Chapter 6: Crawling In My Skin
James woke with a start.
He shot up in the dark as stabbing pain shot down his back, radiating from his left shoulder.
made his shirt cling to his skin, and he could feel the all-too-familiar sensation of bandages layered underneath his clothes - taut
around his shoulder. Taut around the pain.
emptily into the night, he slowly reached up to touch his wounded
shoulder. He unbuttoned a top button of his shirt so he could reach in
and feel the bandaging, flush with his skin, and now melded to the wound
with salve and sweat. Carefully, he tried to massage away some of the
tension that had coalesced around the tender skin.
could hear his fractured breathing shudder with a rumble in his ears.
It sounded so loud. It was as if the whole earth had paused from
speaking just to hear him, and he couldn't help but worry if any of
the others had heard him too, or if he'd made too much noise in his
sleep and waking them.
to his disadvantage, he couldn't make out the shadows of anyone around
him yet. His eyes had yet to adjust, and at this point, it didn't
matter. If someone had woken up, it was irreversible.
He just hoped that they'd leave him alone if they did.
Tucking up his legs as he sat on the ground, he leaned forward, feeling the ache of his whole frame.
It was enough to feel constant pain every day. His body already hurt all the time. And then, of course, there was this.
He closed his eyes as he rested one forearm on his knees and rested his head against it.
near-death experience. He could hear the voices of friends he imagined
to still be around echoing the sentiment, and for some, the nuance
carried sadness and empathy, but for most, it was shame.
The former day was returning to him in pieces.
had started with the monster hunter. No, that was the day before. She'd
followed him back and gotten roped into working for Gregor because he
was nervous. The next day his worries had been proven true, and
Clandestine had to step in.
if he had a gold piece for every giant, freakish creature he'd
encountered, he'd have at least three gold pieces. If he was a monster
hunter, maybe that would've made sense - but he wasn't.
It came back to him in full clarity, crisp in the front of his mind.
He'd been at the back of the herd. Clandestine had been tracking the sandworm's movements and pulled away to do so.
At that moment, he'd hesitated.
pulled away from the herd to go help her. Some insane part of his mind
thought he was equipped to help her face off against a monster of gargantuan
size and ridiculous strength. It felt wrong to leave her to take on
that kind of beast alone, regardless of her profession.
But she told him to go back, and he did.
arm attached to his injured shoulder hung limply at his side. He
wondered how many more times his body could be ripped apart before it'd
stop working entirely. He wondered how long it'd take for him to recover
from this one. He wondered why he'd run in blind on purpose. He knew the answer.
He lifted his head and shook away that trail of thought.
The conversation that followed the worm's end was spotty, but he remembered the gist of it.
Clandestine was a mage, and he'd sworn to keep that a secret. Somehow his poor eyesight had come up, but she'd agreed not to bring it up again. The contrast between the two subjects would've been comical, but he knew the weight of Clandestine's secret was far from a laughing matter.
was putting his life on the line by protecting her. Mages were killed
for their magic, but if anyone was found out to be an accomplice - or to
even associate with them knowingly - they were put to death as well.
He'd seen it with his own eyes. Over, and over...
wasn't like he had anyone to tell. And the last thing he was going to
do was walk into a guild or a sheriff's office to collect a reward.
Clandestine deserved to live. That was a given.
sat back up with a slow, controlled sigh. Careful not to be heard, he
let his chest fill with air and then held his breath, counting down the
seconds until he finally let it all back out in a thin, steady stream.
deep, black sky was starting to brighten in hue. Instinctively, he knew
that the sun was only a few minutes from peeking over the horizon, and
before he knew it, everyone would be waking and asking him how he was.
He determined to take care of himself before then.
Gregor had helped bandage him up. He was the only one that he would've
let see him that exposed, but even so, he knew Gregor was only
withholding questions out of respect. He could still see
the worry in Gregor's eyes. He could hear the hidden nuance in his
words in their conversations. He could see it in the way Gregor was careful - like he thought James was fragile.
forced himself to his feet, and for a moment, his head began to spin.
He paused to let it run its course, and when the sensation alleviated,
he picked up the blanket that had been laid out beneath him and finally
found Elliot's silhouette in the early morning light.
was resting, so James came up alongside him from the front, making sure
Elliot could hear his footsteps so he wasn't spooked. Softly, he
muttered half-words, and Elliot's ears flicked toward him. It was enough for Elliot to remain calm, knowing it was James.
Quickly, James found his medical kit in his bag and worked to change the dressing on his shoulder.
He was lucky that no one woke up before he was done.
His colleagues remained asleep while the sun still peered over the horizon. But Clandestine, the monster hunter, stirred first.
sat near Elliot, watching as Clandestine stretched out like a cat under
the sun. She rolled over, face buried in the blanket that she had laid
beneath her, and for a moment, he thought that it was a false arousal.
She stilled again, and he swore he could hear a muffled snore.
