Chapter Two

She's standing in front of me.

The middle-aged woman's crystal blue eyes cautiously take in the sight of me, nearly full to the brim with tears. She seems shocked, afraid, and lost. Her lips tremble, and her long black hair, loose and wild and waist-length just like mine, whips around her in the vicious arctic wind.

I don't know what to do. I want to run to her, to say something to her… but I'm frozen in place.

I panic for several moments, unable to make any sounds until I finally find my voice and cry out to her.

"Mother!" I want it to sound how I feel: relieved, joyful. But instead, my voice cracks and my knees start to shake. How did I become so weak? I need my mother's strength to steady me.

But Kaya doesn't reply. She doesn't wrap me in her familiar arms, or whisper comforting words in my ear. She doesn't even blink, and acts like I don't exist. And then I realize… her eyes look right through me. She isn't looking at me; she wasn't all along.

A wave of dread washes over my body, forming knots in my stomach. I turn my head to look over my shoulder, to see what she sees. The flurries thrown up by a sudden storm obscure my vision, forcing me to squint my eyes. But there, a few feet away from me, the shapes I can make out are familiar enough that I know what they are.


Five of them, each lying in its own pool of blood, perfectly preserved in the cold. I can't see the faces, but I know the names of every one of them. I know their families…

They are the Hunters. The ones that disappeared. I stifle a scream, thankful that I cannot see their cold, lifeless eyes staring off into space, all asking the same question: why?

I turn back to my mother, who hasn't moved.

"What… what happened?" I ask in a whisper.

She doesn't reply or move. She is a statue, her expression frozen to her fine features. And then after a pause she seems to snap out of it, and shakes her head, hiding her face in her mitted hands and sobbing.

"I'm sorry…" My mother cries, voice cracking. Turning around, she takes off and disappears into the trees, repeating the same phrase over and over again.

"Wait!" I scream and try to chase after her, but again I am rooted in place. I struggle madly to move but my feet feel like led. I find myself waist-deep in snow. Then it's up to my chest. Now over my mouth. I'm drowning.

"Lilith!" It's not my mother's voice. Someone else calls my name, "Hey Lilith wake up!"

My eyes fly open and find darkness. I am not drowning anymore. I am in my bed. And someone is standing over me, but I can't see who it is because no sunlight enters my tent.

Anger flares up in me at the thought of someone entering my tent without permission while I am sleeping. Still overwhelmed by the intense emotions of my nightmare, I swing my arm in the direction of the voice. My fist connects with a jaw and I hear cursing.

I recognize that voice, but it only upsets me more. Why is Ben of all people in my tent?

I rub my fist and have to smile despite my irritation. It feels good to hit someone. It releases some of my negative energy. And suddenly I'm thankful that Ben decided to show up at such a convenient time. There's no one else here that I want to hit more.

"Who let you in?" I snap, sitting up and ignoring the sudden rush of blood to my head, making me dizzy.

Ben rubs his jaw. I can't really see but I can just make out the movement, and I feel a little bit of pride that I actually managed to hurt him.

"I let myself in." He stands up straight and crosses his arms over his broad chest. The tone of his voice implies that he's frowning, "You didn't answer when I yelled at you from outside."

"You could have sent my father in, or someone other than you." I seethe. Out of all the people in this miserable place, Ben is my least favorite.

"Yeah but I didn't."

And that is exactly why he is my least favorite. Ben is the only one here that isn't afraid of me. My anger repels most people, but it doesn't seem to faze Ben at all. He doesn't give me a chance to answer him before continuing, "Stop complaining and get up. You've overslept, and it's your turn to guard the gates with me."

Oh. The gates. It's been so long that I've done it that I forgot how much I used to love being a Guard. But I guess it's easy to forget your responsibilities when you've been neglecting them for six months. I no longer feel any rage inside of me. Instead… I'm just numb. Was it my father's idea to make me pull my own weight again? It seems unlikely.

