Ka’harja’s Journey (DLH #1) – Chapter 1


Glif 5th, Minda

Year 10,053 AE

(The Nigelle Farmhouse; Okatako)

It was late afternoon and Ka’harja’s arms were aching from the weight of the wood he’d collected. He knew he should have put it down in the pile outside, but he was too excited! He didn’t want to detour to the woodpile and so instead he pushed open the farmhouse door with his hip and slipped inside.

He almost caught his tail in the hinge and took in a long, hissing breath as he tried to stop the door from slamming shut; the wood he’d collected scattered across the floor as he let it go on one side, and he groaned. He always seemed to forget the kitchen door was spring loaded. He should have used the main door. Or he should have taken the five seconds to put the wood down like he’d kept telling himself on the walk home.

‘Oh well, too late now,’ he muttered, dumping the rest of the wood on the floor.

‘Ka’harja?’ his mother’s tired, raspy voice called from the main room, and his ears shot up. ‘Ka, Sweetheart? Is that you?’

‘Yeah! Handsome boy’s home!’ he responded loudly. ‘I got more firewood! I figured we needed more after the bonfire!’

He contemplated the night before for a moment, before realising his mother hadn’t responded.

‘Mum?’ he called again, only to be met with silence.

He sighed, and stepped over the empty bottles that were scattered across the floor. The house was always a mess; he’d given up cleaning it when his mother had refused to give up her drinking. If she wasn’t going to try, why should he bother?

‘Mum!’ he called again, making his way to the main room. ‘Mum you’re not going to— Oh Great Star, what have you done to yourself this time?!’

She was stuck mid-air with her feet on the table and one hand on the wall behind her— The other clasp her drink as if it were the thing stopping her from falling. Her chair was turned up dangerously underneath her. Or, most of it was. One of its legs was a little ways to the side, snapped in half.

It was very obvious what she had done, and she didn’t really need to say it, but when she did Ka’harja let out a snort.

‘I leant too far back,’ she muttered, her croaky voice echoing in her own throat.

‘You need a hand?’ Ka’harja asked, chuckling.

She shook her head and took a drink from the bottle. ‘I’m fine. Just a bit of a headache is all.’

‘That’s a load of crock!’ laughed Ka’harja. He made his way to his mother and scooped her into his arms.

For a moment, he cradled her, then he plopped her in another seat and pulled his own to the table so he could sit beside her.

‘How long were you like that?’ he asked.

‘Too long,’ she sighed, flexing her arms. ‘I can’t feel shit.’

‘Being drunk doesn’t help,’ Ka’harja pointed out with a sigh. ‘You really need to cut back before you drown.’

‘Distro Nigelle doesn’t get drunk!’ his mother snorted in such an exaggerated manner that strands of her oily black hair stuck to her lip; she licked them away awkwardly and scowled. ‘What do you take me for? Some sort of kitsune lightweight? I’m a foxen! I’m a fucking beer barrel with legs!’

Ka’harja laughed so loudly he hurt his own ears. ‘That’s a good one! Put the drink down.’

‘No!’ Distro mumbled childishly and took another swig from her bottle. ‘I’m not drunk! Besides, I lost the lid. I can’t let it go to waste!’

‘Alright,’ he shrugged, then leant forward and gripped the bottom of the bottle tightly.

Ka’harja and his mother glared at each other for a long moment before he gave a tug— It should have been easy to get the bottle off her, being twice her size, but Ka’harja struggled to get a grip on the smooth glass as he and his mother played what was easily the most stubborn game of tug-of-war he’d ever experienced.

Finally he liberated the drink and threw his head back victoriously; downing what was left of the alcohol in one go and slamming the bottle onto the table. ‘THERE! It didn’t go to waste.’

‘Fuck!’ Distro snapped, grabbing the bottle and launching it across the room in a tantrum. ‘FUCK!’

There was a crash as the bottle sailed through one of the back windows, and Ka’harja flinched as the glass fell from the frame. ‘Mum!’

For a moment, she hesitated; turning over what she had done in her mind for a long while. Then she gasped in horror and smacked her head into the table.

‘Stop it!’ Ka’harja exclaimed, grabbing his mother and pulling her upright.

Distro pulled away from her son and gasped. ‘Ka’harja your arms! What happened?’

‘Splinters,’ Ka’harja sighed, turning over his arms to examine the almost-invisible flecks in his dark skin. ‘From the firewood?’

Distro shook her head and stumbled out of her chair and towards the kitchen. ‘Ointment.’

‘Aw, Mum! I don’t need ointment!’ Ka’harja called after her.

There was a crash and he leapt to his feet; meeting his mother as she came out of the pantry with a large jar of disinfectant.

‘Come here,’ she muttered as she grabbed his wrist and smeared the thick salve onto his skin.

Ka’harja was hit with the smell of garlic and groaned. ‘I’m not going to get an infection—’

‘—Because of me!’ interrupted Distro, grinning proudly. ‘Wait five minutes, Sweetheart. Then wash it off before it burns.’

Ka’harja rolled his eyes as Distro retreated back into the pantry. He licked a glob of the salve off his arm and followed his mother into the room; ducking under the low doorway and glancing around at the herbs.

It was supposed to be a pantry. And they did call it a pantry…. But they never used it to store food. Instead, they used it for the magical science of alchemy.

Ka’harja rolled his eyes as he thought about it, and glanced around the room. He knew the contents of each jar by sight, now. It had taken him years to— By the Eighth child of the Ninth!

‘Mum!’ Ka’harja snapped, pulling the black-coated jar off the shelf. ‘I told you! I told you last week to throw out the mandrake leaves! Look at it! It’s growing death-mould! If you leave it any longer it’ll grow legs and walk out on its own!’

‘Death-mould?’ Distro sniffed as she slipped the antiseptic salve back onto its shelf. ‘Well, that can be useful.’

‘No, it can’t!’ Ka’harja exclaimed. ‘It’s called death-mould for a reason! What would you make with it?’

‘Kraken deterrent!’ Distro snapped back, swiping the jar from her son and sticking it back on the shelf. ‘Death-mould is a key ingredient!’

‘Mum,’ Ka’harja’s voice was flat.

‘What?’

‘Krakens? Here?’ he motioned around the room. ‘In Okatako?’

