We are We, the Hunters of greatest knowledge and spell-blood. We use spell-words to hunt and to Change our bodies to rocks or trees. It has long been forbidden to Change to other Hunters or Hunted, or to kill others of We; yet it happened, and without it We would not be living.
This is that tale.
This is a tale from before the Fire, before the Dark, when the world was still green and the sky was still blue.
We had a Pack in the north, running free under the moon. The hunt was good. The Pack was strong and the prey was weak. The prey was a Hunter, a small running-Hunter; and so he turned, hissing spell-words, but he was claw- and tooth-strong, not spell-strong.
The Pack closed in. The youngest drew first blood, hissing. Wait, the running-Hunter hissed in simple-speak, but the Pack would not wait after a wounding, and they sprang upon him; yet his flesh was familiar. The youngest shrieked as the blood on her claw turned black. It was not running-Hunter blood, but spell-blood of We.
Wait! the eldest hissed, and Wait! in spell-words. They fell back. The creature before them was not a running-Hunter. It shimmered and Changed, and was of We.
What is this? cried the eldest, Tó. We do not hunt our own! Why do you disguise yourself?
The Hunter snarled, I am not you. I am Changed by the Fire in the south.
The Pack hissed then. We may not Change to Hunted or other Hunters! We may Change to trees, or rocks, but never to running things! It is forbidden, lest We should kill one another!
And now you have killed me, murmured the Hunter, the Changed-We. The Fire is coming. The Fire will Change all of We.
And on the claw of the youngest, Ran, the Changed-We's blood shuddered, and on the ground the Changed-We's body shuddered, and he lay still.
The Pack went hungry by that moon. Tó led them to the fathers and young ones. Ran went to her mate Sar, and said in grief, We killed one of We. He was Changed, but still We.
Sar could not move, for Ran had laid her eggs a short time before, and they would cool if he left them. It was their first mating; before, they had not been true We, but young.
You did not know, he said when he had heard all, and hissed spell-words over her wounds. His eyes were kind with fatherhood, and hers were sharp with the hunt. Their blood pushed them apart.
Ran thanked him and took up guard near Tó. When the eggs hatched, Sar would lose the spell-words to heal and return to hunting, and he would be horrified. The father-blood stopped his anger.
The We should never do as that Changed-We did, Tó said. The Fire is a poison at the heart of We.
What is the Fire? asked Ran, who was too young to know.
The Fire is a mountain in the south with spell-blood at its heart. Hunters use its power for spells, but it is dangerous; once your spell-blood has used the Fire's, you are part of it and you die if the Fire bleeds. The Pack hunted there once, but then the Fire cried out and smothered the land. Only a few of We remained. That Pack must have used the Fire to Change. If they continue, everywhere We will be Changed into other Hunters and Hunted. We will slaughter one another. We will not be safe.
Then We must stop them.
Yes. It is wrong to kill We, even Changed-We; but it will prevent a greater wrong. Tó looked out over the forest. The Pack has young, fathers and mothers. Only those strong of spell-blood may go. We will sent Nist, and Ina.
And me, Ran pleaded. Send me also. My claw holds the Changed-We's blood. I struck him first.
Three of We, like our three claws on each hand, mused Tó. Yes, it shall be so.
Ina, Nist and Ran set out by the moon. They ran for suns, until they were hungry and the land was unfamiliar. Ina and Nist, brothers, felled a thick-skulled Hunted that Ran lured with her small size. Ran feared it was Changed-We, but they scoffed and dealt the killing blow. The Hunted was a true Hunted, and she joined the feast.
They ate well and slept, and then Ran had a spell-dream. In her dream the land was choked with dust, and We were scattered and starving; and Tó came to her and spoke three words to the three of We from the three claws of his fighting hand, laying the sound over the sky. I was wrong. I was wrong. I was wrong. Ina and Nist did not dream, and were disturbed.
Perhaps that will happen if we fail, Ina suggested. We must move faster.
And so they ran for suns more. The land became hot and dry, and it was then that a great-Hunter came upon them.
This was not a Hunter to prey upon, but a Hunter large enough to dwarf We. It dwarfed the tallest trees. Its roar was the roar of thunder, and Ran remembered her spell-dream. She wanted to turn small, a rock or a tree, but the great-Hunter had seen them. Its jaws shadowed her.
Ina ran round its back foot and hissed spell-words. The great-Hunter's leg broke with the crack of a tree falling and it turned its small, hard eyes from Ran and struck him with its tail. It was dull-headed and had neither spell-blood nor words, but it was strong with rage, and Ina's arms shattered.
