Chapter 1: Ralk

The fetid scent of piss, feces, and rotting flesh stung Ralk’s nostrils, forcing him to retch as he panted for air in the sweltering underbelly of the flying ship. The G’yel spent a week confined to a locked iron box with a barred window for scraps of food to pass through—that is, whenever anyone remembered to feed him.

There were other captives in the belly of the vessel, all of them human and secured to iron loops that protruded from wooden planks along the floor. Ralk was the only one in a box, deemed too dangerous to be around the humans. They were right to fear him.

He had already torn off one man’s arm who tried to steal his food while back in Carthia, waiting to be resold to the highest bidder. Ralk would have preferred death to the humiliation of being treated as livestock, now branded with the name of his new owner. If he had known this would be his fate years ago, he would have chosen to jump from Luknoc, a sheer cliff overlooking a jagged stone outcrop that faced an endless expanse of clouds.

It was the coward’s way. Dying like that—to have one’s bones forever exposed and mocked—was the worst fate imaginable for his kind, or so he thought as he took in another shallow breath of fetid air. Going higher and lower in altitude meant rapid changes in temperature, and being a creature covered from head to toe in thick fur, he preferred the freezing to this.

However, such altitudes were deadly for the other slaves, their bare skin inadequate for warmth. The intense, humid weather likely meant they were close to Ke’chetah, a jungle sky island, many hundreds of parces around and home to the city of Nau. That empire stretched far beyond this piece of welkin, encompassing nearly a quarter of the entire world.

Ralk learned a little in the six years he’d been exiled from his people, and only a pup when he was captured and sold to his first owners. G’yel weren’t kept as slaves, usually. However, Ralk’s astute and curious nature spared him from being tossed into the wastelands far below. As far as he knew, no one could survive down there in the acidic gas from lava flows and fissures.  

He had always taken an interest in the human tongue when he was younger, being one of the few able to speak it. It did not win him any favors with the elders, especially after the incident.

Ralk ran his thick fingers over the depression in his leg where the arrow injured him. He never fully recovered, and he still walked and ran with a slight limp. When his people found him lying on the ground, his wounds freshly dressed, he was taken for judgement. Those found guilty of fleeing a battle were given two choices, Lucnok or exile. Death at the hands of another G’yel was deemed too honorable.

Ralk had been held captive by the humans for so long that he never thought much about what he’d lost; in fact, he wondered if he’d actually lost anything of value. There was no place he belonged anymore, and the only thing he was good for was menial labor. Though he walked with an uneven gait, he was faster, stronger, and more suited to hard work than the other humans.

It was easy to not think about much when he was worked hard and half-starved. Such a pitiful existence, and it was merely that—existing. This wasn’t a life for a G’yel, but the life of most of his kind was short, anyway. Those deemed undesirable as pups were sent to battle, like he was, often expected to die as to not put an unnecessary strain on resources.

What was it about Ralk that made G’yel society loathe him? Even though he asked himself that question many times, he always suspected the answer. He was too soft, caring too much, too curious about the world. Such behavior was unfit for a male, and the fact that he had learned some of the human tongue made him even more hated.

But there was a reason he learned, and if the others had cared, they would know it was for honor and revenge. He wanted to hear and understand the cries of his enemies as he told them why he would take their lives. If his people only listened, perhaps they too would want to learn the language of their enemies.

It wasn’t meant to be, though. The G’yel never listened, only acted or reacted, and because of that, he was on another reeking ship to an unknown land—and another owner to abuse him.

The airship lurched upward, knocking Ralk to the disgusting floor of his cage. His thick mane had become so matted, and the rest of his dark brown fur was caked in his own waste. The sweltering heat made the stench more unbearable as it mixed with the sweat of human males outside of his cage.

The small window of the box may as well not have been there because the air outside wasn’t any better. Hundreds of humans lined the planks, chained a hair’s width apart from one another. As terrible as it was, Ralk was thankful to be in the box compared to that.

