Heroes of the Habitarium: Part One
"No. Not yet," Cora breathed. The Mootix nester stared up at the ominous blue light. Around her, she could see the startled faces of her friends and family. They could only watch as the young petpetpet was taken, but they could do nothing about it.
Slowly, she started to rise. She looked down at the nest that she had occupied only seconds before. "My baby! My baby!" she screamed, trying to reach back down to the precious egg just inches beneath her feet. She struggled against the pull from above, but try as she might, she could not break free. The light around her grew brighter, and she rose more quickly, barely able to make out her home shrinking below her. She screamed a blood-curdling scream, and with a flash of white, she was gone.
"Something must be done!" yelled Kei as he burst into the Council's chambers. Seven sets of wise wide eyes looked up at him, startled. Though it was the third time in a week that the young, gawky Pinchit had suddenly crashed their meeting, it was still unnerving to be yelled at with no warning. But, as they realized that they were not, in fact, under attack, their looks of surprise turned ones of dour annoyance.
"What now, Kei?" asked a rather unhappy looking Larnikin council member.
"Cora's been taken," he replied. "She's the sixth one this month. We have to do something." He slammed the end of his spear against the ground angrily.
"If something could be done about the Great Light, we would have done it long ago," replied a wise looking Mootix. Her voice was oddly soothing, as if every word she uttered was meant to calm everyone that was listening.
"Do you think we are not troubled by this?" asked another council member in disbelief.
"Do you not think that we do not feel sadness and remorse every time one of our friends are taken?" chastised another.
"You are young, so you do not understand," said the council Elder, rising from his seat, his claws still on the table, helping him to keep his balance. "The Great Light is a part of life. It always has been and always shall be. No petpetpet, no matter how strong, intelligent, or powerful, has the ability to change the fact that, one day, we will all be taken."
Kei stood in silence for a moment, his determination seeming to disappear before the stares of council. Then, after a moment, his green eyes were once again shining with confidence.
"Well, if you will do nothing about it, then I will!" he said stubbornly. He stormed off angrily back outside, his spear clenched tightly in his hand.
It only took him a moment to realize what he had just done. "Arg! I did it again!" he yelled, shaking his fist and his spear at the sky in frustration.
"Did what again?" called a familiar voice.
Kei blushed as Kendra walked towards him, smirking. She too was a Pinchit, and like him, she carried a spear. A sign that she too was a soldier—a warrior—of their village. But, unlike Kei, she actually looked the part. Kendra stood tall, strong, and confident, while Kei was just... awkward. His arms and legs were too long in comparison to the rest of his body and he was much too skinny. Even compared to the nesters and workers his age, he was pretty puny. And, on top of that, he was clumsy. Very clumsy.
He cleared his throat. "None of your business," he told her, turning away. He took one step forward. Then another.
"Were you bothering the Council again?" she fished.
"N-n-no," he denied.
"That was so convincing," she scoffed, rolling her eyes. "Well, whatever. See you at training, Kei." She turned and strode across the grass towards the practice field. Kei watched her go for a moment, and then turned back to the path. He walked along, kicking a pebble in front of him, until he reached his barrack.
Sighing, he ducked into the stone moss-covered structure.
"Hey, it's Little Kei," announced Brett, one of Kei's brawny Larnikin bunkmates. All of the male soldiers in his tribe were brawny. Except Kei of course.
"Little Kei!" four more voices echoed.
"What's up, Little Man?" called a voice from the back. Kei recognized it as Colston's, the Larnikin in charge of the barrack and its occupants.
"Not much," replied Kei as he sat down in one of the many chairs that filled the room, "Just thought I would rest up before I went to training."
"Awesome, Little Man," exclaimed Brett.
"So I heard you yelled at the Council again today, Little Kei," said Colston. Kei flinched. News traveled fast.
"And I heard you were talking to Kendra, too," added Brett. He elbowed Kei in the stomach.
"Kendra?" echoed four voices.
"I wouldn't really call it talking... it was more like... being laughed at," he said miserably.
"Ah, well, don't worry about it Little Man. Kendra is always like that," Colston reassured him, "But what you should really be worrying about is your little stunt with the Council. Marin will not be happy. What is it, the second time this week?"
"Third," mumbled Kei as he grabbed a chunk of cheese from the nearest cupboard.
"Ah, well, how much more angry could she be than the last time?" asked Colston, clearly trying to make Kei feel better.
"She said if I did it again, she would send me to the Tower for three whole days," Kei replied as he sat back down.
"Ah, life's rough, Little Man."
"Mhmm," Kei agreed through a mouthful of cheese.
"Good luck then, Little Kei," Brett added, chuckling.
