted my teeth. “Crap, that spy got away. Minty must have tried to strangle her but she somehow got away.”
“Looks like it, boss.”
“Come on,” I growled, seizing Jazzy's wrist. They didn't struggle as I began to drag them through the dripping forest to the base. I could feel them slipping around on the soaking wet leaves that had fallen during the storm as they tried to keep up, almost completely dropping to the ground once or twice. The third time they lost their balance, they took hold of me with a more forceful grasp than I had had on them and wrenched on my injured arm hard enough to make it bleed again, almost pulling me to the ground with them. I yelped in pain, a sharp, doglike sound, and ripped my arm out of their grip. They landed hard on their tailbone with a loud groan.
I unzipped my jacket and tugged it off my left shoulder to inspect the bloody cut, poking it gingerly with a finger. Several droplets of blood rolled down from it at the touch, washed away instantly by the rain. I almost cringed at the horrible pain it caused, but steeled myself against it and forced a neutral expression onto my face. I should have taken that dagger out when that Dawndweller first stuck it in there. My hands balled into fists and released again numerous times as I took in a deep, shuddering breath to calm myself down and focus on something other than the pain. That would have been much less stupid.
Jazzy was still sitting in the middle of a puddle on the forest floor, rubbing at their newly bruised tailbone. “Sorry ‘bout that, Leafy,” they mumbled softly, their attention focused elsewhere.
“I'm still Blue. Leafy's stuck in the Dusk prison.”
Pulling the sleeve of my jacket back over my shoulder, I turned sharply back in the direction of the base, beckoning with one hand for the other Darkhunter to follow. From the crackling of leaves and sticks behind me, I could tell that they had stood up and begun to trail me. The crisp scent of rain hung in the air, and as I breathed it in, a peal of thunder roared in the sky, sounding as if it were coming from the ground as it echoed through the forest. More rain poured down through the treetops, the water becoming too heavy for the leaves to hold back. I brushed my wet hair from my face, not bothering to avoid touching the cut on my temple and disregarding the stinging pain that followed.
A clanging sound split the air briefly nearby, startling me badly. Something scraped against another, metal on metal, making me cringe. “Jazzy, what's that?” I called over my shoulder with my gaze still fixed ahead, hoping I didn't sound too worried.
No answer. I turned around to see the Darkhunter standing with their face pressed up against a tree trunk, appearing to be sound asleep. Letting out a snort of amusement, I tiptoed toward them and waved my hand close to their eye.
They made no reaction, so I scooped up a handful of the remaining snow on the ground and dumped it down the back of their shirt. Jazzy jumped and let out a feeble squeak as they dropped to the ground. They pushed themself up on their elbows, letting their head loll back, their face twisting in pain. “Ohh, owwwwwww. Dude,” they complained, squinting at me. “Snow does not help make knife wounds feel better. It actually makes them feel worse. Plus, I was sleeping.”
A sharp clang clang clang interrupted them, and I flinched. “Um, there's obviously no screams of pain every two seconds so it's obviously not a battle. So… what are they doing?” I inquired with an edge to my voice.
“Uhhhh─” they yawned unnecessarily loudly, then paused to rub their eyes for a moment “─I have… absolutely no idea,” they finished slowly as they pulled one knee to their chest and rested their chin on it.
Trying not to lose my footing on the slick ground, I whirled around and stomped in the direction of the sound. Jazzy could find their way back. Maybe. If they didn’t pass out on the way. Rolling my eyes, I brushed my hand against the dripping tree trunks as I walked past them. Bright pain sparked in my palm after a couple trees and I stopped, glancing down at it. A thick red droplet of blood squeezed out of the cut there and dribbled down my fingers as it mixed with the rain. I pocketed my hands and carried on.
The clanging erupted once again from the otherwise still and quiet forest. It was a harsh intrusion on the gentle pattering of raindrops on the dense umbrella of pine needles and branches overhead. It had definitely come from at least two different blades clashing against each other. Are they battle training? My lips pressed tightly together. I told them not to train in camp. It’s stupidly loud and scares off all the prey in the best nearby hunting places.
A flicker of movement caught my eye and I jerked my head upward. A girl was standing beside a giant, looming oak tree, her hand planted on its solid bark. Unease lodged in my throat as she turned her head to stare directly at me. Her ice-blue eyes were bright with fear. I struggled to swallow down the anxiety that was starting to choke me as I stared back. The soft fabric of her white sweatshirt and pale blue jeans were soaked with blood, the puddles slowly spreading and staining more of her clothing. Blood from a fresh deep slice over her right eyebrow trickled down her face, dripping into her eye, rolling down her cheek. She didn’t blink. She just stared.
I knew without even having to look any closer that the cause of the blood soaking more quickly through her sweatshirt was three different wounds inflicted by a sword. The first injury went all the way through her abdomen, just below her rib cage. The second impaled her gut. The third had completely ravaged one of her lungs. Her killer had twisted the sword around in each gash to ensure that she would bleed out.
My hands balled into fists inside my pockets and I shut my eyes, turning away. No matter what side they were on, being responsible for the death of another teenager sucked. Frequently seeing their ghost sucked even more.
“Hiya, Blue!” someone right in front of me yelled.
I startled badly and a chill raced down my back, but when I looked, I realized it was only Lion. Blood was beading up along a fresh, thin cut on her upper arm, soaking into the sleeve of her shark t-shirt and dribbling down her pale skin with the rain. She was flashing one of her signature toothy grins that often meant she had just been doing something mischievous, although it was slightly marred by the dark bluish-green bruises along her left cheekbone. Probably got punched. Swallowing down the lump in my throat, I forced my anxious expression to shift into a stony one.
Crossing my arms, I gazed at her coldly. “Battle training?”
Lion’s grin froze. “Mm, well, sort of, I guess,” she spluttered, fingering the silver-and-blue Darkness brooch pinned to her shirt. A nervous habit. “Um, not my idea. Nope. It was… um… Jazzy’s! Right. Yeah. Jazzy’s idea.”
She seemed to realize her mistake as I continued to glare at her, and she whipped back around to see the camp. “Oh. They’re not… here… are they…?”
As if on cue, a young, spindly pine tree a few feet away quivered as someone that could only be the very tired, very clumsy Jazzy ran straight into it. “Hi─” they began drowsily, breaking off as they slipped in the mud and collapsed onto the saturated forest floor. Lion snorted and stepped toward the teen lying face down on the ground.
Jazzy groaned softly. “Just let me lay here for a minute… or maybe five hundred gazillion minutes…”
They were given about four seconds before Lion pulled them to their feet. “Piggyback ride?” Lion suggested.
I silently followed Lion back to camp as she carried Jazzy on her back. I made a mental note to let them sleep for as long as they needed; they were in terrible condition. Just in front of the base, Berry and Shade were sparring with their blades, the former with a dagger and the latter with a sword. As I emerged into the clearing, arms crossed, both girls whirled around to face me. Shade, taking advantage of Berry’s distraction, smirked and dove forward, slamming her sword against her opponent’s dagger and knocking it out of her hand. Berry recovered rather quickly and delivered a solid kick to Shade’s gut, sending her reeling into a tree. The golden-haired girl grinned at her before helping her up.
“Guys, seriously?” I growled. They seemed to remember once again that they’d been caught in the act of battle training in camp. “Have I not made this clear? If you’re gonna train, head to the chunk of forest by the creek. There’s less prey for you to scare off because people are often over there. And it’s also just annoying.”
Shade huffed. “Sorry.” Berry nodded in mildly disappointed agreement.
A cold drop of rain splashed onto the back of my neck and I shivered. “What’s everyone else up to?” I asked, swiping the rain from my face with the sleeve of my black jacket. Just behind them, Lion was carrying Jazzy into the base. A trio of boys were cooking what I thought might be squirrels over the firepit while two more held a blanket above them to shield the flame from the rain. A group of six or seven armed kids were sprinting into the forest, all of them clutching their weapons in hand.
Shade jabbed her thumb over her shoulder in the direction of the big group. “They’re all going hunting. Crow’s still behind the base, I think, skinning and gutting some rabbits Ottie brought back. Speaking of Ottie, here she is.”
The three of us turned. Holding her bow in one hand and a dead rabbit in the other, Ottie emerged from the thicket of trees. She looked pretty bad, to say the least. I hadn’t seen her much since the battle two nights ago─she’d been hunting a lot. Dark purple bruises blossomed above her left eye, perhaps from the bat I knew Swan had borrowed from Darkie. Her lower lip was busted and swollen, and dried blood from it stained her jaw. Patches of blood surrounding numerous arrow-inflicted injuries appeared black against her blue hoodie. The knuckles on her right hand were sliced up with narrow but deep-looking cuts. A thin dribble of blood ran down the side of her neck from a shallow graze that had likely been recently reopened. Her glasses were speckled with dried blood, which I wasn’t sure was hers or someone else’s. Of course, I also remembered the vicious rip in her tongue from an arrow. I couldn’t see it right at that moment, since she was holding her mouth tightly shut, but it had looked excruciatingly painful last time I saw it.
