The snow beneath Artemis' wolf fur lined boots crunched almost grumpily, as though the ground were annoyed someone dared to sully the pristine light grey blanket of frozen water that blanketed the Earth. But the girl quite obviously paid it no mind. Crossbow held at the ready, sharp eyes darted around through the thick goggles she wore. It had been quite a long time that she had been out here in the wilderness, and as such, her sense of smell was sacrificed in favour of keeping her brains unscrambled by means of the gasmask. Such a hindrance, she would grumble to herself in times like this. It must have been an hour since she had last caught sight of her next catch.
Truth be told, she was out on a gathering mission. Athena left to repair their sniper rifle finally, Artemis set out with intent to track down useful components for various things they were running low on. Everything from poison to potential tea flavours was on her list, but this task was one of the more boring ones, albeit vital. Artemis was much more of a hunter than a gatherer.
Sneaking off with her crossbow was easy. Finding that beautiful bear was not. Before the damn gasmask was necessary, she smelled the beast on pure luck. But somehow, in the darkness, her attempt to head off the bear at a crossroads failed. Maybe it had turned. Maybe she had been too fast, or too slow. Either way, taking the animal out would be much more difficult if she did not have the element of surprise in her favour. Debilitus were, after all, notorious for being relentless.
What had attracted her to the creature extended beyond the obvious. Yes, she was hungry for something other than the fish they were forced to subsist on, and yes, she was wanting something a little warmer for her sleeping arrangements than military-grade blankets, but there was something else about the lumbering nature of it. With Debilitus, the effects of the water exposure is obviously apparent in two years time. Unhinged jaws, wide, empty eyes, twitchy demeanor, volatile reactions to a twig snapping, all were not uncommon. The extremity of forgoing hibernation, now, that was expected. That was not what was odd. The creature she saw padding through the thick snow seemed… somehow sane. By animal standards, it seemed to be … normal.
Had she been anyone else, she would have been awed, but run away as quickly as possible, lest the beast turn its claws and teeth on her. But Artemis was as stubborn as the many beasts she came upon. Once she saw that beautiful bear, with its magnificent pelt and tantalizing meat shifting just beneath it, she knew that bear was hers. It was far too good to pass up, and not since the timber wolf incident on the west coast did she see a beast with fur so intact. She had a bit of an infatuation with animal fur. Soft, course, thick, short, it didn't matter. If it was intact, she'd find a use for it. She was oh so good at fashioning a variety of clothing and objects from the stuff; Athena had her own share of gifts from her friend of this type.
The idea of sleeping warmly on a full belly was too much to give up. Scowling, Artemis yanked the fox fur lined hood off her long hair, letting her ears have more access to the quietly whistling wind.
"Come on…" she muttered behind the gasmask. "Come on… I know you're here…" Hazel eyes scanned the trees, the bark, the snow – anything that could point to where the animal had gone.
Nothing. Not a scent reached her nose, not a sight met her eyes, not a sound found her ears. Not a trace of the animal.
Full lips pulled back from her teeth as she made a growl of annoyance, reaching down to the ground. Her uncovered fingertips found what felt like something solid, and, in her frustration, she grasped it and threw it hard into the trees. Clearly, the creature was gone. There was no reason for her to linger when there were plants to coll—
A startled puff of breath sounded a few yards to Artemis' right, a sound so soft a normal person would miss it. But not her. Eyes lighting in excitement, she grabbed her crossbow more tightly and carefully inched in that direction. Startling the thing worse would make it run- and though Artemis was in good shape, she didn't particularly feel like chasing a bear through Canadian woods. On the other hand, if it truly was infected, it would have no qualms in running at her, were it startled. Either situation ended poorly for her.
Footsteps light, Artemis advanced closer to the sound's origin, a predator stalking her prey. There—a scent! Over here – a wisp of fur! She found it! Grin triumphant upon her face, she kept her hawk-like eyes glued to the dent in snow she could see, as if it would move if she so much as blinked. Sure enough, tracks met her eyes after only a few seconds of careful walking.
The excitement was growing inside of her as it always did when she was closing in on a kill. Walking as quickly as she dared, it wasn't long until she happened upon the creature. Sitting on the ground, back to her, it seemed to be just looking through the trees. There was no cub with it, no animal to hold it's attention, and yet, it stared. The bear's ears swiveled slightly at a small movement, but otherwise, one might have mistaken it for a taxidermy animal forgotten in the trees.
Adrenaline pumped through her veins as she raised the crossbow to her goggles. Yes, the behaviour of the thing was odd, but all she could think about was the succulent meat just waiting to be harvested, and the gloriously warm fur that would soon be hers. Logic played no part in her decision. Her finger gently caressed the trigger as she took aim; shooting it in a small little window with enough force would be enough to shoot the beast in the brain, and hopefully a second shot as it turned around would be enough to kill it.
