Torn Loyalties is a dystopian adventure with a difference. Wolves have evolved into beasts that can roam the lower tree boughs, humans are vulnerable and magic is beginning to tug on those alive now. Prophecies are coming to light around the births of a human girl, a female lyk’osk’in and the nature of the world they live in.
Only K’oughser could make her do this. Tia’hin cursed him as every branch whipped her body and threatened to knock her from her path. She hated travelling this pathway. This was the route her parents had taken towards their death, and to follow it made shudders run endlessly through her triple layered coat. She found herself slowing when she smelt that human stench in the air and her lips curled faintly. She could smell the rotting flesh on the furs and that had her tail dropping between her legs in a particularly submissive gesture she just couldn’t fight.
The tremors were particularly annoying, but she skirted that wall with the most furs and landed on the ground with a clumsy thump and snarled at herself. She needed to be quiet. Quiet would mean she stayed alive through this, and if she lived then, according to K’oughser, so would Sak’kar. The thought of the black lyko dying kept her quiet again, so she stepped softly, looking for the nettles. She knew what they felt like and was already steeling herself for the pain of having them in her mouth.
Her nose wrinkled faintly before she paused and crouched slowly. She could see a small human, what must be a pup – or what passed for one among them. It was alone and that made it prey to her. She growled under her breath before stepping forwards slowly, forgetting about the nettles, about Sak’kar…about everything except the taste of hot vengeance pumping under her teeth and fighting for breath below her stronger body.
Her heart pounded furiously, speeding up in preparation for her to make the leap to kill the human pup. She shook her head back for a second before freezing as the movement caught its attention. She snarled as soon as it looked at her and shrieked. Though it tried to run, it was no match for the lyko’a, though she knew it’d bring other humans soon. She ripped at its arms and chest, the latter open and former lifted to protect its face. Just the taste of dizzying blood threatened to overwhelm her senses but she spotted the bush she was aiming for and left the bloodied, screaming human – pup on the ground.
Her tongue recoiled when she snatched again and again at the nettles, her eyes streaming as pain made itself known, all too clearly. As soon as she was unable to bite down any more she took off, making it to the trees before the dogs streamed to her. She was clumsy as she ran back, slipping to the ground more times than she’d ever care to admit with her mouth on fire. Saliva drooled everywhere, making her every leap treacherous. She was panicking when she moved, only to slip once again and land…but again without losing her mouthful of nettles.
It seemed that she recognised the importance of those leaves in her maw even when she was at risk of serious injury. A tremble ran over her body before she took off on the ground for a few steps, remembering belated the dogs and that they could follow her on the ground. Her attempt to get into the tree was a failure, as were the next three. She just couldn’t do it. She couldn’t even see, not with the pain now rendering even her sense of smell insensible. Eventually, just like a lum’ar’ine, she clawed her way into the tree and then made her way back based on instinct.
Every leap was done before the drool was able to make her steps unsafe, and when she broke into her clearing, surrounded by her kh’in’sha, she collapsed. She choked as she landed. Her maw was blood – stained and drool – drenched before she dropped the nettles. Sak’kar was alive; she could hear his raspy breathing, but the tremors seemed to have slowed down and that worried her. She didn’t even stop to answer their questions before drawing in breath and undertaking the next torture.
Though the nettles had been softened in her maw, new stings seemed to have pulled themselves to life in malicious punishment for something she’d not even done. Trembling, she whimpered and closed her eyes, rasping her tongue repeatedly until it was raw…but not one prickle was left on those nettles. Her eyes were streaming from the licking still when she began to chew the leaves. She dare not even open her eyes. Not with the pain still scalding her with every movement her tongue made, churning the nettles about to make sure they became properly mashed into a sticky, easily swallowed mush.
When she realised they were at that stage, her tail wagged faintly and she turned to Sak’kar, eyes narrowed. How to get them inside his maw? That was the next issue. She had no thought of asking one of the watching kh’in’sha, instinctively knowing that it was her battle. She stepped to him determinedly, wincing only when she discovered a splinter in her pad. Her tail flicked off a concerned comment. Her ears flattened before she lay in front of him.