Another bump knocked the G’yel forward this time as the ship’s underside skidded along the landing dock before coming to a rough, sudden stop. This was the second time Ralk had been on a slaver’s airship, and he hoped it would be his last.

Armored footsteps clanked overhead before descending below deck. He would finally be free from this hell, though it was likely he’d be thrown into another soon after.

“Rise and shine, you louts,” a man shouted in a nasal tone. “Gods fuck it. I’ll never get used to this stench.”

Tens of armored men filed into the ship’s belly, each holding a single iron key. Ralk watched as they efficiently unlocked the chains one after the other, each slave forced to his feet by a plated boot to the ribs. After ten minutes, the ship was empty and Ralk was left in his box, forgotten.

What did it matter if they had forgotten him? Perhaps dying of thirst or starvation was preferable to what he’d experience next. With a heavy sigh, the G’yel slid against the smooth iron wall to the filthy floor, trying not to dry heave as he took in a deep breath.

No sooner had he let his mind go blank, several sets of footsteps descended the stairs.

“The beast is in here?” a man asked from above, his voice posh and arrogant. He had the tone of nobility, and Ralk was unfortunately all too familiar with those kind.

“Aye, lordship,” another man responded, his voice gruff but respectful. “The creature is dangerous, though. May have to put it down if it attacks.”

The noble let out a hearty laugh. “That danger is precisely why the beast is so valuable.” The human’s shadow covered what little light filtered through the bars. Ralk stayed seated. The men would kill him without a second thought if he showed any aggression—or anything that could be perceived as such. The noble choked on the putrid scent wafting from his prison. “Ugh,” he choked out, pulling away. “Get the creature to the pens for cleaning.”

“Aye, lordship.”

The noble retreated with haste, coughing and gagging along the way. The leader let out a laugh as a sharp, deafening clank rang from the side of the box where he struck it.

“Up, beast,” came another male voice from outside. Ralk did as he was instructed, finding it hard to keep his paws firm against the slippery floor. The G’yel peered through the opening, casting a killer’s glare at the armored soldier outside the locked door. He donned chainmail body armor and coif, enough protection from Ralk’s claws and teeth. A slave was one thing, but he knew better than to harm a soldier or noble.

Soldiers of Carthia doubled as mercenaries for foreign lords and merchants during peacetime. It wasn’t unusual for them to transport and protect valuable goods such as slaves. In fact, Carthian soldiers were best suited for this type of transaction as slaves required a more hand-on approach than foodstuffs or raw materials.

None of the soldiers knew that Ralk understood the language; in fact, he’d never spoken to a human since his exile. He was just a feral creature for all they knew, and he preferred it that way. Their ignorance was his winning gambit. Lips were loose when people thought no one was listening.

With a high-pitched screech, the heavy metal door unlatched and opened. Five blades pointed steadily at all sides of him, and Ralk shrugged, lifting his arms in a passive stance. He learned a harsh lesson about how to hold his body around these men. G’yel were naturally intimidating, tall and built like bears, their bodies were natural weapons.

He kept his shoulders forward and eyes fixated on the ground in front of him, making himself appear like less of a threat. If he truly wished to die, chain mail wouldn’t protect one unfortunate human from having his eyes gouged out in a harrowing last stand. But he wasn’t in the mood to die. He wasn’t much in the mood for anything, years of hard labor making him blank, drawing out any thoughts of resistance he had when he was younger.

“That’s a good beast,” the man said as a pair of heavy iron shackles clamped tightly around his wrists. He signaled for Ralk to follow, his men close behind, swords still drawn and trained at his back. He couldn’t see them, but he would occasionally feel the poke of a Carthian steel scimitar from behind.

“What’ll they do with this creature?” a soldier asked from his side. “Never seen one alive like this. They usually kill themselves before they’re caught.”

“Not sure,” the man at the front replied, taking careful steps out of the lower deck, Ralk still following. As they emerged, the light of the mid-afternoon suns blinded him, causing the G’yel’s paw to miss its footing. However, his other senses kicked in and he caught himself before falling to the steps.

