The Guardian's Offerings
It was as good place as any in this sad, bleak region.
She had the will. She, Martha Hartoon, was a strong girl. And she felt that Rada had a great disposition, introducing such developments into this hamlet far out in the nowhere which was uncommon.
Keep travelling, keep moving, to find the place you feel belong.
Like Xerenti herself had said, like how them, Tanis had lived.
To tackle the infinite vastness on those little draisines trundling down the old, battered tracks with the most eccentric varieties of companions. At least a xi was always along, and despite how rough they sometimes were, she felt safe with their presence. Safe from the dangers of the wilderness and safe from her own kind.
Here, however, unfortunately there were no xis and no nirs, such a remote place it was. They were somewhere up by the river, a tribe, occasionally they visited as Rada had mentioned.
He was past his hundredth year, like she had guessed, a few traces of grey showing through his dark hair and beard, however his brown eyes still sparkled with youth.
He established his family late in his life, late for those years when he was coming of age were when the sky had burned changing the world forever.
It was a miracle she herself lived, born probably a mere few months after it had happened. The Tanis had saved her, a chaotic age when so many had gone, her only tie to that world being her own name which somehow had survived until Xerenti could teach it her. Still she had a tendency to say it with an enn following the xi's accent who couldn't pronounce it like how it was supposed to by the human lips.
They had talked for long that evening, that strange world he himself had came from, unlike how that fallen had been described by numerous others, the Silent Land, abandoned and succumbed to wilderness long before, where they had lived with the Tanis. Now the entire world was silent.
Especially after the beasts had came, stirred from their slumber by the day when the sky went ablaze. The Aurora, a wonderful but horrible bad omen as many had still seen beyond the Tanis.
Rada reassured her that the village wasn't alike. There were bad things, there were terrible, horrendous things and still are, but they were conducting a calm, practical life here governed rather by reason than superstition.
* * *
She found that the village, Levanne by its name, the original pre-fall town laying some miles to the south, was indeed well ran, with nice people to introduce and guide her.
The chief contrary to her first guess, wasn't Rada. It was an old lady by the name Liz whose original community amounted for about a third of the populace. They were proponents of something they called sustainable agriculture back then, which as it came through by her description apparently for some reason was eccentric and not quite well received in the former world.
Why, she couldn't imagine.
This humble hamlet, as far as she could judge, could well serve as an example for many. They shunned meat apart from a relatively small flock of chicken, which Terranean bird was renowned for its utility and resilience, and that was the only foreign animal around, limiting the area they needed to keep clean and cultivated for grain, fruits and vegetables.
Then they had a substantial herd of the well-mannered crested krael, this elegant long-necked, long tailed slender creature even fit for riding, but the more importantly having the strength to haul, to move a heavy plow in pairs, thus all their motive power grazed on native vegetation. They only needed to protect them.
And it didn't even end there, as to her surprise they even mapped out the region marking areas where those few native plants grew which had some utility on the table not being outright poisonous for human or at least chicken consumption, complementing their supplies, of which they also kept reserves, a stock in neat, tidy caverns which could feed them for a year if an unfortunate disaster would destroy their crops.
A very well ran community, if only they could live in peace...
But the fact that their houses were carved deep into the hill with living spaces behind twisting passages, illuminated by faint led lighting, was a stark reminder of where she was, where they had to survive.
* * *
Marcus was the elder son of Rada, a handsome, nice guy, who she met as he fixed up electricity in the room they had set up for her.
"You came from a city, right?"
"Yes, Mansool. So far that even the sky is different, Itakla barely halfway up there. The night is so bright here outside you wouldn't even need these!"
"True, but you were lucky there. Sometimes I would rather live in a city, if it was easier to get a tani's approval. But that wouldn't happen here. There you are protected, here you don't know when one of them came."
"It isn't that nice there either. One beast there had bounded slaves who you would see every so often in the market as they collected the tribute, and there is no way to help them. The akri binds them for life, they can not escape as he imprints himself into them."
"They really do that?"
"They do. There was someone I occasionally chatted with briefly. Then he just didn't show any more. Only many weeks later, a hollow shell with those ghostly grayed out eyes, the taint of the beast. It was sickening, awful. A few years later the akri would probably kill them as they replaced. The tanis can't do anything about them."
The cave fell silent, only the occasional harsh clicks and taps breaking it as Marcus kept fumbling with the wires.
"Guess it is not that bad here then. The Kizantxitra tribe up there fears them just like us, last year they lost a nir to one. Stephen, Grace, Maria, then the Brant brothers, just as they left to move away. Their draisine was found ten miles up, scorched by one's breath and torn apart. But I had always thought those tales of slavery were nothing more than that."
They fell silent again while Marcus finished securing a few tiny bulbs. He flicked the switch bolted on the wall by the door's curtains.
"At least this will work, I guess. Even if one decided to tear down the windmills outside. Water battery!"
He said that with a defiant smile as if it was his doing, standing against the storm. Maybe it was, or his father's design, Martha surmised, something they could be rightfully proud of.
* * *
Weeks had passed, she had familiarized herself with the locals, meeting the children who were numerous but well disciplined, aware of the dangers of the world they lived in.
She saw however what was sorely missing in this rural region, a school, for even Marcus himself, skilled as he was, had some weak spots in mathematics which impaired him, and welcomed much a tutor who had appropriate education in a city.
She found it to be a rewarding occupation, to use her knowledge this way, thankfully they did have books, old, worn, but in ample numbers from Liz's original community even though most of them concerned agriculture, biology and related mechanics.
Was there a future for these children in this unforgiving world?
Maybe. She could only hope so, enjoying working with them while gaining confidence.
It was a small and calm little place, she had seen a companion of xis and nirs visiting briefly from the tribe, then a traveller stopping for the night in their guest house or cavern, but nothing else to disturb them, to remind that there was a wider world outside.
It was strange to live somewhere not being watched over by them.
* * *
Albeit the cogs of his brains turned slow, he had all the time he could ever desire.
It was a while ago when his wings were strained, when he knew only slow painful death was waiting below, to keep seeking for the currents day after day on the long voyage across to follow the call.
The call of the Aurora, signifying the end, the end of the raging plague murdering the Tanis, xis, nirs and akris alike destroying the cities of old, leaving the Other Side in chaos. The call of his kin to fly, to settle and thrive in the vast expanses opening for their taking.
He had flown, reluctant but heeding the call, battling and merging with his kin on the ruins of the fallen world. He had seen how devastating the plague was, he had seen those miserable creatures alien bringing it upon them.
But he didn't enjoy killing, only ever taking what he needed.
He was a lazy beast.
He would find delight in merely existing, to be, to feel the warmth of the sun on his feathers and skin, to fly when there was a nice breeze, an updraught for it, but often rather just sprawling out on a hillside or having a leisure swim in pleasant waters in a serene lush wilderness.
Finally he had it, in this world succumbed to chaos.
But then as the years passed, it started to bore him. They were the biggest, the meanest creatures, and everyone and everything fled from their sight. Faintly he may have even felt sorry for them, how they feared and ran, in his lucid dreams desiring to be esteemed and adored instead showing off his majestic splendour, but he was too lazy to even strain his sluggish mind to think about what he could have done to achieve that.
But his head was idle. His body was seeking for more which bothered him.
So did he wander hoping to find something to interest and sate him.
* * *
They were already in the first week of Autumn, the heat subduing, working on the fields becoming less straining, but the hours of daylight also waning. She still liked it out there with a small group of older children who could already understand the differences between plants, weeds and those they needed to have their meals on their tables.
