Tarrin Kael

Firestaff Collection

Book Two

The Questing Game©

by James Galloway (aka Fel)

 

 

 

 

Link of Contents

 

Title   1    2    3    4    5    6    7    8    9    10    11    12    13    14    15    16    17    18    19    20    21    22    23    24    25    26    27    28    29   Epilogue   

End of The Questing Game

 

 


GoTo:   Title                         EoF

Prologue

 

The Blood War

 

      It was a war that shook the world.  It was a war that destroyed gods, and a war that created new ones.  It was a war for the survival of the world, and it was a war that changed the entire world that it saved.  It was called the Blood War, and it was a war of survival against the creatures of darkness that existed beyond the boundaries of Sennadar.

      Creatures called Demons.

      They had appeared not long after the first of the Outworlders began to arrive, humans and other strange creatures that hailed from places not of their world.  They called themselves Wizards and Mages, and they commanded a mighty magic.  A mighty magic that was initially scorned by those that they had tried to impress.  Sennadar was a world of powerful magic, a magic of tremendous power that was wielded by enigmatic beings who were a natural extension of their power.  They were called Sorcerers, katzh-dashi, and it was their task to serve mankind with their powers.

      But the magic of these outworlders was a curious one, and it quickly began to gain a foothold within the world.  The main reason was because the powerful magic-users of Sennadar, the Sorcerers were wielding a magical power that was a natural gift.  Only those with the gift could be Sorcerers, but anyone with the intelligence to grasp the magical concepts of their order could command Arcane magic.  Because of this, many who had always wanted to learn magic began to train under these outworlders, learning the powers of magic not native to their world.

      The gods themselves did not object to this influx of new magic.  It created new windows, new opportunities, and it did not interfere with the Balance of things that the Elder Gods were charged to maintain.  If anything, it enriched the world, and the world prospered because of it.  And so it was permitted to remain.

      It began from a single man.  He was named Val, and he was a native Sennadite highly trained in the outworlder magic.  He was a dark man, sinister and ruthless, and he hailed from the prosperous merchant kingdom known as Rauthym.  Val aspired to conquest and rule, to control vast lands and their wealth.  To this end he began raising lesser creatures of darkness, Wraiths and Poltergeists, Haunts and Wights.  The peoples of Sennadar proved to be vulnerable to them, for the natives of their world had no intrinsic defense against the extradimensional entities.  Val learned this lesson well, and through his power and cunning, he carved a kingdom for himself on the eastern steppes of the continent of Sharadar.  He named his kingdom Valkar in honor of himself, and it grew in power and importance.

      And then the hordes of Valkar, both mundane and magical, attempted to invade Sharadar.  The great Sorcerers of the Realm of Magic, Humans and Sha'Kar, rose up and smashed the invaders, utterly destroying them.  They further reached over the Inner Sea and crushed the fledgeling nation, scattering its hosts across the Sea of Glass to the Wild Jungles of the far off continent known only as the Dark Lands.  The displaced army found the Mahuut natives to be easy prey, and the nation of Valkar rose once again.  But Val was bitter and enraged by his defeat, handed to him so decisively by the normally passive and docile katzh-dashi.  His creatures, which overwhelmed nation after kingdom, had been utterly defenseless against the might of the Sorcerers.  Val tasted defeat, and he found it too bitter to withstand.

      And then he heard a legend of a mysterious artifact, a magical staff which within was trapped the power of Creation.  He understood the power of such an item, and sent his minions across the Known World in an attempt to locate it.  And locate it they did.  Val researched the powerful device, and came to unlock its secrets.  On the appointed day, staff in hand, he rose it to the joined moons and bade it to give him the power of a God.

      It responded, and Val was transformed into a divine being of awesome power.  Full of his newfound power, he again raised his army and its minions of nether creatures, and froze the Sea of Glass.  They marched across that icy platform and again invaded Sharadar.

      But when he arrived, he discovered the Elder Gods there awaiting him.  Combined with the mortal powers of the katzh-dashi, the Elder Gods smote Val, destroying his army, and confronting him with certain death should he attempt to use his divine power to attain victory against the katzh-dashi.  Again defeated, Val retreated to his temple complex, and there he brooded.

      He achieved a solution some years later.  The peoples of Sennadar were defenseless against the nether-born creatures of beyond, but Sorcery could affect them.  What he needed were the most powerful of their ilk, mighty monsters known as Demons, who would be immune from that power.  He conjured forth only one, one of the mighty Demon Lords, and offered it a proposition.

      The Demon Lord was interested in the bargain.  It supplied Val with Demons to overwhelm the native defenders, in return for the right to take the souls of the defeated.

      For a third time, Val crossed the Sea of Glass and threatened the magical realm of Sharadar.  But this time, a horde of raging Demons stood behind the god, a power not even the katzh-dashi could challenge.  But again the Elder Gods rose up, joined this time by the Younger Gods, and their combined might banished the extradimensional beings from Sennadar.  They challenged Val to battle, a battle Val would surely lose, and the god fled once again.

      But the Demon Lord was not so banished.  The banishment only freed it of the bargain it held with Val, and unleashed it upon the world.  It appeared in the continent then known as Draconia, and its Demon minions quickly overwhelmed the entire continent.

      It was the beginning of the Blood War.  Demons raged to the north and east, spreading across the great pangeal landmass of five continents like a tidal wave of destruction.  The gods called together all the peoples of the world, Humans, Sha'Kar, Fae-da'Nar, even the Vanished races of Hobbits, Gnomes, and Dwarves, and the Gods supplied them with weapons that could harm their enemies.  Even Val joined ranks with those he had called enemy, for he fully understood that should the Demons prevail, there would be nothing left for him to rule.  The peoples of Sennadar, human and non-human, warrior and Sorcerer, priest and Arcane Mage, gathered together and marched, and they met the host of demons on the plains of Nyr.

      It was the greatest battle the world had ever seen.  Titanic magical forces clashed even as sword met claw, as the hosts of Sennadar challenged the Demonic horde.  In a battle lasting ten days, the peoples of the world won a decisive victory, turning aside the advance of the Demonic invasion.  It was ten days full of magic the world had never witnessed, as the gods themselves joined in the struggle against the extradimensional invaders, and turned them back.  Several of the Younger Gods perished on that field, and their loss weakened the resolve of the gods who had survived.  But there was no room for quarter in this war, and they pressed their advantage.

      It was a war of two years, as the peoples of Sennadar inexorably pushed the Demons back, back across the arid savannahs of what was now Yar Arak, over the desert which would shelter the Selani, back into the forested western reaches of the continent of Draconia. They were pressed all the way to the coast, as the Demon Lord's minions were destroyed faster than he could summon them, until they held only one stronghold.  A grim fortress known as the Citadel of Ice, which overlooked a cold lake in the tundras of the continent's northern reaches.  The cost of this advance was staggering, as a man died for every step the army made against their enemies, paying dearly in blood for every span of ground they claimed, often having to pay for the same ground over and over again.  Younger Gods faded and vanished as their entire sects were destroyed, and the entire races of Hobbits and Dwarves were exterminated, their proud races fighting to the very last man to destroy the hordes threatening their land.  Sorcery and Arcane Magic pushed the Demons back, called the very land itself to rise up and attack the invaders, bringing horrific weather and devastating earthquakes to lay waste to large segments of the Demonic army, to weaken it in the face of their advance.  Until they had managed to surround the last stronghold of the Demons, the Citadel of Ice, surrounding the depleted monsters on the cool tundras of the icy region.

      It was a battle of wholesale destruction.  The hosts of Sennadar pushed the Demons back, pushed them into the keep, where they holed up.  A thunderous charge led by Dragor the Industrious, a mighty warrior and general, opened the front gates at the cost of the mighty general's life.  With their defenses breached, the Demons fell quickly to the swords and spells of their human and non-human foes, until the Demon Lord himself was challenged by the Sha'Kar Sorceress known only as Spyder, a Sorceress who had been imbued by the gods with the power to destroy the Demon Lord.  She defeated the great monster in a duel of spell and steel against power and claw.  At the end of that battle, Spyder turned and struck Val, striking with the granted power given to her by the Elder Gods, and Val was cast down.  Val had fallen, but not completely.  Stripped of his status as an Elder God, he nevertheless held the powers of a god within him, but without the powers of an Elder God, he became dependent on the mortals who revered him.  His was a tiny following, and he faded in ability in heartbeats, and the Elder Gods imprisoned him for his part in starting the war which had so devastated the world.

      And then it was over.  The cost to the peoples of the world had been ghastly.  Entire races had been wiped out by the incredible struggle, and other races suffered greatly.  The peoples of the world had been horribly depleted, and the entire continent of Draconia was abandoned to allow it to heal from the scars of the horrendous war.  The survivors fled south, to Sharadar, one of the few lands untouched by the war, where the magical realm could feed the refugees, stave off famine and plague, and help nurture the survivors back to health.  But the scars of the Blood War ran deep, and many races and people did not wish to remain and remember.  The Gnomes, who had been nearly exterminated in the war, simply vanished.  Some peoples struck out on ships, sailing into the vast reaches of the unexplored Sea of Storms, never to be seen or heard from again.  Some turned east rather than west, vanishing over the Skydancer Mountains to lands unexplored.  Some crossed the Sea of Glass to repopulate the eastern continent, which would forever be known as Valkar.  Over time, as the peoples who had sought shelter in Sharadar multiplied and strained that ancient land's resources, the ravaged continent healed under the tender care of Elder and Younger god alike.  The continent was restored, most of its horrible scars healed, and this restoration brought the humans back.  The continent was again recolonized, from the first kingdom of Draconia to the mighty kingdom of Yar Arak, and from there in all directions.  The people built, they spread out, and they again began to thrive and prosper.

      And as time passed, the memories of the great war were lost over time, until only legend and myth remained.


GoTo:   Title                         EoF

Chapter 1

 

      The Star of Jerod was an old ship, a galleon of Shacèan build that had seen many years of rugged action along the coasts of Sennadar.  She had sailed further than most, from the Pirate Isles to the southern continent of Sharadar, all along the coastline of the three continents abutting the Sea of Storms and the Stormhaven Isles, which lay to the west of the west coast of Sennadar.  She had seen many wondrous sights, had nearly been sent to the bottom more than once, and had become something of a living legend among the sailors of the Sea of Storms.  She was called the Divine Lady by many, the one ship that always seemed to come back, no matter what dangers lay in her path.  She was a good ship, and to serve on her was an honor.  That mystique was part of the reason for her survival.  A ship was only as good as her crew, and because many would jump at the chance to serve a tour aboard the Divine Lady, it allowed her captain to pick and choose the best men he could find.

      She certainly didn't look like a living legend.  The ship showed her age, with roughened, peeling paint that had been dark blue at one time, and more than one visible patches holding along her amidships.  The mainmast was missing the top five feet of its length, ending abruptly above the crow's nest, and the sails along the foremast had all been patched and repatched so many times that they looked like a villager's quilt.  Her rails were pitted and scratched, the victims of the large grappling hooks used during the many of a boarding attempt, and her decks were gray with age and exposure to the salty water of the sea.  She had one particularly large scratch along her port side, from where they had happened a bit too close to a Unicorn Whale, and the stern still had a trident head embedded in it near the captain's quarters from an attack by the dreaded Sahuagin, the Devil-Men of the deep.

      She was an old ship, with a colorful history and a colorful captain. Captain Abraham Kern was a stooped man of advancing years, with a head and beard full of dark hair liberally peppered with gray.  He was missing both his front teeth, and his voice had been permanently damaged by the salty air and the need to shout at almost all times.  He was thin, somewhat bony, given to wearing dirty canvas shirts made of sailcloth and rugged leather breeches, with his polished flare-topped half-boots.  For some reason, he wore a black sash around his waist, into which was stuffed a scabbarded cutlass and a very curious little iron object that Keritanima identified as a starwheel pistol.  Tarrin had never heard of one of those before, and it seemed to shock Keritanima that he would own one.  But that was just one thing surprising about the salty old sea-dog.  He was gruff, he was blunt, and he was very vocal.  He was given to ranting to nobody in particular, and he liked to smack his men with the polished cherrywood cane which was always in his left hand when they weren't moving fast enough to suit him.  But he was, simply, one of the best captains on the twenty seas, and his crew endured his idiosyncracies because they had the most profound respect for the gnarled old man.

      Few captains would have dared the ice in the Sea of Storms to journey in any direction but south, but Abraham Kern was absolutely fearless.  He would sail into the Nexus itself if he had a good reason to do it, and he would probably come back.  He was unshakeable, unflappable, and nothing even caused him to raise an eyebrow.  He had seen it all, more than once, and the nights were filled with tales of his prior adventures, tales of mysterious islands, nameless dangers, the monsters that dwelled beneath the waves, and pirates and adventure.

      But the grand Divine Lady had never had such an unusual retinue of passengers aboard before.  The old ship was carrying some pretty unusual people, and it was something that was new to Captain Kern.  And at his age, things that were new were not good.  If they didn't fit into his prior experiences, he had a tremendous distrust of them.  That distrust had exploded into outright terror when he found out he was carrying a Wikuni High Princess aboard his ship.  He began to dream almost nightly of a horde of Wikuni clippers and warships bearing down on his precious old ship and sending her to the bottom, but those fears abated when the harbor at Dineval froze solid with them inside it, trapping them on the Stormhavens for over a month as they waited for a warm spell to break up the ice trapping them in.

      The strangest of them all was the Were-cat.  They had been warned about him, warned about what he was and what danger he could pose, and that was enough for the crew.  They avoided him like Death Herself, giving him a very wide berth and letting him move about without hindrance.  Two months with him on deck had dulled them somewhat to him.  They didn't recoil from him in fear as they did those first few days, but neither would they talk to him, or get too close to him.  It was obvious to them, to anyone, that he was very unhappy.  Given the katzh-dashi's warnings about his temper, that was enough to keep everyone away from him until he felt more sociable.  No matter how long that took.  The month's delay had done little to temper the creature's ire, but Captain Kern had the feeling that it was more than just the delay causing the Were-cat to be so contrary.

      Tarrin lay that morning on a yardarm high in the rigging, well up and above the scurrying people below, staring out at the sea before him with disinterested eyes.  The air had warmed considerably when they sailed due south from the Stormhavens to avoid the ice, and now they had turned east and north to come back up to Den Gauche, which was their next port of call.  The cool air soothed him in ways that the others couldn't understand, the clean, clear smell of the sea and water untainted by the smells of the crew below, carrying faint scents that he couldn't identify.  His furred tail swished back and forth over him absently, moving of its own volition, just as his cat-ears tended to move by themselves to track in on any sound that reached them.

      Tarrin was a Were-cat, a mystical being that was deeply grounded in myth and legend to the human world, but he had not always been one.  His condition was inflicted upon him by another Were-cat, Jesmind, who herself had not done it willingly.  His condition had been thrust upon him by the Council of the Tower, the ruling body of the katzh-dashi, who wanted a non-human Sorcerer so badly that they had destroyed his life to get one.  His Were nature imparted to him certain advantages over humans, for he was a creature of magic.  He could not be truly injured by any weapon unless it was silver, imbued with magic, or was an unworked weapon of nature, and only fire, acid, and other very damaging natural conditions could do him any true harm.  Any other wound would heal over as quickly as it was inflicted.  He was inhumanly strong, and had the agility and quickness of the cat which was now a part of him.  He had the senses of a cat, with acute hearing, night vision, and a sense of smell so sensitive that he could track people by their scent.

      But with those advantages came a trade-off, and it was one which Tarrin agonized over.  With his animal gifts came the instincts of that animal, and his mind was a battleground between his human thoughts, morals, and traits against the powerful instincts of the Cat.  There had been a long stretch when he thought he had achieved a balance between his human and animal halves, but it turned out that he was in balance only because he was never exposed to a situation where he would lose control.  That moment had come when he was captured by traitors within the Tower, traitors that worked for a rival organization that meant to use him for their own ends.  He had gone berzerk after being freed from their magical control, gone so totally mad that he had went on a killing rampage.  The deaths of hundreds of men and women were on his shoulders, stained his soul, darkened his every thought.  The memories of his actions had been slow to come to him after he had finally come out of his rage, and they had hurt him deeply.  Tarrin was not a violent or savage man, but he had done things while in his rage that he felt he could never reconcile.  He had killed helpless men and women, killed people trying to run away from him, people that had never been a threat to him.  His Were-cat gifts had proven to be totally deadly when used indiscriminately, as guards and warriors used ineffective weapons against him, weapons that only made him angrier.  The gifts that had saved his life so many times had turned into a killing tool, a tool which the Cat had used to their utmost potential.

