Chapter 57: The Skihva

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"As you seem to be in charge of this expedition, where to now?" Katari asked.

"South," Shanku said decidedly. "It's been ages since I had some good seafood!"

The journey south was a bit slower than when they went east from the Nyre. Ina was not accustomed to long travel and had to rest frequently, even after two seasons spent with the Heyen. Her spirits never dampened and she continued without complaint as she tried to build her endurance. There was a definite thrill to being on the wing without a care in the world, or any pressing responsibilities either. As the weather began to get hotter and steamier, Shanku became more excited and her companions became tired more quickly.

"This heat is quite something!" Katari exclaimed as he wiped a trickle of sweat off his forehead again.

"I know. It's great, isn't it?" Shanku chirped as she walked along. "Be glad that it's now autumn, imagine how much worse it would have been about a month ago!" She looked over her shoulder and grinned broadly. "Y'all'll have to shift soon, too, ya know."

"Oh? Shift?" Ina asked curiously.

"Ya gots ta be human!" Shanku nodded with a wink. "We're going to Port Tephras! Not only do they not like kurach, but I've still got a bounty on my head!"

Ina's eyes widened as Katari chuckled, "Ravenwing, the wanted criminal."

"Oh, but you know you love it," Shanku said with a smirk. "Deep, deep, deeeep down, below that responsible exterior."

"I suppose this is the real reason why you were so insistent on us learning that from Shaman Onami?" Hilael asked.

"I can't sneak anything by you, can I?" Shanku pouted playfully.

"I also suppose we're not just meandering aimlessly then?" Hilael inquired further.

"You scare me sometimes," Shanku said elusively. "Just wait and see."

When the lights and the smoke from the fireplaces began to be visible on the horizon, each of them shifted into their human forms to downplay any suspicion they would draw to themselves. Innugati, however, stayed perched boldly on Hilael's shoulder.

"Our first order of business will be to get some shoes!" Shanku frowned. "My old boots still fit me just fine, but you three can't go barefootin' around the city. There're all sorts of nasty stuff in the streets you don't want to step on. Like rough cobblestones."

After they entered the city, they went straight away to the nearest cobbler and Shanku spent some of the silver she still had saved up. With that settled, she treated them to a hot meal and soft bed at the local inn.

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"This is wonderful!" Ina sighed as she flopped onto the mattress. "The food is interesting. I wonder what kind of seasonings they use?"

"Lots and lots of salt," Shanku said as she stretched out on a bed. "It's how they keep their meat from spoiling."

"I rather liked the way they cooked those crummocks," Katari said as he laid down next to Shanku. "Nice to find familiar food way down here. What was it they called them?"

"Skirrets," Shanku replied. "A bit out of season, but, aye, still good."

"With a full belly, I'm quite ready for a good night's sleep," Katari said and turned over on his side. "I guess you'll be sleeping with Ina tonight instead of Hilael?"

"Yep. She doesn't snore like you do," Shanku teased and pushed Katari away from her. Hilael looked very relieved from his position in the chair across the room. Shanku gave him a quick smile before they all began to get ready for bed.

The following morning they were up early, had a quick breakfast downstairs, and were out the door. Shanku made a few inquiries around the town before heading to the docks. She came to a sudden stop and stared intensely at one particularly ship.

"Is something wrong?" Ina asked.

"That one there is the La Sirenita," Shanku said softly. "Captained by Muskar."

"You know him fairly well?" Ina asked harmlessly.

"Well enough to know he is strictly a merchant vessel not keen on passengers," Shanku said quickly and strode off again, trying to forget when she was forced to serve on the Brelland Seacat pirate ship and they had chosen to raid Muskar's ship.

"Passengers? We're going for a cruise then?" Katari asked as he jogged to catch up. He caught her hand and stopped her. "I don't mind a little spontaneity, but I'd like to know a bit more before we take off on a ship."

"Bhadarukia!" Shanku grinned broadly.

"The land far beyond L'aernth?" Hilael asked. "Why?"

"I never really got to visit Bhadarukia that much way back when," Shanku replied. "And if we pick the right ship, we'll be going right through Mruha, and have a quick stop in Ila-tyaq. No sense dragging you all the way down here and over there without saying 'hi' to Dawson on the way!"

"What about pirates?" Ina asked worriedly. "I overheard a fellow last night going on about raiders at sea!"

"Don't worry about pirates," Shanku said darkly with a mirthless smile. "They'll catch the Black Plague if they try to board our ship."

"We're going to sail on a diseased boat?" Ina asked, quite confused.

