This wasn’t Brae’s first time stealing. Quite the opposite. Her mother called her a born thief.
Born into a rogue clan of thieves, she had learned from the time she was very young. Her father had encouraged this talent with praise and training. Her mother encouraged it with cold critiques and high expectations.
She enjoyed stealing. She enjoyed the planning, the perfect execution, and the adrenaline rush. She liked to feel competent and strong. What she hated, though, was stealing with a partner. She preferred to work alone. Yet, a partner was just what she found herself with as she and her brother, who was all of nine years old, looked over a rocky ridge to the village below.
“I’m really nervous,” Nylo confided, his dark eyes wide as they gazed up at her.
“You’ll be fine,” Brae told him, already losing her patience with assuring him. “Just do exactly as I say and don’t mess up. Otherwise Mother will never let you try again.”
“It’s not my fault I have a stupid animal,” he pouted.
She felt sympathy tug at her. Nylo was small for his age, and not physically strong. He’d messed up the last two thieving missions he’d been sent on, so Brae had offered to take him on one with her. Their mother was too harsh on him, and Brae wanted him to at least have one successful run so he’d feel better about himself.
“A cricket isn’t stupid,” Brae told him warmly. “You just have to learn to use it right.”
It wasn’t an ideal animal, though. Nylo may have been able to get into places others couldn’t. But he couldn’t carry the item he was stealing back out with him. Brae thought he’d be good as a reconnaissance member; he just needed to be trained correctly. Her clan’s last reconnaissance member had been an air shifter, but unfortunately had been shot from the sky a few years ago.
Nylo smiled, the warm wind catching his short brown hair. Brae returned the smile and focused her attention on the village below. It consisted of huts made of wood and haphazard branches spattered about between the trees. The woods were denser in this part of their mountain range home called the Heights, with the low altitude making it a prime place to live more naturally. The peaks of the mountains towered around them, all green except for splashes of white on the tops of some. The sun was bright, but the thick trees cast shade on this particular section of the Lowland Shens. Brae preferred to steal from the Shens, rather than the Ponakkas or the Khils. Those clans had much more difficult locations to reach, and it wasn’t as easy to escape. She knew that all too well, because it was stealing from the Khils of the Peaks that had been the one time she’d been caught. It wasn’t a situation she wanted to repeat.
The village was very rural, and people went around the buildings and trees at a leisurely pace. Old and young, men and women, some as humans and some as animals. She could hear a river not far away. Most of the people were dressed in tanned skins of brown, with feathers and woven grass for accents. She could smell a fire somewhere close by and roasting meat.
Brae tucked her short auburn hair behind one ear and pointed to a center hut, about one hundred yards away. “That’s where their weapons are located. We’ll have to be quick. I want you to shift and go check it out. Come back and tell me the layout.”
“Okay,” he nodded, already tense with anxiety. “Just the layout?”
“And how many people are around,” Brae responded patiently.
“Okay. How many people are around. The layout. Got it.” He instantly shrunk, his body changing and morphing until he was a small black cricket within a second. He hopped off through the grass, rocks, and roots, and vanished from her sight.
Brae settled more comfortably onto the ridge, watching the activity of the Shen clan with her honey-brown eyes. She, like most of the people of the Lowland Shens, had slightly tan skin and lean, but strong, bodies. She knew her own thieving clan had once been part of the Shens before they’d separated. They weren’t the only rogue clan in the Heights, and she’d interacted with the others on occasion. They kept moving, never staying in one place for too long. But every rogue clan had a hideout that they called home. Hers was only a few miles east, nestled in a small, underground cavern. Her mother was the leader of the clan, and so it was named Isrsa’s Thieves. Her father had been a joint-leader, before he’d passed away. His death still left Brae feeling sick and upset. She didn’t want to revisit that memory again, so she shook herself from her thoughts and watched the building that Nylo had gone into.
No sooner had she re-focused on the hut then Nylo came bursting out the door, human again, being chased by three people. He looked panicked, running in her direction. That was already violating Isra’s first rule. If you’re being chased, never run to your group. By Isra’s rules, she should flee and abandon him. But this was her little brother. She had to help him.
Brae settled lower into the grass, her body tense for action. Once Nylo and his pursuit made it to her location, she’d shift and take them out. She watched with narrowed eyes, seeing the small form of her brother as he raced towards her. He was almost out of the village.
Come on, faster! Brae thought, biting her lip.
Her brother was tiring out. As he slowed, his pursuers closed the gap between them.
No, no, no!
They grabbed hold of him, pulling him roughly to the ground. She could hear his wail echoing in the trees. Brae had the urge to jump up and rescue him, but that would only end badly for both of them. She needed to be patient, and plan this out.
