It washes over my mind like a cool wind. I can't grasp it.
All over the village, the people who would glare at me with abstract disgust- now look at me as a member of the tribe.
It had been a few days since the Mashra, and already the surreal aspect of it all left me unable to reciprocate the kind words I'd received. Days before, few would speak to me, and if they did it was to show their disdain. The perfect example was the Weaponmaster, Shak'ra. Shak'ra was in charge of the keeping of all extraneous weapons and tools in case of a large-scale attack. Before he had shown nothing but prejudice towards me, calling my improvised arsenal "fraudulent toys," but now that people were talking about my shoulder sling, just the day after the Mashra, he had asked me how it worked.
I was stunned into silence, and almost lashed out.
"I know…." he began, his albino tusks clicking in thought. "That the village hasn't been kind to you, and you have no reason to treat us as fellow tribesmen- as such, I get it if you don't wish to share your trade secrets, Zorlin."
"You are right, you haven't been. How many times have you insulted my craftsmanship?"
His red eyes softened, and he lowered his head.
"You must understand- an Unknown never, at least almost never, rises to the rank of Young Blood. We are amazed at your strength. Well, most of us. Of course there are those who claim you a coward, but most applaud you-"
"Only after killing two, and maiming six, Hunters, in a pointless duel when one would have sufficed. Your bigotry and blind-sighted hatred of me cost a Hunter his arm, and two their lives. They were all excellent fighters- they deserved to live, to Hunt with the best of us. Instead, they were snuffed."
"I don't understand. They were weak. They deserved to die if they were foolish enough to challenge you."
"You are once again correct, Shak'ra, you don't understand."
With that, I walked away, my anger burning bright.
These arrogant, nearsighted cowards had the gall to beat me, to shame me, to spit on me, and force me into a purposeless fight, and then they praise me for meeting their foolish expectations?
None I spoke to seemed to console me, only making me angrier and angrier. I left the village that night, and hunted until noon. I returned, and gave my kills up to Tikla, the old merchant woman from before.
Tikla was one of very few who showed me kindness before my Blood had changed color from Unblooded to Young Blooded. So of course, I smiled warmly and greeted her kindly.
"Welcome, young one. I am happy you returned. Rumor had it you had been stewing."
My grin went slack.
"Why should my mood be light? These fools have never been kind to me until now."
"I thought you would be happy? All these years you've been going on about earning their respect. You have that."
I growled lightly.
"I earned their respect by killing two of my kind. Worthy Hunters. I didn't relish in their death, and I think of them daily."
"As do I."
She said, purring sadly.
I looked curiously at her. She had greying dreads, and a pale-orange eye that was paired with a blinded eye accented by a large scar from her Hunting years. She wore a unique outfit, due to its covering of her entire body. Tikla said that unlike the rest of the Clan, she found the jungle unbearably cold, and covered herself day and night. Pelts were strewn together by sinews, which were adorned by bones. Spines, jaws, and simple femurs were detailed with teeth, tail bones, fangs, and even fresh eyes stuck on the end of little bone-needles that were replaced daily. Tikla said she displayed the best kills she was given as a tribute to the Hunters that supply the village. Right now, though, both of her eyes were cloudy, and she looked somber.
"What troubles you, Tikla?"
"It warms me to see you thinking of Kori'fo."
"Ah, yes, they don't tell you the names of the Hunters you face. Kori'fo was the tall Unblooded with the fire-orange eyes and scar on his chest."
The one I killed with the war club.
"Kori'fo….I murdered him," I said, more to myself than to Tikla.
Suddenly she looked up.
"No, dear child. Kori'fo, like you, aimed for the status of Young Blood. And to hear your regret, and your kindness, it..." she broke up, and let out a single, hoarse sob through her tusks.
"It warms my heart. You are a Hunter of great skill and even greater heart, Zorlin. I've no doubt you will make a fine Elite one day."
I nodded my head, but felt an emptiness.
What is the point in the status if all I feel is anger and regret?
I was paid by Tikla, and continued on, and noticed the Elder's tent was smoking with the smell of Ba'jana. No doubt, the Elder was holding counsel for himself. I decided I needed to know. For myself, and for those that died, what it meant to be Young Blood.
I walked slowly, trying to slow my breath, but the Ba'jana filled my lungs, and I felt my mind slow down to a creep. My mind was methodical, but even as I took my steps towards the throne, I felt sluggish, and was acting before my mind would lag up to meet the action. I looked at the throne and it took me a moment to recognize the physique of the Elder.
