The iridescent carapace split down the middle, dividing the insectile form into two symmetrical halves. It revealed a bone white surface that glistened wetly in the flickering torchlight. A row of fussing mandibles, three dozen clicking splinters, tapped out a soft cacophony that made Eld’s skin crawl.
“What if it smells us?” Gob hissed at his side. Eld fought the urge to cuff his companion’s feathered head.
Eld knit his brows together in consternation. “They don’t got noses to smell with. Can’t say naught about ears, though.”
The creature was worming its way out of its old skin, its ghostly body pulsing as grotesque knots of muscle bunched and relaxed, each pulse shucking off more of the transparent shell.
“How long does this take?” Gob asked.
“How many times have you seen me harvest reaper skin, Gob?” Eld asked in a low hiss. He considered retreating further back down the passage, but there was the chance that the molting would snag and get carried away with its former owner. They had to wait and observe.
“Never?” Gob asked.
“And how long have we been together?”
Gob started counting on his talons and Eld finally lost his patience. He cuffed the little man hard enough to make his eyes cross.
“We’ve not been a moment apart in the last thirty turns, and if you think I’d snuck off while you were sleeping to study the biology of reapers, or had somehow gained such through a series of secret signs while dealing with other hunters, then you’re denser than onyx moonstone. By the gods, of all the partners I could have chosen!”
Gob rubbed the back of head and looked genuinely hurt for a moment, then screwed up his face in a look that was both rageful and adorable. “A simple ‘I don’t know’ would’ve done just fine, thank you very much.”
“Hush now, it’s done.” They turned their attention back to the wriggling reaper, now free from its old skin. It looked like it was resting, coiling and uncoiling its lower half in a slow, breathy rhythm. “The torch,” Eld snapped.
Gob fished his flint out from one of the many pockets that fronted his engineer’s tunic and struck a spark against the rough stone of the wall. The reaper flinched and stopped undulating.
“With speed now, Gob,” Eld said, and the creature’s head snapped upright and turned like a periscope, the larger sets of mandibles near its end snapping the air with a sudden vicious hunger.
Gob stuck the flint harder and faster, sending showers of sparks flashing down onto the tarred head of the torch. The creature swayed, zeroed in on the sound coming from the tunnel, and pushed forward, its wormy body pulsing closer with uncanny speed.
The torch caught light with fiery violence, blossoming into a yellow orange fireball that singed the two men’s hair and feathers with equal lack of prejudice. Then Gob was brandishing the light like a sword, swinging it in wide cautionary arcs before him as he advanced toward the approaching reaper.
I’ll never fault him for his bravery, Eld thought, and watched as the reaper drew up short, its rear end skidding to a halt in a jumble of wet coils.
“Back!” Gob shouted, stabbing at the monstrosity with the torch. The creature hissed and reared, knocking its head against the tunnel ceiling and sending a shower of dirt and pieces of root down on its raw new skin. It wailed, a keening sound like a cricket holding a single high note for an uncomfortable length of time. Then it turned and snaked back the way it had come.
The two men followed and entered the hollow where the reaper had molted. Its skin lay stacked in a neat pile under the torch they’d planted hours before as a lure. Eld took a silken bag from his rucksack and slipped it over the skin, then stowed it away.
“There, that wasn’t so bad now, was it?” Eld asked and turned to his partner. “Easy money.”
Gob wasn’t grinning or nodding in agreement. His beak had gone as white as the new skin of the reaper they’d just chased away. His avian eyes were wide and quivering. That’s when Eld heard them, the clicking and chittering march of hundreds—nay, thousands—of rushing insectile legs. A veritable army of young reapers was boiling up the tunnel toward them.
“Maybe not so easy, then.” Eld sighed and drew his wand.
2014.10.20 – 2023.06.11