Chapter 58: Bhadarukian Jungle

"Do you think the kurach here already know the anti-wet-wing trick?" Ina wondered aloud as they strolled through the earthen lanes of the village.

"Doesn't hurt to ask," Shanku replied slyly.

"Then, let's ask!" Ina said with a broad grin, and she and Shanku made straight for the kurach quarters.

"I think we should try to keep those two separated for the sake of our sanity," Katari muttered to Hilael, who fervently nodded. By the time they caught up with the dams, they were already in mid-conversation with one of the local desert kurach.

"Oh, yes, we know the feather protection spell," nodded Salim. "It is taught to our cubs while they are still nestlings, so they may have plenty of practice as fledglings until their wings are mature. What brings you to our village?"

"The Foterutu," Shanku replied.

"Ah, so then you must be ready to learn the forms," Salim said. "What have you managed?"

"Human and common, so far," Katari replied. "Shanku is the only one who has achieved the goblin form."

"Ahhh, and you other three need help then, correct?" Salim asked. There were slow nods and reluctant agreements from the other three Sylvans. "We would be honored to be of service," Salim said with a bow of his head. "Just come to us when your teacher says you are ready to begin."

"Thank you, sir," Ina said with a polite smile.

"What can we expect of that when the time comes?" Katari asked nervously.

"If you expect it, it will be less effective," Salim replied with a twinkle in his eye. "Do not worry, you will be fine if you are brave."

"Katari will worry regardless," Shanku teased as she nudged an elbow into Katari's ribs, who did not look amused.

"Is there anything we can assist with while we stay?" Katari asked.

"This is the harvest season for many items for the village, I'm sure they wouldn't mind a hand," Salim answered. "Rice, beans, sugarcane, melons, and flax need brought in, and cotton, tobacco, fruits, and vegetables need to be planted soon."

"We're not shy of hard work, so I suppose we'll be out in the fields with them, then," Katari stated. "Well, Ina isn't too used to it, but we are," he added with a chuckle.

"I've come a long way," Ina protested. "Scribes are good for more than just writing, you know!"

"She may prove more useful to the village scholars," Salim said thoughtfully.

"We are out to learn our own trades, perhaps you should sit this one out," Shanku offered. "Think of the opportunity."

"New inks, new papers, new stories..." Ina drifted off as she began to look excited. "Yes, I think I will."

The sky was beginning to darken as the afternoon storms came. With resignation, the Sylvans returned to the temple barely in time to escape the rain and thunder.

"I thought home was rainy!" Ina cried in exasperation. "It rains or storms nearly every day here."

"It will clear in about a month," Salim said. "This is the monsoon season. But the risk of typhoons will continue until winter."

"Welcome back, Sylvans," Yaj greeted them. "Salim! Will you be their teacher as well?"

"It is my pleasure," Salim said.

"Splendid, splendid," Yaj nodded. "Let us return to our studies." Yaj brought them back to the library and began a long lecture on various techniques and opinions that had been collected on the subject until it was time for them to be sent away for supper.

"I've got a pounding headache from that," Katari groaned.

"Reminds of me ol' Master Woodstock when he was teaching me and Eru in Wynfall," Shanku grumbled. "I'm glad you volunteered us for field work."

"At least you get to go to the fields, I'll have to study with more scholars tomorrow," Ina sighed.

"Should we be staying with Yaj or Salim?" Hilael asked. "We're kurach, shouldn't we stay with other kurach?"

"Good question..." Shanku said slowly. "I'm so used to living with humans it never even crossed my mind."

They wiped their feet carefully before entering their host's home, and Shanku and Ina were quickly summoned to the kitchen to help prepare supper.

"Miss Padma, we appreciate your gracious hospitality, and we were wondering if it was more appropriate to stay with our own kind," Ina began as she helped chop vegetables. "If there are some sort of guest quarters for travelling kurach, we would be happy to stay there and not impose on you unnecessarily."

"There are a few vacant houses out by the other kurach, yes," Padma said, "but it would be Yaj's decision, not mine, to encourage you to go to it. I simply mind the house and help look after all the children."

So, Ina posed the question to Yaj over dinner after Katari had informed Yaj they would spend the morning in the fields helping bring in the harvest to earn their keep during their stay.

"We shall ask Salim tomorrow," Yaj said. "Since you are travelling without your elders, we must insist you not be left alone and abandoned."

"We appreciate the consideration," Ina said warmly.

Shanku stared at her rice bowl in confusion, not used to such sentiments. Where was that attitude when I was eight??

"I'm starting to see why you spent so much time moving about," Katari remarked when they had returned to the guest house. "I got a taste of freedom not having to answer to anybody when we were between locations, and I liked it."

"We'll be on the road again as soon as we finish studying with Yaj," Shanku promised. "And as soon as Ina has time to record everything here."

"You know I will," Ina said, scribbling feverishly in her book. "How could this village have become lost to history? I am going to bring it back home!" She paused for a moment and looked up. "Hilael, have you found the local herbologists yet?" Hilael shook his head. "When you do, and if you can learn anything from them, I'll record that too." Hilael nodded.

"Are you two finally working together?" Shanku asked.

"Yes," Ina replied as she polished off a few more notes. "There were so many things that Bara and Onami had to share that I volunteered to write it down for future study in my second book."

"We'll have our own library before long," Shanku said proudly.

"I'd love to run my own library someday," Ina said wistfully as she paused writing. "Filled with all sorts of exotic books, scrolls, and of course traditional tomes."

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"But first, let's survive tomorrow," Katari said as he stretched out in his bed. "I've never worked in a field before, but I can imagine there's an awful lot of picking up and hauling things."

