Fiction~~The Last Pure Human~~Ch. 35
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Chapter 35 - Haven or Hell
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Zonta had never found it difficult to focus before but he was finding it nearly impossible in the Haven.
“Watch your spear.”
Zonta tucked his spear in closer to his body with a quick twist and his ears flattened against his will. Being corrected like a kitling because he couldn’t keep his mind on what his body was supposed to be doing. Shame at his own incompetence vied with rage, fear, and the constant anxiety that spiked higher with every new tunnel they found.
He wanted to crush Waran’s throat between his teeth for what he’d done to Aosh and Max, even though the very idea made him nauseous. There’d been so much blood…
Zonta flinched, tucking it close again. He wished desperately that the raw feeling in his throat would disappear, but he had swallowed back bile too many times today to think it was going to happen. The sour tang in his mouth wouldn’t leave, and all he could smell, no matter how far into the Haven they went, was the coppery tang of Aosh’s blood. He could still feel it on his hands as he’d tried to clamp down on the gaping red wound on Aosh’s leg, blood slipping between his palms no matter how hard he’d pushed down.
Zonta swallowed back the acid in his throat again with a soft, raw sound. He could have lost Aosh today. He might still lose Kasan. And little Max. Zonta could lose them all. Nothing he knew of helped. There weren’t enough people to search the Haven quickly, no matter how many times Zonta redid the numbers in his head. Not even with the town guard being pulled in and much of the Citadels’ as well.
Zonta tripped and would have gone sprawling except for the hand that grabbed his arm. It was the same Kyashin who’d been warning him to watch his spear, a broad and black haired man so like Kasan that looking at him physically hurt. Zonta forced himself to touch the man’s lips briefly in thanks, hands shaking, and got a hand rubbed over his head in response. He bristled. He was not a child. If he were, he wouldn’t be in this hellish maze of corridors that were keeping them all from finding Max.
The men silently creeping down the hallway ahead of them paused as they hit a crossed pathway. Everyone slowed until they’d glanced around the corners to ensure no one was there and then they waved everyone on.
Zonta looked down the side hallway, too, they passed it, noting the subtle red streak on the wall: searched and cleared. At least they didn’t have to split the group up again, then. Someone had already been through here.
And thank god the others had listened about the markings. He took a steadying breath; at least that was something Zonta had managed to do right, no matter how little else. Zonta still couldn’t quite believe so many had started to use the regulation signs, including Kasan. He’d actually had to point out that they couldn’t keep using their standard markings if they were going up against family members who would know all the same codes.
It seemed obvious to him, but it was hard to remember that most Kyashin didn’t study history as much as he did. And no one had fought in an organized fashion against family for over a hundred years. None of them, including Zonta, were used to the idea of having all their secrets already known to the enemy.
He catalogued the men in front and behind, remembering at the last minute to pay attention to where his spear was so it wouldn’t trip up his neighbors. He couldn’t stop himself when the fear grew too overwhelming. Zonta should have known that Waran was capable of this and instead he’d trusted him. He’d commiserated with him over his consort!
And now, he couldn’t stop viewing the men around him with distrust. None of his family were here, none of the guards he was closer to. The only one he felt safer with was the young guard in the very back, Zerard. He was so newly ripened, skinny and small, that it was hard to view him as a threat.
Everyone else, however, he was constantly rechecking and he hated it. He hated feeling this distrust of people around him. But nothing seemed out of place. All the men were nervous, their ears and eyes shifting constantly, but none of them paused more than the others, none of them suggested different routes than they were taking, none seemed to be watching the better fighters more than the rest of the group. They were all equally tense and on edge, but so was Zonta.
They had to be with the family. So why was he still finding it nearly impossible to relax when some of the men were behind him where he couldn’t see them?
Zonta squeezed his eyes shut, frightened and so desperately furious it was strangling him. He’d trusted Waran. He even sent Max with Waran! How could that be the same man who had tried to butcher Aosh and taken Max?
