Come the Black Ships
By Jessica Raisor
Along the jagged cliffs, the village sprang to life beneath the warm embrace of the rising sun. Children raced from their huts brandishing sticks at each other, laughing and playing before they were forced to do their daily chores. The elders gathered at the large center building, chatting among themselves as they went to their honored positions on the Council. No one save for a tall, golden-furred male had donned clothing; the lone creature was swathed in a leather kilt and a bone breastplate engraved with scenes of battle. This was the Astaro, the leader of the clan, and being a good foot taller than the rest he was quite a powerful sight.
This Astaro was named Wanate, and today he was presiding over a manhood ceremony for the son of his closest friend. The boy's name was Maska, and he had been waiting for this day for many years. His name meant "strong" in their tongue, and he lived up to that well- trained by his father, he had been able to lift corner of the large central meeting hall by his fourteenth year. Wanate was looking forward to seeing Maska succeed.
The hall was silent as their leader entered and took his seat at the head of the room. His chair was made of the polished antlers of the Itzhonai, trophies from the hunts within the Itzhonai Caverns down near the beach. They were tied together with finely woven strands of silk from one of the master rope-makers, guaranteed to last through the ages and never split or fray. Wanate sat watching as people continued to file in, spectators now sitting in the spaces inside the outer ring occupied by the Tribal Elders. Maska was not among them.
Outside the meeting hall Maska's mother fussed with his tribal adornments. A breastplate of fine leather engraved with traces of silver was tied around his lanky torso and a headpiece decorated with the feathers of the area's birds of prey, Shuukhar, rested haphazardly atop his head. The young wolf scowled at her, but she seemed indifferent.
'Looking your best is important, Maska.'
'I'm aware, mother. I just wish you wouldn't hover so.'
They spoke without moving their mouths, communicating with what seemed to be a knowing glance. Finally the elder woman was satisfied. She stepped back and, after making an adjustment to his headdress, nodded and motioned for him to enter.
As Maska crossed the threshold, everyone rose to their feet and began a mental chant that reverberated in his mind and bolstered his pride. All eyes focused on the young man so close to reaching adult status, including the sparkling embers of the Astaro. AS he neared the raised altar where the leader sat he took to his knee and waited to be addressed. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as he waited to hear the booming baritone echoing through his mind, giving him his first task. The breath seemed to catch in his chest and the silence buzzed on, threatening to drive him mad.
'Arise, young Maska. On this, the day you come of age, it is your duty to perform a task for the good of our people. Many have walked the same road you now travel, and they will follow you in spirit to guide you along the rough path ahead. Your first task will not be easy, young one, and they will only get harder. You must complete three to ascend to your rightful status as a Provider, and one task will be given a day. Tell me, Maska, are you ready to begin?'
Maska ran his green eyes over the assembly. Everyone watched him silently, waiting to hear his response. He inhaled deeply and closed his eyes.
'Yes, Astaro, I am prepared to begin.'
'Excellent! To begin the ritual, you must first travel to the caves of the Itzhonai and return one to us dead. Take this knife to complete the deed; when you have returned we will hold a feast in your honor. Go now, Maska, and prove your strength!'
Maska exited the meeting hall with the silver dagger clutched in his paw. A cool ocean breeze stirred his brown and black fur and carried a refreshing spray to dampen him. Sitting like a dark monster along the edge of the beach was the cave where the Itzhonai lurked, creatures of legend that only those completing the journey to manhood ever saw- if the village was lucky.
Every now and then one got bold and ventured into the occupied area atop the cliffs, rampaging and killing until it was kill or brought into submission. They hadn't had an attack in many years, though no child ever forgot the terrifying bedtime stories told to them by their parents to instill a deep-seated fear of the cave system. It seemed peaceful here, in the early morning along the beach; there was terror in his veins, though, for all the quiet. He feared for his life. With a resigned sigh, he began to approach the rough stone steps leading down to the edge of the shore.
The darkness seemed to creep from the mouth of the cave and inch toward him as he stood still outside of the entrance. Maska tried to summon an image of the Itzhonai. With strong silver horns and six eyes, the creatures were unnerving to say the least. He always pictured them as towering bipedal monsters with dark hides and rippling muscles, and it was this picture that stayed with him as he mustered up the courage to enter, holding his knife in front of him as though it were a shield.
Inside the steady drip of water could be heard echoing off the stone walls, the eerie sound setting his fur standing on end. The darkness was almost asphyxiating him, so oppressive he felt he could scarcely breathe. Maska placed a hand on the stone wall and closed his eyes, letting his consciousness join with the stone. Instantly it was as though a map had opened in his mind. The path was lit with a glowing grey aura, and he committed it to memory to be safe. There was a large circular chamber near the south, which he thought might be a good hiding place for the foul Itzhonai. He withdrew his hand and flooded the cave with thanks, setting off to follow the glowing trail in his mind.
The further Maska progressed, the thicker the strange plants hidden began to grow. Living along the mossy walls was a colony of neon orange furs larger than the Astaro himself, their myriad spores coating everything in the area with a sickly orange glow. At least this deep the wildlife began to radiate their own light, making it easier for him to navigate. He had been down here for hours, winding his way deeper and deeper beneath the earth.
