1. Valentina (Our Tiger Beastkin Girl!)
2. Garu (Ethereal Clan Undead)
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Valentina stepped out of the cave behind Garu, rubbing her left arm while recalling the terrifying scent of the Ragnlar.
Ever since coming to this world, their group had been skulking through the jungle, following the path of the toads—Ri’bot as Garu said they were called—and they hadn’t needed to kill anything to survive since Gorka had gathered plenty of food in his pocket dimension in their escape.
Out of everything she’d seen so far, nothing, not even the warrior Ri’bot, had given her the same levels of intimidation as the Ragnlar. Her yellow irises lifted to the white, blue-spotted toad’s back as he silently led her to the jungle; only Garu gave her instincts the same unwinnable sensation.
Once stepping a few feet out of the cave, he turned to face her, spots flashing in his silent language that somehow translated into perfect Spanish to her. “You have these ‘skill points’ to increase your stealth capability?”
Lips pulling in, she tried to keep her voice down as much as possible. “Yeah, but I don’t know how much I can use … Rafael made the argument that we shouldn’t spend them on whatever we want because we don’t understand how much we can put into certain areas.”
Leaning against the side of the cliff, Garu’s chest shook with soft laughter. “From what I understand, you five humans can instantaneously develop powers … What better time to use such a talent than when you need them?”
“Mmh, no, you’re right … So, should I get a concealment skill?”
“Rafael mentioned that specifics are important, correct?”
“This new ability needs to be passive, allowing you to move silently while reducing your presence to the absolute minimum. You will be key in this plan, Val, which means you are going to have to do the most work in the next thirty hours.”
Saliva becoming sticky, Valentina’s arms pulled up on her bust as a chill ran from her spine to her long, still tail. “I… feel like you’re saying you’re going to leave me.”
“You are a warrior, Val,” Garu repeated, lips curving in a way she didn’t understand his intention, but his words were encouraging. “I will explain, but first, I need to know you can move with a degree of competence through the jungle.”
Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes and mentally asked whatever had changed her to grant her the things Garu wanted in the manner the boys had talked about, and a number of things went up on her inquiry:
- Speed: Slightly Increased
- Agility: Slightly Increased
- Quickness: Moderately Increased
- Constitution: No Change
- Stamina: Greatly Increased
- Endurance: Moderately Increased
- World Hopper: Grants many extra feats and advancements to compensate for a sudden change in the newly altered person when moving to a new world; a tax is given to future experience gains to obtain a stock of Skill Points, Stats Points, and previously unavailable Abilities, States, or Branches.
- Beastial Senses II → Beastial Senses IV: Provides Beast-like senses
- Lesser Acrobatics I → Lesser Acrobatics III: A multiplier to Dexterity
- Lesser Feral Instincts I → Lesser Feral Instincts III: Naturally understand the strength of individuals while providing an allure to seek combat and challenges.
- Lesser Prowl II → Prowl I: A Reactive Passive used when tracking at a reduced speed and stalking prey, increasing all stealth skills potency by five Ranks (Cannot Increase Grade).
- (New) Jungle Cloak I: In jungle terrain, one can camouflage into their environment.
- (New) Lesser Savage Blow: Moderate Power Increase.
- (New) Scent Mask: Active Skill, removing physical evidence of one’s passing; uses Stamina as an energy source.
- (New) The Hunt: Only available when tracking a target with the intent to kill; increases the following:
- Stats: Minor Increase In Speed, Agility, Quickness, Stamina, Endurance, Penetration
- Base Beastkin Tree: Feral Instincts, Beastial Senses, Acrobatics Increased by one Grade & Level
- Tiger Branch:, Lesser Savage Blow, Prowl, Jungle Cloak Increased by one Grade & Level
- Assassin Branch: Scent Mask Increased by one Grade & Level
Valentina’s eyes widened as the information fed into her brain as if downloaded; muscular stomach tightening, she pressed her fingers against her belly in astonishment. “It’s… incredible. I have some achievement called World Hopper that gives me like … a credit on skill points, I think?”
Garu’s vision narrowed as the passives took effect. “So, it’s true… Your presence has diminished greatly.”
“That’s not everything … I can do so much more,” she grinned, going over her skills. “Plus, when I’m hunting prey, I can increase my stealth and killing potential.”
“Let’s test it. Follow me…”
The stress she’d felt before faded as she moved forward, feeling lighter and more in control than she ever had, and when Garu gradually increased his pace, she was able to keep up.
