[m] ladder's about to fall

POSTED: Thu Nov 15, 2018 8:49 am

WARNING: This thread contains material exceeding the general board rating of PG-13. It may contain very strong language, drug usage, graphic violence, or graphic sexual content. Reader discretion is advised.


(( OOC: Potentially gross! Going to edit this and update it as I feel like it, while I figure out what to do with this character. ))

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Her grandmother, the woman who had nursed her back to health, was the first to die to the illness. She was already frail and old, and no amount of treatment stopped the inevitable. She did not go quietly or peacefully. The cloth underneath her body was soaked with blood. The smell reminded her of a camel her father had once slaughtered, only it was mixed in with aroma of sick. Incense could not cover it up.

But only a woman could deal with a dead woman's body, and so Zaahira helped her mother prepare the body for burial.

The corpse's mouth hung open. Her tongue lolled out, and death had not the kindness to close her eyes. Her lips were peeled back in a snarl. With a little pressure from her fingertips, Zaahira was able to arrange the now slack muscles in her face to something calmer. Something more peaceful. But there was still too much blood. Too much sickness.

She dabbed at the fluids soiling her fur with a cloth, but a reddish tinge remained. A bad omen. Her body needed to be clean before burial.

Zaahira felt nothing but her own heavy limbs. Her mother would have to do the rest. She was too tired.

-----

Whatever terrible spirit had targeted Zaahira and her grandmother sought out the youngest of her kin: her little brother Sadiq, born from her mother's second litter. The illness struck him with more force than it did her, or even her grandmother. The blood pooled around his body was less, but his tiny body could only hold so much. Water went right through him; he could keep nothing down.

The other children came next, each in succession.

They knew from experience with the livestock that the sick individuals had to be separated from the others. Otherwise, the disease would spread to the whole herd. But Zaahira had been separated from the others when she had been sick, and so had her grandmother. She was still weak now, it was true, but she was no longer vomitting. She wasn't sick. She had stayed in the partitioned tent space nonetheless...

The only one who had contact with the sick was mother, and her mother was still well. Grief made her eyelids heavy, but didn't it make them all heavy? She couldn't be sick.

Maybe it was in her grandmother's body. They had all come out to give the dead woman her last rites before burying her. Her brothers had dug the grave, and she and her mother had lowered her in. No one but them had touched the body. It couldn't be that, even if they hadn't been able to wash all the blood out.

It had to be some kind of curse. It had to be.

And her mother had the same intution. When she spoke next to Zaahira, who was growing bored and restless behind the partition to the point that she had begun grinding up her mother’s herbs for her, she told her that she needed to move on before the curse struck again.

“In the next moon, you will be two years old,” her mother told her. “You will have been wed to Alim al-Uzfur.” It was tradition to wait until she was old enough to safely bear a child before leaving her tribe to join another. It was tradition to wait until she had shifted so that she might learn her mother's skills. “It is not so far away. I don’t know why this curse struck us, but you need to leave. You will not survive another time, and I cannot have another of my children dying."

“But my brothers—” Zaahira was about to point out that her two brothers were still alive, and that they had been untouched by the curse. It was only the very young and the very old that had died. She was fine.

“Please.”

Zaahira swallowed. She couldn’t deny her mother this.

-----


With her mother’s request to leave came another plea: They were to find some way to bargain for the herbs needed to treat her family’s illness, in case it should strike again. Their stores were running low, and it would be easier to trade with another tribe - her future husband’s tribe - than it would be to travel all the way to their origin to collect the leaves that prevented vomitting.

She took one camel loaded with trade-goods. Some of them had even been made by Zaahira; she wasn’t as good as her grandmother had been at sewing, but she could make simple blankets.

Her brother traveled with her, carrying a bow made from horn and a quiver fashioned from antelope hide. Wood was rare out here, but there were places near the mountains that it could be found, if one knew where to look. Still, arrows had to be rationed, and it was likely that the scimitar at his hip would see more use if they encountered bandits.

