The night settled comfortably, cool and clear over the northern stretch of the desert. The stars were visible for miles in every direction, brilliant lights twinkling down on the creatures who had ventured out of their dens as the temperatures dropped to a more bearable level after a day of heat so high that no one with fur could have survived it for long. It was a rare sort of peace the desert-dwellers hardly ever experienced, the sight of still sands and a gentle breeze to carry the scents of wild-flowers to the litter of young hyena pups chasing each other over the dunes.
“Wait up, ‘kagi! You know I can’t climb the dunes as quick,” Lena’ia whined, staring up after her sister. As the smallest of the litter, her short legs didn't have quite enough strength to make the light, quick steps over the sands required to climb the dune without sinking in. Her brothers just laughed and bounded past, Kerali nipping at the end of Jacek’s tail.
“C’mon Na’ia,” her sister called, appearing back at the top, ears flicking forwards expectantly.
“You should keep up if you want to follow!”
While she had no problems with their little sister coming along, she definitely didn't want to have to slow down and wait for her. That just took up valuable time they could have been playing at the oasis, and there was so little of it already. Lena’ia’s ears went flat, like De’kagi had tossed her head high and growled rather than just chide her for acting helpless. They weren't blind puppies anymore; surely they should be able to get around better on the sands they would call home.
“Mum and Da won’t be around forever,” she tried, softer this time as she sighed heavily and skidded back down the dune to nudge Na’ia in the shoulder gently.
“We have to be able to take care of ourselves if we want the Sands to provide.” It was the first lesson they were taught.
Lena’ia whimpered, staring down at her paws and the way they sank into the warm sand. “I just want to be a part of--”
“Na’ia! ‘Kagi are you coming to the oasis with us, or are you just going to sit down there until the sun comes up?” Their brothers peered down at them from the top of the dune, all brown eyes and black manes like their father. De’kagi was proud of the sun-kissed color of her mane, and the dark spots she’d inherited from her mother despite the way the others mocked her for them.
“Of course we are, you idiots,” she yipped back, letting her ears flip backwards to show her annoyance. They laughed and turned tail, kicking up sand as they ran for it. She resisted the urge to chase them, turning instead to nudge her sister back up to her feet.
“Let’s go, before they dirty the water with their filthy hides.” There was nothing better than having their own private swimming hole in the middle of the desert.
“Race you, ‘kagi,” her sister laughed once they’d crested the top, nipping at her ear before taking off across the dune. De’kagi grinned and ran full-tilt after her, yipping loudly to announce their presence to the world around them.
As was the way of all young things, they believed the desert belonged to them; they had been taught that the Sands would protect them and provide for them, and from the moment of their birth they’d enjoyed a carefree life. De’kagi reached the pool just a hair after Lena’ia, tackling her sister into the water as they laughed and tugged playfully at each other’s ears and tail. It was only after they’d been thoroughly drenched that they noticed the absence of their brothers; a curious lack of noise and presence, and the jingling of the mice bones De’kagi had braided into their manes to signify their first kill as hunters. They should have been there, the two of them had gotten a head start and she knew her brothers. The two would never pass up a chance to swim after being cooped up in the den all day having lessons. Especially Kerali, and wherever he went Jacek inevitably followed.
“Na’ia,” she reached out with a paw to pull her sister’s attention away from the colorful fish swimming around them.
“Where’s Jace and Rali?”
“I don’t…I thought they were supposed to be here?”
“They were. Where could they--”
“There you are! Come look what Rali found!” Jacek trotted up, bright-eyed with excitement, and De’kagi almost growled at him just for scaring her. But curiosity took the place of anger and she and Lena’ia waded out of the water to follow him off into a small den she hadn’t noticed before. It didn’t look quite right.
“Jace, I don’t think we should,” Lena’ia spoke up from beside her, ears pinned back as she stared at the entrance to the den. ’Kagi could smell her fear, potent and sour, and she didn’t know whether to agree because her instincts were telling her to run, or to side with her brothers in defiance of the fear she felt, too.
“C’mon, Na’ia. It’s just an old den,” she scoffed, opting to go against the fear because she didn't like the idea of running. Jace barked out a laugh, brushing against the two of them as he trotted up to take the lead. Their little sister whimpered, but followed after them.
