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Some Sense of Balance

Started by Tahara, June 25, 2019, 10:55:21 PM

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“Atar’ka really… hammered this… stupid horn… into th-”

With all her might, one foot set against the trunk, Tahara yanked at the talbuk horn, still stuck in the tree from Kosh’harg. Some of the sap had welled up, more or less glueing the damn thing shut.

She heard the sound of Nighthowl sitting down, clearly bored of standing as well as a subtle shift in weight from Vraxxar, as he crossed his arms. Great.

"I can… do this… just…"

"I'm not helping.", Vraxx supplied, a small hint of amusement in his voice.

"Good… because I don't need… hel-WOAH!"

With an almost comical pop the horn finally came free and Tahara fell backwards, landing hard on her backside with a grunt as sap slowly started trickling into the bucket she had thankfully already put in front of it.

"See? I had it.", she groaned as she got up, rubbing her soon-to-be bruises as the bucket slowly filled up.

Her only answer was a chuckle.

The trek to Garadar was a short one but laden with an entire bucket full of tree sap, Tahara was slowed down somewhat. She needed the substance for a few steps in the crafting process, not least of all because the flavour of it repulsed Chuckles and the ever hungry hyena wouldn't be tempted to snack on her ritual garb if she covered the bones in resin.

It was still morning by the time they made it to the settlement and picked out a spot for Vraxxar and the beasts to wait. "Don't make a fire right next to it, it needs to stay like that for now.", she lectured as they relieved both Nighthowl and Chuckles of their bags, the latter immediately sinking to the floor and scratching her back on the rough sand,letting out a satisfied grumbling.

"I won't be touching your things, you just focus on what you have to do.", Vraxxar nodded. He looked at her quiver. "You're sure you have enough arrows?"

Tahara looked down to her belt, shrugging her shoulders with a small smile.

"It's a talbuk. How hard is it gonna be?"

The answer, as it turned out, was very. She'd been tracking for hours, finding the hoofprints and following them for miles on end, not even catching a damn glimpse of talbuk. Or any animal, really, for that matter.

She crouched down near the water hole, frowning at the ground. The water was clear, the weather good, sun burning down on her back. By all rights, this place should have been teeming with life… but all her ears picked up were the wind and the rustling of her own motions.

Her fingers traced the imprints of what could have only been three clefthoofs judging by size alone. All three seemed to be fresh, yet they hadn't left together. One south, one east, one west. And at speed.

Running away from something.

What scared three clefthoofs into leaving a perfectly good water hole?

Tahara combed some hairs out of her face, rubbing her neck as a small sense of dread settled into her heart. There was a tiny chance she was going to fail her task before it got started. That she was about to go down in clan history as not just the worst gosh'kar, but the worst hunter.

She stood back up with a groan, her spine protesting the movement but she ignored it like she always did.

Pacing, she pinched the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger. "Come on, come on, think…"

If she didn't pick up a real trail fast she wouldn't bag a kill before nightfall. Then, the real predators of Outland would go to catch their dinner and she'd be stalking prey with competition. In the Barrens that thought would never have bothered her - in fact, beating those arrogant lionesses was great fun on occasion -  but for this...

She wasn't a perfect hunter. Nor really all that great at crafting. She'd wanted to make sure she had the time to at least get as close to perfect as someone like her could.

Tahara sighed and put her hands on her hips, ready to pick another talbuk trail at random and pray to Mo’lak to take some damn mercy on her, when she looked up and noticed something in the distance. A bent tree. Northwest.

She turned around, mind working, head tilted to the side. Judging by the angle and the distance of the tracks… she nodded to herself. Yup. Whatever the clefthoofs had been running away from had bent that tree.

This is a waste of time. You're going to fail.

Tahara fought down the small, panicked voice in her head. If she wanted to find the herd, she needed to know what had scattered it in the first place.

The tree, she found as she approached, was bent out of shape, but not by wind. The only thing she could really think of that could have easily scared a herd of talbuks and three clefthoofs was a gronn - but the tree was only cracked in a small, localized spot on the trunk. A gronn would have flattened the area. Elekk weren’t known as particularly aggressive, nor suicidal enough to try and mess with clefthoofs. They also probably would have taken the entire tree down.