"Ah, the vigorous one returns to the fold. I had heard you were angry. Do you come to bear your heart?" the Elder said.
He was sitting relaxed in his throne, a long, carved Ba'jana pipe was sitting on the rest of his right arm. It was filled to the brim with the Ba'jana ashes, and the long pipe's mouthpiece was covered in the brown-grey ashes of the alchemical wonder known as Ba'jana. The other end was spewing the resulting fog smoke.
"Perhaps...I simply wish to understand the purpose of it all."
"All?" the Elder clicked his tusks in mirth.
"I do not profess to know all, even a sliver would be generous, Zorlin. But I will do what I can."
He sat up, eyes attentive. His dark blue eyes pierced me, and I could see for the first time how utterly ferocious the Elder could be. In those eyes- I saw an animal edge that was hiding beneath his exterior. At a moment, the Elder could lunge, and tear my skull from my spine. It would be no feat. But despite his strength- his awe-inspiring power, the Elder was the most gentle Hunter I'd known. He was a staunch traditionalist, I was told, in his younger years as an Elder, but in the years leading up to my induction into the Clan, he had started caring less about the stringent rules of Yautja Prime, and more about furthering our people's evolution as a species.
Do not mistake that for liberal thought- the Elder stomped out any cowardice with a righteous fury, and he had told me more than once to never build a device that would take all the chance to defend or escape from my prey- if I did so, said weapon was a coward's tool, and must not be used.
I was at a loss, until I came to my senses when the Ba'jana filled me once more.
"I...do not understand the purpose of murdering a fellow Hunter."
"Murder? You see Mashra as murder, pup?"
"It wasn't a fair match up. None of them, excepting Rathaka, had near to no similar experience."
"You see yourself better them, then?"
I was taken aback. The question wasn't hostile; merely a question.
"No, Elder. I do not place myself above any other Hunter. My worth is my own."
He clapped his hands in joy, and pointed a claw at me.
"You see?" he began, clicking once again in laughter, "This humbleness of yours is why Rathaka lost!"
"Rathaka is so busy focusing on bloodlines and castes that he has not utilized his birthright properly. You, on the other hand, who was born without blood, born without even a lowly caste, utilized your potential because of this!"
"So you too see that Rathaka is not weak?"
"Weak? No, stupid, more like. He has the strength twice of my own at his age. He's an incredible power to be reckoned with. But he is like a Neutronium Gem that's just been flaunted all it's life with no cutting edge to sharpen it."
"Extravagant and valuable...but none too sharp?"
"Exactly. But enough of Rathaka. What really plagues you..."
He stops, and leans back into the Ba'jana mouthpiece and takes a long, odorous and noisy taste of the Ba'jana.
"Is the deaths of the two Unblooded...yes?"
"I tried sparing them, Elder. But I killed them."
"In honorable combat, Zorlin."
"Where is the honor in the death of a Hunter who had potential to be great?"
The Elder growled lowly.
"Your questioning is natural, but it is a dangerous line to cross. To doubt the Honor Code is to walk the line of the Badblood."
I roared lightly in response.
"If questioning the failures of our people is considered traitorous, then kill me now!"
The Elder moved quicker than any man or beast I'd fell, and with nary a sound, a sparkling sharp Wrist Blade was at my throat.
"You may have your wish sooner than later, pup. Do not forget that Mashra is an equal ground. Those Hunters knew what they were doing when they entered the ring."
My heart was pounding in my chest- but I refused to be culled.
"No, they didn't. They were ignorant of my experience and ignorant of my armaments."
The blade inched closer, grazing my uncovered neck.
In a low, dangerous voice, the Elder had a rebuttal.
"Ignorance is no excuse- for both them, and you."
"I am not ignorant of the Honor Code, Elder. I came to you to ask what meaning, what honor, there is in the death of the two Hunters I fell. I am not here to argue whether or not the Mashra was murder- simply if their deaths had any meaning."
The Elder's vigilant eyes softened, and his Wrist Blade whistled back into its sheath, and he sat back down.
"I know you see it as murder. I know you see it as senseless. Perhaps it is. But it has been the way all have risen from birth. I do not ask you to understand, or condone the laws and codes of our people, only that you respect them, pup."
"But why, Elder? Why respect a system that forces us to cannibalize our own warriors? The two Hunters were skilled, and the one that will never hunt again even more so."