      Just thinking about it made him shudder.  It was a raw wound, fresh, and it ran deep.  He had once almost killed his own mother in rage, and that had nearly driven him permanently mad.  Now the deaths of hundreds weighed on his mind, men and women who had had lives, loves, dreams, desires.  And he had destroyed them brutally, uncaringly, with a single swipe of his wickedly clawed paw.  The destruction he had sown under the Cathedral of Karas had opened a rift inside his own soul, a deep wound of chagrin, pain, and self-fear that refused to close.  He had turned into what he had always dreaded becoming, an unthinking, savage monster.  It was what he was, and it was something that he could become again if he felt that threatened.  There would be no stopping it.  That he was certain of.  When he felt threatened, the Cat would be there to try to take control, and the Cat was merciless.

      That was the source of his fear, almost his terror, at his situation.  He had been charged by the Goddess of the Sorcerers herself to a task, a mission on her behalf, and it was a mission with danger.  There was no way he could avoid putting himself into a situation where he may go into another rage.  She had asked him to find an old artifact called the Firestaff, a device that could grant someone the power of a god.  She wanted him to find it and keep it away from anyone who would use it for that end, and she had already warned that it would be a dangerous task.  That meant that he would have to face turning into a monster again.  He wasn't sure if his sanity could withstand it.  Already he was given to black moods, moods that consumed him, caused him to stare blankly into space for hours at a time.  He was very touchy, and he had developed a very quick and very dangerous temper.  The sailors on the ship avoided him, and though a part of him understood the need for it, it still hurt.  He didn't mean to be the way he was.  If he could change it, he could.  But he just couldn't help it.

      And that was the core of his problem.  What was happening was out of his hands.  It was extension of the Cat within him, and that was something inside himself that he couldn't hope to control.  All his life, he had always felt like he had had at least a partial control of his life.  His parents were very moderate and understanding, and they had always trusted in his judgement and given him alot more freedom than other kids.  He had never felt so out of control of his own life before, even after he was initially turned Were.  Even then he had a feeling that he had some control over his life.  But not now.  He was changing.  He could sense it, but no matter how hard he tried, how much he wanted it to stop, he simply couldn't.  And that frightened him almost as much as the rages.

      Looking through half-closed eyes, he turned his gaze downward, to the deck, where his friends were.  Dolanna sat with Allia, Keritanima, and Dar, teaching them about the Weave.  She wore only a light cloak, fully enjoying the unseasonably warm weather of the winter day, weather that had progressively turned warmer and warmer as they sailed south.  Azakar was being trained in more subtle sword parries by Faalken, as Binter and Sisska looked on.  Miranda sat somewhat off from the others, an embroidery hoop in her lap and her hands busy.  The sailors had long grown accustomed to their passengers, and moved around them and among them with little concern for their activities.  Allia was sighing alot, giving Faalken a long, almost wistful look, until Dolanna's sharp retort got her attention back where it was supposed to be.

      That made Tarrin smile slightly.  Allia was a Selani, a race of proud warriors with a highly refined sense of honor.  She didn't look like a warrior.  She was very tall, taller than most men, and she was so incredibly beautiful that no human woman could dare compare to her.  That ethereal beauty was what made so many discount her fighting ability.  Trained in the Dance, a Selani system of fighting arts, Allia was more than a match for almost anyone trained to pick up a weapon.  Few could challenge her in a fight, and even fewer could hope to win.  Allia was Tarrin's sister in all but blood, she was sister to him in all ways, and the bond between them sometimes defied even his explanations.  He loved Allia so deeply that he didn't think it would be possible to love her any more, a profound connection between them that transcended their differences in race and mentality.  He would die for Allia, if she needed it of him.  Allia's powerful presence had served to calm him after the horror of what he had done threatened to drive him mad, and he spent many nights in cat form, curled up against her in her bed.  Allia and Dolanna were the only ones that could exert that kind of an influence on him, and they always made sure that at least one of them were near him at all times.  They tried not to make an issue of it, but Tarrin had noticed it long ago, and in a way, it made him feel more secure.  She sat on a coil of rope with her back to the rail, wearing a pair of dark leather trousers and a sleeveless vest-like tunic under a loose cotton shirt not unlike her native dress, of the same sand color.  She was keeping her eyes on Dolanna as the woman moved a small ball of fire about in the palm of her hand.

      Dolanna.  The small, dark-haired Sorceress held a rather unique position in Tarrin's life.  She was katzh-dashi, a Sorceress, and she had been the one to take him in after he was initially turned Were.  Her knowledge of Were-kin had helped him survive the initial shock of it, helped him find a way to adapt to the new instincts and feelings that were present in his mind.  She had helped him feel more comfortable about himself, and because of that, Tarrin held a powerful attachment to her.  He respected her deeply, and she was one of the few living beings that could face him in all his fury and not have to worry about her own life.  She was a very dear, respected friend, a surrogate mother-figure to both him and the Cat, and neither of them would harm her in any way.  With her near him, Tarrin always felt very confident for some reason.  She was beautiful and wise, calm and gentle, and her educated, intelligent decisions and gentle smiles had unswervingly won her the loyalty of all of the group, and the position as their leader.  With Dolanna leading them to Dala Yar Arak, Tarrin had no doubt that they would arrive safely.  This day she wore a wool dress of dark blue, which matched her black hair, and she had her cloak around her.   Dolanna was from Sharadar, the kingdom far to the south, and she was used to a warmer climate than what the north presented.

      Dolanna said something and raised her hands, and Tarrin could feel her touch the Weave.  A small ball of fire appeared in her hand, and she raised it up to one finger while looking at Keritanima.  The Wikuni gave her a steady look, then crossed her arms beneath the bodice of her russet silk dress, a dress that matched the reddish color of her fox fur, and said something in retort.  He felt Keritanima touch the Weave herself, then draw a circle in the air with fire, which compacted down into a small fiery ball.  The look she gave Dolanna was challenging, which only made Dolanna smile knowingly.

      It was like her to be contrary, but Keritanima had alot to put behind her.  She was a High Princess, the direct heir to the throne of Wikuna, one of the larger and more prosperous kingdoms in the world.  The Wikuni, or the Animal People as many called them, were from a large land across the Sea of Storms, where they practiced their arts of shipbuilding, and their powerful ships roamed the twenty seas of Sennadar in pursuit of trade.  Keritanima was born a princess, but she had rejected her title and her family, and had managed to hide her true intelligence and abilities behind the Brat, a conjured personality that she presented to the world, that of an empty-headed little nuisance with a serious attitude problem and about as much mental capacity as a doorknob.  But underneath that obnoxious facade lay the true Keritanima, who used coming to the Tower to learn as a front for running away.  She was Tarrin's very dear friend, another sister in all but blood, and he loved her.  She had been so helpful to all of them back in the Tower, where she turned her astounding intellect and knowledge of intrigue, maneuvings, and all things underhanded to help extricate themselves from the Tower's clutches.  She was very, very smart, too smart for her age, with an absolutely frightening ability to remember almost anything she heard or read.  She tended to be hot-headed though, and not a little impulsive, and she still felt herself to be royalty, though she had given up her title.  She laughed when she admitted that learning how not to give orders would take her some time.  That towering attitude had served them well in the Tower, and Tarrin felt that Keritanima was just a tiny bit jealous of Dolanna's role as their leader.

      Sometimes Tarrin felt sorry for Dar.  He was a young man, not even sixteen, who hailed from Arkis as the son of merchants.  Dar's swarthy skin made him look something like Allia, but the similarities stopped there.  Dar was a thin young man of medium height, with a handsome face and a powerful ability to accept others for who and what they were that made absolutely everyone like him.  His charisma seemed to be completely unconcsious, just as he accepted the warm smiles and friendship from othes without condition or even thought.  He was thoughtful and considerate, he was very well educated and quite smart, and he had made Tarrin feel much more comfortable when they were in the Noviate.  Dar had been his roommate, and he was also Tarrin's only friend outside of Allia and the others who had come to the Tower with him.  Dar was a very good friend, always there when one needed him, and always knowing exactly what to say to make one feel better.  He knew that Dar was considerably intimidated by his company.  Keritanima was such a blazing star that he felt lost beside her, and Allia's incredible beauty never ceased to tangle his tongue.  All he wanted to do was learn Sorcery, and it wasn't easy when he had to do it with Tarrin's two sisters, who could so utterly dominate the scene without even trying.  He sat between them, his eyes riveted on Dolanna, pulling at the new brown doublet that he had bought in Dineval.  It was the first time he'd worn it, since Keritanima had somehow managed to get him to buy just about a whole wardrobe.  He wore the shaeram Dolanna had given him proudly, outside his doublet, and his hands were always either very close to it or holding it.  Dar was fascinated by Sorcery, and there was nothing more in the world he wanted than to learn all about it he could.

      He turned his gaze to the other training going on.  Faalken was having trouble teaching Azakar, but it was Binter who was now giving the young man some instruction.  Faalken was a cherubic troublemaker, Dolanna's friend and Knight, the warrior charged with escorting and protecting her.  He had a raucous sense of humor and a love for jokes and pranks, but all smiles stopped when he drew his sword.  Faalken was a formidable warrior, a Knight with many years of experience under his belt, and he was a considerable threat to any who crossed weapons with him.  His love of jokes and pranks had already caused some friction with the crew, for Faalken was wise enough not to harass anyone in his company.  Tarrin rather liked Faalken.  His irreverence and zest for life had cheered him up many times, and he was a solid, dependable man when the cards were laid on the table.  It was hard to think of a journey without Faalken riding at Dolanna's side, just as it was hard to imagine travelling without Dolanna.  The Knight was watching on as Binter showed Azakar the proper grips to hold on an axe to take his height into full advantage.  Faalken was wearing a light mail shirt under a surcoat of plain, featureless brown wool, to help keep the chill off the metal.  It was only wise to wear some sort of protection when working with weapons.  Even an accident in training was potentially deadly.

      Tarrin didn't know Azakar very well, but he had already been wearing the Were-cat thin.  Azakar was a Mahuut, one of the dark-skinned races from Valkar, who had been in Yar Arak serving as a slave.  He had escaped from that and journeyed west, and was now a newly-spurred Knight.  Azakar was the the biggest, strongest, most intimidating human being Tarrin had ever seen in his life.  He was a head taller than Tarrin, who was himself a head taller than most men, and his body was a study of the purity of muscle.  But he was also a sober, rather bright young man with a quiet way about him and a very delicate touch.  Fingers that could break bones could handle silk and crystal with almost amazing gentleness, and he always knew exactly how strong he was, and how strong he needed to be.  Tarrin would like him very much, if not for his need to take his job so seriously.  Azakar had been personally assigned by Darvon, Lord General of the Knights of Karas, to look out for Tarrin's well being.  Just as Faalken was Dolanna's Knight, Azakar was supposed to be Tarrin's.  But Tarrin didn't need a Knight.  He was probably better suited to protecting himself than Azakar was to protecting him.  But Azakar, or Zak as they had started to call him, took his job seriously.  He even had the nerve to demand things of Tarrin, something that got more than a few other people's arms broken.  But something about Azakar intimidated Tarrin, and that annoyed him to no end.  He had no reason to fear Azakar, or any human for that matter, but something in how he would look at him seemed to cause Tarrin to want to obey.  Azakar was the one that made Tarrin eat, even when he didn't feel like it, kept him from walking around on deck without a warm cloak, and kept him from sinking deeper into self-isolation.

      Binter and Sisska would be well suited to train the Arakite youth.  They were Vendari, incredibly huge lizard-men from far away.  They were more than a head taller than Azakar, and they absolutely towered over everyone on the ship.  Dolanna's head barely came over Binter's belt.  They were massive, both in height and in build, and their society was remarkably similar to Allia's people.  They lived for combat, but they had such a powerful sense of honor that they would willingly kill themselves before they said something they knew was a lie.  Honor was life to the Vendari, and life was honor.  Binter and Sisska were Keritanima's personal bodyguards, incredibly powerful and effective warriors to protect someone as important as the Royal Person.  They couldn't have found anyone better for the job.  Binter alone was an absolute monster in a fight, and when his lifemate Sisska joined in, they became a harmonious mobile natural disaster.  They were both huge, inhumanly powerful, and very intelligent and well trained.  They didn't rely on brute force, except when the situation favored such crude actions.  They knew how to fight at what time, and that was the mark of an excellent warrior.  Tarrin was still trying to figure those two out.  They had definite personality, but they were so utterly devoted to their roles that it was hard to get them to open up.  Binter commonly protected Keritanima, and Sisska protected Miranda, who was Keritanima's maid and a member of her tight-knitted inner circle.

      Miranda.  Tarrin's gaze wandered to her, where she sat alone, and he again puzzled over her.  She was a mink Wikuni, and she was so incredibly cute that it seemed almost criminal.  It wasn't the beauty of Allia or the dignified presence of Dolanna, it was just sheer cuteness that disarmed absolutely everyone.  Keritanima had trained her as a spy and player of intrigue, so she used her appearance like a weapon.  A single cheeky smile was usually enough to make someone start spilling their life story.  Something about her sang to him, on a level that he couldn't comprehend, and he had an almost unconscious need to be around her for some reason.  It wasn't a romantic attraction, it was merely an interest in her that seemed almost compulsive.  She was a serious young woman, soft-spoken and not given to chitchat, but very wise and with a large capacity for others.  She was devoted to Keritanima, and it was a friendship, a bond, that Tarrin didn't quite understand.  Tarrin's own ties to Miranda were just as confusing to him.  He liked her, alot, but he didn't quite know why.

      And she sat there, alone, seemingly very comfortable with her position.  She wasn't a Sorcerer like Keritanima, Dolanna, Allia, and Dar.  She wasn't a warrior like Faalken, Azakar, Binter, and Sisska.  She was just Miranda, easy to overlook, but quick to make enemies suffer for overlooking her.  Just thinking about her made him feel lonely himself, which was a rare thing for him.  More and more, he had been withdrawing from the others.  They just didn't understand his pain, no matter how hard they tried to help.

      With an ease that stupidified the sailors in the rigging, Tarrin slipped off the yardarm and danced down booms and lines, hopping to the deck using a series of ropes and wooden beams to control his descent.  It was an unconscious display of his inhuman grace and agility, a gift from his animal nature.  He landed on the deck on all fours, then smoothly rose up to his impressive height and padded over to the little white-furred Wikuni maid without a word.  She looked up at him, then she gave him that cheeky smile and moved her embroidery hoop, then patted her lap.

      That was the other thing that always sent the sailors around him into fits.  With only a thought, Tarrin changed his shape, his body quickly melting and flowing down into the form of a large black housecat.  It was another aspect of his Were nature, the ability to assume the form of the animal to which he had been irrevocably bonded.  He then jumped up onto Miranda's lap and laid down, kneading at her wool dress with his front paws as she set her hoop beside him and continued her embroidery.  Tarrin spent alot of time on the ship in cat form, where his favorite pasttime was to chase the rats in the hold.  Captain Kern didn't mind that, but he did mind Tarrin leaving the half-eaten bodies strewn about the ship.  The fact that he would eat the rats always made Kern's face turn green, but he didn't understand.  Tarrin was a cat when in cat form, and the idea of eating prey was as natural to him as downing a tankard of ale would be to Kern.  Besides, rat was rather tasty.  Not as good as squirrel, though.

      On the deck, Tarrin could now clearly hear Dolanna as she continued her lesson with her students.  Tarrin should be there, he knew he should, but studying Sorcery like that seemed a waste of time to him now, and he didn't feel like studying at the moment.  He was powerful.  In fact, he was so powerful that he couldn't even control his own ability.  It would always get away from him, and the power of High Sorcery would rush into him like a flood, threatening to burn him to ash.  Nobody understood why this was the case, nor had anyone ever found a way to help him control it.  So Sorcery was as dangerous to him as silver, something always right over his shoulder, but threatening death should he try to use it.  Over the months, he had grown accustomed to that.  Besides, he didn't need Sorcery to protect himself.  His Were nature gave him all the weapons he needed.  He had to admit that he liked Sorcery.  He liked the feel of it, the flow of the magic through him, and the ability to use it to do things that he usually couldn't do.  But he was wise enough to keep those thoughts out of his mind.  To try now would be  inviting death, and Dolanna had expressly forbidden him to even try while they were at sea.  A single slip could destroy the ship upon which they travelled, and it was an exceptionally long swim back to shore.

      "Fire weaves are commonly called battlemagic," she was teaching her students.  "For obvious reasons.  Most weaves that are fire-dominated are offensive weaves, but it does have other uses.  Just as weaves of other flows can be offensive.  Even weaves of Earth can be very dangerous, if you know how to put them together.  Fire's most common partner in weaves is Air," she said, holding up her other hand, where another ball of fire appeared.  "Air intensifies weaves of Fire, and helps direct and control them.  But occasionally, flows of Earth or Divine power take Air's place."

      "Does Fire ever get woven together with Water?" Dar asked.

      "Of course," she replied with smile.  "The most powerful fire weaves include flows of Fire and Water."

      "Shouldn't they just cancel each other out?"

      "Not always," she told him.  "In Sorcery, sometimes what seems to be logical in actuality is not.  Sorcery obeys its own rules, Dar."  Dar gave her a curious look, but said nothing.  "Alright, Dar, copy this weave.  Pay attention to your flows, now."

