They had established tents.
Across now uninhabited streets, stood a decent amount of sheets of a variety of different types of cloth making up several sections of one very long and complex tent. Members of the Wild Felids stood or sat around, relaxing or on guard. They were behind window sills, on top of roofs, in the middle of the streets or hiding in alleys, the only constant being that every structure looked abandoned.
It all only made the city look as if it was centuries old and a group of jungle nomads had decided to camp inside it.
The Hunter had spotted her friend before she was called out to.
Zaniyah had already turned and waved in greeting. Manuela stopped inches away, remembering Zaniyah’s lack of appreciation for physical contact.
“It’s so good to see you,” Manuela said. “We’ve been hearing all about everything you’ve done.”
Zaniyah smiled as other members approached. Josh and Jake were jogging to join them.
“Zaniyah!” Josh called out.
“Oh man, you got some new scars!” Jake said.
She looked down at her belly while Josh smacked his little brother across the hair, punishing his lack of candor. If only that wound had been the only one Zaniyah had suffered. The one on her back, along with the new ones on her limbs, they were all covered by the cape since she had it half-closed around the front for warmth.
“Survival has its cost, sometimes,” Zaniyah said, looking back at them gladly. “It is good to see you all alive.”
“Well pff, of course,” Josh said. “You expected otherwise?”
Zaniyah leaned her head at Josh who avoided her gaze in a rather comical way. She shook her head and walked on.
“We will catch up later,” Zaniyah said. “I really want to see Mother Superior.”
“Oh man, you shoulda seen it. Burto and Othinia went absolutely crazy on those anarchy guys,” Jake said, very excited.
“Well, they weren’t the only ones,” Josh followed through, dusting his chest in a movement that inexplicably made him flex his bicep. “We were there too, after all.”
“Well yeah but–”
“Shut up, guys!” Manuela demanded, annoyed. “Just go ahead, Zaniyah, you don’t need to wait for these idiots to shut up.”
“Well excuse me, lady Manuela,” Josh said sarcastically, “we haven’t talked in forever, okay?”
Zaniyah nodded and walked away as politely as she could manage, leaving them behind to continue arguing.
“Forever?” Manuela asked doubtfully. “It hasn’t been a week.”
“It has so!” Jake pointed out, “at least a week! Yesterday made a week, I think.”
“Ugh, you know what I mean!” Manuela protested.
“Who does?!” Josh complained.
Once again, the Hunter was greeted by many on her way to Mother Superior’s tent. Several of the members recognized her and welcomed her, some courtly, others pretty informally. Zaniyah greeted in kind, not at all hiding how glad she was to be back and to see them all alive.
Some faces were missing, but she had a feeling she wouldn’t know who exactly was gone until much later. There had likely been very little time to count heads so soon into the war.
More importantly, it was hard to think about anything right then.
Hannes was at the tent’s entrance. She found the lack of attraction at the sight of him surprising. He was still handsome and well built, and yet, he no longer ignited any kind of heat within her.
“Zaniyah,” Hannes said with a warm smiled on his face, “it is great to see you.”
“And you,” she said in turn, also warmly. Hannes was a good friend, no matter what. “I guess you know why I’m here?”
“She’s been waiting,” he confirmed, opening the flap and showing her the entrance.
Zaniyah then noticed the spear he was wielding. Silver and full of scrapes and cuts. Burto’s spear. Hannes noticed she noticed.
“Burto’s gone,” Hannes said.
Her gaze fell, sad.
“Lots of us are…huh?” Zaniyah asked.
“Yeah,” he confirmed with a solemn nod. “But long as some of us remain, all of us will be remembered. At least.”
She looked back up at his square face and lightly nodded a couple of times. “Thank you.”
The Hunter walked past him and into the corridors. The tent was smaller than its original, so it took her very little effort to find Mother Superior’s room. As expected, Othinia was standing as a bodyguard.
The large and intimidating woman was now even more intimidating, but for bad reasons. There were burn marks peeking from her garments all around the left shoulder and leg. The face was largely untouched other than for her left ear, which was gone. Probably because of this, her helmet of hair was now styled to the right side, she seemed to have no intention to hide the burn mark.
“Little Hunter,” Othinia greeted, glancing down at her, “finally.”
The familiarity of the situation almost made the Hunter laugh, but the sight of it all, and the realization of the price the Wild Felids had paid went a long way to her keeping a straight face.
“I’m sorry…that I did not fight with you,” Zaniyah told her.
“No,” Othinia said, stepping out of the way and opening the flap, “thank you for focusing on your task and trusting us to save her.”
The Hunter stepped forward, a bit stunned by the gratitude that Othinia was offering, as it was very unlike her.
