I made camp on the fringe of a meadow. The clearing was settled in a hollow and seemed cozy enough. Lengthy blades of grass formed prickly silhouettes as the afternoon died away. Beasts hidden in darkness would soon make their hunts, but they feared a fire. Packs of both koobasuk and meadow hounds shied away from glowing patches of forest.
A creature snorted and neighed nearby. Twigs cracked under its hooves. It came nearer and nearer to my camp. The steps slowed with caution the closer it came.
“Intelliva?” It huffed in a harmony of whinnies and snorts. A wild male hirska walked into the fire light.
“I am,” I replied, patting the patch of ground next to me. “Share warmth, gentle one.” Hirska language was easy to understand and is often the first of many learned by Intellivas because of their domesticated utility in most towns.
“My gratitude,” he said. Simplicity defined their communication.
His coat held a healthy gloss in the firelight. I stroked the creature’s sloping neck, firm with ample musculature and dotted with protective calcium thorns. We enjoyed silence that was broken only by distant, hollow shrieks of wyverns.
Glassy eyes rotated to meet my gaze. “You seek Emadu?” asked the hirska.
“I do seek her,” I said.
The Intelliva Guild needed someone to eliminate the oppressive serpent from our world. Ecosystems were ravaged by her appetite, and people were fed up with human sacrifices to appease her. I volunteered because my mother was a victim. I wanted revenge.
“You will find her. She will sense your approach.”
My large companion slept soundly soon after. I joined him in slumber.
In the morning, alone, I broke camp and continued my trip down the trodden path.
A full day of walking awaited me.
The elders said temperate forests would give way to jungle lowlands. They also told me to follow the Kasaas River downstream when I reached it.
I found myself daydreaming of pride and relief I would feel upon return. The Intelliva Guild is integral to society on Dhamast, just as the creatures are. We translate the life language of Eluvool, the planet’s life force with which we all have a personal connection. It courses through the soil, the seas, the air we all breathe. Without our living womb, the upkeep and cleansing of our ecosystems could not occur.
The jungle biome surrounded me just after the solar peak. Canopies howled and echoed, pregnant with life. Active was the forest floor with insects, reptiles, and eco-hybrids. Interspecies babble devolved into muddled nonsense. Languages I knew were drowned out by those I’d not been trained in. Peaceful talks between symbiotes and screams of prey being devoured could not be deflected or differentiated. My ability to filter, a core proficiency for Intellivas, was admittedly mediocre. I scaled a nearby tree to center and trance in safety.
Although some daylight was lost, my lingua filter was calibrated. An intelliva can be driven mad by the unbridled cresting and troughing of garrulous fauna.
A sweet, poetic song meandered through the underbrush as I descended back to the jungle floor–Mezzo-soprano if one had to guess.
I was eager to find the source. I’d studied the rhythm and meter before. My memory, though, did not serve me while brushing limbs and fronds from my face.
Pondering still, I dropped through a hole in the ground.
Momentum threw me against the far side of the pit. I found myself clinging to damp soil, losing grip. Digging my fingers in only raked dirt toward me. I kicked a single foot behind me and felt the other side. With both feet planted, I pushed with all my remaining energy. The push was enough to squirm waist-length over the edge and roll away.
I lay supine to catch my breath before sitting up and looking down into the pit. The glossy sheen of mucilage was a telltale trap of a siren azalea.
Across the tiny clearing, to my right, sat the dense bush with its bouquet of cerulean iridescence. While beautiful, the plant was capable of creating–and concealing–several pits in its vicinity.
My stomach knotted in dread. I should have recognized the hypnotic melodies of predatory flora.
I tiptoed the area with care and eluded a second pitfall.
The danger was behind me. In spite of trepidation, I did not flinch in my resolve.
Rushing water, calling its murmur from afar, signaled the proximity of the Kasaas River.
The river’s water level was elevated and it flirted with the brim of its red clay embankment. I could have made camp, since daylight was waning, but I trekked on to see if the hasty rapids would fall.
Twilight came soon, like a blanket thrown over the sprawling biome. Koobasuk were nearby, clicking and croaking their ancient calls. The alpha couple discussed a hunt and the avoidance of fire light as I pitched my tent by the camp flames.
Before beginning my journey, an elder, Salihah, gave one bit of wisdom to me.
“If ever you are fearful, tired, or in doubt, remember why you chose this path, Lei’Lune,” she whispered.
Heeding Salihah’s words, a dozing dream in my tent delivered me back to a pleasant childhood memory.
My family had a crescent-shaped yard full of flowers pollinated by navigator bees and lamplighter butterflies. The lamplighters were always my favorites. On warm, humid evenings their antennae would glow like a pair of felid eyes in the dark.
“I don’t want you outside after dark, little lady,” said my mother in a familiar tone of affection and worry. “Come inside.”
With common obedience, I ran to the back entrance as grass shuffled under my bare feet.
“Wait!” Mother stiffened her arm to stop me.
I looked down and a butterfly rested on the smooth simstone of our back porch. The beautiful creature had damaged an antenna. It fluted a bittersweet song of pain, but I could not decipher the language at that point in life.