Ina stayed up after the others had went to bed to finish her journal entries before putting out the oil lamp and going to bed as well. Padma woke them before daybreak and gave them a quick, hot breakfast before morning meditations, and a packed lunch before shooing them out for the day. Salim lead Katari, Hilael, and Shanku to the fields while Ina was dropped off at the temple. Even in the cooler air of autumn, it was hot and humid. The Sylvans were grateful the field workers had spare hats to help keep their heads cool, and were shown how to make their own protective grassy coverings after the midday meal. The Skihva people continued to work in the afternoon rains while the Sylvans were sent to the temple to continue their studies. Ina had informed Yaj that Hilael was a studying herbologist, and the following day Hilael was sent to study with the village apothecary for the duration of his stay. The Sylvans stayed the night in Yaj's guest house and in the morning Shanku and Katari would go to the fields, Ina would go to the temple, Hilael to the apothecary, and their evenings were spent in study with Yaj as he drilled them in methods and beliefs regarding kurach form shifting. This continued while the rest of the harvest was brought in.

"Thank the spirits the harvest is in!" Katari exclaimed on the final night. "I swear, I'm so tired I almost didn't bathe."

"Thank the spirits you and I had the energy to bathe," Shanku sighed as she flopped down on a charpoy bed. "I am so sore!"

"So is my backside," Ina winced. "I've never spent so many hours sitting at one time. I love to study, but even I have limits."

Innugati trilled disprovingly at the complaining Sylvans.

"This village is an invaluable source of information though," Hilael said quietly.

"True that," Shanku said and rolled over onto her stomach. "Tomorrow will be exciting. Yaj said it's time for Salim to take us out into the jungle and let y'all try to shift into the gob—, I mean, feral form."

"It doesn't sound exciting," Ina shuddered. "It sounds like you have to be in a very unpleasant place to get it. I kind of dread it."

"Maybe it won't be so bad," Shanku said as she stifled a yawn. The exhausted Sylvans soon retired and prepared for the next chapter in their stay with the Skihva.

Morning began the same as it had for weeks. Padma roused the Sylvans for an early breakfast, Yaj lead the family and guests through morning meditation, but today Salim came with a team of donkeys to fetch the Sylvans for an excursion into the jungle.

"Come, we go to the branches to fetch fruit," Salim said and passed out empty baskets.

The Sylvans slipped on the basket straps and followed Salim in the jungle. Salim lead them deep into the brush and off the trail to the unofficial orchards where the Skihva received their forest fruit. The first set was a cluster of palms that grew very tall, and were laden with fuzzy brown fruits at the top. Salim tethered the donkeys to the trunks and flew up to the canopy. The Sylvans worked in pairs to fill their baskets while high in the trees. The patient donkeys waited below, nibbling on leaves and napping. Whenever a basket was filled, it was brought back down to the donkeys, deposited into a pack on a donkey's back, and the kurach returned back to the branches. Salim lead them to many groves until the donkey packs were full and it was time to return to the village.

"I guess all of the harvest wasn't in," Shanku sighed as she trudged tiredly behind the miniature beasts of burden.

"Not as tiring as the other stuff we've been through lately," Katari remarked. "At least we didn't have to stay bent over."

"Not that dangling a half-furlong in the air is any better," Ina added.

"More like a tenth-furlong," Hilael said thoughtfully.

"It was high," Ina said bluntly.

"I'll bet they taste good," Shanku said gleefully. "It'll be worth it."

"Some of those yowling monkeys looked tasty too," Katari said. "Especially those that barked at us the whole time."

"I heard some other things barking in the distance that didn't sound friendly," Shanku said. "I don't know what those yippy things were, but I don't want to find out."

When they arrived back at the village, many other gathering parties were arriving, and the villagers were excited to see so many baskets of fresh fruit. Several baskets were taken away immediately to be pressed into juice and the scraps given to the milk goats. The kurach were given a complimentary cup of the first haul since they were the ones who went out into the jungle, after which Ina decided that perhaps clinging for dear life so far above the ground might have been worthwhile after all.

The rains had finally began to ease up and skip a few days between showers. The harvest was in, a week of foraging was completed, the crops for the coming spring were planted, and it was finally time to rest. For the visiting Sylvans. With an abundance of food available for banquets and feasts, the few thousand Skihva villagers began to marry off their betrothed couples.

"Winter time is party time around here," Katari noted to Shanku after they had attended their fifth wedding in a week.

"Where do they find so much dye?" Shanku asked, bewildered. "Or beads for that matter. You could see and hear those brides a league away!"

"I love drawing it!" Ina squealed. "I knew we Sylvans would dye and bead our feathers on our wedding day, but, oh, were all those adornments beautiful! I think I'll do some of it at my own wedding. I've been doing some sketches and I think it'll compliment Sylvan weddings quite well. All the base rituals are pretty much the same, so a little extra flair can't hurt."

"And like the Skihva, Sylvans are to marry within their social ranks," Hilael added not-so-subtly. Ina frowned at him.

"It'll be another week until the next one, so why don't we go out and explore the jungle tomorrow? Perhaps even camp out for a few days?" Shanku suggested. "Now that Yaj has finished drilling us half to death, Salim is in charge of instructing us, and he is pretty busy preparing his son for his union in two weeks, so we've got some free time before lessons resume."

"What if we get lost? We haven't gone off by ourselves before," Ina asked worriedly.

"There are frequent breaks in the canopy. If we get lost, we'll just go up, look for the smoke from the village campfires, and fly back," Shanku shrugged. "Worked for me several times."

Ina just shook her head and finally consented to go on a jungle expedition.

Winter made for a very pleasant climate in southern Bhadarukia and the Sylvans were enjoying a leisurely stroll on the pathways cut through the thick underbrush. They saw many other creatures out enjoying the beautiful day too, including big, fluffy bears that clumsily shuffled along licking up bugs, but made an awful howling noise when they saw the kurach.

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At midday, they scaled a large rock and sat down to eat a packed lunch of rice cakes and fruit.

"I'm starting to miss some meat," Katari lamented. "The Skihva may be fine on grains, fruits, and vegetables, but I need some real protein other than eggs."

"Yaj made it pretty clear hunting wasn't allowed," Ina said quickly. "Killing an animal was to be a last resort defensive measure if cornered, and then it laid to rest without any desecration."

"And what's the worst that would happen if we did take some game?" Katari asked grumpily.

