The karnak howled in pain as the club crashed into the middle leg on its left side. Though the massive pillar of muscle was easily over ten times the thickness of Akhustal’s weapon, the wooden bludgeon smashed through the scales, muscles, tendons, and bone as if they were little more than brittle twigs. With all three of its legs on the left side now completely unable to bear weight, the massive beast toppled uncontrollably onto its side, thrashing and screaming. Akhustal quickly reduced her club’s density to the lightest she could manage and leaped out of the way of the falling creature.
As soon as she landed, the Chos sprinted for the massive lizard’s head. Around her, three other karnaks battled it out with the other Honos who’d accompanied her on this hunting mission; they’d left the biggest one for her to tackle, and she had confidence that they’d be able to take down the others, but she never liked to leave things like this to chance. The sooner she could join them, the better.
The karnak’s head, over twenty paces long and ten paces wide, whipped about with dangerous force as the humongous beast thrashed. Akhustal skidded to a stop just outside of the head’s range, careful not to get too close and take an incidental head butt from the injured creature. It didn’t matter how strong you were, getting hit by a house of flesh would kill most anybody.
Raising her club over her head, she waited for the karnak’s skull to swing back her way. As soon as it was close enough, she brought the feather-light club hurtling forward and altered its weight to the opposite end of the spectrum just before it hit scales. Now heavier than the entire karnak, the club shattered the beast’s skull with ease, bringing the lizard’s life to a messy end.
A rumbling, doleful gurgle behind her marked the death of a second karnak, bringing a grin to her face. Stragmans were strong.
A very short time later, Akhustal and the others stood before four massive corpses. She couldn’t help but be in a good mood over the hunt’s success. Each gargantuan lizard, four hundred paces long or more, could feed hundreds of thousands of people. Now all that remained was to transport the carcasses back to the main force as it worked its way ever northward.
Akhustal Palebane loved to hunt, the bigger and deadlier the creature, the better. Sadly, she rarely found the opportunity since ascending to the position of Chos. Nowadays, nearly all her hunts came during large population movements like this one. In almost every other area, migrations and the like were a major headache of logistics and organization, but in this one aspect, she loved them.
Now that the hunt had ended, Akhustal put two fingers in her mouth and let out a loud, piercing whistle, signaling to a second group that trailed far behind the hunters. Composed largely of Flegs and Shells, their job was to dismantle the massive beasts and transport them back to the rest of the populace. Her work completed, she turned and headed back ahead of them.
After several hours , the Chos and her companions rejoined the main column just as they finished setting up camp in the evening light. They welcomed her arrival with great fanfare, and she gave some perfunctory waves before breaking from the others. Shaking off several officials as she wound through the camp, she grabbed several armfuls of food and made her way towards her personal quarters.
“Caprakan, dear, I have returned,” she called out as she pushed through the tent flap and entered the canvas enclosure that served as her portable home these days.
There came no response. Setting the food down on a nearby foldable table, she looked around and quickly spotted the figure of her husband sitting near their bedrolls. Even from across the tent she could see his vacant stare.
Picking up several roasted maewi flanks, she strode over to her beloved and squatted down beside him.
Still he didn’t respond, her voice unheard.
“Cap!” she said loudly, waving a hand in front of his face. The man’s eyes regained focus and he stiffened for a moment. She pushed down her disappointment with his reaction by reminding her self that at least he wasn’t screaming anymore.
Caprakan’s gaze traced up her arm and settled on her face. “Oh, welcome back,” he said, offering a hollow smile that didn’t reach his eyes despite his efforts. “Did the hunt go well?”
“4 adult karnaks,” she replied. She held out her other hand, the one holding the roasted flanks. “Food?”
Her husband quickly reached out and snatched the proffered legs from her grip. With almost desperate energy, he took a large bite from one and chewed vigorously, seeming to relax a bit as the savory juices flowed into his mouth.
Akhustal suppressed a sigh. Back in the day, her husband had never been what one would call a “picky eater”, but he was nothing like the man before her. The Caprakan of the present acted like every meal was the last one he would ever get.
Fury roared through her for what seemed like the millionth time since Rudra had revived him only fifteen days before. That bitch Pyria! Just what sorts of torture had they inflicted upon her beloved husband? And would he ever fully recover from it?
When she’d carried his unconscious form from Rudra’s cell, Caprakan had been little more than skin and bones, his body covered in wounds and half-healed scars. His muscles had atrophied from many days of starvation and lack of use. The tendons and ligaments in his legs had been severed, keeping him immobilized for several seasons at least. Akhustal could only thank Ruresni that they’d spared his arms. She didn’t think either of them would have been able to handle the embarrassment of having to spoon feed him like a toddler for half a year or more.
