Sthrax leaned on his shield and searched the undergrowth with a critical eye. Despite being separated from the others, this place was good hunting. Watching one of the Older Brothers walk by. He stood still, not seeing any reason to antagonize the beast. There was no need to fight but no need to flee either; the massive shape moved off, leaving a trail of broken trees in its wake.
This jungle was different from his home jungle. The smells were different. The insects tasted different. There were many more of the Older Brothers. Islands surrounded by the salt water were strange places. There was treasure here apparently. The soft ones needed the shiny bits and the sparkle stones for status and power.
He fingered the multiple rings in his ears and the shiny studs in his frill. They marked him as one of the successful and wealthy. Or at least he had seen the soft ones do similar things to demark their status. If nothing else, the red stones and golden rings glittered a fetching contrast to his scales with their mottled green, white and black patterns.
Sthrax wasn’t here for treasure though. There were things here that needed to be destroyed. Or there were rumors in the villages of the soft ones that there were ancient ruins that contained some of the things from the ancient evils he sought out.
“For the good of the tribe, This One goes forth to do the needful.” He rumbled in his native tongue. As they usually did, repeating these words sent him back to the first time he had heard them in that order.
“You think differently than we.” The Elders said in unison. They had been sitting and speaking for so long that their voices blended together, their minds were the same. “We have lived long and soon will depart. We have decided the time has come to send One out to the lands of the soft ones. This One must go forth and find The Accursed Thing. This One may not return until it has found and destroyed The Accursed Thing.”
“Why?” Sthrax asked, shocked into questioning them. Nobody left for any extended time. Hunting trips, trade missions where some of their folk went to exchange the hide and bone weapons and armor they created and the occasional forays against the Orc or Goblin kin that bordered their hunting ranges happened, but nobody left without a definite plan to return.
“Your mind is young and bends like reeds. Ours is old and stiff as the oak.” They answered, “A Darkness comes for the Longtail Fang people. It will come after we end, This One must return to the tribe after we end to report to the Elders who have replaced us. To let them know the way.”
“It has to be me?” Sthrax was horrified. He had never considered leaving the Tribe.
“A soft one who wears the shining skin will come. You will help her. She will show you the ways of the soft ones.” The Elders said. Sthrax noted that only two of the three were speaking now. The third was staring off into the distance.
“She comes.” The third whispered. “This One is no longer of the Longtail Fang until This One finds The Accursed Thing of the Screaming Face and makes it into dust.” As one, all three of the Elders turned their backs on Sthrax.
“For the good of the tribe, This One goes forth to do the needful. This One must fight the greater evil. This one must show no mercy for the wicked. This one must prevail by any means necessary. For This One to fail will mean the downfall of the Longtail Fang.”
He backed up in disbelief, walking backwards until he passed out of the tent, watching the three that he had based his entire life on act as though he no longer existed. Outside, none of the others seemed to see him either. The Longtail Fang as one had turned their tails towards him.
Sthrax ran blindly from the village, not even noticing when the branches tore at his tough hide. When the fear had finally run itself out and he realized he was running from something that couldn’t possibly harm him and couldn’t be fought he stopped. The pounding of his heart allowed him to hear the bright ringing of the weapons of the soft ones used and the cries of combat.
He unlimbered his sling from where it wrapped around his waist on instinct and dropped a stone into the pouch. Rounding one of the Great Trees, he saw a figure made tiny by the contrast between it and one of the Two Heads that was swinging a club nearly as big as Sthrax himself.
It went against every instinct he had, but the words of the Elders held sway even if they had cast him out. Sthrax whirled his sling over his head, releasing the stone with a shriek of reptilian challenge. The stone struck the Two Heads on the arm with a sharp crack of splintering bone and the club swung wide, missing the soft one in the shining skin by a claw width.
A sweep of her large shining stick the soft one cut one of the Two Heads arms off. Sthrax’s second stone landed squarely in the Two Heads chest, striking hard enough to break the skin. The soft one used the moment of confusion to slice through its opponent’s belly. As tough as Two Heads were, this was more than it could handle. It took two ponderous steps backward before falling to the ground with a thud that he felt as well as heard even from this distance.
The soft one sank to one knee, the shining stick planted on the ground before it. It began making the strange hooting noises that passed for its speech. Sthrax knew some of the words but none of them seemed to make sense for the situation. Was it thanking the Two Heads? It was thanking someone. Perhaps it was thanking him.
He strode down the side of the hill to see if it would share the flesh of its kill with him in the thanking ritual but before he reached it the soft one fell sideways and did not move. The shining skin on its head fell off and a shock of black hair almost like a crest spilled out. There was blood on the soft one’s face and leaking from its shining skin.
Hoping that it reacted to the same kind of herbs and remedies that his kind did, Sthrax set about finding the bindweed, thistle down and saproot that would help stop the bleeding and save its life. Provided he could remove the shining skin of course.
In the end, he had been able to save Kinrik’s life and she had spent four years teaching him to fight with sword and shield as repayment. Discovering that his shield could be used as a weapon changed everything about how he thought of combat. Kinrik was stronger than he, but his advantage in speed eventually made the difference.
Gradually, he gained a better understanding of her language and during their travels Kinrik showed him how to navigate the outside world. By far the most important thing she gave him was understanding though. One evening while sitting around a campfire she had asked him why he had arrived when he did on the day he saved her from the Two Heads.
“This One was cast out.” He said, still feeling the anguish of the rejection years later as he described the events in detail.
“You were not cast aside Sthrax.” She said, working a chip out of her sword blade with a whetstone. “You were given a task. No other in the Longtail Fang could do what was needed, and although you were sent away you only need complete the quest before you are allowed to return. Your people need you. That’s something most cannot say.”
For the first time since he had run from the Elders, Sthrax felt the burden on his shoulders shift. Instead of the punishing stone given to those who broke the tribe’s laws, it felt more like a kill he was bringing back to feed the hatchlings. In that moment he felt the claws of the Great Old Ones fill him with Purpose.
Sthrax shook his head to clear it of the cobwebs of memory. Far below a ribbon of water cut a deep valley into the mountainside. It was time to find his way back to the others or back to the ocean. Preferably without attracting the attention of any of the Older Brothers.
Where there was water, often there were people of one type or another. Fanning his crest in decision, he made his way carefully down the slope. This river would, he was sure, lead him to his goal.