AN: What's that you say? You want longer chapters? Well what a coincidence...
Wolf puppies pranced through flower-strewn fields, donning green dresses and shining black pendants.
Watchful red eyes glared as massive venomous fangs drew only wider, ready to swallow them, but the puppies moved quickly. Their giggling voices made everything weightless and bright. Everything but him: a massive black dragon with scales dark as night and hair longer than hers, attesting to power just as much as those thick, muscle-bound limbs. Cruel, mismatched eyes glared into Heather's, one a blood red, the other a sickly dark yellow, matching his fangs.
But she was not afraid. Where once his thick black scales would have moved like water as he wrapped those serpentine tails around her, now he lay hopelessly entangled in unbreakable, glowing white chains: at her mercy. "You are mine!" Those fangs hissed, infuriated, but she just shook her head. "Only as much as you were my own." She didn't recognize the hand she raised to command those chains to muzzle his sharp, deadly fangs, and vaguely recognized her entire body as not only belonging to someone else, but being male in its shape. "Goodbye Kaine."
She made to cleanly erase him from existence, but another dragon suddenly intervened: attacking from behind. Powerful claws dug down into her shoulders and its massive black wings fanned out full as it struck. Hot, wet blood spurted from her neck as its fangs sank down deep in her neck, but the puncture wounds numbed. Only pain in her heart could burst forth. "H- How… could you?" The words came out shaky and weak. Her strength drained right out with the blood as the world itself blurred, and one last word came out, weak and choked with her blood. But the dragon did not recognize its own name. Scarlet reptile eyes narrowed, glowing eerie and bright, and it yanked its head back, cleanly snapping her neck.
Heather startled awake, Her body was still tightly bound and the world was still dark, so she knew she'd been blindfolded, but she could tell she was in a new room. The hardwood floors here were actually warm, and the scent of soft soap tickled under her nose.
"You're awake, eh?" It sounded like Master. Heather nodded, unable to speak, and tried not to flinch when his cold hands met with her neck, possibly checking for bruises. Her stubborn body would just not stop its shivering. She could only think that she wanted his grubby, evil hands as far away from her as possible. "Sit still a bit…" Heather nodded again, though she wanted to outright refuse. Luckily however, he seemed interested only in removing her bindings. The leather biting into her wrists and ankles fell away at his hands and Heather automatically sat up, finishing the job by herself. The blindfold went first and then the gag, and she tossed both aside, glaring up at her master while her fingers instinctively massaged her now purple-bruised wrists.
"Such venom in those eyes," the master said, "I'd think you were some sorta dragon if'n I didn't know what a real one looks like!"
Heather didn't comment. "Why am I here?"
"Don't ask me that," Master scoffed. "It's you what's wandered into the wrong world, eh? It's just me 'n snake put you in your right place. You humans ain't allowed to just run around free."
"Then why'd you untie me?"
"'Cause you won't be runnin' nowhere, that's why. This place is locked tight." He gestured around and for the first time Heather got a good look at the room. A bathroom? There were buckets and sponges scattered about on the floor, and a large wooden tub of hot water sat right in the center, presumably for soaking.
"Now, you get yourself pretty 'n clean understand?" Master instructed, "And throw them ugly human clothes out."
It was clear from his voice that he was remiss to loosen her bindings, even to allow her to bathe, so Heather at least pretended that she would behave, nodding politely as he explained further.
"Any luck and I'll find ya a buyer tonight, after you're all clean and whatnot anyway. I'd wash ya myself, but aint no one gonna buy a female what smells like she been touched by a male." "They can tell by smell?" It was the first question she'd thought to ask, but judging by his face it wasn't a very good one. "'Course they can!" he scoffed, "first thing they'll do is sniff ya! Ain't you never met a Shiren?"
Shiren. There was that word again. Heather couldn't help but remember the sightless white wolf and the way it had sniffed her. So they all do that…
"Dumb as dirt, you." Master scoffed, standing to leave, "A Shiren's gonna be your new master, got that? They got mountains a magic and money, but that money is gonna be mine soon 'cause yer gonna get it for me, get that?"
"Yeah, I get it."
"Good. Now wash up. Snake'll be in to fetch ya so get it done quick." With that said he slammed the door with a loud 'clack,' and Heather turned to the task before her. The water looked hot and inviting, but she wasn't sure what she should do. If she did bathe, he'd sell her to one of those Shiren things, but if she didn't… I'll have to stay here? Well, that decision made itself as the steam wafted up, inviting, and as it turned out, the water here really was soothing.
"What do you mean, no!?"
The snake tried to swallow his nerves, eyes examining the oversized black wolf who'd snapped. Its voice was like venomous sugar, feminine yet sharp, and it boasted a body lighter than a typical male's, so he assumed it was a female, but he knew what power looked like. This thing had to be a high-ranking Shiren with that hair almost reaching its feet. This wolf boasted unnaturally pure black fur and almost reptilian amber eyes, as well as misplaced, leathery black wings. It's probably got dragon's blood too. The wolf yet dragon radiated both beauty and authority, but it was not she, however, who demanded most attention, but the woman who rode on her back.