The gloopy mess on her tongue, she bunched up to the top, almost retching at the slimy taste before prodding her nose at the side of his maw. Instincts were at play with all lyk’osk’in, and even Sak’kar while dying was at mercy of them. His maw opened and she shoved the nettles from her tongue to his. He swallowed painfully and she backed away, hacking out nettle pieces while watching him and pawing at her face before wincing. Her entire face felt tender, as though it were on fire.
“Has it worked?” Rap spoke…and it seemed that his words were a spark. Sak’kar’s body bent so far that it was a miracle it never snapped. His legs curled into him, until he appeared like a dying spider and Tia’hin flinched. K’oughser stepped up beside her and nosed into her side, whispering softly.
“Watch him.” His words made her look, and she watched intently as the fitting continued, greater and faster in quantity…until they stopped. Even the tremors stopped, and he coughed painfully on the ground before standing on shaky legs and peering at his ath’er’in.
“N-now I know why you said n – not to let them bite us.” Tia’hin laughed softly before slinking to his side and bolstering him, ignoring every pain she felt.
“That’s been and gone. You survived, that’s all that matters. You should rest, sleep and regain your strength, Sak’kar. You are a part of this kh’in’sha. No one can claim otherwise, and any lyk’osk’in that tries to say so…well they shall have me to face, and all those here. You are no longer enslaved to your sl’rod’or status, I’m afraid my friend. You are ours. And I don’t think Rap will mind, but you should be l’er’oma alongside Itsy’ia. You will make a good l’er’oma. Strong, full of brains and yet gentle with those who understand it. You are a good hunter, you knew to let those new to us join in. Many wouldn’t.”
She looked at Rap after speaking, to see his tail wag and his head nod. The dog wasn’t any good as l’er’oma, not really. He couldn’t go on the hunts that the others could, and that meant his bond to the kh’in’sha was going to be weaker for that single flaw. She smiled faintly before turning her eyes to K’oughser and narrowing her eyes at him. He was talking to himself, seeming to argue with himself and she just…didn’t understand what in him had changed.
She shuddered at the thought before nosing the weakened Sak’kar again, ignoring the sourness in her stomach until she found it rebelling. She heaved, gagging as she retched the juices of the nettles up and then dropping to the ground. She felt miserable; her ears flattened as K’oughser stepped towards her and grinned nervously. His tail wagged faintly but she felt like snapping at him.
“You need to come with me Tia’hin. There’s something you need to see…and I mean it. It’s important. I don’t want you to get hurt…”
His words rang with truth and she shuddered as his ear twitched back. She huffed a second before shaking herself off and then standing, turning to Itsy’ia and Sak’kar.
“You two are in charge. Make sure the others behave, and you all listen to them. They are your l’er’oma. I shall return as soon as I’m able to. I’m sure that’ll be rather quicker than you are accustomed to…” she smirked with an arrogance and confidence she didn’t feel before leaping to the trees ahead of K’oughser and sighing softly.
“Come on then, you lazy lyko. You take far, far too long. Get up in this tree now, before I get down there and don’t bother following you at all.” She snorted before shaking herself off, balancing on three legs to wrinkle the splinter from her paw. That was irritating, and vaguely painful. She didn’t know why she’d been punished for saving one of her kh’in’sha, but the memory of the human pup left bleeding on the ground sprang to mind and she smirked once again before the bough bent under his weight and he took off, leading the way.
That he hadn’t spoken to her was oddly painful, but she shrugged it off and followed him on his roundabout path. He hesitated at times and she sighed, stuck a branch behind him and with his bristly tail in her face. She snorted at him before he turned to her and smiled shamefacedly.
“You need to be quiet, Tia’hin. Really quiet, we need to sneak through the kh’in’sha…without anyone noticing you. You’ll see why, I promise you.” His voice was low and begged for her trust…and she gave it grudgingly as she nodded.
