Chapter Two: Rokul

“General Rouhr just called us in for a meeting.”

I looked up. It was my brother, Takar. He had a habit of walking into my room without knocking.

If it was anyone else, it would’ve angered me, but Takar and I had shared a room for most of our lives. In fact, this was the first time we’d had separate rooms.

We lived in a run-down building on the outskirts of Nyheim. It was one of the few buildings in the capital city that still had its original walls. The Xathi just barely missed this one, which wasn’t actually a good thing. The landlady, a tiny human woman named Hellin, was nearly one hundred years of age would be buried up to her frail neck in repair bills making it safe again.

In addition to paying our rent, Takar and I fixed whatever we could for her so she wouldn’t have to hire someone. It seemed like the least we could do. Most of the humans on Ankou weren’t afraid of us anymore, but that didn’t mean they were opening their homes for us to permanently reside.

When Hellin first saw us, two tall Skotan brothers loaded with weapons, she didn’t even flinch. That’s how we knew this would work out.

By now, Hellin doted on us as if we were kin.

I didn’t mind humans, I thought they were fragile, and maybe a little stupid, but not Hellin. I’d kill for Hellin if she said the word.

“What about?” I asked.

“What do you think?” Takar gave me the look he’s been giving me since we were children and he realized he was the smart one.

“Giant killer plant?” Takar nodded.

Yes.

I bet General Rouhr was finally ready to authorize an attack on the gigantic sentient plant we’d apparently awakened during our final battle with the Xathi.

I didn’t fully understand what it was, none of us did. My strike team leader, Karzin, was one of the first people to see it, though he didn’t get a good look. All we knew was that it was incalculably large, secreted a memory-altering gas, and was capable of attacking human settlements without warning from under the ground.

When it first began its attacks, there were sometimes as many as three a day. There were human casualties, but not nearly as many as there had been when the Xathi invaded. Less than thirty humans had lost their lives in these attacks.

Now, the attacks seemed to have slowed.

No one knew why.

And that wasn’t comforting at all.

“When’s the meeting?” I asked.

“Right now.” Takar was ready to go. He made a show of looking impatient while I scrambled to get my gear together.

He might be smarter, he might be more organized and logical, but I was the better warrior. There was no contest.

Takar even admitted it once, though he said it was only because I acted before I considered consequences.

I wouldn’t say he was wrong.

Our lodging was a ten-minute walk from General Rouhr’s fancy new office. Our operation had two floors to itself, as well as a lab. I wasn’t sure what was on the other floors. I didn’t care, honestly.

 We were the last ones to arrive. General Rouhr looked annoyed.

“Now that the rest of my team is here,” Karzin gave Takar and me a pointed look, “are we ready to begin?”

“Dr. Dewitt, has your associate arrived?” General Rouhr asked the petite blonde doctor who even I’d be hesitant to go against in a fight.

Leena’s sharp mouth grew tight.

“No,” she said, clearly irked. “Apparently, Dr. Briar left a message nearly two days ago telling the laboratory about doing a quick job in Rigkon, and she must’ve gotten sidetracked.”

“What is she talking about?” I whispered to Karzin.

“Weren’t you listening at the last meeting?” Karzin lifted his brows.

“I must’ve forgotten,” I grinned. Karzin rolled his eyes.

“Leena has a colleague who’s supposedly some kind of botanical expert. The general thinks the botanist can help us understand what we’re up against,” Karzin explained.

“Why are we bringing in some botanist?” I asked.

“Do you have an objection, Rokul?” General Rouhr said.

“Uh.” I stood up straight. “No, sir. I was simply curious. If we’re looking for information about this plant-thing, wouldn’t Jeneva be the appropriate candidate for such a job?”

“Jeneva’s a naturalist,” Leena cut in. “She can tell us everything under the sun about known plant species, but she can’t tell us much about new ones. And brilliant as she is, she doesn’t have much official laboratory training that could also assist us with this puzzle.”

“Exactly,” General Rouhr nodded, but I could tell there was more to it. There was a hint of worry in his eyes.

“Is that all, sir?” I asked, though it wasn’t my place. Then again, I was never one for staying in my place.

“Since you’re all bound to find out anyway, I might as well tell you now.” General Rouhr nodded solemnly. “Jeneva is experiencing some complications with her pregnancy.”