      Tarrin almost closed his eyes when Miranda began scratching him behind the ears, but he kept them open long enough to watch Dar's hand become limned in fire, which coalesced into a small ball over his hands.  "Very good.  This is a basic combat spell, young ones.  You throw it, and it will explode against whatever it strikes.  The flows of Air allow you to direct it to your target, so it does not require actual skill with throwing."

      Tarrin surrendered to Miranda's fingers at that point, closing his eyes and putting his head down, letting her have her way with him.  He listened as Dolanna described the mechanics of the weave, how it moved on a thread of controlled air to its target, then detonated its stored energy on physical impact.  It was curious how physical contact could ignite magical energy, and he considered it for a while as Dar and Allia practiced hurling the little fireballs over the side of the ship, where the detonated against the cold waters of the Sea of Storms in little steaming puffs.  For Allia to get that close to the rail was an accomplishment.  Allia was born and raised in the desert, and she had a fear of such large bodies of water.  She always stayed as far from the rails as she could, and wouldn't come into the rigging because it made her look at the fact that they were surrounded by water.  She did know how to swim, Tarrin had taught her in the Tower's bathing pool, and he felt that she just needed one instance where she had to face that fear, and she would get over it.  She wasn't controlled by her fears.

      Not like him.

      "That's no way to treat Tarrin, Miranda," Keritanima's voice called from just in front of him.  He didn't bother to open his eyes, for Miranda was still scratching his ears.

      "He doesn't seem to mind, Highness," Miranda said with a chuckle.  "Besides, it's good for him."

      "Miranda, dear, Tarrin can understand you," Keritanima said with a giggle.  "I'd be careful what I say."

      "There's nothing I'd say behind his back I wouldn't say to his face, Highness," Miranda said idly, gently pinching the tip of his ear.  "Me and Tarrin are good friends.  Aren't we, Tarrin?"

      Tarrin waggled his tail a couple of times and meowed in agreement.

      "Tarrin needs some good old fashioned spoiling," Miranda said in a light voice, stroking his head and neck in a way that made him immediately go limp.  "It's good for him."

      "Well, don't spoil him too much," Keritanima said.

      "Oh, I'd never do that," Miranda said with a light chuckle, petting him again.

      "Keritanima," Dolanna said sharply.  "We are not done yet today."

      "You're not teaching anything I don't already know, Dolanna," the Wikuni replied, a bit tartly.  "My teacher, well, she kind of went beyond the normal scope of instruction."

      "Yes, Lula does tend to do that with students who are capable," she said calmly, mainly to herself.

      And so Keritanima padded off with Dolanna's consent, going below decks.

      Tarrin listened to Dolanna continue, even as Miranda's scratching fingers sought to distract him.  It was a long journey they were on, and it was dangerous.  Tarrin had been charged by the Goddess of magic to find a lost artifact called the Firestaff.  It was a very powerful device, made so long ago that nobody remembered the creators, and inside it was the echoes of the power of Creation that the goddess Ayise used when she made the world.  Though it was just an impression of that original power, it was still more than enough to do nearly anything.  Once every five thousand years, at a specific time of day, the staff would activate, and imbue the person who was holding it with the powers of an Elder God.  It was just this possibility that he had been charged to prevent.  If Tarrin got the Firestaff first, he would either destroy it or ensure that nobody could ever get to it.  Throwing it into a volcano or the middle of the ocean seemed like good places, but he much preferred the idea of destroying it.  That way it could never threaten anyone ever again.

      If anything, he was a very unwilling participant in this.  It went against his Were nature to agree to obey another, even a goddess, but he had done just that.  It was against his nature to subvert his freedom to another, but he had done just that.  It was against his instincts to do what he was doing, but he was doing just that.  All because what he was doing was that important.  If someone got hold of the Firestaff and used it, the Goddess had already spelled out what would happen.  It would be a war.  The Elder Gods would have to destroy the newcomer, because the new god would not be constrained by the same rules as the others.  He would be a wild card, an unknown, and his very existence could threaten the entire world.  The destruction wrought by that war would be devastating to the world, for it would be their battleground.  In one way, it had already begun.  Tarrin was not the only person hunting the Firestaff at the behest of a god.  The war had already begun through the human agents of gods that wanted the Firestaff.  The Goddess had called it the Questing Game, and right now, it was dominating the world.  Many people, groups, organizations, and powerful leaders were either hunting for the Firestaff or had agents doing it for them.  Tarrin was just one among many, but he was a Mi'Shara, a nonhuman noble-born wielder of Sorcery, and that was supposed to give him an advantage.  He had no idea how or why, but it was.

      There were alot of things he didn't know about what he was doing, and there were some he wished he didn't know.  They had already gathered to talk about going to Dala Yar Arak.  That was the first step, the Goddess had told him, because that was where the Book of Ages, an ancient tome of history, was reputed to be hidden.  In the book was information they needed to find the Firestaff.  It turned out that Dala Yar Arak was going to be a serious problem.  It was the largest city in the world, in the heart of the empire of Yar Arak, and that was the root of their problem.  Yar Arak was the largest nation in the world, but it was a savage, oppressive tyranny, ruled by an Emperor, and it was by his whim that he ruled.  Arakites were considered to be the pinnacle of achievement and breeding, and non-Arakites were looked down upon.  Non-humans were automatically considered to be property of the state, slaves for the Empire, a rule that had started after the Selani invaded Yar Arak and humiliated them.  Slavery was an institution in Yar Arak, and even the lowliest Arakite had at least one outlander slave to attend him.  The only non-humans that could go to Yar Arak and not be automatically enslaved were the Wikuni, and that was because only the Wikuni provided Yar Arak with vital traded goods.  And even then, they were only permitted to trade at Dala Yar Arak, and they were restricted to a very small section around the docks called the Low District.  This put Tarrin and Allia at a terrible risk, for Tarrin would be very, very valuable to the Arakite nobles, who collected rare and exotic slaves as status pieces, and all Arakites hated the Selani with a passion.  Should she be captured in Dala Yar Arak, Allia wouldn't live more than a few hours.  It seemed it would be easy to just use the Low District, but things weren't that easy.  Keritanima was a Wikuni High Princess, even though she had rejected her title, and that made her presence dangerous to them in the Low District.  The Wikuni priests could communicate over great distances, and there was no doubt that the Wikuni enclave in Dala Yar Arak already knew that Keritanima had run away, and probably had orders to either send her packing back to Wikuna, or kill her outright.

      For Tarrin, it represented the ultimate horror.  Tarrin had a phobia about being caged or imprisoned, it was an instinctive reaction from his Cat half, and being put into slavery would definitely qualify.  It would trigger a rage, and he would go berzerk.  There was no telling how many people he would kill trying to flee from Dala Yar Arak.  Tarrin's very precarious condition had figured into Dolanna's thinking, but she still had not come up with a solid plan to get them to Dala Yar Arak and keep them there safely.  It was something that she was still working on.

      The Goddess had sent him to the last place in the world he needed to be, but he had to obey her.  He just had to.

      Tarrin's relationship with his goddess was very unusual.  He acknowledged her as his patroness, but never overtly worshipped her.  She talked to him from time to time, and when she did, it was more like person to person than goddess to mortal.  He loved her, deeply, but it didn't feel like loving a deity.  It was more like loving a very good friend.  He did believe in her, and had faith in her, however.  It was the only reason he had agreed to work for her.  But in his mind, she was more than a goddess, just as she was more than a friend.  She held a unique position in his life, an unseen, mystical presence that quietly and gently led him down the path he needed to travel.  She didn't speak to him often, not often at all, but when she did, it seemed more like a parent checking in on a child than a visitation from a Goddess to her subject.  Tarrin's complicated relationship with the Goddess seemed strange to him, yet at the same time, since he'd never really talked to a god before, he had no idea what normal was supposed to be.

      "Land ho!" a voice called from high above.  Tarrin opened his eyes and looked up, where a single sailor in the crow's nest was pointing to the bow.  "Land ho!"

      Miranda cradled Tarrin in the crook of her arm and stood up, then walked over to the rail.  Just on the horizon before them, angled slightly off to the left, a dim green-brown strip was visible, if only just barely.  "He has good eyes, I'll give him that," Miranda said, shielding her eyes from the noontime sun and peering in that direction.  "I'd guess that that's the northern coast of Shacè, if Captain Kern isn't off course."

      Tarrin wriggled out of her grasp and dropped to the deck, then shifted back into his humanoid form.  He stood at the rail by her, looking over, as Allia and Dar joined them.  Allia shielded her eyes from the sun and looked in that direction, using her almost magical eyesight to survey the coast.  "There's a small fishing village there," she announced.  "They fly the flag of Shacè."

      "Then we can't be too far from Den Gauche," Dar said, looking that way himself.

      "Why must we stop there?" Allia asked.

      "To pick up supplies," Miranda replied.  "They're getting low on food, and the water casks are getting pretty light."

      "Why must we carry water?  It is all around us."

      "Seawater is salt water, Allia," Dar told her.  "We can't drink it.  It'll make us sick."

      "I did not know that."

      "Well, you do now," Miranda said.  "Besides, I think a few of us wouldn't mind a day or two on solid land.  I may be Wikuni, but I've never really liked sea travel."

      "That sounds almost unnatural," Dar chuckled.  "I thought Wikuni were born with seawater in their blood."

      "Not this one," Miranda said bluntly.

      Keritanima came back up on deck.  "Did they call land ho?" she asked as she approached.  Dolanna and the warriors also gathered by the rail, and they all were looking landward.

      "Allia says we're off the coast of Shacè," Dar told her.

      "Kern's a good man.  I wouldn't doubt he knows exactly where we are," she said approvingly.  "For looking like a garbage scowl, this ship moves pretty quickly."

      "How long are we going to be in port?" Faalken asked.  "I need to buy a few things."

      "I think the captain said we would be moored for two days," Dolanna answered.  "It will take them time to resupply, and Kern said he has a cargo to pick up to take to Dayisè."  She hooded her eyes from the sun.  "Dayisè is our real destination for now, so let us hope we do not run into any delays."

      "Why are you so bent on getting to Dayisè, Dolanna?" Faalken asked.

      "Because Renoit may still be there," she said.  "If he has not left yet, we may be able to go with him."

      "Ren-who?"

      "Renoit," she repeated.  "He is the master of Renoit's Most Excellent Travelling Circus.  He has a schedule of sorts, and travels to Dala Yar Arak every spring to perform.  It is he that will be our ticket into Yar Arak, provided we get to Dayisè before he leaves."

      "How do you know that?"

      "Because Renoit performs in Dala Yar Arak every year," she replied.  "His is one of the entertainments during the Festival of the Sun.  He has performed there for the last fifteen years.  I do not see any reason why his plans would change."  She looked around, and saw that everyone had their attention on her.  "I am sure that all of you understand the, dangers, of going to Dala Yar Arak," she began.  "To Tarrin, Allia, and our Wikuni and Vendari friends.  Well, Renoit's circus is exempted from that law, for he has Wikuni performers, and the Emperor himself requests Renoit's circus to come and perform during the festival.  They are safe from the laws of non-human slavery.  If we join with him, there is a good chance we can move about Dala Yar Arak without fear of enslavement."

      "Now that's a clever idea," Faalken had to agree.  "But there's just one problem."

      "What is that?"

      "Getting Allia into a jester's costume."

      "I will show you a jester, human," Allia said in a dangerous tone, coming around Tarrin and heading for the jovial Knight.

      "Where did you learn about Renoit?" Keritanima asked as Allia smacked Faalken a few times as the Knight laughed.

      "I once travelled with them from Telluria to Tor," she replied.  "Renoit's circus is excellent, and he performs at ports all over the Sea of Storms."

      "It's strange that he only performs at ports."

      "Not when you realize that his circus owns a ship, Keritanima," Dolanna replied.  "He once confided in me that port cities are wealthier, so there is more money to be made there.  And his ship allows him to travel to places where the circus is always new and exciting for the inhabitants."

      "Clever.  I don't think I've ever heard of a ship-based circus."

      "His company is unique," she agreed.  "He does not have many animals, due to ship space concerns, but he more than makes up for it with his acts.  He has jugglers, strongmen, knife throwers, acrobats, people who perform on tightropes and trapezes, clowns and jesters, and dancers from every part of the Known World.  The displays of native dances always are a favorite with the crowds."

      "Do you think we'll catch him?"

      "I hope to," she sighed.  "The Festival of the Sun is not for three months, but he occasionally stops and has performances on the way to Dala Yar Arak.  If he has booked in Tor, Shoran's Fork, or Arkisia for instance, he will leave early."

      "Did I mention already that I'm glad you're here?" Keritanima asked.

      Dolanna chuckled.  "No, but I thank you for the compliment," she smiled graciously.

      Tarrin wandered off on his own, lost in thought.  A circus.  That was a good idea, especially since it would allow him to go to Yar Arak without fear of being enslaved.  Well, it actually wasn't much of a fear.  Tarrin's inhuman abilities would make it unbelievably hard for anyone to keep him under control without magic.  He was worried more for his sisters than he was for himself.  Of course, freeing himself from that enslavement would undoubtedly fill him with even more remorse and guilt than he already had, but his sisters were more important to him than himself.  He just didn't trust himself anymore.  He dreaded the idea of having to get off the ship, but at the same time, being stuck on the ship had been pressing at his temper considerably.  In many ways, the ship felt like a mobile prison, and he had nowhere to go, nothing to do.  The ship's confines had done much to erode his good nature, but at least there was no danger on the ship.  Nothing that would throw him into another rage.

      But he was paying the price for that safety, and he knew that he just had to get off the ship when it docked, no matter what.  He needed time in the open, whether there were people or enemies there or not.

      "Ship ho!" the lookout called again.  "Three ships off the starbord stern!"

      "Three?" Keritanima said curiously.  "Uh oh."

      "Why uh oh?" Dar asked.

      "It may be a triad of Zakkites, but why they're this far north is beyond me," she replied.

      "Triad?  Explain this to me," Dar said as Keritanima started towards the stern.  Tarrin's curiosity was piqued, so he followed along behind them.

      "The skyships of Zakkar are rather dangerous," she explained to Dar.  "When they engage in combat, they use magic to float high in the air.  That altitude makes it hard for enemies to shoot at them, and they rain arrows, fire, and even magical spells down on their opponents.  The Wikuni have had to install special deck guns that shoot up so we can deal with them.  They almost always travels in groups of three.  Any large group encountered on the high seas are divided into threes."

      They reached the starbord rail just before the stairs that led up to the sterring deck, and looked out behind them.  Keritanima peered out with squinted eyes, then muttered a light curse and touched the Weave.  A hazy image appeared before them in a frame of wispy smoke, that of three black-painted ships with three masts, with full sail, and with red flags.

      "Zakkites," she spat.

      "They sound unfriendly," Dar said.

      "They are," she grunted.  "They're from a kingdom on the other side of Sharadar, in the Sea of Glass, but their ships roam the twenty seas."

      "I'm familiar with Zakkar, Keritanima.  I was being sarcastic," Dar told her.  Tarrin was as well, for his parents had told him stories of them.  The kingdom of Zakkar was a place of magic, but it had a dark reputation for evil and tyranny.  It was ruled by a mage-king, who some called the Witch King because of his very nasty disposition, and the study of magic was eclipsed only by the kingdom's need to expand.  Zakkar wasn't considered large among the world's great nations, but its magic made it a very dangerous opponent.  Their ships were universally feared on the high seas, for they would often attack non-Zakkite ships they encountered.  Ungardt ships attacked Zakkite triads without hesitation, because the Zakkites would simply trail behind them, wait for an opportune moment, and strike. The Zakkites were the only kingdom capable of challenging the Wikuni for control of the twenty seas.

      "I've always wondered how they make them float," Dar said.

      "They capture creatures that can fly and put them in some kind of magical device," Keritanima replied.  "Making the ship fly kills the creatures they capture, so they can't do it all the time.  I remember hearing that the larger and stronger the creature they use, the longer the ship can fly.  They say the Great Eagles and Rocs are extinct because the Zakkites killed them all in their flying devices.  The biggest thing they can catch and use now are probably condors and albatrosses.  Unless they've managed to find Griffons, but I doubt they'd be that crazy."

      "Rocs aren't extinct," Tarrin said in a quiet voice from beside them.  That made both of them look at him; it was the first time he'd spoken in days.  "We see them flying around the foothills near Aldreth all the time.  We think they live in the mountains of Daltochan."

      "You're sure they're Rocs?" Keritanima asked curiously.

      "Bird with a fifty span wingspan?  Catches deer and antelope and elk?"

      "That's a Roc," she admitted with a chuckle.

      "I once chased one into the Frontier," he said, his eyes distant.  "I found one of its feathers, and I thought it landed in the forest, so I went in to see if I could find it."

      "Did you?" Dar asked.

