Chapter 61: Badlands

"What's the plan, intrepid leader?" Katari asked as the cooking fires of Arbos dwindled in the distance behind them. "It's not safe to cross the desert alone even if you did have months of practice with their soldiers."

"Well," Shanku began slowly. "Seeing as how everybody fears the ghouls, I figured I would call on a familiar terror for help if we get into trouble."

Katari stared at her with narrowed eyes for a moment. "You wouldn't dare."

"I've already gotten permission from him, and Carmelo said as long as I was upfront and didn't sneak around behind your backs to do it, it'd be alright. Ina confirmed as much, too."

"That's what you asked of us that night?" Ina asked in shock.

"And precisely when and how did you get his permission for that?" Katari pressed.

"When we were about to leave the Skihva. He also told me a few things about the northern spirits," Shanku explained. "I don't intend to run from them if they meet us on the sands."

"Did all the growling, howling, yowling, and scratching not bother you on Dolagog?" Ina demanded.

"Honestly? No," Shanku shrugged and then she gave a sly glance to the golden dam. "Besides, I think you studied plenty of ways to ward them off. You and Katari are my back-up plan if they're not in a chatty mood."

Ina did not look the least bit relieved and instead appeared more concerned.

"You could have stayed behind with Niku. Why didn't you? You two hit it off so well!"

"I was warned not to," Ina said sadly with downcast eyes.

"I guess that was what you inquired the fates about then?" Shanku asked gently. Ina nodded and continued to look away. "I'm sorry. You were so happy and I genuinely hoped it would work out."

"I even made requests to the fates throughout the winter. Always the same answer," Ina said. "Live and learn, right?"

"It's good to have you with us," Shanku said warmly.

"Although I am concerned we're about to go crossing a desert again without a camel or anything," Ina frowned.

"According to what many in Arbos said, on the other side of this bit of grassland is a rocky desert with lots of plants, some of them big and bulky to hold water. We can sip and nibble our way through, and thus, be able to cross on our own," Shanku said. "This will give us greater mobility than being held back in a caravan, and take flight out of danger easier."

"You're about to make us start doing flight exercises again, aren't you?" Ina asked slowly.

Shanku grinned deviously. "I thought I'd give you a few days of walking first. After all, I gotta get my arms broke in, too, now that I've got these lovely new arm guards Katari made for me over the winter!" Ina groaned loudly and Shanku laughed evilly. Shanku soon began keeping them aloft as much as they were able, and when they made camp for the evening Hilael would brew various teas to help relieve their sore muscles. Katari drank deeply of anything he was offered. Shanku was still sparring with him on a regular basis in an attempt to improve his fighting skills.

"I think they're both trying to kill us," Ina murmured to Katari.

"I think you might be right," Katari whispered back. "Hey, Shank, how are we going to get supplies at the next town? We don't have anything to trade for."

"Whaddya mean 'we need to get supplies'?" Shanku rounded on him. "We're kurach! And we've been cooped up in settlements and around other species nonstop for over a year. Time to get back to our roots. Fly with the wind, flow with the water, roll in the earth, and bask in the sun's fires! Chase down some delicious animal, and, hells, maybe even eat it raw."

"The first kurach tradition I intend to reconnect with is heating my blade and singeing off some of this excess hair I've grown," Katari said quickly as he saw Ina's eyes light up and that she was about to go buck wild.

"I can live with that. My bangs are starting to get too long for my liking too," Shanku agreed, to Katari's relief.

"Ina, Hilael, do either of you need a trim?" Katari offered.

"Maybe a bit off my forelocks, too," Ina said as she twirled a few strands around her fingers.

"Either that or start pulling mine back," Hilael replied.

"Clever diversion," Shanku rumbled just loud enough for only Katari to hear. "We may have to join the other nighttime predators now. You still owe me a hunt out here."

Katari glanced at her to find she was impishly smiling yet again. I wonder if this is something Kleu would protect me from? Oh, wait, no, no, no... I do not need to start entertaining those kinds of thoughts!

That evening when they made camp, Katari pulled out one of his knives, carefully heated it over the fire, and soon became the Scissortails' barber.

"You look kinda funny with so much black hair showing!" Shanku snickered when he had finished with himself.

"Give it a few weeks. It always bleaches fast in the sun. I'll have brownish-blond tips again before you know it," Katari said.

"Oh, I know. Mine does the same thing. Trimmed it once while sailing with the merchants and then spent the next few years arguing with Dr. Newbury about what kind of trimming experiments he could do with the rest of it for his research," Shanku said with a wistful smile.

"Mine just grows dark the first few inches," Ina added. "I got tired of dealing with the back and just let it go, so I guess it's about as long as it's going to get because that's where it's stayed for a while now."

Hilael looked away uncomfortably and pulled his wings around him ever so slightly. Shanku grinned, pounced on him, and then sat by him with her arm looped around his shoulders and his neck in the crook of her elbow.

"Hilael, on the other hoof, is a beautiful, even, consistent monochrome, except for the faintest half-shade lighter on his inner ear fur," Shanku said playfully.

"I've been teased about that a lot," Hilael frowned. "It's unusual for Sylvans to be this bland."

"They're just jealous you're more connected to the earth than they are," Shanku said matter-of-factly and released him.

"Then I should have been green," he grumped.

"Plants have to start somewhere and need dirt, and dirt ain't green," Shanku said.

"Oo, if we're doing nature analogies, what am I?" Ina asked eagerly.

"The sun," the other three said almost in unison.

"I can live with that," Ina said cheerily. "Let's see, what about Katari?" She looked him up and down, and he laid back an ear uneasily. "The moon!"

"The moon?" Katari repeated.

"Because of all the silver and white in your wings, and you're always so calm and supportive, like the moon," Ina continued.

"Aw, thanks," Katari said warmly.

"What about me?" Shanku asked.

"Uh," Katari looked away and Hilael was not making eye contact to begin with. Ina suddenly because interested in making sure the beads on her hip satchel were straight.

"Oh, come on, apparently you've all thought of at least something otherwise you wouldn't have locked down so fast!" Shanku said.

"A messenger," Ina said as quickly and benignly as possible.

"A 'messenger'?" Shanku asked and cocked her head to the side. "The sun, the moon, and the very live-giving earth below our feet think I'm just a messenger?"

"Well, you do have the black, glossy wings of the crows and ravens," Ina said uneasily.

"So? Don't Sylvans usually say that's lucky?" Shanku tilted her head to the other side.

"Crows and ravens are also harbringers of change and death, and change through death," Katari explained.

"The Black Plague all over again," Shanku frowned with her ears laid back.

"But if we didn't love that about you, we would have stayed in the Nyre or banded together with somebody else," Ina said perkily.

"I think I'll turn in for the night," Shanku sighed. "Whoever gets the middle, wake me up for last watch." Hilael and Innugati volunteered for first watch and Katari took second.

⁂

"Look at that!" Ina exclaimed and pointed ahead.

"Rocks," Katari said flatly.

"Yeah, duh, big rocks. Look at how beautiful they are!" Ina said. "They've got so many colours! Like they've absorbed every sunset they've ever experienced."