Contrary to what she experienced in the city, these kids were more mature, picking up the connections easier, and would be less reluctant to even voluntarily offer their help. Well, if it involved some tinkering, machinery, like the pumps, the better, she really couldn't fault them for it, weeding was just one of those menial tasks which had to be done, few finding any enjoyment in it. Still, she did well by talking, explaining what each plant was for, how wheat turned into bread, and then listening to the various little stories and experiences such kids of the age always had.
Even out there.
They had such a fantasy still with astonishing understanding of the ways of the world.
"They must be very scared there! To have the Sun suddenly blotted out!"
It was a partial eclipse of the Aildrik just around sunset.
"Greg, you dummy, nobody lives there, it is yellow like sand!"
"Martha, but someone had told me there are people there, like you and me!"
She didn't know. Was that even possible? Humans supposedly came from space a long time ago, and she was suddenly at loss on how to decide on this, never even thinking about it herself, whether there could be anyone on either of the other moons.
"Maybe. But why would they be scared? We also have eclipses."
"But you don't know when it is coming. It could be a huge akri beast!"
Before she could even start pondering on why they imagined them even there, a sudden sensation struck her. It was as if her very skull was about to explode, developing into the most hideous screeching wail she ever had the misfortune to endure!
* * *
He had seen the village.
He came aware of the surroundings, that there was none of his kin anywhere in the region, a place where he could linger and exist however long he desired.
There was no need for him to do anything with them for he could hunt without difficulty whenever he wished. But he was bored.
So he flew, spotting the flock of kraels herded towards the cliffside into which the settlement was carved.
However as he descended, surmising on maybe pinning one for a bit of amusement, to enjoy the reaction of those two alien creatures miserably struggling to protect them, suddenly a powerful surge of desire engulfed him.
To kill, to feast upon them, to sate his hunger, his body demanded and tried to wrestle away his control!
He cried up in his agony.
* * *
Martha's first thought were the children.
They, all of them including herself were on the ground, fallen tormented by the terrible voice, still struggling to realize it was over, only her ears were still ringing, she still shivering as the pain of the horrendous experience faded away.
"Up, up everyone! Quick!"
She helped them. Others rushed to help them, picking up a little boy crying, carrying and calling them swiftly into the safety of the caves carved into strong cliffs.
"Don't worry, Pete, everyone is here. We are all safe."
She struggled to form the words. She had no idea whether they were indeed safe apart from that they were inside, the interior lighting was still running allowing her to account for every one of them including the adults.
They were all there for a moment long enough for her to realize before two of the men rushed out. Marcus stepped to him.
"It was an akri's wail. Stay here with the children. We will be careful."
She reached out after him, still in shock.
They could all die. But she strengthened herself. She had a responsibility, forced her distress away to tend for the even more scared children.
To her surprise some of them shook it off rather easily.
"But a crying akri doesn't kill. Right?"
Another woman, a mother came to her rescue confirming it.
Were they actually so confident on this?
* * *
There was a brief council that night to assess the situation. Robert and Mike were the two kraelherders unfortunate to endure the experience, but they were all well apart from a splitting headache, returning to their job, trying to gather the dispersed herd as best as they could before giving it up to the darkness. Nine kraels were missing, but when they stopped their search the number was eleven. They were finding their way home, they could only hope the toll was less.
What had happened?
The views on why the akri wails were conflicting. Even for her, by her own knowledge. The only definite thing they knew that it could be some sort of warning. On those rare occasions they emitted their horrendous wail the most often they didn't kill.
Maybe it had a taste for krael meat?
However by the next morning it revealed that it didn't take anything. Only one krael had died, but succumbing to the venom of a drakut, somehow still managing to almost make it home to let the herders fight off the foul vermin on her trail.
* * *
Three days later the incident had repeated.
It was Mike who saw it, for Bran was asleep, only to be shaken awake too late by the horrendous screeching wail.
The Akri had landed only a couple dozen yards from him pinning down a krael. It didn't use its dreaded breath. It looked at him for a moment, and then, all of sudden it started.
He thought he had lost his hearing. He couldn't grasp what Bran was blabbering to him after he was so abruptly shaken awake by the same hideous wail. Maybe neither of them understood anything as they stood there shivering with a few shocked kraels still faltering about numbstruck.
They were grateful for the men who had came to their help. Mike wouldn't have been able to do anything in his condition, Bran tried to support the effort gathering the kraels, but soon had succumbed himself to his trauma.
The animals this time were all found.
Mike insisted on that he saw the akri pinning one down, however none was missing. Only after meticulously checking every one of them it revealed that one indeed received a major physical shock which was difficult to see given how shaken they all were. Marcus took his bike to get up to the tribe to call for one of the nirs to put the poor creature out of his misery.
The nir, by the name Tikka, stayed.
Rada spoke Attankai well, so fast Martha barely understood, but more comfortable for the nir. They repeatedly halted their pace recalling there were others listening.
They were arguing over whether the akri could be demanding a tribute from them, exhilarated, which Martha couldn't understand at the first few moments.
A sudden unexpected question from Liz pieced it together.
"Martha, you are from a city. Could you recall how you were handling these matters there?"
She was terribly embarrassed that she couldn't, they so much needing her help!
Still she struggled to recall the details.
"I... I think I can. Just please give me some hours to think these over."
* * *
It was thrilling.
She wasn't sure whether she was so scared, so anxious ever in her life. They needed her.
Even the nir needed her, she heard her chirping, that Kizant the alpha nir would be totally supportive of it, recalling how they had lost one of their kin to the beasts.
But what they could do?
What they could offer him he would like?
She struggled to make inventories. She took pen and paper and retreated into her room for hours trying to account for all her memories.
What those poor grey-eyed slaves were looking for in the market. What did they take which could only have been for the akri, and not items they received out of compassion, the city trying to soothe their pain, their miserable existence.
Then what the other two akris might have been receiving?
One of them was part of the Tani Council, and she knew where he had lived remotely, secluded from the turbulence. There was a ranch with sorts of native animals and a garden with fruits, she thought for the use of xis and nirs.
But the slaves of the other Akri were also taking fruits!
They couldn't eat those themselves as it was poisonous for Terranean life.
In the end she came up with a long list, a few she could only identify by shape for she forgot the names, making brief notes on them so she could recall to explain. The Tanis of the tribe could certainly identify them if they were anywhere around.
* * *
"I sincerely would not like to have you go there, Martha. We are at loss. We hope this would work out and now also the Kizantxitra hopes so."
Liz shook her head. She was old. Martha could understand how much she herself wished for the village's safety.
"I at least have a bit of experience with them. I will try my best."
"And I will ensure that she gets back home safe and sound."
It was Marcus to stand by her side in this. She welcomed his support. They had to at least try. Hoping that this akri indeed didn't seek their blood.
They had skinned and chopped up the dead krael, raw, but prepared neatly into such chunks they believed were comfortable for such a beast's consumption, while some had gathered a few fruits they could identify from the tributes of the akris of Mansool.
She could only hope it might suffice. They loaded it up onto a small cart along with a few old metal platters which they polished and cleaned for the purpose hoping they could also present it in a satisfactory manner. She didn't know how those akris had their feasts.
That one, Dantikraxtra, she was certain would throw it all at them furious over how mundane they treated him, his proud and majestic regal nobility. Then the other one had slaves to serve him!
"Please, a little smile. It will be all right."
Marcus walked by her side as he guided the krael pulling their cart. But she felt terrible.
This couldn't be that simple.
But she didn't want to tell. She forced a smile, hoping that Marcus merely thought she was a bit scared. She was.
They finally arrived to the flat hill about two miles up from the village where they planned to set up their offer. A comfortable distance, hopefully both for them and the akri. For the last few dozen yards Marcus himself was pulling the cart leaving the krael behind on a long rope, hoping to avoid scaring the wits out of her.
Then they unpacked and arranged the offer, Martha meticulously striving to be neat with it which Marcus didn't mind. She was the akri expert despite how uncalled for was this potentially disastrous role.
