This is a work of fiction. Any similarities to any real persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
The wounded one finally reached his decision. He could not fight, he could not run, and he could no longer live in any useful way, and so, long before it could be said that he had been killed by The Enemy, he searched his mind, composed himself for his end, and sent his family The Call.
An ancient grandmother jerked awake in her hospital bed, rising at last from what had been thought to be her final coma. His sisters dropped their work, and his brother left his wife gasping beneath him, and rose from her, unfinished. His first cousins, his aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews left work, school and play. Soon there would be a Gathering of The Family. Gatherings were large events, and took time to organize.
At a huge, secluded farm in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, a gruff Amish man opened the gates to a thousand people, and the slaughtered pigs were taken from the smokehouse and spitted above the fires. A calf was slaughtered and drained when an old woman was brought in in an ambulance, and she was the first to drink from the steaming blood. The children played in the lower field, watched over by adolescents who would much rather they were present at the deliberations of the adults, but none of these had been fully Raised into the Family, and their presence could only be a distraction from the sacred rites of The Gathering.
When all were Gathered, small-talk passed around, and small-meals were distributed, and the gruff Amishman spoke his ferhuddled English that was so difficult for many to understand, but here it was understood by all, even by those whose own accents were deepest Texan. Smiles passed many faces as some saw those who'd been summer playmates as child-visitors, and hands were held by those who had been the forbidden adolescent sweethearts-cousins of many years gone by. Second cousins kissed on the mouths, and generations were gathered in ranks, and even some of the foreign cousins were present. From Alsace and Romania, from Arcadia and Louisiana, from Deep Swamps Texas to the Southwest Desert people, the special kin of The Gathering passed their names, their places, and the smells of each other, smells which spoke of different spices, of different soaps, of tanned leather and operating rooms, smells of the big-city dungheaps and country estates, each found the noses of the others, mixed with the unmistakeable and beloved smell of the True Kin.
And when all were assembled, and all had been introduced, and the Signs and Greetings exchanged, the Offerings made, the old woman was placed upon a high place prepared for her, and she spoke:
"Greetings from the Most High to the Assembled Kin!" and the response returned:
"We, the Assembled, greet our Eldest!" and for miles around, dogs howled, cats hissed and spat and struck at shadows none else could see, cattle dropped dead in their tracks, and pigs devoured their young. Birds fell from the very skies, and even the maggots paused in their work as the Judgement Scream of the Kin was raised from a thousand voices. In the fields, even the smallest of the children gave voice to their pale echo of the warcry of the adults. When they were done, no other sound could be heard, but the sound of their ally, the north wind.
"We Gather in Discovery and Judgement today, my Kin!" the old woman whispered, but the sharp ears of her people heard everything, even the struggle of fluids in the old woman's lungs. She had not long to live. "We are here!" whispered the Kin, in a whisper that cut like the north wind which even now brought a taste of harsh winter to this lovely green land.
"Bring forth our fallen," said the old woman, and the young one, still cool from his refrigerated journey, was brought forth, and placed at the foot of her chair. The old one struggled mightily, and despite her withered frame managed to assume a more erect and regal posture. "See, my children, how he is fallen! Come forth, our wise, and Discover the manner of his passing!"
Pleasant-looking, soft-spoken, healers by trade and inclination, the Doctors came forward. One had been chosen to speak for all, and he gave the ritual response of the Doctors of the Kin.
"Our Eldest! We, the Healers, are the Kin of Two Oaths. We are Kin, but we are also Healers. We have Two Laws, both of which are Holy. We may not do harm. We also have our ancient duty to the Kin, and this we now do, to Discover what has killed one not slain in battle. This duty we shall perform, but we cannot remain after that time, and still remain true to our other Holy Oath. We beg your leave to do as we must, to Discover and depart."
"The Eldest gives your dispensation. But tell us, and tell us true... what is your Discovery?"
