A low, hooting cry stirred Mechebe from his fretful nap, bringing his half-conscious mind to full awareness in a heartbeat. His eyes flared open as his tufted ears lifted vertical, swiveling to pinpoint the direction of the summoning warble. Sleep had given him no peace of mind, and now waking brought the pivotal announcement into unavoidable proximity. He took a deep breath, released it, and lifted his long, bearded muzzle from his crossed forepaws. His toes were tangled, claws placing sharp curve against sharp curve; the massive talons dangling from his dewtoes were the only ones exempt from his unconscious expression of anxiety.
He looked up, seeking a glimpse of the sky past the evergreen canopy. The shade of blue suggested afternoon, but the bloody tinge to the wispy clouds belied that and told him it was evening already. The sun was fleeing the sky in hopes of rest, much the same way Mechebe had fled the center of the territory in hopes of serenity. He wished the sun better luck than he had found.
“Ready?” came a sharp, light voice behind him. Mechebe didn’t look, pulling his paws apart gently before pushing himself up from his bed of mulch and moss to stand on four strong legs. His luxuriously long tar-black fur kept a few dried leaves as prisoners; he shook off when he heard the tell-tale crinkle-crackle from beneath him.
“I am restless from waiting,” he answered after another deliberate breath failed to bring calm, stretching his legs and flexing his ankles. His tail, long and thick and smooth, hung in a low curve behind his haunches, kept as still as he could manage; the barbed tip alone twitched, made of age-fused spines that grew like a lizard’s rattle-tail.
“You’re worried,” remarked the voice, accompanied by the sound of sniffing.
He ushered me in hastily. “Let’s go, let’s go,” he said, turning towards a stack of loose papers and thick folders. “I leave soon and need to make sure you know everything I’ve taught you. Mother Repetition and all that.”
I let the door close behind me. “Mother Repetition?”
He shot me an impatient look as he handed me a hide-bound scroll. “Repetition is the mother of learning,” he said. “Surely you’ve heard that before.”
“That’s a human saying,” I gently pointed out, stepping over a spilled pile of small books to take the scroll.
“Yes, well, what are you doing interacting with humans at all if you haven’t studied us enough?” His brows lowered and he looked almost hurt.
“Have you studied my people before interacting with me?” I asked mildly, rerolling the scroll and securing its cord to my shoulder strap.
He flung up a loose-fingered hand, the other reaching for a sheet of paper yellowed with age. “Of course not. I don’t have time for such things. What does that have to do with anything?”
I just looked at him.
[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.
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.