“We’re almost there,” Mellach called down the path. “Don’t tell me you’re tired already.” I raised my head from the resting position, hands on bent knees, and peered up the hill. Mellach was so far ahead of me that the sweat in my eyes blurred him to an orange smudge.
“I wouldn’t be tired if this were back home,”
I panted. “You never told me the Outer Lands were so hot. And no water—it’s all
locked up inside these cursed trees!” I threw an arm toward the forest as I
started to trudge up the hill again. Both sides of the path were thickly
wooded, the trees dark blue and covered with bark as rugged as fish scales.
My mouth watered as I thought of the dried
fish we’d brought with us. Mellach and I had risen early that morning, setting
off from the Hunters’ island in a skiff just large enough to accommodate us,
our Dewer’s-kin riding beasts, and a few parcels of supplies. It was important to
reach the safe shade of the foothills before the sun drenched the Outer Lands
in a blanket of dry heat—the kind that could be fatal to a couple of Dewer with
too much laziness and not enough prudence in their marrow.
Just the thought of the sun blazing beyond the forest canopy made me hot. Seeking a touch of relief, I plucked a round leaf off one of the trees and ran its water-jeweled surface down my arms. The moisture gave my red-orange skin a sheen as though I’d rubbed it with oil.
Mellach waited up for me at the top of the hill—ha! It was more like a mountain!—holding our Dewer’s-kin's reins.
“Took you long enough,” he said. “You’re panting more than the Dewer’s-kin.” I glanced at our riding beasts. Their black lips were pulled back from flat teeth and heavy jaws in what could have been scorn, though I knew it was just exhaustion from carrying our supplies up the steep grade. Though Mellach’s smirk was slight, I could see contempt in it: playing brood master to another still-has-his-spots hatchling come to learn the Hunter’s way was probably getting tiresome.
I closed my earflaps on those thoughts. If I let them have their way they would breed bad feelings in my marrow, and the trip would be wasted. Angry pupils did not learn from their teachers. And despite my evil thoughts, I believed if anyone could teach me what it meant to hunt, it would be Mellach.
I opened my mouth to ask how much farther our camp could be when Mellach tossed me our animals’ reins with a grin. “Don’t worry, I won’t put you through any more today. We’re here.”
Where? I stared around at the dense woods, but Mellach had already marched down the path. He paused at a bend in the trail where a curtain of creepers hung between two tree branches. Mellach sniffed the air; then his hand dropped to his belt and he drew his kinu. The thin blade with the bone hilt glinted in the forest gloom. I felt something harden in my stomach. Had Mellach sensed some danger, out here in the true wild?
With a short, sharp slash, Mellach parted the curtain of creeper vines. The foliage fell away and—
I sighed. It was just a clearing in the tightly packed forest. I’ll wager two bundles of fish he does that with all his students, I thought as Mellach slid the kinu away. Just to make them jump and show how good he is with that thing…
Evil thoughts. I shook my head free of them and led the Dewer’s-kin into the clearing behind my teacher.
He lied, of course. There was more hardship to come, in the hot, dusty work of making camp. Mellach had staked out a fine location. The clearing was lined with long grass for the Dewer’s-kin. A green lagoon nestled in a bed of white rocks. Perfect for us Dewer to soak in.
So I thought. I was halfway to the lagoon, already shucking off my reed skirt, when Mellach seized me by the back of the neck with a snarl.
“This is your first hunt,” he growled, “So I will be merciful and explain your mistake instead of flogging you—which will be a deserved punishment if you display such behavior on later trips.” He tightened his grip. “Everything in the Outer Lands belongs to the God and Goddess of the Hunt. A fire must be made and an offering burnt to ash within before the land can be used in any other way. Do you wish to invite the Gods’ wrath?”
I denied such a desire vigorously, my words garbled as Mellach shook me. He showed me how to make the offering—a few slices of dried fruit wrapped in sweet dough—and I watched it burn to ash in the fire pit’s orange glow as we made camp. The Gods like sweet things, Mellach said; they have only meat to eat, from the animals they’ve caught, and crave a sweet taste in the mouth day and night. Mellach knew everything there is to know about the Gods, for a master Hunter must know them and have their favor to be successful. I hoped our offering would be well received.
With the offering burnt and the camp set up, Mellach’s hold over me waned as he sent his gaze over all that lovely water. I shucked off my skirt and ran to the lagoon, splashing into its green depths. Soaking at the pool’s edge with arms and shoulders resting on the rocks, Mellach watched as I paddled around, lapping water as I swam. My skin rejoiced and sang with the new moisture. Satiated, I leaned back on the rocks and yawned. Above, the late afternoon sky was marvelously pink, shining through a patchwork of blue foliage. I could grow to like the Outer Lands. If only they were a little cooler, a little wetter…
“Kwalla.” I twitched. Even when relaxed, Mellach’s voice held the same steel edge. “Is there water in your earflaps?”
There wasn’t, but I made a show of flapping them clear. “I apologize. Did you say something?”
“I asked you to gather kindling for the fire. It will be dark soon.” He hauled his dripping self out of the water. I followed Mellach onto the grass.
“Go into the woods?” The plaintive note in my voice made me cringe, but I couldn’t take the words back. “Mellach, I don’t know the Outer Lands. Anything could be out there. Can’t you go?”