She got to her hands and knees and crawled along the ridge, watching as Nylo was carried back into the village and into a sturdy, squat building with its wooden door guarded. She made her way around the back of the village, taking her time to be as silent as possible. The ridge dropped lower until she was on level ground with the huts. She crouched behind a tree and examined the place her brother had been taken into. There was a single small window on the back, to let some sunlight into what Brae presumed was their jail. She could work with that.
It might be best to wait until the cover of darkness, she thought, considering. Their mother wouldn’t be happy with them once they got home, but Brae had accepted that Isra could never be pleased.
Brae looked up, eyeing the tree. It was tall and lined with sturdy branches, some fairly low. She jumped up, pushing with her feet off the trunk and catching the lowest. Brae hoisted herself up to stand on it. Then she climbed to the next, and the next, until she was midlevel into the tree. She sat back against the trunk, the bark rough against her bare arms. This would be the best place to hide, she knew. While high enough not to be noticed by the people or other ground shifters, the air shifters likely wouldn’t fly this low and she could still keep an eye on the village. She brought her hand up to feel the totem around her neck, a smooth gray stone secured to a thin piece of leather. Maybe if she shifted she could use it to speak to Nylo. But it was unlikely he’d also be shifted. Totems only worked when both people were in their animal forms.
The wait was long, and Brae passed the time by observing this section of the Shens. She knew the clan was spread thin over a large distance, but the thick forest concealed the other villages. Once a mosquito flew close by her, and for a moment she thought she’d been discovered, but it just flew on.
The sun slowly sank down the sky, lighting the area in oranges and reds until it disappeared from sight. The Heights were cast in shades of blue and black, a crescent moon overhead. The village had gone to sleep for the night, resting silently.
Brae shifted into her animal, a red fox, and hopped down the branches, light on her feet. She landed on the forest floor and went low into the ferns and grasses. Creeping towards the village and the jail, her ears were perked and alert for any noise. Insects buzzed and an owl sounded in the distance. But she didn’t sense anything threatening. The hut came closer and closer as she went past the wooden buildings. She at last arrived at the jail and shifted back into a human, standing up. She jumped and grabbed the barred windowsill with her fingers, pulling herself up to just barely peer inside.
It was a one-room hut, with two cells inside and a single guard that was sitting on a tree stump. The other cell was empty, but the one she was looking into had her little brother, huddled in the corner and crying softly.
Brae dropped to the ground, frustrated. Any attempt to break inside would be immediately noticed by the guard. She needed a diversion.
Brae flinched at the sudden shout. She sank to her knees and peered around the corner of the jail into the center of the village. Indeed, a hut had burst into flames. A few people were running from it. Suddenly, another hut several yards away caught fire. She frowned, glancing around. What was happening?
Movement overhead caught her eye. She looked, and was surprised to see birds darting by, making black shadows against the stars. Many of them were carrying torches in their beaks. One dropped its fiery stick, and it fell to the center of the village, igniting the grass.
It was chaos now; everyone running from their huts and screaming, shouting orders, pointing towards the sky. Many were racing for the river to get water, others were getting out their bows to fight back. Brae saw one of the villagers shift into a hawk and take to the sky, slamming into the nearest bird. That was good, she reflected. A hawk wasn’t easy to stop.
She wondered what was going on. Those couldn’t just be normal birds. They must be air shifters. But why would air shifters attack the Lowland Shens?
Wonder later, she told herself. Rescue Nylo now.
She ran around the side of the jail and, as she expected, the two guards had gone to help with the fires. The door was even ajar, meaning the guard inside had run out. She supposed when their village was being burned, there were more important things than guarding a nine year old boy who shifted into a cricket.
She pushed her way inside. “Nylo!”
He looked up, gasping. “Brae! Help me!”
“That’s why I’m here.” She hurried over to his cell and gestured. “Come on, let’s go.”
“I can’t!” he said, standing. “The guard took the key with him.”
“Oh, yeah!” He changed into a cricket and hopped out, shifting back. “That was silly of me.”
“See?” she put a black-gloved hand on his shoulder. “A cricket can escape from a jail cell. I couldn’t do that, and neither could Mother.”
He nodded enthusiastically. “Jaguars are too big.”
“Yes. Now let’s go before this whole place burns down.”
