There were not others to devour.
As I made my way back through the arena I noticed a curious lack of corpses. This could have been because the competition had all the murderous tendencies of a bunch of wild daises, but I could have sworn that the scent of death had been in the night air. At least, it had been while I was still 'fighting' Kairi, and as I examined a bloody patch of earth I was sure of it. There'd been corpses, not by the droves, no, but corpses nonetheless. Free meals. Essential meals. Had I missed the chance to eat them while I battled Kairi? I tried to drudge up my few memories of the other competitor's forms. Were there bone-crushers amongst them who could eat an entire body as easily as I? I didn't think so. Some might have the capacity to break bone, but none of them (that I could remember) struck me as voracious eaters. You know, in the sense that, like me, they would eat anything and everything.
Out of the swamp then, but not out of the swamp diet.
I contented myself fishing, for the rest of the night and the next day, until I had amassed a sizable pile of oceanic fish. They were strange to look at, but none of them smelled poisonous (not that that would matter) and I judged them good enough to eat. And that's what I ate. For two days. Fuck my life I wanted red meat.
"Guess they don't approve of scavenging bodies."
I lifted my head from my paws, searching for the source of the voice. It sounded familiar
but I'd been too busy eating for the past -again- two days to really pay attention to my fellow competitors when they spoke to me. So I suppose it could have been anyone. But. "Spotty dog!" I grinned, and the merle took a wary step back.
"Spotty dog?" He shook his head, amused. "No, my name's Iva." The head titled, and he smiled mischievously. "Well, Avi sometimes. But I have the reins today, so it's Iva."
Okay. Okay so, Spotty Dog was a psycho. Nice. Really
nice. "Whatever you say."
"You gonna share those fish, or just hog the rest of it down like you been doin'?"
A psycho and a wise guy. But this was a welcome change from the frightened stuttering and wide-eyed staring that he'd demonstrated before. I pushed some of the pile toward him, and he accepted it with a nod. I'd had my fill for now, anyway, and I was used to sharing my catches with the Pucca. He ate in silence and with a starved rapidity that suggested he'd either neglected to eat while he was resting, or he suspected I'd decide to take the food back.
I let him eat in peace, and turned away to look over at what was left of the competition. They sat in groups, napping or chatting idly. One of the ones who'd been sitting by himself got up with a harassed air, and came toward where Spotty Dog and I were sitting, giving me a real good look at him. With some surprise I saw that he was near as big as I was, and a wolfish creature to boot. Some sort of sub-virosa perhaps?
"You lookin' for a good time? I have food." I smiled. "How bout you join me and spotty over here?"
"No thank you." he ran off, looking more anxious than before. Yeesh.
"Wonder what's got his tail in a knot."
"I dunno, Spotty. But I wish he'd come back so I could unknot it." I said with a cackle.
"Room for another in those plans of your's?"
"My dear. You'd be crushed."
Heavy pawsteps sounded behind us, and for a second I thought the brute wolf had reconsidered my offer. But no. It was only Intelligence. Rational when I wanted sexual. She grimaced as though she knew what I was thinking, and I grinned in reply. The demi-god shook her head, and gestured wordlessly to Iva. Or Avi. Or whatever Spotty's name was at the moment. The dog followed her away, murmuring a thanks as he passed.
The night went on into the morning in much the same fashion. Intelligence would come to a competitor and take them away, instructing them on the rules of our next challenge as she did. It was well into the afternoon when she came to get me, and I followed her without much complaint.
She gave me a brief description of the challenge: find her before my opponents could. "Multiples again?"
"It's only fair. You outsize the grand majority of the competitors here."
"So are they small then or what?"
She led me right up to mountain side that could be seen from the beach, and nodded toward an entrance a few feet away. "There is a maze within that you must navigate if you are to find me." She nodded again, encouragingly, and added "Good luck."
Good luck indeed. As with Senses and Creation I could feel her aura influencing me as I entered the mountain. That gave me confidence, though I knew it would fade as soon as I was a good distance away from her
and grow stronger as I grew nearer. I'd have to remember that.
