Soft, four-toed paw-feet run across the grass underneath them, making soft puffs of sound and moving swiftly through the forest. She hops over a log and dives behind a tree, stopping for a breather, then leans against it and throws her head back, looking up through the forest canopy at thin rays of sunlight pouring down. A fly lands on her large and triangular-shaped ear, riding higher on her head than a humans'. She flicks it off idly by flapping her ear and tries to steady her breathing, while also flicking and then relaxing her tail, which resembles a squirrel's at the moment.
Her whole body's covered with long and silky dark amber fur, streaked in places with a mixture of simple slashes and decorative curls of black stripes. Her long, wavy, and raven black hair flows gracefully down her back, going all the way past her waist, almost but not quite concealing the point where her tail begins...though at the moment some hangs in her face and is covered with twigs and leaves. She brushes it out of her eyes, running her hand over a short series of knobby protrusions to both sides of her forehead; they stretch backwards at angles, beginning at her hairline and above her eyes, revealing small ivory orbs above her skin -- four in all, cutting her hairline into a widow's peak.
She brushes her tail against her feet and shuffles her right foot nervously, then turns her head sideways, thinking that she hears something. She listens for a moment longer and she hears it again: the faint sound of men talking and sneaking through underbrush. In a few minutes, they could be where she is.
Slowly she bends down and goes on all fours, then crawls forwards to a bush where she can hopefully find a hiding place. The men come closer and finally emerge into the open, looking alert and steadying their readied bows. She peers out at them from inside her shallow gully, peeking through a screen of leaves and twigs. One of them -- their leader -- scans the area, sweeping by her spot with his eyes. Her heart skips a beat and she holds her breath, but he goes right over her place and keeps looking. She lets her breath out slowly, relieved, and blinks, but she freezes in place when he looks back over to her and just...stares.
For a moment she can almost just see an arrow fly from his bow and pierce her, but all he does is walk forwards. Her heart doubles its already fast pace and her skin goes cold. She glances from side to side quickly, frantically looking for a way out. Meanwhile all her movement does is raise his suspicion, and he responds by moving faster and raising his weapon. He gets closer and closer to the bush, and when he finally comes upon it he thrusts his bow in and fires a shot, grinning savagely.
All he hits is dirt. Ahead of him, a flash of amber bursts out from the underbrush and breaks straight for a tree, running a curved line to hopefully avoid being shot. Although one of his men's already seen her and sounded an alert, he yells out anyway, "Over here! She's over here!"
He leaps out over the brush and rushes after her, joining his four men in their chase. One by one they all shoot at her...but they all miss, although their leader's arrow comes within centimeters of her neck. She keeps going and flashes by a small tree, knocking its branches on her way by. Behind her, they continue pursuit and ready a second volley as she leaps onto a tree trunk and starts frantically climbing.
"Fire!" He orders, and they all shoot at her...but miraculously, none of the arrows hit. Three glance from the trunk and fall harmlessly to the ground, while two embed in the trunk to each side of her.
"Again!" He grunts, and they all ready a third volley. As soon as they're ready, however, she gets to an upper branch and stands, and then runs across it amidst a hail of arrows. All but one miss, but the fifth -- the leader's, no less -- glances from her shoulder and bounces off to the ground. She taps a hand to her left shoulder quickly, but since there's no apparent damage, she brings it back around to steady herself in her leap across branches.
Her small, lightweight frame -- one hundred forty-seven centimeters and forty-five kilograms -- glides gracefully through the air and lands heavily on the thick branch opposite her. She steadies her balance quickly and continues on her way, running and hopping from branch to branch and tree to tree. They follow her movements beneath her, keeping pace with her movement and hopelessly firing an odd shot here and there at her. While running ahead of his pack, their leader looks forward and spots something that he can exploit: a fairly thin branch that she'll have to use to get to a better one. He quickly reaches into his quiver and removes an extra special arrow: one tipped with a small grenade. It's a Figaran weapon, and he's sure glad he thought to buy some on his way here.
He readies the arrow and aims, and then plants his feet to come to a skidding halt and fires just when her feet touch the branch. A loud explosion muffles her scream as the branch snaps and falls off underneath her feet, and she plummets eight meters to the ground. She would be dead if not for the thickly foliaged branches that she hits on her way down: six in all. Finally she lands on the grass and lies there, stunned and exhausted. She moans quietly as they rush over to her, arrows ready.
