Eye Of The Unicorn

Other submissions by Morag Higgins:
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The Engineer (Horror, Writing Award 2021)
Award Type
Manuscript Type
Book cover and back page as seen on Amazon
Rival clans on a dying planet must put aside their differences to confront a common enemy. When all seems lost a secret is discovered which could secure the safety of their people but may have a dark side that threatens their survival.

CHAPTER 1

Dawn.  Time was counted in heartbeats as the adversaries faced each other, the dwellers of darkness and the lover of light, no mercy would be shown and bloody death would greet the new day.      

The cool stare of the San wavered as he looked deep into the red orbs of the Cuc.  Fearful of the terrible heat of the twin suns yet unwilling to provoke an attack, the San motioned to his group to edge around their adversary.  Sensing the strategy, the monstrous form lazily swung its massive bulk across the intended path and waited.  It was one of the few living creatures on the burnt out planet that was capable of with standing the terrible heat of the sister stars.  It could endure the discomfort of direct sunlight if it provided the additional entertainment of watching the sensitive San fry.

Realising that a direct attack was inevitable the San gathered his strength and lunged at the towering form, on his cue the others of his group sprang into action.  Several razor sharp axes met their mark, slashing a ragged line across the great neck and down the Cuc's side.  Black liquid oozed from the wound, dribbling across the thick scales that armoured the Cuc's hide.  Taken off guard the Cuc squealed its protest, a surprisingly high pitched sound from a creature so large.  It lashed out at its main attacker, the hooked claw swinging through the air to be parried by the axe's head. 

With a neat side step, the leading San completed his stroke by burying the axe deep into the soft pad of the foot.  Furious, the Cuc shook its leg trying desperately to free itself from the weapon, in doing so it snatched the axe from the grip of the San, throwing him a considerable distance across the rough ground.  The others backed off and re-grouped.   The lead San gasped as his sensitive night skin was sandpapered off his back by the rocky surface, allowing blood to seep and sting down his spine.  Climbing quickly to his feet he motioned to the others to draw the Cuc towards the rocky outcrop of the mountain range. 

By now the day was beginning to brighten with a searing light.  Protective inner lids closed across the Sans eyes eliminating much of the glare, but they could feel their skin tingling with the heat.  The Cuc meanwhile had finally managed to free its foot from the axe and was limping towards them, hissing its rage, intent on finishing off its enemies.  The group of San, turned as one and ran.  Squealing shrilly the Cuc followed, its speed considerably impaired by the injuries it had already sustained.  The San were racing not only the Cuc, but also the life threatening heat of day.  Without the protection of the shaded mountains, they would die, burned by the fierce sister suns.  The cool of the mountain outcrops seemed frustratingly near, teasing them with their promise of safety.  The stifling heat of day was already beginning to thicken the atmosphere, snatching the very breath from their lips.  Looking up, the lead San could see that they were only a short distance from their mountain haven.  Being careful not to let the Cuc become disinterested with them he slowed the pace slightly. 

Finally the cool shade of the first of the strewn rocks, gave a welcome reward for their efforts.  They did not rest, for the Cuc was relentlessly following, furious as it saw its foes disappearing into the rocks. 

The change in temperature of the shade had revitalised the San and they split up, nimbly clambering over the rocky surface, instinctively keeping out of the harsh light.  The Cuc began to slow, uncertain if it should follow, the San were smaller and surefooted in this mountain terrain, and  a truce had been called.  The vast mountain range that circled the Northern half of the planet belonged to the San, the flat plains that stretched to the equator, was the Cucs.  No creature not even the Cuc could survive the terrible heat that lay South of the Equator.  If a member of either race found the other within their borders then and only then would an attack be provoked.  It wasn't just war, it was survival.  Food was scarce, the planet was dying and only one race could survive.   This Cuc had been content to let the group of San die in the heat of the day and then feast on the remains.   However, the San had struck the first blow injuring not only its hide, but also this particular Cuc's pride and it intended to make its enemy pay dearly for that indignity. 