“Yo,” I called.
Ottie held up the limp rabbit by its ears. “Caughth thith,” she forced out, flashing a faint smile, before traipsing away and dragging her bow through the mud and fallen leaves. Yup. I barely held back a snort. Just as I expected. Her tongue is hilariously swollen.
Glancing back at Shade and Berry, I opened my mouth to ask Shade to continue, but paused as I noticed Berry’s expression. Her brow was furrowed, her green eyes glittering with apprehension. “Fire’s out doing her double agent thing with the Duskhowlers, right?” she muttered, adjusting the position of her glasses. “And Leafy’s still in the Dusk prison? And basically everyone else is hunting or battle training─by the creek, Blue─or standing guard or spying? Right?”
Shade nodded slowly. “Yeah, why?”
“Doesn’t Minty usually… y’know, come back to camp after taking out a spy?” Berry inquired, her tone dark. “It’s been a day since you told her to go after that spy. Remember? When she pulled that knife out of your arm?”
I remember that very clearly. It still hurts, in fact, I thought as I glanced down at the deep, jagged, bleeding rip in my upper arm. It took a moment for me to realize what she was implying. I cursed under my breath. “Ugh. I’ll go look for her.” Eyeing them, I added, “And don’t battle train here.” Whirling around, I stepped back under the shelter of the wet, shadowy forest. “Why,” I mumbled to myself, wondering aloud, “has nobody else found her when everyone’s apparently been doing nothing but hunting and training for the past two days?”
Thunder boomed in the sky, louder than before. Tilting my head back, I stared into the treetops and shielded my eyes from the rain with a hand. Beyond the leaves, the sky was black as ink. My black clothing would serve well as camouflage. The only problem was that it was getting harder to see as the sun set behind the clouds. I frowned and narrowed my eyes.
It was likely that neither Minty nor the spy had gone super far from where they’d been when I left them, so I decided to start there. Slush from the half-melted snow splattered onto my sweatpants, uncomfortably cold and wet, as my shoes knocked it up. Lightning flashed in the distance, bright white against the dark silhouettes of trees far away. The storm was kicking up a notch. Storms were nice; they made it impossible to see clearly when I fought, but apart from that, fighting in pouring rain was always fun.
Fighting. I cursed again. That spy─I had trouble picturing her, but I thought I remembered her having purple-tipped golden-blonde hair─had been there when the five of us were discussing our next attack. I was pretty sure she was that Dawndweller Crow had accidentally stabbed in the shoulder, which meant she had most definitely already told the rest of them, since she’d gotten away from Minty. And, speaking of that… how did she get away from Minty?
She was strong. And she had a scary dart gun. And if I was right, the Dawndweller spy’s shoulder was absolutely mutilated. I shook my head. Had Minty gotten badly wounded in that battle two days earlier? She'd never said anything if she did.
I shook my head again. I’ll ask her later.
Finally, the shady clearing where we’d been talking came into view. A thick green layer of ferns blanketed the forest floor, and the bark on the vast surrounding conifers was marshy and kind of disgusting to the touch. I trudged into it, the wet ferns tickling my ankles. I’d seen the spy just to the left of where I was standing now, hiding in an especially dense patch of ferns and tall grass. Scanning the springy undergrowth around the area, I noticed that some of the ferns were trampled and crushed, more so than the rest that had been gently beaten by the rain. Someone had been here.
My black sneakers made indistinct squelching sounds as I tramped through the mud, following the faint trail of pulverized brush. The freezing cold rain rolled down my face and neck, and I began to shiver. “How far did they go?” I hissed out loud, pausing briefly to shake out my hair and pull up my hood.
The soft, earthy scent of petrichor rising up from the muddy ground changed abruptly to something much less pleasant after a while. A reverberating peal of thunder rumbled in the sky, and another flicker of lightning flashed through the pine needles and oak leaves overhead. I swallowed hard. That new scent was harsh and metallic. Blood.
“Minty?” I called out warily. No answer. Carefully, I unsheathed my sword and gripped it tightly in my uninjured hand, just in case. The wound in my arm pulsed with fresh pain. I gritted my teeth and tried to ignore it.
The lusty smell of blood grew stronger, and my pace grew faster. Oh, no. Oh, no. A knot of worry formed in my gut. She’s wounded, isn’t she? She’s wounded bad, she might die, she might already be dead─
A low-hanging branch from a conifer hung in my way and I drew my sword back, slamming it down onto the limb, my fear almost numbing the worsening pain in the cut in my arm. The blow didn’t completely lop off the branch, but it weakened it enough for me to shove it down and snap it with my other hand. I took another step forward and inhaled sharply at the sight that lay before me.
There was a lot of blood here, spread out over the ferns and grass by the rain. Smeared on nearby tree trunks, splattered on the dense undergrowth, puddling up in the shallow shoeprints in the mud. The scent of blood was overwhelming, almost making me gag. A broken arrow jutted out from the boggy soil, the top half clinging to the other by only a thin sliver of wood. My eyes narrowed. I knew from seeing the Dawndweller spy in that battle that she used swords, not a bow, and Minty had her dart gun. Which could only mean one thing: someone else had been here as well.
“Minty?” I yelled, a harsh edge to my voice, and bounded around the arrow. Thrusting another branch aside, I filled my lungs with air to shout her name again, but stopped as my gaze settled on a limp form several feet away, at the base of an enormous cedar tree.
My heart pounding in my chest, I dashed over to the other Darkhunter, my sword dropping from my hand and clattering onto the ground. She was sprawled on her left side, and as I jabbed my fingers against the side of her throat, I felt relief crash over me. She still had a pulse. Taking in a deep, shuddery breath, I crouched down beside her. Her long, typically wavy brown hair was matted with blood and soaking wet from the rain. A dark blueish-purple bruise had formed over her left eye, sealing it shut. Her other eye was only barely open, the dark brown iris staring blankly past me. The poor teen had been punched multiple times, apparently; there was another bad-looking bruise along her jaw, and her lower lip was split and swollen. My gaze shifted over to her arm and I slapped a hand over my mouth in dismay. Three arrows had been shot all the way through her flesh; one just above her elbow, the other two impaling her forearm. Snaking up from her wrist to her shoulder was a deep, jagged gash, and I had a hunch I’d be able to see bone if I looked more closely.
There were other cuts on her body as well, but most of them were scabbing over. The most damage had been done to her right arm and her face. It’d take a while to heal, but she’d live. A quiver went down my spine. She’ll live.
As gently as I could, I clamped my hand around her shoulder and shook it. “Mintyyyyy,” I hissed. “Mintyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy. Hey, do me an enormous favor and wake up.”
She still wasn’t stirring. Please live. My hands shaking, I shifted her position so she was laying on her back. “Minty? Minty, please wake up.” Again, she gave no reaction. My heart rate sped up and I dug my fingers into the miry soil.
A thought passed quickly through my mind as I crouched there, begging for the girl to wake up. The majority of her injuries had been inflicted upon her limbs. The majority of many others’ injuries had been inflicted upon their limbs. Most of the kids here in the forest were too scared to actually deal killing blows to each other. Most of them still had some scrap of humanity left in them.
I jolted my head up to see a teenage boy sitting in a tree further away. He swung his legs back and forth under the limb on which he was perched. His wide, blank stare was fixed right on me. Blood poured from a vicious gash across his chest, and more dripped from his nose and mouth, rolling down his chin. His formerly pale olive green t-shirt was saturated with his blood.
Springing to my feet, I screamed at him. “Leave me alone! Leave me the hell alone!”
Most of them had never intentionally killed someone. I was not included in that category.
In my peripheral vision, I noticed movement from on the ground. “Minty?” I whispered for the thousandth time, dropping back into a crouch. The girl groaned in reply, her head rolling back. Abruptly, she jerked upright and coughed hard into her left hand─the uninjured one, grimacing in obvious pain. Her non-blacked eye darted nervously around the area, then rested on me. She looked alarmingly terrified.
“What?” I asked hurriedly. Minty said nothing, just hooked a finger over her busted lip and pulled it down. One of her molars was missing. Oh. Reacting swiftly, I clapped my hand hard against her back and a small white object flew into her palm from her parted jaws. She tossed it away and a groan escaped her mouth as she let herself drop back against the ground.
“Never…” she rasped, her voice rough. “Never inhaled my own tooth before.” She forced out a chuckle, but then let her attempt at a lighthearted expression fall. “What… what happened? Blue?”
I nodded. “Yeah, it’s Blue. Listen, you’re fine. You were passed out for about a day, I think. I’m gonna take you back to the base. All right?”
Minty still hadn’t moved her badly injured arm, I observed. She squinted at me with her good eye. “Who were you screaming at?” she mumbled, her words slurring around her swollen lip. A jolt ran through me and I looked up, staring at the tree where the boy’s ghost had been sitting. He had disappeared. Unnerved, I returned my attention to the other Darkhunter.
“Nobody. How do you feel?”
