Today, I received the news that the most infamous and wretched Korat that Lavana had ever known is dead. Before Wureshi, my people had not had words for “rape” or “tyrant,” and no Korat had ever amassed a well-trained army of its own progeny. It took two of the greatest surviving masters to kill him in traditional combat, while his loyal children stood by the sidelines, commanded to not interfere.
He was my father.
Today, I celebrate outwardly with the rest of the world, though they would kill me if they knew my heritage. But then, my people have always been prone to genocide. That’s why I’m the only child of my litter still alive – the other two were stripeds, genetic mutations considered to be weaker, lesser than the pure, unicolored breeds.
As a baby, just as now, my long fur must have hid the faint, yellowed lines that stripe my belly.
Today, I am lost. My sole purpose for existing was righteously slaughtered, and my violent brothers and sisters will be hunted to extermination by vengeful purists. My heritage won’t be questioned if I am known to be a striped, since Wureshi killed all of his striped spawn, but there would be other purists who would want me dead for having an extra color stain my fur. And if I do not reveal my muddied genetics, then my age will call my parents into question, and I will have to lie very well to escape discovery as Wureshi’s seed.
So today, I am leaving the world. I hear the Olashi are looking for people to go into space with them.
Blood-red light. Fire-hot breath.
The vaguest of shapes – body, four legs, head, neck, tail. Deep in the chest and broad through the shoulders, thick in the limb, heavy in the jaw.
Blood and fire, interlacing like drumbeats, like heartbeats. Tha-thump. Tha-thump. Tha-thump. A brand new heart contracting in an unfinished chest.
A spark. A glimpse of spirit. A nascent soul. Tha-thump.
Flesh knit heavy, bones knit solid. Tha-thump. Thick skin and thicker fur. Tha-thump. Sharp teeth and sharper claws. Tha-thump.
‘Average’ denied. Rebuke denied. Power demanded. Tha-thump.
Battle won. Far-seeing eyes, keen ears, sensitive nose. Tha-thump. Long whiskers and callused pawpads. Tha-thump.
Blood and fire, interlacing like sine and cosine, like firing synapses. Tha-thump. Alert, aware, analyzing. Tha-thump.
Cold, pale blue gaze unlidded. Tha-thump. First view of blinding light – a spinning orb – and a towering tree with bright leaves. Tha-thump.
Body coalescing like the first breath of the world, a shuddering inhale, a wave of physical sensation. Tha-thump.
Weight settling, pressing paws into the earth, gravity taking hold of a freshly-completed frame. Tha-thump. Tha-thump. Tha-thump.
A silent voice older than time, a language deeper than intuition. “You are she.” Tha-thump.
A long pink tongue awkward against heavy teeth. Vocal chords snarling into soundwaves. “I am.”
The spinning light, luminous enough to blind, met with unblinking eyes. “Then you are she. You are the perfect one. What do you call yourself, she who awoke before created?”
No hesitation. No uncertainty. “I shall be called Redwood, as mighty as the kûsani under which I was created, and as red as blood, heart, and fire.”
Scents whipped to shreds by the radiance’s rotation. “And what shall you call your people, O Redwood?”
Broad black nose beginning to distinguish smells despite the whirling winds. Snf snf. “They shall be called Korats, for the word pleases me.”
A long pause. Korats. ‘Kings’ in a tongue not Lavanian. “You are unprecedented. Lavana would bow before you, should you choose to take her. This you must know.”
Ears angling backwards, a tacit display of disapproval. “Lavana is my home. Not my slave; not my kingdom. I hold no dreams of tyranny in my heart.”
A longer pause, the self-contained blaze spinning within its own tornado. “…then you are she.”
Confidence. Surety. “She I am, and she I will always be. None shall take my life, nor conquer my people.” Tha-thump. “Give me my sisters’ shadows, that I may add them to mine.”
Disdain. Disagreement. “They are weak.”
A lowering of the voice from baritone to growling thunder. “They are no weaker than I, and you daren’t call Redwood weak.” Tha-thump.
Silence. Two bodiless shadows crept over the fields and bled into hers, making it as black as the void.
Pleased. “Take it. My sisters and I shall lead our people together.” Unprecedented, three Originals instead of one.
A sound like shattering crystal – the abyss-dark shadow vanished entirely. Below the ledge, below the kûsani, the first fifty Korats breathed their first lungful of wind together. Three distinct breeds: black, tan, … and red. “I shall be watching.” Tha-thump.
Body became permanent in every final detail as the light rose into the lavender sky like a phoenix ascending. Tha-thump. Redwood breathed deeply, flesh and fur and bone moving in sweet synchronicity. Tha-thump. Scents were easily read and sounds suddenly audible as the wind calmed. The retreat of brilliant luminance let color creep into vision, staining objects with vivid life. Natural sunlight and a planet-born breeze replaced the alien power of the intangible Creator as its light faded entirely from view.
The red mother smiled.
Silence roared over the night-cloaked docks, not even a shard of moonlight glittering along the sleek hulls of the few spaceships still left in the on-world port. A figure of shadow nestled into the niche in one craft’s landing gear, nary a sound betraying its presence, and darkness-obscured eyes gazed into the seemingly calm midnight air–fresh and cool, so markedly different from packaged oxygen that spacers breathe in their ships and space stations–waiting.
A soft-metal noise echoed through the quiet–pause–rang out softly again. There.
