Part 1: Hunter and Hunted
The sun rose over the ancient forest, its warm, dappled light revealing a small herd of deer gathered in a clearing. Quietly they grazed in the midst of the towering trees of their subtropical home.
Quiet they were, but not off guard. Their ears were ever raised, alert for the slightest abnormal sound, their eyes scanning, and their nostrils twitching.
Yet even they did not detect the predator approaching downwind from beyond the tree-line, her stealthy steps avoiding every twig and dry leaf. She crept ever forward, crouched low, making barely a sound.
She could only get so close though, once she got to the clearing she would be out of adequate cover. It would come down to a chase. With that in mind, she leaped into a sprint.
The deer took notice at once, stampeding away from the flash of green that sped into the clearing. As the herd ran, in the confusion and panic, a buck found himself separated and thus singled out by the predator. The chase began.
The buck ran with all he had, his excellent peripheral vision keeping tabs on the predator as it pursued him, matching his every movement, ever turn and leap, and gaining, only to vanish as it leaped into the canopy above. The buck panicked further and skidded to change direction.
Then, suddenly, the streak of green landed beside him, and the buck knew no more. In a near instant his neck had been sliced cleanly through, his body crashing to the forest floor, blood flowing freely from the neck and severed head that had moments before been a single live animal.
The creature who inflicted the fatal blow, its form clearly humanoid and feminine, stood up from where she had landed in a crouch and turned to her slain prey. Its meat would provide her with food to last her a good week at least. She extended the blades attached to her hands, and prepared to carve up the carcass. A successful hunt gave her a sense of purpose and fulfillment, although not quite the same as the emotions others experienced.
Food meant survival, and obtaining food meant this was as good a day as any she had experienced before. Day in and day out, survival was what mattered most, and yet she knew there was more to life that she had yet to experience or comprehend. The proof was in the longing she at times felt inside, an ache of an emptiness that called to her to be filled. It was an ache that she could not truly comprehend as she was, but one she had been assured since childhood would one day turn into something wonderful.
Emotions, both pleasurable and painful, and once she had them she would not know how she did without them. Yet until then, she could only follow her instincts.
Run and don't stop.
Run or you will be caught.
Those thoughts had been his constant companion for days now. Running, getting as far away from his former home as he could, was all he had. It was his only chance, even if it meant going into the unknown depths of the forest.
All things considered he had done surprisingly well so far. Stopping only long enough to eat and sleep, he had managed to escape oppressors and avoid the many monsters that inhabited the vast woods he had entered.
But it could not last. He was out of food, starving and utterly exhausted. He only just managed to stumble to the edge of a river, collapsing there. Throwing his face in the water he refreshed himself with what little energy he had left, then rolled over and lay upon the shore. His empty stomach cried out for sustenance he had no strength to provide.
A tree full of fruit on the other side of the river seemed to mock him, but he would never be able to swim there in his current state, even after resting. All he could do was close his eyes, reflect on the events that led to this and, hope for a miracle.
He sighed to himself. "You should have expected this Carter..."
Carter. No last name. He'd never been given one, and the name he had was simply a mock title for his job, carting goods, illegal and otherwise, from one place to another.
That life of servitude was all he'd ever known. He'd been born into it, his mother (he'd never even been told her name) a prostitute working in a brothel run by the city's organized crime boss, an imposing and charismatic man named Jiro Alva. Or at least that was what he had been told, he truly didn't remember his mother. Addicted to drugs Jiro provided her, she spent all her time working in the brothel to pay him back. Carter had barely been weaned when she died of an overdose, having never even bothered to name him. According to Jiro he was only even kept alive to pay for his mother's debt, a debt that seemed to never go down.
In a situation like this most children would have grown up with stunted personalities, ignorant of how their lives were supposed to be. Yet Jiro had made a critical error in Carter, as he did not keep him ignorant. In order for him to tell packages apart and deliver them to the right places he had been taught to read, and this had opened up the world to Carter.
