With no enemy scouts detected in months, the Raintail base should have been sleepy hinterland outpost. They held the line only against the surrounding forest. Implacable black trunks and snow-heavy branches stared back at those set to watch from the thick gunmetal walls.
Bell volunteered for the graveyard watch. She still wasn’t sleeping and had grown tired of the pinched worried expression around the mess tables and the evening fires. The assignment would explain the dark circles and restless exhaustion better than she could. Curt saw right through it and still gave her the shadowed looks, but her brother’s concern was unavoidable. At least now she could spend her sleepless hours doing something, even if it was staring at the dark trees knowing too much of what was out there.
She shook her head for at least the fifth time as this night’s partner, Jaxson, offered her yet another cigarette. Bell liked the smell, it reminded her of field camps, cheap whiskey around fires, and leave. But tobacco slowed the lungs and twitched the fingers. Scouts like Bell traded in unrufflable speed.
Their watch stretched into early hours. The new moon offered no shadows, nothing to jump at when the wind rumple the treeline. They were surrounded by black. Jaxson snored, his back to the parapet, head draped over his chest.
Bell stretched, fiddled with the broken loop of her holster, tested if she could catch peanuts with her mouth (she could) and walked en pointe, filling time while keeping the inky wild in sight. While balancing one of Jaxson’s cigarettes on an index finger, movement in the black caught her eye.
At first, the trees were just trees, and the late winter ground the usual patchwork of snow and rock. But Bell recognized the impossible antlers separate from the trees and rise in silhouette. Muscle moved beneath the roan coat as it picked a way fluidly down the ridge towards her and the wall. The stag-thing approached the gate with an easy canter. Predatory grace rippled across its back and down a plumed tail. A rabbit’s heart drummed in Bell’s chest as she grabbed her rifle and moved to the parapet.
Now barely beneath Bell, as the chimera was massive beyond known species, the thing lifted its lupine nose into the air and sniffed. It pawed the ground like a warhorse, claws digging deep furrows into the mud. There was something less than comforting knowing the only thing between her and a thirteen thousand pound animal was a mechanical door. Bell stared at it, the night air hurting her too-open eyes.
How many people would die if it decided to test its weight against the walls? How many other people would get court-martialed for bringing it here? The moment stretched, just her, the chimera, and impending prison cells. Bell decided what to do when Jaxson shifted and stirred in his sleep.
She landed toes, then heels in the snowy mud next to the wall with a soft exhale. No one but the chimera noticed. It whirled and huffed deep in its throat, pointed ears forward and reflective eyes vibrating on Bell’s crouched form.
Bell didn’t run, she’d feel claws in her back, its fangs around her neck. She didn’t bring up her gun, even at this range, ammunition wouldn’t pierce the things coat. She met its eyes while her heart’s beat made it impossible to swallow, and she took a step. The thing lowered its head, eyes glittering and locked on her. Bell took another even silent step towards the ridge. Slowly it followed, shoulders pitching back and forth as it stalked her, intent.
Bell did not let her gaze slip. She did not let her footsteps stutter or scrape on the harsh rock and ice. She did not think about what she would do when she got to the dark treeline. Bell led it away from the wall, away from Raintail, back up the slope until they disappeared into the black trunks.