Liu Tung, the Monkey King, was gone, escorting the Incarna, Palasia Bab, to the Ashlands.
In his stead, during his absence, he left in charge his fast friend, Rokko. A gorilla bristling with black and silver fur and peaking at more than six feet in height, Rokko was used to commanding respect, but not to leading. He found himself abruptly confronted with the unenviable task of overseeing the apes and monkeys of Ooa during perhaps the most troubled times they had ever known. Undead monsters rampaged through the rainforest of Shala’Hyddin, drawing closer to the secret haven of Ooa every day. It was Rokko’s task to stop them.
He gathered together at dusk with several monkeys and a few of his fellow apes in the ruins of a temple not unlike that at Ooa, save that this temple had long since been torn down, with nothing remaining save for a few half-wrecked, pitted and overgrown walls. The monkeys and apes crouched down in between three rundown, moonlit walls to discuss their battle plans – something they had not had to do for a long, long time before the arrival of the undead.
“Spirit of the Forest be with you, brothers and sisters,” Rokko growled awkwardly; he hated public speaking. “It is good to see you all here. Minus those of you who are not here obviously. We must assume them dead. Ahem. First things first. Report.”
“Still clear to the east, Rokko,” offered a capuchin; a black-and-cream-furred monkey far smaller than Rokko. “The monsters are still coming from the north, I guess.”
“Agreed,” put in an orangutan. “The north is heavily beset, though less so every day as the monsters pass on.”
“They pass on to the west,” hooted an orange-furred howler monkey. “The Howlers are hard-pressed there, scarcely able to keep up the fight. We lost many good monkeys yesterday, more today. Whatever their reason, these Thakshir,” the monkey spat the word they had learned for the undead, “seem intent on heading west for the most part rather than south into the rainforest, thank the Spirit. Though there are many, we have but dregs to deal with comparatively speaking. D’you think the Monkey King was right? D’you think they tail those travellers who passed through our domain?”
“It matters not,” Rokko cut in before anyone else could speculate. “What matters is that these fiends trespass in our forest, tainting its leaves and boughs, berries and fruits, the earth itself even, with their noxious presence. Whatever malevolent sorcery empowers them to live beyond their deaths also spreads from them like a toxin, infecting, withering and killing anything with which it comes into contact, be it bug or plant. While it is true that none of us have succumbed to its ghastly touch, I believe that it weakens us. I believe when we stand on their marred land, we are subject to their evil power. That is part of why we take the fight to them from the trees when we can, though they can warp trees into sickly husks too. I have seen it. I am sure we all have by now. We know our duty. We must prevent these heinous creatures from reaching the heart of the rainforest. The Spirit of Shala’Hyddin depends on us. So, we hold here, as long as we can. Before we discuss battle plans for the upcoming week, does anyone have any new information, any new ideas?”
An old baboon cleared his throat and licked his grey snout thoughtfully. “I have been wondering about something. Is there nothing we could do to save these poor humans from whatever foul sorcery afflicts them? Could we not capture one and try to rescue it from its condition somehow?”
Rokko sighed and rubbed a huge hand over his silver face. His mate, Haia, a gorilla only slightly smaller than himself, rested a hand gently on his arm and answered for him. “You ask this every couple of weeks, Najan. The Monkey King told us they cannot be cured by any means, and we will not risk our warriors trying to prove him wrong. So no, we cannot try that. Anyone else?”
Nobody else spoke.
“Fine,” growled Rokko. “Then, we continue on as we have been, picking them off and trying to lead them away from Ooa.”
Outlining more specific details for the different contingents of apes and monkeys, Rokko spoke with the others for another hour before he finally brought the meeting to an end, weary to his bones.
“I don’t know how Liu Tung does it,” he said to Haia as they settled down for the night in a patch of ferns amid the temple ruins.
“These are difficult times, my love,” said Haia, snuggling up close to him. “Do not be so hard on yourself. You do the best you can. That is all that can be asked of you.”
He looked down at her, trying to express in paltry words how she made his heart swell and roil like a stormy ocean. He wrapped his arms around her and squeezed her tight. “Thank you.”
The next morning, they travelled north, sticking to the trees where possible, although their bulk meant they had to take to the ground on occasion where the smaller saplings would not support their weight. Returning to their post after a quiet night of bliss together wounded their souls, darkening their spirits before ever they took up the battle once more. The mood in the camp teetered between grim and morose, all the apes and monkeys there heartbroken from the devastation that had befallen their beloved forest. Stationed between the forces of the orangutan and the howler monkey from the council, Rokko oversaw mostly gorillas, some baboons and macaques, and a few lemurs and greycaps used mostly as messengers.
Rokko and Haia rejoined their contingent before the thick morning mist had fully dissipated. With traces of the silvery fog still curling along the loamy leaf mosaic upon which they trod, Rokko and Haia led the apes into battle. The baboons, macaques and many of the gorillas took to the branches overhead. Rokko and Haia, however, constituted part of a small but brave force responsible for attacking the undead on ground level in order to then lure them into prearranged ambush spots where they could best be wiped out in numbers by the monkeys in the treetops.
