Content Warning: the following story contains scenes viloence against children. If you are offended by this or the death of children please hit the back button on your browser.
By Desert Mouse
"Watch where you are going. You are going to hurt somebody." Remington snapped. The little nine year old girl looked up at him confused.
"I was just playing a game." She protested. She didn't even think she was going that fast.
"That doesn't mean you get to run around like a lunatic."
The girl ignored him and continued on her way. Mr. Remington was always a bit of a jerk. She approached the storage building and saw someone a lot more friendlily.
"Hello Miss Richardson. Have you seen Sasha?" the girl asked.
"You two are playing a game aren't you?" Richardson asked. The little girl nodded.
"It would be cheating then if I told you." Richardson replied with a frown.
"I think I know where she is." The girl giggled. She slowly crept up to a cart full of supplies parked beside the storage building. It was currently being moved into storage from homes all over the village; and even a few touching outside the forest. But the child was only interested in one package. One that shouldn't have been on the cart in the first place. She snuck up to it and gently touched her friend on the shoulder.
"Found you!" She yelled. Her friend squeaked at the unexpected touch but smiled when she saw who it was.
"No fair. You always find me." She pouted.
"That's because you always go for the most obvious places Sasha." She laughed.
"Do you want to play again? This time I'll hide."
Sasha shook her head.
"It's starting to get dark. My mommy wanted me to come home when we started to lose light." Sasha replied.
"But maybe tomorrow we can play something else? I'm no good at this one." She smiled.
"Ishara time to come and set the table. Suppers almost ready." An adult voice interrupted.
"Oh hi Sasha. Would you like to come for supper too?" she asked.
"No Thank you. I'm expected home." Sasha replied quietly. She was always a little more shy around people besides her parents; and Ishara.
"Well then hurry home. You can come back and play tomorrow." Ishara's mom smiled. Sasha scurried away and she turned back to her daughter.
"Come set the table." She started; but then she noticed her daughters dress.
"Ishara Rawluk. What have you done to your dress?" she asked sternly.
"It must have happened when I was looking for her." Ishara replied looking down. She noticed the rip in her skirt for the first time.
"Go change." Her mother ordered.
"But you said supper was almost ready." Ishara pouted.
"You can't go running around in torn clothes. I'll mend it tomorrow so go change." Her mother insisted. Ishara quickly ran home; to her room to change for supper.
That night the moon's soft light poked through the clearing in the trees. In the small un- named village Ishara was having trouble getting to sleep. She was lying in her bed tossing and turning, trying to find that one position that might allow her to get some rest; only nine years old she really had no idea what was lurking in the shadows.
Not far away; hidden in the surrounding forest a gang of bandits known as the Red Reapers were waiting. Days ago one of their scouts had stumbled on the village and found it to be a perfect place to set up a base; their old one in the endless forest would not be safe for long. Since then they had come to the conclusion that this village was un-known to the rest of the world and would serve their purpose for many years to come. However for now they did not attack; they were only going to watch until morning when it would be time to take their prize.
In her cozy bed, Ishara started to finally nod off. Her last thoughts of the night were of what games she would play with Sasha tomorrow.
The next morning, as the first light of the sun barely broke into the forest clearing. The Red reapers descended from hiding onto the sleepy town. Ishara woke up during the commotion; rubbing her eyes she wondered what all the noise was about. She slowly hopped out of her bed and went to the window to take a look. The sight that greeted her was horrifying. In the dusty streets of her little forest village; Ishara saw death.
In the poor light Ishara could still make out large groups of men in dirty clothing; each one had a deep blood red band on their arm. Ishara's heart leapt when she saw the men yanking people from their homes and in many cases killing them there in the streets. She tore herself from the window and was about to hide under her bed when her parents burst into the room.
"Honey, get away from the window, we have to go" her mother said in a panicked voice. She grabbed Ishara's hand and gripped tightly. Leading her out of her room they tried to leave the house to find safety. They didn't even get as far as the door before some of the bandits burst into the home. Her mother let out a frightened shriek, pulling her daughter close to her to protect her. Ishara's father however stood his ground, grabbing a knife from the counter to defend his family. The more experienced bandits quickly killed him; and the girls were herded into the corner of the kitchen.
"This can't be happening" Ishara thought, her mind had trouble grasping the situation. It all seemed like some bad nightmare. Any moment she felt she might wake up; and her mother would come to comfort her back to sleep. The harsh reality was that Ishara's mother could not do anything. She held her tightly; trying her best to keep Ishara away from the bad men. But that was all that she could do. She knew that when the men were ready; there was nothing she could do to save either of their lives.
"The woman does not suit our needs. Drag her out front and kill her." a man's voice said. Ishara turned towards the sound. Standing in the kitchens back door was a large man. He had a cruel look to him and was better dressed then any of the other bandits. One of the other men grabbed Ishara's mother; yanking her from the little girls grip. The larger man ignored Ishara's mother and walked right up to Ishara herself. He grabbed her face and forced her to look into his eyes. She struggled to look away from his cold eyes; but he held her too tightly.
"This one is useless. Have her killed too." The man said annoyed. But he stopped when he saw something behind the fear sparkling in her eyes.
"Wait, take her to the others." he ordered. Immediately another of the men came in and grabbed Ishara's arms. He held her roughly as he dragged her towards the center of the village. Ishara wanted nothing more then to get back to where her mother was. She tried to resist but was no match for this grown man.
"Let go" Ishara whined. The man ignored her feeble cries. She struggled against his grip; trying desperately to get back to her parents. But she could not get away. She stumbled in the attempts and her legs gave out. He ignored it and started to drag her through the dirt; indifferent to anything she did or tried to say. The only time he seemed to notice that he was dragging a child instead of a bag of apples was when he tossed her into what used to be the storage building. If she had not been so frightened she might have noticed that the place was still fully stocked. The bandits were apparently in no hurry to raid the place. They would get everything they needed from the other houses in the village first. Instead the only thing that she could notice was that she was not alone. There were at least seven or eight other girls from around the village with her. Not one of them was older then fourteen.
Ishara looked around the room for someone that could help her get back to her parents. Two bandits stayed near the entrance and kept an eye on the captives; with four more lined up against the walls. They wouldn't help her; but it meant in general they were not being watched too closely. In the next short while two more girls got thrown into the store with them. They were no one that Ishara knew too well; but they were older then Ishara and adapted much faster. Already they located girls closer to their own age and started to quietly plan something. Ishara watched them for a while wondering if they could help her until another girl was shoved into the store.
Ishara looked to see who it might have been; her heart sank when her eyes fell on her young timid friend Sasha. Carefully she crept towards the girl.
"They didn't hurt her." Ishara thought. It was a bitter sweet observation as her friend wasn't dead; but she was now a prisoner with the rest of them.
"Hey" she whispered to Sasha. Her friend looked back at Ishara with tears in her eyes; and a dead, blank look on her face. Understanding started to came to her and Ishara's own eyes started to swell up with tears.
"Mommy…Daddy." She thought. She remembered what happened to her parents; and realized at last that they would not be coming back. And she knew that the same thing happened to Sasha. The two of them sat in silence and wept, they both wished that someone would come in and save them like in the stories they used to be told.
Outside the store the village fell silent well before lunch. As the massacre ended twelve girls in total waited; with no less then six of the red banded men watching them carefully in the nearly cramped storage building.
No one spoke, and no one moved for most of the day. The girls were left to wonder what was going to happen to them; with the horrors of that morning fresh on their minds. It was like that until almost nightfall when a bandit came into the store and spoke to one of the door guards.
"Listen up. We need to move you for a while. Follow us and don't try to do anything stupid." The man announced. With the help of the four men lining the walls the girls were herded out of the store. Ishara held her friend Sasha closely and helped her to move with the group. She was afraid of what would happen if one of them fell behind. The girls were taken to another building where a table was set up with twelve bowls of soup; and glasses of water.
"You must all be hungry by now. Eat up but keep your mouths shut. Now sit down and don't get up until we tell you." The man ordered.
"Come on.' Ishara whispered leading Sasha to a seat. The younger girl sat down quietly but did nothing but stare at the table blankly.
"I don't blame you. I'm not hungry either." Ishara thought. They had not been fed anything all day; and while she had become very thirsty she didn't have much of an appetite. A quick look around the table and she saw it was true for most of the girls as they attacked the water but left the soup mostly untouched.
"This is all you get today. Eat you little shits." The man barked at them after a while. Ishara picked at her soup but she found it nearly impossible to bring the spoon to her mouth.
The girls were made to sit there for an hour and a half. While none of them actually finished their soup; a couple girls managed to eat about half of it. Most of them however simply couldn't stop crying long enough to force themselves eat. Eventually though another bandit came through the door and spoke to the one that had been ordering them around.
"Looks like supper is over. Stand up and come quietly." The man barked at them. The bandits painfully yanked anyone moving too slowly upwards; and the girls were pushed back to the store.
"Where did everything go?" Ishara asked herself once she was shoved back into the store with Sasha roughly pushed into her. All the items previously being stored had been removed along with most of the shelves; so now all of them could be watched by only two bandits standing at the door.
"Are you ok?" Ishara whispered to Sasha. The younger girl didn't make a sound.
"Come sit down." She pleaded. She gently directed Sasha to a corner on the floor and took a look around the gutted store. She now understood that they would be kept here for a while.
"Is that for us?" she asked herself when she spotted something new. By the door someone had put a large barrel full of water. Taking a chance she walked over to it to see what the two bandits at the door would do. They stared at her but didn't say anything even when she took the ladle and took a sip of the water.
Satisfied Ishara refilled the ladle and brought it back to Sasha. Her friend only accepted it when Ishara pressed the ladle against her lips. Passively she opened her mouth and let her pour the water in.
"I don't know what to do." She thought tearing up. She put the ladle back and sat next to her friend; longing desperately to at least hear Sasha's voice again.
"You both know it as well as I do." A voice said forcefully. Ishara looked to see Nicole, Catherine, and Diane gathered in the corner of the store. They almost seemed oblivious to everyone else; except that Catherine kept looking around the room.
"Quiet down. We don't need to worry the young ones." Catherine said glaring at Diane.
"They should be worried. We all should." Nicole said.
"That won't help anyone. If we can figure out what they want from us however. We can prepare for it." Catherine replied.
"My father told me that outside the forest they sell girls as livestock, or as pets. Maybe that's why they kept us?" Nicole suggested.
"To do what? Work in the field like a mule? No, it's obvious the reason they kept us is because we are girls. They want what's between our legs. Why do you think they haven't thrown any clothing in here for us? Nightgowns are easier to rip off when they are ready." Diane offered.
"Most of us are far too young to be making babies with." Catherine pointed out.
"Do you think that matters to them? Maybe it's both? They plan to sell us to people who will do that to us." Diane replied.
"We can't ignore that possibility. But maybe they don't plan anything like that? They could simply intend to kill us." Nicole suggested.
"If they were going to do that. They would have done it already. What would be the point in locking us in here for three days first? They killed everyone else on the spot." Catherine asked. She shook her head.
"Whatever they plan for us. It's not going to be pleasant. But we simply need more information before we can prepare ourselves." she said.
"Later; it looks like it's almost meal time." Diane said motioning to the door. Two new bandits came in with a barrel of water and swapped it for the almost empty one provided for them yesterday. After no one finished that first meal three days ago several changes had been made. The first being that the girls were kept in the store during meals; and the second was that precautions were now taken to make sure they ate.
"This is going to get ugly." Nicole commented looking to where Ishara and Sasha sat. Catherine followed her gaze and stared directly at Ishara.
"She needs to do something about her." Catherine said. Ishara stared back at her quietly.
"You heard them too; didn't you?" another voice asked. Ishara turned to face Tima. Until a couple of days ago her parents got most of their materials from Tima's parents.
"They are right. I can't get anything from Sasha. She's not going to eat again." Ishara replied desperately.
"No progress then?" Tima asked. Ishara shook her head.
"She won't eat, she won't talk. She won't even move. I don't know what's wrong with her." Ishara started crying.
"Calm down." Tima begged.
"You don't want to be doing that when they come back.
"But they are going to do it to her again." Ishara responded.
"And if you are crying when they return they will do it to you too. They just want an excuse." Tima pointed out. Ishara took several minutes to calm herself down. She knew that Tima was right. She was down to sniffling a little just in time for four new bandits to enter the store. One was carrying a pot while the others held bowls and spoons.
"Line up and get your supper. Nice and quick." One of them ordered. The girls; except for Sasha whom didn't move at all quickly did as they were told. When it was Ishara's turn to get a bowl of the cabbage soup the bandit in charge stared at her tear marked face for a full minute before giving it to her.
Ishara quickly grabbed her bowl and rushed back to the corner with Tima and Sasha. They both tried to sit in front of her to block the bandits view. Even though it had never worked before.
"Looks like we got another one Fred." One of the bandits said.
"Isn't that the same one as yesterday?" Fred replied.
"Who cares?" The bandit shrugged. They walked towards the three.
"Here! You can have this back. I'm done." Someone growled pushing a mostly full bowl of soup into Fred's hands.
"You too?" Fred grinned. The girl just shook her head.
"I ate, and so did she. So take the bowl and go away." The girl said.
"Don't do this Sandra." Catherine ordered. She set down her own bowl and approached them.
"No; do it Sandra." Fred mocked. Catherine faced the two bandits.
"Give her the bowl back and I'll make sure they both eat. You don't have to do this." She said.
"It's too late for that girly. This tart can have hers back if she sits her ass in the corner and shuts up. But that other one didn't do as she was told." Fred said bluntly. Sandra took her bowl back but instead of going to sit down; she plopped it in front of Sasha.
"There she's eating now. You can go away." She said.
"You asked for it." Fred replied. He motioned to his friends and two of the bandits grabbed Sandra by the arms while Fred picked up the bowl of soup.
"Leave her alone! Leave them both alone!" Ishara screamed.
"Don't get involved." Tima warned.
"Cute! This one wants it too." Fred laughed at her.
"Stay out of this brat." Sandra snapped at her. Just before Fred grabbed her firmly by the face. She quickly opened her mouth because she would only push it so far. Fred then poured the bowl of soup down her throat; only slowing down when she started to choke.
"Don't be a hero." Fred said when he was finished. They let Sandra go and grabbed Sasha by the arms next. They forcefully pulled her upwards and repeated the ordeal with her. Only she didn't try to resist at all.
"Anyone else want to try their luck?"
Ishara almost spoke up when Catherine saw what she was about to do and pushed her out of the way.
"Don't be stupid." She hissed and looked Fred dead in the eyes.
"You have done your job. There's no need to continue the threats. Everyone here is either eating; or already has."
"I still see plenty not eating. Including you girl." Fred replied.
"I'll get back to mine in a moment." Catherine said. Then she made a gamble off how they had been treated so far.
"You want to do it. I can see that. But is it wise to risk hurting us unnecessarily? Before your boss says its ok?" she asked. Fred growled at her; making her think that there was some truth to it after all.
"Eat your supper and shut up. I'll hear no more from the boss's pets." Fred snapped and went back to the door to wait until he decided everyone was finished.
"So we are for the boss then?" Catherine whispered.
"What do you mean?" Ishara asked. Catherine looked sadly at her.
"Don't worry about it. You are far too young to experience such things. Beg Cyllene that they don't force you yet." Catherine replied before going back to her own bowl of soup.
It wasn't until the evening of the fifth day of their captivity that the first of the girls found out why they were being held. The entire time; they had been watched by the bandits. They had not been allowed out of their guard's sight; even to relieve themselves they had to have someone watching them. It was only after they had been fed, and the day's light had started to weaken that something began to happen. The large man whom Ishara hadn't even seen since the morning he ordered the execution of her mother; and had her thrown in with the rest of the girls. Walked into the store. Immediately the two guards got out of the way. The large man didn't come alone, he had the same two people from that morning at his side. Everyone looked at him afraid; he had been personally responsible for all twelve of them. He didn't speak a word at first instead just examining the girls one at a time. He seemed to be looking for something specific in the eyes of his new toys. Finally he looked in the direction of Ishara and her friend. She tried to push down the resounding fear that climbed into her throat; but she felt something else stir within her when he pointed to Sasha.
"That one" he said like he was picking out a new cow.
Immediately one of the large man's buddies grabbed Sasha and dragged her quietly from the store. The girl did not put up much of a fight as the large man followed them out. Everyone in the store became as quiet as the grave as the guards re-took their positions at the door. The same question was on every girls mind; but none dared to speak it.
It started an hour after Sasha had been taken. And it lasted for more then twenty minutes. The only sound they could focus on was a child's screams of pain. Ishara's face went pale. Tima whom had not left her side since the moment Sasha was dragged away finally spoke.
"You don't think that's…" her voice trailed off. Ishara barely nodded.
"It is." She said quietly. She knew her friends voice; and though she had so rarely heard her scream. Ishara recognized it all too well.
"It sounds like Sasha." Another girl called Julia replied to someone.
"What are they doing to the poor thing?" she asked.
"I think they want information from her. Why else would they hurt someone that young" Natasha suggested.
"What information do you think they would expect her; or any of us to know?" Diane replied irritated.
"They don't even have to have a reason." A girl named Sophie pointed out.
"Is she going to be ok? It sounds like they really want to kill her." Julia said softly. Tima listed to what they said and turned back to Ishara. She was about to speak; but the haunted look in Ishara's face made her pause. Instead they sat in silence until the screaming finally stopped; but even then it lingered in their ears long afterwards. It was not until a few hours after Sasha became silent that she was returned to the store.
She was thrown back in with a fierceness that alarmed those that saw it; even the guards themselves. The large man from before was furious with Sasha; and he started looking for someone to take her place. When she hit the ground Sasha started to crawl along the floor to the darkest corner she could find. Ishara's chest tightened when she saw that at her friend had lost the ability to walk. With a deep concern for Sasha; Ishara started towards her; escaping the notice of her captors at just the right moment to avoid being seen and becoming the next one to find out why they were being held. Because she was so occupied Ishara never really saw that Diane was chosen instead of her.
Moving closer to Sasha, Ishara felt herself become sick when she saw the state her friend was in. Sasha was bruised, her right eye was turning a deep shade of purple, and she had blood all over her face like her nose had been broken. However oddly it wasn't bleeding now. And Ishara could only wonder about the hidden injuries visible only by the tears in Sasha's nightgown.
"What happened" Ishara whispered very softly, she was afraid that the bandits would hear her and she would be hurt so she tried to be quiet. Sasha showed no signs that she even heard Ishara, and neither did the bandits. Frowning Ishara tried again, this time she reached to hold her friend while her heart felt like it was being squeezed. Sasha twisted away from Ishara's touch like her friend had just hurt her, the fear in her eyes seemed to intensify and Ishara pulled away shocked.
"I won't cry, I just won't." Ishara thought to herself trying to be strong. She could feel a fresh batch of tears trying to get out.
"What did they do to you" she whispered, she received no response from her traumatized friend but she had almost not been expecting one. Instead she started to think.
"Is this what's going to happen to me? When will my turn come?"
When the screaming started this time there was a longer delay from when Diane was taken away compared to Sasha. It woke several of the girls from their light slumber; but Ishara wasn't one of them. She hadn't even tried to fall asleep since Sasha was returned to the store. Ishara sat a safe distance from her traumatized friend. She didn't try to speak to Sasha; and she didn't try to move closer.
Ishara did however glance around shortly after the screaming started.
"What is happening? That's Diane isn't it? I don't see her anymore. How will she look when she is returned to us? Will it be like Sasha?" she wondered. She wasn't the only one. She saw most of the girls that just woke up look to their captors for answers. The bandits just stood smirking at them.
Catherine decided that the guards would not give them any kind of answers; but she saw one person that could. Determined she approached Ishara and Sasha; ignoring Ishara completely this time and looking directly at Sasha.
"What are they doing to her?" she asked. She wasn't mean about it; but the force behind her words sent Sasha skirting back.
"Hey leave her alone." Ishara said standing up.
"Can't you see she's hurt?"
"It doesn't matter. She knows what's happening to Diane right now. She's the only one and she needs to tell us." Catherine replied without looking at Ishara.
"What did they do to you?" she asked staring at Sasha. Ishara's friend didn't respond; prompting Catherine to step closer. Ishara moved to place herself between Catherine and Sasha; painfully aware how getting this close was hurting her friend.
"I said leave her alone. She can't answer you right now." Ishara glared at her.
"Sure she can. She just doesn't want to." Sophie said angry. She wasn't the only one now approaching them.
"It's going to happen to all of us. It's important to know what's going on." Natasha stated.
"Not from her." Ishara protested. She tried to keep Sasha safely behind her but she was becoming rapidly outnumbered as more girls woke up.
"If not her then who?" Sophie demanded.
"Maybe Diane when she's finished?" Ishara suggested.
"She's right. Sasha is in no condition to tell you anything. I'm not even sure she can speak anymore. Julia said breaking in.
"Is that what they are doing then? Taking our voices? Sophie asked alarmed. Julia shook her head, but it was Catherine that spoke up first.
"It's possible. Maybe they don't want us to be able to speak; or complain about what Diane figures they want us for." She offered. But Julia had other ideas.
"I don't think Sasha has been able to speak since the night we were captured. She has barely moved at all and they have had to force feed her every day." Julia explained.
