“Soon, we will face the Beasts in combat for one last time,” Mother Superior began. “In a way, however, it will be for the first time. I know my capture has been terrible and has resulted in us fighting everyone but the Beasts, and that’s upsetting.”
A murmur agreed.
“But that’s behind us, now,” she continued, “our vindication was served, even if that coward of a mole survived it, and in our stead, the Hunter kept up the fight against the Beasts.”
“THE HUNTER!” Everyone screamed, together and completely voluntarily.
It shocked her. Zaniyah jumped and then glanced around to notice how people were looking at her, prideful beyond belief. A hand smacked her in the back, belonging to Thunuk, who was looking at her like she was the greatest thing in the world.
Zaniyah realized then it was how Thunuk always looked at her, she just hadn’t seen the look before and didn’t know what it meant. Until now.
“Thanks to her,” Mother Superior continued, “the Beasts will be softened for the killing, and we WILL…make a killing.”
“YEAH!” A multitude of voices agreed, energized.
Everyone looked away at their leader in a very similar way, giving the Hunter some much-needed respite. Even just a few seconds of that kind of attention had made her nervous.
“We will secure the kill,” Mother Superior announced, “and end this strife once and for all, and reclaim nature from the disease these creatures represent. And we will do it together!”
“WE ARE THE SURVIVORS!” the people chanted.
“Because Nature has loved us,” Mother Superior added.
“WE ARE SURVIVORS!” everyone again yelled.
“We will show it love, as well,” Mother Superior continued, her voice energized by the support of her guild. “It doesn’t need us to survive, but we can spare it the pain.”
Some people murmured, others yelled, all pretty much in line with her and waiting expectantly as she paused for effect.
“Tonight,” Mother Superior said, lowering her voice just a little, “we celebrate those that lived among us, and are a part of nature itself. We celebrate having known them. We celebrate their dreams and desires which they chased after so thoroughly. Tomorrow?” she asked, raising her voice higher. “We give their death purpose. And meaning!”
“WE SURVIVE!” Everyone yelled again, minus Zaniyah. She never joined in the chanting, it was hard enough not to scowl since it brought bad memories. Her tribe used to like chanting.
“So eat, drink, and dance…for we are happy to have lived alongside Burto,” Mother Superior said.
But that part, she had to join in, and it was different, anyway.
Together, they yelled out the names of those who had passed, to let the world know that even though they were not around, that they had been. And that, in a way, they still were.
“And Dikembe,” she announced.
“DIKEMBE!” they yelled.
It took a while. A long while, which only made the gesture all the more dramatic, but without fail, the Wild Felids gave every single name that had fallen during the Beast invasion a proper call.
Tears were shed, not in despair or sadness, but in raw emotion, as they yelled out every one of those names, one by one, without skipping or rushing.
It really took too much of a while, but they got through it. And while they wiped away tears or sobbed or solemnly stared, or filled their hearts with the need for vengeance and violence, Mother Superior’s voice took to the air again.
“Today, we make them happy. Tomorrow…” Mother Superior shot a hand up into the air and yelled out, “we make them proud!”
They all cheered, and she gestured, and the musicians promptly picked up the instruments and launched into an immediate frenzy of tunes. Strings vibrated and percussion banged away with their best singer lighting his voice on the fire of his emotions.
Without thinking, completely swept away by the moment, Zaniyah got up and ran into the empty space ahead of her. She jumped and stretched in the air, fully releasing herself, before landing into a dancing step that took hours to end.
Tears transformed to sweat and a frown to an energized grin as Zaniyah went wild in the midst of a crowd of other people going wild.
Nobody cared when they hit each other accidentally. Or when they stepped on a foot or were stepped on. They were in it together, dancing for the same reason, with the same wishes and desires. As individuals, they were brought together by the same motivations and dreams, and fears and regrets. By the very same.
Together, they let it all out on that dance floor.
When dancing, Zaniyah could actually laugh out loud, or giggle, it just brought up a lot of happiness in her. It was also because there was no talking on the dance floor. People finally shut up, mostly, and just were. People stopped worrying about misunderstandings and saying the wrong thing and simply expressed themselves. Some just had fun, but Zaniyah truly felt like she was speaking, mostly to herself.
Zaniyah, the Hunter, the tribeswoman, the older sister, the tomb raider, the wild felid. There were so many layers to her experience so far and so many events to regret and to wish they had never happened. It was awful because she recognized how they had affected her and influenced her into suffering behaviors and attitudes she would prefer to be absent from her personality.
However, it felt impossible, even within the realms of fantasy, to be rid of the bad things while keeping the good. They were all interconnected and interwoven to create Zaniyah, the Hunter, with all her misgivings, but also with all her strengths.
Zaniyah was hurt, but yet alive. Scarred but yet loved. She could feel, and sweat. Her heart was racing, her mind blown by the music she was listening to. She could see herself surrounded by a mass of friends and allies that, at that moment, she knew she could trust.
Zaniyah danced her heart out that night, down to exhaustion. Hours went by in a blur and soon enough, the sun was dawning. They had spent the entire day at it.