"Ah, not quite," Katari interrupted. "Why don't you go make whatever necessary inquiries about getting us on board one of these things?" Sufficiently distracting both dams by that, Shanku set out to find who was taking passengers. When she had found one and arranged passage for them, they went into town to browse the shops and enjoy themselves until it was time to set sail.

"Hey, Ina, come in here with me," Shanku beckoned in front of a strong-smelling building.

"Why?" Ina asked as she wrinkled her nose.

"If you're going to be a scribe, you need to start writing, no?" Shanku asked and stepped inside.

Ina followed her out of curiosity, and found the inside was full of many books and writing utensils. Shanku summoned her over to one section of dark sticks wrapped in a layer of string.

"These are some newly invented writing utensils. There was talk of it last time I was sailing through here, and it looks like they've finally managed to make a few for sale. They call it 'graphing lead' since it was used mainly by the architects and mathematicians in their work, and then the artists and scribes got hold of it as another dry alternative to ink and paint, since the only other dry material is charcoal and that stuff is really smudgy," Shanku explained. "It's also a lot more water resistant than ink, so it'll be great for you at sea or if it rains."

"I see you know your graphing lead, ma'am," the clerk said as he stepped over to them. "These aren't exactly like the elite leads used by the artisans. These are actually carefully constructed by gathering the dust from sawing the graphing lead, and then mixed with clay and fired in a kiln. Thus, affordable for us more common literates and sketchers. And should you make a mistake, some freshly baked wheat bread effectively removes the markings!"

"Fascinating!" Ina exclaimed and carefully picked one up. "May I have one?"

"Aye, pick out a few, and we'll get a book or two for you to write in too," Shanku nodded. "Go with one of rag paper, it's pretty durable."

Ina found two medium sized books that were comfortable for her. Shanku paid for them, and Ina carefully tucked her lead into the birch box with her books. "I feel so expensive for you lately."

"Eh, don't worry about it," Shanku shrugged. "If I need some more silver I'll just go find the local tanner and butcher to see if they're needing any wild animals. It's where I got all my silver from before."

They met up with Katari and Hilael, and before long it was time to board the ship. Shanku found she regained her sea legs rather quickly and took to ocean life as if she had never left. Ina struggled at first, but was fine after a few days. Katari and Hilael stayed just a touch queasy for the entire voyage to Mruha. Ina was relieved that no pirates made an attempt on their vessel.

"Oh, sweet land!" Katari said as he stepped off the gangway. "Farewell, seasickness!"

"Wait until you find out how sweet!" Shanku said excitedly and almost rushed off without them into the port. "You've never had such fruits as Mruhan fruits!" Flooded by old memories, Shanku was quick to seek out all her favorite stalls and shops to show to her companions, including the diner where Doctor Newbury had first treated her to a proper Mruhan meal, keen to pay the treat forward.

"Ready to meet some kurach?" Shanku asked after they had finished their supper.

"There are kurach here?" Ina asked. Shanku nodded and lead them away to where the dancers and musicians performed just outside of town. Ina was captivated by them. Shanku carefully picked her way through the stages until she found a familiar face. She waited patiently for all to finish for the night before approaching.

"Shalu!" Shanku called. A dancer with long, crimson hair and a brilliant red dress stopped and looked curiously at the stranger who knew her name. "It's me, Shanku Ravenwing! I sailed with Dawson."

"Shanku!" Shalu exclaimed hopped off the stage to embrace Shanku. "It has been so long!" Shalu squeezed her tight and released her. "Too long!"

"I know. I'm sorry. It never even crossed my mind to try to send a letter. So much has happened," Shanku trailed off.

"Who are your friends?" Shalu asked as she gestured to them. Shanku introduced everybody to one another. Shalu invited them to come back with her to her village. The Sylvans were quite relieved to be able to leave their human forms. Dawson was thrilled to see his old friend, and it quickly became a very bittersweet and stressful moment for them both.

"You were one of them," Dawson stated bitterly.

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"Not willingly," Shanku said with disgust. "I did manage to kill a few when I escaped."

"What's done is done," Shalu said gently. "Why don't we catch up? I'm sure we all have lots to talk about."

Dawson described how he had managed to provide a bit for his family through fishing, and of course Shalu was still dancing. Rangi made a brief appearance before he was back out roughhousing with the other cubs.

"I swear, he never stops," Shalu sighed. "If I had half his energy, I could really dance!"

"So, after your escape from the pirates, what all has happened in your life?" Dawson asked.

