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"Trek" - A Fanfic by geoffrey thorne


1

The thick humid jungle moaned around them as the initial shafts of First Sun’s light made patchwork filigrees on the upper canopy. The night was mostly gone and, with it, their last chance to catch and dispatch the Beast.

"Stop fidgeting, Aryki," said Nika softly. “Are you trying to get us killed?”

Nika was masked in the Hunt Gear so all Aryki could see was her eyes flashing gray in the early morning dark. Hunt Gear was lovely for hiding in the Wood, covering the body as it did in bands of thick dark leather, but it was murder on the shoulders. Worse than that, as the uppermost bands crissed and crossed over her head, the hunt gear hid Nika's face. Aryki thought Nika's face was beautiful.

"Is something out there?" he said, hoping not.

She raised a finger, shushing him again, and nodded. Something was out there. He could sort of feel it too, a little. It was a strange stillness at the far end of the thicket in which they crouched. He regretted instantly volunteering to accompany her on the Trek. He wasn't as good at it as Nika. No one was, really– except Kote, who was even better– but Aryki fancied himself the worst of all. He was clumsy in the wood, stumblefooted. The hunt gear chafed him in places he preferred not to think about or discuss.

He wanted the Scholary, he suddenly realized. He wanted it more than ever, dusty tomes and all. Trek was duty though. Until The Beast was downed it was only fair that everyone, even the scholars, should take their turn. He just wished he enjoyed it as much as Nika.

"Be still," she said, her voice little more than a whisper's ghost. Unlike the noises he made, her words were eaten instantly by the surrounding green. "Wait here."

She motioned for him to stay put, stepped out into the thick foliage and was instantly gone, melting into the greenery like evaporating dew. Aryki let his hand fall to his chargestaff. He wasn't particularly adept with that either but, as it was the only weapon that gave the Beast pause, he was bolstered by its presence.

Raise. Point. Sharp twist. Fire, he thought. Simple.

The staff was as tall as he was, encrusted with shining black stones at either end. Something in the stones' nature let them store ambient electricity and release it on command. He didn't exactly know the mechanics but was determined to make a real study of them upon his return to the enclave. If they returned.

The Beast had taken fourteen from this enclave so far, leaving nothing of them behind but the memory. Only Nika had ever survived an encounter with the thing and she had been left with a hole in her memory, writhing in a fitful delirium for days. When she finally woke it was with a scared face and a thirst for revenge that bordered on the maniacal.

Nika never missed a Trek after that, not once.

The brush rustled slightly nearby and Aryki's staff was in his hand, ready for use.

"It's near," said Nika as she emerged from the green. "Be ready."

Be ready? thought Aryki, pessimism and terror fighting for domination of his mind. Just the two of us?

They— well, Nika— had tracked the creature back and forth across the night-shrouded forest, doing their best to catch it, kill it if they could, but also to keep it so occupied that it didn’t have time to snatch another of the Folk from within the enclave. How Nika managed to follow the Beast was anybody’s guess but she had done it, keeping them just behind it and just out of its reach as well.

Aryki was happiest about the latter. The insanity of the Trek had landed on him fully scant seconds after following Nika into the night. Why were they sending folk out in twos when tens or sixties would make more sense? He resolved to take that very question up with Atherh when he and Nika returned. If they returned.

"When it comes," she said, her voice a soft buzz in his ear."Don't run. Hold your ground and fire."

Aryki nodded. He wasn't a warrior but failure in front of Nika was a fate worse than whatever the Beast might offer. In his dreams Aryki was often a heroic scholar, a warrior of distinction among others like himself. It was those dreams that had spurred him to draw lots for the Trek.

He felt Nika’s gaze on him and hardened his resolve. He forced the tremble out of his hands and set his jaw. At first nothing happened. It continued not to happen for another little while until Aryki felt another fidget coming on. A second sharp glance from Nika put a stop to that.

He was just about to ask her what the thing looked like when the air or the foliage or the whole world went still around them.

2

Atherh met the Night Guard just as the shift was changing. She was a smallish woman with quiet eyes and ways but what she lacked in stature she made up for in grit. The Folk had never needed a leader but, with the coming of the Beast, one was required. Atherh hadn't really wanted the job; as First Scholar she was content to spend her days deciphering ancient tomes and scrolls but the Beast’s coming had forced the leadership role upon her. After the first takings, Atherh had been the one to organize the Night Guard. This was a group of the strongest Folk, the best with the chargestaff, those with the keenest eyes and ears who would walk the enclave's perimeter from dusk to dawn. The Beast mostly snatched its victims after dark and the Night Guard seemed to be a deterrent. It had taken six before Atherh had stepped up to organize the others.

"Any sight of the Trekkers?" she asked Kote. The big man shook his head. Lateness was a bad sign.

"I was just about to send two more in after them," he said.

Atherh had not had much to do with Kote before the Beast's arrival. She was First Scholar and he, First of the Hunt. The stratified lives of the Folk kept the groups mostly apart for everything but Harvest and Feast. The Beast had changed that as well. Now Kote lead the Night Guard, deferring to Atherh only in that her mind had proven the better one when it came to matters of defense. The Treks had been his idea.