"The Skihva themselves wouldn't take action unless it was outright horrible and abusive, but they said fate would turn a cruel trick in return," Ina replied.

"Well, I believe fate is inescabable, so if it has something unpleasant planned for me, it's going to happen anyway, and I'd rather face it at full strength. I'm going hunting," Katari said firmly. "Shanku, are you coming with me?"

Shanku looked at Ina, shrugged helplessly, and stood up. "If anything nasty comes along, you two just fly up into the canopy. You can flit to other trees faster than the climbing predators can get there. We won't be gone long." She and Katari left their packs behind as they disappeared into the thick foliage.

Ina sighed heavily in exasperation and put away the cloths that had wrapped their lunches. "I guess if I'm going to be honest, I'd even enjoy jerky by this point. The Skihva have a huge range of spices and flavors, but you just can't replace the sensation of chewing a dried stick of meat, or gnawing on a bone and licking out the marrow."

Innugati trilled a warning and curled up on Hilael's shoulder.

"So, how did you go hunting with Ryoichi back when?" Katari asked quietly as they tread lightly through the jungle.

"Four foot, actually," Shanku replied lowly. "He was a cat, I went feral."

"Now would be a really convenient time to have learned how to do that already," Katari grumped.

"Allow me to serve as your hunting hound," Shanku said and shifted to her feral form. She tucked in the draping parts of her tunic and began to skulk through the underbrush, sniffing the ground for any useful scents. Katari crept along behind her, keeping an eye and ear out for game. They came up on a small family of pigs at length, and silently agreed to let them be.

Farther along, the pair found a lone grazing deer with tusks in a small clearing. Katari gestured to Shanku, who then slipped around to the other side of the grassy area. When the ambush was ready, Katari burst out of the trees and attempted to chase it toward Shanku. She startled when the strange deer started barking like a mad dog, but managed a successful leap and tackled it to the ground. It proved to be a fierce prey and left a good gash on Shanku's arm with its teeth before she and Katari were able to kill it.

"Perhaps the Skihva don't hunt here because all the eating things might eat you back," Shanku said gingerly as she inspected the wound. "Is this thing a dog or deer? Bloody fanged goat..."

"It's definitely a deer, not a goat, but let's move it in case that fit it threw attracts something with bigger teeth," Katari said. "How's your arm?"

"Sore, but I'll live. It's not that deep," Shanku said. "Do you need help carrying it?"

"Nah, it can't be more than five stone, I can manage," Katari replied. "Let's go up in that big tree there to dress it."

With a little help of the long vines growing nearby, they managed to haul the deer up into the canopy before setting to work. Both had packed their daggers and set in to cleaning the deer.

"Anything you wish to leave for scavengers?" Shanku asked.

"The lower organs," Katari replied.

Shanku nodded and after carefully gathering up the unwanted parts, she glided down a fair ways from their tree and disposed of it. Katari was leaned back against the trunk and resting with the deer draped over a limb when Shanku returned.

"We'll take off when it has finished draining," Katari said as he got comfortable. "You watch that direction, I'll watch this one, and if anything tries to come up, this thing is light enough now we can both fly off with it in a hurry." Shanku nodded and settled down, and thoroughly licked her injury clean.

After a candlemark, they descended from the tree, tied the deer to a stout stick, hoisted it onto their shoulders, and made their way back to Ina and Hilael. It was getting close to dark when they arrived, and Hilael already had a fire waiting for them. Katari withdrew his skinning knife and quickly removed the deer's hide, softly humming old songs all the while, and Shanku began butchering the rest for roasting. Hilael went out and cut various lengths of sticks to use for spits, and before long they had a delicious smelling supper cooking over the open flames.

"It is so unladylike to drool, but, I can't help myself," Ina said as she wiped her mouth while watched dinner sizzling. "May the Skihva fates forgive us."

"We honored Scissortail fates by using what we could and leaving some for the other animals, so I'm not overly worried," Katari said as he staked out the hide and began scraping it.

"What could you possibly do with that tiny thing?" Ina asked curiously.

"I don't know," Katari replied. "But I never waste a hide if it can be helped."

"Are we on sinew duty again?" Ina asked cautiously.

"Nah, not this time," Katari replied. "This thing is barely the size of some of the piglets back home."

"Does that mean it's so small you don't need help with tanning it then?" Ina asked hopefully.

"Yes," Katari chuckled.

Each of them relished their supper when it had finished cooking and settled down for the night. As usual, they took turns keeping watch during the night and tending the fire to keep away potential predators. They stayed out in the jungle long enough for Katari to fully tan the small deer hide, and the meat the deer provided kept them comfortably fed. He rolled the hide up into his pack and they began to return to the village. Innugati trilled and nipped Hilael's ear, to his surprise and annoyance.

"I'm getting the distinct feeling of being watched," Shanku shuddered.

"Likewise," Katari agreed. "I haven't seen or heard anything yet, but we're being stalked by something."

"You don't suppose it's one of those big cats, do you?" Ina asked worriedly as she glanced around.

"With all the tracks we've passed by, no way, there's tastier and easier things for them to eat than us," Katari frowned. "We're only a few days from the village by foot, and if we stick to the thinner parts of the trail, we can fly out in a hurry if necessary."

"We have to go through a really thick area though, and there's no good place to land and rest in the canopy," Shanku warned.

"I'm hoping it will lose interest by then," Katari said.

The Sylvans remained quiet and apprehensive as they trekked through the jungle. Innugati was more relaxed during the day, but at night she would not sleep and stayed perched on the shoulder of whomever was keeping watch. Halfway back they had to enter a very dense portion of the jungle, full of towering trees, twisted vines, and tangled brush. Shanku and Katari exchanged a concerned look before he lead them single file and she guarded their back. Innugati left Hilael and landed on Shanku's shoulder, facing behind them. Shanku looked down at her and raised an eyebrow at the little fairy dragon. When Innugati started to get restless, Shanku reached down and loosened the ties on her pack as she flicked her ears around to listen for any cracking twigs or disturbed leaves, but the birds and insects were too loud for her to detect anything helpful.