He snorted as he bent over a parcel of supplies. “No. There are things I must do here, most of which I don’t feel like explaining to an ignorant gill-head like you.” Mellach straightened, glancing at me with one long yellow eye. “If I go, the skill that would protect this camp goes with me. Do you feel competent enough to use one of the needle-guns, or even something as simple as this kinu? No? Then go do as I’ve told you.”
The rekindled fire blazed as Mellach and I lay on the dry grass and began the lazy work of digesting our dinners. Our skirts lay beside us, waiting for their owners to step into them again. Shadows wreathed our tent beyond the circle of firelight, moonsglow turning the stretched Dewer’s-kin hide silky and mysterious. Our mounts cropped the grass beside it, reins made fast around a large tree.
I watched my teacher in the evening quiet. Mellach had kept his kinu close at hand, the last inch of the blade unsheathed for quick deployment. His sleek head rested in a cradle of laced fingers, eyes half closed against the firelight. Its glare burnished his skin ruddy orange, underlaid with muscles made rock hard by years of toil in the unforgiving Outer Lands. His feet rested atop his thick, yellow-striped tail.
I crossed my own tail around my feet. My markings weren’t yet long enough to touch; not stripes but rows of spots, an embarrassing sign of my juvenile status. Mellach was a living reminder of how much I had to learn as an adult Dewer. I hadn’t even known about making an offering to the Gods. I felt my earflaps begin to flutter in shame, willed them to lay flat. When I looked at my teacher again, it was with gratitude: Mellach could be a pile of fish guts sometimes, but he was the best Hunter the island had. And he was going to teach me all he knew.
A question pounced and seized me.
“Mellach?” One yellow eye slid open. It struck me how much he resembled his namesake, that largest and fiercest of birds he’d brought down at the age of seventeen using only a bow, arrows, and his kinu-sharp wits. “Where do the Gods live?”
He sighed. “Kwalla, you do realize we’ll be rising at what will seem a horrendously early hour, don’t you? I do not wish to keep you awake explaining things that are probably beyond your comprehension if it makes you less attentive on the morrow.” I pressed him, promising I would go to our tent as soon as he finished. Finally, he relented.
“That reminds me.” Mellach reached into our tent. “I brought this to celebrate the success of our foray, but it shouldn’t hurt to wet our throats tonight. It may encourage the Gods to cast good sign on us tomorrow.” He emerged with a pale clay jug cradled in his arms and sat, legs crossed.
Mellach uncorked it and took a deep draught of whatever was inside. As he passed the vessel to me, I caught the scent on his breath: tangy, with a sharp fermented edge I recognized at once.
“Mezel wine?” Mellach affirmed. “But only Hunters may drink this! Well… Hunters and Fishers,” I amended with a grimace, remembering the smack Palai had once given me during first meal. I was younger then, jealous Palai had passed her adulthood rites before me. I’d joked that the God of the Hunt had come to me in a dream and decreed that only Dewer males would be allowed to partake of the sacred brew. Her blow was well-deserved: in my small jest, I had insulted not just adult female Fishers, but the Goddess herself; it had been the slap of her mighty spear across my face that morning. I never teased Palai again.
Mellach’s laughed. “Nonsense! The Mezel reed brew is for Hunters and Fishers, but also those who are to become such. Tonight we toast your emergence into the real world. Go on, take a gulp.”
And gulp I did, wanting to please Mellach. The liquid went down my throat like a ball of spiders, burning and prickly, and lodged as a pleasant warmth in my belly. The warmth ensnared my limbs until the thought of moving was quite foreign. There was nothing to do but relax and listen as Mellach got around to answering my question.
He gestured at the sky. “The Gods live in a world much like this one. You see the stars in the sky; the sky is a shroud that covers our world, separating it from theirs. The stars are pinpricks that let light from their world into ours. The Gods’ world is like our own, but a thousand times more solid, more vibrant, more real! This world is a pale imitation of the true world in which the Gods reside.” He paused to pick a bit of fish from his teeth and flick it aside.
“Their world is also much vaster than ours, and it is always day there, though we can only see the light at night. It is populated by strange creatures: fearsome fliers, swimmers and land beasts that would freeze you to the marrow if you saw them, Kwalla. But to the Gods of the Hunt, they simply provide a challenge.” He paused. “And something more. The key to the one thing they cherish above all.” I leaned forward as Mellach’s voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper.
“The key… to their immortality!” He shouted the last word as loud as he could, leaping up and spreading his arms like the flier he was named after. I yelped in surprise and fell backward over my own tail. Mellach’s laughter pervaded the fire-lit glade as I worked to extricate legs from tail and sit up again. It took me longer than it should have, and I realized the Mezel wine had left me more than a little out of sorts. I shot a baleful glare at Mellach, and he grinned.
“Apologies,” he said, not sounding the least bit sorry. “I can be a bit of a trickster when the wine gets in my marrow.”
“What about hunting being the Gods’ key to immortality?” I snapped. “Was that part of your ploy to make a fool of me?”
“No.” He was instantly serious again. “There are limits. One must never tell falsehoods about the Gods. They don’t like it when you lie about them. Doing so is a sure way to an early and fairly gruesome death.”
