"Got you, you little bastard."
The fox yelped in terror, whipping its head around frantically to bite at the clawed hand that had grabbed it; then, as the pain from the claws sunk into its gut began to register, the yelp became a long, heart-rending howl of anguish.
"Shut up," its captor hissed, wrapping her other hand around its muzzle. Most anyone else would have been bitten, but the zoomorphic bat was faster and far stronger than the little animal. She lifted it to her mouth, tilting its head back to expose the neck, and sank her teeth into the flesh.
Then her right hand, the one around the fox's jaws, began to send shooting pains through her arm. She felt like yelling at it: you call this exertion? Instead she relented on her strained muscles and dropped the hand to her side. The fox immediately resumed howling, now with a frantic desperation, and she was forced to listen to its death cries as she drank.
It was over in a half-minute; there was very little blood inside the animal. At this rate--one or two minuscule meals a night--she would starve before reaching her destination.
Jemara sighed and threw the animal's body to the ground, picking up her small pack. Oh, she missed the bed, the old, rickety bed that she and Revar had broken half the springs on, a shattered headboard that served as a silent reminder of the first night they made love--and of the night after, which Revar still didn't want to talk about. But she couldn't have stood staying there being babied; that chocolate-colored idiot would have just gotten herself fired eventually, spending more time taking care of (she swallowed) an invalid than working, and then where would they be?
But she missed the bed.
Tears started to well up in her eyes, and she kicked the dead fox as if they were the little creature's fault and trudged on.
She woke up the next sunset and tried to flex her right shoulder, as always. Instead of its now customary dull throb, it sent shooting pains through her entire body, and she bit back a scream. Trying to unfold the wing didn't hurt as much, but it simply stopped when it was half-open, looking even more sadly crumpled than yesterday.
Cursing loudly, she checked her compass and maps. It was still a good hundred and fifty miles to Raneadhros. Jemara examined the wing joints, the mass of scrapes and scars--and tears--along its near section. She had reflexively raised it like a cloak when they had started pounding on her. It had kept her ribs intact, but at the price of her flight. Permanently. Death might have been kinder.
Maybe with her gone, Revar would have gotten up off her cute butt and gone after the shits. Knowing they had all died wouldn't make her wing heal, but it would make her feel better. Even if Revar wouldn't be nearly as slow about it as they deserved.
After a moment, she stomped forward. The effort sent more pains throughout her body. This time she sighed, and continued walking with a slow caution that left her unaccountably close to tears.
She knew chasing the rabbit a few hours after midnight, well into a dense forest, could prove a mistake, but she didn't know how serious of one it would be.
Jemara crept up on the animal as stealthily as she could, getting within arm's length before it saw her. It froze--until she took another step forward.
When she lunged the rabbit took off. Cursing, she raced after it, beginning to pump her arms as she built up speed. But this time when she raised her right arm she screamed in pain, stumbling. She managed two steps before falling nose-first and rolling onto her right side.
Not sure if the breaking noises were real or imagined, Jemara screamed once more, trying to stand. She braced herself on her left arm and pushed up; it simply put pressure on her right shoulder. The other arm didn't want to move at all.
She tilted her head to look at her feet and realized her left one was bent and bleeding. She couldn't see whatever had tripped her, but it must have been a hell of a root. Unless she had managed to do that all on her own.
The bat groaned, trying to collect her thoughts. After a moment a single clear one remained in her mind. It was, you are going to die here.
After a moment Jemara laughed weakly, closing her eyes. She was not surprised to taste blood running from her nose into her mouth; there was something fitting about the idea of bleeding to death.
When she felt something suspiciously resembling hands begin to poke at her she was almost resentful.
Jemara opened her eyes and looked up. The figure poking at her was a human female. She groaned a bit. That was all she needed. A fucking human. Hell, she had taken this route to Raneadhros because she wanted to be away from everyone--
The woman touched her shoulder, tracing a hand across the wing, and Jemara winced.
"This is not from your fall," she said after a moment, her voice low and as hard as ice.
The bat tried to reply but couldn't make her voice work. I know that, shitbrain, she thought angrily. It was from someone trying to kill me slowly. I bet they'd be happy it took this long to finally work. Get the FUCK away from me and let me die!
But instead the human put her hands under Jemara. "I am going to pick you up," she announced unnecessarily.
"Bitch!" Jemara forced out as she was lifted into the air, beating at the woman with her left hand. Even in her weakened state the blows should have been enough to make the damn human drop her and run away screaming, but instead her unwanted rescuer placidly walked forward with the bat in her arms.