Finally, they set up a small fire nearby utilizing Marcus's knowledge on smoke signalling on fueling it hoping it would draw the attention of the akri if he flew.
And then they waited.
Tiny batbirds flocked and hopped around taking an occasional nibble before they shooed them away to return again to their seclude about thirty yards away where the fire was build. Martha had stared at it sullen.
This just wouldn't work.
Marcus didn't break the silence. Sometimes he tried to comfort her, cautiously for he was unsure himself, unsure of what exactly was she thinking, what was to come. The thought of anything happening to the krael left behind farther back was the last thing on his mind.
Would they succeed?
At least survive it?
They were miserable.
* * *
His mood was sullen.
He tried and he had failed succumbing to his own greed which infuriated him. Sometimes he felt their misery, sometimes faintly almost recognizing he himself contributed to it. But he couldn't quite feel regret. It was like the agony of struggling to thread a needle, being almost quite there, but always hurled back to the beginnings.
It strained the slow, rusty gears of his brains, his head needed rest.
But then he was awoken to be hungry.
He didn't even took that fine krael and for that he now felt regret. For he wished to sleep. But he had to wake up and find something.
As he had risen awakening himself by the strain of his muscles propelling him swiftly up into the heights, he had noticed a curious trail of smoke away from where he knew the village was.
Should he take a look?
He let himself gliding, down to the river first. It made him anxious. But after he took a drink it was still there to nag him, teasing and dragging his attention, could it be something interesting?
He flew. He spotted a krael, but it immediately reminded him how well the earlier two occasions went. And then, near the smoke...
It was strange. He hadn't seen anything like that before, but his senses were all excited by the impressions of meat. He let himself fall through the opening among the trees to take a closer look.
They startled him. He flicked his head, instinctively arming his muscles to convulse, powering his devastating fire.
His mind cried out in agony.
* * *
The beast had landed, entering their vision all of a sudden.
They had no time to react.
It immediately turned its head toward them. Martha could see the eyes for a brief moment before a blinding white flash and the crashing down of a branch.
The wail of terror.
They ran. They ran like they never did before for it was for their very lives, the hideous voice still ringing in their ears, the headache still splitting their skulls.
* * *
Pats on her cheek.
Her eyes focused. It was Marcus' voice. It was Marcus.
"You... Thank you... You saved me!"
"Drat. Nonsense. I was out cold same like you, hours have passed. I am so glad we managed to not lose each other!"
He helped her up into sitting.
"Are you okay?"
"I think so... My head... What happen, oh... Guess we failed."
"Martha, don't say that. We are still here. Do you feel all right to walk?"
She strained herself to stand up.
"Where are we?"
"We need to find it out."
They searched for a brief while until they had found the krael. She was still there, peacefully grazing on some nearby ferns as if nothing had happened. A few tiny batbirds danced about.
"Should we head home?"
"No. Let's take a look, there."
She pointed in the direction where their offering was, suppressing her weakness. It was important, however anxious she was about whatever was awaiting them.
But what they found mostly were the clean platters. Hopefully done by the akri, but they couldn't be sure. The beast had destroyed half of a tree on its entry agitated by their presence. That charred gaping hole could have been in them. Their cart however was intact, not even tipped over despite it stood in clear view.
They packed up confused over their finding.
* * *
She had felt so sullen like she never had been before.
She was a proclaimed hero among with Marcus, but especially her, how they all now seen her to be an akri expert and it wasn't right.
There wasn't a single thing she was sure of.
Nothing and anything could have happened, anything could be happening.
Anyone could still die by the beast or by that this one simply left to leave others to roam the region.
"Don't be so low. You had tried. We had tried. That's what matters. It may not succeed, but at least we tried to do something about it."
She was grateful for the support of Marcus. Only he knew. He would stand by her whatever comes which comforted her. There was someone she could rely upon.
And so she planned the second offering.
* * *
It was a rough start but everyone was supportive.
Even the tribe of Tanis, she could chat with them to find out what those animals were from Dantikraxtra's ranch in Mansool, and they would gladly help hunting, only asking for a cart so the game could be carried into the village with ease.
Then someone would always be there with a bit of experience with chicken to properly prepare the meat, even though it was different to the small Terranean variety. But they did well, as well as those who went out for collecting those fruits to accompany the meal.
They only had to take it to the akri.
The second occasion they were very anxious, whether he was even still around. But they already knew well that he apparently didn't like their presence, so they kept well clear of the offering after they set up the little fire hoping it would last just long enough for him to notice.
They settled on the other side of the hill amongst bushes, with the krael nearby, waiting.
And indeed he came!
They saw him flying low, as he dropped through the opening, and it elated them.
"See, it will just work out in the end. Don't worry."
They had held each other's hand in silence until they saw the akri leaving.
The offering was gone. All of it, only a few tiny batbirds remaining trying vain to spot those little morsels which may have been left over.
Then the third and the fourth occasions were the just the same, reassuring them that it might indeed just work.
* * *
She liked these days.
It was darkening, the autumn progressing towards winter which apart from the long nights, wasn't really cold in these parts.
There was Marcus, the handsome engineer who she liked, and the whole village was wonderful, she enjoyed taking part in the works, teaching, baking, but also fiddling a bit with mechanics, helping each other out with Marcus, they both could show something new to each other.
Despite how skilled he was, he didn't have that much a knack for the maths, and it caused some funny moments. Rada only smiled approvingly when she furiously ripped a resistor out of his hands exclaiming that he would again just blow the poor thing up since he botched up the Kirchoff's laws for the circuit. The third time.
But he tolerated it. He could always crack a retort in carpentry, well, literally, when she thought she could just fix up an old chair for herself.
However unfortunately she couldn't fully enjoy it.
They were safe.
But for how long?
Was the akri satisfied with what they were offering him?
She was often pondering over it.
Whether she was doing the right thing, and everyone was counting on her to do so. Even a whole tribe of Tanis. The girl from a city who had known how to properly sate their guardian.
She tried to mention it to Liz, a few others, but was too worried to really shake their belief that they were safe. She herself wished to believe they were, and everyone was rushing to her help when it came to the matter of the offers.
It felt too good to be true.
The akri ate native meat, native fruits, which were easy to provide. Even their own kraels grew old and eventually had to be put down whose meat they could only offer to the Tanis before.
Compared to what the akris of Mansool were like, she just couldn't believe it was this easy.
She had to find what he liked and keep offering him in plenitude so he remained content.
* * *
It intrigued him.
He was still agitated by himself, but then again the faint smoke, and when he checked it out, they weren't there. Only that strange food.
They had left it for him.
Nicely, pleasantly chopped up meat so he could just take it in convenient bites with ease. It was there. He recognized the animal, a delicious blue-green feathered large lizard, but without that inconvenient plumage to stick into his teeth and to clog up his throat so he could just enjoy it in its essence, the parts he liked when he spotted one.
And then all those delicious fruit to accompany it! How he could just pick them up, right there to feel something different, a mixture of the tastes in his mouth, so wonderful! It tingled his throat, his entire body, a warm, satisfying sensation how it all came together!
It wasn't without a bit of anxiety. They were around somewhere. He knew. But not there, not in his immediate reach to stir his instincts, to agitate him.
Were they scared?
Did they flee like before?
He was worried, it was so good, he desired it, but he felt he may have scared them away, and they may never come.
Later, lazing on his side in the pleasant darkness he was already missing them, a wonder which may never happen again. But he would so love to be adored, to show how gorgeous he was!
It filled him with elation when a few days later he spotted the thin trail of smoke once again. His mouth watered, anxiously anticipating the wonderful meal he was about to receive, which he was so thrilled to see revealing!
It was a state of bliss to him.
