She wanted to take this moment in. She wanted to hold the sun forever in the sky and let its growing, morning light command the world to stop. She wanted to hear the communial yet disjointed breaths of those before her play like a set of pipes. She even longed to go barefoot so she could feel the soil beneath her feet and rub it with her toes. Yet a hand on her shoulder jarred her from fancy and into the the ever-changing stream of present. She did not bother to look up at the woman who had made contract with her; her touch had served its purpose. She inhaled deeply, then let out the breath in a soft sigh.
"It's..." she began, then stopped. Doubt pounced on her like a tiger. Her eyes fell on Aja, the shorter, more femine version of herself. Quickly Aurora tossed aside her gaze, blotting out the many nights she fell asleep to the sounds of her younger sister's snoring. Instead, Aurora threw her eyes on her parents who stood behind their youngest daughter, all three dressed in matching-patterened blue cloths. Mama's cloth wrapped around her entire round, tall body, while Papa's fastened itself around his waist. He had never seemed small prior to this moment, but she realized her father was a tiny man and if it were not for the beard that he sported, he'd easily be mistaken for a woman. For a moment, Aurora almost wished she had inherited his size as Aja had rather than the tall, bulky form of her mother. If she were smaller, she wouldn't be standing in front of her parents, wearing boots that concealed her feet, these pants that revealed too much of the structure of her legs, and her favorite sarong aroung her shoulders over a shirt. These clothes were unseemly, unwomanly, and unnaural, causing a thousand echoes of her mother's voice in her mind.
*It will be hard for you to get a man because of your size.*
Quickly her gaze redirected itself to Joshua, who stood out in this crowd as he always did with his limp hair and his light skin. Those features had endeared him to most of the girls in the region, yet the special smirk he held on his face reminded her of their special bond. She was undesirable but pitied and welcome; he was attractive but had to bear the stigma of illegitimacy. If she weren't leaving she would soon be married to him, despite her mother's claims of her unworthiness. Yet her heart broke at the idea of no longer feeling his forbidden lips across her face at night as a prelude to their nuptuals. All they could do now is lock eyes, separated not by the social mores, but the foolish choice she had made.
Aurora swallowed her regret, then opened her mouth to speak.
"Wait!" Aja called. She started to run up to Aurora, but Mama grabbed her with a loving but firm hand. "Promise me you'll write."
"I'd love to but I can't," Aurora answered. She ached to cross the distance between her and her family to hug them, but all of the physical goodbyes had been spoken. This was merely ceremonial.
"Besides, you can't read," Aurora added as a tease.
"But Daddy can," Aja responsed. She squeezed her juvenile face into a pout. "Please."
"Okay," Aurora lied. It would be better to satisfy her sister with an untruth than to have her make and even bigger scene. With these words Aja screamed in delight. Instantly, Mama, squatted and swatted her large hand across her daughter's posterior. A few murmurs of laughter escaped from the crowd, but Aja became quiet. Reproach has listed the aura of sadness from .
"Aurora," Papa called, seizing the break in protocol to "We took care of you as long as we could. Please take care of yourself."
"As you can see," Mama said. "by the time you get back, you'll have to take care of us."
She smiled in response, ignoring the tears welling up in her eyes. Her throat tightened with every passing second, refusing to her swallow. If she didn't speak now, she would lose her will completely. She closed her eyes, then touched the woman beside her. Aurora could not think of her as anything but a stranger at the moment, even though for the past few months, she had known her as intimately as a family member. Yet her physical presence intruded her mind, forcing in her heart a resolve had lost moments ago.
"It's time for me to embrace my destiny!" she shouted. "Goodbye."
With those words she and the woman beside her turned away from the crowd and began to walk away. Aurora didn't dare look back at the jubilant cheers that accompanied her depature. Tears had overflowed her eyes and now streamed down her face, blurring her vision to the point where she followed the shadow of her companion than walked on her own. She wondered how she was going to be a Hunter if she couldn't even say goodbye without crying.