"A True Discovery takes time, Eldest. Haste leads to errors. Let us proceed," he said, and with that remark, while other soft-spoken kind men opened up a truck filled with equipment, he began to cut. He first removed the fingernail of the right forefinger, and held it up, bloody, for the Assembly to see. "The strong claw!" he cried, and the Assembled held out their right hands, and ripped their right sleeves bare to the shoulder, and showed the tendons that stood forth whitely, running muscle-linked from opposing hip across the back and down the arms, the tendons that put the entire strength of one of the Kin into that one fingernail. The Healer cried, "The strong claw is weak! My own claw removed it!" He had used no knife, and one should have been required. Another Healer took the fingernail and placed it into a machine.
The Healer returned to the corpse, and placed one of his large capable hands upon the head of the Fallen, and squeezed. His tendons had scarcely bulged forth from the channels where their girth normally lay concealed when, without even a crackling, the Fallen's skull collapsed in upon itself. The Healer instantly released his grasp, lest the delicate tissues of the brain be destroyed, removing valuable clues. He shouted in rage, "The skull was already cracked, but not crushed!" He continued in a lower voice: "The skull was no longer the Holy Shape! It has been deliberately damaged, and not with violence! It is an intentional weakening! It is Mayhem!" He grasped the body, and turned it over. It flopped more limply now as the chill of travel left the body. "The shoulders are not square," he cried, ""but no bones have been broken!" A murmur went up from the Assembly. The Healer produced a fine steel blade, and cut deeply, looking for metal. He found it, and grasped it with a tool. He pulled, gently at first, and then more forcefully. Finally, it pulled free, a nine-inch length of steel-leader, suitable for shark- fishing, with a straightened steel fish-hook on each end, glistening dully red with scraps of flesh adhering to the barbed ends. He cut deeper, and called one of the other Healers to consultation. They conferred, lines etching their foreheads deeply, and then the first Healer turned to the other Healers, and spoke softly, "there is marked deformation of bone. He has been reshaped to tear himself apart. It is the Second Sign." He cut deeply down the spine, exposing the unique triple ridge of vertebral protuberances that marked the Kin. Barbed metal pins were removed from flesh at the fifth, sixth, and seventh thoracic vertebrae, each with scraps of flesh adhering. The Healer called another close, and scraped at the pins with a scalpel. A clear resinous substance coated the pin. "Epoxy, my brothers," he stated, "They are improving on their techniques." They examined the cuts, and noted how the pins had each penetrated five separate muscles and several associated tendons. The Fallen had been crippled in such a manner that he could not fight. The crippling left huge holes in the defensive systems of the Kin's style. The Fallen had been destroyed, his back laid open to any foul attack. Removal of the pins would have caused damage at least as great as their installation. It was well for the Fallen that he was dead. The doctors' faces showed a gathering shadow of a pain that could never be concealed nor expunged - this was a perversion of medical knowledge, applied to destruction of their Kin. The Healer turned to face the crowd. He held the pins aloft, where they dripped slightly. "I have Discovered the Third Sign! Knives in the back! Where is a Fourth Sign to be found?"
According to the ancient ritual, an old woman stepped forth, knowing that when she found the Fourth Sign, her children would have yet another death to avenge. "I claim my right as kin," she said, "to make the discovery of the Fourth Sign. Give me his liver!"