‘It’s more likely than you think,’ replied Distro. ‘The year before you showed up I chased off a kelpie that was trying to steal my clothes from the line! I beat it back with a broom, all the way to the river! I had to dose the bank with anti-kelpie spray for almost a month before it finally moved on!’

‘You’re making that up!’ Ka’harja snorted a laugh.

‘Oh yeah? And what part of that story is so unbelievable to you?’ Distro huffed.

‘You never do the laundry,’ chuckling, Ka’harja pointed to his mother’s stained clothes. ‘When was the last time you washed your shirt?’

Yesterday!’ Distro retorted. Her voice broke and she gave a small cough to clear her throat. ‘I did the washing yesterday.’

‘Bullshit! You’ve been wearing that since Horial!’

Distro hesitated; her tail giving a confused twitch. ‘It’s still Horial, isn’t it?’

‘Great Star, Mum, it’s Glif!’ Ka’harja exclaimed. ‘It’s been four months!’

‘It has not!’ Distro snapped. Then she frowned. ‘Really? Whoops. I’ll go get changed.’

‘Thank you!’ Ka’harja rolled his eyes and followed his mother out of the room. He stopped in the kitchen to wipe the ointment off his arms before heading back to the main room.

He watched his mother fish through a pile of clothes for a clean shirt before making her way back to the table.

‘I have some good news,’ Ka’harja told her as she sat down. ‘The seces caravan’s come early. I think they’re trying to avoid us by coming now— But it’s not that easy to stop the Nigelles! When we want something, we take it!’

For a minute, Distro stared at him. Then she snorted, ‘Alright, show me the map.’

All too happy to oblige, Ka’harja shoved a bit of everything off the table until he’d cleared the centre— Revealing the map of the area carved into the wood. He didn’t stop to think how strange others may have found it that his mother had, in lieu of paper, taken the handle of a fork to the dining table to teach him the layout of his home.

He pointed to one of the scratches and motioned along it. ‘This is the way they were heading. They had an extra caravan. I think they’re carrying more than normal…. We should fix that for them.’

Slowly, Distro nodded. ‘I don’t know if I’m up for it tonight, Sweetheart. What about in the morning?’

‘They’ll be gone by morning,’ Ka’harja told her. ‘It’d be better to go now…. Though, maybe you should stay here. I can do it on my own.’

‘No you can’t. You’ll get yourself caught,’ she shook her head. ‘If something happened to you where would that leave me? No. You won’t do it. I forbid it!’

‘You know forbidding me from doing things just makes me want to do them more!’ Ka’harja cackled. ‘I’m going to do it. Do we have any invisibility potions left?’

‘Yes, but I’m not telling you where!’ Distro scoffed. ‘You’re not going, and that’s final!’

‘Fine,’ grinning, Ka’harja put his hands on his hips and pressed his ears back cheekily. ‘I’ll make some myself.’

‘You’ll do no such thing!’ Distro nearly jumped out of her skin. Her voice creaked like a rusty door as she coughed in surprise. ‘Modification potions are dangerous! You’ll poison yourself! Or turn yourself inside out! Or you’ll make your tail green again!’

‘I’ve watched you make it hundreds of times before,’ Ka’harja argued, dismissing his mother with a flick of his (thankfully again-golden) tail. ‘I’ve memorised the ingredients and measurements. It won’t be hard for me to make.’

‘Yes it will,’ Distro retorted. ‘It’ll be very difficult. So don’t you dare!’

‘I’m going to make it,’ Ka’harja told her. ‘And that’s final!’

‘You’re a shame to Welten,’ Distro grumbled, motioning behind herself with a flick of her head. ‘If him and his siblings actually existed they’d descend from the sky and beat the shit out of you.’

Ka’harja gave an amused scoff and looked up to what his mother had motioned at. It was the badly-made tapestry of the Eight Star that he’d sewn as a kid, back when Distro had been teaching him the basics of alchemy.

‘Why did you even teach me about the gods if you don’t believe in them?’ he asked with a laugh.

‘We’ve been over this before,’ scoffed Distro, turning to the tapestry. Her voice softened as she stared at the crudely-sewn star. ‘Just because I don’t believe in something doesn’t mean you can’t. I wanted to give you that option.’

Ka’harja opened his mouth to argue— But then he looked back at the tapestry and just shook his head.

He remembered that they’d made it together as a not-so-surprising surprise present; he’d wanted to give Distro something special, but hadn’t known how to sew. So she’d had to help him make it.

Ka’harja remembered sewing the little crystal sequins into each section of the star. He also remembered getting the colours backwards and accidentally using sapphire for the alchemy point instead of orange carnelian. It was fixed now, but it had taken him over a week just to pick off the mis-coloured sequins—

‘—Ka’harja! Finally, you’re back on Demrefor,’ Distro chuckled— Or more, crackled. Her voice was barely audible as she laughed. ‘You zoned out. You alright, Sweetheart?’

Ka’harja glanced to his mother, who stuck out her tongue. It took him a second to realise he was smiling.

‘I was just thinking about when we made that tapestry,’ he said, failing to make his face serious. ‘I’m pretty sure I still have the dagger you gave me that week. I should fix the hilt sometime.’

Distro’s ears pricked up. ‘You still have that old thing? I thought you lost it years ago.’

‘Well, I sort of have,’ he chuckled. ‘But only pretty recently. I know it’s in the house. Somewhere. Hey! I’m due for another “I love you” gift! Maybe you can get me a shovel so I can find the dagger.’

Distro shook her head and laughed. ‘You little wretch! Come on, it’s past your bedtime.’

‘I’m eighteen,’ argued Ka’harja.

‘And I’m your mother,’ Distro said firmly. ‘So you’re going to go to bed when I tell you to!’

‘Yeah, well I’m bigger than you,’ Ka’harja retorted, lunging forward and grabbing his mother in a tight hug. He lifted her off her chair and swung her around. ‘And I say that it’s past your bedtime! So you go to sleep while I start work on that invisibility potion!’

‘You little shit!’ Distro laughed as Ka’harja threw her onto the bed and tucked her so tightly under the covers she could barely move. ‘That’s it, you’re grounded. Not allowed out of the house for a week.’

‘You know that just makes me want to leave the house more!’ Ka’harja called over his shoulder as he hurried into the kitchen.

