~ Chapter One ~
The hunter crouched in darkness. Remaining still in the concealing shadows, the only signs of his presence were the steady white puffs of his breath, which mingled with the rising mist and were veiled like the hunter himself from discovery as he watched the clearing below and waited.
Curbing impatience, he flexed stiffening fingers, trying to improve their circulation as the temperature continued to drop. Despite the thick fur-lined gloves, Drex could already feel the night's chill creeping in- and not just in his hands.
And naahn just fallen, he thought to himself irritably, hunching further into his hooded coat, chin and nose dipping below the furred collar seeking reflected heat from captured breath. What the Tzuughin-hell am I doing out here anyway? Only a fool would venture out into the jungle when the suns disappear. He snorted, ignoring the tickle of dampening fur and amended cynically: Only a fool or one crazed.
Resigned, he unstopped the leather flask at his side. Taking the briefest of sips, the hunter settled a little deeper into the concealing foliage. Back resting against an arching branch, he eyed the interwoven, draping vines around him in disgust. Just a hand's count of nuhz since darkness fell and already there's ice forming on the leaves.
Drex forced himself to drink again, wondering not for the first time why he was sitting out here all alone like an idiot freezing his ass off and not safe at home, or at least holed up someplace where he could light a fire.
He stifled a cynical groan when a lone snowflake floated past the opening of his hideout, got caught on the gentle updraft and drifted in to land right on the toe of his dark brown boot.
Glancing up, the tiny bit of sky he could see through the dense canopy was clear except for the stars. The flurries would end in a moment then; just one of many such passing showers that would continue to occur throughout the long bitter night. He smiled as a sudden gust of wind moved enough leaves aside to let the moonlight through. For an instant, the falling crystals of ice shimmered like touchable stars. Yes, the naahn was long and deadly, but occasionally it was kind to fools and offered such sights even as it sought to kill them in its cold, dark embrace. Drex tilted the flask up in sarcastic toast as the light winked out.
According to the great Tarron scholars, once, a very, very, long time ago, long before the first of the Races walked upright, the heavenly interplay responsible for night and day stepped to a much different beat than it did now. They said the naahns had been short things, lasting only a single part or two instead of the current six. Ten to twenty nuhz of planet-encompassing dark and cold instead of sixty. Imagine it, Drex played with the notion as he blew absently on curled fingers, having a night so short one could sleep through the whole thing and not even realize it! And the daylight returning so rapidly, no ice could form. The hunter glanced at his dotted boot and snorted skeptically. Well...probably still in the deeper southlands and on the high places like the peaks of Tllez-moi Mountain, if not in the jungles.
Drexus Tavosn didn't know whether he believed that fable or not, deciding if nothing else it was certainly something only a Tarron mind would come up with, however its contemplation helped pass the moment as he sipped a final time.
Kaxworms, but I could use some zrushtne now. Daylight would certainly warm me finer than this vile tasting taff juice. He swallowed quickly. Years of having to endure the stimulant brew, the hunter no longer grimaced over every drop, yet at times it was still a toss-up: freezing to death or a mouthful of taff. At least the relief is swiftly brought, he grudgingly admitted, loosening his clenched hand as the chill abated, wishing he could light a pipe and rid his mouth of the juice's foulness. Right, Drexus, and end up chasing away all the game. Despite being a fair distance into the vine jungle, animals here still knew about smoke and fire, even if their only experiences consisted of the smoldering blazes from the lightning strikes that sometimes happened during the stormy month of R'kich. So, it was either light-up and negate the whole point in being out here-which was admittedly damn stupid to begin with-or sit back and deal with it.
Drex sat back and dealt. Smiling ruefully, his mind played with the phrase, a habit years of solitary existence could force upon anyone he supposed.
Dealing with things. One had a great many choices in life; you could deny a thing, choosing to run away, accept it, attack it-or shape it. A greatly watered-down version of an old teaching-lesson. Looking back on his life, the hunter knew he'd taken all of those roads at one point or another. His smile turned bitter for a moment, but only a moment. Yes, there were a great many things he wished he'd dealt with differently, but that was knowledge gained because of those poor choices and actions. Drex well knew when it came to hindsight the best thing one could do was accept and move on. Of course, ignoring it and repeating the same damn mistakes over and over seemed the route most people found easiest. Himself included.
