Bethany Egge

Part 1:

Her father hunted monsters.

This was the first thing Nina understood about her father, a broad, deep-spoken man who towered over her tiny frame, whose presence had always been a comfort to her. Her earliest memory was that of him arriving home just as dawn swept away the morning’s fog, a crossbow slung across one shoulder and a beast draped over the other. Nina, who couldn’t have been more than four at the time, listened in awe as her father wove a tale of vicious monsters that he and his fellow hunters had encountered, tracked, and slain. He had taken her to the woods that lay, wild and untamed, behind their home, and assured her that the beasts he encountered in his expedition would no longer creep from between the trees and destroy their home.

Nina played with toys crafted from the bones her father kept as trophies. She fought imaginary dragons with bows, knives, and swords carved of horn and ivory. She learned to shoot a bow when most children still struggled to tie their shoes, and was soon nearly as skilled as her father. Nina rarely saw her mother, who was a meek, mild nurse, and when they were able to spend time together, her mother taught Nina to wrap injuries and apply medicines, per her father’s insistence. She longed for the day her father would bring her along on his expeditions to protect their town, but, until then, she spent every free moment wandering the forest that encircled their village, imagining what it would be like when she was finally allowed to venture into its deepest wilds.

Her father had told her stories about the horrendous acts monsters were capable of, from the indiscriminate slaughter of travelers to armies of them surrounding entire villages, forcing their inhabitants to starve to death. His favorite tale, however, concerned demons. He would always begin the tale in the same way, telling Nina that, before she was born, their town had been a much more dangerous place to live. In fact, the night Nina was born, he had to patrol the very woods that sat
behind their home, alert for any threats that could disturb his young wife. It had been then that he heard the faint, hiccupping cry of an infant from somewhere within the tangled trees. He crept into the undergrowth to investigate, only to find no evidence of a child, or, indeed, anyone. It was then that the demon ambushed him.

He would trace the scars he received from the encounter, which curved along his right shoulder and down to his left leg, as he related the courageous fight he put up in defending himself against the tricky tactics of the demon, who warped his vision and muddled his thoughts. Her father had prevailed, and Nina was always left in awe of his skill and bravery.

Nina had never seen a living monster–only the bodies her father brought home–but those, combined with blurred photos and her father’s visceral descriptions, affirmed her hatred of them. If it weren’t for the efforts of her father and his hunters, Nina knew, their village would be overrun in a season. However, there was also fear–at first just the blind terror of a child, it had quietly blossomed into an all-encompassing dread of the creatures that threatened her life and home. How could she, so much less than her father, hope to match beasts such as these? Would she be strong enough to protect her home? She had asked her father this, once, and he had dismissed it out of hand. She had been born for this. The thought filled Nina with comfort.

The seasons flew and Nina soon found herself sitting in the dining room, her father and his friends looming over her. As the first blizzard of the year roared around the house, she listened attentively to their route planning. Fewer and fewer monsters had been straying near the village, so this year’s expeditions would bring the group deeper into the wilderness than ever before. And finally, finally, Nina could be a part of it. She could help defend her home, just as she had always wanted.

On the darkest, coldest day of the season, Nina finally turned 13, old enough to join the hunt. She spent the day firing her bow into the woods, imagining the monsters that would lurk within come spring.

But when the sun had finally thawed the earth, and the world was green once more, she was already long gone.

Part 2:

Nina crouched, ignoring the complaints from her sore feet, and readied an arrow. She didn’t take her eyes off of her quarry, a scrawny doe aimlessly wandering through the thick trees. She didn’t have much meat on her, but it was Nina’s only option; she had eaten nothing for days but a handful of berries that she was barely able to stomach.

Nina was glad she had snatched her bow from the tool shed before she fled; she certainly would’ve starved by now without it. Thanks to her father’s lessons, she was able to hunt, though she was running dangerously low on unbroken arrows. She needed to be more careful. She was lucky that her bowstring hadn’t snapped by now, considering how much abuse it had suffered at her new claws. She had been forced to readjust how she gripped the bow to keep them from interfering, but the adjustment had cost her more than a few meals. As she did before every quarry, she silently cursed her body for what it had become.

The doe’s head turned as she scented the air; Nina took the opportunity to fire. The arrow pierced the deer’s eye, and the animal fell to the earth before it even realized what had happened. Nina managed a weak, satisfied smile and moved towards her kill. She lifted it, grunting with effort, and dragged it towards a clearing she had just passed through. The sun had begun to sink beneath the freshly budded leaves, and the modest gap in the trunks was plenty big enough to start a fire in.

Nina had spent her nights sleeping up in the tall, sturdy trees that marked this forest as ancient and her days moving deeper and deeper into its untamed wilderness. She followed faint game trails in the hopes that they would be relatively simple to navigate, but their unpredictable twists and turns made traversing them strenuous. Unfortunately, they were her only option if she didn’t want to constantly get her only clothes caught on brambles or her new tail trapped in a mess of low-lying branches. There was plenty of that going on already–the thing had a mind of its own, whipping this way and that any time Nina wasn’t specifically focusing on it.

Nina cleaned and cooked her meal, sighing in relief as the protests of her stomach silenced. She ate more than she thought was possible and packed the remaining meat into her bag as well as she could, using a plastic bag she had discovered lingering in its depths some weeks ago. Hopefully it would last another few days before spoiling. The fire sputtered as a gust of wind drifted through the trees, and Nina began shoveling loads of dirt over it to extinguish the flames. The last thing she needed was a forest fire.