Her confused expression lingered for a moment longer before faltering. “Um, my entire body hurts. A lot.” She squeezed her eye shut and swiped her tongue over her swollen lip. Taking a breath and opening her eye back up, she swallowed hard. “How bad is it?”
Knowing she was referring to her arm, I shifted my footing. “Pretty bad.” Her breathing sped up, and I asked, “Can you feel it?”
Minty’s dark brown gaze was glittering with obvious alarm. “Am I gonna die?”
“No,” I snapped, sounding more agitated than what was probably necessary. “Can you feel it?”
My gaze shifted down to the deep, bloody gash and the three arrows in her arm. Her fingers twitched, then curled slowly into a fist. The girl shrieked in pain, making me jump, and her arm went limp. “Yeah, I can feel it,” Minty hissed through clenched teeth, tears spilling from her half-closed eyes. At least, I thought they were tears. Might’ve just been rain.
Thunder boomed in the distance, and the wind began to pick up. “Okay,” I began softly, my hand fumbling on the ground behind me as it searched for my discarded sword. “I need to get these arrows out. While I do that, can you explain what exactly happened?” My hand brushed against the hilt and I grabbed hold of it, dragging it around to rest beside Minty’s arm.
She nodded, a brisk, barely noticeable movement, and sat up to lean against the tree. I gingerly gripped her arm between my thumb and index finger and rotated it around so the arrow in her wrist was parallel to the ground. “So… I went after her, like you told me to. I think she heard you when you said that, because I looked back at where she’d been and she’d just disappeared. So I ran deeper into the trees to see where she was, and─” Minty broke off, letting out a piercing cry as I brought my sword down on the arrow in her wrist, snapping it into two.
“What?” I yelled and dropped my sword again, thinking I’d hit her as well as the arrow.
“Blue, don’t do that,” she whispered, breathing heavily. "No, you didn't cut me, if that's what you're wondering, but man, I’d prefer to avoid having all of my organs freak out at the sight of a blade flying toward me if I’m able to. Please at least don’t lift it so high. Also, stop looking so excited.”
“I don’t look excited,” I insisted, but she shot an unwavering icy glare at me and I turned my attention back to the arrow. Minty opened her mouth to continue, but I interrupted her before she could. “This’ll hurt. Probably a lot. Prepare yourself.” She was silent, and I glanced back up. “Go on.”
Her pupil dilated with fear, almost completely swallowing up the brown in her iris, and she grimaced in anticipation for worse pain than she likely already felt. “Okay,” she murmured. Pinching the fletching of the severed end of the arrow between my fingers, I flicked it over my shoulder and gripped Minty’s wrist again. I noticed that the dried blood coating the arrow was causing it to stick to her flesh. Great. “Um, so I chased her and she tripped, so she was on the ground for a while. Then she stood up and I grabbed her throat and shoved her into a tree and OH MY GOSH, OW, OW, OW,” she yelped as I yanked the rest of the arrow out of her arm.
I twirled the bloody arrowhead over my fingers for a moment before tossing it away. “I warned you.” I didn’t bother telling her that it would have hurt a lot more if I’d just ripped it back through the way it came. The barbs on an arrowhead would have torn up much more flesh and skin coming out than they already had going in. Now that I thought about it, I remembered telling Darkie a while back to do exactly that because I thought it’d be funny. Surprisingly, she still stuck by my advice. Despite being a double agent for two different sides, nobody had told her that that was bad. I fought back a grin.
Minty glared at me again for a few seconds before looking away, and I focused on the next arrow, which skewered her arm about an inch below her elbow. “I had her by the throat for a good solid minute. My wrist kinda hurt from her shoving at it, so I shot her hand with a dart to get her to stop.” Carefully, I held my sword by the blade and sawed at the shaft of the arrow, giving a hushed sigh of satisfaction when I was able to snap it. Minty cringed. “Eventually I just let go and stomped on her rib cage and then─” She broke off with a sharp yell as I wrenched at the arrow, but it stayed put. It must be embedded in the bone. Crap. “My gosh, warn me next time!”
“All right,” I told her, handing her the fletching end of the arrow I’d just chopped off. She took it hesitantly. “Bite this and brace yourself.” Trying not to acknowledge the fierce guilt filling up my lungs as my brain reminded me of how harsh I was being, I curled my hand around the arrowhead. Minty hesitantly sank her teeth into the smooth wood, careful to keep it away from the cut on her lip and the raw gap where her molar had been.
Dark blood ran freely from the freshly opened arrow wounds, pooling at my feet. The rain relentlessly poured down from the inky black sky, and I kept having to wipe the cold water away from my eyes to see. “Okay,” I whispered, mostly to myself. Clutching her arm around the arrow with one hand and grasping the arrowhead with the other, I twisted the shaft around in a circle to loosen it as much as I could. The movement provoked an agonized groan from the girl beside me. With a quick, sharp jerk of my hand, I successfully tore the rest of the arrow out. Blood sprayed against my knee. A dull splintering sound emitted from the piece of shaft Minty was clenching between her jaws as she broke it, and she let out a high-pitched shriek through her teeth, her head lolling back against the trunk of the cedar.
A dull, throbbing ache spread through my hand, the one with the sliced up palm. The keen edge of the arrow had sunk into the wound, and a hot liquid bubbled up around the metal tip and streamed between my fingers. Flinging the arrowhead away, I pressed my hand against my thigh to staunch the bleeding. My gaze shifted upward towards Minty. She let the splintery arrow shards fall from her mouth, and tears ran down her cheeks.
"And?" I prompted, reaching for the third and final arrow.
Minty swiped the tears from her face with the back of her uninjured hand. "We fought a little bit, with no weapons. She pinned me down, and I tried to push her off, but I could barely move. Then she whipped out her sword, stabbed me in the arm, and dragged it downward. It hurt so dang much. Ah!" she cried out as my sword cracked the arrow in half, jolting the wound.
Experimentally, I twisted at the arrow, earning a piercing yell from the Darkhunter beside me. Once again, it had impaled bone. Crap, crap, crap. "Sorry. Er, keep talking. It'll distract you from the pain."
She whipped her terrified gaze in my direction, but swallowed and continued. "Then… then two more appeared. Dawndwellers. The one grabbed that dagger off me and the other shot me with her bow. Now that I think about it, they might have been those prisoners we took the other day─"
Prisoners. Dagger. Bow. My eyes shot wide in realization, and, without warning, I jerked my arm back as forcefully as I could, successfully ripping the rest of the arrow out of Minty's arm. She broke off with a tortured scream. I’d completely forgotten about those two Dawndwellers I’d captured after they’d both brawled with Ottie, and everyone else probably had as well if nobody was standing guard, which was the only logical explanation for why the prisoners had escaped. I know I put Crow on guard duty, I thought, rolling my eyes, but I’m guessing they made their dog do it instead. He’s well-trained, but more for scariness than for fighting. Spectacular.
A blinding flash of lightning brought me back to my senses. The bloody, rain-soaked arrow had slipped from my fingers and sunk into the mud at my feet. Minty’s mangled arm was still flopped limply by her side, blood gushing from the messily torn arrow wounds. Her eye─the one that wasn’t already swollen shut by the bruise─was only barely open, staring blankly ahead, dark with tears of pain.
“Are you done?” she whispered, the words almost too soft to be audible, her voice wavering feebly.
I nodded slowly, and Minty’s gaze flicked down to her injured limb. She said nothing.
My ankles had begun to ache from crouching in that position for so long; I tucked my legs underneath me and sat back on my heels to ease the discomfort. “What happened next?” I asked, determined to keep grilling her until she spat the rest of the story out.
Minty huffed and slumped back against the tree, trying to dry her tear- and rain-streaked face with the back of her left hand, but to no avail. Rain continued to drizzle through the gaps in the cedar’s thick, sturdy branches. “I don’t know,” she muttered weakly, swiping her tongue over her swollen lip. “I don’t remember anything else. I tried to escape, but the one spy punched me in the face and my legs inconveniently gave out. Someone else hit my jaw and, after that, everything’s a total blank.”
“So they just… left you there?”
“Yeah, I guess.” She tried to twitch the fingers on her right hand and cringed. “Can we go back?”
To the base. I remembered with a jolt that she’d been lying here, unconscious, with multiple untreated injuries for more than a day in the pouring rain. She was likely excruciatingly chilled, famished, and exhausted. “Sure thing,” I replied, rolling out my shoulders. “Get on my back so you’ll be easier to carry.”
She squinted at me. “I can walk─”
“Nope. Get on.”
Minty glared for a few seconds longer before slumping back against the cedar tree in defeat, her formerly irked expression replaced by a vacant look. “Fine.” She planted her left hand onto the dripping wet trunk and forced herself to her feet. The moment her weight rested on her legs again she stumbled, but I quickly caught her in my arms before she hit the ground.