Then in Ran and Nist the kill-blood rose, and they shrieked spell-words at the great-Hunter's neck. It choked as it fell, and they heard words. Pack. Fire. Pack die.
But great-Hunters are beasts! cried Nist. They do not speak!
Ran said nothing, for her heart was sick with fear. The great-Hunter rose in its death throes and sank its teeth toward them; but then there was a roar, and a second great-Hunter burst from the trees. It charged the dying great-Hunter, ripping and snarling.
Quickly, hissed Ina. His eyes were pained, but he could run. It has not seen us.
They ran until the sky was light, and the roars of the great-Hunters were far behind them.
That great-Hunter was a Changed-We! cried Ran. That is another We killed.
Nist snarled. Impossible. It did not speak as We do. It had no spell-blood.
We killed it with spells. We did not touch its blood, Ran protested. We cannot know.
Perhaps it was another Hunter, said Ina, Changed by We, but not of We. It is as Tó said. The Fire is poison. We are close. Then he could move no more from the pain, and fell.
The land was mountainous, so Ran and Nist carried him to a cave and cleaned his wounds, but neither had father- or mother-blood. Their spell-words would not heal him. It is not in the way of We to leave another sickening, so they waited.
Ran said to Nist, If he dies, the three will not be three; we will be two. She held up her two hands. Each hand bore three claws. We must each cut off a hand-claw. Ina is the eldest and led us best. It must be our first claw and our fighting hand.
We will not fight so well, warned Nist.
Ran was bitter. If we cannot reach the Fire with five claws, perhaps we are doomed to fail.
It was not a Changed-We that we killed.
I do not know, but it was a Changed. And it was a Changed-We that I that the Pack killed before. It is forbidden for We to kill one another.
Nist snarled. You are foolish to think this. You did not know.
It is forbidden! And now you are guilty also! And Ina, who is not guilty, pays!
Ina moaned. Pack. Fire. Pack die.
Ran spoke spell-words, but they would not calm him. Those are the words the great-Hunter spoke. Is Ina to become like that?
You are a fool, was all Nist said. Sleep. He turned his hand-claws away. They were black in the moonlight.
Ran spell-dreamed that sun; she stood before the great-Hunter and it roared, swallowing the earth in heat. Ina stood with Tó in the sky, and Tó said, I was wrong. I was wrong. He had only two hand-claws, and he drew them across the sky, and it fell open with fire.
When she awoke, she saw from Nist's eyes that he had dreamed the same.
In the distance, they heard the roll of thunder. It drew closer, and Ina grew mad from the pain and had to be held down, and it became the rumble of feet, echoing round the mountains. Ran left Ina and Nist to look out of the cave.
Below her lay a wondrous sight. It was a herd of Hunted; not Hunted to feast upon, but a kind that Ran had only heard tales of. Each was almost as large as the great-Hunter they had fought, and they glowed in the setting sun and poured like fire onto the plain.
Mothers! cried Ran. Mother-Hunted, come to graze!
Then Ina, wild, bit Nist, slipped past them out of the cave, and ran screaming down to the plain.
The fool! seethed Nist. He will be killed!
Ran had never seen any Hunted kill, but the Mother-Hunted were far larger than We, and Ina had no hand-claws and little balance. She followed Nist after him.
The Mother-Hunted had seen Ina, and the closest drew together, protecting their young, for their young were smaller even than We. Ina slipped between two of their legs. The herd loomed.
Nist stopped. We are not here to hunt! he implored. That one is sick. He does not know his mind.
Ran did not stop. She dived after Ina.
The Mother-Hunted's legs were like a moving forest. Ran dodged and weaved to escape being trampled. She found Ina lying by a young Mother-Hunted, and pulled them aside before they were crushed.
The young Mother-Hunted blinked. It was smaller than Ran, and Ran was hungry. The kill-blood rose inside her. She put her claws to its neck.
The forest cleared. A grown Mother-Hunted lowered her head, dark-eyed. Ran quailed; and then Nist was by her side, pulling them away. You fool! he snarled. These are Mother-Hunted! They will kill us!
And Mother-Hunted were around them, and Ran remembered the tales; nothing angered them more than an attack on their young. She snarled spell-words at the nearest Mother-Hunted. It was a spell of death and anger, yet it did no harm. Ran felt a warmth in her mind, and she was pushed back and held still. She felt like a newborn in the nest amongst these giants.
The greatest Mother-Hunted spoke, and her words were of a single voice and a thousand, of thought and of sound. And she said, "These Pack-Hunters have come to kill our young. They must die."
No! hissed Nist. We have not come to kill. We have come to find We at the Fire, We who Change to other Hunters. We have come to clean We of poison!