The men panicked at the unexpected reaction, the high-pitched ring of their thin blades whipping close to his face.

“Calm yourselves.” The man in front steadied Ralk before pulling him forward. “The beast merely has a bit of day blindness. It’s been below deck for over a week.”

His eyes slowly adjusted as his paws left wood and touched brick. The heat was unusual. The pads on his feet protected him in grass, and the only time they wore coverings was in battle. However, the sun-seared road stung, burning his paws as though he had stepped on dim embers of a campfire.

He yipped and yowled, eliciting more aggressive responses from the guards.

“Keep to the shade.” The leader pulled him under one of the many broad oaks that lined the rough, tawny road. It was a moment of relief, but he could tell the pads were going to blister. He hoped his new master wouldn’t put him to work right away so he could heal, but that was often never the case.

Crowds of humans stopped and stared at Ralk. Expressions ranged anywhere from amazed and shocked to horrified and disgusted. Though he had lived in his own filth for days, out here in the open air, he was nose blind to it. The humans could smell him coming for parces, though. He was glad he stunk so bad. It kept the crowd at a distance.

“It’s limping, sir,” one guard said.

“It always limps,” came a grunted response from behind.

“No, his feet. The lord here will dock our pay, or worse.” The other man’s voice grew louder and more serious.

“He’ll be fine.” The leader pulled the shackle’s chains harder. “After they clean the beast, their healer will tend to it. It’s probably carrying all kinds of disease anyway.” A huff of air left the man’s nose. “Gods know this country could use a plague or two.”

The insulting way humans spoke of him never lost its sting, but he made sure to never show emotion lest anyone become suspicious. Regardless of how angry he was, he continued the facade of a wild animal. 

The city was deceptively huge, despite how close together the buildings were. Four towering pyramid-like structures lorded over everything at the city’s heart, able to be seen for tens, perhaps hundreds of parses. One of the pyramids was broad and stepped. Thick, olive green ivy climbed the sunward side while water fell from the mouths of monolithic human statues halfway to the top which were fed by expansive aqueducts that lined the outskirts of Nau.

To its left was a much steeper, but taller pyramid, it’s edges sharp and refined and sides polished to a shine. It appeared newer than the other more weathered structure and had no statues adorning it. The other two pyramids were out of sight but visible enough to know they were there.

One was the tallest of the four, but most of it was hidden in the shadow of the fatter, greener one. If they had been on the other side of the city, he would have been able to see them.

The streets of Nau were made of worn cracked bricks that nature appeared to want back. The jungle weed and ivy that peeked from the fractures were resilient, even as landscapers and constant traffic kept them tame. It was easy to see from the surrounding land that if man weren’t careful on this sky island, the wilds would creep in and strangle them all.

Though this part of the city contained the workers, there were no run-down buildings—no shanties or huts that Ralk had grown accustomed to seeing in other major human cities. Nau was the hub of humanity, and the Ke’chetah plateau was the richest in resources of any sky island. It was easy to see that in the elegant, swooping structures that made up the majority of the city, as though woodworkers painstakingly handcrafted every beam that held the buildings in place.

The shops and inns were luxurious from the outside, made from what the G’yel knew as onyxinth wood. It had a striking black color and uniqueness in luster when worked. It glistened as though infused with diamonds, even in the shade. The trees were sturdy, beautiful and apparently abundant enough on Ke’chetah that even their lesser buildings were constructed using the precious wood.

In Ralk’s village, onyxinth was rare, only used in the most important constructions, usually fortification. The tree’s wood, once treated, became harder than stone and was just as fire resistant. Great for strengthening vital structures when there were no quarries closeby.

As they moved deeper into the heart of Nau, fragrant street food wafted through the air, making the G’yel’s stomach growl. He hadn’t had a decent meal in so long, and he often wished his masters would let him hunt for his own food. The smell of something pleasant for once filled Ralk with an emotion he hadn’t experienced since he was younger.

