A Kelib’s fist is strong but his vengeance is far stronger still.
Tangle with a Kelib and you risk the fury of not just one man, but several generations of men.
Their women, however…
I assure you…
Their women have but one agenda…
To take back what was stolen from them:
Dustin, Sundate 1223, Between Kelibs and Humans,
First Edition, Alya – Pennadot, Scrolls for Sale.
Zinkx gripped the diabond’s mane with one hand as it bounded through the undergrowth. With his other arm he held Shanty tightly against his chest, feeling her hands on his thighs stiffen with every leap of the creature over the hill-like roots of the evergreens. He could feel the moisture on her skin from the dark mist, the wind of their escape leaving kissed chills on his bare arms. In the gloom of the forest the diabond shimmered with fire-spots from its elemental shifting.
Their pursuers had no hope of entering the forest with horses; the tangled loops of the vegetation were too dense for anything but a diabond to navigate. Humans and Kelibs were as minuscule as insects amongst the mammoth flora, and, at the pace they had set, Zinkx was sure they were well away from the village. Content with the distance, he lulled the beast under him into a canter. The solar-fungi, filled from the Sun that had long set, lit their way with a ghosting reflection of day.
The diabond’s large paws made mats of the surface growth atop the roots it pounced across. Strings of foliage and glittering moss swelled back to life, covering the tracks. Zinkx glanced behind them, frowning as he noted the resilience of nature.
“Amazing,” he whispered, causing Shanty to stir in his arms. “The people of Pennadot are dying and being carted away to be processed by the Dragon, and yet nature is thriving beyond control. This shouldn’t be happening. If it keeps up, the forests will revolt and consume everything. No one is holding the earth back any longer.”
“You speak as though you believe the forest lives. That is not Human of you. Humans think not of such things.” Shanty twisted in his lap, and Zinkx winced as the movement pulled at his shirt, tugging at the wound across his back.
“Maybe it does bear some life, but it shouldn’t live enough to cover our tracks like that.” He pointed behind them. “A diabond is in tune with the forest; it can manipulate the flora around it, but no diabond can command the leaves to grow…still, I suppose I can’t complain. No one can follow us this way. I can get us to my camp quicker.”
He shook his head and groaned at the ache in his stomach. “After all this fuss and bother, I didn’t end up getting any food. I’m utterly famished.”
“You’re thinking of food after escaping from—” Shanty suddenly gagged herself with a hand over her mouth. She turned away from his face to stare ahead of them as the diabond plodded further into the eeriness of the fluorescent night.
Zinkx raised an eyebrow, making a guess as to the reason she had broken her sentence. “Shanty…you don’t need permission to speak in front of me.”
She did not respond.
He sighed, tilting his head to the unseen stars above the canopy in silent plea.
“Khwaja is going to have a good laugh out of this one. I just know he is.” He squinted as they neared the camp, a pocket of space surrounded on all sides by the roots and saplings of the immense evergreens. His trained eyes noticed the almost imperceptible signs of Denvy’s presence. The light of a fire leaked through a hole in a mass of roots and ferns, warding off the soft starlight glow of clustered solar-fungi. A trace of the day’s warmth lingered in the air but Zinkx watched his breath fog from the plunging temperature.
He slid from the diabond’s back, landing in the damp moss. Shanty gave a weary bob of her head, making a move to follow, but he stalled her with a soft touch. He led the diabond by its shaggy mane as he plotted a way through the ferns that clustered over the camp like a hut, bottling up the fire’s heat.
Denvy was crouched by the flames, playing a stick in the hot coals. He glanced up at the sound of their approach, amusement wrinkling his brow. “So, you brought a diabond and a Kelib woman instead of food. I didn’t think five skins could get you that much in Pennadot these days.” The giant beast’s powerful baritone rumbled as the lordly being tilted his head.
Zinkx groaned at the note of ridicule. “Please, Khwaja…” He held out a hand, helping Shanty slide down from her perch. He sensed the weariness in her touch as he lowered her to the ground, shifting his center of gravity to bear the brunt of her weight.
