“Boys and girls!” the voice of Professor Katarin bellowed over the sound of Shiori’s Hunter track-mates excitedly chattering back and forth as they stood at the edge of the jungle entrance on the far end of the school grounds. “I will ask for your attention once. If you do not give it to me immediately, you will spend the next four Saturdays in my classroom writing an essay on exactly why ignoring the man that is about to take you into the jungle is a very, very bad idea! Now, do I have your attention?”
There was a chorus of answers. Unlike in most groups, everyone spoke up clearly, because Professor Katarin wasn’t most teachers. He was somehow able to zero in on exactly who mumbled or didn’t answer at all, and single them out for a severe dressing down. The group as a whole had been broken of that kind of habit very early on. Katarin didn’t expect you to mumble when he asked a question, he wanted to hear your voice loud and clear. He was scary and loud, but very fair in his treatment.
After ensuring that he had everyone’s attention, the man continued while his eyes scanned them all, watching for any interruptions. “We are about to engage in a hunt for what creature, Mr. Calburn?”
Shiori’s head turned a little toward Paul Calburn, who stood a few feet away. The boy was six feet tall, with the kind of build that came from working on a ranch. In spite of his height and build, however, he was also extremely polite and courteous, always holding the door for people and offering to help with anything they needed. That said, he was also very cocky, certain of his own skill. Even now, he was smiling broadly at the man. “Why, yessir, Professor Katarin, sir. We’re heading out to hunt Jekern.”
“Exactly, now what is the very fucked up thing about Jekern… Miss Pittman?” Katarin’s attention turned toward Paul’s teammate that shared this track with him, a Bystander-kin girl named Roxa.
The girl herself, whose blonde hair and surfer build made her look more like she should be out on a wave somewhere rather than hunting monsters (not that Shiori was in any position to judge, though she did have a rather distractedly pleasant figure), laid a hand on the head of Gidget, her large mechanical cougar. “Sure thing, Professor. The fucked up thing about Jekern is that once they hit a certain size, another Jekern grows up inside of them. Then once that Jekern’s big enough, it like… you know, makes another one inside it. So when you kill one, there’s another inside it, and another, and another all the way down to the little tiny shits that can fit in the palm of your hand. It’s totally nasty and weird, sir.” Her head tilted then, just a little bit. “But kinda cool, if you’re into what the fuck kind of stuff.”
“Indeed,” Katarin confirmed. “On all counts. And if you want to be a Hunter, you’re gonna have to be at least somewhat ‘into what the fuck kind of stuff.’” He cleared his throat then. “Now, I’ll be watching and evaluating how you all choose to handle these creatures. You’ll be divided into trios. Each of your groups will be given the general location of one Jekern ‘individual.’ The three of you will work to subdue and eliminate each of the Jekern. If you run into trouble and need help, you’ll have signal flares.” His voice grew louder. “Use them if you need to. I do not dock points for anyone that has to ask for help. I do throw punishments at people who don’t ask for help when they obviously need it. Questions?”
“Uhh, yeah, I’ve got one.” One of the other boys raised his hand. “If we kill these things, are we gonna, like… start making smaller versions of ourselves inside our chests or something? Cuz that’s… pretty fucked up, Professor. Even for Heretics.”
Katarin actually chuckled. “All I’ll say is that it hasn’t happened so far. Maybe you’ll be the first.” Winking, he added, “No, we don’t grow our own miniature clones inside ourselves. In our case, inheriting the Jekern’s power involves growing smaller, more efficient back-up organs. Get stabbed through the heart, the power deploys the reinforcement duplicate heart in its place. That sort of thing. Or, of course, the lightning breath.”
Once that was settled, Professor Katarin began to point to each student in turn, starting with Shiori herself. “Porter, Pittman, Calburn, you’re one group. Stand over there until it’s time to go.”
Stepping out of the way alongside Roxa and Paul, Shiori shifted her weight from one side to the other. As usual these days, her attention drifted toward Flick. Especially her eyes. Pretty and brown, like chocolate. They made her feel… safe, and had done so since the moment that the other girl had made it clear that she both knew and accepted what Shiori was, and that she was not an irredeemable monster.