New smells and sensations filled her heated body and mind, growing accustomed to the recent strength she felt; in terms of power, it hadn’t been all that much, but the ease of access she now had while mobile was like night and day. She thought the jungle felt like home before, but this was on a whole different level.
Swinging to each branch with the lightest touch and being able to keep her balance without the use of her claws gave her less of a presence, and she loved it; the night came alive as her much sharper senses pinpointed tracks, even without a skill for it, Beastial Senses provided a passive form.
Garu’s lights flickered ahead of her, a grin in his tone that made her heart swell with pride. “Not bad, Val; now, you have the means to ambush and scout. Can you add a vicious attack that leaves a large wound?”
Asking, her lips curled with anticipation as Tiger’s Strike I and Tiger’s Bite I became available. Speed increasing, she jumped to the next tree to meet the Ri’bot, giving him a confident nod; the gap between them was still vast, but she could sense it now, unlike before.
“Good. I like the confidence I’m seeing in you now; you’re far more capable than I thought you’d be, but to make sure, I want you to search for something to hunt and prove it. The Ragnlar is outside of your reach right now, yet if you gain power rapidly by killing, there is a jungle full of prey around us.”
Her long striped orange and black hair whipping behind her, Valentina saw the world in a much slower way as she focused, allowing her to break off a vine-like growth as they moved to bind her locks into a high ponytail.
Valentina’s heart thumped while taking the lead upon finding the scent of one of the raccoon-like creatures they’d shared a burrow within the valley; this one was slightly smaller by the path it took.
It didn’t take long for them to overtake its slow path, seemingly unafraid of predators while foraging around for food.
Landing silently in the branches above the beast, Garu’s brow lifted at her chosen prey. “Frave are quite thick-furred; even Ragnlar have a challenging time ripping into their bodies, which is why they are used by many Ri’bot Clans for certain products. Show me what you can do.”
Her sharp yellow eyes fixated on a critical spot, following her instincts as her tail swung left and right; she had to give it a shot.
Claws easing out as she slowly prowled around the large branch they stood on, Valentina could smell its lax, sluggish attitude and see various critical areas to attack. Her nails bit into the wood as she hung upside down, above the animal; blood increasing as her multipliers activated, she growled and jumped, making its big ears stand on end and look up in confusion.
Landing in the mud in a blind spot it had created as it looked up, Valentina jumped at its furry left arm at the joint; profound orange energy radiated into a paw with vicious talons more than five times the size of her hand to center on the juncture, ripping away the much thinner layer to sever muscle and bone.
Blood flowed as the creature stumbled back on its hind legs, still looking into the air in shock as it fell over, but Valentina was already leaping on its side to plunge her force-infused claws into its open wound to ravage its inner organs.
By the time its paw rose to defend itself, the Frave’s muscles were losing strength; its heart was torn apart.
Breathing heavily, Valentina’s arm trembled in the dying creature’s warm insides, hot air puffing from her lips as its blood painted her skin and fur red; this was her first time killing something like this, and the rush in her ears, throbbing chest, and sticky mouth felt intoxicating.
Her mind snapped back to reality as Garu landed on the Frave’s slow-moving side, now unable to do anything more than gasp and choke as blood filled its lungs and drained out of its heart.
“Hmm … Well, you certainly have the ferocity of a Ragnlar … It makes me wonder what these ‘tigers’ were like on your planet.”
Swallowing, Valentina felt a little breathless as she extracted her hand and stepped back to study her soaked fur and slick skin; the beast’s crimson liquid just kept flowing, filling the night with its scent. “I’ve… never felt so… I can’t explain it.”
Garu’s gaze drifted over her body, seemingly frowning. “A messy kill that will certainly get you tracked. You need to be more precise and less showy; although, for your first kill… I’m impressed.”
“So, what’s next?”
“Find a body of water and wash up … You have the instincts to know when you’re a match for the Ragnlar by its scent; keep killing and refining your abilities. If you are going to experience diminishing returns from this swift increase in power, you’ll need to kill quite a few creatures to reach the point of matching it.”
Fear lost in her first hunt, Valentina’s sharp teeth flashed as she smiled. “Thank you for helping me, Garu … I feel so free … hehe, wild.”
“Heh, it’s all for a purpose, and practice makes perfect. You have one day to reach the point of being able to out stalk the Ragnlar … and it may find you as you leave a path of carnage; they are very territorial.”
