Ash’s Cost

Ash backed against the heartmound, her ears ringing from her oldest son’s alarm calls that still pierced the evening with frantic precision. The predators materializing from the long, brittle grass were unimpressed. They blinked amber-orange eyes at the frozen meer, there were at least six pairs of them. Pointy snouts with twitching dusky noses pushed aside the stocks, sniffing. Sharp ears flattened and lips peeled from stained yellow teeth as the canids growled. Their rank, musty scent filled the tiny clearing that the burrow area occupied.

            Jackals. A pack of jackals had the Blazes surrounded.

            Ash’s heart skittered as her brown eyes flicked from one meer to the next, counting her small family. Including herself there was only eleven of them. Their only hope for survival was to make it underground before teeth found their pelts. With mounting horror Ash realized that out of all of them she was the closest to a burrow entrance.

            The Blazes had been engaged in a play fight when Blink had announced the enemy’s presense. Paralyzed by fear, none had moved from their positions. Fiery, from her last litter, was staring at the slavering jaws of the nearest jackal, trembling. His tiger eyes were bulging and his mouth agape. He was only a yearling and Ash had already lost his littermate, Stormy, when another gang of meerkats had attacked them moons before. She would not lose another pup. She couldn’t.

            Bunching her muscles, Ash sprang forward, her tawny mottled pelt a blur as she crossed the distance to Fiery in a few bounds. Her hip slammed into his flank, thrusting the skinny male aside. “Run!” Ash screeched. “Get underground!”

            At the same time a gruff bark split the air. “Kill them all. The Mistress demands it.” The clearing erupted into chaos.

            The jackals slunk forward as the meer darted in all directions. Blind panic sent Blink’s littersister, Blossom, straight towards the gaping maw of a russet streaked canine. At the last moment she dodged and disappeared down a dark tunnel in the ruddy sand. Grain, Ash’s mother, half-stumbled half-fell into the heartmound, the main burrow entrance. Ash saw her dark tail tip vanish just as teeth snapped near her ear.

            The snap roused the startled Fiery and he shot to his paws, whirling to face the scrawny jackal that approached. Ash nudged his brown brindled shoulder with her snout. “Go. I can handle this.”

            Fiery’s fur bristled, and his tail arched over his spine. He furrowed his black splotched brows at the predator. “I can’t leave you alone.”

            “She’s not alone.” A furry haunch pressed to her own as a big meer joined her. It was her mate Hero, and Fiery’s father. “Go.” He repeated her command, voice deep with the determination to prevail. For a heartbeat, Fiery hesitated. Then his gaze locked to his litterbrother’s. Smokey was waiting for him by the heartmound. He bolted towards the burrow.

            Ash blinked at Hero in gratitude but there was no time to thank him. “The others?” She questioned.

            Hero’s long claws grooved the sand. “Some are still disoriented. They are hemming us in.”

            Ash eyed the jackal closest to them. His advance was steady, but the light of the hunt gleamed in his gaze. Fear stirred in Ash’s belly, but she shoved it aside. She was the dominant female of the Blazes. It was her duty to protect the family, at all costs. “We must distract them.” She murmured.

            Hero gave a firm nod and tensed. Together they sprinted towards the jackal. The predator paused in shock as Ash and Hero dashed beneath his muzzle. Too late he snapped at them and when Ash glanced back his gaze was bright with fury at missing his chance. He galloped after them. Ash sprang into the path of another jackal which was chasing a small female named Teal, forcing it to pull up short or trip over its own paws. Teal evaporated into a shadowy passage as the jackal trailing the dominant pair smashed into his comrade. With a yip, both jackals fell in a tangle of paws.

            Using the same strategy, Ash and Hero parted. Her mate rushed to surprise a canine that was trying to dig out the heartmound, sending up a plume of dry earth. Ash skidded to a halt, preparing to join him, when he heard a whimper. Turning, Ash spotted her daughter Windy pinned beneath a jackal’s paws. Ash didn’t take the time to think, she charged.

            She jumped at the crouching jackal with all her strength and managed to latch onto the base of his ear. She shook her head with all her might, her forepaws scrambling at the jackal’s thin fur, and her fangs ripping into his tender ear-flesh. The effect was immediate. The jackal howled and flung himself back, Windy staggered to her paws and, limping but alive, disappeared into a tunnel.

            Ash could’ve let go then but anger overwelmed her. She had lost so much already. The Blazes had survived the loss of their territory, which was seized brutally by the Zeros, and then moons of wandering in search of a new home. They thought they’d finally found one when they settled here. She was wrong. Hooking her hind claws into the jackal’s pelt, Ash clenched her jaws and wrenched her neck.

            There was a sickening screech as warm blood spattered her face. Ash thudded to her side, pain bursting through her hip as she landed. She spat and saw a pointed lump of crimson flesh before her. Bile rose in her throat as she peered up at the jackal. Blood to match the red sunset poured down the side of his face. There was a gap where one of his ears had once been.

            Snarling, gaze filled with agony and rage, the jackal loomed over her. Ash tried to push herself up, but her hip gave out. Her gaze searched and she found Hero hovering over a burrow hole, fur on end. His expression full of terror, and grief, and love. Ash swallowed hard. At the scent of fresh blood, the other jackals were swinging towards her. Soon they would converge, and Hero would be blocked from sight entirely. There was no way he could reach her in time.

            Leave me, she tried to tell him with her eyes. Please, don’t die for me. He held her gaze another moment, amber eyes sparkling with moisture, before descending into the darkness.

            Ash loosened a sigh of relief as russet shadows surrounded her, slaver dripping from their jaws and dust coating their pelts. Shutting her eyes, Ash bowed her head for the last time. She was ready. She knew the cost to save her family, her pups, would be her own life. She was more than willing to pay it.

            Leading you was worth it, she thought fondly of her family as jagged teeth tore at her body from all sides. She almost smiled as her spirit was released. At least her family was safe and now Ash could rest in peace with her lost son Stormy.

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