Authors: Joel Ohman
Copyright © 2015 by Joel Ohman
JoelOhman.com & Meritropolis.com
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
whitefox Publishing Services
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof
may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever
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except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Cover Design by Nik Keevil
Chapter Illustrations by Rachel Crafton
Editing by Caitlin Doyle & Jennie Roman
Because man is not an animal,
although at times it’s hard to tell the difference.
Genesis 1:26–27, Romans 1:18–25
Easier Said Than Outrun
harley crouched, motionless, willing himself not to blink. A bead of sweat bubbled across his eyebrow and clung to his eyelash: a warm and salty droplet hanging like a swollen piece of fruit, overripe and ready to fall. He stared straight ahead, eyes wide open; to move now would be disastrous.
The thing stopped, ears twitching. Charley willed himself not to make a sound, but was suddenly aware of the faint scent of his own sweat; he wondered whether the creature could smell it, too. He had been following it for half of the afternoon. By this point, the thing should have had ample opportunity to scent him, given Charley’s quite rudimentary tracking prowess, but it hadn’t yet. Each time Charley drew close enough to chance a shot with his bow—and he knew he would only have just one shot—the thing capered off, leading Charley even deeper into the brush.
Charley found it maddening how fast its four legs could move; the bushy forelegs of pillowy grey-white fur made it seem as immobile, docile, and non-threatening as a sheep. But, as Grigor had instructed earlier, to underestimate a llamabill was to invite disaster.
Charley reached over his head, slowly, and withdrew an arrow from his sheath.
The profile of the llamabill shifted slightly, revealing great big haunches of what Charley hoped would be today’s dinner, as well as the severe-looking face of a shoebill bird. Its body, with the exception of the incongruent webbed feet and feathery wings, was almost entirely reminiscent of a llama: big, woolly, and slightly ridiculous. The head, however, was no laughing matter. The wide shoe-shaped bill could decapitate a fully grown man with one well-placed chomp. A standard shoebill stork is not a bird to be trifled with, at three-feet tall and a weight of ten pounds, let alone when it’s six-feet tall and a weight of 400 pounds with the body of an agile llama.
Charley notched the arrow and pulled back slowly.
He hated to do it, really he did. He didn’t enjoy the killing, but the truth of the matter was quite simple: they needed food, badly.
Charley steeled his resolve and dipped his head a little to his right shoulder while closing his left eye. He sighted in on the creature, aiming for the spot where its long woolly neck met its substantially muscled left shoulder. He reconsidered, moving his bead slightly higher to avoid the feathery wing that jutted incongruently from the llamabill’s great side.
The muscles in Charley’s forearms stood out like corded bands. He held the bow drawn back all the way without wavering. He inhaled through his nose, and then expelled the air slowly through pursed lips, attempting to quiet his beating heart. He would release the arrow upon a full exhale, and in between heartbeats, just as Grigor had trained him.
It was as good of a shot as he would ever get. Charley didn’t really have to
anything now. He just needed to relax the three fingers of his string hand, and the llamabill, still standing motionless, would be dead, motionless forever.
But he paused.
A glimmer of uncertainty, a pang of conscience—
And for what?
he wondered—it was just an animal.
The llamabill turned to look directly at him, its prehistoric eyes glinting sharply as they focused in on Charley.
A cold shiver crept up Charley’s spine. He had waited too long, and he knew it. The droplet of sweat plummeted from his eyelash, and Charley released the arrow. It went wild left, and the creature went wild right—directly at Charley.
The llamabill opened its enormous bill and screamed a challenge. For a moment, it looked like an anachronism to even more savage times, a winged dinosaur on the rampage.
Charley did the normal human thing first, and then the normal trained-Hunter thing second. He froze. Then he ran.
In quick succession, Charley dodged a pine tree, a flowering plant splashed with the color of yellow crocuses, and an inquisitive bramble bush that snarled his pant leg as he ran. He could hear the llamabill closing in behind him, its webbed feet slapping the musty detritus of the forest floor like the ponderous shuffle of a drunk trying to regain his balance.
Charley weighed his chances: he could scale a tree—that would give him time to unsheathe his twin blades, which were slung over his back, or notch another arrow, but climbing a tree while getting one of his weapons ready in time was unlikely. Besides, he wasn’t sure if the llamabill’s wings could actually lift the beast up into the air. Charley doubted that a creature as large as the llamabill could fly. But … he just couldn’t be sure. Charley had learned it was better not to underestimate an animal combination, especially when hunting one.
