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  • Writer's pictureK.C. Roy

The Cat

An Imperial Warden’s story By: KC Roy

She'd let the Imperial troops corner her. Over a year had passed since she'd left the empire. Why wouldn't they leave her alone? As many hunters as she'd killed already, she would've thought they'd be at least discouraged trying to find her. They just kept trying. This last group had been an entire company. Five platoons of ten men each, and all mounted with bows. Her only option had been to ride into the forbidden forest or fight overwhelming odds. At the time, she'd done what she thought was smart and ridden straight into the forest. Unfortunately, a few hundred meters past the tree line, her horse had stepped into a gnarl of dense roots and broken its leg. The horse hadn't been with her long but had proved to be a good horse. She regretted having to slit its throat. Hearing her horse's screams had emboldened some imperials to give chase from where they'd initially stopped at the tree line, forcing her to run on foot. Their newfound courage failed quickly once the forest gloom closed around them. The riders gave up quickly and returned to the border, leaving Gytell alone.

She turned a full circle, looking at the forest around her. The giant pine trees stretched far overhead with massive canopies that choked out much of the day's light, making it gloomy. Shadows crept between the widely spaced trees, trying to escape the random beam of sunlight that would occasionally pierce the gloom when the blowing wind moved the thick canopy overhead. The trees had enough space from one another that someone with a horse could easily ride through. Too bad she'd had to put hers down. Aside from the trees themselves, undergrowth on the forest floor was sparse, and the branches didn't start until after the first fifteen or twenty feet up the tree trunk. Gytell understood what it was like to be a mouse creeping between the legs of giants.

Worse, she was lost. In her dash to escape, she'd lost her bearings. No matter which way she looked, every tree looked the same. The forest floor had a thick layer of pine needles, which worked surprisingly well to cover her previous path. She didn't have enough weight to disturb the thick layer of cast-off needles. Perhaps if she'd been on a horse…

"Gods be damned." Gytell didn't believe in the god or gods. Whichever. She wouldn't give them the time of day if they did exist, much less her worship. They'd certainly done nothing for her.

Hefting the single saddle bag she'd managed to grab before escaping, she opened it to see what she had. Tack rations, flint and steel, wet stone, a hand ax, and her last bottle of healing salve. Some good fortune followed her, at least. Of the three bags she had, this one was the best. She had yet to spot a single creature, so the rations were vital. The flint and steel would help her start a fire. It was midday, but it looked like early evening under the canopy. Nighttime would be truly dark, and a fire would help her see and keep predators away. That's if anything would catch. She'd never tried to start a fire with old pine needles. A problem for later. Right now, she needed to decide which way to go.

At midday, the sun would be directly overhead for a while, denying her the ability to discern which way she faced. She could guess the directions she'd come from but risked the chance of heading deeper into the forest. Leaving from the exact location she entered was a bad idea too. She was sure the company had set up camp in case she tried to sneak back out. She needed to parallel the tree line for a while before trying to leave the forest. That brought another problem to mind. The imperials wouldn't sit idle. They would have scouts searching for her up and down the border for a hundred kilometers or more. On foot, it would take her several days of hard walking to clear their search radius. If she killed a scout and took his horse, they'd know which way to go once the scout didn't return. Also, imperial horses were notoriously ill-tempered with unfamiliar riders.

Tilting her head back, Gytell stared at the ceiling of branches far overhead. Even though they swayed slightly with the breeze, no wind reached her where she stood. The forest floor remained dead calm. She focused on clearing her mind and relaxing. With her eyes closed, she took in the stillness around her, willing her mind to be as still as the forest surrounding her.

"You must survive. You are the future of the empire, the key to its survival!"

Her eyes snapped open, the intrusive thought breaking her concentration. Those words would haunt her for the rest of her days. How wrong had he been? The council had fallen, replaced with a mad dictator, the wardens crushed and utterly wiped out. A thousand years of growth and progress dismantled in a single week. She'd been running ever since. The great hope had tucked tail and run. He'd sent her running.