They both hurried outside, the night lit by the fires. Nylo gasped, but didn’t question her. The people of the village were panicking, putting out as many fires as they could. As the two ran, staring at the chaos around them, Brae noticed a single man standing on the outskirts of the village, just watching the activity calmly. He had close-cropped blonde hair, and was tall with smooth features. His clothes had been dyed dark colors. Around his neck, in the place of where everyone else wore a totem, he had a red jewel. It glinted and sparkled in the raging fires. And Brae found her attention fixed on it. It was beautiful. And it was probably worth a lot of coins.
“Nylo,” she whispered as they ran, “I’m going to steal something from that man. I want you to shift and go on back to the hideout. I’ll catch up.”
He seemed afraid but didn’t argue, nodding.
They drew closer. She didn’t know if the man saw them and assumed they were fleeing, or if he was so wrapped up in watching the fires that he failed to notice the seventeen-year-old girl charging him. But as Nylo vanished into the grass as a cricket, Brae grabbed one of her two bone daggers that hung on her black belt and spun past him, creating a clean slice through the cord. The jewel fell into her free hand and she bolted into the trees. She heard him shout furiously after her. Putting the jewel into her mouth, she shifted into a fox and went as fast as she could. She glanced back once, wondering if he would shift and pursue her. Wondering what animal she would be up against. He bent over, as if to transform, but then straightened and turned back to the village.
Ha! she thought. Turtle-shifter.
Of course she had no idea if his animal was a turtle or not. And she felt sorry for whoever truly did have the turtle. They were the butt of many jokes.
As a fox she hurried through the dense forest. The grass and dirt stirred under her paws, and she maneuvered around bushes and tree trunks. She went up slopes and down hills. A few times she had to jump over obstacles to move forward. But finally she stopped on a low ridge, feeling that she’d put a good distance between herself and the man she’d stolen from.
Panting, she sat and looked back at the village. The fires were dying, just a faint glow now. And she couldn’t see any red flames in the air that signified birds carrying torches. The attack must have ended. She wondered who came out the victor, and what had been the point of the fighting.
Brae put the red jewel necklace down on the ground, sniffing at it. It was rare to find any gems. There was a mine further east in the mountains, but only a few gems had ever been found, and it had long since been abandoned. This would fetch a good price if she bartered wisely.
Sitting back on her haunches, she considered the situation. She could return to her rogue clan and give the jewel to her mother. Her mother would be pleased, certainly, but only temporarily and Brae would get no pay off from her accomplishment. No, she decided, she wouldn’t do that.
Or she could sell it to another clan. She couldn’t go to the three major clans. They would ask too many questions. She’d need to sell it to another rogue clan. That way she could keep a portion of the earnings and still return to her mother with coins and goods. She thought for a moment, looking up at the dark trees. The closest rogue clan was Varro’s Raiders, about midway between the Lowland Shens and the Cave Ponakkas. It would be a few days’ journey but not too far. Isra wouldn’t be happy about her absence, but bringing back some copper would change that. She felt bad for leaving Nylo after a failed mission and the ensuing chaos, but she couldn’t look after him all the time.
Making up her mind, Brae picked the jewel up again and vanished into the woods.
Still in his hawk form flying high above the trees, Aidan could look down upon his village and see the devastation. Many of the huts were charred or ruined. The ground was black in places, and some plants had been burned until there was almost nothing left. But the last of the fires had been put out. And that group of air shifters – for what else could they be? – had left.
He glided to the ground and landed, shifting back into a young man of sixteen years. With black hair and blue eyes, Aidan worked at a small inn that had luckily been preserved. He sighed, tired from the struggle in the air. He wasn’t someone who enjoyed fighting; the warrior blood in his family had passed straight to his blunt and tough older sister, Storm. But he would always fight for what he thought was right. And those air shifters that had been burning his home had been very, very wrong.
He looked around at the people of the Shens passing by him. Some running to help. Others walking as if in a daze, shocked at what had happened. He heard his name being shouted and turned to see Storm weaving through the throngs to get to him, her wild black hair in even more of mess than it usually was.
“Aidan!” she said, coming to a stop before him. “Chief Hasana wants to speak with you.”
He blinked, surprised. “She wants to speak with me?”
“She’s calling together a response team to this crisis. I said you were one of few who flew up there and fought back. She wants your opinion on what the birds were like.”
He nodded. “Alright, do you want to come with me?”
Storm rolled her gray eyes, shrugging her muscular shoulders. “Of course I’m coming.”
The siblings picked their way through the scarred village to a large hut on the outskirts. Chief Hasana’s home sat at the exact center point of the four Shen villages, so it was easy to access by all. They went up steps made from smoothed tree trunks, the white moonlight bathing them before they went into the orange torchlight of the hut.
