Chapter 24: The Nightmare Revealed
CONTENT WARNING: Descriptions of sexual assault, Descriptions of violence and torture
For the few days while the elves were spending most of their time sleeping, Storm and I spent our time with our siblings and friends who had become hunters, and every other hunter in the Village. As the winds began to become frigid, our job became so much more vital; the plants froze and died, and it became extremely difficult to find any that were edible between the cold and the dust. The only plants that were edible were those that were growing inside the Village, and even those were desperately trying to survive. And the amount of grains being brought into the village from the coastal farms was dwindling, and the farmers who brought them were panicking because they hadn’t been able to store as much as expected. The only good thing that happened to the plants in the winter was that it was easier to see the dust inside of them if there was any; the dust seemed so much more luminous, even glowed, in the winter, causing any plants and trees to glow with it. This made it harder to hunt, however; at least, for Storm and I, who were more comfortable hunting in the dark.
When the elves were able to stand and strong enough, they talked to Shadowforth and agreed it would be best for them to move to the second floor of our house. We rarely used it; only when someone wanted some privacy or when the porch was overcrowded. And the porch was in danger of being overcrowded; our mother had already needed to treat a few people for minor dust infections and for frostbite, and we were anticipating that it would only get worse, and wounds from attacks by wild monsters would become more frequent as well as they began to starve. Safiena and Nayila asked me and Storm to teach them how to hunt in this area at one point; we agreed, but told them it would have to wait until they were a little stronger. The elves were all still coughing and still clearly in pain, even if they were able to walk around. Both of those things would be liabilities while hunting. And… even though they were more comfortable around us, including Scout, it would be a long time before the rest of the Chimeras would trust them enough to let them help without complaint.
Storm and I returned from a hunting trip a week later shivering and upset. There had been almost nothing for a few days, and then Storm and I found a boar. We were determined to catch it; so determined that I had hidden myself using my aura, and slit its throat before it even knew I was there. But I didn’t cut deep enough, and its tusk went through my thigh, leaving a deep and painful wound. Storm had retaliated with his own shadow magic, killing it, but it was difficult for me to walk. We returned after that, even though I wanted to search for more. I couldn’t risk getting another wound like that, or worse.
But what surprised me when we were back at home was that not only were Harold, Anna, and Valla all sitting outside of the house… but Rune was sitting with them, and seemed to be talking to them. Before I got to ask any questions, however, Valla had noticed me, and my wound.
“Gray’s hurt,” Valla said, interrupting what Rune was saying. They turned to look at me. “Should I get some bandages…?”
“Yeah,” Rune said.
“Where’s Mom?” Storm asked, frowning and adjusting the monstrous boar on his shoulders. It was clear that carrying it was beginning to tire him out, and I was a little concerned about him getting it to Torchlight and Dew… but there wasn’t much I could do to help.
“Another group of hunters came back- one of them lost her wing and arm to something and she’s trying to save her life…” Rune’s ears went a little flat as he spoke, and looked at my leg. “I… yeah, someone get some bandages and ask Mom if she has any of the salve she’s using to spare.”
Valla nodded, and stood up quickly and went onto the porch. I sat down next to the door to the main part of the house, carefully laying my leg out straight in front of me. The blood had mostly clotted- Storm wouldn’t have let me walk on it if it were still bleeding badly- but it still hurt badly. I gritted my teeth as Rune looked at the wound. It wasn’t long before Valla came back out with some large bandages and some water in a metal mug. And I was a little surprised when Scout came out behind her with two of my siblings: the younger, Kitty, a toddler, in his arms clinging to his shoulders, and then one of Rune’s triplet brothers, a large, muscular man named Red. Red had always been one of the angriest of our family, only scared by my own fits of rage, but there was a panic on his face and I knew that the other huntress who was wounded was one of his closest friends. Most likely, the one he spent every night visiting and sleeping next to…
Red took one look at my thigh and breathed a sigh that was somewhere between exasperation and relief.
“Red, don’t worry about me,” I growled. “Is the other huntress-”
“She’s recovering,” Scout said. “She’s… very weak, however.”
“...Quiver didn’t even get a chance to avoid the monster…” Red muttered, lowering his eyes. “She… she was lucky it missed her torso…”
“I got lucky too,” I muttered. “Seems there’s a lot of luck to go around right now…”
“Don’t count on it,” Scout said, a low growl in his voice. Valla sat down between Rune and I. Red looked up at Storm and sighed.
