I can see the trees! Shanku thought excitedly.
After many days of flying over the prairie she had finally reached the Nyre forest, hopefully far enough south she wouldn't bump into any of Scissortail clan. She tilted her wings and glided smoothly under the cover of the trees. She cupped her wings around her to break her speed and dropped to the ground. Shanku looked around as a flood of memories returned. The sunbeams shifted and danced between the leaves and cast a multitude of spots and speckles on everything. There were many kinds of bushes and ferns hiding what part of the forest floor wasn't covered in discarded leaves. Shanku took a deep breath.
Smells like home, she thought wistfully.
A twig snapped close by and she dropped her stance. Her wings flared behind her and her ears were twisted to the front.
"Who's there!?" She demanded. Shanku hoped she looked threatening enough to ward off whatever was nearby. She had not been in the Nyre for a year but that had not dulled her memory of what dangers lurked beneath the canopy.
Two yellow eyes gleamed in a dancing sunbeam.
"I saw your eyes! Come out!" Shanku barked and arched her wings above her body to make herself look bigger and even more threatening.
"No hurt Grubber?" came a small, scared voice. A goblin in a ragged loincloth stepped out from behind the bushes he had been hiding behind.
Oh crap, a goblin... Shanku thought worriedly to herself. She looked him over. Grubber was a greyish green as most of his kind were. He had very few hairs on his head and about as many dull teeth in his mouth. He was very thin, making his batty ears and long arms look larger than they should. "No, I don't want to hurt you," Shanku answered after her observation.
"Strange to see a cub alone," Grubber knelt before the bushes and crept slowly towards the cub on his knuckles.
"Strange to see a goblin alone," Shanku countered and stood up. Her ears were half laid-back and she tucked her wings behind her.
"Not alone, have little friend!" Grubber said cheerfully and thrust what appeared to be a wad of leaves up close to Shanku's face. "Gremmy!"
"Hi!" The wad of leaves greeted her. Shanku looked closely at them. The leaves seemed to be in actuality a small humanoid creature with large, bat-like wings. It was a dark, dirty brown with ears to match Grubber's ears. His eyes were a solid black, his many pointed teeth snow white, and he wore no clothes.
"A goblin and a gremlin?" Shanku asked in confusion. Never had she heard of any of the Nyre's monsters befriend each other. But wasn't that why I was exiled in the first place?
"Gremmy like Grubber." Grubber gave his companion a sort of hug by cupping his fingers around the little gremlin and rubbing their cheeks together. "Find bugs together!"
"Find bugs together!" Gremmy echoed in his high-pitched voice and flew after the goblin as he ran off happily into the trees.
And Katari thought I was weird. Shanku watched the two until they were out of sight and out of earshot. Moving on, she thought tiredly as she walked through the forest. She had caught a lucky break. Like all the speaking creatures of the Nyre, goblins were horribly territorial, albeit a bit cowardly. They had been known to chase intruders well into another clan's territory. Gremlins, on the other hand, were just pests. They delighted in mischief and were even known to chew a Kurach's feathers into a ragged mess just to laugh at how silly the poor Kurach looked when they had finished.
Eh? Her attention was caught by a black pool of water surrounded by tall grasses and reeds. There seemed to be a pale blue light gleaming on the grasses rather than the typical yellow of the sunbeams. The cub crouched low to the ground and carefully pushed back the grasses. She smiled at her find. A dozen glowing, blue fairies darted and played across the water's surface. They lighted and skipped across the rocks and lilypads and they danced and sang with the insects nearby.
"Cub found bugs!" Grubber poked his head into the grasses beside her.
"Yay!" exclaimed his tiny companion.
"Pwetty bugs..." Grubber smiled wistfully and propped his square chin onto a bony hand. A few fairies fluttered before his eyes and giggled. Gremmy gave a sigh as well and admired the dainty creatures.
Suddenly one of the fairies' eyes bulged out and she gave a shriek as a snap was heard. A bullfrog and chosen her as his supper and shot his tongue out at her to capture her. Grubber and Gremmy gave a resounding gasp in shock as well. Grubber snatched up the bullfrog and shook the fairy from his mouth.
"No eat bugs!" He admonished, shaking his finger at the frog.
"No eat bugs!" Gremmy concurred as the frightened fairy flew away.
The other fairies swarmed around the odd couple and thanked them for saving their sister. Grubber looked to be in a state of absolute bliss.
