[Author’s Note: This is a longer short story, set in Gurhai, and one of few such things that I’ve actually finished. I’m notoriously bad about capturing an entire story arc in less than ten thousand words, but this one is only 6600-some. I wrote it in four parts, hence the sectioning-off. Also, the title is … unofficial, but true to the story contents . Enjoy!]
Arista Reenla opened her eyes and stared into the shadowed rafters, which were untouched by the light thrown from the open doorway. “Report,” she growled, propping herself up on one elbow and squinting as she tried to peer past the torch to identify the man who’d woken her.
“Milady,” the man said, his very tone begging for forgiveness for his intrusion, “we have sighted an unknown ship off the port bow. The ship’s captain requests an audience with you immediately.”
She tried not to sigh as she recognized the face of one of her newest men, a knight named Padryk Vessus. “Where is Captain Keng?”
“He’s– well, right now he’s up in the observation nest, but he said he’d meet you on first deck, milady.” Padryk hovered nervously in the doorway. “Shall I tell him…?”
“Yes, yes,” Arista muttered. “I’ll be up momentarily. Leave me be to dress.”
“Milady!” the knight acknowledged sharply, drawing his shoulders square in a bodily salute before stepping backwards and shutting the door, leaving her in welcome darkness.
“What is that?”
The grey-furred Nila looked up, no expression crossing his flattened face. Yellow eyes sought the origin of the inquisitive voice, but the forest greenery was thick and concealing. He drew his brows low to express disapproval. “It is a drum,” he answered flatly, four-fingered hands stilled on the wooden carving. He had been binding the head of the drum, made of Leasheas hide, to the mouth.
“What’s a … drum?” the voice asked, carefully pronouncing the new word. “What’s it do?”
The Nila identified the general direction of the speaker and shifted his position to face it, black claws carefully resuming the tedious stitch-and-wrap. “A drum is this,” he answered impassively. “It makes noise.”
“Wood and skin and–” There was a pause, then the faint sound of sniffing, “–gut-rope? How does that make noise?”
The Nila sighed. He really had no need to humor his invisible watcher, so he stayed silent and completed the very last bindings. Tufts of silver and violet fur still ringed the edge of the drumhead, and the wood had been carefully carved to preserve the grain-patterns. Even the gut-rope had been skillfully braided. He allowed himself the smallest of smiles as he drew a dyed leather strip from the pouch at his hip and wound it about the waist of the small drum.
“What’s that for?” the voice pestered.
“Do you not have anything better to do?” the Nila countered peevishly, removing a few strings of braided cords from the same pouch. These were decorated with teeth, claws, and feathers, and twined in the weave were long hairs from the same Leasheas that gave its skin for the drum’s head. The wood’s rich red-brown color was well-complimented by the silver, violet, and deep blue of the decorations.
“Not really,” the voice responded. It sounded cheerful, and a few leaves whispered a warning of movement. The Nila looked up as the speaker poked its dark face through the canopy, a fanged grin stretching open a long, sleek muzzle. “I noticed the reek of Leasheas blood. Tell me, did you actually eat it?”
“It was a sacrifice,” the Nila replied, frowning up at the black Korat. “We do not eat sacrifices. Its flesh was burned.”
“Food is scarce on the best of days, and you don’t eat what you kill?” The Korat snorted, nostrils flaring wide. It descended to a lower bough, the sturdy branch five feet thick, then sprawled languorously. “Even if Leasheas are sentient, no sense in wasting meat. You could have at least left it for the Chitters or something.”
The Nila huffed, then lifted the drum reverently to study it from all angles. It was a good work of craftsmanship, and he was proud of it. Far better than his first two.
“Why do you even need a noise-maker like that?” the Korat asked conversationally. Its blue eyes remained trained on the Nila below.
The Nila didn’t reply, shifting his weight on the log that had served as his workbench. He had to lean forward, his ankles pressed against the rotting bark and his knees jutting out, and his tail got in the way and bent awkwardly upwards–but he managed to settle the drum between his knees and hold it there with his legs alone. It was a good fit, a good solid feeling – not too heavy, not light enough to be fragile.
