“Don’t forget how much nature loves you, and don’t forget how much nature hates you.”-Whiteshore folk tree one hundred fifty two
The place sent chills down Barnarr’s back, over his tail, through his toes, into the ground, then up again all the way to the top of his head. Land with relatively little out of the ordinary at first glance, slightly swampy where it wasn’t pure estuary, and field-like expanses beyond the swamp. Just before that, strange topography.
Topography that wasn’t simply “unusually” regular. Hills that on rare occasion bore the bones of hidden hollow decay.
A Destroyer settlement always caused that sort of unease, but this place was one he’d never seen. The compound of seeing a place about which he’d heard tales, in the flesh as it were, plus the fact that it had the self-evident alienness all these places held…
Well, it was not suited to help a man get a full night of sleep, to be blunt about it.
The small hard stomach voice spoke up. A sustained anxiety tended to take difficulties and hone them, after all.
He hoped that they’d soon find the chance to gather foodstuffs other than jerky, and that nothing else remotely violent should happen.
“I don’t think we’re going to find what we’re looking for here,” he said, rising from his crouch on the rock. The sun carved a him-shaped hole from the grass below.
“Probably not. Won’t hurt to check.”
Rurd’s statement made him start to protest hotly, until he saw her mischievous face.
He grabbed up his spear and carefully followed after Grenfooner, leaving her up at the top of the hill. The terrain overlooking the jagged and broken majesty had soft soil running down from the top in a long switchback, probably used by springers and such. She followed after, something sharp glimpsed in her hand. The set of her jaw glittered with slightly mean-spirited cheer.
It was the sort of levity that you needed to indulge if you didn’t want to freeze up forever.
None of the trio made any significant attempts at stealth, though they did avoid clearly exposed branches when they presented. Such a place had native fauna – if anything could be truly called native here – which mastered a unique environment. Probably a trapjaw or three, several sorts of smaller poisonous creatures, a few unfamiliar predators thrown in for good measure. They could delay their discovery by anything that meant them ill, but not really prevent it. Better to get themselves out in the open and move through favorable ground as best they could. Ambush would come sooner or later if some creature meant to hunt them, so keeping to areas where they could support each other was the order of the day.
Circling the ruins evidently would mean going through either much thicker swamp or swimming a long long way. All things equal, at least this route they’d be under stress and in danger with dry land underfoot.
Near the edge of an arm of swamp, they slowed upon reaching an irrefutable sign of Destroyer presence. Big roundels of earthen exterior sat in measured regular placement, some collapsed into weird-scented bowls. Some didn’t rise too terribly high. However, each circle spanned far enough it would take Barnarr four or five heartbeats to sprint from this side to the other.
In the medium distance, common field birds began to talk amongst themselves. Besides the bugs floating around, a couple other varieties made their call-and-response ritual; cicadas sawed at the air, a few crickets salted the thick grass. At the base of the nearest rounded wall, a number of furred dollops quickly trundled into a hole with high-pitched squeaks. Barnarr didn’t catch much detail but thought they’d be a delicious addition to their rations.
Almost as one, the trio caught the faintest familiar scent. Immediately they began to search the surroundings for crannies and hidey-holes. The smell disappeared in a curtain of sweet-bitter wind, and didn’t return afterward. Three noses pulsated desperately, but found no more sign. Rarefied but pretty tree cover suddenly grew mean-spirited. A single eye became necessary for looking over more elevated vantages.
Barnarr was about to suggest that it had been a fluke, until he heard Grenfooner’s worm-thin nasal hiss. Eyes wallowing in agitation, his gaze harpooned the smaller packfolk and drew their notice outward.
Half a heartbeat later the two men and one woman clenched their articles of violence. They didn’t flee. They did, however, gently step back while padding their profiles with puffed-up coats and braced arms and wide stances. They kept moving the way they’d originally been going. Sideways shuffling wasn’t dignified, but it was safe.
They couldn’t see into it, but a shadowed ledge sat up in the viney flesh of one of the round structures. No breeze wafted from it to them. The soft huffing just on the edge of hearing made it unnecessary. Tiny wheezy wails, squeaky and plaintive, told them they stood in very rapidly growing danger.
Not until a solid wall and then another spear’s throw of distance lay between the group and the hidden nest did they relax in the slightest.
Fifteen heartbeats and a thousand seasons after they stepped from between the hilly spots, their raised back-ridges started slowly to subside. Nobody lowered a weapon. Nobody stopped or even decelerated. Evenly paced backstepping and wide eyes were the order of the day. Toes squished through softness, saturating with liquids, solids, and in-betweens.
A subtle deviation in scent, a broadening of nose-horizon. The smell hinted that they’d left a predator’s haunt and entered a sort of clod-sodden hinterland, still backing away from the structures. It wasn’t finding safety so much as positioning themselves where threats would have to risk competing with each other as much as with their food.
Only when the dirt again went “crunch” rather than “squish” did shoulders unknot. By the time weapons were held more loosely, the sun’s fingers massaged them to the bones. By the time they stopped walking in half-hobbled formation, the landscape started indulging in more pronounced peaks and troughs.
Grenfooner crouched ahead, on the precipice of a sizable hollow. The inside was almost totally covered by a foul-color skin – lichen? Moss? Not entirely clear.
