Chapter 1

Rabaroo

"So, where're we goin' exactly?" Alice asks her friends, hoisting her full shoulder bag back into place again. With her brace of waterskins, core stone weighted backpack, and sword sling, there really wasn't much room left on the slim girl's shoulders. This meant that every time she adjusted under the weight of her gear, the sky blue shoulder bag eagerly slid down her sunset furred arm.

Being a Tokala, Alice Dippleblack has many features in common with her fox ancestors. Her fine fur very much resembles the coloring of the red fox, down to the black coating the tips of her triangular ears, forearms, and feet. She even has a thick full tail tipped in snowy white poking out of a slit in her trousers.

Danahlia half turns to the fox girl from a few steps ahead, though with the hood of her brown traveling cloak up, Alice can only see the end of the lizard girl's tapering muzzle as she smirks, "Northeast."

Alice snorts, "I know that, but are we headin' toward a village or somethin', or are we just wanderin'?"

"Mostly wanderin'," Danahlia calls back cheerily.

"Danny! Keep your tail under your cloak!" Twinkaleni chides at Alice's side. The diminutive mouse girl grabs at the Liguna's long brown appendage as it uncurls from under the garment to swish free in a low arch.

Danahlia lifts it out of the Murin's reach, "Relax, Twinkie. We haven't seen anyone all day. 'Sides, she needs to breathe."

In truth, the trio hadn't seen anyone since they left the pixie forest several days ago. Twinkaleni had made the plan to slip between the villages bordering the forest so as to leave no mention of their passing on anyone's lips. This way, whoever was pursuing them would have little to go by whenever they managed to navigate the vast forest that had been the trio's home for the last months.

Alice had grown up near the forest and was saddened to leave it behind. Before meeting Twinkaleni, former mage of the Order of Thermathrogi, and Danahlia, a Cold Blood refugee, she had lived a simple, if somewhat lonely, life at the edge of one of the smaller villages bordering the vast forest. She had been trying to make a living by hunting local monsters known as jellies. Each of these hemispherical blobs possessed a pearl like core stone that the young Tokala could trade for whatever she might need. She had to hunt, as she no parents to look after her. They had both perished because of the current war.

Twinkaleni called it the Blood War because the fighting was between the cold blooded people of Feoria and the warm blooded people of Arsalia. This conflict left Alice alone to fend for herself at an early age. She struggled but managed to get by, often with the help of her friend, Ashleigh, and her kind mother. The Didels had been there for Alice through some difficult times and leaving her village was hard predominately because it meant not being able to see them anymore, even though the actual decision to do so was largely taken out of her hands.

After meeting Danahlia and Twinkaleni by chance on one of her jelly hunting expeditions, Danahlia had been captured by a few of Toki village's remaining citizens. The lizard girl, being a Cold Blood caught in a Warm Blood village, was in real danger before Alice and Twinkaleni managed to rescue her. Being seen aiding a Cold Blood had marked Alice as a traitor to anyone who knew her face, forcing her to flee with her new friends from the only home she had ever known. News of the incident might have traveled to other villages, which was another reason Twinkaleni had the girls skirting past the settlements around the forest when they made their break from it.

Alice would have very much preferred staying in the forest. The girls had made many friends among the local pixies and feral animals that dwelt there. They also had a dry place to sleep, fresh food, and clean water, but the news that someone hunting Twinkaleni had entered the forest inspired them to flight once more.

The youngest and by far the smallest of the trio, Twinkaleni, none the less, possessed incredible magical powers. She had been raised in, what seemed to Alice, an abominable prison/school for those gifted with magic. While being trained to fight in the Blood War, Twinkaleni had managed to escape and was now being pursued by some agent of the awful institution. Unwilling to risk an encounter with the unknown but likely formidable foe, the girls opted to run and now travel somewhat aimlessly across the country.

Twinkaleni leaps at Danahlia's upraised tail, squeaking angrily, "Danny, if someone sees you're a Liguna there will be severe consequences!"

"Come on, Twinkie, lighten up. We're in the middle o' nowhere," Danahlia jeers, bobbing her tail just out of the Murin's reach.

