Fiction~~The Last Pure Human~~Ch. 36
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Chapter 36 - Once More into the Darkness
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Rui, Davin, and Mick had been trying to make Kasan ‘see reason’ for
hours. It was too cold to go outside, they’d remind him. The storm was
still raging. Max had only just stopped shivering.
Kasan heard each and every argument, he even agreed with them, but after a few minutes, without fail all he could think about was taking Max away from them all to somewhere safe. A secure room in the Citadel, with the shokan guarding the doors. That would protect the little one. No one could hurt him there. Davin talked him back down every time Kasan spoke of it, but the thought seemed trapped in Kasan’s brain like a fly in amber.
Davin forced him to walk out of the protection of the room and climb halfway up to the open door of the Haven before Kasan could finally understand what he was saying. The wind howled down the stairs. Debris slid down with it, mixed with small streams of water and adding to the centuries-worth already collected at the bottom. And the one thing that finally got through to Kasan was the icy rain that hit him in the face as he climb the stairs. It was sharp against his skin, almost sleet, and the chill was unmistakable.
It still wasn't safe to take Max back out into the forest. However much Kasan wanted his consort safe, going outside wasn’t the way to make it happen.
Kasan shivered, head spinning. The urge to protect Max and get him alone gnawed at him, a driving compulsion that he couldn’t overcome and barely wanted to admit to. Davin had tried to talk to him about it, but tales of men who’d gone feral and the days of backsliding into instinctive behaviors that could follow were the last things Kasan wanted to hear.
But this was obviously affecting his judgment. And he couldn't hurt Max again, so Kasan stood on the stairway and let the icy rain coat him until it dripped down his naked body. The colder he got, the more it cleared his head.
He stayed until his teeth were chattering.
Once he reached the base of the stairs, Kasan headed for the lit doorway where Davin and Mick were watching, naked as well but for Mick’s bandage and Davin’s bruises. Davin’s ears quirked inquiringly and then he nodded. Kasan’s face likely said it all. Kasan walked past them silently and stopped once he entered the room. The bluish glow of the light gave the illusion of moonlight coating the room. Kasan had always felt calmer during the full moons, but it wasn’t comforting any longer.
He stared over at Max and felt more helpless than ever. Max was yawning to himself, still bundled up, cradled on top of Ando-kees’ enormous paws, curling against the beast’s fur. He seemed so fucking fragile. How was Kasan going to keep him safe? He hadn’t even saved him in the first place; Max was the one to find him!
Kasan shuddered as a low heat spike made itself known. He didn't have much longer before he and Max would have to be intimate again. The pain and heat were a constant, low-level buzz now, with a few small peaks to rattle him. There wasn’t enough time to wait around here for the storm to finish, not if Max was to have the best chance at surviving the next heat without more emotional trauma.
Uncle Frodi had to examine Max and make sure that the injuries Kasan had inflicted were healing as they should. Maybe there was a reason he still moaned as though pain. Maybe the nanites weren’t as efficient at healing genetically pure humans. What if Kasan’s heat spiked, he made love to Max, and it injured him even more? The very thought nauseated Kasan. He’d done enough damage already.
But he wasn’t sure what to do. Yes, they’d made him see that trying to get back to the other Haven was untenable, but how else would they get home? This Haven looked like it was falling apart around them. Kasan doubted there was a straight path back home through here, even if they’d been willing to wander the dark hallways looking for it. It could take days to find your way around a Haven without a map, and that was in good conditions. He also couldn’t help the niggling fear that Purists might, by some slim chance, have managed to find a connection to this Haven from the other one. It wasn’t unheard of; there had been linked Havens before.
Davin asked Mick how he was doing in a low voice and drew Kasan’s attention. He should remember his responsibility to them, as well, although it was hard to drag his mind away from Max’s needs. Mick’s arm needed seeing to. The nanites would have started the healing but infection wasn’t unheard of. Rui was not going to last too much longer; he was flushed, eyes dilated, and vacillating between dazed lust and coherence. He looked like he should already have a consort under him.
Not to mention all the family that had come to Max’s aid. They were still in the other Haven. They would be searching until they found Max or they dropped. Kasan knew that far too many were as dedicated – and stupidly self-sacrificing – as Niku and the others. They would put themselves in danger if they thought it would help them find Max quicker. Kasan had to get back and get word to the others that his consort had been found.
But he couldn’t put Max in danger to do it! Even with the growing heat, he could barely tolerate the idea of making love to him again so soon after harming him. Kasan had to get Max to trust him again, if it was even possible. But if they couldn’t go up into the jungle, he didn't believe his will power could outlast the storm’s.
