PrologueColony of Aloh’Fio (Cold Earth)
Localized Planet Tau’cyr (year): 121 After Initial Settlement
Kai’rotaa (month): 5.5, near end of Tau’cyr
Rotaa (Day): Day of the Incomparable Hunter
Dec (Hour): 1200 Rai’kor (minutes), noon
A harsh wind sailed from out of the narrow pass of the J’karra Mountains and battered T’sha from his reverie. A numb chill wormed its blackened tendrils into the core of his mind and brushed his reminiscent thoughts aside as if they were nothing more than discarded data on a clean slate.
Young T’sha gazed out into the bleak and desolate highland under siege from nature’s most dire season. For a brief moment, he longed for the autumn forests of Eir’Eio’Kio, her bountiful rivers, and sparse colonies that glistened beneath a cloudless sky. A handful of Kai’rotaa had passed since he had been whisked away from the equator belt, but the long months felt more like a full Tay’cyr in this frozen hell.
A young T’au male of fourteen Tau’cyr stood alone upon a great hill in the highlands. Dense trenches of lush snow crowded around the leggings of T’sha’s regal hunter attire until his limbs felt like pincushions for a thousand needles. A sleek Kasa hat shielded him from the wind, but served another, more personal purpose in that it hid the lack of a braid in T’sha’s hair to mark him as a hunter.
T’sha lifted his head and ignored the frozen chill that numbed him to the very soul. Keen coal black eyes stared into the true face of Aloh’Fio, rocky hills burdened in thick layers of ice and snow. If the vegetation had proven rare in the midst of autumn, then the change of seasons had eradicated what remained. The J’karra Mountains reached their fractured and blunted fingers entire Tor’kan into the sky and shone a rich cobalt in the wan light of the midday sun.
Home was not here, T’sha reminded himself, but he would see it again soon when he returned, triumphant. An anxious feeling made him feel more out of place in the frozen north than perhaps he should have been. He had spent ten full Tau’cyr out of fourteen in training to become a hunter of the Fire Caste. A shamed piece of him wanted him to march out into the waste as if Eir’Eio’Kio glimmered in the distance.
But then T’sha knew that there would be no return to hearth nor academy. T’Eldi had whispered stories of such individuals who failed their trials, swept away by the Aun like so much disposed wastes, never to be seen again.
A light rain of sleet and snow peppered T’sha from where he kept vigil on the hillside. A shroud of mist crawled over the rocky hills on the horizon and crept ever closer to his position. T’sha scanned the environment in several thorough passes, but he could find no sign of his quarry.
“T’sha.” An iron grip found T’sha’s shoulder and he startled, snapped out of the snare of his own thoughts. The youth glanced behind him with a chastised look into familiar coal black eyes, but framed in the face of his father. “Snap out of it. The cold hasn’t taken root in you yet.”
An elder T’au male loomed over his son with a disgruntled look, but patience nestled in the crooks and crevices of his weathered cobalt skin. Serene by some notion of inner peace, T’Eldi cupped the spear clutched in his son’s fists. He pushed the weapon upward until T’sha held it over his chest.
Satisfied, T’Eldi nodded.
“T’sha,” T’Eldi searched the highlands where T’sha had scoured by sight. “You wish to be a part of the Fire Caste?”
“No other dream would please me more.” T’sha snapped the spear straight, planted it into the snow, and stood at attention. “I shall do my part for the Empire no matter the cost.”
“Good.” T’Eldi did not remove his gaze from the countryside. A frost-bitten breath escaped his lips. “For the Ethereals will demand everything from you, T’sha. They will demand all that lies within you, mind, body, and spirit. You must not waver in their eyes. You must not hesitate anymore.”
An invisible stone caught in T’Eldi’s throat. “You… you understand what happens to the young dreamers like you who hesitate?”
A bead of sweat formed on T’sha’s brow and trickled down his cheek and neck. He nodded without a word.
