The man hobbled up to the first girl and measured from fingertip to fingertip. Then he measured the circumference of her chest and waist. Finally, he noted the girl’s height and length from waist to heel. Kentril then told the girl to step behind the wooden divider and shift into her dual form. When she reappeared, she had turned into a smoky kitten. The tailor marked on his piece of paper the kitten’s color and size measurements. He turned to the next girl and repeated the entire process. When he was finished, the girls were allowed to transform and dress.
When Rosalyn changed into an elegant swan, the tailor cooed, “Very pretty. Yes, very pretty.” She flew gracefully behind the wooden slats. All eyes watched as the beautiful girl emerged.
Lluava was next. She fidgeted when the tailor’s old fingers quickly moved around her body, making notes of her size. Walking behind the inch-thick wooden wall before transforming, she wished it were thicker. She removed her clothes and concentrated on shape shifting. It was not as easy for her as for the other girls, for she had not changed as often as they had. Her father had warned her of the dangers of her animal form, so she had avoided changing shape. She had been eleven years old the last time, running from a stampeding herd of cattle in a neighbor’s field.
Although the process would take only a few seconds, it always seemed to last much longer. Concentrating, she felt the heat build from inside her very soul, growing and growing until every part of her body burned. A sharp pain erupted from her spine; she heard cracking sounds, and her skin seemed to boil and bubble and ooze into a different shape. The sharp pains increased as her bones reformed and switched places; her gut twisted as her organs realigned in her new body. She tasted blood as sharp teeth erupted from her gums and the others dissolved. More cracking sounds occurred as her skull distorted and reformed. The pain was overwhelming, and she fell on all fours when her tail burst forth. Although pain blurred her vision, she could still make out the white and black fur sprouting from her skin. She lay still, panting, until the pain crept away.
Kentril heard the gasps of the girls and looked up as a large white tigress emerged from behind the divider. His jaw dropped. His eyes remained on Lluava as the tailor quickly scribbled notes. Rosalyn, too, caught her breath at the beast that slept above her bed.
Lluava saw the fear in the eyes of the girls and the men; she could taste the fear in the air. Her heart beat faster. An inner whispering encouraged her to run, but she did not understand and tried to ignore it. She approached the girls, but they backed away. Kentril was shouting at her. She tried to concentrate, tried to listen to what he was saying, but his words made no sense. She moved toward him, trying to figure out what he meant. She made out only a couple of words: change, away, help.
Was he in trouble? She wanted to help but did not know what was wrong. The tension in the air increased, which only agitated her further. She felt as if she were being smothered; she had to escape. A voice in her head began screaming, “Run, run!” She turned toward the door, but several officers ran in and closed the door behind them.
Lluava needed to flee, but her way out was blocked. Panic engulfed her; she had to be free. Leaping toward the drill sergeant, she tried to make him understand that she had to escape. The tall man grabbed the hilt of his sword, and she backed away, knowing, somehow, that he intended to hurt her. A roar emerged from her throat. Screams sounded throughout the room. Another pain erupted as small, sharp objects pierced her rump.
Lluava turned to defend herself. A sleek black panther faced her, one forepaw outstretched and claws extended. The dark beast snarled at her. She snarled back. Each tensed, waiting for the other to make a move. It was time to fight.
Outside, she moved stealthily through the camp to the general’s barracks. The main door was unlocked. She went directly to Kentril’s office. As she had expected, it was dark and no one was there. However, just as she was about to call his name, she heard voices from the conference room at the end of the hall.
The door of the conference room was ajar and Lluava peeked inside. General Kentril and Major Ojewa sat on the far side of a large, rectangular table. Lluava recognized other officers; the frazzled nurse was there, too, as well as others whom she did not know. One man, of average build, his head completely shaved, faced away from her. When he turned, she saw a small nose in a large face, and a scar that began at his left ear and traveled downward, disappearing into his shirt collar.
Deeply involved with the conversation, the man suddenly broke in. “Explain your reasoning!” he demanded. As he spoke, Lluava blinked several times to make sure what she saw was real. All his teeth were pointed, as if he had filed them. The sight of the sharp, serrated peaks grinding on each other gave her an unsettled feeling.
“That is preposterous!” trumpeted an enormous man who sat to the left of Razor-Tooth. The huge person’s loud, booming voice echoed off the walls. More astonishingly, his voice barely began to convey the massive size of the man. Even seated, Lluava could tell he was close to seven feet tall, if not taller. His wide shoulders framed an overdeveloped, muscular body barely contained by his shirt. He had to wedge himself between the arms of the chair.
