I am collecting rocks at the edge of the wilderness when Talik finds me. I hear him before I see him, wings flapping as he flies between crumbling towers towards the open expanse of my improvised quarry. I pause in my work, gripping a sharp stone tight in my hand.
The Gaunt perches himself upon an outcropping, easily three leaps away from me, keeping his back to the morning sun. His leathery wings twitch in time with the tapping of his claws upon the rock. Sensing the proximity of flesh and a sentient mind, the tentacles protruding from his belly sway gently in a searching pattern. It is typical of his kind that he does not apologize for this rude hunger display.
“You have been gone a long time, huntress” he says, voice rasping. He blinks his four black eyes in quick succession.
“I have been busy, Talik.”
He is a moment before answering. He sniffs the air and gestures at my knapsack with his long fingers.
“Among other things.”
I sigh deeply through my gills, impatient.
“For my home,” I say. “They cover the scent.”
The Gaunt snorts. I ignore him.
“You should not live in that thing, Kator” he says. “Memories.”
I shake my head, coiling the tentacles away from my mouth.
“I don’t mind them,” I say.
“Taste is not food.”
“I know. That’s not why I like it there.”
He twitches his wings and tilts his head as he considers my words.
“They are gone,” he says. “Never coming back.”
“I know that.” A moment later, I add, “But I like their stories.”
“Stories are not food, either.”
“No, but they tell us who they were.”
He makes a clicking sound from deep in his throat. “What good is that?”
“Hunters know,” I say.
He shifts uncomfortably and flicks his eyes to the stone in my hand. “And?”
I hesitate, trying to find an adequate description. I think of the tale where a child becomes a ship, and another about exploring an world in the shape of a great ring. “They dreamed of stars,” I say.
This time, he outright laughs at me. His shoulders shake and he almost falls from his perch.
“Prey is what you can see,” he says, between breaths. “Foolish to stalk what you cannot chase.”
He laughs again, and beating his wings, takes to the air, careful not to fly within my reach as he leaves. He circles the the roof of an abandoned building before he fades from sight, checking for food within its skeletal remains. I watch him until he disappears over the horizon. I put the stone into my bag, and blink in surprise. My claws are fully extended and the suckers along my fingers are flexing, showing off their tiny grey teeth against the green of my skin. I didn’t realize I was so hungry.
I go back to sorting through the rocks and bits of disused metal on the ground. None of these tiny pieces will make much difference patching the holes in my makeshift dwelling, but the clean stone will be a buffer against the aroma of the memories. I need to dull the temptation to taste them again. More than one of our kind has wasted away amongst the ruins, lapping at the imprints there like addicts. I cannot afford such foolishness; no Hunter can.
Temple on the Sea is a gigantic structure. It is immense enough that from a distance it could be mistaken for a cliff overlooking the ocean. Up close is another matter, where one can see the great seams between the stones used in its construction, and of course, the decorations. The exterior is carved with crude representations of all of our forms, and graven images of giant cephalopods flank the doors of its great entrance on either side.
The sky above the temple is like a dark purple bruise, still healing from when we rent the space above it, clawing our way back into the world. It is a grim reminder of what we escaped all those years ago. No doubt the priests chose to build here for exactly that reason.
It has been several moons since I have been called to the temple, and I have no doubt what it is regarding. Surely, the Unnamed have noted my absence, and are concerned.
As I approach, I study the great doors of the temple. The sigils carved into the stone form complex circuitry. They recognize our kind, permitting us entry while while keeping others out. They open inward of their own accord to admit me. I look at the heavy stone doors, grateful for the power that animates them.
As always, the temple interior is dark. I retract the protective membrane from my eyes, allowing my full night vision to be put to use. The shadows fade and I am able to see the twisted engravings on the walls, depicting our time outside of space, as well as new ones illustrating our return. In the distance I can see the huge bulk of my patron god and creator, Its great body a mound against the far wall.
There is an Unnamed waiting for me, her pale flesh still dripping from her emergence from the Deep.
I’m lucky. This priest will be fresh and in a good mood.
“Ah,” she says, her voice a mushy whisper, “Welcome, good Hunter.”
I return the formal greeting. “I have returned from the Hunt, to bask in the Presence.”
The Unnamed smiles, revealing the gently waving anemones within her maw.
“It is good to see you again, Lady Kator,” the priest says.
I nod in acknowledgement. She blinks at the strange gesture.
