The creature's fin lowered slowly into its back and both sections of carapace rejoined. It wriggled its centre portion slowly and hissing noises merged into different words once again:
"Air speaking easy, but not air speaking for eons, for starchanges... then to communicate using air speak is difficult. You understand? Your kind display little colour."
Then, suddenly, its tone changed. Harsher. Threatening.
"Do you intend me harm?"
Hevne shook her head. "No, we mean you no harm."
The eyes of the worm came together above its central portion, and it spoke clearly:
"Then I will not terminate you," it said.
Questioning intonation was now perfectly rendered. The raised portion of the worm sank back onto the ground and it stayed silent.
Hevne, Darion and the trackers looked askance. Though Hevne had asked the question she had not, in truth, expected an understandable answer. Here was an unrecognised creature - questions should not have been about communication but about danger: did it pose a threat? But Hevne knew there had been something cognisant about this strange being all along: it had responded to their commands, it had possibly allowed itself to be followed and caught.
"Yes," Hevne said, "we understand air speaking."
Syllables came out in ones and twos, strangely accented sounds with no tone or emphasis. At first, nobody was sure that what they had heard were indeed words spoken in their own language, but it was mere seconds before the realisation dawned.
its sounds were distorted, sounding more like the gurglings of some prisoner whose throat had been cut than any language... but then
us... to commmmmun-
But memory returns to us."
Its words were flowing more smoothly now: "I communicate with you. You understand air speaking."
"Have done with it, Lord Hevne," Darion, at her side, whispered. "Kill the worm."
Hevne raised her hand, silencing her warrior.
"How may we communicate with you?" she asked.
Again the fin changed colour, less brightly this time; more in shades of green and yellow.
Hevne sighed. It will not be easy to learn this alien language, she thought. And no sooner had she thought it than the worm began to emit strange noises from between the segments along its side. Slowly these noises took on a more unified sound.
Until, erratically, the noises took on the form of words.
Immediately, the four warriors closed together, their swords ready to strike.
"Stay your movement, beast!" Hevne commanded, and the worm became completely rigid, even its eyes becoming motionless.
"So... you understand?" Hevne spoke. "How do you communicate?"
The colours on the beast's fin faded and died completely. Moments later it burned a bright and blinding red, then instantly flashed blue and green, so brightly that all four were forced to look away. Then the colours faded once more to muted colours as the ripples and changes continued to run to and fro in lazy tides of colour along the fin.
The back of the creature, though wormlike in shape, looked more like a beetle. In the shimmering torchlight its elongated black carapace reflected hues of purple, red and blue. Then, slowly, the carapace split open along its length and a ridged fin, wet and glistening, rose slowly into the air along what may have been its spine.
The ridged fin trembled and coloured undulations ran along its length like waves. It was almost hypnotic to watch iridescent colours flow, change and blend, then flow again.
Calming, almost distracting; until one end of the worm swiftly raised itself into the air.
It stood motionless and silent as the four warriors watched. Then, a small proboscis emerged from near the tip of the creature. It waved in the air as if smelling; then from it a tapered antennae emerged and from that a small bulb budded into a rounded eye, its iris opening and closing as it looked from man to torch, from woman to sword.
Equally silently, another proboscis snaked from the other end of the beast. It, too, ended in an eye, which surveyed the scene before it, seemingly settling on the blades of the four swords pointed at it.
"Whatever it is..."
The whispered words came from behind them. Without turning, Hevne said
"Indeed. Report, Darion?"
"No further tracks, Lord Hevne. This beast appears to be solitary," Darion stated. "Kill it and get back to camp?" he added.
"Perhaps," she said slowly.
Then she moved forward and slid the blade of her sword beneath the creature's middle. Darion and a tracker did the same at either end.
"Now," Hevne signed and the beast was rolled over with ease onto its front. Its legs staggered slightly, - then its body stretched out, lengthening to the span of three men.
A liquid glistened between the segments of its long belly and ripples ran up and down its underside. Hevne directed the tracker to take a step back and they both moved away from the apparently stricken beast.
"Beetle or worm?" muttered the tracker.
Hevne shook her head.
"Nothing that I've ever seen," she whispered.
The prone beast made no attempt to turn over onto its legs, which continued waving slowly in the air.
At that moment the second tracker appeared above them.
"Situation?" Hevne requested.
"Nothing to report," he recounted. "No unidentified tracks. I believe this is the only one."
"My Lord Hevne!" the voice of a tracker gasped. He was by her side in an instant, the point of his sword reaching past her and squeezing onto the abdomen of the creature.
"Stay still, Beast!" the tracker ordered.
Hevne pulled herself off the creature and, her sword also held against the creature's side, she looked closely at it.
In shape it was much like an enormous, headless beetle, but more wormlike and elongated. Hevne could see that it lay on its back, tiny legs waving futilely in the air. Prone, it looked about the size of an adult warrior.
