Fiction~~The Last Pure Human~~Ch. 28
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Chapter 28 - Meeting the Family Pet
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As soon as Uncle Frodi arrived to help stabilize Aosh, Kasan bolted
back to his room. Leero was raising the alarm, calling from box to box
to ensure all the guards in the citadel and surrounding town were aware
of what had happened, on the lookout for Waran and Max. The Elders and
family would be called in. Anyone else who was free would be gathered
to help search, but it could take hours; they were already out looking
for the shokan. Kasan knew he didn’t have any time to waste.
He needed to track down Max now, while he still could. His claws flickering wildly in and out, Kasan reined himself back as he sped down the hall, avoiding the drying ochre streaks along the floor. He’d never find Max if he didn’t slow down. His entire body tense with the effort, Kasan made himself pause every few feet, searching for Max’s scent as he drew closer to his own chambers. Nothing stood out. If Max had been taken down the corridor, the trail was muffled by the thick scent of blood.
In the back of his thoughts he was aware the fluids smeared across the floor belonged to Aosh and the shokan, but knowing his consort was in danger, seeing the dark trail over the stone, his mind screamed at him that it could be Max’s blood. His little one could be this injured, bleeding as Waran took him away. His ears flattened against his head and he snarled. Tail lashing back and forth violently, he tried to find the clue that would lead him to Max.
He arrived at his room without finding a trace. The blood was too strong an odor, Max’s bright tang too muted, and Quim and Waran had been over the hallways too often in the past hours. He couldn’t tell which trail branching out from the hallway was the right one! His lips peeled back in another growling snarl when he saw his door. It was still open, the summoning box outside his room ripped off the wall entirely. Stalking inside, he found the bloody handprint streaking down the wall where Aosh had opened the door. Red droplets sprayed in a macabre pattern over the floor. The stink of spilled blood and fear was even stronger here, but Max’s scent was finally strong enough to overcome it and Kasan breathed it in.
Even so small a connection with his little one soothed him enough to control his claws, just enough to think. He almost wished he couldn’t. Thought only made his heart bleed in his chest. They’d taken his Max.
The little one must have been terrified. Attacked, kidnapped…and Kasan had left him here so they could do it. So unable to cope with Max’s anger and unhappiness that he’d abandoned his own consort. Kasan paced the room, the fur on his tail bristling. If anything happened to Max, he would kill them. He didn’t care if the kouloc took him, he would find Waran and Quim before he took his last breath and eviscerate them.
He had to find Max. Kasan scanned the floor, hoping one of the bastards had been careless enough to leave something behind, anything that would give him a clue to where they went, but there was nothing other than drying blood and the foreign smell of Quim and Waran.
Cursing continually under his breath, Kasan made his way out, scenting the air again, hoping something would pop out at him that he’d missed. This might be the only chance he had! There were so many ways out of the Citadel it could take more time than he had to investigate them all. Max might not have that long either. Who knew what Waran was planning for him, if he was going to Shovak as Aosh had thought. And there was the heat, as well.
Kasan desperately hoped that the little one couldn’t catch the kouloc, as he’d first thought, but if he were wrong? If the kouloc had infected the Kyashin and human genes for enough generations that it could infect pure humans, then Max might be infected now, too. Kasan had to find him soon.
Prowling back and forth across the hallway, he had to push himself to the edge simply to catch the barest hint of Max. Quim and Waran were clearer, now, after such a strong essence of them in his room. Waran had eaten something with chera root in it. Kasan could detect a hint of it only in the most recent scent trail. It should be easier to follow, now that he knew what to look for.
Picking his way carefully, Kasan started to hope he’d made it in time. Scent never lasted long in the citadel, a defense mechanism built into the walls to keep one’s enemies from tracking the family, if needed. But it wasn’t dispersed instantly. If he only had a few more minutes, he thought he could find them. Tension grew in Kasan’s head with every few feet he gained. Where the hell were they taking Max? This wasn’t leading to the usual exits.
Fangs grinding against his teeth, Kasan continued to follow their scent for a few more turns of the hallway, and then he hit a well-trafficked area. With more bodies to work with, the citadel had already begun to do its job, swirling the signs of Waran and Quim into an incomprehensible mixture of odors.
Swearing wildly, Kasan searched out the nearest hallways that might have fewer scents available to hide Waran from him. The first yielded nothing he could follow. Neither did the second, or the third. He hadn’t found the exact path again by the time he searched half a dozen corridors. Kasan stood in the middle of a crossing, feeling the time slipping out of his hands like water, unsure which way to go.
