The Hunting Realm

Submitted into Contest #196 in response to: Write a story involving a portal into a parallel universe.... view prompt

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Adventure Fantasy Science Fiction

I snug my boot laces and check the mirror before reaching into a pot of thick mud next to my bed. It’s nearly too dry to use, so I generate the small bit of saliva I can manage and spit on it, plying the dirt with my fingers till it’s soft enough to smear across my face. That layer of grime disguising my skin could be the difference between victory against prey this morning, or coming home empty-handed from the Hunting Realm. My partner Farac pokes his covered head into the tent. His clothes are their usual motley of tans and browns with dried twigs tied in a thin string to his upper right arm and thighs. The poor man's camouflage most people from the Desert Realm use.

“The portal’s here Cara. Move it.”

I check the metal plate I use as a mirror, and smear one last bit of mud from my cheekbone up to my hairline, smearing it into the brown strands tight tightly in a braid. Farac grumbles for me to move faster so I leap up, grab my bow, and flip open the tent flap, stepping out into the early morning sun. Aside from my bed, clothes, and jars of muddling scents, my bow is my only real protection. Farac picks up a jog over the sand as it begins whipping around our feet from the wind pouring through the portal. It appeared closer too my tent than usual, which was as discomforting as it was advantageous. I was lucky it did not cut through my tent, and me, in my sleep. Since it hadn’t though it meant we had a leg up on finding the best hunting spots. The Burrow tribe was likely still looking for the portal now. 

Scents of the rainforest flow on the breeze tumbling over the barren landscape for a hole in the air only about sixty yards away. The tall oval opening in the air reveals a world of color that looks so starkly wrong in the middle of miles of desert it still takes my breath away. The gatherers from my tribe have already begun cautiously moving into the Hunting Realm. They won’t stray out of sight of the portal. So, hopefully, there is some fruit and nuts for them to harvest within their reach this time. I cannot blame them for not wanting to stray as far as the hunters do. The desert may lack foliage and prey, but at least it's safe from predators. Farac crinkles his nose at me. 

“Is that, urine?”

“Just a dash of male sobekk. The last time we hunted I saw two cave cats out in the open. If they’re desperate enough to enter the Hunting Realm in packs I want to scare them back to their mountains.” I hoped the smell of sobekk would work, otherwise, I dabbed urine on my hands and neck for nothing. Sobekks were the cave cats' natural enemy. They were an enemy to most animals. Predators, prey, and certainly humans.

We finally reach the portal and I can see other hunting pairs and parties approaching in the distance across the shifting sand.

“Shit, the Burrows see the portal,” I tell Farac, though he spots them in the distance too. They’re jogging casually, coming from the caves that make up their tribe's home. “We need to move through fast if we’re going to bag an animal before they do and start hooting their victory loud enough to disturb the whole Hunting Realm.”

It’s always a balancing act, hunting through the portal. We need to stay away from others who could spoil our hunt and steal our kill, but still not so far away from those who could save us if we become prey ourselves. At the same time, everyone needs to remain mindful of the portal. We’ll have approximately three hours of a solid portal, it could be open for up to an hour after that, but after four hours this portal would be gone. If we’re not on our side of the portal when it closes… well, no one has ever survived a night in the Hunting Realm.

I feel a slight shock when Farac and I cross over into the jungle side of the portal. The Hunting Realm presses in on me like a heavy, wet blanket soaking my skin. Farac checks once more to make sure the Burrow hunters cannot see us, then leads the way to today’s hunting spot. We take up a loping run toward a grove of trees dangling orange fruits in our path. Or at least it is a tree grove in this realm. In the desert realm that spot is nothing but rocks. 

Not for the first time I wonder how this realm grew lush and green, where mine is dry and desolate. My people, the Harin tribe, have always described our home as a place for a quiet death. That will be all too accurate if Farac and I fail again on this hunt. It’s been three weeks since we last brought home a kill, and our people are starving. Images haunt my thoughts of the children I saw at last night’s fire, cooking the final mushrooms from our stores and sneaking nibbles to fill their empty stomachs. They are why I became a hunter. Only Farac and I dare to cross realms for the Harin tribe, and we cannot fail them again.

