Stalking the target was easier than she anticipated. Dahlia had never been in the woods before, but with Nikhil’s lummush patterns floating in the air ahead of her, she could move without fear of hitting a tree or falling down a sudden slope.
Besides the rumbling thuds of the beast’s footsteps, the forest was silent. Dahlia doubted this was normal. She supposed she ought to be grateful; if not for the creature’s presence, she might have been food by now. As she pinched more lummush off the current ball, though, she found herself wishing something bigger would come along and take them both.
It was hard to be certain if the beast knew it was being followed. She hated it even more for that. Each step invited another image of revenge, of violence and blood and satisfaction. Yet for all her hate, despite the all-consuming need to see this monster die in agony, it ambled along without so much as a glance behind it.
Dahlia wouldn’t have been able to see if it turned to look back, but she was sure it would have reacted to the trail of lummush splotches she was leaving in their wake. A pause in its stride, a grunt, maybe it would even be smart enough to attack her for it; but their pace remained constant. It either hadn’t looked or didn’t care.
The impression left her seething. The loss of Nikhil, Gelilah, Conan, and maybe Kadmus still weighed on her, but the idea that their killer could take them without consequence was even worse. Thus far, it had wounded them with impunity, and it continued to believe punishment wouldn’t come.
A glance back confirmed that she could still see three lummush splotches behind her. So long as her family found the first mark, they were certain to catch up eventually. After seeing it kill Nikhil, Dahlia knew that no hunter would stand a chance on their own. If at least five managed to find them, though… and Dahlia was confident they’d come in much higher numbers. The beast would die, and Dahlia would make it possible.
Somehow, she was able to put her vengeful obsession to one side when she saw a faint, distant glow. At first, it was difficult to tell whether it was real or just some trick of her senses. As she drew closer it became obvious that the light was real, and it was identical to the color of lummush.
The light silhouetted the edge of the enormous tree obscuring its source, then the hunched, short-furred figure of her target as they rounded the trunk. A berry bush stood flanked by two sprouts and surrounded by small mushrooms, and they all shone brighter than the most perfect batch of lummush ever did. As impressive as this seemed, the light still failed to illuminate anything but the plants that gave it.
Dahlia’s heart jumped at the sound. “Here!” she bellowed without thinking.
The beast grunted as it lay Nikhil down gently next to the leftmost shrub. Dahlia hadn’t been sure if it noticed her pursuit, but it was certain to know she was there now. It turned and walked towards her, causing her breath to catch in her throat.
Its breath sounded like wind as it came within arm’s reach. This close, she felt tiny, like it could snap her spine with a squeeze of its hand. It took all her will not to cower before it, to stand defiant under what felt like the creature’s judging stare.
The moment felt like forever, but the beast brushed her to one side with a seamless sweep of its arm. The gesture was strong but slow, similar to the way a tamer might guide a dog out of its way with a gentle push. Again she was reminded of Lyn’s observation, that the monster regarded Dahlia the same way the matron thought of Moondancer.
The strange, half-affectionate feeling was baffling, but Dahlia was beginning to believe Lyn was right. Part of her was flattered that the beast thought she was valuable enough to breathe, but most of her was indignant over being too benign to harm.
Before the beast could finish lumbering by, Dahlia hurled the remaining half of the lummush ball she’d been using to make a trail. It gave a satisfying splat as it smacked into his pectoral.
“Dahlia!” the male voice was close. Was that Evan?
“I’m fine!” Dahlia assured. “But he’s coming your way! Look for the mark!”
“We see it!” a woman confirmed. Dahlia was certain that was Nuray. “Don’t move, Dahl, we’ll take care of this!”
Their lummush patterns came into view from behind the last tree. There was something surreal about watching the cursive hunter patterns bob and weave in the darkness, like the letters on a page had floated off the paper to dance in the wind. The mind was a powerful thing, though, and Dahlia could understand her family’s postures and even what weapons they were wielding by the way the lines shifted.
