They discovered the world through gradual shifts of colour. Manticore was institution blue, grey and white that became a near claustrophobic press of unwavering stolidity. The creche walls had been grey-blue, the children clothed in grey, their attendants echoes of each other in off-white uniforms. They had left the confines of grey-blue-white monotony for a spread of colour, a thousand shades of green arched high above their heads. Undulating green vegetation, dark and deep enough to swallow them whole. Moss clung to rough tree trunks, piles of stones, blurring shape and meaning. Leaves lay as a heavy, decaying carpet at their booted feet. Thick, twisting roots arched up from beneath dark earth, laying in wait across the busy ground. Twigs snapped beneath their feet, across hunched bodies and small faces. The scent of earth, remembered rain and decay lay heavy across their senses. An immense stretch of frozen time spilled out behind them, before them; they were small and already forgotten, walking through the beginning of time, feet picking across ancient roots.
Fallen leaves calmly accepted the blood splattered upon them, soaking into earth. Leaves and branches twitched and swayed above them, a quick dart of sunshine fading towards the ground, a play of light and shadow across naked bone. Split flesh, scraps of memory clinging to destruction. Small and sick, they trembled amongst disinterested trees. Animal senses, and they knew the scent of fear, pain, blood, body's loss of control. Insides spilled into the open, the hot rush of the body's secrets into still air. Deep breath between the trees, the sudden rush of death into lungs and one, two, three of the children turned and heaved their emotions into cradling roots.
Swallowing back sour heat rising at the back of her throat, one stepped forward. Trembling fingers across the leader's shoulder. What happened here? her lips formed soundless words. Fear crept the length of her spin, stirred at the short hairs at the base of her skull. Strained her ears against waiting silence.
Is this part of the exercise? one suggested weakly, trembling hand swiping at slicked lips. Are we supposed to finish, still?
No, no! another gasped. They wouldn't do this to our own. They wouldn't make us see this. She shook her head, blinked back tears and snuffled back the wetness at her nose. They're dead. Dead. Something happened here and we're all alone and I'm _scared_.
Their leader turned to them, eyes narrowed, jaws clenched in a faithful imitation of the man who had sent them into this world of arching green and crawling stillness. Be quiet! he roared with a flash of calloused hands. Small blond head cocked slightly to the side, lips curving inwards, meeting and pressing into a straight line. Remember your training, a soldier's words at a little boy's mouth. Whatever did this may still be nearby.
Wide eyes, quivering lips. We gotta get out of here. Hurry! Hurry! Twitching terror shivering up the length of slight legs, trembling rebellion against the training and caution that held her still.
Dark haired girl, all wide eyed watchfulness and hidden thoughts, held out her hand in a gesture of comfort. Shhh, calm down. She swept harsh words from their leader's mouth with a quick flicker of her eyes. We're gonna be fine. We stick together, and we'll figure this out and get back to base in record time. Quick pull of lips upwards, lips closed over teeth.
He rubbed at his face, fingers finding the memory of the bruise against his cheekbone. Serious little boy's old man's eyes found his responsibility, miniature warriors in trembling stillness. Rapid flow of thoughts and feelings beneath his leader's mask and he'd take care of them, take punishment for their shared fear. He nodded, decisive. Let's head back. Keep your eyes open. Anything sounds or looks or feels weird, you tell me, okay.
The world had gone still, the hum and snap of silence, the static hiss of empty air. Bristling furred animals woke behind their eyes, quivering nostrils, bodies slunk low to the ground and the children trailed one behind the other with the taste of wrongness sharp against their tongues. The wind whispered words their minds could not grasp, their hearts thudding as the thousand shades of leaves overhead rustled their own secrets. Flickering flashes of light grew pale and soft until leaves slid open above them to a glimpse of darkness.
Did you hear that? a low hiss of frantic air and they slid into cautious stillness.
You're imagining things, one insisted, a nervous rub of white knuckles against open palm. A quick glare shot in his direction because the girl had always had sharp senses, could catch the birth of sound, its very conception.
I heard it, the leader affirmed moments later.
Closer now, the girl said, a whimper tugging at the words and making them small and worried. Rubbed her palms against her thighs until flesh turned hot with friction. Bit her lip and choked a frightened wail in her throat, forced it back downwards until it pressed so hard at her chest that she thought her ribs would crack. Here. It's here.
Shift of small figures suited in black and green, a circle in the darkness, back to back with their faces towards the trees. Just like training sessions, one boy said, a soothing, aching plea. Lips pulled back, child's animal growl, shaking brown fists curled in defense before a narrow chest.
Speed, burst of motion and fury and nothing, nothing, _nothing_ like training sessions in a grey-walled gym on neat blue mats on scuffed floor. Blur of something before their eyes, circle cracking, folding in on itself. Screamed agony, triumphant howl, and fresh blood splayed across them. Children's nightmares cracked through training, small soldiers shrieked their fear and confusion. Flailing limbs, a mad scramble away from life spilling out across leaves and dirt and roots. Bubbling gasp, death rattle towards stillness. Speed and fury and bloodied fangs fade to black, unseen amongst shielding trees, ease of superiority and a temporary pause.