"When you are a bit more rested you may explain what you were doing on my land," the woman said softly as she carried the bat along.
"Well, that'll be a big damn thrill," Jemara said clearly, before the protests from all her muscles drowned out the rest of her senses.
For the next half hour the world was a haze, her vision a dizzying collage of trees, stars and glimpses of the woman's rough burlap shirt, its dullness blindingly bright against Jemara's coal-black fur. She had never liked the smell of humans, and this one had a stronger musk than most. Jemara kept considering reaching up and removing the woman's throat before she took her to wherever they were going, but she couldn't concentrate long enough to decide whether it was really worth the effort.
Then the woman kneeled, and gently set the bat down. Jemara grunted in pain, but realized she was lying on something soft. The human left her field of vision, then came back and started poking at the injured wing again.
"That is more serious," she said as Jemara held back a yelp of pain. "The foot is not." The hands moved down to the injured foot, and there was a sharp wrench. Jemara screamed, hissing at the woman, and struggled to sit up.
"Hold still," the woman commanded, as if she found nothing disturbing about a five foot tall vampire bat preparing to attack her.
Jemara stopped her struggles when she realized the human was healing the wound.
She watched, dumbfounded, as the flesh under the woman's hands began to meld back together. The healing was not painless--she had always imagined such magic would be cool and soothing, but it was more like someone jabbing a hot poker under her fur. I'm not going to scream again, she repeated silently, clenching her teeth.
After it was over the human was sweating and breathing heavily, and the foot felt worse than ever. As Jemara leaned over to examine it, the healer reached up and touched her nose. There was a sharp sting. Jemara shook her head and looked over at her self-appointed savior.
"You will need to rest without putting weight on the joint for the night." The woman sat back, squatting a few feet away from the bat. "I am not often up this late in the evening. This was good luck tonight. You might have injured yourself further in the meantime if I had found you a day from now."
Jemara remained silent. There was very little to say, really; the part of her that would have preferred to die kept her from feeling gratitude.
Another part of her was concentrating on the smell of the woman's blood. If she had seen the human first, had run into her before the damned rabbit, she could have gone without feeding for almost a week. And the woman... might have lived. She knew if she sprang from here she could grab the human before she had a chance to react.
Instead Jemara remained silent and unmoving, wondering wryly if even she was vile enough to feed on someone who had just saved her life. Even if she hadn't wanted to be saved.
"I cannot heal your wing without rest. And without study." The woman moved back to sit on a blanket next to the one Jemara was sitting up on. "Go to sleep, winged one. I have questions to ask of you when you are alert."
Jemara watched, dumbfounded, as the woman stretched out on the blanket and promptly fell asleep.
"Why not just tattoo 'Eat Me' across your forehead?" she whispered hoarsely at the healer. But the human's eyes were closed, and she made no response.
The bat lay down, carefully folding her wings across her stomach, and stared up at the stars through the tree branches overhead. "So I'm not attacking her," she whispered. "Would you be proud of me?"
She didn't remember falling asleep; she woke up to the sun sinking into the forest and a gnawing in her stomach.
"You sleep as if you were dead," the human's voice said from behind her. Jemara sat up as the woman stepped around her and sat down on the blanket facing her.
"It's our way," the bat replied curtly, looking away. "The wings lock so we don't roll over and accidentally hurt them."
"Oh." The woman was silent for far too short a time. "What are you doing out here?"
"Travelling to Raneadhros."
"Roads are far easier than wilderness."
Jemara snorted. "I would hardly have been welcome on the roads in Rionar."
At that, Jemara did look at the healer. The woman's lined face was still hard, bright black eyes set under closely cropped dark hair playing counterpoint to oddly fair skin, and the bat realized she was asking because she truly didn't know. "You don't know what I am, do you?"
She frowned. "A what?"
"It is a faerie word for an animal that looks as much like you as a fox looks like a Vraini."
"I've never been called that."
"What are you normally called?"
"Bitch." Jemara chuckled at the woman's blank expression. "I'm a vampire bat."
The woman nodded. "A Derysi," she repeated, as if Jemara had just confirmed it.
"Whatever." The bat rubbed at her eyes tiredly. "Let me spell this out for you. To me you are a prey animal. If I had seen you instead of the rabbit last night I would have been chasing you." She smiled unpleasantly. "You have a lot more blood and aren't nearly as quick."
"Oh," the woman said again, looking less shocked than nonplussed. "Does that bother you?"
"No, not particularly. Should it?"
"You can answer that better than I."
