Fiction Friday: Songs of the Sun and Moon

A selection from Loathing in Malfeas by Jason Andrew, one of the stories from Songs of the Sun and Moon: Tales of the Changing Breeds, currently on sale via DriveThruFiction, Amazon Kindle, and B&N Nook.

We were lost somewhere in the Desert of Atrocity, nearly halfway to Malfeas, when the Wyrm-taint began to take hold. There was no shade for the wicked or weary, no hint of relief for those foolish enough to attempt to transverse this Umbra wasteland, where we measured every step in suffering and regret.

Somehow, I remained just conscious enough to keep my tiny rat claws burrowed into Ghunbari’s thick, black mane. I let her superior Crocas form ferry both of us across the wasteland, away from the pack of Banes that had taken a chunk out of both of our hides.

Ever see a spotted hyena the size of a grizzly bear and twice as mean? Imagine how ugly and nasty the Bane had to be in order to take a bite out of that. They swarmed over us, appearing as a plague of skeletal cats screeching with bile and hate. It didn’t take a genius to see why the bastards took the form of grizzled Simba prides. We survived the ambush due to equal parts of luck and Ghunbari’s gumption.

My thick blood has never been suited to arid climates. I was born to a world of air conditioning, venturing outside only to luxuriate in the shade near a swimming pool, sipping mai tais out of a half-coconut shell complete with a little frilly umbrella. Sharp-Sorrows sent me on this run because I was a specialist: a thief by trade and inclination.

Ghunbari was wild-eyed and full of grit, the type of hero born to suffer this spiritual land and earn the glory of the ages. The Simba prides damn near hunted most of her Tanzanian tribe to extinction after Black Tooth’s purge. Sad to say, the rest of us Fera didn’t dare say boo about it until an Ajaba whelp convinced us to unite and become the Ahadi.

Our pace slowed through the desert. Ghunbari’s leaps grew sluggish. Something about this realm cut both of us straight to the bone. The bite marks on her hind leg weren’t healing properly. If we didn’t stop and dress our wounds soon, Ghunbari would hit the proverbial runner’s wall, and then we’d die in the sun long before the Banes could catch us.

I climbed higher up her shoulders, trying to gain altitude to look ahead. I was hoping to find some sort of oasis in the desert: someplace we could catch a breather. On the horizon, maybe half a mile away, I spotted a creepy rock formation that looked a bit like a grinning skull. It was likely a trap designed to box us in on all sides, but it had shade and just enough shadow to maybe hide from our enemies for a spell.

I leaned close to Ghunbari’s ears. “Head for the skull!” Her eyes glowed red. She was caught in the fox frenzy, a rare thing for her. I cuffed her on the back of the head and tried again. “Ghunbari! Your wounds aren’t healing. I can smell the poison from here. If I don’t clean your wounds, you’ll die out here! And then I’ll be stuck alone.”

“We can’t stop here, Manny! This is Bane country!”

“This whole desert is Bane country! They’re born here. Trust me. Get us to that shade!”

The words must have sunk in somehow, because the massive hyena changed course, slowing as we reached the cliff. We crept into the shadow of the rocks, sniffing the air for danger.

I scouted ahead, pleasantly surprised to find a safe little nest out of the way, just big enough for the two of us to rest and plan our next move. I shifted back to Homid and gestured for Ghunbari to join me. Tight spaces didn’t bother me much. I’m a tiny guy for being Samoan, despite the slight gut.

Ghunbari sniffed the crevice and then shook her massive head. There’s no way she’d fit in her massive Crocas form. I shook my head insistently and pointed to her bleeding leg. “I need to clean your wounds. We don’t have time for nonsense.”

“What if they find us and attack us while we’re weak?”

I pointed to my long rodentesque nose, noticeable even in Homid form. “Rats can smell danger. You ever hear of a rat notescaping a sinking ship? We have a nose for shit that’ll get us killed.”

Just this once, logic and reason won the argument. Ghunbari shifted into her Homid form: a young, athletic woman with hopeful eyes, ready to fight anything for a tomorrow that would never come. Fur receded, replaced by clothing and tribal tattoos. She rubbed her hands over her shaved head to wipe away the sweat and winced from the pain. Her right leg had two jagged wounds from the encounter with the Banes. “I can’t feel it, but I know it’s bad, Manny.”

