Aboard the Winnow
Avett has no idea what's just happened. One minute he's being overwhelmed by the Equaliser, the next it's slinking away, its tendrils blasted clean off with no chance for recovery. And Lilith, stars bless her soul, is a crumpled heap of teal uniforms and dishevelled hairs.
He stumbles back. Then he staggers forward because he remembers that she's just lying there in front of him, sustaining multiple injuries from physically making contact with the Equaliser alone. He shakes her shoulder. He fears for the worst.
"Lilith, if you're alive, give me a scream."
No response. The fear is so intense that it's starting to cloud his head. He rolls her over.
It's then that she decides to let out a weak moan. Her uniform has quite literally melted in patches, leaving her underclothes—her black tank—and skin exposed. He heaves a sigh of relief.
He starts, "Stop taking hits for me—"
Her hand reaches out weakly. She takes the hem of his shirt then tugs down.
He's about to crack a bawdy joke when he sees the state she's really in. She can't move, can't speak, and she's fighting for consciousness like her life's on the line. Then her eyes drift up and right—when Avett follows her gaze, he sees the white wisps of the Equaliser, its beady black eyes staring straight into his own.
It's scared. But it won't be for long.
With a grunt, he picks her up and slides her onto his back. His knees buckle, and he realises that he can't lift both his auto-crossbow and Lilith at the same time.
He grits his teeth. His attention flits dangerously from the crossbow at his side, then towards the dragon in the trees.
"Fuck! Man, I swear." He drops the crossbow, adjusts his grip on Lilith's calves, and starts off in a slow jog across the forest. The Equaliser might be substantially injured, but he's sure that it'll start attacking them again if he tries to get too close. It's a garbage situation that he's found himself in—because the Winnow's on the other side of the dragon, and he'll have to detour around it. He just hopes that Lilith can hang on for long enough. Auren'll know what to do with her.
He snorts. Like bark on paper, Lilith is rubbing off on him, and he's taking all of her shitty habits—like spiralling and assuming the worst—along with him. He'd throw up if she wasn't on his back right now.
After a while of futile rerouting, he's starting to find that the absence of Lilith, annoying as she is, is beginning to have a toll on him. So even though he knows he's talking to a brick wall, he releases a breath and asks, "What were you thinking when you decided to not tell anyone?"
She doesn't answer. But she's still breathing. Avett can feel her chest contracting rhythmically against his back. As for him… he's still stumped.
"Scared of something, Lilith?" He dodges two low-hanging branches with ease. "You know Auren'll fix you right up, right?"
"You're just always tiptoeing around us. We're going to drink ourselves to death after this mission, and I'm going to get you to spill everything about yourself."
Her body is still. Deathly still.
He swears. Drops her to the forest floor and places his thumb and forefinger around her wrist. He has to wait for a pulse—he can actually count, in full seconds, the time between each beat—and despite the marginally slower heart rates of Humans in comparison to the Kattish, he knows that that's not fucking good.
The sky is starting to dim into a painterly orange, the sun's reds staining the sky like smeared blood. There's no way they're staying out here like this. First, he needs shelter, and then he needs to find out what the fuck's happening to his frontline partner because he's not about to let another teammate—another friend—die in his hands.
He picks her up, her head slumping over the crook of his shoulder. "We're close, Lilith," he lies. "We're really close. We're so close." He checks their position from his GlassLink. The dragon's blip still stands between them and their ship, and from the looks of it, it might actually be following them from a distance. It's persistent. The ship's blip is still at around three kilometres away from his current position, but the dragon is closer.
He kicks the tree in front of him. Curses—but not too loudly. He's stuck between a rock and a hard place. It's lurking around, waiting for him to pass out from exhaustion, and then it'll strike again.
Her body feels hot against his. He's not going to pass out from exhaustion. The Kattish did not evolve for 200,000 years just for him to pass out, his ass up and his face down against the ground, in front of a predator no less. He's made of flesh and bone, and the dragon's made out of ether and chitin, but that doesn't make him weak. It makes him aware of just how valuable his life is. It prepares him for death.
He's used to this. He can do this. He knocks his GlassLink from his pocket and onto the floor before he breathes into the microphone, "We're coming back, Captain O'Raal."
"Avett?" Ysh'vanna's voice crackles down the connection. "The dragon's signal's still on the map—"
He cuts her off. "Lilith is out cold. And I've got the wrong tools, I can't kill it without ether."
"Oh, stars. You know we can't land like this."
