Thursday Tidbit: The Pack (An Excerpt)

Rada has had a brush with the Azdhag Pack regarding one of the Imperial offspring. Now she’s at Singing Pines, musing about something she truly cannot understand. And life happens, as it tends to do.

 

Damn it, inside Burnt Mountain’s magma chamber might be cooler than this building’s rooms. The combined heat and humidity clipped Rada’s temper until she considered destroying the pillows and pad on her sleeping platform just to vent. Then she’d have to sleep on the floor for the next day and a half at least, and Zabet would whine. Rada paced once, debated walking the wall, and growled. No, the walls radiated heat even the night wind couldn’t cool. And she wasn’t going to sleep. With another growl she slung her gun belt around her waist, slid her bahn-leh into the pocket in her boot, and left her sleeping chamber. Walking cane in hand, she eased down the corridor, down two treaded ramps, and emerged from a dim passageway into the chamber with the bathing pools. Rada opened the door only she and Zabet knew and eased into the night.

Or were they the only ones? The Pack . . . She walked, listening with ears and mind, sniffing the wind flowing down from the lurking mountains. The usual small animals skittered and crept, going their hunted ways. No large predators made their way, except for Rada herself, and she relaxed a little. But not too much. Dangers besides other predators lurked this night.

Did the Pack move? Rada stopped at the edge of the talon of forest that extended down toward Singing Pines village, the stand of trees that separated the manor from the settlement and the hunting lands beyond. No lights shone and she blinked her eye, searching for a sign of Azdhag life. There, one dim light marked the deep portico of the temple. The Pack did not move.

I don’t understand the lizards and I never will. She’d felt the Pack, had seen it act in ways that had scared the whey out of her at the time and still made her fur stand on end, but she did not understand. She leaned against a tree, feeling the cool smoothness of the bark and taking the weight off her leg. No, I cannot understand. My mind-wiring can not work in those channels. Could she even try? probably not, given how the Pack’s latest intervention had made her mind and brain both ache. The Pack drew on something within Azdhag society and physiology that lay too deep to grasp. She’d once compared Azdhag society to an ocean and it still fit. Could even the Azdhagi know how deep the Pack lay within them? Rada began walking again, hunting for a bit more cool air. Maybe a few of the priests and Healers sensed it. Even as far as she’d gone into minds. it remained too deep, for lack of better words. Perhaps Master Thomas could sense, could touch it. She couldn’t, unless the Pack chose to touch her. She hated it when that happened.

Wind touched her, and a scent. A gantak in the forest, upwind, male, but . . . her nostrils flared and she opened her mouth, tasting the air. He wasn’t . . . oh fewmets he was. A stronger whiff confirmed it. He smelled to be fairly close, too close to the village for safety. She looked down the long slope to the back of the temple and grumbled to the Azdhagi Ancestors, “You must hate me.” A gantak in musth.

Rada dragged herself back to the manor fortress before sunrise. She found Zabet at work. <<You look like you just lost a fight.>> Rada dropped the beast’s upper lip flap onto the table. <<Trophy? Ick. Barbarian.>>

“He’d gone musth and was a qliq from the village.”

Zabet’s talons froze on the keyboard, then lifted. <<Fewmets! How big?>>

“Full adult. At least three hundred kilos, probably more. I went up a tree, then shot him.” She’d drained her pistol in the process and she opened her arms chest and switched out gas packs. She still had two dozen, but she needed to restock. “After I eat, I’ll need to move the remains farther into the woods. He was at the headspring.”

<<Of course. That way he’ll make the most mess for everyone.>> She logged out of the network. <<I’m driving.>>

“Yes, you are.” The daimyo did not drive—he was driven. And none of the vehicles had been adapted to her anatomy. Zabet fit, Zabet could handle the vehicles, and Zabet drove too fast and loose for her business-partner’s comfort. “After I eat, I’ll confirm that the hauler’s cable is good. I don’t care for any more surprises.”

<<Like the beam core changing intensity at random intervals just out of spite?>>

Rada made an affirmation with her strong-side hand. Only her and Zabet’s paranoia about borrowed equipment had kept them uninjured and the cargo intact. Yet another reason to use her gear and to stick with small, high-value cargos. Rada finished disassembling her side arm and picked up her loupe, then inspected the focusing lens and the flow buffers as well as the charging coils. “Yeah, you would do that,” she muttered to the coils. The bag of tools bumped her elbow. “Thanks.” The near-overload had tarnished the flow buffers, and and of course they were the hardest part of the weapon to reach with a cleaning tool. And touchy to clean. Rada heard telepathic giggles. “Rusty talon guards.” The giggles ceased, replaced by a conspicuous silence. Rada cleaned the buffers and made a note that she’d have to replace the charging coil during the next maintenance cycle.

She and Zabet scavenged the morning meal. No one worked, cooked, or did other things on the Day of Memory, at least not on Drakon IV. Only Rada and the True-dragons worked and moved, and the True-dragon Houses avoided the Azdhagi more than usual on this day. Great, planetary defense rests on me and the True-dragons. The last time this happened, it ended poorly for a lot of people. Not quite—true danger would rouse the Pack, as it had in the past, but Rada would rather not see that happen, thank you. She found some meat, ignored anything vegetable, and swiped a loaf of kurstem bread. It really was too bad she couldn’t introduce kurstem to Ter-tri or dairy cattle to Drakon IV. A toasted cheese sandwich would be so nice. But she couldn’t, and that was that.

