Chapter 1: An Interrupted Ride

By Derrick Crowe
October 27, 2022

Kava stared at the giant, fresh pawprint on the forest floor, and she knew she may have made her son an orphan.

Five minutes before, her scouting partner, Deveret, had woken her in her tent with a rough jab of his hand into her shoulder.

“You miscalculated,” he said. “We have to start back. Now.”

Wincing and hissing between her teeth, Kava rolled over and up onto her elbow. A cold drizzle tapped at the tarp above her. “What the–” she started, blinking away a deep sleep. “What are you on about?”

Deveret squatted at the foot of her bedroll, beard damp from the precipitation. He fished an amulet from under his tunic and coat and tugged at the strap that held it around his neck. “You miscalculated, and we have to start back.”

Rolling back to face him, she let incredulity twist her face. “What do you mean ‘miscalculated’?” She felt around for her own amulet, made from the same milky white crystal as his, and held it up. The faint glow of it pulsed gently in the pre-dawn light.

“Get up,” Deveret said, tucking his crystal away. “I’ll show you.” He started walking away without waiting. Kava scrambled–groggily–to free herself from the bedroll and follow. She plucked an unused torch from her pack and lit it in the fading embers of their campfire, then hustled after him. Her horse bobbed its dark head at her as she passed, then nuzzled its pale companion.

“Wait up!” she called at his shadow ahead. He didn’t.

She pulled the hood of her coat up over her hair, a useless gesture given that it was already damp from the morning mist. Still, her coat reminded her of home, a worksweave fabric that kept her dry even in a real rainstorm. Deveret eschewed worksweave and wore an actual leather coat when in the wild, an affectation that irritated her. She was so engrossed in grumpy thoughts about his use of animal skins for clothing that she almost ran into his back when he stopped without warning. “Here,” he said. “Look.”

She stepped around him, peering between the trees.

“No, the ground,” Deveret grumbled. He snatched the torch from her and held it higher, illuminating a muddy patch on the ground.

Pawprints, she saw. Big ones.

“Whatever it is, it’s large,” Deveret said.

“Obviously,” she said, walking around the impressions in the mud.

“It tried several times, looks like. One initial approach before it hit the limit–you can see where it jumped back–then it paced a bit before trying again, and again.” Deveret handed the torch back to her. “I’d say it was pretty hungry, to risk getting stung that many times. And it was quiet–I never heard a yelp or a cry, and I don’t think the horses noticed either.”

“What is it?” Kava asked, looking at one six-toed paw print larger than her own foot.

“I don’t know,” he said, scanning the trees around them. “I’ve never seen prints like these.”

Her eyes widened as she finally caught Deveret’s point. “How many paces from camp is this?”

“Less than a hundred,” he said, putting something chewable from his belt pouch into his mouth. “The protected area is shrinking. Which means, again, that you miscalculated, and we have to start heading home.”


“Kava,” he said, annoyed.

“We can’t leave yet! We still have a lot of ground to cover.”

“Kava,” he said, swallowing whatever it was he was eating.

“If one of those passes is open–”

“Kava! We are not going to make contact with anyone, not with the time we have left.” He laid his hand on his chest where his clothing hid his amulet. “We are out of time. You see the size of those paws, right? Once the protection fails, we are not going to be able to defend ourselves against whatever that is, not to mention every other bloodthirsty thing out here. Someone else is going to have to come back with a longer charge and a lot more people to look for an eastern passage. We have to go home, now.” He brushed past her, headed back toward camp without waiting to hear her response.

She turned back to the muddy mess of prints for a moment and squatted down to look at them. Panic twisted in her gut, and she thought of her son. With his father gone already, he’d be alone after this star-twisted monster got her. For a moment the only sounds in the dim woods were a couple of birds calling about the impending sunrise, Deveret’s stomping feet, and the gentle hiss and pop of her torch. Then her eyes narrowed as her reason returned to her, and she stood up.

“One of the passes is open,” she yelled over her shoulder.

The stomping footsteps paused, and she heard a deep sigh. “What?” Dev called back. Footsteps began again, squishing towards her now.

“It’s open,” she said as he walked up behind her.

“What are you talking about?” he said. “You don’t know that. We haven’t seen any–”

“You said you don’t know what kind of animal this is.”


“So,” she said, turning to face him. “You’ve been out here a lot. More than probably any other scout. And nobody has read more about this area’s wildlife than I did when I was preparing to come with you.”

“I don’t see how–”

She pointed back to the pawprints. “Those aren’t from any animal we’ve seen out here, and they don’t belong to any creature recorded by previous explorers. It’s new here. It came from the other side of the mountains.”

“Kava,” Deveret said, shaking his head and rubbing his black beard, “It could just be that it’s rare, or a freak of nature, or any number of other explanations. Maybe it came up from the south. There is no way you can know for sure that it came from the other side of the mountains.”

“There is,” she said, brushing past him this time and heading for the camp. “We can go have a look.” After a few steps, she said, “You start packing up camp. I’ll find food.”

