Huitaca was on the prowl, slowly traversing the green landscape of trees dripping with vines and other plant-life reaching up towards the sun. She wore her human form, for the moment, placing each step with such control and care so as not to make a sound.

Huitaca was a plain-looking woman, none of her features standing out save for her eyes which shone yellow in the dark night. She was short, for her people, barely reaching the shoulders of the other members of her tribe. Her skin was a soft brown, black hair cropped at her chin. She wore simple clothes, rough cloth covering only her waist and torso.

She stalked her prey the way her father had taught her, remembering his lessons in moving quietly, without disturbing the plant or wildlife. She felt the desire to change, the fire burning within her to be let out, but she fought it back. Tonight, she hunted as herself, not with the other form. Her prey, an unwitting capybara, was to be a sacrifice to Pacha Mama, which meant it must be killed the old way, the human way.

She took a few more steps, slipping behind a tree and looking upon the clearing before her. The capybara was sitting lazily before a small stream, occasionally bending down to lap at the water. Huitaca lifted her spear, shortened compared to those born by her tribe in order to match her stature. Huitaca knewthat this shortening was no issue. As long as her aim stayed true, the sharp point of the spear would secure the kill.

Huitaca took a step towards the clearing, preparing to launch her spear. She took a deep breath, calming herself, before chucking her weapon with a loud grunt. She watched as the spear took the capybara between the ribs, a perfect shot piercing the beast’s heart.

She ran to the animal, comforting it as it went through the throes of death. She did not want it to suffer, and was glad that her throw had landed well, killing the capybara almost instantly.

Huitaca removed her spear and placed it in the sling on her back. She bent down and struggled to heft the giant rodent, eventually getting it up and placing the weight on her shoulders. She began to move East, back to her people. They would be waiting eagerly for her return, and she meant to leave them waiting no longer than was necessary.

She received a cacophony of cheers and salutations as she carried her quarry through the village. She made her way to the great fire that burned eternally at the center of town. She nodded to the keepers of the fire, whose sole purpose was to see that the flames remained bright and strong.

She walked up to the man sitting on a marvelously made chair, the wood worked and carved to give the impression of sitting on a throne of anacondas. She knelt before the man, placing the carcass at his feet. She bowed her head, looking down at the ground as she spoke.

“I bring this gift to you, to give to Pacha Mama. Please accept this sacrifice, and may her loving embrace protect you and our people.”

The man on the chair stood, looking down at the animal placed before him. He bent to inspect it, noting the deadly wound in its side.

“A wonderful throw, my daughter. I have taught you well.”

Huitaca stood, her smile breaking the formality of the delivery. She embraced her father, Punchao, leader of their people. Sometimes it was hard being his daughter, many of their interactions forced to be laden with the customs of their people. But when Punchao dropped his airs and spoke to Huitaca, not as a member of the tribe, but as his daughter, the love he bore her became clear.

“The old way, father, though I felt the fire to change.”

“As well you didn’t. You know our ways; you know why we hold to the old ways at times. We must never lose our humanity.”

Huitaca nodded solemnly. She turned from her father to look upon the village. They were arrayed in a sort of spiral formation, with the great flame at the center, personal abodes clustered around the center, and the craftsmen’s tents around the edges of the clearing.

Huitaca loved her people, every one of them. Even Micos and Pacari, childhood friends who had drifted away when the change came upon Huitaca.. Although, in theory, the change was a gift from the heavens, those who possessed the ability made some people uncomfortable. Only when the light men came, the ones in metal clothes, were Huitaca and the other changers heralded as heroes.

Even amongst the changers, Huitaca was a bit of an outcast. Where they were able to transform into massive, powerful jaguars, Huitaca’s form was even larger and bore the pitch black fur that emerged from time to time amongst those great cats.

Punchao, upon seeing the difference of Huitaca’s form, had wanted her to lead the changers. He had tried to groom her and train her to take control, but Huitaca had never wanted to lead. She preferred to hunt alone, working in the night to hunt prey. Only when the metal men came did she choose to work with the other changers, planning their ambushes in unison.

The metal men kept coming and thinking about them put Huitaca ill at ease. Her father was sure that they could handle these incursions, especially with the changers to turn the tides of battle. Still, Huitaca had noticed a pattern with these men. More came every time, bearing strange weapons made of good steel. She worried that defeat was inevitable, and that her people were simply buying time before they met their end.