Lifting the insect, the instinct to weep in sympathy was overwhelming. The fluffy organism was still vibrant in my hand in spite of its injury.
My mother thumbed a tear from my cheekbone. “It’s all right, love. We can fix the little fellow,” she reassured me.
“She’s a lady,” I sniffled.
“How do you know, dear?”
Beginning to feel better, I looked at the fragile animal, beaming. “Just a feeling, mommy. She sings so pretty.”
Our remedy cupboard hid a petite vial of dermal adhesive. Mother lowered the cap brush and raised it with the precision of a medical professional. The minute globule of glue quivered on the apex of the brush’s tip. One feathered caress on the broken antennae was enough to secure the stalk together.
I followed my mother as we walked through the house and back outside. She opened her hands and the lamplighter flitted away to its unknown destination.
That evening gave me such joy and satisfaction. So much so that my Intelliva training began the following year.
Predawn light was dampened by the synthetic fabric of my shelter.
The zipper sound of chitin rubbing along my outer tent had startled me out of sleep. No doubt the exoskeleton of a koobasuk. A pack was probing my camp area.
“Your breaths are quick, Intelliva. Don’t tell me you fear a simple beast such as myself,” croaked the beast who I thought to be the alpha female.
“You are pack hunters,” I clicked back, not knowing exactly what to say while reviving my koobasuk vocabulary.
“We have studied you, child of Eluvool.”
“Then you must know my purpose in this jungle,” I replied.
” It does not mean we like it, human” she half-hissed with malice.
“Why accept my presence? This tent is mere fabric. Easily torn with claws such as yours. Would I not make a decent meal for your kind?”
My voice was calm, but my body was trembling. A single claw stabbed a peep hole before a milky compound eye of the koobasuk peered in.
“I promise that you would.” Her clicks and croaks began to accelerate from her mandibles. The gallery of flesh had brought on a primal urge in the mantid feline.
“Then why do you hesitate?” I prodded.
“I would rather have Emadu gone. Do not fail, Intelliva. For your sake. For the sake of my pack,” she said. At least, that’s what I inferred.
She leapt from her haunches and into the muggy underbrush.
Breaking camp, I could only focus on Emadu. Hearing the stories would be no substitute for meeting the serpent herself. How could she rule over an entire planet? Size alone? Skepticism and angst made an unlikely partnership, yet they settled side-by-side at the forefront of my outlook. She was close.
Not knowing exactly where to go, I followed the Kaasas as I had the evening prior. Salihah said Eluvool would be my guide.
“The cave willow will welcome you,” I remembered hearing. Cave willows are massive structures with vast root systems and require copious amounts of water to survive. The river was my best guess.
Rushing water overpowered the chatter of creatures nearby. It provides a certain respite from the funneling of nature’s conversations.
I spied a hollow sloping down from the opposite side of the river. The top of a cave willow peered up from the miniature valley. Deciduous giants were dwarfed by the girth and majesty of the home in which Emadu presumably resided.
By luck or predestined design, a daisy chain of speckled promenade trees extended over the river. The middle tree, in the midst of the rapids, reached on both sides for its mates. Their placid, linked structures resembled a statuesque rescue attempt from the roaring Kaasas. Likely my only opportunity to cross without losing a day or two. On the other hand, my life would depend upon the integrity and health of the branches.
I approached the nearest tree. The waxy bark was smooth to the touch. My fingers caressed its torso as I circled around to search for climbing knots–its speckles.
As an adaptation, promenade saplings grow their early branches at a downward angle for structural support. They shed their juvenile crutches as their root systems and trunks mature. A patchwork of solid footholds is the result.
“Hmm,” it sighed in a swelling breath of life. Tree languages are largely incoherent, according to elders.
Not knowing what to say, I whistled a soft, spliced melody to the living sculpture. The tune was a pleasant utterance taught to me by a crested tessitern. Most can appreciate song birds, but only Intellivas can derive their meanings. Grieving, for example, can be timbres of melancholy or overtures of celebration for a life given back to Eluvool.
The tree’s knots were full of organic decay. Collections of mold, dead leaves, and miscellaneous carbon-based matter. I scooped out the musty detritus with every handhold made in my climb. Toxic cupshrooms had proliferated from the depths of some knots. It pained me to ruin parts of their translucent clusters as they absorb impurities for the promenades as a symbiote.
Reaching mid-height on the tree, I managed to wedge myself between the trunk and the parent branch that would bridge the Kasaas. Bittersweet smells of promenade sap were overbearing as I straddled the large branch like I would a hirska saddle.
Scooting along the branch was easy enough. I remember wishing for scaly bark that had a better hold to it. The texture of promenade bark is best compared to a snail’s shell. It was a delicate process to traverse the branch to the next tree.
I eventually made it to the middle tree. There was no rest as I risked losing my nerve before the second branch crossing. My trek on the branches, at least that time, was easier from practice on the first.
Scaling down the far-side promenade, fear began to settle within me. The culmination of my odyssey was drawing near.
