Dahlia’s eyes widened, and her companions gasped. Now that their eyes had adjusted, they could watch the battle, and it was proving to be quite a spectacle. Something had shot out from under the monster’s bony crest when the enemy’s captain had evaded its charge. From the lack of movement, Dahlia was sure the impact had killed him.
The other apprentices were horrified by the sight, particularly Jaquan. Dahlia supposed most had never seen anyone die before; this was nothing compared to the time she watched Chomp kill Nikhil. Dahlia was more impressed by the slayer than she was sorry for the slain.
For the first time since it started, she was glad to be excluded from the battle. She was struggling to imagine what she could have done to survive if she’d been in the captain’s place. Nothing she considered would work if she didn’t know that something was hiding under that crest.
She bit her bottom lip. Breathing, hidden weapons, Chomp’s earth magic; battle was full of factors she’d never considered in her dances with the matron. The older hunters had always said Dahlia would come to understand why they weren’t letting her hunt, despite all the praise they heaped on her. With a tinge of reluctance, she was beginning to believe they were right.
“What was that?!” Jaquan sobbed. “What did it do to him?!”
“Jaquan, maybe you better turn around.” Jedrek was careful to keep his tone gentle. “It may be easier if you don’t watch.”
“No, no, NO!” Somehow the idea terrified Jaquan even more. He clung to Idris’s arm.
“I think his imagination would be worse than the reality,” Idris guessed. “He’d probably just think it would come for him because he wasn’t looking.”
Jaquan shivered and glanced over both shoulders in turn. Apparently, Idris only reminded him that something might be happening behind him. Dahlia chuckled. The cowardice was pitiable, but more than that, it was endearing.
“Ya needn’t worry, lad,” Dahlia assured. “It won’t get past the ‘unters. It’s gotta go through all of them - and me - ta get to you. It ain’t gonna happen!”
“How can you be so sure?” Jaquan asked. “How can you stop something that big?”
“Its size can be used against it.” Jaquan jumped at Trent’s voice, prompting another laugh from Dahlia. Trent was about the least scary thing she could imagine. “It would seem the armor will be more of an obstacle.”
“Both will cause it problems,” Lyn agreed. Somehow, she managed to approach without startling Jaquan, even with Moondancer in tow. “Armor and size cause heat. They’ll limit its speed and endurance.”
“Oi there, Trent, Lyn.” Dahlia greeted. “How is ya?”
“Well enough,” Trent said.
“Concerned,” Lyn admitted.
“Trent,” Jedrek scowled. “Where’s the elder?”
“This didn’t wake her?” Jedrek seemed skeptical.
“It did.” Trent shrugged. “She ordered me to come here.”
“Why didn’t she come with you?” Jedrek demanded.
“Ask her yourself.”
Dahlia noticed Lyn glance at Trent; did she think he was hiding something? If so, she didn’t share the suspicion. “This is a strange beast, even for the woods. I’d guess it’s in the same category as Chomp and Stinger?”
“Aye,” Dahlia nodded. “Not the huntin’ or tamin’ kind, it’s the warrin’ kind.”
“Indeed,” Trent agreed.
There were gasps and several screams as the monster barreled past a crowd of skirmishers. Dahlia grit her teeth; three more shadows had leapt out from under the monster’s crest, and while two of them felled enemies, one had connected with a hunter.
A skittering motion near the captain’s corpse caught her eye. Her heart beat faster as she watched the bug-like silhouette racing back towards the much bigger beast. Those projectiles were alive?
“Fascinating!” Trent took a few steps forward and shielded his eyes. “It’s some kind of symbiote?”
“Huh?” Dahlia cocked an eyebrow.
“When two animals of different species cooperate, it’s called symbiosis,” Trent explained.
“We cooperate with the herd,” Lyn observed. “Does that make us symbiotes?”
“Yes,” Trent said.
Dahlia frowned. Could that information help the hunters? Should she try to tell them?
“Look!” Trent pointed at the nearest corpse. “Whatever it is, it’s growing!”
Dahlia squinted. The dark figure’s backside did seem to be swelling.
“Suckin’ ‘is blood?” Dahlia wondered.
“I think so!” Trent sounded delighted, and Dahlia had to jump to stop him from rushing towards the creature. He struggled to break her grip on his collar. “Let go!”
“Nuh-uh.” Dahlia didn’t waver. “You’re stayin’ here ‘til I’m sure nothin’ sucks your blood.”
