Beelo gasped. A moment ago, he wasn’t sure if he had the courage to touch the terrible creature that laid on the table in front of him. Dead or alive, the slink was terrifying to see up close. But in that instant, the slink went from being a literal nightmare to an animal.
It was a dangerous and powerful animal, to be sure, but an animal none the less. There are other dangerous animals in the forest. None of them were immune to the ingenuity and skill of the Téchni. This animal would be no different.
Beelo set his jaw and began to inspect the creature. He slid his hand over the skin. There didn’t appear to be any hair, but the surface felt bristly. He changed direction and rubbed his hand the other way.
“Ouch,” Beelo said with surprise.
Beelo lifted his hand and was surprised by the sight of blood dripping from a cut on the side of his palm.
Naru sucked air in around her teeth and winced. She undid a couple fasteners on her coat. She grabbed the end of her tunic with one hand and pulled a knife from her waist band with the other. She skillfully cut the surged edges and tore a strip of fabric off the end of the tunic.
Naru took the strip of fabric and wrapped it around Beelo’s hand. The cut was not large or very deep, but it was bleeding enough to soak through the layers of tunic before it ceased to flow.
Beelo looked from his hand to the slink’s hide.
“That is one of the first things we learned from this specimen,” said Ona.
Ona walked over to a set of shelves in the corner of the room. He dug through a stash of bottles and metal implements and came back to the table with a wad of loose cotton.
“One way,” Ona said as he dragged the cotton across the skin. “It is smooth.”
Ona looked at Naru and Beelo with one eyebrow raised and smiled. Beelo recognized that smile. It was the same one his mother wore when she was about to do something interesting.
“The other way,” Ona said as his hand reversed direction. “And it is not smooth. Sharp, prickly, dangerous.”
The cotton ball in Ona’s hand was pulled to pieces, shredded and torn by the structure of the slink’s skin.
Beelo leaned in. He reached up towards the light source hanging from the ceiling without taking his eyes off of the dark hide. Naru took the light off of the ceiling and put it into Beelo’s hand. Beelo brought it close and moved it back and forth. He tilted his head from side to side. He walked to the adjacent side of the table and did the same thing.
“It seems the skin is made of scales,” Beelo said without taking his eyes off of his subject. “The scales are anchored to the beast on one side and free to move on the other. The moving side is sharp. It looks similar to flint.”
Ona looked at Naru. Naru raised and eyebrow. Ona nodded his head to some kind of unspoken agreement.
“I think if you move from head to tail,” Beelo said as he carefully ran his hand in that direction. “You will not be cut. It is when you go the other way that you are in danger.”
Beelo looked up and blinked his eyes into focus. Naro and Ona were looking at him. Naru looked proud. Ona looked slightly less skeptical than earlier.
“Where did this come from,” asked Beelo.
“It drowned,” answered Ona brusquely. “They are very heavy for their size. The bones are dense, as if made of stone.”
Ona demonstrated his point by wrapping on the beast’s skull. His knuckles strikig the hard head made a hollow thunk that made Beelo uncomfortable.
“It seems this creature thought the water was low enough to ford the stream. He was wrong and a ranger found it wedged against a rock. A team brought it to me on a litter to study. This is the closest any Téchni have been to a slink. Except for those who have been taken.”
Naru cleared her throat loudly and glared at Ona.
Beelo pretended not to notice her mother’s reaction and asked, “Have they always been here?”
“We’ve known about the slink for centuries,” Ona went on. “My grandfather’s grandmother studied them for years, from a distance. In her time, the slink could only be found in Terramort.”
Ona paused to walk over the the head of the slink and squatted to look at it head-on.
“The land in that area was quite different back then. The crater you saw the other day was once a small mountain. Our ancestors called it Paternas.”
“The father,” said Beelo.
“Yes,” said Ona. “The father. Smoke rose from it’s peak. It often made angry sounds and would shake the ground when it was very perturbed. Snow never collected on that mountain and the grass stayed green and lush throughout the winter. Grazing creatures would come there in the dead of winter to feed. Any of them foolish enough to feed in the shadows or after sunset fell prey to the slinks who waited in caves and steaming crevices in the rock.”
