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There was so much blood. It was splattered all around the clearing and on the trunks of the trees. The smell was nearly as bad as the sight, making the air heavy and dark to all those who came near. But it was the figure, torn and slashed in the middle of the clearing, which shredded Nera’s heart.

If it wasn’t for the thick red hair or the gold and emerald band around his arm, she wouldn’t have believed that it was Thame. She had put that band there years before, when they finally came together. The matching one was on her bicep.

Hands shaking, she pushed past the protective arms of the Naga who had accompanied her. It couldn’t be true, it just couldn’t. When they had said that there had been a battle with the enemy along the edge of the territory, she had fooled herself into thinking that Thame’s patrol wasn’t involved. That he’d be safe and sound.

He was strong, one of their best. Even if he had been involved, he would come out of it. Would come back to her and laugh while she worried over him. But that hadn’t happened, the patrol never returned.

Of all the bodies they found, his was the most intact. Their sworn enemies, the Garuda, had torn his back to shreds. The snake half of his body was in no better shape, parts looking like they hung from threads.

And the blood…it was everywhere.

Covering her mouth, she curled her serpentine body around his torso. It was so bad. Her Thame was in ribbons and she was too scared to touch him. The worst part is that she was one of the lucky ones. The Naga people were food for the sky dwelling Garuda race. Most others only got pieces of loved ones, an arm or a piece of tail that was used as an identifier.

Seeing what had happened was so much worse though. She didn’t feel lucky to have him there, not when his face was twisted into one of such agony and his beauty was so drenched in blood. Reaching out, she gently brushed her fingers over his cheek and wiped away the blood that hid his features.

Her anguish could no longer be held at bay once she touched him. It came out as a fountain of tears and wrenching sobs that she couldn’t stop. Cradling his head in her lap, she slapped away the concerned hands of the others and let the heavens know her pain. Let the entire forest know that she had lost something most precious to her.

Eventually, the others stopped trying to hold and console her and gave her the space she needed. They didn’t leave, not when the monsters that had done this could return to pick up the snack they left behind. Let them come, she thought as she bent to press wet kisses to the blood matted hair. They would die, all of them. She’d rip the feathers from their skin and feed them to the reptiles that they ate themselves.

Thoughts of revenge did not ease her pain. So many had been lost in the last few years but never did she think she’d lose him. Not before they could finally make it all official. She didn’t expect to lose him until well into the years where their scales would dull and their hair to whiten.

Wiping away both blood and tears from his face, Nera thought on all the things that were supposed to happen. This wasn’t one of them. She was not supposed to be crying over his body or plotting revenge. He was supposed to be scolding her for being such and idiot, or offering to take her to see Aisha, not lying there in a pool of his own blood. She could even imagine the pained twitch of his brow whenever her fingers brushed too close to the cut on his face.

Her fingers froze dangerously close to the very cut that she had been wishing away. Dead bodies didn’t twitch, not without possession and the Garuda were not skilled in magic enough for that. Choking down a sob, she ran her finger along the very edge of the cut along his jaw and watched as his brow twitched again.

She had always complained about his little twitch but she would be lying if she denied that it wasn’t the most beautiful thing.

“He’s alive.” She whispered, trying to take in the impossibility of it all. He was torn to shreds and yet he still lived. Choking back on sobs, she leaned down to put her ear next to his mouth. The weak puff of air was all she needed. It gave her hope. “He’s alive!”

Varying degrees of shock and disbelief were painted across the faces of the others but she didn’t have the time to worry about them. Thame was weak, he needed help and there was only one person with the medical knowledge to possibly save him.

“Go get Aisha!” She commanded, her tears still flowing freely but her urgency more important than her sadness. “Now!”

To her absolute frustration and growing panic that her earlier pain would become a reality for a second time, no one moved to follow her orders. Instead of moving away as fast as they could, one of them moved forward to double check her assessment. It took a few more agonizing minutes before the fool came to the same conclusion and they were finally moving.

Another naga came forward to help her shift Thame. He was so covered in wounds that she didn’t know how best to lay him for when Aisha came. Ever since she had rescued the human, Aisha had been invaluable to their people. Her knowledge of the medical field was astounding and helped many, even those who hated humans.

Now she could only pray that it would save Thame.

“Nera,” looking up at the sound of her name, she knew exactly what the male was going to say before the daggers left his mouth. “Even with the help of your human woman, he may still die. He’s too weak and we cannot stay. The Garuda will hunt again come nightfall.”

