Wolf lifted the lid of the simmering pot and stirred gently. A puff of fragrant steam swirled around her and even pulled a rare smile onto her face. The pot contained a mixture of non-mute insects, leafy greens, and some centuries-old powdered soup mix. High in protein, more than palatable, and the spot she’d found to consume them was completely uninhabited. Of course, that could mean all the mutes in this area knew something she didn’t. But she’d be her own judge of danger. No relying on anyone else ever–not even inadvertently.
She’d scavenged some pretty good resources from the camp she’d found abandoned–a tent, some cookware, the aforementioned soup packets, and even matches. Not that she needed them. In the event she miraculously failed to start a fire with sticks alone, she was pretty sure that just bringing up memories of how her supposed family had betrayed her would conjure enough fury in her that she could just look at some kindling, and it would ignite under her glare. Even thinking about it now just…
Wolf gritted her teeth and hugged herself as the anger morphed into a deep sense of loss like it always did. No matter how many times she tried to push the memories away, they still reared back up at her. She wondered if she’d always be haunted by her younger self, the self that was stupid enough to believe mutes could be friends. Or family.
She took another bite of the stew she’d prepared and crunched down on a beetle with a nice juicy tang to it. Righteous anger ruined the taste of things.
When she’d eaten her fill–though not so much that it would slow her down in an emergency–Wolf covered the leftovers and watched until the fire under it became a cluster of low embers. Then, with her precious Stalky at her side, she laid down under the cape, the one that still smelled like her supposed mother, and fell asleep.
“No, no, no, NO!” Scarlemange slapped himself in the forehead. Fairly loudly. There was no possible way it didn’t hurt. “I. Don’t. Under. Stand!” he screeched as he waved to indicate the nearest female noble. She was a timid woman who shook whenever she drew his attention. “What is so complicated about this move?” Scarlemange demanded. He did a little spin and kick, seeming to forget once again that he and his nobles were different species, and ergo, any number of things–reach, flexibility, center of balance–could affect which dance maneuvers they could pull off and which they couldn’t. Ilsa couldn’t even count the number of humans (herself included) that he’d injured forcing them to perform routines that just weren’t physically possible for them.
“N-nothing is complicated, sire!” the noblewoman replied. “Your demonstration was very straightforward!”
Scarlemange grunted at her assertion. He was all in favor of people flattering him, but thinking he was being outright lied to never ended well for anybody. The sun had already set, and normally all the nobles would be in bed by now. But Scarlemange had a way of forgetting the time of day when he was on a tirade.
“You, you, and you!” he said, pointing to Francis, Isla, and a nobleman Isla sadly did not remember the name of. “Your form was exceptionally adequate. You’re dismissed for the evening. I have some…” He flashed a maniacal grin at the humans remaining. “…lessons to review with your under-performing peers.”
Isla shuddered at the word “lessons,” and even Francis in his fully-under-the-perfume-influence looked a bit on edge.
“I’m…sure the others will pick it up soon,” he said once they were out of earshot. “Perhaps it’s something vital to subduing other humans?”
Isla nodded absently. She got the sense Francis had always been an optimist, even before Scarlemange had taken his full autonomy away from him. It actually grated on her. Every time she looked at the man, she felt guilty for being the cause of his capture. If he could just get good and angry at her about it, her guilt might be appeased.
“Good night, Francis,” she said simply and picked up her pace to the women’s quarters. A quick glance back showed her Francis frowning, looking both confused and hurt at her quick dismissal. Guilt, guilt, and more guilt. But she needed her rest. Tomorrow, Scarlemange had her assigned to scouting duty. And she knew exactly which area she was going to explore. Those footprints she’d seen before the flamingos descended on her and Frank…another human had been in the area. Isla wasn’t letting recent history repeat itself. This time, she’d warn, scare, threaten–whatever she had to do to get the human to leave as quickly as possible.
Oo, goodie, said Wren, sending Isla a mental image of a mute eyeroll. Then you can fail at playing the hero again and feel guilty about something completely different!
There were times Isla really wished she could reach into her own head and punch Wren in the face.
Someone was watching her. Wolf could feel it. She’d decided to spend the bulk of the next day in the same abandoned camp. After all, if she’d found one stash of supplies here, there was a decent chance with some exploring she’d find more. But a jog in a slowly enlarging circle around the main camp hadn’t yielded any prizes–only the distinct sense she wasn’t the only one out here.