      "No, but I found where it landed," he replied.  "It knocked a couple of trees over, and there were some bones of a few deer and elk."

      "Must have been interesting."

      "No, having to explain why I'd been missing for four days to my parents was what was interesting," he said musingly.  "They were not happy."

      Dar chuckled.  "I've seen your mother.  I wouldn't want to have to face her."

      "I'm used to her, Dar," he said, looking down into the water.  "What do you think they'll do, Kerri?"

      "We're too far away for them to try to overtake us, and we're too close to shore for them to try anything.  They never attack other ships in sight of land.  If they've seen us, they'll follow along and see if we get away from shore.  If we do, they'll try to catch up to us.  If we don't, they'll turn away."

      "So, our move is to move in closer to shore," Dar surmised.

      Keritanima nodded.  "We were going to do that anyway.  We can't be all that far from Den Gauche."

      Almost as if Keritanima's words were orders, the ship suddenly turned more towards shore, angling in so the ships behind couldn't close the distance while the galleon got closer to land.  "Hey," Keritanima called to a passing sailor, a large, willowy fellow with a missing front tooth and some gray in his short beard, "how far out are we from Den Gauche?"

      "We should pull into dock by morn'," the man replied in an accented voice.

      "Thank you," Keritanima said absently, and the man continued on about his business.  "We're closer than I thought.  It also means we turned south again.  We must have done that during the night.  Kern must have overshot his hook."

      "How can you tell?" Dar asked.

      "Simple, Dar," she said with a laugh.  "The land is on the left.  If land were on the right, we'd be travelling north."

      "Oh.  That makes sense, I suppose."

      "I'll make a sailor out of you yet, Dar," Keritanima chuckled as Tarrin wandered away from them.

      Tomorrow.  It made him feel relieved that he'd be getting off the ship, but old fears were rising in him again.  He was a Were-cat.  He had no business in the human world.  Most humans thought him some kind of very exotic Wikuni, at least those who lived near the ocean, but when they found out what he was, and learned what it meant, they distanced themselves from him.  In the Tower, he had literally lived alone among many, as the Novices and Initiates were terrified of him.  Only a rare few, like Dar, put aside his frightening appearance and reputation and simply talked to him.  But then again, acceptance seemed to be an integral part of Dar's nature, and nobody could help but like him.  He was afraid of going out into a city, afraid of the people, afraid of rejection.  But he was also afraid of losing control of himself and hurting people.  And beneath it all was his instinctive need to be free, and that would force him off the ship when it landed.  If only for a little while, he needed to roam in a nice open area and feel like he wasn't trapped.

      A hand on his shoulder startled him; the wind was in his face, and it kept his from scenting or hearing the approach.  But the sense of presence from the person behind told him immediately it was Allia, and Tarrin felt the instantaneous reaction fade just as quickly.  "You shouldn't sneak up on me, sister," he said in the Selani language, putting his hand over his heart and feeling it race.

      "I'm not used to being able to do it," she replied with a light chuckle, leading him to the rail facing land.  "What troubles you today, deshida?  You've been very quiet lately."

      "The same thing, Allia," he said despondantly.  He kept no secrets from Allia, and she knew the truth behind his quandary.  She couldn't understand it--nobody who wasn't Were could understand it--but it made him feel a bit better to talk about things to someone.  "I need off this ship, but I'm afraid I may do something out in the city.  As touchy as I've been, I'm afraid getting jostled in the streets may be enough to make me lash out."

      "Brother, getting off the ship will make you feel much better," she said, putting her four-fingered hand on his wrist.  It came down on the heavy steel manacle that was still locked around his wrist, and that made her eyes flare.  She still got on him about taking them off, but he couldn't.  The manacles represented what he had done, and all he had to do was look down at them, feel their weight on his wrists, to remember what he had done, what he had become, and try his hardest not to have it happen to him again.  "I think you are suffering from a very bad case of, what did Dolanna call it?  Oh, yes, 'cabin fever.'  You need some time on land, without being hemmed in by the length of the deck.  I know I could use some time on land," she grunted.  Allia was born in the desert, and had a fear of large bodies of water.  She had mastered it enough to be able to move around, but it did nothing against bouts of seasickness.  The first two rides on the journey, Allia could barely get out of bed.  She had adapted marvelously to the rolling sense of the ship, what Kern called sea legs, and no longer got seasick except when the ship was caught in high seas or a storm.  But the time on the sea had begun to show on her face.

      "We'll be there for two days," he told her.  "I hope that's enough for you."

      "A moment would make me happy," she sighed, "but will it be enough for you?"

      "I don't know.  I hope so," he replied quietly.

      "There is no need to be afraid, my brother," she said.  "Fear of yourself will only make things worse."

      "I don't know how else to feel, Allia," he said quietly.  "I've tried to explain it to you, but, I just can't find the words."

      "You don't need them, deshida," she sighed.  "I know how you feel.  I'm just telling you that you don't need to feel the way you do.  As far as I am concerned, you did the right thing.  It was just the part of you that understands the brutality of war that acted outside of your human need for mercy."

      "It wasn't like that."

      "Was it?  Did you not attack your enemies?  Didn't you escape from them?  It seems pretty obvious to me."

      "I didn't like not having a choice!" he said in a sudden hiss, then he turned away from her.  "Every time I close my eyes, I can see their faces, Allia!  I can see how they stared at me just before I killed them!"

      "That's because you won't let it go, brother!" she said in a sudden pleading voice, turning him around with a hand on his shoulder.  She grabbed his paws in her hands, and held them up so the manacles were before his eyes.  "You will never find peace until you can let it go!"

      "I can't," he said, closing his eyes.  "I can never let that happen again."

      "It will," Dolanna's calm voice came from behind her.  He turned to look at her, but she showed no reservation at staring into his eyes.  "You cannot stop it, Tarrin.  It is a reflexive reaction within you, and it is a very common condition throughout all of Were-kin.  Did you think you were alone?  Unique?  Even natural-born Were-kin suffer from the rages."  She approached him.  "Allia is right.  You must let it go.  Instead of torturing yourself over what you have done and dreading what will happen again, you must instead strive to limit the damage you can do while in a rage.  You must learn how to channel the animal within so that it does not do anything you will regret."

      Tarrin gave Dolanna a hot look, enough to make almost anyone else shrink back, but Dolanna had no fear of him.  "You must learn to guide the rage, Tarrin," she told him.  "Lead the Cat away from doing anything that you will regret.  It will listen to you, if you are strong enough.  You have spent a month up in that rigging instead of down here where I can teach you.  Whose fault is that?"

      His hot look suddenly turned sheepish, and he tried to look away from her.  "I have given you time, but you have no more.  Tomorrow, we go back into the world.  Do you feel ready?"

      "I, I don't know," he said, closing his eyes.

      "You must be," she said.  "We are depending on you, Tarrin.  We need you."  She looked to her left.  "Azakar, take Tarrin down to the galley and get him something to eat.  I know he missed lunch."

      "Yes ma'am," he said in his deep voice.  "Come on, Tarrin."

      "I'm not hungry," he said.

      "That's too bad," Azakar said mildly.  "I guess I'll just have to force-feed you."

      "You wouldn't dare," Tarrin said in a sudden, savage hiss, his ears laying back.

      "You can drop the theatrics," Azakar told him casually.  "You won't hurt me, and you know you need to eat.  You're already as thin as a stick.  You don't have any weight to lose.  Now let's go down to the galley."

      His eyes igniting from within with their greenish radiance, Tarrin extended the claws on his paw, laid his ears back, and presented it to the hulking Knight threateningly.

      "Azakar, I think you should step back now," Dolanna said in a very carefully neutral voice.  "Slowly."

      "Mistress Dolanna, he needs--aiiee!!" he broke in a gasp, pulling a bleeding hand back.  He held the back of his hand and stared at the Were-cat in surprise, and not a little shock, but Tarrin's ominous expression did not change in the slightest.

      "I said I'm not hungry," he said in a dangerous, low tone.  "Now leave me alone!"

      Turning, he took three steps, then scrambled up the mast so quickly that a man running on the ground could not have covered the same distance as fast.

 

      "He's losing his fear of Azakar," Faalken noted, coming over as Dolanna healed the deep scratches in the back of Azakar's hand and wrist.  The Knight looked up, seeing the Were-cat up on the highest boom, just atop the uppermost sail on the mizzenmast.

      "In the future, Azakar, I would refrain from using the word force around him," Dolanna chided.  "That is not how you make Tarrin do things."

      "I'm sorry, Mistress.  I forgot."

      "It is a dangerous game you play, my young friend," Dolanna told him.  "Yours is a task much akin to taming a wild beast, and he can be dangerous.  You cannot afford to forget.  Tarrin will harm you if you push him too far, as you have just discovered."

      "I was just trying to do what you do."

      "Tarrin does not see you the same way he sees me," she told him.  "Allia, Keritanima and myself are the only ones who can treat him in that manner.  I suggest you remember that."

      "Yes Dolanna," he said, rubbing the healed skin gingerly.  "I hope that doesn't eat at him too much.  I know it wasn't his fault.  I could tell that it wasn't entirely him doing it."

      "No, it was not.  And that is the problem," she sighed.  "Tarrin is becoming more and more unstable.  He needs time, time to himself and time off this ship, but we have so little to give him.  We must get to Dayisè as quickly as possible."

 

      Den Gauche was a riot of conflicting colors.

      The city wall was built of stone, but almost all the houses beyond those walls were made of wattle and daub or timber, and they were all painted different colors.  The roofs of all the houses was the only conformity of color, a bright red tile that created eerie lines and rows among the city's significant rise from the harbor up a hill.  The castle of Den Gauche stood well over their heads, on the peak of the tall hill upon the side of which the city was built.  The city curled around the sides of the hill, and there was a plateau of sorts about halfway up where most of the larger buildings were constructed.  Tarrin had never seen such a large city built on the side of a hill before, and it was definitely an interesting sight.

      They were all near the bow, staring at the large harbor and city as the ship approached through a very light early morning mist.  The city was large, and even from their vantage, it was a very busy and crowded place.  Many men could be seen along the docks of the large harbor, bustling here and there, carrying bundles, or riding on horses.  Huge wooden contraptions that Keritanima called cargo cranes sat upon wheels of steel, which themselves sat upon steel rails attached to the quays and docks.  Those cranes had immense hooks suspended by large ropes, and they lowered to ships and picked up large nets and pallets filled with goods, then swung them over to the deck, where waiting dock workers would unload the cargo.  Suld didn't have such things, and Tarrin marvelled at their design and their efficiency for quite a while.

      "How do the hooks go up and down?" Tarrin asked Dolanna curiously.

      "Most are attached to animal trains," Keritanima answered for him, pointing to a team of large horses or mules not far from a crane.  "They use a very complex pulley system and a counterweight so that only a small number of animals are needed to lift a much heavier weight than normal.  The big cranes are fixed to that position, and those little ones are on rails, so they can move up and down the dock."

      "You said most of them use horses.  What do the others use?"

      "Men turning a winch," she replied.  "It only takes about four men to pick up a few tons, if the counterweight and pulleys are set up right.  We use cranes like these in Wikuna."  She smoothed the fur on her cheek absently.  "They're experimenting with putting a steam engine in it to drive the winch, which would allow the crane to pick up much heavier loads."

      "That sounds dangerous."

      "True, but then only two men could operate the crane, instead of nine or ten."

      "Since I have all of you here, it is best we discuss things now," Dolanna announced.  "Shacèans are a people not like what you are used to dealing with," she told them.  "They are a very lively and energetic people.  Do not be offended by them if they touch you or kiss you on the cheek.  Those are customs here."

      "I've always liked Shacèans," Keritanima said.  "They've all got senses of humor, and they have a zest for life you don't see in many places.  Sometimes they're so happy it makes me sick."

      "We may happen across a duel or two as well.  Do not worry about them.  Shacèan warriors and Musketeers love to fence, and often impromptu duels erupt between two Musketeers who are trying to prove their fencing superiority.  They are not fights, only tests of skill.  To them, it is a game, nothing more."

      "Strange game," Dar mused.  "How often do they get hurt?"

      "Not as often as you may think," she replied.  "Injuring an opponent is considered to be bad form."

      "I see Wikuni ships," Dar noted.  "Are they going to cause us any problems?"

      "They shouldn't," Keritanima replied.  "Even if they see me, they can't do anything to me.  Binter will tie their arms in a knot if they do.  Wikuni have to obey the laws of the land they visit, and I don't think kidnapping is allowed here.  The worst thing they can do is see which ship I'm on, then try to chase me down on the open sea."  She smiled mischieviously.  "And they won't see that."

      The ship nestled up against a large wooden quay that esxtended well out into the harbor, and then the ship was tied down by heavy, darkened ropes.  And when the gangplank was lowered, their group filed off the ship.  They gathered around Dolanna, who urged them to get out of the way of the dockworkers milling about on the wooden walkway.  The men gave Tarrin and Allia strange looks, but not as much as Tarrin thought they would have received.  Then again, working on the docks, the men had to be used to seein non-humans.  There were no less than six Wikuni vessels in port.  Keritanima was with them, but she was hiding beneath an Illusion that made her appear to be human.  "I know we all have different things to do, but we should all return to the ship by noon," she told them.  "Then we will ferry out again after lunch.  That way we do not get too lost."  She looked at Tarrin.  "I suggest you come with me, dear one," she said.

      "I think we should stay together," Keritanima said.  Seeing her like that made Tarrin's fur itch.

      Dolanna shook her head.  "There are things we need, and we cannot gather them up if we stay together.  Faalken, would you handle one half of the list?"

      "Certainly, Dolanna," he replied.  "I'll take Dar and Azakar along with me."

      "But I have to stay near Tarrin," Azakar protested.

      "Just this once, I think we can depend on Binter and Sisska to watch over him," Faalken said.  "If you don't mind, Keritanima."

      "Not at all," she replied with a toothy grin.  "Miranda has her own list of things."

      Miranda nodded, patting Sisska on the arm.  "Would you mind escorting me, Sisska?"

      "As you command, Miranda," the massive Vendari female said in her deep, very un-female voice.

      After splitting up at the docks, Tarrin followed Dolanna through the streets of Den Gauche.  The manner of dress for the people wasn't that much different than Sulasia; women wore dresses, often with a vest-like bodice over the dress, and men wore doublets and trousers, though some wore very tight-fitting pants-like garments called hose.  But all one had to do was listen to know that they were no longer in Sulasia.  The Shacèans had their own language, and though most of them knew the Common language, they didn't use it in Den Gauche.  Tarrin didn't speak Shacèan, so he was forced to listen in curiosity as he heard it all around him.  Shacèan was a very musical language, flowing and rhythmic, and it gave Tarrin the eerie feeling that he was walking in the middle of a vast opera.

      But things felt much better to him.  He had solid ground under his feet, and the land stretched out before him in every direction.  Every step past the confines of the deck made his mind feel more and more at ease, and rides of tension and uncertainty began to unwrap themselves from his mind.  The smells of the city still curled his nose, but mingled in with the smell of humans and waste and the sea was the smell of trees, of farmland and nature, wafting in from over the hill.  He was no longer trapped on the open sea, and it made him feel a great deal better.  Allia too seemed to relax somewhat, but hers was the relief of getting off the ship, getting away from the sea.

      The Shacèans did stare a bit, but it had more to do with Allia than him.  Tarrin, they dismissed as an exotic Wikuni, Binter was considered to be Wikuni, but Allia was unique, strange, new, and her beauty caused almost every head to turn.  It brought more attention to them than Tarrin would have liked, but at least it was all focused on his sister and not on him.  She even had several children tugging on her shirt, asking questions in their flowing language, which Allia couldn't understand.

      "It's the hair," Keritanima said after they passed a young girl who had been gently rebuffed by Allia, having dropped her illusion as soon as they lost sight of the sea.  "They usually only see silver hair on old ladies.  A couple of the more daring ones asked if it was natural."

      "I do not think I would appreciate proving that to them in a city street," Allia said bluntly, which made Keritanima laugh.

      "That could cause a riot," Dar noted.

      "That could be interesting," Keritanima said with a nudge on Allia's side.  "Let's try it."

      "You go first," Allia challenged.

      "Children," Dolanna chided.  "We are here on business.  Let us not be teasing the natives."

      They reached the large plateau, and found that it held a huge central market.  Merchants in stalls and tents crowded into a huge open area that was relatively flat, and the place was packed with both merchants and customers.  All social classes could be found moving about, for the bazaar offered many things to customers, and all of it was packed very tightly together.  One could travel to many shops through the city and assemble their goods, or make one trip to the bazaar.  It was much like Suld, and Tarrin figured that they had the same thing here.  The better goods were found in shops, but for the frugal or hurried shopper, everything could be found near to each other at better prices, but not at as good a quality.  There was a wide avenue that went up the hill from the bazaar, and it created a wide open path that led directly to the castle at the hill's peak.  That same avenue went down as well, all the way to the docks.  Such a street seemed unwise to him.  It provided attackers a convenient path directly to the city's main foritifed position.

