Chapter 27: Partner in Crime

The wind softly blew through the leaves as Shanku and Innugati enjoyed another breakfast on one of the many boulders that dotted the landscape. Movement caught the corner of Shanku's eye and she looked off to see two does browsing. And a male Kurach stalking them just behind a bush in tan, broad-stitched shorts and a sleeveless shirt in the traditional open-backed style all of their kind wore. He had black hair with blonde tips, and his wings were black, white, and grey. His ears were a dark grey and his tail was a soft grey and white. Shanku knew him in an instant.

"Well, look who it is," Shanku whispered quietly to Innugati. "Let's give him a hand..."

Shanku perched on the edge of the rock and spread her wings. Ten years is too long, old friend.

Katari took another cautious step. Almost. So close! He was not close enough to ambush the deer directly, but if he was lucky he would catch them before they had a chance to run far. Like most predators, the success rate of a Kurach was about one in ten. Very carefully, Katari moved forward again, trying ever so hard not to rustle the fallen leaves.

There was a flash of black, a resounding thud, and the sound of bones cracking as the doe suddenly lurched toward him. The other doe reared up on her haunches and quickly bounded away into the forest. Katari leapt back and stood, his claws held up before him defensively, as he tried to make sense of what happened. To his surprise, he found another Kurach sitting on the shoulder of the fallen doe.

"Hey, what's the big idea? That was my doe!" Katari growled indignantly.

"Howdy!" Shanku grinned mischeivously.

"Sh... Shanku? You're alive?" Katari stuttered, staring in disbelief. "You're back..."

"Know any other black wings? It has been ten years!" Shanku grinned like a fox. "How ya been?"

"You crazy loon, don't you know diving like that is dangerous?" Katari gestured emphatically at the deer.

"It got the deer, didn't it?" Shanku giggled. "Let me get my pack, I'll walk you home."

Shanku climbed back up the large rock. A flood of emotions came over Katari. Joy. Sorrow. Anger. Guilt. Dread. Fear... He absent-mindedly gathered up the doe and placed her over his shoulders. Shanku gathered her belongings and Innugati, and returned to her old friend. "Alright, let's go!"

Innugati trilled encouragingly.

"What is that?" Katari asked suspiciously.

"Innugati!" Shanku stated. The little fairy dragon fluttered her wings and tilted her head.

"Are you trying to get exiled again already?" Katari hissed lowly.

"This one's small enough that they'd have to be very insecure to feel threatened by her. She's been a good friend." Shanku shrugged and then nudged him. "And look at you! All grown up and stuff. I almost didn't recognize you! But I guess there are some scents I'll never forget. Some things never change, eh?"

"Neither have you, apparently, Dragon Keeper," Katari sighed. "Go away," Katari said coldly as turned away and prepared to go off into the forest .

"What?" Shanku asked, taken aback.

"I don't know what life's been like for you on your little adventure, but it's been hell for me," Katari said bitterly. "You were my best friend and everybody knew it. Do you know what I had to put up with when you got yourself exiled?" He turned an accusing eye back toward her. "'Sure can pick'em.' 'Are you gonna get me kicked out too?' 'Don't hang around me, you only like the rejects.'"

"I'm sorry," Shanku said meekly, her ears drooping.

"Hilael was the only one who'd play with me all those years, but I wasn't allowed near a family where two of them had been banished," Katari growled. "By the way, you have another uncle. He got booted not long before you hatched."

"I know," Shanku smiled weakly. "Actually, right after I hatched. And I found him at sea. He took me in for a while. His name is Turai Specklewing."

"Yay, you found each other," Katari said flatly. "Now the one you need to find is Hilael. He's had it worse than me."

"Why? What's happened to Hilael?" Shanku growled.

"If you thought he was quiet before, he's downright mute now. A few good thrashings will do that to ya. Pup's not a fighter, never was. He hardly stands a chance in this clan. I'm honestly surprised he has lasted this long," Katari said bitterly. He sighed heavily. "I've got to get going now. I'll see you later. Thanks for the doe," he said and started to walk off. "Glad you made it home safe."

"Katari, please," Shanku pleaded.

Katari stopped and stood still for a few moments. Shanku waited apprehensively in silence.

"I guess you can come with me," he said coldly. "I hope you learned how to fight. I've been after that doe all day and I'm too tired to knock off any thieving cubs that don't like me."

"You know I've always been a good fighter, and I have learned so many new things!" Shanku said deviously and quickly took her place by his side.

"So, where've you been then?" Katari asked. "The scouts said they ran you out of the Nyre and you haven't been back the entire time."

