Koral ploughed through the desert, each step sucking away more and more of his strength. Fear gave way to exhaustion. He hauled himself to the top of another dune in this endless desert and turned back to take in the distance, staring out over sands he'd already trekked through.
There had been no sound of pursuit. Did they think he innocently slept? All warm and cosy. Amelia would've checked on him by now. He touched where she'd kissed him, his fingers chill against his snout. Never would she give him another kiss. Or a hug. Not even a smile.
He peered through the night, struggling to make out the bulk of the ship. The dips and humps of sand, shimmering in the moonlight, all took on a similar appearance. Any of the shadows could be hiding that slim finger of a once-larger craft, saved only through happenstance or the luck of its landing.
Shivering with more than cold, he turned his attention back to the unknown stretching before him. Bearing no weapon, he was suddenly afraid to press forward. These dangers which lurked in the sand... bloodthirsty monsters, ready to rend the flesh off anything in their path... had they been tales woven to keep him close, or were they true? But if he truly was a monster, what did he have to fear? What could be worse than him?
It had only been a short while and he already missed what security his only home had offered. Tears ran down his cheeks, some gliding along the sharp lines of his snout. Home? He had no home, certainly not within that human wreckage. How he wished he could go back, could somehow change what had happened. If he hadn't heard them arguing, then he wouldn't be out here, facing who-knew-what alone.
A sibilant sound crept along with the gentle wind that skimmed the dune crests.
Koral froze. He wiped his face and turned towards the noise. Nothing. The hissing became a slither and brought with it the dull groan of large animals on the move.
He skittered back down the dune as a dozen or so giant mounds of hair and flesh appeared over its crest. Behind them, herding the animals onward, came two such beasts bearing riders. One of the riders carried a torch that flared and threatened to die in the sand-whipped breeze.
The pair halted on the ridge. The torch waved about as their muffled voices floated on the wind. Koral saw the curving glint of metal. Did they think him a threat? The desert-bred beasts gave a mighty and indignant bellow, kicking up sand as they slid down the slope towards him.
Koral fled. He had no wish to discover if these people were dangerous or merely curious. He fought to scramble up the dune he'd previously descended, landing on his face as the sand gave.
The animals were fast and snorted excitedly as they halted in his path. One tossed its head as Koral stood, forcing him to duck as the yellowed tusks barely missed him.
"Ko xen!" said one of the riders, the tone distinctly male.
The shift from the human language he customarily heard on the spaceship to the native tongue made Koral's mind fumble over what he could remember. His heart raced as little came to mind. He didn't speak it much, except around Tamati, and then the accent wasn't as coarse. Why would he have need of it around his so-called protectors when they spoke an entirely different language?
He stumbled to his feet. The sand slid, forcing him to spend more and more attention on staying upright. But, like him regaining his balance, the words slowly made sense to his ears as the lessons the linguist had drilled into him finally emerged. Just two simple words: A boy!
"What are konte doing in tre middle of nowhere, xen?" the man asked. His white robe shone in the torchlight, reflecting more light onto the long, triangular muzzle of his grey-furred face.
He stared blankly at them. The words came so fast, faster than Tamati had ever spoken them, but he could almost understand the sentence.
Golden eyes stared back at Koral, patiently waiting for an answer. "Can you speak?"
Koral silently nodded, not sure what else to do. Those swords looked horribly sharp.
"He doesn't appear at all Rogue-like," the other said to his companion. Hooded in darker fabric, the torchlight wasn't strong enough for Koral to see anything beyond the occasional glint of teeth as the man spoke.
"No," the first agreed, his body appearing to relax as he decided Koral wasn't a threat. "They never take them this young."
Wolenas, Koral thought, his lessons flooding back to him through the cracks in his fear. As a species, they weren't usually quick to anger. Not like some of the others. That didn't mean these men weren't dangerous, however. Even without the swords, they'd still have fangs and claws. And, unlike him, protection from attack thanks to a thick pelt. Koral stepped closer, flinching when the man's mount snorted.
