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When the Hunter
Requiem of the Moth #5
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"Who are you taking with you?" his father asks.
"Someone from the Noe," Usira hedges. "They asked to be taken along so they could better appreciate our work and skill."
His father narrows his eyes but then nods. With the entire driphouse busy for the upcoming Trade Fair, they can't spare anyone to send with Usira. His parents need never know his mysterious companion will not be a servant but the Vessi himself.
"Make sure to notify your mother too," he says before leaving Usira to his preparations. Dutifully, he reports to his mother, who keeps the books, and takes her advice of packing additional rations and light equipment for his companion.
He meets Noe Yun on the outskirts of the city as it is just beginning to wake. Next to Yun hovers Zhiva, his other puppet, as lovely and lifelike as her brother Zhiven. The Vessi himself is in black robes that melt into the darkness. At Usira's approach, he lifts the hood, revealing his familiar scarred face and bone-white hair tied into a high knot. Tiny silver beads glint between the braided strands.
Appropriate for a trek through unbuilt caverns, Usira has to admit. Clanspeople hardly ever wear anything but purest white but this one is not too vain to dress for the occasion.
They exchange greetings and set off, both carrying blue-green glowshrooms looped through their belts. As they leave the city and its last illuminated crossroads behind, Usira briefs his companion on their itinerary. "The Oat Sallow Moth is small and shy, it flees from large hunting parties. When we encounter them, keep at least three arm lengths away and do not speak above a whisper. I've been keeping track of sightings over the last few months. They should've pupated by now so all we need to do is set up light traps and catch them."
Yun's grunt falls somewhere between acknowledgment and question so he decides to elaborate. "Pupating is when moths leave their cocoons for the first time. Their wings need to dry before they can fly so they're vulnerable."
"Why catch them alive?" Yun asks. They've been walking on rocky terrain but he isn't winded yet. Zhiva is silent despite carrying their rations and shelter on her back.
"The centerpiece for the feast will consist of one large Blackvein and many smaller Oat Sallows. When the display is revealed, the Oat Sallows will flutter up around the candied Blackvein. They're pearly white with grey spots, very pretty. Later they'll be roasted and served as refreshments."
"You're supposed to be the best in your driphouse. Why aren't you catching the Blackvein?"
Usira glances sideways at Yun. Still not winded. In the crook of a wide bend, Usira leaves the path and squeezes through a crack to his left. He has to carry the moth cage in his arms, shouldering it again once he is through. This trail is uneven and too narrow for two people to walk side by side.
He speaks only when Yun emerges from the crack. "Hunting Blackveins can be tricky but we only need one specimen and it doesn't need to be kept alive until the feast. My cousins are bringing it back today."
As they continue deeper into the underground maze surrounding Kandamsin, Usira feels Yun's gaze prickle on his skin. His benefactor can't know that Usira is taking a risk going after a whisper of Oat Sallows by himself. Usira himself isn't sure why he lied to his father to take Yun—who is going to be if not dead weight then certainly not the best partner he could've had.
They stop for a drink of water and some pickled roots. Shortly after, they reach the first site: a pond, hardly more than a puddle but surrounded by mossy rocks and lichen climbing the walls of the grotto. Usira arranges some twigs near the greenery and strikes a spark for fire.
Yun watches as he opens the clasps and fastenings of his metal cage, separating it into multiple compartments. Each comes with a little cubby that he fills with sugar water, a family recipe. He places the small cage near the fire, door propped open.
They don't have to wait long before the warm light flickers with moths. "How can you be sure you only attract one species?" Yun whispers.
"One moment." Usira is estimating the number wandering into his cage. They're about half as big as his palm, white with dull grey spots—Oat Sallows, without exception. When he judges the cage as full as it gets, he tiptoes over and shuts the door.
"There's always a chance of attracting unwanted strays but we reduce that by carefully choosing our spots. Oat Sallow larvae have been tracked here, it's a secluded place and not all species like still bodies of water."
After extinguishing the fire, Usira turns around and is surprised to see that Yun has already reattached the cage to its frame. "Looks like we got lucky. I see nothing but Oat Sallows in here."
Usira, however, doesn't check the cage. His gaze snags on Noe Yun, who has a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. His blazing orange eyes echo the firelight. Out here, he has shed the skin of the cold official watching from behind his desk. He is enjoying himself.