It wasn't long after I entered the mountain that I began to feel heat underneath my paws. The groans and creaks that reverberated off the walls of the tunnel made me nervous, and for the first time in a long time very conscious of not just my size, but my weight. It seemed as though I might fall through the floor at any moment. And the lighting? Well, my vision was shit to begin with.
Turn, turn, dead end.
Turn, turn, dead end.
Hadn't my antlers bumped into that rock before? I clacked them against it again, irritated. Of all the rotten luck. Navigating labyrinths was mole-work. Navigating labyrinths with lava was crazyman-work. I peered into the darkness ahead, my eyes straining to catch a glimpse of anything that might be promising. Nothing. Although a faint scuttling could be heard, punctured occasionally by muffled thumps and growls. That had to be my opponents. It sounded as though they might be tied up in a fight
not so rotten luck. I hadn't expected to have them indisposed so quickly.
I came to the next crossroads, considering. Instinct pushed for me to head in the opposite direction of the trouble, and normally I would have followed that urge. However, my objective was not just survival, but to reach Intelligence. There was a good chance that the more trouble there was, the closer you were to finding the she-god, much in the same fashion as you'd find more bees closer to the honey. I deliberated for a moment longer, and headed for the sounds of the commotion. If it was the right way, good on me. If it was the wrong way I stood to get a nice meal out of the mistake. Win-win, right? Right.
But. My god. Intelligence had to be fucking kidding on this one.
There was a dragon. A plains dragon.
Memories of watching the terrors soar above my head, watching them hunt with the ferocity of a virosa, flashed through my mind. They are creatures to be respected. No one in the Sol'Damma would ever think to kill a dragon, not even a baby like the one before me. And it had to be a baby. It was so small
it was rotten luck that it and whoever its partner was were my opponents. It would be wrong to kill it
and not just because its huge-ass mother would probably come to torch my ass.
It was surrounded by scorpions, but putting up a valiant fight. It was quick--quicker than any plains dragon pup I'd ever seen. Suppose the gods wouldn't have drug it here if it couldn't defend itself. Still the scorpions that were not so large to me were a death sentence to the dragon.
Any virosa with half a mind would save the kid. Get in good with a plains dragon and you were set for life, speaking on survival terms. Still, I hesitated. Where was the partner? A scent separate from the ones of the scorpions and dragon led to a passage on my left. One opponent here, the second one well on its way to Intelligence.
Why hadn't the scorpions attacked that creature as well?
I looked back to the struggle. There was plenty of time for me to find a suitable mate with or without the supposed whore of life. I could have a mate even if I lost. I could not, however, have a dragon that would grow to immense proportions if I continued on and let it die.
Some ol' broad. Or
badass motherfucking huge dragon.
Yeah, there's only one real option.
Two of the scorpions had noticed my presence, and moved away from the dragon to advance toward me, their stingers held high. I dodged the attack of the first one and latched onto the stinger of the second, ripping it from the tail with ease. It tried to retreat, but I struck out with a large paw, driving it to the ground and crushing it.
The first scorpion took the hint and abandoned its brothers.
The third was too busy with the original prey to notice my lunge for it, and I took advantage of this, snatching it from the ground and ripping it arpart with a violent shake of my head. The broken carcass didn't taste so bad in my mouth so I crunched it down, pleased that I was able to attain such an easy meal. It was no more than a snack, mind, but I was already starting to feeling hunger clawing at my belly. Fish just weren't enough. They were dandy fine in the Pucca's swamp where they might be supplemented by Bellringers and Lantern-walkers, but I could not live on them alone. The bug was a welcome change.
I glanced around for the dragon-babe. Didn't have to look very long. It was backed against the wall near me, narrow-eyed and feral looking. I supposed it thought it might be next.
"Easy there short-stuff. I'm not lookin' to start nothing'." That caught it by surprise.
enemy not leave?"
Nova must have been the other scent. An older dragon maybe, that had no kinship and no reason not to use its younger partner as a scapegoat. I was both grateful and admiring of the deed. Grateful, because they would draw the wrath of the mother. Admiring for the audacity of the thing. Clearly they would be the one to beat. But first, the dragon.