'The only paths that evolve the soul are the routes of conscious choice,' he quoted silently, recitation of the passage helping ease back the rising cynicism. 'An event transpires without care or desire, it is the perceivers who bring the event to life, using their emotions, their choices. These are the recorders of change.' Drex tried not to dwell upon the records of his own life too often. Although given the secluded circumstances he lived with he was certain most would find that strange. After all, what is there for a Hunter to do way out here when he's not hunting but reflect upon his life? He snorted, knowing there were many who figured all he did with his time was run around killing things. "Probably dances 'round wearing nothing but drippin' guts and blood!" He cringed inwardly as he recalled his father's drunken snarl, repeatedly uttered all through his last visit 'home'.
Oh yes, Drexus was used to dealing with things. Why, the people of his own village-family included-had long ago dubbed him drada-kish, or throwback. The hunter snorted again, the sound both humorous and bitter. Well so be it. He was closer to the earth in ways unlike those dirt-digging farmers. He readily admitted it. Let them be uneasy because he could tell how mild or harsh an approaching storm would be by the smell on the wind, or the fact that he could sink back into the land as silent as a shadow without a trace, knew when another predator stalked unseen nearby. He stayed alive and earned his living using those instincts they disdained. Made his home and walked unafraid in a land of untamable beauty and natural wonders few in heavily armed groups could survive a single day in. And his problematic temper? Well...that was the other reason he lived alone.
Idly picking at a loose, belt drawstring, Drex contemplated his current state of mind and its choice of wanderings, the instinctive habits of a survivor keeping his eye scanning the surrounding draz-foliage for movement while he was otherwise deep in thought. However it wasn't long before the hunter let loose a heavy sigh, knowing a short temper wasn't the source of this current agitation. Once again, you've stayed too long in the wilds, Drexus. You know you can spend all the long naahns you want reading philosophical texts, all the days walking through the sun-lit jungle (alone) trying to let go of the past and find some peace, but it will never change a thing. Draz-rot. He grimaced unenthusiastically. Guess it's time I went in to town and talked to someone other than myself for a while. Change the pace, get some distractions. Certainly a visit with Ressa over in Nakkady would help.
Still, the hunter knew it wasn't just loneliness he'd been suffering from lately. Normally, it was the solitude and isolation that kept him sane. Or at least out of trouble.
He shifted restlessly, turning the nervous action into a reach for a second flask, this one of clear water since his mouth had abruptly gone dry. Must be those kax-riddled dreams I can never remember fully. Kept against his body beneath the coat to keep from freezing, the liquid wasn't overly chilly, but Drex still shivered despite taff-induced warmth as he drank. More from the thought of those cold ghosts that had been plaguing him lately than the water. Stupid. He was a Hunter of the Draz jungles, had seen all the nasty ways the land could kill with eyes open. Had over the years buried the found remains of more than a few fools who weren't smart enough to know their limitations, without a qualm. Admittedly, accidents could happen to even the best, (he'd had close brushes himself more than once,) and it wouldn't take more than an unlucky moment for him to end up like those others, but that was the life and understood. So why these reactions to sleep-time visions of nothing more than shadows and twisted half-images? Gods, but the one earlier had actually had him bolting out of bed with a dagger in hand and scream in his throat, head full of fading images of being dragged beneath the earth by talons of black bone. Last sight: an utterly dead world above before the gray dirt enveloped him. That was the one sent him out here at this crazy nuhz the hunter realized disgustedly. The need to see for himself that the jungle was fine, to know he wasn't the last thing left alive.
Drex rubbed his face and chuffed in embarrassment at such foolishness. I have been out here too long. Gods, who'd imagine that I'd ever need to see another face now and then-especially because of a stupid dream! After all, he was well used to such things. Should have been used to such things, anyway. Ever since early youth Drex'd suffered a plethora of dreams. Ressa, in one of her teasing moments (like the woman had any other kind!) said that he had the mind of a Tarron. And his youth-mate and friend, K'du, called them the suppressed cries of his poet's soul. Personally, Drex had never figured it out, however the nightmares plaguing him for the last month and a half were unlike any he'd ever had before. Other than the taste of ashes in his mouth left from the latest, (dust drawn in as he'd taken a last gasp of air) the little that he could recall always centered around some sort of dark figure...some warped and lifeless thing having blood-colored fire instead of eyes...
