Just about every one of the stories T’aakshi had been told growing up in the savage ice-wastes of Tagaya began and ended in the same way: with the shedding of blood. His story would be no different.
Wind howled past his face, the frigid air slicing at any exposed skin like a blade, the barrage of snow that it brought with it forcing him to squint his watering eyes to see at all. They had been out on the plains for four days and nights already, long enough that nightly fires and the layers of dense hide and fur that the entire party wore no longer prevented the bitter cold from seeping into their bones.
Still, there was an odd comfort to the savage snowstorms of the Tagayan wastes, hidden within the obvious mortal danger. For T’aakshi, these unforgiving lands were his home. His people had hunted them for a thousand generations, and likely would for a thousand more. Here, they were the top predator, and all else was prey. Sure enough, there were dangerous beasts more than capable of killing the weak or unprepared, but his tribe, the Su’roi, were neither.
And so, even as the frigid gale of the third storm they’d faced on this hunt lashed against his face, and the falling snow rushed at his eyes, forcing them into a pained squint, T’aakshi felt at home.
Today, however, was different. As he peered out ahead across wind-scarred snow-fields, devoid of much of anything besides scattered rock and ice, there was nobody ahead of him. He glanced back and could see a line of figures following his tracks. Each wore thick, tan-coloured wolf or bear skins, with a heavy fur lining to keep them as warm as possible as they trudged through the snow, hunting spears or bows in hand.
The man closest stood a little taller than the rest, and T’aakshi knew he sported the same brown eyes and dark hair as he did. Even from here, he could see the subtle luminescent glow of the jewel embedded in the haft of his spear that marked him out as the Chief of the Su’roi. He was their leader. A man who had led more than a thousand successful hunts. He was Saamu, T’aakshi’s father.
Normally, he would be leading the way, guiding them through the brutal snowstorm that had slowed their progress to a near stop. Today, though, it was T’aakshi’s job to lead them all to the hunting grounds, and co-ordinate the attack that would feed their entire tribe. It was not the first hunt he had led, but the responsibility of it still bore down on him like a great boulder upon his shoulders. His stomach hadn’t stopped fluttering since they had set out.
His hesitation had been noticed. His father arrived beside him, clapping a heavy hand upon his shoulder. A fur wrap covered the lower half of his face, shielding it from the worst of the winds, but his eyes were curved up into a smile as they peered down at him.
“Trust yourself, Shi. You have done well to keep us on the right path despite the storm. We are not far.”
T’aakshi nodded, the turning of his stomach easing at his father’s reassurance. “Thank you, father. I think we should be there before nightfall.”
Taking a deep breath, T’aakshi set his shoulders and set off again through the ankle-deep snow, his father following at his back. He used what few markers there were to navigate. The hunters of the Su’roi memorised as many of the recognisable rock formations, long-dead trees, or scattered remains of the titanic creatures that had once wandered the wastes as they could, using them as landmarks to navigate by when the sun or stars were impossible to see.
In the end, as much as all the hunters learned what they could, the final responsibility came down to the person leading the hunt. Him. The further they had ventured into the Deep Wastes, the more barren the landscape became, and the more sparse landmarks he knew were. Today had been a brutal slog through the snow, with moments of joyous relief at the sight of something he recognised divided by long, nerve-wracking hours of hoping that he was still leading them all in the right direction.
Finally, the scattered rocks that marked their destination came into view. Hundreds of generations past, their ancestors had stacked them upright, two stone pillars holding up a larger capstone, in the shape of a wide circle. He could not see it, but in the centre was a large, flat stone, like an enormous bowl. A few days prior, a smaller party had stocked it with a mass of gathered vegetables and mineral salt to lure in their prey.
T’aakshi swallowed and raised a hand to signal that their party should stop. Behind him, he knew his father had stopped and mimicked the signal, passing it to the person behind him, and so on. As anxious as he had been to see his party here safely, now they had to do what they had come here to accomplish.
He crouched, heart racing, and crept forward towards the first of the stone pillars, keeping the heavy grey stone between him and the centre of the circle, disguising his approach. When he reached it, he pressed himself against the frosted surface, its cold seeping through his storm-dampened furs and sending a chill running through his body.
Peering around the stone into the centre of the circle, his heart leaped. Standing in the centre was the game they had come for. The plainsdeer had not noticed their approach, and its hulking form hunched over the stone bowl, gorging itself on the food they had left for it. T’aakshi had heard once that in the South, the deer were only man-sized, their antlers like two spindly arms.
It was not so in Tagaya. This animal stood as tall as two men, its powerful leg-muscles rippling with every slight movement, visible even beneath its thick coat of milk-white fur. As always, however, what drew T’aakshi’s attention was its crown—two monstrous ivory antlers, each by itself nearly the size of a man, their ends sharpened into vicious spear-points.
