Thal punched through the last few inches of limestone with his clenched fist then watched as the first trickle of water from the river outside began to pour down the small bypass tunnel he’d created. The trickle soon grew into a steady stream and began to fill the pool he had carved at the bottom of his new hollow in Amka’s cave. He raked smooth the stone perimeter of the final length of tunnel with his fingers as the water started running clear. Then he stood back to admire his work. The bottom was already partially filled with muddy water, but he knew the entire pool would be full of crystalline water in the next hour. He had worked for the last few days on this new addition: a chest-deep pool that channeled water in from the river outside, and drained to the same river some distance downstream once it was full. The pool would provide a place where he could bathe that was not out in the open; and, more importantly, it would give him back a connection to the water. He had been missing that since leaving his underwater home; but then, he would give up everything, if it meant being with Amka.
As if he’d called her with his very thoughts, he heard her approaching some distance away. He was expecting her much later in the evening; the sun was still high in the sky, and she would’ve assumed him to be sleeping. He’d gotten up earlier to work on his bath, but Amka didn’t know that.
Then, as he focused on the sounds that announced her approach, he distinguished her breathing was quick, her heart agitated. And it wasn’t just from running.
Amka was scared.
He ran out, eyes shut to avoid the glare, ignoring the pain in his hands, face and other exposed skin that immediately reacted to the harsh sunlight. The sun didn’t light his skin on fire, but it nearly felt like it. His eyes were the most sensitive to sunlight and suffered the most damage; with enough exposure they could get destroyed completely, to the point that he would be fully blind. Luckily, away from the sun, with enough time, they could eventually heal. So he was counting on his body surviving the sunburn as he ran outside toward Amka, eyes closed, guided by her scent and the sound of her heart. He reached her in no time and wrapped his arms around her.
“What’s wrong?” he whispered urgently. He tried to open his eyes to see her, but the ruthless glare made it impossible.
“Thal! What are you doing out in the sun? I’m fine—go back inside immediately!”
Relieved to hear she was alright, and realizing he had completely overreacted, he lifted her off the floor and ran back to the cave. Once safe inside his skin started to heal, and he opened his eyes and finally managed to look at her. Her face had that subtly darker color that he knew came from the blood that flushed her cheeks; her heart still beat rapidly as though she was afraid. But her thoughts were a rush of excitement, not fear. She was thinking of him, and simultaneously thrilled and nervous for—
“A child?” he asked in a whisper, shocked.
“I-I think so,” she replied breathlessly. “I wasn’t sure, but my mother knows the signs, and she’s convinced.”
“Wait—your mother?” Thal said, not recovering his voice. “She knows?”
“Come inside,” Amka said, tugging his hand and pulling him further down the passage. “I’ll tell you what she said.”
As they walked deeper into the cave to his new home, Amka detailed her conversation with her mother, Mayna. Her mother had noticed the changes in Amka before Amka herself had; Mayna could tell that her daughter was with child. But when Mayna attempted to have her daughter reveal with whom she had mated, Amka, not wanting to risk the village learning of Thal’s existence, had denied there was anyone in her life. Mayna had then assumed that Torren had forced himself on Amka and that’s why Amka had killed him, and now Amka was carrying Torren’s child.
“And I didn’t deny or care to correct her because, well, I don’t really need anyone asking me questions about you. So let them assume what they may,” she concluded.
How was it even possible?
Thal’s people were similar to humans in some ways, but they were two very different species. Would the child drink blood? How could there even be a child? According to his mother children among them were very rare. His people lived much longer lives, but didn’t reproduce as quickly as the humans did.
“Thal?” Amka asked nervously.
He realized he’d been rendered speechless by the news and hadn’t answered her, and her thoughts had turned fearful about his reaction. He quickly embraced her. “Amka, these are amazing news. You don’t know how happy I am. My people—the unk-ga—we don’t often have children. Your people, whom we call the sihg-zhe—sun-dwellers, that’s what it means—have the advantage, being able to reproduce so much better by comparison. Babies and children are sacred in our history. That’s why my mother escaped at the first sign of trouble, because she was pregnant with me.”
“Well, my people’s child-carrying abilities are at your disposal,” Amka joked. “We will see what a half-unckga, half-sig... um, half-sun-dweller looks like.” Then with the cutest little frown, she asked, “What does the name of your people mean?”
