To be exiled is to be erased.
You are not forgotten. You never existed at all. Each beat of your heart is judged unworthy of counting. Even a slave wears chains, proving their value. Even the dead are mourned.
I am nothing to the Kiilash who birthed me. The nameno longer recalls the face of their kin, son of Chieftain Ponjaf. I am outcast from their hearts as much as their hearths.
There is no return from such a fate.
Or so I was told. Years and blood can change such things.
My heart still beats, and so I went to them with trophies gathered on the hunter’s path. Wordlessly I was brought before my father’s gaze. He offered me a return to the tribe, where my name would be spoken and face remembered, where my heart’s beating would be counted again.
And he named the cost for such a thing.
I must track a shadow. Bladed shard of moonless night. Abomination.
Return from the jungle with its, and I shall be exiled no more.
I melt between the trees. I hear, smell, feel. I parse the spoor of a thousand creatures, big and small. This comes from instinct, sharpened by the cold teachings of the human who found an outcast, and set him down the path of the hunt. I still bear the knife Markon gave me.
I search for thethat dwells here, unable to belong.
Thethat hang and rattle from my coat are gone, left behind at my camp. There is only the blade, a layer of grease to slicken my fur, and the slow, measured beat of a hunter’s heart in my chest.
There is nothing, amid the teeming life of the rainforest… until there is something. It is faint, but stark, slithering over my senses. The sickly sweet unfamiliarity of it halts me for a moment as I take it in. It is wrong in every way. Repulsive. An enemy to life in ways I cannot describe. It defies everything around it.
The true hunt begins. I follow the trail.
I snake around it, never touching. I endure the wrong-thing’s scent, until the sounds of bloodletting reward me.
Something is dying. Through the trees ahead. It is not dying well.
A pack of jungle raptors. Far from the apex, raptors are still capable predators, and rarely ever prey. Their attacker is either desperate with hunger, or unconcerned by their lethality.
I bare my teeth in a grin. It may be a challenge after all.
The reek of the wrong-thing is overpowering. It clings to the clumps of bright, bloody plumage strewn about the forest floor. I surge up a thick, rugged tree trunk, my claws carrying me silently into the canopy. I crouch there in the leafy shadows, tasting the humidity of the air, narrowing my eyes, seeking my quarry.
It has speed. That is a weapon it has honed to a fine edge. I catch only glimpses as it darts back and forth, finishing its kills and preparing to feast.
The promise of trophies does not spur it to hunt. I sense a greater hunger in its movements, something beyond the primal urge to survive.
When the last raptor dies, the wrong-thing slows. Even so, it is never still. It leaps and slides across the ground like smoke. I can see it more clearly now. It makes my brain itch.
It is like an insect, but not completely. Its parts do not make sense. Limbs and flesh and shell andthat cannot belong to the same single creature—all inside a glistening outer skeleton, blackish-purple like rotten fruit. The air and light writhe around it. They do not want to touch it either.
That gives me the understanding I seek. The wrong-thing bears the mark of an exile, too. I am ready to send it back to whatever foulness spawned it.
With Markon’s knife light in my grip, I drop from the branches.
There is no sound when I land behind the creature. It pays my approach no heed. I know how to move unseen, unheard, until those sweet, adrenaline-filled moments after a killing blow is struck. I have risen to become an apex predator by adaptation, by instinct… and in this moment my instinct screams that something is not right.
Hesitation saves my lifeblood from joining that of the raptors. I barely see the claw as it slices the air I would have occupied. It knew I was coming. Had I not stopped short, it would have ended me then.
Everything has been too clean. Too easy. I should have recognized this sooner. Ponjaf’s promise has blinded me, confidence soured to hubris, leaving me exposed.
A slick chittering comes from the monster’s throat. Ichor flecks its jaws. There is movement on its back, straining against the carapace. It hisses, a noise I cannot tell is of pain or pleasure, as a pair of new limbs erupt and unfurl into hideous, dripping wings. It has seen the threat I pose, and so it changes. It is unwilling to submit as prey.
Too slow. The creature’s riposte sends Markon’s knife spinning from my grip. Foolishly, sentimentally, my eyes follow it for an instant. The error opens the way for the wrong-thing to strike.
Another bladed claw flicks out. Hot, stinging pain. A roaring between my ears.
I fall back. Blood slicks my face.
I scramble to gain distance, trying to blink the red from my vision. The right eye is a blur. The left remains dark. The roaring will not fade.
I reach for my cheek. I realize what the beast has taken.
Beating the last of the vile slime from its wings, the wrong-thing rises to hover over me. It bares its fangs, either in further challenge or a cruel grin, and holds my left eye up for me to see. Slowly it lowers the blood-slick orb over its fangs, and drops it down its gullet.
My gorge rises. I clench my fists, rubbing at my remaining eye.
The defilement of it. The symbolic shift as this foul creature snatches the role of hunter away from me. I no longer feel any pain. Only rage.
I hurl myself at it. I need no knife. I have the claws I was born with, and the triumphal roar I learned for myself. I will not be defeated.
The red dance of violence seems unending. We each give chase in turn. The abomination is cold darkness. I am the core of a vengeful sun. We cut away at each other, over and over, and the rest of the world no longer matters.
Finally, as night falls, my enemy flees.
Or… is that just as I wish to see it? Maybe it learned all it can from me, and instinct guides it on to greater things. Exhaustion takes hold. I collapse, left with bloody wounds and a new, terrible sense of connection to this monster. It is a bond forged in the moment it ate of my flesh.
The Kiilash know the wrong-thing as.
In the old mortal tongue, it means, “You Face Yourself”.
True enough, it changed as we fought, growing and twisting. It went forward, always forward to find its edge, where I looked back into myself, back into the past and the tribe of my birth, to summon my exile’s fury.
This was not enough. As it has adapted, now so must I.
For I will have my kill.