But it was more than that. She didn’t just feel protected by Flick, she also felt protective of the girl herself. As scary as being on that other world had been, it was also one of the best times she’d actually had since coming to this school. And the vast majority of the reason for that was Flick Chambers.
Of course, it wasn’t just Flick’s eyes that were distracting, and Shiori felt her face grow pink as her mind drifted just a little bit. Noooo, no no. No. Bad Shiori. Focus. Straightening, she turned a somewhat guilty look toward her two partners, both of whom were engaged in an animated conversation about the creature they were about to hunt down.
Right. Focus. Hunt now, think about Flick and the way her uniform hugged her… eyes later.
Wait. Crap. That didn’t work.
A deafening roar filled the air, followed by the sound of thundering hooves as the massive warthog creature, whose shoulders stood over six feet in height, came charging directly toward Shiori. The damn thing wasn’t just big, it was also incredibly fast. Which was weird, considering the weight they were carrying around inside them. Then again, absolutely everything about this creature was weird.
Rather than freeze up, Shiori threw herself into a backward flip. Her feet hit the tree behind her, and the wall-crawling ability she had inherited from the Daesimalo during training took over, rooting her to the wood.
Unfortunately, the Jekern proceeded to crash into the tree so hard it literally tore through the thing. The tree that Shiori was perched on the side of collapsed, and she quickly leapt to the next one, startling a snake that had been coiled around the branches. It hissed at her, but unwound itself from the tree to retreat.
It was a good thing for the snake’s hide that it did, because the Jekern had already pivoted and located her. Only this time, rather than charge, it leaned its head back to glare up at her. An instant later, a bolt of lightning erupted from the thing’s open mouth. Only Shiori’s incredible reflexes allowed her to hurl herself away from that tree before the lightning tore the top half of it apart. She flipped through the air, landing neatly against another tree.
Before the Jekern could shoot at her again, Paul took a quick step in from the side. He swung one of his two hand-axes, nicknamed Pain and Panic. The short blade dug into the side of the giant warthog, before Paul yanked it free and rolled backwards to avoid the Jekern’s retaliatory tusk-swing as it spun toward him with a bellow.
“Y’all okay up there, Shiori?” Paul called to her while dancing backward away from a feint charge, the warthog testing his reflexes.
“Yup!” she replied, unable to resist adding, “I feel bad about the other tree though. Poor sap.”
The boy groaned at that, just before the Jekern lunged toward him. Rather than let it run him down, however, Paul literally split in half. His right half replaced the other part of itself with water shaped like the rest of his body, while his left half did the same with glowing, crackling flames. Each held one of his small axes.
As the giant warthog charged right through the area that the boy had just been in, his flame and water-matched selves each swung their weapon. Pain and Panic cut into the creature, and it bellowed in pain that time.
Shiori knew what was happening. Every time one of Paul’s weapons struck something, it marked the thing it hit. For about ten minutes after that, every time the same weapon hit anything, it would do the exact same damage (multiplied in cases of hitting the same creature multiple times) to the marked creature. She’d seen Paul use that by hitting several creatures with smaller nicks just to mark them, then decapitating another creature, subsequently killing all the ones he had already struck.
Unable to keep the two halves of his body separated for longer than a few seconds, Paul returned them together, fusing once more as the fire and water faded away. As the Jekern reared back, he brought both axes slamming down into the thing’s heavy side, cutting deep into it.
An instant after that, a second, slightly smaller Jekern tore its way free through the hole that had been created. Meanwhile, its larger self tipped over, an abandoned husk. Shiori could see the thing’s massive ribcage. Some of the bones were broken, revealing flesh on the inside. According to Professor Katarin, the Jekern organs were not only small and very efficient, they were also located inside the heavy, thick bones that made up the creature’s skeletal structure. It didn’t have one large stomach, but a half dozen smaller ones stuffed inside the bones both for protection and to save room. Meanwhile, the bulk of its body area was taken up by a sort of nutrient sack where the next Jekern was curled up, legs tucked underneath itself. That Jekern would have a smaller version inside of its chest and stomach area, and so on down the line.