This one sat in an ornately decorated saddle, right between those black wings, but even up close snake was unsure if he was seeing a girl or a goddess. Her beauty was not something humans should have: flawless, snow-white skin and impeccable grace. Long, sleek blonde curls hung down well past her waist, acting as her only form of clothing, yet she carried not the slightest hint of shame. Instead, her regal emerald green eyes met directly with his, proud and poised as the majestic moon itself. She wore a highly visible diamond and white gold tiara, but had thus far only nodded rather than spoken. She simply pursed those red lips while her mount voiced displeasure.
"My lady has come all the way from Elkenfeld for this? A river serpent Sheriek with the gall to just turn her away?"
"I apologize," the again Chris-disguised snake sighed, offering a bow to the wolf-mounted beauty, "but that particular product is in the process of cleaning and will soon be sold off. Only customers are allowed in past this point, and seeing as how wolves have vowed never to buy humans…"
"That human was not yours to sell to begin with!" The wolf snapped, "We know that you idiots kidnapped her from Meren! The gall!"
"Products can't be kidnapped, only polished and sold," was the snake's smug retort, and the wolfdragon snarled, but the woman atop her spoke up. "Calm yourself Mirah."
Snake found himself arrested by the mere sound of her voice. She spoke not as a human, but the goddess she was, so her words were nearly felt rather than heard. Stunning green eyes met his own and she addressed him alone. "You are an estranged Firebreather, aren't you?"
"My father once was," admitted the snake, "but he is dead now."
That perfect face betrayed not a hint of surprise. "Killed by his father, no doubt. Yet you deal in that same killer's system. Only the Firebreather king allows for the sale of intelligent beings like humans. Do you not live in shame?"
"I deal in whatever puts meat on the table," Was all he had to say for himself, and for some reason this caused her to smirk. The goddess spoke only once more, humor in her ethereal voice.
"Such is the fate foolish males would accept." She gave her reluctant mount an affectionate pat, tugging for the wolfdragon to leave, and it did so, but not before shooting one more snarl at the snake. The second they'd slipped out of his hearing range, Mirah hissed at her queen, nearly begging. "We should kill him and save her!"
"We cannot," was her calmer reply, "he is right. In this province, the laws allows all that he's done."
"Stealing and selling a human?"
"Yes. Anywhere east of the dragon king's stormlands falls under Elysia law. Humans are property here."
"Do not fret, Mirah. I know someone who's played this sick game all his life."
Heather was pruning, but finally satisfied she might just be clean. And she'd at first thought it nice Master had left a crisp white bathrobe for her to dry off with, but was then only annoyed that it seemed like this was the only hint of clothing he intended she wear. There was not even a tie at the front, so Heather had to improvise, using the one from her hair, but still this robe showed off a good deal of her skin, leaving much of her arms, legs and neck clearly exposed. "So they're going to sell me." Well this is the right way to do it, she bitterly thought, leave it to men to force a girl to wear something so frikkin' revealing!
"Screw this dumb world," She scoffed, cursing herself on the inside for letting her guard down. How stupid she'd been, to trust Merenteren and actually think things would get better: that she might find her father. How shameful to think she'd risked her life with that snake, chasing after yet another man she already knew did not want her. "I'll get out by myself," she absently muttered, while her mind worked things out at top speed. She first headed for the door she'd come in from, but just as she'd expected, found it to still be locked tight. The polished brass handle wouldn't budge, so she didn't waste much time on that. Instead Heather made her way around to the far wall, inspecting what looked like a well-covered window. The frame had been carved out of wood, which felt soft and warm at her fingers. The steam from the bath had left it with a slick coating of rose-scented wetness, and this proved to make things much easier. After only a moment of carefully testing the feel at her fingers, Heather reared back and punched it. Sure enough, her fist sank right through, not even meeting with the glass she'd expected inside. It seemed to be a thick covering of paper, in fact, and she was able to easily tear it right open. A pile of thick, ruined scraps gathered at her bare feet while the teenager worked, tearing the covering off almost completely, and Heather hoisted herself up, into this window, discovering now that it felt more like a crawl space. "This is perfect!" She wasn't sure where it would lead, but already Heather could see light at the end of this tunnel. Maybe it was daylight? And the soft, golden glow only grew brighter the more she approached. She felt her spirits brighten as well. The moment she was out she would run. To where, she didn't know, but Heather would run, and she'd find her own way. I will not be sold!
No sooner had she thought this than the ground beneath her knees suddenly gave way, and for that terrifying moment, Heather found herself in freefall, heart frozen, but then it was over. She landed right on her butt, less than graceful, but in a pile of soft, painless flowers, with the sound of applause all around. "Damnit." Finally Heather realized it had all been a trick. All around her stood tall, hooded figures, with her Master right in the center, speaking over the sound of vibrant applause. "So as you can see, gentlemen," he was saying, "our newest addition got some brains and some guts. I'll take the first bids now if you don't mind."
"Isn't that sweet?" One of the hooded figures crooned, leaning down to get a good look at Heather. "It looks kinda scared."
Heather only glowered, smoothing her robe down as far as she could to cover more of her legs. "I am not an it."
"Ooh, but it's got a temper," was all this thing said as the others joined in. "Just needs training," one said.
"After that it'll be worth a fortune."
"Look at that hair. I've never seen anything like it."
"And it's a female."
"It smells lovely."