The stone bricks of the wall rubbed across Aurora's posterior like a file, but she endured the discomfort. It was no worse than the aching of her knees from crouching too long, or the scratching of her head across the ceiling. She had no choice. The assailant would be coming after her in mere seconds, having finally traced her steps. She just had to be patient and endure the pain atop the bookshelf next to the entrance until he entered the room.
The creak of a door flung open preceded its thud against the wall, along with the heavy footfalls grew louder and echoed against the cavernous corridors. Interspersed with the pounding feet were breaths, far more heavy and labored than they should of been. He was out of shape, not having engaged in the regular business of chasing people. Aurora's eyes widened from the idea that this task would be easier than she previously suspected.
The man finally made his appearance that the sounds he made had foretold, a cowled, large figure dressed in gray. He ran into the room she was in through the archway, not even bothering to slow down. Instead, he ran into through the room and into the opposite archway, leaving only the stench of his scent and body odor to cover the room. Desperately, Aurora wanted to spit an imprecation. Her pursuer had been even more foolish than she had anticipated. He didn't even bother to see if she were in the room, and his motions indacted this was a hasty oversight rather than a ploy. Annoyed, she slid off the bookshelf, dropping down to the ground noiselessly. Her joints felt a wave of relief, and she stretched them to the tune of crackling bones.
Aurora crept alongside the wall, not daring to trust the open air of the space between the archway. She held her breath, and tried to shut out the noise of her own heartbeat. She heard no one, smelled nothing, not felt the warmth of a human body. She then stepped into the archway to find her the assailant.
Instantly, a rustle of cloth alerted her, and she leapt to the side. An arrow sliced through the air beside her ear, yet she dared not watch the projectile's path. Instead her eyes focused on the direction the arrow had come, and saw a woman. She tried to load the arrow into a crossbow and in a few seconds she would be ready to plunge an arrow to the unmissable target of Aurora's advancing form. Yet in those few seconds, Aurora had had closed the distance between the two and grabbed the crossbow. Foolishly, the assassin didn't let go of the crossbow but instead held onto it, hoping to win the weapon back in a tug-of-war. Instead, Aurora yanked the weapon with one large pull, throwing the woman off balance. Swiftly Aurora raised her foot to the woman's stomach, delivering a kick that knocked her down. Swinging the crossboe like a club, she hit her opponent in the back of the head, causing her to collapse. Quickly Aurora bent down next to her fallen adversary, then checked the woman's pulse and breathing. She was alive as she should have been.
Aurora abandoned the unconscious body and with it abandoned all stealth, running through the dual archways and into the long corridor. She wondered why the assassin hadn't called out to her partner. His inability to remain undetected made him more suited as a decoy rather than backup, yet the assassin should have made some effort to contract him. The woman's error was a mistake future assassins would not make. Aurora struggled to put the matter out of her mind, instead focusing on the pedestal at the end of the corridor. A beam of sunlight shined down on the pedestal and the object on top of it, a wooden stake lying on its side. As the corridor gave way to another archway that connected to a circular room, Aurora threw aside these musings, She ran toward the stake and prepared herself to reach the object.
More quickly than she could imagine, a pair of arms wrapped around her, one arm across her neck and shoulder while the other one wrapped across her breasts. Aurora bit her tongue in self-admonishment and at the all too familiar blend of odors that violated her nose. She had spent so much time focusing on her opponent's error that she had made a fatal mistake. The man's arms gripped her like a vice and she knew despite her strength she couldn't overpower him -- he had the advantages of surprise and leverages. There was only one thing she could do. Her body became still in defeat and her limbs and neck fell into lifeless despair. Her mouth and loosened slightly, allowing saliva to collect in between her cheeks. Her eyes shut of their own accord; a warrior had become a human ragdoll.
Disgusted, the man released her, letting Aurora fall onto the ground. Upon impact he heard neither groan nor whimper, then bent down over her cautiously, not wanting to be fooled for a feint. He picked her up again, this time cradling her in his arms. He could not hear of feel her breaths, and beneath the leather outfit she wore, he could not feel a pulse. He steadied her head so that it faced his own.
"Aurora," he said, hoping for a flinch to acknowledge her name. Yet she remained without any hint of vitality, and spit becan to trickle out the corners of her mouth. "Aurora!"
