Chapter 19 - The Hunt

The tuskine herd violently trounced through the jungle, flattening trees in its path. The gigantic, bipedal, elephantine creatures weighed several tons at the largest and had no problem knocking the eighty-foot trees aside as they ran. They usually moved slowly, but today they were frightened. Their monstrous bellows reverberated off of the forest, a mighty chorus of defiance and fear. The herd, its pursuers no longer obvious, slowed a bit. They proceeded with stealth that belied their size, moving through a valley. The alpha female perched herself on a large rock and surveyed her herd, urging them through the ever-darkening forest. The tuskines trundled on, their group a mass of hungry muscle. They were not, by nature, aggressive. They only fought to defend themselves or their young, the latter of which were scattered about the herd, taking shelter from the towering adults.
Today was a ceremony. The Banquet of Nor was to be held this afternoon, which involved the eating of the very rare dish made of Tuskine flesh. The hunting of a tuskine was a great danger to norkids. Only the most adept hunters were ever allowed to do it. Because of the danger, they were not required to collect a healthy adult tuskine... any will do. A month old calf would feed the entire village for days. Tuskines were not particularly vicious, but when provoked, they lashed out with a deadly fury. Their weight and enormous, toothy maws spelled doom for any norkid that wasn't vigilant, alert, and extremely fleet of foot.
Thyken smiled as he looked down at the herd. They were wonderful creatures, to be respected. He, however, had been chosen to participate in this most sacred of hunts. Clearly Nor watched out for them as they acquired the meal of honor. All of the hunters knew which tuskine to attack. A calf lagged near the back, its leg dragging a bit. Apparently it had tripped on a rock and twisted its ankle. The creature was actually lucky, Thyken reasoned. It would be sent to Nor and given a position of eternal bliss in his kingdom. Thyken's ears perked up as a shrill whistle sounded. This was the signal to attack. Remembering his role, he dropped deftly from his vantage point down to a lower branch, right over the injured calf. He was, while honored to be in the hunt at all, not designated to attack the prey itself. He was to distract the adults around it. Patting his belt to assure that his knife had not fallen out, Thyken unleashed a roar and leapt onto the massive back of the nearest tuskine. He had been instructed not to hurt the beast except to save his own life. As the monster felt his weight on its shoulders, it let out a confused cry. A shudder of fear and surprise pulsed through the herd and they broke into a run. Their thunderous footfalls send a plume of dust and substrate above the norkids' heads. Thyken found himself being quickly carried away from the group as he held onto the thick folds of skin around the tuskine's shoulders and swung about to avoid being dashed against another animal or tree. He cast a quick glance behind him. The calf, as expected, was lagging behind a bit. Four norkids had leapt onto its back. Three covered the eyes and ears while the fourth shoved her spear expertly into the bump on the back of the tuskine's skull. It died instantly, dropping to the ground with a dull thud. The norkids jumped from its shoulders to avoid being crushed in the fall. Thyken had to turn his head to keep an eye on the flying branches, but he knew that the norkids would begin a prayer to Nor that the tuskine's soul would find its way into his presence.
The herd trundled on for perhaps a mile before they slowed enough for Thyken to safely jump off. He immediately headed back towards Cann, leaving them to their frenzied flight. In mere moments, the creatures had moved away and the ambient noise reduced to the hum of insects. Thyken stopped and spread his giant ears in response to an odd sound. It sounded like a low moan. He feared that it may be a scheepaa, which he really didn't have the training nor weaponry to deal with. He stood for almost an erkan before the sound came again, clearly much nearer this time. After hearing it twice more, Thyken convinced himself that it couldn't possibly be the monstrous boar-like beast he had been trained to avoid at all costs. He started creeping about stealthily, searching for the source of the noise. He silently scaled the roots of a particularly large tree and leered down into a burrow that had been dug at its feet. In the long- abandoned burrow there lay a norkid. His fur was matted and falling out in places. The bald patches and the skin on his face, hands, and tail were very pale and sallow in appearance. He was breathing hard and not moving. His enormous eyes lay open in a lethargic trance. Thyken could tell by the sling that the norkid had on its back that it was from the village of Ykin. Thyken leapt down to try to awaken the paralyzed creature. After several erk of shaking he deemed it beyond his capabilities to treat. He had to bring it back to Cann. While he didn't particularly relish the idea of having a slobbering, inept rodent of similar side on his back for a two mile journey back home, but he did remember Harkol's teachings. He had to save this creature.
"I better be thanked for this.", he thought as he slowly hefted the norkid scout onto his back and started for Cann.

It took Thyken about two erkers to get the inert norkid to Cann. The journey was slow and laborious, necessitating frequent stops. Thyken did begrudge the effort, though he pitied his cargo, which was obviously terribly ill. The creature's breathing was slowing as Thyken moved and it had yet to respond to any stimulus at all. By the time Thyken had reached the village, the nightly deluge of rain stung painfully. He had to walk upon the larger branches when possible to avoid the flood below. The trees were slippery, which normally would have posed no problem to him. However, he was greatly hindered by his passenger.
