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She wasn’t sure why she cared so much. Honestly, her siblings had been nothing but annoying. They were hissy and short-tempered whenever she’d tried to do anything with them, and never showed the slightest interest in any of the things she found amazing.

It was almost like she was a completely different creature. That didn’t seem likely though. They all emerged at the same time from identical-looking eggs, and they looked basically identical to herself when compared to the other animals she’d seen.

Not to mention her instincts that she constantly had to contend with. She could see her siblings in herself through those urges. She’d felt lured to do all the things she saw them doing, or for that matter not doing. It felt good to just laze around after a run, resting rather than messing about with the latest thing she'd found. It felt so easy to swarm over the ground and eat whatever you came across. She’d felt the urge to drive a sibling away when one would pass too close to her resting spot.

She could see it in herself to become one of them. She only had to stop thinking. If she gave up her mind, and wonder, and all the things she actively enjoyed doing, she'd fit in perfectly. She'd be exactly the same as them. Well, except for the acid spit.

Is the acid spit related to thinking? I was thinking before the acid spit came though. Maybe thinking causes acid spit?

She wasn’t sure, and none of that answered why she cared. They were similar, but not in the ways she really wanted them to be. Maybe she valued their usefulness? The swarm certainly made hunting food easier, and there was security sleeping in the cave with them, knowing that anything that intruded would probably be torn apart.

Was it really because they made her life somewhat easier? That didn’t ring true either. It didn’t account for the dread in her chest as she ran, or the barely controlled panic she was fighting down while trying to think up a plan.

No, she just... she just had hope. Hope that one day a brother or sister would wake up and come look at her shells. Would smell her minty leaves, would play around balancing rocks with her and stare in awe at her glowing crystal.

She wanted kinship, to have another that was truly like her, that she could share the wonders of the world with. Perhaps they just needed some more time. Another night might see a sibling come to their senses, to have the light of curiosity shining in their eyes as they looked out on the world.

She’d clung to that in her heart, too scared to even think about it for fear of putting out that small light of hope, because the alternative was that she was unique, with no others like her. And she would be alone forever in all the ways that really mattered.

And so she ran and struggled to come up with a solution.

How can I stop them from attacking it?

The issue was that the swarm went where it would, with no sense or reason, flowing like water over the landscape. She considered it.

Is that really true?

Obviously the swarm wasn’t a thinking thing. There were no thoughts in it, but it wasn’t necessarily without purpose. They were out to hunt, to find things and eat them for sustenance. Maybe they wandered about randomly but that didn’t feel right.

I’m part of the swarm when I’m out there. I know where I’m supposed to be. I’m a part of a group that is likely feeling the same things, but why do I know where to go? What’s driving me?

She tried to remember. What made one spot to put her feet righter than another? She stopped running and looked around, finding a shadowy nook by some tree roots and squeezed into it before shutting her eyes to focus on the memory. Getting back to the cave wouldn’t be helpful if she didn’t know what to do once she was there.

She thought back to her last hunt, running with her siblings. One spot was more right than another because... because it was the right distance. She wasn’t too close or too far from those around her. She was also facing the right direction, landing sideways would be wrong. But that wasn’t all. The group was turning, despite the want to continue forwards. It was turning because… she smelled something. And so must the others. She smelled meat.

Her eyes shot open and she scrambled to her feet, running again.

How have I never noticed that?

She’d been so focused on everything other than the actual act of swarming because she didn’t want to get lost in it like she had the first time. She’d never really explored the instinct itself.

Now she knew.

I can work with this.

 

She needed to find something that smelled tasty. Unfortunately, the types of animals that smelled the tastiest tended to also have the most meat on them. Which in turn meant they were large, and generally dangerous to fight. Armed with her new knowledge about how the swarm decided to move, she was starting to understand why they ran into so many deadly animals.

Why do the big ones have to smell so good?

If the small animals smelled good instead, she wouldn’t have lost so many siblings.

No use thinking about it now she supposed.

It did make her immediate task much harder. She might get away with hunting something easy, but the swarm would just ignore it if they smelled something better. She needed a scent that kept their attention.

She wracked her brain, trying to come up with some way to make her plan workable. She didn’t like her chances of killing anything big enough to pique the swarm’s interest. She suddenly paused, her pupils dilating as a novel idea occurred to her.


By the time she made it to the grassy clearing, the sun was almost down. She knew she didn’t have too long if she wanted to make it back before her siblings started waking up.

She was feeling pretty exhausted at this point. She’d been up all day, and that was not something she was used to. Knowing there was nothing for it, she took a deep breath and refocused. She needed to do this.

The inhale brought with it the scent of her prey.

