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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2. Dedication and Determination

Aashnin Shaaca lurched into a crouch, head low and blades raised in a defensive cross. Her eyes darted about in the wake of a nightmare, taking in the arching sandstone walls overhead and a shallow dip cut into the ground beneath her, ringed with stones and filled with white sand. Down below, the shoreline arched inward on Kabutops Bay, stretching all the way to the opposing arm of the cliff side. Her cave, her ka’aan and her vista, all lit with the golden light of late afternoon, all as usual.

 

All utterly wrong.

 

With a ragged hiss of fury she surged to her feet and stormed out of her cave onto a narrow path cut into the cliff face. Every joint ached. Her first stint of sleep in over a week had done nothing to restore her: the skin between her armoured plates crinkled and cracked after hours spent standing in the baking sun day after day.

 

Shaaca ignored it. A building, all-consuming fire spread through her flesh and pulsed in her temples. The healers, the shiraari, they must have knocked her out and dragged her away from her post. She couldn’t possibly have just fallen asleep, not when she needed Kognook- when Kognook needed her so very badly.

 

Her talons dug into the sand as she descended onto the beach, the fire in her veins gathering into a concentrated point of pain just above her left eye. A few young warriors darted out of her way as she strode past them through the surf, sneaking backward glances at the aashnin as she shook her head sharply. The pain wouldn’t shift. She had no time to deal with it.

 

Angular eyes narrowing, the black kabutops reached the far cliff side. A thin stretch of rock coiled around its edge, protruding a good scythe’s length above the waves, and Shaaca advanced along it. Her wings buzzed at her back. The healers looked up at the noise as she neared the shiraan, the place where the tribe kept their sick. It hunkered against the looming cliff, protected from the sea by a rough pentagon of tall, upright slabs of stone. Within, thirteen ka’aan provided comfortable beds for injured kabu. Of late, those ka’aan had become the last solid ground many would feel beneath them.

 

‘Aashnin Shaaca,’ said the newest head shiraar as the furious warrior stepped between the standing stones.

 

A young male barely over fifty years old, Shiraar Zehiir had none of his predecessor’s authority. His blunt healer’s scythes crossed awkwardly above his knees, shoulders hunching and helmed head stooping subserviently as he found himself under the full scrutiny of Shaaca’s violet gaze. Her own sickles flexed with disdain at the thought of this scrawny little creature dragging her away from her son.

 

‘Yes?’ she spat out, her usual mask of stoicism utterly translucent with such fury brewing beneath.

 

The shiraar dithered, words catching in his throat, but a few seconds under her seething gaze were more than he could take. He withdrew soundlessly, extending one rounded scythe in the direction of her son.

 

Three ka’aan sat empty where weakening warriors had lain in the morning, Shaaca noticed with dead indifference. She stepped slowly toward the furthest corner of the shiraan, relying on the proud angle of her head to disguise her reluctant dawdle as a noble, sombre gait. Shiraar Rinaari, the delicate little kabutops charged with Kognook’s care, drained the last of the water from his ka’aan and excused herself quietly as the aashnin approached. Under any other circumstances, Shaaca would have appreciated the wordless deference. Here, she wasn’t so sure.

 

Alone, she stared down at the tiny kabuto huddled in the sand. He would have been – he was going to be – seven years old in a matter of weeks, but Kognook hadn’t grown much larger than a new hatchling. In health, he never allowed that to stop him. Watching his shell tremble now, his needle legs groping pitiably for something unseen, Shaaca longed for the lurch of her heart as she caught him scaling some precipice, if only for the exhausting surge of relief when she felt his meagre weight on her head, safe and babbling about his new friends amongst the wingull.

 

‘I’m here,’ she breathed.

 

She swallowed her voice, let her words out as mere exhalations. Any louder and Kognook would only hear the grief, not his mother. That couldn’t happen.

 

‘Hullo, Kognook.’

 

Twitching fitfully, the kabuto reached out for her, stretching blindly through the deadening haze of fever for a comforting touch. The desperation in his movements struck Shaaca like a physical blow, fit to rend her in two for all her armour plating.