But then she flopped back over with a sigh and sat up, rubbing her eyes.
turned his attention to the sunrise but remained aware as Clandestine
got to her feet and stretched again, and eventually looked around to see
that the others were still asleep. Except for him.
a split second, he considered not looking at her. He knew it would be a
voiceless invitation that she could take to start a conversation, but he
knew he couldn't avoid her, either. At least, not until they reached
Then he'd leave everything behind.
made eye contact for a split second, and Clandestine offered him a nod
and a sleepy smile. He nodded in return. When she made her way over to
her horse, he stopped paying as close attention to her and found himself
staring down at the grass.
grass was a mix of yellow-brown and yellow-green. He followed the lazy,
swirling path of a summer fly until it landed on the tip of a feathered
blade of grass, letting itself sway with the blade in the breeze.
The fly darted off when Clandestine started to walk over.
looked up as she approached casually, welcoming herself to take a seat
beside him two paces away. Her eyes landed on his shoulder, and she
crossed her legs.
"How're you feeling?" she leaned in.
The ever-vague question.
"About how I imagine I'd feel were I bitten by a giant worm," he said.
Clandestine nodded slowly.
"I see," she said - but the way she said it seemed carefully enunciated. As if she were quoting something.
took him a moment, but he remembered. She was referencing their first
day of conversation. He laughed with a puff of air through his nose.
also see," he said, quoting her own words back to her. He did, however,
reconsider the familiarity creating a joke created between them when he
knew their time together would be so short-lived.
It was too late, though. Clandestine's lips upturned into an amused, self-satisfied grin, and she laughed lightly too.
"Well," she said before any silence could follow. "Glad you're not dead."
"Me too," he said compulsively.
glad this guy made it too," she said, looking up at Elliot, who grazed
peacefully behind them. "I'm surprised he kept a cool head the whole
time. Horses usually aren't that good under pressure."
James glanced back at Elliot.
"He did rear," James reminded her. "And I fell off."
That was why he got bit in the first place.
yeah, but that was only because the worm erupted from the ground in
front of you two and Elliot would've run into it if he didn't stop,"
Clandestine said, raising her brows as she waggled a finger at him. "And
even so he had the sense - or lack thereof - to come back for you
didn't know why Clandestine was harping on Elliot's behavior, but he
didn't want to let it lead to wherever she intended it to. She was
trying to draw conclusions and pry for more information that he didn't
plan on giving her.
always been like that," James said. The moment it left his mouth he
knew it was a lazy response, but he hoped it at least moved things on.
"Yeah," Clandestine laughed. "And I've always been able to slay giant worms."
"I don't doubt it," James said lightly.
Clandestine's brief laughter, however, quickly subsided, and she stared at him with narrowed eyes, a smirk growing on her face.
"Uh-huh," she said, still staring.
Not really caring to discover what the smirk was about, James picked up the conversation.
"So--" was all he got out.
"You sure your shoulder's okay?" Clandestine ran him over.
"What? I said it's fine," James answered quickly. "Not much can be done about it now."
"It doesn't hurt too terribly does it?" Clandestine pressed.
"I can still function well enough," James said, gesturing to his arm.
keep himself from overexerting that shoulder, he'd put his arm in a
makeshift sling. It made him one-handed, but he was an experienced
enough rider that it didn't hinder him in his job, for the most part.
That, and it was far from the first time he'd had to ride one-handed
know," Clandestine began. "One time I got bit by a giant fox-hound.
This was before I was a fully realized monster hunter. I was only a kid,
and I tried to bite off more than I could chew going after it. I still
have this nasty old scar on my leg. Big 'ol tooth marks. My mentor at
the time said that it'd at least be a reminder to think before I act
James didn't know if that was meant to be a dig at him disguised as a personal anecdote, but it sure sounded like it.
"It sounds like she taught you well," he said instead.
"She did..." Clandestine said with a small, wistful smile.
noticed she trailed off as she stared out over the plains, and he
waited for her to end the lull between them. It only took a few seconds.
"You've never been a monster hunter, have you?" she asked.
For a moment, James wondered what prompted the question.
it his reckless eagerness to jump in and help her that got him hurt in
the first place? Was it his scars? Was it his fearless horse?
Either she already knew the answer, or she genuinely didn't know who he was.
Still careful, he took the lighter route.
"What, did my lack of forethought give it away?" he joked.
Clandestine turned to him with a look of mock offense.
"I think ahead!" she defended.
James lifted his good hand.
"I didn't accuse you," he retorted, amused at how quickly she took it personally.
pressed her lips together into an indignant pout and he huffed through
her nose. Shaking her head, she blew a stray hair out of her face.
"Listen," she said, looking at him squarely. "I'm just trying to say -- well, what I mean is--"
She took in another sharp breath and shook her head, starting over again.
"Did you run out to grab the attention of the sandworm on purpose?"