"What's wrong with you, boy?" the hooded one sneered. "Haven't you ever seen a walfre?"
Koral shook his head whilst keeping an eye on the shaggy beast. Up close, he could see the walfre's bulk had little to do with its hair. Its head was massive—nearly as large as Koral's entire self was—and held aloft by a matching thickset body and hind legs. Although the forelegs were shorter than the back, the forefeet looked as if they might be capable of grasping things. That wasn't reassuring.
His gaze flicked to the ground. Were those claws he could make out in the shadowed sand? He peered at the animal's mouth. The way the tusks curved down reminded him of his own fangs. Did these creatures eat meat? Koral couldn't recall. He really wished he could.
"What are you?"
The words captured his attention and Koral found the first man was leaning down to see him better. The smoke from the torch floated in his face and made his eyes water.
"He's raptereon, you blind cur," the other said. "The most low-witted herder could see that in a sandstorm."
One triangular ear flicked in the companion's direction. "Then explain why his eyes are amber," the first replied. "I thought it was a trick of the light, but you very well know your kind cannot possess eyes that colour. It's almost trexen," he spat.
Koral took a step back, unsure why he was suddenly being so thoroughly scrutinised. What was wrong with having amber eyes? The genetic alteration. Was it, perhaps, a mark of his impurity? And what was a trexen?
"You'll scare the boy to death with all your talking of trexens," the other scoffed. "So he's a mix, as if it matters out here. If you want to bring him with us, then do it." The hood shifted as the man tipped his head back to stare at the sky. "Shirain will have us whipped if we're late with the herd again."
Koral caught a glimpse of the man's leathery snout before it turned back to his companion. This was no patient wolena. A raptereon. He'd suspected he was one of them for years, but Amelia had insisted they were far more dangerous than he could ever be. Yet, if the cloak was any judge, this man seemed smaller than him. Had she lied to keep him within the spaceship?
The wolena held his hand out for Koral to grab. "Come with us, boy." His fangs gleamed in the torchlight, giving his grin a malevolent glow. "If you don't, you will regret being out here alone come morning."
He didn't want to trust the man. They could do anything to him. But what choice did he have? He couldn't survive without help. And what if these men were not the monsters he had been warned about?
The walfre snorted under the extra weight as he leapt aboard. Koral balanced as best as he could on the beast's back, tightly gripping the fine fur as the pair of herders forced the other animals to continue their march towards the unseen destination.
As the hours passed, his body grew increasingly sore. He was slumped over the beast, scarcely able to keep himself upright, by the time the red and yellow suns, Rhoadus and Tangus, crested the horizon. The salty tang of water reached him and he lifted his head.
Before him stretched an endless ocean—a gigantic blue-green jewel set against a backdrop of star-studded silk, its dark indigo colour fast fading to the sunrise. He blinked as the walfre began its decent. On the shore sat a large encampment. As the suns rose higher, the muted shades brightened into a glorious patchwork of colour.
The undulating water held Koral's attention as they rode passed mismatched tents, teasing him with the occasional flash of blue from behind a pole or around an expanse of canvas. The camp itself was huge. Certainly far bigger than the few drab canvas homes he had been expecting to find. He gave up counting as they went by what had to be the twentieth large round pavilion.
There were many more of the smaller square and rectangular tents and awnings. None seemed to belong with another, not in colour or shape, though most shirked the soft shades that would have them blend into the sand. Some of the tents seemed little more than heavy blankets draped over a line of tight rope.
The walfres ambled amongst the outer rim of tents. Here, people bustled about with their lives. In one spot, a group of what he assumed were women—difficult as it was to be certain with the light in his eyes—scurried around with bowls of water, pouring it into a large barrel.
The clear liquid splashed up, the spray lost on the wind. Fluffy tails, in shades from brown to grey, flicked more of the liquid around as they swished about. Was that a slim, orange and black striped tail he'd seen in their midst? Koral craned his neck to see better.