Mellach hunched forward and replaced the cork on the wine jug. “Hunting and fishing provide immortality not just to the Gods, but to all Dewer. It is why we hunt, why we fish. It is something the Gods discovered long ago.
“They were the first Dewer in the world. They were mates, naturally, and had many hatchlings, and for a while it was good. They did not eat meat then. Water was all they and their children needed to live. So they drank, deeply and greedily, of lake water, pond water, river water, swamp water. It was sweet and sat well in the stomach, and they were happy.
“The couple who were the first Dewer began to weaken as time, that most ruthless of predators, stole over them and sucked the life out of their marrow. Then one day the old male got himself lost in a tangle of unfamiliar jungle. Close to fainting from hunger, he smelled the familiar sweet tang of water and followed it to a small puddle. But when he found it, the Dewer saw an animal with a great round head and four sharp hooves already lapping at the water.
“Panicked at seeing the only source of nourishment he knew disappearing under the creature’s sloppy pink tongue, the male took his water-digging stick and poked the animal. It reared and tried to bite him, and they rolled over and over, kicking and biting, until at last the animal died. The victorious Dewer supped at the puddle in peace. It seemed a waste to leave the great beast to rot, so he dragged it home to see if his mate could make something out of the carcass.
“She thought to make skirts from the hide to replace their worn reed ones, but no sooner had she stripped the hide from the carcass than she heard a whisper. ‘Pare the flesh from the bones, then build a fire and roast it.’ Surprised, the female listened as more words came from the carcass. ‘Split the bones along their length and scoop out the marrow. This is most important. Eat the flesh and it will strengthen you. Eat the marrow and it will strengthen your own, and you will never die.’ The Dewer followed the voice’s instructions. That night, they ate the meat and marrow of the kill and became the Gods.
“They lived for many more years in this way, though eventually both Dewer died. But to their wonder, death was not the end. They awoke in the true world, where they would live forever as promised. To the animal the first male had killed, they gave the name Dewer’s-kin, in gratitude.” Mellach rocked on his heels, satisfaction on his face. I wiggled my earflaps in wonderment.
“What about the Gods’ children?” I asked. “Did they do the same?”
“Yes, and so did all Dewer who came after. It is the reason we hunt and fish; why we eat meat and marrow. So when we die, we can join the Gods in the true world and live forever.”
I trembled at the true importance of our foray—the reason it was imperative I learn to Hunt. Immortality! I was growing excited despite my fatigue and intoxication. I could hardly wait for the morrow, when I could at last aim my arrows at real targets, and perhaps have a turn with one of the spears or needle-guns in our supplies. Maybe Mellach would even let me use his kinu…
My teacher rose unsteadily to his feet, retrieving his weapon. Halfway inside the tent, Mellach turned. “You coming, Kwalla? We rise early on the morrow.”
I doused the fire with sand and lay beside him in the tent’s warm, musky darkness. Mellach was already snoring as I drifted off into a sleep laced with dreams of ancient Dewer stalking giant beasts, dreams I would recall almost nothing of upon the morrow.
The noon sun sent arrow shafts of pink light through the jungle canopy. Only midday and already I was tired. Mellach had indeed roused me at a hideously early hour. I’d spent the morning practicing my archery. We used the small furry creatures living in the canopy as targets. I’d always had a talent for loosing arrows, and had bagged a good many by the time second meal arrived.
The carcasses slung over my shoulder, Mellach and I stopped to eat in a small glade, tying our Dewer’s-kin’s reins to a tree. Mellach said we were close to the Flatplain, where my second phase of Hunter’s training would begin.
Mellach tossed me the water skin strapped to his back. I tossed him one of our kills and laid the rest on the ground. I chose a fat creature from the pile, its brown fur still lustrous after my arrow had found its neck.
“What did you call these critters, Mellach?”
“Norbs,” he replied through a mouthful of furry meat; the rest of his meal lay dissected on the grass. “They are kin to the Norgles. When a predator comes through the forest, they run and hide in the Norgles’ fur, alerting the larger beasts of danger.” Norbs. Norgles. I recited the words silently, trying to bring them into the realm of the ordinary as I shredded and stuffed down my own meal, splitting the bones to get at the sweet, grainy marrow.
Mellach was licking reddish orange blood off his clawed fingers when his head whipped around. Earflaps pricking, his hand dropped to the hilt of his kinu. No trick this time, I thought as my ears strained into the silence.
Something had just put Mellach on edge.
The Dewer’s-kin were not alarmed. They watched Mellach with rheumy eyes as he stood and padded to one side of the clearing, his steps light as froth on water. He gingerly parted the undergrowth and peered beyond.
Still frozen, I saw his bronze-yellow eyes widen. He waved me over, all pretense of the arrogant master Hunter wiped away. Gripped my arm and pulled me forward to the gap in the brush. I looked through.
Sunlight slashed into a clearing much larger than ours. Trees lay scattered at crazy angles, trunks splintered under the weight of what looked like a flattened metal ingot. It was dark silver like a needle-gun housing, but with a sheen that was beyond the work of any Dewer metalsmith. The flattened oval rose from the center of the clearing, its weird contours obscured by an enormous furrow of dirt piled around it. The sleek side I could see was blackened and melted. A jagged hole tore down its length, like the cut from a kinu that hasn’t been properly sharpened. The gash exuded a vile stench of melted metal.
