To the left is the sky; to the right is the cave wall. I hang suspended from the cold rock and take in the lights: violet, yellow, green, turquoise, and blue. They remind me of a city at night, although I dare not say which one: I have seen too many and their impressions have blended into one in my mind.
Then comes the Scent.
It wipes away the lights as it wafts into the cavern. With renewed strength, it occupies all my senses--sweet, alluring; it creates a fire that shoots down from my throat through my body and settles in my claws.
I consider myself a wise man--I have certainly outlived many fools. Yet still the Scent holds me in a merciless grip whenever I chance upon it. It awakens a primal urge that no number of years of civilized life can suppress. As drinking or eating, the Scent is not a matter of if, but rather of when, where, and how.
It causes a tingling that dulls the mind--or at least, the rational part of it--and awakens the predator, the wild hunter inside. Its power over me has not diminished since my early days when it made me restlessly search the Belfries--the caves beneath the frozen surface of the dwarf planet where I was hatched. I roamed in pursuit of a vague calling that was not of the mind, but rather of the memories the flesh holds, passed on from generation to generation to generation.
A strong wind blows up the jagged crags and into the mouth of the cave. The gale cools my body and it disperses the Scent and my overwhelming consciousness of it. I regain hold of my mind, and I find myself suspended still above the cave entrance. The Scent is diminished now, but I see more clearly whence it came, and what way I must go to find it.
A century has passed since my days in the Belfries, but the hunt for the Scent has come again as many times as years have passed. And I have become better at it, much better.
As I hang by my four legs, head down, a dark shape is cast against the cave’s bright lights. Unerringly, it proceeds towards the cave. It moves quickly, as if driven by a primal urge; it does not consider its surroundings as it moves--it does not see me. . .
In the Belfries, I did not succeed. I followed the Scent blindly, scurrying left and right in search of passages that led towards it. I saw nothing and I thought of nothing save how sweet the Scent lay on my tongue and how I could taste its richness in the back of my throat.
In the Belfries, I learned that the hunt for the Scent is not undertaken by one man alone: competition is fierce.
The shape now stands directly below me.
In the Belfries, I learned how to fight.
I let go, and I soar down, claw and mandible at the ready.
The shape at my feet lies still. Its eyes and face, though bruised, are youthful: not worn by the rough climates of a hundred worlds as mine are. Perhaps he is nine or ten solar years of age; perhaps this was his first hunt for the Scent.
I remember lying at the feet of my conqueror in the Belfries. I was at his mercy and--although the rules of the hunt dictate that there must be no kind killing kind--I feared death at his hands, unsure of whether rules were obeyed in the heat of battle.
The same fear is in the eyes of this pitiful heap at my feet, and I have seen it in the eyes of dozens of others still. Yet in time, this now pitiful creature may look down on those it conquers, just as I do now.
My nose catches the Scent again: a soft and silky tendril of that sweet aroma. . . It is grown more intense and lingers for a while as the whole of my body absorbs it. I leave my conquered foe where he is--so that he may conquer another day--and descend deeper into the caves.
Effortlessly, I scale the walls, turn upside down, and step onto the ceiling. I prefer walking on the ceiling: wherever you dwell, there are usually fewer threats above than below. And I choose to be one of those threats.
And, of course, there is a certain joy in stalking overhead, all four legs spread out and ready to jump at anything. Unseen, unheard, and with strength coursing through every tense muscle, it is difficult not to feel deadly.
And it can be difficult not to become overconfident.
A sudden movement in the dim glow of the caves, no more than a shifting of shadows. I drop from the ceiling, turn, and land--legs splayed--on the floor, just in time to see a shape charge overhead--where I stood but a moment before. Mandibles and claws flash in shades of violet and green light as my foe drops to the floor.
I stand ready for another charge, my eyes on the now deadly still shadows. A scurrying, a flash of movement, and then nothing.
Carefully, I step forward, every bit as silent as I was on the ceiling. It is another youngling; I can smell it. Besides, one of experience would never have made the mistake to move just before the charge and alert his target to his presence.
As I step forward, there is swift movement in the dark. Another mistake. . .
Just in time, I rise on my hind legs. With my front legs and arms I absorb the impact as the other hurls himself against me. Mandibles strike from the shadows and claws reach for my face and eyes--only to stop just a few inches short of their mark.
I see the folly of youth in the eyes that stare hatred at me, and I feel the strength of youth in the limbs that reach out to tear at me.
With a single effort, I push the shape back. We circle around each other, waiting for a moment to strike.
Another dance has begun.
Claws flash past--left, right, above, below. I duck and weave, locked in a deadly dance with my competitor. He is fierce, skilled beyond his years, and faster than I am.
Too late I lean right: a claw reaches past the chitin that protects my left flank; it digs deep and a hot pain spreads in my side. Adrenaline shoots through my body--in an instant I jump right and latch onto the walls, for a moment out of my opponent's reach.
He stands in the center of the corridor, his four legs spread wide, claws ready to strike. He looks viciously at me, and rubs his serrated mandibles together--faster than my eyes can see--to make a chirping sound: a declaration of victory.
He knows there should be no kind killing kind in the hunt for the Scent: the wounded are expected to stand down. I place my claw on my side and feel the warm blood flowing.
Yet still the Scent lingers sweetly, mingled now with the fragrances of the deep earth: rock, dirt, and mold. The cocktail is oddly enticing: it invigorates and calls renewed strength to muscle, sinew, and bone.
I drop down from the wall, rear, and answer his chirping with a challenge of my very own. He does not hesitate and flies at me with the reckless abandon of the youthful warrior.
This time, I am quick enough. I jump up, and where his claws strike is presently naught but air. I latch onto the ceiling, then push away to land behind him. A quick strike with my claw across the unprotected back of his neck settles it: the chirping ends as my competitor falls down and lies still on the cave floor.
This time, I care little whether he lives and leave him where he fell. I press a claw to my side to stop the flow of blood and proceed deeper into the darkness, until all violet, yellow, green, turquoise, and blue colors of the caves have faded into black.
But I need no light: the Scent guides me. Its sweet aroma intensifies until I hear a chirping from below that grows louder with every step I take.
I consider myself a wise man--I have certainly traveled far and wide, and I have spoken with more Sentients than most of my kind should even guess to exist. Yet never have I understood or managed to properly explain the Scent, and always I am aware of how savage the mating rituals of my kind must seem to others.
At the same time, I wonder--how can a species stand the test of time if not by survival of the fittest?
As I reach the final chamber, five eggs lie waiting; they glisten in the dark. Behind them, half-hidden in the gloom of the caves, stands the mother, strong, vicious, brooding. But in her dark eyes is a look of approval, and though I did not pass unscathed, she does not turn me away.
The final dance of the hunt for the Scent begins.