"What do you think?"
"Yeah, definitely worth a bid."
Grudgingly she stood, recognizing that she'd fallen right into some sort of display. Master approached, looking proud of all things, and he reached down to affix a pair of thin silver cuffs to her wrists. "Now you're perfect," he said. The hooded people around her stayed put, and he stood back to watch too, so Heather gathered they must have been interested just to see what she'd do.
Her first move then was to take in her surroundings. The soft ground beneath her turned out to be a collection of flowers and grasses, purposely stacked high so that she would land safely, and the source of that leading gold light presented itself in the form of small lamps. These lamps seemed to be hanging from vines, looking more like bulbs from a flower than hardware store, and the walls of this "room" were not walls but tall shrubs. I'm in a garden?
Above her the night sky seemed to stretch on forever, with the soft white moon bathing its light down, like a merciful blanket, reassuring the earth. Vaguely Heather wondered what the shiren called earth as she set her eyes downward, nervously dodging the eyes of the tall, hooded figures around her. Some were still calling out numbers which master recorded, but others just watched, biding their time. She could not see most of the faces of the creatures beneath these dark hoods, but already knew these were creatures, not men. And she didn't know how, but Heather instinctively knew that these things weren't even shiren. They didn't seem anything like the majestic beings she'd seen in that book. Some of these things spoke with hoarse, rasping voices while others didn't seem able to speak much at all. She'd meant to get a better look at the crowd, but was immediately distracted when someone approached. At first Heather jumped back, not letting it near, but then she realized this thing looked familiar. "Snake?"
"Who elssssse would I be?" snapped the other, but Heather only gaped, still not sure this was the man she had thought. It sounded like him, sure enough, but instead of looking like at least half of her Chris, Snake now looked like some sort of serpent. His skin had changed to a murky grey with black splotches and those freakish orange eyes had returned. He seemed not to have noticed. "You uh-"
"What?" Asked the nonplussed serpent creature. He didn't have any arms, but his thick, scaly body was still able to balance upright. Where his hips should have been, the large scales split into smaller ones, accommodating three tails, or perhaps tentacles, she could not really tell. His tongue flicked out every now and then too, even when he wasn't trying to speak.
"You're a- a different… thing," she finally managed, moving to the side to get a good view of his tails.
"I'm a Sheriek," he corrected, " and bite your tongue stupid, 'cause your buyer might be one of us too."
"What?!" She turned with wide eyes to the crowd that had only just applauded her arrival. "You mean, no one here is a person like me? Or even a shiren?"
"None of your business what's under the hoods," the snake said, "Sheriek tend to like privacy, if that is what they are."
"But what is a sheriek?"
"Sheriek are higher beings, and our bretheren Shiren, are more powerful still. Haven't you figured it out, yet? We are what humans wish they could be."
Now Heather scoffed, glaring disdainfully. "If I wished I were anything else, it would be something with arms."
He only grinned, hissing darkly. "Arms or no arms, we are all born with magic, and once you are sold, your new master will use his to train that dirty tongue right out of that smart mouth of yours!"
"You can't train me to do anything!"
"Pfft. Just come and walk with me, human. The customers like to see humans in their natural habitat."
"And what if I don't?"
"Makes no difference to me," he shrugged. "stay with the other sheriek if you want."
He turned and left her alone, just as he'd said, but Heather could not even miss him. Seeing Snake like this made it painfully clear that she just wasn't in Kansas anymore.
"Natural habitat my foot…" This didn't feel natural at all, but looking back, she realized that many of those hooded creatures had dispersed from the place where she'd fallen, observing at a distance as if she really was the real animal here. "It's like a big zoo…" Heather absently sounded out the new word she'd just learned out as she walked. "Sure-Eek, huh? Maybe they're… part animal?" She could not really tell with the dark cloaks in the way, but something about the way that they moved made it clear that they couldn't be human.
But I can't be the only real person here.
Heather began walking, pretending she wasn't trying to decipher the species of the creatures that followed. Along the way she caught sight of at least three other girls dressed exactly as she was. Each one looked terrified, but most were obediently mulling around, pretending to look at the flowers. The sheriek followed closely, keeping their hoods up, but as Heather watched, their movements revealed telling hints of their species. When one of them gestured, talking to another about the humans they saw, Heather caught sight of its abnormal color. The thing seemed to be covered in flaky gray scales, with overlong claws of a murky dark black. And she wasn't entirely sure, but Heather swore she could see something slightly lifting the robe at its back. Wings? The creature beside it seemed to have some as well, and a third took a step forward, giving a glimpse of something trailing behind it. And tails, too. So these things were sheriek. They were worlds apart from the magnificent shiren she had laid eyes on. But in that case, where had they come from? Why hadn't the book mentioned them? She wished she had stayed and learned more from it. Maybe the Shiren died out? Is this all that's left? The Sheriek looked like half humans, at least. Were they mere animals, pretending they could look like humans, or were they humans who had become mutated? Were they an unholy combination of both? "What are all these things?"