The Cuc stopped and sniffed the air.  The San had disappeared.  It swivelled it's head, searching for a scent.  Fear gripped its heart, it had not realised it had followed the San so far up the mountain side and now it had managed to get itself jammed in a narrow gorge.  It began to run backwards, panic overtaking what little sense it had.  The great body quivered as it reversed over a small circle of stones not noticing the opening between them.  As the Cuc's sensitive and unprotected belly skimmed across the hole a San struck from his hiding place, thrusting a sword deep into the creature.  Screaming in agony the Cuc ran back even faster and succeeded in ripping its own belly open.  Staggering, it backed a few more feet before ramming its hind quarters into the canyon wall.  Another San leapt onto its head, thrusting a dagger deep into one crimson eye.  Hissing and scrabbling with it's claws against the dirt, it writhed in spasmodic bursts. Finally it collapsed, the blunt nosed, shovel shaped head thumping into the ground, blood trickling from its nostrils and gurgling through its teeth.  As the massive flanks heaved and sighed it's dying eyes saw the hated San standing together, their leader watching from the hole in the ground.  It tried to squeal its fury but only succeeded in choking on its own blood.  It shuddered and lay still. 

Out on the plain each sibling from the Cuc's nest stopped in their tracks.  Each one new that their nest mate lived no more, each one new that the killers were the San.  They raised their heads and hissed in fury, the truce had been broken.

The leading San grinned.  At least they would not return empty handed, judging by the size of the Cuc there would be more than enough meat to feed their families tonight.  He watched while the others butchered the carcase with practised skill and took as much meat as they could carry.  Once their gory task was completed he lifted his share of the meat and nodding to the others, they turned to go. "Would you like some help?"  the enquiry echoed in the lead San's head.  He turned to see a figure emerge from a rock shadow.  The cloak that covered newcomer's body was pulled back and he removed the hood and mask that enveloped his head, protecting the skin from the searing heat.  

"Curmer," thought the lead San in jubilation as he laid down the meat and grasped the newcomer's arms in greeting, "I'm glad you are here, now you can help us bring back this food."

"Not so loud Remruc, " answered Curmer mentally blocking some of the force of his brother's greeting.  "first I must see to your wounds or do you want to be scarred for the rest of your life?"  Curmer firmly pushed Remruc back against the shadow of the rock and deftly applied healing salve to the raw flesh of his open wounds.  Remruc growled as the salve stung his skin but soon it's cooling properties began to relieve his pain. 

"How did you know where we were?"

"You forget brother that I am a healer and more sensitive to the pain of others, and besides, you scream like a Cuc when your injured, a mind numb Lemath could find you blind folded." Remruc smiled and the others of his group shook their heads in mock disdain. 

"I must try to control my output in future" he thought to himself.  It was to be expected that Curmer could sense him so easily being his brother, but it would be bad if an enemy could hear him too. The San rose and hefted the meat into bundles.  Curmer waited as Remruc took a cloak, hood and mask from a pack attached to his belt and put them on.

Remruc grinned and gingerly wriggled until the weight of the pack rested on the least skinned portion of his sensitive back.  With an anxious glance at the ferocious Suns they set off , instinctively staying in the shadows."The Cuc are coming further North" thought Remruc, "We met this one only ten sharr from our range." Curmer paused and looked at his brother,

"The Cuc grow fat and strong on the carcases littering this world.  They are many in number.  Perhaps it will not be long before they wish to feed on us." Remruc grimaced and motioned for his brother to continue.  If that was the case then his people would have nowhere left to hide. 

Once the San had been a nomadic race of humanoids roaming the planet's surface guarding their various tribal tracks of land jealously.  When the Sun Emur had changed from burning gold to blood red, so to had their life changed.  They had become almost nocturnal, travelling in the cool of night.  They soon learned that they must not be caught in the open in the full force of Rume and Emur's cruel heat and radiation.