Mellach put up a hand for caution, the other resting on his kinu’s hilt as he stepped into the clearing. As I crossed the fringe of bushes, something crunched under my feet. The grass around the metal thing was littered with glittering shards. They looked like metal, only transparent—like the ice that crusts around our island during the short, bitter winters. I curled in my toes to protect the pads of my feet, walking on my blunt nails, and followed Mellach as he paced around the object.
As we came full circle, a flash of silver within the wound caught my eye. I peered at the slash in the object’s side.
It was hollow inside. A metal cavity almost like an egg case, its strange contours and angles lined in silver. A divot in the floor bristled with coppery wires, dark tubes hanging in tangled confusion above. Their severed ends dripped steaming indigo fluid, the liquid pooling in the cradle like blood. Blood…
I wanted to get away from there. Badly. This thing had no place in the Gods’ country, and both Mellach and I knew it.
“Come,” he said. “It does not well to tarry here. I don’t like this thing. It is not of the Gods’ land.”
As we left, I thought I saw something. A flash of color. Red, or maybe darker than that. It was gone as soon as it flitted across my senses. Mellach did not see it. Or if he did, he said nothing.
We moved on, putting the metal thing out of our thoughts. It was not easy, but soon I became curious where Mellach was taking me, this Flatplain. The jungle became sparse, saplings and undergrowth thinning out. The grass grew taller and drier. Beyond a fringe of yellow grass I saw an end to the trees. Between parted branches, the sky glowed purple-pink in the slanting sun of midafternoon. Mellach yanked me down behind the grass fringe, pulling on the Dewer's-kin's leads until the beasts lay on their bellies, feet tucked under them.
"The Flatplain is just ahead," he hissed, sliding forward to part the curtain of grass. "This is where the Norgles live, where they feed and sleep. If they see you they will flee. They are frightened of Dewer. That was the reason for the Norb hunt we did this morning. If we had not picked them off, they would have alerted the Norgles. This way we will catch them unawares." He motioned me foward. "Now, Kwalla, come and take a look at your first true kill." I slithered to his side and parted the grass.
The Flatplain spread before me in an expanse of treeless grassland, yellow plain meeting the rosy sky at an impossibly faraway horizon. I’d never seen so much space and sky in one place. Roaming across the plain in tight-knit packs were the Norgles.
I saw their size right away. They were massive beasts even from a distance, perhaps half as tall again as an adult male Dewer and as long as three. Their huge bulk fit well with the vast expanse of land they called home. For all their size the Norgles were swift: the herds trotted as one, wedge-shaped heads plowing through the grasses like the prows of boats cutting water. Each Norgle had a coarse coat of brown or black hair that hung down in matted ropes from thick wattles. Their legs were six round pillars ending in nails that looked quite capable of slicing flesh. The thorny crown of horns above their tiny deep-set eyes looked even more suited to such work.
"We're going to hunt... those?" I wasn’t pleased with the way my voice squeaked on the last word. Mellach turned and squatted in the dirt, hiking up his skirt for comfort. He reached behind his head and pulled one of the needle-guns from its sheath. The sun reflected red off the long leaden tube. The needle-gun was a simple cylinder, with a trigger on one end and a serrated hole at the other. To my astonishment, Mellach slipped the leather strap over my head. His fierce glare held my gaze.
"You are to give me your full attention. I have many living pupils, all of whom listened to me now. The bones of the rest lie buried in the plain, their marrow long since rotted away. A Norgle is neither smart nor cunning, but they are dangerous because of their great strength, size and speed. Many Dewer died hunting Norgles before the needle-gun was invented. This is the strategy: you must ride up to a Norgle until you are level with its head, but not too close to the horns. Distract it by shooting arrows into the back fur. They won't hurt it, but they’ll drive it away from the herd. When it's alone, shoot out its legs with the needle gun. The needles are poisoned; their venom will weaken the Norgle. When it falls, dismount and kill the beast with your diru. Pick a target on the head, like the eyes or throat. That is the way to bring down a Norgle."
The silence lay heavy between us as I went over the killing moves. I’d practiced of course, but only on dummies. I patted the sheathed diru on my belt. The diru was a shorter, thicker version of Mellach's kinu, more suited to gutting fish than ending such a noble life. It was a domestic tool, not a killing blade. But I didn't have anything else; Mellach obviously wasn't going to entrust his kinu to a clod like me.
Fear rested like ice in my marrow. I tried to make myself strong. I couldn't show fear in front of Mellach; he’d killed hundreds of Norgles before this day. Crouching, I led us along the forest's edge. We mounted in a denser copse edging the plain. Mellach would follow me with an extra needle-gun and arrows to ward off the rest of the herd. Otherwise he would not interfere. This was my hunt. The kill was my responsibility, the prize mine to carry home.
If I was successful.
We skirted the plain's edge as I scanned for a target. The older Norgles were larger but also mellower than the young bulls and cows. I’d seen several of the younger Norgles swipe at each other with their horns as they jostled in the herd. That aggressiveness could easily prove fatal to an apprentice Hunter like me.