The Mother-Hunted held back those of the herd who would kill. "The Fire is a sun's run from here. Many Hunters have come upon us with spell-blood not their own, and when they died they Changed. Many without words have spoken of a Pack, and of Fire, and of death. You are the same Hunters, those of the Pack, as those who use the Fire to Change. You have the Changed-blood on your claws."
The We the Pack-Hunters do not want Change, protested Nist. Only some of the Pack, who we have come to kill.
"Changed-Hunters may fool the Mothers, and other Roamers, into fleeing and dying. For you, it is good to be Changed."
It is not. The Pack feast upon other Hunters. It is forbidden for the Pack to kill one another, but if the Pack are Changed, that may happen.
It has happened, said Ran. All the Mother-Hunted turned their gold eyes on her, and she felt the sting of shame.
We have travelled for suns, said Nist. We fought a great-Hunter without words. It broke my brother's arms and spoke of the Pack, Fire and death. We are starving and he is mad. We will not harm you.
The Mother-Hunted softened. "Is your brother dying?"
The Mother-Hunted have spell-blood that We cannot imagine, that We only come close to in motherhood or fatherhood. Theirs is ceaseless and far stronger. In that moment the Mother-Hunted spoke as one, and their spell surrounded Nist and Ina and carried them as if they were young; Ina breathed easier and felt no pain. And Ran saw it as though from outside and felt a deep grief of finality and separation.
When it was over, the great Mother-Hunted spoke once more to Nist. "Hunter-child, we will care for your brother until he is healed, and you may stay and be cleansed of your Changed-blood; but the youngest cannot stay. She is a Hunter and a killer. Your brother tried to kill our young, and he is sick, and that may be forgiven; but she is neither sick nor mad. She must go to the Fire."
Nist said to Ran, I cannot leave one of We to die. I cannot leave my brother.
You cannot, said Ran. It was not the way of We; neither is it the way for one to hunt alone, but Ran had shamed We. Ran had killed We, and tried to kill the Mother-Hunted, who were gentle and without cruelty and had not been hunted by We since long ago, when We were separate Packs, without words and dull-headed, no better than great-Hunters. She felt this. She said, I will find the Changed-We and cut out the poison. For there is only battle or death for We who shame.
Nist looked upon her, and bit off two claws on her fighting hand with his sharp teeth, and two of his own. He stopped the bleeding with spell-words as gentle as the Mother-Hunted's, and said, The three became two, and the two became one. They spoke no more goodbyes.
Ran set out for the Fire with four hand-claws. She slept on its slopes and dreamed of thunder and light, Tó with Nist and Ina beside him, drawing his single hand-claw down the sky. I was wrong. Fire bled out and Mother-Hunted fled across the land.
She awoke to see the rock red with the Fire's heat, red as the sky in the spell-dream, and remembered Tó's words, and understood at last what would happen.
Die! came a cry from the rocks, and one of We sprang upon her. Die! Pack! Fire! Pack die!
I will not kill another of We! Ran snarled. He had his teeth at her neck. Then a crash shook the rocks, and a great-Hunter struck him away. His broken body toppled through a tunnel in the rock to the heart of the Fire. This close, Ran felt the spell-blood of the mountain, and the heart of We, and felt him die.
She stared at the great-Hunter, for it was the one who had killed the great-Hunter they had fought. The blood on its claw was turning black.
You are of We.
Yes, said the great-Hunter. I am the last to Change.
And you have killed We, Ran realised. You are shamed, as I am.
All the Changed-We killed other We.
Ran snarled. This is why I have come to kill your poison! Why do you kill other We? Why do you Change We to other Hunters, and do what is forbidden?
You would kill me with a one-clawed fighting hand? the Hunter mocked. The Fire has great power. When We hunted here, it smothered the land and killed many. It bled spell-magic so strong that We thought
Not We, snarled Ran. Never We. This was only you.
Then we thought we could use it to see ahead and be warned if the Fire bled again. It was a short time, although still many suns ago, when we found how to Change, and found that those who Changed to other Hunters, or those who touched their blood, could see what was coming. The greater the Change, the further they saw, and so we used the great-Hunters.
I have seen dust and darkness and fire, Ran hissed. The eldest of my Pack said that those who use the Fire die when it bleeds. The Fire will bleed again, will it not? When it does, the Changed-We will fall. You have destroyed yourselves.
Perhaps, said the Hunter. But I have seen further. The Fire knows of another Fire that will come, far south of here, but strong enough to make this Fire bleed; and that will not matter, for everything will be as we cannot imagine. The work of the Changed-We will save us, then.