He’d lost them!
Kasan continued searching, his claws fully emerged now as he imagined what was happening to Max while Kasan failed him. Enlisting the nearest guards helped not at all; no one had seen anything and no one could smell as well as Kasan could. Max was getting farther away every second, probably frightened out of his mind.
Why had Waran done it? It made no sense! And when Max had been so terrified already, for him to have this happen on top of everything? Dammit, couldn’t the universe give his consort some peace? The little one deserved some happiness. He’d been through so much already. And Kasan…he couldn’t lose Max like this. Not like this.
Growling, the pain in his chest growing stronger with every step, Kasan hunted for Max up and down the hallways with a growing number of guardsmen and concerned cousins. Guardsman Niku arrived to help, saying something to Kasan about taking a moment to rest, but Kasan pushed him aside and continued searching. His cousin Emal stepped in front of him with the same request, his voice strangely muted as Kasan pushed it to the background. He had to find Max! He didn’t need the interruptions. He needed to get to Max. Another cousin and one of his uncles moved into his space, blathering at him until he realized they were saying that his father was asking for him.
When his first panicked thoughts must have shown in his ears, they reassured him quickly. Aosh was fine. His father simply needed to talk to him. Kasan looked around blankly, seeing dozens of his comrades and family working in teams, searching rooms and up and down the halls. Exactly as he’d been doing.
There was nothing that he could help with now that everyone else couldn’t do just as well, not when the trail was this cold. Even still, Kasan couldn’t help the agony that seeped in as he went back to Aosh. If he could move, keep searching for Max, then he was doing something for his consort. There was still hope. Without that, he didn’t know how he was going to go on.
His father was waiting by Aosh’s side with Leero behind him when Kasan walked up. They were still in the hall, a number of people and supplies piled behind them now, although a few blankets had been slipped under Aosh to keep him off the cool floor. Uncle Frodi was tying off the last of the stitches – had it really been that short a time? – and his assistant gave Kasan a weary smile.
Taking up a large portion of the wide hall was the shokan. At least half a dozen guards had their spears pointed at the beast where it lay on the ground, panting heavily. The pool of blood around it had grown.
Kasan waited to speak until his father acknowledged him. “What did you need?” He was too upset to be polite. “The trail is already cold. I need to get back out and keep searching. We need-”
Kyoru nodded even as he interrupted. “How much time do you have until your heat calls?”
Kasan tried to slow his racing thoughts and pay attention. “At least a few hours, but not past the end of late fifth, likely.”
The Lord King nodded, his face cold and remote. Kasan remembered the expression from the years right after his mother had passed. “Some of the guards have already reported in to Leero. Waran hasn’t been seen near any of the escape passages, and the guards are checking the Havens whose passages are unguarded. They can guarantee neither he nor Quim came through the northeast entrance, but the south entrance has had enough traffic the guards weren’t sure. They’re searching the town now and working their way through other areas of the Citadel.”
“That’s all well and good, but I need to get back out and search! There was no need to ask me back here before we have any information.” Kasan’s tail lashed at his own legs so hard it stung.
“The guards Leero spoke to on the box said you were becoming agitated, Kasan.”
“Of course I’m agitated!”
“We’ll take the little one back,” Kyoru said, reaching out for Kasan’s shoulder and holding it with a firm hand. “But you must stay calm.”
“I am calm,” Kasan bit out, shrugging free.
Zonta spoke quietly from the ground, holding onto Aosh’s limp hand. “You know if you get upset it will make it easier for the kouloc to multiply. Your heat will spike sooner. Please, Kasan.”
Kasan let out a long slow breath. He’d forgotten that, but how was he supposed to stay calm when Max was in danger? Everything Kasan could do felt so useless. He couldn’t find him! And Max was so damn fragile; Waran could hurt him without even trying. And the last memory Max would have was Kasan forcing him into a situation he hated.
Closing his eyes, Kasan tried to push aside the pain and regret and think. Waran… the man wasn’t stupid. For whatever reason he’d done it, he had to have planned it carefully. Aosh’s warning might have let everyone know the situation earlier than Waran would have expected, but what would he need? Some place not too far away, not too populated, where he and his consort could go…
“Wait, where’s Shoru?” He had to be out of his mind not to have thought of that first!
