They continued southward, pushing to cover enough ground. Despite the awning of leaves, moisture soaked through their clothing and matted their hair to their heads. Their boots quickly became covered in mud and leaves. If there had been any wind blowing at their level, they easily would have gotten chilled and perhaps sick.
After several hours of moving, they came to a small clearing where several sets of tracks crossed each other. Atty crouched down to examine them.
"One of them looks like bear," Renken commented, bending over her.
"I agree," she nodded, touching the outline. "It's still wet and soft around the edges. Bear must have passed this way not too long ago." She glanced to her left and pointed. "It was going in that direction."
"What about the other tracks?" Paxton asked.
"This one's deer. This is either muskrat or beaver."
"If it's beaver, there could be a pond or stream nearby," Renken observed.
"I thought that," she agreed. "Only problem is..." She ran her fingertips over several indentations. "I can't tell which direction they're going. Even if I could, question remains, were they heading to water? Or away from it?"
"What about this one here?" Paxton outlined what
appeared to be a very large but indistinguishable paw print. Atty
squinted, trying to discern its overall size. A shudder went through
her. Surely it wasn't as huge as it appeared. Damn it, Pawpee!
Why didn't you teach me more about tracking?
She shrugged. "It's hard to tell. There's too much overlapping." Getting to her feet, Atty closed her eyes and sniffed the air while slowing turning a complete circle. "Damn. I can't detect a thing. Not even water. The rain's messing with me."
"Keep heading east?" Paxton said.
"Yeah. Might as well. I'd hate to start wandering around, wasting time looking for a place to fill our water bags. If we're lucky, we'll come across some game that will lead us to a spring or something."
They remained on a southern course, during which they ran across more and more tracks, many of them fresh and resembling pockets of earth filled with rain water.
"I haven't seen this much available game in years," Paxton remarked.
"Don't count your eggs before the chickens have laid them," Atty laughed. "Just because we see evidence doesn't mean much. It only proves the game is here. For all we know, the animals could be criss-crossing the same territory over and over."
"But at least your hunch was right," Renken told her. "Moving over that extra mile made a difference."
"We really don't know that for sure," she admitted. "We didn't give the other site enough distance or time to prove or disprove my theory."
"Hey, that one paid off, and this one looks like it might do the same," Paxton smiled.
Conversation died as they continued to push their way through the forest. By the time the sun began to sink behind the trees, Atty called a halt and tossed the two large birds she'd shot to Paxton.
"Start dressing these. Renken, start a fire. I'm going to climb a tree."
Amused and curious, the two men did their chores while Atty scaled one of the taller trees nearby. She didn't stop at the first overhanging branch, or the next one. It wasn't until she was nearly twenty feet off the ground that she paused and appeared to survey the surrounding area. Paxton already had the birds skewered and on the fire when she hit the ground.
"Listen up, guys. We sleep in the trees tonight."
"Not arguing with you," Renken drawled. "But can I ask why?"
"Remember those bear tracks we saw some ways back? They keep popping up again and again, and they always look fresh. Although I didn't see anything big moving about, the last thing I want is to be awakened by a hungry or pissed off bear." She threw a thumb up at the trees. "There's plenty of room up there. The branches are big enough. All we need to do is tie ourselves down so we don't fall."
"What about the fire?" Renken asked. "Want to bank it? Or keep it going?"
Paxton spoke up. "I thought animals were afraid of fire."
"They are," the ex-mercenary noted. "But the smell of meat cooking might make them curious enough to investigate."
"We need to eat, and I don't want to deplete our rations if we don't need to," Atty told them. "We'll bury the bones, but build up the fire to keep it burning throughout the night. Hopefully we won't be bothered."
"What about sentry duty?" Paxton suggested.
Atty shook her head. "Forget it. If we're high enough, anything sniffing about won't be able to reach us."
Renken smiled as he scratched his nose. "You forget bears can climb trees?"
She grinned. "If it's as big as a bear, and tries to climb the tree to come after me, it's going to make a hell of a lot of noise, not to mention shake the tree. By then, I'll be able to get out of its way, or put an arrow in it."
She glanced over at Paxton. The Second's face was pale. Before she could open her mouth to respond, he asked, "What about Bloods? Do you see any sign of them? Or sense them?"
Renken also turned to give her a burning, questioning look.
