Vol. 7 - We Meet Again | i

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On her list of things to eliminate in the name of freedom, there was one thing left. The inescapable. If she could somehow feed without laying an entire village to waste, Nerina thought, she would be fine. Drinking from the veins of animals was a preventative measure. She did not like it. She needed to do it. All the same, she had already tested her limits enough and preferred to quit while she was ahead. She had pulled herself back before, yes, but it was best not to take that chance until she absolutely had to.

The years had not been kind yet they had not been cruel. They had forgotten her altogether. Good or bad, she had neither, just a dull inactive middle ground of boredom. As it was, she spent most of her time underground. Nerina had found a way to hibernate. Shut down her system putting it in a kind of stasis. This stasis had been the longest. Almost five years give or take. It may have been closer to six. In that state, she could not keep track of time and she did not very much care. Eternity had no stopping point. Time would go on and on and unless time stopped or she died, eternity was an eternity away. Made no sense to keep track of it.

Standing out in the open covered in dirt she still did not know exactly how long it had been. The forest had changed which told her some time had passed. The cottage she had built over her sleeping place had been reclaimed by the rainforest, as was Mother Nature's right. Vines wrapped their barky fingers around the small cottage, moss and insects adding to the effect. Though it was slightly tilted to the side, Nerina was not going to repair it. The natural camouflage worked. In any case, she did not plan to be above ground for long.

With hunger clawing at her gut, she stripped off her clothes. Her hair was a mess most of it locked together in one big tangle. Nerina had no way of sorting it out so she cut it off. At the side of the little spring that had gotten bigger since the last time she had bathed in it, she hacked off her hair with one of her swords, leaving it in jagged spikes. The clumps fell along the edge of the spring. She stepped naked into the clear coolness of the spring, sitting down on a smooth stone that provided a natural seat to one side.

Nerina doubted she had any more clothes left to replace the weathered ones she had just taken off. As she scrubbed herself clean, she considered. Maybe she should simply go to ground naked. Her skin was easier to wash. Nerina decided she would go to ground this time around naked.

In no rush to be anywhere else, she washed years of dirt from her skin and newly chopped hair. In a few hours, it would be back to its full length again. She took in the night sounds: the frogs, insects, predators roaming for prey. None of them disturbed her. Soon she would go on the hunt and the forest would stand still. At the smell of danger, the forest would hold her breath in warning.

Much time had passed and things kept on changing. Nerina hoped the change had not included humans moving closer to where she was this deep into the rainforest. The lands throughout were boggy, sinkholes waiting to suck you in at any misstep. Her sleeping ground was located on a spit of firm ground.

Clean, still hungry, she stepped out of the spring allowing the drops of water to run down her skin. The brush of cold air over the wet would have made a human shiver. To her it was refreshing. Her hair was already starting to grow back. Sometimes Nerina regretted not being able to keep it short for the convenience.

Clad in nothing but an oversized shirt that had only been half a meal for insects, Nerina set out barefooted to hunt. Sensing the predator in her now, the forest held its breath. The throaty call of a leopard had her stopping. A challenge. She had stepped into its territory. The quick warning was a small courtesy. Nerina dipped lower fanning out her senses to get a location on the leopard. She climbed a tree moving up into the network of vines and limbs to the dense canopy. She could feel wary eyes watching her, as she got closer.

Nerina stopped, looking down. She had to adjust her eyes several times to make out the black leopard some ways down below her. Its freeze-frame motion, the jet-black of his fur, made him almost invisible there on a lower branch. It too was looking for prey even as it had warned her off. She dropped down from her position.

At the last minute before she landed on its back the cat turned swiping out its claws. Both predators went tumbling out of the tree towards the forest floor. With its supple spine, the leopard twisted in midair landing on its feet. Nerina handed on hands and knees facing him the claw marks across her chest healing. She was down another shirt.

The fight lasted longer than it needed. Nerina was making a work out of it. She had been inactive for some time and she wanted to keep her wits sharp. Strength met strength with brutal force but only one would make it out alive. Nerina fed well. For that night, she took down three of the massive cats, merging with the inner darkness she had found in herself.

A darkness that lingered like a stain. Nerina recognized it as the splinter of evil that had made her into what Eve had wanted at one point. That splinter had grown and spread, taking on a life of its own. It was irreversible. A solid part of her now. She recognized it, as it recognized her.

Over time, she had come to the conclusion that Eve had not created that darkness but had tapped into it. That darkness was always present now, lingering — lurking. It made her stronger. Made her fearless. But there was something different about it. Almost...contained. Like it had been there before but not in its true, complete form. Like something was growing inside of her. She knew it was mad. Nothing could be growing inside her but she sensed a difference. Ever since she came back from that place where ghostly hands had tried to drag her down into the abyss of death and eternal damnation, their faces contorted with their own anguish, she had been different.

Nerina figured coming back from the dead would have its effects. Her appreciation for life had certainly changed. Now that she knew what was waiting for her... Nerina shook off the thought. Fionn had taken back the powers he and the others had given her but a remnant was left behind. It had been the source of awakening for what was inside of her.

Back at what was left of her cottage, she made preparations to go to ground again. How long she would be this time around she did not know, did not care. It all depended on how long her body stayed in stasis. She went down and got up whenever. Nerina could skip some of the years in her eternity. She was in the ground before the moon hit its highest point.

Nerina woke again after some time had passed. She stood naked and caked in dirt looking around her. The Amazon was in a constant state of moisture. Dew glistened on the leaves even when there was no rain; the moisture trapped below the dense canopy that protected the forest floor. Nerina stood there in a haze of emptiness. Boredom gnawed jagged teeth into her skull.

At this point, she was growing tired of her life. Tired of the monotony. Tired of the sucking vortex it had become. This was all she had. Everything she touched turned to ash, slipping away through her fingers. You fix one thing only for something else to fall apart. Round and around, at least, there was quiet. She was yet to attain the peace of mind she sought. Nerina sighed. There would be no true peace for her.

After three days out of stasis, life was too much to face again. Nerina went to ground shutting down. She would wake up again—whenever. No one would miss her; no one alive knew she existed. There was nothing for her in this world but she was afraid to face the next. There would be no peace for her there either. Therefore, she chose to stay with the evil she knew, in the world she once knew. In a world, she once belonged.

Her eyes flew open as the stasis abruptly ended. She felt as if she had only just shut down. It was a weird sensation of moving too fast and stopping too suddenly. How much time had passed? Did it matter? She stayed where she was as her system settled down from the jolt. By now, the strips of clothing she had left above would have succumbed to the elements and the insects.

She made a move to dig out of the chamber then stopped. Something or someone was above her. Someone—the heartbeat was steady. Something—the growl was no human. Neither was it jaguar nor leopard. It was a wolf. Nerina cursed. There was a fight happening above ground. Along with the growling, there was grunting. Two sounds...one heartbeat. She cursed silently to herself as she remained where she was. Wood crashing told her that the little that was left of her place would be nothing at all.

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