Weird Tales Contest Winner
|L'tarka longed for the old days, when the hills were not so empty. She remembered the sounds of Illuas, and the scent of roast Mtark. There were farms as far as the eye could see, ranches where the skittering Kaorzs grazed on gray-pink bristles. Three hills over the horizon, the Great Towers remained, though their guardians were jealous now, and shot intruders on sight. It didn't bear thinking on. She had pleaded with M'horn not to go. But they'd been so hungry.
Hunger. The dim caves beckoned, protected from the ever-present red heat. Far more dangerous than dry, cracked land, on any given day. But too many days had passed, and nothing was more dangerous than starving. The sun had not baked the lichens and mushrooms there, not yet. She would go. She had to go, and so she did, crouching low, scales itching at the thought of danger.
Passing the lip of the cave, she sighed in relief at the slight cool of the air. Not the cold of the long night, that stiffened limbs, that brought sluggishness and sleep. Here, she almost felt alive, as she had not since she had lost her firstborn to the ships. Bittersweet hope passed through her like a chill. Perhaps her son would live, when the "hibernation" was done, on the "new planet". She had cursed him when he left, for abandoning his people, turning his back on the Gods. Now she only hoped he found new people, and new gods. The Stone-Mother had failed her. Thock-let-bach-tan! She had failed everyone! This was not the promised oneness. This was death.
Down into the cave she went, heart beating fast with a more urgent hope. Lichen! The pale green light accepted her sharp claws and raspy tongue. Foolish plant, to reveal itself to her. In decades past, she would have turned her nose up at such fare. It was rapture, as she choked it down. Not all of it: leave some to grow, she told herself. There were blue mushrooms, all in a circle, and she devoured them eagerly, feeling life pulse back into her veins. Hunger would not take her, not for another turning of suns. She should leave: Il'sora had hissed of cannibals below. That was turnings ago, before she passed into the west. L'tarka had greedily accepted her farm. She would not give up so easily, after only a season or two of hardship. But the Stone-Mother remained barren, and the Rain-Mother had not sent her blessings. She had to eat all but the last of her hardy Kotoraks. She forced herself to nurture them, to share with them her scarce water. If they passed, her little farm would finally become a tomb. Foolish, she was, not to leave with Il'sora. They were all foolish.
Thousands on thousands of years, society had been beautiful, unchanged. Before that, yes, the sacred texts had warned of this. They told what would happen if the People sought the power of electricity, of the atom. The world had almost been lost before, but the people had returned to the Stone-Mother, and eons of peace. The People were not too proud to turn from power, but lived as their ancestors had, one with the Gods, one with the lands. Until the People of the Ships turned their back on everything! It shouldn't have mattered - they were too few. The People of the Gods had pushed them back to their island of perversions, though they protected it with strange weapons, and lured away the credulous young. Like her son. Oh the Ship-people claimed they had not done it, that the land and the planet were too old and worn, and only technology could restore it. Lies. They couldn't even save themselves. They ran, to their "planets", whatever those were. Surely the Gods of Fire and Death would find them there too - but for her son, she hoped.
L'tarka heard her tail rattle, and stilled it. Yes, deeper. She would risk it. Crouching low, she heard a noise. Enemy? No, a slitherer, by a small pool. Blessings of the goddess! She would take it. Quick, quiet, quick quiet, she hunted like a primitive, with a quick strike taking the slitherer by the tail, and bashing it against a rock. Then she leaned forward, and her long tongue curled into the mossy pool. Pure delight! This was water as it should be, cool and rich with minerals, an echo from before the drought-times. But no! There were stirrings in the dark. Flee!
Old, tired limbs weakened by abuse threw themselves into motion, and L'tarka dashed the way she had come, trying to ignore the shouts below. Failing. But the paths were many, and dark, and the echoes of pursuing feet scattered, so she had hope. She would escape! She would live, one more day. But then she tripped, and banged her knee, so that stars passed before her vision. Up again, up, and L'tarka was gone, nearly to the lip of the cave. There it was, and the pink glow of setting suns beyond! Hope!
A strong hand grasped her from behind, and there was angry laughter, and pain, as the cannibal sunk its teeth into her neck, and grasped her prize, while chittering pets watched behind. Oh Gods! Stone-Mother, why?