Tahara bent her knees, face close to the tree's point of breaking. Very, very weird.

When the trunk had tipped to the side, she noted, a windroc nest had fallen off, lying broken in half behind the tree. Three eggs had shattered entirely, but she was surprised to see one mostly intact, only one large crack marring the outside. Tahara peered around and a trail of feathers and blood answered the question of what happened to the mother.

Tree breaks, she tries to save her babies… broken wing probably? Wolf pack finds an easy meal. Not coming back.

Absentmindedly she touched the egg, frowning as she felt it. Hm.

There were more talbuk tracks leading south this time. A herd, but very, very erratic. Confused. They hadn't been walking as a herd, still chased by whatever cracked the tree trunk. There were no other tracks.

A ghost? Come on, Tahara, that's stupid.

Annoyed at herself and feeling the task slip away from her she shouldered her bow and followed the scattered trail.

She followed it for what must have been another few hours, nervously watching the sun make its journey across the horizon, her shadow growing longer with each passing moment. The tracks split and merged and split again, seemingly at random. Not the pattern of a hunter - two legged, or otherwise. The pack hunters she knew, from Outland’s wolves to the Barren’s hyenas, had tactics. A system. This was nothing. The clefthoof tracks she abandoned the moment she realized them headed for the mountains and Oshu’gun. She was not getting trampled by those giants on a simple task.

Furious at herself with how much she was overcomplicating her one damn job, she almost walked straight into the middle of the herd.

She was a few feet off, tall grass had hid her - thank the spirits - and she just about managed to halt when she spotted the first horn over the horizon line. She was on top of a hill. Tahara looked below her and there they were: perfect, serene, healthy. Five females, three males and two younglings, not yet fully grown but too large to be considered foals, really.

Her heart began to pound in her chest as anticipation and relief combined into a knot somewhere in her stomach. A light tan coat and bushy white tail made her pluck an arrow out of her quiver, breathing speeding up.

She was perfect. Or, near perfect anyways. She could already see the garb in her eyes… as her gaze drifted to the side. Another broken tree.

No. You have a task.

Tahara knocked the arrow. She took a deep breath, feeling the wind and its direction, aiming at the talbuk’s neck. She had a task. The perfect beast for it was right in front of her.

Take the stupid shot.

She could let this go. It wasn’t her problem. Bad things happened in the wilds all the time, didn’t mean it wouldn’t fix itself. Or that she could fix it. She was here to hunt. Just. To. Hunt.

Releasing a breath through her nose she lowered the bow. “Damn it”, she muttered and that was all it took for the gorgeous talbuk to lift her head and in a matter of seconds, they were all galloping away.

Tahara screwed her eyes shut, hand to her forehead.

You’re definitely going to fail now, the voice in her head helpfully supplied.

“Shut up”, she grumbled in reply, trying not to think about the fact that she had reached the point of talking to herself as she followed the trail of desolation.

Making her way down her hill - perfect vantage point, moron - she could still only find talbuk tracks. The trunk was cracked in the same way as before, a small localized point that had been hit or kicked repeatedly. Not a gronn, not an elekk and definitely no wolf.

This time, she kept low, ears twitching to try and pick up sounds. The erratic trail was a lot fresher - if it had chased the herd here, perhaps it was still close by. Tahara couldn’t remember a time where she had been tracking something without knowing what it was. Grass turned to mud as she went on, another hour slipping by and sunset painting the lands around her in a decisively worrying shade of red. She was running out of time, now. Not long before the first packs would get moving. She was about to speed up her pace when she saw him.

There, drinking from a small pond, stood another talbuk.Tahara dipped behind a rock outcropping, eyes peeking out from the side.

He was a colt, still young but strong and healthy looking. Nothing out of the ordinary really. His ruddy coat was not the best she’d seen, his horns were on the smaller side, spines okay… but there was something bothering her.

