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One week after Jungle Storms

Preparing for a trip to the Primal Lands had always been simple for Morri before, but this time, she was taking Ein. It meant that she couldn’t just take Tahir and herself. She knew that Ein was no wilting flower, but he wasn’t used to roughing it like she was. Fortunately, she’d been thinking about this for a long time and she had made plans: a sleeping bag made of natural materials and lacing instead zippers, a couple of hand-carved wooden utensils, plates, glasses and bowls for eating and a few other tools, carefully considered and made for this trip.

Morri was grinning as she slung her leather roll of equipment onto her shoulder. Tahir watched her, bemused at her obvious delight. When she hurried out of her room, the lion padded silently after her, his tail tip flicking with little shivers of amusement. As had become her habit, she measured her pace so that he could keep up; it was a bit of a sore point between them. During their two fights, it had been thrown in each other’s face. But when they weren’t angry at each other, it was just one of the things they had to work around for their friendship.

As Morri walked, her eufiber shifted from the tank top and camo pants she wore about the palace into a rough hewn garment of buckskin. The shirt was more like a half-shirt, two squares of cloth laced up the sides over her shoulders and under her arms; the skirt was two rectangles that laced tight over her hips. Flashes of dark skin peeked from between the pieces of dun cloth in a display that forced men and women in her path to mentally chant, She’s the King’s daughter.

Morri bounced into Einherjar’s bedroom, her excitement palatable. “Are you ready?” she asked, ignoring the scent of sex and the woman who had slipped out only a short time before. She was an expert in ignoring the scent of sex around her guardian; it had been a survival trait in her youth and was just old habit by now. Not even the bath he’d had could hide it from her sharp nose. “Or are you going to make me wait?” she added with a teasing smirk, hopping up to kneel gracefully on one of his chairs.

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"Alright, alright." the answering rumble came goodnaturedly from the direction of the royal bathroom. "Almost ready. I was wondering-" Einherjar wandered out bearing nothing but two towels - one around his waist, and the other vigorously drying his mane of pale blond hair, then stopped as one glowing blue eye caught sight of the lithe young woman coiled on the chair by his dresser. The towelling of his hair slowed for a long, thoughtful second, then resumed as he started walking again, crossing the room to the rumpled bed. "Is that what you wear on your travels?" he asked mildly, picking up his eufiber and letting it grow and shift over his body, forming into clothing. Morri looked down at herself, then up at him.

"Yes. Is there something wrong with it? I thought it was pretty. And it's easy to move in." she said simply, watching as Ein took the towel off from around his middle, now wearing olive drab fatigue pants. He glanced over at her as the top part of his 'fiber resolved into a white sleeveless t-shirt.

"Oh, it's pretty." he allowed with a smile, not sure why the sight filled him with disquiet. Actually, he was very sure why, but he wasn't going there. "But it's a little revealing. Is that how they dress in the Primal Lands?"

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"Very basic and rustic." Morri's reply dodged the question; she felt a touch of unease at Einherjar's change in mood. It wasn't how things usually were with them and it made her nervous. "Everything is made from large pieces of hide laced together. Weaving is unheard of. Cheir women often don't wear shirts of any kind." That was true. The Cheir women rarely wore clothing; in winter or high altitudes, they lashed skins to their bodies. They didn't even lace it into place, instead tying the furs into place on with long strips of rawhide.

Tahir grumbled, "Are you going to tell him that's because they have enough fur to cover their bodies?" Morri shot him a dark look, which the lion returned with insolent defiance. His ears flicked with amusement, though.

"Kryyk women wear a strap over their breasts when they are gathering yaqir from river, and what they wear over their groin is a very short skirt. Yaqir's like rice, but saltier," Morri explained. She stared at Ein for a moment, her expression deliberately neutral; her irritation at this turn of events was carefully hidden, the art of emotional concealment taught to her by Ein. Her stance still betrayed her displeasure as she knelt stiffly and uncomfortably. Finally, she asked, "Do I need to wear something else?"

