Sarah Katz is an author and cyber security engineer. Her fiction publications include award-winning scifFi novel "Apex Five" as well as historical fiction "The Messenger from the Mountain" and short stories published in 365 tomorrows, AHF Magazine and Thriller Magazine. Her nonfiction articles have been published in Cyber Defense Magazine, Dark Reading, Infosecurity Magazine and Tech Xplore.
For the very first time, she knows how it feels to be the prey.
Following years by the side of her Matriarch, never had the clan turned on their second-in-command. As the second highest-ranking female, never before has she found herself on the receiving end of the males’ scheming whoops. The call to attack spreads out from all angles amidst the brush.
Bounding through the tall grass with none of the grace of the gazelles her clan often hunts, she darts through the darkest areas of brush to avoid the prying eyes of the pack.
While the idle voice at the back of her mind warns of lions bound to be lurking in these parts, she trudges onward through the scratchy fronds. The entire way, she resists the flashes of memory that flood forth – her newborn cub at her feet, destroyed by the Matriarch she had come to admire as both mentor and companion.
A speck of light up head shatters her agonized reverie, limited illumination contrasted against the streaks of lightning gracing the dark skies above.
It is no secret that her current path leads to the Two-Leg village at the eastern corner of the clan’s roaming territory. Indeed, various members of the pack – namely the more witless males – have even investigated occasionally, reporting back on the caged lions and generally docile Two-Legs who strangely avoid threatening her kind with their thundertubes.
Unbeknownst to her Matriarch, she has even strayed once or twice to the firm, sharp material enclosing the kept animals. Few Two-Legs dwell around the area, the constant being a tall male. Intrigued by the Tall One’s size compared to the males of her kind who tend to be smaller, she finds herself oddly unfazed by his presence behind those wires tonight.
As she emerges from the brush in a slinking fashion that maintains the urgency of her escape, she knows enough not to alarm the Two-Leg. Still, he rises to his feet, dark eyes never leaving her gaze.
All around them, rain begins to fall. As the cool water drips down between her legs to sting the fresh changes there, she wants to growl at how everything seems to remind her of the cub she just birthed. She can only hope the fresh rain will mask her scent from the hunting party.
She makes sure to calm her breathing as well as the frustrated tittering she has fought to quell the entire trek through the underbrush, attempting and failing to forget the loss of her cub and her Matriarch’s betrayal.
“…Hyena!” the Tall One bellows, presumably to another Two-Leg inside the tree bark dwelling behind him.
That word - she recognizes the term as the name for her kind among some Two-Legs. Just now, she can’t help but notice how this enclosure before her seems to have expanded, fresh soil turned up around the bark dwelling. So then it is true. The Two-Legs are encroaching onto clan territory.
Still, no matter how much danger the path ahead might hold, she has no choice but to press on--
The flash of light confuses her senses. Feeling no pain with adrenaline flooding her veins, she blinks to see the bright assailant gone. The sounds of the Tall One shouting to his stout male companion are the first to reach her ears, as both Two-Legs swim back into focus.
She gathers bits and pieces of their dialogue, understood from context of observing their previous interactions.
“Hurt?” the Tall One bellows.
“No. …Hyena?” the shorter one says.
“Don’t know…no. Woman,” the Tall One answers.
The Tall One’s eyes meet hers again, as she idly becomes aware of the dry grass clumped between her paws. No, not paws…
Glancing down at the bizarre way the fronds feel on her flesh, she realizes why they scratch so much. Her paws have elongated and are no longer covered in fur.
The raindrops trickle along the skin of her face in much the same way – too moist, with no fur barrier. Where has her fur gone?
As she lifts a hand to feel a smooth cheek, her eyes fall on the stout man with the sunset-colored head fur - who has a thundertube cocked in her direction.
“No!” shouts the Tall One, placing his hand on the weapon to lower it.
“”But…hyena…” says the other male. “Out there with her.”
“No, she’s alone,” replies the Tall One, with an air like her Matriarch uses to inform the clan whether a pack of antelope is grazing too close to lion territory and therefore, off limits to the kill.
Her instincts compel her to cringe, as the tall Two-Leg opens the wired trap with a screech.
Never letting her gaze leave his approaching figure, she forces her breathing to slow as he kneels before her. With any luck, she can hide away tonight with the Two-Legs to avoid her rampaging clan mates. Already, all senses apart from smell have dulled and she struggles to choke down the rising panic of being stuck in this strange form.
“Help? …you hurt?” the Tall One thankfully refrains from touching her. “Where…your clothes?”
