Emlis grips his unstrung bow. Purchased with a month of promised labor, it is his greatest treasure.
He kicks a pebble off Endless Road, the smooth street his life has been focused on. To the right, trees and grass crowd a narrow gravel path going straight north.
Travel to the edge of Eden, slay a beast of Northwild and return before his road crew moves on. This was the bet he made while skipping lunch to fletch an arrow.
The lone missile is secured to his back, across shoulder blade and spine. The steel tip points to his shoe’s worn heel, and the hawk feathers brush his bony shoulder. Its shaft is white cedar. The best wood he has found since arriving on this forsaken world.
A bird swoops from the top of a tree and banks around him. Another hawk? Emlis’s fingers twitch. He could hit it. He has made more difficult shots a dozen times before, but his crew do not believe him.
Quality gear makes all the difference. With his treasured bow and well-crafted arrows at the ready, he had dared to make radical boasts.
They laughed, spilling mead and dropping food as mirth shook them. Rand, his sharpshooting rival, had then wondered if Emlis could kill a monster in one shot.
This had quieted the crew. In that moment of swelling pride, Emlis had accepted the challenge. He held up the single arrow now on his back and took on all wagers bet against him.
No choice. A lesser claim will not have silenced their disdain.
He rubs his eyes. Failure will cost an extra season of backbreaking work. Success will outfit him with a warrior’s kit and earn him a nickname to replace “Dumbass.”
Emlis’s stomach growls, and he sips from his water-flask. They will be eating supper now. It is hours before dusk, but they must pack up well before then to guard against the dark.
Traveling at night is for monsters and young men trapped by foolish bets. He sighs and jogs onto the gravel path.
A patchwork of clouds ease the sun’s glare, but he still sweats in his loose tunic and trousers. He left his pack behind. The weight would slow him, and he has no time to rest on a bedroll.
It is soothing to run again. He has been torquing his body, doing the brutal work required to maintain a thoroughfare that rings the world of Uroborus. Standing in place and beating the ground with top heavy tools is far from the noble labors his family raised him to excel at.
His breath turns ragged, and he slows his pace. This is a lesson he learned young. On the plains of his homeworld, he could outrun a horse if given more than a day. He huffs and slows more.
This bet is for a lean hunter to win. Emlis growls. He must shed the bulkish brute his grueling work is turning him into.
He walks through the night, never straying from the gravel and ready to strip should a monster surprise him.
It would be a mixed blessing if one did attack him. If he manages to kill it with his arrow, he could twist the truth to return victorious without extended travel. But, it would have to be a perfect shot, and he can only rely on those when he aims and surprises.
The trees grow shorter and more twisted as he travels farther from the mild climate of Eden’s center. It is peak summer in the north, a season that comes twice a year on this world.
An Uroborus native once claimed it is because of an extreme tilt. Summers and winters come twice. Falls and springs pass quickly, and the only habitable land for people is Eden. Fifty miles north and fifty miles south all the way around the world, it is a ring of paradise bordered by ice and fire.
Emlis wipes sweat from his brow. There are no clouds today, and his flask is empty.
The morning sun shines as hot as the noon one did yesterday. He steps on grass and gravel, and narrows his eyes at where the path fades into bushes ahead.
There was supposed to be a settlement here or at least an outpost to mark the halfway point to the edge of Eden and to justify this path’s existence.
He stomps and curses.
A squawk. Emlis freezes. Another squawk, closer.
His heart thuds, and he leans on his bow to string it.
One arrow, and it must slay a monster from Northwild.
A bush shakes and a purple bird-like creature struts out. Tall as his hip, it is featherless and scaly but has the jerky walk and vague shape of a chicken.
Emlis eases down to a knee.
Its beak is sharp as a speartip, and its talons rake the ground.
Emlis chews his lip. Eden has different animals than his homeworld. This could be an exotic example, or it could be from Northwild.
He slows his breathing. In the day, monsters are more sedated and tend to wander alone. They might act like the normal creatures of Eden until they notice a person dressed in artifice. A true beast of Northwild or Southwild cannot stand the sight of something made by hand.
The chicken-thing flaps leathery wings and kicks gravel off the path.
Emlis draws and aims at its tiny head. “Hey!”
The creature squawks, turning its blood-red eyes towards him and charges.
He drops his aim and releases. The arrow sinks into its chest, and the shaft snaps as it rolls forward.
The creature flaps its wings, struggling to get up. He rushes over and stomps its head into the dirt with his soft-leather shoes. Not his cleanest kill.
Another chicken-thing bursts out of the bushes. It is a darker purple and bigger, with a neck and beak that can reach his eyes.
Emlis runs to a tree and dodges to keep its trunk between him and the chicken monster. The beast hisses and rips strips of bark off with its claws as it chases him.
The rules of this world offer a way to survive by being naked and still. He shakes his head. His tunic and trousers can come off quick, but not while running. Plus, he just killed this monster’s flock-mate. How can he trust it will leave him be, even if he manages to strip and play dead before it skewers or rends him?
With a grimace, Emlis grips his bow like a bat and swings. The prize he promised a month’s labor to buy smacks into the chicken monster’s neck.
It stumbles under the blow and almost crashes into the tree.
He smiles. Working as a road crew regular has granted him some power.
It coughs, and its red eyes glow.
Emlis slows as a wave of dizziness envelops him. The creature’s gaze is a void emptying his mind. It pecks at him, ripping through his tunic and scraping his skin.
The pain breaks the hypnotic spell. He growls and hops to avoid a second lunge.
“Eat this!” Both hands gripping, he smashes his bow across its reptilian face, cracking the wood.
The splintering sound is hundreds of hours lost. His most precious thing on this world is now damaged beyond repair.
The creature shakes off the hit, and Emlis smacks it over its head. His bow holds together enough for the blow to be solid. He strikes it again before it can recover. It tucks in its wings and wobbles. He smashes at its skinny legs until it falls, and he dances out of reach of its claws.
He twists his broken bow and string into a make-shift flail and beats the beast. Its wings twitch and still. He whips it more and kicks its head, wincing as his toes crack.
Two monsters dead, one by arrow and one by bow, but this is not the edge of Eden. His bet is not complete.
He limps over to a sharp rock. The morning is hot, and his mouth is dry. Pride does not mean he cannot lie. He digs the stone into the bigger one’s neck and twists its head until it comes off.
He moves to the smaller one, twists its head off and pulls his broken arrow out of its chest. With careful aim, he presses the arrow’s steel tip through both heads.
“One shot. Two kills.”
This will have to earn him a proper nickname. He jogs and slows. His toes throb, and he cannot claim to have reached Northwild if he rushes back.
Red eyes track him from the shadows. He walks a little faster.
Night is never far enough away when alone on Uroborus.