Thal smiled. “Unk-ga means ‘the children of the gods’ ... which should be ironic, since we have so few children. But that’s the name the sun dwellers called us, when our people all lived together, hundreds of years ago.”
“Your people and my people lived together hundreds of years ago?” Amka’s people knew about the existence of blood-drinkers, as they called Thal’s people, but they were only known in the village legends. And in the legends, the blood-drinkers were monsters. It was hard to believe they had lived together at some point in time.
“They did, according to the stories my mother told me. But that was a long time ago, long before she was born,” Thal said.
Amka raised an eyebrow playfully. “So … children of the gods, eh? And here we sun dwellers were calling you merely blood-drinkers.” She laughed. “But I can see why my ancestors would call you that. You’re so strong and fast, you heal so quickly, your blood heals us, and you say your people live such long lives. If we do have this baby, I hope she or he has your abilities.”
“I hope she can walk in the sun, and carry children of her own, if she’s a girl.”
“Carry children?” She crossed her arms over her belly protectively and turned away from Thal, with a teasing scowl. “Let her be born first, and live a long life, before having to think about children.”
Thal embraced Amka from behind, placing his chin on her shoulder and his hands over hers. “Of course. I only meant that she’d be able.” Then he quickly added, because he saw in her mind that she was about to laugh and say she’d been joking, which he already knew anyway, “But Amka ... are you worried about having this child?” He voiced his fear out loud. That Amka would be scared of having a little half-monster baby.
She freed one arm and brought a hand up to his check, tenderly cradling his face. “Never. This child is a blessing, Thal.”
“It is. I can’t imagine being happier than I am right now. I love you so much, Amka.”
“And I you.” Then she thought of something. “How long do children of gods gestate?”
Thal laughed. “Children of the real gods, I have no clue; but my people gestate for a year, according to my mother.”
“We only carry babies for nine months. Let’s see what this one decides to do.”
Eight months later Amka no longer cared about what the baby decided to do. She wanted that baby out. Thal felt simultaneously guilty and amused by Amka’s wavering thoughts.
“Thal, you’re doing it again.” Amka’s attempt at a reproaching tone was canceled out by the mirth in her manner.
“Oh, I’m sorry, my love,” he said as he brought his head up from the water, pulling away from her belly. He’d been entranced yet again listening to the baby’s thoughts, his head underwater pressed against her skin, as she rested lazily in the cave pool after making love for the second time that afternoon. (Amka had requested a second time. She was really demanding in that department lately).
“What’s there that could be possibly so interesting, anyway?” she asked.
“I don’t know why I find it so fascinating; there’s hardly anything to hear. But just now I believe the baby was thinking about his or her leg.”
“Her leg? Aww,” Amka crooned, rubbing her bulging belly. “Is she wondering what is that thing that she keeps kicking me with?”
The baby didn’t have real, definite thoughts, but there was something there, flickers of feelings about his or her little home. It was mesmerizing to Thal, trying to decipher what those little thoughts meant, and he often spaced out with his ear pressed against Amka’s belly. So much so that he forgot to reply to Amka. Again.
“Well, I should be going,” Amka said after another minute, standing up in the pool. “These walks have become more and more tiring ... even though I don’t do the actual walking myself.”
Thal always carried her on his back to and from the cave and her village, using an underground tunnel he’d completed months ago. Recently, he knew, even though she never complained out loud, she would become uncomfortable when he ran too fast; but on the other hand, if he walked at human pace it would kill one precious hour of the little time they had together. So he’d found an in-between pace where he walked fast but slowed down when he could tell she needed a break.
He would’ve preferred for her to stay with him, of course. But Amka was convinced that she needed to live with her people a while longer, as long as she could manage the travel, so he had carved this underground tunnel connecting their secret cave and her hunter’s hut.
“I know what’s on your mind, Thal,” she said later, as he carried her down the tunnel in silence. “I just don’t know how to do it—how to tell my mother that I have to leave. I wish I didn’t have to. I wish I could tell her the truth. I want to tell her the truth; I want to raise the baby with my family. But I don’t know how.”
“I know, Amka.”
Of course he knew. He knew her dreams and her fears. He knew how much she loved him and how much she wanted to be with him, but he also knew how much she loved her family and how much she feared the thought of leaving them. She wanted to raise her baby with them, especially with her mother. She also felt bound to the village by her huntress duty; she didn’t want to leave her people to fend for themselves, not while the four young hunters she was training weren’t ready to take over her role. They weren’t proficient at hunting on their own just yet, and Amka (well, Thal) was currently providing meat for the entire village. Amka felt she would be abandoning them, if she left the village for good. Her oldest sibling was only twelve years old. She couldn’t just leave her family and her people on their own.
