[Story] Story a Week 24

[[ Prompt: A story that ends on a cliffhanger. ]]

They followed the river’s winding course through the plains, resting during the hot afternoon hours and moving mostly at night. Harvian caught fish at dawn and dusk, they were most active and searching for food then. Tamazi tried her luck at it, but the water was too deep and the fish too swift and clever. They could dart to avoid her paws no matter how quickly she moved, and in the end she simply got herself soaking wet. Harvian would laugh, but she didn’t mind terribly because the fish would bite the bugs on his hook, so they had some to eat. Maybe she could live here along the river, though she would have to find a hook of her own. That, or get better at catching them with her paws.

There were strange smells, too. One afternoon, while Harvian rested, Tamazi went to investigate. She saw a great herd of animals eating grass, very like wildahlo but with shorter fur and smaller horns. They did not flee or run, not even when she got almost beneath their noses. How could they be so numerous if they did not run from danger? Or perhaps they knew, somehow, that she was not a real hunter. She left them alone. Even so, they were too large to take down alone, and surely they would at least defend themselves. Besides, her belly was full of fish from earlier that morning.

Sometimes Harvian asked her things, about her tribe and how they did things. Sometimes he would stroke his whiskers and nod, other times he seemed surprised by what she said. He said it was different from the books, but that was to be expected. Very little was known about the tribes, he said. Tamazi supposed that they weren’t all the same, that there were differences among them, but she had never spent any time with another. From time to time, males would come to their tribe seeking a new home, and would be allowed to stay if some hunter took a liking to them. But hunters never left their tribe — unless they did something very bad. Something like running away during their Blood Hunt. But she’d never seen an outsider — a real outsider — before Harvian. She doubted that many other tribes had either.

He told her about where he was from, the ancient forests to the north that had stood since the world was born. Their homes and buildings were built among them, in the roots and hollows, sometimes even high in the branches. There were hunters there too, he said, though they looked different. Their coats were dark and mottled or striped to hide them among the forest. Harvian took out his pen and made a little drawing of one, carefully adding the markings in ink. Tamazi looked at it curiously. She wondered what they were like, whether they spoke the same language and honored the Huntress as she did. Harvian said they had tribes, but usually lived apart and only saw each other rarely. That sounded like a lonely existence to Tamazi, but then, she had been alone these last weeks as well. And while she didn’t really miss any of the others, she missed Kamara greatly, and worried about her. She wished there was some way to tell her that she was safe, at least.

One night, they climbed a large hill. The Huntress’s eye was open, illuminating the plains below. Tamazi could see the river, shining silver in her gaze. She saw buildings, huddled together like a herd of grass-deer. And far in the distance, she could see the temple, glowing bright above the plains. Even from so far, Tamazi could tell how large it must be up close. Who could make such a thing? Had it stood here since the old days, had the Huntress herself once visited? If she had, there probably would be a story about it, and Tamazi had never heard one. Would she be the first huntress to see it? The thought was thrilling, she had to admit. No one would believe her if she described it, but she would know the truth.

That night they passed through another dark place, a forest huddled on the river’s banks. It wasn’t quite a swamp, but it gave Tamazi an uneasy feeling, all the same. Not only for the memory of the drake, but the persistent odor of decay that clung to the air. She wanted to get away from that place as quickly as they were able. Harvian seemed wary, too, his black nose twitching anxiously, and his tail was fluffed up in alarm. He kept looking around them, but if he saw anything, he said nothing. Tamazi nearly stumbled over a root, but when she looked down she saw that it was not a root at all, but the bone of some animal. It was buried in the mud, so she could not be sure. Uneasily, she stepped over it, but glancing around she could see many more. In the dim light she had not noticed them before, but now she saw that they were everywhere, scattered in the mud. It couldn’t be just one animal, there were too many and they were different sizes. Something had brought them here on purpose. Tamazi felt her hackles rise along her back, her eyes wide and alert. If there was another drake —

She saw its red eyes first, glowing like embers in the darkness. It took her a moment to find the owner’s shape, for its fur was as black as the surrounding night. Something like a grass-deer, but much larger, more muscular. It had only one horn, a spire of twisted bone that rose from the center of its forehead. Harvian saw it too, barking in alarm. The thing stepped forward, and Tamazi heard the mud sucking around its hooves as it did so. Beneath its breath, it spoke words that she could not understand. She felt something clutch at her paws, and in horror she realized they were bony paws, risen up from the mud. Dozens of them held her in place, though she gnawed at them with her teeth they would not relent. She looked at her side for Harvian, surely he knew some magic to free them; maybe the wings again. But he was held fast in the mud, the bony hands clutching at him. As he was much smaller, they held him fast, and one clutched his small narrow muzzle in its grasp.

The black beast stepped closer, its expression impassive. He spoke only one word, and though Tamazi did not recognize it, she could discern its meaning.

You.”

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