Huitaca would never voice these concerns to anyone but her father. Punchao never took these worries very seriously. The gods have given us the means to protect ourselves, he always said, believing that the changers could protect this people against any foe.

Huitaca took her place amongst the revelry of the sacrifice as the capybara was tossed onto the great flame, the smoke of its burning carried off by the wind to the heavens. She joined the calls and songs while nearby people beat on small leather drums or piped away on their pan flutes. She lost herself in the excitement, reveling in the feeling of belonging. On a night like tonight, nobody could make her feel different. She danced with the men and women of her tribe, calling to the heavens for protection and good fortune.

The next morning, Huitaca arose, head aching slightly from the night of drink and dance. She put on her clothes, the thin woolen straps built to accommodate the change. They would fall when she transformed, ready to be picked up once she was done.

Huitaca snuck out of her tent and creeped her way out of the village. She kept walking until she came to the cliff that marked the end of their home plateau. She stood at that edge, precariously poised, looking down at the broken earth that sat far below her.

She looked to the sun and said a small prayer to Inti, asking him to bless her hunt. Yesterday she hunted for her people. Today, she did it for herself. She felt the fire rising inside her, and this time she did not fight it. She embraced the fire, feeding it her sense of self and her emotions. Fear, joy, pain, love; it all went into the flame.

She felt her limbs grow, claws emerging where her hands had been. She relished the pain of the change. It made her feel alive, truly alive, like nothing else. She finished her transformation, changed from a small woman into a massive black panther. She growled at the world, the sound echoing off the valleys below.

She finally felt like herself. She knew it was important to walk the human form more often than not. There were stories of changers who lost themselves to the change, forgetting their human origins truly becoming, the animal they changed to. Huitaca felt that pull, but knew enough to not give in.

She roared again as she began to run through the jungle, leaping with the grace and power that she possessed only in this form. As she ran, she caught the scent of a tapir off in the distance. Her mouth salivated at the thought. She slowed her run and began to prowl, staying low to the ground and moving with the same careful assuredness she had shown in her human form. Moreso, even.

She leapt up into a tree, hopping along the massive branches, until she found herself just above the tapir. She snarled silently before dropping down and pouncing upon the animal. Her teeth tore at its throat, killing it instantly. Blood flowed into her mouth, and she drank it with intensity and desperate need. The blood filed her and energized her as she continued to tear flesh from the carcass and swallowed it.

She ate her fill until she could eat no more. She was sad to see there was some left, sad at the waste that she had caused. Her sorrow did not last long. After a time, the jaguars came. They knew her, and she them. These were not changers, but true wild beasts. One jaguar came, sniffing at her kill, waiting to see if she would chase them off. She put her head down, looking away, inviting them to share her kill.

Three more jaguars came out of the shadows, tearing at the remaining meat. Huitaca towered over them, her form longer and stronger and more fearsome than her cousins, as she thought of them. They respected her, weary of her power, but knew she meant them no harm. How could she? In this form, in truth in both her forms, she felt more of a kinship with these creatures than she did with her own people, despite the love she felt for her community.

Her people just didn’t understand. Even the other changers, they valued their animal forms, relished in the power it gave, but to them the animal was the other, the human their true self. That was not so with Huitaca. She knew, in her core, that this was her true self. She could never put it in so many words, but something inside her felt it all the same.

Huitaca found herself a nice low branch on which to lounge. She had no obligationstoday. Her people had plenty of food from recent hunts, and there had been no sign of the metal men, or any rival tribes. All that was required of her was to do her part in the patrol, but her turn wasn’t until this evening.

Huitaca regularly was assigned to patrol in the night. Her jet-black fur allowed her to fade into the shadows, unseen. Patrols had ben increased these past few months. The metal men had been driven off for now, but Chasca, the head of the changers, agreed with Huitaca that their return was inevitable.

Beyond that, there had also been incidents with a nearby tribe. Two hunters from Huitaca’s people had been found, not only dead, but torn to pieces by the claws and jaws of enemy changers.

The recent attacks had people on edge, but between the increased patrols and Punchao’s calm confidence that the changers could protect the people, not much had changed in the daily life of the common citizens. They hunted, wove reeds, tended to the llamas, and went about their days. A touch of fear remained, but not enough to disrupt the lives of her people. Not yet at least.

Huitaca woke a few hours later to the scent of fire. Not the great fire, which was fed with dry wood. This was a fire that burned green, living trees. The kind that let off a large amount of wet smelling smoke.