"There is a simple truth we abide by- you were stronger."
"And no matter how awful the action- my strength makes me correct?"
"You say you are not ignorant- but you show it more and more. It is not just your strength. It is the way you exercise it within the bounds of our people's laws. Effort within restriction to temper a strength. There is no sport in killing the worthy ruthlessly. We abide within our people's regulations, Zorlin, so as to make sure that at the end of the Hunt, we have killed with grace and respect, and hopefully, with aim."
"The laws bend for those that see its flaws."
The Elder went silent, and for a moment, I thought he'd have my head.
"You remind me of an old Bloodskull Elite."
I flushed in color at the compliment.
"Aye. But don't take that wholly as a compliment. He was a flawed and scarred man, Bonah."
The Elder gripped his chin in thought, and tapped his claw against his jaw. In an instant, he whirled the smoke around the tent with his empty arm.
"I will tell you of Bonah Spinestring, the Bloodskull Badblood."
My heart dropped. But I relaxed on my knees and let the Ba'jana show me the Elder's story.
It was hundreds of years prior to Tu'ratha's Elderdom. Tu'ratha's father, Tu'rak, led the clan in staunch traditionalism. The Unknowns died, the weak were culled, and the laws were observed. There was one Blooded who was well known for his opposition to the ways of Tu'rak.
He was Bonah Spinestring. Bonah had earned his ranks through silent efficiency. He spoke very little, and never in combat. Tu'ratha was but a child when Bonah had earned the rank of Young Blood. Tu'ratha's memories swirled in the Ba'jana, and I saw Bonah as clearly as Tu'ratha did the day he saw his Mashra. Bonah moved effortlessly throughout the small dirt arena, slithering like a snake past seemingly foolish and slow blows. Tu'ratha said that the Hunter Bonah was fighting was rather fast for the norm, which put in perspective Bonah's abilities.
In an instant, Bonah sweeped the legs of his opponent, and brought a claw to his throat, pulling his head up by the locks of his skull. Bonah's eyes were that of a true predator, his quills were sharp, and though he was small for a Hunter, his muscles were packed with power, which obviously had been honed to their sharpest. His eyes were a cold orange as the words formed in his mouth.
"I declare Mashra."
His words were empty, void of the usual rage or passion of an Unblooded in the pit. The crowd was eerily silent. His opponent thrashed in Bonah's grip.
"I can still fight, you coward! Let me up and I will end you!"
Previously the unknown Hunter's arms were pinned to the ground from his landing stance, but now he moved to reply to Bonah's pinning.
"I'll kill you, you filthy Spinestr-"
Before the word reached the crowd, Bonah smashed the enemy Hunter's skull into the ground, rendering him unconscious and bleeding.
"I once again declare Mashra."
This time, Bonah's adversary didn't reply. And the crowd watched in complex awe and fear at Bonah's ruthless efficacy, and more so at him leaving the arena silentily.
It did not take Bonah long to rise to Blooded, but already had begun to voice quietly his disapproval of the way the Bloodskulls were going.
During a particularly heated mid-rank meeting, Tu'rak's eldest son, Tu'ram, had been arguing with the young Hunter from a stance of elder status. Bonah, customarily, would have withdrawn his opposition and apologized for his disrespect. Instead, he pushed it further. By this time, Tu'ratha was barely a Young Blood and was only allowed into the meeting due to his Elder lineage. The meeting was about the next move of the village to take place in a few weeks, since the last move 5 years previous, a custom said to be done in order to avoid the wrath of the only creature a Yautja would fear; the Gro'tye.
Withdrawn into myself, I recounted the information I knew of the greatest predators known to us. Gro'tye were giant apes, the size of the dwellings of Yautja Prime, some ten or so stories, with muscles down to the atom packed with primal power. Very rarely had a singular Hunter been successful against a Gro'tye, even less against fully grown adult ones. They ran on their knuckles similar to some simians from Terra, and could destroy entire forests, turning them into makeshift plains. They were apex above all, and did not fear anything. In the ancient days, it was an honor to cull the young of the Gro'tye, or in times of desperation, to poison the females of their units. Gro'tye used to number in the millions- now they were a rarer phenomena. Here on N'tar, they have shaped our people considerably.
"It is pure nonsense. Moving the village every year due to pure superstition? We barely have our irrigation and farms set up due to the wet season. Without them, our tribe will starve. If we are attempting to avoid Gro'tye attention, we should focus on better waste tactics-"
"Waste tactics?" Tu'ram boomed. "What kind of Hunter would care where they relieve themselves? You foolish whelp, we change the location of our village because it is what the Elders have decided for generations. Do you mean to say you know better than the Elder of our village?"
