Wednesday, August 5, 2015

"The Dragon's Quest" Excerpt: "The Hunt Before Nightfall"

"I got a clear view of the predator: the tawny golden body, rippling with muscle, the long tail flicking out like a rudder, and the spackled head of a golden eagle shrieking in victory..."
 As the path twisted closer to the mountains, a herd of white puffballs caught my eye.
"What are those?" I said, as they seemed to be wandering near us. The animals looked a little like sheep, and they grazed like them too.
"Those are called resia," Jerak answered. "They are perhaps the dumbest animal on Phantasm. They have only enough mental capacity to eat and sleep, but they breed rapidly and are about the only source for those creatures that eat meat."
I had to smile as an inquisitive resia ended up just beyond arm's reach for me. It blinked at me with round golden eyes like those of a sheep, yet when I coaxed it close enough to stroke its back, I saw that the "wool" was more like a short, coarse hair. It flinched under my hand, and when I stopped, it scurried away.
Jerak snorted, and I could almost read the disdain on his long, horsey face.
"See what I mean?" He muttered, "dumb animal."
I attempted to ignore his attitude. "What sort of creatures eat the resia?" I asked.
Jerak raised his head to look at grey, winged shapes that wheeled in the sky.
"Gryphons, mostly."

I flinched as a screech echoed from the sky… and suddenly a winged beast dropped down and sank its claws into the back of the resia I had just befriended. I got a clear view of the predator: the tawny golden body, rippling with muscle, the long tail flicking out like a rudder, and the spackled head of a golden eagle shrieking in victory as it claimed its mark. Instead of claws, each lion’s paw had wicked-looking talons that firmly gripped the flesh of the fat, heavy resia. The poor animal lowed pitifully as it sailed away to certain doom. The air was filled with the cries of gryphons and resia as the dive-bombing continued until what few terrified prey remained had successfully reached the cover of the trees.

Jerak trotted down the path as if nothing were out of the ordinary.
“Come along, Laura,” he called.
I couldn’t get the images of the diving gryphons out of my mind.
“Does that happen a lot?” I asked the unicorn.
Jerak tossed his head. “Oh, the gryphons will hunt only about every two dozen cycles or so. It gives time for the resia to breed, you see. Don’t worry,” he noted my baffled expression and sought to be reassuring. “There will always be more. It’s just food.”
Just food, I reminded myself.

By the time we reached the woods, the daylight had dimmed to a soft golden hue. The sun hung in a perfect half-circle at the horizon. Jerak stopped and pawed the ground with his hoof.
“Well, it looks like we’ll have to stop and rest here for the night,” he said.
“Here?” I looked around at the grassy clearing. There didn’t seem to be any of the Little Folk around here, as there were in other forests. That didn’t mean there weren’t imps hiding in the fallen log there, or watching me from the vines above—
“Yes, well, we’re not going to get much further before nightfall,” Jerak remarked.

Right on cue, the world plunged into absolute darkness.
“Jerak!” I squeaked involuntarily, my arms flailing to find him.
My fingertips brushed his flank, and I heard him snort. “Ahem! I’m right here, what are you shrieking about?”
I had never been in such complete darkness outdoors before. There wasn’t a moon, there weren’t even any stars.
“Doesn’t this place have a moon or something?” I whined, fighting to orient myself when I couldn’t so much as see my hand in front of my face.
“Of course there’s a Moon—the Beems should raise it any moment now.”
“Beams?”
A piercing stream of light cut the darkness. I watched in awe as a huge shining orb slowly elevated over the mountains, spreading its glow over the landscape. It certainly was the shape of a moon… but it was at least twenty times bigger than I had ever seen Earth’s moon. It was so large, in fact, that I could clearly see that it’s surface wasn’t dusty grey rock covered in round craters. Instead, it was smooth, striated, and almost oblong. I squinted at the golden sheen.
“Jerak,” I muttered, “Why is it moving?”
The light wavered, swelling and sinking in places. It was almost as if—
“Those are the Moon-Beems, working in their hive,” Jerak answered.
A thrill ran over my skin. The Moon as a hive for astral insectoids—what a phenomenal concept! I was beginning to understand how much I had missed in developing this world—now here it was, expanding before my eyes!

After eating our fill of the hanging yellow fruits growing wild around every tree (Jerak called them edkidna) I dug into the satchel Perissa had given us and found a tiny stack of blankets—at least, I thought they were small.
When I unfolded them, they expanded to a size large enough to wrap around me. I couldn't quite figure out what kind of fabric it was, but it felt both smooth like silk and thick like wool. At any rate, it made a very comfortable bed on the soft grass of the ground, with one blanket balled up under my head for a pillow. I kept watching the moon as I waited to fall asleep. The harder I stared, the more I could actually make out the fuzzy, winged dragonfly-like things crawling in and out of tunnels in the hive. Their movement would cause pieces of its surface to flake off, but the flakes hung in the sky, twinkling like the hive. Under this canopy of stars, I fell asleep.

In my dreams, I awoke in an open field, with monstrous gryphons circling overhead like vultures over carrion. I jumped to my feet and began running, but their massive wings sped faster than my feet, and there wasn't any kind of cover to be had. I kept running until a tremendous weight shoved me to the ground. With one swipe of a lion's paw, the gryphon rolled me over on my back. I could not resist as it pounced on me, its talons digging into my shoulders as it shrieked in my face and glared at me with those evil eagle eyes. It launched into the air, with me still trapped in its grip. The gryphon carried me higher and higher till we were almost level with the tops of the mountains—and then it dropped me.

I fell...
And I fell...
And I fell...
And I fell...

I jumped awake so hard I almost made it to my feet in a single motion. For one euphoric minute, I forgot where I was.

The last thing I remembered was going into my house after meeting with Gregson. Now I sat in a grassy wood where sunlight streamed through the trees. I could hear a faint humming, like flies or bees. It almost looked like the thicket in the green space four blocks down from my house; had I decided to sleep outside as an extreme method for getting new ideas? I glanced around; the ground was very wet, as if it had rained the previous night, but underneath the large blanket I was sandwiched in, my own clothes had stayed completely dry. I was wearing clothes from the day before—but now they were badly rumpled and streaked with a strange-smelling black goo. I couldn’t think where it had come from.

Hoofbeats approached behind me. Before I could turn around, I felt a wide, soft nose prodding the back of my head, like that of a horse. I turned as I reached up to pet it—and scurried back with a little yelp.

The horse had a white horn; it wasn't a horse.

“Good morning,” said the unicorn.