There was no avoiding the killing.
She raked with her claws, and blood flowed. Her attacker fell lifeless to the mud, but not before crying out.
That was bad. That would alert others.
She reached down, using her long tail to counterbalance, and scooped up one of the grubby animals that squealed. That sound, too, would alert others, and so she silenced it with her bite, chewing a couple of times before swallowing.
Then she ran.
She knew how to do this. She knew about the creatures that built these hard stone structures to shelter in, that trapped creatures in these pens of wood. She knew how they thought. She knew their weaknesses.
And they were weak. They covered themselves in hides because their outer flesh could not withstand heat or cold, with thicker coverings to protect their soft feet. They could see, but their other senses were pathetic. If she was quiet, she could get so close that they would not smell her scent until she was upon them. And then it would be too late.
They were slow to act, too. She heard them, blundering toward the scream, still some way off. She had time.
The stone boxes provided shadow, which she used. Ahead, the flat stones on the ground would give way to honest soil, and then all she had to do was cross the field to the gap in the wooden barricade. Once she was beyond that, she was free.
But these creatures were still dangerous. They had the exploding sticks, the ones that spat pain. She still bore the scar on one thigh, and knew she had been lucky. Others had met their end from these weapons.
And sometimes the creatures showed intelligence. Like now.
She could smell them, just around the corner. Two creatures. She also caught the dry, acrid tang of the exploding sticks.
She pulled the carcass tight to her side, squeezing to prevent more blood flow. She crouched, readying her free arm. She didn’t want to kill more of them, but she would do whatever it took.
The creatures were waiting, either for her to make the first move, or for others to join them. Off to her left, she heard the clumping and grumbling of their approach. Light flashed, from the beams they carried.
Again, because their senses were weak. They couldn’t rely on the illumination from the night sky.
She looked up. A cloud rolled on, and the moon glowed, showing her the sloping top of the stone box.
Showing her a way to escape.
She transferred the carcass to her mouth, tensing her jaw to grip it tight. Then she climbed. It was easy—they had grooves in these boxes, some kind of slippery but brittle stuff set back a little. And although the top sloped, it was no worse than the bank of the river.
As she crept along, shapes moved in the shadows below. They made noises, grunting to each other, and every so often they’d make a strange hissing sound and fall silent.
It was like they wanted to be spotted. Ridiculous that these things caused her kind so much trouble.
From this height, she could see the field. The wooden barrier stretched in front of the forest, and the gap was clearly visible. But shapes moved by it, one large, the other small.
And they, too, held death-sticks.
But she had no alternative. She had to get food back to the nest. And she would not allow such pathetic, cruel creatures to stand in her way.
She spat out the carcass, grabbed it tight under one arm, and bounded to the ground. As she landed, shouts erupted to one side, and there was a crack as one of the sticks spat out its invisible death.
She raced across the field. Her tail brushed the ground, and she used that to turn, twisting one way then the other. The ground to either side erupted in small explosions, but none of the bolts of pain hit her.
The two beings ahead crouched and brought their sticks up. But she couldn’t stop, not when her she was so close. The sticks cracked, their ends flaring bright, and she swerved.
Hot air shot past her cheek.
They would send more bolts of pain to her, unless she was quick. Or unless she scared them.
With deliberation, she swiped her tail and turned to the smaller creature, the one more likely to be intimidated. Already, she smelt its fear.
Maybe it was a young one, but they didn’t care about her offspring, so why should she respect theirs?
Then the larger creature stood, and swung its stick. She had a moment to think this strange, before pain wracked her side, and she staggered. She felt the carcass slip.
But she regained her feet, and she bounded, over the smaller creature, its scent sharp and acidic. She flew through the gap in the wooden barrier, clipping her arm. Within moments, the trees enveloped her.
Eventually she slowed, the death-sticks and the grunts and shouts a distant memory. She grabbed a handful of leaves and chewed them into a mush that she rubbed onto her side, where the stick had hit. Then she walked on. She would reach the nest soon.
The carcass was still warm by her side, and she smiled at the thought of the joy it would bring. If they were careful, this food would keep them going for many suns, especially if her little ones started foraging too.
She’d start training them, she vowed. She’d bring them to the edge of the woods, show them these slow but deadly creatures. She’d teach them.
Maybe, next time she had to hunt, she wouldn’t be alone.
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