2.6: Search, Sneak, Survey

A short hike, my foot!

     Nuria practically collapses after being one of the last to reach the campground. Each breath feels like a sucker punch, even after dropping her duffel bag and stripping the tent pack off her shoulders. Sweat stings both her eyes and salts her lips. The hour-long trek from the base of the hills, especially through the labyrinthine paths, gives Nuria great pause. She felt stronger than ever right before her house arrest, but now she exhibits a weakness she didn’t foresee.

     Maybe I’ll be good after a small break.

     “This entire clearing is our campground. You’ll find holes in the ground already placed for your tent spikes. Use the tools and instructions supplied to erect your tents. You have an hour to do so,” Zathony says.

     Good, I can take my time.

     Nuria leans against one of the stones lining the barren earth, a circle of them around the campground. Connect-the-dot squares litter the interior of the area, a fire pit dug into the ground at the heart. Six half-circle logs flank the firepit, most of them riddled with carved messages.

     Quite the history to this place, Nuria thinks absently as she strokes a message that says “’80 ROCKS”. She sees a few other years referenced in the variety of messages, like 1972 and 1975.

     “See something you like?” Zathony asks in a tone she’s not used to hearing from him. Warm.

     “How long have you been a professor here?” she asks.

     “Only a short six years. The only professor with a shorter tenure here is Professor Lynald.”

     “But according to these logs, this site has been used far longer than that.”

     “Yes, and hopefully it will remain once I move on. This is one of the few exercises of my predecessors that I found warranted zero changes. Well, the grading system is my idea, but I have an ulterior motive for that.” He points to her supplies. “Pitch your tent if you don’t want to lose time. The exercise is a race, remember.”

     Nuria eyes him curiously when he departs with a wink. He’s never been so playful, and she’s worried him revealing he has an ulterior motive is just to get her head spinning in circles.

     So, this is the one game he enjoys. That’s gotta be bad news for us. Oh, well. I’ll rise above it!

     With her breathing and sweating are no longer double-teaming her, she grabs her gear and erects her tent on the boys’ side, opting to rest her head closer to Koren than Tyra. While her control has improved, she dares not risk starting a forest fire. However, she’s happy to be too weak to perform such a feat anyway; and doubly glad she’s not too weak to erect her tent swiftly.

     “Almost beat me,” Koren teases, his head poking between the front of his tent.

     “Had to give you a win at some point.”

     “Yeah, okay.”

     Nuria smirks and looks around one more time. Zathony is erecting a tent thrice as large as hers, likely for him and Marmagar to share. And on cue, the co-professor and housemaster arrives carrying two coolers and his hammer. Tyra finishes with her lodging before helping Carnya set up hers. Syl struggles too until Koren steps in.

     “May I?”

     “Please,” Syl says, exacerbated.

     Nuria forgets her weakness when the boys strike up a conversation as they work together. Not wanting to stare too long and make it awkward, she grabs her duffel bag and shimmies into her tent. She rifles through it, removing her camera, map, and binder, and a pair of headphones. She hopes to use the latter as her blindfold, making her vision her sole sensory tool in her vicinity, resulting in her figuring how and when her body activates Primal Sense.

     Once Koren and I find our mutual entries, I’ll have the chance to use them.

     She unfolds the map and uses the environments presented to chart their course. She finds the best location is one that’s down the path leaving northwest from the campground. She marks that location with a star and traces a line from it to the camp’s location.

     “Okay, now we have a game plan!” Nuria cheers.

     “Everyone, front and center!” Zathony orders.

     Believing it’s go-time, Nuria grabs her binder, camera, and map, placing her headphones in her pocket. She joins the rest of her peers in granting Zathony their undivided attention.

     “Wait, where’d Professor Marmagar go?” the phoenix blurts.

     “I’ll get to that in a moment. First, a review of the assignment and the rules of engagement. You’ve each been given a binder cataloging thirteen species of plants and animals, and only the 13th is shared between you all. The goal of the exercise is to locate as many of your specific entries as possible. By the time the sun sets tomorrow, whoever has the most photos will be awarded the A. Your grades will be assigned by comparing your points to your peers’. The only way to circumvent that is to photograph the executioner wasp. However, some of you have overlap, so there’s the option to work together if you so choose.”

     “And lose on the chance for another A, I don’t think so,” Carnya boasts.

     Nuria knows her words are meant to get a rise out of her, but she couldn’t care less. She and Koren lock gazes and nods, already having their own side game set up.

     “Wait, you’re not coming with us?” Syl asks.

     “I will not.”

     “But aren’t there, like, bears and stuff out here?”