"Damn you old man!" That face floated across her mind like a ghost haunting her. What was he to her? Adoptive father, sponsor, trainer, commander? None of them? All of them? They all wore the same face. That disapproving stare crushed her with its disappointment. He was never satisfied, constantly pushing her to try harder, do more, do better. Pushing her to the brink of exhaustion every single day until she bled with the need to make him happy. He never was. And yet, he was all she had.

Gytell pressed her lips into a tight line to stop the tremble and wiped at her face with the back of her hand. She needed something to do. She tossed the saddle bag over her shoulder and collected as much dry wood as possible. Once she had a large enough stack, she separated the greener ones from the dry ones. The green ones she saved for once the fire burned well. They'd be too hard to light at the beginning. After digging a small pit to keep the fire contained and hide some of its light, she pushed the needles away from the edge and built a small pyre in the depression. She'd wait until closer to dusk before trying to light it. The stack of branches probably wouldn't last the night, which was fine. She still considered climbing one of the trees for the night. She hadn't seen a single animal yet, but that didn't mean the forest had none. There had to be a reason they called it the Forbidden Forest.

Gytell didn't know how the forest got its name. Every town or village she passed through in the area called it by that name. It never occurred to her to ask why. She simply hadn't been interested. Another decision she regretted. A heavy sigh escaped as her mind returned to dwelling on past choices, something that had become all too common lately. The past held no purpose, and yet without a purpose to her life, the past was all she had.

"What do I do La'Toq? You trained me to fight for the wardens and save the empire. It's all gone now. What's my purpose?" Nothing but the forest's overwhelming silence answered. A year of wandering, running, and fighting. She moved from place to place, guided only by what chased her. The few times she'd bothered to know anyone, they'd betrayed her to the imperials.

"AAAAGHHHH!" Her frustration spilled out to be silenced by the forest. The forest swallowed the sound immediately. "I can't do this!" She ripped her sword from its sheath. The warden blade was a special thing. It stole from its victims and gave that strength to the wielder. This was how wardens lasted longer in battle than any other. If she had to guess, part of the reason the empire still hunted her was for the blade. She didn't know what they expected, though. The blades were bonded to their wardens. When the warden died, the blade shattered. Making them was a closely guarded secret even within the empire. At the first sign of the betrayal, the wardens would have killed the smith if possible. Without a bonded blade to use as an example, the method of making them would be lost.

She knelt and gripped the sword with the blade's tip against her stomach. The blade hummed in anticipation, sending a slight vibration through her palms. Always hungry, the blade didn't care which life it took. One thrust and a twist would end the pointless struggle. The pain didn't scare her. She had enough scars to prove her no stranger to pain, and yet, she hesitated. Why did her hands shake? She'd taken hundreds of lives; what did one more matter? Her hands pulled away, winding up for the final thrust, but a slight, almost imperceptible sound stopped her. A faint scratching sound above her that she would've missed if the forest had normal noises. The dead silence in the forbidden forest made every sound stand out.

Too late, she tucked and rolled to the side. Something heavy slammed into her from above. A searing burn ran across her shoulder, but she continued to roll, throwing the weight off her. Coming to her feet, she faced the direction she thought was correct. She guessed wrong, but she heard something to her right. A blur in the corner of her eye warned her. Gytell dropped, flattening her body out as much as possible. She turned as she fell to keep track of whatever attacked her. A greyish-brown blur passed over her, landed, and turned immediately to come at her again. She got to her feet before that.

Gytell had seen cats before. The empire was full of them. They littered the alleys and streets, keeping the rodent population down. Tons of citizens kept them as pets, but she didn't see the point. They were finicky creatures with no loyalty to their owners. Most of these, even the largest, weighed five or six kilograms on the heavy side.

The thing before her resembled a cat, except a thirty or forty kilograms cat. As big as most dogs in height, it had short, dark tan fur and long, pointed ears with little tufts of black at the tips. The fur's mottled pattern had darker brown spots that would help blend in among this forest's dark trees. It was also angry. Its back was arched, and a low rumble came from its chest. Its pale red eyes glowed in the dim light. Despite the burning in her right shoulder, she lifted her arms and stood as tall as possible. The cat didn't seem to care. With a hiss that exposed razor-sharp teeth half the length of her finger, it stalked forward slowly on massive, padded feet.