Leaves brush my arm smearing dirt and pollen on the sleeves as we delve off the path into the thick of the jungle. Farac settles us behind a rock, signing with his fingers that he saw a herd of bleeters pass by here last week. I already know that of course, we’d talked of nothing else since. A bleeter could feed our tribe for two to three weeks if we tried. I fight the urge to fidget behind our cover, the game path twenty yards away. I stop my hands from fiddling with my bow, straightening my fletching and checking that my arrowhead is secure, and instead I send up a prayer to the Realm Lords that they would not change the portals location too drastically again this week. 

As if in answer, the air directly in front of us shimmers, the trees and ferns before me ripple and fall away like loose threads released in water. The door to a separate realm opens in front of us, revealing prickly trees and fallen logs. The Bleeters Realm.

Farac’s breath hisses through his clenched teeth. The portal is thirty yards ahead, putting our hiding spot directly in view for whatever creature comes through the portal. I have no intention of being ungrateful though. The portal is here, and now all we can do is wait for our prey. If not a bleeter, we could as least get some rabbits. In some ways, I preferred that. They were one of the few animals unaffected by the tearing of the world, and that made them seem more, pure. But they were far too small.

From beyond the portal, among the prickly trees, I hear a gloriously loud chorus of “Blaaa-eeeeha”. My heart flips in excitement that only grows with the sound of tiny hooves beating on dirt and cracking twigs.

I can’t risk the motion of turning to look at Farac, but I smile and just know he is too. We are going to have a real dinner tonight, if we can just make clean shots. Farac’s bow creaks in his tight grip beside me as he nocks an arrow.

“Breath,” I tell him so quietly I hope he hears it, then nock an arrow of my own. I want to raise it in preparation, but we can’t spook the bleeters yet. My legs tremble behind the rock, as the herd finally rounds the corner of the portal, racing into the grove.

The bleeters are beautiful, most are as tall as I am. Their coats range from pale brown to pure white, curly and close to the body until it flares out around their hooves and from their behind in a wide, fanning tail. Their ears perk and flick back and forth on high alert despite being in a herd of at least twenty. If only we could take them all.

Once they’re close, Farac and I spring from our hiding spot with bows drawn. I exhale and loose an arrow, praying to the Realm Lords. I don’t have the chance to see the arrow land though. A whip of scales lashes into my side sending me sprawling away from the rock. I yelp in pain, grabbing at where I can feel my skin tear and loosing my bow during the fall. My mind races to understand what is happening but all I can hear are wails of pain, and they’re not my own.

I lift up on an elbow despite the blood leaking from my side and the mud sucking at my limbs and look for Farac. He’s under the crushing weight and gnashing teeth of a sobekk. It’s the first time I’ve seen the creature up close. The Harin elders described it as something akin to a crocodile, which lurked in rivers before the water dried up in our realm. Those creatures were described as long and low to the ground though. Where the sobekk has long limbs, a ridged tail, and nightmare-inducing claws and teeth that were red with Farac’s blood.

My bow is back in my hands and an arrow nocked before I even consider the motion. From somewhere deep inside me, I find the strength to draw back and fire at the sobekk, trying to steal the beast's attention from Farac with a shout, but nothing can phase its blood lust now. My screams are ignored, my arrow tipped with precious metal bounces off scales that work like armor, and I watch as the sobekk’s jaws clamp down on Farac’s neck. My partner's head disappears down the creature's throat.

I think about weeping for him, but there’s no time. It is done, Farac is lost. With effort I crawl behind ferns that shield me from the sobekk’s view, not knowing how well the creature can see with its golden eyes. The portal is visible through gaps in the grove’s trees and I pray again that it will stay open long enough for me to make it through. I’m about to crawl slowly toward it when I spare one last look at where the creature feasts on Farac’s corpse. I’m on the other side of the boulder now, looking at where we’d been hunting the bleeters, and one curly-haired body is lying motionless on the ground.

The faces of the Harin tribe children come unbidden to my mind again. There’s no food on for us on in the desert realm, and with Farac, gone, I am the only hunter they have left. I need that food. We need that food. I ignore the wet crunch of the sobekks jaws as its mouth fills with blood, and creep closer to my own kill.

