Wind River Range, Wyoming
June 17, CY 6, 2018 AD
Morgan Ashowl Rependragon peered at a set of tracks he'd been following. They'd been made by something with cloven hooves. Based on where he was, that animal had probably been a mule deer. He glanced up at the limber pines towering above him. Of the two other animals that made such tracks, elk would have been larger, and pronghorn generally kept to the sagebrush and juniper steppes of the lowlands.
He'd been told that a great deal of that land had once been farmed. Most of the farmland between the Rocky Mountain front and the Mississippi River had been reclaimed by sagebrush, rabbit brush, and grasses in the six years since Earth had Shifted. Herds of pronghorn, elk, and bison had returned, as had runs of the shovelnose sturgeon that he'd been told had once nearly vanished from Wyoming's rivers.
His route had taken him over the northwestern end of the Wind River Range and then along that range's northeast-facing yellow pine belt to his current position on the northeastern flank of Limestone Mountain. To the north lay the Shoshone Indian lands. Morgan was to travel eastward along the watershed's crest across the Beaver Divide and Crooks Mountain to Green Mountain. Thence he'd travel southwestward along the western edge of Rawlins' territory--which had been expanding every year—through Chain Lakes Flat at the northern edge of the Great Divide Basin, west to Jack Morrow Creek and Eden Valley, then follow the Sandy River downstream to Green River, which he was to follow upstream and back to his home near that river's headwaters northwest of Pinedale.
He was to gather both game and information during what was expected to take a couple of months. Already he'd bagged two bighorn sheep, four deer, two elk, and a grizzly.
He peered more closely at the tracks. A few drops of something dark stood out against the lighter buff of the soil. He risked taking his right hand from his bow string and the arrow nocked against it. Everyone in the Perry Band carried and was proficient with a horn bow made from the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep that lived in the region. One couldn't be too careful. Fortunately, as the son of the world's most powerful mage and the most powerful empath, conventional weapons were not the only ones in his arsenal.
He knelt down, took a pinch of the dark substance and put it into his mouth. Through the grit of limestone trail dust, the unmistakable taste of blood filled his mouth. Morgan smiled. After days of boredom, things were finally becoming interesting.
Morgan's father and his Uncle Gareth were expecting some company. Apparently, that company ate a lot, so everyone had stepped up hunting and gathering operations. Hence Morgan's hunting trip. Though he was only thirteen, Morgan could have passed for a sixteen-year-old. He wasn't entirely sure why. Some people naturally matured sooner than others, certainly. In his case, though, he strongly suspected it had a lot to do with his mother's frequent remarks about how she wished he would grow up. He knew she possessed that kind of power, he just never knew how far it could go. Or maybe she'd written it into his DNA when he'd been in her womb. Nobody knew and his mother wasn't telling.
He'd been out for nearly two weeks now. So far, he'd found that things weren't much different from the way they were at what passed for home. He still hunted and fished and foraged and gathered fuel for fires. He still had to do it in any and all weather. He still had to make arrows and maintain his bow and his armor. It was still warm during the day and below freezing at night.
Except that he had to do everything himself: shelter; fires; cooking; laundry; and so on. He could probably stay away indefinitely, except that it was awfully lonely. He was pretty sure the solitude would get to him after a while, though he'd never admit it to anyone. Still, being alone all day and night every day and night was a lot different from going outside the camp for a couple of hours for “me time” or spending all morning by himself catching fish in the river or over at the lake.
Now he had something new to occupy his mind. It was inconclusive, strictly speaking, what had been wounded, how, and by what. It was likely the same deer which had left the tracks had also shed the blood. He didn't have enough evidence yet to determine much else. He did, however, know that in order for any noticeable amount of blood to fall from the animal, it had to be bleeding fairly rapidly. Otherwise, the blood would have dried and the wound clotted. That implied a serious wound. That, in turn, meant easy prey. That, however, also made it easy prey for coyotes, wolves, and cougars.