They travelled less and finally settled in a range of mountains that spanned the Northern circumference of the planet, they called these mountains the Sanlands.  For generations they had lived in these ranges, still guarding family strongholds with vicious intensity.  The San were divided, but they still thrived.  Thrived that is until the sickness.  A mysterious illness was sweeping through the San with horrifying results.  Every family, cut off from each other, struggled to combat the disease, each thinking the other clans had somehow caused the plague.  As a result, the race known as the San were nearing extinction.  Food had always been difficult to come by, now it was nearly impossible to find anything to hunt.  There were not enough workers strong enough to tend the crops and so they died.  The animals could not be brought water.  They died.  Any food to supplement the meagre diet scratched from small gardens and pets had to be caught on Surn's burning plains.  This meant risking an encounter with the Cuc.  The San and Cuc had never competed before.  They treated each other with the respect that hunters and scavengers deserve.  Each served a purpose, but now the Cuc were finding that they were becoming prey, and they were not pleased.  They had moved far to the south almost to the equator.  No other living being on Surn could stand that intense heat.  There they waited and multiplied, now this plague had spread among the San, weakening them and the Cuc were returning.

Remruc and Curmer paused at the summit taking the opportunity to scan the territory of their neighbours.  Two of their group automatically scouted the surrounding area, a standard search formation.  This was the closest border area, it had moved frequently in the past when one family would become more powerful than the other, as a result both sides normally kept sentries posted along its length. Remruc and Curmer's clan had been stricken with the sickness and could no longer guard their borders.  They lived in the constant fear of invasion, alert for the first conquering soldiers to stroll across.  But none had come. 

Remruc shaded his eyes from the Suns and gazed across the red crags, wavering in a shroud of heat.  They dipped and twisted across the border tearing at the sky with clawed peaks of purple and gold.  Burning and smouldering like the spines of a great dragon wallowing under the skies.  There was a single pinnacle of red, orange rock that towered above the rest.  That was the lookout for the Nemn, the neighbouring tribe.  It was unmanned.  Remruc set his jaw grimly and wondered if perhaps, contrary to his clans belief, that they too had the sickness.  That would explain the lack of attention they were paying to their borders. 

The back of his hand began to burn as the relentless heat of Rume and Emur baked his skin.  He signalled for the scouts to return to the main group and they turned to descend into the Indigo depths of a deep chasm that slashed itself into the very heart of the mountain range.  Now they were shaded from most of the glare from the sky and they paused as their eyes changed from day vision to sensitive night vision, glowing with a cold blue iridescence.  As they journeyed down through the monochromatic chasm, the temperature also began to change cooling to a more comfortable degree.  Moisture now dared to exist, darkening the porous rock with its presence, giving plant life an excuse to cling desperately to the surrounding walls.

Finally the gorge narrowed to a point and before the travellers began their final descent they scanned the area cautious of being followed by the Nemn.  Ahead of them two great shelves of rock a millennium ago had strained against each other fighting to win supremacy, until one had collapsed and crumbled leaving the victor to rise above and overlap as the planet's mantle edged ever onward on its journey.  Between them a narrow opening to a cave had been formed.  It appeared to be a nothing more than a small cleft precariously placed between the warring shelves of rock.  At least, a casual observer may think that the case.  However, if time was taken to study the rocky walls, they would be surprised to see the chipped and gouged granite where massive excavations had been conducted.  The walls were skilfully sculptured into natural supporting beams.  This was the main entrance of an artificially dug tunnel, a tunnel that led to the subterranean city of the Chai clan.  Remruc and Curmer descended into the inky depths, moving by instinct as even their night vision was useless.  The floor dropped at a gradual angle, seeming to go on for miles before it finally levelled out.  It was at this point that a wall of rocks blocked the way.  To an unknowledgeable stranger, it would seem a dead end, but to the Chai, the narrow, hidden stairwells to the left and right were the last means of defence against intruders.  The stairs opened out in a funnel shape and at the top they expanded onto a well light rocky platform.  Here Remruc and Curmer waited for their patrol to be checked by the entrance guards.  They all knew each other, but the formalities had to be followed, their must be no risk of infiltration by the neighbouring tribe.  Once acknowledgements had been made Remruc and Curmer were free to descend into their subterranean home.