Under the weight of her pack, the tiny mouse girl can't jump very high. Her enormous round ears flop about with the effort, until she gives up to address Alice's previous question, "We just need to create as much distance as we can between us and whoever the Order has sent after me. Other than that, I don't really know where our destination should be."

"We still have some food, we should be ok for a little while," adds Danahlia, relaxing her tail to let it drag along the grass behind her.

The tallest and at sixteen, the oldest of the three, Danahlia Smoothide strides confidently onward, leading, as she generally likes to. From a distance, and if she bothered to conceal her lengthy tail, she would look as any traveler might under a large simple cloak. But up close, anyone would plainly see her unique features.

Danahlia is a Liguna. As such, the lizard girl shares many features with her reptilian kin. She is lean and long limbed with skin similarly patterned to an oak tree's bark, though very smooth to the touch. She has a rounded muzzle and eyes the color of fresh grass. Her fingers are tipped with gray, near black, claws the same color as her feet's large, curved talons. Like the other two in her party, Danahlia carries a backpack on her shoulders, though she also has a spear made with a sturdy stick and the sharp tip of a giant crab's leg. She uses it now as a walking aid but also to point out various animals and birds she spots.

Following Danahlia is Twinkaleni Orbear, a tiny Murin of twelve. The mouse girl's well kept fur is light gray with a near white countershading. She has bare, flesh pink hands and feet that occasionally peak out from under her oversized shirt and trousers. Being small, even for her kind, the girls had difficulty finding the mage clothes that fit. Because of this, Twinkaleni must spend time rolling up sleeves and leggings while also keeping various bits of rope tied to keep her too large garments from sliding off her tiny frame.

Alice grins down at the little mouse beside her. The girl's great round ears wave some with each step, reminding the Tokala of wings. Along with her pink nose, long white whiskers, large amber eyes, and oversized clothes, Twinkaleni looks adorable. The small mage peers up at her, cocking an eyebrow, "What?"

"Nothing," replies Alice, looking away at the surrounding trees to hide her smile, "So you guys haven't been this way before?"

The girls travel through a wooded area that didn't seem dense enough to be considered a true forest.

"I don't think so," Danahlia calls back from in front, looking around.

Alice had originally thought they were traveling a similar route to the one the other two had taken to get to her forest near Toki village. She asks, "Is this how you traveled before we met?"

"Sort of. We had maps before, so we had an idea of where we were goin' then," Danahlia replies.

"Oh right," says Alice, recalling the girls mentioning losing much of their belongings upon encountering the jellies that inhabited her forest.

As their trek continues, Alice takes a drink from one of her waterskins. It's late summer now and the warm air keeps the trio thirsty, even in the frequent shade of trees.

Danahlia lifts a skin over her head to drain what's left in it and then calls, "Shout out if you guys see water."

Only they don't find any at all.

The girls wander until the sun dips below the tree line. They then sit in a loose circle, sighing in relief, as their tired bare feet are finally given a chance to rest. They eat some of the fruit given to them by the pixies with rationing in mind despite their ever growing hunger. The sweet juices have Alice eager for more but she forces herself to have only a few pieces before closing off her backpack. With their dwindling supply of water and no idea when they'll be able to refresh it, the young Tokala can't even drink as much as she'd like. She sees the same sense of dissatisfaction in her companions as they settle in for the night and knowing she isn't alone gives her some small comfort.

In the evenings, Twinkaleni would often practice her enchanting, unintentionally turning a few more of their core stones into acrid smelling puddles of charred, quickly hardening goop. Tonight though, she seems far too tired, instead resting her head on her pack while laying spread eagle in the grass, much like the other two.

It's on all their minds but Alice gives it voice, "We need water."

"And food," Danahlia adds.

"Maps, too, would be helpful," Twinkaleni includes, "I think we should begin searching for a settlement, some small town or village."

This was something the girls had been avoiding thus far on their journey. The last time they had tried to trade for supplies in a village, Danahlia was nearly killed and Alice was branded a traitor.

"Think we're far enough away from Toki?" asks Alice.