"Nova leave, enemy not leave." he repeated. "Enemy not enemy?"
I nodded. "Not enemy." Strange that a thumbscrew should say that. Perhaps the Pucca had made me soft. The pup's stance became uncertain, then relaxed, although he still watched me with wary eyes. Betrayed once, he could be betrayed again. "Where'd your partner go?" At the mention of his partner he growled, lashing his tail. "Thought could teach. Creature learn nothing." Okay. "But where did it go?" shaking my head, I remembered the passage. The scent trail had led there. Without waiting for a reply from the dragon I trotted through the entrance, climbing up the inclined passage with some difficulty. From the scrabbling behind me, I gather that the dragon had chosen to follow. Good. He could probably be of some use when we found his partner. Who I was pretty dead set on killing at this point. You don't abandon pups. Well, maybe if they're light-coated and have no chance of having strength
my pack leader's pup excluded of course
but not a perfectly healthy youngin' that showed great talent as a fighter. Teach him to fight multiple opponents at once and he'd be golden.
The passage leveled out once we'd climbed a little higher, and though there was still a dim orange glow to the walls, there was no heat. Like the lanterns the Pucca sometime made with their strange paws. Or the lights of the Lantern-walkers. Bah. Everything on the island reminded me in some way of my two homes. I'd be happy when I was on familiar ground again, familiar ground that was familiar. Not just similar.
As I walked I noticed that the passage was significantly wider than the ones of the lower floor. Good. Actually, not so good. I discovered the reason for this when I nearly walked off the edge of an inner cliff. Damn eyesight. I backed away, shaken, but not enough to stop. I moved as far away from the edge as I could and continued on, the dragon flying just above me. If he was concerned that I nearly fallen, he didn't show it. I didn't expect him to. Young though he was, he was still my opponent. He wanted to find Intelligence before I did, and I supposed I should want the opposite.
We turned a corner and a blast of hot light seared the left side of my face. "FUCKING. CHRIST." Beautiful. Another opponent with magic but not one running on half power. Blood oozed from a wound that still burned red-hot, though the beam had receded. I searched for the creature I had to owe the lovely new addition to my face, and was rewarded. It was easy enough to spot in the darkness, as a bluish green glow pulsated from the markings about its body. This must have been the one who left the dragon to the scorpions. Guess it had a change of heart.
"He lead it to us." the creature snarled to no one in particular. "Why couldn't you lead it away from me?"
Tricksters. I hated-Oh. Nevermind. Whatever plan had been concocted by the glowing creature, the dragon had not been privy to it. In fact, he seemed to take being abandoned rather personally, bristling and snarling at his ally. "You left."
"And it seems you've messed me up again." The creature pounced for the dragon and the two fought for dominance on the ground before me. I was floored. I hadn't expected any of my fellow competitors to have backbones, let alone such ferocity. I grinned, itching to join the fight, but held myself back. The glow creature had the look of a dragon as well as the obvious dragon. She might be some species I didn't know of, one as dangerous as a plains dragon. I wasn't in the game of rash-wait a minute.
Rash plays were /my/ plays.
I smiled, slow and truly happy. Intelligence must be near.
Their fight was not mine. And though I had a true desire to have a plains dragon on my side, I could not waste this opportunity. Funny. Hadn't I been ready to call it quits for an alliance with the dragon before? I couldn't remember. Maybe the throbbing pain that was the left side of my face was muddling my thoughts.
A matter for later.
Now, I had a demi god to find.
The sounds of fighting faded away as I pushed onwards, cursing dead ends and the constant agony that plagued my left eye. My left eye. I closed my right and cursed again. The damn glow-dragon had blinded me. Half-blinded anyway
Though my vision was already poor, this new level of poorness gave me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. It was one thing to see badly. It was another thing to not be able to see at all, even if only on one side. "Hopefully it's temporary." I seriously doubted my words even as I said them aloud.
Turn, turn, dead end.
Turn, turn dead end.
"Not this again."
