Dela labored under the orange sun, a blade in one hand and a gourd in the other. The blue cacti were best harvested shortly after rainfall, when the juice inside was most abundant. However, the more abundant the juice, the more aggressive the plant became, and it seemed that this particular plant was going to put up a fight.
Twisted around and around a central, navy stalk were thin tendrils of electric blue. Wickedly sharp spines glimmered in the afternoon sun, waving to and fro as the whip-like arms of the cactus unfurled. Dela waited, counting, gauging her quarry. Eleven arms.
Dela had never harvested more than eight.
Her heart suddenly pounding, Dela took a step back, steadying herself on the rock shelf beneath her. This was no green or red cactus, growing in the midst of the dunes, where there was no even ground or respite from the heat. This was a minor blue, within the talents of even an apprentice gatherer. She berated herself silently for her moment of weakness, then stepped back forward, emboldened. Angling her blade towards her shoulder, assuming a defensive stance, Dela waited.
The cactus's arms, now whirring through the air violently, continued to increase in speed until they were a mere blur, a vast blue that flickered like a mirage.
A blue the same hue as Shrai's eyes.
This thought gave Dela strength. Shrai was always around to protect her, to guide her. It was high time for her to step up and do her part for the tribe, like Shrai had always done. Would he be frightened, defending against this enemy like an apprentice? No, Shrai would strike. Quickly, masterfully, fatally.
And so Dela, her older brother's courage in her heart, took another step forward to face the whips.
As silent and careful as Dela was, that step may as well have been a rock slide. The cactus's arms, for the briefest of moments, stopped moving, hanging dead in the air as though confused.
The moment passed.
Dela was instantly surrounded by electric blue tentacles, the ends covered in spikes as long as her fingers. They formed a cage, a barrier around her, interlocking, stabbing into the rock around her, cutting of any escape. Dela stood her ground, waiting for her time to strike.
With a noise that was equal parts hissing and flapping, the tentacles attacked, flying through the scorched air, and suddenly Dela was staring down five spiked whips that wanted nothing more than her blood. In a flash, Dela crouched and dashed forward, getting underneath the first tentacle. As she cleared, two more came for her legs. Seamlessly flowing from her first motion, Dela jumped, letting them slide beneath her. Hanging in the air, the final two crossed in front of her. She would be cut in half like so much rotten fruit.
Dela's blade, so long held in a defensive stance, sang through the air to meet her attackers. With an expert twist of her wrist, Dela guided the blade to where the tentacles met. The serrated edge bit deeply into both, completely severing one. The limp end fell to the rocks, twitching miserably as a black slime dripped from its sliced body. The other was luckier; the blade only made it halfway through before the tentacle reared back, leaking slime. Dela landed, blade still outstretched, gourd still in her left hand.
Without pause, Dela whipped around to hack at the other attackers. Three strikes she made, down, up, across, and three tentacles dropped to the ground, writhing. The attack was less than satisfactory; too much energy for too few enemies. She would dwell on that later. The rest of the tentacles, previously caging her in a natural arena, now uprooted to join the fight. One by one, they ripped their spines from the ground and shot towards Dela. These spines looked different than their brothers now severed on the ground. Their ends were bulbous, heavy, and more thickly spined. These were not whips; they were clubs. The momentum added by the weight made the new adversaries fly around Dela with astonishing speed, a frenzy of glittering spikes.
Dela, now free to move, jumped backwards, attempting to distance herself from the whip-clubs. And then Dela fell, hard, slipping on the greasy black slime that now coated the rocks. She barely had time to curse her stupidity before her head smacked into the ground, causing lights to burst in front of her eyes. Her gourd rolled out of a limp hand, her blade held only by virtue of muscle memory. As her vision faded, she watched a spine hover in front of her face, almost as though it was studying her. Then the tentacle reared back, gathering speed, and rushed toward her face.
The spines were glittering in the sun.
...If it hurt, then she was alive....
When Dela awoke, she was in a crude cave, with a small fire burning in the center. The cave looked like it had been chiseled with fire, irregular patterns and scorch marks lining the ceiling. And next to the fire sat a dazzlingly bright, tattooed figure. Its bright blue eyes stared at her intently, contemplating.
Dela was astonished, then relieved, then confused.
"What are you doing here? Where are we? Are you dead too?"
Shrai turned to look into the fire.
"Were we dead, we would have joined the Final Dance. You know that, Dela. Your mind is rattled."
Dela was ashamed that Shrai had to instruct her in one of the most basic tenets of their faith. Of course if she was dead she wouldn't be here, alone with Shrai. She'd be in the land where there was no sand, no sun, and water everywhere, linked in an eternal dance of joy with her ancestors. But that only brought up more questions.
"The blue cactus, the ahn'tankai, was about to kill me! I should be dead, with my face smashed in!"
At this Shrai looked sharply upwards, his eyes full of grief.
"Have you not yet noticed, Dela? Are you still so confused, little sister? Look at me with both your eyes."
Dela focused on him, confused. He was sitting there, illuminated by the fire, making her left eye burn just by looking at-
Dela's hand flew to her right eye. There was nothing there. Rough, torn skin folded around a ruined socket, the entire right side of her face lacerated and sunken.
"If only I had arrived sooner, Dela...I am so sorry."
And Dela cried out, cursing her existence, disgusted by herself.
Weeping from one eye.