“That looks uncomfortable,” the Korat commented from thirty feet above. “I didn’t know your tail could twist like that. Your tail is short and fat – I don’t think you’re supposed to–”
The Nila slapped the head of the drum with one flattened hand, and the resulting bark of noise silenced the Korat. The forest was too dense to allow an echo, but the sound was satisfyingly loud nonetheless. The Nila allowed himself one more tiny smile, then lifted his yellow gaze to the lounging Korat.
The Korat blinked down at him. “Uh,” it mumbled, looking uncertain.
The Nila flattened his other hand in the same way, careful to keep his claws from piercing the head, and slapped the drum three times. Left-right-left. The last note was the deepest, and it rang a shade longer than the other two. He curled one hand and extended his long thumb, then slapped the drum with the side of his thumb. It produced a deeper, shorter note when he struck the center of the head, and a lighter one when he struck near the rim.
“Hey,” the Korat said, drawing its limbs beneath its body into a crouch, “do that again.”
Feeling pleased enough with his work to oblige, the Nila repeated the notes. Short-short-long, deep-light. He kept his right hand flat and alternated the slap with the thumb-strike from his left hand. Short-deep-short-light-long.
The black Korat stood on its branch and swayed, as though it were going to topple. The Nila eyed it, then repeated the rhythm. The Korat seemed to be moving in time to the beat. “That’s catchy,” the Korat said, its muzzle creasing in a grin. “Keep it up.”
The Nila continued to drum as the Korat began to dance.
Image credit to RoboSeek.com.
Ryarna is one of the more famous worlds in the Gurhai universe. It is one of the five most magic-rich worlds in the universe, as well as one of the five top technological worlds. The native race are the rarra, who govern the world through the Bardic Collective, a loose guild of bards who keep the peace between rarra, alien visitors, and disembodied spirits that are drawn to Ryarna’s dense magical atmosphere. Ryarna is heavily settled and civilized; because rarra are carnivorous and only protect their important food sources, the world is ecologically simplistic, much of the terrain dry and dusty due to industry and animetal traffic. Ryarna is a hotspot both for magic-workers who wish to train and mechanical tinkerers who wish to study rarran technology; there are many docks and plenty of trade and visitation from other races.
Rarra are bipedal, thin-furred predators who are slightly taller on average than humans. They have almost rabbit-like faces with a single, slender horn on their brows, long and expressive ears, and an upswept mohawk of fur along their skulls. Rarra have short-fingered, paw-like hands and large, clawed, talon-like feet; their legs are powerful, capable of impressive leaps and kicks. Gifted with magic and an inclination to tinker, rarra have melded magical power and steampunk mechanics into a highly-functional, highly-bizarre assortment of machines, robots, vehicles, and tools. Most rarran bits and bobs only work on Ryarna or another high-magic planet, but the mechanical designs are often adapted by other races (notably buthines) for use on normal- or low-magic worlds. All rarra are trained to use some form of magic, and most are educated in a hands-on mechanical trade or a design-oriented engineering field.
Animetals are known throughout the civilized universe as bizarre miracles. They are mechanical animals, comprised of a spirit (usually the ghost of a creature that wasn’t ready to die) and an articulated robotic shell (designed and made by rarran engineers and inventors). The spirit and shell are fused via rarran bardic magic, so that the spirit powers the shell and ‘dies’ when the shell dies. Though they are clearly robots and possess no feathers, fur, scales, or hide (or anything simulating those), animetals behave and live as animals, though some have unusually high intelligence, occasionally approaching sapience. Animetals can be varying sizes, colors/patterns, and animal types. They’re designed to never need actual maintenance, using the fused spirits to keep the shell in working order; heavy damage requires rarran mechanics to repair, however. (There are theories that, given enough time, a spirit can repair even considerable damage to its shell. However, that is a feral attribute and not one easily observed by rarra.) While some animetals have been made on a smaller-than-life scale – a large hunting cat weighing only ten pounds, for example – most animetals are 1:1 or set to a larger scale. Typical animetal shells are made on a 2:1 scale, while custom/display-only/rider shells are often made on a 3:1, 4:1, or 5:1 scale. Large, intelligent animetals are paired with a trained rarran pilot for use as soldiers (S-class animetals, typically with an internal cockpit set in the head or chest) or transportation (T-class animetals, often with an external cockpit and a tow-hitch for a bus or blimp). Animetals have largely replaced “fleshies” in Ryarna’s ecosystem, barring key species to keep the flora healthy and the rarra fed.
