A response to T.S. Bazelli's "Author Aerobics: Setting Challenge" posted in her blog, Ink Stained. The Challenge: Write a story (1000 words or less) that is set in a place you have never been. This place can be real or imagined. The theme: "home".
Coon whistled a dry throaty hoot that rolled across the muskeg, filled full of steaming bogs, before hearing Hu'unupati Planet's reply. The answering chirp echoed through the swamp where sticky moss drooped from the black skeletons of trees sunken into the waters. The echoes came from all directions. Coon cursed. Lost. He waded through the water as the muskeg's plants flashed phosphorescent light like lightning. Behind him, a branch cracked followed by the thwoomp of a splash whose waves lapped against Coon's thighs.
Balanced, he held the staff in both hands. Something brushed his ankle, he looked down at the water. The still surface reflected flashing lights, there couldn't be anything down there. He tried to clear his mind as Suali had taught him, but the muskeg flashes and the taste of mealy overripe peach distracted him.
A tentacle slammed against Coon's leg, the scales brushing against his khaki pants, the force knocking him forward to stumble through the bog. He fell off the path. The water rose to his midsection. The tentacle returned and squeezed Coon's leg. Coon twirled his staff but it twisted out of his hands as he was pulled out of the mud.
A flat-bladed frond glowed pearlescent purple to illuminate Suali watching from a thin ridge of earth that arced above the water with thin cracks arching across the mud as if denoting the bones of the muskeg. "You must clear your mind," called Suali. The gatekeeper's boyish features reflected in the swamp looking devilish in the vegetation's glow.
An impossible task, thought Coon. Regardless of Suali's words, he could see the serpent feel the pressure on his leg as the blood rushed to his head. Yes, the sentient planet heard him, but this was impossible. They'd send them home. No. Not another eighty years of festering in cold sleep while the seed ship carried him back. Closing his eyes, his feet burning from the lack of circulation, Coon concentrated on a sense of calm. The wind slowed, the leaves ending their rattling shakes. Coon envisioned a disturbance, meaty blood from a swamp cow with a cut in its leg that leaked into the water. Coon slipped out of the tentacle's grasp and dropped into the swamp to splutter the phlegm-filled water as he half-walked half-swum to Suali's ridge.
Suali was physically seven years younger than Coon, eighty-seven years if you counted the cold sleep. Had the Hu'unupati not respected him enough to give him an experienced teacher?
"You fail," said Suali.
"But, I dealt with the ink serpent without your assistance."
Suali gulped from his drinking bladder and passed it to Coon. "Star-crossed, you are lucky. But, luck does not make a citizen and your carelessness will cost not just you your life but others if you do not learn."
Coon searched Suali's face for the disdain he'd seen on native faces who'd used the star-crossed slur when they talked about him thinking they were out of his hearing, but the boy smiled at him as if he did Coon a favor. "Will you send me home?"
Suali's eyes opened in surprise before catching a spark of light from a distant tree. "Will you resign so easily?"
"No. I thought I only had one chance," said Coon.
"Lazy. You must listen to my words. We have until Ma'uri's light waxes full to complete your training and pass the tests."
Coon wouldn't have to return tonight. He breathed out, thinking fondly of a soft bed in Suali's home. "We return to your home?"
"Not yet, you must practice, Coon. You must become one with the muskeg."
The multi-trunked base of a banyan tree flashed from behind Suali, and the light blinded Coon. Suali had disappeared. Coon looked at his wet shirt sleeve shrugged and pulled at it to wipe at his face. He whistled into the dark listening for Hu'unupati's reply.