Against All Instinct
Life is a precious thing that is often taken for granted. In the hustle and bustle of everyday living, most people just don't realize how their every action is, in fact, a fight for survival. But this wasn't always true.
There is a time forgotten, when humans had to struggle just to feed themselves. Small nomadic tribes roamed a dangerous world where one false step would lead to their demise at the hands of creatures better adapted to the radical landscape.
This is a story of one man from such a group.
* * *
He knew himself as Konta. It was a name he had since the day he could start remembering, a name he had chosen for himself. It was impossible to know what name others had given to him; expressing such an abstract concept as a name to his fellow clansmen was a luxury he and his people couldn't afford. The very idea of a spoken word was unfathomable, as making noise was akin to calling out to every creature within earshot.
So, it was only in the silent comfort of his mind that he was Konta, and that was good enough for him. He gave names to his kinfolk in a similar fashion, not knowing or caring how they referred to themselves.
There was never a reason for him to consider why his clan only communicated with body signals. As he strode through the grasslands amidst his people, following the subtle signs of the chief he had come to know as Murg, the only thing that was on his mind was the coming year.
Winter had begun to thaw, ushering in the prosperous time of Spring – the time when the most docile of prey would begin to emerge from their long hibernation and find food as the vicious beasts that inhabited Winter retreated to colder climates. His people were no different: With the migration of such monsters as the Razorback Mammoth and Snow Gremlins who detested the growing warmth, Spring was a time when they could stock up on food in preparation for the coming Summer, when food was less plentiful and dangers more abundant.
A chilled wind whipped through the grassland, which was even now still tinted with a mild frost. Konta was protected from the cold bite thanks to his fur, pulled from an Obsidian Panther he had killed a couple of years before. It was his most prized possession, a sign of his capability as a strong, young hunter, and like every member of his tribe who bore the pelt of a beast, he protected it as he would protect his child. Without it, his status in the tribe would be scarce higher than the suckling babes who were carried in the folds of their parents' pelts. Without it, he could not be trusted by the others to be taken on hunting raids for the more dangerous but rewarding creatures that would come in the following months.
Many hours of travel passed before Murg held up his hand and stabbed his walking stick into the ground. The tribe had reached a place he deemed suitable to set up camp – a small grove that had enough foliage to conceal them at a distance, but not so much as to hide any potential predators. Night had already begun to push away what warmth was granted by day's influence, but the party did not waste time fearing the encroaching cold as they hastily unfolded their tents from the backs of the young men who had yet to prove their worth in a hunt. The sturdy poles forged from Everlasting Redwood drove into the ground in a single thrust, their light weight but nearly impervious strength creating a strong foundation for the covers that would ward away the chill tonight. The covers, made of the massive leaves of the Weeping Willow and caulked with the waterproof sap of the same tree, would hold tight against anything less than thunderstorms and squalls.
As the men hurried to erect the tepees, the women were busy preparing the camp with a variety of necessary amenities. They still had some musk from the Desert Squunck they had killed the previous year. When deployed lightly in a wide circle around the camp, the overwhelming odor created a sort of invisible barrier that was all but impassable by any dangerous creature with a strong sense of smell. While one group hurried to form a perimeter, another was setting up the communal fire pit, which would be used to keep the entire tribe warm during the long, cold night in addition to helping cook all their food. One woman had already cut a square of turf away for the firepit and set it aside: this would be replaced when the tribe moved on, to hide evidence that they had been there. A couple of other tribe members had procured some jagged stones to dig the actual pit out and made haste to finish the pit as the light of day quickly faded. Several more still were sticking more Everlasting Redwood poles into the ground around the pit, upon which they would hang a tarp made from the skin of the Sponge Whale: a creature with skin that could absorb almost any non-solid material and detoxify it, which made it perfect for preventing smoke from escaping the campfire area and alerting predators.
Normally during this process of setting up camp, which Konta knew as the Settling, the hunters of the tribe would be busy trying to track prey for tonight's meal. However, the approach of Spring brought with it a different situation. There was no safer time of year than right now, in the first couple days of Spring. Because of this, the tribe used this brief respite between seasons to throw a festival of sorts in honor of the new year and to strengthen their bonds against the coming hardships. It was the one time of the year when Konta's tribe could laugh and smile and forget, for however precious little time, their daily struggle for survival.
* * *
The fire crackled merrily as the tribe gathered around it, each family bringing something else to share with the tribe during this Time of Settling. One of the tribeswomen, whom Konta knew as Klika, had brought a sweet stew made from some preserved Fruit Bats they had harvested the year prior. Her small boy Klikin occasionally tried to sneak a taste before feeding time, only to be reprimanded by his father, the hunter Konta knew as Klik, much to the amusement of the rest of the tribe.