Sounds of something large approaching the clearing below drew him back to the present. With relief, Drex banished the vision of those demonic twin rubies hovering in the shadows and the feel of grasping claws sinking into his legs as he reached coolly for his worn and familiar spear. No more time for silly illusions, worries, or self-doubt. No room for contemplation of fables, the past, or even the future. This was life and real and it was happening right now. Two beings were converging in one place and time in a land that granted no second choice or chance. Life and death come face to face. Drex's heart beat a little faster in his chest as he waited frozen. These were the moments he lived for, the crystal clarity that descended as everything become simple, narrowed down to those two most basic of options: life or death. It was now only a matter of whose. Or what's.
Not a predator, that was obvious because the beast could be heard. Death appeared silently here in the jungle. Didn't matter if it came on four legs, two, or had the visage of an innocent looking flower with iridescent petals whose slightest, poisonous caress was fatal. Nor did the animal apparently stop and examine the collapsed trunk of a fallen vine the hunter knew laid in that direction, the small draz having recently succumbed to a kaxworm infestation. Not even pausing to snuffle after grubs, this creature was something that ate fixed things, a grazer of vegetation. Remaining still as suspicions were confirmed, the hunter watched in satisfaction as the shaggy head of a jungle dantox pushed its way bullishly through the frost-dusted bushes, snapping off branches and crushing small plants as it worked its way into the clear seeking more tender growths.
And not a bad sized one at that. Drex grinned down at it from his perch between a tangle of tranks; the column-like supports belonging to the immense draz-vine he hid within offered a good view of the creature milling below.
Standing a meter at the shoulders and half that again in length, the light green coloration of its long ropy hair marked the animal as a young male. Probably recently chased from its herd by the dominant bull. It's the right season for it. Drex studied its movements, judging the distance as he gracefully rose, the motion barely distinguishable from a light breeze stirring a few leaves. Shifting a foot smoothly in a long practiced manner that did not gain the animal's notice he moved into position-then froze. Grin transforming to scowl, Drex cursed long and silently as the dantox, in pursuance of a trail of lichens turned away just as he was about to strike.
The hunter eyed the hairy bottom angling his way in disgust. Gritting his teeth, he held in a growl, knowing there was no chance of his black stk-wood spear getting through that mass of tangled armor. Snarled, twig infested, the animal's pelt was thick enough to fend off even a panther's tusky sabers. No, the hunter needed a clear neck shot, striking sharply the point just behind the animal's head. A head currently munching away on something beneath a neighboring trank.
Frustrated, Drex forced back the sudden urge to just leap down and tackle the beast with his bare hands. Long accustomed to wresting with such primal impulses he took a deep breath, determined not to give into his drada-kish failings. So. He blinked and exhaled softly as it receded (at least as much as it was going to in such a situation). In lieu of that madness, especially since I don't have the claws or teeth of an ancestral Drada'k, and being kicked into a vine with my ribs staved-in way out here would be far from an amusing experience, guess I'd better make do with a lure. Choosing swiftly, he withdrew a small handful of dried mushrooms from one of his numerous belt pouches. Glancing at the purple ziks, (he always thought of them as shriveled-up tadpoles) the hunter grinned in satisfaction.
Quietly as he could, Drex gently crumbled the fungi in his palm, dropping the pieces down through the leaves towards the jungle floor. Almost instantly the tiny spores began re-hydrating themselves, stealing moisture from the surrounding ground-frost. Observing closely, he readied himself as wisps of the sweet purple vapor joined with the light mist swirling about the clearing, ignoring the twitch of it in his own nose as it rose. Amazing how something so tiny could be so incredibly potent.
Snnuk-snort. The dantox made an inquisitive chuffing sound, which, along with a rolling motion from the near hidden shoulder area, told the hunter the beast had caught the scent and was going to turn. Bracing himself, Drex squinted and waited.
Come on now, my friend. That's it. Something much tastier than coarse lichens here for you...
Muscles twitching in anticipation, the hunter restrained himself just long enough for the animal to finish the treat before bursting from cover like a dark shadow, crashing down to deliver a perfect blow.