"Oh, let me tell you!" Shanku grinned deviously and proceeded to tell him her tale. Katari listened in silence as he lead them back to the Scissortail den.

"Wow..." he muttered at length when he finished.

"Yeah. So, here I am," Shanku chirped, ignoring a twinge in her chest.

"You should see your parents before you go see the Elders," Katari said pensively. "They'll want to see you before you stir up more trouble."

"I intend to. Er, see my parents first. I don't really want to cause more trouble," Shanku said sheepishly. She laughed and nudged him in the ribs again. "I only saw you first because you weren't gonna get the doe!"

"Hey, I was too! I was always better than you, remember?" Katari teased.

"Not anymore!" Shanku laughed. To her great relief, she finally heard Katari laugh as well. "I've missed you, Katari."

"It hasn't been the same without you," Katari said softly and gave her a warm smile. They walked together quietly, enjoying the warm the day and the call of the birds and insects around them. After a while, they heard the sounds of a skirmish up ahead.

"Hey, what's that over there?" Shanku asked curiously.

"Sounds like a fight," Katari said worriedly.

"I'm gonna go check it out," Shanku said deeply. "It'd better not be Hilael."

"Be careful, Shanku," Katari warned. "It's always several cubs."

Shanku nodded and crept stealthily up toward the racket. She stepped on the root of a large tree to quieten her footfalls and peaked around the tree. Innugati slithered off of her shoulder and came around the tree.

...Hilael? Shanku suppressed a growl. Four cubs that were at least her age, if not older, had surrounded a cub with fur, feathers, and hair that was all a dull, dark chestnut. Within a few seasons, they would be full adults. But Hilael was younger than Shanku.

"Why don't you both just leave?" growled one of the cubs surrounding Hilael.

"And take the rest of your lowborn family with you?" jeered another.

Quiet Hilael just ducked his head and said nothing. His wings were drawn tight around him, his ears were laid back, and his tail was tucked.

"How about we just run him out of the Nyre and get it over with? Worked with the last one."

Just leave me alone, Hilael pleaded silently. He was vaguely aware of being struck again. He heard another strike, but was surprised he felt nothing. He looked up to see a pair of glossy black wings and a rather angry female Kurach standing over him.

"Leave my little brother alone!" Shanku hissed dangerously.

"Who do you think you are?" growled the one she had struck. "Do you know who I am?"

"Shanku Ravenwing," Shanku drew herself to her full height and glared at them. "I'm the one you're really mad at, aren't I? The one you actually hate? Then come on and let's settle this. As far as I'm concerned, you're just a bunch of cowards!"

"Coward?" Jagan chuckled evilly. "Have you taken a look at what's behind you?"

Shanku growled viciously and suddenly grabbed him by the throat. Jagan yipped and struggled as Shanku let the very tips of her claws dig into his neck. She pulled him barely a finger's breadth from her.

"I've killed bigger and tougher things than you without breaking a sweat. Lay another claw on him, and I'll rip your arms off. Understand?" Shanku threatened gutterally and she glared unblinkingly into his eyes. It felt good. She shoved him back into the other cubs who were tensely standing by. Jagan stood coughing and holding his bleeding neck. Shanku half wished they would make a move toward her so she could satisfy the tingling in her teeth.

"They're not worth it, c'mon," insisted one of the nearby cubs. With further persuasion from his companions, the four cubs finally walked away.

"We'll be back for you, and your spineless brother," Jagan called back behind him.

Shanku snorted in his direction and stood trembling with anger until he was out of eye and ear shot. She sighed heavily and turned slowly to look at Hilael. He was still crouched on the ground and had his wings drawn around him.

"Hilael?" Shanku asked gently and knelt down beside him. "Are you alright?"

"Shanku..." Hilael began in a choked voice. "Next time you leave..."

Shanku held her breath as Hilael turned a tear-streamed face toward her. "Take me with you."

"Aw, Hilael," Shanku said sadly as Hilael ducked his head again. She brushed a sweaty lock of hair out of his eyes. "Of course, zuznre."

"You're Shanku?" came a skeptical voice behind them. Shanku looked behind her, expecting more trouble, to instead find a young cub standing there. He could not have been much older than she was the day she was exiled. His hair was light brown with dark brown tips, with matching fur and wings.

"Who are you?" Shanku asked suspiciously as Hilael quickly dried his eyes.

"Shanku, this is Muso. Your little brother," Katari said as he stepped toward the small gathering.

"I have two little brothers now?" Shanku asked in surprise.

"And a sister! Banhi," Muso nodded and placed his hands on his hips. "Usually it's my job to see after Hilael and bloody a nose."

"Like I said, it's not been easy for any of us," Katari sighed.

