Chapter 5:

Chapter 5

Waking Up as a Gyaru in a New World

I joined my companions outside. Aliya was fully dressed now. I admit I was starting to wonder. She had on the same tiger-striped bikini top but she was now wearing tight, black, leather breeches and sandals that laced up to the bottom of the breeches. Her hair was brushed and fell in waves to her shoulders. She had knives on both hips, one long and straight and the other wide and curved. There were smaller throwing knives on both wrists and biceps as well as one at the small of her back. I wouldn’t be surprised if she had more I couldn’t see. Her pack was a simple cloth bundle she had clutched in one hand. Bookmark here

I glanced at the sun, which was just above the horizon. It was still kind of chilly out. For the first time, I wondered about the weather. Was it going to get colder? I really wasn’t dressed for it. I shook my head. Problems for the future. “Let’s go.” I took a step forward and my ankle tried to fold underneath me. I stumbled but managed to stay on my feet. These god damned heels.Bookmark here

Aliya cocked her head. “Those are some interesting sandals. I’ve never seen heels like that before.”Bookmark here

“They’re popular where I come from,” I muttered. Bookmark here

“Really? I’ve never seen any Altheans wearing them.” Her voice wasn’t accusatory, just curious, but it put me on the defensive anyway. Bookmark here

“They usually aren’t worn on business,” I snapped. Bookmark here

“What are they worn for then?” Bookmark here

“Because they look good, okay?” I blushed. “I wouldn’t be wearing them if I had anything else. They were all I had after the shipwreck!” Aliya held up her hands in surrender but I could tell she was confused by my defensiveness. That wasn’t good. Aliya seemed okay with my magic for now but I was guessing that she would be a lot less okay with me coming from another world. “Come on. We’re wasting daylight.” I set off again and this time managed to walk steadily. Bookmark here

There wasn’t a real road north out of the village but there was a worn track. It made things easier. There was only a little traffic on the path. A wagon loaded with lumber came out of the village. The driver glared at us as he passed but did nothing further. A few farmers passed by with small carts full of produce for the village. They were standoffish but not hostile.Bookmark here

Now that I had someone that I could talk to someone who actually knew something about the world, I learned a lot. I already knew that the lands we were in were called Pekel and the people Pekelnik. Pekelnik referred to both the beast people and humans who were native to the land. The beast people referred to themselves as ‘zverdi,’ after an old empire. Aliya seemed convinced, like Kriv, that it was only a matter of time before the zverdi conquered the entire world. The Zverdi Empire would have and should have already dominated the world if the Beast Emperor Ramza hadn’t been betrayed and murdered by his close confidant. A cobra zverdi, of course. This all took place something like two millennia ago so I assumed it was almost entirely myth.Bookmark here

Pekel was ruled by clans of these zverdi with six clans, called the Big Six, dominating the rest. The clans were Wolf, Bear, Frog, Eagle, Shark and Cobra. The Lions had been a Big Six clan but the cobras had used the Altheans to destroy the lions and take over. The mastermind, or devious traitor depending on your position, had been that Zinger I’d been reading about. The Tiger Clan, which Aliya belonged to, was subservient to the cobras. Aliya almost choked while admitting that. She also refused to say anything about her past. I was getting the bad feeling that I tied myself to another person the Cobra Clan would happily kill. Bookmark here

I wanted to know more about Pekel and the rest of the world but towards the end of the first day, it began to rain. And it didn’t really stop for the next three days. It wasn’t cold but the sheer relentlessness made it miserable. My heels also really enjoyed sinking into the soft ground. The rain made it hard for Kriv and Aliya to hunt so we hardly had anything to eat. At night we would huddle together under a tree. The two beasts seemed very comfortable squeezing in close but I wasn’t used to it. Having Aliya’s warmth pressed up against me caused a lot of feelings, as well as responses from a body that was very different from the one I’d grown up in. Luckily, I was so tired that I managed to sleep after a while anyway. Bookmark here

In the middle of the fourth night of rain, I suddenly woke up. It took me a moment to figure out why. The rain had stopped. I almost started crying from relief and prayed to the goddess or whoever was listening that it wouldn’t start up again. I leaned back against the trunk of the tree we were huddled under, intending to try to sleep. But something else was bothering me. I opened my eyes and searched around. What was it? I sucked in a hissing breath as I spotted a pair of glowing red eyes out in the darkness. It was hard for me to tell exactly how far away it was but it was too close as far as I was concerned. The clouds had cleared and there was moonlight but I couldn’t make out anything more than the fact that it was big and on four legs. A bear, maybe? A bear with demonic glowing red eyes? Bookmark here