"She hasn't." Ishara agreed.
"I've been with her since we got thrown in here. Nothing has changed since she was pulled away."
"I don't think they are taking our voices. But we won't know for sure until Diane has been returned." Julia suggested.
"There is no choice then. We will have to wait. It would have been better for everyone if Sasha had shared what she knew." Catherine said glaring at the nearly comatose girl. They all went to lay back down; but Ishara didn't relax until every one of them was gone.
By the time that Diane was brought back to the store. The only three still awake were Ishara, Catherine and to some extent; Sasha. From her sitting point Ishara could see the door when Diane was thrust back into the store in the same fashion as Sasha several hours earlier. However this time there was only the faint moonlight to show them what happened to her.
Ishara watched Catherine approach Diane with mild interest. She had the same questions on her mind as Catherine but was unwilling to leave Sasha's side.
"Are you ok? What did they do to you?" Catherine asked. Ishara saw Diane's mouth move but couldn't hear what she said.
"Can't you speak?" Catherine asked. Diane shook her head and made some motions that Ishara couldn't understand. But it looked like Catherine had gotten an idea at least.
Catherine helped her over to a quiet corner and approached Ishara and Sasha. She stood there in silence for several minutes. Finally she took a deep breath and said.
"I owe Sasha an apology."
"She's resting" Ishara replied.
"I don't want to disturb her. But I owe you one too. You were just trying to protect your friend; and now I know that she could never have told us." Catherine explained.
"Is Diane?" Ishara asked.
"I think with her its temporary. I heard her trying to speak and there was something there. Just not much." Catherine said.
"What will you do now?" Ishara asked.
"Wait and see if Diane gets her voice back. If she doesn't then that's what they are doing to us." Catherine said.
"Why would they make us quiet?" Ishara asked. Catherine sighed.
"I can think of a couple reasons; including Diane's suggestions. And none of them are good. But you should get some sleep."
Ishara looked down at Sasha.
"I don't think I can." She said.
"If you want to protect her; then you need to try." Catherine stated and went to find her own resting place.
"She's right. But I should watch her until I know everyone's asleep." Ishara decided.
In the next several days, four more girls were taken with the same results before it was Ishara's turn. The store's usual sound of occasional whimpers from the girls became almost silent with the increased crying. All of the girls taken came back to the store in much the same manner. Battered and crying they usually tried to hide from the world in the desperate hope that it would not happen again. The girls that had not been chosen by the large man remained un-aware of what was going on and could only guess horrible things from looking at the unlucky ones. The girls that been through it, could not speak though the hoarse voices from the all the screaming; though it seemed that Diane was getting close to being able to speak again.
Finally the time came when the large man looked right at Ishara and called out in his cold voice
"That one" At first Ishara tried to find a place to hide. But she knew that there was no such place around here. She had no choice so she swallowed the fear that was chocking her and took a couple brave steps towards the men coming to get her.
"They are going to hurt me." she thought afraid.
"And I can't do anything to stop them"
The large man's guards looked at her, confused at first about her cooperation; and even a little amused by it. But in the end they didn't really care either way. They directed her to go with them. Quietly she followed them out the door, hanging her head low because she was too afraid of the pain she knew was coming. She could almost feel the large man following her while the other two led her.
The bandit group led Ishara out of the store, down the dirt road for about fifteen meters. Then they took her off the dusty streets and past a series of trampled gardens planted by the villagers. They took her to the edge of the forest surrounding the town. Ishara looked at him confused, daring to lift her head.
"They aren't going to beat me?" she wondered.
In a cold voice the large man ordered her.
"Run" he offered her no more explanation and she heard the danger in his voice. If she stuck around she could feel that terrible things would happen to her so without thinking about it; she took off.
Ishara ran as fast as her little legs could carry her. At first her only goal was to put as much distance as possible between her and the bandits. Then when she had thought she ran far enough she took a little time to breathe.
"Am I free?" she wondered.
"No impossible, they want to hurt you like they did the others." a strange voice in her head argued back
"Then why am I here?" she whispered to the trees. She could feel the terror rising within her trying to break free. Quickly she tried to push it back down; feeling that it would be a mistake to let it loose. Ishara looked up and knew that there was still plenty of daylight left. She had been taken from the store just after they had been fed the midday meal. That meant it would still be a couple of hours before the day's light started to fade. She thought it was a good thing because she would be able to see where she was going. It just didn't occur to her that it also meant the bandits could see her just as clearly.
"Why did they let me go, they can't be letting me run for help?" Ishara thought. The truth started to creep up on her, but she could not yet grasp it. She could not understand what the bandits were planning for her. Instead the panic started to take control again; and this time it was getting away from her. Ishara's heart stopped when she heard a rustling sound from behind. Her panic took a great leap despite her best attempts to push it back again, and when she heard the men's voices the truth slapped her in the face. She was too far away to hear what they said; but she had a sinking feeling that one of those voices belong to the large man.
"They are chasing me?" she thought with surprise
"Of course they are you dolt, they wouldn't just let you run away like that; stupid girl. No this is just a game to them." she answered herself. With that realization she snapped. Ishara lost all control of herself as the panic burst forward. She was unable to think about anything beyond getting away; her fear knew what was best for her and she gave into it completely.
Ishara broke into a run; this time she did not care where she was going. She couldn't think straight enough to hide and was incapable of noticing anything; even when branches started tearing at her nightgown and the skin beneath.
Giving into her panic was the worst thing that she could do. It was because of this blind, uncontrolled run that she did not notice that she had doubled back. She could no longer hear the bandit's voices over the throbbing of her heart inside her ears. As Ishara ran she unknowingly circled back to where the bandits were tracking her. The two guards noticed her first and looked at her with surprise and amusement for the second time that night. But the large man only glared at her with annoyance.
However Ishara failed to see any of that; she didn't register their presence until one of the stronger ones grabbed her shoulders roughly and held her still. Shocked out of her run; Ishara started to struggle uselessly. She seemed to think that she had a chance to get away from them. But the man held her too tightly for her to escape; and then when he grew tired of her annoying struggles he stilled her with a very firm slap across the face.
"Please, let me go" Ishara begged with tears filling her eyes.
"Silence" the man holding her hissed
"Lex, don't bother. This pathetic girl thinks that begging will help? She will learn soon enough." The large man said indifferent to her cries.
"Sorry boss" Lex replied. At that point Ishara kept her mouth shut; though she was unable to keep from whimpering softly. The boss led Ishara and the guards back to the village. Lex eventually grew tired of supporting her and let go of her shoulder. But Ishara was too scared to make a run for it. She allowed them to lead her…somewhere.
They didn't take Ishara back to the store like she might have hoped for. Instead the leader took them towards what had once been the village's community center. It was a large mostly hollowed out building that was usually kept empty until it was in use.
In the bandits hands the community center was a complete disorganized mess. Chairs had been pulled out of storage and placed in any old place. Tables had been set up to hold coins; and Ishara spotted a women serving food to one of those tables. Ishara was sure that the woman looked familiar. Someone from the village she knew; but in the woman's beaten and abused state Ishara could not figure out who she used to be. The server took a brief sympathetic glance at Ishara but quickly got back to work before she got in trouble.
Ishara was taken to the back of the community center to a room that was usually used for storage for town events. The room had been hastily cleared of everything except a table in the center with various ropes tied to the legs. Along the wall Ishara saw many scary looking tools.
The men brought her to the table and grabbed her arms before she could even think about running away. The leader grinned when he saw the realization shoot into her eyes. The two guards painfully lifted her to the table and tied her in tightly. Ishara cried out involuntarily, she did not expect any sympathy from these men though; she wasn't that stupid.
"She came to us. Let's make it a one." the boss told a forth bandit that had been waiting inside for them.
Ishara didn't even stop to question what the bandit meant by one. She wasn't ready for the answer to that question anyway. She was too busy struggling against the ropes that bit into her wrists and ankles. She tested them but found nothing she could do.
"Is this what happened to Sasha? Is this where the screams came from?" Ishara thought trying to force her arm loose. The ropes didn't budge at all but it kept her busy so she didn't have to see the stick the bandit picked out after the leader and his two hunters left.
She didn't see it; but she felt it. If it had been someone else she might have heard it when the bone broke. But on the moment of impact her leg exploded in pain and that was all that she could focus on. Ishara let out her own unstopping scream just like the girls before her. She was then rewarded for her noise with a hard punch to the face; almost breaking her nose in the process.
"I hate this part. Stop screaming!" the bandit yelled at her. he swung the stick around again; lighter this time so not to break anything. He hit her in the ribs. The bandit was relentless he didn't even stop for a moment before grabbing her by the hair to force her head upwards so he could slap her multiple times.
It was only after her voice gave out on her some time later that he started to slow down. He gave it one final test by swinging the stick at her arm by the wrist until the bone snapped. When all that got him was almost silence; he put the stick away and grabbed a knife.
"He's going to kill me." Ishara thought. The idea was somehow more comforting then frightening at this point. But that's not what the knife was for; she would receive no such mercy.
No longer able to scream Ishara could only lay there with silent tears and watch as the man took the knife to her. He didn't even bother lifting her nightgown; preferring to shred it as well as the skin it protected. His cuts were precise; deep enough to draw blood but not so deep as to find an endless supply of it. He cut long and thin along the joints that would pull apart with every jolt, and shake of her upcoming new pain.
After the man was finished with the knife he put it away and went through most of the tools she saw laying by the wall. He used each one on her until he got bored of it and moved onto the next one. Several times she almost passed out; but the man was practiced in this art and he knew when to draw the pain back to prolong her suffering.
By the end of it all she had left was the agony. To Ishara her body was ripping itself apart with every everlasting second. She tried to beg him to end it; to let her join her parents. He ignored her pleading eyes for the longest time.
But eventually he was finally ready to give her what she wanted. With one last tool he brought her pain back to its peak and beyond. This time he allowed it to overcome her at last; letting her pass out.
She had lost the capacity to think about anything when her voice had given out. Her humanity had been stripped from her with each of the tools he used. But before everything turned to blessed darkness her final hope was that she just died.
When she woke up later Ishara was disappointed. She had really hoped that she would die back there; and be freed of the pain she still felt. But inside she understood that they had no intention of killing her; not a single one of the girls who had been taken before her had failed to come back.
"Where am I?" Ishara wondered. She was no longer tied to that table; instead she was laying on a bed inside someone's house. She didn't dare try to move; her body was the sorest she had ever felt before. There probably wasn't any part of her that didn't hurt.
"My leg feels strange. It doesn't hurt nearly as bad as it did after the stick hit me." She thought confused. It still ached a lot; but it was like the bone was no longer broken. Before she could figure that out; she froze and quickly shut her eyes when she heard that she wasn't alone.
"If they know I'm awake they might send me back to that table." She thought terrified. She tried to will herself to disappear completely.
"You have to go easier on them" an almost small voice said.
"Its their choice; They are the only ones that can decide how harsh their punishment will be. Once they start giving me the challenge I demand I'll start going easier on them." The leaders cold voice explained
"And I'll bet they know that" the other man said sarcastically.
"They will learn soon enough. I want defiance from them or they are useless to me" The leaders voice replied
"Well try not to break so many bones, or you'll be the one to heal them" The other man hissed.
"Again, that's their choice. But you will mend whatever bones I tell you too." The boss replied. His voice had a tone of finality. Ishara heard some grumbling from the second man before she heard the leader's voice again.
"Girl, I know you're awake. There isn't any point in pretending otherwise. Whether you are conscious or not will neither prolong; nor shorten your stay here. But I let you listen to our conversation for a reason. Put what you were allowed to hear about your place to good use; or else things will only get worse for you." he warned. Ishara opened her eyes and started to sob. The leader growled at the weakness and left her alone with the healer who was a small man. He had a look of cruelty all his own, but also looked aged somehow. Moments after the leader left the two familiar guards re-entered. They painfully grabbed Ishara and yanked her off the bed. She looked sadly at it; wishing that she could stay there just for the rest of the night. But she heard what the bandit leader had said; even if she hadn't woken up yet she would have been pulled away from it now.
Ishara was brought back to the store and carelessly tossed onto the floor. Now she understood why the rest of the girls had simply cried and tried to hide somewhere. But perhaps unlike them; Ishara was too sore to crawl on the ground. So she limped off to find her own little area. Curling up against the wall Ishara started to cry again. She wanted to warn the rest of the girls about what she had heard but now she understood why none of them had been able to talk. Her throat burned from screaming so long that she couldn't even try. Ishara spent another hour sitting against the wall crying. She wished that the darkest places of the store hadn't already been taken. She was returned late at night; and though this part of the store had almost no windows for the moonlight to shine into. The bandit guards at the door had their own lanterns; whose light could reach where Ishara sat.
As much as she wanted to; she couldn't cry forever. All too quickly she ran out of tears again and could do nothing but sit in the dim light and stare at her nightgown. The pain forced her to remain awake; and every time that she closed her eyes she felt the large man behind her; and saw one of the tools used on her when she was tied helpless to that table. Everything was still too fresh in her mind; and sleep itself was not going to be an option tonight. Without really thinking about it she started poking at the remains of her nightgown. In her mind she could almost hear her mother scolding her for wearing such a tattered and dirty thing.
"How could I be so careless?" she asked herself poking a finger though one of the holes. The longer she was without the comfort of tears the more numb she started to feel to everything except her clothing. Ishara's nightgown was torn in four places from the trees, and there was at least another three rips creating during her beating. This was just what she could see; she probably had several more on her back. The thin cotton gown was not going to last very much longer at this rate. She wearily tried to get a look at the other girls who had gone through what she had. The ones that she could see did feature torn nightgowns themselves; but none of them to the extent that hers was.
"I need to change." she thought suddenly. Somehow she found the idea of spending any more time in her tattered nightgown too much to bear.
"Your mother would be angry if she saw you wearing that. Your parents took pride in their work and expected you to be an example." The same voice that mocked her in the forest said. She didn't have the energy to question that voice; besides it only said what she now felt was right. Her mind was made up. She had to listen to her parents and find something new to wear. Trying to be careful not to draw attention to herself, Ishara started glancing around the store.
"Some of the clothing my parents made must be around here somewhere. The store is pretty empty; what would they have done with everything?" she wondered, then she looked at the door in back of the store.
"The back room. Could they have thrown everything in there?" she questioned. She had helped her parents move things in and out of the store before; including that back room. So she knew that there was no lock on the door. The girls stayed away from it mostly because no one was stupid enough to try and go back there with the guards always watching.
Ishara looked to the guards watching from the front door. Even though she was the only girl awake now; they didn't pay much attention to her. one of them fidgeted around like he was expecting to be replaced soon; while the other was more interested in trying to get a peek up some of the older girls nightgowns as they slept.
Determined not to spend the night in her tattered gown; and pushing aside all common sense. She crawled to the door making as little noise as she could; despite the pain in each movement. Her mind had switched to the single thought of getting to that room so she could find peace with her mothers memory.
Ishara was still very weak from her beating so she had to hold onto the wall to get back to her feet. It was very slow moving and she briefly caught the attention of one of the guards. But when he saw that it was just the boss's last toy struggling to her feet. He turned back to look at the older girls again. With a weak half-smile Ishara snuck into the back room. Lost in her mission the idea that she might be caught; and receive another beating never even crossed her mind.
The back room was lit by the almost full moon poking through the window. The light was enough for her to see that most of the items from the front had been thrown carelessly in back. This included two piles of clothing that she made out. One pile seemed to contain women's dresses and skirts; while the other pile was made of men's clothing. In almost no time at all she found exactly what she was looking for. A lightly coloured dress that was almost her size made from wool.
"This would be durable." she thought testing the cloth.
"You will need something like that if they take you to the forest again." The voice commented contently. She gave a weak smile as she changed from the nightgown into the dress. She was overcome with curiosity if it was her mother or father that made it. But that would have to wait until daylight.
Feeling pleased with herself for making her parents proud. Ishara slipped out of the back room and returned to the main store. Her smile dropped almost instantly as one of bandits spotted her. Calling his friend he grabbed her while the other ran out of the store.
"Well that was bright, your busted you idiot." she thought to herself. For the first time since the insane notion she had to change had entered her head. Ishara started to think about what the bandits might do to her for this.
"None of the other girls were this stupid." she thought bitterly.
When the leader stormed in a few minutes later, Ishara flinched. She knew that this was going to be painful. She would have tried to back away but the one that spotted her was still holding her. The bandit's leader looked angry when he entered the store.
"Do you have a death wish little girl?" he asked her. Ishara opened her mouth to speak but her throat had not yet healed; so no sound came out. To her surprise the leader burst out laughing.
"So you grew a backbone did you" he commented before turning to the one holding her. Ishara tried to shrink back in the man's grip.
"Let her keep it, that kind of defiance is exactly what I need in my prey" he said before whispering a secret order into Lex's ear and leaving the store. His hope was that she could inspire the others to become more entertaining. Before the man let go of her, Ishara could feel every pair of eyes in the store on her. Everyone was shocked not only at her courage but at the bandit leaders response.
"I get to keep the dress?" she thought happily. Her weak smile returned and she felt so much better now that she was in some fresh clothing.
The day following her first game Ishara spent the entire morning sitting completely still. Somehow the pain had gotten even worse than it was when she returned to the store the previous night. Her muscles strongly protested the slightest movements. Her throat was on fire; and her tears ran out a long time ago.
But it was getting close to lunch and she knew that she had to force herself through the pain of movement soon.
"If I don't get up they will force feed me. But it hurts too much to move." she thought silently crying out as she made her first attempt of the morning to stand.
"They didn't give anyone else a break after their beatings. They won't give me one." she knew. But there was a nagging feeling behind that.
"So what if they do? If I go limp like Sasha. It never looks like it hurts her." she pondered. The idea was tempting as she wouldn't have to move until they forced her to her feet. But she could only imagine the pain of being pulled up as quickly and violently as they would. The bandits feeding them didn't care if they hurt them or not.
"I have to tell someone about last night anyway. And there's no sense letting them hurt me anymore." Ishara thought. She clenched her teeth and very slowly rose to her feet with more than a little help from the wall.
She looked at Sasha but shook her head.
"I still can't speak. I won't have any luck with Sasha." She thought grimly. But she did spot someone that might be able to understand her. Slowly she hobbled over to where Tima was hiding. She couldn't speak either as she was taken for her game just two days before Ishara. At least she would understand why.
"Shouldn't Tima be able to manage more than whispers by now? Does it really take that long to recover from so much screaming? Or did that twisted little bandit do something else to our voices before waking up?" she wondered.
Tima looked up at her sympathetically and Ishara tried unsuccessfully to smile back at her.
"They need to know before it's too late. I have to find a way." She lectured herself after failing to think of how to start. Unsure of herself Ishara pointed to the bandits by the door and cupped her ear. Tima just looked at her confused. But Ishara didn't know how she could expand on it. She tried to mouth the words instead.
"I heard them talking." Tima seemed to understand some of that at least; as she pointed to the bandits and softly whispered.
"You did?" Ishara nodded her head. She tried to motion with her hands to get her ideas across. Pointing at them with her left hand and herself and Tima with her right. She tried to play out the scenario from last night by having her right hand run towards her left.
"You?" Tima mouthed; and pointed at the same time. Ishara nodded.
"This is hopeless. I need to talk." Ishara thought desperately. She tried making the same kind of motions to show Tima what she learned. But nothing came to her that made sense. Finally she just eased herself back to the floor and gave up.
"What does it even mean?" Ishara wondered. Tima looked at her sadly but she understood the frustrations.
"He wants defiance. But what does he mean by that? Are we supposed to try and fight him?" she asked. But that would be stupid. None of the girls except for maybe Natasha could hope to fight any of them.
"Are we supposed to try and get away then? Or is he trying to show us there is no escape?" Ishara wondered. But there was also what he said before her beating.
"He called that a one. The number must mean something. So if that was just a one, then what does a two, or five, or even ten mean?" she wondered. How could anything hurt worse then what she received last night.
"Maybe that's not it at all. One couldn't be the worst they have can it?" she wondered thinking about the dress last night.
"The large one seemed pleased about what I did last night. That must be what they want then. They want us to challenge them. It's like some game to them but if we lose we get hurt. If we resist we get rewarded." She decided. Then she had an idea.
Ishara tapped on Tima's shoulder to get her attention. She made the same hand motions as before to show her path from last night; then she put her thumbs down and made a hitting motion. Tima nodded; not completely understanding yet.
"Bad." Ishara tried to mouth. Then she tugged at the dress she stole last night and pointed to the door. Tima nodded as she had seen what Ishara did. She was one of several girls woken up when the bandits called out as she left the back room. Ishara gave her a thumbs up but the meaning was mostly lost.
"good." She mouthed.
"Fight." Tima whispered in understanding. Ishara nodded; feeling relieved.
"She gets it. Now she can explain it to everyone else when her voice is back." Ishara smiled weakly.
Three days later Ishara was still a bit sore from her beating; but she could at least start to speak again. Everyone except for Catherine had gone through the hunt now and no one talked very much. They were all afraid and Ishara knew it was because they would be put through it all again. Why else were they still being held? The idea frightened her but it would be dangerous for the girls to delude themselves. Ishara was still quite determined to tell the rest of the girls what she had overheard four days ago. Even with Tima's help the other day it felt like no one knew what was being expected of them. The last two girls taken suffered the same as the first. Now with limited use of her voice back; and still thrilled by the recent response to taking matters into her own hands with the dress. Ishara felt confident enough to finally try to warn the rest of the girls.