Leero’s leash, twined up and connected back into the collar, shivered as his chest vibrated with a deep growl. “He was supposed to be convalescing with a relative, only there’s no such person, no such address. Your father thought of that almost immediately; we had guards there reporting back before anyone else. They both had to be in on this, to arrange it so neatly.” Leero’s face twisted. “I should have figured it out,” he snarled, then shivered as Kyoru ran a hand over his head, rubbing one ear.
“You are not God. Don’t expect more of yourself than is possible. Waran fooled everyone from the Elders to the youngest guard.” Kyoru pinched Leero’s ear lightly before he let go, ignoring the man’s disgruntled wince.
Kasan didn’t say it, but he couldn’t stop feeling that Leero was right. They should have known. There had to have been something they’d missed.
His father rubbed Kasan’s shoulder again. “Stay here for the moment, Kasan. Get your breath back. We’re doing everything we can to find your consort. You can join back in when you can keep your emotions under better control.”
Kasan wanted to snap back that he was as calm as he was going to damn well get when a pained growl echoed eerily in the hallway and everyone turned their attention to the shokan. Up close, the beast was huge. Kasan had been right when he’d guessed the size, he thought, shivering as he watched its odd, amber eyes. It wasn’t quite grown yet, but still enormous. Perfectly large enough to kill any one of them if it were healthy, and they were unlucky. They knew it had killed already.
And it was beyond capable of killing an injured Aosh or Max.
So why hadn’t it?
Kasan watched carefully, taking another deep breath, trying to distract himself. His father was right. The best chance to find Max needed time. If Kasan spiked too early, that was the end. But he couldn’t think how to regain control when everything in him screamed for Max and the wet spray of Waran and Quim’s blood
“What about the shokan? What are we going to do with it?” He could do something about that, at least.
“The Elders have been called. The circumstances are strange enough that we should all be involved.”
Kasan nodded, keeping an eye on it. His attention split when his uncle finished with Aosh, directing the assistant to pull free the IV. Working rapidly, Uncle Frodi gathered a few round metal hoops and quickly pierced them through Aosh’s skin near the wound in his side and into the meat of his thighs. Kasan swallowed as Frodi started to pierce Aosh’s left ear as well with small studs in a variety of metals.
He knew the nanites would repair Aosh faster with the extra metal to use as resources, but the damage must be worse than he’d thought if uncle was adding that many piercings. The hoops alone would take a week before they were eaten away and Kasan had only seen injuries severe enough to require the additional studs a few times in his life.
Without the IV, Aosh’s nanites cleared the drugs just as the last two studs were puncturing his ear. It flicked back and forth as though waving off a fly. He moaned softly, opening his eyes to stare blankly into the air. Taking another deep breath, Kasan knelt next to Aosh’s head and pushed back a few of his braids from his face. Bleary, Aosh managed a grimace.
“Aosh, can you hear me?” Frodi asked. Aosh nodded slowly. “Good. You scared us there for a while. You should be feeling some pulling where the stitches are, but nothing loose or sliding.”
Aosh blinked. “Pain…”
“I know. I would have liked to keep the IV in longer but your nanites were already starting to eat away the needle. Do you need me to put you under again?”
Aosh’s bruised eyes were clearing rapidly. “Pain’ll pass. ‘m good.”
Frodi smiled in encouragement and started packing up his supplies. Kasan’s ears lowered as he waited for Aosh to notice him. Everything had gone wrong today. He’d been so infuriated with Aosh he would have sworn he didn’t want to even think of him for a year. He shuddered to think that such bile might have been made up his last words.
“I’m glad to see you awake,” Kasan said, his voice hoarse. Aosh’s ears quirked, then flicked again, unused to the studs. “We weren’t sure Quim hadn’t killed you, at first.”
Aosh’s eyes brightened. “Tha’ squickling isn’t going to take me out.”
Zonta, his face tight and pale, squeezed Aosh’s hand on the other side. “Of course not. That’s reserved for the mate of one of your ex-lovers.”
Aosh laughed and instantly moaned in pain. He smiled instead. “I am…unforgettable. Can see where a mate would be jealous,” he murmured.
Kasan ran his hand over Aosh’s hair again. He glanced at the still bleeding pile of fur laboring to breathe next to them both, taking up half the hallway. “Aosh, we need to know more about what happened. Did Waran or Quim say anything? Give you any idea where they were they might take Max?”
