1: Tracked on Predator Planet

I roared at the white-furred pazathel-nax that snapped at my boots. For some kathe reason, the devil dog picked me out as the weakest in the pack. What a load of kathe. I could kill any of my brethren in a couple of tiks. Even Naraxthel. Ha. Especially Naraxthel, now that he was smitten with that useless soft female. It was better he had left us when he did, otherwise the devil dogs would be disemboweling the both of them.

“Run ahead!” I shouted to the three hunters. “Pull them away! I’ve got this mutt!”

I watched them draw the rest of the pack away, Raxkarax feigning a lame leg. I swung my raxtheza but missed the dog’s gray-white head. I parried its muzzle with my double blade, and soon its blood sprayed upon the groundcover. Two more swipes with my blades, and the dog lay dead, its entrails steaming in the rain-swept air. I double-checked my sight-capture was working. The Ikma Scabmal Kama loved to see death and mayhem.

I looked through sheets of rain, to the trail my brethren had followed, but they were gone. I heard distant shouting. Wary the devil dogs would sneak around and flank me, I cleaned my blades and jogged off the trail, finding a lesser used game path to head in their general direction.

A snarling log hit me in the shoulder and knocked against my helmet. I fell to the ground with a curse and felt the teeth of a lone devil dog worry my elbow joint. I growled and unsheathed my short sword, stabbing it in the belly. I silenced its high-pitched whine for good. I stood and aimed a disgusted kick at the huge blood-spattered corpse. More curses followed when I slipped in the mud of the trail, almost falling on my ass. I heaved great breaths from exertion, feeling heat from my anger flush my skin from my arm pits to my neck. I scowled and frowned, waiting for more pazathel-nax to lunge at me from the ikfal. Crouching in wait, I held my blades ready.

Rain poured over my armor, washing the blood and gore from its seams, as well as powering the cells. A fuzzy static pierced my earpiece. I cocked my head. “Hello? Raxkarax?” More static. “Natheka? Raxthezana?”

Kathe. That dog jostled my comm when he pounced on me. The sight-capture feed blew out as well. Once the rain stopped, I would remove my helmet and try to fix the delicate technology. For now, I was isolated.

Alone.

Out of communication range.

Last seen being attacked by the vicious pazathel-nax.

My breaths increased; my heart raced. The tendons in my neck tightened.

I could not have planned this any better if I had spent ten cycles arranging it. A gust of breath escaped my lungs. If I was dead to Theraxl, I was free. I only paused a second to leave my prized blade sunk into the body of the dog. No living Iktheka would leave his raxtheza.

I spun on the trail and tore off in a different direction. Careful to step on springy undergrowth instead of black mud, I chose to hide my trail sign.

I ran for several zatiks, sometimes leaping to grab hold of a low branch and swing myself forward a veltik. The farther I ran west, the freer I felt.

No more sight-captures for the Ikma. No more nights in the Ikma’s pungent lair, filling her baser needs while my promise of posterity withered and died. No more lengthy feasts in the dining halls, pretending to be humored by others’ stories or females’ batting eyes.

On Ikthe, I was Iktheka alone, beholden to no one save my goddesses.

Holy Goddesses, I thank you for the gift presented to me. May I use it to give you glory.

My armor felt lighter. I felt a sensation like cool air lift from my belly and burst forth out of my mouth. A laugh.

Shaking my head at my foolishness, I ran on, headed for the private glade I sometimes escaped to for precious moments of solitude. I liked it because it was defensible on three sides. Protected by a defile of rocks on one side, a gulch on the other, and flanked by a stream on the third, it was perfect. It had access to the bounty of the forest on the north side. I smiled. I would be there in three days’ time, and then I could scheme how I might live out my days as an exile on Certain Death.

I stopped for short meals of speared jokal over small fires. I built them under the heaviest canopy, that the smoke filtering through the leaves became invisible. I obscured my footprints, choosing rocks and treefalls to walk upon, or reversing my walk, in places where prints were inevitable. Leaping and jumping, climbing trees or crawling through bowers, my trail sign was untraceable. Once the heavy rains descended, I would be but a memory of a dream to my fellow hunters.