He felt the blood again running over his hands and he tried to wipe the invisible stains off on his legs. If Zonta ever saw Waran again, he was going to make him hurt. He didn’t have to rip out his throat; he could do worse. There were things he knew of from his readings, things that hadn’t been done in hundreds of years. Zonta knew how to cause pain in dozens of ways that used to make him cringe.
It still made him cringe. But how could he live with himself if he let Waran do this with no retaliation at all?
Zonta could feel tears welling up and he blinked slowly, letting them trail down his cheeks rather than bring attention to them by wiping them away. He heard one of the men behind him whisper to one of the others, a pained, ‘Why would they do this shit?’ The same agonized question echoed what was going on in his own mind.
“Some people are flat out crazy. You can’t expect crazy bastards to act like anyone else.”
Zonta didn’t think that satisfied the other man any more than it did himself. He’d been running his mind in circles over it to try and keep from thinking of Aosh and Max, and it didn’t help. But he couldn't stop. How could so many people justify all this in their own minds?
He had read the histories from start to finish; he knew that there had been periods where fanatics had gained power, or threatened what had been saved after the Saviors helped them all. But it was very different to be a part of it. It wasn’t some esoteric construct when he had to see men carried back to the Citadel bleeding from vicious skirmishes with men who could have been their cousins, uncles, grandparents, siblings, even.
He wished he could still achieve that emotional distance now, but it had gone up in smoke hours ago. Zonta had even started repeating some of the worst ones to himself to try and refocus his rage, but it wasn’t working.
“The Nomad Raids. The Crimson Battalion. The Wasting,” he muttered under his breath. They all turned a corner and he ignored the odd looks he was getting. He had to do something!
And the Wasting was at least distracting. When their population was getting smaller because they hadn’t realized how many children were needed to keep their numbers from declining. And then one of the nastier clans had begun experimenting on women to find a way to force multiple births.
It had been sick. You don’t harm women, ever. Zonta could feel his anger shifting at the thought and it was a good anger, one that wasn’t so personal. Every single woman was precious; their race couldn’t survive without them. Even now they had too many males born and not enough females. Every female tried to have at least four children before their heat ended and they became infertile. Everyone knew it was needed, and everyone knew the sacrifice that the women made just to give their race a chance to survive. And no one but no one hurt a woman and survived.
Just like no one harmed children. Or hurt another member of the family.
Zonta clenched his fists. Why couldn’t he stop thinking for just a moment? It hurt too much! He couldn’t-
A finger poked him in the back. “Hurry up, Zonta, you’re lagging behind.”
He glanced up and trotted forward until he caught up. At least the men behind him hadn’t passed him; they’d merely pressed him forward.
There had been whispering for a few minutes now but they all fell silent as they passed another hall. There was the red streak again, but the hallway was spattered with red stains going across the floor and up the wall. And Zonta had no way of knowing who it was from. It could be Purists. It could be Citadel guards. It could even be Kasan or father.
He whined in his throat. How could people do this? This many people, all devoted to- to what? To destroying part of the population because they had a few genetic differences? To blame everything on them, simply because they were easy to pick out in a crowd?
He knew they weren’t all family. He didn’t need Kasan’s nose to smell the foreign scent of people not of the Kyashin, but to have so many betray them? Zonta shuddered. He took a deep breath and gripped his spear carefully, feeling compelled again to examine everyone at least once more. He watched the others and noticed how many of them seemed to be choking back vomit or tears as they went passed the bloodstained corridor. Good. If they this appalled them then they couldn’t be part of it.
He knew his own grip on his spear had become too tight as well and slowly relaxed it. He didn’t know how to stop being so angry. If he could only find Max, at least, he’d know what to do. They could contact Kasan and then they would both be safe. And Zonta could come back in here and let his rage out in a way he’d never done before.