~ Chapter Two ~
Drex stepped from the undergrowth and paused. Looking up he spied the familiar curls of his own personal draz vine spiraling overhead, its distant upper branches lost from sight in the darkness. Only a winding six hundred meters long, reaching upwards for two hundred at the highest bend, Drex's vine wasn't much considering that some species grew to the proportions where they supported entire towns in their sprawling branchings, yet it had served as the hunter's home for many years and he was fond of it.
Holding his breath he went still, listening to and examining the surroundings carefully, fully aware that his wasn't the only species that hunted in this place. Satisfied there was nothing uninvited waiting ahead, or above, or slinking up behind, he shifted his load a final time and ducked back into the frosted greenery.
Since this was jungle not forest, Drex didn't live high in the canopy like most of his race, but had made his den underground within a short system of naturally occurring tunnels, a location far safer for a solitary man to defend. Its main entrance was concealed midst the thick tangle of the draz's true root base, where the sprawling vine first touched earth. Following a twisting path between the trank columns, a route more familiar than the back of his gloved hand, Drex soon ended up in a small clearing. Here, displaced soil and rocks heaved around over time by the growth of tendrils and tranks had been shaped into rounded hills on either side. Entering the cave-like opening he unlatched the sturdy, rough-hewn door set just within. Overhead, the ceiling at this delicate point consisted mainly of the vine's partially underground trunk and stone, arching in a sturdy latticework of nature resulting in the passageway that Drex had humorously dubbed his 'foyer'.
The hunter stopped when the passage grew level and lowered his burden to the floor so he could remove his heavy outer-coat. Shaking ice-crystals off the furry exterior, he hung it on a convenient, polished root. With a small grunt of effort, Drex retook the forelegs, and half-carrying, half dragging the animal, proceeded down the tunnel. Rounding the first bend brought him to the bottom of the steps that led up to a well protected exterior area where he did most of his cleaning work. He didn't go up. Instead, propping the body against the wall, Drex stood and stretched in relief.
"Now, Dra Dantox, if you will excuse me, I'll be leaving you a short while. Carrying your weighty self through the jungle has given me quite a thirst. I won't be long, so don't go getting all stiff on me, understand?" With a small chuckle, the hunter went into the short passage on the right, where at the bottom, he opened another door and entered the main room of his underground dwelling.
Greeted by the familiar smells of home, namely clean earth, moss, and stone layered with subtle traces of cooking spices, cured leather, and pipe smoke, Drex rubbed the back of his neck trying to relieve the stiffness. It was this small soreness that decided him to seek out something stronger than water from the natural spring merrily splashing its way along the far wall.
The storeroom was on the left beyond a curving wall lined with shelves sunken into the tightly packed earth. Drex walked past the long row of scroll-books with barely a glance. Expensive, inconvenient as hell to haul out here by backpack like everything he couldn't make was, those numerous volumes which had taken years to gather were the hunter's pride and passion, however there would be plenty of time to immerse himself later after the work was done. Time was something Drexus had a great abundance of.
Pushing aside the unadorned hide curtain he descended the short narrow steps into cool darkness. By feel he found and turned back the flexible swatch of draz leaf pegged to the wall revealing a rounded hollow that had been lined with mica-plaster. Within the cavity a thin stalactite covered with blue fungus glowed faintly. As more air circulated, the light grew stronger until it was sufficient to illuminate a small section of the room.
Tilting his head, Drex took a moment to examine the squat clay jugs lining the top shelf of the cabinet before him. Choosing the one with the chipped terra-cotta label, he nodded in satisfaction at the faint sloshing noises coming from within as he shook it gently. Tucking the jug under his arm, he checked around the shadow-filled room for anything else he might want.
"Probably a good idea to eat something while I'm at it. Those fumes from the tanning pits always leave a foul taste in the mouth for a couple of nuhz. I'd hate to sit down after all that work to a meal tasting of ashes." Kneeling down, he worked his free hand under a notch to lift the lid off a barrel that had been sunken into the earthen floor. "Suppose it's fitting to have dantox tonight," he mumbled, fishing out one of the tightly wrapped leaf packets.
Dantox, although being very satisfying to the stomach, was not especially pleasing to the palate. Once the excessively bland meat had been prepared into steaks, there were, luckily, several numerous ways to improve it. One of Drex's personal favorites was to flour them in tizza spice, add a slice or two of wild-harvested deaka bulb and wrap the whole mix up in shallo leaves that had been soaked in wine. After a few days marinating the result was a preserved delicacy that tasted wonderful.