A hard squeeze to my arm told me that Aliya was awake, too. I was glad she was awake but her obvious fear made me feel even worse. I took a quick glance at Kriv and saw he was awake, too. His amber eyes caught the moonlight and flashed. He didn’t seem remotely afraid. I wondered if he was afraid of anything. Was it confidence or naivety? I cut my eyes quickly back to the monster. It had taken a step forward and seemed to be studying us. I quickly ran through my list of skills. Would ‘Sweet Lullaby’ work on a monster? I prepared to do it if it came any closer. What could it hurt?Bookmark here

But, apropos of nothing I could understand, it suddenly turned and bounded off. I let out a long breath. “What the hell was that?” I didn’t get an answer so I turned to Aliya. “What was that, Aliya?” Bookmark here

“Quiet, fool,” she hissed. “Do you want to draw it back to us? I will not speak of such things in the dark.” Bookmark here

I didn’t challenge her. Maybe it was just superstition but I didn’t know how this world worked and I sure as hell didn’t want to see whatever it was come back. None of us slept anymore that night, not even Kriv. Once the sun was up and Kriv was frying some bird eggs he’d rustled up, I asked again. “What was that last night?” Bookmark here

“Hellhound,” Aliya said brusquely.Bookmark here

“Hellhound?” I repeated. My voice went high and winey. How had we gone from no monsters to hellspawn? Bookmark here

Aliya shrugged. “That’s what we call them. The alchemists of the Zverdi Empire didn’t only make us. They created monsters, too, for battling the demon-worshipping Yazata. When the Black City fell, the monsters went out of control. The hellhounds are among the most dangerous. Nobody survives an attack.” Bookmark here

A shiver ran down me. ‘Among’ the most dangerous? What the hell else was out there? “Why didn’t it attack us?” Bookmark here

Aliya shrugged again. “Nobody understands the hellhounds. Sometimes they attack, sometimes they don’t. I’ve heard that it depends on the hound you run into.” Her eyes suddenly went very round and she surged to her feet. She was breathing fast, close to hyperventilating. “Tracks,” she muttered. “We need to find tracks.” She rushed away, toward the area where the hellhound had been. Kriv and I glanced at each other in confusion and followed. Aliya was on all fours, searching the still wet ground. Kriv and I watched her. She glared at us. “Help me search!” Bookmark here

I obviously wasn’t any help but Kriv found a few different tracks. They were big but looked like any other dog prints. Aliya finally calmed down when Kriv was convinced they’d found prints of all four paws. “I had to make sure it wasn’t the hellhound Three-toe,” Aliya explained. “That hound will always hunt down and kill any that have seen him.” I wondered how they even knew about him, if he left no survivors. Bookmark here

A smell was on the air and I couldn’t quite place it. “What smells like rotten eggs?” I asked, more to myself than the two zverdi. Bookmark here

“It is the sulfur stink of the hellhounds,” Aliya said.Bookmark here

My stomach felt like it dropped. “Let’s get out of here.” They didn’t argue. Bookmark here

About an hour down the road, we came across an unusual sight. A woman, face down on the side of the track. She didn’t have any beast features that I could see. Her hair was long, down to mid-back, thick, straight and ink black. She was wearing a light blue, Pekelnik-style top but voluminous, white trousers that were tight at the ankle instead of breeches. Her sandals were simple slip-ons. A huge pack was on the ground next to her. No weapons that I could see. I kneeled down next to her and put my hand on her shoulder. “Are you alright?” Bookmark here

The woman spun incredibly fast and grasped my hand. “Food!” she cried. I tried to jump back, panicked that she was going to take a bite out of me. Did the alchemists make zombies, too? Her hold on my hand was too strong, though. “Food,” she repeated. This time her voice was much weaker. My fear subsided and I actually looked at her. She wasn’t a zombie. In fact, she was pretty cute. Her eyes were big and very dark, almost black. She had a bold, slightly hooked nose that complimented her features well and a wide, full-lipped mouth. “Food,” she repeated one last time before sinking back down to her original position face down in the dirt. Her hand was still in mind but it was limp now. I glanced at Kriv. Bookmark here

He understood what I wanted, though he was happy about it. The wolfboy bounded off to see if he could turn up something to eat. I only had the protein bar I was saving for emergencies and the peach gummies I was resisting with all my strength. They weren’t mine, after all. Aliya squatted down on the other side of the downed woman. “Why are we stopping to help this woman?” Aliya asked. Bookmark here

“Because she needs help?” I said, my uncertainty making it a question. Not uncertainty about helping the woman but uncertainty about why Aliya was asking me. Pekelnik morality was pretty harsh if they would just leave a dying woman on the side of the road. Though from what I knew of history, it might have been my modern morality that was unusual. Aliya raised an eyebrow but didn’t say anything further. Bookmark here