"I probably won't get through to her; but I should try anyway." Ishara thought. She limped over to where Sasha was now hiding; she had barely moved from her corner since her own hunt. Since their capture she didn't even crawl out to eat; instead the bandits would have to drag her to her feet and force the slop down her throat every day. Even then she still offered no resistance. She simply existed. Since she was in the worst shape of any of the girls Ishara wanted to help her. She was hoping that she could spare Sasha further pain; and get her friend back.
"She might be too far gone to care. But I hope that's not true. She must be able to be saved…" Ishara thought. She was about to open her mouth to explain everything to Sasha when Tima approached them.
"Before you talk to her. I want to know how you could do something so stupid" Tima asked. Her voice was still weak but she no longer had to whisper; or croak to use it.
"What do you mean?" Ishara spoke softly to keep from hurting her throat. Tima just looked at her as if to say "you know very well what I mean"
"My nightgown was torn " Ishara explained. She was aware that now almost every girl in the store except her was wearing a torn nightgown.
"My mommy would have been angry." she whispered back. She didn't like the way that Tima was looking at her.
"I need to talk to you both." Ishara quickly said, she was starting to feel even more stupid for sneaking into the back room under the glare of Tima.
"What is it?" Tima asked.
"After my hunt. I heard the large man talking." Ishara quietly told them.
"What you tried to tell me three days ago?" Tima asked. Ishara nodded at her.
"How much did you understand?" Ishara asked.
"You ran right to them?" Tima asked.
"And they didn't like that." Ishara explained
"So they want us to fight them?" Tima questioned.
"I don't think that's a good idea." Ishara admitted.
"The large man wants… a challenge. He said defiance."
"Is that why you took such a foolish risk?" Tima asked; returning to her original question. Ishara shook her head.
"No. I don't know why it was so important. Before..." she chocked on her words.
"Before this happened. Mommy was angry I tore my dress…" she tried to explain. The words came hard and she had to bite her lip to keep from crying again.
"I'm sorry." Tima said quietly.
"But you could have been killed. They wouldn't have wanted that."
"It was all I could think about. But what he said must be why. I wasn't killed for sneaking into the back" Ishara explained.
"I suppose it does explain a couple things" Tima said, they both looked around trying to make some sense of everything.
"We are dead." Ishara thought.
"No, there has to be something we can do?" she told herself
"Look at us, there's no one here strong enough to survive the hunt." Ishara looked around and realized that she was right. All she saw when she glanced about was a bunch of pathetic girls, crying and hurt no one, even Ishara herself was fit to survive what this hunter wanted. The realization would have made Ishara cry again, but right now there was no point. No amount of tears was going to help them.
"Cyllene pull us from the claws of the dark beast." Ishara said softly.
"I don't think she can help us anymore." Tima replied. Before anything else could be said the bandit leader entered the store once more. Everyone's eyes fell on Catherine whom was the only one not been taken for the hunt yet.
"Let's go with that one." the hunter said to the shock of everyone. Instead of pointing at Catherine his finger came to a rest squarely on Sasha.
Some of the girls started to wonder if the man was planning to keep the older girl for something special. The truth was far worse than they could have imagined. The hunter simply knew what was going to happen when he choose Sasha and wanted to dispose of the weakest girl first.
When Sasha didn't move; Ishara dared to hope that she was putting the information Ishara gave them into practice. That dream was shattered when the Bandit's approached Sasha and grabbed her arms. She didn't make any kind of movement, instead she allowed them to drag her like a rag doll. That was when Ishara realized that her friend was not going to satisfy the hunter and she had the strange feeling that something terrible was going to happen.
Two hours later, Lex came into the store from his hunt with the leader. Dreadfully Ishara realized that something was missing.
"Why were there no screams, what did they do to Sasha?" she asked herself. She tried desperately to convince herself everything was ok; that maybe Sasha had gotten away and Lex was here to demand they tell him where she is. But Ishara found that she was unable to fool herself like that.
"Everyone look here" Lex said loudly. All the guards turned to Lex; but only a couple of the girls did.
"I mean everyone." he growled at the rest of the girls.
"What does he want us for?" Ishara wondered.
"Everyone move outside, there's a special show for you girls" Lex grinned. Slowly everyone filed out, followed by the two store guards. Ishara took the tail of the lineup. She had already drawn enough attention to herself recently that she felt it was better not to be seen. They were taken a sort distance outside the store where a pole had been hastily erected. Sasha was tied to the pole silently crying.
"I don't like the looks of this." Ishara thought.
"What are they going to do to her?"
"Listen carefully because I am only going to explain this once. Sit still and watch the show. I'm sure you know this girl better then we do; so I'm not going to bother finding out her name. You're all about to see what happens when you don't put a little effort into the game" Lex told them.
Ishara watched in horror as the bandit standing beside Lex; one she recognized from the community center. Took hold of a stick much like the one used on her and started the show exactly like her own beating. Sasha's leg was broken with a loud cry. Tied to the pole it was even worse for Sasha whom had to attempt to shift her weight in a desperate attempt to ease some of the pain. But the bandits had her on uneven ground to make it even more difficult.
At first scream Ishara lunged forward. There was no thought in her head, no plan of what she intended to do. There was only the instinct to run to her friend's aid. A hand gripped her arm and for now it was enough to stop her.
"Don't. They will kill you." Tima said. Ishara turned from what was happening to her friend.
"They are hurting her." Ishara complained amongst the screams. When the man with the stick switched weapons Ishara tried to break loose of Tima's grip. A stronger pair of hands then Tima's firmly grabbed her shoulders. Ishara struggled to break that grip before looking to who had her. It was Natasha and she wasn't about to let go.
"Relax. We have all been through this." Natasha explained.
"Not like this." Ishara replied. She stopped fighting. She wouldn't be able to break free so all she could do was stand and watch them beat her friend; while a barely recognizable sensation filled her. It was both frightening, and comforting at the same time. And with every scream her friend made she tried to build into that feeling.
"It's just more public that's all." Natasha assured her.
"When they finish they will take her back to Miss Brown's house and fix her up for next time."
"NO!" Ishara tried to shout. Tima quickly put her hand over her mouth to muffle her.
"Don't yell. If you draw attention to yourself they might take you up there next." Tima said. Ishara knew she was right so she closed her eyes and tried to calm down just a little. She still wanted to hold onto this strength though.
"Can't you see this is different? They have never made us watch before." Ishara protested.
"But we only now have an idea what they want from us. He may be tired of waiting." Natasha suggested. Ishara glared at her.
"That doesn't help her." she said.
"No but she could be the last one." Natasha said. Meanwhile up front Sasha's voice gave in as the man changed tools again. They could all see the pain on the young girls face and no one could help her.
With Natasha's grip on her too tight to get away from. Ishara watched her friend. But strangely she had no tears to offer her suffering friend. She clenched her hands so tightly that her knuckles turned white but her eyes remained dry.
"What is wrong with me? I should be crying. They are hurting her, they are hurting my friend. But all I can do is stand here and be angry at them." Ishara thought becoming frustrated. She wanted to cry; but she didn't want to let go of that anger either.
It went on like this for a while longer until finally Sasha fell unconscious.
"Is it finally over?" Ishara wondered. From her own experiences she didn't exactly know if the beating continued after she blacked out or not. But she didn't think it would; what would be the point?
"It must be over now. But what are they doing?" she thought. In the front the bandit put his fingers into Sasha's neck. He looked at Lex and emotionlessly shook his head at some question that Ishara couldn't hear.
"It seems she has more than given up. But if you girls get any ideas." Lex announced. He made sure that they were all watching before he took a hand held scythe off his belt and swiped it across Sasha's throat.
There was no last gasps, no last screams, her eyes remained closed. Sasha was already dead when they cut her open but they had a point to make.
Ishara snapped; Natasha's grip loosened in her own shock and Ishara was able to break free at last. With nothing but what they had just taken from her forever; Ishara charged at Lex. The grown man was amused more than anything and as soon as she was in reach he punched her in the stomach and knocked her on her ass.
"Get the rest back inside. I'll deal with this one." Lex ordered the other bandits. Quickly the rest of the girls were herded back into the store. They could do less to help Ishara then they could Sasha only minutes ago.
Lex bent down and grabbed Ishara by the arm. He painfully yanked her upwards until she was hanging off the ground.
"That was a very stupid thing to do little girl." He grabbed her face with his free hand and forced her to look at her friend's corpse.
"Maybe you would like to join her?" he asked dragging her closer to Sasha. He let her drop to the ground hard; but then grabbed her by the hair and forced her face to face with her friend.
"The boss would have my head if I killed such a spirited toy so causally. But even he has no use for the likes of you if you don't save it for the game. Keep that in mind next time. When you try to attack us you become expendable just like this useless cunt here." Lex explained. He gave Ishara a reminder of his little lesson by rubbing some of Sasha's blood on her face before dragging her back to the store by her hair. He casually threw her inside and left.
Ishara stood at the front of the store too stunned to move. Her anger boiled within her and she clung to it like a security blanket. Without which she would become lost.
"They killed her." she thought clenching her fists again. Her nails had already started ripping at the skin in her palms.
"Are you ok? What did they do to you?" Tima asked looking at the blood smeared on Ishara's face.
"He forced me to look at her." Ishara replied. She reached up and touched the drying blood.
"This is…hers." she said biting her lip. The anger she was using for strength was starting to slip away from her.
"He put her blood on your face?" Tima asked. Ishara nodded.
"She's gone." She whispered.
"Come with me." Tima said. Ishara followed her to a quiet area of the store.
"I can't let it slip away. They killed my best friend." Ishara thought digging her nails deeper into her palms.
Tima gently used the bottom of her nightgown to clean Sasha's blood off Ishara's face.
"You shouldn't do that. It won't wash out." She said. As the blood was wiped away she found it harder to hold onto the anger.
"I don't care. You can't walk around wearing her blood." Tima replied.
"I have to. They killed her." Ishara started.
"Don't. It won't help you, and it won't help her. She hasn't been Sasha since we were taken." Tima interrupted.
"She's right. Sasha died before her first game. Maybe that's what waits for all of us." Ishara thought.
"It doesn't have to. Hold onto that anger and they can't hurt you." The strange voice from the night of her hunt chimed in.
"It's too late." Ishara whispered.
"It's not too late." Tima replied. Ishara closed her eyes and tried to re-ignite the dwindling fires. But the moment her eyes closed she saw the still face of Sasha staring back at her instead. Ishara's eyes burned.
"Sasha." She thought quickly opening her eyes. She couldn't hold onto her strength.
"It's ok. It will help." Tima promised. Ishara let go and cried.
As the next few days dragged on Ishara barely moved. The bandits almost had to force feed her a couple of times as the aura of defeat gripped her tightly. She spent a lot of that time crying into her dress; the conflicted feelings that stirred inside of her scared her and she started to wish that Lex had taken her life. It was not until Tima approached her shortly before the next hunt would begin that she started to accept what was happening.
"Ishy; you need to wake up." Tima told her. Ishara weakly looked at the other girl.
"What happened to you? Where did you go?
"I'm here." Ishara replied quietly. Tima shook her head.
"No you aren't. In the past few days I've watched you sink further into depression. You became lost. What happened Ishy? You aren't the same girl anymore who snuck into the back." Tima said in a low voice. Ishara did not seem to have the energy to respond to her.
"Your turns probably going to happen soon, do you want to end up like Sasha?" Tima asked finally. Ishara nodded her head causing Tima to groan
"Then what? When you die what will happen to the rest of us? The only way any of us are going to get through this is if we are strong."
"You don't need me." Ishara protested
"Where did the real Ishara go? Just look at yourself. Not even that long ago you had the courage to do something none of us would have dreamed of. You started to give us hope; and even told us what he wants to ease the pain after the next hunt. Like it or not Ishy, you have become a symbol of strength to us. If you don't snap out of this useless depression. We are all going to die. Is that what you want?" Tima explained, without another word she left Ishara to mull over what she had just been told.
When the bandit leader came into the store an hour later he took a look at the sulking shape of Ishara.
"It might be time to get rid of that one, she showed so much promise" he mumbled; continuing to look around. In barely a minute he made his decision and ordered his men to drag her with them.
"This won't take long. I suppose I'll have to come back and get another one." he grumbled. They dragged Ishara out of the store and towards a different part of the forest from where she was first hunted. Slowly as they got closer to the edge of the forest. Ishara started to walk on her own power.
"If I just stand here, it will be over." she realized when the order to run came.
"Don't be so foolish, you can get away" her mind told her.
"Go away, I don't want to do this and I don't want you here." she screamed at herself.
"Get going" the bandit leader growled. He was quickly growing tired of watching her stand there silently. She tried to resist at first; she tried to give into her desire to join Sasha. But maybe there was never a chance she could? Before the bandit leader could get fed up she started to run into the forest without thinking about it.
She had no more aim now then she did during her first hunt; but while she was running she started to realize that she did not really want to die yet. For the first time in days her mind started turning. Quickly she changed directions back towards the village.
"No; there has to be a better way. The dark beast will take him; and I want to see it." Ishara thought feeling that strength from the night of Sasha's death return. She brought to mind that final image of Sasha's face that Lex forced on her and used that to fuel her fires.
"I'm going to win this game." She thought. In the past she heard stories of people in her village taking the Dark Beast into them. It was people that had become so angry they did something her parents told her was bad. She had always thought they told her these stories to scare her into being good; keep calm or the dark beast will take you. But what if surrendering to the darkness wasn't the horror she had been told.
"That's it. Strike back at them. You can use the hunt to escape; and return to the village later to free the others when you find help. Don't be afraid, don't try to die. Just be angry." The strange voice egged her on. Knowing the risk that she might run back into the bandit leader. Ishara made a very wide turn. She didn't want to get caught this time; even though she was still going to do something very foolish and hope it worked.
Ishara circled back into the village. She didn't know the surrounding forest very well. If she was going to get away she needed time. And she needed an area that she knew. She had one idea but didn't know if it would be enough.
"I might be able to escape if I hide in the village, he doesn't know it as well as we do." she told herself. Ishara stopped when she got to the edge of the forest. Like a game of hide and seek she watched the bandits for a few minutes before making her move. She had to be sure none of them would spot her; and tattle on her.
"The back room had a low window, maybe I can reach it and hide there." She thought.
"Impossible; from this angle you would never make it. Think about a closer place." Her voice told her. When the coast was clear she made a break for it; hiding behind a broken cart. It was tricky because Ishara not only had to avoid the many bandits that had invaded her home. But she also had to be very careful about the surrounding forest. But she had always been good at this game.
"I can't make it back to the store, but I am close to home." she thought. Pulling herself together Ishara figured the best way to get there.
"If I could just wait them out. When they stop looking for me I can make a run for it and find the paths the carts from the outside farms use." she told herself. Finding her chance she started carefully for her house. It was not easy to sneak in un-noticed but when she managed to do it she felt like cheering herself. Confident that she had a little time to breath, Ishara went to her room to decide on the best place to hide.
"He thinks you're still in the forest, use the time." Her voice commanded. She allowed herself a weak smile. She wasn't used to the strange voice, but grateful for its advice.
"Under my parent's bed." she realized. That would be a good place to hide from them. Reluctantly she crawled under her parents' bed and waited. Ishara lasted almost ten minutes before the run through the forest caught up to her. In the safety of her home; she fell asleep.
Ishara didn't know how much time had passed when she was jarred awake by someone pulling her from under the bed by her feet.
"I can't figure out if you're very stupid girl. Or if you really do have a death wish." The Hunter said. He seemed amused that she had fled right back into the bandit-controlled town. Ishara struggled to her feet and glared at him without a word. She could feel the anger surge in her when she looked into his cruel eyes.
"Getting brave are you? Well then let's see what you have in you. Are you brave enough to walk willingly to your punishment for being caught?" The Hunter asked. Ishara nodded and started walking out of her house. She didn't wait for the bandits; and she did not try to make another run for it. She knew exactly where she was going, and did not allow him to see the fear behind her rage.
"Get it over with. It will only hurt more if we delay it. And there is no point in hoping I can avoid It." she told herself. She didn't see that behind her Lex was about to run and grab her; but the leader stopped him with a few words about seeing what she will do.
Ishara was allowed to walk alone until she reached the community center. The hunter stood just far enough behind her to prevent the men not involved in his game from acting on her. But when she reached the door he called out to stop her.
"Hold up, you proved your point. I'm not about to let you get yourself killed walking in alone." he said. The hunter approached her and took an almost gentle hold of her shoulder to escort her inside. He was starting to have high hopes for her.
Ishara woke up in the soft bed of Miss Brown's house. This was the house that the bandits had converted into something vaguely resembling an infirmary. She sat there in complete silence for almost an hour. The bandits knew when she woke up but made no attempt yet to move her back to the store. However every so often the twisted little healer would glare at her.
"I threw away my best chance to join her." Ishara thought.
"You didn't really want to die." The voice replied. Ishara quietly shook her head; hoping that the twisted man wouldn't notice.
"It would be better then this game." She thought.
"But you don't want that. You remember the anger. You want to win the game and get revenge for your friend and family." The voice replied.
"There is no winning this game." She thought.
"If you truly believe that then why did you charge at Lex? Why did you run when the hunter told you to? You can win the game. But you have to bide your time and play by their rules until you find the right opportunity." The voice explained.
"Why did I indeed?" she whispered quietly. The fact that she could at all surprised her.
"Make it a three this time. But let her keep her voice. I want her to tell the others how it's done." She remembered hearing the hunter say when she was tied to the table this time.
"It felt a lot different than the first time. Nothing hurt nearly as bad as what they did to my leg and wrist. In fact a lot of the tools he used didn't even leave the wall this time." She considered.
"If that was a level three. Level one has to be the worst. What does that mean the best punishment I can hope for is?" she asked herself. There would be no answer to that question today. She was allowed to rest in the comfortable bed for a couple more hours. But she hadn't earned the privilege of spending the night there yet. When it was time to go the twisted little healer approached her with two of the hunter's men.
"Why can't he have more like you? It's a lot easier on me when I don't have to mend the bones of you little snots." He snorted and the two men at his side grabbed Ishara's arms and pulled her out of the bed. She didn't fight it; so they didn't hurt her in the process. They took her back to the store without a word from either of them.
"You're alive!" Tima gasped. She approached Ishara before she could take two steps into the store after the door had been closed again.
"I think he rewarded me, they didn't bring me back right away. And i'm not as sore as last time." she tested her limbs to make sure she was not imagining it.
"you can talk?" Tima asked surprised.
"Reward you? What did you do?"
"I came back into town and hid in my house. He must have been happy with how long it took to find me." Ishara explained.
"Are you feeling better now?" Nicole asked interrupting.
"I don't know." Ishara admitted.
"But you could have let him kill you. Now you are back; but you can still talk." Tima pointed out.
"I suppose." Ishara replied unsure.
"You are now only the third of us to come back with a voice." Nicole offered.
"That must mean something then right?" Tima asked.
"How bad is it? Can you sit down?"
"I barely feel it anymore." Ishara reported.
"Are you back then? Are you going to be the same girl that snuck into the back? Or do you still intend to let them kill you?" Nicole asked outright.
"Why does it really matter?" Ishara asked.
"If you are done moping then you will see. But if you still plan to give up; then no it doesn't really matter." Nicole replied. She left the two of them alone; deciding that she would keep an eye on Ishara for a while.
"Come on, let's go talk about it. You still sound unsure of yourself but you don't need to be." Tima said shaking her head at Nicole.
"I don't know. I miss her; but I just couldn't stand there and join her." Ishara said quietly.
"I'm glad that you haven't given up." Tima offered a weak smile.
"let's go sit down. " she whispered leading Ishara away from the door.
The hunter never did take another girl that night, he was satisfied by the hunt that Ishara had given him. Meanwhile her story spread so in the next few days several of the girl's including Tima returned to the store be given one of the dresses from the back room.
Days later Ishara sat leaned up against an empty shelf watching the door. She was expecting that any moment Tima would return. Ishara wasn't worried that her remaining friend wouldn't come back; Tima had only gone to relive herself. But even doing that was uncomfortable; with one of the bandits watching them do it nearly in the center of town.
When at long last the door opened it wasn't Tima that entered. Diane was being returned from her hunt. Ishara gasped at the ghastly sight; joined by all eight of the remaining girls. This was something that had never happened before.
"What did they do to her?" Ishara wondered. She wasn't the only one as that same question echoed silently amongst the store. Even the bandits standing watch at the door were surprised.
Natasha was quick to gather herself and approached Diane; almost yanking her from the grip of her bandit escort.
"Come." Natasha said. Diane nodded her head and silently followed her. Ishara had trouble pulling her eyes off the cut and twisted face that returned to the store.
"Is this because of?" Natasha asked. Diane nodded.
"How terrible." Natasha was horrified. She didn't say anything else about it until the front door opened once more. This time it was Tima being returned from her break.
"Did you see her come in?" Ishara asked Tima after she looked at Diane too.
