Jungle, near vicinity of Serpent Hive
Antarctica, 2,000 B.C.
Dunache stepped carefully along the path that followed the way to the Hard Meat hive, with three other students. He breathed easy, but his muscles were tight with tension; the bugs could come up from anywhere at anytime without warning. One had to be quick to bring such a silent, fast being down, and Dunache did not want to be caught unaware.
After the initial attack on Large Spear, he and the students had made a decision that would undoubtedly cost them their lives: going after the Hard Meat Queen and quelling this infestation as best as they could. The Hunt had gotten out of control, that much was certain. There were only supposed to be a few select bugs around the area, but from what Dunache had seen in the attack on Large Spear, there was a much bigger problem at hand now. How it managed to get out of control, it did not matter now. All that mattered was taking out the queen and as many drones as possible along the way.
The creatures had came under the cloak of night on this world, and had surprised the hunters. The students that had survived the initial Blooding Hunt had came back, their Leader acknowledging them in their prowess of their first Hunt, and then the bugs had came out of the undergrowth. The ship had been taken over in a matter of minutes, the students and Dunache ordering a retreat. Nidvin did not make it; Dunache had seen the student fight for his life, and then clawed, spidery hands latched onto him and tore his mask off. That was the last they ever saw of Nidvin as the four of them retreated into the jungle. As they went, the warrior voice in Dunache shouted for him to fight, fight, fight and to die honorably. But the rationale voice spoke up in him and said that it is not shame to retreat, and that one must sometimes do so to gain a level head and to fight another day. The Leader decided, seeing that the rationale voice outweighed the warrior voice. He took comfort in knowing the students that had escaped with him had also agreed, and that whatever decision he made would be respected to the letter.
Undoubtedly the pilots of their craft would have been captured as hosts or killed as well, and so be it if the students and their Leader were stranded on this world until another ship cared to pass over, the Ancients wondering what had happened to the missing one upon never returning. But right now it was survival that mattered.
“We shall go to the Hard Meat hive,” he told his three students. “That is where we will stop this madness once and for all.”
The students were armed with burners that they had managed to grab from the ship before their retreat, along with their hunting spears and wrist knives. From what the hunters had seen, the numbers of the Hard Meat were great, and suggested the hive would be even greater in numbers. The equipment and simple blades the four of them carried was not enough to destroy the entire hive itself, but they would try their best to bring the Hard Meat Queen down, even if it meant to set off the nuclear bomb on their wrist computers.
A hiss to their left and two bugs jumped out of the undergrowth, snarling at the find of live prey. Their tails lashed and whipped the air behind them. Dunache did not even think as his reaction was automatic: he brought up the shoulder burner that he had equipped before leaving Large Spear, and fired at one of the alien drones. The bug’s head exploded in a shower of acid blood and exoskeleton and brain matter. It screamed just as it died. Its brother took a step back in reaction and hissed. It leaped into the air and bared its teeth, all claws slashing and pawing the air as it came down. Dunache was knocked to the ground, with his enemy on top. The bug opened its mouth, only to show the secondary set of jaws set inside the first. Slime dripped from the extended maw.
Suddenly the bug’s chest exploded as a spear tip tore through. The Hard Meat screamed its anger and was lifted off of the Leader. In a single move Vidik threw the bug away from his mentor. The spear withdrew from the creature’s chest with a sickening slurp sound with the hiss of acid thwei blood to add to it. The bug went flying into the underbrush, screaming as it went.
Vidik howled a victory cry and went off to finish the kill.
Dunache got up and dusted himself off, and got his bearings.
“We’re close to the hive,” he said to the other two students. “Those must have been guards. Normally for Hard Meat behavior the guards travel in twos. I would expect resistance to be more frequent as we near our goal.”
Vidik came back, holding on his spear tip the head of the bug. He looked to his leader for approval, and Dunache could only nod.
“Today, you will be Blooded,” the Leader said, and Vidik stepped forward to issue the Clan’s marking upon his brow with the Hard Meat’s blood. He hissed slightly as the leader etched the mark carefully on his forehead, and then on his mask. Vidik allowed himself a small smile on his face, his eyes downcast towards the Leader as he bowed.
“Now, let us make haste,” Dunache said. “There is still much to do ahead of us.”
The four of them continued on towards the nest.
Tinoka ran as fast as the oomans would allow him to; the one with the injured foot complicated things, but it could not be helped. The hurt ooman was important to his ally, and Tinoka would honor that to the very end.
He caught something in the mask’s lens and picked up a heat signature. He zoomed in on it and changed visions once, the mask going from one to the next at his very thought.
Yes, it was exactly what he thought it was.