The Scissortails had managed to cross the grasslands and as the air became drier and the plants more pointed, great rock formations appeared on the horizon with bold bands of reds, oranges, yellows, pinks, and whites. Ina eagerly urged her companions to travel faster, impatient to examine the unique boulders in person.

"The rocks aren't going anywhere, and we need to conserve our energy! Rations are low and hunting is poor," Katari scolded. "The gazelle and antelope here are too fast for me. Even when we try that steep dive with a spear."

"We should have invested in a bow," Shanku grumbled. "I can get one of the quick buggers with a bow."

"Aren't there other things here we can eat?" Ina asked.

"I saw a few herds of wild camels and horses, but given how prized they are here, I'd be worried of offending the native spirits," Katari said. "I'll keep a look out for any other game."

"We all should," Hilael added. "We can't just graze on cacti and hope for the best in there."

They arrived much more slowly to the desert than Ina would have liked, and as she was admiring the gorgeous formations, she spotted movement. "A herd of things!" Ina whispered excitedly to Katari and pointed. He gave a nod to Shanku, and they dropped their packs by Ina and Hilael and began to creep toward their target. They climbed high and sat on top of one of the cliffs to get a better vantage point. Then Katari almost lost his footing from the wind.

"How many times have you hunted in high wind?" Shanku asked quickly.

"Not often," Katari murmured.

"You scout, and let me make the kill. I got a lot of practice on the sea. If you're not careful, you'll get blown into a rock, and get hurt. These big rocks seem to be channeling and intensifying the breeze in some areas," Shanku said. Katari nodded in agreement and stealthily made his way to another cliff. He decided on a young, frisky buck and pointed him out to Shanku. She readied her spear and climbed into the sky. Katari felt a brief twinge of guilt that not only was he not the one providing for them, but also that he had deferred to one hunting with a weapon. Hard to forgo what you were taught, isn't it?

Shanku rode the thermals for a while as she broadly circled the herd below. Just like those schools of fish. The ocean is as unforgiving as a rock wall. At last, she dived. Predictably, the herd started to scatter as she came in closer. A quick, last moment flick of her wings, and she managed to drive her spear into the buck that Katari desired. She let go of the spear and pulled her wings up quickly to stop her flight as gracefully as she could. She still managed to trip and tumble over a few obstacles. Bruised, but happy, she limped back to her prize and waited for Katari to join her.

"You are going to make me prematurely grey!" Katari said after he landed. "I thought you were going to roll clean off this ledge."

"You weren't the only one!" Shanku said hurriedly. "This thing has to weigh more than eleven stone. Please tell me you can make plenty of jerky out of it."

"It's a fairly muscular goat, despite the terrain. I'll see what I can do," Katari replied. "I think the spirits will understand if we only sacrifice the lower organs to them and keep the rest ourselves to make it through to green country again."

Shanku helped him field dress the goat and then they brought the rest back to where Hilael and Ina were waiting. Ina had set to finding dried grasses and other fuel for the campfire and Hilael had found a decent shelter for the night well off the ground. When the hunters returned, he went out to see if there were any good things he could bring back to supplement their supper.

"You'll have plenty of time to investigate this particular dusty lump while I prepare our next set of rations," Katari teased Ina when she had returned.

"I intend to do no less," Ina said haughtily and deposited her armful of kindling.

"Gonna tan this one?" Shanku asked curiously.

"Tempting, but, no. We haven't eaten well in a while. I don't need the extra weight from the skin," Katari said.

Katari and Shanku had just finished butchering the goat and preparing the bits they intended to roast when Hilael returned with some strange, flat cacti. By the time he had managed to get the tough skins off, the main course was ready to be served. Hilael merely shrugged and served raw, green slabs.

"Slimy, but strangely filling," Shanku noted curiously when they had finished. They set their watches and retired for the night.

Spring was not even half gone and it was already intense during the height of the day. Unlike the sands, the badlands had plenty of shade-casting features, and the Sylvans were content to take advantage of it. Ina would pull out her sketchbooks and do her best to record some of the plants, rocks, and shy animals around them. Katari had packed a wooden flute he had made a few summers ago back when they were still in the Nyre, and would sometimes play a light tune when they rested. Overall, it was a very pleasant walk and the young Scissortails were the most relaxed they had yet been during the Foterutu. They were told that after three day's journey they could turn toward the setting sun and easily reach the Green Sea, and could skip across northern Mruha to land back on L'aernth. Best of all, there were no raiders in the badlands!

It was Ina's turn to take mid-watch. Unseen crickets were chirping in the darkness of the new moon, and it was all so soothing, she nodded off to sleep.

Scuffles and whispering went unnoticed among the peacefully sleeping kurach. They were startled awake when heavy nets were thrown on them. Shanku immediately shifted into her feral form with vicious growls, and thrashed her arms and wings so violently an edge of the net came up just enough for her to see her path to freedom. She was met by several spears around her. With a wicked snarl, she gripped the netting in her hand harder, and then flung it wildly in front of her and leapt into the sky. In the dim starlight, she was able to make out several short forms closing in on the captured kurach and forcefully securing them and their belongings while a large amount of the hostile creatures were keeping their spears pointed at Shanku.

Shanku's mind was working frantically while she made wide circles in the air above them. Rocks? No, they were too heavy if they were to be effective. Dives? No, they had spears and moved too quickly.

"Get out of here!" Katari shouted at her, and was promptly struck with the butt of a spear. Reluctantly, bitterly, Shanku obeyed, and went outside of their field of vision. It was painful to have to stand by, doing nothing, and watch as they were taken away. She had not survived this long by being recklessly noisy, and stealthily followed them from the tops of the tall cliffs and boulders, hopping and gliding from one to another as silently as she was able. Eventually, they would have to rest, and she could take action then.

The troop finally rested at dawn. Shanku lay flat against the top of the rock she was hiding on, watching them keenly and keeping carefully out of sight. A familiar buzzing was growing louder and she looked to see Innugati come flying up to her. Innugati made a single, pitiful chirp, and curled up under Shanku's chin.

"We'll get them back, 'Gati," Shanku said lowly and leaned her head over to tuck the little fairy dragon close to her throat. "Those little hobgoblins don't understand just how dangerous it is to try to bust up a kurach's pack." I'll have to work quickly. They took all my rations, and I can't risk disappearing for a hunt.

Below, the captive Scissortails were being roughly felt over by the largest, meanest looking hobgoblin.

"Ah! a good catch," he gloated. "This yellow one will fetch a high price as a look-pretty. Quit yer, squirmin'! I'd hate to have to cut your wings off if you don't stop trying to escape."

Ina stared at him fearfully and froze. "You wouldn't dare..."

The hobgoblin laughed cruelly and gestured for them to be taken away. The kurach weren't allowed to talk to each other and were separated.

"What about that one that got away, cap'n?" gruffly asked an older looking hobgoblin.

"Don't got no need for cowards," was the reply. "That one was too wild to keep anyway."

"We've broken in worse," the older one said.

"If it shows up again, it can be your pet project then."

Katari glanced up to the sky, wondering if Shanku was alright, and just how they were going to escape.