He barely needed to hunt.
If only they provided enough so he could completely shun it!
But things couldn't be perfect.
Maybe he himself wasn't perfect, dreading whether he missed an offer they put so much thought in preparing for him! Whether they wouldn't ever do it again if he wasn't there to consume it?
It can't happen! He can't let that happen!
He strived to learn, to remember the passing of days, to be always there, always aware anticipating eager.
The fine gift of his admirers.
* * *
Martha insisted on setting up a regularity for she saw it could help if the akri could accustom to something.
Every second day.
That also served another purpose, increasing the amount they gave him.
It worried her tremendously that they had always found the platters clean. Maybe it didn't suffice him? But she also loathed to think about letting food going to waste if it was too much for him. Even if it was from the natives. It was still taken away from the world. But she had no idea on how much exactly an akri had ate.
All she could figure was maybe gradually increasing the offers could let it settle somewhere.
She was in control so she kept track of it meticulously. It toned down her worries. There was a process which may just work itself out, and the akri apparently was sufficiently satisfied to stay around.
They could enjoy their life like he wasn't even really there.
In Mansool, the city, there was rarely a day when they wouldn't see one in the sky. Here apparently he wasn't that insistent on making appearances which was nice from him.
* * *
She could hardly believe when she realized she was living in Levanne since a whole year already.
It was a pleasant little hamlet with wonderful people around. Especially Marcus with whom they stuck together gazing the stars and the intricacies of the planets, the moons of Itakla of which Ailneyi was their home.
They did everything for themselves, she had learned a lot, how the yearly cycle worked, to grow and harvest the crops, and to keep the whole settlement neat and tidy, the furnishing in good hands, the few machinery they had in nice, operable condition.
Travellers occasionally came and went, some traded allowing them to purchase those few essentials they couldn't produce in exchange for delicate craftsmanship, skin and feathers or even just a good, meaty meal from chicken and eggs.
And since a good while there weren't anyone planning on leaving. Rather the contrary, a family of four had landed early Spring, who, learning that the place was probably safe, decided to stay.
They were welcomed for there was even a need for helping hands, given how they also fed an akri since quite a while.
Martha by now had a coarse idea on what he desired and settled for rationing him accordingly, even without ever really seeing him she felt she was doing the right thing. The akri was content, was staying around, and she was comfortable, albeit still with a bit of anxiety over whether it would last.
* * *
He was indeed content with his life once more.
Such a blissful turn of events!
He couldn't imagine it was so comfortable to be fed. It wasn't difficult to hunt, for them it never was. But it never crossed his mind that the meat he consumed could have a different form than being within the animal's gnawy feathery skin, or that all those fruits could be just conveniently there by the side to sate all his desires.
When he learned the regularity, that he could count on them, how he served him in plenitude, he was totally blown away.
It was perfect.
He was anxious for their probable presence somewhere, torn apart by a wish to be adored and the fear of his own instincts undoing it all, but what they had done to him, with that they knew it, how difficult it was to him, he really couldn't ever desire more.
Sometimes he may have pondered about it, what it would be like if he could let one or two of those frail little beings truly admiring his splendour, for he firmly believed he was gorgeous, the vain creature he was.
He liked to preen himself after a good swim, pleasantly stroking and massaging his body with his snout as he kept his plumage always in the most pristine condition, as if prepared, however on a nice warm afternoon his enjoyment of the soothing breeze was abruptly interrupted by a sudden realization.
That it was so pleasant lately to sink his muzzle in the softness of his midsection did signify something.
His sluggish mind struggled to comprehend it.
Why it did even exactly matter? If it was pleasant, then it was good. It must be just that simple.
But something was off as he looked down on himself, his shape, and he couldn't quite figure out what it was. It bothered him. He stretched out, sprawling to enjoy the warmth trying to just get over it.
There wasn't anything wrong. He was all right. He felt all right. Then there must have not been anything wrong to leave a taint on this wonderful afternoon.
Fortunately to him a brief nap completely swept the memory of such ludicrous unfounded concerns away.
* * *
The spring had turned into a hot summer and eventually even that faded away into a pleasant autumn, a good harvest to reap the benefits of a calm, uneventful year.
There were no terrible losses, there were no horrendous mysteries, who had left in the morning always returned in the evening, even though a few accidents did happen, Greg's arm was fractured when instead of the apples, he had fallen off of the tree clinging onto a weak branch to give it a shake, but such could heal even in this distant, rural village.
Some of the xis and nirs of the tribe became rather regular which was another great benefit for they possessed such capabilities which could help them immensely. Little Janet didn't have to die of pneumonia for the nir Kitari offered to take a sample and breed an antibody to her. As it revealed from her vague description it was one of those rare awful diseases which could infect native and Terranean life alike.
How a common interest could bring them together!
How much it did depend on her!
She was both amazed and frightened by it, that all these are happening the way they did because she was here. If she wasn't, they probably wouldn't have tried it, they wouldn't have known what to do.
And she herself didn't know what to do!
Only somehow managed to blunder into such a tremendous success, having the akri staying and protecting them with its presence.
Was she doing it right?
She could only hope so. It all depended on her. Even her love for she had to admit to herself, she loved Marcus, and he probably felt the same to her. How they were there, together, so utterly horrified when the akri showed itself! She had still remembered, how Marcus didn't pretend to be a hero, which appealed to her.
She didn't want to be it. But it happened, she may have not done anything towards endorsing it, but she still took the guilt to gnaw on her every so often. She had no idea what she was doing. It just worked. But would it remain that way?
* * *
It was the darkest days of winter when that strange merchant had came from far away accompanied by a xi.
They didn't even intend to trade anything in Levanne, it only happened they stopped there for the night on their long travel. However, after a few insistent enquiries, to some grumbling of the man, the xi had returned to their secured draisine to take a small box for a show. They could only stare in wonderment at what had came out of it. The construct looked otherworldly delicate, a few loops around a boxy middle standing on four long legs, and then a remote was also unwrapped.
"This will demand some room to show what it does, but it is fragile. Do you have some larger space here?"
He was clearly nervous but even the hall where they were was only so big to suit them. Somebody had to excavate it after all.
"Of course, the outside! It is clear, the Itakla is almost full, there is enough light!"
It was Pete, one of the young boys, exhilarated by the prospect of seeing some strange miracle from a distant world.
"Is being outside safe? I mean I see, of course we could run back into the caves, but this is a delicate, valuable product."
Everyone hesitated. She saw. The word was on the mouth of Liz, who was the chief, but even she wasn't sure. Marcus broke the silence.
"It is safe. We are adept with our longspears, and the village is under the protection of an akri. You are safe to demonstrate outside, no harm can come."
The merchant raised his eyebrows, but nodded to the xi in approval. It was him who picked up the contents of the box to lead the way and keep the children orderly about as he set the device on the soil, stepping back with the remote in his scaly hands.
Colourful lights flared up, and then a whirring buzz, the strange construct suddenly took off much to the awe to all the youth gathering around and even to some of the elders.
* * *
"May I ask, how come this tiny village could gain the protection of an akri?"
The merchant was enquiring Liz, Martha felt she was uncomfortable, which she understood as she hardly ever even saw it. They all relied on her and Marcus in all the matters regarding the tributes.
"We are paying him tribute just like in the cities."
"And, is he content? I mean I don't want to offend you, but you are, as far as I can see, a small settlement. You must be breaking arms and legs to sate one's needs, yet it doesn't look like you do."
Martha felt her confidence waning. She didn't know. It was just happening, and the akri was staying without bothering them.
"He seems to be all right with what we are giving him."
"You are fortunate people then, here in this calm secluded little place. Where I am coming from, one takes human sacrifices, and that's the lesser of the evils. At least they die..."
"Get off of her."