The shock itself could have thrown her off, but she maintained her grip.
Her hand had reached along the body of the writhing form, a body covered in small, brittle hairs where, here and there, narrow legs reached out, wriggling ineffectively. But at the apex of the body, nothing.
Hevne supposed she had emptied her mind, assumed nothing: but she knew she had, after all, assumed that this thing was going to be either human or beast.
She had been wrong.
Trapped beneath her, whatever it was suddenly ceased struggling.
And almost immediately, a light shone down from above her.
Something swished past her head, swiftly returned, then hit her across the face, drawing a thin line of blood. She raised her sword hand to protect herself, but whatever it was hissed through the blackness once more then flicked itself around her wrist. Sticky fluid oozed from it, running down her arms: the smell was repellent, a stench of rotting vegetation that caught Hevne's throat and made her gag.
Unwilling yet to use her sword, she locked her legs around what she now knew to be a long and narrow body and felt with her free hand for a head.
Her mind empty, she was ready to accept anything and react to anything.
But the overwhelming feeling encompassing her was one of revulsion.
Her legs had wrapped themselves around something hard and cold that squirmed in its attempt at escape. Her free arm had scraped down something jagged and her palm now gripped a belt of cold hard tissue. Her fingers closed around it, submerging themselves in a cold, sticky liquid that felt as if it frothed on her skin.
The thing shook and twisted, almost throwing her off, but her one-handed grip on the cold tissue remained firm.
If she lost it in this darkness, she would never find it again.
So it must be now.
She gripped the dagger's blade between her teeth and leapt into the black void.
As her muscles exploded into action, her mind emptied itself of all expectation. Something distant recalled her father's teaching:
empty your mind,
accentuate your senses;
predict nothing, assume nothing, judge nothing;
react to everything.
empty your mind...
but something within her emptied her mind of that, too.
She fell on whatever was there, and felt it struggle wildly beneath the crush of her fall.
Silently, Hevne sprung to her haunches, sword in one hand, dagger in the other.
Barely one good leap in front of her she heard a sound as of a leaf landing on leaves. Then another. Another.
A faint glow appeared in the direction of the sounds, a faint but brief yellow luminescence which disappeared almost as soon as Hevne saw it so that at first she questioned whether it was a trick of her own eyes.
And then the sound again. Then, again... but marginally fainter.
It was moving away from her.
Another yellow glow. Either smaller, or further away.
This felt more terrifying than being blind. Being deprived of sight was horrific, but this night had deprived her of hearing, too, at least of anything nearby. Far off sounds crept close then fled, as if terrified, but nearby nothing had sound: it had presence and it had awareness, and without doubt it knew she was there. But it had no sound.
Yet it was there. Below her, slightly to her left. She peered in vain through the blackness for a hint of motion. Possibly...
A scrape of fabric, perhaps. Perhaps skin. Whatever it was, something invisible moved the air.
Nothing in the blackness was visible, but something, something had moved. Only slightly, a minor repositioning perhaps, but below her and unseen something had moved.
She lay still.
Her trackers should be approaching from the other side of this hollow. Their silence wasn't surprising but their absence was concerning.
Another movement. A soft sound hooded in silence, hardly more than the gentle movement of air, indicated motion. But not where Hevne believed it was. This was further off.
Grass hinted at movement.
Then silence stole everything again.
Hevne couldn't work out which was blacker. The night, or the silence.
She inched forward, crawling on her belly, one movement every five breaths, every sense straining for telltale noises. The air breathed again: a rustle in the grass far distant was just a small mammal returning to its burrow; a blunt snuffle, the sound of a fox in its sleep.
Hevne only realised she had passed the rim of the shallow dip when the grass dropped away from her and she felt her body at incline. She raised her head - a pointless motion. The night blinded her as sure as any blade would, but she sensed something had moved.
Night had blackened so utterly it was impossible for Hevne to see anything down there - it was difficult to make out even the movement of her hand before her face. This shadowed blindness disturbed her, a feeling she fought as she focused on listening.
But it seemed this omnipotent darkness had also commanded everything to silence. The wind had died, the air motionless: it carried with it no sound. There were no telltale sounds of her trackers, or of Darion.
Only the sweet smell of the grass rose to her as she lay unmoving, pondering one obvious choice.
As the first rays of sun lit the topmost towers of Kamkarra flaming red, Triu led his warriors along the quayside road. Gulls wheeled voicelessly overhead, bystanders watched in silence, fears muted. The surging sea was the sole constant sound, though whether it sang of glory or of sorrow none could tell.
Triu threw one last longing look out over the waters, his brow furrowed.
"Perhaps next time, friend Sea, we shall go to battle together," he whispered as sunlight glinted off the incoming tide.
Then he turned abruptly and led his army from Kamkarra toward green fields of battle.