among men. Those who treated her with kindness received the gift of
the gods—the ability to transform into an animal form. This was a
great honor but one that separated this race from other humans.
Before Issaura departed the mortal realm, she promised to return if
her people were ever at the point of destruction.
threat that will push this race to the brink of extinction.
Responding to the call to war, seventeen-year-old Lluava heads off to
find her destiny, one that will carve her name in history.”
and the native race of Theriomorphs who can shift into animal form.
Although law dictates equal treatment, they neither like nor trust
each other. Now brutal and ruthless Raiders are approaching; there is
only one chance to defeat them. An army must be raised and trained.
An army where each human will be paired with a Theriomorph partner.
An army that must fight as one to defeat their common enemy.
or Theriomorph. Her animal form is a magnificent beast whose power
and fury she must learn to control. Although Lluava endures intense
physical training and strives to overcome the doubts of the male
recruits, she faces an unexpected adversary in the commanding general
who seeks to break both her spirit and her body.
and ancient weapon. Yet she becomes distraught and angry when her
human partner is revealed. If they fail to trust each other, the
consequences will be devastating. Death and destruction are on the
horizon and time is running out.
myths, filled with fast-paced action and adventure, and enriched by
an understanding of animal behavior that defines the shape-shifting
Lluava was next. She fidgeted when the tailor’s old fingers quickly moved around her body, making notes of her size. Walking behind the inch-thick wooden wall before transforming, she wished it were thicker. She removed her clothes and concentrated on shape shifting. It was not as easy for her as for the other girls, for she had not changed as often as they had. Her father had warned her of the dangers of her animal form, so she had avoided changing shape. She had been eleven years old the last time, running from a stampeding herd of cattle in a neighbor’s field.
Although the process would take only a few seconds, it always seemed to last much longer. Concentrating, she felt the heat build from inside her very soul, growing and growing until every part of her body burned. A sharp pain erupted from her spine; she heard cracking sounds, and her skin seemed to boil and bubble and ooze into a different shape. The sharp pains increased as her bones reformed and switched places; her gut twisted as her organs realigned in her new body. She tasted blood as sharp teeth erupted from her gums and the others dissolved. More cracking sounds occurred as her skull distorted and reformed. The pain was overwhelming, and she fell on all fours when her tail burst forth. Although pain blurred her vision, she could still make out the white and black fur sprouting from her skin. She lay still, panting, until the pain crept away.
Kentril heard the gasps of the girls and looked up as a large white tigress emerged from behind the divider. His jaw dropped. His eyes remained on Lluava as the tailor quickly scribbled notes. Rosalyn, too, caught her breath at the beast that slept above her bed.
Lluava saw the fear in the eyes of the girls and the men; she could taste the fear in the air. Her heart beat faster. An inner whispering encouraged her to run, but she did not understand and tried to ignore it. She approached the girls, but they backed away. Kentril was shouting at her. She tried to concentrate, tried to listen to what he was saying, but his words made no sense. She moved toward him, trying to figure out what he meant. She made out only a couple of words: change, away, help.
Was he in trouble? She wanted to help but did not know what was wrong. The tension in the air increased, which only agitated her further. She felt as if she were being smothered; she had to escape. A voice in her head began screaming, “Run, run!” She turned toward the door, but several officers ran in and closed the door behind them.
Lluava needed to flee, but her way out was blocked. Panic engulfed her; she had to be free. Leaping toward the drill sergeant, she tried to make him understand that she had to escape. The tall man grabbed the hilt of his sword, and she backed away, knowing, somehow, that he intended to hurt her. A roar emerged from her throat. Screams sounded throughout the room. Another pain erupted as small, sharp objects pierced her rump.
Lluava turned to defend herself. A sleek black panther faced her, one forepaw outstretched and claws extended. The dark beast snarled at her. She snarled back. Each tensed, waiting for the other to make a move. It was time to fight…’
‘…Outside, she moved stealthily through the camp to the general’s barracks. The main door was unlocked. She went directly to Kentril’s office. As she had expected, it was dark and no one was there. However, just as she was about to call his name, she heard voices from the conference room at the end of the hall.
The door of the conference room was ajar and Lluava peeked inside. General Kentril and Major Ojewa sat on the far side of a large, rectangular table. Lluava recognized other officers; the frazzled nurse was there, too, as well as others whom she did not know. One man, of average build, his head completely shaved, faced away from her. When he turned, she saw a small nose in a large face, and a scar that began at his left ear and traveled downward, disappearing into his shirt collar.
Deeply involved with the conversation, the man suddenly broke in. “Explain your reasoning!” he demanded. As he spoke, Lluava blinked several times to make sure what she saw was real. All his teeth were pointed, as if he had filed them. The sight of the sharp, serrated peaks grinding on each other gave her an unsettled feeling.
“That is preposterous!” trumpeted an enormous man who sat to the left of Razor-Tooth. The huge person’s loud, booming voice echoed off the walls. More astonishingly, his voice barely began to convey the massive size of the man. Even seated, Lluava could tell he was close to seven feet tall, if not taller. His wide shoulders framed an overdeveloped, muscular body barely contained by his shirt. He had to wedge himself between the arms of the chair.