 

She froze in the act of offering one blunted scythe to her son, remembering the way other kabutops had lain beside their offspring when the disease first struck the tribe, well before it stole away those hatchlings and their parents alike. She had never been able to do the same, not with the shiraari watching and her title buoying her upright. Those kabutops looked beaten, as though they knew what was coming and lacked the strength to fight against it. Their slack limbs and lowered faces made it clear to all that they had given up on their offspring. Shaaca could never do the same.

 

But Kognook lay suffering and her chest was tearing apart. The sight of him filled her head with lead. It pushed her to her knees; it lowered her to the ground. For the first time in her life, Aashnin Shaaca prostrated herself on the stone. She pressed the sleek contour of her cheek to Kognook’s trembling shell and ducked her chin so he could settle himself on her head when his claws found the arch of her brow.

 

He couldn’t climb. Too weak to find purchase on the smooth obsidian, he scratched at her shell, plaintive at first, then panicking, his breath sawing as his legs strained to lift him. He slipped, gouging Shaaca’s eyelid with his talons, and she caught him on the back of her scythe, sweeping him under the broad shield of her head to nestle against her throat. There were no words. As maimed as her son, the aashnin hummed tunelessly against Kognook’s shuddering shell and sheltered him from the world. But she could not keep him safe.

 

* * *

 

Within the kabutops’ maze of tunnels cut deep into the cliffs, Raakin Zetaahn screeched to a halt. His scythes gouged the sandstone walls and his talons grasped at empty space; a colossal cleft that stretched across the path gaped between his toes. Swallowing, he worked his heels back until he stood on both feet. Close call. Water cascaded from the ceiling in front of him, so close his helm glistened with spray. The liquid veil plummeted indefinitely through the chasm; he winced at the echo as a few unfortunate lumps of rock tumbled down with it.

 

Not that he was afraid of a little drop. No. Young and thin, Zetaahn could climb right back up the gap. It was narrow enough he could reach both sides, it would be easy. He could do it blunt-scythed. No doubt about it.

 

He tugged his blades from the wall and paused to still his clacking knees. Through the waterfall, he made out the vague shapes of a whole congregation of kabutops. Idly shaking his left sickle in the hopes of dislodging an impaled pebble, he tilted his head closer to the spray, listening intently. No steady thrum of voices filtered back.

 

The junior warrior frowned. He was fairly sure he was late. Very late, in fact. So late he had expected to catch his kabtaar halfway through one of his usual speeches, providing the perfect backdrop for Zetaahn’s own soaring leap into the centre of attention, possibly including some sort of somersault. Then again, perhaps he could make use of the silence too. He could enter with the refined, regal gait of the kabtaar himself, head held high, scythes folded casually at his sides, the picture of suave excellence.

 

‘Raakin,’ a deep voice boomed, the kabutops word for warrior apprentice laced with the first warning hiss of irritation, ‘either you will step inside or you will return to whatever enthralling activity made you late in the first place. Eavesdropping will earn you nothing.’

 

Yelping, Zetaahn leapt reflexively through the waterfall and into the middle of a round, vaulted chamber. He stumbled to a halt right beside the largest kabutops in the cave. The kabtaar was nearly twice Zetaahn’s height, with dark brown armour and ornamental cuts sliced into his shield-shaped helm. He regarded the raakin with guarded blue eyes. The rest of the tribe stared in amusement or derision – Zetaahn chose not to differentiate.

 

‘I’m sorry I’m late,’ he said quickly, tripping into a clumsy bow that nearly brought his head smacking into the chest of his leader.

 

‘Quite,’ Kabtaar Tziir replied, raising his gaze from the raakin to the crowd as a whole. ‘If you will kindly join your fellows, I will continue.’

 

Zetaahn crept to the back as his elder’s voice shifted from stern to emphatic.

 

‘For all the losses we have suffered from this plague,’ Tziir said, ‘the omastar have made no move against us. Some have postulated a fledgling sense of honour in the enemy, but I know this is not so. Some have suggested we no longer present a threat to the omastar, but I know, and every kabutops knows, that this can never be.’

