Chapter Thirty Eight
As weeks became months, Adam sensed that Emma’s strange illness was worsening.
Though she rarely complained, she had grown pale and endured restless nights, often rising to pace the cave or venture out into the warm night to wander the grasslands. She said it calmed her mind, so Adam thought it better not to dissuade her.
Her stomach had grown somewhat larger since the day she’d shown it to him but she kept it hidden from him under grass coverings as much as she could. He could tell it bothered her but, again, chose to remain silent, not wanting to cause her further stress than she could handle.
Sometimes, while she sat stringing shards of crystals along thin vine necklaces, or mended ripped sunhats, Adam swore he saw a change in her face at times, as though something had stolen her thoughts. She would press her hand to her belly gently and breath a deep breath, almost as though she was communing with something inside of her.
Whenever he asked about it, she would only smile dismissively and go back to her task, as though nothing at all had occurred.
One morning, when the sun was hidden behind darkening clouds, Adam called for Emma to join him on a hunt. She smiled sadly and replied she would not be joining him as she usually did. She claimed she was tired and, anyhow, it looked as though it would rain again. The rainy season was upon them now and she didn’t want to get wet when the weather could turn hostile at a moment’s notice.
When all his protests were sufficiently rebuked, he set about packing up his things without a second thought.
Emma waved to him as he strapped his spear to his back and set his newly mended hat on top of his head. If it did rain, its wide brim would provide good cover and held his vision. She didn’t get up from her spot against the wall as she waved goodbye, a thin smile crossing her face.
He waved back and said, “I’ll be home before nightfall,” before sliding out of sight and climbing down the crystal spire to the grasslands below.
When he reached the ground, Adam set to his usual routine. First he scanned the jungle behind them for any dangerous movement. This morning, like most others, it seemed clear. Following that, he stepped into the grass, the tall stalks enveloping him until he was completely surrounded.
As he waded further, he was surprised to discover that all new vegetation had burst and bloomed into a riot since the day before. Colorful seed pods had opened to reveal long pink tendrils that waved from their hard shells. The ground littered with thousands of them created a strange and beautiful sight to behold.
A drop of water tapped against the brim of his hat and he looked up to see rain had starting falling. He knew then the change in landscape was most likely due to the oncoming of the rainy season. Dormant life in the usually arid grasslands was awakening in anticipation of receiving new moisture needed to sustain itself for another season.
Moving on, he noticed the ground becoming soggier as it grew wet. Soon it would become difficult to walk through, so he picked up his pace. Luckily, he had committed much of the best hunting grounds to memory, so he didn’t anticipate needing to be out in the rain for long.
His first spot was a large mound covered in funny holes that he and Emma had found. Upon inspection, they learned the holes were the tunnels of all the various burrowing animals, intersecting as though they’d all agreed on the location somehow. Each night he set traps around the spot and usually found them full with various animals each morning, some already dead, some struggling to life.
Following his work here, he planned to set up quietly by the large watering hole in the center of the grasslands where larger three-legged beasts often appeared to drink out of view of sliders or other dangerous blue moon predators. These were harder to kill, but with a good strike of his spear he’d been able to bring one down before. The meat had lasted them for more than a week before it spoiled. If he could get one now, it would mean he wouldn’t need to leave Emma as much and avoid the rains.
Won’t Emma be pleased when I come back with a tripper? he thought.
They called them trippers because of the way they always seemed to trip over their long legs when they got startled and tied to run away. They were funny creatures, too tall for their own good. He and Emma had had a good laugh one day, whispering that nature must have made them as a joke.
Thinking of Emma made Adam smile as he finished checking the traps by the large mound of earth. And even though he only found one long nosed digger with a trip vine wound tightly around its neck, he didn’t let the small bounty dampen his spirits. He was cold and already starting to get hungry, but the thought of Emma back in the crystal cave waiting for him with a fire going warmed him enough to keep moving.
After tying the digger around his waist, Adam trudged onwards through the muddy ground towards the watering hole. If it wasn’t for the lack of game in the traps, he may have turned back. But he had his heart set on killing a tripper and was determined to get one.
Lighting flashed overhead as he continued through the tall grass. He heard the sharp cracking of a tree trunk and knew it had been struck by electricity somewhere far away. It was something he’d seen many times in the rainy seasons— an explosion overhead as the top of a tree caught fire from a lightning strike. A moment later thunder crashed and a clouds opened up, letting loose a rainstorm that pounded the world around him.
He cursed and thought about turning back, but he was so close to the watering hole it would be a shame not to see what opportunities awaited him there.
As he approached the area, he got on his belly and slid through the mud to avoid being seen. Trippers were tall and their long necks could peer overtop of the grass and find predators. The closer to the ground you got the easier it was to sneak up on them undetected.