I could see more of the cave willow as I descended into its independent ecosystem. It crept over a radius of land like a plague. Thick roots were digging up the nitrogenous soil and creating hollow space, making caves as they are known for. Spiraled moss lulled about in the light wind. My nasal passages welcomed new, curious scents I was suddenly eager to follow.
A large opening, formed by a combination of trunk and roots, beckoned me. I snapped a radiance rod and strode into the cave. The burly glow of the rod could not reach across the blackness of the space I’d walked into.
Root systems, I discovered, had weaved among themselves. Latticed roots had formed labyrinthine passages in the depths under the willow. Disorienting were the multitudes of branching paths, both vertical and horizontal.
“An Intelliva I sssurmise,” came a hiss that echoed around me. It was her. I nearly twirled in a circle to look for the serpent.
“You speak Migrant Dhamastian.” My words quavered and my eyes continued to dart around the large room.
“I speak in many tongues, child,” she said, descending like a rope from the vastly vaulted ceiling. Her serpentine expanse coiled as it landed on the chalky ground. All the while her eyes, scarlet and piercing, were trained on me.
Mirroring Emadu’s relaxed position, I sat and crisscrossed my legs.
“Do you control the Eluvool?” I asked, speaking Dhamastian rather than her primordial language.
“Sadly, I cannot control such a force as your life stream,” she hissed, as if her pride was damaged. “But I do control Dhamast.”
“It’s foolish for one entity to rule a planet, no?” I blurted out in a split-second disregard for my own life.
“You’re a bold one, young Intelliva. Foolhardy of you to say such things to a serpent of worlds in her own lair.”
“With all due respect,” I said, remembering my place then, “Intellivas are not trained to be timid.”
Emadu said, “And not all of my kind are so cordial to their host planets.” The kaleidoscopic patterns of her scales shimmered in agitation. “Consider your world lucky for my slight disdain of savagery.”
“Host planets?” I asked.
The great serpent elaborated. Her species spreads with egg spores. In her lifetime, exactly six eggs will be flung into the heavens after an encasement of her saliva to protect them. After her spores are jettisoned, she will keep a seventh egg as her successor. If none of Emadu’s eggs survive the vacuum of space, her offspring will have six of its own to ferry along. The chances are infinite in such a cycle with asexual beasts that are born to rule.
“Nothing more than parasitism isn’t it?”
“It’s called perfection,” she rasped. “Being the perfect organism. We’ll exist long after hominids I tell you, child.”
Her harsh echo trailed off and looped back. I sat in silence again.
“Eluvool,” I finally said. It was so simple, the plan formulating in me, but not a sure thing.
Emadu canted her head ninety degrees, curious.
“That is your path to ultimate perfection. I can channel its verve stream for your very control.”
Indifference. “Others have not suggested this.”
“Perhaps they wanted to maintain tradition, in respect of Eluvool. I present this idea as a better way for you to rule. In exchange, I would ask for an end to human sacrifices,” I said.
A corner smile bent upward, presenting a bone-white fang. “Do as you must, child. I’ll entertain your suggestion if your abilities are worthy.”
I took to my knees and sat on my feet. My fingers were planted as far into the dirt as I could push them. Guild elders, my mother, the lamplighter butterfly, everyone I knew who was now part of Eluvool spoke to me all at once. Incoherent, but peaceful and soothing. I was moved beyond tears and into a realm of trance I’d never known before.
An aura of expansion radiated from my torso and into my extremities. The feeling was not unlike sitting in a warm bath.
The crusted terrain began to crack around me. Not a quake, but rather individual breaks like plants born of the planet.
A shrill hiss drew my eyelids open.
Ghostly tendrils were dancing in the midst of Emadu. Her hissing was panicked as she struck at the off-white threads of life. Fangs only caught air, wisping through the apparitions surrounding her.
Realizing the threat could not be neutralized, the serpent of worlds attempted an escape. But not before an attempt on my life.
Mouth agape, she lunged for me.
The tendrils grabbed hold and held fast. Emadu writhed and wriggled in a desperate, violent effort to break free of her bondage.
“Eluvool,” I whispered. Its verve stream had risen to the surface.
Our life force was cleansing itself. Eluvool simply hadn’t realized the virus that Emadu was.
“Clever girl,” said Emadu, ceasing her resistance against the inevitable. “The veil was well-woven, Intelliva.” She lay calm and still.
I rose, dusted off, and walked to her. I stopped at arm’s length. In close proximity, I was dwarfed by the serpent’s large head.
“Clever enough, parasite,” I said, stone-faced.
The tendrils had multiplied and were coursing through her. Matter was dissolving into nothingness and spreading white light to all corners of the cavern. Emadu, the alien ruler of Dhamast, was absorbed by our Eluvool.
Luminous turmoil softened to the original darkness of the cavern as I emerged from under the cave willow to begin my journey home.
BIO: Ryan is a native of North Carolina, but currently lives in Arizona. A biomed tech by day and a writer by night, he’s always harbored a love for speculative fiction. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Terraform, Galaxy’s Edge, and Theme of Absence.