Hide and seek
Eleven moons later…
The sun hung low in the distant clouds, and the branches above Camille’s head were heavy with the multicolored leaves of early Fall. Camille was easily concealed behind an ancient trunk covered in sickly gray moss, yet her heart pounded all the same, causing a small, piercing ache to break between her lungs. How long had she been running for this time? She heard soft steps closing in on her and knew her hiding spot wouldn’t last long. A twig snapped in the distance and her stomach twisted; it was time to relocate.
She could smell the tangy scent of his sweat; he was beginning to tire, but his footsteps were still nearing. She racked her brain for a plan as she pressed aside a wayward branch, crouching in a hunting stance.
Her instincts told her to act first and think on her feet, and that innate, animalistic sense of battle preparation still startled her. How did she know these things? The storm flowing in over the Iron Mountains visible just north between the treetops and the valley twenty feet to the west had a fourteen-degree downward slope. Slight, yes—but enough to enhance her speed by fifteen percent if she really pushed herself. She never could figure out how she was able to make these automatic calculations, but they were useful in her hunting process nonetheless. Mainly when she was the one being hunted.
Camille leaped from her temporary sanctuary and dove toward the heavy brush five feet to her left, swiftly running down the sloping valley deeper into the woods. She heard his soft footfalls turn into heavy thudding as he crashed through the dense forestry, speeding like a raging bull in her direction.
Ducking behind another large aspen trunk, Camille held her breath, forcing herself to remain silent as she dug her nails into the thick tree bark. She heard the assailant stop just behind her new hiding spot, and her heart slammed against the confines of her ribs.
Camille closed her eyes and prayed the forest would grant her a reprieve; that some branch might fall to the earth and create a diversion, or some bird might fly past so she could sneak away.
“Ah ha!” the little boy screamed as he jumped around the wide tree trunk followed by a mewling Neeko. “That’s three for me. I found you in less than forty minutes this time,and without any help from my handy hunting partner,” Lunci exclaimed happily, before performing a little victory dance.
“You are a worthy opponent in this game of hide-and-seek,” Camille said, unable to restrain the enormous smile streaking across her face. They’d been playing all day, and still, he wasn’t tired of it. Nor was she, in all honesty. Camille loved the moments she shared with Lunci, even though she was almost ten years his senior. He reminded her of what it was like to be a kid again, and considering she couldn’t remember her own childhood, Camille welcomed the chance to live vicariously through Lunci whenever possible.
Lunci was unusual for a nine-year-old. He never wanted to hunt with boys his own age, and girls who glanced at him with innocent flirtation received nothing more than a sweet smile and a passing glance. Peter passed it off as nothing more than a young state of mind, but as much as Camille loved Lunci’s penchant for fun, she felt his childlike demeanor stemmed from something deeper; perhaps even something traumatic.
“Round four?” Lunci asked with a grin, one that Camille knew would disappear when she informed him it was getting too late to play in the deepness of the forest they’d migrated to.
Although they were still within the gated confines of Sierra Village, they were far enough away to cause Peter to worry. “It’s getting pretty late there, mister. I think we should start heading back. Your grandfather will have my head if I keep you in the forest past sundown.”
“Awww…come on!” Lunci whined. She feigned toying with the idea of refusing him, loving the way he stamped his feet and kept repeating, “Please, please, please!” with his hands clasped.
“Okay, one last time. But after that we are going home,” Camille said sternly, making a mental note to pick a secure hiding spot that was within sight of the village grounds. Lunci broke out into another little jig before slumping to the ground, hands over his eyes as he began to count backward from thirty.
She ran a medium distance away, making sure to keep Lunci within earshot, taking heavy steps so he could detect her path more easily. She never dared go too far from him and held her hunting knife with her just in case any real predators decided to join the game. Despite the fact it was her day off from hunting, Camille wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to bring fresh game home for Peter to sell.
“All right, ready or not, here I come!” Lunci yelled into the thick foliage.
Camille smiled when she heard him rustle through the same bush she’d just passed a few moments earlier. He usually spent a few moments trying to decide which direction she’d gone in, but apparently, he’d conveniently forgotten to close his eyes this time. She took extreme pride in his growing abilities to track prey. It was a small lesson she carefully explained over their months of weekly playtime, but she would let this little cheat slide under the radar.
Camille made a quiet trek back up the sloping valley toward Sierra Village, ensuring she heard Lunci’s footsteps close behind her. Her stomach growled at the idea of dinner filling her to near-bursting, but tonight’s offering would only be a small plate of food despite the fact she lived with the village butcher.
It was two days before the Moon Tax was due, and only the wealthy didn’t dread the offering. The rest of the village scrounged for food to meet the High Court’s demands, but luckily Camille’s hunting skills and market trades kept Peter’s table filled through most of the month.