Rippling sounds of water were ahead. Large rocks jutted out of the ground far above their heads and a creek cut through nearby. The Sylvans stopped to rest and have a drink in turns. When Shanku leaned down to the water, Innugati leapt off her shoulder chattering maniacally. Shanku snapped her head up to see a very strange squealing boar come bursting out of the bushes toward them. She released her grip on her pack straps to let it fall to the ground as she shifted to her feral form and met the boar head on. With a heavy slap, Shanku managed to knock the aggressive hog toward the water as Katari lead Ina and Hilael up into the branches. Undeterred by the gashes left from her claws, the boar righted himself and continued his rush, tossing his head and trying to dig his sharp tusks into her. Shanku took quick steps back whenever his head came close, trying to figure out how to either incapacitate him or escape. He was an active beast that darted about and made several passes at her.

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Innugati dove at the boar, spitting fire and trying to distract him. This only enraged the hog further and he finally took a swipe at the little dragon with a foreleg. Shanku noticed he wasn't a proper pig and was instead some sort of boar-like monster that frequently stood on its hindlegs. She quickly dropped to the ground and with a sweeping kick she knocked him off his feet into the mud. Squealing angrily, he was upright quickly, and charged Shanku again. She was used to hunting and fighting with much slower creatures, so while she managed to deflect him again into a rock wall, his head was much faster than his feet and with a jerk of his snout he managed to gash her arm open on the way by. Shanku yipped and jumped backward a few paces.

The hairy hog shook his head and turned to face the kurach. Shanku had dropped to the ground on four feet, her wings flared out around her and all her fur was on end as she growled viciously. One of his back feet pawed the ground as he prepared to charge again, and this time Shanku was waiting for him. As he made his run, Shanku leapt into the air and landed on his back. The frenzied boar began to buck and squeal, kicking up mud and leaves as Shanku dug her claws into him and began biting whatever she could reach. An ear landed between her teeth and with a quick yank she tore it to ribbons. Enraged further, he managed to throw her off into some nearby thorny vines. One of her feet became entangled and she was trapped.

Shanku flared her wings out around her as far as they would go and growled as viciously as she was capable, hoping to deter the incorrigible beast. The boar stopped, noticed her predicament, and chuckled evilly as a cruel grin broke out across his snout.

"Well if you can talk, then explain why you're attacking us," Shanku snapped.

He did not deign to answer her, squared up, and charged her a final time. Shanku managed to catch part of his snout in her hands and did her best to hold his head still and keep his tusks away from her vitals, or twist his head away enough she could sink her teeth into his neck, but was quickly becoming overpowered and receiving injuries from his jerking snout. Shanku rested against the rocks behind the thorns, ignoring the painful pricks in her back and trapped leg as she braced herself against the boulder and kicked her free leg into his chest to hold him away as they wrestled. Little Innugati was clinging to Shanku's uninjured arm and was burning as much of the hog's nose and face as her small flames were able.

The malevolent hog was suddenly wrenched out of her grasp and went bowling hooves over head as a very nervous, tuck-tailed kurach stood in his place. Shanku recognized the green shirt and tilted her head over to the side. "How the hell did you get to the true form before me, Hilael? You haven't even gone feral yet!"

Hilael glanced at his sister, whined, and took a step back toward her, keeping his wings half spread beside him as the boar got back on his feet and glared ominously in their direction.

"For the luv o' fluff, fly off," Shanku hissed at her four-footed brother. The boar snorted and shook his ears, sending a small spray of blood from his torn ear, preparing for another run and deciding which one he wanted to target. Hilael backed up into Shanku as the boar charged again, but would not fly off and leave her. Shanku shoved Hilael forcefully and knocked him away, hoping the boar would entangle himself in the thorny vines in his eagerness to gore them. In a flash of grey feathers, the boar gave an awful squeal as Katari managed to skewer him and pin him to the ground just before the hog had reached the trapped kurach. Shanku pounced as soon as the boar was down and quickly dealt a lethal blow to his throat with her fangs.

"I am so sorry I took so long Shanku, but it took forever to taper this stick enough to spear him," Katari said, talking very quickly, still visibly shaking and pacing. "I thought you two were done for."

"So did I," Shanku sighed as she began to try to remove the thorns from her leg to free herself. "Congrats on your solo boar hunt. You're a full-fledged buck now."

"There's more to that than just taking down a hog by yourself after the group hunt before the Foterutu, there's ritual and ceremony and being properly prepared beforehand and..." Katari continued to pace and ramble as he attempted to work out his nerves.

Hilael crept over to his sister, his ears still laid back as he nosed at her injured arm.

"I'm fine, 'Lael, don't worry," Shanku laughed and winced as she irritated her sore and torn muscles. "Congrats to you, too. I didn't know anybody could skip feral and go straight to true." Hilael hung his head sheepishly and started to sniff at the gashes around her ribs.

"That looks bad," Katari said as he started coming back to his senses. "I'll start getting up some water and stuff to get that cleaned up."

"Campfire first," Shanku said.

"Oh, right, yes, fire first," Katari mumbled and began to gather kindling and firewood.

"Is Ina alright?" Shanku asked as she gingerly made her way over to where Katari was accumulating wood. Hilael pointed with his muzzle to the tree where Ina was still clinging dearly to the trunk high up in the branches. "Go see if you can get her down, 'Lael. I'll be fine."

Hilael turned and trotted over to the tree. He looked up, crouched, and sprang, beating his wings to gain altitude and landed on a branch nearby where Ina was sitting. Ina was huddled up with her knees drawn to her chest and leaning against the trunk. Hilael tilted his head one way and then to the other, and then cautiously nudged her arm with his nose. Hilael nearly staggered out of the tree when Ina suddenly latched on to him, wrapping her arms around his neck and burying her face into his fur. "I told them a hunt was a bad idea!" she said mournfully between sobs. Hilael sat there awkwardly as Ina cried herself out and tried to come to terms with witnessing her first serious fight, and subsequently, first attempted murder.