In fact, with every inhale, he longed to go back to the wilds. To taste blood and meat again—the thought gave him the tiniest bit of joy. Only for a moment though, but it was enough. He knew such food was not for him anymore. If only he would have stayed deeper in the wilds after his sentence, he would still be there, enjoying his fresh kills. He’d be alone, but not a slave.

As they passed through a narrow alleyway, they came to a wide stretch of concrete ground and giant marbled statues as though the area was meant for thousands to congregate. Beyond that was what appeared to be a massive arena, its thick, rounded walls made of polished granite. The entrance stood a hundred arms high at least, and six massive intricately carved columns supported the overhang that brought much-needed shade to the area.

The stone road was lighter, and not as hot to step on with bare, padded paws, but uncomfortable enough to hasten Ralk’s steps. Relief came when they stepped into the shadow of the building.

In front of them stood two impossibly tall onyxinth doors, so large and heavy they seemed an impossible feat to open with even a group of the strongest human males. The guard in front pulled on a silken rope dangling next to one of the columns.

Four loud bells rang out, each with a different timbre and tone, as if they were all made from different metals. Such a strange sound, but at the same time, oddly pleasing to the ears.

A small opening in the bottom-middle of the door slid open as a man’s face poked through.    

“State your bus—” The man’s voice froze as his gaze settled on Ralk. “By Dremorah’s tits, the lord’s lost his mind.”

“We’ve come to deliver his property,” the guard leader said sternly. “The beast is to be cleaned and his feet healed.”

Ralk remained expressionless, though the thought of having the filth of his journey washed away overjoyed him.

“Take the creature to the side entrance where the pens are. I’ll not have the amphitheater stinking of G’yel shit.”

The tiny window in the door slammed shut, and the guard tugged at Ralk’s chains again as they descended the steps to the side of the impressive structure.

An amphitheater. What slave work could he do here? Perhaps there were beasts he’d be forced to tend to or clean up after. He did notice that the building was under construction on its far side, as though more were being added. Perhaps he’d be moving stones from whatever quarry they gathered from.

As they rounded the stadium, he could hear the sloshing of falling water. Ralk desired to be clean, but hearing the rush of liquid made him realize how dry his mouth had been. He tried licking his cracked, thin lips to moisten them, but his tongue had nothing left.

They approached a wooden gate surrounded by walls of stone. It was already open, the man from inside earlier standing in front with arms crossed.

“Get it to the water, quickly. I can only hold my breath for so long,” he muttered, trying to swallow whatever threatened to come up from his stomach.

Ralk’s eyes widened as he entered the pens. There were beasts locked behind sturdy metal bars, many of which he’d never seen before. Some were massive and bore a resemblance to felines. Instead of fur, there were thick dragon scales that covered them. Their tails were stubby but club-like with bony spikes to either side.

Others were the more familiar Yowlerbacks. It pained Ralk to see such noble creatures so feared by many, locked away and docile in captivity. When they attacked, they stood on their hind legs like a bear, many arms taller than even the biggest G’yel.

Their heads were more canine-like, ears pointed, teeth so long they often protruded into terrifying over and under bites. Their tails hid in a sheath unless hunting or fighting. While extended, the appendage was bare and long, often used as a whip. It was impressive to see.

There were more beasts, some were the usual lesser dragons and chimera, but each was an extraordinary color for the species. One of the dragons was a deep sapphire while most in the wild were black, grey or hunter green. The chimera was a shimmering crimson, and its eyes were the same color. Ralk had seen nothing like them before.

The area around the pens was more of a menagerie than a place to store beasts for fighting. Each enclosure was carefully constructed to suit each animal’s natural environment.

It was quite expansive, and there were narrow walkways along patches of well-kept grass and trimmed trees between the pens. Despite all of the animals, the court smelled of the rich violet wildflowers planted in thick patches to the sides of the paths. The beasts seemed more for viewing by the public rather than fighting.