Across the way, Konta spotted Faygo, a fellow hunter whom he had grown up with. Konta watched as Faygo sat amongst the young women of the tribe, showing off a long, sleeve-like bracelet that he had just been given by Chief Murg while they tousled his shoulder-length blonde hair. Konta felt a little resentment at this – the Chief's bracelet was a sign of favor from Murg that only a choice few hunters were given. Most of the hunters that had the bracelet were much older than Konta and Faygo, both of whom had yet to see twenty Winters pass, yet the chief had seen fit to bestow his blessing on only the latter.
All thoughts of the bracelet left his mind as a soft touch alighted on his shoulder. He turned to see the smiling face of his young wife, whom he had only paired with in the past season. Her bushy brown hair grew so thick and untamed that it tumbled recklessly down her shoulders and past her knees, almost skimming the ground, but there was no mistaking the strong yet delicate body that hid beneath. Konta's face broke into an embarrassing smirk, his happiness and pride impossible to hide – he had finally earned what every man of the tribe coveted, a mate. In his mind, she was Kontala, the second half of his personal clan, and Konta could hardly bear waiting for his first pup to be born.
Indeed, they had wasted no time in sealing their partnership, as evidenced by the slight swelling of Kontala's belly. She sat down gingerly beside Konta, resting her head against his shoulder. With a sweep of her hand, she drew the hood of his pelt from his head and ran her fingers through the mess of black locks he normally kept concealed, eliciting a goofy grin from him as the rest of the tribe present laughed silently behind their hands and shook their heads. Normally such displays of affection between mates were awkward amongst other members of the tribe, but they had only partnered less than a season – their newfound affection and lust for each other was considered pardonable. Konta didn't care what they thought anyways. Before long, he would be out of the village often on hunts for food and supplies to see the tribe through the coming seasons, which would be far harsher and more merciless than the calm of Spring. He figured the least the clan could do for him was give such a dedicated warrior one peaceful night with his wife.
The fire had just started to simmer down when Murg finally crept through the folds of the tarp, his face wrinkled and impassive. Konta always marveled at the chief's pelt, a coat covered in feathers with a deep ash coloring. Konta had never seen a creature with such a mantle in all his hunts and knew that, from Murg's position as chief, there was a good reason he hadn't seen it. Likely it came off a rare beast Murg had hunted in seasons long before Konta lived.
The chief's appearance signaled that it was time to eat, and the women bustled to portion out their remaining provisions. The men remained seated, their rough hands forged through years of hunting ill-suited to handle the delicate foods that the women had labored to prepare. Like all their “festivals” past, there was little in way of noisy fanfare and jubilation. They ate in silent gratitude and watched the pups, too young to hunt or work, run around the fire and play. To the hunters, though, tonight was the calm before the storm.
Konta sighed as he thought of the coming days and seasons, where simply waking up each morning would be a miracle to be thankful for. On this night, however, with Kontala's hand in his and with his tribesmen all around him, he felt like there was no obstacle in this world he and his people couldn't overcome.
Tomorrow brings a new day and new challenges.
The Fruit Bat
There was no guaranteed sanctity in sleep for the nomads, who had to constantly keep guard against nocturnal prowlers. Each coming dawn was hardly any safer, as most of the tribe that wasn't keeping watch was still groggy from sleep, and the first glimmers of daylight made them easy to find for those early hour hunters. However, with the advent of Spring, there was a reliable amount of safety with the precautions taken the other day. They relished it while they could; in the coming seasons, such safety would be a rare commodity.
Konta was one of the few men who awoke with the women, who had to rise before the Sun's earliest rays to bring the village up to speed. The hunters were allowed to sleep later as to conserve strength for the trials they would have to face in the coming day; the safety and vitality of the village depended on them being in their top form. However, Konta thrived with only a little sleep, so oftentimes would watch guard until late yet rise earliest, more refreshed and prepared than any other hunter.
Today was especially important to him. It was the day that the young boys of the village would be taken on their first hunt, to prepare them for the trials they'd face to earn their manhood. It was the ideal time to do so, with the dangerous beasts of Winter retreating to colder climates and the deceptive and cunning beasts of Summer yet to fully awaken from their hibernation. In particular, there was one beast that thrived during Autumn that would be ripe for the picking during this time. That was their target today.
The other hunters finally stirred from their slumber, stepping sleepily from their tents as they made their way towards the basins the women had heated for communal bathing. A quick scrub in nearly boiling water woke them up readily enough, and before long they gathered around the meal prepared much earlier that morning, a feast of various scraps from the celebration held the other night.