The mammoth man bellowed, “How can you think of such a thing? We have no reason to believe that! It was just a horrible accident!
Major Ojewa’s response was cool. “When we examined the bridge, we found that the ropes had been severed three-fourths of the way through. The cuts were clean, which indicates that they were caused not by natural wear but by some sharp object, like a knife or a sword.”
“What of the girl? You said that she was extremely quick to react. Could she have had something to do with the collapse? It could explain how she seemed to hold back and then move so quickly afterward.”
General Kentril spoke up at this remark. “Lluava is one of the best recruits we have. She is ambitious and curious to a fault, but I will defend her with all that I am. She had nothing to do with that incident. I called you here to discuss the possibility that the bridge was tampered with by a force outside this facility.”
“What are you insinuating, Kentril?” the burly giant gruffly asked.
“Raiders.” A powerful voice spoke from the other side of the door…’
‘…Suddenly she sensed a presence. Alert, she scanned the landscape. At first she did not see anything unusual, but a second look revealed a form standing in the darkness across the lake, so still it blended almost completely into the surrounding shadows. Only the gleam of its eyes gave it away.
“Hey!” Lluava called out.
The figure slid deeper into the shadows and was gone, leaving behind an uneasiness Lluava could not explain away. It was too late for the men of the camp to be about; she herself should have been back in Thowcelemine by now. Also, whoever had been watching her had done so in secret. And was still out there. She could sense him.
Lluava began to make her way back through the forest. The moon was too new to light the path; the only way to stay on the trail was to use her felid senses. She once again wondered how humans could survive as well as they did without a dual form. She was thankful for her acute night vision.
Twigs snapped in the distance.
Turning around, all Lluava saw was darkness. After a moment, she continued, now on high alert. A soft breeze toyed with the dried leaves around her. A rustling of a different sort made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end.
Spinning around, she glimpsed movement in the darkness. Without hesitating, she ran after the figure in the woods, bolting past several climbing walls and other training objects scattered about. Sniffing the air, she could not discern any unusual scent.
Just as she was about to give up, something moved in the shadows to her left. Turning, she lunged ahead. As she shifted to her huntress form, her black-striped paws trod the ground. Just beyond sight, she heard someone running.
All of a sudden, the ground seemed to drop away right in front of her. Lluava made a giant leap to clear the wide trench. Her paws barely caught the edge on the far side. Hoisting herself up, she tried to spot the figure, but only darkness and silence greeted her questing senses.
Without warning, there was a hissing sound, followed by an enormous cacophony of crackling bangs. Brilliant white light temporarily blinded her. A gust of smoldering hot air blasted her. The force of the blast slung her across the trench, and she tumbled backward onto the ground…’
‘…People shouted and screamed around her. Lluava heard nothing, saw nothing but the beast of a man before her. The great brute pushed his body close to hers. She smelled the stagnant breath that whistled through smokeweed-stained teeth. Bits of moldy bread were tangled in his amber beard. Spraying tainted saliva on her, the man stepped backward just far enough to slam the handle of his ax into her chest. She tumbled to the ground.
Coughing from the cloud of dust that rose around her, Lluava struggled to stand upright. She had only a moment’s warning; a glint of polished metal swung at her, and she dove to her left into the tall reeds, hoping the thick grass would shield her. The man used his razor-sharp weapon like a scythe, chopping a swath through the grass. Spotting her, he took aim and threw his ax. Once again Lluava caught the blade with the Claws but was knocked down by the force of his strike.
All she could do was stare at the man looming over her. His face was devoid of emotion as he raised his weapon to deliver the death blow. Suddenly, red liquid oozed from his lips, dripping onto his amber beard. He looked down, an amazed expression on his face, at the bloody tip of a sword protruding through his chest. The ax fell to the ground as the dead Raider slid off the iron blade.
Varren, his clothes peppered with red, stood behind the slain man’s body. Grabbing Lluava’s arm, he pulled her to her feet and rushed her back to the now fast-moving troops. In formation, the group headed toward Durog at speed. The attack had made it clear that there was no time to waste.
Despite its hectic pace, the march back to Durog gave Lluava a chance to reflect. For the first time in a long while, she doubted the choices she had made. War meant death and blood and carnage. Was she capable of inflicting such pain? Would she be able to take a life when she needed to? Could she live with herself if she did? Could she survive if she didn’t? Could she have killed the Raider who had attacked her? As these questions and more hurtled through her mind, the realization of what she was expected to do, of what she must do, appalled and sickened her…’
one female — were destined for each other. Yet Ullr, forever
unfaithful, lost the love of Issaura, his true match, and was
forsworn. His violent anger and bitter rage grew and intensified,
poisoning all creation and humanity.
Elysia is beginning to recover from the summer’s war with the
brutal invaders from across the sea. Yet darker forces have taken
root, forces that can alter the future of the land and its people in
unthinkable ways. Seventeen-year-old Lluava must discover the means
to prevent her world from collapsing. But in doing so, will she
succumb to that darkness?”
In the failing light, Lluava sat her weary body down on one of the cut logs that served as benches around the ever-blazing cooking fires. She ached from an exhaustion that was more than physical. In her hand, she held a steaming bowl of clumping porridge, or maybe repurposed hash. Although its taste was barely better than its looks, this mysterious gruel was the only thing the town could provide to feed the army for their extended stay. Lluava had grown accustomed to its bland taste and grainy texture. It might not be ideal, but it kept everyone’s strength up when they needed it.
