A Curse of Tooth and Claw: Chapter Six
In which Kiki faces a harsh reality.
Kiki bit her lip as pain pierced her leg. The breach on the wall had taken the whole night to contain and eliminate. Now, hundreds of Slayers lay dead along the parapets of the Wall, their bodies ripped to shreds and their eyes glassy with fear.
Kiki bent down over a Slayer and pressed her hand to their eyes, closing them forevermore. She hadn’t known this Slayer. Though a distant part of her was grateful that she hadn’t. Still, she whispered a blessing for his soul and moved on in search of Yarixa.
Kiki moved as if through crystallized honey. Her legs grew heavier with each step and with every body she checked. For every pair of eyes that she pressed closed, and none of them Yarixa’s, she felt a butterfly of hope leap in her stomach.
When Kiki had reached the Wall last night, the attacking horde of demons had been thick and never-ending. Kiki’s Slayer training had kicked in and she’d joined the frantic efforts to defend the Wall.
A torrent of guilt washed over Kiki. She’d defended the Wall, but what about Yari? Who had defended her?
Thanks to Kiki’s failure to fine Yarixa right away, she now had the grim task of searching through the dead for her friend. Kiki ran through the events of last night and the early morning over in her head. Yarixa hadn’t been among the huddle of survivors at debriefing. Nor had she been in the infirmary. No one had seen her and no one knew where she could be.
The Wall was the only logical place.
Kiki fought back the tears that welled in her eyes. She wasn’t ready to accept the truth. Not yet. Even though this—horror—was the nature of their job. Not any one of them had any real choice once they aged out of the orphanage. They’d had two choices, the Demoncorps or panhandling on the streets.
Kiki paused in her task and faced the darkness that stretched across the horizon. How she cursed the Cicatrix and all the pain that it had brought into her life. All she’d wanted was to keep her friends safe.
And she’d failed.
Kiki knelt next to a dead yearling, her obsidian machete gripped tight in one hand. Kiki pressed the dull eyes shut and stayed for a moment to pray. She hadn’t prayed in years. But she’d done so twice within the span of the last twenty-four hours. She figured now was as good a time as any to start.
Once Kiki had worked through the entirety of sector seven with no signs of Yarixa, she moved on to the other sectors. It was nightfall by the time she finished sector one and still hadn’t found her friend.
Kiki made her way toward Commander Ramirez’s tent, to file her report when Luna found her.
Luna was breathless as she ran towards Kiki. “I heard what happened and came as soon as I could.”
Kiki’s heart clenched at the sight of Luna. How was Kiki supposed to tell her about Yari? How was Kiki supposed to even tell herself? Feeling lost and a little disoriented from the lack of sleep, Kiki simply patted Luna stiffly on the arm and continued to carve a path toward Commander Ramirez’s tent.
Confused, Luna grabbed Kiki’s hand and pulled her to a stop. “What happened to your face?”
Dumbfounded, Kiki touched her face, the movement hollow. When she pulled her hand back, her fingertips were covered in white and black paint. Kiki’s eyes welled. “Yari painted my face for the carnival.”
Luna turned her head left in right as if looking for someone. “Speaking of, where is she?” Luna asked.
Kiki’s eyes watered at the question and she hung her head. She didn’t know. That was the problem. There was no body. Nothing on this side of the wall or the other. That was perhaps the worst part. She didn’t have the answer.
“Kiki?” Luna asked and stooped down to see Kiki’s eyes.
Kiki couldn’t face her friend. It was too much. She shook her head.
Luna stood there motionless as the shock of understanding washed over her like a tsunami. Then, her face contorted into one of misery and she pressed a hand over her mouth as a wail escaped. “No, please, no” She started to run towards the Wall.
Kiki pulled her back. “She’s not there.”
Luna looked around frantic as if doing so would somehow manifest their friend.
Kiki glanced around herself, feeling lost. “She isn’t anywhere.”
Luna began peppering her with questions. Had Kiki checked the infirmary?
What about the other sectors.
What about the supply building? Kiki could have missed her.
Yes. And no one had seen Yarixa since. Kiki had asked.
Luna gripped the sides of her head with both hands. “I don’t understand.”
But there wasn’t anything about their situation that was so hard to understand. Not really. It was just that neither Kiki nor Luna were willing to face the truth. Not until they saw a body. Not until they had no choice but to accept it.
Together, they walked into the Commanders tent. It was abuzz with activity as Slayers, attendants and yearlings alike ran in and out.
Kiki shoved her way through the heavy throng of people amassed inside.
Solana stood over a map of the camp and the points of the breach. All seven sectors had red flags pinned to them.