In the center was the end of a tall aqueduct where the water fell into a manmade pond below. That pond fed small streams that circled the menagerie, cooling the area by several degrees and offering fresh drinking water to the beasts and the different colorful plants. The rivers of water flowed out of the pens under the ground, perhaps to be used for irrigation.

Ralk didn’t wait for the guard to lead him. He tore free from the man’s grip on his chains, trampling on the flowers before jumping into the pond. He waded underneath the falling water, opening his maw before tilting his head up.

“Well that didn’t take any prodding,” the pen keeper said, astonished as he stared at the G’yel. “The flowers are ruined though.” 

When Ralk had his fill of the cold spring water, he submerged himself, leaving only his head exposed like a water reptile. Though his wrists were bound, he could keep himself afloat easily.

He wasn’t able to properly groom his matted fur, but he hoped that if he stayed submerged long enough, whatever filth clung to him would loosen and wash away. G’yel fur had a natural sheen, and was fairly easy to keep neat, even without bathing for weeks on end.

“We’ve done our part.” The guard leader dangled a key in front of the keeper, letting it fall into the man’s palm. “If I were you, I wouldn’t remove those shackles until the beast is secure.” He extended a hand expectantly.

“I suppose I should pay you, despite letting the beast root through delicate flora that will cost six white bones to replace,” the man said, reaching for the leather purse at his side. He fished around for a moment before removing several ivory squares of different colors. “Two black bones, and eight white, correct?”

“That was the agreement,” the soldier muttered. “Though considering the inconvenience, I feel your master made off like a bandit.”

The keeper dropped the currency into the soldier’s hand and grinned. “One does not become a lord by being careless with his finances, especially when dealing with shifty Carthians.”

The soldier scoffed. “One does not become a lord in Nau by any other means than birthright. It is not as though he came into his wealth by virtue of hard work and cunning,” he said, nose wrinkled before turning away. “Carthia may not have Nau’s wealth, but the people are much wiser and less frivolous with their possessions.” He and his men walked toward the gate. “Perhaps the heat of this gods forsaken plateau makes your people’s tallow brains too soft.”

Ralk watched as the soldiers disappeared, his head still peeking from the pond as he eyed the keeper suspiciously. He had no plans on leaving the cool water until he was taken by force.

“What am I to do with this?” the man muttered to himself before stepping toward dangling rope. He pulled twice and in seconds, several guards dashed into the pens. “Be careful. He’s more valuable to the lord than any of you. Leave the beast be for now until it finishes bathing. Afterward, take it to the pits until Lord Yanth can examine it.”

Ralk sat cross-legged on the floor of a holding cell, his back pressed against the cool stone wall. He was glad to be clean, but it didn’t seem to matter if he was in the sun or the shade. The heat was unbearable. G’yel, like most canid creatures, regulated their body temperature by panting. However, the humidity made it hard to do.

He never thought he’d look forward to hard labor, but at least he’d be out of the stale, tepid air of the pit and into the somewhat cool cross breezes of the plateau. This seemed more of a place to hold human criminals than slaves, but then again, Ralk was a special case.

The brutal heat broke his mind, and he considered for a moment breaking his silence. If he could bargain with his new master, perhaps the lord would give him a more suitable place. He began to feel envious of the beasts in the menagerie. Even they were treated more humanely than he.

Ralk shook those thoughts away. Revealing such a valuable secret had worse consequences than dying from heat stroke. No, he’d keep his mouth shut, biding his time until he could put it to use.

Light footsteps plodded in from the corridor, and an elderly human entered the room, a younger one following him close, carrying what looked like medicine. They both eyed him with fear as they got closer. The older man had fair, sagging skin along his jowls and neck. His eyes were a pale color, and the rest of his body looked just as unsuited and out of place for the climate of this land.

The younger man looked to be in his very early twenties. Unlike the others in Nau with their white or bronze skin, his was a much darker brown. The human reminded him of those from Alacotl, the sky island he once called home. The young man was tall and lanky, his onyxinth-colored hair touched his shoulders, his thick, straight locks parted down the middle.