I spotted one that looked right: a slow-moving but burly grandmother with short horns and a black coat. She grazed near the plain's edge, far from the largest herds. I broke cover, my Dewer's-kin's hooves puffing yellow dust as we charged into the open. I heard the hoof beats of Mellach's mount behind me, but the sound seemed a long way off. The Norgle jerked backward as she scented me, rearing on four legs. The front two sliced the air as she bellowed, turned, and ran with a speed that belied her great size. I spurred my Dewer's-kin, desperate to cut her off before she reached the main herd. A stampede would be death to us and our mounts as panicked Norgles crushed us under their sharp-clawed feet.
But my Dewer's-kin was swift. I was alongside the Norgle's head before I’d notched an arrow. I gazed into one staring eye, glazed with terror, and loosed my arrow into the black fur ridging the spine. The huge beast bleated, head lurching as she took a swing at my animal's side. I jerked the reins, my Dewer's-kin evading the horns by a hair, and started firing the bulk of my arrows into the tangled back fur. The Norgle swerved away from me, toward the forest edge.
As I gave chase, I saw something ripple in those trees, bending their trunks as in a strong wind. There was no wind. My quarry snorted and veered away from the tree line, half-crazed and frothing at the mouth from the chase.
"The needle-gun!” A voice shouted at the back of my brain. No, it was Mellach. I dropped my bow and it slid around my neck on its strap. Taking the gun in both hands, I aimed at the Norgle and pulled the trigger.
The needle-gun discharged with a boom like something very large dropped in deep water. Recoil rocked the weapon back in my hands, and my Dewer's-kin reared in alarm. I grabbed the reins in one hand, gripping the saddle with my legs.
When my Dewer’s-kin had settled, I saw the damage the needle-gun had wrought. The Norgle was on the ground, thrashing in mute agony, ochre blood soaking the dark fur. A few of my needles had gone high, scoring cuts along its side which bled but were not deep. The rest had been spot on, tearing off the beast's left front leg and burying their poisoned tips within the cavity. The Norgle had skidded a ways after her fatal stumble; she lay practically at my mount’s feet. I dismounted and approached the wounded Norgle, drawing my diru.
As I stood over the creature, looking into dark eyes growing duller in shock, a heaviness welled inside my chest. A sorrow so abrupt I gasped as moisture beaded along my snout, wetting the area around my mouth. I brushed the salty tears away, trying to hide the emotion from Mellach as he dismounted beside me. I waited for the words of scorn I knew were coming.
He stood silent until my skin stopped exuding and I wiped away the last of it. I felt his hand on my shoulder.
"It is always... hard the first time. The knowledge that to live we must take life; to follow the Gods’ path beyond death, we must cause death. It is something Dewer must live with if we are to follow the Gods. We must never forget the first animal killed was a Dewer's kin." As he spoke, I saw the balance of life for life unfold: the pact Gods and Dewer made with their quarry for the gift of immortality, and the promise to the Hunted enfolded in it.
I shrugged Mellach off. My will grew stronger with each breath, my sorrow washing away with the tears.
"Are you ready?" Mellach asked.
"Yes." I crouched down beside the Norgle I’d brought down, raising the knife to the spasming animal's throat.
I smelled something on the air. The faintest hint of metal and burning, beneath the scents of blood and powder from the needle-gun discharge. I might not have noticed it—but I had smelled it before, and recently.
It was the melted-metal smell saturating the clearing with the huge metal disk. A thing as separate from the Gods’ land as the stars from the earth.
Uneasy, I lowered the diru and raised my head, earflaps up and senses alert. Mellach turned a moment later, sniffing the air like one taken ill. His fingers curled around the trigger of his needle-gun as he looked toward the woods. At the spot where movement had caught my attention minutes earlier.
The scent disappeared as the breeze shifted toward the forest. A moment earlier that breeze had been in our faces. The trees rustled again, closer, and the scent hit my nostrils in a wave. I closed them instinctively, then dilated them, backing away from the moaning Norgle to my Dewer's-kin. Mellach mimicked me, eyes still locked on the woods.
"Go," he whispered. "We need to put distance between us and the forest. Whatever's coming, I don't want to be here when it arrives." It was all I needed. Swinging one leg over the nervous creature, I spurred my Dewer's-kin toward the open plain. We thundered across the grass. The outliers of the massive Norgle herd were beginning to snort, to shy away from the forest as they caught the strengthening stench of burning metal. I held my Dewer’s-kin’s reins straight, keeping a wide berth between us and the panicking animals.
In a scream of splintering wood, the unnamed thing emerged. Mellach and I brought our beasts around to confront it.
I’d seen many amazing things on my trip to the Outer Lands, but this surpassed them all. It surpassed anything I have seen with these eyes, though they have served me faithfully for many years since.
Boiling over the forest’s edge was what looked like a violent heat-shimmer: trees and grass bulged outward as the shimmer swept past them, warping the air into an impossible collection of shapes. I could see nothing clearly in that unnatural mass except that it was huge, bigger than a Norgle, and moving much, much faster.
Craters appeared in the yellow dirt, drawn by an unseen hand. Dust and tufts of grass flew in its wake. When the air shimmer reached the wounded Norgle it paused, the great mass of distortion swaying back and forth as if examining the beast. Then it lifted the Norgle several spans off the ground, turning an animal that weighed a hundred stones in its grip as I might handle a newly caught fish. Blood dripped onto the dirt where the beast had lain.
The invisible thing ripped the Norgle apart. Meat and bone tore with a horrible crunch, dripping rags of skin and fur onto the grass.