The head of a bug. Dunache and the others had been here. There was smoke rising from the underbrush, and Tinoka could only conclude that the body of the bug was somewhere in the brush. A second dead Hard Meat warrior lay not far from the first as well. Recent kills, then. They were maybe only minutes behind.
“Come,” he said, and gestured. “We’re close; I can tell.”
His two allies had no choice but to move on, and with what seemed like tremendous effort they did, the wounded one’s leg carefully taking each step.
He let his senses stretch to the limit; every sound he was in tune with: the snap of a twig; the call of a native animal; the rustle of leaves and the trees.
They soon arrived at the Hive entrance, the encrusted trail that led away from them went deep into the darkness. Tinoka looked to his former allies and saw that they seemed to hesitate as they looked inside. “It’s okay,” he told them. “I’ll protect you.” To the best of his ability, he thought, but it didn’t need to be said. For whatever reason, they seemed to understand him. They talked to one another for a minute, and Tinoka decided to wait.
Kontu looked at Mantrua, his fellow warrior, possibly the last of their kind. “Don’t be afraid,” Kontu said. “I have traversed these tunnels before. Though this weird substance was not here before, the path is the same. Our god will protect us.” He nodded in the god’s direction, to which he seemed to growl back in response. But it would have to do for now.
Mantrua shifted his weight slightly and took in a deep breath. “As you say, my brother. Together we shall traverse this nightmarish hell. May it be our finest battle… and possibly our last.”
Once more Kontu looked to his god for approval, and once again the god growled. Then they moved into the darkness.
Into the lair a few yard ahead the two warriors knelt down and saw something they could use: A spear. It had either been carelessly discarded or left behind in a struggle. Either way, it was theirs for the claiming now.
Using his other arm, Kontu picked up the spear, and handed it to his wounded warrior brethren. Mantrua took the shaft and used it as a walking stick, thus helping his weight be shifted so it was not all on Kontu’s shoulders. What a relief it felt too, when some of it was off him. Mantrua looked towards the god, who was some feet ahead of them, scouting out for danger. He crouched and made a gesture, one to obviously follow closely and to hurry up. They caught up to him as fast as they could. Sounds could be heard from a turn around the corner; they were not that far. As if sensing their uneasiness, the god laid a hand on Kontu’s other shoulder, as if to comfort him. The warrior was moved at such assurance from his god, and seemed to bring back the warrior inside him that he had been raised to become. Screams and growls filled the tunnel ahead, but they were not human screams.
Dunache and his three other students, Vidik, Nonchede, and Iliop, whom had been on Large Spear when it had landed, had came across the Hard Meat Hive, and had proceeded with caution. Upon entering, they had found an ooman spear that had been left behind. Now they were sure that the oomans had been attacked. Unless one of them was entirely stupid, trying to take on the whole Hive itself…
They had wandered through very few twists and turns before coming to the prize they had come to claim: The Hard Meat Queen herself.
Dunache was in awe at the massive form before him and his students; he had always seen one behind protective doors, but never one truly up close and personal like this. The towering creature moved slightly in their direction, and the Leader stood still. He took in her body, the large ovipositor that reached out from behind her rear, pushing out the eggs of her brood; the large glossy black comb that rose up into the air from her head like antlers. One of the four arms she possessed waved at them, as if casually recognizing their presence but deemed them no harm to the Hive.
That is, until one of her warriors stirred from the corner of the shadows.
Without warning, Vidik turned and sliced into the bug’s hide, dropping it in one move. The body hit with a clattering thud, its life fluids leaking out of it. The queen screamed in rage and thrashed in her restraints. The egg layer squealed as another drone charged the group of yautja. This time Nonchede stepped forward and set forth his burner and pulled the trigger.
A large light of plasma filled the darkened corridor and a beam shot forward, merciless in its direction as it cut into the Hard Meat’s exoskeleton and out the other side. The bug flew backwards and hit the wall, sliding down and issuing one last scream of anger.
The queen looked on in rage and screamed out her revenge once more.
Then something happened that Dunache had never seen before.
The queen mother reached down behind her and tore the egg laying sac from her rear.
Now free of her restraints, she was at her full potential to be an enemy worthy of the Leader’s trophy wall.
She stood in all her glory, her glossy comb almost scraping the hive roof as she stepped forward, crushing eggs and the large sac itself, never minding the acid blood that seeped into the Hive floor. She roared her defiance and whipped her tail behind her, making a splay of power and might, crashing it to the ground with a powerful stroke, making cracks in the wall where she again slammed it.
All four warriors spread out from one another, fanning around her. There was enough room in the egg chamber, and it was a classical move that worked almost every time against the Hard Meat mothers.
But not this time.