Master caught her eye with a glare, so Heather obeyed and tried to at least pretend to nonchalantly wander about in her "natural habitat." Carefully she made her way down the path, gazing around at the winding paths and walls of unusual greenery. The place felt like some sort of twisted, negative image. The surrounding garden seemed beautiful and bright: the complete opposite of the creatures perusing it. Rich, vibrant colors and softly twinkling lights bathed every corner of the area. The familiar, large golden orbs revolved in midair, mimicking starlight while smooth, marble-like stones gave the walking path a soft, lively glow. Thick, newly bloomed roses lined the west end while thin, purple blossoms overlay the walls to the east. These Heather first chose to approach. She'd never seen flowers like them, on television or otherwise, and wasn't sure what they might be either. Petals seemed to float around the main base of the plants, and when she walked closer, they curled up, as if fearful, until each almost looked like a natural pinwheel.
"Lovely wilspin, aren't they?" Heather startled, realizing too late that one of the Sheriek had made its way over in silence and now stood right beside her. She could have sworn she'd been alone only seconds ago, but now backed away, recognizing the dark cloak of this creature only inches away.
The sheriek, if it was one, did not seem to take offense when she did this, but turned to observe her with an almost mirthful curiosity. "Are you afraid of me?"
"No," she immediately lied, even while keeping her distance, "I'm not afraid of you things!"
He only let out a chuckle. Or at least, Heather thought that he might be a he. This thing had a voice like no human could. It almost reverberated, flighty yet distinct, like the cry of the wind, but she felt it sounded just slightly too deep to belong to a female.
"You will make enemies quickly, acting defensive like that…"
"Don't tell me what to do."
He only shook his cloaked head, seeming disappointed. "What a shame." Heather made to snap back, but suddenly he had disappeared. The moment she relaxed however, that same voice spoke from behind her. "You know nothing about us-" She whipped around but his image only faded back into nothing, reappearing behind her again, "and yet still seek to judge…"
Heather wheeled back around, lashing out to shove him away, but to her surprise, her cuffed hands only sank into his stomach. Her body froze up with the cold sinking straight from his skin. She refused to admit this was fear, even as he took a step closer. "You of all people should know better than to judge based on looks. After all, you survived human high school…" This thing towered above her, but when she tried to step back, she found her arms trapped inside of him. "Let me go!"
"You got them stuck there, not me," murmured the thing. He didn't seem able to feel her at all, but at this proximity, Heather was able to finally see his eyecolor-except that it didn't exist. Her own image blinked back at her, as if reflected in matching round mirrors.
"You can't even see me?!"
"You are wrong," whispered the now grinning stranger, leaning closer until she could see more of his silver-grey eyes, "I can see everything." Those words made it clear, these eyes were not mirrors after all, but more reminiscent of glossy disco balls: each facet showed an entirely different image.
"You're a bug!" She tried still more desperately to remove her hands, but could not.
"You are wrong, once again," he assured, "but you are not the first to guess that. I'm a god, as it were…"
"Stop it!" She hated the way her body refused to stop shivering. There was no way to escape this thing's hold. "Let me go. Please!"
Something about her last words gave him pause, and this time when she wrenched herself back, her hands slipped free with ease. Heather caught a glimpse of his hands, the same milky green as his face, but only then realized what he'd done. The cuffs on her hands had turned from strong silver metal to a darkened, red rust, and as she pulled away, fell to pieces, as if desecrated by the touch of his body.
"Do you see now, what I saw from the moment we met?" He then asked. "Even those who are different may have something wondrous to share…" He let his arms fall to his sides then, white smile bright against silky green skin, and then, like her handcuffs, he just disappeared, in a soft swirl of dust.
Heather only gaped for a minute, stunned by his sudden departure, and it was only then, with her heart beat doubled in shock, that she realized the mistake she'd just made. "Hey wait! Come back, Meren!" She wasn't sure where he'd gone, but she missed him immediately and made to give chase.
Heather weaved her way through the dense crowd of sheriek, trying to catch sight of those silver eyes or green skin or anything like him. How could he just disappear? Was Merenteren no more than a wishful illusion? Was she losing her mind?
"Woops! Sorry!" In her hurry Heather had become lost in thought and accidentally knocked into another sheriek. She backed up immediately, cursing her own foolishness as it turned to fix bloody-orange, reptile eyes on her face. Yikes! Heather stared at it, arrested. This thing's skin was pure black like she'd never seen: like the night without stars.
At first he looked simply annoyed, with those grey lips pulled back, but then his face changed. He'd leaned closer to take a sniff at her and seemed to like whatever he'd smelled, because he then tried to grab hold of her. Heather however, instinctively dodged.
"Don't you touch me!" She snapped back, disgusted.
This thing moved quickly but Heather was just barely quicker. One ink-black hand closed on thin air, grasping the space that had only just been occupied by her neck. "What the hell!" He tried again but Heather dodged again and nearly succeeded in dashing away, but instead ran face-first into Master. He moved so fast she missed it all, but suddenly she found herself behind him, with his thick, powerful body standing between herself and the grasping black creature. For once Heather was actually glad to see her bullheaded 'Master.'
"That's my property, you're grabbin' at!" He'd stomped in his anger, and the ground below quaked, causing the stranger to back up. Those clawed black hands were still twitching, but the reptile restrained itself now. "What isss that?" Its voice was a low, suspicious hiss. "Doesn't smell like a human."
"Of course she is," Master huffed.