The city of the Chai had been hewn by generations out of the heart of the mountain.  It had once been and underground cavern carved by a long gone lake of modest size.  Now it sprawled into the distance, its buildings cut out of solid rock.   The structural architecture took on strange aesthetic forms, as the constructors had followed the grain and flaws in the rocks themselves.  The winding streets and alleys seemed to follow no set pattern but meandered where they pleased between the dwellings.  Shafts of light beamed down through bore holes in the ceiling.  These holes had been laboriously drilled directly to the surface angling every so often to lessen the strain on the roof.  At each angle in the hole, a polished plate of metal was placed which acted like a mirror reflecting the light from above down to the heart of the mountain.  It was the surface entrance to one of these bore holes that Remruc had wedged himself into to hide from the Cuc.  The holes themselves had to be wide enough to allow the San to clean and polish the reflecting mirrors.  This maintenance was generally done at night, for although the intensity of the heat and light on the metal surface could be tolerated in the early morning or late evening, by midday it was phenomenal.  It was this heat that warmed the cavern above the sub zero temperature to a comfortable degree.  The bore holes also served the double purpose of ventilation.  Torches on pillared stands solved the problems of night lighting, blackening the walls with their tarry smoke.

Once Remruc and Curmer's clan had been healthy and thriving, the streets full of jostling crowds going about their business, laughing, cajoling, bargaining furiously with market sellers pedalling their wares.  There was once life in their city.  Now there was only silence.  The patrol's  footsteps echoed hollowly against the walls, their boots crunching on the gravel pavements.  As they passed a dwelling they glanced through the opening.  Sitting on the mats were three children.  In the corner lay the covered corpses of their parents.  All of them had famine in their eyes and one of the boys had the fever of the sickness.  The girl looked up with pleading eyes.  Curmer smiled and gave her his share of the meat.  At least they would not die of hunger.  Remruc clenched his jaw in frustration, wishing that his patrol had brought more food for his starving people.  He pulled his brother away.  It was a familiar sight now in his city, no family had been spared the sickness.  There were too many corpses now to even merit a decent ceremony to send the life essence into the voids as the people found it hard enough to take the bodies to the pit.  Their group walked on in grim silence.  As they past the corridor that led to the gardens of the city  Curmer paused and stared into the cavern beyond.  An intricate matrix of bore holes in the ceiling gave the impression that the cavern was open to the sky.  It had plenty of light for plant and animal life with the added bonus of protection from the heat.  The Cavern was gargantuan and covered miles.  In better times enough crops were grown here to feed the people and support food, animals and pets.  Constant attention was needed for irrigation and crop care.  When the sickness came the care was lost as more people fell.  Now the withered brown stems of drought choked plants were all that remained.  A lone figure wandered pitifully among the desolation, a water canister on his back.  But the dry crops were beyond even this desperate act of revival. 

Here Remruc dismissed his patrol, giving them their orders to distribute what little food they had.  Taking a small share, the brothers moved on, a quickness in their step as their goal was in sight.  A curving, gracefully spiralled dwelling grew out of the ground in front of them.  It was one of the largest buildings in the city.  The home of the chieftain, the home of their sire.  As they approached the doorway a sled drawn by two beasts pulled up along side them.  The animals hung their heads in exhaustion, the flesh on their bodies not enough to hide the bones that jutted out at extreme angles.  They gazed at Remruc and Curmer emitting sad hungry tones which filled their minds with clouds of emotion.  Their legs trembled with fatigue.  The animals owner appeared from the back of the sled.  "I have come for the body.  A chieftain must have a decent ceremony even in these desperate times." Grief and shock struck Curmer's mind as Remruc struggled to question him.  Through the haze he managed to relay that their sire had felt unwell when he left that night.  The family had put this down to weakness through hunger.  He had been sent to bring Remruc's hunting expedition back as quickly as possible, but he had never thought that Sorn would succumb to the sickness.  He could not believe that such a strong and powerful warrior could have died in so short a time.  As one they ran into the house scaling the stairs three at a time they burst into the master room.

 Sadelna, Cupe, Lenta and Musi sat quietly and gravely by Storn's sleeping platform.  The San could not weep, but they did not suffer grief any the less and their minds shouted the turmoil that they felt inside.  Sadelna held Storn's hand and gazed at her sons with stricken eyes.  Sadelna was Storn's first mate and the mother of his pride and joy.  She had borne him twin sons, a very rare thing in the San.  They had been given, as was traditional for any kind of twin, the same name; one spelt forward and one spelt backward.  While they were apart then they were only half the person they should be.  Their talents complimented each other, and it was only when they were together that they were truly whole.  Storn had left his clan two powerful leaders to be and now was the test of their strength. Cupe and Lenta sat either side of Sadelna.  They were Storn's second and third mates.  Cupe, a warrior and huntress, sat in full battle dress, her sword lain across her knees.  Lenta comforted her daughter Musi. "My sons" Sadelna's mind whispered "come and bid the Chieftain farewell". They walked slowly forward and knelt by Storn's body.  Cupe rose and stood between them.

