Archive for the ‘First Age’ Category

Jor spat out the water and sand. He tried to stand up but his ankle screamed with pain and he fell back into the wet sand.

He cried out, but the hunting party didn’t respond. How far had the river taken him? It seemed like merely a moment that he was in the water, tumbling through the rapid current before crawling out of the water.

Gritting his teeth against the pain, he took stock of his surroundings. Behind him he heard the rushing water of the river that had swept him away from the group and a small cave in front of him. Jor got to his hands and knees and crawled toward the cave, careful not to hit his ankle.

The dark inside of the cave helped sooth Jor’s nerves. Rolling over onto his back, he used his good foot to push himself to a sitting position against the wall. Examining his sore ankle carefully, he found it to be swollen but not bleeding.

The other hunters would look for him along the side of the river. The small cave was unremarkable, with smooth walls and lots of rocks scattered about the small inside. It would be an adequate place to rest, protected from the elements until the others came.

Fatigue finally overwhelmed him and Jor laid down on the hard rock and let sleep take him.

*****

A sudden, strange sound woke Jor out of his uneasy sleep, setting his hunter’s senses on alert. As he sat up, he heard the sound of falling rocks from the back of the cave. He looked around the cave quickly, but just saw the assorted rocks he had found when he entered the cave. Something set him on edge, though.

He took a quick look at his ankle and noted that it was still swollen. Shifting around carefully, he crawled out of the cave into the dying light of the day. He pulled himself up on his good foot and looked around. In the far distance, he thought he saw a fire on the bank, upstream of the river. Perhaps that was the hunting party camping for the night. It was too far away for him to travel with his sore foot.

Dropping back down to his hands and knees, he went over to the river to get some water and to relieve himself. He then went a bit upstream and found some edible plants for a small meal. The bitter, tough roots weren’t all that appetizing, but they took the edge off his hunger.

It was as he crawled back toward the cave that he saw the moving pile of rocks.

He blinked a few times, making sure his eyes weren’t playing tricks on him in the dusk’s light. The rocks suddenly collapsed on themselves, forming what appeared to be a small pile. Jor rolled away and into another pile of rocks nearby. He panicked and tried to scramble away, but ended up sprawled out on the sandy riverbank.

In his peripheral vision, Jor saw the first pile pick itself up and move toward him. It was shaped sort of like a small man, with a body, head, and arms made of dark rock. The figure was easily visible, even in the evening’s light, against the sand. Jor rolled over on his side, facing the figure, hands up to repel an attack.

The figure moved slowly toward Jor, and started rubbing its arms together slowly making a strange noise. From behind him, he heard the same sound from what was probably another rock creature near the cave. He watched as the rock creature got closer and closer while making the grinding noise.

When the figure got close enough, it stopped moving and just remained where it was. Curiosity finally overwhelmed Jor and he reached out to touch the creature. The creature stood still for a bit, then it took its arm and touched Jor’s hand. The ends of the rock creature’s arms were blunt with crude fingers.

Another rock creature came up and stood by the first one. It held a stick of wood between an arm and its body and dropped it on the ground nearby. Picking it up, Jor turned it over and looked at it; it appeared to just be a normal piece of wood. He set it down again, and the second figure backed off. Then another creature came up and dropped some food mushrooms that Jor recognized. Brushing off the sand, Jor nibbled on the mushroom. He didn’t taste anything bad, so he ate it. The figures made different types of noises as he ate.

Jor sat upright, avoiding putting pressure on his foot and looked around. There were four different rock creatures around him. Two of them were touching him, running their blunt arms along his skin. One tried to touch his ankle, but Jor swatted the curious arm away.

Suddenly, the group fell silent. Jor looked around and saw all of them circling the first creature Jor had seen. It was holding one arm in the air and all were looking at it. The arm shook for a bit. Then the rock broke apart and formed into four fingers and a thumb similar to Jor’s hand. Wiggling the fingers, the figure waved the arm around to show everyone.

The smaller rock creature then made a strange, quiet grinding sound that made the others stop and pay attention. Jor strained his hearing and heard something in the distance, a voice calling something out. Perhaps someone from the hunting party was coming!

The rock creatures started making sounds again, faster than previously. After a few moments, they all went off away from the sound, following the river bank downstream. Jor watched silently as the creatures left him alone in the darkening night.

“Jor!” he heard the voice call again.

“Here!” he shouted. The voice got closer and Jor recognized the voice as belonging to the youngest hunter. “Gao!” he shouted. Joy overwhelmed him when the young man finally got close enough to see in the last light of the day.

“Jor, you good?” Gao asked, dropping supplies on the sand and then setting up a crude camp.

“Foot hurt,” Jor replied, quickly adding, “Cave there.” Gao gathered up some of the supplies and moved toward the cave. Jor crawled over and into the cave. Feeling around, he noticed that the rocks he had seen in there previously were no longer to be found.

Unrolling some sleeping furs, Gao set them for both of them to sleep. “Han hurt from animal that pushed you in river. Not bad, moves slow,” Gao finally explained as he finished laying out the furs. Jor replied with a simple grunt of understanding.

“You see anything?” Gao asked after dragging all the gear inside the cave.

Jor stretched out on the furs in the darkness, fatigue coming over him again as the throbbing in his ankle started to subside. “Yes, but tired. Tomorrow,” he answered Gao as he drifted off to sleep.

The bright light blinded Gao as he took his first unsteady steps out of the cave in days. The sun’s warm rays couldn’t touch the chill deep within him since the fear gripped him so tightly on that hunting trip.