Fed and watered, Rada and Zabet went down to the vehicle storage area, just outside the manor fortress’s north wall. The general purpose hauler sat away from the military equipment, in with mundane things such as log carriers, and a water tanker that Rada didn’t think was supposed to be on the inventory. As Zabet checked the tires and power charge, Rada gave the winch and pull beam projector a close inspection. Everything seemed OK, but she disengaged the catches and pulled the first ten meters of cable out to look for frayed spots and kinks even so. All felt smooth, so she wound the cable back onto the reel and loaded up. Zabet got onto the driver’s bench, started the motor, and cut a hard three-point smuggler’s turn that left Rada’s stomach in the parking spot. Rada dug her claws into the seat padding and prayed.

They jounced and bounced as Zabet played dodge-tree, whiskers blowing in the wind, an enormous grin on her muzzle. Rada wondered once again if her partner had been a racer in a previous life. Either that or she was trying to ensure that no predator this side of the western sea could claim that it couldn’t hear them coming. Either one made sense. “That way,” Rada pointed up-slope. Zabet turned and slowed, moving more carefully in the true forest. She slowed and stopped when the gantak came into view.

The two walked over to the remains. Zabet whistled. <<Ugh. It’s been a while since I’ve seen one that bad.>>

“You can see why I could smell him at a distance.” Rada pulled on heavy-duty gloves and grabbed the end of the cable, hauling it to the body. Thanks be the cable didn’t do the main pulling, so shse could get away with looping it around the foreleg and neck. Zabet returned to the vehicle and programmed the pulling beam.

<<Three hundred kilos?>>

“Hmm, let’s say three fifty. He’s still dense.”

<<Three fifty and full musth? he’d have been vicious once he met someone. They usually lose a lot of muscle before full musth sets in. All set.>>

“I know. that’s one of those things I’d just as soon not see in my lifetime, thank you. I’m clear.” She backed several meters from the remains. Zabet started the cable winch, then the puller beam. The ugly green mass remained in place. Rada frowned. The cable drew tight into the thick neck and shoulder skin. She inhaled to call Zabet when a gloopy sucking noise came from under the squat beast and it pulled free of the soft ground. “I’ll monitor.” Rada limped as fast as practical to the transport and sat sideways on the observer’s seat.

<<Roger.>>

Once the carcass drew to three meters from the rear of the hauler, Rada stopped the winch and puller. Zabet accelerated with deliberate speed. They crept up the trail, then through a clearing and around two stands of trees to a pile of rocks left from only Heaven knew what geologic burp. Rada wasn’t fond of wandering the woods in a vehicle this large, and held her breath twice as the blasted beat tried to snag and hang up on bushes and a rock. If it caught and pulled a chunk off . . . Ugh. Not the kind of meat I want to wear. Once near the rocks, Zabet slowed enough for Rada to get out and pace the carcass to just the place. “Perfect, Boss.”

Zabet stopped. She got out, released the beam and let the tension off the cable. Rada held her breath as she pulled the cable out of the gantak’s flesh. Mammals, especially female mammals, couldn’t “catch” musth. Intellectually she knew that. She still didn’t want to breathe in the beast’s bodily fluids, or smell any more of it than she had to. Bacteria had already started working on the thing. She walked the end of the cable to some dew-damp grass and stretched it out, then waved to Zabet. The grass would wipe the blood and fat off the cable, at least enough that it wouldn’t stink or corrode.

<<Back to the manor?>>

Rada took off the gloves and dropped them on the floor beside the passenger bench. “Ye—.” She stopped. Something . . . something gnawed on her, low in the back of her brain where her survival instinct liked to hide until after she did something stupid. “No. The village.”

<<Checking to see if someone left the charger plugged in?>>

Rada gave Zabet one of those looks, the kind that left her soldiers quivering with abject terror. The True-dragon stuck out the tip of her forked tongue and flipped her middle talon up. “No thanks, you’re not my type, and it’s too warm to think about that kind of thing anyway.”

Sapphire blue eyes rolled, and Zabet turned the hauler and aimed down slope. For once she didn’t drive like a madwoman, and Rada almost relaxed, as much as she could with no safety harness and no doors, and Zabet driving. Rada studied the woods as they went, checking on the underbrush with an eye toward the fall hunting season.

Zabet stopped the hauler. <<You smell smoke?>>

Rada inhaled. “Not sure. There’s something, but the crushed plants are masking a lot of more distant scents.” They rolled forward and Rada risked hanging her head out a little, sniffing the air. A whiff of carbonized hydrocarbons stung her nose. “Yes. And its not wood. Fewmets.”

As soon as they cleared the forest’s edge they could see foul black smoke coming from a house on the southeast side of the village. Rada swore again and Zabet added her own favored malediction.

(C) 2016 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved.

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