      "Everyone mind your belongings," Dolanna warned as they reached the edge of the marketplace.  "Such places are well known for pickpockets and thieves."

      "I don't have anything to steal," Dar said with a chuckle.

      "We will all meet right here in an hour's time," Dolanna told them, handing out small leather pouches.  Tarrin looked into his, and found it to hold a few gold and silver coins.  "Buy what you feel you need, but please, do not get exotic.  We are on a budget.  And do not leave the bazaar."

      "Alright," Dar said.

      Dolanna made them break up, and Tarrin thought he understood why.  They had been forced into each other's company for two months, and the hour, no matter how short, was at least a chance to be alone for a little while.  Tarrin didn't mind the company usually, but he had to admit that it did feel rather good to be alone for a little bit.  He wandered the bazaar randomly, looking at tables and carts holding goods of every imaginable type, from foodstuffs to rope to pottery to knives to trinkets and even good old fashioned junk.  Merchants and barkers shouted, cajoled, sometimes even pleaded for shoppers to visit their stalls, to partake of their most excellent merchandise and marvel at the deals they were willing to make.  It was new, vibrant, to the Were-cat, who had lived his life either in the calm, proper village of Aldreth or sheltered on the Tower grounds.  And they weren't afraid of him.  Merchants beckoned to him just as often as they beckoned to the citizens, probably even more so, for they probably thought that such an exotic visitor was a man of advanced means.

      They weren't the only ones not afraid of him.  After only minutes, Tarrin had a small group of children following him from stall to stall, as the Were-cat looked at what was being offered by the sellers.  One of them was even brave enough to grab him by his tail.  He looked over his shoulder and found a young boy, probably not even six, holding onto the end of his tail, staring at it with a totally mystified expression.  With a slow smile, Tarrin lifted his tail, quickly enough to make the boy squeak, but not so fast that it pulled it out of his hands.  He found himself hanging in the air by his grip on Tarrin's tail, his feet dangling a few fingers off the ground, and Tarrin began swinging him back and forth.  The little boy laughed and enjoyed the game, until he accidentally kicked a well-dressed woman with dark hair.  She whirled on the boy and gave him the rough side of her tongue, none of which Tarrin could understand, and the Were-cat mischieviously left the boy standing there abashed, to explain away his actions alone.  But that didn't dissuade the others.  He had no idea why they were so drawn to him, but he really didn't mind.  Tarrin liked children, because they never judged, and they would accept him the way he was.  Actually, the way he was was probably what drew them to him.  The Cat too liked children, and though he was male, the instinct to protect the young was strong in him.  The Cat saw all children as young, and needing to be defended and nurtured, taught the skills they would need to survive in the world.  He couldn't speak their language, but that didn't seem to be much of a barrier to them.

      It evolved into a game of sorts.  He would wander around the bazaar, and the children would try to sneak up and grab his tail.  But the limb was flexible and fully prehensile, and it moved with the speed of a striking viper.  And he didn't have to see the children to know that they were there.  The tip of his tail eluded them again and again, pulling away from outstretched hands, dancing away from sweeping arms, then tapping them on the head or chest to taunt them for their slowness.  His tail made the children giggle and laugh, and forget their cares and worries as they tried to sneak up and grab it.  It only caused him one episode, when it began swishing again on its own, then happened to make contact with a woman's backside.  She whirled with an indignant look, then saw who--or more precisely, what--had dared to pat her on her backside, then she laughed nervously.  She was a rather pretty young lady with honey colored hair and a heart-shaped face, and her dress was made of brocade and silk, a soft rose color, covered over with a very light cloak of a darker red.  This was a woman of property.

      "Sorry, it moves by itself," he apologized.

      "Apology, no is needed, no?" she replied in a heavily accented voice.  "I see play you with children.  I no am angry, yes."

      The short time in the bazaar had quite an effect on Tarrin.  He had worried that he would be out of control, or would not be accepted.  But neither had happened.  He felt very good, even a little happy, and the Shacèans hadn't shown any fear of his appearance.  Shacèans were known for being tolerant and inquisitive, great believers in hospitality and making all feel welcome, but he didn't know if that would extend to him.  Or more to the point, if they knew what he really was instead of what they assumed him to be.  But the hospitality of the Shacèans had worked its magic on him, and he truly did feel much better than he had the day before.

      But, he found, Den Gauche had everything that other cities also had.  At the fringes of the bazaar were children and older men and women wearing tattered garments, many of them looking unhealthy.  Beggars and the poor, the lost children of most societies.  Such things still offended his sensibilities.  In Aldreth, everyone helped everyone else.  If someone suffered a poor harvest or an accident, the entire village rallied around that unfortunate, helping them with gifts or helping hands until they were back on their feet.  For people to be so uncaring towards their own seemed to totally violate everything Tarrin had grown up to believe in.  But in the cities, people forgot that everyone was their neighbor, and neighbors helped one another.  He knew it had alot to do with size.  Cities were large, and most of a city-dwellers neighbors were strangers to him.  It was hard to care for a stranger.  Even in Aldreth, a stranger was approached cautiously, though he still received hospitality.  But then again, in Aldreth, one never know exactly who or what a stranger was.  Many strangers came from the Frontier, and it was generally accepted in the village that they were disguised forest folk, like Were-kin, or solitary hermits, woodsmen, rangers, and even the occasional Druid.  Yet even they were accepted warmly, and allowed to trade and visit the inn, so long as they behaved themselves.  And they invariably did.

      Two such beggars seemed to stand out to him.  It was a young woman, dirty and bedraggled, holding onto a scratched old wooden bowl despondantly.  She looked to have been very pretty before she got so dirty, and her eyes were dominated by milky white spots that laid over her eyes.  They wore clothes that at one time had probably been well made and fine, but were now filthy, with many tears and holes in them.  She was attended by a young girl that couldn't have been more than six or seven, and both of them were shockingly thin.  The girl's appearance made her the woman's daughter, and the look of her told him that the mother was starving herself so that her daughter would have enough food to eat to survive.  When he approached them, the young girl gawked at him, then remembered to raise her little bowl and plead with him in their language.  The sound of her voice was broken, hopeless, and it pulled at both sides of him with a power that he found was impossible to resist.

      Tarrin knelt down in front of them, wrapping his tail around his foot and knee to keep people from stepping on it.  Without saying a word, Tarrin reached out and put his paw on the woman's face, his fingers covering over her eyes.  He touched the Weave without thinking, and sent probes of Divine energy into her body.  She was malnourished, and had grown very weak after months and months of improper diet.  She had a few mended bones, no doubt broken by street thugs, and there was something inside her eyes preventing them from seeing anything.  It wasn't a sickness, and because of that, Tarrin could do something about it.

      Tarrin learned two things from that touch.  One, that being so far from the Conduit in Suld, it did indeed take longer for him to build magical energy to weave spells.  The other was that distance also caused the power of High Sorcery to take longer to find him.  It had to build the same way that regular Sorcery did, and that little bit of extra time was all he needed.  He wove together a spell of Earth, Water, and Divine energy, and released it into the woman.  It sought out her eyes, breaking up whatever it was that was keeping her eyes from working, then mending the damage done to the very intricate inner parts of her eyes.  He isolated the cause of her blindness, a defect in her eyes that would make the blockages grow back, and eradicated it permanently.  While he was there, he repaired some of the damage done by her long months of eating poorly, giving her body what it needed to recover on its own.

      Tarrin pulled away his paw, and the woman closed her eyes quickly and flinched away from the light.  "Ama?" the little girl called, giving Tarrin a sudden wary look.  The woman turned her head back in his direction, and then opened her eyes.  Brilliant blue eyes stared up at him in absolute awe, and he could see them slowly focus in on him.  He smiled at her gently, reaching down and patting her on the shoulder, as she raised her dirty hands and stared at them in wonder.  Those hands began to tremble, and she stared up at him again with tears forming in her eyes.  He took the little leather pouch and pressed it into her hands, smiling, and then he stood up and started walking away.

      He never said a word to them, and he moved out of their sight quickly, but he could hear the woman begin to cry for joy.  It wasn't much, but in a way, it made him feel better.  He had a long journey to atone for what he had done, but helping the woman seemed to lighten the burden around his soul, if only for a little while.

      He wasn't exactly sure when he wandered away from the marketplace, but the next time he stopped to take stock in his surroundings, he was on a street running parallel to the slop of the hill, a flat ridge on the hillside upon which a street with houses was built.  The bazaar was nowhere in sight, but it had to be behind him, for he didn't rememeber going up or down the hill's slope.  He had no idea where he was going.  For that matter, he had no idea he had left.  He just wanted to look around, and found himself quite a distance from where he was supposed to be.  He turned around and started back for the bazaar, very aware of the looks and curious glances he was receiving from the other pedestrians.  They weren't looks of hostility, just ones of curiosity, so they didn't really bother him that much.

      That was when the scent hit him.  It was faint, and with the wind at his back, it meant that it--she--was somewhere behind him.  It was a Were-cat scent, and it was close enough for him to catch on the wind.  That meant that she couldn't be any more than two blocks away.  Tarrin stopped stock still, then turned around and carefully sampled the air with his nose.  It wasn't Jesmind's scent, but there were was an eerie similarity to it.  It was also growing stronger; she was moving in his direction.  The scent of her evoked a reaction in him that was part fear, part curiosity, and a big part anxiety.  Jesmind said to treat any Were-cat he encountered as hostile, and he understood the need for it.  But he really didn't want to fight.  In his current frame of mind, getting into a fight was the last thing he needed.

      He couldn't risk a fight.  Not here, not now.  Turning so he was facing the sea, Tarrin darted in between two houses, jumped a fence, fled through a courtyard, and then vaulted out off the back wall, sailing high into the air as the ground fell away from him.  He jumped high and far enough to land on the roof of one of the houses on the next street, further down the hill.  He landed lightly on its red tile roof, then moved over it and lept over the street on the other side, landing on one of the roofs on the other side.  He then jumped from that roof to the back wall of its courtyard, startling a small family sitting in the courtyard, and then lept out from it towards the sea.  There was no roof anywhere near where he could land, so he landed rather hard in an empty yard behind a very large warehouse, hard enough to force him to roll with the impact.  He knew where he was now; the lower parts of the hill were dominated by dock wards, dingy taverns and boarding houses, and large storage warehouses.  He was still a ways from the ship, but he didn't have that far to go to get to the sea.  Then he could run along the docks to get back to it.

      But then again, he had the extra time.  First, that female had to catch his scent, then follow it.  It had enough vertical elements to make that not very easy, so that should give him the time to get back to the ship without causing a scene.  He didn't want the Shacèans pointing at him and whispering, it may hurt the reputation of everyone with him as well.  They still had another day in port.

      It also wouldn't hurt to get a look at her.  Jesmind told him to treat all other Were-cats as enemies, but he'd never seen another one other than her.  His curiosity was starting to get the best of him.  Provided he took some precautions, he could probably get a good look at her without her seeing him.

      He took his trail past the ship, well down the docks, to the far end of it.  That section of the docks seemed to be unused for the most part, with only a pair of ships tied up to the quays, and with very little activity.  The area was dominated by huge warehouses, and it was there that he felt he could get a look at her without compromising his position.  He found a pair of them built close to one another, and used a technique to climb up them by jumping high up onto the wall of one, then pushing off and getting onto the wall of the other, doing it over and over again and gaining some height each time.  He didn't want to leave clawmarks on the sides of the buildings, so vaulting up between the two buildings, using them like alternating springboards, let him get on the roof without leaving any scent or visual clues as to where he went.

      After getting onto the flat roof, which had a stairwell going down into the building, he hunkered down behind the low stone wall keeping people on the roof from wandering off, then waited.

      He didn't have to wait long.  She wandered into view about twenty minutes later, moving slowly and carefully, and the sight of her took him aback.  She was tall, this Were-cat, even taller than him.  She was the same height as Azakar.  But just like Jesmind, her form was perfectly molded to her height, making her look perfectly natural.  As if everyone else were deformed because they weren't as tall as she.  She was tall, slender, lithe, but just like Jesmind, she had that perfect mixture of lines and curves that would turn any male head in her direction.

      She was just like Jesmind.  Her face was a more mature version of his fiery bond-mother, high-boned, sharp, and graceful, dominated by a pair of crystalline green eyes.  Her hair was a tawny color, and it perfectly matched the tawny color of her fur.  She wore a simple cotton shirt, unlaced a bit so it hung on her loosely, and a pair of dark leather breeches.  Like him, she wore no shoes, letting her tawny fur on her feet look something like boot leather from a distance.

      Could this be Jesmind's mother?  She certainly looked like Jesmind.  No, more to the point, Jesmind looked like her.  She was more mature, though she looked no older than thirty, and even from that distance, he could feel the power of her presence.  This was no woman to be trifled with.  She wore authority like a cloak, and it showed in her every move and look, no matter how subtle.  Jesmind's few remarks about her mother fit in with what he saw before him.

      "You can come out now, cub," she called in a powerful voice, blunt and sharp, as if the doom of Death would befall any who didn't obey her instantly.  "I know you're here."  She looked right up at him, and he knew immediately that she'd known exactly where he was the whole time.

      Despite that, he still didn't rise up.  Jesmind told him to treat all Were-cats as enemies.  He trusted Jesmind now, in a way, and this one was an unknown.  He wasn't going to risk giving up his high ground just because she made it clear she knew he was there.

      "Don't make me come up there," she said, crossing her arms.

      "Who are you?" Tarrin called, feigning courage.  This one rattled him.  He was afraid of her, but he had no real idea why.  There was just something about her that unnerved him.

      "I'm Triana," she replied.  "I'm Jesmind's mother.  And you have alot to answer for, cub."

      "I don't have anything to answer for," he shot back.

      "Oh, you certainly do," she replied.  "I went to Suld.  I heard about what you did.  That was monumentally stupid.  Just come down, and we'll make this easy on both of us."

      "So you can punish me?  I think not."

      "Just come down," she said, looking up at him with steely eyes.  "And I'd be a fool for telling you I was.  You're hard enough to track down as it is."

      This wasn't going well.  She was tense, wary, and she'd been to Suld.  He didn't know any of the laws of the forest folk, but he had a good idea of how many he'd already broken.  She knew about his shame, and he had the strange feeling that she wasn't there to be a friend.  Jesmind had told him that she would try to send someone to replace her as bond-mother, but if she had been to Suld, had seen the damage he had done, then she was probably not there to take up that role.

      Jesmind made it clear that Rogues were dealt with quickly and permanently.  And what he had done had probably damned him in the eyes of Fae-da'Nar.

      Tarrin now understood his mistake.  He had led her right past the very ship he was using, and what was worse, now she stood between him and the ship.  She probably knew about the ship, if she caught his scent coming away from it.  And they weren't leaving Den Gauche until tomorrow.  That was too long.

      He couldn't see any other choice.  She was probably there to kill him, and they were going to be in port too long for him to hide from her.  He had to deal with her now, immediately, either drive her away, injure her bad enough to back off, or kill her.  He'd rather not kill her, but he would have to at least make her stay away until tomorrow.  He'd blundered, and now he had to pay for that mistake by driving the other Were-cat away.

      "Go away," he blustered.  "I don't want to have to fight you."

      "You don't bring enough to the table, cub," she snorted.  "Now come down here."

      "No.  I can't trust you."

      "You're getting on my nerves, cub," she warned in a dangerous voice.  "If you keep this up, you're going to pay for it."

      Tarrin stood up quickly and purposefully.  Grabbing a piece of the low wall, Tarrin ripped it from its foundations, giving himself a good sized chunk of masonry.  Heaving it, he brought it over his head, then hurled it at the female with inhuman force.  He came up short, intentionally, but she made no effort to dodge out of the way.  "Go away," he warned.

      "No," she said bluntly, walking forward.  "I think it's time for you to get spanked."

      She may have been expecting trouble, but she certainly didn't expect him to dive off the roof.  It even surprised him.  He impacted against her like an arrow, driving both of them to the packed dirt yard between the two warehouses.  They rolled with each other several times, until she kicked him off, and he landed on his feet as she rolled to her own feet.  She had her claws out, and where he had an angry look on his face, her expression was calm and collected.  "So, you do have spunk," she said calmly as he extended his claws and hissed at her threateningly.  Tarrin could feel the Cat rise up in him in response to his fear, and he struggled to maintain control of himself in the face of her confidence.

      Two things were apparent to him after he engaged her.  He was faster than her, but she was more experienced.  She didn't fight in any specific style, but she firmly kept him on his heels with open-pawed slaps, light rakes, and pushes.  She was fast, very fast, slapping away his every attempt to punch, kick, or rake her, and that speed combined with her skill overwhelmed his formal training in fighting.  He didn't really want to hurt her, just make her go away, and she took advantage of his unwillingness to fight by pushing him back.  In a shockingly short time, he was being backed up, protecting his face and neck from her seeking claws, trying to get some distance from her.  He blocked several attempts to try to get to his face, then he doubled over in pain when her long claws tore a quartet of ragged, deep lacerations in his belly, just under the ribcage.