When Tahara learned to speak with beasts, she learned quickly that sounds were almost useless to her. Chuckles responded to the sound of her voice, not her words, only being able to distinguish a few, very specific trained ones. But the body, that was a language everyone spoke, no matter if they walked on two legs or four. Wolves read different than hyenas, hyenas different than talbuks but she had time and patience and it was no harder to her to learn a new creature’s language than it was to study Nar’thak’s alphabet.

Tahara spoke “talbuk”. And this one was speaking gibberish.

Instead of drinking peacefully at the pond, all alone, the colt was breathing heavily. He took in big gulps of water, tail trying to swipe away flies that were not there and his hooves pawing at the ground like he was frightened… or angry. Very, very angry.

The mok’nathal had taught her of warning signs. All the sickness an animal could carry, where touch alone could spell death for the hunter. She was confident that she knew just about everything a talbuk could have that could be dangerous and not a single thing matched what she saw.

He should be foaming at the mouth and running away from water, not huffing like an angry clefthoof bull and drinking like he’d marched through the desert for a week. Tahara frowned and inched closer. If she could just get a better look at-

She knew was had the moment she felt something beneath her feet that wasn’t mud, a second before the tell-tale snap of a branch revealed her. Cursing, Tahara plucked an arrow as the Talbuk’s head shot up, preparing for his flight…

...only to realize he was not running. He was charging. At her.

Uh oh.

For once, she agreed with the voice in her head.

Her eyes went wide, frantically trying to knock an arrow and get up at the same time as the colt was barely six paces away from her. The shot went wide, embarrassingly wide, Tahara just managing to roll out of the way as hooves thundered past her. Too close! Way too close!

She broke into a run, trying to gain some distance between her and the rampaging colt, to no avail. She had to jump out of the way, knock, draw and fire in a span of a second and it wasn’t working. Every shot missed, either landing in a tree that may as well have stood in Terrokkar, or just grazing the talbuk, small superficial cuts that didn’t seem to do anything except make him even more angry.

Tahara had to change her tactic - and quickly, too - if she didn’t want to return to Garadar in the shape of a pancake. Or not return at all.

She took a deep lungful of air and when the talbuk almost caught up with her stopped and dashed past him. Talbuk were fast, but as fanatically as this one was chasing her, there were a precious few seconds as he had to come to a stop and turn. Precious time in which Tahara got into position, grabbed for an arrow and-

Oh no.

-... grasped only air. Confused, she looked down at her hip staring at the empty quiver with wide eyes as the talbuk once again charged at her. This time, she did not have enough to get away in time.

She had never seen anything like this. Instead of ramming her with his horns, she watched as a furious maw opened and tried to bite her. On her head. Teeth impacted with her forehead just as she tried to leap to the side and Tahra heard a dull thud and felt blood trickling down her face as she collided with the ground, rolling over, not stopping. Not to check her injury, not to look behind her, she just kept running. This wasn’t possible. He wasn’t trying to defend himself, not even to chase her away.

That talbuk was trying to kill her. With more vicious intent than any predator she’d ever met.

Her lungs were on fire and her legs weren’t going to last much longer. The blood from her forehead was starting to trickle into her mouth and Tahara tasted iron. She didn’t have a choice. She threw one quick glance over her shoulder and spotted something glinting in the sunset.

She gritted her teeth. She was either going to nail this, or run for her life.

With what strength she had left, Tahara repeated the maneuver, but this time, she leapt past the talbuk, narrowly avoiding getting slammed by his hindlegs. She dropped into a roll, impacting hard on her shoulder, pain shooting through her like a needle, but she needed the arm to grab what she saw. One of her misfired arrows. One shot.

In an instant she was back on her knees and turned, not bothering to stand up.

Ten paces.

She knocked the arrow.

Eight paces.

She drew back as far as she could. Her shoulder hurt. Her eyesight was blurred from blood. She ignored both and aimed for his heart.

Six paces.

She fired, the arrow singing through the evening breeze.

Four paces.