“So you want me to leave him here to certain death?”

“We all know that you love him, Nera, but we cannot risk ourselves for one who is already returning to the gods.” From the way that he looked at Thame, she could tell that he saw no hope. It wasn’t what she wanted to see, or to think about.

“I won’t leave him.” Her arms hovered protectively over Thame. She couldn’t lose him; the pain was all too terrible to bear. “I can’t. Go if you must but I am staying.”

All other arguments fell on deaf ears. Her attention was for Thame and Thame alone. If nothing else, she had to try. They had promised to look out for each other when they were children and later pledged to be with no other, she couldn’t fail him now.

The next time she looked up, it was when a warm hand landed on her shoulder. It was smaller, more dainty than those of the Naga and were free of callouses that came from handling weapons. Her gold eyes clashed with the warm brown of her dear Aisha’s and she threw her arms around the woman. Crying into Aisha’s shoulder, she begged for the girl to save him.

Aisha had been only a child when she and Thame had saved her from slavers but had stayed close even after Nera sent her to live among her own people. She had even returned to help the Naga people in their war against the Garuda, saving more lives than they had ever thought such a tiny human could.

“I will do my best.” Nera could hear the traces of doubt in the woman’s tone and felt her heart break a little more. The gods couldn’t be so cruel as to keep him alive and give her hope only to tear him away again. They would never drag out Thame’s suffering if they didn’t believe he’d survive.

The others, with the exception of the two strongest males that had come to investigate, were shooed off to the edges of the clearing. Nera watched, new pain washing through her with each new wound that Aisha found.

If he survived, Thame would be forever scarred by this experience. As Aisha continued to make note of the worst to take care, it came to light that he’d be lucky to keep one of his hands if he pulled through the night. It was mangled and bloody.

Through her tears, she tried to describe the types of ‘weapons’ used to create such wounds. The two males that were helping did their part as well and all of them watched as the human started pointing to different Naga to bring her various items from the forest. The way that they all dwarfed the human didn’t seem to faze her one bit and Nera felt a welling of pride. Thame would have been just as proud to watch her work.

Their little human child had grown strong.

When the clean water and linen arrived, Aisha started on Thame’s back first. The blood didn’t seem to bother her as she cleaned out the wounds and did her best to piece the ripped flesh back together. What couldn’t be saved, she sliced away with frightening effiencey and was quick to cover it with a thick herbal mixture before commanding that he be sat up. His chest was in better condition but not by much. The talon slashes were not as deep but they had obviously been trying for his heart.

It took hours, well into the evening. As the sky darkened, the possibility of the Garuda returning only increased. That danger sent many of the others home with reports of one survivor and the fact that Nera refused to go with them. They were kind enough to leave buckets of clean water and plenty of cloth for cleaning and wrapping Thame but none stayed.

The last one to leave had built them a fire and wished Aisha lucky before disappearing into the trees.

“Nera?”

“Hm?” She didn’t trust her voice enough to say much but she did look up from wiping the sweat from Thame’s face.

“Even with everything I’ve done, he may still die.” Aisha murmured gently, piecing together another slash with her needle and thread.  With his torso now covered in tight wrappings and his shredded hand reset and bandaged with the hope of saving most of it, Thame looked like a puzzle that someone didn’t piece together right. The worse of the injuries on his tail were chunks that were torn and no doubt swallowed by the Garuda.

“But you’ve stopped much of the bleeding.” She argued, desperately clinging to hope. Her Thame was strong, he’d pull through. They’d get the future they wanted when he did.

“I’ll be surprised if he makes it through the night but if he does, he’s got a better chance.” There wasn’t much either of them could do except to make him as comfortable as possible and hope for the best. As night fell, Nera’s fingers curled tightly around the sword her father had given her.

Night was not a friend of hers, not of any of the Naga. Their vision was severely hindered and they were at a great disadvantage. The Garuda had impeccable night vision and being in a clearing like they were was asking to be made a snack.

Though she had tried to be calm about her tension, she had failed in keeping it from Aisha. The woman quickly finished up the last of the doctoring and was pulling out a strange weapon from the satchel that she had brought. Nera’s eyes studied it closely, trying to understand what it was and what it did. Humans had changed much in the last few years and she had stopped trying to keep up with all the new items.

