A burst of steam and a pungent bodily aroma erupted from the chitin-like shell concealing the vague shape of another person. Thau and Es’Con quickly conferred with one another before deciding that this girl was undoubtedly what the elders sought. Clearing away a good half of the dome over the man-sized pond, the two pulled the woman from the opaque gray water as gingerly as they could. Her swollen stomach gave the rightful impression that she would be the perfect candidate for the experiment. Es’Con still wasn’t sure about the whole affair, the rhyme and reason were clear enough, but the end results were uncertain. Yet there was no time to concern with such problems, the water was disturbed, and with it, the entire valley was beginning to hum with life.
Thau was quick in getting free the loose cord he had brought within his pack, and, with Es’Con’s help, they had the girl up in the bug’s saddle in only a moment. Together they sandwiched the unconscious, heavily pregnant girl between them and knotted the cord at either end to secure her properly. At the front, Thau prompted and beckoned the dragonfly to lift off and return them to the plateau just on the horizon. All the while, Es’Con prepared for the trouble brewing in the ponds that pocked this low valley. Shells began to pop open and slide into the earth, allowing more pale-skinned, water-logged victims to crawl free. They were singularly drawn to the dragonfly that had invaded the valley and could not be torn away from the half shredded moth it feasted on. Loading in dart after dart, Es’Con tranquilized a few of the almost zombified attackers. As some of those nearer to the bug’s tail began to reach out, Es’Con was jostled and would have fallen from the mount had he not been tied to Thau. The land of gray ponds and rotting life started to shrink in Es’Con’s view, and he breathed a relieved sigh that they had so narrowly gotten away.
Sliding the tub into its sheath on his thigh and the remaining darts back into place on his other leg, Es’Con finally relaxed a bit. There was still plenty that could go wrong so high in the sky, still miles and miles from home but fear subsided for the time being. The worst that could happen would be the dragonfly becoming distracted and hunting down more, increasingly dangerous prey before they could reach the plateau. However, Thau was in control of the beast now, and it no longer seemed quite so interested in basic hunger. Instead, it carried on straight for home, through the low-hanging, malignant yellow clouds reeking of sulfur and the acidic tasting rain that would scold the skin. It was then that Es’Con began wondering more about their guest on the back of the dragonfly.
She wasn’t of any particular difference from the rest in the Wetlands save for the child. But, again, he was reminded that was what elder Hamah had asked for. There were no apparent dissimilarities between this woman and any back home, if not for her skin. It was a paler, almost sickly, shade of green, almost a turquoise against the rich, forest tones Es’Con’s clan were painted in. He considered that she could have been stolen from another tribe and stuck in the ponds of the Wetlands, but then he had to wonder where any other group of people could have come from if not on the plateau. Carefully, he pulled her head back to lean almost on his shoulders so he could take a better look at her face. Es’Con was by no means a healer or an adept with the body, but he knew enough about vital signs and healthy flesh to tell if something was ill. Yet, for all he could make of the girl, she was well and had not seen a rough life, but again, who could have any struggle in life if all they knew were the ponds.
Es’Con couldn’t help but wonder more about those shallow pools that patterned the valley’s floor like stars in the night sky. He had seen some up close, felt the outer layer of the shell, and up until that day thought them unbreakable armor protecting any person within. There was a joy and possibly a cause for concern upon finding a stone ax could shatter a hole in the ridged bubbles. But what drew more of Es’Con’s attention was the supposed ‘water’ that filled the pool. It was slate gray and clouded but more imposing in that it did not rightly behave like water should. The liquid clung and drizzled slowly but surely off of a body rather than quickly slicking off as rainfall would. Moreover, Es’Con couldn’t be sure, but he thought he had seen the fluid crawling about in the pool as they fled from the valley. There was much he didn’t know and plenty he thought the elders kept from the rest of the clan. He would have to ask for any such insights. He needed to know, even if Thau acted utterly unconcerned, Es’Con would demand that knowledge as his reward for the hunt.