With a low thunk, the arrow sank into the colt’s heart, almost halfway. He kept running.

Two paces.

Tahara’s bow clattered to the ground, her forearms coming up to protect her head from the charge.


She screwed her eyes shut, bracing for impact...

“Are you listening?”

Tahara blinked, looking upwards and trying to focus on the mok’nathal. He was huge and she had to crane her neck, rain trickling into her eyes as she did so. They’d been lying in wait for what felt like days, even though Tahara knew it was only a few hours. Somehow, she enjoyed this. Her spine was comfortably resting for once, not cramped by iron bars and only good things to wait on, not dreading the stretch of nothing. His hair was covered by his hood, but she could make out his eyes as they stared down at her.

“Y-yes. N-... n-no. I wasn’t. Sorry.”

Instinctively, she winced, bracing for the strike she had yet to learn wouldn’t come.

She heard him sigh above her. “Calm down, I’m not going to whip you.”, he grumbled out.

“S-sorry.” Tahara swallowed, trying to keep her teeth from chattering. Not from cold.

“Stop apologizing.”

“S-... hrm.”

She heard an irritated grunt above her, the closest the mok’nathal got to laughing, she’d learned.

Tahara felt his hand on top of her head, very intensely so now that they had shaved all of her hair off, leaving only a short buzz behind that was struggling to grow back. Not terribly gently he directed her head to see what he was seeing - a lynx, who had just snatched a rodent in his jaw, contentedly dragging it back to his hideout. “See that scratch?”

Tahara squinted her eyes against nightfall. She did see a few scratches on the lynx’ flank. She nodded up at the mok’nathal.

“That cat got stupid. If those scratches get inflamed - well. You know all about that already, don’t you?”

Tahara nodded again, numbly. She remembered the fevers and the dirt in the wounds and the crying. Not hers. “He might die.”

The mok’nathal nodded his head.

“Respect for all. Even the small ones. When they’re scared enough, backed into a corner, even the smallest can do some damage.”

Tahara was not smart, but she knew who was the rodent in his metaphor and who the lynx.

“But the small ones still die.”, she said, looking up at the mok’nathal with uncertainty.

He put his hand on her shoulder.

“Not always. The proud wolf gets trampled by the talbuk. Sometimes, prey turns the tables on predator.”

“You think I could do that?”, she muttered, watching as the lynx deliciously tore into his catch.

“With practice? Yes.”

The mok’nathal nudged her shoulder, the corners of his mouth pulling up in what might have been a tenth of a smile.

“There’s always someone bigger, someone stronger. Even bigger than ogres, you know? But you show respect and stay wary and you will always be a step ahead of them, no matter how big or strong.”

Tahara shouldered the bow he’d given her - a practice one, meant for young mok’nathal. It was still bigger than her and heavy to boot. She frowned, looking at the ground intently and he peered down at her from under heavy brows.


“I don’t think I can respect bugs. It’s just… they’re gross. And everywhere. And so gross.”

Another grunt and the mok’nathal got up.

“I think the wilds will forgive you if you step on the occasional spider.” He nodded his head in direction of the lynx. “Come on. You need target practice.”

Tahara kept her eyes closed, breathing heavily, seconds passing her by. When she finally realized the impact wasn’t coming, she opened them.

There in front of her, the talbuk’s muzzle had stopped a hair’s breadth ahead of her knees. His legs crumbled, arrow still sticking out of the centre of his chest, he had died hitting the ground. Tahara fell backwards, laughing.


She punched both fists in the air, cackling to herself as the rush of battle was racing through her blood, every limb shaking in excitement and exhaustion all at once. Tahara stayed there, forcing lungfuls of air back into her chest, waiting for her legs to remember how to stand, watching the sun ever so slowly dip behind the horizon line. Sunset turned to dusk when finally her heart slowed down to a comfortable pace and she heaved herself back up, staring at her kill.

Tahara let her hand glide over his coat, fingers finding the arrow that ended his life and pulled it out, wiping the blood off on the grass and returning it to her quiver. She retrieved all other arrows she found, recovering five of her six missed shots. The last, she had no idea where it went. Maybe down the pond. She had no intention to go for a swim to find out, though.

