It’s late morning when Syenok catches the worrying tang of blood on the wind. There, then gone again before she can confirm it. Still, in the wasted lands, blood is not a scent you ignore.
Not if you want to survive.
“Hold,” she says, cautiously reining in her strider. The two-legged raptor—a rosie, so called by most caravanners due to the pink roseate pattern painting its scales—twitches its tail in irritation, no doubt calculating yet another attempt to unseat her.
Olva draws her own mount—also a rosie—a safe distance alongside, gripping the reins white-knuckled as the petulant beast strains for something to snap at.
“Son of a dung sucker,” Olva curses with the ease of a longtime outrider. “I told Dura Gon these striders were too ill-tempered for caravan work. Just because they’re rosies doesn’t make them sweet. And these two reek of the pits.”
Syenok marks the caravan’s position still several miles behind them, its crooked line of prongbeast-drawn wagons lumbering down what passes for a road out here. The caravan master, Dura Gon, insisted he knew better than two experienced outriders how to pick a proper beast, and as a result, they’re now three full days behind schedule thanks to a bout of sand-sickness in the older prongbeasts, the signs of which either Syenok or Olva could have easily pointed out to him if he’d had the ears to listen.
Syenok is pretty sure Dura Gon would rather chop off his own head than admit any fault, though, so she and Olva are stuck wrangling two striders so misbegotten, she would easily bet two week’s pay they’re rejects snatched up wholesale from the fighting pits and barely trained for riders. And while such an act goes against more Handler’s Guild regulations than she can count, she knows better than to shove her nose into that particular dungpile.
At the moment, though, she has worse things to worry over.
“Do you smell it?”
Olva concentrates. “No. Nothing.”
And so they cling to their restless striders, sweat beading in fat droplets across Olva’s forehead and stinging Syenok’s eyes. Syenok shoves a piece of jerky at her strider to settle it, nearly losing a finger in the process.
Olva chuckles, then freezes, nose wrinkled in the wind. “Blood,” she finally says.
Syenok doesn’t bother nodding. She and Olva have ridden together long enough to know only a fool leads an entire caravan toward the scent of blood. And neither she nor Olva are fools.
Because out here, where there’s blood, thunderclaws are sure to follow.
If you’re fortunate, the wasted lands are little more than a monotony of grass, scrub, and jagged rock overlaid with a heat strong enough to blister your skin by day and a cold deep enough to numb your bones by night. A miserable experience, but no better or worse than what most suffer in the so-called “free” city-states of the south.
Should you be among the less fortunate crossing the wasted lands, however, your experience will involve screaming and teeth. Thunderclaw teeth, to be precise.
“Blight-blistered balls,” Olva rasps from their safe boulder perch as below, over a dozen thunderclaws—the wasted lands’ most voracious killers—scrap over the remains of a caravan. “An entire pack. I haven’t seen a pack this big since—”
“—since Holdova, I know.” Syenok shudders back the memory, but that doesn’t save her from the image beneath them. Two thunderclaws, massive hindquarters dug into the soil and wide jaws clamped on the opposing ends of a prongbeast, as they grunt and hiss and rip it unrelentingly apart. The bright frills of an older male flashing dominance over a sprawl of drover corpses not yet bitten in half, their choice bits still waiting to be claimed. The still faintly glowing coals from the morning cookfires, pots toppled, their contents leaked into the dry earth and indistinguishable now from the surrounding blood.
Syenok quietly thanks Thok that for once Dura Gona showed some sense and rerouted the caravan down an older road they’d passed earlier in the morning. It would cost him two day’s extra travel, and possibly a spare axle, but even Dura Gon wasn’t stupid enough to risk a road marked by enough blood you could smell it a mile off. Unfortunately, it took him just as little effort to order the two of them back out again—to ‘search for survivors’, he’d claimed, ‘in case a caravan has been attacked’, though both Syenok and Olva knew that was mostly code for making sure not a single thunderclaw came anywhere near his precious caravan.
As though two outriders could do anything about a pack this size.
Full-grown thunderclaws, though smaller than most of their northern reaper kin, still easily towered over the tallest of men, with massive haunches built for sprints and a double set of razored teeth in their broad jaws. The pack below, however, hadn’t needed that feared running prowess. The caravan they’d caught this morning must have just been preparing to break camp when the pack descended on them.
