Clinging to mom’s back as she ran on all fours through a dark and foreign forest was harder than I’d expected. She rushed through the night at breakneck speed and took lots of sudden turns, often assisted by grabbing onto a tree or half-withered shrub to instantly change directions, her tail lashing to and fro constantly to keep balance. Thus I was thrown around pretty heavily.
I momentarily wondered how the other adults with more than one child managed, but was nearly thrown off at the next turn for my lapse in concentration.
“Where are we going?” I hissed loudly
Mom didn’t answer.
Another terrifying roar did, however. It was so close. Then the dry ground shook.
Mom instantly changed directions again.
After my eyes got used to the darkness a bit more, I tried to look around for the others but only saw shadowy shapes flitting by everywhere I glanced. What I could make out of the vegetation seemed dry and brittle. Nothing at all like I was used to.
But thinking about that made me lose focus again and I had to desperately scramble around to get back into position while mom was still in full sprint.
Another roar bellowed. Even closer. This time from up ahead. Another direction change followed.
What was she doing? I thought we were running away from whatever was hunting us, not towards them!
Then it hit me. If we were hunted… If we were prey, why would the predators make so much noise? Shouldn’t they try to sneak up on us and jump us?
The ground shook again. This time I saw it breaking apart and rising in front of us - at least now I knew why we had to get out of the cave - prompting another change in direction, giving my horrifying worries more credence.
We were being herded. Like a flock of sheep. Like a school of fish by a pack of orcas before they…
“Mom!” I hissed again, as loud as I could. “Don’t run where they want us to run!”
I had no idea if I even pronounced that correctly. But this time, she answered.
“I know, Griss. Don’t worry. Hold tight!” Then, after hesitating only a moment, she added, “I’m the fastest.”
What did that have to do with anything? It wouldn’t be any use when she was tired out eventually. They - whoever ‘they’ were - would just herd us together and probably strike once the adults were out of energy.
Wait. ‘Herd us together’... I glanced around again. There was no sign of the others anymore. Mom still frequently changed directions. Only to rear back when this was followed by another roar or earth-wall of obviously magical origin.
Were we alone? It looked like it. But if mom really was the fastest, shouldn’t we be the furthest ahead and not the ones lagging behind? What was going on here?
Were we bait?
Then the roars stopped coming. Instead, the ground shook more often. Suddenly mom jumped out of the way of a boulder that was thrown in our direction and then blocked our path, only to immediately duck under a closing set of enormous jaws from above.
They were on us! It was all over. A very short ‘vacation’, if you could call this life even that. I prayed that it would be over quickly and not too painful.
But the pain didn’t come. I didn’t die.
My mother kept evading and running. I was amazed by her endurance. She didn’t slow down at all, keeping to her zigzag-manoeuvres, always staying just a bit ahead.
I never saw our pursuers in full. All I could say about them was that they were giants with huge scaled elongated maws full of sharp teeth. And they had earth magic.
The ground never stopped shaking and breaking around us anymore. I was amazed at how mom could still stay ahead of them.
Until I heard another roar directly behind us. This one sounding slightly different, though. A bit more like a painful yelp.
Then mom started laughing.
“That’s it.” She hissed merrily. “Follow me. Follow me, you dumb idiots!” How could she sound so carefree? “I’m right here! A tasty snack! We nearly made it to the river. Can’t be long now.”
I thought it was safe to assume that she wasn’t talking to me, at least. I still had no idea what she was trying to achieve here. The others probably had gotten away by now?
The next boulder that mom dodged exploded into tiny shards. It felt as if something bit me in the side and lower back when they rained down on us. I hissed in pain and mom stopped her merry taunts.
“I’m sorry, baby. Everything will be fine. I promise. Just hold on a bit longer!” she growled when the throbbing pain caused my grip to loosen slightly.
I only groaned as a reply, without any particular meaning in it. Closing my eyes, I tried to focus on not falling off. Whatever she was planning, I could only hope she knew what she was doing. I’d just been along for the ride from the beginning anyway.
I heard the running water then. It was pretty loud and sounded close by. I briefly wondered why I hadn’t noticed it before.
The earth was still shaking. Mom first dodged a spike that shot out of the ground in front of us, then another boulder that landed with a huge splash somewhere to my left. The impact was answered by an earth-shattering bellow of rage that seemed somewhere between a roar and a croak. Deep and deafening, it shadowed every roar our attackers had produced so far.