But Thal also knew that Amka had given their situation much thought, and that deep down she knew her only choice was to leave her village, eventually. She was just putting off the inevitable. It was a hard choice, he knew, so he never pressed her. And he couldn’t object to her wish to remain in her village for as long as she could because he knew his experience was wildly different from hers. He didn’t have a family he would miss. He wouldn’t—couldn’t—make a decision for her because he wouldn’t know what it was like, leaving family.
And there weren’t really any other options. Thal couldn’t possibly live in the village with her. Even if her family embraced an outsider with pale skin and pale eyes—assuming they never found out that he was a blood-drinking monster—Thal couldn’t live in a human village, or near one, if the humans knew about him. There was always a risk of the wrong type of human finding out what he was. Despite his strength and speed, he was too vulnerable; he was useless in the sun, and there were far too many more of them. His people had made that mistake before, attempting to live with humans, and had ultimately paid with their lives. Every one of them had died at the hands of humans. Including his mother.
Still quiet, saddened by their uncertain future, Thal reached the circular stone door that marked the entrance to the basement he’d dug under Amka’s hut. After confirming there was no one around, he set her down and rolled open the door. It was meant to be a deception; a heavy stone wheel hiding within a rectangular frame that resembled a doorway, one which a human intruder would find almost impossible to open unless they knew where to look. There was a locking pin out of sight near the base of the wheel; when removed, the door would easily roll to its hidden pocket in the wall. When in place, the wheel couldn’t move, and the doorway appeared to be a solid stone rectangle. It was just one of many projects Thal had worked on while Amka slept.
He helped her through and then pulled her up through her trapdoor to the hut’s ground floor.
“Thank you,” she said, without letting go of him. She pressed her cheek against his chest. “And please don’t be sad. We’ll figure it out. If I have to go, I’ll go. No matter what, we’ll be together, the three of us. I love you more than them, you know.”
He tightened his arms around her. “I know. And I love you—which is why I stand with you, whatever you decide, whatever you need.”
“Whatever I need?” She stood on her toes and leaned in even closer, and whispered in his ear seductively. “Well ... we forgot to do something in the cave today.”
“We did not forget,” he corrected her, pulling her back. His eyes traveled to her neck, where her vein was bulging with all the extra blood she carried now while pregnant. He bent down slowly and brought his parted lips to her neck, then gently nipped her skin with the tip of his fangs, as she held her breath. “We ... just don’t do that, now.” He kissed her neck instead and pulled away from her, with some effort.
“Thal,” she complained, breathing again. “It just feels so good. You don’t know how good it feels; no one’s ever done that to you.”
Thal laughed. From her thoughts when he drank her blood, he did have an idea. It was as good for her as it was for him. Just thinking about it made his fangs ache, and had his blood rushing to the most responsive parts of his body. “I want to—so much—but you and the baby need all of your blood.” He had stopped drinking Amka’s blood only recently, one day when he’d seen her a little too pale after drinking from her. He’d felt so guilty ever since.
“Come on. It’s been one week. I won’t ask for another week, I promise. I’ll just ask for regular lovemaking.” Slowly she reached down between their bodies and placed her hand over his bulge.
He forgot why he was resisting her. He only sort of remembered he shouldn’t give in. “Amka,” he chided.
“Thal,” she replied in the same tone. Then, very gently, she squeezed.
Whatever semblance of restraint he had up until then disappeared. He scooped her up and placed her down on the tangle of blankets she kept in her hunter’s hut. He removed his and her clothes from the waist down in the same swoop, knelt in front of her, and in the next second he was inside her, pushing into her, while she dug her nails into the back of his thighs. Amka, Amka, Amka, he cried her name in his mind with each thrust, her own exhilarated thoughts answering him, her building passion fueling his. Her ragged breaths became panting moans as they neared that glorious peak together; then Thal bent over her and sank his fangs into her neck, her galloping heart pumping her delicious blood into his mouth, taking over his senses until nothing existed but Amka and the eruption of pleasure that she was experiencing. And together they came undone, their thoughts a jumble of ecstasy and bliss.
“Ahh ...” Amka sighed contentedly beneath him.