      He realized quickly that the wounds weren't healing.  She had struck him true!  She had somehow injured him in such a way that prevented his regeneration from healing the wound.  That was something that even he didn't know how to do, to injure another Were-cat in a way that prevented them from regenerating.  He tried to straighten up, but a white-hot lance of pain through his torso put him down on one knee, panting heavily.  "I warned you," she said.  "I'm not Jesmind, boy.  I know how to fight.  Now give over this nonsense and come with me."

      His answer was to rise up from his kneeling position with the palm of his paw leading, catching her squarely in the midriff.  She rose off her feet and crumpled around that paw, her breath blasting from her lungs, then she sailed through the air to land heavily on her back some paces away.  His eyes had ignited from within with their unholy aura, a clear indication of his growing rage, and he totally ignored the pain of his injury and rushed her.  She rolled to her feet and met his charge, and it was she that was put on the defensive.  Tarrin had lost some of the delicate, refined control taught to him by Allia and had replaced it with sheer savagery, and he pressed the taller Were-cat with powerful punches and rakes, using his strength to try to literally beat her to the ground.  But she met him blow for blow, and he realized to his horror that not only was she taller than him, she was stronger than him.  Pure physical force wasn't going to work, because she held that advantage over him.

      Tarrin took a few steps back, looking up into that grim, beautiful face, feeling his heart racing.  She outclassed him in every sense of the word.  She was stronger than him, more experienced than him, more dangerous than him.  He found real fear of her in his heart, and that fear was giving the Cat the strength it needed to overwhelm him and take control.  His stomach both hurt and felt cold and warm at the same time, cold pain soothed by warm blood flowing from the deep tears in his stomach, but the pain faded under his need to stand against her.

      He lunged in and tried to punch her, but she caught his wrist easily.  He tried with the other paw, but she caught that one as well, and held him immobile for several seconds as he struggled against her superior strength, trying to free himself, staring into his eyes.  There was no worry in her eyes, and her towering confidence began to rattle him more and more, making him doubt his sanity at trying to attack her.  "Manacles?" she asked, glancing at the steel cuffs on his wrists.  "Did someone try to imprison you, cub?"

      His answer to that came as he brought up his foot, twisted in her grip, then brought his foot straight up behind him, claws leading.  His foot struck her right under the chin, his claws punching four small holes in the skin under her jaw and snapping her head back.  It was an awkward kick, what Allia called a split-kick, depending completely on his flexibility, but it had enough behind it to make her stagger.  She let go of him, and his tail instantly lashed out, striking her across the ankle and sweeping her legs out from under her.  Claws out, Tarrin stabbed down with both paws before she even fully hit the ground, but she somehow managed to slither out of the way, rolling backwards and to her feet.  Tarrin's claws dug ten deep gashes in the dirt where her chest and stomach had been, but he recovered from it quickly.  She wiped the underside of her jaw with the back of her paw absently, then spat out a single tooth along with the tip of her tongue.  "Cute.  You're better trained than I thought," she said in a conversational tone.

      Laying his ears back, he glared at her, but his hunched posture betrayed how much her rake had hurt him.

      "You're bringing this on yourself, cub," she snorted.  "All you have to do is stop fighting.  It's not the first time I've had to beat one of my children into submission."

      "You're not my mother," Tarrin hissed.

      "Oh yes I am," she said.  "Jesmind may have turned you, but she's not capable of raising a bonded child.  That makes you my child.  And I'm not as gentle as she is.  If I have to beat you to within an inch of your life to make you listen, then so be it.  That's the price you pay for disobeying me."

      "You can try," he hissed.

      "It's your pain," she said with a shrug, then advanced on him.

      What happened next couldn't be classified as anything other than a whipping.  The female Were-cat struck Tarrin almost at will, stinging slaps and rakes of her claws, punishing punches, into every area of his body that was sensitive.  She did not pull her punches, and Tarrin found it hard to stand straight after only a moment or two.  Never had he been so overwhelmed, and every strike from her intensified the Cat's attempts to take control.  Any attempt to defend himself brought him another stunning blow, as she seemed to totally bypass his every attempt to block her paws.  He suffered blow after blow, until the Cat had enough.  He screamed with sudden rage and lunged at her.

      It came out of nowhere.  One minute he was trying to rip a hole in her cheek, the next her foot was right in front of his face, and he went flying through the air.  The sky and ground traded places a few times before he came to a stop flat on his face, his tail kinked from where it had been broken during the tumble.  He shook his head to clear the stars, but it didn't do any good.  She kicked him squarely in his injured stomach, and he fell over and howled in pain.  But he continued with the roll and came up on his hands and knees, panting heavily from the pain and suddenly fighting an internal war against the Cat.  He was being overwhelmed, and his fear of losing, of being killed or captured by her, was starting to unhinge his mind.  If he lost control, the Cat would simply try to take her with brute force, and his conscious mind already understood that it would be a fight the Cat would lose.  She would be able to contain even his most savage rage.

      "Give it up, cub," she said in a flat voice, a voice that got louder as she approached him.  "You can't beat me, and I don't want to have to pound you flat just to make you listen."

      "No," he said through gritted teeth, his mind whirling as the instincts struggled to gain mastery over him.  "No!" he said again as he felt himself lose his grip on himself, and the Cat roared into the forefront of his mind.

      "NO!" he screamed, paws flying up and to his head, as the Cat grabbed hold of the Weave in a crushing grip that forced it to give it its power.  The incredible power of High Sorcery roared into him so quickly that his body exploded in Magelight, limning over and causing the air around him to instantly displace away.  Eyes filled with incadescent white light opened and bored into the female.  His paws came back around his head and pointed at her, and a chaotic weave of Fire, Air, Water, Divine power, Confluence, and token flows of the other Spheres quickly wove itself together, and then a blazing white shaft of pure, raw magical power erupted from his paws and lashed out at the female Were-cat.  No physical force could withstand that magical onslaught, which had seared through a hundred spans of stone in the Cathedral of Karas in Suld, and it lanced through the air directly at the Were-cat female.

      But she made no move to dodge.  Instead, she raised her own paws, and then the bolt suddenly deflected away from her, going straight up into the sky harmlessly.

      "Is that all you have?" she chided in a grim voice.

      Nonplussed, Tarrin jumped to his feet with a scream and wove together another spell, one of pure Air with only token flows of the other Spheres, one that reverberated inside him like a living thing.  It was so large, so charged with magical energy, that it hurt him to put it together, and it took everything he had to maintain control of it until it was time to let it go.  But in his rage, he didn't care about how much it hurt, or how quickly it tired him.  It was going to eliminate a threat to him, and that made the end justify the means.  He felt it reach a crescendo, where he knew that it was ready, and he knew that his entire body was glowing with an angry reddish light, a physical indication that he was about to unleash another spell.  He made a vast sweeping motion with both paws, and unleashed the Weave with an inarticulate scream of anger and rage.

      The air around him suddenly exploded outward with horrific force, in every direction, shattering the two warehouses between which they had been fighting and sending pieces of them flying far, far out to sea and raining down on the rest of the city.  The explosion of pure air damaged buildings all around him, caused one of the mighty cranes to come free of its rails and topple with an earth-shaking whoomp, and cause ships at port to flinch away from the origin, some snapping their mooring lines.  It created a large wave of water that raced away from the city's harbor out into the open sea.  The sound of the explosion, a ear-splitting boom, shattered windows all over the city and made the ground shake, and kicked up a cloud of dust that rose high into the sky.

      It had taken almost everything he had to generate that weave, and Tarrin sagged to the ground beneath him, which was curiously untouched considering all the ground around him showed indications of being scoured by the force of the air as it raced away from him. But the power of High Sorcery quickly began to rebuild inside him, replacing what he had used.  But it didn't replace his own power, the power he used to control that energy.  It had exhausted him, and even the Cat seemed to sense that if he tried another weave, it would probably kill him.  But dying by his own hand seemed better than dying by hers, so there was no regret.  He would fight for his freedom, even if it meant he would die for it.  The cloud of dust obscured her, and he didn't know if he'd gotten her or not.  He managed to regain control of himself with her disappearance, as the Cat could no longer perceive an enemy, and he desperately hoped that she wouldn't be there when the dust cleared.

      As the dust cleared the awful truth of what he had done was clear.  The ground around him had been scoured, and was lower by about a finger.  Absolutely nothing within two hundred spans of him was left standing; in fact, there nothing within two hundred spans of him at all, for it had all been picked up by the powerful force of the air and carried away.  The echoes of the tremendous sound of the weave still bounced around the hill, coming back to them.

      Except for her.  The female remained, totally unharmed, her paws crossed over her face to protect it from flying debris.  The ground under her feet was raised, had not been scoured down by the force of his spell, and it marked a perfect circle that extended about five spans out from her in every direction.  She stood in a tiny island of sanctuary in the middle of the destructive chaos of his weave.  She lowered them and gave Tarrin a brutal look.

      Tarrin didn't care to wonder how she had survived, he merely decided to try something else that would hopefully defeat her.  He knew that he was about to put together his last weave, so it had to be enough to get rid of her.  But he felt the Weave just dissolve away from him, as if someone had grabbed it and pulled it out of his reach, and the power within him simply dissipated, causing him to suffer a backlash of such magnitude that it almost caused him to pass out.  He fell to his knees and elbows, sucking in air, trying desperately to get over the pain of losing contact with the Weave.

      "Rule number one, cub," he heard her voice as it approached.  "Sorcerers are powerless against Druids.  Druids can cancel out your magic.  I've never met a Sorcerer with your kind of power, so it took me a couple of minutes to figure out how to sever you from the Weave.  Rule number two," she said, reaching down and grabbing him by the shirt, then hauling him up.  "Never use everything you've got.  If it fails, then you die.  Rule number three.  Never disobey me again."  She held him by his shirt as he stared up at her listlessly.

      And that seemed to catch her off guard.  Tarrin's paws rose up and at her in a broad sweep of each, and the heavy steel manacles on his wrists struck her on each side of the head with a chiming clang.  Had he been in better shape or stronger, the crushing blow would have destroyed her head, but in his weakened condition, he just couldn't put enough behind it to kill.  But it was still a powerful attack, more than a human could manage.  Her Were-cat immunity to weapons and regenerative powers were like his, so he knew that they'd heal the injury, but they would do nothing about the sheer physical force put behind the blow.  The blow would stun her, because her magical nature couldn't overwhelm the sheer power of the blow, regeneration or not.

      Her eyes rolled back into her head, and she crumpled to the ground like a sack of meal.

      Tarrin bent over and panted, holding his injured stomach.  She was bleeding from the sides of her head, where human ears would have been, where the manacles had struck her.  She was helpless at that moment, and looking down at her, all Tarrin could see was Jesmind.

      And that saved her life.

      "I've never...been one...to obey the rules," he said in a wheezing voice, then he turned and limped away from the blasted battlefield.

 

      What he saw horrified him.

      He had laid waste to the entire docks ward.

      Buildings were blown down or severely damaged by flying debris.  He had knocked one of the cranes over, and several others were either off their tracks or had been damaged by the powerful wind or flying debris.  Several ships were floating aimlessly in the harbor, and one of them had been capsized at the dock.  One of the large quays had been struck by a section of crane that had broken free, and had shattered it.  Twisted wood and metal lay everywhere, and large piles of rubble marked the location of buildings.  Dust still hung in the air, and people were coated in dust, water, or dirt, wandering around in a daze that caused Tarrin to fit in with them.  There was more than one person wandering around with blood on them, and he didn't even want to think about the people that he couldn't see.

      How could he do such a thing?  He had damaged an entire city's capability to function!  He had hurt people, brought down buildings, caused untold suffering and destruction.  But the truth was a horrible one, one that he had never appreciated more until that moment.

      The Cat didn't care about anything else.  The end justified the means.  So long as it survives, that is all that matters.

      Tarrin meandered around several large piles of rubble, moving in the general direction of the ship, hoping that the Star of Jerod was still there.  But it was pretty far down the docks, so it had probably survived.  He looked like a building fell on him; he was bleeding from numerous rakes from the female's claws, and was beaten black and blue.  He was bleeding profusely from the deep wound in his stomach, and his tail had been broken, dragging the ground behind him limply.  One of his eyes was swollen shut, and she had broken his nose.  She had left him in sad shape, and it was through a pain-induced haze that he looked around him, seeing what he had done to Den Gauche, managing to understand how destructive he could be.

      The weight of this added itself to everything else he had done, and Tarrin found himself uncertain how he could live with himself.  Not after this.  It caused an instant depression in him, and he began to wobble back and forth in his stride, as if dazed, unable to come to terms with the reality of what his actions had caused.

      Binter appeared beside him, and then the Vendari's massive hands were around him.  Then he found himself off his feet, being carried like a child.  "Her Highness is very displeased with you, Tarrin," the Vendari said in his deep voice, but it fell on deaf ears.

     Tarrin was unconscious.


GoTo:   Title                         EoF

Chapter 2

 

      The ship had pulled out of port during the night, moving against a stiff quartering wind that made the ship rock back and forth rhythmicly.  The sky was cloudless, and the multi-colored light of the Skybands and the four moons, all full, shone down on the rolling seas.  The ship was anchored near a shoal called Shipkiller Rock, named so because its very low profile made it invisible at night and in rolling seas, and most of the crew and passengers were sleeping below, out of the stiff, cool wind that made sleeping on deck uncomfortable.

      Tarrin was not one of those.  He stood at the rail, the claws on his feet keeping him perfectly sturdy against the rocking of the ship.  The sounds of the clanking chain of the anchor and the creaking of the ropes in the rigging disrupted the strange keening of the wind, wind whipping up the waves that were making the ship lurch to and fro.  The fast moving air carried on it only the smell of the sea, purging Tarrin's nose of the foul miasma that hung on the ship, or just about anywhere that humans dwelled.  He stood there looking up at the sky, a blanket held loosely around his bare shoulders and a bloodstained bandage around his middle, and his eyes seemed to glow in the light of the night that made Sennadar a place that did not know true darkness anywhere but under the ground.

      The wound would not heal.  Not even Dolanna's formidable healing ability could so much as urge it to stop bleeding.  Its pain throbbed dully on his stomach, through his body, but it had been lost in the turmoil of emotions that were running through his mind.  It merely served as a ground to which his mind could cling to, a physical sensation that kept him from drifting too far off in his reverie.  And it was not a very happy reverie.

      Tarrin felt nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  And that scared the life out of him.

      He fully knew and understood what he had done.  He had laid waste to most of the docks ward of Den Gauche, and had probably killed and injured a whole bunch of people.  But he felt nothing.  No remorse, no sadness, not much of anything now that the shock of it had worn off.  There was nothing inside him that was even a bit contrite over what he had done.  Nothing.  And that scared him, it scared him badly.  But yet even that sensation seemed to dull within him if he thought about it for any amount of time.  It turned more into an awareness of something, and it seemed to force him to accept it no matter what.  The only way he could keep it fresh in his mind would be to relive it all over again, to remind himself of the wasteland through which he had limped after getting away from the female.

      And even that was starting to lose its shock value.

      Closing his eyes and bowing his head, he looked down at the boiling seas, unsure of what it meant.  Why didn't he feel something?  When he killed the people in Suld, he'd almost been overwhelmed with remorse, regret, even terror of himself.  And now there was nothing.  He had acted no different this time, but there was a different reaction.  He didn't understand it.  He knew that there was a great deal that he didn't know about himself or his kind, but this strange mystery seemed that it should be easy to solve.  And yet it wasn't.  He couldn't think of any rational--or irrational, for that matter--explanation as to why there was nothing there when he sought to explore his feelings about his actions.

      The Cat had changed him a great deal since that fateful day when he'd been bitten, but he couldn't quite come to admit to himself that it was changing him still.  Was his lack of remorse from him, or from it?  Was the Cat turning him cold, or was it his own reaction to it?  It would certainly make things easier.  If he no longer felt bad about the things he did while out of control, it would take alot of stress out of his life.  But his human morals wouldn't allow him to think about something like that.  Tarrin was not a heartless person, and that made his own lack of feeling about causing injury to others so much a mystery to him.  By all intents and purposes, he should feel tremendous guilt and remorse about what had happened.  But there was nothing.

      What did it mean?  Was he changing, or was he being changed?  Did he want to be like this?  To walk through the world and cause destruction and chaos wherever he went, yet be unmoved by the sorrow that he left in his wake?

