“A nurse is the Lord’s fiercest angel.”
—Sorcha Alden, New York 1935
–Still true, New Jersey 2020
I roared at the white-furred pazathel-nax that snapped at my boots. For some kathe reason, the devil dog picked me out as the weakest in the pack. What a load of kathe. I could kill any of my brethren in a couple of tiks. Even Naraxthel. Ha. Especially Naraxthel, now that he was smitten with that useless soft female. It was better he had left us when he did, otherwise the devil dogs would be disemboweling the both of them.
“Run ahead!” I shouted to the three hunters. “Pull them away! I’ve got this mutt!”
I watched them draw the rest of the pack away, Raxkarax feigning a lame leg. I swung my raxtheza but missed the dog’s gray-white head. I parried its muzzle with my double blade, and soon its blood sprayed upon the groundcover. Two more swipes with my blades, and the dog lay dead, its entrails steaming in the rain-swept air. I double-checked my sight-capture was working. The Ikma Scabmal Kama loved to see death and mayhem.
A huge crack of lightning split the air, and I heard a sizzle in my earpiece. I watched in awe as a giant tree fell across the trail, shuddering the ground with its enormous weight.
I looked through sheets of rain, to the trail my brethren had followed, but they were gone. I heard distant shouting. Wary the devil dogs would sneak around and flank me, I cleaned my blades and jogged off the trail, finding a lesser used game path to head in their general direction.
A snarling log hit me in the shoulder and knocked against my helmet. I fell to the ground with a curse and felt the teeth of a lone devil dog worry my elbow joint. I growled and unsheathed my short sword, stabbing it in the belly. I silenced its high-pitched whine for good. I stood and aimed a disgusted kick at the huge blood-spattered corpse. More curses followed when I slipped in the mud of the trail, almost falling on my ass. I heaved great breaths from exertion, feeling heat from my anger flush my skin from my arm pits to my neck. I scowled and frowned, waiting for more pazathel-nax to lunge at me from the ikfal. Crouching in wait, I held my blades ready.
Rain poured over my armor, washing the blood and gore from its seams, as well as powering the cells. A fuzzy static pierced my earpiece. I cocked my head. “Hello? Raxkarax?” More static. “Natheka? Raxthezana?”
Kathe. That dog jostled my comm when he pounced on me. The sight-capture feed blew out as well. Once the rain stopped, I would remove my helmet and try to fix the delicate technology. For now, I was isolated.
Out of communication range.
Last seen being attacked by the vicious pazathel-nax.
My breaths increased; my heart raced. The tendons in my neck tightened.
I could not have planned this any better if I had spent ten cycles arranging it. A gust of breath escaped my lungs. If I was dead to Theraxl, I was free. I only paused a second to leave my prized blade sunk into the body of the dog. No living Iktheka would leave his raxtheza.
I spun on the trail and tore off in a different direction. Careful to step on springy undergrowth instead of black mud, I chose to hide my trail sign.
I ran for several zatiks, sometimes leaping to grab hold of a low branch and swing myself forward a veltik. The farther I ran west, the freer I felt.
No more sight-captures for the Ikma. No more nights in the Ikma’s pungent lair, filling her baser needs while my promise of posterity withered and died. No more lengthy feasts in the dining halls, pretending to be humored by others’ stories or females’ batting eyes.
On Ikthe, I was Iktheka alone, beholden to no one save my goddesses.
Holy Goddesses, I thank you for the gift presented to me. May I use it to give you glory.
My armor felt lighter. I felt a sensation like cool air lift from my belly and burst forth out of my mouth. A laugh.
Shaking my head at my foolishness, I ran on, headed for the private glade I sometimes escaped to for precious moments of solitude. I liked it because it was defensible on three sides. Protected by a defile of rocks on one side, a gulch on the other, and flanked by a stream on the third, it was perfect. It had access to the bounty of the forest on the north side. I smiled. I would be there in three days’ time, and then I could scheme how I might live out my days as an exile on Certain Death.
I stopped for short meals of speared jokal over small fires. I built them under the heaviest canopy, that the smoke filtering through the leaves became invisible. I obscured my footprints, choosing rocks and treefalls to walk upon, or reversing my walk, in places where prints were inevitable. Leaping and jumping, climbing trees or crawling through bowers, my trail sign was untraceable. Once the heavy rains descended, I would be but a memory of a dream to my fellow hunters.
I slept in the vee of the red tower trees and killed the animals that threatened to kill me first. On the morning of the third day, I smiled at the Sister Suns. Soon I would settle a camp. I would dry meat and use my hands to build a semi-permanent shelter.
