The whisper of leathery footsoles rasping over stone. The faint smell of an enemy inadequately bathed to hide its scent. Tok saw nothing, but knew from these things that the enemy was directly below her.
She heard another sound and looked to its source. Krek was in position on the next boulder over.
A heartbeat passed, then Tok swarmed over the crest of the giant boulder and jumped, hands out, ready to kill. The screech of nail on stone told her that Krek likewise made her move.
Below Tok, there was a moment of frenzied activity, but before she even hit the ground rolling, the enemy was gone into a high thicket of elbow root. In another moment Tok was on her feet and bounding after them.
She bulled her way through the thicket, her thick, calloused skin indifferent to the sting of knotted branches. She heard Krek crashing through beside her.
Out of the thicket into a small graveled clearing, hemmed in by more giant boulders. Tok leaped, but slipped on the gravel and tumbled onto the loose ground. Krek erupted from the elebow root, bounded over her, and leaped for the boulders. From there they might sight the fleeing enemy.
Tok felt no embarrassment when her friend passed by. Krek was a hundred years her senior, and had always been a better runner and jumper. Tok thought only of the enemy. She got her feet under her and leaped again -- this time she landed halfway up a boulder’s face, clinging with her clawlike nails. She scrambled to the top next to Krek.
A rolling, rocky downslope clogged with the giant boulders swept away from her into the green lowlands below. Elbow root, boulders and caves gave the enemy too many places to hide.
She turned to Krek, but Krek was gone. She had left deep scratch marks on the boulder from her toenails.
Tok looked down again. There! Movement in a thicket. It wasn’t Krek, because Krek was on the ground, sprinting toward the thicket. Tok turned aside and leaped from boulder to boulder, following a zig-zag path to a boulder near the thicket, and leaped down into it.
Even as her feet touched the ground, a knobby fist slammed into the side of her head. She reeled back through the greenery and stopped up against an elbow trunk. Leaves shredded and flew, branches broke, and the enemy was out of the thicket and out of sight. Krek flashed past in pursuit.
Not embarrassed, but Tok was indignant. She had thought highly of her early mastery of Guardian martial arts, but today spoke of the need for much more training.
She lunged out of the thicket into a maze of boulders. Krek vanished around one. Tok ran swiftly and lightly, on her long toes, with her crested head low and forward, blue eyes fixed ahead, ears alert to all sounds. Around a boulder, around another, she followed the sounds of Krek and the enemy.
Around, around, and over. Finally she skidded to a stop next to Krek, at the dark mouth of a waist-high cave. Tok bent to enter.
Krek slapped a knobby hand on Tok’s cantaloupe-sized shoulder to stop her. “No,“ she said, out of breath. “They are gone. We can’t hope to find them in these caves. Too many passageways, to many intersections. And no light.“
“I don’t need light,“ Tok retorted. “Neither do you.“
“Not to track and pursue, no. But to fight?“
That stayed Tok’s hand. Blindfolded fighting went well on the practice ground, but in an unknown network of tight caves? Tok straightened. “Very well. Let us rejoin the others, then.“
Their pursuit had taken them far back down the mountain. It took many, many breaths to catch up with the caravan. But they rediscovered the trail with relative ease, and once on it, ran to catch up.
Not far below the snowline they reached the caravan. Eleven canvas-covered strongwood wagons in all, each trundling up the mountain driven by flat, metal motors mounted where wheel met axle. With all four motors running, a wagon could move uphill just a little slower than walking speed.
Tok had read at the Great Library that some people under the sun made their carts go with smelly, messy engines that burned alcohol. Doubtless it was efficient, but such a design ignored the force that pervaded All Creation, the unseen action that made properly-designed motors spin for years at a time. Provided one could find the lodestone with which to make motors; this whole region had very little.
Bipedal reptilian mundi walked along the caravan, frequently alone, sometimes with a Guardian attending. Among animals, mundi were highly intelligent, and knew the way to go. If a Guardian needed to get somewhere quickly, she rode a mundi. Mundi were spirited creatures, and not all Guardians could handle them. Tok could not, yet. With more instruction, possibly she would.
Tok and Krek hurried up along the line to take their places walking behind the provisions cart, which was loaded with the fruits, vegetables and roots the Guardians ate. Everyone walked, so the wagons would moved faster under their loads.
The only one who did not walk was the Ancient.
The Ancient of Days, leader of the Guardians, rode in an unadorned wooden litter carried by two other Guardians. Always refusing to take the lead in any precession, the Ancient rode a few wagons back from the front. She showed her age. Where Tok’s skin was a youthful pink leather, the Ancient’s was yellow and brittle, and prone to sores. Tok’s own cranial crest was youthfully high and strong; the Ancient’s had been almost completely eaten away by thinning of the bones. And the Ancient was nearly blind.
Tok hoped that one day soon she would be granted the honor of carrying the Ancient’s litter, but she feared she never would have the opportunity. Neither Tok nor Krek, nor any other junior Guardian knew how old the Ancient really was, but certainly her penetrating intelligence and curious gentle wisdom had been accumulated over a lifetime of thousands of years. This had probably been her last journey to the Great Library.
Tok couldn’t imagine the Guardians without the Ancient’s knowledge and wisdom.
“Wayward students, did you find your prey?“
It was Makkus, Tok’s and Krek’s master instructor. Makkus was seven hundred years older than Tok, and oversaw the teaching and training of all young Guardians.
She came up behind them with a waterskin. Tok deferred the water to Krek, who took a long drink. Tok said, “No, Master Teacher.“
“Why do you suppose you failed?“ Makkus asked.
Tok thought before she replied. She had learned not to blurt foolish answers to Makkus. “I believe it was because we did not have the element of surprise. The enemy must have seen Krek and I break away from the caravan, and though we took immediate cover, a change in the wind might have given them our scents.“
Krek, her beak now wet and shiny, gave the waterskin to Tok, and said, “Whoever they are, they are fast. Faster and more skillful over harsh terrain than either Tok or I.“
“Might the reason for your failure be that there was never an enemy at all?“
Tok gulped her water, hoping her annoyance didn’t show.
“Master Teacher,“ Krek said, “be that as it may, we encountered beings below that moved more swiftly than we did, and followed intelligent evasive paths through the terrain.“
A Guardian’s face rarely betrayed underlying feelings, but Makkus made no attempt to hide her disdain. Tok closed the waterskin. “There is something following us, Master Teacher,“ Tok insisted.
“Thus you have said since we left the Great Library. We have honored your concerns repeatedly, young Tok, but our scouts have found nothing. Krek’s unflagging loyalty to your perceptions does both her and you credit, but it is only the two of you who have glimpsed this unseen danger. I have spoken of this with the Ancient One, and she thinks you are chasing only your own imaginations.“
That cut deep. Tok had assumed that if she herself could sense an enemy close at hand, surely the Ancient One would too! “Master Teacher, my imagination did not strike me.“ She turned her head so Makkus could see where her skin had been split open. The crusted blood was dark purple in the noonday sun.
Makkus squinted. She looked to Krek, who nodded.
A Guardian sigh sounded like a sharp whistle, blown through one’s barely-open beak. “Very well, young Tok, I shall speak again with the Ancient One when we make camp before Shadowfall. But if she does not agree to pursue this matter further, it will be forgotten.“
“Understood, Master Teacher,“ Krek said.
Tok echoed, “Understood, Master Teacher.“ But something is out there, she thought.
Someone’s watching us...