His jaw was thick and cheeks high, skin as smooth as a naked pup from the womb. As hairless as his body was, his brows were unusually thick. As far as humans were concerned, he was handsome in his own way, though he lacked a lot of muscle most working men his age had. There was a soft familiarity in his eyes that seemed to lighten the mood, if only a little.

Ralk’s glare remained fixated on the younger man, causing the nervous human to stumble, dropping a vile. It shattered on the concrete floor, its valuable contents splashing in all directions.

“Clumsy boy,” the old man shouted, the back of his hand striking the young man with such force he fell backward, the rest of the medicine falling with him. Luckily, he was able to catch the other vials before they broke. “Useless. Why did they give me a lowbrow for an apprentice? Your kind are more suited for bashing rocks together than the delicate arts of healing.”

The young man stood and bowed apologetically, his dark face turning an off-shade of red.

“I—I apologize Master Tauh. It is dark here, and I must have mis-stepped.”

“That medicine was worth ten black bones, more than a month’s pay,” he muttered, snatching the basket from the young man before setting it on the table. “You’ll be doing extra work to pay it off.” The old man walked toward the entrance before looking back. “Get the beast’s paws prepped while I get more.”

“But—but master, wh—where are the guards?” the boy asked, his voice trembling, increasing in volume. “How am I to prepare him with no help?”

“Find a way.” The old man cast a wicked smile before padding through the pit’s doors. “Hopefully it mauls you, and I’ll be able to get someone useful as a replacement,” he said with an arrogant chuckle, his voice echoing through the hall.  

The young man stood still, staring at the ground. “I hate that old lizard,” he muttered before looking up at Ralk who remained seated against the wall, expressionless. Though he was scared and frustrated, his low voice had a calmness to it, a touch soothing when compared to other men. “I guess it is just us.” He let out a quivering sigh. “I know you likely do not understand me, but I pray you know my intentions are to help.”

It would have been nice to take his frustrations out on the weak human, ripping him apart, or at the very least, maiming him. But his paws were blistered from earlier, and the human was better suited for treating. It was best not to disturb the waters in this new place… yet.

The young man wiped his face, swallowing hard before grabbing the basket from the table and the keyring from a hook on the wall. He walked over to the cell and slid it in slowly, turning it with a loud click that reverberated from the walls of the room. Ralk remained still, his intense stare following, never giving the man a moment of reprieve. He wouldn’t attack, but he enjoyed the scent of fear.

They were all alike. All had an unearned sense of superiority when they had an advantage, but every one of them cowered when they were forced into close quarters with a G’yel. Ralk let out a low, threatening growl when the human got closer, only making the smell more intense. It was definitely entertaining. Was that a bit of urine he smelled?

“If you’re going to kill me, hopefully you do it fast,” the boy whispered, taking in another deep breath before closing his eyes and dropping to his knees. He set the basket next to him and reached for Ralk’s left paw.

The smell of fear left him, which surprised Ralk. This human showed more courage than many human males of stronger stature. And he was defenseless. The young man wore rags and had no weapon at the ready, resigning himself to whatever fate Ralk decided. That was enough to earn the human a bit of respect. He stopped growling.

The man opened his eyes and gently caressed Ralk’s paw in his hands, grabbing a rag he dipped in water. There was something in that human’s touch. There was skill and compassion—care that most of his kind lacked when it came to handling the G’yel.

He never looked up, instead, keeping his eyes fixated on gently washing Ralk’s paws. The abrasive cloth should have hurt when it touched his sensitive pads, but it didn’t. It felt nice. No one had ever washed his foot-paws before, and it was something he could get used to.

Ralk closed his eyes and smiled contentedly without realizing it. His head fell back against the wall as the young man began washing his other paw. This was nice, but he knew such luxuries wouldn’t last. For now, he’d allow himself to drift and let the human do his job with no interference.

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