Sitting in the sun, Bo looked up as Gao stepped timidly into the light. She gave a slight smile as the young man shuffled slowly away from the darkness into the daylight.

“Cold,” Gao complained as he sat down hard next to Bo. He rubbed his arms in a feeble attempt to drive the cold away. Bo simply nodded; she had felt it, too.

“We chased when sleeping,” Bo said, looking over at Gao who was just looking at the ground.

Gao nodded. His nights had been filled with visions of being chased by a predator, of running for his life. It was the same thing he had felt when that evil man took the skull out from under his cloak.

“What happen?” Gao asked Bo directly.

Bo furrowed her brow and shrugged, then gazed off into the distance. Gao just sat quietly and let the sun warm his skin and try to drive some of the darkness from his mind. He tried not to think of his recurring dream.

After a bit, Bo patted Gao on the arm and stood up. She went to get a basket and went down the path away from the sea to do some chores. Gao sat for a while, listening to the sounds around him. The crashing of the waves seemed to sooth his troubles.

He grew listless once he felt a little warmer. He got up, and walked down toward the sea. Down by the water’s edge, Han stood with a fishing spear, but having little success. From a distance, Gao watched him move slowly along the edge of the water, thrusting the spear into the water but come up empty each time. Han retreated from his task and took a seat on one of the large stones away from the water. Gao went down and joined him.

Han didn’t acknowledge Gao’s arrival, he only stared out into the distance over the water. They sat in silence for a while as the sea breezes came in from the water, bringing the sharp, salty scent with it.

Gao finally broke the silence. “The dreams…,” he started, his voice trailing off.

Han only grunted in response.

“What happen?” Gao asked, looking at Han.

Han frowned deeply at the question. He kept staring at the sea. After a moment, he stood up.

“Busy fishing, Gao. Go,” he said brusquely. Han picked up his spear and went back to the water’s edge.

Gao stung with hurt and rejection. He watched Han walk away, not looking back. Gao jumped up and bolted up the path toward the cave, then controlled himself to walk and kept the tears at bay. Near the cave he took some of the cold remains of breakfast, his appetite returning after taking the first bite.

“Gao!” the shout startled him as he was focusing on eating. Jor stood above him, looking down.

“What?” Gao mumbled, quickly swallowing his food.

“Come help,” Jor said as he walked off.

Gao scrambled to his feet and took off after Jor. They walked down the path away from the cave. Gar decided to hold his tongue as the two walked together.

They came to some thick bushes where Bo was working. When she saw them coming she stood up and waved, then walked back to the cave. Jor walked to the bush and pointed at a basket sitting on the ground. “Pick fruit.”

The two went to work, finding the small, dark berries and harvesting them in the surrounding bushes. Gao was absorbed into the work and almost jumped when Jor finally said, “What happen?”

“Don’t know.”

“Large cat chase us,” Jor said, looking squarely at Gao.

“Something chase us,” Gao agreed cautiously.

“Man hide cat under cloak.”

Gao thought for a bit. How could someone hide a large cat calmly under his cloak? Something didn’t make sense. But, Gao just nodded. “Yeah,” he said without much conviction.

Jor nodded and went back to work picking the berries. Gao sat and thought; the more he thought about it, the less Jor’s explanation made any sense. But, Jor seemed to want to believe it. He went back to work as the sun got lower in the sky. After a while, one of the girls walked down the path toward them.

“Food soon,” Sen said as she approached the two young men working.

“Thanks,” Jor said as he stood up. He picked up the basket and looked at Gao. “Go find Gar,” he commanded as he carried the basket back toward the cave.

Gao looked around, not sure where to look. He saw Sen standing near, smiling.

“I know where we find Gar,” Sen said with a sly smile.

“Go and I follow,” Gao said. Sen set off walking and Gao followed.

Sen started humming as they walked along. Gao smiled despite himself as he listened. Even with the sun starting to dip below the horizon, he felt warmth finally start to displace the chill he had felt for many days.

“You have bad dreams?” Sen said suddenly, stopping her humming. Gao was confused for a moment, then understood her question.

“Yes,” he answered quietly.

Sen nodded. “I have, too, but mine different. A cat chases you.”

Gao shivered at being reminded of the image. Darkness crept into his vision as he looked at Sen. “How you know?”

“The smell when you sleep. I smell cat and darkness and fear.” She stopped and looked at him. “I smell it on all hunters.”

Her hand touched his shoulder and Gar looked at her. Sen was standing in front of him, humming once again. The sound calmed him, drove away the darkness. He reached out and placed his hand on her shoulder and steadied himself.

“I don’t know,” Sen said, smiling, answering his unasked question. “Come, Gar is this way,” she said as she held out her hand.

He took her hand and she tugged on it to lead him. They started running together, the exhilaration of the run and Sen’s touch helped drive most of the remaining dark chill from him. As they rounded a rock, they found Gar sitting and painting his body with dark pigment.

Gar looked up as they came around the rock. He nodded and went back to his work.

“Food,” Sen said as she watched Gar paint dark lines on his arm. Gar grunted a response without looking back up. Sen shrugged, waved at Gao, then ran back toward the cave.

Gao watched Gar as he marked thick lines on his arm. He dipped his fingers into a small pool of black pigment near his feet. He had a sort of rhythm as he dipped his fingers in the pigment, painted a few lines, and then repeated the process again and again.


“What that?” Gao asked when Gar took a break.