The Banquet of Nor was underway when he finally arrived. The smell of smoked meat wafted about the area, drawing his attention. Light from a tremendous bonfire cast eerie shadows throughout the forest, illuminating the millions of shimmering drops of water. A noisy, festive gathering was proceeding all over the village, despite the rain. There was much chanting and energetic music. The norkids were very different on celebration nights. They were loud and practically invited predation as opposed to their usually quiet nature. While the villagers seemed to be ignoring the rain, they kept their party up in any sheltered area available. A small fire burned in every burrow but Kitter's. Different party facilities were set up throughout the village. Steli's burrow, for instance, contained the percussion section of the orchestra, while Mepa's sheltered the chorus. Without stopping to grab a portion of smoked tuskine, Thyken trudged purposefully into the lowest level of the village store; the largest, driest tree. While not necessarily the 'official' use of this space, the hollowed out base of the squat tora tree often housed ill or injured norkids. Only Banin, the healer of Cann, was within, and even he seemed euphoric with the joy of partying. He was sitting on a thick root that grew from the wall of the mock-hospital, obviously on-duty to help any norkid that might be injured in the unrestricted rambunctious festival that shook the very forest outside. Thyken plopped the soaking norkid onto a finely carven bench and collapsed from exhaustion. Banin looked up, clearly surprised by the grisly scene he saw before him. Thyken pointed at the sick norkid with his tail before drifting off to sleep.
Thyken awoke the next morning in his burrow. The birds were sending their territorial calls echoing through the forest and the sun was quite high in the sky. He pulled the well-knit blanket from his body and stretched, noting that his kitten sister had already left the burrow to play. He had moved out of his burrow series ago, but Nakki had been so in awe of her older brother that she insisted upon living in his burrow with him. Thyken didn't particularly mind. It wasn't like he had a mate yet. His fellow quadruplets had moved out when he had, two moving to Nurll and one staying behind. Thyken looked out at the bright morning. He had slept rather later than normal and, by the looks of it, had been left behind by the other hunters. No matter, he reasoned. He could use a day off.
The spry young hunter leapt deftly down the tree, landing with a thud at the bottom. The morning mists had already dispersed and he could clearly see a group of norkids talking on the storage platform. He scampered up to join them. He quickly identified the group as containing Harkol, Phlaz, Kitter, Banin, and Mepa. Cashel sat off to the side, listening to the others with a disgruntled scowl on his face. Thyken stopped to listen to them for a few moments. Kitter, Banin, and Harkol were seemingly arguing about something.
"The hunters must have forgotten the prayer", the village Elder stubbornly insisted. Kitter looked aghast.
"Hardly. This is a natural plague and you know it. It must be the one that was wiping out the laaka herds around Ykin. You know the vimp brought it." Harkol was furious.
"How many times must I punish you for bringing them up? The vimp are not a threat. Nor will protect us from anything they send at us!" Kitter shrunk back a bit, clearly a bit worried at the prospect of being punished again.
"I'm going to have to concur with Kitter in part, actually, Harkol. A blasphemer or not, he does have a valid point. The plague seems to take root in the spine and destroy all brain functions. It moves far too fast to be from around here. It might very well be an off-world infection."
"You too, now? Think about it. Let's be rational for a bit, shall we? Yesterday we sent hunters to catch a tuskine. Nor urges us not do it except on the Banquet of Nor, and even then, with very special ceremonies and precautions. Clearly one of these was left unfulfilled. Din must have captured the soul of the calf. Surely Din has bestowed this plague. Nor will not let his nemesis be victorious. Nor will save us." At this, Thyken joined the argument.
"We did the ceremony right, Harkol. We captured and killed the tuskine in the correct manner, in the correct place. Surely you don't mean to question our skill at our own job?" Harkol turned, annoyed.
"Young Thyken, you are not involved in this discussion. As for your skill, I should hardly say that was formidable either. You allowed yourself to be carried away by tuskines? Why didn't you leap off? This wouldn't have happened if you had just jumped off as instructed." Thyken couldn't believe his giant ears.
"You mean that poor norkid would have died if I had? You mean I wouldn't have saved another being's life? I hardly call what I did as contrary to instruction. We are taught to value our lives, as Nor has commanded. That means valuing the lives of our kin, as well." The group was silent. After a pregnant pause, Banin finally spoke.
"You didn't save that norkid's life, Thyken. Your effort was valiant, but the poor creature died suddenly last night." Thyken's jaw dropped and tears began to well up in his eyes.
"But." he managed to choke. Mepa jumped in.
"You tried, Dear. The poor thing just didn't make it. Don't worry. You tried." This hardly seemed consolation. He had assumed that the norkid would live with the aid of Othcann's healers and great minds. He never thought that the norkid would just die. Kitter spoke up again.
"Harkol. You must call a meeting. Believe what you will about the sickness, but accept that it is potentially dangerous to our village. We must decided what to do as a group." Harkol scoffed.
"You mean you must decide to get Calinax's aid?" Kitter looked down, appalled.
"If that is the best course of action, then yes." Mepa interjected again.
"He's right, Harkol. A meeting must be held." "Fine." Harkol hesitantly nodded and moved into his burrow. The other four stood in silence as their leader disappeared. They stood for a good while, not moving, not speaking. "That Harkol is goina be the death of us all" Cashel grunted from behind. The three just nodded, not expressing the usual surprise at hearing Cashel speak at all.