Shanku began her tale of how she was alone for a few months before stumbling across the Highland kurach, how she spent a bit of time with them before seeking out the Arctic kurach and learning of the bitter feud between the Sylvans, and then the games that followed to settle the dispute and bring peace back to the tribes. Dawson and Shalu were both quite surprised.

"You've been a little busy since we last met," Dawson muttered.

"Just a little," Shanku giggled.

"How come you didn't tell me any of that?" Ina demanded. "As much time as you've had and you didn't!"

"It never came up," Shanku shrugged. "But, seeing as how it's night, is Tasura around, by any chance?"

Shalu grinned. "You know where to find him. You can leave your packs here if you'd like."

Shanku squeaked and beckoned the others to follow. She bid a quick farewell to the Dawsons and was gone. Soon she found Tasura and his mate on the beach preparing for a swim.

"Hey, Tasura, do you remember me?" Shanku asked excitedly and flared her black wings around her.

"Ah, yes, the curious little pup from across the sea!" Tasura nodded. "You have brought friends too!"

"Do you still take people to your cave?" Shanku asked.

"Of course. Come, we were just about to swim out," Tasura nodded.

"May I walk? I don't think I have the energy for a swim," Ina asked tiredly.

"Of course, miss," Mataio replied. "The moon is full tonight and perfect for a stroll by the water."

"Ah, I do not believe you have met my mate!" Tasura said excitedly. "We were still courting when you were last here."

"Nice to meet you," Shanku said and Mataio bowed his head to her.

Tasura and Mataio lead the way, chatting to each other in the language of the islands. Shanku and Katari were next in line behind them, and Shanku was pointing out different plants and noises she recognized. Hilael and Ina were last, with Innugati sitting on his shoulder between them. Hilael glanced over at his companion. Ina looked very much at peace as she watched the gently crashing waves of the ocean. She was a few years older than him, but seemed more innocent than he was. He wasn't immediately sure if that was just her nature, or because he had already lived through a few more things than she had. Hilael smiled softly. He was curious to see how Ina would react when it was her turn to get dragged into an introduction with the Goblin Hound like he had been, and then he shook his head. Maybe Shanku's deviousness is genetic?

The cave was just how Shanku remembered it. The walls were lined with large, luminescent shelf fungi that were the food of the fuzzy moth larvae which glowed both as caterpillars and as moths. There were holes in the ceiling that allowed tiny waterfalls to fall through to the streams below, causing any light above to reflect throughout the cave.

Inside one of the deeper chambers, the floor gave way altogether, and Tasura had a few boats tethered. Tasura entered one, followed by Katari and Hilael, as Mataio entered another with Shanku and Ina. The Islanders stood at the back and pushed the boats through the caves with long sticks as the Sylvans stayed seated and observed. Tasura described various kinds of life visible from the reflected moonbeams, the way they were affected through the various seaons and weather patterns, and told of some of the history of the cave such as how the other Islander tribe prized the moths as part of their winter moon dance, before that tribe eventually moved further north and left the area solely to the current tribe.

The tip of Shanku's tail became as active as that of a hunting cat as they neared the final chamber. Tasura rounded the curve into a very large chamber where the family of giant, pale marine reptiles lived. Innugati trilled when she saw them. The matriarch raised her long, slender neck to look at the visitors, grunted at them, and shifted her weight to get her hind flippers onto her rocky bed.

"What are those?" Ina asked, eyes full of wonder.

"The dassu," Tasura replied. "Sea dragons that eat a lot of the sharks, snakes, and other dangerous things in the water. Sometimes we bring them food to show them thanks. They came in from their hunt earlier tonight, so we do not have food for them this time."

Tasura and Mataio directed their boats back to the entrance and the kurach returned to the village. Shalu invited them to stay the night in her family's guest house, which the Sylvans happily obliged. It was a beautiful domed hut with a grassy roof, open walls, an interior structured by the wood of trees and bamboo, and the floor was made of smooth stones that were delightfully cool. The beds consisted of woven mats of palm fronds and it didn't take long for the tired Sylvans to go to sleep. Although they didn't stay asleep for long. Being used to sleeping below ground, they awoke when the first light of dawn came peeping over the short walls of the guest house. Still a bit tired, they rose, and began their morning grooming and preening. Dawson was stirring not long after and began to prepare breakfast.

"Well, that's a different a smell," Katari remarked as he walked over to investigate.

"Boiled bananas," Dawson explained. "I'm in the mood for a hot breakfast. Shalu can bring you something out from the garden if you'd like something cool to start the day with."

"I'm not shy of work, so is there anything you need help with?" Katari asked.

"Can you fish?" Dawson asked in return.

"I was decent at it back home," Katari shrugged.