I slept in the vee of the red tower trees and killed the animals that threatened to kill me first. On the morning of the third day, I smiled at the Sister Suns. Soon I would settle a camp. I would dry meat and use my hands to build a semi-permanent shelter.

I lowered myself from the tree, pulling a jeweled talathel out and twisting its jaws until they popped. I threw it to the ground for the jokapazathel and loped the remaining veltik to my glade.

I slowed to a walk, unhurried for the first time since my adolescence. I reported to no one now, save the Holy Goddesses.

Using my gloved hands to part the foliage, I came upon my glade through the deep woods. Already I heard the babbling waters of the stream where large glisten-fish swam upstream. They made a delicious soup. My mouth watered at the thought.

My eyes caught a movement, and I stilled.

I switched to my heat-vision and cursed soundly.

Holy Goddesses, do you now play a joke on your servant Hivelt? Do mine eyes see another soft traveler in truth? Do you play with Hivelt?

I zoomed in on the figure. There, in front of a small ship, stood a person of Yasheza Mahavelt’s race. I watched in disbelief as they gathered sticks and twigs and placed them in a huge pile at the back of their ship. They had been collecting for days, it would seem.

My eyes widened as I scanned the site, switching back to my natural vision. A drying rack had strips of meat and pelts draped over it. The traveler built a cairn of rocks at four corners of the glade. Another large boulder sat against the rock outcropping, a concave center collecting rainwater.

My breaths came in short bursts. My heart seemed to slow with time. I blinked, willing the sight to change. It didn’t. The soft traveler’s industry belied Yasheza’s race. Perhaps this was another race? Naraxthel’s Yasheza ran from him and hid. She took baths. This one—this one worked.

I watched for several jotiks, checking my camouflage settings obsessively. When she left her site to approach the tree line, I faded further back into the ikfal. What was she approaching so carefully? Flailing movement at ground level caught my eye. Ah. This traveler set traps.

The mahavelt’s suit was identical to Esra’s. I retreated into the ikfal an extra step but waited to see the face. If it was a female, I would turn and run, if it was—

They turned to look at me, but I knew I made no sound, my armor at maximum stealth settings. My camouflage obscured me. But she—I could see her face.

Luminous silver eyes, like the scales of the glisten-fish, saw through me and pierced the empty place where my heart was not. They shone out of a darker skin tone than Yasheza Mahavelt’s. The contrast was striking.

Her brows turned down as if she could detect my presence, and her mouth frowned. Her eyes narrowed, and she dropped her wood, taking steps toward me.

Run, Hivelt. Run and hide.

My face grew hot and I clenched my fists. My heart hammered in its heart-home, and I took a great draught of air. The little industrious trespasser built a homestead in my glade.

I reached for my raxtheza, and my hand came away empty.

She took one more step, then cocked her head. I watched her lips move as if she spoke, but I heard nothing. She turned away and resumed checking her snare.

My heart returned to its usual pace, and I relaxed my hands at my side.

By all appearances, this female intended to stay. But I would observe for a few days until I decided if she deserved the raxfathe and death. Naraxthel spoke of corruption in Theraxl ways, and the Ikma Scabmal Kama revealed it to be so, but that didn’t mean the raxfathe didn’t have its place in the order of things. Especially when an uninvited interloper took up residence in my place of solitude and serenity.

I snarled and snapped my teeth, remnants of the pazathel-nax fight hounding my thoughts. I watched her progress along the tree line, and my eyes tracked a path to a spot in front of me. There! A clever snare utilizing a sapling sat within a long stride from me. A dead jokapazathel hung limp. Seeing she was preoccupied with her load, I cut the rodent loose and kept it for myself. A tribute.

Death and fury would be my companions tonight. I retreated further into the ikfal and climbed a tree.

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