[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. All speech is in Arabic unless otherwise specified. ))

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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.

-----


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 leaving."

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.

-----


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.

-----


In the foothills of a mountain, she found luperci.

Grass and scraggy shrub grew from rocky soil, and twisted, gnarled trees sprang up in between boulders. Here, a pack had marked their claim. The reason was obvious: the faint smell of goat. The verdant landscape was a better place to raise livestock than the desert.

She guided her camel around the edge of the pack's territory, until she found a found a wooden sign wedged between two rocks. An arrow pointed forward, and beneath it, text. She hadn't been taught how to read, but she recognized the way the writing curved. Her family had stopped here, once.

Would anyone remember her? Was she about to risk exposure by stopping here? Were those shadows she had seen following her, or were they simply traveling this way? Would they catch up with her, if she went further? Shouldn't she avoid this place?

Zaahira stared at the sign, and then the path inward. She still had the rugs. Where was she going to sell them, if not here? Where was she going to get supplies? Wouldn't it be nice to not have to hunt? Wouldn't it be nice to eat?

Hesitantly, she urged her camel further.

The trading post was a small thing. One stone building, a stall that smelled of burnt meat, and another that held an ecletic mix of items: pelts, herbs, incence, rope and undyed cloth. There were only two customers: one haggling with the meat seller, and another carrying a basket of herbs.

This was not the busiest place she'd ever been, but it was... uncomfortable. Without the gaggle of pups, siblings, parents and grandparents, she felt exposed. Alone atop her camel, she made a prime target for gawking.

Zaahira stared forward, overwhelmed.

Move. Move or you die. Move, or they all die. Be quick, or the curse will take them, too.

That thought broke her out of her inertia. Somehow, she'd forgotten. She'd been so tired and hungry and exhausted that she'd forgotten.

Zaahira slid off her mount, and guided the camel out of view. The less they saw her, the less chance they had for their gaze to linger on her, the better.

-----


"...a brother of mine found a potion there," said the junk seller. He had been hidden in a corner of the trading post that she hadn't first seen. His wares were piled atop a ratty blanket. He could use a rug. It had seemed appropriate and expedient to approach this man for directions. Yet, instead of trade, he'd chosen to prattle along about how very unsafe it was to travel alone in the dead cities. This was not doing her anxiety any favors. "It was black as night. It smelled foul, but he said that alcohol smelled foul, too. 'What could it harm?'" The wolf shook his head.

She understood that she was being lectured, but she mistook the reason. She thought that perhaps he had recognized her, that she was young and alone, and decided to act something of a parent in the absence of her own. In truth, he'd simply wanted to deter her from inspecting the source of his goods. He didn't want to return to this trading post at a later date to find her plying a similiar trade.

Certaintly, it hadn't occurred to her that his wares would be useful at all. The jars? The empty wine bottles? They could be used for water, but a bladderskin would be more convenient for travel. The broken glass? The rusty nails? The sharp, jagged piece of metal? Who would want that?

Who were his customers? Torturers?

"He drank it, and then he died. Another friend of mine lost his leg while sleeping inside a building. The whole roof shuddered, and it collapsed on top of him. He couldn't pull his leg out, so another friend of mine had to take a saw and cut through it."

In her estimation of value, there were only three things that caught her: a chipped mug, a collection of blue beads, and a tea kettle.

Hm.

Rug. Kettle, a cup. When they offered hospitality to other travelers, they had always provided these things. Would it not make sense to provide them to a... conversation with a jinni? The beads, if she found something to put them on, might make a suitable gift.

"I..." Zaahira began, and pointed to the kettle, the cup, and the beads. "I want those things, and... uh, what would I need to do to avoid the dead places? Which way should I not go?" This was not, technically, lying. She was just giving the impression that she wasn't going there.

"Don't go past the hills," he waved his hands. "Don't go past the mountains. You'll see it before you get to the coast. But if you really want to go-- to avoid it, I have a brother who could guide you past--

"No, that's enough." Zaahira shook her head. even as naive as she might have otherwise been, she knew better than to accept that kind of help when she was traveling alone. She'd use her own wits and if that meant dying by her own wits, then so be it. "Could you tell me about those beads? Why are there so many?" He gave her a look, like he'd regretted giving what little information he had, and she stared back at him with that impassive, stoic gaze. "I have a rug."

His ears perked up, and he leaned forward. "Well..."

-----


Far past the trading post and its goods, Zaahira had found something she hadn't expected: an empty, eerie abandoned place.