 

Sidestepping his way through the crowd, Zetaahn ducked in beside a sandy-gold coloured kabutops.

 

‘Siira,’ he hissed.

 

The pale raakin ignored him entirely, her clear blue eyes trained attentively on the Kabtaar.

 

‘Siira!’ he said again, elbowing her in the side.

 

‘What?’ she snapped back at a whisper, glaring at him.

 

‘Hullo,’ he said, earning a roll of her eyes. ‘How did the kabtaar know I was there?’

 

She huffed irritably. ‘You squealed like a mammal! And your nose stuck right through the water. Everyone was staring while you were dallying out there. You know,’ she added, glowering, ‘I’m actually ashamed on your behalf. So just shut up and pay attention.’

 

Duly chided, the skinny male aimed his gaze at the ground, scuffing the stone with his heel. At the head of the crowd, Kabtaar Tziir displayed the full shield of his head, eyes flashing.

 

‘They are waiting. They lie low in their bay, biding their time, building their strength as ours seems to wane: they do not want to fight us at full strength. They would not seek out conflict with half our warriors, nor a third, nor a quarter. They will wait until this disease has stripped us down to the last sickle. And then they will take this bay like the scavengers they are. That is why they have sent this disease against us: they are cowards and they are weak and they know no other way of defeating us, primarily because there isn’t one.

 

Zetaahn raised his head at this. He was used to proclamations of the kabutops’ strength, he had never questioned it, so while Tziir’s words on the matter were often stirring, they never covered new ground. But the notion of blame had never come from the kabtaar before.

 

Two months earlier, the plague claimed its first life. He was elderly, one of the warriors too old to fight – tmiirin, and something of a hermit, living amongst the rock pools past the shiraan, well out of sight of the main bay. His passing turned no heads. But then the other elders began to die, then the kabuto, then the active warriors too. Even the shiraari fell sick. The tribe shrank to the youngest kabutops, those scarcely ready for combat at all.

 

Aashnin Shaaca condemned the omastar as the perpetrators, but no-one else seemed to agree. Though Zetaahn latched onto the idea as if it was his own, quite ready to follow his champion into battle when they finally marched for retribution, Kognook’s sickness stopped all that. The aashnin withdrew from public affairs, and the words of a lowly raakin like him made no difference on their own. But here was the kabtaar uttering them nevertheless. Had the tribe’s mind finally opened to his logic?

 

‘Haste is crucial. We will strike before the plague takes any more of our warriors. Wasting any more time will only increase their advantage.’

 

Tziir paused as the gathered kabu swapped glances. Zetaahn bounced on the balls of his feet, beaming at Siira, who looked back wide-eyed and enthusiastic.

 

‘Scouting is, as ever, necessary. The group will be small for the sake of speed. One warrior and a tactician will do.’ Tziir stopped, frowning. ‘What is it, Raakin Zetaahn?’

 

‘I can do it, Kabtaar!’ Zetaahn bobbed at the back, eyes wide and pleading. ‘Can I go? I can fight and scout and-’

 

‘I think not,’ said Tziir. ‘The omastar are vicious and often unpredictable. Until you have undergone further training, none of the raakinoi are prepared to face them. Hence I have decided to send Telniin Raahn and Aashnin Shaaca. In the meantime, I will teach you myself. And yes, that is my final decision.’

 

Zetaahn stepped further forward, the raakinoi separating him from the kabtaar parting to give him room.

 

‘The aashnin won’t want to go,’ he argued, hurt but not yet dissuaded. ‘She’s too busy with Riin Kognook.’

 

Kabtaar Tziir’s head rose sharply. ‘Aashnin Shaaca’s potential loss does not void her obligations to this tribe. She will go, regardless of personal feelings.’

 

‘But-’

 

‘No.’

 

The meeting ended soon after. Any hope of cornering the kabtaar and making a few further pleas was thoroughly shredded by Tziir’s warning look as Zetaahn approached. Head down and sulking, the raakin trailed behind him until Siira’s arm darted through his. Zetaahn blinked, peering back at her. Her whole body was rock-still with excitement, blue eyes gleaming.

