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Story Kill


Story Kill
by Paul Starr


Held up by the salt-blood tide, the pheromone tide, the ebb and slosh of amorous instinct, I float and swim through the air. This air has no water in it but my fast wing-beats thicken it. The sun will set soon, and my kiss will find purchase on that which has brought me to this far place. The mother-voice warns me that it is not the scent of old memory, but I do not care. I cannot care! The hot dry melange of this landscape makes me wriggle and itch. So many blossoms that thrash and beckon in the dust and sand. I must! I cannot but.

* * *

Lah had worried she wouldn’t get a kill that day ever since Uncle Kesh had returned from his early morning wander with news of the dusthog family. Now she’d ruined two good arrows on the great beast over the course of the Red Sun band’s dogged pursuit of its finally-tiring prey. She bet the dusthog father—which had to weigh as much as twenty of her—hadn’t felt so much as a flinted edge’s prick from any of her arrows. All she might hope for now was that her little patch of arrows would remind anyone who might be looking that she was still the best arrow-looser in the band.

Lah’s third arrow thudded futilely into the thick haunch-hide of the giant dusthog, joining the two others that dangled there already.

She felt a hand on her shoulder and a snicker in her ear.

—Decorating the hide already, eh?

It was Ro. Ro the spear-hurler, Ro the shadow-quiet, Ro, a season younger than her and already with his first story-kill (A fleetjak, felled with a single spear-throw at tenhand paces, as he was only too happy to remind anyone who asked and many who didn’t).

—Shut up, Ro, unless you can do better.

—That seems fair.

Ro stood from behind the tall scrubgrass thicket Lah had been using as a blind, sprinted a few hands of paces toward the flagging dusthog, and with casual ease hurled his thick-shafted spear into a low and very fast arc.

The big flint head buried itself in the dusthog’s neck with a wet smacking sound, and blood immediately flowed down the grooved shaft, spattering upon the ground and sinking hot and dark into the sand of the dry wallow. All watching knew this was the kill-strike, and a cheer went up from the band of hunters.

The dusthog family’s visit to this sand-wallow had been good fortune for the whole band. The big male would feed them for weeks.

—Yah! We are the greatest hunters! None compare!

Ro yelled and danced his delight. At least he had the grace to say “we.”

Lah could not bring herself to join the cheers. She would not have a story-kill today.

* * *

—Peace, Lah, said Kesh. —Just you keep scraping that hide.

Lah sniffed and shook her long braid. —I’m sick of his bragging! Who brags over stupid luck?

—There’s work enough to be done. Mind yourself. Ro’s story is his own.

Lah pursed her lips in a sullen frown and swallowed the retort that came to mind. It was easy for him to say. There were many stories of Kesh.

Lah was desperate to think about anything other than this fresh indignity of scraping the hide of Ro’s second story-kill. She looked over to Min, the new woman who’d come from the Long Night band. Min was quietly attending to her own hide-scraping, but Lah could hardly fail to notice the furtive glances Min stole at Kesh. Hah! Maybe uncle’s days of stoic loneliness were over.

Ro came swaggering over. Lah saw Kesh eye him with his wary old gaze, but just as she hoped her uncle might warn him off, his eyes turned back down to his own work.

—Hey, Lah! You said you would have one story-kill by the summer notch! Today would have been a good day for that.

—Shut your mouth, Ro. That was a lucky throw you had today, everyone knows it.

It was a hollow retort, though. Ro had gotten “lucky” twice, now. It was hard to deny that he would soon be the band’s best hunter.

—I’ll take my luck before yours, ha ha! If we’d waited for you to finish it, the, sting-buzzards would’ve come and seasoned the meat for you!

Lah bristled. This was a great insult, as the sting-buzzards had gone off for the season, and the Red Sun band would not have to worry about their kill-poisoning talons for moons, yet. Ro was also better at insults than she was—indignities atop indignities!