"Our Elder is as ignorant as me when it comes to betterment. If he wanted stability and prosperity, he wouldn't move the village."
"You insignificant-" Tu'ram yelled, and swept the plans of the move on the table onto the cold hard dirty ground.
"You are out of line, Spinestring! Hold your tongue!" another Elite said.
"You're all blind. Gro'tye care not for our placement. It is pure chance that we have avoided them all these years. They only care about their own movements."
"What would you know about Gro'tye?" Tu'ratha seethed.
The room grew quiet.
"Tu'ratha is ignorant. Shall I inform him?" Bonah said quietly.
"If you deign," Tu'ram replied, "It will change nothing."
"The Spinestrings were an offshoot of the Bloodskulls, young Elderblood." Bonah began.
Bonah leaned forward and began to weave a vast story from underneath his simplistic biomask.
Bonah told that at one point, in the ancient days, the Bloodskulls were the 'royal' tribe of N'tar. They ruled over several other tribes. But, one day, the Gro'tye rampaged and left all but a few tribes alive. The Bloodskulls had protected their sister tribe, and the representative of the Jungle Hunters, the Scarseekers. Most of the surviving villages had only survived based on the fact that they were not in the way of the Gro'tye's wrath.
Only one survived the brunt of the assault- the Spinestrings.
The Elites of the Spinestrings had used fire-fear tactics, using fire to panic the younger Gro'tye, and shadows of the large and rare Sear-hangers (a titanic avian native to N'tar's higher atmosphere) to herd the familial unit that had attacked their village.
The Spinestrings were famed throughout the Yautja Tribes as the first to manipulate the Gro'tyte...unfortunately, this did not save them nearly a hundred years previous to Bonah's objections. Once more, the Gro'tye rampaged for unknown reasons, and laid waste to all the villages, including the Scarseekers. Only the Bloodskulls remained. The few survivors of the other clans were assimilated, and the Bloodskulls emerged as the most powerful of the clans in N'tar's systems due to this. Bonah's father, and older kinsister, were the only Spinestrings that survived. Bonah's father had been having a lustful romp with the anonymous kinsister leagues from the village in the canopies of the Jungle. He survived with extreme remorse and guilt, and was dishonored all his days. Bonah's kinsister killed herself as honor dictates but not before she gave birth to Bonah. Bonah's father barely stayed alive long enough for Bonah to receive the Spinestring memento necklace. Then Bonah's father, too, committed suicide for his honor gone. Bonah lived only for one purpose- the Hunt. He had no tribe. No family, he said. He only wanted to immerse himself in the complexities of the Hunt.
"So...young Eldersblood, know this...I care not for the honor of our tribe. Honor is a bygone conclusion – I was born dishonored. All I do- I do for the Hunt. I am not foolish like you or Tu'ram. Changing the village's location is meaningless. We have never discovered why the Gro'tye rampage, only that they do. The Elders before us believed that changing the location of our abodes would save us from their wrath, but the truth is the Gro'tye do not target our villages- they simply rampage and happen upon our villages. Most likely-"
Bonah said, looking Tu'ram in the eye.
"Due to the fact that our waste flows east-to-west rather than north-to-south, which leaves behind an acrid stench for miles. The Gro'tye simply follow that perfume like a trail."
"What nonsense!" an Elite cried out.
"The Gro'tye, our only competing predator species, paying attention to such minute details!" another rang out.
Tu'ratha was silent, pondering the rebellious Bonah's words. The others dismissed them entirely, but it made sense to the young Eldersblood.
"So we should stay in one spot all cycle round? Isn't that just as risky, Bonah?"
Tu'ram and the others quieted. Tu'ratha's questioning seemed to almost validate Bonah's line of thinking. Tu'ram looked aghast at his brother's curiosity.
"We play a game of chance either way. But changing our habits is the best way to avoid disaster. At least, until we discover why the beasts are ablaze at the time."
Tu'ratha and Bonah were different by no small margin. But at that moment, Tu'ratha developed an immense amount of respect for Bonah. He may not be traditional, but he was smarter than most.
Bonah, despite the objections of his peers, quickly rose to Elite by pure prowess. Tu'rak didn't like Bonah anymore than his kinbrothers, but couldn't deny his skill. Bonah brought in more kills than all the other Blooded combined, and rivaled the Ancients in tenacity.