Aosh’s ears flattened. “Just that Waran’s a purist, like Shovak. They didn’t say where…” He frowned, his ears fluttering in distress. “…nothing about where they were going. The bag with Max…it was beige, rough weave, like a baker’s grain sack. Might help, if they give Max to someone else.”
Kasan nodded, hearing Leero trotting off to pass the information through the nearest summoning box. “Thank you,” he whispered. The shokan whimpered again. “Now we just need to figure out what to do about the animal.”
“Don’t kill him.” Aosh looked over at it and his lips twisted into a smile. “I owe him a favor.”
Kasan’s ears flattened. It shouldn’t be left alive once it had killed a man, but it felt wrong to punish the shokan for helping Aosh. “Maybe it wasn’t actually trying to aid you-”
“Don’t delude yourself. You saw what he was doing.”
Kasan stared straight into the shokan’s eyes, trying to figure out what went on inside its head. “It could have killed Max,” he said, voice soft.
Aosh shook his head, staring the same direction. “I would bet my own dick that he tried to protect Max.”
Zonta patted Aosh’s hand nervously, biting his lip as he looked from the shokan to Aosh. “You can’t be sure-”
“I can. You didn’t see how determined he was to get both of us to Kasan. Maybe he’s smart enough to realize he needed me to get out of the room, but there was no reason for him to do anything after that. The shokan could have left me there, bleeding out, and tried to escape on his own, but he didn’t. He has no reason to help me, but I think he did want to help Max. The fact that Max didn’t have a scratch on him says something, Kasan.”
Kasan couldn’t look away from the shokan. It was growling under its breath, but it hadn’t lashed out at anyone, even with the blood around it congealing against its fur. It had fixated on Kasan. He could feel its eyes like glaring knives.
“It’s too dangerous to have around.”
Aosh cleared his throat and waited to speak until Kasan’s attention was back on him. “Max likes him.”
“What?” Kasan’s resolve took a hit.
“Unless I’m completely misreading what happened, Max had a name for him, like a friend. Ando-kees, I think.” Aosh smiled a little at Kasan’s flattened ears. “He likes the shokan. The little one even tried to get me to help when the shokan was injured.”
Kasan hmphed, watching the shokan again. If the beast had helped Max, that was all well and good, but it didn’t mean it wasn’t dangerous. Just the briefest moment of irritation, a quick slice with its claws, and Max would be gone. It seemed too great a chance to take.
Except Max had already lost so much. What if Kasan found him and brought him back only to have his consort lose what might be, as bizarre as it seemed, a companion? Growling under his breath, Kasan twitched his tail back and forth, wavering. He was getting angry again, and he needed to damn well stop. This wasn’t helping retrieve Max, and that was what he needed to focus on. He didn’t have time to worry about what decision the Elders would make about the shokan when they arrived, or what effect it would have on Max’s happiness. He just had to find Max.
Leero cleared his throat. “Kasan, I think you’re forgetting something important.” He gestured to the shokan. “Shokan never forget.”
The old saying meant nothing to Kasan for a moment, and then his eyes widened. Shokan never forget – he’d heard that since he was small. It was a warning. If you harmed one, you had better make sure the animal was dead and its family unable to track the beast back to you, because it would hunt you down until either you were paid back in kind, or it was too injured to continue.
The animal’s nanites would heal it faster than Aosh’s would, if it was given some help. And if it could heal quickly enough…it would hunt down Waran for them. It’s sense of smell was ten times better than his own, and most hunters would swear that shokan had other ways to sense their prey that Kyashin didn’t experience. Even with the citadel’s defenses interfering with the scent, the shokan might be able to find Max.
“What about the Kyashin it killed?” Zonta asked softly. “Will it be safe to let it get near Max if it is hunting down Waran?”
“The blood was all in Kasan’s garden.” Aosh’s ears swiveled back and forth between Zonta and Kasan. “And considering we never found anyone reported missing, and no one was supposed to be in the garden, I’d say there was a good chance that the shokan was protecting Max that time, too. Someone could have slipped over the wall to try and get in through the garden.”
“A good point to take into consideration.” Kasan turned at the new voice. His Aunts Nerin and Asha were coming down the hall, with most of the elders in the citadel and the rest of his brothers and their consorts. Kasan relinquished his place near Aosh so that the others could kneel next to him. The elders checked on him briefly, murmuring and patting his head and shoulders, and then turned all their attention to the shokan. Kasan watched his brothers for a moment as they hovered, blocking Aosh from view, and then turned to see what the Elders would decide.
