Chapter 1


            Boom. Boom boom-boom.  Tiny creatures flapped hurriedly up from their roosts into the air on fleshy, semi-transparent wings strewn with twisted networks of tiny blood vessels.  Their piercing shrieks of fear were swallowed by the thick, fetid air of the jungle as they soared into the higher reaches of the canopy and out of harm’s way.  The ground rumbled ominously; the leaves of the canopy quivered.


            Boom-boom boom-boom!  Triangle ripples spread across the large pools of algae-clogged water that rested in the deep hollows between the massive tree buttresses as small schools of aquatic animals sped towards safety.  The chatter of other creatures rose—insects, small furred animals, reptiles—and the thick tangled mess of ferns and other undergrowth that surrounded the pools rustled with their frenzied passage.  The wrenching sound of breaking wood suddenly ripped through the air as one of the massive trees that had stood sentinel for hundreds of years in this forsaken jungle was torn from the earth by the passage of some unseen animal.  Its height gave the illusion of slow-motion as it keeled and twisted with the grace of a dancer, swaying from side to side, shedding a screeching cloud of winged snakes into the air like pollen.  The tree’s neighbors shuddered and groaned as it crashed against them, bark, branches, and leaves ripped violently from the massive trunks as the uprooted tree slid down to the spongy forest floor, landing with a resounding thud that was heard for miles in all directions.  Bright sunlight, flickering as clusters of bowl-shaped, man-sized leaves spun lazily through it, shafted down through the empty slot in the thick green canopy hundreds of feet above, illuminating a small patch of ground below. 


BOOM-BOOM-BOOM!!  The thick trunk, its girth so colossal that several men would be needed to completely encompass it, suddenly shattered under the force and weight of massive, taloned feet.  The tree buckled, its dense network of dirt-clogged roots rising into the air and quivering like dying fingers before crashing back to the ground as the trunk split in half.  The sole piece of sunlight in this murky jungle was momentarily blocked out by the form of a gigantic creature as it barreled through, plowing down all vegetation in its path and sending a fine spray of muddy water into the air.  Unaccustomed to the sodden and soggy soil it slipped and stumbled, one heavily muscled shoulder glancing the trunk of another tree and driving it reeling to the ground.  Dirt and tangled bits of crushed plant matter were thrown up in a furious storm at its heels, leaving  a vast path in its wake.


            A savage, ululating shriek rose from somewhere close behind the gargantuan beast and a smaller shadow flitted through the sunlight, hot in pursuit.  The remains of the thick undergrowth were untouched as this creature traveled swiftly through the labyrinthine web of tree branches.  As it approached the cloud of debris thrown up by its quarry the small, lean figure gave another of its piercing shrieks.  The beast chanced a look behind it, the row of murky, solid brown eyes arcing across it’s face gleaming fearfully as it caught sight of its pursuer.  A solid wall of trees rose up ahead and it reeled around and backed up against them.  It was cornered, but far short from defenseless. 


The hunter halted and regarded the two barbed, scaled horns rising from the sides of its prey’s mouth.  One solid hit from the broad-side of one of those would be more than enough to knock the wind from him, a blow from the pointed ends would probably be enough to kill him.  He cocked his head to the side in thought.   He had killed Horn-mouths before and not had much of a problem, but those unfortunates had either been the blunt-horned young or sickly elders that were easily separated from the stampeding herd.  Never before had he attempted to slay a full-grown, robust bull like this before, but then his appetite had never raged as furiously as it was now.  To kill anything smaller and less meaty than this creature would be unfulfilling and a waste of his time and quickly dwindling energy.  He leapt a few trees over then back again to the right, sizing up his prey from each direction. 


The Horn-mouth tossed his head from side to side and gave a mighty roar in an attempt to ward off this strange assailant.  Unperturbed and too hungry to care otherwise, the hunter darted a few trees to the side, took a few steps back, then leapt from his perch onto the beast’s back.  Agile, sinewy fingers hooked themselves beneath the armored carapace that protected the Horn-mouth’s back.  A resounding bellow of fear reverberated from the Horn-mouth as it began to buck and rear wildly in an attempt to throw this threat from its back.  Lips peeling back from a sharp row of teeth in a fierce grin, the hunter nimbly clawed his way down the side of his prey to the soft, shaggy belly beneath.  Wrapping his fingers in the thick, matted, moss-covered fur, he climbed along the underside of the beast to its neck, taking care not to be cut by one of the jagged talons on its feet.  Its throat was unprotected and his teeth easily pierced through the flesh.  Blood sprayed in a vast arc from the wound and the beast gave a painfully loud shriek.  Murky brown eyes rolling wildly in its skull, it collapsed onto its side with a ground-shaking thump, legs still pedaling weakly in the air.  The spray of blood sputtered, faltered, and subsided to a thick trickle.