I opened my eyes again and looked behind us, where two gigantic quadrupedal… monsters with huge spine sails on their backs, were hit heads on by an enormous wave of river water.
Mom sped up even more and the last thing I saw of our attackers was them facing an even larger monster. A gigantic shape heaved itself out of the river, opened its enormous maw and… spit fire at them?! It was blindingly bright and I had to avoid my gaze.
I desperately clutched onto my mothers back. It was far easier now without any more sudden turns. Even though she was slick with blood. Mine. And probably hers, too. Mom still didn’t slow down.
I kept hearing the competing roars behind us as they grew ever more distant. Did we really make it?
“Are we safe now?” I asked after a while.
“No, Griss. We need to get clean and find the others,” she answered promptly.
“Okay,” I hissed weakly. “And then we’ll be safe?”
Mom hesitated before she replied. “Maybe. ‘Safe’ is only for the moment. There always will be next time.”
Well, shit. I’d better learn how to run quickly then.
Who was I kidding? Running and hiding alone wouldn’t be enough. It would never be enough. These… things were using magic. Both the spine sails and the river monster. Wasteful and crude as far as I could perceive it, but magic nonetheless. This time, mom was able to lure one group of attackers into the territory of another bigger predator. But what would we do if that wasn’t an option? I had a lot to learn if I ever wanted to stand a chance.
It was dawn when we found the others. Well, mom found them. I was still just carried around by her, feeling like dead weight.
She had implored me to stay on her back in case we ran into another monster. Even when we’d been ‘cleaning’ ourselves in a muddy puddle of a nearly dried up lake. Everything in this changed world seemed to be dry. The air, the ground, the plants… and now even the lakes. It was a stark difference to the always wet swamps that scalamander-me had been used to.
When I had asked mom if it was always like this, she eyed me suspiciously over her shoulder after making sure she understood what I meant.
“Most of the time, yes,” she hissed tentatively as she magically pulled out the second rock shard from my back. I felt her mana tingling through my body as she did. Then she covered the wound with fresh mud, all the while never stopping to scan our surroundings for threats. “Why do you ask?”
“Just curious,” I softly growled back.
I mean, what was I supposed to say? ‘Hi, mom. I lived at least twice before and sorta remember a time when everything was always wet. Oh! And I’ve been a monster back then and ate things like us because I found them yummy. I can’t remember everything clearly yet, but I’ll tell you when I get cravings for roasted cousins. Promise.’
Scalamander-me might not have been an actual genius, but I… she definitely was an actual glutton. A slightly narcissistic, overconfident glutton.
In any case, I didn’t think that revelation would fly terribly well with my mother. If she’d believe me in the first place. It wasn’t as if I could prove it yet.
Anyways, we found the others after following the trail of ripped open and overthrown earth, and general destruction back for a while until mom spotted some ‘signs’ that completely eluded me. She tried to point them out but when I didn’t get it immediately, she didn’t wait and just continued onwards, promising to teach me properly later.
The group we finally found was huddled together in another small cave that seemed to be nothing more than an excavated hole in the ground. I instantly noticed the six additional adults, but one of the females I already knew was missing.
“Siss isn’t here yet?” mom asked, noticing the same thing. She was the one with three kids. So presumably the slowest?
“Hessa! Thank the gods! You made it!” One of the adults I didn’t know yet said. “She isn’t, no.” Their expression sank. “What happened on your end? I saw two of them chasing you when you steered them away from us.”
“Lured them to the river. They woke up the old monster with their ruckus,” mom replied. “What happened with the third?”
Their expression worsened.
Mom turned towards the others. “Grago? Rissa?” Two of the new ones who had avoided her gaze looked up. “What happened with Siss?”
“She was too slow,” Hiska answered quietly in their stead.
Mom went stock-still beneath me for only a moment. Then she looked through the cave once more. “Did Hreg make it?”
Tress hissed with hostility. “Dunno. Haven’t seen the idiot after he led them straight to the girl cave.”
“We need to split up and move on soon,” the one who had greeted mom first said. “This area is getting too dangerous to keep supplying you undetected.” They looked at the four remaining mothers in the group. “Are your children ready to keep quiet and behave while you hunt?”
