* * *
The night gets so dark in the forest near Yellowstone that it's like the world ended and left nothing behind but zombies and werewolves and vampires from Dad's scary campfire stories. Those stories are a lot more fun when they don't come true.
We weren't camping in Yellowstone itself because we arrived in the area too late to get a backcountry camping permit for that night. Dad knows a place set back off the road that winds up to the park from Cody. We're not supposed to camp there, but in the outdoors Dad isn't one much for rules. It was August and the official campgrounds had too many people in them. But sometimes, it's best not to be alone at night.
We pitched our tents on our lonely little campsite -- Mom and Dad in one tent, me and ten-year-old Kaysa in the other -- and after a couple of Dad's scary stories, we went to sleep.
They attacked us in the middle of the night.
They weren't human, that's for sure; flying out of the sky like that in a rush of fur and wings. They ripped our tents right out of the ground with shrieks and whoops and cheers like they'd just won the Super Bowl. I couldn't see them well since our campfire was almost out and the moonlight struggled to get through the dense leaves overhead. When the tent was ripped away I reached out to take Kaysa's hand, but they had already got her. I heard Kaysa shrieking in the dark sky above me. Mom and Dad screamed at each other for help, and then just screamed.
I rolled. I still had on my flannel shirt and jeans because it gets cold at night up here, even in the summer. My sleeping bag gave me some protection from sharp rocks as I rolled down the slope, but I knew I'd get bruises anyway. I slid my bag and me under some brush to hide. When I was sure they couldn't see me, I looked up.
Every hair on my body prickled up like cactus needles. I saw seven or eight of them, with grey fur and black wings and ears nearly as big as the furry heads they sat on. Each one of them carried a spear, though the ones who held my family had left their spears in leather slings over their shoulders.
They spoke in clicks and shrill whistles. One of them shrugged, knowing one of us had got away but not too concerned about it. Then they flew off, angling toward the northwest as they vanished through the tree canopy. Kaysa was sobbing so hard she could no longer scream.
Everyone tells you vampires don't exist. Everyone is full of shit.
* * *
My name's Anders Quist, but most kids call me Andrew. I'm twelve and cute enough so lots of girls get crushes on me, which is pretty funny when you think about it. Until about ten minutes ago, I used to love camping. When I ran back up the hill, the campfire had been all kicked out. I've always hated the dark. Now I had a reason.
I stood still for a minute and listened. I heard the bat-creatures' clicks and hoots fade fast toward the northwest. I pulled on my boots and found my LED flashlight and my Boy Scout knife. I ran to the remains of my parents' tent and tried to find my dad's big knife. But the knife wasn't there and I didn't have time to look for it. I ran across the camp and down another short hill to the path where Dad parked the camper. Even with the flashlight my body shook from the feel of darkness all around me. On a trailer behind the camper were two dirt bikes and a Harley. One of the dirt bikes was Dad's and the smaller one was mine. We were teaching Kaysa how to ride on my bike. I unchained my bike and slipped it out from between Dad's bike and Mom's Harley, rolled it to the ground, and got it started after three tries.
Wind whistled in the leaves above me. I rode out to the highway, stopped, and marked the stars. It was totally unfair that the bat-creatures could fly and I was stuck in the ground, but as Dad liked to say, the unfair was just a carnival that made you sad instead of happy. That was about the dumbest thing I ever heard, but I would have killed to hear Dad say something stupid to me right now, just to have him back. I gunned my bike and headed west. Of course my bike had a headlamp. How else would I be able to see out here in the black-as-coal Wyoming night?
I was going toward the eastern entrance of Yellowstone. The rangers probably wouldn't let me in on a dirt bike, but that didn't matter. I wasn't sure how I'd convince the rangers to help me rescue my family from giant bats, but I'd think of something.