Kriv returned faster than I had expected. When I saw what he had, I guessed that he had just gathered the first things he could find. A handful of hard-looking nuts and a lizard. I supposed I couldn’t blame him but I wondered if the lady on the ground would even be able to choke that stuff down. I shook her arm lightly. “We have some food,” I said, swallowing the ‘kind of’ that I wanted to add. Bookmark here

The woman pushed herself up so quickly that I fell back onto my ass. She looked around like a woman possessed and found Kriv. She scuttled forward and snatched the lizard. I turned my head away as she devoured it raw. I hadn’t seen any beast attributes on her so I’d thought she was human but now I was wondering. When I heard crunching I had to look at her again and was relieved to see that she was eating the nuts. There was blood around her mouth. Bookmark here

When she was finished, she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. She sighed. “I thought I was done for this time,” she said. “You saved me.” She was sitting cross-legged but gave us a deep bow. Bookmark here

I instinctively bowed back. “I’m glad we could help.” Bookmark here

The woman turned, looking startled. “You speak Artasi!” she squealed. “The first person I’ve met in Pekel that speaks the god tongue!” She rubbed her chin. “You don’t have the Artasi look, though. Althean?” Bookmark here

I nodded. I guess it was providence that I chose Althean as my false ethnicity. “My name is Selene. I was shipwrecked south of here.” Bookmark here

The woman bobbed her head in a second bow. “Dorsa Shouaa, researcher from Gavodata. It is a great honor to meet you.” Bookmark here

“Glad to meet you, too.” I couldn’t suppress my curiosity. “What is it that you research?”Bookmark here

Dorsa’s black eyes lit up. “Would you believe that in all the centuries since the Ruinous Wars, not one person has bothered to record and study all the various creatures created by the Zverdi alchemists?” I could believe that, if the hellhounds were anything to go by. But I understood what Dorsa was getting at, since that kind of work was very important to science. “I will be the first!” Dorsa continued. “My mission in life is to personally observe every alchemical creature.” Bookmark here

A sudden thought hit me. “Wait, were you out here searching for that hellhound?”Bookmark here

Dorsa surged forward so that she was on her knees and grabbed me by the shoulders. “Did you see it?” she practically shrieked. Bookmark here

“Last night!” I gasped, shouting because she had startled me. “But I didn’t see much of it. Just a shadow with red eyes.” Bookmark here

Dorsa squeezed her eyes shut and moaned. “Oooh, I’m so jealous! I’ve been trying to catch a glimpse of that hellhound for weeks now!”Bookmark here

“Are you insane?” I asked. “My zverdi friends told me that hellhounds usually kill on sight. I have no idea why it didn’t kill us.” Bookmark here

Dorsa’s eyes flashed and she laughed, a little condescendingly. “I may be a fool but I’m not insane. That hellhound is Dhoog. People have seen him before without being killed. As long as you don’t attack him, he usually runs away. But he’s really hard to find. If I just wanted to see one, Barghest and Chudovishte are easier to find. Only they would kill me if they noticed me.” Bookmark here

I still thought she was pretty insane. I glanced at Kriv and Aliya to see how they were taking it and found them both staring at me. “What is it?” I asked. Bookmark here

“You speak that woman’s language as well,” Aliya said. “I know it isn’t Althean because I’ve heard Althean.”Bookmark here

“Oh, yeah. I guess I do,” I said, rubbing the back of my neck. I turned back to Dorsa. “Can you speak Pekelnik? My friends are feeling left out.” Bookmark here

“Of course,” Dorsa said. “It has just been too long since I heard the tongue of my native lands.” She got to her feet and said, in what I assumed was Pekelnik, “Well met, friend zverdi. My name is Dorsa Shouaa of Gavodata.” She swept low into a bow. Bookmark here

Aliya nodded to her. “Aliya.” Bookmark here

“Kriv,” Kriv said, keeping ramrod straight and peering at Dorsa suspiciously.Bookmark here

Dorsa was far from intimidated. She stepped forward and enfolded Kriv in a hug. “Thank you for bringing me something to eat. I haven’t had anything in four days.” Bookmark here

I was kind of jealous of Kriv for the hug. His head was at the height of her breasts and she was pretty well-endowed. I bet it felt nice. I was so focused on that that it took me a moment to actually hear what she’d said. “Wait! Four days?!” Bookmark here

Dorsa let Kriv go and turned to me. She put her hand on the back of her head, embarrassed. “Yes. Somebody spotted some hellhound prints and I lost my head following them. When the rain started, I had no idea where I was. I wandered around in the rain for the next few days but I had no idea how to find any food. I collapsed here last night.” She laughed as if it were genuinely funny. “It was lucky I collapsed so close to the path. I had no idea I was near it!” Bookmark here

