Chapter 15: How Did That Happen?

Their breaths melded together as they surged forward. The foliage slapped their faces while vines reached for their feet. They desperately jumped over logs and plowed through leaves barely visible in the moonlight. Behind them, they could hear a dozen feet rushing after. And the low growl combined with scattered yaps to chill them worst than the frigid air.

He turned to see if they were getting closer. Unaware of the low-hanging branch that he charged into. She stopped her rushing to grab him, helping him up as they ran forward again. Now the feet were closer, and they could see the bushes beside them moving.

She looked at him and saw a small amount of blood flowing from his brow. This new stream blended into his naturally fiery mane. In a blind rage, she screamed, "This is all your fault!"

He lumbered forward, the sting of his blood forcing his eyes shut. But he still formulated a response, "How is this my fault?!"


The morning sun shyly peeked over the treetops. Its arrival was warmly welcomed by the villagers. Their morning started up as they rapidly wandered back and forth. Some moved towards the fields to check the crops. Others meandered to the farmlands, inspecting the animals and the crops they wandered near. A small commotion began when a few boys found their favorite boar had claw marks lining its torso.

Meanwhile, in the center of the village, firewood was being placed. Many strong men and powerful women carried large logs from a pile that rested beside the woods. Being dragged out of her tent was the half-dead body of Nita. The tiny girl snored like a freight train as Smokey lifted her onto his shoulders. He trudged to the treeline with a rag in hand. Her bear pelt held onto her skull with a sloppy grip.

Many other members of the village joined him with rags and baskets filled with clothes. Their morning baths were the prioritized option. Though it wouldn't be long before more villagers joined the small team rushing for the nearby river.

As the day got started and bodies surged around the village, one tent was still quiet. A little sliver of light slipped through and illuminated the cramped space.

Incense could be seen dying out, lodged into the ground. A pair of leopard print knapsacks were being slept on rather than in. And atop these sacks were two Caucasian males. One with hair as golden as the sun was bright; the other with hair as red as fire was hot.

Their sleeping positions were wildly out of order, the smaller blonde boy currently upside down with his feet close to the redhead's face. A bit of restless shifting caused his golden locks to part and reveal the bandages around his skull. And his face happened to catch the small beam of light that was slipping inside. He groaned at the uncomfortable heat as the sensation scratched at his eyelid. In a groggy attempt to fight the feeling, the boy kicked his leg; sharply striking the older male in the mouth.

"GAH!" Colt rolled off the knapsack, clutching his jaw. He looked downward, "TYLER?!" The boy was fast asleep, a goofy smile on his face as he rolled away from the light. Colt leaned forward and chopped Tyler on his head.

"AH!" Tyler woke up suddenly, "Why?!"

"You kicked me!"

Tyler was rapidly rubbing his head, "I'm sorry… but why my head?!"

Colt instantly realized his mistake and apologized profusely; the younger deputy dismissed him so he could rise from their beds. He was the first to fully open the tent's flap letting the sun bathe them. He watched as the people rushed around.

Colt walked out shortly after, the redhead's appearance drawing a few eyes from some of the village's warriors. During his tenor within the village, he was asked to show them how city men fought. They were enamored with the skill Tyler presented in his Brawl Ball match and wanted to see more. He obviously avoided all these challenges since seeing the monstrous strength of their youth. If they were this strong, how powerful were the adults? (Little did he know that Nita was a special case). Tyler left Colt to his devices, looking for something to do in the morning.


A few village girls were sitting together, their hair being fixed by the village mothers. Tyler gave an uneasy wave towards them. He had been dodging these ebony bullets much like Colt. But he wasn't as smooth with his excuses. Instead, awkwardly bumbling about every time he was approached by them. He once again did his best to formulate a response but would end up biting his tongue in the process; eliciting soft giggles out of the girls.

Tyler was a bit embarrassed until he heard her. Further down he saw a bright red hue. Her orange dress stuck out like an apple in a barrel of oranges. Jessie was joining in the laughter, cracking a small smile when she met eyes with Tyler.

