Orion’s Hunt – Chapter XXIII

I won’t lie, there was something about Ullr that kept making my skin tingle. Whether it was the fact that I knew about his feelings for me now… or whether I’d spent so long away from him that I was now getting confused, I don’t know. I tried to imagine what he might’ve imagined. All those nights in the Wild when we cuddled together for warmth. Did he have any of those thoughts then? Or was he just glad to be warm? All those times I’ve complimented him on his sense of humour, his pretty face, his shapely body, I wonder if he took it differently to how I meant it. Even as I think back, I wonder if other ‘friends’ do such things. Did I mean it so innocently? Again, I’d be lying if I’d never thought about what it would be like. It’s only natural, I’d tell myself. Humans are mainly about food and sex. And there’s the obvious reasoning – I’d always seen Ullr differently than I had everyone else. He had always attracted me. I used to think it was just his personality. That I wanted him around because he was a good friend. But now, as he’s talking to me in the cart, all I can think about is how I would hug him if I could move. I want to feel his skin on mine. I’m enticed by him. Just as I was with Varia. Is it really possible to feel like this for someone so incorrect? I’ve felt this incorrect enticement before, and not just with Ullr.
              Again, I imagine him in the river, in place of Varia. I can only laugh in my head at the poses he might pull. I assume he wouldn’t be so feminine. Now that I think of Varia, there is a strange sort of attraction. Certainly different to the way I would see Ullr. I can’t differentiate the two. What makes them different? Do I really see Ullr in that light? The thought alone still makes me want to be sick but I’m also very curious. Perhaps Varia was a different sort of attraction. Perhaps purely physical. Sure, I liked her, but not like I do him.

After the sun has risen to its peak, I get the strength to walk again. At first, Ullr holds me up with one arm around my waist and the other, clasping my hand that’s around his shoulders. It’s the first time I’ve stopped to actually feel him. I can sense his blood pumping through his body. I can feel every breath he takes. I watch as the wind makes his short hair rustle very lightly. I have always admired his hair. He didn’t change it, thank the gods. We teeter along the slopes at the edge of the marshland but a fair few miles away from the mountains. The ground is an angled, less fertile, grassland. There are more rocks and more moss but fewer trees. We sit down on the damp grass after a long while. We see the trail of carts going back and forth. I didn’t know there were so many Khelps in existence.
              ‘The Shamans use them for stealth attacks,’ explains Ullr.
              ‘You sure you don’t want to be a Shaman?’ I ask.
              ‘No,’ he admits. ‘Even if I got the injection, I doubt I’d have any skills. I can barely start a fire.’
              ‘Yeah. Remember the first temple we built?’ I say, raising an eyebrow.
              ‘That was an accident!’ he exclaims. ‘I didn’t know dry twigs and candles shouldn’t mix.’
              ‘Well, at least they taught you the important stuff in the Silver City.’ I smile weakly. I daren’t let on my enticement too strongly.
              ‘Looks like it’s all gone now, anyway.’
              We both look towards the ruins. It’s still smouldering but that’s all we can see. More and more Shamans are coming back along the path.
              ‘Where’s Wo?’ I ask.
              ‘With her lover back at the mountains. They’re inseparable now.’ He sounds annoyed.
              ‘Well she deserves to have someone,’ I say.
              Ullr looks at me. ‘I guess you understand that whole ordeal now.’
              ‘Sort of. Did you tell her?’ I ask, still looking at the smoke.
              ‘Tell her what?’
              ‘About how you felt. Did you tell her?’
              ‘Oh, um, yeah… kind of.’
              ‘Before me,’ I tut.
              ‘Sorry,’ he says quietly.
              Damn it. I can’t stay angry. He’s always had that effect on me. Before I let go of my icy interior, he could still make me feel guilty about giving him a hard time.
              ‘We should get going,’ I say, standing upright.
              ‘Uh, wait, where? Are you sure you’re strong enough to walk any further?’ he says, getting up and following me, ready to catch me.
              ‘Of course. I want to go home,’ I say, looking out as far as I can in the general direction of the Dry Forest.
              ‘Oh. Um… Ori-’
              ‘It’s not there, is it?’ I ask, already knowing the answer. To be quite honest, I knew the answer before I got up.
              ‘The Savages tried everything they could to stop the Shaman grouping. They torched every human village they could find. I’m sorry.’
              ‘Well, we can build a new one,’ I say confidently.
              ‘Sure. Once this is all over, we can build it wherever you want,’ he says with a fake positive tone to his voice.
              ‘So you’re staying here to get killed? Super,’ I say.
              ‘Killed? The Savages are almost depleted. If they have any backup plans, they would have already used them.’
              I stop, turn around, and look at Ullr one more time. ‘I keep telling you… and if you won’t believe me, fine. You have obviously learnt nothing from me. The Savages will never be gone. You know that.’
              ‘You keep saying that but all I see is the Savages gone. What do you see?’ he says, tilting his head towards the ruins.
              ‘Let me ask you something and I want you to answer truthfully,’ I say, now adding a bit of a patronising tone myself. ‘Do you not think this has a similar pattern to last time?’
              Ullr flinches. ‘But why would they let us get this far?’
              ‘Where exactly do you think they came from?’ I ask.
              ‘What do you mean?’
              ‘Well, the animals come from the Wild. We come from their factories. The light comes from the sun. Everything comes from somewhere. Do you really think the Savages woke up here and decided to live the way they do? You think that city was their only nest?’
              Ullr thinks about this for a few seconds. ‘I guess not.’
              ‘So what have you learnt?’
              ‘I’m not sure…’
              ‘Look, you may think you’ve won, but that’s exactly what they’ll want you to think. They’ll come back. You can stay here and die if you want to, but I’m going to find a new home.’
              ‘Why do you have to be so pessimistic? Do you just not care?’ Ullr says sharply. ‘All those humans died trying to make a difference. Trying to save you! We’ve spent a year fighting back against the Savages. I really don’t know where your head is at the moment but I’m not going to just run away and hide from them anymore. We both know what they can do and it’s about time we called the shots on our own lives.’
              ‘You’re right,’ I say. ‘We both know what they can do. It seems like I am the only one aware of that.’ I turn away from him and head across the grass.

I hear him sigh. A part of me wants to turn back and apologise. It’s the part of me that doesn’t care about anything else. I want to stand by his side, even though it would mean our imminent death. I want him to look at me the way he used to. But I also want to go home. I’ve had many homes over the years. Whenever I think of a place in my memory, I call it home. The Silver City is my home. The Dry Forest is my home. The cart pulled by the Khelps is my home. Morga and Byt leading the pack on another Hunt, that’s my home too.
              Wherever Ullr is, that’s my real home. Ullr is the only thing I care about. No death in this world could affect me, unless it was Ullr. No nest, no hideout, no village, no building would be home, unless Ullr was there with me. My steps start to slow. I think about him. Properly. I imagine what my life would really be like without him. Before I met him. I was a creature. I wasn’t me. Ullr makes me human. He makes me Ori.

I remember the last time humans thought they’d won. It wasn’t long after the Shamans had rebelled against their owners and escaped the city. I watched from the inside as a battle took place. I didn’t know what was going on. I just assumed that the Savages had an equal in the world, that they had something to battle against. I didn’t know it was Shamans. I didn’t even know it was humans. They tricked them by leading them to believe they were advancing on the city. The Savages retreated slowly back, observing. The attackers got extremely close to victory and lulled in aggressiveness when they thought they’d won. That’s when the Savages finished their experiment and crushed the so-called uprising. They did it so easily. They sacrificed some of their own kind for a simple experiment. Or entertainment. Whatever the reason, they were clever. Being only street scum, I kept clear of it all, but I knew what they did. I had watched them for years. I knew exactly what they were capable of and I have never forgotten it. It seems as though Ullr has.

I do turn back. That stupid boy has put me in danger far too many times for me to give up now. I can’t think what I’d even do if I got to the remains of the Dry Forest. I could always drag him there by force, but he obviously has good reasoning to stay behind. If I am going to die, I guess I’d like to die with him, fighting for something good. He’s still standing on the hilltop, looking at me the way he always does. That slightly puzzled, sad gaze that makes me want to protect him from all harm.
              ‘I love you,’ he says, ‘but I need to do this. I need to have hope.’
              I open my mouth to say something back. I don’t know what is about to come out of my mouth. Maybe an insult. Maybe nothing. Maybe I love you too. But before I can say anything at all, something catches my eye behind him.
              I see the scattered line of Shamans walking back from the city. They look exhausted. The sky is clear, and the sun is out. It’s too bright. Too hot. The air is filled with miniscule insects. Ullr notices me looking over his shoulder and turns to face the ruined Silver City. A sun-like beam of light tears its way from the city centre all the way into the sky. It makes a sound like the metallic siren that signals the beginning of The Hunt, but only a thousand times louder. Every human and Shaman stops and stares. Through the clouds above, which look like they’re the same height as me from up here, a massive mouth comes crashing down. It looks like a black frog’s mouth with a million sharp fangs, each one being the size of the mountains. It bites into the ruined city, swallowing it entirely. I feel the rumble a few seconds later. Its outer layer starts to throb. The hopeful part of my brain thinks it might be some weird Shaman power but in the back of my head, I know what it is. Hundreds and hundreds of holes open up on its surface and silver blood starts pouring out. In that silver blood, Houndlings, Keshies, Savages with weapons in hand, and a whole array of other monsters come flooding out in every direction. It looks like nothing more than liquid at this distance but I know what it really is. I knew it would come. I know the Savages. The Naj’ra. The Daydwellers. They would come back to get us eventually. They always do. I was right. They always win.

Orion’s Hunt – Chapter XXII

I stared at him, arms crossed. ‘Who cares?’ I said. He always worried about what others might think. ‘Go and ask her.’
              ‘What if she says no?’ he muttered at the ground, shuffling his feet.
              ‘Then she says no. It’s not a big deal. I think you could do better, but she’s expressed an interest, so I doubt she’d decline.’
              Ullr timidly walked through the marketplace, trying his best to keep his posture straight. I watched them as they talked, smiling to myself. I’d thought that particular female was a complete bitch from the way she spoke to everyone, but I was glad to have something to keep me occupied. It was the hardest part of the year. Not only in terms of water supplies and temperature, but also entertainment. We’d only been at the village for a few years at this point. We were still learning the do’s and don’ts of The Hunt and were nowhere near being anything more than muscle men for the village leaders. I wandered through the platforms covered in moss and ivy, trying to find something good to buy. I passed Gaulis, the mushroom merchant. She was a shrunken thing who never made it unclear that she was jealous of us un-ageing types. I had tried once or twice to explain to her the hardships of the Silver City and the thought of never being able to have children. I made up most of the arguments for that one as I wasn’t crazy about offspring anyway. Despite being about a hundred, which for natural humans was a good age, she had only scatterings of grey in the short, thick, black hair she kept tied up in some sort of bun. She had olive skin, barely wrinkled, and a petite beauty to her. Everyone knew she was from a different part of the land but she never fully explained where. Her eyes were the giveaway. They were shaped differently to ours. We had our small spats, but she always kept a bag of mushrooms at the side for me. I was her main customer.
              Even though we lacked many sources of food, water, and other materials, the market was the place to be. It was always crowded with village folk trying to swap some Hunt meat for a new quill, or some old berries for a statuette. We knew how to make use of the things around us and we were quite content. I watched through the branches as Ullr went off into the forest with his love interest. She hadn’t been with us long but had already made quite an impression. I didn’t particularly want to say it but she was one of the most beautiful females. She had luscious brown hair that she liked to keep quite short. I was envious. Didn’t take much to make me envious, though. She had an amazing set of muscles. I had no doubt she would pulverise anyone who tried to fight her. The only issue was her attitude. Even I thought she could come off as too up herself, which was kind of rich. She knew she was good looking. That was the problem. She treated almost everyone like scum, bar a few that she tried to impress. The leaders, the better hunters and of course, the handsome ones like Ullr. I’d tried to get to know her after she’d shown an interest in Ullr. All she did was insult the way my hair looked, scoffed at me, and strutted off. I didn’t care much at the time but her personality, in general, was starting to get quite a few of the villager’s backs up.

A few days later, after I’d tried to squeeze out every possible detail from Ullr, I ran into her near the gates of the village. They were shut but not locked at this time in the year. Villagers, especially hunters, were allowed to wander in the forest quite freely without much to worry about. All Ullr had really told me, that I was interested in at least, was that she was from the Green Forest. He didn’t know why. See, if I had been in his place, instead of flirting, I would have gone into detective mode, which is probably why I’m not often in his place. Although, I had met a very nice girl at the rivers a year or two before.
              ‘You’re from the Green Forest?’ I asked her as bluntly as possible. I’d always been one for small talk.
              ‘Ugh, he told you?’ she snarled.
              ‘Yes. Why wouldn’t he?’
              ‘As soon as he’s mine, he won’t be following you around like a pathetic dog anymore,’ she smiled.
              ‘Okay,’ I said. I wasn’t sure what else to say. I suppose I could have gone home to think about a retort for a couple of hours.
              ‘You think you’re so amazing, don’t you?’ she said as I tried to walk away.
              ‘Not really, why?’
              ‘Yeah right,’ she cackled. ‘Ullr’s told me all about you. Bet he just adds to your ego, doesn’t he?’
              ‘Why are you asking me to agree with you?’ I said, furrowing my brow.
              She walked up to me with her hands on her hips, trying to rock them from side to side as much as possible. ‘You’re pathetic.’
              ‘You seem to like that word,’ I said, standing my ground.
              ‘Whatever. You walk around here like you’re invincible, which is hysterical. I could kill you with one swipe.’
              ‘Yeah, good luck with that. I really can’t tell why Ullr likes you.’
              ‘Why not? The only one around here that has a problem is you. And that’s only because you see me as a threat.’
              ‘I’m sure. Ullr is going to have a great time,’ I said, edging further away from her but still keeping my aggressive stance.
              ‘Please,’ she said, getting closer again. ‘The moment I have a daughter and heir, I’ll bury him next to you if you like. It’s the least I can do.’
              I almost burst into laughter. ‘Wait, all you want from Ullr is his offspring? You’re more stupid than I thought,’ I snorted.
              For some reason, which I cannot fathom, this seemed to upset her. She launched on me, using her sharp nails to tear at my skin. I instantly tried to do as much damage to her as I could, whilst simultaneously trying to get away. I was right beforehand, I was being pulverised. In a matter of seconds, masses of pain was shooting through my flesh. I could feel every drop of blood escaping my body already. Eventually, something pulled her off me. I dragged myself away from her as we both realised what was happening. She whirled around and instantly started to fake cry.
              ‘Oh, it was horrible!’ she wailed. ‘He pounced on me!’
              Ullr looked at me, his eyes squinted. ‘Did you?’ he asked. ‘Did you pounce on her?’
              I knew what he was doing. ‘Absolutely. Pure lust, you see.’
              ‘Understandable. What will you do now?’ he asked her, squatting next to her.
              ‘Excuse me?’ she said, seeming genuinely shocked that he wasn’t killing me.
              ‘I know what you’ll do. You’ll go back to the Green Forest. Brilliant idea.’ He winked at me as he walked over to me.
              ‘Oh, please.’ She figured it out. ‘You’re taking his side?’ She laughed as she stood up, then looked at both of us. ‘This village is full of cunts. You were right, Ori. I am stupid for coming here. No men. Why don’t you two have children instead?’ she smirked.
              I’d never seen Ullr launch so quickly, but he’d obviously had enough. He was clearly angry, and when his girlfriend started battering him in return, I grabbed a fallen branch and whacked her with it. She leapt backwards and wiped blood from her nose, ready to attack again.
              ‘Leave now, or we will kill you,’ said Ullr, darkly.
              ‘You might regret giving me a chance,’ she said, smiling. She climbed the wall faster than a monkey and was never seen again. I waited until I couldn’t sense her footsteps anymore, then turned to speak to Ullr. He wasn’t there.

Later that same day, Ullr walked into my small hut alone. It wasn’t much. It was a huge nest of twigs entwined together with a couple of ledges to keep my weapons and food on. I kept the plants alive so that it blended in well with the forest. I heard him walk into the centre of the room.
              ‘Sorry for all that,’ he said quietly.
              ‘You have nothing to apologise for,’ I said, turning to him. ‘It just sucks that the first person you’ve ever been interested in turned out to be a bitch.’
              Ullr looked at me weirdly. ‘I don’t know if I really liked her, to be honest,’ he mumbled, sitting down on my feather woven bed.
              ‘Aw, come on. You must’ve done. Otherwise you would’ve seen how awful she was.’
              ‘No, I knew. I just wanted to like her so much. I wanted to ignore the bad bits.’
              ‘Why?’
              ‘Because it would’ve been right. I could’ve coupled with her and everyone would stop asking me who I plan to couple up with. No one would think it wrong. I didn’t want to love the… wrong one.’
              ‘Well, she definitely was wrong, I’ll tell you that for nothing. Anyone else would be perfectly acceptable. Don’t be afraid of loving the wrong ones. You can spot them a mile off.’
              ‘There’s always rules. Even with love,’ he said, fiddling with his own fingers.
              ‘Fuck the rules,’ I said, putting my arm around his shoulders. ‘Love who you love. Nothing wrong with that. Hell, love her if you want. Just don’t invite me to your coupling ceremony,’ I smiled.
              He smiled back. ‘You’re a fine human, Orion. I won’t have a coupling ceremony without you there.’
              ‘I’m honoured.’