"No," she replied with all seriousness. "I detect nothing. Trust me, men. If I did, I wouldn't keep it to myself."
They ate the birds, making a pile of bones to bury later. Several times Renken tried to toss a couple into the dirt to make them stand the way Fortune had, but without any luck.
"Damn. How does he do it?"
Paxton laughed. "It's easy. But first, you have to be Mutah."
Renken took the ribbing good-naturedly. They continued to eat in silence as they listened to familiar night sounds surrounding them.
"Is there anything in particular you're hoping we take back to Alta Novis?" Paxton asked her. "Or is it going to depend on what we find?"
"After examining the tracks we've found, I'm hoping for a deer or elk. You can use every part of a deer or elk, unlike some of the other animals. I'd even settle for several smaller animals like those beavers or muskrats. Guess it depends on what we find."
"Or what finds us," Renken dryly commented, making the others laugh.
When they were done, Paxton buried the bones several yards away, making sure to cover them with plenty of dirt. A quick check of their water bags revealed they were dangerously low, with Paxton's already empty. After taking a few swallows from Atty's, which seemed to have the most, they each climbed a tree and used their weapons belts to tie themselves to the limbs. After wishing each other a good night's sleep, they tried to settle in and get some rest.
Atty resisted closing her eyes for one last look around. Something had been bothering her ever since they'd come across the first set of tracks. It wasn't so much the number of animals evident as it was which animals.
Ever since the Great Concussion, many species had been touched by what her teachers had called "fallout". She never understood what it meant. Only that something in the air had changed, causing many people and creatures to change also. Some people were drastically affected, like the Bloods, whose mutations were so extreme, they were almost unrecognizable as human. The Mutah, like herself, only changed a little, but the changes were still evident, yet unique to each person. Which was why her hair was blue instead of brown like her parents' hair. And Fortune sprouted a tail. And why Mattox had eyes that were completely red, without an iris or pupil or visible sclera.
And then there were the Normals, which included her husband, Yulen D'Jacques. Although none of them appeared to show any form of mutation, Atty couldn't help but feel that maybe deep down, perhaps at the cellular level, it did exist. But it was buried so deeply that it wasn't able to manifest itself.
Like people, the animals, too, exhibited wide ranges of changes, changes that sometimes extended all the way to the bone. Rabbits which, she'd been told once had fur, now had short, spiky, furred extensions people referred to as feathers. Chickens were wingless, the wool on a sheep was tough and thick enough to make armor out of, and many creatures, such as the ones called dogs, were extinct.
Most of the animals were vastly larger than they'd been prior to the Great Collision. It was hard to envision hamsters as being small enough to fit in a person's palm, or that a crow was once the size that could sit on your shoulder.
But the worst abominations were the most dangerous. The animal it had been no longer existed in any shape or form, other than its name. In many cases, the creature's origin was totally unknown, so it was given a new name. One that reflected its new nature or appearance. They were the ones Atty feared most because there was no telling what the animal would do. Or, in a lot of cases, what it could do.
Those tracks she'd seen, she could identify some of them. What worried her were the ones she couldn't classify. The ones made by a beast she'd never tracked before, much less encountered. Bloods she could handle. She'd fought them countless times in the past, and her Mutah senses never failed to alert her to their presence. But no matter how bizarre or brutal, Bloods still reacted with human emotions, which made it easy to understand their actions.
Animals were never predictable.
She was twenty feet above the ground and securely lashed to the limb at her back. Her bow lay across her lap, and her Ballock was within split-second reach. Closing her eyes, Atty tried to rest, but her sixth sense remained uneasy.
Atty unbuckled her belt and leaped to her feet, bow at ready. Across the way, she could see Paxton nodding to sleep. Renken was not visible from where she was.
"Uh. Huh?" He lifted his head, appearing dazed, but his hand was already on the hilt of his sword.
The bushes to her left swayed. Smaller trees bowed. Whatever was moving through the dense forest was big.
"I see it, too," a voice answered behind her.
"Can you tell what it is?"
"Not yet, but I see it's headed straight for us."
The brush moved again, as if the creature was hesitating between steps. Atty sniffed the air, but the animal wasn't close enough for her to catch its scent. She lifted the bow and sighted down the arrow's shaft.
It lumbered into view like grayish-brown smoke. The wide head was lowered as it sniffed the ground. When it reached the clearing, it raised its big black nose and stared directly at Atty. Arrow ready, she waited to see what the animal would do.