Regaining some sense, he managed to stop drinking her blood and quickly healed her wound. “Oh, Amka,” was all he said, still holding her close.
“You said whatever I need, Thal,” Amka reminded him, her eyes closed, a genuine smile plastered all over her face. “And all I need is you ...”
How could he deny her anything that made her so happy? He lay down next to her and kissed her cheek.
“Rest a while. I’m going hunting for you; I’ll be back soon.”
Thal did the business quickly, hunting in the woods nearby where he could still feel Amka sleeping. After dropping off the animal outside her home, Thal went back to her hunter’s hut and gently woke her up.
“Let me walk you home,” he offered as she stretched away her short nap.
“Nah, thank you. I’ll be fine,” she said, declining his help. She always did. She liked walking through the village on her way back. When he walked her home they had to take a path on the outskirts of the village so he could remain unseen.
And that was the path he took, alone, following her home as he always did. The walk from her hunter’s hut to her family’s hut wasn’t long, but still he always lingered near to make sure she made it home safe. Tonight she was greeted by a disapproving Mayna. Clearly he wasn’t the only one who worried about Amka.
“It’s late,” Mayna said, and Thal could easily picture her disapproving scowl.
“I’m alright, Mother,” Amka attempted to pacify her mother as she came in. But as it had been these past few weeks, it didn’t work.
“You are less than a month away from giving birth, yet you insist on going hunting. Stop that. Medda is old enough; he and his sister can take over for you. They and the other young hunters will have to, anyway, for several moons after the baby is here.”
“I can hunt elk in my sleep, Mother,” Amka joked with an inward nod to Thal, knowing he was listening. “I had no trouble at all bringing in this guy outside. And I mean no trouble. At all.”
Thal laughed silently from the copse of trees behind Amka’s hut where he presently sat.
“It’s still too much work for you,” Mayna insisted. “I don’t like how flushed you are. Your hair is a mess; your clothes aren’t even tied correctly. Come, I’ll prepare a rosemary bath for you before supper.”
Amka’s thoughts shifted to the reason why her clothes weren’t tied correctly and Thal suffered the entire length of her bath, wishing he was there with her. He suffered, but he loved it. He could stay hours on end just listening to Amka interact with her family, at supper, at story-telling, or even at bedtime when they got ready to lie down for the night. And he often did, now that his cave and tunnel were mostly complete and he had not much to do.
Tonight after their supper Amka chose for her siblings a story about the unk-ga, referring to Thal’s people as “the children of the gods” instead of as “blood-drinkers”. In the story, the unk-ga and the humans lived in harmony. The children were fascinated by the beautiful creature Amka described.
Thal smiled. She was doing her part to change their perception of his people. He only wished it was enough.
But his smile disappeared as Amka’s father uttered words that sent a terrible chill to his heart.
“Amka, don’t romanticize those blood-drinking demons,” the man said with disdain. “You may believe these are only stories, but these monsters are real. It’s time you knew that. And you all need to be scared of them, not worship them.”
“Father,” Amka said reproachfully, “that’s not true.” But she didn’t specify which part wasn’t true.
“Don’t scare the children, Tahik,” Mayna scolded her mate. “There’s no need. They’re just stories.”
“I’m just telling them the truth, so that they don’t get confused with the charming creature from Amka’s story. Children ... you have to know, the demons are real. Your birth mother was killed by one of them. A blood-drinking monster.”
Everyone gasped and uttered exclamations of surprise and disbelief. Amka said, “What? No, she wasn’t. Their birth mother was killed by a rival clan in that ill-fated expansion campaign, along with my birth father and my brothers. Right, Mother?”
“Tahik, we don’t know that for sure,” Mayna said. “We weren’t there.”
“But Malkon was, and he told me what really happened,” Amka’s father insisted. “It wasn’t the northern clan as everyone believes. It was one of those demons. Only one of them, and she killed, what, about twenty of ours? Malkon saw her with his own eyes. Pale and ghastly. He said they found her buried in the earth but when they dug her out she was alive—she was a demon! So they killed her ... or so they thought. Malkon said he only survived because he was hunting for the party when it happened. He came back to find everyone dead and the demon missing; he knew right away what had happened. She must have come back from the dead, and killed everyone in sight, in the few hours he was gone. They had had their throats ripped open, he said; she drank their blood! So he ran back south to warn the others. He was in the vanguard, and there was another company on the way. But those few others who came back with him never knew; they never saw her. Malkon was the only one who knew, and he kept it a secret.”