Despite her obvious fatigue, she managed to stand upright in awe as Denvy rose to his full towering height beside the fire. A carcass of a pve’pt was sizzling over the coals.
“Why didn’t you tell me they’d snag me for hunting on the Lord of the Provinces’ land?”
“You should be intelligent enough to consider it yourself, lad. Your stomach usually does all the thinking. I am trying to teach you to use your other brain, the one situated in your skull.” Denvy strolled forward, his elongated legs carrying him gracefully, the leather of his rustic, patched-up pants folding over thick fur.
“Why is it that your teaching methods usually end up with me almost dead, Khwaja? Sometimes I wonder if you even love me at all.”
The elderly beast’s pale green eyes glimmered with mirth as he rubbed a hand-paw through his air-gills, tugging the knick-knacks strung up in the thick mane. “Oh I do love you, son. So much it hurts.” The Kattamont touched a paw pad to his barreled chest, giving his two hearts a pat. “My ancient hearts ache whenever you rush off on your adventures.” He switched his focus, looking down at Shanty.
“Hello, my dear.” Denvy extended a paw, slipping it under her chin to tilt her head upward. He stared into her eyes. The folds of his bushy eyebrows rose in warm cheer.
Shanty flushed. “You’re a forest god?”
Denvy chuckled, shrugging as he lowered his paw from her chin. “One of my many names, dearest. Actually I am just a very old, very tired being…”
“Of immense power.” Zinkx waved a hand in the air and rolled his eyes.
Denvy clapped him smartly over the head. He addressed Shanty. “I am Denvy Maz, Dream Master of the Northlands.”
The Kelib female dipped her head in response, hobbling forward a step in obvious pain. Zinkx grimaced as he caught a glimpse of raw wounds on the soles of her feet. They had been made worse by their escape, healing scabs now swollen and bleeding.
Denvy’s brow furrowed in concern and he led her to the fireside to sit on a makeshift futon in the flattened moss and roots. “What’s your name, dear?”
“I’m Shanty…” She paused. “Just Shanty, now. Formerly of the Eighth Clan.”
“Ah, Eighth Clan, heh?” The beast rubbed a paw over his wrinkled brow. “That explains your injuries and the tattoos.”
Shanty looked up in surprise. Warily she touched her exposed shoulders. The faintly glowing tattoos imbedded into her green skin were clearly visible.
“You’re a breeder.” Denvy crouched, studying the markings marring her flesh. “And a milker…a rare combination.”
Her lips opened to speak, but no words escaped.
The beast smiled and gave her head a small pat. “Don’t worry, little one. You’re safe here. That I can assure you.” He gave a small groan as he stood once more.
Zinkx tethered the diabond to a nearby tree, aware of Denvy following. The Kattamont reached out and gave the hound’s muzzle a fond stroke. Its eyes gleamed red, a simple shine revealing its true nature as an elemental shifter.
“A fire diabond, Zinkx, lad. Good pick.” Denvy chuckled as the creature butted him playfully. “She is grateful to you for freeing her and promises in return to carry you well.”
“She’s welcome.” Zinkx pulled his shirt over his head. Pain flared as the fabric came unstuck from the fresh wound across his back.
Behind him he heard Denvy click his tongue in disproval at the sight. “Zinkx…” The Kattamont dusted away the little buzzing pin-lizards that nibbled at the blood around the wound.
“I know, Khwaja…it’s just been a while since I tangled with mortals. They fight differently to the Dragon’s fiends.”
Denvy sighed. “Yes…yes…I know. I’ll wash the wound out for you. The pin-lizards should be enough to sterilize it, but you’re doing your own laundry.”
“Yes sir. When will the food be ready?”
“Thinking about that waistline of yours again?” Denvy smirked, raising his voice as he turned toward Shanty. His jovial attitude eased the remaining tension in the atmosphere. “It’s all he ever thinks about, I swear…”
Zinkx saw her hide a smile at the lord’s playful tone, watching as he poured a bowl of steaming water into a basin.
