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Chapter 4: Sands of Strife by Shadewrecker

“Haaah… haah… hah...” wheezed Zeke as he and Kayah marched up and down the sloped dunes of Coresti. “Hehe... Is little Zekey already petered out?” teased Kayah, taking another drink from her water pouch. The otter practically limped through the desert sands, his paws digging into the soft, temperate sand as he struggled to even walk. He had been using his spear as a makeshift walking stick, but it barely helped curb his suffering in the harsh desert heat. “I wasn’t made… for this kind of weather…” Zeke muttered, his knees bowing as he held himself up with the butt end of his spear. Kayah continued to trudge along through the scorching desert, and while she had a smug look stretched across her muzzle, she was feeling the heat as well. “I think I… see what... you mean…” she mumbled to herself. The lynx looked in both directions, but saw nothing but sand and a few cacti. Brushing the sweat off of her forehead, Kayah pulled out her map and scoured it for their next destination. “Goddess…. why… would you put a desert…. in a world with fur?” asked Zeke, lagging behind Kayah as she searched for a place to rest in. A dusty breeze blew over the parchment as Kayah’s claw touched its surface, cooling her slightly, which, while nice, was only a brief respite. Apparently, there was an old ruin where the two could take shelter until nighttime, but the map wasn't exactly clear about where it was. “Alright, Zeke, come on,” she said, egging him on. The otter, however, had collapsed, lying face down in the sand with his spear lying mere centimeters away. Kayah groaned and facepawed, before strutting over to her fallen lover to see what the big deal was. “Okay, enough fooling around. You can get up now,” she grumbled, growing annoyed at the otter. Kayah then took to kicking Zeke a few times, only to get no response. “Ugh…” she groaned, folding her arms and stopping for a moment before reaching for his water pouch and finding it empty. “Shit… You drank all your water already?” she noted, sighing upsetedly. Around the two was what seemed to be kilometers of meaningless sand, with no sign of society in sight. Hopeless. Kayah searched her surroundings one last time in case of another out, but nothing came to her aid. Reluctantly, she took her own water flask and brought it up to Zeke’s muzzle. “You’re lucky I don’t hate you completely, otherwise I’d probably let you die…” mumbled Kayah as she poured the last of her water down the otter’s dry, sandy throat.

Zeke blinked a couple times, before awakening from a dreamy haze in Kayah’s arms. “Kayah…? Is that you, my love?” he said, still woozy from being unconscious. “Oh… you saved me! I could just kiss you!” exclaimed the otter, bringing his muzzle up to hers for a smooch. In response, the lynx dropped her lovestruck partner back into the sand and marched off. “Nope. Should have let him die,” she muttered. “W-wait up!” cried the abandoned Zeke, running after her. Soon, both him and his love were exhausted, travelling with their arms over each other’s shoulders. “Any sight of the ruins?” asked Kayah. “No. Just sand. Is there any water left?” responded Zeke, panting drearily. The lynx reached for her flask and tipped it over her mouth, only for a meager drop to fall out. She shook her head disappointedly. “I think we should have traveled at night….” mumbled the otter, nearly delirious from the heat. “Noooo…. You think?” responded Kayah, ignoring the fact that this situation was entirely her fault. The future looked bleak for Kayah and Zeke until a large, crumbled structure appeared faintly in the sandy distance. “There!” cried the lynx, holding on to her partner for dear life. The two stumbled across the titanic waste of sand and cactus until Zeke couldn’t go on any longer. “I don’t think I’m gonna make it…” he muttered, falling to a knee. “Ugh… come on, there’s just a little bit more and we’re there…” said Kayah, trying to encourage him. Sadly, the desert heat was too much for Zeke. Kayah quickly darted around, looking for something, anything that could help. In a streak of good luck, an idea popped into her head. The lynx limped over to a nearby cactus and unsheathed her axe. With a single swing, she cleaved it in two, leaving the squishy, liquidy insides fall open. She sighed with relief and swiftly scooped up the spiny plant, careful not to prick herself, and downing nearly a pint and a half of the cactus juice before handing it over to Zeke. The young otter graciously accepted. Cactus juice sloshed from the sticky, prickly cactus into Zeke’s now wet, brown-furred muzzle. Zeke drank and drank and drank until his otter stomach couldn’t take any more and he had to vomit. “J-jeez, Zeke! I think you’ve had enough already!” she said, taken aback at his retching of the pale green fluid. After he was through vomiting, the otter dropped the cactus into the sand and wiped his muzzle. “Whew! That was refreshing!” he shouted, once again his eager, upbeat self. Kayah could only stare in awe. “You just got done blowing chunks! How the hell was that refreshing?” she questioned. “I’m an easy guy to please, just a bit of cactus juice and I’m back up on my paws!” exclaimed Zeke, plucking a few spines he had acquired from his bout of drinking from his fur. “Though I am getting a little… tired,” he said, yawning mid-sentence. Kayah shook her head at the comment and signaled for Zeke to come along. “You can nap when we get to the ruins, we’re gonna have to stay until night anyways,” she explained. The otter smiled softly, gladly following his love over the next couple dunes and into the ancient building. “Sounds like a plan!” he said, yawning once more and stretching his arms.

