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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.


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