She'd lost her sword when one of the cat's paws knocked it from her hand. The blade wasn't on the ground in front of her, and she wouldn't dare take her eyes off the cat to look around. Slowly, while easing back from the stalking animal, she eased a knife from the sheath at her waist. The sword would have helped her heal her injuries, but she'd need to be alive for that to work. A wrong move right now would be the end of her.

"AAAAA! AAA! AAAAAAA!" Flapping her arms, she yelled, hoped to scare the thing off. Most wild animals feared humans. The few times a predator of this size attacked a human were for exceptional circumstances. Someone had cornered the animal. This one wasn't. They had a disease. Gytell couldn't identify such an instance, but the animal looked healthy. Not a disease. Or they were starving. The fur made It hard to tell if the animal was starving, and she'd never seen this breed before, but her yelling hadn't deterred it. She had to guess starvation motivated the cat.

"Nice kitty. I don't…" The cat was gone. She hadn't blinked. It just disappeared.

"Where?!" Turning frantically while searching, luck saved her again. Sharp claws raked across her left calf as she stepped to turn. If not for the step, the attack would have hamstrung her, leaving her all but defenseless. The claws still dug deep furrows into the muscle, but not enough to hinder. Gytell swung a backhanded slash but lept back and circled to her injured side, where she reacted slower. "Smart cat."

The cat stalked her, circling to her left the entire time, forcing her to turn on her injured leg. Warm blood ran from the wound on her shoulder into the waistband of her trousers. Her right hand needed to stay above her elbow to keep the blood from covering her hand and making it slick. That wound was worse than the one on her leg. The low rumble in the cat's chest ceased, and it disappeared again. This time, she was paying attention. The cat vanished. It had some kind of ability that allowed it to be invisible. Gytell jumped, pulling her legs up in time to avoid another swipe. On her way down, she kicked out, catching the animal in the shoulder and sending it tumbling away with a loud yowl.

Expecting a chance to catch her breath and maybe find her sword, Gytell was caught off guard by how quickly the cat recovered. The force of the kick knocked it away, but it dug long claws into the ground and sprang back at her before she finished landing. The animal's full weight caught her in the chest and carried both to the ground. She barely got her forearm between her face and the mouth full of needle-sharp teeth.

"AARRRGHH!!" The jaws clamped tight, teeth crunching into bone. At the same time, the front paws sank razor-sharp claws into her holding on. Her knife hand was stuck in the thing's mouth, and her other arm was trapped between their bodies. She pushed her hips up and rolled over, trying to pin the cat under her. The back legs kicked out, digging deep furrows down her stomach and the front of her thighs.

"Screw you! Grrrrr!" Gytell ignored the pain, pressing her forearm down against the thing's mouth and forcing its head into the ground. The legs kicked again, shredding more skin and almost dislodging her. "NO!" She freed her arm from between them and used it to hammer down on the animal's nose. The pressure left the bite on her arm as the cat struggled to escape from under her. With the jaws grip loosened, Gytell pressed down with everything she had while raining blow after blow down on the face. Her arm slipped to the back of its mouth, and a pop vibrated up her arm when the cat's jaw dislocated. A muffled yowl of pain came from the animal as it frantically kicked and wriggled, trying to free itself. Gytell jerked her arm free and stabbed down with her dagger, sinking the blade to the hilt in its eye. The cat stiffened, then fell limp under her.

Panting, she rolled off the body and tried to stand. The world swirled around her, and her knees gave out. She managed to crawl a few paces before collapsing. She knew she was in trouble. The cat had done a significant amount of damage. If her blood loss continued like it was, she'd die very soon. A kill with her sword would've fixed everything, but that didn't happen. She needed to get to her healing salve if she expected any chance of surviving. She's failing him again.

"HA! OW!" Gytell laughed at the absurdity. She'd been about to put a sword in her gut before that damned cat stopped her. The stupid thing would have ended her happily, yet she'd fought back. And now she worried about disappointing a ghost by dying. She rolled over, searching for the tree where her stuff rested. A puddle formed in the dirt under her. Everything hurt. The tree came into view, spinning in front of her. The ground shifted and swayed as she crawled in that direction. Her face hit the dirt twice when her arms gave out. She ended up dragging her body across the forest floor for the last couple of feet.