“Strength. When young, I do often,” Gar said. He beckoned Gao over toward him with one hand as he dipped the other in the pigment. Gao stepped toward him hesitantly.

“The cat chases you in your sleep,” Gar said, taking Gao by the arm. “It chases all.”

Gao nodded but said nothing.

“This line is the cat,” he said as he painted a thick line on Gao’s arm with all three of his fingers. He dipped his index finger in the pool again and marked other lines across the first. “These are obstacles in his path. He can never catch you now.”

Gar looked down at the black lines on his skin and felt an extra warmth from them. He felt good, better than he had in many days.

“Oh,” Gao said in a hoarse whisper. “Strong.”

Gar nodded and stood up. “Come, Gao, get food.”

The two hunters walked toward the glowing fire guiding their way back to the cave.

It had been raining for many days and nights since the attack. It was wearing on everyone; wounds festered in the cold, wet weather instead of healing with sun and healthy activity.

Most huddled in the lee side of boulders and rock outcroppings. Some huddled in small burrows dug out to avoid the downpour. Shadow had been flooded out of her den and was staying with Leader and his mates and cubs. The mud and the rain had turned her normally bright red fur into a depressing brown color. All her tricks to make the weather clear up were ineffective.

It was the Old One who suffered the most. Her wounds refused to heal and angry, oozing wounds matted her fur where she had been hurt. Even in better times the occasional night of rain made her legs hurt bad enough, but she was in continuous pain in the current weather. She hadn’t eaten in several days, and even Help bringing her some of the meager hunt didn’t encourage her to eat. Huddled against the boulder that blocked some of the rain, she slept or whined quietly in pain.

The only time she even looked at anyone was when Leader came by to see how she was doing on his evening visit of the pack. She would open one eye as he approached and ask how the young ones were doing. Leader would share an amusing story about one of his cubs. Sometimes she would smile at the story, but she often dozed off while he was telling it. This continued for many nights, the same routine in the same chilly dampness.

Growl came along one evening to visit Leader. “The Old One…,” he started, voice trailing off.

“I worry,” Leader said. “Keeps to herself, but still part of pack.”

Growl sat and looked at the cubs playing at his feet. “She is dying.”

Leader sighed heavily. The two sat together silently, watching the rain fade from sight in the oncoming gloom of night. Leader got up to go on his rounds, and Growl went along with him. When they came to the Old One, she barely stirred. The two looked at each other quietly.

“You good?” Growl asked quietly.

The Old One opened an eye and exhaled. “Not dead yet, Growl,” she said, quietly.

Growl got up and sniffed at the Old One. “Soon,” he said.

“Very soon. Soon for you, too,” the Old One shot back at Growl.

Growl gave a snort and walked off into the rain toward his sleeping area.

Leader approached the Old One and sniffed carefully. He wasn’t as adept at smelling the differences in the wolfen ones, but he detected a scent he had rarely caught before. He sat down next to the Old One and put his head down next to hers.

“All good,” the Old One finally said. “I am old, time to leave.”

“Will miss you,” Leader said, not looking at her.

“Perhaps,” she said as she gave a small laugh that turned into a cough.

Leader was at a loss. He sat by her for a little while longer as the light of day finally faded completely. The rhythmic wheezing let him know when the Old One was fast asleep. He got up, stretched, and left to get his mates while the Old One slept. He ate, played with the cubs, checked on everyone one last time, and went to sleep for the night worrying about the Old One.

During the night the rains had finally stopped. The morning was bright as the sun was able to shine across the lands for the first time in a long while.

Leader woke up and looked over to where he had left the Old One last night, except she wasn’t there. He got up and went to find Growl.

“The Old One?” Leader asked when he found the grizzled wolfen one chewing on the morning’s breakfast.

“Gone?”

“Yes.”

“Found strength for the final hunt,” Growl said. He looked at where the Old One had been the previous night.

Leader sat down and looked over at the empty space as well. He fell silent as he remembered the one who had saved his cub’s life. Now she was gone.

A few of the pack were cracking open bones in their jaws to get at the sweet marrow inside. Most were sitting quietly in the last of the fading sun, satisfied after eating so much, while others were watching the young ones slowly romp around before night fell. Growl and Fangs were leaving for the last patrol of the evening.

Something bothered Hunter. A sense of unease that kept him pacing around the area when the pack was digging in for the night.

“Problems?” asked Leader quietly as Hunter came pacing near.

Hunter sat down and exhaled. “Something not right,” he said, looking around with his ears standing straight up.

Leader pricked up his ears and listened as well. There, in the distance….

Suddenly, Fangs’ roar and Growl’s warning howl sounded from a short distance away. Their warning told of a band of green ones coming this way.

Leader ran toward his mates to help them gather up the cubs. They were already settling in together near a low stone outcropping, so it was easy to get into a defensive position. Leader gave a quick growl of warning as he ran by. He went to move all the mothers and young ones together and quickly organize the defense.

The hard part was the waiting. Leader frantically searched the distance for any movement. The low light of the setting sun was perfect for his eyes. Long moments passed as everyone sniffed the air and scanned the distance for the inevitable arrival. Leader looked to both sides at the line of eight other defenders of the pack, ready to meet the onslaught.

It happened all in a jumble. Two familiar figures crashed through the underbrush and ran toward the pack. Behind Growl and Fangs, a great surge of bodies burst into view. The screeching and screaming that accompanied the green ones on their hunts were unmistakable at this distance. About two dozen of them were running at full speed, digging and clawing at the ground with frenzied speed.