* * *
We're all from near Omaha, living in a house in the country with lots of land because Mom is a horse trainer. Dad's a sales manager in some office in Omaha. We spend lots of time outdoors. I've been in Boy Scouts and I know how to take care of myself in the wild. But I liked the outdoors less as I got older, and that was even before tonight. Dad wondered why I'd taken to doing so much reading lately. Hey, at least I read outdoors, down by the creek to hide from Kaysa or out at the paddock keeping Mom's horses company. There's something Dad doesn't know about me yet, and I'm gonna tell him pretty soon. But the next thing I wanna ask him is why nowhere in all of my Ranger Rick training did we think to talk about dangerous flying bat-people?
My long blond hair whipped back in the wind while I rode, and I realized I'd forgotten my helmet. Too late now. I stuck to the road until it started to bank too far to the southwest. I stopped on the shoulder. This was mountain country; hard to ride off-road and easy to lose your way. At night it was worse, and I wasn't gonna be much help to my family if I got dead.
I cut the engine and listened. High off in the distant northwest, amplified by echoes off the mountains, I heard a scream. You might think "bird," but I knew my sister's voice. Whatever kind of beasts those grey bastards were, I wasn't about to let them hurt Kaysa.
I kick-started my bike again and took her off-road, into the woods.
I couldn't go too fast in the dark or I really would wind up dead. I wished I'd worn my jacket. I ride all the time, but this rough ground made me feel like all my bones were gonna shake apart and fall off behind me. Careful, damn it; got going too fast and almost ran into a tree and -- shit!
I laid down the bike before I hit the kid, crawled out from under it fast, and stood up. In the headlight he looked like one of those aliens that kidnap people, except this one had small eyes, almost human, and wings. Giant bat wings. He looked my age and height, though his half-folded wings rose high above his head. I knew it was a "he" because his grey fur didn't quite cover everything. He had one of those leather spear slings that looped off his shoulder and across his chest like a merit badge sash, but he carried his spear in his hands. The spear was a wooden pole topped with a nasty-looking serrated steel tip. He crouched low and pointed the tip up at me, toward my belly. And then he hissed. I kinda doubt he was saying "hello."
My heart hammered like a bike with a bad motor, but I wasn't gonna rescue anyone if I chickened out now. So I said to the bat-kid, "You took my family."
The bat kid clicked and whistled at me, and shook his head.
I said, "Where did you take them?"
More clicks and whistles. Does this kid really think I know his weird language?
"I don't understand," I said. He made more clicks and whistles, and I stepped forward. "I said, I don't understand!"
The bat-kid lunged toward me and laid the sharp, jagged edge of the spear-tip against the side of my neck. The metal was cold, and I flinched. He put his face close to mine, and sniffed at me. His head was a little bigger than mine, and his face ... His forehead sloped down in one plane into his nose and jaw, and for some reason the shape reminded me of a coconut. His face looked more animal than human. His eyes were my size but seemed bigger because all that showed were iris and pupil like a shiny black eight-ball. And he had enormous, rounded-triangle ears atop his head. And fangs, oh god; two long fangs that showed even with his mouth closed, the sharp tips resting softly in the fur under his lips. The rest of him looked sorta human-ish except for his feet, like a rat's feet but huge. Everything from the top of his ears to the tufted tip of his long tail was covered in grey fur, except for the leathery skin of his bat-wings.
He hissed again, right in my face. I didn't dare move. Then he spoke.
"I understand," the bat-kid said, and he sniffed me again.
"Uh ... understand what?" I said.
"Fresh human blood. The smell of it. How it must taste going down, all hot and tangy and bittersweet, like under-ripe berries. I understand why my brother flies with the Kybk'kyq'ont'n."
"Night people. Rebels. They think they're different than the rest of us. Better than us. We Naztak'kyq'ont'n have struggled for ages to subdue our desire for human blood. I'm twelve, and I've never tasted it. We feed only on livestock now. It keeps us alive, but ... my older brother Ez'njokt'n wants more. His friends, the Kybk'kyq'ont'n, say that the rest of us are betrayers. That humans were put in our world for us to feed on."