The woman turned around as they neared, an urn balanced on her hip. Black, orange and white fur brushed her face in thin stripes. The face itself was shorter and thicker than the muzzle of the wolena at Koral's back, and the woman's ears were rounded. What did the natives call such creatures? Katess.
She smiled and waved at them. On the edge of his vision, he saw the raptereon return the gesture.
More women were laying out large sheets of cloth. Raptereons this time, their blunt snouts and whip-thin tails the only features poking out from their hooded robes. As he moved closer, he spied the round ears of another katess. How many of this planet's varied species did this one encampment hold? He had always assumed they lived in separate territories, like Earth and her countries.
None of them cared about the walfres shuffling through their camp, though a few women paused in their work to hustle children from the beasts' path. Nor did anybody seem to notice the pair had picked up a third whilst on their travels.
They halted outside a large tent, the sudden stop jarring him and sharply reminding him of his aching muscles. Most of the sea breeze was blocked by other tents, but there was still enough wind to make the ropes thrum. Koral breathed deep of the scent, so unlike the warm and stale air inside the old spaceship, coughing as the intense saltiness filled his nose and caught in his throat.
"Mistress Shirain!" the wolena called out. "We've done as you've commanded and brought all the young females from the northeastern herd."
"And yet," a husky voice answered from inside the violet pavilion, "you return late." The flap moved and a long-necked woman stepped out. It was definitely a woman's body; there was no mistaking such curves. At first glance, he thought the raptereon wore nothing but a large amount of silver jewellery. Her only concession to modesty extended to a few pieces of green silk near the same shade as her scaled skin. "I specifically remember saying before dawn. Now you have the impertinence to tell me you did as I commanded? Better you had scrambled to whatever rock you hide under and awaited your punish—" She stopped as her eyes of green-flecked gold marked his presence. "What is that?" she snarled.
"Forgive us, Mistress of the Sands," the raptereon man replied, bowing low over his mount's neck. "We found him roaming the dunes last night. I tried to remind Weinain how much you dislike foundlings, but he insisted."
With less emotion than a stone, she studied Koral. He shifted under the cool stare. What had his lessons said of raptereons? Dangerous. Quick to anger. What would she do to him? Death seemed the likeliest choice from what he saw in her eyes.
"Come here, boy."
Koral paused in dismounting, his legs stiff from the overnight journey. He didn't want to be too close to her, just in case she was the sort to mete out her own punishments. The claws that tipped her four-digit hands and wide-set, talon-like feet looked very sharp, though not as effective as the set belonging to the servile man still sitting atop the walfre. The middle claws on the man's feet were large, sickle-shaped and held near vertical to the ground. Were these people the dangers he'd been warned of? His own kind?
"Now," Shirain snapped and he quickly moved to stand before her, resisting the urge to fidget or flee as she circled him, examining him as if he was a puzzle or a piece of meat. Sunlight glinted off the tiny scales covering her body, marked with swirls in varying shades of green. A long tail snaked behind, the tip whipping back and forth with irritation. "Can you hunt?" she asked and he silently shook his head. "How about fish or herd?"
Again, he shook his head.
"Bah, worthless." Her green lips peeled back in disgust, revealing teeth capable of ripping out his throat. "Learn to hunt, boy, then you'll have a special place in my dear Lord's heart."
"By the Stars and the All Mother herself," the wolena said. "I did not rescue him from the fate of the desert so you would hand him over to the Rogues."
"Do you seek to overrule my decision or are you volunteering to take his place?"
The man went slack-jawed, his golden eyes becoming black and triangle ears folding back against his head. "No, mistress."
She smiled, but there was nothing pleasant to be found in that face. "Your offering will do much to put my Lord in a good mood so I shall forgive you your lateness."
Koral flinched as her hand fell upon his shoulder, the claw tips gently pricking his skin through the thin cloth.
"But for your impertinence, Weinain, you shall teach him our ways."
"Yes, mistress," he replied. "As always, your command is to be obeyed."
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