Chapter One: Homecoming

Quarta set down softly on the dry packed soil of Taysa's spaceport swirling what little dust had gathered there since the last craft had lifted. A soft expelling of air echoed through the still spring day announcing the Taysa Taru's homecoming to Soona. It had been a long dull flight home after the events that they had left on Earth, three months of boring practice, studying, and sleeping. They had not even stopped on the way back for a hunt. And they had passed some very good hunting grounds.

Gui'Yata and Courtney talked softly as they made their way toward the docking ramp, glad to be back home. Courtney looked over at her Bondsman, finally happy with the way he looked. His seven-foot frame had been so gaunt after they had freed him from the ATP that she began to think that he would never return to his former thick and muscular form. He had been felled by the Sickness, a condition brought on by poor atmosphere and by the lack of proper food and water while he had been in captivity, and his body had quickly eaten away at itself to maintain his vital functions. His brown, orange and yellow crème color had returned to normal as well and he was beginning to look like a proper Soua.

He had his long ornamented dread lock style hair drawn up just behind his crown ridge the thick strands standing straight up behind it. His face was relaxed, his deep-set orange and yellow eyes watching the path ahead of them from under his heavy speckled brow ridges. His four mandibles twitched as he spoke, covering his inner mouth protectively. It was considered rude to speak with mandibles open. It was a sign of hostility and challenge and no civilized Soua would do it unless he was prepared for a fight. As they walked he would absently rub the scars running from his chin onto his chest, even after all these rotations they still bothered him occasionally.

He wore only his loincloth, and the ornamental sling that carried the requisite skulls and teeth, enough to impress but not so much as to gloat. He wore simple sandals enough to provide his feet protection over the rough heated ground of the port. His spirit was light and they talked about pleasant things, successful hunts and just their time together.

Courtney had her hair in cornrow's of braids with two dangling just in front of each ear, each adorned with small metallic rings and thin bones from some smaller predatory creature that she had killed during her last time on Soona. The remainder of the braids was gathered and looped much like Gui'Yata's was. The top of her hair was and would always remain short, if for noting else to ease the wear of her hunting and battle helm. She was wearing her undergarment, a suede like brazier and a matching set of bottoms with rough skirts that swayed with her motion. Her sandals were a mirror image of Gui'Yata's, the tough Habade hide soles providing protection but supple enough that she could feel a small pebble under her feet, or hold to the branch of a tree without falling.

Her almond shaped brown eyes studied everything without seeming to. Her soft-featured Mexican face still showed three parallel scars from her fight with Koratan, Gui'Yata's now deceased brother. Her body was now covered in scars, a fact of life in the society in which she now lived, they were indicators of her bravery, and she would take none of them back. Her left arm also bore a scar from that fight, from her shoulder to her elbow was a surgically neat cut from a blow of Koratan's Sasa that had been intended to kill her. The tip of one ear was missing, and her thigh bore scars from an Inausto on her hunt for Taurana.

And then there were the two scars on her inner arm, one was a mark of honor, a mark of Taura. Two stylized upwardly curving horns over the round eye socket. Under the staring eye were three curved teeth as if bared for a fight. It was a symbol likened to the creature for which the totem stood. It was a symbol of bravery and honor in the hunt. The other scar, now covered by a gauntlet adorned with a striping of gold and small jewel flecks that she had been given in trade for her services as a Soyasa, was the mark of her bonding. Gui'Yata wore the matching scar, an original mark logged in Onona's records telling the world that he would know no other and that he had found his lifemate. It had been intended as a punishment for Gui'Yata's and his Grandfather, the Quona Lyonas, and had been the driving factor in their defection from the city and all the traditions that Gui'Yata had been taught. Now to the two of them the marks meant nothing, an outdated form that they ignored. Unfortunately in mixed company she was forced to wear the gauntlet and pretend that she and Gui'Yata were one mind in two bodies. It was an act that they had perfected in the ten rotations that they had been together, required with the coming and going to other more traditional cities than Taysa.

There had been a point in time that they would have been killed on site if caught in Onona or one of the other better-rooted cities. They had been outcasts, Taysa Taru, rebels, and in the mind of the Ot Eesan traitors to the code of honor that had been established after long rotations of tribal warring. That had been the way of their life until the truce.

They had been plunging headlong into Civil War as Citizens of the old ways had retaliated for the disruption of their lives by attacking Taysa and its small population. It had steadily escalated, as each side became increasingly violent in their strikes at surrounding cities. The Ot Eesan had summoned the young and inexperienced Eesan from Taysa to negotiate a truce and they were escorted under Huada protection back to the Doana. It had been a bitter fight to come to a compromise on the terms, but in the end the city of Taysa was recognized formally and allowed to run on it's own rules so long as those from Taysa obeyed the rules of any city they came to. And they had settled into their lives after that, no longer fearful of reprisals.