Firmly resealing the barrel, the hunter stood up slowly, careful not to bump his head or get entangled in any of the dried plants and roots hanging from the ceiling as he made his way out.
When the steak was sizzling nicely atop the stone board in the firepit, Drex went to the low table set against the wall and sat. Reaching over the roughly molded light sticks branching from its center, (similar to the glowstone in the storeroom, the larger construct also sported growths of illuminating fungus, that, together with the help of other like scones placed around the room, lit the hunter's home comfortably in soft green and yellow light) he took his favorite drinking tumbler from the shelf, the one made of thickly blown quartz-glass, (and hadn't that cost some furs) while with his other hand, he worked the tough, spongy cork out of the jug and poured.
The liquid was a deep orange-red, and the scent wafting from the fro-mellon wine, nose tickling tart and delicious. Lifting the tumbler to check the clarity, Drex caught sight of his own single-eyed reflection peering back and paused.
Staring back at him through a red-irised eye was the distorted reflection of a dark olive-green drakkone, of the Race called Basik. (There were five major races of Drakkones, all of which shared the Drada'k as their common ancestor. Tarrons, Ssaiss, Basiks, Dekanns and Zaromeseach people had evolved according to a distinctive, geographical niche.) A rather common sort, Ressa had once told him he had a strong, handsome bone structure. But even she had to admit the hunter's scarred visage went way beyond what could politely be called rugged.
In the glass, a short, squarely tapered reptilian snout covered with fine, hide-like scales, possessing two rows of straight teeth that bore only the hint of vestigial points, smiled sardonically.
Turning slightly, Drex examined the area where his left eye had once been with a blunt-nailed finger, thankful as always that that traveling healer had been so capable. Not that he could have saved the eye even if he had arrived six months prior when the 'accident' had happened, but talented enough to graft a patch of dark-blue deek scales over the ragged and gapping hole left in the then young drakkone's face. "And it doesn't clash that much," the Tarron healer had said, patting him on the shoulder when the bandages came off.
The hunter snorted as he traced the raised edges along his cheek. Yeah, right.
"Kax, Drexus," he sneered at himself. Even after all these years, knowing how pointless it was, he still chided himself for a fool, admitting disgustedly it would have been easier to put aside the anger of being branded an outsider throwback if he had not looked like this as well.
Lost in thought, his restless mind replayed the stupidity that had disfigured and nearly blinded him over twenty-six years ago...
A simple accident that never should have happened. Fourteen years old, Drex was part of a group of eight male-youths at Kronile, the Basik farming community into which he'd been born. It was during the month of Tt'zaln, the fields thriving with the fresh green raun stalks that the wild forest grazers found so sweet, that the grand-sire of one of the boys had spotted a sukta in the common-field and ordered them to chase it out. Over eighty, the designated lookout had been in no mood to go running around in the hot sun after soil-sharks.
"Come on, K'du! Drexus! Hurry your tails!" Duzat called as he ran past the two friends. "Trozz says there's a pack of females making wagers to see who flips the sukta first!"
"That'll be you, Drex," his best friend, K'du, jabbing him in the ribs spoke quickly. Drex gasped and flinched, whipping his head around sharply to give the other a searching look. Startled, K'du stopped and blinked. Realizing belatedly how his words would be taken, embarrassed, the boy began to stammer a quick apology.
"Sorry, Drex. You know what I mean though..."
Drex sighed and nodded. Swallowing back anger, he did his best to unclench the arm wrapped protectively around his chest. And the shaking fist at his side.
"I know, Kaduen. I'm the one who's sorry," he managed to get through clamped teeth, wishing the words had come out easier.
"It's okay." K'du toed the ground aimlessly for a few moments. He'd seen the flash of pain cross the other boy's features when he'd poked him, heard the sharp intake of breath. Both were too damn familiar. "Your sire's been after you again, Drexushasn't he?" His friend snorted and shrugged, playing down the stiffness from the most recent bruising.
