I remember the cold, slick caress of the mud most of all. I had run too fast after sensing the calls for help and tripped, tumbling headlong into the tunnel leading to our burrow. That's when the mud hit. I think it sticks in my memory so well because that's when the howls happened.
One after another, beastly screams drowned out the dying cries of my friends and family. The earth shook, and I choked back tears as I peered through a hole in the silk-spun door to the burrow.
I saw my brood-brothers scrambling around the many legs of a colossal monster, only to be crushed when the beast took another step. I saw pools of black blood spread across the packed dirt floor of the burrow, converging on the burrow's other exit and flowing down the pathway as one. I saw the creature who made the howls, a serpentine dragon with monstrous fangs and long claws, with a single figure gripping onto the fur on top of his head and steering him around.
But as I ran away from the door, abandoning my family and my home, I mostly saw how much of a coward I was.
The following suns were probably the worst of my life. I ran aimlessly, only stopping to eat and drink, and when I ate and drank I remembered my burrow and I cried. I had left the burrow with only the clothes on my back, so when night fell, the cold wind nipped at my fingers, and I had to bury them in the dirt to keep them from falling off.
It was five suns before I saw another tsuchigumo burrow.
I almost tripped over it, it was well hidden in the middle of a field of tall grass. But when I saw it I quickly climbed down and rang the bell in the Lycosid clan's pattern - three longs and one short.
After a few minutes had passed, I took a deep breath and turned back around to leave - but an old woman answered the trapdoor as I was climbing back up.
"Oh, hon! Come on in, we haven't heard from the Lycosid in years. Make yourself at home."
Over a cup of mushroom tea I explained my predicament - well, it wasn't so much of my problem as it was the entire species'. I told her that if this monster wiped out the Lycosid, then it might be coming for them next.
"That's troubling, but you'll need to seek an audience with the elder if you want to stay here for a while."
My muscles tightened up. Our burrow didn't have an elder, but when I did meet one, it was never pretty. My signing wasn't up to par, and ever since I'd gotten the brand my reputation seemed to spread all through the community. I had even heard a rumor once that any tsuchigumo with my markings was to be checked for the brand. I could only hope the elder hadn't heard it.
After a good rest and plenty of food, I was ready to face the elder. I stood in front of the ornate gold door to his burrow, glancing back and forth between the two guards stationed on either side. My heart pounded, my mouth felt dry and I gritted my teeth, stepping forward and making the sign for "open" - clapping once and bringing your hands back slowly. The guards knocked their spears against the ground, and the door opened.
The elder perched on an ivory throne, looking at me with the sort of condescension you only see when they very young confront the very old.
He moved both hands up to his mouth and spread the fingers apart. Speak. I took a deep breath and hoped that this elder understood the Makai language well enough to know what I was trying to say to him.
I told him my story. Every so often he would interrupt with the sign for "explain", and I would have to sign back what I meant. My signing was quite rusty, as always. Looking back on it, it's a wonder he was able to understand everything.
I will send guards to investigate the Lycosid burrow, he signed to me. But I have one request.
Yes?, I signed back.
Let me see the back of your neck. After finishing the last sign in the sentence he motioned towards the guards, who each ran in and grabbed my arms.
"N-no, stop-" One of the guards clapped his hand over my mouth. I tried my best to keep my breathing steady but it became faster and faster as my heart tried to hop out of my chest. The other guard slipped my bandanna off and roughly ran his hand over the brand on the back of my neck. He nodded to the elder, and turned my face upwards so I could see the old man's signs.
Abomination. The Lycosid brought this upon themselves for sheltering you. Leave. His hands were shaking and his knuckles were turning white as he signed, but the message came across clearly. As the guards released their hold on me I grabbed my bandanna and ran.
I think it had been a few suns after that when I saw a man in a tall, grassy field. He wore a straw hat and looked extremely sunburned, but I was hungry and at that point I thought maybe I was starting to see things, so I approached him.
"Excuse me!," I called out. The man raised his hat in a greeting, but as I got closer I saw his welcoming smile twist into a disgusted grimace, and when the hat was fully removed I saw the horns on his head and his pointed ears and in fact, he didn't have a sunburn at all - his skin was dark red.
I had only heard bogeyman legends of these people. My older broodbrothers would sometimes tell me "ghost stories" of these dark-skinned savages, of their wartime brutality, betrayal and genocide of the humans, and how a long time ago, they had almost wiped our entire species out. And in all these stories, these people went by a single name -
I couldn't move. The legends had always seemed true, but I had always taken them as extremely colorful fables. And fables can't hurt you, isn't that right?
"Right?," I said aloud.
The man sent the blunt end of a gardening tool flying at my face, and that's all I remember.