Konta had already eaten and was, instead, inside his hut preparing the tools they would need for this journey: a flint knife honed to its sharpest and well tested, and a spit made from Everlasting Redwood with the end sharpened to a point and burned black to harden it. The knife would be the only tool they needed for this particular hunt, but the spear would be necessary to ward off any unwanted intrusions. There was another favorite tool of Konta's that sat wrapped, inconspicuous, in a small corner of the hut, but he ignored it for today. It would be too cumbersome to bring along for a hunt where discretion was more important than brute force.
As he prepared to leave the tent, Kontala stepped in with surprising grace. Being with child, her duties were lighter than those of the other women, and she was given frequent rest periods to tend to her own health. As she entered, her eyes alighted on Konta's tools, and a glowing smile crossed her face. Konta, seeing her, could only beam back as he strode forward on powerful legs and swept her into an embrace. Taking his hand in hers, she led him to her belly, where even now their progeny was stirring faintly. Konta marveled at how Kontala could read his emotions so clearly. Today he would be helping the other families' boys learn to become men, but in short time he would finally have a pup of his own to teach the ways of the land – a day that he waited for with bated fervor.
The embrace was quick, but not hurried. Konta let go and made to stride out of the tent, but one hand lingered on his mate's shoulder as he pulled away, only slipping off when he had stepped too far to reach out further. He could feel her eyes following him until he was completely out of sight, and that thought filled him with a vim and vigor greater than any amount of sleep or food could bring; he was ready for today.
The village boys had already gathered around the covered fire pit, each one nervously gripping at the flint knife that their fathers had hewn over the last several days. Some of the hunters were already waiting impatiently near their pups, while those without children were still trickling in. Konta, being one of the latter, stood a good distance from the small huddle of parents and pups as he twirled his knife idly.
It was only a couple minutes after the last of the pups and hunters had entered the tarp when a giant of a man parted a curtain, stepping halfway into the enclosure before throwing himself into a sitting position onto the floor. It was obvious to anyone who saw him why he did this – so massive was the man that even sitting cross-legged on the floor his head came up to the chin of the average hunter. On his back was a pelt of brown spines that appeared to have the texture of felt but clearly had knife-like edges. This man drew the attention of every man and child in that tent, for there wasn't a person in the tribe who didn't recognize the skill of the Head Hunter, whom Konta knew as Zanzu: the man who single-handedly killed the deadly king of Winter, the Razorback Mammoth.
Zanzu's eyes darted over the group, and Konta watched as he took a mental tally of everyone there. It was one of the traits a highly skilled hunter was supposed to have: remembering every member of a large hunting party and making sure all were accounted for at all times. In mere moments, he was finished and stood as he beckoned with a hand for the group to follow his lead. Konta couldn't help but notice the armband he wore, and for the briefest moment felt a pang of jealousy. There was no time for such worthless emotions, though. The hunt was on.
The village scouts had already found their prey the previous night, a task that was only fit for those who had learned to move with the stealth and cunning of the vicious night beasts. Getting there was a simple task, but this was a training hunt, so the pace they made was halved as the more experienced hunters were set to the task of showing the pups how to move without disturbing the forestry or leaving tracks, silently warning what plants were poisonous or, in some cases, carnivorous and thus should be avoided. Fortunately, their destination was not far from where they had set up camp, and even at half-pace it took less than the span of the afternoon to arrive.
Before the pack was a grove of trees that stretched a fair deal higher than their neighbors. Konta recognized these as Skyscraper Cedars, trees that grew indefinitely until they could no longer bear their own weight and were sent toppling to the ground. Of course, he also was aware of the creature that made Skyscrapers their nests during the Spring season, due to their risky propagation methods.
Even now, the hunters were addressing the pups mutely, gesturing to a small number of objects that appeared attached to the trunks of the half-dozen trees in this grove. They were brightly colored orbs, about the size of a young man's head. Zanzu reached up towards one that no other hunter could reach while standing and held it with the care one would hold a newborn with. His other hand grasped his knife and blurred through the air as he slashed between the tree and the strange orb, separating the object from the trunk almost effortlessly. He lowered it for the young ones to observe, and now they saw that the orb was actually placental in nature, clear and filled with a colorful liquid. In the center was a small, featureless embryo – the fetus of a Fruit Bat.
Konta had hunted Fruit Bats before. Flying beasts that in adulthood boasted wingspans equivalent to five adults standing and were able to produce their own food supplies internally provided they had enough water. Konta had named them from the sweet taste their flesh produced – a taste shared by the pods of their young. These primarily nocturnal monsters prospered during the endless rain of Autumn, where they could hunt without rest for days. Fortunately, they migrated to unknown lands to hibernate during Summer and Winter, returning during Spring only long enough to spawn their brood that would gestate over several months, finally emerging in Autumn to start their own lives.