A small town sat softly in the distance, nestled between a few shallow hills. It was one of the few towns in the northern plains large enough to trade in coin; scarcity and danger of travel in the area had prevented money from being reliably valuable throughout this part of the continent, but every so once in awhile a settlement like this grew large enough to develop an internal currency. This also meant it was one of the few places large enough to have food and water to spare, for the right price.
Hanno was a Watcher, a horseback-mounted rider that patrolled the perimeter of this one-in-a-thousand settlement from utop the hills that surrounded it. The sun would soon set, so his shift had begun. Hanno was a thiro, a species humans arrogantly referred to as “like a people-animal mix,” but he had to admit he saw where the comparison had merit. He had many cat-like features, and if you took away his fur, his claws, his ears and his eyes, Hanno would probably look very much like a human man.
Those eyes were why he was out here tonight, for like a cat he saw excellently in the darkness. Out in the northern plains, he was both predator and prey, so his eyes were trained to spot and study any movement they picked up on, no matter how small. Powerful beasts roamed the night, and should one get too close to the city Hanno would need to alert the militia and ride out to intercept it.
It took little time for Hanno to spot his first movement of the evening, but to his relief it seemed to be no monster. Something far more unusual had entered his field of view: a desperate, hungry young woman, trudging slowly towards the city. Hanno took out his lanturn, and communicated with the Watchers in the city about an incoming survivor. The information was relayed around to the other Watchers on the perimeter, and Hanno was ordered to escort her into the city, to his relief. After all, the girl looked like she wouldn’t be able to make the trip on her own. As he rode in, his eyes quickly got a better view on her form.
Her skin was ghostly pale, pristine and unmarred despite the filthy rags that she wore as an excuse for a cloak. It cast an otherworldly figure, pale face marred only by the deep, dark bags that hung under her eyes. Dark hair also did its best to hide that face from view, though seemingly out of a lack of care than any likely effort on the girl’s part. She appeared fifteen, maybe sixteen years old at most, and trudged forward with a tired, almost regretful walk.
The girl didn’t notice Hanno was galloping towards her until he called out, which startled her enough to make her nearly fall over. Thankfully, she managed to remain standing; Hanno would never forgive himself if he’d made a first impression like that.
“Hoy, there! Miss, are you alright?” he asked. The straggling, half-delirious girl gave him a hurried nod as he pulled up alongside her.
“Titans, you poor thing,” Hanno continued. “You look terrible. How did you make it here? Are there any other survivors? Please, let me help you into town…”
He extended a hand to assist the girl in climbing onto his horse, but she recoiled back from it.
“I-I’m fine,” she stammered out, quiet voice rough from her parched throat. “I’ll walk.”
“Please, I insist,” the Hanno said, dismounting his steed, “You’re in awful shape. We should get you back–”
“I said I’m fine!” the girl insisted, taking a few steps back. It looked as though she was screaming, but the volume was barely a normal speaking tone. “Stay away! Don’t… don’t touch me!”
Hanno stopped as instructed, staring with worry at the young woman. Her terrified eyes stared back, though he had no inkling what they were terrified of. It looked as though she had gone for so long without sleep, her eyes could be seeing him as some fever-dream monster. He could not leave her, of course. It was his duty to see people in and out of the town safely, and even within the perimeter of the Watchers it was always possible a small beast or two had slipped by.
“Alright,” he conceded diplomatically, “you can walk. I won’t touch you. Is it okay if I walk beside you?”
The girl swallowed dry, and nodded. Then, she returned her wobbly march back to town, glancing over her shoulder to ensure the man and his horse never got too close.
Goodness, she was in terrible shape. Hanno didn’t know a whole lot about human medicine but he was pretty sure it was bad if their skin got that white. That meant they were sick, right? Or frightened? Or wait, wasn’t it red skin that was bad? Something was bad, anyway, and it had to do with skin color. The fact that she seemed barely capable of standing up was also pretty bad. He decided to strike up a conversation, and hopefully determine how sane the girl currently was.