Morgan returned his hand to his bow string and slightly tightened his grip on the stave. He needed to be ready to draw and loose at a moment's notice. That was always a good idea anyway. Banditry was a persistent problem throughout the region, had been since the Shift, and probably would remain so for many years to come.
He followed the trail for a while. He remained alert, listening, sniffing, looking over his shoulder now and then. Even after the sun had reached its zenith and had begun its downward slide, he'd seen no further signs of any other living things, save for the hoofprints and the occasional drop of blood. Still, he had the unshakable feeling he was being watched and stalked. Even the birds and squirrels were silent and still and that didn't bode well. Frankly, he'd have been surprised if he were the only one following that deer. The question was, who or what was out there?
He was capable of sensing the presence of sentient beings a little over a mile away. If they were close enough, he could, even in pitch-darkness, pinpoint their location to less than half a meter. For that reason, a few people in the band had suggested that Morgan pursue what they called black-ops assassin work. But his father had violently opposed the idea. He'd been, and continued to be, quite adamant that Morgan never take sentient life.
Howl had himself killed some people and everyone said it had affected him deeply. Morgan didn't understand, but several others had echoed Howl's objections, every one of them having once taken sentient life themselves, so Morgan had to confess that they knew that of which they spoke. Part of him wanted to heed their warning, but part of him—the part everyone said he'd inherited from his father—wanted to push the envelope. The upshot of that was that there were no humans or Ingarians anywhere within at least a mile of him and it would be virtually impossible for anyone to sneak up on him. That, in turn, meant that whatever was out there close enough to harm him was an animal.
Coyotes had a well-deserved place in Native American lore as tricksters. They were bold, curious, and sometimes raided food supplies. Their diet consisted almost entirely of scavenging, and small animals such as squirrels and rabbits. But they very rarely attacked people.
Wolves were more aggressive. They typically traveled in packs, and consistently took down larger animals like deer, elk, and the occasional moose. That made them a lot more dangerous than coyotes. Fortunately, they were highly unlikely to attack people during the summer. That risk was generally relegated to the winter months when people hardly ever strayed from camp anyway and wolves tended to keep their distance unless very, very hungry.
Cougars, on the other hand, were another matter entirely. They were reclusive. They were aggressive predators known to take down just about anything with a pulse. Above all, they were highly unpredictable and that made them dangerous. Morgan had it on good authority that a cougar could be following you and you'd never know it until it was too late. Fortunately, he had a few tricks up his sleeve.
To be on the safe side, Morgan re-wove the muffling spell that kept his leather armor from creaking. Some spells were subject to entropy and had to be periodically re-done. It was all a part of maintenance. He still loved magic. He could have been wearing full steel plate with no padding whatsoever, every piece could have been hitting every other piece, and he could still have made the whole suit silent as the grave, even at a dead sprint.
The sun sank lower and lower and still he pursued his quarry. The game trail he'd been following dove off into an eastern branch of Snow Creek. Lush vegetation, mostly alders and wild plums from the look of it, hid whatever lay at the bottom. He could hear water. That was good, for he'd drained the last of his own that morning. It might be a good place to spend the night, except for a few things. First, cold, damp air always settled in low places. Second, the white noise would mask the sounds of approaching threats. Third, the heavy vegetation would all but obliterate his visibility, except where the two branches of the creek converged at an open meadow. He knew from experience, though, that sleeping in a meadow was a guaranteed way to wake up cold, dew-soaked, and shivering and even Morgan's father didn't know any spells to help with that.
The best option would be to hydrate down there, rest up a bit, then find a spot on some southeast-facing slope. Choosing a campsite was at least as much art as science. Worst-case scenario, he could pick up the deer's trail again in the morning. The animal would go as far as it would go and Morgan wasn't a Dark-seer anyway. He still had a couple of hours before he had to make a decision about that.
He suddenly realized he'd lost the trail. The worn path was still clear enough, but there were no longer any tracks or blood drops. That would teach him to let his mind wander. He retraced his steps and found the track again some fifty meters back. He bent down, searching the verge for more signs. The animal had clearly left the trail somewhere nearby. The game was afoot!