I shook my head, not entirely sure that this wasn't just a really vivid nightmare. "So ... you're a ... a ... "
"Naztak'kyq'ont'n," the kid said. "Bat-people, in your tongue. Sometimes ... " He giggled, for cryin' out loud. "In your mythology you give us human bodies and call us 'vampires.' "
Oh ... shit.
"I'm Sa'alyat'n," the bat-kid said. "You are?"
"My ... my name's Anders ... Quist. Anders Quist."
"You want to kill my brother, Anders Quist?"
"N-no ... "
"I can smell that you do. You're angry and afraid, a bad combination for those of your tribe."
"Did your brother take my family?"
Sa'alyat'n stood up straight and pulled the spear away from my neck. "He did."
I raised two fists and held them up toward Sa'alyat'n's face. "Then you'd better take me to him right now!"
Sa'alyat'n gave a soft whistle, and three more bat-people dropped gently from the surrounding trees. These three were adults, and carried even bigger spears. One of them slid his spear into its sling, down his back between his wings, and took hold of my upper arms from behind.
I struggled and kicked, but stirred up nothing but dirt. I couldn't help it; I started to cry.
"You're gonna kill all of us, aren't you?" I said. "Or do we become like you when you feed from us?"
Sa'alyat'n laughed. "Silly myths, Anders Quist. 'The undead.' We Naztak'kyq'ont'n are very much alive. And soon your family will be very much dead."
Goddamn it, I shouldn't blubber like I did. But I did.
"You listen not to what I said, Anders Quist," Sa'alyat'n said. "The Kybk'kyq'ont'n are bad. They break our laws and stain our honor. We Naztak'kyq'ont'n -- the real name of our people -- we don't want our disgruntled rebels to kill your family. But first we must plan."
I was jerked off the ground by the bat-person behind me. We rose through the air, and tree leaves whipped my face as we passed. I stopped blubbering and the wind quickly dried my eyes. The cold made me shiver.
"My name is P'yta'ak'n," said the bat-person carrying me. "Struggling will only make me drop you."
"Not ... s-struggling," I said. "I'm c-cold."
"Wrap your legs behind you, Anders Quist. Around my thighs. There." P'yta'ak'n wrapped his arms around my chest. "It is not a long flight."
P'yta'ak'n's body heat helped warm my body. Moonlight reflected off the treetops below us like chips of silver glass. Sa'alyat'n and the other two bat-people flew with us.
I said to Sa'alyat'n, "Where are we going?"
"To meet my family," he said, and then all four Naztak'kyq'ont'n were silent the rest of the way.
* * *
Sa'alyat'n's family was part of a whole tribe of bat people. They live in caves. Dad likes caves. I hate caves, and no matter how much Dad begs, I won't go cave-diving with him. I don't like the dark and I don't like enclosed places. Put the two together and you can forget about me following you in there. So I was really glad the Naztak'kyq'ont'n had fires burning in their caves when we arrived.
Sa'alyat'n told his tribe what had happened. He witnessed the whole attack on our camp by his brother Ez'njokt'n and friends. After Sa'alyat'n spoke, the grown-up Naztak'kyq'ont'n gathered around their main fire to discuss what to do. The bat-people were silhouetted against the flames with their slender, furred bodies and slightly egg-shaped heads. I saw veins revealed by firelight through the thin membranes of their wings. Sa'alyat'n and I sat off to the side. I wasn't sure if he was being friendly or if he was making sure I didn't try to run away.
Sa'alyat'n pointed to a tall, adult bat-person who spoke to several other members of the tribe.
"That's my dad," Sa'alyat'n said. "N'njan'ko. He's our leader. That means he has to enforce the laws, and when a Naztak'kyq'ont'n attacks a human, the penalty is death."
I said, "So your brother has to die?"
Sa'alyat'n lowered his head and nodded. Close to the fire his two younger sisters played near their mother.