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Ein sighed, shaking his head ruefully before smiling. "No. It's fine. I think I'm just having trouble adjusting to the fact that you've grown up, that you've been grown up for a decade or so." His voice was it's usual calm, easy rumble as he crossed the room and lifted his sword from it's cradle above his bed's headboard. The quantum infused muscles barely even tensed as he fastened the sword into place over one shoulder - a sword that virtually no-one in existence could lift except Einherjar himself. His preparations complete, he crossed the room and crouched by the chair that Morri was tensely coiled into. Glowing blue eyes that could make hardened Elites step back were, for her, as warm and gentle as could be. "I'm sorry for being over protective. Ein is okay." His lips quirked up in a smile as he offered her a raised hand. "Morri okay?"

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With those two words, the tension eased from his ward's expression. The smile she gave him was one of her rare, truly happy one, and all the more beautiful because he rarely saw it. There were people in the world who saw Morri every day and would still never see this beaming expression of delight. Those same people believed that Einherjar was a lucky man, but they believed that because they saw a rich man with powers, a crown and more women than he could ever want. They believed that Morri was his barely-fretted albatross and didn’t understand what she gave him.

Morri pressed her hand his, laughing a little as she said, “Morri okay.” Her fingers curled around his as she rose on her toes to kiss his cheek, another milestone years in the making. Her body innocently brushed his as she stretched to reach his face with hers. “Morri very okay.” Just like that, her excitement for the trip was back, her eyes sparkling as she dropped back onto her heels and looked to Tahir. “Are you ready?”

As they’d been talking, Tahir had undormed, and now the lion faced them in full glory. “Yes,” he rumbled in Feliod.

Morri shifted her grip so that she and Ein could hold hands comfortably. Tahir stepped up to her side, leaning against her and nosing against her other hand. Morri tangled her fingers in his proto-mane, closing her eyes. “I’m going to attune you,” she warned her friends. They braced themselves for it; they knew what was coming. Blood gathered as the two prepared themselves for the sensation. Blood welled on her arms, beading up and running down her skin. It crawled up and over Ein and Tahir, covering both of them in a welter of blood. After several seconds, the blood seemed to soak into their skin, fading away with a tingle.

Morri kept her eyes closed as she internally reached out with her quantum. The power built and then exploded in a wave of quantum energy that literally twisted all the boundaries of time and space. The air changed, becoming thicker and fresher. The smells on the wind were wild and primal. The sounds traveling to Ein’s sensitive ears were all unfamiliar and utterly natural.

They stood on a low hill, just like the palace did at home. The grass was dry and scraggly under their feet. But instead of looking down into the ocean, they faced a vast desert. The sun was hot overhead; when Ein turned, a dry, rolling grassland spread out behind them.

Tahir drew breath and released a roar that echoed over the open ground. “Phone call,” Morri murmured to explain; a moment later, a faint roar answered. “His family will meet us at my cave,” Morri said, turning to Ein, pride in her eyes. “Do you want to see my home?”

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Ein looked at Morri, seeing her with fresh eyes (and not for the first time). This was her place, as much as battlefield and conflict were his. Here, she felt as at peace and happy as he usually did when Death was at his shoulder. Some might ask why didn't he just let someone kill him... But that wasn't Ein's way. Death was for him a rival, someone he defied to take him even though he wanted little more than just that. A lover who he played hard-to-get for. Every foe he defeated, every battle he won, was another dare to the Reaper to come and get him personally, rather than send lackeys. And when Morri had entered his life, he'd had something to fight for, beyond seeking the next dance with his bony lover. All the way through the Congolese Liberation, he'd kept his deathwish in check... for her, more than anything. His dream of sticking it to DeVries and their allies had grown into a wish to make a place safe for Morri, and then he'd expanded it to making a place safe for anyone that put their trust in him. But to see her here, in a place she so obviously felt a sense of belonging to, made the king smile broadly.

"I'd very much like that." he assented with a grin. Taking a deep breath of the clean air, cleaner than back home despite the Zushima microbes, he turned a slow circle and panned his fierce blue gaze along the horizon. "This is something... Another world. I'd heard that novas could theoretically do this... even heard rumors that some had. But Morri..." he turned an admiring grin on her. "You have definitely amazed me. Let's go. I'd like to see your home."