T’aakshi raised his hands and gestured to either side of the stone circle. All the hunters besides his father moved, filtering out and around the stone circle, their crouching silhouettes surrounding the creature. His father knelt down beside him to observe, nodding for him to continue as he was. T’aakshi reached down at the base of the stone pillar, trying to forget that he was being watched as closely as he was, and dug into the snow with gloved hands, pulling up a thick rope.
Like the trough laced food, the party that had come before them had prepared this, too. They had coated the rope with a thick smearing of whale blubber oil. It ran all the way around the circle, leaving only a small gap where it was possible to leave the circle without having to step over the rope.
Deathly silent, the hunters pulled up the entire length of rope, and moved toward the gap, ready to begin their ambush. The plainsdeer were too large and dangerous to attack outright, so they had engineered a method to trap them and kill them as safely as possible.
“When you’re ready, Shi—it’s your moment.”
T’aakshi nodded, trying to ignore the pounding of his heart in his ears as he returned his attention to the rope. The Su’roi all carried tinder pouches and enough fuel to start a fire when out on the plains, but T’aakshi was the only one of them all that did not need one to make fire. There was a reason that there was so much expectation upon his shoulders. A reason that he was leading hunts already, despite having only seen eighteen winters.
He closed his eyes, tuning out as much of his surroundings as he could manage. He searched his mind for the right memory, something fairly unimportant that had just the right amount of anger behind it. One came to him, an argument he’d had with his mother over something he had been being unreasonable about. He held it in his mind’s eye, letting that child-like, petty anger wash over him.
He burned it. The anger fizzled out, stripped away from the memory in his mind, leaving in its wake a hollow space inside of him, an absence. But with sacrifice, came reward. His skin crawled, and he shuddered as warmth flowed through him like hot cocoa. Senses sharpened. He could hear the rhythmic breathing of his father beside him, and the slow thud of his heart; see the saliva of the plainsdeer moistening the fur at the corners of its mouth, even through the swirling snowfall.
He had only been granted a sliver for his memory, but it was still enough Self, the power he had been born with, to make the world without it seem like a gaunt reflection of what he was now experiencing. T’aakshi took a deep breath. It was easy to get caught up in the euphoria of power, and he had a job to do.
He extended a gloved hand over the rope, and focused the power to his palm, keeping the image of a flame in his mind’s eye. Heat built up in his palm, hotter and hotter until finally, flame sprang into life in the space between his hand and the rope, bathing the oil-coated material in white-hot flame.
It flared a brilliant orange, and the fire raced across the length of the rope, igniting the entire thing and enclosing the stone circle with a ring of roaring flame. The plainsdeer let out a panicked shriek, rearing back, food forgotten as it was surrounding by a wall of fire. It span, bolting for the only gap it could see in a blind panic, only to be met by another wall, this one made of Su’roi spear-points, stabbing and biting at vulnerable parts.
The creature, too afraid to think clearly, stumbled back away from the source of its pain. It was so over-stimulated, it never thought to use its vicious antlers to break through, even as the arrows rained down around it, and the Su’roi closed in to deliver the final blows.
T’aakshi felt a surge of triumph as it fell with none of his people injured in the effort. He practically jumped to his feet, and began to hurry across to help with breaking down their kill for transport home, when his stomach lurched violently, stopping him in his tracks.
The heightened awareness of Self still had not left him, and the hair on his skin now stood on end, static jolts dancing across his skin as he felt something.
"T’aakshi, what is wrong? You’re shaking!”
It was only once he heard his father’s concerned voice beside him he realised he had fallen to his knees, breaths coming in rasped gasps, the world spinning around him.
“I don’t—I don’t know. Something is wrong. Something—”
He sagged as the last remnants of Self left him, and the sensation, the wrongness, disappeared.
“It’s gone,” he said, catching his breath. “What—”
From out of the snows, somewhere in the distance, a piercing howl cut across the surging winds and celebrations of the other hunters. It stopped every one of them in their tracks, their heads turning wide-eyed in the direction the noise had come from. Even without Self flowing through him, T’aakshi knew that the noise was the source of the wrongness.
Then he saw it. A goliath shadow, cloaked by falling snow. Its sheer size eclipsed even the plainsdeer they had just slain, padding forward on four legs that seemed more akin to enormous stone pillars. A nightmare that, until that moment, T’aakshi had thought only existed in fireside tales told in the black of night.
The shape, still half-hidden in the snowfall, reared up on its back legs, and roared again, a noise that rattled his bones, and T’aakshi knew with iron-wrought certainty that he was going to die.