With a flurry of dust and leaves, the dragonfly touched down just long enough for its riders to disembark in a clearing on the plateau. After removing the harness and any other gear that encumbered the bug, Thau let it fly free. As it did, the creature zipped with a newfound speed and agility as though it had never known such light and unrestricted movements. Almost as though it were aware of what the warrior had done for him, the dragonfly whirled about in the sky and watched Thau wave it off. With a buzzing zip, the bug departed the air space surrounding the plateau, and with its departure came a small knot of citizens to greet the party.
Carrying a woven stretcher, three burlier men, almost the size of Thau, met the two men and gathered up the woman. Es’Con found it strange, not that they would carry her off but that they bound her to the litter. There was no point in asking; the servants of the elders were not inclined to speak to any but the sagely old men. What irked Es’Con slightly was that the three wise elders would not come to them with thanks but instead await the duo to bow before them. He understood enough that it had something to do with honor and position. Yet for what they had done for them, Es’Con hoped they would allow some flexibility in the proper rituals. They went to the three robed old men, their faces aged and craggy like the rock face leading up the plateau, and to Es’Con chagrin, they were made to bow as though they had not just fulfilled the men’s wishes perfectly.
“The longears have blessed you with quick feet, the stag with quick wits, and the carrion birds with keen sight. You have done well in your hunting Es’Con and you with your might Thau. Our thanks is infinite, as is that of the great masters inland,” elder Nemek entombed in his most ritualistic preaching voice.
Hamah intervened just behind his cohort, “We trust that you have done our bidding to the letter. Making sure not to disturb those below in attaining one of their numbers who is with child is paramount to this most important endeavor.”
“Yes, elder Hamah,” Thau and Es’Con responded in unison before the third elder entreated them.
Quway, the more youthful and soft-spoken elder, informed them, “Then you have right to receive your proposed reward, children. What is it you ask for this great service you have done for our people?”
There was the gap of only a second wherein Thau could have spoken up, but before the seasoned warrior could even begin to lift his eyes and open his mouth, Es’Con cut in. Trying to hold back any contempt or skepticism for the elders he had, the hunter inquired, “May I ask the simple question of why? For what purpose did we collect and deliver this girl? And why was it necessary for her to be with child?”
“That is of no consequence to you, hunter, and there is no purpose in imparting that knowledge onto either of you,” Hamah responded matter-of-factly, “What of you, Thau? Is that your request as well?”
“I want only what I have always been offered, wine, women, position, and that most choice flesh reserved for those of your station,” Thau returned, utterly unfazed as though he hadn’t just been put in the line of fire due to Es’Con.
A pleased look crossed the oldest of the elder’s lips, “Yes, that is easily arranged for you, noble warrior of Yone Shire. By the evening of the next full moon, you shall have all you deserve and more,” turning his gaze to Es’Con and his expression fading to contempt, Hamah continued, “As for you, hunter, we can promise only such rewards as is equal to your cohorts demands. Think on that wisely, and we shall arrange your payment once you’ve thought it through.”
The elders faded into the shadows of twilight like raindrops into the riverbed, with only a faintly interested glance from Quway to give Es’Con the slightest notion that he might not wake with his lungs filling with blood. Thau followed just behind the hooded figures, however, kept a respectful distance as not to dishonor the men. Es’Con stared into the darkening tree line that surrounded Yone Shire, wondering at all those many nagging questions. There was something suspicious about it all, and he couldn’t help but wonder if the village’s elders were acting out some clandestine plot or if it were part of some greater machination of those even higher holy men in LaLonShayel. Could it be possible that in all five of the border villages, a hunter and warrior had been sent out to acquire one of the low people for some inexplicable experiment? Es’Con wasn’t sure he wanted to know, but there was the urge, a drive that fought want and became a need, for him to know precisely what was at work among the elders.