Shanku quietly backed away and let him have his attention in peace. He truly was different from other goblins she had heard about.
"Grubber likes fairies. Always has. It's why the other goblins don't like him," came a guttural voice behind her. She turned to find a faun perched on a fallen tree.
"Sad," she murmured.
"Yes," the faun nodded. "Other than decimating the beetle population, he's harmless."
"I am a guardian of the Nyre," the faun shrugged. The Nyre had many guardians, as it was a large forest that spanned from one end of L'aernth to the other. For the most part, they were mediators. They settled minor disputes among the inhabitants and alerted them of large-scale dangers, such as forest fires. In tales of legend, they had possessed great powers and defended the forest during the War of Mages.
"A man has been coming to the forest lately," he continued. "Beware of him, cub."
"Will do," Shanku said.
Having fulfilled his duty, the faun sprang to his feet and disappeared into the bushes.
Beware? Shanku thought mischievously. Let him beware! She dropped down to the ground and stalked among the trees. Her time among men had made her dangerously fearless of them. A mistake many of the Nyre didn't usually live to repeat.
Little lizards and rodents darted from her path as she passed by. None wished to become the target of a hunting Kurach, no matter how young.
The sounds of a skirmish drew her attention. She crept to the edge of an overhang and peered into a small clearing. The ledge she was on was a part of a series of rocks that formed a sort of corner in the forest. At the opening stood four angry goblins holding spears and knives. Backed against the wall of the clearing was a single man holding his dagger defiantly before him.
That's not fair, Shanku thought nonchalantly and quietly slipped away from the edge.
The green and grey goblins began to advance on the solitary man. They eyed his belongings hungrily. His dagger was sharp. The leather vest, bracers, belt, and boots could be made into many tools, and his clothes could easily replace many of the tattered loincloths the goblins were wearing. The cloak possibly could become a tent! One of the knife-wielding goblins prepared himself for a charge.
The goblins squeaked and yelped in surprise as they were suddenly crashed into one another. Shanku had dove down and pulled her foot up at the last moment to kick the goblins into dominoing. She quickly rolled onto the ground and grabbed one of the dropped spears. She jumped onto her feet and pointed the spear towards them, her ears laid back and her wings arched magnificently behind her. The goblins gathered themselves and huddled together for a moment. One held his fists up before him to feign bravery. But one goblin was not so brave. He fled screaming from his companions, who quite quickly followed him and begged him to slow his pace for them.
If only Katari or Eru could see me now! Shanku laughed to herself and dropped the spear. She relaxed her ears and wings only to find she had a dagger pointed at her.
"Prepare yourself, demon!" The man challenged.
"That's not very polite," Shanku said, irritated. Not a grateful one, is he?
"I know it was you who sent those creatures!" He growled, brandishing the dagger.
"Who, the goblins?" Shanku asked. "And I'm not a demon. I'm a Kurach."
"I've never heard of such a 'kurrok' creature."
"Not even in your history books?" Shanku crossed her arms. "Remember the Great Raids of 4098? That was my kind's doing." She paused. On second thought, probably shouldn't brag about that. Oops.
"You're not helping your case any," the man threatened.
"Yeah, realizing that now," Shanku said and smacked her forehead with her palm.
"I will spare your life, demon," the man said cautiously as he sheathed his dagger. "If you lead me to your minion."
"Excuse me?" Shanku asked incredulously. One track mind, much?
"The source of the monsters in the port town!" He pointed off into the forest, presumably to the location of the town in question.
"That does explain your behaviour," Shanku observed. "Wait here."
"No tricks, demon!" The man growled and pulled his cloak around him.
Cubs never mind, growled the faun to himself as he watched from behind a distant bush.
"Hello again!" Shanku greeted as she stepped behind the bush. He had stood upwind of them and she had caught his scent.
"I can't believe something hasn't killed you yet," he snapped. "Keep quiet and step quick. I can still get you away from it, before it turns violent." He spat with vehemence, all the while glaring at the man as he gestured quickly behind him. No guardian of the Nyre had any love for man, not for a thousand years, and probably not for a thousand more.
"What's going on here?" The man asked impatiently as he followed after Shanku.
"You don't listen well," Shanku said nonchalantly.
"Neither do you, cub," the faun grumbled.
"Is this thing your minion?" The man asked and pointed to the faun.
"Far from it," Shanku and the faun said in unison, she with amusement and he was disgust.