Twenty minutes later, she had made a slow half-circle around the raised area where they had camped, her amulet now resting on its strap outside her shirt and jacket, its pale, slow pulses of light less visible as sunrise progressed. Doing her best to stay inside the distance where their unseen stalker had been turned back by their campsite’s protection, she searched the ground for suitable material, occasionally stifling a yawn and rubbing tired eyes. The excitement about the predator had thrown off their morning routine, and she felt the need for her morning stimulant more than normal. Just as her mind began to wander to pleasant thoughts of her husband’s morning brew back home, she noticed a thick layer of creeper vine that had overwhelmed a set of trees at the edge of camp. “Aha,” she said with a smile. “You’ll do.”

Thankful for the thick gloves she brought with her, she felt around the base of the prickly tangle for a thick set of roots and stems and gave a good yank to free it from the ground, then produced a knife from her belt to cut a large section away from the mat of stems and leaves. Turning back to camp, she took two steps and stopped as a bird call she didn’t recognize pierced the other sounds of the waking forest. Three descending notes, repeated twice in a low register. Another call answered, deeper into the woods. She listened for a few more moments. When no other calls came, she resumed her short walk back to the other alien noises under the boughs: the continuous string of grouchy noises that was Deveret taking down the camp.

“Did you hear those birds?” Kava asked as she rummaged through one of the packs, looking for her cookpot.

“What birds?” Deveret asked as he pulled out the last of the tent stakes.

She did her best to mimic what she’d heard, but she wasn’t a great whistler.

“Nope,” he said, dropping a jumble of stakes into a bag. He eyed the stems and roots in her hand. “That’s going to be too bitter.”

“It’ll be fine,” she said, throwing the plant material into the cookpot. “You just need to learn how to do it better.” She nodded her head to his amulet. “Ready?”

He blew his lips out in a long sigh and nodded.

Standing over the pot, she held her amulet out and closed her eyes. She felt Deveret go still as well. For a moment, she heard only the sounds of the diurnal animals around them beginning their day. Then a sound like rushing water filled her ears, and Deveret’s mental music joined hers, a nonvocal set of notes rising and falling, and the forest fell away. Morning light became a soft twilight. Trees and rocks faded into a fog around them lit like the gloaming. In the cookpot, the creeper vines curled inward and their material popped and hissed, transforming first into a bubbly greenish gel, then into an earth-colored slurry. She made a few practiced alterations of her inner song, and in a matter of seconds, what had been creeper vines coalesced into a set of  four warm, golden-brown squares. A smell like frying oil wafted up from the pot. When she opened her eyes and returned to the forest, she caught Deveret licking his lips.

“Breakfast is ready.”

A fading ringing in the air caught her attention. “And don’t forget the stinger.”

Deveret walked over to a hand-length narrow wedge made from the same material as their amulets that was driven halfway into the ground next to the campfire. The object had picked up a glow as well as a musical vibration as Kava prepared the food, but both faded quickly. Deveret pulled it free. “Much good may it do us,” he grumbled, and they both eyed the trees for a moment as they felt the protection around the camp wink out.


As the day ripened, Deveret and Kava rode out of the woods and onto the rocky foothills that lay near the westward-jutting spur of mountains they had been working their way around for two days. Though the air felt cold on their faces, the signs of a thaw were everywhere. Small springs bubbled out of the hillsides, and here and there sinkholes warned of the ice in the frozen ground giving way. All of it gave Kava hope that the glacier they expected to find on the other side of the spur had retreated far enough to open the passes to the other side of the mountain range.

The two made an agreement: They would spend one more day exploring the next valley over. If, as Kava suspected, they found a way through, they would note it on the map and make their way back to Cathon, their city, and either prepare for another expedition or send others to plunge ahead. And if they found no way through, they would note that as well and return home, their mission a failure. But either way, they had only one more camp to make before they turned homeward.

“You know you can just ask,” Deveret said, riding ahead of her. “I saw you looking at ‘em while we were breaking camp.”

“Huh?” Kava said. She’d been thinking about her calculations just then.

“My clothes,” he said, half-turning on his mount.

“Ah,” she answered. “I was just wondering what possessed you to make your traveling clothes out of animal hide when the Works could just create some for you without that…mess.”

“Where’s the fun in that?” he said, turning back around.

Kava wrinkled her nose in disgust. “Surely you don’t find all that killing and skinning fun.”

Deveret rode silently for a moment before answering. “No, not really. Actually I find it kind of–unpleasant.”

“So why do it then?”

“Because I want to do it myself,” he said. “We have everything figured out back home. It’s easy. I just like to figure out how we’d do things if we didn’t have all that to rely on.”

“So you kill and skin animals for the challenge?”

“That’s one way of putting it,” he said, his tone suggesting he was sorry he started the conversation.

Kava was about to prod Deveret further when three descending notes pierced the air, this time very close. “That’s the bird–”

“Hush,” Deveret said, pulling his horse up. The second repetition of the three-note pattern sounded like it was very near to their left, though neither of them could see a bird in the trees or rocks nearby. They waited for a bit, both scanning the landscape around them, but after a while they gave up and resumed their ride.