Vidik did not even get the chance to move fully behind her before she lashed out in his direction. Dunache saw it before his eyes: The queen moved as if to slash him with her claws, making the student jump back to evade the move. It had been a feint. Catching the student off guard, she slammed her tail into his chest. He was sent flying back, with nothing to slow him down. He smacked into the wall and lay there for a few minutes, stunned. Then she proceeded to finish him off, her tail slithering up to his side and plunging the serrated edge into his back.
This took only four or five seconds, but it seemed like forever to Dunache.
Then the queen did something else. With her tail still embedded into the dead student’s body, she took and threw him at her enemies. The three yautja remaining dodged out of the way, hitting the slime-encrusted floor. The body hurled overhead and disappeared somewhere down the corridor.
Now there were only three warriors.
Tinoka saw the body of the fallen yautja collide with the ground and skid some feet before coming to a halt. The two oomans took a step back, clearly surprised. Tinoka was as well. He had not expected that to happen…
He rounded the corner to find the Leader and two remaining students facing the towering creature, never once taking their eyes off her. One glance could mean death. Is that what happened to Vidik? Is that how he paid the price of a warrior’s death by taking his eyes off his enemy?
Tinoka stepped forward and got ready his burner. The shoulder cannon was ready to go in an instant. He fired without hesitation, hitting the bug mother in the shoulder. Acid shot out in an explosive spray. The three other fellow clan members didn’t even look as to who fired; they instantly joined in. Tinoka saw Nonchede fire his burner and it cut into the queen’s abdomen. Iliop fired his wrist blades into her neck, but it did very little damage. He then leaped out of the way of her whipping tail, barely clearing it as it passed over him and whacked into the far wall, making cracks in it as the tail came away for another round. The Leader threw his spear at the queen’s neck and it hit, the blade piercing the thick exoskeleton and coming out the other side. She screamed in rage and anger.
Tinoka immediately looked to his allies, taking in their heat signatures as one of fear and tension. “Go,” he said. “This is not your fight. You don’t have anything of use here. Go!” He made a gesture for them to leave, but still they stood there. Captivated, no doubt, by the scene that played out before them. The enemy’s cries could be heard throughout the whole entire Hive, and Tinoka knew that it was only a matter of time before the rest of the brood would arrive and be upon them all.
“Go!” he said again, and this time issued a low growl of impatience.
Taking their eyes off the bug mother and the three warriors, they complied. The injured one nodded, and spoke to his comrade. The other one replied and then they turned around as one and started running as fast as they could, back the way they came.
Running at the best speed they could muster, the two warriors hurried past the dying Serpents that had been slain by their feet and didn’t give them another thought.
“Come on,” Kontu huffed. “We can’t stay here; this is not safe. We need to get away as fast as possible. I have a gut feeling that something is going to go very wrong in a few minutes.”
“Didn’t everything just go wrong today?” his companion cried, biting down on his lip to keep from crying out at the pain in his ankle. The pace they were setting was enough to make his wound throb with every step, but Mantrua saw no choice in the matter. He would live, and it was better now to suffer the pain and live later rather than not and see your life ended in a matter of minutes.
They followed the twists and turns, and eventually came to the pathway where daylight met the darkness. A small smile eased its way up into Kontu’s face. They were going to make it!
A hiss suddenly permeated the air and they whirled around to see one of the Serpents behind them, slashing its tail in the air and standing on two legs, its arms reaching out to them. It ran at them, and in their haste Mantrua dropped to the floor. Kontu did not even realize that he still had the spear in his hand until he had brought it into play. The Serpent came forth and Kontu jabbed at it, bouncing away like a monkey to a tiger. The spear stuck in the thing’s throat, where he had unintentionally stabbed it. The Serpent reared up and suddenly grabbed its throat, as if it were choking. Its second mouth came out and snapped at empty air. It grabbed the shaft of the spear and tugged, but clearly the weapon was lodged into the thing’s throat. It screamed in anger at them. Kontu saw that it was distracted, and decided that it was the best time to make their escape.
He grabbed Mantrua and slung him over his shoulder. Kontu had not even realized that he could carry the warrior that was almost twice his weight. He ran as fast as he could out to the daylight, the air suddenly feeling so good and so pure as to that of the Serpents’ lair.
Kontu beat tracks as much as he dared, putting distance between him and that Serpent. Thoughts of it coming after them angrier than ever chased his imagination, thus lending him more speed to his flight. He was pumped, and cleared the opening meadow in only a few seconds that a marathon runner would have been proud of, though no such thing existed yet--and would not for a few thousand years. He knew that if he did not get away and put some distance between him and the Serpents’ lair, the two of them would not survive to tell this tale to other people.
Provided that there still were other people around to tell the tale.
Kontu and Mantrua heard the screams of what seemed like a thousand Serpents. The holy Pyramid loomed up behind them like some unknown god, watching over them. Kontu made a short prayer to the gods watching over them.
Then he ran faster.