"He seems to think some plague came from the Nyre," Shanku explained to the faun. "And that I'm responsible for it."
"For fleas and lice, maybe," the faun laughed.
"No. It was neither fleas nor lice," the man said solemnly.
"Then what was it?" asked the faun sarcastically.
"Terrible creatures from the depths of the abyss," the man said darkly. "Who fall upon the people and consume them alive." One could almost see the fires dancing in his eyes.
"Flying things?" The faun asked. "Two legs and horns?"
"You're looking for an old minocentaur. He lives in a cave west of here. I'm not fond of humans..." he sighed, thinking of his rudeness before and couldn't really blame the man for entering the forest. "But I never appreciated his methods." He knew that the minocentaur had been wronged and had gone to some terrible lengths to exact his revenge. The faun wandered off into the trees once more. It was his duty to protect those of the Nyre, even if it meant surrendering one of his wards to protect the others from unjust harm.
"Follow me," the man ordered the cub.
"Why?" she asked inquisitively and fell in behind him.
"In case I need you," he said bluntly.
"And if I can't help?"
"Are you familiar with a blade?"
"Not in the least!" Shanku laughed.
The man stopped and looked at her for a moment. He reached under his cloak and into a pack. He presented her with a spare dagger. "Learn to use this."
"Trusting the savage demon?" She asked playfully.
"Make a single attempt on my life and it will be your last," he smirked.
"Teach me to use it and I'll guard your life," Shanku said deviously.
"Is that some sort of threat?" He raised an eyebrow.
"Have you ever seen a minocentaur? You're gonna need my help," Shanku said earnestly, ears laid down and wings drawn close in worry. The man observed her for a moment and nodded. He had never been in the forest before and her knowledge of its denizens could very well be the difference between his survival or demise.
Over the next few weeks as they searched for the cave, Shanku told him everything she knew of minocentaurs. He in turn taught her how to fight with her dagger. At times he would find two long sticks and teach her a little sword play. Together they even came up with a few ways for her to use the dagger in flight.
"I'm not fully satisfied, but that should do," The man said one day after practice. His student wasn't very bad, but he did not intend for her to think in the slightest she could hold her own against him. She had grown on him but he was not yet ready to accept her as an ally.
"'That should do'? I've worked my tail off!" Shanku huffed. She had done her best into charming him to be her friend, but the gruff man had yet to show signs of it working.
"There is the cave," he pointed ahead. Among some pines and boulders was a worn path leading into a large hole. Old bones littered the ground.
"It smells bad," Shanku wrinkled her nose. Old and new death were both in the air.
"Be on guard, little one. We camp tonight. It's not wise to rush these creatures," Rhett warned and began to recede into the trees. Shanku looked at him curiously and soon followed.
In a small clearing with some sparse grass they chose their camp. The man divided some smoked meat from a few rabbits that Shanku had caught for them the other day. As the sun sank below the canopy and the early dusk only found among so many trees began to settle, the frogs and insects of the Nyre began their nightly chorus. The man curled up under his cloak and fell asleep. Shanku watched him sleep. Something about him reminded her of Anoki. Perhaps it was his long hair? Or the strange forlornness lurking behind every expression? In time she also dozed off, lost in her own thoughts.
The frogs and insects became eerily quiet. An unnatural predator walked among them. Two feet fell noiselessly on the ground with two toes turned forward and two turned backward on each foot, all adorned with long, black talons. The dark, bipedal reptile gave a low hiss and raised a dorsal fin along the back of its neck, the long tail lashing dangerously behind. Long leather wings were drawn close to its body along with the "tail feathers" made of a thin membrane strung between two long spines. Four spines on a plate atop its back, two horns protruding from its cheeks, two horns from his brow, a mouth full of needle-like teeth, and glowing green eyes. This was the infamous spiny Port's Plague.
Shanku blinked sleepily and looked around. She could have sworn there was a snake hissing nearby. She came fully to her senses with a fright as she saw the predator hovering above the man with its jaws open.
"Wake up!" She yelped and jumped to her feet.
He awoke to see the fangs mere inches from his throat. He curled his hand into a fist and backhanded the fiend with all his strength. The reptile growled and hissed, backing off and lashing his tail behind him once again. It could easily extend its head to four feet off the ground.
"What are those things!?" Shanku asked in horror.
"The Port's Plague!" The man growled and quickly donned his bracers. Four of the plague stood before him, bobbing their heads and circling their intended prey. A fifth suddenly dropped from the branches above with a blood-curdling shriek, the cruel feet opened in a star pattern to extend the talons to the fullest.
