Blood-red light. Fire-hot breath.
The vaguest of shapes – body, four legs, head, neck, tail. Deep in the chest and broad through the shoulders, thick in the limb, heavy in the jaw.
Blood and fire, interlacing like drumbeats, like heartbeats. Tha-thump. Tha-thump. Tha-thump. A brand new heart contracting in an unfinished chest.
A spark. A glimpse of spirit. A nascent soul. Tha-thump.
Flesh knit heavy, bones knit solid. Tha-thump. Thick skin and thicker fur. Tha-thump. Sharp teeth and sharper claws. Tha-thump.
‘Average’ denied. Rebuke denied. Power demanded. Tha-thump.
Battle won. Far-seeing eyes, keen ears, sensitive nose. Tha-thump. Long whiskers and callused pawpads. Tha-thump.
Blood and fire, interlacing like sine and cosine, like firing synapses. Tha-thump. Alert, aware, analyzing. Tha-thump.
Cold, pale blue gaze unlidded. Tha-thump. First view of blinding light – a spinning orb – and a towering tree with bright leaves. Tha-thump.
Body coalescing like the first breath of the world, a shuddering inhale, a wave of physical sensation. Tha-thump.
Weight settling, pressing paws into the earth, gravity taking hold of a freshly-completed frame. Tha-thump. Tha-thump. Tha-thump.
A silent voice older than time, a language deeper than intuition. “You are she.” Tha-thump.
A long pink tongue awkward against heavy teeth. Vocal chords snarling into soundwaves. “I am.”
The spinning light, luminous enough to blind, met with unblinking eyes. “Then you are she. You are the perfect one. What do you call yourself, she who awoke before created?”
No hesitation. No uncertainty. “I shall be called Redwood, as mighty as the kûsani under which I was created, and as red as blood, heart, and fire.”
Scents whipped to shreds by the radiance’s rotation. “And what shall you call your people, O Redwood?”
Broad black nose beginning to distinguish smells despite the whirling winds. Snf snf. “They shall be called Korats, for the word pleases me.”
A long pause. Korats. ‘Kings’ in a tongue not Lavanian. “You are unprecedented. Lavana would bow before you, should you choose to take her. This you must know.”
Ears angling backwards, a tacit display of disapproval. “Lavana is my home. Not my slave; not my kingdom. I hold no dreams of tyranny in my heart.”
A longer pause, the self-contained blaze spinning within its own tornado. “…then you are she.”
Confidence. Surety. “She I am, and she I will always be. None shall take my life, nor conquer my people.” Tha-thump. “Give me my sisters’ shadows, that I may add them to mine.”
Disdain. Disagreement. “They are weak.”
A lowering of the voice from baritone to growling thunder. “They are no weaker than I, and you daren’t call Redwood weak.” Tha-thump.
Silence. Two bodiless shadows crept over the fields and bled into hers, making it as black as the void.
Pleased. “Take it. My sisters and I shall lead our people together.” Unprecedented, three Originals instead of one.
A sound like shattering crystal – the abyss-dark shadow vanished entirely. Below the ledge, below the kûsani, the first fifty Korats breathed their first lungful of wind together. Three distinct breeds: black, tan, … and red. “I shall be watching.” Tha-thump.
Body became permanent in every final detail as the light rose into the lavender sky like a phoenix ascending. Tha-thump. Redwood breathed deeply, flesh and fur and bone moving in sweet synchronicity. Tha-thump. Scents were easily read and sounds suddenly audible as the wind calmed. The retreat of brilliant luminance let color creep into vision, staining objects with vivid life. Natural sunlight and a planet-born breeze replaced the alien power of the intangible Creator as its light faded entirely from view.
The red mother smiled.
The day was not nearly so bright as the Creator had been, but Redwood still had to squint when her gaze found the sun hanging heavy in the sky. Ghrayu, she knew it was called, and she watched it from beneath lowered lids for a moment, flushed orange in the lavender sky. Knowledge about her world was whirling in her mind at once, facts spinning along the surface of her thoughts, and she plucked them out one by one to examine them. The people of this world called it Lavana, and its sun was Ghrayu, and the system together was the Tri-System. The barest horizon of a copper-bronze world could be seen along the south-western edge of the sky, and she breathed deeply as she looked towards it. That was Terole, then, the desert planet. There was another world – Shakala, the ice planet – somewhere beyond the rim of the sky, and then two moons caught within the three worlds’ haphazard dance.