"Says who?" I ask him. It is meant to sound challenging, but my sudden shift in thought takes the usual bite out of my voice.

"Says everyone that is sick of seeing you do nothing when you should be the one giving the example." His voice has a bit of a snap in it, mixed with impatience.

A brilliant beam of sunlight enters the tent, hitting me directly in the face, as Ben pulls the flap back and holds it open. I'm blinded, and as a result am not quick enough to come up with a reason to say no.

Blinking the spots out of my blurry vision, I start running my fingers through my thick hair, unknotting it before putting it into a braid to keep it out of my face. A dingy mirror sits on the ground, in a corner, and I glance at it briefly. Red circles ring my dark brown irises, and purplish marks form shadows under my eyes. The skin of my cheeks feels tight where last night's tears had dried. My lips are cracked and painful. But somehow I still look better than I feel.

I'm still wearing my boots, my thick fur coat, and my gloves. No further preparation is going to help me face the day, and so I rise to my feet. My legs feel stiff.

"I really don't want to go." I sigh, but I step outside anyway, instantly feeling the bite of the wintry morning. Ben releases the flap of my tent, letting it close, and hands me a bow and some arrows.

"You never want to do anything. You need to get over it." He doesn't wait for me and begins to walk away. Watching him with his confident stride and his head held high, it reminds me of a time where I used to be that way too. Before everything changed.

I wasn't always like this- this person that hides from everyone, that prefers to stay in the shadows, that pushes everyone away. There was once a time where I would volunteer for anything, and I took pride in what I did. But that seems so long ago that I can barely remember that Lilith. I don't think anyone really remembers who that girl was. If they do, they fear what she is now.

Ben's large footprints carve a path in the snow that I follow with my eyes, biting the inside of my cheek. He's the only one here who doesn't know my story quite as well as the rest. Perhaps that's why he doesn't fear me, because this part of me is all he's ever known and he's used to it. Unlike the rest of us, he wasn't raised here. About a year ago, my father found him wandering on the borders of our territory and mercifully took him in. He had been half-starved, and nearly dead. At the time, I was still my old self, but not long enough for him to get to know me that way.

"I am over it…" I whisper to myself, but even I don't believe the lie as I stomp after him, kicking up the powdery snow beneath my boots.

Since I overslept, I have no time for breakfast. My stomach growls noisily as I reach the perimeter of the wall that closes us in, protecting us from the outside world. I tilt my neck back to stare up at the ten-foot-tall spruce logs that have been tied together with rope and embedded deeply into the snow. They not only protect our camp, but surround a good piece of the forest as well, allowing us to cut down trees for firewood and to hunt small game in relative safety. Two massive gate doors also made of spruce mark the only way in and out. They are to be guarded at all times, just in case. We've never received much trouble from anything outside of the wall. To find other survivors in this ice age is rare. The prospect of there being a rival group seems unlikely. Wild animals do pose a legitimate threat, but the constant surveillance is just for precautionary measures.

I close my eyes and breathe in the scent of the wood, letting it fill my lungs to remind me of the time when it was something comforting to me.

"They don't allow women to guard or hunt." My mother's voice enters my head, a ghost from the past. I can picture her in my mind, remembering this conversation from years ago, "They're too delicate, too valuable to be put in danger." Then, she would frown slightly, and turn her blue eyes to me, snickering, "At least, that's what they taught us."

I was only a small child when she would say things like that, too young to understand the implications. I know now that she never truly believed the laws put into place so long ago by our ancestors. From the very beginning she always encouraged me to not hide my skills, to be strong and brave. As I grew older, I understood what she meant, and I worked hard to make her proud. On my eighteenth birthday, against all odds, I became a Guard. That was three years ago.

Was my mother strong and brave for what she did?

I snap back to reality and am hit with a mixture of emotions that make it hard for me to stand. I lean against the wall and take a deep breath to steady myself. It's time to climb out of the hole I've dug myself into. But I don't know how I'm going to do that.