Syenok scans the carnage. “Survivors?”
Olva’s eyes slit against the wasted lands’ glare. “Nothing I can see—wait! Somebody’s trail, there... leading east, looks like.”
Syenok curses. Better at this point the victims were all dead. With the lack of warning the caravan must have had, it’s unlikely anyone fleeing actually made it far, and thunderclaws, like most reapers, have an unmatched appetite for savagery made only worse by the chase. But as much as Syenok wants to put this pack far behind them, leaving a potential survivor—no matter how unlikely—to the numerous predations of the wasted lands goes against outrider code.
So she slips quietly down the back end of the boulder to where her strider waits, with Olva just behind her. Olva’s strider trills nervously, the scent of both thunderclaw and their grisly feast carrying strong from upwind. Olva swats its nose, quieting it, then yanks her hand out of reach before it can retaliate.
“Thok’s thundering tits,” Olva snaps, eying her mount with disgust, “if this wretched excuse for a strider doesn’t start behaving soon, I’m going to make a temple sacrifice of it right here. I don’t care how much it costs me in penalty fees—”
“—or what the Handler’s Guild has to say about it?” Syenok mounts hers, teeth clenched as it kicks in small circles at her weight and hisses. “Next you’ll be bringing suit against the entire guild for renting out shoddy beasts.” She shoves a piece of her dwindling jerky supply at it. It gulps the treat down into its bottomless gut, pausing only to hiss again at the hand that just fed it.
Olva mutters in disgust, “Somebody ought to.”
“And that somebody is neither you nor me. Come on, let’s get moving,” she says, kicking her strider forward. Thok-be-praised, it obeys. “The sooner we check this trail for survivors, the sooner we can put some distance between us and these thunderclaws.”
The trail ends a few miles from its start in a bloody spray of flesh and strider entrails.
A juvenile thunderclaw, rubbing its wet snout in the strider’s abdomen, honks with pleasure, a sharp and unsettling sound that seizes up the muscles in Syenok’s neck.
Male, she notes, based off the bright blue stripes coursing the length of its body and the not yet fully developed frill at the base of its skull. Probably still trying to fight its way up the pack hierarchy and lucky to have a meal uninterrupted by the rest of its greedy kin.
She and Olva carefully backtrack to a nearby gully, then tie off their striders and creep in closer on foot. With any other striders, she’d be concerned leaving them so far out of sight and vulnerable to the scavengers likely skulking in the thunderclaws’ wake, but with this pair she’s almost hoping for trouble just so she never has to ride either of them again.
Once she and Olva are in a good position to observe the thunderclaw and its meal, she taps Olva’s shoulder and speaks in a hushed voice. “Any sign of a rider?”
“Saddle. Torn off. A dozen feet back.”
“A saddle doesn’t mean a rider. It might have run on its own.”
Olva doesn’t bother responding. You didn’t saddle raptors until you were ready to ride. They tended to gnaw at the straps if left unattended too long, so the chances this strider fled riderless are extremely low.
Olva tenses, jarring Syenok from her thoughts. “There,” Olva says, pointing at a shadowed crevice between two boulders, about twenty feet from the feasting thunderclaw.
Syenok shades her eyes and squints but still can’t make anything out. She’s learned from long experience, though, to trust Olva’s sight more than her own. “Any movement?”
“Not that I can see.”
Syenok slowly exhales. Just a little longer to be sure, and they can get out of here before the winds change and the thunderclaw picks up their scent.
“Wait,” Olva says, shifting forward. “There. Movement. I’m sure of it.”
Syenok bites back a curse. “How sure?”
Olva knows what Syenok’s asking. “Sorry, Sy. But whoever’s in there, they’re definitely still alive.”
And with that, Syenok has no choice. The outrider code has saved her too many times for her to abandon it when someone else is in need. Which means she and Olva will have to confront this thunderclaw.
Back at their mounts, they draw sticks.
“Turds in a teapot,” Olva curses as hers proves to be the bent one. “Thok hates me, doesn’t he?”
“Not as much as your strider does.”
Snorting, Olva mounts up, her strider already bucking dangerously beneath her. “If I survive this, remind me to punch that penny-pinching pus bucket Dura Gon in the face. After we’re paid, of course.”
