Chapter Five

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The only sound May could muster was a short, strangled cry.

Was she dreaming?

Had she fallen for some kind of trap?

Her brain howled for her to flee but her body would not obey.

"Ah, you're awake." Emandi lowered themself beside the nest of blankets and stared at May stoically. "Shall we begin?"

"What. What's happen." May could barely string two words together. "What's happening?"

"We're going to fix you," Emandi said, gesturing to her body still huddled beneath the quilt.

"But your face. Why are you–"

Emandi waved off her question with a casual flick of their paw. "I'll explain when we're finished." They nodded at the quilt. "Whenever you're ready, darling."

All May wanted to do was pull the covers over her head and hide. Surely this was all just a terrible, exhaustion-induced nightmare. Yet despite herself, she muscled through the fear and folded the quilt down, pressing her trembling lips into a tight line.

Emandi's eyes narrowed. They leaned in and sniffed at May's mangled flesh; the metallic funk of blood made her stomach turn. The creature was truly massive and, in this moment, May was petrified. With their eloquent vocabulary and bipedal movements, it was easy to be distracted by Emandi's more human qualities. But now, with their giant feline head and gore-soaked maw snuffling a mere breath from her pounding heart, May half expected something to snap – the animal that Emandi appeared to be suddenly overcoming all other senses and driving them to devour her alive.

Instead, Emandi drew back and met her frantic gaze with a steady one of their own.

"This isn't as bad as it looks," they told her. May wasn't sure if they were talking about her wound or the situation. In either case, she had her doubts. "Still, I should be frank with you: this is going to hurt. But don't worry, it will be over quickly."

May's breath escaped her. "What will be–"

Emandi opened their mouth. Blood spilled from their jaw, teeth, and tongue, glistening crimson in the firelight.

"Wait!" May cried.

Emandi did not.

What Emandi did was drag their rough and bloody tongue from the base of May's ribs up to her collarbone. Their body was feline, and their tongue was no exception. May shrieked, as the steel wool texture seemed to shred the skin from her body. She panicked and squirmed, trying to escape, but the great cat's powerful paws pinned her arms like a bird's wings.

In the final split second of agony, May couldn't tell if she was going to vomit, pass out, or both. Her vision grew dark around the edges, and then...

Nothing.

Emandi sat back. "Apologies for the trauma. I realize it's a terribly painful experience."

May blinked. She looked down to find her chest covered in blood, but she felt no pain whatsoever. "What did you do?"

"Exactly what I said I'd do," Emandi answered gently. They reached back to the pot – removed from the fire while May slept – and pulled a rag from the steaming water. Wringing it tightly, they handed it to May. "Get cleaned up."

Baffled, May took the cloth and did as instructed. She mopped the tears from her face and the blood from her body and gasped when she saw the skin underneath.

The wound was gone – not even the scar remained. In fact, the only sign that anything had happened was a faint sheen to the skin; any place where Emandi's tongue touched now glimmered like polished moonstone.

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