"Considering word of our previous transgression would likely only be spread by the very few traveling merchants still braving the roads in these troubled times and the mere fact that we are far from any major trading hubs, it is quite likely that we will not be recognized if we ventured into a small enough community," explains Twinkaleni.

Danahlia lets out a breath, "Pretty sure that was a yes or no question."

Twinkaleni narrows her eyes at the larger girl, "Then yes, I think we should be safe as long as you remain hidden this time."

Danahlia snorts, rolls to her side, and flops the end of her lengthy tail over Twinkaleni's face. Immediately, she cries out in surprise and pain, yanking her tail from the little mage's open mouth.

"Ow! That hurt!" Danahlia exclaims, bringing her tail in close to examine the teeth marks Twinkaleni left in it.

"Serves you right," the Murin shoots back, wiping away a bit of spittle from her lips with a forearm as she puts her back to the lizard girl.

"Oh, you are gonna get it now, tiny," Danahlia declares, somehow leaping over to the much smaller girl. Before Twinkaleni can react, Danahlia grabs up the mouse mage in a full body hug, wrapping her arms, legs, and tail around the Murin. Twinkaleni squirms and wriggles, letting out little squeaks of distress but Danahlia holds her tight, rubbing a cheek over her captive's forehead, saying, "Nope, for that, you're mine for the night."

The mouse mage squirms for a bit more but eventually gives up, her tiny arms and legs poking out between Danahlia's. Alice finds herself grinning at the pair's unusual bond. Hungry, thirsty, but happy to be among friends, she goes to sleep.

Alice wakes the next morning feeling something soft and cold on her nose. Blurry vision reveals strange, yellow eyes looking into hers. She jumps, startling a small, furry feral. It's mostly light brown with tan tufts of fluff at the ends of two long, slender, upraised ears. Alice can make out few other details as it rises on hind legs, thicker than its tiny arms, and hops off with remarkable speed. She must have gasped at the sight of it because Twinkaleni, who has managed to extract herself from Danahlia's grasp at some point, looks to her with both large ears perked up in alarm.

"Are you alright?" the little mouse mumbles.

"Yeah, there was a thing," Alice blurts, pointing after the creature.

Twinkaleni's head cocks to one side, "A what?"

"Uh, a feral," her dry tongue sticks to her mouth, making it difficult to speak.

Danahlia stretches, "Hngh, did it look edible?"

Alice grins, "I guess, but it was fast, really fast."

"Fast food, huh? Maybe we can get one with our bows," suggests Danahlia.

Twinkaleni sputters, putting a hand to her mouth to try to cover a laugh that gets her looks from the other two girls.

"What?" Danahlia grumbles.

"Oh, nothing, nothing. I'm sure your efforts will be, most rewarding," the mouse mage grins widely.

Among other things, Alice and Danahlia brought the makeshift bows and arrows they had been working on since their more relaxing days in the pixie forest. They were of dubious quality, but could send an arrow a decent distance on occasion.

While having their meager breakfast, Alice describes the creature and the girls plan their first hunt since leaving the forest.

"If there was one, there are probably more. I imagine such creatures would prefer the safety of numbers," Twinkaleni suggests, taking a modest sip from a waterskin.

"And that means they'd have to be getting water from somewhere," adds Alice.

"True," Danahlia agrees, "and I bet they taste good after a few twirls over a fire, too."

Their supplies low and options limited, the trio leaves most of their belongings beside a particularly large tree and set off.

Now that they were looking for them, they find the small furry ferals everywhere. The tufts of fluff at the end of their long ears tend to give them away in the overgrown grasses, but those same ears seem to allow them to hear the girls' approach, even as they attempt to sneak up on them. Twinkaleni is right in that they are communal animals. The one that hears the girls' approaching lets off a shrill, undulating cry that alerts the others just before hopping away to then vanish among the brush.

"Ugh, this food is too fast," Danahlia complains as they lose sight of another.

Twinkaleni nods, "Indeed, but do you see how their ears shift about as they hop? I believe that is how they maintain the balance that allows them to leap so swiftly while staying upright. Those tufts at the ends may even be weighted or used to catch the air for added control. It's really very eff-"

Danahlia cuts her off, "Study 'em after we catch'em."