The den was dank, and smelled of rotting meat and something else that none of them could identify. It was strong, acrid and made their hackles stand on end, but they paid it no attention as Jacek led them through the winding tunnel inside, finally coming out into a large open area. The smell was stronger, invading every sense until she could taste it in the back of her throat. Na’ia gagged beside her, ears flat against her head as she crouched, clearly scared and upset.
“Eugh,” De’kagi grimaced, ears flicking backwards as she paused a few feet away from what was clearly something dead.
“What is it?”
“Some sort of wolf,” Kerali answered, obviously interested as he ranged close and sniffed, poking at it with a paw. “I think. It’s deformed-looking though.”
That was interesting enough to get her paws moving, and she crept closer to inspect it. It was definitely deformed, though clearly wolfish in aspect. Or, it tried to be a wolf, and failed, maybe. Not that De’kagi or her brothers had seen too many wolves in their short lives. The packs that ranged the desert tended to keep to themselves and they didn’t like outsiders. She sat down to look at it curiously, head tilted.
“It doesn’t look like it’s from here,” Lena’ia said softly, apparently having gotten over her fear enough to get closer, too. “It’s all white, and there’s no tribe markings.” All of the sand wolves had markings that clearly identified their pack and nothing that had been born form the Sands had that kind of color. It stuck out too much; an instant death wish if a stronger predator was on the hunt.
“It don’t have any braids. Must be a poor hunter,” Jacek swiped a paw through the fur on the thing’s neck, a vague look of disgust in the curl of his upper lip. He was right, though. The strange wolf had no status braids, no gold to show rank amongst his pack, and his coat was unpainted with the tales of his trials.
“Maybe that’s why he’s dead,” De’kagi shrugged, foolhardy bravery making her reach out to poke at it.
“I mean, it’d be an embarrassment to any pack, right? All white and no status.” Clearly, something like that would never find a mate. Da said it was better to kill off the weak genes in a tribe, that it was better for the tribe as a whole if only the ones who could prove themselves made it.
“He probably failed his trials and starved,” she continued, which made the whole thing rather boring, and she could be out under the stars swimming while the night lasted.
“Ugh, let’s go. I don’t want to waste the night in a den.” She didn’t wait for their acknowledgement before turning back to the tunnel with the hope she could manage to smell her way back out. They would either follow or stay there to spend the night poking at what was obviously a shameful waste of pack resources. The Sands provided for those who could look after themselves, after all.
It was only once she was half-way through a tunnel she was starting to think was the wrong one when she heard it. Lena’ia’s pained yelps, probably loud in the in cave proper, but only vague echoes to her ears. Their brothers had probably scared her, again. She didn’t turn back, though one ear stayed flicked backwards, listening for anything else. The next sounds weren’t anything she’d ever heard before, high-pitched and terrified; they had the distinct notes of her brothers in them and they cut short in a way that even a pup would recognize. Something terrible had happened after she’d left, and while a part of her wanted to just tuck tail and run for whatever exit she could find, De’kagi knew she couldn’t do that.
You’ll be great one day, her Da had said.
A tribe leader, beloved by your people.
She would never achieve that with cowardice, and that was her family in there. She took a deep breath and swallowed the low whine trying to emerge.
“C’mon, ’Kagi. Get a grip. Fear is a thing to be conquered,” she told herself fiercely, ears flat against her head as she crept through the tunnel back the way she’d come. The closer she got the cave the more sounds she could hear; disgusting sounds she knew instinctively as bone crunching, and the sickening tear of flesh. The smell of fresh blood was getting stronger, and she had to stop just to keep herself from panicking.
There was something in there eating her family.
The sight that met her eyes when she turned the corner and came into the cave was one she’d never be able to forget, she knew. Lena’ia sat amongst the remains of their brothers, their entrails spread around her and dangling from her mouth. She was covered in blood and some kind of thick black substance that was smeared over the side of her head.
She was laughing.
“N-Na’ia?” She hadn’t meant to speak, clamped her muzzle shut and pinned her ears back as she crouched on instinct. Don’t look, don’t look.
Her sister’s head jerked up, the movement uncoordinated in a way that was just slightly off, and De’kagi had to resist the urge to close her eyes as though that would hide her from the monster. She gasped out loud when Na’ia looked at her; it wasn’t her sister staring at her from empty eye-sockets. There was nothing there but darkness, the thick black liquid leaking from them to drip on the ground and sizzle faintly. It was almost like she was crying tar from the pits in the south.
