Amid her meditation, something in the forest sends the hairs on the back of Atae’s neck on end. When the distinct and high-pitch zing of a hilt forming a blade flitters through the wilds and settles on Atae’s ears, panic overrides her senses. She launches to her feet and twirls around. Her eyes bounce from one end of the clearing to the other. Atae listens for the sound again, footsteps, heavy breathing, or anything to pinpoint the threat, but the pounding drum of her racing heart drowns everything out. She lifts a trembling hand and clenches her fist with a twisted snarl.
Kaji warriors do not panic and shake at the first sign of battle.
Certain that Solum would never panic like this, Atae closes her eyes and inhales a deep lungful to fight the surge of adrenaline. She wills the rhythm of her heart to slow so that she can hear beyond it. Breathe in, thump. Breathe out, thump. With a silent and calm body, Atae reaches out into the world around her and opens her senses.
She feels the light touch of a breeze caressing her cheek and sniffs for scents that it tugs along. A foul smell of rot and sweat stings Atae’s nostrils, and she cringes. Twigs snap under heavy boots at the edge of the wilds, and Atae opens her eyes. She knows there isn’t enough time for her to get up the mountain before the intruder reaches the clearing, and she can’t get around him through the trees without being seen. Atae glances at the cliff drop but decides that the loose gravel and dirt would announce her position, as it did during lessons. Refusing to lose the advantage of surprise, Atae darts behind a nearby boulder and waits.
Atae notices Sul has almost reached the horizon, and one of the moons is peeking out through the clouds. Darkness will make everything that much more difficult. Surely Solum will arrive soon. Atae stiffens as the heavy footsteps stop at the edge of the tree line. She waits and fights the urge to tremble again. Breathe in, thump, and breathe out, thump.
A deep, rumbling chuckle emanates from behind a tree that’s covered in moss and vines. The sound races down Atae’s back and sends shivers up her spine. Breathe in, thump, breathe out, thump.
In a deep, rough voice, he says. “Hmm. I can smell your fear. Delicious.”
Snapping branches and vines echo across the clearing as a towering figure steps from the edge of the forest. Atae peeps out from behind her boulder for an instant before snapping back to her hiding spot. A pit in Atae’s stomach drops, and the unfamiliar sensation of vulnerability and helplessness crawls into her chest. The creature before her is not like anything she has seen before. He is not much taller than Solum but three times as massive with broad shoulders and a colossal chest, rippling with layers of muscle.
Remembering her father’s words of strength and honor, Atae glances up to see Sul disappear behind the horizon, and darkness swallows everything around her. Atae knows that Solum would not fear this massive creature, and neither should she, but she cannot stop the tremor in her breath and the sinking abyss in her gut.
I am a warrior. I am strong. I am Kaji.
Breathe in, thump, and breathe out, thump. Atae hears a hilt deactivate a few steps to the right of the creature and a rough but feminine voice.
“What are we doing out here?”
“I told you. I smelled someone,” he says. His heavy footsteps stomp around the clearing as he searches for his prize.
“I don’t see anyone. Are you sure that snout of yours is working?”
“She is still here. I can smell her.”
Breathe in, thump, and breathe out, thump.
“Her? What kind of her?” the female asks.
Atae can hear an excitement in his voice that makes her nauseous. His heavy boots stop in front of her boulder, and she holds her breath. She wills the deafening thumps of her heart not to betray her.
“A youngling? You dragged me out here for that?” the female asks angrily. The heavy footsteps clomp away from Atae’s boulder to face the feminine voice, and Atae releases her breath. Breathe in, thump, and breathe out, thump.
“I didn’t tell you to follow me, Salyn. Go back to the ship and wait for Lipson like a good little female,” the creature growls. Atae cringes at his remark, but Salyn chuckles.
“But not little enough…Not for your tastes, at least,” she says. Atae cannot hear Salyn’s silent footsteps, but her voice shifts closer to the creature. He growls, and hatred spews from his voice.
“I could make an exception. I wouldn’t mind hearing you scream.”
“But Lipson would, wouldn’t he?” she asks. The creature growls again but doesn’t argue when Salyn continues. “Don’t take too long, Kandorq. I’d hate for you to be left behind.”
The feminine voice floats closer to the edge of the clearing, where she first appeared. Then her quiet chuckle disappears into the wilds.
“Bitch,” Kandorq says. When he is sure that his companion is gone, Kandorq sucks in a sharp breath. He groans deep in his chest, and Atae cannot stop the shiver of disgust or the escaping gasp.