The better question was why did Aisha have a weapon in the first place? Were there more problems within the village where she lived? They had done what they could to keep the village safe after the incident with the slavers.

“Why are you and these Garuda fighting so much?”

Blinking, Nera pulled herself away from the worry about the human and focused on what she needed to do if one of the enemies did show. The question was only a momentary distraction from her worry and her budding hate. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know why your races fight?”

“No.” Since she had been a child, the Garuda had been attacking them. They had part of the year in peace when the creatures migrated but when they were in the area, it was all out war. “For as long as I can remember, they’ve been attacking and eating Naga. Not even the oldest of us even remember the reason behind this feud but we’re helpless to stop it.”

A rustle in the bushes made her shift closer to Thame. He hadn’t made so much as a groan since they started caring for him and that worried him. Even for a warrior, he’d always been a vocal complainer about anything to do with patching up injuries and his silence only pained her more.

His death was a very real thing and her heart couldn’t take it.

“I have never seen you helpless, Nera.” Aisha’s voice had a teasing aspect to it but Nera couldn’t quite muster up a smile. They were far outmatched, especially with only the pair of them to protect Thame. “You can’t talk to them?”

“We have tried but the Garuda attack before we’re able to speak. They don’t care for peace, they aim to wipe us out.”

“That’s awful.”

“Our only advantage is that we have many children and they mature quickly. But numbers mean nothing when they attack from above and more often from night.” The attack on Thame’s patrol was a break in the norm. He had been a part of the morning patrol, meant to check their territory and see if there were any attacks in the night. It was usually considered a fairly safe patrol, only behind the afternoon one.

Another rustle got both of their attentions and they both waited in a tense silence. She had no experience in fighting the Garuda but she was sure that they were much quieter hunters than the creature that kept moving in the forest. They would have been able to kill so many warriors if they were so obvious about their approach.

She and Aisha stopped talking and took up spots around Thame. She watched the skies for any movements while Aisha kept a watch of the forest tree line. The strange weapon clicked in the woman’s hands but Nera forced herself to bury her curiosity. If they survived this and could get to safety in the morning, she’d ask about it. As long as Aisha could use it, she didn’t care.

“What exactly do these Garuda look like?” Time dragged by slowly, making the hours until sunrise go on forever. It was by far the most stressful night of her life but having the human woman there did help.

“Like giant eagles. They’re covered in feathers and their face is angled with a beak for a mouth. Instead of the usual hands and feet, they have talons that have been sharpened like knives.” The talons and beaks of the Garuda were their weapons, just as a real eagle. But their wings were not to be ignored either. A good blow could stun even the most seasoned of warriors.

“So bird men.” The simplifying of the description came so easily for Aisha that she snorted dryly. If bird men worked for the humans, then she would let Aisha hold onto it. It was the basic gist of it though she saw them as more than just birds. “I think I’m staring at one.”

Nera whipped around, her scaled body coiling in order to give her the best spring. Sure enough, there was one of the ‘bird men’ leaning against one of the blood spattered trees. The firelight barely made it out that far so the fact that Aisha had seen him was surprising. Her hand tightened around her sword, prepared for an attack that never came.

The damned thing just stayed there, watching them. Nera did not want to strike first, it would leave Thame and Aisha open, but this staring contest was pushing at her nerves. This creature could be the very one who had attacked, the one who may have yet killed Thame.

Aisha was the one who finally moved, inching her way towards the Garuda with her strange weapon still raised. Whatever the metal was in Aisha’s hand, it was enough to keep the Garuda in place. The humans had come up with a new and strange magic and it only made Nera more curious.

“What do you want? You’ve done enough damage.” Gods bless, the human was trying to speak with the creature. Torn between protecting Thame and protecting her human, Nera wished for a spear to throw instead of just a sword.

“So did that red haired warrior. He killed many before falling.” The Garuda’s eyes glittered in the firelight, his feathers ruffling as he shifted against the tree. Obviously, they had assumed he died and had sent one back to collect him. “I was sent to investigate a cry we heard. It was most bizarre.”

Eyes narrowing, Nera took great offence. From the way he glanced towards her, he had to have been talking about when she had let her anguish take her when she thought Thame was dead. But that was many hours ago, why would they send one to investigate it only now?

Unless it hadn’t only been now that he arrived.