Paul took a knee as his orange-ish aura flared up, making a slight grunting noise as the pleasure that Shiori knew all too well obviously filled him.
The new Jekern lunged toward the momentarily distracted boy, trying to gore him on its horns. But Shiori reacted faster. Both of her discs went flying from her hands the very second the hole in the side of the original pig-thing had started to widen. As the Jekern lunged at her Hunter trackmate, the discs struck home, smacking the creature right in its eyes with a short burst of electricity. The thing howled, stumbling a little in surprise and pain.
A second later, Gidget the mechanical cougar slammed into the side of the giant warthog, ripping and tearing into it. Briefly blinded, the second Jekern bellowed in anger, shooting off two bolts of lightning in rapid succession that went flying off into the sky.
Leaping down from her tree perch while simultaneously summoning her discs back to her hands, Shiori landed hard on the Jekern’s back. It was like landing on a wild bull. The thing leapt and spun in the same motion, trying to throw her off it while lashing out with a foot at Gidget. The robotic cougar was knocked aside, just as Shiori reached down around the warthog’s neck, a disc in each hand. The line of electricity appeared between the discs, and she planted her feet before hurling herself up and back with a hard yank of the electric line. Strong as the current was at that close range, the line of electricity she had created actually burned through the Jekern’s neck, beheading the thing.
Oh god! It was her turn to feel the pleasure from killing one of the Jekern. Shiori gasped, willing herself to stay focused even as she fumbled in the air.
Which was obviously the cue for the snout of the next Jekern to come shoving its way out of the open neck-hole, the rest of it kicking its way free like a demented chicken coming out of a muscle and organ-filled egg. It was gross, to say the least.
The new warthog thing spun quickly, before the girl had a chance to recover from her burst of pleasure. This one was even faster than its predecessors. Opening its mouth, the creature zeroed in on her and shot off a bolt of lightning with a triumphant bellow. Caught in midair, if she was alone, Shiori would have been hit straight on. She could’ve turned into sand, but quite frankly, she wasn’t eager to find out what would happen if her sand-form was struck directly by lightning.
Fortunately, she wasn’t alone. Even as the bolt came racing toward her, Shiori felt herself being grabbed. Roxa, moving faster than most people should’ve been able to (someone else had said that they’d clocked the girl doing over sixty in a sprint), slammed into her hard. Both girls went flying off to the side, the lightning bolt narrowly missing.
Rather than hit the ground, Shiori felt something else rise up to catch the two of them. It was Gidget, transformed from cougar mode into an elaborate hoverboard. Roxa planted her feet confidently, taking a second to make sure Shiori was on, then made a hard left to avoid the giant tree in their way. The board skimmed the surface of the tree before righting itself.
“You good, dude?” Roxa called into Shiori’s ear over the sound of the creature bellowing angrily.
“Yup,” she confirmed, giving her an only slightly shaky thumbs up. Below, they could both see Paul tangling with the Jekern, keeping it busy. He would occasionally split himself into his half-fire and water selves for several seconds to make the thing split its attention.
“Gonna pin it down!” She called back over her shoulder before leaping off the flying board. In the same motion, Shiori threw her discs. They spun down, the electrical cord springing to life between them just as they passed on either side of the creature to hit the ground. The Jekern was knocked down, bellowing as the sparking energy coursed through it.
Paul threw himself out of the way, tucking into a roll as his two halves came back together. In the same moment, Roxa sent her board on a strafing run straight over the Jekern. As she approached, two small gun barrels popped out of either side of the board, while a slightly larger barrel rose from the front end, attached to a sort of handle and control yoke. Roxa caught hold of it, thumbs hitting the buttons on either handle. Instantly, the three barrels opened up, unleashing a torrent of gunfire down into the temporarily pinned creature.
For a moment, Shiori let herself wonder about something that had been bothering her for awhile. What made certain animals qualify as ‘Strangers’ (or Alters) and others not? Well, obviously this creature was definitely strange and had to be using unnatural abilities in order to even exist. But at exactly what level of oddness did something become a ‘Stranger?’ How did that work?
Shaking that uncertainty away, she forced herself to focus. Stay alive, learn to fight, be a good little Heretic. Follow Gaia’s plan. Prove the headmistress right.