But he they hadn’t found anyone yet, so he had to hold it in, try to pay attention to what was around him when he was so much more used to paying attention to people that he should have known…
Zonta rubbing his thumb over the spear’s shaft, baring his fangs briefly before he brought his focus back. He had to be of help, not just another Kyashin that had to be controlled because he couldn’t handle the betrayal and tried to run off to slaughter what Purists he could. There had been five cases of that already, that he was aware of. He wasn’t going to fail Max and Kasan like that. He could do this.
Even if he couldn’t remember anything about his training in spear work except point it at the enemy and thrust.
Bringing his thoughts back – could he not focus for five tics?! – he crept along behind his group’s commander. A few men in front of him had taken to the rear again to check on what markings they were leaving behind, leaving him close to the front of the group now. He watched nervously as the commander tilted his head to scent the air at the next crossed corridor.
None of the guard could smell as well as Kasan, but if Zonta remembered right, the commander was better than average. He even had a hint of claws. The commander stopped and crouched lower. Zonta was copying the gesture as his mind tried to catch up, scanning the hallway ahead, crouching lower.
The younger guards near him took longer to notice and crouched only when their more experienced counterparts yanked them down with admonishing hisses.
The commander glanced up and down the corridors and sighed. “We’re going to have to split again,” the commander said, voice pitched low. The two older guards right behind him turned like one unit and began directing everyone to one side or the other. They ended with two groups of six. Zonta didn’t think they’d be able to separate safely after this, he thought, and was proven right less than ten tics later when they had another set of hallways that looked like it had three separate areas that could be checked.
It was like a maze, and with so few people left they had to mark off corridors to be checked later. It drove Zonta mad; the more they had to do one at a time, the longer it took. And Max and Kasan didn’t have that much time.
Zonta was railing against the lack of anything even giving the faintest clue where Max had been when they found the room. Zonta regretted even thinking about wanting more evidence.
The room was small with excellent lighting that had clearly been added recently. Two large, stone tables dominated the room. They looked old, like they’d been part of the original Haven but had to have been dragged from another room.
There were straps on one, set up to hold a person down. They were close together for someone with smaller limbs and a slender form. Zonta couldn’t look at them and turned his eyes away. He gagged as he ended up staring at the blades, shears, tongs, and other tools drying on the wall behind it. He went back to the table and only then realized that the stone itself wasn’t naturally dark. It was stained, a dark, blackish red. It looked very much like old blood.
Zonta couldn’t control the low moan of pain. There was only one person that small in the Haven right now. What had they done to Max? Dear God, what had they done to him? So much blood…
He was too small to lose that much blood all at once. Zonta stumbled forward past a stunned man in front of him and clutched at the table but he couldn’t smell Max on it. It had been cleaned, the chemicals abrasive and harsh in his nose and mouth, and he wasn’t as good as Kasan. He couldn’t smell who had been here.
“How could they do something like this?” He heard the hoarse whisper behind him and shivered. Zonta could feel a phantom tackiness under his fingertips as though they were covered in Aosh’s blood once again.
A growl grew in his throat, louder than it should be, and Zonta realized it was coming from all of them. Everyone’s ears were flat against their heads, pupils tight and small as they all stared at the table.
Zonta felt paralyzed until one of the others cleared his throat. “There’s nothing here. We should keep looking.”
Everyone turned as if they just needed the excuse. One by one, they slowly left the room. Zonta could see it the most in Zerard. The boy hadn’t yet moved. He was shaking, not in rage but with tears streaming down his face as he stood facing the open doorway.
“They hurt him. How could they hurt him like that?”
Zonta tried to comfort them both. “We’ll find him.”
“They cut him. I’ve seen less blood after I cleaned a barrel of fish!”
“It might not all be his. Some of it looks…old.” Zonta frowned, looking back. Some of it did look old, now that he was letting himself look more closely. There was a slightly browner tint to the older stains, almost faded. But if it wasn’t all from Max, then who?