I’m not as dense as Ullr liked to think. I could tell he meant something else by those comments, but I knew I didn’t want to know. He would sometimes do that. A small remark or look that would make me wonder. But I never wondered for long. If he wanted to tell me, he’d tell me. It wasn’t for me to figure out. It wasn’t for me to discover. It was for him to deal with, and if I could keep our friendship as the way it was, I’d do just that.

✽✽✽

I keep waking up to the sounds of battle. Even though I have no doubt that the Shamans are powerful, I am expecting some kind of outcome to present itself soon. It’s sad that the ones that die won’t even get to see the result. They’d have died not knowing if it was worthwhile. Just as I’m drifting off to sleep again, having any energy I had zapped by the sun, I start to dream. I don’t know if it’s because I’m outdoors again or because of the battle raging around me, but one voice penetrates through the noise. I never once had it be so clear in my dreams over the past year.
              ‘Orion!’ it shouts, the voice breaking as it tries to scream over the explosions. I hear panting and running footsteps. A couple of the humans in the cart with me lift their heads. I don’t even know how they have the energy to do that. The voice gets closer, running and then stopping, running and shouting my name. My whole name. Not many humans know it. I don’t actually know how I got the name. Some say it’s the first word you utter, but that would be stupid. I would probably have been named ‘food’ if that was true. Others say you simply know your name when you are born. Born through wild ways or metal ways. Again, the difference between the humans has always been a point of debate. I’ve always liked to believe that we’re not that different at all. We can still die mortal deaths, we just don’t age. We can still bleed and have an illness, we just don’t have the same bodily functions.
              ‘Orion!’ he shouts. I know it’s him now. I both want it to be him and dread the moment when he sees me. I hate to be seen as weak by anyone… but Ullr? I’ve always tried to be the strong one. The one who can sort the situation out. The one he can turn to if he’s in a jam.
              ‘Oh gods, Ori!’ he blurts out, climbing into the cart. He steps over the other groaning humans and kneels down next to me. I feel sick with how relaxed I suddenly feel. I’m too comfortable now that Ullr is here and I don’t like it. All my anger should be rising to the surface. But it isn’t. I’m glad to see him. I want him to take me away from here. I want us to go back home.
              I muster any energy I can and lull my head towards him and blink my eyes open. ‘It took you… a year… to come and get me,’ I say, my voice sounding weird after not hearing it for so long.
              ‘I’m so sorry Ori. You have no idea how hard it was.’
              My energy is returning very fast now. ‘Hard? I don’t know how hard it was?’ I spit.
              ‘I mean… without you. I don’t know,’ he says, looking away and scratching the back of his head. ‘I know it must have been awful in there for you but… I’m just so glad you’re alive.’
              I stare at him for a second and then turn my head, looking away. ‘I’m not.’
              ‘If it helps, it’s only been eleven months,’ he says. I don’t react. ‘What happened in there?’ he asks quietly.
              ‘They cut me.’ As soon as I say the words, my mind instantly remembers how Ullr told me the exact same thing. He had been in my position for years. I mean, perhaps not my exact position but he never knew from one day to the next whether he’d be cut, toyed with, beaten, maybe even killed. He was terrified when I first found him but he didn’t once play for the sympathy vote. He never once used his experiences as an excuse for an attitude. He never had an imperious demeanour about him just because he’d suffered. He had the courage to tell me and even when he did, he gave it to me bluntly. As facts. That is what had happened to him and he moved on. I remember that day in the marsh so well.
              ‘I’m so sorry,’ he says again.
              I turn my head back towards him. ‘It’s fine. They didn’t break me.’ I gamble a smile. It was probably one of those half smiles. Something still doesn’t feel right. I don’t want to be smiling at him, even though I’ve just convinced myself I should. ‘What happened to you?’
              ‘There’s time for that later,’ he says. ‘You should… rest.’
              ‘You of all people know I hate being told to rest. I’ll rest later. Tell me what happened after I was captured.’ I scoff at the word ‘captured’. I never thought the Savages would be able to do that to me. I drag myself up into a sitting position, leaning against the edge of the cart.
              He looks at me as though he’s not sure if he should tell me or not. ‘Well… it was scary and confusing for the first few days. Wo and I hid in the trees until we were positive they were gone. Morga…’ he sighs, ‘went insane.’
              ‘What?’ I ask. I’d forgotten about that name. I’d forgotten about them all.
              ‘She couldn’t take losing Byt. They’d always been a team. She kept muttering about revenge. Most of the survivors travelled back towards the lake. We didn’t know what else to do except follow Morga. She kept saying we should find the Shamans. They’d know what to do. Anyway, when we reached the edge of the marshland, Morga took off. We tried to follow her but she screamed at us to head for the mountains. Never heard from her again.’
              ‘Oh. That doesn’t surprise me. Byt died,’ I say as fact.
              ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ he says, sitting next to me.
              ‘You don’t have to keep saying that,’ I say, leaning away from him. I notice him notice.
              ‘How?’ he asks, looking at the leaf covered floor, which is when I realise the sounds of the battle have faded. We must be heading across the marshland right now.
              ‘She was put in one of those tanks,’ I say, knowing he’ll understand.
              ‘Ouch,’ he says.
              ‘So what about the others?’ I ask. ‘Peren, Wo, Sile…’
              ‘Sile died in the attack.’ The image of her death comes back to me. ‘Peren also died,’ he says.
              ‘You killed him didn’t you?’ I ask without hesitation. He doesn’t need to answer. I know he did and I’m glad he did.
              ‘Wo was brilliant,’ he continues. ‘She became a substitute leader when Morga ran off. We made it to the mountains with her guidance. Had a bit of a difficult time trying to let the Shamans talk to us but after their leader, Horus, saw Wo and decided he loved her, we were all accepted.’
              ‘Accepted?’ I ask, trying to understand everything he just rambled about. ‘I suppose they weren’t all like that bastard back in the cave, then. Or that girl in the jungle.’
              ‘No. Actually, Horus had banished them, which kind of explains why they were so horrible. Apparently, that cave idiot was a friend of the leader before Horus and tried multiple times to undermine Horus’ authority. Something like that. He wouldn’t even say what the female did.’
              ‘I can probably imagine. So, tell me, what amazing things did you learn?’ I say with a fake excitement. It’s the tone I usually use when I can tell Ullr wants to drivel on about something that I’m not interested in. But, you know, you have to be a decent friend sometimes.
              ‘Well, the Shamans call the Savages Naj’ra,’ he says.
              ‘Sounds awful,’ I say and he smiles.
              ‘As it turns out, Wo is able to use Shaman powers as well,’ he says wistfully.
              ‘What?’
              ‘Yeah. She has some weird component in her that she shares with the Shamans. A black liquid of some sort. Horus taught her how to wield it. Maybe he can do the same for you.’
              ‘No,’ I say sharply and Ullr nods, almost as though he was hoping I’d reject the idea. ‘But if that’s the case, it would explain what happened in the jungle,’ I shrug, still not really believing it. If I had any sort of strength like that, I would have been able to escape the city. But I didn’t. I sat there and took it for a year and forty odd years before that.
              ‘Yeah. There was another human like you in the mountains. Malef. She was a war leader. Man, she was powerful. She led the first attack on the city. She eventually died but she put up a damn good fight. She was so dynamic. So beautiful.’
              ‘Great,’ I say, annoyed.
              ‘The Shamans also found a way to gift their powers to Ageless humans. Something about injecting the black liquid into the bloodstream. I’m not sure exactly how it works.’
              ‘That must have been what the Shaman girl was on about. Not that it matters now. Did you-?’
              ‘No. Seems too freaky for me,’ he says.
              ‘So you think I’m a freak even though I didn’t choose any of this?’
              ‘No, of course not. I just- ugh. I don’t know. You’re just Ori to me. You didn’t even know you had the power to do anything like that. I guess I just don’t associate you with them. It seems rather scary. I didn’t want to mess with it. I mean, look what you did.’
              I stare at the ceiling. ‘So now what? The Shamans are trying to take control?’ I ask, trying to change the subject.
              ‘In a way,’ he sighs. ‘The Savages have been making progress on their flying mountain machines. The scattered few that are left in the mountains have locked themselves away but we can all hear them working. With the Savages at a weak point, the Shamans have decided to try and take over the city.’
              ‘Sounds fun. I doubt they’ll manage it,’ I say bluntly.
              Ullr looks at me, eyebrows furrowed. ‘Look, I know you’ve had a rough time but why are you being so negative? Did you not see what they did in there? They’ve been killing Savages for years. They know what they’re doing and they believe we can win.’
              I look him dead in the eyes. ‘Have you forgotten what the Savages do?’ I ask him. ‘You think once the Shamans have killed them all, that’ll be it? We can live in a happy land with no worries? It’s never over. The Savages are always there. It doesn’t matter if you take their city, attack their machines, even set this whole land on fire. The Savages always win.’
              Ullr shuffles over to the entrance of the rocking cart. I study his muscles. His body hasn’t changed. He pulls one curtain open. ‘You call that winning?’ he says, showing me the city. It’s not a city anymore. It is rubble. Smoking rubble. There are a few buildings left but they won’t last much longer. I turn my head away and huff. ‘What happened to you?’ he asks. ‘They did break you, didn’t they?’
              This taps a hidden rage in me. ‘No, they didn’t. You did,’ I say.
              I see Ullr’s face start to turn red. ‘What? Because of what Peren said all those months ago?’ His voice wobbles. ‘He was lying.’
              ‘No, he wasn’t,’ I say and then turn, looking at Ullr to get validation. His eyes flit from my right eye to my left eye, a worried expression on his face. There it is.
              ‘Fine,’ he slumps back. ‘But it’s not like I ever expected anything from you. You were always my friend first. Nothing more.’
              ‘So all those years when I was egging you to be with Wo, you were really just fantasising about me?’ I ask with a harsher tone than I meant.
              Ullr’s eyes start to glisten. He slouches against the door frame. ‘No. I never thought of you like that.’
              ‘Then what was it?’ I ask. Ullr stays silent, hugging his knees. ‘You know what hurts the most?’ I say, feeling more of my strength return. ‘The fact that you never told me. Others seemed to know. Why not me?’
              Ullr doesn’t stop staring at the ground. ‘I don’t know. It was too hard. What was I supposed to do, Ori? I wasn’t even sure what I was feeling. I just knew that I never wanted any females. I always wanted to be around you. I never knew what that meant. I didn’t know if it was sexual or romantic or just friendly but… ugh. I just couldn’t stand you seeing me differently. I didn’t want you to know because I didn’t really know myself. Not properly.’
              ‘But you do know now?’ I ask.
              He glances at me. ‘You’re my friend. That’s all I want, okay?’
              ‘Is that why you killed Peren? Because he took that away from you?’
              ‘Yes. The moment he smirked at my comment about Zilo, I knew it was over. I could have been quiet, but I didn’t want him to have that power over me. That the threat of him telling you could control me.’
              ‘I understand, but how did he even know?’ I ask, but from the look on Ullr’s face, I know this topic is over. It isn’t a discussion I have the right to talk about anymore. It is Ullr’s. I exhale. ‘I’m still upset.’
              ‘I know. I’m sorry.’
              ‘I mean, if any of that is true, why didn’t you react to my capture the way Morga did? Very offensive,’ I say with a croaky voice and a small smile as I readjust myself, trying to calm him down. He breathes with relief, I can tell.
              I found that whole conversation very underwhelming. With a year (or eleven months) to do nothing but think up how that discussion might go, my brain expected it to be a lot more dramatic than it was.
              He cracks a small smile. ‘I was a mess, but I knew that getting myself killed wouldn’t help you. Wo was always convinced you were dead, but I think she just said that to try and help me move on.’
              ‘Wow, what a bitch,’ I say.
              ‘She did well for herself. I guess having someone pay her romantic attention agreed with her. She ended up pairing with Horus and became another leader.’
              ‘Wow, she works fast,’ I say.
              Ullr laughs. ‘Yeah. If she could have kids, she’d probably have a whole fleet by now.’
              ‘I’d expect nothing less.’ I sit up straight to face Ullr properly.
              ‘I missed this the most,’ Ullr says.
              ‘What?’
              ‘Us. Oh, and by the way, here.’ He hands me my necklace. I touch his hand as he gives it to me. All is forgiven.

Orion’s Hunt – Chapter XXI

Everything they do to me quickly becomes routine. The liquid that constantly pours over me must have a weakening component as I barely ever have enough energy to stand. They take me out of my cubicle, carefully place me into a cage with more pouring liquid, and take me to an array of different dark rooms. Sometimes they stick needles in my arms and leave me there for hours on end with relentless beeping in my ear. Those are the better days. Others, they will slice my skin open, inspecting my muscles, my blood, my bones. I can even deal with that most days. The worst is when they forcefully insert large tubes into anywhere they can. The way they’re so careful not to harm me as they move me and then to violate my body like that is confusing. I can’t help but feel I’m getting a taste of what Ullr went through. It’s almost as though they respect me before the experiments begin.
              Weeks upon weeks of torture pass by. All I can do is plan some sort of escape, even though I know it’s impossible. Once or twice I’ve tried to drown myself in the liquid, but my body doesn’t seem to let me die. I’ve tried to grab for the knives that the white Savages hold, but they gently take my hand and place it down again. My whole body aches and stings. The liquid causes the ongoing tingle on my skin. I can feel my muscles straining against every movement. I can sense the blood in my veins struggling to flow through my body. Even my eyes are too heavy to stay open for long. I let my toes drag along the ground as they move me. I don’t bother to help, nor want to. They can do what they want now. I hardly have a choice. It has got to the point now where my throat is so coarse from screaming that any sound I try to make just doesn’t come out. It aches too much to even try. When they cut me open, I know the pain is there but I can no longer feel it. I just stare at what they’re doing. Some of them will press their long grey fingers against my forehead to stop me from watching but others will look up at me, make clicking sounds, and then return to mutilating my flesh. The wounds and scars that would naturally heal quite fast stay worryingly fresh for longer than usual. Again, I blame it on the liquid. I sit alone in my cubicle, feeling it sprinkle on my neck and upper back. All I can do is think back to the day I was caught. I replay it over and over in my mind, hoping to see something new. Something I didn’t fully absorb. Something that lets me know he’s okay. The more I think about it, the fuzzier it becomes, so I try to distract myself. I pick at the loose bits of skin from the newly made afflictions and think of better memories. The day of my awakening also keeps trying to penetrate through. Being back at home, I can see it clearer now more than ever, but there’s still something missing. I was supposed to die. In fact, I was never meant to live. They destroyed thousands of bodies. Like a sort of clearance. Something that Morga mentioned slots into the memory.
              ‘After a bunch of them rebelled against their owners and fought their way out of the city, the Savages stopped production.’
              With the added discovery that I can melt angry little girls, I guess it would make sense. But even with all that, it was a fluke. I’d never been able to do such things before. Not that I could recall. Also, why wasn’t I able to do the same when the Savages found us? I was feeling the same, if not, even worse than when I thought the Shaman girl was going to kill us. The Savages caught us so smoothly. They crept up on us without any of us noticing, which is the most confusing part. Even if we can’t see them, smell them, or hear them, we can usually feel them. Their softest tread can be felt from a mile away by our best hunters, so how were they able to sneak up on us? By the lake and in the jungle. Two times in one Hunt seems unlikely. Mistakes have been made in the past and we usually can’t make it a whole summer without at least one confrontation but two major attacks where they found the whole pack… I just can’t figure it out. New tactics perhaps. New weapons.

These thoughts whirl around in my head for hours upon hours. I repeat the same train of thought over and over, trying to fork off into a different theory, but nothing ever works. I would give up altogether. It seems pretty clear that once the Savages are done with me, I will be discarded. I won’t have the chance to know the answers. A part of me doesn’t even want to know. I guess curiosity of tragedy and my enemies is something that I can’t avoid. I will always want to delve into detail even though I know it will probably upset me. It’s like when a hunter dies. I know it’s just a part of life so I really shouldn’t think about it too much but there is that small pang of sadness. What was their last thought? What pain did they experience before they died? What was the one thing that led to their death? Could it have been easily avoided? I swear I’m the only human who thinks like this. Everyone else moves on very quickly. Maybe they all secretly think the same things too but it has become the unspoken norm to be completely fine with stuff like that. We’re taught how to act from other humans, I suppose. Our environment has a powerful effect on who we become. We’re always changing, always learning. The experience in here will shape me somehow. We take what other humans do as the normal. Would a human born on its own do everything exactly as we do? Instinct plays a huge part in our biological makeup, but conforming to certain actions because others do it is an inbuilt survival technique, I guess. I don’t know. I think my mind might be starting to turn to pulp.

I stay inside my small cubicle for more time than I care to count. I think I lost track at about the fifth month and it’s been at least double that. I assume that every other human has either been caught or killed at this point. Even Ullr. The Hunt will probably be starting again soon, if there’s anything left to hunt. The testing and experiments on my body become less frequent. I actually notice entire scars disappearing before they open up my skin again. They still occasionally drop small bits of rubbish into my cubicle. I don’t know why I was expecting freshly cooked stag with a side of mushrooms. Gods above, I could really go for some mushrooms right now. The Savages sometimes open my cage to look at me and then close it again, almost as though they’re admiring me. Which makes me realise something else. Even with the bad diet and never moving more than two inches, my body stays the same. It doesn’t return to its poor state from the alleyways. It stays the muscular, fit shape that it has been since the Wild days. At this point, they’re leaving me for weeks on end before any other interaction. I start regaining some energy. Enough to stand up and trace maps into the smooth walls with my finger. Nothing more than my own amusement. I draw out the forest in my head. My house, my village, my favourite trails. I don’t leave marks on the walls but I can see it there. It’s close enough to touch. It keeps me sane, at least. I go a good fortnight without food drops, if you could call it food. No Savages open my cubicle. None walk by. Despite my state, I could still sense when they were there. But now, nothing. I start to think they’ve just forgotten about me or are trying to see how long it would take for me to die without any food. The liquid still pours over me. I spit into it and my saliva fizzes and evaporates. I start tapping my foot on the door for every day that passes by. I sit and wait for the whole twenty-four hours before I can tap my foot again. It becomes like the world’s most boring game, but I smile every time I’ve counted another day and I get to tap. Many more taps go by. My stomach does nothing but rumble but I can’t feel myself deteriorating or dying. In fact, with every tap, the exhilaration gives me a bout of new strength. Either the liquid is getting weaker or my body is adjusting to it.