The children erupted with follow-up questions to satisfy their wild curiosity, but Amka was frozen. Outside, Thal was frozen. Mayna spoke over the children’s questions.
“Tahik, you first told me this story when Malkon was killed and Amka believed that she had seen a scaly monster over his body. But she never found it. I tell you now what I told you then. I can’t believe this version of the story. Malkon, my own brother, wouldn’t have lied to me.”
“But he did,” Tahik said. “He lied because he was the only hunter we had left and he didn’t want to admit that a single woman had killed our best hunters in a single blow. But he confessed to me months later, after you and I had coupled and he had become my brother. He said it once, and we never spoke of it again.”
“I just don’t know ...” Mayna said.
“It can’t be,” Amka whispered.
But Thal, alone in the dark, knew without a doubt that Tahik was telling the truth.
When Thal turned ten years old, his sweet mother Yamhi decided that they needed to relocate. She had seen the trend of the animal population decreasing, and she had also noticed a slight change in the temperatures of the lake. But she wouldn’t leave blindly with her son; she had to find the perfect location first. And, more importantly, she wanted to find their people. She wanted Thal to have company other than her. Throughout his life she had gone outside for short expeditions looking for any other unk-ga, perhaps any survivors of the raid that had forced her to leave her home, but had always come back at daybreak, exhausted and empty-handed. Thal promised her that he didn’t need any other company, but she had persisted.
So on that last excursion Yamhi promised her son that she would come back within three nights. And she did. But she came back wounded, and died within the day. With labored breaths she told him that she had journeyed north, searching, listening, until the sun came up. She had dug a hole to sleep in for the day where she thought she’d be safe from the sun, but hadn’t counted on humans finding her. These humans had been exploring on their own, looking to expand their domain, when they came across the newly-turned earth and discovered her. They’d immediately thrown their fishing net on her and attacked her—with no motivation other than the fact that she looked different—and nearly killed her. She had escaped by pretending to be dead so they would stop assaulting her. They were bringing her body to their village, she understood from their thoughts; and, thinking she was dead, removed the fishing net so they could fish. Once free she had remained there motionless, her skin badly sunburned, her deep wounds barely healing ... listening to their thoughts, waiting for the right moment. And it had finally come, when the ones on watch were distracted. One by one she managed to kill the whole lot of them. She sustained more wounds, but eventually escaped and managed to return to young Thal. Unfortunately her wounds were too great and she didn’t survive. Thal buried her at the bottom of the lake.
Now Thal knew why Amka’s uncle, the man named Malkon, had attacked him unprovoked all those months ago. He had recognized what Thal was; he had known the unk-ga weren’t just tales of old. He had come across one before and likely thought of Thal’s people as a threat. But if he knew of the unk-ga’s strength and speed, it didn’t make sense that he’d attack Thal on his own that night, unless he really thought he had a chance while Thal was distracted with the elk. Or maybe the survivor guilt he had possibly carried for ten years had made him act recklessly. Whatever the reason, it made more sense that he attacked Thal believing Thal was a blood-drinking monster than attacking an unarmed boy for no reason other than for hunting an elk. Amka had always thought of him as a kind-hearted person.
Thal’s heart was heavy. The fact that Amka’s people had been the ones that killed his mother hurt more than he could bear at the moment. Maybe it was just bad timing; Thal had recently considered living among these people to make Amka happy, despite his mother’s constant warnings against living among the sihg-zhe ... only to find that his mother had been right, and that the sihg-zhe could never be trusted.
Or maybe it was just bound to hurt, no matter what, learning who his mother’s killers were.
“Thal? Thal, are you there?” Amka murmured from her cot. Please, if you’re there, I need to talk to you.
But he couldn’t.
He would, eventually, but he needed time tonight. With sadness in his heart, Thal retreated to the safety of his solitude.
Thal ran away, not noticing when his feet carried him to the lake instead of to Amka’s cave. He dove into the water that had been his home for twenty years and emerged in the dark cave he knew every inch of like the back of his hand. He knelt in front of his late mother Yamhi’s bed.
“I’m sorry, Mother. You were right. About everything.”
He felt like a fool.
She had warned him about the sihg-zhe—the sun-dwellers. Never trust them, she always said. They envy you, they fear you; they don’t understand you, so they hate you.