Days and nights both amongst the hobgoblin troop became dangerous. At first, they simply disappeared. A hobgoblin would go off into the bushes to relieve himself, and would not come back. At most, they would find a few drops of blood left behind. The captain quickly ordered none to wander off alone. Each were to travel in pairs. They shortly began to disappear in pairs. He then forbid any of them from separating from the troop, for any reason. The hobgoblin began to push them onward harder and faster, desperate to get back to their encampment before too many were lost.

Shanku crouched in the shadows at the top of the high boulder she was waiting on. She had tracked them this far, no matter how hard they had tried to hide and cover their scent with strange plants, she had persisted, and picked them off one by one when they were foolish enough to stray from their group. She could see where the Scissortails were being held. There was a hollow in the cliff face where their capturers had made camp. Their wrists were bound behind them and she had to suppress a growl. Even this far away she couldn't risk making noise. It would be undisciplined and create bad habits she would not be able to control when it mattered. Soon, it would matter more than it ever had in her life. If she failed, she would never see them again, and who knows what life they would live? Or how long they would live. The tip of her tail and the front of her muzzle twitched murderously. Patience... Patience... They will suffer soon enough.

The captive Scissortails were held in the back against the cliff. Shanku wouldn't be able to creep in and chew off the ropes. She couldn't roll boulders down the hill to crush the hobgoblins without risking hurting the kurach. However...

"Innugati, if you burn the ropes tonight when most of them are asleep, maybe I can take out the night watch, and we all slink away," Shanku said lowly to the little fairy dragon. Innugati chirped, fluttered her six dragonfly-like wings, and shook her head. It was too risky, and Shanku knew it. She wanted so badly to call out to Kleu and ask his help. Or seek out one of the ghouls and beseech their assistance. But the tale of Koru was ever present in the back of her mind. What if she brought a new curse on the kurach? A little ostracizing and exile would be nothing compared to the bounty on her head!

A thought crossed Shanku's mind and a cruel smile spread across her face. Kleu did say us kurach were to settle our differences in combat from here on out, didn't he? She backed away from the edge of the cliff and flew away.

The hobgoblin troop was getting ready to break camp when an audible kerthunk caught their attention. Howls of rage and disgust issued from the remaining members as the heads of their missing comrades came falling from the sky and dropping around them. Many had distinctive indications of having been chewed upon. The captive kurach witnessed it as well. Ina and Hilael were immediately sick and Katari was trying to resist the churning in his own stomach, and the others' retching was not helping.

Shanku alighted on a nearby ledge in her feral form with one final severed head. She was in full view of the enraged troop, wearing only her tunic, her belt, and the bracers Katari had made for her. She lightly tossed the head up once and then threw it at the feet of the captain. "You stole my friends. I stole your men. You took my food. I found new food. I challenge you to a fight between the two of us, and I will eat your hearts and suck the marrow out of your bones!" she declared loudly and confidently.

"I will have your head and feed you a stew of your tongue!" the captain spat.

"Only if you win, shortstack," Shanku growled. "But if I win, you give me back my friends, and you never cross us again."

The captain chuckled at the naïve and trusting demand. "Fine then, puppy. Hop on down here like a good bird so I can pluck you."

Shanku landed in the valley and squared off against the captain. She held a spear tightly in her furry hand, one that she had liberated from a midnight snack. The captain called for one of his glaives and slowly circled her. He could probably only make eye contact with her navel. It had been many years since she fought something so tiny. All the more reason she kept a firm grip on the spear. It would be much easier to sweep and stab with an extension than trying to do it all by hand or foot. Unlike goblins, hobgoblins were built stocky. Nyre hobgoblins were just hairy, mischievous brownies; usually helpful, but prone to pranks. Here in Bhadarukia, apparently they had decided to play more cruel jokes.

"Are you too scared to fight?" the captain sneered as Shanku simply kept him facing her.

"You're the one running in circles like a frightened hare," Shanku taunted.

illustration

With a growl, the captain lunged, the blade of his glaive coming toward her in a straight strike. Pole weapons were a favorite of the Arbos guard and Shanku had drilled repeatedly with them. She quickly parried the tip of his glaive away and in a fluid sweeping motion flicked her spear above his head and struck downward. He dodged too late and received a shallow cut across his chest. The captain scowled and leapt backward as Shanku continued her assault. Sidestepping and ducking, he kept backing away, looking for an opening. A quick jab, and he was able to shift the battle to keeping Shanku on the defensive. The butt of his glaive was reinforced with a counterweight and a spike, and Shanku had to be careful of both ends of his weapon. They kept blocking, jabbing, and slicing, more and more clouds of dust getting stirred up from furious footwork, as the sun climbed higher and higher into the sky. They both were breathing heavily and covered in small scratches and bruises, but none had yet been able to deliver a serious blow.

The captain smirked when he had her backed up against a wall. He readied his glaive and made another lunge. Shanku parried again, but this time, she used the rock wall to launch herself at him, shoving her spear far to the side and knocking the glaive from his hands. It felt good to sink her claws into his exposed fur and into the tough hide beneath. He and the others in the troop were only wearing thick pants and shinguards to protect against the worst of the brush and possible snake bites. It would make her desires so much easier to obtain. The captain fell backward and Shanku rolled with him as they began to grapple and wrestle.

Shanku had no hope of overpowering his burly arms, and he had no hope of being able to use his tusks effectively with his short neck against such a long-limbed opponent. The hobgoblin worked hard to hold her down in any kind of submissive lock he could, and the kurach was biting and tearing out as many chunks as she could with her teeth. No matter how hard he kicked or punched, she remained unphased and kept coming after him, careful only to risk her head when she had claws firmly dug into his arms to keep him from breaking her snout, and keeping her wings arched high above her so he couldn't break them and she could steady herself.

Boos and hisses came from the troop who were circled around them on the surrounding boulders, but none dared to join in. They outnumbered the wolven beast, but unlike the spotty-winged ones further south, this one apparently had no dietary taboos and found them delicious. Shanku risked a glance at the other kurach. The hobgoblins were all focused on the fight, including the ones guarding the kurach, and were oblivious to the fact that Innugati had managed to burn through the ropes. Shanku bared her fangs in a grin that was more of a scowl, and prepared to end the fight.

Bruised, bloodied, and getting winded, a throb in Shanku's kidney from a well-placed kick prompted her to return the favor and throw out a dirty play. She quickly grabbed a handful of sand and tossed it into the hobgoblin's face. Blinded and even more furious than before, he began to swing wildly in her direction. The captain had lost control and soon paid for it with his life.

"Release my friends!" Shanku demanded over the lifeless body below her paws as blood dripped from her muzzle.

"I am captain, and I made no such deal with you," said the oldest hobgoblin. He ordered for the others to attack. Shanku leapt into the air as the whole troop came swarming on her location. She glanced at Katari and he signaled for her to flee again. He, Hilael, and Ina had recovered their belongings and taken to the air. Shanku nodded and darted down an opposite canyon, the band of hairy goblin-kin chasing after her.

The newly freed kurach took off as far away from the decoy as they could, praying they would meet up again soon.

"You have to rest sometime, and when you do, we will take you again!" roared the new captain when Shanku shimmied up a cliff face out of reach. "There are many of us in the badlands, and just four of you."