Olva eyes her with suspicion. “I mean it this time,” she says, and before Syenok can tell her how much she apparently meant it the previous dozen times, Olva kicks her strider forward and lurches out of the gully.
Biting her tongue, Syenok mounts her strider and trails a healthy distance behind. The whole plan fails if she confuses the thunderclaw by catching its eye in addition to Olva. One of them, after all, has to stay behind to grab the rider before everyone involved becomes yet another greasy stain on the thunderclaw’s teeth.
Luring a thunderclaw off its prey isn’t the stupidest thing she and Olva have done in the wasted lands, but it ranks pretty high on the list. Most reapers are faster sprinters than the various striders of the wasted lands, but if you time it right and survive that initial burst of speed, your strider’s greater stamina will usually carry you to safety. Safety of course being as far ahead of the thunderclaw as possible until it either gets bored of tracking you down or until some other more unfortunate meal crosses its path.
So Syenok takes immense caution in clearing the gully, well behind the already shouting Olva.
At Olva’s antics—now including exaggerated arm waving in addition to the shouts—the thunderclaw’s head shoots up from its bloody feast, gaze snapping into focus on this new target. Gore drips from its gaping snout, and its nostrils flare like a beast in rut.
Syenok grips her reins tight in preparation while her strider hisses and tugs at the bit, clearly agitated by the heavy reek of thunderclaw in the air.
And there it comes—the thunderclaw tenses its haunches, ready to burst forth and take down the annoying mount and rider interrupting its meal. With a final “Hyah!”, Olva jerks her reins and kicks her strider hard.
Olva’s unruly mount, however, has other ideas. Eager to shed its burden, it twists the opposite direction just as her weight shifts. With a surprised yelp, Olva goes flying, and the back of her skull slams against the ground with an audible crack.
The strider, now much lighter, takes off.
It’s pure bad luck on Olva’s part, the sort of luck that gets you killed in the wasted lands. Luck only made worse as, instead of lying perfectly still and praying to the gods while trying not to smear her breeches, Olva staggers to her feet, swaying like she’s been drinking since sun-up the day before. Thunderclaws love their chases, but this thunderclaw would have to be an idiot to ignore the confused treat before it in favor of the strider already racing out of reach.
And this thunderclaw, though young, is not an idiot.
Syenok doesn’t even pause. With a loud “Hyah!”, she kicks her strider into action. It startles forward, for once not fighting her. At least not until it realizes where they’re going. With a sudden jerk, it balks and tries to wrest control, whipping the reins from her grip.
She latches her arms around its neck. Squeezes for her life. For Olva’s. “Go, you accursed dungheap! GO!”
With an ear-rupturing squeal, the strider shoots forward. They race between the staggered Olva and the tensed thunderclaw as fast as the strider’s legs can carry it, with Syenok screaming her throat raw for the bewildered thunderclaw to choose her as its prey.
And Thok-be-praised, it does.
It doesn’t take more than a few moments of the wasted lands pounding beneath Syenok for her to realize she’s in trouble. This thunderclaw is fast.
Terribly, terribly fast.
At the rate it’s gaining, she’ll be caught long before it tires.
For a moment she considers kicking her strider harder, urging it to greater speed, but its eyes are already flared wide and near panic. She’ll get no more speed from it.
Which means she needs a plan. And soon.
She scans the upcoming terrain in jerky bursts. Notes a suspicious rock formation ahead.
There’s little time to consider. She leans her mount toward what will either save them or get them caught that much faster.
The terrified strider doesn’t even fight her this time.
The rocks loom in closer, and Syenok’s chest seizes with hope. “Thok-on-high,” she wheezes, regaining her breath.
It’s a gorge. One of numerous gorges that dot the wasted lands as though gouged out by some gargantuan beast. Unlike the more cumbersome thunderclaw, she and her strider should have little trouble descending into it and maneuvering through the maze of tumbled stone she can see littering its floor. Passage through will hopefully buy them enough time to regain the lead they need.
They speed down into the gorge, their pursuer pounding the rock close behind them. If Syenok could will the sun higher, she would. The walls loom alongside their passage, creating dense shadows along the path, any of which could hide treacherous pit or other obstacle easily capable of sending them tumbling into a sprawled mess.
