Dix. Dixan Mantle. A plucky little bloke with a heart of gold. He never met his father, a military man, who was killed in the final year of World War III—the Oil War that ravaged the planet. Dixan was born a month after his funeral, on a military base somewhere.
His mother, a brilliant meteorologist also employed by the military, was killed by a Serpent in year four on this planet. Another tragic, heartrending tale. We were all defined by our parents’ demise to some degree. All orphaned, scarred. Forever marked by their deaths. That we probably wouldn’t have the chance to scar the lives of children of our own was some consolation. At least, I viewed it that way.
Before we headed back to camp, we reset the three traps that we had closed before our trip to the Gathering. They consisted of three-by-three stride holes dug into the ground, nearly one-and-a-half strides deep. At the bottom of each, we secured four sharp spikes to impale a Hog that might tumble into the pit. Foliage disguised the opening. Two days before the Gathering, we had closed the traps. What we didn’t need or couldn’t use, we didn’t kill.
On the way back, we had a brush with Death, a rendezvous with one of Dixan’s worst nightmares. And mine. I heard it before I saw it. Actually, I smelt it before I heard it. The reek of Death. Then the rustle of bush flattened by enormous, sliding weight. The distinct raspy buzz of the tail rattle. Followed by the soul-searing hiss.
Distracted and less observant, Dixan would have walked straight into its path. With a girth four times thicker than a man’s waist, the fifteen- to twenty-stride-long gargantuan viper would kill on sight. Even with a full belly, it killed simply because it could.
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