Chapter 24: Final Ascension

"Remind me. Where are we going again?" Shanku asked. Huata had been leading her over seemingly endless snow for quite some time and her wings were getting chilled.

"To the land of the yeti," Huata replied.

"What's a yeti?"

"Big. Hair. Grumpy," Huata held her hands up before her to imply size. "Smell kinda funky too."

"And we're going to go see the stinkin', cranky haiballs why?" Shanku asked boredly.

"Lichen," Huata stated.

"We're risking our lives for a fungus!?" Shanku exclaimed and nearly fell out of the sky.

"A fungus and an alga, actually. It helps treat the common cold, dry cough, indigestion, fevers, and helps fight infections," Huata explained as she counted off the items on her fingers. "And it makes some fine breads and porridges."

"Alright, so it's a grain substitute and a medicine," Shanku agreed with resignation. "Can we find it somewhere safer?"

"It grows best and must lush near volcanoes. Which is where the yeti live," Huata replied.

"Can we ask them nicely for it?" Shanku asked uneasily. "Minimize the chances of a mauling?"

"You have minocentaur. We have ice apes," Huata said with a shudder.

Soon they began to see the landscape change from rolling, snowy hills to various rocks jutting up from the ground and steaming pools sinking into the ground. There was a breeze where pockets of warm air rose up from the hot springs.

"We're here!" Huata said excitedly and landed on the side of a large hill.

"You weren't kidding about 'lush'," Shanku muttered. All around her were big, bushy patches of vegetation.

"Nor about the yeti," Huata said cautiously and knelt down to begin harvesting lichen. "Please gather quickly."

Huata showed her what the quality of lichen was desired. Shanku opened the large bag she had been given at the start of the flight and proceeded to fill it. Despite the warnings about the yeti, Shanku couldn't help but feel relaxed. It was a comfortable temperature when in her feral form, various little streams spilled out crevices in the hillsides and cascaded over the rocks to make delightful bubbling sounds. The more turbulent hot springs and mud pits that were certainly the hottest of the ones around were roiling in a neverending boil. Shanku wrinkled her nose. Of course, the sulfur was not the most aromatic odor to float through the air, being much to reminiscent of the smell of rotting meat.

"That should be plenty," Huata said at length when her bag was full. "I hope the other gatherers have done as well."

"That was uneventfuly," Shanku said cheerily. Suddenly, an angry howl came out from, above them.

"You jinxed us!" Huata hissed through clenched teeth as Shanku smiled sheepishly. To their mutual concern, they had backed themselves up to the entrance of a cave while they had been gathering, and the yeti who howled dropped himself directly in front of them. He was easily twice the height of Shanku, with a barrel chest and larger gut, thick and long arms, and even bigger but shorter legs. He was covered in light grey and white shaggy hair, and what skin was showing on his hands, feet, and lips was very dark.

"He's blocking the entrance!" Huata said frantically.

"Whose bright idea was it to pick lichen in front of a cave!?" Shanku demanded in exasperation. She sighed and shook her head to clear it. "Do you think there's another way out?"

"I don't know," Huata said nervously as she drew her wings around here. The yeti growled viciously and advanced forward. The Kurach took a step back. Shanku held her hands up before her as Huata shrank further.

"We mean you no harm," Shanku said calmly. "We just want to go home."

"Thieves... You rob my gardens again!" The yeti growled.

"You grew that stuff?" Shanku asked in surprsie.

"Thieves!" The yeti roared, displaying his long fangs, and took a swipe at the Kurach with one of its huge hands. Shanku quickly dropped down out of the way. She jumped back to where Huata was pressed up against a rock wall.

"I'll distract him," Shanku said quickly. She took off her bag and thrust it to Huata. "Take my bag and fly."

"But what of you?" Huata asked nervously as she took the bag.

"I've survived worse, now get ready," Shanku said with determination as she stared down the yeti. She kept her wings flared and ready beside her. "We just wish to leave now. I could help you grow more."

The yeti growled and swung another huge hand at her. Shanku dropped to the ground again to avoid it, skirted to the side, then sprang with all her might into his thigh to knock him off balance. The yeti tottered and stumbled as he regained his balance. He was closer to the side of the entrance now. Furious, he turned, and ran after the dark-winged pest.

"Fly!" Shanku called out to Huata and lead the yeti on a chase.

Huata did not need to be told twice and promptly darted out the cave. She leapt into the air and flew away as fast as she could. Nearing the edge of the volcanic region, she looked over her shoulder with a twinge of guilt. She landed on a protruding rock, and stood there looking back at the distant cave entrace for a few moments. This isn't right. She took off the bags and set them down on the rocks. I can't let her be killed. She leapt off rock and dove back down toward the cave. Even if she is a Sylvan. Huata cupped her wings to break her speed and landed in the cave entrance. She shifted to her feral form and took a tentative step inside. "Shanku?"

Shanku was quite surprised to hear her come back. "You don't mind very well!" she snapped, but she paid for the distraction. She yipped loudly as the yeti finally landed a blow and swatted her into a nearby wall. Dazed from the impact, she looked up fearfully as the yeti prepared to pound her to death with his fists. What a way to die...