Morgan thought about using magic to help. The trouble was that doing so brought high risk of contaminating the evidence. No, he'd have to do it the hard way.
He poked at a bit of blood on the trail, hoping to gain some idea of how long ago it might have been shed. The results were inconclusive. A bit of scat would have been nice right about now. That was usually a much better gauge of how recently an animal had passed by a particular spot.
Morgan swept his gaze back and forth methodically. A blood drop or a hoofprint or a displaced bit of vegetation could be anywhere. Finally, he saw it. About waist-height, several manzanita leaves bore blood smears. He'd almost missed it. Manzanita were sometimes prone to wasp gall, which was expressed as red blisters on the leaves. It also didn't help that the twigs and branches of manzanita were covered with smooth, red bark. Nor did it help that manzanita bore pink flowers and red berries.
Morgan rubbed a finger on a bloody leaf. It was still wet. He wasn't sure how good of a sign that was. It meant his quarry was close, but he still had that nagging feeling that he was being watched.
He paused and took sensory inventory. The forest was still strangely silent. Even the wind was still. Had he still lived in what his elders called “civilization,” he might have found the stillness to be unnerving, eerie even. However, more than half of Morgan's life had been essentially nomadic and he could probably count on two hands the number of months he'd spent living under any sort of permanent roof and even those times had been siege situations. In fact, his father and several of the others in the band had had to shoot their way out. The upshot was that Morgan had grown used to variations in his environment, from raging storms that threatened to blow him and his clear across the Great Plains, to the sort of utter, near-sensory-deprivational silence found only in pictures and in evenings like that one.
Morgan followed the trail toward the toe of a rock outcrop where he stopped. He resisted the urge to press his nose to it. He should remain upright. That would give him a better view of the whole rock surface, and therefore a better chance of quickly seeing the next drop of blood. It would also keep him in a more effective combat-readiness stance.
He spotted another drop of blood and crept up onto the rock, being careful to step softly. Soundless footfalls were just as tricky on solid rock as they were on the debris-covered forest floor, just in different ways. Fortunately, he usually went barefooted. The long, equally-sized toes of his bi-symmetrical feet splayed out and gripped the rough surface.
Cresting the rock, Morgan's gaze fell upon a small clearing surrounded by aspens. He heard a trickle of water somewhere off to his right. A stag lay in the clearing, its side heaving heavily. It was clearly dying. He stepped carefully from boulder to boulder, then down to the clearing. The stag tried to get up, but its legs buckled under it and it collapsed again. It had a large gash in its side. There were four of them, actually, and they were bleeding heavily. That was consistent with a cougar attack.
Morgan stepped toward the animal. Again, it tried to flee and again, it collapsed, reopening its wounds yet again. Morgan moved his right hand from the bow string, made a sort of swirling gesture in the air, and then shoved magic toward the stag. Its head twitched violently, with a sort of muffled snapping sound, and then the whole animal went still.
Morgan lay his bow on the ground, drew his knife, and knelt down next to the stag's head. He bent his head close to it. He could smell the animal's sweat and the unmistakable odor of death. It was something people didn't used to know much, let alone understand. Over the previous six years, however, more and more people had come to be intimately acquainted with death. One never really got over it, no matter how often one experienced it or how much one seemed to get used to it.
He quickly drew the blue-ish blade, a ten-inch Bowie-type forged of pure ingarium, across the animal's throat. The blood had just begun to gush when Morgan plastered his mouth over the wound he'd just made. He drank in the deliciousness, savoring the coppery, iron tang of the thick liquid as it ran into his mouth and trickled down his throat. Drinking the blood of a kill was something his parents had taught him to do. They, along with his Aunt Lettie, Uncle Osric, cousin Neil, and cousin Nalaya, had done it in the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountains of California and Oregon the summer before the Shift.
The blood-sucking ritual had not been widely adopted, however. The lothnellir did it, of course, but then again, they had a lot of unusual ways. All Ingarians had adopted the practice, as had Morgan's Aunt Megan, Uncle Gareth, and cousin Mari. None of the other humans had so far been able to stomach drinking blood. No one really minded much, though, as the risk to humans of blood-borne pathogens was high. Fortunately, the band's medical staff was the best in the world.