The creature pulled its hands back but they remained twitching: grasping at each other as if they had minds of their own. "Not human," the ebony reptile kept mumbling, reddish eyes darting to try to catch Heather's. "Smells like something elssse…"
"Well she's not." He stood firm, not letting this thing anywhere closer to Heather. "This'un is just high quality, see? Never been touched by filthy male hands like yours."
Now the reptile hissed in its anger, insulted, "Like a deer would know smells!" Those mean, reddish eyes were wide and searching and the thing even slid its tongue out to taste the air. "Smells nothing like a human female…"
"Well she is," Master asserted, "and not a cheap human either."
"Hmm..." This reptile seemed not to even need to touch Heather to know it was interested in purchasing her. "How many skel do you want for it, then. Maybe ten onyx?"
"In your dreams," was the Master's simple reply.
"Tell me the bid at the end of the day then," the other decided, "and I will just top that." The reptile then took one more searching sniff in Heather's direction, still fidgeting with those restless clawed hands, and then slunk off in the other direction. Heather watched in speechless disgust as his, slimy-looking leather black tail dragged behind. "Creepy Skitcher…"
Heather turned to her grumbling master. "He's a what?"
"Skitcher." He grunted, "Part dragon but mostly just swine. Some don't even got wings or legs, but they got one thing the dragons do: catchin' instincts. Dragons is always tryin' to catch stuff.'"
"What do you mean?"
"You saw them twitchy-ass hands a' his, eh? Real dragons got 'em too, only bigger. Huge, black gods with spikes 'n scales and all, that's what dragons is. But they're mean. They swoop outta the sky and just catch things. Catch 'em and kill 'em for no damn good reason."
Heather couldn't help but to shudder. "You wouldn't sell me to someone like that, would you?"
"I wouldn't sell you to the king himself for a price like that. Ten skel's less 'an half a female's worth."
"It's money, stupid. Onyx Skel come from Firebreather dragons. And ten's enough to buy a nice house, but I ain't that stupid. You're a clean, snow-color female: the kinda human every Shiren wants as his pet. I could sell ya to a dummy like that, who'd just go home and eat ya, or I could sell ya off to a pet trainer, who'd train ya up nice and sell ya again for a profit."
"What do you mean? I'm not gonna be someone's pet!"
"Oh yes you are," Master scoffed, "'lessin' you'd rather be sold for a snack! Now you get on out there and find me a buyer with much deeper pockets, or it's back to the closet with you!"
Heather shot him a glare, mumbling darkly even as she walked off in the way he'd directed. What a creep. How could he just tell her to find someone to buy her? And how was she supposed to do that, anyway? All of these things looked equally creepy to her, with their strange habit of sniffing the air and skulking about. She approached the nearest crowd almost without thinking, peeking in to see what these sheriek were so drawn to. "Worth sixty onyx at least," the creature nearest her mumbled. It gingerly held up a tape measure, attempting to get the measurements of a little girl who looked to not even have entered her teenage years yet. "What a perfect little morsel, hmm?"
"Yes, very clean," agreed another, "not even old enough for a mark."
"Yes, but how much is it worth?" the others insisted, sniffing intently as they tried time and again to take her measurements without actually touching her body, almost as if they were afraid to do so. "I think it's reserved," one of them guessed, but the others only clamored to learn more. "But for who?"
"Someone important, must be…"
"Maybe a shiren."
"I bet this thing would taste amazing."
"This poor child." Heather started when she heard that: her own thoughts put into words, and immediately she fixed her eyes on the one who had spoken. This man, separated from his peers, seemed to be shaking his head as he backed away from that pitiful sight: a little girl being sold to these creatures.
He was something different. Heather could tell without even approaching, because this 'sheriek' stood not like it wanted to hide, ashamed of its body, but proudly and straight. He turned to depart and two others joined with him, one on each side.
"She's not the one," one of his companions was saying, "that girl had the wrong color hair. Maybe we should split up, to cover more ground?"
"What if she's not even here?" The other one challenged, "Then we will have wasted-"
The leader of the three held a hand up as he halted, and with it his nose also rose into the air. It took only one subtle sniff, and then suddenly he had done a one-eighty. Heather then found herself face to face with this man: and he was a true man afterall, not a sheriek. Soft blue eyes met with hers and she drank in the sight of his smooth, human face. Long tendrils of fine, pure white hair had tumbled down from his hood, but he seemed not to have noticed.
The man approached her with the grace of a swan, even despite the clear age on his face. He looked about sixty years old, but moved more like sixteen, and took a delicate bow as a greeting. "Well hello," said he gently, "and just who might you be?" Heather only watched as his companions caught up. These two were not like their leader. She could see shades of yellow and orange on their skin, and little more showed beneath their dark hoods, as they kept their heads bowed.
She asked the first question she'd thought of. "What are you?"
The one on the right took offense, standing tall with a huff, but his leader held out a hand for silence. "That is not information we are at liberty to part with," was his calm explanation.
"And no one else would either," his companion huffed, "if you ask them that way."
"To whom were you born?" Offered the human-looking one in the center, and Heather took note, answering absently.
"My Mom and my Dad?"
"True enough," their leader encouraged, "but that question is just a more formal way of asking the true one, 'you were born of what species?'"
"Uh, just humans?"