“That’s the point of the poison, to keep you running until you exhaust yourself, and then it paralyzes you. And then drive you crazier than a shithouse rat.” I offered her a friendly hand, helping her inside the makeshift warren. “Rest a bit and I’ll have you fixed up in no time.”

As soon as she accepted the gesture, I used the gift granted to me by the Rat Mother to cloak both of us in shadows. Few can see me if I’m trying to be sneaky, but Ghunbari’s nature prevented her from taking full advantage of the opportunity. It wouldn’t hide us from the big bads out in that desert, but it’d keep the riff raff knocking on someone else’s door for the duration.

I dug deep into the pockets of my khakis. Thanks to the blessing of the Rat Mother, it felt like rummaging through a cluttered trunk in the family attic. You never know what Ratkin might have on them at any time, especially if we’re prepared. You know what they say about pack rats and never throwing anything away, right?

It took but a moment to find the ?ask and cast a blessing on the water. It should’ve been good, but you never can tell, and purified water is almost better than a doctor when dealing with shifters. “Take a drink. Slowly. Too much too soon might shock the system.”

Ghunbari sullenly took the ?ask. “I know how to survive in the desert, Manny.”

“Kid, sometimes you have to say the obvious to avoid the pain of silence.” The wound was already blistering yellow puss and stunk of the Wyrm. If the poison got to her heart, she’d turn and never leave this desert. “I won’t lie. This is gonna hurt like hell. But you’re brave.”

The Maasai know more about bravery than I ever will. They live in Gaia’s heart, where the Wyld is strong and the weak fade away without even a whimper. Ghunbari merely nodded and steeled herself. “Do what you must. We have to capture the package before they manage to bring it to Malfeas.”

I took the ?ask back and sprinkled the water over the wound. It sizzled over the Wyrm-taint like acid. It must have hurt like the devil, but Ghunbari only grunted and sti?ed her cries. Pain is different here. It’s not just physical. Every sensation is tied to a memory of something that was lost forever.

I placed my fingers on opposite sides of the wound and pushed it together like I was trying to pop a particularly nasty zit. The venom had infected the wound, negating her body’s natural healing process. The trick was that if I didn’t take her mind off of the pain, she might just snap and rip me a new one. “Why did you accept this mission from Sharp-Sorrows? Why bother helping the Silver Fangs?”

“Kisasi showed all of the Ajaba the truth.” Every word she muttered was a willful defiance against screaming out. “Our purpose was to slay the weak so that the strong would thrive. In our pride, we failed to see that strength comes from unity of purpose. The Ahadi is the promise to return to what all of us once were. We need to ally with the wolves and everyone else against the Wyrm. The only way to do that is to show them that we are worthy allies in the war.”

I kept at my work, cleaning the wound and pushing out the venom. The blessing of Rat Mother helped some, but we were too close to Malfeas for helpful spirits to reach us. “And wolves have no place in the desert.”

Ghunbari scoffed. “The Silver Fangs fear this land as we do. Why did you agree to this task? You are not a warrior, Manny Sideways. I have fought the Assassins when our purposes were crossed. The Ratkin typically don’t agree to help outsiders to their nests.”

“I’m a thief. There ain’t much for me to do at home. Have to go out to fnd the jobs if I want my fair share of infamy. Besides, I’m Homid-born. My kin don’t take kindly to humans these days, even those of us born from them. I have to make my way where I can.”

“We can’t stay here long, Manny. If the caravan makes it to Malfeas, we’ll never capture the package.”

It’s hard for the young to fully comprehend the Umbra, even when they’ve stepped into it and can’t get the muck out from their toes. “This isn’t a place of distance measured in steps from point A to point B. Travel is measured in endurance. The caravan has to endure and suffer just like we do. The Wyrm doesn’t show kindness to its own. They’re out there same as we are, suffering the weight of the deeds done.”

“You think we can catch them?” Ghunbari asked.

She was a strong warrior, but still young enough to hope for a better world and to half-expect victory. I didn’t want to dampen her spirits. We needed that for the next part of the mission. “You’ve already carried us across the frst threshold. If we had been able to resist getting pulled into that fight, we’d be almost on them. As it is, they can’t be that far ahead of us.”

“You’re the expert. What’s next then?”

To find out, pick up a copy of Songs of the Sun and Moon: Tales of the Changing Breeds via DriveThruFiction, Amazon Kindle, and B&N Nook.

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