The two jag men waved their fronds, swishing around the tropical heat which encased Ria’s loft house. They had insisted on this task, but in reality the humidity did not bother Ria; she had been born in the rainforest and her blood hummed within the confines of this damp and natural environment.
Rising from her day bed, Ria stretched to her full height, working out all of the kinks from her slumber. A few beads of sweat rolled along her body, usual for the weather here.
She waved off the jags. They gave a brief bow to their queen before departing and leaving her to the morning ritual. Clothed only in her tawny skin, Ria strode across to the large opening which was hung with threaded vines to separate her home in the tree tops from the rest of the jungle. With the barest of thoughts the barrier shifted out of her way. She thanked her beloved plants with a blown kiss.
Standing in the perfect still of the jungle, Ria absorbed the glow of the six moons surrounding Regali. They cast soft filtered light through the dense wilderness. Her platform was two miles high, in one of the older trees, allowing the most unrestricted view of her territory.
Ria thought of the tales from the south. She’d never left her home but she had heard that other countries had clear land and expanses of flat grass-plains. She couldn’t really imagine that. Her country was the jungle of Artwon and there was no free space. They must feel exposed, not having the protection of undergrowth and high level tree tops.
She was not startled by the growled greeting. Her best friend and bodyguard was Klea, a leon. She turned around. The blue-tinged light from the moons highlighted the female standing in her doorway. She was shorter than Ria, as were all in this jungle, except the bera pack. Klea’s mane was a dark golden color, long down her back and wrapping around to coat her forehead and cheeks. The rest of her fur covering was a lighter gold, the same color as her eyes.
“You are well?” Klea said gruffly. Her vocal cords only resonated in a low rough sound.
Ria nodded. “For once I slept uninterrupted. The tree spirits kept the dreams away.”
Klea growled. “The tree spirits? I do not know why you ask anything of them. They are your family and still you must be indebted to them after each favor.”
Ria’s mother, Theanine, was the matriarch of the tree spirits. The gods of Regali. Theanine was literally mother-to-nature. None of the spirits existed on the physical plane any longer. Ria was the last to walk with the beasts. Her mother had taken a temporary corporeal form to conceive and grow her child. But then she had returned to the spiritual plane.
“You know that there must be equilibrium; if I take I must also give. The spirits keep the natural balance.” Ria was steadfast in her defense of her mother’s people.
Right now Ria was the most powerful creature in Artwon. All living plants heeded and obeyed her call. And for this reason she was Queen of the beasts who lived within these jungles. There were six main packs. The jags: small cat people; leon: large cat people; bera: grizzlies; eaglet: the flyers; slimes: reptiles; and munks: the apes. The smaller or mixed breeds were scattered around, mostly keeping to themselves.
“Where am I visiting today?” Ria asked as she clothed herself in leather and vines.
The sparse two-piece set had been weaved from an array of donated skins from the packs. It was the right of the Queen to wear her people. In the long past the packs would sacrifice members for the honor of the leader wearing their skin. Today, thankfully, the leather was from those naturally fallen.
“It is the morning before the red moon, Ria. You must convene with the tree spirits and prepare for the shifting.”
A smile spread across Ria’s full lips. She should have known. Her blood was boiling this morning and her spirit extra restless. She was not pack and did not have to shift on the red moon, but she still felt the pull. Striding forward, her long mahogany hair fell almost to her calves. With her innate agility she leapt from the outer branch, landing in the next tree. From here she took a vine down to the ground level.
The thick undergrowth hugged her legs in greeting. A quick pause by the reflective pool where she bathed gave her time to trail a hand along her favorite purple calia flowers. Their iridescent color was a perfect match for her own eyes. Her mother surrounded this area with the beautiful but deadly flower, as she knew they soothed Ria’s soul. The benefit of having a nature goddess as her mother. The negative was, of course, never having her physically around. Ria had been raised with the leons, hence why Klea was her best friend.
“Let’s go, you have many miles to traverse this morning.” Klea spoke after clawing her way down to where Ria stood.
They started at a run, in the direction of the sixth moon, toward the sacred tree. The undergrowth was dense, but that posed no problem. The plants and vines simply shifted for them. Ria had already sent out her energy along their path to let the forest know she needed a clear run. With the help of her plants they would be at their destination in no time.
She kneeled, allowing her chestnut-colored hair to fan around her; the vines that were imprinted across it shimmered green. Ria closed her eyes, her hands reaching forward to lie flat-palmed against the sacred one. It was the first tree in Regali’s existence, and from where all the tree spirits were born. Ria felt her energy separate from her being and entwine with the warmth of her ancestors. Words were never spoken out loud or internally; it was simply a joining of spirit, a moment for thanks and recharge.
