2nd Place – July 2021

Survive to Live

By

            Rox Burkey & Charles Breakfield

Athaleyah roared. Her deadly claws sparked, scoring the granite outcropping, seeking to locate the departing Harpies who captured her offspring. Her mate, Kesari, fought ferociously alongside her to protect their Lenna. When Kesari fell during the battle, it divided her attention for a second, and the thieves took flight. Her fury increased as she scanned for the aerial predators in the fading light.
Like others of their kind, Athaleyah and Kesari mated for life, and she was twice his size. Until Lenna was born, they shared hunting forays. Unlike other couples, the two of them were kits together after Kesari’s parents adopted Athaleyah.
Together they dominated with both power and ferocity in the battle. Without his presence, her sense of loss manifested in her twitching muscles. Fueled by the nagging loss of family, she angrily wailed in a menacing ascending pitch while searching for signs of her enemy’s destination.
Ever since the two-legged animals ceased being the dominant species in their world, Athaleyah and her fellow Amarok filled the void as the top predator. Minor predators, the Harpies took advantage of every opportunity. They hunted in aerial packs or feasted off the dying cast-offs.
Spotting her foe’s descent, she strained her highly adaptive light-gathering eyes to the dim light conditions. She marked the trail of her pursuit. Satisfied at knowing the area in the lonely mountains where they took Lenna, her fury intensified, powering her resolve.
An imposing ten-foot-tall mass of 500 pounds of sinewy muscle cloaked in black and tan fur, Athaleyah emitted a low growl that rattled the surrounding terrain. The noise vibrated rocks and shrubs more than fifty feet away.
As she mentally readied herself to launch into the chase, Kesari panted loud as he staggered up to the outcrop. His wounds no longer bled, but his eyes reflected agony. He nuzzled her, wincing with the effort. Athaleyah felt buoyed to see him alive.
“You’re hurt. Stay here while I go after Lenna. You’ll only slow me down.”
Kesari fiercely snarled, rising to his maximum height of six feet. “Lenna’s my kit, too! I can keep up.”
Unwilling to waste time, she acquiesced. “Come on, then. Let’s go do this!”
Athaleyah lunged forward and bounded down from the lookout point in full attack mode. Kesari attempted the same. As she glanced back, she noted he only managed to limp pathetically until his front leg buckled. Balance forfeited; she saw him plunge the rest of the way down. The noisy rockslide showed Kesari rolling  out of control. Athaleyah rushed to him.
He offered, “I’m with you, my mate, but I can’t walk.”
Athaleyah leaned down to gently lick his wounds while he licked the wound on her shoulder. Her eyes reflected the coldness in the delay because of his fall.
“I’m going with you to get her back,” he demanded. “We’re not losing another offspring to those winged demons.”
Athaleyah snarled. “Get on my back. Don’t fall. And no using your claws to hold on.”
She grabbed him by the mane of his neck and slung him onto her back. Like a lightning flash in a summer storm, she raced toward the destination. Mindful of her passenger, she avoided leaping any large chasms. She kept to a moderate, long bounding stride. It cost valuable time dodging low-hanging limbs and navigating dry arroyos, yet she made no protest.
Closing on their target, she slowed to a stop. Kesari slid off onto his feet. They quieted their breathing to avoid alerting the Harpies of their presence. Their coats camouflaged their bodies into the surroundings. Despite their size, they were quiet and effective hunters, with soundless paws moving over loose rock. Nearing the clearing, they heard the taunting caws of the beasties, clearly engaged in some sport. Quietly cresting the hill, they witnessed the feared drama unfolding below.
Six Harpies poked and teased Lenna as a prelude to devouring their evening meal. The kit swatted back ineffectively due to a wound on her rear flank.
Athaleyah’s eyes burned with ferocity. Kesari leaped into the middle of the Harpies’ game. He raked one of the air assassins on his first pass, ruining its wing and inflicting enough pain to cause the wounded to screech. Kesari turned, sank his teeth into the shoulder of his wounded prey, then raked his claws down the leathery back of the beast, severing its flying tendons.
