Words heard not too long ago rang out in silence, repeated constantly in one hunter’s thoughts.

‘You must not let them hear you, for that may be your death. You hunt alone, so you must be exceedingly careful — if you are wounded, they may attack, and you will die if they do. Seek out the slowest, the weakest; choose your target well, and wait for it to emerge from the herd’s protective bowels. You are swift, but you do not want to immerse yourself in the herd, for they will kill you. These are dangerous prey, young Kiva, and you are a fool for wanting to hunt them… but you are a skilled fool, and I believe you will succeed.’

The old warrior was right in saying that Kiva was skilled, but the young male didn’t believe he was so foolish… perhaps reckless and overly confident, but not a fool. He knew the risks in hunting the deadly Helk, but he would not back down so easily. It was a personal challenge, and one that he refused to decline.

Silky apricot fur rippled with the movement of lean yet powerful muscles as the tan crept forward, shoulderblades protruding bonily above his slender frame with each stride. Absolute silence. The herd was only a few hundred meters away from him, and he was fast approaching the limit of the tall, wheat-like grass that effectively concealed him. In a few more slinking steps, he would pause, and then… strike.

Jade green eyes glittered with a brilliant intelligence as Kiva came to rest at the very edges of the longer grass; hardly breathing, he regarded the herd. Helks were massive ungulates, shag-furred in earthy brown and possessing a fearsome rack of sharp-tipped antlers, as well as heavy hooves that could crush his skull as easily as a red’s jaws could. Narrow, pointed ears flicked forward, funneling each little sound that the prey made inwards; Kiva’s senses weren’t exceptional for a Korat, but they were incredibly keen compared to those of most other Lavanians. Soon.

He’d already chosen his target: an old bull with a greying muzzle and blunt hooves was carelessly near the edge of the herd, and with age-weakened antlers, he should not be much of a fight. The Korat knew that the true danger was from the elder’s herdmates — should they decide to avenge his sudden death, Kiva would be hard-pressed to escape with his life, let alone his meal. He grinned, baring razor-sharp rows of small, thin teeth, at the thought. He needed this challenge, newly-adult and without a reputation.

The bull wandered farther out; no longer did any young, healthy Helk stand defensively between the elder and the open plains. Kiva’s grin tightened, whiskers slicked back and hidden in pale fur, as he slowly unsheathed narrow golden claws and readied himself. Just a few more moments — there were Helks keeping an eye out for the old one. Best to let them fall into a false sense of security before attacking.

‘These are dangerous prey, young Kiva, and you are a fool for wanting to hunt them…’

Aye, Athuta… perhaps. But tonight, you and the others will feast.

The tan waited five excruciatingly long minutes until he felt the Helk herd relax minutely. They would never let their guard completely down -no Lavanian would, if it hoped to live another day- but they were as calm and inattentive as they would become. It was time.

Kiva could reach speeds of over sixty leagues per hour; Helk could barely manage twenty.

This speed, coupled with almost instantaneous acceleration, send a slim blur of hunter towards the herd, a mere hundred meters away, and he was sailing in a leap before any Helk had time to react to his presence with an alarmed bellow. As though he were suspended mid-air and floating leisurely down, Kiva seemingly had time to look around at the Helks, and then straight at his target.

The old one knew his time had come; though not sentient, Helks were quite keen (and vicious) grazers. But in defiance of fate, he swung his rack to impale the young Korat lunging for his spine and neck–

Kiva struck with his tail, the powerful appendage wielding a blued ebony tailblade that plunged into the herbivore’s muscular shoulder. This first contact between hunter and hunted allowed the tan to avoid certain death and absorb the shock of landing from such speed with all four legs, and the Helk was bowled over with the force–

Suddenly, normal time resumed.

Bellowing tore the air apart and flashes of black hooves and greybrown antlers surrounded the young Korat. The entire length of his ten-inch blade was embedded into thrashing flesh, and though instinct had caught him in time to rip open the beast’s flank with his longclaws, the Helk refused to die so easily. Blood spurted in erratic geysers as Kiva jerked blade and claws from his prey, ducked a vengeful swipe of brittle antlers, and took a precious nanosecond to catch his balance with all four paws firmly on the ground.

He shouldn’t have done so, for a few points of the rack caught his left shoulder and chest in the next strike, ripping furrows in his lean frame that immediately gushed blood. The brilliant crimson fluid stained his fur, stickily pouring down his chest to fall in immense droplets to the short, blue beadgrass below. The shock of pain jolted Kiva out of his pause, and he reacted with a silent, drawn snarl, his tailblade cracking at an angle to shatter one half of the Helk’s rack.

