Ander - Part 5: Subchapter 81

Story by Contrast on SoFurry

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Nilia's muscles ached and her lungs burned with every inhale. She was cold and tired, but the weight on her back was a constant reminder not to slow down. She could feel his blood running down her spine, the smell of it so thick and cloying she could barely breathe.

How could Shekka do this to her own son? she wondered for the hundredth time. How could she do something like this and call it 'love'?

She gritted her teeth and kept going, walking over jagged stones half-buried in snow without slowing down.

How much further? It felt like they had been running through the Cora's stomach for hours. Probably they had.

Thoughts of failure started to worm their way into her mind, all the different ways this journey could end in tragedy.

What if they were denied entry into the land of the Foxes?

No, she couldn't let herself think that way. The Foxes would help. They had to. There was no other way. She'd get down on her hands and knees and beg them to help, if it came to that.

But what if their healers were unable to help Hezzi?

Nilia growled and hastened through the twists and turns, completely ignoring the ache in her arms and calves and the stinging cold in her fingers and toes, fighting through it all. The healers would save him, she was sure of it. All she had to do was get him there. That was her job now, and she would not fail. She refused to fail. Not again.

But what will I tell Hezzi when he wakes up, and there is no brother there to greet him? No Ander... just emptiness and despair? He still has hope, so much hope it's scary... He doesn't know how to face such crushing loneliness.

She bit down on her tongue hard enough to draw blood and pushed those thoughts deep down where they belonged, down in the dark with all her fears and doubts. Now was not the time to be weak. She had to be strong, stronger than she's ever been in her entire life. She had to keep going, no matter what.

She had to save him.

The walls of stone slowly receded and the path widened, mirrored by the long shred of blue sky snaking above their heads. Nilia put on a desperate burst of speed, rounded a snowy boulder and...

And the mountain was simply gone. The sheer vertical walls that had loomed over them this entire time simply stopped short. There were trees up ahead, packed tightly together down a gentle slope. She couldn't believe it.

They had made it to the other side.

As she stood in awestruck silence, staring at the natural curtain of green and white, Hezzi's arms tightened around her neck and a small moan escaped his lips, his breath so warm against her ear.

"Hezzi?" she said, almost delirious with happiness. "Are you awake?"

He opened his eyes for a brief second, then let them fall shut again. The poor child must be exhausted. "Are we there yet?" he asked, his voice so soft she could barely hear.

"We're almost there, Hezzi. Almost. Can you hold on just a little bit longer?"

"Can I see Ander...?"

She took in breath to answer, but stopped.

Ander is dead. He must be. You're perfectly healthy, and yet you're almost dead on your feet. Do you honestly expect Ander to have made it this far? He could barely stand the last time you saw him. It would have taken him days to drag his broken body through the pass. Not even the greatest of miracles could have seen him through such an ordeal. You might have walked right over his corpse without even realizing it, buried deep beneath the snow.

Ander is dead.

Nilia did what she always did when she felt the bitter sting of tears in her eyes. She locked them away. "Yes, Hezzi," she said, smiling. "We're going to go see him right now, so you'd better hang on tight, okay? Just hang on, and I promise you, I promise you we'll go see him together. He'll be so happy, I just know it. So you just hang on, just a little while longer."

She felt him move his face up and down against her shoulder, heard his soft whisper: "Okay, Nilia."

There was not a shred of doubt in him, and she loved him for it.

Maybe his hope would be enough for them both.


This damn carving. Ander knew he was cursing himself with this thing, making it out to be bigger and bigger each day it remained unfinished, but he had already cleared the pathways of snow and now he didn't have anything left to procrastinate with.

The little carving stared up at him with the smooth, blank space where his eyes were supposed to go, waiting for his knife with eternal patience, waiting to become whole.

