Starchaser – Part 2
Laila came upon the grand divide, where a deep valley separated the habited zone from the forbidden Wilds. A flimsy suspension bridge hung between the two plateaus. The rickety bridge swayed under Laila’s feet as she ran. Way down below, frothy rapids threaded through the lush valley between the two mountains. The heavy air of Bentokal sliced into her lungs like razors. The shrill cries of one alarm after another nipped at her heels. She kept running full tilt across the divide. She ran until she saw nothing but red. She didn’t even realize that the alarms had stopped. She plunged into mist, blood roaring in her head. She reached the other side, setting foot into the savage Wild.
At first, there was only a deathly silence. Then, like some dark greeting, out of the thick of the brush rose a creature, the likes of which she’d never seen. The beast was six-legged, covered in bristly black fur with a triad of eyes the color of molten sulfur. The predator’s stare burned with intelligence and hostility across the distance between them. Laila’s trembling hand went for her weapon before she even knew it. The beast snarled, double edged tongue and fangs glistening in the poor light. The muscles of its back bunched. The creature launched itself at her. Her weapon was out of its holster and she as firing blindly before any conscious thought to fight or flee even registered. The wounded animal stopped in its tracks, a hair’s breadth out of reach. It tumbled to the ground. At least one of Laila’s shots had popped the vicious bugger dead center of the third eye and split the skull wide open, steamy brain matter leaking out.
Gone weak in the knees, Laila crumbled. She sat there on the ground trembling and sobbed. Once she managed to get herself under control, she wiped away her snot and tears and activated the device embedded in her palm.
“Show me Sesili’s map,” she commanded hoarsely.
The holographic image produced was a rough map of the Wilds, with an indicator pointing at the target deep within the thick of the Wild, as her sick luck would have it. To make matters worse, the map wasn’t even necessarily accurate. Sesili, who was barely hanging on to this mortal plane, had warned her about that. The map was centuries old, a relic from the time of a man named Karl Methos, who was the first human known to bond with teruun.
According to Sesili, Methos had started an entire philosophical movement, based on two questions:
What makes teruun soar high up into the heavens and seek out the stars? What makes them dive deep down into the sea?
Sesili said it was important that Laila remember those words, but Laila didn’t understand how it was relevant to her mission.
What did it matter? Teruun wasn’t her reason for being here.
Sufficiently calmed–the shaking had finally stopped–Laila was on the move again. Hyper vigilant, this time, she kept her gun at the ready, just in case the corpse behind her had some living company.
The gathering hall was in an uproar. Just as the bonding ceremony was about to begin, Brood Master Kush, the Var half of the Var/Teruun Principality raised the first alarm.
“A child is missing!” Kush roared. “Sound the alarms! Ground all star-bound vessels! Search every inch of this mountain!”
The brood master wore long robes that touched the ground. His torso was encased within the shell of a giant gastropod. With an ostentatious spire and intricate whorls that gathered at the at the back of the neck, pointing upward and out. Despite Kush’s rising panic, the group of young teruun gathered to choose partners, not to mention the teruun half of the Principality, calmly floated about mid-air watching the scene before them unfold with bright, curious eyes.
Amidst the flurry of activity that followed, the alarms at the boundary between the Wilds and the habitable zone had sounded. In his flat, sharp-edged voice, Kush ordered the remaining guards to see to the breach of security at the perimeter. The vrath who all this time, had sat in a corner eating quietly, noted that the only candidate missing from the large hall was his fleet-footed friend of the morning races. He put two and two together, and promptly opted to add to the chaos by lobbing what was left of his meal at a particularly violent looking, blue fellow two tables over. A full-scale brawl erupted. With half of the candidates fighting and the other half fleeing to avoid the carnage, the crowd bottle-necked at the main exit. The remaining guards who had been dispatched to secure the boundary were now either occupied trying to quell the fight or simply stuck inside, unable to push their way through the throng. The small riot was eventually brought under control.
The bonding ceremony was put on hold, while the search for the missing teruun child carried on into the evening. This was a highly unusual situation and Brood Master Kush was beside himself with worry. Younglings never usually strayed far from their broods and the possibility that one had either gone astray or come to some harm while under his care was unbearable.