Concerned murmurs spread throughout the room and I felt guilty for bringing it up. All of us were fond of Jeneva. She was plucky. I liked that in a friend. I suddenly felt bad for not talking to her as much as I should’ve.

“Will she be okay?” Karzin asked.

“Yes,” General Rouhr nodded. “She just needs to be on bedrest most of the day. She is, after all, the first human to carry a Skotan child. There’s bound to be some complications.”

That was most likely a massive understatement. Skotan babies develop their scales in the womb and the period of formation is quite uncomfortable for Skotan females. It must be even more uncomfortable for human females.

With a shudder, I put it out of my mind.

She was a tough woman. She would be fine.

I hoped.

“Did you say that botanist isn’t here?” I asked Leena, who nodded curtly. “Shouldn’t we explore alternate methods of dealing with that thing out in the desert?”

“Do you want to run this meeting, Rokul?” General Rouhr asked. “You certainly seem to have a lot of ideas.”

“We’re restless, General!” I threw my hands up. “We’ve known about this thing for over a week. It’s killing people and destroying buildings, yet somehow, it’s still alive. Why aren’t we out there tearing it to shreds and protecting our planet?”

“You’re out of line,” General Rouhr warned me.

“I apologize, General. I simply don’t see what a gardener with access to a fancy lab can do to help us solve this problem, especially when we have an arsenal at our disposal,” I countered.

“Rokul,” Takar muttered in warning.

“Don’t scold me for wanting answers,” I snapped. “Karzin, Annie is a sweet female and she’s very smart. I’m impressed with the information she was able to uncover, but I don’t see what more information we need. We know the thing is dangerous, we know it’s toxic. Why not take it out with a well-executed aerial attack?”

“How do we kill it?” General Rouhr asked. “You seem to have thought everything through. Tell me how to kill it.”

“A couple of grenades will kill just about anything,” I shrugged.

“And if that doesn’t work? We’ll have lost some grenades and angered that thing even more,” General Rouhr replied. “What are the consequences of killing such a massive creature that may be deeply entangled with the planet?”

“We won’t have to deal with that thing attacking cities and wiping people’s memories,” I said.

“What will happen to the integrity of the land mass, removing something so large?” General Rouhr asked. “How will it affect the ecosystem? Man-made resources are in short supply thanks to the Xathi destroying a large part of Duvest’s manufacturing district. The humans are relying on natural resources now more than ever. Will killing this creature affect that?”

“Why would it?” I scoffed.

“I don’t know, but do you know for a fact that it won’t?” General Rouhr demanded.

“I suppose not,” I replied reluctantly.

“Now you know why we need more information. Killing this creature might do more harm than good. In such a turbulent time, we can’t afford to make any mistakes,” General Rouhr said. 

“I, and the rest of the humans, appreciate the sentiment, General,” Leena smiled. “However, my friend isn’t here and we still have to come up with something.”

“Do you know any other botanists?” General Rouhr asked.

“No, but I can ask around. Maybe some of my old colleagues from the university know someone else,” Leena suggested.

“Great. Get working on that. Where did you say your friend went?”

“Rigkon. I’ve never heard of it,” Leena shrugged.

“It’s an outpost of sorts,” Vidia, General Rouhr’s human mate, spoke up. Since the Xathi were defeated, Vidia has been at the forefront of rebuilding human settlements.

“Of sorts?” General Rouhr repeated.

“It was meant to be the first step in rebuilding Fraga, but funds had to be redirected at the last minute.” I didn’t miss the hint of sadness in her voice. Vidia used to be the mayor of Fraga. I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, exactly. Skotan governments didn’t have anything like it. But I knew that it was a person of importance and I knew she took the destruction of Fraga hard.

“Ah,” General Rouhr said softly. “Well, in that case, since we know where it is, I’m going to send someone to retrieve this botanist.”

Personally, I didn’t think it was worth the trouble. Unfortunately for me, my thoughts must’ve been written all over my face.

“Rokul.” The general’s voice was too perky and his smile was too big. That never, ever boded well for anyone. “I think this is exactly the sort of job you’re suited for.”

“An errand job?” I tried not to scoff. I was already in enough trouble.

“Yes,” General Rouhr replied. “It’ll give you some time to get to know our new colleague. Perhaps the botanist can help you understand why we can’t just blow up the creature out in the desert, since I’m not getting through to you.”

“Yes, sir,” I muttered.

Beside me, my brother and the rest of my strike team tried to hold back their laughter, and failed. 

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