“It has been a while,” she says.
“I had not been summoned.”
The priest purses her lips at this, and her gills flare briefly.
“I have been quite busy,” I add, hoping to forestall any lectures.
“So we hear,” says the priest.
Gaunt shit, I think. Talik has been talking.
“There has been much discussion of your recent… habits.”
“Indeed. We worry about you, child.”
Careful to ensure that my claws are retracted, I wave my right hand in polite dismissal.
“Your concern is appreciated, but not necessary,” I say, careful to pitch my voice and scent in the most submissive manner.
“Ah, but is our job to worry,” says the priest. “Come, we shall stand in the Presence.”
With a pale arm, she gestures towards the dark bulk on the far side of the temple. I bow in formal thanks and began to walk towards the shadows where the Old One sleeps. The Unnamed falls into step behind me to my left, the killing position.
Ah, I think, she really is worried. She is warning me that a wrong answer will provoke an attack. For a moment, a wicked part of me wants to shout blasphemy until it echoes across the temple, just to watch her try. I set this aside, deciding on caution instead. I have no desire to kill a priest today.
Even close to the god, I can see few details of Its form. Its wings are wrapped around Itself, forming a makeshift blanket of rubbery flesh, hiding everything else. It is motionless, but even at rest, I can feel the pulse of Its dormant power.
“Is it true what we hear about you, child?” asks the priest, from her position behind me.
I answer without turning. “That would depend on what you have heard.”
“We hear that you have been spending a lot of time in the ruins. The mortal ruins.”
“They make a good home.”
“Home? You have been living there?”
“The structures are mostly sound,” I say. “It’s much more comfortable than the caves.”
“You do not have to live in the caves with the Gaunts,” says the priest. “We have the City.”
“The City is very crowded,” I say. “I prefer to hunt alone.”
The priest snorts, a deep burbling sound from deep within her throat.
“Come now,” she says, “It is easier to hunt prey with a pack, and the ruins are barren.”
“You would be surprised. The animals sustain me, and of course, our winged cousins are plentiful. They like to explore.“
“But to live among the memories?” She sighs. “Tell me truly, child. Have you been licking the shadows?”
I turn slowly, careful not to startle the priest, meeting her eyes.
“No,” I say, “I am not an addict.”
“The memories are not food,” she says.
“I know that. As I said, I am no addict.”
Her eyes flick across my body and her nostrils flare as she breathes in my scent, trying to gauge my sincerity.
“Perhaps not,” she allows.
I turn back to the Presence. I stretch my mouth forward, extending the sensitive receptors of my tentacles towards the pulse of Its power.
“I know it has been difficult,” the priest says, stepping softly to my right side, the position of divine guidance. “But soon the Old Ones will rise again and lead us to glory.”
“There is no prophecy this time.”
“True,” says the priest, in a comforting tone, “but do not doubt. The Old Ones gather Their power for the next conquest.”
“How could I doubt Them?” I ask. “After all, They brought us here.”
She gurgles in disapproval. “Child, I have been quite patient with you. I understand your frustration. We may have been denied our feast, but we have our freedom. Remember the good, and do not speak with such insolence here in the Holy Presence.”
I can hear her take half a step back towards my left. I bow my head in submission.
“I have faith.” I am a Hunter. I have experience with deception.
She is a moment before answering, but she does not move any farther left.
“That is all we ask, child.”
We stand there a while, basking in the dark power of the god that created us.
“Truly,” she says, “is It not glorious?”
There is a deep groan from the dark form before us, followed by a pulse of fluid. It slaps against us like an ocean wave. It smells of rotting fish.
I spit the stinking liquid from my mouth and shake my tentacles to clear them of it as well.
“The Presence just pissed on us, priest,” I say.
“A blessing,” she agrees, her gills fluttering in rapture.
I sigh, and turn from the Presence, walking back to the temple entrance.
“Leaving so soon?”
I look to her, this time not even attempting to hide the claws and pulsing suckers on my fingers.
“I’m hungry,” I say.
The priest bows in understanding, and for the first time since my arrival, seems glad to be out of my reach.
“Good Hunting, my lady.”
I turn and leave the chamber. If I hurry, I can be back to the ruins by sundown.