“Hello, little thing. I’m afraid ‘Na’ia’ isn’t here right now; I ate her soul, you see,” it whispered through the shadows, and she hadn’t seen it’s mouth move at all.
“Your brothers tasted so good…Mmm,” it continued softly, almost lovingly in a way that made all of her fur stand on end.
“I ripped them apart and feasted on their entrails while they screamed. They’ll scream forever you know.” It came closer, creeping like a sand-viper would, and De’kagi knew she needed to run before it decided to strike.
“G-give the-them ba-back!” They couldn’t be dead; they were her family, they were supposed to be there forever, no matter what Mum and Da said. Death was something that happened to others. She forcibly turned the whine building in the back of her throat into a growl, shaky as it was. All her instincts were battering at her, telling her to go, run; this was something unnatural.
She took a step back.
“Oh, a brave one. You all scream in the end, you know. All you little mortals made of meat and bone,” it chuckled and more tar dripped from it’s mouth, a tooth following soon after. It’s feet were covered in the stuff, too, all the fur falling away to reveal blistered, rotting skin like a corpse left too long in the sun.
“Shall we see how good you taste, how sweet your fear sounds?”
De’kagi gagged and shoved backwards as quickly as she could, clamping her jaws shut as she ran for the tunnels. It didn’t matter if it was the right one, as long as it was somewhere that wasn’t there. The thing in her sister’s body cackled, the sound echoing around the walls to follow her all the way back to the surface.
“You’re all going to burn, little thing! Darkness is coming, and this war is ours,” it called, the words fading into the shadows.
She ended up not too far from her home-den, relief flooding through her at the thought of her parents, and safety; they would know what to do because they always did.
“Mum! Da,” she yelped, yipping the whole run to the den to get their attention. They weren’t waiting at the entrance, ears perked, as they usually did. When she stopped a few feet away she could almost smell it; something was off, carried on the wind that had started to blow harder than it had been earlier in the day. There was a storm coming, and she swallowed hard and finally allowed the whimper out.
“Mum? Da, are you here?” Maybe they had just gone out, taking advantage of the clear night the same way she and--
The smell hit her as soon as she stepped past the rock that marked the sleeping area; blood and excrement and everything from the cave. Her reaction was immediate and she vomited the entire contents of her stomach onto the sand, gagging afterwards. There were paw prints left, stained indentations in the sand that were black and sticky. It burned the pad of her own paw when she touched it and smelled like rotting meat. It was obvious the thing had been there, probably gutted her parents the same way it had the rest of them, but she had to see. Leaving was impossible if she didn’t know for sure, and she forced herself into the small cave her mother had dug out for them to sleep in, usually a warm, safe place that held the scents of her and her siblings.
There was nothing warm or safe about it anymore.
“Oh sweet Sands,” she whined, skittering backwards at the sight she was met with. A cruel parody of something she saw everyday; her parents were there, torn open and still-bleeding. They had been arranged, curled up together around the remains of her brothers and she felt the tears she’d been too terrified to cry sting her eyes. Clearly the thing had known she would head straight here, though there was no sign it had remained to catch her. She probably would have been dead by now, anyway, if it had. Not that she could really bring herself to care through the torrent of emotions running amok in her head. It had kept Na’ia’s body. Sweet, innocent little Lana’ia who had never even killed a mouse, and it was using her body to do these things to their family.
She wanted to back way, to turn and get out of the den, but she couldn’t bring herself to move. Instead she let herself collapse into the sand there by the rock, inches away from the blood staining the sand and covered her muzzle with one paw. Why would the Sands let this happen? What had her family done to merit such a fate? De’kagi didn’t even know if they had souls left to return to the Sands, based on what that thing had said. Was it possible to eat souls?
She needed to bury them properly so they could find the Mother-tribe. She knew that. It was part of their lessons, things they learned everyday so they could one day be proper members of a tribe that wasn’t their family-unit. When they were old enough, Mum and Da would have gone back to their home-tribe, and they would---
Except Mum and Da were dead, and ‘Kagi had no home-tribe.
The crash of thunder sent her to her feet, yelping loudly and stumbling backwards until she finally tripped over her own paws and lay sprawled on her back at the foot of the dune outside the den. Rain soaked into her fur, pouring down in sheets as the wind howled around her, all rage and sorrow and it seemed appropriate that something feel that because she couldn’t.