Finally, a few hours after another tap, I sense a Savage coming towards the cubicle. Even though I know it probably means more experiments, more pain, and more humiliation, (although the latter seems pointless now), I actually feel excited. Its pointed feet clack on the metal grating as it comes down the corridor. Its clacks are sharper than my taps. Maybe I should have been thudding. It stops right outside the door. When it opens, I see a white Savage. They are usually waiting for me in the dark rooms, so for one to collect me seems a little strange. I can’t help but over think everything at this point. My brain is looking for anything to occupy itself. It waits in the doorway, looking down at me. I try my best to look innocent and cute. Why? I don’t even know. Anything that might make the pain less agonising. The vertical slice on its face, which I assume is its mouth, opens just a smidgen. It buzzes at me, making a noise I’ve never heard a Savage make before. Its black, empty eyes are watching me carefully. I have a strange feeling it wants to pick me up. Take me home. Wishful thinking.
              Across the corridor, I see another white Savage open up the wall to reveal another human inside a small cubicle. She looks the same as me. Without energy but healthier than ever. The white Savage across the corridor turns to the one outside my door and clicks angrily. At least, I think it’s mildly annoyed. Hard to tell. The annoyed Savage then turns to the female inside the other cubicle and presses a button. The liquid turns from clear to a pale green. The noise I hear come out of her mouth is almost alien to me. Having heard nothing but running liquid for a long time, the sound of a human screaming is new to me. I haven’t even heard my own voice for so long. My throat doesn’t even feel broken anymore but I’ve just never remembered to try. The green liquid pours over her, first dissolving her hair, then the top of her scalp. The rest of her body slowly changes shape. Blood rushes out of her but before it even hits the ground, it has dissolved as well. Before I know it, only her legs flop to the ground and dissolve. I sit there, obviously horrified, but show no expression. The annoyed Savage angrily clicks and pops at the Savage in front of me again and then carries on further down the corridor. I hear the sound of another door opening. I prepare myself for another scream. The Savage in front of me looks down at me again, its long hand hovering above a button pad outside. I recognise the Savage. It is one that has experimented on me. From what I remember, through the phases of screaming and wincing, it was one of the only ones that would stroke my head after the process was done. An action I didn’t care for either. Perhaps they have the same signs of affection. Perhaps this Savage actually cares for me somewhat. If it was the other Savage, I would have been dissolved already. Its head droops but when the scream from another human pierces the air, it shakes and then raises its hand for the pad again.
              Before it can press anything, a massive boom echoes outside. The metal grating panels tremble. The Savage looks down the corridor and takes a step back. A small orb of light pelts into its chest. It flies straight backwards without making a sound. I hear running. More orbs of light shoot through the air past my cubicle. Silence. I daren’t move. I close my eyes and hope that whatever is happening finishes soon so I can die. Something grabs me. A texture I haven’t felt for a good long while. It picks me up, more roughly than the Savages ever did but somehow, I know it won’t hurt me. It won’t lie. Already, a burning light, which I assume is daylight, blinds me so I can’t open my eyes even if I wanted to. I stumble forward, being led by an arm around mine. I hear screaming and shouting. It’s all too loud. The liquid that ran over me for all that time was evil but at least it was warm. My teeth are chattering uncontrollably, which I thought was just a myth about cold weather. I am pushed and shoved for probably a good few minutes but it all happens so fast, it feels like seconds. Having waited for anything of interest to happen for months, I feel like I’m missing a really good experience. I keep trying to open my eyes but a blasting headache sets in as soon as I open them. The throbbing only calms a little once they’re safely shut again. I am thrown to the ground. I feel the metal grating making little square shaped marks on my skin. Another boom shatters my ears. I know that a human is guiding me. I can hear them shouting but I can’t make anything out. It’s all so muffled. They are behind me, in front of me, and all around. I am picked up off the ground and thrown into something else. It feels so warm and soft. I instantly grab onto it with all my might, cherishing the only comfort I’ve felt for a year.

More screaming. More booming. The softness smells like home and I know for sure that I am on a bed of grass. It starts to move. I lay my head down, straining to keep my eyes open for more than two seconds. I keep seeing flashes of flesh. More humans are on the grass around me, dripping with the liquid. From the slight gap in the vine curtains, I see the city. This makes me bare the pain and open my eyes fully. It’s ruined. The rust has taken over every piece of metal I can see. A destructive smoke is billowing from… everywhere. There are humans running. They are not afraid and they are not in pain. They are running towards the Savages, bellowing at the top of their voices. Their faces are full of ferocity. From their entire beings, auras of light shine brightly, piercing the smoke. They throw themselves on the Savages, ripping and tearing with their weapons. They hold flames in their hands. They have flames in their eyes. They turn to flames themselves. Other animals seem to have joined the fight. The Savages disappear, one by one.
              In front of my cart, I see a powerful Shaman tossing fire at a group of Savages. Some vanish in a flash of light. Others cower. It’s the strangest sight I have ever seen. I didn’t think they knew what fear was. One Savage grabs those cowering and shields them, trying to sacrifice himself to protect them. It’s no use. The fire consumes them all.

Orion’s Hunt – Chapter XX

A cold hand clamps around my neck from behind me. It twists me. I can feel my spine almost snapping. I look at its ugly face. Its tight grey skin stretches over sharp cheekbones and the white marbles for eyes stare at me in hunger. The oblong shape of its head is the strangest part. I can’t tell which way it is facing, up or down. I know there’s nothing I can do this time. I can’t run, I can’t hide, and I don’t have anyone to protect me. My moment has finally arrived. I suppose somewhere in my mind, I knew I wouldn’t survive much longer.

The Savage clicks and whirs to its co-hunters. It shines a bright light in my eyes. I can see nothing but white. It thrusts me into a small box-like cage. The metal bars crush my body into a painful position. My skin feels like a thousand needles are injecting ice into my veins. I look around wildly, trying my best to see a glimpse of any survivors. Through the mass of rainforest leaves and vines, I only see darkness. They must have fled. They were smart enough. I see another cage not too far away from me with a human body inside. My head starts to thump. The Keshie begins to beep and clunk as it moves. The Houndlings just below snarl with victory. There is no use to try and protest. The human in the other cage comes into proper view. It’s Byt. My relief sickens me. She may be dead but at the moment, I don’t care. At least he got away. Maybe he’s safe. I wish I could have seen him one last time. He’ll probably believe I died hating him. That is more painful than anything the Savages could do to me now.
              The clanking and scraping gets louder as my own metallic horse machine makes its way out of the clearing. The Savages whoop and tick as though they’re laughing. As we leave the outer trees, I see Wo on the far side. She is alone. I see the tears falling down her face even from this distance. Where is he? I try to see more. I squeeze myself into a more uncomfortable position to find him, to see him, to know he escaped. I shriek in pain as my shoulder pops from its socket. One of the Savages clicks at me and gently places its metal pole onto my bare back. I feel a surge of stinging before I black out.

✽✽✽

I’ve never known dreams so vivid.
I see myself on Vulcan. Ullr is with me, as he was when we had ventured there. We look out towards the mountain range many miles away in anticipation. A storm is swirling around us. The grass is prickly on my thighs. We watch and wait for the explosion. We wait for Mount Pok to fly up into the sky. I am eager to see this profanity again. I am also terrified. Instead, as I turn to put my arm around Ullr, relishing in our reunion, I see the tip of a blade poking through the front of his neck. Blood spurts outward, over his lap and over my chest. Shock is still etched onto his face. I see his killer behind him. Peren slides the blade back out of Ullr’s neck and wipes the blood off with his forearm. He smiles at me. I catch Ullr’s body as it starts to fall forward. I cradle him in my arms. The mountain stays silent. I look at Ullr’s face. He looks so peaceful.
‘I love you the most,’ Peren echoes.

✽✽✽

I wake up. I’m still compacted inside my prison. My skin is slippery with some sort of solution. I feel the cold metal pressing into my stomach. With every lolloping step of the metal horse, I sense my body weakening. I feel every inch of the metal on me. My head is throbbing. My eyesight is blurry. It doesn’t take me long to realise they’ve brought me home. I can barely breathe. The fog invades my lungs and I begin to choke. I keep coughing until my chest begins to ache. I taste the metal in my mouth. The warm liquid and warm blood drip from my face. I think I’m crying, but that could be blood seeping from my eyes.

I watch the silver grates on the floor passing by. Sometimes, a foot of one of the Daydwellers would come into view. I see their feet stop and face me. I know they’ll be pointing, clicking and laughing. I know they’ll be degrading me. Seeing my body so helpless and exposed, they’ll really enjoy themselves. I hope they do.
              Fat tree trunks of grey circulate around me. I’ve been brought to the upper part of the city. Even in twenty odd years of absence, I can tell they’ve changed nothing. Everything is still as bland. All the smells are still as disgusting. Chemicals and metal. The rich haze bites at my skin and every sense of my body. My nose runs, my ears pop, my eyes become sore. Why haven’t they killed me yet? Is that too easy? Too merciful?

The metal horse stops outside a bigger cage. I think it’s a cage. I keep drifting in and out of consciousness. Consciousness or sanity. The horse lowers to the floor. Perhaps this is where they leave me. To be gawked at and poked on a daily routine. I remember seeing humans like that. They were tortured. Some of their bodies were mutated. Some of their minds were manipulated to perform soul-crushing tricks for the Savages to laugh at. I slowly look up to see what awaits me. A cage filled with disgusting hay. In the corner, the far corner, lays a man. A man like me. He has a band around his neck. If he bites one of the Savages, that band will tighten until his head separates from his body. I’ve seen it before. Frankly, I’d bite a Savage as soon as possible and get it over with. He raises his head, like me. He crawls over to the edge of the cage to take a better look at me. Some Savages on the other side are pointing and ticking. His body looks burned and bruised. He is missing hair on one side of his scalp. It looks as though he’s been castrated. Even so, I see something in his eyes. A hope. I take what is left of my energy and reach my arm out towards him. He looks at my outstretched arm. The expression on his youthful face makes me want to cry, but I am sure I have no tears left. It may be the only sign of kindness he has ever experienced. He reaches his own arm out through the bars and grabs a hold of my hand. I feel the broken bones and the aching joints. I feel the pain inside his body and see the pain behind his eyes.
              A whip comes crashing down onto my elbow. The caged man retreats, but I leave my arm hanging out. The whip has cut deep. More blood pours. I don’t even care.

I drift in and out again and it’s as though I’ve teleported. I recall no sleep, no time, but I’m in a different location. I peer around me, letting my body twist until my legs go numb. The metal grate flooring discharges a hot muggy smoke. The smell of rotting fish is enough to wake me properly. I still hear the machines clunking away and the noises of crowds of Savages in the distance. The caged man is gone. Instead, a tank of green coloured water is in front of me. The glass is misted in places and has mould at the edges but I can see into it very clearly. At the bottom of the tank are several human bodies. Two males and a small female. The top has a glass lid and there seems to be no air inside. A few Savages have gathered around the tank. So, this is to be my escape. It will be exciting to go out with a bang. A show for the Savages. I wait and keep waiting. I expect a Savage to walk over to my cage and tip me into the tank. Should I breathe in straight away? Should I struggle? Should I look like I’m trying to break free? Which would be the most fun?

I close my eyes, wanting to fall asleep again. That would be hilarious. The Savages have all gathered around to watch me struggle and panic and instead they’ll watch me drown in my sleep. I hear an ear-bursting scream and then a splash. The whirring of the tank lid makes me open my eyes. Have they chucked me in?
              I find myself still in my cage. I don’t know how long it’s been. I look at the thrashing body inside the tank. I wonder if it’s my own body for a moment. It’s not. It’s Byt. I guess I should have seen that coming. They’d want to mess with my head. I see her twist from side to side, swimming down to the bottom and then to the top again, desperately trying to find a source of air. She catches my eye. She stops thrashing. She floats in the middle of the tank, staring at me. She looks at me in the way she always did when I said something stupid or made a silly joke. In that moment, I know exactly what she wants to say to me. Goodbye. Not just to me, but to all we have known. There is a faint twinge of hope in her kind gaze as she smiles at me for the last time. She slowly opens her mouth and shuts her eyes. Her body starts convulsing, as though she’s being possessed by a demon. I can feel the water fill her lungs. I sense the pain as her chest throbs bigger and smaller, bigger and smaller, as she dies. The convulsing stops and she hangs there, in the water and slowly sinks to the bottom. The Savages applaud. One of them looks towards me. I smile at it.

I think I dream of Byt as I drift once again. I don’t remember what she said or what I did. I hope it was a good moment, even in sleep. I wake just before I am sent into a building. It’s only a metal tunnel with dark grey walls and grates on the floor again. I wonder if all the buildings are as dull as this. I watch as my last glimpse of real sunlight disappears. The white light poles on the ceiling will be my only sight for now. I keep looking at them, counting them as the Keshie and Savage rider take me deeper and deeper into the tunnel. We go to turn off at a crossroads. On the other side of the path, I see a man. He reminds me of the zoo human I had seen before. Only this man looks fresh. I’m guessing another capture from this year’s Hunt. He is wailing like a tormented ghost. It’s almost upsetting. Behind him, a Savage with a long stick keeps hitting him relentlessly. There is no hesitation. It is beating him into the ground. He falls flat to the floor, still screaming. I hear his young voice breaking. He can’t be far past his teen years. As he falls, I see his back. It is a carpet of red. The white bone of his spine pokes through the mangled flesh as the Savage whips him. The wall of the tunnel blocks my view as I get taken away. I hear his screaming subside. Not because I am getting further away, but because I hear his life disappear. That could’ve been me.

The Savage unbuckles my cage from the metal horse and flings me into a dark room. The crushing bars finally release me. I look around. The walls are close. I can’t even stretch out my arms. I crouch on the floor, with just enough room to sit down in my little cubicle. More liquid rains down on me. The smell of it stings my nostrils. It’s like smelling fluorescent yellow. There is a light on the floor. It is so bright, I have to adjust my vision for a few minutes. I don’t quite know what I’m doing here or what they have in store for me. I inspect my own body. There are bruises and cuts everywhere, as I suspected. My shoulder aches excruciatingly, but it seems to have been put back into its socket. I spend a lot of time fixing myself to as best as I can manage. I’m not even sure why, no one is around to appreciate it. I don’t think anyone ever will be again. It’s something to do, other than playing with the beam of light that shoots up in the middle of the floor.

Time does that strange thing, where you can’t tell if it’s been hours, days, or even weeks. I get tossed a piece of rubbish every now and then. I guess they want me alive for something. My stomach takes a while to get used to my old diet again.
              I don’t think about much in my prison time. It’s no use to wish I had ended things better with Ullr. It’s no use to cry over Byt or any of the others who lost their lives. Instead, I just wish and dream of being back in my own bed with a plate of mushrooms on my lap. Perhaps Ullr could be there too. Back to our old selves. I go to fiddle with my necklace, as I so often do when remembering the past, but it is gone. They have taken it.

Footsteps make their way towards me. They are quiet but they wake me from my sleep. They are the only sound I’ve heard in days, or hours, or minutes.
              They get louder and louder. They stop right outside the metal door that contains me.

So, it is time. They have come to kill me or to let me live. Either way, I’m already dead.

Orion’s Hunt – Chapter XIX

I sigh. ‘Whatever, I’m not going to be interrogated by you two. I know I didn’t cause that. Maybe something else got her. Maybe one of the gods. It wasn’t me.’
              ‘Maybe, but it was you, Ori,’ Ullr says, giving me his supportive look which he knows always irritates me.
              ‘Okay, fine. Let’s go with that. What would it mean?’ I decide to go along with their explanation, even if I don’t fully understand how they can believe I could melt a huge bear just by screaming. Then again, I’ve felt that tingle before. Unexplainable things have happened before.
              ‘It probably means I shouldn’t argue with you so much,’ Ullr comments.
              ‘I don’t know,’ says Sile. ‘You should probably talk to Morga and Byt about thi-’
              ‘No,’ both Ullr and I say together.
              ‘I don’t want anyone knowing about this,’ I say.
              ‘Oh… why not?’ she asks.
              ‘I’m still certain it wasn’t me, but whatever it was, it was unexplainable and very powerful. I don’t think we should worry the pack right now with everything else that’s happened.’
              ‘I agree,’ says Ullr. ‘You can’t possibly have done that on your own.’
              ‘Yeah, thanks,’ I say and turn to Sile. ‘Before we go blurting this out to Morga, who happens to have a vendetta against Shamans, I think we need time to mull it over. Can you at least keep it to yourself for the time being?’
              ‘Fine,’ she says. ‘I still don’t get how you didn’t even know about this.’
              ‘Because Ori melts people all the time,’ Ullr says, rolling his eyes. He then tries to deal with the claw marks on his side.
              ‘No need for that,’ she replies. ‘It just seems strange… but nothing could surprise me these days. I’ll keep it quiet, but you owe me some good mushrooms when we get back to camp.’
              ‘Yeah, sure,’ I say, not bothering to argue. Sile goes back into the cave to grab the satchels. ‘Like that’s going to happen,’ I say to Ullr.
              ‘That was rather scary, Ori. I thought you were going to fry my arse off,’ he says, the injuries in his side now healing at an alarming rate.
              I agree to just go along with this theory for now. ‘I could’ve… but that peachy behind is your only asset.’
              ‘Please,’ he scoffs, ‘what about my signature smile?’ he says and then demonstrates.
              ‘Dashing,’ I say. ‘Pass me my spear.’ He tosses it to me. ‘You don’t really think I did that, do you?’
              ‘I don’t know. I’ve known you for a long time. You’ve always been a bit mysterious.’
              ‘Yeah but… this is different.’
              ‘What do you think you were doing when you screamed?’
              ‘Nothing. Just screaming.’
              ‘Yeah but why? You’re not a screamer.’
              ‘You were about to die, Ullr. I guess I couldn’t think of anything else.’
              ‘Aw…’ he says and I see a grin sweep across his face as he picks up his bow. ‘You know, when we first met, you did something similar.’
              ‘Excuse me?’ I say.
              ‘Remember that brute in the alleys? When you killed him, your body sort of glowed. I thought it was just a trick with the light at the time but… I don’t know. I always remembered that. It was the first time someone had saved me from harm.’