But then came his Falling.
One wet summer evening, the move began, and Bonah, along with all the other Elites, were in the Elder's tent. They were coordinating the move, when Bonah spoke his opposition once again.
"This is madness. We do not have enough stores of food and supplies for the winter! If we move now, we will unduly suffer during the harsh Winter months!"
There was a blizzard of showers screaming their song of fury outside the tent, but all could hear the rebel's call.
All Hunters looked to the Elder, waiting for his admonishment of the disloyal Elite.
Instead, Tu'rak simply shook his head and continued laying out the plans of their move.
"We will have to move through the valleys to avoid the worst of the coming storms-"
"Enough! You will hear me, old man!" Bonah said, slamming his fist down onto the planning table.
"Your ignorance will cost this village several younglings! The Valleys are ripe with Kashi and Vir'lai! We must stay. We can reinforce the village's walls and focus on producing enough food, and if you still deign, we can move when the wet season ends!"
Bonah was trembling, not with fear, but wholly with rage. Tu'ratha was outside the tent, listening to the roars of his elders. He was a Blooded, not fit to attend the most important of meetings, but his Eldersblood afforded him a place outside the tent to listen. When Bonah's first objection came, Tu'ratha carefully cut a hole in the tent and watched in confused respect and awe at his kinbrother's defiance.
"I am sick…." Tu'ram began, marching heavily, his boots hitting the dirt like thunder on stone, towards Bonah.
"And tired of your insubordination, Spinestring! I declare-"
Tu'rak rose sharply.
"To call Mashra on Bonah with your level of skill is to admit defeat."
All Elites shifted their gaze to Tu'rak, their most honored Elder.
"No. I will not have you dishonor my line by haphazardly calling Mashra on a hunter of his caliber."
Tu'ratha was confused. Did his father mean that Bonah wasn't worthy of their time….or was he saying Tu'ram was destined to fall at Bonah's side if he called Mashra? Obviously of a similar line of thinking, Tu'ram shook with rage.
"Do you mean to say I can't fell this cowardly fool?"
"It would be presumptuous to say that you would have the ability stand to me, let alone fell me."
Tu'ram took a rage-filled step towards Bonah.
"I declare Mashra, you fish-bellied scum!" Tu'ram said, slamming his fist on the plans on the table.
"I tire of your blatant heathenish words! I will cull you!"
Tu'rak lowered his head sadly.
"I think...even then...he knew." Tu'ratha said, puffing on his Ba'jana. His eyes were cloudy, tears threatening to form.
The words barely formed from my mouth, so shaken with the Ba'jana's story.
"Knew...what?" I said quietly.
Tu'ratha raised his head and said solemnly, with nary a bit of mirth.
"That his eldest son had just signed his death sentence."
The two Hunters had exited the Elder's tent, whom of which refused to watch. Tu'ratha devoured the sight eagerly. Bonah was strong, surely, but not nearly as strong to challenge Tu'ram, the firstborn of the Elder!
The second their wristblades emerged, flashes of their speed could be seen, but it was over in but a moment. Bonah's blade stuck deep into the heart of Tu'ram. Tu'ram, who didn't even bother to honor Bonah by wearing his mask, looked beyond horrified at the outcome. The Mashra had lasted so little time, but already-
Fluorescent green blood congealed and rushed like a waterfall from the wound.
On the other hand, it was true Bonah too was harmed, but he was willing to lose more than Tu'ram. And Tu'ram, having experienced Mashra before, knew that a good Hunter would never risk losing anything if possible, had not expected Bonah to sacrifice a few of his left hand's fingers.
Tu'ram's swipe was meant to force Bonah to gain distance, but instead, Bonah used his left hand to slow the swipe, and then grab his gauntlet from the other side to stop any counterattacks. And, with a snap of his muscles, Bonah's right gauntlet spat its blade out and was unceremoniously injected into Tu'ram's heart.
In exchange for the heart of his opponent, Bonah lost two of his fingers and half of one more. Despite the conclusion of the Mashra, it wasn't over.
All was silent. On the wet ground, which was even now being assaulted by the pouring rain...laid a body. No mask adorned its face, and all could see the royal markings of an Eldersblood on its face. Opposite it, a smooth-mask silently withdrew its wristblades, and rose to its feet.
The Elites, and Tu'ratha, were stunned into silence.