“That makes it worse! They’ve done this to more than one! If it’s not Kasan’s consort it would have to be a child. How can someone do this, Prince Zonta? How?”
“I don’t know,” he said softly, trying to look Zerard in the eye. He struggled to say something more meaningful. He was older; shouldn’t he know what to say in a situation like this? Except there was nothing to say that would make things right again. There was nothing that made this less hideous in the light of day. “Come on. The others are already moving.”
Zerard nodded jerkily and they both stepped out into the hallway. The others were already a ways down. They’d halted when they realized Zonta and Zerard hadn’t emerged but seeing them, they waved at them to hurry it up and started off again.
Zonta could only concentrate on the space around him in fits and starts as he and Zerard walked on. That disgusting, filthy room had twined it’s way through Zonta’s mind and was hiding behind his eyes. An entire group of people not only thought torture was acceptable, they’d dedicated a room for their abuse.
How could that happen? How could this many people believe such an abhorrent action was acceptable even to contemplate, let alone perform? He ran his free hand over his face and part of him wished again that he’d never forced his way into the Haven and left it to his older brothers. He wouldn’t have to have this knowledge sitting like a chittering spider in the back of his mind.
“We should hurry; they’re getting too far ahead,” Zerard said, voice quiet. Zonta glanced forward. He had to stop letting himself get so emotional that it caused him to space out like this. They both began a slow trot. The hallway was dead-ending into a turn ahead of them and the others looked like they were going to pause as soon as they reached it. Maybe they would luck out, he thought. Maybe they’d find out that the rest of the Haven had been cleared, and Max was already found.
Zonta sucked in a shocked breath as the rest of the group reached the end and suddenly yelled out, ducking around the corner as though in pursuit of someone. Zonta and Zerard began to run, hearing strange voices echoing back from where the men had disappeared.
And then a shadow sectioned of the wall in front of them opened up to reveal a hidden door. They scrambled to keep their feet and halt their headlong rush as three men sprinted out from it, cutting them off from the others.
Zonta gaped. Uncle! They’d found him!
Uncle was staring at them in shock, breathing hard, his hair unkempt and his loincloth limp and bedraggled. The two next to him were large and much more menacing in appearance. Their oddly blunt features were so similar Zonta thought they had to be related.
And they’d obviously been waiting for Zonta’s small group to pass by so they could escape behind them. Except Zonta and Zerard were now in their way. Zonta stared at his uncle and felt rage so bright it was blinding. The other two behind his uncle stepped to the front, partially protecting him.
Zonta could barely speak. “Yield.” It was all he could force out of his throat before the other men were moving forward.
They had the broader muscles of older men and they moved like they’d been in a guard somewhere for a long time. Zonta glanced at Zerard’s footing while he tried to adjust his own. Zerard’s training could only have started a few weeks ago; he was still using the basic stance they were taught the first month in. He shouldn’t have even been included in this, except they were low enough on men they’d needed every warm body who had any training at all.
Zonta had only been with the guards a little over a year, now, himself, and he wasn’t nearly good enough to win a fight against these two. Not even close; he’d been skipping every few training rounds to forward his studies instead, and sweet talking the others into letting him get away with it.
Backing away, Zerard doing the same, he knew he wouldn’t live long enough to make up for that. Unless they ran. These men were trying to get away; they weren’t going to attack from the rear if they were concentrating on escaping themselves. If he and Zerard could get away and get reinforcements…
He scanned their faces quickly but there was nothing. Not a flicker of reserve; these men truly didn’t care that they might be butchering family.
He took another quick step back, whispering while trying not to move his lips. “Run.”
Zerard’s ears flicked his way and he swallowed nervously, nodding. They both took a deep breath, started to turn, and the men sprinted forward the same instant. They were too close!
There was no time to retreat. There was barely time to yell out for the others so they knew there were enemies behind them.