I lowered myself from the tree, pulling a jeweled talathel out and twisting its jaws until they popped. I threw it to the ground for the jokapazathel and loped the remaining veltik to my glade.
I slowed to a walk, unhurried for the first time since my adolescence. I reported to no one now, save the Holy Goddesses.
Using my gloved hands to part the foliage, I came upon my glade through the deep woods. Already I heard the babbling waters of the stream where large glisten-fish swam upstream. They made a delicious soup. My mouth watered at the thought.
My eyes caught a movement, and I stilled.
I switched to my heat-vision and cursed soundly.
Holy Goddesses, do you now play a joke on your servant Hivelt? Do mine eyes see another soft traveler in truth? Do you play with Hivelt?
I zoomed in on the figure. There, in front of a small ship, stood a person of Yasheza Mahavelt’s race. I watched in disbelief as they gathered sticks and twigs and placed them in a huge pile at the back of their ship. They had been collecting for days, it would seem.
My eyes widened as I scanned the site, switching back to my natural vision. A drying rack had strips of meat and pelts draped over it. The traveler built a cairn of rocks at four corners of the glade. Another large boulder sat against the rock outcropping, a concave center collecting rainwater.
My breaths came in short bursts. My heart seemed to slow with time. I blinked, willing the sight to change. It didn’t. The soft traveler’s industry belied Yasheza’s race. Perhaps this was another race? Naraxthel’s Yasheza ran from him and hid. She took baths. This one—this one worked.
I watched for several jotiks, checking my camouflage settings obsessively. When she left her site to approach the tree line, I faded further back into the ikfal. What was she approaching so carefully? Flailing movement at ground level caught my eye. Ah. This traveler set traps.
The mahavelt’s suit was identical to Esra’s. I retreated into the ikfal an extra step but waited to see the face. If it was a female, I would turn and run, if it was—
They turned to look at me, but I knew I made no sound, my armor at maximum stealth settings. My camouflage obscured me. But she—I could see her face.
Luminous silver eyes, like the scales of the glisten-fish, saw through me and pierced the empty place where my heart was not. They shone out of a darker skin tone than Yasheza Mahavelt’s. The contrast was striking.
Her brows turned down as if she could detect my presence, and her mouth frowned. Her eyes narrowed, and she dropped her wood, taking steps toward me.
Run, Hivelt. Run and hide.
My face grew hot and I clenched my fists. My heart hammered in its heart-home, and I took a great draught of air. The little industrious trespasser built a homestead in my glade.
I reached for my raxtheza, and my hand came away empty.
She took one more step, then cocked her head. I watched her lips move as if she spoke, but I heard nothing. She turned away and resumed checking her snare.
My heart returned to its usual pace, and I relaxed my hands at my side.
By all appearances, this female intended to stay. But I would observe for a few days until I decided if she deserved the raxfathe and death.
Naraxthel spoke of corruption in Theraxl ways, and the Ikma Scabmal Kama revealed it to be so, but that didn’t mean the raxfathe didn’t have its place in the order of things. Especially when an uninvited interloper took up residence in my place of solitude and serenity.
I snarled and snapped my teeth, remnants of the pazathel-nax fight hounding my thoughts. I watched her progress along the tree line, and my eyes tracked a path to a spot in front of me. There! A clever snare utilizing a sapling sat within a long stride from me. A dead jokapazathel hung limp. Seeing she was preoccupied with her load, I cut the rodent loose and kept it for myself. A tribute.
Death and fury would be my companions tonight. I retreated further into the ikfal and climbed a tree.
Against years of his mother’s constant warnings, Thal wandered outside to the human world.
She had wanted to keep him safe, and the human world was anything but that. But in the end she had known that his destiny lay above the lake surface in the land of light; that he couldn’t live the rest of his life underwater. So she hadn’t made him promise to stay beneath. Instead, she had used her last breath to tell him how much she loved him.
And for many years after her death he had stayed in the underwater cave, living off the large mammals that shared his aquatic world. But these past long months it had become more and more challenging; the temperatures were warming outside and the animals that used to swim year round his cave had dwindled in numbers or migrated elsewhere. Food had become scarce and he’d been starving. So Thal left the safety of his cave and swam up to the surface.
The goat bleated pitifully and Amka’s resolve almost faltered. She hated using the young female as bait, but it had been a week since the last attack, and Amka was sure the monster was coming tonight; she would take no chances. The monster had been attacking every seven days, and the sounds of easy prey would lure it here; she was sure. And she was going to kill it.