This triggered so many growls and hisses from nearly everyone at once that it was difficult to distinguish between words again.
Most seemed to be angry at the speaker for ‘being useless anyway’ or ‘trying to ditch them’. Tress growled something along the lines of ‘typical male’, while one of the new adults - Rissa, I thought - hissed mockingly “Undetected? You did a pretty shit job this year anyway. First, the sole sailback that collapsed the boy cave and now this disaster with three of them!”
The accused hissed defensively.
“I lost both of my eggs,” Rissa continued. “So did Setri.” She nodded towards another of the new adults. “It was a miracle that Hessa managed to save one of hers!”
Wait. ‘One of hers’? I hadn’t been mom’s only child?
“That’s not-,” he tried to get a word in but Rissa just continued to growl louder.
“And we nearly lost this one boy too, because Hessa had to save the lot of us from another attack!” There was spit in her hisses now. She seemed furious. “Now, we lost Siss and her three girls. Tell me, Sirgor, how is it a good idea to expose the five girls and only boy we have left to the dangers outside before it’s time?”
Nobody replied immediately.
Then Sarka hissed barely audible “Four girls.”
Everyone turned to her. Apparently, just now noticing that only one of her daughters was with her. She had been quiet the whole time.
“I lost Krigra on the run.” She added even quieter. “She must have been thrown off when… and I didn’t notice with Kress still…” She broke off, licking over little bloody scratches on her remaining daughter’s scales.
Everyone was silent for a few moments.
“That’s five kids remaining out of fifteen eggs,” one of the last two adults I didn’t know the name of yet said eventually. “We had already lost two males hunting. Probably three now if Hreg doesn’t turn up.” He eyed everyone in the room. “I agree with Sirgor. If we stay in such a large group any longer and don’t leave the area, most of us won’t make it until the kids are big enough.”
“Why not?” I blurted out, standing up on mom’s back, supporting myself with my arms on the ridges on her head.
Everyone looked at me. The adults who didn’t know me before seemed… shocked? Confused? Hiska chuckled and mom grinned up at me. “Shush Griss. I’ll explain later.”
Considering that this was a serious conversation and I doubted I’d have a say anyway, I lay back down. “Okay, mom. I won’t interrupt again. Sorry.”
“He’s a smart little one, isn’t he? He already can speak so well!” Sirgor excitedly hissed, after he shook off his initial surprise.
No, not really, I dejectedly thought, but kept my mouth shut. If I was real smart, I should have been able to relearn at least a bit of magic already and blast these stupid sailbacks into smithereens. But I couldn’t even perceive ambient energy yet. And now so many were dead.
“Griss is a quick learner,” mom growled proudly. “Anyways, Rissa,” She turned to the addressed female, “I’m sorry but I also agree that we have to leave here as soon as possible.”
Rissa returned the gaze for a while, then looked towards Tress and her two daughters.
Tress just sighed and nodded.
Rissa turned back to regard mom and Sirgor again. “Yeah, yeah, Growr is probably right. Hunting more food here would only make it worse.”
The adult who had predicted most of us would die if we stayed huffed. “I’m glad I could convince you to see reason.”
Rissa ignored him. “I’ll go with Tress and Grago,” she said instead. “Hesro, you coming with us?” She turned to the last one in the group who had been completely silent until now.
“I’ll stay with Setri,” he replied curtly.
Setri let out an affirmative trill.
“We probably should split the kids amongst all groups,” Sirgor advised.
“Nah!” Hiska said. “I’ll stay with Hessa. If I trust anyone here to keep me safe, it’s her.”
Mom didn’t comment but I felt her slightly relax under me.
“You don’t trust me anymore?” Sirgor hissed exasperated.
“Can you blame any of us?” Tress said. “Look at the situation we’re in! Who chose this area to use as breeding grounds again?”
Sirgor kept silent.
“Sarka?” Growr asked. “You with me and Sirgor?”
Sarka didn’t look up from where she was nuzzling her daughter. She was the only one here whose behaviour I’d actually describe as grieving. Strange. Were the others simply jaded towards constant death? Or were these communities more ones of convenience than mutual affection to begin with? How easily they seemed to arbitrarily split up the group, made the second possibility more likely than I felt comfortable with, to be honest.