Huitaca leapt from her perch, dashing between the trees as she ran towards the fire, towards her people’s village. Her hunt had taken her far, but she covered the distance much more quickly now, no longer needing to move slowly and methodically to stalk her prey. She unleashed the full speed and agility of her panther form.

As she emerged from the jungle into the clearing on the plateau her people called home, she came upon a chilling sight. The village was on fire, huts and tents and buildings all torched. Trees surrounding the clearing were engulfed in flames. She slowed as she came upon the village, unsure if the perpetrators of this horror were still in the area.

Huitaca prowled the remnants of her village, fear and sorrow filling her heart as she noted the bodies. As she approached the center, where her father lived, she saw two of her fellow changers dead outside the hut. They had been cut to pieces, wounds reminiscent of the ones others had received from the metal men and their long, steel weapons. As she looked closer, she found smaller wounds as well, made by miniscule pellets that had hit in a scattered pattern. She had never seen the like before, which worried her. The metal men had come equipped with some new weapon, and it appeared it had been effective in defeating changers.

Huitaca tried to find reasons not to enter her father’s abode. She looked around more, noting the dead keepers of the fire, and the way that the great fire had been scattered, likely causing the destructive flames that engulfed her people’s home.

She told herself that she was seeking out survivors, ready to help them escape. She told herself that she had to secure the area before investigating further. Anything and everything to avoid entering her father’s home. As long as she stayed out, she could still believe, still pretend, that he was okay.

Eventually she ran out of things to do and found herself outside the small home once again, sitting between the two dead changers. She took a deep breath and returned to human form, letting the fire and anger in her heart dissipate, replacing it with fear and apprehension.

Finally, she stepped into the home, confirming her worst nightmares. Her father was dead, his head removed and sitting on the floor next to his body on the bed. He had been tortured, it seemed, tied to the throne and with countless cuts and slices covering his arms and legs.

Huitaca felt a dichotomy of emotions within her heart. She felt the rage at the injustice and the determination to get vengeance. She also felt the destruction of her hopes, the drive to hold her father’s body as she succumbed to the tears.

Knowing that if she let herself grieve at this moment she would never recover, Huitaca pushed aside her pain and drove away her tears. She fed her despair and anger and loss into the fire inside of her, building and enraging it until it felt like it would consume her. She changed into her panther form, yowling as loud and as deeply as she could.

She bolted from the home, seeking the scent and trail of the survivors. As she walked around the outskirts of the destroyed village, she came across the scent of some of her fellow changers. Her and her companions left behind a distinct scent, not unlike the one left behind by the wild jaguars, but with the added touch of humanity mixed in.

She followed the scent, finding the signs of her people’s frantic escape. Paw prints, broken branches, scattered items dropped in the haste of their departure, and drops of blood from untreated wounds. She followed the trial off to the small leatherworker’s encampment set up alongside a nearby river.

As she emerged from the clearing, she was greeted by three growling and hissing jaguars, too big to be wild. She dropped her form, prompting the other changers to follow suit. Before her stood one man and two women, Anyas, Quenti, and Puna.

Anyas stepped forward and took Huitaca into an embrace, tears streaming down his face. He held her for a moment before stepping back, searching Huitaca for wounds, finding none.

“We thought you were dead.” He said. “When you didn’t come to help fight, we’d assumed the men in metal suits had found you while you were hunting. Your father refused to believe, though. He told us to wait and see, that you would come to save us. Save them.”

The words hit Huitaca like a punch to the gut. She looked around, noting a few more of her fellow changers emerging from the huts, as well as others of her people. All the children had gotten out, it seemed, as they were herded back inside by Ozcollo.

Huitaca looked around at the sad and bloody remnants of her people. Her father had died, hoping and waiting for his daughter to come save him. Save his people. She had failed them. She wanted to break down and cry, to bury her head in the mud and try to pretend that this horror was simply a nightmare.

But she knew that was not meant to be. Her people, at least some of them, were still alive. She had failed to save her father, but she knew he would want her to help those who remained. She steeled herself against the despair she felt building inside of her, her eyes hardening and lips drawing into a near snarl.

“Where are the ones who did this?” She asked.

“We’ve tracked them to a small encampment by the blue falls,” said Quenti, stepping forward. “There’s thirty, perhaps even as much as fifty of them. We didn’t want to get too close, and risk being seen. Those new weapons of theirs, like a long metal tube, it shoots fire and rock, killing even a changer if it hit any vital areas.

