Velik- Hunter of Stars- Part 4

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               The smell in the cave was so strong I could taste it. Damp mineral earth, fungi and something rotting. I wanted to puke.

                “Stop gagging Vel, or you’re going to make me hurl.” Zo nudged me in the dark.

                “I can’t help it. The smell is disgusting.”

                “I hadn’t noticed.”

                “Haha.” I wasn’t amused by Zo’s sarcasm but I was happy that she had recovered from our fall into the river. We had lost the horrible ape-cat creatures downstream but the sun had set much more quickly than we had expected. Either we spent a lot longer drifting down the river than we thought, or this planet’s rotation was much faster than Jango’s. I thought the latter more likely, as I was pretty good with tracking time no matter what planet I was on. It came in handy when chasing my marks. As a bounty hunter, I learned quickly that it was wise to know where they were and what they were doing and how long they had been doing it to best surprise them.

                Being good with time aside, I felt like I had lost track of it a bit during our time in the suffocating cave we had found. By my count, we had spent far too long in here, but that wasn’t saying much since even a minute in here was a minute too long. Zo agreed.

                I had tried multiple times to check my navigation watch, but it greeted me with the same black screen each time. It didn’t stop me from checking again. Was it wishful thinking, or did it seem like the glow was beginning to come back? I was probably imagining things.

                Zo reached out a hand to still my bouncing leg that I hadn’t realized was in motion. I couldn’t wait to get out, but we needed to be certain we had daylight so we wouldn’t get lost. And if those ape-cat things prowled in the daytime, I didn’t want to see what came out at night.

                We had piled rocks from the riverbed at the cave’s small entrance to block it off, under no delusions that it would keep anything out; but we couldn’t help hoping that if they, whoever or whatever they might be, couldn’t see in, the rotting fish smell would ward them off.

                After a few hours of sleeplessness despite my exhaustion, my mind began to wander to Zo’s ship, or Zo’s father’s ship more like, the Stealthstar. Zo’s father wasn’t one to be into old school sci-fi television, so I was certain that Zo had re-named the ship or she had somehow convinced her father to name it that for her. Either way, I wanted nothing more in my life than to be back aboard that ship, recycled air and all. I began to laugh, feeling a bit manic in the close, dank dark.

                “What’s so funny?”

                “I was claustrophobic on the ship.”

                “I know. That’s funny?”

                “I’ll never complain about recycled air conditioning again.”

                Zo chuckled. “Oh, I’m sure you’ll be happily complaining again by the end of the day tomorrow.”

                My laughter died in my throat with a horrible thought. “If we make it out of here.”

                “Stop that, of course we will.”

                “Yeah, of course.” I tried to sound more confident, but I failed to convince myself.

                 I was confident, perhaps even a bit cocky if I was being honest, while hunting marks. But every last one I had hunted had been in a city, a few in small towns. One guy had hidden in the “wild” forest-like park of a large metropolitan city that made Old Central Park look like a kiddy playground. But it was ridiculous that I found myself so undone by the real wild. I felt pathetic to be reduced to huddling in a cave, hiding like I was the mark and the ape-cats were my bounty hunters. We had to get out of here.

                “I think it’s time to check outside.” I stood suddenly, dislodging a sleepy Zo from my shoulder.

                Zo jumped up, eager as I to get out of the cave that seemed to get darker and more stifling by the second.

                The humidity on this planet had ensured we were both still damp when we emerged from the cave, the pink light of dawn emerging over the tops of the trees. At least it was warmer out here than it was in the cave. And it smelled fresh, almost magical, out in the open. We both sucked in deep breaths of glorious, crisp morning air.

                “Okay, which way?” Zo asked.

                I oriented myself with the rising sun and the river. I pointed, “that way.”

                Zo licked her dry lips, which made me remember we hadn’t had any fresh water to drink and no food since yesterday. It wasn’t lost on either of us that we’d have to find a way to scale the cliff we had gone down, or find a way around, and on empty stomachs.