She couldn’t feel anything, and she lay there and let the rain fall, watching the lightening arc across the sky and hit the sands until the sun started to peek over the horizon hours upon hours later.
It was the howling that brought her back to herself; a bastardized version of the wolf song she’d heard once, as a little pup when the packs had ranged close to their den. Only once she opened her eyes to find the sun shining directly into it did she realize it was her making that noise. There were tears still leaking from her eyes, and the temperature was rising now that the rain had stopped. She didn’t want to go back into the den.
You’ve got to remember, Mum told them sternly.
We must be properly returned to the Sands when we die so that we may granted passage and entrance into the Mother-Tribe in the after-life. Otherwise we are doomed to wander the sun-lit desert forever, always burning with no relief.
“Okay, Mum. I-I’m sorry for waiting,” she whispered, shivering as she forced herself to her feet and began to dig.
It took hours to make the hole deep enough; one hole for all of them because her legs were shaking and weak as she dragged herself out of it. The skin beneath her fur was blistered and burned, and she was so thirsty. Black spots danced in front of her every time she took a step, but she ignored them. Reality was shoved away as she padded inside and dragged her family out one by one to shove them into a crude grave that bore no tribe-markings like a proper one ought. She was covered in blood and worse by the time she was done, unable to finish covering it as her paws collapsed beneath her.
Maybe it was fitting she would die burying her family. She hadn’t been able to save them from that thing. She should have tried; only tribeless, braidless cowards ran when their family was in danger.
“I’m sorry,” she sobbed, paws scrabbling in the sand because she had to cover them. It was the only proper way; that which was born from the Sands must be returned to Them.
“I’m sorryI’msorry.” She didn’t even realize she was repeating it, whining and delirious, when a shadow fell over her.
Maybe it was the hel-thing, back to eat her, too.
It was a different voice, though. Lower and warmer, a tinge of vibration to it she’d never heard before.
“Easy, I’m not going to hurt you,” he repeated, and she hadn’t realized she’d been snarling and snapping, somehow crouched over the half-buried remains of her family without knowing. She stopped, shaking her head until she could see half-way straight and stare up at the--De’kagi had no idea what it was. She’d never seen anything like it; he wasn’t any kind of wolf, or hyena because he was shaped altogether different. And his colors: purple eyes and fur the color of leaves; clearly something from the stories her Da told--used to tell--of places full of trees and grass with no sand, where creatures lived on top of the land day and night.
“I’m here to help,” he said softly, lowering himself until they were on the same level, though she knew the hot sand had to burn the soft skin of his belly.
“I know what did this; you’re the first I’ve found alive.” Like that was a good thing.
She huffed, glancing from the make-shift grave up into those too-kind eyes. At least he had eyes.
“I…My family…,” she whined, letting her head fall down onto her paws without a fight.
“I need to…Finish.” She couldn’t; it was too much, and she was too small still, not even past half-grown yet. Why hadn’t they covered this in the lessons? Why hadn’t they said?
He didn’t say anything, just looked at her like he knew what she was feeling, and used his big paws to scoop sand into the grave much quicker than she’d been able to do.
“There, all covered. I’m sure they’ll find their way now,” he told her while she watched his tail twitch before it curled around his feet. What did a tribe-less pup do, after she’d lost her whole family? What sort of leader would take in a braid-less pup who had not even tried to defend her family? It would have been better for her to have been killed alongside them; they would be together, then, and her weak genes would never be passed on.
“My name is Gashere,” he was speaking again, still quiet and low like he didn’t want to scare her away. She shuddered in sudden remembrance of the high-pitched cackle that was her sister’s voice and not.
“I’d like to take you somewhere safe.”
He obviously didn’t know that nowhere was safe now. Safety had been a warm den and familiar scents surrounding her as she slept. Now it was stained with blood and death, and gone. She didn’t waste energy on talking, just watched the black spots get bigger as they danced in front of her. She reached out to paw at one and the darkness swallowed her, the sound of his surprised yowl following her down.
She didn’t care what he did, vaguely registered being lifted by the scruff before fading completely into the relief of nothingness, where she didn’t have to remember the empty, bloody grins on her parents faces as they lay dead in their home.