Sa'alyat'n said, "My brother Ez'njokt'n is sixteen. He formed the Kybk'kyq'ont'n. Sort of what you'd call a gang. He claims that our only real blood quarry is humans. The rebels have been threatening for months to 'return to the ways of our ancestors' and feed off humans again. That's why on some nights I've been shadowing Ez'njokt'n, to see what he and his friends would do. Tonight they made their move."
"But why us?" I said. "What did we ever do to your people?"
"Nothing. You were attacked because you were alone, a good target."
I bet we never camp by ourselves again. I fidgeted with rocks on the ground in front of me. The grown-ups kept talking and talking in their clicks and whistles like they were planning their next vacation or something.
"Shouldn't we, like, go rescue my family now?" I said.
Sa'alyat'n shrugged. "The council is trying to decide if it's worth it."
"Worth it?" I started to stand up. "Your brother and his band of punks have got my mom and dad and my sister, and you're trying to decide if it's worth it?"
Sa'alyat'n pulled on my arm and made me sit down again. His eyes were wet and frightened.
"If you family is harmed, Anders Quist," he said, "my brother must die. Do you understand?"
"Sort of. Do you agree with what your brother is doing?"
"No. It's just ... I love him. He taught me all I know. He's wrong about this gang of his but ... I can't make him see that."
"I'm sorry," I said, "but how much time do we have?"
"Ages ago," Sa'alyat'n said, "the Naztak'kyq'ont'n simply attacked people where they found them, and fed. But Ez'njokt'n and his friends have devised some ritual to connect the whole sucking-human-blood thing with our ancestors. There's time. You're lucky. In the old days, none of you would have got out of your camp alive."
* * *
The decision was made. I was given a spear and a sling to carry it. I wanted to go back for my bike, but Sa'alyat'n laughed at me.
"Why do you want to crawl about on the ground," he said, "when you can fly?"
I looked at the bat-people, very aware that I didn't have wings like them, and said, "Because I don't wanna get dropped."
P'yta'ak'n carried me again, close underneath him while he flew. He had a tight hold on me, and I kinda liked the warm feel of it. I looked over at Sa'alyat'n flying close by and wished he were strong enough to carry me like this.
There were about twenty or so bat-people in our rescue party. N'njan'ko led the attack. I was kind of surprised they let Sa'alyat'n and me go along, but he told me that boys and girls our age are considered to be warriors in training.
We all landed silently at the mouth of a cave high above the forest top. Sa'alyat'n told me this was the hideaway of the Kybk'kyq'ont'n. P'yta'ak'n set me down on the ground while the rest of the bat-people clung to the walls with their clawed hands and feet, and the big talon on the top of each wing, just like bats have. Sa'alyat'n held on to the wall sort of upside-down beside me, and we all listened for noises in the cave. I heard nothing, but the bat-people? Look at those huge ears and tell me what you think.
"Way back in the cave," Sa'alyat'n whispered to me. "Sounds like the Kybk'kyq'ont'n are doing their ritual thing. I hear human voices. Your parents are pleading to be spared. Your sister is crying very hard."
I banged the butt of my spear on the rocky lip of the cave mouth. "Can we go already?"
N'njan'ko hissed at me, and Sa'alyat'n put a furry finger over his lips, indicating silence.
We moved slowly into the cave. Maybe I shouldn't have been so anxious to get going. I couldn't see the cave walls but I could feel how close they were, mostly from the nearly silent rustle of the bat-people crawling on the walls all around me. I was the only one walking on the ground. Dad took us all to the Omaha Zoo once. You know the Desert Dome there, where you keep circling on the path down and down while it gets darker and darker, until finally you wind up in that lightless little room with all of those bats flying around?
I had a major shrieking meltdown in that room, and that was only a year ago.
I began to see light up ahead, and Sa'alyat'n ordered me to crouch down. The rustling tightened around me as bat-people stepped off the walls onto the ground and pulled out their spears. Sa'alyat'n helped me pull my spear from its sling in the tight space, and when he handed it to me, I realized my hands were shaking. The standing bat-people blocked off the light, and I felt more than saw Sa'alyat'n lean close to me and whisper, "Don't be afraid."