"I can't make it back without bringing along a… friend." He whirls around, his eyes trailing the wisps in the distance as they fade in between the pines. "I'll find somewhere for you."
"Avett, I've been scanning the area ever since you two left the ship. They're all way too tight—every clearing. I can wait at the outskirts for you—"
"I can't." He squeezes his eyes shut. "Ysh'vanna, it's cutting me off. I don't know how it's moving that quickly, but it's always, always one damn step behind me. I need to go."
"I'm sending Auren. Try to stay put if you can."
"Don't fucking send that man." He shakes his head to himself. Lilith feels incredibly heavy. "You need him, and I'm strapped for time here."
The line goes dead anyway. He searches the trees for the Equaliser as he shoves his GlassLink back into his pocket with difficulty, but it's eluded him somehow. It must think he's resting. It's going in for a kill. And Lilith's body is burning like a furnace at her back.
A rustle, six metres behind him. He slowly rises to his feet.
"Get lost, hot shit." Avett starts walking again; it slinks back out of fear. "I'm still kicking."
By the time he's gotten a fair distance from his position, the sun's below the horizon line, and the sky has faded into a sombre purple. It's getting dark, but that's not an issue for him. Not at all.
He trudges on. His back screams in protest, his legs are begging him to rest—but he continues, his eyes facing forward, each foot in front of the other. He's not even sure if he cares about Lilith. He's going through all this trouble because he's selfishly stuck in the past. He has to be.
Then he sees it. In a sea of deep blues and towering redwoods, there is a glow.
He runs up to it, his exhaustion be damned. It's an oil-powered lantern, one that's made out of glass and iron and topped with a single strand of steel wire for him to hold. He looks forward and sees another, and then another, until he realises that someone's lit a path for him.
His stomach sinks as he then realises what'll be waiting for him at the end of the path. A double-edged blade. A village.
Avett lets out a scream of frustration. It doesn't matter how loud he is because the Equaliser knows precisely where he is at any given moment anyway. Then he makes his way forward, wobbling between the trees, every ounce of his thinning focus on the next lantern in front of him, the next lantern in front of him…
Sure enough, he actually does arrive at a village. Cabins—constructed out of the very trees that have surrounded him for the past four hours—stand tall, their windows leaking a warm glow that swathes the area in yellow. He stumbles forward. Anticipation growls in his stomach. The adrenaline that's pounding through his legs hurts him more than it helps.
A figure steps forward. They're also holding a lantern.
Avett exhales hard enough to blow his hair out of his face. He's not sure how intimidating he looks to her, but with his body doubled forward and his ears pressed to his head, he's hoping that he'll look more meek than malicious; like a stray cat, if he will. The figure's got round ears, a staunch back, and features schooled into a blend of apprehensive worry. For a moment, he lets himself relax.
"She's hurt—help me." He takes a step forward. "Please."
"Put her on the ground."
It's an order, one that rings with earned authority. He slides her off his back and into his arms, but stops there.
"On the ground," the voice—noticeably feminine and guttural—repeats.
His gut twists. He lowers her to the dirt, his eyes never leaving the figure for a second. Lilith's body is easily thrown over the figure's shoulder. Now that she's gotten a little closer, he finds that she's at least two heads taller than him and that her physique far, far dwarfs his own.
Not that it means anything. He's Kattish; she's Human. But she’s also got an entire village of Humans behind her, and now that he’s got a literal load off his back, he sees that there are faint outlines standing in the shadows of each cabin. Watching and waiting.
A few tense seconds pass. He doesn't hold his breath.
The figure turns, and for a moment, she actually smiles. "You must be tired. Come. Follow me."
The air feels like it's been knocked right out of his lungs. "Thank you," he starts. "Thank you so much."
Avett is so damn ready to pass out that he doesn't bother sizing her up again. He doesn't notice the way the smile doesn't quite reach her eyes, nor the way she's looking at him—no, she's looking directly past him. Behind him.
His body doesn't swerve fast enough. A powerful arm wraps around his neck, trapping his throat in the bend of an elbow. Panic rams itself through his veins as he realises—they're going to choke him into a blissful sleep. The edges of his vision blacken, and he's treated to a dizzy spell that reminds him of the effects of inebriation. Every cell in his body screams for him to fight back, but he clenches his jaw and refuses, instead allowing his attacker to pull him to the ground. His eyes are on Lilith until the very end. Until all he sees is a blanket of black.
"They get lazier every year, I swear," is the last thing he hears before he slumps over.