She has no choice but to trust her strider’s keener eyes and instincts.
Luckily the rest of her plan seems to be working. As her strider wheels them around obstacles Syenok can only just make out, the thunderclaw loses ground. Its flanks scrape the gorge’s sides, sending sprays of rock clattering behind it.
They gain ground, and she mentally promises Thok more temple sacrifices than she can afford. At which point, their ride comes to a keening halt.
Instead of kindly ejecting them back into the sun, the gorge ends in a steep upward slope. Her strider shoots halfway up the treacherously loose scree before its footing begins to slip. Syenok leans forward to shift the weight she’s adding to the strider’s load, then glances back just as the thunderclaw breaks around the last bend and pounds to an awkward stop at the slope’s base.
It pauses a moment, taking in the sight of its prey struggling futilely upward. Then it steadies its hindlegs and emits a triumphant honk.
The sound grates Syenok’s ears. She can’t blame her strider, though, as they slide and scrabble just beyond the waiting thunderclaw’s reach. The gravel slope is too steep. And their combined weight is too much for the strider to overcome. They’re not going to make it.
At least, not together.
Well, if Syenok has to choose one of them to sacrifice so the other can scrabble out of this hell-pit, she knows which one she’s choosing. Her strider chirrups in surprise as she whips out her knife and rolls free of the saddle.
But before she can slash its soft underbelly, the impact of her landing sets the stony slope to disintegrating beneath them both. Her strider regains its footing first, digging its hindclaws deep into the scree. Syenok, of course, slides several feet downward as she grasps for purchase, knife clattering out of her hand and disappearing into the spill.
Her slide finally stops with her panting and hugging the unstable slope. At least until another victorious honk from the thunderclaw sends her scrambling upward once more. Wet breath washes over her, and stones tumble around her again. She struggles to maintain her newly gained position, clawing for the slightest hint of firm earth.
Again the thunderclaw honks, this time so close her ears ache with the pressure of its cry.
She dares a look backward. Deep gouges mar the slope where the thunderclaw attempted to clamber up and snatch her, loose scree already filling in the new pits and further destabilizing the entire mass. The thunderclaw, for its part, appears to have paused again, as though reassessing its attempts.
She takes this as a sign that Thok hasn’t completely forsaken her.
At least until her still very alive mount successfully clears the gorge’s lip. She’s not sure at first whether to be proud of it or hate it that much more for the dumb luck of the entire situation. But then it turns about on its perch and, glaring at the thunderclaw below, begins to hiss and dart its head in challenge.
Thok definitely hates her, Syenok is now certain.
If she hadn’t already guessed her strider was raised in the fighting pits, this proves it beyond doubt. Any sane beast a third the size of a thunderclaw would be running away as fast as its legs could carry it. Hers, however, not only isn’t running but is actually egging on the monstrous killer below.
Doing her best to ignore both beasts, Syenok plants her feet carefully and works her way slowly up the scree. The acrid cloud of disturbed dust wafting down the slope scrapes at her throat, but she’s advancing. And with every gain, the faint hope that maybe Thok doesn’t want her to be a thunderclaw snack at the bottom of a random gorge after all grows stronger.
At which point, the thunderclaw strikes.
But not at her, still clinging barely out of its reach. Instead, it rams its head into the loose slope below her, sending the stones cascading downward. Syenok’s grip disappears as the surface shifts like water between her fingers, and she slides dangerously close to the thunderclaw’s grinning maw before it stops.
The thunderclaw is only a juvenile, but it seems smarter than most adults. Pleased at the results of its actions, it gives a short honk of joy, then repeats the maneuver.
Syenok’s careful process now becomes a race. She scrambles to grab what distance up she can between each of the thunderclaw’s ramming assaults, and it methodically pounds away. As she climbs, she frantically buries her hands in search of anything firm. A rock, a buried bone. Anything. So long as it is stuck into the ground and she can hold onto it.
But there’s nothing.
Inch by inevitable inch, she slips closer to death-by-thunderclaw.
Far above, her strider, still safe and sound, continues its ludicrous posturing. At least one of us made it out, she thinks, gulping down the panicked laugh threatening her. Every moment the thunderclaw spends on Syenok is a moment for Olva to regain her wits back on the plain and get moving out of there.