"Thanks for the warning, furface. Too bad you're too old to be worth a meal!" Shanku taunted and vanished over the top as streams of profanity were thrown in her direction.

Shanku's wings were shaking with fatigue, but she had to find the others. It was dangerous and certainly reckless to push herself so hard with the canyons crawling with enemies. Finally, she had to allow herself to collapse on a very high formation. It seemed to be perched on the tinest stone below, and Shanku sincerely hoped the bulging middle would be too difficult for angry hobgoblins to scale and take her during the night. The first sunbeams of dawn woke her up the next morning and she stretched her sore and aching wings for another flight.

High above, higher than most Sylvans dared to fly, Katari was braving the chilly, thin air to catch any glimpse of black feathers. He had hidden Ina and Hilael in what he hoped was an impossible location for a non-flier to access so he could search for Shanku. The sun was nearing its zenith when he finally saw Shanku. He pulled his wings in for a steep dive and rushed down to her.

"Shanku?" he called as he flared his wings around him to break his speed and drop beside her.

"Katari!" Shanku exclaimed tiredly. "I'm so glad you're alright." She pounced him with her waning strength and held him tightly in a hug, or as tight as she could manage. Katari slid his arms around her shoulders and held her against him.

"I'm glad you're alive, too," Katari murmured.

"What about Hilael and Ina?" Shanku asked quickly and pushed away from him with a worried look on his face.

"Safe, I hope," Katari said. "With plenty of dried meat to hold them over until we get back. Let's find some shade and try to get you rested enough we can get back to them." Shanku didn't argue with him and followed him to a nearby crevice. Katari had brought some supplies with him and Shanku consented to have her injuries tended to. That night when they laid down to sleep, Shanku curled up against Katari and dozed off with her head on his shoulder.

Back at their hiding spot, Hilael and Ina were holed up at the mouth of what appeared to be a shallow cave. For once, Ina wasn't speaking. She had not said anything since their escape and was sitting with her knees against her chest as she stared outside. Hilael risked a peek at her and noticed the blank look on her face. Regretting the decision before he even carried through on it, he went over to her and kneeled down beside her.

"Are you alright?"

"What do you think?" Ina asked numbly. "Leave me alone."

Hilael flicked an ear back and raised an eyebrow. He wished to comply, but, "Ina, you shouldn't sit so close to the entrance. If they have projectiles or good night vision, they'll find you with your bright colours, and could hurt you."

"Great for selling," Ina said coldly. "If they don't get cut off."

Hilael closed his eyes and tried to weigh his next words carefully. Ina had not been threatened much in her life and was not as used to it as he and Shanku were. Not that it is something anybody should have to get used to. "Ina, please, go to bed. We've had a very difficult fortnight, and you need rest. You deserve rest. And you're obviously cold."

"Can't imagine what a kurach on ice is worth."

He didn't know how to respond to that and fetched one of the skins Katari had left hairy for warmth and draped it over her. If he couldn't get her away from the edge, perhaps he could at least make her less of a target. Once again, she was in no position to keep watch. Hilael longed to go to sleep, but somebody had to keep watch, especially now they knew there was plenty of danger lurking below. He sat down beside her, wrapped in another skin, and kept his ears and eyes alert for trouble. The bitter cold of the desert night was all that was keeping him awake, and he had to resist the urge to close the gaps between the edges of his blanket lest he get warm and fall asleep.

The sound of beating wings caught his attention and he squinted into the light cast by a half moon. A wave of relief came over him when he realized it was Katari, and that he had found Shanku. He backed away from the opening so they could land. Shanku was shaking again and obviously sore, but quick to embrace her little brother. After making sure he was alright, she turned her attention to Ina, who still hadn't moved from her spot.

"You two get some rest. I'll keep an eye on her," Shanku said. Hilael did not need to be told twice and fell asleep almost as soon as he had covered up in a corner. Katari settled down nearby, still tired from his long search and then waking them early to return in the dark of night when they were less likely to be spotted.

Shanku sat down cross-legged beside Ina and leaned forward to prop her elbows on her knees, watching the stars and listening to the nocturnal insects. Before long, soft, steady breathing came from behind them.

"The bucks finally dozed off," Shanku noted, and then surpressed a snicker when Does that mean us does buck when we nod off? crossed her mind. Ina didn't respond. "I think I lost my britches out there. Never got a chance to go back and get them after bustin' y'all out. When is the last time you ate?"

"Going to feed me a hobgoblin or something?" Ina asked darkly.

Shanku turned to her with an ear laid back and another pricked forward. Her features relaxed and she nodded once slowly. "I'm not Niku. I don't have soft words of consolation. I can't distract you from the memories or the fear. I did not say travelling with me would be a bed of roses, and I'm honestly glad so far it hasn't been worse. All I can do is offer an ear and try to be there for you like you try for us, and try that much harder to keep you safe in the future."

"How did you handle a year of it?" Ina asked as her voice began to crack. "Those hairy devils..."

"Short pirates. Taking what they want, no respect for life or boundaries, thinking they can do whatever they want," Shanku growled. "I didn't handle it. I kept everything buried as best I could and did what I had to to survive until I could get away. From what I could see, you were doing the same thing. Just getting by until you could get away."

"But why did you eat them?" Ina asked uncomfortably. It was so... bestial. Worse than bestial. It was downright evil.

"There was nothing else to eat," Shanku shrugged. "They were so noisy they scared all the game away."

Ina sat in silence for a moment. "That's the only reason?"

Shanku sighed and looked up at the stars highest above them. "Do you really want to know the answer?"

"Yes."

"To make a point. I actually consumed very little of them. Just what I needed to keep my strength up. The thought of it was more disgusting than how tough and terrible tasting they were. But those kinds of threats kept the pirates unbalanced and nervous around me. Pirates are softer than hobgoblins. I needed to show them I was more than empty threats, so they would be less eager to chase us while we got out of the badlands as fast as we could."

"...It's still absolutely revolting. Such a horrible world we live in," Ina murmured.

"Not all of it is bad. Think of all the wonderful things we have seen, too," Shanku said softly. "The rippling grasses of the plains. The ceremony honouring the bison. The sunsets in Mruha. The sparkling waves. The grand temples of Bhadarukia. Lita's newborn calf. All the kindness we have been shown by so many strangers. You cannot have destruction without creation, or creation without destruction. Just like the ouroboros the priestesses have told us about since we were wee cubs." Shanku smiled as she thought back to all those years ago of her first night on the pirate ship when her uncle tried to console her with similar words. "'Death is a part of life. With one comes the other. Like the tide, the moon, the seasons... They are all part of a never-ending cycle. Yeah, it hurts. Hurts like all the hells sometimes. But, time can heal pain and before long the cycle must renew.' Good things will come back into your life to replace the bad." She felt a twinge of homesickness, and a newfound sympathy for what her uncle must have lived through to have once been able to say all that to her when she needed it.

"I'm afraid," Ina whispered.

"So am I," Shanku said sadly. "But I promise to get us back home."

Faint light was growing on the horizon and Ina yawned long and deep.