‘Get me a drink!’ Distro called. ‘And don’t you dare sass me like you did last time! You know I mean something alcoholic!’

‘Fine!’ Ka’harja replied, veering away from the pantry to a low cupboard. He opened the door as much as it’s rusty hinge would allow and pulled out a sealed bottle.

Seces’ Seaweed Saviour was written in large letters, joined by a stylised illustration of a dark seces silhouette dangling a large clump of seaweed over their mouth. The seces’ sharp, triangle features made the bottle seem even more foreign to Ka’harja. It was nothing like the soft illustrations of apples and lizards found on foxen drinks, and Ka’harja almost wondered if the seces were compensating for their low alcohol content by making their labels more interesting than the actual drinks.

Though, he was surprised there was any Seaweed Saviour left. It had been half a year since they’d stolen the crate of it; if his mother hadn’t finished it off it must be shit.

Can’t be terrible though, Ka’harja thought with a heavy sigh. Seces seem to love it, so….

He twisted off the lid, breaking the wax seal, and gave it a sniff.

It smelt like dragon’s piss in a bottle. But he drank a mouthful of it anyway— And was instantly filled with regret. And vomit. He was going to throw up—

He stuck his head out the kitchen window and spat the horrible drink into the grass. It tasted so much worse than dragon piss! There was no way he could give this to his mother. He opted to pour it out the window instead, and found himself wiping his mouth on his arm as he put the empty bottle on the kitchen counter.

‘Fucking disgusting,’ he grumbled, crouching down to retrieve another drink. ‘Barely alcohol. If I ever meet a seces, I’m going to give them a piece of my mind.’

Then his hand clasp something that… didn’t feel like a bottle. It was warm and squishy. He pulled it out and found himself staring at a tiny, shrivelled face dotted with horns and warts, and let out a squeal of shock.

He threw the little creature as he did, and it scuttled across the floor to a rat-sized hole in the wall. It stopped for a moment to turn and hiss before retreating into the wall and loudly scuttling along the inside beam towards the roof.

Ka’harja wanted to throw up again. He leapt to the sink and washed his hands several times before calling out to his mother, ‘Mum! Imps in the kitchen again! We need to get more pellets!’

Distro let out an angry wail. ‘We just got rid of the fairies!’

‘What do you expect with the mess?’ Ka’harja retorted, deliberately making his sigh loud enough for his mother to hear. ‘I keep telling you, we need to move the compost further from the house! It’s attracting them.’

Distro simply let out another frustrated wail, which sounded more crackled than the last, and fell silent.

Rolling his eyes, Ka’harja sighed and crouched down to check the damage to the cupboard. He forced the door open with a loud metal scree and took out the few remaining drinks, then peered into a dark hole that gaped in the back of the recess.

Another little face appeared and Ka’harja instinctively slammed the cupboard shut.

He shivered a little, then smoothed his tail and ears flat with his hands and told himself that the problem was solved; he just needed to remember to never open the cupboard again.

It was theirs, now.

He grabbed a bottle from the floor and clambered to his feet; cracking open the lid and taking a sip of the drink. He gagged when he discovered it was another bottle of Seaweed Saviour, which received the same treatment as the last.

He was more cautious of the next bottle and actually read the label.

The Emperor’s Orgasm.

Nodding in approval, Ka’harja felt his mouth start to water at the thought of the sour apples and bitter luckroot…. And the best ingredient? The juicy run-off from pan-fried spiders? He knew exactly why it was called The Orgasm.… But not tonight.

He groaned and put the bottle on the kitchen bench. He couldn’t incapacitate himself before trying to make potions. And his mother was already drunk; she needed something more mild.

Instead he searched through the bottles and picked an unaged wolven wine called Melberry. Or, it was supposed to be unaged. He wasn’t sure how long they’d had it with the layer of dust over the top.

He wiped it clean and took a sip. It was alright. It was no Orgasm, but much better than the Seaweed Saviour. And it’s flavour wasn’t too weak— He had an idea!

He raced into the alchemy room, quickly emptying a small phial of sparkly green goo into the bottle of alcohol, which he took out to his mother. She was still trapped tightly under the covers, so Ka’harja teased her with it for a while before finally freeing her and watching as she drank the entire bottle in one go.

‘Remind me again why we don’t chuck the empty bottles?’ Ka’harja asked as Distro put the empty bottle beside the bed.

She couldn’t respond until she’d finished burping. ‘You know I use them for my alchemy. It’s cheaper this way.’

‘Maybe, but do we really need this many empty bottles? I can barely walk five steps without—’

‘—It’s either this, or an extra hundred gold a month for clear phials,’ Distro interrupted. ‘And you know Denni’s terrible at picking up our orders! She’d forget half the stock and we’d be stuck with nothing! No, no. This works fine for me!’

‘Crock!’ Ka’harja barked a laugh and nudged his mother. ‘But, now that I’ve got you in a good mood, how about we make that invisibility potion and raid the caravans for all they’ve got?’

‘Fuck no!’ Distro exclaimed, jumping on the head of the bed so she was as tall as her son. ‘You’re forbidden!’

‘And that’s why I drugged your drink,’ Ka’harja grinned.

‘What?’ Distro paled. Then collapsed sideways onto the bed and let out a loud snore.