Her head snapped up at the interruption. No one was ever to disturb her during these blessed moments. Where was Klea? Suddenly her friend moved into view. She had her muscled arms locked around the throat of a munk.
“Sorry, Ria, I was too slow to cut off his vocal cord access.” Klea lowered her head, shame spreading across her cat-like features.
Ria waved her hand, rising from her kneeling position to stand before them.
“Let him speak,” she said.
Klea growled at these words.
“He would not have disturbed me if it wasn’t important,” Ria finished. She had great faith in her people. They were honorable.
With one last rumble from her chest, Klea loosened her muscular arms, allowing the munk to suck in a deep breath. His dark fur was disheveled, but it was more the panic in his eyes which moved Ria.
“Speak without fear,” she told him, flicking her head at Klea so she would back up a few steps.
“I apologize, your most majestic one.” He spoke in the tongue of the beasts, which had taken Ria many years to understand.
It was far different to the words of the gods that she spoke.
“I have been sent from my pack. We need your help. The fringe are back.”
Ria straightened, adrenalin flooding her system. She winced as Klea’s roar of pain and anger echoed throughout the jungle foliage. The fringe, as this group of misfits was known, had killed Klea’s sister: Agia. Ria also mourned the loss of Agia. They had been searching for the fringe’s hidden territory for years, but so far the plants were keeping it secret, even from Ria.
“How many of them?” she asked as they started to run.
“At least ten,” he said.
There was no time to waste. The fringe had not been seen for many red moons, and this was a chance to stop the carnage. Ria mentally called for her people.
They had a system where the plants around each of the six packs’ territories would alert them. Each pack had trained guards who had pledged their loyalty to her, but unlike other queens, she did not have them by her side all the time. She preferred they stayed to protect their packs, only leaving if she called for their help. But the fringe were strong and dangerous, made up of rogue members from every pack and, since they killed indiscriminately, Ria knew she would need help. Plus, each pack deserved the chance to avenge its dead.
They were fast through the jungle. Klea and the munk used the trees, flying through the higher canopy. Ria was safer on the ground, her plants lending their assistance. The heat continued to beat down, humidity coating her shining skin. The six moons that circled Regali kept their world warm, and when the red moon rose, the heat’s intensity increased. Ria tried to calm herself as she travelled. As Queen she needed to keep the situation from escalating. She could never let go of her base instincts and unleash the fury inside. But these misfits were testing her patience as they wrought a path of destruction through the packs. She had to protect her people.
The munks’ territory was in the south of Artwon, where the trees were extra high and the undergrowth sparse. Ria could hear calls echoing through the greenery. The soldiers of the packs were moving through the jungle, preparing to descend on the fringe.
Artwon wasn’t a large country and the packs lived reasonably close to each other. There were many rules for co-habitating, and if they were broken by any members then there was a trial by their peer group and the final sentence was dealt with by the Queen.
It was these rules which had offended the animalistic sentimentality of the fringe members. They wanted to fight and war without repercussion. But Ria would be dead and back with her ancestors before she let anarchy rule the packs. Her appointment as Queen had been a hard-fought battle. For the first time in history Artwon was ruled by someone not of the packs. She had worked to tame them, although it was wise to never forget their animal sides.
With a brief mental command Ria lifted her arms and called for the vines she used to swing herself through the trees. She was fast and had unlimited stamina, but that was nothing compared to that of the packs, and so this was the easiest way for her to keep up with them.
To her left five slimes swung into view. They nodded their heads in a deferential greeting to her. On her right were the jags. She could see bera grizzly guards beneath her, thrashing through the undergrowth. She winced as her plants were trampled. Her energy cleared the rest of the path, saving any further plant deaths.
The vines continued to swing her in graceful arcs. Her advanced hearing detected the echoes of screams from the munks’ territory. She urged her journey on faster. She needed to get there now; the fringe members were probably tearing them apart. As a rule the munks were smart, agile and quick, but in brute strength they were near the bottom of the packs, except for their ape guards. But by the sounds of it they were in trouble.
The vines propelled her through the outer perimeter of the munks’ territory.
And suddenly the carnage came into view.
The mangled body of a female munk, crouched over her two babies, was the first thing Ria saw. Pain exploded in Ria’s chest and she let out a cursing shriek that rang through the trees.
She had been too late for that family.
The plants around her immediately reacted to her pain and anger. The jungle sprang to life: vines shooting around, branches descending and being used as weapons by the pack guards.
Ria’s rapid observations determined that the messenger munk had been mistaken. There were not ten; there were at least three dozen fringe members. They were easy to discern by the red streaked throughout their fur. This was their gory calling card: blood of the enemies. And they were organized. Half of them were fighting through the pack, keeping them all occupied, whilst the other half were stealing food and healing stores.
