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“No, there aren’t any here.”

“What?” Sandra looked up, her nimble fingers hovering over her laces. “What do you mean they aren’t there? I can hear them.”

“Mm mm,” Josh hummed with a steady shake of his head, “isn’t them.”

“Josh.”

“It’s not!” A twig snapped and his back tensed.

The door was no more than a simple slab of wood. It was a miracle it had the sturdiness to withstand the elements as it were but that was where Josh counted the last of their blessing. Between it, the small makeshift overnight hut, and the cold air that ghosted over his exposed feet, he didn’t see much of an escape. What chances they did have were cut in half if Sandra got a look outside. Determined to keep his nature loving cousin from doing just that, he forced himself off and away from the door.

“How about we cook the rest of the meat? Then we can carry it back with us instead of wasting it?”

He moved over to his cot of pelts. If he could just get her to think of something, anything else, then the beast padding around outside wouldn’t notice them. Crap, the smell. Anything they cooked would give them away. “Or not. We should give back to nature, right? We’ll set the meat out for the wolves or something.”

He tried to chuckle but Sandra saw through it. She stood, arms crossed and eyes narrowed down at him, dressed for a quick perimeter check. Her boots hugged her legs up to her knees with all the firm lacing. They would keep the snow and wind chill out but that wasn’t what made his fingers curl nervously.

“Look, I only took you along cause you’re a better tracker. That’s it. We all know you’re no warrior and if I’m being honest, you’re hardly a man. More like a boy playing soldier.”

“I’m not a boy!” The words stung more than her icy glower.

“Isn’t that your mother’s cloak?” Sandra sneered.

“What of it?”

“Nothing, Boy, nothing at all.”

She snorted at the sight of his fists, earning her a glare of his own. He never liked traveling with her but they didn’t have a choice. There were rumors that their uncle survived an orc attack and that he was spotted near Valdyn. The trek took them by three other villages already and through the woods. They had two more to go but with the way things were shaping up, Josh wanted nothing more than to just go back home. Sandra prided herself on her stealth and hunting skill. If she wanted to lug their uncle home then she could.

It was the last thought on his juvenile mind as he rolled over and froze. She was a pain but could he let her die? The answer weighed heavily on him but he moved as fast as he could. He managed to grab his boots before the ground quaked. A growl ripped through the air, freezing him to the spot. She was just a cousin?

The scream that followed the growl shot him out the door. The snow under his bare feet caused an instant chill but he kept moving, following the small footsteps that turned from purposely placed ones to rushed, frenzied ones. The nature spirit found her. It didn’t leave fresh prints like hers but he knew it was there. He saw it when he went out to fetch fresh water from the one stream that hadn’t frozen over yet and it was his fault the thing knew where they were. He was the one that stole from the shrine. He left the fire to spread at the last campsite. He led the thing to their hut. He cursed the guardians and spirits every chance he got and finally, when one was around to teach him a lesson, it went after his cousin.

Spotting blood droplets on the snow, his hope dropped to his numb feet. The sparing spots soon became a trail of blood and when he saw her laid out, face frozen in anguish, he slumped to the ground. The low growl from behind him didn’t register as he stared at his cousin. Her arm, though detached from her body, still clung tightly to her now useless weapon.

A cold breath hit his neck.

He closed his eyes.

Another growl rumbled from the beast.

He waited.

Memories flooded him, numbing the pain and deafening him from his own scream of agony. It was his fault, all of it, and he never got to say sorry. His eyes opened to blurry slits so he could see her once more. The only girl born into their family in ten years, the only friend he had.

Blackness set in with three syllables left on his final breath, “S-or-ry.”

 

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