“My name is Hanno,” he said awkwardly. “What’s yours?”
She turned to look at him, staring him up and down with mild confusion.
“Do… you have any water?” she asked.
“Oh!” Hanno said with surprise. How stupid of him, why didn’t he offer that first? He reached for his canteen. “Of course I do! Here, here. My apologies…”
He held out the canteen to her. She reached for it slowly, with the utmost care, as if it would fall apart to a wayward wind. Making sure not to touch Hanno, she took the canteen and carefully lifted it to her lips, where she proceeded to daintily sip the contents a few times until those dainty sips became greedy chugs, and the water was gone.
The girl shuddered, as if she had been freezing but stepped into a warm bath. Then, she stared at the canteen, embarrassed.
“...Sorry,” she said quietly. Hanno smiled.
“It’s quite alright!” he insisted. “Please, keep the canteen. I can get another. I’m just embarrassed I don’t have any snacks on me; we’ll have to go back to town for some real food.”
She nodded, and the two of them continued onward.
Alright, good. That was good. The girl seemed less panicked now, at least, but any actual health problems she was suffering were unlikely to be cured by chugging some water. Actually, was it a bad idea for a dehydrated person to drink an entire canteen of water in one go? Hanno didn’t know. He just looked for and fought monsters. He hoped he wasn’t screwing this up.
The girl seemed disinclined to further conversation, so they walked back to the city in silence. She was hugging herself tightly as she staggered forward, appearing more and more worried as they got closer to the city. Hanno didn’t really know a tactful way to ask about that, though, so he just stayed quiet and walked beside her, outside of arm’s reach so she didn’t get nervous.
Twenty minutes later, they arrived at the city gates. The “gates” were not particularly impressive, with the walls of the city being barely six feet high, but the defenses were solid stone and had plenty of holes for crossbowmen to shoot through or bowmen to look through as they aimed arcing shots down on beasts foolish enough to approach. Barry, another Watcher, was manning the gatehouse just inside the wall. Barry was a large, arrogant human that for some reason thought being fat was the same thing as being muscular. Sweat stained through his thick leather armor, greatly offending Hanno’s delicate nose. Although he wasn’t completely incompetent, Barry did not properly respect what it meant to be a protector of a city. He was just here to be paid. Hanno couldn’t blame him for that, but he couldn’t bring himself to like the man either.
“Oi, fuzzface!” Barry called as they approached. “You find a straggler? Damn, she don’t look so good.”
“Yes, I suspect she is starving,” Hanno responded. “Would you open the gate?”
“We’re guardsmen, Hanno, not charity workers,” Barry responded with a sneer. “She got any money? Trade goods? She sure don’t look well enough to work for pay.”
“She has money,” Hanno lied, “at least enough for a meal and a night’s stay.”
Barry shrugged and grunted, moving to open the gate doors. As they passed through, Hanno quickly separated from the girl and moved into the gatehouse.
“I also suspect she might be delirious,” Hanno whispered. “I should escort her through town, lest she cause a ruckus. Would you send out a replacement for me? I’ll be back within the hour.”
Barry’s eyes widened and a filthy grin spread across his face.
“Hanno, you sly dog,” he said, “I never thought you’d have it in ya. Sure, sure, I gotcha covered.”
Hanno thanked his co-worker and hurried to catch up with the strange girl after hitching his horse. He didn’t know what Barry had been on about, but since it was Barry he suspected he didn’t want to know. The girl hadn’t made it far, thankfully. He found her looking frantically around the main street, clearly lost.
“We should probably get you some dinner,” Hanno said as he jogged up to her. “How long have you gone without eating?”
She turned to him slowly, dark-rimmed eyes blinking once.
“I don’t know,” she responded quietly. “A very long time.”
“Well, then,” Hanno said with a smile, “Let’s make it a good one, shall we? I know just the place.”