"She walked past me on her way in. is that going to happen to us?" Tima asked.
"I don't know." Ishara replied almost throwing up. Her stomach twisted with the slashes and burns of the older girl's new face.
"I need to tell them." Natasha said concerned. She looked into Diane's eyes for permission; knowing that the girl would not be able to speak for a few days. Diane only nodded.
"Will you be ok for a few minutes?" Natasha asked. She didn't attempt to move until she had confirmation.
"Tell us what?" Catherine asked.
"Go get Nicole, and Sandra. I don't want to have to repeat this." Natasha replied. Soon afterwards she was joined by the oldest of the prisoners. Natasha tried to speak softly so the younger children didn't overhear. But Ishara and Tima had a good position and could hear everything.
"We need to warn you about trying anything like Diane did."
"Why only us?" Catherine asked.
"Because we are the oldest. The young ones wouldn't even think to try something like this. They aren't developed enough." Natasha explained.
"What did she try?" Sandra asked. Natasha took a deep breath and looked once more at Diane for approval.
"She hoped to offer herself instead of being beaten after the game." Natasha explained.
"You don't mean…" Catherine gasped. Natasha nodded.
"She told me she was going to offer to strip and let them…" she said.
"But something went wrong. She thought it would work because she's almost a woman now. Isn't that what men want?"
"It wouldn't have worked. We are special; they kept others for that. I saw them in the community center." Sandra replied.
"If anyone gets the same idea. Just don't." Natasha said.
"There are better ways." Nicole stated.
"Like what?" Sandra asked.
"I'll explain later. I'm still getting things ready." Nicole stated.
"I don't think that will happen to us. She tried to create new rules for the game and they didn't like that." Ishara thought.
"I don't think you have to worry." She whispered to Tima.
"All right she needs to rest. It's their game; don't try anything." Natasha said going back to Diane's side. The other three older girls went to another corner of the store to talk about what they had just been told.
Natasha brought Diane over to a quiet corner and sat with her. Caretaking had never been her strong suit; so she could do very little to help ease Diane's discomfort aside from being there.
Julia had been watching Diane since she was returned to the store; and while she had no interest in the secret meeting the older girls had. She was however very concerned about the shape that Diane was in. and that it seemed like nobody could help her.
Ishara watched Julia get a ladle full of water and approach Diane and Natasha. She didn't know Julia well enough to guess what was going to happen; so she was mildly curious.
"May I?" Julia asked quietly. Natasha and Diane both looked at her confused until she offered the ladle full of water to Diane. The older girl drank it greedily; winching at the pain as it soothed, and burned her throat.
"You need more than just company. Please let me help." Julia asked. Diane looked like she was thinking about it before finally nodding her head. Much to the visible relief of Natasha whom was only useful as moral support in this situation.
Beside her Tima shook her head.
"She's not a sick bird." She whispered.
"A bird?" Ishara asked.
"Julia looked after a few sick animals since I've known her. I guess she thinks that Diane will be the same." Tima explained.
"If it helps; let her try. She can't be worse then the hunters." Ishara offered. Tima shrugged she didn't completely disagree.
A week after Diane was mutilated her voice never returned. She was the only one to return to the store in that bad a shape. It was morning now and Ishara had barely woken up. Tima on the other hand looked like she had been awake for a while.
"Time to wake up Ishy. Breakfast will be here soon." Tima said giving her a light shake. Ishara looked at her grimly.
"Not that I'd be missing much. It's the same slop we get for supper." Ishara muttered. Tima gave her a look of un-amusement. They sat in silence until a short time later the door opened; but it wasn't breakfast.
"She's late again. Why do they keep her overnight? They don't keep anyone else that long." Tima questioned as Nicole was returned to the store. She did not look like she was hurt; and the last two times she had been taken she always returned with her voice intact.
"My last hunt they let me rest longer. She must be doing well." Ishara suggested.
"You think that's what it is?" Tima asked. Ishara nodded.
"The hunter showed me what he wants. But I wonder what she's doing?" Ishara questioned.
"What is her secret?"
The moment Nicole was returned to the store she glanced briefly at Ishara and Tima. It looked like she was thinking about something before shaking her head and approaching Sandra this time. She did the exact same thing after her last hunt as well; rejected Ishara for the time being and approached Catherine.
"She keeps looking at you and going to someone else. What do you think she want's?" Tima asked.
"I don't know. I tried to find out what she talks to the others about. But they speak too quietly." Ishara replied.
"Like she's forming a secret club." Tima suggested. If they situation had been different the two of them might have laughed. It still wasn't a serious suggestion; but there was no humour here.
"Whatever she's doing it doesn't matter. I just wish shed stop looking at me like that. It feels like I'm getting rejected for something when she does that." Ishara commented.
"She said if you were back; then you would see. Maybe she's still trying to decide if you are? Your turn hasn't come again since that night." Tima offered.
"But hers has; twice. He's taken her more than anyone else now." Ishara said.
"He's looking for something when he chooses his victim." Tima suggested. Then she gave Ishara a weak smile.
"Maybe soon he will tell you what that is. You seem to be his favorite messenger."
"That isn't funny." Ishara grumbled.
Tima was shoved into the store with very little care. Her escorts were not given instructions to be careful with her so they were simply in a hurry to get rid of her.
Ishara was quick to stand up and help Tima back to their quiet corner. This was only Tima's second hunt since Diane's mishap and Tima wasn't looking much better then Diane did at the time.
Tima could barely move; she limped even though any broken bones would have been healed by the twisted man. She walked slowly trying not to shift her back at all; or move her right arm. Ishara helped her to slowly sit down and very briefly left her side to fetch her some water.
Tima tried to reject it at first; but Ishara was persistent that she drink it. So eventually she had to; the pain was unbearable and she almost spit the water out.
Easy. Don't try to drink it too fast." Ishara said softly. Tima glared at her like Ishara had just told her to go jump in the river.
"Do you need any help?" someone asked suddenly. It startled Tima but Ishara was expecting it. She looked up to Julia and replied.
"Yes please. It looks like it's worse then the last time."
"Let's get her cleaned up." Julia replied. She used what was left of the water in the ladle and her nightgown to start by cleaning up the dried blood off Tima's face.
Several days later when her voice was starting to return. Tima looked at Ishara and made several attempts before she managed to say.
"Thank you for being…" Tima whispered. She couldn't finish; and she didn't need to.
"What happened? What number was that?" Ishara asked. Tima held up one finger.
"Last time you got a one too. This seemed to be worse." Ishara replied. Tima started crying.
"He finds me too easy." Through her tears she abandoned speaking softly and resorted to normal whispers. Ishara remembered how much it hurt to speak like that.
"Softly." She said worried about her friend. Tima fell silent for a moment as something came to her mind.
"I'm going to be tied to the pole." She whispered a little more softly. She started crying even harder.
Ishara saw Sasha's motionless face in her mind and clenched her fists.
"NO." she said a little too loudly. She drew the attention of the guards and several of the girls.
"I won't let that happen. I've been getting twos and threes I'll show you how, I'll teach you." Ishara promised.
"It won't help." Tima cried.
"Yes it will. I wouldn't be here if you hadn't talked me out of joining her. I'm not going to let you throw yourself away. I need you here Tima." Ishara replied.
"You won't be taken again for a while. We will start once your voice recovers more." She promised.
Days after she started teaching Tima how to be better prey. Ishara was returned to the store late at night. She was sore and had trouble moving but everyone would be asleep. She had to reach her part of the store without waking anyone up.
This time she had been given a two. It wasn't her best performance but it also wasn't her worse. She had been so close to eluding the hunter long enough to earn a three. Next time she would get that three for sure. She slowly hobbled over to Tima but was surprised when Nicole stopped her.
"I guess I woke her up." Ishara thought.
"Can you speak?" Nicole asked. Ishara slowly shook her head and held out two fingers.
"That bad? Is that the only level you get?" Nicole asked, Ishara shook her head again and held out three fingers.
"So you get between two and three usually?" Nicole asked. Ishara nodded.
"That's pretty good progress for someone that was ready to stand there and hope they kill her." Nicole commented. Ishara looked at her confused.
"I said that you would find out why it matters if you were really back. Well I'm convinced that you are. To be blunt I'm teaching those of us with the best chance to survive a few things. Just some tricks to help both in and out of the game." Nicole explained. Ishara pointed to the sleeping Tima.
"No I haven't asked her." Nicole replied. Ishara glared at her.
"I don't think she's ready yet." Nicole explained. Ishara shook her head and pointed at Tima again.
"I'll consider it. But even if I decide not to. There is nothing stopping you from teaching her my lessons yourself. Are you interested in what I have to show you?" Nicole asked. Ishara nodded her head.
"Good. We will start tomorrow then. You don't need to be able to speak right away. I'm not going to give him time to stop me." Nicole replied. Ishara nodded and settled down by Tima for the night. Nicole returned to the older girl's corner.
"Hey focus." Nicole said sharply. Catherine yawned and looked right back at her.
"Sorry I couldn't sleep with the screaming. I swear it went on all night." Catherine replied.
"It almost did. They kept her going awhile." Natasha commented.
"Shouldn't Sophie be back by now?" Catherine asked.
"Likely. With that screaming she could not have been good enough to have earned bed rest. She should have been returned last night." Nicole said.
"Then it's obvious what happened." Natasha said. Nicole nodded.
"But if we stop too long to mourn. She won't be the only one." she said.
"Then it won't be like the first?" Catherine started.
"Sasha. If our time comes then we will simply vanish without a word. Those remaining will be left wondering what happened. She continued.
"No one will wonder. When the next of us vanishes we will all know exactly what happened. Even without the public display they gave Sasha." Nicole explained.
'But back to the task at hand. Sophie is gone. We can't bring her back. But we don't have to become next. Those that can talk I would like you to tell me something. Ishara I want you to think about your answer carefully and tell me when you are able to speak. What is your goal when he hunts you?" Nicole asked.
"What do you mean?" Catherine asked.
"It's a game to them. But it's one that you will lose if all you care about is trying not to get caught. You have to go into every hunt to further your end game strategy." Nicole explained.
"I don't think I have one." Tima said quietly.
"And that's why you were doing so poorly. The tips Ishara is giving you will only help you for so long. "Nicole replied.
"Then what is your goal?" Catherine asked lowering her voice encase the bandits started listening.
"I'm trying to find a way out of the forest. Every hunt I be sure to explore areas I haven't been to yet."
"How do you have time for that?" Catherine asked.
"You can have more time then you realize. If you remain calm and think clearly. The Hunter knows he's going to catch you; he isn't in a hurry."
"During the hunts I try to build my stamina. I could build off that and try to run for it one day." Natasha said.
"That's a good idea. But be sure you know where you are going when that day comes. Scout your path with each hunt. But don't make it obvious by going the same way every time. You can also work on your stamina outside the game as well." Nicole replied. She looked at Catherine.
"And what about you?"
Catherine thought about her answer for a minute.
"I'm going to turn this game on his head. I'm going to take control from the Hunter and change the rules." She announced.
"And how do you plan to do that? Kill him?" Natasha asked.
"If I have to." Catherine replied confidently.
"It sounds a little unfocused. Why don't you think about it; and tomorrow tell me how you might change the rules on him during the game." Nicole suggested. She then turned to Ishara.
"And what about you? Think about your answer. I want to know after your voice returns." She asked.
"A goal for the game? I don't know that I do have one." Ishara thought.
"Sure you do. Think about it more carefully. What is it you try to do every game?" the voice inside her asked.
"I'm trying to get better at the game so he doesn't get me so fast." Ishara thought.
"I'm trying to win the game." She realized. She offered Nicole a weak smile.
"It looks like you have an answer. Good work." Nicole said.
"This is it. I'm trapped." Ishara thought. She looked around one last time for an escape route but she had no such luck. Instead she stood there and faced the emerging hunter.
"This one knows when she's been caught." The Hunter remarked. Ishara was then escorted back to the community center for her punishment. The Hunters men stayed close to her but they didn't touch her. They didn't need to as she walked willingly to her fate.
"The game doesn't end when you are captured." Ishara thought. That was one of the lessons that Nicole was teaching them.
When they arrived at the storage room with the table set up. Ishara turned to face the hunter.
"You don't need to do this." She pleaded. The hunter looked at her disappointed; but before he could speak she continued.
"I'll lie down and even if you give me a one. I'll lay still for you. I don't need to be tied down anymore. She explained. The Hunter started laughing; this was not what he expected her to say.
"He hasn't done anything yet. That's a good sign." Ishara thought.
"I'll prove it. Hit me right now."
The Hunter shook his head.
"That's not how this part of the game works." He explained. His men grabbed hold of her and bound her to the table as usual.
"Give her a three. But for her efforts leave her voice intact." The Hunter ordered. He took one last approving look at her before he left.
"The game doesn't end with your capture." Ishara thought and closed her eyes. She was determined to prove herself and not struggle against her bonds.
The store was dead silent. Most of the girls stared at the door expecting that at any moment it would open and all would make sense again.
But the door did open; and everything came crashing down on them. Instead of Nicole being returned late. The Hunter walked in and started looking over his remaining toys. He looked at one named Lois and left shortly with her. There was a collective gasp in the store as they realized what it meant.
"It's true then." Tima spoke first.
"She really is gone."
"But there were no screams last night." Catherine said in disbelief.
"It has to be true. The Hunter wouldn't have come for another if Nicole still lived." Natasha reasoned.
"Is it just as dangerous to be too good at the game?" Ishara asked.
"It might be. But what if it wasn't the game?" Natasha asked.
"Her technique?" Catherine questioned.
"It's possible. Have any of you been able to master it yet?" Natasha replied.
"I haven't; but it has helped." Ishara said.
"You think she went too far and he couldn't control her anymore?" Catherine asked.
"She always returned late. And she never screamed. She had to have been doing well." Ishara said.
"But maybe she didn't scream because she could block the pain completely? Isn't that what she was trying to teach us? To block all of it?" Catherine suggested.
"Then we should use her lessons to dull the pain. But be careful not to perfect it." Natasha said.
"There's more to it then that. She had to have been good at the game to stay in the house overnight so often. It isn't just about the screams." Ishara thought looking around.
"Was she simply too good? Or is there something else we couldn't see." She asked out loud.
"Could she have gotten away?" Tima asked.
"I don't think so. The Hunter didn't come ask us for information about where she went. It's like he isn't worried she got away." Catherine replied.
"But would he care if she did get away?" Ishara pointed out.
"He loves a challenge. If she got away she would have given him what he wants."
"She didn't get away. It's a dream to hold onto; and something she could have done in time. But it's far too soon; even for her." Catherine said.
"Agreed. But don't lose hope yet. Whatever caused her to fail doesn't have to be our fate." Natasha said.
"But we won't all make it; if any of us do." Ishara said bluntly.
"You won't; but who will? If you all give up then nobody wins." The voice commented.
"No we won't." Catherine said.
"Yet if we give up now then we just lost. And it will only get worse before the end." Natasha said.
"Do you want to receive a one every time until he finally gets bored of you and has you killed?" she asked. They all shook their heads almost in unison.
"The game doesn't end with one person." Ishara said.
"No matter how important she was." She thought.
The day after they realized that Nicole was gone. Diane was returned to the store after her hunt. Catherine wasted no time in gathering some of the girls up. She started with Diane almost the moment she walked in. Then she grabbed Natasha and Sandra before approaching Ishara and Tima.
"I need to speak to you all." Catherine announced. Diane barely looked at her but Ishara asked.
"We are the girls that Nicole choose for her private lessons before her death. I think they were a good idea." Catherine explained.
"But she's gone now. She can't teach us anything else. Besides a lot of good her tricks did her." Sandra said.
"That's why we need to expand on her idea. Instead of just one person teaching everyone else. We should share ideas." Catherine explained.
"What about the others?" Tima asked.
"We can help them later. But for now it's better to stick with Nicole's chosen until we get this figured out."
"Very well I'm in." Natasha said.
"So am I." Ishara added.
"I don't know how much I can offer. But I'd like to join too." Tima said. Sandra however remained quiet. The others turned to her.
"I don't know. These lessons didn't help Nicole. I'm not convinced this isn't a waste of time." Sandra said.
"You don't have to be a part of it." Catherine said.
"Sit out for now and once we open up to the others you can consider joining with them."
Sandra nodded and left the group.
"Foolish. We need to stick together." Natasha said.
"But if she thinks it's a waste of time then all she will do is distract us." Catherine pointed out.
"She will come around." Ishara offered.
"Maybe but that's her choice. We should get started while most of us are able to speak." Catherine said.
"Do you have any ideas?" Natasha asked.
"I think I have a few. We should start with Ishara. She's been helping Tima with a few tips. She can share them with everyone." Catherine said.
"I don't know if that's a good idea. You two probably have better ways to play the game then I do. I'm still getting two's and three's." Ishara said.
"But you are the only one of us to come back after a three and still be able to speak. And you have done it more then once." Catherine said.
"All right I'll try." Ishara promised. She started trying to teach them the same things she was teaching Tima not that long ago.
More then a month after Nicole's death all of the girls wore a dress. The Hunters secret orders had been for them to be used as rewards when one of the girls was particularly entertaining. The girls although now dressed; hadn't bathed in almost two months. It gave the room a very ripe odor.
When the Hunter came in and started looking around. His eyes rested on Ishara sitting next to Tima. She immediately rose to her feet and grinned at him.
"Let him think I'm enjoying this. I refuse to be broken." She thought. As he took her outside she made careful note about what part of the forest she was being taken to and where the creek was. She had a special plan for this game.
He brought her to the edge of the forest as usual and gave her the order to run. She took off immediately starting with a burst of speed just to put some distance between them and give her some time to work. The Hunter never ran, this was the only advantage she had these days.
After she had run far enough, it was time to take more care in reaching her goal. She circled back around to where she knew the creek was. She then followed it upwards for a bit trying a trick that she had been working on for a few games to hide her tracks. When she was ready she lifted the frayed hem of her dress and stepped into the cold water. Trying her best not to leave impressions in the soft soil she walked backwards towards the village.
She only went as long as she needed to in the water. When he came back this way he would certainly see where she had gotten out of the creek. She knew that all she did was buy herself some time.
She made the rest of the way to the village as carefully as she could. She also didn't make a direct path. She had to hide that this was where she intended to end up the entire time.
"A little off the mark. But it's still doable." She thought watching the movements of the bandits carefully. Each moment they blocked her path made her nervous. What if her plan didn't work? But she had nothing to worry about; in the past month the bandits had become lazy. So sure that their new hideout would never be found; they didn't watch things as closely as they used to.
"Now." She thought making her move. She weaved around the edge of the forest for a bit until she had a direct view of the store she had been kept in for almost two months.
When she had gone into the back room to find her dress, she remembered seeing a window that provided the light she needed that night. Now she went to that same window from the outside. She winced as she opened it; and it made some horrid noises. Luckily for her either none of the bandits heard it, or they had been too lazy to see what it was; because she got inside and closed that same window without being caught.
"I'm here. I made it." Ishara thought with a genuine smile. This insane plan of hers no longer felt like an unrealistic dream.
"He's probably done with the dresses now; but I'll use the men's clothing just to be safe." She thought starting to move clothes into a pile. After the last girl had been rewarded; the bandits barely remembered this back room was here.
Ishara piled the men's clothes up until she had enough, then she crawled under the clothes and curled up in complete darkness.
In complete darkness under the clothes the game finally caught up to her. She very quickly dozed off feeling quite pleased with herself.
She woke up several hours later; but as time dragged on with no way to keep track of it. She eventually dozed off again. This cycle repeated for nearly eight hours. She was too restless to sleep for long; and laying there blind and unmoving she got tired very quickly.
Meanwhile outside the Hunter was starting to get annoyed. With no sign of the girl he was starting to consider that she could have escaped. He returned to the village to get some extra help with this game.
Each time she woke up she was becoming increasingly hungry. This lead her to believe that several days had passed since she hid. She stayed under there for another seventeen hours before she decided.
"That should be enough time." Ishara thought poking her head from under the clothes. It was nearly dark she discovered looking at the window. Being careful not to make any noise she crawled out from under the clothes pile and quietly stretched. It felt so good to be out from under there.
"After so many days he can't still be looking for me. I'll get back to the forest and look for the paths back to the outer farms. I'll find a way out of the forest and come back with some help for the others." Ishara thought pleased.
She may even have made it. The hunter had returned to the forest to continue his search; but had all but given up on actually finding her by now. But the window made the same horrid noises on her way out as it did before. This time however she was not so lucky. A man named Will had to take a leak at the same time as she tried to get back out.
The noise drew his attention and more out of curiosity then suspicion someone was trying to escape. He came back to look.
"Hey!" he yelled out seeing the little girl climbing through the window.
"One of the boss's pets is trying to escape." He called out for help. Ishara froze and stared at him. This hadn't even crossed her mind.
"They think I'm trying to escape?" she thought. Her face went pale.
"They are going to kill me." She didn't dare move even as Will approached her and roughly grabbed her shoulders to keep her from running.
"Please let me go. I'm in the middle of the game." Ishara begged softly.
"Would the Hunter like that someone else caught me?" she wondered. She doubted it and hoped that the bandits would rather not interfere with the game.