“Still,” Denvy played a rag through the liquid, turning it blue, “between you and me,” the beast leant forward in a secret whisper that was far too loud to be anything but a joke, “I have no idea where it all goes. Look at him; he’s a scrawny little twig.”
“I can hear you perfectly Khwaja.” Zinkx collapsed in a heap. He buried his head into his hands.
Denvy faked innocence, bearded face showing nothing but honor. “What? Did I say something?” He stood, passing Zinkx the fabric he had soaked. Seriousness touched his tone. “Get the war-paint off your face, lad, you’ll feel better. Let me work on your back, and then I shall see to the food.”
“I’ll serve.” Shanty promptly rose to her feet.
Zinkx twisted in her direction, hand outstretched. “No, you should rest…you’ve been through a lot.”
“I will serve.” She insisted with a glare, no sign of the intermittent fear of his male, Human presence as she headed to the fire-pit with a proud arch to her stout back. Zinkx masked his smile, her defiant streak an amusing sight after the exhausting day.
Food was a welcome relief and they ate without conversation. Instead the forest spoke eerily in whispers, groans, and shifting hollow winds through the glades.
Afterwards, through gentle insistence upon Denvy’s part, the aged beast had tended to Shanty’s wounds. He bound her raw feet in linin before settling her to sleep were she had been sitting. Fatherly he tucked a blanket tightly around her, warding off the night-time temperature plunge.
Zinkx settled himself carefully on his sleeping mat across the fire-pit from her. He felt his wound pulling at every movement and decided to leave it bare, hoping silently that the gathering school of pin-lizards would have done their deed by morning and eaten away any infection, sealing the wound with their saliva.
He took the chance to study Shanty while her attention was on the Kattamont. The respectful awe she showed his master surprised him. It was clear she viewed him as something akin to the forest gods of ancient myth. Pennadot was an enormous land; Zinkx doubted that Shanty even knew of the Kattamont race of the Utillia deserts. Those of the Southern Provinces would very rarely, if ever, learn of the northern land beyond Pennadot, since travel there was a long solar-cycle journey.
He turned his head.
The beast’s pale eyes were narrowed in scrutiny. “I’ll keep watch tonight. You rest your back. We’ll need to travel out of this region by late tomorrow.”
“But sir…” Zinkx frowned darkly. “We haven’t searched long enough for the Key in this region.”
The Kattamont poked at the fire, cracking the wood into pieces, the embers sparking. It burnt softly, radiating enough heat to warm them, but not enough light to reveal their position in the murky forest.
“We have stayed long enough.” Denvy eased back on his foot-paws. “Fear not my aiv’a, we shall find the Key. Things will work out in the end.” Zinkx settled his head across his arms. His mind drifted to the battle-fields he had left. His nose still smelt the burn of sulphur. He could taste
the acidic rain and hear the echoing cries of death. “Tell that,” he whispered, “to those dying tonight.”
Her first deep sleep in many weeks had been peaceful, safe in the warmth of the fire burning through the crisp night. She had sensed the forest god wandering within the cocoon of roots, back and forth between her and the Human.
She stirred. The Human man was shaking her shoulder.
“Shanty…” His deep voice was hoarse with weariness.
She blinked. Her vision blurred and she rubbed the sleep from her eyes. He was trying to keep enough distance despite touching her. His Human skin was icy.
“We’ve got to go, hurry. We’ve been discovered.”
“My husbands?” She blurted out the first thought that brushed through her mind.
The Human gave a small smile, reassuring, the humor genuine in his blue eyes.
“No…something far, far worse. Come, get up.”
Shanty stood cautiously, watching him hurry around the camp in the weak sunlight that scattered through the canopy. The forest god pushed through the shrubbery. The giant creature smiled kindly at her, though she noticed it was a forced expression, worry straining behind the wrinkles. “Here—” He threw her a red dress that felt heavy and woolen. “I dreamed that up for you last night. Put it on.”
