It reached in again and scraped the log but pulled back an empty paw. Whining again, it jumped on top of the log, then reached again from the new angle, this time getting another small grub.
Sheer terror had me on the defensive, and I’d only thought I was observing the beast. I kept thinking I knew what it was, but no… I was wrong. This was not the same one I’d seen earlier. It wasn’t one of the young ones either.
It was between the two sizes. Not as a big, not as dark red. The stripes were just barely developing on its body. Its head and claws appeared to be large for its size still. A solo adolescent.
And it was thin. It lacked the musculature of the mature one I’d seen before and the rounded bellies of the young. Its belly arched high from a barrel chest. A sprinter with that build and thick hind legs, so it was a powerful jumper. I was pretty sure with those claws so it could climb.
It was starving, and I wasn’t safe going to be safe in the trees. The last thing I wanted to do was kill it. It was eating, maybe… I glanced over my shoulder. My pack was open a few feet away. If I had to, I’d leave it and come back.
Moving slowly, I pushed up into a crouch. Eyeing the beast as it clawed at the hole I’d dug into the log, I slowly straightened my knees. The soft ground aided me, muffling my steps as I began to inch away. I was nearly out of sight when the back end of the shock wand brushed against some leaves.
It was the faintest of sounds, but the creature’s large ears swiveled my way. It froze, tail lashing the only movement, until it leapt off the log and after me in two bounds.
“Agh,” I shouted, swinging the shock wand. It glanced off the hardened protrusions on its back, the end crackling as it made contact. It should have hurt it, stunned it, maybe even killed it since the creature wasn’t full-grown, though I never wanted to kill an unknown species if I could help it.
Instead, the electricity ran down the ridge on the beast’s back, then along its tail to zap into the air harmlessly. “Holy shit,” I whispered. It hopped, yipping as its tail shook. Did that hurt? I couldn’t tell. I tried to take a step back, and it stopped me, its body behind mine. I froze, looking over my shoulder.
It warbled at me, those dark eyes staring intently. Then it butted its head against my legs. Not to knock me down but to nudge me. Forward. It nudged harder, though my suit absorbed the impact. This time its tone took on a plaintive note as it warbled again.
Was it… crying? It nudged me, then brushed past me, stopping and looking back at me after a few steps. I took a halting step forward. It chirruped. I took another step, and it wiggled and then jumped like it was on springs, chirruping the whole time.
A smile cracked the tension locking my muscles tight, and I laughed. Definitely a juvenile. And it wanted me to follow it. The lack of hostility confused me, but I also wasn’t going to let my guard down completely. Going slow with small, careful movements, I followed the ruby bouncer back to the fallen log.
Warbling, it clawed the trunk, then plunked down on its haunches and stared. Those ears were straight up, the tail curled around the feet, and the eyes watched me intently… just like the young had with the older beast who’d hunted grubs for them.
Wait a second… was this thing treating me like its mother? I hesitated. It was hungry, it couldn’t eat me in my suit—I was pretty sure—and I could help it. Collapsing the shock wand, I inserted it back in my suit; it hadn’t done any good anyway.
Picking a fresh spot, I dug into the log. The beast’s ears quivered at the sound of the wood being pulverized and the metal chiming against the edges of the hole as I drew my fist back out. I peered inside for the telltale shiny shell.
“Well?” I waved at the hole. That head followed my hand, but all I dropped was splintered wood. “Get your own grubs, buddy.”
We began a stalemate. The light was starting to fade, and I didn’t have that much more time. I sighed, looking around for the forceps. There they were. I reached in, finding a grub. Remembering how the older one had tossed them to the young, I lobbed it into the air.
He caught it, mouth crunching the grub in half in one bite. The head with those ugly pincers fell to the ground. It chewed rapidly, then sat back down.
Okay, somehow I’d been duped into providing a meal for him. I plucked out the next grub I saw, tossing it to my waiting four-legged friend. Then I found another one toward the bottom of the hole, this one much bigger. It fought me, digging into the wood with its pincers, but I finally got it out… missing its head already. I threw it into the clearing, then dug my free hand into the wood, widening the hole. Yes! Several more grubs were visible. I plucked them out and crushed the heads as quickly as I could, tossing them at the adolescent who was gobbling them up to the heads almost as fast I dug them out.
Almost. It took me two more holes, but I had tossed out several more than he could eat. Forceps in hand, I backed to my pack and scooped it up. Yup, as I expected, food kept him completely focused, and I was able to hustle out of the clearing.
I rushed away as fast as I could. Fear had created a gloss of sweat over my skin my suit couldn’t counter, but I didn’t care. I’d survived.