"Because of me," Shanku stated. There was no point questioning it.

"Yup," Muso rolled his eyes. "Way to go."

"We take turns looking after each other, despite protests from my family to avoid yours," Katari shrugged. "The little irritants don't mess much with me, Muso, or Banhi."

"They don't dare take on me!" Muso said proudly.

"But Hilael..." Katari trailed off.

"I know," Shanku grinned and helped Hilael to his feet. "Was never much of a fighter. That was my role."

Hilael looked away and said nothing.

"No shame in it, though," Shanku clapped a hand on his back. "You're the smart one. We can't all be brutes."

Hilael shook his head.

"He probably won't say anything for a while," Muso shrugged. "He can't talk often after this kind of thing. C'mon, let's get going, I gotta go home. And Hilael's goin' to Granny Misen."

"And I'll be your body guard!" Shanku said excitedly. Innugati trilled and came flying toward them.

"What is that?" Muso exclaimed. Innugati trilled questioningly in his direction.

"Muso, meet Innugati!" Shanku introduced her small companion as the dragon came to rest on her shoulder.

"Awesome, a dragon!" Muso exclaimed. Innugati trilled again and curled up on top of his head.

"I think she likes you," Shanku giggled.

"I'm still not sold on your fighting skills, but you do put forth a violent threat," Katari chuckled.

"You should see my follow through," Shanku grinned evilly. "Besides, didn't I tell you about the minocentaur Warlock, the Sabrewings, and then all those pirates?"

"Tell me about your exile," Hilael said, although rather hoarse and choked. "Was it worth it?"

Shanku nodded and obliged. She told Muso and Hilael about what she had seen and what she had been through, although she downplayed a few parts for the sake of Muso. The last thing I need is for him to start scampering about and then getting himself banished! But there was that twinge in her chest again...

"It was worth it," Hilael said with a smile.

"Why didn't you bring Turai home with you?" Muso huffed.

"Because I didn't know where he was and I didn't want him dragging me back to that awful boat!" Shanku said exasperatedly.

"Well, here's the den. It's time we take our separate passages," Katari nodded toward a cave mouth. "Thank you for the escort. I think I can find my way from here with little trouble from others."

"Take care, Katari! I'll catch up with you later," Shanku waved as he left. She looked out over the den. It had changed. Instead of a grassy knoll and old stumps, the top of the den had been cleared and a garden with tiled walkways adorned the top. In the center, it looked that there was a glass floor just to look at as it was barred off from the walking trails. Off in the distance, there was a separate garden, with what appeared to be many chimneys coming from the ground.

"You still remember the way home?" Muso asked as they followed a ways behind Katari.

"No," Shanku said slowly and looked around at the great hall. As always, there were plenty of torches lit in the cavern, but there were no longer any nests. "We all slept in here back then."

"Follow me!" Muso chirped and lead the way through the great hall to a tunnel in the back. There were many passageways now, winding and twisting through the ground. There were many chambers along the way that branched off the main path, each with a curtain draped over the front and a name carved into the rock beside them denoting the various residents. They came to stop at a curtain with "Haro" and "Misen" etched in the wall.

"We live two dens down from Granny Misen," Muso pointed further down the hallway.

"Don't tell Granny Misen I'm back just yet," Shanku said in hushed tones. "I'll come see her after."

"Alright," Muso nodded. He ushered Hilael inside and they left Shanku alone in the dimly lit passage. Shanku walked on slowly, a sinking feeling growing deeper and deeper in her stomach. She stopped outside the den labeled "Zanzen" and "Nari Zefana". Shanku squeaked and wrung her hands together. Oh, what do I say!? She chewed on the joint of her finger for a few moments, then drew a deep breath.

"Um, excuse me?" Shanku said meekly and held aside part of the curtain.

"Yes?" came a dam's voice from inside. Shanku saw familiar black and deep brown wings and long, black and silky hair. Nari was sitting at a low wooden table and preparing a supper of venison, roots, and mushrooms.

"Hi, Ma," Shanku said with a weak grin. Nari spun around to find a daughter she had long ago lost. "I'm home."

"Shanku!" Nari cried.

"Ma!" Shanku said excitedly. She ran to her mother and they embraced each other in a long hug. "I'm so glad to see you again!" She squeaked.

"Oh Shanku," Nari squeazed her daughter. "I haven't heard of you in three years."

"Three years?" Shanku pulled away, puzzled. "But I haven't been home in ten!"

"Mothers have ways of keeping an eye on their children," Nari said with a twinkle in her eye. "Been diving at a charging minocentaur, have we? That was very dangerous for a little cub, you know."