‘You can yell at me tomorrow,’ Ka’harja chuckled, moving her to a more comfortable position and covering her with the blanket. ‘If you remember.’

~~~~

Ka’harja stretched and stood up straight, cursing the cramped alchemy room. Four hours leaning over a foxen alchemy table would do in the back of anyone with even the slightest amount of height on them, but Ka’harja was almost twice the height of a normal foxen his age, and he felt like death.

Instinctively he turned to call out to his mother, only remembering at the last second that he didn’t want to wake her. He grinned and twitched his sensitive fox-like ears to listen to her snore.

It was loud, which meant she was in a deep sleep. But it was uneven, broken with snorts and grunts like she was choking. He remembered knowing someone who sounded the same, though he couldn’t remember who, and made a mental note to bother his mother into visiting a healer.

Not that she would; she never did. She always said she was fine, but Ka’harja had a feeling she wasn’t being completely honest with him—

He shook his head. He didn’t want to think about it.

Instead he picked up the mortar and poured the clear, water-like liquid into an empty bottle. He laughed a little when he saw the label: it was an old vinegar bottle. Fitting for the texture of the potion… if he hadn’t known what was in it, he may have assumed it was just normal vinegar and dipped a fried spider or two in it. Perhaps a prank he could play on his mother later.

Distracted by his own sense of humour, Ka’harja didn’t notice the bottle on the floor and went sliding across the room with a shriek and a loud CLUNK as he landed on his back.

Pain shot through his right leg and he nearly screamed again.

He banged his head heavily on the floor and waited for the cramp to ease itself out before finally letting himself take a breath; which still came out as a cry of agony.

‘Ka’har…’ Distro’s voice called, trailing off.

‘I’m fine!’ he wasn’t. He wasn’t. He wanted to be dead.

After the cramp was over Ka’harja got to his feet and rubbed the sore muscle. He hated his weak leg. It was a constant reminder of his…. His luck. He shook the thought from his mind.

No use in worrying about past pains, he told himself. Better to focus on the now. The now pains. The pains I have now.

He limped awkwardly out of the pantry-converted-to-alchemy-room and began looking through the kitchen cupboards. It didn’t take him long to find what he was looking for: an old canvas sack in the high cupboard above the stove. He couldn’t remember why they’d decided to keep it in the kitchen (or in a cupboard that Distro could barely reach) but that seemed to be its place now. At least it was out of the way of any curious guests his mother might have over.

Sighing, Ka’harja reached into the cupboard and gripped the sack’s corner. As soon as his skin made contact with the cloth the sack vanished from view, and Ka’harja groaned.

He knew it was going to happen. The whole purpose of the sack was for it to turn invisible, after all…. But he really wished his mother had gotten a command-triggered enchantment instead of a touch-triggered one. It would have made it so much easier to find its opening, instead of having to fumble around with the air just to find the drawstring.

It was a pain, but he finally managed to figure out which part of the sack was where and peeked inside the opening.

The inside was clearly visible even though the outside wasn’t. He shook his head; trying not to let the perspective of the there-but-not-there object mess with his brain…. At least it was empty and had no holes worn into it.

He chucked the tiny potion phial into the sack and fumbled with the air a moment more, probably looking quite silly, before making his way into the main room of the house.

The place was illuminated in a dull blue glow; the orange evening light had long since faded and all that was left was the light from the soulstone pieces embedded carefully into the sill of each window.

Ka’harja had never liked the glowing crystals —they reminded him of old horror stories from his childhood, which always made him queasy— but he couldn’t deny they were safer than using fire to light the house at night. No need to put them out, no chance of burning the house down. The only real risk was if he broke off the diamond casing and ate it.

He shuddered at the thought, which he promptly pushed to the back of his mind as he carefully stepped over to check on his mother.

She was still asleep, thank the Eighth child of the Ninth. Not that Ka’harja was worried about waking her; she’d slept through the noise of him sliding across the floor and shrieking, so she wasn’t about to wake up from him putting something in a drawer.

He sighed, and slid his necklace over his head. He didn’t care about losing the rest of his clothes when he’d inevitably have to strip for the robbery, but he didn’t want to lose his necklace.

It wasn’t anything special, really; just a piece of rope with a cutting of his mother’s hair…. But it was the most valuable thing he owned. To him, at least. She’d given it to him after his adoption had become official. The day he legally became her son.

He could shave her head and tail and none of it would mean as much as this tiny cutting did.

Though… maybe he should shave her head and tail anyway? He’d love to see her reaction to that! Plus he could justify it as revenge for the time he woke up locked in a wooden crate.

He shook his head to clear it, and quickly shoved the necklace in the bedside table’s top drawer. Stop getting distracted!

He always got distracted. By everything. He couldn’t hold his focus— Unless it was on something stupid, like the stains on the bathroom wall. Then he couldn’t pull himself away from it.

As tempted as he was to go into the bathroom and stare at the dog-shaped stain again, he forced himself to go outside.

He shut the door behind him. Then hesitated.

The air was… different. Something ominous seemed to carry on the breeze as the night-bugs fell silent and the owls refused to hoot.

Had something happened? What could—

His ear twitched as he heard it. A far-off scream of pain.

Slowly, he turned to the direction of the noise and stared across the open field.

It sounded again, and he sighed.

The scream was coming from the nearby wasteland…. So there was nothing he could do to help. If a Har’py was dying it wouldn’t change anything to go find them; he’d only get himself killed, too.

Block it out,’ he whispered to himself. ‘You can’t help them. Just block it out, and go do your job.

~~~~

The night was beautiful, as usual. Stars twinkled in the nearly-cloudless sky as two almost-full moons lit up the world brighter than the nebula behind them; washing the grassy field in silver and blue.

Ka’harja couldn’t see the third moon, but that was fairly normal in Okatako. The tiny pink moon was rarely more than a sliver on the horizon, and the few nights it was supposed to be full there always seemed to be a cover of clouds to block the view….

‘Shit—’ Ka’harja lost his balance as he stepped in a hole. He’d barely managed to catch himself before he tripped in another and landed in a heap on the ground. ‘Fuck.

He let himself lie in the grass for a moment before awkwardly sitting up and picking at an itch behind his ear. He tugged off a scab, only to realise it was a swollen tick. Wrinkling his nose, Ka’harja crushed the pest between his fingernails until he heard a satisfying crack and felt a droplet of blood roll down his thumb. He flicked the tick away and licked the blood off his hand.

Then he heard voices, and quickly clambered to his feet and ducked into a nearby ditch to hide.

He didn’t think he’d get caught— At least not yet. The voices were approaching but they were still pretty far ahead. There was plenty of time to get ready and avoid whoever it was.

Ka’harja took a deep breath. He had to get the potion out of the invisible sack…. He fumbled with it for a few moments before finally finding its opening and retrieving the small bottle. He hesitated.

He’d dismissed his mother’s concerns earlier, but he knew she was right: modification potions were dangerous. All it would take for his invisibility potion to become a turn-me-inside-out potion was an extra half-spoonful of powered gryphon beak.

And that was one of the reversible accidents!

Ka’harja shook himself down. The people who those voices belonged to would eventually find him if he didn’t try the potion. It wasn’t really a big deal if they found him all the way out here…. After all, he lived in the area and they wouldn’t have any idea it was him who’d been stealing, but… he didn’t like the idea of meeting the people he was going to rob. If he didn’t get friendly with them then he wouldn’t have any reason to feel guilty about stealing from them.