“May I sit next to you?” Varren’s formal upbringing emerged even when there was no need.
Nodding, Lluava shoveled down the sludge. Eating quickly was her trick to keep the so-called food from sticking to the back of her throat. In contrast, Varren sat down, whispered a prayer of thanks, and began to eat. They remained silent until Varren had finished.
Wiping his mouth, he said, “I would like to head back to the capital tomorrow. Since you are my military partner—no, that is not the reason.” Varren seemed flustered. He was not one to fumble with his choice of words. Eloquence had always come naturally to him, so why could he not state a clear thought now?
“Yes?” inquired Lluava, hoping to coax him to continue.
Varren stood up in his most formal manner and asked, “Lluava, would you come with me to the royal palace? I want to introduce you to Grandfather and the High Council and, well…I would like you to be with me when I return to court.”
Lluava understood his fear of what he was about to do, for altering an age-old law was all but unheard of. Nevertheless, excitement fluttered inside her like a newly fledged bird. Varren wanted her near him. This was his way of admitting how much he needed her at his side. This day had truly brought wonderful news.
She was about to say yes when a new thought crossed her mind. “How long do you expect to be at court?”
“I do not know. Why do you ask?”
Lluava fingered the carefully folded letter in her pants pocket. “Well, I had hoped to visit home. I haven’t seen my family since the draft.”
Thoughtfully, Varren said, “I will not force you to come. You can leave at any time. However, I would like you to be with me when—”
Lluava interrupted. “Don’t worry. I’ll be standing by your side from now until eternity.” She grinned at her pathetic attempt at poeticism.
“That is good. That is great!” Varren could not hide his relief. “Well, I will say good night to you now. Tomorrow will be a new and exciting day.”
With that, Varren gently took Lluava’s hand and kissed it, which sent a tingling sensation up her arm. As he left, Lluava thought, Oh, what am I getting myself into?
Next morning, Lluava ran to the shanty that served as Ymen’s dispatch headquarters. Since a large portion of the Southern army was stationed here, the king’s messengers came to the town every two weeks. Lluava had to hurry so as not to miss the chance to send off her own letter. She had forgotten to do this errand the day before, and with her departure imminent this was the only chance she would have before she left.
Attempting to catch her breath, Lluava retrieved the letter from her pocket. It was surprisingly unwrinkled. Perhaps the gods were watching over her. She handed the parchment to the small man loading full satchels onto his horse. Annoyed at the last-minute arrival, he began to lecture Lluava on the importance of punctuality. She in turn quietly reprimanded herself for her forgetfulness. Satisfied with his thorough scolding, the letter carrier asked Lluava in a disinterested manner, “Are you human or Theriomorph?”
This simplest of questions caught Lluava off guard. An inner heat coursed through her body as she growled out the formal reply.
“I am Lluava Kargen, daughter of Haliden Kargen, and I am Theriomorph.”
Without moving, Lluava stared out at the stars and felt the cool touch of the breeze on her skin.
“Lluava.” The tenderness in Varren’s voice was something that she had been longing to hear. A smile slipped past her lips as he gently placed his hand upon her shoulder.
Then her anger seared up. Jerking her body away, she snarled, “No. I’m only your partner.” As soon as she said the words, Lluava regretted it. She never wanted to be the cause of the hurt that was written on Varren’s face.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.”
Running his fingers through his thick waves, Varren sighed. “I know what you want. I feel the same way. But right now, I cannot give that to you.”
Lluava made no move to respond. She watched as the loose curls fell back into place over his forehead.
“I am still betrothed to Illia. Until I have publicly nullified that arrangement, I cannot pursue any interest I have in you other than our military partnership.”
“Will that happen tomorrow? At court?” Lluava questioned hopefully.
“I fear not. This is a delicate manner. No betrothal has ever been revoked. I will not allow Illia’s reputation to be marred by this act. Though both she and I want to be allowed to follow our hearts as common people can, I must deal with the High Council as well as my grandfather. This decision will have repercussions. The whole culture of our matchmaking will change. I have to approach the situation with care.” Varren implored her to understand.
Lluava had not considered the implications. The situation was completely unfair. He was the prince. Why couldn’t he just say he was through and that be it? Why was it so complicated?
To hide her disappointment and her longing, she walked out onto the balcony. Pretending interest in the glowing city below, she concentrated on steadying her breath. When her eyes teared up, she clenched her jaw. Why was she being so foolish? She was seventeen, old enough to act with a level head. Besides, Varren had said he would be with her. She just had to wait. Yet patience was not an attribute for which she was known.
Soft footsteps approached behind her. Lluava’s heart picked up its pace. She felt herself tense and focused her attention on a distant lantern on one of the buildings. She felt Varren’s presence before his touch. Strong arms wrapped themselves around her, pulling her body close. Lluava willed him to hold her tighter. She could feel his heartbeat against her back, the warmth from his skin, his soft breath on her neck.