"Aw, Ma, it was just one time! Where did you hear about that?" Shanku asked, embarrassed.

"Oh, no. Not a story from me until I have your whole tale. Sit," Nari pointed.

"Well, um..." Shanku began uneasily as she sat down on one of the cushions around the table. She looked thoughtfully at the table as she took off her pack and set it behind her. She had told her tale so many times in the past to others, mentally logged little tidbits to share with her mother should they ever meet again, and now that she was here and had the chance she found she could not speak.

"They chased you from the Nyre..." Nari prodded.

"Um, yes, I left the Nyre and came to the Lura plains. Big, rolling sea of grass!" Shanku said excitedly. "Full of so many pheasants and rabbits, and if I ever eat another rabbit again it'll be too soon. But, I was up in the air, stalking a bunny, and when I dove and caught it, this stupid dog took it away from me!"

"You did a hunting dive?" Nari asked as she continued to prepare supper.

"Yes, it's how I hunt. Very dangerous, I know, but it's the easiest way to do it, even in the woods," Shanku said absently. "I have been scolded so many times for using it on deer."

"Very good, Shanku," Nari nodded. "Most are too clumsy to attempt it. I was going to teach it to you when you got older."

"Really?" Shanku asked, puzzled.

"You're not so bad a hunter after all. You just needed some time," Nari smiled gently. "Please, continue."

"Well, Jakko, that was the dog, ran off with my rabbit! My lunch! Daggum dog," Shanku shook her head. "Anyway, I chased him for a while, but I lost him. And I met a man, he was the dog's master."

"Your first man, then?" Nari asked.

"Yes. He wasn't as bad as the old tales made them out to be. He was a herder. His grandfather started a weird breed of cow, and he owned the herd, and has all sorts of other herders that answer to him. Well, he apologized for Jakko taking my rabbit, and he took me hunting to make up for it. We took an antelope!"

"An antelope?" Nari asked in confusion.

"Yeah, it's like a deer, but smaller and even skinnier, if you can believe that. Kind of a goat deer. Did you know men hunt with bows? It's a stringed stick that shoots little sticks with feathers. He even taught me how to use it! I got good at shooting pheasants and rabbits," Shanku beamed with pride.

"Even though most weapons are frowned upon when we hunt," Nari laughed. "But, very good. We might have to see what these 'bows' are like, they'd be much better against the minocentaur than the little slingshots and slingstaves we have. So what happened next?"

"He introduced me to his wife! His wife was a Plains Kurach, but his boy was a man like him," Shanku continued. "And then later they had a little girl who was Kurach like her mother."

"What?" Nari asked, quite shocked.

"Yeah, that's what I thought. And the Plains can change shape, Ma! They can turn into men! And they taught me how to do it too! Want to see?" Shanku said excitedly.

"Um, Shanku, sweetie? Did they teach you how to use magic?" Nari asked quietly.

"Yes, yes, but it's not so bad," Shanku waved her hand dismissively. "I didn't like it at first, but it's really come in handy. Because every winter, the Heyen have to pass by Wynfall on their way to where they winter in the Nyre. Oh, Zihna is from the Heyen clan. Their shaman, Onami, was the one that taught me and the other cubs how to change shape. I got on really well with Zihna's little brother Eru. I went with Dai and Zihna to Wynfall that year, and Eru came with me."

"You wintered in a human city?" Nari asked incredulously.

"Well, it was either that or come back into Scissortail territory without permission!" Shanku shrugged. "I didn't have much choice. So, off we went to Wynfall. I spent six months as a girl and it nearly drove me crazy. Humans have such dull senses, I don't see how they get by sometimes. Dai's mother, Mrs. Iris Birchfield, saw to it that I and Eru had a tutor, when she wasn't working us to death with stupid chores like washing and mending while wearing big, bulky, useless clothes. And, Mother, he was the most boring man I have met so far!"

Nari chuckled. "You never liked school."

"And certainly not his schooling! History can be interesting and all, but not when droned on and on by some old man in a feathered hat," Shanku shuddered. "That spring, he married Mrs. Birchfield. We left not long after so Dai could tend the herd and Zihna could return to the Heyen clan. I wanted to travel some more, so I left them there."

"Were they kind to you?" Nari asked.

"Oh yes, Dai and Zihna were like second parents to me," Shanku nodded. "I wrote letters to them when I came in from the Meriweather."

"The Meriweather?"

"I'm getting ahead of myself," Shanku shook her head. "After I left Dai and Zihna, I went south. I skirted along the edges of the Nyre where the Scissortails don't go much, and there I met a little goblin."

"Oh?" Nari asked as she put the pot on top of a stove in the center of the room.