"Your father was the strongest warrior and wisest leader ever born to this clan.  I taught and trained you as best I can.  Your father was very proud of you.  You will not have an easy task ruling our people in these troubled times, but I will guide you as best I can and I pledge my loyalty to you".  She drew her sword above her head, "Hail Remruc and Curmer, may the fortune of two leaders take us to  better days".  Cupe re-sheathed her sword and walked from the room.  Gently Sadelna took Lenta's hand,

"Do not grieve Lenta, not even a healer as skilled as you could save our mate.  Perhaps his death was necessary to give us two leaders who shine like our two fierce suns".  Sadelna drew her to her feet, "Take little Musi away, I do not want her to see Storn leave".  Lenta managed a weak smile and squeezed Sadelna's hand,

"Thank you". she said, "Hail Remruc and Curmer, I pledge my loyalty to you", she continued, resting her hands on their shoulders.  Musi ran to Remruc and clung tightly to him.  Her young mind was not able to control the pain that she felt.

"Don't grieve little sister, Storn has gone to lead an army against our enemies, even as we speak he fights the creatures of the sickness that kills our people.  He is a hero".  Remruc whispered into her mind, desperately controlling his own grief.  Musi gazed at her brother and kissed him lightly on the cheek.  She turned to Curmer and hugged him tightly, she murmured

"Hail Remruc and Curmer my brothers". Lenta gently pulled her away from Curmer and walked quietly from the room.   There were a few moments silence as they paid their respects, Sadelna stood gracefully and rested her hands on her sons shoulders,

"A great burden has been placed upon you, and your skills will be put to the test in these troubled times.  I know in my heart that you were given to me for a special purpose and I know that it is only you who can save our people".  She turned and led the silent procession.  They placed the body on the sled.  It would be prepared for the ceremony.  That night the San would send Storn into the void and greet the new leaders who must save them from extinction.

It was a tragic sight that filled the eyes of the new Chieftains.  All of the Chai who were not sick or dead had formed a procession that followed the sleds of corpses to the void.  The main sled was drawn by four mantelos, the beasts were nearly dead on their feet with starvation, but they bravely pulled their burden determined to fulfil their duty to the dead Chief before they themselves passed into the void.  At one time a procession like this would have stretched for miles, all the people dressed in their finest clothes.  The warriors and hunters carrying their weapons high and chanting a mental lament for the dead leader.  Now it was pitiful.  The sleds of the dead outnumbered the living mourners.  There weren't enough mantelos to pull all of the sleds.  Family and friends helped each other drag the burdens over the well worn path to the land of the dead.  Remruc guessed that the Chai clan that was once hundreds of thousands strong was decimated to barley three hundred starving souls. 

They passed through underground chambers with passageways leading off into the inky depths.  These underground roads would lead eventually to the two sister cities of the Chai.  These cities were now completely deserted.  When the sickness first started refugees flocked to the city that was the stronghold of the healers.  They came from all of the small outlying caverns.  The story was the same.  Sickness, fever, death.  So far there had been no cure. The passages were now completely dark, the only light given by the torches carried by the Chai.  The walls were painted black giving the illusion that you were walking through nothing.  This was the void.

As they neared the pit, there were inscriptions painted in white on the walls.  These varied from dots to spirals representing the stars in the night sky miles above them.  They were the guardians of the world of the dead.  An oppressive atmosphere descended on the sad column of people.  Not a sound was uttered as they progressed to the edge of the pit.  The air was stale and very very cold.  They rounded a corner and there before them was the doorway to the dead world.

A vast gaping chasm screamed its voiceless anger to the blank stare of the rock walls.  The length of this chasm was unknown.  The depth could not be perceived.  It was said that a healer once cast a stone into the pit and waited for the sound of it hitting the bottom.  The sound never came.  If you stared at the black gaping hole then you would experience a strange swirling sensation the edges of the pit would become blurred and it would draw you into its cold embrace.  This was a place of mystery, it was the window to the other world.  The people of the Chai were afraid.  They tried not to look directly or too long at the beckoning darkness as they slowly lined the sleds along its edge.