They heard the Thakshir long before they saw them. Their highly sensitive ears easily picked up on the small but definite ruckus as the undead stomped through the forest en masse, crushing flowers and fungi underfoot. The apes could smell them too; a rancid aroma as of rotting meat wafted on the wind. They soon came in sight of the walking corpses, whose bodies were being devoured inside out by the forest itself, it seemed, as though Shala’Hyddin herself objected vehemently to their nauseating presence. The hordes of mosquitos and flies and beetles and dragonflies that called Shala’Hyddin home were all fond of fetid meat for their offspring, and so many species had taken like ducks to water to laying eggs inside of the holey undead, most of whom had at least one gaping crevasse in their bodies where a would-be mortal wound snarled, red-lipped, infuriated at its inability to destroy its host. Marbled across their entire bodies with oversized red veins, clad in tatters and staring hungrily with glowing wholly red eyes, the Thakshir struck fear into the hearts of all those who encountered them. Their unearthliness was apparent at a glance.
The maggoty sacks of ambulant meat spotted the apes on the ground, moaned their bloodlust and came running jerkily toward them. The human corpses’ coordination, while functional, was abysmal since their bodies were mouldering and slowly falling apart, and so the powerful gorillas were able to outpace them with relative ease. Rokko beat his chest and hooted a few times to ensure as many Thakshir saw him as possible, before turning tail and scarpering, careful to let the undead follow. The earth was soft and warm on his soles and knuckles as he ran, and he heaved in great breaths of the fresh, fruity air, glad to be alive. He let out a whoop of exhilaration as he upped his pace, Haia by his side as always.
The undead sprang the trap like foolish little rats, sticking their noses in for the cheese that was the monkeys’ blood and then feeling the trap’s retort like a whiplash. For the apes and monkeys up in the branches of the giant ceiba trees, it was a relatively simple matter to take out the straggling line of Thakshir as they passed by behind Rokko, Haia and the others; hurling a plethora of rocks and wooden spears, the primates brained and perforated the corpses until they could walk no more. The sound of wet thumps and snapping bones echoed through Shala’Hyddin for only a few minutes before all the undead in sight had been maimed.
The game then changed, however; led by the frontrunners, the Thakshir were now stumbling into the killing area in even larger numbers. Far from walking precisely into the tunnel of death between the apes and monkeys in the treetops, they were spreading out and wandering through the forest at large. So, as planned, the primates up in the canopy hastily swung southwest through the trees, soon taking up another position further from the undead where another stash of rocks and spears awaited them.
Rokko, Haia and the ground contingent engaged the enemy to give their tree-bound companions time to relocate. This was perhaps the most dangerous part of their task.
Still, they tried to minimise risks by employing hit-and-run tactics, striking hard and fast and then fleeing and doing so again and again to gradually whittle down the enemy forces. Fortunately for them, the undead were simpleminded creatures completely unaware of tactics or strategy and endowed only with enough intelligence to understand and act on the concept of bloodlust. A Thakshir would walk through fire for the chance to taste fresh flesh. With no thought of self-defence, only the need to eat, they were devastating foes, particularly since their affliction was transferable.
Rokko’s heart panged in his chest when he witnessed a baboon friend named Boa taken down by several of the undead, bitten and mauled until his shrieks were abruptly cut off. Rokko could not even help; the baboon was dead in seconds. The problem was he did not stay dead. Only moments after his heart stopped, Boa rose to his feet once more, twitching and spasming as necrotic life flowed through his dead veins. His arteries swelled until they created an effect of blood-webbing across his entire body, poking through his rapidly moulting ochre fur. His eyes became red lanterns, and he moaned with mindless ravenousness.
He locked eyes with Rokko, and the silver-backed gorilla groaned, “No, Boa! Don’t make me do it – please!”
Boa did not listen. He was one of the undead now. Rokko wanted to turn and run, but he knew from experience that recently slain Thakshir primates were far faster than their putrefying human counterparts, their bodies haler, swifter and more deadly. He was not sure he could outrun the baboon, and he could not risk it bringing him, Haia or any of the others down mid-flight.
So, when the gorilla next to him was dragged to the ground and Boa came caroming toward him with fangs bared, Rokko stepped to intercept the undead baboon with a grimace. The apes and monkeys of Shala’Hyddin did not like to use weapons, did not believe in it as an unwritten rule, and so – though many of his brethren had taken up rocks and wooden spears to combat the Thakshir, for which he could not blame them – Rokko met his foes barehanded as he always had. His fist slammed into Boa’s cheek, splitting the skin and catapulting the monkey through the air into its cataleptic comrades.
“Break away!” Rokko roared, shoulder-barging the undead woman facing Haia out of the way to make his mate’s escape easier.
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