Shanku used her dagger to cut strips off the lower part of her frock to use as bandages. By the time Hilael could coax Ina down from the tree, Shanku had cleaned and dressed her injuries, and Katari had caught a few fish for their supper and had nearly finished roasting them. Innugati settled down on Hilael's furry back and finally seemed relaxed again.

"I suppose she makes a pretty good little warning system," Katari remarked numbly and Innugati trilled proudly.

"You lot seem pretty shook up," Shanku commented curiously. "The yamaer didn't get to you like this."

"For one, it was a boar. For another, it wasn't just a dumb beast. That was intentional," Katari said.

"The corpse needs to be dealt with before it attracts scavengers," Shanku said and looked over at where the boar monster was still pinned to the ground with Katari's makeshift spear. "What a strange creature. It almost had hands, like a cervitaur's hands. I wonder what it wanted?"

"I wonder if there are more of them out here," Katari said. "We should roost in the trees tonight."

"How will Shanku get up with those ribs?" Ina asked quietly.

"There's enough vines we can haul her up," Katari suggested.

"It's not that deep," Shanku huffed. "I could climb up on my own. Hilael, did you ever find your pants?"

Hilael just laid down with his ears flat back and looked away. In the process of diving down to rescue his sister, he had shifted, and his pants and slipped off his fluffy backside, landed in the creek, and floated away.

"Well, that explains why you haven't tried to change back then," Shanku giggled. "We should get you a proper belt. So, are you just being your quiet self, or can you not talk? Huata was chatty enough when she changed."

Hilael snorted and curled his tail around his hindquarters, deciding to ignore her.

"Here, let me help you out of your shirt. It can't be comfortable with all that fur in this heat," Ina offered, and Hilael consented to have what was left of his clothes taken off. "I guess you'll have to stay like that until we get back to the village then, huh?" Hilael laid back down and looked away.

"Well, that's twice now I've had somebody go all the way in the process of trying to keep me from getting mangled by something," Shanku sighed. "If it was as simple as wanting to protect somebody, you'd think I'd already got there myself. This isn't the first time I've fought hard to keep somebody else safe."

"You're too angry," Hilael said bluntly.

Shanku tilted her head curiously. "I guess so. Anger maintains the feral form, and that pig really got under my skin, literally too. Getting to the true form is gonna be hard."

"Well, let's get started on bed and night watches. I want to start putting this day behind me," Katari said. The others didn't argue with him. Katari smothered the fire as Ina and Hilael flew up to the branches. Shanku took advantage of the various vines growing up the trees and climbed to the top, feeling not the least bit incapable and a touch talented and skilled to manage it with only one good arm. Katari nervously hauled the boar monster into the jungle a ways from camp and tried to give it as proper a rest as he could.

"I don't know if that'd meet the approval of the Skihva, but I don't have a shovel," Katari said after he returned to his comrades.

"I'm sure you did fine," Shanku said encouragingly.

The Sylvans tried to settle down for the night, but were either too nervous or too sore to sleep well, and they were on the trail again early the next day. The remaining trip back to the village was uneventful, albeit a bit slower to accomodate Shanku's injuries, and they were relieved when they could smell the smoke from the village cooking fires. Salim at first was very excited to see Hilael enter on four feet, but then quicky became concerned when he saw Shanku limping in behind the rest. The tired Sylvans were ushered back to Yaj's guest quarters and interrogated on the nature of their journey. Shanku was least emotionally affected by the attack and explained what happened.

"Ah," said Salim solemnly. "A boar demon. They haunt the deep jungle and are driven by greed. He must have thought you had something of value and wanted it for himself. Perhaps your silver pendant?"

"Well, a friend was kind enough to show me how to make it, so for sentimental reasons, I'm not handing it over to any grubby demons," Shanku growled. "An awful lot of fuss for such a small bit of impure silver!"

"Did either of you two manage to shift while you were out?" Salim asked. Katari and Ina shook their heads.

"Your day will come," Salim nodded. "Have a hot bath and a bowl of soup. You deserve a rest after facing such a fiend."

Hilael stayed behind as the other three went to get cleaned up.

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"So you have been in the goblin form before then?" Salim asked suspiciously.

"I didn't want to tell them," Hilael said lowly. "I wasn't proud of that day."

"None of us ever are. Now, they know," Salim pointed out. "You should tell them your story."

"Shanku seems to think I haven't yet and somehow skipped that step, but even if she asked, I don't want to share the details," Hilael said flatly. "This is sufficient."

"Each are entitled to their secrets," Salim nodded. He picked up a fresh change of clothes and handed it to Hilael, who took them in his mouth. "Whatever your history, you also deserve a hot bath and good meal." Hilael bowed his head to him and trotted off to the bath house.

Shanku's mood was more foul than the poultice she wore. Hilael had returned to the common form and with the aid of the local apothecary had worked up a slimy mess that would help Shanku heal faster, but it was very pungent and acrid. Ina was back to her bubbly self and Katari was helping chop wood to finish working out his own nerves. Shanku was on strict orders to rest and was grumpily sitting on the porch as the village bustled around her. The boar's tusks had laid her ribs open to the bone and the gash on her arm was almost as deep. The thorns hadn't helped much either. One of Yaj's younger sisters, Vahini, had been tasked with looking after the injured Sylvan as part of her daily duties.

"Be still, or it won't heal right," Vahini chided gently as she changed Shanku's bandages.

"It is setting my nose on fire more than Innugati did that scoundrel's! I can't even feel my ribs over the pain in my sinuses," Shanku whined as her eyes watered. "Is that stuff the purest concentrate of garlic ever made or something?"

"You kurach complain too much of smells," Vahini tsked. "Better to burn a few nostril hairs than get an infection."

"I'm already infected," Shanku grumbled, "with goop!"

"Is Shanku complaining about getting doctored again?" Katari asked as he stepped inside. Vahini made an annoyed face in response. "C'mon, Shank, it's not that bad! Think of all the mosquitoes that won't be biting you for a while. I'm getting eat up out there."