Tyler's feet automatically carried him behind a large tent. When he was out of sight he smacked himself, gaining a loud groan from the powerful shot to his head. He sat there for a moment regretting his actions. He was always bad around girls, his brothers said that it was because he was too nice. They would often tell him he would fare better with an aggressive style.

His mother would silence their ridiculous claims and say that his sweet side is what attracts them. Besides, when he found the one he wouldn't have a single issue talking to her. Tyler again thought about his family's words. His brothers' insane ideals were far beyond reason. He certainly wouldn't stoop to the levels of the jerks he'd see on TV. So what if his mother was right? What if Jessie isn't the one?

A hand rested on his head, he looked up to see Colt giving him a knowing look. "Strikeout again?"

"I didn't even step up to bat."

Colt took a seat beside him; silently consoling his tiny friend. He had decided long ago that he would give Tyler the blessing to pursue Jessie. He was a kind boy with a strong body. A perfect fit for his little sister. But he would not help him (not much). If he had trouble speaking to her, he would have to get over that himself.

As they took a breather, Bo suddenly approached them. "Colton. Young Tyler. This is where you were hiding. Come. On a morning such as this, you mustn't waste it lazying around." The village elder guided them to the village center, talking as they walked. "Young Tyler, how do you feel?"

"Better." Tyler massaged his temples, "Tad fuzzy. And it hurts when I move too much but scratch that and I'm off to the races." He answered with his aloof British candor.

"Good. Your recovery is coming along. Which reminds me," He looked at Colt. "Shall you join us?"

Tyler perked up, "Join what?"

Colt ignored his deputy, "I dunno Bo, I've never done something like that?"

"Done what?"

"I can assure you that all will be fine. There will be a surplus of villagers protecting you." Bo tried convincing him.

"Protecting him from what?"

Bo acknowledged Tyler, "We are hunting today. We will be leaving just before the sun falls. The light of the moon wakes up many of the forest's juiciest beasts."

"Hunting? I wanna hunt!"

Bo was pleased with his enthusiasm. He rested a hand on his shoulder, "I'm sure you do young one." Bo quickly plucked Tyler's head, the boy recoiled sharply and hissed. "But you are not fit to hunt."

Colt ruffled his hair (which garnered another small yelp), "Might be better to miss out on this one."

Bo tapped the older male's chest, "And what of you? Shall you join?"

Colt and Bo stood face to face. The sheriff was stunned by how bright his eyes were. With the lack of pupils, his gaze seemed oddly intimidating. Colt's hand rapidly jostled his ruby follicles, "I'll… think about it."

Bo's face didn't move. The group ceased their walk as he just stared into Colt. He didn't look upset, he wasn't happy. He looked… standard. Painfully normal.

Then he suddenly brightened up, "Wonderful." His pace picked up as they were guided to the village center. The scent hit them before their eyes could perceive it. A powerful carnivorous smell filled the air around them. Alongside the meat, they caught a whiff of hundreds of vegetables mixing into an arousing aroma.

In the center of the village was a set of three large boars roasting over induvial fires. The massive pyre in the middle had an equally gargantuan pot boiling over with an assortment of meats and veggies. This spread of food was accompanied by many village children rushing by to get a taste before it was done cooking. The elders could be found preparing drink cups and wooden plates for the villagers to eat from.

Bo turned around, presenting the feast to them. "As you can see… breakfast is nearly done."


A dirty thud preceded the man's yelp. He was flat on his back staring up at the dim lighting above. It felt like he had briefly lost feeling in his spine, then it came back like fire running through his back. He could feel the tiny tremors below him.

He rolled to his chest, his teal hair getting in his way. Through the green strands, he could see his two friends rushing towards their target. One chopped at the giant's legs while the other mounted his shoulder.

The mounted woman was landing sharp blows to the beast's temples while the second girl used a rod to clobber his shins. The beast fell to a knee, putting up his arms and weakly defending against the visceral storm of punches and kicks the girls were throwing.

He got up quickly, standing and finding the gauntlets he was lent. They had just enough weight to give him a workout but were light enough to fight with. He wasn't used to weight training but maybe this monster was an example of their success.

"Vian!" He quickly looked up at his name. One of the girls was currently laying on the floor. She was clutching her head and rolling away. Atop the monster's shoulders, the girl with blonde hair was currently trying to use her legs to choke him out. "Help!"