A sudden rush of adrenaline and awareness wake her up, however, and she whips herself over on all fours and looks at them run towards her. Quickly she hops to her feet and dashes between a few small, close-in trees. Becoming more frantic and desperate by the minute, she screams back at them in her native tongue, though to them it's nothing more than random babbling.
"Mikay yila utash ishay! Nisha yul! Mikay yila!" She pleas, meaning, 'You can't hunt people! It's wrong! You can't!'
She stumbles over a dirt mound and ends up turned around, breathless and visibly shaken. Another round of arrows flashes by her, but this time she isn't so lucky: One pierces her left shoulder, while another goes straight through her abdomen; fortunately none of them hit anything vital.
She stumbles backwards, gripping the one in her stomach while yet another volley flashes by her, missing entirely. One more step and she slips backwards, rolling down a small slope into very thick underbrush.
They rush up to the ledge and look down for a while, searching for any sign of her; then their leader orders two teams of two each to fan out to the sides while he takes the center alone. He scans the area for a moment while they rush off, then he prepares to step down when a large Mantodea suddenly bursts from the trees and rushes him. Acting on instinct and reflexes alone, he aims and fires an arrow straight for its head.
She lies on the ground, drifting somewhere between consciousness and sleep...her legs are splayed out, with her left arm over her stomach and her right arm curved at an L-shape to her side. Her eyes are cracked very slightly open, but are glazed over, watching dreamlike images pass by instead of clouds.
"Be careful during the day," Says her grandfather. "It's not safe. Travel at night."
She remembers all the childhood stories about her people wandering into the forest and disappearing. Sure, there'd always been the threat of deadly monsters attacking them, but so far monster attacks had accounted for very few deaths among her people. There was always something else to it, something much more foreboding and dangerous...she knows now what it is. During her younger years, she'd always thought that those tales were just stories to scare children, to keep them in line. She used to tell herself that they couldn't be true. She'd never seen anyone just disappear on her.
Now she wishes she were right. It's funny how even through all that's happening to her, it stills feels so alien...so distant. It felt like a dream when the first arrows came for her, and it still feels like a dream. Lying there in the dirt, shock begins to take affect and she denies that any of this is real.
"Nisha hal ni jen...nisha hal ni jen...nisha hal ni jen...hal ni jen..." She repeats over and over. 'It's just a dream...it's just a dream...'
A branch cracks nearby. She turns her head slowly, very tiredly to look in that direction, eyes still half-closed and lips still speaking the same thing in loops. She feels like sleeping, but something in the back of her head keeps her awake...a primal instinct for survival and a charge of adrenaline, fueled by fear. Her breath and heartbeat speed up.
"Nisha hal ni jen...nisha...hal...
'Who's there?' She whispers faintly.
Blood drips from a fresh wound on his chest to the ground. Carefully he moves forward, eyes peering through every crevice and crack in the grass for signs of his prey. Some movement catches his eye, but he stops himself just short of shooting it when he realizes that it's just a small forest rodent. He sighs slowly and moves forward again, when suddenly he picks up a faint sound...almost like someone talking. He stops and stares in its direction for a moment...then grins and changes direction to go for the sound.
As he draws nearer he can start hearing the sounds coming together...but not being able to understand them, he dismisses it as babbling. He finally localizes her voice and prepares to fire...but she smells him first. His arrow hits dirt, but her shoulder finds his stomach just fine. She plows straight into him, tackling him to the ground before he can react. She scrambles to her feet and takes off running, just barely avoiding a swipe at her feet by his knife.
"Here! Over here!" He yells.
His men shout back at him from far away and head back towards his voice, while she dashes farther into thicker brush to hide. He manages to get back on his feet quickly and chases after her, arming his bow mid-run and growling.
She finally comes to a stop behind a tree, leaning on it heavily. She breathes so deeply that she almost speaks with every exhale, and her head's spinning so badly from fatigue that she has a very hard time concentrating, let alone standing up. Her legs are wobbling and shivering, and the effect's quickly spreading throughout her body. She feels like she's cold, every muscle under her skin beginning to quake and tremble.
Hardly thinking about it, she grips the arrow through her stomach, and then looks down once she realizes what she's doing. She stares for a moment, considering, then grasps it with both hands and twists, snapping the shaft off. She gasps sharply and groans, but then grits her teeth and reaches up with her tail, closing her two spines together and grasping the arrow's head sticking from her back. She pulls hard and the head gives, sliding straight out from her lower back. She groans again and breathes heavier, then reaches up for the one sticking from her shoulder, again with her tail. Another twist and pull later and the head snaps off, allowing her to then pull the shaft out.