“Have you been here the entire time?” Finding her voice had been harder than she thought but having one of them as a witness to her breakdown was humiliating. She had to know, had to find out if he took pleasure in watching her cry and make feeble attempts to pull herself together enough to help Aisha patch Thame up.

“Your grief was a distraction enough that no one noticed me.” There was a light in the Garuda’s dark eyes that enraged Nera. He was taunting her, pointing out that her weakness could have gotten another killed because she had turned into such a distraction for her own group. “But it is this little creature that you called that fascinated me.”

The end of her tail curled around Aisha’s waist protectively and drew her back to where Nera could better defend the two. Now the Garuda were interested in her human. What the monsters were interested in usually didn’t survive long.

Her protective stance wasn’t lost on the male but Nera couldn’t risk Aisha getting too close. Losing Thame was one, very heart breaking possibility, but to lose Aisha too would really break her.

“A naga protecting a human?” The Garuda sounded surprised and even a little disgusted. She understood that there had been a time when humans were below them, that they were worshipped as gods by the feeble ones, but not anymore. “You are spreading yourself thin gold one, you cannot possibly protect the human while also defending the warrior.”

The threat in his voice was very real and she prepared for the worst. Her eyesight was greatly diminished during the night whereas the Garuda could see clear as day. If he took to the air, she would be guessing where he would dive and strike but it would leave one or the other open.

“She doesn’t need to protect me.” Aisha’s voice surprised both of them out of the glaring contest. She had pushed away Nera’s tail with a gentle push to the scales and stepped forward again. Her strange weapon glinted as the light of the fire caught it and the Garuda let out a low noise.

“I have never seen a woman hold one of those, only the men of your kind have them.”

“That’s where you are wrong.” Nera’s confusion and curiosity only mounted as they continued. What was so special about Aisha’s weapon? It was strange but she could not see what was so frightening about it. The Garuda had to have experience with it if he was getting so touchy.

That touchiness erupted in a split second. With a speed that she was wholly unprepared for, the Garuda lunged. With his wings spread, he seemed far bigger than he did while he was standing there. Bringing her sword up, she managed to hold back the worst of the attack but she wasn’t the objective, Aisha was.

Deadly talons were reaching for the girl and Nera screamed for her to run. Before the words could fully leave her throat, pain blossomed across her shoulder. Looking away from where her sword was holding back one set of talons had been a bad idea and now her blood flowed to join what was already staining the ground. She wasn’t quite sure what happened after that. With the Garuda attacking her while making a grab for Aisha, Nera couldn’t see much. But after an ear splitting bang and an explosion of feathers, it all came to a sudden stop.

He dropped heavily, hitting the ground with a thud that made even Nera wince. Unsure of what was going on, she stared at him in absolute shock while he choked on the hole in his throat. The second loud bang that put an end to the slow death made her jump and brought her gaze up to the culprit.

Aisha had killed it. Her little human had killed the Garuda in seconds with her strange weapon.

“How…?” She couldn’t even begin to form the correct words, still in shock from it all. Aisha put down her weapon with shaking hands and was tending to Nera’s wounds before she spoke again.

“It’s called a gun; this is the first time I’ve had to use it.” She pressed down hard on the open wounds and Nera’s comment was drowned out by a hiss of agony. “I figured that it’d come in handy with how much you guys have been fighting.”

“You did not buy it to protect yourself?” The question came out between clenched teeth and her fingers released her sword only to clench into a fist. Her heart was still pumping quickly but the pain was piercing through even the adrenaline that had been feeding her actions.

“Not really, the village is quiet.” Aisha’s hands worked quickly to staunch the bleeding and cover the wounds. They still had hours to go and another of the bird men could show up to investigate as well. “You and Thame saved me once. I thought I might get the chance to return the favor.”

Shaking her head, Nera sent the gods another prayer, one that pleaded for protection for her human. Aisha had just made herself a part of a war that didn’t involve humans. Guns or not, she could very well be a target now.

“If Thame makes it through this, he’s going to scold us both.” Nera murmured as she coiled up, hands reaching out to curl around Aisha’s and slip into Thame’s cold fingers. He hadn’t stirred yet but his breathing sounded better.

There was still hope.

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To those of you who got a glimpse at the earlier version, sorry about that one disappearing. Here is the full thing, long and the ending a bit rushed. I lost all my train of thought and energy and cut it off there for now.

Next Creature: Hellhound

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