“Mark, my words, T’sha,” T’Eldi swept forward in one fluid movement, as if snow and ice did not burden him at all. The long spear in his hand thrust forward with great precision into an imagined foe. He kept the stance for a long moment and spared his son a quick glance. “You are strong, my son. You can accomplish your mission and any tasks the Ethereals set before you.
“You shall live to be old, but remain stronger still, in heart and spirit if not in body. Earn yourself a mate and have many offspring. Teach them to become as you are, for the Empire shall need them as they need you now.
“I do not doubt. You must not doubt, for there is no room for hesitance. Strike first and true, and should you fall before you can make the killing blow, then you shall have done all that your Empire has asked of you. But you shall not fail, not here. Go on, be the Mont’Ka.”
A frozen wind hammered them from nowhere, T’sha shivered, but T’Eldi merely lowered his spear and bore the cold as if he could no longer feel it. The father urged his son on with another stoic nod and watched with patience.
“Be the Mont’Ka…” T’sha expelled a frosty breath before he turned away from his father. As if banished into the frozen wastes, T’sha plunged forward into the snow and sleet until T’Eldi became a speck in the storm, nigh-indiscernible. “Be the ‘Killing Blow’.
T’sha climbed over rock-littered hills and descended into minor pieces of flatland carved into the landscape around him. An ache in his limbs made them feel like lead welded into his joints. He pressed on and ignored the needles the winter stabbed into him. An urge to sleep glimmered on the horizon of his thoughts, but at those times T’sha would force himself to run to ward off the cold.
A familiar scent in the tundra air surged into T’sha’s nostrils, stronger than ever. A scent of a hundred hunts fought in the forests around Eir’Eio’Kio. A scent of dead beasts and a familiar hunter triumphant over their scattered corpses. A scent of hunters’ eviscerated entrails left scattered in the lush forest soil. The failed ones, of whom the civilians of Aloh’Fio were forbidden to mention.
T’sha came to a halt behind the crest of a large hill, embedded with a massive boulder weathered into the shape of a great finger upon its peak. Deafened from the howl of the wind, he trained his hearing as he had always done for any sign of disturbance nearby. He did not strain or struggle, but remained calm and dead silent and listened for a break in the wind.
T’sha concentrated and forced his heart rate to a calmer pulse. “The Killing Blow… can only be landed once.”
T’sha cut a crescent through the snow, even as he thrust toward his left with practiced precision. A gurgling wet growl, nigh-silent in the wind, followed him over the hillside, louder and louder until it resonated within his skull. He drew first-blood from the creature where the spear stabbed into the mighty feline’s chest. But the attempt proved faulted as thickened slabs of bone turned the simple weapon aside.
A beast of storm-grey fur, spotted with cobalt and scarred from head-to-toe by the scars of its rival kin, assaulted T’sha. A mighty six-clawed paw, glistening with lengthy razor-sharp talons, sliced through wind, snow, and sleet like a sharpened honored blade through flesh. The young T’au could not escape the lightning strike and reeled from six cuts etched across his furs and chest from the feline’s paw.
The force threw T’sha into the snow upon his left flank, where he landed with a soft and silent crunch. A maw of two great fangs that gleamed like polished metal and a hundred lesser teeth yawned open as the great beast went for T’sha’s throat. The T’au hunter rolled onto his back and caught the beast in its open maw with a powerful thrust.
T’sha fought back onto his feet as the beast recoiled onto its hind haunches and scampered backward, not from pain, but from caution. Blood scarcely trickled from the creature’s mouth before it whipped out a razor sharp, two-pronged tail that cut toward him without warning. T’sha rolled beneath the razor strike and emerged out of the snow with a furious stab toward the beast’s underbelly.
The feline shirked away from the attack and countered with a powerful pounce meant to pin T’sha beneath its unbearable weight and rending claws. Tsssk… A familiar whine had built in his ears for several brief moments and T’sha cast the Photon Grenade from his numbed fingers into the air between them.
An explosion of super-heated energy vented into the cold blossomed with such blinding light that T’sha could scarcely protect himself with either arm or spear. But he heard the beast cry out in blind fear, struck in the vision as well as spirit. His blurred vision hazed and burning, T’sha charged forward and tackled into the beast with a tsunami of stabbing blows.