Marcus laid his hand firmly on the shoulder of the man. He had just entered the hall overhearing their talk.
"How we settle with our akri is our business. Your advice isn't welcome. Shall I escort you to the guest rooms?"
And that was it for the strange man and his strange foreign devices. They were on their way by the next morning.
But the seeds of doubt were sown.
She had no idea whether the akri was content.
She hadn't much seen him lately even, reluctant to show as he took their offer, which she only thought was satisfying to him, settled to the regular amount she had assumed right since a year.
Was it right? The right variety? The right amount? Did he need anything else?
But he didn't show to make requests.
All she could figure was maybe if she experimented with the variety. Maybe the Tanis had some ideas how they liked their game, maybe the akris had similarities. Maybe he wanted more, maybe he still hunted, and she only mistakenly assumed what was settled was enough.
She had to be better lest they should lose him.
* * *
He was pleased, sated, accustomed to how they were treating him.
Such a comfortable life, to have them adoring him, being so nice to silently provide him with all that.
Maybe if it was a little more. He could enjoy it to be just a bit more filling, sometimes it was, but then other times, it wasn't so much. His slow mind comprehended that those animals, whose meat they were offering him may have been of different sizes, as he recognized the taste, their parts. If only they could stick to hunting those bigger ones to him!
He wished if he could show off a bit. Maybe he could make himself understood.
But the whole difficulty of the thought made his head aching. What he would have to do to accomplish that?
He surmised on these while having a good, pleasant swim in the darkness in the soothingly chill water, and then walking up to the hillside. The short day was about to break to help him dry while he was preening and caressing himself, the gorgeous creature he was.
But then again.
That, suddenly it again came to bother him as he sunk his snout into his soft middle, enjoying the sensations it caused.
He raised his head.
His feathers were beautiful in the low sun's rays sparkling in wonderful colours, those graceful limbs, his great wings flawless and healthy, but his shape was still off.
He was't supposed to have such a thick middle, such a belly even long after he slept off his meal which wasn't a huge gorge to start with. He didn't look like that before, like always.
Again he thrusted his snout into it. The sensation was pleasant, but it gave him a hint of anxiety. What was happening to him? Why it was happening? He knew he would feel if anything was wrong. His body would recognize if something wasn't right and give him that persistent, uneasy tingle to nag him, but there was none of that.
Maybe it was all right.
It was so blissful to just lay on it and forget about everything. To not torment his head with all those silly concerns.
And then there came those days when he realized his wish was fulfilled.
They figured it out, and even more!
All those beautiful strange new sensations he never tasted before! Such amazing creatures, his admirers!
* * *
Martha was aghast to realize how she could request bigger game and it still persistently just kept disappearing from the platters.
How she was wrong!
She must have missed something. The akri may have been hunted and she mistook his lack of appetite earlier to think it was by their offers!
They could be so screwed up, such a wild luck, and such a tolerant beast they had the fortune to come across!
She was totally in. She wanted to get it right. To do it right. To make sure it was right for him, to figure it out despite how he refrained from showing himself or allowing them to cast their lowly human eyes upon his splendour!
She couldn't fault the akri for it. They were such creatures, a lot worse, a lot more demanding than this one seemingly content to be fed with that mere odd quirk of preferring to keep that distance.
Marcus at least was always by her.
* * *
"Don't worry. A few days away may even help you clear up a little. It will be fine. I will do all right."
They walked together on the path towards the tribe agreeing on that he would bring her supplies every second day. They didn't normally tolerate humans, preferring to be their own in their land, but this case they understood. It was the matter of their guardian.
Xitra himself had welcomed her. He was the alpha xi, having even the proper knowledge of the human language, they could easily switch between that and their Attankai whenever a nir would come along.
What she desired to find out was what sort of culinary traditions they might have, how they seasoned their game, anything which may help her in making the offers for the akri the more appealing.
It was so strange to be among them!
There were some crude caverns serving as their home, albeit the glowing roots illuminating the interiors were intriguing among with all those vines, odd constructs which somehow miraculously had an utility such as being a hammock to sleep in. How it was grown that way was beyond her comprehension. But that was all, apart from a few simple things by the hands of the xis they didn't have anything.
For a human settlement it would look miserable, but seemingly they just lived that way.
Several of them kept a good distance. She could feel she wasn't welcomed, that she was an alien, figuratively and all too literally the same time being a Terranean who wasn't really supposed to be part of this world. She had to be cautious, attentive to interpret them right.
But a few, like Tikka and Kitari from the nirs, Grotak and Drakin from the xis were supportive and didn't mind. She felt the alphas as well, but she could well understand they were wiser than to stress the cohesion of the tribe by openly showing too much acceptance.
Grotak invited her to silently sneak away to join their little group, and there he emptied a small pouch of pebbles onto the clear sand.
They had a knowledge of board games just like those in the city, to pass the time while they chatted along watching a pair of them competing in a peaceful challenge of the mind. Their conversation was all in Attankai which strained her a bit for they occasionally tended to be hasty with their chirpy raspy voices, but still they were very considerate in doing so. Their native speech was dominant in such frequency ranges which made it impossible for a human to understand them, and within their home the rest of them mostly didn't care.
* * *
She followed them to a hunt which was immensely difficult despite she was well accustomed to hard work and long walks by then, but important for they often consumed part of the game on the site. She took notes of the meagre amount of items they carried, the roots and leaves of plants as identified by Drakin, two tratnekkis, hard-shelled round fruits which lasted well stored, and some lotion contained in similar shells.
Those were their garnish and spices to go along with their kill, this time a crokitael, a bulky feathered lizard with a vicious bite capable to mangle even their bones, and strong enough to cause some bruises even with its tail. She couldn't see the act for they were well ahead, only the results as they already tore it open while one of the xis hopped around almost as if comedically showing off, but he really had his shin torn open making Martha wince in pain at his contrived theatrical antics.
One of his kin hauled him onto his back for the trip home, she couldn't get over that elated grin on his face.
"Kerxitka likes to screw it up, to be a chew toy, so he gets all the attention! Don't worry, you should know how it is with pain with us. As long as he lays at rest, not stressing it, he is just fine. He only wouldn't enjoy being in our akri's place because he would be so alone!"
Grotak chatted with her falling a bit back so her presence and their Attankai wouldn't bother the rest. It lifted her spirit that he was there, reassuring her that it wasn't an unusual awful accident.
"And, any idea what he would love to taste in his offers if he was?"
* * *
The incident even revealed to help her cause, allowing her to learn more about the xinsykan, a lotion mostly from a resin of a strange subterranean parasitic plant they had in their caves which had an effect on their nervous system pleasantly relaxing and numbing them, allowing their body to focus on their digestion.
They all used it in moderation for its healthy effect, a more throughout processing of their food also permitting them to hunt somewhat less, however its danger was that in that relaxed state their reaction would be a lot slower. They were more reluctant to use it before they had the akri protecting them.
Kerxitka, obviously, received an ample dose of it to douse his meal, gently stroked to sleep in a hammock deep in the safety of the caves which he enjoyed much despite that it accelerated his healing, shortening the time when he received that blissful attentive focus and pleasant care.
But he could always just break something later.
* * *
A week had passed, allowing her to learn a lot in that strange place of theirs, she thought maybe they were okay with her presence after all. The relationship between the village and them could maybe become even more amicable, maybe others could visit after her, maybe they could understand each other the better. She was only waiting for Marcus, to return with a small stock hopefully so she could make those offers to the akri even the more appealing.
But then Xitra came to her unexpectedly, she saw he was totally out of his mind even before he started.
"You need to leave. Now. I am sorry. Kitari..."
He turned his head aside to let out a slow huff.
"Kizant is trying to save her. I told Grotak, he will come to guide you."