"Huh." Drex looked away briefly and spit. "What do you think, K'du?" he mumbled spitefully. But when he turned back, Drex, wearing that strange, sad smile of his, clapped his friend on the back roughly, trying to lighten the mood. "Lets just say I missed one of those moments when it's better to reflect than speak! Now just forget about it." His tone indicated the subject was closed. K'du nodded in understanding, albeit sadly. It was well known in the village how Drukas Tavosn felt about his only surviving offspring. They said it was as if the man's heart had died years before along with his first son who'd been killed during a migrating skrall attack, an event that had happened long before Drex had been born. And Drexus...
K'du sighed, not understanding why his companion had to undergo the things he did. Everyone knew about it, but strangely, no one seemed to care. Even Kaduen's own parents, the two people he loved most in the whole world and the most easygoing couple that ever lived, hadn't permitted Drex to come over for years until it became apparent the odd friendship wasn't going to be ended with guiding, reasoning parental logic or time. Vines twisting, but his friend hadn't even been allowed to go to school until one day, upon being discovered in his trank perch outside the window, Drex had been marched inside, and instead of being embarrassed, he proved right in front of everybody that he wasn't incapable of learning by reading through the questioning-texts and having the answer even faster than the teacher!
Unfortunately, even that hadn't helped the situation between Drex and his sire, and to some extent, had made things worse. No, openly called drada-kish and disdained in his own home, K'du knew his mistreated friend's only real dream was to one day leave the village. And when that happened, it would probably be forever.
"Come on then, K'du, let's go. Did you manage to find out who grabbed the 'sso? I could use a few more coins in my purse." Drawn from his dark thoughts, Kaduen, three years Drex's senior, and one whom everyone agreed was destined to be a storyteller with his high-spirited antics and quick wit, winked and gave a knowing nod. Frustrated and helpless over his friend's fate, outwardly, he did his best to conceal it behind his customary flashy grin.
"Trozz of course. You know him, has to be First Monarch of the Vine. Not a one to trail after another." He put his snout up to affect an airy manner and the other boy laughed when he pretended to march unseeingly into a trank and knock himself out.
"Yeah, he's always the first one to find himself neck deep in sink-sand, all right." Drex hauled his friend back up off the ground with a small grunt.
"Ha-ha! Not the way he'd tell it of course. Probably say the earth-gods needed his help or something." K'du smirked, wiping a bit of moss from his nose and dust from the back of his breeches.
"Hm. Easy to be bold when your grand-dam is First Elder of the council. But it could be worse," Drex glanced at him slyly. "I don't think the village would be safe if you held such position." K'du snorted ruefully, granting him the match with a mocking bow. Ignoring his antics, Drex craned his neck and gestured. "Oh kaxworms! They're already in the field."
"Ah, Drexus?" K'du grabbed his arm before he could dash off. Arching a brow, the older boy nodded to the side where a group of twelve young village females had gathered to watch the sport.
Grinning, Drex pushed him off towards them.
"Go on, you scoundrel," he whispered. "But at least try to remember to get me good odds before you take off with half of them!" He quickly handed over all of the three coins from his purse. K'du winked and promised to do his best, but whether that meant with the females or the betting Drex hadn't a clue, before strolling away, arms flung wide open as he entered the giggling group. Shrugging, Drex hunched down and left the path, stealthily making his way to the side of little Ruk.
The most junior among them, young Ruk was fiercely determined to prove himself to the older boy. Eagerness of his first 'hunt' making his gestures overly dramatic, he pointed out the trail of damage and the half-raised back-fin of the marauder. Drex made a sign of gratitude, having already seen the creature, but allowing the youngster his moment of glory before crawling in closer. He was just in time to see a crouching, yellow-green drakkone signal to two others stooped in hiding. Drex paused only long enough to identify the two rising slowly as they started moving into the sukta's feeble line of sight.
Trozz, (the yellow-green) was creeping up on the distracted animal's blind side, slowly widening the noose at the end of his draz-fiber rope as he came into range. Drex watched from his place of concealment with a mixture of cold amusement and disgust. The other boy's plan was obvious, simple, and naive. The arrogant fool was doing his usual, just as Drex and K'du had joked, namely, being first in and getting into the deepest trouble. Drex snorted softly as his rival tiptoed his way through the raun, the idiot acting as if the tender shoots would explode with his lightest touch.
Grinning coldly, showing more tooth than he knew, Drexus tensed for a quick springand a good laugh.
