JouKa simply panicked and fled.
She wasn’t the kind of girl that spooked easily. She spent countless nights on her own in forests and in dangerous lands. But something about the dark, coldness of his eyes, the pure hatred he bore towards KoGuRai, just the force of his will alone. It was almost unnatural.
So she had ran. Her only thought was to put as much distance between her and TsuYa. Until the fear wore off, and then JouKa realized what she had done.
I swore I was ‘eadin’ back ta the camp. This was the only way back down that rock.
As her feet carried her forward, she saw no sign of safety. No firelight. No bedrolls. Even the arrogant white She Wolf was welcome at that moment. There was nothing but the darkness and sound of the night forest pressing down around her.
I don’t believe this. I’ve never gotten lost in my life.
After wandering for a whlie, night exhaustion began to set in. JouKa decided it was probably better to keep still rather than to move deeper into the dark forest, and just hope that the others would search for her.
Sitting under the canopy of a tall leaning tree, her thoughts brushed over the exchange with TsuYa. It was hard to separate her sudden fear from the event. Even her thoughts were too tired to hold themselves up any longer. JouKa fell into a restless, troubled sleep, nestled in the depths of the unknown forest.
She didn’t know how long she slept. She drifted in and out of dreams and haze all throughout the night. When she woke, the first sensation was that it was terribly hard to breathe.
Squirming, JouKa attempted to sit up. She found herself confined by something wrapped around her body – something heavy, thick and smooth. On instinct, her hands reached for her crooked blades, and found them, with some relief, still in their sheaths at her side. With a quick, jerking motion, she drew the dagger and slashed straight across the bulk that lay across her chest.
Much to her surprise and horror, she heard a nasty, reptilian screech as the bulk constricted and began to crush her. A long, wicked-pointed snout curled down towards her, two dead, black eyes burning a glare into her skull. JouKa had never seen a creature so terrible before – all long, slender body without limbs. The forked tongue shot in and out from between scaly lips, tasting the air with a low hiss.
No! I’ve got to… get… out of… this…
JouKa tried to lash at the monster again, but her movement was far too restricted to do damage. Her breathing came in hoarse rasps as she felt the lower part of her body start to tingle from loss of blood flow. The creature’s hooded head loomed over her, watching her with no sense of concern, as if it enjoyed the torture of watching her slowly suffocate within its powerful coils.
She tried to kick. She tried to squirm. Her hands fell useless at her sides, blade lost somewhere within the pressing body of the beast. Though she was hardly the girl-in-distress type, all that was left to her was the little bit of air and her voice. So she used it.
JouKa screamed. Hollered as long as her air could keep her. Shouted for help. Shouted for anyone. Even being rescued by TsuYa, as embarrassing as it would be, was preferred to dying alone, crushed to death by some creature in the forest.
I’m not ready to die yet! Come on! Where’s the backup?
She was losing air fast, black spots playing in front of her vision. Then, there came a point where she cursed the world for failing her again. That was exactly when things completely turned around.
Something huge and fast sped out of the forest, bearing down on the coiling monster. As fuzzy as the world was, it was terribly hard to see what was going on. JouKa could feel the relief instantly as the beast released her from its grip. Struggling to get her wits together, she pushed herself up and back, hand scrabbling for her blade.
Animal sounds echoed through the glade, hissing and screeing. In the middle of it all, came a voice that was thankfully personlike.
“Hey! What are you doing away from the village? Didn’t we tell you it was dangerous out here during–” the voice paused for a long moment. She could feel someone leaning down over her. “Wow… you’re… not from around here, are you?”
And that was the last thing that JouKa heard before darkness rose to take her.
For a while, all she knew was sleep. This time, the sleep was deep, quiet and restful. When her eyes fluttered open, there was nothing heavy and choking around her body. There was, instead, a soft blanket stretched over her, made of light animal skin.
JouKa lifted her head and pushed herself to sit up slowly. It seemed to be mid-day, from the slant of the light through the forest canopy around her. She was sitting in a circular clearing. Along the borders stood a number of short wooden totems planted in the ground. Each plumed a long stack of smoke that wavered to the sky. The air smelt strange from whatever the totem was burning.
The sound of heavy sniffing drew her attention. As JouKa’s eyes focused, she could make out a large and furry head, the color of deep earth. Curious dark eyes peered out at her, a droll and almost friendly expression as the two large, tufted ears perked forward.
She attempted to get to her feet, startling as the giant creature shifted. Then, to her relief, it went back to nibbling on overhanging leaves from the tree above.
“What… in tha Seven Universes are you?” JouKa’s voice was hoarse as the question came from between her lips.
“Don’t worry,” came an answer from somewhere along the forest border. “Drok ain’t gonna hurt you none, girl.”