The monster only attacked at night. It was quite dark tonight, and in her hiding place the monster wouldn’t see her when it attacked the goat currently stuck in the mud. Her plan was simple; to attack the monster while it was busy. Her blade was sharp and her legs eager to pounce. She waited.
She almost missed it—but the goat’s shrill cry alerted her to the spot where a shape had appeared, hovering over the ill-fated animal. She meant to wait until it attacked the goat, but her adrenaline sent her running towards the monster, as quiet as only she could be.
Still, it heard—and it whipped around so fast she didn’t have time to stop or change strategy. Something strong connected to her chest, and she went down into the sticky mud, face up, air knocked out of her. The monster she had been so sure she would kill had somehow gained all the advantage on her. As the thing that had hit her pressed her down into the mud—it was an arm holding her down, she realized—she looked up and faced her death.
It was a … man-like creature. She couldn’t see it well in the darkness, but it looked like a man, his body covered in scales, his face framed and partially hidden by long thick hair. At least, the face and eyes staring down at her looked like those of a man; only it—he—looked like nothing she had ever seen before. And she realized he was distracted, staring down at her, and the pressure in her chest had lessened. Then he bent down and sniffed her.
She didn’t wait—her arm went up with all her might, and her blade connected with his side. He yelped in surprise and backed away, and she tore out of the mud and ran away as he ran the opposite way.
She continued running until she reached her village and woke the young hunters, Torren and Aruk, to have them keep watch. They were her least favorite people, but as the village hunter it was her job to keep the village safe. She had already expected their taunts, so they didn’t really surprise her.
“You saw the fish monster? Are you sure it wasn’t your imagination, huntress Amka?” Torren asked as he grabbed his spear. He was always the first to start the jeering.
“It’s a real monster, Torren,” Aruk said in a sarcastic voice. “A monster that somehow only she saw, and that kills animals but doesn’t actually eat them.”
Amka was the best hunter in the village ever since her uncle, the last hunter chief, had been killed a month ago. These two young idiots could taunt all they wanted, but they weren’t ever going to match her speed and stealth. She brought in more game than anyone else. She knew who she was, and who they were. She was above their petty insults.
But that didn’t keep her from wanting to show them she had been right.
“You boys are probably right,” she said. “It’s my imagination, so keeping guard should be no problem for you.”
She left them there and went back to her hut. She lay awake for some time, plotting. After deciding what to do, she slept a few hours. Then she spent the next morning setting up her trap.
The trap consisted simply of covering an opening at the top of a mountain cave; she would get the monster to fall though it and land on a row of well-placed spikes in the cave below. She had discovered the cave by accident when she was young, almost falling through the same opening. She wouldn’t have survived the fall; it was quite a drop. The cave was far from the village, but she was positive that she could lure the monster there.
She had learned from her mistake and knew not to face the monster directly; he was much faster and stronger than her. But she hoped he wouldn’t resist the scent of a small piece of the elk that she had brought to her family the previous day. She carefully placed it on the false floor covering the opening; when he reached out to grab it he would fall through. Easy.
As an extra incentive, she had placed the meat within the folded breechcloth that she had worn yesterday—the monster had sniffed her; maybe he had a good sense of smell and he wouldn’t resist the prey that had attacked him last night. She had considered the goat; the poor thing had found her way back home to the village, looking for her mamma. But Amka felt guilty and decided to use leftover meat instead.
Her masterwork finished, with still plenty of light she retreated to the safety of the village. He’d never attacked there. She hoped after tonight, he never would.
Amka was up at the break of dawn the next morning and armed herself with as many weapons and rope as she could carry. She said goodbye to her parents, hugged her mother extra hard, and gave a kiss to her little siblings. She was excited and hopeful but was not conceited enough to blindly trust her skills. The monster had taken her by surprise once before.
She left when the sun was high enough in the sky that it was very bright. As she approached the cave from the top, she heard nothing, saw nothing. But when she saw her trap her heart jumped with excitement. The false floor she had carefully strewn over the opening of the cave had fallen in; carefully she peeked inside, and saw the body inside in a pool of blood.
She had done it!
She rushed to the bottom of the hill, to the hidden cave entrance. She had beaten him by simple cunning. She knew the area well, and he did not.
She came in, cautious but thrilled. And there he was. The monster was …
In the low light that filled the cavern from the opening above, she could see the man-like scaly creature was just … a boy. A young man about her age. His skin that had appeared to be scaly was just some sort of clothing or armor. The exposed parts of his skin that appeared to be gray were just caked with clay. But his face and shoulders, and bits of other areas where the clay had washed away, she could see his skin had been very pale and was now very red, as though burnt by the sun.