Moving with starvation-frenzied speed, the hunter began to furiously tear away at the thick, fur-coated flesh.  A large expanse of purple-tinged muscle covered in a foamy film of blood was soon visible and he began to feed with reckless abandon bordering on near mania.  By the time he had satiated himself, the Horn-mouth’s hindquarters were reduced to little more than the inedible carapace, fur, and bones.  The hunter sat back on his rump, panting loudly.  Breath slowing to normal, he began to scratch idly at the drying blood and bits of fur that dripped in gob-riddled strands from his face and limbs, dying his skin a dark maroon.  Climbing to all fours, he began to shake and twist violently, sending the sticky, gory mess flying from his body to splatter on the trunks of nearby trees.  Pushing himself back onto his rear, he lifted his hands to his head and wrung the excess blood from his hair, which sprang up instantly into an explosion of black spikes.  His tail was next, and starting at the base and working his way upwards, he quickly set to work squeegee-ing the excess blood from the appendage. 


When he had finished cleaning himself, he ripped one of the large leg bones from the carcass and rose to his feet.  The bone was as thick as his waist, but he broke it easily over one knee.  Blood welled and began to dribble from the broken ends and he lifted the two halves above his head so that it ran into his open mouth.  The marrow was next, and he sucked at the shattered ends of the bone as he idly looked around.  The song of a lone bird and few small rustles from the underbrush signaled the official end to the hunt as the rest of the forest creatures returned to their daily routine.  Engorged and slightly sleepy, he yawned loudly and threw the femur into the far depths of the forest.  The thick fern leaves rustled as scavengers set upon the bone.


The sun was setting as he emerged from the stretching shadows of the trees, the remains of his prey in tow.  When he finally reached his destination the waxing crescent of the moon was already high in the sky, its pale light filtering through the old lava vents that stuck out like horns from the roof of the small cave he called home.  It wasn’t much—just a hollow space formed eons ago when a flow of lava wrapped around a large hunk of glacial ice—but it provided him with more than sufficient shelter from the elements and, when he was younger, large beasts of prey. 


Ah, that reminded him.  He dropped the Horn-mouth’s carcass and trotted over to the bushes that surrounded the lava-coated ground around the vents.  Shuffling slowly, he urinated a wavering semicircle around the small clearing.  That would keep away the opportunistic predators and scavengers from stealing away his prey while he slept.  Now that he had emptied his bladder and filled his belly he was feeling even sleepier.  Staggering slightly, he made his way through the recesses of the cave towards the lone shaft of blue light in the back.  Not pausing at the edge of the large crater beneath it, he made his way down to the dull, dusty pod that sat fully illuminated in its center.  The plush seating was still just as soft as it had been when he first landed here over 5 years ago and he nestled down into it, tail wrapping itself around his waist as he curled into a small ball. 


The glimmer of light off of a small object hanging from the roof of the pod caught his eye and he reached out and pulled the metal bracelet from its hook and examined it closely, thumb rubbing gently over the engraved letters.  The smiling face of a young man with orange skin appeared in his mind.  The memories had faded over time, and all he could remember was the man’s face and the shadows of his gentle voice and touch.  They were pleasant memories, ones that in the beginning had brought him to fits of tears as he tried to accustom himself to this planet.  The small metal band had been a great comfort to him then, and even though now he was far too big for it to fit around his wrist, he still found solace in holding it when he returned home.  A jaw-cracking yawn issued from his mouth and his eyelids fluttered to a close.  Shifting slightly, he settled into a deep sleep, bracelet entwined in his fingers.



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At the sound of the crash he bolted upright, cracking his skull against the roof of the pod.  A powerful tremor shook the ground, rocking the pod from side to side and sending chunks of lava rock crashing to the floor.  A few bounced off of the pod and he crouched down in the vessel, one hand palpitating the growing bump on his head.  When the coast seemed clear he emerged and walked up to the lip of the crater.  Another crash, louder this time, reverberated through the cave.  A second wave of tremors, more powerful and protracted, shook the cave, and he dove away as a large chunk of rock from above crashed into the spot where he had just been standing.  Dodging a rain of stones, he ran out into the clearing.  The quake finally ceased and he twisted his head from side to side, surveying his surroundings.