After a while I came upon a path that slopped downward. At first I thought I had navigated myself in a circle. But
But I /knew/ that that was wrong. I entered the path hesitantly, then confidently. Perhaps the faint echoes of Intelligence's aura were more potent than they seemed. I entered what I assumed to be the third and final part of the maze with confidence, happy that my challenge was almost over. I wanted to be out of the darkness. I wanted to feel sand beneath my paws again instead of cool, unforgiving stone.
It'd be a while before that, though.
A beam of light, similar to the one that had taken my eye, hit my right side. It was a solid hit, and it took my center of gravity for a dance. I fell to the ground with a muffled thump, and snarled, looking this way and that for the glow creature. I didn't scent the dragon so the creature must have won the fight permanent-like.
Regardless of my imposing size, the creature came in close range, not fearing to rake her claws across the wound she'd created in my side. I howled in agony and snapped for her. She leaped from my side and slithered around to my left, snickering with glee as she nailed me in my blind spot. This time though she came too close to my jaws to avoid them in time. I took the creature in my mouth and bit down hard, and was rewarded with a satisfying crunch. That wasn't enough. I shook the creature that had blinded me like I had the scorpion, and flung her broken body to ground. There were few kills I took true pleasure in devouring. Eating was a necessity. What I ate didn't matter as long as it kept me from starving.
But this creature. This one I would enjoy.
The dragon entered the passage with me when I was halfway through the body, his form covered in blood, his wings tattered. "Nova." He looked at the body, not disgusted, but understanding. He came from a similar walk of life. You could tell in one glance that he knew that some must die for others to live. That surprised me. I would have thought a youngin', even a dragon, would have been at least a little squeamish at seeing such a gruesome kill.
"She shouldn't have tortured."
"She wouldn't learn."
So that had been the creature's deal. Torture. I looked away from eyes too old to belong to what I thought was a young pup.
When this was over, would I return to the Pucca? I had already spent too long in the swamp, stalling my departure for my real home, with my fellow virosa. Stalled in taking back my mantle of thumbscrew. Had the time gotten away from me?
Or had I found a life I enjoyed more?
Torture. "I take it you disapprove of that sort of thing?"
He nodded his head vehemently, saying "It is wasteful. Should only kill for food. For survival."
Kill for survival.
I finished the carcass without ceremony, snapping the remains up in my mouth and swallowing them whole. Intelligence is ahead. We can both sense it. I wonder why the dragon did not go ahead while I was eating, but do not ask him.
Even injured, I beat him easily. My strides are longer and his damaged wings leave him incapable of the flight that might have won him the short-lived race.
Intelligence nods at the both of us as we enter, I first, Dragon second.
"You may stay Dragon. Or you may go. We will speak of your fate when I am done with Marlo."
He slinks to the side of the wall, muttering about someone named 'Neffin' and another named 'Tally'. I turn to face the demi-god who brought me to fight, but not as brazen as I did before. Certainly not as brazen as Momma. The pain from my wound, still fresh, made me hang my head, for I was reluctant to trigger further pain by craning to see the god's face. Pitiful.
"You have one." No shit. "As a reward I will give you answers, so long as your question does not pertain to the future," All questions of my fate and Dragon's were wiped from my mind. "Our realm," Well, I'd had about enough of knowing gods. "Or the tournament itself." Lovely. Couldn't remember any questions I had about the next round even if I tried.
I thought again of my homes. Sol'Damma, fighting in the desert. Puccaloo, living peaceably in the swamp. How did they fare? No
I would find out when I could at last leave the island. They were perfectly capable of surviving without me.
It was just me who needed them.
I shook my head, irritated. Had such thoughts always plagued me? Or was it Intelligence's influence. I wanted to ask why I was in the tournament in the first place. But I already knew. It was to survive. Not to kill for a prize, or for the pleasure of it, but to survive.
I did not need a god to tell me what I already knew. Nor what I could find on my own. And what I couldn't find? Pappa would say that I was not /meant/ to know those things.
"Keep your answers. I can survive without them."
/Somewhere, an abyss smiled./