"He was very sweet. Grubber had a little winged gremlin as a companion named Gremmy. They were obsessed with fairies. Well, Grubber was. I think Gremmy just hangs around for easy beetles," Shanku replied. Nari sat back down at the table.

"Did you get to meet the fairies?"

"Not really. Sometimes I'd go with him to watch them dance and fly, but we never really talked. But, anyway, after Grubber scampered off, I met a guardian! He was a faun named Kyros, and he told me about a man that was coming deep into the Nyre. Being obedient as I am," Shanku said sheepishly. "I sought him out."

"Your time in Wynfall made you a little too relaxed," Nari shook her head.

"It paid off though. I bowled over a pack of goblins that had him cornered by some rocks. He thought I was a demon! Me! Can you believe that?" Shanku laughed. "I may not listen well and may have a bit of trouble follow me around, but that doesn't mean I'm a demon. So Kyros pops up, like he always does, and told us that the little monsters that had decimated a nearby human seaside city were summoned by a minocentaur warlock, and where to find him."

"And that's the bull you fought?"

"Yes, Ma, that's the bull," Shanku grinned deviously. "Kinda felt bad for him. Some hunters went and poached his wife and calf, even though hunting minocentaur is illegal in Tephras, and that sent him off the deep end. He summoned these big, dragon-like demon things. They were really nasty. They had glowing green eyes, and their blood burned anything it touched. I had to clean my hands quickly because it was pretty caustic. They ambushed us one night. The next morning, Rhett and I tag-teamed him and brought him down, along with more of those monsters. Oh, speaking of which, on the way to finding his cave, he gave me this," Shanku withdrew the dagger that was always on her hip.

"You have your own knife?" Nari handled the blade gently and examined it.

"Yep! Not as elaborate as Granny Shanku's ceremonial blade, but this is solid and functional. I've tried hard to keep it in good shape, despite what all we've been through together."

"It's beautiful," Nari handed it back to Shanku. She got up to go check on the stew and give it a stir.

"Thank you!" Shanku sheathed it. " Rhett had taught me a bit how to use a knife, but I forgot in the heat of the moment and used my claws on the monsters and the warlock. I never got quite used to wielding a dagger."

"So you killed the bull, the monsters, and avenged the town," Nari grinned. "I'd never have thought you the hero type as much trouble as you like to get in to."

"I know, right?" Shanku laughed. "Anyway, I showed Rhett I could change shape, so as a girl I helped him rebuild the town. I've never washed so many clothes... That old washerwoman kept me busy! We stayed there for about a month when this gorgeous fluyt sailed into port. Oh, Ma, she was such a fine ship," Shanku said sadly with a wistful look in her eyes.

"Something bad befell the Meriweather?" Nari asked grimly. Although she knew the answer from the time she went looking for her daughter and came across Rhett Talbot.

"Yeah... I'll get to that in a bit," Shanku shook her head. "I bid farewell to Rhett, and climbed on board to look at it. It set sail while I was up in the masts. When I came down, Whitten caught me and turned me over to Dr. Newbury."

"Did they hurt you?" Nari asked warily.

"Oh, no, Ma," Shanku said wistfully with a sad smile. "Dai and Zihna were like family, but the Meriweather crew was family for six wonderful years. Dr. Newbury and the guys taught me so much, and we went so many places in L'aernth, Mruha, and even Bhadarukia! I helped Dawson settle down with Shalu the Scarlet Dancer in Mruha. Every winter, Captain Morgan would give us the winter off and I'd go into the Nyre with Rhett, Kyros, and Grubber. I miss them. If it wasn't for the Brelland Seacat, I'd never have come home and still be skulking around the Peridæ territory. Maybe even joined the Peridæ."

"I guess, in some way, I owe my thanks to Brelland Seacat."

"I know I should too, but I hate them. With every last part of me, I will always hate the Brelland Seacat," Shanku growled.

"What was so bad about them?"

"Bloody pirates killed my crew," Shanku said darkly. "Came aboard my ship, killed my crew, and burned the ship into the sea. And to make it even worse, made me join them and hurt people! All except Dawson, because he lived in Mruha and I got his old post. At least one of them survived."

"Oh, goodness," Nari shuddered. "And they spared you? They don't sound the type."

"That's because uncle Turai was on board."

"You found Turai?" Nari exclaimed. "Out, far away at sea?"

"Yup," Shanku nodded. "He captured me and dragged me onto that cursed ship."

"I didn't think he'd remember you!" Nari said excitedly.