“Hehe … I look forward to it.” Tail swinging to the left, spraying droplets of crimson across the grass as critters fled the scene of the slaughter, Valentina bent her knees and jumped into the trees.
Good, bad, nothing mattered in the jungle but kill or be killed; she was a predator at heart, after all.
* * *
Garu sat atop the dying Frave as he watched the human tiger girl’s tail disappear into the foliage; the look in her maddened golden irises was like an animal that had its first taste of blood.
To think she would take so naturally to being a predator… How far will she go now that her feral instincts have been set free?
He looked down at the scavenger animal as it took its last breath. She didn’t even make sure it was dead before moving on … Val, you still have a long way to go, but it’s a start. Still, the plan should work. She’s completely taken by her inner beast.
Leaving the area, he carefully proceeded to the Chief’s sacred meeting location—at least, it was sacred to many of the more religious Ri’bot—the Ethereal Clan revered their ancestors but didn’t worship them.
The night was still as mist gathered around him, moisture collecting to slowly generate the lingering fog he’d need, and by the time he entered the clearing, a deep fog moved with him.
Hours had passed since night had fallen, and the guards on post were vigilant to peer through the haze, not that even Xaria of these Clans knew what to look for when it came to the Ethereal’s techniques.
Silently moving through the tall grass, he could feel the presence of anything that reached a ten-meter radius of him. Garu arrived at the group of five tents resembling the Great Polsan Clan’s colors, a pink base with green stripes which mirrored their skin color, and bypassed the attendants and guards to linger outside its side to listen.
Three people were inside, and they were looking at a large map by the sound of their conversation.
“…we be sure, Great Chief? If what the Roxim and Komath claim is true, we are dealing with a threat on the scale of the Fire Wars. Should we not investigate?”
“Mmh, I agree with Matnix, Great Chief.”
“Hmm … Have you consulted the sky, Pontis?”
“I have been listening to the winds throughout the day … Our warriors are restless; this was supposed to be the annual Great March to show our power and the unity we have with the Great Morseng Clan. To encounter two Clans of the Valley Ri’bot and to hear their drums of war was not something they expected.”
“Humph, you’ve seen their forces, Pontis—a paltry number—the Valley Clans have degraded to a significant degree in the past century.”
“That may be so,” the Great Chief muttered, “but they were given that land by the Great War Council for a reason; it was their valiant charge through the Golariex’s breach that allowed us to penetrate that death pit. Most Clans hold them in the utmost regard, despite what their current generation has become.”
“Quite true, Great Chief… Valdar, the Great Former Chief of the mighty Delthax has passed—I heard it in the wind, and … Mmh, the sound was ominous—unearthly. We must be cautious, especially considering the Ques’ká prophecy regarding the area.”
Matrix hissed, popping his tongue in agitation. “It isn’t just the Ques’ká but these new Desert Clans that have sought to explore our nation … If they have ties to the Ques’ká, it could cause trouble if we disrespect them. I don’t like how little they tell us about their intentions—certainly, they must have more reasons than just mapping out the west.”
“Hmm … You’re not wrong, old friend,” the Great Chief began, before falling silent for a moment as he thought. “We know there are two Clans, and they do not function well together … I suspect there is a tentative truce between them. We will resume discussions in the morning—”
Garu’s gaze drifted to the left as another figure stumbled through the fog.
“Eh, I have an urgent message for the Great Chief—can someone direct me to his tent?”
“Here!” a guard called out, readying his weapon in case it was a trap. “Come slowly to my voice!”
“Right, eh, I … I see the light—I appreciate the guidance—ugh, this fog is thicker than swamp water!”
“Ah, Conalle,” the guard muttered. “Yeah, odd to see mist like this at this time … an omen.”
“Heh, don’t say that!” he muttered, entering the tent as the dignitaries awaited him.
“What’s the urgent message?” Mantix demanded.
“Umm, an ambassador from the Cnaxar Federation, General; by now, they should have reached the outskirts of the army.”
The Great Chief dropped into a chair with a low groan. “Ancestors help me … First we deal with the unsanctioned passage of those two Desert Clans, then the Valley upset, and now the northern warlord’s dogs have sent their messengers… Tomorrow is going to be a full day.
“You may go, Conalle … Hmm, do you have a reason you didn’t see this coming, Pontis? For the past month, you’ve been warning me that something significant was happening to our West, but this?”