Plus he just preferred to avoid social situations. They were boring and exhaustive.

‘Bottoms up… I guess,’ Ka’harja sighed as he uncorked the phial and closed his eyes. He gagged as he swallowed the sickly-sweet potion, but managed not to throw up. Which was always a plus.

It tasted like sugar and bread, which meant he’d had made it right.

He felt a wave of relief as he pulled a face and licked the roof of his mouth to try and get the taste out; as much as he hated the sweet taste of the potion he couldn’t complain that he wasn’t going to explode or be stuck with shrunken limbs.

A tingle crept through his skin and he felt a wave of cold shivers shoot up his spine. He burped and a small pink mist floated in front of him like a colourful cold morning breath…. He wasn’t sure why it happened when he drank potions, but it always did.

Ka’harja scowled and gave a cough to clear his throat. His mother never burped pink! Why did he have to?

He fanned the pink away with his hand— Though all he saw was the mist thin and fade into the air as if hit by a sudden gust of wind.

Looking himself over Ka’harja couldn’t help but chuckle: his clothes looked like they were floating on their own and every movement they made was hilarious to watch. He danced in place for a moment, laughing at himself, before remembering there were people nearby and hunkering down to listen.

The voices were closer than he realised, and Ka’harja found it impossible not to twitch his sensitive ears and eavesdrop while waiting for them to walk past.

‘I’m telling you, something’s wrong!’ a shivery voice exclaimed. ‘Did you hear the shouting earlier? It was like something out of a nightmare!’

‘It was just a couple of Har’pies having a tiff,’ came the reply. ‘Really, Naranako! You have to learn to relax.’

‘But the Har’pies don’t come this far into Okatako!’ Naranako responded.

Yes, they do! Ka’harja snickered, then remembered how much he wished the Har’pies didn’t come this far into Okatako and scowled.

‘Felelor, I’m really freaking out! This isn’t how night’s supposed to feel.’

‘I’m sure it’s perfectly normal for this time of year,’ the voice called Felelor dismissed Naranako’s concerns. ‘It’s not like the place is haunted or anything!’

An idea sparked in Ka’harja’s mind and his heart fluttered. Trying to hold back laughter, he picked up a stone and threw it towards the voices.

‘What was that?!’

Felelor barked a laugh. ‘Maybe it was a ghost!’

‘Felelor, don’t!’ Naranako sounded close to tears.

‘A Har’py ghost maybe!’

Ka’harja threw another stone and the laughter stopped.

‘You heard it that time, didn’t you?’

The pair mumbled to each other and Ka’harja strained his ears to hear them. He couldn’t understand what they were saying but he heard their footsteps approaching and their argument became clearer.

It’s ghosts!’ Naranako whispered.

Felelor snapped a quiet response. ‘For Scara’s sake, I was joking! It’s probably just a bird!

If it’s “just a bird” then why are you whispering, too?’ came Naranako’s panicked response.

The argument continued for a moment. The entire time Ka’harja was trying not to laugh. He decided to torment the poor men further and took a deep breath.

‘GET OUT!’ he shouted. ‘Get off of my land!’

Naranako’s scream could be easily compared to a boiling kettle’s screech, and Ka’harja heard him fleeing in the other direction.

‘Naranako you turd!’ Felelor shouted after him. ‘Get back here! It’s just the wind!’

Ka’harja laughed out loud and began to pull off his clothing. It was hard, not being able to see what he was doing, but he was having too much fun to stop. ‘How deaf are you?’

‘Not deaf enough!’ Felelor responded. ‘Don’t think you’re any good at this, my nephew’s an idiot who’s scared of his own shadow! But me? Not so much…. So come out here now and apologise, and I’ll spare you a good beating! Even if you are a Har’py.’

‘I don’t think so,’ still laughing, Ka’harja managed to undress completely and snuck out of the ditch.

He finally got a good look at Felelor. He was quite old. Not ancient, but at least forty eclipses. He was a somewhat handsome, red-haired foxen.

Ka’harja squinted. Literally red hair, it looked like he had smeared tomatoes on his head! Ka’harja bit his lip, trying to keep silent as he crept around the man. He saw Felelor had a sword strapped to his belt. It was two-handed and heavy-looking, and Ka’harja could tell he preferred strength over speed…. He wouldn’t find it hard to outrun Felelor if anything went wrong.

Perfect.

‘Show yourself!’ Felelor snapped.

Rolling his eyes, Ka’harja stepped behind the man. ‘Sorry, can’t do that.’

Felelor whirled around and looked directly at where Ka’harja was standing. He frowned and began spinning around as he searched for the impossible-to-find boy.

‘Don’t bother to throw your voice,’ he barked. ‘I’m not falling for any tricks!’

‘You’ve already fallen for about four of them,’ Ka’harja couldn’t help himself and picked up another rock; a small one. It hit Felelor in the back of the head and the man turned to lunge at nothing.

‘WHERE ARE YOU?!’ he screeched as he drew his sword. ‘I’LL KILL YOU, YOU LITTLE SHIT!’

Ka’harja held back a snicker. Boy did he get mad quick!

‘I’m a ghooooooooooooost!’ he called. He began to dance around Felelor, who followed his voice frantically. ‘Boo! Blah! Growl!’

Shut up!’ Felelor snapped. Ka’harja heard his voice break. ‘Shut the fuck up!’

Ka’harja stopped yelling and walked quietly up to Felelor. Slowly, he reached out and tugged on the old man’s tail.

Felelor screamed, dropped his sword, and bolted in the direction he’d been facing.

‘That was fun,’ Ka’harja grinned, nudging the heavy sword with his foot. ‘But now back to business!’

Far too pleased with himself, Ka’harja jumped into the ditch and retrieved the magic sack. He quickly decided to leave his clothes behind. They were a size too small and getting tattered anyway…. Although it was freezing and Ka’harja wished he had a set of clothes that were enchanted like the sack. Warmth without compromising invisibility? Now that would be fantastic! He should ask his mother about it sometime— He shook his head. Focus! You’re only a few ditches away from the caravan, do you want to get yourself caught?