Beelo tried to imagine a mountain without snow in the dead of winter. Then he imagined a starving deer, happy to find green grass for the first time in weeks, only to be taken by a shadowy predator and dragged underground.
Ona stood up again, stretched his back and stood straight for a moment before settling back into his customary hunch and said something that Beelo could hardly believe.
“One day, the mountain exploded.”
“My grandfather told me it was the second day of his seventeenth spring. Just before dawn. The ground shook like it sometimes did. He thought nothing of it until the shaking stopped suddenly. It was silent for a couple heartbeats and then his doma was rattled by the loudest noise he ever heard. The sound continued so long he thought he was about to die when it stopped suddenly. A moment later it began to hail.”
Beelo stared at Ona, transfixed.
“The hail was louder than normal. He opened his door to peer outside and saw not hail, but rocks, dark earth, and bits of trees. When the debris stopped falling, the entire village came outside and looked around in wonder. The falling rock destroyed many of the common buildings. Two entire families were killed when their domas were demolished with them inside.
“While they surveyed the damage, someone pointed to the sky. Where there was normally a thin plume of smoke to indicate the peak of Paternas, there was now a huge column of black smoke. As the smoke lifted and spread, it blotted out the sun. For two days, the sun was all but invisible. The Téchni stayed indoors, fearful of more falling rocks and terrified of the slink who would no longer be kept at bay by the rays of the sun.”
Naru walked over to Beelo and took his bandaged hand into hers. She inspected it and made sure the wound had stopped bleeding.
“On the fourth day,” Ona continued. “The sun returned. It was angry and red through the haze but the Téchni finally felt it was safe to venture outside. On the fifth day, they ranged outside of the forest. They found Paternas was almost completely gone. A smoldering stump was all that remained. Huge sections of earth and stone had slid down the mountainside and landed in the river. The spring flow was diverted. The river flooded across the southern grass lands and edge of the forest. That is what created that bend in the river where we fish for salmon.”
“But, when the mountain exploded,” Beelo started.
“Yes, when Paternas exploded we thought it took the slink too. For almost ten years, we didn’t see any sign of them. When they returned, they were hungry and desperate.”
Ona gave the dark corpse on the table a dirty look.
“Paternas’ remains cooled and became Terramort,” Naru picked up the narrative.
“Robbed of their grassy mountain that lured prey to their hunting grounds, the slink had to come out into the forest and grasslands to hunt. What they capture or kill is never consumed on site. The bodies of the wounded and the corpses are always dragged back to Terramort. They are vicious, intelligent, and cunning. They become more sure of themselves every year and it won’t be long until they find a way across the river. If they do that, they’ll be free to hunt Téchni as easily as they do deer and lapina.”
“They hunt us?”
“We didn’t know right away. Rangers and hunters failed to come home, it was a dangerous practice. However, it began to happen more often. When one hunter survived an attack and brought us a report, we forbade any Téchni to go outside after dark or before dawn.”
Beelo walked to the end of the table where the beast’s wide, flat head lay.
“It has no eyes,” Beelo said in wonder.
“It has a different kind of sight,” said Ona.
The old man gestured to patches of skin on the sides of the skull. The hide was lighter in color, almost gray. Beelo reached out and carefully stroked one patch. The skin was soft and didn’t have sharp scales.
“The patches where the eyes should be can detect heat with great accuracy,” said Naru. “They also have very sensitive ears. They make sounds to each other that we can’t hear and somehow use sound to sense what is around them. Since they don’t require light, they can navigate in the dead of night with the same ease you do in noonday sun.”
“The sun,” Beelo said excitedly. “The sunlight, it hurts them.”
“Yes, that is one of the observations made by our ancestors before the explosion. Sunlight is painful to their flesh and deadly if the light falls on their head for any more than the shortest exposure.”
Beelo stepped up next to Ona and looked closely at the head. Naru watched as her son took in every detail. She could see the thoughts churning behind his inquisitive eyes.
“Beelo, do you know why I took you here,” Naru asked.
Beelo looked up at his mother.
“This creature was found on the near side of the river. We will not be safe much longer. We need to study this specimen, find out how to avoid it, to deter it, and to kill it.”
Ona nodded and said, “The future of the Téchni depends on it.”