Kesari jumped off and nudged Lenna behind him as he faced the other five. It achieved the desired effect. Athaleyah watched the remaining Harpies refocus on Kesari, so they never saw her coming.
Silently, like a shadow, Athaleyah tackled three Harpies, crushing the skull on the one in the middle. The one to her left was only dazed and launched its powerful beak into her shoulder flank, then raked her rib cage with its claws. She bellowed, backing away from the deadly beak and talons. Athaleyah flattened the threat, then Kesari finished the third Harpey from behind.
Kesari missed his kill opportunity with the third Harpy but delivered heavy damage to its neck and torso. It wrestled free of Kesari’s deadly teeth, bleeding profusely. Staggering to its companions, it collapsed, bleeding soaking the ground.
The two unscathed Harpies flapped their wings to announce their charging intentions. Their joint effort stirred up dust, temporarily blinding the Amarok. As the area cleared and her vision returned, Athaleyah saw the Harpies squared off against her and Kesari.
Not admitting to the possibility of defeat, she growled, “Now, you’re on my terms. No aerial advantage.”
Athaleyah charged the group, batting the largest one’s head hard enough to generate a loud, gratifying crack. Kesari poised to lunge in, but the remaining Harpy flapped and slashed with its winged claws, forcing him back. Athaleyah followed, searching briefly for Lenna before the next assault.
Kesari and Athaleyah circled the remaining Harpies, seeking an opening. Unexpectedly, Lenna roared into the fray, providing a short-term distraction. She grabbed the smallest Harpy, inflicting enough damage to force it back. One bold Harpy sought to kill the youngster, but Athaleyah and Kesari ripped apart the winged assassin from opposing sides.
During this commotion, the last Harpy grabbed Lenna with its front claws. It chewed up enough runway to get airborne with the kit, which already weighed over twenty pounds and was a fully armed Amarok.
Athaleyah noted that Kesari appeared distracted watching Lenna. This hesitation permitted his opponent to attack. A slash from the creature’s talons ripped a sizable chunk from Kesari’s neck. His agonizing wail increased Lenna’s resolution to fight back.
Kesari backed away from the deadly foe while Athaleyah redoubled her efforts. No Harpy was a match on the ground to Athaleyah’s brutal power and blinding mania. In the blink of an eye, the Harpy spread out in a bloody mess, totally dismembered.
Athaleyah proudly watched as Lenna showed her rage and instinctively dug her claws into the Harpy’s legs. Then with all her anger-driven strength, she sank her teeth into the one leg she could reach and clamped her jaws shut. The severed tendons of the creature’s claws lessened its grasp on the kit.
The wounded Harpy and its prize were some distance from the fight. However, it was not yet at the height needed for a successful flight. The Harpy shrieked in pain at Lenna’s vice-like bite, convinced there would be no meal tonight. Just as the Harpy crested the hill, Lenna was released and tumbled through the air toward the rocky ground.
With the fight finished, Athaleyah focused on where Lenna fell. She watched as Kesari resolutely wobbled toward the spot. Athaleyah pushed herself as she too followed closely behind her mate. Their wounds hindered their progress, but not their determination.
As they approached the hillocks on the far side of the depression, Lenna materialized, moving slowly toward them. Sliding down the incline, she joined her parents. They took turns licking one another’s wounds.
Athaleyah watched Lenna’s gaze shift toward the severely wounded Harpy that Kesari first attacked. Now flightless, the animal dragged itself with its beak while searching for safety. Kesari hobbled to the struggling animal and stared down into its eyes.
The Harpy took a deep breath and nodded to Kesari. They silently acknowledged that the Harpy would get an undeserved favor. In their world, if a creature failed to hunt, it died a slow and excruciating death. The pain ended a moment later when Kesari crushed its scrawny throat.
Kesari rejoined his family. All breathed hard as they overcame the effects of the battle. Kesari nuzzled Lenna in between tending to Athaleyah’s wounds. After a few moments of rest, Kesari hoisted Lenna onto Athaleyah’s back and headed toward their mountain home. They were a unit again, at peace for the moment.

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