No Life Too Small
An Epertasian Short Story
Douglas R. Brown
He held his breath, afraid even the slightest sound would alert them. His nostrils burned with each inhalation, almost gagging him. Though a single larakey stunk of bitter ammonia, a thousand of them were pungent enough to be unbearable.
He was fifteen years old and had never been so terrified in his life. The moon lifted from the southern horizon, yet he didn’t move. Though he’d never heard of a larakey hunting within the human civilizations, the previous night’s attack on the town of Gallyone was undeniable. He’d also never heard of the mythical creatures hunting alone but, again, his eyes didn’t lie the night before.
Now, in their nest, he watched the countless larakeys circle in the moonlight, still amazed at how similar in appearance they were to dragons, even if they were no larger than a man.
The ancient whispers told of the larakeys’ keen sense of smell even over their own incredible stink and that bathing in turpentine was the only way to hide from them. Though his skin still burned and was irritated, the results were proving to be worth the pain.
Unfortunately, not all of the ancient whispers were so accurate, evident by the larakeys’ arousal before the moon reached its peak. You’ll be done before they ever stir, he had told himself only moments before the skies filled with the beasts.
Maybe he should stay where he was, wait until morning to continue. No, as knotted as his stomach was at the thought of being spotted, it was even more sickened by the consequences of doing nothing.
While watching the larakeys taking to the sky, he was amazed at their sheer numbers. How could he single out a specific one in their midst?
The dead stalks of wild wheat in the fields swayed around him with each creature swooping down before pulling out of its dive and soaring just above the knee-high grass and narrowly passed his nose. Each dive convinced him he’d been discovered but each dive was followed by another harmless pass. It didn't take long to realize they were playing games with each other.
As he lay motionless, afraid to turn his head, a single night butterfly fluttered past his nose. The night butterfly’s fluorescent purple and black markings glowed in the moon’s light and if he weren’t so terrified, he’d be in awe. The beautiful creature settled onto his cheek with a tickle.
Oblivious to their unwelcome company, the larakeys continued their playful games of chase. The butterfly moved from his cheek to his nose, tickling it and causing a sneeze to build. He fought the coming announcement of his presence with desperate distortions of his nose and mouth, his body begging him to wipe away the stinging urge with his hand.
A closer pass of a larakey sent the butterfly fluttering away.
That’s when he saw it--the one-in-a-million sight he’d been searching for. He turned his head, still terrified of being noticed by the others but unwilling to miss his only chance at his goal. The passing larakey, his one chance at success, soared clumsily into the air. The others, instead of playing as they had been, scattered and fled away from the drunken one. The seemingly ill creature flapped its thin scaly wings while swaying side-to-side through the air. There was no doubt it was the one he’d been searching for and, if there were any doubt, it was erased by the Epertasian-colored arrow protruding from the creature’s side.
He rolled to his knees, knowing he risked being seen, leaped to his feet and sprinted after the fleeing larakey. He wasn't far before the other monsters squealed from behind and gave chase. He drew his sword as he ran with a glance over his shoulder. The army of larakeys closed in from the sky like a swarm of death.
His heart skipped a beat. He pushed himself faster as he felt them gaining on him. Ahead, the wounded larakey disappeared into some type of a nest, oblivious to his pursuit.
If he made it to the nest, he’d use his surprise to his advantage, get what he came for, and make his escape. With the army of beasts closing in, escape seemed unlikely. The creatures’ high-pitched cries revealed their proximity. With no other choice, he spun with his sword. The first larakey met his blade and crumbled to the ground without a single yelp. The next creature struck before he could reset his sword and ripped a deep gash into his shoulder as it passed. He didn’t flinch and concentrated on the third, killing it with a grunt.
He fell to his back as another creature whipped by, its claws brushing past his face but missing its target. With a brief lull from their assault, he rolled to his knees and sprang back to his feet. The other creatures gathered, his presence no longer a secret, and prepared their attack.
He lunged toward the nest again. His shoulder bled and stung but he’d been injured worse in his life and focused on his daunting task ahead. He glanced over his shoulder again; the first of the next wave stopped at their fallen brethren and tore into their flesh with cannibalistic zeal. The others swarmed the feasting ones in a hungry battle of survival.
Their greed and hunger allowed him time to reach the two-horse-high nest. His shoulder stung like his own flesh tore from his bone. The warm blood running down his arm was enough to keep him focused. He looked to the top of the nest, then back to the creatures finishing their meals. They were joined by a hundred more.
He reached for his first handhold.
The nest was made of bones and phlegm and disgustingness. He scanned the busy larakeys as they devoured their fresh meals and squabbled amongst themselves for the final bites. He began his climb. Each time he pulled his hand away from the bones, stringy globs of goop stretched and stuck his fingers together. He was winded and his shoulder throbbed but he pushed through. He took in deep mouthfuls of air, careful not to breathe in the burning stink through his nostrils.