For Jiro could not keep him under his eye at all times, nor did he try to. Carter was utterly dependant on him after all for food and shelter. Thus in his time off Carter was able to exercise his childhood curiosity by spending time in the city's library. Very quiet by nature, the brown haired, brown-eyed child was rarely noticed, and the library, despite being in a city run by a crime lord, was in fact one of the best around thanks to wealthy donors in its earlier history.
In this way Carter learned about the world, and the injustices of his own situation. It was not an easy or quick thing, indeed a whole book could be written about the trials he had growing up without proper guidance, love or role models. Well not completely without, some of the people in Jiro's employ were decent enough and victims of circumstance like him, but they could only contribute so much to raising him. Regardless, somehow Carter reached his teens wise for his age and not utterly mentally damaged. He'd even avoided getting hooked on Jiro's drugs. Carter figured it was the one way his life had not been completely unlucky.
By his late teens Carter had realized his mother's debt was nothing but an excuse to keep him under Jiro's thumb, and that he would be the crime boss's errand boy for life if he didn't do something. Yet going to the authorities was not an option, he didn't know which ones were on Jiro's payroll or simply too afraid to stand up to him.
Running away to a better life seemed like the only answer. It certainly seemed to be something characters in many books he read did when faced with problems. Yet it was not so simple. Jiro had a notorious reputation, regarding all those he employed as his possessions. Loyalty, at least to those who weren't his slaves, was rewarded with power and wealth, but disloyalty resulted in humiliation, torture, or death. No one was exempt, from the highest to the lowest in rank. To simply leave his employ was met with dogged search parties by experienced mercenaries who seemed to never fail to eventually find their target and drag them back for punishment. It was said no one had ever left his employ without permission and gone uncaptured.
The open secret behind this were phylacteries, amulets containing a small amount of blood. Supposedly there was one for everyone in Jiro's employ, having one's blood taken and sealed in an amulet being part of the initiation. Yet Jiro was the only one who knew where the amulets were stored. Each amulet was enchanted so that the spirit energy in the blood would not dissipate, and due to the nature of magic, the energy would react and resonate when anywhere near the soul the energy had been taken from. Anyone at all sensitive to magic could sense this reaction and use it to track down their target. Jiro himself was said to have a bit of sensitivity to magic, but he mainly employed specialized mercenaries for the job of tracking.
He had once read that the technique had been invented by wizards studying the senses of monster girls. It was said that once she had fed on a man's energy a monster could track him to anywhere in the world. The phylacteries were not quite so infallible, having a range of ten miles or so, but they still amounted to a very successful tracking device.
With all this in mind, escape seemed hopeless, until changes in the world around him revealed a potential opportunity. There had always been monsters in the great forests beyond the city, but in recent years their numbers had been increasing. Perhaps it was due to populations in other areas being displaced by war, or perhaps it was preparation for an eventual invasion of the city. Perhaps it was simply the monsters breeding.
Regardless the result was that people rarely ventured into the forest anymore, and a number of those who did never returned. Their fate depended on who you asked and perhaps the monster involved. Killed, eaten, kept as a breeding slave or, in the case of women, perhaps even transformed into one of the monster's own kind, it was enough to make most fear the forest. Carter observed that even Jiro and his men were hesitant when it came to crossing monsters. They were powerful, and did not care at all about the authority of the crime boss.
Thus Carter's plan was formed, one that was reckless at best. Flee to the forest, and try to cross through it, hopefully finding a city on the other side where he could build a real life, far enough away to avoid being detected by Jiro's tracking magic. Then hope that Jiro would either regard him as not worthwhile to pursue or decide he was doomed to die in the forest.
This plan also hinged on not getting caught by monsters. He knew as a lone male he was a prime target, yet he also knew it would be easier to escape notice alone than in a group. Further, muscles toned running around the city delivering packages his whole life meant Carter's lanky body had excellent endurance. He could run for miles without rest, and the faster he passed through any given area the less chance he would have of being noticed.