I will protect them, the wolf had said to the human. That was before she learned what Retka thought of the tahori. He called them monsters, raging mindless beasts whose prowess was destruction and battle. He had said that, and she had stopped walking, turned to look at him with flashing eyes and bared teeth, fangs longer than his fingers– and he cowered back, surprised and afraid.
He didn’t realize the white wolf was the monster he’d been raised to hate and fear. She stopped before she could snarl and snap at his face.
Yagir hadn’t had her hesitation; he swung hard and sent the half-tache stumbling backwards, a hand clutching at his chest where the blow had landed. She had to take the human’s collar in her teeth to keep him from lashing out again, and the fabric of his vest made a curious ripping sound.
Yagir spat and cursed, but with a wounded namiccian still holding fast to the wolf’s back, he couldn’t spare the time for a shouting match, let alone a fist-fight. He swore one last time at Retka, then turned back and kept walking; the wolf let him go and followed, her jaws tense. Without anywhere else to go, lost in the middle of uncivilized wilderness, the half-tache trailed them.
Retka didn’t understand until he met Dienn, a man who gave the namiccian a quiet, dark place to recover. Yagir snarled a few words in the language Retka didn’t know, then stalked off, trailed by the giant wolf. Dienn pulled Retka aside and spoke softly.
Yes, they knew Retka was half-tache. Yes, they also knew he was half-tahori, though Light only knew how they figured it out. Yes, they understood that Retka had been raised as half a person, shunning part of his heritage. But no, they would not let him continue to spout such lies.
They weren’t lies, Retka insisted. They were truth. Dienn just didn’t know – he’d never met a tahori, after all.
The white wolf returned, then, and sat within touching distance, gold eyes watching them calmly. Dienn pressed an open hand against the wolf’s thickly-furred chest. Yes, I’ve met a tahori, he said. So have you.
Retka still didn’t understand until he looked at the wolf – really looked, saw the fine whiskers and the proudly erect ears and the glint of more-than-animal intelligence in those frightening yellow eyes.
When he reeled backwards, Dienn caught his sleeve and kept him for running for his life. This is a tahori, the human said. This is an inlanlu tahori. She saved your life. How monstrous is that?
I don’t believe you, Retka answered, his heart climbing into his throat. Tahori are shapeshifting demons. This is just a wolf. This is just–
And the wolf leaned back on her haunches, and Retka’s vision seemed to blur as though Dienn punched him in the side of the head, and by the time he could focus again, there was a woman standing where the wolf had been.
Dienn let go of his sleeve. This is a tahori, he repeated. This woman is your worst nightmare. Terrifying, isn’t she?
She still had yellow eyes and a white tail, but she looked like a human in every other way. She could have even passed for a tache, although her hair was brown and not black. She gave him the same level, unreadable, impassive look that the wolf had given him.
She isn’t terrifying, Retka lied, unable to look away from those eyes, those predator’s eyes. He couldn’t bring himself to say ‘she’s just a girl’ because, no matter how human or tachian in appearance, every inch of her was still wolf – and if he said that, she would rip his throat out with her falsely-human teeth.
As though she could smell his fear, the tahori smiled at his lie, no warmth reaching those wolf eyes.
The tahori are a species of shapeshifter inhabiting the Gurhai universe. They possess three distinct forms or skins and use qki, or physical energy, to change between them. Shapeshifting is nonmagical and fairly swift, taking less than a minute on a normal world and healing most wounds in the process. The first skin (hamin) is quite humanoid and may pass as a genuine human if one doesn’t look too closely and spot the tail; the second skin (sanero) is a very large beast with few visual indicators of intelligence; the third skin (emigonu) is a bipedal hybrid between the first two skins. (Please note that tahori are not shapeshifting humans, but a distinct species who happen to have a humanoid skin.) Tahori do not experience a large change in intelligence or behavioral pattern when switching between skins – they are just as bestial in hamin skin and just as intelligent in sanero skin. Though tahori usually wear clothing in hamin skin, they rarely wear shoes or metal (such as armor), and they wear no clothing in sanero and emigonu skins. All tahori retain the same coloration and pattern throughout their skins, though the colors are often desaturated in hamin skin (due to the lack of pigmented fur; their skin in other forms, beneath the pelt, is equally dull).