"Fuck! Come on." The words came out a mumbled drawl as she struggled to sit with her back pressed to the tree and pull the saddle bag into her lap with numb fingers. Precious moments were wasted opening the bag to retrieve the small brown jar from the bottom. The wax-dipped leather cap took longer to tear away with her teeth. Her vision had narrowed to a pinprick of light. There was no time to access all of the damage. There had to be a nicked artery, but her front was a mass of shredded skin. Any one of the deeper cuts could be responsible. A searching hand located a particularly deep laceration on the inside of her thigh. If this was the cut, why hadn't she died already? Blood ran freely, pooling in her hand and spilling out onto the ground under her. Why was she using precious seconds wondering? Scooping half the salve from the jar, she stuffed her fingers into the wound and smeared her hand down her thigh. The lack of pain should have worried her more.


"HUH!" Gytell jerked awake, lifting her head from the ground. Pine needles, glued on with dried blood, clung to the side of her face. She felt tired, weak, and sticky. Looking around wouldn't do her any good. Her eyes were wide open, and she couldn't see her hand in front of her face. Either she'd gone blind, or night had fallen. Gradually, the pain crept up on her. Everything burned, and it was all she could do to think.

"The cat…" The memory took its time coming back to her. Her breathing was shallow, and her heart beat faster than normal. Her body struggled to stay alive, and she was surprised she still was.


This time, she woke up gradually. Light seeped through her eyelids, prying consciousness from her despite her lack of desire. Pain assailed her immediately. Staring up at the sunlight spilling through the canopy high overhead, she concentrated on ignoring the constant pulsing pain raging through her. Her skin felt hot, which was not a good sign. If she had an infection, it promised a long, slow death. Hopefully, she hadn't used the last of the salve. She needed to find the bottle.

"Uuungh!" Rolling to her side, she pushed herself to a half-sitting position. Her arms trembled, supporting her, but she didn't have the strength to push herself completely upright. The bottle of healing salve lay in the dirt an arm's length away. Looking down at her body, she found herself painted red with drying blood. Pale white skin showed through the shredded cloth that had once been her shirt and pants. Blood still seeped from some of the deeper gashes. Most of the smaller ones had stopped bleeding.

"How long?" At first, she assumed only a single night, but the damage she sustained, if left unattended for only a few hours, would not have stopped bleeding. "Two days? Three? How am I still alive?" It was a problem for later. She needed the bottle that was just out of reach.

"SSSSS!" With great effort, she slid her butt across the ground inch by inch until she sat against the tree once more. Lucky for her, the bottle had a small palm full of salve left at the bottom. Not enough to fix everything, but it might be sufficient to fight off the fever coursing through her body. Taking half of what remained, she shoved the thick paste into her mouth.

"ACK!" Gytell coughed once but kept the thick goo in her mouth. The foul stuff had a flavor that reminded her of rotting carcasses left in the sun for too long. She gulped, swallowing the lump, which caused her to retch and dry heave, but she managed to keep from throwing the stuff up. After resting against the tree and gasping for several minutes, a slight tingle rushed through her. The salve was working. Hopefully, it would be enough. Now, the hard part.

Gytell eased her shirt over her head as carefully as she could manage. The wrap for her breasts had been shredded along with her shirt and fell loose around her waist. With her shirt in tatters, that would be a problem for her later. She needed to examine her legs but feared she lacked the strength to take her pants off, never mind putting them back on. With her luck, someone would stumble across her naked in the woods. Her top would have to do. She didn't have enough salve for both, anyway. Examining the cuts across her abdomen, she smeared the little she had left across the worst of the gashes. Afterward, she rested her head against the tree trunk and tried to ignore the rough bark digging into her bare skin.

While she sat, hoping this would be enough, her eyes searched the ground around her. She needed to find her sword. Even though she could sense its presence, panic began to set in when she couldn't locate it. She needed a weapon, and her remaining dagger was sticking out of the cat's face. If another predator came along, she wouldn't survive without it. Something about the cat's body caught her attention. A small patch of fur that didn't match the rest of the animal. The fur was lighter, and the mottled pattern was different. The coat was uniform except for that one small patch. Unable to locate her sword, the dagger would have to do.