You're supposed to be a selfish, spoiled brat who's never set foot outside the capital, Usira thinks. Why are you so easy to work with? So curious about everything? Are you even a clansman?
Instead, he asks: "How much farther can you walk?"
Far, is the answer, but not uphill. When they climb steps, then mere footholds to a plateau housing the last spot, Yun barely drags himself over the ledge. Back on even ground, he sits up and rubs his shaking hands. "This is what basket lifts are for," he mutters, referring to the many cliffs within Kandamsin that clanspeople and wealthy commoners traverse in ornate iron baskets hauled up or down.
Zhiva hands her lord the water flask. Usira sits in solidarity. "Too expensive."
"If climbing keeps you this fit, I should like doing more of it. Can't be seen getting my hands dirty, though," Yun muses.
There it is, the reminder of the chasm between them. Usira, whose pretense of piety for the Moth is flimsy at best, can hardly imagine the necessity of keeping up appearances at all times. Following rigid social norms and rules every waking moment. I'll sneak out of the city with you anytime, he wants to say but doesn’t.
They push on and reach another narrow crack, made even narrower by the pale vines snaking through the rock and spilling out of it. Between their leaves, larvae have fed, wrapped themselves in cocoons, and emerged as moths.
While Yun builds and kindles the fire, Usira surveys the walls tenting high above their heads. They're dotted with holes and openings, more exposed to wildlife than he would've liked.
Nothing to be done about it. They set up the light trap and wait. Moths begin to flutter close. Even after countless hunting and scouting trips, Usira is still mesmerized by their scaly wings, their patterns, their grace.
Then a black shadow eclipses the pale swarm.
"What is that?" Yun whispers into his left ear.
Usira shivers. "Pray to the Deep that this won't turn into a problem."
The black white-spotted Stormcloak Hawk Moth nears the cage. Pulling on his bathide gloves, Usira creeps closer. A handful of Oat Sallows have gathered to lap up sugar water but most disperse at their larger cousin's approach.
It pauses on the step, flashing bright yellow eyes on its underwings. Usira sneaks up to the cage, treading as lightly as he can to lull its keen senses, and reaches with both hands. Breath held, he lunges.
The moth dances out of his grasp and to his left where… Yun is bending towards the fire. "Watch out!" Usira hisses, ready to push him out of the way but a fraction too late. The moth is upon Yun before he sees it, colliding with his scarred cheek, then his nose, his mouth, and like anyone with healthy instincts, Yun opens it to a gasp.
Yellow dust stains the air. Yun coughs, flailing.
It is Zhiva who slays the attacker with a bundle of burning twigs. Smoldering, the moth falls to the ground and is consumed. When Zhiva hurls her torch away, Usira sees her hands are soot-stained but whole. "My lord!" she cries.
Yun is still coughing, doubled over. Terrible dread slams into Usira.
"Tell me, did you inhale any of that?" he shouts, patting his back. "Did you?"
When there is no answer, Usira's blood runs cold in his veins. By the Deep, what have I done?
And still, Yun keeps coughing, coughing, coughing.
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Whew! This chapter turned out more adventure-y than expected but it's been so much fun to write! The hunting trip was supposed to be just one chapter but then the plot ballooned into two, allowing me to insert a fun chapter title idea… Can you guess how the sentence ends?
After all that research into moths, I hope I didn't overdo it (again). They're just so cool! Did you know, for example, that some moth species can detect bat echolocation sounds?
Many moths, such as the Herald (Scoliopterix libatrix) have ears and some Notodontidae (prominents) have complex pinnae that 'point' backwards. Often these ears are connected to very few nerve cells, tightly tuned to the usual range of bat frequencies, typically around 40 kHz. These ears allow the moths to detect bats at 30 m or more, so that the moth hears the bat before the bat detects its presence.
Requiem isn't meant to be an adventure story but I'll definitely show more of Usira's moth catching in his chapters and with it, some of the wildlife that helps his and Yun's people survive and thrive underground.
For now though, I hope you'll stick around for the resolution of this sticky (pun intended) situation! What exactly did Yun inhale? Will he recover? What will happen to Usira after he stupidly got a clansman in danger? As usual, let me know what you think in the comments. Your words are like sugar water to this nocturnal creature.
Moths. Lots of moths.
Young, Mark (1997): The Natural History of Moths