Kei let out a loud snort in response. Which caused him to choke. He coughed for a moment. Then, without missing a beat, he shoveled more food into his mouth.
"Little Kei, I still haven't met anyone that eats as much as you," Colston said with a hint of admiration. Kei grunted in acknowledgement, his mouth too full to speak.
"He sure doesn't look like he eats that much," remarked Brett. Everyone in the barrack but Kei laughed.
"Dude, is that the time already?" asked Colston in surprise.
"We better get going Little Man," said Brett, slapping him on the back. It was meant to be friendly, but it knocked the air out of Kei, making him choke once again.
"Thash goin ta leaf ah marf," complained Kei as he chewed his last bite as quickly as possible. He rose to his feet and wiped a scrap of cornmeal from his chin.
Minutes later, Kei, Brett, Colston, and the others from their barrack made their way to the practice field. They walked in silence, but it was a comfortable one. They were all just psyching themselves up, preparing for the pseudo battle that was about to begin.
"You were almost late, boys," called a voice from just over the next knoll.
"Well, Marin, what matters is that we made it, right?" called back Brett playfully, and then he added, "The heroes do always sweep in at the very last second."
They walked over the hill as Marin called out to them. "You lot are far from heroes, I'm afraid. You," she said pointing at Brett, "need to pay less attention to the ladies and more attention to learning how to defend them. You," she added pointing at Colston, "need to learn to go with your gut instead of always going by the book. And you," she said waving in Kei's general direction, "well, you, need to fix a lot of things, but above all, you need to stop harassing the Council!" Her voice rose higher with every syllable until she was yelling.
Kei stepped back, startled by the sudden outburst. Marin stepped closer, shoving her pointer finger into his chest. "How many times have I told you to keep away from the Council? How many times have I asked you to learn to control your temper? How many times have I begged you to learn what is acceptable behavior for an upstanding petpetpet and what is not?" she seethed, her face flushed with anger.
Then her voice went low and serious. "You do know what this means, don't you?"
"The Tower," muttered Kei.
"I couldn't hear you," she replied coldly.
"The Tower, ma'am," he repeated loudly.
"Ah, yes. Report there immediately. No training for you today. And you are not to come back for three days. If you are here a minute too soon, I will double your punishment. Do you understand?"
"Yes, ma'am, I understand," he replied sullenly.
"Tough luck, Little Man," said Brett as Kei walked by him on his way to the Tower.
"More like good luck, Little Man," muttered Colston, just loud enough for Kei to hear.
Kei sighed. He was definitely going to need it.
He dragged his feet all the way to the Tower. He dragged them across the path from the practice field. He dragged them up the hill towards the barracks. He dragged them past the lake. He dragged them all the way through the dozens of houses and nests of the village. And then, finally, he dragged them up the Tower steps. All seven hundred and eighty-two of them.
When he reached the top, he groaned. There was a reason it was called the Mushroom Tower, and it was an obvious one. The Tower was made completely out of a mushroom—a living one, no less. Though it looked cute on the outside, the space inside was cramped at best, the walls were squishy, and the air was never quite dry enough. And on top of that, it smelled. It smelled like a mushroom, a meaty, juicy mushroom that made the inside of Kei's mouth water.
But it was poisonous. So Kei couldn't even eat it. Sighing again, he sat on the spongey floor and peered out the window. Outside, he could see for miles. Beyond the walls that protected the tribe, beyond where Kei had lived his entire life, there was so much more. More grass, and rocks and trees. More flowers, and lakes, and dirt. And, he couldn't see them, but there were thousands of other villages beyond the horizon. Big ones, small ones, efficient ones, cute ones, ones that were filled with petpetpets like him.
But there were desperate ones, too. And that was why he was cooped in the Tower. Not just for punishment, but to protect his village and the petpetpets in it. Just because the village, due to its size and strength, hadn't been raided for years, it didn't mean that it wouldn't be raided again. But it did mean that it probably wouldn't be attacked on Kei's watch.
In fact, it was far more likely that the Blue Beasts, terrifying creatures that seemed to appear out of thin air, would besiege them. For as long as the village had existed, there had also existed the Blue Beasts. They didn't come to steal but to destroy, with no apparent logic or reason. The village's long-standing war with the creatures had seen countless battles and hundreds of casualties on both sides.
Kei rummaged though a small cupboard that was stocked with rations, and pulled out a piece of cornmeal. He munched on it as he peered out the tiny window, wondering just exactly what was out there. He had never been outside the village walls; he had always been told it was too dangerous, especially for someone as helpless as himself.
Kei turned his eyes to the sky, checking the position of the sun. He had been cooped up for less than an hour, but it felt like it had been much longer. He had no idea how he was going to pass the time. He was alone with only a cupboard and some cornmeal for company. Sighing, he stood up to pace the room.