We return to the jungle clearing just before nightfall. The grass and the trees have turned blue in the pale moonlight. The cart has blended so perfectly into the plants that even I almost miss it. There is an eerie quietness to the camp but most of the hunters are either catching sleep while they can or on silent guard duty. We pile the satchels into the cart, which is now starting to look a little fuller, and shove a load of monkeys that we caught on the way back onto the meat store. Sile jogs over to the Red Queller to get it going again, taking a monkey with her. We haven’t eaten in a few days. Morga materialises from one of the trees and comes over to us.
              ‘Where have you been? I was expecting you this afternoon,’ she whispers.
              ‘We were attacked,’ I say.
              ‘I can see that. Yuk has fallen I presume. What attacked you?’ she asks, obviously annoyed that we couldn’t handle it.
              ‘A Salamander,’ says Ullr. ‘It killed Yuk.’
              ‘Well, that doesn’t surprise me… but it does surprise me that it took you an extra six hours to escape from it.’
              ‘We were also attacked by a Shaman,’ whispers Sile, joining us as the monkey legs start spitting gently on the red flames. This seems to shut Morga up.
              ‘Shaman?’ she says slowly.
              ‘A young female,’ I say and Morga looks at me, obviously concerned.
              ‘The younger looking ones are usually the most dangerous,’ she says. ‘How did you escape?’
              I look at Sile, pleading her with my expression not to say anything. If Morga reacts like this to a Shaman encounter, I’d hate to think what she’d do if she knew what I’d supposedly done, according to my travel acquaintances.
              ‘We uh…’ Sile stutters. ‘We tricked her by hiding in a cave. A bear got her.’
              Morga’s face is utter disbelief but she knows enough to take it and leave it. I know that subject will arise again. ‘Fine. Get some sleep. We have a lot of harvesting to do and the Savages have been getting too close far too often.’

The next couple of days go by with a few close shaves with Savages but nothing we’ve not had in the past. Whenever they get too close to the camp, we slip into our disguises and hiding places and they fly by without even a clue that we’re there. One Houndling ran straight through the middle of our camp and had no idea. Sile has filled Morga in on the details of Yuk’s death and the trip to the lava lands but has thankfully left out any further explanations on what happened with the Shaman. Respectfully, she’s decided to give me some space while I work it out for myself. I still don’t recall anything happening. I knew I was scared and angry but I’m always scared and angry. I didn’t think a scream would cause all of this. I don’t particularly want to believe it but Ullr keeps insisting that I’m a Shaman. I don’t even like that word so I hate the fact he labels me as one of them. One morning, he strides straight up to me after a nap in the cart and drags me into a quieter part of the jungle. A couple of banana trees look appetisingly close. I spot a few chimpanzees in the foliage obviously waiting for us to whisper, argue, laugh, and then leave.
              ‘What?’ he says to me.
              ‘You dragged me here,’ I say.
              ‘I know. I don’t quite know how to say this.’
              ‘Then just say it…’ I stare at him. ‘You’re a master of conversation.’
              ‘I do remember what I saw that day,’ he says. I hold my confused stare. ‘In the Silver City,’ he continues. ‘In that building. I could never quite remember it before. It was like forgetting what I was about to say. Like it was on the tip of my tongue but I could feel it disappearing. But then I dreamt about it… and I saw it again. You know, like what happened to you.’
              I’m starting to wonder why these memories are returning now. The Savages would never let us have our memories unless they wanted us to have them. ‘What did you see?’
              ‘You,’ he says. ‘Loads of versions of you. Clones, I suppose.’
              ‘Okay…’ I say, both shocked by what he’s said and extremely disinterested.
              ‘I can’t even think what it means…’ he says, annoyingly horrified by what he’s just said.
              I drop my gaze to the ground for a couple of silent minutes but then shake my head. ‘I don’t care and neither should you. None of those clones are alive now. I suppose I was meant to be destroyed after all. I was just a mistake. And if you keep questioning the motives of the Savages after every horrifying discovery, you might as well just kill yourself because you’ll die trying to figure them out.’ I shrug and head in the direction of the bananas.

Ullr felt too awkward to talk to me for the rest of the day, so I grabbed Peren to help me with banana gathering and he went off with Wo to catch some smaller mammals. I didn’t talk to Peren all that much. The images of Ullr’s memory were swirling in my head. In the end, I decided to accept the fact that Ullr and Sile may be right. I did feel weird when I was screaming and, as Ullr said, I’m not one to scream. It felt so mandatory at the time. Now knowing a little more of my creation, anything is possible when it comes to the Savages messing around with life force.
              That night, we all gather around a Red Queller, sensing that the coast is clear for a while, and tuck into some parrot meat. One of the hunters points at the hippopotamus tooth on Byt’s necklace, one of her larger trophies and asks to hear the story again. It’s been a while since we heard that one and the new hunters should hear about our victories.
              ‘Okay, well, before Morga and I came to the village, we travelled through the Wild, like many of you did. We first tried to make our way in the rivers. The humans there were nice enough and the replenishment was in great supply. We had gone out into the smaller rivers in order to map out some more of the land. Morga was busy tracking bear footprints and we got separated momentarily. It wasn’t a massive deal back then. We’d go solo quite often actually.’ A smile tugs at the corner of Morga’s mouth. Byt continues. ‘I stupidly crossed a deep river without taking the necessary checks. Again, back then, we weren’t so anal about safety. We only had each other to watch out for and we were used to living on the edge. A huge, gigantic boulder rose from the depths and opened its enormous mouth. I thought I was going to be swallowed in one gulp. It snapped down and my reflexes led me to have two very large tooth gouges on my leg.’
              ‘She screamed,’ Morga smiles and the group of hunters laugh.
              ‘Yes, thank you. Yes, I did scream but it bloody hurt! Some of you have never met a hippo and you’re lucky. They’re one of the deadliest creatures that side of the lake. It swam after me with immense speed. I managed to haul myself up onto an actual boulder and readied myself. When it came for another bite, I flung myself into the air and propelled downwards. I must have been extremely lucky to get a killing blow first strike at that time because my skills weren’t as good as they are now. Getting a kill would be far easier now.’
              ‘Debatable,’ mutters Morga who gets a look from Byt.
              ‘Anyway… I shoved my sword so deep into its neck that its head sprang off and started floating down the river. Luckily, a tooth had broken off inside my leg so I was able to keep this little trophy,’ she says, showing it off for us all to gawk over. ‘Let’s hear yours now.’
              The other hunter peers at his necklace, trying to choose a good story to tell. While he starts, Ullr comes over and sits next to me. The rain starts to pour and the trees hum with droplets. We don’t even care. The Red Queller is basically waterproof and this will hide the sound of our storytelling.
              ‘They’re quite a pair, aren’t they?’ he says.
              ‘Yeah,’ I say gloomily. I’m not sure why I’m upset over Ullr’s memory. Maybe it’s the fact that it was clones. Of all the versions of me, I was the only one to survive, as far as I know. It kind of feels like I wasn’t meant to be the one to survive. I didn’t even know I had powers. One of the other clones would’ve figured it out a long time ago and probably used it for good. What ‘good’ is, I’m not so sure. Maybe someone else was meant to be his best friend. One of the others could have been so much better for him.
              ‘Look, I know you’re still thinking about what I said, which is why I want to give you this.’ He hands me a small rune stone.
              ‘What is it?’ I ask.
              ‘The shaman girl’s symbol of magic. I know that what happened is still confusing and we’re still coming to terms with who we are but… this is who we are. We’re hunters from the northern forest.’ He points to the rest of the pack. I look around at the others, all listening to a story. A custom we’ve created to be a norm. All sitting in the rain, around a fire of red flames. We did all of this. ‘I don’t care how we came into this world. We’re alive and we’re important. You should keep this as a token of triumph against an enemy.’
              I take it from his hand and rest it in my own palm, studying its simple shape. ‘We feel. We live. We’re animals,’ I say slowly. Ullr smiles and then hugs me. I let him.

The days pass quite swiftly. More Savages cross our path while harvesting or camping but it quickly becomes routine. Even when they increase throughout the day, we still manage to avoid them. We hear them chase down jungle humans, so they become less of a threat. We hear them round up thousands of beasts for slaughter. If the Shamans are their main problem, I don’t know why they think killing every living thing will help. We get about a week’s worth of harvesting done which means, even with our depleted hunting force, we’re able to catch up with our supplies. The summer is coming to an end and the Savages have either killed everything they’ve wanted to kill or given up trying to find more humans. On one particular day, the hunters that are supposedly best at sensing Savage tracks, decide that the Savages must have retreated completely. The ‘end of The Hunt siren’ hasn’t officially gone off but they usually thin out by the time the nights start creeping closer in.
              ‘A couple more days of meat collection and we should be set to head home,’ says Morga at the red fire that morning. Some of us sit and eat a small breakfast of blackcurrants and flying squirrel meat.
              ‘It’s moments like this that I start to miss our fallen,’ says Byt. She’s always had that side to her. A heart.
              ‘I know what you mean,’ I say. ‘I kind of wish Brax was here. He always added a bit of spice to my day. Zilo too.’
              ‘I still can’t believe Zilo killed himself to try and impress me,’ says Byt.
              ‘Well… it wasn’t just that,’ says Ullr. ‘I still feel awful after what I said to him.’
              ‘Don’t dwell on it.’ Wo pats him on the shoulder. ‘Anyone might have said something similar. He was a feeble chap but he pulled through in the end and saved many of our lives.’
              ‘What did you say?’ asks Sile.
              ‘I called him a coward. It was stupid of me, really,’ says Ullr. I give him a little supportive smile.
              ‘Huh…’ says Peren. I notice Ullr instantly prickle up.
              ‘I still can’t believe he thought of me as attractive…’ says Byt in the background as I watch Ullr glare at Peren while he eats a couple of berries.
              ‘Oh how could anyone not find you attractive?!’ proclaims Morga.
              ‘What was that supposed to mean?’ Ullr growls through gritted teeth. I want to tell Ullr to let it go.
              Peren looks up. ‘Oh… no, nothing,’ he says, trying to brush it off.
              ‘No, no, you obviously meant something by that. Want to clarify?’ Ullr crosses his arms. I don’t think I’ve seen him this annoyed. Maybe it’s touching on what they fought about in the past.
              ‘Well… I don’t know,’ Peren chuckles. ‘I guess I just thought it was only me you were hostile to. I suppose I’m not the only one who gets your poison tongue.’
              The circle goes quiet.
              ‘Oh yeah, no, you’re right. Gosh, horrible me sending people to their graves, eh? At least I don’t leave a whole village of humans to die when I swore to protect them! Or would I? I’m so selfish, right?’ Ullr spits the last words.
              Peren’s face turns cold. ‘No… you’re not selfish at all Ullr,’ he says. ‘I think you take a page too many out of Zilo’s book.’
              Ullr looks like he’s about to pounce.
              ‘Okay, that’s enough now folks,’ says Byt.
              Sile interrupts, clearly not getting the vibe that the whole thing should be dropped. ‘What do you mean, a page of Zilo’s book?’ she asks.
              ‘Byt said that’s enough!’ Morga expresses forcefully.
              Peren doesn’t listen either. ‘Oh, you know, Ullr wanting Ori to fuck him because he’s so in love… but he doesn’t even have the balls to admit it.’ Peren flares his eyes at Ullr.
              I don’t think the sentence fully pieces together in my head. All I can do is stare at them both. Ullr flips and leaps in Peren’s direction faster than any animal I’ve seen. They both slam to the floor, blood already spurting out of gashes on both of their bodies. Morga and Byt dive in to break them apart. Byt grabs Ullr and Morga pulls Peren away. They continue to glare at each other, breathing heavily. Ullr spits blood into the fire which sizzles, it being the only sound. Wo touches his shoulder to try and calm him down but he flinches away, looks at me once, with an enraged expression still on his face, and walks off into the jungle. Wo runs off after him. Everyone looks at me and my heart and stomach sink to the lowest point. I look at Peren, wiping blood from his nose.
              ‘I should have let you die,’ I say. He looks shocked by my comment but I walk off into a separate part of the jungle before anything else can occur. Everyone else is wise enough not to follow me.

I head towards the banana trees. To clear my head. My knees begin to wobble. I imagine Ullr standing before me. He’s just the same old Ullr. Handsome, of course. I’m not blind. He’s always made me feel comfortable. The imaginary Ullr smiles at me, dimples in his cheeks. I imagine him in the river, trying to lure me as Varia always did. Droplets of water in his hair, like she always had. The slight slant of his eyes as though he’s always worried about something. The broadness of his shoulders. Varia had always been so slender and slim, with bright eyes and long, long hair. Yet as I see it now, Varia and Ullr could be the same human. Two very different humans standing in front of me as one, beckoning me to follow them. I don’t know why I’m picturing it. I hate it. The very thought makes me sick to my stomach. I stop imagining it. I need to see him in the flesh. If it were even true, it’s not like it’s rare. I’d often had my suspicions about Morga and Byt. But Ullr? He’s always been the heartthrob of females. He’s always been my best friend. Nothing more. I wouldn’t even care if he did prefer males. But me? Why would he even think that? Why would Peren even say that? It just doesn’t make sense. I don’t want to process it anymore. I need to talk to him. Peren must have been lying. It isn’t true.
              I head back to camp.

When I arrive, the air seems a lot quieter than before. The red flames have almost burned out and only a couple of hunters are still seated on the logs. Where would Ullr and Wo have gone? I can’t linger or it might get harder to talk to him. I walk through the outer trees of our clearing and start to wander in the direction of the cart.
              A shimmer catches my eye. A shimmer in the opposite trees. I’ve seen that shimmer before. They’ve found us.
              I hardly have time to shout. They pour in from all sides. Savages mounted on Keshies. Houndlings tripping over each other. Piercing shrieks. I hear Morga shout some commands as the rest of the camp scampers in all directions. I can’t see Ullr. The two hunters by the fire are sliced in half by a Savage’s blade. I see Sile get shot through her skull by another Savage’s popping stick. I try to run around the edge of the jungle, watching the massacre. I need to find Ullr. I can’t run off without him. Not now. I can’t see Wo. The last of the fleeing hunters are killed instantly. I only notice a couple of lucky humans that managed to escape. I can’t imagine they’ll last very long.
              Please don’t let them have caught him. Please.

Orion’s Hunt – Chapter XVIII

We march forwards over the flats of scorching stone, slowly descending. It’s like a giant staircase, each step being miles wide, and each step being hotter and with more lava. I can already see the forest of the Metall trees. We’ve always assumed that is where the Savages get their substances from, although we’ve never seen it get any smaller, which it would have to have done with the amount of metal they use. I wouldn’t call it a forest either. Even at this distance, I can see every individual, leafless, spiky, incredibly tall tree. They’re hardly trees at all. More like charred bone creatures waiting to die. Cheery, I know.

Barely alive, only the most resilient plants reside here. I’m starting to wonder whether the ingredients are worth this. The heat is already getting to me. My eyes feel dry from the heat. Ullr is struggling too, though he’s trying to hide it. Sile decides to stop for a moment, put her storage bag to one side and take a breather. Yuk heads over to a lava river to pick up a few weeds that look poisonous. I decide to go and help him. The jungle already looks too far away to run for it. I would die before I got there whilst sprinting. The ash collects in my mouth so I have to keep spitting. Ullr and Sile have decided to start arguing about something already.
              ‘I don’t think we’ll make it back home this year,’ says Yuk miserably.
              ‘Maybe you won’t,’ I say bitterly and leave him to it. I’ve always been great at making friends.
              We continue closer to the Metall trees, the hours slipping by. A new magma pond has formed since the last visit, according to Sile. She orders Yuk and Ullr to start hacking away at small black stones that support a larger boulder. Sile and I climb up a ridge and push from the other side. It tumbles down and splashes into the lava, making us all jump back. The ripples seem to go on for longer than they should. We carefully step onto our newly formed bridge. We make it to the middle before we realise that the pond is still rippling. From the depths of the lava, a giant dragon-like creature emerges. I can’t tell what it is. The lava is still running from its scales. It shakes the excess lava and crusting rock off its face. My whole body turns cold, which would usually be impossible with this heat. It’s a Salamander. A giant fire-resistant lizard. It towers over us like one of the metal skyscrapers in the Silver City.
              Its long, thick tail throws lava at us. A huge amount of it hits Yuk. He screams as his face rips away from his body and falls into the lake. Sile grabs his satchel and makes a run for it, shouting at us to follow. I dodge another wave of lava and melting rocks. A drop hits Ullr on his ankle. He screams in pain and hobbles across the rocks towards us. Sile reaches the far side and holds her hands out for us to jump. The Salamander dives beneath the lava and instantly shoots back up again, trying to swallow both us and the boulder in one mouthful. We jump just in time to the other side as the bridge gets consumed by the giant fangs of our predator. I drag Ullr behind me and we both just miss the edge of the lake. The Salamander slides out of the lava and begins to pursue us. Even with his injury, Ullr and I are faster than the lumbering monster. After a few minutes, it roars and then creeps back into its pit.
              ‘We’ll take a different route back, I think,’ says Sile. We don’t disagree.