Weeds overtook stone buildings. A tree grew heavy over a ruin that had long since lost its roof. Bricks and stone were missing, here and there. Although it was difficult to see the details in the darkness, she sensed that, for whatever reason, this place had been picked clean and left as it was. Luperci had not chosen to settle here and take permanent residence.

The fur on the back of her neck pricked, though it was well-shielded from the night's cold air.

She had already dismounted her camel, to guide him on foot. As absurd as the trader's warnings had felt at the time, he had impressed upon her the idea that barreling in without great care would be a poor idea. Lucky that none of the buildings appeared to have roofs, because she had no saw.

Something moved at the edge of her vision, but when she peered over her shoulder, she saw nothing but shadow. Uh. Her breath stopped. She stood still, for several moments, listening.

There was only the breathing of her camel. Zaahira looked forward again.

The buildings were arranged in a neat row. Some were larger and some were smaller, but none of them stood out to her as the place she needed to begin her sacrifice.

And none of them were large enough to fit a camel inside, even without a roof or door.

She was close, but now that she was here, she wasn't sure that she wanted this. What would happen when she did this? What had her grandmother said?

The landscape changed. Less starlight. Up ahead, an enormous building was little more than a looming shadow. Its roof curved upward. Her nose said stone and clay. The smell of luperci was fainter, still.

The door was a huge, empty archway. There was nothing to impede their travel inside, but her camel huffed. He wasn't going to going go through it. He had been her only companion throughout this journey, and though she'd planned to sacrifice him for the greater good, she felt betrayed.

She had to figure her way through it. Alone.

-----


The dark of this building was not stars-dark; it was not the dark of the mother's den, close and warm. No, it was the dark of a mouth, wide and looming, lined with jagged teeth that stung her paws. Zaahira lit a torch and held it up aganst the darkness, only to see it skidding from her hands when she tripped over a tooth. The flame crackled; it rose higher, and then shrank back. Goat fat seeped out.

The flames illuminated the walls. They were stone, too, but so well-built and sturdy that it was hard to imagine that any luperci could disassemble it. Yet, here and there, shoots of leaves rose through the cracks in the floor. A vine climbed up the walls.

There were windows far above her reach.

Zaahira took a ragged breath. Her jaw was smarting; she fingered it, sending sharp pains through her skin. Hadn't her younger brother complained of the same thing, when he'd crossed the wrong border? He'd been a puppy, then, so the warrior had been lenient, but he promised worse to their father if he didn't keep the boy under control.

She blinked, and sighed. "You've made your point. I am trespassing." She pushed herself up with her palms, and knelt on one knee. "But I am not trespassing without a reason. I must talk to you - why have you done this? What have I done to deserve this? What did my family do to upset you?"

No answer. She wasn't sure that she should expect one. If the jinn had been so unkind as to lay this curse on her, how could she expect them to be any kinder when she came to confront them?

The flame in the torch flickered. They were spirits of smoke and fire, weren't they? Perhaps they were listening.

"I am only Zaahira al-Ghurab, daughter of Jabir al-Ghurab and..." Her father never mentioned his mother's name, when he introduced himself, but it felt right to say it, "...Sadiqa al-Ghurab. I come to you bearing gifts, so that we may..." She swallowed. "...mend the trouble between our tribes." This was a thing that ought to have been done by her father; what right did she have to act on his behalf?

Once, she'd been a puppy with her ear pressed to the tent, while her father entertained an envoy from another tribe. She had been forbidden from interrupting, but she hadn't been forbidden from listening, and so, she had listened.

The flame still burned, bright as ever. If this had been an improper course of action, they hadn't been offended.

Zaahira dipped her head. "I have brought you food and drink. I have brought you a fine rug, from my husband's tribe, jewelry from a man I met at a trading post - I hope it is to your liking - and if you like, you may even have my camel."

The flame sputtered impatiently. Zaahira nodded, and stood up.

She understood this to mean that she ought to get on with it.

-----


There were stories and tales of booming voices, soft whispers calling for the names of those who feared them . Yet, the jinni, or jinn - she couldn't tell how many there were - did not communicate that way with her. She heard no voices. She felt no hands on her shoulders, no ghostly arm around her waist, and nothing pulled at her hair. Her hosts may have been quiet, communicating only by smoke and torchlight, but they were also polite.

Polite, all things said, for someone who might have cursed her.

She arranged the rug so that it was spread out on the floor, away from the torch so that it wouldn't catch fire, but not so far that that her sight was dimmed by shadows. It felt rude to be too far from the torch, though she knew the torch itself wasn't the jinn - only the way they had chosen to communicate.