She calls up all words she has learned during her brief eavesdropping sessions of Two-Legs speaking this way and moves her mouth to see if she can communicate. While she has heard the sunset-furred stout Two-Leg mention a term for family, she has little expectation that the word will mean anything coming from her.
The noise of her own verbal utterance in this new form sounds strangely quiet to her ears, a far cry from the usual whoops and titters that can carry across many fields.
Another flash of lightning mars the night sky, illuminating a grove of trees behind the Two-Leg dwelling. Still, she holds the Tall One’s gaze, as his companion speaks up.
“Clan. Don’t think there…many clans…here,” says the stout one.
“Not Scottish clan,” the Tall One still eyes her, gaze finally falling.
He lightly touches her arm. Instinct kicking in, she snaps her jaws at his fingers.
“She been attacked?” the stout male asks, as the Tall One’s hand falls to his side.
It only takes a moment for her to follow the males’ gazes to her bare legs – dark rivulets shine in the dull lights of the Two-Leg dwelling, drying on her inner thighs.
No – these Two-Leg males must not think her weak enough to have been attacked. They must know the truth.
Struggling to keep her limbs steady, she raises her hands to symbolize the form of something small.
She hopes the Two-Legs will understand she means offspring.
“Looks like she may have just given birth,” the Tall One surmises, and she wants to sigh in relief when he backs away from her.
“But who’s after you?” the stout one asks, and she’s beginning to notice a difference in lilt between him and the Tall One.
At least their speech patterns are finally starting to fall into place a little more easily for her.
She glances from the stout male to the tall Two-Leg and repeats the sound she has heard his kind make in reference to hers. “Clan.”
Another rumble of thunder sounds in the distance.
“Hospital?” the sunset-furred male asks.
The Tall One ignores his companion and gestures to himself. “I am Shaka. What is your name?”
She just stares into those dark eyes for several moments that pass as slow as the sludge of a muddy slope. She figures he must be seeking a way to identify her. Wracking her brain, she recalls the term she has discovered to mean after-one among Two-Legs determining the size of tree bark while building dwellings out on the brush.
“Two,” she murmurs.
“Two, like the number?” comes the stout one’s question.
Her gaze flits to the shorter Two-Leg before resettling on the Tall One, still studying her curiously. She points to herself.
“I see,” he inclines his head. “Two…where is your baby?”
Baby – another new Two-Leg sound with some meaning she doesn’t know. He gestures to her legs, and she supposes he means the wounds from birth.
She lets her gaze fall.
These sounds are foreign to her ears and yet, the sorrow of the situation still strikes now that these Two-Legs seem to know what has taken place.
A glimmer of surprise flashes across the Tall One’s gaze.
“I…I’m sorry,” he finally replies, and her muscles relax a touch from the calming tone of his strange sounds. “Come inside with us? The rain is heavy, and we just want to help.”
When he points toward the dwelling within the cage, she rises to her feet in a shaky, cautious motion. Drawing a deep breath, she trudges after the two males into their dwelling to escape the males of her kind whose whoops are already reaching her ears on the wind.
Despite the humid rain outside, the air in the Two-Leg dwelling is even warmer.
“Come with me,” the Tall One gestures for her to follow him through a tight stretch of wooden floor and walls.
When they emerge out into a larger yet still small space, the tall Two-Leg motions to what looks like a sleeping place filled with grass.
“You can use this bed,” he tells her, then disappears for several moments.
He returns with a moist, soft-looking material and drier material of a darker color.
“Thank you for not lashing out again,” he smiles, handing her the soft gift, before gesturing toward the left side of the room. “The washroom is to the left out in the hall. Feel free to use this to clean your legs and the robe to wear. You’re safe here, no one will hurt you. May I touch your forehead?”
He gestures to her face, and she stills. Slowly, he touches a hand to her forehead, letting his fingers fall again soon after.
“No fever. Very good. I’ll leave you to yourself now. Sleep well, Two.”
Overhead, thunder rumbles, as she struggles and fails to sleep in this strange, dark space.
Her cub – a rare survivor in a birth that kills most firstborn offspring – mauled seconds after coming into this world. The rage that had filled her body at the sight of her dead offspring pushed her to do the impossible. She had attacked her own Matriarch. Everyone knows challenging a Matriarch sets one up for death.
And yet, here she is.
When the chill in the room sends shivers across this new bare flesh, she pulls on the darker large material, dropping the wet one to the ground after dragging it gingerly over her inner thighs.
Lying back on the soft surface at the corner of the space, she closes her eyes in an attempt to calm the tiny shakes that wrack her body. Soon enough, she loses track of time to the patter of rainfall outside.