When she slowed down, and senses returned to her, Zaniyah found herself on the floor, surrounded by others. She could hear the low nasal fluttering of Josh’s sleeping. Looking to that side, she found Jake hugging his big brother’s arm, sleeping with his head rested on his shoulder.
Tired, but beyond satisfied, Zaniyah looked up at the stars that were beginning to peak. She noticed there was a layer of obfuscation in the sky as if a heat wave surrounded them. It was probably the Mad Genius’s doing…
“That was good,” someone said from her side.
Zaniyah turned her head in time to be confronted by Thunuk, lying down next to her. She didn’t even wince since it was him.
“This tribe is great,” Thunuk added.
“It is not…oh, no matter. I hope you feel better of heart,” Zaniyah said.
“Yes,” he grinned in agreement. “You do not dance like you fight,” he remarked.
She glanced sideways, awaiting the inevitable follow up judgmental comment. The “but.”
“It is much better seeing you dance,” Thunuk said happily.
Zaniyah looked away, embarrassed by the words that were being exchanged, but then remembered that nobody would understand. Manuela had gone somewhere with Kanu, to do the same thing many others were likely doing, in what was likely to be their last day.
For some reason, Zaniyah really didn’t want to.
“You are very beautiful, Zaniyah,” Thunuk said.
Zaniyah glanced his way again and casually said, “I will not marry you.”
Thunuk smiled. “And mighty,” he went on, as he is want to do, “most mighty, I do not forget that,” he chuckled, “you make it impossible to forget.
“But ah,” Thunuk continued with a sigh, bringing his hands to relax on his belly. “The party was good. Your friends, they welcome me well, they are funny and friendly, but you, Zaniyah, you warm the heart. More than anything or anyone. I do not understand.”
The situation had gotten a bit out of control, Zaniyah felt. She looked for words but couldn’t find them fast enough.
“My mother,” Thunuk said, before she had a chance to get a word in, “she once describe the emotion. I ask her once, ‘how can you love father? He is very foolish.’ And he is. Was,” he corrected himself, with a hint of sadness, “and she says she have no answer. Sometimes, he lights her up inside, and it is a thing nobody else does. That is all.”
Zaniyah didn’t know what to say to that. As much as she trusted him, and cared about him, the feeling was not mutual. At least, not yet. While he had spent time watching her during the party, she had not even thought about him at all. That had to mean something.
Zaniyah felt guilty.
When Thunuk grabbed her hand, however, she didn’t even shiver. Her guilt washed away. He squeezed softly, eyes on the sky.
“You will survive, Zaniyah,” Thunuk stated, meaningfully. “And like it or not, I will too. We will marry yet.”
Yet. Still. Maybe, Zaniyah thought and immediately shook her head.
Soon, Zaniyah knew, all of it would be in the past. The words, the feelings, that moment…it would all be left behind soon as the Hunter focused on the fight that was to come. But, for whatever reason, having him alive for whatever came next seemed to be a thing she wanted to happen.
“Make it through the battle,” Zaniyah said. “We will see what then.”
Thunuk grinned so widely it was even clear to her peripheral view. His hand squeezed wishfully. It seemed he understood the progress he had made.
Thunuk said something to her, but it went unheard because some artificial sound erupted from all around her, produced by a multitude of horns.
It took her a few seconds to realize what it meant.
“What is that noise?!” Thunuk asked, hands on his ears.
“The beginning, Thunuk,” the Hunter said gravely, sitting up.
She watched as the mass of her friends and allies either woke up or seemingly stopped to look around, arriving at the same realization.
“The beginning of the end,” the Hunter stated.
Fighting at night.
It made sense for the Beasts to fight during the night, it was just that so far as they had experienced, there had been no reason to expect them to act strategically or tactically. The Beasts had ever just barreled through continuously, no matter the terrain or environment or weather, and definitely irrespective of the time of day.
It made sense for the Beasts to take their resistance seriously after what happened at the House of Magni.
The air was sparkling in a weird way. It was very similar to having dust in the wind but not quite, since dust particles were always bunched up together to form, well, dust. You could only see it when the light shined on them, and they were apart enough for the air to simply sparkle here and there as the eyes looked around.
“The air is strange,” Thunuk commented.
Someone cursed behind the Hunter, catching up to the two. She turned to see Manuela, still adjusting her top around her neck.
“Filthy sense of timing, these Beasts. Setting up to kill us all and don’t even give us a good last night?” Manuel asked, annoyed.
“We’ve had a couple,” someone said from the side, who was called Tristan if Zaniyah’s memory served her right.
“Those are preparation nights,” Manuela complained, “I mean—argh, whatever.”
“Well make sure to take your frustration out on them,” someone else joked, manifesting a levity which kind of worried the Hunter.
“Focus, everyone,” the Hunter said, in a tone that came out more demanding than otherwise, “Like it or not, time has run out. Now we fight until we win or die. Focus.”
They glanced at her, respectfully, as they followed her around the corner to a deposit of weapons that was set up there. They grabbed an assortment of them as they passed by. Meanwhile, the alarm suddenly stopped.