On his sixth lap, he heard it. A blaring alarm that could only mean one thing: they were under attack.
Without a second thought, Kei dashed down the stairs of the Mushroom Tower. When he reached the ground, seven hundred and eighty-two steps later, he could hear the screams of the frightened villagers. Spear clenched tightly in hand, he sped towards the center of the village.
When Kei arrived, he found chaos.
More Blue Beasts than he had ever seen before had descended upon the village. And they were destroying everything in sight. He stared, frozen in horror, at the sight before him. Petpetpets ran in every direction, houses had been reduced to rubble, precious resources had been rendered useless, nests had been trampled, and eggs had been destroyed.
"Kei!" shouted someone, snapping him out of his reverie. He swiveled around, coming face to face with Marin. She was breathing hard, but she looked uninjured and unfazed. "They need you in Zone Three," she instructed. And then she was gone, running at full speed. Kei stood for a moment, stunned. He had never actually fought before. He had never been allowed to fight. They had always told him he would only get in the way.
If they wanted him to fight, then obviously the situation was bad.
So, one part filled with determination, one part internally screaming in fear, Kei rushed off to Zone Three. As he ran, adrenaline started to course through his veins, washing away his fear, making him feel invincible. He bounded over crumbled buildings, ran past withered flowers and trees, and made his way back past the practice field to Zone Three.
To his left, Brett and Colston were clashing with one of the ferocious creatures. Their spears clanged against its claws, and neither party seemed to be able to claim the upper hand. To his right, Kendra was locked in battle with another Blue Beast, trying simultaneously to fight it and lure it away from a cluster of nearby nests.
After only a moment's hesitation, Kei joined her, stepping into battle for the first time in his life.
"I don't need your help," Kendra shouted angrily when she realized his intentions to join the fray.
He ignored her.
Instead of leaving, he snuck up behind the Beast silently. Then, he prodded its tail as hard as he could with his spear. With a roar of pain, the creature spun around, knocking Kei to the ground with its massive tail.
Kei lay in the dirt, gasping for breath. He could feel the ground tremor beneath him with each step of the Beast's feet as it came towards him. And then, it was looming over Kei, so close that he could feel the warmth emanating from its body.
He shut his eyes, waiting for the pain that he knew was coming. But it never came.
With a loud battle cry, Kendra leapt onto the back of the blue monster and it stumbled backwards, giving Kei enough time to scramble back onto his feet.
The creature roared and shook Kendra off as if she were a speck of dust, sending her flying. As she hit the ground, she tucked and rolled onto her feet, spear still in hand. Kei stumbled over to her side, hands shaking.
"I told you I don't need your help," she said through her teeth.
"Tough," retorted Kei, trying—and failing—to seem at least a little bit like a warrior.
"You'll just get in the way," she said angrily as the Blue Beast charged them. Kendra easily stepped out of the way; Kei dove to the ground, coming within inches of being impaled on a rather sharp looking claw.
Kei pushed himself to his feet just in time to see that the creature was coming back around, charging even faster than it had before. He braced himself, his spear at the ready in front of him.
"Kei!" shouted Brett, "Get out of the way!"
"Run! Kei, Run!" yelled Colston. In the corner of his eye he could see them sprinting towards him. And, in front of him, the Beast was drawing nearer.
"Kei!" cried Kendra. Kei was so focused that her voice sounded strangely far away, as if she were shouting at Kei from the other end of a tunnel. "What are you doing? Get out of there!"
But he stood his ground, ready to become the warrior that he had only ever been in name. A drop of sweat ran down the side of his face and his heart pounded hard in his chest. With each moment, the Blue Beast charged closer and closer until they were only feet apart.
Then, a humming noise filled the air. Kei look up, startled. In front of him, the Blue Beast was slowing and tilting its head from side to side. Then, it too, started to hum. Kei, Kendra, Brett, and Colston stood silent for a moment, confused. Then, as if pulled by invisible strings, they all started to move at once.
The four young soldiers let out a battle cry and charged towards the Beast. Kei reached it first. He jumped onto its back. The Blue Beast cried out and tried to shake Kei off, but Kei held firm. It shook more violently, thrashing from side to side, but still Kei clung tightly to it. It reared with more even more force, causing Kei to drop his spear. He watched as it slowly fell to the ground.
The humming grew louder and louder. Kei could feel the vibrations in the air.
And then, just as quickly as the humming had started, it stopped; everything was silent and still. Even the Beast that had just been trying to throw him. Kei looked around, confused.
"Get off, Kei!" shouted Kendra. "Get off now!"
But it was too late.
Kei was already gone.
To be continued...