The Korat’s gaze lowered as she shortened her visual distance to observe things closer to her. The tree, the first tree in all the world, the singing kûsani whose primal rhythm rocked her entire body and brought her into sync with its beat– it towered above her, hundreds of feet taller than the ledge on which she stood, its base hundreds of feet below on the plains. She could not see the crown, so thick and deep was the canopy with its golden leaves and bunches of silver fruit, but the immensity of the mother of all trees could not be mistaken. It sang, and her heart kept time to its inaudible voice.
The nine obelisks had stood the test of time since they had originally been erected. They formed a crescent, facing the sheer cliff that raced upwards but did not top the kûsani; two vertical rocks topped with a shorter slab that linked them, doorways from nowhere into nothing. Through each, one of the Original Nine had stepped on Lavana’s first day, and since then, the entire area had been regarded as sacred. None were here to despoil its history and its magic.
None, except for the First Fifty of her race, milling about on the plains below the cliff. She could hear the low rumble of voices, still too far away to distinguish individual words, and she wondered if they were speaking their native tongue. She knew Kalash, the planet’s common tongue, but there was another language that set deeper and thicker into her brain, one truer to her own jaws. Koratian. She wanted to know what it sounded like.
Redwood turned from the place of her own Creation and looked out over the plains, golden-green grasses undulating softly in the warm wind. To the north, her left, there were dark forests; to the south, the rest of the mountain range to which her cliff belonged; and west, where the sun’s brilliance still made her squint, a lighter and sparser forest. The plains sat plumply in the middle of it all, placid and sweetly devoid of wildlife and danger.
With another deep breath of the fresh breeze, the red Korat moved into a slow walk. The rhythm of her own gait almost surprised her – graceful, powerful, rolling, and silent. It fit, she decided after several strides, feeling how smoothly her thick hide moved over corded muscles wrapped around heavy bones. The wind tickled her whiskers and she wrinkled her muzzle as she came to the edge of the ledge, looking down speculatively. It was a drop of at least fifty times her own length from nose to base of tail.
A good chance to test this body of mine. Redwood bared her teeth in an undaunted grin, then leapt off the edge. The wind tried to catch her, gusting against her broad chest and howling in her ears, and she curled her legs up to her torso and let out a shrill cry in the eternal seconds that passed before the ground sprang up to greet her. She landed well and let herself roll with her own momentum, burly limbs absorbing the shock of impact and thick body undamaged from the headlong tumble forward.
She stood and shook the dirt from her dark pelt, a thunder-rumbling laugh welling up in her chest. The physical sensations delighted her, even the brief and already-fading stab of pain when she hit the ground.
Muzzle still parted in a predator’s grin, Redwood drew in a deep breath and let it out in a bellowing roar, surprising herself at her own volume as the very mountain behind her seemed to shudder. Almost immediately, answering roars shook the plains, but theirs ended well before she ran out of air and let her muzzle snap shut. Ears pricking, she began walking forward, sliding inexorably into a trot, a lope, and then a headlong gallop that sent her barreling across the flat field with another howling shout. Other cries answered her again – some deep, some shrill, some liquid, some gravelly, some raspy, some ululating. It was a cacaphony of voices the world had never before heard, and Redwood could not drop her gape-jawed expression of primal joy as she raced towards her kindred.
The first Korat to her was a tawny-furred female with brilliant blue eyes and such an overjoyed expression that Redwood growled a soft laugh, slowing as the faster huntress circled her. The tan was lean, all angular features and sharp edges, all clean-cut beauty and streamlined efficiency, but her thin face was nothing but beautiful in the red Korat’s eyes. Redwood rolled from a jog to a walk and then a halt as the tan came in close – they touched noses, almost reverently, before the tan let out a sharp bark and headbutted the thicker female.
The feeling of fur against fur was brand new to both of them. The warmth of their own bodies, let alone each other’s, was a fresh miracle. Redwood caught the tan’s shoulders with one heavy forehand and pulled her close; the tan curled against her and rumbled softly – not a growl, but a purr. It was a soothing sound, and the red mother bent her head to press her muzzle against the tan’s thinner neck, breathing deeply of the new scent and feeling the vibrations of the purr pass from throat to face through the medium of touch.