We reach the foliage area in a matter of an hour and Sile starts collecting as many herbs and other plants as she can. There are some red petal flowers in a row, almost like someone has placed them there on purpose. She gathers copious amounts of these to brew into the Red Queller. Now with two bags to fill, we leave her to it and I tend to Ullr’s wound. It was only a droplet but his skin has burned away in a perfect circle on his foot. I drop some of the water from Sile’s satchel and it releases a load of steam. Ullr yelps but as soon as the mist clears, the skin has already started to grow back. The burn mark might stay for a while but at least it will make a good story. We were almost devoured by seventeen dragons! The details don’t have to be accurate, of course.
              We head away from Sile to explore, figuring she’ll be able to take care of herself for a little while. We go into the scarce few Metall trees that grow on their own. We daren’t make it any closer to the Metall forest. Only the gods and the Savages know what lurks in there. Ullr’s foot still hurts a great deal as he keeps reminding me. A large black owl sits in one of the branches. It looks like it has fangs. We decide not to disturb it. All around, red rock and lava tumble over the horizon. We can barely even see that there is a jungle behind us anymore. We keep checking on Sile as she busily runs around, collecting what I can only assume is a year’s worth of all the herbs we’ll need from this region. My feet become too hot and we decide to sit in one of the branches. Ullr winces as he fiddles with his foot.
              ‘Leave it alone,’ I say.
              ‘It just itches so bad,’ he says.
              ‘That’s why you need to leave it alone. Sile said you might lose your foot if you scratch. I don’t know what the fuck she puts in that healing water.’
              ‘Probably tiger testicles and buffalo heart.’
              ‘Yes, Ullr. Probably those things.’ For the first time in a long while, I put my arm around his shoulders. It’s nothing new, but I don’t show physical affection that often. I think with everything that’s happened this year, he deserves it. I can honestly say, it’s not been the worst Hunt, but it’s usually a lot easier than this. We’ve lost half the pack, probably forever.
              Ullr hands me a black apple. ‘Fancy a bite? It’s safe,’ he says.
              ‘You know me too well,’ I say, biting into the apple without any hesitation. The apple flesh is grey. It’s odd eating a food that tastes the same but looks so different. In fact, I think these apples might be juicier.
              ‘Don’t eat too many,’ Sile shouts, whizzing by to collect a few of them. My appetite disappears.

Sile leads us to a stone circle with a few short trees circling it. They have leaves but they’re blood red. It’s like a grove. Only small berries grow on them but Sile says they’re not to even go near. Just a touch can send you mad. I notice a skeleton of a human half buried in the red sand that is scattered around the rocks. Lovely. Sile gets her sickle out again and starts crawling on the ground, collecting more strange coloured and shaped vegetation. A group of wolves, that have obviously adapted to the heat try to attack Sile but Ullr and I dispatch them with ease, Ullr shooting his arrows and me twirling my spear like a fan in the Silver City vents. I don’t think Sile even realised they were there. Their fur is tinted orange and their claws are far bigger than the forest wolves. The pads on their feet are like durable stone. They’re obviously not used to battling humans. It was almost unfair.
              Sile lastly takes us to a small cave with trickling lava coming out of the walls. Ullr and I pass the time jumping up and shredding fire bats to pieces with our fingers before they can attack Sile. After we’re sure we’ve wiped out an entire population, we sit by the magma river, watching our flickering shadows on the walls. Ullr, taking care of the packed satchel, rummages around in it.
              ‘I don’t think you’re supposed to do that, babe. Remember when you thought those blue flowers were okay to fiddle with?’ I say.
              ‘That was a simple mistake, Ori. I doubt Sile would pick anything that was going to try and eat me.’
              ‘I would,’ I say and he gives me a look.
              ‘I just wanted to find this,’ he says, holding his hand out. I look down into his palm and see a small damaged coin. One half depicting the sun and the other, the moon.
              ‘Oh, cool,’ I say, staring at it blankly. ‘What is it?’
              ‘It’s a Sheian coin. See? It has the markings of the creation gods.’
              ‘Cute. Where’d you get it?’
              ‘In the market, on the day we left. I kept meaning to give it to you.’
              ‘Wait, it’s for me?’
              ‘Well, yeah,’ he says, dropping it into my palm.
              ‘Why?’
              ‘I don’t know. I was looking at all the trinkets around your neck and I guess I just realised that you didn’t have anything… from me. Ugh, I don’t know. I thought maybe if I died out here this year, you’d have something that you could use to tell stories about me.’
              I stare at him for a second. ‘You do realise that every single trinket on this necklace has your name on it. It’s always been us as a team. You really think I wouldn’t tell stories about you?’ I ask and he shrugs. ‘But anyway… thank you. For this. Here,’ I say, splitting the sun from the moon. I hand over the sun piece. ‘Fitting.’
              Ullr smiles. ‘Thanks.’ We place our new trophies on our necklaces.
              ‘Right! Time to go,’ yells Sile from the darkness. ‘Thanks for the protection you two. Carry these for me?’ She throws the second satchel at me.

Having come so far out, I don’t even realise we take the detour back. It’s only when I spot the jungle wall in the distance that I look around to see the lava pond and the Salamander attacking another group of humans in the far distance. I wonder who they are. Probably other herb collectors from different packs and tribes. Rest in peace. Sile starts talking about how much she secretly hated Yuk.
              ‘He was so imperious. Always acted like he knew more than me. Well, I guess I know how to survive better than he does,’ she laughs.
              As we get closer to the jungle, I spot Savages skimming the outer edge. They seem to be chasing something. My heart sinks. A couple of humans trip over one of their zapping wires and the Savages crowd around the shaking bodies. Both humans look like fine prizes for their Silver Hall. They pick them up by their hair. I hear their ferocious clicking from here. They shine some sort of light into the eyes of the humans. They slit the throat of the male and throw him to the ground. They shove the female in a little cage carried by a Keshie.
              ‘What was that about?’ asks Ullr.
              ‘I guess they’re collecting Shamans out here too,’ says Sile.
              ‘I still don’t really understand what the Shamans are,’ I say.
              ‘With the amount of destruction going on, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Shamans had scattered to the four winds,’ she replies, mainly talking to herself. ‘I’m sure the camp will be fine but we’d better get back there as soon as we can. Come on, I know a shortcut.’

I know a shortcut. I should have been wiser to that phrase. Ullr was good at using that one. We had begun confidently striding through the jungle, heading northwest towards the path we came from but it has quickly disintegrated. The vegetation gradually gets thicker.
              ‘Should we go back?’ asks Ullr.
              ‘I think we might have to,’ replies Sile. We begin to head back, following the heat and smoke once again but even that starts to disappear.
              ‘I don’t think we’re going the right way. The jungle is too dense here,’ I say.
              ‘Well we’re definitely going east so I don’t know what to say,’ says Sile nervously. The branches of the trees start to curl inwards as we duck and skip over other obstacles. Thorns and brambles begin to creep towards us as well. We try to backtrack to find an easier way around but it only gets worse.
              ‘What’s happening?’ Ullr pants, slicing through a thick thorn branch with the bladed ends of his bow. The trees and bushes get thicker and thicker until we can hardly move. I notice a small cave buried under weeds and brambles and suggest we hide there for the night. The other two decide it’s the best plan we’ve got. We sit silently for a while, watching as dusk starts to fall.
              ‘You’ve gone through this part of the jungle loads of times. What happened to your shortcut Si?’ Ullr asks eventually.
              ‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘The jungle has never done that before. I have a feeling there was something more to it. Something didn’t feel natural.’
              ‘You mean it might be a Savage trap?’ I grumble.
              ‘No. The Savages might be devilishly clever, but they can’t outsmart us here.’
              ‘Jungle humans?’ asks Ullr.
              ‘Again, far too stupid for something like that.’
              ‘Maybe you’re just being conceited,’ I blurt out accidentally, receiving a glare from Sile.
              ‘I know how survival works in this part of the jungle, Ori. The trees should never be this close.’
              ‘Well, what else could it be?’ I ask, already knowing.
              Sile opens her mouth to answer but something outside beats her to it. Two very bright and very menacing looking eyes light up in the bushes. They’re looking straight at us. At first, I think it’s some sort of wolf. A rather big one at that. I prepare myself to fight for my life, for the millionth time. Instead, a human steps forward. Her eyes die down into regular looking eyes, if there’s really a ‘regular’ to anything. She looks young. Far too young to be out in the jungle on her own, although the glowing eyes make me wary, knowing that Shamans could be nearby. She’s probably about twelve or thirteen. She has jet black hair, rolling down her back. It seems to be platted and styled. I instantly think she might be from the Silver City but that wouldn’t make any sense either. Lastly, instead of wearing nothing but skin and a necklace, like the rest of us, she has cloth draped over her.
              ‘What are you doing in my jungle?’ she says. She’s almost too sweet to be afraid of but there’s something not quite right about her. Her hair is too neat and her face is too clean for a feral.
              ‘We’re lost,’ I say. ‘We came from the fire lands.’
              ‘Liar,’ she says softly. ‘Your camp is not far from here.’
              ‘Yeah, that’s where we’re going…’ says Ullr dryly. The girl moves her eyes from me to Ullr and looks him up and down.
              ‘Mm. Fine. I shall lead you to your camp and let you pack up and leave in peace,’ she says.
              ‘Uh, thank you,’ says Sile, appearing to be more confused than afraid.
              ‘One condition. You pay me,’ says the girl.
              ‘With what? We have herbs, meat, fruit,’ Sile offers, now starting to show her fear.
              ‘Oh no. I can get any of those at any time. I want something special. Something rare. Something perfected,’ she grins.
              ‘We don’t have anything of that value,’ says Ullr.
              ‘You don’t think much of your little friend, do you?’ she says. ‘Give me this one and I shall let you two go free.’ She points to me.
              ‘Excuse me?’ I ask.
              ‘Oh don’t play the fool,’ she laughs.
              ‘I love that she thinks I’m only playing a fool,’ I mutter to Ullr.
              ‘Well, you do it very convincingly,’ he responds.
              ‘I’m taking lessons from you. Why is she laughing like we’re supposed to understand when we obviously don’t?’
              ‘Not sure. Maybe it’s a mountain thing. All that thin air…’
              The girl starts seething and interjects. ‘Those mountain numbskulls can inject all the black liquid they want but the purest of us all were made by the Naj’ra, don’t you agree?’ she says, looking at me.
              ‘Okay, I have no idea what any of those words meant, but alright,’ I say. Sile looks at me like she’s begging me not to anger the girl.
              ‘I’ve had enough of this,’ the girl snaps. ‘You’re coming with me and if you two want to return to your sad little camp, you won’t try to stop me.’ She marches towards me, which is when my fear kicks in as well. If she feels she can intimidate me this easily, she obviously has the ability to take me with her.
              ‘Too bad,’ says Ullr, raising his bow.
              The girl smiles. ‘Excellent.’ Her eyes blaze up again and this time, they’re a red colour mixed with black and sparkles. We don’t really think about what we’re about to do but there’s hardly any other options right now. Ullr and I both lunge at her. She sidesteps out of our way, almost too easily. Then she roars. Not a human roar, either. The roar of a fully-grown bear. I whirl around and instead of seeing the girl, I see possibly the biggest bear I’ve ever laid eyes on. Either the girl transformed into this bear or it managed to creep up on us and scoff her down in a matter of a second, which honestly wouldn’t surprise me. Unfortunately, the bear opens its mouth again and this time, the girl’s voice comes out of it. As much as I’d find comedic satisfaction in the girl talking from the bear’s stomach, I should think realistically, which isn’t easy.
              ‘It’s a shame, really. Your friend is quite attractive.’ She throws a massive bear arm out and grabs Ullr around his waist. I can see the claws sinking into his sides already. He starts thrashing and yelping. She brings him to her mouth and is about to bite down on his head.
              I can’t even think. It’s all happening so fast. Instead of trying to help, I do the reasonable thing and close my eyes. If I can’t see it, it’s not real. Ullr can’t die. He just can’t. A fury burns deep down in my body. I can feel every single sinew of my muscles tremble with anger. Twenty years we’ve survived in the Wild, avoiding every threat and now it’s all over. Memories of Ullr flash in my mind. I feel every hair on top of my head start to tingle. I scream. I don’t know why. Ullr’s probably already dead. Sile is probably still cowering in the cave entrance. But I scream anyway.

I can’t even tell how much time has passed but I open my eyes, expecting to see Ullr’s mangled body and the Shaman girl/bear waiting for me to make a move. To my utter surprise, I see Ullr kneeling in front of me. Sile is standing there too. The thick foliage has already started to thin. They are both staring at me. Their facial expressions are ones I’ve never seen before. I’ve seen confusion and I’ve seen fear, but this is pure terror.
              ‘W-what… Uh, what did you do?’ Ullr says, staring at the ground and then back at me. I look at the floor and see a perfect circle of blood with a black marble effect running through it.
              ‘What happened?’ I ask. ‘Where did she go?’
              Ullr and Sile are still watching me, obviously waiting for some explanation. I have none to give.
              ‘You… you don’t know what you just did?’ asks Sile.
              ‘I didn’t do anything,’ I say. I tread over to Ullr to try and see his wounds but he shifts away from me.
              ‘Ori…’ he says. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
              ‘Tell you what?’ I exclaim, my annoyance starting to seep through. It’s pretty clear I haven’t the foggiest idea what they’re on about.
              ‘I guess that’s what she meant about perfection and purity,’ Sile says to herself, trying her best to inspect the circle of blood without getting too close to me.
              ‘What?’ I repeat.
              ‘You’re serious? You’re telling me you don’t actually know what you just did?’ says Ullr.
              ‘That’s correct,’ I say calmly, trying my best not to get unfairly angry with all the emotions still coursing through my body. ‘Care to explain?’
              ‘That beam of light,’ he says, now looking at the blood too. ‘It came from you. It just… melted her. She didn’t even have time to scream. She just… melted.’
              ‘It’s a power I’ve never seen before,’ says Sile.
              ‘You’re saying I just used powers?’ I scoff.
              ‘Well, you’ve always been secretive,’ says Ullr.

Orion’s Hunt – Chapter XVII

Peren screams. Another javelin hits my right calf. A shooting pain ripples through my leg, pelvis, and my chest. I feel like I’ve been hit in several places. I lay back, waiting for something to finally kill me, hoping that it will be quick. All I can hear is Peren whimpering. The pack below seem to be doing all they can to shoot down the eyes in the trees. They begin to drop down. I know they’re human, but they’ve mutilated their bodies in such a way that they look more like fish hybrids. An arrow slices the ropes that hold us up. We plummet to the ground. I twist my body so I land on the injuries, hoping that will kill me. It doesn’t. Instead, I think I scream. Loud. But I don’t hear anything.
              One of the two remaining Druids comes over and starts to tend to me and Peren. I let her. I really don’t think she will help at this point. I look to my right and see Ullr kneeling beside me. I suppose it’s nice that he cares enough to see if I’m still alive. I try to smile but it’s probably just a scowl. Morga and the others are shooting down the jungle humans, their bodies dropping from the canopy like ripe fruit. I watch as they bounce a little when they hit the ground. That makes me smile. Morga shoots another arrow at a net the holds up more survivors. She yells something at Ullr. I know it’s too late. Even in my half-dead state, I can sense Savages on the move. They’re already here. They’ve already found us. We’re all dead now.

✽✽✽

I see the eyes in the dark branches, watching me.
I see them blow up the mountain.
I see them in the alleyways of the Silver City.
I see them in the corner of my hut back at home.
They all say the same thing.
They all know the truth.
There is no escape.

✽✽✽

‘You’re awake,’ says Ullr quietly.
              ‘What?’ I say.
              ‘The jungle humans had built a hidden village here,’ he says. ‘They’re gone now.’
              ‘Dead?’ I ask.
              ‘There wasn’t many of them. Probably leftovers from a bigger village that was destroyed by the Savages. We lost a couple of our hunters in the process but now we’ve got our good stronghold, we should be able to harvest and then head back in a month.’
              I look around.
              ‘Peren?’ I say. Ullr’s shoulders drop. I figure from this reaction that Peren has been killed.
              ‘Over there,’ he says.
              I look over to a very happy, healthy Peren talking to a couple of lake humans. Not dead, then.
              Morga comes over. ‘How are you?’ she says.
              ‘Fine,’ I reply, croakily.
              ‘You took quite a blow. A poison javelin. Nasty stuff. Luckily the Druids were able to heal you. They’ll need more fire plants before we go, though. Perhaps you two would like to accompany them?’
              ‘Sure,’ says Ullr, but I’m not.
              After the rest of the hunters have realised I’m awake, I find out I’ve been passed out for over 24 hours. Ullr seems to have forgotten that he doesn’t want to talk to me and has returned to his annoying self. He gets a bit on edge whenever I talk to Peren but apart from that, we’re pretty much back to normal. Perhaps the fact that I almost died put his pettiness into reality. I decide not to mention anything about being ready to die. I’ve always found the concept rather hilarious but Ullr gets upset. I can’t be bothered to ask him about what happened with Peren. I don’t want to ruin our friendship again and it was probably something stupid. For the next week, Ullr and I don’t leave each other’s side as usual. We go on every hunt together and gather as much meat and fruit as we can. Morga has learnt from her mistake of putting Ullr and Peren together. When she must, she makes sure I’m there as well. She must know I’m somewhat of a peacekeeper.