Rurd shook her upper body, ears flapping. An arcane sheet slipped from their collective at the sound, and Barnarr’s eyes felt like they had suddenly gone from flattened in their sockets to mostly round. Fear decomposed into wariness and faster-than-normal reaction times.
“Why do you think they built so much underground?” he asked, relief putting him in a very chatty mood.
Rurd divided her attention between him and the split nut of the hollow.
He turned to Grenfooner, panting a bit.
“It cannot have been an easy task. Look at the size of the structure here. It’s displacing at least as much dirt as would fit inside a longhouse, so they must have had reason to go through the trouble of putting it belowground. You wouldn’t spend more than the smallest fraction of that effort if you just set it up on top of the grass or rock or soil. That’s a thing with a lot of Destroyer creations – most of them are mostly or totally buried.”
Grenfooner reached out, picked up a stone, and hucked it into the hollow. “PA!” said the material where it landed, a strange sound under the fluff of hitting a plant matter layer. The sound made hackles rise. It was a noise totally different from bone or rock or wood or meat. More hollow, more… deliberate.
“Maybe they wanted to make them more defensible,” he said, getting a weird look from Barnarr and an intrigued attentiveness over Rurd’s features. “If two people are on a hill, the one farther up has an advantage if they fight each other. If the bottom one retreats into a tight burrow, though… hmm.”
Grenfooner looked behind them at the big round buried cells.
“It’s possible they decided the loss of ways in and out didn’t match the benefits of making their enemies come crawling into their dens’ enclosed places.”
“But what about pushing something over or tossing in a large amount of dirt spoil? Surely someone considered that the residents would be immured by blocking just a couple of openings.”
Rurd reached out a leg and tapped the stuff with a foot. It produced a gentler but no less rigid sound.
“They didn’t use any flexible materials for their buildings, after all,” she added. “They wouldn’t do much good for people stuck making bits of houses and such underground, but at least if you need to leave a tent you can peel back the side or squirm underneath.”
“Well, maybe they did and they’ve had all those parts decayed or ripped away. Destroyer buildings have contained floppy or flexible things before – those strange leaves or bits of thin wood, remember?”
One of the old coots of Whiteshore had brought back a parcel of weird flexible swatches seasons and seasons ago, all faintly smelling of wood logs under their exotic miasma and the odors of aging. It wasn’t the most unusual or useful thing that infrequent exploratory journeys into Destroyer ruins had netted – the tribe’s looking glass probably had that distinction. It was one of the most fascinatingly relatable, though. Some plain sheets came with no decoration, but many bore designs they assumed to be Destroyer script. Pictures, too; creatures depicted with two legs and two arms and a head like themselves, and scenery, and abstract designs, and recreations of stuff that no packfolk could honestly claim to recognize. No scent-markings or knife-cuts in evidence, just coloration put right on the sheets.
“Are you suggesting those would have been part of walls?”
“No!” Barnarr replied. “Or maybe they could have; I don’t know. There’s a lot of things I don’t know.”
Before any of them could suck in a breath, an angry paired twittering sounded from not-sunfocus. Ears tilted and heads spun to see two flockfolk fluttering along. One was white-speckled while the other was black, but otherwise they had the same sashes and wings and size and voice. The first folk of any kind the trio had encountered in days.
“Should we follow them?” Barnarr asked Rurd.
He watched the birds as they traveled sunfall. Even if he started shouting his lungs out, he suspected that they’d either fail to take note of the packfolk or see them and continue without slowing. They’d come from the same general heading and were clearly going inland, though – if there were just one good promontory nearby…
“You think we’d get more than a bowshot away from right here before we lost all sign of them?” Grenfooner chuckled. “Might be they’d prove interesting but also might be that we’d get caught in the sludge and die.”
He pointed. In the direction indicated, mire and marsh retook the ground in a wide crescent, deceptive in how it slowly replaced the solid earth under a shadow of sawgrass and cattails. Barnarr suspected it was that sort of eyesight that made the man such an invaluable guard of the tribe’s camp.
“They might at least know where some good scavenging or resting territory can be found,” Barnarr rallied.
Before either of the others could reply he snorted and waved a hand.
“No, let’s not chase. I’d just like it if we had one single thing go our way soon. We’ll need to be generous about when we start heading back, and it would be such a relief if we knew we found something worthwhile for the tribe.”
They kept moving across the dryish ground in a coastish heading. They kept alert. They crawled through weeds and rustled into fur-thick cattails. They spread themselves out physically and forced their minds to huddle defensively together. They found a section of mudflat with a distinct whiff of dead fish about it and had to carefully go around; some creatures might not like old rotten descaled flesh, but some did, and if you got stuck with an especially piquant odor then you got stuck with an easy smell identifier as well – meat-stink of any sort usually attracted more ill attention than it dissuaded. They passed smaller and larger and more dangerous and more tame regions of Destroyer architecture, each with different kinds of secrets to tell and none of which any of them wanted to dive into.
The tall grass made delicious sounds as they reached the far side of the wet patch. Each took a turn rolling in it to help tamp down the wavery slurry of damp-and-old-stench.
As they discarded their old smells, so did the sky discard the sun for the moon, and then the moon for the sun, and the sun for the moon in that ageless celestial barter.