A white and grey wolf with chevrons on its wings hurled itself into the yeti's side and knocked him back a few steps. It stood protectively between Shanku and the yeti, with a simple and pleading, "no". To Shanku's surprise, the yeti stopped and looked down at them.

"We honestly didn't know these were farms. I'm very sorry if we've been stealing all this time," Huata apologized. She kept her wings flared around her and her ears half laid back as she took a step forward. "May we keep what we gathered?"

"I... Um... Uh...?" the yeti stammered as he looked down at the four-footed Kurach.

"Please?" Huata begged softly with the most soulful look and with her ears laid down.

"Alright," the yeti said at length, unable to resist her large, brown eyes. "If you come visit and help tend my garden."

"Yes," Huata nodded and held her head up happily. "I'm fairly sure the rest of my clan wouldn't mind either. Your lichen is very important to us too."

"Well, congratulations twice over," Shanku said as she sat cross-legged on the cave floor.

"Thanks," Huata laughed as the yeti happily scratched her head and ears.

"I guess the situation left little choice for both us," Shanku said sheepishly as she scratched the back of her own head. "Sorry, fellow. No hard feelings, I hope."

"You a brave little fluffball," the yeti nodded toward Shanku. "Not many will stand and fight with me. Not without those evil spears."

"My people generally don't like weapons. Besides, I only wanted to get away. I don't enjoy stealing, and especially not killing," Shanku grinned.

Huata reared up and licked the yeti on the cheek, promising again to return to help tend his gardens, and lead Shanku out of his cave. The yeti stood at the entrance, waving farewell to them.

"So, what's the secret to it?" Shanku asked as the flew out to where Huata had left the lichen bags.

"Reverse of anger, but like anger, fear is still necessary," Huata said pensively.

"What's the non-riddle and non-cryptic method?" Shanku asked bluntly, ears laid back in irritation.

"It's so obvious eo me now! You'll understand when it's your time," Huata chirped happily.

"...So I guess you're not going to tell me then?" Shanku asked grumpily. I had to get smacked over that, after all!

"It truly is something to be learned alone," Huata said apologetically. She landed on the rock where she had left the bags. With a sigh, Shanku followed, gathered them both up, and off they went again to return to the village.

"Huata!" Kanguq squealed and came running up as the two landed. "You did it! You finally did it! You ascended!"

Huata grinned from ear to ear as Kanguq gave her a quick hug.

"How?" Kanguq asked as she tapped her chin thoughtfully.

"Yeti," Huata stated.

"Oo, scary!" Kanguq nodded.

"But I need to talk to the Elders," Huata said as she ducked her head and turned away. "Excuse me."

"You gotta do what you gotta do," Kanguq agreed as Huata scampered off. She gave a happy sigh and held her cheek with her hand. "She's growing up so fast!"

"Lichen?" Shanku offered a bag to Kanguq.

"Sure. I'll help you take it to her house," Kanguq laughed. "So, what's she gotta talk to them about?"

"Well, yeti's have gardens, see..." Shanku trailed off and rubbed the back of her head where she had struck the cave. She relayed the story of the encounter with the yeti and the lichen farm.

"Ah," Huata said when Shanku had finished. "So, Huata saved your butt and managed to get a peace treat with the nasty ol' yeti?"

"Yup."

"This'll be quite a feather in her cap! We must begin preparation for her new tattoo!"

"Oh?"

"Her parents, me since I'm her best friend, obviously we need the priest to bless it, Dakota since he won't want to miss this and he'll need to get his diamond too, probably his parents, and you of course," Huata said as she counted everybody up on her fingers.

"Me?"

"Yes," Huata nodded. "You helped her ascend, after all. She'll want you there for the rest of her whiskers."

"Whiskers...?"

"The two stripes on either cheek like mine and Dakota," Kanguq explained. "They represent full ascension."

"Well, let's get started," Shanku grinned.

As Huata was busy discussing her experience with the yeti, Kanguq and Shanku went about the village finding the various people that Kanguq and listed. Kanguq found huata's parents who, of course, were positively thrilled to hear the news their daughter had reached the final ascension, and went at once to find the priestess. Shanku found Dakota and he quickly went to find his own kin to bring to the ceremony. All were gathered together and waiting in front of Huata's hut when she finally returned from her business with the Elders.

"What's all this?" She asked curiuosly, one ear laid back and the other half back.

"We prepare for one of two new marks," her father said proudly.

"My whiskers, and...?" Huata cocked her head to the side, quite puzzled.

"Your diamonds," Dakota told her. Huata squealed and clasped her hands with delight, barely aware she had shifted back to her natural form, and pounced on Dakota with glee.

"Just in time for winter," Kanguq laughed.

"Looks like they're getting a jump start on the honeymoon," Shanku teased.

When Huata had composed herself, she sat down on the bear skin where the priestess was waiting to award her final tattoos. Chena hummed and sang as she cut Huata's skin and rubbed the precious dye into it. Huata thus received her the last two of her whiskers and the marital diamond on the forehead, barely able to concentrate through the ceremony with the thought of her upcoming union with Dakota. Huata's mother shuddered a bit as she watched, remembering all to well the pain of receiving them. Afterward, it was Dakota's turn to receive his diamond when Huata had been tattooed and cleaned.