                “No point wasting anymore time then," I said. "Let's go."

                We set off, knowing that any delay could put us on this planet another night and we might not be so lucky as to find another cave. As awful as the night had been, hiding in the putrid dark was far better than being hunted through the woods.

                Walking in silence along the river found us a modicum of comfort, seeing that it had frightened the beasts away yesterday, but the sound of rushing water made us infinitely thirstier. Unsticking my dry tongue from the roof of my mouth, I wondered if it would make it worse if I drank the salt water. It probably would.

                The sun was high in the sky before we could see where we had tumbled down the cliffside. It was hopeless to climb anywhere nearby, as the cliff was undercut by the river. Zo and I looked around, but we couldn’t see past the tall, abnormally green trees that grew near the waterline. I volunteered to swim into the river to see if I could get a better view.

                Zo was skeptical, whether to be left alone on the shore, or because she didn’t like the idea of anyone being in the water, even if it wasn’t her. I assured her it was fine as I handed her my still-blank nav watch. The stupid thing was supposed to be waterproof, but clearly the street vendor had lied.

                “You should just chuck the stupid thing. I told you not to buy it.” Zo took it unwillingly.

                I sighed, “I know, but it looks cool.”

                “How you ever save money is beyond me, Velik.” She scolded me, but her tone was playful. She knew I had a weakness for the street markets in the big cities. “You buy whatever worthless piece of junk is shoved at you.”

                “Hey, I got you some of the coolest comics you have that way, and rare I might add.”

                Zo sighed and smiled. “You’re right. Now quit chatting and get out there.”

                The water was cold but refreshing. I tried hard to keep my face out of the water, I didn’t think my eyes could take any more brine in them. When I reached the center, I turned, treading water. My heart sank. The ground rose high, cliff-like for a few miles in each direction. Where it began to drop enough to be feasible to hike, it went through what looked like the thickest part of the vibrant forest.

                There was nothing else for it, we had to go. The Stealthstar was up the cliff and we had no rope for climbing. So, through the forest we went. We chatted off and on to make the time pass, but our mouths were getting dry so we found ourselves in silence more often than not. The trees were close, the light tinged our skin a pale green and was dappled by the thousands of leaves above us fluttering in the breeze. The breeze that couldn’t reach to the stifling forest floor. It was still humid and the shade did nothing to relieve the heat of the afternoon. We were sticky and sweaty and getting cranky by the time we stumbled into a clearing.

                The clearing itself isn’t what gave us pause. It was the large rock pillar in the center of it. And it wasn’t the rock pillar or even hunger that gave me a sick feeling in my stomach. It was the fact that on top of the rock pillar in the center of the clearing, was a skull. A human skull. I stopped dead in my tracks, but Zo took several steps forward.

                “Zo,” I hissed. “What in the name of Aquila are you doing?”

                She continued as if she hadn’t heard me. There was a rustling in the trees to my left. My eyes frantically searched the woods, hoping I would not see what I dreaded. There was nothing there, but I remembered the bright, mossy color of their bodies and my gut clenched hard as I scrutinized every stump, bush and tree.

                I glanced over to see Zo had reached the pillar.

                “Are you kidding me?” I started towards her.

                “Look at these runes,” she breathed, almost reverently as she reached a hand out to the carvings. I leapt for her, but not before her fingers brushed the rough stone.

                A high, sharp wail sounded. Like a siren on fire alert, though unlike a siren, this was not machine-like. It took me a moment to shake off the paralyzing, unearthly ringing in my ears. The sound continued. I looked up and realized it was coming from the open mouth of the human skull. It was like it was looking down on us, screaming of intruders on its sacred resting ground. I looked over Zo’s shoulder and saw something green dart from the tree line.

                I grabbed Zo’s hand and yanked her after me, certain I could hear crashing through the underbrush behind us as the banshee wail continued, pursuing us through the forest along with the monstrous ape-cats from yesterday.