"Come with me after breakfast. There's plenty of work to obtain supper. Hilael should come too," Dawson said.

Hilael's ears flicked down when he overheard. "Say what?"

"The guys do most of the hunting around here. Go on, have fun!" Shanku urged her brother. "Fishing at sea is something that shouldn't be missed out on, and there are lots of things to eat around here. Ina and I will be with Shalu getting fruits and veggies." Shanku wandered off with Ina in tow to find Shalu. Dawson took Katari and Hilael out in the shallows to spear for fish with the other sires, and Shalu let Shanku and Ina help her gather roots and shellfish with other dams.

"I can see why you were so eager to come here," Katari teased when he had finished helping clean the fish they had caught. "I swear, life here revolves around food."

"Some eat to live. We live to eat!" Shanku giggled.

"But it is now time for me to go and earn part of our living," Shalu said as she passed by. "Caelin will soon head into town for his job as well."

"Does Dawson still repair shoes?" Shanku asked.

"Surprisingly, yes," Shalu replied. "Either his father was very particular or some kind of master with shoes, because I think Caelin is a wonderful cobbler! You four are free to go where you wish while we're gone." Shalu excused herself and got herself dressed and ready for her afternoon of entertaining tourists and locals.

"We're not going to spend our entire Foterutu here, are we?" Katari asked when a week had passed. "What about Bhadarukia?"

"I'm ready to go when y'all are," Shanku said as she stretched. "Although there is one more person I'd like to see before we head off."

"Oh, there is, now is there?" remarked an elderly kurach approaching them.

"Kisona!" Shanku squealed. "Good to see you again!"

"Yes, you too, cub," Kisona said warmly. "Or should I say, dam?"

"Might as well. We're out on our Foterutu!" Shanku said proudly.

"Ah, a very important time," Kisona said as he settled down on the ground and gestured for the others to do likewise. "I wonder, does the Sylvan Foterutu vary from ours? Tell me, what are you here to do?"

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"Traditionally," Katari said, with a quick glare at Shanku, "we journey out into the Nyre to show we learned all the hunting and survival skills we were taught as cubs."

"I take it some of you had other ideas," Kisona chuckled. "It is good to see the world and meet new people. Not many have the opportunity to do so. Although we usually send our cubs out to hunt a great shark on their Foterutu, and some take a trip to Bhadarukia. I overheard that you wished to leave soon?"

"Yes," Ina replied. "We were going to go to Bhadarukia. Do you have any suggestions?"

"Stop by the port town first," Kisona replied. "We have some Bhadarukians that live here permanently now as part of the trade outpost they've set up. I'm sure they'll give you some good travel tips."

"Thanks, Kisona. We will," Shanku said cheerily. Kisona waved them off, and the Sylvans left to go back to the port. It didn't take them long to find the Bhadarukian trade outpost. A new building had even been constructed for them and it was filled with many goods from oversea. One of the assistants was sweeping the patio when the Sylvans arrived.

"Ah, what can I help you with today, my young friends?" he asked merrily.

"We wish to go to Bhadarukia," Ina replied. "Is there any advice you'd have for us?"

"It is a beautiful country," he nodded, causing the sun to glint off his dark, bald head. "Steamy jungles, burning deserts, and the most beautiful women in the world."

Everybody always says that about their home, Shanku thought as she grinned broadly. "Are there any ships due to come by this way any time soon?"

"No, miss, not for another month or so. If you do not wish to wait, I can find one of our kurach to give you directions," he replied.

"Yes, if you don't mind," Shanku said. The assistant bowed his head and disappeared into the shop. A moment later, one of the desert kurach came out.

"You wish to travel to Bhadarukia the old way then?" he asked.

"There's another way?" Shanku asked.

"Just follow this island up to its farthest tip, turn right, and hop over the islands until you hit the mainland. There is a village not far from there. We have set up markers pointing to it," he answered. "May I ask why you wish to travel there?"

"Truth be told, we're on our coming of age journey," Katari replied. "So far, it has lead us here."

"Then you will definitely need to go to that village," the clerk said. "It is customary among our people to send our cubs on a pilgrimage there to learn some of the sacred matters of our kind, and we are beginning to direct some of the Islanders to it as well. You will find elders there to assist you."

"Thank you," Katari said and bowed his head to him.

"Fair winds, cubs," the clerk bowed to them and returned to his duties.