Kasan paced from one side of the room to the other, discarding one useless solution after another. His eyes were drawn to Max every time he passed by, and then to Rui when he reached the opposite wall. Rui was no longer allowed near Max. His heat had made him too volatile and unpredictable, at least as far as Kasan, with his own heat driving him, was concerned. Spear just out of reach next to him, Rui was completely stiff, trying to edge away from the female shokan who had plastered herself against his side as though she’d adopted him. Kasan wished he could have enjoyed the sight.
“We’ll think of something,” Mick said quietly. He leaned against Davin, holding the hand that wasn’t carrying the light.
“I know,” Kasan snarled back. He cursed as his tail hit the wall painfully hard. It was bruised already; he couldn’t control the urge to lash it back and forth, no matter how close he was to solid rock.
"He's sleeping finally," Rui said softly.
Kasan glanced over and saw Max's slack lips, face filled with color, the twitching that had accompanied his dozing finally still. Max had been so miserable that the little one had been in and out of consciousness since they'd brought him down here. Kasan had been worried it was injury related until Davin persuaded him otherwise. He could only keep his calm by reminding himself that the nanites would help Max, even with this. They could repair damage from hypothermia; they should be able to help him with any other issues.
Except the emotional ones.
"Maybe the storm will pass soon," Mick offered.
Kasan didn't do more than bare his teeth in the man's direction.
Mick’s ears wilted. "Yeah, I suppose not," he said more quietly.
Davin gave Kasan a growl back. "Mick's trying to help. Don't be a dick, Prince Kasan."
Kasan flinched at the reminder of his title. Davin and most of the others only did it when they thought he was being particularly nasty. But better he snarl then jump on something and claw it to pieces. He was trying, dammit!
He prowled through the room again, avoiding everyone. A particularly loud gust of wind screamed down the staircase and into the hallway. Kasan checked to make sure it hadn’t woken up Max. The shokan was taking good care of him; at least that was something. Max had two beings who could protect him now. Three if you counted the female.
Kasan stopped pacing and looked at the shokan again. They’d been almost preternaturally helpful up until now. And Ando-kees seemed so smart, almost as if he could understand what Kasan was trying to say. Maybe-
Kasan quickly crouched down next to Ando-kees. “We need to get back home.” He felt ridiculous and desperate, but Ando-kees looked back at him and Kasan would swear those eyes were suddenly much more focused. The female shokan’s head came up and she pushed away from Rui to come near with an inquiring tilt of her head. Kasan felt like he could almost read her mind. He growled. “Not your home. Ours.”
She whuffed at him and left, flopping back down on Rui. Her head thumped into the young man’s lap. She bared her fangs at Kasan once she got comfortable.
“Don’t anger her while she’s so close to me, please,” Rui said weakly.
Kasan ignored him. “Max needs help and the storm is too much for him.”
“Too much for my naked ass, too,” Davin commented.
“Shut up.” Kasan took a deep breath. This was not stupid, not if it worked. “We need to get back to the Citadel, beast. Do you know any way to do that without staying out in the forest for long? Max will get sick again if he goes outside.”
Ando-kees looked at him carefully then lifted up his head to look at Max sleeping on his paws. He nuzzled Max with his nose, snorting when a grumpy twitch of the lips was the only response. Ando-kees jerked his head to Max and back at Kasan.
Hoping he wasn’t losing his sanity, Kasan delicately picked up Max and cradled him against his chest. Max murmured under his breath and leaned toward him to soak up more warmth.
Silently, Ando-kees got to his feet, stretching. He sauntered over to the female and rubbed his head against her. Then he let his claws out one by one and yawned right in front of Rui’s face, showing his fangs. Rui looked ready to shatter he was so stiff.
The female stood up without the fanfare. She bumped against Ando-kees in mid-yawn and Kasan heard the beast’s teeth come together with a sharp, surprised clack. Kasan saw her give Ando-kees a strange look, almost like she was laughing silently, and then they both padded to the doorway, past Davin and Mick and into the darkness. In tandem, they looked back at them from the corridor. Their eyes made glowing points where they reflected Davin’s light.
“I will be damned,” Davin whispered. “How- Never mind how. Should we follow them?”
“They led us here and that worked out, didn’t it?” Kasan walked past Rui. “Hurry up. The faster we can get to safety, the better.”
Davin and Mick jumped to their feet, grabbing their spears. The light bobbed in crazy patterns against the wall until Davin settled it on the two animals. Kasan stepped up behind them both and let Davin take care of the light and the lead. Rui and Mick fell in behind Kasan.
Max didn’t stir, finally in a deeper sleep instead of the previous dozing. It was amazing how Max’s ability to sleep through anything could make Kasan smile, even now. If they were lucky, Max wouldn’t wake until they were home, and maybe not even then unless Kasan pushed him. Maybe he could even sleep through the next heat spike. That would be such a blessing that Kasan prayed for it briefly as he walked out the door.
Kasan expected the shokan to head up to the surface, possibly leading to another shelter closer to the Citadel, but Ando-kees turned into the darkness instead, waiting for Davin to catch up.