Impaired, T’sha stabbed even as he felt out the creature with his free hand, even as the mighty beast before him wandered and stumbled blindly amid the rock-strewn hills of the highlands. Each blow could scarcely scratch the creature, the bone slabs which formed its backbone too strong for a simple spear to pierce. Frustrated, T’sha answered with a reckless hacking blow across the blur of fur and metallic teeth without much thought placed in the attack.
T’sha felt the beast lunge for him, all rank breath and blood-flecked teeth. The young hunter recoiled from the beast as he swept his spear too wide of the mark. Out of instinct more than anything else, T’sha followed his training without thought and followed up with a reverse strike.
He thrust for the creature’s exposed gullet even as it closed around him and near tore the furs from his body. Once more, the spear flew wide, but earned a panicked howl of unrestrained agony. T’sha did not hesitate, he pushed his weight onto the spear and drove it through the jelly-like contents of the beast’s destroyed eye.
T’sha may have struck true, but the creature would never die from the blow. He pushed forward and upward until the feline creature reared up on its hind legs, talon-paws striking futilely through the frost-bitten air. T’sha pushed the creature backward until the beast caught a foot upon a great rock and lost her footing.
T’sha tore his spear loose even as the feline clattered off of the peak of the great hill. The work behind the kill was no longer his own, but the sharpened and jagged rocks that smashed the creature from one fatal precipice to the next, until a mess of gore-matted fur tumbled to a rest at the bottom of the hill.
T’sha shook away the last vestiges of vision impairment and gazed down upon the kill with an air of suspended disbelief. The feline beast still thrashed and writhed, but it would not stir from the bloody winter grave it had carved out for itself. T’sha felt the bite of winter cold more keenly than ever and sucked in a deep breath as his wounds flared up in his chest.
A great pelt of fur fell from out of the aether and squarely upon T’sha’s shoulders until it cloaked his body. Startled, T’sha whirled around, spear in hand, but the weapon was halted by an iron-clad grip of another T’au that he did not recognize. A mid-aged T’au clad in sleek and pristine Combat Armor painted to a glassy ruby-like polish, segmented with splashes of cold metallic white, towered over him and held his gaze.
The Shas’la wielded no pulse weapon in either hand, but a mere shortened blade, sheathed in a thick scabbard. He gazed down upon T’sha with an undisguised expression both proud and impressed. Upon his shaven head was a lengthy braid that betrayed his seniority in the Shas, the Fire Caste.
His stern gaze never drifted from T’sha even as he snapped off a number of commands to his subordinates who emerged from out of the storm. One of them, a young T’au female, crowded around the boy and shooed off her commander, then began to look over T’sha’s wounds. Other Shas’la crested the hill and moved in to study and mercifully end the beast that he had triumphed over.
Scatter-minded, T’sha found himself drawn from one emotion to the next. He was proud, relieved, joyous, and puzzled in equal measure, but each fought to dominate the others. Nigh-frostbitten in the midst of frozen tundra, T’sha could scarcely collect himself enough to comply with the medic’s gentle demands. Her bright-lighted drone shone down on him and she mended his wounds with surgical tools the likes he had never seen before in Eir’Eio’Tio.
Dazed, T’sha glanced away from the medic’s sterile light even as she prodded him not to. He gazed off into the snow and sleet, unfocused, not in search of anything. But a glimpse of movement caught his eye for but a brief moment. A bundle of fur beneath a futuristic kasa hat.
Distant from the other Shas’la who did not notice him, T’Eldi offered his son a smile fresh from the forests of Eir’Eio’Tio. Satisfied, his father nodded once, grateful and relieved, before he turned away and vanished further into the worsening storm.
T’sha understood that he would never see his family ever again. He had succeeded where many had failed, and now the Fire Caste had claimed him as one of their own.
Such a lesson cut deeper than any scar left upon T’sha’s skin.