      His eyes caught the glint of the manacles that were still on his wrists, and he sighed.  He had alot of burden to bear already.  Maybe another stone or two in his burden wasn't making much of a difference.  He was a solitary, untaught Were-cat cast into the human world, a world that, should they understand his true nature, would try to destroy him.  He was on a mission that he didn't want to be on in the first place, obeying the will of the Goddess, whom he called patroness.  It was a mission he had volunteered to do, and that seemed to sting at him now.  He didn't want to do what he was doing.  He wasn't even sure what he was doing.  About all he really knew and understood about it was that he had to recover the Firestaff, because it could be used to make a mortal a god.  He was out to find it to prevent that from happening, to keep it out of the hands of people who would use it to raise themselves to divinity, and set off a war between gods that would ravage the world.

      He didn't know anymore.  Nothing seemed to really make any sense.  Not him, not his mission, not the world, not anything.

      None of the others would really understand.  Besides, he doubted that he could look any of them in the eye, even Allia, and admit to them that he was almost militantly indifferent to the suffering he had left strewn behind him.  They'd probably never look at him the same way again.  And he wasn't sure if their rejection of him would impact him.  If killing a few hundred people and laying waste to a portion of a city didn't incite any remorse in him, he couldn't see how being rejected by his friends and sisters would.

      There are many kinds of pain, my kitten, the powerful, choral mental voice of the Goddess sang into his mind, overwhelming him with her presence and her power, subjugating his soul by the mere contact she made to speak with him.  She was the reason he was going against his instincts, his own desires.  She was the driving force behind his current position, and there was no way that he could deny the fact that he loved her, both as a goddess and as a friend.  That in itself never ceased to confuse him, but it seemed to be the way that his mysterious, capricious deity preferred it.

      He felt a sudden wave of intense shame.  Nobody but her could look inside him, to see the ugly truth within.  She knew his turmoil, so she knew its cause.  To think that she saw his soul bare caused a powerful pang of both pain and embarassment.

      Stop that, she said harshly.  When I accepted you, I fully understood what I was taking.  I know you're not perfect, my kitten.  And we all do things that we would prefer nobody knew.  But I think you know that everything I see in you never goes any further.  To break your trust like that would be a horrible transgression.

      "Transgression?  Against me?" he asked with a derisive snort.

      Of course, she said.  You may not understand it yet, my kitten, but the relationship between a god and a mortal devoted to that god works both ways in many respects.  Just as I preclude you from speaking my name aloud, I'm expected to keep the inner thoughts and dreams of the mortals under my care in the strictest confidence.  If you really studied it, I think you'd find that for every single thing that you give to a god, by devotion, sacrement, vows, or devotions, you receive it back in the form of a favor or gift.  It's not a one-sided relationship.  Because of that, even us gods have some rules to follow, or we'll lose our mortal followers, and in a way, our own power.  But what's worst, we'd lose the respect of other gods.  Not even Berrok, the god of corruption and strife, would dare divulge the secrets of one of his followers.

      "What does that have to do with anything?"

      Nothing, she replied with a light chuckle.  But I like to give my followers a more enlightened understanding of things than other gods.  Most like to keep their followers in the dark, to maintain that mystique surrounding them  and their power.  Keep a mortal in awe, they think, and he'll be a bit more devout.  I happen to think that when a mortal makes a conscious choice after all the cards are laid out on the table, his devotion is twice as powerful as the awed mortal's would be.  There was a short silence.  I guess what I really want you to know is that I'll love you no matter what, kitten, she said.  I accepted you for what you are, and despite what you think, I knew that your actions would occasionally go left of center.

      "Thanks," he said quietly, but with utter sincerity.  The powerful shame he felt lifted somewhat; it was still there, he doubted that it would ever go away, but her kind words had lifted it partially away.  "But what does it mean, goddess?  Why don't I feel anything?"

      That's something that I can't answer, my kitten, she said seriously.  For me to simply explain it away wouldn't do you any good.  I told you once before that there were some things that you had to discover for yourself.  Well, this is one of those things.  It won't have any meaning for you unless you're the one who discovers it first.

      "Sometimes I think you say that just because you don't want me to know."

      Time will tell, she replied calmly.  When you have the answer, you can look back to this moment and make that conclusion for yourself.

      "It doesn't make it any easier."

      It was never supposed to make it easy, she replied.  Anything gained easily isn't valued as much as that gained through hardship.  There are some lessons that can only be learned in pain, Tarrin.  I don't like seeing you in pain, but it makes you stronger, and it teaches you to learn how to make the pain go away for good.  If I were to soothe that pain, it would make you feel better now, but then the pain would never go away.  If you learn to conquer it yourself, then it will be gone forever.  Now, which would you prefer?

      "I hate logic," he growled after a moment.

      There was a sound not too much unlike a girlish giggle.  Just keep your chin up, my kitten, she told him.  I have to go now.  Be well, and I love you.

      And then the sensation of her was gone, leaving him feeling peculiarly empty inside.  And it left him even more confused than he'd been in the first place.

      She wouldn't help him.  That stung a little bit, but part of him could understand why.  Just like letting a child stick his hand in the fire to teach him not to do it, she was leaving him to sort things through for himself, so that experience would be more help to him in the long run.

      But what if he messed it up?  Tarrin's control had evaporated over the months.  The short term, the now, that always hung so heavily in front of him that he often forgot to look at things from more than one side.  Had he simply stepped back a moment and thought things through, he could have easily led the female away safely, rather than get into a fight with her.  But he hadn't.  He had looked at right now and had acted on it with little regard as to what his actions would incite in the future.  What if the answers to his questions were found in the long view, and he passed it over to take the shorter, more immediate path?

      Doubt, worry, they had become such unwelcome friends lately.  He doubted himself, his mission.  He worried over what he would do next, how badly things would turn out.  There seemed to be no escape from it.  It surrounded him like the walls of his tiny cabin below, hemming him in and making him feel like he was trapped.

      The wind kicked up a loud whistling keen through the jags in Shipkiller Rock, and Tarrin pulled the blanket a bit more around his shoulders.

      There just didn't seem to be answers to anything this night.

 

      The ship plied the surging waves ever southward, and everyone was on edge.  There were a various number of reasons for it.  The ship was on half rations until they reached the port of Roulet, because they hadn't loaded up all the supplies before the explosion.  The reduced food made most of the men on the ship cranky, and numerous lines were cast out by sailors not on duty, to try to supplement what salted meat and hard tack remained with fresh fish.  The explosion itself had put many of the men on edge.  Such a thing had never happened before, at least not that any of them had seen, and it was all the men talked about between grumblings of a light breakfast.  Tarrin's solid position near the bow itself had unnerved many of the men, for he stood at the rail and gazed out to sea for hours on end, unmoving, only the swishing of his tail reminding all who stared at him that he wasn't some kind of elaborately decorated statue.

      But it was the birds that unnerved everyone the most.  Hundreds of them, gulls, albatross, darts and even land birds like swallows and pidgeons, they peppered the sky like a moving cloud.  They seemed to follow no specific pattern, yet they seemed to be moving in a general direction, circling and gliding on the brisk sea breeze blowing in from the west.  None of the sailors had ever seen so many birds concentrated into a small region before, and it seemed unnatural.  Sea eagles, hawks, and other raptors shared space peacefully with the birds which would usually be their prey, as if they had put aside their natural rivalry for some other purpose.  The ship was travelling southerly, but the birds seemed to be drifting to the north, and they had already passed underneath the majority of them.  The deck showed that passing in the many splatters from the birds above, which caused the captain to grumble and spit irritably.  The captain was a compulsively neat man, and such a mess certainly got on his nerves.

      Though it was certainly unusual, the birds themselves had demonstrated that they posed no threat, so they were only a curiosity to all but the most superstitious of the sailors, who saw them as a bad omen.  It was the ship sitting on the horizon behind them that had the captain and many others worried.  It was a Wikuni clipper, one of the fastest ships on the sea, and it was moving right towards them at full sail.  The extreme distance made little detail clear, but the Star of Jerod's rather unusual cargo made any Wikuni ship's appearance cause enough for Captain Kern to fret.  Anything that could make the legendary Abraham Kern fret was enough to send his junior officers and crew into a panic.  But only the captain and the first and second mates knew who her little Wikuni Highness really was, so those were the men that showed the most concern.  They knew what would happen if they were caught ferrying a fugitive royal princess.  It would not be pretty.

      Dolanna was on the steering deck, trying to soothe Kern, trying to explain in calm words that she had no idea what was going on, either with the birds or with the Wikuni ship.  Faalken and Azakar were on deck, stripped to the waist, stepping lightly around birdstains as they practiced with their swords.  Miranda and Keritanima had their heads together near the wall of the steering deck with Binter and Sisska standing very close guard over them, and Allia and Dar were playing a game of stones near the mainmast, sitting on a deck hatch.

      One by one, his friends had tried to talk to him, to gently try to find out what had happened.  Only Dolanna, who had bandaged his wounds, knew the full story, and Tarrin doubted that she had fully told the others yet.  But Tarrin was in no mood to talk.  Even Allia walked away shaking her head, telling him that she would be there when he was ready to talk to her.  But he wasn't quite ready to do that yet.  Things felt different now, and he wasn't sure how he could talk to his friends without having to explain what happened.  And if he did that, he wouldn't be able to tell them anything more.

      Tarrin looked down into the water, where those fish were.  One man had called them dolphins, and they commonly followed ships to either eat the scraps thrown overboard or simply ride in the ship's wake.  They were very common in the southern reaches of the Sea of Storms.  They were very sleek animals, fish that breathed air instead of water, and they moved in a sinuous, graceful harmony.

      "You are very quiet today," Dolanna said casually, coming up to the rail beside him.  She looked up at him when he glanced at her, her eyes steady and her demeanor calm.

      "I don't have much to say, Dolanna," he replied quietly.  "What did the captain have to say about that Wikuni ship?"

      "That it could possibly catch up to us before we reach Roulet," she replied.  "If they know who we carry, they may try."

      "I doubt that," he said soberly, looking out to sea.

      "Perhaps," she said.  "It is almost time for the lesson.  As always, you are welcome to join."

      "No," he said, lowering his head.  "It won't do me any good, Dolanna.  If I even try to touch the Weave, you know what will happen."

      "Yes, but there is never a reason good enough not to keep growing," she replied in a steady voice.  "Even though you cannot use what I teach, would it not be a good thing to know it?  For that day when you can wield Sorcery without danger."

      "I already know what I need to know," he told her.  "I'll wait until the teaching does me good before learning anything more."

      "But it will do you good.  Can you not see that?"

      "No, I can't," he said, turning to stare at her with his penetrating green eyes.  She didn't flinch away, though his gaze would have made almost anyone on the ship shrink back from him.  She knew him too well to be afraid of him.

      "Very well," she said after staring up into his eyes for a moment.  "Remember, dear one, I will always be here when you need to talk.  I will always be here for you."  She said that with a light touch on his arm, then she reached up and grabbed him by the back of the neck, pulled his head down, and kissed him lightly on the cheek.  That she would do that, knowing what he was and what danger he posed to humankind, impressed him.

      Dolanna.  What a friend she had been.  He smiled slightly as she walked away, marvelling at her small, compact, shapely frame.  It was easy to forget that she happened to be a very pretty woman when he always thought of her as a mother figure.  She had always been there, even at risk to herself.  No human would take the risks around him that she would, and she had no fear of him.  In its own way, that was more comforting than many things he could think about.  Through all the turmoil of his turning Were, and alot of what happened in the Tower, Dolanna had always been there for him.  He owed her a great deal, and a part of him felt bad about snubbing her that way.  But she didn't understand what he was feeling, and he had to make sure she understood that he wasn't quite ready to go back to some other life, to forget about what happened or pretend that everything was alright.

      The Wikuni ship stayed on their stern, just at the horizon, for most of the day, and was there again in the morning as they moved closer and closer to Roulet.  Roulet was a small city, little more than a town, but it sported two large quays sturdy enough and with a deep enough draw in the harbor to accomodate ships the size of the Star of Jerod.  Roulet was well known as a seedy place, a place where known pirates would dock for repairs, carousing, or to fence off the booty taken on the high seas.  The city's rulers were notorious for being for sale, and the bribes from the pirate clans allowed them to sail in and out of the narrow harbor, defended by fiercely armed coastal fortresses on either side of the very narrow inlet that opened the tiny bay to the sea.  Those fortresses had actual cannon in them, for Shacè was the only kingdom to whom the Wikuni would sell their smoke powder.  The cannons kept the lawful ships of other nations out of the harbor, protecting the pirates to whom the little town owed its livelihood.  That was reason enough for most honest ship captains to stay well away from it, but the Star of Jerod needed supplies badly enough to risk docking in the place.

      "I wonder how something like that manages to stay alive," Dar was musing to Keritanima as they approached the narrow inlet and its twin fortresses.

      "Simple logic, if you think about it, Dar," the Wikuni princess replied calmly.  "By allowing the pirates to dock here, it keeps them out of more respectable cities."

      "But why don't they just come over here and do something about it?  Or why doesn't the king of Shacè do something?"

      "King Louis is a very weak king," Keritanima sniffed.  "He rules in title only.  In reality, it's the local Marquis that have control of Shacè.  It's a very fragmented kingdom.  The Shacèan custom of not spilling the blood of a countrymen keeps the kingdom from degenerating into something like the Free Duchies."  She plucked at her plain cream-colored dress absently.  "Louis doesn't do anything about it because he can't.  Marquis Phillipe of Roulet makes a pretty penny off the bribes paid to him by the pirates, so it's very doubtful he'd stop if Louis demanded it."

      "Then why don't the Wikuni do something about it?"

      She snorted.  "Because no Sennadite ship can catch one of our Merchantmen," she said derisively.  "Why should our navy protect the ships of our competitors?"

      "That's a pretty heartless way of looking at it, Kerri."

      "There's no room for petty compassion in politics, Dar," she said in a ruthless tone.  "You can't get rid of the pirates.  For every pirate you sink, another will take its place.  And let's not even talk about the commissioned freebooters."

      "What's a freebooter?"

      "A freebooter is a pirate that works for a certain kingdom," she replied.  "His job is to attack the ships of rival kingdoms, and leave the ships of his own kingdom alone.  It disrupts trade and supplies to rivals."

      "Oceangoing sabatoge."

      "Something like that," Keritanima agreed.  "You can't even begin to imagine what goes on out of sight of land, Dar."

      "Do the Wikuni use freebooters?"

      "No," she replied.  "At least not right now.  There used to be Wikuni freebooters, but after Rauthym broke up and the Zakkite armada was defeated, there's been no need for them."

      "Then explain Sheba the Pirate."

      Keritanima coughed awkwardly.  "Sheba is not a sanctioned freebooter, Dar," she said defensively.  "There's just a certain formality involved that prevents Wikuni ships from chasing her down.  Since she uses a Wikuni clipper, that means that just about nobody else can chase her down either."

      "What formality would that be?" Dar asked.

      "She's the daughter of a very, very high-ranking noble patriarch," she replied.  "If anyone sank Sheba, they'd pay for it ten times over when they got home.  I can't stand her, myself.  She's an arrogant bitch, flaunting herself when she's home and all but daring anyone to do something about her."

      "So, your people know she's a pirate."

      "Of course they do, but as far as many in Wikuna are concerned, so long as Sheba doesn't attack Wikuni ships, then why bother?"

      "Well, that's certainly hypocritical."

      "Of course it is, Dar," she laughed.  "It's called politics.  Nobody ever said politics were logical, or even sensible."

      "Ridiculous," Tarrin snorted.  "Sometimes I think that we'd all be better off if we hanged everyone with a title."

      "So you're talking to us now?" Keritanima asked him archly.

      "I told you that you wouldn't understand," he told her bluntly.  "I just needed some time to think things over."

      "That's all you've been doing for the last two months, brother," Keritanima snapped at him.  "I've almost forgotten you.  And what I see in front of me now isn't the same person I knew two months ago."

      "You're right," he said flatly, stepping past her.  "I'm not."

      "That was stupid, Kerri," Dar whispered in a savage hiss, but Tarrin's sensitive ears picked it up as he walked away.

      "Sometimes you have to smack Tarrin to get him going in the right direction, Dar," she whispered back.  "Trust me."

      "I'll let you do that," Dar said quickly.

      Crossing his arms, he stood near the mast, a little angry with his sister, but that quickly faded.  No matter who he was or how she acted, Keritanima was his sister, and he loved her.  He could forgive her for her words, because she was important to him.  But she didn't have to know that just now.  Better to let her stew for a bit.  That seemed a just compensation for that little remark.

      "You're off to a good start this morning," Allia told him in Selani, touching him lightly on the shoulder as she came up from behind.  "How's your stomach?"

      "It's getting better," he replied.  "The scratches stopped bleeding last night.  Dolanna says they'll heal, just not fast like any other injury would."

      "Keritanima's right, you know," she said softly.  "You aren't the same as you were."

      "Don't start with me, sister," he warned.