Lenta stood on a plinth of rock near the sheer drop.  "People of the Chai.  We have come here to send the dead on their journey to the void.  There are some of us here who will follow soon to join our comrades.  Those who wish to go with them now and spare themselves the suffering of the sickness may do so.  I am a healer who has lost the ability to heal.  I am defeated, I do not deserve to stay with the living.  I could not even save the life of my mate.  However, I cannot join Storn until I have completed my sworn task to train his son to be a master healer.  So I will stay until my task is done".

Cupe stepped to Lenta's side and drew her sword, "I am a warrior who has been defeated.  I could not destroy the sickness that attacked my mate.  I would like to go with him into the void, but I am sworn to protect his sons and guide them in their difficult task.  I must remain until I am sure that they can learn no more from me".  Sadelna slowly walked forward and grasped the arms of Cupe and Lenta,

"My sisters, I am glad that you have decided to stay and I know I can trust my sons to your care.  My task in this world is complete, I wish to go with Storn into the void".  There was a gasp of surprise from the crowd gathered.  No one had expected Sadelna to go.  Curmer, Remruc and Musi ran forward as one,

"Sadelna, you must stay.  Your wisdom and compassion are needed here now.  Help us to make the right decisions for our people." thought Remruc,"We will be lost without you.  Our grief will be too much to bear".

"My proud, brave sons," she thought gently, "You have already learned more than you know.  I cannot teach or guide you anymore, my mind is empty without Storn and I long to feel his presence again.  The only path left for me is to follow my mate to the dead world, please, let me go". Musi gave Sadelna one last embrace and left the platform.  Curmer and Remruc could not move.  Both were struggling to control their emotions and looked at Sadelna in utter desperation.  She closed her eyes and held out her arms, "People of the Chai.  These are the new Chieftains.  Our clan is blessed.  Together the Chieftains are stronger than any other San, they are wiser, they are braver warriors and they shine like Emur and Rume.   Follow my sons, the legacy of Storn, and they will lead you to better days".

The crowd silently knelt and swore allegiance to Remruc and Curmer.  The mental hail was subtly coloured by the emotions of the clan, but the strongest, brightest feeling was that of hope.  With two leaders perhaps the Chai would thrive once more.  The ceremony was over.  Sadelna turned and closed her mind to the people of the Chai.  She was dead.  She walked to the sled of her mate and lay down beside him.  Curmer felt his legs give way as he lost the mental touch with Sadelna.  That soft murmur that had been there all his life was gone and a void took its place.  Remruc grasped his brother's arm and steadied him.  He too felt the bond break, but he was a warrior and not as sensitive as his brother and it hurt him less.  What caused him more pain was the agony of Curmer, he sent his strength into his brothers mind and Curmer stood tall once more.  They moved to the sled, one on either side and pushed it over the edge, into the void.  Along the edge of the Chasm, the people of the Chai sent the bodies over the edge. Those few who chose to go with their loved ones also cast themselves into space.  In silence the Chai returned to their decimated city.

Later, as the family of the Chieftains were gathered in the main chamber, Remruc and Curmer retired to one side and stood for a time in private conversation.  Finally Remruc turned,   "I want to call a council of all the surviving healers," Remruc looked grimly at Lenta, "I wish to know their thoughts on this plague."  Lenta bowed her acknowledgement and left the main chamber of the Chiefs quarters.  Curmer glanced at his brother,

"What do you suspect?"

Remruc moved to the opening and looked out across the silent city, "I do not believe that this plague was caused by our neighbouring tribe.  In fact, I strongly suspect that they too have suffered great losses."  Curmer did not, as Remruc expected, protest to this line of thought.  He was silent for a few moments considering the implication of what had been said. 

"If that is the case, then it is possible that every tribe of the San may have been struck.  Perhaps, another of the clans has found a cure and they may help us."  Remruc looked at his brother,

"Do you believe that any other tribe would help its neighbour?  You know our peoples history as well as I do, they would be glad of the demise of a rival clan and they would claim the land as their own."