"Very good." He dropped his hand then, allowing the taller male on the left to approach. "Flitter, if you would, take her measurements for me?"
"Yes, my Lord." His attendant took a bow, and from one sleeve extracted what looked like a tapemeasure, but made from fresh vine. "It is customary," he explained, unwinding this tape measure as he approached, "if you wouldn't mind."
Heather caught the still calm, smiling face of his elder before nodding, and the attendant proceeded to measure her hips and her height. As he did so, Heather caught sight of his hands. They were covered in short, tawny fur with dark brown designs, almost as if he'd been tattooed. Maybe a cheetah? And if she'd remembered correctly, the human one had just called him by "Flitter." But that can't be a real name… "Seventeen siv around," he announced, "and thirty-two up and down."
"You must not be as young as the girl from before," remarked the elder gentleman, and it wasn't until then that Heather realized, but it seemed he was not able to see. "I'm seventeen," she explained, and he nodded.
"Seventeen you say. And am I right in thinking that is nearly adult for a human?"
"Yeah, I guess so…"
"She is small but matured," his right hand man added, leaning in to speak to his master. "This human has matching hair and eyes, the color of silnuts. She seems slow to trust and has pain in her heart."
"As well she should be," was all he replied. He then addressed Heather alone, offering another generous bow. "I hope you do not mind my asking, but do you happen to know what price your current master might be willing to take for you?"
"Um, I don't really know…"
"Perhaps you would introduce us to him?"
"But Master-" The others interrupted, concerned "is that wise?"
"Should we not do this for you?"
"No, no." He waved off their worry, turning right back to Heather. "Let this be her own choice. Won't you allow us to speak with your master, young lady?"
Heather wanted to refuse. She didn't want to be purchased by anyone, but at the same time knew there was something special about this old man. He could not have been human like her, judging by the way that he spoke and used his nose to detect her, but he seemed kindly at least. Maybe he would at least treat her nicely, and even if he didn't, Heather could bet she could escape easily from someone like him. He is blind after all…
"Yeah, I'll uh, I'll help you find him."
She turned around, letting the three others follow close after, and inwardly prayed that she'd made the right choice. The garden had not seemed so large before, and now she was able to leave it, Heather thought it ironic she couldn't find her way through. She passed right by the fountain, ignoring another crowd of sheriek and a row of blue rosebushes, but on the other side found herself suddenly stunned. "Chris?!"
Blue eyes startled to meet hers, and she knew immediately that this time he was real; she had finally found him. "Hikaru?" Christian had his hands bound, and his ankles as well, but unfortunately, these weren't alone in holding him back. No less than six sheriek currently encircled her friend. Unlike with Heather, the sheriek seemed to be allowed to touch Christian and they were definitely taking full advantage of the opportunity. They all but ignored their new audience, each trying to determine his worth. "That's my friend," Heather offered, gingerly approaching as the other three continued to follow. The elder, human-looking one was frowning tightly, as if he disapproved of what he could not even see, but the buyers before them continued, assessing Chris as not person but product.
"It seems healthy and strong," the first guessed, squeezing his arms between two scaly black fingers. "Doesn't have too much muscle mass. Rare for a male…"
"It's not as heavy as most males would be either."
"To be sure, to be sure."
"Useless as a servant, yeah."
"Useless. Prettier than a male should be too…"
"Yes. Yes, and snowy white skin, hmm? Very soft…"
"Thirty-four siv is not too tall…"
"Yes, yes it should be worth more than a regular male."
"Very well," the apparent leader finally decided, standing tall to announce. "It is suited to be trained as a Pet."
The others agreed and their leader nodded to Chris. "I will offer twenty onyx skel." He held up a handful of what looked like shiny, black-colored discs, as if to prove that he had them, but the others spoke up then, releasing Chris in favor of challenging him. "Twenty-two!" One of them barked, "I want this one for myself!"
"Twenty-three for me then!"
They continued to argue, but by then Heather had already tuned them all out. She hurried over to Chris, almost scraping her knees in her hurry to kneel by his side. And it really is him! Heather didn't even know how the hell Chris had come to be here, but could not have cared less. "I missed you so bad…"
"Me too." Before she knew it his forehead was pressed against hers and his comforting hands, though still bound, had already met with her own. Their fingers entwined on instinct and her Chris nuzzled close, like a cat. "I was so scared. I saw that thing tying you up."
"I saw you in the lake. Chris, I thought you were dead."
"Next time run," Christian sighed. "I'm not worth it."
"Don't be stupid."
You scared me to death. Heather refused to say that out loud, but leaned closer to him, wishing she'd never have to let go. He'd keep her safe. She just knew. Chris always did everything right. She recognized the way he kept his touch light and gentle, pouring affection into every subtle movement. She had never minded his touch. "Don't you leave me again, stupid boy."
"I'd never want to."
Heather drank in those words, wishing it could only be true. The mere thought of parting again made her stomach start to ache. He was the only one in the world she could trust, no matter what world they were in. He was the one she knew cared.
And she may have been thinking that, but Heather still found herself shocked when he said it out loud. "I love you…" He smiled when she looked at him, shocked and those big blue eyes sparkled with genuine mirth. "Not like, you know, in a weird way, though."