The small mage narrows her eyes at the Liguna, "Hmph, I wouldn't expect you to properly appreciate the acquisition of knowledge, but the more we learn, the more effectively we can hunt our quarry. Wouldn't you agree, Alice?"

Alice is about to when Danahlia beats her tail on the ground, "What's that supposed ta mean?"

Scanning around, Twinkaleni replies matter-of-factly, "I refer to your tendency to act without thinking, which has frequently led to your failure in various endeavors."

"Are you sayin' I'm stupid?!" Danahlia grumbles, approaching the much smaller girl.

Twinkaleni turns to look at her, standing her ground, "Oh, no. I'm saying you-"

"Guys, look!" Alice interrupts, as much to placate the situation as to announce a discovery.

"So, what? It's a hole," Danahlia says, glancing over, unimpressed.

"Ugh, she means to point out what I have suspected for some time. The creatures must be using burrows like these to hide in," Twinkaleni illuminates.

"Yeah, that's how come they keep disappearin'. They're not just fast, they're underground," Alice adds, kneeling to peer into the hole she can nearly stick her head into.

"You wanna dig 'em out?" Danahlia asks, crouching beside the Tokala.

The mouse mage announces, "I believe I may have an alternative. Excuse me."

The two taller girls give her some room and Twinkaleni approaches the hole. She raises both small arms over her head, fingers splayed, and then swings them down as if attempting to plug the hole with an invisible boulder, the act in unison with her shout of, "Vespis flowmino!"

A sudden powerful gust from behind and somehow above makes Alice jump and she needs to brace herself from being sucked into the hole. From the corner of her eye she sees movement in many directions. Looking up, the fox girl spots multiple geysers of dirt and dust fling several of the long eared, hopping beasts a few feet into the air. They cry out in surprise before plopping on the ground, dazed for only a second, before they dash back into their burrows.

Danahlia laughs out loud, "Ha! Not bad, Twinkie."

"Wags!" Alice cheers. "How'd you get 'em to pop up like that?"

Twinkaleni needs to take a few breaths before huffing out, "As I thought. The burrows, are all, connected."

"We got you now, hoppin' meat. Alice, you and me can wait by their holes, then Twinkie can launch 'em up again. If we're lucky, we can grab 'em before they dive."

"Right," Alice agrees, heading out to find another hole. Twinkaleni nods, still taking in mouthfuls of air.

Alice finds another of the holes and alerts Danahlia. The Liguna also finds one and then calls to Twinkaleni, "All set, Twinkie! Toss 'em!"

Alice looks over to the small mouse as she makes the same motions as before, though much slower, and wonders how much the Murin mage has left in her. Alice knew little about magic but from what she had seen and heard from Twinkaleni, casting spells can take a tremendous amount of effort and these wind spells were impressive workings. She is thinking this when a powerful burst of air and sand takes her on the cheek, knocking her onto her butt.

Pain lances up her spine the moment she hits the ground, her tail being squished under her. She coughs and spits gritty granules of sand while wiping the same from her face and rolling to the side to free the fluffy appendage. Blinking rapidly to clear her vision, she spots a large blur float up into the air and knows it must be one of the ferals shot free from its lair. Immediately, Alice covers the hole with her feet and reaches for the blur while squinting through the stinging dust. Her fingers grasp something solid and she tightens her grip, pulling it away from a shower of sand.

Alice takes a few steps, still spitting sand and brushing it from her furred face. The thing in her hand squirms frantically and she brings it up to examine her catch. She has one of the long eared creatures by a boney rabbit like foot. It dangles upside down, twisting to free itself from her grip. She looks at it struggling to reach her fingers, though it can't quite manage.

She then hears Danahlia cheer, "Hey guys, I got one! They're kinda cu- OW! It bit me!"

Alice turns to see the Liguna on the ground, reaching up to her shoulder into the hole she had been guarding, demanding, "Get back here you evil little meat creature!"

Alice laughs as Danahlia gives up, shouting into the hole, "I know where you live!"