He tried to creep both quickly and quietly, but it was difficult enough to do one of them without being able to see his own feet. Gingerly, he put his foot down and watched the grass crush under nothing. Then he felt a sharp pain and quickly moved his foot over a few centimetres. He’d nearly stepped on a rock! It was as bad as walking in pure darkness!

‘Look, all I’m saying is Coborn isn’t unattractive!’

Ka’harja looked up so quickly his neck hurt. He pricked up his ears and listened for the voice again. He was much nearer to the caravan than he’d thought! He’d been so focused on watching the ground that he hadn’t been paying attention to what was ahead of him and now he could see the caravan was only a few meters away.

‘Sure, she smells like onions and oil,’ the voice laughed. ‘But have you seen those hips? Yes, please! I’d put her on my dick any day!’

‘Lif, you’re the crudest motherfucker I know,’ the scolding was followed by a snorted laugh. ‘You’d put anything on your dick.’

‘I wouldn’t put you on my dick, you ugly fuck!’ Lif hissed in response. ‘Get fucked, Trat.’

Trat laughed again. ‘And yet you’re still lonely enough to consider fucking onion girl! Man, we need to get to I’reka quick so you can get yourself a good avio woman. I hear they’ll get with almost anyone who smiles at them! Even you’ll have a chance.’

Lif gave a short, dismissive laugh. ‘Yeah, right. Like I’m interested in a fling like that.’

For a moment, the two voices went silent. Then Trat spoke again.

‘And what were you intending to do with Coborn?’ he asked. ‘Marry her?’

‘I— No!’ Lif’s voice broke. ‘That’s not what I meant!’

‘You like her?!’

‘No! I don’t!’ Lif defended. ‘I mean she’s hot—‘

‘—She’s really not—‘

‘—But she’s just not my type, you know?’

‘Right,’ Trat scoffed. ‘And I don’t like eating fried spiders! Goddess, Lif, I knew you had bad tastes, but onion girl? Really? Really?

Ka’harja folded his ears back to block out their voices. Any remorse the young thief felt for robbing the caravan was gone. He crept close enough to the caravan that he could see the speakers clearly and shook his head. It was just the two of them, leaning against a caravan in their pyjamas with a bottle of something each, their dark hair falling messily around their shoulders as they scratched and sniffed and joked with each other.

To talk about a woman that way! Ka’harja growled to himself. What a dickbag.

He skirted around the pair and stuck out his tongue. He wished Trat could see the other gestures he was making as he slid past, but knew he couldn’t let them know he was there.

He had to hold back an angry retort as they continued to gossip.

He knew didn’t have any moral high-ground, especially considering he was halfway through robbing them of their valuables, but he couldn’t help feeling better about himself.

As he crept away he heard confused shouting in another part of the caravan. It sounded like Felelor was back from his scare, but Ka’harja couldn’t be sure it wasn’t a new guard he hadn’t met, so he hurried forward. He tried to shake the terrible conversation out of his head and distracted himself with their accents: they’d been speaking completely in International and had barely sounded foxen. He was shocked they’d not been kitsune or felinic or… anything other than foxen. Although, if they were heading to I’reka to trade with the avio they were probably going to Canis afterwards. The way they spoke did sound similar the snow-dwellers’ accents.

‘Again, Baku?’

A loud feminine voice cut through Ka’harja’s thoughts and he instinctively hid behind the nearest caravan.

‘I’d ask if you’d ever seen a boob before, but you do this every night!’

Ka’harja peered around the caravan and saw another set of guards, two more fit-looking foxens, this time dressed in chainmail and baring weapons.

The young male seemed to snap out of a trance and moved his eyes higher. ‘Sorry, Koko, was I staring?’

‘Of course you were, you stupid thing! Why are you men so horny all the time?’ hissed Koko. ‘Is it the night air? Does the cold probe your subconscious and turn on your greater animal instincts? Well, Baku? Does it?

Ka’harja took advantage of their loud argument and moved to sneak past them. He was careful: the last thing he wanted was to be caught by a foxen woman already in a bad mood. Foxen women were dangerous when provoked and although this one —Koko— had a bow attached to her belt and arrows strapped to her back, Ka’harja was more afraid of the strong muscles he could see her tensing in her frustration at her companion.

‘No, I look at you like this during the day too,’ Baku said, seemingly oblivious to himself.

‘Oh, wonderful, because that’s the reassurance I needed!’ Koko’s voice dripped with venom. ‘I get enough of that from Lif and Trat! Sometimes I wish you’d all just fuck off back to the port Sken found you in!’

‘I’ll have a talk to the boys if you like. Let them know how much they bother you—’

‘—I can handle it myself!’

Baku apologised, sounding sincere, and turned away from his companion. ‘I know you can look after yourself, but I’m always here to help you. With anything! You just have to ask. You know how much I love you.’

Her silence was a telling rejection.

Ka’harja actually felt sorry for Baku as he slipped by him.

Literally slipped. Ka’harja’s heart lurched; he’d let himself become distracted and he’d fallen! He landed on the ground with a grunt and felt his blood run cold as Baku pricked up his ears and looked around hastily.

‘Did you hear that, Koko?’

Koko just snapped at Baku to leave her alone, which Ka’harja used to cover the sounds of him struggling to his feet.

‘No, Koko, I’m serious!’ ears erect, Baku stepped towards Ka’harja and looked around suspiciously. ‘I heard something…. Do you think it’s that ghost Naranako was talking about?’

Ka’harja felt his heart beating in his chest as Baku unhooked a long, leather bullwhip from his belt. He began to unravel it slowly and Ka’harja darted behind him.

It was hard for Ka’harja to breathe and he nearly threw up trying to swallow the lump in his throat. This foxen stranger was going to find him and whip him senseless! Ka’harja really didn’t like the thought of that.

Baku searched around the side of the caravan they were standing at as Ka’harja watched, but he jumped when Koko called out to him.

‘Baku get back here! There’s nothing out tonight besides the stars and clouds and two of the Goddess’ daughter moons!’

Ka’harja stuck out his tongue. The Goddess’ daughter moons? Oh Eighth child of the Ninth, these people were Animon! Ka’harja couldn’t believe his bad luck. Animon! Of all religions to go for why would any self-respecting foxen choose to be a moon-worshipping Animon!

Obediently Baku retreated to Koko’s side and Ka’harja stood, not daring to breathe, in the arm’s length they’d left between them.

