Part 36 - The Huntress

The huntress ran up the tree. One, two, three steps - so practiced and paced she paid hardly any attention to them. That’s not right. In truth, she paid more attention to these quick steps than I have paid to anything in my life, but so little it seemed to her by comparison to how much attention she had left to pay elsewhere. For that was her gift, her thing, her superpower: focus.

Pressing a final foot into the trunk, she leapt over the lava, without fear or fault. Her hands grabbed the high branch and her legs swung up and around. She flipped and landed with her feet cradled over the bough. Her long, dark coat fell into place behind her, the high split down the back breaking precisely over the branch, giving the effect of two wagging tails - a visual metaphor, ready to remind any onlookers that she was twice as graceful as a cat. Of course, there would be no onlookers, for she was twice as stealthy as one, too.

Every muscle, every hair, every thought fell into perfect balance, grasped tightly in her unerring control. She had had teachers - masters of their arts, martial and otherwise - who had wanted her to give up some of that control, to accept that she couldn’t command the wind or shoot an arrow through a star or some other flowery figurative folly for which she had no use. Maybe they couldn’t, but they were not her. She had proven that in the end, when she had bested each and every one of them at their own craft. One day, not too far from this one, she would be twice as good at everything as any person or cat had ever been.

She flicked the clutch of cloth that dangled from the branch just as a clock sounded in her head - calling out the mark of time she had been awaiting. This precise timing had been her first mastery, when she was a child stowed away in the hull of a pirate ship. The lava below lurched around, beginning its backtracking pilgrimage to that holy mountain top whence it had come. The wind turned as well, retracing the winding maze of the treetops and their leaves. A hawk soared backward overhead and a squirrel on a nearby branch spat out its lunch. Still the bit of cloth swung in the motion she had set it on, as unaffected by the forces of time as she herself.

She gave the cloth a sharp look and it let go of the branch, drifting slowly to the ground below. Or that’s how it appeared. Actually, a knife fell into her hand, cut the cloth from the tree, and returned to its home within her sleeve so fast and fluid that it was nearer to impossible than to noticable. So lucky you have me, then.

When she leapt from the branch the lava was still beneath her feet, covering the spot where she would land. Nevertheless, by the time she hit the ground the molten rock had retreated to a safe distance (safe for it). Whether she reached the land or it reached up in space to cradle her is a question left as an exercise of philosophy for the diligent reader. In any case, she came smoothly to her feet and held one hand half-way to the sky. I’d tell you which one, but she said I can’t. The gesture was not lazy, nor did it seem to cost her any effort. It precisely was. The cloth came to rest in her waiting palm as she surveyed the surrounding scene.

Two pairs of footprints raced out from between the larger stones. They were unfaded, preserved in time like a bubble in amber. That made it easy to follow them, but impossible to know how long ago the idiots who’d left them had been here. Still, based on what she’d been able to get out of the people in the village, she wasn’t long behind them.

She had examined the trail of prints closely when she first came upon it. Outside of the village, there had been three sets - one of which had mysteriously disappeared. She now understood that was because of the time loop here. Whoever had left the third set had been affected. Since that person wasn’t still at the edge of the loop zone, doomed to bounce back at the end of every reversal, their friends (or, as she suspected, cronies) had helped them make it out.

The two pairs of tracks remaining were from an older gentleman - and she was sure he was quite gentle - and a young woman coping with a bevvy of injuries, probably a few years older than her. She had guessed more about them as well, based entirely on their footprints, but most of it was inconsequential, which is basically how she thought of them as people anyhow. Her sister had been the other set, the one that had disappeared, but she would find those tracks again. She had no doubt.

She never had doubt when it came to matters of what she could or would do. That’s something her old masters had always failed to understand. One of them, trying to tame her, had said once that the world was a river and all the people stones within it. He told her that there are two types of stones in a river. There are the pebbles, buffeted and battered by the current - rolled along endlessly to the sea by their troubles. Then there are boulders, dug into the bed, holding their spot no matter what comes. They are still buffeted by the current, eroded and smoothed as the years and the waters roll by, but they hold fast.

She laughed thinking of it now, as she had laughed when he first said it to her. She wasn’t a stone in that - or any - metaphor. Stones are stagnant - unmoving, ungrowing.

Naya Sakura was the river.

She brushed back her coat, shoving both hands into the pockets of her pants. Depositing the bit of cloth from her [redacted] hand, she pulled a small silver disk out from her pocket. It was tarnished and permanently closed, but the mechanisms inside still worked as perfectly as the day she found it. She clutched the watch, feeling the tick tick that had saved her all those years ago when she was a scared little girl trembling in the darkest, dampest corners of a wooden ship.

Sakura tucked the pocket watch back into its namesake. Sentiment could not interfere with her mission. Her world needed her, once again, and she would not let it down. She wasn’t sure what her sister had done, but she was going to stop it, no matter what.

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