At the rim of the nest, he saw it. And the larakey saw him. The wounded creature backed away as if in awe of his gall. It hissed with bared teeth but he didn’t cower. The larakey’s jaw appeared locked open with white foam hanging from it. That explained the clumsiness. That explained why the creature attacked the town and why the others avoided it. The creature was sick. It straddled its prize from the night before.
This was the teenaged boy's first glimpse of the bundled blanket resting in the warmth of the nest at the creature’s feet. The sick beast howled.
The young warrior didn’t waver at the larakey’s attempt at false intimidation. Instead he leaped forward with sword raised. The creature lunged with its claws and locked jaw.
He avoided the creature’s first assault, ducked, and shoved his blade into the larakey’s gut. The creature howled, swung its claw against the boy's sword arm, and knocked his hands free of his weapon. The beast crumbled to the floor of its nest, blood spewing from its wound.
The other creatures arrived, but instead of attacking, they circled above as if unwilling to advance or at least unwilling to advance before the sick one drew its last breath. Though the boy wanted to end the beast’s suffering as it wallowed on the nest floor, he needed their hesitation to have any shot at escaping. They circled like vultures, waiting for the sick beast to expire.
Stay alive, you bastard, he secretly prayed. Just for another moment.
He plowed past the staggering creature to the blanketed bundle and ripped the front of the cover open. Innocent eyes of the bluest hue stared back at him. He lost his breath. The infant appeared healthy and happy to see him. A coo from the baby’s mouth made him forget the pain in his own shoulder for a moment. He covered the child’s face again, cradled her in his arms, and spun back toward the collapsed creature behind him. The creature gasped a final breath.
The hovering larakeys screeched their delight and dove from the sky.
He ripped his blade free of the dead beast’s gut. With the blanket securely in his other arm, he leaped over the edge of the nest. The larakeys swooped in from behind. The ground was solid and hard and his right ankle rolled with stabbing pain upon impact. One of their claws swiped past his back close enough that he felt the wind against his neck. They screeched their displeasure. He sucked in the pain of each step as he hobbled across the giant skeleton-filled fields of death. He zigged and zagged around skeleton after skeleton of the creatures’ prey.
One of the larakeys swiped across the top of his head. He ducked but not in time to avoid the bleeding and stinging. Another larakey dove down and snatched at him. With one arm around his prize and his other fist around his sword, he crippled the creature with one well-placed swing.
Six or seven of the pursuing larakeys stopped at their fallen comrade and ripped at its flesh with their teeth, giving him a few moments to make distance. The uneven ground was murder on his swelling ankle but he didn’t slow. The bundle in his arms cooed again reminding him that his efforts were worth the pain. He glanced over his shoulder; they were near. His sword dripped blood, bright yellow ammonia-reeking blood, and he smiled.
The larakeys surrounded him as they were too fast for his hobbled sprint. He staggered to a stop, lowered his bundled prize gently to the ground, and stood over her. Draping his sword across his chest, he dared the larakeys to attack.
And he slaughtered them one by one.
He swung his sword with violent rage never moving far from the precious infant girl. They sliced and bit while he crippled and killed. They gave it good but he gave it better. Their fangs and claws wreaked havoc on his flesh but his sword was more devastating and they fell in numbers. The other creatures, the ones not yet close enough to feel his blade, seemed confused. They appeared unsure whether to attack or enjoy the feast of their newly fallen comrades.
They made their famished choice; he made his.
He backed away while they fought over their fresh meals. He scooped the baby back into his arms, leaped over a feeding larakey, and continued his retreat. It wasn’t long before the larakeys realized they had fresh meat escaping and gave chase once again. They attacked. The clothes on his back ripped to shreds while absorbing his own blood mixed with the larakey spit. But he didn’t waiver.
The outer rim of their collective field of nests was bordered by a waist-high mound of bones and he hurdled over the makeshift wall. They were too close. He winced at the pain in his ankle before spinning with his sword raised. But instead of attacking, the larakeys pulled up from their chase and retreated to their nests scattered throughout the massive field.
Doubled over with one hand on his knee, he struggled to regain lost breath. Did he win? Though he wanted to smile, something told him their fearful retreat had little to do with his prowess as a future soldier. Maybe the gods simply were on his side this day.
A low, staccato growl reverberated from within the ground beneath his feet, ending his silent celebration before it truly began.
The baby in his arms giggled.
Not more than seven horse-lengths at his fore, the ground rumbled and broke apart like an isolated quake. He staggered back toward the larakey fields while white-knuckling the hilt of his sword.
The ribcage of what appeared to have been a fatally curious bear rested next to his slow retreat. Before him, the ground opened and fell into nothingness.
“Don’t fret, young one,” he whispered. “I will return you home soon.” As he whispered his promise to her, he had a sickening realization he may be lying. He lifted the bear’s skeletal ribcage and placed her beneath. Then he stepped away from her hiding place.