'Say goodnight, Bear Brother…~' She thought to herself, aim perfected. Her finger pressed the trigger and—
Suddenly, a rabbit shot out from the trees, leaping on the bear's face, sharp little front teeth barred. The bear instinctively fell back, claws sinking in to the soft bunny's belly, ripping the thing from its face. At the same moment that Artemis took her shot.
Arrow embedded in a tree somewhere, Artemis stood stock straight at this irritation, just barely able to contain her rage. She'd had it! She absolutely had it-!
Unfortunately for her, the bear heard the shift of her gear, the slight clink as metal hit each other in her belt. The bear looked at her with large eyes, stared, then emitted a loud growl, as if it were shocked but wanting to uphold it's image of being fearsome. Then the creature turned on its heel, and bounded into the forest, bloodied rabbit left healing quickly in the snow.
"… AGH." Artemis was close to throwing something again. That stupid rabbit! Shooting another arrow into the thing's brain wasn't enough vengeance on the ugly thing, she still felt so cheated out of her perfect shot.
And at once, it hit her that this didn't have to be over. She was not letting that bear get the best of her! Face set in determination, she dropped her crossbow on the ground with the intention of returning for it, and instead decided to rely on her favourite pistol, always ready at her hip. Her aim was so good, she might be able to take the thing out with two shots or less. And besides, the crossbow was much more difficult to run with.
Thus, with determination at the forefront of her mind and anger tasting bitterly on the back of her tongue, Artemis whipped her hair out of her face and broke out into a sprint. Though a grizzly bear is almost two times as fast as a human being while sprinting, Artemis had one important thing on her side. She was feeling lucky.
She ran with her all, following the trail of paw prints with small speckles of rabbit's blood on them, chasing the bear she so coveted through the dense, viridian blur. And finally, when her lungs burned with the inability to suck in enough air, and her legs felt as though the muscles were writhing with pain beneath her skin, she came to a rather abrupt stop, skidding slightly as her new boots turned sideways in the grey snow.
There. She was in a clearing. A hill riddled, tree sparse, snow covered, silent clearing. Or, what would have been any other time. There, panting inside a shallow cave, a winded and tired looking grizzly bear was curled up, nursing wounds to its face left by the sharp teeth of the rabbit.
Excellent. Not ideal by a long-shot, no, but… This was doable. Winded herself, Artemis – who had run out of adrenaline – bent double to catch her breath. Was it worth sneaking up and trying to slaughter the beast in it's own home? The immediate answer that bubbled to her mind was a resounding, 'Yes'. But was that answer the right one? She would be risking her life, certainly. Even an uninfected bear – if such a thing even existed now – would be suicide to engage alone, armed only with a pistol. What was she thinking, leaving her crossbow? Why hadn't she grabbed a rifle or at least some long-distance powerful weapon back from camp.
The answer was obvious. She hadn't been thinking. Now the excitement drained away with the dregs of adrenaline, she could clearly see this was a poor decision. It was idiocy. Prideful idiocy. Cockiness. Nothing more.
Artemis ran a hand through her hair, quieting the mass of waves back into a normal tussled shape around her oval face. This was madness, she realized, eyes once again on the strange creature. But still… The longing in her eyes was unmistakable. How she wanted that bear, dead at her feet…
Sighing, she nodded to herself. The only sensible thing to do would be to go back to her crossbow. From there, it would make sense to revert to the original plan, which would be to sort through the cold snow to find some weak little plants that might have survived. It didn't make any sense to continue to go after this massive and formidable animal.
And that was exactly why she had to slide down the top of the hill, into the clearing.
Landing with a light 'thud', Artemis remained hunched over, arms bent at the elbow and held out to the side, face firmly locked onto the bear. This was it. She crept forward, carefully lifting her goggles ontop of her head to see more clearly, then blindly took her gun out of its holster.
She kept to hills, rocks, mounds of snow. Anything to hide herself from the animal. Fifty yards. The air was almost eerily quiet – but that may have been her focus blotting out all noise but the bear's. Forty. Athena was probably wondering where she was by now, and showing up empty handed was simply not an option. Thirty. Her head was starting to throb. How long had it been since she took off her gasmask? Twenty. If the bear so much as lifted its head, it would see her. It would charge her. She would be dead, mauled in minutes, meant to be eaten and sliced up and her jobs would be left unaccomplished, her bike left to rust, Athena left to report her partner's sudden unexplained disappearance—
Here, she stopped. Banishing these thoughts from her mind (and completely oblivious to the river of blood pouring from her left nostril), Artemis forced herself to think of nothing but the task. Nothing but the cold gun grasped by warm fingers. Nothing but the softer breathing of the large animal. Nothing but the adjusting the aim, so the prongs of the gun lined up just right….
