Bret has made shows with The Jim Henson Company and games with Disney. This story is Bret’s first publishing credit.
by Bret Nelson
Serrean’s legs were starting to cramp and her tail was getting numb. The sun was hanging low in the sky. She guessed she’d been in the tree for at least four hours, but how much longer could she support herself on these branches?
From below, one of the creatures struck at her mind again, jabbing scratchy words into her thoughts: “…one goes for hunt… we will eat small things… while wait for you.”
She peered down to the leafy, wet ground. Yes, there were only two now, with their eyestalks focused on her branch. The third must have gone after an easy kill to sustain them. She clutched her small blade tightly, though she knew it wouldn’t help.
She remembered Master Chalmer’s words from school, long ago. “Unlike the kerghs we learned about last week, the ferrotauns do not chitter or bark. They have no need of auditory signs as they signal each other telepathically.”
Once a week, a cart stacked with cold, clay jars would be wheeled and rattled into the room for her Knowing Your Predators class and Master Chalmer would guide them through a scenting. “Everyone—open your jars and breathe deep. Pull the scent down your snout all the way past your eyes, deep. Hold it there, keep it there forever. When the ferrotaun nears prey, it gets excited, starts to sweat. They can’t help it. So this scent, this sharp-edged cinnamon smell, is the only warning you will have.”
If it hadn’t been for that class, she’d be dead already. Thinking back to four hours ago, she recalled a stillness all around, even in the canopy of the trees above. No buzzing or rustles, the white noise of the forest. The quiet should have told her something was wrong. Then the cinnamon scent hit, and the quiet gave way to chaos. Her heart pounded so hard she thought it would break a rib. She darted in a tight circle until the scent was at her back then dropped into a sprint, her ears stretching all the way up as she ran. She heard claws behind, hitting the leaves in long strides, getting closer.
But they weren’t in striking distance yet, she knew because they weren’t in her head. Master Chalmer had told them, “Ferrotaun telepathy reaches past their hunting parties. If they get close, they will project thoughts. They cast ideas that we hear as words. It only works one way; they can’t read your mind. It’s a trick. Do not listen.”
The sprint carried her to a burlian tree. Using all of her arms, she climbed almost as fast as she ran. In a few heartbeats she landed on a branch out of their reach.
But they kept trying. For an hour the three ferrotauns clawed and leapt at the tree where she held tight, panting. They couldn’t get high enough.
So they started the mind strikes.
The voice in her head was static, and the words unclear. But the meaning came through. “Tree… your home now? You live there?” She threw a stick at them. It bounced off the big one, who took no notice.
“You live there… we live here… until you do not live.” With that, they curled up most of their legs and rested, looking up at her with their eyestalks unblinking.
Since then she’d been looking for a way to escape. But there were no other trees in reach. There was no way she could drop and run. She wasn’t due back until breakfast, so no one would come looking for her until well into tomorrow morning. She was already dizzy and tired and hungry—she couldn’t stay up here all night.
The hunger made it all worse. She could smell the sweet popper-berries that grew along the path. They were going to be her meal, but that was impossible now. This tree was covered in large, young burl-fruits. Even if they were ripe, she couldn’t eat them. They would only make her ill. Nasty grutworms were the only things that ate burl-fruits.
They started tugging in her mind again. “See… see your ending.” The smaller male had returned with a tremplen. They tore it apart, eating everything. Bones, feathers, scales, everything. She felt sick. Her blade was too small to kill one of these creatures, let alone three.
Useless blade. Useless fruit.
Then she had a thought, and she was glad the ferrotauns couldn’t hear it.
The beasts were distracted, licking the ground, getting the last bits of blood and bone from their meal. With her blade, she freed one of the big burl-fruits and cut it open. The scent was awful even though it wasn’t ripe. With new hope she ignored the bitter, sour odor and dropped the sticky mess on her captors. There were dozens of fruits on this branch. She kept tossing them down, covering the ferrotauns’ fur with smelly pulp and juice.
“We do not eat this… you do not gift us.” Heaps of awful fruit kept falling on them. “Stop.”
Her ears stretched and she heard scraping under the forest floor. She kept working. The only thing that ate burl-fruits were grutworms, but not this time of year. None of the fruit was ripe or tree-fallen, so they couldn’t get at their favorite treat. But her blade had created a juicy feast. The scent drove them mad.
The swarm of grutworms roared up from the ground. There were at least three dozen of them, each bigger than her leg. She watched them tear into the fruit, and everything that it touched. Chewing. Burrowing. Frantic.
She was thankful that the ferrotauns were not in her head as they kicked and twisted. She dropped her gloves and blade and checked carefully for any signs of burl-fruit on her fur and clothes.
Then she moved to another branch and waited. The grutworms would be gone soon enough and she could be on her way. She hoped that tomorrow morning her friends would save her some eggs.
Copyright 2020 by Bret Nelson