Huitca’s mind raced. Fifty men in metal suits. These new, powerful weapons. And what did she have at her disposal? A collection of common people, a grouping of children, perhaps ten true fighters and only six changers, including herself. How she was meant to pit what was left of her people against that many metal men, she had no idea.

“We will rest.” Huitaca found herself saying. “Lick our wounds and prepare for vengeance. Our people still live, and we will rebuild. We must. Let us pray to Inti, pray to Pacha Mama, to give us the strength to drive these monsters from our lands.

Nobody questioned Huitaca’s orders, seeing it as perfectly natural for her to step up and lead. Her father had been chief, and she was the biggest and strongest of the changers. Her people simply nodded, pushing aside their grief, and began to settle down.

Tents went up, and room was made in the two small huts where the leatherworkers left hides to dry. Food was found, some foraged and some brought in by the two changers Huitaca had sent out to hunt. The children, for the most part, stayed inside. Meanwhile Huitaca sat around a small fire placed into a hole they had dug, in order to prevent it from being seen by their enemies’ scouts.

Huitaca looked at her army, pitiful as it was. Eleven men and women comfortable with spear and bow, only four of them with any battle experience. Five changers, six including herself, one of which was still young and very new to his jaguar form.

She spoke with her warriors, trying to develop a method of attack. None of them suggested that they flee. She was proud of them for that. They knew they would likely die, but a chance to mete out justice was worth it. It had to be.

It was Puno who had come up with the idea of draping the changers in armor. There was plenty of hides that had been pulled from the sheds, and some of the citizens staying back to protect the children knew how to work it. The changers sat in their animal forms while the people draped the armor about them. It was nothing more than a layer of hardened leather tied about their soft spots, but if it could deflect this new weapon, it would be invaluable.

After the fitting was done, the changers all reverted to human form, leaving the pile of armor just outside the sheds. The sun would soon fall, and Huitaca ordered her warriors to sleep. They would rise an hour before dawn, stalk their way to the enemy encampment under cover of darkness, and attack with the rising sun, with Inti at their backs feeding them the energy and power they would need to succeed.

Huitaca found it hard to fall asleep. She tossed and turned, doubts filling her mind. Was she leading the survivors to their death? If they failed, who would protect the citizens left behind? The children? She tried to push her insecurities aside, but it was hard to do.

Finally, after a time, she managed to sleep. Though that was not much better. She dreamed of her father, tied to his chair, being cut and sliced at again and again until the men in metal had had their fun, decapitating him with one swift cut from their extra long knives.

Huitaca woke to Anyas standing over her, gently shaking her and calling her name. Huitaca rose and nodded to the man, who returned it, his eyes the only sign of fear on his face. They walked to the sheds, where the other changers were already in jaguar form, people helping them don their makeshift armor.

Huitaca and Anyas followed suit, changing and allowing the people to tie the armor in place. Huitaca looked to her people, the eleven warriors with spears on their backs, quivers at their hips, bows at the ready. The changers with their leather coverings might have made her laugh under different circumstances. As it was, she just hoped it would be enough.

Huitaca led her people from the clearing into the jungle, letting Anyas step ahead, as he knew where to go. Huitaca and the other changers kept a slow pace, so as not to leave the other warriors behind. Their train moved with the expert silence that all her people had developed during their time hunting and stalking in the jungle. They moved in a line, Anyas and Huitaca at the head, Quenti and Puna taking up the rear.

Her changers were on high alert, feline ears flicking back and forth, watching out for the sounds of people, so that they did not stumble foolishly into the enemy encampment. It took twenty, perhaps thirty minutes for the party to find themselves atop a small hill covered in treed, looking down at rows of canvas tents placed near the azure waterfall known as the blue falls.

Huitaca looked to her people, motioning with her head for the bowmen to fan out to the left and right. They would rain hell upon the warriors, setting them off balance so that the changers could charge in and wreak havoc.

Once the bowmen were in place, Huitaca waited for the rising sun. As it emerged from behind the mountain off on the horizon, her people would launch their attack. Huitaca watched the light slowly emerging and said a small prayer to Inti to protect her people.

The sun finally rose, warmth seeping into Huitaca’s heart. She felt the touch of Inti, knowing that he was with them in this endeavor. Huitaca let out a wild howl, startling the men down below. Many of them were not in their metal suits, having just woken up with the sunrise. Huitaca planned to use that to her advantage.