"Get some sleep, Ina," Shanku said in a low, soothing, and affectionate voice. "I can keep guard."

Ina's eyes were heavy and she finally reclused into the cave to rest. Shanku's features hardened and she diligently kept watch as her tired companions slept off their weariness. Sleep while you can. It's going to be hell getting out of here now.

⁂

"Grrrrriaaaaaor!" Shanku roared as she made a steep dive and inflicted wounds with her spear. The hobgoblins scattered and ran for shelter. Some tried to throw shorter spears and javelins at her, but her speed was too great from such a sharp descent and quickly pulled up out of their reach. Word had spread rapidly throughout the bands scattered throughout the badlands, and all of them wanted a piece of "the devourer". A flick of her wing and she soared through a pass, chased as fast by the current hobgoblins as their stubby legs could carry them, right into an ambush. Katari, Hilael, and Ina loosed the rocks they had stockpiled. Many were injured, some were killed, and cries of rage and pain came up from the valley amidst the crashing stones. Shanku alighted on a ledge high above them.

"Stop chasing us if you want to live," she hissed viciously. "We don't want to be here any more than you want us here. Just let us pass, and we'll let you be. Attack us, and you'll regret it." She leapt into the air and left them behind. The other Scissortails joined her. All now travelled in their feral form to utilize the increase in strength that came with it so they could stay aloft longer, and they stayed high in the sky out of range of even the best bows they had encountered. The hobgoblins did not appear to have more than pole weapons, but they were taking no chances.

"Is that a settlement?" Katari asked when he spotted a thin trail of smoke snaking its way through the sky.

"I don't think we dare land," Ina said hurriedly. "What if it's full of those hairy vermin? Or their buyers?"

"Ina's right. We don't risk anything," Shanku said firmly. She altered her flight slightly to give the settlement a wide berth. "We'll have to go further than normal to make sure we're out of their range."

Ina sighed tiredly, her expression silenced by the swish of the wind as they cruised through the air. Shanku was driving them hard and barely giving them time to rest or eat until she and Katari could decide on a fortified place to rest. Ina shifted back to her common form and collapsed in a tired heap in the corner of the newest crevice they would call home for a day or two. Hilael sat down in a far corner as he shifted back, leaned heavily against the wall, and closed his eyes. Even Innugati was tired despite spending most of her time clinging to Hilael instead of flying. Katari had a serious look on his face as he checked their packs. He looked up at her and they silently exchanged an understanding. Their food was low and they needed to hunt again. It took a lot to keep their energy up when they flew, and they had to fly almost exclusively as they tried to escape the badlands.

For once, Katari hated hunting. There was always a certain level of risk of environmental hazards, prey turning fierce, or encountering another predator. Trying to work in the middle of the night with a time limit and greather threats was taking its toll, and there was the worry gnawing at the back of his mind of Hilael and Ina's safety while he and Shanku were gone. Shanku and Katari remained in their feral forms and undressed. It was still embarrassing, even with the thick fur providing a bit of modesty, but they needed to lessen the noise of their hunt as much as possible and they did not need the sound of fabric flapping in the breeze helping give them away. Hilael dutifully moved closer to the entrance to keep watch and Ina curled up in a ball under her blanket. Another unspoken conversation was removing Ina from guard duty. The guilt and shame was eating her alive, but what could be done? How could she ever make it up to them?

Shanku placed a reassuring hand on Hilael's shoulder, the other holding her spear. She let go and leapt out of the crevice, followed shortly by Katari with his spear in hand. She had managed to snatch another one for Katari during one of her many taunts and threats against their pursuers, and now it rarely left his side.

Hilael watched them disappear into the night. He pulled the blanket tighter around him against the chilly night breeze. So hot during the day, yet so cold at night... His ears twitched at the slightest sounds. Over time, he was becoming adept at identifying the different noise makers in the badlands. Lizards, mice, hares, various insects, snakes, and a few other strange looking things that only came out at night. A rustling caught his attention and Ina settled nearby. Hilael observed her from the corner of his eye as unnoticeably as possible. She still was not her chipper self but was finally starting to calm down. Hilael was torn over whether to engage her or enjoy the fact she was no longer talking his ears off since they had been captured. But that's not the way she is or is supposed to be.

The moon was nearly full and it's silver light was shining on Ina's golden features. Stray strands of hair were gently waving in the breeze. She had put on weight since they left the Nyre, most of which was muscle now that she wasn't kept indoors to write most of the day. Ina still practiced regularly, even now that they were on the run, and had not allowed her skills to deteriorate.

There was a scuffling noise and Hilael's focus was snapped back to the outside. He crouched under his blanket to conceal himself as he peered through the darkness for any signs of hostile life. "Ina, hide," he hissed as quietly as he could and still be heard by her. She moved a moment too late and cried out as an arrow struck her. Hilael grabbed her other arm and yanked her back away from the entrance as Innugati sped out the opening to scout the area.

"Pluck... pluck, pluck, pluck!" Hilael cursed and swore under his breath as a flurry of arrows came through the entrance and he got himself and Ina out of range. The ones here have arrows. It would be dawn soon and it would be easier to see Shanku and Katari. They would be easier targets. First things first, I have to work on Ina. The crevice they were hiding in had steeply sloped sides that would require the hobgoblins to virtually crawl upside down on to reach them, and as they already knew where they were hiding, Hilael lit a small fire to see better. He gave Ina a bit of tough leather to bite down on and began to dislodge the arrow from her shoulder. She whimpered and sank her teeth into the leather, trying not to squirm out of Hilael's grasp. The distance and wind resistance it had travelled through had weakened the impact and it wasn't very deep. He used some of their precious water to flush the wound and began to sew her up, hoping and praying it wasn't poisoned.

The buzz of Innugati's six wings whirring feverishly as she darted through the air certainly made her presence known, but not anywhere near as well as the brilliant blue flames she spat at the offending hobgoblins who had shot at her kurach. They needed to eat and she would not tolerate an ambush waiting for them. Oh, to be a larger dragon and to roar with strength and power! But she was not much better than a spunky firefly or glowing mosquito. It was enough to annoy and distract them enough Katari and Shanku were able to sneak in unnoticed. Satisfied, Innugati whizzed away, zigging and zagging to keep from getting swatted. Contact from such heavy hands would not bode well for her. She returned safely in time to see the deep scowl on Shanku's face after hearing what had happened.

"Don't do anything rash," Katari warned as he gathered his clothes and prepared to get dressed.

"I'm not stupid," Shanku growled. "I don't have the right kind of armour for arrows, and couldn't fly if I did. We'll just have to somehow manage here until Ina heals enough to travel again." Shanku's hackles were still high after she had dressed and shifted back to her common form.

"This could take weeks, and we need to be in the grasslands by then," Hilael said sternly with a look of urgency. Shanku understood all too well what he was concerned about. It was almost that time of year again and Shanku was aware of a steadily growing weight in her gut.

"We need a plan," Shanku murmured as Katari cut their catch into strips and put some near the fire to simmer. Most of it would be dried now that they would be forcibly grounded for a while. Hilael was grinding up medicinal herbs almost until supper was ready and had enough time to apply his poultice to Ina's injury and bind it before they ate. After their meal, the fire was extinguished, and Katari and Shanku hovered near the entrance to try and work out what should be done as they gathered up all the arrows littering the floor.