All of them stopped. The darkness loomed like a wall at the edge of the light.
“They want us to go into the Haven?” Rui asked faintly, ears flat against his skull. He looked ill, sweating and shaky, and eyed the dark as though it could become solid and attack them. “But we don’t know the way. We’d be instantly lost. And what about the light? What if it stops working when we’re down there? We can’t-”
“Rui, protect Max. Always. We can trust them.” Kasan hoped like hell he was telling the truth, because the gaping maw of darkness made his skin crawl as well. Rui’s worry about the light was completely valid. They didn’t know how long this one might last, and they’d already gone back up the stairs once to find another. There weren’t any remaining that hadn’t broken or lost their power source. If their light failed, they were in serious trouble.
But he had to remember how much the beasts protected Max. Ando-kees had found them this shelter for Max; Kasan had to trust him to get Max back home.
“We’re following them,” he said. Mick wrapped his good arm around Rui, murmuring comforting noises to him. Davin held the light higher, his ears flicking back and forth nervously.
The beast had his head down, searching for something on the floor. The female stood behind him, watching but not helping. Ando-kees eventually found whatever he’d been looking for and moved just out of the circle of light, waiting for them to catch up.
Kasan thought at first that Ando-kees was having problems seeing. Even for a shokan, the dark in an unlighted Haven would be impenetrable. It didn’t take him long to realize that Ando-kees could see fairly well; this Haven was less secure than it should be. It was riddled with holes to the surface. Some areas had so much debris in the way that the ceiling itself must have collapsed. They had to climb over piles of rubble more than once, Kasan holding Max carefully in one arm.
Shivering as a spray of water fell over his back, Kasan was fairly sure that without the storm they would have been able to see fairly well. The whistle of the wind rose and fell as they walked. Small unexpected gusts blew droplets into their faces, and he caught the tang of water and damp earth everywhere. Was this Haven older than the rest, or had something happened? Maybe it had been abandoned due to a lack of construction materials; Zonta claimed that had happened before, in the earlier years.
It was comforting, on the one hand, because he was no longer worried about bad air being a problem. They wouldn’t suffocate or run across a build up of gases if the Haven was this damaged. But open areas meant that it wasn’t sealed from any creatures up top. Anything that hunted could come down here for a meal. They could be in danger from more than the small scavengers he could hear skittering ahead and behind them.
Kasan mentioned the thought to the others and they walked on behind the two shokan more on edge than ever. The echo of the wind waxed and waned, sometimes screaming through the halls, sometimes whispering, but it never stopped completely. The smells tickled unpleasantly in Kasan’s nose. Fungus and sodden dirt were everywhere, clinging to their feet and between their toes like slime.
The consistency was thicker where the water dripped down the walls, the fungus and mildew taking over in those areas, with even a few plants tucked into the corners. The one thing that Kasan counted as a blessing was the rain that made it down to them. Having freezing wet droplets spray against his privates, were his loincloth usually protected him, cleared his mind from the heat. At least for a little while.
Kasan was just getting used to the noise and smells when it slowed to a stop. They continued moving through the winding passageways, not straight and precise like Kasan was used to, and the wind quieted behind them. The tiny scrapes and chittering of small vermin stopped after a few more turns. The soft huffs of their own breathing became an oppressive rhythm as they moved deeper, their light an island in the black. The dirt dried, then thinned, flattening out so they could feel the stone underfoot. The grains grew finer until it was clear they were walking through centuries of dust rather than accumulated dirt. And the damn stuff began to fly into the air whenever their feet made contact. Rui sneezed.
The light was enough to light the way, but only just. The darkness was oppressive, and the visibility was getting worse. Every shuffle of their feet made the dust hang in the air so that he felt like he was moving through a choking fog. They began to slow, placing their feet with more care to avoid kicking even more into the air.
No one spoke. Kasan wished he could think of something to say, but all he could do was hold onto Max and follow Ando-kees, one step at a time, trying not to think about what could go wrong. He had no idea how the beast was picking out their trail but he didn’t care, as long as it got them home. For all he knew, shokan could navigate a maze like this through smell alone.
Kasan began to notice a downward slope as the path twisted to the left. He opened his mouth to ask Davin’s opinion when Ando-kees and the female stopped. Davin and Kasan exchanged a glance and carefully walked forward. The two shokan had stopped where the path widened out into a dark pit. What the hell was it?
They all crowded up behind them, Davin holding up the light so they could see what they were dealing it. Kasan noted what looked like two steps heading down and was looking for the third when he realized that everything beyond that had collapsed to the floor below. Davin’s light showed just far enough down to highlight the debris and the lack of stairs.
Kasan and Davin backed rapidly away from the edge and pushed Mick and Rui behind them.
“It might not be stable,” Davin said quickly. Mick nodded. Rui stared at him blankly before slowly nodding, looking confused. He swayed once.