“At least you guys caught something good,” he whispered. “All we got before having to come back was a damn rabbit- and the bones were too weak to be used for anything, and the fur just kind of fell out as it was being skinned, and there wasn’t even a good amount of meat.”
Storm nodded. “Hopefully, there will be enough of those catches to make up for the lack of these ones, somehow. Do you want to take this one to Torchlight and Dew?”
Red glanced back at the porch reluctantly. Scout put his hand on Red’s shoulder.
“It’ll give you a chance to think about other things, Red,” he whispered. Red nodded, and Storm helped him pick up the boar.
“Yeah. I’ll be back soon.”
Red walked away with his eyes trained on the ground in front of him, and Storm came over to sit next to me. Valla was using a clean rag and the water to clean the wound- I could tell by the smell of the water that there were some herbs in it, probably a part of the salve that my mother had made. There probably wasn’t enough to spare for me to have it undiluted. Besides, I wasn’t as likely to die… yet.
Valla gently began to pull the bloodsoaked cloth of my pants away from the wound, doing it as gently as possible to prevent tearing the wound open again. I breathed slowly as she did so, trying to ignore the pain.
“What were you all talking about when Gray and I walked up?” Storm asked, glancing at Harold and Rune. Rune grinned.
“The elves are interested in helping with my research. I was showing them some of what I’ve already done, like, the records of what happened to the goat and what we found in our first journey, and everything Mom discovered about the Dust that I’m trying to build off of. Harold and Anna want to help me continue the research.”
“That’s good news, but I’m curious to know why… and how, for that matter,” Storm said. I was watching Harold, who smiled and nodded reassuringly.
“Well, we were expecting this area to be hostile territory at best… and by that, I mean that we expected it to belong to Lassania. But instead we found you all, and now that it’s clear we have an enemy in common in Lassania, I think it’s for the best that we help you out with this, especially seeing… well, we don’t exactly have a way to leave right now.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “I don’t think we’ll be as useful an ally as you think,” I growled.
“And why is that?”
“We’re not interested in fighting Lassania right now. If they attacked, we’d defend ourselves, but we can’t be sure we’d win.”
“Of course. I understand that, but Lassania stays away from here. There has to be a reason for that.” Storm, Scout, and I were all silent. “It seems to me like they fear you, and there has to be a reason for that.”
“It could be the dust,” Storm muttered, looking away. Harold narrowed his eyes at him, and glanced at me, and then at Scout. I was visibly tense. We all were thinking of the same thing.
“...Are you sure?” Harold asked. I growled, about ready to tell him to drop the subject, when Scout sat down and answered.
“Lassania held us all captive. For a very, very long time.”
My skin suddenly felt frozen, and I stared at him with wide eyes. Valla seemed to notice the change, and glanced at him nervously, keeping her hand a little above my thigh as if she didn’t want to start wrapping the bandage around my leg without knowing I wasn’t going to panic.
“...How did that happen?” Harold asked, a sense of fear and dread in his voice. Scout looked around, making sure that we were as alone as possible, and he kept his voice low as he sat down. He set Kitty down and she ran into the house, seemingly oblivious to the tension between us all.
“We weren’t always Chimeras,” Scout said. “A lot of us used to be human, you know. But a lot of us were… disposable, and forgettable.” He paused, looking at the ground. “We… still don’t know why it happened, to be honest. All I remember is that my father died and left me with nothing, and so I turned to stealing food because I had no other options. I was caught. They charged me with theft, and other charges, and I was sentenced and put in prison and then… when my sentence was supposed to be over, instead of releasing me, they put a bag over my head, sedated me, and took me to another dungeon, where I became… less and less human, because of the experiments they were doing.”
“You were once human, then…?” Anna asked. “That should be impossible, though!”
Harold shot her a harsh glare, and she stopped talking. Harold turned to Scout. “I’m… sorry to hear that. You were a Lassanian citizen?”
“Yes- but a criminal. So nobody noticed that I disappeared. The other people who would become what you see now were all the same: criminals who would be easily forgotten, people who had been disowned by everyone who should have cared… some were even people who were so reviled by Lassanian society that taking them where they would be tortured and never see the sunlight again was seen as justice. I don’t know if anyone in Lassania other than those involved with the projects knew of the places. But… we were all kept in stone cells, usually alone, with no windows, no furniture, no clothing, and if the guards saw any of us doing anything that we hadn’t been explicitly told we were allowed to do, we were beaten and, well… often otherwise punished.”
“Why were they doing that, though?” Harold asked. “Do you know? And… how did that lead to everyone becoming so… well, not human?”