But, just as Syenok comes to accept the certainty of her death, the unthinkable happens.
Her strider cocks its head, and then its entire body lowers, tail thrashing, as though... as though the idiot beast is about to attack. Syenok almost forgets to climb, so bizarre is the sight. The thunderclaw remains oblivious and pounds its head once more into the scree.
At which point the strider pounces.
By Thok’s seven teats, Syenok has never seen such a beautiful leap. Her strider soars through the open air, hits the scree, then launches into the air again before the slope beneath it can collapse. The thunderclaw’s head jerks back just as her strider lands atop it. The strider’s tail whips madly as its hindclaws dig into the thunderclaw’s face and its jaws latch onto the base of its panic-splayed frill.
The entire gorge shakes as the squealing thunderclaw twists and slams into the wall, trying to crush the puny beast that’s shredding its face. One of its foreclaws catches the strider’s tail, leaving a long gash, but her tiny bastard of a mount retains its purchase and keeps shredding. Debris rains atop them as they slam into another wall. Mostly dirt and smaller rocks, but a few larger chunks of stone wobble free and strike the panicking thunderclaw.
With a final violent shake, the thunderclaw flings its attacker free. Her strider crashes into a wall, then wobbles back to its feet, hissing even louder than before and snaking its head in warning.
It’s too much. The thunderclaw is bleeding from a dozen gashes along its tender snout, and one eye is closing up with swelling, possibly useless. A final rock dislodges from the wall and smacks into its flank, and at that, it swiftly begins backing away in retreat.
If Syenok wasn’t watching with her own eyes, she’d never believe it. A mere strider driving off a pursuit-frenzied thunderclaw? Impossible! But there her ornery strider is, practically strutting as it continues to hiss warning at the withdrawing thunderclaw.
In her amazement, Syenok forgets she was supposed to be climbing.
Once the thunderclaw is well out of sight, her strider relaxes and gives a happy trill. Syenok cautiously slides her way down the slope and approaches, watching for any sign of renewed aggression. The strider merely gazes at her in curiosity, though, and when she gets close enough darts its head toward her jerky pouch.
Relief floods her body, and she can’t help but laugh. “Oh, so it’s jerky you want, you glorious bastard? Well,” she says, emptying the entire pouch at the beast’s feet, “you can have all the jerky you want. And if you get us back to the caravan safely, there’ll be even more.”
She doubts the strider understands her—it’s just a beast after all—but she doesn’t care. As far as she’s concerned, this strider is the chosen of Thok, and she’s going to sacrifice every strip of jerky she can get her hands on to make sure it’s happy the rest of this trip.
And after that... well, after that, Syenok has plans for them both.
“You’re going to do what?” Olva gapes at Syenok like she just birthed a pronghorn from between her legs.
Syenok walks beside the still mountless Olva, leading her own happily strutting strider by the reins. Despite its good mood, Olva is keeping her distance and has advised the young outrider they picked up in the rocks to do the same, if he values his fingers. The boy is as green as they get. This was his first trip into the wasted lands, and it was only sheer luck that had him saddling his strider early, just before the attack, as he’d had trouble with it the day before.
Syenok can’t keep the grin off her face—it’s hard to catch Olva by surprise. “I said I’m going to buy this glorious mess of a strider. With my pay from this trip and the rescue bounty from our generous young gentleman here.”
The young outrider winces slightly, likely already regretting the promises Olva said he made when she dragged him out of hiding under threat of a returning thunderclaw, but that is neither Syenok nor Olva’s problem. A promise made is a promise heard. The boy’s aunt is well-placed in a guild, the Glassblower’s, so she should have no problem upholding his slightly overgenerous financial response to being rescued.
“You’re sun-baked,” Olva says.
“Maybe.” Syenok reaches over to pat her strider’s head, earning a jaw-snap and small hiss in return.
Olva shakes her head. “Completely, utterly sun-baked.”
Syenok doesn’t care what Olva thinks about her decision, though. Or anyone else. Because every time she pictures that thunderclaw’s shocked expression as her strider made fresh mince of its face, she knows Thok-on-high is looking out for her. So however much coin she has to scrape up, however many fingers she has to risk come feeding time... this strider will be hers.
And then? Wasted lands beware.