The girl wordlessly followed him to a nearby cafe. His personal favorite, in fact, although he had mainly chosen it because he knew it was close by and open this late in the evening. A clambering bustle of patrons filled the restaurant, which immediately put the strange girl on edge, but thankfully there was a corner of the room which remained mostly empty. Hanno sat down at the table, though the girl stopped hesitantly beside it.
“I don’t have any money,” she admitted.
“I figured,” Hanno said cheerfully. “It’s fine. I can tell you’ve been through a lot, so tonight’s on me.”
“...I’m sorry,” the girl whispered.
“None of that,” Hanno responded with a smile. “I don’t want to hear it. Besides, I much prefer ‘thank you.’”
The girl nodded and sat down at the opposite end of the table. A waitress came by shortly afterward. Her name was Claudia, Hanno knew, and she was a thiro like he was. Her features resembled a doe’s rather than a cat’s, however, with spotted fur, a soft body, and a tiny tail that didn’t even peek out of her uniform. She smiled as she approached the table, although her eyes glared suspiciously at strange girl across from him.
“Hanno!” she cheerfully called to him, “I thought you were working at this hour!”
“I am, can’t you tell?” he responded with a laugh. “Picked up a straggler wandering into town, poor thing’s starved half to death. Any chance you could fix that for her?”
Claudia visibly relaxed.
“Oh, of course! You poor thing, what can I get you?”
“Um,” the girl stammered, clearly intimidated by this basic social interaction, “A-anything without meat is fine. Please.”
“Ooh, I like your taste,” Claudia responded. “I’ll get you my favorite. And rabbit stew with rye for Hanno.”
“Hey, I haven’t ordered anything yet!” Hanno protested.
“You’ve never ordered anything else and I doubt you were planning to start today. I’ll be right back, dears!”
A nearby human, clearly drunk off his gourd, chuckled as she walked away.
“I get it,” he drawled. “It’s funny because she is a deer.”
Hanno let that slide and turned his attention back to his traveling companion. The drunkard was very much a Barry sort of person.
“So, as much as I would like to see you in good health, I’m not buying you food completely out of the kindness of my heart,” he admitted. “You look like you been through some rough times, and I doubt you survived a journey through the plains by yourself. If I were to guess, I’d say you were part of a trade caravan? If so, I’m sorry, but I need to know about the kind of monsters that attacked your group. Anything you could tell me will help us prepare, should they come this way. I know it’s hard for you, but–”
“No,” the girl interrupted softly.
“Pardon? I understand if you need some time, but–”
“I wasn’t part of a trade caravan. I travel alone.”
The thin, pale girl stared at him, blinking slowly. She was uncomfortable being here. She looked so out of place, so frightened, so weak. And she looked tired, oh so tired. Yet Hanno had lived a long life on the northern plains, fighting and hunting for food and survival. Though he used his bow for both, there was a big difference between fighting and hunting: in one, you were the predator. In the other, you were the prey. You wouldn’t live long in the northern plains unless you how to tell which was which, in the blink of an eye.
Some part of Hanno knew. Here, with this frail, tiny girl, he was not the predator. No one was, and no one would be. But he ignored that part of himself. This was a girl in need, not a beast. Besides, she had just ordered a salad, for titan’s sake.
“I see,” Hanno said. “So you weren't attacked? That’s a relief.”
“I don’t really get attacked,” the girl confirmed, voice barely a whisper.
Hanno nodded, pretending to understand. Monsters were pretty indiscriminate, but he supposed avoiding them on a journey across the plains wasn’t completely impossible. Perhaps she was a mage? Casters could do all sorts of tricky things.
“That sounds very useful,” Hanno commented. “How do you accomplish that? Do you use magic?”
The girl was quiet for a while.
“I don’t know,” she eventually admitted. “Probably. I’m... I’m not doing it on purpose.”