The messenger munk was crouched over the fallen body of the female and young. He had gathered them into his arms, rocking back and forward, his howls ringing through the screams and fighting.
Ria’s heart ached for him. But before she could move closer, a tiny cry could be heard. The munk’s head flew up in shock and Ria couldn’t believe what she was seeing.
One of the babies crawled out from under its mother and into his arms. Followed by the second baby. Ria felt both relieved and saddened; their mother had died protecting them, but at least they had not been sacrificed.
The munk cradled both the tiny creatures in his arms. As he stood he caught Ria’s eye.
She could see his need for help and sent the vines to him. They formed a safe netting into which he reluctantly released his offspring. As Ria’s warm energy mingled with the plants, she asked the vines to take and protect the young until she called for them. The greenery disappeared up into the canopy.
The munk dropped beside his mate again, kissing her once on the head and closing her eyes before he stood and turned away.
Ria lost him as he plunged into the crowd. The other packs’ guards had arrived now and they soon had the fringe members surrounded.
As Ria strode over to the main group she wondered why they’d allowed themselves to be caught. Fringe did not usually come in willingly.
A burst of noise had her spinning around and a vine snatched her up just as another large group of beras flooded the munks’ territory.
Their fur was speckled with blood.
From her secure position, Ria was able to send the rest of the vines to seize her people, saving them from the ferocity of the new arrivals’ attacks. Beras stood over ten feet tall, strong and brutal with razor claws and jaws full of massive teeth. For some reason more of this pack had defected to the fringe than any other.
After rescuing their members, the fringe disappeared into the jungle, taking with them the munks’ supplies.
Ria followed using the sight of her plants, hoping to be led to their territory. The plants were her best chance of keeping up with them. The guards were in pursuit but were already a step behind.
And then midway through Artwon, as they neared the old waterfall, the fringe members simply disappeared. It was always the same, and she couldn’t understand how they hid from the jungle. She searched aimlessly for a few more minutes, but the foliage sensed no disturbance at all.
Pulling her energy from the trees she focused back on the scene in the munks’ territory. The vines dropped her down and she rushed to offer help and comfort. The screams of grief were deafening as packs found loved ones dead.
Ria joined with those moving to tend to the injured. She spent many hours using her knowledge of healing and plants to fix wounds, poisons and breaks. Finally, as the moons shifted higher in the sky, they began to bury the dead and rest the injured.
Ria called for the vines with the two babies. She had been keeping an eye on them and they had slept through most of the pandemonium. Reaching out, she gently captured the sleeping munks, their sweet little faces so peaceful. She looked around for the father, but he was nowhere to be seen. Finally, as she wandered away from the main gathering, she found him. He had been missed when they tended to the injured.
He was curled up beside his mate, one of his hands resting on hers, the other pressed tightly to the wound in his chest.
Ria’s breath caught in her throat.
The munk’s chest rose and fell very lightly, but she could see the torn damage to his chest was too much for a recovery. Tears pricked at the corner of her eyes. She glanced down at the innocence in her arms, tiny little faces with brown fur so soft and silky. They were too young to remember their parents, to realize their entire worlds had been ripped apart.
“Ria, why do you hold these young?” Klea, who had been her shadow for most of the battle, spoke from behind her.
“Their parents were killed.” She pointed toward the fallen couple, and as she spoke the male took his last breath, his body relaxing into the stillness of death.
She shed a few more tears, her life water falling into the soil.
“Let us finish helping their recovery and then we will return to the sacred tree,” Ria said, turning away from the heart-wrenching scene.
She needed to speak with the tree spirits about the fringe. This had to stop now. Their ferocity was increasing, the carnage heartbreaking. It was Ria’s job to save her people, but she was making no inroads into stopping them. She just couldn’t understand why her plants hid these extremists from her.
“Queen.” A female munk stepped in front of her. “I am Aralet, sister to Ara.” She pointed to the still body of the little ones’ father. “I will take the children and raise them.”
She spoke bluntly but with respect. Ria knew that even if Ara had no blood relatives, someone from the pack would have cared for these two young. At that moment the elder of the two children held out its arms to Aralet, and Ria could see they knew each other. Leaning down, she laid a gentle kiss on top of their heads before she passed them across to their brethren.
“Care for them well,” she said, before turning to follow Klea.
They had many more hours work helping to salvage and rebuild the Mmunks’ territory. All of which had to be done before the red moon.
Ria was silent in her loft house, watching, waiting for the full crest of the red moon. The six smaller moons cast their shade of blue, but as the large red circle rose above the canopy, the world turned to purple. And at the peak of the red moon howls rang free. Ria threw back her head, savoring the spill of energy through her blood. It was rare that she ventured down to run with the packs. This was their time to be free and not feel their Queen was watching over their shoulders. But sometimes she wished to be pack. To lose all forms of civilized behavior for a short time.