They didn't exchange a word, Grotak walked beside her sullen. She didn't need to ask. Kitari was that nir who went that far to prevent the otherwise inevitable death of a human child. She stressed the boundary too far.
* * *
Marcus was aghast to see her state, changed so suddenly contrary to how jubilant she was merely two days before elated by her finds, the fascinating relationships within the tribe they hadn't have a chance to explore before.
It was all for naught.
A nir was probably dead due to their boldness, dead without an akri coming to take her, for nothing.
Yet they had to go on. To continue despite whatever had happened as everyone still depended upon her, seeing her the person responsible for keeping the akri bound.
She forced a smile to gather the children again, to teach them for their future, and then as the spring was about to come, to use the short days to help preparing the soil for the new year's crops according to how Liz planned out the rotation.
And so her second year had started, solemn, but at least still with everyone safe in her little village.
* * *
They kept their connection with the tribe, in that there was no change, they relied on her management of offers to their guardian just as much the inhabitants of the village, and thus maintained their support in game and garnish just as much like before without ever questioning it.
Eventually as the weeks went by the sombre mood has waned, to such that they happened to have Drakin around by chance to watch an eclipse together, allowing the gathering children to learn the Tani names of the planets and a few constellations.
There was the embrace, the twinkling stars suggesting a shape of a nir and a xi together, Drakin explained in mixed Attankai and awfully accented human how it was always a symbol of peace, the reliance on each other. The Atsik, the wandering light was about to meet them only to emphasise it the more, maybe it could signify a greater future.
"Vut, yoou knou, it's just a star leke our Ati. That allays ve you who nake the tale true."
It was amazing to see them together like that, she though. Maybe.
Then in the end even Kitari herself turned up.
She was alive.
Grotak supported her. She was well in the body, but her eyes were empty, her memories were lacking. As the xi told, he brought her along for her recovery, to help reconnecting the fractured remnants she had.
Martha pulled him aside later hoping he would explain some of what happened back then, how she came to be in this miserable state.
"Xitka tried to infuse her. You know what this means, aren't you?"
"I am not sure. I thought someone attempted to kill her."
"Xitka did. It is death to the mind, but not to the body. Forced transfer of essence, the nauni, contrary to the seuni which shatters. It is the alpha's privilege to do that so Kizant had intervened."
It didn't make sense to her. She stared at the xi aghast, just what she had done? He placed his hands on her shoulder.
"Kitari is okay. She has some more of Kizant in her now than she should have, but she even remembered you, the village. Xitka's body carries Kizant's nauni now, it is what a strong alpha is supposed to do in such an offence. A newborn whose mind will be shaped for this world, not that which was before when we were forced to hide."
She needed some time to let it all sink in. She had heard some of it, but she wouldn't have thought it would come on her this way as tangible harsh reality so she would see the effect herself on that poor nir struggling to regain her memories.
But at least it was over, the best they could do was taking their part in helping bringing back Kitari to who she was.
* * *
Time was a soothing balm to heal the scars.
Marcus had helped her a lot standing by her side, to overcome that grief, what she had done, and seeing that life just went on reassured her that maybe it was all right.
The passing days were uneventful, the summer had came, turning into an autumn, and the dark winter again, and really, apart from the usual miniscule issues, the people were content and even innovative. They didn't have to fear so they were less reluctant to be outside, and when a merchant had came selling inflatable leather balls, something Martha had seen in Mansool, they acquired one in exchange for some skins despite it being merely a leisure item.
The children found much fun in it, and Martha vaguely recalling those games could guide them into playing proper. It may have been taking their attention away from helping in their work, but she knew it was useful in developing their skills, their agility, which one day could save a limb or two, be it by the longspears or merely not falling off of a tree during harvest.
She hoped their skills in preparing the offers to their honoured guardian got only better over the years ensuring his prolonged stay. She somewhat expected that the moderate application of the xinsykan, that lotion helping the Tani digestion would have a twofold benefit, both him being the more content and maybe also demanding less, but that latter didn't seem to happen.
However she chose to ignore it as she was reluctant to use too much of it for the start, knowing that the akri may need to remain alert, only hoping he liked the sensations it caused.
If that Kerxitka was going that far to break bones for it to have a little while of attention and care, then the akri could well be the same, she surmised even entertained by the thought, and paid great attention to prepare those meals neatly for his consumption. There was something oddly attractive in the idea of keeping such a great beast content with proper meals even though they couldn't see him by their own eyes.
He was there, that was all what mattered, keeping them safe.
* * *
He let out a great, content sigh laying sprawled out on the hillside.
They knew his soft spots. They knew how to keep him content, such a pleasant life he had. How these meals become even the more satisfying, numbing and soothing him from the inside even long after he had consumed them.
He didn't need to do anything for it. Merely existing, to be there, to have the fortune to be gifted in such a delightful manner. He could so much enjoy it to no end!
Sometimes he wished if he had an opportunity, one where he could show himself. He kept lucid dreaming of it. To show how gorgeous he was.
His only grief.
How he would preen himself and face it, how much his belly had grown. He struggled to comprehend. He didn't gorge himself to be like that, and that, he remembered, wouldn't feel this pleasant. The substance was soft, under the skin he could nibble on it on his sides, those thick and deliciously supple rolls, and the sensation only encouraged him to dwell into the guilty pleasure of doing so only to be shocked to realize just what he was coaxed into once again.
He would suddenly raise his head.
Could there be anyone looking? To see what he had done to himself?
He already felt that great lump rubbing against his knees when he walked. He felt it swaying even when he knew his stomach was empty, before the offering, so eager to be filled by the pleasantries.
He wouldn't dare to fly any more into that clearing lest he would be spotted by his admirers in this sorry state! His whole being was so beautiful, but that! He buried his snout into the lump trying to comprehend, why, how it was he could only feel pleasure from doing so, and his mind was shattering over it all while blissful warm tingling radiated through his entire being from doing so.
And then was when she came.
He launched himself straining his powerful muscles to fly.
To battle with her for the great thrill which exhilarated both of them to no end despite the feathers torn, skin rent. That was their way. To have the surge, to have themselves wide awake to immerse in each other for that wonderful merging!
They glided, tired and worn, to have a soothing dip to cool them off before retreating into the forest.
He couldn't look.
She pinned him down sitting on his breast to play with that very lump, which gave him such waves of warm tingling pleasure he could only submit, stretching out his limbs completely undone by her. He couldn't move. His body wouldn't permit him to. He succumbed to her gentle teasing play, how she sunk her snout into those thick rolls, how she nibbled on them for him, and there was no escape! It wasn't his snout he could take away!
All he could do was stretching his neck. Away. To not be there. But his mind was miserably crumbling apart in his head by her blissful assault.
He gulped down a swallow. He let his eyes close.
He was so done for, and he so loved being done for!
* * *
Pete was all worked up with mixed emotions pointing at the sky. She saw it. The shape of an akri soaring high about in the direction of their village about half a mile away from the fields.
Could it be?
She felt a lump in her throat. Her heart. Why was he coming?
Was he really content like she thought?
Or something much worse?
Suddenly those grey-eyed souls came to her mind in Mansool's market, those slaves.
It was too easy!
She felt she was about to collapse. Tears welled in her eyes as she realized it would all fall apart, everything, forever.
She looked at the shape of the beast...
And it just kept soaring.
Farther and farther away until disappearing behind a distant hill.
She stood there dumb staring at the horizon in utter confusion.
* * *
Marcus had seen the akri too. The kraelherders had also seen it, like many from the village.
What sort of change did this signify?
But they couldn't guess.
He didn't land. He didn't wail like when they had first encountered him.
Maybe he was merely surveying his domain?
But it didn't put Martha at any ease.
She so wished if she could get some support from Marcus in this, but it was her sole responsibility. Marcus didn't know anything more than she herself did which was already too little.