“So, it’s natural magic! That’s always a treat. Plenty of people have strange powers like that, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. You could make impressive business as a trader if you can safely cross the plains that way.”
The girl looked away, guiltily dropping her gaze. Hanno had no time to wonder what he’d said wrong before Claudia returned, carrying an impressively-sized salad and a steaming hot bowl of stew.
“Here you are, dear, one plainswrought salad!” she said, handing down the massive bowl. “Aaaand one rabbit stew for– Eep!”
Claudia yelped in surprise as the drunk man reached over and took a firm squeeze of her bum, causing her to drop the piping-hot stew straight towards the baggy-eyed girl. Hanno’s senses kicked into overdrive as he jumped forward, reaching across the table in an effort to catch or knock the bowl away before its burning contents spilled all over the girl. He wasn’t quite as fast as gravity, though, and was forced to watch in horror as the bowl tipped in midair and deposited his dinner directly on top of the unfortunate young woman and her salad.
In an instant, it was over. With a wet splat and a clatter, the bowl of stew was strewn across the table, covering nearly the entire half of the booth the girl sat at. Immediately, Hanno looked for something to clean her up with; she was covered in burning liquid, more than enough to turn that pale body of hers a bright red (which was definitely bad for humans, Hanno was sure now). But the girl… didn’t move. She’d flinched a bit when the bowl had come careening towards her, but now she was perfectly still. She hadn’t cried out in pain, and she wasn’t cleaning herself off. Hanno looked carefully at her, and saw… she wasn’t covered in stew. Her cloak had wayward bits of soft meats and veggies strewn about, but her face, her hands, her skin was all perfectly dry.
No… that couldn’t be right. Hanno had seen the bowl tip right towards her face. She should have gotten completely soaked. In fact, he was surprised the bowl hadn’t hit her in the head. It looked like it was going to, but for some reason it kept going and landed in her… lap. As Claudia slapped the drunk man upside the face and ran off to grab towels and cold water, Hanno stood up and walked slowly around the table.
The bowl wasn’t on her lap. It wasn’t anywhere at all.
“Are… you alright?” Hanno asked.
“Yes,” the girl said. “Sorry.”
Hanno knew, sometimes, he could be pretty dense. But he wasn’t completely stupid. As tempting as it would be to write this situation off as a wacky, fortunate coincidence, Hanno’s mind was finally starting to put the pieces together, here. The girl travels alone, starving and apparently unable to take care of herself, yet isn’t devoured by monsters. She refuses to be touched, and she doesn’t actually get touched by things Hanno expected would hurt her. Plus, he kept getting this strange feeling that she was extremely dangerous.
Maybe she was extremely dangerous.
“Neoma,” the drunk man whispered in horror, apparently too startled to notice the pain of Claudia’s retaliatory assault.
Though Hanno would normally be content to ignore the man’s drunken ramblings– or more likely just toss him into the street for his disgusting behavior towards Claudia– the girl immediately reacted to the name, worry deepening on her face.
“You’re Neoma,” the drunk man repeated, shakily lifting himself to his feet. “You’re really her.”
Staring back at him, the girl slowly reached her hand forward, grabbed a fistful of salad, and shoved it into her mouth. She looked like she wanted to run, but apparently her stomach had vetoed that decision.
“You killed them,” the drunk man stammered. “The whole village, gone. Just a crater left.”
The whole cafe had more or less noticed the commotion, at this point. Eyes and ears were on their table, and Hanno didn’t know what to do about it. The girl had stopped chewing.
“It’s a lake now!” the drunk man roared, approaching the table. Hanno stepped between the two of them, holding the swaying man back. “Rain filled it and now people draw water from my baby’s grave! You monster! I… I’ll…!”
He was sobbing and crying incoherently at this point, snot and tears dripping down onto Hanno’s shoulder. That was Hanno’s chance to start escorting him out of the restaurant, and he gladly took it. Letting the man lean into him, Hanno coaxed the delirious drunk out into the street. There was definitely something going on here, but whatever it was wouldn’t be solved by a drunken rampage.
