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By Bret Nelson
Serrean’s legs were starting to cramp, and her tail was already numb. She could tell by the low sun that she’d been in the tree for at least four hours. How much longer could she support herself on this branch?
From below, one of the creatures struck at her mind again, jabbing scratchy words into her thoughts: “… one goes for hunt … we will eat small things … while wait for you.”
She peered down to the leafy, wet ground. Yes, there were only two now, with their eyestalks focused on her branch. The third must have gone after an easy kill to sustain them. She held her small blade tight, though she knew it wouldn’t help.
She remembered Master Chalmer’s words from school, long ago. “Unlike the kerghs we learned about last week, the ferrotauns do not chitter or bark. They have no need of auditory signs as they signal each other telepathically.”
Once a week, a cart stacked with cold, clay jars would be wheeled and rattled into the room for her Knowing Your Predators class and Master Chalmer would guide them through a scenting. “Everyone, open your jars and get your noses over them. Pull the scent down your snout all the way past your eyes, deep. Hold it there, keep it there forever. When the ferrotaun nears prey, it gets excited, starts to sweat. They can’t help it. So this scent, this sharp-edged cinnamon smell, is the only warning you will have.”
If it hadn’t been for that class, she’d be dead already. Thinking back to four hours ago, she recalled a stillness all around, even in the canopy of the trees above. No buzzing or rustles, the white noise of the forest. The quiet should have told her something was wrong. Then the cinnamon scent hit, and the quiet gave way to chaos. Her heart pounded so hard she thought it would break a rib. She darted in a tight circle until the scent was at her back then she dropped into a sprint, her ears stretching all the way out as she ran. She heard claws behind, hitting the leaves in long strides, getting closer.
But they weren’t in striking distance yet, she knew that because they weren’t in her head. Master Chalmer had said, “Ferrotaun telepathy reaches past their hunting parties. If they get close, they will project thoughts. They cast ideas that we hear as words. It only works in one direction; they can’t read your mind. It’s a trick. Do not listen.”
The sprint carried her to a burlian tree. Using all of her arms, she climbed almost as fast as she ran. In a few heartbeats she landed on a branch out of their reach.
But they kept trying. For an hour the three ferrotauns leapt and clawed for the branch where she crouched, panting. They couldn’t get high enough.
So they started the mind strikes.
The voice in her head was static, and the words unclear. But the meaning came through. “Tree … your home now? You live there?” She threw a stick at them. It bounced off the big one, who took no notice.
“You live there … we live here … until you do not live.” With that, they curled up most of their legs and rested, looking up at her with their eyestalks unblinking.
Since then she’d been looking for a path through the trees or a place she could drop and run, but none existed. She wasn’t due back until breakfast, so no one would come looking for her until well into tomorrow morning. She was already exhausted and hungry; she couldn’t stay up here all night.
The hunger made it worse. This tree was covered in large, young burl-fruits, each bigger than her head. But even if they were ripe, they’d only make her ill. Nasty grutworms were the only things that ate burl-fruits. She could smell the sweet popper-berries that grew along the path. They were going to be her meal, but that was impossible now.
The words from below tugged in her mind again. “See … see your ending.” The smaller male had returned with a tremplen. As it struggled, they tore it apart, eating everything. Bones, feathers, scales, everything. She felt sick. Her blade was too small to kill one of these creatures, let alone three.
Useless blade. Useless fruit.
Then she had a thought, and she was glad the ferrotauns couldn’t hear it.
The beasts were distracted, licking the ground, getting the last bits of blood from their meal. With two twists of her blade, she freed one of the burl-fruits. She cut it open, and though it wasn’t ripe it held a pool of foul-smelling juice and pulp in its center. She ignored the sour odor and dropped the fruit on her captors. There were dozens of the yellow spheres growing on this branch. She kept cutting and tossing, making a sticky mess of the ferrotauns’ fur.
“We … do not eat this … stop.” Awful fruit kept falling on them. “Stop.”
She did not stop. The only thing that ate burl-fruits were grutworms, but not this time of year. None of the fruit was ripe or tree-fallen, so they couldn’t get at their favorite treat. But her blade had created a juicy feast.
Her stretched ears heard them under the dirt, digging their way up.
The grutworms roared from the ground. There were at least two dozen of them, each bigger than her leg. She watched them tear into the fruit, and everything that it touched. Chewing. Burrowing. Frantic.
She was thankful the ferrotauns were not in her head as they kicked and twisted. She dropped her gloves and blade and checked carefully for any signs of burl-fruit on her fur and clothes.
Then she moved to another branch and waited. The grutworms would be gone soon enough and she could be on her way. She hoped that tomorrow morning her housemates would save her some eggs.
This story first appeared in On the Premises, October, 2020.
Edited by Marie Ginga
When Bret Nelson isn’t writing stories, he works on TV programs, movies, and stage shows. Plus video and tabletop games. And TOYS. Right now, he’s working on things he can’t talk about (that’s what the contracts say). You'll find more of his stories in the collection Lumber and Other Tales.