There was a movement.
We do not think it had meant to be seen. However, we were as strange to it as it was to us. It didn’t know the extent of our senses, and we were already anticipating something like it.
There was a movement near the base of a tree, and we froze in a camouflage state, all four of our bodies. All thought disappeared and all we could do was observe what our limbs did of their own accord.
After a tense beat of confusion, the one furthest from the source of movement turned bright white and scuttled for the base of a tree.
The predator immediately leapt clear over us to pounce on suddenly visible prey.
And we, in turn, leapt for it!
We did not get a clear vision of it, even between us all. But, as we heard the sickening crunch of shell and a squeal of agony, our beaks found themselves full of fur and flesh, tentacles and legs gripping the flanks of the creature. And there was a yowl, and muscles flexed as its tail lashed well above our eyestalks.
The encounter was short and painful.
This one felt toothy jaws close on a leg and yank. We reflexively bit harder and, as this one was torn away from its grip, the flesh of the predator came away with it. The world briefly spun faster than ever just before leaves and branches of a nearby bush broke and cushioned this one’s flight.
Then the predator screamed in pain and thrashed about, leaping high into the air, in an attempt to shake the rest of us off of it. And then it bolted through the brush, at which point we let go.
We could only hope it would not return. We had never encountered anything like it before. We did not know its habits or tactics, while our own were honed best for fending off larger birds. So, we felt rushed while we had to also take time to regroup and think.
The breaking of shell is not always fatal. While it can be crippling, it depends on where the break is. But it also depends on whether the rest of the collective can rally to help protect the injured member while it heals.
The broken member of our party could not stand. It had suffered a large crack across the back of its abdomen and the shattering of two of its legs. As a result, it was already in a silent shock when we came to it, slowly cycling colors of pain and attempted thought, incoherent. And in seeing it, we felt pain ourselves.
It had sacrificed itself so that the rest of us might fight off the predator and live. But its unique sense memories, its perspective, would never be available to us again. We felt its absence already, and panic began to set more deeply within us. Which meant that we found ourselves huddling under a nearby bush, camouflaged, watching it die and fearing the return of the predator.
Communication between us was at a minimum then, just as it was at the beginning of the fight. But this one had just enough faculty of its own thought to start reconsidering this quest. The others were doubtlessly thinking the same things. Should we go back to the shore and the safety of our numbers? Should we try to carry our wounded? Or was it slain already?
It had not even been half a night, and our mission was already in jeopardy. We had encountered a danger that had severely injured us, impairing our ability to remain rational.
If we waited long enough, too, either the predator would return to check its kill, or something else we know too little about would be attracted by the smell. Of course, even the smell of those of us who were uninjured probably attracted the predator in the first place. And we began to realize that our experiences on the sea shore were not equipping us to anticipate the dangers we faced inland.
We very nearly did turn back right there.
But taking a mere two steps back in the direction of home brought back memories of The Great Chattering and the resolve that had sent us out in the first place. So we turned and continued to move further inland, leaving our fallen member behind, and keeping to cover. Even if only one of us survived to find Shaw or any dragon to talk to, it would be enough. And we found ourselves wondering if the other parties had had similar encounters, or if they were making contact.
Unknown to us, something remarkable was happening to our injured party. But we would not learn that until much, much later.
Instead, we pressed on through the night until the sky began to lighten. And we believed we had made good distance by then. Our new tactics of keeping to brush, or crawling near fallen logs, and staying hidden seemed to keep us safe enough, and we did not see our attacker, or any other, in that time.
When we were confident, we took the time to discuss and think about what we might do should we encounter another threat like the one that had injured us.
Of course we would repeat our past tactics, following our instincts. But if we prepared ourselves, we could add to our actions. And we agree that adding to the screaming ourselves would be a good move. Especially if we continued to do so after the threat had run. Anything to frighten predators further and keep them away.
Being ambush predators ourselves, we were in the habit of being quiet when launching a counter attack. And usually, we had the numbers to be a considerable threat. But now that we were down to three, we would need to augment our weak presence. And noise seemed to be an important thing to inland creatures. Which became even more obvious as morning arose, and birds and other things began to chatter.
But as the sun emerged from its cave, we had to search for a place to hide during the day. We did not feel equipped to risk the daylight, and we needed rest.
Unfortunately, it took us longer than our comfort to do so, and the sun was fully escaped from its birthcave before we found a partially hollowed tree and climbed its trunk to the hole we’d spied from a distance away. Our own wooden cave.
It was cramped, but the dampness of it was comforting. And we felt that we could hear and feel the vibrations of anything that might climb the tree after us. We would be prepared with bared beaks to attack its face if necessary.
We were so uneasy.
Fortunately, with three of us, our natural rotation of sleep cycles kept a pair of eyes and other senses awake through the day without any strain. Two would have been difficult. One, impossible.
We assume this is all relevant to your understanding of what we are and our place in your world. You must already know that we rule the shoreline and feel relatively safe there, even with regular encounters with larger birds of prey. And we are definitely out of place outside of our realm.
But perhaps you can also see now that we can adapt, take our own initiative, and even communicate with you.
We would like to learn about the rest of the world. We are very curious. But we would like to emulate you and do so with as little impact as possible. And we cannot do that while we are so vulnerable. If you could be our teachers and guides, we would be so grateful.
Unfortunately, we also have to admit that during our rest that day we had the time to realize that by choosing to move inland while sticking to cover we had given up on following Shaw’s trail. We had, in fact, forgotten completely about it until then. And when we had fully awoken, as best we could with only three members, we began to think about this as quietly as possible. Our flashing must have seemed strange to any land creature seeing the reflections of it on the inner walls of the tree.
Fortunately, the angle of the afternoon sun probably drowned that out and made it less obvious.
Due to our state of distress and our minimal numbers, we became more aware of our individual selves than we typically are and experienced a thing that struck us as strange in the moment.
We had four positions on what to do next.
We could turn back.
We could keep going as we had been and hope that we stumble across a clue or Shaw’s trail, or some sort of sign of a Dragon presence.
We could strike out laterally, either spinward or antispinward, specifically in search of Dragons other than Shaw.
Or we could risk the attention of another predator and spiral outward in search of Shaw’s trail, to pick it up again and continue as we had started out.
And the arguments we made in favor or in rejection of each of these possibilities came from us as if from different factions of the greater Collective, just like during the Great Chattering. But no one of us as individuals took any one of the sides ourselves. We watched our own individual minds emulate these factions within us and present the arguments as if someone else entirely had formulated them.
In one sentence, this one found itself arguing for turning back. And then in the very next sentence, vehemently insisting that we find Shaw’s trail.
It was a natural discussion for us, and we knew that we worked this way. But we had not really been consciously aware of it until then, and in the moment it struck us as very odd, and somewhat wonderful.
We broke the discussion to remark upon it and sat for a moment in wonder at our own beings.
Which is when we heard and felt the scrabbling from the base of the tree, and could sense its rapid climb toward us.