"That may have been true in the past brother, but this sickness has brought about many changes." Remruc regarded him carefully as he spoke,

"I wish I could believe what you say, but it is my belief that the San do not have compassion in their nature."  Curmer's mind was coloured with outrage,

"That may be true from a warriors point of view, but remember Remruc that I am a healer, I have witnessed the suffering caused by this plague and I believe that every healer in every clan would wish to bring an end to the sickness.  I speak now as a healer and not a chieftain, I know that I would gladly give anything to find a cure.  If another clan has been successful in fighting the plague then surely you can trust me when I honestly say that our healers and yes, their healers, would want to help any others who suffer, irrespective of their clan.  I am not a warrior like you Remruc, I do not live to fight, I live to give life, and I do have compassion!"  Remruc slowly smiled at Curmer,

"I am glad my brother that you feel so passionately about helping others, for if my reckoning is correct then the San will have to learn to work together and exchange their knowledge. Your reaction was exactly what I was looking for, our senior healers I take it would feel as strongly as you?" Curmer nodded. "Good.  For if I can motivate our people into contacting our neighbouring clans and convince them that there is no shame in asking for help then perhaps the Chai can survive.  You know as well as I do Curmer, that even if the sickness was cured, there are not enough of us left to re-populate our city." Curmer swallowed hard,

"Are you suggesting that any survivors should seek inter-marriage with the Nemn?" Remruc shifted in his seat, equally uncomfortable with the idea. 

"I'm not suggesting anything at the moment, but we may have to consider the possibilities of such an event."  He stifled his brother's reply, "Initially let us try to get the healers to co-operate, we will take it from there. The first obstacle would be our own people.  The warriors would do as I say Curmer, but it will be up to you to help me convince our healers.  If both of these professions are on our side, then the rest of our people will follow our decision, despite their own personal beliefs."  Curmer relaxed and laughed realising that he had been skilfully manoeuvred into a line of thought that was against all of his teachings as a youngster.  To ask for help from a neighbouring clan was unheard of. 

The Chai were, or had been, the most powerful of the San tribes, their pride alone had prevented any outside contact so far. Their father was very strict in his traditional duties, he obeyed his clans laws to the letter and would have forbidden any such notions.  Storn was dead now, and it was up to Remruc and himself to save their people.  Perhaps now it was time to change their ways and swallow their pride.  "You will not find the council of healers so easy to convince my brother, they may not be swayed by your thoughts." 

"That is what I suspected and so I will need your help.  Remember what Sadelna said, together we are stronger than any other San and we cannot be defeated.  This Curmer, will be our first test."

The Chieftains entered the main hall of the house.  It could accommodate several hundred people if need be, but now it was empty save for the few surviving healers huddled around the main podium as if afraid of the shadowy walls. "Are these all that are left of the Chai healers?" asked Remruc discreetly using a mental frequency that was used for personnel communication between Curmer and himself and well above the common speech frequency used by the Chai.

"There are some missing, probably left to tend the sick at the healer dwelling". answered Curmer.

"Show respect for the Chiefs." declared Lenta as she saw them enter.  The circle of healers bowed low to the young leaders.  As Remruc and Curmer seated themselves on the platform, so the circle of grave faces sat down.

"What news do you have of the sickness Munta?" inquired Remruc politely.

"We believe that a solution may be imminent.  However all we can really do is care for the ill and ease their suffering." he replied carefully.  His guarded comment did not hide the feeling of hopelessness colouring his thoughts.

"Have you no opinions as to the cause?" Curmer pressed.

"The cause is common knowledge!  It was sent to us by the Nemn those treacherous neighbours." Munta was unusually vehement for any of the healer ilk.  They were normally of a passive and caring disposition and not normally prone to angry outbursts.  The fact that strong emotions were being displayed showed the desperation amongst the healers and mirrored their feelings of inadequacy.

"Calm yourself healer Munta."  Remruc spoke gently a rare occurrence from a warrior of his ferocity, "May I ask, how the Nemn sent the sickness to us, and why?"

"By spies of course." said Sorta a junior healer who often came to the Chiefs abode to help Curmer with his studies. "They sent spies who poisoned our land and contaminated our supplies.  That is how they must have done this terrible deed."