Chapter Twenty Seven
K’oughser hadn’t been able to believe the change in her. She’d gone from being an occasionally shy, brash lyko’a to a fully – fledged ath’er’in with a kh’in’sha that would rival most around them. She ruled with ease and she hadn’t argued at what she’d had to do. How she’d returned with blood on her maw, he didn’t know and the guardian wasn’t saying. He needed to get her on the way, and that meant getting to the ground now. They leaped down swiftly, their paws soft as they landed and he again took the lead as he was meant to do.
He loved to lead her when they hunted, but this could have deadly consequences. The kh’in’sha had keen senses of smell, which meant well…Tia’hin would hate him for the next step. He smiled at her before snapping at her, driving her towards the den of the skunk a creature nature had judged just fine without needing any changes. The stench overwhelmed her and choked her in an instant…and him, too. His eyes watered when she stepped towards him, his head shook and he slunk gracelessly backwards.
“They can’t know it’s you, and now they won’t! Listen to me, will you? I mean it…you need to be clever with these things sometimes. I know that skunk scent is about the best to hide a scent…and where we are going…well. You’ll be safe there and you can get rid of that scent. I can promise that.” She stopped her stealthy movements, no longer snarling when she stepped and instead taking to the trees again. He growled, leaping after her and barring her route, narrowing his eyes and dropping his head, only to swing it back and forth. “Don’t be so stupid! You are known to love the trees, and you try to take to them now? They will know it’s you. I will head for the trees; you carry on the ground. Make your way for the den but keep enough away that they can’t hear or see you. Wait for my signal.”
She nodded reluctantly, not talking to him and he shivered. This would either work or fail perfectly. She sighed and nosed at her shoulder before staring at her earnestly.
“Listen to me, Tia’hin. I don’t care what you think of me…but I have missed you. I have so much I’ve not told you, that I’ve not been able to tell you. I wish I could…but it’s not the time yet. We have to hurry. I could only tell you how to save Sak’kar if I was to bring you where we are going now and I’m doing what I can to make that true.” He kept his voice low and even as he ignored the scent of skunk on her coat to snarl faintly in the direction of his kh’in’sha.
“K’oughser if it wasn’t for them…for your mother…you could have been part of my kh’in’sha. You would have been my ath’er’in…but instead you know you’ll never be able to leave them, don’t you? She won’t let you leave. You’ll be stuck there until she dies, and I need a strong mate at my side. I have to choose one, sooner rather than later so when my time comes, I can have pups…so I can have my revenge on the humans. You may not like the fact that I hate them…but I will get my revenge. I can’t not, they took everything from me, my parents…my kh’in’sha. My life, as it was meant to be.” She kept her voice as low as his was, her eyes thoughtful as she glanced into the distance and gave a wistful sigh.
“I have strong lyko, lyko that could be the best of ath’er’in once I have you out of my system. I will get you out of there, even if it means that I have to die by going through this final adventure…and I mean it. I’m young, you are young. There are plenty of lyko’a you can find to be at your side.” She lifted her head proudly and then frowned in shock as he flinched at her words.
“I killed Yes’ema.” His words were harsh, bit out savagely. He hated having to admit to Tia’hin that he had killed her. She’d been the brightest hope of the kh’in’sha out of the lyko’a, and she’d fallen prey to him. She sighed and nosed him before he leaped into the trees. He couldn’t tell her the story, not yet. The guardian was nudging at him again and he couldn’t deny how insistent she was at times.
He took the last mile in a single, hurried burst, landing in front of the others in a rush and panting.
Tell them that an old’vo’ro has died in the rut.
“There’s been a rutting death! Over near the abandoned human village, where dad…was killed.” He flinched faintly as he spoke, tilting his head away before lifting his head to his mother, letting her see the look in his eyes. “Mother, it’s an old’vo’ro. The lum’ar’ine in that area are sleeping, I suggest you go get to it, help build up everyone. It’ll be breeding season soon, and you will need a strong mate now. It’s been long enough.” He dipped his head slowly, before his tail wagged and Ny’theri bounced up.