—Mind yourself, Ro, said Kesh, finally. —Perhaps you’d like to lay out the hide for us?

Even Ro would not argue with Kesh. He ambled off, laughing and crowing as he finally deigned to join in the messy work of butchering the vast carcass.

* * *

The only song of Lah was of her terrible intractability, which was known as a sort of irksome maybe-virtue that had yet to bear any real fruit. She felt the pressure daily—the pressure to prove the Red Sun band’s patience for her preferences (breeches over skirts, hunting over reed-twisting, girls over boys) was not misplaced. A different band would not have shown such forbearance.

But no matter how surely her arrows seemed to find the hearts of the scale-hares, nobody sung night-stories about scale-hares. The women—the other women—always thanked her for bringing in such fine, un-blemished hides, but they would not be the ones to acknowledge her as a hunter.

Lah continued to scrape.

The monotonous work encouraged daydreaming. Lah let her mind wander. What kill would finally earn her place as a hunter, undisputed and prized instead of merely tolerated? It would have been near impossible for her to bring down a great dusthog alone. Too big for arrows, too dangerous when given a single human to face. But a wulver, perhaps, if she could find a male on his mating wander, out away from its pack. Maybe a grey-roc—she was good enough with her bolo and bow alike to get one if she had but a little luck at the right time. It wasn’t impossible. It was hard to get a story-kill without something either big or predatory, though. That was the problem. It wasn’t a good story without some danger.

But Lah was not afraid.

* * *

Evening fell, and with the dusthog’s carcass butchered and the skin-strips stretched out to dry, it was time to feast. It wasn’t a real feast-night; no mark-star was was settled in a lucky notch, but it was hard not to dance a little when there was so much food. Plenty was always the best reason to celebrate.

It was no surprise, then, when old Sage took up his drum and began to sing a story.

The Red Sun band
began a long time ago
not as long as some
but longer than others

The band-story song, then. This was by no means Lah’s favorite (she liked the old hunt-stories better, naturally) but Sage was the singer, and singer for a reason. If this was his choice, it was probably the right one.

Sky was the strongest man from his clan
Earth was the strongest woman from hers
They met at a lucky notch dance
and fucked immediately
They fucked with such force and joy
That Sun was born the next day

Everyone always laughed at the part where Earth and Sky fucked. It was funny, and anyone who’d been to a lucky notch dance knew such things happened all the time. Min, being new to the band, hadn’t heard the song before, and laughed hardest of all. Lah saw her look to Kesh, and giggled to herself. Lucky uncle!

Sun grew up into a strong woman, too
and met Red Flower
they were the best dancers of their clans
and their children were even better
That’s why the Red Sun band
is so good at dancing

Half the band was on their feet now, dancing and leaping around the fire. And why not? There was plenty of food, and it was nighttime, so you could dance and eat until you were tired, and then sleep. Lah wasn’t the best dancer, but even she couldn’t resist the band’s energy and ferocity. She hopped and posed, and after a time saw Min sitting next to Kesh and whispering in his ear.

Lah laughed a joyful laugh—the Red Sun band was the best band! She was so full of love she could barely stand it. Sage had been right. Tonight was a good night for a band song, a love song.

Lah saw Kesh lean to listen to whatever it was that Min was saying, and she was surprised to see that instead of a smile or a chuckle or a flirtatious nudge, Kesh only furrowed his brow and scanned the dancers with his dark, old eyes.

He didn’t seem to find whatever he was looking for. He stood. He was only halfway to his hut when Lah caught up to him.

—What did Min say to you?

There was a measure of accusation in her tone, as Lah was very fond of her uncle.

—Her little brother was not at the fire.

—Where is he?

—That’s what I’m going to find out.

Kesh was assembling his hunting-kit now, and Lah’s reply was immediate and reflexive.

—I’m coming with you.

Kesh grunted.

—You know my eyes are better than yours in the dark!

—I didn’t say no.