We find ourselves stalking a bunch of capybaras. The second largest rodent. The largest are giant rats you can find in the grasslands and mountains. Quite rare but extremely terrifying… apparently.
              Peren has guided the herd into a funnel trap and Ullr and I have used the old jungle human nets to our advantage. Peren leaps out from the bushes and heads straight into the herd. A bunch of them start bucking and I’m afraid that he might get kicked in the mouth. I am wrong. The man can move like I’ve never seen, twisting and dodging like an eel out of the water. His swimming skills must have made his body very supple. The capybaras head right into our net traps. Ullr and I drop the boulders down from the trees. The vines attached to them spring tight and the capybaras go flying up into the air, squeaking.
              ‘Nice!’ shouts Peren.
              ‘Let’s make this quick,’ I say.
              We use our newly forged bows and arrows from Peren and aim for their hearts. Clean deaths and lots of meat for the day. We use the freshening concoction made by the Druids to keep the meat as good as new all year long and then take a detour through an orchard. The banana trees make an adorable little world of their own, with the thin leaves creating a green light that shines down on a spongy floor. Hundreds of bananas litter the mile-wide area. We decide to take the yellow ones from the ground. The green ones taste horrible, so I leave those.
              ‘It’s because they’re not ripe yet,’ says Peren.
              ‘Oh, yeah I know,’ I lie.
              ‘We make quite a team,’ says Peren. Ullr smiles at this. For once, they might actually get along. I use one of the empty nets to grab as many bananas as I can. They smell so good, I can’t stop myself from eating a couple. I notice Ullr and Peren talking. I have no idea what about but they don’t seem to be clawing at each other, so it can’t be bad.

When we arrive on the main path back to camp, I feel the tremors again. Ullr stops too. Peren decides now would be a good time to start whistling. We duck down into a bush, dragging Peren with us. The Savages pass not too far away. We hear their cackling and shrieking from here. I look over and see Peren shielding Ullr, which is my job, but I daren’t say anything. Now that I’ve seen how Peren can move, I don’t think I want my own scrap with him. We sprint back to the camp, knowing that the Savages are far away by now, and store the meat and fruit.
              Ullr and I decide to go out on our own. We run through shrubs and swing through the canopy like monkeys. We eventually land on a massive redwood tree. We sit down on the thick branch as though it’s our tree back at home.
              ‘You and Peren seem to be getting along,’ I say.
              Ullr tenses up. ‘Yeah…’ he mumbles.
              ‘Why’d you fight in the first place? You willing to tell me yet?’
              ‘It was stupid. I didn’t want to drag you into it,’ he says, climbing to the next branch up. I watch as the muscles in his back contract and relax as he pulls himself upwards.
              ‘Hey,’ I say, following him, ‘if it was bad enough to actually go at each other like that then I want to know.’
              ‘He was… he kept teasing me about my bond with you. I don’t know, I just got mad. You’re all I have and I got angry when he started making out it was something different.’
              ‘Oh…’ I say. ‘Well, that’s not stupid.’
              ‘I know. I just didn’t want to admit to you, or myself, really, that I’m jealous and overprotective.’
              ‘Jealous?’ I snort. Ullr looks away from me which is my queue to shut up and drop the subject.
              We watch the sun go down over the tree tops. It’s a beautiful scene. Orange light floods the foliage and creates an ocean of sparkles, which sounds incredibly cheesy in my head but I don’t even care. I feel safe, somehow. Rain clouds begin to shroud over but I’d be glad to see rainfall again. Moments like this really take me back to the Wild days. It makes me think. Times really have changed since then. The world seems to make sense, even if only a little. I’ve begun to care about more people than just myself, which is a shocker. Even my friendship with Ullr has changed. I’m not even sure how. It’s not like we’ve become closer over the past couple of years, but something has changed. Maybe I changed. For the better, I hope.

‘Ullr! Ori! Guide the Druids into the fire lands. It’s quite a hike but I give you two permission to take a break from gathering. We’ll need the ingredients from there far more than we’ll need the meat. I’m sure if we work extra hard here, it won’t be too much of a loss,’ instructs Morga.
              ‘We have the lake humans to help. I’m sure they’ll know a trick or two that we don’t,’ says Byt.
              Peren smiles. The two Druids, as I finally found out are named Sile and Yuk, gather up a few bags and gesture that they’re ready. They don’t talk much and both look very similar, with short golden hair and stern faces. We creep through miles of the jungle before they say two words.
              ‘Careful,’ says the female Druid, Sile, holding her hand up to make us halt. ‘Morga warned that mountain humans might have fled as far as here. Without her to protect us, who knows what they might do.’ I look carefully to see what she’s staring at. A parrot in a far-off tree is watching us. It has white eyes.
              ‘I’ve heard they can control animals. Some of them can, anyway,’ says Yuk.
              ‘Control animals?’ mouths Ullr, which tempts me to ask him a question when we start to move again.
              ‘You know what bugs me?’ I say to him.
              ‘Quite a few things I would imagine,’ he says. ‘What’s wrong this time?’
              I shoot him a look. ‘The fact that you saw something properly horrifying in that laboratory and now you don’t even remember. The fog made us forget what we saw, but it made you forget why you were searching that place to begin with. What else have you forgotten?’
              ‘I don’t know. I can’t remember.’ He furrows his brow.
              ‘Very good. It just seems strange. I wonder if I’ve forgotten any previous knowledge.’
              ‘Well, you’re good at acting like you know everything.’
              ‘Would you please take this seriously?’ I say.
              ‘No, I won’t. There’s no point. All I ever remember from that place is being confused and scared. I wanted answers but I knew I wouldn’t like it. At least now, life is simpler. What would we do even if we knew exactly what was going on? Hm?’
              ‘Something,’ I say.
              Ullr rolls his eyes. ‘Just don’t do anything stupid.’
              ‘You’re one to talk,’ I say back. He smirks and then strides off into the large orange flowers that grow near the edge of the jungle, which means we’re almost at the lava lands. I watch as he pushes the massive petals out of his way. They brush against his thighs and waist. The sun, bursting through the trees, shines on his hair and shoulders, illuminating them. He is a whole person. A whole living thing that I care about. I can’t control what he does, but I would do just about anything to keep him safe. It’s such a strange concept. A whole other human. He could do anything, go anywhere, yet he chooses to stick by me. I wouldn’t have done.

We wander at night as the density of the jungle starts to thin. The trees start to part. The bushes begin to dwindle. The floor flattens from a rich bouncy surface into a hard and sticky rock. The blue rays of the moon leave us as they dare not tread where we’re going. An orange glow from the lava reaches through the now bare branches of the trees, if you could even call them trees. They look more like skeletons. The heat intensifies. The sounds of the animals fade as the roaring of fire and spewing lava become louder. It is a vast empty chasm of flames. It goes on so far, that even I can’t see the end of it. Maybe it just keeps going until the edge of the world.

Orion’s Hunt – Chapter XVI

We passed The Church of Spikes, not even wanting to get close.
              ‘Here’s a clever idea,’ I said to Ullr, ‘why don’t you go exploring in there.’ He ignored me as though he thought he was in charge of this expedition. His idea or not, I was always in charge. The Church of Spikes was a temple to whatever twisted metal deity the Daydwellers prayed to, or so we assumed. The outside was a dome covered in spikes, which is how we gave it the name. Like a tortoise shell with a million needles sticking out, pointy side up. What made it clear that humans weren’t allowed near it was the fact that almost every spike had a section of a human body impaled onto it.
              Before we got to the ‘restricted area’, we also passed a well-known torture chamber for Daydwellers to experiment on a variety of different animals. We simply called it The Theatre of Bodies. I can’t even remember who came up with these names. I always hated them. They were too pretentious in my opinion. A lot of squeals and screams could be heard from in The Theatre of Bodies. It was a huge metal box. Bigger than some of the towers. It lay adjacent to the far end of the zoo and all I knew is that anything that ever went in there never came back out again. There were silent streets at that point. Nothing moved. Not even the air. Only a thick layer of grease seemed to linger. Just breathing made me feel unclean.
              ‘Why are we here?’ I asked Ullr.
              ‘I want to see. I need to see,’ he answered.
              ‘See what?’
              I really hated when Ullr was in a skittish mood. He’d ignore my important questions and statements. He climbed through an old smashed window of one of the larger box buildings. Inside it was a labyrinth of long tunnels. The floor, ceiling, and walls were all made from meshed vents. We snuck through, knowing that one loud footstep could make us detectable. We kept passing squares of light but Ullr didn’t stop. He seemed to know where he was going. Eventually, we got to a glass window. We were above a particular room. We saw the Daydwellers inside, looking savage and evil, clicking to communicate, tapping on the flesh of a deceased human. They walked out of the room together, buzzing their weird language.
              ‘Follow me,’ he whispered to me.
              ‘No,’ I said sharply, but I did anyway.
              We crept over the wet floor, trying to make out what was illuminating the room with a red light. We went over to the big glass tubes and my whole body turned to ice. Inside, were half humans. My first thought was that they were doing some kind of experiment on decapitated human bodies. After a minute of staring, I realised there were no wounds. No signs of death. These bodies were being made. Many pipes were pumping different liquids into the glass containers. One of them immediately caught my eye. A pitch-black liquid, darker than anything I’d ever seen. I could almost feel my eyesight disappearing as I looked at it. Within it, sparkling dots were twirling around like they were alive. The black liquid seemed to be going in a different direction to the other assorted colours. It was being extracted from a sleeping human… or a dead body. I didn’t particularly want to know which.
              ‘It can’t be…’ said Ullr, standing perfectly still, staring at something out of my eye line.
              ‘What?’ I asked him, still glancing back at the black liquid.
              ‘You… You’re…’
              ‘I’m what?’
              Before he answered, the metal doors whizzed open again. The Daydwellers saw us. They whirred and screeched before reaching for some metal cylinders. We dived into the shadows under anything that could hide us. A very thick layer of yellow clouds invaded the room. As soon as I inhaled it, I began to feel dreary. I leapt up and scrabbled through the glass window and back through the vents. I didn’t even check to see if Ullr was behind me. When I got back to our entrance, I waited a couple of minutes. I heard something coming down the vents but I was now struggling to keep my eyes open. Daydwellers barged their way out of a side door, instantly turning to me. I watched as their long, spiky fingers stretched out towards me before it all went black.

All I know is that they didn’t kill me. Neither of us. They made sure we couldn’t walk correctly for a good few weeks, but we weren’t good enough to be killed. They had dumped us in a pit. We discovered what was in the laboratory and all they did was wipe our memories and chuck us away again. I will never understand the importance of it, but apparently, they do. I don’t think I’d care even if it was important.

✽✽✽

As it turns out, Ullr doesn’t remember anything. Not the expedition nor the motivation. I tell him everything about my dream and the memories but he swears he doesn’t recall a thing.
              ‘You’re sure they’re not just dreams?’ he asks. ‘I mean, I once had a dream where this tree would grow beehives but without the bees. Man, the honey tasted so good-’
              ‘No, Ullr. I know it was memories. I just… know.’
              ‘Okay well, there’s no point stressing over it. Brax is dead so it’s not like he can gloat over the fact he was right.’
              ‘I know. It’s just so confusing. If the Savages are trying to kill all of us, why did they make us in the first place?’
              ‘For fun, I suppose.’
              We walk in silence for a moment, hoping the edge of the jungle will appear in our view.
              ‘The honey tree sounds good,’ I say.
              ‘Hey, you can keep all the mushrooms if I can keep the honey.’
              ‘Just don’t get yourself stung this time.’ I punch his shoulder and he punches me back. Physical connection doesn’t seem so strange to me when it’s Ullr. I start to feel a little more normal, but a tingle fizzes through my body, up my spine, into my skull, and I realise something. Morga has been lying to me.
              I walk over to her. ‘You knew, didn’t you?’ I say to her.
              She looks at me, surprised at how I’m addressing her. ‘Knew what, Ori?’ she replies, looking through the dusty air for signs of the jungle.
              ‘You knew we were made by the Savages. You had to have known. Tir said you never told us anything.’
              ‘That’s enough,’ she stops me. ‘What difference does it make? You’re here. You’re alive. You’re human. Who cares where you came from? Maybe I should have told you… but I’ve always done what I thought was best for the pack. Knowing you came from unnatural birth would have messed with you, Ori. I couldn’t have that. You’re one of my best hunters and…’ she looks around like she’s hoping no one hears what she’s about to say, ‘a friend.’
              I’m honestly a little shocked to hear her use such a word used to describe me.
              ‘Oh,’ I say. ‘You too.’ I can’t tell if I’m lying or not. She doesn’t smile. ‘There’s just one more question I want to know the answer to,’ I half whisper in a serious tone.
              ‘Ugh, what?’ she grunts, obviously annoyed.
              Wo comes up behind us.
              ‘You lived with the Shamans,’ I say. ‘You grew up there, right?’
              ‘Yes?’ says Morga through gritted teeth.
              ‘Where did they come from?’ I ask and Morga slumps her shoulders, brushing some of her wild hair away from her face.
              Wo looks at me, worried. I give her the same look back, knowing we’re just about to hear something possibly world changing.
              ‘The first Shamans who settled in the mountains were also made by the Savages. They made them for their stupid pit and cage fights. Of course, the Savages being power hungry and wanting their new toys to be the best weapons, they made them too powerful. After a bunch of Shamans rebelled against their owners and fought their way out of the city, the Savages stopped production. They moved onto making Ageless humans. The pure, perfected, beautiful specimens but without their powers. Even that failed to begin with. A lot of mistakes were made. Many lives were lost during that time. A lot of blood. More than usual.’
              I don’t say anything in response. Nothing needs to be said. I didn’t think it was possible for the Savages to be even worse. I’m not sure if I should mention any of this to Ullr. He’s always had a strong mind but a weak heart when it comes to facts about the Savages. Wo looks like she’s taken it heavily. I spend the next few hours walking on my own, watching the mud crack beneath my feet. I inhale the dry air and it makes me want to sneeze. The dim shade of green emerges through the dust, but I can’t think of anything else.

Finally, we arrive. The tropical trees make a solid wall into a maze of vegetation. The landscape is like two puzzle pieces that are from separate parts of the same picture. It’s a shock to go from hard mud and prickly grass to lush greenery and humidity. We come to a stop in the middle of hanging vines and large toadstools.
              ‘Now, we would usually get to a clearing of some sort to camp, but seeing as there aren’t many hunters here and we’re all incredibly tired, I suggest we rest here for the night and collect what we can,’ says Morga.
              ‘Don’t forget folks,’ says Byt, ‘the Savages will be more frequent in the jungle, so keep an eye out. It will be vital that we all stay alert.’ As though to prove her point, we hear running and screaming not too far away.
              ‘Oh that reminds me,’ says Morga, ‘the jungle humans really aren’t that friendly.’ She informs Peren and the other lake humans with a small tale of how they roasted some of us alive on one of our first summers.
              We make a small hidden camp and fall asleep without hassle.
              The morning comes and we head back out into the jungle, feeling somewhat refreshed. We have plenty of meat to choose from but we sometimes gather some of the tropical fruits that grow here too, for the sweet-toothed. Ullr being one. I spend my morning picking oranges and grapefruits with Wo.
              We climb the tall rough trunks of the trees and start dropping as many fruits as we can find into animal skin blankets sprawled on the detritus. I can’t see any further into the jungle other than the leaves and vines metres from my nose. It’s so dense. Above, the tops of the trees break open into a clear blue sky. I was relieved to be out of the rain but I could really use some now. The canopy is far higher here than in the Dry Forest. I daren’t climb up anymore without Ullr. He’d probably have a go at me for trying it without him here.
              ‘You and Ullr okay?’ I ask, risking the outcome.
              ‘Yeah. We’ll always be friends. I was just upset to be insulted in that way. If he’d told me straight…’ she says, hanging from a branch in the neighbouring tree.
              ‘I know. He’s not like that. I think I just cornered him about it and he lashed out without realising what he was saying.’
              ‘I made him grovel. It’s fine,’ she laughs.
              ‘I just don’t get why he’s not into you,’ I say, then realising what I’ve said and try to hide my face before I blush.
              ‘Some people have different tastes,’ she says, plucking another orange. This makes me think of Varia and how she preferred me over any other male. That thought still blows my mind. I decide to ask a question I’ve always been too afraid to ask. After what happened at the lake, I’m really not sure how much longer any of us will survive, even with our brilliant surviving techniques.
              ‘What do you remember from the Silver City?’ I ask and Wo literally stops moving.
              ‘I was wondering when that question was going to pop up,’ she sighs. ‘I figured it might soon. I’m surprised you haven’t asked me sooner, but I guess you’ve always been private. I’ve almost cherished the fifteen years I never had to talk about it.’ She takes a breath. ‘All I remember was the cage they kept me in. I must have been in there for… thirty odd years.’
              ‘No, I mean… what’s your earliest memory?’ I ask.
              ‘Oh, um… flesh,’ she says, staring at the orange she’s just plucked. ‘Blood. A whole vat full of bodies, slowly churning. I have no doubt I was meant to be sliced up in there too.’
              ‘You’ve never spoken of this before,’ I say.
              ‘No. What’s the point? They found me and they threw me in a cage. That was my whole life.’
              ‘Why didn’t they just try to kill you again?’ I say and then immediately regret it.
              ‘I don’t know. I don’t even remember how I got out of the zoo. It must have been someone else. I know I didn’t have the strength to do anything like that at the time.’
              I remember visiting the zoo quite often but I know I’d never seen Wo. Perhaps she was in a different section. In fact, before I met Ullr, I used to visit the zoo to see one particular male human, not unlike Ullr, who was Ageless. He had nice eyes, a nice smile, and a pleasant body. He moved around quite smoothly for a human with one leg. I just thought he was beautiful to look at. We never said a word to each other. We couldn’t. He would have been strung up and I would have been seen and probably chased away. Every week, for a while, I’d go and visit him. I wasn’t sure why. His face made me feel happy, like there was a reason to keep on living. The same feeling Ullr gave me after a while. That was until the zoo male was strung up. I had a feeling the Savages knew he was communicating, speechlessly, with street scum. I arrived at his enclosure to see his body suspended in mid-air, bits of string wrapped around his limbs and his torso. I daren’t look at his face again. That’s when I really knew just how attentive the Savages were. They knew what I was doing. They were always watching.
              ‘I know that I wasn’t meant to be alive,’ says Wo, ‘and I think I know why.’
              ‘Oh?’ I say, trying to hide the fact that I’m remembering painful past events.
              ‘What Morga said – about how the Savages went through a trial and error phase trying to make Ageless humans.’
              ‘You think you were one of the faulty ones?’ I ask.
              ‘Maybe. I haven’t a clue. It’s the only explanation I’ve got at the moment. Although, I don’t feel different to the others. I don’t look different, do I?’
              ‘Not at all. You’re just as ugly as the rest of them.’ I smile.
              ‘Yeah, thanks…’
              We spend the rest of the afternoon harvesting far too much fruit and discussing happier subjects, but what she said ticks at the back of my mind. That annoying question popping up with every possible theory – why?