Guards had scoured the perimeter of the habitable zone, but it was apparent that whoever had breached the boundary had already crossed over into the Wild.
The surly brood master had called off the search and declared, “Whoever crossed that bridge will die. It will serve them right!”
He had far more important things to be concerned about and was callously content with that verdict until one of the attendants from the medical complex was ushered into his quarters. The medic who had seen to Laila that morning handed over a data tablet with a recording of their strange interview.
“I believe the disappearance of the teruun child might be connected to this candidate,” the medic said. “I’ve checked the logs. This candidate was missing from the gathering hall.”
Kush wasn’t listening. He was too busy staring at the image on the tablet. Those unusual eyes and the pattern of the jewels under her eye were a tell-tale sign. It could be hard to tell sometimes. Their appearances varied, depending on ship of origin, but there was no doubt in his mind as to the identity of the being in the recording. Frowning down at the recording, he dismissed the medic with an impatient wave.
He waved the data tablet at his teruun partner, who was idly floating about the room. “You knew about this didn’t you?”
The adult teruun glided over to where he stood.
Kush. His partner’s thoughts speared into his mind. You worry too much.
“Why are you not concerned?!” He screeched. “It’s a starchaser! There is a starchaser on this planet right now.”
Then, something even more troubling struck him. The starchaser had breached the boundary. She was surely going to die. Kush stared at the portrait of the legendary Karl Methos on the wall and groaned. Under his care, a being of legend was going to die.
Laila finally reached the place pinpointed on the map. Her arms and legs, even the back of her neck and face were all scratchy and bloody from fighting her way through the thick underbrush. It seemed even the plants here wanted to take a bite out of her. They weren’t the only ones. Some kind of creature had been stalking her for a while now, flitting about in the brush just beyond her field of vision. Now that she’d reached her destination, it seemed to be keeping its distance for some reason.
A large clearing stretched out before her. The earth here was dry and cracked. At the center of this barren space was a massive tree with lush canopy, thick limbs, and fat, serpentine roots boring down into the ground. It flourished beautifully, sucking the life out of everything around it. Laila stepped onto the desiccated earth and it trembled under her feet. Every inch of her body tingled. She immediately became light-headed. Yet undaunted, she drew closer to the tree’s enormous roots. The starchaser pressed her palm against the bark. It was warm to the touch, like flesh. It shuddered as if something alive was moving under its skin. Something moved inside Laila. Maybe it was instinct. Maybe it was something darker.
She suddenly knew then. She knew exactly what she needed to do. The next thing she knew, she was on her knees, desperately clawing at the ground at the base of the tree. She dug until her fingers started to bleed. She dug until the dry, ungiving soil gave way to soft, wet earth. A clear, viscous liquid bubbled up, then steadily began to flow. Laila’s bones ached. There was a buzzing sound in her head. She couldn’t think clearly anymore, couldn’t move away. The thick liquid pooled around her. The opening in the ground widened, became a gushing maw.
Out with the fluid came a handful of what looked like eggs. They were gray, speckled with red. Laila plucked one out of the fluid. The shell was soft. The life within pulsating with warmth. She moved mechanically, couldn’t seem to stop herself. She brought the strange egg to her mouth. She swallowed it whole, then she chose and swallowed another. They slid slowly down, lit a fire in her belly. Laila whimpered, doubling over in agony. She coughed. Blood and spittle spewed from her mouth. She fell sideways, in a pain-stricken stupor, the gushing liquid fanning out around her and sinking back down into the greedy earth.
By the time the pain finally subsided, the strange water had seeped back down into the earth. The rest of the eggs that had washed up were scattered about already dying, wrinkly and glistening in the declining sunlight. Night was about to fall. Laila groaned, struggling to move. She didn’t want to be wandering about the Wilds in the dark. First, she needed to get away from this dead zone. If she didn’t, she was going to die. That was the reason the beasts in the wild avoided this area. They knew it too. They were afraid of it too.