_Move_! and they hadn't waited for the order, cracked out of defensive huddle and lunged forward on waves of fear. Silently cruel trees, roots reaching for careless feet, and a little girl fell trailing a cry behind her. Scrapped hands rested against hard earth, pushed herself upwards, dirt and tears finding a home upon rounded cheeks. Dark haired girl at her shoulder, pulling her upright, tugging her forward. Breathing a sudden agony, tearing through labouring bodies. Hand curled desperately around that of her friend's. Don't let me go, don't let go! A squeeze, silent reassurance as a fresh scream tore out of the night behind them.
It's faster than us, stronger, too, their leader gasped.
What'd we do? one asked, their fellow's blood made wet upon his face with sweat and tears.
They'll come for us, they won't leave us out here alone with that thing, one of the girls insisted. They'll come, they will, and we'll go back home and everything will be better. I wanna go home, right now, _please_.
Shut up! They don't know where we are. Nobody knows that thing is here. We've gotta fight, or hide, or something. Quick, pleading look towards the boy before them. What do we do?
Don't let your enemies choose where they confront you, the dark haired girl offered. We've gotta hole up somewhere, pick somewhere where we've got the advantage. A nervous glance over her shoulder. Fast. Looked back towards their leader, waiting impatiently for approval. He nodded at her, a flash of relief between them.
Jumping movements, inhuman speed; silent child-soldiers, blood like war-paint splattered against their faces; building a fortress, a pile of rocks and branches. Some of them squatted on the ground, fires growing between their moving hands, heated flicker of smoke and orange-red-yellow flame. Fire dancing at the ends of shattered branches, held out from small bodies, a ward against that which stalked them. Fingers wrapped around rocks, dirt caked beneath short nails, fingertips brushing against sharp edged stones.
No! No ifs. This has gotta work. Hey, an unexpected brush of finger against the curve of her shoulder, I'm not going to let you down, okay?
I hear it, a breathy whisper wrapped around a shriek. The others listened, tensed when the girl spoke again. Closer. Here. Voice drowned out beneath a climbing wail, hot breathed blood and death twisting against a curling tongue. Tapered off, sudden angry silence. I don't think it's happy with us.
Well, I'm not happy with it.
You aren't as frightening as it.
Quick flash of blunt white teeth. Just wait and see.
Screaming towards them, rocks flung with desperate strength, solid blows. Thunk against rapid moving body, fell into darkness to lay among raised roots. Torch swung, weapon and warning, fire trailing through the air. A shrill cry as fangs found a thin arm, clamped down hard. Rock in hand, jagged point, swung down hard. Fell back, spurting blood, crying curses he'd overheard after classes. Scrambled backwards, arm held against his chest, his brothers and sisters around him. Squeezed down on torn flesh, felt bloodied meat squish beneath the pressure, held in blood. Watched embers tear free, wink in the darkness, drift.
Aim for the--! Animal screech as rock tore through golden eye.
Snarling blond boy, curling fist, enraged blow. Snapping fangs, flesh over knuckles curled and split, caught against sharp teeth. Didn't stop, would do whatever it took, no matter how often it took and he would _not_ be eaten by some mangy creature! Troops at his back, and they would win, they'd take this thing, make it bleed, make it scream for small bodies lost to towering trees and reaching roots. Knock murdering fangs back into its throat, tear itself to pieces from the inside out. Animals wakened behind human eyes, loped through bodies, human animals twisting in blood.
Trailing wail, slunk away, swallowed by night and towering trees and endless green.
We won? We won!
It's still alive. We aren't safe yet.
Knelt next to toppled figure hidden behind whole bodies. Fingers at his neck, thready pulse. You're going to be fine, we won, we're safe. We'll get you back to base and they'll fix you up.
Found grey blue white welcomed dull walls hours later, sun creeping into the sky, reinforcement come with the battle done. Their injured hung between them, tireless legs slowed to a shuffle, human weakness won through genetic manipulation. Sat in the infirmary, nameless doctors and nurses prodding at torn flesh, scrapes and bruises. Weary little girl buried her face against her sister's side, shuddered loss, pain, fear into crisp grey top until a harsh command snapped her upright. Picked through their brains: what, when, where, how - describe, analyze, justify death, pain, fear, survival.
We made it, one breathed with shining eyes. We're safe. I told you everything would be fine once we made it home. Hand rose to her mouth, pressed down hard enough that teeth pressed into flesh, smothered sound.
Night, and he'd noticed an empty bed. Slipped from bed, weary but silent still, and their leader moved through darkened halls. Stood small and silent outside the infirmary, saw his brother laying still, shattered arm limp at his side. The boy won't recover full use of his arm, the white coated doctor said.
He's useless to us, the other said. Small young ancient man stood beyond the room, watched the flicker of emotion on his soldier's face. Cracked wide open, he'd heard, he'd known and they had carried him home between them for him to be dismissed. I want the autopsy performed tonight. I want every scrap of information you can gather about the creature that attacked them.
Yes, sir. Broad white back bent, hid slight boy's body. Straightened, and brown eyes had been stripped of self, stared up at white ceiling, unblinking.
Turned back, slid back into bed. Could hear the hum of instruments in his head, the tearing of flesh, cracking bone, the body's secrets spilled into stale institution air. Closed his eyes, turned onto his side and curled tight into himself. Not forever, he decided. Not for much longer, he promised quiet balls of trembling flesh beneath grey covers. Not any more.