Leader had a shameful feeling of elation as he finally saw the enemies; the waiting was over. His eyes narrowed as he focused on the seething mass running toward him. Giving his packmates and the horde a few seconds to close the distance, Leader then stood up and gave a roar. Towering over the small green ones by almost twice their height, he felt powerful. He then crouched down and leapt forward into the surging mass of bodies.

Claws extended from his paws and slashed at the mass. He felt his one hand connect, the sharp weapons digging into vulnerable skin and ripping deep gashes. Bits of green skin clung to his claws as he used his forward momentum to crash into two other enemies. He tumbled forward and used hind claws to disembowel one of the enemies.

He twisted to get up when he felt a pain in his leg. The other green one had bit him deep, and he felt blood splattering on the fur of his thigh. He reached down to beat the head of the green one to make it let go. Sharp teeth dug in, threatening to rip off a chunk of flesh, but eventually the grip went slack with enough vicious blows.

Leader was in a wild frenzy and his vision filled with the red haze of fury; he attacked without hesitation. He lashed out at the nearest target and ripped the small green head from the body. He was fighting for his life, for the life of his children, for the life of his whole pack.

It was his favored mate’s scream that brought his focus away from the scattering enemies. Wiping the blood from the fur around his eyes, he saw one of the green ones had broken through the line of defense, dodged around the mother’s occupied with another green creature, and snatched one of the young ones from the group. Leader realized in dismay that the young one in the green one’s claws was his own Young Cub. He moved to leap toward the thief, but his legs were tangled by corpses and he fell hard on the ground. A yell of fury directed at the green one was all he could do.

A savage growl from the far side of the battle gave notice that another of the fighters had seen the green one’s attack. A streak of pale gray fur moved toward the offender; Leader was shocked to see the Old One moving faster than he thought possible. Her bloodied jaws snapped shut on the arm of the green one, yanking it savagely. Young Cub dropped to the ground, dazed, as the Old One whipped her body around and yanked the green monster off his feet and away from the cub.

But, a grasping green hand had found her fur and dug in as it swung back around. It pulled its own sharp teeth toward the exposed flank of the Old One and bit in deep. A yelp of pain came forth as she opened her mouth and flailed around to try to dislodge the attacker. Leader found his feet and ran toward the Old One. With a powerful leap, he closed his jaws around the neck of the green one and bit hard. The body went limp and the Old One’s thrashings finally dislodged teeth from her flesh.

It took Leader a moment to collect his wits. Looking around, he saw bloodied bodies everywhere. The green ones had been killed or driven off, and other pack members were catching their breath. As some started licking wounds, Leader went over to where the Old One had finally collapsed in fatigue.

Leader gave a low, calming purr as he inspected her wounds. She had a few scrapes, but the last green one had opened a large wound on her flank. Her eyes were closed and her breathing was shallow, punctuated by an occasional whine.

“Calm,” Leader said as he started licking her wound clean. “Rest.”

“Young one safe?” the Old One asked after a moment.

“Yes. Thank you.”

“Young ones more important than old ones,” she muttered, laying her head back down and closing her eyes.

“Old one important to me tonight,” Leader said as he saw his mate carrying Young Cub back to a safe location. The pack moved back into a defensive position and tended to the wounded as night fell.

The hunt had started well, but the last day was much harder. There were few animals in the area, and those that had been spotted were very skittish. The hunters were not able to get close enough to make any good strikes, let alone get any kills.

It was Gao’s first time out hunting with the group. The first day had been great for him; he killed a number of smaller animals; they had cooked and eaten one of them that first night. Today, however, he was growing more frustrated with the lack of prey. The other hunters were frustrated, too, but they controlled themselves better.

“Why no animals?” Gao asked Jor, the hunter who was training him that day. Jor just shrugged as he looked in the distance for any signs.

Something nagged at Han. Something in the stories that old Zun had once told long ago. He was distracted while they traveled along the hills, trying to remember the stories. When animals disappeared….

The hunters stopped for a small meal. Meat cooked and lightly smoked the previous night was passed around and eaten in silence. Cool, clear water from the nearby stream helped calm some of the frustrated hunters. Gao wanted to ask questions, but nobody spoke as they ate so he kept quiet.

Jor jumped up suddenly and shielded his eyes against the sun, peering into the distance. Han got up and stood beside Jor, trying to see what he was looking at. He saw a faint dust cloud and a few sparkles near the horizon.

“What there?” Han asked.

“Other hunters,” Jor responded quickly.

Han’s eyes went wide. Yes! Other hunters in the area would scare the animals. Nobody had seen any other hunters for a long time. Now he remembered the ending of the story Zun told: it is important to scare off other hunters to preserve hunting areas for the tribe.

“Shining spears?” Gao asked. He had heard stories about the tall hunters, but few had seen them.

“Shining spears, yes, but not tall. Like us.”

Han frowned. Other hunters had shining spears? Only the tall ones knew the secret of the shining spears….

“Listen,” Han clapped his hands to get everyone’s attention. “We scare other hunters. Protect our hunt for our tribe.”

The other hunters nodded. They understood the importance of keeping their hunting areas for themselves. Allowing another clan to hunt would hurt their tribe during the times when the hunting was hard.

The group quickly packed away the food and filled some skins with water. They took their spears and started running in the direction that Jor had seen the others. They ran hard and fast to cover as much ground as possible, to establish a larger boundary for their hunting area. Pain was growing in Gao’s side, but he ground his teeth together and kept running with the group.