"This trip just got a lot more interesting," Katari remarked to Shanku as they turned to leave. By now, Katari and Ina's interest was becoming quite piqued, and Katari was starting to stop regretting letting Shanku drag him so many leagues away from the Nyre. Hilael was simply content to be out of the Scissortail capital. They spent the rest of the day helping out around the village in exchange for any tips and guidance the others had to offer in regards to any obstacles, plants, and wildlife they were unfamiliar with. Shanku also asked Kisona to teach the other Sylvans how to cast the water shedding spell on their feathers in case they got caught in a rain storm. In the morning they set out to continue their Foterutu.

The small band of Sylvans followed the coast for several days, sleeping in shifts at night to keep from being caught unaware by predators, and wearing leafy ponchos to attempt to keep themselves dry during the afternoon rains. Occasionally they would pass by other Islander kurach and had to quickly explain they were not intentionally trespassing. Some would nod and leave them be, some would offer advice, and some did not seem too thrilled to see them no matter what they said.

When they reached the end of the island they found one of the markers that had been erected, turned right as instructed, and took flight toward the island they could see in the distance. It was a long, tiresome flight, made worse by the fact there was no place in between the islands to rest. Innugati took turns riding on each of their backs along the way. The four Sylvans were very grateful when the water became shallow enough again for them to land and wade the rest of the way to shore.

"Oh, gracious! What a flight," Ina panted as she stretched out under the merciful shade of a palm. "All the previous Bhadarukian and Islander explorers used to do this?"

"In their defense... those hawk and sea wings of theirs... are better suited... for long flights... than ours," Shanku huffed and panted as she flopped down beside Ina.

"Might we rest a day before making the last leap?" Katari asked as he sat down with them. Hilael said nothing as he joined them, just as tired as the others.

"I motion we accept Katari's proposal," Ina nodded fervently.

"I second," Shanku laughed.

"Approved. Meeting adjourned," Katari chuckled.

After they had rested a bit, they foraged through the nearby area and shallows for a fresh meal, and spent the remainder of the day resting in the shade. After another day spent quietly on the bit of beach, they took flight again, and headed toward the distant shores of Bhadarukia. This flight proved much easier as many jagged rocks jutted out of the water below. When they became too tired, they could land and rest a moment. Except for one stretch that had many sharks. One bird came to rest on a rock, and a shark leapt out of the water and successfully caught it. It was silently decided among the Sylvans to stay aloft.

Bhadarukia's pale, gleaming shores were a welcome sight. The exhausted kurach landed in the water and walked up to dry land. Their wings were very sore and tired after such an extended amount of flying. There was another marker left by the Bhadarukians bearing instructions of which direction to head off into the thick bushes nearby. A different cacophony of animal calls came from the dark shadows below the thick foliage than from the Mruhan islands they had just left behind.

"I don't think I like it here," Ina shuddered.

"We're sleeping in the trees tonight," Shanku said with a touch of worry. "Ryoichi used to take me hunting in there and nothing bad happened, but I always felt like I had unfriendly eyes on me."

None of them disagreed with her. When night began to come on, they scaled one of the towering trees, quite unwilling to fly any more than necessary for now, and huddled down among the branches. Hilael gathered some of the hanging vines to make a sort of a tether for them so they could sleep a bit easier without worrying they would fall off during the night.

The days trekking into the jungle passed uneventfully. They carefully avoided the dangerous snakes, insects, and plants they had been warned about, applied plant pastes to ward off the insects that would not avoid them, and foraged or hunted for those things they were told were safe to eat. Every few days they would pass another marker left by the Bhadarukians.

On one hot, sticky afternoon, they heard a new sound in the jungle. Cautiously, they crept forward to investigate. They found a group of women singing near a babbling brook as they gathered water into pitchers. Ina nudged Shanku to make the first contact with them.

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"Ahem, excuse me, ladies," Shanku said cautiously and stepped slowly into view.

The singing stopped and they eyed the stranger warily. After noting the wings and ears, the oldest woman stood tall and faced her. "What brings you here, kurach?"

"Foterutu, the coming of age ritual among my people. A friend told me many other cubs make a pilgrimage to your village, and we thought we would visit too," Shanku explained.

The woman looked her over. "You do not look like the usual kurach who come to see us."

"Those are the Desert and Islander kurach," Shanku explained. "I am Sylvan. I come from far, far away, past Mruha, and from the other side of L'aernth."

"Ah," the woman said slowly as a look of recognition came across her face. "You are one of Stob's descendants then, yes?"

"I'm not familiar with a Stob," Shanku said uneasily. "Our records have become a bit lost and confused."

"Come with us, young kurach," the woman gestured. "We, the Skihva, will tell you the story of Stob."