She might be dreaming.

She set out a clay platter, and on it, dried goat meat spiced with local herbs. It was, in truth, a very pitiful meal, but Zaahira did not have the time or the skill to hunt and cook a proper meal before arriving. She hadn't even been sure that she would make it here.

The torch sparked.

Zaahira cringed. "You must understand," she began, "I did not come here with much. I didn't even know what I was doing when I set out - what you see here is what I could afford to buy."

The flame flickered at a slower, conversational pace, but Zaahira heard nothing. She tilted her head. Was that good?

"I... hope you will forgive me." The flame danced in a way that she thought was taunting, like -- a wagging finger? Was she being scolded? Zaahira tipped her ears back, an appeasement gesture that she'd seen her siblings make when they were scolded. "I could kill and cook my-- the camel, but I do not have the materials to make it good. Surely you would prefer him alive, to do with him as you wish?"

The flame steadied.

Zaahira stood in place, unsure. The flame didn't provide her with any further feedback, so she took that to mean that the jinn did not want her to kill the camel.

What if you're seeing only what you wish to hear? What if you've gotten it wrong? Zaahira swallowed, turning her eyes away.

It wasn't the slaughter that bothered her, no, it was the dilemma over which she step she ought to take - and how fearsome a mistake it might become if she made the wrong one.

-----


[insert scene.]

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"Zaahira?" Asif had asked. "No. It isn't- You can't--" He stopped himself. He was standing in the doorway of the building, with the sun to his back. A ray of light exposed Zaahira, there on the floor. Her knuckles were bloody, but scabbed. Some of her fur was gone; she had started to pick it out. Her body was thin and lean - a crude combination of growing muscle and dwindling fat; she had nothing in the way of curves anymore, slight or not.

She held her husband's sword across her chest, going lengthwise down her body. She hadn't been able to sacrifice herself in that way, though in the delirium of her thirst, she'd thought she'd seen her future. It was a haze of visions; of death and dying, of life and rebirth, of ancient wells springing forth and bringing tall green grass to the desert.

He stepped forward. She hadn't been sure that what she had seen was her brother - but it made sense, in hindsight. It made sense. He would be the one who would find and save her, not her husband. Her husband barely knew her, but her brother--

"...what have you done to my sister?" His snout was twisted in horror; a face so obvious that Zaahira could not mistake it as anything else. He'd seen what she had become, and he hadn't liked it.

Zaahira sighed. Blood pounded through her head. The sunlight at the edge of her vision, cresting around Asif's body, was as knives. "I..." The light warped into verdant green. She might be in pain, and she might die, but something good could still come of this. "I have her body."

Some part of her was no longer herself, though she could not say whether that was delusion or truth. It felt true when she said it; she was not herself, but she still had her body.

"Jinni?" He asked, stepping forward. As he came closer, his expression changed to something unreadable to Zaahira; he squinted his eyes, and looked as if seeing her for the first time. "Why would you do this -- to our family? To al-Uzfur? Did you want us to go to war? Did you want our families to die?"

Zaahira simply shrugged.

Her brother knelt down beside her. For a moment, the look on his face - it was as if he'd seen her, recognized her - and then it changed so quickly that she couldn't say whether it been there at all. Maybe she'd misread it. He wrenched the sword from her hands, and threw it against the wall. He pulled her up by the scruffy fur on her neck, and hissed into her face. "What did you do? Why?"

Zaahira did not move, staring unblinkling into his eyes. He wanted an answer, but the only one she could think to give was one that she herself did not understand. "It is in my nature." I could no more stop it than you could stop the sun from rising. But that thought was more an image than a word, a vision of the sun rising over the horizon as pups died in their dens and she rose from the dirt to see this scene once more. If she lived, they died, and if she died, they lived.

He let go of her neck, and she hit her head against the stone floor. She winced. Asif looked down at her with a strange expression, knitting his brow together "Since when does a jinni have pain?"

What would you know? You never paid attention to the old stories. Her eyes strayed to his sword. She wasn't sure whether she wanted to do this anymore. Did she really want to die? She did really have to die? What had she done to bother the jinn? She couldn't remember. Just trying to remember made her head hurt; all she saw was aching visions of her family, both living and dead. Think of them - perhaps it was better to be over with this? "You could kill me."

She had some silly notion that her death would bring back the dead. It wouldn't, but it might stop others from dying.

Asif's made a face; he recoiled away from her. "No. No."

"Coward," she hissed, and it wasn't just her brother she was talking about.