At the end of every moon cycle the buffoon Grenswald, a foul-mouthed, grubby man thicker than he was tall, came to town in a cloud of stale whiskey and body odor. He would barrel his way from door to door, collecting items he deemed “presentable” to the High King LeMarc’s court. Even though Camille had only lived in Sierra Village for a year, she clearly understood what it meant to hate the High King, his cruel Moon Tax, and the disgusting people he kept readily at his beck and call to maintain total sovereignty.
Camille led Lunci further up the hill toward the heart of the village, snapping twigs and rustling leaves as she did so. Ducking around a relatively large boulder and scurrying through a thick bush, she hid, waiting for Lunci to reach her spot. She hunched down and slowed her breath to an inaudible pace, but after a few moments realized she no longer heard Lunci in the distance.
Her stomach clenched, a searing jolt of panic zipping through her system at the sudden silence of her surroundings. What if Lunci was hurt? Would she have heard Lunci if he screamed? Camille bounded out of the underbrush and still heard nothing but her own ragged breaths—not even a distant bird call. Something was wrong. She felt the unleashed galloped of her heart pounding out a thunderous tempo inside her chest. Usually, Neeko would bounce back and forth between her and Lunci, his tracking senses far superior to any human’s. But she didn’t even see his bushy black tail anywhere amongst the darkening forest terrain.
No need to panic, she reminded herself, trying to calm the erratic burst of fear crashing through her body. Last week, Lunci had gotten distracted by a small family of squirrels in the trees, but Camille had been high up on the hill and observed him the entire time. This was different. She couldn’t hear him at all, couldn’t see him, and the forest’s ever-present cacophony of twitters had stilled.
The eerie silence cut into her calm reserve, grating against her skin with unrelenting harshness, and just like when she slipped into hunting mode, a tingling, unnatural heat grew beneath her eye sockets.
She grasped her hunting knife tightly before racing back through the forest along the path she’d just taken. This time she was silent, shifting through the damp leaves and twigs beneath her feet without the slightest sound. In the distance were heavy footfalls pounding against the earth directly north of where she’d last heard Lunci.
“Please don’t be hurt; please be ok,” she whispered in repeat under her breath as she moved. There was no way she would allow the what ifs to cloud her focus. Lunci had to be ok, she wouldn’t be able to live with herself if anything happened to him.
Rounding a tree, she’d passed earlier, Camille stopped dead in her tracks to listen. She heard distant voices from the village, a subtle hum of wind whistling through the trees, but no sign of the boy.
“Lunci?” Camille said evenly, trying to keep her voice neutral. “Lunci, it’s time to get home now.” Nothing.
“Lunci! Neeko!” Camille repeated, not caring any longer whether she sounded worried.
What if he was on the ground bleeding from an attack? What if she’d overestimated her ability to keep him protected from such a distance?
An internal flood of dread permeated her system making it almost impossible to think—and that’s when she saw them through a thick bramble bush: heavy-lidded, blood-red eyes the size of her fists and oddly human in appearance.
Fear invaded her senses, leaving her frozen on the spot. She’d heard of a shadow beast, a monster roaming Aspera from a recent viral outbreak in a distant village: The Chimera.
Soft footsteps came treading up the path behind her, and Camille’s back went rigid; Lunci had found her.
“Lunci! Don’t come any closer,” she instructed, keeping her focus on the stark red eyes. Her tear ducts began to water in her desperation to keep the red eyes in sight, but the moment she blinked, the gleaming red stare was gone. She held stiff and silent, counting the seconds before the monster decided to attack.
“A little jumpy there, sweetheart?”
Camille leaped a foot in the air as a sultry voice assaulted her tender, overly aware ears. Whipping around with her knife at the ready, she careened off-focus when she located the man who’d addressed her. “Who are you?”
Leaning against an ancient tree, arms casually folded across his chest, stood a young man not much older than her. Blonde, wavy hair fell back from his angular face, with both sides shaved and the top left long. The man dragged a hand through his thick strands, gaze never leaving her. His irises were the strangest hue Camille had ever seen: a bleached blue, almost devoid of color; like the bright tinge of the sky at high noon.
“Well hello to you too,” he responded, pushing away from the trunk to saunter over, a broad grin spanning his face. He glanced at the dagger she still held and chuckled. “You thinking of stabbing me? Or do I get a proper hello?”
Camille kept the knife raised, a slight tremor in her hand. “Stay back stranger, who are you?”
She fought to keep the raging monster coiling inside her from surging to the forefront. She’d spent the past year working to keep her inner beast on a tight leash. It had taken several moon cycles living under Peter’s roof to understand that her wild range of emotions didn’t have a specified direction or focus. When she was happy, she was ecstatic; when Camille was annoyed, she became unreachable; fear turned into unimaginable terror, and anger transformed into explosive fury. Nothing was at equilibrium within Camille, raging out of control at the tiniest shift.
The stranger’s brows knit together with apparent confusion, his lips pursing in contemplation. “Do you not recognize me?” he asked softly, all form of humor dissipating.