Exhaling deliberately, Artemis knew she had the shot. She knew two quick bangs of her gun, and it would be dead. The breath left her lips, she pulled the trigger. BANG.
The bear howled in pain, twitching, recoiling from the mouth of the cave it thought to be oh so safe. The sound was haunting. To put the creature out of it's misery would be the only merciful option, now. Lips unsure whether they wanted to twitch to a smirk or a frown, Artemis fired the second shot, and the creature flopped down, motionless.
"…." Artemis stood up straight, replacing her gun into the holster on her hip. She'd done it. It was dead. That was… almost too easy. She frowned, pulling her hood up against the wind she seemed to have completely ignored.
Strange. But, then again, she was used to Debilitus, and this seemed to be a slightly-under average sized bear. Maybe she was just too tough for them. This thought made her smirk as she grabbed her hunting knife from the holster just beside her pistol, climbing the steep hill to the cave that had become the bear's grave.
It was twenty minutes later, as she had finished skinning the beast and moved on to draining it of its blood down the side of the cave's mouth, that she heard them.
Blinking, Artemis looked up. By now, she had removed her coat, gloves, goggles, and various equipment, leaving her in her white shirt and vest. The sleeves of her shirt were pushed up, her hair tied up in a pony tail, and gasmask and goggles firmly in place. She was now well protected from the debilitating capabilities of the oxygen, as well as the blood that would sometimes try and trickle her way.
The call came from her best friend, Athena, and a newcomer she didn't quite recognize. "Hey," she called back, lifting the gasmask enough to be heard.
But by the look of them, they were not here for just a social visit. The two girls were wearing thick black cloaks, Athena's trademark over-coat, but odd to see on someone else, Artemis realized. They raced down the once-pristine snow now covered in boot prints, blood, tracks, and more blood. The urgency of which they ran was enough to make Artemis stop lifting the limbs of the bear to ensure all the blood ran out, and squint to try and make out their faces.
"Artemis, hold on!"
Athena's voice was unmistakable. The high, full voice called loudly from several yards away. Arms flung out, she ran at her top speed up the side of the hill. Sometimes Artemis forgot how athletic Athena could be, or how resourceful, she mused as the girl used a hatchet on her belt to help pull herself the remaining distance to the cave. She was often so air-headed, Artemis could lose track of the street smarts in there.
Struggling for breath, Athena desperately grabbed Artemis' face, ripping away the goggles and the gasmask. "Ar—temis!" she gasped, eyes searching her face.
Artemis yelped and pushed her away. "Athena, what is the problem? I'm fine, let go of me."
Staggering back a few steps, Athena looked at her worriedly, chewing her lip as she helped the other girl into the cave.
It was only then that Artemis got a truly good look at the new girl, just before she replaced the goggles Athena had grasped off her face. She was short – shorter than Artemis, even – and round faced. Short light brown hair with natural golden accents swished about her face in a length just longer than pixie; it looked as though she would pull her hair back and cut off the ponytail. And by the look of it, she'd done so recently. She was small, too, for someone who was about seventeen. It looked as though she could use with a good feeding, by how baggy the clothing on her was. Large eyes with thick lashes held evasive silvery grey eyes, not looking directly at Artemis. But that may have been because she, too, was out of breath.
"What are you doing here," Artemis tried again, going back to finishing to drain the bear of its precious blood.
"Looking…for you…" Athena murmured, making sure the new girl was okay, but also looking apprehensionsly at Artemis. "It had been so long… I got worried."
"Look, I've been fine," Artemis said, bitterness touching her tone. She had been left for hours, in the dead of night, to fend for her self while Athena was out doing God knows what. Something that still irritated her. "I… got distracted. That's all."
The blood fully drained, Artemis took hold of her knife once more to start gutting the animal right in front of them. While Athena was unphased, the new girl seemed to need to turn away. "Who's this," she asked, not looking up from her work.
"Oh, right, I forgot—Artemis, this is Alice. Alice, Artemis." Athena introduced them, shifting her weight from foot to foot.
"Hello," Artemis returned bluntly, looking up to the girl, expecting a reply.
"Nice to meet you, Artemis. Your name becomes you," she added, voice surprisingly confident for how shy the girl seemed.
Artemis snorted, looking back to the meat she was sorting through. "Alice and I used to know each other, way back when," Athena started again. "We lived in the same town. We didn't know each other well, mind. She was about six years younger than me. But she lived a few houses down, and I would sometimes play with her when she was a kid." A smile crept into her voice at the simple memory. A memory ripped from her by the soft splatting noise of Artemis throwing the unusable guts down the cliff. "Anyway, she saw smoke from our fire and came to find us. She had been in pretty rough shape."