"If I wanted more sermons I would have stayed with--" Jemara caught herself, shaking with anger. "Look," she continued tightly, "I didn't ask you to save me. For what it's worth, I think I'm grateful. But I am not willing to get into a discussion of vampire ethics with you."
"All right," the woman said, her tone reasonable. "Are you going to feed on me?"
"I don't think so," she muttered, turning away. "Even though I'm fucking starving."
"Do you have a name?"
"Of course I have a name," Jemara snapped. She could still feed on the woman. But she didn't know if she had the will necessary to attack someone begging for mercy on a first-name basis. "Jemara," she said after a minute, closing her eyes.
"I am Dynral. Jemara, I am aware you do not owe me an explanation for your presence here. It is obvious you are running from something rather than running toward Raneadhros; when you are ready to say what you need to, I will listen." She stood up. "When you have had something to eat I can look more closely at your wing, unless you do not wish me to attempt a healing of it."
"Why would you do that?" Jemara whispered after a moment.
"Because it needs healing," Dynral said simply. "Whatever you call yourself, you were obviously meant to fly. In this condition you cannot. Any wound that prevents one from doing what they were meant to cannot be ignored by a healer. Will a coyote be sufficient?"
"A coyote. For you to feed on. It is the largest animal I think I can catch and bring back."
"Yes," the bat mumbled. "That... would be fine."
The human nodded and moved away from what Jemara realized was her campsite, walking with a grace and silence unusual in a human. When she was out of sight the bat shook her head in bewilderment, closing her eyes again.
Dynral watched her feed on the coyote with an intensity that made Jemara downright nervous. The animal was bigger than a fox, certainly, but she wasn't completely satisfied even after draining all the blood it had.
When she had finished, Dynral picked up the cooling corpse and closed its eyes. "I shall bury her before morning."
"You could just eat it yourself."
"I do not eat meat." The human set the coyote down on the edge of the "camp"--little more than the two blankets themselves, along with each woman's packs and the remains of a campfire--and walked back to sit beside Jemara, this time on the same blanket.
"What did you mean when you said you knew I was running from something?"
"And what is it, then?" Jemara made no effort to keep the sarcasm from her voice.
"You will have to tell me," Dynral replied.
Jemara grunted. "I can't imagine a less appealing prospect than baring my soul to a madwoman."
Dynral's expression retained the same placid inscrutability it had since she had picked up the bat the night before; Jemara swallowed uncomfortably. Perhaps this was what other people felt the first time they stared into her own monochrome eyes. "Why do you believe I am mad?" the healer asked after a moment.
"A sane person wouldn't be living out here in the middle of nowhere." She snorted. "Because you called this 'your land.' It's a fucking forest. Unless you're as rich as you are insane this is no more your land than it is mine."
"I care for this land. Do you?"
"Then it is more my land than it is yours."
Jemara chuckled softly. "All right, fine."
Dynral folded her hands in her lap. "If I am going to heal your wing, Jemara, I would like to know what caused the injuries."
The bat drew back a little, studying the healer. "Pipes."
"Pipes?" Dynral repeated, raising her eyebrows.
"Yes, pipes," Jemara replied, imitating the woman's maddeningly calm tone. "Two people beat me with pipes."
"Oh." For a second Dynral's eyes registered pain, followed by anger. "You may have far more serious injuries inside," she said, touching Jemara's stomach with a finger. "Why did you not seek help in Rionar?"
"Because I didn't want to," she hissed, slapping Dynral's hand away. "I'll be fine."
"You will never fly again. That is not 'fine.' You may very well have wounds inside that you that will kill you in another week, or another month. The infection in your shoulder alone might do that."
"Revar cleaned my shoulder," Jemara said, her voice petulant.
"It has been reinfected on your journey, then." Dynral stroked her own chin. "Someone did take care of the injury."
"Yes," Jemara sighed.
"Oh." Dynral continued stroking her chin. "Why are you not still with him?"
"The reason I'm not still with her is none of your business," she snapped.
"No, it is not," Dynral said, raising her eyebrows and falling silent. At length, though, she spoke again. "I do not believe you are headed toward a meeting of life-or-death importance in Raneadhros."
"What's your point?"
"That you are being stupid," the human replied levelly.
Jemara narrowed her eyes, growling in the back of her throat.
"I am sure I could not stop you from killing me if you chose," she continued, locking her gaze to Jemara's. "But doing that before I healed your wing would be even more stupid than travelling with such an injury was in the first place. A chance to regain your flight should be more important than the temporary satisfaction gained by eviscerating me."
"Don't call me stupid," Jemara muttered after a moment, looking away.