The shattered, very dead remains dropped limply to the dust as the invisible monstrosity's attention shifted. It shuddered and started in our direction, crushing the poor Norgle's body into the blood-caked dirt. Though the Flatplain was vast and we were still far away, the thing would be upon us in moments. Every limb trembling, I turned to see what Mellach would do.
"That's enough." He jumped off his Dewer's-kin. "We can’t outrun that thing. We stand and fight." Mellach unsheathed his kinu, the blade grating musically against the scabbard.
"Fight it?" I gulped as I notched an arrow to my bow with shaking fingers. "But it took apart that Norgle like it was nothing. And we can't even see it!"
"Don't be stupid, Kwalla," Mellach snapped, his eyes steady on the approaching blur. "You can see it, or at least its shape. That should be enough. You're a full-fledged Hunter now. Let's see how brave you really are in your marrow."
A hot blast of metal-scorched air washed over me. Then the thing fell upon us.
The shimmer scythed between Mellach and me in a blur of nearly invisible edges that looked knife-sharp. Terrified out of their wits, the Dewer's-kin galloped away at once. I dodged air shimmers that could have been claws or wings, shapes I couldn't even name intent on tearing me apart. Mellach darted behind the thing, his kinu throwing sparks he sliced into the monstrosity’s unseen substance. The force of the cut jarred the kinu out of his hands, leaving it buried in air.
A shudder coursed through the shimmering form. Holes appeared in its mask: the shimmer flickering in square patches, darkness underneath. I glimpsed a jumble of ribbed, shiny surfaces, black as night and slick with wetness. Dark purple fluid streaked its hide, staining the grass. Then the whole mask vanished.
The legs were four massive corded tentacles, shiny black and oozing fluid, hooked claws ringing the round feet. A rounded rectangular body swayed between them, tubes hanging from its belly like ropes. Wings folded along its back, gray membranes stretched between sharp-bladed shafts. On what must be its face, huge rotating wheels with sharp hooks and bristles loomed above a tripartite jaw lined with sharp ridges. Above the evil mouth, a collection of round red eyes stared coldly at me.
I’d thought being able to see the monster would make me less scared. I was mistaken. This creature was horribly, nightmarishly wrong. It didn't belong here; I knew that down to the core of my marrow.
Petrified as I was, the thing could have killed me easily. But its attention was focused with ghoulish intensity on Mellach as he tried to wrench his kinu from the monster's leg. With a lazy kick, it brushed him away. The impact hurled him through the air. He shot past me with the speed of a fired needle, rolling in a cloud of pale dust and blood.
"Mellach!" I dashed away from the unreal monstrosity, falling to my knees at his side. Mellach lay facedown in what I hoped was only unconsciousness, smeared with dust and ichor. I shook him, praying he was alive. Through it all the monster never moved, its blank crimson eyes trained on us.
Mellach coughed, a spasm racking his body as he spat blood, struggling to turn onto his back. I helped him, afraid he would do himself more harm. A big dark bruise was spreading under the red skin of his abdomen, but at least he’d avoided those ripping claws. Mellach’s skin was covered in lacerations from hitting the plain at such a speed, but they looked shallow. I propped him up as he fought to regain his breath.
"I—I'm all right. I won't be joining the Gods just yet. But, Kwalla... when it touched me, it spoke. It spoke to me!"
I started in astonishment. "It can speak the Dewer tongue?"
"No. I never heard words, but I knew its intent. It could not hide its purpose from me.”
I gulped, my mouth dry. “And… what is its purpose?”
Mellach smiled grimly. “To Hunt.” His face contorted and he spat more blood. “It is a demon we face, Kwalla. It must be brought to its end here and now. It will not leave us be until we are dead. And then it will track the route we came from.”
Straight to our island. My bones went cold at that vision, fingers of ice sinking into the warm places inside me.
“You must kill it.”
“Me?” I sounded desperate in my own ears.
“I cannot help you like this. I’m sorry, Kwalla.” The real regret in Mellach’s eyes cut me to the marrow. “You’ll have to face it alone.” I could see my teacher spoke the truth. He was in no condition to help me. I squeezed his shoulder and lay him down. Anger smoldered in me as I turned to face the monstrosity that presumed to stalk and kill two members of the Hunter’s race. The demon had not taken a step during our exchange.
Then it rushed me.
Before, I’d been fighting for my life. Now I fought for all our lives: Mellach’s and mine and the unknowing Hunters and Fishers we’d left on our island who would fall like reeds before the demon’s onslaught. I wasn’t going to allow it that chance. I was going to kill this demon in the names of the Gods in their pearly sky.
I rolled as its tentacles pounded the ground not a span from my head, loosing an arrow as I landed. It pierced one of the demon’s shiny red eyes, and the eye shattered in a flash of light. Transparent metal tinkled on the grass, flew in shards from the ruined eye. The demon jerked back, pawing the air with two thick legs, but there was no scream of pain. No gushing blood. What was this monster?
I dashed behind it, hoping to dislodge Mellach's kinu from its ropy limb. The blade came free just as the demon twisted its head around and found me. My arrow protruded from one eye, oily black smoke pouring from the wound. I reached around and dropped the unsheathed kinu into the needle-gun case on my back. Wrapping my arms around the monster's tree trunk leg, I began to climb, the needle-gun bumping against my chest on its strap.