Which left Hilael alone with Ina deeper in the cave. Innugati was not with him and choosing to hover near the entrance with whomever was on watch. Hilael was becoming increasingly concerned over Ina as she withdrew further and further. It was time to sacrifice some personal comfort for the greater good. He kneeled down in front of her where she was curled into a ball under a few skins for warmth. She was staring blankly ahead again and did not acknowledge him. Hilael tentatively reached out and brushed her hair out of her eyes. The slight tilt of her head into his hand was all the message he needed to know she was actually craving attention. They all had been in survival mode and had no time for reassurances. Hilael began to stroke her soft hair. Tears began to stream down her face and she squeazed her eyes shut. Hilael noted she was beginning to tense up and that would not be good for her injury.

"Shhh," Hilael shushed as softly as he could and petted her more slowly. Fighting every single urge to flee, he forced himself to stay put when she raised up and buried her face into his belly. Hilael tucked an arm under her to support her and she drew closer to him. He was grateful for the dark so she couldn't see his grimace as he kept the blankets around her and laid his wings around her for further warmth.

"I am so sorry. This is all my fault!" she sobbed violently into him. "I am so useless!"

Hilael rolled his eyes and said gently, "no, you're not useless, and it's not your fault." Normally the other three were confident, but since they had gotten deeper into Bhadarukia, all three of them had gotten annoyingly insecure. He had to begin an irritating habit of regularly dropping supportive phrases, but secretly wished they would get over themselves. This land was the last place they needed to be falling apart in. They should have enough discipline to hold it together until they were somewhere safe, especially their warrior and hunter who should be more used to danger than this fragile, emotional scribe. "Niku said life was harsh here. We knew the Foterutu would not be easy whether we stayed in the Nyre or went beyond its borders. Shanku warned us of some of the things that were waiting for us out in the world. We knew the risks well in advance. We also knew if we stick together and look after one another, we would have a good shot at not only surviving, but thriving. This is a temporary setback. You'll be fine."

Ina's shoulder was throbbing fiercely, but she was finally receiving some affection from one of them. She did not realize how touch-starved she had gotten on the Foterutu until Niku had come along, and his absence now accentuated the pain she felt all the more. The panic and fear she had been carrying welled up in her chest and felt like it would crush her, but with each stroke along her head and down her neck it felt like it was easing just ever so much. Hilael's soft, monotone tenor was soothing her frazzled nerves the more he spoke in that calm, level way of his. Hilael was glad when she started to relax and she stopped crying. She fell into a pensive silence.

"You should try to rest. The body heals faster in sleep than in waking," Hilael instructed.

"Stay with me?" Ina pleaded, too nervous to make eye contact should he deny her.

Hilael made a frustrated frown, but the pile of skins were soft and warm, and he was tired. The coming dawn also meant he would have to stop making grouchy faces if he did not want to be seen doing so. He laid down beside her and they tugged some blankets over him. They were on their sides and Ina tucked her nose into his neck. What a horrid, horrid tickle those little breaths made on his skin! He adjusted as politely as he could and she tilted her head downward where his clothes protected his skin from exhaled air. Ina slipped an arm around his ribs for comfort and support of her injured shoulder, and her breathing slowed. He had already gone this far with trying to console the golden dam and figured he might as well finish it up. He draped an arm over her side below her injuries and she relaxed further. The gentle rise and fall of his chest against her, the feeling of his pulse in his neck against her forehead, the scent she recognized as his, and the warmth the chestnut buck generated soon lulled her to sleep. Hilael was uncomfortable and it was always awkward trying to deal with the arm he laid on when he had another person flat against him, but he found a way to keep the tingling from happening in his arm without waking her and eventually drifted to sleep as well. His little brother Muso was always so cold in the winter and Hilael had to figure out a long time ago how to deal with a close sleeping partner. At least Muso took up less space.

"He's gonna be sore in the mornin'," Katari noted to Shanku and nodded his head to the sleeping couple behind them.

"He's slowly building endurance, he shouldn't be that bad," Shanku said with a puzzled expression.

"He's gonna be grouchy from her laying on him," Katari said bluntly. "You know how crabby he gets when Ina hangs all over him."

"He'll live," Shanku grumped. "It's unlikely those hairballs will attack during the heat of the day. They don't seem particularly suited for this environment with that thick fur. I'll sleep then. Go get some rest, Katari." The sun had broken over the horizon but not yet broke free of it. It wouldn't be more than a nap, but it was better than nothing.

Katari stole a jealous glare at the snoozing kurach before he settled down for the morning. Ina wasn't the only one desiring contact and finding the siblings to be insufficient for those needs. His mind strayed briefly to Hilael's suggestion that he "distract her attentions to your heart's content". Katari shook his head and tried to push it out of his mind so he could rest. It was going to be a hard several days while Ina healed and he needed to focus on taking care of himself for whenever he was needed.

Shanku's tail twitched as she hovered near the entrance mostly out of sight. Whenever she would get too close to the entrance, hobgoblin missiles would come flying at her again. She kept scanning the surrounding area, working out hiding places and escape routes. The sun was at high noon, but she was so caught up in her thoughts she did not wake the others. Katari had woken on his own, too stressed to sleep for long, and quietly joined her.

"What's on your mind?" he asked when he saw the look on her face.

"They so generously gave us ammunition," Shanku said. "If I can just catch one of the vermin, we'd have a bow. I can use a bow. Dai and I practiced with bows so, so many times. The mercenaries didn't use bows often, but it came back to me very quickly when we worked together over the winter. It wouldn't take me long to pick it up again. Imagine the damage I could do from the sky to these little pests."

"It's very dangerous and very risky. What if you get caught in the middle of a lot of them? Even Hilael couldn't undo the pincushion you would become," Katari warned.

"I know," Shanku grumbled in frustration and paused before staring at Katari dead on. "How about a hand sling? It's just a small bit of leather and strings. There are tons of pebbles out here."

Katari smacked his head with his hand and groaned at the suggestion. "Why didn't I think of that? They teach us slings in case we need to use them defensively to make diversions or spook predators to get away. I'll get you one made. Have you worked with them much?"

"Not a bit," Shanku said.

"I'll teach you," Katari stated. "It's been years since I used them and I don't know how well they'll work when on the wing, but if I can rain down enough rocks, I might can be good support."

Shanku's tail was twitching again, this time with excitement as she continued to map out the terrain below. Tiya said, "We all must learn how to use each weapon, but the vipers are most proficient with them. Bears prefer clubs, wolves prefer spears, eagles prefer slings, cougars prefer blades, and vipers work with bows and poisoned darts." At this rate, I'm going to be a stellar viper! I wonder if the Sylvans would like the swooshy moves I learned with the Bhadarukian spears? So much more flexibility than the bland stabby stuff they taught me. Shanku's mind kept playing combat moves through her head as she continued her visual work. The simple design of the sling allowed Katari to work one up quickly and soon interrupt Shanku's fantasies.

