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Eronicza was cold to the bone and hungrier than she’d ever been before. Her rations were long since gone and she’d not eaten anything but snow for what felt like days. She was dead tired and if not from pure stubbornness and a deeply rooted will to live she’d probably have just lain down to sleep where she stood when night came.

As it were, she’d made a rudimentary camp underneath where a dead tree had fallen onto another. It wasn’t a defensible position, but she was too tired to care. She just wanted some cover – something out of sight to hide under to make her feel safe.

There were no clouds in the sky and the stars and the moon looked down on her through the branches of the fallen tree. They saw a lone woman, tired and hungry, sleeping through the cold winter night. They didn’t know she was a famous paladin, feared throughout all the free countries of the north and frankly, they didn’t give a damn.

Neither did the forest she slept in. It just stood there, still, silent and unbearably cold. The only one around who might have cared, had it known, was the scrawny runt of a creature following her scent to where she slept. It was a tiny, starving little beast; half mad with hunger it had followed a strange new smell hoping for something to eat.

Eronicza was still fast asleep, small puffs of smoke coming out of the little hole in the blankets she’d made for breathing through. The little creature sniffed at the backpack where it lay on the ground but soon lost interest in it and trotted over to the big pile the sounds of breathing came from. It sat still watching for a long time, but in the end hunger won over fear and caution and it crept closer. It stuck its nose into the opening in the blankets the breaths were coming through to see what was inside. As it did so its nose touched the nose of the woman sleeping underneath the covers.

As years of combat experience kick in Eronicza is instantly armed and awake. Guns in hand she sits up and scans her surroundings to find the threat. The forest is dark and still but there’s a faint squealing noise from right beside her, underneath where her blanket fell as she threw it off. The light of the moon is just barely enough to make out that something under the blanket is moving.

She puts a gloved hand on it and pushes down. Whatever’s covered there is struggling in panic, but it is weak and with just a hint of pressure she pins it to the ground. It screams. The noise is small and feeble, high-pitched and full of fear.

Almost panicking herself Eronicza looks around to try and see if the noise has alerted anything else to her presence. The stories she were told as a child weren’t all true, but her family left the forest before she was old enough to know for sure which ones were.

Still, she’s caught something under the blanket; it’s making a lot of noise and needs to be silenced. There are bound to be things out there she doesn’t want to find her. She adjusts her grip over the blanket and then slams the butt of her gun into the struggling mound. She hits it until the screaming stops and the creature under the blanket is still; it’s only a few more hits.

The silence that followed the short struggle was deafening. The only thing she could hear was her own excited breathing and the beating of her heart. As she calmed down the sounds of the night crept back - the wind in the treetops and the groaning of stiff old branches as they bent to it. She strained her ears but couldn’t hear anything else. Nothing was moving out there in the dark.

It was time to have a look at what was under the blanket. She stretched for her backpack to get the flashlight from its pocket and then cursed as she remembered it had run out of batteries after she fell asleep without turning it off two nights back.

Still, she needed light. She wanted to have a look at the creature to see if she could eat it. If she waited until the morning the carcass would be frozen stiff and she had no way of knowing when she’d next get to a fire to thaw and cook it. She was also ravenous and while the thought of eating raw a freshly killed animal was revolting she knew she had to do it. This was her first chance to eat in days and she didn’t know how long it would be until next time she came across food.

She just wanted to see what it was she’d killed first. Eronicza gave a resigned sigh, uttered a short prayer, held her breath and asked for light. Her god gave it to her. Again she sighed but this time with relief; light was always a gift and only given when truly needed. She could ask for it, but it was Telos who gave or withheld the light.

During her early years she’d often asked and not received but as she got older she’d come to know her god and had a better idea of when he’d grant her light and not. This was one of only a handful of situations in recent years when she really hadn’t known whether the gift would be granted or not. She was relieved she’d been given the light, but it worried her that even Telos considered her situation grave enough that she needed his help. The god of power, wealth and responsibility was a harsh master and more often than not she was left to handle things on her own without his involvement. To be given light just so she could eat was telling of how bad things were.

The light was a faint warm yellow, only just barely strong enough to let her see what she was doing. It cheered her up though and it drove some of the cold from her body. She was by no means warm, but the chill that had held her in its grip for days receded a little.

The blanket covering the animal now has a darker stain where she slammed down her gun on it. Some fluid has seeped into it. It’s blood of course. As she peels back the blanket a little doglike creature comes into view. It’s smaller than a fox but bigger than a squirrel and its hindquarters is nothing but a bloody pulp of meat and crushed bones.

As the body of the little beast is fully exposed its eyes twitch in the light and to her horror Eronicza realizes the poor thing is still alive. It must have passed out from the pain but now the light of Telos has woken it up. The eyes of the creature are wide with fear and panic and its forelimbs are twitching uselessly in a pathetic attempt to fend her off.

Before her eyes the gruesome wounds she inflicted on the beast are starting to heal. Only, it’s healing wrong. Legs are mending at the wrong angles and fur is growing back where no fur should be. The creature fills its lungs with air and gives the most heartrending scream Eronicza has ever heard. Not even her mother’s cry when her father was shot comes close. Tears streaming from her eyes she fumbles for her knife and quickly slits the throat of the poor beast, making sure it’s proper dead this time. Then she doubles over on the side retching in the snow.

Eronicza is half starved and hasn’t eaten for days and all that comes out is a little bile, leaving her with a bitter taste in her mouth. Pulling herself together she grabs a mouthful of snow to wash the sour taste away and then turns to watch her bloody handiwork.

The creature’s really dead now and she tells herself that at least it’s at peace and free of the pain she inflicted upon it. She knows she’ll bring its panicked eyes with her for a long time to come though. Eronicza is no stranger to killing. As Veronica she’s dealt the final blow to more people than she can remember, but never like this. Before now, everyone she killed had earned it. Their deaths were just and she killed them in the service of her god. Tonight that wasn’t the case. Tonight she killed an innocent and defenseless being for her own sake.

She’ll have to meditate on that later. Now, she must eat. The creature’s lower body is a gruesome dirty mess of guts, blood and filth and not even in her current state will she eat that. The upper half, by contrast, is still relatively intact. She cuts off the head and leaves it on the ground. The chest and forelegs will have to do. There’s not much flesh on the little beast, but she hopes it is enough as she starts cutting it into little pieces.

Blood stains her hands. It’s still warm with life and she licks it up. She’s reluctant at first, but the sensation of the warmth soon wins over any inhibitions she has. She’s soon licking it off her fingers and then directly from the little animal’s broken corpse. A small part of her is horrified at what she’s doing, but the warmth of the blood is too good to resist.

The blood was the best part. The flesh was tough, stringy and hard to chew. She carved it off in little pieces, but more often than not she swallowed them down whole. It wasn’t good, but it was meat and meat was food. Her light faded, but she didn’t need it any more. She was okay with not having to look at the mess she’d made of the little creature that had crept into her camp.

Eronicza licked her fingers clean one last time, the blood and the flesh had lost its warmth and she’d had her fill. Wiping her mouth on her sleeve and her hands on the blanket she lay down and fell asleep again. She ought to have moved away and made camp somewhere else but she was asleep before the thought had really had time to grab hold.

Her sleep was uneasy and plagued with nightmares. Big pleading eyes stared at her from the faces of mangled corpses. Screaming in pain or mute with fear, they all stared at her. Towards morning she awoke and threw up violently, her stomach a twisting ball of agony.