A Slayer with long braided hair was briefing Solana on the current outlook. Kiki waited patiently for the brief to end, but she decided that she couldn’t wait any longer.
“Commander Ramirez,” Kiki interrupted the Slayer briefing Solana.
“Wait your turn,” Solana said, not even looking up to acknowledge Kiki.
“The camp in Dolores reports similar numbers,” the Slayer continued to tell Solana.
Kiki’s anger boiled in her stomach. She needed answers and she needed them now! Kiki slammed her hand against Solana’s desk. “Listen to me!”
Solana peered up, her features a mask of displeasure. “Slayer Xochicale?” she said, her voice dripping with annoyance.
If it had been any other time, Kiki would have felt a small sort of victory over Solana calling her by her new title. But this was not the time for ego.
“Yarixa is missing,” Kiki said as she fought back the tears that threatened to spill over.
Solana’s usually stoic demeanor faltered for a moment before she quickly recovered and donned her typical mask of detachment. “Thank you for reporting in. She’ll be honored with the rest of our Slayers killed in action.”
Kiki couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “No. She’s not dead, Commander. She’s missing.”
Solana’s eyes narrowed. “There is no missing, Quirera. There is killed in action and there is wounded.”
Kiki shook her head violently. “No, I’ve searched the whole camp. I went through the entire Wall. She isn’t here.”
Solana seemed to contemplate for a moment. “If what you’re saying is true, then perhaps there is a third explanation for her disappearance. One that you aren’t bothering to consider.”
Kiki and Luna exchanged a confused look. What was Solana getting at?
Solana moved a square piece on the map in front of her. “If Yarixa isn’t anywhere in camp, and she’s not one of the deceased. Then the only logical explanation is that she deserted.” With that, Solana tossed the wargaming piece off the map and let it roll to the ground.
Kiki felt like she’d been punched in the gut.
“She’d never do that,” Luna spoke up. “Yari was loyal to the Corps.”
Solana examined them both with her steely gaze. “She was also a shoddy Slayer and wasn’t going to graduate this year.”
Kiki and Luna exchange another confused look. “What do you mean she wasn’t going to graduate?” Kiki asked, a sense of dread rising in her chest.
“Didn’t she tell you?” Solana turned from the map to retrieve something from behind her. “I thought the three of you were close?”
“Tell us what?” Kiki growled as she stepped around the desk that separated her from within strangling distance of Solana.
Solana looked down on Kiki, a glimmer of pity in her eyes. “I issued Yarixa a notice of delayed graduation weeks ago. I’m surprised she didn’t share this.”
Kiki felt like a bucket of ice-cold laundry water was poured on her head. “No.” Kiki took a stunned step away. Even if Solana was telling the truth, Yari wouldn’t—she couldn’t. “I don’t believe you.”
Solana shrugged at that moment and no other gesture of dismissal had ever infuriated Kiki more. “I don’t know what else to tell you. The facts are there as plain as day. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have larger problems to deal with.” Solana brushed past Kiki and resumed talking with the Slayer who’d been briefing her earlier.
Kiki let Luna lead her out of the tent. Once in the freezing cold, Kiki whirled on Luna. “Did you know?”
“Me?” Luna asked a hand pressed to her chest as if the very question was offensive. “Of course not. I wouldn’t keep something like that a secret.”
“Wouldn’t you though?” Kiki felt like her world was spiraling.
“No.” Luna drew back from Kiki, the hurt clear on her face. “If I had known, I would have convinced her to tell you.” At the look of distrust on Kiki’s face, Luna added. “I. Didn’t. Know.”
Kiki growled in frustration. “She wouldn’t desert. That’s not possible.” She started to walk at a brisk pace. She didn’t know where she was going, all Kiki knew was that she had to keep moving or else the truth would catch up to her. And that was the last thing she wanted at this moment.
“Let’s stop and think about this a minute,” Luna said, breathless to catch up to Kiki.
“She didn’t do it,” Kiki snapped.
“I agree with you,” Luna said, pulling on Kiki’s arm to make her stop. “But we need to think about this logically. What sector was she assigned to last night?”
“And you said you checked the whole sector?”
“Yes. I checked and double-checked.”
Luna contemplated this for a moment, her eyes moving as if seeing events unfold in her mind’s eye. “Did you check the no-go zone?”
“Yes,” Kiki said, throwing her arms in the air out of sheer frustration and the need to move. “The bodies that were down there were brought up. She wasn’t among them.”
“No. I mean. Did you go down there yourself? Physically?”
Kiki shook her head. Admittedly, she hadn’t thought of that.
Luna’s face brightened. “Then that’s where we start.”
Kiki followed Luna back to sector seven and allowed a flutter of hope to blossom in her chest.