"Ya I'm going to believe that girly." The bandit laughed.
"Please don't bring me to the Hunter. Let someone else deal with me." She begged.
"That's exactly who my mate's are going to find." He laughed.
"Cyllene," Ishara thought fearfully.
"They think I'm trying to escape; and the Hunter is going to find that I let someone else but him catch me. I'm going to see what's worse then a one for this. Then I'm going to vanish like the others."
It was thirty long minutes before the Hunter could be found and brought back to the store. That entire time Ishara was held firmly in place by Will; as if she'd have tried to run off.
Finally the Hunter came charging around the corner. He looked very angry about what his men told him. Then he saw the bold little girl trying to escape and burst out laughing again.
"Oh, you're good." He said simply.
"I think an extra special punishment is in order here." He said. He whispered something to Lex and left.
Lex grabbed Ishara by the arm and only then did Will let go of her.
"Lets go." Lex ordered angry. He started pulling her towards the community center. Ishara could only guess how bad she was going to get it this time. She still thought she had been missing for several days.
Lex dragged her by the arm to the community center. He didn't let go of her; unlike the Hunter he didn't trust her. The more she improved at the game the less he trusted her at all.
On entering the community center Ishara tried to step towards the room with the table. But Lex gripped her arm tighter and pulled her towards the stairs where another bandit was standing.
"Where are we going?" Ishara asked. This wasn't what was supposed to happen. Lex ignored her and the unknown man spoke.
"The Boss told me to help with this one. The slaves almost have it set up."
"What set up? What are they going to do to me?" Ishara wondered. She looked around fearfully for an escape; even turning to the room with the table for salvation. It was better when she knew what to expect.
They stood there in silence for several minutes until Lex saw something at the top of the stairs. He yanked at Ishara's arm.
"Up." He ordered. She walked up the stairs to a part of the community center that in the past had been used for special occasions. He pulled her into a room that had been dressed up for weddings and parties. While the rest of the top floor was more stylish then the bottom. This room was a completely different story. It featured arched windows and an elaborate carpet that was made almost two hundred years ago. Now a washtub had been set up here for some of the bandits to use.
"Remove your dress." Lex ordered letting go of her arm at last. The second bandit moved to bock the door.
Ishara was too scared to speak. She refused to take her clothes off; and only wanted to go back downstairs to that table.
"Why does he want me to undress? What are they going to do? Why can't we just get to the beating I knows coming. I can handle that. It's familiar. I can't handle this." She thought trying to back up. She couldn't even guess why he wanted her to take her dress off; and she didn't trust his reasons at all.
"You stupid kid. Take it off." Lex growled at her. Ishara still refused to move so Lex motioned for the other bandit to help. Together they lifted Ishara off her feet and pulled the dress off her by force.
She struggled against them; but they didn't care if they hurt her or not. They had orders and wouldn't let some little brat get them in trouble. After they had her clothes in their hands. Lex shoved her forward towards the washtub. Ishara stared at it with wide eyes but didn't move.
"This isn't how the game ends." She thought.
"This is the part where they hurt you. What do you think they did to the water if they want you in it?" the voice in her mind taunted.
"It must be boiling, or full of lye." Ishara reasoned.
"And now you are naked, with nothing to protect you from that." The voice said.
"Get in!" Lex ordered. He gestured to the washtub impatiently. When she still didn't move he growled at her.
"You." He said like it was a curse word. He looked at the other bandit.
"We have orders. Grab her left arm." Lex said. They moved to each side of her and lifted her off the ground by the arms. They lifted her over the washtub and all but dropped her into it. The water was delightfully warm; not at all boiling or painful like she expected.
Despite this Ishara didn't want to think about why they were doing this. So instead of washing when they threw a rag in with her; she whimpered and tried to curl into a ball. The bandits didn't wait long and this time there were no orders before they violently snatched the cloth from the water. The unknown man held her still; and pried her out of her ball while Lex scrubbed her clean. He wasn't gentle but neither was he trying to hurt her. It was her own resistance to the strange twist of the endgame that caused her to be hurt struggling several times.
When they finished cleaning her the bandits dragged her from the washtub and Lex threw a bundle of cloth at her.
"What's this?" Ishara squeaked. They ignored her until she started unraveling the bundle and discovered it was a dress. She glanced over at the counter they carelessly tossed her old one.
"What about mine?" she asked meekly.
"Put the damn thing on or I'll drag you back naked." Lex growled at her. She looked at the dress in her hands. It was made out of linen instead of wool and dyed with some purple forest berries.
"You better put it on. He looks serious." The voice warned her.
"But I'm wet." She protested. The voice didn't listen to her.
"It will dry." It said simply.
"It's not one mommy made." Ishara squirmed.
"Idiot. Would you rather spend the rest of the games naked? He's not going to give you a second chance. Besides look closer." The voice argued. Ishara realized it was right. If she didn't put it on they would leave her naked. They didn't care what she was wearing. She looked closer at the dress and instead of being one of her mothers work. There were signs from both her parents in the stitching. Quickly Ishara put it on without a word to the bandits, or herself.
It felt great to be clean again but she couldn't shake the feeling that something bad was about to happen. Now that she was clean and the new dress stuck to her wet skin the two men pushed her towards the door.
"come." Was all Lex said. Ishara meekly followed him without a word. The bandit stayed behind her encase she got the idea to run away. They led her to a new part of the community center that Ishara had never been to before. Even before the attack. She briefly wondered if it had been another storage room; or something more. Whatever it used to be it was now dressed up and looked mostly like a private dining room. Most likely it was for the Hunter himself. Ishara looked at the empty table.''
"Now what are they planning? They can't mean to tie me to that table instead. There are no ropes, and the real one is just down stairs." She thought looking to Lex for an answer. He ignored the terror in her face and turned to the other bandit.
"Have them bring it up. I want to get this over with and get rid of this annoying little bitch." Lex said.
"Are you sure this is what the boss ordered?" the unknown bandit asked. He didn't seem to like what they were going to do any better than Lex did.
"I don't like it either but this is what the boss wants. Go have them bring it up. I'll watch the boss's pet." Lex said. The second man left and immediately Lex pushed her to the table.
"Sit down and stay quiet." He ordered. Ishara quickly did what she was told. She sat down and nervously looked around the room.
"If this is to be my beating at last. Why am I sitting? There aren't many things around here to hit me with either." She thought. There were a few things they could use; but nothing compared to what they had readily available downstairs. They waited in silence until eventually the other bandit came back followed by a half-naked serving girl. The girl was carrying a plate of food which she set on the table in front of Ishara. She made the mistake of looking into the woman's eyes; the dead stare looking back at her disturbed Ishara.
"That's the same girl I saw after my first game isn't it?" Ishara thought with a shiver. This was what could have happened to her instead of the game.
Her stomach reminded Ishara how hungry she was. But she was hesitant to eat the food plopped down in front of her.
"This can't be for me can it? They never feed us after the game." She thought.
"They never give you a bath either." The voice reminded her. Ishara looked to Lex for some kind of explanation; or confirmation.
"Eat you dumb bitch. Do we have to do everything for you?" Lex said glaring at her. Ishara wasted no more time digging in after he confirmed the food was for her.
The food was nothing special; but Ishara savored every bite. It was hot, and it wasn't made from cabbage. Making it the best meal she had eaten in a long time. At first Ishara did eat it quickly; afraid that any moment they would change their minds and take the tasty food away from her. But then she realized it didn't matter and slowed down so she could enjoy it while it was still hers.
"They don't care if I finish or not. I only have this until they decide that I've had enough. It doesn't matter of I finish eating so I may as well enjoy it." she thought eating at a normal pace for a change. For a short time it was almost like she was a real person again.
But all good things must come to an end. And all too soon she ate her fill.
"Maybe this is it? They are going to kill me?" she thought.
"This could be my last meal. Now they will discard me like a broken spool." Ishara realized. The half-naked serving girl was called back to clean up the remaining food when they saw she was finished. Ishara simply closed her eyes; her strength faded at the realization.
"Looks like she's done. Good." Lex said. She felt herself be pulled up from the chair. She didn't have the courage to face what was coming next so she kept her eyes clenched shut and let Lex lead her from the table by her arm.
If she saw her final resting place she was afraid that she would lose control and make her end even more painful.
"What's she doing?" she heard the other bandit ask.
"Who cares?" Lex replied. When her foot felt the top of the stairs she opened her eyes briefly to make it down without falling. Then she quickly forced them closed again.
"That was brilliant. Let's avoid the fatal fall on the way to the grave. I'm sure their plans for you are much better." She thought annoyed with herself. They walked for what felt like a very short time before Lex let go of her arm. She was given one last violent shove and left alone.
She stood there with her eyes closed. The tears she had been repressing for the past few weeks started to silently flow. From somewhere in front of her she heard a gasp.
"You're alive?" came the familiar voice of Tima.
Surprised and realizing that she must look quite silly, Ishara opened her eyes to face her friend. She was confused to find out that she had been put back in the store without so much as being slapped across the face.
"Did they blind you?" Tima asked concerned. Ishara shook her head
"No, they didn't even beat me" she replied nervously.
"You were gone so long, I thought they might have killed you" Tima said sadly. She stopped and took another look at Ishara amazed.
"Why are you wet? And that dress?" she said all at once.
"I don't know, they did this to me" Ishara sulked.
"What did they do?" Tima asked.
"They gave me a bath." Ishara blushed.
"Are they going to come back for you?" Tima asked worried.
"I don't know. They have never done this before. I keep expecting that they will…" Ishara's voice trailed off.
"But they didn't…they couldn't." Tima offered.
"Nicole died without any screams. Maybe that's what they intend for me?" Ishara questioned.
"This is an entirely new level over anything Nicole offered. When she died the Hunter still came back the next day." Catherine interrupted. The two of them had drawn the attention of Catherine, Diane, Julia, and Natasha.
"He hasn't come back yet?" Ishara asked.
"No, he hasn't." Natasha said.
"I'm starting to think that he might not either. He's returned you some time after he normally comes for someone." Catherine said.
"How long was I gone for?" Ishara asked.
"More then a full day. I think he would have come by now if he was going to." Catherine said.
"It felt like it was longer then that." Ishara pouted.
"And he didn't hurt you?" Julia asked looking Ishara over.
"What did you do? How did you evade them for an entire day?" Catherine asked.
Ishara tried her best to explain what happened after her game started.
"How did you get caught?" Tima asked.
"The window made a lot of noise. It attracted attention when I tried to leave and they went to find the Hunter." Ishara explained. This caused Catherine to laugh, an honest laugh.
"It wasn't even the Hunter that got you. That must have made him angry." She said.
"But not at you. If all he did was bathe you." Julia suggested. Ishara told them about everything that happened after she had been caught.
"That's quite a story." Natasha commented.
"I almost wish he had given me the beating though." Ishara said looking at the door. The five of them gave her identical strange looks.
"Why?" Julia asked with a frown.
"Because it's familiar. That's the end of the game until next time. This is just unpredictable. What's going to happen now? Is he coming back for me?" Ishara asked.
"I don't think he will. He never has before. Once you are returned to the store; you are safe until your next game." Catherine said.
"But he's never returned one of us like this." Natasha said.
"No but even though he was denied his prize. It looks like he was happy with the game. He rewarded her and sent her back here." Catherine said.
"And now it looks like he might not be coming for another." Natasha said.
"We will know soon. But I think by now he's usually caught his prey or even returned her here. He's never just starting the game this late." Catherine said.
"You're safe." Tima smiled at Ishara.
"I hope so." Ishara replied.
"You should rest now. You probably won't get more then a couple days before he wants a rematch." Catherine suggested.
"Good idea. Let's go." Tima said pulling Ishara back to their little corner of the store.
It was Natasha's turn to share tips with the others. It wasn't a surprise to Ishara that her advice was to exercise. Natasha had just finished taking them through several things they could do to keep in shape between the games. Now she was going on about something else she thought was important for them to do.
"The hunter usually doesn't come until after supper. So when you finish eating you should do some stretches before he comes. Just encase he picks you." Natasha suggested.
"Why?" Catherine asked
"Because one thing you don't want during the game is to suffer a random cramp." Natasha explained. She was interrupted by one of the screams coming from outside. They had been a distraction for the past couple hours.
"They are really toying with her." Natasha commented.
"It's been going on a long time." Catherine said.
"Really short bursts. They are trying to prolong her suffering." Ishara pointed out.
"It sounds like they are doing more then trying." Tima said.
"She must not have had a good run." Ishara said grimly.
"She should be part of this." Tima added.
"She's done a lot for us. All of us." Ishara pointed out.
"We can repeat this when she gets back. It can't be helped but someone will always be missing when we meet." Catherine said. She was followed by another short burst of screams.
"Why are they doing that to you?" Ishara wondered. She knew that a level three they extended the pain to make her voice last longer; but it was never like they heard now.
"It sounds like a two, and a three together. But more towards a three." She commented.
"It doesn't matter. She's in pain." Tima protested.
"And like everyone else we can't do anything for her until she gets back. Don't worry; we will take good care of her then. But we have to push it from our minds until then. Don't let it distract you." Catherine stated.
"She's right. Come let's go back to our corner." Ishara said taking Tima's hand.
"Good idea. We can resume tomorrow." Catherine said. Ishara ignored her for the time being and took Tima back to their little corner of the store.
After they sat down Ishara stared at the door; avoiding Tima's gaze. Ever since Julia had been taken tonight there was something that bothered her. The unusual length of her screams only helping to fortify that uneasiness.
"There was something about the way Julia looked when they took her tonight. It reminded me so much of the night that Lois vanished a few days ago." Ishara thought. She didn't want to say anything out loud. If she was wrong then they wouldn't take her seriously anymore. Oh how she hoped that she was wrong about this.
"I'm not so sure she's going to come back. This may have been her final game." She thought with a shiver.
Ishara was returned to the store in relatively good shape considering the situation they were in. before returning to her little corner with Tima; Ishara caught sight of Karin. She almost missed the quiet child again.
"How does she do that? She always blends so perfectly into the background that even knowing she's here; I can't always see her." Ishara thought.
"When she can speak again I must ask her. I could use that ability in the game." Karin noticed that she was looking at her and almost seemed to vanish.
Ishara started back to her little corner when she was stopped again by running into Sandra whom she hadn't even seen was awake.
"Sorry. I didn't see you there." Ishara said softly.
"You shouldn't be able to talk. Nobody is able to talk when they come back. What do you do for him?" Sandra protested.
"What do you mean? Nicole…" Ishara replied confused.
"Is dead." Sandra said sharply.
"You're going to wake everyone up." Ishara warned.
"What do you give him?" Sandra demanded. She stepped forward causing Ishara to step back reflectively.
"I don't give him anything. What are you talking about?" Ishara asked. She got lost in the frightening, dark stare Sandra was giving her.
"Yes you do. Did he let you try what Diane did? Is that why you get special treatment? Does he fuck you in…" Sandra almost growled. But she was soon cut off by another voice.
"Stop it. She's far too young for that and you know it." Catherine barked.
"Some men like them young." Sandra sneered.
"And she's giving him something."
"If you joined the rest of us when we meet. You would learn exactly what that is. Ishara here is practically teaching the rest of us these days." Catherine replied.
"And what is that." Sandra demanded.
"Not what you think it is. She's giving him exactly what he wants. She plays the game and actively tries to improve. That's what makes him happy; not the disgusting things you accuse her of doing." Catherine explained.
"I don't understand. Why is she…" Ishara started.
"Don't worry about it. Just go back to Tima and I'll handle Sandra." Catherine said softly. Ishara nodded and stepped out of the way quickly.
The day after Sandra's confusing hostility. Catherine approached Ishara and Tima. She mostly looked at Ishara but she couldn't avoid speaking to Tima as well.
"Could you please come with me? I'd like to speak with you about something." Catherine asked.
"What's going on?" Ishara asked.
"You will see. But it's important and I want to speak to you all at once." Catherine replied. Ishara was about to ask who she meant but she spotted Natasha, and Diane standing together already. She nodded instead and the two of them followed Catherine to the others.
"Ok you have us. What's this about?" Natasha asked.
"We need a leader. And I would like to do it." Catherine stated.
"What do we need a leader for?" Natasha asked.
"I can ensure that he only takes those that are ready. No one else has to die because of bad timing." Catherine explained.
"It's his game. We can't have a leader. No one can control who he takes." Ishara said.
"Trying to force his hand will only get us all killed." Natasha added.
"No, I can do it. He won't know what's happening." Catherine promised.
"He isn't stupid. He will know exactly what you are doing and he will punish anyone involved. I'm not going to regress back to ones and twos." Ishara stated.
"He won't mind. He wants the strongest one. I can direct him to her; giving anyone that needs more rest some time." Catherine promised.
"He already picks the strongest unless he's tired of one of us. Like when he choose…" Ishara's voice trailed off. She still didn't like to think about what happened to Sasha.
"It doesn't have to be that way." Catherine protested.
"I'm sorry Catherine. I just don't think it's possible. It's the hunter's game. We play by his rules or we die. We can't change that." Natasha said.
"We don't have to change the rules. We know what he wants and I can be sure he gets it. If you all let me speak for you." Catherine insisted
"and how would you do any of this?" how would you decide who to give to him?" Tima asked.
"Yes Catherine. How would you decide who sacrifice?" Natasha asked.
"Tima is in the best shape right now. Ishara is his best but she just came back from a game. She needs a rest. Natasha you are still recovering from your last one." Catherine offered.
"I'm more ready then Tima right now." Ishara pointed out.
"You are also biased. She's your best friend." Catherine stated.
"Can't argue with that." Natasha commented.
"But how would you get him to choose her if say he wanted Karin tonight? She can't speak yet so she's in worse shape then I am." Ishara asked.
"We hide those that are in the worst shape. And put those in the best shape at the front of the store where he will see them first." Catherine said.
"He won't fall for that. He will know some are missing and assume they had grown weak. He might even choose them on purpose to get rid of them. He's done it before; he wanted to do it to me my second game." Ishara replied.
"He has done it before remember. Ishara tried to hide Sasha at first." Natasha pointed out.
"We don't need to bring her up." Tima protested.
"It's ok. She's better off now. She can't be forced to play the game anymore." Ishara replied.
"Sorry I forgot that you were close to her; and what they did after the rest of us got herded back in here." Natasha said.
"But how would you stop him from choosing Karin tonight?" she asked.
"If he ignored the strong ones in front of him. I would try a more direct approach. I would flat out tell him Karin needs more rest." Catherine replied.
"And get yourself killed. He won't stand for something so direct." Ishara said.
"Says the girl that defied him several times. Even sneaking into the back to change. He's shown often enough that he loves defiance." Catherine said.
"There's a difference between what she did and what you propose. You want to challenge him directly. And even get in the way of what he wants to do. He won't tolerate that." Natasha said.
"I'm sorry but it's like Natasha said. It just won't work. The idea itself is nice; but he chooses who he wants. We don't have any say in that." Ishara said.
"We exist for his entertainment. He will never let us choose for him. Remember that Catherine. WE are the toys. We do what we are told and nothing else. He wants defiance only because it amuses him; what you propose won't amuse him." Natasha said.
"I'm not giving up on this. But it looks like you need proof that it will work." Catherine said.
"Don't try anything stupid. We don't want you to vanish." Natasha warned.
"Thank you for your concern. But I won't be killed. You will see. If he tries to choose Ishara or Karin tonight I'll take their place." Catherine said.
"Just be careful." Ishara begged.
"You don't have to worry about me." Catherine promised.
"But for now let's dissipate. Supper should be starting soon."
"Agreed." Natasha replied. The girls all returned to their usual sections of the store with the only input from Diane being to shake her head at the whole idea.
The order was given and Ishara made a break for it. When she got far enough she changed directions. She had a plan for this game and nothing was going to prevent her from following it. Behind her she could hear the hunter moving to catch up. She had learned by now how to tell how close he was getting.
She quickly found her way back to the edge of the town and without being seen worked her way to the right area. She carefully studied where the bandits around town were.
"Just a little more." Ishara thought. When the coast was clear she rushed to the back of the store. She was taking a big risk repeating this trick. She checked the window and it still made the horrid sounds from last time.
"I hope he can't hear that from the forest." She thought climbing inside. She made sure to close the window behind her and get out of its view.
"He's going to be angry when he finds me. But I can't just leave her." she thought.
"This is going to earn me a level one. Maybe even worse. But I'll go into that as I do every other. I will take what's coming to me." She thought reaching for the door to the front of the store. She opened it a crack and tried to see where the guards were looking. The girls were usually subdued after the hunter took one of them; worried if they would return or not. So the guards almost looked asleep.
Her chance came when the guards started talking to each other. They didn't look away long but it was enough. And coupled with the fact that the door never moved she was able to sneak back into the store.
Catherine stared at her but didn't say anything yet. She just watched what Ishara was planning to do. Ishara approached where Tima was crouched low.
"Hey I told you I'd be back." Ishara said. Tima looked up in surprise. The question was clear on her face. Ishara quietly sat down beside her.
"He's not going to hurt me for this. I promise." Ishara lied. She took Tima's hand and held it tightly. Tima tried to open her mouth but was quickly stopped by Ishara.