Zonta’s mind tried to focus on what was important but he didn’t know. He’d skipped too much and engaged in sparring too little. Scrambling, ears flat, he tried to disengage the spear coming at him. He managed to stop the first thrust, reading the man’s body language just fast enough to catch it at the last moment, and one more time, but that was all the luck he had.
His spear jerked from his hands and he dodged back frantically, taking in everything at once, looking for what to do to stop him. The man’s cold face, smiling broadly enough to bare his fangs, froze him. The blade of the spear looked larger than it should, flat and steady, ready to gut Zonta in the next few moments. He could taste how it would feel, cold when it slid in, and then the hot pain that would hit after that moment of numbness, singing with the scent of his own blood.
He barely dodged another dart of the spear and the edge slid along his forearm. Zonta thought it had missed for the briefest second until the burn of it flared over his entire arm. He stumbled and leapt to the side to avoid a spear to the guts but he was too close to the wall. He hit it and fell heavily to the floor, panting, struggling to roll away from the spear that had to be coming. His eyes caught Uncle’s first, still standing in the middle of the corridor, the man’s face smaller and paler than ever.
And not as firm as the men’s.
Zonta’s mind spat out facts faster than he’d ever thought of anything in his life.
Uncle wasn’t attacking with the others. He wasn’t growling at them. He was hanging back.
And while he’d always disliked Kasan, he’d never felt the same about Zonta.
“Uncle!” Zonta tried to make it sound like a plea, hoping Uncle was too surprised to realize Zonta refused to say his name. He didn’t think Uncle would help him, but he might pause. Zonta might have a moment’s grace, and if Uncle could stay these men’s hands so that Zerard and Zonta lived another minute, Zonta would take it.
And use it.
Because he was hoping that the others had heard him and would come around the corner to ensure that Uncle didn’t get away, if Zonta and Zerard could keep them here a few minutes more.
Zonta jerked his head back suddenly, instinctively, and felt the air currents shimmy across his Adam’s apple from the blade that would have slit his throat.
It wasn’t going to work. The next stroke would have him.
The spears froze. Zonta could hear Zerard panting in a wheeze to his left, along the same wall. He didn’t know if the boy was injured; the smell of his own blood was too strong in his nostrils to tell. He couldn’t quite believe Uncle had done it. It worked!
If they could keep them occupied for just a while longer…
The two men didn’t remove their eyes from Zonta and Zerard as Uncle came up behind them. He looked less pale and more gray, now that Zonta could see him better. Ill. His hand was steady when he put it on the shoulder of the man in front of Zonta, though. Not that the man seemed to care. His spear was still aimed perfectly in Zonta’s direction.
“Leave them. They’re not important. Just two boys, barely ripe. The way is clear now.”
Zonta’s eyes widened before he could help himself and he quickly turned his head away. Uncle…hadn’t told them who Zonta was. They could have taken him hostage, or killed him out of revenge for the destruction of this damned place, but Uncle hadn’t told.
Zonta loathed the man – look what had happened to the family because of what he did! Why was he doing this? Zonta didn’t want to feel anything for Uncle like he’d used to, when Zonta was too small to see the petty little games Uncle played with Kasan as they grew older. He wanted to remember what came later, the jealousy when Kasan was named Battle leader instead of him, the sneers and taunts. And this, all of this.
A moment of compassion didn’t wipe that away.
One of the men spit on the floor. “They were old enough to come in, weren’t they? Old enough to hold a spear properly.” His weapon edged closer to Zonta.
“Because they are forced to by custom. They’re family, and young, not old enough to be lost to our cause. They haven’t been corrupted fully. Leave them.”
The man’s eyes were hard, and Zonta knew then it was not going to work. This Purist didn’t care about anything but the fact that Zonta could be a threat.
“No.” That was all the warning Zonta got before the man was thrusting and something slammed into him. He hissed, waiting for pain and hearing instead screaming and realizing that the spear hadn’t hit him. There was another body lying in front of Zonta where it had leapt to get between him and the spear. It writhed, screaming. Uncle was yelling as well, cursing at the guard to stop.