Would her new tribe ask why her father and the rest of her family was not with her?

Tribes, even allied tribes, did not like to reveal weaknesses. Her brother was to feign that her father had some conflict with another tribe, and that they were too busy fighting to join them at the wedding. It would not look good, but it was worse than knowing that her family was cursed.

Zaahira did not think of her husband-to-be. She had not yet met him; she only knew his name. This mystery didn’t make her nervous, and didn’t make her speculate. She was too busy grieving, and too busy wondering what might happen once she was gone.

Her brother broke the silence only to point at the stars and recite their names; they made a game of navigation.

It was easier than trying to talk about what had happened.

-----


Her husband was a pleasant man who Zaahira did not love, but did not hate, either. He was not as foolhardy as her brothers, and did not fight or seek out war. He was generous to his family and a silver-tongued merchant to the villages that their tribe often encountered. Under the guise of helping Zaahira's tribe in their war, he bartered for herbs and sent them home with her brother.

Zaahira did not tell him the truth. She did not feel guilty.

She did, however, feel very lonely. She was in a tribe full of strangers, with an elderly matriarch that was nothing like her grandmother, and puppies that reminded her of her lost siblings. The tribe was so big and so busy, in comparison to her birth family, that she found the noise disorienting. She was growing to hate her new home, though she didn't want to admit it.

She asked her husband to split off from this group, to make a family of their own that was not so big. It was not a rare thing to do this; they would still be of the same tribe as before, they would simply split their resources into more manageable pieces. Zaahira would not have to deal with the matriarch. She wouldn't have to take care of young that were not hers. She wouldn't have to be reminded of her grief, while being unable to speak of it.

He was a hesitant man, though, and did not want to leave his family. He was comfortable here, and though he would not say so, he did not want to take on the responsibilities that splitting off from the group would entail. It had only, in any case, been five days since they had been wed. She could not expect him to move so fast.

Zaahira silently resented him for it.

And then that resentment turned to guilt, as not a day later, the young began to sicken and die.

The curse had followed her here.

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Zaahira knew who was at fault here, and she didn't wait for them to blame her. She would disappoint her family for leaving her husband. She would disappoint her husband. She would disappoint every ancestor she had. The new family would know her guilt when she left, and perhaps they might turn on her birth tribe.

But Zaahira couldn't be responsible for this. Her husband didn't deserve to have half of his family die as hers had. If she left, she might be able to contain the curse. Maybe the spirits would forgive the sick, now that she was gone. She was the cause of all of this. She was the first one to get sick in her tribe. It had to be her. She had done something to cause this calamity, though why it hadn't simply killed her, she couldn't say.

So, Zaahira stole a camel and loaded it with waterskins, dried meat, and cloth to trade. She took her husband's unused scimitar, though she didn't know how to wield it. Because, although it was cowardly, although it was terrible, she did not want to die.

Maybe that was why she survived. Her will was too strong, and the spirits targeted those around her who were weaker, instead.

-----


Attractive young women wandering alone in the desert acquire a reputation.

They were easy targets. But they were also suspicious targets, because it was not always true that a woman who appeared to be alone was, in fact, alone. Some bandits would collaborate; women would hide weapons beneath their clothing, and travel alone ahead of the group. If a stranger approached her, she would give a signal that would summon her companions to her.

And some women, of course, were a force in their own right when fighting one-on-one. Zaahira was not one such woman, but the scimitar gave her the look of one. Beneath her clothing, it was hard to see her thin frame or the body that had been ravaged by illness.

This may have explained the stories of ghouls; undead creatures taking the guise of beautiful young women to seduce and consume lustful, unwary men.

The virus that Zaahira unknowingly harbored, which she spread with each contact she made, created another kind of tale.

One that, for better or worse, she needed to embrace to protect herself.

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There were no clear rules on what she ought to do in this situation, and Zaahira was a woman who followed rules. She had done what was expected of her family. When she was a child, she did the chores her parents asked of her. She followed the traditions her mother and grandmother followed. The possibility of rebellion simply had not occured to her. Why would she defy them? They were her family, and Zaahira loved her family.