Ander closed his eyes, shutting out the too-bright world and all its distractions. He focussed on the blackness behind his closed eyelids until everything else just melted away. It was a simple trick he had perfected over the years of trying to escape his old life, hiding from the cold stares of his people. All it took was one minute, and he could replace reality with anything he could imagine. Now he used this technique to borrow from his memory in a way his frantic, wakeful mind could not.

He could see Hezzi as he was before, running down the winding footpaths of the village, flitting between the tents like a ghost. Mother had sent him on errands again, and he was trying to finish them all in one go so he could spend the rest of the day with his brothers.

Hey, wait up, Ander said, reaching out to him, but that kid was so damn fast. All he could do was catch glimpses of that grey tail as he kept disappearing around every bend and corner. Hey, Hezzi! I want to talk to you!

He chased after his little brother, not trying to control this conscious dream in any way, but merely watching to see where his own mind would take him.

Tents blurred by in flashes of red and brown, decorated in styles that used to be so ingrained in his everyday life he could tell who lived inside simply by the patterns.

He came out into the village centre, and Hezzi was standing right there, staring up at the Cora statue. He wasn't moving.

Hezzi? Ander touched his little brother's shoulder, but pulled back immediately, almost in disgust. That shoulder felt weird, somehow. Cold and hard, not yielding like flesh at all.

Hezzi turned around, and what he saw made Ander take a frightened step back, trying his very hardest not to scream out loud.

Hezzi had no face. It was as if someone had taken a patch of Wolf-skin the exact same shade of his fur and stitched it over his head. Where his eyes were supposed to be there was only an empty, featureless dip. His muzzle was just a bland extrusion with no mouth or nose. It moaned from somewhere deep inside, stretching the skin of its cheeks as it struggled to breathe. It reached out blindly, coming for him, coming to take his face...

Ander opened his eyes and he was back on his quaint little bench in the real world, perfectly safe. Outwardly nothing much had happened. He had simply closed his eyes for a bit and that was it, but on the inside his heart was beating at a frantic pace and his stomach was churning with nausea. It was difficult to breathe and a cold sweat had broken out on his forehead. He looked down at the little carving in his hand, and the carving somehow looked right back with its blank, eyeless face.

Ander sighed and put it down, knowing that he'd never be able to get any work done after that horrible daydream (if you could even call it that). Maybe he should go for a walk around town, talk to some of the Foxes, see if anybody needed help with anything, or maybe just to chat. It would help get his mind off things, like how much he missed his little brother, how much he worried about...

He saw the shapes emerging from the woods on the other side of the valley, much too large to be Foxes. His mouth went dry and dis heart stopped dead in his chest, then continued at double-speed. He stood up, meaning to run inside and grab his bow, but there was something strange about those shapes, something...

Ander dropped his knife and sprinted straight down the hill, bypassing the looping path entirely, running as fast as he could through the snow.


After spending her entire life inside the walls of the village and the confined forests growing in the mountain's shadow, walking through that final line of trees and out into the open valley was like stepping into a truly different world. It was clear and open, blanketed in pure white snow as far as the eye could see. It made Nilia feel small and vulnerable, completely exposed, almost naked.

Sorrin walked up beside her, his mouth slightly open. "By the Cora, look at those..."

There were strange, blocky constructions of wood and stone deeper inside the valley, most of them with plumes of smoke issuing from tubes at the top. There were Fox children running along the paths, laughing and throwing snowballs at each other, but there were no walls, no watchtowers, no guards, nothing to protect them at all. It was as if they simply assumed there wasn't anything to be protected from.

This was the world Ander had fought for, a world where the concept of danger held no sway.

Nilia suddenly felt like she did not belong here at all. What right did they have to set foot in this world? There was so much snow, it just kept going on and on forever, completely pure and unmarked. To trample through it all with their dirty feet... to drag evil into this place of peace...

It felt like her very presence here was a terrible sin.

And that's when she saw him. He was just a light brown speck barrelling down the tallest hill on the outskirts of the village, but she would have recognized him from any distance, because no other Wolf could have made her feel this way, like she was flying and drowning at the same time, like she was frozen on the outside and burning on the inside.