She turned her head again, this time, squinting into the brushline. Finally, after a short time, she could see him. A man, lounging idly along a branch of one of the nearby trees. He was a strange man, far bigger than the people of the Inner realm. His hair was short and wild, the color of crimson autumn leaves. His skin was bronzed by time spent out in the sun, exposed by the open vest that draped across his broad shoulders. His eyes were a deep blue-violet and watched her with the same curiosity that she did him.
“So,” he said after a while of looking. “We speak similar words. That’s good to know. I was afraid you’d be talking the language of the angels, and I wouldn’t be able to understand your pretty voice.”
“Hrumph,” JouKa gave him a slight frown, folding her wings against her back self-consciously. It wasn’t until then that she realized what she probably looked like to him – white haired, white winged.
Just like a guy, to open up with a line before he even tells me his name.
He only smiled all the more, leaning back as if to showcase the way the light moved over his bare arms. “You’re a toughie, aren’t you? I can tell. You don’t like being the rescued girl.”
“I don’t,” she replied curtly. After a moment’s pause, she continued, “But your help was appreciated.”
“You’re welcome,” the red-haired man nodded. Then, as if reading her previous train of thought, offered, “The name’s Oren Bhear. What about you?”
She glanced up at him, then back down again, debating. Finally, she answered, “My name is JouKa.”
“Oooh,” his mouth turned into a little “o” shape. “Even your name sounds like music.”
JouKa internally groaned. He was one of those.
“Are you hungry, JouKa?”
“No. But thank you,” she answered, realizing how hungry she actually was.
“The neidr didn’t do any lasting damage to your pretty face, did it?” Oren asked, actually seeming concerned.
“I’m fine,” JouKa shook her head. Walls up. That’s just the way it had to be. “So… that thing is called a…”
“Neidr,” he supplied with a flip of one hand. “Yeah. Nasty beasts. They’re all over at this time of year.”
“What about that?” she asked, indicating the strange furry creature that remained lounging idly just on the other side of the totems.
“Oh? Drok? Well, he’s my partner. We’re neidr-hunting machines,” Oren winked.
For the first time, JouKa realized there was something strapped around the creature’s head that reminded her of a leather bridle that riders used for Rhawn. “Wait, are you saying that you ride that thing?”
Drok gave a keening, sad sound. Ears flattened, he showed his disapproval of being lowered to the status of “thing.”
“Aww… aww.. now look there, Miss. You’ve hurt his feelings. And after he made such a glorious rescue for you, too,” the man gave her a stern eye. “As a matter of fact, you’ve done nothing but had a rather uppity tone with the both of us this whole time. We may hunt neidr for a living, but that doesn’t mean we don’t put our lives on the line, too.”
JouKa frowned, looking slightly abashed.
Maybe I ‘ave been a little too ungrateful. I guess they did save my life. And they’re not really askin’ for much in return.
“I’m sorry,” she finally said in a quiet tone. “It’s just been a rough night. I don’t mean to take it out on you or your… uh… Drok.”
Oren smiled, as if rewarded amply. JouKa wasn’t sure that she liked it, but she figured he deserved something for the trouble.
“So, what’s an angel like you doing out here in the forest?” he finally asked, pulling out a short, white-wood stick and a knife. With long, straight strokes of his blade, he began to whittle at the wood with an expert hand.
She watched him for a moment, weighing the options of her answers. “I got separated from my companions. I was looking for them and fell asleep under that tree.”
“Your companions?” Oren arched one eyebrow.
“Yes, you didn’t happen to see anyone else out here, did you?”
“Now that you mention it, nope,” he shook his head with a purse of his lips.
JouKa sighed for a moment. As her thoughts ranged back over what had happened with TsuYa at the rock outcropping, all the awful things he said about KoGuRai, and the deep grief she felt about the whole situation, she wasn’t so sure she wanted to see him again anytime soon.
“Unless you count the other winged thing we found a few nights back,” Oren added with a blink. “Though, it didn’t look much like you at all.”
“Other… winged thing?” she found herself echoing, green eyes flicking upwards.
“Yeah. Some kind of creature. All grey skinned, black oozing stuff coming out of it. It had big black wings, though. Kinda like yours. Just not nearly as pretty,” he nodded, taking a few more slices at the stick.
KoGuRai? They… found… KoGu?
“What ‘appened to this winged creature?” JouKa sat up straight, trying to hide her urgency.
“Last I heard, they captured it and had it locked away at the village,” Oren answered. Pausing, he glanced down at her with a furrowed brow. “Do you know something about it?”
“I might,” she winced a little, afraid to tell the whole truth.
“I see. Well,” he leaned back again, “Are you interested in seeing it? It might give us some information about what we should do with it.”
“Actually, I’d really like that,” JouKa swallowed.