     “There are no bears. No wolves. Nothing that can or would endanger you long as you respect whatever animals and plants you come across. That means not sticking your hands into holes, chasing foxes, or touching spiny plants. Those may be holes to you, but are homes to the creatures within, and they will defend them. Cornered animals are never more unpredictable and dangerous, predator or prey. And some plants out here can inflame your skin, making you itch terribly, even make you develop a rash if you’re allergic.”

     “Where’d Professor Marmagar go?”

     “He is off scouting ahead on all paths from the sky. While we do not anticipate any incidents, we will not be caught unawares. If ever a brown hawk flies in front of you, that means to turn around immediately and return to the campground. Is that understood?”

     “Yes, sir,” Nuria and her classmates say.

     “Be sure to take a water bottle from the cooler on the left. Jerky and peanut bags are in the right cooler. Be sure to take as many as you’ll need before you go scouting.”

     “Did you–”

     “Yes, Carnya, I have taken your condition into account. There are plenty enough until tomorrow evening. Now, those rations are for you only. Do not feed any animals you come across. My final piece of advice is to stick to the trails. Other than that, have fun out there.”

     Nuria blocks out the cringe of his warm tone with celerity before she and Koren grab their gear and rations, racing down the northwest path posthaste. She hears Tyra call her name, but she still isn’t ready for that fight, especially after her last show of strength.

     I’m here to enjoy myself. I’ll get with Tyra later…maybe. I mean, I have Koren now. I can survive Vanusi House as long as he doesn’t ditch me. He’s made house arrest less torturous, at the least.

     The duo runs wild, like most of the wildlife that flees from their presence, drunk off the field trip vibes and lack of supervision. They dash through fields of tall grass, compete to climb a couple of trees, and laugh like banshees the entire time. An hour later, they settle themselves on a branch low to the ground and enjoy their snacks.

     “And here I thought you’d be too tired to keep up,” Koren says, tearing open his jerky pack.

     As she sprinkles peanuts into her palm, Nuria says, “I think it was the extra weight that made me so tired earlier. I feel pretty good right now.”

     “Probably just sunk in that you’re not bound to one building anymore. I mean, your house arrest effectively ends once we’re back on campus, doesn’t it? Your body is in pre-celebration.”

     “Pre-celebration? Well, whatever it is, I’ll gladly accept the energy.”

     Koren pops his bag closed. With a strip of jerky hanging between his teeth, he asks, “So, what’s our ETA?”

     The phoenix checks her map and finds they’ve taken a few shortcuts during their two-man stampede. She looks at the path below and follows it down, spying a cave at an intersection between another tall grass field and a hilly plain.

     “Five minutes. That cave is where we’ll find our horseshoe bats. The musk deer frequent that tall grass field. In the plains further down, there should be chipmunks, rabbits, and ermines.”

     “Wait, I only have chipmunks,” Koren says. “Did you know that? Are you cheating?”

     “Nope, but on the ermine sheet, it says their diet includes both of those while the location is blank. Don’t see why it’d reside somewhere its primary source of food wouldn’t be, also.” Nuria hops down from the branch first. “Check the horseshoe bat page. It has info on both those categories.”

     “Suspected location: caverns. Diet: As a secondary consumer, it’s labeled a carnivore, feasting on footman moths, squirrels, and prairie dogs at night,” Koren recites.

     “See, you potentially have one more point to earn here than me.”

     “I dislike handicaps as much as cheating.”

     “Fine, outside of our three, we won’t take any extra- are you listening?”

     Koren snaps his head back. “Sorry, I just saw…never mind. Let’s get a move on.”

     Nuria chases after him. “Anyway, I was saying that once we get our mutual three, we can go back to the campground and start our race for real.”

     “You sure you have the energy for that?”

     “Are you?”

     “You’ll find out.”

     “So, will you.”

     They turn to each other at the mouth of the cave, their intense stares melting into more laughter. Nuria is genuinely surprised by how easy-going Koren’s competitive nature seems to be, something she hasn’t seen from most Ohaida her age, her brother included. It could be the fact he had to leave his katana behind, but she’s never once seen him unsheathe the blade.

     As they enter the cave, Nuria asks, “Why’d you join Vanusi House?”

     He smirks as he gestures to himself. “Isn’t it obvious?”

     “Oh, no, I’m done making assumptions about you. I want it straight from the horseshoe’s…bat’s mouth. You know what I’m trying to say.”

     “Okay, okay. Well, remember that I was absent last year?”

     Nuria nods.