From above, I can hear Ben's impatient sigh. It's his cue for me to stop playing around and join him at the top of the tower situated beside the gate. There is no way to get to the top other than to climb the wooden trusses. I find that my hands and feet find places to go automatically as I climb, remembering the old routine I once followed. Once at the top, I slump against the waist-high wall that surrounds us on three sides and fall to my knees. I toss my bow and arrows to the side and rest my chin on my arms, exhaling loudly.

Ben crouches beside me, assuming the same relaxed posture. The atmosphere up on the tower is usually a tranquil one because nothing bad ever happens anyway. This I too remember.

"You look like a bear mauled you." Ben's steel colored eyes look me over and he makes a face at me, his nose wrinkling ever so slightly. I can't tell if he's teasing, or if he's serious. Either way, I don't like the comment.

Biting my lip, I try my best to stay calm, but the blank stare I direct at the treetops below turns into a glare against my will. My blood boils and I spit out, "I didn't ask for your opinion."

There's a pause while Ben moves to sit back, letting his back rest against a wall. He tilts his head and closes his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose. I don't look at him directly but I can tell by the tension in the air that he's trying hard to hold back and not blow up on me. In my peripheral vision I see his subtle expressions.

"My point is…" He replies finally when the slight redness on his face begins to fade, "You didn't sleep well last night."

"I slept fine."

There is silence now, but although my goal is to shut him up I feel no satisfaction in my victory. Ben isn't silent because he's frightened of me like everyone else. His calculating gaze says something else. It says that he's studying me. I don't particularly like being studied. My gaze remains on the forest below and I try very hard not to bring up conversation again for the simple pleasure of pissing him off.

I am successful. Until my stomach makes the sound of a dying animal. I react instantly, wrapping my arms around it to muffle the sound, but it's too late.

"Hungry?" I hear the sound of a paper bag and see Ben pulling something out of his pocket. He unrolls a handful of rabbit jerky and holds it out to me, "Here take some."

I don't want to take it, but my body reacts before my mind does. I snatch it out of his hand and bite into the hardened strip of meat. The salty taste of dried rabbit floods my taste buds and, when I'm finished, I find myself wanting more. But I regain control before grabbing the other half of it away and force myself to take a deep breath.

Ben watches me with a neutral expression on his face, his mouth a straight line. I know what I just did is wrong. Anyone else would have severely reprimanded me for greedily taking something that is considered a rarity. Food is scarce, and Ben didn't have to share that with me. I don't understand why he's so calm but it makes me uneasy that he saw me break like that, like I am some sort of animal.

"Um… you can save the rest. For someone else that needs it more." I sound so sheepish, almost apologetic. I hate myself, but what else can I do?

His expression stays the same, changed only by a slight pout in his lips now, like he's thinking of what to say, before he tosses the rest of it to me. "Keep it." He shrugs, "When we find elk we won't be starving to death anymore. And we'll find them soon. I'm asking Adam about going on another hunt."

This latter statement shocks me enough to drop the jerky argument, and it just sits on my lap forgotten. I stare at Ben with surprise, jaw dropping, "Another one? But the last one we sent-"

"Wasn't successful." Ben frowns and sits up a little straighter, getting a distant look in his eyes. Now he sees right through me, just like my mother in my nightmare.

I remember that Ben had been on the last two hunting trips, the two that had both gone horribly wrong. Between them both, five people had gone missing. As the Head Hunter, those men had died under Ben's leadership. Watching them disappear one by one like that, knowing you have no control over any of it… it couldn't have been easy. The pieces fall into place in my mind and I realize that this must be the reason for why he always seems so stoic.

"Exactly. We can't risk losing more people." I try to persuade him otherwise because I don't like the idea of even more people going missing. It's sad to say that I could care less about the individual lives at stake- I just don't want to be reminded of the whole idea of disappearing and dying. I would have to write those deaths down in the records. And then I'd have to look at the last one I wrote and relive it all. "There are enough rabbits and birds here to keep us going." I insist.