They had attacked her while she slept in the ground simply because she was different. Because they couldn’t comprehend how anyone could be alive while buried in the ground. She was not a threat to them but they had believed her to be so. And they had killed her.
And they had paid the price for their unwarranted aggression. His mother’s killers were dead. But the rest of their lot … they were alive. Amka’s people.
Thal stood, cutting off the thought immediately. Amka’s people didn’t kill Yamhi. Whoever it was that had made that choice was now dead. Not all humans were distrustful to the point of murdering an unarmed woman. When Amka had seen Thal was just a boy who meant her no harm, and not the monster that she had envisioned, she had let him go. She had offered her blood to heal him. She had trusted him. And she fell in love with him.
In his heart he knew he had no choice. Even if all the sihg-zhe were like his mother’s killers, he would still want Amka. Amka was his mate, the mother of his unborn child. And no matter what the future held, they would always be together.
He said goodbye to his mother and left his underwater cave, ready to rejoin the world where Amka breathed.
The one he loved.
But when he opened his eyes the next evening, it was still early afternoon, and something was horribly wrong. Amka’s pain had woken him. He ran to her in his tunnel, faster than he ever had before, and came out at the base of her hunter’s hut. He stopped to consider the best way to reach her—burn his way through the town? Or burn longer but take the safer path in the outskirts of the village? (Why didn’t he ever connect his underground tunnel to her family’s hut?)
But Amka, as if she knew Thal was listening, suddenly projected her thoughts to him, somehow so clearly that he could hear them in the hut where he stood. I’m okay, I’m okay, she grunted. I’m—okay—the baby’s—early—coming—NOW!
He heard her final long, driving scream. A moment later Thal heard the baby’s first cry.
He sank to the floor.
A boy, he saw in somebody’s mind. He froze for a moment, for an eternity—then he heard Amka’s cry again—but this was a gentle sob, a combination of relief and joy—and he realized he could move, because she was okay. Then he stood again and stepped to the doorway. He steeled himself, and pushed the heavy drape aside, daring to look at the sun.
Pain shot through his head as his eyes burned and then attempted to heal, but he memorized the position of the sun in the sky to mark the minute of his son’s entry into this world.
“Oh, Thal ... he’s perfect,” Amka said, the face of their son cradled in her mind by a blanket of devotion.
“Thal?” repeated Mayna.
“Thakal,” Amka replied to her mother. “His name is Thakal.”
Then she whispered for Thal’s ears only, “I’m so sorry ... about your mother.”
Of course she had figured out that the woman in her father’s story last night was Thal’s mother, even though Thal had never told her how Yahmi died. Amka was just that perceptive.
It doesn’t matter, he thought to himself. Nothing else mattered now except Amka and Thakal.
Then he fell back, excitement and fear consuming him.
On the eve of Thakal’s hundredth day in this world, Thal made the biggest mistake of his entire life.
Amka had remained living with her family while Thakal was newly born; Thal visited and held him at night, allowing Amka to rest while he did so. He was entranced by the little person in his arms and spent most of his waking hours with him. He’d carved another branch of his underground tunnel leading to the woods behind Amka’s family’s hut to be as close to her and Thakal as possible.
And while spending so much time in the vicinity of Amka’s people, he had learned some terrifying things that he chose not to share with her. He should have, but he didn’t.
He just didn’t want to trouble her. Her heart was already so full of worry—love, primarily, but also constant worry. She worried over every little thing about the new life in her arms, and Thal didn’t want to add more trouble to the list. And anyway, he felt it ultimately didn’t matter because Amka was leaving the village soon. On Thakal’s hundredth day, she meant to present him to the village for the first and last time. She would announce that she was moving away. It had taken a toll on Thal, not being able to live next to his son, and Amka was finally ready to leave.
But the villagers, unbeknownst to Amka, had an ongoing favorite gossip—the mystery of the child that had been born to the village huntress. Of special annoyance to Thal were the parents of that dead cretin Torren, who were convinced that Thakal was their grandchild, for they believed the rumor that Torren had forced himself on Amka on the night of his and that other scum Aruk’s death. Torren’s mother had tried to see Thakal every day since she had heard he was born, but Mayna would not let her in.