It took all of Ka’harja’s efforts not to panic. They didn’t know he was there…. Oh Great Star his mother was right! He never should have come here on his own! Even with the invisibility potion, he was going to get caught!

His tail brushed Koko’s leg and he jumped forward, only to feel Baku’s tail flick him in the knee.

‘I promise to the Mighty Five if that touch was deliberate Baku I’ll—’

Baku took a step away. ‘No, sorry! I didn’t think I was that close! Won’t happen again.’

Koko grumbled and turned away again. She was not in a good mood.

Ka’harja felt his lungs aching as his rapid breaths matched his heartbeat. Barely thinking, but with an idea he couldn’t quite reach screaming in his mind, he faced Baku, lifted his open palm stiffly, and slapped the man’s left buttcheek as hard as he could.

Baku jumped in place and dropped his whip in the grass as Ka’harja quickly stepped out of the way.

There was complete silence as Baku turned to Koko.

‘That was different,’ he said.

‘What was different?’

‘You slapped me!’

Koko groaned. ‘No, I didn’t, you twit.’

‘You slapped me right on the arse!’

‘I did nothing of the sort!’ Koko rounded on Baku.

Baku just laughed. ‘You like me, I knew it! You like me as much as I like you! Admit it!’

‘Baku I swear to Scara I’m going to kill you!’

All Ka’harja heard as he sprinted behind the caravan was Baku’s high-pitched shout. He froze as Trat and Lif rushed passed him, shouting boisterously and obviously ready to join in the fight, then continued to the centre of the caravan.

There was a mostly burnt out fire and a few sleeping rolls that had been dumped ungraciously onto the ground. Ka’harja wanted to kick himself. They were settling down to sleep and if he’d just been a little more patient the robbery would have been a whole lot easier! Now he had to deal with the caravaners and he was probably becoming opaque again!

Breathing heavily, he rushed through the open door of the closest caravan and began stuffing things into the invisible sack. He didn’t really notice what half of the stuff was: he was too focused on jamming as much into the sack as he could.

‘What in the name of the Three Moons?!’

Ka’harja froze. Like the idiot he was he’d forgotten to check if anyone was in the caravan and in his panic had just started blindly robbing the place. He whirled around and let out a quiet sigh when he realised the caravan’s inhabitant hadn’t been looking at the floating jar of red flowers and had actually been reading a very complicated-looking medical scroll.

‘This can’t be right,’ the foxen dropped the scroll on the desk and rubbed his eyes. ‘That would restrict the scapula too much…. Goddess, how do nurlak even survive like this?’

Quietly Ka’harja slipped the jar into the sack and, eyeing the tired-looking man suspiciously, backed out of the caravan.

That was it. Ka’harja decided he’d had enough excitement for one night and hurried away from the caravan. It wasn’t hard to get past the guards as they cheered on the escalating brawl. Ka’harja managed to catch a glimpse of Koko clinging to Baku’s back as he tried to shake her off. They both had smiles on their faces and looked like they were enjoying themselves far too much for what they were doing.