They stood for a time, Lluava afraid to move and end the moment. Turning her head, she looked at Varren, to memorize every detail softly illuminated by the moon. Dark hair framed his strong yet gentle face; kind blue eyes sparkled like the stars above; her eyes traced his perfectly shaped nose and softly smiling lips. Lips that parted slightly and slowly moved toward her. Stopping so close that Lluava heard the catch in his breath.
Leaning upward, their lips met, fitting perfectly with one another. A warm, tingling sensation coursed through both with their touch. It was so simple, so wonderful. When they parted, Lluava felt as if she were in a dream. There was something surreal about standing so close to this man, her prince, her partner, her….
“Lluava.” Varren breathed her name as if he, too, were testing the reality of having her before him.
She looked into eyes that were filled with unspoken emotion. Finding no words, she waited until Varren could continue.
“I want you to know how much you mean to me,” Varren said, her hands in his. “We will be together.”
Smiling at each other, they leaned in once more.
There was a sharp knock on the door. The mood was shattered. Varren quickly stepped back from Lluava, yet his hand lingered long enough in hers to convey his disappointment.
She watched the formal expression slip back over Varren’s face. Until he nullified his betrothal, this was the last time she would experience his embrace. Lluava could not help but loathe the steward’s interruption.
From the doorway came the hollow announcement, “The king will see you now.”
Growling, Lluava crouched low and prepared to attack. Her inner heat seared up, then, with her quick realization, was smothered unforgivingly. Lluava could not shift without risk of destroying her braces. Hand-to-hand combat was her only choice.
The Raider held one of their thinner swords from across the sea. The pinprick blade appeared fragile against the man’s girth, yet Lluava knew how lethal it was.
Snarling, Lluava lashed out. Claws missed their target. Before she could strike again, she was deterred by the sword’s hot temper. As Lluava countered, she spied a second attacker approaching. This one carried a thick mace. Bits of flesh and hair were entangled in its spikes.
Switching to defensive maneuvers, Lluava stood ready to receive a blow from either direction. When the first man grunted, they both went into action simultaneously. There was no way she would be able to protect herself.
At least I will take one out, Lluava thought stoically. Choosing the sword-bearer, she ducked under his swinging blade and tore into his torso, her Claws freeing the man’s imprisoned intestines.
Spinning round, she saw two arrow-like projections protruding from the second Raider’s throat. The red of his grisly beard mixed with the blood he spat out. Leaving her would-be offender in his death rattle, Lluava turned to nod thanks to Yamir. His throwing quills had done their job.
As the fight wore on, Lluava realized that although the braces were indeed preventing her injury from flaring up, the need to shift was much more important. Moving to the edge of the main clearing, Lluava took advantage of an atypical rock formation. Squatting low, she unstrapped the bindings around her arms. Lacking the time to figure out how to detach the braces from Issaura’s Claws, Lluava hid both the weapons and the braces deep in a crevice in the rocks.
In the blink of an eye she had shifted, bolting from her hiding place. Like a striped fiend from hell, Lluava tore through opponent after opponent. The stink of blood and death intermingled with a smoky odor that she could not identify.
A war horn blew twice.
She sensed a shift in the enemy’s mood. The men began backing away from her, the ring of Raiders reminding her of the judgmental high councilmen she had so happily left behind. The circle of men separated her from Yamir. Then the crowd split.
A man like none other strode forth. A head taller than the rest, his helmet sported an uncut set of adult steer horns. Stopping in front of her, he let the head of his maul slam into the ground. The face of the weapon was as big as her own. The strong smoky odor wafting about made her eyes water. As she blinked back tears, the man’s bloodshot gaze caught hold of hers. Then the hulk cried out—a sound far from human.
The man-thing before her charged, swinging his weapon wildly. Lluava turned tail and ran, clawing her way through the onlookers. Breaking through the circle, she charged across the battlefield. There was no way she could defend herself against a creature like that. Behind her, the massive shape swept past the warriors, laying low everyone in his path, Elysians and Raiders alike.
In her mind’s eye, Lluava carried the image of the Raider’s bloodied mouth, the slivers of flesh stuck in his teeth.
Skirting a trio of marauders, Lluava listened to their cries as they were tossed out of the way by the behemoth. The heavy tread of his feet did not diminish. He would not be shaken off her trail.
Lluava was nearing the Elysian side of the field. The soldiers moved forward to give her aid. Nothing could prepare them for the unstoppable force that would send them to the afterworld.
I can’t lead him to our camp, though Lluava in a panic. Veering to the left, she began to lead her pursuer away from her comrades. A sharp catch in her side caused her to stumble. She tried to run through it, but to no avail. She could not continue this pace much longer.
A thick spear hurtled over her shoulder. Lluava recognized it as Yamir’s. With a thunk, the weapon sank into its mark. Lluava looked over her shoulder and saw the giant Raider still moving toward her, despite the shaft of the spear that skewered his left shoulder. Oblivious to his injury, the man raised his maul above his head.
A second serrated spear severed the man’s wrist.
“Watch out!” Yamir cried. Lluava quickly skidded to a halt to prevent herself from colliding with a small marauder. Slicing through the man with tooth and claw, Lluava glanced back once again. As impossible as it seemed, the massive Raider had vanished.
Yamir ran up to her. “What was that?”
“I don’t know.” Looking at the pools of blood soaking into the earth, Lluava said, “He won’t last much longer.”