No other Wolf could have made her feel so ashamed for losing all hope.

That was the closest Nilia has come to crying since the day of the storm, all those many years ago, standing in the rain, all alone, while everyone else laughed and cheered, oblivious to the nameless little girl staring up at the thundering sky.

"Hezzi!" his voice travelled across the open expanse, ecstatic, bursting with joy. "Hezziiiiii!!"

Hearing his name, Hezzi squirmed against her back. He moaned and opened his eyes, blinking against the harsh glare. "Ander...?"

"Hey, kid," Nilia said. "We're here."

The look on his face as he saw his brother come running through the snow was like seeing the sun breaking through the clouds. His eyes first widened, then teared up. "Ander!" he yelled, and to Nilia's great surprise, he actually tried to climb down.

"Whoa, Hezzi, no! Stop! Wait!"

It was no use. He squirmed and wiggled and simply slid free, dropping down in a puff of snow. "Ander!" He started to walk, limping so badly he was almost lurching along. His back was a crimson mess, and although Nilia knew she should put a stop to this, it somehow felt wrong to do so. He had worked just as hard as the rest of them, maybe even harder. Did he not deserve to take these last few steps on his own?

She watched him walk, leaving behind the footprints she was so afraid to make herself, and she wondered if she was seeing a quiet kind of miracle. Even though he was hurt, he was smiling. Even though he was crying, he was happy. He was able to show exactly how he felt with acts she had long since abandoned, and she suddenly found herself feeling strangely envious.

She wished to be able to join them, to share in their tears of happiness, to hold them and be close, but she didn't dare. This was their moment, and she didn't want to ruin it. She was an outsider to this world, she simply didn't belong. So she did what she always did.

She took her weakness and she pushed it deep down.

And she locked it away.


Ander ploughed through the snow and embraced his brother, crying so hard he could barely breathe through his hitching sobs. A dark part of him he could never bury completely had believed he would never, ever see Hezzi again, that time would simply move on, and the little carving on his shelf would never be finished, that the seasons would change, but the face would not. And eventually even his memories would fade away and become blank, so that he would never see his little brother's face ever again, not even in his dreams.

"Hezzi," he said, holding him tight, almost as if to confirm that this was really happening. "I missed you so much!"

"I missed you, too," Hezzi said and reached around to return the hug, but his grip was so frightfully weak he could barely feel it.

"Hezzi?" Ander pulled back a little and got the shock of his life. There were four vertical gashes running down his little brother's face, starting from the forehead and ending at the base of his muzzle. It looked like someone had slashed him with a gardening fork.

Or a set of claws.

"Hezzi, what happened to you!? Who did this?" He reached for Hezzi's face, but received an even greater shock when he noticed his hand had come back bloody.

A bloody hand.

No... Oh please, please no...

Feeling a greater sense of dread than he has ever known, Ander leaned around his little brother's shaking body. Hezzi had one of Mother's crude leaf bandages on his back, and it was absolutely covered with blood, slowly running down his waist in semi-coagulated rivulets. You could barely even tell his fur used to be grey back there.

Hezzi turned his face away, as if embarrassed, and Ander pulled him in close again, holding him gently, feeling like the worst big brother in the world.

"I'm sorry, Hezzi," he said. "I shouldn't have left you in that place. I wasn't there to protect you. I'm so sorry..." Ander looked up, really noticing the others for the first time.

Mellah and Renna were standing by the trees, holding hands. Renna had terrible bumps and bruises on her arms and legs and her face was covered in cuts and scratches.

Sorrin was carrying Danado on his back, despite the nasty-looking bite in his forearm, and Danado...

They took his claws... Ander thought with rising horror, staring at the nubs where his fingers and toes ended short.They cut them out...

And then there was Nilia. She was the strongest, toughest Wolf he knew. She didn't seem to be injured, but there was something in her eyes, something he's never seen before.