"I'd rather be swatting bugs," Shanku harrumphed. "How's Hilael? I've barely seen him this past week."

"Out studying plants, I assume," Katari shrugged. "Salim says he's going to take all of us out himself after you heal to show us some of the ruins in the jungle. May even work with Ina and me a bit, too."

"Good, good," Shanku nodded. "Poor ol' Ina was so scared. I don't think she's got a mean bone in her body. If she turns, I'll be more shocked than anything."

"She's positively buried herself in chores," Katari said. "She has washed and folded just about every piece of linen in this house, repaired your clothes, and I think I even saw her scrubbing a wall. Honestly, I think Hilael is hiding from her because she's been fussing over us almost nonstop."

"Oh, I know," Shanku groaned. "Whenever Vahini is not here to check on me, Ina is popping in a hundred times a half-candlemark."

"Not to be rude, but, you stink, so I'll see you later," Katari said deviously and ducked out of the house before Shanku could throw something at him.

I'm not laid up! I'm grounded, Shanku fumed. She sighed and tried again to resign herself to being patient, but before another week had passed, she was out of the house and hiding in the trees gathering bits of fruit and vegetables to bring back to the village, or getting distracted watching strange insects she hadn't seen before. A month later on the day he intended to take them out into the jungle, Salim found her under a bush watching a large centipede.

"Are you ready to go, or would you like to get to know the bugs better?" Salim asked with mild annoyance.

"Of course I'd like to go!" Shanku said as she sprang up. "I just need to get my—" Shanku paused and caught in mid-air her satchel that Katari tossed to her, "—pack. I'm ready!" Salim began to lead them out as Shanku took up her place in the rear and tied her pack straps. Her ribs were still very tender, but she would not stay behind.

"Winter is a quiet time in the jungle," Salim said as the last detectable remnants of the village faded away. "A good time for exploration. Although, I suppose, the jungle only has two seasons: raining, and not raining."

"How far out are these ruins you want to show us?" Ina asked.

"Several days walk," Salim replied, then glanced over his shoulder with a grin. "Don't worry. We will have more than rice cakes. We will have a good hunt!"

"But I thought none of the Skihva ate meat?" Ina wondered.

"Yes, the Skihva are vegetarian like many other little monkeys in the jungle, but we kurach are not, including those of us of the Fazid clan who live with the Skihva," Salim said. "They accept that we are still animals, and are satisfied so long as we give our kills final rites."

"Well that was a whole lot of worry over nothing," Ina grumbled. "So we weren't being punished for taking that deer?"

"Not by the Skihva fates, no," Salim laughed. "Were you really worried about that? The fates are strict, but more kindly and considerate than that! As long as you respect your kills, the fates leave you be."

"What will we be hunting?" Katari asked eagerly.

"Deer, monkeys, pigs, and perhaps a few rodents and fish," Salim replied.

"Not feelin' the pig," Ina said leerily.

"Don't worry. I have a proper spear for handling both boars and boar demons," Salim said and tapped his spear against the ground that he was using as a walking stick before continuing. "We will eat well on this journey."

The Sylvans perked up a good bit on that notion. Salim was a knowledgeable guide and pointed out a multitude of tracks, sounds, plants, and landmarks as they went. When he found a set of tracks he liked, he motioned for the others to be quiet and for Katari to follow him. They returned later with some more of the fanged deer that Katari and Shanku had caught on their last trip. Salim prepared their supper and smoked some of the meat for their next few days of travel. Katari was disappointed he wouldn't have time to preserve any hides on this trip.

Salim did not set any campfires, and instead showed his students how to create temporary slings in the trees from the ample supply of vines. It was still necessary to set a night watch in case any hungry leopards stalked nearby, but gently swaying in the night breeze in a leafy hammock proved to be some of the most restful nights the Sylvans had had so far on their journey.

The ruins rose grandly out of the thick underbrush as they came into view and stood beside the proudly towering trees. Tangled, leafy vines ran from the bottom to the top, at many times concealing the chiseled rocks completely from view. Ina immediately took out her journal and began sketching as Salim hunted for the entrance.

"Is it safe to go inside something so old?" Katari asked curiously.

"Oh, yes, the structural integrity is still quiet sound," Salim nodded.

"I meant, is it haunted?" Katari asked flatly. "I don't fancy fighting demons today."

"Aw, c'mon, Katari! I did most of the fighting last time and I was the primary decoy, and I'm not worried," Shanku said cheerily as she flashed him a large grin. "Let's go see what's inside!"

"You could stand to learn a healthy fear of death," Katari scolded as he cautiously followed her and Salim into an opening obscured by overgrowth.

"No need to fear Death, he guides you safely to the other side when your time comes," Shanku nodded as she waited for her eyes to adjust to the low light inside. Katari sighed and gave up.

"Who built this place?" Ina asked as she ran her hand along the damp walls and columns.

"The ancestors of the Skihva," Salim answered. "Many thousands of years ago."

"How did they go from living in this to living in those huts?" Ina stared widely at the intricately carved stonework as it opened into a courtyard.

"None today know," Salim shrugged. "Perhaps some terrible disease? There are no signs of a battle from that long ago."

"But what battles have been waged here if this is where you drag to-be-made-ferals?" Shanku asked slyly.

"Let's not scare the initiates," Salim shushed.

"Indeed, let's not!" Shanku said loudly. "I want to know if there's a better way to turn." Shanku slid her pack off her back and set it down under the noon sun. "If you can change to the form at will under any mood, then surely it's not locked to just one then, eh?" Her companions were eyeing her warily as she assumed her hairy feral form, and then stripped down and stored her clothes into her pack. "I'm glad Sylvans don't have as thick a winter coat as the Highlands, this would be rather uncomfortable!"

"It already is," Katari groaned. "Why are you naked?"

"Clothes and fur are a bad combination," Shanku giggled and sat down on the ground. "So, what have we learned about being a big fuzzball?"

"It comes with a blissful lack of modesty?" Ina giggled and sat down nearby to study her.