Vian ran forward, he saw the opportunity to land a shot to his jaw. Sure to knock him out for a while. As he got closer, he saw the giant struggling harder. He would break out any second. He needed to nail him!

In what felt like an instance he was below the beast. His fist ready to soar through his mouth. Then his heart froze. The beast was smiling, his hands firmly grasping the girl's legs.

He split them open faster than Vian could see. Then threw her over his shoulder, using her as a club to smash Vian over the head with. Vian's skull bounced against the ground, his mind going blank but his eyes seeing everything. The beast tossed the girl to the side. Vian could hear both girls squeal as their bodies collided. Then the freak turned his expression to him. Picking Vian up by his shirt collar and holding his green skull in the air. Vian was defenseless, preparing for the inevitable blow.


They both turned to the voice. Shelly stood on the sideline with Sam and Veronica watching silently. She looked mad. "Nix… you've done enough."

With a small whimper, Nix stood Vian up, dusting the smaller male off. "Sorry." He fixed his teal hair so it didn't look like he just woke up. Then walked him over to his teammates. The two girls were being helped up by some other bandits. One cautiously approached Nix to take Vian to the infirmary.

Nix looked around and saw the stares he was getting. He felt like a caged tiger that had just been caught attacking its pride. His head sunk as he trudged over to Shelly. For a second their eyes met, and he could see it. She would be dealing with him later.

"Well, that was ugly." A voice commented on the side.

"Affirmative. Nixon's aggression levels: Above Capacity."

Poco played with the stringy shoulders of his t-shirt. "If he doesn't get it under control. I'm not going be the only skeleton down here."

Rico turned to Poco, "He is always this aggressive?"

"Honestly… I can't tell. I'm just as new as you." Poco played with his guitar some. "But he was a lot calmer when we first met."

"Intriguing." Rico's eye started to blink rapidly, "Searching for possible catalyst to new aggression. More data required."

Poco took a long look at Nix. He caught him stealing angry glances in their direction. "Yeah… I have no idea."

The two newbies were stuck on the sidelines, watching as Shelly trained with the bandits. She had searched through the ranks over the past week. Running them through rigorous training exercises until she weeded out the weak links. Now she was running the remaining survivors against the big three.

Sammy and Veronica had only fought once so far. Both of them took it slow with their opponents and trained them on how to counter their particular fighting style. By the end of their fights, their opponents were laying on the benches begging for water. But their trainers celebrated their successful matches.

Nix was unhinged. He had been flat-out clobbering his teams. He'd either send them to the infirmary or traumatize them first. Shelly had warned him after the first match about his conduct, but he hadn't learned his lesson.

Rico and Poco were sitting out for undisclosed reasons. Poco assumed it was because Rico was mechanical, and he specialized in support. But he feared that Shelly's opinion would change with time.

Rico gave an analysis, "Training regime level: Beyond human capabilities. She is killing them."

"Killing, nah. Will they make it to their beds? Probably not," Poco snickered. His guitar was finely tuned, and he decided to play a little song. His soft chords soothed a few of the bandits close by. That is until Shelly called for their attention.

The guitar hushed as he observed the next match. This time Veronica was heading in to face a team of three. Poco took notice of how she quickly started by kicking one of the bandits in the chest. The poor boy was gasping for air while his teammates rushed her. Poco made a passing comment, "She's getting fiercer."

Rico analyzed Veronica's fighting style. Many swift strikes aimed to disable her opponents rather than knock them out. He could see her dodging often and grabbing the fighter's mid-swing. She would visibly correct their posture before throwing them over her shoulder. "Veronica combat type: Docile."

"Not her." Poco pointed a bony finger, "Shelly."

Rico noticed how the boss of the Gem Bandits had a menacing glare on her face. Her eyes jumped back and forth as she observed their training. Rico took notice of her chest's movements, "Heartbeat heightened. Physical activity: 1%."

"She's getting excited."

Rico was surprised, "Though you lack the necessary equipment your analysis is astounding."

"I'm good at reading emotions. And I can tell you… she's been working them harder than usual. Something big is coming."