Medium sized land crustaceans usually reaching only a meter in length, suktas look like deformed turtles with paddled crab-legs. They sport six clacking mandibles on one end, and a sharp, spine encrusted tail on the other. Above ground, suktas moved with a comedic rolling gait, but in sandy or loose earthoh, like a tilled field, saythe muscular creatures could burrow almost as fast as a drakkone could run.
Expression fierce with concentration, Trozz licked his lips, savoring his moment of leadership. Knowing all eyes were centered upon him, he gave a sharp signal for his hunters to drop, using their sudden movement to mask the last few steps of his own approach.
Rust-colored feelers waving in puzzlement, the sukta paused in its grazing when the two blurry figures appeared and started to move. Feelers still raised and trembling, it was just beginning to tentatively nibble again when they dropped from sight. Too late, it finally sensed the presence behind, clacking in fright as the noose was yanked tight around its tail.
Drex was up and running before the first angry squeals had time to dissipate. And he wasn't the only one laughing. Dashing sure-footed over the loose soil, the young basik could hear the others shrieking hysterically as everyone leaped up to join in the mad race after Trozz, who, like the idiot he was had gone for the easy tail and not after one of the legs, the only action that would have kept the animal from escaping. So now, Trozz the Great was finally leaving furrows of his own. Great gouging ones in fact as he continued to sled uncontrollably behind the animal. And it looked as if he wasn't going to release the rope. Stupid, since it was taking him none to slowly towards the outskirts of the forest.
Eyes closed as he was being dragged face first across the field, Trozz swore he'd die before suffering the embarrassment of losing the beast. Legs flailing helplessly behind, the boy frantically tried to pull in the rope but to no availso he was totally shocked and unprepared when it suddenly went slack. Unfortunately, before he could even think of being relieved, momentum continued to carry him forwards to bowl into a jumbled mound of arms and legs.
Duzat and Xokz, (the two decoys) managing to get ahead of Trozz, had simultaneously dived for the rope stretched taunt before their friend and leader. Xokz, landing on Duzat, was instantly and unexpectedly joined by Trozz, who's crash landing sent them all rolling and tangled into a cursing heap. Their combined weight stopped the sukta, yanking the poor creature backwards out of the earth to land hard, squealing and clacking atop the dirty tumble of screaming boys.
Luckily for everyone, Drex arrived at that point. He'd been the swiftest, but not the closest to react at the start of the chase. Reaching into the confusion he grabbed a handful of flailing legs, managing to heave the creature off before anyone was hurt, and neatly flipped it over where it remained helplessly twitching on its back.
Trozz, choking out a mouthful of mud, wiped gummed soil from his eyes and watched in confusion as Drexus Tavosn turned and helped Xokz up; Duzat excitedly pounding the grinning freak on the back as the breathless laughter of young Ruk arrived from behind.
Ruined work-tunic smeared with raun juice and mud, anger and wounded pride gave way to vicious impulse, and without warning, Trozz opened his hands and finally released the rope.
With a clacking grunt the sukta immediately took full advantage of its only weapon. Whipping its tail madly about, all of the boys stood in shocked horror as the distended spikes struck a deep resounding blow along Drex's face...
After all these years it was the pain he remembered clearest. Drex dimly recalled turning to help the others up, being heedful of the unstable footing, when something suddenly came flying up at his face. Trying to duck, he'd slipped instead. (Or had he felt that boot strike his foot out from under him? He'd never been certain, couldn't convince himself either way, just knew it hardly mattered.) Memories of fire-hot agony pulsing through his skull as he'd drifted in and out of consciousness, the hunter recalled a blurred K'du yelling and wildly lashing out at the shadows above his silent, curled up body.
Drexus sighed while the old memories grew quiet, self-consciously rubbing the warm indentation as he lowered the glass. Funny, there was nothing but bone and scarred meat beneath, yet even after all these years he could swear there were twinges of feeling underneath it at times...
"Humph." He shook himself, managing a contemptuous laugh as he let the past sink back where it belonged, knowing it was a lifetime too late to have done anything differently. "Bah, at least it's useful for keeping others at a distance. I'm sure it cuts down on the fights in the taverns anyway."
A single sip in self-mocking toast, then it was time to get up and check his steak.