Yamir cautiously circled the massive maul, to which the hand was still attached. Its shaft was as long as he was tall. Turning to the carnage in their wake, Lluava was stunned. “If there are more like him, we are in trouble.”
“We have found no sign of the band of Raiders since we left Tinder’s Keep. We have lost valued days, and I fear that, if we have not already failed at our reconnaissance mission, we soon will. Therefore, what say you to the idea of—” Varren stopped, summoning his will to finish the proposal, “— rehiring the huntsmen? If there is a chance to finish what we started, would you support that?”
Derrick was the first to speak. “Putting personal issues aside might be in the best interest of the greater good. If working with the huntsmen protects Elysia in any way, I say we should ask them to rejoin our efforts.”
Talos was not pleased. He kept silent for a long while; when he spoke, he chose to be logical. “How would we even find them? We left them at Tinder. Do you think they just stayed there? They are long gone—as should be this idea.”
Looking at his partner, Byron added, “I wish I were better at tracking. I will keep trying, but the trail went cold a long time ago.”
“We should return,” whispered Rosalyn, whose health had begun to deteriorate. “We made this journey based on several large assumptions. What if we were wrong, and we are wasting our strength and time on a fruitless mission?”
Rosalyn had a point. What if all this was for nothing? Had they squandered all their time chasing shadows in the woods while Elysia was doing battle with—and possibly losing to—a cruel and evil enemy? Perhaps they should turn around and go back. At least they would not have to worry about whether or not to work with the huntsmen. Lluava would never have to see Apex again. But what if there was a chance? Could they gain important information? Could they prevent a major attack? How many lives might be saved?
Lluava spoke. “Elysia’s future is at stake. We can’t afford to lose any chance to save our kingdom. Of all of us, I should be the one most opposed to working with the huntsmen, but I support this decision.”
Whether it was the truth of Lluava’s last statement or the points made by others, several heads nodded in agreement. Though Yamir and Rosalyn still opposed the idea, the consensus was to resume their contract with the huntsmen.
“How are we to find them?” questioned Yamir. He had been quiet for most of the conversation. “If we can’t find them, all this talk means nothing.”
Several questioning looks passed among them before Lluava reached inside her shirt and pulled out the cord with the whistle. “I know how to call them.”
After she explained how she had come into possession of the whistle, Varren gave her a nod. “Give it a try.”
Though still skeptical, Lluava took a big breath and blew into the tiny whistle. As soon as she did, she quickly reached up to her ears to block the piercing trill emitted by the tiny object. Even though she had stopped blowing, the ringing echo continued. Looking around her, the noise seemed to bother many of the friends, although Byron and Varren were unperturbed.
“Well?” asked Byron, who was clearly confused at his comrades’ odd reactions.
Next to him, Talos was shaking his head repeatedly, his tawny locks whipping around his features. “Did you not hear that?” he exclaimed, disgruntled.
“What?” Byron looked at Lluava. “You blew it?”
The young woman returned the whistle to her pocket, hoping she would not have to use it again anytime soon. “It wasn’t meant for your ears,” she said.
“How long will it take?” inquired Varren, who was less concerned about the phantom sound.
“I don’t know,” Lluava admitted. “I guess we just have to wait and see.”
At first, everyone stopped as if stuck to their spots, hoping for any sign of approaching figures. As time crept on, one by one they resumed their normal camp duties.
“Maybe you should blow it again,” suggested Byron.
Yamir quickly shook his head. “No, don’t do that. I can still hear it.”
Looking over at her partner, Lluava apologized. “I tried…”
“I know you did,” Varren acknowledged. “However, it seems that we are on our own.” He began to turn away, but then stopped. “Is that—?”
Lluava peered in the direction the prince was pointing. Apex stepped out of the gloom with his companions at his heels. Lluava felt her heart skip a beat. Had she made the wrong decision? There was no way she would let that monster see her fear. Standing up straight, Lluava watched as the huntsmen approached their campfire.
For a moment, no one spoke. Then Apex broke the silence. “Well? What have you to say?”
Varren approached the burly man. Lluava followed at her partner’s side. From this new angle, Lluava could see the yellow-green remains of the bruise Varren had left around Apex’s eye. She was glad to see that Varren had hit him so hard. Some of the bilious color overlapped her own claw marks that slanted across the brute’s cheek. He finally looked like the monster he really was, and she was glad he was marked for all to see. Still, Lluava found herself moving closer to Varren’s side. She would not let Apex see her tremble.
Stopping several feet away, Lluava could not help but sense the deep penetration of the lead huntsman’s stare. Maybe she had made the wrong decision. Maybe they all had. A sudden panic began to rise inside her. She wanted to escape from this man and his unwelcome presence.
Lluava felt Varren’s hand on her shoulder. Had he realized her inner discomfort? The simple gesture was comforting. She forced herself to meet the gaze of the tracker before her, although she wanted to turn away.
The prince began, “What happened in Tinder’s Keep was inexcusable.” Varren glanced at Lluava before continuing. “Yet the cold fact remains, we must track down the band of Raiders before it is too late.”
Apex seemed about to respond with a snide remark but thought better of it. He stood silently, which forced Varren to speak once more.