“No,” Camille snapped. “Should I?”
“How long have you lived in this village?” he said, ignoring her question.
“That’s none of your business.”
He shook his head. “Can’t have been more than a few months; maybe a year. Sweet Mother Ma’Nada, I can’t believe it. It is you, Camille?”
How does he know my name? Camille narrowed her eyes taking in his appearance. She noticed three hefty throwing daggers and a short-nosed sword with an ample blade. His clothes were well-fitted and made for travel; a loose cotton shirt and black vest were layered beneath a brown leather coat, and black pants tucked into dirty black leather boots. She could smell the bag of coin hanging on his hip filled with copper duggars, silver rubles, and golden gilders—enough money to buy a year’s worth of food for Peter and Lunci.
“Who are you?” Camille insisted, glancing around for any sign of the boy.
“A drifter. I have no name,” he said sarcastically, flinging his arms out like he was presenting himself to the royal court.
“What do people call you then?” Camille retorted.
He smiled. “You can call me anything you like, sweetheart.” He wiggled his eyebrows suggestively at her, drawing closer.
“What are you doing in my woods then, Drifter? And how do you know who I am?” Camille asked, instinctively stepping back. She continued to scan the forest in a slight panic, still unable to detect Lunci or Neeko nearby.
“Your woods?” he said, the corners of his lips quirking. He was annoyingly easy to look at, and Camille found it very distracting. His left cheek boasted a soft dimple with every smirk and smile—an uneven flaw in most but endearing on him. “I didn’t realize these trees were spoken for.”
“You’re in Sierra Village. You aren’t one of us. So, who are you? And how did you get past the guard tower?”
“Your ‘guards’ are quite seriously the most moronic Asperians I’ve ever seen. Those lazy bastards wouldn’t know how to guard their dinner against a pack of puppies, let alone an entire village against a Chimera attack. I mean, honestly,” the drifter continued, ignoring Camille’s incredulous expression as he took another step toward her. “Now—are you planning on putting down that little toy of yours?”
“No!” Camille shot back, lifting it more prominently in front of her. “Not until I know whether you did anything to Lunci.”
“Ah, I see,” the stranger cooed, looking to his right and left in a conspiratorial fashion. “You’re looking for the little blonde boy, yes?”
“If you hurt him, so help me—”
“Whoa, whoa…easy there, sweetheart. He’s fine. The boy’s about fifty yards south of us.” The drifter rubbed at the back of his neck, and Camille was immediately drawn to the flexing of his muscles—it was intoxicating.
Every facet of the stranger seemed slightly familiar to her: his mannerisms, his movements, his voice. The man’s scent, especially: it was one of oak and pine, soap and musk, and it sent her pulse galloping.
“How do you know where he is?” she growled, trying to keep her anger from building further.
“Ease up Cam, your temper isn’t necessary.”
She felt a pinch embarrassed but wasn’t ready to let down her guard. The stranger seemed to understand this and sighed loudly, his shoulders slipping with apparent perplexity. “Perhaps if you dialed back that temper, you would’ve been able to deduce his location yourself,” he snapped, looking to a spot just over Camille’s shoulder.
Camille didn’t want to glance away from the drifter for even a second, but Lunci’s careless steps were approaching. She took one more step away from the man before spinning to face the rustling leaves on her left.
Lunci broke through the bushes in a childlike gallop. “I got you! Thought you could hide from me, but none can escape the power of the incredible Lunci!”
Lunci leaped at her with careless abandon. Camille twisted away to avoid stabbing him, causing the silver amulet she always kept hidden under her clothing to swing free, pinging loudly against the flat side of the blade.
“What’s wrong?” Lunci rasped, eyes going wide at the sight of the knife.
Neeko picked that moment to join them, a low and menacing hiss escaping his throat as he stared at the spot where the red-eyed beast had been.
Camille whipped about, searching the now-vacant spot where the drifter had stood. “Neeko, do you smell something?” Camille whispered. Neeko hissed in response, the fur bunching up around his neck as his tail swished back and forth.
“Camille, what’s going on?” Lunci’s voice shook as he edged closer to her, looking in the direction Neeko hissed.
“Where were you?” Camille said, grabbing Lunci’s hand as her jade-colored eyes scanned the bushes for a pair of blood-red ones. She led them quickly around fallen trees and piles of dead leaves, constantly scanning their surroundings as they followed the slope of the hill toward the village.
“Where was I?” Lunci said, sounding confused. “I was looking for you! Why’d you quit hiding?”
Camille didn’t answer. Instead, she continued to drag Lunci toward the safety of the village. As they left the tree line, Camille stole one more glance into the forest edge searching for the truth of what she’d seen. Without warning, Lunci’s hand slipped from her grasp, and the side of her face smacked into a solid, hairy body that reeked of stale fish and week-old perspiration.