Ptolian twilight scattered soft purple rays across a curious scene. Scout and Spy Troop members huddled in near invisibility, their skins so closely matching soft half-light that any eye would be fooled from more than a short distance. Quaran the Sudden led last minute council, having aided Azanus in training this tiny contingent in record time.
Planning at this point was simple. In threes, they would penetrate in-jungle a limited distance, hoping to spot and observe one or more enemy warriors. Surveillance would of itself tell them what to do after that. Quaran did find himself puzzled about language: It was reported to be no different for junglers than for Ptolians, save a slight accent. He could not know the original colony had been implanted with Ptolian language, nor would he have believed such a thing. Ptolia was in her own version of a Copper Age, or Dwapara Yuga, wherein beings grew savage of temper and manufactured weapons with which to destroy their neighbors. Such a sword-bound culture had little time for other thoughts.
All nine Clansas surveyed the dark, grim wall of tangled trees and undergrowth that confronted them. Stalwart Spies they were, all of them. SST leadership considered them elite; individual and collective pride and friendship welded them into something far greater than their sum as individuals.
At last it was full dark. Their Screens on, they entered the jungle. Blackness unknown to Ptolian eyes enveloped them. Sounds unknown to Ptolian ears assaulted straining senses, along with odors of many strange new things. Quaran blinked eyes hat had never experienced such impenetrable blackness. Thankfulness darted through him that he did not have to rely on eyes alone in this place of huge, invisible, threatening shapes sensed only dimly. Ears were some help, and nose, but most of all he sensed life emanations from beings all around him. There was the cold, scaly wave of a giant serpent, and there a warm blooded, furry carnivore. Many flesh eating plants and venomous insects, mostly unfamiliar and far larger than any existing outside this Stygian hell.
Adrenaline pumped in his system, stress emanations pouring from his body only to be absorbed immediately by his Screen. But for individual Screens, not one of his squad would be functional at this moment; it was life itself to realize none of these jungle creatures could sense their passing.
Ground travel soon became impossible. They climbed carefully, cautiously, plains dwellers not accustomed to arboreal travel. Quaran flashed back in his mind, remembering moments as an unnamed young boy when he had climbed fruit grove trees. Small comparison between that and this! Monstrous hardwoods reached skyward for lengths upon lengths, festooned with interwoven branches, creepers, and other live things.
Roughly eighty feet from ground level, things abruptly changed. There were fewer vines above, no dense tangle such as lower levels had shown. This had to be a forest highway. “I have done this before!” The low and entirely involuntary exclamation from their leader brought Tinong and Kalil scrambling upward to Quaran’s branch, touching him in silent question. He signaled back: It is nothing. He could not explain his experience; he didn’t understand it himself.
Preoccupied with his thoughts, he almost stepped squarely on the head of a great tree-hanging serpent thrice his own length. Great Ptolia! Had he made actual physical contact with such a beast at night, high above ground, survival of his Trio would have been in serious question. Attention again riveted to task-at-hand, he led his followers around the snake and deeper, ever deeper into enemy territory.
At midnight, they felt the first Jindanian emanation. It came from a tree to their right, low and strong, a vibration bespeaking alertness coupled with relaxation and confidence. Carefully, the Trio moved closer. Ah, yes. Easy, now. Sort out each wave. Good. Young he is, brave, full of physical strength, courage, and immense loyalty to his chief. Quaran felt for the hands of Tinong and Kalil, signaling rapidly that here was a suitable object for their surveillance.
For three days, they studied their prey and his village. Off duty, he took his meals at a medium sized hut shared by four children, a handsome Jindana female, and an older couple showing signs of senility. Observed were color, form, voice, family relations, clothing, even words of worship. Battles between warriors and jungle beasts were witnessed, Quaran’s group munching edible herbs and making mental notes. Of greatest interest were the powerful bows and Jindanian efficiency with them, be the archer male or female.
One steamy morning, their original contact came to relieve his fellow sentry and found only a vacant perch. Immediately on guard, he suddenly sensed his friend’s Death Pattern. Simultaneously, a throwing dagger whizzed at him. He spun, catching the blade in his right side rather than his stomach. His short sword flashed in rays of mottled purple sunlight, the war cry of Jinda’s people breaking from his lips. Too late. A long sword struck swiftly from behind a foliage screen.
Carose of Jinda, father of four, toppled from the perch. He had a strange sense of watching himself fall, blood streaming in wavering spurts as his body crashed and bounced in its downward plunge. Odd. There was no pain. Almost it seemed as if it didn’t matter.
By midmorning, Quaran’s Trio reached the outer jungle border. Tinong and Kalil each carried a compact bundle strapped on the bearer’s back. Bow, arrow, and sword would not fit nicely; these they wore slung over one shoulder. There was a wait of perhaps a mark before the trios of Duremo and Sankoe emerged from forest edge with similar bloodstained bundles, moving at a strong lope.
There was little time to lose; Screens could not be maintained much longer.