"You need sleep. When you wake up, I'll start teaching you," Katari said.

"I'm too excited to sleep now!" Shanku groaned, but complied.

Feeling a little safer now the he had a ranged weapon that he was familiar with, Katari casually searched near the entrance for suitable pebbles as he stood guard. Later that night he would go out and search the ground for more. Unlike the dunes, the badlands had an ample supply of pebbles and rocks. When the others woke up, he would start practicing with it. The hobgoblins knew where they were holed up, so there was no point in worrying about being heard. If he could just get Shanku familiar with slings and provide an opportunity for her to get a bow, it should be enough for them to finish escaping.

Hilael was the first to wake up. Ina was still sleeping peacefully, but he had an urgent matter to attend to, and pulled away as carefully as he could without disturbing her too much. Hilael crept away to the back of the cave, which was thankfully deeper than it appeared from the outside. Ina was beginning to stir and sat up when Hilael returned. He pulled out more herbs and began to grind them up. Ina sighed and waited patiently for another smelly application. After she had been inspected and slathered, they joined Katari.

"What's with the pile of rocks?" Ina asked.

"Potential," Katari said with a broad grin. "My dumbass forgot about carrying a sling until Shanku mentioned it. They want a ranged fight? They got one."

"Are you enjoying yourself?" Ina asked warily.

"Yes... No... Sorta?" Katari said. Ina gave him a funny look. "Well, obviously, I hate being chased and attacked, and I don't relish in having to fight back like Shanku does, but I like having a way to defend myself. It feels less hopeless now."

Ina looked away and got quiet again.

"None of us are blaming you," Katari said gently. "It's not the first time any of us have fallen asleep on watch. It just happened to be on yours the first time something bad happened, and honestly I'm not sure you would have been able to hear them in time to alert us."

"Can you teach us how to use a sling, too?" Hilael asked. "It's a simple weapon and we can find stones practically anywhere."

"Simple to make, simple to store, but you'd be surprised at how complicated to master," Katari said. "We'll all start practicing when Shanku wakes up. Thank goodness it was your left shoulder that got stuck and not your right, Ina."

She did not appear comforted.

"Look on the bright side! When we get back home and you start your own library, think of how easily you can knock an unruly visitor in the head when they won't be quiet or be good to the literature."

"Hardly a pleasant thought," Ina said flatly.

"You two keep an eye on the front. I'm gonna get you equipped," Katari said cheerily and promptly went to his pack to pull out his knife and more bits of leather.

"I hadn't been using that pouch Katari made for me anyway because I had no use for it," Hilael mused. "I guess I do now."

Ina looked sadly out the opening at the crystal blue sky stretched over the brilliant stripes of reds and whites across the canyons and rippled formations. Why must such a beautiful land have such ugly little beasts?

Shanku woke later in the evening to find Katari showing Hilael and Ina the basics of holding and releasing their slings. She bounded over to them and was disappointed when Katari insisted they have supper before practice. Shanku wolfed down her portion and started to examine the sling Katari had set aside for her. When he and the others had finished, they joined her. Innugati sat sternly on a rock by the entrance as Katari set up targets and began drilling the other kurach.

After the sun had set and the moon was rising, it was time to tuck away their new weapons and for Shanku and Katari to refill the waterskins. As they felt they must now do, they shifted to their feral forms, undressed, and emptied their packs and secured them to their shoulders before heading out. Katari had also chosen to take their small pouches with him to fill with pebbles. Shanku and Katari had chosen their current location because they could hear the roaring of water in the distance, and made their way to the choppy, raging currents that wound and twisted through the canyons.

They landed a distance away and crept down to the water, their ears and noses twitching in every direction. Katari kept watch first as Shanku refilled the waterskins. When she had finished and they had been placed into their backpacks, Shanku kept alert while Katari gleaned the banks for suitable bullets.

"Any luck?" Shanku asked lowly.

"The riverbank to me is the bazaar for Ina," Katari replied.

Shanku shot him a wondrous glare. "This isn't a pleasure trip."

"Yes, Piram," Katari teased and worked more quickly. "I saw a fish!"

"So help me, Katari, if we get shot, skewered, or something because you're over there dallyin'," Shanku trailed off.

"Be glad I'm feeling relaxed!" Katari said cheerily and returned to her with all their pouches full of smooth river stones.

She peered at him intensely in the light cast by the waxing moon, making him uncomfortable. "False bravado."

"Be glad I'm pretending to be relaxed instead of wearing my heart on my sleeve," Katari scoffed and spread his wings.

"You're not wearing sleeves. You're not even wearing pants," Shanku frowned.

"You haven't worn pants in weeks, who are you to criticise me?" Katari snapped back.

"Who said I was complaining?" Shanku said coyly. Katari recoiled and glared at her. "C'mon, fluffy-bum, time to get back before we get got." Katari followed her back, purposely staying behind and below her so all she could get an eyeful of were his wings and tail.

"Did everything go well?" Ina asked pleasantly when they had returned. Katari set his gear down, gathered his clothes, and disappeared into the back of the cave to get dressed. "What's his problem?"

"I haven't the slightest idea," Shanku giggled as she prepared to get dressed. Ina eyed her curiously and tilted her head the side. Shanku had the distinct feeling she was being watched and turned her furry head to face her. "What?"

"You're not edgy and aggressive like you were during the bandit raids. We were kidnapped by hobgoblins, held captive for several days, and they are actively pursuing us, but you're your dapper self," Ina observed. "What's the difference?"

"No idea on that either," Shanku shrugged, sounding more honest this time. "I guess I just got used to it and came to terms with it. Besides, I'm really useless when I'm all moody and distracted, aren't I?" Ina looked down and her ears drooped. "Not a jab at you," Shanku added. A terrible smell drifted through the cave and Shanku grinned broadly. "Time for your medicine!"

Ina groaned audibly. "I swear, it would be worth chewing up one of those hobgoblins just to get even for all these poultices I'm being put through!"

"Would you rather have an infection and be slow to heal?" Hilael asked grumpily. Ina shook her head and went deeper into the cave to be treated. She wrinkled her nose against the stench as Hilael applied a new layer.

Screams of terror came from below the cave that were suddenly stopped with gurgling noises. Shanku rapidly shifted to her feral form and peered into the shadows below. The others were alert and frozen in place as they watched Shanku for instructions.

"Not good, not good," Shanku hissed and backed up from the entrance as quickly as she could and started removing her clothes again.

"Is it the hobgoblins?" Katari asked hurriedly. "What's going on?"

"Ghouls," Shanku growled and flared her wings out around her. "Ina, can you fly at all if we tie your arm to your body?"

"I'm not sure," Ina whimpered and shrank back.

"Spear, Katari," Shanku requested. He tossed it to her and grabbed his as well. Hilael stepped in front of Ina and Katari placed himself beside Shanku, as feral and bare as she.

A sound of rocks being scratched as something skittered up it was getting louder and louder. A gaunt face with large, solid black eyes and blood-stained needle-like teeth appeared over the ledge. Bony, clawed hands pulled it up to reveal a bulbous, jointed body covered in red smears with eight fragile-looking arms and legs. Shanku feinted a lunge at it, snarling viciously and flaring her wings around her. The ghoul flinched, sending a ripple down its long body, and it hissed at her.