I heard the clicks and whistles of the Kybk'kyq'ont'n and the pleading of my family and the crackle of a large fire. We crept closer and finally saw it all laid out below us inside a large chamber that opened up from our narrow tunnel.
Mom, Dad, and Kaysa were tied hand and foot, and lay on the ground beside the large fire. About fifteen or so of the Kybk'kyq'ont'n, male and female, stood in a rough circle around the fire and their captives. I almost laughed at how much their surly expressions and slouching backs made them look just like a teenage human gang trying to look tough. But their bat-shaped bodies made menacing shadows on the red fire-glow of the cave walls, and the sight stopped being funny. And these kids had fangs that shone ivory-white in the fire's glow like deadly little pearls. One of the rebels chanted before the fire with his arms raised and wings spread wide like a sinister wizard in a bad horror movie.
"That's Ez'njokt'n," Sa'alyat'n said. "He thinks he's the big channeler of the ancient ways. He'll go first."
I said, "Whaddaya mean, 'go first'?"
What happened next was so unreal I was convinced for a moment that this was a nightmare. Ez'njokt'n finished his chant, leaned forward, and lunged onto my father.
He tore into my dad's neck with his teeth.
Mom and Kaysa screamed, and our bat-people flew into the chamber to attack. The rebel bat-people grabbed their spears and guarded their captives and leader. Ez'njokt'n fed noisily. Blood flowed from my father's neck faster than Ez'njokt'n could lap it up. Kaysa stopped screaming and just laid still, her eyes big and terrified in her ghost-white face.
I tried to get out of the tunnel and join the fight, but Sa'alyat'n held me back with his spear.
"Let me go," I cried. "I wanna fight!"
Sa'alyat'n hissed at me. "We train for battle with these." He moved his spear. "We know how to use our weapons."
"You gave me one to use!"
"For defense, Anders Quist, and a pretty poor one at that if you don't know how to use it."
I couldn't tell who was who in the battle below, with bat-people flying around and spears clattering together. I heard screams and shrieks and clicks and shouts. I saw a couple of bat-people fall wounded. Ez'njokt'n rose from my dad's neck and a couple more of his friends moved in to feed. Blood ran from Ez'njokt'n's mouth in rivulets down the front of his grey-furred body. He grabbed a spear, and his fighting skills more than made up for the two who were busy feeding off my father.
Dad jerked and kicked at his bonds, but his movements grew weaker and weaker.
I raised my spear and pointed it at Sa'alyat'n's chest. "You let me go now!"
Sa'alyat'n whirled his spear under mine, hooked the pole with his spear-tip, and yanked the spear out of my hands. The spear flew behind him into the battle chamber. The fire was getting stamped out, and all I could see now were whipping black shadows. I heard bat-shrieks and I smelled blood like a hot layer of bitter slime in my sinuses.
I leaned back against the tunnel wall. I was ashamed of my tears. "Dad ... Dad ... "
I saw a flicker of light on a tear that fell from Sa'alyat'n's eyes, too.
* * *
The fire went out entirely and in the screaming darkness the surviving Kybk'kyq'ont'n got away, including Ez'njokt'n. Another exit from the chamber, hidden by rocks, let them escape in the mêlée, and they pulled the rocks over the hole afterwards. My father was dead. My mother had gone into shock.
N'njan'ko stood tall in front of me with streaks of silver in the grey fur under his protruding black eyes, and said to me, "Ez'njokt'n carried off your sister."
I wanted to fall down and cry and beat the rock walls with my fists. But I stood there and simply nodded. That's what Dad would have wanted me to do.
We left the cave the way we came in. Once we got out, we heard no sign of the rebels.
N'njan'ko pointed to the north and said, "They will go into hiding." Then he looked east. "The sun approaches."
We carried my mother back with us. As is the tradition of the Naztak'kyq'ont'n, N'njan'ko had my father's body burned.