He twisted his snout into a snarl, then. "No. I am not doing that. You can't goad me into killing my sister, Jinni. We will get you out of there and she will come back."

"There will be a cost to that," Zaahira said, simply. There would, and if he did, she would not be the one to pay it.

"I don't care," he growled, standing up. "Get up. We're leaving." Zaahira sighed. He turned back to the door. "And put her clothes back on. Don't defile her body like that."

"We--" were littermates. We've seen each other before. But she stopped herself. If she wanted this to work, she had to pretend that she was not still his sister, so that she could absolve him of the guilt of killing her. "As you wish."

He looked back at her, squinting like he knew - or suspected - but he said nothing, merely picked up her husband's sword and carried it out.

-----


They had sated her thirst with water, but she was hungry and kneeling inside a little roofless building.

The visions that had tormented her inside the empty, looming building had left her, but the memory of them lingered. She wished she trusted her brother enough to talk about it; it was like a dream that she'd seen. As much as they scared her, she was afraid that she would lose them if she didn't keep reminding herself. If she lost them, how would she solve this problem?

Perhaps she shouldn't have worried. It was out of her hands now.

Faraj, her younger brother, stood the left of her with his sword unsheathed. To her right was one of her husband's men; she recognized the tribe by the insignia on his armor - an orange-yellow flower, with petals that were like spikes and two green leaves that had sharp thorns.

Safflower. the tribe's matriarch and historian had said that once, a young man had discovered the plants on the eve of a great battle, where a war was won, and had gathered and pressed them into a dye that he had used to compel victory from a battle. What battle? What war? What enemy? She hadn't remembered, or hadn't bothered to learn, but he had been their ancestor and she had remembered the little spiky flowers.

The man's sword was likewise free from his sheath, but he was far enough from her that she could not touch him without moving. His sword might reach her, but she could not reach him.

He feared her, then. Even without a weapon. Maybe they all did.

Zaahira turned.

Faraj was staring straight ahead. He hadn't acknowledged her since Asif had marched her into the camp, except to gawk at her. His jaw hung open, then, and if she hadn't been so addled by her thirst, she might have remarked about how stupid he looked. He wasn't gawking now. He wasn't saying anything, and Zaahira had some inkling that he was ignoring her.

If Asif can't recognize you, then Faraj won't. Faraj was from a different, younger litter that she'd helped her mother raise. He only saw her as the girl who stopped him from eating the wrong herb. The girl who mended his shirts. The girl who kept silent watch over him while he played. The girl whose uncanny stare made him nervous.

She'd found him adorable as a puppy, but she didn't know how to relate to a younger child, so they never talked.

Zaahira took a deep breath, and closed her eyes. If she couldn't talk, then she could at least commit her visions to memory.

-----


The little group that had taken her captive was a diverse one with conflicting opinions, she found. All total, including her, it was a group of six: two of her brothers, and two of her husband's brothers. There was her, and then there was one of her husband's sisters.

"You should have killed her where she stood," one of Alim's brothers said. He was a tall, gruff man with hybridized features that suggested that he was not completely jackal. Zaahira hadn't noticed this before; she'd been too miserable, too concerned with her own troubles to care, when she'd been in the al-Uzfur tribe.

"She's still my sister," Asif said, and then corrected himself, "has my sister's body. If we can expel the Jinni, then we-- I--" He stopped. Faraj reached up, and with a hand, placed it on Asif's shoulder. That was the most he had emoted since she had seen them. Odd. He was normally such an expressive child.

"I do not think Alim wants your sister," the tall al-Uzufur said. "She's been defiled by that spirit. How can he ever trust her? How can you?" There was something about Alim's brother. Something about the way he looked, when compared with his mother and father... "She's staring now. Look! How can you trust that thing?"

"Actually," Asif said, and then stopped, looking thoughtful.

She was going to die; why not ask? "Was your mother faithful?" Every eye turned to Zaahira.

"Ex-excuse me!?" The man shook with rage. Pride. Unfortunate. She was never going to know the truth.

"Hakim..." a woman began. It was the soothsayer; Alim's unmarried sister, and the matriarch's favorite daughter. "The jinni is taunting you. Don't let her get the best of you." Hakim took a deep breath, and exhaled slowly.

The soothsayer was a curious woman. She was older than Zaahira, and held an enviable mystique that Zaahira had never been able to capture. No, not because she beautiful - although she was - but because she had somehow learned to bend the rules of tradition to her liking. She stayed with her family while her other sisters had been married off.

