Anthrak/The Summer of Proving
From Unofficial Handbook of the Virtue Universe
A work in progress; installments being posted at the League of Misfits GuildPortal.
Today is the first day of the Summer of Proving. Marad’s silver sun beats mercilessly on the jungle canopy. Even with the shade the glowing leaves provide, the air is sweltering.
The jungle is usually eerily silent. The wildlife knows that any sound will as likely as not invite a swift death. The Bloodlands of Marad are called such for the staggering brutality of their ecosystem. The wilds here are lush, vibrant and heavily populated by both flora and fauna, but there is nothing here that does not thrive on something else’s death – even the plants have been known to seize upon the unwary for nourishment. The Bloodlands are quick to claim anyone too foolish to respect their law.
Today there is one sound in the air beyond the rustling of the canopy in the breeze. It is the poorly stifled weeping of a small, scared boy, ten years of age as we reckon time. He sits naked, hungry, and alone, clutching his knees to his chest on a great obsidian slab jutting out of the jungle floor – a reminder of the forgotten wrath of the mostly dormant volcano ranges that stretch around Midworld. His hand clutches a small bone dagger, the only thing left to him when he was abandoned here. In spite of the heat and humidity that sticks his stringy hair to his neck and back, the boy shivers violently.
The boy has no name. By the time the summer ends and his clan sends transport for him, he will have found one, or have died nameless.
The shaking passed after the first night. Waking up alone in the jungle drove home the irreversibility of his situation, but also softened the accompanying sense of alienation. On this day and for many to come (for all to come, should he fail) the Bloodlands are this boy's only home.
He had known for several years that this day would come, had even looked forward to it. Despite that anticipation, when the moment came and he was thrown without warning into the back of the suborbital transport that would deliver him here, eagerness turned to terror. Terror he dared not reveal until he was alone and the hum of the transport's engines faded into the distance beyond the treetops.
The nameless boy spent the night beneath the hollow husk of a fallen tree, a stone wedged at either end to prevent the entry of any curious (or hungry) wildlife that might disturb (or devour) him in his sleep. He caked himself in mud to mask his scent through the night, and the warmth baked into the ground during the previous day kept him comfortable long enough to fall asleep.
Now the heat has dissipated. The ground is cold and dry beneath him. His back and neck ache, his limbs twitch and tense as sensation creeps back into his muscles. The dried mud cracks and crumbles away from his skin even from such subtle movements as the expansion of his chest when he takes his first deep breath of the damp morning air. In the cramped quarters he begins to move, careful not to disturb his cover or make any sound in case nocturnal predators are still on the prowl (or diurnal ones seek an early breakfast).
With slow and measured movements he rolls onto his stomach and slips his fingers through the small crack between the stone at his head and the rim of his shelter. He begins to apply pressure, carefully easing the stone to the side but keeping a firm grip to prevent it making any noise as it is eased out of the opening and out of his way. The dim morning light filtering through the eastern trees illuminates the small clearing he reached by the end of his first day's cautious exploration. He pulls his hands back, inches forward for a better view, and listens, focused, letting the pounding of his heart fade into the background.
In the distance, perhaps half a mile away, a bird calls. It is an ugly sound, the scratch-throated caw of a carrion-eater. When it sounds again only a moment later it is abruptly silenced by the clamping of some unknown hunter's jaws. The thrashing of leaves and branches tells that the foolishly loud buzzard puts up a fight, but the boy will never hear its greedy cry again.
He waits only a moment longer, then digs his fingers and toes into the jungle floor. With a burst of strength he hurls himself out from beneath the hollowed log and draws his legs up under him into a squat. His dagger is clenched in his teeth, nearly lost in the gasp that accompanies the sudden exertion. His eyes dart around, wild yet deliberate, scanning the vicinity to confirm what his ears and nose told him before he emerged, that no threat lurks here. Here, it would seem, he is safe.
That will not do.
He runs, with the sun slinking skyward at his back, and leaves this part of the Bloodlands forever behind him.