Mick bit his lip and rubbed Rui’s shoulders, talking softly to him. Kasan hadn’t realized Rui was this far gone. Had the heat been progressing more rapidly since they started walking, or had it been this bad in the room and Kasan just hadn’t noticed? He should have noticed. Rui was one of his men; he should be taking care of him.
What were they going to do, now? They’d been walking for what felt like hours, even if Kasan knew it hadn’t been. But if they had to go back and find another way, who knew how long that could be! Max didn’t have that much time. Kasan didn’t have that much time.
The shokan let out a half-growling yip and they all jumped back as it leapt into the air. It landed down on the stone floor, exactly where it had started, a handbreadth from the edge.
Kasan yelled at him. “Stop! You’ll break off the edge!”
Ando-kees turned, snorted, and then leapt high and landed hard two or three more times before stopping with a ‘see?’ look on its furry face.
“Did it-” Mick’s eyes were huge. “Was that its way of showing us that…it’s safe?”
Ando-kees reared up and slammed its front paws down on the very edge. Not even a pebble fell to the floor below.
“I- possibly?” Kasan looked down at Max, whose head lolled against Kasan’s chest. The shout hadn’t woken him at all. Kasan rubbed his fingers against Max’s side where he held them. He wasn’t sure why that it mattered whether the edge was stable or not; they couldn’t exactly jump down-
Both shokan disappeared over the edge.
“Shit!” Davin held the light up high as though it could somehow find them even though they were well away from the edge.
“Dammit! Don’t you dare leave us, you dumb beast!” What were they supposed to do, now? They couldn’t even find their way out of this Haven without the help of the shokan! Cursing loudly, Kasan crept forward to peer down into the gaping pit.
Davin and Mick joined him; Rui hovered behind. With the light held up, they could make out the floor and the two shokan watching them from below. Most of the rubble had fallen down in two large chunks. It looked stable, and not as far down as Kasan had first thought.
Davin held the light out further, leaning. “We could jump that,” he said casually. “Although if there’s no way into the Citadel, we could wander down there for days before we find another set of stairs back here. If there is one.”
Kasan wanted to growl how much he did not want to go down there, but he couldn’t think of what else to do. Finding their way back might be possible through the dust, but once they got to the damaged areas up higher, he wasn’t so sure they’d have clear tracks to follow. The urge to lay Max down and simply take him was getting stronger as well. They didn’t have enough damn time to find another way.
And the shokan might not care about Kasan, or Mick and Davin, or even Rui, but they cared about Max. “They haven’t steered us wrong yet,” he said through grit teeth.
Kasan arranged Max carefully in his arms, bracing his head and neck carefully. Holding the rest of him tight and tucked in close, he let himself drop over the edge. Max barely twitched at the landing and Kasan breathed a relieved sigh. Looking back up, he eyed the distance. It wasn’t a huge fall, but it would be farther than he could jump back out of. In the worst case, he thought he could make it out with his claws, though.
Davin and Mick jumped next, landing neatly beside him. Rui was last, breathing in shallow bursts. Even with the small light in Davin’s hands, he wasn’t doing well with the constant blackness and his building heat, staring behind them with wide eyes, ears flat against his head. His grip over his spear was white knuckled and ready to stab whatever fable came out of the darkness to attack them.
“I hope you know where you’re going, Ando-kees,” Kasan muttered. The shokan yipped once, waiting for Davin and his light to catch up again and sniffing carefully along the floor.
Kasan frowned as he looked down at the floor. “Are those…scuff marks?” he asked carefully. He hadn’t noticed any tracks in the dust aside from their own before, although he hadn't been looking, either. The hair on the back of his neck went up as he began to scan the floor.
The marks weren’t broad enough to be made by a large animal, but it wasn’t a small one either. This was exactly the type of thing he’d been worrying about after discovering that the Haven wasn’t secure and sealed. If something this size came at them from the dark, it could do some damage if it had any proper claws or teeth at all. It could hurt Max.
And it was heading in the same direction they were.
Then he noticed something more and crouched down to examine it. “It’s shokan.”
“That’s impossible,” Rui murmured, shaking. “It must be the female’s prints. A shokan couldn’t survive down here, not in this dark. Maybe in the upper areas where they could get out, if they were using it as a den, but not down here.”
“I know. But…come and see. It’s a third set. Smaller. It’s probably days old. Maybe weeks. I can’t tell how old the prints are with the air currents down here. But it’s definitely a shokan print. It’s stumbling, like it’s blind from the dark. Maybe injured, too.” It should be small enough not to be a threat, if it was still alive, but the claws would still be poisonous.
Rui had started to fade out again and barely nodded, swaying where he stood.