“Do you know what kind of bird that is?” Kava asked.

“Nope,” Deveret answered. “Never heard it before in my life.”

By noon, they made their turn to the north to circle around the tip of the mountain spur. The foothills were easy riding; Deveret estimated they would round their main obstacle by mid-afternoon and have a clear view of the state of the glacier. They had suffered a brief scare midmorning, during which Deveret led them too close to a small stream with soft banks. His horse’s hoof pressed down into soft clay, and a chunk of ground gave way, causing his mount to stumble badly and nearly dismounting him. Neither horse nor rider was injured, however.

“Ha, this time I miscalculated,” he said, needling her. She half-smiled but didn’t laugh.

“And anyway,” Deveret said later as he led them into a new patch of trees, “it’s not like I’m anti-Works or something.”

Kava blinked as she recaught his chain of thought related to his garb after hours of not talking about it. “This is kinda bothering you more than it is me. Have you been stewing about this all day?”

“My worksweave stuff is in my saddlebags,” he continued, ignoring her. “The minute the leather isn’t practical I’ll swap it back out for the homemade stuff.” He ducked a low-hanging branch and patted his horse’s neck as he did so. “I just like figuring this stuff out like our ancestors did, you know?”

“Sure,” she mumbled. Deveret’s mention of figuring things out slid her right back into her own thoughts. How had she miscalculated the charge needed for their traveling gear?

Their amulets powered the camp spike and a few other items they carried with them, and the amulets took their charge from the Works in Cathon. A traveler would be mad to face the wilds without that protection, and it required one to calculate how much of a charge to take during the community’s nightly gatherings. This wasn’t the first time Kava had handled traveling gear, and she’d done this calculation dozens of times in her life–correctly. She knew she had come to the gathering with the correct number of travel days. What had she done wrong? She had been picking at the problem all day in her head.

His horse’s hoof pressed down into soft clay–

“I didn’t miscalculate,” she blurted. “There’s something wrong with–”

A loud WOW! filled her ears as a heavy mass slammed into her from the right, flattening her horse and flinging her against a large rock. A crunch numbed her left arm as bones broke, and her vision blurred as her head bounced on the stone. Deveret shouted as his horse tried to bolt, and her horse’s own scream was drowned by another bellowing WOW. She could make out something like a burly cat almost as big as her horse leaping on her downed animal, and the horse kicked once and went silent. A huge feline face rose from the wreck of her animal. It had three eyes, one on the left, two set closely together on the right, set around a snout filled with wicked teeth. It lashed a forked tail in excitement.

Kava fumbled with her good arm for her amulet, but her limb was weak and shaky. As her vision faded further, she heard a loud “Hya!” from Deveret as he mastered his horse and drove it forward. He’d yanked a shortsword free and meant to charge the creature.

The thing spun and rose on its back legs, swatting huge, six-toed claws into his horse’s face and neck. The horse reared and kicked, but the cat drove up and forward with its hindlegs, toppling the horse backwards and following it down for the kill. Deveret sprang out of the saddle and rolled to the side, losing his weapon in the scramble. He lunged to get between Kava and their assailant, now also fumbling in his own shirt for his amulet. As the creature gave the pale horse a final shake, Deveret spared a look at Kava, who now held her milky white crystal aloft in a trembling hand. She could barely make out his face.

“Together,” he said. His voice sounded far away.

Their view of the forest darkened again, the misty borders of the Works vision shifting them back into gloaming light. Here the cat burned, bright with life and aggression, while the light of the horse in its jaws faded to darkness. The traveling pair’s mental music rose instantly, fast and fierce, and their crystals flared with power. The cat sprang back, howling, but did not run, squaring its forepaws and dipping its head low, fighting against the wave of pain thrown at it by its intended prey. It took another step back, and then another, but then the vision ended and they were back in the midday woods. The power was gone for good.

Kava fought to stay awake. She felt Deveret fall back against the rock next to her, panting. She heard a scraping noise as he fumbled for a rock and gripped it to his chest, ready for one last, futile effort, and he looked at her. She looked back in terror.

The sound of the beast’s paws kicking up pebbles drew her gaze. All she could make out was a predatory shape leaping forward with an open, bloody mouth. This is it, she thought.

Steps from its cornered prey, the cat was driven to the ground, hard. It yelped and coughed black blood. A long shaft like a giant porcupine quill protruded high into the air from where it pierced the beast behind a shoulder, but she could not see the tip, which had been driven into the ground and snapped off by the creature’s forward momentum. One more long sigh, and the beast fell forward, dead. Its chin landed on Deveret’s boot.

Just as her vision failed, she saw a silhouette of a person jumping down from a rock on the other side of the body of her horse. It ran towards them, whistling three descending notes, which were answered by another set of notes deeper into the woods, and then another.

“Dev,” she said as the forest spun away. “Something is wrong with the Works.”

Night fell hard.

This chapter is part of Wonderworks, an ongoing book draft.