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They call us the suffering. We are their guides and they are our shields.
| One |
It had been a long, hard day of hunting defalne. They were all exhausted, and Anika Dinsmore wanted to rest. Her feet and legs were killing her. Her head may as well go pop. Since she lived in the commune with the others, she wasn’t looking forward to the ruckus that always followed. For the most part, it had been a good hunt. No matter how many defalne the pheirgr took out, it always seemed more came. That more were just around the corner, waiting to appear to try to kill them.
The pheirgr killed.
The sofrir were called upon to locate more.
She . . . was one of those sofrir.
A breeze shifted Anika’s hair behind her. A welcome whisper of cool air, drying her neck. She scanned the bushes along the sidewalk while she plodded along, quietly smacking her lips. Could use some water. Nobody was near, so there was no asking if anyone had water to spare, and she didn’t see any fountains. Not that one found would do her any good. Probably dried up around here anyway. Some of the old storefronts still had water dispensers, but not outside. The exterior fountains were left to dry, the pipes shut off. Conserve water and all.
So far nobody called on Anika. For that she was grateful. Though admittedly there were times it made her feel left out. She wasn’t always called upon because many had issues with her. Oh, she heard what they called her behind her back. Depending on who referred to her. Many of them had their own nicknames. Only a few individuals held respect for her. Others? Not so kind.
The Mist was one term. That nickname was decent enough. She didn’t mind that one. Mostly it came from staying in the background, being silent, appearing out of nowhere. Making an impact when she did. The one that hurt was the one most used. The one they wanted to hurt her with.
Even saying it sounded like someone spit on her name.
May as well have cursed her name, and spat on the ground. Undoubtedly they did behind her back, or when she wasn’t looking.
Anika could be reckless as far as they were concerned. It wasn’t about her, so it only bothered her to a point. It was about saving the humans, and preventing the hordes of defalne from gaining control as it seemed they were. There were more of them daily. Stronger, meaner. She was sensing it, feeling the increase in them. It made her sick to her stomach. Many nights she woke from anxiety flooding her in waves.
So at the moment, she was by herself wandering the long empty cracked pavement. Once called a street. Now with dried old bits of plant life in the cracks. Up ahead was a closed up former warehouse type store. The buildings were tagged repeatedly by the group who last cleared them. They all used a specific tag. They tagged and dated after they checked it over. This one was recently marked clear.
Every building or structure received multiple checks and it never ended. Between each store lay vast open space. An undeveloped area they had plans for. Maybe a small building with a few homes would appear here and there. This area hadn’t fully been developed so it could have been many things. Trees and bushes about on either side. The occasional flutter of wings from rare bird. Animals learned long ago to be as quiet as possible or end up snack for the defalne.
As far as the defalne were concerned, if there was blood, there was food. Flesh even better. They loved brains, but also enjoyed the intestines. She supposed it was more what was inside the stomach and intestines. They so loved the ooey gooey goodness found there. Anika stuck her tongue out. Gonna make her lose her appetite if she kept it up.
Anika was left by other pheirgr who’d been led off by a fellow sofrir. On the path of a horde of defalne they sensed ahead. The pheirgr were on it. She had no need. Not when The Undertakers were involved. She would keep her distance.
Many avoided anything to do with the top hunters. The Undertakers, The Butcher. They earned those names. Didn’t matter who crossed their path. Human, diseased, mean, nice, woman, child, man. Rumors abounded the Amaranthines even fell by their hand. Now them, on top of the defalne? No thank you. She kept her distance from all of them. Amaranthines were better fighters. Had to be. They lived far longer than normal humans. So it meant a lot that they so easily took down Amaranthines as well as defalne. Wasn’t as if defalne were some random weak thing to take on.
Few dealt with The Undertakers until they came in. When that call came, “Where are the Undertakers?!” Everyone cleared the way like a dam giving way to a river flood, and she was the first, becoming her namesake and disappearing into the wind.
She’d never laid eyes on their faces, and didn’t want to. The large broad shoulders of the eldest from behind was the closest she’d even been. Like a wave they flowed in, striding with clear purpose. The way the eldest moved, sliding his long broad swords from his back, slicing through the defalne in front of him.
Swords near as large as his body. Swords only he held the strength to wield. One side saw, one side blade that could cut steel like nothing. Didn’t matter who stepped in front when the call came. When the name rang through the ranks of pheirgr and sofrir leading them, the crowd parted as a gate would a herd of animals, and all in front were consigned to death.
Even fellow sofrir had crossed those paths and hadn’t come back. She wasn’t much better off. If she could avoid, she would. She wasn’t interested in crossing their path. Had plenty of reasons to fear them herself. The tallest was a man who’d taken on a group of defalne himself, and lived to tell the tale. Earned a crude mark on his mouth that puckered as it healed and left a permanent sneer. Probably used it to his benefit. Perfected the ‘stay away’ vibe.
Part of what held Anika back. She wasn’t needed there, but a horde was also an overload on her senses. This hunt had her nerves on high all day, primed for finding defalne. More was in the air. The defalne were agitated. She didn’t know why, but she wasn’t interested in encountering The Butcher after the battle settled for the day.
Big man was as bad as The Undertakers, but nobody knew where those other men stayed. The Butcher, however, stayed in the commune with her and the others. The others kept their distance. He didn’t.
Lately, the way The Butcher eyed Anika. She wasn’t sure he’d let up on her, even once the hunt was over. Didn’t know his real name. She swore someone said he gave it up so he was permanently The Butcher, or Butch, as many referred to him. There was only so many of them left. The sofrir more so.
We are their guides; they are our shields.