Charley slowed; he could no longer hear the llamabill behind him. Irrationally, he looked quickly upward, and then down again. He grimaced.
Who was hunting who?
It was an unsettling sensation to be transported so quickly from predator to prey.
He listened intently, but the forest remained eerily quiet.
Charley looped his bow over his back while hurriedly unsheathing both of his blades. The gleaming twin swords were messy, and not well suited for hunting. But Charley didn’t yet trust himself with the bow, particularly in a close-quarters altercation, and he was fast getting a very bad feeling about this predicament he found himself in. He turned widdershins in erratic herky-jerky movements, each time expecting to find the llamabill’s great beak gaping open just above his head.
Charley couldn’t help but think how absurd he must look. If only Grigor or Sandy could see him now—or much worse, Hank or even Commander Orson—they would be in hysterics. Here he was, the highest High Score of Meritropolis, the famous bull-lion bion slayer, out to provide food for the camp, and he was cowering in counterclockwise circles,
from a bird
—a bird that was probably long gone by now anyway.
He just couldn’t shake the feeling. The feeling that
The hazy purple afternoon sky was melding into a bluish-black. Night would soon be here, and with it the darkness illuminated only by stars that were not a Hunter’s friend—certainly not a Hunter of mutated animal combinations.
Charley swallowed hard, and then slowly stood upright from his crouch. He needed to get back to camp, and soon. He was being ridiculous, the bird had to be long—
of pressure scraped Charley’s back and jolted him to the ground. He rolled sideways and, standing on one knee, looked up to see the llamabill glaring down at him.
It chattered its great wide beak in a staccato of clattering, then paused, seeming to weigh up Charley’s intentions—or maybe his flavor—for the briefest moment, before uttering a guttural croak of gaseous fishy air directly at Charley. Recoiling, Charley wrinkled his nose in disgust; the fumes wafting from the llamabill’s saucepan mouth were so rank with the smell of decaying fish it was almost viscous.
Webbed feet with gigantic splayed claws plodded closer to Charley, its neck bobbing and popping in time to some unseen rhythm. As Charley slipped backward, struggling to rise against the knotted vines that restricted his movement, all he could see was the creature’s beak. Its culmen was massive, the upper ridge jutting up like a ridge on a roof, while the wide upper mandible curved outward—easily big enough to engulf Charley’s head—and then tapered down to a strongly keeled sharp point.
Charley rose slowly, trying in vain to untangle himself from the thick tendrils of the woody plant. As he looked up at the llamabill descending upon him, Charley wondered if his last view on earth would be exactly the same as that of a great many fish from surrounding waterways—a vicious wide beak looming, and then striking.
The llamabill jackhammered its beak down.
Charley slashed the vines away from his ankles and hopped to the side neatly. Rotating at the hips, he brought his knees upward and caught the creature from beneath, jolting its head up. With an aggressive caw of rage, it stumbled back, tripping on the same nest of vines Charley had just escaped from. It twirled and thrashed, screaming its frustration, but each twist of its enormous yellow feet only served to ensnare it more.
Charley stepped back a pace. He knew full well the tenaciousness of the vines and wanted to keep his own limbs out of reach. He sheathed his blades and unslung his bow.
His fingers notched an arrow.
His forearms tensed; the bow was drawn back to its full killing power.
He took aim, sighting in on the now motionless llamabill—it let out a plaintive cry and then bowed its great head, defeated not by Charley, but by the plant that now entangled it.
Charley paused, then sighed as he lowered his bow. He couldn’t do it.
There was something about the bright intelligence in its eyes that gave Charley pause. Yes, the monstrously sized beast would provide enough meat to feed the hungry mouths back at camp, but even thinking about this magnificent creature only in terms of sustenance, as
, suddenly seemed revolting. Charley couldn’t quite put it into words, but after hunting and tracking the llamabill all day—and to now see it restrained and helpless on the ground among the vines—to kill it just seemed wrong somehow.
The llamabill lifted its head slowly and cocked it from side to side quizzically, eyes flashing.
Before he could change his mind, Charley darted forward and hacked away the viny prison that subdued the animal. He quickly stepped back.
It was done: the llamabill was free.
The llamabill’s webbed feet scrabbled for purchase as it creaked its way up and onto all fours. It took a hesitant step, before stopping abruptly. With its body turned away from Charley, its head swiveled owl-like to turn and look directly at him. It blinked once, tipped its head down and up in quick succession, and clattered its bill with such vigor that Charley jumped involuntarily. At this, the clattering stopped, and the beak creased open into what could only be described as a smile—a smile like Charley imagined a pterodactyl might have.
