I sat on the edge of the cliff, a desert sprawled below me, the sun beating fiercely against my tanned skin. My palms were pressed uncomfortably into the gravel, and I watched gravely as plants set the world on fire.

Once upon a time, this wasn't normal, I thought wryly. Once upon a time, evil-alien-plant-things didn't treat buildings like ants waiting to be scorched by a magnifying glass. I think that my ancestors had it good, when all they had to worry about was destroying each other.

I watched as two long, thick vines hefted a shard of glass the size of a truck into the air. It had probably been part of a telescope once, which would explain the odd shape of the ruined building that was now infested with vines. They curled amongst the rabble, moving lazily, like bloated snakes. The vines holding the glass were now poised expectantly in the air, waiting for the sun to do its job, and set the gnarled tree trunks that had been tossed carelessly into the rubble on fire.

I stood, having seen enough pointless destruction for one day. It was too late to save the buildings, and in this remote of a landscape, I doubted there was another living soul for miles. As I straightened and stretched, my boots scratched against the rocky outcrop, causing gravel to tumble into the canyon below. Instantly, I felt tremors shake the ground below my feet; eyebrows quirked, I peered down into the shadowy chasm. I could see the faint outline of vines throwing themselves against the canyon wall, desperately clawing their way towards me, not caring who or what I was, only that there was something moving and breathing in their vicinity. I turned heel and left, knowing that by the time they reached the top of the cliff, I would be long gone.

My mood brightened considerably when I saw Briar's faint form outlined against the horizon. He loped toward me, panting, and barreled into me, sending us both reeling to the ground. I laughed, and looped my arms around his neck, allowing him to drag me back onto my feet. His head -large, reptilian, and wedge-shaped- loomed above me. My eyes were level with his slender neck, which was covered in soft down, the color of sand. Knowing what he was waiting for, I dug my fingers into his fur and scratched idly at the smooth skin below it, murmuring his praises. His tail thumped happily against the ground, causing the vines still clambering up the cliff to redouble their efforts; I could feel the tremors growing more violent by the moment. I laid my hand on Briar's scaled brown shoulder and led him away from the desert, toward home.

Did you see anything good while you were off exploring? I asked him curiously.

No, he replied dejectedly. What about you? Did you see anything good down below?

I shrugged slightly. Nothing worth risking our lives over. I did see a lot of glass though- large pieces, they could fetch a decent price. We should go grab some when the Lereid have moved on. Other than that... I think we might have to think about straying farther from home, Briar. I know you like having a safe place to retreat to, but we've picked the land bare.

Briar swung his head toward me, his expressive green eyes large and glum. He whined adorably, so I elbowed him in the ribs. Stop acting like a puppy.

But I am a puppy! The cutest puppy for miles around, and I'd like to see you try to prove otherwise! He danced sideways, then launched into his trademark lope, forcing me to break into a run. By the time we crested the rise that led to our home, we were both panting, and I couldn't help the grin that was plastered across my face. But as Briar careened to a stop and threw himself protectively in front of me, my mood instantly shifted; I tensed, and peered warily across his back, wishing briefly that we could spend a few peaceful moments out in the sun without it turning into a life or death issue.

At first, nothing seemed out of the ordinary, and I wondered at Briar's agitation. Our home was, per usual, picturesque; it was a dandelion, impossibly tall and vibrantly green, too large for the faint breeze to cause it to lurch, but visibly shifting due to its own energy and unbalanced weight. A small, grassy knoll surrounded the base of the plant, strikingly out of place in the barren landscape, and cast into shade by the yellow petals that swayed far above. There was a nearly imperceptible gap between the grass and dandelion's roots that led to our underground chambers; it was normally blocked by a sturdy grey stone that only Briar could move. But now, I realized with a jolt, the stone had been shifted, and someone was in our home.

I grasped the knife strapped to my belt and grimly advanced, taking comfort from Briar's warm breath against my neck. The tall grass tickled my bare legs and arms as I impatiently swept it from my path. I stomped toward the entrance, past the small vegetable garden that I had planted, and without hesitation swung inside and slithered down the steep tunnel that we had dug years before. Briar followed me silently, his softly clicking claws the only sound that marked his presence. Our stealth was the key to our success in the fight against the Lereid, and it seemed to work well with humans too, so I felt no fear as I dropped quietly to the ground, only patient anger.

The arid chamber was characteristically dark, but a dim light lit the adjoining room, spilling beneath the makeshift wooden door. I skirted the wall to my right, and peered into the small window between the rooms in that I had created specifically for this purpose; then the air exploded from my lungs in a short, frustrated cry.

Veron! What are you doing here? Briar growled and pushed his way into the next room, and I followed, slamming the door behind me. The man inside jumped and backed hastily away, the papers he had been clutching to his chest scattering across the floor.

Give an inch, they take a mile, Briar snorted to me, before curling his body around Veron's, back arched threateningly. We invite him in once, so he makes himself at home.

I nodded, relaxing slightly. I wasn't happy with the intrusion, but I would rather deal with a human with too few boundaries than a human who wanted to destroy me. Veron was one of my best customers, a man who loved art and paid dearly for any intact treasures I could find among the ruins of civilization. Right now, the well-bred man was looking decidedly purple as he jerked at the tight collar of his suit and tried to remember how to breathe.

(to be continued)




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