“Dreamed it up?” Taking heed of the urgency in his voice she pulled it over her body, tucking it around her robust frame to find it a perfect fit. The Human brushed past her, belting hip-bags around his waist. She saw a momentary grimace on his face as he added the straps of his twin blades over his shoulders.
“Khwaja is Dreamathic.” The Messenger glanced over her outfit. “He dreams things into existence. Come, we have to hurry.”
Shanty gave a gasp as the creature hoisted her off her feet, his large paws under her arms. With ease he set her onto a saddle strapped to the diabond’s back. She ran her fingers over it, wondering if it had been dreamed into existence along with her dress. She had not noticed anything like it amongst the gear. The Human leapt up in front of her and grasped the reins.
Shanty looked around. The camp had not been struck. What had been packed onto the diabond seemed to be the bare minimum of what they should have been carrying.
“Everything…” Shanty gasped as the diabond reared into a run. “Everything is still there?”
“We have no time. They’re not far behind. Hold on. We’re going to try and outrun them.” Zinkx spoke over his shoulder.
The diabond picked up speed until the forest was a nauseating blur, its pounding rhythm making quick work of the dense undergrowth. Shanty caught glimpses of the forest god’s golden fur in the emerald sea. He kept pace with the diabond, moving as though he owned the very land.
Only the glints of flaring sunlight through the canopy betrayed the passing of time. They had been fleeing long enough for the Sun to find its way high into the sky’s arc. Yet whatever was pursuing them was faster than they were.
The Messenger pulled on the reins and the diabond swerved to the right. Shanty curled up, giving a cry as he released the reins. His blue eyes flared green with rage as he twisted in the saddle.
Overhead a pulsing, vomiting shadow swelled. In the sunlight that filtered through the canopy, the humanoid appearance of a province guard’s corpse was visible for just a moment. As soon as it passed into the shadows, the image of the decapitated Human vanished, revealing the snarling beast that hid within the dead flesh. A cloud of shadowed tentacles fused together with plates of boned armor, acidic liquid of the underworld secreted out between the gaps to taint the undergrowth.
The diabond backed away. The monster tipped a head of rippling shadows toward them, a wide cavity forming a mouth full of foaming liquid and blades of putrefied teeth. Web-like strands of rancid saliva hung between open lips and dribbled down its chin.
“Stay on the diabond.” Zinkx hissed the command at Shanty.
“Wait…no!” Her shout choked in her throat as he shifted, loosening her arms from around his torso.
He pulled his twin blades free from their sheaths with an echoing twang of vibrating metal as he lunged from the saddle. With a crackling of coiled energy the Messenger commanded a bolt of lightning, controlling it with a swing as he hit the contorting shadow and sliced downwards in a swift motion. The lightning danced, cracking like whips as they shattered the air like shards of glass.
Shanty covered her ears as a high-pitched screech of pain echoed throughout the forest. The monster shifted into the light, for a moment reforming into its Human appearance before it disintegrated in the shadows of the trees to expose the vile beast once more. She wanted to wretch in revulsion from the foul odor its rotting flesh exuded. The fumes of burning sulphur emanating from the beast killed the plant life around it as it moved back and forth in what seemed to be some degree of enjoyment.
It roared and swung its inflamed eyes toward the Messenger who waited in the thick undergrowth. He twirled his blades; the metal hummed as they coiled through the air. The beast moved and he leapt, blocking with both blades as a claw lashed at him. The force catapulted him backwards, slamming him into a tree root with a ferocity that reverberated through the ground.
Shanty watched his limp body drop like a heavy sack.
“No…” She froze as the shadowy beast turned its attention her way. The diabond beneath her responded instantly to the threat; it backed up, snarling, as it readied itself to fight. Shanty cowered into the saddle as the shapeless shadow stretched clawed fingers toward her. Its jaw dropped in a lonely howl. Something in its maroon eyes, hollow like the void of death, betrayed visible lust. Her skin went cold as the foul monstrosity leered at her with an all too familiar expression, the eager anticipation of rapine.