"You killed a highborn!"
"Bonah...you suicidal fool!"
"You've signed your death, Badblood!"
All at once, the Elites swarmed Bonah. Bonah resisted them, but was quickly brought to heel. He was then brought on his knees to Tu'rak.
"He...he murdered Tu'ram, Elder."
"Murder?! It was Mashra, you fools!" Bonah screamed, his tusks rapidly clicking. Tu'ratha was in shock, unable to full understand what had happened. But he could see the bruises on Bonah's face, his mask was discarded and abuse was given in turn.
"True...Bonah. It was Mashra." The Elder said, devoid of emotion. "I knew if Tu'ram called Mashra, you'd kill him."
"Elder! He was your firstborn!" an Elite said. "Action must be-"
"I know." Tu'ram said.
"Despite it being Mashra, you of all people Bonah...should know it was a mistake to not die. You've stained your honor."
"Stained?!….you're insane, old man! I fought just as honorably as I always have!" Bonah roared.
"Killing a royally blooded Hunter is a crime among our people. Normally, it'd be a simple execution for you. But because Tu'ram was a fool...and because it was Mashra...I will forego that usual punishment."
"Tu'rak!" an older Elite said, "Something must be done! We can't just let Bonah get away with this!"
"Quiet!" Tu'ram boomed.
"Bonah Spinestring- for your crimes against the people of N'tar, I declare you banished."
Bonah's eyes widened in shock, but the Elites looked less then pleased.
"Furthermore, your rank- your titles- your Honor, has been stripped as a result. You are now, in the eyes of the Prime People, a criminal, or better known...a Badblood."
A primal scream pierced the village at that moment. Pure, guttural rage fueled an animal scream beyond all others which could be traced to Bonah himself.
He was stripped of his belongings, and a mark was carved into his crown- a character which denoted him as a Badblood for life.
He was forever an outcast. Forever, a criminal. Despite his abilities and pragmatism.
The Ba'jana cleared only slightly, and the story drew to its conclusion.
"I don't understand, Elder. Why show me this?" I said, fear piquing in every word.
"Do you mean to say I am destined to his fate?"
"No, young one. I respected Bonah more than any other- and for many years, I kept in contact with him. He is an extraordinary Hunter. All I meant to highlight was how much you remind me of him. Denying the traditions and defying expectations. You two were talented in that regard." the Elder spoke gravelly, obviously still stumbling in thought.
Is? Bonah lives? He must be quite the Hunter to avoid the Wardens of Yautja Prime for all these years.
"I care not, Elder. If anything, your story supports my beliefs. Bonah was defending himself. And he was looking out for the tribe. And you all spurned him for it." I spoke in a low, hateful tone.
The Elder exhaled quietly.
"I know. The laws and traditions aren't favorable to you, but I again ask you to trust me, if you cannot trust in our laws. It is for your own benefit." the Elder said tiredly.
"You never answered my question." I replied blatantly.
The Elder took his chin in hand, and stroke the spines of his chin.
"What is the purpose in striking down a Hunter that could have been great?" he repeated, questioning it himself.
"There is no answer that could satisfy you. I suppose in all truth there is no purpose. It simply is. Which is how our people have operated for eons."
Just because we've done it in the past doesn't mean it's good or correct…
I stifled my argument, not wanting to press the matter. It was obvious, despite his traditionalist stance, he too saw no point in their deaths.
"Then there's nothing else to be said. I'll leave you now."
I stood up shakily from the effects of the smoke, and moved the tentflap of the Elder's tent.
"Remember, Young Blood. I am always here. Your questions are troubling, to be sure. And I wish nothing more than to assuage your thoughts." The Elder called solemnly as I stepped out into the now-raining village.
The Ba'jana was cleared out of my lungs as I breathed deeply. For the first time I saw N'tar for what it was.
Despite all my life having been here, and despite the recognition I recently began to receive, the laws made no sense and even the Elder didn't have explanations for them. The only hope I had was to marry into another tribe, but since the other tribes in the system were probably just as staunchly traditionalist as the Bloodskulls, I could see no future wherein I belonged truly. The Hunt was my only solace. I suppose I should just immerse myself in that, and try to avoid the paradoxes of my people.