Then, there were others all around them, giving up their voices in explosive abandon. There were no words in these exultations, these roars and bugles and howls and creels, but no words were needed at that moment. Redwood looked up and found her own chest thrumming with a deep, bone-heavy purr as her people, her brothers and sisters, her legacy surrounded her. Blacks and tans and reds, all of them, all beautiful and unique, all of them with a different face and scent and voice. Most of the reds had her build, long and low and thick, but a few had longer legs and were taller, more square in proportion than low-slung, and she looked up at those taller ones with a fierce grin of pride. The blacks varied less in color but more in build, having a wider range of heights and lengths and thicknesses, but they made a pleasant balance between the reds’ solidity and power and the tans’ speed and agility.
Redwood knew that there were still two Korats missing, and she looked to the sky as though it held the answer to reaching them. Her sisters, her truest sisters, the other two Originals – the precedents for the other two breeds that crowded around her, reaching out forehands and noses to touch her, bursting into rounds of purring as every new sensation thrilled them. The feeling of community, of joy, of pride crackled almost tangibly in the air, fifty-one individual scents and voices mingling into a cloud of Koratian essence.
A thought skimmed the surface and she pounced on it, took it apart, and studied its possibilities. Redwood fell still and quiet, the first tan female still pressed to her flank, as she chewed over this new fact she had found and debated on its merits. After only a few moments, she grunted approval under her breath and then let out a short roar. Instantly, her kindred cleared a space around her (but for that one tan), and Redwood reached out her spirit and bent the air in front of her to her will.
The air flickered, a mirage in a nonexistent desert, then spun, a tornado in a nonexistent dustbowl. It spiraled inwards and kicked up wind, sucked down the air, swept away the mingling scents from their new owners. Colors began to twist and color it – pale violet from the sky, soft rose from the clouds, Ghrayu’s thick orange, the grass’s yellow-green, the kûsani‘s leaf-gold, and the pale blue of the red mother’s own eyes. The First Fifty quieted, watching this phenomenon with wide eyes and flared whiskers, ears erect and bodies posed in eager curiosity.
A clapboom of thunder made them all jump as the vortex before them became a full-fledged portal. It spun, wind howling through it, colors blurring so quickly that it was nearly opaque, and Redwood waited to see if her sisters would come to her on their own accord.
A black without a shadow stepped through the rainbowed dervish, all grace and feral beauty, and met Redwood’s gaze with eyes of a darker but no less pure blue. A moment passed, and a tan followed suite through the portal, deftness and delicacy in her movements. The portal faded away with a white-noise crackle and the First Fifty were silent as the three Korat Originals looked wordlessly at each other.
“Botsa ze cha,” Redwood finally greeted, tasting the common phrase like a draught of liquid down a parched throat.
The tan Original smiled, a softer expression than the red’s manic grin. “Botsa ze cha, mri’sou,” she replied in a hauntingly gentle voice.
The black grinned, an unexpectedly feral expression from one of such beauty. “Botsa ze cha, indeed,” she purred.
“You are my equals,” Redwood rumbled, both an affirmation and a question, looking from sapphire eyes to emerald. “These are our people around us. Will you help me guide them?”
There were murmurs from the First Fifty. sidifir oerri, they whispered, red-Korat mother. And korofir oerri, they whispered, black-Korat mother. Vesefir oerri, tan-Korat mother. Somewhere between a chant and a prayer, they spoke those names and watched the three shadowless Korats in the center of their circle.
“Yes,” the tan said simply, another smile lightning her slender face. “I am Kaili.” The surrounding Korats passed the name around like something sacred, murmuring it reverently, tasting the word on their tongues.
The black swept her gaze over those assembled, then looked to Kaili, and then, lastly, to Redwood. “I will,” she said after a moment, a light in her eyes as a few blacks let out a howling whoop. “I am Ana.” Again, the name was traded in whispers from mouth to mouth, handled with care and pride.
“And you, sister?” Kaili asked, meeting Redwood’s gaze with a gentleness that belied her razor-sharp claws.
“Redwood,” the sidifir oerri answered with a wide, tongue-lolling grin. As before, her name was exchanged as currency amongst the First Fifty, and the murmurs quieted only after every single one of them had spoken the three mothers’ names.