Although many of the grand sandstone pillars of the ruin had stood the test of time, several lied in disrepair, and few had fallen completely, reduced to rubble by the battering desert winds. Cracks appeared across the ceiling, crumbled pieces of stone littered the grounds, and any detailing the exterior of the ruin once had was long weathered away. Kayah and Zeke both breathed sighs of relief as they entered the shady sandstone relic. “Finally, a nice place to rest,” said Zeke, plopping down under an intact pillar. Kayah yawned and stretched her legs before taking her place right next to the otter. “Who in their right mind would build a place like this?” she asked, having never seen anything like it before. “Looks like dragons,” said Zeke, pointing deeper into the ruin. While the exterior was crumbled and eroded, the interior was pristine, if a little dusty. Kayah hadn’t noticed the enormous slabs etched with draconic runes and beautifully carved statues of male and female dragons alike. Many were, of course, missing a claw or a horn, but were otherwise in much better condition than what had been left outside. After a short period when the wind died down, a bit of rubble fell from off of a pillar in the distance, seemingly unprovoked. When Kayah’s tail perked up, she knew something was off. “Who’s there?” demanded the lynx. Nothing. “Man, this place sucks! Even the dragons died out here! Or left, I guess,” mumbled Kayah, banging a paw on the pillar behind her. Before she could continue ranting, the lynx let out another yawn. “Ugh, why… am I so tired... all of a sudden…?” she asked. Unfortunately for her, Zeke was already out cold. Soon after, Kayah had joined him. Although the cactus juice had quenched the their thirst, it took its toll on their bodies fast.

Several hours passed, with the lynx and otter wisely using the time for a well-needed nap. Kayah opened her eyes with a yawn, her surroundings telling her that everything was as it was before she had dozed off. Merely looking down shattered this notion. “Oh, what the hell!” she angrily exclaimed. A long strand of rope was tying both her and a still half-asleep Zeke to the pillar they had been resting on. “Did you see whoever did this?” Kayah hastily spat out, struggling to wiggle out of the restraints. “W-what..? N-no, I was sleeping!” cried Zeke, who began doing the same through his wooziness. Although he adored the lynx unconditionally, something about her wrath scared him a little inside. Just a teensy bit. Luckily for the two, the cause of their trouble was just within their sight. Across the sandy-bricked temple lay a skunk and his bag, snoozing comfortably while standing with his arms folded. “H-huh?” he muttered, moving his tongue around in his muzzle. “Oh, crap, they’re awake...” he said under his breath, worriedly. The skunk’s fur had slight dark green tint to the usual black and looked to be his late thirties or early fourties. “Hehe, sorry about tying you up there,” he told the two, rather casually. Kayah gritted her teeth. “Great, just what we needed, another bozo trying to kill us,” she exclaimed sarcastically, turning to Zeke. Throwing his paws up into the air, the skunk professed his innocence. “Oh, no, no, no, no! I don’t wanna kill you two! I just need you out of the picture while I go and get the dragon, that’s all,” he explained, smiling agreeably. “Yeah, over my dead body!” shouted the lynx, silently using a claw to cut the rope. “So, if you two would kindly remain here while I go and do that, I’ll be on my way,” said the skunk, closing his eyes and marching back to get his bag. Free from the skunk’s gaze, Kayah slowly released both herself and Zeke by sawing away at the rope with one of her claws. When the dark green-furred skunk turned around and saw the two furs up on their footpaws, weapons drawn, his face dropped. “Sigh, I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this,” he sighed.