Morgan finished draining the animal as much as he could, taking a few strong sucks on its neck. There wasn't much left, which didn't surprise him. The stag had apparently already lost a lot of blood, even before he'd picked up its trail.
Morgan sat back almost onto his heels. Like all Ingarians, he had to be careful about that. The humans seemed to think that he and other Ingarians were likely to impale themselves on their own dewclaws. Never mind that it was anatomically impossible. He did, however, have to be careful not to snag them on all the detritus and vegetation. Sometimes he wished his mother would have arranged for his human half to be more apparent on the outside.
Morgan took a deep breath and held it, savoring the lingering taste in his mouth. He licked his lips, searching for the inevitable dribbles of the sweet, sticky fluid. He did so love the flavor of blood. There was also something about it that literally carried some of an animal's life energy. Most people thought that was symbolic, but Morgan knew otherwise. He could feel it.
He cleaned his blade—magically, of course--and resheathed it. He was about to get up, when a slight movement caught his eye. He froze. Turning his head slowly, he found himself nearly eye-to-eye with the largest cougar he'd ever seen. That would certainly explain why he'd felt like he was being stalked all day.
The cat crouched on a rock and stared at Morgan. He glanced at his bow where he'd lain it. It was a good three paces away. If that cat decided to pounce...
No sooner had Morgan formed the thought, than the cougar lunged toward him, a tawny blur of fur, teeth, and claws that blended with an aggressive yowl. Morgan barely had time to turn his face away and shift his already-raised left elbow.
Morgan rolled slightly, his left elbow coming up a bit more. He felt a tremendous jolt of pressure as two hundred pounds of cat hit him.
Its attack yowl turned into a grating scream of pain, which quickly drowned in a sort of gurgling growl. Morgan felt something wet splattering on the side of his face and gushing onto his elbow. Claws scrabbled frantically against his deer-hide torso armor. His arm bucked violently back and forth and side to side, his hand ramming repeatedly into the ground, his own body, and the deer next to him. A sharp pain exploded in his tricep...once...twice...thrice...then twice on his forearm...and on his earlobe. Sharp vibrations and the sound of something hard and sharp against leather competed with the cougar's gurgle in his ear and the violent jerking motions on his arm. After what felt like forever, but was probably only a few minutes, the cougar's struggling weakened and it finally went still, its weight still pulling on Morgan's arm.
Morgan stayed where he was, breathing heavily, until the adrenaline began to wear down. He rolled the cat a little, then slid his left lenom—what the humans called a bone spur and was really nothing of the sort—all thirteen inches of it, out of the cat's throat. He quickly spun around and plastered his mouth over the elliptical hole in the cat's throat and drank what little blood still welled up from it. He found that different animals' blood had different and distinct flavors.
Then he sat back and panted. He looked up at the sky, the sun's light transitioning from late afternoon into evening. Then he looked back at the cougar. There was red froth around its mouth where blood had mixed with saliva. Morgan was sure the wet splatter on his own face must have come from that. The fur around the hole in its throat was matted with blood. Otherwise, it was a magnificent animal.
Morgan took inventory of himself. His entire left arm ached, from his fingertips all the way up to his shoulder-blades. He had several nasty gashes in his triceps and a few on his forearm. The wounds bled profusely and hurt like nothing he could describe. He reached over with his right hand and magically staunched the bleeding. He'd address the wounds later. Maybe he'd have a few battle scars to show for it!
Then he tested all his joints. He'd jammed two fingers. He—or, rather, the cat—had wrenched his elbow quite badly. His shoulder was strained severely. Miraculously, he hadn't torn, dislocated, or broken anything during the cougar's struggle, nor had it severed his brachial artery. He was also surprised the cat hadn't ripped out its own throat while impaled on Morgan's elbow. That elbow was completely coated in cougar blood from tip to base and the skin to a couple of inches on either side of the joint.