It was large and round, with multiple wooden chairs forming a semi-circle along the walls. Already most of them were filled up. Some of the people Aidan recognized, others he didn’t and figured they were from other villages. He didn’t leave his home as often as Storm did. She made weapons, and frequently sold them to other parts of the Lowland Shens.
The two took a seat closer to the door, and looked expectantly at Chief Hasana. She was a middle-aged woman, with brown hair that was braided, green eyes, and a petite frame. She wore a plain dress made from the skin of a bear, dyed orange with onion skin.
“Thank you all for coming on such short notice,” Hasana said, looking at each of them in turn. “I called you here because of a tragedy that has struck our Southern Village. A flock of birds, what we assume are organized air shifters, burned a large part of the village just two hours ago. I don’t know what exactly happened, so I’m hoping those present could fill us all in.”
“We were all asleep,” Storm began, not missing the opportunity to be in charge. “One hut caught fire and the screams woke us all up. Other buildings ended up in flames, and we noticed these fires were dropping from the sky. That’s how we saw all the birds.”
“Can you be sure they were air shifters?” a man asked, leaning forward.
“Certain,” Aidan was able to answer, since he’d been up there with them. “There were all different kinds of birds, a raven, a blackbird, a condor . . . not a single kind was repeated.”
“And if that’s not enough, they were carrying torches and were coordinated,” Storm added. “So it was air shifters. Anyway, so we tried to fight back and put out the fire. And suddenly they all just stopped and flew off. Like they had a cue to leave or something.”
After a moment of silence Hasana nodded. “Thank you for filling me in, and for your bravery.”
“Why would air shifters attack us? Attack anyone?” a lady asked. “We’re in a peace time.”
“Nothing like this has happened since the Khils tried to merge the Ponakkas into their clan,” Hasana agreed. “And even then, it was one clan against the other. Not a single type of shifter attacking everyone, even other air shifters.”
“Well, what are we going to do?” a man asked. “What if they come back again?”
“We’ve never had an organized military,” another protested. “We’re vulnerable.”
“Is this happening to the other clans?” a woman questioned.
Hasana held her hands up, trying to calm the worried group. “We will deal with all these matters. We’ll assign a group to help with the clean up and repair, and another to set up defenses in case there is another attack. We don’t have the time to set up a military, nor do I wish to if this was just a random attack that won’t happen again. But we need to be prepared, just in case. While this is going on, I want two people to go to the other clans and either ask them if they have been attacked or warn them about what happened to us.”
“Just two?” a lady questioned.
The Chief nodded. “Two will not draw notice. And if something happens to one the other can complete the errand.” She scanned the faces that were lit by the glow of the center torch, shadows flickering against the walls. She settled on Storm and Aiden. “You two are siblings, correct?”
“We are,” Storm answered, her body tight with anticipation.
“I would like both of you to go,” Hasana said. “You are young enough that you won’t be a vital part of the recovery, but old enough to handle yourselves. What are your names and animals again?”
“Storm – codfish.”
“Aidan – hawk.”
One man grunted, crossing his arms. “If he’s an air shifter too, can we trust him?”
“Hey!” Storm shouted, standing up. “He was up there fighting for you!”
Hasana held up her hands again. “No one has accused Aidan of anything.” She looked to the man. “Sir, I will not let our clan get disrupted by mistrust and gossip. Aidan fought back, and our other air shifters helped protect us. We have no evidence to think them bad, so we will not treat them as such.”
The man sat back, not looking pleased but quiet. Storm also sat, calming down. The meeting went on with details about cleaning the mess and protections to be put in place. This mainly consisted of organized watches, keeping water present from the river, and building more bows. As the time passed Aidan couldn’t shake off the feeling, though. The feeling that he wasn’t trusted. It wasn’t fair. Just because he was an air shifter didn’t automatically mean he was part of the attack. He almost envied his sister being a water shifter.
The meeting was dismissed and Aidan and Storm left the hut and made their way through the dense woods. After a few seconds of silence, he asked, “What do you think of all this?”
She shrugged, sighing. “It’s weird. I can’t think of any reason for this kind of brutal attack.”
“Me neither. Maybe the other clans will have answers.”
She scoffed. “Unlikely. The Ponakkas are reclusive and the Khils aren’t half as clever as they think they are. But it’s worth a shot.”
“There were a lot of air shifters up there,” Aidan stated. “Whatever their reasoning, that many people must have felt strongly about it.”
“It’s kind of sick that they would feel strongly about burning down a village. Those cowards and their night raid. I’d like to take a swing at them face-to-face.”
Aidan smiled at his sister, amused, before his thoughts turned inward on the mission ahead as they headed back to their village.