“You’ve done well,” Othinia added, with a hint of pride in her tone.
Zaniyah said nothing back, feeling there was no need, but instead moved forward. With her heart beating and her mind emptied by an overflow of emotions she didn’t expect or understand, she stepped forward and caught sight of Mother Superior.
The seasoned woman was bald but other than that, her green eyes looked back with as much energy as ever. And she moved energetically as well.
Without being given a chance to react, the Hunter was hugged by the leader of the Wild Felids. She felt Mother Superior’s head brushing against her own hair, the arms heavy and bulky around her shoulders. Warm.
The flap to that tent section was allowed to close.
“My girl,” Mother Superior said, and squeezed the hug tighter. “I am…so proud…”
The torrent of emotion hit her like a very big, very sudden wave. Zaniyah coughed in reaction and shoved her face into Mother Superior’s meaty shoulder. Unwillingly, she moaned herself into sobbing and reached around Mother Superior’s broad back.
“I was so afraid that you—”
“I know,” Mother Superior said, bringing up a hand to caress Zaniyah’s head, “I know, Zaniyah, and yet you did your duty. I’m so very proud of you.”
The Hunter couldn’t vocalize an answer to that. At that point, she could only cry.
Zaniyah managed to calm down after a short while. The first thing she did was, of course, to apologize for the outburst.
“You’re no weaker for it. I, on the other hand, am happier,” Mother Superior confided. “You feel comfortable enough with me to cry.”
“I do,” the Hunter said, sniffing, “I…I was really not ready for you to go.”
“I was so surprised when you weren’t with Othinia, you know that? In a good way,” Mother Superior explained, taking a seat on an assortment of pillows. There, she patted on an empty section of them, invitingly.
“I just remembered what you said,” Zaniayh said. “I did what I felt you would think is right.”
“You did what you felt was right,” Mother Superior corrected, “instead of blindly following your heart. It takes the greatest strength of all to do that.”
Zaniyah smiled and sniffed, sitting down.
“A lot has happened…but I must know,” the Hunter said. “How are you alive? I kept helping the Shadow Conclave…”
“Ah, but alone,” Mother Superior explained. “The LBA assumed you exiled yourself because the rest of the organization was fully focused on retrieving me while refusing to help the Shadow Conclave.”
“But would not rescuing you also break their rules?” the Hunter asked.
“Yes, but what could they do? If they killed me, the guild would have splintered into either assisting against the Beasts or in hunting them down. By keeping me alive, they kept everyone away from working against the Beasts. It succeeded, you can say that much. However, they didn’t count on the fact that you,” she pointed out, smiling proudly, “was all the help the Shadow Conclave needed…from us.”
Zaniyah couldn’t help but blush a bit, or at least it felt like she did so, from the heat in her cheeks.
“You are embarrassing me,” Zaniyah said.
“Zaniyah,” Mother Superior called, her voice suddenly turning serious. She reached a hand and grabbed the Hunter’s shoulder. “Understand…that no one can do that. Not ever.”
Zaniyah stared, not really understanding what she meant by that beyond giving her another compliment. Mother Superior seemed to understand that because she sighed and pulled back, almost lying down over her pillows.
“They kept moving me underground,” Mother Superior said. “This…Mole individual. And his people. He has a lot of burrowing machines, and they work amazingly well, all things considered. It’s shameful to think, actually, of how much of a difference it would’ve made to have had him on our side.”
Zaniyah nodded in understanding, not really finding anything to say in response.
“But reality is ever a harsher thing,” Mother Superior added sadly. “We know that better than anyone.”
“The only thing nature likes is survivors,” Zaniyah said, quoting some of the Wild Felid’s words. Mother Superior was happy for that, she smiled and nodded in agreement.
“I think nature is very much in love with you then, Hunter,” she told Zaniyah. “Tell me, tell me of what you’ve survived.”
As friendly as Mother Superior was–one might even say as motherly–all her requests were orders. It was hard to retell everything, especially the part where she had only survived thanks to Thunuk.
Actually, everything involving Thunuk was embarrassing to tell, and out of all the craziness that had happened, indeed, he was the topic to mention and wonder about. The true oddity.
“A jungle man?” Mother Superior questioned, sounding intrigued. “From the tribe I saved you from?”
“I know,” Zaniyah said, and she did, but yet. “What can I say? He has been helpful and loyal.”
“Do you trust him?” Mother Superior asked, in a tone that indicated she herself didn’t, “you remember how to judge trust?”
“How much would I trust the person after they get what they’re after…from me,” Zaniyah remembered.
“And in men’s case, it is much easier to know what they want from you,” Mother Superior pointed out. “So do you trust him?”
Zaniyah curled up somewhat, in heavy doubt. “I don’t trust anyone that much,” she replied.