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"Alright," she said, giving a little hop of excitement as she turned toward the north. Tahir moved with her, settling into a run with nova grace. Einherjar shook his head and trailed after, finding that he was evenly matched on foot with the lion. Morri looked more like she was out on an easy run instead of a full sprint. Her slim, dark legs pumped with easy grace, her bare feet landing perfectly on the uneven ground. Unfortunately, her outfit moved with each sway of her ass and Einherjar wasn't particularly comfortable running behind her after only a few steps. He took to the air and hovered forward to pace her. "I could carry Tahir," he offered to her.

Morri shook her head. "If someone saw he'd lose face," she said, then slowed and stopped. "Look," she said, pointing.

A mixed herd of elephants and triceratops were grazing together, the elephants pulling down branches on the scraggly trees while the three-horned beasts ate what leaves they could steal or tore up clumps of grass. "Wow," Einherjar said, staring at creatures that hadn't been seen on his world in a while. "Why are they with the elephants?"

"The elephants have better hearing and the three-horns better noses," Morri explained. "They work together to warn against predators."

"Are the elephants like Tahir?"

"Prey animals are far less likely to be any smarter here than they are back home," Morri replied, looking up at him. His boyish grin made her ridiculously happy. She suddenly wished he'd give up the throne to come here with her and help her build a kingdom here. But she knew that wouldn't happen. There were things at home that they wouldn't have here, like more women than Ein knew what to do with. He'd never give up that just to live somewhere like the Primal Lands.

And perhaps, it was just as well that he'd never seek to conquer a place like this. It wouldn't be the same after King Ein had his hands on it. Morri knew she'd already brought changes here, but she meshed better than Einherjar would. The mental image of him trying to bring organization to the Sky-callers made her chuckle a little.

"What?" he asked her.

Morri stared into those blue eyes that were her world and said, "Nothing. Just watching you watch the dinosaurs." He nodded and returned to his gawking. When he was done, they continued onward as the hills rose and dipped more steeply. Einherjar flew overhead as the two ran; just when the king was wondering how much longer it would take, Morri slowed and began to follow the base of a hill. After a quarter turn, she stopped in front of an entrance to a cave. Eyes widening against the change in light, Einherjar followed his ward into the cavern. It was spacious, long and wider in the middle, slightly curving around in a crescent moon to end in a dark hole. The place was clearly occupied; a massive pile of tanned furs was layered along one side, while provisions of dried food - mostly meats - were hanging from wooden tee-pees on the other side. The stored food gave the room a spicy smell and the hint of smoked meat was a pleasant undertone.

There were some decorations, too; a flat rock that seemed to double as a table held a number of small, carved figures. Ein picked one up and found it felt like ivory. But the prominent feature of the room was the massive crocodile hide on the floor that stretched from the entrance almost to the back. The big nova measured it out in his head, his eyebrows rising when he realized that the monster was just shy of fifty feet, nose to tail. The hide had been carefully patched but Einherjar could still see the cuts in the hide that had no doubt ended the beast's life.

"Welcome to my home," Morri said to him as she knelt next to a blackened hollow in the floor. In the shallow pit, she began to pile tinder and sticks, preparing to start a fire. "Pull up a fur, make yourself comfortable," she added with a wry grin.

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He didn't sit immediately, instead wandering the length and breadth of the cave, getting a feel for the place as he unstrapped his sword from his back and leaned it against one wall where, Morri noted amusedly, it would likely stay until the end of the world, or until Ein picked it up again. He kicked off his boots and set them next to his blade, then walked around barefooted on the crocodile skin floor, smiling at Morri.

"I like it." he said simply, stopping by the firepit and turning a circle to regard the cavern. With a sideways glance, he once more studied what Morri was wearing and concentrated. His eufiber shifted, changing colour and flowing into the shape of a thick white cotton loincloth that hung down his thighs aways front and back and left his hips bare, save for an ornamented leather belt. A bit of adjustment, and a briefs-style arrangement underneath would preserve his modesty in the event of flying or sitting down. With a cheerful grin, he 'pulled up a fur', sitting down on the edge of the huge fur-pile and feeling the softness of the pelts. With a simple change of his eufiber, the king of the Congo had gone from paramilitary warlord to splendidly barbaric war god.

"Might as well go native while I'm here." he told Morri with a laugh.

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“You look splendid,” Morri assured him as she pulled a fur off the pile and used it to cushion the floor. “Do you always go native so easily?” she teased him with a grin.

