Thick and heavy, cords of muscle moved in what appeared effortless and strained at the same time. A rhythm of bunch-push-release repeated across the slick jungle floor. Jagged edges squelched through the slightly moist clumps of earth. Sighs of feathers flickered through the air, a whisper to all those near to stay away. A hypnotic dance of a long body glided through the twisted roots and treacherous pits with memorised grace. Even the shrouded world of night did nothing to impede it. An eye saw everything as clear as daylight.
Darkness is never just black. The moon allowed colours of blue and silver to adorn the world. Jungle forests were the canvas, and the rich forbidden colours no one normally wished to see were painted bright and given their time to bask in appreciation. Rocks that jutted like broken teeth out of the uneven ground glinted from the floor. Stages of rot littered the jungle ground, from leaves still left from last year’s storms, to the last grains of dust from spindly bones. The smooth strokes of giant leaves reached out, fingers on grasping hands eager for touch. Stripes of dark strut to the sky, their hides rough and coated in a salty moist. From behind each brush and shadow, dots of yellow reflected the fractured moon through the far-off canopy. A blink, and they were gone.
A six-legged twig muncher snuffled across the game-path, it’s whip-tail swatted at the insects that nicked at its rough hide. Above, a long three beaked bird cawed and flapped its wings, talons gouging bark with the anticipation of rending flesh. Large red eyes glowed from a nearby hole in a trunk; a shimmer of purple, and it reappeared in the tree’s neighbour.
The line of trees grew thinner, and the slinking hunter halted. Ahead, a thousand year old trunk, twisted and gnarled in its huge girth, perched atop a slanted boulder. In its feeble roots, it harboured a tunnel entrance, a gaping mouth that led so far into the bowls of the earth, neither sunlight nor moonlight reached its depth. Two figures sat hunched on either side of the opening, their backs to each other.
Their wolfish snouts tilted to the sky to harness the air. Pointed ears twitched at the slightest noise. Claws on long arms scratched at their manes of hair, bat-wings draped across the ground. One yawned, pointed teeth alight in the sparkle of stars. The other adjusted his loincloth as he scooted to be comfortable.
Long loops in the undergrowth crisscrossed and bunched, muscles tensed. The only sound was the rush of air through a white mouth. A triangular feathered head launched for the creatures. They turned to defend, but too late. One was crushed underneath a huge blue feathered wing, the other was snapped by poisonous fangs and then clutched in great coils.
Though his insides died and his body was squeezed of its remaining life, the creature still managed a choked hiss for his murderer. “Bragas…”
One reptilian eye gleamed a fierce yellow and watched death come to claim the last beat of a heart. Bragas drank it in, the feathers on his head shivered at the rush. But when there was no more satisfaction to be had, the coils dropped the body and instead pushed into the opening to be swallowed by earth.
The tunnel led far down before it angled off. More guards were posted, and all fell to fangs or scales. Eventually the passageway ended, and Bragas was brought to an enormous chamber. It was a hundred feet high from top to bottom, and almost three times as wide. Glowing worms slurped along the stone and allowed for a faint light to see by. Pockets and caves lined the walls, each filled with more of the beasts where they slept huddled together.
Bragas’s decade-long hunt was almost at an end. Yet still his exact prey eluded him. With nothing else to do, he looked into each cave, each little nest, from the lowliest of the pack onwards, he searched. He found young males grouped together for warmth. They died under his weight. Another held an old and sick one who didn’t even stir when the liquid-fire-fangs pierced him. Bragas grew impatient and hissed.
One alcove held a mother with her young cub clutched to her breast, sound asleep. The father lay apart from them. Already on alert to protect his family, he was easily awakened by the shifting of scales on his doorstep. A moment of silent shock passed over the pale features. Bragas hurried to silence all three of them, but was not fast enough to stop the scream.
In an instant, eyes popped awake across the cavern, screams erupted and bodies were flung into the air. Wings beat frantically, a swarm panicked about the chamber. The feathered serpent watched the tribe scramble with his one good eye – the other lay lifeless and grey in his skull. Face after face he searched in the sea of swirling masses. None that he saw were the one he sought. In frustration, his jaws snapped up at any of the creatures that failed to notice they had come too close.
And then one came. He swooped out of the throng, wings wider, body larger than any of the others. Golden eyes blazed, bone decorations clinked across his body. Bragas hissed in recognition.
“Okari! With me!” the leader shouted.
And like that, he led them out and down to the tunnel. The tribe disappeared dozens at a time into the shaft. Bragas tried to stop them. His fangs closed around no less than three of the Okari, and his tail smacked out another handful. But he wasn’t fast enough to stop them all as they escaped out into the jungle, and far away from the sanctuary they knew.