The female who had been first to greet the red stepped up again and leaned against the Original’s flank, breaking the solemn spell that hung over the shadowless trio, and the Korats around them howled and roared and shrilled their voices to the setting sun.
Once Ghrayu’s bright face had completely vanished behind the western horizon, the first Korats learned how well they could see in relative darkness. Both moons were visible in the sky, silvery Veron casting far more light than smaller, red-gold Xerachin; the barest edge of coppery Terole was also glowing in the southwestern corner of the planet’s roof. All of those heavenly bodies spread muted light across the field, making shadows stark and sharp as the Korats moved through the grass. They followed scents and followed sensation, the tickle of the weeds against their bellies a novel feeling. Redwood walked with her sisters, and none of them cast a shadow beneath the gazes of the moons.
There was no pressure to speak; they were new to each other, as Redwood was new to the world, and so they learned in silence about one another. Redwood watched how her sisters’ gaits were different from her own – higher steps, less side-to-side roll – and listened to them breathe, occasionally glancing over to see how their ears canted and how they held their tails. Hers was slung low behind her, tailblade erect but not angled to strike; black Ana held her tail parallel with her spine and the ground, and it flowed and curled with each step. Kaili’s tail, so lean and fast, twisted and cavorted behind her thin hips, the smooth tailblade near the tip gleaming as it reflected the moonslight.
The three Originals kept pace with each other as their brethren, quieter now in the darkness of new night, explored the field and scratched at the dirt and took bites out of the weeds just to see how bitter the chlorophyll tasted and how strange a texture pollen was on their tongues. Sometimes, one of the fifty would exclaim in surprise or wonder or displeasure, and others would congregate to inspect the cause of this commotion. Once, they caught scent of a burrowing reptile and spent half an hour digging up its den just to see how it tasted.
The scent of blood was enough to draw Redwood’s head around, and she stopped mid-stride. The quiet static of tiny bones crunching was a welcome sound, and the red mother realized that she was hungry. It was a new sensation, this hollowness inside her, and she decided that she liked it for how it sharpened her senses and made the air around her come alive with potential. “We hunt,” she growled, and her sisters flanked her as she turned towards the western wood. The treeline was leagues distant, and even Koratian eyes could not pierce that length to see if there were animals in the fields.
They ran, Redwood leading for all that she was the slowest, Ana on her right and Kaili on her left, the First Fifty streaming out behind the sisters in a disorganized mob. Clouds were scudding across the larger moon’s pale face, darkening the field and making pounding hearts seem louder. The wind whipped, torn by their speed, and cast fragments of scents into flaring nostrils and gaping jaws. Breathing hard was new – lolling out the tongue to pant was new – the stream of saliva that leaked from the corners of jaws was new. Redwood exulted in all of it, immersed in the power of her own body lunging forward, the hot slide of muscles over muscles as each stride brought her closer to prey.
There, yes, yes – prey. Bipeds with long tails and long necks and long legs, with squat torsos and slender heads and tiny forearms. She knew this species, knew its name although she didn’t know its strength or taste, and she let out a ululating howl as the herd spotted their hunters. “Preda Bens,” Ana snarled, liquid voice twisting in hunger and desire, and the word was hissed over dangling tongues and through sharp teeth as the fifty learned the name of their first meal.
Ana and Kaili had both been alive for longer than a day; in fact, both had years of living in this world to guide them. But neither offered warning nor strategy as the Korats surged forward, an unstoppable wave of dusk-tan and blood-red and shadow-black, the colors mingling and bleeding together as their owners galloped on. There were more Korats than ‘Bens, and Redwood knew that her people would destroy this herd and feed well.
The sidifir oerri let out a harsh roar as the fifty spread out, the fastest runners to either side, forming an incoming crescent like the sharp curve of a tailblade; the herd had formed rings, with the largest few in the very center and the second-largest group becoming the outermost guards. Redwood’s muzzle creased in a predator’s smile as her lips drew back over heavy teeth; she lengthened her stride, straining to be the first to encounter this herd, eyes tracking on one of the guards.
For nonsentient herbivores, they stood their ground admirably well.