He stared at her, for several seconds in disbelief, then raised her head to look for the subtle signs of life. For a few seconds, it appearead there were none, but her eyelids and lip twitched almost uncontrollably. Before he could react in any fashion, her lips puckered and shot a volley of liquid and mucus into his eye. Immediately, he dropped her and screamed, wiping at the spit running down his face. Aurora ran to the pedestal and grabbed the stake, raising it into the air.
"Wonderful!" a voice cried from above.
Aurora turned to an old woman who had called her, instantly regognizing the face of her mentor. The statuesque woman's long hair had long excanged its beautiful black for a purer gray, and blended into her pale blue robes all too easily. Yet the wrinkles on the woman's face were slight rather than deep. She had not worn herself out with the hard work Aurora had chosen, and displayed her tactician's countenance with a radiance like no other.
She descended via a stone staircase that wrapped itself around the edges of the room. Wisdom displayed itself in her every carefully chosen step, and she appoached Aurora in a pace that could have been mistaken for ambling. Aurora had known this pace all too well from both her training and her childhood; it was a deliberatness that could only be obtained through the countryside or seclusion. Aurora lowered herself to one knee and bowed her head, contening herself with hearing her former attackers join her mentor's side. She felt the heat of their bodies when they stopped in front of her.
"Rise like the sun," the woman ordered, "for you are aptly named."
"Master--" Aurora began as she stood.
"I am not your master any longer, but I have a request." She began to walk away with the same deliberation, motioning for Aurora to follow. "Call me Rebecca. That is my name. You have passed the test and we are equals."
"You taught me, Master." Aurora lowered her head as she walked through the same corridor moment ago she had sprinted through. "I cannot show you such disrespect."
"You disrespect me more by continuing this charade." Rebecca stopped, allowing Aurora to reach her side, then began to walk again. "You are an adult, not a child."
"Yes, Rebecca," Aurora answered uncomfortably as she walked through the archway and into the room with the bookshelf. "I should not have passed. It was only because of the mistakes of others that I did."
"Everyone makes mistakes. Learn from yours." The four of them walked down trough the second archway into the corridor that led outside. "Do you know what yours was?"
"I overthought the situation. I should have just accepted the way things were."
"No, that wasn't it. It was the opposite." Rebecca stepped in front of Aurora as they reached the door. She opened the door, allowing the beautiful morning light to flood their eyes. The trio accompaniying her to pass her, their steps slightly unsteady as their eyes and bodies shifted to the outside world. Deciduous trees, branches, vines, and leafy plants surrounded them, keeping the secret of the lair from which they had emerged. Rebecca closed the door, then joined the three once again.
"You were right to ponder the mistakes of your enemies," she continued. "Yet when you saw the stake you reacted as child to a candy. You stopped analyzing and lost your train of thought. Remember this. If you see something placed in front of you, it's often to good to be true."
"Thank you, Rebecca." They circumambulated the area, until they reached a post. "What else can you tell me?"
"I can only tell you two more things. One, remember the oath you swear before you can hunt. Never, ever kill another being, living or undead, human or animal, except the one have sworn to slay."
"Second, we have packed your possessions. You merely need to tell the driver where you're going."
"I'm going home." "I have to see my family one more time."
"Remember, you're not the same girl I guided out of that vilage four years ago, nor are they the same as they once were. You have no idea what has occurred in the past few years."
Aurora bit her lip at the comment. She remember the words she had intended to be a falsehood to Aja had come true, and the many nights she spent secretly writing, seding, and receiving letters from her hometown. She looked into the old woman's eyes. Recbecca, had known this as well although she never acknowledge it, but the woman's words were for the benefit of their companions.
She did not dare say goodbye to Rebecca,
The sun ascended into the sky as it had the morning she had left, and the village before her was a buzz of activity. Smoke rose through huts of wives preparing their food, while their husbands reaped the harvest from the fields. Clearly today was the day of a feast. Yet Aurora had not a letter to her village of her graduation. Even if she had, it would not arrived as quickly as the carriage. The secrecy involved in sneaking a letter past the seclusion of the lair and into the outside world made it easier for her to deliver the news in person. Besides, she had wanted to surprise them with her presence. Apparently it was all for naught, as the friends and family were already aware she had been coming.
