It turned back to the mess of tunnels ahead of them.
“Now, do you want me to help you or should I leave you to figure this out by your lonesome? I know which I’d prefer,” The halfway feline sneered.
It didn’t even make eye contact with Suede when it spoke. With a huff, Suede swallowed her indiscretions and continuing following the skinwalker.
On their way, they went through so many paths and twists that Suede discovered new reservations. Never trust a skinwalker, Suede’s mind repeated. Some of it was paranoia, she knew. Not all of it though. Not even most of it, she believed. But some. Her mind weaved conspiracies theories – she bound herself so I would let my guard down and trust her! It was foolish. She fought them down. However, with each turn, she began to wonder if the skinwalker’s only contribution would be to make her even more lost than before.
As Suede was about to abandon the skinwalker, favoring solitude, they each heard the distant screams of the toddler pierce through the dark tunnels. The two darted in the direction of the screams until it led them into a large room. Easily, the largest room Suede had found so far. The room had a few nests scattered around made of scrap fabric and desert flora. Rare, Suede observed. In simpler times, it would have fetched a fine price back in town. Inside the pit were a handful of children.
The two Scorpios whipped toward Suede and her companion, anticipating confrontation, and rightfully so.
Strong black carapaces served as their armor, coming to a tail hosting their poisonous stingers. Above their waists were sun tanned muscle and large black claws in place of fists, atop was a head as absent of hair as it was of thought.
The insects charged.
“Get away from our wives!” One screamed as it went on the offensive, Suede in its sights.
His partner attacked the cat, yelling that she’d face full incarceration for her escape attempt. Suede fought against her foe, dodging its stinger and massive claws.
“Wives!? They are kids! And little kids, at that!” Suede yelled.
Her spear stabbed at the thick carapace, failing to puncture through, leaving little marking whatsoever. The heat of the battle made Suede’s heart sore. Now, this was living! In the face of death, she felt alive.
The Scorpio grabbed onto her spear with his pincers and the heavy wooden shaft, then, groaned at the strain, a brash attempt at overpowering her.
Suede allowed her smirk to dissipate and reacted fast, snatching the lantern from her hip with one hand, she crashed it over the side of his face.
Blue blood ran from his temple and forehead, blinding him. In a rage, he shoved Suede backwards with a strength she had underestimated.
Suede was thrown back, landing into the pit with the crying children. She rose back to a vertical base, using her spear as a crutch. The Scorpio allowed her little time to recuperate, going straight back on the attack. He made way, directing his pinchers with the worst intent. She blocked them with her staff, but felt herself driven back down in the dirt.
With his claws detained, the blinded Scorpio used his tail to stab wildly in her direction, each time missing her. Sometimes by mere feet.
A snap came once his claws managed to break through her spear. Suede rolled out of the way of the liberated claws and grabbed the broken tip of her spear as the Scorpio fought to regain its balance. With a yell, she drove the shard into his unarmored chest and pushed him away.
Eliminated, Suede turned her attention to the second Scorpio. To her surprise, the fight went better than she would have once expected. By that, she meant it hadn’t yet ended. The cat remained about as alive as a skinwalker ever could be.
It was resourceful and intuitive, Suede could admit as much. She knew to use her smaller frame to her benefit, working around her enemy and never letting herself be drawn into a corner. She attacked the enemy with her rope-wrapped fists and clawed feet.
In one swipe, it was over, however, the Scorpio timed it well, snatching the skinwalker by the throat and bringing her high into the air. Its thrashing and spitting curses increased tenfold as it writhed, trying to escape.
Now confident in his victory, the Scorpio turned to take it back to another room. “I will put in a cage this time, little one, …,” Teased the Scorpio.
Maybe it was where she belonged, Suede considered, but, nevertheless, she couldn’t let that happen. She was an animal of integrity, of trust. Thus, after an eye roll, she grabbed her makeshift knife and went to rescue the skinwalker.
Instead, as she approached, the Scorpio collapsed on its own. Or, perhaps, not. The cat’s feet and lower claws were covered in gore and blue blood as the Scorpio weakly grasped it.
“Our brides…,” the monster gurgled.
Suede slithered to the dying Scorpio and pressed the spear head against his neck. “Answer me and I will end your suffering with haste. Don’t.. And I will make you suffer. Why kids? Why not adults?” She saw a flicker of movement and held down his stinger with her tail. She glared at the Scorpio and added, “Surely adults would have made better brides!”
The monster met her glare with a weak one of his own.
“The younger the brides are, the easier it is to make them stay. If they know no other life than this, they won’t go out seeking it.” He gritted his teeth and took a shuddered breath. “The adults always fight, or run and, then, therefore, always die.” He motioned toward his brother. “We were the last.”