Zeke made the first move. “I-I might be tired, but don't think that counts me out!” he said, thrusting his spear with as much grace as he could without his wake-up drug. Before it landed, however, the skunk’s paws began glowing, and soon enough, three long, translucent, lime green claws hovered over each of his paws. The claws bubbled with a wicked, toxic energy, each one radiating a sharpness the pairs weapons wished they could have. The skunk caught Zeke’s spear head with his new energy claws and threw both it and Zeke down. “Whoa!” he cried as he was tossed to the ground with the leverage of his weapon. The skunk dashed to skewer him with his three of his six deadly blades, but was met by Kayah parrying his slash. “Before I retired, I was the best mercenary around! Back then, they called me Toxiclaw! Pretty fitting, don’t you think!” exclaimed the skunk, wildly cutting at the lynx and driving her back, eventually causing her to hit a pillar. With nowhere to run, she dropped, leaving Toxiclaw to slice right through the sandstone structure. Both parties then quickly jumped to the side to avoid the now crumbling ceiling. Luckily, there wasn’t enough destruction to knock down the whole temple, but the three were still wary. “I didn’t want to do this! You’ve forced my paw!’ exclaimed Toxiclaw, pouncing on Kayah like a tiger. Only rolling across the floor could save her from him digging the shimmering green blades into her flesh, instead cleaving through the floor like scissors through paper. The two tumbled and tousled until the lynx managed to throw the skunk off of her, landing just over the fallen column. His claw just barely grazed her arm on the way back, leaving her to jump back in pain from the nasty burning cut. With Kayah frantically licking the gash like the cat she was, Zeke only barely had enough time to grab his weapon, jump over the rubble and land paws first, spear tip hovering right above Toxiclaw’s neck.

“Alright, alright you got me!” exclaimed the skunk, lying flat on his back, seemingly defeated. Toxiclaw gave a quick cough to distract the now alert Zeke, following up by digging his claws under the otter’s footpaw to throw him off balance. Zeke gasped as he fell, instinctively swinging at the now grinning skunk’s heart. Kayah, too, tried to attack, leaping over the pillar with a battlecry, axe held over her head. Sparks flew, and two scraping sounds and a gleam in Toxiclaw’s eye meant that both blades had been caught between his claws. While Kayah and Zeke struggled to remove their weapons from the dark green skunk’s grasp, he used the opportunity to smash them together, headfirst. “Have you two had enough already?” asked Toxiclaw. “Or should I continue wailing on you until you inevitably give up?” The lynx and otter both groaned, holding their throbbing heads in their paws. “This is a good time to pull out that water power of yours, otter boy,” nudged Kayah, feeling less confident about the situation. Zeke squinted and put his paws up. “Are you kidding? There’s no water here for me to use!” he whisper-exclaimed. The lynx sighed and continued thinking. “The problem is that he’s so ambidextrous… even with both of us attacking at once he can still counter with ease…” whispered Kayah, frustrated. Zeke scanned the battlefield looking for something to get the upper paw on the stubborn skunk. “What if we tried giving him a third thing to look out for, like throwing a rock or knocking a statue onto him? Then at least one of us can get in on him while he’s distracted,” he whispered back. Kayah nodded, agreeing. “Good idea. I’ll keep him distracted and try knocking something over to hit him, and you go in for the kill,” she said. Both got up off of the musty temple floor, but Zeke silently celebrated with a smile. “She complimented me!” he squeed excitedly. The lynx paid him no mind, only bracing herself for the continued fight.