“Sarka?” Growr repeated.
“Sarka, we can’t leave you here alone,” Sirgor said.
I crawled a bit forward on mom’s back to have a better look over her head instead of her shoulder. Sarka just seemed… lost. She didn’t react to any one of the other adults anymore.
I whispered to mom to please let me down. She looked at me, again with this strange suspicion in her eyes, but agreed without much reluctance. Well, that was surprisingly easy?
I toddled towards Sarka and Kress, ‘merrily’ lashing my tail left and right.
The other adults questioningly looked at mom as I passed them. I ignored them until I arrived in front of my targets.
“Sarka? Will you please come with us?” I trilled with as much enthusiasm as I could muster.
The sudden close by sound seemed to startle little Kress quite a bit, as she turned to me wide-eyed before hurriedly scampering up her mother’s arms and over her shoulder, hiding behind her.
Sarka snapped out of wherever her thoughts had been at the sudden movements of her daughter. Then she looked at me as if seeing me for the first time. Her eyes wandered over my small body, momentarily stopping on my mud-treated wounds before resting on my face. I held her gaze.
“You could also come with us,” Growr tried another time.
Sarka turned her head, glancing at him standing next to Sirgor before turning back to me.
“No,” she said tentatively. “I think I’ll go with Hessa and… Griss.”
What was with that reaction? I only wanted to snap her out of her brooding so the others wouldn’t leave her behind.
But she had looked at me with an utterly fascinated expression.
I was definitely missing something here, wasn’t I?
There were no elaborate goodbyes.
Sirgor had grumbled a bit after being rejected a third time when he asked mom if she’d join up with him and Growr. Mom just pointed out that she apparently already was in a group of three - six if you counted the kids - and that the whole split had been his idea in the first place. Two additional adults supposedly would make the group too large.
My guess was that simply nobody wanted to stay with him if they had another choice. Well, nobody but Growr.
After the groups had been sorted out, the departures were fast and strangely detached. No ‘miss you’s or reluctant send-offs. Tress stopped next to mom and me when they left, thanking her for luring the sailbacks away and wishing her luck for the future. But that was already more than any of the others did.
My first impression had apparently been very wrong. This wasn’t a family. This had been a ragtag group of basically strangers who only came together in the first place to breed. At least that was my current leading theory. Seven males and seven females originally if I understood everything correctly and didn’t miscount. The males would hunt for food while the females supplied them with tools. And now that they had lost faith in the success of this new group, they readily broke up again.
I didn’t like that at all. I idly wondered if my father was one of the males here, this ‘Hreg’-person who stormed into the cave shortly before the attack, or one of the two who had died before I ever met them. I thought that Grago might have been with Rissa and Hesro with Setri. But even that was only conjecture. I had no idea how ‘relationships’ worked with my new species, yet. I didn’t want to ask mom because I was pretty sure that would be another question that raised ‘suspicion’ if it came out of the blue. And I honestly had more urgent things to learn before I was ready to sit through sex-ed.
At least it made sort of sense now why they wouldn’t want the children of different mothers to become too familiar with each other.
In the light of the day, the vegetation seemed even drier and more withered than during the night. Trees were tall with thin trunks and branches. Most plants had thick and leathery leaves. There was still no grass but thorny, mostly lignified vines and shrubbery took its place. The colour palette reminded me much of a dry savanna. Very yellow greens and browns. Only when we prowled past water did I spot ferns, mosses and other more vibrant green plants in its immediate vicinity. Not many, though.
Mom was leading our little group. Three adults, each carrying a child on their back. We stayed low to the ground at all times so my vision was inhibited by dried up gnarled bushes most of the time.
Sarka was largely silent and just followed behind, but Hiska stayed closer and ‘whispered’ quietly from time to time.
“Why are we going back towards the girl cave?” she wanted to know on one occasion.
I hadn’t been aware that this was where we were heading, but I didn’t have any idea where we were in the first place, so…
“I want to pick up the rope we had to leave behind,” mom answered, equally quiet. “We can make weapons relatively quickly but rope takes a lot of time.”
Hiska trilled an affirmative.
“Now, please be quiet. There’s a reason why we had to split up and leave this area after all.”
Hiska fell silent but Triga on her back suddenly asked: “Why?”
Her mother shushed her.
