By the time Shreya stabilized her shelter, night had fallen. Cicada music droned on in the background, a loud undulating buzz. Crickets chirped in the distance. Whatever bugs that had been biting her had come back in full force, the mud no longer enough to keep them off of her.
She shivered, the stick she was working with slipping out of her hand. She’d lost a layer of skin trying to work up enough friction to light a fire. Dried mosses acted as tinder, ready to ignite over the sticks they were draped over. Off to the side sat more sticks for the kindling.
Shreya spun the stick against the notch in her fireboard, a thick piece of bark from a dying tree.
If the Elders had wanted her to realize that being a lone wolf sucked, she more than understood that at this point. Even in the best of circumstances, there still wasn’t enough time to cover everything that she needed to. Water had become a lost cause. Food hadn’t been on the agenda in the first place—the impossibility of that had been clear from the start. Dealing with the shelter had taken up all the daylight.
Shreya let go of the stick.
Giving up would be simple. All she’d have to do would be to go back to sleep. She could curl up under her lean-to, shut her eyes, and wake up in time for her mother and the others to pick her up. She’d leave exile with her edges worn down and a newfound appreciation for her wolfishness.
And the Elders—Elder Ilkay, Elder Haneul, Elder Calanthe and all the rest—would be so smug about it. They’d look at her, knowing that they were able to bring her back down to her knees. Another wolf back in line with the crowd.
She couldn’t give them that satisfaction. Shreya picked the stick back up and got back to work on spinning it. She wished that her streak of determination would’ve coincided with a spark of convenient fire, but that wasn’t the case. It took at least another hour of scraping her skin open for the fire to bloom.
Shreya didn’t waste time. She tossed in the kindling, breaking the sticks up into smaller pieces. Happy to be fed, the flames continued to grow. Its bright colors danced before her, the heat welcome near her cold form.
Something else came with the fire: a memory from her younger years, when she was sitting near a fire like this one. She remembered the crackling flesh over flame. The chopped up parts. The skin peeled off of bones. The butchering, and then the realization that what they were eating had been a person only hours before.
Her shift in thinking built up over time. She’d just been too young to realize her part in what they were doing until she was older, older and smart enough to reflect on the fact that the man, the woman, the whoever they were sharing pieces of had been someone she had a hand in killing. The tipping point had been—
Shreya tore herself away from the fire, but still stayed close enough to bask in its warmth.
Sometimes, she thought to herself that she should’ve stayed ignorant. She could’ve cloaked herself in that ignorance, warm and cozy while she acted like any other wolf. Shreya could’ve been dancing by the roasting fires, celebrating all of the triumphs the wolves had rewritten themselves to have earned.
But the thing was that she couldn’t be that way. It was too late for her.
She dug her fingers through the dirt, the soil rough on her skin. What if she disappeared? What if she ran off into the night and left them before her misgivings consumed her? Her Otherness was doomed to get worse, wasn’t it? If this kept eating away at her, she was at risk of going the way of Loupe: messed up, demented, and in denial of reality.
That was the type of thinking that gave birth to curses. Shreya had told Shanti that curses were myths, but she knew there’d been hesitation in her voice when she’d said that. Bad things happened to the outliers.
Shreya couldn’t sleep after that. She stayed awake, tending to the fire all the way into the morning.
~ * ~ * ~
Shanti took a seat on the grass next to Danilo. The morning communal meal was a more casual affair than the nightly one. One of the Elders gave an announcement at the start of it, but other than that, things were calm. The performances were saved for the evening hours. Strength had to be reserved for the chores up ahead.
“Think you’ll need help at the crèche again?” Shanti nudged Danilo.
“Don’t the hunters need you?”
“Nah, they’re good. It’s more of a drop-in thing, and yeah, they prolly think I’m skill-building.”
“Minding the children is skill-building?” Danilo smiled. “I suppose it is… Having more helping hands is always a good thing.” He scooped a pile of greens off of his plate and into his mouth.
“Yep. My Mama’s cool with it, too. I dunno, I might make a switch,” Shanti said. “This is when we’re supposed to be trying out new stuff and figuring ourselves out, anyway. New stuff’s good.”
Danilo nodded in agreement.
“D’you think you’ll wanna try hunting? It’s boring. Boring things are fun with you, so… I mean, you’d make it less boring.” Shanti tripped over her words. She winced.
Fortunately, he didn’t point out her blunder. His attention was focused on something or someone else. Shanti followed his gaze to find Shreya, sitting off by herself or as by herself she could be among a crowd of wolves. Shreya’s eyes were downcast, her shoulders drawn down. Her hair was wet, still drying from what may have been a river dip.
“Is something wrong with her?” Danilo asked.
“Hold up,” Shanti got up. She made her way around everyone in her path, careful not to step on any tails or hands.
Shreya didn’t look up when she reached her. Shanti sat by her and snapped her fingers in her face. She made a small noise in acknowledgement, something so low that Shanti wouldn’t have heard it if she didn’t see her lips move.
“What’s going on with you?”
“We need to talk.” Shreya brushed her hair back.
That wasn’t a proper answer, but okay. It was better than Shreya not saying anything at all. Shanti said, “we can talk at the crèche.”
“No,” Shreya shook her head. “We need to talk alone.”