His body had begun filling out and those scars had all healed now that he could finally sleep soundly and eat as much as he desired, but the same could not be said for scars on his soul. Her husband rarely seemed present these days. He would often zone out, his eyes taking staring off into nothingness as his thoughts drifted away from the moment and into some terrible abyss that only he could see. Even when he was present, he acted distant. Sure, he tried to put on a brave face, but she saw through it all. His ordeals still haunted him.
When Akhustal was growing up, she’d learned that strength was all that mattered. No matter the problem, it could be solved if you were strong enough. Stragman society only reinforced those preconceptions, and the first three decades or so of her life had done little to dissuade her from such views. But recently, everything had begun to fall apart.
She, the strongest Stragman, had been powerless to save her husband from Pyria’s clutches. She, the mightiest Stragman, for seasons, been unable to force the Earthling Rudra to revive her husband and the other dead. And now this. No amount of strength would help her solve this, and that realization had cast her adrift on a sea of fear and uncertainty.
Just days ago, Akhustal had exulted in the thought that she’d finally prevailed and gotten everything she’d wanted. She knew now that she’d been wrong. This wasn’t what she wanted at all.
“We’re only half a day from the forest’s edge now,” Akhustal informed her husband as they rested in their tent some nights later.
“Yes, I noticed,” Caprakan replied as he whittled away at a branch using a small knife. While his body looked even healthier than before, he was still many days away from being able to stand under his own power. Two Shells had to carry him in a hanging chair that hung from their shoulders, leaving him with very little to do for most of the day. Given this situation, he’d taken to whittling and his skills improved every day.
The fact that he even needed to deal with boredom demonstrated his mental improvement. Before, there would have been no need, since for the first leg of the journey he spent his travel time rocking back and forth, trapped in his own personal world.
These last few days, he’d been much more lucid, though still largely withdrawn. Akhustal would find herself recognizing bits of pieces as small fragments of the man she knew before. But that didn’t mean everything was fixed or close to it. All it took was one small thing to send him on a backslide into his mind and she’d lose him for hours. She wasn’t sure if he was actually getting healthier or simply getting better at hiding the damage from others.
“Why the delay?” Caprakan inquired with a frown.
Akhustal paused, realizing now that bringing up the subject had been a mistake. It was too close to dangerous territory. She should have seen the question coming.
Her husband’s frown deepened into a frown as her hesitation told him everything he wanted to know.
“It’s crucial that we coordinate so that the Ubrans are not alerted to our advance until the last possible moment,” she replied hurriedly, hoping to absolve her actions in his eyes.
“We shouldn’t be coordinating with them!” he spat, his hands starting to shake. “We shouldn’t even be speaking with those knife ear bastards!”
“Honey, please, calm down...” she soothed in a near panic, knowing where this was headed now. Gently she grasped his shoulders from behind and gave a soft squeeze.
He shook loose of her grip and twisted in his seat to face her directly. “I never thought that you, of all people, would befriend them,” he hissed, the shaking in his hands spreading to his whole body. “Not after what they... did... what they did...”
She was losing him again.
“Caprakan, dear, why don’t we just have Rudra return you back to before you were captured?” Akhustal begged. “Your body would be all healed and you wouldn’t remember any of the things that Pyria-”
“No!” he sharply cried. “No...”
Caprakan pulled his legs up against his chest using his arms and began to rock back and forth, his eyes returning to that empty gaze that she’d come to dread so much. “No...” he mumbled, seemingly more to himself than to her. “I don’t... no...”
“Cap, honey...” Akhustal gently shook her love and waved her hand in front of his face, but he didn’t respond to her no matter what she tried. It was like she and the rest of reality didn’t even exist to him anymore.
After several more moments of trying in vain to bring her husband back, the Chos stood up, grabbed her club, walked out of the tent, and kept walking and walking. It wasn’t until she’d traveled a good half hour from the edges of the camp that she finally stopped, turned to the nearest object—a large rock about three times her size—, let out a scream of pure fury, and smashed the rock over and over with her club until the stone was nothing more than dust.
This feeling of powerlessness, this feeling of futility... she hated it with every fiber of her being. But no matter what she did, it wouldn’t go away. Nor would the rage that came with it. Akhustal could only hope that she’d be wading into battle sooner rather than later. She had a lot of aggression to work out of her system, and woe betide anybody who tried to stand against her when that time came.