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\aITEM -855486073 428448635:The Desert Beasts\/a \aITEM -855486073 428448635:The Desert Beasts\/a
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by Richton Straight
A hunter's story about his first trip to the new lands.
As I stood upon the prow, straining my eyes to spot our eventual destination, I got the same warm, sated feeling in my stomach that I always got before a hunt. This one would be different, though. This was not one of the planned hunts of my past. I had no documents on the hunting or feeding patterns of my prey. I did not have the knowledge from past hunters on scents or colors to avoid. IN fact, I did not even know what I would be hunting. And that, I believe, was the most exciting aspect of it all.
We were to drop ourselves in an unknown land -- unknown to ourselves, leastaways -- and, for a period of three weeks, track and slay the biggest prey we could fin. The thrill of big game hunting compounded with the fear of unknown prey. We all felt it, the air of the ship spoke volumes. The crew, of course, didn't match our sentiment, but Tocks, Ardal and myself all shared that unspoken feeling that none, save the greatest poets, can ever describe.
The sea itself seemed to hold its breath as our ship approached, exhaling in a long, slow sea breeze once we finally reached shore. Tocks and Ardal had been with me for nearly seven years. Ardal's sharp sight and acute hearing were unmatched. Tocks, by some stroke of fate, was the luckiest gnome I had ever laid my eyes on, often blundering his way to fortune. Me? Well, someone had to do the easy part and actually slay the beast.
On the advice of the locals we purchased a few camels and a large supple of water, then set off into the desert. As soon as we left the friendly, salt-scented air nearer the ocean, Ardal spoke in that elven dialect of his.
"Hmm?" I asked.
"I said," he repeated in a tongue I could understand,"that this is not a friendly land."
"Nonsense," Tocks threw in, "your perspective is just all skewed. The ground is soft...that's friendly!" I chuckled at Tocks' outlook as I often do. My laughter trailed off and nothing took its place; it was clear that we all felt uneasy about this land.
Days passed and we came across many beasts. None, however, had the "feel" of true game. We were anxious and did not want to commit to anything in a land so foreign. We discussed many beasts as prey and passed over dozens without coming to any conclusions. By luck, our future prey happened to find us. One morning Ardal found tracks around our camp. We were being followed, hunted perhaps.
The tracks Ardal found were of a shape similar to the lizardmen in Feerrott. They were deep and even from heel to toe, suggesting a slow, crouched walk. However, they lacked the distinctive tail marks that a lizardman from the Feerrott would leave if walking in such a position. Tocks laughed. "Ghosts of lizardmen we've killed in the past! Want their missing tails we stole, no doubt!"
Neither Ardal not myself shared Tocks' jest. We glanced at each other, concerned. These tracks were deliberate. Tracks this deep from a beast could be accepted. But we knew the lizardmen of Feerrott were no mere beasts, and it stood to reason -- enough to worry us, that is -- that neither were what we now thought to be their desert cousins.
"So..." Ardal said, glancing at me and awaiting our next move.
"We follow them!" said Tocks, not oblivious to the conclusion Ardal and I had made. I nodded, agreeing with Tocks.
"As I thought," said Ardal.
"What better prey than a hunter?" I questioned under my breath.
Tocks began packing his things immediately. Ardal took me aside and said, "They know we are hunters, this is their bait for us."
"Right." I answered. "They will have a trap set."
"But which lizardmen?" Ardal paused at me words.
"The big-game lizardmen..." he sighed. I gave him a large smile.
"All right, then," said Tocks, "from now on we can assume we're being watched. I think it's important that we don't let them know what to expect from us. We need to keep them on their toes, or tails...or not tails, as it were." With that, Tocks picked up one of our water skins and poured it into the sand. Both Ardal and I started to speak, but stopped. We were familiar with Tocks and knew the water was already gone. Tocks exclaimed, "Now they'll think we're absolutely insane."
We set off. Ardal and I scanned our surroundings for possible ambush. Tocks sand a song about a meatball. Our hunters, I wagered, watched us the entire time. Though it was unlikely our hunters spoke common, we conversed in Antonican for an extra measure of comfort.
"They will set a trap for us, quite possibly two traps. One obvious, one less obvious, but both will be traps."
"Five or six traps." Tocks added.
"And when we are snared?" asked Ardal.
"Then we spring our traps." I said, referring to our skills as fighters and hunters. "Tocks," I continued, "You follow at a distance of one half hour. Ardal, move parallel to the west. They already know our numbers, but if we spread out we may foil their plans."
I communicated with Ardal in hand signals. With Tocks I left messages in my tracks. At the end o day, I saw the first trap. On the horizon were a couple of lizardmen, tailless as the tracks suggested. I glanced at Ardal. Wordlessly he glances at their second trap, dust upon the hill above us suggesting recent movement. They would flank from the west. I left a message for Tocks. We rested for fifteen minutes, then moved toward their first trap.
As Ardal and I moved closer to each other and our target, I sensed a disturbance to the east. The desert dropped off and a short cliff gave way to an oasis. A soft breeze passed my nostrils, and I caught a scent. It was tough to pick out from the air of the oasis, but something was there. Perhaps in reaction to our march's halt, the lizardmen felt now was the time to strike. At the edge of the cliff a scaled claw appeared, pulling its owner up and over the edge.
I spun quickly to Ardal, an arrow -- his -- flew past my head. I heard the unsatisfying sound of the arrow striking sand. Ardal turned to the west and -- as expected -- two lizardmen now approached from the hill. Ardal dropped his bow and produced his twin blades. From the south a few arrows sailed through the air, too far to act as anything but a distraction, though the lizardmen advanced and fired simultaneously.
I turned to face the lizardmen who had crawled up the side of the cliff, though now there were two. They dashed toward me with amazing speed. I drew my blade and let a small, poisoned dart fly. The dart hit its mark, and the poison worked quickly. Though not dead, the lizardman fell to his knees before collapsing totally. I had watched too long, however, and my attacker was upon me.
My attacker's sword was far longer than mine, and it was all I could do to keep from being gutted. Our combat gave me no opening to strike. He advanced, and I danced about him; we spun, and I was able to position our dance so that I faced toward Ardal. He had dispatched his two attackers, but had caught an arrow in his leg.
Despite that, Ardal drew back his bow, facing my direction. I stopped shifting and allowed the beast a straight attack at me. Drawing his blade to my side, I let his body collide with mine. For an instant he wrestled with me, then he fell with an arrow protruding from the base of his neck. I looked for the two attackers from the south.
I saw instead two dead lizardmen. "You never told me you were such a good shot!" I yelled to Ardal.
"I never needed to be," was his response. To the north we heard a high pitched laughing. Tocks came running up, something dangled from his hand. I called out to him, "Three traps, Tocks...Three!"
"Four!" he called back, holding up the object in his hand, a necklace from one he apparently felled.
We pulled the bodies together. Tocks kicked one and it rolled over, facing him with a sinister grin. "Ugh," he jumped back, "these aren't game, Rich."
"It was a fight, wasn't it?" I countered. Ardal nursed his wounds, and I, my scratches. Tocks, as always, was unharmed.
"Yes, it was a fight, not a hunt," came Ardal's response. "This is not a friendly land."
The night was slow. We feared retaliation, but none came. Tocks passed his necklace from hand to hand, eyeing it with suspicion. Eventually he threw it to the oasis. "It was creepy," was all he could say.
"We'll find better game, lads." I tried to comfort them. It had been an awkward and surprisingly violent day. I dropped my hat over my eyes and drifted off to sleep. We'd find better game.