Home > Warrior of the Wild(9)

Warrior of the Wild(9)
Tricia Levenseller

Peruxolo. The god I’m supposed to kill.

A bitter laugh bubbles up from my chest. A god cannot be killed. I’m not meant to return home. I’m meant to die. My father sent me here to die.

This is it. The farthest anyone travels away from the village. Beyond this point, the wild is lethal.

But I have to keep moving. If I’m not moving, I’ll be forced to think. And thinking isn’t an option right now.

To the north and west lie more villages. To the south is Seravin. And to the east—

That’s where Peruxolo went with the wagon train. I can see the faint outlines of a less traveled road, one traversed only once a year when the god takes away all our food.

I follow it.

The farther I go, the more wildlife there is to be found. Thorny vines the color of blood wrap around the bases of the trees. Indigo berries hang off the vines. Though I’ve never seen nor heard of them, I assume they’re poisonous. Surely nothing so bright in color could be edible. Crying saplings peek through gaps in the taller trees. The white bark peels back on its own in strips, which is how the trees earned their name.

My steps grow louder as I step on dried leaves atop the rocky ground. A snaketrap gapes open in the middle of the road, two handspans in length. The plants are camouflaged to match the color of the rocky ground, easily missed if one isn’t looking for them. I step over this one. In another hundred yards, I find a closed one, a wriggling tail flapping out of the side. The plant constricts, and the snake stills.

Yellow eyes peer at me from dens in the trees. Since nothing ventures onto the road, I assume I’m too large of prey for the predators attached to those eyes.

Far, far up ahead, I see the outline of a mountain through thick clouds. Unless the road changes direction, it appears to head right for it. I wonder if that is where Peruxolo makes his home.

I sip from my canteen and chew on a dried strip of valder meat. Before I know it, night falls. Still, I walk. It isn’t safe to stop and sleep. I should have built a shelter. But I didn’t. Because I’m not thinking, I’m moving.

My head twitches at every little noise. The sounds of the wild change at night. High-pitched trills echo through the starry expanse. Branches crack and rocks roll across the ground. Bugs buzz all around me. It’s hard to tell just how close any other noises might be. I’m unsure if it’s safer or more dangerous to light a torch.

So I do nothing but walk.

I carry my ax in my hands, ready to use it at the first hint of danger. My mind is wide awake but scratchy from the pain of two nearly sleepless nights.

It’s harder to keep the dangerous thoughts away now.

I see their faces—Havard’s, Torrin’s, Siegert’s, Kol’s. I can imagine them snug in their beds, content and proud of themselves.

And I entertain the notion of sneaking back into the village, knocking them unconscious one by one and dragging them from their beds to tie them to trees in the wild, leaving them for the ziken.

Perhaps it would be worth getting caught and exiled from Paradise forever.

When my legs finally tire, I find the largest tree lining the road and sit with my back pressed firmly against it, my ax balanced across my knees.

Tonight the moon is mostly full. Silhouettes fly across the sky, some small, some the length of my arm. I watch them chase one another through the open air. Listen to the chattering. Now that I am still, cold seeps in through my hides. I pull the spares from my pack and don those, too.

Then I wait to see if I will survive the night.

* * *

I MUST HAVE DOZED at some point, because consciousness suddenly jolts through me. My eyes are still closed, but heat pelts into my face from the sun.

No, not the sun.

The sun doesn’t smell of blood and rot.

I hold perfectly still except for my hands, which search my lap for my ax. Bless the goddess, it’s still here.

I crack open one eye.

An unhinged ziken mouth is inches from my face, tasting my breath. A tongue lolls out and touches my chin. A cackle, so loud it hurts my ears, unleashes from its mouth.

Fear floods through all my limbs.

I realize then that even if I don’t have any answers, even if I don’t know where to go or what to do, I now know one thing.

I don’t want to die.

My instincts kick in, and quick as I can, I raise my ax and press the shaft between those gaping jaws.

Red-orange eyes flash, and the muscles beneath the beast’s natural armor bunch. It presses against my ax, trying to reach my neck in earnest now that it knows I’m awake, alive.

I’m alive, and I’m going to stay that way.

My muscles strain, weaker than usual because I just woke up. Slowly, the beast gains inch by inch on me. One prick from either of those canines and I’ll be helpless while the beast takes its time consuming my flesh.

Promise me you’ll try. You have to come home to me. Those were Irrenia’s last words to me.

I intend to keep them.

I let out a battle cry and shove the creature away long enough to find my feet. It charges, but I leap aside, and it crashes face-first into the tree. I bring my ax down on its neck with all my might, severing the head with one blow.

It picked the wrong girl. I killed a dozen of its brethren yesterday. I took on three ziken at once at the trial. One beast is nothing, so long as I’m not asleep.

I breathe deeply, trying to shake off the fear in my chest, the pounding in my head from the lack of sleep.