“Hanno, buddy, you gotta listen to me,” the drunk man said. Hanno didn’t have any idea who this man was and they certainly weren’t buddies, but he opted to listen anyway. “Thas Neoma in there. Moon’s Tear Neoma. She… she killed… we’re all in danger! You gotta get her outta here!”
“I will,” Hanno agreed placatingly. “Don’t worry. I’ll get her somewhere safe. You just get on home, okay?”
“It’s alright,” the girl whispered from behind him. “I was just leaving.”
Hanno turned. He hadn’t noticed her follow at all. How could he have not heard her? Smelled her, even? Then it hit him. The weird vibe of danger he felt from her: from the moment he saw her, her footsteps hadn’t been making noise. And her smell? She didn’t smell like anything.
No, that wasn’t quite right. She smelled like nothing. A profound absence, a lack of what should be. Smells and sounds that came from her direction were lessened, as if the parts that got too close to her would cease to exist.
She hadn’t been speaking quietly. Most of her voice simply failed to escape oblivion.
“Thanks for the meal,” the Titan of Annihilation told him. “I really needed it. I tried to starve myself to death, and… it didn’t work.”
Looking at her, she was still a frightened little girl. Pale, sickly face, exhausted, baggy eyes, disheveled, dirty hair… she looked so vulnerable, so broken. She was sad, lonely, and weak, yet every part of her ached with an unrelenting power. She was an unstoppable force, loose in a universe with no immovable object to check her.
“I’m sorry,” she told the drunken man. “I never wanted to hurt anyone.”
Hanno had chastised her earlier about saying sorry, and it was apparently not what the drunken man had wanted to hear either. Pushing past Hanno in a sudden fury, he curled his fat fingers into a fist and swung a haymaker directly at Neoma’s face, screaming with rage. Despite Neoma’s surprised attempt at evading the blow, his fist struck true. Superficially, at least.
As his knuckles touched her terrified head, they didn’t impart any force from the blow. His arm kept moving forward from the momentum of the punch as if he had swung through thin air, but the parts of him that would have hit her stopped being as they pushed onward. The swing completed, and a bloody stump of an arm was all the man had to show for it. Every inch of him that hadn’t reached her still remained attached, but every part that had carried through was nothing less than erased. There was no fanfare, no flashy magical blast. Only a dull hum and a slight darkening around the contact area indicated Neoma was doing anything at all, and even she looked horrified at the result of it.
“Oh, t-titans, I… Stop!” Neoma stammered, wide-eyed, as the drunk man tried to take another swing.
Hanno grabbed the man and knocked him over, sending him sprawling to the side. Globules of blood spattered against Neoma’s cloak or annihilated themselves on her skin as the drunkard incoherently screamed, in rage and sadness far more than pain. Hanno tackled him and pinned him to the dirt; the idiot would just end up killing himself if Hanno let him up.
“Oh titans, oh titans…” Neoma whispered to herself, covering her mouth in shock. “I… I need to go. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry…”
“Nobody wants to hear you say sorry,” Hanno told her. “Not your friends, and certainly not your enemies.”
Neoma turned and ran, sprinting down the main road as fast as her frail little legs would carry her.
“There’s a well on the way out of town!” Hanno called out to her. “You’d damn well better fill up my canteen before you go, girl! I liked that thing!”
She disappeared down the street. Hanno yelled loud enough to get the attention of someone that knew anything about keeping humans alive, and he had them patch up the idiotic drunkard’s arm. A minute passed. Two minutes. Then, three. Finally, Hanno breathed a sigh of relief. The town hadn’t been turned into an empty crater. Mission accomplished, he guessed.
The Titan of Annihilation. Nature’s final ultimatum. By her will, that which was would not be. There was only one exception, one being that refused against all efforts to succumb to Neoma’s superlative oblivion.