"Insanabilius," Alice sighed, as though it were an inconvenience, rather than a potentially fatal encounter.
"Right. Anyway, her clothes were shredded, and she had a few injuries. I took care of that back at our camp," Athena hummed. But Artemis tuned the next few sentences out. She glanced at Alice again. Upon closer inspection, her entire attire was made up of Athena's clothing. And what looked suspiciously like Athena's back-up holster.
Frowning, she returned her attention to Athena again, finally. She was raising her eyebrows, like someone waiting for a response to a question. "….What?"
Athena sighed patiently, repeating herself. "Her tent got destroyed too. I told her she could stay with us. Is that alright?"
Artemis just looked at her blankly, but the expression (or lackthereof) was lost with the face concealing goggles and mask. "…. I…"
"It'll only be for awhile," Alice said, looking about the cave and fixing the too-long sleeves of Athena's spare cloak. "I need to meet up with some people a few miles from here."
Again, Artemis was silent. She resumed slicing the meat she just realized she had no way of carrying. Groaning upon this realization, she sank back, flopping against the cave wall. "Athena," she hummed apathetically, removing her gasmask. "Why were you so worried when you rushed in here?"
Athena blinked. "Oh. Well, I saw the bear. After you were gone for so long, I didn't know what to think. I had thought maybe you were injured, or bitten, and had become somewhat mindless. Like a stage one Insanabilius, you know? Just wanting food, but with your skills, you'd know how to properly get it. It's bizarre seeing you just skinning a dead Debilitus on top of a hill. Usually you'd take it somewhere else. Not where you killed it. Besides, you being in a cave by itself is odd. You never seek shelter in caves, it's always trees and exposed tree roots."
Artemis just sighed.
Alice cleared her throat. "… I don't think that's right."
The other two raised their heads and looked at her. Colour rushed to Alice's face, but she held her voice steady, the blush clearly involuntary and unwanted. "… I was looking at the tracks as we ran… This animal was wounded. It shed blood on its way here. Clearly it was seeking shelter. A Debilitus wouldn't do that… No, they would just continue on. They physically heal too fast for there to be this much blood." Artemis was silent. "Also, by the foot prints, I'd say she was chasing it. I doubt this kill was in self-defense…" Alice trailed off, disapproval laced all throughout her voice.
Athena looked stunned. Turning her stunned face to Artemis, she asked, frowning, "Is this true?"
Athena gasped. "Artemis! Why would you do that!"
Sighing, the other girl returned to slicing meat, just to give herself something to do with her hands. Accusations annoyed her, as did confrontation with her best friend, as the would anyone.
"You killed an uninfected animal? What, just because?" Artemis didn't respond. "They are so rare nowadays! You should have let it live!"
"What, so it can get infected next week? So it can spoil itself, it's coat, and it's meat?" Artemis snorted humourlessly.
"So it can live! So it can have the chance to simply live!" Athena was outraged, and it was very clear to all three of them. Artemis would be surprised if the bear in the bear spirit world wasn't a little confused as to why someone would instantly flip from worried to berating.
Artemis shook her head. "I agree," Alice added, looking at a particularly interesting jut of rock inside the cave. "Though less intensely. I don't think you should kill animals that haven't turned yet. They don't deserve it. The ones that would kill you sooner than look at you, we kill them in self-defense. We reap their benefits out of necessity, not desire. This crossed a line."
Artemis' hands were starting to shake. "You are entitled to your opinion," she said coolly through a tense jaw and gritted teeth. "But as you do not know me, I will thank you to keep such rash judgments to yourself."
Athena huffed. "She's right. You did cross a line, Arty." She shook her head. "That's like murdering a human who might turn into an Insanibilius. It doesn't make it right to kill on possibilities."
She'd had enough. Throwing her knife down onto the cave's rock floor with a loud clatter, Artemis looked at both of them with a hard glare in her eyes, venom in her words. "Look. I did what I had to do. I did what any normal person would do. I found a food source when ours was dwindling. I found warmth when we shivered every night under flimsy blankets. I found sport when I was bored. Yes, I did. I do not regret my actions. And if you two have such a severe problem with me and what I do, you are both welcome to help yourselves to as much day-old fish and scratchy blankets as you want. I will be eating bear and sleeping under fur tonight, and if that is an offense to you, you do not have to join me."
Grabbing her coat with bloodied hands, Artemis shoved it on and ignored the surprised silence of the other two women in the cave. Strapping on her gasmask and refusing to listen to anything either one of them said, she stormed out, sliding down the cliff, and strode angrily into the woods intending on grabbing firewood.
That night, she slept alone in the cave, next to a dying fire and piles of meat covered in snow. The fur she lay on felt less comfortable and warm than she anticipated.