The last thing he heard as he sprinted away was a loud, angry shout that made the people cheering Koko’s name fall silent.

~~~~

Ka’harja strut across the grassy field back towards his house. He was feeling extremely proud of himself. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt this good! He was healthy, slightly richer, and completely naked. His mother was going to be so proud of him!

‘And she thought I wouldn’t be able to do it!’

He looked up at the sparkling sky and thanked the stars that the robbery went so well. He was almost tempted to thank the moons for it, thinking it would be ironic considering the people he’d stolen from worshipped them, but he shook his head.

That would be a little bit too disrespectful.

He looked back up and saw two shooting stars falling side by side in the colourful night. He grinned and took them as a sign of his good fortune as the two shining lights trailed across the sky. They shot to the horizon, growing larger as they fell, and Ka’harja watched as the shooting stars lit up in a yellow flash and illuminated the field as if the sun had suddenly risen.

Two figures were silhouetted in the distance and Ka’harja squinted to make them out as the strange light began to fade, only to be knocked off his feet by a sudden rush of air and loud BOOM.

Ka’harja felt numb. His ears were ringing and the rush of air had hit him like a stampeding hoard of dragons. He clambered to his feet but was knocked down again by the force of a second boom that shook the ground with more force than the first. He lay on the grass for a moment and groaned as dirt thrown up from the sudden gust settled on him.

He felt like he’d been punched in the head. Twice. He could feel his heart beating in his chest painfully; it felt like his anxiety was trying to strangle him to death. He tried not to panic. To stay calm.

Something’s different, thought Ka’harja as he swallowed his fears. The night seemed darker than it had before. Were the stars a warning? Was he in trouble? He closed his eyes and groaned again. From who? The gods? They don’t exist!

‘NEG’AN!’ Ka’harja barely heard the shouting through the throbbing in his skull. ‘Neg’an, are you alright? Neg’an stand up! We have to keep going! NEG’AN!’

Every movement was agony, but Ka’harja pulled himself to his feet and looked about for the source of the shouting. It wasn’t any Empire accent he recognised and it certainly wasn’t the caravaners….

He tried to shake the ringing out of his ears and ended up on the ground again, trembling with pain.

‘IT HURTS! I CAN’T HEAR! IT HURTS!’

Ka’harja rolled over to look in the direction of the shouting. He saw the two figures again. One of them was standing but the other seemed to be having trouble getting off the ground.

Ka’harja closed his eyes and shook his head. The ringing was starting to fade but his body still ached from the force of being knocked down.

‘MUP! MUP! MIITA!’

Suddenly it hit Ka’harja.

Har’pies.

This wasn’t good. This wasn’t good at all.

What are they doing here? Ka’harja couldn’t do anything but watch as the pair staggered off in the direction of his house. Of course they go that way….

It took Ka’harja a few minutes to get to his feet. He would have forgotten about the invisible sack if he hadn’t tripped on it. He quickly tied the end of it around his wrist so he’d not accidentally drop it again and began to limp his way home.

He hoped he’d not meet the Har’pies on the way; hoped that they’d changed direction and headed back towards the Heck’ne. He just wanted to get home so he could curl up next to his mother and sleep away the pain, without having to deal with wastelanders.

Of course Ka’harja wasn’t that lucky. He never was. It wasn’t long before he saw the Har’pies ambling across the field so slowly he could barely tell they were moving.

They didn’t look very strong; more like injured slaves. They were as naked and dirty as he was, except that they were nurlak, with four arms each and pointed ears… it was much better than meeting Har’py warriors. Ka’harja dared to move closer and saw the nurlak had quite an age difference between them, though they looked similar.

A mother and her daughter? Ka’harja guessed. Running away from the Heck’ne….

The older Har’py moved in a determined manner. They were constantly glancing back and urging on the other, who was in obvious pain after the shock of the falling stars. The younger girl walked with a limp and stumbled several times before stopping and complaining loudly of being in pain. The first Har’py shushed her and obviously expected her to follow as they continued onwards…. She didn’t.

Ka’harja decided to see how close he could get to the girl and calmly walked towards her. She didn’t notice him as he stood at her side. She was too distracted by a bundle in her arms— A baby!

Ka’harja laughed out loud.

The girl jumped and looked up at Ka’harja. She stared at him for a short moment before a wide smile spread across her face and she began introducing herself. ‘Abbtoh! Mai’hai dankent Neg—’

‘—GET AWAY FROM HER!’ the mother interrupted with a shriek. She forced her way between Ka’harja and her daughter and gave a violent hiss. ‘If you lay one hand on that berr I’ll tear out your throat and shove it up your arse!’

Ka’harja laughed so hard he nearly cried. He knew he should take a Har’py’s threat seriously, but he just couldn’t. Not with the shocked, open-mouthed look of the daughter peering over the top of her mother.

‘Calm down. Calm down,’ Ka’harja laughed as he put his hand on the mother’s shoulder. She was so short he had to bend down to do it…. Unusual, for a nurlak! She was only as tall as his own mother. ‘My name’s Ka’har—’

He was cut off abruptly by the Har’py’s fist making contact with his nose. It was more painful than he was expecting and he ended up on the ground again.

‘Don’t touch me!’ she hissed. ‘I’ll— I’ll do more than just hit you next time!’

Ka’harja nodded and wiped the blood from his lip.

Kekik!’ the daughter gasped. ‘Kekik! Why did you hit him?’

Ka’harja recognised the Har’py word for mother and gave himself a mental pat on the back for being right about how they were related.

‘What are you looking so happy about?’ the Har’py stopped arguing with her daughter and turned to Ka’harja, letting out a throaty growl of displeasure.

‘Just the idea of you beating me,’ Ka’harja shrugged. He continued when the Har’py looked horrified. ‘You’re just so much smaller than me! It’d be funny to watch.’

‘You’re a strange man,’ the mother shook her head, ushering her daughter back a step as she glowered at Ka’harja. Her eyes were tight with distrust and she let out a grunt that sounded more like a growl before sighing and letting her shoulders drop. ‘What did you say your name was?’

‘Ka’harja,’ Ka’harja lifted himself from the ground for the umpteenth time that night and pointed to the sky. ‘So how about those falling stars?’

The mother opened her mouth to speak but was interrupted by her daughter.

‘They were scary!’ she exclaimed. ‘And they hurt a whole lot. I could barely get up after they knocked me down.’

I’ve never seen anything like it,’ the mother whispered. She looked at the sky and shuddered as if she were scared it would happen again.

It was an awkward moment of silence. Ka’harja looked at the two women and took the moment to examine them.

They weren’t healthy. It looked like they hadn’t eaten in days and Ka’harja could have easily counted their ribs. It was pathetic, really…. Not to mention the daughter had mucus and blood dripping down her leg. She looked like she’d only given birth a few hours ago! Then Ka’harja looked at the baby and realised that it must have been only a few hours ago. The baby still had its umbilical cord and hadn’t been washed.

‘Is that your first baby?’ Ka’harja asked.

‘Baby? You mean berr?’ the daughter shook her head. ‘No. It is not my first berr. But it’s the first one that’s lived this long. All my other berr were born dead.’

Ka’harja wasn’t exactly sure what to say to that. He saw the sad look on the girl’s face as she stared down at her sick-looking child and felt a pang of sympathy for her. ‘They’re part dassen, I see?’

It wasn’t hard to see the baby was half dassen. They were covered in birthmarks and had small dragon-like wings wrapped under their four little arms.

‘Yes, that’s why we’re leaving,’ the mother stepped in front of her daughter, her lip twitching as if she was considering baring her teeth. ‘Our troop leaders don’t like tia’fio. Uh— Crossbreeds. Don’t try to stop us!’

Ka’harja shook his head. ‘I wouldn’t dream of it.’

‘That’s settled then! So why not head back to wherever you dug yourself up and leave us be!’ the mother turned her daughter away from Ka’harja and began to push her away. ‘Come on, we have to go.

The daughter struggled away from her mother and looked at Ka’harja. ‘Can we stay with you tonight?’

Neg’an!’ the mother grabbed her daughter’s free wrist and pulled her close. ‘Don’t ask such things!’

‘Sure, why not?’ Ka’harja laughed. He softened his voice and turned to the older woman. ‘Listen, I know what you’re going through. I left the Heck’ne too, a long time ago. I know how hard it is…. You’re welcome to stay at my house tonight. It’s warm and sheltered. And after tonight I think we all need a good rest.’

Neg’an hurried to Ka’harja’s side as her mother glared, cold and hard.

‘I don’t trust you.’

‘Listen, Mrs… uh,’ Ka’harja stopped. ‘What’s your name?’

The Har’py shook her head. ‘I’m not telling you!

‘Alright, can I call you Kekik, then?’ the Har’py looked offended and it took all of Ka’harja’s self-control not to start laughing again. ‘If you don’t give me your name, I’m going to call you Kekik.’

‘I’m not giving you my name!’ she hissed. ‘And if you start calling me Kekik I’ll—’

‘—Kekik it is, then!’ Ka’harja interrupted as he put his arm around the Har’py and whispered in her ear so that Neg’an couldn’t hear. ‘Listen, Kekik, I’m trying to help you! It’s freezing and your daughter looks like she’s ready to collapse. My house is only a little further. I’m not going to force you to come, but I don’t think you should spend the night out in the cold. Especially not with how sick that baby looks.

The Har’py closed her eyes and put her face in her hands. ‘Fine. But if anything goes wrong I’ll—’

‘—I know.’