Australian Capital Territory
Things had been quiet for a long time in Lionstone Heights since the untimely death of Lance. What was the cause again? A lone figure paused in his writing and tried to remember if he had missed recalling a hunt or an unpleasant event. Outside Mange’s hut, he could hear the sound of the next generation drilling with long spears. He smiled briefly, but he was mostly concentrating on assessing the stores remaining in the settlement. The master list, scratched roughly on smoothed hide, had proved to be woefully incomplete and it had taken considerable time to straighten it out. Still, exploring the distant reaches of the large supply hut had turned up considerable items of interest, many covered in dust and grime after all these years. A carefully constructed harp. A sword made of solid metal. Some “Lionbane” axes made of sharpened bone. He remembered well the days long ago when they were the weapons of choice. Far too fragile for today’s hunters though. A beautiful iridescent feather, fallen from a phoenix. He remembered the wonder when that was discovered. Never found a use for it though, so it had lain under dusty hides for many years. A giant wishbone. Still unbroken. He had run a hand along the smooth curve, thinking of the hunts he had missed. Ah well. Sanity was a terrible burden.
Mange rolled up the storage list and tucked it into the records desk he kept. Then he unrolled another interesting log. He had also spent considerable time consolidating and keeping a list of the genealogies of the members of Lionstone Heights. He wondered how many survivors knew that only 16 members now remained, down from near thirty not that long ago. 17 dead. He sighed. Was the settlement in decline? Only two survivors of the first hunt still lived. Fred, living up to his moniker of “The Everliving” and Russell “Klawreaver” after his terrible revenge on the lion that crippled him. But both of them had, with the passing of time, recovered from the terrible physical and mental trauma of the original hunts with naught but simple weapons and now were the most experienced survivors remaining. Of course, to him, they had always been true leaders. He remembered how he, Kitsune (now Fred’s second partner) and Sixx had gathered under them with various others to form the settlement after that first mighty victory had inspired them all to resist the darkness. All the others of that time were dead now too. Joining the five as part of the original founders was the mysterious Emanon, who apparently had always been one of them. But the man was so elusive, it was like he was never there, even to this day. Still, what was most interesting is that there were only two bloodlines now running through the people of Lionstone Heights. The second generation, of who a dozen had come from warm, shy Sixx, a woman so reclusive and self-effacing most knew as no-one but “Mother”. Several of her line had strange powers. And the new clan of the Everliving, who all were born of Kitsune, who had been once called upon to hunt, but had been edged out by the deceased Ronina and her twilight sword obsession, and had found solace in parenthood instead. Hearing raised voices, he glanced out the window and away from his notes. Ah, two daughters of Sixx, arguing with one another.
Cyrene was strangely gifted. Like one of her sisters and her grand-niece, there was something about her. Power seemed to dance in her eyes and gave her superhuman strength. Right now she was arguing with her bitter and more experienced sister Symbiote who had never been quite right after the terrible future the dying phoenix had cursed her with. “Your gifts should not be wasted on this hunt, fool girl!” snarled Symbiote. “This is a simple quest for food and hides, to train up those wet behind the ears “Everliving” kids”. “I’m going, sister. And that’s all there is to it”. Squabbling, they met up with the new rookie hunters and siblings, Gavriel and Hambel the Everliving. Hambel smiled at them, “Look, father has entrusted me with his signature weapon!”. She hefted the legendary Lantern Halberd. “Come on then newbies!” Symbiote strode away into the darkness, past the mighty armour shrine, which had inspired countless hunters. Mange watched from his hut and sighed. The new generation of hunters. Faster, stronger, and more accurate than those in his time. Perhaps they could fight for the future far more successfully than his generation had.
The four hunters wandered towards the grasslands of the lions. “Let’s get us a big one” grinned Gavriel. “Listen” hissed Symbiote “it’s dangerous out here. Extremely dangerous. Death lies everywhere. The longer we travel, the worse it gets. Far better to get something smaller and closer”. But she was overruled by those who were younger, keener and with more natural gifts. Symbiote shifted her bow. Oh well, now her future was denied by the cursed Phoenix, she cared so much less for mere survival and lived only for the thrill of the hunt. She trailed along after the others. Soon all but her were marveling in wonder at strange sculptures by a clump of trees. “How were they made?” pondered Gavriel. “By the Lions” spat Symbiote “They’re smart, those things. Cunning. Clever. They just look like beasts, which makes it so much worse”. The group spent some time digging at interesting rocks. Mange had insisted they try to collect minerals and had given them brand new pickaxes. Hambel accidently dropped hers down a deep crack in the ground. Then they studied strange hexagonal hives. “What manner of beast lives in these?” mused Cyrene. A strange buzzing filled the air and a strange dark cloud reared into the lantern light. “Run!” cried Symbiote but it was too late. The hunters were surrounded by the cloud, tiny insects crawling into their mouths, ears and noses. Gagging, they stumbled on. “I can hear them moving in my head” gasped Cyrene. The other two Everlivings shook their heads in despair. But Symbiote strode on unheeding, her twisted psyche and bold countenance protecting her from the discomforts of the terrible dark world, that her juniors had no mental defences against.