Kasan looked up at the floor above them where they’d jumped and then back down at the tracks, trying to find where they began. “I think it must have fallen in. Bring the light over, Davin.” The glow shifted and Kasan pointed out more tracks. “Look, it starts here – there’s nothing anywhere else. If one became lost and fell in, that might explain it.” And it would mean there weren’t more of them waiting in the dark somewhere, against all odds.
They all looked up at the hole gaping in the ceiling.
“A smaller juvenile could never make it back up there,” Mick said. “The poor thing must have starved down here.”
“Poor thing? I never met one before that I didn’t think was going to try to gut me, and now it’s a poor thing?” Davin asked.
“Any animal that would die down here in the dark, alone, would have my sympathy,” Mick said, shuddering.
Kasan had to agree. It was oppressive.
Ando-kees snorted and went to Davin to push him in another direction.
“Onward, huh?” Ando-kees bumped Davin so hard he almost fell. “I’m going, I’m going. Shit.”
The shokan led the way again down another corridor, everyone moving slowly again, Davin carrying the light high so the shokan could see farther down the corridors. They hadn’t walked long, enough of a turn to put the broken stairs out of sight when there was a smell other than the dust hanging in the air: rotting meat.
Kasan and Davin shared a glance – it was probably the shokan that had been trapped down here. Kasan could admit that he was relieved to avoid running into yet another shokan, even if the stench was highly unpleasant.
The smell was getting stronger, that cloying, sickly-sweet smell that made Kasan want to breath through his mouth, but he could taste it when he did. He nearly gagged. The tunnel was craggier now, rock instead of stone bricks, and as they went around another turn Kasan saw the light flash off of something to the right and called out for Davin to stop and bring the light closer.
“We’re almost out!” It was a map. Cruder than any Kasan had seen – this had to be one of the earlier Havens – but the metal sheet no bigger than a platter was fastened to the wall and had a map of the entire Haven. These were always set up near the entrance!
Kasan looked around and saw the dark passage directly opposite, where Ando-kees was already waiting, and he smiled, hugging Max more tightly against his chest. Oh thank God, Max would be safe now. They were almost there! Mick and Davin smiled giddily at each other. Rui’s was more pained but still a bright slash across his face.
Kasan knelt down to address Ando-kees. “Thank you,” he said quietly. He grit his teeth as Ando-kees let out a long suffering ‘whuff’ and merely turned to walk ahead of them down the passageway. He didn’t care; the beast had done it and Max would be safe and Rui could get a consort before his heat grew too bad. Ando-kees could be as annoying as he wished.
The smell of rotting flesh was stronger after a few steps but Kasan couldn't bring himself to mourn whatever poor beast had died there. They were so close! Davin and Mick pushed up behind the animals quickly leaving Kasan and Rui to catch up in much dimmer light. Max slept on, cuddled in Kasan’s arms. Kasan stroked his hand over his hip.
“Almost there, Gisho. Uncle can look you over and make sure you’re well, and then we’ll…we’ll figure it out. We’ll figure it out, Max.”
Davin let out a strangled shout up ahead and Mick screamed. Kasan froze for a shameful second and then he and Rui sprinted forward, teeth bared. Kasan opened his mouth to tell Rui to stop – to keep Max safe while Kasan helped Mick and Davin – but Mick and Davin weren’t fighting anything. The tunnel dead-ended and they were standing at the back of it, looking down on the floor as the shokan stood on either side.
“I think you’d best come see this, Prince Kasan,” Mick said shakily.
With Rui guarding the rear, Kasan trotted forward with Max and stepped between them. He blanched as he saw what was lying in a graying, rotting heap on the floor, up against the door: a dead Kyashin. Male, it looked like.
“What the-” He took a step back, staring. “How is that even possible?” he whispered.
Ando-kees growled at the rotting corpse and turned, clawing dust onto it with his back paws before he came up to Kasan and nuzzled Max’s leg. He turned and growled at the form again.
“I’m not very fond of the smell, either,” Davin muttered.
Hackles up, Kasan stepped closer. Who the hell was it? And more importantly, how had he died?
“Rui, keep an eye out.” Had the Purists killed someone? Did they have access to this Haven too? Looking the body over, Kasan frowned. The limbs were darker than they should be. “Davin, bring the light closer. There’s something strange here.”
With the light, he wasn’t any closer to figuring out who it was but he could identify the odd coloration of the dead man’s limbs. The clothing wasn't the formal loincloth most of the guards and family wore in the Citadel. They were town clothes, long sleeved top and long pants, close fitted and dark. He even had shoes on, soft leather ones that laced up his calves. And some sort of mask that wrapped around his head, obscuring his face.
“Davin, take off his mask, would you?” Kasan shifted his hold on Max while Davin grimaced and carefully peeled the dark fabric away from the face. Some of the flesh from the neck came with it and Mick started to gag behind him.
Kasan stared at the man’s features and frowned. His face was gaunt and gray, but Kasan still didn’t think he recognized him and he knew nearly every adult male in the Citadel, he’d thought. “Davin, Mick, do either of you know him?”
