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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.


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