            It was not yet morning.  The moon was still high in the sky and the horizon above the forest was tinted with the palest shades of pink and yellow.  His nostrils flared as he searched the air for an explanation for the rude awakening.  Except for the dust stirred up by the fallen rocks in the cave the air was clear.  The carcass of the Horn-mouth loomed into view before him and he leapt onto its back, in hopes that a higher altitude would provide him with some more information.  No luck. 


            His belly rumbled loudly and he began to rip chunks of flesh from the beast’s back and shoving them in his mouth, swatting away the small clouds of gnats that had settled on the carcass overnight.  His ears suddenly perked up; he could hear something in the distance.  It was approaching fast, ripping through the canopy with incredible speed.  He leaned forward, eyes straining to see into the dark depths of the jungle.  The noise grew in volume as it approached, but for all his experience he could not match it to anything he had ever heard before.  It did not belong to any creature that crawled on the ground, nor any from the air for that matter.  He stood upright, his head cocked to the side.  The tops of the trees were moving back and forth with a wave-like motion.  The color of sky above the forest was deepening to shades of gold and red.  He glanced at the moon at his back, then at the forest again.  Sunrise?  Before the moon had set?


            He turned to look at the moon again and was suddenly swept off his feet as a mighty gust of hot air tore into the clearing.  He didn’t even have time to cry out in shock as he was sent face first into the dirt, driving a shallow furrow in the ground with his nose.   The heat tore at his naked body, singing the hairs on his exposed back.  Panting loudly and clutching his bloody nose, he scampered back to the shelter the carcass provided.  The searing wind raged past the Horn-mouth’s body; the air was soon redolent with the odor of burning flesh and hair. 


            As furiously as it had come in, the wind was gone.  Hesitantly, he peered above the Horn-mouth’s broad back, wrinkling his nose at the stench of burnt hair.  The jungle was a mess, leaves and branches torn off, tree trunks blasted black.  What manner of beast could do this sort of damage?  After a moment’s deliberation, eyes trained on the edge of the clearing lest another wave of searing heat shoot from it, he ran into the cave.  There were a few minor cave-ins, but nothing serious.   The pod was safe and so was the small fresh-water spring that was near it.  Falling to hands and knees, he slated his thirst, then splashed the ice-cold water over the burns on his back and rear, cringing as it ran over the tender base of his tail.


            He returned to the edge of the forest after he had finished tending to his injuries.   A tall column of black smoke highlighted in a hellish red was curling up into the air several miles distant.  He studied it with interest, dark eyes gleaming in the darkness.  This was no sunrise.  Marking the position of the smoke with the stars overhead he leapt several feet into the air, landing on a tree branch.  From there he swung from branch to branch, moving steadily upward into the higher reaches of the canopy and—he hoped—out of range of another scorching explosion of air.  Brush fires were common in the grassy plains where the Horn-mouths liked to graze.  But in the water-drenched center of the jungle?  Filled with curiosity and embarrassment at having been caught so off guard, he made his way towards the source of the disturbance.



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Author’s Note:  Bit of a change of pace, ne?  I find it hard to believe even now that I’m finally getting to this part of the story.  It’s a mixture of excitement and surprise.  Surprise because it’s taking an entirely different direction than I had originally put down in my notes.  I had initially imagined Turles being in some sort of desert, rocky planet with a few plants here and there, but the way I tied ends in the first part of the story sort of nixed that.  Oh well, jungles are much easier and more interesting to write.  Flying snakes….alrighty then. 


Anyway, I hope you’re enjoying the story.  Does it still have that spark that got you reading in the first place (I figure that if you’ve read this far into the story that there was at least something I did right so that you kept reading)?  Does this older Turles seem more or less true to his surroundings and character as you see them?  Please email me your comments and criticisms.  I really appreciate it!


Special Thanks to Mali:  Thank you for the special writer’s butt-kicking.  I really needed the boost to keep in gear and keep working on this.  It’s very easy to get distracted with other things and forget to work on what I promised myself 4 years ago to finish no matter what.


With that said, I hope everyone enjoyed and keep those reviews coming!