Sighing, she knelt down at the creature’s carcass. She still wanted to know what had happened to him to become… this.  A thought came to mind and Tahara plucked the knife from her belt, directing the tip to the puncture of her fatal arrow and pushed inside. It took some effort and a resounding cracking noise, but she managed to force his ribcage open.

What she saw, she wasn’t prepared for.

Pushing against his ribs, swollen and overgrown, the talbuk’s heart was massive. It didn’t look like any heart she’d ever seen. As big as a kodo’s with ease, and made of more parts than it should have been. It almost looked like… two, melded together.

It took a minute to put the pieces together, but when she realized, she put her least bloody hand to his neck and slowly stroked down, as if trying to comfort the poor beast.

“You were supposed to be twins, but she didn’t make it. You carried her heart with you but it was too much. You knew it was going to fail someday, but you tried to fight. Only you couldn’t… so you ran and fought everything else.”

Caught in a permanent state of sheer panic, a heart that never learned how to slow down, how to calm its own beating, the years of fear had turned prey into predator.

Tahara remembered the mok’nathal whose name she never asked for. She remembered his lessons.

"It's a talbuk. How hard is it gonna be?"

Tahara swallowed down a “sorry” no one was going to hear and sighed. She had worried so much about everything else that she’d lost sight of the one thing that had ever made her a good hunter. This wasn’t the talbuk she wanted, but it was the one she deserved.

She patted his neck one more time and stood up.

“Anybody asks about this story, I won’t make you the villain. Promise.”

It wasn’t easy but with the right technique, even someone as scrawny as Tahara could carry a talbuk. Slung over both shoulders and putting the weight to her hips, she made the slow journey back, but not without stopping one last time on the road.

At the first broken tree she took off her pack and shuffled a few things around, very, very gently setting the windroc egg down inside it. She tied it to her waist so the carcass would not crush the already fragile thing.

It was almost morning by the time she made it back to Garadar, stalking through the mist just before dawn. She found Vraxxar where she left him, seemingly asleep while sitting until one eye opened at the sound of the talbuk hitting the ground.

“Sorry I’m late.”, she muttered, smiling a little sheepishly as she set down her pack as well.

“You’re bleeding.”, was his reply and Tahara blinked confused, already all forgotten about the gash on her forehead.

“Oh that. Didn’t break bone. I’ll wash it off in a minute- why’s there food on my bedroll? … I thought you weren’t helping.”

She nodded to some flat bread, dried meats and fruits in a small woven bowl on her furs.

Vraxxar smirked lightly, crossing his arms behind his head as he leant on the tree trunk.

“Dinner isn’t part of your task.”

She couldn’t help but snort a little at that.

Tahara took out the windroc egg, finding a stick and the bucket of sap she’d left. Using the stick as a brush, she trickled the sap onto the crack and held it close to the fire. Not too close to accidentally make a boiled egg of it, but enough for the resin to slowly harden. She could feel Vraxxar watching her, so she began to explain.

“The others didn’t make it. This one might not either, but… I figure it should get a fair chance. Like I did.”

When it was done, she set the egg back into her packs, hoping the snug environment would at least somewhat mimic its mother’s warm nest.

Tahara washed the blood off her face, indeed only a small gash left on her forehead. It didn’t hurt much, but she cleaned it out carefully just to be safe. When her hands were clean too, she rejoined Vraxxar by the fire. “I’ll butcher it now.”, she said in between shoving bread into her mouth. “So the meat can hang overnight. I’ll clean the bones after I sleep for a bit, then put them in the resin. They only need a couple of hours to harden, so… tomorrow.”

He never turned his head. “Tomorrow what?”

Tahara smiled and as she said it out loud, perhaps for the first time noticing just how important it was to be able to say it. To know that such a place, such people existed for the first time in her life. That even without fanfares and hugs and even so much as a ‘welcome back’, it would be more than she ever had.

“Tomorrow we go home.”