Not wanting to read too much anthropomorphism into this display, Charley made a shooing motion with his hand. “Go on! Shoo! Get out of here! Shoo!” This only served to make the llamabill rotate its entire body to face Charley, the same gaping grin on its face. “Shoo! Don’t push your luck!” Charley grumbled, halfheartedly pointing off to the horizon, which was fast growing dark. “I need to get out of here, and you do, too. Especially because everyone will be expecting me to have brought them something to eat, and if they see you …” Charley let his voice trail off meaningfully as he raised an eyebrow at the llamabill, which was now bouncing up and down.
The llamabill’s bouncing grew more exuberant, getting close enough once to even rub its curly llama fur up against Charley’s sleeve. He felt as if the llamabill was perhaps trying to say thank you, or it had imprinted on him somehow. Charley stepped back uneasily. “Well, I’m leaving. So … shoo, will you?” Charley paused, a smile playing on his strong features. “Shoo, shoebill—Shooey—I think that’s a good name for you, huh?” The llamabill nuzzled his shoulder again, as if in agreement.
“Well, Shooey, you can thank your lucky stars that you’re still alive.” He watched as the llamabill and its large, ridiculous profile capered around in circles, still bouncing up and down. “But quit it with all of that dancing, or whatever it is you’re doing, or you might make me regret this.”
Charley walked backward a few paces and then turned to jog in the direction of camp. He looked back over his shoulder often, but he no longer saw the llamabill.
Once, he could have sworn he heard something following him, but he chalked it up to his senses playing tricks after a long, hard day.
* * *
“About time you got back!” Sandy called out, trotting over to wrap Charley in a quick embrace.
To Charley, it was apparent she was intentionally avoiding the fact he was empty-handed. She stood on tiptoes, her long auburn hair cascading down her back as she reached up to give Charley a peck on the cheek. How she managed to always smell good out here he would never know. Not that anyone would ever wonder that about him; he needed to clean himself up, like three days ago, he thought to himself.
Sandy released him, and called back over her shoulder to camp. “Charley’s here! Safe and sound!”
Hank strode up, his muscular profile cutting an impressive silhouette against the starry night sky. “Well, well. Sandy may only care about whether you are back safe and sound, but I don’t suppose you’ve actually brought back anything to eat, have you?” Hank rubbed his head of tightly curled hair and looked skeptically at Charley, closely appraising his weaponry. “It looks like you’re missing an arrow, though.”
“I missed,” Charley mumbled, his eyes dropping from Hank’s stare. He felt like an idiot; he should have at least retrieved the arrow; their supplies were short, too.
“Humph.” Hank smirked, a knowing look on his face. “Well, lucky for us Grigor is a better hunter than you. He snared a few of those weird little deer-turkey critters, and they should be done cooking soon.”
Sandy’s freckled nose wrinkled up. “Yeah, lucky for us.” Charley knew that they were all getting sick of eating durkey jerky, as they called it, and could use more food—and more variety—in their diet. She looked over at Charley, touched his arm as if to reassure him, and then spoke quickly. “I mean, durkey is pretty good when it’s first cooked, I’m not complaining—we all know how hard it is to bring down bigger game.”
Orson strode up. He wore the same smug look on his face that he had always had as Commander of Meritropolis, even though now he wasn’t commander of anything but their ragtag band of travelers. He eyed Charley under heavy-lidded eyes, quickly taking in his empty-handedness, “So, the mighty bion hunter is finding it difficult to provide enough food to feed everyone, huh?” Orson gestured expansively behind him to the grouping of thirty makeshift shelters that made up their campsite.
Charley’s gaze followed Orson’s outstretched hand to the hustle and bustle of the camp beyond—it was a miracle that these bedraggled travelers had made it this far. It had been a week since they had set out from Meritropolis, and close to a hundred of them remained. Those not still with them had either succumbed to injuries inflicted in the battle at Meritropolis or had simply found the long trek through the wilderness too difficult and turned back, intent on begging their way back to the leeks and cucumbers of Meritropolis. Low Scores made up most of the group that still remained, but there was a small minority of High Scores like Charley, too. With these numbers, Charley was starting to get an understanding of why Orson’s father and others had resorted to instituting the System in Meritropolis nine years ago. But in spite of a growing understanding, he could still never agree with it.