Chapter 5: Sleeping with the Fishes

The sun rose over the still forest. A man and a Kurach cub approached the den of a great minocentaur bull. And he was aware of it. He emerged from his den, the light falling onto the curves and bulges of his muscular body. He had the head of a bull with long horns, a human-like torso in the place where a bull's usual neck would be, and the long body you would expect of his kind. A thousand pounds of anger and malice against two creatures who together barely weighed a quarter of his weight.

"Who dares near my lair?" the bull demanded in a deep, booming voice. "What is your business here?"

"Are you the one who sent those monsters to Port Tephras?" Rhett demanded without showing a single ounce of fear.

"Hmm..." the bull rumbled pensively. His eyes narrowed and he laid back his ears. "The town deserved its fate."

Oh no, this won't end well, Shanku shuddered.

"What!?" Rhett yelled, his hand whipped to his dagger.

"For their sins," the bull gathered himself up and outstretched his arms. "All will die!"

A swarm of the reptilian Port's Plague flew out from the cave and around their master. Shanku and Rhett dodged and parried the swarm. Sunlight glinted and flashed from Rhett's dagger as he slit throats and impaled the monsters. Shanku battled her own in a flurry of feathered and leathery wings.

"Is this really necessary? What's wrong with you?" She demanded at length when the monsters were regrouping for a second assault.

"I could ask the same of you, cub," the old bull growled as he circled the pair. Another reptile dove and quickly met its end on Rhett's blade. "Helping humans? For shame..."

"What? They're no different than us," Shanku stared at him defiantly.

"So na&iauml;ve. Would you still feel inclined to help them after they've taken everything you hold dear away from you?" The bull's lips curled back in a snarl. "But, how could a cub your age possibly understand loss?" He gestured to his remaining pet.

"Loss? My whole clan disowned me! Try understanding that!" Shanku hissed in anger.

"I don't blame them. Any creature that sides with those murderers should be purged from the forest," the bull said coolly and signaled for the reptile to dive. Shanku snarled in fury and grabbed its tale as it passed by her in pursuit of the tired Rhett. She swung the reptile around and into the rocky side of the cave, its head connecting with a sickening crack.

"He's trying to rile you, Ravenwing. Calm down," Rhett panted. "Although, I won't complain if you take out your anger on another monster."

"There is no need for another," the bull growled. He stood several paces off. The bull began to paw at the ground.

"Rhett..." Shanku stammered, her eyes wide. "Run."

"Oh, bugger," Rhett groaned. He barely rolled to the side in time as the great bull thundered at him in a charge, his head down and sharp horns aimed directly at Rhett's chest.

Rhett came to his feet and crouched close to the ground. The bull turned and began to paw the ground once again. He had no intentions of missing this time. The bull lowered his head and charged once more. Rhett planted his feet firmly and stood his ground. Shanku dove from atop a boulder and landed hard onto the back of the great beast. The bull reared and gave a furious bellow as she sank all of her claws into his hide. The bull pitched forward and bucked her off. Rhett was close by and waiting.

As Shanku dangled from a limb above she looked down to see the bull barely standing. Rhett stood hunched off to the side.

"I'm sorry, Mina..." the bull said weakly and collapsed to the ground. He had died as many of his creations — impaled on the end of Rhett's dagger.

"Are you alright?" Rhett called up to the cub.

"Yeah," Shanku called back and glided to the ground. "So, now what?"

"Repair the town," Rhett murmured distantly as he retrieved his dagger.

"I hope this doesn't happen again," Shanku looked over the fallen bull sadly.

"...Me too."

"It could have been prevented," came a familiar voice behind them.

"Would you quit just popping up?" Shanku yelped. "And why are you always behind us?"

"What do you mean?" Rhett asked the faun guardian.

"It's not safe to hunt the creatures of the Nyre," the faun said sternly.

"Normally we wouldn't have hunted him," Shanku said nervously and sat down.

"Not you," the faun rolled his eyes. "Ever heard of 'poaching'?"

"There's a ban on it. Too many people were getting themselves killed," said Rhett.

"It needs to be heavily reinforced then," the faun said angrily. "The minocentaur retaliated for the loss of his cow and calf."

Shoulda known. Tends to be a recurring problem around here, Shanku mused and pulled her wings close.

"My job never lets me stop the problems until they're well under way," Rhett sat down in exhaustion. "I'm only a bounty-hunter."

"And while I usually find these problems before they begin, I can do nothing outside of the Nyre but watch," the faun held his hands behind his back and paced.

"Perhaps I can help with that," Rhett offered, smiling weakly.

"Perhaps," the faun said slyly. There may be hope for this human after all.

"So is anybody hungry besides me?" Shanku called from her position by the dead bull.

"I would imagine the meat too tough," Rhett said, wide-eyed. "Was he not elderly?"

"I graze," the faun grimaced and held his stomach.

"More for me!" Shanku licked her lips hungrily.

"Are you sure Kurach aren't a type of demon or monster themselves?" Rhett asked the faun skeptically.

"I wonder that about all predators," the faun snarled.

"Go sit on a sawbriar," Shanku huffed. Before she could tuck into her over-sized meal, Rhett pulled her back and shook his head. He gathered together as much wood as he could find and built a nest around the minocentaur. That night, he lit the funeral pyre.

Shanku fidgeted nearby, tempted by the smell of a cooking bull, but respectfully kept the distance Rhett wanted from her.