* * *
The Naztak'kyq'ont'n tribe lived in a single large cave structure, but each clan had their own chamber. In a small, unused chamber I sat next to my mother's unmoving form with my knees curled up to my chest. A "practitioner of healing arts" (I called her a "medicine bat") knelt over Mom with herbs and incense and the click-shrills of weird incantations. I made sure Mom was wrapped in plenty of blankets. I didn't even bother asking if we could take her to a park station for medical help. Quite obviously the Naztak'kyq'ont'n would never show their faces around humans.
I couldn't stop crying. Dad and I had been pretty close, and even though he was this big outdoorsy guy's kind of guy, I always thought I could trust him, whenever I worked up the courage to tell him about my secret, not to turn his back on me. And now I would never know.
Sa'alyat'n came in and sat down beside me.
"We have a saying," Sa'alyat'n said, "that grief should last only until the next sunset."
I sniveled like a baby. "Sun's still up, isn't it?"
"Yes. We sent scouts out to look for the Kybk'kyq'ont'n. The rebels will wait until nightfall to kill your sister."
"That's good to know."
"Don't be mean."
"I'm sorry," I said. "Really, it's good that we have time. You sent scouts out in the day?"
Sa'alyat'n nodded. "They'll keep hidden in the trees while they travel. We don't like the sun but it doesn't hurt us. It is hard on our eyes, though."
Sa'alyat'n placed his hand on my shoulder. I flinched, but I didn't push him away.
"I hate my brother," Sa'alyat'n said. "For what he did to our honor ... to our struggle, our vow, to stop feeding off humans."
"Will your dad kill him?"
"The entire tribe will. All of the Kybk'kyq'ont'n must die."
"I also hate Ez'njokt'n because ... he made you cry."
"He killed my dad."
"That's not what I meant."
I looked up. Sa'alyat'n's eyes were big and black and saw way more than regular bats' eyes.
I said, "You can tell, huh?"
Sa'alyat'n nodded. "You hide it. This stupid trait of your tribe, to be afraid of what other people think."
"Other people can be pretty nasty."
"Yeah, usually that's what you wind up doing. I was ... I wanted to tell my dad. And now ... You are too, aren't you?"
"The Naztak'kyq'ont'n do not fear the things your tribe fears, Anders Quist. We watch humans. We know things. You are a very sad tribe, Anders Quist, even without tragedy like this."
At least Sa'alyat'n's words made me stop bawling. I said to him, "You like me, huh?"
Sa'alyat'n gave me a short, quiet laugh. "That I am fond of a human will be much harder for Father to accept."
I smiled at Sa'alyat'n. He was kinda cute. God knows if they didn't scare me so much, I wouldn't mind being a bat-person myself. Except for the whole sucking blood thing. That was gross.
Sa'alyat'n placed his left hand on my right hip. No boy had ever touched me like that before. Turned out he was just looking for something. I think.
"You have a cell phone," Sa'alyat'n said.
"Uh ... yeah." The phone was in the pocket of my jeans, where I left it when I went to bed the previous night.
"I have a cousin," Sa'alyat'n said, "who will fly your mother to a place near a park village or a ranger station. Show him how to use the phone, and he will call for help and leave the phone with her. Your GPS will bring her help, yes?"
"Uh ... yes. If you can get a signal in Yellowstone Park. You really do know a lot about us, don't you?"
Sa'alyat'n leaned in close; oh Jesus, he was gonna bite me! But he placed a hand on my shoulder again and merely kissed my cheek. The kiss was soft and sweet, but I still felt the hard enamel of his fangs brush my skin.
"I almost killed you last night," Sa'alyat'n said, "when you fell off your motorbike. I wanted to see if Ez'njokt'n was right about human blood. I'm glad I didn't try to find out."
Oh man, that was the single most bizarre thing that anyone's ever done to me. And, damn it, I liked it.