Alice returns her attention to the struggling animal in her hand, its efforts to free itself slowing as it tires and gives in to its fate. She is suddenly racked with guilt and visions of the rat man they had slain back in the pixie forest. The young fox hadn't told the others but ever since then she had been struggling with the memories of what they had done. The Rotan was an awful person, but a person none the less, a person who was now dead because of her.

She is only allowed to dwell on such thoughts for a moment as Danahlia jogs up beside her, calling, "Oh wags, you got one!"

Alice is pulled back to the moment, turns to the larger girl, and nearly drops the weakly shifting beast. Danahlia takes it and immediately breaks its neck with a sudden twist of her hands, ending the unfortunate feral.

She then holds it up high to where Twinkaleni was standing to show off the reward of their efforts, shouting, "We're eatin' tonight!" but the little mage is gone. "Twinkie?" Danahlia calls out as Alice pulls her eyes from the now still beast to scan for the Murin.

They race back to where she was to find their gray furred companion collapsed in the grass. Both call to the little mouse girl, dropping to their knees beside her. The Murin's breathing is heavy but her eyes are closed.

"I think she's ok, just over did it with those spells," offers Danahlia, cradling the little mouse's head in her lap.

"What should we do?" Alice asks, taking up a small pink hand.

"She just needs a break," Danahlia assures, "Let's go get our stuff and cook this little monster up."

Alice helps Danahlia put Twinkaleni on the larger girl's back to be carried. The Liguna hunches over, supporting the downed mage with her tail as they head back to where they left their supplies, Alice carrying their bows and arrows along with their catch. As they walk, the gentle breeze that had been blowing sporadically for much of the day becomes steadily stronger. Looking up, Alice watches a few dark clouds float lazily across the afternoon sky. Her attention falls again on the limp furry feral in her hand and she wonders why Danahlia seemed to find it so easy to kill things.

For the most part, the lizard girl had been the one to finish off anything they had hunted. Alice had made kills too, but only things that were a threat. Jellies didn't count in her mind but she had slain her share of giant spiders and ants. Perhaps these where easier because they were so alien, so different from her. Ants and spiders didn't really cry out or show fear, but the long eared animal certainly did. Something the young fox now found haunting her thoughts along with the rat man.

"How do you do it?" Alice asks abruptly, watching the gathering clouds.

Danahlia looks over to her, "Huh?"

"How do you kill things so easily? You just broke this little guy's neck like it was nothin'," Alice replies, giving the dead beast a slight shake.

Danahlia purses her lips in thought for a second, "I don't like it if that's what you're thinkin'."

Alice looks over at her in surprise, "But you just snapped its ne-"

"Yeah, you should kill your prey quickly. No needless pain, no prolonged fear of death. Causing prey to suffer is disrespectful. The gift of life needs to be honored."

"What?"

"My dad taught me that. I never like killing things, but we need to if we plan to survive. You'll figure it out. It's either us or them, and I kinda like us."

"But it's like you don't even care about 'em," Alice nearly whispers, thinking the furred weight in her hands was breathing only a while ago, living it's life, trying to survive, and might have even had children to look after.

Danahlia snorts, "It's not that I don't care, but you have to think of your own. It sucks that things have to die, but everything does, so what does it matter when?"

Alice looks to the Liguna,"Your own?"

"Mm-hm. Because we caught that fuzz ball, Twinkie 'll eat," she gives the slumbering mouse on her back a smile, "And so will we. We're on our own out here, no more pixie food delivery service. Either we get food or we go hungry, and I'm not a fan o' hungry."

Alice lets out a little laugh, "Yeah, I know."

Danahlia grins at the fox girl then looks ahead, only to suddenly crouch. Alice follows suit, looking to where the girls had left their things. Around a great oak's trunk are their packs, and rummaging around them are several of the long eared animals. The Liguna gives the bows over Alice's shoulder a meaningful look and then jerks her head toward the beasts. Alice nods, carefully setting down her catch and hunting gear. She then takes her bow and nocks an arrow as swiftly and quietly as she can. Staying low, she draws the bow string, made of woven plant fibers, and takes aim.