Suede couldn’t find any pity in her heart for the creature. She plunged her makeshift knife into his neck, keeping her word. An animal of integrity. There, she left him.
She slithered to the pit where the children rested. The bobcat hovered over the pit where the children were gathered, “Which one is yours?” It asked.
“My sister’s. Not mine.” Suede snapped.
Suede gazed disinterestedly at the gathered hoard of tots. All sorts were inside of the hole. There was a trio of harpies huddled in the far corner, their underdeveloped wings were too small to take them to any type of freedom. The two plain looking children children must have been skinwalkers yet to be bound. None of the children present could possibly have been older than seven or eight.
Laying on the ground, faced away from them, was Cotton.
Suede called out to her, hopeful she would follow them out, and the resistant, tolerant lamia would not be forced to pick her up.
Of course, like stucklings always did when the moment arrived – she did nothing.
With a huff, Suede scooped Cotton, cringing while she felt the slobber wipe down her arm. Suede whipped Cotton up to her face and hissed at her in disgust. The hissed died in her mouth at what she saw.
Blue blood dribbled from her eyes, nose, and mouth. Her tiny mouth opened only to whimper or cough out more of the blue goop.
Suede turned to the bobcat in panic.
“Is that normal?” She asked the skinwalker, who looked similarly bewildered by the display.
The cat shook her head.
“I was going to ask you the same thing!” She replied.
Flicks of black carapace started to sprout like demonic acne on the toddler’s face. Suede snagged a small knife from her bag, a tiny one used for the most delicate of cuts.
“So, she isn’t one of your disgusting kind after all, huh?” Suede spoke sharply, with caution and suspicion, yet softly as if talking to herself.
Like trying to peel off a large scale, she slid the knife underneath one of the growing spots. Blood welled up from underneath; an odd deep purplish mix of Cotton’s natural red and the blue colored kind from before. Suede snatched back the knife before it could do further damage and wiped the strange blood from it before stowing it away.
“We need to gather the kids up and get out of here,” She told the cat, then, tied Cotton to her torso with a rope from her pouch.
She turned to the other children. “Listen, brats! On me. Snag onto the tail and hold tight.”
Next, she turned to the bobcat. “Grab your kin and let’s go. I need to get this one to a doctor or something.”
The skinwalker nodded and turned to the remaining two children. It sized up their small frames before crouching to the ground.
Suede shifted her eyes away, knowing what she was up to and not wanting to watch the vulgar display.
The air around the cat seemed to shift, like the steam above a rapidly boiling pot. The small woman’s figure within faded and a four legged shadow formed in its place. The air cleared and a large, full bobcat stood where the woman had before. It looked at the remaining children impatiently until they scrambled onto its back.
The bobcat looked back at Suede a final time, and then, once seeing all of the children were accounted for, took off down the tunnel.
Suede followed her closely behind, but was caught off-guard by the bobcat’s haste. She smirked. That won’t be enough, she thought.
Flicking out her forked tongue, Suede focused; honing in her thermal senses.
The skinwalker’s most recent footprints left the warmest traces. She followed the cooling prints through the winding underground. It was difficult to keep up with even then.
Although Cotton was unconscious, Suede had no such luck with the three harpy fledglings, constantly shifting and struggling to hold onto the smooth surface of her scaly tail.
The air became warmer the closer to the surface she became. This meant her heat sense would soon be an unreliable tool.
Suede rushed the last several feet before coming to a stop at the tunnel’s end. Always with reluctance, Suede handed off each of the fledglings, letting the bobcat tend to their needs and bring from the hole, back to the surface.
They seemed so frail and thin. Harpies and Tengus (as they called the males) were a very thin, waif-like species that needed light in order to fly. Even the tallest ones normally didn’t reach anywhere taller than five and a half feet.
Once she finished, Suede then pulled herself, with Cotton in tow, out of the hole.
Together again, the group headed toward the entrance formed by the giant twin stones that hid the Scorpios fortress.
Suede could hear it before she saw it – outside of the cave’s mouth, a wild sandstorm raged on, so thick it was like a wall of moving stone.
The bobcat sat down her two children and peeked out. The storm dipped slightly around her, pushing her in one direction as if to say any other way was death.
Suede motioned for the children to come forward.
“Everyone, hand on the tail! And grip it tight! We are moving out!” She commanded, silently commended herself for hardly flinching when the skinwalkers placed their mitts on her.
Cotton wiggled in her rope harness, her coughing had gotten worse. They needed to go now.
The group, guided by the bobcat, stepped into the storm.