It was pity.

It took him less than a second to put together the pieces. It was still morning, which meant that they must have dared the pass in the dead of night. They were all beat up and dirty, some of them literally unable to stand, which meant that they must have moved at speed without stopping to rest. The wound on Hezzi's back was deep, which meant that he should not have been moved, and yet here he was, crying into his shoulder. They would not have put him through something like this unless there had been no other choice. They had been _forced_to move.

No, they had been forced to flee.

"What happened?" Ander asked. His gaze travelled from face to face, trying to read the truth in their eyes, but it was too well hidden. "Did Father send you? And where's Lana? Did she not come with you?"

Danado turned away and shut his eyes as if he had been struck. It was a small movement, but it took all the unease in Ander's heart and turned it into full-fledged panic.

"What happened? Will someone please answer me!?" He didn't mean to shout so loud, but that's the way it came out.

Nilia stepped forward, looking strangely out of place for some reason. She was fidgeting with her necklace, and she wouldn't look him in the eye. "Ander? I... I don't know how to tell you this, but..." This halting, unsure way of speaking wasn't like Nilia at all. In the past, if she wanted to say something, she said it directly. The way she was speaking right now made it feel like she was trying to soften some kind of blow, and that only made Ander even more afraid. She opened her mouth, but, unable to find the right words, closed it again. She bowed her head and looked down at her feet instead.

If not even Nilia could bear to tell him, then something was terribly, terribly wrong.

Hezzi pulled back. His eyes were bloodshot, but unwavering. "Ander... Father, he..."


Ander shook his head, refusing to believe it. "No... No, Hezzi, don't say that."

His gaze did not falter. These were not the eyes that had peered at him through the gap in the village wall. These eyes seemed older, almost ancient, filled with pain. Worst of all, they seemed used to it.

"No!" Ander cried. "Father promised! He promised he'd take care of you! He promised he'd take care of all of you! I know he'd never break that promise!"

Hezzi did not say anything, but he didn't have to. The way his tired eyes filled with fresh tears was more than enough, and Ander suddenly found himself wishing he'd lower those eyes like the rest, just look away instead of piercing him with that stare.

It was a wish he regretted, because it was granted immediately.

Hezzi's eyes became glassy and unfocussed, then rolled back into his skull, showing the whites. Before Ander knew what was happening, he had pitched forward into his brother's arms, his whole body horribly limp.

He was cold. So terribly cold.

"Hezzi!?" Ander screamed. He gave him a small shake, but his head simply lolled from side to side like a wilted sunflower. "Hezzi!? Hezziiiii!!"

This is the end of Part 5! Woooo!! Unfortunately, I am now dead. Yes, stone cold dead. Part 5 and its 81 subchapters killed me, and the one typing this right now is my well-trained ostrich larvae, Chompers. But fret not! My death is only temporary, and I intend to get back into the swing of things after my corpse goes through a rigorous reanimation ritual, which just so happens to take the form of a short vacation, during which it will be subject to long hours in bed watching Monster Musume and drinking Pepsi through a Silly Straw.

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Ander - Part 6: Subchapter 187

187 Kiana didn't think she had ever been in a formation quite as lopsided as this. She had Hezzi's arm slung over her shoulder, and she, in turn, had her arm slung over Valery's shoulder, whose knees were just about shaking under all the weight. Hezzi...

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Ander - Part 6: Subchapter 186

186 _Vallah! Get down from there before you break your neck!_ _But there's this huge bug up here, Father! You gotta see it! Its fangs are like, this big!_ She held her arms as far apart as they would go to indicate the sheer size of the mystery...

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Ander - Part 6: Subchapter 185

185 A deep, low-pitched creaking noise filled the mill. It was the kind of sound you'd hear right before a tree finally fell to the axe. It was the unnerving groan of wood under strain. Mateo had been pushing his shoulder up against what felt like a...

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