Typical Chris. She wanted to laugh, but only felt ready to cry. "What do you mean?"
"Like how plants love the sun," Chris sincerely explained.
"Yeah," He soothed, bringing a still-cuffed hand up to gently touch her face. "You're so awesome and fun. I love you even better than Star Wars."
Now Heather really did chuckle. Kidnapped or not, Chris was still Chris. "Gee, thanks a lot, geek."
"Is this your mate?" Heather nearly jumped out of her skin, but then gingerly released Chris, cursing her own absent-minded stupidity. The group of three had stood behind her this whole time, curiously watching their exchange, and so were those who had wanted to buy Chris. "Does this mean the two of you will sell as a pair?" One of them wondered, stepping forward to hold a tapemeasure up to Heather's hips. He was interrupted however by Chris, who instinctively put himself between them, rudely interrupting. "Don't you touch her!" The thing paused, apparently surprised by his bravery, but then made an absent assessment. "This male has a bit of a temper."
"It'll have to be fixed," another added. "Not cheap to get that done."
"The king will reimburse…"
"Yes, but still…"
"Perhaps I will lower my bid to eighteen…"
"Chris doesn't need to be fixed!" Heather snapped, yanking her best friend away from that group. It was easy for her, without her hands bound, but their leader followed, miffed.. "Hey wait you!" He huffed. "I'm the one buying that male!"
"No you're not!"
"Yes I am!"
He attempted to wrench her hands off of Chris, but before either could move, a glint of metal shot through the air, right infront of their eyes, and the three instinctively froze. Each now stood stunned, but none more so than the gruff creature still gripping Heather. A long, razor sharp blade rested right on his neck, daring him to move so it could taste his blood, and the one who held it spoke up. "Let her go if you don't want to die."
"How the hell?" Even Heather and Chris backed away. This hooded creature, whatever it was, had managed to move so incredibly fast that no one else saw him do it.
"Twister stand down," the elder gentleman hissed, recognizing his companion's rash behavior without even seeing, "I don't want any blood to be spilled."
"Well there won't be if he backs off," the other hissed back, but at that point the master finally arrived, huffing in his hurry to diffuse the disturbance. "What the heck's goin' on here?"
The elder gentleman offered a bow as the one called Twister lowered and resheathed his long sword, but the one he had held turned and fled, along with his group. "My apologies," the older gentleman offered. "A discussion turned sour. My companion stepped in to prevent further damage."
"Looks like he only caused more damage!" Snorted the master. "How do you troublemakers plan to make up for this? You done ruined my auction!"
"Is that all you care about?!" Heather snapped. "That freak thing coulda hurt me!"
"That 'freak thing' is one of my best customers," Master scoffed. "And now, thanks to you, he's run off!"
"We didn't mean to cause trouble," The one once called Flitter attempted. "We only meant to buy this female." He gestured to Heather but the master barked, "Don't go touchin' the females!"
He backed off, hands raised innocently, but Heather only scoffed. "Chris is touching me…"
Master glared. "Humans touchin' humans don't make no difference."
"That doesn't make any sen-"
"You keep your stupid mouth shut, you hear?"
Heather glowered, but the advisors spoke for her. "We did not mean to cause trouble. Please allow us to buy both of these humans. Our master will offer a generous price to compensate for the trouble."
The master looked suspicious, but inquired about the money anyway. "How much?"
"Forty onyx skel-"
"And sixty for the female," the second added. "That makes an even hundred for the pair."
"Forty?" Master's eyes went wide. "For an unfixed male?"
"I take it that was too high a bet…" The elder gentleman nervously shifted, and finally Heather caught on. Her soon to be buyer looked extremely familiar. He had bright white, sharp teeth and those haunting blind eyes. He's that wolf! But still he looked almost too perfectly human. No claws or fangs like the creatures beside him, and smooth white skin in place of his fur. He even stood up straighter and spoke more clearly than the others. But why didn't he tell me he already knew who I was? Heather wasn't sure, but felt suddenly uneasy, like she'd just figured out something she shouldn't have.
"Just why would-" The master had tried to question the cheetah-looking Sheriek, but the elder gentleman smoothly cut in. "So sorry," He chuckled. "But it's not up to either of them. Seems my cat's momentarily escaped his bag."
"Uh huh." He didn't appreciate the joke. "This's your cat?"
"My retainer, good sir," dismissed the wolf. "I hope his presence does not offend you."
The Master raised a suspicious eyebrow. "Offend no, but confuse me yes. You mean to tell me you got two Leopards for servants?"
"Oh no. These two are only my eyes."
"Oh really… And you do know these here 'eyes' of yours aint no good at bidding don't you? Forty and sixty makes a full hundred skel. Why's it you're so cheerful 'bout wastin' so much onyx on two useless human slaves?"
"Quite the contrary," The gentleman assured. "They will be very useful to me."
"Oh really?" the master muttered. "Never mind you got two servants already…"
"But they are not female," His client insisted.
"That's exactly what's weird." The master leaned closer and Heather noticed the two leopards tense up. One brought a hand to his hip as if to redraw its sword and the other's hand twitched, but neither made a move.
"Lemme be 'cific," the master ground out. "I think it's awfully weird, you don't mind offering such a high sum on a male. Everyone knows those don't turn too much profit even for petsellers."