Mick took a fortifying breath and peeked in quickly before turning away, covering his mouth. “No,” he said faintly.
“Don’t know him,” Davin said.
Rui hadn’t been in the Citadel long enough to even bother asking. He looked him over more carefully and noticed something glinting around his waist. “What’s that?”
Davin carefully took it out and began to swear. Kasan nearly did the same. It was small, an angular piece of metal, almost cube-like. A universal key. Kasan had never seen one in person but he’d seen drawings. None of the Hinta had them; they didn’t tend to use that sort of technology, especially with the Citadel’s tech restrictions. But some of the other clans did. They could be used to open almost every door in most cities that had been created before the Saviors all passed away. They were usually used to keep littles out of dangerous areas.
Unless someone was visiting a city where the safety protocols had never been undone and technology was lower, like the Hinta and a few of the other clans. Then it was exceptionally useful to get into secured areas, especially for those few who were more disreputable and engaged in acts of thievery or worse.
But the last time Kasan had heard of something like this happening, it had been halfway around the continent, not near the Hinta’s territory.
“So he’s not Hinta,” Kasan said slowly. “What is a dead man who is not even from our clan doing in a Haven right next to the Citadel? What the hell did he want?”
Davin looked at the wall the man was lying against. “Maybe he discovered the Haven and was looking for a way in where he wouldn’t be detected. I’ve heard that some of the professionals have done that before. But…we have nothing someone would want. Even politically, we’re usually too far away from any of the clans to be caught up in some of their squabbles.”
“There’s no tracks from in here,” Rui said quietly, startling them. “There’s only our tracks and that one smaller shokan’s, but none of these prints come from shod feet. He can’t have come from inside here.”
Kasan looked quickly to confirm. So, he’d come from the Citadel, then. A dead man who had to have been attacked inside the Citadel and died here in the Haven. He couldn't even think of what could have happened. And then Ando-kees kicked dirt on him again, making Kasan choke, and suddenly he could.
“It’s the man we thought was eaten by the shokan,” he blurted out.
Davin and Mick looked at him and their eyes widened before backing away from Ando-kees. “You think he…killed him?”
“We-” Kasan swallowed, his throat dry. “We think someone was sent or hired to get to Max. Which means if it was this man… he would have hurt Max.” Kasan’s claws came out.
Mick stared at the corpse and then Ando-kees. “And the shokan killed him.” He smiled weakly. “Good shokan. Nice boy.”
Ando-kees bared his teeth and turned away.
He looked down at the ground, wondering when he was going to stop owing the creature, and saw two tracks next to each other. One was the set of tracks they’d spotted for the unknown shokan and one was from Ando-kees. And they both have the same oddly shaped toe that stood out a little in the track.
“Shit, it’s him.”
“What?” Davin looked around, confused.
“Those smaller shokan tracks, they’re from Ando-kees. Look, they’re the same tracks. The size is the only difference. He must have fallen down before his growth hit. This is how he got into the Citadel. No wonder no one saw him.”
Kasan couldn’t see how the animal could have managed it in the pitch black, but the tracks didn’t lie. They were both from Ando-kees. The shokan glanced back, shook his head, and reached up to bump a trigger plate in the wall with his nose. The door slid open with a roaring hiss as wind and rain coursed in.
Kasan and the others immediately ducked their heads, shivering. Kasan stared at Ando-kees as the shokan hopped out the door and around a tree standing in the way. He found himself unnerved again by the eerie intelligence Ando-kees displayed.
It was keeping Max alive, he had to remember that. And…they needed to keep moving. The wind that rushed into the open doorway was less than in the jungle but still cold for an unclothed man.
Kasan stepped out warily, unsure where they would be, but Ando-kees leapt ahead, female in tow. Kasan’s jaw dropped as he stepped around the large tree nearly blocking the entrance and spotted the small handhold on the side of it. He knew that handhold; there were more attached to that tree leading all the way to the top. “It’s my garden!”
Mick and Davin peeked around as well. “Yours?”
“Yes! That damn beast has been living in my garden!”
…where Max had been before they ever knew the shokan was a danger. Dammit, how many things had Kasan missed when it came to protecting Max? He felt like he needed to have him locked in a room with guards round the clock!
Shaking his head as they walked quickly along the path, Kasan didn’t bother calling up the walls. All the guards that were in non-essential positions had been pulled off to help look for Max. Kasan needed to get inside, get the word out, and get Max taken care of.
He thought Davin might have said something but the wind’s rush through the leaves was loud enough to block it. He led the way, shadowed by the shokan, and it almost felt anti-climactic when the wall came in sight. Nothing else leapt out at them to surprise them. The door opened without a single flaw. The men and shokan scrambled inside and Kasan closed the door. They stood, shivering in the sudden quiet.