The noise of Two-Leg voices draws her from her fitful stupor. Rising from the soft pad on the floor, she ignores the ache between her legs and creeps toward the sound of the voices. Making sure to stay in the shadows, she listens.
The sunset-furred one speaks. “Shaka, the development team arrives tomorrow morning. You don’t think our guest will be a wee bit alarmed by their machinery?”
“No, Nick,” replies the Tall One, Shaka, “she stays for now. Something isn’t right. Before that lightning hit, that was a hyena standing out in that field.”
“So then, where’d it go?” Nick wants to know.
“Better yet, where’d that woman come from?” Shaka says.
“Well,” Nick answers, “I always heard Savanna park ranger work was more entertaining than working with Highland sheep, but never did I expect a magic lady to turn up my first week on the job.”
Fatigue finally seeping into her limbs, she turns away from the unintelligible voices and succumbs to the comfort of the strange soft pad. The darkness of sleep falls entirely too soon.
The third Two-Leg who comes to look at her the following morning has a large front, as if he has just eaten a hefty meal. He examines her, thankfully not removing the dark materialfrom her figure.
“Looks good,” says the Two-Leg. “She seems calm now, but if she’s shown violent tendencies, no need for a full exam today.”
“I felt her head,” Shaka says from the doorway. “Doesn’t seem to be a fever or anything.”
After the large Two-Leg leaves, Shaka offers her food, which she refuses. The stuff smells like meat, but is far too brown, as if burned under fire.
About to return to the sleeping space, she discovers something – herself. Or rather, her reflection. The Two-Leg female stares back at her from the wall beside the basin, wide eyes set in a furless face with skin the color of the dark spots of her natural coat.
At least fur still grows on top of her head.
Having seen her reflection before in lake waters and puddles, she hears her breath hitch at the utter stranger looking into her eyes. This confirms her suspicions – she has somehow become Two-Leg.
The loud sound that erupts from outside makes her jump.
A low rumble that shakes the earth sends her rushing toward the dwelling entrance in search of the two male Two-Legs she knows.
To her relief, Shaka stands to greet her as Nick exits the dwelling.
“It’s all right, Two. Some people are just here for the day to build. It’s a lot of noise, nothing more. You can go back to your room…”
Glad she can still hear him well enough to pick up on his calming tone, she steels herself to hide the tremble in her limbs. Dominance is the key to survival. She will not leave this space out of fear.
Yet another Two-Leg male enters the dwelling behind Nick. Immediately, she observes the tense body language between Shaka and the new arrival.
“Shaka,” the male inclines his head, grey fur covering the lower half of his pale face. He throws her a fleeting glance before focusing again on the Tall One. “You said we’d be able to start early today. What’s the holdup I’m hearing from Nick?”
Shaka subtly widens his stance before responding. “We have a visitor. Also, the hyena calls are pretty close at night these days. It may not be safe for your team.”
The new male scoffs. “Orders say we start today.”
He eyes her on his way out, gaze leaving a creeping feeling in her gut. That light, clear gaze reminds her of a lioness’s focused stare moments before going in for a pounce.
Within seconds, the rumbling and shrill shrieking outside continues.
“So,” Shaka says, steeping closer to her, “are you hungry yet?”
He withdraws some meat from his pocket that she soon realizes is…wrong. Far too try, as if left for days in the sunlight. Her nose wrinkles.
“Understood,” he replaces the meat in his pocket. “So, are you happy to tell me where you’re from or…”
Once again, the strange male enters the dwelling. “Shaka, what’s this Nick’s saying now about the relocation plans? You won’t move this building?”
“Henry, I own this plot of the park,” Shaka says. “That means I have to sign off on any changes you make from the original plan. So unless you plan on buying the land from me, we’re going to have a problem.”
This new male Henry stares down Shaka for a long moment, and she finds herself reminded of the challenging gazes of her own kind.
“Sure, Shaka. We’ll just get started, then.” With that, Henry leaves.
Shaka stares after the door. “He is growing pushier these days.”
“Think he’ll invite in poachers or the like?” Nick asks.
Shaka shakes his head. “Any fool in these parts knows how seriously the law comes down on poachers.”
Eventually, she eats the meat. The taste brings to mind smoke, but it will do to fill her belly.
While eating, she stares in as much comfort as she will allow herself, as the Two-Legs speak to her.
“I came out here after my daughter died in a car crash,” Shaka says, and she wonders at the low tone of his voice. “She always loved being around animals, so I finally quit the police force to do something a bit…quieter.”
