Chapter 12:

The Path Between The Burdocks

Keio (9-K-O-512)

Location: hills by the lake
Health: weak
Additional effects - enhanced nature-vision, impaired movement

Roiling cloud banks crowd the low sky, as rough as the giant, dull, green leaves whispering beneath our feet. The forest lies behind us as we climb across a sandy hilly landscape. Here and there the hills are covered in a coat of low shrub, or a lush carpet of leaves broken in parts by naked patches of sand and bristling clumps of sedges. Mud bubbles in the hollows between the knolls, with shining pools full of slender horsetails. The reflection of a flat expanse of water flashes in the distance and I hear the sound of waves - we’re circling up to the shores of a small bay in the lake.

I ask whether we risk another attack by the angry gulls. But Badass explains that there are few of them on the swampy beaches on this side of the lake: there aren’t many good nesting spots and the few who try are eaten quickly.

“Aha,” I realise. “The badgers clean up the nests.”

“Yeah, the badgers too…” Badass seems like he wants to add something, but only sniffs and marches onward. I wonder who else hunts gulls over here? In any case, I feel glad that Little-Friend stayed behind in the forest.

Only now do I notice that a barely visible path winds through the knee-high thicket. Here and there the dark shadows under the leaves seem to hide deeper burrows and holes, but I have no time to explore closer as we walk.

Bit by bit, I start to feel we are not alone. I cannot notice any clear life-shapes in the bushes, as nature’s pulse is leaving my body and the little that remains is spent on maintaining my bond with the elk-steed.

The path widens and I sense the presence of several life forms more clearly. As the wide mouth of a cave appears ahead, we are completely surrounded by our invisible escort.

Badass doesn’t seem to notice anything and keeps walking, straight toward the yawning hole. Then he stops so suddenly that the elk almost runs into him. Looking ahead, I can see why: our invisible guardians have stepped out of their hiding places. At the cave’s entrance and all around among the burdocks, dozens of creatures spy on us. Their size, shape and black-and-white fur do indeed resemble the badgers in our lessons. But the badgers of this planet stand upright and point sharp spears at us. Their shining black eyes carefully observe our every move.

“Peace, I’m a friend,” shouts Badass.

The badgers seem to understand him: the spears are withdrawn and we are given space to approach.

I stare at the badgers with naked interest. Each of them has a unique face; their coats likewise differ greatly in length, colour and pattern. In addition to bone-tipped spears, many of them carry smaller weapons on their belts: I spy throwing clubs and short bone swords, slings made of plant stalks and several other unknown hunting and fighting tools. Several badgers wear bone and leather armor and a few have decorated themselves with pendants of bird-bone and snail shells. Among other jewellery, I can see a full-length snake skeleton and more than one sharp-beaked bird skull.

One badger steps up from their ranks.

“Badger,” says Badass, nodding to him.

The badger barks in reply, producing a series of short growls and coughs, pointing its snout toward me.

Badass shrugs. “She isn’t trading anything yet, as far as I know,” he explains, uncertainly.

The spokesbadger isn’t happy - his growl is now deeper, his tone harsher and his eyes narrow in distaste. As the discussion rapidly unfolds, I can only understand that the badgers want Badass to bring some kind of iron merchant. Only once Badass explains that we have come to warn the brood do the badgers change their posture. They listen intently to what Badass tells them about the villagers’ hunting plans, and start discussing it wordlessly among themselves.

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