Parting the grass and looking through to the watering hole, he saw two trippers dipping their snouts under the surface of the water. One was larger than the other and Adam guessed it was a mother and her child. They were right in front of him and so focused on drinking that he felt confident they hadn’t heard him approach. Usually very alert, their hearing was likely impaired by the heavy rainfall. Perhaps the storm was a blessing after all.
Moving his hand to the butt of his spear, Adam slowly removed it from its vine holster on his back. Then, bringing it down along his side, he clasped it tightly in the center and got ready to attack.
First he removed his hat and placing it carefully beside him. Then, moving achingly slow, he brought himself to a crouch position which would allow him to spring forward quickly.
His heart pounded in anticipation and he wiped water from his brow and eyes. He licked his lips and leaned forward onto the balls of his feet.
He was ready.
A screech from above brought everything to chaos. A large flying predator—a creature Adam had never seen before that looked more like a lizard than a bird—attacked from above, trying to snatch the smaller tripper up with its sharp claws. The tripper squealed and kicked its legs wildly as the lizard bird dug its talons into its back.
Driven by instinct, the larger tripper bounded away into the grass, leaving the smaller one to fend for itself. If Adam didn’t act fast, both would be gone and he would be left empty handed.
Springing into action, he lunged from the grass and high into the air towards the watering hole. Bringing his arm back and focusing all his energy into his shoulder, he twisted and threw his spear up at the lizard bird, hoping to bring it down before it could fly away with the tripper.
The bird screeched and beat its heavy wings, angling its body to move out of the way. Water splashed off its glistening scales and its huge marbled eyeball spun widely in its socket as it twisted to avoid Adam’s attack. But it was too slow. Adam’s long spear pierced the leathery underside of its wing, piercing it and then plunging into the monsters’ fleshy underbelly. It screeched horribly, folding its wings around its body and spiraling to the muddy ground below.
Adam pounced quickly, jumping onto the animal and ripping the spear from its body. The lizard bird flailed wildly and swung its sharp beak towards him, snapping and screeching. But Adam was faster and he struck the thing again, pounding the spear into its neck and twisting it with a deafening hunter’s scream that broke through the thunderous rainstorm.
The creature’s head fell to the ground and Adam watched the light of life leave its eyes before turning his attention to the tripper that was trying to hobble away through the muddy ground. It was badly injured and would soon die. Adam felt bad for it suddenly. He loved the thrill of the hunt, but hated to see an animal suffer. He had come to understand the role that death played in the cycle of life on the moon, something Pin had tried to teach him when he was young.
Striding towards it, he raised his spear to put it out of its misery. A quick death was the best he could offer the animal. And to become food was not only inevitable for any creature living on the blue moon, it was preferable to a useless death caused by starvation or accidental injury.
The tripper made a sad honking sound as its tall legs sunk deeper into the mud. Then Adam struck it through the back of the head with his spear and the chaos of the hunt was over as quickly as it had begun.
Adam heaved a deep breath then looked about. Standing between his two kills, he was faced with a dilemma. Unable to carry both back to the crystal caves, he would need to decide between taking the larger lizard bird or the smaller tripper. The smaller tripper wouldn’t feed them for long, whereas the lizard thing looked to be about four times its size.
Stepping lightly over the mud so as not to get stuck, Adam picked his hat up off the ground where he’d left it before the attack. Shaking the water from it, he put it back on and weighed his options. Then he made his decision. He would drag the lizard bird back to the tower.
Bending down, Adam tore handfuls of thick grass from the roots and piled them up around him. Then, sitting down, he began the arduous task of winding them all together and tying the ends to form lengths of rope. It took a long time to make enough for his purposed, but he had time. He’d promised Emma he’s be back by nightfall and it was just past midday. It was more important to ensure he made the ropes strong enough than to rush back home. Better to come home late with dinner in hand than on time and empty handed.
When he felt he’d made his ropes long and strong enough, he bundled them up and moved back to the watering hole where his kill was waiting to be packaged. No other animals had visited the area since his attack, which was strange, but he expected eyes were watching him from the surrounding grass just waiting for him to leave.
When he reached the animal, he folded each of its long wings over its body and began to tie them down. When that was done, he grabbed the hind legs and turned the beast around so he could pull it backwards through the grass. And after tying one length of grassy rope to each of the legs, he roped another around his own waist and cinched it like a belt. He’d learned that it was easier to attach larger prey to the core of his body to drag them long distances rather than relying on the muscles in his arms.
Satisfied that he had the creature packaged in a way that would make it easy to get home, he fixed his spear to his back and took his first step toward home.
The lizard creature was heavy, but it was the mud that caused Adam the most trouble as he began the journey home. It seemed to be getting deeper by the second, and water was beginning to settle on top, trapping his feet as he trudged forward. He did his best to wade through the shallow lake that was forming, but as the rain continued to alter the environment around him, a dark realization struck him. He suddenly knew why the grasslands were so rarely visited by larger jungle predators. They had learned to avoid it because it wasn’t grassland at all, but dangerous swamp—a massive bog that only spent the last days of the hot seasons as he and Emma had found it.
