The sun came up.
Its warmth seeped into the icicles that had formed during the night, sending a wave of crackles across the mountaintop.
In his snug, rock-walled house, Norbu blinked a few times, rolled to his feet, and stretched. His mate Dalha stirred beside him, but did not wake. Norbu padded into the next chamber, where their two children sat curled in a bed of brightly colored cloth. That was good; if the sunrise had not woken them, they would sleep for at least another hour.
He shook his head, clearing the fog of sleep from his mind, and took a moment to collect his thoughts. It was almost time for the weekly hunt. Norbu gave his weapons a touch-up on the sharpening stone, making sure their edges were keen enough to sever tendons. Satisfied, he returned the lethal blades to their sheaths and stalked from his doorway into the crisp morning.
As always, sunlight reflected blindingly off the ever-present coat of snow on the ground. Norbu blinked a few more times until he was used to it, then stared out into the new day. From this height, the world below looked like the realm of an insect, with its miniature trees and tiny structures, but he knew its true scale from a few scattered excursions.
Something caught the attention of his sharp ears; the scrape of a blade against rock, somewhere down the mountainside.
That would be his hunting party.
With an impressive mixture of grace and caution, Norbu descended from the small patch of flat ground that held his dwelling, picking his way from ledge to outcrop until he reached a gentler slope dotted with large boulders. His three clanmates awaited him, their mottled gray-and-white coats hard to pick out against the background.
One inclined his head in greeting, but neither of the others made any move. Norbu was not put off; there would be time for socializing later. Now, it was time to hunt.
Like a collective shadow, the group slid from their meeting place and onto the wide, fairly shallow-inclined east side of the mountain. They fanned out into a wide line, each surveying his slice of territory for potential prey. They crouched low to the ground, slinking along in near silence. Stealth was everything when your prey was as perceptive as the creatures they were searching for.
Twice, Norbu spotted the white fluff of a rabbit, dodging through the sparse trees or burrowing into the snow. Both times, he ignored it. If he was by himself, maybe, but a pair of rabbits did not go very far between the three hungry mouths at home.
Suddenly, as he skirted a tall snowdrift, he froze. There it was: the distinctive crunch crunch of unguarded steps. Instead of going around the drift, Norbu sprang lightly to its apex, keeping all but his eyes below the barrier of white.
A good distance down the mountain, a collection of loudly hued figures made slow progress up the slope. There were five of them, their coats red, green, or blue, drawing the eye from anywhere in sight range. Not for the first time, Norbu wondered why the creatures did not have camouflage like he and his clanmates.
He glanced to both sides. As expected, the others had heard their prey’s progress and reacted accordingly. The two on the right were creeping in a broad arc, using a dip in the ground to conceal their progress and flank the creatures.
On the left was a line of trees. The other hunter moved quickly behind them, staying away from their prey’s line of sight. Norbu stayed put; there were no more obstructions in line with the creatures, and they were headed straight for him.
He crouched behind the snowdrift and waited. The wind blew, rustling in the needles of the trees and bringing the scent of his prey on its wings. Sounds reached Norbu’s sensitive ears; two of the creatures seemed to be communicating.
Much closer now. The others would be in position. Soon, the first move would be made. Norbu’s muscles tensed in anticipation, and he flicked his weapons from their sheaths.
“This was a mistake,” grunted Mason, adjusting his parka hood for the seventh time. “People aren’t supposed to survive in these temperatures.”
Ahead of him and to the right, Julie looked back and grinned playfully, wiping a smear of snow from her vision-preserving polarized goggles.
“That’s the point, doofus. We’re pushing our limits!”
Mason looked to one of the others for backup, but his three friends seemed to be content to trek their way up the mountain in unhelpful silence. He decided against answering Julie, settling instead for a mental promise to set clear boundaries on the definition of “vacation.”
He pulled his scarf up to his nose again and shivered. The sun seemed to be mocking them, sitting there in the wide-open sky while the temperature sat somewhere around 20 degrees Fahrenheit. The group was nearing a small stand of evergreen trees, which reminded Mason of the pine forests of his native South Carolina. It got cold there sometimes, but at least the sun did its job.
Mason was still wallowing in his discomfort when some primal instinct made the hair on his neck stand up. He glanced over his shoulder, and a chill ran through him that had nothing to do with the weather.
A massive cat had appeared silently behind him, its light gray fur ruffling slightly in the frigid breeze. Its yellow eyes stared fearlessly into Mason’s, and it took one step forward. Two-inch claws jutted from the paw that rose from the snow, and a deep growl rumbled in its throat.
Mason tried to speak, but the words jammed in his throat. One thought ran in a loop through his brain.
Crouched behind his snowdrift, Norbu heard the signal from his clanmate and lifted his head the smallest fraction. The creatures had turned towards the first hunter. They tried to run, but the other two appeared on their flank, backing them towards Norbu’s hiding place.
Still he held his position, waiting for the perfect moment. The creatures often carried strange objects for protection, able to kill and injure easily. In the mountains, an injury usually meant death by starvation, and no risks could be taken.
Movement and a pair of sharp clicks betrayed two of the creatures. They now held small, black shapes in their front limbs, which they pointed at each of the three hunters in turn.
Norbu twitched his ear. Two was unpleasant, but manageable if he acted swiftly. His massive back legs fired like pistons, throwing him fifteen feet through the air. The perfectly calculated leap took Norbu over the nearest creature and straight into the back of one whose weapon was pointed at his clanmate. His weight brought his prey to the ground in a crushing shock and a bite to the back of the neck finished the job. The sensation of warm blood filled Norbu’s senses, tasting metallic in his mouth.
One of the creatures screamed, a high-pitched slash of a noise that shattered the tranquil mountain air. From the corner of his eye, Norbu saw the second weapon swing towards him. It hung there for an instant, then a gray blur tore into its holder with a yowl.
Norbu pushed up from the body beneath him and whirled around. His clanmates had struck like lightning, leaving two more of the creatures sprawled on the ground. The last one, the smallest of the five, was running with difficulty towards the nearby trees.
Sliding his claws in and out once, Norbu took a few loping steps and exploded into a run. He entered another fifteen-foot leap just as the creature looked over its shoulder. It dove to one side and Norbu missed the impact, landing stiffly in the snow. Scrabbling his back legs around, he swung to face his prey and sprang again, this time swiping at its back. His claws caught and ripped through the creature’s blue coat with a spray of red.
It screamed again and stumbled to the ground. Norbu lunged forward and sunk his claws into its leg, dragging it closer. He flipped it over with a bat of his paw, drove his head through its flailing limbs and tore its throat out. The ambush was complete.
Licking his muzzle, Norbu kicked some snow over the body and returned swiftly to his first, larger kill. If he could make the trip home quickly, he could return and add to his stockpile.
Wearily, Norbu dropped the second creature into the pit and covered it with a thick layer of snow. A few more of its kind also rested in the stockpile, along with any other animals unlucky enough to cross his path. Preserved by the freezing temperatures, the meat would keep his family alive if no more prey ventured up the mountain this winter. He made the short leap back to the surface level and entered his cave, dropping in a heap the colored cloth taken from his kills.
Immediately, Dalha nuzzled into his neck, welcoming him home. One of the cubs, just able to walk, stumbled vaguely in his direction before smelling something interesting in another corner of the cave. Norbu brushed the cloth into a pile and settled down on top of it. He purred in satisfaction. Another successful hunt.