The sharp scent of pine a stab through her nostrils, Niobe kept her eyes on her target as she wound her way through the trees. Uneven ground lent itself poor to graceful movement, but Niobe had the uncanny knack of keeping her shoulders level even as her feet crept across the fallen logs and moss-covered rocks beneath the underbrush.
There, only twenty paces ahead and to the right was the soticheij, the monster that once was a man. Back to her, his antlers outlined an undulation as his head swayed. With a deep breath, almost a sigh, he pawed the ground with his forelimbs, thickened and lengthened to support his weight in quadrupedal movement. He could no longer stand upright, his back having hunched at the centre, his legs having contorted to a shape like that of a dog’s. Everything about his massive body suggested strength, a ponderous strength Niobe had already seen fell trees and break a knight’s ribs.
The aish of a moose, judging by the antlers. That’s what she would have called it, back when… but no one talked about that anymore. Or, at least, no one acted on it. This man had been merely unlucky and gotten trapped in an eseteij long enough for the storm’s magic to twist both bone and humanity. Still, the bodies of usual soticheij were more chaotic. His had a focus to it, enough that it rested on the line between what it should be and what it must never be. It gave rise to old memories Niobe would rather not think of.
She raised her pistol.
Where were the other knights? They had separated to surround the brute, but none had given the signal that they had arrived at their position. She sent the magic upwards and it caught in a tree, releasing the back and forth of jays before dissipating. No response yet.
No matter how many times she went on hunts like this, Niobe wondered what kind of people soticheijo had been before they’d changed. Common knowledge held that nothing remained of their former selves. If only. Niobe had known people who sought this change, and it had only amplified everything they already were and wanted to be.
Its antlers finished their undulation, the soticheij drew back from the tree it had pawed at. A large cedar, almost dead, and no wonder with the hollow in its trunk the soticheij had just uncovered. There was something inside. Niobe couldn’t make out what it was.
A chickadee’s call rang out, one dee, with an odd lift of pitch at the end. One of the other knights had called an alert. She responded with a chipmunk’s chatter from about five paces behind. The chickadee came again, five dees this time, accompanied by the squawk of jays. Immediate danger, come to aid.
Niobe shifted her weight to help, but she caught sight of what was in the tree. A child. As the other knights signalled that they would go to the one in distress, Niobe drew her sword and approached her quarry.
With its thick hands, the soticheij picked up the child, who hung limp in the monster’s grip. Not dead, Niobe didn’t think, but unconscious. She crouched behind a stunted dogwood. Only eight paces away now.
The child opened its eyes. It cringed, but didn’t struggle. In a low, distorted voice, the soticheij spoke to the child. Though unintelligible, the cadence and sound of its words suggested to Niobe that she should understand it. She almost understood it. But it eluded her and she couldn’t see why. The child didn’t listen to its captor. Its eyes stared off at nothing, an expression Niobe recognized with a thud of her heart. This angered the soticheij, who yelled and slapped the child, drawing blood with jagged fingernails. Two of its words came into deadly focus:
All at once, the rest of what the soticheij said cleared like ripples giving way to still water. The language she had not heard since childhood…
“He chose you, as he chose me, and I will take you to him when it is safe. His call is an honour, an honour-”
Niobe shot him.
His roar filled the air as he dropped the child and turned to face the threat. The child only retreated into the hollow of the tree and curled up.
No one had said anything about a kidnapping. The soticheij had been spotted, too close and too wild to be ignored, and so the Royal Militia had come to dispatch it. But no one had been hurt yet. Or missing. Which meant the child must have been taken from another village, taken here as the soticheij took it with him. Took it to the Teeshlawat Fyareng.
She had shot him in the shoulder, which bled, but his hide was too tough for much more. More shots rang out too far away, the other knights in their battle. Niobe returned the pistol to its holster. Bullets wouldn’t help here.
The soticheij scanned the forest, nostrils flared and breath heavy. Stepping out from behind the dogwood, Niobe brandished her sword and made as if to approach. She would have, too, if not for the moment his eyes met hers and she knew him. It had been years, but she knew him. And, as those eyes of gold-scratched grey widened, she knew he saw past all that time, too.
“Aish of a grey lion,” he said. “Where are your claws?”