Only, now she was without their guidance, and she had to think on her own.

This did not come easily to her. Grief and panic made difficult work of planning. Soon, though, exhaustion set in - the daily toll of taking care of a camel, traveling, and feeding herself made basic survival her only priority. Zaahira grew leaner from her work. Muscle padded the areas where fat once was, before her illness turned her thin.

She was starting to look the part of a ghoul.

-----


Her natural body language made her uncanny to strangers. Her family was used to the fact that she sometimes stared too long when she was interested in something. They were used to her thoughtful silences, her forgetfulness, her failure to say ‘goodbye’ or ‘hello’ when she was meeting someone. She rarely smiled. She was soft-spoken, her voice flat, and her gestures so subtle that only those familiar with her could pick them up.

Her husband had simply taken this for shyness. He had not known her long.

Strangers, meanwhile, had taken her stiff, rigid posture and her penetrating gaze as a warning. There had to be a reason she was so confident.

And some drunken men, of course, took the prolonged eye contact as an invitation for flirting.

One such man was Baki, and Zaahira met him while watering her camel. He leaned against the cracked clay brick, a well older than the existence of luperci, and returned her frank stare with a smile.

Zaahira did not smile back.

They made light conversation. It was stilted on her side, as she evaded any questions about herself and asked only of what he knew of the local area. Zaahira had an uncomfortable sense that this man wanted something from her, but had not yet learned to trust her own instincts.

As the conversation went on, his innuendos became more obvious. She was reminded of a joke her brother had once made - a disgusting one - and even Zaahira couldn’t ignore the implications; she was warned of the consequences of dealing with strange men.

Outwardly, her face was as impassive as ever. Inwardly, she panicked.

How was she supposed to discourage him? She didn’t have her father or her brothers around to protect her, and she didn’t know how to use her sword. The idea of lying with him did cross her mind, but it wasn’t an option that appealed to her. She’d been ambivalent about lying with her husband, and had marriage not required it, she would not have done it.

She could use her curse as a deterrent, but she didn’t know how to explain to a stranger what had happened to her, or what would happen to him if he came too close. She did not know if she wanted to. It was her own private shame.

And yet.

The air in her chest constricted. Her throat closed up. She stared at him as he spoke, and said nothing. She could not make herself speak or entertain his pleasantries. He, eventually, stopped talking.

Her own discomfort, aided by her silence, had been transferred to him.

He was waiting for her to speak. She should say something.

Say something.

“If,” Zaahira began, her nerves making her croak like an old woman, “you touch me, your children will bleed from their mouths.”

She hadn’t planned this. She simply said the first thing that came to mind, the first thing that she could force herself to say. It pure, blind luck that she’d said anything coherent at all.

And the effect was dramatic. His ears lowered, and his brow furrowed in confusion. He stood up straight, and backed away from the well, hands up. "I am going now."

Zaahira said nothing. The furthest he went, the lighter the pressure in her chest became.

She didn’t understand that the combination of her gaze, her unexpectedly vivid threat delivered in an incongruous, soft-spoken voice had taken him off-guard. She didn’t understand yet, but she would eventually, and this was the first inkling of the traits she would need to develop for her own survival.

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Once, her grandmother told her that there was a place far away where jinn resided, in the mountains among tall trees, in distant ruins. Another group resided in a dark, empty hovel beneath a dune in the far reaches of the desert. Jinn were invisible and could be anywhere, but there were places that they liked better than most.

Zaahira had to find one of those places.

She had to have offended a jinn somehow. She did not know how to confront these creatures, didn’t know how to bargain, and had no way of fighting them. And, yet, appeasing them seemed to her the most sensible option. Would slaughtering her camel and leaving it for them work?

A soothsayer might know, but Zaahira had no idea where to find one. She could ask the next time she encountered someone at a well, but her last encounter had made her cautious, and anyway, she didn’t want to spread her curse.