My home is as I left it, a shoddy square structure of stone, metal, and wood. It sits in the midst of a large patch of high grass, a short winged leap away from the neighboring ruins, which are in far worse shape. I have cleared the vines away from the sides of the building, and filled the gaps in the walls with great rocks held in place by a mixture of mud and my own saliva. The chitinous sealant turns out to be an effective insulation. There are still a few holes in the peaked roof, but the interior stays warm, especially when a fire is stoked within its hearth. Our kind can survive all manner of climates, but I have always preferred warmth.
I stalk along the perimeter of the building, sniffing for intruders. It is rare for one of the others to disturb my territory these days, but it would be foolish to grow complacent. I have made a great circle out of the bodies of the last few Hunters and Gaunts who tried, and the display serves as a warning to any others. I complete my rounds, and satisfied that I am alone, go inside.
The scent strikes me immediately. The lingering echo of minds is emanating from the walls like the smoke from a burnt offering. I take the rocks that I had gathered on my walk this morning and assemble small mounds of them wherever the imprint of minds is strongest, removing any older rocks that have become stained over time. The tempting scent of the shadows is muted, and I breathe a sigh of relief.
I have built myself a seat of hewn stone by the hearth. Next to it stands a metal table covered in books. These are only my latest finds. There are many others stacked across every flat surface of my home. Some are empty and plain, their blank pages a mystery. Others contain mostly illustrations, but most are full of words. The books are made of wood pulp, and I must use the tips of my claws to turn the delicate pages.
Reading them was difficult at first. While the basic syntax and grammar of the primitive language is simple enough to grasp with some practice, many of the concepts and cultural references are inscrutable. What’s more, I find that the rules allow for words to be arranged in a dizzying variety of combinations, resulting in a plethora of implied meanings. Each time I complete a volume, it seems to embed itself in my thoughts for days afterward. Sometimes, I even dream of them. In many ways, it is not unlike eating a mind, with the exception being that it does not fill my stomach.
I take my next read off the stack, and spend the evening finishing it. In this book, creatures from another world come and subjugate the humans, establishing a benign dictatorship. The aliens seem whimsical in appearance, but the author clearly considered their form horrifying. These “Overlords” guide the species to its eventual evolution into a new level of consciousness, where humanity becomes part of a massive cosmic intelligence. No longer individuals, they are one with the ancient civilizations that came before them.
I am relatively sure that the story is fiction, but my night is sleepless all the same.
I spend the next day hunting.
My morning catch is less than satisfying. The best I can manage is a few four-legged creatures with long legs and antlers whose minds pop like small bubbles. The deer are very fast. For such a lively chase, the reward barely qualifies as a snack.
I use a different tactic in the afternoon. I return to the rubble piles, searching for more buffer with which to stock my home. I choose my spot based on the proximity of the surrounding boulders, measuring their distance in strides. As I rummage, I listen for the sound of leathery wings. I do not need to wait long. With claws extended, I leap to the nearest perching rock before Talik can even begin his mockery.
The Gaunt’s mind is infinitely more satisfying than the deer from the morning. Thick, viscous, and full of dark, hungry thoughts, it is swollen with flavor. I take my time with it, and when I finish, the sun is already setting. I blink drowsy eyes and begin walking back home.
The stars are shining in a cloudless sky by the time I reach my dwelling, and as I watch them, I wonder to myself what other worlds might be beyond this one. The humans left to search for them so long ago. Did they find them? Are they lost? Or did they become part of some greater intelligence, bound to a higher purpose?
It is difficult to tell which stories are truth and which are fiction. Some books suggest that such travel is impossible, while others discuss it as if it is no more than a small leap. Maybe they haven’t reached their destination yet. Perhaps they are sleeping, or living generation after generation while hurtling through the dark of space towards a new home.
I do not know, but I cannot help but envy them.
I stretch my right hand to the sky, framing the brightest star between my thumb and forefinger. I try to imagine what it would feel like to touch it. The books say it would be very hot, but for a moment, I wonder what it would mean if a star could burn cold. What would that do to a world? What kind of life would exist there? What would their minds taste like? Would they dream? What would it be like to be the first to explore such a place?
I found a box of pencils the other day. I had to sharpen them with my claws and teeth, but they mark the pages well enough. The basic structure of the language is really quite simple. Assembling the words in the right order can be challenging, but I’m getting better at structure.
I grab a pencil and one of the blank books from the table. I take them outside and jump onto the roof. It is cold tonight, like a frigid star. I can almost see it in my mind. I awkwardly scratch the dark tip against the pages, and begin to imagine what my answers might be.