Adam’s heart pounded in his chest as he felt his feet sinking deeper with every step. He could see the towers at the edge of the swamp in the distance now, but he was still hours away from reaching them.
Thunder crashed and he swallowed deeply. He needed to hurry but, stepping forward, he found he couldn’t move anymore.
Looking back, he watched in horror as the lizard creature he was dragging behind him began to sink into the bog.
I shouldn’t have stopped moving! he thought, his mind reeling.
Pulling the ropes with all his strength, Adam tried to lift the creature out of the mud and bring it forward, but it was impossible. Finally, a sharp sucking sound erupted as the creature disappeared under the surface and Adam cursed when he realized it was too late. His game was gone.
He went to untie the knot around his waist when he was forced forward suddenly and fell with a sickening slap onto his stomach in the mud. He lifted his head and wiped the mud from his eyes. Then his stomach lurched as he was dragged helplessly through the mud towards the stop where the bog was swallowing the creature and him down with it! He had to hurry.
Rolling onto his back Adam tried frantically to untie the knot around his waist. If he couldn’t get loose soon, he would be pulled under the mud and unable to work the knot at all. But the grass had tightened in the wet and cold so his attempts were useless.
He screamed and thrashed desperately as the bog continued to pull him towards the spot where the lizard had disappeared. He grabbed onto stalks of grass as they passed by but his wet, muddy hands couldn’t find a tight enough grip and he kept sliding forward.
Reaching for his spear, he managed to pull it from its sheath and drive it into the ground like a stake. Using the weight of his body, he pushed it deeper into the mud and held on for dear life. He felt the tugging of the ropes around his waist as the creature sunk deeper into the mud, but the stake held firm.
His mind raced as he tried to come up with a plan to free himself from his predicament. If he let go, he would be pulled away from the spear and sink with the creature he was tied to. If he waited too long, he had no doubt the bog would find a way to swallow him anyway. He thought about using his teeth to bite through the grass rope that connected him to the lizard, but there wasn’t enough slack to raise the rope to his mouth. He was truly stuck, with little choice left but wait for the bog to take him.
Water bubbled violently all around him suddenly and he watched in astonishment as something seismic began to happen. He felt vibrations, small at first, but that grew to waving tremors that threw him back and forth as he struggled to keep his grip on the spear. He screamed out, then starred in astonishment as, all around him, blasts of water erupted and mud flew into the air like multiple bombs where exploding from somewhere under the surface.
What the hell was happening?
He heard the monsters before he saw them. A deep moaning sound rumbled across the entire bog before thick limbs pulled lean, muscular bodies up from the muck.
With no eyes to see and gaping mouths full of yellow teeth, the massive subterranean creatures were rising from the depths of the earth at the coming of the rainy season. These were the swampland’s apex predators, emerging to eat and breed in the rainy months and retiring back underground at their end. And Adam was just unlucky enough to find himself in the middle of their awakening.
Unable to move, he shut his eyes and pressed himself to the mud in the hopes of remaining unnoticed as more of the large creatures rose around him. Blind, they mostly stayed still, waiting for the water to rise higher around them and give them cover to hunt.
A few more explosions erupted in the distance as more creatures rose and he wondered in vein what would become of him once the water rose so high he would have to let go of his spear.
Then, without warning, he was thrust violently into the air and swinging from the rope around his waist ten feet off the ground, his spear still in hand. Flailing to see what had happened, he saw that one of the bog monsters had found the lizard under the mud and pulled it free, Adam along with it.
He heard bones crunch as the bog monster took a bite and tore a leg off his game. Adam tried not to yell out, knowing the bog monster couldn’t see him, but adrenaline shot through him as he panicked. Another bite and the bog monster’s teeth sliced through the grass ropes Adam had tied around the lizard’s legs, letting Adam fall back to the swamp, free from his bonds but still in mortal danger.
Staying low, he tried to wade away through the water, but his movements immediately caught the attention of another bog monster that barreled towards him, splashing and sniffing grotesquely through a single nostril in the center of its eyeless head.
Adam stopped moving and floated as still as he could. Hi heart pounded as the bog monster walked right over him, sniffing his body. He shut his eyes, too scared to look.
Something nudged him and he rolled onto his side. The monster was right next to him, snorting grotesquely and trying to find something that smelled like food. Maybe it was because Adam kept still, or maybe it was because he was covered in so much mud, but a moment later the bog monster stepped over him and moved away in another direction.
Adam kept dead still as more of the subterranean creatures emerged from the mud and swam around him. The water was growing ever higher and his mind raced. If he didn’t get away soon he would find himself trapped in the middle of the giant swamp with no way out.
Reaching his hands deep into the water, he tried to gauge if he could still reach the muddy bottom. When he found he could, he pressed his fingers into the mud and inched himself forward, gliding smoothly and silently along the top of the rising water, careful not to drift any faster than a piece of flotsam to avoid further detection.