Rico knew that Poco was just as new as him. How could he know their training regimen? Poco took his time explaining the events Rico had missed. He began by explaining how he met the bandits. Their run-in at the Oasis pub and how they threw themselves headfirst into conflicts that didn't concern them. He touched on the stories of how monstrous they were, then countered these claims with the more human side they showed at the BWA Arena. Only to recall the tale of their fight with the Sheriff.

As Poco continued his story he noticed Rico twitching every so often. His robotic hand would sharply strike his dome to get under control. When Poco finished catching him up, Rico had one question. "Why are you still here?"

Poco turned to him. His mouth smiling but his eyes pleading for help, "I'm scared." Another shout was heard from the training area signaling the transition to another set of trainees.

As they watched, Poco continued. That same scary smile on his face, "What if I'm wanted? I did help them escape the Sheriff. If I'm arrested, I will never have a chance at a musical career again."

Rico could tell something didn't add up, "Why did you help them?" Poco stopped strumming his guitar, "Consequences of helping bandits: Threat Level Maximum. Yet you assisted. Why?"

"I dunno. Heat of the moment?"

A new voice spoke up behind them, "Or maybe… you were a bandit in your past life."

They both turned to see Shelly standing behind them. They looked back and forth trying to understand when she moved. Rico's eye flashed a caution sign at her sudden appearance. "What you boys talking about?" Shelly turned a cheeky smile with her bandaged side.

Poco spoke up, "Just getting Rico up to speed." The yellow skeleton made a little motion to put attention on the robot.

"How you feeling Rico?"

"Repairs are progressing sufficiently. Sam promises a new and improved body alongside enhanced combat protocols."

Shelly seemed pleased with the response. She was going to continue but was interrupted by a random bandit. She quickly pulled them to the side and shared a silent discussion. Rico noticed the backpack and equipment that the bandit was carrying. A large blank canvas of paper seen on one side with binoculars on another.

Shelly had a serious expression as she pat the bandit's back. The member quickly ran off, disappearing into one of the outgoing tunnels. Rico and Poco both noticed these scouting items. They could tell that something important was happening.

Shelly came back as if the interaction never happened, "Poco. How's it been in the caves."

Poco's smile grew, "I feel strangely at home over six feet underground."

They shared a small laugh as Rico turned back to the training mats. A few of the remaining bandits were working together on some final training. Others joined their friends that didn't make the elite cuts. Shelly took a seat between the two. Her purple dreads smacked Poco as she settled down. Her slouched posture matched her tone, "What do you think?" They both were perplexed, asking for her to go on. "Are they getting better?"

Poco watched as the remaining bandits exchanged blows and practiced different grappling locks. Poco saw a few heading towards the practice range with bb-guns. "They're improving."

Rico interjected, "Their collective power is weaker than Nixon, Sam, and Veronica combined."

Shelly blew a frustrated breath, "Yeah… I know."

Poco tried to reassure her, "Even if they're weaker, that's still a high bar to pass."

"The bandits can't always rely on them." Shelly kicked her legs a little. "I can't always rely on them." Her head absently glared at the gem jewel-covered roof. With a serious tenor, she hissed, "And they need to stop relying on me."

The two males kept their mouths shut. Cautious of her growing rage. That is until Rico began to glitch again. She seemed a bit frustrated now, "Ain't Sam supposed to be fixing you?"

"Re-playing previous comment. Repairs are progressing sufficiently. Sam promises-"

"A new body and blah-blah yeah I heard. But you can't expect him to fix all your problems." Shelly looked at nothing before getting a mischievous grin. She snatched them both up in her arms, pulling their head close to her face. "You know what you boys need. A little fresh air."

"brrrp!" Tyler pat his stomach happily. He slouched back on the bench as he pushed away the wooden plate.

"Gross," Jessie commented as she finished her meal. She didn't have a napkin, so she wiped her mouth with a wet cloth. "Just cause we're in a forest doesn't mean you have to act like an animal."

Tyler was a bit embarrassed, his cheeks flaring up a little as he sunk in his seat. Colt joined in the ridicule, "Yeah. If you're gonna burp. BRRrrppp." He smacked his chest to accentuate the action. "You gotta say excuse me." Tyler applauded the manly display.