We arrive back at our small temporary camp. I see Ullr sitting just outside the cart entrance. He’s being treated by the two Druids we have left. He has a cut up his arm and a pretty bad black eye. Nothing that won’t heal within a few hours but I still run over to ask what happened.
              ‘Oh, nothing I couldn’t deal with,’ he says, grinning and then wincing.
              ‘Were you two attacked?’ asks Wo. I look around for the other part of the ‘two’.
              ‘You could say that,’ says Ullr.
              I look over to where Wo is staring and see Peren in the same sort of state. ‘Did you two hunt together?’ I ask.
              ‘Had to,’ says Ullr. ‘Morga’s orders.’
              The penny drops. ‘Did you two attack each other?’ I ask. Ullr doesn’t respond.
              I leave Wo to take care of Ullr and go to the cart with the bags of fruit. I decide to tuck into an orange as after picking citrus all day, my mouth craves it. I sink my teeth into its rind and an explosion of sharpness circulates in my mouth. It’s like eating nettles but it’s so delicious, I don’t even care that it stings. I look over at Ullr and he seems to be having a pretty intense discussion with Wo. Almost like he’s welling up. I wander over with a couple of oranges and a grapefruit to share out and notice that they stop talking when I get in earshot. Ullr looks away from me and Wo just smiles, walking over to me and taking the fruit.
              ‘I think he just needs a minute,’ she says.
              Rage blows up inside me. Faster than it ever has before. I feel like screaming at her. At them both. I’m his best friend. I should be comforting him. He should at least have the decency to tell me what happened, but if he can’t be bothered to even look at me, he can go fuck himself. I give Wo a sour expression and go over towards Peren to see how he’s doing instead. I really don’t want to cause an unnecessary drama. There are better things to be angry about.
              ‘Hey! How bad is it?’ I ask.
              ‘Not too bad,’ he says, holding a mending leaf to his eye, ‘I guess you heard what happened.’
              ‘Not the full details but I know you two had a bit of a scrap.’
              ‘I see.’ He falls silent. I notice Ullr side glaring in our direction. I don’t even know what to think. It’s his own problem if he doesn’t like the fact I’m friends with Peren. He can scowl all he wants.
              ‘Why?’ I ask.
              ‘A disagreement,’ says Peren, shortly.
              ‘You’re not going to tell me?’
              ‘It would be best to ask Ullr. I respect him enough for that.’ Peren suddenly winces at a cut in his arm.
              ‘Ouch,’ I say, ‘he really got you.’ I put my arm around his shoulders as I change the healing leaves.
              ‘Well, I really got him too. It was childish of me really,’ he says.

During the night, we creep through the jungle, aiming for our regular camping area. The jungle gets thicker and thicker and I get more and more excited. I love the jungle. It’s so easy to escape from the Savages in here. I don’t even know why they hunt for us amongst the compact greenery. Perhaps the locals are easier to catch. Ullr and Wo don’t try and include me in anything they talk about so I decide to walk with Peren and make sure he’s okay. The injuries have healed rather quickly but they must still be painful. We see the small clearing with a waterhole in the middle that we usually use but something’s different. Something is out of place.
              Vines whip up from the ground and slash me, knocking my spear out of my hands. A hidden net suddenly engulfs me and Peren from the leaves on the ground. We fly into the air, the rope already cutting into my thighs and arms. I look around me as quickly as I can. Some of the other hunters have been caught in similar nets. I hear Ullr shout my name. I see eyes in the trees around us. Peren grips my arm. A javelin plunges right through his shoulder.

Orion’s Hunt – Chapter XV

Byt breaks the shocked silence. ‘It doesn’t concern us, nor will we ever find out what happened, boys, so just calm down and go and find some elk. There’s still enough time.’
                ‘What happened!?’ exclaims Wo, running up to us. Byt groans and wanders off. We’re still a little out of breath from the sprint back down the volcano.
                ‘The mountain. It just blew up,’ Ullr half pants.
                ‘Well, not quite. It was just thrown up into the air like it was on fire from beneath,’ I say.
                ‘That must have been what the second bang was. The mountain crashing back down,’ says Wo.
                Byt waves her hands in a formation, which means ‘look at the sun’, with some kind of expletive after it.

It’s hard to concentrate on your hunting skills when something like that has happened. Ullr manages to focus and shoot a few elk with his bow, while I just stare into nothing, trying to make sense of what was said in the cave and what I just saw. Other hunters keep trying to ask what Ullr and I saw all day. Everyone saw Pok in the sky, but only we saw what happened before and after. I can still only explain it as a sparkling effect. The mountain landed back where it had begun but it crumbled a fair amount. I just can’t imagine the wreckage. Any living thing in a few miles radius of Pok would have been crushed. I wonder if this ‘program’ has anything to do with it.
                Byt tries to keep her cool but I can tell she’s getting twitchy about this, especially without Morga, so she decides to tell us we’re cutting the lake harvest short.
                ‘I want everyone on fishing duty tonight. Get as much as you can and we’ll haul it all back to the cart in the morning. Then we’ll get going.’ No one disagrees. Even Brax has stopped his smug facial expressions. The bang of Mount Pok echoes so much in my head that I drift off into a daze. No memories come back to me. No dreams eat away at the back of my mind.
                ‘So, I hear you had a bit of fun with Ullr on Vulcan today,’ says Peren, behind me.
                ‘Hm? Oh, yeah. Took us by surprise,’ I say, then realising how stupid that sounds.
                ‘It’s a shame you’ll be leaving so early,’ he smiles. For some reason, I really dislike it when other people pine for my attention. I guess it just goes back to all those years in solitude. I was comfortable with it.
                ‘You should join us next year. Up the volcano, I mean. It’s fun,’ I say, now trying to overcompensate. I don’t want him to join us.
                ‘Oh, I don’t know. You two seem pretty tight. I wouldn’t want to intrude.’
                ‘No, it’s fine,’ I say, now wanting him to accept because I’d be insulted if he declined. ‘Ullr wouldn’t mind.’
                ‘I think he would,’ chuckles Peren.
                ‘What makes you say that?’
                ‘He doesn’t like me.’
                ‘He can be that way sometimes. It’s probably not you,’ I say.
                ‘Oh, it is. He told me,’ he says.
                This statement shocks me a little. Ullr has never been one to dislike anyone thoroughly, let alone enough to tell them so. At least not without informing me of it. Maybe it’s because of Peren’s known openness of who he chooses for lovers. It’s not a common thing, with humans being so judgmental when it comes to breeding, so we’ve never met someone as open as Peren before. I sometimes feel a little uncomfortable around him, but I wouldn’t go as far as telling him I dislike him. I don’t, really. He’s one of the nicer humans I’ve met, and everyone else seems comfortable with it.
                In fact, when Ullr comes over to me, Peren notices and wanders off. I even see Ullr look him up and down before giving me a small grin. ‘Hey. Having fun?’ he says, looking at me sitting in the shallows, not even attempting to catch fish.
                ‘Why did Peren just tell me you don’t like him?’ I ask.
                ‘I don’t know. Insecurity?’ He digs his toes into the wet sand.
                ‘No, he just told me that you said you dislike him.’
                ‘Oh right,’ Ullr laughs nervously. ‘Yeah, we got into a bit of an argument a few years back. No big deal. Didn’t even realise he remembered.’
                ‘About what?’
                ‘Oh, probably about Wo or something. I don’t know. I didn’t hold onto it,’ he says. I know when Ullr is lying, but I decide not to press on about it, remembering the last time I tried doing that.

The evening turns grey and another batch of rain thunders overhead. We all snuggle up in the warm dry cave, now actually pleased to be away from water. Byt has decided to let us off for the night, seeing as we caught so much fish in the evening, not including me. I could probably count the amount of fish I caught on my hands. Even so, I can’t wait to cat nap on the warm rock, even though I’m not tired despite the crazy day I’ve had. We usually have a good few days sleeping and fishing by the lake, but for obvious reasons, I don’t blame Byt for wanting to get as far away from the mountains as possible, which would be the jungle. If we’re lucky, because we’ll have extra time this year, we may even get to explore a little of the rainforest area, with the big trees. I also like going to the lava lands with the Druids to protect them while they collect the herbs and other weird plants that can only grow in such habitats.
                For some reason, I can’t seem to settle and after most others have managed to fall asleep, I realise why. For the past few days, even after Pok being blown up into the sky, I haven’t sensed any Savage movement. No hunts seem to have taken place. No parties have been running by, which is especially fishy seeing as the lake is quite popular for massive herds of animals. Not that I’ve seen many of those this year either. It’s almost as though I’ve gotten used to it. I’ve been enjoying the fact we haven’t had to jump into hiding or be wary when crossing open spaces, like the beach. It’s only now I realise, right when it’s too late, that the Savages are coming. Not just a hunting party, but what sounds like an army.

The ticking and buzzing becomes apparent rather quickly and before I’ve even had the chance to tap Ullr’s shoulder, the walls of the cavern start crumbling in. My first thought is to get out of here as quickly as possible, followed by how strange it is that they were able to sneak into our hideout without any warning. No scouts reported any strange movement, even though there are Ageless humans with eyesight as good as mine perched on the volcano. I grab Ullr. He’s already awake and running but we grab each other anyway. The Savages pour in like a cockroach waterfall when you find their nests. They slash mindlessly. I’m fairly sure a lot of them are just slashing their blades into thin air, hoping it will hit something. Their popping sticks are going off like crazy. I try not to look at the bloodbath that’s unfolding around me in the moonlight, but I can’t help seeing body parts being flung in every direction. Quite a few of us are managing to escape. They set off some sort of gas which makes a lot of the breeder humans faint. I inhale a great deal of gas but it doesn’t affect me. Possibly the only time I’ll be glad I spent so long in the Silver City. Ullr and I scramble out of one of the newly made exits and race for the water. I see Wo sprinting beside Byt, which calms me a little. Byt is already yelling at some hunters for trying to carry our harvest across the lake. More Savages come around the corner and start sweeping across the sand, taking out as many escaping humans as they can. I spot Brax just entering the water, before a pellet whistles through the air and cleanly takes off his head. Nothing but adrenalin moves me. I don’t even care about making sure everyone’s okay. I just need to escape. The new Savages are a clear sign for everyone still alive to dive beneath the water and swim away for as long as possible.
                The cold water is a shock after being cosy up on the warm rock. It’s now I realise how drenched I was in blood. It takes a long time of propelling myself through the dark water to know that it has all come off. I swim around, still heading towards the other side of the lake, but now deciding to be a bit less selfish. I see Ullr. He looks at me but understandably, it is not a happy look. I go up for air as briefly as I can and keep looking. I spot Byt and Wo. They both managed to make it. Peren escaped too, with a few of his lake humans. I see one of the Druid leaders. The one that healed Ullr after he was attacked by the Rohc. A few other hunters and lake humans managed to escape as well, but it isn’t a lot. We took a main portion of the pack over with us and this is what’s left. If we even make it to the jungle, we’re going to have a hard time collecting the harvest we need for a whole year.
                We finally reach the other side of the lake but we don’t have time to breathe. Morga is there, waiting with the scarce few other pack members and the cart.
                ‘Run!’ she shrieks as if we didn’t already know that.
                We don’t hesitate. We don’t even look. We all run east, in the direction of the jungle, luckily. There are some lake humans running with us, but they are a lot slower than us. I see the panic in their eyes as they fall behind. Not long after they fall behind, we hear more explosions and screams. Before we manage to run into the trees, I do stupidly look behind me. Another massive wave of Savages is patrolling the beach this side, trying to kill any escapees that have managed to swim away. I can see more humans, possibly some of our own pack bobbing up for air in the lake. Maybe they’ll stay there for as long as they can. Knowing the Savages, they’re already dead.

A good portion of the Savage army is following us. Now is the time for our swift running to come in handy. We instruct the slower lake humans that haven’t fallen back to climb into the cart, including Peren. From the lake to the jungle, it’s almost pure savannah and we won’t have many places to hide. Still, we run. It’s all we can do.
                Night turns to day and then to night again. The cart being faster than all of us carries as many humans as it can. The faster runners who don’t exhaust as easily, keep running behind it. I don’t look back again but even as we sweep across the savannah, I can sense the Savages not far behind us. A mile at most. As we run, all around me, I can hear the screams. Some are real. Some are just the haunting memory of the tragedy. A couple of days pass. Nobody can bring themselves to speak to anyone else. If we tried normal conversation, it wouldn’t be right. If we tried to talk about what happened, it would be too hard. The Savages who were following us either gave up or were too slow to keep up. Both reasons being strange. Usually, they’d follow us all the way to the jungle before giving up. We’d be able to hide in the jungle, but on an open savannah plain, there’s nowhere to conceal ourselves. The year they chased us from the ocean, we had to run for days to get to the woodland before they decided the chase was futile. Even though I feel I could keep running, I see Ullr leap onto the cart to take a break. I join him. A couple of hunters jump off and begin running behind the cart to make space. He breaks the long silence first.
                ‘What the fuck happened?’ he whispers to himself, but he knows I will hear.
                ‘They found it,’ I say, being obvious as usual.
                ‘Yeah, but how? Why like that?’
                ‘I don’t know,’ I admit. I wish I knew the answer. Why a whole army of Savages? Could it have something to do with Mount Pok? Why were they killing every human they could? Usually, they disperse the crowd and pick the best ones to hunt down. This was a full-blown massacre. Something I’ve never seen in the Wild.
                ‘They’re getting hungry,’ says Peren. I look at him, worryingly. He looks back with a serious expression. ‘They’re killing more. They’re finding all our hiding places. They were just toying with us before but now they want blood… lots of blood.’
                ‘They’re finding all the villages?’ I ask.
                ‘I didn’t want to believe it but that’s what the reports told me. All the way from the marshes to the mountains, entire settlements of humans were being obliterated.’
                ‘So it wasn’t to do with the explosion at Mount Pok, then?’ asks Morga. I didn’t see her sitting in the corner. Wo is sitting by her, rearranging some of the fish we caught. Deaths get to her more than they should for a hunter, so she likes to distract herself, especially after a disaster like this.
                ‘I guess not,’ says Peren. We sit in silence again. I wish I could go home. I don’t want to be on this hunt anymore.