She was worried that only two of them had found her, though. As the battle began, she prayed that more were coming.
“Oi, my sword’s broke!” Evan complained. Dahlia was impressed by how calm he sounded. “ ‘ow’d he do tha’?”
“Got me axe, too,” Nuray sounded just as composed. “Di’n’t hear or feel a thing, though! I wa’n’t even tryin’ ta hit ‘im. We got us a trickster ‘ere, Evan.”
“Trickster’s got me,” Evan grunted, and Dahlia watched his pattern lift off the ground. His voice sounded strained, like he was being squeezed. “ ‘ang on, I got it.”
There was a snapping sound, and the beast grunted. Evan dropped back to ground level and took a leap back. He drew another weapon off his back and dove forward again, but as he struck, something went wrong.
He clutched at his face and stumbled blindly. His cries were so muffled that Dahlia could barely hear him.
“Oi, wha’s wrong?” Nuray sounded concerned.
“Nuray, help Evan. Hit it with his face.” The unmistakable voice of the elder came from beside the nearest tree. Dahlia jumped slightly; she hadn’t heard her arrive.
“Wha’? Why?” Nuray sounded equally surprised.
“Hurry now, he doesn’t have much time,” The elder urged.
Nuray’s lummush patterns approached Evan’s. Her hand quickly but gently found the back of his head, and she leaned in to talk in his ear. His panicked flailing eased a little, and Nuray led him towards their enemy. She thrust his face towards the beast, and just before contact, Dahlia heard a sharp inhaling, like Evan had been trapped underwater and just managed to surface.
The breath was a cue; both hunters dove away to put some distance between them and the monster.
“Oi, what was that about?” Nuray asked. “Elder, why’d I do tha’? How come it worked? Why are you here? ‘Ow’d ya follow us so fast?”
“I couldn’t breathe,” Evan was doubled over and struggling to catch his breath. “ ‘e put a seal over me face. Was like ‘e had a metal mold o’ me head an’ it fit so tight I couldn’ pull it away.”
“He made it from your axe,” the elder explained. “Well, the steel part of it.”
“ ‘ow?” Nuray was incredulous. “Wouldn’t he need to melt it down, and wouldn’t that have burned Evan?”
“Magic, lass. Now listen…”
“Magic?” Nuray was becoming agitated. “Elder, ya ain’t makin’ sense. Why you out here, anyway? No, first, ‘ow’s a beastie usin’ magic, an’ usin’ it better than anyone I ever seen?”
Dahlia bit her lip. Battle was far more confusing than she could have imagined, especially in the dark. At this rate, they were all going to die screaming at each other.
“He’s not human, but he’s not a beast either. We don’t have time for details, but be satisfied knowing he can talk with the earth inside the steel the same way I can bring the light out of lummush. More importantly, Nuray, why were you just standing by while Evan was getting himself killed?”
“Oi now, elder, I deserve me own turn.” Evan came to her defense. “She was jus’ bein’ fair.”
The elder sighed. “I know you’re all used to hunting like lions, but there are some prey that can’t be handled alone. A lion can claim a kill that no lone wolf never could, but a pack of wolves can bring down a lion.”
“Wha’s a lion?” Dahlia asked. From Nuray and Evan’s silence, she could tell they didn’t know either.
The elder sighed again, more exasperated. “Look, when you encounter something this dangerous, there’s no shame in working together. In fact, it must be done. I’ll settle that with Cascata later, for now, we have work to do.”
“Elder, it’s dangerous, you really shouldn’t be ‘ere.” Nuray repeated.
“Don’t preach to me about danger, lass. Our big friend here could have killed us one by one while we argued. The danger’s done until we put ourselves back in harm’s way.”
The hunters looked in unison to the splotch of lummush, the one that Dahlia had marked their enemy with. It moved only with the slow heaving of its chest; the beast was standing still and patient, as though it were interested in hearing how their conversation would conclude.