The sun was low to the horizon by the time they could see the other group clearly. One from the other group turned and pointed a shining spear toward them. Gao saw that they looked like they did, not tall and thin like the stories said the shining spear hunters were.

Han motioned for the group to slow down as they approached. They took a moment to catch their breaths as to not appear weak in front of the other group. As the two groups approached, they noticed that the other group didn’t quite look exactly the same. The other group looked pale, and some of them had reddish skin or hair. A few of them wore leather clothes, even in the late season’s heat, and one even had a heavy fur cloak wrapped around him. There were eight hunters in the other group.

The one that strode forward to meet them was tall like Han, but with pale, almost white hair and skin. The other hunter and Han stared each other down. Gao held his breath as he watched the confrontation.

It was Han who finally made the first move. He held his spear over his head and yelled, “LEAVE!”

The other hunter raised his spear and swung it over his head. He yelled something back. The other group of hunters started repeating the yell. Jor started yelling back, “LEAVE!” and the rest joined him.

The two groups lined up with their leaders. They shouted and yelled, jumped and swung spears. Only the one in the heavy cloak from the other side stood back, his face turned away from the groups. Eventually some of the hunters of the other group started jumping toward Han’s group, brandishing their spears before returning back to the line.

“Be ready!” Jor said to Gao. “When they come, use your spear.”

Gao looked at Jor in disbelief. Use his spear on another person? That could hurt the other person, Gao thought. He looked back at the other group, gripped his spear, and hoped that he wouldn’t have to.

Suddenly, the other leader gave a frightening yell. He barked some sounds and the other hunters stepped back, grinning. Han looked at the other leader, trying not to show the confusion he felt. Han’s hunters started murmuring as they stood, low and ready for an attack.

It was the figure in the heavy cloak that finally turned toward the groups. He walked toward the leader with unsure steps, stopping and finally looking up.

Gao gasped as he saw the disfigured face. One half of the face was a dark, mottled color. The mouth on that side was twisted into a mocking grin, and the eye was missing entirely. None of the other hunters flinched; they held their ground.

The man then threw open his cloak. He gave a fierce scream as he lifted the animal skull above his head. Bits of rotted flesh still clung to the gruesome trophy. Large teeth grinned as the dark eye sockets stared out in death.

Then all hell broke loose.

The man’s scream seemed to change into a fierce roar, and the skull seemed to glow with unnatural life. The eyes burned with a feral fury, and seemed to leap out toward the group. The hunters turn and ran for their lives.

Gao’s was certain that a fierce feline had leaped out of the cloak where the man stood. He only knew fear, and that had to run for his life. If the beast caught him…. He ran in a wild frenzy, not looking where he was going.

The sun had set before the hunters had finally all gathered back together. They spotted each other in the distance, then found each other by calling out to each other in the gloomy, fading light. Everyone was together, except Gao.

It was fully dark when Bo heard the crying in the bushes. She gave a yell as moved toward the place where Gao was cowering. He sobbed quietly in the bushes as Bo moved to pick him up. She carried him out to the open where the other hunters were waiting.

“It eat me… It eat me…” Gao just kept sobbing.

It was snowing, just as always in her darkest dreams. The wind gusts made Sen shiver. Her furs were frozen stiff and they did little to keep her warm in the unprotected plains.

“Cold, ma, cold!” she cried. Her mother looked down and said something she couldn’t quite hear over the howl of the wind. Strong hands held her steady from behind and pressed her on despite her protests. She moved forward, but her whole world was defined by the the biting cold.

In the distance, she saw the glimmer as she always did. The fire seemed so far away as it flickered then disappeared behind the blowing snow. “No!” she screamed silently, wanting to point and direct the group there. Warmth, safety, life was so close, but nobody else saw it. She turned to say something to mother, but no words came out of her mouth.

They continued walking, as they always did, under the night sky. They kept going despite the cold, despite the fatigue, despite it all. Stopping meant freezing to death, but it was becoming impossible to continue. The man in front of her was the first to collapse, as always. His mate stopped and sobbed with grief. She dropped the baby she was carrying, the one that had stopped crying two days ago. Her body sheltered him from the wind as she shook him. He didn’t respond at all to her shouts and shaking. Sen recognized the scent, the one she feared, that came when spirits left the body. The others told the woman to get up and keep moving, but she wouldn’t listen. Tears froze on her face as the rest started moving again.

Sen knows now that her father was the next to fall, although she never saw him. She only understood this after she realized the hands prodding her forward were gone. Only mother’s reddened eyes gave any hint that anything had happened. Mother never looked back, not once, after that time. They pressed onward, the only thing they could do. Sen wanted to scream, but the howling wind stole the breath from her.

One by one, the others fell or gave up and stayed with their fallen loved ones. Sen’s mind and soul had become numb as her body was; she took almost no notice of the death around her, only noticing the terrible smell she would understand only after this horrible experience.

In the end, it was only her mother and Sen left. During the darkest part of the dream, her mother fell and gave a cry of pain. Sen stopped and touched her mother. Looking up with pain in her face, Sen’s mother set her face and stood up again. “You must live,” her mother said, struggling to her feet and pushing Sen onward.

The sun was just rising over the mountains by the time they saw the sea. The unfreezing waters were moving, flowing, roaring as they walked closer. When the sun’s light finally touched them, it was too much for Sen’s mother. Falling without a sound, it was the last time she would move.