The shadow-robed figure’s keen hearing didn’t pick up on the nearly inaudible touch of unshod pawpads on the thickrubber-lined walkway between individual docks until a tall, muscular form could barely be discerned against the greyish bulk of background shapes. By then, the midnight walker was nearly upon the hidden one, and the chance was nearly lost. But not quite.
The walking creature sprang backwards in lightning-quick reflex as a piece of the night’s darkness detached from its shadowy brethren and lunged at her. Thick, guttural laughter rolled out, rough against sensitive ears, and the walker landed in a defensive crouch, a silent snarl baring long, pearly fangs.
A small light–far dimmer than even a candle’s fickle flame–burst into existence with a sharp click, casting relatively stark shadows against the docks and temporarily blinding night-accustomed eyes.
A shot rang out, and more laughter came with it.
The assassin grinned mirthlessly at seeing the beautiful white body of a feline, so delicately striped in thin charcoal streaks, sprawled bonelessly on the walkway. In a second, he imagined, a pool of fresh, crimson blood would stain that lovely pelt and begin seeping towards his booted paws. “Not much of a warrior, after all,” he hissed under his breath, eyes devouring every inch of his kill hungrily. “Just a rogue who managed to fool everyone into thinking she was some sun-blessed–”
One full-body convulsion threw the feline into the air–she twisted–landed on all fours–shot forward like a bullet from a high-powered sniper rifle, like the bullet with which he had shot her–
Only there was no blood on that perfect fur, no gaping hole in her flesh–
“Gllgrrgh!” the assassin choked, finding his prized weapon knocked from shock-loosened fingers and one strong hand gripping his throat with the strength of a steel vice. A feline face stared into his, the faint, musical ringing of silvery earrings the only sound in a suddenly-silent night. The hand-held light rolled with precise slowness down the slight slope… the same way her blood should have trickled in a lush scarlet river…
The cat said nothing, clawtips pricking her enemy’s skin just hard enough to draw four tiny beads of blood, as golden eyes stared into stormcloud-grey ones with the ferocity of every feral beast to ever prowl a primeval jungle–
The assassin wanted desperately to swallow, but found that he couldn’t.
Stretch. Preen. Fidget, half-uncoiled on the smooth cliff ledge newly warmed by slanting rays of the early morning sun. Streeetch wings–ooh, shiny!–and carefully nip off the specks of sand and soil that mar the shiny. Then, lift slender, snake-like head.
Tide sounds wrong.
Sunlight glittering along sleek cerulean scales, rear up, flaring wings for balance. Peer out with albino-pink eyes into the bright–bright hurts–blinkblink and then blink again. Shade eyes with one wing–lose balance and flop onto flank. Titter in annoyance, voice sprightly and bird-like, then simply slither right off the ledge.
Whoosh!–wings open and catch the newborn thermals that rise from the warming sands of the beach below. Whee! More pretty shiny–sun good on skin and wings–warm.
But then, sound of disruption in the waves again. Twist mid-air–change course. Swoop as though trying to dodge the unimpeded sunlight that comes over the ocean’s great, glittering expanse–bright!–dodge–warrrm…–dive towards the beach.
Backwing very quickly, very rapidly, then pool serpentine length onto the heated grains of sand. Rustle of sand against glistening hide–dirty bad–flutterflutter. More sand kicks up because of wing-wind. Sigh. Stop fluttering.
Then, fasten pink eyes onto the hills of white-topped waves come in. Tide still wrong. A greyish-brownish lump–larger by far than the flier–floating lifelessly in. Whassat? Pause. Carcass?
Rear up again–flutterflutter–somehow springboard long body into the air and flap furiously to get high enough to zip forward on a tiny current of air. Bright bad! Zoom over the ocean, into the sun, past the floating thing–then twist and come back. Bright behind–shadow on water–can see now.
Feathered-hunter-landwalker-critter! A Tyce. Floating. Not moving. Dead critter? Pause. Why in water?
Don’t bother to hesitate–zip down and buzz just a hair’s-breadth above the water-soaked, feathered beast. Lumpy. But keen hearing picks up the faint sound of a heartbeat. Critter not dead. Twist–bad bright!!–pass and turn–shadow on water again. Ahh–relieved sigh. Dive–smack the critter’s nose (barely above water) with tailtip. Critter half-dead–annoyance.
Waves carry the Tyce to the shore, slowly pushing at its toned, ocean-cleansed body, shoving it further towards the edge between dry and wet sand.
Flutterflutter. These-type critters friends. Pause–flutter–shadow on wet sand as the wave rolls out again, oh-so-briefly. Friends. Dive–backwing–hover–then carefully land on the big quadruped’s heaving flank. It coughs violently–flutterflutterflutter!–and up into the air again. Yikes! Hover–sun on back–warm.
The half-drowned predator coughs, retches up saltwater, then blearily opens one amber-golden eye. The eye is glazed, but slowly rolls upwards and attempts to focus on the cerulean Budram, hovering above–damp from seaspray with curiosity shining in its serpentine face. No danger.
Friend-critter awake! Zip down, chirruping merrily, and pool length onto dry sand, just a little ways away from the greybrown beastie. Watch avidly with wide, unblinking eyes as the Tyce laboriously pulls itself upwards without fully rising, towards the little flier.
The Tyce lets itself fall once the waves cease to pull at its hind limbs, lupine muzzle creating a little trough in the sand a mere inch from the Budram’s winged form. Not-awake. Sigh. Wait with friend-critter.
The tide begins to roll out.
“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.