"Are you impressed now, old man?" Gytell rolled to her knees and used the tree to support her while she stood. The world swayed and went fuzzy as a dizzy spell assaulted her. She barely managed to cling to the tree while she rode the wave out. The spell lasted longer than it should, and sweat poured from her forehead as she gasped for breath. If not for the tree, she would've hit the dirt again. Common sense told her crawling to the cat's body would be the smart choice, but stubbornness refused to let her. Now that she was standing, her sword was easy to spot just on the other side of the cat. It had been right there within reach the entire time.

Keeping a hand toward the tree, she took a small, cautious step, sliding her foot forward. She wobbled a little, but nothing severe. Another step, and the tree was out of reach. Ten more steps and the body was at her feet, but she couldn't stop. She wanted her sword first. Bending to retrieve the blade proved too much, and she sank to her knees on the ground. That was okay. The blade gave her comfort and a promise of protection. Now, she just needed the dagger, which she slid over to retrieve.

"KKHHH!" The sound made her jerk her hand away. For a brief moment, she thought the cat was somehow still alive. A small, puffed form separated itself from the body, explaining the lighter pattern she'd spotted earlier.

"KKHHH!" Small enough to fit into the palms of both hands cupped, the kitten hissed at her again.

"You've got to be kidding me!" Gytell shook her head in disgust. That should not have made her jump.

"KKHHH! KKHHH! KKHHH!" A tiny paw swiped the air as Gytell pulled her dagger free.

"Yes, you're very frightening. I'm sure you'll do just fine."

"KKHHH!" Brows furrowed, she eyed the little fluff ball for a moment. She could see the ribs showing on the mother's body. They were starving, which explained the attack. The angry fur ball continued to growl at her. With courage like that, it would be fine. Ignoring the kitten, she forced herself to crawl back to the tree and her belongings. She was exhausted and sweating profusely once the tree was within reach.

"I should start the fire. Just gotta rest for a second." Her eyelids hid the swirling landscape around her. Still, everything spun around and around. The movement carried her into darkness again.


"Oh god," the words came out in a croak. Her mouth was full of cotton and tasted like death. The sun hung low in the sky, casting long shadows as the late sun shot sideways through the trees.

"kkhhh!" Gytell turned a baleful eye toward the small form still hovering around its dead mother. "kkhhh!" A slight, high-pitched growl followed. It didn't seem to be putting as much effort into the hisses.

"Ugh, go away!" Her head was pounding, and while her fever seemed to be gone, everything still hurt. She was dehydrated. Her water skin had a small amount left, but not enough to keep her alive for more than a few extra hours. She'd lost too much blood. She needed light, and the sun was dropping quickly. Rummaging through her saddle bag, she found the flint and steel and set about trying to light the fire she'd set up who knows how many days ago. It took more effort than usual, and her body begged for a rest afterward.

"It's okay. A few minutes rest, and I'll eat some tack. My body will recover better once I have some food." A shiver ran through her. The air was getting chilly. Odd, she hadn't noticed the chill before. Resting against the tree, she pulled a food ration from her bag and unrolled the wax paper. Inside was soft jerky, crackers, and hard cheese. It was not a great meal, but the empire developed the ration kit to provide as many calories as possible. While filling, it wasn't fun to eat. Everything was tough and needed lots of chewing to stomach. While chewing on the jerky and crackers, she surveyed the trees around her by the campfire's light. The firelight glinted off a pair of light blue eyes that stared back at her. She could just make out the little cat huddled up to the corpse. Did the kitten know, or was it oblivious to its mother's death? A flash of memory struck her.

She'd stayed hidden just like her mom said to like a good girl. After everything had gone quiet, she'd crawled from the cupboard and gotten into bed. Her mom always slept after the mean man left. That night, she'd been really tired. Two days later, her mom still slept. She'd been forced to seek food in the market district around the corner. That happened occasionally when her mom had more visitors than usual. La'Toq found her that day. She'd never seen her mom again. Over the years, she'd stopped remembering. Why did it just now occur to her that her mom hadn't been sleeping?