"He didn't," Shanku said flatly. "He just wanted me on board because of my black wings thinking it'd help his crew scare targets into losing morale faster. I told him I would not. But if they wanted me so bad, and despite everything I didn't want to die, I told them they'd give to me the one who killed Dr. Newbury. If I won, they had me. If I lost, well, at least I'd be dead and wouldn't have to become a pirate."

"Oh, goodness," Nari said again. "I didn't think he'd gone so far. I assume you won?"

"He hadn't, really," Shanku shrugged. "But after he found out who I was, he was a right uncle and watched out for me. He's still a good guy, deep down. Just a thief. He was a killer, but not a murderer like some of the others. He only killed when cornered, and didn't relish in it like bloody Maston. That blasted Maston... We were both tired and he had the upper hand, and he had the bad idea to gloat. He started bragging about killing the doctor. And then, I snapped." Shanku paused as some very bad memories and feelings came to the surface.

"Snapped?" Nari asked warily.

"I was so furious... I tore into him, beat him low, and ripped this throat out. I went to take on the rest of the crew, but Turai tackled me and held me back. I still haven't forgiven him for that, even though should I had been able to kill them without dying in the process, it takes more than two to man a ship. We'd have been lost out at sea."

Nari nodded and said nothing for a moment. She continued to tend the venison stew, lost in thought. At length, she continued their conversation. "How did you escape? Did Turai go with you?" Nari asked eagerly.

"A year later, I'd had enough. That was a very long, hard, dark year, I fled when I couldn't take it anymore. To hell with the chance of getting hunted down by pirate or guard, I fled. I'd had a bad row with Captain Dodger, and while we were ashore shortly after, he sent some of the crew to off me, even though at that moment I was still being an obedient little ruffian and staying put."

"What a bunch of—!" Nari started.

"Cut throats? Yup. That's what they do," Shanku shook her head. "And I was one of them. Ma, I killed so many who didn't deserve it," Shanku's voice cracked.

"Shh, shh, it's not your fault," Nari began gently. "Those pirates would have killed them anyway, the most you'd have accomplished is getting yourself killed for disobeying orders."

"But that doesn't make it right, does it?" Shanku snarled.

"No, it doesn't," Nari agreed flatly. "But I don't hold it against you."

"Ah, well," Shanku exhaled harshly. "What's done is done. He sent his mates to finish me, but I killed them and didn't regret that. Er, with help from Ryoichi the cat."

"You were friends with a cat?" Nari wrinkled her nose and stopped stirring the pot of mushrooms and roots. "Goblins are one thing, but a cat?"

Shanku burst out laughing. "Oh, wow, really? You draw the line at a cat? After everything else I've befriended?"

"Well, it's a cat! Sneaky little devils," Nari sputtered.

"Aw, daggum," Shanku wiped a tear away and calmed her giggling. "Alright, so I was a friend of this little yellow devil, who took me hunting in his home in the jungle several times," Shanku teased. "And he had my back when those pirates jumped me."

"A feline..." Nari shook her head. "A feline taught my daughter to hunt!" She closed her eyes and sighed. "At least he had the loyalty of us canines."

"Aye," Shanku nodded. "He showed me a cave to hide in lest the others of that awful ship come after me. While Turai was looking for me, I fled out the back. He talked me into trying to stay on that ship in the first place. He was probably right in saying lots of other brigands would hunt me down for deserting a pirate ship given my long history on the other side of the law, but I still didn't like it."

"So that was the last you saw of him?" Nari asked quietly.

"Aye, but I'd heard of him later on," Shanku said uneasily.

"What? What did you hear?" Nari pressed.

"He went feral and killed the crew," Shanku said quickly.

"Turai did what!?" Nari exclaimed. "Where did he learn to do that?"

"I, um, uh... me," Shanku said in a small voice. "I did it first and showed him how by accident. Right after I was brought onto the Brelland Seacat, I said I wouldn't pledge my loyalty to the captain unless I got to kill the bastard that killed Dr. Newbury. So halfway through the fight with Maston, I got so riled up I kind of shifted into my feral form the first time, and if Turai hadn't pinned me down, I'd have killed the whole crew then and there."

Nari sat in stunned silence for a moment. "Becoming human is one thing..."

"And going feral is truly another," Shanku shuddered. "But that's not the end of that! I went north from there, and ended up in the mountains across the plains, and found the Highland Kurach, who are feral all the time and proud of it."

"How did that go?" Nari asked, very worried.

"At first, just as well as you'd think. I was going hungry, hadn't eaten in days, so I went up on the mountain to get a goat. I got the goat, and then not long after, a guard got me and said I'd stolen it. So I went before the Highland council and was sentenced to a month of work to repay the debt."

"They didn't hurt you, did they?" Nari growled.