“See?” I chuckled, but stopped when she shot me another withering look. Wrestling my scabbard off my back and dumping out the rainwater that had accumulated inside, I slipped my sword into it and refastened it to my front. It felt uncomfortable, and the guard on my sword poked me in the cheek, but I couldn’t think of any other way to hold it. Minty hopped onto my back and I hooked my arms around her knees to secure her. Pain spiked through my bicep from the stab wound as it stretched further open, and I let out a soft grunt. The lusty scent of blood was nauseating; her injured arm was flopped over my shoulder, right next to my face. I clenched my teeth.
About one minute after I began trudging back, Minty ducked her head against my shoulder and dozed off. I didn’t blame her. I kind of wanted to sleep, too. My eyelids grew heavy at the thought, but I kicked myself in the ankle in an attempt to keep me awake.
“Bulle,” someone hissed, barely perceptible over the pattering of the rain and rumbling thunder.
I instantly realized that the voice had not come from Minty and my eyes snapped wide open. Halting in my tracks, I scanned the surrounding conifers, dripping with rain, for any sign of another person. “What?” I snarled, turning in a full circle. My hand twitched, meaning to unsheathe my sword, but I remembered that I was still holding Minty. Craaaaaap.
Twigs snapped and pine needles fluttered to the forest floor. A moment passed, and a silhouetted figure dropped down from a thick, lush fir tree and landed feet-first beside its roots before anticlimactically slipping on the mud and slamming against the ground. Stepping back, I glowered at the person, appearing as menacing as I could.
Lightning flickered, and I was able to make out brown hair and a bloodstained blue hoodie. Relief washed over me, followed by a flicker of confusion. “What are you doing here?”
Swan groaned in reply. She had collapsed onto her back, sprawled across the snaking roots of the fir. I stepped closer. “Ughhhhhh,” she growled, squeezing her eyes shut. “That did not go as planned at all. Stupid slippery ground…”
“Great job,” I told her.
Her blue-green eyes flicked back open to stare at me, but quickly snapped down to my left, where Minty’s face was slightly visible against my shoulder. Her amused expression melted into confusion and surprise. “Um,” Swan mumbled, gripping the trunk with a hand and sitting up. She cringed in obvious pain. “Is she asleep?”
I glanced at Minty out of the corner of my eye. “I mean, I think so.”
“Did you check?”
Swan stood up and promptly fell backwards into the tree with a cry of pain. “Ahh! Um, here. Lemme…” Holding tightly onto a low-hanging branch with one arm, she reached out and lightly flicked Minty’s cheek. The unconscious girl on my back made no movement indicating that she had noticed. Phew.
“What happened to you?” I asked, eyeing her. Dried blood stained her clothing in dark black patches everywhere, and she had quite a nosebleed going. The pale blue fabric of her jeans surrounding her lower right leg was soaked almost completely with blood, and as I stared at her leg, I realized that a good chunk of flesh had been chopped out of her calf. “Holy crap.” I jerked my head back up to meet her gaze. “How did you even get all the way here?”
She leaned back against the tree, panting heavily. “Bulle, I don’t know,” she chuckled softly, swiping her tongue over her upper lip to smear away some of the blood that had collected there. “I’d just gotten back to camp and…” She trailed off, her eyes vacant. Quickly, she shook her head and picked back up. “…and I came here. I climbed a tree and jumped between branches so none of your guards would notice. You might want to do something about that, by the way.”
I nodded, tilting my head to the side. “Probably. But then you wouldn’t be able to risk dying of blood loss coming here to engage in conversation with me for a couple minutes. And I would be bored.”
“I’m fine,” Swan asserted, conspicuously wrapping one arm around her torso to hide the stab wounds that I had already noticed were there, fresh blood blossoming around them. “Plus, I can just find ways to get past them. I always do.”
“Oh? Want to test that theory?” I grinned.
Swan crossed her arms, then lost her balance and grabbed hold of the branch again. “I’ve been spying on bases and hunting parties for more than two years. I know how to get past a couple of measly guards.”
My gaze slid down to her butchered leg. “Wow, really?” I deadpanned, gesturing to her vicious injuries. “Because it only matters that you escape them alive, not that you leave part of your leg somewhere in the forest. No, not at all.”
She glanced down at her leg and back at me. “Hey, it was only a piece of my calf. Not too big.” Swan furrowed her brow. “That’s kind of disgusting to think about, actually.” When I opened my mouth to reply, she cut me off by adding, “And I wasn’t trying to get past guards. Two people disappeared, and then four more people disappeared looking for them, so Wavey and I went out to look for them, and this is sounding worse the more I talk but basically we found them all and then got attacked. It was great.”
“Sounds great.” I adjusted my grip on Minty, holding her more securely. “Which one’s Wavey, again?”
Leaning heavily on the branch of the fir, Swan observed Minty more closely. “Judging by the injuries of the Darkhunter you are holding, Wavey is that spy she attacked.” A fresh rivulet of blood dribbled from her nose and she wiped it away with her sleeve. The attempt to mop up her nosebleed was useless, though; instead, the movement caused more blood to rush over her mouth and chin. She gave up and pretended not to notice it.
Wavey. Shoulder wound. Purple-tipped hair. I’d remember that.
“Okay,” I stated, not sure what else to say. I became suddenly aware of my left shoe sinking gradually deeper into the mud; I yanked it out with a squelching sound and shifted a few steps away from that spot. “So… assuming you didn’t come here just to engage in conversation with me, why exactly are you here?”
Her expression flickered, like she’d just recalled the reason she’d stopped by for a chat. Swan’s blue-green gaze hardened into a glare. “Right. That. I came because─” blood flew from her lip, and she swiftly ducked her head to wipe it off on her hoodie “─I wanted to ask you what the point of sending two attackers after a hunting patrol of ours was. Wavey and I got there in time to take them out, luckily. They said you told them to go.”
What? I thought but didn’t say aloud, shifting my gaze toward the ground, my eyebrows drawing together. Unconsciously, my fingers jabbed into the backs of Minty’s knees where I held them. “That’s stupid,” I hissed, fighting back a shiver from the cold rain. My black sneaker kicked at the mud. “I never sent anyone anywhere. Except Jazzy. I sent Jazzy to the base to sleep. Actually, that's irrelevant. Besides, why would I send only two people?” I added, finally meeting Swan’s eyes again.
She shrugged, a bitter expression on her face. “I know. I didn’t think you’d do that, because you’re not that stupid,” she explained with a smirk, and I kicked her in the ankle. “Did you know anyone else who was leaving?”
“Well, yes, I know them, they’ve been on my side for two years.” It was her turn to kick me. “A group went to go hunt, but that was, like, seven kids. Um…” Lowering my gaze to the shallow puddles accumulating in the mud, I settled my cheek against the guard of my sword. Shade had mentioned the whereabouts of all the Darkhunters; those who weren’t hunting were either standing guard around the territory or were in the camp.
“Emma?” I mumbled, flicking my gaze back up.
“What did they look like? The two that attacked the Dawndwellers.”
Swan paused, eyes narrowing. “Um…” Her eyebrows lowered, and she gingerly sank down to perch on one of the broad fir roots. “One was pale? Blonde? Dark green t-shirt, black jacket? The other had really bushy brown hair and a navy blue hoodie─”
“Fire and Crow, respectively,” I groaned, hanging my head, knowing I’d been right. “Aahhhhhhh. I’ll bet they were trying to take back the prisoners.”
“That’s probably it,” Swan replied. She stopped and jerked her head up to look me in the eye. “Wait a minute, hey, are you still planning that attack? Bulle?” I snorted and gave a little smirk. “You are, aren’t you?”
I shrugged the shoulder Minty’s head wasn’t resting against. “Ah. I guess the spy─er, Wavey─did tell you guys. Fantastic. Hey, you freed your own peeps, we’ll free ours. It’s only fair.” When she glared up at me, I grinned back. “See ya.”
Swan sighed, standing up again. "Gosh. Fine." She poked at the muddy ground with the tip of her blue-and-white shoe, then met my gaze with a faint smile, her expression an odd mix of fierce pain and mild excitement. "No kills?"
"No kills," I agreed. No promises, I thought.
The Dawndweller held her hand out for a fist bump, remembered that I couldn't return her fist bump without dropping Minty, and turned away. I stood there for a moment, waiting for Swan to duck into the cover of the dense conifers and limp off before I shook out the tired muscles in my legs and began the walk back. A strong torrent of rain lashed against me as soon as I stepped out from under the lush canopy of pine needles and branches, sending a chill down my spine. At least I had Minty on my back to take the brunt of the cold rain for me.
The thunder sounded like it was coming from everywhere as it roared. Wind rushed past me, tossing my sopping dirty blonde hair into my face. As I shook my head to clear my face of the wet hair plastered to it, I caught sight of an unnaturally bright color flashing in the dark, rainy forest. Retina-scorching blue. Lowering my gaze to the marshy blanket of pine needles at my feet, I pointedly avoided the ghost's frosty gaze. It's probably the same girl from earlier.
Except… Something nagged at me to look back up, and I did, stopping dead in my tracks and cringing. This girl was different; bushy red hair, pale, freckled skin, black athletic shorts, a black jacket streaked with blue. Not wet at all, despite the rain. Deep, heavily bleeding gashes across her face and back. Green eyes glowering at me with unmistakable rage.