Quite a few nights ago, perhaps back around when she’d gotten her acid spit, the swarm had encountered a group of large beasts sporting thick bodies, almost as wide as some of the bigger trees she'd seen, but flatter, almost like they’d been squished a little. They had four thick legs that ended in a hard, flat foot and a large red spike set in the middle of their forehead that was about the same length she was when she last encountered them. They were big, heavy, and thick-skinned. They could charge with devastating power, crushing things with their mass or spearing them. Whatever they speared burst into flame at the site of the wound.

She thought of them as flame horns, and they were quite terrifying.

But they were surprisingly poorly equipped for fighting the swarm.

For all their power, they weren’t all that quick or flexible. Her siblings were quick and small enough that spiking them wasn’t easy for the large beast, and it had trouble reaching them once they latched on to its body. They couldn’t even roll over well to use their great mass to crush the swarm, which was a common strategy some of the bigger creatures used. They tried but were so slow that even her dense siblings could get off and out of the way before jumping back on to continue the feast.

They weren’t equipped with a good method of killing a bunch of small things, much more built for holding off other large creatures.

It appeared the flame horns knew it too, as the sight of the swarm had sent the whole pack fleeing. Once they’d managed to bring down a couple the swarm just piled on the immobile ones. The rest of the pack got away.

She was hoping they had come back or were at least close enough that she could catch a fresh scent to follow and it seemed she was fortunate.

They were back in the clearing. It looked like they were just settling in to sleep. Some of the flame horns were already laying down and others were hunting for a comfortable spot.

She padded towards the group, slow and steady, keeping low while working her way through the tall grass, mainly using her sense of smell to guide her, trying to keep a rough target on one of the already sleeping ones.

The grass felt so noisy as it slid against her scales, making a light rubbing sound as she pushed her way through it. She reassured herself that they wouldn't hear, not with the wind making a far greater racket. It was just her nerves acting up. She didn't have time to try again if she messed it up.

Before long she pushed her face through the last obscuring chunk of grass and laid eyes on her target, only a body length and a bit away, laying on a bed of flattened grass.

Ever so slowly, she made her way around the flame horn, using her senses to search. She wanted to find the ideal spot to strike. She crept forward, homing in on a good location on the creature’s flank, near its back legs. Eyes and ears alert for any sign she’d been detected, she got into position. She tensed, then leaped forward, burying in her claws. The beast woke with a cry, and jerked itself to its feet and trying to jar her loose. She was already secure in her footing, however, gripping tightly with her claws. It’d take more than this to dislodge her. She started with her task.

Using her tongue as she had on the snake earlier, she licked a circle around the patch of skin she was interested in. A patch of skin that seemed oily, and was ripe with the smell of the creature.

She didn’t need to kill it. She only needed to get its scent. She had been so caught up in the idea that a hunt was only successful once you killed the prey, it had been like a strange epiphany when she realized that wasn’t relevant to her goal. It made sense to kill something you planned on eating, but she didn’t want to eat it (ok, she did want to eat it but that wasn’t her goal). She just wanted its scent, and a flap of smelly skin would serve just fine.

As her prey thrashed, she heard more of the creatures start, coming over to check on the disturbance.

She grabbed the loosened chunk of skin with her teeth and tore it off, dropping to the ground, and immediately dodging a foot aimed at her before dashing into the long grass.

She readjusted her grip on the skin, keeping her head back and trying to hold it as lightly as possible as she ran, hoping to minimize the acid damage. She would transfer it somewhere less caustic as soon as she had a chance, but for now, she could hear angry bellows and stomping feet right behind her. It was unfortunate that the meat tasted so good, she was practically choking on her saliva as she ran.

It appeared the flame horns were much less skittish when only she was around, lacking her swarm to back her up. It sounded like the whole lot of them were after her.

But they were big, and not particularly fast, just like she'd remembered. She poured on the sprint and managed to outpace them. As she gained more distance, she heard them break off. As soon as she was sure she was clear she dropped the skin in the dirt, and rubbed it around some to get off any acid. Adrenaline pumping through her system, she felt a sudden urge to devour her delicious-smelling prize before stifling it. She gulped down her drool. She was quite hungry at this point. It'd been a while since her snake meal.

Not yet. I still have work to do.

She worked the skin on to her head and back until she got it feeling secure enough to move at a reasonable speed, the drying blood helping make it stick. No longer having to worry about melting her prize, she made her way back towards her cave. It was properly dark now so she didn’t want to dally, not really knowing how long after sundown they normally woke up.

 

The adrenaline was leaving her system as she got closer to the cave. Eyes heavy and limbs aching, she was getting delirious from her lack of sleep and growing exhaustion.

Just keep it up for a while longer, then I can rest...

When she got back to the cave, she saw her siblings sleeping and let out a sigh of relief. She smeared the scent around the entrance, and then settled down there as well, keeping an eye on her siblings, looking for signs of them waking.

She’d need a head start if this was going to work.

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Zat

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