Sen was now alone, all alone. The light of the sun could do nothing to help her. She was cold, hungry, sleepy, and exhausted. She then felt an overwhelming heat flood her, as if she were on fire. She fell to the ground, desperately yelling as loud as she could manage.

Luck was with her that morning so long ago. Nif was out, her old bones aching too much to sleep and her thoughts too restless to sit in the cave. One of the hunters, Jor, was with her; he was up early in restless anticipation of the day’s activities. He heard the little girl’s feeble yell and they both went to investigate.

When they found her, they approached carefully. Nif made some comforting sounds, but Sen was too lost to be afraid anymore. Frowning at the mother’s body, the old mother picked Sen up and wrapped some of her warm furs around her. She said some words to Jor as she walked back to the cave quickly. True warmth flooded Sen’s body and she started to shiver violently. Fatigue overwhelmed her and a dreamless sleep followed.

Her eyes opened and she was on the rock floor outside her sleeping furs. Nif stood over her. “Sen, calm. It good, it good,” she said in a soothing voice, stroking Sen’s hair. “Only a dream.”

She looked around. It was the cave she knew as home, five winters later. She looked up at Nif.

“The bad one,” Sen said. “So cold.” She looked around for her furs that she had thrown off herself during the dream.

“Get warm,” Nif said as she prodded Sen toward her bedding. “You are good.”

Sen snuggled into her furs and shivered involuntarily as she closed her eyes. Thoughts of her new family and the comfort they brought her finally eased her troubled mind until she finally fell back to sleep.

She stopped in the middle of the forest, straining to look at the shadows darting between the trees in the distance. The sweet reminder of summer fruit was dancing on her tongue. The light dimmed as the trees closed in, a dense canopy blocking the sun. From somewhere above, a pod fell and hit the ground with a dull thump. A single ray of light broke through the trees and illuminated the place where the pod fell. A plant sprouted forth from that place, so green in the ray of light that it hurt the eyes to look at it. She blinked away the tears as the plant grew. Its leaves rustled as the plant took form, the breeze carrying the hint of words. “I come,” the whisper said in her ear and she felt a quiver of excitement.

Heena sat up and heard the heavy breathing in the darkness. She sensed the bodies around her, already moving.

“What?” Heena said, looking around at the shadows moving around her. Was it still dream, or was she waking up? She felt a hand gently placed on her shoulder.

“It is Ree,” Tama said quietly. “She is restless, but not awake. Wod noticed first.”

Heena sat for a moment, pushing the haze of sleep out of her mind. Ree and the plant. Something she should know.

“The baby!” Heena finally said, coming fully awake. “It comes.”

Tama counted quietly to herself. “No… too soon…,” she said with concern.

“The little one thinks different,” Heena said, standing up and taking charge of the situation. “We must do the ritual.”

Tama stood up with Heena, but hesitated. She look at Heena in the dim light of the moon, then slowly turned to get everyone ready.

Heena strode over toward the sound of heavy breathing. She went to the sitting shadow closest and leaned down toward it. “Wod?” she asked.

“Yes, dear. I am here.”

“Ree’s child is coming. We must do the ritual.”

His head turned in the dark, the moon’s light shining in his eyes. A sharp inhale of air showed he understood. “I will get her ready.”

“There are trees toward the mountains,” Heena said. “We will go that direction.”

The camp exploded with movement once the decision was made. The tribe gathered their items up as quickly as possible, although Skiro grumbled about being woken up in the middle of the night. In a few minutes everyone was ready. Wod and Tama supported Ree between them as they set off in the direction of the mountains. The tribe moved quickly to the trees Heena remembered.

When they arrived, the tribe moved with a purpose to get ready. Ree was sat against a tree as Wod went to make a fire as instructed. Heena went through her pack and found some of the dried herbs she had in a satchel. When the small fire was built up, she put the herbs on to burn. The sweet smell quickly filled the immediate area.

Heena went to where Ree was sitting against the tree. Everyone else had moved off, assumed their positions guarding the ceremony. Heena sat down next to Ree and took her hand and gave it a brief sqeeze. She matched Ree’s breathing, deeply inhaling and exhaling in time. Ree’s eyes fluttered open and she turned to look at Heena.

“He comes,” Ree whispered. Uncertainty played across her face.

Heena nodded and looked into Ree’s eyes. “I know. We are near trees now. It will be fine.”

A hint of a smile crossed Ree’s face, comforted by Heena’s voice, then she closed her eyes and concentrated. She clenched her jaw as the spasms started in force. Heena gripped her hand tightly in support.

It wasn’t long before the green motes of light finally appeared. They were small and few at first, slowly accumulating around the tree that Ree was sitting against. Heena looked up and gasped in wonder; even the first motes were so bright at night. The motes grew larger and brighter and more numerous as the time passed. Ree’s breaths became deeper as the lights drifted downward, circling the tree. When most of the lights had settled near the base, they floated around Ree.

Heena shifted into position to guide the birth. Heena heard Ree grunting and gasping, fully in the grip of labor. With a twitch, Heena saw the head come out. She stroked the wet head of the newborn, giving it the first sensations of life and encouragement to come out. As the time passed slowly and the motes danced around her, Ree continued to push and the baby continued to move outward. With a last, muffled groan, the baby was delivered to the world.

The motes of light started to fade away. Heena heard them whisper a name, “Laen” as most of the light faded, leaving only a soft green glow mingling with the orange glow of the fire.