And now he was dead.
For some reason the kill had not brought the joy she had thought it would. Her earlier excitement when coming down the mountain had all but vanished, replaced with a strange unhappiness.
The supposed monster had been just a boy. And he was so strange-looking. So pale. She was … embarrassed that she had tricked him. How long had he lain broken at the bottom of the cave before he died? Had he suffered much?
She was supposed to take his body back with her to the village, though, to show everyone that the monster did exist and that she had been right all along. And that she was able to kill it because she was a good huntress and her uncle had been right about her in selecting her as his second in command, not long before he was killed.
By this boy at her feet.
She shook her sympathy aside and crouched next to him, then began to remove his body from the tangle of spears and sharp sticks that had been his demise. She saw several had pierced his body. She took them out carefully, grimacing at the broken flesh. When she finished, she dared look at his face again, pushing a strand of matted hair off his cheek.
Then she saw him looking at her.
She jumped back, afraid. Survival instincts made her temporarily regret pulling the spears from his body, but only for a moment. She realized right away he didn’t look like he could move. But, just to be safe, she tied his hands.
As she worked, a new excitement replaced her fear. He was alive. Maybe he would live. She would …
She would what? Sew him up and send him back to where he came?
But she couldn’t kill him. He looked so skinny and so pitiful. Her uncle had been a brawny man. How did this … boy… kill her uncle? Unless … unless it hadn’t been him. But no, she recognized the scales.
The day her uncle had been killed, she was the one that had found him, with a creature bent over him. When she approached, the creature lifted its head and ran away, but not before she had caught a glimpse of what appeared to be fish scales covering its body.
“You killed my uncle, didn’t you? You’re the same monster that killed all those animals, and my uncle.” It was more of a statement to herself, as she didn’t think he’d answer.
But he did.
In a different language, he said a few words.
That he had a language, and a soft voice, not just grunts or animal sounds, took her by surprise. He was a person.
But he’s a murderer! She corrected herself.
“It had scales like you, like that … thing … you are wearing,” she added. The image flashed before her eyes again. The scales, the size was the right size.
Something like understanding flashed before his eyes, as though he was remembering something. As though he had understood her.
He nodded, and pointed at himself, and at his scales.
“Do you understand me?” she asked suspiciously.
He lifted his hands and seemed to notice his restraints for the first time. Then he held his thumb and first finger very close together, showing her a small space between them. A little bit, she understood he meant.
“I’m not going to untie you until I know the truth.” She pointed at his tied wrists and shook her head, emphasizing no.
“Why did you do it?”
He didn’t understand that, and only gave her a questioning stare.
“Why did you kill the animals?” She thought of the several dead elk and the two large buffalo she had found over the last month, dead and discarded. But she also thought of her goat, alive with her mamma goat.
He said a word in his language and rubbed his belly.
“You killed because you were hungry?” she guessed.
“But you didn’t eat them.”
Something was off. He looked like a nice person. Maybe only because he was tied up.
“Are you still hungry?”
“Did you eat the meat I left in the trap?” she pointed to the opening above.
He followed her pointing automatically, but as he looked up to the bright opening, he squinted and looked sharply away.
“Ah, I forgot you’re a night creature,” she said. “The meat. Did you eat it?”
But he wasn’t looking at her anymore; his eyes were closed tightly. Frustrated, she looked around and found her breechcloth easily enough. The meat was still inside.
“Here, eat it,” she offered, bringing it close to his hands.
He opened his eyes and made a face she didn’t understand, and shook his head.
“What is it? You don’t eat elk? You don’t trust me to feed you? You’re upset that you fell for this particular piece of meat?” At each question he would just shake his head, and she was getting very frustrated, until she all but yelled, “What is it?”
Then very swiftly he grabbed her arm and pointed to the inside of her wrist, saying some words in his language. Alarmed that he had grabbed her, she pulled her hand back and fell silent. He then touched his own neck. She didn’t understand what he meant, so she just shook her head.
Looking frustrated, with some effort he sat up, and brought his tied hands to his mouth. Then he bit his own wrist. She gasped as she saw he had drawn blood. But he wasn’t done—he thrust out his bloodied wrist for her to see, then very deliberately brought his open wound back to his mouth, and drank.
She remembered the animals, a similar bite on them. And her dead uncle, how his neck had been ripped open.
At this, the boy nodded. Then very slowly, he bared his fangs, pointing at one of them.
She understood, and was terrified.
He was a monster.
She ran. Out of the cave and into the safety of the light. Back to her village, running.
But she thought of him all day.