“You heard him! Into the trees and away! We don’t get to hunt the old’vo’ro. They are too strong for us, and now we have to take advantage of their deaths. Are you coming, dearest?” The final remark was addressed to him and he shook his head, dropping with a yawn.
“I’m tired, mother. I shall lay here and sleep. I need to rest, so I can recover and think over everything. I’ll be fine. I eat plenty, you can tell that. I’ll see you when you return.” As she neared him to lick between his ears, he spotted her wrinkled nose and stifled a grin. She couldn’t come too close with the stench of skunk on him!
“And bathe; make sure you wash that off!”
“I will, I slipped into a skunk den and startled one. I’m sorry, mother.” She laughed softly before following the tail – end of the kh’in’sha, taking off after them to go and feast. He breathed a sigh of relief, waiting until the guardian nudged him strongly and he took off to the den. He growled at Tia’hin, desperate to get the main part across to her as his head dropped.
“Do not speak when we start to walk…or even if we run. If you have any questions, they can wait. There will be a place at the end where we can talk, and you will need to remember we can’t take to the trees on the way back, either. It doesn’t turn out too well.”
He laughed faintly at himself for saying something so stupid before stretching and shaking off what weariness he could. Tia’hin was barely holding herself awake, stifling a yawn while he watched and he felt faintly guilty…but they had to start out. There could be a dead old’vo’ro where he said – the guardian had put the thought into his head but she could be lying herself.
I don’t lie, lyko. I just tell you what you need to know. Sometimes you can’t hear the truth, because you wouldn’t understand it.
He snorted softly at her words, ignoring the worried look that Tia’hin gave him. He stretched faintly before starting to walk and fighting the exhaustion that almost instantly began to nag at his legs and paws with every step. He could hear the soft sounds of exhaustion Tia’hin made, her head dropping down lower whenever he looked at her from the corner of his eye. Another yawn and he slowed, trying to let her rest as much as he could in between brief moments of hurried running.
You can’t rest. Get behind her, and make her run. You need to chase after her, make her run towards me. That way, you’ll be here on time. The guardian’s voice was worried which made him anxious enough to do as she said. He circled and butted her in the hip, forcing her into a trot as they moved swiftly forwards. Their paws sped onwards as she sped up again following his teeth meeting at her rump. He hated hurting her, but her indrawn breath seemed to catch something alight in her, as she finally sped up. He kept pace behind her, his paws beating the ground easily as he tried to ignore the deadness of the scent to either side of them.
Her panting exhaustion pulled at his stomach and he had to ignore her in a way that hurt him, but his lungs hurt too much to stop. The walk this time seemed to be emptier, shorter and he was grateful when he saw the glade in front of him, full of blossoming flowers that filled the air with a scent sweeter than anything he’d ever smelled before. He inhaled briefly before closing his eyes, only to hear a soft growl coming from ahead of them.
“Bring her forward, young lyko. Let me see this lyko’a that the moon is proclaiming to be the bravest huntress to ever step foot on the earth.”
That her voice wasn’t in his mind any more sent a sigh of relief through him and he smiled faintly, nudging her ahead until they stepped over the border and into the gentle brush of the flowers. He no longer noticed the skunk – scent, as he knew he wouldn’t and he smiled, his tail wagging faintly.
“Thank you guardian!” He called ahead, gratefulness in his tone before he turned to the still, anxious frame of his best friend. “It’s okay. She’ll not hurt you; just…ignore the way she looks. She wants to get to know you.” At her frown, he smiled and walked forward, only to be nudged in the direction of the shadows.
“Someone waits for you there, K’oughser. You have a story to hear that shan’t pass my lips, though I shall allow your friend to hear…when she knows everything she needs to. You did well for me, so thank you. You aren’t bad…for a lyko.” He heard the smile in the black – muzzled maw and shook his head before heading for the trees, ignoring Tia’hin to find out what it was that he was being summoned for, a frown on his forehead only disappearing as he saw the shape that he’d wanted to talk to for so long.