"Don't try to say anything." She warned. Tima gave up and lay her head on Ishara's shoulder. Finally Catherine couldn't wait any longer and approached them slowly.
"What are you doing here?" she hissed quietly.
"What do you think? She needs me here now." Ishara replied.
"That's insane. She could wait until you got back. This is…This is just…" Catherine said.
"I should go tell the guards." Sandra growled in a low voice.
"And take away his fun?" Ishara asked.
"If she does that then it's over. I'll be given a one and won't even have helped Tima in the meantime." She thought.
"Don't do that." Catherine begged.
"It's your choice. But until he arrives I'm staying right here." Ishara said glaring at her.
"Maybe a one would be better for her? I wouldn't be gone as long if I failed to earn bedrest for this game." She thought. Tima looked at Sandra with pleading eyes.
"Fine I won't." Sandra growled and walked away.
"She just knows that if she tattles; she will take your place at the table." Catherine whispered.
"Ya." Ishara replied unsure.
"But Tima's last game was terrible. She needs me too much not to risk this." She thought looking at Tima. The girl looked so comforted by her presence it was hard not to believe she was doing the right thing. No matter what was coming.
It took about four hours before the Hunter walked into the store. He made a beeline for the back room to check for her. He didn't even make it halfway before he spotted her and started laughing.
"Ok you got me. This was funny. I've never had one return to her cage during the game to try and throw me off." He said clearly amused. But the smile dropped from his face as he told her one thing.
"This trick however is growing stale. I will be very disappointed if you try to enter the village again during the game." He warned
"Understood sir. I just wanted to try this at least once. I'm sorry I threw the game." Ishara replied standing up.
"The table awaits." She said walking up to him.
"That it does." The hunter said. They took her from the store and before long she was tied to the table in the community center. She tested her bonds briefly while she waited to hear her fate.
"He seemed amused; that's usually a good sign." She thought.
"Not her best; but she knows this and managed to make me laugh. Give her a four." The Hunter said.
"Four means bed rest. I won't get back until morning." Ishara thought uneasy.
"May I have a three instead?" she asked. He looked at her amused while the other bandit was simply confused.
"Don't press your luck. You don't get to make requests." The Hunter said.
"It's a four." He said and left.
"Three would put me out of commission longer then a four would. If I didn't make him angry sneaking back into the store then there's no chance he would give me what I want. He wants to keep me as strong as possible." She thought. She took a deep breath and waited for it to start.
"No, No, No. Bad idea." Ishara thought when she saw who had been chosen. She scrambled to her feet and approached the Hunter.
"You won't enjoy her. Why don't you let me take her place for tonight?" Ishara offered. Catherine approached them quickly after hearing Ishara's request.
"You have had her three times this week. Might I suggest you take her instead? She is well rested." Catherine interrupted pointing to Karin.
"Go sit down both of you." The Hunter ordered annoyed.
"But sir if I may. She won't please you. But you know I can." Ishara said.
"Hunting the same one twice in a row is boring. Both of you go sit down and don't mettle uninvited." The Hunter growled.
"It's ok. Go sit down." Natasha said bravely. Her voice didn't weaver. The Hunter signaled his men and they left with Natasha.
"What are you trying to do!" Catherine exclaimed when they left.
"You just got back from your last game this morning. You have also been taken three times this week. You need to rest."
"She isn't coming back." Ishara said sadly.
"How do you know that?" Catherine asked.
"I can see it. She's worn out. I couldn't let them take her." Ishara replied.
"Why you? If you had told me I could have tried without you risking yourself. You are probably the best of us at the game but even you have limits." Catherine said.
"I'm not going to sacrifice someone else." Ishara explained.
"Besides I failed, you failed. We can't change who he takes."
"No, we can't." Catherine admitted.
"Maybe it's for the best. If we could then he would have taken you over Karin or me."
"I could have done it, what's one more game?" Ishara asked.
"It could be your last. Please don't try and sacrifice yourself." Tima said bringing herself into the conversation.
"What am I supposed to do when I know someone won't survive the night?" Ishara asked.
"I don't know. What can any of us do?" Catherine replied.
"Come sit down Ishy. You need to rest." Tima said tugging at Ishara's arm.
"All right." Ishara agreed defeated.
Two weeks after Natasha was taken away for the last time. The girls had been fed and sat waiting for what was about to come. Ishara looked around to try and guess who was most likely to be taken tonight. It wouldn't be her because she now knew he hated hunting the same one twice in a row.
"It could be Tima. She's rested and so is Karin." Ishara thought. She hated it when he took Tima. She glanced over at Catherine and rejected the idea right away.
"She was right before me. He won't take her again so soon." She decided.
"Diane is also quite rested. She's only been taken once this week. So she may be overdue." She then looked at Sandra and was glared at in response.
"Hoping he takes me are you." Sandra snapped at her and walked up to her.
"No." Ishara shook her head.
"I don't hope for him to take anyone."
"He's not going to take you; his favorite so soon. But you don't care unless it's her." Sandra said pointing to Tima. Ishara stood up to face her.
"What is your problem?" she asked.
"You are my problem. You make the rest of us look bad. You and Diane both." Sandra said sharply.
"And I get chosen up to three times a week for it. Diane is guaranteed twice." Ishara replied.
"Ha. A small comfort when it gets you a soft bed to sleep in three nights a week. I don't even hear screams from you like the rest of us get anymore." Sandra barked.
"You don't think it hurts?" Ishara asked.
"You're his favorite pet." She replied.
"Have you ever earned a four?" Ishara asked.
"Of course not. No one has but you and Diane." Sandra replied.
"I have." Tima offered.
"Of course you have. You have been taking lessons from Miss perfect." Sandra said. Catherine couldn't listen to it anymore and got up to approach them. She couldn't speak after her last game but she could act.
"I'm not going to fight with you." Ishara said. The four of them were so distracted by the fight they didn't notice the Hunter come into the store.
"You don't want to displease your master." Sandra retorted. Catherine moved between them and pushed Sandra out of the way. She looked at Ishara and pointed to the spot next to Tima on the floor.
"Do you think you can order me around too?" Sandra said. Catherine glared at her and slowly stepped closer.
"I'll take that one." the Hunter said pointing at Catherine. Ishara's face went pale when she saw he had come in.
"No; you can't." she tried to protest. But Catherine pushed her out of the way and approached the Hunter. She was taken away with them and Ishara turned back to Sandra. This time her eyes burned.
"It was too soon for her." she said seething. Ishara slapped Sandra across the face hard.
"Why you!" Sandra said; but she was interrupted.
"Do you not understand what you just did? Catherine is going to die tonight because of you. She couldn't even speak yet." Ishara yelled.
"But you don't care do you. As long as it wasn't you." She stepped closer; this time causing Sandra to step back from the younger girl's fury. The fire in her eyes burned sharply and she almost struck Sandra again.
"Hey don't let her get to you." Tima spoke up. She stood and grabbed Ishara's arm while even Diane approached them. She looked Ishara in the eyes and shook her head.
"You saw what she just did." Ishara said. Diane nodded but pointed to Sandra now trying to back into a wall.
"She's afraid of me." Ishara realized. She wanted to press it; to see if she could make Sandra even more terrified. But the look on Tima's face convinced her otherwise.
"I could make Tima afraid of me instead if I give into the dark beast's urges. I need her." she thought.
"I'll leave her alone. But if she ever does that again." Ishara warned and went back to her corner of the store.
In the days that followed Catherine's final game the atmosphere in the store took a dramatic turn. Diane and Karin mostly stayed together with Ishara always at Tima's side. However every so often; especially when Diane was in the game. Sandra would turn on Karin.
Before Sandra could even open her mouth this time Ishara was on her.
"Don't." she warned. Sandra quickly backed up and went to the farthest corner she could. The fear in her face was plain as day when Ishara spoke.
"Sorry." Karin said quietly. Ishara just smiled at her.
"Diane will be back by morning. But Sandra won't bother you if you wait for her with me and Tima." She offered. Karin silently nodded and went with her back to Ishara's corner to wait for Diane's return.
Ishara took one more moment to glare threateningly at Sandra.
"She's still afraid of me. Good. She has taken to attacking anyone that returns from the game less hurt then she does. I can use her fear to protect Tima and Karin." Ishara thought. Diane could protect herself and usually watched over Karin when she was around.
"If she didn't act like that then Sandra might have had someone too. But she doesn't help anyone but herself." Ishara thought looking at Tima with a weak smile. She would be by Tima's side until the end.
"Did you know?" Tima asked looking to Ishara.
"Yes." Ishara replied looking over to where Diane now sat alone.
"The only ones I didn't see are Sasha and Nicole."
"Are you afraid?" Tima asked. Ishara now looked over at where Sandra sat.
"I don't know." Ishara replied honestly.
"I used to think we could win this game. But with Karin dead there's only four of us left. But maybe when my time comes it will be for the best."
"Ya." Tima said quietly.
"She's become quite subdued since Karin was taken." Ishara commented. She couldn't stop looking at Sandra whom days ago tried to pick fights with everyone.
"It's pointless to fight with everyone. Now she's alone because of it." Tima pointed out.
"Please! Whatever happens, don't give up. I truly think you can win the game." She begged. Ishara looked down at her.
"I won't; I promise. If I give up then he wins. I will die; I know that now but I won't let him win." Ishara said.
Ishara now sat alone in the store while she waited for Tima to return from the game. No one in the store was moving; no one even spoke. Even the guards remained silent; almost falling asleep watching over them.
Diane suddenly stood up and approached those guards; bringing them alert if only briefly. She stood in front of them waiting for them to realize what she wanted. One of the guards nudged the other and chuckled.
"What do you want?" he asked. Diane pointed to herself, then pointed to the door.
"I can't let you go." The guard laughed.
"That jerk. He knows what she wants." Ishara thought annoyed. She stood up encase Diane needed her.
Diane tried crossing her legs to show him she was trying to hold it in.
"Hey look she wants to dance." The guard laughed again.
"She has to pee. If you don't want to take her out then I'll do it." Ishara growled at him as she approached them.
"Look this one wants to fight." The second guard laughed.
"Come on then. let's see what you got."
"That's the boss's favorite toy. Better not play with her." the first guard commented.
"Your right. If we hurt her then the boss will have our heads. Fine; you come with me." The second guard said pointing to Diane. She nodded gratefully and left with him to relieve herself.
"Satisfied? Then go sit down." The remaining bandit said glaring at her.
"Yes I am." Ishara replied and went back to her spot. He didn't look pleased but she got what she was after and didn't care anymore.
Then the screams started. It was to be expected as Tima was in the game; but awhile after Diane returned from outside something felt wrong.
"She's been screaming awhile. That's not right. It should have stopped by now." Ishara thought. She looked over at Diane whom seemed to notice it too.
"It sounds like she's getting a one, or a two. But no one should be getting those anymore…unless." Ishara's face went pale.
"No, no, no, no, it can't be. I would have seen it." Ishara thought frantically. Diane quietly approached her and placed her hand on Ishara's shoulder.
"You don't understand. She can't." Ishara stuttered. Diane shook her head and took the younger girl into a hug.
"She can't go." Ishara started crying. Diane stroked her head, unsure what else she could do for the younger child.
For days after Tima was taken away from her. Ishara barely moved. She knew that her time for the game was coming but she didn't have the energy anymore to start planning for it.
"Did you know?" Tima's voice echoed in her head. She now realized the terrible truth.
"She knew, she knew and she wanted to know if I did." Ishara thought biting her lip.
"My turn will probably be tonight. I should just let them…" she considered.
"You promised her you wouldn't give up." The voice reminded her.
"But she's gone. And I didn't see it." Ishara thought.
"No matter what." Tima's voice echoed.
"Tima…" Ishara whispered.
"She deserved it." Sandra huffed. Ishara looked up at a smug looking Sandra. The older girl took great amusement in seeing how far Ishara fell.
Ishara stood up and glared at her.
"She didn't deserve that." She snapped. She let the feelings wash over her and charged at Sandra. Taking the older girl by surprise she slammed Sandra against the wall; causing the bitter girl to cry out in pain.
The bandit guards didn't move to intervene. Instead they found the display amusing.
Ishara didn't want to leave it there. She would have done much worse had Diane not pulled her off Sandra. She was gentle but still very firm about it. She shook her head and pointed to Sandra to leave. She was quick to scramble away.
"But you heard what she said?" Ishara protested. Diane nodded her head
"Then why did you stop me? She didn't deserve that. She shouldn't have…" Ishara said. She tried desperately to hold onto her anger but it was slipping away quickly; to be replaced by the emptiness.
Diane shook her head. She helped Ishara to sit down and took a seat next to her. Diane looked sadly at Ishara and held her hands clasped at her heart. She motioned to Ishara opening her hands. But Ishara was unable to figure out what she was trying to say. She barely even noticed that Diane had tried to say anything at all. She was already on the verge of tears again.
"It's my fault." Ishara said. Her eyes burned and her chest hurt. Diane tried to shake her head but Ishara didn't believe her.
"I should have seen it was going to happen. I've seen almost everyone else. I should have stopped it." Ishara started crying once more.
"I failed her. It's my fault she's gone." She repeated. Diane shook her head and pointed at the bandits by the door.
"I should have helped her. I promised." Diane took hold of Ishara's face and forced her to look into her eyes. Without a voice all she could do was shake her head again. Ishara looked at her; but she was trying to look away.
"She needed me Diane. And I didn't save her." Ishara said. Diane shook her head and released Ishara's face. She realized there was very little she could do for the younger girl right now. They sat in silence; save for the sniffling and whimpers coming from Ishara; until the Hunter came.
Ishara came to a complete stop in the middle of the forest. She knew the Hunter wasn't far behind; but she had a little time before he reached her.
"I could give myself to him. Show him that I'm broken and in a couple games he will kill me." Ishara thought looking behind her. It would be so easy.
"It will hurt." The voice responded.
"I failed Tima when she needed me the most. I deserve it." Ishara thought back at it.
"But you promised her you wouldn't give up. You owe it to her to honour that promise." The voice pointed out.
"But it's pointless. He is going to kill all of us anyway." Ishara thought. She heard the Hunter getting closer so she slipped away.
"Maybe that's the prize? Fight to the bitter end and you can earn a peaceful death. Give up and he will have you beaten to death several times over before you can rest. But if you win the game then you can join Sasha and Tima in peace." The voice offered. She wanted to ignore it. But it was right. She owed it to Tima not to give up.
"There is no surviving this. But if I give up then I don't deserve to rest with them." She decided.
"The game is all I have left." She realized.
She held the Hunter off for a decent amount of time. It wouldn't be her best; she would never top that again. But neither did she give in and let him have her. But in the end she was captured as she always was. She looked up at him with the fire in her eyes quickly fading with the end of the game.
"When my turn comes, if I win the game will you let me die in peace? Or will I die screaming like most of the others?" Ishara asked him point blank.
"I need to know if I can win. does anything I do matter?" she thought. The question caught the Hunter off guard.
"Very few of my prey realize what the true end of the game looks like. You hold onto hope that you can one day escape. And this is good as it expands the game. Those that do come to understand give up. No one has ever been brave enough to ask this." The Hunter said.
"I will continue to play if the prize is that when you have grown tired of me; you don't end my life tied to that table screaming in pain one last time." Ishara said seriously. He looked at her with amusement; but he realized she was being completely honest.
"If you do as you claim and continue to play to the best of your abilities. Then yes your end will be met peacefully. You may even be able to earn some last comforts and pleasures before you die. A bath, a change of clothes, a good meal, even rest. But if you give up and I bore too quickly then your end will not be pleasant. But you know this much don't you?" the Hunter said.
"Thank you." Ishara whispered sincerely.
The hunter was so amazed by her insight; and curious if she would truly continue to play knowing that no matter what she did; she would die. He returned Ishara to the store with little more than a bare spanking for being caught. He didn't give her bed rest this time; but he correctly deduced that she didn't want it.
Ishara marched right to Sandra instead of returning to her corner. Sitting down wouldn't be easy now anyway. The older girl scrambled to stand up and get out of the way but Ishara trapped her.
"I should hurt you for what you said about Tima." Ishara glared at her. She wanted to kick Sandra; or smash her into another wall. Diane was already coming to try and stop her.
"But I'm not going to. You aren't worth it." Ishara said. Diane smiled at her but she didn't notice. Sandra opened her mouth to speak and was very quickly interrupted.
"You are weak and useless. A pathetic excuse that only survived this long out of pure dumb luck. You spend all your time blaming everyone else for your failure. I'm not wasting any more time with you. You can die alone; with no one to care you ever lived." Ishara said and walked away.
Ishara was expecting Diane to return at any time now. It was morning but she had already been awake for several hours. For now she killed the time trying to figure something out.
"Things can't go as they are. There is to be no happy end for me. But does it have to be that way for Diane? Maybe there's a way for her at least to escape." Ishara thought. She glared briefly at Sandra whom flinched at the look. She had kept her distance since their talk a few days ago. She seemed to be afraid that Ishara would change her mind and attack her again.
"She is beyond help. No plan will get her to safety." Ishara thought and returned her attention to the front door.
"It's been awhile since I returned to the village during the game. I promised him that I wouldn't after the last time. But Diane didn't make that promise. I'm the only one that has ever tried that so maybe he won't think of it? Maybe she could double back and hide in the back room." Ishara considered.
"She could hide there until my next game; then while he's going for me maybe she can escape." She thought. There was a lot of things she wasn't sure about but there would be time to work on it. Between the games they had nothing but time.
The door opened to interrupt her plans as Diane was brought inside.
"Looks like she got a four. One of her off nights." Ishara thought watching how she limped. The Hunter and his healer always left some minor injuries for level's four and to a lesser extent five. This was so they remember to do better next time. In the case of a level four one of the most common injuries was bruising to the ankle.
Ishara approached her and helped her to sit down. She did what she could for the older girl's minor injuries. Since there was only three of them left; Ishara and Diane always took care of each other. Sandra remained alone; she refused to take care of anyone but herself.
"A four?" Ishara asked. Diane nodded.
"You will do better next time. I may even have some suggestions for you." Ishara promised.
Ishara now sat with Diane and watched the front door. Neither one of them wanted to sit alone now. Deep down they both knew the same thing.
"She's not really coming back." Ishara thought. She glanced at Diane and saw the same idea in the elder girls face.
"We both heard her scream last night. And I saw the look in her face when the Hunter took her. Sandra is now dead." Ishara thought. It scared her; and for all the wrong reasons.
"I know I should feel sad she's dead. Even if she was a bitter, selfish child. But I can't seem to care." She shivered at the thought; causing Diane to look at her concerned.
"I'm ok." Ishara promised.
"Why don't I care? Sandra is dead and I'm…I'm…almost happy about it. What kind of monster has the game made me?" She asked herself.
"The dark beast has taken my soul." She thought bitterly. She looked around for something to distract her; then she caught a glimpse of Diane's scared face.
"It's just the two of us now. But how long will we last? How much longer can we keep going now?" Ishara thought. She saw part of the answer in Diane's face.
"She has two, maybe three games left in her. But I think she knows that." Ishara huddled closer; knowing that it wouldn't be long before she was the last one. Diane placed her hand on Ishara's head and motioned for the child not to worry about her. Ishara understood but looked at her with wide eyes anyway.
The huddled together for the rest of the day; and into the night. Neither of them spoke; and neither of them needed to. In the dead silence of that old storehouse they understood each other perfectly.
Ishara bit back the tears as she watched Diane leave the store for what they both knew was the final time. Even the Hunter knew it because for the first time since their capture; the guards stationed at the front door were taken away. While she knew that at least one would remain outside it left her with a strangely empty feeling.
"He knows I can't escape. I know I can't escape. He would only need them if Diane was coming back but then, I know she won't be. This is to be her final game. Then she will join the others." Ishara thought blankly staring at the door.
"How much longer before it's my turn? The Hunter is getting bored of me. I can see it. I'm trying my best to find new ways to evade him. But I've run out of ideas. So how many more games then?" She asked herself.
"He doesn't like playing with the same toy twice. That's all I am now. All I've been for a while. Just a doll to be played with and then discarded." She walked up to the door and considered opening it. If only to ask the bandit guard to come back inside so she didn't have to be alone.
"I'm the last one. He doesn't like playing with the same one twice…my life will come to an end in just days." She stopped holding back and let them flow. There was nothing more she could do but wait.
"Why did this happen to us?" she wondered. What a strange question it was; all this time she had never thought to ask it.
"How come I'm the last one? Ten of us are dead and Diane will join them before the night ends." Ishara shook her head.
"No I know why. I played the game. I did everything I could to win. Not escape; but to win. And this is my prize. I'll die alone having betrayed everyone else." She thought. Alone in the accusing silence it was all she could think. She flipped the events of the past months around inside her head. Had they worked together maybe they could have all escaped. But Ishara selfishly choose to play the game.
"Tima I failed you the most. Would I have even gotten past my second game if it wasn't for you? No of course not. But when you needed me the most. I wasn't there for you." Ishara thought. How she wanted to trade places with Tima. The thought of what happened to Tima made her want to scream.
"What right did I have to ask the Hunter for a painless death? I failed Tima, she suffered for it. She didn't get to go easy. Most of the others didn't. This whole time I thought…I thought playing the game would free us. But I was being nothing more then selfish. It's my fault they all died. I'm the last one because I sacrificed them all." Ishara cried.