Keep strong. Keep a clear mind. Keep going and see what comes.
* * *
The passing of the weeks however didn't reveal anything out of ordinary.
Their offerings kept orderly disappearing, consumed by the akri, as it was clear by his footprints if nothing else.
Life was back to normal, seemingly everyone overcame the sight as something which wouldn't impact their lives. The akri still didn't do anything to them apart from dutifully cleaning up the platters of food offered indicating that he was present, and apparently that was all.
Martha however couldn't get over it with such an ease.
It was her responsibility. She took it as her responsibility, and again it was a stark reminder that she didn't know anything at all about him. They hadn't seen him ever beyond that as if they were pouring those neatly prepared dishes of native game into a bottomless pit.
She wanted to know.
She wanted to see even if it had to involve fleeing frantic and awakening with a horrendous headache after his terrible disciplinary stike for raising her lowly human eyes upon his dignified majesty.
* * *
It wasn't easy to be arranged, however.
She wanted to do it alone. She loved Marcus too much to subject him to that risk again.
However she saw how she may be able to pull it off.
It was always an at least two person affair to deliver the offer, however the only unwritten rule over the years was that one of those was either her, or in absolute need, Marcus. The most often they did it, but sometimes it occurred that she took one of the herders with her, good men skilled with their longspears whom she could count on. But only when Marcus really needed to be elsewhere, like when the mechanism of their water battery was jammed.
This kept it delaying, putting it off, and then when it occurred, she already informed Mike or Robert out of habit that she needed their help.
In the end it was the autumn of her fourth year when the events coincided, Marcus insistent on helping his father in the repairs of a windmill which was already long overdue.
Nobody knew she was going alone.
Within the village some may have seen her preparing the cart, and, as usual, picking up a longspear which she handled well, harnessing a krael to start off for the usual journey. But that was nothing out of ordinary had she arranged to join with one of the herders somewhere further out.
Then the herders themselves wouldn't know unless she happened to stumble upon them, which she was well aware of, avoiding those pastures they tended to use those days.
She walked forth with a faint tinge of fear, the unknown what was awaiting her, but she kept steady.
Everything as normal. Even though the cart was heavy after she had to leave the krael behind, the path was well trodden, it wouldn't get stuck like those early days. She prepared the offers meticulously ensuring everything was neat and tidy for him, spiced up with a bit of xinsiykan hopefully pleasantly working on his digestion if he had the habit of sleeping it off, imagining how he would enjoy all these delicacies for their kin.
She hoped he was indeed enjoying it, a sudden sombre thought, she only imagined he did.
That was why she was here. To find it out.
She wasn't sure whether the fear of the beast or the worry that he didn't like all her care filled her with the more anxiety and sorrow as she retreated to the spot she marked off for herself earlier, covering up in branches and leaves only hoping it would suffice.
A deep breath. Here goes nothing.
* * *
He didn't want to be seen.
He approached the familiar site on the ground since he barely remembered how long, and again, the way his knees rubbed against his flanks, how he felt his entire belly swaying with his steps only reminded him how troubled he was.
The vain, gorgeous creature he was! How much he wished to be admired!
But he wouldn't be. And he maybe even more loathed the thought that if they, those wonderful creatures, had seen how he looked like, would no longer give him that all, those blissfully delicious meals! His feeble mind couldn't even comprehend what it all was beyond the game, only submitting the pleasure of enjoying it.
And there it was!
He raised his head eager anticipating. He felt his mouth watering. But he needed to be cautious, was he really alone?
He heard no sound apart from those of the forest. He saw no motion. It drew all his focus, those platters with those ample piles of delicacies chopped up and portioned so wonderfully, only waiting for him to come, to enjoy them!
Cautiously he stepped forth, feeling his knees sinking into his flanks. Just lean a bit forward, he thought, to relish the sight without that disturbing sensation so he could pretend it wasn't there, that he was still the flawless akri receiving the gift of his admirers, a gift which tempted him, which tensed his whole body, a faint shiver, he held himself back not wanting to start immediately, rather relishing the scent, to let all his senses fully prepare for that blissful journey what it meant consuming it!
He suddenly heard a faint crack.
* * *
Her heart raced.
She was expecting him to enter through the opening. Like on that very first day. The events whirred through her mind. Either of them could have died then. But they didn't. And now she was there, waiting, tempting fate alone in her lunacy!
Was this really such a good idea?
Could she expect the akri not noticing her?
Maybe she could still retreat.
It was too late.
She heard it. She saw it, motions behind the dense growth rustling leaves and creaking branches, suggesting something huge.
A head emerged, clad in shimmering green feathers, crisscrossed by black markings, like that of a handsome large eared batbird, just in massive proportions.
She hadn't seen one this close. At least one which she would have a moment to take in before she was reminded to run, to flee for her life. But it seemed as if he didn't notice. It was so amazing that she would witness him!
But then, as the whole body emerged...
She stared in utter shock at the creature.
What she had done?
She couldn't believe these beasts were capable of... growing like that! The poor thing's belly hung down almost to his ankles, a copious bulk slowly wobbling and swaying by every one of his steps as his knees thrust into the soft flesh of his flanks rucking it into supple rolls thick of fat!
She forced herself to pull her eyes away from the staggering sight to look at his face as he advanced. He fixated on those dishes, those dishes she put so much effort in preparing for him over so many years, and she saw him eagerly licking back a departing drop of his saliva! Was that... That he really, truly couldn't resist?
But all of sudden he sprung erect.
He spotted something and she was horrified by the thought of that being her!
However it was only a pair of nittakrayis, those slender batbirds so easily blending in that she just couldn't notice them before.
Would he leave anything to them, the poor, poor thing she screwed up so horribly?
* * *
He raised his head alert in his anxiety.
Were they around?
Where were they?
But no. He could relax. Only those two, bold little things, trying to nick a few bites for their own. He should start before they would be too successful.
So he let himself plop down by the platters, well in his reach, he knew, he figured it out the hard way he needed to ensure they all were comfortably in the range of his long neck. It wasn't that pleasant to crawl forth halfway through! And that too that he was free to choose from all the delicious wonders awaiting him. Just what to begin with?
But it didn't take more than a moment to let himself submit, his snout bury into the alluring piles of gorgeous meat only to pull off occasionally to douse it with a juicy ripe fruit!
If only they didn't deplete so fast!
But he couldn't help. It was phenomenal to have his mouth full of all that mixture of tastes, to feel those fat chunks sliding down his throat tingling him on the inside, a rewarding warmth as they started filling his stomach.
Before long he was there at the bottom licking the platters, saddened by how it was over and how he would have to wait for two long days until he could taste again, longing for those little bits the batbirds managed to snatch but hopped well out of his reach with.
All what remained was to relish the passing sensation as those very last gulps gently massaging his long gullet went down.
But did he just hear something?
* * *
She was relieved to realize he indeed didn't heed her, letting his fat gut plop down to begin his indulgence.
It mesmerized her. The akri seemed to totally submit himself to the blissful experience, that of her design by all those years of research, no less, burying his snout into the ample piles of offerings.
Only to jiggle that huge belly he grew as he shifted and turned to reach for other bites so joyful and eager laying on his side.
It was ludicrous.
Just how she could mess it up so much?
And the poor thing seemingly so much enjoyed it!
She struggled to hold back a chuckle. The whole thing. Those years of work, that agonizing, that meticulous planning whether she did it right, whether she gave him the right things, the right quantities, and what was the result!
There he was, the big, majestic beast of nightmares grown so comically fat, and yet still so lost in stuffing himself silly on their offerings.
And how he even went that far to clean the platters ensuring no morsel was left!
