“Settle down,” Kiri said, raising her voice above the crowd gathered around her. On any normal day she could be sweet and charming but not during her first assignment. She narrowed her eyes and regarded the burly centaur kicking his mud-caked hooves into the ground.
“A puny nymph isn’t going to tell me where I can graze.” Rhaecus towered over her, with biceps larger than her waist prominently on display. He shook his tail toward the myrmidons that requested Kiri’s aid. They cried out in protest at his rude gesture but kept their distance. Kiri had asked them to return inside their colony, but they refused to stand down until the centaurs left the area. “We like races, wine and especially women.”
The centaur smirked, trotting closer to Kiri and blocking out the sun. Alarms went off inside Kiri, urging her to step back. She required sunlight to create bio-ethereal energy, without which she would wither away. Kiri stood her ground and ignored the stench wafting in from the half man half horse creature. At eight-hundred years of age, most races considered her young, but she still roamed the forests long enough to be familiar with the centaur power games. If she backed down, they’d all lose any respect for her and her assignment would be a failure.
The Elder Dryads sent Kiri north to deal with the band of centaurs ravaging the myrmidon’s home with their daily races. She needed to settle the dispute and prove herself as a Warden.
“All we’re asking for is that you avoid this area. There’s plenty of hills and grass to go around,” Kiri said, indicating to the prairie behind them.
“We’re free to roam where ever we please,” Rhaecus said. “Maybe we like it here and will settle down. If those ants have a problem with that, then they can move away.”
“The myrmidons built their colony here first. Storming over and destroying the colony won’t make either of you friends,” Kiri said. She leaned in and lowered her voice. “I’d hate to see such a big tough guy as yourself get injured by ants.”
Rhaecus scoffed at her remark, kicking up dust with his hooves. Fear scratched on Kiri’s heels and the injuries she might suffer from a stampede. “You should go back to your trees, unless you came here for a little more as well. I’m sure we would make good company.”
Kiri’s hands balled into fists at his words. She needed to find a solution to the dispute without violence breaking out between the ant shifters and the centaurs but also from herself. Dryads learned from an early age to use their powers for the good of the environment and maintaining a balance. She brushed back her long dark hair from her face and shrugged. “I’m not so sure you would. I mean, I’ve never seen you run before. All this talk of racing but maybe one of your friends is the real deal here.”
“Real deal? I’ll show you,” Rhaecus said with a grunt. He reared, flicking his tail at the other centaurs. He dashed away and drew circles around them all, slowly picking up his speed and enveloping them in a cloud of dust. “None are faster than me. It’s why I say where we go and where we graze.”
Kiri crossed her arms in front of her chest. She watched him pass a few times before losing interest and clicking her tongue. “So if I understand you correctly, you’re willing to leave the myrmidons alone as long as I beat you in a race.”
“Save your energy for when I rut you, little nymph. There’s no one out there that can best me.” Rhaecus came to a halt in front of Kiri and pounded his hairy chest.
Kiri’s knees weakened. She looked back over her shoulder where the group of myrmidons waited. They were built to kill, even in their human form with chiseled abs, but could just as easily shift back into the ant form. A fight between the two would become inevitable if she failed to reach an agreement. A battle that would cost dozens of lives on both sides. Perhaps going alone had been her mistake and she should have taken her twin seedling, Ajalla, with her.
“I’m not impressed so far. So let’s settle this with a race and see which of us really is faster.” Kiri straightened and pulled her shoulders back. “Unless, of course, you’re afraid of of being beaten by a puny nymph.”
The last bit rolled off her tongue and spurred the anger in Rhaecus, turning his bald head crimson. The warning bells in her mind were silent. Probably because they broke from ringing non-stop for the past five minutes. Rhaecus went to his pack and strutted, ascertaining his role as their leader and silencing any protest. Winning a small fleck of the prairie became a measure of authority he would see fulfilled.
“Fine. We’ll have it your way. But, if you lose you’re staying here with me,” he snarled. The fumes on his breath were enough to make Kiri feel ill. Rhaecus really needed to watch his diet and cover all the nutrients his body needed.
“I won’t let it come to that,” Kiri said and stretched her limbs. The myrmidons all watched her with a blank look in their eyes that chipped at her self-esteem. Sure, they were all under the will of their queen hidden away in the colony, but still. “First one to the river and back. No physical contact.” She raised her hand in warning before he might protest.
Rhaecus laughed and agreed to the race. The centaurs set up on both sides around them to form a starting position.
“Good luck,” Turos said. As a drone, he spoke on behalf of the Queen and would lead the soldiers into battle. “We believe you can bring an end to this.”
