Zack tried ducking, too late for it to have done any good. Chala’s arrow sailed past his ear, and collided with something just behind him. Zack spun and saw a towering creature, like a centipede magnified to incredible size and pushing its way out of the earth. The segmented arms spasmed painfully, reacting to the arrow embedded between plates of its exoskeleton. Zack jumped from it and toward his dropped pistol as one of the arms lashed, an instant too slow.
He scooped up the Purcellian striker and took a better look at the creature. He saw other injuries on the thing, scars and scratches along with some still-protruding arrow shafts and larger pieces of wood… nothing as advanced as Chala’s arrow, however.
He looked at Chala and was surprised to see her running, furiously covering the grass of the clearing and heading for a tree line. He turned back, but the beast was gone. The clearing grew eerily silent apart from the distant noise of insects and Chala’s receding footfalls. A large hole in the ground was the only sign that the creature had ever been there.
Time froze. Part of Zack’s brain was arguing against the evidence of his own eyes, rationalizing that nothing so large could move so quickly or quietly. Another part of his brain was screaming, furiously, that whatever he’d just seen COULD move that quickly and quietly, and was likely doing so right now. Why was Chala, who seemed at home in this dangerous environment, running after a successful hit? Time started to unfreeze and slowly picked up speed as the shouting part of Zack’s brain gradually overruled the rational, confused part.
He ran. He followed Chala. Something large and heavy slammed into the ground behind him. It continued slamming in a long, rumbling roll. He risked a look over his shoulder and saw the creature falling like a tree, its arms prepared to grab and slice and a nearing pincer-ringed maw opening wide. It was falling faster than he could run.
Zack screamed and jumped to the side, too-late realizing what evolution had made the creature realize millions of years earlier: you could crush more prey beneath you if you could change the direction of your fall. It twisted at a segment in its armor, altering the vector of its descent to match Zack’s attempted zig-zag.
Zack fell on his back and reflexively lifted the hand holding his pistol. He pulled the trigger and a surge of energy blasted up and into the monster. The creature shrieked and reared back, more surprised than wounded. Zack didn’t hesitate to clamber to his feet. He was too slow.
Denied its chance at crushing its prey, the creature snapped its head forward toward the fleeing detective. Zack never knew how close the jaws came, running for the thick collection of trees ahead of him. He saw, for the second time in less than thirty seconds, Chala staring at him, pulling back her arm, and releasing an arrow. Again it sailed past Gamma, this time striking the beast in its mouth.
Zack ran past Chala, made it almost a dozen feet into the tangle of vegetation, and tripped over a vine. He fell onto the ground, looked up, and saw Chala staring into the clearing. He slowly got to his feet, looked behind her, and saw an empty field. Once again, it had softly and suddenly vanished away.
“What was THAT?” he asked.
“Haktorash,” said Chala, almost reverently. “It roughly translates to ‘Phantom Judge.’ Last year an industrialist from Veskid wanted to name it The Boojum, but fortunately it killed him before he could get the venom he wanted from it.”
“Shouldn’t we keep running?”
“It won’t follow us into the trees,” she said. “I don’t know why. I think the roots give it trouble when they get thick enough. It’s an incredible creature, really… logically I know there must be more than one of it, but every time one is seen it still has all the scars and injuries from the warriors who’ve failed to kill it.”
“Maybe there are dozens of them and they’ve all got their own collection of black eyes. Has anyone ever really cataloged each injury on it to make sure they’re the same each time?”
“I think the guy last year did, but his data would’ve been lost on his ship when it went down in Swamp Savage, grabbed by a noose tree. It’s probably still there if you want to go look. Keep away from its gallows vines, though, they’ve got a longer reach than you might guess.”
“I think I’m fine,” he said. “Like I said, I’m only here a few hours, a day at most.”
“And like I said, you don’t have that kind of time. Although you might’ve just gotten lucky.”
“Haktorash is the Phantom Judge,” said Chala. “In some ways it’s the measure of evolutionary adaptability, in others it’s the measure of a warrior. It attacked us. We survived.”
“You survived,” said Zack. “I got lucky.”
“Luck is part of survival. The Sthenites acknowledge the favor of fate as a trait that can make a good warrior, though it’s impossible to train for it or rely upon it. Luck means you live, at least for today. And I live because of a little less luck, and a little more skill. We both left our marks on it, you from an energy blast and me from an arrow. Here’s hoping I’m lucky enough for at least one of those arrows to stick in it…”
“How’s that lucky?”
“It’ll bring prestige,” she said. “I’m an outsider. I could claim that I hit Haktorash and survived, but no one would believe me on my word alone. My arrows, though, are unique on this world. No one who sees Haktorash with an arrow like that in it could doubt that the arrow came from my bow.”
“Nice,” said Zack. “What’s it mean if the arrow doesn’t last, though?”
“Nothing for me, it’d be about the same as telling a big fish story. It would be bad for you, though.”
“Because then it looks like I’m just trying to protect a member of my former tribe,” she said. “If the arrow doesn’t last, you will be no longer judged fit to survive by Haktorash and will once again be valid for the hunt.”