With the minocentaur put to rest, Rhett began his trek back to Port Tephras. With nothing better to do, and perhaps guided by her never-ending curiosity, Shanku accompanied him.

"I'm not sure I can take you into town," Rhett said one day as they stood on a hill that looked over the port.

"How come?" Shanku asked.

Rhett was quite startled. In place of the furred and feathered creature he had been travelling with stood a rather average looking little girl, except for Shanku's tell-tale blonde forelocks and the blonde tips on the ends of her brown hair.

"You are not normal," Rhett shuddered and continued on towards the town. "Next time give me a warning before you do something that strange. You'd better not slip up and return to your other body while we're in town, or we're both dead."

Shanku giggled deviously and followed after him once more.

The air was light and the cry of the gulls could be heard in the distance. The sea spanned out before them, ever rolling in and out. The trees thinned out into farmland and little homes could be seen among the patches of crops. But there were none tending the fields. All the houses were deserted and eerily quiet. Often fresh graves could be seen beside the abandoned hovels. Some were barely the length of Shanku's tail. Some of the steads had burned and there were also black patches in the same size as the plague monsters. Shanku couldn't help but wonder if some of the fallen had managed to take a few of the plague with them.

Over the next few weeks, Rhett and Shanku helped the remaining people rebuild their damaged homes from where the reptiles had burst through their roofs and walls. Rhett would chop wood for the cooking fires or repairs and do some minor blacksmithing. Shanku would tend to the coops. She felt much more at home around the chickens than she did the sheep or cattle.

But how she loathed helping the washerwoman.

"Bah, I hate washing stinky ol' clothes!" she would growl and grumble while scrubbing a dirt stain.

"But these stink extra if you don't wash," the old washerwoman would admonish and set Shanku back to work.

One day as Rhett had gone into the general store to fetch some more feed for the chickens, Shanku waited outside on a hitching post. She was giving her observations to the poor mule beside her when she noticed a ship docked at the port. It was a beautiful fluyt and a blue flag billowed from the stern.

"Rhett, have you ever sailed before?" Shanku asked curiously as he stepped back outside.

"A few times," he stopped on the edge of the porch. "Why do you ask?"

"Up for a little trip?" Shanku asked, her eyes positively gleaming.

"No," Rhett said shortly. He didn't fare well on ships. Most of his trips had been spent dangling over the railing.

"Mind if I go?" Shanku asked, undaunted.

"Are you ill?" Rhett couldn't imagine anyone other than a sailor who would willingly board one of the unstable wooden devils.

"Afraid so," Shanku laughed. "Wanderlust!"

Rhett chuckled. He had become good friends with the strange cub and knew about this "affliction" she had. "If you don't get thrown off the ship, have fun, Ravenwing."

"Thanks Rhett!" Shanku squealed and hugged him tightly. Rhett laughed as she ran off to the docks. He watched her wistfully for a few moments. I can't believe I actually got attached to that thing. He shook his head and went on about his work.

Shanku approached the gangplank of the fluyt cautiously. She boarded the ship and looked around. The crew was busy scurrying about and paid her no mind. The deck rocked gently under her. She skipped over to one of the shrouds leading up the main mast and clambered up, up, up all the way to the top. She opened the trap door to the crow's nest and looked out over the port. The sails billowed out below her and the ship slowly began to pull away.

Shanku leaned against the sides of the crow's nest and took in the breeze.

Good wind... Good gliding wind... She relaxed and relished the feel of the wind. She didn't even notice that she had shifted back into a Kurach. I smell something cooking! Her keen nose returned to her, she caught a scent wafting up from below. She leapt over the side and circled the mast. She landed with hard thud onto the deck and approached the first sailor she saw.

"Dinner time?" She asked happily. She was surprised to find herself suddenly grabbed by the arm.

"Doctor Newbury!" the sailor shouted out.

"What's all the fuss about?" asked an old man in long black robes and a broad-brimmed hat. He had spectacles on his nose and very bushy muttonchops on his cheeks.

"Cap'n said 'no more pets'," the sailor grumbled as he jabbed a finger at the cub.

"What am I, a common dog?" Shanku demanded as she yanked back her arm.

"I've never seen this one before. Relax, Mr. Whitten. I'll claim future responsibility for her."

"What was his problem?" Shanku growled as Whitten stomped off.

"Just some minor problems in the past with Kurach," the old man said absentmindedly. "Hrm... You're not native, are you?"

"Not really," Shanku replied, puzzled, and shrugged. "I'm from the Nyre. Yeah, I know. 'Thought the Sylvans were extinct.' Big conflict long ago, went into hiding, we're still kickin'."

"Interesting..."

"If you want more details it'll have to be after supper," Shanku said flatly. She'd had plenty of these encounters and her stomach was more pressing to her than a story.

"Of course, come with me," the old man began to make his way below deck. "Do you like fish?"

"Who doesn't?" Shanku said hungrily.

"Old sailors."

So Shanku found herself among new faces, sailing to where she had never been before and under the watchful eye of a seafaring doctor.

And that's how I met Doctor Newbury. It's a wonder he did not make me fly back to shore and go home on the spot! But he was kind and curious to a fault.

At first, I did not know what to make of his inquisitive nature. Usually I was the one asking questions! Little did I know how much of a spectacle I would become to those I had yet to meet.

The crew took to me well enough, I suppose. I began to wonder if Mr. Whitten would ever adjust to me!

~ Shanku Ravenwing