Zonta scrabbled at the body, trying to feel where Zerard’s wound was but he was bleeding so heavily! Zonta could see the blood sprayed across the floor where the second guard had hamstrung Zerard as he’d come to Zonta’s aid. Zerard let out another ear-piercing shriek of pain as the second spear was pulled out of his gut from the front.
Oh God, Zerard’s side, oh god. Zonta looked up into the furious eyes of the Purist, so horrified that he didn’t know what came next. He couldn’t figure out what to do! The man snarled at him and shoved Zerard over with his foot. He tensed to put more power into impaling Zonta as well when the family came back around the corner at a run, bloody and wild from their recent fight.
Uncle and the other two didn’t hesitate before turning to run the opposite way. Zonta didn't watch them go. He scrambled to his knees, crawling to Zerard. “Hold on, hold on, hold on, oh God.” There was so much blood. The wound was small but it must have hit something vital – it was too much blood!
Zonta’s hands shook as he yanked desperately at his own clothing, tearing it off, wadding it into a pad and putting pressure on the wound. It made Zerard scream.
“I’m so sorry, Zerard, but I have to- why did you do that? You stupid kitling, why did you-”
Zerard’s eyes were glassy as he looked up at Zonta, panting too rapidly, like a small bird in one’s hands. “…going to kill you,” he croaked. Zonta almost didn’t hear him as the others ran up.
“They were going to kill both of us. You didn’t have to bring it on sooner!”
“You’re smarter. Fam’ly needs you more.” Zerard smiled with a sweetness made macabre by the blood spattered over his face, and Zonta couldn’t breathe.
No, what a stupid-
How could he even think –
“The family needs everyone,” he whispered, but Zerard didn’t look like he heard. The others crowded around, one pulling Zonta away while the other two took over trying to stabilize Zerard. Zonta pushed once to get back and was surprised by how easily he was pushed back down.
“Zonta, stop. You’re wounded. We need to take care of this, too.”
“Zerard. I- He took the spear for me. I have to-”
“I know. I saw. Gutsy for such a soft looking little guy. He’ll make someone a good consort someday, I imagine. But right now, the others are more experienced at triage than you anyway, Zonta, so let them help him.”
Zonta wanted to argue, but he could already see them working more quickly and confidently than Zonta would have. He knew they had a better chance of helping Zerard live than he did. It galled, though. Zonta looked back down the hallway where Uncle had disappeared.
“Did you see…?” he whispered.
The other guard nodded, focusing on Zonta’s arm and wrapping it up but blowing out his breath at the question. “Yes. I saw. We’ll inform the others where your Uncle was last seen when we get Zerard back to the Citadel.”
Zonta started shivering. “Uncle tried to stop them from hurting us. He’s willing to let Kasan die from the kouloc, and…and what he’s done to Max is…. But he still tried to stop them. How could he- He wants Kasan to die, so how could he?”
It sunk in then, and it was nauseating that Zonta was still alive because of Uncle’s actions, while Kasan and Max might already be-
“Don’t think that way. We’ll find Kasan’s consort. For all we know, someone else already has. And someone will catch your Uncle.” The man finished tying up Zonta’s arm from a strip of his own loincloth and they both went over to look at the two frantically working on Zerard’s stomach and leg.
“We’ve got him stabilized, barely. If it were safe, I’d say bring the healers here, but…” The man gestured to the blood covered hallway. It looked like they’d butchered a small herd around them. “We’ve got to get him back with as little jostling as possible.”
Carefully, they lifted him together, two of the largest carrying him between them as best they could. He was extremely pale, eyes blinking open only rarely as he stared around him and moaned in pain.
And Zonta had a long time to think about someone believing so much in Zonta’s mind that he was willing to die to protect it.
And how little Zonta had really done with that mind to deserve it.
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