“Wha’s he doin’? Why ain’t he fightin’?” Evan asked.
“Because he thinks as well as we do, Evan.” The elder grumbled an afterthought: “Maybe better than some of us. Anyway, he’s practicing moderation. He’s only hunting as much as he needs.”
“Hunt?!” Dahlia recoiled at the word. “Elder, this is war, ya said so yerself!”
“I suspected it was,” the elder admitted. “I no longer do. Jedrek told me how it happened. He told me how Nikhil died, how it was quick and merciful. More importantly, he told me about your valor, of the blood you spilled from him. Yet he refuses to harm you, Dahlia. In war, you don’t spare any enemy. He’s not warring, he’s hunting.”
“With those leaf-muncher teeth?!” Dahlia couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “Or wha’, he think our hides’re good for blankets and our bones fer tools? ‘e’s got much better hides and bones ‘ere in the forest!”
There was a pause. When the elder finally replied, Dahlia could tell she was choosing her words carefully. “I have a theory about that. For now, I just ask you to trust my wisdom. I understand your anger, Dahlia, that you want it to be war so you can be justified in vengeance. I’m sorry, my dear; the beast’s kills are as righteous as any we’ve ever made. He was hunting us to survive just as we hunt the lesser beasts.”
Dahlia felt weak in the knees, and despite the stuffy warmth of the summer night, the air felt cold. “So what, we jus’ let ‘im go about ‘is business and let ‘im keep on huntin’ us?”
“No, child. Rest assured, no. But vengeance is not the answer. Can you trust me? Time is short, can you believe I will lead you to satisfaction?”
Dahlia knew she could. She desperately wanted the elder to do so; with all of the futile struggling she’d done that night, she was more than ready to believe in even the faintest of hopes. Forgetting the darkness, Dahlia nodded.
“Good,” the elder sounded like she was smiling, convincing Dahlia that she could somehow see in the dark. “Evan and Nuray, to me. I’ve brought a rope, tied in a gallows knot. We’ll use it to defeat the beast.”
“Wha’s a gallows knot?” Nuray asked.
“A noose. It has a loop and a tail; you pull the tail and the loop closes around whatever’s in the loop. In this case, it will be the beast’s neck. These are usually used on necks.”
Dahlia understood how that could work, and from Evan’s question, she knew he did too. “I thought this wasn’t war. We huntin’ ‘im, then?”
“No, no,” the elder paused to consider. “Has Cascata ever explained how we might not need to hunt, if the world were better?”
“Aye,” Evan and Nuray replied in unison. Dahlia, too, had heard it when Moondancer was tamed.
“We’re making the world just a little better tonight. We’ll be fighting - as wolves do, remember - but not killing. One of you will keep his attention, the other will get this around his neck and pull it tight. Understand?”
“Aye.” The hunters answered in unison again.
Dahlia felt a hint of regret. In her desperation, she’d gotten impatient with the elder. They all had. They’d interrupted her, repeatedly, in hopes that they’d somehow get answers from the elder by talking over her. As each interruption was answered, however, it became clearer that the elder had already figured everything out. Their anxiety would have been eased more quickly if they had just listened and obeyed.
It was funny how their interruptions had eventually gotten them all to be quiet and obedient. They’d been in the way of their own relief, yet somehow, those obstacles still got them to their destination. In the future, though, she hoped they’d all remember to just shut up and trust. It seemed like a waste of time to have obstacles be part of the path.
Dahlia’s mind felt a little fuzzy. Things were simple now, but it took a curious amount of thinking to get back to simple.
“Who wants to handle the rope?” The elder asked.
“Nuray,” Evan answered.
“Yep,” Nuray agreed. Dahlia also thought that was best.
Dahlia could hear Nuray fumble with the rope as the elder handed her the bundle. Nuray felt out the knot as the elder turned to Evan.