The other three came out beside Shanku and they helped the women carry their water jugs back to their village. There was something deeply familiar about the village, from their accents to their clothes and architecture, although the Sylvans could not readily identify why. The eldest woman called for a girl to take her water jug and then lead the Sylvans to the temple. Inside she sought one of the teachers and brought him out to their guests.

"These are the sons and daughters of Stob," she explained as she introduced him to the Sylvans. "From the far side of L'aernth, just like their ancestor."

"Ahhh," Yaj said as he stroked his long, curly beard. "You are the first in many hundred years to return. We began to think only the darker kurach remembered us."

"I fear we do not know your people, sir," Ina said nervously. "My family has long served as the record-keepers of our clan, and there are no stories of the jungle or Bhadarukia."

"It is a sad thing to become disconnected from one's past," the teacher said as he shook his head. "Come, come. We will give you a place to sleep and teach you the legend of Stob."

The Sylvans were lead to guest quarters that had been specifically constructed for curious kurach. They were shown to their rooms, given directions to the community bath house and a fresh set of clothes, and invited to join the teacher's family for evening meal. The Sylvans were grateful for the warm bath and clean clothes. They were loose and comfortable, and tailored for their wings. A young boy came to fetch the kurach when it was time to eat. The boy told them to carefully wipe their feet before entering his home.

"Supper smells positively delicious!" Shanku exclaimed as she crossed the threshold.

"Welcome, kurach!" the teacher's wife, Padma, greeted them. "Come, take a seat. Tell us about yourselves."

Hilael was mildly overwhelmed as he followed his sister to the dining area. Yaj did not live with just his wife and children, but lived in his parents' house with his brothers, their wives, and their children. It reminded him of the old days before the Scissortails expanded their den and many families slept in the same chambers together. Shanku introduced herself and the other Sylvans, and explained their journey to them.

"You have chose well to come here," Yaj nodded. "Our people have been entertwined for hundreds of years. You even still bear some resemblance of our names. We have in the surrounding villages a Kaveri, Shankhi, Shanyu, Hiral, and of course an Ina. You, Miss Shanku, must surely be a direct descendant of Stob. You have his wings."

"We know a fellow back home named Hiral, but he's not very nice," Katari said. "Who is this Stob you keep talking about?"

"Long, long ago, our village was plagued by werewolves," Yaj began as the meal was being served. "When Stob arrived, he walked on four feet as a winged wolf, and at first, we thought he was one of them. But a little girl befriended him, taught him to speak, and he became a great ally. He found the bad djinn who had cursed a faraway village where the werewolves came from, which allowed us to hunt it down and bind it to a jar. We still keep it locked up carefully in a hidden vault, for it is surely very angry by now. The djinn, right before he was trapped, cursed Stob, and made him a man. It was hard work, but he finally managed to break the curse enough to return to the sky."

"I often wondered about that," Ina mused. "We recently learned that our kind was somewhat made by a powerful goblin hound, freed by mischievous fae, and later cursed by the fae to became bipedal monsters similar to the little goblins we were having trouble with. No doubt not unlike your werewolves."

"That must be when our people came to stay in this form all the time," Shanku said. "There are kurach far to the north in a land of almost constant snow and ice who have learned how to achieve the original form. I haven't managed it yet, though."

"It is something the Skihva have become quite adept at teaching," Yaj nodded. "Stob left us many scrolls detailing his studies of the kurach forms, and as thanks for trapping that awful djinn and teaching us many things about the jungle we hadn't known before, we teach other kurach what he learned. It is curious though your people have forgotten."

"Much has happened to us since then," Ina sighed. "Wars, territorial disputes, fires, floods, and unpleasant things. I suppose any scrolls he made were lost ages ago."

"What forms do your people know these days?" Yaj asked.

"Pretty much all of us can become human, with some study," Shanku replied. "Us Sylvans are least familiar with it. All fairly well stay in this form and are born to this form, and we all can become the standing beast if we're not careful or just plain enjoy it. It's even how our tribe became known as the Feral, because we were so comfortable with it once. One breed of kurach deep in the mountains even worships that form to some degree. As far as I know, only those in the far, icy north can return to the original form, but it's hard work to achieve it."

"Much has been lost, it seems," Yaj said sadly. "We will begin tomorrow."

The dinner conversation then fell to more mundane and general inquiries, such as the quality of each individual's day, food to be gathered or hunted, chores to be completed, and other trivia. The Sylvans thanked their hosts for the delicious meal and retired to the guest house. Katari fell asleep quickly. Ina stayed up and excitedly wrote an entry into her journal before going to bed. Hilael and Shanku laid awake long after the others had drifted off to sleep, their minds whirling as they mulled over what all had been said at supper.