"They were quite nice, actually," Shanku shrugged. "Sigrid, my escort, was strict and mean as a bobcat, but she taught me things about the Kurach. And she taught me so much about fighting and group hunting too. She even had me flying laps the whole time I was there! It was very exhausting."

"What did she have you do to repay this 'debt'?"

"Not her. I worked with a glasscraft dragon for a week, helping him mix stuff together to make glass."

"You worked under a dragon?" Nari asked with a grin.

"Oh, and he was easy compared to Arloda Shimmerstone! That little dwarf damn near ran me into the ground. In fact, she just as well did because her forge was underground!"

Nari laughed heartily. "Yes, dwarves are incredibly hard workers. Sometimes we request help from them when we have a big job, like hollowing and expanding the den."

"I was wondering how y'all dug it out so well. But she gave me this because I stuck it out!" Shanku held out her pendant proudly. "Taught me a bit of smithing so I could make it myself!"

"You made that?" Nari asked incredulously and admired Shanku's pendant. "It's beautiful."

"You should have seen Arloda's work," Shanku nodded. "And she let me bunk with her. I lived with Arloda while I was with the Highland. Who, by the way, made me stay feral the whole time I was up there. They treat it as a rite of passage and a mark of their control and skill. Blasted hairballs didn't wear any clothes half the time either!"

"I should think not, it's not necessary with so much fur. Long ago, we didn't wear clothes when we had fur," Nari said thoughtfully.

"I was gonna stay with them. I'd lost all desire to travel or even be around people when they first found me, and I was content to stay with them since I found a job hunting for those whose duties didn't let them get their own fresh meat. I even did a bit of gathering."

"And to think, the teachers feared you'd never learn how to hunt enough to take care of yourself," Nari chuckled.

"Turns out, I'm not so shabby after all," Shanku said with a wry grin. "Kept those hulking hairballs fed quite well! Right before winter set in, the giants descend from the high peaks to renew alliances with the Highland. And the ambassador's kid ran off. Again."

"Sounds like somebody else I know," Nari shook her head.

"Aye, and because of that, I found him. But Rin, the guard who originally caught me, had found him first. Small problem. The sabrewing gryphons were circling and he couldn't get the kid away. Guess who's old pheasant hunting trick scared off the gryphons so we could get the kid outta there?" Shanku grinned deviously.

"You are certainly a risk taker!" Nari's eyes widened. "How have you not gotten killed yet?"

"Ya know, Kyros and Dawson and Sigrid all asked me that!" Shanku giggled. "After I wintered there, I set out. Sigrid and Arloda mentioned something about Kurach who lived way up north."

"And you went after them?"

"Of course!"

"Of course," Nari shook her head. "What did you find?"

"Innugati," Shanku said and gestured to the fairy dragon resting on her pack.

"Oh, hello! I didn't see you, little one," Nari extended a hand to Innugati. The fairy dragon trilled and crawled up her arm.

"Ma, you know she's a dragon, right?" Shanku asked nervously.

"Of course she's a dragon," Nari grinned. "Regular lizards don't have these beautiful wings."

"You're not worried?" Shanku asked slowly.

"Why should I be? Most will mistake her for a garden lizard and not think twice about her, and she's too small for most to feel threatened by her, even if she is fae," Nari explained. She had a twinkle in her eye as she looked back at her daughter. "You never could come home without bringing something back with you."

"Well, that was unexpected," Shanku blinked and shook her head. "After I met Innugati, I continued further north. Eventually, we came to another plains. We found the tundra where the northern Kurach were said to live. And then we got hit with a blizzard."

"A blizzard?" Nari asked, confused.

"Yeah. Big snow storm. Innugati and I huddled in a cave below a cliff while it blew outside. And that's when one of the Arctic Kurach fell into our cave!"

"Just like that? He found you instead of you finding him?"

"Lucky, right? I pulled him in, got him warm, and we spent a few very boring days in the cave until the storm passed. Then he took me to his home on top of the cliff where his people lived. I stayed with his fiancée for a few days. I helped her corral yaks, milk them, go up to the yeti's moss gardens and pick it, knit, fish, and then the sun set for weeks. Did you know that if you go far enough north the sun does weird stuff? Makes me want to go really far south and see if it happens down there. And, Ma, they showed me another form!" Shanku said excitedly. "A full-fledged, four-footed flying canine form!"

"Really?" Nari raised her eyebrows. "I thought that the true form was lost!"

"It's not, some can still do it. Which, uh, kind of brings me to why I had to come home," Shanku took a deep breath. "The priestess called me to her quarters. She told me the northernmost Sylvans have been raiding the Artic and Plains Kurach, and a few human settlements as well. She told me that they're about through with talking and about to declare war on the whole of the Sylvans. Them and some of the Plains too!"