She glared at me for another minute, then slipped behind a tree and vanished. I shivered and continued to walk.
"So," a voice drawled right into my ear. Flinching, I let out a holler through my tightly gritted teeth, the shriek shot through with panic. My fingernails dug deep into Minty’s flesh, just above the backs of her knees, and I halted again, breathing quickly, trying desperately to calm my nerves. I heard Minty groan, a pained, throaty sound, and fresh dread crashed over me. Crap. She wasn’t asleep.
My jaw began to ache as I clenched it harder. “Blue, ow,” Minty hissed, and I let my fingers slacken. She snorted. “So,” she began again, adjusting her position on my back, “I’m curious. How long have you and this Swan character been buddies?”
I only just managed to not groan aloud and forced my legs to keep moving. “Uhhhhmmm, like, since the experiments? I don’t know.” My pace quickening, I did my best to hunch my shoulders against the rain without dislodging Minty from my back. “Hey,” I mumbled, twisting my head back to meet her dark brown eyes. Well, just her right one. Her left eye was still swollen shut. “Y’know, I could have just not ripped those arrows out of your arm. I could have left them there. I could have also left you there. How about we keep this between ourselves, hm?”
Minty considered for a second, then nodded. “Sure, whatever. Why don’t we race her to see who can get back to their base first?”
“Why not?” I agreed, pausing to roll the joints in my ankles, then sped up to a jog, the fastest I could go with another human on my back. Because I had to hold Minty more tightly against me to keep from losing my balance while I ran, my arm was aching horribly. The nauseating pain from my wounds formed a thick, muddling haze at the edges of my vision, and I curled my lip in annoyance. I struggled to blink it away before I tripped or ran into something, but the sharp droplets of rain continued to lash against my face and further obstructed my vision. I ducked my head against the battering sheets of rainwater so I could at least see the muddy ground before my feet, in case there was something fun I could easily trip over.
"Blue!" someone shouted from up ahead. "You're─"
I flinched and inhaled sharply, crushing my eyes shut before I had to see another dead kid standing and staring at me. Ghosts didn't talk often, but they could if they wanted to. "Would you just leave me alone?" I howled back, reopening my eyes. But instead of a glowering, bleeding, very dead teenager skidding to a halt in front of me, I recognized a shark t-shirt and a mass of curly blonde hair.
"─back," Lion finished, faltering. She looked mildly hurt.
A hot flash of embarrassment crept up to my cheeks. My eyes darted from Lion to Minty and back again. Crap. I hadn't meant to say that out loud, not with Minty right there. Or to Lion, for that matter. "Um…" I spluttered, my heart still pounding as I fumbled for words, "sorry. I thought you were someone else." My face grew uncomfortably warm. "Yes, I'm back."
Lion blinked, then shrugged. "Okay." Her green gaze shifted to my left, where Minty was smirking at my sudden discomposure. I noticed her stupid expression and momentarily let go of her right leg to startle her. She yelped and hooked her elbow around my neck to catch herself, forcing my windpipe shut. Dull pain flashed through my throat, and, fighting to ignore the aching that had quickly filled up my lungs and airway, I grimaced and took hold of her knee again. Whoops. That kind of backfired, I thought with a frown, leaning forward to let Minty regain her balance on my back.
“Hi, Minty!” the other Darkhunter chirped, waving. “Good to see you!” Minty smiled faintly and gingerly lifted her hand up to wave back, flicking rainwater into my eye in the process.
The guard of my sword reminded me of its existence by poking my cheek, and I settled my face against it, keeping my expression tight and emotionless. “We’ve gotta get back,” I told the two girls, hurrying past Lion. “As quickly as we can. For reasons.” As much as I trusted Swan, I still would rather not let my side get taken by surprise. Plus, there was the whole no-kill part I wanted to impress before the battle started.
“Oh!” Lion laughed, gesturing at Minty. “Yes. Right. She probably needs to get her injuries treated. Your arm looks repulsive, by the way.”
“Thanks,” Minty replied in a deadpan tone.
I refrained from rolling my eyes and instead narrowed them, focusing on the forest ahead of me. A shiver raced down my back from the freezing cold rain and I wished that I could pull my hood back up, but that was kind of impossible to do while I was holding Minty. “That too. But also other stuff.”
“Do you have repulsive injuries that need to get treated?” Lion inquired.
“No,” I replied, tightening the muscles in my left arm to stifle the constant pain from the wound there.
Minty resituated herself on my back, hooking her elbows more securely over my shoulders and smearing a wet dribble of blood against my cheek in the process. I turned my head away, wincing, the guard on my sword digging uncomfortably into the corner of my mouth. The bold stench of blood right next to my face was beginning to cause my stomach to roil.
Voices echoed in the back of my mind. They were unclear, and I didn’t really know what they were saying. The sudden memory of a smooth marble floor streaked with blood flashed before my eyes. People in white coats whispering to each other, scribbling onto their clipboards. An involuntary shudder took hold of my body and the memory was gone, bringing me back to my senses. Those were just Minty’s and Lion’s voices I was hearing now. Not theirs.
A peal of thunder roared in the sky, echoing through the trees. A faint grin spread over my face, the harrowing memory gone for now. There was no way the storm would be stopping before we fought the Dawndwellers. Which meant we’d be battling in the blinding sheets of rain. This would be exciting.
Two shadowy figures slipped among the trees toward the three of us. I stiffened and stopped in my tracks, but forced myself to take a breath and relax as Lion exclaimed, “Oh! Hi!” Soon the bright glow from a bolt of lightning flickered through the treetops and illuminated them enough for a brief moment for me to recognize them. Thin-framed glasses, light brown hair in a ponytail, a smashed lower lip, and an elegantly curved bow. Slightly thicker glasses on the second, a very bright green t-shirt, a pair of thin red cuts across her left eye, and a lethally sharp dagger clutched in hand. Ottie and Berry.
“Uh, hey,” Berry responded slowly, eyebrows pinching together, while Ottie waved mutely. Both of them looked rather confused. I glanced silently between them as they exchanged a peculiar look.
Berry’s green gaze shot toward Lion. “Did you tell her?”
“Tell me what?” I demanded, at the same time as Lion blankly asked, “Tell her what?”
Ottie dropped her face into a palm, the one she wasn’t using to carry her bow. Berry’s lips flattened into a line. “Oh, for crying out loud,” she groaned, rolling her eyes. She turned to me. “Okay, um, remember when Shade and I were telling you what everyone was up to earlier? Well, Crow’s missing. So’s Fire. Lion was supposed to inform you that Ottie and I were going out to look for them, but she forgot, apparently.”
My teeth clenched in irritation. Minty kicked me with her heel, and I realized my nails had been driven into her flesh again. I let them go slack, then nodded for Berry to continue.
“The guys cooking up the meat went back behind the base to fetch another rabbit to roast, but Crow wasn’t there. The rabbits and the skins and guts were still there, but they'd just gone. Then one of the spies came back from the Dusk base, where Fire was supposed to be, but she wasn’t anywhere, either.” Berry eyed me. “Are you gonna say something?”
“Yep. Don't go out to look for them. They’re in the Dawn prison,” I stated shortly.
Ottie frowned, then finally opened her mouth to speak. “How thdo you─?”
“I know because I’m cool like that.”
Nobody said anything, so I began to walk again, pushing my way past Berry and Ottie. “Come on. We’re going to go attack them and take Fire and Crow back. Get yourselves ready and tell the others.”
“What, now?” Berry asked, hurrying after me.
“Yeah,” Minty called back as I carried her away. “I don’t have to, though, because having a pulverized limb gives you privileges.” I abruptly halted and leaned back slightly, enough to cause Minty to yelp in fear of being dropped. She kicked me again and grinned.
Warm orange light came into view through the tree trunks and the rain. I walked faster, knowing we were almost to camp. In less than a minute, Shade appeared, silhouetted against the glow from the fire pit. She saw us and waved, walking toward us.
“Oh, good, you’re back,” she breathed once she was close enough for me to hear. “Listen, Fire and Crow─”
I coughed to cut her off. “Yeah, they’re gone, I know. Berry and Ottie told me.” After a second, I tipped my head to the side. “Actually, it was mostly Berry. Ottie’s tongue doesn’t really work.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ottie open her mouth to retort, but Shade talked over her. “Oh. Right. Are we gonna do something about that, then?” she queried. I nodded curtly, getting a little irked. I needed to get Minty into the base.
“We’re going to attack the Dawndwellers at their base and grab Fire and Crow from the prison. Stop interrupting,” I snapped as Shade tried to start talking again, probably to ask me how I knew they’d been captured. “You’re coming. So are Berry and Ottie. Grab everyone else who is doing something unproductive and also not extremely injured. And don’t grab Jazzy. They’ve barely slept in the past week or so. Get going.”
Shade blinked, then nodded and hurried off to round up some of the attackers, followed by Berry and Ottie. “And also grab some food if you haven’t eaten already,” I called after them, but they were gone.