"Young... Strong... Tasty..." it said in a breathy voice.

"Tough... Stringy... Aggressive..." Shanku growled back at it.

The ghoul swayed to and fro unnaturally, moving its legs backward and forwards, in an attempt to distract its prey so it could ease itself in further. Shanku took a firm step forward with her spear held at the ready, growling lowly.

"Leave," Shanku ordered.

"Young... Strong... Tasty..." The ghoul swayed more jerkily and then dove at her. Shanku's spear glanced off the armoured scales on its chest and she immediately brought up the butt of the spear to pop it in the jaw before stepping back. The ghoul shook its head as something green oozed out from under one of the small plates along its face.

"Blunt strikes then," Katari murmured. "I'll bet its eyes aren't armoured."

The ghoul hissed and screeched as it kept trying to sink its teeth into Shanku. She blocked each attempt with the side of the spear and would use the blunt end to poke and shove it away when she had an opening. Katari meanwhile had pulled out his sling, loaded it, and was twirling it in preparation for when he had a free shot. Shanku managed to lodge the end of the spear into one of its presumed collar bones and push it back hard. The ghoul was enraged by her stubborn refusal to submit and screeched loudly at her. That was all the time Katari needed to release one of the strings of the sling and send a stone hurling at its face. It emitted a horrible, grating cry as it jerked its head upward as one of its four eyes started pouring green liquid. Shanku and Katari lunged forward and drove the ends of their spears into its chest while it was off balance, and knocked it from the entrance. The ghoul writhed in midair and then hit the ground with a sickening noise as it splattered far below the kurach.

"Good shot, Katari!" Shanku said excitedly and clapped him on the back. "I saw at least eight more out there. Can you hit those, too?"

"Eyes, or ghouls?" Katari asked worriedly. Hilael and Ina immediately began to gather everything together in case they had to make a quick flight into the night.

Three ugly faces appeared in the doorway and he had his answer. He loaded his sling as fast he could and began pelting them with rocks. Katari only managed to blind four of their combined eyes before they came swarming through the entrance. Shanku lost no time in bolting to the side, bouncing off a wall, and landing on the back of one. Praying her plan would work, she plunged her spear deep into its back. The ghoul reared up and jerked back as it shrieked in pain. Shanku kept a firm grip on her spear and rode its back as it kept thrashing backward until it tumbled off the ledge. She leapt off of it and landed back on the ledge.

Katari was trying to fend off one and the other was skittering toward Hilael and Ina. It's backside appeared more soft and squishy than the rest of it, so Shanku darted forward and sank her teeth deeply into the delicate end of the bug-like monstrosity. Oh, it did not like that! Shanku barely dodged the angry fangs snapping in her face and the sharp daggers adorning its limbs swinging her way. Snarling and growling, Shanku lashed out with her own claws and caught it across the face in a raking blow that finished blinding the ravenous creature. She dropped flat on her back as it stampeded towarded her, and with a strong kick to its underside, sent it hurling over the edge to join the other two she had already sent out.

A crunch and cry of pain caught her attention. She rolled onto her paws to see the remaining ghoul had managed to bite through Katari's spear and into his arm, where it was now greedily sucking out his blood and pinning him down. A familiar wave of anger came over her and she launched herself onto its back. It wriggled and bucked, but would not let go of its hold on its prey. Katari was punching and clawing at it the best he could, but was beginning to swoon from blood loss. She thought of the delicate openings the ghouls had and plunged a clawed hand into its ear canal and began ripping off scales as she was able to get her talons under them. It gave a muffled shriek, but would not break its grip. Katari passed the pointed end of his broken spear to Shanku. She wrapped her legs around its neck, steadied herself, and plunged the spear into its head to pop its jaw out of place. Katari was finally free and he scrambled away backward. Hilael was on him in an instant to deal with the bleeding as Shanku forced this one out of the cave, too. Ina was quick to bring a blanket over Katari as he fell into his common form so Hilael could bind his arm. He was cold to the touch and she wrapped it around him snugly.

"How bad is it?" Shanku called over her shoulder as she looked for the other five ghouls she had seen scuttling below.

"Not broken and he won't lose any mobility, but if I don't tie it off right, he'll bleed out," Hilael responded.

"We've got to get out of here, now," Ina said forcefully. "Carmelo said that so long as they know there's a food source, they won't stop coming."

"He's lost a lot of blood and shouldn't be moved right now," Hilael argued.

"It's not that bad," Katari protested. He attempted to sit up, but became so dizzy he had to ease himself back down to the ground.

"Did Carmelo teach you anything useful for dealing with these things?" Shanku asked gruffly.

"Not this kind, no," Ina shook her head. "Angry spirits that haunt the solstice are different than the bodies that stalk the night."

"Oh, wonderful. So much for that back-up plan," Shanku grumbled as she saw the remaining ghouls starting to gather at the base of their very penetrable fortress. "Get your packs on and get him on that big-ass bison hide. We're flying out."

"What!?" Katari asked incredulously and sat up too fast, causing his vision to start to fade out and having to carefully lie down again.

"Keep your bad arm tucked and just keep up," Shanku instructed Ina as the three of them donned their packs and placed Katari's next to him. "Maybe once we cross the river, the hobgoblins can't reach us either."

"Are you sure we're strong enough to lift him?" Hilael asked as he heard the cliff face being scaled by the ghouls.

"We're gonna have to be," Shanku replied lowly. The siblings grabbed the corners and dragged their injured comrade close to the opening. "Now or never, go for it, 'Lael!" They spread their wings and labouriously launched into the air with Ina close behind as frustrated shrieks and screeches came from the ghouls who had made it halfway up the cliff. The night was crisp and clear with a strong breeze. The kurach caught what they could in their wings to spend as much time gliding as possible.

The fleeing kurach managed to cover a great deal of distance before they finally stopped to rest. It was still night and would be a long time before dawn came. Shanku and Hilael lowered Katari as gently as they could. Ina was standing off to the side, holding her bad shoulder.

"Can I put some clothes on now? It's cold out here," Katari asked grumpily. Shanku and Ina stepped away as Hilael assisted his woozy patient. They had not found another cave and instead were tucked in a shallow depression on top of a large formation. They couldn't be easily seen, but would be exposed to the elements. Exhausted and sleepy after the hurried flight, Hilael and Ina curled up by Katari on the bison skin, still in their feral forms to keep each other warm, as Shanku stood watch over them through the night.

For a moment, things were peaceful again. The beautiful, glimmering stars above, a gentle breeze, the chirps of nightlife. She looked behind her at the Sylvans nestled together and piled on top of each other. Smiling gently, she dug out a few blankets and placed over them to keep the chilly desert night air off. Life on the wing was no less dangerous with company than travelling alone, but she was grateful for the companionship. She circled them once on four padded feet as a sense of fealty and serenity gently settled into her and eased her gait into more natural paws. I guess I can truly be Katari's hunting hound now!

Characters in this chapter...

Like the story and want to help support it?

Banner: Shanku and Katari Banner: Smashwords Banner: Sleepy Gryphon