The diabond backed away until a large trunk blocked its way. It began to bark madly in warning, splattering magmatic saliva that hissed where it seared vegetation. Shanty screamed as the shadow lunged toward them. She did not see the blow that struck it down. The sword’s movement was far too swift for her tear-filled eyes to witness. The aftermath was a wave of cascading water as a giant liquid blade flowed through the gaping wound it had sliced in the shadowed form. Water sprayed, freezing the monster in place amongst the foliage. Shanty watched in astonishment as the frozen shadow shattered into pieces, scattering and seeping away into the earth as the water melted. Denvy landed firmly beside the diabond.
The forest god held a gleaming blade easily three times her height. The enormous sword was crafted from ever-moving water, curving through the air in waves that continuously iced over as the air touched it. The water swelled around the god, only to be batted aside as the beast flicked a paw through the droplets. He turned to Shanty.
“Sorry, dear.” He tweaked her chin with a giant paw. “I had to deal with another before I got here. Zinkx!”
Shanty squeaked in surprise as the young Messenger dropped back into the saddle from above. She dared not stare at his back nor touch the blood that pooled against the leather of his vest and shirt. The stance he took upon the saddle was pained.
“There are four more, Khwaja. About a mile back. We’ve got minutes before they reach us. Your orders, sir?” The young man’s tone seemed dark.
“Then—” The god dug his sword into the ground. The plants around it iced over from the water it dribbled. “—you shall run. I will stall the Twizels long enough for you and Shanty to get ahead. Hopefully they’ll find me far too much of an appealing playmate that they won’t go after you.”
“Khwaja.” The Human fingered the diabond’s reins and the hound shifted on its large paws with pent up ferocity. “I can’t let you fight four Twizels alone.”
The god snorted, pointing his paw at them. “Zinkx, it is far more important that you find the Key. Do what you are ordered to do. Run, now, from this battle that we cannot win…as you have done many a time…and don’t you dare look back for me!”
“You’ll get yourself captured!”
“Silence you velb-lep!” The ancient beast snarled unexpectedly. “Don’t you disrespect your High General with excuses! I raised you better than that. Obey my orders and move!”
Shanty heard the Human curse under his breath. “Khwaja…please…” he begged softly.
“Zinkx, if you don ’t go now they’ll sense you. Go, run…like a Messenger.
Run and don’t look back.”
“Just don’t die on me, you old man!”
The giant lord gave a deep, gruff laugh, clapping the diabond firmly on its flanks. Shanty clung on as the hound bolted. The glance that the Messenger cast back chilled her to the core. His eyes betrayed a depth of sadness, as if in leaving the god behind, they were leaving him to death. She heard his growl and the twirl of his great blade, the sound of water splattering, the screech of one of the creatures, and then the awful sounds faded as they raced away.
The Human man was weeping.
She could feel his chest contracting with heavy breaths as he forced the diabond to speed its flight. Somehow, she wished her eyes would shed the same tears. The kindly old beast had been as swiftly and ruthlessly torn out of her life as he had entered it. Shanty sunk her chin onto Zinkx’s shoulder. The echo of the great being’s voice was a strange sensation in her ears.
She gave a startled gasp of realization. It was not an echoing memory.
The voice whispered softly in her mind like a lingering thought. Unconsciously she looked behind, her eyes locking with the flickers of the forest god’s haunting gaze even as they vanished with the rush of the diabond’s flight.
Look after him. Please.
The fleeting touch was gone, leaving her devoid of emotion until the weight of what had been asked dawned upon her. Her arms tightened around the Human man she held.
“I will. I promise,” she whispered.
 There are six Elemental Categories for the diabond breed: Water, Fire, Air, Stone, Light, and Shadow
 Solar-cycle (sol-cycle) is one Pennadotian-Year, the equivalent of two Earth-Years
 First Class of the Dragon’s minions – they must take a host body to exist within the Primary Realm.
 Insolent brat!