The mammoth man bellowed, “How can you think of such a thing? We have no reason to believe that! It was just a horrible accident!
Major Ojewa’s response was cool. “When we examined the bridge, we found that the ropes had been severed three-fourths of the way through. The cuts were clean, which indicates that they were caused not by natural wear but by some sharp object, like a knife or a sword.”
“What of the girl? You said that she was extremely quick to react. Could she have had something to do with the collapse? It could explain how she seemed to hold back and then move so quickly afterward.”
General Kentril spoke up at this remark. “Lluava is one of the best recruits we have. She is ambitious and curious to a fault, but I will defend her with all that I am. She had nothing to do with that incident. I called you here to discuss the possibility that the bridge was tampered with by a force outside this facility.”
“What are you insinuating, Kentril?” the burly giant gruffly asked.
“Raiders.” A powerful voice spoke from the other side of the door.
Suddenly she sensed a presence. Alert, she scanned the landscape. At first she did not see anything unusual, but a second look revealed a form standing in the darkness across the lake, so still it blended almost completely into the surrounding shadows. Only the gleam of its eyes gave it away.
“Hey!” Lluava called out.
The figure slid deeper into the shadows and was gone, leaving behind an uneasiness Lluava could not explain away. It was too late for the men of the camp to be about; she herself should have been back in Thowcelemine by now. Also, whoever had been watching her had done so in secret. And was still out there. She could sense him.
Lluava began to make her way back through the forest. The moon was too new to light the path; the only way to stay on the trail was to use her felid senses. She once again wondered how humans could survive as well as they did without a dual form. She was thankful for her acute night vision.
Twigs snapped in the distance.
Turning around, all Lluava saw was darkness. After a moment, she continued, now on high alert. A soft breeze toyed with the dried leaves around her. A rustling of a different sort made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end.
Spinning around, she glimpsed movement in the darkness. Without hesitating, she ran after the figure in the woods, bolting past several climbing walls and other training objects scattered about. Sniffing the air, she could not discern any unusual scent.
Just as she was about to give up, something moved in the shadows to her left. Turning, she lunged ahead. As she shifted to her huntress form, her black-striped paws trod the ground. Just beyond sight, she heard someone running.
All of a sudden, the ground seemed to drop away right in front of her. Lluava made a giant leap to clear the wide trench. Her paws barely caught the edge on the far side. Hoisting herself up, she tried to spot the figure, but only darkness and silence greeted her questing senses.
Without warning, there was a hissing sound, followed by an enormous cacophony of crackling bangs. Brilliant white light temporarily blinded her. A gust of smoldering hot air blasted her. The force of the blast slung her across the trench, and she tumbled backward onto the ground…’
People shouted and screamed around her. Lluava heard nothing, saw nothing but the beast of a man before her. The great brute pushed his body close to hers. She smelled the stagnant breath that whistled through smokeweed-stained teeth. Bits of moldy bread were tangled in his amber beard. Spraying tainted saliva on her, the man stepped backward just far enough to slam the handle of his ax into her chest. She tumbled to the ground.
Coughing from the cloud of dust that rose around her, Lluava struggled to stand upright. She had only a moment’s warning; a glint of polished metal swung at her, and she dove to her left into the tall reeds, hoping the thick grass would shield her. The man used his razor-sharp weapon like a scythe, chopping a swath through the grass. Spotting her, he took aim and threw his ax. Once again Lluava caught the blade with the Claws but was knocked down by the force of his strike.
All she could do was stare at the man looming over her. His face was devoid of emotion as he raised his weapon to deliver the death blow. Suddenly, red liquid oozed from his lips, dripping onto his amber beard. He looked down, an amazed expression on his face, at the bloody tip of a sword protruding through his chest. The ax fell to the ground as the dead Raider slid off the iron blade.
Varren, his clothes peppered with red, stood behind the slain man’s body. Grabbing Lluava’s arm, he pulled her to her feet and rushed her back to the now fast-moving troops. In formation, the group headed toward Durog at speed. The attack had made it clear that there was no time to waste.
Despite its hectic pace, the march back to Durog gave Lluava a chance to reflect. For the first time in a long while, she doubted the choices she had made. War meant death and blood and carnage. Was she capable of inflicting such pain? Would she be able to take a life when she needed to? Could she live with herself if she did? Could she survive if she didn’t? Could she have killed the Raider who had attacked her? As these questions and more hurtled through her mind, the realization of what she was expected to do, of what she must do, appalled and sickened her.