He'd need to clean out his wounds and apply a poultice or risk infection. Morgan rose carefully to his feet, walked over to the small spring on the far side of the clearing and washed out the wounds. It stung something fierce. Then he returned, drew his knife, and used a magical blade extension spell to cut the skull cap off the cougar. He scooped out its brain, spoke some words to it, and rubbed it into the gash on his arm. He fought the urge to scream. Few things—not salt, not straight iodine, not a rattlesnake bite--hurt like a magically-prepared field poultice. He took a few ragged breaths and blinked tears from his eyes. The pain was not likely to subside any time soon, so he'd have to gather his thoughts and focus through it. At least it would start the deep-healing process and prevent infection.
Then he stepped over to where his bow lay and picked it up. He drew. He was barely at quarter draw when the pain in his arms made him wince. He relaxed the draw and lightly massaged both joints. That was going to make things problematic. The shredded muscles would repair overnight well enough, but that connective tissue was another story. Morgan was powerful, but he hadn't inherited his mother's healing abilities. He could, however, nudge things along, especially with the right ingredients. He got to work.
First, Morgan needed a bowl. He drew his knife and used a magical blade extension spell to cut the skull cap off the deer. He severed the antlers before filling the inverted skull from the spring. Returning to the carcases, he set a small log on a rock, then grasped the end of the log, and said, “Fugham!” Fire!
The whole log promptly burst into uniform flame. That particular spell could have easily set the whole forest on fire during dry and windy conditions. Fortunately, it was still late spring in the mountains and things had not yet dried out much. He set the bowl of water to boil while he gathered ingredients for a healing tea.
He climbed up to where a few junipers grew above the clearing. One of them still held a few of the previous season's old berries. Otherwise, it was still far too early, so he cut a few new sprigs. Then he went about collecting lupine, columbine, shooting-star, ceanothus, Douglas fir, larkspur, buttercup, iris, and death camas. While all of that was simmering, he went to work on the carcases.
Morgan first opened the deer. He spread the viscera out on the ground, retaining the heart, which he'd roast, and the liver, spleen, and kidneys, which he'd eat raw. He repeated the procedure with the cougar. Satisfied that both animals would now cool more quickly without their internal organs, he turned to his dinner.
Morgan skewered each heart on a stout piece of aspen, and jammed the butt end of each skewer into the ground with the hearts held over the fire log. He added a couple more small logs and spread the flame so that it flickered strongly beneath the hearts and waited until they began to steam. Using an antler, he pulled the bowl out of the fire to cool.
He took off his armor and inspected it. He wore back and breast plates and shoulder guards of boiled deer hide. Normally, deer hide wasn't that tough, even when boiled. But it was much lighter than bison hide and in the hands of a mage, could be enchanted to be more durable than steel. In fact, all magi in the band wore their own magically-enhanced deer-hide armor, while everyone else wore the heavier bison armor. He looked it over in the rapidly-failing light. Normal armor would have been shredded by the sort of frantic clawing the cougar had made and Morgan was surprised his arm hadn't been turned into ribbons as well. His armor, though, showed only superficial scratches, though there were a LOT of them! Morgan shuddered. Without that armor, he'd have been killed. He laid it carefully at the base of a pine and sat down to eat.
He started on the softest organs, the livers. Eating raw organ meat was something else he'd learned from his parents. Unsurprisingly, the practice hadn't caught on well. In fact, most people, both human and Ingarian, became ill, sometimes violently so, over it. To Morgan, though, it was no big deal. Everyone said he had a strong constitution. He'd always shrugged and kept eating. The livers were slimy, yet satisfying. The spleens were a bit chewier and the kidneys chewier than the spleens. All were slimy and full of blood--sweet, delicious blood. Morgan knew the livers and kidneys were filter organs and contained certain toxins. But he also knew that they were rich in all kinds of minerals and other things and that his half-Ingarian physiology could deal with it better than his human half. Maintaining proper nutrition, particularly when it came to vitamins, minerals, and trace elements, had been difficult ever since the Shift and the consumption of organ meat went a good way toward addressing that. Back in camp, everyone shared. Out on the range, however, it was all his!