Feeling the sharp pangs of hunger in his stomach he sat down near the bright fern-like growths and began to meditate, communing with the earth for guidance. Warmth filled his body as the image of one of the neon plants formed in his mind- it was telling him they were safe for eating. Giving thanks to both the earth and the ferns he drew his knife and cut one at the stem. He placed it to his lips and drank the sweet syrup it contained, feeling it nourish his rumbling stomach. He sank back and closed his eyes, letting his mind wander in the cool dampness of the stone.
The sound of claws scraping against rock woke the young warrior from his sleep and he scrambled to grab his knife. The light from the giant plants had vanished, leaving Maska immersed in the darkness. He could feel hot breath caressing the back of his fur, could hear the beating of a massive heart...
He whirled around and struck out with his blade- it glanced off the stone walls surrounding him. A noise that sounded like a hiss of steam sounded to his left and he turned, seeing six glowing golden eyes racing toward him before he was overtaken by a massive quadrupedal beast with gnashing jaws and jagged horns crowning its head. Maska could not concentrate on opening his connection with the cave as he fought for his life- the creature was attempting to rip out his throat. It took all his strength to seize the creature's jaws and wrench them away from his tender flesh. He hooked his foot into the creature's ribs and kicked, launching it away from himself and bringing his knife to front. When next it charged he was prepared, his blade sinking into the creature's torso and rending it in half, the Itzhonai's momentum propelling the beast further onto the weapon. Warm blood splashed down on the young warrior, stinking of copper and salt as the Itzhonai collapsed to the ground, breathing raggedly. With a howl of triumph Maska raised his stained blade into the air and buried it in his wild foe's throat. It ceased to move. He had completed the first task.
Maska took a length of silk from his pouch and bound the Itzhonai's back and forelegs and slung the vanquished beast over his shoulders. Now that the danger had passed he was able to open his mind to the earth once more, using the lighted map in his head to navigate out of the black cave. He closed his green eyes as he stepped into the sunlight, momentarily blinded after hours spent below ground. Once he was able to see again he cast his gaze over the ocean's horizon-
Hundreds of large black shapes crested the waterline, massive V-shaped ships sailing in a formation reminiscent of a flock of Shuukhar on the hunt. Maska turned towards the winding path up the cliffs to warn the village, but their scouts were faster.
The earth trembled with the force of the psychic call, echoing the lookout's dark fears. A deep horn sounded from somewhere among the buildings, rallying the warriors to defend their homeland. Hundreds of men took up arms and began strapping on the bone and leather armors they saved for ceremonies- never had a need such as this arisen for trappings of modesty among the tribe, who had no need for such things. With the exception of battle and large rituals they remained clad in only the fur the Gods gave them. Now, though... Now their lives depended on their unused gear.
Maska watched them scurrying, frozen in fear as the black ships drew ever nearer. They had considered themselves alone in the world, the sole sentient creatures in their paradise, so who could be coming in such terrifying warships? He adjusted the gutted Itzhonai on his back and had begun starting back to town when the first explosion rang out. The impossibly fast ships had begun firing barrels of noxious green fire at the town, blasting a good chunk of the cliff-face away. Maska's head reverberated with the dying screams of a handful of his people, dropping him to his knees in pain. When his senses had returned he wheeled about and ran into the caves, praying that the real men of the tribe could save them, leaving his trophy abandoned on the white sands of the beach.
Bright lights flashed behind Maska's closed eyes, blocking his connection with the stone momentarily each time. He never strayed far from the entrance but he didn't need to- the explosions shook the erath, the flames burned his lungs, even from this distance. His connection gave him a perfect view of the attacks above- Black-scaled reptiles wielding powerful crimson blades slicing through his people like butter, their strange alchemy scorching fur and flesh and soil, cackling as they reveled in the slaughter of the poor wolf-like creatures. Every one of the invaders had three icy blue eyes floating in a sea of black sclera. Their elongated heads were grotesque to the young warrior crouching hidden in the caves; truly they were horrific monsters of legend.
Maska began to feel guilty, cowering like a child while his people died valiantly to save their families. He looked at the blood-stained blade in his hand and took a shuddering breath- now it was time to act like an adult. Now was the time to prove himself worthy. He bellowed a warcry as loudly as he could and raced from the cave, blade held aloft as he charged down the beach. The passage to the cliffs drew nearer, he was almost there-
Maska fell to the sand, clutching his head. Everything went as black a new moon as thousands of souls screamed in agony, tortured beyond belief as the unnatural darkness that fell tore them apart. How long they screamed he did not know, but they dropped into silence all at once. Maska knelt clutching his head, unable to see and unaware of the tears that ran freely down his fur. He heard the metal clang of armor drawing near him and tried to rise to his feet, but an armored boot knocked him flat among the sand. He heard a guttural muttering in a strange tongue and felt nothing but searing white light as it fought through the blackness to engulf him, and then he felt nothing.
3 December 2012 at 11:41:59 MST
Maska is a young boy on the verge of manhood in a tribal society. His leader, or Astaro, is to give him three tasks. Maska goes to complete the first when an army of reptilian soldier invades their peaceful island, leaving death and destruction in their wake.
The other person's half of the trade was never finished, a year later, so I've given up, heh.