"Shut up!" The annoying little thing was getting on her nerves, so why didn't it just leave? She flicked a piece of jerky, hitting it in the forehead. The kitten flinched, folding its ears flat, and glared at her before sniffing at the morsel. It scarfed the meat down in mere seconds, growling the entire time. She watched it circle, sniffing at the ground, looking for more, while its tongue licked across its lips nonstop. After not finding anything, it sat and regarded her with bright eyes wide with expectation. The tiny ears, laid flat before, stood straight up, and the little tufts on the tips wiggled with each twitch.

"Huh, so you're hungry." Gytell tore another small piece off the chunk she held and flicked the meat past the kitten into the dark behind. The little eyes tracked the projectile overhead and tottered after in pursuit, the short tail twitching the entire way. She tucked the remainder of her ration away and stretched close to the fire. She wanted to leave, but her body needed more rest. A slight worry about other predators nagged at her, but her options were limited by the circumstances. If another animal came along, then so be it. The crackling fire quickly lulled her to sleep.


A ray of sunlight burned through her eyelids, dragging her from sleep. Gytell hung her arm over her face, trying to hide a little longer. Everything hurt still. Everything except a warm spot between her breasts that vibrated with a soft "prrrprrr" sound. The sensation was weirdly pleasing, and she rested a little longer, enjoying the moment. A shiver ran through her. Opening her eyes, she saw it was still early morning, with beams of light sneaking through the trees at odd angles. It was still too dark to make out much, so she placed her hand on the warm spot. Either she'd grown hair on her chest, or something furry was using her for a bedroll. Searching fingers found a tiny head with tufted ears nuzzled against her. It was the kitten. The little head leaned into her hand as she petted the soft fur.

"KKHHH! KKHHH! KKHHH! KKHHH!" The little cat's eyes snapped open, and it freaked out. It flipped, bounced, rolled, and spun while scrambling to get away from her hand. A little paw swiped at the offending hand while it spit and hissed at her.

"OW! You little shit!" She jerked her hand away and sat upright, dumping the kitten into her lap. Its claws scraped along her chest and dug into her legs when it landed. Gytell knocked the ball of claws and teeth from her lap, sending it to tumble into the dirt. It righted itself and stood sideways to her while arching its back as high as possible.


"KKHHH!" She hissed back. The ears flattened, and it growled at her while swiping at the air. Gytell examined her hand. The little claws had scored a shallow line of cuts across the back of her hand, where blood was starting to seep. It would quickly blend in with the rest of the dried blood that covered her. The spot between her breasts was spotless, and she could make out the tongue marks left by the kitten licking her clean. She figured the spot on her chest was now the only place that wasn't covered in blood.

"Gods, I need a bath." Gytell rolled to her knees and reached for her saddle bags.


"Yeah, yeah, fuck you too." The tiny terror continued to growl and pose, but she ignored it. Her head didn't hurt as much, but the water was gone now. She'd have to get extremely lucky and stumble across a stream soon, or she would be in trouble. Her hands shook, and the slight tremble in her legs told her travel would be a slow, tedious affair. The calories from the rations would help some. The instant the ration pack came into view, the kitten froze. Its eyes tracked the package from the saddlebags to Gytell's lap. Tiny ears perked up and twisted as its head twisted to the side ever so slightly. She squinted her eyes and stared at the kitten suspiciously.

"You know what this is?" She lifted the package slightly and watched the thing track her hand. The little tongue licked across grey lips three, four, five times as if in anticipation. The front paws kneed at the ground, and it moved forward just a hair. Its eyes never left the rations.

"MAA?" The small chirp sounded like a question, surprising Gytell. So far, she'd only heard the stupid thing hiss and growl at her.

"Huh, okay." She tore off a piece of jerky and stuck her hand out.

"KKHHH! KKHHH!" The little cat panicked and scrambled back, swatting at her hand and the jerky.

"Too fast, huh? Here." She tossed the morsel into the dirt and waited. The kitten took a few moments before sniffing the meat. Its movements were hesitant and jerky, as if it expected to get ambushed at any moment. The meat disappeared in a matter of seconds. After searching the ground, the little eyes locked on her.

"MAA!" The kitten inched forward again.