After finishing off the savory organs and licking the blood from his fingers, Morgan went over to check on the hearts. He squeezed them to check for firmness. They were nice and done on the outside, but still probably not on the inside. While he could eat them raw, a heart was the best lean protein in any animal and was usually quite tough and fibrous, which was why it was always best to cook it. Furthermore, cooked meat was far more easily digested. Morgan moved the embers around with an antler and added another stout stick under the hearts. He held a hand over the rock. Satisfied that it was hot enough, he again drew his knife and cut the tongues out of both animals and laid them on the hot rock. They sizzled weakly. He'd been told that things had sizzled far better before the Shift and that it had something to do with the behavior of gases. That was more of an academic thing, though. He just knew that a tongue was good lean protein. He'd eat one in the morning and take the other with him, just as he'd eat one heart now and carry the other to eat later.
While he waited for the rest of his food to cook, Morgan again turned back to the animals. Either of them would have been far more than he himself could hope to eat. Each one would also have been far more than he could carry any significant distance. Fortunately, he could send them back to camp. Neil called it “FedEx.” Morgan didn't know what that was, but it always made several people chuckle.
Morgan first picked up the antlers and laid them on the body, then stuffed the viscera back into the cavity. He wanted to send all of that back, too. Every part of every animal was useful for something. He walked over to a downed aspen and stripped off a section of bark. He scraped a brief message on it to the effect that he was fine and would be sending more in the morning, and then laid it on the stag next to the antlers. Then he drew his knife and shaved a complicated symbol in the stag's neck fur. He tapped its center three times with the blade and said, “Fosilowi,” go. The deer vanished. Morgan knew it would almost instantly reappear at a specially-marked site back home. He'd send the cougar in the morning. Magic made certain aspects of hunting so much easier.
Morgan stepped back to the rock and poked at the tongues with a stick, then carefully turned them over. That would have been easier with a spatula. Some of the meat stuck to the rock and he'd probably just have to leave it there. He'd forgotten that rock wasn't a non-stick surface. Otherwise, he'd have used a lubrication spell. After a few more minutes, the tongues looked done. The hearts might need a bit longer, so Morgan put another couple of stout sticks onto the fire and sat down to eat a tongue.
He'd eaten deer tongue before, of course, but always at home. It was usually cut up, mixed with other meats, and sautéed with things like eggs, onions, and bitterroot. Sometimes it was cut up and put into an eternal stew. He didn't think he'd ever eaten it straight before. He found it to be kind of tough and fibrous, a lot like jerked meat. That was fine, for he liked chewing on jerky as he walked, so he'd certainly do that with the cougar tongue in the morning.
When he'd finished the deer tongue, he pulled up the stick with the deer heart, sat down, and began to eat it like a leg of mutton. It was also kind of fibrous, especially the connective tissue surrounding the valves. He could save those for later, too, and chew on them while walking.
As he ate, Morgan reflected on his distant childhood. There was so much of it he didn't remember. He did, however, recall once being a very picky eater. He'd recently come to understand that young children were inherently like that. Still, he always wondered how much of his own was because he was half human and half Ingarian. Since the Shift, however, he'd become an omnivore. He hadn't made the transition overnight, of course. Mainly, it had happened as a result of being hungry enough to eat whatever was there. After a while, he'd simply gotten over it. His Aunt Megan had more than once declared that to have been no mean feat, given who his parents were. Morgan himself now considered it all just part of the events that had shaped the man he was becoming.
After eating, he stretched with his back against the dead cougar's. It still had a little residual warmth, enough to make his night less uncomfortable than it might have been otherwise. The still-burning fire cast warmth from the other direction. Morgan's clothing, woven of bighorn sheep wool, also helped keep him warm at night, even when damp with rain or sweat. That was the beauty of wool. It stayed warm even when wet. It somehow comforted him to know he could make do without magic when necessary. He gradually fell asleep.