“I have to go now.” Klea’s rough tone startled Ria.
She spun around to find the leon in mid transition. The skin was melting away to be replaced by fur and when Klea’s mouth finally lengthened into a muzzle she would no longer be able to speak.
Ria nodded. She knew Klea hated leaving her unguarded, but no pack member could ignore the call of the red moon. And she would be safe.
With a roar, Klea dropped to all fours and flung herself out of the doorway. Ria moved back to the edge of the trees, watching as her jungle came to life. The noise below was almost deafening.
Ria never slept the night of the red moon. The energy had her buzzing around her loft until the purple light faded and the large ball disappeared from the sky. The moment that the blue moons filled the sky, the packs quietened and proceeded to sleep off the night. Ria took advantage of this time, descending to the forest floor and moving freely through Artwon. She needed this moment to release her overload of energy. Each time power fizzling from her plants sprouted or burst to life. Large flowers bloomed, fruit blossomed, and she loved feeding her overflow back into nature.
During her run she’d never seen any living creatures, so an unexpected movement between two lanta trees had her grinding to a halt.
Pack members required at least twelve hours’ sleep after the red moon, so it could be none of them. Ria scanned the dense vines and trees as she wandered under the large brown trunks that formed the structure for the tangled venus vines.
There was no more movement, but she knew something had disturbed the land; she could feel the unease from the plants.
Deciding that whatever it was must be long gone, she was turning to continue her journey when he stepped out from between a section of large vines.
She knew this man.
Her mother had given her dreams of the father she’d never known. The father who was now standing before her.
She took an involuntary step forward, her eyes cataloguing every detail. He was much taller than she was, his hair the same silky brown color as her own, his skin much darker but still tawny. Ria had always known that her unusual eye color was from him, but his were even more dramatically set off by stunning purple square-shaped marks running along the right side of his face and neck.
Except for these marks, she was the female version of this man. Well, the marks and the ivy print in her hair, which was courtesy of her mother.
They examined each other. Ria could see the vines curling around his arms and legs, the same way they did when greeting her. And then as she continued to stare at him the marks disappeared off his face, as if they’d just melted into his skin. How had he done that?
“You are very impressive.” He finally spoke, his accent heavy and unfamiliar.
“What are you doing here?” Ria asked him.
“I have watched you for a long time. Your mother asked that I leave you alone.” His purple eyes flashed, reflecting off the blue moonlights. “But things are changing in the First World star system. It’s no longer safe, so I’m here to warn you.”
Ria’s unease grew, which had her plants wrapping tightly around her for comfort.
“Warn me about what?” she asked.
He held out a hand to her. “It would be better if I showed you.”
Ria hesitated. She knew nothing of him or his intentions. But despite this she found herself stepping forward and reaching out to place her smaller hand into his.
“Show me the threat to my people.”
Ria stared at the bunkers under the roots of the massive rairing tree, energy roaring inside her. She had the barest sliver of control over her anger.
Her father, whose name she had learnt was Nos, had shown her how the fringe had been evading her detection.
They wore the skins of the dead.
That was why when she scanned the forest for them they went undetected: the skin of all those they had killed surrounded their den like a large camouflage, and they also covered themselves in the skins. The deads’ fur gave off its own aura, hiding the living who wore it. And they had hundreds of furs, many more dead than she’d ever realized.
“As terrible as you may find this, I did not bring you here to mourn your dead.” Nos spoke quietly. “These nuisances are the gateway to something much worse that could spell the end of Artwon and Regali.”
He definitely had Ria’s attention now. She waited for him to continue, but he seemed content to sit beside her in the high branches. Patience was a skill she’d worked hard to develop in her many years, so for now she just continued to observe.
The fringe had numerous members. Hundreds came and went through the veil of dead.
Ria sat upright, her senses firing as a group emerged from the underground burrow. They weren’t pack. They looked like her, but short and sturdy, the dwarvin. She had heard of these creatures. They lived in the lands of the north; the flat plains.
“What are they doing here?” she muttered.
“War is coming to your doorstep, Ria. The fringe are gathering rebel factions from all corners of Regali. They plan on taking Artwon first.”
His words sent shockwaves of panic through her. There had never been war between the countries before. As a rule, everyone stuck to their own area.
“They could not have organized this on their own,” she said, knowing the fringe did not have the manpower or the resources.
The north men disappeared into the trees. She was tempted to send out her vines and steal back her dead brethren they wore, but she knew now wasn’t the time to tip them off.
“That is why I have come,” Nos said. “You have a Walker problem.”