“Okay?” Exile must’ve done something to her sister’s head. “How about when we’re done eating?”
“Meet me at home.” Shreya said. She went back to eating, signalling the end of their conversation.
Shanti didn’t know what to do with that. She just walked away, and joined up with Danilo and her half-finished plate.
“Is she alright?” Danilo asked.
“She’s being weird.”
“As weird as anyone coming back from exile?”
“She was only away from one day.” Shanti sighed. “One day! But she’s acting like she just came back from a week-long exile and a thousand mile journey. Ridiculous.”
“I hope she’ll be okay…”
“She’ll be fine,” she said. Danilo’s heart was too soft for his own good. “I’ll be late to the crèche. I’ve gotta talk to her.”
“Take as much time as you need.”
~ * ~ * ~
Shanti found Shreya in their bedroom, sitting on their shared cot. She was looking all…upset and down on herself and had that usual Shreya woe-is-me look on her face.
“Are you okay?” Shanti spoke slowly.
“Then I’m gonna go.” She ventured towards the door. When Shreya didn’t say anything, she stopped and turned back around. “Nevermind, I’m not gonna go. But you’ve gotta start talking.”
“If you want to go back to Danilo, you can.”
“C’mon, don’t tell me to come here and then brush me off. Talk.” Shanti sat down beside her.
Shreya picked at the cot. “Exile sucks.”
“Yeah, and…? Do you wanna talk about that?”
“It made me think about a lot of things,” Shreya went on. “Do you ever think about any of the things that happened when we were younger?”
Shanti sucked in her bottom lip. “Like what? Be specific.”
“When we were hunting with Mama and Papa. Those things.” Shreya scooted backwards, and put her back against the wall.
“What about those things?” Shanti laughed nervously.
“I think they used me. I know that sounds weird, but it’s all I could think about during the exile.”
“You were part of the hunt, so what?” Shanti shrugged. “I don’t see what’s so wrong about that. You use the resources that you’ve got. Mama and Papa had us as resources so that’s that. That’s the way it goes.”
“Is that what you think?”
Oops. Maybe she should have phrased that differently. “We needed food and they knew how to get it, alright? I could’ve helped out but you know that I sucked at that. You were the one who was good at talking to them, ’cause you had that thing about you.”
“And you think that was okay?”
“It’s something that we had to do! Why are you getting all offended?”
“Because it wasn’t fair,” Shreya glared at her. “It wasn’t right.”
“Oh no, not this ‘it wasn’t right’ bullshit all over again.”
“We tricked them.”
Shanti groaned. “You think we would’ve eaten if we came out and told them that, hey, we’re gonna kill you? No, hunting doesn’t work that way.”
“How can you call it hunting?”
“It’s predator and prey stuff. Why are you acting like this? If this is what exile does to a wolf, remind me to never be exiled,” Shanti said. Where was Shreya’s attitude coming from? “You’re…wow, I don’t even know what to say. You’re actually upset that we’re alive?”
“I don’t mean it like—”
“That’s what it sounds like! You’re crying about old shit from years ago, shit that we had to do to survive. Is that what’s pissing you off, that we’re here and they’re not?”
“Let me explain—”
“That’s the way that it would’ve been if we didn’t do what we did,” Shanti finished for her. “It was either us or them. You know what those days were like. You were there.”
“No one acts like they were there,” Shreya said. “Everyone pretends like things happened differently. We’re not as great as everyone thinks. The Elders are always telling us to take pride in ourselves but what pride do we have?”
Shanti flinched. “Am I dreaming? I can’t really be hearing this right now…” The room spun.
Shreya said, “I can’t be the only one who thinks this way. Everyone’s burying their heads in the sand.”
“Look, I don’t know if it was the exile that messed you up or if this was a conversation a long time coming,” Shanti said, “but either way, what you’re saying is way too much for me. What am I supposed to do about this, huh? Applaud you for your honesty?”
“I don’t know.”
“We can’t go back in time. Hell, if we could, I wouldn’t want to. There’s nothing immoral about survival. All of those prey…they’re just prey, Shreya. No need to get all uppity and self-righteous over this.”
“Humans aren’t our prey.”
“Are you talking like this because of your spy shit? You’ve hung out with that girl twice and already you’re pulling this ‘leave them alone’ shit?” Shanti growled. “I’m starting to think that your little trips out to the woods have been happenin’ for longer than I thought. I just caught you at the wrong moment.”
“That’s not what I meant, either. You keep jumping to conclusions.”
“I’m getting involved.”
“I’m going with you next time. Something has to be going on,” Shanti threw up her hands. “I’ve got to see what’s so special about her that she’s messing with your head.”
“Don’t.” Shreya was a little too quick with that defense.
“I’ve got it handled.”
“We’ll see about that,” Shanti said. “If she’s bothering you this much, I can make it so that she doesn’t anymore.”
“You don’t mean…” Shreya gritted her teeth. “She doesn’t have anything to do with this.”
“I don’t know. You sure about that? What, are you going to beg me not to go? Try me,” Shanti grinned. “Just ’cause I go won’t mean I’ll hurt her. There’s no guarantee.”
A/N: Here’s the real chapter 12! This chapter made some references to Interlude 1, so if you didn’t read that yet, you should do so.
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