aun Sjir’phal knelt in the damp earth and studied the footprint embedded there. He parted his lips to access the full array of his smelling abilities. oun Ei’dhar had been past here and not long ago. aun Sjir’phal rose and tured to his companions.
“It is he,” he said to them.
aun P’ata’lyh huffed. “Then we should hurry.”
“Ye,” aun Sjir’phal replied and turned, leading the other four deeper into the jungle.
Two of the four kept their eyes on the treetops, for oun Ei’dhar could climb off the jungle floor to avert capture. The rest of the party kept quiet and alert. None of theml had never pursued anyone in a jungle, on a world. They had only ever lived within the sterile confines of a ship. He concentrated, alert, too, for danger in the form of wild animal life. They had seen strange, plumbed beasts that flew through the soggy air with ease. They had seen small critters that chittered and fled from them. Once or twice, they had seen vipers slithering along the limbs of trees. There had been no sign of larger predators, but aun Sjir’phal did not take that to mean there were none. They proceeded quietly and more slowly than oun Ei’dhar’s reckless flight. They might lose the murderer after all and would always have to be alert for his presence. What was to stop the murderer from returning to murder again?
He panted, pushing aside bushes. Even this early in the day, the heat was stifling. He took deep breaths and to allay the dizziness from the combination of heat and humidity. He must lead by example, so could not afford weakness. He hacked at squat bushes, opening a path for them. oun Ei’dhar must have leapt over the bush. At that rate, he would exhaust himself quickly in this heat. The footprints followed along, the stance wide. The jungle floor soon became sparser of bushes and small plants. They walked around palms with huge fronds and incredibly tall tress filled with twisted limbs convered in ivy. aun Sjir’phal heard the pattern of raindrops on the canopy. They would remain relatively dry. Thunder rumbled in the distance.
A crack of lightning was followed by a deafening boom of thunder and the skies opened up. The downpour was deafening. He turned to his companions.
“We are more vulnerable now,” he had to yell. “Keep alert.”
He saw in aun P’ata’lyh’s eyes fear and doubt. aun Sjir’phal sighed.
“What is it, old friend?” he asked.
“Is this worth our endangerment, aun Sjir’phal?” his friend asked. “We cannot hear if predators approach. The jungle will surely do away with the murderer.”
“We were tasked with finding the murderer,” aun Sjir’phal reminded his friend. “We are to pursue him for at least terson days. It has been just over olta. We will finish this.”
aun P’ata’lyh looked like he would argue then bowed. “Ye.”
They continued. The light under the canopy diminished further, although that was no bother to the Sha’jeen’s superior night vision. They continued on, their senses alert.
They traveled due east, towards the other shore. The God only knew how far that was. They would turn back on the tersonth day, with or without oun Ei’dhar.
The hours became a blur. To aun Sjir’phal, it was as if they had trudged past the same bush now several times. His sensed they were still going east, but the jungle seem to say something different. He finally called a halt hours later.
“Let us rest and replenish,” he told his companions. He indicated a space on the jungle floor. They sat with their backs to each other, facing forward to keep an eye on their surroundings.
aun Sjir’phal opened his cloth shoulder bag and removed a slice of dried fish. He ate slowly before taking a sip of the tepid water. He gauged how much fish he had left before he took another slice and ate that, too.
He panted as the day continued to storm. There would be no building in the colony this day.
He yawned, his jaws cracking. He bent his head to stretch his neck and looked up again into a pair of yellow eyes. He stiffened.
“What is it?” aun P’ata’lyh asked.
The eyes gave a slow blink.
“What am I seeing?” aun Sjir’phal asked.
Then the animal burst from the jungle and rushed at aun Sjir’phal. aun Sjir’phal had time to dislodge his dagger before he was scrabbling with an animal covered in pungent, bristly fur. Weariness made him slow. He tucked his chin down to keep his vulnerable neck safe. He heard his companions’ cries. The animal sank its fang into his shoulder. aun Sjir’phal howled, rage taking over. He took his dagger and sank it into the animal’s neck. The animal only clamped down harder. aun Sjir’phal lost count of how many times he stabbed the beast. Blood spurted from the animal’s wounds. aun Sjir’phal had the distant thought that maybe this was some sort of mythical being. How can something survive that many stabbings?
He was dragged several feet into the jungle, back the way they had come. aun Sjir’phal thought his shoulder would be dislocated. The pain was far away but growing brighter. Suddenly the beast, let him go.
The animal wandered a few feet away and collapsed, panting. It watched him for a moment and yawned, looking away. It was a stunning creature, with fur as black as space and bright yellow eyes. Two sharp and large ears on the narrow head swiveled at every sound. On its large paws, sharp pale claws. It had no discernable tail.
“How can you be alive?” he asked it.
The animal licked its lips and looked at him.
aun Sjir’phal rose, leaning on his good arm. He glanced down at his mangled shoulder. His heart gave a sickening lurch. He was shaking so badly now, he almost dropped the dagger twice. He heard the others calling him and turned, hurrying to where they were. If he were more of a religious Sha’jeen, he could make something of this. He barked a laugh.
aun P’ata’lyh cried out when he saw aun Sjir’phal.
“Your shoulder!” his friend said.
aun Sjir’phal finally was able to sheath his dagger.