The first thoughts started when I was halfway up. The thing's voice was nothing but a violent buzzing—but the thoughts beneath were cold and metallic and fiercely intelligent. The demon’s curiosity prowled around me, probing my skull with gentle taps. Then it plunged like a desert screamer and sank its talons into my brain.
I almost lost my hold on the limb, splaying hands on its surface just to hang on. A white-hot needle was drilling into the bone above my eye, pressed deep by the demon’s awful, icy rage. It bucked, nearly throwing me as the convulsion ran under my belly like an earth tremor. I held on tighter, fighting the pain, scrambling to get onto its back as it bucked and reared like a massive Dewer's-kin gone insane.
I was flat on my belly, inching along its smooth hot surface toward something embedded in the center of its back. A dome that had been invisible from below, nestled between the angular gray wings.
The wings flailed at me, raining stinging cuts on my back and tearing my skirt to shreds. With a gasp I wrenched myself into the safe spot in the middle of its back where the wings couldn't reach me. The burning in my skull lessened immediately.
The object nestled between the membranous wings was round and deeply wrinkled, scored with convoluted troughs and valleys like a lake coral. The translucent half sphere sparkled with multi-colored lights like tiny stars, distorting the outlines of larger shapes deep within the demon’s body. A thin dome of transparent metal covered the coral thing. It tinkled softly as I tapped it with a finger.
Hot air rushed over me and I ducked under a swinging tentacle, heat rippling the air behind the limb. For the first time the creature made a sound, a shriek of frustration as it pounded the ground and flapped its wings.
I threw my arms around the strange half sphere to keep from falling. As I touched it the demon calmed. Its wings ceased their frantic flapping, its huge frame went still underneath me.
And I left my body. I was floating in a sea of shifting lines, blocks, and dots of white light. Walls of brilliance extended infinitely above and below me in a well of pure energy. Waves of light caressed skin I couldn’t see. Bursts of fuzzy, grating noise hammered my mind with unfiltered demon-speech.
The light-well dissolved into a blackness darker than the space behind my closed eyelids. Cold as though I’d been rubbed all over with ice swallowed me, ripping away every memory of warmth; making me forget what it was even like to be warm. It was a terrible, lonely place, lonelier than death.
A spark spiraled past me in the blackness. It was the sleek leaden ellipse from the wrecked clearing, cutting through the void in an indigo aurora of flame. My view shifted, and I saw the metal ellipse fall toward a gigantic sphere hanging in the void, so big its curve ate up half my vision. Swatches of white, gold, blue, and green covered the surface in jagged patches.
Darkness. I felt myself falling. My huge body compacted into an oval drum. Its metal sides kissed my hot skin and wedged my limbs against my hull. My wings tried to unfold from my back and encountered the resistance of cold, inert metal. Beyond the thin skin of the ship, the sun’s winds hissed and crackled, caressing my craft with hard radiation.
I felt no fear. There was little to feel inside the demon’s mind. Anything I would call emotion was wiped out by the power of the will implanted in its mind. The will that, in some terrible way, was its mind.
I saw a being far older and stranger dangling the demon beneath it like a puppet. Even in a memory its glance seared me with a glare that burned away all detail. But I remember the red heat of its blazing mind, the terrible, precise movements of its articulated limbs as it spun into being the demon whose memories I shared. I felt the surge of warmth and power that would never leave me as my maker brought my cold metal mind to life with a hot breath. The pain almost like pleasure as it branded its Imperative into the circuits of my soul. I would sleep for a long time, and when I awoke I would hide, and hunt and catch with the gifts it had given me. The pull of the Imperative reached across eons, shining cords of silver binding me to its will.
I had been made to scour this world of life.
I’d never wondered if the Gods might have an enemy. Now I knew. This red god, this Hunter of Hunters who sent one of its ravening animals to destroy the Hunting race, was that enemy.
I faced a servant of the anti-God.
A titanic shudder hurled me back into the world. I held on as the demon thrashed and reared, its shrieks scraping across my mind like shearing metal… and becoming words. Release me! The Ij demand it!
I jerked in astonishment. What is Ij?
The monster under me froze, twitching with suppressed fury.
I am Ij. We are Ij. All others are prey! White light and blinding agony rolled over my brain again. I screamed and huddled closer to the dome, clutching at the name in my mind like a shaman clutches his fetish. As if now I knew its name, I could ward off the demon’s evil. Ij. The enemy had a name. And a purpose…
"Kwalla!" Mellach shouted, lying in the dirt. "Kill it! You have to kill it!" The demon reared as if it understood him; perhaps it did. I grabbed the smooth dome for purchase and removed his kinu from its makeshift sheath with my free hand.
The Ij slashed its clawed foot toward me, too low to dodge. I hefted the needle gun and it surged with fire. Darts ripped into that pillar limb, so like a Norgle's leg. The explosion showered me with heat and steaming purple fluid, searing my exposed skin dark as recoil threw me onto my back. The burns stung, but the pain in my head disappeared. The Ij screeched, mouth open as it waved its shattered leg, wires and tubes protruding from the mess. Its other three feet stumbled in the grass.
Impossible! Nothing can destroy the Ij!