Jessie however, "Colt!"

"What? We're just telling the chef we enjoyed the meal."

From the side, a man shouted, "Wonderful!"

Colt waved at him only to turn back to a frustrated Jessie. "What?"

"We're guests. We can't just burp in their faces. Think of how you look to Nita?" They all turned to see Nita with her face buried deep into a giant slab of meat. She paused she felt their stares. She slowly put down the slab with an egregious amount of grease on her cheeks. She slowly reached for the large cup of water she had been given.

With a little grimace, Jessie turned back to her friends, "My point still stands. We should show table manners." A small hand tapped on her shoulder, Jessie was now face-to-face with Nita. Though her eyes were all white she could tell Nita wanted to say something. She leaned in close, Nita might be stronger but Jessie felt like her elder sister.


Jessie's hair stood on end as she had little pieces of water on her cheeks. Nita's belch had caused some of the lighter items to shift from the shockwave. She grabbed a rag much like Jessie, wiping her mouth before letting out a soft, "Excuse me."

Colt cheered. "Pffft-HAHAHA! YEAH!"

The diners broke into rampant laughter at the child's outburst. Many of the men around the table joined in the fun by attempting to beat her burp (all failing). They passed around pots of mashed vegetables and bowls of various meats, all eating their fills and then some.

Tyler and Colt were especially adamant about eating until their bellies burst. Jessie showed more tact as she politely grabbed a snack as the food rushed by. Nita continued to destroy all the food that passed by. Her ravenous undertaking slowed down when Smokey joined her.

Their merry feast suddenly came to a halt. Bo stood at the head of the wooden table using a chair to elevate himself. "How are all?"

Their roars were deafening.

"Glorious." He quickly put down his plate. Putting his hands behind his back, "Well I hope you've had your fill because today is special." He slowly unhooked his bow and arrow, "Tonight we hunt!"

Once again, the villagers cheered. Jessie was a bit startled by the sudden outburst. Nita quickly jumped atop the table, roaring with two bones in hand. Colt went to hi-five Tyler, but the blonde was still angry. "What's wrong?"

"It's no fair. Why does the hunt have to be tonight?" Tyler asked as a large leg bone flew past them, knocking out an unsuspecting bystander. Tyler just grumbled defiantly.

"Awe come on. It's not that bad." Colt looked around for inspiration, "What about Jessie."

Tyler perked up, turning to catch her eye. The girl's flaming hair was currently braided into one giant tail that sat at the small of her back. She was ducking the flying debris as she tried to enjoy her meal. Nita would often rush by smacking people out of her way so she wasn't disturbed. Though her protection was a bit unintentional as she was mostly celebrating.

Colt saw Tyler lose himself in her face. "Ya know… you'd be with her for most of the night. And all the boys of the village will be with them hunting."

Tyler could feel the chills forming but suddenly came back to earth. "Them? You're not going?"

Colt leaned back in his chair, dodging a wooden mug. "Nah. I'm a sharpshooter but I thought it'd be good to relax a little bit." He picked up the knife he was using to slice up his beef. "At least until we get out of here. Then the bandits will be the first people I aim at."

The two sat for a second. Their silent somber mood drowned by the current festivities. "Won't Bo be upset?"

"Bo seems pretty chill. I'm sure he won't mind."

"And I have even more glorious news!" Bo's voice pierced the cheers. He stood atop the table with two arrows knocked in his bow. "We have two new hunters joining us today."

Colt's lazy demeanor was forcefully ripped from him. 'Two?'

Bo's arrows flew through the air with a fisherman's whistle. One landing splintering the wooden saucer Colt used as a plate. "Colton Domire! Sheriff of the Dunes! And a legendary shooter in his home!"

The crowd went wild at his announcement. Colt however was confused. He hadn't told Bo he would join.

Before he could voice his disdain, Bo continued merrily. "And a surprise addition… Jessie Domire!" All heads snapped to the startled girl. Her hands in the air with an arrow through her meal. She looked twice as confused as Colt. "Child genius! And the exceptional sister to her warrior brother!"