“My comrades and I have a mission to complete and, just as before, we need your aid in order to succeed. I will not let my emotions hinder this task. Will you rejoin our efforts?”
“Oh?” Apex raised an eyebrow and glanced in Lluava’s direction. She could feel her insides churn. Every bit of her wanted to bolt. Thank the gods Varren was near; she drew strength from him.
Turning his hard gaze on the prince, Apex responded. “In our original agreement, we were to track and you to fight. That deal was made to protect my fellows from risk of injury. That insurance of protection has been violated.”
Now Varren was the one holding back the angry retort. Lluava was unable to look away from Apex’s bruised eye. Would he really turn them down?
The huntsman answered Lluava’s unspoken question. “Before I will agree to rejoin your efforts, I demand compensation for the risk we are all taking in this endeavor.”
“What sort of compensation?” inquired Varren. He clearly disproved of the entire situation.
Apex looked at each of his own companions, then stated, “Double the pay.”
Varren looked at his partner. Lluava nodded so he would know she accepted the proposal. But did she have any right to make the choice? It wasn’t her money.
“That’s ridiculous,” Talos blurted out.
“Out of the question,” agreed the prince.
Tensions were rising as fast as Lluava’s discomfort. She looked at Derrick, imploring him to back her. He stared back but did not respond. He was right, wasn’t he? They did need these men, no matter the cost?
Lluava leaned toward her partner and whispered urgently into his ear, “We need them. They are angry with us, just as we are angry with them. Give them something, but not all.”
She knew her partner was struggling internally, and she gave his arm a quick squeeze. His body relaxed slightly. Varren’s eyes never left Apex’s face.
“I will raise you a third of your original price.”
“We want the money up front.”
Varren bit his tongue but said, “I will pay half now and half upon completion of our mission.”
Behind Apex, smiles crept onto the brothers’ faces. Even Mila seemed pleased. Yet Apex remained stoical. The trackers’ leader took his time to weigh Varren’s terms.
Glancing at the other huntsmen, Lluava realized they were all grinning. Yamir’s next question indicated he realized it, too. “Do you think they planned this? To con more money out of Varren?”
Listening to Yamir’s wild conspiracy theories had always been a fun pastime. Yet somehow, this one rang true. Lluava wondered if he were right. Was this all part of Apex’s plan?
discovered her mate’s faithlessness. She vowed to prevent future
threats to all matrimonial pacts henceforward, but for her it was too
late. The child born from the illicit coupling was a warrior
goddess—one whom Crocotta would seek to destroy throughout eternity.
northern borders, seventeen-year-old Lluava must leave the
familiarity and safety of her native land to venture into the
wilderness. Her mission is to discover others like her who will come
to Elysia’s aid; her hope is to unravel the secrets behind what it
means to be Incarn. But what she finds could destroy everything.”
Saga’s award-winning new-adult series.
That night, Lluava’s dreams took a new direction. The white that had suffused all her thoughts now took on vibrant, lush colors. Everything around her was green. Was she in a forest? If so, it was different from any she had seen before.
Trees sent filtered light through their canopy, but they were a strange, unknown variety. The underbrush was thick and full of broad leaves longer than her arm. Tangled vines cascaded from above, and flowers reminiscent of those in the capital’s garden bloomed in profusion.
One flower caught her eye, the only one she recognized: a black-andwhite striped beauty known in Elysia as the Theri iris. The first time Varren gave her one, he said it reminded him of her dual form. Afterward, he had given her one every night in a fresh bouquet.
Lluava moved closer. As she approached, the flower began to wither and dropped off the plant before she could reach it. Almost tripping over a root, she realized that her clothes were stuck to her body and a film of sweat was building. How hot was it? She couldn’t tell. The plant’s leaves begin to brown and wither.
What was happening? As Lluava reached toward the plant, tendrils sprang out at her like serpents striking at prey. Suddenly a vine wrapped itself around her arm. She tried to untwist the thick botanical rope as it looped around her ankle.
Vines don’t do this, she thought. They can’t grow that fast. Was she hallucinating? All at once, she realized what it was: an anaconda! Immobilized by the snake’s ever-tightening grip, she heard a sound reverberate through the forest. It was the pealing of laughter, rising and falling in waves.
“Issaura!” the voice called out, “Fight! Kill or die!” The laughter returned as the coils of the giant snake contracted about her waist.
Lluava couldn’t breathe, much less defend herself. The air in her lungs was being squeezed out. She was suffocating. Her gasps for air were drowned out by the unending laughter. Could she have spoken, she would have screamed, “Stop laughing! Help me!”
Without air, Lluava’s thoughts were beginning to fog. Was this her end?
A hand grabbed her shoulder and ripped her free of the anaconda’s coils and the frightening dream.
“Lluava, wake up!” Apex was shouting. He pulled her partially out of her tent, which had collapsed during the night. “You’re okay.”
“I can’t sleep anymore.” She was exhausted. “I can’t take the dreams.”
“You’ll rest better once you have eaten,” Apex told her. “Look, our friend has returned.”
There on the ground were the lone caribou’s hoof prints. It must have decided to explore their camp during the night. This meant it was nearby.
“Let’s go hunting!” said Apex.