Sitting at the set of seats surrounding the round piece of tree bark in the front area, she licks her lips. When Shaka’s eyes meet hers again, she sees a hint of vulnerability.
Shaka and Nick again leave her in peace that night. Though she hears the roars of several kept lions from a short distance away, she knows they cannot harm her in here.
No storm falls this night, and she actually begins to relax - until the loud rumbles start up again early the next morning.
“You hit one?” comes Nick’s shout from the front area. “We told you, no development beyond the tree grove.”
“What happened?” Shaka asks.
Entering the front area, she sees the same man Henry from the day before.
“Damn hyenas,” he shakes his head. “Why do you even care?”
“This is a national park, damn it,” Shaka has evidently caught on. “The striped hyenas are already endangered, and the spotted get closer every day. They need some sliver of territory to call their own.”
“Sure, Shaka,” Henry inclines his head, handing Shaka a white object of some sort, similar to the items she has seen strewn about in some areas of the shrubbery where Two-Legs pass through. “I hate to encroach, but business is business. Management wants a local museum here. So just take a look at the plans, it might not put you out too far.”
That’s when a scent strikes her nostrils clearer than anything she’s smelt since losing her natural form. Danger.
Shouting wordlessly over the deafening drone from outside, she yearns for the volume of her kind’s sounds.
As she goes to snatch the white thing from Shaka’s hand, Henry bellows, “Shaka, I was told only you and Nick were…”
Successfully grasping the offending object from Shaka, she wants to snarl at Henry. This Two-Leg has just tried to poison his fellow clan member. Amidst the buzzing from outside, she is determined to inform Shaka.
“No,” she recalls the words she has often heard Two-Legs shout at one another in panic, hoping this will convey the message.
Judging from the way Nick turns on Henry even faster than Shaka, she figures both males understand.
“Poison?” Nick seethes. “What is it, anthrax? Plan to steal this plot of land, do ya?”
“Are you mad?” Henry shouts back. “Are you accusing me of attempted murder?”
Meanwhile, Shaka has already crossed the room to use that talker machine. “You are not taking this land.”
“That’ll be the police he’s calling,” Nick backs Henry up to the front door, despite the former’s shorter height. “I’d hightail it out of here if I were you.”
In the next moment, Henry is gone.
As soon as Shaka sets down the talker, he glances back at Two, bewilderment written across his features. “How did you know?”
Not wanting to bother again with trying to find the right words, she simply raises her fingertips to her nose.
“You could smell that?” Nick asks, perplexed.
“Hyenas…” Shaka trails off. “They’re resistant to the stuff.”
“Damn massive coincidence,” Nick whistles.
Shaka walks over and looks down at the white flap concealing the poison.
That night, she tosses and turns, sweat beading on her flesh as she dreams of her clan. The rain and lightning outside do little to quell her nerves.
In truth, she’s surprised the two males haven’t yet ousted her from their dwelling, especially if they know the truth. Not that she isn’t grateful.
A particularly close flash of lightning either strikes the ground right outside her window or penetrates the surface without shattering the stuff it’s made from.
Sitting bolt upright, she starts at the sound uttered from her own mouth – a frustrated titter.
Her natural form has returned.
Acute hearing regained, her ears pick up the muted voices of Shaka and Nick from the front area of the dwelling.
“So, you’re actually thinking she…was the hyena?” Nick asks.
“You tell me,” Shaka’s low tone replies. “You’re the biologist. Could it be?”
A lengthy pause ensues, before Nick speaks up again. “Don’t quote me on this, but it could have something to do with the humans encroaching on their land. Perhaps an enhanced method of communication to reset the balance, though the spontaneity of it is bewildering.”
“But how?” Shaka wants to know. “Because we were close to her at the time, out in the storm?”
“Who knows, Shaka.” She can picture the sunset-furred male shaking his head. “Why was she here when we needed her? To keep you from dying? That’s another question all in itself.”
Another stretch of silence passes, as she shrugs off the now useless cloth.
“Best not bother her tonight,” Shaka decides. “We owe her one. Let’s check on the lions.”
Once the voices die down and the dwelling falls silent, she decides the time has come to set off on her own. Away from these unexpectedly docile Two-Legs as well as the ire of her own clan. Best to start now while the mud is fresh, and she can escape beneath the enclosure. Armed with the knowledge of these Two-Legs’ dwelling place, she will find a new clan and earn their trust with the news of a safe region to roam.
With a stealth that is easily lost to the patter of the rain, she noses open the unlocked, covered opening of the dwelling’s entrance and plods out into the warm night.