“I find it helps to make the natives comfortable. Speaking of, do you have any neighbors?” he asked.

“The Suns are to the south; this is the edge of their territory. The Dwellers – giant spiders – live under us, but they stay out of this cave system, as part of our deal. You’ll find Sky-callers – birds – all over, but they only visit when they have something important,” Morri said. “The Crane might come calling – he did with me, but they usually don’t seek you out. And the Scales are to the north. Crocodiles.” There was a chill in her voice; a frostiness that Ein had heard her use before for men. “There’s a buffer zone between these hills and their mountains; they stay around the River Nir, which cuts through those mountains. Beyond that, there are others, but they tend to avoid me.”

“Why?” Ein asked, his tactical mind neatly absorbing the political details of this realm.

Morri shrugged. “Fear, mostly. I seem to be allied with the Suns, who are the power in this region. The Suns are numerous enough to oppose me, but most of the other groups are smaller and weaker. Traveling with Tahir means that I’m not at war with them – the old tactic of having the heir to a power held as a hostage.” Tahir snorted at the idea as he pulled down a hunk of dried meat and started to gnaw at it. “Plus, humans here aren’t novas. The only human who had these kind of powers was the Primal Queen and her rival the Night King. They’re pretty much God and Satan, respectively – she was the creator of the Primal Lands and he opposed her. The myth ends in various ways; some that she ascended into the sky, which is the Sky-callers take, to the Suns, who insist she dwells in the Primal Lands still.”

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"Interesting..." Ein mused, his eyes on Morri as she outlined the situation. He looked at the huge crocodile skin that was the floor, then at her, eyebrow crooked. "A Scale?" he asked rhetorically. "I assume you didn't get along."

"No." said Morri shortly, getting up and trotting over to a rack of dried meat. "Here, try some of this." she told him in a not-so-subtle subject change, tossing him some of the smoked meat. Ein chewed, causing Morri to smile as he complimented her on the taste.

"It's three-horn." she told him with a grin. Ein blinked, then smiled and took another bite.

"I trust it didn't have a name." he quipped. Morri smiled and sat back down beside him.

"Not that it told me." she teased. Ein laughed and nudged her with his shoulder.

"How does that work, here?" he asked thoughtfully. "Are there taboos against eating other intelligent creatures? Admittedly, you told me most prey animals aren't sapient, but still it must have come up? Do the Suns, for instance, have issues with that?"

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"Eating is eating," Morri said softly. “The Suns and other predators eat anything they can get, including humans. I’ve not eaten some things, I will admit. It makes me a bit queasy. But eating something that used to be able to communicate with you isn’t a big deal here.” Her expression hardened. “Taking their skins is. It’s an insult, like you would be upset seeing someone wearing your mother’s skin. The humans all wear prey-animal or dinosaur skins; if a Sun saw a human wearing the skin of a lion, they would kill them, posthaste.”

“And no feather headdresses?”

“Well, a Sky-caller might give a gift,” Morri said thoughtfully. “But someone with a lot of feathers, wore decoratively, would have a lot of questions to answer, and answer quickly.” She leaned against him a little, enjoying the contact of another person, another man, without the stifling fear that came with the touch.

A low rumble from outside brought Tahir’s head around and he bounced to his feet and out the door. Morri didn’t move, merely smiling a little. “That’s his family,” she told Ein. “I usually give him a few moments before starting the ‘politicking’.”

The idea of his Morri participating in politics raised the Storm King’s eyebrows. “Tense or friendly?”

“Weird. I killed Khatar there,” she pointed at the skin on the floor, “and made a reputation as a King-killer. So when I met the Rethof the Suns, he challenged me to a fight. I think he thought he was being preemptive. When I defeated him, I let him live and, in doing so, dishonored the entire Tribe. That’s why Tahir is with me. When he’s earned his people’s pride back, he can return home. Until then, he’s with me. It’s part hostage, part… companion.” She leaned over and tore off a chunk of the dried meat, inadvertently letting her eufiber gape a little. She seemed unaware of the issue, which resolved herself when she straightened up again. “So relations are a touch uncomfortable when Tahir’s family is around.” She tore off a chunk of meat, her strong, white teeth tearing deeply. “Please don’t pet him like you do at home. His family might take that wrong.”