"I could end it now." She said quietly.
"I could walk out that door and make them kill me. It won't be quick; but I deserve to suffer." She said. But then she shook her head.
"It's too late, it doesn't matter now. Giving up won't bring them back; won't undo what I did. And it won't bring them peace. I promised Tima that I wouldn't give up; and I owe her that much at least. I'll die soon enough anyway." Ishara thought closing her eyes.
Soon it would be over. Soon she would suffer for her crimes. She would play the game until the bitter sweet end. Then she would pay her debt in full.
Now when the Hunter came into the store it was not hard to guess who he was going to choose. Ishara rose and strengthened what remained of her purple dress before going to meet her fate without any illusions that she might really get away. She did not say a word, instead she simply allowed the hunter to lead her from the store. Ishara did not think that this would be the last game, but she knew it was to be soon.
This time was different, this would be the last time she ever saw that store, or her village as a child. During the past games after Tima's death, Ishara had begun surrendering herself to her anger to survive, she wrapped herself in it like a security blanket and every time it pulled through for her. This day was no different in that regard; despite her lack of interest in anything, and the constant burning she experienced within.
Ishara did not fail to notice that she was not being taken to the edge of the forest. Instead she was being taken to the small house near the community center that served as a hospital for the hunter's toys. Ishara's fears started to mix with her new curiosity. They walked inside to find the small medicine man waiting for them.
The Hunter gave the doctor a nod, his warlock knew what to do and approached Ishara without word nor emotion. He placed his hand on her forehead and closed his eyes in some kind of trance Ishara had never seen before. She was unfamiliar with his magic, having never been awake when he used it to mend her most serious injuries.
"Wait, that's not fair." The voice in her mind screamed in fury as she fell into a deep sleep.
When Ishara woke up, she was in an unfamiliar place. It was just her and the three hunters that normally played the game with her. She took a quick look around and noticed that it appeared to be some kind of abandoned camp. She saw signs that it had not been in use for some time now, perhaps several months. The Hunter handed her some tasteless food, and made sure that she ate it quickly. He wanted her to have some strength for this final hunt. Finally he spoke.
"This is to be your final game. I have chosen not to offer the prize of final comforts should you win. But instead I have changed the rules of the game. If you can find safety; it is yours. You may live the rest of your days free of the game. However this is not your forest. And you will not be returning to your village. If you are caught you will however receive the painless death you requested." The hunter explained.
The Hunter gave her some time to rest and gain her bearings. She was still drowsy from her forced slumber so he was patient. When she was ready he took her to the edge of this strange camp and told her to run in his cold voice.
Now she had no choice but to give herself up, surrendering control to remain alive Ishara broke into a fearful run. The hidden sky above the forest cried out, almost in tune with her mood. And following her own tears let loose a thunderous storm.
"That's right, cry. It's all over now. You don't have a chance and the truth is you never did. You feel like your being watched I know, well that's because you are. He's playing with you like he always has. He is waiting just behind the trees because this isn't your element." The voice said
"No" Ishara squeaked.
"Don't kid yourself, look at you! If mother could see you now. Look at your filthy and torn up dress, the last time you even bathed was when they did it. Putting their filthy hands all over you. It's time to stop pretending, you're lost for good now. You barely stood a chance in your own forest. But you don't know this one at all." Her mind explained. Ishara started to wail quietly, it was still possible the Hunter might hear her but she didn't care. She moved for hours through the forest, soaking up the worst of the storm without any idea where she was going.
The now soft rain pierced the thick forest trees, even though the moons brilliant glow could not. The forest was at peace, and in a small clearing where the moon, only days from being full, found an opening for its soft light.
Approaching that clearing she was running through the forest. The night was cool but to Ishara who was soaked to the bone, it was cold, the torn and soiled cloth that once been her dress offered no protection from either the rain or the cold air. Ishara did not dare slow down, she did not have time to think about the death that waited for her. The lack of light caused her to constantly trip over the uneven ground, and run into poorly placed branches. She was forced to ignore all this pain, none of it was important. Instead Ishara continued to run, pushing herself as fast as she could. It was the only way to escape the men she knew were behind her. She had been running for what only felt like days but did not understand why she had not been caught yet. It should never have taken them this long, not here when she had lost her only advantage.
Without a thought beyond mere survival Ishara pushed on, finding another burst of speed she ran in a blind panic. The fallen tree caught her completely by surprise, pain exploded in her ankle when she tripped, a scream escaping her lips after coming down hard on her already bruised knees. She struggled to stand up, trying her best to continue running. Ishara however was just too tired, and it took her a lot of effort simply to get to her feet. She could ignore the pain of her twisted ankle only as long as she was not trying to move too fast. Her hopes became shattered by the realization that she could run no more. She started to turn so she could face her fate head on. Hoping only that this last game would not end so miserably. Ishara had not finished turning when something caught her eye. The moon poking through that small clearing, reflected off some shiny object. Not having the strength to do much else. She limped over to it to get a closer look.
"A sword?" she thought with surprise. The weapon seemed to have an odd glow to it. Though perhaps it was only Ishara's imagination.
"You don't have time for this. You wouldn't even be able to lift that thing." She thought.
"But it is a weapon. I can't run anymore. The Hunter will find me. This could be my only option to show I haven't given up." She picked the sword up and it was lighter then she expected; but she still had trouble holding it steady. She doubted that she could swing it if she needed but she would go to her end defiantly.
"Here they come." She thought hearing the Hunter and his men close by. She turned to face him with the sword in front of her.
"It looks like she found something." The hunter laughed at her.
"What do you plan to do with that? Are you going to find your freedom by killing the three of us?" he asked.
"Do I have anything to lose by trying? You are going to kill me now." Ishara replied. She bravely stared at the three of them; but her eyes betrayed her fears. She tried desperately to push them away with promises to herself of being with her friends again.
The bandit Ishara had never even heard called by name suddenly spoke.
"I've had enough of this shit. You are one sick bastard boss. You hunt little girls for sport instead of just keeping some extra women around. Now look at this one; pathetically begging for her life with a sword she can't possibly use. And all you can think to do is play with her again. I'm putting an end to this." He said. Before Ishara could blink his sword was embedded in the Hunter's chest. Ishara couldn't process what was going on; this wasn't how it was supposed to end at all.
"Oh no. you aren't going to take me out next." Lex announced. He quickly let loose the bolt in his crossbow causing the other bandit to fall to the ground. Ishara and Lex both watched him die; with Ishara not daring to move. When it was done Lex finally turned his attention back to her. Ishara knew what was going to happen now.
"go on." She said letting the sword fall to the ground.
"Will he kill me fast like the Hunter promised? Or will he make me suffer first? The game is finally over and it wasn't the Hunter that won. It's him. That means I'm his to kill however he wishes." She thought.
"It's a pity. In a few years you could have grown up to become a pretty little whore. He wasted the lot of you on his game." Lex said bluntly.
"I should kill you. I can't take you back to camp until you ripen because thanks to the boss you have shown some dangerous attitudes."
"Then do it. Punish me as you see fit and kill me. I'm not going to fight; it's your right to do with me as you wish. The game is over." Ishara said. Lex shook his head at her.
"I'm not going to kill you. Frankly you aren't worth my time. This forest will probably take you soon enough anyway. You may as well enjoy the remaining time because I'm going home. Don't try and follow me or I'll shove a bolt up your ass." He said leaving her alone.
Ishara fell to her knees in confusion and weariness. The Hunter lay unmoving next to her; as did the nameless man.
"Are they really dead? Am I really free?" she asked herself. The answer for the most part appeared to be yes.
"But why am I alive? Does this mean I haven't paid my debt yet? I must suffer more first?" she wondered.
For a few moments Ishara just kneeled there staring at the sword. She was even more scared of the weapon then she was of the remaining bandits still in her village, because now the Hunter lay dead at her feet. Did finding this rusted sword have something to do with why the nameless man suddenly attacked the Hunter? It almost certainly had to have something to do with the man's strange choice. It took her more then twenty minutes to come to her senses and try to decide what needed to be done about her situation. She did not think that she was safe from the bandits yet. By the same token she was fearful of the sword she found before everyone had lost their minds. In the end however her instinct for survival won, and she started into the forest with the old sword.
A full two days later, with hunger taking its heavy toll. Ishara stumbled into the edge of the forest; not far away she spotted a town. To her it seemed like a shine, representing a final place to be safe. She had not seen any signs of the bandits since the Lex left her alone; so her fear started to focus more on the sword she was carrying. Looking out at the village she longed for the safety she believed it would provide for her. Maybe she could even find someone to take her in. with a real house to live in; with a real bed to sleep in. the tears that she had thought long dried up started to flow again at the memory of everyone that would never have those things again. The girls that died in agony.
Her stomach made the final decision for her; so the little girl started back into the forest. She remembered a small clearing not too far away.one that she had passed earlier this morning. When she had been there the first time Ishara had thought about hiding her sword in a tree she had discovered. It only took her a few moments to decide to leave the tree alone, keeping the sword because for now it was her only protection. However now she had seen a town. A place where the game could finally end. But she knew that she couldn't enter that safe place holding a weapon. When she found the tree again she crawled onto the fallen trunk lying nearby. With a lot of effort she managed to drag the sword up with her and tried to tip its end over the tree's edge.
For a moment she almost had it, but then the sword tilted towards her and tumbled out of her hands. Leaping off the log with a frightened squeal. She took hold of the sword and tried a couple more times. By the time she had landed the sword in the hollowed tree stump, Ishara had no energy left to move. She needed to rest for more then twenty minutes before she could get up and almost crawl back towards the clearing. The only thing that allowed her to ignore how hungry she was and keep going; was the town she could find safety in.
After Ishara ditched the sword, she wandered into the town of "Forest Lake" she had high hopes about the safety this town would offer. She believed that the town would take her in, protect her from the bandits. She had no idea that the bandits she knew had spread fear this far out. If they did come looking for her The residents of Forest Lake would have been so scared of them. They could very likely hand her right back to their painful arms. But Ishara's village had been cut off from the rest of the world and until they attacked she did not even know such people existed.
There was nothing to worry about, Lex had no interest in telling the truth about that night. He was right not to; the rest of the Red Reapers would have never believed his story. So instead he intended to take full credit for the Hunter's death himself.
Ishara stumbled into the town almost dead. She had not eaten since she had been in that strange camp a couple days ago. She had never been this long without food before.
"Well you're done, congratulations you finally get to see Sasha and Tima again. Go now into Cyllene's gentle embrace." her mind taunted.
"No" Ishara mouthed, she didn't have the energy to speak.
"I'm not going to die, I can't…not now." Ishara thought, she started to cry again even as she stumbled face first onto the dirty street of Forest Lake. She stared at the street unable to move anymore. Her strength gave in so she closed her eyes and waited for the darkness to take her.
"I was so close." She thought. But then she felt a strong pair of hands grab her shoulders and help her to sit up straight. It was quickly discovered that she lost the ability to stand up; so she was taken into those same gentle arms. She tried to look around but she could not see who was now holding her. Just as people started to gather near her; Ishara succumbed to the darkness.
Ishara woke up the following morning in a soft bed. She looked around the small room in disbelief.
"Did I make it? This doesn't look like the twisted healers house." She thought. She pulled back the warm covers and shivered at finding that someone had changed her into a nightgown.
"Where's my dress." She thought almost panicking. She tried to get out of bed when an old lady burst into the room in a hurry.
"Oh, no, no, no. don't try and get up." She said quickly. Ishara nearly jumped when she came into the room; but calmed down when she saw it wasn't one of the bandits.
'Where am I?" Ishara asked quietly.
"Am I safe? Or has the game not really ended?" she thought.
"You're in my home. You wandered into town and collapsed. My husband brought you here." The old lady replied.
"Town?" Ishara asked.
"You are in Forest Lake. Didn't you know where you were going?" the older woman asked confused. Ishara shook her head.
"I've never left my village." Ishara said. She tried again to get out of bed. But the older woman stopped her again.
"You need to rest little one. Please don't try and get up. The healer said to keep you here for a few days." The older woman explained. Ishara's eyes went wide at the mention of a healer.
"Then it's true. This is just another part of the game. Am I supposed to wait here for the Hunter? Or is he really gone and I'm going to meet a new one. No, I have to get out of here. I was promised death or freedom; I can't play anymore." She thought scrambling for the edge of the bed.
"Honey what's wrong? Calm down." The older woman said worried.
"Thank you for allowing me rest. But the game continues. I must get out of here" Ishara said politely.
"I can't let you leave I'm sorry. You need to rest; you almost died." The old woman explained.
"That was always to be the end of the game. Please allow me to go on my feet. Don't make me break my promise by sitting here waiting for it." Ishara begged. The old woman looked at her very confused.
"What game? Honey what's going on. No one's going to hurt you." The old lady said
"I wish I could believe that. But I have no choice anyway. She won't let me go; if they are coming then I'm trapped." Ishara thought. She stopped struggling and lay there silently.
"You must be famished, stay in bed; I'll be right back with some food." The old woman promised. Ishara made no effort to move. She just lay back and stared at the ceiling.
"You may even be able to earn some last comforts and pleasures before you die. A bath, a change of clothes, a good meal, even rest. Someone washed me while I was asleep so I'll have gotten the first three. He told me that he changed the game instead of providing those things. But if she's going to bring food then that makes all of his proposed rewards. Perhaps this is merely the peaceful end I was promised for continuing to play." She thought closing her eyes.
Ishara rested in that bed for three days. No one came for her and she was beginning to wonder when it was going to happen. Soon someone would come for her. Instead the old lady came into her room followed by a much younger woman.
"Ishara this is the priestess of water Lynn. She looked at you when my husband found you but she would like to check on your progress." The old lady said. Ishara blinked looking at the healer.
"A woman?" she thought confused.
"Am I going to die soon?" she asked the healer. Her voice was almost hopeful.
"Unless somethings happened since the last time I looked at you. Then no. but I'd like to send for a priestess from Windley." Lynn said.
"Windley?" Ishara asked.
"The Duke's city. But what's important is that when I treated you it looked like there was more damage below the surface. But I lack the skills to determine what. I'd like to bring in a priestess from Windley that can do a thorough examination. Have you had any previous injuries?" Lynn asked.
"After every game." Ishara admitted.
"Game?" Lynn asked.
"She's mentioned this before. But won't tell me what she means." The old lady explained.
"You don't know?" Ishara asked confused. Both of the adults shook their heads.
"There's no one coming? I really made it to safety?" Ishara realized.
"It's not important then. The game is over. You don't need to bring someone else in. I've been…healed after every game." She explained.
"Tell me about this game." Lynn asked. Ishara shook her head.
"It's too much. I'm so confused right now. How can the game really be over after all this time? How could I be here safe?" she thought
"I'm sorry…I can't"
"All right. I'd still like you to rest another day. But tomorrow you can get up." Lynn told her.
"Thank you." Ishara offered a weak smile. The healer nodded and soon took the older woman into another room to speak with her. Ishara didn't know what they talked about; but she was sure that it had to do with her.
That night was when the nightmares finally started. The healer laid to rest the worries that she was still playing the game; now knowing that she was safe the ghosts of the past months came back to haunt her. She woke up to the sound of her own screaming for the first time since the game had started. She had trouble breathing as she thought.
"I'm sorry Tima." After realizing where she was she managed to calm down. But she started crying and just couldn't make herself stop.
"I'm sorry Sasha." She whispered staring into the dark room. Barely a hint of moonlight came through the window. She sat up but she didn't dare try to get out of bed; despite the strong urge to run from the lingering feeling behind her screams.
"A dream, it was just a dream." She lied to herself.
"Tima, Sasha, Diane. Nicole, Catherine, Natasha, Julia, Karin. I wish you could be here. I wish you could have this too." She thought continuing to cry.
She didn't have long to dwell on the nightmares before the old couple came into her room. The old man carried a lantern to light their way and Ishara could see the concern in their faces. Only amplified when the light crossed her bed and they could see she was crying.
"It's ok. You're safe here. You don't need to cry." The old man said.
"I shouldn't be alone, they deserved to be here too." Ishara cried.
"Who should be here honey? Why are you alone?" the old woman asked. But Ishara didn't reply. She sat there crying for all that died, all that she lost, and all that she did.
"It's ok. Let it out. Would you like me to stay with you until you can sleep again?" The old lady asked. Ishara nodded and the old man went back to bed. The old woman stayed with her well into the night
The next morning the two of them came into her room with the dress she had been wearing when she stumbled into the town. They, or someone else had repaired and cleaned it.
"The healer says you can get out of bed today. We thought you would want this back now." The old woman said.
"Thank you." Ishara whispered looking at the dress.
"Last night what was that about? What happened to you? The old man asked. His wife looked at him like he was stupid.
"Don't pressure the poor girl." She said.
"Maybe it would help her to talk about it? Maybe it's something that the Windley guard can deal with?" the man protested.
"The game was all I had left. I'll try." Ishara said quietly.
"Stop any time you need to. Don't push yourself." The old woman said. Ishara nodded.
"Tell me, where are your family?" the old man asked.
"The Hunter came to the village and killed everyone." Ishara started off slowly.
"What village? Where are you from?" the old man asked.
"In the forest. We didn't have a name for it. We just called it home." Ishara tried to explain.
"A village in the forest?" The old man asked. Ishara nodded sadly.
"Not anymore. It's theirs now." She said quietly.
"Then how did you survive." The old lady asked.
"The Hunter kept twelve of us. We were his toys. And he had us play the game." Ishara explained.
"What is this game? You keep mentioning it." The old man asked.
"It's like hide and seek. But not as fun. He set us loose in the forest one at a time and came to find us. When we got caught, we got punished." Ishara explained,
"He hunted you down?" the old woman gasped.
"I'm the last. The others are all dead now." Ishara's voice waivered.
"How did you get away?" the old man asked.
"This was to be my last game. He took me from the forest I knew, and to the one with the great trees." Ishara said.
"And you found Forest Lake?" the old man asked. Ishara nodded but then he asked the single most dangerous question he could for her safety.
"Tell me about the hunter and his men." He asked.
"They all wore these red armbands. They were all as afraid of the Hunter as we were." She tried to determine what they wanted to hear. There were very few details she could remember as important; but she gave them the wrong information. She should have kept to herself.
"Red Reapers!" both the old man and woman gasped together. Ishara saw the fear in their faces; just like in the store.
"Rest up little one." the old woman said kindly. Then the two of them left her alone almost suddenly.
"Have they been part of the game?" Ishara wondered.
Even though Ishara was now out of bed, she found it difficult to leave the room. She was now dressed in the forest berry dyed dress her parents had made and very grateful to be out of the nightgown.
The old woman poked her head into the bedroom; clearly worried despite how little she had visited Ishara since she told them about the Hunter.
"Why do you hide in here? You can go anywhere in town now?" the old woman asked. Ishara looked at her.
"I'm sorry." She apologized.
"What for?" the old woman asked. Ishara's face went red.
"I'm not used to being able to leave. We were kept in storage until it was our turn for the game." She explained.
"Well come with me outside. There's someone I'd like you to meet." The old lady said. She led Ishara out of the room and towards the front door. Ishara momentarily froze when it was opened.
"It's ok; no one's going to hurt you." The old lady promised. Ishara looked out the open door; comforted only slightly by the visual of the other houses. But she had looked out the window before and the sight of so much open space was unnerving.
The old lady coaxed her out and the comforting crowded houses gave way to the fearful reality that beyond the door they weren't really that close together. She was exposed to the big open sky; and the treeless skyline for only the second time in her life. She looked around franticly until she caught the endless forest behind the old couple's house. She quickly latched onto that view.
"What's wrong with her?" a strange man asked.
"She grew up in a forest. I don't think she's used to how open it can feel around here." The old lady explained. Ishara glanced at the younger man fearfully. She looked to his arm but he didn't wear one of the blood dyed armbands of the Red Reapers.
"Ishara I'd like you to meet Christopher He's going to be looking after you now." The old lady explained.
Ishara turned from the strange man to the old lady.
"Why?" she asked.
"Is he safe? He looks like he could be one of them." She thought
"Little one. My husband and I are old. We can't take care of a little girl anymore." The old woman explained.
"But there's more to it. You can't survive the game if the Hunter comes to reclaim me." Ishara thought looking at her. But would this guy be any better?
"Does the game frighten him?" she asked. The young man looked amused that she saw past the old woman's excuses.
"No. I don't fear the Red Reapers. If they come for you then I will kill them." The man said confidently. He held out his hand for her to come with him. She looked at it hesitantly.
"Go on. He won't hurt you. I'll even come by with your nightgown tonight to see how you are settling in." the old woman promised. Reluctantly Ishara took the man's hand and was led to her new home.
Two months after she arrived in Forest Lake. Ishara stepped into the home of yet another well-meaning townsmen. She gave the man a weak smile but she held no hope that this time would be different. In only two months she'd been passed around more often then she could count.
"Another one." Ishara thought sadly. The man showed her to her new room; at least for a couple days.
"Who will he pass me onto? Will it be a day? Two days? Or will he last the entire three. I know why they do it. But why do they take the risk in the first place." Ishara wondered. She looked up at the man and asked her usual question. She knew what he would say and she knew that it wouldn't be true.