Alice notices several of the animals have bits of what's left of the trio's dwindling store of fruit. She sights one munching on a blue adonseea and draws her bow all the way back to her cheek. The wood of the bow creaks under the stress and a few of the beasts great ears perk up as their owners look her way. Several shrill warning cries have the fruit raiders immediately hopping in every direction. With the element of surprise gone, Alice lets loose her arrow at the nearest of the beasts only to have it fly well over its head and out of sight. Before she can nock another arrow, the creatures are gone.

"Ticks!" Alice exclaims, lowering her bow.

"Agh! Those little monsters were eatin' our food!" Danahlia grumbles, rising to hurry over to their supplies. Together, they lower Twinkaleni into some grass to rest. Alice then runs off to look for her arrow before she forgets where it went.

She spots the bright yellow feather fletching, donated by some of the birds back in the pixie forest, sticking up from a tall bit of grass and races over to it. She jolts in surprise when she finds the arrow is sticking out of one of the long eared fruit thieves. The arrow caught the creature under a forelimb and has sunk deep into its chest. Even so, the animal is still alive, its body curled around the projectile, shivering.

"Oh no, I'm so sorry," Alice whimpers, falling to her knees by the creature's side.

The small animal shivers even more, its eyes locked on Alice but it clearly can't move beyond that. Her breathing quickens as her thoughts tell her to call out for Danahlia or perhaps to even try nursing the poor creature back to health, but in her heart she knows the wound is too great. She then remembers what the Liguna had said about not causing needless pain or fear. Her heart racing, the young fox grabs the dying animal. It struggles weakly but only for a second, its neck breaking with a swift jerk of Alice's hands. The still weight drops from shaking fingers.

Through blurred vision, Alice looks at what she has done and tears begin to run down her cheeks. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry…" she repeats over and over, trembling at the sight of her hands, stained with a small bit of blood.

A few minutes later, she hears Danahlia calling for her. Wiping away tears on her dirty blouse sleeve, she sniffs, trying to regain her composure. Forcing her breathing to slow, Alice pulls free her arrow, picks up the dead animal, and heads back to her friends.

"AL-! Oh hey, did you find your ar-? Whoa, you got one?!" Danahlia asks as the Tokala shambles toward her.

Alice forces a grin, "Yeah, looks like we got two for dinner."

"You got two! You might almost be as skilled a hunter as me!" Danahlia congratulates with her usual sense of modesty.

Alice gives a little laugh, handing the lizard girl her kill, "How's Twinkaleni?"

"Still out. Let's get these guys skinned and gutted so we can eat."

The girls settle down with an animal each, trying to figure out the best way to clean them. This is a fairly new chore to Alice, who has only seen others doing it a few times. Danahlia, however, works with experienced hands, pulling the furred skin of the animal's legs apart first and then working down to strip much of the rest off in one long pull. Alice imitates her and, with some effort, manages a similar result.

With the forearm length soldier ant mandibles the girls acquired in the pixie's forest, they clean out the ferals and then work to prepare a fire. While doing this, they discuss what to call the beasts.

"Nah, dust bunnies is too cutesy. Remember, we gotta eat these guys. How 'bout dirt devils?" Danahlia suggests.

"They're not evil," Alice counters with a smirk.

"Uh, they are so. One totally bit me."

"You were gonna to kill it and eat it."

"So. It didn't know that."

"I think it could guess."

"Fine, what about dirt hoppers?" Danahali offers, sticking a stick through one to use as a spit.

"Mm, better," says Alice, trying to get a few decent sparks with her flint and steel. She recalls a pictured book she had seen with various ferals in it. One image stands out because its feet were long just like their dinner's. It started with a K but she can't- "Kangaroo! Kangaroo rabbit," she blurts when the name finally hits her.

Danahlia raises a brow, "Kangaroo rabbit? Kinda long, how about kabbit, or kangabit? Oh! Rabaroo!"

"Ha! Rabaroo, I like it," Alice smiles. She then notices a tiny wisp of smoke coiling up from the crushed dried leaves she is trying to light and immediately begins to blow on it, gently and steadily, until a small flame emerges. Nursing the flame to strength with more dead leaves, she manages to start their cooking fire.

"Wags!" Danahlia cheers, "We have a name and a fire. Rabaroo!"