Lion gestured toward Minty. “Want me to take care of her?”
“Nope. I’ve got her,” I replied. Looking past her and at the group of Darkhunters cooking up the food, I watched as one of the two boys holding up the blanket accidentally dropped his end into the fire. It caught, and in their surprise, whatever they’d been cooking suddenly fell into the flames. “Go help them; they look like they’re struggling,” I told Lion. She nodded and rushed over to extinguish the blanket.
I grinned at Minty. “Ha. You’re stuck with me now,” I cackled, and she snorted.
“I’ve been stuck with you for the past hour,” she retaliated, smirking.
Heading past the bonfire, I walked towards the base. It was a massive tent-shaped structure made up of thick branches and fallen tree trunks, with thinner branches and leaves draped over the top to keep the weather out. Hanging down in front of the entrance was an elaborately woven sheet of springy willow limbs that Leafy had made years ago to act as a door. Balancing on one leg, I used my foot to lift it up high enough for Minty to reach it and pull it up with her hand. Ducking inside, I was relieved by the sudden lack of rain pelting against my face.
Nearby, Jazzy was sound asleep, lying facedown on top of their sleeping bag with a soft-looking blanket tucked around them. Good. That’ll be good for them. Across the base, someone was reading a book, using a lantern to see. The orange glow was bright enough to illuminate the whole base, so I was able to see where Minty’s sleeping bag was, next to Lion’s. Gingerly crouching down beside it, I let go of Minty’s legs so she could drop lightly onto the ground. Brief, sudden pain ricocheted through my arm as it was stretched open again, but it dissipated after her weight was gone. I heard her gasp as she moved her injured arm for the first time in more than an hour. She sat up, leaning against the wall. I kneeled down next to her and took hold of her arm between my thumb and forefinger to inspect the wound more closely. The rain had washed away most of the blood, except for the fresh few droplets that had been squeezed out when she moved it, dribbling down her forearm and pooling up in her palm. Minty cringed as I not-so-gently poked the long, jagged cut with a thumb, causing more blood to spurt out. Crap. The arrow wounds had clotted, but I’d just reopened the vicious laceration down her arm.
“Wheeeeeeeeere is the pine sap…?” I mumbled to myself, letting go of her bleeding arm and looking around. I spotted the canteen lying near my sleeping bag and hurried over to snatch it up, shaking it to see how much sap was left in it. It felt pretty full. I clutched the strap of the canteen in my hand and dug underneath the sleeping bag, where I found an old black hand towel. I’d used it many times before to soak up many Darkhunters’ blood. Of course, I always washed it off in the creek in between uses. Plus, it was black, so nobody could see the faint red stains that probably would have been there if it were a different color and there was no reason for anyone to be disconcerted. Satisfied with my self-reassurance of the not-disgusting blood towel, I settled back down beside Minty. “Aah!” she cried out, her muscles going taut as I stuffed the edge of the towel into the cut to absorb the blood. It took seconds for that part of the fabric to become completely drenched with her blood. Minty’s breathing began to tremble as I shifted the towel down bit by bit, smearing some of the blood on her polka-dotted gray shirt.
“I’m going to dump some of this in the wound,” I told her softly, holding up the canteen of pine sap. I noticed that my palm was stained with bright red, and I hurriedly wiped it off on my sweatpants. “It’ll help it stay shut and stuff. And then you’re going to sit here and not move your arm. If anyone catches you moving your arm, they have my full permission to stuff it with burrs.”
Minty blinked her non-swollen eye, swallowing. “Okay. I’ll try not to move it, then,” she chuckled, slightly nervously. I winked.
A little more gently than before, I pinched the towel and pulled it slowly out of the wound. Minty’s jaw tightened and her left hand balled into a fist. Flipping up the cap of the canteen, I held it at a slight angle above the messy cut, letting the sticky honey-colored liquid drip leisurely down into it. Once a last bead of sap had sunk into the end of the opening, maybe a centimeter below the base of her palm, I tilted the canteen back up and popped the cap on. Minty watched through her narrowed eye as I spread the towel out along the wound. It was long enough to cover the whole thing, but not wide enough to tie at the back. I turned around to glance at the kid reading the book. “Got any tape?” I asked.
The Darkhunter nodded, patting the ground around her for a moment before holding up a thick roll of masking tape. She tossed it to me and I caught it with one hand. Tearing off three long strips with my teeth, I wrapped them tightly around her bicep, elbow, and wrist, securing the towel to her arm. I lobbed the tape back over to the girl, nodding my thanks.
“Too tight? Not tight enough?” I asked, to which Minty shook her head.
“It’s fine,” she replied quietly.
Just then, Lion popped her head into the doorway. “Hey Minty! Rabbit or squirrel?” She didn’t wait for an answer before ducking back out. A moment later, she hurried inside with a hunk of meat in one hand. “They ate all the squirrel, so you get rabbit. Here you go!” She passed it bone-first to Minty, who gratefully took it in her uninjured hand. My stomach growled hungrily as I picked up the scent of the freshly cooked meat, but I fought the feeling down. We had to go very soon in order to attack the Dawndwellers at their base rather than at the battlegrounds, which was crucial in order to find their prison quickly.
I stood up and chucked the sap canteen across the base, onto my sleeping bag. “Okay. Time to head out. Don’t open that thing up.” Minty nodded, mouth full, and I turned away.
Before I headed back into the rain, I made sure my back was to Minty and pulled my jacket down from my shoulder. My flesh was bright red, inflamed from the awful stab wound through it. Maybe I should have slathered some of that sap onto my own injury before closing the canteen up. My gaze slid toward my sleeping bag, where the canteen was sitting, but I made myself jerk my jacket back over my shoulder and zip it up to my throat. There wasn’t any time.
I reached back, clutching for my sword, but my hand grasped nothing. Brief panic shot through my chest before I remembered that I’d hooked the scabbard up to my front. Quickly, I resituated it to my back and pulled out my sword, shoving open the willow door and ducking out.
“Blue! What took you so long?” Berry demanded, her words slamming into me as suddenly as the brutal rain. I looked up. Berry, Ottie, Shade, and eight other Darkhunters were standing there, and obviously had been for a hot minute. One of them had even fallen asleep on his feet, so I picked up a small stick and flung it into his face to wake him up.
Ignoring her question, I turned the hilt of my sword over in my palm, my thumb caressing the soft leather. “Follow me, listen up, and don’t talk,” I growled, trudging my way through the mud to enter the dark, wet forest outside of camp. The others followed close behind. Lion, who had returned to the main entrance to stand guard, waved aggressively at me, and I waved back before continuing. “We’re going to attack the Dawndwellers at their base, and while we’re there, one or two of you will run off and find Crow and Fire. They’ll be at the prison, wherever that is. Once we have them, we’ll finish the battle and come back.” I paused, remembering Swan’s blue-green eyes, glittering with unease. “And no kills, if you can help it.”
I could almost feel the other Darkhunters behind me exchanging confused glances at that last part, but nobody said anything aloud. A few seconds later, though, I heard Shade pipe up. “Where is the Dawn prison, exactly? I’ve never gotten captured by them, soooo…”
“Did nobody ask Darkie? She probably knows,” Berry replied.
A gurgling sound emitted from behind me. Ottie, struggling to speak around her bloody, swollen tongue. “Thee hathn’th been ath the Thdark bathe in thdayth,” she choked out. “Nobothdy’th theen her.”
Furrowing my brow at her words, I pondered. She was right. Where was Darkie?
That was something to worry about later, though. We needed to focus.
After that short conversation, everyone was silent. The only thing I could hear was the rain lashing against the earth and the thunder rumbling in the sky and our shoes squelching in the mud. The wind howling in the treetops, the trunks creaking with the gusts. The scabbards and quivers clanking softly against our backs and sides.
Clink, clink, clink, went the syringes as they rattled against each other in the scientists’ pockets. The nightmarish substances inside them sloshed gently around, fizzing and bubbling. A tortured scream, silent in my memory, ripped from my lungs as I clutched my head. Agony tore through my skull, seemingly splitting the bone apart. Blood rolled down my earlobes and pattered against the shiny table. I could hear everything. Clopping footsteps from high heels against the floor. The whimpers and hushed sobs from everywhere in the room. Harsh, ragged breathing. Blood from the hundreds of other kids plop, plop, plopping onto the floor.
Every so often, an agonized screech. And another bolt of pain ricocheting through my brain.
A tree quivered up ahead and I jumped, feeling the memory of that splitting headache subside, reminding me that it was all it had been─a memory. Recovering swiftly, I passed my sword to my right hand and wiped the sweat from my palm onto my sweatpants before transferring the sword back. It had probably just been a bird. Or the wind and rain. Hadn’t it? But when another loud rustle emitted from the same tree, I froze, my eyes wide and my sword held out to protect myself.
Something tapped my shoulder. “Gah!” I yelped quietly, whirling around. It was only Ottie, though. She lowered her hand, looking concerned, before jerking her head toward the tree. “Relackth,” she whispered with difficulty. “It’th thjutht our guarthd.”