The ungulate bellowed in pain and, Kiva imagined, shame as he was left with little defense against the speedy hunter. The tan shoved himself close to the big beast’s side, avoiding younger herdmates’ wild attacks, and looked up as the elder looked around and down. For one heart-shattering moment, brown eyes looked into jade, and prey understood predator.

Time resumed as a healthier Helk smashed into the Korat’s hip with one broad forehoof, nearly breaking bones and tearing a wide slab of flesh, skin, and fur off. Kiva howled in shock and pain, and a frantic whip of his bladed tail made the beast back away momentarily.

‘…If you are wounded, they may attack, and you will die if they do.’

There was still the matter of his target, who -mere inches away- heaved his last gasping breaths, mutilated flanks rising and falling jerkily with each huff. There was still the matter of a swift death, an honorable death. And there was still the matter of surviving the hunt to bring the meat back.

Kiva sprang away and faced the elder, his tail’s constant lashing protecting him from attacks from behind, and once again he locked eyes with his target. Younger bucks were beginning to gather, bellowing and rearing their fury, hooves flashing through the air like knives, like boulders, like death…

‘You are swift, but you do not want to immerse yourself in the herd, for they will kill you.’

The male charged, dodging one last desperate attack with the old one’s remaining points, and ducked under a flailing muzzle to angle his jaws upwards and feel his razor-sharp teeth pierce flesh. For a moment, it was a bloodless bite, but the Helk tried to rear and tore his own throat open with the movement… The lifeforce fled from him in crimson falls, waves upon waves of red splashing down and staining Kiva’s face, pouring into and burning his eyes, flooding his mouth. The tan hacked and spit to avoid inhaling and thereby drowning, and in his temporary blindness, he felt a hoof connect with his right shoulder.

He was flung backwards as an incredibly loud cracking sound registered in his mind as his own bones shattering, and he found himself skidding on his back away from the main herd. His haunch still burned terribly, but this new wound sent waves of immobilizing, mind-numbing agony surging through his system. For a long second, Kiva could not think.

‘And you will die if they do.’

He could almost hear Athuta’s voice as his vision blurred; the thunder of pounding hooves rumbled up from the ground to rattle his body.

‘And you will die if they do…’

The danger of his current position was driven home as Kiva saw a hoof descending — should it connect, it would crush his skull instantly. A messy but swift death. Green eyes flew open and the male jerked out of the way, slashing a shallow but painful furrow into his attacker’s heavy muzzle as he shoved himself upright. A broken shoulder blade would slow him, but the pain had already begun to become a way of life, a background noise that was hindering, but tolerable. It drowned out the burning of the flap of skin that still hung from his haunch.

He blinked once to clear the red tinges (sheens of spilt Helk blood) from his vision, then focused in on his target. The old one was on his knees, moaning loudly as crimson bubbles began to appear around his mouth and wide nostrils, popping with quiet, death-like sounds. Kiva snarled; he could not let such a formidable beast die in misery and in dishonor.

The male lunged forward, screaming in shock as the first step caused the two splintered halves of his shoulderblade to scrape together, but the next strides only allowed the grinding to become another background noise. There was a mission to be completed, and pain was not on the agenda.

‘But you are a skilled fool, and I believe you will succeed.’

One strike of a gore-coated tailblade ended the elder’s pain, and another Koratian hunting scream unnerved the younger Helks enough that they did not attack. Kiva held himself upright through sheer willpower, narrow muzzle jerking to look at the herd. Only three or four bucks were still close — the rest had wisely moved off, as Korats usually hunted in packs. They feared that the tan had kindred nearby, and he was better off for the assumption.

Kiva drew breath and screamed again, putting more enraged madness into this bone-grating, heart-clawing sound, and the remaining Helk began to retreat, perhaps fearing attack, or perhaps just realizing that the kill was made and they could do no more. The tan watched until he was sure that they would not attack again, and then, he struck one last time. His blade sank deeply into the still-warm flesh and carved a deep gorge into the Helk’s flank, and the male poked his muzzle in the gaping wound, nosing around until, eyes squeezed shut, he found his reward.

To the hunter goes the heart.

Narrow jaws and razor-sharp teeth gripped the massive muscle and painstakingly pulled it from its nest between deflating lungs. He held it in his mouth for a long moment, the weight pulling his head down, before he dropped it at his forepaws and threw his muzzle back to howl triumphantly. As he plunged his foreclaws into the bleeding organ, he heard Athuta’s acknowledging warble echo across the lands, and he grinned before devouring his prize.