Huitaca and her other changers, Anyas at her side, bolted into the encampment, watching arrows, shot from the shadows, flying true and hitting their marks. Men fell as they came out of their tents, eyes wide at the sight of the charging, armored jaguars.

The alarm was raised, and some men began to group near the center of the camp, standing with long knives drawn in their practiced formations. Huitaca saw four or five men step out from behind the line, long tubes in their hands pointed at the charging animals, loud explosive bursts sending scattered pellets flying.

She felt some hit her shoulder, the wound throbbing as she ran. However, the armor along her chest and head did seem to be enough to catch or deflect the brunt of the attack, at least at this range. Huitaca reached the line, claws slashing and teeth tearing, her fellow changers breaking through the line.

Huitaca saw an ally fall, and then another. Those explosive tubes were quite deadly up close. Huitaca changed her focus, taking blows form the long knives along her backside as she leapt away. She caught one of the tube holders, crushing his head between her jaws. She took a shot to her side, leather armor the only reason her torso was not torn to bits.

She howled, tossing the head aside and rounding on the man who had shot her, swiping with a massive black paw, blood spurting and flowing as the enemy fell. She sliced at his legs, ensuring he would not rise, then turned to find her next prey.

Huitaca started to lose herself as she reveled in the carnage. She could feel her mind receding, carnal instinct taking over as she tore through her enemies. She saw another changer fall, Pisco, she thought, though it was hard to tell amidst the chaos.

The warriors had joined the fight, bows tossed aside and spears at the ready as they rounded the encampment, trying to find lone fighters who had not managed to coalesce at the center in time. She saw one of them blown to pieces, nose and eyes obliterated by a tube holder.

Huitaca roared again as she chased the shooter down, ripping him apart with her claws and teeth. Something inside her told her to move on, to check on her people, but she ignored it. Instead, she bathed in the destruction of this man, tearing his limbs apart.

A fellow changer came close to try to pull her away from her quarry, but Huitaca just growled, aiming a lazy swipe at the jaguar to chase it off from her meal. Huitaca returned to the body, ripping out some of the torso and savoring the bloody meal. She was soon interrupted by a long knife bouncing off her armor and cutting into her back.

She jumped aside then tackled the man, this one having managed to don his metal suit. She used her paws to beat the man with blows, battering him until his helmet fell off. She aimed one final swipe at the man’s face, leaving him screaming and crying as the life force left his body.

Huitaca looked around, noting that most of the enemies had been defeated. A pair of changers had gone back to human form in order to tend each other’s wounds while the one other surviving changer stalked the camp, looking for men hiding in tents or who had not yet succumbed to their wounds. The warriors searched the camp as well, occasionally thrusting a spear into the chest of a dying man, ending his misery.

Huitaca tried to release her panther form. She felt her humanity before her, just barely out of reach. She scrambled and clawed and cried at her human form, begging it to come. The more she fought, however, the farther it went.

She began to grow calm, no longer understanding why the despair had been there to begin with. The panther looked around, noting the bloody mess that this human camp had become. She saw humans coming toward her, holding spears. A distant voice inside her said that they were not to be feared. But they were two-legs holding weapons. Perhaps the only entities a panther had to fear.

She turned to run, but there was some thought holding her back. She looked to the people again, trying to place the feeling that filled her. It felt like a love, of sorts. A trust. But the panther inside her fought back, saying again that two-legs with weapons were to be avoided.

The panther gave one last look at the approaching people, then howled as she bounded off into the jungle. She ran, enjoying the wind blowing through her fur, until she found a place that was safe. She began to pick at the odd items tied to her body, patiently chewing through the twine and dropping the items to the floor.

Set free, the panther shook herself, looking up at the sun standing tall above the trees. She felt a sort of reverence for the sun, something she didn’t understand. A soft, small voice inside her head called to Inti, thanking him for his love, but the panther shook her head and set off to prowl the jungle.

The panther eventually found a group of jaguars. She knew them, by their scent. She had spent time with them before but had never thought to join them. To live with them. They warily surrounded her, coming close to investigate her smell. One started to lick at a wound, all pretense of apprehension dropped. The panther lay down, letting her new friend clean the wound, cringing slightly at the pain.

For the next few decades, the panther lived among the jaguars, seeing them rise and fall, helping to raise the young and chase off the dying and infirm. As she hunted, she often found herself prowling around a human encampment in a small clearing. When the people saw her, against all reason they cheered. They shouted and sang a name tat she thought felt familiar, but how could human speech be familiar to a panther?