"But we must have that male."
Those suspicious eyes snapped back over to the leopard who'd spoken, but he answered only to his master.
"Pray tell, why must we?" Asked he.
"Because of her."
Heather startled, shocked to find all eyes now on her. "Me?"
"Blaming a girl?" The white wolf seemed almost amused.
"No, no, but..." His retainer took a bow. "I have read through her heart, Master, and I think it best to have them both if we want to gain her trust. She loves this male more than anything."
Heather started, blushing furiously. She automatically moved to elbow Chris before he even had time to start laughing. "Shut up!"
"I didn't say anything," He managed to snort back, but their hopeful buyers only nodded, now understanding.
"There you have it," The wolf concluded, turning to the Master. "Can't fool a cat's intuition."
"Cat eh?" The Master stepped forth then, and without warning yanked back on the hood of one of these 'cats.' Heather only found herself shocked that he'd managed to do so unscathed. She had tried not to be too obvious about looking, but couldn't even tear her eyes off this thing's dangerous, sharp features. The kindly sounding 'retainer' looked more like a vicious bodyguard. Two, long white fangs reached past its chin and from what she could see, Heather guessed its whole body was covered in fur and tattoo-like markings. Dark black, almost tribal designs adorned those tawny brown cheeks like permanent warpaint, but most shocking of all was the overall shape of his face: more catlike than human, complete with black lips.
"Cool!" Chris whispered, successfully earning another elbow to his stomach. The second leopard snickered, exposing similar, yet smaller fangs and Heather could tell, just by that one short peek at his chin, that this one had a much more human face.
"Thought so," Master clucked. "This here's a genuine Lightning' Leopard aint it? Direct bred from that late queen!"
"I can speak for myself, believe it or not," The leopard growled, lips pulled tight with annoyance. But Master ignored him, as if he didn't think the leopard worthy of talking to. "How'd you manage to get something like this for a retainer, eh? 'lectric leopards is s'posed ta be extinct." The suspicious master was apparently determined to nose into the identity of his customers. He didn't even reach out when the older gentleman made to hand him a fat bag of what Heather assumed must be skel. "Please just take this much," he insisted, "This price is more than fair, as you said. So just take it and let us be on our way."
"I don't think so," snorted the master, "know what I do think though?"
The wolf nodded, though he looked concerned now. His 'retainers' were becoming increasingly agitated. "I think you're a shiren: one a them wolves from the east!" His three customers startled and tensed further, but the master pressed on, accusing. "What doesn't make sense is you got bloody rebel cats at your side! No wolf ever befriended a leopard since Mistress Evelynne joined in on tha Allied Ordinance! Only dragons 'n wolves is 'sposed to be allies!"
"Not as stupid as he looks," hissed the still-hooded leopard, preparing to fight, but his leader held out a hand to stop him drawing his sword. "Blood should never be spilled without dire need," said the wolf, and he put both palms together before him, offering a deep bow to the master. "Rebel or no. Our money is clean. Let us make our purchase in peace. If you will promise silence afterward, then I will pay you twice over. Surely we can come to some kind of agreement."
Instead of complying, the master started. "Figured it out! You're that first prince: Leonevir!" The wolf startled, looking stricken. Heads were suddenly turning in their direction and the other Sheriek began to gossip, shocked. "What's an ally prince doing with this buncha rebel cats eh?"
The wolf called Leonevir was now beside himself with distress. "Silence is all that I asked for!"
"Your word has no authority here," snorted the master, "The King'd pay plenty for the sale of a traitor like you! Wolves ain't even 'sposed to buy human servants!"
"I meant only to spare them from such a fate!"
"Breaking a code either way! Man's best friend don't buy men!"
The two glared at one another and the air itself grew more tense, but suddenly Heather's attention was distracted from Leonevir and her 'master.' The sword wielding leopard had seemed to disappear in a cloud of crackling energy, and before she even realized what was happening, chaos erupted. Screams rent the air, both human and Sheriek, only to be immediately silenced when their owners hit the ground: dead.
Heather spun around, half a millisecond too late, and found time only to witness the bloody aftermath. What was once a crowd of at least fifty sheriek was reduced to a collection of bloodied cloaks and dismembered appendages, tumbling in heaps to the ground. The humans stood unharmed in the end, shock on their faces and bloodspatter all over their formerly white robes, and right in the center stood the Leopard, sword already returned to its sheath.
"Holy crap…" She turned to Chris, who'd instinctively stood infront of her, backing up as close as possible before the now bloodsoaked leopard could finish strolling back over to them. "Witnesses eliminated," said the leopard, in a calm, businesslike tone, and it wasn't until then that Heather turned back around and realized that her former 'master' was still standing right there next to them, sans his head. She did hear the body hit the floor but by that time the wolf had already lifted a hand to shield her eyes. "My apologies, dear daughter of Marcus," sighed Leonevir's now familiar, calm voice, "I told them to keep things clean."
"I was clean," said the grinning swordbearer, "his head came clean off."
Leonevir only sighed. "Very funny, Twister."
"Not funny," grumbled the second leopard, "the queen is gonna be pissed." He held out a hand then, gesturing toward Chris, and the cuffs binding him snapped. "We better get out of here."