Lah nodded a satisfied nod, and ran to fetch her own kit. Knife, bow, arrows. Just in case.

* * *


There is a bright hot wen on the dust floor ahead. It is thick with light and smoke and sex-reek, and hammers a loud pulsing thrum of foot-beats and yells. I cannot go there. But I circle and see that like a spring welling forth from the ground it trickles droplets, a trudging rivulet of skin and bellowing breaths. Perhaps I may yet sate myself on this flesh-stream, may yet thread my lust through twitching fear-places, may yet leave buds behind to bloom in this new and heady place. Oh, I am glad I have come here!

* * *

It didn’t take long to find Min’s brother. He was only a hand-and-some of winters old, and a bit sky-headed besides. He’d had trouble adjusting to the new band, everyone knew, and wanted to go home.

As Kesh and Lah approached him, they heard his sniffling before they saw him in the light of the near-full moon. But there he was, so all was well.

—Come on, Omi. It’s dark out here, and your sister is sad.

Omi sniffed but took Lah’s offered hand. The boy was distraught, but not stupid, and the night had surely proved less welcoming than he must have imagined.

—I heard something, said Omi. He looked up. —It was in the sky.

—Plenty of bats out this time of year, said Kesh. —Let’s get back to the fire.

Kesh squatted and offered his back to Omi, and Lah’s heart panged a little. That had been her, once. Where would she be, and what would she be doing, if Kesh hadn’t taken her on his back those many times, stood for her, taught her to track, taught her to shoot? So much she owed her uncle. He had been the first to sing a song about her.

Then—

There was a low hum, an insectile flittering sound. A strange shape came to rest in the moon shadow of a cactus tree a few paces away.

Lah peered. What was it? Small, certainly. Child-sized, barely as tall as Omi. It seemed to be hiding behind the cactus tree.

—Uncle, what…?

Kesh responded with a short, sharp hiss. When he spoke, his voice was as low and serious as Kesh had ever heard. —It’s a night lady, he said. He was being very slow and very careful.

She felt a thrill of horror. —I thought they only took moun-tain-apes, Lah whispered.

—There are stories. Hush, and we’ll let her be on her way.

Lah had never seen a night lady before. The mountain bands told stories of them at the gatherings, sometimes, but always stories of sightings at a distance—the great pine-apes of the crags turned into drooling fool-children and led giggling off into the night by little winged terrors. The mountain band hunters were always vague, as though having witnessed something they didn’t care to remember or think too long on.

From out of the shadow of the cactus-tree stepped the night lady. It peered at them, or seemed to, eerie and furtive. Its black body glittered with dark, twisting rainbows even in the moonlight, and it was small, fey, and possessed of a rapacious, liquid beauty that surpassed the merely predatory. Up from the depths of Lah’s mind burbled a racial memory of howling fear. GET AWAY, it screamed. THIS IS DEATH’S FACE.

* * *


Too many, so many, the mother-voice worries, but I am overcome with lust. Of the three the largest is the greatest danger, but imagining the glorious weight of its muscle and blood quiets the tremolo of the mother voice’s fear-feel. Far louder is the need; my thread twitches and my quieting-nectar stirs. I itch, oh how I itch. Quickly, now, I will dare to satisfy myself upon this large one, and then with a mind cleared of mating-sick I will at last let the mother-voice tell me what to do.

* * *

And then in a fleeting instant the night lady was upon Kesh.

The impact bowled all three of them over—Kesh, Omi, and the night lady. Omi fell free, while Kesh and the night lady rolled, a ball that buzzed and struggled.

Kesh succeeded in prying the clutching, flexing thing off of himself. He flung it back. It landed with reflexive grace, and paused. Its head tilted. It seemed to regard him, but it was hard to be certain of that. Every time Lah thought she’d found its eyes, her gaze seemed to slide off the many-color of its body.

From between the night lady’s slender dark legs her abdomen curled up with obscene flexion, rings of shiny chitin pulsing and puckering with an awful and hungry dexterity.