Without her guidance and others like her, what would happen? The sofrir helped the pheirgr find the defalne. Often enough the defalne made it easy on them and would come out of hiding and attack them. But many defalne were becoming more intelligent, and adapting as human did to become Amaranthine over time on other planets. When she slept at night, she wondered if others dealt with what they did. Was it just their planet?
She hoped not. What sort of life would any of them have if the defalne ever took over? It’d become a wasteland.
Who wants to see that happe—
An inner alarm pinged, jarring her. She’d been making her way down the street of old storefronts. So lost in thoughts that she reached the big ol’ warehouse style store without it occurring to her. That was a no-no. Could’ve gotten herself killed.
Probably another reason they don’t really want to follow me about.
She had a bad habit of losing time as of late and zoning out.
Knowing way better than to bypass her gut instincts, she read the tag. They used extended poles to mark the tags. Constantly changing the marks because the defalne were so intelligent these days. It was safer to change things up as often as possible. Not to mention there were do no gooders who would love to screw with those who hunted. Rare packs of humans survived on their own and went around causing havoc. Did they consider what they were messing with? She doubted it.
Just cleared earlier today.
Didn’t feel right. It may have been cleared, but no. No, something else was going on. Everyone up the street disappeared. Another group far behind. Too far. Anika sighed. It was against the rules to check alone. It was wrong of sofrir, of her. She’d get a cut in her pay, which was already meager.
A soft sound came from inside. Her brain attempted to understand what it was. Animal? No. Sounded as if it were a breath. There. It came again. What was that? Her brain struggled to comprehend the sound. Gathering from all clues until it happened again and finally pinged familiarity with something.
Her brow furrowed. Once more she checked up the street, then down. Where were the other groups? She heard soft murmurs, but she couldn’t yell for anyone. Shook her head and waved an arm. Hopefully someone saw it. Grumbling silently to herself, she stepped fully in view and hopped up and down waving her arms. Nope. Didn’t seem anyone noticed. No return waves.
A child. They were rare to find. What was a child doing out here?
Once more the sound tugged her from inside. A flutter whispered across the back of her neck like butterfly wings.
I’m gonna lose my pay.
Her stomach rumbled in frustration at being empty. A small hiccup of fear, as they held their sobs in check. They. Not just one.
Finally she had enough. She couldn’t wait. Anika stepped closer to the rolling door, and tested the bottom. It was unlocked. That . . . was strange. If it were checked, certainly it wouldn’t be so easily opened? Scanning the streets, she determined there was no time. Finally she gingerly rolled the door up, attempting to go so slow she made no sound. Then ducked under and in.
It took a minute inside the warehouse to adjust to the shadowy interior. She blinked a few times, closed her eyes, then slowly reopened them.
In front of her were cash registers with the long belts cracked or broken, covered in dust. A wide counter at the end for the groceries to be grabbed and packaged. Boxes abandoned beneath the stations shoved here and there in old dusty piles, covered in ancient webs. Parts of boxes were wilting and crumbling.
The open and empty stall where the worker stood for hours sat silent and devoid of life. Dead bugs littered the floor where once the customer stood to check out.
No conversations murmuring as workers called out, customers chatted with friends and family, or the cashiers. No screeching of old carts moving along, or that one squeaky wheel that went haywire on a shopper. No thuds of groceries dropped, calls for the managers, children crying from boredom, people rushing to help one another.
On the air remained the faint stench of mold and mildew clinging to leftover food in the food court to her far left. Long since gone to other senses. Not Anika’s.
To her far right where once florists placed beautiful bouquets, nothing but dried twigs and cellophane bits fallen to the floor. Dust from dried leaves crushed into nothing. A layer of dust covered everything.
Near a broken bud vase at the corner of the inlet shop was a broken skull, crushed. Residue from the war that raged through here.
A snuff of air swept her toward a register just a few to the left. Faint whispers came from far in the back that she had zero plans to check on. Either defalne, or others attempting to hide. She didn’t know. Wasn’t going to push her already bad luck. Not at the present moment. That wasn’t why she entered this space.
Cautiously inching to the stall, she peaked in. Two small heads, huddled together, clothes dusty from the space they’d taken refuge in. The brother swiped tears from his sister’s face. Anika’s movement made him raise his head. When he spotted Anika, he sucked in a breath. His first – very smart of him – instinct, was to raise a small tuning fork he found in threat. The small body bunched, fixing to drag his sister out of there and take off.
Anika quickly lowered to her knees, raising her hands. No defalne would pause and slowly settle to the floor. They’d simply go on the attack and these defenseless little bodies wouldn’t be able to do a thing about a fully turned. Not even with the tuning fork that seemed to be a fairly decent weapon if you asked her. Jam it into the throat of one if they got the chance, or another bad guy, and they might be able to do a bit of damage. Jam it in the knee, leg, arm, something. Poke an eye at the least.
Curly haired golden baby sister snuffed and wiped tears from her dirty exhausted face, smearing streaks. Her sentinel brother didn’t trust Anika and she didn’t blame him. “What are you doing here?” she whispered, attempting to gain traction on where the other noises were coming from.
The boy too noted where she sensed a presence from. He kept his voice near whisper, “Momma told us to hide.”
Anika’s brow furrowed. Their mother was here? Slowly her head turned left and right without her being fully cognizant of it. When it hit her, she rose to her feet, facing a palm to the floor, telling them in silence not to move. The boy, gathering she meant them no harm, slid his arm around his sister, tucking baby girl closer.
Felt as if a bunch of spiders crawled over her arms. Their mother. Every time the words moved through her mind, her nerves tightened. The hairs on her scalp tingled. She . . . was infected.
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Sofrir & Pheirgr of Atalantius Omega III is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, stories, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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