The wet ground sunk under every step she took, mud painting her lower body an ashen brown as rain soaked through her thick black coat, dripping off her chin like the icy caresses of melting frost.
Arna had walked for hours with no signs of finding shelter, but now finally she spotted a small forest ahead, the canopy above shielding her from the rain.
Once under cover, slinking underneath the twisted and overarching roots of an old tree, Arna shook her entire body to rid the cold water from her coat. She was about to ease herself off four legs and relax onto the almost dry fallen leaves when the scent of smoke tickled her nose, followed by the coarse laughter of men.
Arna rose sharply and stepped back into the rain, silently treading the shadows until she could peer through the bracken at the source – a raider camp.
A growl rippled through her. Raiders. A simple yet cruel people. There were maybe only one or two raider cities, hubs of chaos and slaughter, while the majority of them travelled across the barren land. They plundered, murdered, blackmailed, and tortured with no ounce of regret or guilt – only taking what they wanted because they could and loved doing so.
Arna had faced countless enemies, raiders included, but she took no pleasure in stealing their lives. She may have looked like a monster and done monstrous things, but she had no desire to actually be one. The men in their ragged army uniforms from a time long forgotten had not noticed her and she wanted to keep it that way.
Arna turned away, planning on leaving the forest and continuing on until she found another place to rest, but a strange cry stopped her. She froze, one large paw still hovering in the air above the muddied ground. The noise came again, an angry yet wounded voice, breaking with every breath yet fierce like a dying warrior.
Arna faced the raider camp again, the fire the men clustered around flickering across the shadows, her eyes glowing an eerie amber colour as she stepped out of the undergrowth. The light of the flames found her before the men did. It danced across her body, shining on the thick, black-as-night fur as it moved over firm muscles with every tense, stalking step she took. It glimmered on the long fangs curving around her chin and on the razor-sharp claws she unsheathed from silent paws. She looked like a great demonic saber-toothed tiger birthed from shadows from a time even more forgotten than that of uniformed soldiers – she could have been mistaken for a great cat twisted by an apocalypse if it weren’t for the unnatural glow of her eyes that glared out of a skull mask fused to her own head.
She looked like a monster and had no desire to truly be one – but that voice…a woman’s voice tortured much as her own, threatening her own captors with a cry that betrayed her fear and pain. Arna remembered crying out in much the same manner when she had been carelessly pushed into cages and chains, forced into surgeries and endless experiments. She had no one to respond to her voice – but this woman did not have to share that isolated fate.
Arna let a heavy breath rumble from her chest as she approached the fire. The men were huddled around it inside their half-assed tent and, beyond them, a woman. Tied to a stake driven deep into the mud, blood both fresh and old painting pale skin dark crimson, the woman pulled at the rope at her wrists, tears falling from her eyes and she spat curses with the tone of a fallen warrior hanging on by their fingertips.
Arna collapsed the tent in one swift movement, a slash of claws ripping the material so it gave way, the rain now freely beating down on the men and their fire.
“What the-” one man snarled, clambering to his feet while the others grabbed their weapons. His voice caught in his throat as his eyes fell on the demon cat.
The woman’s cries halted as the men stopped their taunts and kicks. The raider camp was silent for only a moment, frozen in time with fear as the shadows swirled like a mist from hell. Beautiful green eyes found glowing amber, and Arna saw hope.
“Kill it!” the raider leader yelled.
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