It was at that moment that a voice pierced down from the skies, from such a faraway distance it was hard to discern.
“They are underwater!” the voice reported, “have the ships set sail before they come around, get away from the shore!”
Underwater… the Hunter thought, they are not affected by the transformed air.
Zaniyah stopped and gestured at the others to stop.
“That was the airship,” the Hunter told them, “if we can hear it, they will direct us. So we await direction.”
“Damn. Underwater?” Manuela asked. “What’re they doing underwater?”
“I heard they drilled out of the ground back in Igtahlia,” Tristan told them, “so that’s my guess?”
“Bring island down?” asked Thunuk.
Everyone flipped their heads at him as if he was a ghost, because of the realization that that would make a lot of sense, in a dreadful and hopeless way.
“Oh no, can they do that?” Manuela asked first, “can they just sink us?!”
Zaniyah herself was no less distressed and so concentrating on remaining calm that she didn’t think her words through. “Remain calm, all of us can swim,” Zaniayh said gravely.
Manuela snorted out a laugh.
“What?” Zaniyah asked, seeing people around her laughing, even if not in a way that offended or belittled her. She realized what she had said and rolled her eyes. “Sorry,” she said.
The wind howled once again.
“Attention all fighters!” the voice from the skies called out. “The Beasts will be burrowing up out of the ground in unforeseen locations. Move to your nearest base of operations and form a defensive perimeter. Go!”
The Mad Genius had laid out four bases of operations. The Chancellor’s skyscraper, the Scavengers’ entire borough, the main square where the Wild Felids had set up, and the main militia barracks which was basically a military building.
“Uhhh, directions unclear?” Manuela questioned, “I mean, we’re technically already here, right?”
“Stop standing around like a pack of headless cattle!” A new voice demanded.
They turned their heads to find the commanding figure of Othinia.
A pack of cattle? Zaniyah wondered, momentarily questioning whether she had the wrong meaning of those words or if it was Othinia who didn’t know them so well. It didn’t stop her from turning as well, in the hopes of getting relevant directions.
“I want everyone in a building!” Othinia commanded. “Once the Beasts are out, you get out of their way ‘till they’ve been out for a few minutes.”
“How much is a few minutes?” Manuela asked, confused, just as Josh and Jake ran in to group up with them.
“Hey, guys,” Josh greeted, “‘s about to get crazy, huh?”
“Do not fight them up close until there’s no other option,” Othinia said. “Alright, show them how demons really fight.”
The ground began to shake.
“Go!” Othinia yelled at last.
Zaniyah was technically in the middle of a large group, but due to how everyone scattered, she remained with the ones she was with in practice: Manuela, Tristan, the brothers, and Thunuk.
The Hunter had a spear and an assortment of daggers as well as her blowgun, on top of a very small container with ointments or elixirs. Thunuk had two spears and two swords and a bow and arrow. The brothers had crossbows, mainly, plus a handgun for which they didn’t have extra bullets, and finally a short sword because they needed something that didn’t run out of ammo. Manuela was carrying a rifle and a very large cleaver, and Tristan was carrying explosives, to which there were variety and quantity, but Zaniyah couldn’t tell them apart.
Like rats, the Wild Felids scurried into the buildings, hiding in its shadows, while the ground-shaking grew more and more pronounced. Zaniyah leaned against the wall right next to the window, imitated by Thunuk only on the opposite side and with an arrow notched on a pulled bow string, out of view.
Part of Zaniyah had expected one single frontline. It had been like that so far, the Beasts had never tried to surround them. Never tried come up from everywhere at the same time, or at least, from unexpected locations.
It is no coincidence they are attacking just as the night is settling, Zaniyah thought, now convinced of it, They want to finish us off before the sun rises.
The ground cracked and ruptured, at several locations. Tents and abandoned buildings were upheaved and tore open and thrown aside as gigantic machines dived out of the ground and onto the surface. The things were the size of buildings, just seeing them made the Hunter swallow dry.
Then, the machines opened up their sides, huge doors that they were, to show vast numbers of Beasts. It wasn’t a vaster number than the ones being employed by the Wild Felids, even when counting only with the ones there among the buildings, but it didn’t have to be. Zaniyah had probably faced the Beasts more times than anyone else, she knew what they were capable of. No one else did. In her opinion, that was the one true disadvantage they had in that battle.
Far at the end of her street, at the other end, a building ruptured and crumbled as another of those machines pushed itself up, carrying another batch of Beasts.
But it went ignored.
Predatorial eyes watched as the Beasts turned around and about, confused by the lack of action, or people. Perplexed by the silence and the abandonment of their surroundings. It made it momentarily difficult for them to decide where to go or what to do.
The sounds of explosions sounded out in the distance, and the Beasts turned, as if with purpose, but the Wild Felids still waited.
“When?” Thunuk whispered.
Zaniyah was counting, and judging distances, knowing full well nobody would attack before she did. The Hunter was the one with the experience. She had witnessed the Beast hide decaying with time, she had the best sense of when it would be good to attack.
For all those reasons, even though nobody said so explicitly, it was obvious to Zaniyah.
The Hunter would signal the start of the fight.