A growl ripped through my throat as I turned to the nearest moving target. With my bow drawn, I could tell that my face was not at all friendly. I didn't care. That is, until innocent eyes looked up at me.
It was as if all the energy had been sucked out of me. I let out a shaky gasp and started breathing heavily. I lowered my bow so it was down at my side. I suddenly felt so weighed on with the guilt. I had scared a child.
Not just a child, a Mountain child. She was of the Mountain Kingdom, I was certain. Her eyes were a bright crimson colour, the trademark feature of the Mountain people. Her dark brown hair was short and looked as if it was cut with a dull knife. Her cheeks were puffy and pink, stained with tears. She was noiselessly crying. I felt ashamed to be the reason for that.
"P-Please, don't kill me," she begged with such a soft voice. My heart couldn't help but reach for her. She was one of the hunted. Therefore, she was a friend.
I could hear yelling not too far from us. I didn't want such a child to be near that. She looked small and nimble. Easy to carry, even for me. So I returned my bow to my back. I knelt down slightly and wrapped my arms around her. With ease, I picked her up and held under her knees. She had her arms around my neck, tightly.
I bounded away from the fight. I didn't stop until I could no longer hear the noises. Even then, I was still moving rather swiftly. It was hard to tell with these Jungle Hunters. They put illusions on people, making noises sound far away when they're really just a step away. Tsuchi could only use magic so often.
My mind trailed away to where I last left Tsuchi and Kostas. We were fighting a Hunter that Tsuchi had the honour of butchering. He was burning the remains when he barked at the two of us to scatter. He sensed the other two Hunters approaching us. Kostas ran one direction while I ran the opposite. They sent the dogs after him and the birds after me.
Normally, one wouldn't be scared of hunting birds. They scouted out territory and determined where there was game. Not these ones. These ones were cursed. They had talons as sharp as a blade's edge and the strength of a bull. Their screech caused my insides to stir and made me vomit on multiple occasions. I was lucky to survive their assault and kill three of them.
That's what led me to this girl. I thought I hadn't hit one in the heart and was suffering on the ground. I was ready to kill whatever was moving. I thanked the heavens that I took a second to look at my prey.
When a familiar carving appeared on a tree, I stopped and put down the small girl. It was the same design that was on my stomach. This tree was protected from both intruders and magic spells. This was Tsuchi's work and I was forever grateful to him.
"You didn't kill me," the girl muttered quietly. I nodded wordlessly and tried catching my breath. "I'm Naida of the Mountain… I'm only six."
I looked at her with disbelief? Six? They kidnapped someone who was only six years old? My mind instantly raced back to Tsuchi. He had a daughter who was five. She had been taken away for the Hunt as well. Naida was not going to have the same fate as her.
"I'm Milana of the Forest. I'm sixteen," I told her once I could speak without breathing heavily.
"You're still just a child!" Naida exclaimed with bewilderment. I shook my head and looked out into the jungle.
"No. Not a child. Not anymore," I murmured, mostly to myself. I could've killed her if I hadn't stopped myself. I'd barely have a second thought about it too.
I sat down at the base of the trunk. The sky was darkening. We were reaching our second night of the Hunt. We knew that the Hunters had killed two out of the nine hunted on the first night. I didn't know how much the Hunters had killed tonight.
With a trembling lip, Naida squirmed her way into my arms. I embraced her just like a mother would to her child. She started noiselessly crying herself into a deep sleep. I brushed the hair out of her face. She was a fair child with the only abnormality being her crimson eyes, which she had closed.
I sighed and watched as the evening turned into night. The second night. Already, I was driven past my limits. I had to hunt the animals for food, make fires for warmth, avoid Hunters and help the hunted. All this while trying to decipher the strategy that the Hunters constantly change. They somehow were always a step ahead of us, no matter how much we alter our plans.
The night air was chilly. Naida was wearing a fur robe with what looked like a cotton dress underneath. I was sure she wasn't going to get too cold. As for me, I wore a light, torn gown that exposed most of my stomach due to my assault the day before. Even my bones were cold.
Rustling noises jerked me out of my self-pitying thoughts. I waited for one of my comrades to appear. No other person would able to come through. Naida had come through with me, while I was carrying her. The magic must've allowed her through.