I had to suppress a chuckle. I was glad I already had asked this particular question immediately after the groups split up.
It turned out that hunting too long in a certain area reduced the population of prey, making us a more likely target. Who’d have thought, right? That wasn’t all, of course. Staying and returning to one location inevitably would leave some tracks for predators to follow given enough time, even if you were careful. This was apparently what had happened with our group. Twice. The kicker was, however, that our species seemed to be a delicacy for many different big magic-using monsters. Mom didn’t know why that was the case. She only knew that they would go out of their way to specifically target us if they found our tracks. The only things they supposedly sometimes liked to eat more was each other. We were the far easier prey, though. Most of the time.
Anyways, mom had taught me it was best to only hunt in areas with abundant prey to hide amongst and move on as soon as the hunter-prey ratio shifted too much. This didn’t have to mean that the prey had to become less. Far more often, additional predators would simply be attracted by the good hunting grounds and move in, forcing us to move.
The old cave hadn't collapsed when we reached it. That had been one of mom’s concerns. Hiska and Sarka went inside as she kept watch. They returned with quite a bit of… well, calling it ‘rope’ would be very charitable. It looked like dethorned braided vines. Very rough, but apparently sufficient. Because the three adults immediately used it to tie their kids more securely to their backs.
I naturally wasn’t exempt from the procedure. It uncomfortably cut into my sides whenever I moved too much. Regardless, I didn’t complain since my hands still slightly hurt from desperately clinging onto mom’s scales the night before. I did adjust the binding, however, to be more comfortable. More support than an actual tie. Of course, mom gave me that look again as I did so. She didn’t say anything about it, though. She only made sure it was still secure, making noises of surprise when she noticed that it also was more comfortable for herself now.
Triga and Kress were less… placid. While Kress calmed down after Sarka managed to explain to her that this would keep her from getting lost like her sister, Triga kept whining with her ‘why’s.
Mom finally had enough of waiting and asked me to help her with adjusting the other two harnesses as well. In the end, none of the string contraptions looked alike and I was pretty sure I couldn’t redo even one of them exactly the way they were, but they seemed to be comfortable enough.
“How did you do that?” Hiska asked me after I was finally done with hers and Triga stopped her whining.
“Small hands?” I said.
She turned to my mother. “Hessa, your boy is strange.”
“Hmm,” mom trilled an affirmative as she gathered me back up and shoved me into the bindings on her back.
“But in a good way,” Hiska added. Which earned her low chuckles from Sarka and mom.
“Yes, he’s very smart,” Sarka said.
I really wasn’t, though! It’s just… Nevermind. If they already thought me strange now, what would they say if I tried to tell them about Champion Souls? I didn’t know nearly enough yet to take that particular leap of faith.
Hunting had been an educational experience.
After we had finally left the dangerous area in the late afternoon, Hiska spotted tracks in our path, all three adults seemed to recognize.
Mom repeated the word for the animal it belonged to several times until I got it right. It seemed to mean something like ‘water gobbler’? Two parallel trails of close together indents the size of mom’s hands, with an uninterrupted wide third dragline in the middle.
We followed it until we reached a small ravine. From afar, it only looked like another - if slightly larger - crack in the arid landscape, but when we came closer, I could make out shuffling, snorting, and little splashing sounds. Shortly after, the adults split up and descended into the gully from three different sides. Reaching the bottom, it was darker, much more humid, and vibrant green mosses and ferns were sprouting everywhere.
Most of the floor was covered by a muddy pool, a creature maybe three quarters the size of mom was busy eating leafy water plants. It looked much like a cross between a crocodile and an iguana. A very, very bloated iguana. The snout reminded me more of a turtle, though.
The ambush was over before I even completely registered that it had started. One moment, we were lying in wait, the next mom had pounced on the water gobbler’s back, holding it down, as Hiska clawed its face and bit into its neck. The water around us churned wildly and rose up and settled down in confusing patterns again and again until the prey finally stopped moving.
“That was close,” Sarka said from the side. She sounded exhausted. “Its magic was pretty strong for one so small.”
“It’s ok,” mom replied. “This one should tide us over until we have proper weapons again.”
I was amazed by how quiet the two girls had been. When I looked at them they were staring wide-eyed at our food and their mothers in turn.
Sufficiently awestruck, I thought.