     “I didn’t want to come to FHA without being a fully realized Ibri. So, at the penultimate stop on the train, I got off. I called my mom and told her I was going to find my weapon. She was, of course, furious. She hated that I was giving up my education for a “sharp toy”. She really let me have it when I told her not all of them were sharp.”

     “Oh, I bet,” Nuria replies with a chuckle.

     “She was calmer the next day when the headmaster said my spot would be held, though she was still irate with me. It took a whole twenty-four hours of negotiating, but on the promise I called every morning and night so she would know I was alive, she finally gave me permission. Day three off the train, my hunt began. Is it me, or is it getting dar–”

     Nuria whistles a whole bar to get her hand to light up, holding it forward as if she were clutching a torch. The amber glow illuminates the cave walls, and the reflection bathes the teens wholly. “Not a problem.”

     “Back to the story, then,” he says as they resume their march. “The hunt went terribly. I blew threw my money so fast once I hit Avhava. It’s a popular beach city,” he says in reaction to Nuria’s inquisitive stare. “I got a little lucky that Avhava Beach is heavy on Vanusi tourist business, so a beachfront diner called Emerald Rattle Café was willing to take the chance to hire me. After two months of hardcore saving, I was able to start ordering weapons to try bonding with. Lo and behold, the ERC manager, Parker, ordered the first batch for me. She was also a Vanusi-Ohaida Ibri and knew where to look for the best weapons. The katana I bonded with wasn’t from that batch, but the next one she bought me. She even took the time to show me a couple of tricks after basic training.”

     “Does she also use a katana?”

     “She never bonded with a weapon. She said she trained a lot as a teenager in the hopes she’d find her weapon one day, but she still hasn’t. I think that’s why she helped me. She didn’t want me to not have mine. I’ll have to thank her again when I find my yellow-bellied winder snake.”

     “Why that one specifically?”

     Koren gives her a snarky look.

     “Ah, right. Emerald Rattle Café. I–”

     Koren presses a finger to her lips and points ahead. “I can hear them,” he whispers. “Can you lower the brightness on your hand?”

     Nuria lowers the heat from soprano to tenor, maintaining just enough heat to keep the flames burning. She leads them beyond a maze of stalagmites, signaling a halt once they’re right on the edge of the horseshoe bat nest. With her diminished torch, she believes hundreds more are concealed in the shadows.

     “While I hold the glow, I need you to take my pic for me,” she whispers.

     Koren nods and obliges her first. After, he raises his camera and moves closer to the nest.

     “Koren!” Nuria hisses softly.

     He grabs a couple of rocks from the ground and tosses them at stalagmites on opposite sides of the nest, the clicking resonating around the open chamber. Most of the nest ignores it, but several dozen bats detach from the ceiling and flutter about. They dance all around Koren, and Nuria can tell they’re searching for the footman moths, not a large white cat-boy. Koren whirls in a tight circle, snapping photos rapidly. Nuria levels her camera against a stalagmite and waits for Koren to lower his camera to capture his likeness surrounded by the horseshoe bats. In her photo, due to his calm, he looks like he belongs alongside them in the darkness.

     He’s got the ears for it.

     Koren moves again once the bats have settled back onto the ceiling, pointing to the exit while passing Nuria. He shows her his photos once she gets into step with his stride.

     “Now, what would’ve happened if they attacked us? You don’t have your sword, remember?”

     “I may have only been a fully realized Ibri for a few months, but I’ve been Vanusi my whole life. Besides, I have a pretty badass phoenix watching my back. How many people can say that?”

     She lets the flattery charge her ego. “Fair point.”

     “But yeah, I spent so long focusing solely on my Ohaida half. I didn’t want to ignore my Vanusi half again, so here I am. And I’m glad to be here with the rest of you.”

     “You may have to settle for just being here with Syl and me for the moment. Your official induction hasn’t happened yet. But good on you for finally talking to him, by the way.”

     “You know, this is a good time to resolve your Tyra problem. Just get her alone and fight her. It shouldn’t take that long.”

     “You’re only saying that because your bonding moment didn’t involve fists. And I’m not out here to fight her. I mean, I would, but I’m hoping to avoid her, honestly. I’m having fun. This assignment is actually pretty cool, and I’d like to at least get third place this time. Now, focus up. We have work to do!”

     As they move toward the tall grass field, Koren says, “Now I have to wonder how everyone else is doing.”


     One whole tree away should be safe enough, Carnya tells herself, lowering into a squat on a branch high above the ground. Lower on the tree before her is a beehive brimming with activity. While a hive of bees is on her list, she hopes to catch a glimpse of the wasp, too, believing the species relation means they’d be courteous to one another’s presence.

