Plague

Centuries of brutal war between kabutops and omastar have festered well. When disease breaks out in the kabutops bay, decimating the community, they are quite sure who to blame. With only the young able to take up the fight, the last war heroes of the past generation seek to take out their enemy once and for all, as inflicting death and destruction has long been recognised as the only foolproof way to heal old wounds.

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1. Prologue

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A simple command, easily disobeyed. The kabutops struck in the early evening, the sunlight gleaming murderous gold across their helms. They surged down steep paths into the knee-deep water of the omastars’ bay and, by nightfall, every last omastar had rallied to see them off. The youngest omanyte were on their own.

 

Sneaking out required no stealth at all. Even the roar of the tide was drowned out by the shouts and shrieks of battle; no one would hear their scraping shells as four tiny hatchlings climbed the Wall of Bones. They wrapped their tentacles around naked femurs and rested their bodies against jutting ribs as the swirling water, thick with blood and silt, fell further and further below. Their ancestors had packed the bodies of their victims into this towering monument as a tribute to their tribal strength. Now the youngest generation gave the wall a more practical use.

 

From the top, nestled in a grovyle’s empty eye socket, they saw everything. Explosions of spray struck the towering granite cliffs at the back of the bay as the tide surged in. Dying omastar flailed in the surf, black blood drooling from their wounds. Kabutops writhed and hissed, impaled by heavy spines and trampled underfoot. Bodies sprawled from cliff to cliff. Very few were lucky enough to lie still.

 

This wasn’t what the hatchlings expected. They’d only been alive twelve weeks and already knew endless tales of blood and glory: omastar heroes rounding up the enemy and mincing them in one quick barrage of spines; kabutops turning and fleeing like the cowards they were at the first sign of danger. In a few places the omanyte picked out scattered groups of kabutops breaking against unified packs of omastar, their scythes glancing off armoured shells as the defenders drew together to hide their bodies, but the victors did not seem jubilant, simply tired. Amongst injured howls and dying whimpers, the omanyte heard no cheering.

 

A sudden metallic scream, however, was very real.

 

‘Haakmin!’

 

The bellow burst from the last organised group of kabutops just as a black and silver warrior broke from their ranks, driving her scythes through the nearest omastar without so much as a glance in his direction. Irreverently she bounded over his shuddering body, immediately surrounded by her foes. She didn’t falter. Both wickedly sharp blades swung in broad, shattering arcs, slicing through flesh and spines alike as her talons bit through mud into the solid stone beneath. Lowering the sweeping shield of her head, she rammed the next defender aside and hurtled over a pearly volley of spikes.

 

Even half the bay away from her, all four omanyte huddled together, their tentacles throbbing with each terrified heartbeat. Aashnin Shaaca’s brutal offensive alone would have been enough for anyone in the bay to identify her, but her jet-black armour and thin silver wings made the kabutops’ mutant champion unmistakable. She was Bladesworn: one of a trio of kabutops who had blighted the omastar tribe for decades. Suddenly they weren’t quite so safe, even seven metres from the ground.

 

‘Haakmin!’ Shaaca cried again.

 

Her taloned foot drove into the body of an upturned omastar. One of their warriors fired a powerful blast of water directly at her torso, but the aashnin rolled fluidly beneath the spray. Almost on all fours, she barrelled shoulder-first into her unfortunate foe, throwing him onto his back. She didn’t stop to finish him. With bull-headed determination, she ignored the cries of her allies and raced forward alone, incapacitating those who got in her way more often than she killed.

 

‘She’s coming this way.’

 

The words tumbled out of the youngest onlooker, high-pitched and shaky. All eyes fixed on her, quivering in her shell, as the same terrifying conclusion gripped them all.

 

‘She’s going to kill us, isn’t she?’ said one of the others.

 

‘You should never have come here, Bladesworn.’

 

All four jumped again at the sound of their own champion’s deep, hissing voice. As one, they scurried back to the edge of their perch, peering down into the darkness.

 

The broad dome of Onomak’s heavy shell sat directly beneath them. One of his tentacles trailed against his side, bloodied and useless, but his voice rang with confidence. His enemy stood with both shoulders slumped, his knees clearly weakening. The kabutops’ muted brown shell sported fractures over his shoulder, head and thigh; his very armour seemed to be crumbling away from each injury. They were a healer’s defences, too soft for combat and, amongst the kabutops’ well-bred attack force, they were as telling as Aashnin Shaaca’s metal wings. This was Haakmin, the third of the Bladesworn. He could barely lift his scythes.

 

‘Well,’ he panted, his green eyes gleaming, ‘seems like hindsight... really is a useless thing.’

 

Onomak’s spines shot through the air just as Shaaca bounded between the two, her scythes a silver blur. Four ringing clashes marked impacts between spike and blade. A sickly crunch and wet, rasping exhalation of air marked the one she had missed.