 

‘This is amazing!’ she blurted as soon as the last kabutops disappeared through the spray. She unhooked their interlocking arms and danced away.

 

Zetaahn watched her dubiously as she pirouetted across the stone floor, her blades audibly slicing through the air with each spin.

 

Not going on the scouting trip?’ he said sullenly.

 

She stopped, cocking her head to the side as he turned to sharpen his ruined blades against a protruding rock.

 

‘We’re going to be taught by one of the Bladesworn! By Tziir himself. If that doesn’t make me the next kabtaar, I don’t know what will.’

 

‘But I want to be a champion, not a leader,’ Zetaahn grumbled, inspecting the edge of one scythe. ‘I need experience. I can’t believe that kabuto telniin is getting it instead.’

 

He flinched as Siira grabbed him from behind, her scythes crossing over his chest. She pushed her helmed head over his shoulder, thrusting his out of the way at an uncomfortable angle.

 

‘Siira-’

 

‘Then what we need,’ she said impishly, ignoring his complaints, ‘is to get you on that trip. And I’ve got just the plan.’

 

* * *

 

The healers flinched and scattered as Shaaca raised her gaze to glare at their kabtaar.

 

‘I am not going,’ she refused point-black, purple eyes venomous. ‘I’m surprised you had the gall to ask me, Tziir.’

 

Her acid tone, her blatant pain stung him at the heart, but Kabtaar Tziir refused to break eye contact with the obsidian kabutops.

 

‘You are still my aashnin, Shaaca,’ he said firmly, light gleaming over the symmetrical slices in his armour her scythes had once carefully carved. ‘We need your help and your presence here isn’t helping Kognook in the slightest. The only way you can save him is to cut off this disease at the root.’

 

‘And if that doesn’t help him? If it only stops it from infecting more of us?’ she said, sharper blade lifted threateningly.

 

Tziir’s scythes darted up in response. His muscles tightened reflexively across his shoulders.

 

Only stops it from infecting more of us? Only? This mission has the potential to save the entire tribe, but it’s below your notice because there’s a chance ten of over fifty might still die?’

 

Shaaca straightened up, her arms falling to her sides. For all the harsh glint in her eyes she looked miserable, defeated and alone; nothing like herself. Seeing her like this cooled his fury like nothing else.

 

‘Shaaca.’

 

‘This mission would be below my notice even if it saved every kabu bar Kognook,’ she said, voice stretched thin with bitterness. ‘None of you mean anything to me. You can all die before I leave his side.’

 

Shock forced Tziir back against a standing stone with a crack of armoured fin against rock. He stared at her in disbelief. She looked back, characteristic fierceness frozen and desperate, so potent the kabtaar could feel it himself. Or maybe that was just his own despair, brought on by the realisation that someone bright and altruistic had crumbled like this: brought low and hopeless. Slowly he realised the sight of her, bright-eyed with grief, with those words hanging between them, made him physically sick.

 

‘I won’t go on your fool’s errand, Kabtaar.’

 

Her head didn’t turn as one of the newly evolved kabutops skidded to a halt behind her, his dark eyes wide as he babbled out the newest bout of terrible news.

 

‘I suggest you leave me alone and get on with your duty.’

 

Incapable of holding her gaze, Tziir willed a flimsy veneer of composure over his features. He stepped past her with what little grace he could muster and gestured to the raakin that they should talk elsewhere. The younger kabutops bounded out of the shiraan, evidentially more than happy to put distance between himself and the aashnin.

 

For the first time, Tziir could only agree.

 

* * *

 

It’s working! was all Zetaahn could think as Siira dangled from the vines of Niva, a carnivine from the neighbouring jungle.

 

He stood at the mouth of the meeting room tunnel and watched sheer panic spread below. The cacophony of worried shouts and claws on rock made the perfect orchestral backdrop to his imminent feats of heroism, he couldn’t help but observe.