At sunrise the Sylvans were invited to join Yaj for morning meditation and a light breakfast. Shanku had the easiest time performing the stances due to her various combat training sessions. Hilael and Katari struggled a little, and Ina was quite clumsy and tired by the end of it. Breakfast consisted of rice cakes, dumplings, yogurt, and coffee. Shanku politely asked for water, much to her companions bewilderment, and then she and Yaj's family were quite amused seeing the other Sylvan's reaction to having good, stout coffee for the first time. Yaj lead his somewhat twitchy students to the temple after breakfast to begin teaching them the lost art of kurach form shifting. They were brought to an outer chamber and Yaj began to search for the necessary book as Shanku and Ina looked around curiously. Katari and Hilael stood closer to the doorway. The spicy smell of the incense filled the temple, and the morning prayers and chants of the Skihva monks and initiates echoed through the halls.

"This is amazing!" Ina exclaimed. "Look at all these carvings. They're kind of like a fancier version of the shrines back home."

"The positions of the morning meditation weren't that much different than what Da taught me how to do either," Shanku noted. "Why were these people forgotten? We have so much in common with them."

"Except for the food," Ina shuddered. "A little warning about the coffee would have been nice."

"Just maintaining tradition," Shanku teased. "I wasn't warned the first time I was given some, and I downed a whole bitter cup in one gulp. Oo, did I pay for that one!"

When Yaj had found the book he needed, he ushered the young kurach around him, and carefully opened it and laid it on a stand. It was many sheets of birch bark that had been bound together and tied around with a string.

illustration

"Now, this is not the original. It has been safely stored as the precious artifact it is. All the original illustrations and markings are carefully copied every few hundred years into a new book so our feathered friends may achieve the direction they seek," Yaj explained.

"But what do you get out of it?" Ina asked.

"Pardon?" Yaj asked.

"Kurach come here, stay in your buildings, eat your food, and you teach them things. What do they do for you in return?" Ina asked. "It doesn't seem like a fair trade, even if Stob rescued the village from werewolves who-knows-how-long ago."

"Usually they exchange knowledge for labor," Yaj shrugged. "They fly to the high branches to retrieve fruits we would have great difficulty reaching, they protect us from the tigers, panthers, and bears who threaten the village, and when we are in need of their services, we can send a messenger to those in Mruha to aid us."

"So what should we do to repay you for this then?" Shanku asked. "We're Sylvan, not one of the desert kind that live in your village or the rest of Bhadarukia. Our people are too far away to be of any real help if you are threatened by enemies."

"Sometimes it is a greater reward to help those in need than to expect something in return," Yaj nodded. "It is in our holy laws to help others."

"If it makes you happy then," Shanku grinned. "But we'd be glad to do what we could if you needed something from us."

"Perhaps you could tell your people about us," Yaj suggested. "We are a small, humble village of little influence in the kingdom, often forgotten by the others. If we appeared to have some measure of power, such as trade and commerce with outsiders they are unaware of, the emperor may see to having a road built to our village, and it would be easier for our scholars to travel to the larger cities and be educated by better schools. We could have better medicines for our children."

"That's fair," Shanku nodded. "Don't y'all think so?"

"Sounds fair to me," Katari agreed. "I'm sure we have a few things more we could offer as well, like wine and wool."

"Shall we begin, then?" Yaj asked. The Sylvans consented, and he opened to the first page. "The first of Stob's notes is, of course, on what he calls the goblin form, as it was originally granted by the fae to combat the goblin threats. He believed it instead to be a curse and it was what drove him here to begin with. It is the embodiment of hatred, anger, and selfishness, and usually is accompanied by death and destruction. Which of you have managed this?"

Shanku sheepishly raised her hand.

"What was your experience with it?"

"Well, sir," Shanku began uneasily. "At the time, I was a sailor. Pirates attacked our ship, killed my crew, and took me hostage. I was asked to join their crew, and I refused to unless I was given the one who had killed some of my dearest friends. During the fight, I shifted for the first time, and killed him. The captain tried to force me to shift during many raids, but I resisted it, and finally he sent some of the crew to assassinate me, so I shifted again, killed them with the help of a jungle cat, and fled. Later I found the Highland kurach, who considered the goblin form a mark of control and chose to stay in the form all the time, and they taught me how to master it."

"Sadly, for many, their story is the same. Hurt. Betrayal. Vengeance. Now, how do these Highland master the form?"

"By triggering the will to live," Shanku replied. "They convince you that they will kill you if you don't shift, so you assume the form to protect yourself, and they keep triggering it and having you hold it as long as possible until you're as calm and clear-headed with it as this form. Similar to how the Prairie kurach teach others to become human, except they trigger curiosity."

