It was time, Afsan knew, to return to Capital City. For one thing, Saleed would doubtless be angry that he had taken any time off at all. For another, Dybo was now Emperor — and that would be something to see!
When Afsan had first made the journey from Carno to Capital City, it was via hornface caravan, a slow way to travel. But each Pack had to send a tribute to the new Emperor, and so a group from Carno was heading out on the fastest running beasts to make the journey. After liberally mentioning his friendship with Dybo, Afsan was invited to join the party. He was delighted: this would cut his travel time by two-thirds.
The runners were similar to those used by Kaden’s hunting pack: round bodies; stiff tails; legs built for great strides; long necks; tiny heads; giant eyes. But these were the inland variety, an unattractive pinkish beige, with eyes that were green rather than golden, and beaks of shiny black.
Afsan climbed atop his mount and settled into the saddle, his own flexible tail wrapping around the runner’s stiff one. Afsan could steer the beast simply by moving his tail to indicate the direction he wanted to go, and the interlocking of their tails would help Afsan stay on the creature’s back even at the fastest speeds.
Three others were in the riding party: Tar-Dordool, leader of Pack Carno; Det-Zamar, one of Carno’s senior priests; and
Pahs-Drawo, the individual Afsan idly speculated might be his father. Drawo was one of the most skilled hunters in Carno, and he would be responsible for seeing to it that the group ate well on the trip.
With cries of "Latark!" they left at first light. Afsan snapped his tail to spur his runner into motion. The horizon jumped up and down as the runner’s two long legs came into their stride, and Afsan, who had survived the voyage aboard the Dasheter without feeling sick, realized that if it were not for the cooling wind created by the beast’s great velocity, he would be nauseous from the bouncing. He placed his arms around the base of the creature’s long neck to steady himself, taking care not to unsheathe his claws even though they wanted to pop out in fright, lest he dig into the runner’s flesh.
By noon that day, Afsan’s stomach had quelled. Priest Zamar, whose beast was running alongside Afsan’s own, taught him the trick of matching his own breathing to the beast’s stride: sucking air in as it lifted its left foot, pushing it out as the right one kicked into the dirt. Eventually the rhythm of the beast became transparent to Afsan, and when they dismounted to let the runners rest, he found himself feeling as though his body was still rushing through the air.
They continued through the day without eating, and slept under the stars that night. Afsan looked up at the great sky river, wondering what it really was, and watched the moons go through their motions. His mind raced, still trying to comprehend all the secrets of the sky, but at last he grew tired, and simply drank in the beauty of the night until he fell into a dreamless, pleasant sleep.
The runners, voracious beasts, had been turned loose to hunt. With their swiftness, there was no doubt that the four of them, operating as a pack, would bring down something large enough to satisfy themselves.
No time was wasted in the morning. The mounts had indeed eaten well, judging by their torpor, but after a few false starts they were goaded back into action.
The party followed the Kreeb River for days. It meandered a lot and Afsan marveled at how he’d ever believed that the great body of water that covered the moon he lived on was simply a giant river, how anybody had ever believed that.
Eventually they left Arj’toolar for the plains of Mar’toolar.
After several days, Pahs-Drawo announced that he wanted to catch something special for dinner: a fangjaw.
Afsan had openly clicked his teeth. "A fangjaw? No Quintaglio can catch one of those. They’re much too fast."
"Ah," said Drawo, "but the runners can catch them."
Afsan’s stomach churned. Eat an animal killed by another animal? Drawo must have read the revulsion on Afsan’s face. He clicked his teeth, and Afsan noticed that the way he did that, a loud click then a soft, was much like his own laughter. "Don’t worry, eggling. We will do the killing, but we’ll give chase upon the backs of the runners."
And so they did. A fangjaw was one of the few four-footed carnivores in all of Land. It hunted in the tall grasses, bringing down thunderbeasts and shovelmouths, running silently on padded feet. Its narrow face had two long curving teeth growing upward from the lower jaw. Afsan had heard their meat was sweet: he’d now find out for himself.
Zamar and Dordool declined to participate. Drawo picked up the trail of a fangjaw in short order, and he and Afsan mounted their bipedal racing animals and set off in the direction the fangjaw must have gone.
It took the better part of the morning to track the creature, but at last they caught sight of it, scaly brown shoulders rising and falling behind the grass. Drawo used the hunters’ sign language to indicate it was time to charge, and their mounts rushed toward the fangjaw. Their quarry looked up, let out a sticky hiss, and bolted into the distance.
The fangjaw was a natural predator for the running beast, and Drawo said it had taken much training to get them to chase fangjaws instead of galloping away. But chase they did! Afsan’s mount surged beneath him, and he held on for dear life, wrapping his tail tightly around the runner’s. The wind in his face was incredible.
The fangjaw was low in the grass, its passage mostly visible only by ripples through the blades.
They were closing.
The fangjaw made a sharp turn. Afsan didn’t know why it had done so, but he trusted its instincts. With a yank of his tail, he commanded his runner to copy the fangjaw’s maneuver. As he passed the spot where the carnivore had turned, Afsan saw a crevice in the ground. If he hadn’t changed direction, his runner would have stumbled into it, probably breaking both legs.
Drawo’s runner moved off at an angle, so that he was approaching the fangjaw on the left, while Afsan barreled in from the right. Suddenly Drawo leapt from his mount. Afsan did the same, the ground rushing by beneath him at a dizzying rate. His claws sprang out. He landed on the fangjaw’s shoulders. Drawo missed, smashing into the dirt. Afsan was alone on the creature’s back.
It was twice Afsan’s body-length, but his weight was slowing it down. He felt the thing’s muscles ripple as it moved its shoulders, trying to buck him.
Afsan dug in.
One bite should do it…
The fangjaw arched its neck, trying again to throw Afsan. Afsan brought his jaws together with a crunching sound where the fangjaw’s head joined its body. He twisted, cracking the quadruped’s vertebrae.
In mid-stride, the fangjaw stopped moving of its own volition. But momentum carried it forward, smashing it into the ground. Afsan bounced, but did not fall off his kill. Drawo, brushing dirt from his body, ran over to where Afsan and the fangjaw lay.
"Such skill from an eggling!" shouted Drawo, apparently genuinely pleased, and not disappointed to have been left out of the kill himself. "I’ve never seen the like."
He stared at Afsan for a moment, as if wondering something, then made a strange gesture with his left hand: claws exposed on the second and third fingers, the fourth and fifth fingers spread, thumb pressed against his palm.
Afsan recognized the gesture. It was the same one he’d seen on his Dasheter cabin door and elsewhere. But the double impacts, first into the fangjaw’s hide, then as the beast had slammed into the ground, had left him slightly dazed. Not sure quite what he was doing, he made a halfhearted stab at duplicating the sign, still wondering what the silly thing meant.
Drawo looked delighted. "I’ll summon the others," he said, bowing deeply.
Afsan saw no reason to wait for the rest of the party. He tore a large chunk off the beast’s flank. The meat was very sweet indeed…
The rest of the journey was uneventful. Afsan slept under the stars when the sky was clear; in one of the tents Det-Zamar had brought on those nights it rained. Finally they made it through the pass between the two largest of the Ch’mar volcanoes, and spreading out before them were the stone and adobe structures of Capital City.
Home at last, thought Afsan. Then he clicked his teeth, realizing how he’d changed. As much as he’d enjoyed his visit to Carno, it was no longer his home. The Capital was, and he was glad to be back. But he wondered if he’d still be glad after he’d seen his master, chief palace astrologer Tak-Saleed.