"If spies were sent, how would they get past the guards Remruc?" asked Curmer looking pointedly at his brother.  A feeling of uneasiness rippled through the circle of healers they did not want to be witness to a confrontation between their young Chiefs it would bode ill for the Clan.  Unknown to them the entire conversation had been carefully orchestrated and it would soon reach its crescendo.

"They could not.  There is only one way into this city from the outside and the only other access is via the outlying cities and strongholds.  All paths are carefully guarded and my men would not be fooled by a Nemn spy." he replied firmly.

"But Lord Remruc, if there is no other way that an enemy could enter our city and wreck havoc on our lives, then perhaps one of your guards was not careful enough." said Munta in a neutral tone.

"How the sickness got into the city should not be the issue!" exclaimed Sorta in exasperation, her eyes flashing in anger, "We must concentrate our efforts in curing this terrible plague." Caught off guard and annoyed at such and outburst from her junior healer, Lenta forgot herself and quickly shot back a reply,

"There is no cure Sorta, you should know that, haven't we tried everything!"  There was a hushed silence as the circle of healers realised that too much had been said.  Aghast at her indiscretion, Lenta clenched her teeth.  Remruc regarded Curmer carefully,

"Did Lenta ever let on to you the extent of their worries?" he asked on their private frequency.

"Never, she was very guarded with her thoughts, remember I am not a fully trained healer and I was the Chiefs son.  Perhaps she was worried that I may have passed their anxieties on to Storn.  He would have been very angry and would have taken terrible revenge on both them and the Nemn."  They turned to the shamefaced group seated before them.

"So," Remruc said slowly, "the master healers of the Chai cannot find a cure for this sickness.  If this plague was sent by the Nemn why would they have waited so long before sending their armies to destroy the last remnants of us."

"Perhaps they are frightened that they too may catch this plague." suggested Munta tentatively "They may be waiting till the Chai are no more."

"Why would they wish to destroy the Chai?" Remruc pressed.

"To capture our lands of course." said Lenta, glad that the subject had been changed slightly ."It is common knowledge that the Chai are....were one of the wealthiest Clans."

"What use are lands that are infected by an incurable disease?" stated Remruc.  The healers were lost for words.  They had never considered this line of thought before.  They had been frightened to mention any of their thoughts of the sickness to anyone outside of the healing profession.  Alone they had strived to control it spreading.  The warrior cast of the Chai were not normally concerned with the healers methods or motives.  Their job was to protect the Clan and make sure no intruders entered their domain.  Now the warriors were angry, their pride had taken a severe blow.  It was commonly believed that the Nemn had caused this plague and that meant that the guards had failed in their duty. 

Even when the plague had reached epidemic proportions and it became obvious that something was very wrong, the hierarchy of warrior lords had not questioned the authority of the healers and had left them to their own devices.  They had been convinced that eventually a cure would be found.  Finally Storn had begun to demand results from his healers.  All of the Chai, even the warriors, had feared the sickness, but they feared Storn's wrath even more.  The healers therefore continued to report that a cure was imminent, and a little more time was needed.  They tried to play down their fears and divert Storn's thoughts of revenge for the terrible curse that was believed to have been brought on them by the Nemn.  Even though the healers were angry and frustrated, they did not wish to prompt the massacre of more people.  Storn certainly would not have rested till every last Nemn was dead, and because this line of thought had occupied the minds of most of the warriors in the Chai, and the healers were left in peace to strive for a cure. 

Now even the warriors authority had no bearing in the city of the Chai.  The people were broken, their spirit to survive was waning, they did not care who or what had caused this sickness, they did not even want revenge any more, they only wanted it to be over, and the healers could not promise them this. "Did you know that the Nemn have had no border guards on patrol for ten journeys of our Suns." said Remruc.

"How do you know this?  After all, our own borders have been unattended for so long." Munta replied.

"I know because I have seen the empty watch towers."  Remruc paused as he watched the healers shocked faces at the news that their precious Chieftain had been risking life and limb on the surface of Surn.  "Tonight I will take a band across the border and seek the entrance to the city of the Nemn." he continued. 

There was a gasp of concern from the collected group and they consulted with each other on their own private thoughts.  Finally Lenta spoke,

"Lord Remruc, I ask you not to risk yourself in such folly.