My attention went back to the tree. Lightning crackled through the sky, reflecting off something small and shiny up in the spindly, mostly leafless branches. A barely visible figure dropped from a low branch, landing nimbly on their feet. It clicked a moment later that the shiny thing had been their brooch. Silver and blue, the negative space in the metal depicting a crescent moon and scattered stars. A Darkhunter. The guard saw us and greeted us with a flourish of their hand before rushing to a different tree and scaling it in the blink of an eye, disappearing into the leaves. I forced myself to take a deep breath and let it back out. That memory was in the past. It’s all over now, I told myself. No reason to be jumpy.
Except it wasn’t over. We were still fighting.
I jabbed at the wound in the arm with a thumb. The pain brought me back to my senses, and I refocused my vision on the rainy forest ahead, continuing to walk. Thunder rolled across the sky, a chilly gust of wind throwing my wet hair off my shoulders. We should have crossed into Dawndweller territory by now, meaning there had to be some guards nearby. Sinking down into a low crouch, close enough to the ground to feel the splashes as the heavy rain showered onto the puddles scattered sporadically around. Hopefully we’d be well-camouflaged against the stark blackness blanketing the rainy forest. Grass and ferns shifted behind me as my companions followed suit.
Faint voices drifted over toward us, and I paused, alert. “…I thought Icy’d said to be on the lookout for the Darkhunters. They’d been planning an attack tonight,” one hissed.
“They might’ve changed their minds or just forgotten,” another responded in a snicker. My teeth clenched, my fingers flexing with energy begging to be used. “They never seem to settle on anything. Remember that one time they…”
I wrapped my right arm tightly around my torso, shivering against the cold, and darted away, making an effort to keep my footfalls soundless and light. Before I ran over to the two snarky Dawndweller guards and ripped their faces off, I needed to leave. They’d make a ruckus and most definitely get the other Dawndwellers to come here to fight rather than at their base. And that couldn’t happen. My sword nearly clattered to the ground, slipping from my hand with the rain, and I gripped it tightly, my fingers curling around the hilt and my nails digging into the meat of my palm.
The deeper into Dawndweller territory we got, the denser the treetops grew. Here, the majority of the trees were deciduous rather than evergreen, so their leaves, though withered from the winter cold, were much wider. Vicious torrents of rain still made their way through the canopy overhead, but the rain wasn’t as blinding as it had been several minutes ago.
A bright light flickered into existence startlingly nearby and I hurriedly motioned for the others to drop to the ground. But after a moment, Berry shuffled toward me and flicked my shoulder. “That’s a flashlight,” she whispered into my ear. I shrugged her off, realizing that she was correct. Someone else─presumably another Dawndweller guard─was leaning against a tree with a flashlight in hand, head tilted back to guzzle down a water bottle. They weren’t paying any attention to their surroundings, so we’d be able to get past them just fine.
“Right, yeah,” I mumbled. Grunting indistinctly, I jerked my head to the right, telling the others to run past while the guard was distracted. Hunched over to stay low, I booked it as swiftly as I could. Ahead of me was a conveniently large blackberry bush, and I dropped down beside it to stay hidden. A moment later, Ottie crouched just beside me, trailed by Berry, then Shade, then the rest.
Far up ahead, amidst the relentless rain and the shadowy woods, my eyes caught on a shred of light. It wasn’t the same as the flashlight I’d just seen; this was orange and flickered erratically. A fire pit, most definitely. Which meant the base had to be around there.
“All right,” I hissed over my shoulder. “Stay close behind me and be quiet. Don’t attack until I say so. Got it?”
My fellow Darkhunters murmured their understanding and shifted around to get into more comfortable positions while they waited for me to move. I swallowed hard, a shudder of cold rippling down my spine. Where are the Dawndwellers? I thought, my eyes narrowing into slits. Had they even left their base? Had Icy─that miserable, cloying little cockroach─even thought to organize a patrol to fight us off yet? I knew she knew that we’d be here. Jazzy had told me as much. But it wouldn’t have surprised me if she’d decided to take her sweet time, threatening the lives of her friends as she wandered off alone into the forest. She’d done that before. Countless times before. My lip curled back, my face twisting into a livid grimace. I hoped she’d be there tonight. My chest burned with the need to rip that disgusting, guileful expression from her face and cut her open and make her bleed and feel pain. Horrible, wild, unbearable pain. The worst pain she’d ever have felt. My hand shook from how tightly I was holding onto my sword. She’d deserve it, after all.
“…come on, hurry,” a voice urged, the sound carried toward me by the gusts of wind. I stiffened, instantly on my guard, and peered past the dense leaves of the blackberry bush. It’d been much quieter than the previous voices I’d heard, from the guards we’d passed. Had I imagined that?
More voices echoed through the trees in reply, reassuring me that my torturous memories weren’t trying to distract me. So Icy had put her friend's lives into consideration for once. Good for her. Then my eyes narrowed sharply. Those who were talking didn’t seem to care how loud they were being. They’d likely just left their base, assuming that we’d be attacking them back at the usual battlegrounds, so they were taking this opportunity to be reckless and stupid while they could. The corners of my mouth pulled upward into a grin that probably made me look a little unhinged. Perfect for taking them by surprise.
“Guys! Shut up!” someone who could only be Swan flared. There was a pause, and the sound of squelching footsteps grew louder. Pressing closer to the blackberry bush, I listened hard to hear her over the rain lashing fiercely around me. “Stop being so loud, or we’ll be perfect targets for anyone who happens to be lying in wait.”
I leaned back slightly, meeting the gazes of the eleven other Darkhunters in the party, and gave a quick nod. Almost in perfect unison, they slid out their weapons; knives, swords, bows, and an axe.
“But it won’t make any difference,” someone else retorted. “Who would be lying in wait for us right now? The Darkhunters are up a─”
Go, I mouthed, bunching my legs beneath me to spring. The others vaulted forward, and the battle was started exceptionally silently, minus a couple startled yowls from the Dawndwellers. “─head! Shoot!” the girl who’d just been speaking finished, hardly managing to duck as Shade flung her sword around at her. She was wearing a unicorn onesie. One of the two prisoners who had escaped.
Taking a brief survey of the Dawndwellers in the patrol, faint disappointment flashed through me. Icy wasn’t one of them. Shame.
Brown hair and a mauled leg caught my eye and I grinned darkly, throwing my shoulder into the girl’s chest to knock her to the ground. She hit the ground with a soft grunt and I dropped my knee directly onto her liver to pin her down. But as I reared back to land a solid punch onto her cheekbone, my grin faded quickly. This wasn’t Swan. Purple glasses. Brown eyes. A dark gray hoodie with two brooches pinned near the left shoulder─one delineating the Dawn side, the other Dusk─and a conspicuous hole where a third one should have been. The Darkness brooch. Sudden fury swamped my insides. I recognized this girl, all right. My lip curled back and I slammed my fist down onto Fawny’s face, smirking at the sound of her pained shriek as the blow collided with her mouth. Her lip split under my knuckles, blood spraying against my hand. Scarlet blood dribbled freely down her chin, mixing with the rain as I removed my hand. Trying to take me by surprise, she whipped her staff in my direction, but I dodged with ease and grabbed hold of her wrist. She whimpered as I twisted it around at an awkward angle, smirking at her obvious torment.
Fawny. A stupid, back-stabbing snake. Years ago, she’d been a double agent for all three sides; a triple agent, she’d called herself. But during one awful battle we’d been losing against the Dawndwellers in the previous year, she’d ditched us and sided with them. Ended up killing a Darkhunter. I smashed my fist into her nose, feeling the crackle of bone and cartilage and the sudden rush of blood beneath my hand. The second she’d come back to the Dark base, I’d ripped the brooch right off her and beat her to a pulp before kicking her out. She never came back.
Looking at her now, I could still see a faint white scar on her cheek from where I’d cut deep into her face with my sword. I hoped she remembered that moment as clearly as I did.
“Screw you,” I growled at her, hefting my arm back to plunge my sword into her. She yelped and thrust her foot into my kidney, igniting an awful pain in my torso. I crumpled over with a moan, clutching the rapidly bruising area, while she rolled out from under me and hopped back onto her feet, wobbling slightly on her left leg. My eyes slid toward her calf and shin, which had been badly ripped apart by some kind of sharp weapon. Oh, yeah. I knew what I'd be targeting.
But as I forced myself to stand, about to land a blow to her leg, she swung her staff at me again. The head of the staff, stained black from being lit on fire innumerable times before, bashed into my rib cage and flung me into a tree. The breath was knocked from my lungs in a dull whuff as my body thumped against the sturdy trunk. As I regained my senses, horrible pain began to tear through my insides, and the agonized howl that followed sounded so distant that I couldn't even tell it had been mine at first. At least one of my ribs had been smashed. Crazed by the new agony coursing through my veins, my gaze flickered wildly around, searching for Fawny. Spotting her again, I lunged at her with my sword. She let out a whimper as the keen blade cut deep into her leg, blood splashing against my arm. Her staff slipped from her hand as she crumpled onto the miry ground. My sword whipped past her face, slicing a long red line from her cheekbone to her nose, dangerously close to her eye. Fawny hissed in pain, cringing and pressing a hand against her bleeding face.