“Thank you. Let’s just hope he plays by the rules,” Kiri said, glancing over her shoulder to where Rhaecus waited impatiently. She raised her head to the sun with closed eyes and basked in the light for a final moment before joining Rhaecus at the starting line. The route she picked would lead them away from the myrmidon colony and the forest for their race. “Last chance to pull out and leave.”
Rhaecus grunted, snapping his gaze away from her and focusing on the river a half mile away. A centaur with a brown and white coat, she assumed was his second, counted down and on his mark they both kicked off.
Kiri saw the hulking mass of man and horse from the corner of her vision dart off ahead and slowly widen the gap between them. Centaurs were natural runners with an extra pair of long legs Kiri did not have. An advantage he could turn into an easy victory. Kiri reached into her bio-ethereal basin where she stored all the energy and minerals harnessed throughout the day. She tapped into the energy and directed it to her legs and lungs, allowing her to push herself over the limits of what she was normally capable of. She sucked in a deep breath, felt the burn in her legs as she picked up the pace. Faster, her entire body moved in rhythm. Dryads were forest nymphs but Kiri considered herself more than just a pretty face.
Rhaecus glanced back over his shoulder, his eyes widened to his surprise to find that she hadn’t given up yet but was gaining on him. He kicked harder and propelled himself forward. Heaps of rock and dirt flung through the air which Kiri narrowly avoided. The zig-zag maneuver cost her a few precious yards, allowing Rhaecus to reach the river banks first. He leaned onto his rear legs and spun around, hooves crashing down in front of Kiri.
“Give up,” he said with a grin and galloped back to the start.
Kiri took after him, diverging more energy into her body to keep up. She caught up with him halfway back and managed to take the lead for a brief moment before losing it to Rhaecus again.
The centaur groaned between shallow breaths, his face drenched in sweat. He put everything he had into keeping his hairsbreadth lead on Kiri and only a couple dozen yards left to the centaurs cheering him on.
Kiri’s bio-ethereal basin was finite, with more than half of her stored energy already depleted. She couldn’t afford to use it up entirely. Even with the sun still out, replenishing small amounts of her energy as she ran, she’d collapse and die if it ran dry. Kiri focused on the two centaurs marking the finish line. Her future as a Warden depended on her being able to resolve conflicts without violence. She leaned forward, kicking herself ahead of Rhaecus and past the line.
The centaurs went quiet, staring at her and then back at Rhaecus. Kiri slowed down to a walk. Her heart pounded ferociously against her chest as she worked to regain her breath.
“You cheat,” Rhaecus said, coming to her first. He loomed over and pointed his stubby finger at her. “This proves nothing. Now get lost before I change my mind and crush you beneath my hooves.”
Kiri placed her hands at her hips, chest heaving. “I told you not to be a sore loser. You lost, so I expect you to pack up. I can help you look for a new place to relocate.”
“Why you little-- I will not let myself be played a fool by a puny nymph.” Rhaecus charged her in a storm of rage. He reached out, hands clasping around her neck as he hoisted her up. She flailed, kicking the air and clawing at his hands as his grip tightened.
Kiri noticed the myrmidons shift back into their ant form just before her vision darkened. The strength in his hand threatened to crush her throat. She couldn’t free herself from his grip and trembled. Only the tingle in her body remained and slowly went numb. Her mind reeled out in all directions, releasing almost all the energy she had stored. Her eyes flared bright as she struggled to remain conscious and gave in to her instincts.
Roots sprang out of the ground with a thunderous clap. They swiftly coiled around her attacker and tore him down. Rhaecus released Kiri and attempted to fend off the numerous roots wrapping themselves around him. Kiri crumbled to the ground using one hand to rub her sore throat and the other to hold him in place. He shouted for help but the other centaurs stepped back, their faces pale with horror.
Kiri rose on to unsteady legs and addressed them, all of them. “Go away and never threaten anyone else again.” She balled her hands, tightening the roots around their leader.
The centaurs eagerly nodded their approval and ran away, without waiting for her to release Rhaecus. She watched them race off into the distance and questioned herself. What am I doing? The Elder Dryads would be upset when they found out she used force to settle the matter. She was meant to protect life and work on helping all creatures, not dictating her will and threatening violence.
Turos shifted back into his human form and came up beside her. She couldn’t help but marvel at his toned body and the smile he gave her. A perfect set of abs she wanted to reach out and slide her hand across.
“The Queen thanks you for your commitment today in saving lives,” he said in a monotone voice. Myrmidons were ant shifters and all part of the colony with little personality to set them apart from one another. “She’ll recommend you in her future communication, should the need ever arise again for us to depend on your services.”
“Thank you, but I didn’t act correctly. Your people would be better off with another Warden. The centaurs shouldn’t pose a threat anytime soon.”
Turos glazed at her with a blank stare. “The Queen acknowledges your request. Good day, Kirilamei,” he said and wandered back towards the colony with a stiff posture.