"Good, good," Yaj nodded. "The Islanders have learned to do similar. It is hard for us provoke the goblin form safely, and it is generally very unpleasant for all involved. Have you three managed this yet?"

Katari, Hilael, and Ina all shook their heads. "Among our people, it is frowned upon, because for many hundred years magic has been considered taboo, and shifting forms was not allowed, despite the fact the northern tribe often did so freely so they could raid surrounding people," Katari explained.

"Oh, dear," Yaj said worriedly. "Yes, I think it most prudent if your people were to remember us again and seek us out. We could help them with that. We will see about getting you three comfortable with the goblin form. It will not be pleasant, but I guess it never is." He then turned the page. "Here is Stob's observations on controlling it. He would venture out into the jungle alone and infuriate himself for months until he was able to control himself around us. He would practice the meditations to condition his mind, and then join us in the morning while in that form."

"How do you plan to teach us to use it and change for the first time?" Katari asked cautiously.

"I do not know. This is something kurach have always handled themselves," Yaj replied with his brow furrowed. "I have never heard of a way to call for it that didn't involve harm, and it is not in our nature, or laws, to harm others without good cause, not even for educational purposes as this. Perhaps some of our kurach residents would be willing to help you with this."

"I wonder..." Shanku began. "What are Stob's notes on becoming human?"

"Let me see," Yaj replied and turned the page. "Ah, yes, he wrote that form of man came from intellectual pursuits, heavy concentration, and social cooperations. Have you learned to do this?"

"Yes, we learned how just before coming here. The kurach on the prairie routinely assume the human form to keep from being hunted by soldiers in Wynfall," Katari explained. "We visited them before going to Port Tephras and sailing to Mruha to keep down on friction."

"I originally cheated," Shanku giggled. "I met them many years ago, and it was time for the cubs to learn how to do it. Me and another cub joined hands and combined our abilities to help each other do it the first time. Kind of why I was curious if Stob had discovered that. I was wondering if it might can be done with the goblin form."

"That is an interesting idea," Yaj said. "I haven't heard of cooperative shifting before. Yes, we should try that. I will make a note of it to be added to the book."

"How do you add new material to the book?" Ina asked.

"First, we must get permission from the kurach here. There are a few scribes who decide if there are changes to be made to their manuscripts."

"Out of curiosity, why are you the one teaching us, and not them?" Shanku asked as she laid back one of her ears.

"It is their belief that since we aided Stob long ago in mastering the four forms that we are more capable of teaching it to their children than they are," Yaj explained.

"Ah," Shanku replied. I wonder why? The Highland and Arctic managed just fine, and I think they're oblivious to this little village. Probably of Stob too.

"Now, the next page," Yaj continued. "After Stob was cursed to become a man and man alone, he focused on trying to become an animal again, but instead he arrived at the form you are currently in, which now seems to be the default form for your kind. I assume you know the secret of obtaining it then is that of simple carnal desires, such as food, affection, and play."

"A desire to feel the wind," Shanku said wistfully.

"The warmth of the sun in my fur," Katari added.

"The subtle smells of all the flowers and grasses," Ina crooned.

"To get away faster," Hilael said flatly.

"That works too," Yaj nodded. "Now, the final form, which can only be attained by starting from the goblin form," Yaj said as he turned the pages. "As it is the original form, it comes from the purest of desires. Simplicity, loyalty, bravery, kindness, and being at peace with one's self. Many struggle to achieve this, and sadly we have many leave who are never able to do it."

"The Arctic kurach have a rule that those who have not ascended to the final form are not allowed to marry those who have," Shanku said softly. "It's also a closely guarded secret on how to do it. A damsel I knew changed the first time while rescuing me from a yeti, but when I asked her how, she said it was something that had to be learned alone. The Prairie folk even guard it as part of their most sacred rituals."

"I hear it is very difficult, and also very personal," Yaj replied. "We do not judge those who only manage the man and goblin forms. Some may go past it later in life, so we focus on teaching them the discipline needed to maintain and hopefully succeed someday."

"Such a terrible place to be stuck at," Ina shuddered. "Not to mention all the extra grooming to do with all that fur!"

"There is quite an excessive amount of shedding," Yaj laughed. "Come, let us break for lunch. We will resume later this afternoon during the rains."

The Sylvans followed him back to his house where the women had prepared a heavily seasoned soup of potatoes, peas, and lentils with a flat bread. Afterward, they were dismissed and allowed to explore the village.


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