"I did not. I said you were behaving stupidly. You left someone who was caring for you to travel, by foot, across three hundred miles of wilderness knowing you could not hunt adequately when your species must hunt to survive."
"I had to leave," Jemara said curtly.
Dynral grunted, then reached up and turned the bat around, starting to prod around the wounds. "This will take most of my energy," she said after a moment. "You will need to bathe first. Follow me to the river."
It was less than four minutes' walk to the "river," little more than a clear stream. Dynral promptly started to undress; Jemara watched in some surprise. Most humans she had met were terribly self-conscious about nudity. Jemara had actually started this cross-country trip unclothed, but had switched back to her shorts and half-top after a few branches hit in her in exceedingly sensitive areas--and, after one night, learning that walking twenty miles bare-breasted was a much less comfortable proposition than flying two hundred miles in the nude was.
After Jemara had removed her own clothes, she looked back at Dynral. As she had expected, there was little fat on the woman, her chest and hips slimmer than her own even though the human had over half again as much body mass. She was ruggedly handsome, but almost certainly had never met her own species' narrow ideals of beauty. Then, with a shock, she noticed a web of purpling bruises covered one of Dynral's shoulders.
The human followed the bat's gaze and seemed to smile without moving her lips, then turned away. Jemara sucked in her breath. When the healer had first picked her up, and she had pounded at her in fury--she had believed she must have been too weak to cause any damage, since the human hadn't even flinched.
She swallowed, hard, and continued bathing herself mechanically, feeling numb.
Neither one of them spoke until Jemara was sitting, still nude, in front of Dynral. "This will almost certainly hurt," the human said quietly, placing her hands on Jemara's injured shoulder.
But it didn't, at first. A warm, not entirely pleasant tingling began under her fur, and it spread deep inside, seeming to settle somewhere in her chest just above her stomach. The human's breathing slowed, and the tingling increased, changing to pinpricks.
"Oh," Dynral said, her voice registering surprise for the first time since Jemara had met her. The bat closed her eyes, deciding this was not at all a good time for the healer to become emotional.
Suddenly the pinpricks moved. The image Jemara formed was that of a firework she had seen, a shell that exploded into hundreds of flaming embers. This time it had gone off inside her rib cage, and the embers were ricocheting around her chest. She gasped, then clenched her teeth to keep from screaming.
The fire passed around her ribs, slowing down to an agonizing crawl, and she felt it intensify. Dynral's breathing was becoming ragged, and her hands trembled on the bat's shoulder.
Then the embers moved up toward the injured wing, and the human gently lifted Jemara's arm. The sparks expanded into something else, a hot liquid trying to push its way out of her body by force, and Jemara felt tears of pain forming in her eyes.
She could feel how badly Dynral's hands were shaking now, how labored the human's breathing was. She knew healers charged as much for their services as they did because such magic was intimately tied to the magician's own life. In a Rionar hospital they would have had two healers on a case like this.
Before she could complete the thought, there was a final burst of brilliant, searing pain, and the hands on her arm fell away. She tried to turn around, to see what had happened, but she couldn't move, her muscles refusing to respond. So Jemara sat quietly, an unnamed, sick fear beginning to take the place of the agony in her shoulder, and whimpered, feeling as helpless as she had when her attackers had beaten her two weeks ago.
The sun had almost set when the healing had begun. By the time Jemara could move, there was only starlight, the forest now shaded in the blue- grays of her night vision. She turned around.
Dynral was stretched out behind her, her awkward position suggesting she had collapsed at the healing's end. She was unconscious, her breath coming unevenly and shallowly; when Jemara concentrated, she could hear the human's heartbeat, and knew it was irregular.
"Idiot!" Jemara hissed, beginning to tremble. "If you've killed yourself--I'll--if you've killed yourself for me I'll...." Then her voice broke, and she lay down next to Dynral, her head on the human's stomach, and wept.
She had no idea how long she remained there before she became aware of Dynral's hand gently stroking the back of her neck. Jemara sat bolt upright, pushing the human's arm away, and stared down at her, shaking with a rage she did not understand.
"Are you angry with me for healing you?" Dynral whispered, slowly sitting up to face the bat.
"I'm angry with you for being a fool!" Jemara spat back. "You could have died. It wasn't worth the risk!"
"You are not?"
"No, I'm not!" she yelled furiously. Then she realized what she had just said, and her eyes widened. "I... I mean...." Her voice became higher, like a little girl's, and tears started to pool in her eyes.
"That is what you are running from," Dynral said softly.
"Revar cared that much," Jemara choked, closing her eyes and letting the tears flow. "And she loved me."