"I would have liked to hear you say it," Zaahira said, shrugging. "You may still kill me by plunging a sword through my heart, in the building where my brother found me. It will bring back the dead."

The soothsayer was the first person to level Zaahira's stare back at her. It was like she was looking through her. "No, we're not doing that. That building is your place of power." What? Zaahira blinked, slowly. Her enemy's head rose higher, her back straighter - she had taken the blink as a concession. "We are bringing you home, to al-Uzfur. You will stop the damage, but even killing you won't bring back the dead."

How do you know? Zaahira stared. And stared. And then - blinked, and looked away. There was something unsettlingly certain in the soothsayer's stare and the confidence with which she'd said it. She knew something she didn't, and she was older, and -- were her visions true after all?

She hadn't been trained to do this. Maybe she was simply a stupid girl with stupid ideas.

Zaahira sighed. "And what will you do with me there?"

"There are rites," the soothsayer said. "It will be painful, but she won't die, if she's strong enough. If she's pure."

Of course.

Alim's other brother - young and smaller than Hakim - piped up. "How do we take her home without..." Dying, they meant.

The soothsayer snorted derisively. "The curse targets the old and the young; you are not a puppy. Do not be a coward."

Zaahira instantly hated her.

-----


It was through the soothsayer's goading that Zaahira had been bound for travel. Fayruz - that was the soothsayer's name - tied her wrists together in front of her. When Zaahira spat in her face, Hakim took hold of her shoulders and pulled her back, preventing her from headbutting Fayruz.

Up until this point, she hadn't fought them, and she wasn't sure why she was fighting except that she was shaking with fury and it had to come out somewhere. If all this had been for nothing - if everything she had done had been pointless, if she had caused this but couldn't fix this -- well, what worth did she have?

But it was her fighting that led her to be bound a second time, over her chest and waist. This rope ended in two different points. From one end, a rider on a camel, holding it steady so that she could not escape. From the other, another rider on a different camel holding the end of the rope in much the same way the other had.

If they both pulled at once, they might pull her whole body apart. That was enough to quiet her down. No one even need voice the threat; it was her own fear.

The camels were slow, still. She could keep up.

"I could have convinced them to let you ride," Asif said, looking down at her, "If you hadn't attacked."

"I would not bother talking to the jinni; she is apt to tell lies." Fayruz said, without looking up from her camel. She held one end of the rope, while Asif held the other. Those remaining in the party circled around them, at a distance. Somewhere, Faraj was leading Zaahira's camel, having found it on the way to Zaahira's hiding place.

"I don't like her," Zaahira hissed.

Fayruz looked over at her, and smirked. "Ah, I misjudged the jinni. Sometimes she does tell truths."

"Nothing I have said has been a lie," Zaahira growled. "Are you a bastard, too? Is that why the matriarch likes you so much?" She hadn't meant it as an insult the first time she'd brought that point up with Hakim, only a point of curiosity, but she meant it as one now.

Fayruz frowned, but her eyes were on Asif. "How long would you say that your sister has been cursed?"

Talking about her like she wasn't there. Infuriating.

Asif hesitated. "We... did not realize the extent." He didn't want to outright say that they'd know beforehand, because that would further the dishonor and the discord between their families, but...

"For the record," the soothsayer began, "My father knows what my mother did - it's why I was never married. How can any alliance be forged with an illegitimate daughter?" Asif didn't reply to that. "I still serve my purpose to the tribe. Now, you -- I need the same honestly from you, if you ever hope to fix this."

"I'll concede the point." Asif rolled his shoulders. "My sister was one of the first to fall ill. After her, our grandmother, and the pups."

They were fixing things. Without her. She should be glad. She wasn't.

"Has anyone else fallen ill since she left?" Asif paused. Zaahira knew why - or suspected. "I need to judge the strength. You must be honest; it has taken only the very young and the very old when we left, but if it is stronger, other measures will have to be taken."

Asif looked away. "I don't want my sister to die."

Feyruz narrowed her eyes. "She is the only one left?"

Her brother didn't answer that. Zaahira looked between the two canines, tail raised in alarm. That was... just speculation, right? She didn't wipe out her whole family, right?

Asif shrugged, still not looking her way. "We were never a large family."

"I knew there was a reason why you came, instead of your father." Feyruz cocked her head. "If you are the oldest male in the tribe left," she began, "then you will need to be married. One of my younger half-sisters may volunteer - if they haven't been killed by this disease."

Asif gave her a strange look.

If her brother didn't say that their mother and father was dead, it wasn't true, right?

-----

HOOKHAND

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