 

Grinning, he peered down in search of the distinguishing bulk of the kabtaar amongst the throng of the younger, smaller generation. There was no sign of Tziir. Instead, another raakin sped by Zetaahn’s hiding place: Raakin Kaziir, a kabutops known to have no inhibitions about jumping into battle head first, irrespective of his opponent.

 

‘Not good!’ Zetaahn brayed, leaping from the lip of the tunnel to the beach.

 

Stumbling, he found his footing and raced full-tilt up the slope. The other kabutops had a head start, but Zetaahn was speed personified. He won every race, he outran every raakin, he caught every sort of prey.

 

And apparently he struggled when it came to hills. Panting before he reached the halfway point, he glanced up to see Siira jerk her head meaningfully toward Kaziir. For all his reputation as the fastest sprinter around, Zetaahn realised with building dread that he couldn’t catch up.

 

‘Wait, don’t!’ he cried to no avail, as the other raakin reached Niva and slashed out with razor-sharp blades.

 

Years of peaceful cohabitation meant nothing when a kabutops’ scythe was forcibly involved. Rearing back, a shallow slice across her yellow underbelly spewing thick green blood, Niva hurled Siira aside. One leafy arm slammed down into Kaziir’s back and he ploughed into the ground. He spluttered sand as he hissed, arching his back to force the carnivine away, but her weight thrust down against his shoulders. Her free arm caught him solidly across the face.

 

‘Niva!’ Siira roared.

 

The plant’s huge head snapped up, twisting to face the oncoming raakin. Wide-set eyes narrowing, she let out an angry bellow and smashed Kaziir across the back with the thickest of her vines. One of his fins tore on impact. Blood arched and splattered across the sand as the trapped male let out a horrified scream.

 

‘How could you?’

 

Choked with fury, Siira surged into the air, blades arching forward. Niva’s enormous mouth gaped open, a salvo of seeds catching the pale raakin in the chest and buffeting her out of the air.

She sprang up into a crouch and ducked down behind her scythes so the last projectiles glanced off with splitting retorts.

 

‘How could you?’ snarled the carnivine, lifting her weight from Kaziir. ‘You said there would be no-’

 

Her words split into a surprised bawl as the injured raakin leapt to his feet, hacking clear through one of her supporting vines. As Zetaahn reached the top of the slope, Kaziir caught Niva solidly in the chest with his head, only for a rain of purple sludge to burst from her jaws and splatter across his shell. The raakin’s armour sizzled. Staggering back, the injured kabutops tore gaping gouges in the sweep of his helm, desperately trying to sooth the hurt with blades kept too sharp for safe contact.

 

In the corner of his eye, Zetaahn saw Siira stretch into the start of a run, but he was closer. As Kaziir flailed, Niva closed her jaws around his midsection, hauling him from the ground. The thorns lining her mouth bit into the raakin’s sides, bending around his armoured plates and lodging in the gaps. Petrified, Zetaahn let out a desperate battle cry and leapt into the fray. Niva lashed out at him but he dodged the blow, darting close. Although fear and inexperience drove nervous bile into his throat, for the moment his mind focused only on the strike. His blade shot forward with every ounce of strength he possessed.

 

Before he could even process what he was doing, Zetaahn cut clear through the exposed join between Niva’s head and body. He landed with a thud, tripping over his own feet. It was only when Kaziir crawled close to him, coated in acid, slime and blood, that Zetaahn realised the truth: he had killed her.

 

Sitting there, stunned, his mind remained a beautiful blank. He barely registered Siira as she stumbled over to sit by his side. They stared blindly into space, Kaziir shuddering in the sand, until the kabtaar’s words brought them hurtling back to the present.

 

‘Raakin,’ said Tziir, his voice unusually flat, ‘it seems I have misjudged you.’

 

Zetaahn blinked. His eyes rolled up to the kabtaar, who stared down at him with a hard look in his eyes, and then back to the ground as his stomach began to churn. Desperately he tried to think of sand, stone, anything that wouldn’t aggravate the nausea taking a firm hold of his head but-

 

In an attempt to avoid throwing up on his leader, the raakin rolled over and buried his head in a bush as he lost the battle over his lunch. Blood. How disgusting.

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