On that day, while waiting patiently for his turn—waiting for Amka’s family to finish supper and go to bed so Amka could come out with Thakal—Thal heard two villagers gossiping. He usually ignored them, but Amka’s name caught his attention: two women were discussing that Mayna had been acting strangely, keeping well-meaning villagers away from Amka, as if Amka were some great deity that would not grant audience to the regular folk. It was unfair to Torren’s mother, they said, not allowing her to even meet her grandson. Mayna would not even wash clothes at the river with the rest of the women anymore; she was evasive and guarded when asked about Amka and the baby. And they had seen Mayna packing clothes and food—they concluded that Mayna and Amka were planning to leave the village, and that they were hiding something—something related to the baby—from everyone.
The distrust in their voices and the even uglier thoughts that accompanied their spoken words had Thal’s blood boiling with rage. But he couldn’t do anything about it, he thought, so he tried to let it go.
Had Thal mentioned his concerns to Amka, maybe things would have turned out differently.
Thal woke to her soul-splitting scream.
It was very early in the day but he was instantly awake, instantly afraid. The fear clouded his mind and didn’t let him see past his immediate need to run to her aid—if he had, he would’ve taken an additional minute to dress in his scales which would protect him somewhat from the sun that he knew, based on his internal clock, was still high up in the sky. But she was his greatest weakness—he couldn’t stop to think, to plot, to come up with a feasible strategy. She was in danger so he just reacted. He ran in her direction, outside toward the lake.
The sun burned his skin, but he ran. And in the few minutes that it took him to reach her, even before his eyes registered the patch of red that stained the water where she’d been so violently assaulted, the darkest part of him already knew he was too late to save her, and that he would kill everyone in sight.
They didn’t know he existed, so the monster part of him delighted in seeing the fear in the thoughts of that first man who carried the spear that still dripped Amka’s blood. Torren’s father. As he killed them, all eight of them, the ones that fought and the ones that ran, he was able to piece together from their final thoughts what they had done, led by the savages that had spawned Torren.
Thal saw in Torren’s mother thoughts that she had shown up at Amka’s hut demanding to see the baby, but Mayna had again refused, insisting that the child was not Torren’s but an outsider’s. Incensed at this, the woman had shoved Mayna aside and barged inside to take the infant by force ... only to learn that there was no baby, but a pale demon thing at Amka’s bloody breast. It was drinking his mother’s milk and her blood.
“Abomination!” she had cried.
This despicable woman then ran to her mate, a creature even more awful than her, and the two of them had quickly gathered a small mob to come in and take the small monster, ready to kill anyone who stood in the way. They had to keep their village safe, the man yelled, and several more agreed. Among the mob were the parents of the other dead hunter, Aruk.
But when they returned to Amka’s home they found Amka had fled. They found her trail quickly, though. They followed her to the lake, where they found her already rowing the boat out into the water. But two of the aggressors jumped in and swam after her, taking her oars, easily overcoming her who wouldn’t give up her son. They dragged her down into the water but she fought them, yelling and cursing, until the accursed man stabbed her and she stopped struggling. Her screams woke Thal.
And they were all dead now.
Thal had been heavily injured by several men he couldn’t see while attempting in vain to revive Amka at some point after killing Torren’s father. And now, after the fight was over, he didn’t care to inspect his wounds because he was still half out of it, coming down from the blinding rage that had taken over him. He was in denial as he approached the water again, turning his back to the bloody shore. The sun, his damaged eyes, and the glare of the water made it impossible to see, but he knew exactly where she was, her body floating serenely in the lake.
As he picked her up again he detected Thakal’s scent and his mind seemed to restart. Thakal was here, with Amka. He thrashed his way to the boat, looking for any signs of his son, but the boat had capsized, and Thakal was nowhere to be found. His scent was gone as well. Desperate, he felt around, and dove underwater, but his senses didn’t tell him where Thakal’s tiny body could be.
“I’m sorry, Amka. I’m sorry, Thakal,” he cried in his native language. “I have failed you.”
He couldn’t open his eyes. He wasn’t sure he had any. He had lost most of his blood so he knew he wouldn’t heal now. He was dying, and he didn’t have the strength to look for his son’s body. But he had Amka’s. With his last bit of strength he swam out to the middle of the lake holding what remained of the girl he loved. He embraced her, and then he died, sinking to the bottom of the lake together.
Across the lake, the woman skipped down the
rocky shore to where the shape was squirming. She wouldn’t have believed it was
alive, but she had heard its cries. His cries.
“I’m coming, Thakal,” Mayna said, her eyes
brimming with tears. “Your grandma is coming, and we’re going far, far away.”