“Sadly, the winds are blowing from the West, Great Chief, not from the direction the Cnaxar Federation used … I fear the hurricane and snowstorm have also clouded my understanding of the sky…
“These signs may only be the first of great upheaval. Now, a fog has come from that direction … Great Chief, powerful forces are strengthening beyond these mountains, and we need to understand them.”
“Mmh,” the Great Chief had a smirk in his tone as he played with something on a table that sounded like wood tapping against itself. “There are far too many coincidences occurring … Most Clans know of our yearly routine, which makes me believe someone is setting us up … I don’t like it at all.”
Mantix’s yawn ended in a growl. “The Roxim and Komath want us to march into the valley with them to assault the Quen’Talrat’s ruined city… It feels like a trap. The entrance to the valley is easily defendable; a force of one or two thousand could keep us out given the terrain.”
“I know the fears of the past, Mantix … My great-grandfather was involved in the battle to halt the Quen’Talrat from expanding to that choke point during the Fire Wars. We don’t have much we can—”
As they were closing their meeting, Garu felt an unusual breeze cut through his fog, causing him to redouble his efforts in condensing the mist. Pontis is a Skyspeaker, but could he be a rare Skycaller, as well?
Slowly moving away from the tent, he paused as slight sparkles of pale white light flickered in and out of existence two meters away. A gentle breeze lingered nearby to kiss the back of his neck as the force shifted his fog. Yet, it was what the lights indicated that snatched his wide gaze—feminine pronouns—spoken in the ancient hidden language.
“Mmh? I don’t know; I think he’s a bit cute.”
Another flash to his left, this time male.
“Why do you always have to comment on their looks? On this wrist, is that—”
This isn’t the use of fog … A Clan that descends from the ancient Wind Clan? Not only that… I hardly sensed their entry into my territory, which proves they’re of higher tutelage in the art of concealment than when my ancestors were said to be among the best in the field. Wind shouldn’t be close to our talent.
Blue spots flashing, he responded to the nonverbal communication. Now that he was exposed, there wasn’t much use in hiding.
“I don’t suppose you’d be willing to have a proper conversation, hmm? I expect you are one of the Desert Clans?”
More flashes followed; it was only the two of them from what he could sense, but if they had a Xaria in the mix, he was as good as dead—again. He hadn’t expected to run into this problem in all of his planning.
The mist swirled in a small circle to reveal a grinning girl, likely only a year older than him; she had caramel skin and white spots of an odd design.
He wouldn’t call her pretty—unique would be his word—considering her four teeth on either side of her slim face. Comparing Clan features, the Ethereal women were definitely more elegant, at least with her as a foundation for his decision.
However, two objects around both of her wrists instantly caught his attention—similar artifacts to the one he wore—she was a Scout, and if they followed the ancient texts as the Ethereal, she was at the Grade 2 stage.
“Well, well, well, I certainly didn’t plan on finding someone who not only spoke the ancient language after meeting these Clans but someone so cute! I’m Nelika, by the way, and this is Ymanza—oh, you’re right, Yma—he does appear to be from the old Mist Clan. A scout like me, huh?”
Ymanza’s lean figure exited his concealment, wind collecting into his full figure, and a lump dropped down Garu’s throat—an artifact on each limb, two daggers on both forearms, and a shimmering chain of gems around his throat—this was a Xaria and a senior at that. He’d only seen the silks and decoration he wore on some of the most accomplished Xaria of the Ethereal.
For the first time in his short life and unlife, Garu had found a Clan that was possibly on equal footing to his own, and the girl hopped forward with a big, mischievous grin on her face as the spots around it teasingly flashed.
“Mmh, something tells me you’re not supposed to be here! Why don’t we go back to our tent so you can talk to ol’ Gumbi!”
“Former Xaria of Excellence,” Ymanza sharply corrected, but the girl laughed the man’s words off with a dismissive gesture that made even Garu’s stomach tighten in protest, but cold sweat was now breaking out across his skin.
Former Xaria of Excellence … Fewer than two dozen Xaria ever reached such a rank in our history, and … he was retired … meaning he was disgraced.
Not knowing if he would make it back to report, Garu did the only thing he could; of course, it didn’t help that Nelika grabbed his hand and hurried him in the direction of the Desert Clan’s resting area.
I need to find a way out of this, but … if I do get away, this information is beyond valuable.
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