Energized, Lluava sprang to her feet and reached for Issaura’s Claws, her weapons. “Way ahead of you.”
She slipped each golden Claw over her knuckles, smiling at her distorted reflection in the three slightly curved blades. Lluava tested each, relaxing her hands so the claws retracted, then balling her hands into fists around the grip, which caused the blades to spring erect. They felt so right, like razor-sharp extensions of herself.
Ever since she had broken the arm-brace attachments Holly had made for her, Lluava had been more cautious when she used the Claws. She was able to use them, but her old shoulder injury could be aggravated by the strain of impact. Nonetheless, if her shoulder became dislocated again, she could reset it. A good breakfast would be worth the pain.
Nearby, Apex pulled out Ullr’s Fangs. The twin Gladius swords looked as fierce as the determination on the huntsman’s face. By his feet, Sköll stretched and yawned. It seemed that everyone would take part in the hunt.
Several hours later, Apex spotted a brown shape treading off into the distance: their prey. Food would be coming soon. Lluava salivated at the thought of fresh venison. They couldn’t let this animal escape.
Following Apex’s command, the trio moved downwind and began to inch their way closer to the unsuspecting creature. Though not heavy, it was surprisingly well fed, which meant it had a food source nearby. More good news, Lluava thought happily. Maybe their luck was turning.
Lluava tested the air as the huntsman gave an unspoken command to Sköll. The wolf-mix bolted toward the caribou. Suddenly, the young woman’s senses exploded.
“Stop him!” she shouted, but it was too late. Apex whistled, but the mongrel was solely focused on its prey.
Exasperated, Lluava sank to the ground. “He’s chasing a Theriomorph.”
The three of them had survived, but for how much longer? Because of her, they had lost everything. Even if they double back to try to find their campsite, the likelihood was minuscule that they would see any sign of it that wasn’t buried by snow.
“What are we going to do now?” Lluava asked aloud.
“Survive,” answered Apex abruptly. He had never been much of a talker. Sometimes Lluava was grateful for this; at other times, she yearned to hear another voice even if it was her own.
“Well, where do you want to go?” Lluava hoped the answer would be in her favor.
“Not back to Elysia.”
This was not the answer she had hoped for.
“Why not?” she griped. “There’s nothing left here for us. We’ve wasted too much time already.”
“Because,” Apex began as he pointed beyond her, “he is waiting for us.”
Standing like a dark smudge against the vast expanse of white was the caribou. The Theriomorph was watching them, waiting for them to take some sort of action. Why? Did he expect them to follow? Did he want to talk with them? Was he intending to help?
Lluava shook off the remaining snow that clung to her white fur cloak.
“Let’s see what he wants.”
Sköll kept his ears perked and alert as he eyed the caribou. Although he did not charge after the animal, he kept turning to look at Apex as if waiting for a signal.
The reindeer calmly observed their approach but began walking away before they could get too close. At first Lluava was confused, but then she realized the Theriomorph was not only watching them but also making sure he was still in their sights.
“He’s leading us somewhere.” She stated the obvious. “Do you think he’s a friend?”
“I’m reserving judgment,” Apex replied, his right hand resting lightly on the carved pommel of one of Ullr’s Fangs.
The trio followed the caribou throughout the evening and into the night. Even with the aid of starlight, the lack of lunar presence made it hard to see. Lluava was dumbfounded that, despite her heightened night vision, the reindeer continued to slip in and out of sight, preferring to remain on the cusp of darkness. They had to focus on the tracks left in the snow, which were easier to follow than the Theriomorph.
The excitement of the unusual situation kept Lluava moving. This was worth a sleepless night. Her high spirits returning, she happily led the way.
There was a rushing noise up ahead. Water! The caribou was leading them to fresh water! He was helping them.
“Come on!” Lluava summoned her lagging companions as she moved rapidly toward the sound.
“Lluava,” Apex called out behind her. “Slow down. Stop!”
“But there’s water up ahead,” she countered, not slowing her speed.
“Stay where you are!” growled Apex.
What was his problem? Lluava glared back at the huntsman to see him tentatively approaching her. Far behind him, Sköll paced in the snow but did not follow Apex. What was going on?
Then Lluava heard it—the crack. First came the sound, then a line appeared in the snow. Crouching, she brushed away the fresh white fluff and exposed fractured ice. Eyes growing wide, the teen looked about her.
She was walking on top of a frozen river. Unfortunately, the ice beneath was not thick enough to bear her weight; several more cracks appeared.
“Apex,” she croaked out.
“I’m coming,” he replied. “Stand still.”
The priestess shouted above the din, “All females will remove themselves from the arena floor!” Etha gestured to a pair of double doors that were slid open by several men. As Lluava followed the girls, she looked over her shoulder at Apex. He was stretching his arms out before him. She suddenly knew that no contender would be able to defeat him.
Lluava missed some of the priestess’s speech as the group scrambled up an inner staircase to some vacant seats. However, she caught the very end: “May Crocotta bless you all.” As Etha stepped through the double doors, she shouted, “You may begin!”
Chaos erupted from below.
The stone orbs and the two stakes from the arena had been removed. The entire space was bare except for the multitude of young men wrestling among themselves. There seemed to be no rules, no semblance of order. Soon, animals began to appear as the Theriomorphs shifted into their dual forms. In seconds, one young man had transformed into a lynx, another into a water buffalo, and a third into a crocodile. Flecks of red streaked into the sky.