I grimaced, breathing hard. She'd already been worn out before fighting, I could tell; her clumsy movements and the exhaustion in her eyes betrayed it. As she fumbled around for her discarded staff, I plunged my sword through her thigh, earning myself a satisfying scream. There was a wet ripping sound as I wrenched it back out. Blood rushed from the jagged gash and soaked into the ground.
Hot, sharp pain sliced through the side of my right shoulder and I cried out in surprise. Whipping around, I was faced with a battered- and bruised-looking teen, with a black hoodie and long, purple-tipped golden hair, grasping a single dual sword in her left hand. Wavey. Minty’s attacker. Her green eyes were dark with some kind of well-hidden emotion. Pain? Anger? Glancing back over my shoulder, blinking through the torrents of rain, I saw that Fawny was slumped on the ground, not moving. Whether or not she was alive, I didn’t care. Turning back to Wavey, I glowered balefully at her for a moment before delivering a roundhouse kick to her side. My ribs screamed in agony as I twisted around, my foot connecting solidly with the Dawndweller’s torso, but I gritted my teeth against the pain.
Wavey groaned and collapsed to a knee, doubled over. Her hand pressed against her rib cage, knuckles white from gripping so tightly. Perhaps she’d injured her own rib as well. Lightning flared, barely visible between the dense leaves, followed by a roar of thunder that echoed briefly through the forest. The Dawndweller leaned back and awkwardly began to push herself up with her right arm. Her movements on that side were stiff and weak, and as I stepped closer to her, I could see a shred of white bandaging poking out from under her hoodie. Ah, right─she was the one with the injured shoulder.
The blade of my sword gleamed in the dim lighting as I held it up to drive into her shoulder wound. Wavey’s eyes flickered with terror as she saw me. She fell backward onto her elbows, crab-walking away from me as fast as she could. Her face was tight with clear pain. I drove her back into a tree, rendering her unable to escape before thrusting my sword toward her.
Something hurtled in front of me, blurred by the rain, and threw my sword off aim. I yelped, startled. Wavey, whose eyes had slammed shut moments earlier, pried them back open to stare at whoever had blocked the hit from her. I froze, cold with worry. It’d been Swan.
She touched a hand to her side and pulled it away covered in blood. But she turned to glance at me with a smirk, something she likely wouldn’t have done if she were on the verge of death, and relief crashed over me. She recovered from the blow surprisingly quickly and clipped me on the jaw, sending me reeling backwards with a jolt of pain. I grabbed hold of a tree to regain my balance before elbowing her hard in the throat.
“That was really stupid,” I hissed as she lurched back, her hand pressing against her neck. Behind her, I could see Wavey as she forced herself to her feet and dove back into the fight. “You okay?”
Swan grinned. “It’s only a graze,” she rasped. “I’m spectacular.”
Her fist shot toward my face, but I ducked and clutched her wrist. In a single, smooth maneuver, I whirled around with my back against her, then yanked her arm forward. She flipped over my back and slammed against the muddy ground with a gasp of pain. “Always wanted to do that,” I snorted.
“You jerk,” she wheezed, leaning forward to get back up. Before she could, though, I lunged forward and planted a foot onto her collarbone. She cringed, squinting up at me in confusion.
“Where are they?” I demanded. When she didn’t answer, I dropped down into a crouch on top of her, digging my knee into her ribs. The tip of my sword poked her in the side of the throat, just next to a thin, half-healed cut already there. “Where’s the prison?”
She gulped, obviously struggling to breathe with me on top of her. Blood rolled down her neck as my blade started to pierce the skin. “Wh─?” Swan coughed, pain written all over her blood-spattered face. The sword pressed down, causing more blood to rush from the small wound. “Okay! Okay! Tree! They’re in a tree!” she cried out. A twinge of guilt pulled at me at the genuine panic in her blue-green gaze, but I shoved the feeling aside. This was the only method I could think of to get the information to my teammates; there was no way I was going to let them know about my secret Dawndweller friend, so they had to think I’d forcefully wrung the information out of her. Which I kind of actually was. Silently, I forced the blade in a little deeper. Swan swallowed again, then yelped in a wobbly voice, “Behind the base, to the left. An oak. They’re tied up to it.”
I held my sword to her throat for a moment longer before standing up, giving her a fleeting wink. Swan blinked anxiously at me, then rolled over to get back up. I swept my gaze over the fight raging around me. Fawny was still unconscious where I’d left her. Berry was caught in a vicious brawl with the second of the two prisoners we’d had before last night. Ottie was pinned below another Dawndweller, but appeared to be dealing some real damage to her opponent with an arrow in each hand. Shade was still fighting with the Dawndweller in the unicorn onesie, both of them looking exhausted. I sprinted toward Shade and delivered a knifehand strike to her combatant's nose. The girl's head snapped back with an arc of blood spurting from her nose and a startled cry, slamming into a conveniently placed tree just behind her. She crumpled to the ground, dazed, and Shade gave me a quick nod of thanks.
"They're tied up to a tree," I hissed, clutching her shoulder with my injured palm, "behind their base and to the left. Go."
Shade nodded again, panting hard, and grabbed another relatively not-overly preoccupied Darkhunter before haring away. A Dawndweller─Wavey─began to follow them, but Swan limped toward her and smacked her arm with the back of her hand before she could get far, stopping her.
"Let them go," I was only just able to hear her murmur as she leaned heavily against a tree. Her expression was dark with well-disguised pain, and her hand distractedly rubbed at the thin dribble of blood at the side of her throat. "They'll probably leave once they have them."
Wavey’s shoulders slumped in defeat, and she nodded listlessly. Swan turned back toward me, smirking, and slid a sword from the empty quiver on her back, identical to the one Wavey held. Confusion flashed through me for a moment, but I then remembered that her bow had been sliced up in a fight and she’d resorted to using Wavey’s other sword. Brandishing my own sword, I grinned back and leaped forward, feigning to the left. She wasn’t nearly as experienced with a blade as I was, and she took the bait, slashing down at my arm. Blood flew as my sword switched direction abruptly, catching on the sleeve of her hoodie and ripping deep into her forearm. Swan gave a hiss and directed a dizzying punch to my temple. Pain blossomed in my skull as her fist landed, producing a shrill ringing in my ears, and I slipped backward. The partially leafless trees and the falling rain that had suddenly appeared right above me spun before my blurry eyes, and I groaned softly. Forcing myself to roll over onto my hands and knees, I whipped around and threw a sloppy punch at Swan’s gut. It somehow hit, causing her to reel back with a grunt. I lurched to my feet, sending a jolt of pain through my broken ribs, and waited for Swan to recover.
She whipped her sword at me before I could prepare myself, driving the blade through my bicep and widening the cut that had already been there. A cry escaped my parted jaws. White-hot agony sliced through my arm. Blood began to pour from the wound, running down over my hand and the hilt of my sword, splashing onto the ground with the rain. My palm clamped over it, my fingernails digging into my flesh. Clenching my teeth hard enough for my jaw to ache, I barely noticed as my sword slipped from my hand and clattered onto the ground. My head went light as I collapsed to a knee, reaching down to clutch the handle back up. The splintery bone from my ribs poked into my insides, igniting another surge of fierce pain.
Just as I stood up again, readying another hefty blow to my opponent’s gut, a distant scream pierced the air. Typically, that’d be an expected thing to hear during a battle, but I paused nonetheless, twisting around. Swan was nice enough not to take me by surprise as I fought to focus my vision on the forest behind me. Dense trees and sheets of rain prevented me from seeing that far, but cold realization began to crawl through me. I knew what I’d heard. Nobody screamed with that much blatant fear in their voice unless something bad had happened.
Which I figured it had, as it had come from the considerably emptied Dark base.
Frantic worry rippled through my body as I whirled back around to face Swan. She lowered her sword, perceiving my anxious expression. The two Darkhunters hadn’t returned with Fire and Crow yet. But we had to leave now. Something was happening back at the base, I was sure of it. Clutching my bleeding arm with one hand, I stared past Swan, meeting Berry’s equally alarmed gaze. She’d heard it, too.
Trying desperately to stuff down my panicked emotions, I gripped my sword tightly and glanced around. If we retreated now to run back to the base, we’d be leaving four of the others behind. And they could all get captured as a result. But the Darkhunters at the base could be under attack and in need of backup. The throbbing headache that Swan had kindly provided me steadily grew worse.
Berry was still watching me, I realized. She had a Dawndweller pinned helplessly beneath her, her dagger pressed to her opponent’s throat. She was waiting for me to make a decision.
Clenching my jaw, I turned back to Swan and smashed my fist into her mouth, my mind made up. We weren’t about to retreat and leave Shade and the others here. If the Darkhunters at the base were in trouble, they’d have to handle it themselves until we got back.
I hoped that my hunch was wrong. I hoped they’d be okay.