They were not coming home to any fanfare, they would be lucky if anyone had come to meet the ship. It was not the Soua way.

Their mission, to stop the ATP from capturing a Soua, had not been a success as they had hoped, and the root had been left in the ground. Like any weed, as long as the ATP's root remained it would spell trouble for any Predator hunting Earth in the near future. They were intent on discussing the possibility of making the blue and green planet prohibited with Onona, for the risks seemed to be outweighing the challenge of that particular style of hunting.

Their mission had been curtailed when Gui'Yata had been captured and in the process of rescuing him from the ATP they had lost a member of their party. Sora had been Courtney's first patient after she had made Soyasa. Sora had sought her out in a desperate attempt to try and control his unstoppable rages, when no one in his society would help. Sora had become one of Courtney's closest friends and she had taken his loss very hard…very hard indeed.

Gui'Yata looked over at Courtney now still seeing the stress in her face as she walked next to him, she still had not gotten completely over it. She had been withdrawn even from him since the events of that night, and part of him wondered if she blamed him at least in part for Sora's death. She never admitted as much to him, and if any human was able to speak the truth it was Courtney. He was sure that she would tell him if she harbored any ill will.

They paused as they reached Quarta's entrance, one step behind Quona out of deference to the Eesan, and waited as the rest of the Taysa Taru caught up. The old Soua was grizzled and grayed, his high ridged forehead thick with short gray spines. His color had faded from the brilliant colors that Gui'Yata or Nobaya possessed, his greenish tinting almost an olive color. He was dressed more formally than she or Gui'Yata, wearing his armor and the net suit that allowed them to bend the light around them and hide in plain sight. He carried his ceremonial sword at his side, but his plasma cannon stayed safely stowed in his quarters on Quarta. The old Soua smiled at them as they approached, a raising of his upper mandibles, that amazingly enough equated almost identically to a human smile. They turned as a group and watched the few in their party join them. They nodded at each one in turn as they approached.

Yaha was the first to arrive, always punctual. She looked down on Gui'Yata and clapped him on the shoulder. She was the giant among these giants, eight foot three, her dark green spotted skin glistened as she relished the heat of their home. Her locks were down coming to nearly her waist, one of the few ways that you could tell male from female in this society, other than the females tended to be larger and heavier than the males. She was dressed as casually as the rest of them wearing only a loincloth, Soua did not possess mammary glands and therefore had no stigma about going topless.

Nobaya was just behind her, looking relaxed, as he always did, he had always been a cool one under pressure. His dread locks also hung loose falling about his muscular shoulders as he sauntered up and greeted the group. His crème colored skin had darkened since she had known him muting the chocolate crosses and diamonds on his skin even further.

The last to arrive, almost simultaneously was Yalsa and the Human Gerard. Yalsa was an astronavigator who also possessed short stature. His rattlesnake-patterned skin was nearly concealed by his own array of gear. He wore his full hunting gear, his helm on, and he still had his navigation hookups attached to his helm, dangling from the sides of his head like tentacles. He had insisted on assisting Quarta with the approach to the planet and coordinating the landing. Quarta indulged him, seeming tickled by the amount of attention he paid her, attention she had not received in many generations she had hinted to Courtney one day. Quarta had been Yalsa's life since She had arrived at Taysa. He had been an astrogator dying for a ship to fly, and he had found it in Quarta. Yalsa in fact lived on board most of the time his quarters very near the navigation room. But even he was ready to set his feet on the soil of his homeland and visit with friends he had not seen since their mission had begun.

He trotted the last few steps to them knowing they would wait on the whole of the party before dropping the ramp and greeting their home world. They were all ready for a break after six moon periods of space travel and another on planet.

Gerard still even after three months looked shell shocked, moving as if under some compulsion that he could not control toward the group. His dark hair was disheveled and his brown eyes bloodshot and puffy. He had lost weight since departure from Earth, having hardly touched food since they had left. His trip had been much like Courtney's, forced upon him when he was least likely to be ready. Unlike Courtney however he clung tenaciously to his old trappings and his old style of living. He had done little to learn the language, the hunting skills, nor even try to learn the culture he was now a part of like it or not. He seemed to like none of the food that was served even what Courtney knew was palatable and even tasty, if he would only give it a try. She looked at him and grimaced, as he was still wearing the clothes that he had worn when they had stormed the ATP complex.

"Scott," She said as he shuffled up to them, "Wouldn't you prefer to wear something a little cooler?"

His glazed eyes moved over her face a moment before he said anything, "No, I'm fine," he muttered.

"Are you sure? I mean it gets hot here," She admonished him.

"I'm…fine," He said slowly as if she was a dim wit.

She shrugged and turned away, "Suit yourself."

Gui'Yata saw Courtney's look of consternation and leaned over saying in Sou, "You were no better when you were first here, give him time, he will adjust."