“You killed it?” a young aun Deuil asked.
“It is invincible,” aun Sjir’phal replied. “I stabbed it almost shanstk times; it did not die.”
The young aun Deuli hissed. “That cannot be!”
“Well, it is,” aun Sjir’phal snapped. “It lives still.”
“Perhaps it will die of blood loss,” aun P’ata’lyh offered.
“Rest is over,” aun Sjir’phal told them. “Let’s head out.”
“But your wound!” aun P’ata’lyh protested.
“We have a few hours of searching more, no more,” aun Sjir’phal told him. “I’ll be well. Let us go.”
But as the hours passed, aun Sjir’phal grew lightheaded and developed a burning thirst. By the time he lay down, leaving two of his companions to keep watch over their camp, he had developed a throbbing headache. His eyesight grew sensitive, even in the dimness under the jungle canopy. He felt into a restless sleep where he dreamed strange, disjointed dreams, reliving the revolt back in the ark. All through his dream, a beast with black fur and yellow eyes walked, yawning. On the morrow, he had to be shaken awake and he blinked up at aun P’ata’lyh. His tongue was swollen in his parched mouth.
He rose slowly. Vertigo made him close his eyes and he almost fell. He felt overheated, like his robes were too much to endure.
“My friend, we are headed back,” aun P’ata’lyh told him. “We have decided enough is enough. Let the jungle take the murderer.”
“We head back,” another of their companions stated. “We will know this jungle in time. But we should build our homes first. The murderer will not be able to survive alone.”
aun Sjir’phal sighed. He knew this to be the truth. For that reason alone, he acquiesced to returning the way they had come.
They walked past where the creature had lain down and aun Sjir’phal saw it was empty, save for the blood that darkly stained the fallen leaves. He shivered.
The days were interminable. aun Sjir’phal shook badly, shivering at every breeze. He forced himself to put one foot in front of the other, wrapping his robes close to his body. His eyesight dimmed and he followed close behind aun P’ata’lyh. His wound was tight and hot. It developed a strange smell. He had to cover it with his robes to keep the insects from it. It ached constantly. But it was what was happening inside him that was worse. The nausea made it impossible to eat and only to sip water despite his raging thirst. The rests they took helped nothing. He sat quielty, subdued, half-listening to the quiet conversations of the others. He realized he had become a liability and it shamed him. Every day they walked for hours, and he had to dig dip into himself to find the will to continue. A terrible lethargy filled him like warm sand. He grew lightheaded. He constantly narrowed his eyes to keep the sensitvity at bay.
On the last day of travel, most of his symptoms seemed to abate. At the edge of the jungle, he felt himself once more. Suddenly he leaned on a nearby tree and vomited blood onto the green bark.
aun P’ata’lyh patted his back solicitiously. “Come, my friend. We’ll heal you somehow.”
He allowed himself to be assisted to the prayer hall.
The rain had subsided, and a sickening humidity had taken its place. The sounds of hammering filled the early afternoon.
At the prayer hut, oun D’jir stood just outside the door.
“What happened?” the high priest demanded.
“An animal attack,” aun P’ata’lyh replied.
The High Priest hissed. “Bring him inside- now.”
The prayer hall smelled of sweet grass and flowers and sawdust. Colorful pillows from the arks were set in half circles facing a large pillow at the fore of the room At the back of the room, woven mats were set on the floor. Six in total. Each mat had a small pillow and a sheet of cloth. It was here oun D’jir led them.
aun P’ata’lyh assisted aun Sjir’phal to sit on a mat.
oun D’jir looked at aun P’ata’lyh. “I will care for him now. You can go.”
aun P’ata’lyh bowed. “Ye, High Priest.”
aun Sjir’phal looked up and noticed four other priests standing a few feet away.
“Bring me a bowl of seawater,” oun D’jir told his priests. “I need cloth and a needle and thread.”
The priests bowed and hurried from the hall.
oun D’jir looked him in the eye. He reached up and gently removed the robe from the wound and hissed.
“What did this?” he asked.
“A beast that wouldn’t die,” he replied. He swallowed against the rising nausea.
oun D’jir cocked his head. “How could it not die, aun Deuil?”
aun Sjir’phal hissed in laughted. “I stabbed it almost shankstk times, High Priest. It lay down to watch me with disinterest.”
oun D’jir’s lips quirked. “Perhaps you don’t taste too good.”
aun Sjir’phal hissed again and nodded.
“And oun Ei’dhar?”
aun Sjir’phal shrugged and gasped, his eyes watering. The wound had begun to feel tight and hot once more.
“The jungle will swallow him whole,” he replied distantly.
oun D’jir nodded. “He is free then, as is the will of the God. The God sent that beast to attack you, aun Sjir’phal, because oun Ei’dhar has to find his own destiny.”
“So, he goes free,” aun Sjir’phal spat. oun Djir flattened his ears. “Forgive him, High Priest.”
“I understand your frustration,” the High Priest told him. “But these are holy days, and we must obey the God and honor Him. Now, let us get you out of those filthy robes.”
oun Djir helped him to stand. The room lurched and spun. He fell, hearing oun Djir call distantly. The darkness began at the edges of his eyesight. It slowly swallowed him whole.