     Carnya grabs the branch firmly with both hands, the lowers so that her legs dangle in the air. She sucks in a quick breath, licks her lips, and channels her hunger. Her right arm shifts from a collection of muscles to one long, fluid extremity. Her fingers fuse as the transformation rises to her hand. The tentacle that forms wraps around the branch several times. Just like warm cheese stretching when tugged, her tentacle-arm lengthens and lowers her to eye level with the beehive. She snaps a dozen photos swiftly, worried the pulsing blue rings on her tentacle will draw in the bees like a bug zapper light.


     Syl knows now he wasn’t meant to ace that last exercise. The two earthy scents are from the Winding Hills. After snapping a photo of a batch of bulrush, noticeable on sight thanks to the corndog like husks at the tops of the weeds, he determines the fourth vial was the scent of them. That, or from the mud on the riverbank. He can’t differentiate the scents since they’re so close together, and the scents of the water and the fish also thrown into the mix just compounds the mystery. Still, he looks forward to learning what the first scent will turn out to be. He lowers his camera as his lengthened snout returns to normal, whiskers retracting inside his nostrils.


     “You can eat more than one every five minutes, you know? There’re more back at camp,” Nuria says, a little annoyed by Koren’s infrequent snacking, snapping open the jerky bag, pulling out just one strip, then snapping it closed. “Don’t want you alerting the deer.”

     “Sorry, trying hard not to indulge my sweet tooth too much at once.”

     “Sweet tooth? Isn’t jerky more…salty?”

     “Not for cats. Meats taste sweet. Most protein-packed foods do. Eggs are too sweet for me, though. But you toss me a bottle of cream, and I’m in heaven.”

     “Then how does candy taste to you?”

     “Terribly bitter. I only eat desserts made with cream. Veggies are also bitter, but not nearly as much as candy. Fruits are sour.”

     Nuria shivers. “Yuck. Sour bananas? Kill me now.”

     “Not bad sour, just sour. I ate a pickle once, and it damn near killed me. Bitter and sour together is a horrible combination.”

     “Still, this is news to me. I never knew our individual tastes were affected by the creature we’re modeled after. To me, food tastes how they taste to most others. Except I’m not as into chocolate. Caramel is superior.”

     “Then maybe that’s the phoenix’s sense of taste. Hold on a second.”

     Nuria’s eyes twitch when he pops open the jerky bag again, but this time she notices his ears shifting this way and that like diving rods.

     “Are you using some hearing trick right now? Your ears are on overdrive right now.”

     “What? No. I–” He pauses and looks over his shoulder.

     Nuria follows his gaze, but trampled grass is all she sees. “What’s going on, Koren?”

     He speaks after searching the phoenix’s gaze for a moment. The inquisitive stare changes shortly and his new look evokes a heat in her gut. She ran from the sensation the last time she felt it, but this time she holds Koren’s gaze until he’s the one who flees.

     “I must be seeing things. My eyes aren’t as good as yours, I guess.”

     The fire in her gut dispels the second he walks off. She grants one last look toward the trampled grass and after determining he was correct; she chases after him. “Hey, let me try some of that–”



     The crunch of grass from Nuria chasing Koren and wrestling the bag from him plays out in a vacuum. Koren’s still fuzzy outline encompasses a white orb on account of Tyra’s unfamiliarity with him. Additionally, because of that, the imagined wrestling has Nuria’s crystal clear avatar (perfected from months of practice) winning unquestionably. Their orbs, both fresh off hot pink paint jobs, are now brilliant alabaster globes.

     Tyra laments her crushed goal. She followed them from the jump, hoping to get Nuria alone, even for a brief moment. She could tell Koren was onto her, but whether or not Nuria wasn’t or if she was just ignoring her presence is still unclear. She was going to just rip the bandage off when they exited the cave, but then she heard how it would resolve if Nuria’s words were genuine.

     I didn’t fight so hard to get back here to get my best friend back just to have to fight her, too. But then again, she sounded pretty sure of herself, so would it be rude to deny that to her? I mean, surely there isn’t a rule if I throw the fight. I should just go and ask her.

     Tyra’s vacuum dissolves as she rises to her feet. Her first step never leaves the ground, her body freezing when she hears their jovial laughter. The atmosphere between the two of them has been overwhelmingly positive the entire day, Tyra never gleaming full crimson orbs from them, only a few embers here and there. And if what she knows about pink orbs to be true, her intrusion would be that much more destructive. She removes her shoes and grants the duo their privacy.

     This is it. I’ve lost my best friend. It’s over.

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