"He should have adjusted already," Courtney replied gruffly, "He is just being stubborn."

Gui'Yata laughed shortly smiling broadly as he looked away from her.

"WHAT?" She asked him knowing he was teasing her about something.

"You like him," Gui'Yata said in his usual forthcoming fashion, "That he will not let you help him bothers you."

"I do not!" Courtney said indignantly punching him hard in the thigh.

"Hitting me will not change my opinion, my bondsman," He said the mirth of his observation still in his tone.

She shook her head and went silent, there was no telling a Soua something once they had convinced themselves that something was going on. She just stared straight ahead as the ramp finally began to lower allowing the bright light of day into the staging area.

"Welcome home," She heard in her head and by the smiles that she got the others had taken comfort in the greeting as well.

It was Winter now on Soona, and it was nearing the winter's solstice, the sun Sars playing hide and seek behind her bigger sister Chai in their binary star system. The weather was temperate, only about 110 and the seismic activity minimal. The population of the planet chose this time to travel the planet, visit old headmasters, and in a lot of cases to go hunting. Even when they were not travelling the stars for their prey the Soua hunted, there was a great many challenges right here on their own planet, the mountain deserts held many a formidable opponent for a Soua looking to remain in practice between space faring hunting parties.

The summer was when most of the Taurana's happened, when the untried hunted the Yhi for their graduation to Fausi, when the planet was near too hot to stay, and most left for more temperate climates.

It was the perfect time to return, a time to relax, and to allow the wounds to heal.

As a group the Taysa Taru stepped out into the brightening day, and even Gerard managed to show a spark of interest of the colossal trees that surrounded the port. It was unlike the port in Onona, there were no grasses surrounding the tarmac, no long and open fields giving a measure of space. The port for Taysa had been meant to be hard to find except by the air, the field made from a raw narrow scar in the forest fifty miles from the city.

The party moved away from the ship, each giving their own respects to her for the safe journey home. Gui'Yata and Nobaya moved past Quona to open the doors on the only building in the port, and stood aside as he stepped in. Normally a trip from a port would be on Yimhi, the lizard like bird that was highly popular as local transportation. However, due to the remote location some other means had to be devised to get travelers from the port across the fifty miles of land to the city. Once the city of Taysa had been recognized they had set about procuring several mechanical vehicles for just that purpose, something they could not get while they were outlaws, not without truly and irrevocably breaking the code beyond repair.

They were hovercrafts designed to do the least damage to the surrounding environment and able to travel a good fifty miles per hour even through the boughs of the forest surrounding them. At least it was an hour to the city as compared to the full day it used to take to travel from one to the other, a fact that had often required them to camp either just on the edge of the forest or in the ship. The ship had always been preferable the surface was extremely dangerous for more than short periods of time.

The Quona stepped into the first one sitting in the drivers seat and Gui'Yata sat next to him, Nobaya and Yaha took the back seat. In the second one Yalsa took the helm of the vehicle and Courtney and Gerard joined him. Expertly they backed the vehicles out of the protective structure and onto the tarmac. The cars accelerated smoothly flowing over the ground as a boat would on water, quickly reaching their maximum speed. Quona and Yalsa expertly maneuvered around the boles of the trees creating an ever-shifting path before them toward home. They looked as if they were making a sport out of who could get the closest to the trees without striking them as they sped through the thin undergrowth. The wind tugged viciously at her hair as they went, threatening to drag it out of the loop she had set it into. Courtney glanced over at Gerard who's eyes were all for his surroundings, after a moment he seemed to sense her watching him, and he looked across the thinly padded bench that made up the back seat of the vehicle.

"This is Beautiful!" He said loudly over the wind, and Courtney couldn't help but smile at him.

"Yes it is!" She said as loudly. Gerard's eyes lingered a little longer on Courtney than was comfortable and then he slowly returned his attention to the trees towering over his head.

Courtney couldn't have really said when she first smelled it, it was an old familiar odor, but not one that she associated with this planet. She finally realized what it was that smell represented…Something was burning, and it smelled at first of just wood, and she thought it funny that burning wood would smell the same on two entirely different planets several light years removed from each other. But Courtney went on alert at the smell, something was wrong and the Taysa Taru sensed it as well she could see in the set of her group's bodies.

After just a few more minutes travel the wood was filled with thick white smoke and the air was stiflingly thin of Oxygen. Then another smell permeated the burning wood, the smell of charred flesh and morbidly she thought of just how much that smell was similar between Earth and Soona as well. Courtney slowly stood up in her car, as did her bondsman. Quona and Yalsa both slowed to an abrupt stop nearly sending Courtney in her inattention over the hood of the vehicle. Gui'Yata glanced back at her once sharing a scared and surprised look with each other and then to the spot that the whole group was now fixated. High above them in the large stand of trees, Taysa, their home, was burning!