Chapter Eight

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... I scurried across the sand, my tail swinging.

The claws were gathering. All the warriors were meeting, with their shuk weapons and sokka blades. But I was just a mere kett-sa, low-rank female – and my voice was not heard in the Claw.

Su'shan was warm, the caves glowing orange-red under the two suns Op'pa and Go'pa. The twin sisters. It had been unnaturally warm of late. Even the slot canyons, the birthing corridors and the training grounds shimmered with heat. The glare of the river weaving through the sand hurt my eyes.

Many already lined the auditorium, their patterns vivid-bright. Many were the young, the lowly ranked. Many too were the rar, who were neither. All watched the speaker on the raised platform, one of the Elders who leant against her staff.

"Our eggs are failing us," she was saying, her pattern paler, wrinkled. Yet she held so much power. She tapped her status stick twice on the floor of the auditorium. "Our children are dying. We must make a decision."

A Matriarch of the Eggs then. A metsa-sa. For her to speak meant that the issue was indeed dire. Indeed I recognized her now. H'rakak metsa-sa, who oversaw the hatching of the clutch where I came from. She was a kind metsa, gentle and spoke only when she wanted to.

"The Y'awel has drained our resources. The sands are losing their heat. Our mothers will suffer because their children will not hatch! Our children, our future generations, will die!" H'rakak metsa-sa said. Her voice was thin now, but everyone listened. The silence was deafening. Nobody dared breathe.

"I agree," a male warrior of deep crimson rose up and clacked his front claws. "And how many has he killed? Many. I suggest we form K'asaka and go after his throat."

K'asaka. War bands. I shivered. I had grown up on Su'shan when it was peaceful. Food was plenty. We could hunt without worry. But when I was a mere two-year, the Y'awel came. He was humani, but not. We call these skin-changers, because they switch their skins. Their true forms are predators.

And indeed the Y'awel hunted us. Some of us ended up working for him as eager servants. He was... a nightmare from the darkest of our race memories. The rager, the one who hungers and continues to hunger. Now he had simply taken our resources, our food, our heat, our sand – and Su'shan was suffering. The throes of her pain seeped into the caves and permeated the sand. Mothers cried when the eggs failed to hatch because the shells had become too brittle. The young chicks died within their shells. We grew hungry because our prey had fallen due to their own starvation.

"A K'asaka will be good," H'rakak metsa-sa said approvingly. "But will it drain our already-depleted food? Our young are very young. We do not have enough warriors to fight for and defend our land."

"We have..." A low voice answered and it was one of the rar-se who captained the dark void ships. "Take two able ones from each nest and we will crew the ships with them. The veterans have signalled their willingness to fight."

The blood-red warrior male glared at the rar-se. "You presume much. How come the warrior claws do not know of this?"

"Because you dither," the rar-se said. "Time is wasted when you dither and argue over minor things. You talk a lot like decrepit old ones who are hungry for power and yet do nothing. And meanwhile, our world suffers."

"You..." the warrior growled threateningly.

"Enough!" H'rakak metsa-sa snapped and her voice echoed in the large volcanic bowl. "We crew the ships and we fight back." With these words, she sank back wearily onto her haunches, as if she had tired of the argument. Her front claw brushed her face. Her eyes closed.

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