Heena held the newborn in her arms. He looked around, bright eyes taking in the beauty of the motes still left. He reached a hand to clumsily grasp at a mote as it floated by.

It was another few moments before Ree’s eyes opened. She took a deep breath and looked up at Heena. “A boy,” she said with fatigue clouding her voice.

Heena smiled and nodded as she gently settled the child into his mother his mother’s arms. “His name is Laen.”

The mother held the baby to herself as the last of the motes faded away, leaving only the flickering fire and the moon to illuminate the area.

The two felines were crouched down, staring at each other. Fangs bared his teeth and made a feint; Leader overreacted and rolled to the side, avoiding that attack he thought he saw coming. Standing tall on his hind legs, Fangs gloated in making Leader show weakness.

“You no leader! So weak!” Fangs growled, looking down.

Leader stared the other in the eye, fighting back any doubt lingering in his mind. “You fool, Fangs! We need wolfen ones and they need us.”

“They grow stronger and you look away. Coward!”

Fangs jumped forward and tackled Leader. Twisting his body and aiming a kick, Leader pushed the other to the side then rolled back to a standing position.

To either side, the mates were watching. Leader’s mates sat close to each other and guarded their children. They had confidence in their mate, but Fangs may try something desperate and attack the cubs. Fang’s mate sat quietly, not looking at the fight. She was always quiet when challenges happened.

The two males stared at each other, trying to stand taller to look down at the other. Fang’s stature let him stand a bit taller than Leader, but Leader didn’t crouch into a defensive posture. He maintained his fierce gaze into his opponent’s eyes.

“You afraid of green ones! You let cubs starve!” Fangs spat down at Leader.

“Cubs not dead,” Leader growled, his voice low and menacing at Fangs. “Your cubs, my cubs all healthy.”

Leader dropped his shoulder and rushed at Fangs as he was opening his mouth to reply. The attack caught him off guard and he was sprawled the ground.

The wolfen ones were standing in a pack, watching from a distance. They were usually surprised when Fangs would try to challenge Leader, seemingly for no reason. As a whole, they supported Leader and saw no reason to challenge him since he had been keeping the pack safe.

“What happen?” Help ask the others.

“Beta cat fight for position,” Scar said indifferently, used to the constant fights.

“Why disrupt order? Leader is strong.”

Scar just shrugged, then got up to move toward the fight.

Fangs got back on his feet and gave a savage yell. Leader’s eyes remained locked on Fangs, not even blinking during the yell.

“Give up! You cannot lead,” Fangs yelled as his eyes narrowed, staring at his opponent. Leader returned Fangs’ gaze, ready to attack at any moment.

It was the series of short barks from behind Leader that made Fangs look away. As his eyes widened, he saw a majority of the wolfen ones sitting patiently in a line, all looking directly at him. When Fangs looked back at Leader, he saw the look of supreme confidence.

Fangs dropped down to all fours and looked up at Leader. With a scoff, he walked over to his mate. She stood up and prodded the little ones away from the scene.

Leader’s mates walked by and gave him a quick nod of support, then went off to feed the cubs.

“Everything good?” Hunter asked as he walked toward Leader.

“Yes, still strong,” Leader said in low tones that hid his shaking voice. “Fangs makes sure I still strong.”

It was the fast one who became restless first, as usual.

The group had spent many days digging out the rock to form a small cave. It wasn’t large, but it suited them well enough. They slept quite a bit and listened to the sea. The hungry one even went into the waters to look for new types of food and found some strange, shimmering creatures there. The fast one was the only one that dared to follow even part way, the rest decided to stay away from the large body of water with seemingly no end.

The fast one was moving around the cave, back and forth in a show of restless energy. When the others were finally getting up and around, the fast one made the beckoning sound and moved toward the cave. The small one moved eagerly to follow. The hard one also lumbered toward the cave entrance, leaving the last two in a quandary. They really didn’t feel the need to get up and go, but the group had never been separated before. In the end, the hungry one decided it was time to eat and the old one followed in order not to be left alone.

The fast one was pleased at being able to lead the others for once. The old one was a good leader, but it was time for a change. The group traveled away from the sea, toward the tall mountains where they had found each other. It was the fast one that had found them back then, gathering them together and forming the group. Since then, the group had always been together.

They had been traveling for a while when they stopped near a stream. The hungry one made a noise and went off in search of something new to eat. The old one sat still, concentrating on the sound of the stream as it ran over some rocks. The low water made little noise, and the old one thought about how the water sounded different than the sea. The others wandered around, taking in the sights of the area and finding things to taste.

It was the small one that noticed the spots on the horizon first. He made the warning sound and the others stopped what they were doing to look around. They all watched the fast approaching creatures. When the creatures got closer, the group sat down and hunched over, disguising themselves like the rocks in the area. They kept careful attention on the strangers, and watched quietly as they ran near then stopped. Members of the other group were putting down items they had been carrying.

They were tall and thin, and most of them had long pieces of wood tipped with stone. One was leaning against a tree when another approached. They made a series of sounds to each other, similar to the way the group communicated, but with more variation. Others drank from the stream and made quiet noises as well. After a short while, the group picked up their items and started running off in the same direction they were heading before.

When the last one left toward the distant horizon, the fast one stood up and looked after them. The fast one made the beckoning sound again. The group started to follow, moving in the direction the strangers had run, if not quite as their rapid pace. The sounds had interested the fast one, and he wanted to know more.