She’d come this far. She’d even gotten what she came to find. There was no way in the stars she could just lie here and let this monstrous tree and what lived in its roots suck the life right out of her. It took monumental effort yet crawling on all fours was all she could manage. It felt like it was taking forever but she finally collapsed just beyond the clearing. She lay there outside the tree’s sphere of influence, fighting to catch her breath. She felt sick to her stomach, right down into her marrow. She managed a chuckle. She sobered an instant later. She still needed to make it out of the Wilds alive.
A twig snapped somewhere behind her. Laila was up like a shot and fumbling for her weapon, adrenaline shooting straight to her head. She fought off the wave of dizziness, spun unsteadily, scanning her surroundings.
“Fraggin’ stars,” she muttered. “Will this day get any worse?”
They were out there, those beastly, wolven things. She couldn’t see or hear them, but she knew they were there. Laila was out of her element again, and scared. Her grip tightened on her gun.
She was not so different from the beasts in the wild. The predators were only doing what predators do. For not being strong enough or fast enough to survive this encounter, Laila would only have herself to blame.
Or, so Brother would say. How many times had he beaten her mercilessly, while driving that very point home?
“I’m not prey,” she declared under-breath. “I’m not prey.”
Locked in their awkward dance, hunter and hunted sneaked about the darkening woods.
Out of the corner of her eye, Laila saw a flash of molten sulfur and the white of sharp, sharp teeth. She took off at a dead run, propelled by the thunder of clawed hooves behind her and the chilling howls of her pursuers. The next thing she knew; she’d already been outflanked. She stumbled, rolled sideways as she fell, barely avoiding the beast’s nasty claws. She yelped in pain as her hand collided with the tendril of a vicious stinging plant. Her gun flew out of her hand, far out of reach. She had a backup, but it was in her backpack and she was out of time. Three of the snarling beasts advanced.
Laila wanted to run but her legs wouldn’t obey. She’d seen this sort of thing happen before. Brother’s minions hunted down dissidents in this fashion. She knew what was coming next. Her eyes squeezed shut. Dread pooled into her already churning gut. A helpless sound squeaked out of her.
A bright light cut a swath into the darkening woods. The air hummed with crackles of electricity. A luminous body came to rest in the air above Laila. It hovered there, emitting waves of electric light and a high-pitched wail that send the creatures of the wild crashing about and howling in pain as they fled.
The sharp command speared into Laila’s mind.
When she still didn’t move, the little teruun’s thoughts boomed in Laila’s head again.
Spurred into action again, Laila sprang to her feet and she ran. She didn’t think about where she was going. She simply followed where the little beastie flew. She didn’t think twice about it until she found herself skating to a sudden stop. The little twit had led her right to the edge of an outcropping rock. Below it was a dead drop into the dark heart of the valley.
“What kind of lame joke is this?!” She yelled hoarsely.
She spun about, intending to go back the way she’d come, dangers of the Wilds be damned, but little teruun darted around to block her. Its body swayed from side to side. It regarded her with bright, curious eyes. Laila instinctively reached for her weapon, but it wasn’t there.
She frowned at the young teruun. “What are you playing at?”
Came the steely answer.
“What?” Laila blinked.
You give life. Your life.
“Are you out of your mind?” Laila’s tone became deadly. “Why should I agree to die because you–“
Live. Not die. Came the hasty qualifier. You see? You live, I live. You die, I die.
“You mean the bonding ceremony?” Laila’s hackles went down. “But you know, don’t you? I didn’t come here to bond with teruun.”
It demanded again, with a stubborn edge this time.
A ghost of a smile crept across Laila’s face. “If you want to bargain, you have to offer something in return. What can you possibly give me that I don’t already have?”
You. The teruun chimed. I give you courage.
The little monster launched itself at Laila, sent her tumbling right over the edge. Laila screamed as she fell. Her scream was cut short as her body slammed into something cool and supple. She was on some sort of firm surface. Disoriented, she managed to sit up. Whatever had cushioned her fall was moving. She could feel the cold wind on her face. A slight tremor went through the surface of her dubious carriage and that’s when she realized that it was alive. It was a massive, adult teruun. The small teruun came to rest on the big one’s back beside Laila.
You see? Came the smug declaration. Courage.
As they glided silently through the dark, all the tension suddenly went out of Laila. The starchaser crumpled and she fell for the first time in years, into a deep slumber, while being carried out of the forbidden Wilds.