They had quarreled over how many to put on the guard and how many to leave for the Treks only compromising when the enclave’s new mediator forced a solution upon them.

Pairs of hunters, Trekkers now, would go out to stalk and, it was hoped, kill the Beast, leaving the rest to guard the enclave through the night.

"Don't send anyone else," said Atherh after a moment's thought. "If they come out wounded we'll tend to them."

"And if they don't come out?" said Kote.

Atherh shrugged. "Then we'll know what happened."

Atherh turned to go. The Day Guard was a less significant operation than the Night. The Beast never came while the suns were up. At night it moved in the jungle, in the enclave, even among the Folk with invisible impunity, taking whomever it wished and leaving no trace. It left them the day to grieve and plan.

Atherh had only instituted the Day Guard because she'd felt it unwise to take chances. So far whoever the Beast wanted, the Beast got. All but one.

"It was Nika," said Kote.

"It's always Nika," said Atherh.

"Nika and Aryki," finished Kote and watched coolly as the news stopped Atherh in her tracks. Then he went on. "I told him Scholars were exempted but he insisted he be allowed to go. Said he drew the lot just the same as Nika."

Not quite the same, thought Atherh. Nika always drew the lot. How many Treks was this for her now? Six? Seven? Nine? Atherh had tried to dissuade the woman from swapping with others in order to go on every single Trek but Nika's intransigence made her warnings futile. Frankly, a part of her was secretly glad Nika spent as much time as she did hunting the Beast.

Nika made Atherh as uncomfortable as she did the others. She was so different since that first terrible encounter. Before she had fended off The Beast— or escaped, or just been lucky— no one was sure and Nika herself couldn’t remember— Nika had been a happy smiling woman, gregarious, even playful at times.

Since she’d come back from her delirium something had changed in the Second Hunter— for the worse. She was colder than she had been, less apt to smile or share in a joke, almost mechanical in some ways. It was unnerving to say the least, especially so when coupled with her new zeal to be the one to kill the creature herself. Nika had always been an efficient hunter but never a bloodthirsty one.

And Aryki going with her? What''s that about?

The little scholar's affection for the hunter was painfully evident to everyone- except Nika herself ironically- but for it to lead him to join the Trek? Love and madness are often the same, she thought, allowing a rueful smile to curl her mouth.

Kote was surprised to see the little grin. He'd expected some response to the news of Aryki being off Trekking– a shudder, a tear, even one of the infinite series of aphorisms Atherh had culled from the Scholary. He was disappointed. She didn't even turn his way.

"Find Uv’A," she said, starting off again. "And bring him to the Assembly. We need to talk."

"As you wish, Atherh," said Kote, scratching his head with one leathery hand.

3

The enclave wasn't too big. There were larger ones to the west and to the north. Like those it was composed of a Scholary, an Armory, an Assembly and the domices where the Folk lived. Uv’A knew that there were twenty-six domices in this enclave. He knew because he, as Mediator, had business with them all.

The folk had been a little leery of their new Mediator when he’d come striding out of the jungle those nights ago. He was small for the job, being only of average height and build, but successful. There was something about the dark man's voice and demeanor that inspired calm in the afflicted.

In this generally harmonious enclave there was little, really, for him to do. Less since the Beast had come. He took his turn Trekking like the rest and settled whatever minor disputes managed to arise.

To wit:

"Tell Taris to mind his own business," said Ahna in an icy tone. "Atherh wants a wall built around the enclave and I'm the Mason."

She was even smaller for a Mason than was Uv’A for a Mediator but highly skilled for all that. Her domices weathered storms better than others, kept their occupants cooler or warmer than the air outside, depending. Her temper

was, to say the very least, volatile and she was intensely self-reliant. To Uv’A's mind this last quality indicated poor judgement in her choice of mate.

"Tell Ahna," said Taris with equal frost. "Pregnant women do not build. She could get hurt."

Taris was her husband and, aside from his penchant for practical jokes, didn't really do much for the enclave at all. He'd tried the Hunt, but was deemed too noisy. He'd tried the Scholary but was deemed too boisterous. Mediation, at least the way Uv’A did it, was a one-person job.

Taris was smart enough, agile, strong, but there was something about him that made him unsuited for life in the jungle enclave. Maybe it was the red hair. U’Va had always thought Taris would have been happier in the enclave by the sea where he might at least have access to fishing boats.

"Taris," said Uv’A, judiciously choosing his words. "Ahna is capable of determining those tasks she can safely undertake and those which her present condition precludes."

An aura of smugness began to radiate from Ahna.

"Ahna," said Uv’A, turning her way. "Taris is the father and his concerns, while a bit overarching in this particular instance, must be taken into account."

Ahna's aura receded a bit.

"Perhaps," Uv’A went on. "Ahna can continue in a supervisory role while Taris leads the builders in a more physical capacity."

Surprisingly both Taris and Ahna laughed together.

"Taris is no mason," she said.

“And no leader either,” said Taris.

"You may both be surprised," said Uv’A, rising. "In any case, compromise is the logical solution."