Trent stopped struggling. “I suppose it would be prudent to study them after they’re dead.”
“Oh, no,” Lyn gasped. Dahlia followed her gaze and felt dread rising as she saw the host monster barreling towards Kirana. Had she seen the smaller beasts? Did she know that the real threat came after she avoided trampling?
Kirana began sidestepping well in advance, gauging her aggressor. Even when she was clearly out of its way, it didn’t try to correct its course. All that remained…
Kirana leapt as a shadow slammed into the ground where she’d been standing, and Dahlia’s group shared a sigh of relief. The creature made to run after its host, but Kirana had nocked an arrow as she jumped. It hit with enough force to pass clean through its body.
The host roared - or was it a moan? - at the death of its symbiote. Dahlia wasn’t sure how it knew; it hadn’t been facing that direction when it died. Regardless, there was a stutter in its stride as it circled away for the next pass.
“Are there only three?” Svara asked.
“Kirana killed one, and the most I’ve seen at once is four.” Svara motioned at the three bloated figures skittering after their host. “If they kill all the symbiotes, then the host will become much easier to kill.”
Dahlia frowned. Was that true? Svara seemed to think this was important, so maybe Dahlia could help her become certain.
They watched as the beast slowed to let the symbiotes clamber up its sides and disappear under its crest. It ambled along for several long seconds before turning back towards the battle. Dahlia was so focused that she didn’t realize she was holding her breath as it charged back into the fray.
Once again, shadows rocketed out from under the crest: one, two into the enemy, and a third towards a hunter. Dahlia smirked when he avoided the pest and clove it in two. Again the host bellowed over its loss, and seemed to limp a little as it retreated.
Pride swelled in her chest. If the monster knew what was good for it, it would focus on the clan’s enemies and then return to its home. It wasn’t fit to prey on her fellow hunters.
“Three, yes?” Svara asked. “Well, two now.”
“Aye,” Dahlia nodded. “They weren’t as fat, though.”
Trent clapped his hands in epiphany. “They feed each other!”
“Huh?” The others all looked at him.
“The host shelters and transports the fleas,” Trent explained. Dahlia hadn’t noticed the resemblance before, but immediately accepted the idea that the symbiotes could be called ‘fleas.’ “They hunt by leaping into prey who avoid the host’s charge, suck its blood, and then deposit it back into the host. Something of that size could store the blood for extremely long periods, and the symbiotes could withdraw through the same portals they deposit…”
“‘Kay,” Dahlia interrupted. “What good that do us?”
Trent shrugged. “I suppose it doesn’t do us any good. I’m confident Svara’s right though, two fleas remain.”
“Thank you, Trent,” Svara said. Dahlia was certain she heard resolution in her tone. “And I think your theory helps more than you expect.”
How? Dahlia hesitated to ask the question aloud. If Trent was right, then killing the fleas would eventually cause the host to starve. It could still trample and gore with its horn, though, and Dahlia doubted the hunters would tolerate its attempts while they waited.
She surveyed the battle again, straining to find the clue she was missing.
The human enemy was an entire squad of people who moved like Svara - only better. They had seemed so formidable when they first arrived. Now they were being trampled like flowers under a stampede. The monster was killing its share, certainly, but the bulk were dead by club, blade, and arrow. Dahlia had shared her matron’s confidence, but she never would have believed these Breathers would lose so decisively.
Shouldn’t she be able to predict that sort of thing? The others had pretended they did. Svara seemed to know how the beast would die. Even Trent showed signs he understood something about the outcome that she didn’t. Was this insight the final piece she lacked, the void she needed to fill before she could hunt with the others?
By the time the host circled back for another pass, only four Breathers still stood. The remaining fleas targeted hunters, but both of them died when their pounces missed. The host began to thrash, and its path became erratic - eventually pointing it towards the camp.
How would the matron stop it from trampling the weaker members of their family? Would Kirana, Nuray, or Evan stand about divining the future with whatever math that Svara and Trent were using, or was it more about action and control?
Without an answer, she grabbed Cascata’s discarded axe began to stride forward. It took several seconds to realize she wasn’t alone; Svara matched her pace and direction.
“We were told ta stay, ya know.” Dahlia said.
“That we were.” Svara’s face was difficult to read.
“Ya got a plan?”
“More or less.”
Dahlia smirked and bolted forward. Svara was quicker and she knew it, so the head start seemed fair. “Betcha mine works first!”