I returned to my camp outside the village. It was a simple thing, a skin-tent with a bedroll filled to the brim with furs, a small trough filled with my different tools and weapons. My most recent kills, Tin-Sharks, from the neraby lake, were shimmering in the early morning mist. Outside, a river ran adjacent to the right of my camp, and a large campfire, circled by large stones to stop any spread, was blackened and wet. The Tin Sharks were dried out and ready to cook, hung from their tails on a stand I set up over the river. The skins I had set out looked decently tanned, and I had set them on the largest table I had crafted. And so I set to work cooking a few pounds of the shark meat, salting it and burning it to a crisp. While I let the meat cool, I decided to work on the skins.
I took my skin-knife out, and began to cut another layer of the cartilage off the inside of the skin.
Immersing myself in the tedium, while also pondering on what I had seen and heard, I neglected to see the flash of movement in the trees a hundred or so feet in front of me.
Fortunately, the whistle of the neutronium alerted me, and I dodged the fatal blow of a combistick.
Instead, it lodged itself in my left arm. I looked up and saw a Hunter in a smooth, low-status mask, who had just thrown an Elite's weapon at me, aiming to kill. I pulled at the combistick, and dislodged it, and only for a second I saw the neon blood seeping out and the innerworkings of the muscles of my arm torn to shreds. When I looked back, the mysterious assassin had begun to enter his cloak, and I lost track of him. I rushed to contract the stick back in on itself, and then promptly threw it on the ground, next to my fire.
I scanned the trees. The rain was thundering down still, which is how I saw the footfalls of my assailant. The water splashed as their feet hit the mud, and I could see clearly that they were rocketing their way to me. I flicked my right wrist, and my wristdagger emerged. I deftly grabbed my skinning knife, which although it wasn't much of a weapon, it was better than my claws. The Hunter was upon me quickly. He lunged over the fire, the water from his feet battling the roaring flames. I raised my arm, and prepared for the assault.
Metal met metal, and the cloak disengaged. The Hunter was using…
An Elder's sword? How could it?….
I didn't have time to ponder, as the attacker withdrew the sword from my dagger's embrace, and swung it horizontally, hoping to dismember me. I lunged forward quickly, and felt my longest dread being cleft, then my stomach hit the mud roughly, and I did a roll, and felt the air-rush from the mysterious Hunter's footfall. His failure to stomp my spine in was followed up with a swipe of his sword, which unfortunately was more successful, and he cut a deep gash across my back, pain searing deeply and the wound quickly wept its green tears. It wasn't a debilitating or fatal wound, so it only fueled my adrenaline. I planted my claws into the mud, and my entire body snapped into action. I did a flip, landing behind the attacker, and then, in a circular motion, attempted to decapitate, only to meet his sword again. His strength was something to recognize, so instead of trying to meet his force, I used it against him, and fell back a foot to let him stumble, and then I swung my right leg in an upwards motion, and felt the snapping force of my foot hitting his jaw. He fell onto his back, and clutched his chin in pain. I leaped, and my eyes focused on the point at which I wished to pierce, the small gap in between the leathers of his cuirass, which was slightly below his heart. And I heard the sickening squelsh sound as my dagger met its target, and I drove it deeper and deeper until it was in at the hilt. The mysterious Hunter roared in pain, and I withdrew the blade, only to drive it in faster this time. I repeated this again and again, my rage from the past few weeks boiling over into a pure act of desperate fury. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six.
Six times I drove the blade in, piercing and re-piercing the flesh. When I pulled the blade out for the final time, the Hunter was already dead, and his body was slackened. It took me several minutes of hyperventilating and kneeling over the body to full recollect myself.
This was nothing like Mashra. Mashra was an almost joyous event, a celebration of strength. This Hunter had no sense of honor, attacking another member of his tribe whilst his guard was dropped. It was something a Badblood would have done. My eyes swept over the dead Hunter's body, and came to rest on the Elder sword.
It couldn't be. I slowly reached for the mask of the Hunter, and without a care for the attached dreads, snapped it off their face.
My heart dropped into my intestines.
The right eye socket was emptied, and it took me less than a millisecond to recognize the grizzled face.
I couldn't hold back my fatigue any longer, and fell down onto my dead kinbrother's chest, and entered the embrace of darkness.
I awoke hours later. Immediately I felt a wriggling sensation and jumped, only to see the jungle's decomposition-helpers digging their way into Tu'ratha's flesh. I saw maggots and flies swarm, and I wiped the ones that had mistaken me for dead off my chest. Pain flared up, and I saw more inside my left arm wound, and rushed to the river. I swept my left arm through the cold morning water, and watched the water shade green and the maggots drift away. Then I dove in to get rid of the few maggots in my back wound, and returned to the shore. I walked slowly and methodically over to my skin table, and tore a small band off a more recent skin, and tied the band around my wound.
