Etched in Bone (The Others #5) by Anne Bishop


            End of Sumor

As they gathered in the wild country between Tala and Etu, two of the Great Lakes, their footsteps filled the land with a terrible silence.

            They were Elders, primal forms of terra indigene who guarded the wild, pristine parts of the world. To the smaller forms of earth natives—shifters like the Wolf and Bear and Panther—they were known as Namid’s teeth and claws.

            Humans—those invasive two-legged predators—had made war against the terra indigene, killing the smaller shifters in the wild country that bordered Cel-Romano, a place that was on the other side of Ocean’s domain. And here, in Thaisia, so many of the Wolfgard were killed that parts of the land were empty of their song.

            As the humans in Thaisia and Cel-Romano celebrated their victory over the smaller forms of terra indigene, the Elementals and Namid’s teeth and claws answered the call to war. They destroyed the invaders, then began the work of isolating and thinning the human herds in those two pieces of the world.

            But now they faced a problem.

            <Some of us will have to watch the humans,> said the oldest male who had made the journey to this place. <Some of us will be poisoned by even that much contact.> A beat of silence as they considered taking over the task the smaller shifters had performed for many years. Then the question: <How much human will we keep?>

            <Kill them all!> snarled another male. <That is what humans would do.>

            <You would kill the sweet blood not-Wolf?> a female asked, shocked.

            A heavy silence as they considered that question.

            The sweet blood, the howling not-Wolf, had changed things in the Lakeside Courtyard—had even changed some of the terra indigene living in that Courtyard. She was not like the human enemies. She was not prey. She and her kind were Namid’s creation, wondrous and terrible.

            No, they could not kill the sweet blood not-Wolf, the one called Broomstick Girl in the stories that winged their way into the wild country and amused even the most dangerous forms of Elders.

            Having agreed that killing all the humans in Thaisia wasn’t the answer, they considered the problem as the sun set and the moon rose.

            <If we allow some humans to remain, then what kind of human should we keep?> the eldest male finally asked.

            A different question. A caught-in-thorny-vines, stuck-in-the-mud kind of question. Many of the smaller shifters who had survived the human attacks had withdrawn from human-occupied places, leaving the humans who lived there to the Elders’ sharp mercy. Some returned to the wild country, retreating from any trace of humans, while others chose to resettle in towns that had been reclaimed—places that had buildings and human things but no longer had people.

            But the Elders who guarded the wild country usually kept their distance from human places unless they came to those places as Namid’s teeth and claws. They didn’t study humans the way the smaller shifters did. The teaching stories told them there were different kinds of humans, but what made one human respectful of the land and the boundaries that had been set while another killed and left the meat, or tried to take away the homes of the feathered and furred? The HFL humans had made war on the terra indigene. Were there other kinds of humans who were enemies—kinds the Elders did not yet recognize?

            If humans migrated to the reclaimed towns, would they fight with the shifters who were turning those places into homes for terra indigene who didn’t want to completely abandon the human form? But earth natives didn’t absorb just the form of another predator; they also absorbed aspects of that predator, traits that became woven into the shape. Were there human traits the terra indigene should not absorb? Where could they go to study humans closely enough to learn what could not be allowed to take root in the reclaimed towns?