It was late at night when they saw the other group again. They had set up animal hides over wooden poles and had built small fires. The old one quietly made the pleased noise when he saw the bright fires. The others echoed the noise, and they settled in for the night, watching as the tall ones went about their nightly chores before settling down to sleep. The group decided rest as well.

The morning came before any of the group decided to stir. The others had already taken their items left the area early. The group went over to look at the place they had stayed. They noticed that small piles of fresh dirt covered many areas, including where the fires had been. They found other signs as they looked around the area.

It was the old one that first noticed the pile of stones nearby. He made the beckoning sound to draw everyone over. Everyone stopped and looked at pile; as quiet descended on the group, they felt the one thing they had all shared but never felt since….

They felt the force that had given them life all around the area.

Gao sat under the brush, constantly peeking through leaves to search for any movement in the distance. He had been there for most of the day and his muscles were starting to ache from having to sit still. He leaned to one side to stretch a growing muscle ache in his leg.

“No movement!” Bo hissed at him from beside him. The lithe woman had been sitting silently as long as Gao had, but she was still as stone except to point out every single thing Gao had done wrong. “Movement scares them.”

Gao was irritated about getting scolded again. He had not seen any animals all day, and only had sore muscles to show for his time spent. They hadn’t even taken time to eat anything, either. He didn’t think just waiting would be quite so painful.

Bo moved her head close to his in a deft, fluid motion that didn’t disturb a single leaf. “How many animals you seen today?” she asked, her voice barely a breath on his ear.

“None!” he said a bit too loudly showing his irritation.

“Quiet!” Bo hissed. “You don’t see. Look right, twenty strides away.”

Gao strained his eyes to count out the strides in his mind and finally saw it: a light green lizard about the same color as the grass. It was a common animal brought back by the hunters, providing both meat and tough skin. He would have missed the slinking lizard without Bo pointing it out, and he felt ashamed.

“Wait,” she breathed into his ear. “Wait until I move.”

Gao gripped the spear laying on the ground, ready to spring into action. He felt Bo move to sit up straight and grip her spear. A small, involuntary shiver went down Gao’s spine as he prepared for the sudden speed that would be required very soon.

The lizard moved slowly in the low grass, occasionally swinging its head around to look for any danger. After a bit, it found a slab of rock it climbed upon to enjoy the rest of the sun. When it finally put its head down, Bo gave a sharp exhale, leaped from the bushes, and ran toward the lizard.

Gao was stunned, unable to move. He had been concentrating so hard on the lizard that he didn’t realize it was time to move. He stood up quickly but forgot to grab his spear. Bending down to grope for it, he finally grabbed it but snagged it on the underbrush as he tried to pick it up. After a few angry yanks, he freed it from the brush and ran after Bo.

At rock, Bo was staring down the lizard. She was waving her spear around, swiping its dark point at the lizard’s head. The lizard was taking angry bites at the air around her spear. Gao held his spear at the ready, but didn’t know what to do.

“Strike, Gao!” Bo yelled, as if reading his mind. He moved to what he thought was a better angle, took a deep breath, and struck at the lizard’s side.

The world seemed to slow down during the next few moments. First came the sharp shout from Bo an instant before his spear struck. The spear hit the lizard’s side, but the point bounced off the thicker hide to no effect. Gao had gotten the lizard’s attention, however, and it turned toward him faster than he imagined possible. Its head snapped back and forward as Gao stared at it, dumbfounded.

The spittle hit him in the neck. He fell backward with the surprise of the blow and dropped his spear. As his senses came back to him, the burning sensation made him scream and start clawing at his neck.

Bo gave a sharp shout and a quick thrust of her spear and the lizard slumped down. She ran to Gao and sat on top of him, grabbing at his hands. When she caught them, she pinned him to the ground.

“Stop! Stop!” she shouted. “You spread it!”

Gao struggled and screamed, the burning sensation had spread to his chest. Bo kept yelling until he finally calmed down; all he could do is breathe heavily and stare up at her.

“No touch. Stay!” she barked as she leaped up and went to the bush they had been hiding in. She grabbed the pouch of water they had brought and ran back. Pouring a bit of water on his neck and a bit of leather, she started wiping away the spittle and easing his pain. He laid there, whimpering softly to himself.

“Sit up. No bleeding. You good,” Bo said gently. Gao sat up with her help and grimaced with the pain.

He looked over at the lizard and saw Bo’s spear pierced through its neck, blood seeping out of the wounds. Gao got to his feet and went over to look at the dead animal.

“Always hit neck,” Bo pointed. “Sides hard, but neck soft.”

He looked down at the animal, then at his ineffective spear off to the side. He slumped down on the ground as tears welled up in his eyes. Emotions flooded his mind, emphasizing his uselessness and physical pain.

Bo went over to him, squatted next to him, and put her hand on his shoulder. “Be calm,” she said.

He looked at her through his watery eyes and took a deep breath. “So useless,” he said between sobs.

“No, just learning,” she said. “Takes time to learn. I took long time.”

He looked at her and swallowed his sobs. He wiped his eyes as Bo nodded and showed him her hand. Small puncture wounds could be seen along the part near the thumb.

“When I was learning, animal leaped at me and bit hard. It hurt!” she said. “But, I learned animals move fast, and better if they watch spear not me.”

Gao swallowed, enduring the pain, and nodded.

“Now, you learn,” Bo said. “Next time you see this lizard, remember pain in neck.” She pointed at his neck. “Then, give him pain in neck!”

Gao gave a small laugh through the tears. It hurt, but it was not a lesson he was likely to forget soon.