"Selfishness," Shanku said with emphasis. "Ferals are inherently selfish. Trues, on the other hand, are selfless. Why else did Huata and Hilael go all the way back to basics when they were trying to keep me alive? So, a bit of brazen depravity should get you three right up to speed!"

"An interesting approach," Salim murmured and kept his distance. "And a good thing we are away from the bashful little Skihva."

"Well, how'd you do it then, Salim?" Shanku asked.

"I had a cruel older brother," Salim sighed. "It became a necessity."

"I don't fancy getting picked on," Ina shuddered.

"And I'd rather stay dressed. You two try your version, I'll keep to the proven method with Salim," Katari said as he and Salim began to walk off to a different part of the ruins.

"Well, go on then, you do you and we'll do us," Shanku laughed and waved him away. "Who do you want to go with, Hilael?" Hilael made a long face and flew up to the upper parts of the ruins. "I guess he's not ready yet," Shanku shrugged and returned her focus to Ina. With it now just the two dams, Ina put away her clothes and stretched her wings.

"This is rather nice! Ouch!" Ina yipped and swatted a gnat. "Excluding the pests."

"Forget the pests, let's have some fun!" Shanku said deviously. "If Katari wants to do it the traditional way, let's help him out and find some rotten fruit to chunk at him and get him riled up."

"Scandalous!" Ina laughed. "Try to keep up!" Laughing and giggling, the two disappeared into the jungle.

Hilael watched until they were out of sight and sighed. "It's gonna be a long trip, 'Gati." Innugati trilled and shook her head.

While Shanku and Ina were running wild in the underbrush, Katari was diligently practicing with Salim. The older kurach was doing his best to push the young buck to his limits, treating him roughly and scolding him, as many before them had been treated before the first time they achieved the goblin form. Salim did not offer any breaks. He kept Katari up late at night and woke him early in the morning, and generally made life very difficult. No matter how tired and frustrated, Katari just couldn't manage to go one step further. To add in to his torment, Shanku would come by at least once a day at a differing time each day to tease and pester him. Some days she would come by multiple times. While he appreciated her attempt to help him, she was beginning to get on his last nerve.

One afternoon Shanku was being particularly irritating. She was frisky, full of energy, and talking nonstop. She pounced on him, ruffled his feathers, pulled his tail, nipped his ears, and the whole while Salim was barking at him to focus on what he was doing.

"How can I focus when you two won't leave me the hell alone!?" Katari finally exploded. Shanku went to tweak his wing one more time and Katari snapped. With a throaty growl he jumped at her, long snouted, full furred, and properly feral. Shanku, who of course had been forced by Sigrid to assist with a few Highland cubs ascending, deftly ducked out of the way and took flight to safely out of his reach.

"Way to go!" Shanku crowed as Katari panted and glared at her from the ground, too tired to chase her. Katari stalked off to the cool shade cast by one of the stone walls and flopped down, squeazing his eyes shut from the headache pounding in his head. "Time to finish off Ina then," Shanku chuckled evilly and vanished. Salim sat down in the shade of an opposing wall to give Katari some space and some rest.

"Where are my clothes?" Ina demanded angrily when Shanku found her.

"Not having fun anymore?" Shanku asked innocently.

"I'm being eaten alive by bugs, torn apart by thorns, I think some plant gave me a rash, and I've got sunburn in places I shouldn't," Ina grumped as she gingerly rubbed her backside. "I just want to go back to the village and civilization to rest."

"Highborn not used to roughing it in the wild?" Shanku teased and playfully punched Ina in the arm.

"I'm serious! I'm not having fun anymore," Ina insisted. "This isn't working."

"Maybe it would work if you knew how to work," Shanku laughed and got down into a play bow like a dog. "Where's your sense of adventure?"

"I'll find my clothes on my own then," Ina snarled and started to wander off. Shanku wiggled the tip of her tail in a feline manner and then pounced on her irritable friend. "Get off!" Ina demanded as Shanku started to wrestle with her. The blonde kurach tried in vain to get the playful pest away from her. Shanku grinned deviously and nipped one of Ina's ears. "Oh my goodness, that is enough!" Ina shouted and with a mighty shove knocked Shanku off her. Ina got up and began to rant and rave over what she thought about the heat, the insects, the plant life, the wild life, Shanku's erratic and reckless behaviour, and finally with a frustrated scream she threw her arms up and sprouted fur. "And this jungle just keeps getting louder!"

"Because your hearing just got a lot sharper," Shanku said with a grin. "Congrats!" Ina just shot her a cold glare. "I promise it gets easier from here," Shanku offered as she gestured. "You've got better protection from the thorns now!"

"Small comfort," Ina grumbled and curled up in the shade to sulk. "I just want to go back to the village."

Shanku disappeared for a moment and came back with Ina's pack. Ina just snatched it away sullenly and didn't even thank her. Shanku didn't say anything and made her way to the top of the ruins where her brother was still hiding. "Two for two in one day," she sighed.

"They probably won't want to speak to you for a while," Hilael said softly. "You were exceptionally annoying."

"I can live with them being mad at me," Shanku shrugged. "At least they didn't have to change like I did, either with the pirates or with Sigrid." Hilael eyed her warily from the corner of her vision. "Don't worry, 'Lael, I'm not going to go after you next." Hilael didn't seem to relax any, so Shanku continued. "I know you've got a worse temper than the three of us put together, I'm not going to tangle with that." Hilael looked away and said nothing. The siblings sat together in silence as night fell over the jungle. Eventually Salim started a fire and he, Katari, and Ina huddled around it for warmth.

After the initial change into the goblin form, Salim said they could finally return to the village, much to Ina's relief. It was a quiet trip back. Salim was tired, Katari and Ina were pointedly not speaking to Shanku, Hilael was never chatty, and Innugati could only chitter and chirp, so Shanku was very bored on the way back. All of them were relieved when the thatched roofs began to show through the tree trunks.

"How did it go?" Yaj asked as the weary kurach stopped to rest. Katari and Ina groaned and stared at the ground, Hilael was indifferent, and Shanku was had an unusual sheepish grin.