Kasan didn’t know what to feel. He’d been keeping the Citadel as his goal for so many hours now that he should have felt relieved but his room was no longer a place of safety. It smelled wrong, stinking of fear, and a small spike from his heat intruded and made him even more wary. The room hadn’t been cleaned yet. There were still smears of blood on the floor leading from the middle of the room to the door; no wonder it smelled.
The female sniffed around them and growled, rubbing up against Ando-kees and staying there, pressed against him. Davin, Mick, and Rui stood blinking in the light.
“My loincloth drawer is to the right. Help yourself.”
Rui nodded and opened a drawer, snagging a blue cloth for himself and tossing two more to Mick and Davin. He held up a red and gold one to Kasan and then draped it over his shoulders at Kasan’s nod. Kasan could put it on once Max was taken care of.
He held Max close, trying to control himself as the adrenaline faded and his heat spiked in response. He had to get Max checked and get them both privacy as soon as he could. He wouldn’t be brutal this time. He wouldn’t let it be brutal ever again. He was going to ensure that he was so gentle with Max that the little one would never have to be afraid of what Kasan could do to him.
“You’re safe, now Max. I swear it. You’ll always be safe now.”
Max blinked sleepily, rousing for long enough to smile and nuzzle against Kasan’s chest. Kasan leaned his head down to start nuzzling him back. So beautiful. And he smelled so good. Kasan purred, staring at him, then snarled as Davin cleared his throat.
Shit. He shook his head to clear it and pulled back from Max. He couldn’t get distracted; they were almost there!
“Right,” he said hoarsely. He looked around and caught a glimpse of Ando-kees and the female walking across the room. They didn’t seem to care about them any longer now that they were in the room, although the female glanced at Max a couple more times. Ando-kees set his claws on the curved beam leading to Kasan’s green house and clambered up to disappear into the small entrance at the top. The other shokan was right behind him. Kasan blinked after them and then looked at the pole, realizing that the gouges in the wood, deeper than Kasan’s claws could make, were in higher numbers than one climb would provide.
“You’ve been hiding in my greenhouse!” That was Kasan’s sanctuary, a place he could do more with delicate plants. He’d spent hours up there as a child when there’d been one too many snide comments from the other children, or someone gumming up his tail for the umpteenth time. No one could follow him up there without claws to help them.
But Ando-kees was currently using it as a- what? A den? A wild animal had been in his garden. He’d been in Kasan’s sanctuary, he’d been in his room, with Max, and Kasan hadn’t even known. The guards hadn’t known. None of them had a clue that Max was living with a dangerous predator with all the innocence of a child.
Kasan shuddered. Mick and Davin behind him shuffled uncomfortably, although Kasan thought he heard a muffled but amused snigger from Davin.
“Shut up.” Kasan wanted to put more heat into it, but it wasn’t worth it. Max mattered, the heat mattered, and family mattered. And looking around the room with the old, rust colored stains of dried blood, Kasan knew that he couldn’t be with Max here. It was too great a reminder of what had happened to Max and Aosh.
“I’ve got to get Max checked out,” he said, clutching Max tighter as another wave of heat hit.
“Mick needs to be seen as well. One of the Purists got him pretty damn good.”
“You need to be seen, too, idiot,” Mick said fondly, prodding one of Davin’s bruises. Davin had his arm around Mick’s middle and Kasan snapped out of his daze enough to realize that Davin didn’t look that good either.
“Come on. We’d better get going.”
Rui was silent, swaying, following behind them as Kasan opened the door into the corridor. Kasan wasn’t surprised to find the usual guards missing here too. Their manpower wasn’t unlimited; everyone had been helping try to find Max.
He shifted Max in preparation of using the box next to the door until he saw the broken pieces. Oh yes. Another remnant from Waran, the bastard.
“There must be one down the hall,” Davin murmured. “We can use that.”
Kasan nodded, all of them moving in unspoken consensus. Kasan was having a hard time calming himself and clutched Max so tightly his consort whined in sleepy distress. Kasan relaxed his grip and shushed him back to sleep.
The halls were eerily quiet, without the usual people you’d see traveling them this time of night. It felt more like the abandoned Haven than the citadel and Kasan’s ears were bristling with tension, his tail stiff. His head couldn’t help wonder.
What if, somehow, there were more Purists than they’d thought? What if some had gotten into the citadel? What if they weren’t safe? He would have felt foolish beyond words if he couldn’t hear the others adjusting their grips on their weapons, too, and couldn’t see their ears twitching as he knew his were. He wasn’t the only one unnerved by the silence.
They carefully turned a corner and Kasan found a working box on the wall. He nodded at Davin, unwilling to break his grip on Max. “Call on the command channel. They’ll know what’s going on and they can spread the word the fastest.”
Davin nodded and Kasan scanned the hallway as he heard him reporting in.