Every day, she hoped to wake up and discover that her new situation was nothing more than a bad dream, and that she could go back to living a normal life with parents that wouldn’t kill her on sight. Unfortunately, each dawn did nothing but remind her that she could never return home, as its unfeeling rays illuminated her hands covered in rough, splotchy scales, her shoulders now crawling with downy feathers, and–perhaps most insultingly of all–the long, forked tail that started this whole mess. She had gotten over that, she told herself. Sure, it took a week of open sobbing and near dehydration, but she was now completely over her newly discovered lack of… everything. She had no home, no friends, and no family that wouldn’t kill her on sight. And that was fine. She could deal, she told herself. She knew how to survive off the woods, difficult and time-consuming as it was, and maybe if she kept at it, she wouldn’t have time to brood.

The fire was now nothing more than a mound of earth and branches, and the sun had dipped fully beneath the forest’s dense foliage. Nina selected a tree–a thick one with sturdy branches sprouting a good fifteen feet above the ground–and began to climb, cursing her traitorous body all the while. Knobby scales had been crawling up her ankles for a few days, but she had woken up this morning to find that two toes on each foot had combined to form wicked, sickle-shaped claws between her big toe and the others that jutted several inches into the air, forcing her to shove her ruined shoes into her dilapidated pack. The tail, which currently flicked from side to side on its own accord, had unbalanced her enough, but now every step sent uncomfortable tingles up her legs. The only good thing that had come out of the change, as Nina quickly discovered, was that the claws made it much easier to scale the massive trunks of the seemingly endless forest, although they left considerable gouges in the wood. Sure, she was wobbly and stressed and terrified that her father was tracking her, but at least she could climb trees. Hooray.

Nina gave a loud, frustrated sigh, and shoved the rising tide of emotions down. She had done plenty of crying already. It would have to be enough.

She had been drawn to the camp by the smell. Her own dinners had been bland and scentless, due to her lack of knowledge on local vegetation, so their stew’s wafting aroma had been too tantalizing to ignore. Nina wanted nothing more than to reveal herself and beg for some food, but she kept her distance, reminding herself that anyone gathering around the cheery fire wouldn’t hesitate before killing her. Humans loved nothing more than attacking demons, and monsters would instantly realize that she used to be human and eat her whole.

She was high in a tree separated from the camp by a considerable distance, having found that her hearing was far more sensitive than it used to be. It was easy, then, to eavesdrop on the group. She couldn’t see the clearing, which was all the better, really, since it guaranteed that they wouldn’t notice her. Nina hoped that, once the night grew older, the campers would dampen their fire, go to sleep, and leave their
stew out, but she knew that was unrealistic. She waited up anyways, with the vain hope that they would eventually leave their pot unguarded.

Instead, they got to talking, and they continued to do so well into the night. From the conversation, Nina gathered that they were monsters–unsurprising, considering how far she hoped she was from any human settlement–and that they had traveled this path many times before. She couldn’t decide how to feel about that bit of knowledge. Sure, it meant that the path she had chanced upon was hidden enough
from humans that it was unlikely any ever came near it, but it also meant that she was far closer to potential hordes of monsters than she was comfortable with. Truthfully, she wasn’t sure if she could be comfortable around anyone anymore. The only times she had ever really felt safe were when she was near her father, listening to his fantastical stories of brutal monsters and how he had fought them to protect her, but now… he would never let her near him.

Nina shook her head, trying to rid herself of thoughts of him. She didn’t care anymore, it didn’t matter that he has raised her for her entire life and taught her everything she needed to survive and promised she would make a difference in his endless battle against the beasts–

Her breath hitched, and she felt tears inching down her cheeks. Most distressing of all were the lowered voices of the monsters she’d been tailing. The blood roaring in her ears prevented her from catching their words, but she could feel the worry in their voices. She hadn’t considered that they probably had good hearing, too… Nina scrambled upright, hoping to jump a few trees away and avoid detection.

Just as she started to climb, though, her feet–her awful, painful feet–lost purchase, and she was thrown into free fall. Nina let out a strangled yelp as she crashed through the branches, finally managing to grab hold of a sturdy limb and heave herself upright. She could hear startled exclamations behind her, and she desperately hoped that they were just over the noise and not her…

Nina raced to the trunk and scaled the tree faster than she thought possible, stopping well above her previous position. Only then, concealed within leafy fronds, did she dare a glance downwards–only to see a humanoid figure staring at the forked tail that poked out of the oak’s wide leaves. Nina cursed and reeled the uncooperative limb into her hiding spot, wishing, as she had many times before, that the universe hadn’t arranged such a cruel fate for her.

Finding her body far too shaky and uncoordinated to attempt anything vaguely resembling acrobatics, Nina instead focused on shallow breaths through her tightened throat. When she felt that she had control again–or, at least, a paltry semblance of it–Nina dared to cast her gaze downward once again. The figure had left, but in their place rested a bowl of soup. She could smell its delightful aroma even from thirty feet up.

Now that her limbs had reluctantly allowed her to move, Nina eased herself back to the earth, where she peered at the light still emanating from the now much quieter camp. Hoping that the food wasn’t a trap, Nina knelt down and picked up the wooden bowl. As she did, her body tensed, and she waited for a disguised beast to leap from the shadows. None did.

Nina sat, took the spoon the strange monster had been thoughtful enough to include, and began to eat, relishing every bite. She hadn’t had anything so good for months.

She finished and took one final look at the monsters’ camp. They had dampened their fire and seemed to have settled down for bed. She looked down at the empty bowl in her hands, took a step towards the camp, and then changed her mind, doubling back and limping into the thick undergrowth.

As dawn brightened the sky and cheerfully illuminated the grove, the monsters woke to find the bowl and spoon sitting near their empty fire pit, freshly washed in the stream down the trail.