"Oh, now you want to be nice? Hmm…" She tore off another tiny piece and held it out, moving cautiously this time. The kitten stood up and backed away some but didn't hiss at her again. The nose twitched as it tested the scent of the offered morsel. A small paw came up and swatted, patting her hand gently but avoiding taking the meat until she dropped it. Gytell rolled the rations back up and packed them away. She needed to go. The morning sun told her the direction out of the forest; if she was lucky, the imperials had given up.

She stuffed the shredded chest wrap in the saddle bag as well. They might come in handy later. She kicked dirt over the fire pit and shrugged on her shirt. The fabric was stiff with dried blood, and the left side of her chest was exposed due to the damage. Carrying her saddle bag over that shoulder would cover her when she made a town. It didn't bother her, but she'd found out that people in the towns frowned on women exposing their chests openly.

Scooping up her saddle bag, she set off toward the east, veering slightly south. With luck, a couple hours would see her clear of the forbidden forest and back into the grasslands. After that, if necessary, she could backtrack to a stream she'd passed a few days ago. She checked one last time around her makeshift camp to ensure nothing was being left behind. The disturbed ground from her struggle and the cat's body were the only traces she'd been here, but nothing remained that could tie her directly to the camp. It would have to be enough.

"Good luck, cat." Gytell walked with a shuffling step to ease the discomfort of the many cuts that pulled and stretched as she moved. She'd have to move carefully for a few more days to avoid losing any more blood. The chance of opening one of the bigger wounds was still highly likely if she got too vigorous. Half an hour later, she was rethinking her timetable.

"Okay… Maybe not a couple hours." She leaned heavily on a tree and waited for the dizzy spell to pass. Sweat poured down her face and soaked her clothing to the point all the dried blood looked fresh. She wanted to move on, but each time she pulled herself from the tree, the ground started to move and shift under her feet. Her optimism about her survival chances was failing quickly. A rustle behind her made her grab her sword and press her back to the tree.

"MAA!" The kitten trundled into view ten meters from her.

"Go away!" Gytell made a shooing motion, swinging her arm toward the little cat. The creature stopped in alarm, puffing up its fur.


"Yeah, you can't come with me. Go." Her knees buckled, and she slid down the tree, the rough bark scraping along the skin of her back while simultaneously pulling the back of her shirt up to her shoulders.

"MMrrr?" The kitten paced a little closer and tilted its head to the side, studying her.

"No, I'm fine. HA!" She was dying in the woods and talking to a cat. Which would be first, death or insanity? Resting her head on the tree, she closed her eyes and concentrated on breathing. With all the motion, she might as well be on a ship in rough seas. The ground swayed like the ocean brought alive by a storm. Her stomach growled, and she had to fight back the urge to vomit. Things were even worse than she thought. It would be a miracle if she escaped the forest. A weight on her leg caught her attention. She looked down and found the kitten climbing into her lap.

"MMrrr." It turned a circle and curled up in a ball. "PPrrrPPrrrPPrrr." The vibration from when she first woke started again. Slowly, she placed a hand on the tiny animal to feel the little rumble in its body. The kitten's paws started moving like it was smashing something. The toes spread wide as the paw stretched out, then curled in on themselves as the paw was pulled back. It was a strange behavior Gytell had never witnessed before.

"Good idea. We can rest here for a minute."


"Damn." Gytell woke in pitch blackness. She'd passed out for the entire day, and now she lacked light to see with. Fearful she'd lost her bag, her hands searched the ground on either side of her. She let out a nervous laugh when her hand brushed against the smooth, oiled leather. Her back was still pressed to the tree, meaning if she walked directly to her right, she would be going in the right direction. The kitten was no longer in her lap. She ignored the small bubble of disappointment that rose inside her. She was already going slow. The thing would slow her even further.

"Ugghh!" groaned as she stood, she used the tree as a reference point and turned to her right. Walking even slower, she moved through the forest, keeping a hand stretched out to avoid walking into a tree. It wasn't long before her legs shook with fatigue, and her breath came in ragged gasps. Desperation pushed her to continue. If she didn't find water soon, death would claim her.

"You're going to die anyway." Gytell froze. That voice of a dead man shattered the dense silence of the forest.