“This is Davin, assigned to troop 4 of the assaulting force into the newly discovered Haven. I am back in the Citadel, section three, near Prince Kasan’s room. I am with Prince Kasan and he has recovered his consort. We need to know the situation. Is the citadel secure?”
Kasan nearly collapsed in relief as he heard a brief, startled ‘hold on a moment’ and then a frantic scuffling noise. His brother’s voice came on the box a moment later. “Kasan?” Jolan’s voice was so welcome.
“I’m here,” Kasan said, leaning in toward the box. Davin stepped aside.
“Damn it’s good to hear your voice! But how the hell did you get out in the residential quarters?”
“Another Haven; the Purists don’t seem to have found it yet. Connects to my own damn garden. And there’s a dead man inside we’ll have to deal with, too. Not Hinta.”
“What the-” Jolan’s voice cut off and he hissed like someone had jabbed him in the ribs. “Fuck, Ko, all right! New Haven, dead man, not Hinta. Got it.” There was a long silence and Jolan’s voice lowered. “You’re still talking, and obviously walking, so I know you had to have found Max. Is he-?”
“He’s fine,” Kasan said quickly. His throat closed up and he closed his eyes, swallowing heavily. “We found Max in time before they…before they did any permanent damage. He’s okay. I don’t- I don’t know what they might have done to him, but…I was feral when I found- when he found me. I-” His voice broke and he swallowed again. “He needs a healer. He’s hurt.” And god how that hurt to say.
“Uncle Frodi’s down in healing station #2,” Jolan said gently. “I’ll box down to him. He’ll be there. Max’ll be all right, Kasan. Just remember that you found him and you’re both here. Everything else can be solved.”
“I hope so,” Kasan murmured. He swallowed again, trying to keep his mind on everything else, on anything else. “What’s the situation in the Haven?”
“Chaotic, but we’ve got it contained, at least,” came Jolan’s blunt reply. Kasan heard a faint ‘that’s an understatement’ in the background. Sounded like Ko again. “We have to relay messages, as expected down in an old Haven, but there’s a few working boxes so we’re still getting regular reports. However, the Purists are like insects. We think we’ve got them all and then more skitter out of some side room and there’s another fight on our hands. We’ve had to go room by room.
“Zonta had a run in with Uncle, the fucker. The Purists tried to gut him but one of the newbies took it in the side for him. I just heard from the guards at the entrance; they’re bringing them back in now.” Jolan’s voice lowered. “He couldn’t stop Uncle and no one’s seen the asshole since then. The bastard might have made it out into the forest. And…there’s been a few deaths.”
Kasan flinched at that. He wondered how many mates or consorts would choose to end it themselves rather than die slowly when their next heat spike hit. It was his or Leero’s responsibility to inform them. “Is Leero back yet?”
There was a long pause. “No. He and father were separated from their troop during one surprise attack. No one’s seen then in hours. Niku is heading up everyone else.”
Kasan sucked in a shocked breath. Father and Leero?
“Leero’s a mean bastard and father is even sneakier than you when you’re pranking someone. They’ll be all right,” Jolan said. Kasan nodded to himself; he’d make himself believe it. He had to.
“I need someone to inform the families. Max and I – we’re not done. The heat’s building up again pretty damn fast. I don’t know how long I’ll be out of commission after Uncle clears Max. Oh, and we have another Shokan with us now, a female.”
“We’ll need to talk about this later with the Elders, but yeah. They’re both in my rooms. I don’t know how they’ll respond to people, so leave any clean up or guard assignments for later, until I can help make sure we don’t have some sort of incident.”
Jolan shook off whatever shock he felt. “All right, I’ll make a note: do not disturb big, giant predators in Kasan’s room. And as for the rest,” his voice softened. “We’ve got it covered. We weren’t sure when we’d have you back, little brother. Neera can inform the families who have lost people. So can Roto. Neera’s been wanting to get more involved in the politics side of things, anyway. I think the Elders are looking at her for the future, to be honest.”
Kasan could easily see Neera’s calm and Roto’s compassion being a better fit for what the left behind consorts and mates needed than Kasan could ever give. Maybe the elders would make that a permanent thing. “Sounds good,” he managed. His groin was tight and hot. “Where’s Nolluz.”
A chill crawled up Kasan’s spine. “Max’s people?”
“Don’t worry about it, Kasan. It’s not something you can affect right now, even if you weren’t in your current condition. Go, take care of yourself and the little one.” He was quiet a long moment. “It’s good to hear your voice, Kasan. I would have missed hearing it.”
Kasan grunted out some reply and turned away from the box. Davin and Mick were leaning on each other and Rui was swaying in place now, flushed, pupils dilated. Max slept on in Kasan’s arms, oblivious and beautiful.
“We need to get to the healers,” Kasan growled. They walked down the hall, leaning against each other, and slowly made their way through the Citadel.
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