She couldn't hold it. She blurted out, laughing at the whole incredulous ridicule as years of meticulous effort by all those false assumptions came so spectacularly crumbling down.
* * *
He fixated on the creature emerging as his mind fell into chaos.
They spotted him!
What he could do? What should he do?
But his body was heavy, not heeding his crisis. He pulled his head back. If he could just disappear. But she saw him and her voice was so strange, something he had never heard from them!
She... Did she do all those, those blissful meals which still tingled his stomach with that soothing warm fullness?
He must show what he was, how beautiful and majestic he was, but...
She is also doing that! The touch... There on that huge lump he grew, and it is so alluring, radiating pleasure!
He couldn't look. He was torn between wishing to flee, to fly, to run, to just vanish out of existence, and to stay, to submit to that blissful sensation complementing so well how he felt inside.
That latter won for his rusty gears utterly faltered, his mind totally blown apart.
* * *
She couldn't believe what she was doing.
It was sheer craziness. But she was crazy. It was all for naught, it was a mess, and she could only laugh out at that mess.
Her entire life!
She walked forth. It didn't matter. They were all screwed, she screwed them all! The poor thing! What she had done to this poor thing, so anxiously jolting his ears, his tendrils, but unable to do anything at all!
So adorably cute in all this ludicrous ridicule.
She reached out. She still couldn't really believe it, but she was there and she was touching the akri.
The akri's huge protruding fat belly, a result of four years of hard work of an entire human village and a clan of tanis. And the poor thing winced by her touch. She felt the convulsion, him striving maybe to involuntarily pull that gut in like an embarrassed human would, but it was a sheer impossibility at the incredulous size he had.
She stroked him, gently tingling, shocked by the bizarre sensation of pliable softness as her fingers sunk deep in his substance. She did it to him, at least let him ease a little, the poor beast. Just let that belly out, let it rest comfortably to give that nice meal the room to settle. They worked so hard on it after all.
And, to her relief, the akri had submitted, even stretching out his legs in delight.
"It is all right. See, isn't it much better? Don't worry, you big, gorgeous dummy."
Suddenly she felt a warm exhale.
It was the akri's snout as he rubbed against her face.
In her utmost surprise she could only embrace him.
* * *
The spell was broken.
Those remaining fragments struggled vain to form thoughts. And he realized. He was free.
Totally, utterly, blissfully screwed up, but free of those devastating instinctive impulses he had. He could have his admirers. And he had an admirer!
He turned towards her, the frail creature, hoping she would understand his intent, and she did.
In her embrace it didn't matter any more. He let his sluggish mind succumb to the sensation.
To be free. To be admired and cared for, how it was just all he ever wanted.
* * *
It took weeks to settle what she experienced with herself.
Then to somehow approach Marcus with it without letting the entire village know and probably fall into some bizarre chaos.
How she screwed it up?
She wasn't sure if she actually did. She couldn't know whether the akri wouldn't have left or whether the events took some entire different course if they didn't took the path they did.
And she couldn't help but think he was cute. A big adorable chubby, something so outlandish she wouldn't have believed hadn't she seen it with her own eyes.
She still hardly believed even what she saw.
So they cautiously tried to approach him with Marcus which however almost turned into a disaster.
The akri yelped in his surprise just suppressing an ear-splitting wail or even worse, and kept behaving very agitated until Martha soothed him by her touch. So much he again rubbed snout with her, but it had shown that it was still extremely dangerous to try interacting with him.
But it also had shown what he was actually like.
How different than what she had mistakenly assumed earlier!
He may have had an adorable personality buried somewhere deep within. Different, unlike anything she had experienced or heard of, and it only made her the more appealing to work on his offers.
But the difficult decision was on her to consider whether they could risk thinning him down.
She was unsure.
Consulting with Marcus, they settled on silently keeping on, trying to meticulously monitor his size, ensuring that at the very least they didn't inadvertently fatten him up the more.
It did demand them to take the risk of those encounters. Otherwise they had no means of drawing any idea on how he fared.
She wished if just there was someone around with some experience with them who could tell what could be done in such a case. But there wasn't.
At least he was nice the way he was. She loved him intrigued by the way he worked, even the danger, how they had to soothe him to let his amicable side surfacing. He needed to have a full belly after his pleasant meal and a bit of cajoling to relax. Maybe even the xinsiykan helped numbing him down.
Then he would eventually join them, and they realized they could then settle comfortably, letting him to stretch out, and he would just enjoy their discourse while she occasionally rubbed behind his ears. It was so strange to be so close with one of them, the three of them alone together!
* * *
It was already her sixth year when she received a pleasant surprise in the form of a xi she had missed since so long.
Xerenti apparently found out where she lived and decided on a visit herself. She told she had heard about their situation with an oddly behaving akri and offered her help, which Martha had warmly welcomed, and when they were together, told her story and anguish over all they went through, and then about their secret encounters. They still kept it secret from the people of the village or even the tribe for that matter.
She however insisted on that she needed to see him, which they had to arrange, and wasn't without risks even though she planned on hiding to avoid stirring anything in him.
They were a bit anxious about it, but in the end it all worked out well. Xerenti hid in advance, and only returned much later when it was all clear, so they themselves didn't even knew where she exactly was.
"He is quite a rarity, a pleasant one, I would say. You seem to even like him, aren't you?"
"Yes, I find him strangely adorable and cute in his way."
"That mind you can interact with. They are certainly interesting, complex, and in a way probably fragile creatures. Their balance gets messed up, not accustomed to being fed."
"Oh... Xerenti, you mean we are harming him?"
"Unfortunately you do. Although not in a way like you would imagine as a human. They are tanis, like us, their body would fully regenerate even from this if he was forced back into his normal way of living, so he is just fine that way. But he too lives in a world full of other akris who would occasionally challenge him."
"I... Is he in danger?... You say we are in danger?"
"They are harsh but respectful creatures at the very least among each other. There are not that many on our side of our planet, and it will hopefully stay that way. The greatest of them try to clean up the mess about their kin for they are well aware of why this side was meant to be mostly ours. For their own benefit, too, to restore the old balance. He should be safe. It is one thing to beat each other up a bit, and entirely another to defeat and destroy. There is a point where that breath is no longer restrained, and they know well not to cross it. As long as he can fly he should probably be fine."
"But, Xerenti, couldn't we just thin him down then? Or it is not that simple?"
"That's the problem with these. It isn't unless you and the Kizantxitra packed up and left. That mind you find adorable and cute in him is a slave of his body. You only have him since you numb him down, allowing that part of him to surface. If you starved him, you could force him into a nervous breakdown."
"I see. So he would probably kill."
"Yes, and that what you like in him would also be dead forever until his seuni, his mental essence lives. Please do not try that. We don't need more of those like that in former Mansool."
"Yes, the slaver. This is that composition, but a mild one, who have some respect and compassion remaining, merely desiring to enjoy his life, but you need to sate him to let those traits surfacing. This is now your responsibility. Please sate him, I see his simple mind is enjoying it, happy in his state, you care for him well. Rather give him more than less in need. It is better for all of us even if his life had to end by another akri some day."
* * *
It was a harsh world after the fall.
She had to realize it herself.
It was too easy to be true.
They kept visiting the akri regularly to keep his weight in good check and to interact with that strange, fragile mind entombed in his body. Like a big, overgrown child? In some regards he was. But in others, an old, ancient, fearsome creature who was aware of what he was. He showed it. To restrain himself.
And he showed how much he liked her, them, giving him all those pleasant, so gorgeously prepared offers. He himself appeared to know that was the only thing, a wonderfully fulfilling delicious one which he could enjoy to no end and even more, but still the only thing which had allowed him to be free.
He was grateful, doubly so for what they had done for him.
To feel her against his snout, the embrace, showing how much he loved her, them, together.
His wonderful admirers.