obias Page saw the first one before anyone else. The animal with the dark green hue to its skin and fur sat in a tree about one hundred yards to the right of the caravan, its six legs spread out among the branches, supporting its weight. Over its eyes, white eyebrows flared out like flowers. Unlike every other attack, there was no telltale growl at first, no obvious warning that an attack was imminent. The pack-like behavior had changed since the first time they had spotted the animals before they even found the temple at Manoach.
The rychat had learned.
With a short, quick whistle for attention, Tobias patted his wife Miriam on the back and nodded toward the trees. “Get them moving,” he whispered. “Quickly, but not in a run.”
“You see one?”
The rychat was still unmoving in the tree. To its right, another crouched behind leaves. “At least two. Maybe more.”
Miriam nodded. She picked up her pace and walked toward the first group in the caravan of one hundred sixty-two refugees who agreed to follow her. She said something to Brother Ira Sonajon, one of her leads, and pointed to the right toward a more densely packed area of the rainforest. Ira nodded, and the group shifted slightly, its pace accelerating.
Tobias looked at Miriam and winked, then left the front of the caravan. He would need to get help on this one, and with only three armed scouts and five Cazador, the animals would likely outnumber them. A few had to remain with the caravan to protect its flanks.
The first scout he approached, Bethany Berkley, had seen the rychat, too. She unslung her crossbow and left the company of those with whom she had been walking, to include her mother, father, two brothers and a sister. They looked at her for a moment, their faces registering at first confusion, then awareness. Their eyes widened as a pallor fell over each. As they turned in the direction of the group Miriam had guided toward the right, Bethany joined Tobias in his quest to grab a few more defenders.
“How many?” she whispered.
Tobias looked again. The rychat which first hid behind the leaves slowly descended the tree while the other remained perched in a frozen position of readiness. A third was now visible on a branch in a separate tree to its left, and a fourth was higher, the bulbous stinger on its tail poised to attack. “At least four,” he whispered back.
Bethany pulled a bolt from a quiver and notched it onto her crossbow.
“Don’t engage yet.” Tobias tapped her on the shoulder and pointed down the caravan line toward the rear. “I’m going to get Moran.”
“Just the three of us?”
“No other option.”
Bethany looked nervous, but she was ready to fight. A year older than Tobias, she had been indispensable in the fight to keep the refugees safe both on this journey and all the times they walked the perimeter of Manoach outside the barrier wall. She had taken down her share of rychat and was more than capable in the confines of the thick rainforest.
Tobias left her side and walked down the line toward the back. Unlike the first time they had hiked from the cavern to the temple at Manoach with six hundred weak and tired people, these travelers were both well-fed and capable enough, nimbler. Only two elders had opted to follow Miriam to the promised land on the other side of the canyon: Eldress Glenda Pursley and Eldress Loretta Foster. In their late sixties—or seventies, according to their Earth calculations—both were still more than capable of making this trip on their feet. In fact, they often seemed more energetic and stronger than some of the second-generation adults who had led more sedentary lives. Not that their lives before the Second Transit—before they had left their homes in the City of Nod when the floodwaters came—were all that active. Glenda had been a schoolteacher and Loretta was a chemist turned researcher who worked with the medic Christina Grigsby prior to Christina's passing. The exodus from city to mountains to cavern to the temple at Manoach had reinvigorated them, given them the impetus to remain healthy and strong. In short, they did not need to be carried on litters like so many of the elders had before during the flight through the rainforest.
Tobias walked past both of the elders. They looked at him as he passed, their eyes registering a sort of understanding that they were in danger, that they needed to keep their wits about them and be prepared to run. They both nodded in appreciation for what was about to happen and quickened their pace to keep up with the rest of the line.
Moran Eichler, a scout nearly twice Tobias’s age, had assigned himself to the rear, watching for threats from the forest which might come from behind. He had a Cazador peer with him, a young brute named Tuck Guyman who had only been in the position for two years. Tuck had always been rude to Tobias because of his cleft lip, but of late, he had kept his comments to himself. It seemed drama and tragedy had allayed the need to bully. That, and perhaps the fact that Tuck was now the father of a child born with the same deformity as Tobias.
Moran saw Tobias approach and instinctively readied his crossbow. He tapped Tuck on the shoulder and pointed toward the caravan in front. Wordlessly, Tuck quickened his pace, leaving Moran behind with Tobias.
“How many?” Moran asked.
“Four. Just up ahead.” Tobias tightened his grip on his weapon. “Bethany is waiting for us.”
Moran stopped and watched the caravan slowly edge toward the right, away from immediate danger. “Wish we had more to spare.”
“So do I.” Tobias took in a calming breath and let it out slowly. The nervousness in his stomach eased up. Miriam had taught him several techniques for dealing with fear, for calming his anxiety and sharpening his mind. He would forever be grateful to be married to a counselor, a therapist, a wise wizard of the brain’s complications.
“Ready?” Moran asked.
They both walked slowly toward Bethany’s position, their eyes locked on the trees where Tobias saw the four animals.
“Eight,” Bethany whispered as they approached. “Four more in a cluster of trees to the right of the others.”
“Typical pack. Haven’t heard the growl, yet,” Moran said. “Maybe they didn’t see us.”
“Oh, they did.” Tobias pointed to the tree with the first rychat he spotted. “I swear I saw that one lick its lips.”
“Well, we’ll have to take care of that.”
Moran raised his crossbow and took aim at the one Tobias pointed out. In tandem, both Tobias and Bethany raised their own weapons.
“One on the trunk,” Tobias whispered.
Bethany responded. “The big one to the right.”
The three were silent as they steadied themselves. Already, the caravan of refugees had slipped past them silently. They had learned how to keep quiet over the past three days since leaving Manoach behind, how to watch for threats and not panic at the first sign of danger. They had placed their trust in Moran and his small band of scouts, in the few remaining Cazador like Tuck, in Miriam and her familiarity with the forest as she led them to their destination. After separating from those left at Manoach, the refugees who followed Miriam were determined to bond as one, become a family, find strength in each other. They had all celebrated the birth of so many, mourned the loss of so many others. Now they had put their faith in a new, safer, more permanent home no one had yet seen.
It was out there, somewhere.
It was up to Tobias, Moran, and Bethany to protect them from yet another danger, one that was nothing if not organized. Moran had figured out that rychat displayed a true pack behavior when they first encountered a group of them on the way to the temple at Manoach. They were smart, stealthy, and truly methodical. That systematic approach to their hunting was also their biggest weakness, or so Moran and Tobias believed. While they would separate prior to an attack, they would not lose sight of one another and never stray so far that they couldn’t return to help fight off a threat to one of their own kind. That meant the eight in the trees in front of them were likely not going to spread out much more. In fact, three of them looked to Tobias like young pups, babies learning the fine art of stalking and killing. They would stay in the trees until an adult had secured an easy meal.
“When you’re ready,” Moran whispered.
Tobias took another deep breath, held it for a second, and let it out slowly. He adjusted his aim the tiniest of a fraction, blinked once and pulled the trigger.
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