* * *
Sa'alyat'n's cousin told me the trick with the cell phone worked, and rangers took Mom to the hospital. About dusk the scouts came back and told us they had found the cave where the Kybk'kyq'ont'n and their prisoner, my sister, were hidden. We waited until well after dark and then our raiding party flew out, far larger than before, with our spears slung onto our backs. Except for P'yta'ak'n, who carried his spear in his hands so I could squeeze my body in between his wings. It was easier for him to carry me on his back that way. Sa'alyat'n stayed close to us. I bet he was going to try to keep me out of the fight again. I was gonna show him different.
Except that one thing went wrong. When we arrived at the cave where the Kybk'kyq'ont'n were supposed to be hiding, they were gone.
One of the scouts said, "They must have smelled our presence in the cave when they woke up, after we left."
We waited in the treetops while another pair of scouts circled above us and listened.
I whispered to Sa'alyat'n, "Can they really hear where the Kybikk'n, I mean the Kyb'bekon, um, the Kybbyq'ont'n ... "
Sa'alyat'n giggled and shushed me with a finger over my mouth. He showed off his huge ears. "What do you think, Anders Quist? It helps that Ez'njokt'n and his stupid friends don't know when to shut up."
N'njan'ko hissed at both of us, and then the scouts came down to the trees.
"They're headed south-southwest," one of the scouts said. "Looking for another cave where they can kill the girl. If we fly hard and fast, we'll catch them."
I wedged my body tight between P'yta'ak'n's wings again, and we took off. I couldn't move at all or else I'd interfere with P'yta'ak'n's flying, and I definitely didn't want to do that. The mountains rolled under us, barely visible except when the moonlight scattered by clouds made faint shadows form in the trees. I saw lights from different lodges in the park and the yellow dance of distant campfires, and one car's headlamps snaking all alone down a darkened road.
"Up there," P'yta'ak'n said to me, pointing ahead of us. "We're gaining on them."
I squinted and barely made out a few black shadows against the night sky. We knew there were about ten or eleven Kybk'kyq'ont'n left after the previous fight.
N'njan'ko raised his voice and called to his son Ez'njokt'n with clicks and cries. Then he spoke to the rest of us, and P'yta'ak'n beat his wings harder.
"Hold tight," he said to me, as if I could hold any tighter than I was already doing.
We gained on the rebels. I saw Kaysa's long blonde hair waving in the wind. Ez'njokt'n carried her, tied up and gagged, but her eyes were open and she moved her head. I felt hot and I wanted to hit something. I didn't care how bad it made Sa'alyat'n feel; I wanted his brother dead.
The Naztak'kyq'ont'n swept down from above and attacked the rebels. P'yta'ak'n held back from the fighting since he was carrying me, but I saw Sa'alyat'n, too small to take on a Kybk'kyq'ont'n by himself, help others where he could. Sometimes moonlight struck his grey fur and made his body look as if covered with silver sparks. My heart raced, and that light on his body was part of the reason why.
We were almost directly over Old Faithful, and moonlight reflected from the white crust of Geyser Hill allowed me to see some of the battle. Mostly it was spear against spear, but I saw a couple of bat-people go at it hand-to-hand, clawing and biting at each other. Unlike mythical vampires, the bat-people bled, and the slicing cuts of their spears sprayed blood through the air.
The Kybk'kyq'ont'n were hugely outnumbered. They didn't stand a chance.
I noticed that when a rebel was killed, one of the Naztak'kyq'ont'n took hold of the body rather than let it fall to the ground where a human might find it.
It came down to a fight between N'njan'ko and Ez'njokt'n. All the other Kybk'kyq'ont'n were dead. Ez'njokt'n still held my sister, and from the way she struggled I bet she knew what I knew: Ez'njokt'n couldn't fight his father without letting go of her. It was a long way down to the geyser field where Old Faithful burbled and steamed.
I whispered to P'yta'ak'n, "Do you see?"
"Yes," he said. "No one dares get close. Ez'njokt'n may simply drop the little girl out of spite."
N'njan'ko and his son shouted at each other with demands and refusals. I didn't need a translator to know what was being said. In the dark I couldn't see Sa'alyat'n. I didn't notice that he hovered lower than the rest of us and kept a sharp eye on his brother.