She holds the bloodied thing in her right hand, staring at it, then tosses it away and slumps to the ground, crouching down with the tree for support. The relief of not having anything stuck inside of her anymore is enormous. She tries to catch her breath, listening to them yell to each other and crash through the brush, getting closer. She shuts her eyes and just sits there, listening and waiting. For a minute, she seriously considers giving herself up and letting the inevitable come...but when she hears a branch snapping and a man crossing over a nearby fallen log, she knows she can't do that.
She springs to her feet quickly, gasping as pain shoots through her body. The man starts pushing his way through some thick foliage to her right, and now she can smell him. She glances around herself quickly, then grits her teeth and dashes off in a seemingly suicidal direction: right in between two of the men drawing close.
Bushes flash by her face as she breaks out at full speed, not even caring how much her wounds ache or the branches hurt when they slap her. Both men realize quickly what's happening and start closing towards each other, hoping to cut her off. Another twenty meters...fifteen meters...ten meters...they set their arrows...five meters...
She bursts through a small clearing and leaps at a tree trunk just when two arrows fly out from behind her and strike below her feet. She scrambles up the trunk and manages to reach a thick enough branch to stand on before they can react. Just as before, she rushes out from branch to branch, making quick progress against the men on foot.
But their leader isn't stopped that easily. He keeps an inhuman pace beside her on the forest floor, constantly trying to get a clear shot in with another grenade arrow. It seems for a time that she might be able to lose them after all, and she grins happily to herself for the first time in a while as she flies through the air for another branch.
She lands hard and the branch snaps, dropping her to the ground again. She starts screaming as she falls head first, watching the ground rush up to meet her and the branch plummet ahead of her. She passes a branch on the way down and stretches out her tail's two spines as wide as they can go, then catches herself on it, halting her long fall...albeit roughly. In this position her tail patterns on both sides are clearly exposed: very elaborate swirls and symbols of black fur on both sides, with a lighter shade of base fur on the bottom side. She dangles for a second before realizing that hanging here like this, she's just a sitting target. The leader rushes up beneath her then and returns his grenade arrow to his quiver in favor of a standard one, a wide smile on his face. She looks down and lines herself up, then lets go just when he starts setting the arrow.
She lands right on top of him -- hard -- using him as a human cushion. She tries to crawl away but he rolls over and grasps her left ankle with an iron grip, refusing to let go. He pulls his knife out with his other hand and starts crawling towards her while she tries to scramble away, intending to mount her and drive it straight into her heart. She flips around, however, and shoves him off of her with her other foot, tossing him neatly onto his back.
She scurries to her feet again and stumbles backwards, her eyes wide and mouth open...clearly afraid for her life. She stares back at his angry face, backing up against a tree while he stalks slowly forwards. Then an idea strikes her and she tries pleading with him. "Jila shuk eni...eni yajila ji nol e mikay! Inali jila shuk eni...eni hal run e mi shov..."
'Don't kill me...I didn't do anything to you! Please don't kill me...I just want to go home...' But of course, he doesn't understand. He cocks his head sideways at her, then grins savagely again and rushes at her with a loud grunt. 'There, he fell for it,' She thinks. She ducks low and steps forward at the last moment, then as he comes past her she grips his ankle with her tail and lifts up, tossing him into a high somersault.
He collapses roughly on the ground, then grunts and whips himself over in time to see her disappear into the brush again. "Sonuva!"
She dashes through the woods again, this time dropping into a shallow gully where she can run unhindered. She runs for what seems like forever, finally stopping to rest in a small alcove hidden at a tree's base.
"Hey Manny, why don't we just find another one?" One of his men asks.
"No," Comes his swift and curt reply.
"C'mon, we've been chasing her for at least four hours and we haven't got her yet!" He argues.
"No," He says louder, then faces and walks over to him. "You saw her fur, the patterns? And her ivory? She's worth more than four of 'em put together."
"Then why don't we get four others, instead of this one?" He asks.
"Yeah, we should've had her by now. We could've gotten two or three by this time," Another adds.
"Owzer would rather have this one than ten of lesser value," Manny replies.