It was a few days after his twentieth birthday and, after weeks of planning and hoarding small amounts of food and supplies, Carter was ready. He fled under cover of night, a pack on his back and the stars overhead. He had packed light to increase his speed but this meant less food and water, and only a single changes of clothes (not that he had much more than that anyway). He had planned to supplement what he had packed with wild fruits, nuts and berries, perhaps even wild game but books on surviving in the forests did not prove to be a substitute for actual experience, which he lacked entirely. He rapidly ran out of food.
It was now clear just how foolish the plan had been. The forest was far too immense for him to cross at speed. He had brought maps but his navigation skills outside the city were rudimentary at best, and the forest itself had never been fully mapped. He was utterly lost, even his compass had eventually stopped working.
"A pathetic ending to a pathetic life..." Carter whispered in self-loathing, resigned to dying. Sure it would take him a while yet to die of starvation or exposure, but unable to keep up his former pace there was no way a wandering monster wouldn't pick him off. In his current weakened state they'd have no use for him as breeding material and would probably just eat him.
Really, a better life had been a long shot at best. He had tried, that counted for something, right? He'd still probably wake up and wander around for as long as he could but may as well mentally prepare for death now. He felt after all his effort he could allow himself some self-pity.
He gave a bitter laugh. "At least Jiro won't ever order me around again," he said to himself as sleep took him.
Carter was awoken by a sharp pain in his side. Had someone just kicked him? He opened his eyes to an alien, yet beautiful sight.
Standing over him was what appeared at first glance to be a tall, curvy and toned woman, but there was much more to her than that. She was clad in strange, green armor plates over her back, shoulders and sides, long, creamy legs bare below. Extensions to the plates served to support her large, well-formed breasts, which along with her arms and torso were covered in a dark green, skin-tight material, right to the tips of her fingers. This material ended in a ragged skirt of sorts to leave her legs bare.
Each of her lower arms also had armor plates, which ended just before her knuckles and supported her most distinctive and frightening feature, a scythe, longer than the arm itself, double-edged and with large serrations on one side. The blades were currently retracted back and not pointed at him but were intimidating all the same.
Perhaps even more bizarre was what looked at first to be a tail projecting from the top of her rear end, except it looked more like the abdomen of an insect than a true tail. It was a couple feet long, the same green as her armor plates, segmented, and bore what looked like wing cases.
As unusual as all this was, he couldn't help but stare into her eyes, which observed him with a piercing, golden stare. They were beautiful but also cold, he couldn't read any emotion in them. On the sides of her head emerging from spaces where hair would be in a human were a pair of golden yellow objects the same color as her eyes. Perhaps they were eyes, or rather extra eyes, the eyes of an insect, with a smaller pair on her forehead. From just behind the top of her head sprouted a pair of segmented antennae, twitching occasionally as if smelling him. Her hair itself was fairly short and dark brown in color.
For a few seconds he simply stared at her and she at him, until the glint of her sharp scythes set him into a panic. He back-peddled away from her, his body soon reminding him how tired he was as he failed to stand up and run, slumping back to the ground with a groan. He doubted he could even use the bag of pepper powder he had packed for defense against monsters, at least at this range. Breathing hard, he noted the woman's feet had the same type of skin-tight covering as her main body, her lower legs bearing protective green armor plates that seemed to serve as shin guards.
He knew what she was. A mantis, one of the most feared of the forest monsters. Their killing prowess was legendary. A deep fear settled in his stomach, only to be interrupted by a loud growl of hunger from that stomach.
The mantis cocked her head at the sound and Carter couldn't help but feel a bit embarrassed, which inadvertently cut the tension he felt. The tension was immediately renewed though as the mantis stepped toward him.
"Ple-please don't hurt me..." he pleaded, vainly struggling as she grabbed him and threw him over her shoulder. He tried to grab the bag of pepper powder in his pocket.
"I'm sorry!" he continued to beg even as he pulled out the bag, "just let me go and I'll leaVEEEEE!!"