…What if the curse was the only thing protecting her?

Out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw three figures atop camels. They crested a dune, and then disappeared from her vision - so quickly that Zaahira could not say whether they were there at all. The moon was not out and the night was dark. The wind blew in her face; she could smell nothing.

Zaahira urged her camel to travel faster, and pressed ever northward.

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Her body was tense, and when she stood still, her skin pulsed with heat. It wasn’t the sun or the hot sand; Zaahira only moved when she could see the stars.

She had enough experience with her own emotion to recognize the anxiety she was feeling, but not enough to pinpoint where it had started. Something was wrong, but she didn’t know what it was, and in the absence of knowledge, her brain insisted on spitting out unhelpful answers.

She did the wrong thing by telling the man that his children would bleed. He would take that as a threat. He would not understand. But it kept her safe? Should she complain? What else would she have to do to keep herself safe? What if she had to use her — no longer her husband’s, hers — scimitar? Would she kill someone? Hadn’t she already killed someone?

The camel struggled with her when she led it up a hill. Sand turned to rock and scraggy grass. There should be no reason that he should hesitate. They were going toward food, not away from it.

Something was wrong.

Zaahira inhaled. Camel. Herself. Plants, of the sort that held value to herbivores, but little to herself or another canine. None of these would be suitable for harvesting herbs.

She wondered where her family was, and whether they had recovered. How had her husband responded when she left? Did her brothers get the herbs in time? Would her husband have taken the gift away? Were they at war now? Did she offend her husband’s tribe with her actions?

The camels ears were pointed forward. It bellowed.

Zaahira knelt down, and tied the camel’s reins to a rock. The beast flattened its ears and puffed its cheeks. Zaahira stepped sideways, and back. The camel’s spit missed her by a hair.

It needed space. She would wait until it calmed down. In the mean time, she had to know that she was heading to the right place. She traveled up the hill, while keeping the camel within her light of sight.

A wind blew down, and the scent of jackal on the wind made her forget the camel. The hair on the back of her neck pricked. She raised her tail. Her ears fanned around the area, and she stood still.

This was, in retrospect, the perfect place for an ambush. She wouldn’t make this mistake again.

But that was little consolation now, as the three figures she’d once seen cresting the dune emerged from the top of the hill, each on his own mount.

Zaahira scrambled backwards, and heedless of her camel’s potential for spitting, returned to its side. No, wait, she still had to loosen the reins…

While she fumbled in the dark with the rope, the men approached. There was not much distant between them now, and Zaahira could not say how they had escaped her notice before - except that the wind had blown behind her before, instead of in front of her.

One scent was familiar. It was not one of her brothers. It was not her husband.

“This is the woman,” Baki said, gesturing to Zaahira and her camel. The other two men regarded her, one with a raised bow, and another with a weapon that Zaahira did not immediately recognize in the darkness. A sling?

“Were you the woman that threatened Baki’s children?”

Zaahira’s stomach contorted, like a snake tying itself into knots. She did not speak.

The man with the maybe-sling shifted on his camel, “Why are you alone out here?”

She should lie.

She could think of no lies.

Baki spoke, “She still smells like al-Uzfur. You don’t need her to speak.” Zaahira edged backwards, toward her camel. “We’ll bring her—”

Zaahira’s grand idea was to launch herself to her camel and take two fistfuls of its fur. A kick to the camel’s side sent it running, while she dangled with her feet just inches from the ground.

An arrow landed on the ground.

In the absence of instruction, her camel went whichever way it wanted. It galloped to the ambush, leaving Zaahira to panic while she scrambled up its back, and then away from them when Baki brandished his sword.

The camel was screaming. Zaahira flattened her ears. Half her body was draped over the camel’s back, and each step jostled her. She had spent half of her life riding camels, ever since she'd shifted, but she didn't have the experience to pull this maneuver off gracefully.

The thunder of hooves behind her. The chase was on, and Zaahira was already tired of it.

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