Now the cheers were filled with perplexed coos. To think that the city girl would join in such a curious sport. Even Jessie was surprised. So surprised that she stood up from her seat. "I didn't-"

"JESSIE!" Nita's shrill voice cut her off. The miniature monster rushed beside her. She took up Jessie's hand, bounding about as she spoke. "Hunt. Hunt. Hunt! HUNT!" Nita turned to the concessions, raising Jessie's hand for all to see. "My friend's a huntress!"

Jessie stared into the party. They were all so delighted to see her joining. And then she saw Nita. The girl was just so cute when she was excited. Grease-stained mouth and all. How could she break her heart?

With a shaky smile, she responded, "Hunting." And the screams returned anew. Now Jessie was being pulled away towards Nita's tiny tent.

Colt and Tyler stared slack jaw at the scene. Both totally blindsided by the revelation. Colt snapped his vision to Bo. The chieftain smiled down at him as he jumped from his perch. He then shortly disappeared into the crowd.

Tyler moved to follow Jessie, wanting to ask her if she's really okay with this. But he was stopped by a heavy pair of hands. Smokey's deeper voice chimed in, "Tyler. My city brother. I was told that you can't join tonight." Tyler was going to say something but Smokey was pushing onward. "But don't worry. I would never allow a soul as hot as yours to run cold while we are gone. Instead, I shall stay and miss tonight's hunt."

"You really don't have-"

"But don't worry. I have many an ideas for what we can do whilst they hunt."

Smokey quickly dragged Tyler away, careful to protect his head lest he suffers another injury. Colt stood by the table, a few of the older villagers rubbing shoulders with him and telling stories of what was soon to come. But Colt's mind was a raging tsunami that would not shut up. And one thought burst through it like a whale breaching.

"What just happened."

The tent flap flew open with reckless abandon. Nita quickly pulled Jessie inside as she rushed to shut the flap behind them. Jessie found herself seated on Nita's knapsack. It was much softer than the pelts they had been given them. But she was more intrigued by the strange colors splotched across it.

The animal it seemed to be stolen from was certainly rather small. Though that might just be from Jessie's perspective. The brown fur was rather thick which she imagined was both a blessing and a curse depending on the season. But why were there blotches of green dye mixed within?

"Jessie! Jessie!" her childish voice squealed. "Look!" She was holding a handful of fabric. A rustic orange mixed with a bold shade of brown. Jessie coaxed her to continue, "Hunting clothes!"

Jessie giggled, "Right… thanks." She gingerly took the clothes as Nita went back to rummaging around her tent. The girl was waist-deep in a giant basket. "Umm… whatcha looking for?"



Nita turned with a confused face, "For the hunt."

"Umm…" Jessie was starting to remember what she had gotten herself into. "Nita. I know you're excited but-"

"Oh look!" Nita pulled out a club the size of her torso. "My first club! I remember when…" Nita's passionate eyes diminished a bit. "Um… maybe not this one."

Jessie watched as she dipped back into her basket. Again she was merrily swaying back and forth as she kicked her feet in glee. Jessie mustered up the courage, "Nita… I"

"Ah, I can't wait! I haven't hunted with a girl before!" she put a finger to her lips. "Well, I hunted with Rosa. But never a girl my age!" She noticed the worried look on Jessie's face. "What's wrong?"

Nita's eyes were dazzling. Her tenor like that of a child that had just been given candy. Jessie groaned her response, "I-I just can't wait to go hunting!" Jessie quickly looked around. Choosing to dip into another basket within the tent. "Let's uh… look for that weapon!"

Her smile was forced, but Nita couldn't tell. She jumped into her own basket and started telling Jessie what to look for. A small knife, a short staff, even wrapping for her knuckles if that was what she'd like. Jessie cringed a bit at the notion of beating an animal with her hands.

Her arms just fished around helplessly as she tried to plan a way out. During her mindless fishing, her hand collided with something rough. A small object about the size of a softball, but twice as thick.

She clawed it out with ease, walking towards the tent opening to get more light. Within her hands was a small wooden statue. The craftsmanship was masterful, the ragged edges of the statue's clothes were lifelike. The care that was put into the hands. And the attention to the details of his face.