Then it happened. N'njan'ko made a particularly harsh demand. Ez'njokt'n laughed, let go of Kaysa, and drew his spear.
I cried out my sister's name while P'yta'ak'n dived forward and down after her. But I knew we'd never catch her in time. Kaysa's blonde hair whipped straight back from her head as she fell, and from behind her gag I heard her muffled scream.
Sa'alyat'n knew; Sa'alyat'n was ready. He darted forward and grappled hold of Kaysa as she fell past him. He fell with her a short distance until his wings carried them both back up toward us.
"Sa'alyat'n," P'yta'ak'n called, "get her away from there!"
Sa'alyat'n flew out from under the battle above him. N'njan'ko and Ez'njokt'n clashed with spears. I saw the dark color of blood seep into the grey fur on both of their bodies. N'njan'ko took a nasty gash through the leather of his left wing. Then N'njan'ko, with a move just like the one Sa'alyat'n used on me, yanked Ez'njokt'n's spear from his hands and slashed at his son's belly.
Ez'njokt'n doubled over and started to fall.
N'njan'ko tossed his spear to another bat-person and went after his son. He grabbed hold of the youth, and they fought and fell together. All we could do was watch. I wasn't sure but I think I saw some people on the ground close to Old Faithful Lodge, waiting for the big geyser to blow. I wondered what they thought when they heard the commotion and looked up.
Sa'alyat'n passed Kaysa to an older and stronger bat-person, and dived after his father and brother. I heard him call their names in a voice that broke with tears.
I wished I could have gone after him. I wished I could fly with him, alongside him, to be there with him when the worst happened.
This is what Sa'alyat'n told me he saw. N'njan'ko and Ez'njokt'n clawed at each other, tearing at flesh and causing the leather of their ruined wings to snap fast in the wind. They fought and tumbled, closing fast on the ground. N'njan'ko finally wrestled his body atop Ez'njokt'n, gripped the youth's neck, and drove his son's head hard into the ground.
They landed on Geyser Hill up behind Old Faithful, which chose that moment to start bubbling and erupting. The crust of ground among the many geysers and hot springs was thin. The impact of the two combatants broke through the crust and delivered both of them into the boiling hot, sulphuric water below.
Neither of them had a chance.
* * *
I stood as one with the Naztak'kyq'ont'n in a circle with our backs to the broken hole on Geyser Hill. Four Naztak'kyq'ont'n improvised their spear slings into crude nets to pull what was left of N'njan'ko and Ez'njokt'n from the hot spring water. Sa'alyat'n came up to me and leaned on my shoulder. I realized that none of the Naztak'kyq'ont'n cared if I held him while he cried. So I did.
P'yta'ak'n untied Kaysa and she ran to the approaching park rangers, grateful to be away from the terrifying bat-people. I'm not even sure if she knew I was there.
I stayed with Sa'alyat'n.
We warned the rangers not to get too close or take pictures. They watched us with disbelieving eyes, and obeyed.
* * *
I can't go back to Omaha.
The Naztak'kyq'ont'n elected a new tribal chief. Sa'alyat'n and I stood before the chief and the council. We made our case, and the men and women of the council agreed.
I know you'll think I'm cruel. But I can't leave Sa'alyat'n.
The Naztak'kyq'ont'n took me with them when they moved to caves further north. I eat berries and meat from the livestock we kill. A winter coat was made for me. P'yta'ak'n will carry me through the sky until Sa'alyat'n is able to do so.
Sa'alyat'n and I lost so much, but we found something more in each other.
I had him write the note. We dropped it in a mailbox before we left Yellowstone. Sa'alyat'n wrote that there had been an accident, and he was sorry. I didn't want Mom to worry, but I couldn't quite figure out how to tell her that I'm in love and I'm not coming back. So I had Sa'alyat'n tell Mom that I'm dead.
To that world, I am.
Article © Cody Stanford. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-01-10