I exchanged glances with Kriv and Aliya. We three weren’t laughing even as Dorsa continued to. I was now convinced that she wasn’t all there in the head. I glanced at her pack. “You don’t have any food in there?” Bookmark here

“Food!” Dorsa kneeled down and put a hand protectively on her pack. “No room. I keep my tools in here. And books and scrolls that I need.” She looked down worriedly. “I hope nothing got ruined by that damnable rain.” Bookmark here

Me, Kriv and Aliya all glanced at each other. Even I was shocked that someone would carry a huge pack full of books like that. “How have you been surviving if you don’t carry food and you don’t know how to find food?” I asked. Bookmark here

Dorsa put a hand on the back of her head and stuck out her tongue. “I was staying at the inn in Paddletail before I got lost. When we traveled between towns, we would hire a boat or a merchant to guide us. I’m afraid growing up in Gavodata didn’t prepare me for life in the wilds.” Bookmark here

“We?” I asked. Bookmark here

Dorsa suddenly seemed nervous. “Yes. I am traveling with a bodyguard. I think she isn’t going to be very happy that I left her behind.” Bookmark here

“Paddletail,” Aliya said. “That is about three days away.”Bookmark here

Dorsa got to her feet. She heaved her pack off the ground and swung it on. I could tell how heavy it was by the fact that the momentum of the pack caused her to turn almost hundred and eighty degrees. “What are we waiting for?” she asked, though she now wasn’t facing us. I looked at my companions and shrugged. It seemed we had a new person coming with us. Aliya shrugged back but Kriv seemed unhappy. I didn’t blame him. Now he had another mouth to feed. Bookmark here

As we walked, Dorsa chattered away almost constantly. Mostly she talked about her research. The number of creatures she’d already found and studied was impressive. And frightening. Lightning Lizards, Poison Rats, Wolpertingers, Cabbits, Cockatrices, Razor Boars, Cactus Cats and something called Splody Mice. I got the sense that a hellhound would be the capper that would let her complete her research and go back home. No wonder she had been so determined to find it. For some reason I had assumed Dorsa had only been in Pekl for a little while but she had clearly been here for years. Bookmark here

I steered the conversation toward her homeland when I could. Gavodata, the city she was from, was a massive port city that was the cultural center and origin point of her people, the Artasi. It was weeks away by ship. Apparently it was theoretically possible to travel from Artas to Pekel overland but it was such a long and harrowing journey that nobody had ever tried it. Gavodata and the rest of Artas were allied with a power to the west of them called Moloch. The Moloch protected them from nomadic tribes of horse archers to the east. The reason the Molochi were able to frighten away these Fujin horsemen was because they had a dragon. Bookmark here

“Wait! A dragon? An actual dragon?” I asked. Bookmark here

Dorsa glanced at me, curiosity sparkling in her black eyes. “Of course. The Inferno Dragon. The Molochi all worship him as a god. We Artasi pay homage to him as well but most of us think he is just a dragon. I’m surprised you didn’t know about him. He did kill one of your Emperors after all.”Bookmark here

I stiffened involuntarily, trying not to show my nerves. I was really going to have to find a book on Althean history or something if I wanted to keep up this charade. “I guess I just always assumed that was propaganda.” Bookmark here

“Propaganda?” Dorsa repeated, as if the word was unfamiliar. Bookmark here

I silently cursed. “I mean, I thought that was a story that was made up to explain how the Emperor lost a war to the Molochi,” I explained. I was taking a gamble that the killing had taken place in Moloch but I felt I had a good chance. Bookmark here

Dorsa laughed loudly. “Oh, it’s true. I visited Tyra’s Valley once and you can still see evidence of the massive fire that destroyed your legions. It’s lucky for you all that the Inferno Dragon was happy enough to drive you from his lands.”Bookmark here

My heart was hammering in my chest. Dragons! I might be able to see dragons! “Are there other dragons?” I asked. Bookmark here

Dorsa stared at me in wonder. “Of course! Have you not read Jezebel’s On Dragons and Their Strange History?Bookmark here

I shook my head. “I haven’t had the honor.” Bookmark here

“Oh but you simply must!” Dorsa clasped my hand but the weight of her big pack caused her to slam into me hard. I barely managed to stay on my feet. “It was her work that inspired my own! She is the most magnificent scholar that ever lived! I would lend you my copy but I cannot bear to let another lay hands on it.” Bookmark here

“Well,” I said, untangling myself from her and putting some distance between us. “I’ll certainly keep an eye out for a copy.” I meant it too. I wanted to see a dragon.Bookmark here

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