At the edge of the barren Rehobim’s anger failed him. Across that open expanse was the tani’s lair. He could see the tangle of boulders rising from the blank stone like a malignant growth. Tani lived a long time. This one had preyed on the members of Bent Tree since his grandfather’s time. That it was the same one he was sure. Before him in the dirt was a single track as big as his head. One toe was missing.
When he hesitated, the stranger pushed by him, heading straight for the boulders. A moment longer and then Rehobim ran after him. He caught up to him and muttered, “I am not afraid,” to the broad back.
But his knees shook and his spear felt like a twig in his hand. It would snap if he threw it. Tani were huge, near-mythical creatures. The best one could hope for was to stay out of a tani’s way. No Takare since Taka-slin had ever killed a tani. He wanted to run and hide. But he forced himself to keep going, to look only at the ground in front of each step.
The stranger strode to the base of the boulder pile and stood looking up. The mouth of the tani’s lair was clearly visible, a gaping darkness about halfway up. A broad ledge ran along the front of the lair, and numerous bones were scattered across it.
In a voice loud enough to shake the rocks, the stranger bellowed something that was clearly a challenge. Rehobim crouched behind a stone, struggling to control his trembling. This was madness. No matter how good he was, the stranger could not defeat a tani. He didn’t even have a weapon with him. His great size would do him no good against the tani’s teeth or its claws.
Rehobim sensed movement from above and looked up, his heart stopping. The tani emerged onto the ledge and looked down on them. At its shoulder it was nearly as tall as a grown man, covered in thick yellow fur with one black stripe extending down each side. Its incisors curved out of its mouth and down to its chin. Slowly, majestically, it drew itself up to its full height, balancing on its hind legs as a bear would. It raised its front legs, extending claws as long as Rehobim’s hand. It growled, low and deep, and then it came. The first leap carried it halfway down the boulder pile. With the second it would land on the stranger who stood motionless.
The world slowed down as the drama unfolded. Rehobim saw the muscles bunching under the creature’s hide as it gathered itself, saw it launch and fly through the air, teeth gleaming, claws reaching-
In the split second before the tani reached him the stranger acted–leaping forward, inside the extended claws–and struck the beast with a vicious left hook.
The blow knocked the tani onto its side and as it fell the stranger jumped on it. One powerful arm encircled the tani’s thick neck. Before the stunned beast could react, he joined his hands and twisted his whole body violently to the side.
There was a loud crack and the tani abruptly went still.
The stranger unlocked his hands and stood. Without looking down at the creature, without looking at Rehobim, he walked away.
Rehobim crouched behind the rock, frozen. His gaze flitted from the tani’s lair, to the stranger’s retreating back, to the broken form of the tani. Over and over. Nothing happened. The tani was still dead. After a few minutes he straightened up and moved toward the still form, one slow step at a time.
He nudged the thing with his foot, then spun in a crouch to scan the horizon. Still nothing happened, and something like a sneer twisted his lip. All at once he leaped on the creature, his knife in his hand, sinking the blade into the dead flesh over and over. His teeth stood out behind bared lips and his eyes went dark as he grunted with the exertion of each blow.
His passion spent, he sank back and again looked around. The rocks watched impassively. Even the bubbling sulfurous pools were quiet. His eyes roamed the ground until he found a broken chunk of rock the size of both fists. With several hard blows he smashed out one of the long canine teeth. Then he stood, holding the tooth over his head and, screamed at the emptiness:
“Azrael! Azrael!”