The Healer turned the body over, where the eyelids, loosened by the jostling, had risen to allow the corpse a dully accusatory stare. "Your right is your honor," he said, "and your honor is your right, as this one's kin." The old woman struck hard and true, in the blink of an eye or less, and she wriggled her fingers within the wound, her instincts easily and instantly severing all of the attachments between her great-grandson's liver and the rest of his corpse. She pulled the liver from the wound, and she held it aloft, and shouted to the Assembled Kin:
"I freely and knowingly search for the Fourth Sign! If I have raised any so poorly that they can fall to The Enemy, even unto the fourth generation, I am not fit to live! And should the Fourth Sign be revealed, let my own death be another Call!" She bit into the liver, and swallowed. As she ate, one of the Healers, one who had been operating a mass- spectrograph upon the fragment of fingernail from the Fallen, began to weep, for he knew that his aunt was doomed by the massive amount of arsenic that she was ingesting. This was the foulest of the Signs, for her liver would be eaten by all of her Family who were in direct line between her and the Fallen, for all must pay the price of raising a child who could be fed poison by any outside of the Kin. The weeping Healer wept not from sorrow, for his doomed aunt brought only honor to the Family, and to the Clan. He wept because he was torn between the Two Oaths, and could not participate in the revenge that was not only his right but his duty, for the First Law of the Kin is that seven must die for each of the slain Kin of Cain. He raised his own voice to the Assembly: "We need not wait, My Kin! She will be long in dying, as will the others in the line. The poison is revealed as arsenic. There are other poisons as well, there is insecticide, and what appears to be tranquillizers, and I see traces also of truth-serums, and euphoriants."
The old woman, matriarch of the Kin of Cain in the West, thought for a few minutes marked by silence broken only by the sounds of tears and gnashing teeth, and spoke:
"This Fallen Kin was a prisoner! He was taken by stealth. He was poisoned into weakness, and then taken without a fight. He was restrained from even honorable suicide, questioned beyond resistance, and then destroyed from ever again fighting. And to this injury was added the insult of being released, unable to defend his honor. He did all that he could, and that was to give the Call. His own death was by hanging, as is right for our kind, he named the bridge between worlds that he would use, secured the rope that dragged his spirit from this world to the next, and leapt into a broken neck, dangling above the pickup that took his body from the place of dishonor to the place before this place. Enough of the enemy were taken for us to do a little questioning of our own. Those who must know will be informed of the answers we received, and what is not known from these will be taken from their families. We will have honor satisfied, and these seven will answer immediately to the Claim of Cain from this one, our Fallen." As she spoke, five men and two women were led forth, foot-shackled, into the grass before her dias. The Assembled Kin rose upon their toes, all but the Healers, who got into cars, and drove away. The Assembled waited until they were gone from sight, lest the sight of a kill bring them back into the pack, to break their Healer's Oath, dishonoring themselves, inviting the Oathbreaker's Doom upon themselves, and then they began to remove their clothing. Most were barefoot, anyways, displaying the wide- spread short toes of their kind, and when the clothing was off, the females of the offended Family moved forwards, to claim their rights. Those females who were of the line-of-descent between the bloody-lipped woman who still gnawed and gulped at the liver she knew would kill her moved closer to her, to gather about her and the body of the Fallen, all but for one, who would join them later. They withdrew small stiffthin blades, and began to cut at the scalp of the Fallen, to withdraw the wires that The Enemy had placed within, thereby to learn new skills and weapons to turn against The Enemy.
The seven who stood circled by the crowd shivered at the sight of the long teeth of the female who removed their shackles. Within the circle of Assembled Kin, the seven gathered close to each other, back to back, with the men ringing the women, who appeared ready to faint. The female who had unchained them smiled for them, a chilling wide smile that exposed more teeth than the encircled had thought that a mouth could contain, and she said to them: "In your holy book, you have written, and very wisely I might add, `whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And Jehovah set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.' You have changed the shape of the skull of one of the Kin of Cain, to remove the mark, thinking perhaps that by removing the mark, you could remove the curse... but you have only brought upon you and your kin a greater curse than any you could have imagined. You have killed one of us, and since you can not die seven times, seven of you must die. And by the means you chose to kill one of us, vile poison, you have condemned all of his living antecedents to death as well, for unlike youselves, we follow the ways of our forebears. Tradition is everything to us, for though evils may be passed on, so is wisdom. When Jehovah cursed us to be fugitives, to be rejected by the earth, we rejected the earth as well, and do not offer our dead into it. We eat our dead, and in poisoning my son you have poisoned me as well, and my mother, and her mother, and her mother as well. For each of these, we will take seven, and since you have taken from our Kin an entire line of Family, we shall do for you the same evil. And who shall kill any of us as we exact our revenge, for each of us, there shall be seven taken - until we have either exacted our vengeance, or until there are none of us left."