His ragged breath, his pounding heart, the creak of the branch beneath him, the scrabble and scrape of fingernails seeking purchase on the bark of the tree as he struggles to keep his perch, it all blends into a symphony of desperation in his mind. Every so often the angry growl of the hungry gorrik at the base of the tree swells up to his ears and each time drowns it all out, even his heartbeat.
The gorrik, not much unlike a tiger but for its several pairs of tusks and coloring meant to hide it amidst the lush and vibrant foliage of the Bloodlands, is frustrated by the boy's choice of hiding place, but not because it is inaccessible. No, gorriks are excellent climbers, and the twenty feet that separates it from the boy would normally be no obstacle at all.
That which keeps the gorrik at bay has half its body coiled tightly around the end of the branch, the rest supported in a neighboring tree. It is a lava python -- called such not only for its magma-red scales, or the uneven and worn outgrowths of shiny black bone around its eyes, but for the sudden volcanic fury with which it spews its entire supply of venom.
If the gorrik climbs for the boy it may taste his blood, but it will be forced to contend with the python's acidic neurotoxins.
If the python spends its venom on the boy it will prime him for devouring and ruin the gorrik's meal, but it will also leave the snake's body empty of the poisons that normally dissuade the other Bloodland predators. The gorrik's tusks will tear through the serpent with ease, likely doing critical damage even if the python manages to ensnare and crush the great cat.
The boy recognizes the bind his predators are in, but the knowledge is little comfort. Sooner or later, one beast will tire of the standoff and move on in search of more cooperative prey, and he will belong to the other. His only chance to survive is to force their confrontation, and he sees one desperate chance to do so. With his far hand reaching over to grip the bark of the tree, he begins to shift his weight from one foot to the other, rocking as much as he can without losing his balance entirely, causing the branch to dip up and down, creaking where it joins the trunk of the tree. The hand nearer the trunk slowly but intently works his dagger into the branch beside him, broadening a split that grows slightly with each dip of the branch.
The shaking agitates the python; its coils tighten around the branch and it draws more of its frightening length across. Its head inches forward towards the boy, then flicks downward as the gorrik rears up to place its forepaws on the tree. Realizing it has drawn the python's attention, the gorrik immediately retreats, though not very far.
Removing his hand from the trunk nearly costs the boy his balance, but he needs to apply all his weight to executing this last-ditch scheme for survival. With the heels of his feet and palms pressed together beneath him on the branch, he rocks back and forth with more vigor, gritting his teeth, snarling at the python, leaning towards it. He recognizes but forces himself to ignore the madness of his plan, and continues trying to agitate the python without actually provoking it to attack, because his own weight will not be enough to save him.
The python coils closer, its mouth slightly parted in anticipation; it almost appears to smile. The boy's dagger is wedged deep in the split he has been working at, and he can hear the creaking beneath him -- his body tenses, stills. His mouth is dry but he works his jaw furiously to build up just enough saliva to loudly spit a gummy glob at the snake.
It knows the deadliness of its own venom, so being spit at by another creature startles it into motion. It slithers forward to duck under the arcing globule, loosening its coils to advance and in doing so draws the last of its length from the other tree; its tail drops down and all its weight is now pulling on the end of the weakened branch.
The branch dips sharply -- for an instant the boy is terror-stricken, certain that it has bent as far as it is going to -- then breaks away from the trunk with a loud snap, pulled downward at its far end by the weight of a now very startled lava python. The boy leaps with all the might his wiry frame can muster, propelled by the force of the branch suddenly coming away, the python's weight providing the leverage he needed.
The outraged snake sprays at him as it falls, and the eruption douses his legs below the knees as he passes over. A brief wave of searing pain is almost instantly replaced by the loss of all sensation where the venom landed. He is already biting back the urge to scream when he reaches the opposite branch, the one that once supported the python's tail end. He catches it with his ribs -- he's not sure if the accompanying crack came from them or the branch. He is in pain, in shock, and he has barely managed to hook his arms around his new perch when he hears the lava python and the gorrik meet and unleash their pent-up rage, frustration, and hunger.
He waits until he is reasonably sure both are dead to fall from the tree and let unconsciousness take him.