Cyrene raced out in front of her sister as they entered the twilight realm of the long golden grass. “Keep low, you can hear a White Lion in the distance” whispered Symbiote “Out there, in the darkness. A big one” she glared at Hambel and Gavriel “Perhaps you can prove yourselves there as you desperately want to do”. Boldly they made tracks through the waving flora. The faint light faded and they soon were in pitch darkness. Even the lanterns revealed very little. “You have to hold it up next to your face to even see it now” gasped Hambel. Symbiote plunged on uncaring. She was filled with reckless energy. “There’s something near us” exclaimed Gavriel, naught but a voice some little way away. “Aaah! Something just tried to bite me”. “Don’t stop” yelled Symbiote.” Press forward!”. Cyrene called “This way, I hear something. I’m sure it’s the lion! Follow me” she moved about noisily and the others all followed the trail of sound. But they ended up hopelessly lost and remained in the pitch darkness for hours, struggling towards the slightest noise, the endless night eating away at their will. By the time they made it back towards some twisted, glowing grasses, Cyrene, Hambel and Gavriel all looked exhausted and wan, walking in a jerky, distorted fashion and complaining as they clutched their painful, swollen heads. Symbiote irritably flicked a tiny grub away that had crawled down the side of her face from her ear “I told you. Expect only the worst and you won’t be disappointed. Now silently, follow me. I can smell lion”.
The hunting party crawled through the long grass. In their nostrils was the stink of freshly killed meat and lion musk. In an ill-lit clearing, a lion lay on its side, lazily chewing on a distorted carcass. Another smaller carcass lay further off. Gavriel swallowed hard. It was recognizably once a man like him. Symbiote notched her bow. Cyrene and Gavriel snuck right up next to the lion with their spears, well hidden by grass and the scent of blood. Hambel readied the lantern halberd keeping it low. The lion pawed aimlessly at the air and yawned with its massive jaws. Gavriel suddenly flung a set of bone darts into its face. With a yowl it sprung up, shocked. Yelling, the others struck with their own weapons, tearing great gashes in the beasts hide. The mad buzzing of insects in their heads made them strike far harder than normal, but their eyes flickered and they were often distracted. The lion tore away from them, trying to lick the sudden wounds they had created. But Cyrene moved with unnatural speed in a jerking, spidery motion and brutally impaled the lion before it could tend to its wounds.
The hunters were filled with confidence at the damage they were continually doing. But just as Symbiote launched another two black arrows towards the Lion, it unexpectedly sprang at her and tore most of her simple rawhide armour to shreds. She laughed at the thrill and grinned at the furious beast. Angered it swiped at her again and again, but she dodged maddeningly away, or fended it off with the razor sharp sword she kept at her side, a souvenir of a fight with the soldiers of the king, cutting cruelly into the flank. The spears and halberds of her companions continued to do their deadly work, smashing into the bones and flesh of their foe. Limping, it came on. Realising Symbiote had no fear, the Lion turned its frightening yellow eyes to stare in a deathly way at Hambel. She gasped and ducked away from that terrible gaze. The light from the lantern halberd gleamed as she brought it up with unrelenting force across the Lion’s throat. It roared with pain and fury. But just when things seemed under control and the battle won, the hunters began to cough and choke. They fell to their knees as a cloud of buzzing insects burst from their mouths, noses and ears. The Lion had no pity for its tormentors and tore at Gavriel. He was already finished mentally, and swore to himself if he survived never to leave home again, where bugs didn’t get inside your head and darkness was kept at bay. Hambel tried to get to her feet. Symbiote was shouting at Cyrene to get up if she had something to prove as she struggled to rise herself.
The Lion swung around to stare endlessly at Hambel again. She knew she was next. The terror of the flies, the terror of the darkness, the terror of the lion, it all became too much. Screaming she ran into the darkness. The lantern halberd’s light flared briefly as it was flung aside and went out, never to be found again. The remaining hunters were back on their feet. Gavriel tentative, Cyrene angry and Symbiote manic. Symbiote stepped forward and used her sword again on the pacing beast hoping to finish it off once and for all. But it sprang again in surprise, and its claws tore into her unprotected flesh and sent her sprawling. She laughed as she smeared the blood welling from her stomach “Hah, you didn’t disembowel me”. Cyrene finished the beast with her burning strength and the fragile group collected what they could from the corpses. They found Hambel’s staring corpse slumped a little way from the clearing. “Fear”, sighed Symbiote. “She died of fear”. Gavriel started. Did anyone yet know he was just as afraid? “Let’s get back right now” he whined. The dispirited group trudged back home, only to find the inhabitants of Lionstone Heights sheltering from rain that burned as it fell.
But one figure awaited them before the hovels. Seemingly imperious it stood among puddles which steamed and smoked. It smirked at them. “Greetings young ones. I see you have met the darkness up close. Maybe I can help you”. It raised a bony hand, and the rain stopped short of touching the beckoning fingers. Cyrene tried to pass by unheedingly “Out of my way, old woman. I have no time for this”. “My, what burning fire in your eyes…I’ll think I’ll keep those”. Cyrene grabbed at the witch’s seeking arm with her immense strength but the arm slipped out of her grasp with casual ease. There was a short scream. Gavriel rushed forward to help but a hand with sharp talons raked down and he fell clutching his ruined face and crying that he would never ever leave again. Symbiote sighed. “What can you do to me, witch, that the darkness will not one day do?”. The witch put a new pair of eyes in her bag, smiled at Symbiote, and left the settlement. From inside his hut Mange watched the disappointing return of the next generation. It had been a critical error to not accept the darkness in Cringe, one of the original first founders. The mistakes of the past continued to hold back the future he hoped for.