The man reacted quickly and drove his dagger deep into the chest of the diving reptile. He immediately hurled it to the ground with the momentum of the dive as the glowing green blood quickly ate through the carcass like acid. Rhett then charged at another.
Shanku faced off against one of the reptiles, she and it both had flared wings curled about them threateningly. The reptile jumped and brought its feet forward to try to grab her. She crouched and lunged at the fiend, grabbing hold of its ankles. They hit the ground and rolled. She struggled to pull herself on top and pinned the fiend to the ground with a foot squarely on his chest, his spines on his back sinking into the soil. It still had its teeth and snapped at her as far as his neck would allow. She jumped back, still holding the lethal feet.
The man came up behind them and slit the reptile's throat. "Quit playing around and get your dagger!"
"Cut me some slack, claws are still more familiar!" Shanku snapped back. She yipped as another reptile impaled itself on the man's dagger. The final one of the Port's Plague flew in close behind its fallen comrade. Shanku leaped back away from the clawed feet and lashed out at his throat with her own claws. She succeeded in severing the major vessels in the neck as she ripped back her hand.
"Why did I bother teaching you anything," he sighed as he cleaned his dagger of the strange green blood.
"What a mess," Shanku grimaced as she eyed her slimey fingers. She felt a strange tingling and burning sensation begin on her fingers and she quickly wiped the acid off before it could do her any damage.
"Come. We camp elsewhere," he said calmly as he walked away.
"Ya sure? Other than the gooey corpses, this place is rather nice," Shanku replied sarcastically.
"If they found us here once, they'll find us here again," he said logically.
"And if they follow us to the second camp?"
"We defend ourselves and move again."
"A bit reckless Mister... whoever you are," Shanku laughed.
"Rhett," the man said warmly.
"I'm Shanku," she grinned. Maybe I finally won him over.
"'Shanku'? How's 'Ravenwing' instead? It's much easier to say."
"I like it," Shanku giggled and admired her wings.
"Here should do," Rhett said at length and plopped down onto the ground. "Get some rest."
The two curled up once again and fell asleep. This time, nothing bothered them. The following morning, they came across the cave were the warlock was hiding. Rhett and Shanku had found the minocentaur Kikeru that Kyros the Faun Guardian told them about. But he didn't seem too pleased to see them in return. With a menacing snarl, he stepped out into the early morning light.
Zanzen whittled away absentmindedly at a block of wood. He paused for a moment and glanced at his mate.
"Eat, Nari." He returned his gaze to his woodwork. "You've been skipping meals too long."
"...Do you think she knows?" Nari asked wistfully at length.
Zanzen faced his mate once more, ears pricked forward to show she had his attention.
"About her younger sibling?" Nari sighed and clutched a nearby egg. It gave a small stir to show signs of life and was still once more. She returned it to its nest and pulled the straw tight about it.
"Shanku's gone, Nari. It's time to move on," Zanzen said coldly. He stared blankly at one of the walls of the cave.
"How? How can I? First my brother, now my own cub! The Elders have robbed me twice!" Nari screamed. Her ears were laid back and her wings were arching dangerously behind her.
"Shanku was my daughter too!" Zanzen snapped back, matching her ears and wings. "I miss her as much as you!" He paused and relaxed his wings. "If I could find her, I'd bring her home. But they ran her too far away. I have never been able to track her."
"Then let's leave! Leave the Elders far behind and return to Hilael his older sister," Nari pleaded as tears began to stream down her cheeks.
"Ah, Nari..." Zanzen's voice broke and he pulled his mate close to him. "You know as well as I that it's a lost cause by now. Even if she could hunt well enough to avoid starving... Even I cannot handle the minocentaurs. There's no way she could still be—"
"Don't even go there!" Nari interrupted and buried her face into his chest. "Our little Shanku can't be. She just can't!" She clung to Zanzen and wept.
"Maybe she isn't," Zanzen offered tentatively, barely in control of his own emotions. "She does have the lucky black wings, after all." He paused and stared off into space thoughtfully. "Her first time out she came home safely, even though she brought back a minocentaur. Then after that was the gryphon. And then she came home with a dragon..."
"Oh gosh, I hope she doesn't bring a chimera home this time!" Nari exclaimed frightfully.
"Hush, Nari," Zanzen shuddered. "Let's not tempt fate."