Slowly Surviving to Death
“I wager the hunters in Evermist never have to put up with this kind of mess,” Kalli said with a dissatisfied curl of her lip. She watched as the murky waters underfoot became awash with the signature red swirl of blood mingling with the stream.
“The trees must have found something large to feast upon. There is too much blood here to all be from our quarry,” responded Yola. He dipped his fingers into the knee deep water of the marsh and checked the temperature of the ghostly red trail marking the water.
“Or perhaps the trees have taken our hooded lizard as one course in many. Truly, we are the only place where in Argaia where we must compete with the trees for our food. It is bad enough that we have moor lions and the like stalking our game from under us,” said Kalli as she let the arrow on her bowstring rest from its half draw position.
“The Bloodwoods have earned their name. Now keep your voice down. The only thing I want to find out here is that hooded lizard,” Yola said while pulling his hand form the water. He shook the bloody droplets from his fingers and wiped the stagnant film that lingered on his hand off on his torn deerskin pants. “It is still warm in the water. Whatever was taken by the trees is close bye,” he continued while lowering his voice from a conversational tone to only just more than a whisper.
“You are being too cautious. We are fortunate to have found anything at all. You and I are probably the only things left alive this far out…apart from the trees,” Kalli said with a modest deference. Her gaze wandered up to look at the skeletal tangle of twisted branches and swirling black bark that entombed the mash below. The sight of the wicked trees only brought there ever-present hissing sound back to the forefront of Kalli’s hearing. Like so many of the Bloodwoods Clan she had learned to ignore the sound of the trees but whenever she looked up at the nightmare that was their maze of branches, it became impossible to put their viper’s nest song from her senses.
“Nobody ever died from being too cautious. Now mind your voice like I told you. Keep up,” Yola said with a shake of his dirty matted brown locks. He pushed his hair from his face and slowly continued following the scarlet trail in the marsh water.
“Maybe you are just dying too slow to notice,” Kalli retorted. She made up for her contrary remark by reducing her voice to a cadence so soft that it sounded with little more volume than a deep sigh.
“We are all dying slowly, what with all the game being pushed into the deep marsh,” Shot back Yola with a defensive but dismissive pitch. “Now you are here to help me hunt, not talk and distract me.”
“It was my arrow that wounded the hooded lizard,” Kalli said with an unrepentant smug look set in her gaunt but pleasing features. She tossed her long black hunter’s braid over her shoulder as she bore into Yola with quietly prideful glimmering in her gaze.
“Just mind your eyes and tend to your bow,” Yola scoffed as he waded through the muck of the swamp.
The pair of hunters continued to track their game thought the dense overgrowth of the Bloodwoods. It was a careful trek and Kalli followed in the precise footsteps of Yola as he led the way. Both of the clansmen did an admirable job keeping clear of the tree roots that lurked beneath the cloudy water. Even the youngest among the clan knew that letting the deep tree roots entangle your feet was a fast way to get drawn in to one of tree’s deadly embraces. It did not take long for death to find an unprepared traveler in the swamps of the Bloodwoods.
“Shhh, just up ahead,” Yola murmured as he came upon the edge of a mossy hill breaking form the surface of the stagnant water.
Kalli drew back on her bow, silently and prepared to follow the veteran hunters lead. She winked one eye then the other and nodded at Yola in the common clansman signal for readiness. After a brief moment watching Yola access the ground before them, the man exploded from the shallow water up onto the bank. Kalli lost no time reacting and was instantly at Yola’s side as he took the hillcrest. The ambush was ended prematurely as Kalli and Yola looked at a grim sight.
“It was not my arrow or the trees that ended our quarry. Strange,” Kalli said quietly as she looked at the carcass of the hooded lizard splattered all over the hill. Several more dead creatures of varying types also rested on the hill.
“Strange yes,” echoed Yola as he stowed the short blade he had rushed the hilltop with back in the sheath on his waist.
“Still it will fill our larder just the same. And with the other game here you and I may be able to forgo a hunt for the rest of the season,” Kalli stated with complacent satisfaction as she returned the arrow on her bow to the quiver on her back.
“No…it will not…” trailed Yola with a hint of fear seeping into his words.
“What are you on about? It might have been some other animal to get the kill but that is no reason to pass up on good meat,” protested Kalli.
“It is not good meat. You see the killing wound,” Yola said as he pointed to the ripped open jugular of the large reptile. “The flesh is still warm but it has already begun to fester and spoil. The same for all the other carcasses here. It was a chimera that took them. That is the only sort of creature that could have done this.”
“Impossible. Chimera do not come this deep into the Bloodwoods. They can not move through the trees like we do,” said Kalli with a voice that threatened to rise above the hushed tones that she and her companion had been conversing in.
“The chimera go wherever they please. It was foolish to think that we would be able to hide from them forever,” Yola said as he rapidly scanned the perimeter of the hill and tree line at the water’s edge.
“Why would the beasts come here?” Kalli said with a quake of reverence as she spoke. She had never seen one of the things bred from the red rains but she knew every folktale about the chimera that was shared around the clan’s campfires and could recite each one to a word.
“It makes no mind, why. The thing is that chimera are here and we must return to the village and tell everyone,” Yola said ominously.
“We can not return to the village empty handed. If we go back with nothing we will just keep starving,” Kalli said with bitterness as she shoved the husk of the dead scaled thing with the tip of her toe. She hated the hooded lizard for mocking her with a half season’s worth of meat that was poisoned beyond remedy.
“We can go on starving tomorrow. If we cross paths with a chimera, just you and I, then we will die today,” Yola chimed with a morbidly humorous air.
“I do not like it,” spat Kalli.
“Nor do I. There is nothing to like but you had to know this time would come. The chimera are not just the problem of other Argaian domains,” Yola said with an empathetic turn in his voice and touch of Kalli’s bare upper arm.
“I just thought that there might have been more time. Maybe even that I would not live to see the day the beasts threatened our home,” Kalli said with measured acceptance penetrating her words. She nervously fiddled with the tip of her long braid as she spoke and cast her eyes downward.
“It is not safe for us to stay any longer. We need to get back to the village and speak of what we have seen,” Yola said.
“But what about food? The hunt?” Kalli said with refreshed disappointment.
“Our people are no longer the only hunters in the Bloodwoods,” Yola said as he waded back into the muck and swamp filth.
Kalli let out a heavy sigh and frowned at the rotting bulk of the hooded lizard before silently slipping into the water behind Yola. The whole way back to the village all Kalli felt was the pain of an empty belly and the fear of the chimera burning in her ears.