“You smell like fear and sweat. I can’t wait to hear you scream, Little One,” he says.
As Kandorq’s heavy footsteps stomp closer to Atae’s hiding spot again, she eyes her escape route. If she were ever going to use it, now would be the time. But Atae doesn’t move. She doesn’t even breathe. She can’t push away the paralyzing fear or think of anything other than the sounds of Kandorq’s heavy footsteps coming for her. Her racing heart thumps as loud as Kandorq’s steps, and, for a few precious moments, all she hears is her own heartbeat.
Then a hand as big as Atae’s head reaches around the side of the boulder and latches onto her neck. Atae sucks in a breath to scream only to have her throat squeezed shut by the giant hand. Kandorq lifts Atae high off the ground by her neck. She scratches and pulls at his heavy hand, if only for a small gasp of air. Kandorq is unrelenting as he admires his catch then settles his gaze onto Atae’s face.
Even in the darkness lit only by the moons, Atae can see the creature’s pale white and scarred skin. At the top of his head, two large black horns wrap the sides of his face. His strange grin reveals black and decayed teeth that emanate a smell that, in any other situation, would make Atae ill. His red eyes blaze with an evil Atae could never imagine. She struggles against his grip by scratching at his bald head and pulling at his powerful arms, but she can’t tug her gaze from his twisted expression. Pleased with his catch, Kandorq licks his lips, and the lack of oxygen clouds Atae’s vision, kicking her adrenaline into overdrive. Kandorq’s red eyes pierce her wild fuchsia, and Atae explodes.
With the agility of a feral animal, Atae flings every extremity in all directions. Her body wriggles in complete disorder with her arms flailing, legs kicking, and nails scratching. Surprised, Kandorq struggles to keep his grip on the wild youngling. He steps toward the side of the mountain and slams her into the rock face, releasing his suffocating grip. Atae slides to the ground as the stone and rock crumble from her impact. At first, sweet air is her entire world, but Atae’s senses return just in time for Kandorq to grab her a second time.
This time he grabs her just under the chin so as not to intrude on her ability to breathe. He presses her against the remaining rock face and pins her under his massive body.
“I love it when they struggle.” He watches the muscles in Atae’s face twist in a turbulent wash of fear and confusion, and he chuckles. He leans in to trace his lips across her skin along the side of her face. Atae grimaces at his touch and can’t help the small whimper that escapes. Kandorq drags his hot tongue from her chin, up her cheek, and to her temple. His fowl breath makes Atae gag as she struggles to get away, and he groans in ecstasy.
“I love that look. You all have the same look,” Kandorq whispers. He grins with a strange flicker behind his eyes. An experienced woman would identify it as pleasure, but Atae can only recognize the sadistic nature that forces a feeling of violation to wash over her.
“I want you to remember my face.” He groans into her ear, forcing his hot breath down her neck, and she chokes at the smell. “I never want you to forget what I’m going to do and that I’m the one that did it. All because you were too weak to stop me.”
Fear and panic threaten to override her once again. She tries to breathe and fight against her instinct, but the tidal wave of adrenaline has her heart in overdrive. A white haze coats the inside of her mind, and numbness settles over everything. A whisper drowns out the world.
Atae embraces the numbness and lies motionless against her attacker. Kandorq places his tongue on the side of her chin that he has yet to taste. Atae cowers in the safety of her mind until she remembers his words regarding the others.
How many other younglings has he hurt?
Images of his previous victims, broken and hurting, carve through Atae’s mind and spark a small flame of anger. As Kandorq’s tongue creeps across her cheek, her fury blazes higher and scorches away the numbing silver haze.
How dare he threaten to hurt me? To even touch me. Father would not stand for this. I am not weak. I am Kaji.
Hoping to enjoy another show of despair and fear, Kandorq leans his head away from Atae to admire his prize. He frowns in disappointment at her blank and emotionless stare but isn’t surprised. Sometimes it happens with the weak ones. At least he can enjoy the rest of her. He shrugs and leans in to press his cracking, black lips to her soft, pink ones. Atae grasps the black horns on either side of his face with her thumbs pointed inward. Pleased that she still has some fire left in her, he dismisses Atae’s meager protests. When a small grin swells from Atae’s lips, Kandorq stops to stare at her hands above him, and his red eyes grow wide with realization. In an instant of fear and panic, his eyes flicker back to Atae’s face. Her calm, satisfied expression is the last thing Kandorq sees before she presses her thumbs into his eyes. Kandorq abandons his plans for Atae as his entire focus shifts to stopping her from gauging his eyes out.