Luckily, it is a small one. A yearling at best. The jungle floor is graciously soft, allowing me to grab the bleeter by its hooves and silently slide it behind me as I struggle to move quickly in a crouch and avoid attention. The creature is so huge, I know it will finish its feast in moments and begin searching for a second meal. I pull the bleeter over a log, eyes darting back to the portal inching ever closer. The bleeters body plops on the other side with a thud, cracking twigs. Above the leaves and underbrush I see the scaly snout of the sobekk rise. It sniffs at the air, and my blood runs cold. It smells me. 

The second its head turns I tighten my grip and run. The dead weight of my kill feels like hauling a mountain but i know I cannot stop. I burst through the rough terrain of the grove onto an open path to the portal. Gatherers run back to the desert realm and I hear the tell-tale swish sound that happens when the portal closes. It shimmers unstably. My heart falls so deep into my stomach nearly tripping me.

The sobekk, thank the Realm Lords, reacts slowly to me. The gatherers are disappearing east and west of the portal before I hear the creature's clawed feet cleave the earth as it picks up a run straight at me. I consider dropping the bleeter carcass, but the portal is so close!

Forty yards, thirty, twenty-five. I have tunnel vision on the portal but the snarl of the sobekk turns my legs to ice. I feel its presence directly behind me but I cannot turn or… a sharp pain seers my shoulder and I scream so loudly I fear the sound itself will destabilize the portal and make it shut. Red blood bursts from my shoulder where the sobekk’s claw clipped my flesh, tearing the sleeve of my tunic and ripping deeper than I want to consider. But, it was just my shoulder.

As I stop screaming, moving slower now with only one functional arm dragging the bleeter, I realize I was not the only one howling in pain. I risk a look behind me at the sobekk shrieking the most unnatural sounds I’ve ever heard. It claws at its own bloody eye, shaking its long, toothy snout. 

“Run damn you!” I hear a man shout somewhere to my right. “Run!!”

I realize now what the sobekk is clawing at. An arrow in its eye. As I stare at the impossibly injured monster, another arrow streaks through the air and strikes its chest. The sobekk ignores the second arrow as it bounces off and falls on all fours again, heaving breaths. It sniffs the air and its one good eye locks back on me as another arrow bounces off its scales.

“Run Casa!” This time it’s a woman shouting. She’s standing near the portal and I pick up a run with every last bit of energy in me. The man who must have shot the sobekk’s eye comes to my side and blessedly grabs the other bleeter leg. Some part of my mind catches site of his clothing, of the necklace he wears with trophies from prey he’s killed. He is a Burrower, but how could I possibly care in this moment. We’re only 5 yards from the portal now. It shimmers, swishes, and blinks away for a terrifying heart beat before returning, the Burrow woman near the portal seeing what could be her last chance and leaps through it.

“Lords help us Harin you owe me!”

I cannot respond with anything but a determined yell as we both burst with unnatural speed. My yell it drowned by the sobekk’s screech. I hear it’s teeth snap so close to my ear I fear it may take a portion of my head, but we make it through the portal as I hear the loud swish once more. It’s followed by a wet thud.

The Burrow man collapses to the ground and I right beside him, both breathing heavily with exhaustion and fear. When my senses return enough for me to think of the portal we just survived running through I prop up on an elbow to look behind me. The head of the bleeter is missing. It’s neck ends where the portal used to be. It closed not a moment too soon, because beside the bleeter is the tip of the sobekk’s snout. The Burrow woman returns, helping her partner to his feet. They look at the snout, the bleeter, then me.

“We’ll take the back legs for saving your life.” The man says.

“And I’ll take the teeth.” The woman says, running her fingers along rows of claws and fangs that make up her necklace.

My arm gives way and I collapse into the warm, dry sand staring up through the open air at clear blue skies above my own realm of quite death.

“Fair,” I say.

The Burrow man is chopping away at my prize before the words leave my lips.

May 06, 2023 02:12

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1 comment

Annette Nelson
14:57 May 06, 2023

Wow, that is intense and very well written.

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