A motherly hand caressed the Hunter’s arm, softly and encouragingly.
“Yes, you do. You have made friends,” the motherly voice told her, in a statement. “Do you trust me?”
“Yes,” Zaniyah answered without hesitation. There was nothing Mother Superior could get from the Hunter that she couldn’t get herself.
“Do you trust Hannes? And Othinia,” Mother Superior asked.
Zaniyah looked aside and almost mumbled, “I trust their loyalty to you.”
“No, you trust them, you just don’t know it,” Mother Superior said in return. “This Shadow girl, you seem to have warmed up to her. Do you trust her?”
Zaniyah thought about it carefully, actually intrigued by the question. She went over what they had gone through, the conversations they had had, and most notably, the interactions they shared when they were abandoned to freeze on the mountains of Brithan.
“Yes,” Zaniyah answered, surprising herself. According to the rule, however, she did. “But the Shadow is different.”
“How so?” Mother Superior asked.
“She cares about others,” the Hunter said, a bit disapprovingly.
“You mean something to me. The Shadow has come to mean something to me as well, but she cares about others who she does not even know. It is…unnatural,” Zaniyah said.
“But you trust her,” Mother Superior pushed on, “and you trust your friends here, as well. Do you trust Eliza?”
Zaniyah gave it some thought and, again, according to the requirements, she would have to say yes. She nodded.
“So…having said all that,” Mother Superior said, letting go of her and facing her seriously. “Do you trust Thunuk?”
Zaniyah’s face contorted in reaction. It was a hard question to answer, a difficult thought to contemplate, that she might trust the man who heralded from the tribe that had damaged her so badly. It was unthinkable, it always had ever since she met him, and yet, she had fallen asleep in his arms. There was no denying that and what it meant.
“You already know,” Zaniyah conceded, looking aside.
“I know well enough that you don’t pass out in the arms of someone you don’t trust,” Mother Superior confirmed.
“Maybe it was because Maiko was there,” The Hunter said in her defense.
“I just want to let you know, Zaniyah…because of your past,” Mother Superior interrupted, her tone of voice changing dramatically. She clearly didn’t believe the Maiko excuse.
The Hunter looked back at Mother Superior and found her to appear very concerned.
“This is embarrassing, but I need to tell you this,” she warned.
Oh no… Zaniyah thought, what is she going to say?
“Because of your past- Look, you’re now trusting people out of your…tribe. That’s amazing. You, Zaniyah, are on the cusp of a full recovery. But the greatest challenge of all will be to regain the ability to get…intimate,” Mother Superior said, struggling.
“Oh no,” Zaniyah said, squirming away. She didn’t get farther than a few inches, though, because she didn’t have the courage to blow off her leader. The Hunter wasn’t supposed to leave until she was dismissed, it would be heavily offensive to do so.
“I know, it’s awkward for me as well, but I want you to know that if there comes the time where you feel pressured to get to that next level.” Mother Superior took a breath, steeling herself. “Sex. And I don’t mean someone is pressuring you, I know you’re stronger than that. I mean if you feel, yourself, that you will lose the chance at a relationship you really want unless you go forward with that. And so you decide that you should disregard your discomfort and hesitation and just force it upon yourself to give…in. Just remember that you can’t take that back.”
Contrary to her expectations, Zaniyah knew very well what she was being warned about. She understood. Ever since she was rescued from Thunuk’s tribe, she had never laid with anyone again. She had hardly hugged, hadn’t even kissed. In fact, for the longest time, even thinking about it would make her sweat and tremble. For the longest time, Zaniyah felt she would never be able to be close to anyone.
That had changed in those past days. In those last days.
“Usually, people can actually deal with mistakes like that,” Mother Superior continued. “They come back from it, or they’re just not that affected because it isn’t meaningful for them. But you’re not in that position, and you should know it.”
Mother Superior sighed, pausing for effect.
“I don’t want you alone, Zaniyah. So please, be a hundred percent sure that you are a hundred percent comfortable. And if you lose some perceived opportunity at a relationship because of it, then do know that it’s okay to take that loss. Let it go and wait for the next one.”
Zaniyah smiled, her heart warm over feeling how she was cared for, how much Mother Superior cared for her. Mostly, however, it impacted upon her how certain Mother Superior was that the Hunter would survive the end of the world.
“You really believe I will survive all of this,” Zaniyah said, in realization.
Mother Superior cackled, loudly, and gave some hearty laughs following that.
With teary eyes, she shook her head with a broad smile. “You truly have become a grown woman, Zaniyah, it makes me so happy to see you this way.”
“And yes,” her mother added. “I have absolutely no doubt nature loves you the most.”