 

The aashnin roared: a feral, wordless scream of utter fury that sent the hatchlings scrambling back. Even Onomak flinched, but he had no time for hesitation. As Haakmin slumped to the ground the omastar let loose another hail of spikes, only for Shaaca to deflect them all with one downward swipe of her blade. The other arching overhead, she leapt forward, severing two of Onomak’s spines and slicing out a chunk of his shell as he ducked inside at the last second.

 

A high-pressure burst of water caught Shaaca in the chest. Her whole body twisted through the air. The side of her head smacked against the solid spiral of a dead omastar’s shell. Visibly reeling from the blow, she pressed the flats of her blades down beneath the water on instinct alone, finding the ground and forcing herself upright.

 

Not fast enough. A spine caught her between the fins along her back, piercing one of the few gaps in her armour. Blood poured from the wound. She let out another metallic wail from her wings, her own burst of water blasting from her mouth. It caught Onomak directly in the eyes.

 

Blinded by mud, he let off a reflexive barrage of spines the aashnin easily ducked beneath. She spat out curses as she hurtled forward, her blades scissoring from both sides into his shell. Glancing hits, they did little more than scratch his armour.

 

It made no difference. She was too close now. As though they had a chance of stopping her, Onomak raised his tentacles in one last futile gesture of defence. Shaaca’s scythe sliced straight through them all, through his face, through his eye, down to the ground in a torrent of blood and black ooze. He shuddered, squirmed against death, and spread forward like raw meat.

 

The omanyte pressed themselves to the wall and wished they had hidden.

 

‘Haakmin.’

 

The enemy’s broken words trailed up to them through the night. A resounding splash followed as she fell to her knees at the other Bladesworn’s side.

 

‘Shaaca,’ he replied, his voice warming in recognition even as the last syllable gurgled through the blood pooling in his throat.

 

She traced the contours of his face with the blunt sides of her blades, her eyes darting to the wound. Onomak’s barb had punched straight through Haakmin’s chest plate, and it quivered with every shuddering breath its victim drew. Four shorter bolts protruded from his lower abdomen. Acid burns marred the side of his face. The blood running from his wounds was already starting to slow. Her throat swelled at the sight until she could barely speak.

 

Catching the look in his mate’s eyes, Haakmin spluttered out a wet, painful laugh.

 

‘Worse than I thought, then,’ he said, his whole body shaking with the exertion of speech, ‘and here... here I’d thought I might get to play the hero today.’

 

The attempt at humour was too much effort. The act dropped and he tensed in agony, mining deep into his last reserves of strength to lean up and nuzzle her face. The flats of their cheeks pressed together, they stayed still and silent as the booming voice of their leader announced the retreat. Haakmin drew a gurgling breath.

 

‘We’ve lost,’ he said. ‘Tziir knows it and... I’m gone, ‘Aaca. You need to run.’

 

He felt her tense against him. The aashnin could accept a lost battle at a stretch, but not this. Not so close to the Wall of Bones.

 

‘You have to,’ he said, cutting her off before she could even argue. ‘Kognook needs you.’

 

She leant back, glaring passionately down at him.

 

‘There are others who could raise him,’ she said, but trailed away at the look of horror on her mate’s face.

 

‘Don’t. Don’t even suggest that,’ he said with authority so unlike him that Shaaca flinched back at the alien tone. ‘He’s our son. He needs us. But he can’t have us. So he must have you. Run.’

 

‘Haakmin.’

 

The third voice, deep and sombre, came from so close by that Shaaca jumped at the sound, gaze darting about wildly before landing upon the looming form of Kabtaar Tziir. Their leader looked past her to the kabutops gasping on the ground, his shielded head lowered in respect. Slowly the aashnin became aware of four more kabutops in a defensive ring around them, the omastar pressing in on the far side.

 

‘It has been an honour, Bladesworn,’ said Tziir.

 

‘No,’ she said, darting to her feet. Omotak’s spine grated between her fins. ‘We can’t leave him; Haakmin, I’m not leaving you. You know what they do! Look what they do!’

 

Her left scythe swept out to indicate the Wall of Bones beside them, all the past enemies of the omastar piled up and compacted into an indistinguishable mass of chalky white. Tziir’s head tilted back as he surveyed it, his eyes focusing fleetingly on tiny blue tentacles in a grovyle’s head far above. He looked back when Shaaca drew in a sharp breath. Haakmin lay dead on the ground, seawater already pooling in his eye sockets and open mouth.

 

‘What did he say last, Aashnin?’ asked the kabtaar quietly, the flat of his blade grazing hers.

 

Shaaca flinched away from the contact, pulling her gaze sluggishly from her mate’s corpse. Her violet eyes met Tziir’s blue.

 

‘Run.’

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