The boy she was looking at was younger than her. His hair was shaggy and covered most of his face. The smile he was crafted with gave way to a mischievous personality. Jessie looked to Nita, "Who's this?"

"Hmm? Who's who?" Nita snapped towards her. Her previously gleeful appearance now full of terror. Jessie didn't have time to react. Nita dropped to all four and leaped her way, tackling her to the ground and snatching the statue.

The girl was practically feral as she clutched the statue close to her chest. Jessie took her time sitting up, "Nita?" She whipped around, her fangs open for Jessie to see. She took a defensive step, "Nita… I'm sorry." Jessie made another step toward the tent exit. She didn't want to make any sudden moves. She saw what Nita was capable of when she snapped. "I didn't mean to. I was-"

"You were looking for a weapon…" Nita's enraged glare slowly faded, giving way to a disappointed and gloomy frown. The atmosphere shifted with her mood, even her bear head visibly drooped with her.

Jessie stopped her retreat. Slowly taking a seat on the ground. Nita uncurled from her aggressive position, holding the wooden statute out for Jessie to see again.

There was a new and uncomfortable feeling in the tent. This inky feeling made both of them sick. Jessie moved to speak, but Nita was faster. "He's my brother."

Jessie gasped, "The one the Cal Boys insulted?" Nita gave a solemn nod. Jessie tried to save her pride, "You don't have-"

"Bo says it isn't healthy to dread. He says that we should, accept the past and move for the future." They sat in silence. Again Nita was fidgeting about as she tried to work up the courage to speak.

Jessie took the lead, "What… um. What was he like?"

Nita had a small smile on her face, "He was… fun. He liked to joke and play with me. He would play pranks and we'd get into trouble." Nita rubbed her thumb against the boy's wooden face. "Then he'd try to cover for me… unless it wasn't that bad. Then he'd throw me under the bus."

Jessie piped in, "Colt does that all the time."

"Our brothers are nice." They both chuckled at the connection.

Again the tone became somber. Nita's fidgeting got worse. Jessie didn't want to pry… but her curiosity was unbound. "Wh-What happened… to him?" Jessie immediately bit her tongue. "I'm sorry. You probably don't want to talk about that."

"No… it's fine." Nita took a deep breath. "He's gone."

"I'm sorry for your loss."

"I don't think he's lost." Jessie was confused. "He wouldn't get lost. He left. But he'll come back. And if he doesn't…" Nita's grip on the statute tightened. "I'll drag him back." Nita crawled to the basket Jessie grabbed the statue from, placing the statue down and rummaging again.

Jessie was starting to understand. Nita's brother wasn't dead, he ran away. Though she sounded mad at the end, she wasn't angry he left. She just wished she knew why. She loved him and was awaiting his return. This boy… "Nita? What's your-"

"Oh look!" Nita whipped up, holding a small wooden bow. "Bo gave me this. He thought I would learn. I didn't." She walked over to Jessie, presenting the wooden object like a reward. Jessie's eyes met Nita's. Once again, her new wild friend was smiling.

With a warm return, she grabbed hold of the bow. Its weight much lighter than her usual artillery. As Nita walked away Jessie remembered, "Wait. Can't I use my shock rifle?"

"What's a shock rifle?"

Jessie opted for a simple explanation. "The toy I showed you. With the blue lights?"

"Oh, the lightning gun! Sorry but Bo always says" she tried to mock Bo's dominant tone. "Only traditital Ardacian weapons should be used in hunts."

"Well, what are you using?"

Nita put her hands in Jessie's face, "My fists are traditital."

"Fair enough." Jessie thought about sneaking her rifle into the woods somehow but opted against it. She didn't have any means of recharging it. And since she would be surrounded by experienced hunters (and the walking tank that is Nita) she figured she'd be safe. She'll save the rifle for another day.

"Now come on!" Nita cheered as she grabbed Jessie's hand. Her single braided rope of hair flowed as they ran. Nita dipped and dodged the traffic of the village to make it to the center.

Jessie saw Colt in the middle with a spear in hand. Currently attempting to hit a hay target with other Ardacians. Nita dragged them towards Bo who was guiding a group of Ardacian archers. "You have to learn how to shoot!"