Were they going to kill each other? A whistle was heard; two adult men dressed in red ran onto the field, lifted an unconscious victim, and carried him out. Spectators throughout the coliseum cheered, shouted, and applauded the pandemonium. Another young man tried to crawl away from the melee, but a second figure grabbed his legs and pulled him back.
“Crocotta!” he screamed and was released. The double doors slid open, and he stumbled through them.
A safety word, Lluava realized. Competitors were given a way out when they could no longer continue. At least there was some mercy in this horrid display. All around her, the young women seemed enthralled by the brutal show. At first, Lluava was disgusted. Was the sight of all this pain entertaining? Then she remembered Leo’s words. This was all part of a matchmaking ceremony. These females were watching to see which males would prove the most powerful, the most elite, the most desirable.
More and more shouts of “Crocotta!” were heard as the fighters were whittled down. One scruffy fellow shifted into a maned wolf. His ruddy fur flashed around unprepared victims. A water buffalo charged at a limping puma. A coyote bit into a boar.
Apex had not shifted. Lluava thought she might know why. His dual form was unlike any she—and probably the others—had ever seen. Then again, it could be because—
Suddenly, as the large water buffalo turned its eyes toward the huntsman, Apex shifted. The bull skidded to a halt and then tentatively backed away, the whites of its eyes flashing. No wonder. Who could blame the buffalo from backing away from a wolverine that size? Apex’s bronze fur glistened, and a low growl slipped past his bared fangs.
Lurching forward, the wolverine grappled with the horned beast. In only a few movements, Apex had flung the buffalo onto its side. Just as the animal bellowed out “Crocotta!” the maned wolf leaped onto Apex’s back and bit into the wolverine’s neck. Blood spurted from the wound.
Then Apex faltered.
Lluava tried to prepare for the task set before her: to kill an innocent man. Could she do it? She had killed before, men with families and friends in their homeland across the ocean. Yet these men were enemies who had come to Elysia to pillage, destroy, and conquer. She had been forced to kill them. Their lives had had to be lost.
But what of Ammit? He was only fulfilling a duty of ceremonial law. He was innocent. Could she kill him?
What did she know about him? Not much more than she’d known about any other man she had slain. And Ammit, like the Raiders, would not hesitate to take her life. If she reacted instinctively and defended herself, she could justify a fatal injury based on pure self-preservation.
What of the Tucala? This ceremony clearly had originated in ancient times. How could this “only one survivor” regulation be considered fair? She was innocent, so the gods must make sure she wins. But then, what of her opponent? He was innocent, too. He was only respecting the rules of this bloodthirsty event. Wouldn’t the gods, if they did exist, take pity on him as well? If there could be only one winner, how would either her death or Ammit’s prove anything?
Lluava’s head began to spin. None of this seemed ethical. None of this made sense. Was she truly to die in a barbaric battle of strength? She was overwhelmed by different emotions: anger, frustration, confusion, fear, regret. Why had she come to this place? Why had she left the kingdom’s boundaries? The old tales warned that none returned once they voyaged beyond Elysia; Lluava was beginning to understand why.
Torchlight came and went as people sporadically visited Zeek’s body. His friends and family continued to trickle in through the night.
Early in the morning, one of the visitors walked down the hall toward Lluava’s cell. She prepared herself for an explosive encounter with a grieving family member. Instead, Apex’s bristly face appeared in her open doorway.
“I figured they were keeping you here,” he said ruefully.
“I didn’t do it, you know,” Lluava defended herself.
“They are going to make me fight for my life today.”
The flickering flame from the torch in his hand cast eerie shadows on the huntsman’s face.
“We need to leave this place,” Lluava said in a whisper. “No good has come since our arrival. There is nothing here for us.”
Motioning Apex to step into her cubicle, Lluava cautiously stated, “We should make a run for it. Tonight.”
“And what, exactly, is your plan?”
Lluava stared almost horrified at the man before her. “We make a break for the jungle, in the dark. Nobody would see us. Then we… then…”
“Then what?” questioned Apex. His voice was methodical. “We have no weapons. No way of knowing where the opening to this valley lies. The jungle is filled with booby traps, or have you forgotten? They would capture us before we even had a chance.”
“I might die tomorrow. I can’t do that. Not here.” Lluava realized she was trembling. At least in the dark, maybe he wouldn’t notice.
Apex reached out and stroked Lluava’s pale hair. “You won’t.”
Lluava wanted to ask why he seemed so sure, but she didn’t want his reassurance to end, charade though it might be. Afraid to speak, she kept silent, and Apex left her cubicle. As the light of his torch dimmed, so, too, did her hope.
the Odyssey, Ramayana, Beowulf, and the Nibelungenlied. In addition,
she is interested in all things animal whether training dogs,
apprenticing at a children’s zoo, or caring for injured animals as
a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. After receiving degrees from
Mercer University in both art and psychology with an emphasis in
animal behavior, Wibell moved to New Orleans with her dog, Alli, to
kick start her career as an artist and a writer. Her first literary
works blend her knowledge of the animal world with the world of high fantasy.
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