The fight went on for awhile like that. In the end, the Jekern had seven distinct selves, each smaller, faster, and somehow meaner than the last. That or the smaller ones were just severely pissed off at their attackers by the time they had a chance to fight. And were therefore very motivated.
Either way, the fight was long and brutal. Shiori’s entire body felt like one big bruise by the time she dropped beside the last Jekern body, one about the size of her head. The damn thing had been shooting lightning so fast, over and over again, that it took them awhile to even get close enough to see it. And now it was dead, its body cracked apart by a shot from Gidget.
Dropping to one knee beside the body to pant for breath, Shiori watched as Roxa and Paul each took turns gulping water from the canteen that the boy had brought. Even as she looked that way, Paul was producing a second one, which he tossed toward her.
Shiori leaned forward to catch the canteen. As she moved, a sound caught her ear. Turning her head quickly, she stared at the split apart body of the last Jekern.
It wasn’t the last Jekern. Her eyes spotted the next one in the remains. Except, rather than charging out after them like the others had, this one was simply cowering, half hidden by the rib cage of its… what, parent? The little thing was barely large enough to fit in her cupped hands. And, judging from the way its wide eyes stared at her while it shook violently, it was terrified.
“Hey, Shiori!” Roxa called. “Something wrong?”
“Huh?” She looked that way while the poor little piglet cowered. “Oh, umm… no. No, nothing’s wrong. I’m just gonna… um, pee.” She gestured to the nearby tree, one of the ones that had been tipped over and blown apart. “Right behind there.”
The other two nodded, and Shiori turned her attention back to the Jekern. In as smooth a motion as she could manage, she pushed herself up while simultaneously reaching out to grab the thing. One hand caught it around the body, while her other hand held its mouth shut so it wouldn’t squeal.
It panicked, jerking in her grasp while its snout gave off little sparks of electricity, just enough to tingle. Hurriedly, praying that the other two wouldn’t notice, Shiori moved straight behind the fallen tree without looking over her shoulder. Once there, she went back to one knee and set the Jekern down.
“Shhh,” she whispered intently, staring into the thing’s eyes. “Shhh, it’s okay. It’s all right, I’m not gonna hurt you. I won’t hurt you. Shhh….” Slowly, gingerly, she took her hands off the thing.
Immediately, it shot backwards away from her a few feet, pivoting to keep her in sight. Shiori moved slowly, reaching into the hollow of the fallen, broken tree. “Here. C’mere, little guy.” Putting her hand down on the dirt with her palm up, she reached into her pocket with the other hand and produced a wrapped up granola bar. Breaking it up, she poured a few bits and pieces into her palm, then waited until the tiny piglet sniffed at her fingers and began to take a tentative bite or two.
“See? I won’t hurt you. I’m sorry about your… brothers? Parents? Other selves? I don’t know what it’s called,” she whispered, waiting until the piglet had almost climbed into her hand to get more granola before she slowly, carefully, and gently picked it up again. The thing tried to panic once more, but Shiori quickly moved it just to the hollow of the tree and then set it down inside.
“Hide,” she instructed. “Hide here.” Breaking up the rest of the granola bar, she sprinkled it among the leaves, letting the little Jekern baby go sniffing for it.
“Stay right here, okay?” Shiori whispered. “I’ll come back for you. I’ll come back with more food and then… and then… I dunno. But I’ll help you. Just stay here and be quiet. God, I don’t know if you can even understand anything I’m saying. Probably not. But… please. Just stay. I’ll bring more granola. You seem to like that. Maybe some fruits and…” Shaking herself, she finished. “Just don’t get eaten. Please, please don’t get eaten.”
Pushing herself back to her feet, Shiori moved to join the other two. She was going to have to break the rules even more if she was going to take care of the little guy. But she owed it to him. She just couldn’t bring herself to kill something that looked at her as frightened and cowed as he was. She couldn’t do it.
Besides, she told herself while rejoining the other two for the hike back to meet the rest of their trackmates, weren’t mercy and restraint the very things she wanted to help Heretics learn when it came to Alters?
This would either be good practice, or it would end up getting Shiori into a lot of trouble.