Without warning, it snarled and launched itself into the clearing. Atty fired immediately into one of the black eyes. The arrow buried itself so far into the pupil, it completely disappeared.
The animal convulsed and shrieked. But instead of running away, it lowered its head and charged, aiming for Atty's tree.
"Hold your ground!" she shouted to the two men.
She vaguely heard Renken yell, "It's a coon!" before the immense creature slammed its shoulder against the trunk. The tree shook violently, but Atty managed to hold on.
The coon screamed again. Blood gushed from its eye, a watery red mixture combined with the clear vitreous fluid from its eyeball. The solution shone like glass across the black strip that looked like a mask across its face.
The coon looked up at her and screeched. Enormous tusks extended from its upper and lower jaws. It hit the tree again, trying to dislodge her.
"Hold on, Atty!' Paxton yelled.
Renken tore off a tree limb and threw it at the animal. "Get away from her!"
The limb didn't distract it. The creature knew Atty was responsible for the agony in its eye, and its sole focus was to exact revenge on her.
The coon reared up on its hind legs, and for the first time Atty saw how big the animal was. The snout nosed almost directly under her feet. Spotting her, its one remaining eye glittered with rage. It opened its mouth to bare its teeth, and Atty let fly another arrow into the coon's throat.
Enraged and wounded, the coon reached up to try and knock her off the branch. Its foot-long claws dug into the wood, nearly severing the limb when the coon jerked its paws out.
Suddenly, it let out another scream of pain. Roaring in anger, the coon turned on the person swinging his sword behind it. Paxton twirled, sword aloft, and with both hands on the hilt, brought the finely-honed edge down at the base of the thick tail. The sword sliced through skin and bone.
The coon fell onto its back and writhed. Blood gushed from the base of its spine. Atty watched as Renken tried to approach the animal from the side, but the wicked claws swiping the air in wide arcs prevented him from approaching close enough to strike.
Paxton raised his sword, blade pointing downward, and launched himself at the beast, running at its damaged rear. Without warning, the coon snarled and whipped around to face the soldier. Atty screamed a warning, but one enormous hand-like paw reached for the Second before he had the chance to retreat. Instead, Paxton tried to duck. The paw swiped at him, missing his head, but catching the man's shoulder. Paxton hit the ground and slid several feet through the muddy undergrowth.
Atty looked down to see the animal's back. She aimed right at where she believed the neck and spine met, and prayed the arrow would penetrate that far.
A figure jumped on the creature and dug in, holding on with both hands as the coon realized it had a rider. Too late to prevent herself from firing, Atty managed to lift her bow a micro-second before the arrow left the bow. The metal barb plunged into the top of the soft, sensitive part of its nose, and the animal reared up on its hind legs as it screamed in agony. For a second, Renken managed to keep his grip as he dangled from the thing's back.
The coon reached to pluck out the arrow, giving the ex-mercenary the chance he'd been seeking. Pulling out his sword, he plunged it hard into the animal's backbone, and the piercing cry nearly broke her eardrums. It stood up again, but this time the coon deliberately threw itself on its back. Renken tried to leap away, but the creature landed on top of him with a loud whump!
Atty began firing at the soft underbelly. She had to dispatch the coon as quickly as possible so she could go to the two men and check their injuries. Tears threatened to blur her vision, and she hastily wiped them away with the back of her wrist. She didn't want to believe Paxton and Renken was dead. She couldn't let herself believe it. In the back of her mind, she wondered how she was going to get both of them back to the compound if they were critically injured, but first she had to kill the coon. To hell with the meat.
The animal rolled over. Its fur was bloodstained, and it moved sluggishly. Atty paused to look for Renken, but the beast blocked all sight of him. The coon peered up at her and bared its fangs. Less than ten feet separated them. Nocking one of her last two arrows, Atty aimed for the beast's remaining eye. The last thing she expected was for the animal to launch itself at her, its arm extended, a fingered hand with its long claws reaching.
The moment she fired, she knew she'd missed.
The coon hit the branch where she was standing. Atty felt her feet
leave the branch, and she scrambled to grab another limb to prevent
her from falling. In the next instant, the paw struck her, slamming
her sideways into the tree. Atty felt a black haze drop over her
like a hot, wet blanket. The last thing she saw was the beast's
snout looming downward, its jaws open.