"Think again, monster!" I plunged the kinu deep into the round, wrinkled object between its wings with both hands tight around the hilt, not stopping until I felt the blade tip grate against some harder structure inside the creature.
The demon lurched earthward, legs collapsing under it with a cacophonous clank. An angry buzzing rang from deep in its guts. The wrinkled coral thing had broken like brittle ice under the kinu's blade, colored starlight within winking out as I pierced it. I left the blade embedded and scrambled for a hold as the Ij's bulk juddered to the plain, crashing in a flurry of yellow dust. I rolled off and landed a few spans away with my snout in the dirt of the Flatplain.
It tasted amazingly sweet.
For a while I lay panting in the dust, breathing in the sweet tangy smells of dirt and the musk of panicked Norgles driven away by our battle. I heard Mellach's close, heavy breathing as he crawled over and gently turned me onto my back. His face was full of what a novice Hunter might mistake for concern. I knew it was pride.
I struggled up, limp with exhaustion and triumph. Mellach didn’t try to stop me. The demon lay in a pool of indigo liquid, blank red eyes darkened in death. Black smoke billowed from the carcass as I wrenched Mellach’s trusty kinu from its shattered hide. I gazed at that simple steel blade with the bone hilt for a long moment. How many lives had I just bought with this kinu? Uncountable. As many as the stars in the sky that let in the light of the true world. I staggered away to kneel beside Mellach and held out the weapon, waiting for him to take it. But he waved my hands aside.
"I cannot take it. It belongs to you, Kwalla. Any Dewer who can kill a demon deserves his own kinu." I gasped as he pulled the scabbard from his belt and offered it to me. In a daze, I slipped the scabbard through my own belt and slid the sharp blade carefully inside. I glanced at the slain demon, casting my mind uneasily over the strange things I’d seen; the memories I’d shared.
Following my gaze, Mellach sat up with a wince. "We will take nothing from that thing. It was not a beast the Gods hunt. The horns of the Norgle you brought down will be enough to prove to our people that you can Hunt. That and the story we will give them.”
“It told me its name before I killed it.” Mellach’s earflaps pricked up. “In words. It called itself Ij.” A chill came over my skin, a fear belated by the rush of combat. “How did it learn the Dewer tongue, Mellach?”
“It must have been watching us after we entered the Outer Lands,” he replied. “You saw how it hid itself in thin air.” His reluctance to speak of it constricted his voice to a mumble.
“And learned our speech in a day and night?”
“Demon magic,” he muttered, and would speak no further.
My teacher got up stiffly, holding his side, and went to the trampled carcass of the Norgle to salvage what meat and marrow he could with his diru. Glancing a last time at the demon's carcass, I went to round up our Dewer's-kin. We loaded them with juicy Norgle meat and strips of shaggy hide and led them back to camp. Mellach, his exuberance returning as we quit the darkening plain, insisted the Norgle’s massive horns be tied round the neck of mine.
My thoughts swarmed like Norbs on the return journey. I agreed with Mellach, of course... the Ij had been evil, a demon. But the questions would not leave me alone. If the Gods’ country was paradise, what lands did the demon call home? And the thing that had made it?
“Where did it come from? The Ij,” I asked Mellach, braving his ire a last time.
“Somewhere I never want to go,” he said, and brushed ahead of me on the path.
I had not expected to choose my new name that night—the adult name that would follow me the rest of my days as a true member of the Hunter's race. But when Mellach asked me, I realized I’d already made my choice.
"Well," Mellach said across the campfire, "Have you chosen your new name?"
"Already?" I yelped, almost choking on my mouthful of charred Norgle meat. "It's so early! My… my stripes haven't come in yet." I willed my earflaps to be still.
Mellach grinned around his massive Norgle femur, his snout buried in its marrow. The teeth I could see gleamed in the firelight.
"Of course, now. It was your first true hunt! Momentous things have happened this day. You are of the Hunter's race, even if you still have your spots." I looked at the kinu sheathed in my belt below the soft bandages covering my burns.
"Yes," I said slowly, locking eyes with him above the flickering fire. “I decided on a name before we returned to camp. A second name.” My heart thudded. For a Dewer to choose a second name and keep his first was rare: a new name was a Dewer’s way of memorializing his first Hunt, her first Catch. First names were meant to be forgotten as the Dewer took his place in the eternal Hunt. To keep one’s first name was reserved for Hunters or Fishers who’d performed feats that went beyond the Hunt and became legend.
"What is this second name?" Mellach asked. His grin grew sly as he lowered the femur. “Not ‘Norgle’, surely? We already have many accomplished ‘Norgles’ running around the island.”
I glanced away from the circle of firelight. “It’s not ‘Norgle’.”
The corners of Mellach’s mouth turned down. “It’s not…”
I sensed him about to speak the demon’s name.
“No,” I said quickly. “It’s not that. Not ever.” The idea of carrying the name ‘Ij’ like a black curse for the rest of my life gave me shudders.
I told him. Mellach smiled and embraced me, cautious of the bandages around my ribs. He drew back as he spoke my new name.
"Well met. I welcome you to the Hunter's race, Kwalla Demonslayer." I smiled back, breathing in the moment like sweet air as the stars and moons blanketed our glen in the true world’s silver light. Just for a moment I saw the Gods’ faces in that light as they gazed down from their home in the sky, scattering their blessing over two Dewer destined for immortality.