I then, unceremoniously, picked up the combistick, and laid it on top of Tu'ratha's chest. I took only a moment to steel myself, and then I picked up my Kinbrother's body, and began to walk back to the village.
I came into the village, and immediately everyone looked to see a Hunter carrying another Hunter's body. An Elite drew his wristblade, and rushed to me.
"You! Who have you-"
His voice died in the air when he recognized the corpse.
"Take me to the Elder." I said, a sob threatening to burst from my throat.
"You...you killed Rathaka?" the Elite said, taking a step back.
"Just take me to the Elder. He'll judge me." I said again.
The Elite angrily grabbed hold of my shoulder, and rushed me to the tent of the Elder.
As I sat down on my knees, the Elder's assistants were already wrapping Rathaka's body up, and I could hear the murmuring of nearly the entirety of the village outside the tent. The Matriarch stood at the Elder's side, and I could not understand the looks on their faces. The Elites were on either side of the tent, and all looked at me with an extreme hatred. Rathak was standing on the other side of the Elder.
I was on my knees, all my tools and equipment were taken from me, and I could feel the weight of their stares even with my eyes closed in sorrow.
"What do you have to say, Zorlin?" the Matriarch said, emotionless.
"Say? What is there to say?" a voice said, and it took me a second to realize it was my own voice. I seemed so detached. Was this my body? Was this my reality?
"Rathaka...he attacked me. I was at my camp, skinning and preparing dinner. And he..."
I shifted my left arm to show the bloody band.
"He threw a combistick, aiming for my heart. I dodged, and...we fought. I didn't even know it was him. He was wearing a biomask."
"What proof is there for this?!" an Elite said.
"My daughters studied the body and the belongings you brought back. There was no biomask, true, but there was a combistick. It was Rathak's."
Some eyes shifted to Rathak.
"I...I told him he was a fool. That he should have never been so foolish. He should have been training instead of flaunting his heritage." Rathak said, and for the first time since I'd known him, I could tell he was on the verge of tears.
"I awoke this morning to him gone, and my locker ransacked. He stole my sword and combistick, and probably used his own mask. I have no doubt what Zorlin says is true."
"The mask is back at my camp." I said.
An Elite looked to the Elder, and the Elder nodded. The Elite left, no doubt to collect more evidence.
"Zorlin." The Elder nearly whispered. "It's ironic, is it not?"
"There was no declaration of Mashra, Elder." I said. "He simply attacked me. I had no opportunity for mercy or questioning."
"All of you." the Elder said quietly. "Leave. The Matriarch and I will hand down his punishment.
The Elites nodded in recognition of his order.
A few minutes later, only Rathaka, myself, and the Matriarch and Elder were left.
"An execution then? Or a banishment?" 'my' voice said. The world was spiraling, and still I was unsure. Was this my body? Was that my voice?
"Neither." the Matriarch said. "We've verified your story. It was self-defense, Zorlin."
I looked up. But saw no pity or sympathy in their faces.
"Then why am I still here?" I said.
"Because..." The Elder began. "You cannot stay on N'tar any longer. News will spread. We can't guarantee there won't be any revenge attacks."
"So...I leave? Where will I go?" I questioned.
I had never seen anything but N'tar. In my wildest dreams, I never saw myself leaving my home planet, let alone leaving the entire system.
The Elder waved, and the Matriarch and Rathaka left.
"I believe you, Zorlin." the Elder said. "If it had been any other Hunter, you would have no issues. But Rathaka was of highborn status."
It really is like I'm Bonah reborn…
"However, unlike Bonah, I think it's safe to keep your status intact."
"You will remain a Bloodskull, and a Young Blood. You just have to complete your training and live somewhere else."
"Where?" I asked, anger peaking out slightly, "I know the galaxies little. I know no one but the tribe."
"I have a friend. He is older than I, and is unorthodox. I think he will complete your training, and house you."
I slumped down. Leaving N'tar? Leaving N'tar's system? Having to trust a complete stranger? How will I survive?
"You'll be leaving tomorrow. Gather what you can, and meet me at the old docks near the dry riverbed. I'll take you to your new home. Just remember, when enough time passes, and you have become higher of status, I don't doubt you'll be welcome here again. You're still a Bloodskull Zorlin. Never forget that."