"Are you afraid of the Hunter?" she asked.
"No." the man replied simply.
"Thank you sir." Ishara said politely.
"I'll let you get settled in." the old man replied. Ishara nodded and looked around after he left her alone.
"He looks like one of the stronger people. I should try asking him about it." Ishara decided. She laid the nightgown the old couple gave her on the bed and went to find the young man. It was the only thing she owned besides the dress she wore.
"Sir; May I ask you something?" Ishara asked.
"What is it Ishara?" the man replied looking back at her.
"I know why no one is willing to keep me. They are afraid of the Hunter. But why do people; why did you agree to take me in the first place?" Ishara asked.
"Your right. Most of the people in town are afraid of the Red Reapers. But you're just a child. I agreed to take you in because you need a home; and I'm not afraid of the Red Reapers." The man replied.
"The others that took me in were. Why would they take the risk?" Ishara asked opting not to call him out on his own fears.
"They may not have known how afraid they were. But no one could look at you and want to see you on the streets. You are too young yet to make it to a city to stay in an orphanage; and you need a home. However you came to be here most of the people in this town can't just abandon you." The man explained.
"The Hunter promised me safety if I could find it." Ishara said quietly.
"I'm sure he did." The man smiled at her.
"He doesn't believe me either. I've tried to tell a couple of them but they never believe me. I could try telling him that the Hunter is dead." She wondered. But she shook her head.
"They defiantly won't believe that. I don't even think I truly believe he's dead myself." She thought.
"How did you know that people are afraid of the Red Reapers?" the man asked surprised.
"I saw fear in the faces of the others every day." Ishara explained.
"Most people don't know what to look for. I doubt id know it except that I have talked to people around here." The man said.
"I'll be getting things for supper soon. Is there anything you like?" he asked. Ishara shook her head.
"I'll eat what's given to me." She said.
"I'm told you don't eat much. Let's see if we can change that." The old man said.
"If you wish." Ishara replied.
"Would you like to come with me?" the man asked.
"To the store?" Ishara asked shivering. He nodded.
"I…better not." She replied unsteady.
"No pressure." He said.
"I'll see you shortly then. I was also told that you tend to lock yourself up in your room. Try not to while I'm gone." The man said.
"I promise." Ishara replied.
Ishara sat in the dark room staring at nothing. The man looking after her went to bed some time ago but she couldn't bring herself to sleep.
"He's just as afraid as the others." She realized. The man certainly looked brave; but she could see the same things in him as the others.
"The Hunter's may not ever come for me. But if they do, what then? He would be killed because I'm here." She considered.
"But things can't go on like this. Moving from home to home every few days. Who will be the unlucky one if they do come for me? Will it be something like this that's so sure that he can fight them? Or will it be a kindly old couple that will just get slaughtered." Ishara shook her head; she didn't know.
"What can I do?" she wondered. But maybe there was an option.
"Staying here could cost someone their life. I have caused enough suffering as it is. I should leave this house tonight. I was always the best at the game. I could remain hidden." She considered. It was a hard choice to make. She could give all this up and spend her days in misery; but the townspeople would be safe. Or she could be selfish and have a small chance to be happy.
"If they come and I have no home. Then no one will die protecting me. No one needs to know where I went, or even that I'm still in town."
"Rightfully I should disappear completely. Give myself up to the Hunter's so the people have nothing to fear." She thought. But she didn't know where she could find them; she didn't even know where her village was.
"If they come I'll give myself up. But I won't risk anyone else's life for my own selfishness." Ishara decided. She left the nightgown from the old couple on the bed and quietly slipped out of the house.
Ishara waited until most of the town had gone inside to have lunch before she snuck towards the river. She was fairly confident that she hadn't been seen when she cupped her hands and dipped them into the cold water. She drunk greedily.
"I've heard a lot about you." A strange voice commented. Ishara jumped in surprise and turned around quickly.
"It's ok, don't run." The man said. He was in this thirty's holding the hand of a woman the same age. Ishara stared at him waiting to see what he would do.
"I've been found." She thought with dread.
"How did I find you? You ask." The man said smiling.
"No I'm not half Jiyu'rei."
"What's a Jiyu'rei?" Ishara wondered. She remained silent but her stomach ended up doing the talking for her with a horrid noise.
"When was the last time you ate?" the man frowned.
"A couple days." Ishara finally spoke.
"In other words. Not since you left Peters care." The man said.
"That's terrible. We aren't just going to leave her here are we?" his wife asked.
"No that won't do." The man replied. Ishara's eyes went wide and immediately she started looking for a way to escape.
"Hmm it seems the little rabbit doesn't like that." The man commented.
"She's adorable. We should keep her." his wife smiled.
"No; you really shouldn't." Ishara said seriously.
"Why not?" the woman asked.
"It's dangerous for anyone to keep me." Ishara replied.
"Is this why the little rabbit ran away? You think you are dangerous?" the man asked. Ishara nodded.
"They could still come for me, but if I vanish; then everyone is safe because no one will know where I am. I don't exist anymore." Ishara said.
"Oh! You aren't..." The woman said. But her husband started laughing.
"Is that what you think? That you managed to vanish?" the man asked. Ishara stared at him.
"I don't know anything about where you come from. And back home you may have been the best hider in the world. But Forest Lake is a small town. It's not so easy to hide here." He informed her.
"So they know where I am then. But that changes nothing." She thought.
"It's still safer without a home. No one will get hurt this way. They can take me back without stepping foot in someone's house." She said.
"Only because at the rate you are going; you will die of starvation in a matter of days." The man said. Ishara shrugged.
"No one else dies because of me." She said simply. The woman looked at her surprised.
"You really think you killed someone?" she asked. Ishara nodded.
"That aside I'm going to have to ask you to come with us." The man said. Ishara slowly shook her head.
"Look. I'll respect your idiotic idea of remaining out here. Though my wife has taken a liking to you and you'd be far better off staying with us little rabbit. But we can't just leave you out here to starve to death, come with us and have something to eat, then you can do what you want." The man said. Ishara looked at him reluctantly.
"He really doesn't look like he's afraid of the Hunters." She thought. But fear alone wasn't what would harm him.
"Look little rabbit. I used to be in the Windley guard. I've dealt with the Red Reapers before. When you get right down to it; they aren't anything special." The man said.
"I can't rely on this. But would it hurt to go with them for one meal?" Ishara thought. The pains in her stomach made the choice for her.
Forest Lake was far too busy today for Ishara. She was very hungry and looking for a chance to go out of hiding to find something. But for the time being that wasn't possible. The streams of people in town seemed like they never ended.
"There's a lot more people in this place then my village." Ishara thought watching them come and go. She wished they would all go in for lunch so she could come out.
Ishara watched curiously as the old couple that first took her in walked by. Before they got out of her view they stopped and instead walked towards her. They appeared to be looking for something for a few minutes before they came to her hiding spot.
"We hoped that we would find you." The old man smiled at her.
"How did you know I was here?" Ishara asked stepping into view of the street. The old man shook his head.
"It's a small town." He explained.
"It's our fault you ended up like this." The old woman said sadly.
"Ended up like what? I'm fine." She told them.
"I wish I could believe you. But word spread that you ran off and now live on the streets. That's no life for a little girl." The woman said. Ishara shook her head.
"It's true that I ran off. But it's fine. I'll learn to hide better and no one will have to know I'm here. This really is the only place for me." She told them faking a smile.
"You don't really believe that?" The old woman asked.
"But you shouldn't be hiding at all. That's not good for you. People need to know you're around; and they need to know you're all right. Or they can't help you." The old man said.
"People shouldn't waste their time worrying about me. I choose to play the game; and I can choose to play this new one." she replied seriously.
"If we hadn't trusted Christopher to care for you. You wouldn't be in this situation. Honey what have we done?" the old woman said turning to her husband.
"What you had to for your situation. What everyone else had to until I choose to stop being selfish." Ishara replied.
"It's not selfish to want a home and the comfort of a family. We were the selfish ones for putting you out." The old woman said.
"That's not fair. You can't look after a child anymore. Your children should be looking after you now. Nothing you did was wrong; none of this is your fault. It's just how the game is played."
"Fighting over who gets to take the blame isn't helping you. Does it really matter why you ended up like this? You look like you haven't eaten in days. Please come home with us. The least we can do is make you some lunch." The old man said. But Ishara shook her head.
"It's still early in this new game. If I accept too many handouts or let people bring me home. I'll never adapt to the new rules." Ishara explained.
"This isn't a game. It's your life. You can't hide from starvation." The man commented.
"Going home with people isn't the only way to get something to eat. Why don't people see you begging like they do in the cities? Or even stealing when you have to? Your survival is more important then laws or someone's feelings." The old woman said. Ishara shook her head.
"I have to avoid those things. I have be hidden." She replied.
"Why do you have to hide?" the old man asked.
"I'm not going to let anyone else die because of me. If anyone knows I'm here; if anyone tries to help me. Their lives are in danger." Ishara spoke somberly.
"Then why do you remain in Forest Lake at all if you are so sure the Red Reapers will come for you? We could find someone to help you get to safety." The old man asked.
"Nowhere is safe." She replied.
"Someone could help you get to Windley, or even Sutherland. The Red Reapers would never risk going into those cities for one child." The old man offered.
"I don't know what those are. I've seen two towns in my life. But anyone that helped me escape would be in danger along the way and when they came back here." Ishara replied shaking her head.
"We will leave you to your choice then. I see now that you won't budge from it. But we worry for you. Promise me that if you change your mind; or get into trouble that you will come see us. We don't want to see anything happen to you." The old man said.
"I will." Ishara replied. But she didn't really mean it. She was on her own now and that was how it needed to be.
Ishara woke up screaming into the collar of her dress. She had it shoved into her mouth for exactly this reason. Though maybe tonight she didn't even need to? She sat up and looked to Forest Lake. From her spot tonight by the Endless Forest she got a good view of the few houses still lit.
"Maybe soon it won't matter? It feels like the screams are becoming dulled." Ishara thought shivering.
"The dreams are still terrifying."
"I don't think I'll sleep any more tonight." Ishara said out loud. She slowly got to her feet. She was lucky tonight; the moon provided enough light for her to see.
"I'll start by the forest, maybe I can find some berries?" she thought. She glanced over at the town with a sigh.
"I know I'll have to head into town to look soon enough." She thought.
"At least there shouldn't be anyone on the streets this time of night. I don't know how long I can handle the stares."
"The people are starting to hate me. When they see me so many of them look at me with disgust." She thought continuing her search. But even she had to admit that wasn't the case for all of them.
"As much as I'd like to remain hidden. I just can't do it. I'm not good enough yet; and some of them need to see that I'm all right. I still try not to get in peoples ways or be noticed; but sometimes I have to be visible. Some of them look at me in anger, they want me to go away. I wish I could; I see fear in so many of the faces that stare at me. They know I'm going to bring the Hunter's down on the entire town." She considered. She knew that wasn't true at least; the Hunters wouldn't kill everyone just to reach her. But they would kill some of them.
"But sometimes when I'm resting by a building; or just trying to show that old couple I'm still alive. Someone will just look at me with sadness. Sometimes even a kind smile. I'm still a person to those people. They know they can't help me; but they wish they could." Ishara thought.
"There's nothing here. I'll have to try town." She spoke out loud again.
"I wish there could be more of those people. It's nice to be human again; even for just a few minutes. But I think in time they will die out. But it doesn't matter; they don't have to like me; they don't even have to see me most of the time." She thought heading back towards Forest Lake. She would have a few hours of moonlight all to herself before she had to hide from the morning villagers.
"At least I'm starting to get better at finding food. I'm still hungry all the time; and it hurts. But now I sometimes find something." She smiled weakly.
Ishara lay trying to remain out of the way. Not far away she could hear the activity in the streets dying down.
"Soon I can head out there and find something. But I need to sleep first." She thought slowly. But she could barely move at all; that's why she had given up trying to completely hide for now; and simply tried to position herself so no one would notice her. She struggled to lift her head; but gave up quickly.
"A nap. That's what I need. I'm just so tired." She yawned. She closed her eyes preparing to surrender to slumber.
"I just hope I don't dream." She thought.
"Hey wake up." A voice called out. Ishara opened her eyes again to look around but didn't lift her head.
"Someone found me? There shouldn't have been anyone looking over here." She thought disappointed.
"Can you sit up?" the voice asked. He came into view and Ishara realized it was Brett Tennant. She opened her mouth but didn't have the energy to speak.
"Don't you dare fall asleep Little Rabbit." Brett ordered. He picked Ishara up and she weakly squirmed.
"Let go." She whispered.
"I'm taking you home with me." Brett insisted.
"No." Ishara whispered back.
"I don't think you have much choice in the matter Little Rabbit. I'm taking you home." He told her firmly. She still tried to struggle but what little she could manage was easily ignored.
She was taken back to Tennant's home and cruelly kept from her nap until the healer could be called in.
The next morning she woke up in a soft bed and feeling a lot better. At first she's confused about how she got here; but things slowly returned to her.
"I have to get out of here." She thought pulling back the covers. To her horror her dress was missing; instead she had been changed into another nightgown while she slept.
"No, no, no, no this isn't right." She thought determined to find her clothes. She slipped out of the bed.
And promptly fell to the floor. Her legs were unable to support her. The noise she made drew the attention of Mr. Tennant and his wife.
"Don't try to get out of bed yet." Brett's wife warned. She helped Ishara back into bed.
"You're going to need a few days."
"I can't stay here. Thank you but please I need my clothes back so I can go." Ishara pleaded.
"Because we will be in danger?" Brett asked. But he didn't give her the chance to reply.
"Everyone is perfectly safe. For a few days while you recover. If I had found you just a few hours later you probably wouldn't have made it." He informed her.
"What are you going to do with me?" Ishara asked.
"Now that depends on you. We are going to keep you here until you have regained your strength. Then you are free to do as you wish. We aren't going to hold you captive Little Rabbit.' He stated.
"That said; if you are willing to stay just a little longer then that. I have something that can help you."
"Help me?" Ishara asked. The man shook his head.
"Not now. I can't show it to you until you can at least stand up." He explained.
"I can stand now. I just wasn't ready." Ishara insisted.
"Look Little Rabbit. You don't realize how close you came to dying. Maybe you just don't want to admit to yourself how serious it was?" he told her. He didn't give her a chance to respond before he announced.
"Get some rest. The Water Priestess will return this afternoon to check on you."
"I can't." Ishara admitted.
"They keep me awake."
"Nightmares?" Brett asked. Ishara nodded.
"With what I've been told you went through. It's normal to have them. But that was one of your problems. You still have to sleep. Go ahead and try and if you wake up my wife will keep you company." Brett said. Ishara nodded and closed her eyes.
A few days later after she had fully recovered Tennant kept his promise. After giving her clothes back Ishara agreed to stay for a couple more days. But she made sure that he understood it wouldn't be for long.
Brett Tennant took her to the fields outside of Forest Lake and gave to her the most valuable gift she had been given since she first stumbled into town. He taught her to hunt and trap small game, he taught her to fish and make a fire. And he gave her a small knife to do all this with. She didn't understand why he was doing this, so the night he finished teaching her; she asked while he stopped in to say goodnight.
"Thank you for showing me these things. But why did you do it? Should I go live in the forest?" she asked.
"No, you are far too young to rely completely on this. But I don't want to find you too late next time. If you start a fire then yes; do it outside town and be mindful of it. But you can use these skills to supplement yourself when you can't scavenge enough to eat otherwise." Brett said.
"Thank you." Ishara told him.
"If you do catch some meat and don't want to start a fire. There's a few places you can go. Alan Temple or Lisa Summers might be willing to cook it for you. Or you can store it if you ask the Mark Banks nicely to dry it out. I spoke to all of them a few days ago and they agreed that if you brought them something they would prep it for you." Brett told her.
"I will." Ishara replied; thought she had doubts they really would help her.
"Look Ishara. I'm serious about what I said before. We would like you to live with us. But we won't try and force you either. Think about it; just whatever you decide please don't leave without saying goodbye." Brett begged.
"I promise I won't sneak out." Ishara replied seriously. He told her goodnight and left her alone.
She sat in silence for the longest time. Trying to process what he told her. If he wasn't so persistent she could simply ignore it as him not understanding what he wanted to do.
"He seems so sincere. And he probably could protect me. But he doesn't understand." Ishara thought. Her eyes began to burn.
"I wish I could do it. Here I could be warm and fed. I want that, I want the warmth, I want that comfort. I want to be with someone that isn't afraid of me." Ishara started to cry.
"I can't have any of that." She sat there crying well into the night. Despite everything she wanted to accept his offer. But she knew that she couldn't. For the longest time she didn't want to admit why. She just let the tears wash over her.
'They could get hurt." She told herself.
"They could get hurt." She repeated trying desperately to believe it herself.
"No that's not why. If that's what it was then I could have a home here." She cried. She kept her voice low.
"Why should I have any of that when the others…" she whispered. Then the truth hit her.
"I played the game…goddess what have I done." She cried.
"I can't have this. Because I don't deserve it. After what I did, who I sacrificed. I don't deserve a home. I don't deserve the kindness. The others are all dead because of me; it's my fault." She thought. She would have to decline in the morning; but Tennant could never learn why. No one could.
Three years after Ishara stumbled into Forest Lake she was in one of her best hiding places. It gave her a view of the town's main street and kept her perfectly hidden.
She was hungry as usual but since learning to fish and trap small game she had never come close to dying again. She didn't even need to resort to that as often anymore.
"This is interesting." Ishara thought. From her hiding spot she saw a man walk into town. He carried a weapon; something she rarely saw since the old game had ended. But he didn't seem to frighten any of the town's people.
At first the man seemed unsure of where he was going. A bit lost in a new town most likely. But then he just stopped and looked around with what almost looked like a chuckle. At her distance Ishara couldn't be sure.
To her shock when he started moving again he came right to her.
"What do we have here?" the man asked peeking into her hiding spot.
"Nothing sir." Ishara stammered. She didn't know what to say to him.
"This is a pretty good hiding spot. But why do you need to hide?" he asked her.
"So they don't see me." Ishara replied quickly. There was something intimidating about this man even though he did nothing to threaten her.
"So they don't see you. I'm guessing it's related to my next question anyway. But why is someone so young living in the streets of such a small town." He asked. Ishara looked at him dumbfounded.
"How did you know?" she asked. But then she looked down at her dirty dress and thought.
"That was certainly one clue. But I can hear that you haven't eaten your fill in some time. And I can see that it had to have been years." The man explained.
"He would have been good at the game." she thought amazed.
"How did you find me? It's been a couple of winters since anyone could find me when I hid." Ishara asked.
"It's my job to notice things. To be fair this is a good hiding spot. But why don't you come out and talk to me." The man asked. Ishara nodded and came out of hiding; she noticed that some passing townspeople looked surprised to see her; like they didn't know she had been hiding there.
"So they didn't know. But this guy saw me so easily. Anyway I can't use this spot anymore." She thought.
"Much better. Now tell me, why do you hide. And why does such a small child have no home?" the man asked.
"Oh waters mercy. You're ok Little Rabbit." Brett Tennant suddenly said.
"Where did he come from?" Ishara wondered. She had allowed herself to get distracted by the stranger.
"Now that's an interesting name." the man smiled.
"So you know this child?" Tennant nodded.
"She hasn't been visible for a few days. I was starting to get worried." Tennant stated.
"Sorry. I was going to come out later today." She admitted.
"The mystery simply burns." The man commented.
"Well then…Little Rabbit. Yes I can certainly see that in you. But there's more there." He said.
"Who's your friend?" Tennant asked.
"I don't know." Ishara admitted.
"Thomas McAlpine." The man said.
"I'm Ishara. This is Mr. Tennant" Ishara said politely.
"I can't stay long Little Rabbit. But I'll come find you later." Tennant said. But he looked at Thomas awhile.
"You are familiar." He said thinking.
"I travel a lot. I've passed through Forest Lake before. But it's been a number of years." Thomas commented.
"Maybe that's it. But don't you dare hurt the Little Rabbit." Tennant warned before leaving.
"He sounds protective. Why do you not live with him?" Thomas asked.
"I'm too dangerous." Ishara replied.
"A dangerous little street mouse. The question's about you merely grow." Thomas said.
"It's not important." Ishara promised.
"Do you always hide?" Thomas asked. Ishara nodded.
"Except sometimes I let them see me because a few people like Mr. Tennant get worried. The rest of the time no one has to know I'm here. I got pretty good at it until you came." Ishara lied.
"I see that. Well then Ishara I'll get out of your way. But I'll bring you some food later. I'm not done with the mysterious Little Rabbit yet. Thomas said. He dug some dried travel meat out of his bag and handed it to Ishara.
"I can't." She protested.
"Nonsense. I'm resupplying while I'm here anyway. And you might find it useful sometime." Thomas replied. Reluctantly Ishara accepted the meat.
"Thank you." She said quietly.
"Goodbye for now Ishara. But I WILL find you again before I leave town." Thomas said before heading to the town's store.
"I better keep my eye on him." Ishara thought going back into hiding.
She didn't know it yet. But that short meeting was the moment her life would change completely. That simple stranger would bring an end to her helpless suffering.
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