The third man scoffs and turns partially away, then swings his torso back around and says, "Well, Owzer can come out here and hunt her his own self; we've been at this for too long with nothing to show for it!"
Manny glances over at him stiffly, then marches over and grabs him by the collar. "Now you listen to me: I'm the leader on this hunt and we don't go home until we catch this little minx! You got that?"
He looks back at him and answers gruffly, "Yeahhh...I got that...sir."
Manny glares at him, then shoves him backwards when he releases him. "Good enough, wisea--"
"Hey! I got tracks!" The fourth hunter cut him off at 'enough', pointing out his discovery.
Manny immediately hurries over, taking out his bow. "Where?"
When he gets close enough to see, he points his finger downwards. "There, leading into that gully."
"All right, let's move!" Manny orders. They all obey and fan out to make pursuit.
She pushes a branch aside, carefully peering into the space beyond. Seeing and hearing no one, she steps cautiously out and sneaks through the small clearing. The late afternoon sun casts rays of sunlight downwards at an angle, cut in places by leaves and branches before finally falling upon her fur, now dirty and disheveled from five hours of running and rolling. She stalks across and makes it to the other side without incident, but all around her a plan's taking shape. Manny sends some of his men ahead to intercept her, taking up paths running down some rolling terrain to her right and low ditches to her left, while coming up behind her himself.
He moves silently amongst some brush, brandishing his knife threateningly and licking his lips, imagining the kill vividly. Never before has any one prey been so hard to catch, and while he hopes that his men will cut her off and be able to finish the job, he privately wishes to be the one to take her down. For him, this has gotten personal.
Ahead of him, she moves stealthily through a gap and leans against a tree, listening for movement. She waits patiently for a few seconds before picking up a soft scuffling sound to her left. She'd been right: she guessed it wouldn't take them long to catch up, even if she ran. Moments ago she'd made a decision, and she's going to stick by it: she's going to stand her ground and try to break out.
She crouches down under a bed of thick brush and listens...finally one of the hunters emerges nearby and crosses by her. Just a little bit more and she can...yes...he passes by, allowing her to stand up and stalk him. He looks around at the trees, completely oblivious to her until she grabs him from behind and knocks him out with a skillful blow to the back of his head. One down.
A short distance away a second hunter lurks in a low creek bed, advancing slowly and listening for sounds. As attuned as his hearing is, it's not as good as hers, and she manages to sneak up beside and behind him. She follows him for a moment, almost amusedly watching as he just keeps walking ahead of her...but there isn't any time for fun. She reaches out with her tail and trips him easily, then quickly mounts his back and knocks him out before he can do anything. Two down.
Across the forest, a third hunter sits down to rest on a rock, taking out a small packet of food to nibble on. He takes a bite and looks around at the trees, but is quickly yanked from his perch and falls backwards. Moments later, he's gagged and bound to a tree base. Three down.
Manny comes up on her position by now. He stops to listen and feel out the area, and while he hears and sees nothing for a minute, he can just feel that she's somewhere nearby. He rises slowly to move forward, not noticing the tail reaching out to grab his feet...not right away, anyway. He hops up with a start and twirls around, where he sees a ball of fur flying towards him, tackling him to the ground. His knife flies from his hand, but he doesn't care...he simply takes to punching at her with his fists from beneath her, who avoids what jabs she can and claws at him with her nails, which are exposed from their sheaths in her fingers again.
She then reels back for an extra large punch, giving him time to reach up with his foot and shove her off. Her small body goes flying away and lands hard on her back, while he reaches over and reclaims his knife. He charges at her immediately, but she rolls to the side and grabs his leg with her tail, pulling up and flipping him just like before, only this time he flies higher and does a double back flip that ends with his back meeting dirt...and hard.
She breaks away and dashes through the woods again while he rolls around moaning, hoping to gain distance and a better ambush point. She runs on and shoves aside a bush, and slams right into the chest of the fifth hunter. Her ears droop low and she looks up at him slowly with large, newly frightened eyes and an opened mouth.
Then the sound of metal sliding through flesh comes as he pushes his knife into her chest. She stands up for a moment longer, her whole body quivering, before her legs give way and she collapses onto her back, the knife removing itself as she falls. He stares down at her for a very long time, looking at her body sprawled out as it is: left arm on her stomach, right arm straightened out along her side with her palm up, legs twisted to her right and closed. All he can think of is that she looks so peaceful lying there.
Ikiiri's face doesn't show fear anymore...just calm.