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"Perish the thought." Ein rumbled, seeming amused at that. Inwardly, he was becoming a little concerned with how he was reacting to Morri's unintentional flashes of skin. She was his ward, for crying out loud. His daughter in all but flesh and blood. He really shouldn't be distracted by her body, even if he was a self-confessed hound dog for a pretty face. There was a problem with that logic, and it was one that Ein had been wrestling with for years now, ever since he'd realised that the feral child had become a beautiful woman.

Plus, of course, sex for Morri was out of the question. No way in hell would he have any part in initiating such an encounter with her, even if he could see her differently. Sex for his beloved Morrigan was a thing of pain, dominance and cruelty, something that was done to hurt. She knew better, intellectually she knew that the experience was joyful, positive and life-affirming for millions on millions of people. But she didn't feel it, deep in her bones. For all her nova acuity and perception, it was a blind spot for her.

And finally, there was the depth of his feelings. Ein loved Morri, a love that was entirely non-carnal. He would die for her, and more importantly, he would live for her. If things became sexual, it wouldn't be just sex. He knew that intuitively. He'd been shying away from that his whole life since his wife died, refusing to grieve and heal, confident that he would be joining her soon. And even though that was looking less and less likely, it would be better all round for him to keep the 'parent' wall around the Morri-shaped space in his heart.

So he smiled and finished up his dried triceratops jerky with Morri as they waited for Tahir to finish his private greetings with his family. And he reflected that there were far worse things to be than the one man fully trusted by the Morrigan.

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A small form streaked into the cave suddenly and landed on Einherjar’s lap. He had a second to see a lion cub peering up at him before it lunged for the remaining shred of jerky in his fingers. It wasn’t nova-fast, just hungry-kid-fast so it was easy for him to evade the snatch.

A blue-eyed lioness appeared in the entrance and snarled; the cub seemed to more or less ignore her in favor of placing both paws on Ein’s chest and mewling as it stared up at the meat. A short tail lashed back and forth as eyes as blue as Tahir’s studied Ein’s hand and the treasure within. A pink tongue slipped out and licked at the black lips in the universal sign for being hungry There was a calculating consideration in that gaze that was all the more disquieting given the predatory nature to it.

Morri sighed and plucked the cub from Ein’s lap, cuddling the squirming kit to her chest. “What I said… about petting? It doesn’t apply to cubs,” Morri told him with a grin as she began to rub at its ears and chest. Tahir slipped in behind the lioness, watching with amusement. Standing next to the female, the familial resemblance was unquestionable. “Storm King, this is Tahir’s mother, Bisa, and the cub is Fakih, a full brother to Tahir and first-son.” She turned and made cat noises, no doubt giving introductions in return.

“First-son?” Ein asked when she was done speaking.

“The first son of any given litter,” Morri explained. “He’s in line for the throne because of that.”

“So a second son born in a litter isn’t in line?” Einherjar queried.

“Nope, nor are girls,” Morri said softly. “Though-” She stopped with a laugh. “You really don’t need a lesson in Sun culture.” The kitten in her lap was practically melting into her legs; he wasn’t purring but his slitted eyes and heavy breathing suggested that he was a happy goo-cub. Still smiling, she passed the limp cub to Einherjar and gracefully rose.

“I would like it,” he replied as he began to scratch the cub much as she had. He had started to stir, but Fakih relaxed again under Ein’s fingers. “But perhaps when we don’t have people waiting on us,” he added with a glance to the waiting guests.

Morri smiled at him. “And just in case you’re wondering – Fakih’s at the age where Sun cubs get spoiled, so feel free to ply him with attention, good or bad. He’ll love it.” Einherjar chuckled as she spoke to the Suns for a moment. Some sort of concensus was reached and Bisa made a noise that had Fakih scrambling out of his lap. “The Suns are going to go and hunt; they’d like us to join them. It will be a royal affair, and largely ceremonial – even a target as large as a long neck isn’t a match for the Sun royals. But allowing outsiders on a hunt is a mark of honor, so they invite us.” She smiled. “The honor is in the asking, not in the hunt, necessarily. You can say no if you’d rather not.”

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