"You're dead!" Her knees hit the ground hard. The palms of her hands barely supported her from face-planting in the dirt. The voice belonged to La'Toq. Commanding, sure, serene. She didn't realize how much she missed that sound.

"More alive than you."

"No, I watched them cut you down. You're feeding the worms."

"You will soon."

"Heh, Probably." Gytell gave up looking for the source of the voice and hung her head. It required more effort than she could manage to hold it up, and she couldn't see anything in the pitch-black anyway.

"You were weak… and disappointing. Always so disappointing." She could hear the derisive sneer in his tone. In her mind, he towered over her, one hand resting on the end of the sword at his waist, the other latched to the belt at his other hip in a knuckle-whitening grip.

"Yeah, well you're not so great yourself." She laughed out loud. Insanity beat death.

"Give up. It will be easier." The voice seemed to move a little closer with each word.

"You mean like you did? You left me with nothing!" Why torment her? She had nothing and no one. Why try to take more?

"Then what reason is there to fight any more?"

He was right. A few days ago, she wondered the same thing herself, and still, she fought. The cat could have taken her, and she would've served more purpose than she did at this moment. At least the kitten would have a mother and a full belly. If she gave up, no one would ever be hurt by her again.

"Yes, the world would be better without you." The voice crooned, soothing her doubts. Sitting back on her heels, Gytell let out a heavy sigh of acceptance. She'd done enough. Over a year she'd spent running from the empire and to what end? Better to rob them of the chance and end her life here. The sound of her sword clearing its sheath rang out with a metallic "TING." As before, she held the sword in a two-hand grip with the tip against her stomach.


A glimmer of something stopped her hands from thrusting. The little cat hadn't abandoned her. No, this was wrong.

"Don't wait; it must end. Do it now!" La'Toq insisted. Did he sound so desperate?

The kitten would never survive without her. She'd deceived herself into believing it would be fine on its own. She was avoiding the truth. The guilt that she had no purpose. Guilt that he'd sacrificed himself to save her worthless life. A life she'd done nothing with so far. All those years, never once had it occurred to her that mom was dead, not sleeping. She'd carried that lie her entire life, hiding from the truth with the occasional belief she might meet her someday. Just like her, the tiny cat was an orphan in need. She had a purpose, an obligation to right a wrong.

"DO IT!" La'Toq's voice raged from right in front of her.

"KKHHH! GGRRRR." The hiss wasn't directed at her. The sound was directed away from her. Someone else was here with her and the cat. Or something. Gytell whipped her sword across the air in front of her. Halfway through the swing, the sharp edge bit into flesh.

"EEEEAAAAAAA!" The high-pitched squeal filled the night, driving needles of pain into her ears. She pulled her blade free and quickly stabbed forward. The tip hit something, resisted, then popped through with a meaty squelch. The scream cut off in a gurgle and then a gasp. She twisted and pulled the blade sideways. Her palms burned as the blade sucked the life from her attacker and fed her. The weight slid off her blade, followed by the thud of a body hitting the ground. She waited, listening to the silence around her. A small body brushed against her leg, making her jump.

"Stop it." She pushed the small body away, concerned she'd crush it if she had to move quickly.


"SSHHH!" She needed to hear to ensure something else wasn't lurking in the forest around her. She knew whatever she stabbed had died. Her sword had fed her enough life to heal her wounds. That only happened if something died. The blade's ability to do this was why the empire chased her. They wanted the sword. Other than her breathing and the kitten moving, the darkness was silent. She thought about checking the body, but whatever she'd just killed wasn't natural. There was no desire to put her hands on it or hang around to meet another. The way she'd been manipulated, only a night terror or a hellspawn could do that. Luck alone had kept her alive. If not for the kitten…

"Screw this forest. You ready to go little cat?"

"Maa?" She held a hand out toward the chirp and felt a furry body brush against it. She snatched the small body from the ground and placed it on her shoulder in one smooth motion to a chorus of hisses and growls.

"KKHHH! KKHHH!" Tiny claws latched onto her shoulder, keeping it from falling, and she let go. The kitten remained in place, rocking slightly as Gytell stood. She switched the sword to her other hand and lifted her bag to the opposite shoulder.

"Let's go. I have a company of imperials to kill."


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