Chapter 25: The Survivors
“There was a people once who believed that the world was built from the bones of the dead. The things I’ve seen, I’m starting to think they weren’t so crazy.”
-Chicken, local madman, date unknown.
Stephan caught Taira by her sweater, tried to pull her back. She jerked free of him and picked up the pace, half-running through the underbrush.
“Codes, Taira, see reason!” he called. “We’ve gotten into enough trouble already. We don’t need more.”
She ignored him.
“Fine. This is for your own good.”
Stephan dropped the stone axe and ran up behind Taira. He grabbed her around the waist with both arms and hauled her into the air, kicking and screaming. He placed her over his shoulders, stumbling as she pounded on his back.
“Kithraxi are worse than lakata, worse than pirates, worse than death,” he said. “I’ve read the stories. I’ll bet you have too. So why? Why would you seek them out?”
She sobbed. Tried to be quiet, but he could hear her. Felt her body shake like a leaf against him.
“I know she’s right,” Taira said. “I know that. I’m not stupid. But… I don’t want to. I don’t want to believe that. I want better.”
“That’s fine. You can believe whatever you’d like, once we’re safe.”
Taira sniffled. “That’s not how believing works.”
Stephan turned the opposite direction of the sounds and began to walk, straining to hold up Taira.
“You can’t seriously expect to make friends with some of the most dangerous creatures in the world. What if there’s a hundred of them, huh? A thousand?”
“What makes you say that?”
“The sounds. Two individuals, three at most. This isn’t their natural habitat. They thrive in Aqith. Someone brought them. Pets, or…”
“Crew members,” Stephan whispered. “Do you think…?”
“I think it’s possible.”
“Thrice damn it.”
He let her down on the ground. She straightened out her clothes and wiped her tears.
Kithraxi were supposed to be dumb and mean, bloodthirsty animals just like the lakata. But if they had been brought to Dead Echo as members of a crew, then…
We’ve got an obligation to help them.
Quintilla likely wouldn’t see it that way, but Quintilla wasn’t there.
“Can we look, at least?” Taira asked.
Stephan slowly nodded. He went and picked up the axe. “Alright. We can look. I don’t like it, but I suppose we should make sure.”
They headed towards the sounds, scraping and clicking followed by the telltale hiss of lakata. Stephan made sure that Taira stayed behind him. He held his axe raised, but was ready to drop it in favor of the pistol.
The sounds grew louder. He could make out the clangor of combat over the muting vegetation.
Codes, could she have been right? Are these things fighting the lakata?
Something bulky and black broke through the trees, throwing dirt around. It landed on a rounded metal shell, rolled, and pushed itself back to its feet with the help of two pairs of hooked hands.
The insectoid reached Stephan’s waist, covered head to toe in a scraped-up, blackish-brown exoskeleton. Six tiny black eyes were set into the creature’s rounded head, and two pairs of sharp mandibles clacked against one another. It wore a deep-red sash over one shoulder, a white mark painted on the fabric.
It was just like the stories. They told of the great tunneler-beetles that dug out whole cities so they fell into the abyss before consuming every living thing inside.
It looked smaller than he had expected. Weaker. Tired.
A lakata came after the kithraxi through the woods, letting out a cry like paper on paper. The crocodilian was more than twice the size of the smaller creature, armed with a short flint axe.
The kithraxi let out a shrill scream and charged its enemy. The lakata brought down its axe and shaved off one of the kithraxi’s mandibles. The smaller creature carried on into the crocodilian with a hiss of pain and buried sharp claws into the green hide. The lakata recoiled, but the kithraxi stuck on firmly, clawing up its enemy’s body. The lakata fell, and the two became a writhing pile of interlocked limbs on the ground.
“Stephan! Help him!” Taira cried.
Stephan blinked twice. He put down his axe, fumbled out his Rivello, and waited for an opening as the two creatures rolled on the ground. Despite being so much smaller, the kithraxi gave as much as it got, digging bloody grooves into the lakata’s hide.
The lakata shoved the insectoid away, which landed some two meters off in a bush, and stood.
Stephan aimed at the head.
Two shots rang out.
The lakata fell dead.
The insectoid slowly stood, one of its arms clutched against its underbelly while the severed mandible leaked a viscous, greenish substance. Innumerable cuts and scrapes marred its exoskeleton.
The kithraxi shambled towards them with a hiss, blood-slick arms raised threateningly.
Stephan hesitated, training his pistol on the creature.
“It doesn’t look friendly,” Stephan said. “I think I have to…”
“Wait!” Taira said.
She slowly approached the insectoid, crouching to get closer to its height. She kept her hands high where the creature could see him and whispered a few choppy words of True Speech.
The kithraxi stopped and cocked its head. The clicking of mandibles sounded like cogs turning.