How long was I out? The wild is lit with a predawn glow. Likely four hours at the most.

My pack of supplies is still strapped to my back. I shrug it off my shoulders to grab some breakfast: a small loaf of bread. Holding my meal between my teeth, I return the pack to my shoulders and sling my ax onto my back. I leave the ziken carcass for scavengers to feed on. Ziken meat is bitter, completely inedible for humans. Useless.

I take back to the road, this time at a quicker pace. My body courses with extra energy from the ziken encounter. My head pounds, and everything crowds in at once. I’m too tired to put up a shield against it all.

I feel everything.

The betrayal. The lies. The hurt.

Everything pours into me.

I start running, as if that will somehow let me escape it.

* * *

I THOUGHT I LOVED TORRIN. I thought for the first time in my life, someone wouldn’t hate me for what I couldn’t control. I don’t ask for the praise I’m given—was given. I didn’t get a big head or flaunt my talents. I didn’t ask for any of it. But my fellow trainees were still angry enough to get me banished. To send me to my death. Their malice ran so deep they had Torrin spend weeks pretending to be someone else. Pretending to like me.

I should have known. Mother told a lie; she put her eternal soul in jeopardy to see me gone. If my own mother could hate me so much, how could I ever have deluded myself into thinking that a boy could care for me?

My legs ache, but I run faster, trying to outdistance the tears.

They come anyway, my first in years. I don’t fight them like I usually would; why would I when there is no one to see them?

Father would make the biggest complaint. I can hear his voice perfectly. Warriors don’t cry.

He could have helped me. Could have saved me, but he didn’t. Instead, he gave me the most difficult mattugr ever conceived. He, too, sent me to die.

How can a person hurt so much? The ache throbs up and down my body, soaking me in it. Pushing deeper and deeper.

A lone ziken rushes across my path. My hand flies to my back before I realize it’s not coming at me. It crosses the road and takes off through the opposite copse of trees.

I turn sharply to follow it, anger suddenly fueling my weary limbs.

Because—despite how everything played out—

I could have done it.

I would have beaten my trial had no one sabotaged it.

I can prove it. I’ll kill every ziken out in the wild if I have to. Maybe I’ll throw a head into the village boundaries every day until I die to prove it.

The ziken leaps over a fallen log, tramples over a small fern, churns up rocks in its haste.

Where is it going?

It zips between two trees and finally comes to a stop.

There must be at least a dozen of the beasts in the small clearing. They’re focused on some heap on the ground. I can’t get a good look at it because the ziken crowd it, all trying to sink their teeth into it, but it’s large.

My hand grips the cool metal just beneath my ax blades as I pull it from my back.

A horizontal swing takes off the head of the nearest ziken. It lands on the rocks below, but none of the other creatures take any notice. They’re too excited by the meat before them.

So I wreak havoc.

I put the faces of those whom I despise most across them. This one’s Torrin. That one’s Havard. Father, Mother, the council. Mother again. And again. And again. Her face is everywhere. That satisfied smirk, showing the pleasure she feels knowing she will never have to look upon my face again.

My chest heaves from the want of air. More of it. Faster. My thoughts are spinning.

Now that I’ve dispatched over half their numbers, a few of the ziken finally look up from the body before them. Oh goddess, I think it’s human. I’m certain it’s dead, but the muscles still twitch from all the fresh venom trapped within.

My foot steps on something that is distinctly not a rock, and I risk a glance down. It’s another battle-ax.

With my free hand, I lift the weapon from the ground. It feels heavier in my less dominant hand, but still right. An ax always feels good within my grasp.

Two ziken leap at me, red blood dripping from their maws. I bring both axes down, embedding the blades into their skulls. I pull the right ax out and use it to decapitate the other beast. Then I bring both axes down on the other one’s head.

More ziken follow. I spin and twist, duck, thrust. My boots make a squeaking noise as they skim across a blood-soaked stone.

I cross my arms and launch outward with my double axes, severing two heads simultaneously with the movement.

That’s all of them.

I drop the metal from my hands, the weight of the axes suddenly too much to bear. Sinking to my knees, I take in the flailing body before me.

It’s a boy.

He looks my age, maybe a little older.

He lies on his stomach, the back of his shirt ripped open to expose skin covered in bites. Blood drips steadily down his sides to the ground. Were he still alive, he would be in unbearable pain, especially with the way his body contracts where all those wounds are. Ziken venom truly is a nightmare.

His hair is a deep brown with lighter streaks glinting in the sunlight as his head twitches. His eyes are closed, and the cheek I can see is covered in scratches, likely from flailing against the rocks beneath him.

His eyelids slam open, and I leap backward with an “Ah!”

I try to reassure myself it’s just the venom controlling the body, when he lets out a groan.

Blue eyes flick to me, and that’s when I finally move.

I vault to the ground, place the stranger’s head on my lap so it can’t sustain any further damage, and wait with him for the venom to cease its course.

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