Ben shakes his head and pulls his knees to his chest. "Don't be stupid. I haven't been here long but I know the pattern. When we have elk, we're strong. We're well fed. Without them we all slowly die of starvation."

My stomach sinks and I know that he's right. But I don't want to hold that pencil again. I can't look at that piece of paper.

"What if something goes wrong again?"

Ben bites the inside of his cheek and he raises his eyebrows, giving him an expression that is both thoughtful and defeated at the same time. "That's a risk we have to take."

"Do you think the elk will ever come back?" I sound like a little girl that needs reassurance. But maybe that's what I am after all. This has never happened that I know of. The history records don't have anything in them about the elk not coming around as they usually do. They always do. And now they've just decided to never return, leaving the Hunters empty handed.

"They have to. And I'm going to find out what happened." Ben speaks with conviction and he narrows his eyes, determination filling them. I have to admit that I admire his spirit, against my better judgment, and I hope he's right.

The rest of our shift at the tower passes uneventfully. We don't really speak to each other until two more Guards come to replace us, and when we leave, we go our separate ways without acknowledging each other again.

As I walk back to camp I try to sort my feelings out now that I've received the news of another hunt. I'm not sure if I should hold onto hope like Ben or cringe at the thought of living through it all again. I don't know how he can do it, after having experienced it firsthand twice already himself. There is one thing, however, that catches my interest, and makes my feelings on this matter all that much more confusing.

My mother is out there, in that same wilderness that so many have died in. Would they cross paths with her? If there is even the slightest chance… My heart responds to the idea with a nervous thump.

I hold onto the bow and arrows that Ben gave me instead of returning them to him. I like the way the weapon feels in my hand. It makes me feel comfortable. Makes me feel safe. When I get back to camp I throw it over my shoulder and try to lift my spirits a little bit, fantasizing about how the hunters would find my mother and bring her back home safely and everything would return back to normal. After a while I even go out into the woods again and do some target practice, allowing the peace and the loneliness of the wilderness to clear my head. Like yesterday, I only return to camp when it's dark, and when I arrive at my tent, I see a tall, shadowy figure standing in front of it.

I'm annoyed to see that it's my father, and I don't try to hide that fact as I approach him. He looks frightened and shifty, his gray eyes not meeting mine and just staring at the ground.

"Lilith…" He rubs the back of his neck when I greet him with a cold silence. The last time we talked, I had told him that I'm an orphan and I want to be left alone. I essentially disowned him as my father. Looking at him now, I feel nothing but disgust for the spineless coward in front of me. "So… Ben talked to me. He asked about doing another hunt."

"He told me earlier. I already knew that." I told him, my tone of voice sounding superior. I don't know why I'm thrilled to know something important before our leader does, but it makes me feel bigger. I stand a little taller. My father shrinks.

"So… do you think I should let them go?" This is the moment I knew was coming. As always, my father is too weak to handle decision making on his own. He is reaching for a crutch, wanting me to make a choice for him. The only thing I ever disliked about my mother was the fact that she always thought for my father, making him cowardly, uncertain.

I square my jaw and narrow my eyes at him before shaking my head, "Oh no. You're not replacing me with mother!"

"But I-"

"You need to learn to make decisions on your own and I most certainly will not be the one you run to whenever you're too scared to make a choice!" Not letting him say another word, I storm into my tent, leaving him out in the cold.

A few moments pass before I hear his reluctant footsteps retreating. I lay back on my bed and close my eyes. This time, sleep comes fast.

This chapter was revised 12/13/2014

Please help me improve my writing by commenting on the following:

1. Is anything confusing?

2. Are any scenes boring or repetitious?

3. Do you spot any general tics (repeated words, etc.)?

4. Do you spot any confusing plot points (let me know when and where I lose you and what needs to be clarified)?

5. Does the opening grab you?

You don't have to answer these questions, by the way, but I would still appreciate a comment. Thanks.