Taira closed the distance between them. She got on her knees and slowly crept a hand towards the creature. It did nothing to stop her, watching the woman in utter silence. Even its mandibles fell still.
Taira laid one finger on the kithraxi’s underbelly.
The insectoid hissed and lashed out with a clawed hand. Taira fell back on her behind, nursing a set of bleeding marks on her chin.
Stephan leveled his pistol with the kithraxi’s head. At this distance, he wouldn’t miss.
“Wait, please!” Taira called. She looked back and held out a hand towards him, dark eyes wide and pleading.
The kithraxi curled up, hissing, claws splayed and ready to follow up the first attack.
“This thing is not a dog,” Stephan said firmly. “It leaps on top of you, there’s nothing I can do. I’ll have to watch you die.”
“It’s not a monster, either,” Taira said. “Give me time. It’s my life to give.”
“Your sister would argue otherwise.”
“My sister can…” Taira hesitated, bit her lip. “She can go fuck herself.”
Stephan chuckled. He reset the Rivello in its holster. “Fine. I’m trusting you. But if you get your throat torn out, blame yourself.”
Taira nodded. A small smile played over her lips.
She turned back to the kithraxi, spoke calming words, and reached out once more. The insectoid uncurled, leaning in towards her as it let its arms drop. It came in close, mandibles mere centimeters from her face, and gave a series of snorts like a dog sniffing a steak.
A sharp, pink tongue extended from the kithraxi’s toothy gullet, licked Taira’s cheeks and neck. Taira let it happen without moving so much as a finger. The kithraxi vibrated, purring, and fell on its belly in front of Taira.
It hissed a single word. “Bhah.”
Over and over, it spoke the same word.
“Bhah. Bhah. Bhah, bhah, bhah.”
Almost like a song or a mantra, mandibles clicking in rhythm with the word.
“What does that mean?” Stephan asked. “Is that True Speech?”
Taira shook her head. “It’s their own language. I think it means…”
More fighting echoed through the trees. The kithraxi rose off the ground with a sharp cry. It tugged insistently at one of Taira’s hand with two of its own.
“Bhah,” it said, followed by an incomprehensible stream of gibberish.
“It must have a friend out there,” Stephan said.
“We have to help him,” Taira said. She stood, following the kithraxi as it dragged her in among the trees.
Stephan sighed. “Wait!”
Taira stopped, and the kithraxi whirled around.
Stephan picked up his axe and the smaller hand axe dropped by the lakata. He handed the former to the kithraxi and the latter to Taira.
“There,” he said. “Couldn’t do to run into a fight without proper weapons.”
The kithraxi looked like it had half a mind to use the axe on Stephan. Taira patted its head, and the creature went docile with a throaty purr.
Stephan urged them to move, but the kithraxi didn’t bulge before Taira spurred it on with a gentle nod. They burst through a stand of trees that drooped low with vines.
A single kithraxi was backed up against a boulder, surrounded by three lakata. The insectoid waved a sharpened stick against its attackers, but the lakata were growing bolder. Brandishing rocks as weapons, they closed in on their prey.
Stephan moved first. He fired off three shots, smooth, controlled. One of the beasts fell, spitting blood.
Taira opened a small portal in front of her, too short for a human to step through, and a corresponding hole formed behind one of the lakata. She swung her hand axe through the portal with a half-hearted cry, leaving it wedged in the creature’s spin. The lakata clawed at its back, limbs too short to reach, and eventually sank to its knees.
Taira’s new friend leapt for the last lakata, all fatigue forgotten. Its companion, which wore a matching red sash, sprung into action at the same time. While the first kithraxi raked the lakata’s hide, the second thrust its sharpened branch deep into its flesh—drawing a quick, pained breath from the lakata as the point sank through the left side of its chest.
The second kithraxi let go of its weapon and jumped onto the back of the reeling lakata. With a hundred little cuts, the two insectoids brought down the great beast. As soon as it was on the ground, they began tearing off chunks of flesh with their mandibles and pushed it into their toothy maws. They chittered joyously to each other.
Stephan had to look away as the insectoids gorged themselves on the flesh of the still-thrashing lakata.
“Well, you made your friends,” Stephan said, covering his mouth. “That is royally disgusting, though.”
Taira got on one knee and called out to the kithraxi. The one with the severed mandible looked up and poked its friend. They licked and rubbed clean their bloody faces and got up, padding over to Taira.
The one with the severed mandible got on its belly in front of Taira. The other hesitantly followed its lead.
“Bhah,” the first one hissed.
“Bhah,” the other joined in.
“Bhah,” they both chanted. “Bhah, bhah, bhah.”
“It means ‘Lady’,” Taira said. “They think… they think I’m their queen.”
Stephan would have laughed if he wasn’t so terrified.