A three-fingered claw, each claw finger nearly as large as a man, reached from the pit and grabbed the edge. He didn’t wait to see what emerged, rushed to the claw, and swung his sword with both hands. The blade met one of the extended fingers, removing it to the creature’s ground-shaking wail.
Yellow blood spattered across his face and burned his eyes. The creature’s two remaining claw fingers recoiled into the hole. Instead of retreating, he sucked in a deep all-or-nothing breath and dove into the dark pit. The creature’s other claw reached past him toward the opening, oblivious to his descent.
He raised his sword above his head as he hurled toward the top of the creature’s head. The king larakey hadn’t time to react. The boy plunged his sword downward while slamming against the creature’s head, knocking the wind from his own lungs. But his plan seemed solid; his blade buried to the hilt within the creature’s skull. The king larakey shrieked loud enough that it hurt his ears.
The creature wobbled while the boy held the protruding sword firm. Then the beast collapsed, only held up by its three-fingered claw, which extended out of the top of the pit.
The boy lay on the creature’s motionless head and caught his breath. As he looked around the darkness and realized what he had done, he couldn’t help but release a nervous chuckle. If before this night began, the gods themselves told him he’d attack a king larakey without pause, he’d have screamed “liars” and waved off their nonsense with a scowl. Yet here he was having just accomplished that very act.
He rolled to his knees and then to his feet. Every muscle and joint of his body ached but he smiled just the same. He pried and tugged at his sword until he pulled the blade free of the beast’s skull and returned it to its sheath. A quick glance upward revealed the challenge ahead. He lowered from the beast’s head onto its shoulder, crouched close to its scaly flesh, and shimmied upward along its arm.
Eventually, he reached the rim of the pit and the early sunslight. The other larakeys remained hidden in their nests as he pulled himself free of the pit. With a glance around, he rushed to the bear’s ribcage, lifted it up, and found his resting bundle of innocence as safe as when he’d left her.
He scooped her into his arms and began the long journey back to Gallyone.
The noisy crowded streets of Gallyone silenced as the 15-year-old boy staggered into town, the bundled infant cradled against his chest. The blood had dried on his arms and face, leaving him stained with splotches of crimson mixed with the dead king larakey's yellow slime. His steps were awkward and plodding and his legs begged for rest, but he staggered forward. His ankle throbbed. He realized his mouth drooped open from exhaustion but he hadn’t the strength to hold it closed.
The townspeople parted with stunned stares. Several women gasped before breaking into happy sobs at the sight of him or more specifically the sight of the package in his arms. The men lowered their heads in respect. They parted. He continued through the street toward the center of the crowd. He staggered and dropped to one knee. Two men rushed from the crowd and helped him back to his feet. A woman hurried forward and held a water bladder to his cracked lips. He gulped the refreshment as though he’d never drunk before.
A thick and intimidating middle-aged bearded man reached out and patted his back. “You are a fine young man,” he said before another man reached out and did the same.
Each of their congratulatory pats sent ripples of pain through his sore and broken body but they were the most satisfying bursts of pain he’d ever known.
A young woman stood in the center of the parting crowd, her eyes wet, swollen, and red. Another man, maybe her husband, held a comforting arm around her while an older woman dabbed at her wet cheeks with a handkerchief. She stared at his approach in disbelief.
He stopped less than a horse length away and held the squirming bundle outward. The infant cooed as if nothing had been amiss. The young woman extended her arms in disbelief and he handed the baby to her.
She snatched her child with a breathless sob and then wrapped an arm around him. Someone in the crowd clapped and the rest of the crowd followed his lead, erupting into applause.
The young woman buried her face against the young hero’s chest with such force, he feared she might suffocate. The man at her side embraced him as well. He stayed in their embrace for as long as they needed to hold. Finally, the young mother leaned away and pressed her lips against her child’s cheek. The man pulled away as well.
The boy stepped back. She looked into his eyes.
“Why?” she asked. “Why did you help us?”
He was at first speechless but when he realized she wouldn’t be satisfied without an answer, he shrugged his shoulders. The applause of the onlookers died until the only sound was the wind’s whistle. Everyone silently waited, expecting him to say something.
He looked around at the stares for a moment before answering, “It was the right thing to do, ma’am.”
“You are my hero,” she said without hesitation.
He felt his cheeks grow warm and turned his head away. He wasn’t comfortable with such praise.
“What is your name, young man?”
“I am Rasi. Son to Donis Leapold of Puimia.”
“Well, Rasi Leapold of Puimia, you aren't from around here. Where are you headed?”
“Thasula. I’m joining the military.”
The young woman gazed back at her child in her arms. “I will never be able to thank you,” she sobbed.
“You’ve already thanked me enough,” he said before turning back toward the way he came.
“Will you stay? ” she called to him. “Let me feed you.”
Rasi glanced over his shoulder. “I haven’t the time, ma’am. I am to be in Thasula by this evening. Thank you, just the same.”
He felt the crowd’s eyes on his back as he made his way to the stables, removed his horse with a silver coin to the keeper, and continued his journey toward Thasula.