At dusk that day, we manage to find a large dip in the land, where huge rocks provide a little bit of privacy. The Savages aren’t after us anymore so this is more than enough for a shield to keep out of the line of sight. This place will be infested with lions but with the way we’re feeling, I wouldn’t be shocked if they stay well clear of us, despite the lingering numbers. Wo still sorts through the harvest, collecting bits to dish out. Everyone must be famished. Morga and Peren seem to be in deep conversation, so naturally, I eavesdrop.
                ‘-but they’re after something. Something specific,’ says Peren.
                ‘What do you mean? They killed everyone there. They didn’t take anyone alive. Not like usual,’ says Morga.
                ‘I know. Maybe there was nothing they wanted. In the villages closer to the mountains, they were collecting humans. Almost all of them. Apparently, they were stunning them and sending them to sleep. They didn’t kill any of them.’
                ‘You mean… they’re collecting the Shamans?’
                ‘I guess so. Ageless humans are useless to them, now. I guess this whole resistance has gone too far.’
                ‘Why don’t they just kill the Shamans too? If they really want to end it, that would make the most sense.’
                ‘I’ve always admired your devilishly dark mind, Morg.’
                ‘Sorry,’ I interrupt, ‘what the fuck is a Shaman?’
                Morga looks at me. She sighs in defeat. ‘Okay. There’s something I should probably tell you all. Now is the time. I’ve normally avoided the subject because it didn’t concern us… but obviously, now it does.’ We all gather round, the ones outside the cart crowding around the entrance. ‘Shamans are humans like Tir, from the tunnels. They settled in the mountains many years ago and… well, they’ve been doing all they can to stop the Savages from taking over the mountains.’
                ‘How?’ asks Ullr.
                ‘They have powers,’ answers Peren and I can see Ullr is pissed off that he answered.
                A foggy memory presses against my skull. ‘What kind of powers?’ I ask.
                ‘There isn’t exactly specifics,’ says Morga, ‘but I’ve seen them change their shape.’ The cart goes silent.
                ‘But what was it that Tir guy said? What’s the program?’ I say, remembering that particular exchange word for word.
                ‘A resistance of sorts. They were planning to take back the mountains. Even invade the city. It’s pointless in my opinion, but then they never cared what I had to say.’
                ‘Is that why you were banished?’ asks Ullr.
                Morga’s eyes flare. ‘No. I was banished because I was born without powers.’ It takes us all a moment to realise what she’s just said.
                ‘Shamans can reproduce?’ asks Wo.
                ‘They weren’t meant to. Like Ageless humans aren’t. They found a way… parthenogenesis. But it doesn’t always work.’
                ‘And you thought it best that none of us knows any of this?’ I ask her in a deadly serious tone. For a moment, Morga looks worried about how I may react.
                We hear a lion roar outside, which concludes that subject. I can tell she doesn’t want to talk about it anymore. She peers outside to inspect the danger.
                ‘Why are they not killing Shamans, then?’ asks a Druid.
                ‘Why are they killing everyone else?’ asks Ullr.
                ‘Where did the Shamans even come from?’ asks Wo.
                ‘Why did Mount Pok fly?’ asks another hunter.
                Morga decides to retreat into the brush and leave Peren with all of our lingering questions.
                ‘I don’t know,’ he says. ‘I just don’t know. I have a feeling the Shamans had something to do with that explosion, but the way the mountain flew straight into the air… that was no mistake.’
                ‘What do you mean?’ I ask.
                ‘Now, this is just based on reports, but whatever the Savages are doing in the mountains, they don’t plan to stay there. They’re trying to travel upwards.’

We decide it’s best to all get some rest while we have a good hiding spot. I look out of the cart. The moon sweeps across the yellow grass. The winds catch the branches of the trees and smother the wild howling sounds of the savannah animals. The cart cauldron seeps the mist that keeps us all safe, for now. The chill in the air gets sharper and I end up lying next to Ullr, looking at his sleeping face. He seems so peaceful. He always looks worried when he’s awake. Always on edge, even when we’re laughing together. I look down at his body curled up, trying to keep warm. Then I feel the urge to do something I’ve never felt before. I want to wrap my arms around him. I want to keep him warm myself. It’s a weird feeling. Something that maybe a mother would feel for her child. It goes as quickly as it came, but I can’t help but open my eyes every so often, checking that Ullr is still there.

✽✽✽

I see bodies all around me. Bodies of humans. Bodies of animals.
Broken glass and liquid all over the floor.
Explosions.
I run. Through the fog.
Bodies in tubes.
Limbs scattered on the ground.
Keep running.

✽✽✽

I wake. It’s daylight. It wasn’t just a dream. It was a memory. My first memory.  It’s like a realisation. When something you had forgotten comes roaring back to you. I’d forgotten. They didn’t want me to remember. Perhaps they were too stupid to realise I escaped. But I know what I saw. I was made. And I was meant to be destroyed. Brax was right. I’m artificial.

Orion’s Hunt – Chapter XIV

There’s no time.
              If it barks, the Savages will hear it. The front hunters lunge. We all jump afterwards, praying to all the gods that we can smother it or destroy it before it makes a sound. It sees us but not before it is engulfed in humans. A crunch and a whirr and it’s broken. The gnashing teeth clank twice before it fizzes and then pops. It’s gone.
              ‘They’ll notice it’s gone any second,’ says Morga, wide-eyed. ‘Collect the pieces and let’s go.’ She motions for me and Ullr to go with her. We pick up the remains and head in the direction of the Savages. We don’t want them coming by the cave entrance again. We creep through the river, being as silent as we would be if there was no storm. Ullr carries the head. I notice splashes of blood on the river banks. They must be close to catching the human or have already caught him.
              ‘We shouldn’t go any further. Over there will do,’ I say to Morga. Normally she would cuss at me for giving orders, but in a situation like this, she gladly goes along with it. We carefully place the pieces around some rocks and some in the river. We know the Savages aren’t stupid. They’ll probably work out that the Houndling was attacked but we try to make it looks as though it was caught in a current and smashed against the rocks. I hardly have time to put the two front legs in place before we hear them charging down the river. They’re coming back to find it. We flee to the cave as fast as we can. Despite being nervous about whether the Savage party will find us or not, I manage to get to sleep almost instantly. I suppose if they do find us, there’s no hope of escape, so we will all die anyway. That’s the sort of peace I can sleep to.

✽✽✽

I see Wo in my dream.
She is holding someone in her arms.
It’s a shadow.
She is crying. ‘Why him?’
A mountain looms over her.
It explodes, destroying Wo with it.
The shadow breathes.

✽✽✽

The next few days go by rather seamlessly. We stay close to the smaller rivers and streams that we know. They lead us to the lake. There is a main river that connects the lake to the whole web of waterways but we know never to go near that again. Savages prowl along that all day and most of the night. Even though we have to be extremely careful before we get to the cover of the lake village, I hardly sense any Savage movement, which is particularly strange as it’s one of the hotspots for Savages. Either we’re lucky or something has happened to pull back the amount of hunting going on.
              It’s past midnight before we arrive at the lake. A couple of lake humans jump down from the deciduous trees. They wear the leaves of the plants from which they hide in, becoming perfectly invisible to Savages or other threats. They like to call themselves the ‘lake guardians’ despite not actually ‘guarding’ it. They just hide and manage to swim back to Peren if something worth reporting happens. Byt tells them of our journey and requests we head over to the lake village. The morning hunts will begin in a few hours. They let us pass with their false sense of power. Byt could easily have killed the two in seconds. We creep across the wet sand and patches of grass. There is a collection of large rocks with a flurry of foliage in between. The cart fits perfectly in the middle, blending so well into the landscape, even the ‘lake guardians’ would be easier to spot.
              ‘I’ll stay this time,’ says Morga.
              She carefully puts everything in place for a quick escape and starts setting up a makeshift campsite. Morga and a few hunters will stay with the cart while Byt and the rest of us visit the lake humans, aptly on the other side of the lake. They also like to call themselves volcano humans but I say unless your skin can withstand the magma inside, you’re a lake human. We waste no time and the forty or so of us gently slip into the lake water. It’s a different sort of fresh to the rivers. The rivers felt cleaner but the lake is so cold and freeing. Probably because it’s so large. Ullr and I like to have a contest most years – who can stay underwater the longest. He doesn’t seem in the mood this year. Even so, I take a gulp of air and swim underwater for a majority of the journey. The amount of colourful fish under the water always makes me want to gasp. They’re nowhere to be seen right now but as soon as the sun rises, the bottom of the lake turns into a rainbow. There are trails of seaweed everywhere and the water is just cloudy enough to make you wary that a lake monster might come out from the depths to eat you. We reach the shore. On the other side, it’s a different kettle of fish. There are very tall palm trees. I mean, some of these trees could almost be in competition with the Tickler trees back at home. There are a few regular sized trees that I can’t be bothered to remember the name of. They’re useless anyway. Other than that, it’s just a whole mass of shrubs before you get to the volcano side. We travel further in, aware that lake human eyes are watching us from the slopes of the volcano. It’s named Vulcan, but I’ve never really liked that name. Volcano. Vulcan. Seems too easy. There is a small passage, like a crack in the volcano’s side, where a thousand hanging vines grow. The lake humans seem to have come to the conclusion that these particular vines are poisonous to Savages, as they never seem to enter the passage. But I know the Savages. If they really wanted to get in there to destroy a nest of humans, they’d have no problem clearing the vines. I just have a feeling they like to keep the bigger animal nests untouched in order to have a good hunt each year. I daren’t tell them this, of course. They seem proud of their obvious hiding place.
              The passage leads into a cavern of sorts. It’s very hot inside, being so close to the magma, that you can instantly tell which humans are Ageless or not. The humans who don’t sweat are Ageless, although there don’t seem to be many roaming here anymore. The sweaty ones are usually kept as breeders. Almost every human settlement does this. If the Savages decided to keep a closer eye on the humans in the Silver City, I doubt there would be many Ageless humans left in the Wild. We all fled from there.
              The lake humans, naturally, seem nervous about our arrival at first. They’re different from the river humans. They’re more protective over their harvest and their fellow humans, so trying to be friendly with any of them is fairly tough. The only one who seems to have any interest is the leader, Peren. He walks up to Byt and gives her a hug. They exchange pleasantries and start filling each other in on news. He’s widely known as the ‘Black Trophy’. From here to the grasslands, everyone knows him for that title. It comes from several years where he’d be focussed by the Savages. He has jet black hair that, because of the sand and lake water, shines most of the time. Many females bet that he was hunted for his beauty, as that is a popular choice for Savages and he’s unarguably good looking. I get the feeling Ullr gets a little jealous of him sometimes, as Ullr gets most of the attention back at home. I get a little, but I know they’re just being supportive. I’m not a massive fan of popularity.

We settle down relatively quickly, knowing we’ve not got much time before we should get out and start fishing and hunting for other meats found on the island. Well, I say island. There is one small sliver of land that connects the volcano to the mainland. That’s where the Savages come from. Luckily, it’s right around on the other side of Vulcan, facing the ocean.
              ‘I hope Morga will be okay,’ says Wo, as we all sit on the warm cavern ground. Ullr and I look at her weirdly. ‘Oh, you know what I mean. I know she can take care of herself and she knows what she’s doing, but if Savages just so happened to find where they are…’
              ‘I know,’ says Ullr. ‘Don’t worry. It’s never happened before. Morga only gets better at hiding… and for some reason, there doesn’t seem to be as many Savages this year.’
              ‘Okay, so it’s not just me who noticed that,’ I say.
              ‘It’s weird,’ he continues. ‘The party that we saw at the waterfall was a lot larger than any I’ve seen before but there seem to be fewer movements. Maybe they’re getting bored of hunting.’
              ‘We can only hope,’ I say. ‘I don’t know, though. It seems different. Why a party that large would chase one human is beyond me unless he was another Black Trophy like Peren.’
              Ullr scoffs. The stench of burning earth makes it harder to breathe but knowing that the two of us will be hopping up to Vulcan’s head very soon makes it worthwhile. Quite a few of us are always sent in pairs to hunt for elk amongst the trees that grow on the volcano, but we always take a secret detour to see the world from the top of it. It being one of the highest peaks in this part of the land; it’s refreshing to get a clearer view of what’s around us. The height is nothing compared to the mountains, however. I would like to visit them someday. I don’t know if that day will ever come.
              The three of us talk like nothing ever happened between the two lovebirds but I can tell she’s acting differently towards him now. Almost as though she’s closer to him now that she knows where they stand. She’s laughing at his jokes, rather than giggling. She pushes him when he makes a sarcastic comment, rather than touch his arm. They seem like better friends, which is all I could have hoped for.
              The sun rises quickly as Byt starts giving out the orders. There being no cart to regroup at, we decide the edge of the beach where we arrived would be the best bet. The cavern is too cornered.
              I quietly mention to Byt that I want to take Ullr up the volcano as usual. There’s a fine line between what rules all hunters must obey and what are our personal traditions.
              ‘Oh yes, yes, you two do whatever. Just bring back a few elk. Remember, we’ve got to carry all of this back to Morga so don’t go crazy!’ she half yells at us as we’re already running towards Vulcan.
              I spot Brax barking orders to his elk hunter partner. He has the guts to call over to us. ‘Ugh, you two off to go prancing up the volcano again, are you?’
              ‘Absolutely. You have fun, too, Brax,’ says Ullr.
              I smile at Brax, trying my best to take anything he’s about to say with a pinch of salt.
              ‘You Ageless bastards think you’re so much better than us, don’t you?’ he says bitterly.
              ‘Not really,’ I reply. ‘You can breed. Although gods bless the child that’s ever fathered by you.’
              I hear Ullr laughing.
              ‘At least it’ll have a childhood,’ Brax responds. ‘Unlike you. You were made. Those silver things created you. How does that make you feel?’ he sniggers. ‘I bet you don’t even have arseholes.’
              ‘I didn’t realise you were that interested in my arsehole,’ I say without a second’s hesitation. ‘See you later.’ I roll my eyes and start to walk off. I hear other hunters trying to cover up a few laughs.
              I don’t know why Brax thinks that the Savages having created Ageless humans is the absolute truth. I mean, sure, it’s one of the speculated possibilities but I couldn’t say whether it was real or not. Unfortunately, if it is true, natural humans would obviously feel a need to put us down to make them feel better about their disgusting habits, gross bodily functions, and deteriorating strength.
              ‘Wow, I don’t know why he even tries to insult you. You always knock him down,’ says Ullr as we get closer to Vulcan’s side. ‘He obviously cares enough to think about us so much.’
              ‘Huh?’ I say, moving a branch out of my way.
              ‘Well, if he didn’t care, he’d probably just ignore us, like we ignore him. And he must have seen that we have all the regular body parts. All he ever does is glare at us. He cares enough to hate us… I guess.’
              ‘Oh, I wouldn’t worry about it,’ I say. ‘He’s just trying to find something that we’ll react to in the way that he wants. I don’t know why. If he wasn’t a good hunter, he’d be long dead by now.’
              Ullr shakes his head, smiling.

We jump up the black rock like a couple of goats, leaping from ledge to ledge. A couple of times, Ullr almost slips on some loose rocks and I can’t help but laugh. He grins at me as though he’s pleased he made me laugh and tries to overtake me. Of course, it’s a fool’s errand. We come to a flat area filled with trees. This is where a lot of elk would be if there are any still around. I can’t spot any but we’ll track them properly when we come back. We sprint through the trees, enjoying the warmth. I have to admit; the heat must get uncomfortable after a while. The ground evens out once again before we reach the summit.
              The air is even toastier here. Not far away is the dreaded pit, where a few humans have fallen and turned into dust. We know how volcanoes work and they’re not exactly welcoming. Luckily, Vulcan is the only volcano this side of the jungle and it’s pretty much dormant. We climb a large, black rock that extends out into a spike and sit, side by side, looking out across the vast land. It feels so freeing to be up here. I look back to where we came from. The brown dot in the distance is my forest. I can’t wait to go back there when autumn begins. Other humans like Brax wouldn’t be able to see it. Their eyesight is awful compared to ours. I clock Ullr. The wind is whipping past my ears. He is silent. His eyes are fixated on the Silver City again. Now closer than before, it keeps bringing back the bad memories. I try to drag him away from it.
              ‘Everything sorted with Wo, then?’ I smile.
              He looks at me as though he’s trying to understand the question. ‘Yeah. We both know where we stand. I took your advice and told her… exactly how I feel.’ He looks sad.
              ‘Well, she’s a big girl. I’m sure she took it well. You two seem even better than before so she can’t have been that upset.’
              Ullr exhales through his nose. ‘Yeah.’
              ‘Again, sorry if I pressured you,’ I say. ‘I was aware you didn’t like talking about it, but I guess I just wanted to discuss it with you, seeing as you knew about me and Varia.’
              Ullr stares at me. ‘Three,’ he says.
              ‘Excuse me?’
              ‘That’s the third time you’ve ever apologised to me.’
              ‘What, really? You keep count?’
              ‘Yep. It’s so rare, I like to bask in your grovelling.’
              ‘I’m hardly grovelling, you idiot,’ I say.
              Ullr smiles and turns his head towards the mountain range in the very far distance. ‘I know Morga told us to drop it, but I still think about what she said in the cave,’ he says.
              ‘Yeah, me too. I really want to know what it all meant… but I’m scared if we asked her again, she’d rip us a new one.’
              ‘At least then Brax would know for sure.’ Ullr mumbles, raising his eyebrows. I genuinely laugh. Ullr is the only one who can do that. ‘I just want to know what’s out there,’ he continues. ‘Despite Tir being the biggest bastard I’ve ever met, besides you, the mountain humans seem rather interesting.’
              ‘I’ll pretend I didn’t just hear you call me a bastard, but yes, I know what you mean. They are really interesting. They seemed pretty interested in us, too. Especially that female. She was all over you,’ I grin.
              ‘Shut up.’ He pushes me. ‘The things they said about the mountains. The Savages are hollowing them out? Why?’
              ‘New hobby, I suppose. Maybe that’s why there are fewer Savages out and about this year. Tir said they’ve taken Mount Pok. The highest peak in the land. I wonder what all of this would look like from up there,’ I say, looking towards the amazing mountain, it now sparkling with wonder.

We feel it first. The head splitting explosion. A bang so loud, it sounds as though it’s right in front of our faces. Everything turns white, so I shut my eyes tightly. Ullr instinctively grabs a hold of my arm. The wave of power hits us next. A blast so strong, we teeter on the rock. The immense heat follows. We sit for what feels like a good few minutes, but it was probably just a few seconds. I try to open my eyes. Everything still seems a bit bright but as far as I can tell, nothing is different. Except for one thing. Mount Pok no longer makes up part of the mountain range.
              It’s in the sky.