Kesh’s eyes never left the night lady. —Go. Run. Now. His voice was a resigned growl.

Hot fear thrummed through Lah’s body. She barely heard Kesh’s words. None of what she’d learned of hunting applied to the creature she saw. It was terror, not courage, that kept her feet rooted to the desert earth. If she could have run, she would have.

Kesh’s gaze flicked to meet Lah’s for just a moment, and in that instant, the night lady fell upon him in earnest, its wings humming. Her sting thrust in once, twice, and Kesh staggered and fell to his knees as his legs crumpled beneath him.

Lah shrieked her horror as the night lady lowered Kesh to the ground in a mockery of tenderness, and cradled his head in its too many small child’s-hands.

The night lady’s abdomen then hinged up and with gentle insistence nuzzled against Kesh’s neck. The night lady shivered. Kesh was unnaturally still.

Lah retched.

* * *

Brief twinges of relief as I coax this big one into quiet. Yes, yes, slow now, slow my great lover turns—then a spurt of hot-sparked delight as I sew its fear closed with my thread. My thread teaches my great lover the language of stillness. My great darling. You see, mother-voice, I was right to follow the salt-blood tide here, here to intoxicate, here to sate and to reproduce.

* * *

But then her fury exceeded her fear, and she hurled herself at the night lady. Its grip on Kesh’s head was stone-strong, fast like the lashing of a spear’s head to its shaft. That such strength should live in these gracile arms was a wrongness.

At Lah’s frantic blows, though, its hold finally gave, and Lah flung it away by one of its many slickly-armored limbs. It landed and flew at her immediately, sting jabbing viciously and sexually at her. But Lah was ready, and she caught the bulbous point of the abdomen in her left hand. In her right she readied her knife.

When the point flexed at her, she spied the place where the rings of black, pearly armor met, and into that gap she stuck the stone point of her knife. The night lady’s many hands grasped and clawed at Lah’s face. Lah felt the blade bite, and she pushed.

The night lady thrashed and keened an awful humming tone. Lah kept her left hand’s grip tight, and cut with the knife’s blade in a circle, feeling muscle and sinew give as she sawed.

* * *

Mother-voice I was mistaken I was wrong I am suffering and rage and ash

* * *

She pulled with her left hand and as she screamed her grief, and the sting came free with a hot splash of ichor. Pale entrails dangled from the jagged hunk she held.

The night lady spasmed and limped and staggered back, trailing dark fluid from its maimed organ.

Only then did Lah realize Omi was wailing, reduced to incoherence by what he’d seen. Lah went to Kesh and knelt down beside him.

There was a tiny and horrifyingly bloodless slit not half a finger’s width behind Kesh’s jaw, under his ear. His eyes were open. A rivulet of spittle trickled out of the corner of his mouth.

—Uncle! Uncle! Lah sobbed.

Kesh only moaned an idiot, unformed vowel in response. Lah sat him up. His head lolled. —Help me! she said to Omi, but the boy was beyond himself.

She got herself low, and hefted Kesh across her shoulders like he was a downed fleetjak.

—Come on, she said, though to Kesh or Omi she was not sure. The glow of the band-fire was visible in the distance, only a few hundred paces off. With steps made unsteady by her heavy burden, Lah began to walk.

She murmured a low hum as she went. The hum became words, and the words a song, even as her voice cracked and cheeks turned salt-striped.

Lah was a girl who hunted
Her uncle taught her how

* * *

As a translator, Paul Starr has translated over a million words of Japanese comics and novels, including Isuna Hasekura's Spice and Wolf fantasy series. As an editor, he works for Kodansha Comics, in addition to editing The Sockdolager!, a quarterly short fiction zine. This is his first publication as a writer of fiction.

What inspires you to write and keep writing?

The feeling of pleasant surprise when upon returning to something I've written, I discover that it is not necessarily total garbage.

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