“We don’t know exactly why, but we do know that for the first part of our captivity, we were almost always alone. We only saw each other when one was being led through the hallways to the place that they sedated us, and then we’d wake up with another scar, and just… feeling slightly different. And then eventually, they... “ Scout suddenly seemed to choke on his words. “...They started… trying to force us to have children. Keeping couples in cells together, at first… and if that didn’t work they’d force it more, and more. And… they started injecting the women with something, too, before putting them with a man, that made it harder for them to fight.” Scout closed his eyes, and when he spoke again, his voice was cracking. “...Shadowforth usually couldn’t stand when they did it to her. I never wanted to be a part of it, but whenever I refused to do anything, they’d beat me, and whip me, and physically force me onto her. She… wasn’t the only woman they forced me to be with, and I wasn’t the only man they forced her to be with, but… we started to get closer. Sometimes I passed out after those, and the guards would leave us, and I’d wake up with her using any scraps of cloth she had found to try to stop my wounds from bleeding. And when the guards knew they had broken us all enough to be comfortable letting us wander the halls sometimes, I’d visit her, and try to help her find more scraps of cloth or things she could hide in her cell to use to help people. By that point over half of the people who had been in the dungeon initially were dead.”
There was a long moment of silence. All of the elves were staring at Scout with eyes wide in horror. I glanced up at Valla, who had stopped trying to wrap my leg. I gently took the bandages out of her hands, and began to wrap my own leg… partially to distract myself from the conversation.
“In case you couldn’t guess… there were a lot of Chimeran children born in the dungeon. Almost all of Shadowforth’s children were, but… a lot of the children born in the dungeon didn’t survive. Some of them were born months early, painfully, and some took their mothers with them, especially at first. And… some of them were born and might have survived but…” Scout looked at the ground again. “The guards started to use the children they viewed as useless for their purposes to punish their mothers. Some were killed right in front of their mothers if anyone in the family misbehaved. For a long time they… had all of us completely under their thumbs, but some of us were still trying to find ways out, and a little less than a year ago, we made it. We managed to get out of the Dungeon, and it now is just… ruins.”
“That’s… horrifying,” Valla whispered, glancing back down at my leg and looking at my face. I wasn’t looking at any of the elves.
“I apologize for asking such a hard question to answer,” Harold said, bowing his head. “I had no idea that things like that were happening in Lassania…”
“You had no way to know,” Scout said. “But if you’re serious about wanting to be an ally to us, you needed to know that about us. We’re not eager to fight Lassania because we spent so long with them dominating and destroying us, but now that we have our freedom, we are willing to do anything to hold on to it.”
“That is understandable, and something I would make clear to our king if we wanted to form an alliance,” Harold said.
“I don’t think my dad would be as willing to understand,” Valla said, glaring at Harold a little bit. I fumbled with trying to tie the bandage for a second, and Valla took the end of the bandage and tied it for me.
Anna seemed to be in deep thought. “Personally… that makes me want to explore the ruins to see if there’s anything-”
“No,” Storm and I both said at the same time, shooting her a glare again. Harold put his hand on her shoulder.
“That is entirely up to them,” Harold said. “It’s their trauma, not ours.”
“Honestly… I’ve thought the same thing,” Rune muttered. I shot him an even worse glare, and he pinned his ears at me and averted his eyes. “I mean, the dust didn’t seem to be here before a day after the dungeon fell…”
“You know exactly how dangerous that is,” Storm said, his voice even harsher than mine.
“But it’s true- I can’t be the only one who noticed that!”
“You’re not,” Scout muttered, “But if Storm and Gray don’t want to go, don’t force the issue. We can talk to Sentinel about it.”
“Why are you even considering this, Scout?” Storm said, a snarl laced through his words. It intimidated the elves far more than it intimidated Scout.
“The Elves are at war against Lassania. There may still be records there that could tell them- and us- what Lassania was trying to do.”
“You could die if you go there! We don’t know what’s there!”
“We’re not going to do it any time soon if we do- that hasn’t even been decided yet.”
“And I can’t believe it’s being considered,” I whispered, standing up and starting to limp away from the group. Storm stood up after me.
“We can talk later,” Harold said. “I don’t want this to upset anyone further.”
“That is wise,” Scout said. “Gray? Where are you going?”
I didn’t answer. I just wanted to be alone for a while, without the Elves… maybe even without Storm. I didn’t know. There were some areas hidden enough to be alone, and I was going to go to one of those, and normally I would have said that so nobody would get worried.
But I didn’t have the words to even begin how I was feeling.