Redwood tackled her target with all her bulk behind her considerable momentum, and she heard bones snap with just that impact. Jaws gaping, she twisted as she rolled and bit down on the first limb to touch her nose; the ‘Ben’s shin shattered under the pressure and blood flooded into her mouth, hot and metallic and salty and glorious. As she slid to a stop, the animal’s body tangling with hers, Redwood brought her longclaws to bear and plunged her hind paws into the ‘Ben’s soft, round belly. It squalled, nearly drowning out the wet squelch of intestines writhing around toes, and the Korat snarled madly before closing her jaws over the ‘Ben’s narrow face and crushing its skull.
All around her, the rest of the fifty were hunting and killing, many working in pairs so they would have food to share in bringing the largest ones down; the big bull, alpha of the herd, easily weighed as much as Redwood herself and would feed more than one Korat for multiple days. The shrieks and squalls of the Preda Bens competed in volume against the bestial snarls and barking roars of their killers, and the sidifir oerri listened to flesh tearing and bones cracking with a bloody grin on her muzzle. It was a beautiful orchestra to her ears, and she didn’t think to untangle herself from her own kill or even taste more than its blood until the very last animal had met its death at the teeth or claws or blades of her kindred.
Redwood lifted her muzzle and howled, a gurgle in her voice as blood trickled into the back of her throat, and felt her racing heart soar as the other fifty-two Korats around her screamed and roared and sang in response, in triumph, in visceral blood-soaked ecstasy. The hunt was good, the kills were good, and the voices silenced as shredding and tearing commenced. The red mother pressed her black nose against the still-warm body of her kill, nearly drinking the rich scent of prey and death and blood and fresh, fresh meat; then, almost reverently, she plunged her teeth into the muscle of its shoulder and tore off a bite. Chewing wasn’t necessary; her teeth shredded the muscle well enough to toss into the back of her throat and gulp it down, cooling blood washing the pieces down with each swallow.
Eating was new. The feeling of the hollowness in her body being slowly filled by warmth and weight was new. Every taste, from the dirt in the fur to the thin layer of fat beneath the skin, from the red muscle to the dark bone marrow to the slick-soft internal organs, was new. And she gloried in every second of it, drenching her face and forehands in gore, licking it away only to experience the strange juxtaposition of her own scent so blurred into food-taste. The night was timeless as she filled her belly until her body could hold no more, then sprawled on her flank to listen to her stomach gurgle. The feeling of satisfaction, of being sated, of being nearly bloated, was new.
Redwood felt her eyelids grow heavy and she blinked, then noticed the sluggishness of her limbs and how comfortable this particular gore-stained patch of grass was. Around her, her kindred were going through the same strange evolution towards sleep, and they quieted and settled down one by one. Many sprawled next to each other, flanks touching or tails twined; others curled into each other, limbs tangling and chins resting on one another’s shoulders. Redwood rolled onto her back and carefully stretched out her long neck, listening to the vertebrae click as though unlocking, so that she could rest with both her shoulders against the earth. She breathed deeply, tasting the thickening scents of death and congealing blood in the air, and idly licked at the crimson beginning to dry and crust around her muzzle.
Then, there was a warmth at her flank that was not the food in her belly, and she flicked an ear in curiosity as she felt a body settle alongside her. It wasn’t until the wind twisted slightly that she could pick out the Korat’s scent from the smells of a successful hunt; it was the tan female, the one who first greeted her. Redwood rolled her head to the side, awkward with her neck outstretched, so that she could turn one pale eye towards the lithe huntress. The tan offered her a sharp-toothed, red-painted grin, then curled just enough to rest her head on Redwood’s broad chest.
“What’s your name?” the sidifir oerri asked, curiosity briefly outweighing the soothing comfort of physical companionship.
“Pahatha,” the tan replied after a moment of consideration. “I like how it sounds.” Her voice was not as gentle as Kaili’s; it had an edge of wit and blade to it, and Redwood liked it. She straightened her neck again, gazing ahead at the roots of the grass, and studied the grain of the black soil until she realized that her body was going numb and unresponsive.
A soft sleeping purr from Pahatha kept Redwood from trying to reawaken her body; belatedly, she realized that this was how falling asleep felt, and she closed her eyes in surrender to the pleasant haze of post-hunt weariness. The tan was light and warm against her, and she found herself slipping into welcome darkness as the sounds around her went from final bites of dinner to quiet, content murring.
For the first time, Redwood slept. And she dreamed.