"I feared as much," Nari said sadly. Innugati trilled lowly from Nari's shoulder.

"You knew?" Shanku demanded accusingly.

"Not explicitly. The Ferals have been sending a lot of correspondence to the Imperials, espeically our Elders. I understand why since we, as you know, give shelter to those of the Plains."

"So what do we do?" Shanku asked worriedly. "Chena said she would hold me responsible, and likely even those of us too far south to be causing trouble! I just found out I have another little brother and sister, I don't want to lose them to a blasted war they didn't even cause! I don't want to lose any of y'all again!"

"I don't know, baby," Nari rubbed her temple with one hand. "I think the Elders are doing all they can."

"I doubt that," Shanku rolled her eyes. There was a tension in her jaw and a tingling in her teeth, and it made her grumpier than usual.

"I'm not thrilled with them either," Nari said flatly. "But I think this time they are trying to do something right."

"Doesn't look like talking is getting far."

"We're on the brink of our own war. There've been raids and skirmishes between the two tribes for several months now. Likely due to the raiding, since, as you personally know, the Ferals don't like to leave their territories, and especially don't want contact with other creatures."

"Maybe I should talk to them? Surely something I've stumbled over along the way could help them get this resolved."

"That might not be a good idea, sweetie," Nari grinned uneasily. "Your exile does not officially end for another few weeks."

"Are you kidding me?" Shanku yelped.

"I'm afraid not. And they do track these things."

Shanku groaned loudly and dropped her head into her hand. "What's the penalty for coming home early? Surely they won't kick me out again?"

"Traditionally, the penalty was death since most things that earned an exile were severe," Nari said quietly.

Shanku lifted her head and stared blankly at my mother. "I have not gone through all this, nor survived all those battles, just to get ganked over a two weeks early visit."

"That would be a sad end to all the wild adventures you've had, but this is one of your greatest risks," Nari stated uneasily. "We could hide you in here. Did many see you on the way in?"

"Well, lemme see," Shanku started counting on her fingers. "Katari, Muso, Hilael, the ones beating up Hilael, a few in the great hall..."

"Hilael's been in another fight?" Nari gasped.

"I wouldn't exactly call it a fight since he kinda just stood there but, yes, and don't worry. I don't think they'll be after him again anytime soon," Shanku smiled a bloodthirsty smile that made a shiver run up Nari's spine. "Don't worry, I just threatened them a bit, it's not like I went feral on them or anything!"

"That's a small comfort. Those cubs are sure to make it well known that you're back early. They're some of the highborn!"

"It's two weeks!" Shanku threw her hands up. "Two weeks out of ten years. Big, hairy deal!"

"What's a big, hairy deal?" Muso asked cheerily as he strode into their den.

"Shanku's home early," Nari sighed.

"A rebel to the end, eh?" Muso grinned and sat down on the floor. Hilael followed him in his usual quiet manner and sat down near his family. "What's two weeks out of ten years?"

"There is no hope for either of you," Nari shook her head. "At least Hilael and Banhi behave themselves."

"We're home," called Zanzen as he and Banhi came in. Zanzen was bare chested as always, and his hair was white with black ends. His feathers were white and his pinions were black. Just how Shanku remembered him.

"Hey, Da, look what we found wandering around in the forest!" Muso beamed and pointed. Zanzen stopped cold as if he had seen a ghost, while Shanku gave him a small wave.

"Howdy, Da. How've you been?" Shanku asked sheepishly.

"Who are you?" Banhi asked with her hands propped on her hips.

"I'm Shanku," she replied and knelt down to her. "Your older sister." Shanku looked her over curiously. She was very young, likely just learning how to use her tan and brown wings. Her hair was brown with dark brown ends, and her ears and tail were a blonde color. Shanku noted that she had the thick, bushy hair common to the Sylvans. She realized that her mother and Hilael were the only Sylvans she knew with silky hair.

"You look like a boy," Banhi wrinkled her nose. "And you smell like one."

"And the toughest non-boy you'll ever meet!" Shanku laughed and stood up. She faced her father and looked him square in the eye. "I'm home, Da."

Zanzen said nothing at first, and then drew his long gone daughter into a hug. Shanku fought back tears and embraced him.

"Oh Shanku, how we've all missed you..."

On my way home, a scent struck me I had not known in years. My old mischief-making comrade! My, how he's grown. He needs to work on his awareness.

Ma and Da have aged so... And I have two new younger siblings it seems. The village is so nervous. Some don't even know me despite my wings!

~ Shanku Ravenwing