His voice turned to a loud cry as the mantis tensed her legs briefly and in a single leap carried him over the river, a distance of some thirty feet. The bag of pepper powder ended up dropped in said river as he lost his grip on it, and sank out of sight. As she landed she glanced back at where it had splashed into the water, and gave him a look that communicated she was fully aware of what he had tried to do. She proceeded to lower him to the ground, not hard but not gently either.
He watched with wide eyes as she turned from him and with a bending of her knees leaped near-effortlessly a good forty feet into the canopy of the fruit tree he had spied earlier. At the same time the scythe on her right hand swung out until it was positioned straight out from her fingers. The slicing motion severed a branch full of green apples, and gravity took over.
Yet even as the branch began falling, the mantis woman reached the peak of her ascent, flipping over and pushing off a large branch above her with her legs before rocketing down after the fruit. The wing cases on her insectoid abdomen opened, revealing folded up membranous wings which proceeded to extend to a substantial span, slowing her fall as she landed next to him and presented the branch.
"Eat," she ordered, her voice attractive yet eerily stoic.
For a moment he stared at her, incredulous. Was this a joke? Was she just fattening him up for breeding or eating? Why would a monster help him? For that matter why would anyone help a stranger? Growing up as he had, Carter had rarely been the recipient of selfless acts.
Further, he had researched monsters a good deal in preparation for this journey, and everything he read about them, in particular the mantis, made it seem unlikely that this was simple kindness.
Regardless, his hunger overcame his trepidation. Ravenous, he quickly devoured the three large apples on the branch. This immediate need met, he took stock of his benefactor, who had watched him silently the whole time he was eating. He braced himself to confront her, to demand to know what she planned to do with him, but, apparently satisfied that he had eaten enough, the mantis simply scooped him up and threw him over her shoulder again.
"Hey- wait a sec-ahhhh!!!"
His complaint was cut short as her sudden leap caused his recent meal to threaten to come back up. His mind swam, and he feared he would faint as she carried him with amazing speed through the forest, leaping from one tree's branch to another, sometimes even rebounding horizontally off the trunk. Her feet seemed to somehow stick to even smooth bark, and her strength was such that carrying him seemed to hardly hinder her. Such was her speed that the forest soon became a blur. Carter ceased to struggle, fearing the fall if he did get free, as well as accidentally bumping the sharp scythes on her arms.
Then, before he knew it, she had deposited him in a truly huge tree, well over a hundred feet high. Or rather not in the tree itself but in a structure built mid-way up within the center of its widely spanning branches. It appeared to be a tree house of sorts, fairly simple in design but practical and effective. Various handmade tools and supplies from the forest were scattered about, with a bed of animal skins and soft blankets in one corner. A hung and dried animal skin served as a door while the doorway was simply a large opening on one side that led out to a wooden platform like a porch. Looking out the single window, he noted the drop to the ground appeared to be some fifty feet.
With nowhere to run, he turned back to face the mantis, trying not to tremble as he spoke. "Did you... bring me here to eat me?" he mentally kicked himself for asking, afraid he would remind her to devour him.
She gave him a perplexed, but still cold, look. "Monsters can't eat human flesh, it's been that way for generations. The mere thought instinctively disgusts us. Humans seem to be slow to accept that."
He'd certainly read of this aspect of monster girls before, but different books said different things and he wasn't sure what to believe. So her words did relieve him a bit but still left him confused. "Then why did you bring me here?
"You need shelter, clearly you have none of your own."
"Then you want me to stay here, with you? Just like that? You haven't even asked a thing about me."
She blinked with disinterest. "I know enough. Your ragged clothing and desperation to flee to such a remote place alone indicates you are an escaped slave."
He was stunned that she had been able to make such an accurate guess. "That's... how did you-" he decided against pursuing the question, not wanting to reveal too much about himself just yet, so he changed subjects. "I mean... why even bother with me? It's not your breeding season..." indeed he had timed his departure to be outside of most monster breeding seasons. Not that that guaranteed safety from most, who were said to be horny all the time, just more so in season, but the mantis monsters in particular, unwed ones at least, were said to show no interest in men outside the breeding season.