Kayah speedily wiped the desert dust from her fur and lept into action. Toxiclaw had braced himself for her offense, pursuing after her when she craftily led him to the left corner of the room. After moving over the knocked over pillar, the three had entered the center of the mausoleum, where most of the statues lied. The lynx made a mad dash for the nearest statue, hoping that the skunk would pursue. Sure enough, he did, bubbling poison claws and all, ready to finish her off. A bit of quick movement and a swing of her axe was all it took to cleave the sandstone dragon’s lower leg clean off. The magnificent work of art came tumbling down with a crash and a boom, but, while Toxiclaw had been taken by surprise, his energy blades remained free, as he dodged seamlessly away. Zeke quickly jumped in with a piercing strike, as did Kayah with her own black-axed attack, but alas, the distraction wasn’t enough to slow down the ever-undaunted Toxiclaw. Kayah’s axe had been parried, while the wood of Zeke’s spear was shattered and corroded after the skunk’s claws impacted it, leaving him with something barely resembling a weapon at all. “A fair attempt, I must admit, but all for nothing,” chided Toxiclaw, beginning to get cocky. What he didn’t notice, however, was what was happening above. Kayah’s statue ploy may not have provided immediate results, but the cracks in the ceiling spoke against it being completely useless. Right under the skunk’s nose, the cracked ceiling frayed and crumbled, until a sizable chunk came falling his way. “W-whoa!” he cried, holding his claws up to protect himself. “That’ll work!” shouted Kayah, grinning like a witch as she rushed towards him, axe blazing. Two strikes was all it to put Toxiclaw out of commission: an axe slash across his white-furred belly and a short spear stab in the back, courtesy of Zeke. “Agh…. Damn it! Not here…” he sputtered, spitting out blood onto the tan stone floor. Kayah watched with indifference as the fallen skunk crawled away from the pile of rubble, barely able to move from the pain. She twirled the axe around in her paw and prepared to finish the job. Zeke reached out his paw and was ready to call out, when Toxiclaw did it for him.

“No! Please, don’t!” he cried out, only wanting mercy. Kayah merely grunted. “Hmph, You get done trying kill us, and then you ask us to spare you? You’re a mercenary, aren’t you? You should be prepared for this,” she muttered, coldly, bringing her axe over her head to strike. Zeke suddenly felt a knot in his stomach. His role model wasn’t going to kill him, was she? “Kayah, wait!” exclaimed Zeke, placing both paws on her shoulders. “You don’t have to kill him! He can’t do anything like that!” pleaded the otter. Kayah wanted nothing to do with it. She had already killed plenty of people, one more wouldn’t hurt her. Besides, she had taken into account that they already had Syn on their tails, and that one more jackass added to the mix would make the job a whole lot harder. Before the lynx could dig her axe into him, Toxiclaw spoke up. “Former mercenary. I’m retired, remember?” he said through coughs of blood. Kayah stopped her killing blow and realized she had never thought about that. “If you’re retired, then why the hell are you out here?” she asked. Zeke gave a sigh of relief when she put down the axe. Although he had his share of rough experiences, Kayah turned out much colder after years of hunting on her own. “My wife, Lumina, and my son Soren… they took them…” cried Toxiclaw, banging his paw on the hard floor. Kayah raised an eye. “What? Who did? The Magistrates?” she questioned. Tears began streaming down the skunk’s bloodstained face, his snarky facade fading away when he realized his mission had failed. “Yes… when they came to me and asked me to take part in their Altyris Project, I refused. I had taken up a new life, started a family, and had no interest in mercenary work anymore. In order to convince me… they kidnapped my wife and four year old son… I had no choice…” he muttered. Kayah’s outward appearance remained stalwart, but on the inside…. she was taken aback. His situation was more similar to hers than she would have liked. Zeke was also saddened by his story, but in a less personal way. “Is there any way we can help you?” he asked, earnestly. Toxiclaw coughed once more, with his white underbelly now painted a deep red color. “If you two make it back and happen to find Soren and Lumina… please, help them escape. Don’t worry about me, I’ll get out of this dusty old temple on my own time. You’ve done quite a number on me, but I can tough it out.” Kayah turned around and brushed off her fur, saying nothing to the skunk. She paused for a moment, reflecting on what she had been told. Outside, the desert winds quieted down as the blistering heat dissipated. When everything seemed liked the lynx would just up and walk off, Zeke and Toxiclaw could only stare with anticipation. “If we just happen to come across them.... I’ll consider helping you out. But don’t get your hopes up, I’m not promising I’ll save them, or anything,” she said, calmly and quickly, before reaching for her bag. Without another word, Kayah made her way out of the ruined temple, with an awed Zeke warily following suit.

Chapter 4: Sands of Strife

Shadewrecker

Chapter 4 of Chosen of Fir Gaiden: Blood, Bonds, and a Bittersweet Promise.

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