She paused, and her smile was terrible, and it grew as powerful scalp tendons pulled her ears backwards, and the hinges in her cheeks splayed apart and resettled into new grooves, extending her upper jaws. The secondary joints in the crook of her jaws straightened, and she was a long- faced demon with drawn-back lips. She rose on her toes, and simultaneously crouched as secondary tendons pulled primaries from their grooves, and joints repositioned, making her into a deadly fighting machine. Her eyes splayed outwards as her nose wrinkled and pulled her septum downwards, blocking the olfactory canal to her brain. She coughed as her upper spine realigned, pulling her voice box down below her collarbone. She was not alone in her changing. Both women fainted.
Distorted, her growl was nonetheless articulate as a voice when she spoke again: "Knives." One man in the circle slapped the two women awake. From the crowd around them, a young male emerged, unchanged except for the locked joints of his hands, which bore a large velvet pillow upon which rested seven hunting knives. "Tell 'em," growled the mother of the Fallen. The young one spoke. "You poisoned my uncle. You put him to the question. You did not allow him to run, and you did not allow him to fight. You can run... but you won't run far. Remain in the circle and the crowd will not tear you apart. We will not question you, but you may speak as you fight. Whatever you say cannot save you... it is considered your deathsong. We will allow you to fight... but your only way out of here is to defeat the Fallen's mother - without killing her. Killing is not our way, if we can avoid it... but we don't allow our own to die unavenged. Even if you defeat her without immediately killing her, still, seven must die, and you must be the ones to choose the seven. If you do not choose, you will then be slain. We do you honor in this manner, though poisoners do not deserve an honorable death, because we do not know for a fact that you personally were responsible for the poisoning. As a female, she will attack your females first, since the head damage to the Fallen is a women's way, not the way of males. Unarmed, she can kill you all, so to be fair, we allow you one large claw each to match her smaller twenty claws. This is our justice. If the right is on your side, you will prevail, and direct us to those reponsible. We know your ways, and know you do nothing without conspiracy, and are certain that you can direct us to those responsible. Arm yourselves, and prepare to die." With that, he placed the velvet pillow on the ground, and withdrew.
The men, to do them credit, fought rather well. She had to kill two of the men to even reach the women. The mother of the Fallen was covered with slashes, some quite deep, before she was able to gutbite the second woman. That one left her blade hanging from her shoulder, and she wrenched it loose and hurled it to the ground. As a man stooped to grab it up, she dove under him, spinning in her dive, and caught his throat out with her teeth, and as his friends leapt belatedly to his aid, she gutted one of them with a swipe of her rear claws. As he grasped at the steaming ropes trailing from his belly, she leapt at another man, who stumbled backwards over the body of the first she had brought down. Her bound carried her into the crowd, who howled their laughter and thrust her back into the circle. As she recovered, one of the men aimed a kick at her head, which he missed, probably due to the fact that she had torn out one of his eyes, and he couldn't get the range right. Besides, Men were slow. She hamstrung him, and moved on to another, to save this one for last. As she went ballistic, he sidestepped and slung the knife underhand at the last instant, and as she whirled and snapped, the knife sunk home into her neck. She coughed up a blob of blood as she hit the ground, and the dead man, the one with no guts, grabbed her. He didn't hold her long, for she instantly had his wrist crushed in her teeth, but she was knocked free of him by the remaining two men, the eyeless hamstrung one and the uninjured one tackling her into a pin from which she could not break free. She heaved and wrestled with all of her might, and had clawed huge runnels in the flesh of the men's backs when she heard the sharp barking call to quit fighting.
As the crowd dragged the men away, to live or die as Nature would have it for the victors, or to be left for the vultures to dine upon as losers, she herself crawled to the body of her son, to share the poison that killed him, if she didn't bleed to death first.