That probably was far more dangerous than it had looked, though. Sarka and maybe mom must have actively been suppressing the gobbler’s water magic. This looked suspiciously like two or more parties had been pumping their mana into the water and were fighting over who had control. Patterns like these usually didn’t appear when you only used direct ambient energy manipulation. Which honestly made me a little concerned. I did not doubt that the gobbler had the stronger water affinity here and its defence had been completely shut down regardless.
We stayed in the gully for the night. Mom explained we wouldn’t make a fire because we didn’t know the area we were passing through and the gorge had no roof, so the escaping cooking smells could have attracted certain predators.
The water gobbler tasted okay either way. But I noticed the two girls being decidedly less enthused with the raw meat, having only ever had well-cooked strips before. If my lack of pickiness was seen as another strange thing about me, nobody bothered to mention it.
As I was eating, mom checked over my wounds. I had nearly forgotten the dull pain until she removed the mud. It stung quite a bit as she tore it away. But I didn’t bleed anymore so she left them uncovered.
Once I was satiated, I climbed back into her string harness - in case of emergency - and snuggled against her scaly skin. I patiently watched her shaping another knife out of a large shard of stone.
“Why do we always have to move around, mom?” I asked after a while. “Couldn’t we stay somewhere where there are no big monsters?”
Hiska laughed quietly. Sarka stayed silent but looked towards us.
My mother sounded amused as she replied. “Monsters are everywhere, Griss.”
"Is there really nowhere safe at all?” I asked dejectedly.
Mom hesitated. “Well, there used to be.”
“Oh come on, Hessa!” Hiska interrupted. “Do you really want to fill his head with these stupid myths? I didn’t peg you as one of those hopeful fools.”
“I’m not, don’t worry,” mom said calmly. “I won’t secretly lead you on a hopeless search for a place that probably doesn’t exist anymore. But he asked so I’ll tell him what my mother told me.”
That seemed to placate Hiska.
So mom continued. “A very long time ago, our ancestors lived among the chosen of the gods.” She paused. “Did I tell you about the gods before?”
“No.” I gulped. She had taught me the word when I had asked about magic, but didn’t tell me much about the actual gods, besides them supposedly governing different elements.
“Well, there are four of them. Fire, Air, Water and Earth. My mother told me they also stood for… Remembering, Traveling, Hunting and Making Babies, I think?” Mom turned to Hiska who affirmed with a quiet trill.
Those were… fewer changes than I would have expected? Well, I didn’t know when this mystical ‘very long time ago’ was.
“It isn’t all too important,” mom said. “I mean, why would fire have anything to do with remembering or water with hunting?”
I didn’t reply, not wanting to give myself away just yet.
“Anyways, our ancestors were protected by mighty guardians. Some say they were made from molten rock, others say they were made from thick green vines and water.” She bent her tail upwards and softly stroked me with it. “Still listening?”
“Both versions continue the same way. Our ancestors left the protection of the guardians to explore but couldn’t find their way back home. Over time, they found other Lost Ones, however. So they formed small groups and stayed together, always searching for the way home.”
‘Lost Ones’... Was this the name of my species? It was pronounced ‘Trarki’ in our language. I supposed I had to wait until I had access to my profile to be sure.
“And since we’re still Lost, they obviously never found it,” Hiska concluded mirthfully.
“Maybe some eventually did?” Sarka added. “Not before breeding more of us though.”
That produced another chuckle from mom and Hiska.
“Well, if someone found it, they didn’t come back to tell any of us, at least,” Hiska said.
“If home indeed still exists, nobody would know anymore where to even start looking for it,” my mother stated.
“Yeah,” I affirmed. “Thank you for telling me, mom.”
She was right, of course. Even I didn’t know where to start after all this time and the climate and landscape changing so much. And who knew how far our species had spread?
If I had to make an educated guess, though, I was pretty sure I’d first check every damn volcano I would come across.
- CET... but my sleeping schedule is messed up anyways
- Fledgeling Writer
I wanted to pick up writing again after years of stagnation. And this time I'd really like actual feedback.
So I switched to English, since I barely even read in a different language for fun during the last decade, and I hoped to reach more people with a modern lingua franca.
Anyways, I hope to receive honest and diverse criticism. This site seemed rather civil compared to others in that aspect.
So I'm here.