If it was a large (or even not-so-large) group of mutes, Wolf would have run immediately. But every time she caught a glimmer of movement behind a rock or bush, the figure looked the same. Someone was aiming to steal from her. Someone who was alone. And she didn’t take that lightly. She gripped Stalky, using the non-deathstalker end to move some of the campfire wood back into the heart of the flame. She kept her gaze forward but stayed alert to the corners of her vision. When the flickers of movement from the figure came close enough, Wolf pushed herself backwards, thrusting her weapon behind her. The figure gasped and jumped away, just barely escaping a nasty dose of poison. An impressive move, but now she was standing out in the open with no cover, nowhere to run, and as far as Wolf could see, she was weaponless.
Wolf pointed the business end of Stalky at the newcomer and looked her up and down. She was dressed in the most ridiculous outfit Wolf had ever seen. Was this what those weird mole people wore? Wolf had never met a mole person, but living underground 24/7 was the only explanation she could think of for why someone would be think wearing a frilly, bright-red uniform was a good idea. Why didn’t this weirdo lady just write “eat me” on the back of the jacket to save time?
“What are you doing in my camp?” Wolf demanded. “Get out!”
The red-clad woman raised her hands in defense. Something rested on top of her head. It looked like a wooden mask, but with spaces for the eyes only. Creepy. “I’m here to warn you,” the woman said. “This place isn’t safe. You need to leave.”
Wolf spat off to the side. “Yeah, right. You think no one’s tried to pull that one on me before? If it’s so dangerous, why don’t you leave?” She twirled Stalky around in an impressive display of finesse before planting it into the ground, still with a strong grip to get it back into fighting position at a moment’s notice.
“I–wish I could,” the newcomer said. “But I can’t.”
Wolf raised an eyebrow. There was a new excuse. Or at least, the sad, longing tone that came with it was new. “What’s the matter? Got a kid to feed or something?” Not that Wolf had any intention of sharing her stash, but she could at least sympathize with someone desperate to take care of family.
The newcomer shook her head. “Not exactly.” She tapped the wooden mask. “There’s a mute around here that’s very powerful. He can control humans. Compel them to do whatever he wants. I’m not under his control at the moment, but he can track me. I saw your footprints before. So I came here to warn you to get away as fast as possible.”
Wolf stood still, unsure whether to take the newcomer’s word and set to running or laugh in her face. No one had ever tried to pull…whatever this lady was trying to pull on her…before. It was ridiculous enough to be insane.
“You’re hiding something,” she said. “Or you’re just crazy. I don’t know which. Either way, I’m not going anywhere until I’ve used up enough supplies to carry the rest lightly. This is too good a stash to pass up.” She made a mock-wave. “Thanks for your supposed ‘warning,’ though.”
Isla had never been so insulted in her life. And she spent a regular part of each day being berated and insulted. But here she was, trying to help save this girl who clearly didn’t understand anything, and rather than thanks, all she got her challenges to her sincerity.
Oh, you’re angry, Wren thought. That’s a much different taste than your usual thoughts! I like it!
“Shut up,” Isla muttered.
The girl with the deathstalker tail pointed it even closer. “What’d you say, mask-face?”
“Mask-face”? Okay, that’s it! Isla’s fists tightened. “I wasn’t talking to–you know what? I don’t even care. Do whatever you like, you…you…paranoia person!” Insults had never been Isla’s strong suit. She waved her hand dismissively and turned to walk away. If the girl wanted to risk her neck out here despite all of Isla’s clear warnings, she wasn’t going to feel guilty about that.
The “paranoia” girl chuckled. A bit loudly, actually. Isla turned to see that despite advancing several steps, the girl was no further away from her.
“Are you following me?” Isla demanded. “Why?”
“Maybe I’m after more food,” Paranoia Girl said with a shrug. “You knew this stash was here. So it’s not a bad bet that you know where others are, too.”
Isla huffed. “Uh-huh. Either that or you want to see if my story was one big, crazy lie or not.”
“It wouldn’t be a bad consultation prize.” She spun her weapon. “Look, if there’s a mute out there like you’ve told me, I want to know everything about it. Where it moves, how it thinks, if it talks–“
“Oh, he talks,” said Isla. “It’s waiting for him to stop talking that will try your patience.”
“Uh-huh. And what’s this mute call himself?”
Isla shuddered involuntarily, even as Wren also shuddered in her mind. “Scarlemagne. He calls himself Scarlemange.”