Kostas appeared with a face of contained horror. He tried not to let his fear show as Tsuchi emerged with someone in his arms. It was a woman and she was badly injured.
Her blonde was died red from a huge gash on the top of her head. They were cuts everywhere on her. Everywhere there was blood; it dripped onto Tsuchi's hands. It stained her dress. I was so glad that Naida was asleep so she didn't have to see such a sight.
"Blame your husband-to-be for this bloody masterpiece," Tsuchi growled. He laid the woman down right in front of me. She groaned dully, as if it hurt to even cry out in pain.
Naida stirred slightly and I instantly shushed her soothingly. She tightened in on herself before falling back to sleep. Kostas looked at me questioningly. I told him, "She is Naida of the Mountain. She needed protection."
"This woman, Taena, was attacked by one of the Hunters. Again, you can thank your husband-to-be for that."
It was the second time he said that. I was ready to boil over with anger. It wasn't my fault that he was the King of the Jungle. It wasn't my fault he had to organize the event. I didn't say anything, just glared as icily as I could.
Tsuchi looked at the woman whose name was Taena. He examined her wounds. She was barely able to comprehend his, or any type of, presence. "I don't think my green magic will be able to heal this all. This damage can only be cured by either black or white magic."
"There's no hunted person who's from the Arctic Kingdom. White magic is out of the question. And black magic… do we really want Taena to go through even more unbearable pain?" Kostas said.
"If we want her to survive, then yes," I exclaimed suddenly. "She's going to die if we delay this any longer."
Without another word, I lifted Naida off of my lap. Kostas instantly took her from my arms. She woke for a moment and whimpered. The blonde boy soothed her surprisingly well and she fell back asleep.
I sighed heavily and positioned myself so my hands hovered over her heart. I imagined a large lake of thick, black liquid. It hung over us as if it was the sky, defying gravity. A stream weaved its way through the air down to me. It was as if I was being drenched in the gross liquid. It suffocated me and obscured my vision. Still, I only concentrated on that black magic.
It channelled through me into my hands. It looked as if it dripped onto Taena like molasses on deserts. As soon as the magic came into contact with her, she screamed. I could hear the commotion of the others. Tsuchi growled, wanting to help her but knowing he can't. Kostas tried to calm down as Naida watched the horrid scene.
I tried my hardest to concentrate on the black magic. Heal her. I demand it. Heal her. Make her suffering go away. Heal each cut. Sew the skin back together with black needles. Clog the bleeding and refill her with much needed black blood. Heal her.
Her screams intensified as the black magic surrounded her. She begged me to stop it but I knew I couldn't. If I did, she'd die of blood loss and black magic poisoning. Black magic needs to do its job in order for it to disappear and in order for it to do its job, it needs a constant flow. If suddenly the source, which would be me, was cut off, the black magic would burn and poison whatever it was sitting on, which would be Taena.
Suddenly, her screams started dying down. Her breathing became less erratic. It followed a regular pattern. In. Out. In. Out. In. Out.
All her cuts were healed and there were no traces of blood on her. That's when I finally decided to stop conjuring the black magic. It retracted away from me and retreated into the blanket of magic that was above us.
Taena was put into a deep sleep. They were horrible scars of her cuts. But they weren't scars, per se. It was as if the black magic had actually sewn the cuts closed. What appeared to be black thread made a criss-cross pattern over the fading scars of the cuts. I sighed. The scars would eventually go away but the black magic thread would not. She'd be left to live with those her entire life. That is, if she survives the Hunt.
As soon as I sat back down at the base of the trunk, Naida wiggled her way out of Kostas' grip and into my embrace. "M-Milana, that was so scary. She was so bloody. So bloody…" she trailed off into incoherent muttering.
"Which one of those Hunters did that to Taena?" I decided to ask, since the young girl was in her own world, muttering gibberish. Tsuchi scoffed and found a moist patch of dirt beside the trees.
"He had these kinds of tattoos on his arms. None of the Hunters show their face but I'm certain of who it is," he told me as he began drawing. At first, I couldn't decipher the image. It looked like a bunch of thick lines. But as he drew more, the clearer it became. Kostas cursed under his breath when the dark-skinned man finished.
It was a wolf. It looked as if it were running right towards me with the way Tsuchi drew it. Terror struck through me as the familiarity of the wolf dawned on me. They were his tattoos.
Aki was a Hunter.