"After an unorthodox approach," Salim said and glanced at Shanku, "these two managed the goblin form."

"Ah! Congratulations! We'll prepare a feast," Yaj said enthusiastically. "I'll have Padma bring you some fresh clothes. A hot bath is sure to relax your nerves after such a difficult trial." He nodded to them and went to look for his wife.

"It would soothe your nerves," Salim nodded and motioned for the Sylvans to go to the bath house. Too tired to argue, they complied. Yaj and Padma brought them fresh clothes and the Sylvans joined them for supper before retiring to soft and sorely missed beds.

Salim met them early the next morning. "We should continue lest you fall into complacency," he stated. "You must get used to the form and learn to control it. We will work with simple chores."

Katari sighed and Ina groaned, clearly not interested in trying again so soon. Salim nodded to Shanku. She eased forward with a twinkle in her eye and pulled their tails. Their reaction was immediate and she had two whiskered muzzles snarling in her face. Shanku slipped between them in a hurry and hid on the other side of Salim. "It was his idea!"

Begrudgingly, Katari and Ina followed Salim out into the village while Hilael darted out to resume his studies with the medicine man. Shanku tilted her head curiously as she watched him round a corner. He sure has made himself scarce lately. She kept herself busy with household chores and assisting Padma over the following weeks as Katari and Ina learned to control themselves in the goblin form. Spring came to the jungle, and with it, another rainy season. Shanku was beginning to get restless and whispers of the outside world came to the Skihva. A caravan would soon be passing through on its way back up north to the blazing deserts. The village was buzzing with excitement as they prepared to welcome their guests.

"I assume we'll be going with them?" Katari asked.

"What Sylvan has ever seen a desert?" Shanku asked in return.

"I'll get my satchel packed," Katari sighed.

Shanku tilted her head as she watched him walk away. It had barely been a year since they had left the Nyre behind and already two of her travelling companions seemed tired and disinterested. In the bustle of spring planting, seasonal storms, and preparing for the caravan, Shanku was easily overlooked and she took the opportunity to sneak off into the jungle. When she was deep into the underbrush far out of sight and sound of the village, she sat down on a rock and got lost in thought as she worried over her ragtag group.

"Hrm," Shanku murmured as she sat out in the jungle that hot, steamy afternoon. "Kleu? Are you there?"

There was a shimmer among the leaves and the goblin hound appeared. "You are a lot farther from home than I expected to find you, pup."

"Wanderlust!" Shanku giggled. "You know how it goes."

"I thought you would call me before you wandered off, not during," Kleu said, mildly annoyed.

"I wasn't really sure if it was appropriate since this is our coming of age journey," Shanku said sheepishly. "Before we left, I'd heard you already gotten a companion and was watching over them."

"Yes, I do. Two of them. A little fellow from the Crawfen clan, and one from the Sushaw clan," Kleu said. "But what can I do for you, out here in the Bhadarukian jungle?"

"If it's not a bother, I was wondering if you'd heard of Stob?" Shanku asked. "Or Koru?"

"Stob and Koru?" Kleu repeated back and looked to the sky thoughtfully. "Yes. Koru. Stob. Such a long time ago. Koru was having trouble with one of the little green goblins, asked the fae for help since I was not allowed to intervene despite the fact we're all goblins, and they cursed him with a terrible rage and new form to deal with. It had a further backlash of causing those plagued by it to hunt down and kill those who were unaffected, and then turn on each other. So, some generations later, after all the original kurach were dead and the rage-filled ones were mercilessly slaughtering who was left, Stob left the Nyre in search of a cure. Once he was on the plains, he was out of jurisdiction of the Nyre guardians, and I sent my fae soul-brother, the Gytrash, to direct him to where he needed to go. I'm somewhat surprised to see you in the same place, pup."

"I had a gut feeling I needed to come here," Shanku said. "What happened to Stob? The Skihva said he was cursed by a djinn."

"Yes. Poor little Stob," Kleu shook his head. "The djinn are powerful spirits, more powerful than fae or goblin, and I'd hoped they could help him, perhaps undo the fae magic and make him whole again. I didn't expect him to find a bad one. It busted him up even further, and is how you now have four forms. Unlike the fae, the djinn's curse affected all kurach alive. When Stob returned, it wasn't long after that the others learned about their two new forms, and he spent the rest of his life teaching them how to control themselves, including poor Koru. They ended up becoming so frightened of the fae's curse, they embraced the djinn's curse, and in some families, not a single one ever walked on four feet again for many generations, if ever. The Skihva do not know it, but I have added my own enchantments to their jar trap, and it's unlikely that djinn will ever walk free again," Kleu finished darkly.

"It seems a trait of our kind to get ourselves into a ridiculous amount of trouble," Shanku frowned. "Kind of why I called for you... I have an opportunity to go north to see some great fields of sand. Do you think it would be safe to go?"

"Hm," Kleu rumbled. "It would certainly be a grand adventure. But why so cautious? It doesn't become you."

"This time I have others with me. It's not just my life I'm risking, it's theirs as well," Shanku replied. "I don't want to bring back a third curse either."

"The northern spirits are strong and proud, but are not unreasonable. If you cross them, they will give you a chance to make amends instead of just turning you into a toad or who knows what. Magic is also more potent up there, so you may even learn a few new tricks of your own," Kleu said.

"I feel so silly for asking this, but, will I be able to call you if I need you?" Shanku asked. "The others are kind of reluctant and it's making me a bit nervous.

"Of course. I am free to roam this entire world," Kleu laughed proudly. "Not a little bit of grit nor water cannot hold me back. Besides, there are goblins and goblinoids over there. Where our kind are, I can be in a matter of moments. Be careful in your travels, little Ravenwing. Perhaps you'll rekindle your friends' spark of adventure. I must return to my sleeping charges," Kleu said and bowed his head to her before vanishing.

Shanku felt very relaxed and hopeful after her talk with the goblin hound and returned to the village.

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