“Begin lighting him up, Evan. Don’t worry about conserving lummush. I recently discovered a new source of the ingredients.”
Dahlia glanced at the glowing shrubbery and mushrooms that the beast had led her to. She knew lummush was made from berries and mushrooms. Were they from these glowing plants, and was there enough here to make even one ball? Maybe the elder knew another spot.
“I’m‘a enjoy this,” Evan said in a mischievous voice. Dahlia could hear him rummaging in his pack.
“Pull it tight, Nuray, but just hold it once it won’t go tighter. There won’t be a need to yank. Are you both ready?”
“It’s in your hands, then.”
“Eat this, ya mongrel!” Evan pitched a ball of lummush as if he could hurt with it. It pegged the beast on its stomach, providing a twin spot to the lummush that Dahlia had tagged it with earlier. As if it understood Evan, one of the creature’s fingers carved a line through the paste. A moment later, its tongue was momentarily illuminated, and it moaned happily.
Evan continued pitching lummush, revealing more of the creature’s shape with each impact. In turn, the beast continued to sample the edible paste. Dahlia couldn’t tell if it was because of the night’s volatile emotions or in spite of them, but at that moment, she was convinced that nothing had ever been funnier than what she was seeing. She doubled over with laughter, and even heard chuckles coming from Nuray as she climbed the creature like a tree.
It seemed like the creature could sense their lack of hostility. Now that their mission had changed, and they weren’t trying to harm it, it made no effort to stop Nuray from lowering the noose over its neck. She braced her feet against its shoulders and pulled with all her might, and still the creature did nothing to dislodge her.
“It -” Nuray grunted from the strain. “-still breathes just fine.”
“Which is fine,” the elder assured. “Just keep the pressure constant.”
For several long seconds, the comedy continued. The beast was pelted with its vibrant food, it continued to be oblivious to the humiliation a person might feel in the same situation, and it continued to lick its fingers as Nuray struggled to keep the noose tight around its neck.
Then the swaying began, and it did a confused shuffle before tipping to its right. Its collapse sent a tremor through the ground. Nuray had jumped free when she noticed, and the four of them watched its limp and silent form for several seconds.
“Get the rope off and help me push it on its back,” the elder ordered. “The noose shouldn’t be a threat without you pulling on it, but we need to be sure.”
“What did we do to it?” Dahlia was confused. She was glad the beast was defeated, but didn’t understand how it had been done.
“Ya ever sleep on yer arm wrong, and it wakes ya up because it stings as it falls asleep?” Evan asked.
“Yeah?” Dahlia confirmed, uncertain of how that was relevant.
“It’s ‘cause yer weight slows th’ blood goin’ ta the arm and without enough blood, the arm gets sleepy. We used that here, we made ‘is head fall asleep by usin’ the rope.”
“Oh,” Dahlia and Nuray understood at the same time.
“He should only be out for a few seconds,” the elder prodded. “Come now, we need to be ready when he comes to.”
They rushed to help her, quickly sliding the limp rope off its head and rolling it onto its back. The elder wasted no time in climbing onto its chest, carefully folding herself to sit cross-legged just below the beast’s neck.
“What now?” Nuray asked the question for all of them.
“We wait quietly,” the elder replied. “This is my task now, and it will be easier if he forgets about you.”
1.) Were you entertained? Did you ever feel like the illusion was dispelled? There's a big portion around the elder's arrival that I'm worried about.
2.) Any trouble grasping what was going on?
3.) Any difficulty telling which character was speaking? Any trouble with the hunters' rough grammar?
4.) Was the action too descriptive? The less likely possibility: was it not descriptive enough?
5.) Was there some tension? Were you ever frightened for the characters?
Extra Credit: the meta-critique
A.) Were you able to connect this chapter to previous chapters? Did you remember everyone's names?
B.) Are you invested in the clan's survival? Do you have any favorite characters yet?