As long as the animal lived long enough to help find Max, he wouldn’t argue the decision. Yet.
Aunt Asha took a step away from the rest, standing near the guards still between them and the animal. “Very interesting,” she said.
“There are…circumstances,” Kyoru said. “It-”
She waved the Lord King’s explanation away impatiently. “No need. Your voices echo down the corridors quite well. Oh…” She blinked as the shokan’s eyes centered on her. “Tried to save my nephew’s consort, did you, beast?”
The shokan didn’t make a sound, but its eyes were just as sharp as Asha’s. It took Kasan a moment to figure out why they looked so similar. There was no hunger in the shokan’s gaze. Rage that reminded him of Aunt Asha’s constant irritation with the world, if shokan could feel such a thing, but no hunger.
Asha’s ears twitched sideways. “The question is, was it a fluke, or are you as unique as Kasan’s human consort?”
Before any of them could move, Asha nodded to herself and walked past the guards and up to the shokan.
“Asha!” Nerin tried to get to her, but Kyoru held her back with a quick clamp of his hand around her arm.
“Oh stop fussing. I can recognize a desire to kill by now, and this animal doesn’t have it. At least…not towards us.” She crouched down held out her hand. While they all froze for fear of provoking it further, the shokan leaned forward and sniffed her gingerly. Aunt Asha and it stared at each other for a moment, and then she nodded. “He won’t attack us.”
“Get away from him.” Her sister’s voice was hoarse, and Asha got to her feet with a huff and returned to the rest of the group. Nerin hugged her close and then yanked her ear. “I don’t care if you are an Elder, don’t do that without warning us!”
The other elders nodded, one of Kasan’s mother-uncles opening his mouth to start in on her. Asha huffed again, turning her back on them all to stare at the shokan. Her back tightened. “I watched a shokan die, once. On Tien’sa.”
No one said anything.
“I don’t know how they caught it. Used to put it in the ring to use in their blood sports. Our cells overlooked the pit. A good warning to what happened to slaves that don’t behave.” She crossed her arms over her chest and shook off her sister’s hand when it rubbed down her head. Nerin wrapped her arm around Asha’s shoulders instead. Asha grabbed her hand and held on tight while she continued looking at the shokan Ando-kees. “It was more than an animal. It thought about its own actions. Even when they starved it, it wouldn’t entertain them. Never even touched the slaves and whores to be ‘disposed of’ for entertainment. It only attacked the gladiators who came at it first. And the jailers. Finally died when it hit puberty and there was nothing to mate it to.”
She glanced at back at them. “Shokan think. Just look at its eyes. It thinks.”
Kyoru spoke first, his voice low and surprised. “You never told me that.”
“It hasn’t mattered.”
“If it affects our knowledge of the animal-”
“Would it change how we treat them? They’ll still gut you faster than you can blink if you encroach on their territory. We’ll still tranquilize them and move them out of our territory so that doesn’t happen. But we don’t hurt them, and they tend to leave us alone if we don’t. I’m only saying it now because it can affect how we treat this animal.” She stared at its eyes again and nodded. “Frodi, we need you to heal the shokan.”
The other elders all started talking at once and Kasan held his tongue. He wanted the shokan to live, right now, to go find Waran and Max. After that…he wasn’t sure. The elders had to decide to let it live for now.
“Yes, yes, it’s big and frightening,” Asha said testily as the others raised their objections. “So is Tisu, and we don’t kill him off.”
Tisu grunted when everyone looked at him, and all eyes went back to the shokan when it grunted in nearly the same low bass. A few more grumblings and they finally agreed that they would take care of it for now, and decide more later when they had time to examine the animal’s behavior.
Uncle Frodi swallowed heavily, holding his bag as Asha waved him toward Ando-kees. “Asha, I don’t know…”
“I do. Heal it.”
Uncle Frodi took another step, up past the guards, and very, very carefully knelt down next to the shokan and started to examine it. The orange eyes lifted to meet Kasan’s again. Kasan didn’t know if he trusted the thing, much less liked it as Aosh implied Max might, but it could be Max’s only chance.
Kasan stepped past the crowd and knelt down by the beast’s head, swallowing back an instinctive desire to recoil as it turned its head in his direction. They stared into each other’s eyes and he swallowed again.
“Tell me what to do to help.”
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