Tahori are striated into specific races that can interbreed in their hamin skins, but remain largely incompatible elsewise. All races but one live on Alasa Ka, a primal world similar to an prehistoric Earth with rather large fauna; the other race, keusune tahori, lives on At-lasa in a nearby sun system and are often outcast from the species by their fellow tahori.
Inlanlu tahori are lupine, living in tight-knit packs with a hierarchal structure. They’re the most populous of the tahori and hold territories in nearly every climate on Alasa Ka. Inlanlu are renowned for their physical endurance and are staunch hunter-warriors, unafraid of conflict although they don’t specifically seek it out; their trademark weapon is the double-bladed spear with a two-inch-thick shaft of hardwood with a metal core. They rarely truck with magic, although some hereditary lines have faint shamanic leanings, and usually shun technology beyond weaponsmithing. Inlanlu speak Uhjayi, which is the most common tahori language.
Atihresi tahori are feline with several markedly different breeds. Through necessity, atihresi have mimicked inlanlu pack structure and territory, though they are largely self-contained and independent individuals. They are more numerous than all but inlanlu and reside in any clime. They tend to use blades or bows and often have considerable skill with external qki, making them formidable fighters; however, few atihresi show any inclination towards magic. They speak Fulhu, the second most common tahori language. Atihresi are often rivals or outright enemies of inlanlu, and few individuals call themselves friends of the other race.
Dosa tahori are ursine. They live in small groups or alone, have a decided gift with natural and druidic magic, and are generally private people. They don’t interact or interfere much with other races. They rarely use weapons and have no love of technology of any kind, even basic smithing. They live in the coldest regions of the world, in a place where they can’t be out-competed by the more adaptive predators.
Izune tahori are avians with a wide array of breeds. They have no hair at all in hamin skin, usually refuse to wear any clothing, and tend to be vividly colored, so they rarely pass as humans, even from a distance. Renowned for their sensitivity to qki and magic, izune have keen senses and a knack for elemental magic, especially pertaining to wind and weather. They live in huge flocks, shunning technology, and are typically aloof; other races easily misjudge their calm reservation as arrogance or emotionlessness.
Ehsora tahori are equine and the least language-inclined of the tahori, often communicating solely through body language. They travel in large, nomadic herds and have nothing to do with technology or weaponry; their clothing is minimalistic and usually obtained from a hunting race. Deeply gifted with natural druidic magic with a special affinity for plants, ehsora are perhaps the most attuned to the earth of all the tahori. Being the only purely herbivorous tahori, they’re also usually wary of other races’ intentions and tend to be slightly xenophobic.
Kahashi tahori are shark-like, the only amphibious tahori – they can breathe on land and in water in both hamin and emigonu skins, but are solely water-bound in their sanero skin. They have no hair in hamin skin and most don’t wear clothing; they’re also the only tahori to have no tail in hamin skin. Kahashi scorn both magic and weaponry of all kinds, preferring to use their own bodies as the most deadly weapon at their disposals. They’re loosely social with each other but are usually viewed as dangerously unpredictable by the landlocked races. Their secondary name is sasemiyukashuh, meaning ‘death in the water’ in Uhjayi.
Keusune tahori live on At-lasa and are considered ‘Others’, having no clear zoological family (e.g. feline, canine, etc) to which they belong. Often stymying those who see them for the first time, keusunes are considered to be similar to large mammalian predators, as though a combination of bear, cat, and wolf with a long, prehensile tail. Keusunes have a more industrialized civilization than the other tahori, reaching into basic technology like machinery and refined architecture. Their trademark weapons are half-magic, half-technology: a curving blade atop a slender wooden hilt that can be folded outwards to create a double-bladed knife, then enlarged with qki to become a keusunian glaive. While some keusune communities are still very primitive, even feral, many groups are more civilized and act as merchants to non-tahori, especially k’anta, who are typically mortal enemies of the tahori; keusunes have a colony world in the same sun system as At-lasa, where most of their industry and trading takes place. Keusunes have strong inclinations towards bardic magic and are usually sound-oriented.