"And you did not believe you deserved it." Dynral's arms were around Jemara, holding her gently.
"I don't want a confessor," the bat sniffed, trying to bring her voice back to her customary bitterness but unable to keep it from sounding lost and miserable. "I've heard all the sermons. I've already heard that you have to care about yourself before you can care about others. I don't need- -"
The human placed a hand over Jemara's mouth, quieting her. "Then you heard wrong, winged one. I believed you cared about Revar deeply. But I think you cannot bear to have another care about you."
"I don't want anyone to care about me! I'm...." She shivered. "If I had fed on you and killed you I wouldn't have felt any regret. Do you understand that? I would have just left your body to rot. I wouldn't have...." She felt her throat closing up, and gulped. "I wouldn't have even shown you the same... the same respect you did for the c-c-coyote--" The word became a wracking sob.
"You have much healing left to do, Jemara," Dynral whispered, stroking softly through the fur on her shoulder. "But your wounds are not ones my magic can mend."
"It's not a fucking injury," the bat gasped through her tears. "It's the way I am."
"Jemara. Look at me." Dynral lifted the bat's face up to hers. "Was your Revar also a Derysi?"
"Was she an evil person?"
Jemara narrowed her eyes. "Don't you ever--" Then she let out her breath. "She was the most wonderful person I've ever met."
"Then being a bat does not make one evil." Dynral leaned closer, so her nose was almost touching Jemara's. "I do not know anything about Revar except how much you loved her, and I know very little about you. But if you are telling the truth now, then why would a person as wonderful as that love you in return?"
"I don't know," Jemara whispered.
"I don't, either," Dynral said, smiling slightly. "Perhaps she sees something you do not."
Jemara looked down, closing her eyes.
"What do you hope to find in Raneadhros, child?"
The bat shook her head. "I'm not sure. But I can't go back."
"Why is that?"
"Because...." She swallowed. "Because I think there's something I need to do without Revar's help." Then she sagged against the human. "I just wish to hell I knew what it was."
They stayed together, holding one another, for long minutes, until Jemara's breathing had returned to normal.
"When you get to Raneadhros and do what you feel you must, promise me you will let your Revar know you are still alive," Dynral said. "She must certainly believe otherwise by now."
Jemara nodded faintly. Dynral patted her on the back and started to lift the bat out of her lap, but Jemara squeaked in protest, and the human looked at her in surprise.
"Uh...." She felt her ears start to burn in embarrassment. "Will you hold me? Until I fall asleep?"
"I would be honored," Dynral replied, her voice serious. She gently lay Jemara out on the blanket, letting the bat fold her wings around herself, then cuddled against her, cradling her furry head against her shoulder. Jemara made a happy, half-purring noise, and closed her eyes.
When she woke up the next afternoon she was alone. The other blanket and Dynral's pack--and the coyote--were gone, with no trace left to suggest they had ever existed.
But her wing was healed.
Jemara sat in the sunlight, staring at the trees around her, trying to decide what to do.
Revar's angst had always infuriated her. She had had no patience for the doomed romanticism of the other bat's self-image, her constant struggle to reconcile the overwhelming instinct to feed on other sapients, uncaring of their lives, with a desperate desire to be a "good person." Despite her avowed distaste for Jemara's vigilantism, Revar had been the main reason she had tried to limit herself to criminals. But even that wasn't really good enough for Revar; she didn't want Jemara to take any pleasure in what she was.
But what had she really been taking pleasure in?
"I don't know how to care about myself, Revar," she said aloud. "And I've been amoral all my life." And I only now realized that "amoral" is just a word people use when they don't want to admit they're being evil, she continued silently. Even though I think you've been trying to tell me that since we met.
Whatever she needed to learn, Revar would be unable to teach her. If she hadn't learned yet, she wasn't going to learn it there.
But maybe she'd be able to learn it--somehow--after all.
Finally she stood and picked up her pack, strapping it to her back. Crouching down, she extended her wings completely, the wingtips touching the ground, and looked up. It was a hell of a tight space to aim at for someone who hadn't flown in two weeks.
Jemara cleared the treetops with only inches to spare, and it took her almost a minute to stabilize herself, cursing a constant stream until she gained altitude. Then she made a wide circle, looking vainly for Dynral.
"Good-bye," she called softly to the forest below. She knew the human had no chance of hearing her--but she would not have been surprised at all if the healer had heard it nonetheless.
When she completed the circle she pushed upward, climbing toward the clouds, and banked in the direction of Raneadhros. Flying, she would be there before sunset.
[6/7/92, 4800 words]