She walked toward her dwelling, past faces who were as much to her identity as her own body, but who ignored her. Perhaps this was part of the game, to pretend that she was invisible. She found it too easy to play along, and soon found herself strolling past people she recognized. She reached her doorway, then smelled the familiar scents of her mother's spices and the fire that had been going. This was undeniably home, just as she remembered it.
Aurora quickly spotted Mama next to a fire, stirring a large pot suspended from the ceiling by rope. Other than a few gray more hairs, she looked the same as Aurora had remembered her. Mama was absorbed completely by what she was doing, to the point where she didn't realize her daughter was appropaching her.
"I'm home." Aurora announced as she stepped closer her mother. Mama did not chaged her position and remained a sentinel over the boiling liquid. Instead, she responded by turning her head momentarily.
"Aja, are those carrots ready yet?" she asked.
"Yes," Aja answered. She emerged from a corner from which Aurora's eyes could not determine; her eyes were still used to the full sunlight from the outside. Aja did not look much taller or older from when she had seen her last, yet this did not surprise Aurora. In her mind, she knew her sister would never change. Yet her sister walked past her with a basket of carrots in hand. She showed no signs of breaking the facade of ignoring her, and a feeling of dread crawled up her spine. Her sister was never a good actor.
"I'm here!" Aurora shouted. She reached out to Aja to grab her. Her hand passed through her sister as though she were not there. In surprise, Aurora tried to touch her sisted again, but the only thing the felt was air.
"Damn it!" she cursed, then quickly felt saliva trickle the wrong way down her throat. She cleared her throat to alleviate the iriitiation, but was jarred by a sharp pain in her mouth. Blood washed over her tongue. In that instant, the world changed, and her body was paralyzed, then forced into a sitting position. Her eyeds, once open, were closed and she opened them again.
The warm light of day washed over her vision, clearing the darkness from the corners of her eyes. She was back in the carriage. Her body was now sore from the uneven jostling and and her imperfect sleeping position. Instantly, she stuck out her tongue and touched the sore spot, feeling the traces blood she had tasted. She didn't know how long she had been asleep, but she hoped she'd be back home soon.
All of a sudden, the carriage jerked to a halt accompanied by the braying of horses and yells from thedriver. After several minutes, the driver hopped down from his seat, then opened the door.
"I'm sorry," the driver said. "They're spooked. They won't go any further."
"I understand," Aurora answered. Immediately, her frame of mind shifted and her training flooded back to her at once. Any horses used as a means of travel to and from the lair were well trained and carefully selected for temperament. For them to disobey any orders given to them only meant that a supernatural threat had been in the area. It was her duty as a Hunter to investigate; her village would have to wait.
She looked around at the road and saw that the trees had been cut cut down and the vegetation was non-existedn. How could she have not noticed this before? Had it not been for the beaten dirt path, she would have sworn driver taken a wrong turn. A whiff of death punched her in the nose, and Aurora bit the sore spot on her tongue to keep from gaggin. The breeze had come from further down the road, and she followed the
As she ran down the path, this area, alien and devoid of life, became familiar to her. She saw maples, oaks, and beeches where there were now stumps and. Her feet knew the road. Her heart quickned as she ran, not from the exertion but the realization of the horrible truth. She continued to run into the every stregthening stench of death and burnt objects until she saw a patch of earth, scorched and covered with smouldering debris and circular piles of burnt straw. She ran down the road, then opened her mouth in astonisment as she saw the bodies liying against the grounds.
She had arrived home.
Aja woke up upon feeling a knife plunched in the back of hersull. Immediately, she moved to pull it out but couldn't move her arms and legs, and when she opened her eyes she saw nothing. It was all to clear she was dead, although she didn't expect to feel the pain after dying. yet her
Her stomach ached and blood dripped on the floor. from between her legs. She stank from not being washed and from the monthly emergence
She heard voices. The blindfold had covered the opening of her ear canal, preventing her from hearind
"You can't do this!"
"Then will you?"
"Yes, I will."
"After all these years, you have not learned how to lie."