Ran snarled in disbelief. Where are the other Changed-We?
They perished, said the Hunter. The Fire grows stronger as the other Fire grows closer. The Changed-We were driven mad by its power and died. Some fled, like the Hunter who attacked you.
In dread, Ran hissed,Then it was of We?
Maddened by the Fire, but of We. I remain because the Fire cannot hurt me until I am grown.
Ran knew then that this great-Hunter was younger than her, and had not mated, and so was not truly of We; and she laughed. Then there is only one of you for me to kill.
No! I am the only Changed-We with spell-blood enough to save We. I must take the power of the Fire when it bleeds. When the other Fire comes, it will swallow the land for suns upon suns. It will swallow all of We, unless my spell-blood can give We wings, so that we might escape.
We are We! Ran snarled. We are not winged, or other Hunters. We must not Change so, and that is why I will kill you! And she sprang upon the great-Hunter. The great-Hunter was larger than her, but it was as weakened by the Fire as Ran was strengthened by it. She hissed spell-words, and its neck broke, and its spell-blood covered Ran from head to toe.
That... may be enough, gasped the great-Hunter, the Changed-We. You have killed me. You must guide We, by my blood.
And then its eyes glazed over, and it died. And Ran felt the spell-blood of the Fire, and knew that all the true Changed-We were dead, save her, and others who had touched the spell-blood as Nist and Ina had. They would be cleansed by the Mother-Hunted.
She was Changed-We now, and would die by the coming Fire, but first she must warn We of it. She left the slopes of that Fire with its dry, stale rocks and howling spell-blood, and fled north.
Ran travelled until she had to sleep, and then she dreamed. She dreamed of a great Fire striking the earth, fallen from the sky, and a wave sweeping the land; not of spell-blood but of heat, fast and terrible, destroying everything before it. Great walls of water rose from the ocean, and fire raged in the sky, and then all was dust. And all around We choked and died, and Hunters and Hunted choked and died, and were no more.
She came awake, trembling. I was wrong, Tó had said with a single claw, and she looked at her own hand and saw that a claw had broken when she had killed the Hunter. She had no claws on her fighting hand, and only three on her other hand.
And she knew then what the great-Hunter had seen, and that they had all had been right and wrong. The Fire from the sky would meet the Fire in the mountain and sweep the land, too fast to escape, and it would kill not only Changed-We, but every Hunter and Hunted. The great-Hunter, protected from the Fire, could have Changed all of We with it, but she would die before she could reach her Pack. She looked to the sky, and saw a bright star growing.
Ran was a Changed-We, a poison. She should have let the Fire take her, or warn We; but she was too frightened for her own life to do anything but preserve it. In that moment she was a coward. Her cowardice dishonoured We. Yet there were none to see it, and would be none after the Fire, and Ran did not care.
The great-Hunter's blood strengthened her own spell-blood. She shimmered smaller and lighter, and this was not a fake Change but a true Change, a Change of body and bone. Ran had wings and was wheeling over the dry, screaming earth, and the bright star was larger than before.
She turned her back and flew as the sky grew hotter and brighter. She saw a great tunnel, and swooped into it, deep into the roots of the earth where all was darkness.
And it was there that she found We.
It was not her own Pack, but a Pack who had hunted Changed and heard of the Fire and come through the tunnels, for it was the fastest way.
Ran fell before them. They were deep underground, but the air was hot, and the glow of the Fire in the sky turned the walls red. She felt the Fire's spell in her bones and knew what must be done.
I am Ran, she said, and I am Changed, and you may use my bones. She thought of the Mother-Hunted, and drew on their thoughts and sound, and told her story to the Pack in a short time.
Then the Fire from the sky struck. And the mountain Fire bled across the land, and Ran and all those who had touched the Changed-We's blood laid down their heads, and they died.
We survived the Fire, even as it burnt the earth and drew water above us. We fled deep into the tunnels, and Changed ourselves to rocks, and lived.
Ran's bones are with us still, and prey is scarce. We are starving. The earth is dry and cloaked with dust and fire. We live in the Dark.
Ran left us a choice. In her bones lies the power to Change. We are doomed to die, but those with wings are not. Winged ones eat less and more widely; this, the Hunter and Ran knew from their spell-dreams. Winged-We could live on small crawlers and plants.
Some of We think it would be better to die as We than to become winged, but the time for choice is ending. Ran's hand-bones lost two claws when the Fire struck. Her last claw is crumbling. In her claws were the power of the spell-dreams, the foretelling, the Changed-blood; and with her claws it will fade. Soon, We must all choose.
We may choose to fly.