      "I'm not starting anything with you, brother," she said defensively.  "There was a time, not too long ago, when we would talk for hours and hours, about anything.  We kept no secrets from each other.  And now you won't speak to me anymore about the things that matter to you.  You've closed yourself to me, Tarrin.  To me!  I'm your sister!  If you can't speak to me, who can you talk to?"  She stepped in front of him and took his paw between her slender, four-fingered hands.  "I don't care how you think you feel, my brother, or how you think we'll feel about you.  I will love you, no matter who you are or what you do."

      Tarrin closed his eyes and bowed his head.  "I don't know if I can, sister," he said quietly.  "I don't even understand half of it myself."

      "Well, talking about it may help," she replied.

      "Maybe.  But I'm not quite ready to talk about it yet, deshaida.  Maybe later, but not now.  Not yet."

      "I'm not very happy to hear that, but I'll give you that time," she said calmly.  "I don't like seeing my brother upset."

      "Well, I appreciate the confidence."

      "It has nothing to do with confidence," she sniffed, leaning against him.  "It has to do with family."

      "Have I told you lately that I love you?" he said with a rueful chuckle.

      "No, as a matter of fact, you haven't," she said in an imperious tone.

      "Well, I love you, sister."

      "And I love you, my brother.  Now stop this sillyness and let's get something to eat."

      "What sillyness?"

      "Standing there looking like you're about to tear the mast out of the deck," she replied.

      "I did not."

      "Don't make me call in witnesses," she said with a light grin, her blue eyes twinkling.

      "I'll just make them conveniently forget," he teased.

      "Brother, when it comes to a choice between making you angry or making me angry, which do you think they'll choose?"

      Tarrin gave her a slight smile.  "They'd probably jump overboard."

      "I guess that would be a choice," she acceded after thinking a moment.  She said it with a completely serious voice.  "Not one I'd take, however."

      "I think not," he said, following her below decks.

 

      Because of the situation, when the ship docked at the wharf closest to the inlet, Tarrin, Keritanima, and Allia found themselves confined below decks with Azakar, Binter, and Sisska, while Dolanna and the others went ashore.  Tarrin chafed at the treatment.  He didn't want to be trapped in a small cabin with very large people.  But after Dolanna calmly explained that the six of them were highly recognizable, they all had to agree that keeping them hidden was only wise.  Roulet was heavily populated by Wikuni, and by then they had to be looking for Keritanima.  And that meant that they probably had descriptions of those members of the Princess' party that stood out the most.  Dolanna, Faalken, Dar, and Miranda were rather nondescript, at least in the manner of being easily picked out of a crowd, so the chore of buying supplies for the group fell upon them.

      Tarrin stood by a porthole, looking out into the city.  It was alot like Den Gauche, but not as large.  It was built along a very shallow, gentle rise coming up from the waterline, but the buildings of Roulet were dirty, unkempt, and somewhat ramshackle.  That had to be a reflection of the type of people that populated its streets.  They all tended to be as shady as the buildings around them.  Much like Den Gauche, the city was dominated by a large stone fortress at the top of the rise, looking out over the inlet, but it was shadowed by the two hills flanking the bottleneck entrance of the small bay which held the harbor, those hills topped by those two huge stone fortresses.  Roulet would be a nightmare for any admiral to invade.  Tarrin could see that now that he got a good look at the inlet and harbor.

      "How long did Dolanna say they would be?" Azakar asked calmly as he came up beside Tarrin.

      "She said as fast as possible," he replied absently.  "This doesn't look like the kind of place where respectable people would want to linger."

      "I don't like the idea of them being out there alone," Azakar said.

      "Faalken can more than take care of both Dolanna and Dar, and neither of them are really defenseless, Zak," he assured the huge, young Knight.  "Miranda can take care of herself if it comes to that, but I don't think she'd wander away from the others.  Not in a place like this."

      "I should be there to watch over her," Sisska growled in her very unfeminine, bass voice.  "She is alone."

      "Not quite," Keritanima said calmly.  "I specifically ordered her to stay with Dolanna."

      "And you expect her to obey you?" Sisska snorted.

      Keritanima flashed the Vendari female a hot look, but said nothing.

      There was a moment of tense silence, as Keritanima looked at Tarrin and started to say something, but fell silent.  Tarrin knew that Keritanima wasn't exactly sure if he was speaking to her.  "I don't think Miranda would be crazy enough to go out alone among them," Tarrin told Sisska.  "This isn't Kerri's father's court."

      "My father's court was ten times more dangerous than any pack of rabble-rousing pirates," Keritanima said archly.

      "True, but at least there, being attacked openly in a city street wasn't a possibility."

      "So you say,"she grunted in reply.  "Why do you think I had Sisska escorting Miranda around?"

      Tarrin looked at Sisska, who only nodded.  "Well, you shouldn't worry too much anyway," he said.  "If anyone touches Miranda, Sisska will have to get in line to get a piece of him."  He flexed his claws in a very unwholesome manner.  "I get the first shot."

      "Think twice," Sisska challenged.  "Miranda is my child, Tarrin.  Avenging her is my responsibility."

      "I think we dwell on impossibilities," Allia said.  "Dolanna will not allow Miranda to wander, and she certainly will not put them in a position where they must fight."

      "True," Keritanima had to admit.  "I don't see why we're standing around talking about who we're going to fight."

      "You're surrounded by bloodthirsty warriors, Kerri," Azakar said with a wink.  "We're just talking shop, that's all."

      "Oh, get off of yourself, Zak," she said with a snort.

      The space across from the ship filled with a large black ship, sleek and deadly looking, its sides bristling with those little wooden doors that concealed cannons.  The ship was some distance from the dock itself, but men on the dock already had ropes in hand, reeling the ship in to a resting place along the quay.  The ship's deck and rigging was populated with a very wide assortment of beast-faced Wikuni.  They moved with a quiet, precise grace that demonstrated the vaunted Wikuni attachment to ships and the seas, working in a seemingly unheard harmony that made the ship slide perfectly up to the side of the dock.  Standing on the steering deck was a tall female, a panther Wikuni, her black fur covering a very lithe form.  Her face was very striking, even from the distance Tarrin saw her, a human-set face with a cat's triangular nose, a hybrid mouth, and cat ears poking out of a mass of hair the same inky black as her fur.  Much like Tarrin, she had a long tail, heavier than his, that swished behind her absently as she moved away from the steering wheel.  Wide, expressive amber eyes broke up the dark features of her furred face, twin yellow orbs that seemed to draw attention to them.  She was dressed in a blue coat and white shirt, and a pair of white pants tucked into a pair of shined black leather boots.

      "I think that has to be Sheba," Tarrin said, remembering the description Keritanima gave of the infamous pirate.

      "Sheba the Pirate?  Here?" Keritanima said suddenly, jumping up from her chair and rushing over to the porthole.  Tarrin gave ground to her and let her look out, and he heard her gasp.  "That is Sheba," she said.  "What is she doing here?"

      "Who knows?" Tarrin said.  "I don't think we want to find out, though."

      "Amen," Keritanima agreed.  "I think that Kern will want to get out of here as quickly as possible."

      "Why is that?" Azakar asked.

      "Zak, the Star of Jerod is rather well known among pirates as the one ship they can never catch," Keritanima said calmly.  "Even Sheba has never caught Kern on the open sea.  She's sure to recognize the ship, and she may feel like a rematch."  She looked back towards the Mahuut.  "Kern took a big risk putting in here, Zak.  Sheba won't be the only pirate that may try to follow us out.  We may be leading a procession."

      "From what I heard, we didn't have much of a choice," he replied.

      "That's why we were on half rations," she replied.  "When whatever happened at Den Gauche happened, it kept us from getting the supplies we needed to get to Dayisè.  It was Roulet, or live off fish and rainwater for the next nine days."

      The Wikuni female seemed to look right at the porthole, causing Keritanima to duck back quickly.  "This is not good," she said, hiding behind the wall as Tarrin continued to look out, to look at her.  She reminded him alot of Jesmind, in her stance and her demeanor.  Powerful, confident, and dangerous.

      "They can do whatever they want," Tarrin said quietly.  "I have bigger things to worry about than a ship full of rogue Wikuni."

      "What's to stop them from just attacking us in port?" Azakar asked.

      "There's no sport in that," Tarrin said, moving away from the porthole.

      "And no bragging rights," Keritanima said.  "Besides, Zak, there are laws here in Roulet.  Those kinds of things have to happen outside the harbor."

      "Then maybe we could take the harbor with us," he mused.  "This is getting boring.  Binter, want to play a game of stones?"

      "I'm going up on deck," Tarrin said.  "I can't stand being cooped up anymore."

      "But Dolanna said that they'd recog--" Keritanima started, but when Tarrin shapeshifted into his cat form, she cut herself off.  "Oh.  Alright, just be careful.  Don't let anyone step on you."

      Tarrin gave her a flat look, then she opened the door for him.  "Well, be that way," she said with a wink.

      The ship's crew knew about Tarrin's ability, and they had already had a taste of it.  When they saw the black cat come up from below, they immediately worked around him, giving him his space.  But he didn't get in anyone's way, he simply climbed up onto the steerage deck and sat on a rope coil near the captain and his first mate, a willowy young man with red hair named Jameson.  The captain and the first mate were going over a list of supplies written on a slate board that the mate was holding.  "It's looking good, cap'n," the young redhead said in a light voice.  "We should be done loading by sunset.  We can be out with the morning's tides."

      "Any trouble with the men?"

      "Not really, sir," he replied.  "They know where they are.  There hasn't been many to leave the ship that didn't come back quickly."

      "Well, if it isn't the illustrious Captain Abraham Kern!" a feminine voice called from across the way.  Tarrin looked behind him, between two posts in the railing, towards the black clipper ship moored across the quay from the Star of Jerod.  Tarrin saw the female Wikuni, Sheba, standing at the rail of her own steerage deck, a foot on a crate against the rail and her elbow resting upon it.  "It's a small ocean, I see!  Fix that hole I put in your amidships yet?  If I remember right, it's on the other side."

      "It wasn't much more than an inconvenience," Kern replied in a calm voice that made the sneering grin melt off the panther-Wikuni's face.  "You should know better than to annoy me, girl.  How is your shoulder?"

      That made her scowl, and almost unconsciously rub her shoulder.  "I think I should pay you back for that, Kern," she called.

      "You already tried."

      That made her expression ugly.  "You know what they say.  If at first you don't succeed, try try again."

      "Any time, my dear, any time," he called.  Tarrin noticed that quite a few dock workers and what looked like sailors had gathered between the ships, to witness the challenge of words between the two very different ship captains.  "Now if you'll excuse me, I have more important things to do."

      "I'm crushed that you don't consider me important."

      "You never were," he told her in a dismissive voice, a voice that impressed Tarrin with both its understated offensive quality as well as its dry humor.  And with that, he turned his back on the female.

      Sheba snarled, showing a mouth full of very sharp teeth, and she drew a strange metallic object from her belt.  Tarrin recognized it after a moment, from Keritanima's stories and tales.  A starwheel pistol, a little device that used smoke powder to propel a small lead ball with enough force to drive it through a breastplate.  The instant she pointed it at Kern's exposed back, Tarrin's protective instincts roared up into his mind.  Kern wasn't exactly a friend, but his willingness to help had made him a man worth great respect in Tarrin's mind.  Tarrin didn't turn his back on his friends, or those who had earned respect.

      Jumping up onto the rail, Tarrin's green eyes ignited from within with a green radiance that was visible to the Wikuni on the ship across the wharf.  Sheba's attention focused from Kern's back to the black cat that had suddenly jumped up to interfere with her line of fire, and its glowing green eyes.

      He had no idea what he did, or where it came from.  He wanted her to drop that weapon, and suddenly he could sense it, what it was made of, and how to make her drop it.  Something happened to it, or something, and it suddenly turned red-hot.  Sheba cried out suddenly and dropped the smoldering weapon, shaking her furry hand vigorously as the pistol's barrel, glowing with heat, began to scorch the deck under it.  They backed away from it as the heat caused the smoke powder inside it to ignite, causing the little weapon to tear itself apart as the little ball inside the barrel struck the heat-softened walls of the barrel and jammed.  That bottled up all that explosive energy, and caused it to destroy the weapon in a loud bang, a puff of oily smoke, and flying red-hot fragments of steel.

      That didn't seem to be enough.  Tarrin's attention focused on the brass-bound steering wheel behind the Wikuni, who was still shaking her hand and holding it with her other by the wrist.  He concentrated on that ornate fixture, and it suddenly exploded in a brilliant flash of fire and smoke, sending charred bits of wood and twisted brass in every direction.

      "Witchcraft!" Sheba said in a strangled voice as they looked back at the post where the wheel had once been affixed.

      "Magic," a Wikuni of some kind of large cat who had been near the wheel said, in a voice that was low, but still audible to Tarrin's sensitive ears.  This male wasn't dressed like the others.  He wore a simple blue shirt and trousers, and a silver amulet formed like a wave was around his neck.  A priest of Kikkali, the Wikuni goddess of sailing?  What was a priest of Kikkali doing on a pirate ship?  "That little cat can use some kind of magic that I've never experienced before.  That's very intriguing."

      "Tarrin, lad, did you do that?" Kern asked in a whisper, coming up beside him at the rail.

      Tarrin nodded grimly, keeping his eyes, still glowing, fixated on the Wikuni pirate.

      "Consorting with devil-cats, Kern?  That's not like you," Sheba called in a dangerous voice, still shaking her hand.  "It's going to pay for burning my hand.  You may as well just send it over here now."

      "Do you really want it, Sheba?" Kern asked, putting his hands under Tarrin and picking him up.  "I'll bring it right over, if you want.  I'm sure you'll find it very entertaining.  Just before it burns your ship down to its waterline."

      Sheba's angered gaze suddenly turned fearful.  "Ah, no, maybe not," she called back.

      And that generally ended that.  Kern carried Tarrin back down onto the deck, where the sailors were standing around watching.  "Sorry to pick you up, but I think it's a good idea to get you out of sight, and them out of sight of you," Kern told him calmly as he climbed down the very steep staircase that rose up to the steerage deck.

      Tarrin looked up at the aged man, his eyes still glowing, and nodded calmly.

      Kern put him down on the deck, and he immediately scampered down the steep steps that led to the cabins below.  He was confused.  What did he do?  It wasn't Sorcery.  At least it didn't feel like Sorcery.  It could have been, because he was in his cat form.  There was no telling how being in his cat form would affect his ability to use Sorcery.  He had done it once before, a very long time ago, but it had been an instinctive reaction born of fear and desperation.  What he had just done was a very calculating use of power, and he had been in full control the entire time.  Perhaps he had used Sorcery, but his cat form had altered the way it worked, or the way it felt.  A Sorcerer's body and physical health had alot to do with how effectively the Sorcerer could control the Weave.  Since his cat form was literally a different body, there was no telling how it would change the way using Sorcery felt.

      It seemed a logical explanation, mainly because he couldn't think of anything else.

      "What was that all about?" Keritanima asked as Tarrin entered the cabin in his humanoid form, a thoughtful and slightly confused look on his face.

      "I'm not sure," he replied.  "I used Sorcery in cat form.  It felt...strange."

      "I meant with Sheba," the Wikuni pressed.

      "She aimed a pistol at Kern," he shrugged.  "I took steps."

      "Dolanna said we couldn't draw attention to ourselves," Keritanima said.

      "Tarrin did not draw attention to himself," Binter said calmly, making a move on a lanceboard holding chess pieces.  Sisska sat opposite the board.  "A cat drew attention to itself.  A rare few know that they are the same."

      "That does make sense," Azakar agreed.

      "I guess it does, but you shouldn't have done that," the princess told him.  "Sheba is well known for being both vindictive and spiteful.  You burned her, and she's not going to forget that.  Now she has another reason to chase us down."

      "Let her," Tarrin said in a blunt voice.  "On the open sea, there won't be anyone to see us, and she'll have nowhere to hide."

      "What are you talking about?"

      "I...think I can do what I did again," he said hesitantly.  "I'm not sure, though.  If I can, I could easily crack her ship open like an egg.  It won't be chasing us if it's laying at the bottom of the sea."

      "Tarrin!" Keritanima gasped.  "You can't do that!  If you sank Sheba, the entire Wikuni fleet would hunt us down!"

      "If I remember right, they're already doing that, Kerri," Azakar said.  "Besides, I thought you said that Wikuna doesn't support Sheba."

      "Wikuna doesn't, but her family would demand revenge for her loss.  And her family is very powerful."

      "So, in other words, Wikuna does sanction piracy against other kingdoms."

      "Of course not!"

      "Then why would Wikuna retaliate if a known pirate gets sunk?" he asked in a very calm tone.

      "You don't understand the situation," she protested.

      "I don't see why it would be so hard to understand," he replied.  "Wikuna doesn't support free--free--freebooters, you said.  Sheba is a pirate, and Wikuna knows it.  So if she gets sunk, they should be happy another pirate is sent to the bottom."

      "A pirate whose father happens to have influence over most of the noble houses of Wikuna," Keritanima said.  "If Arthas Zalan got his hackles up, he could easily convince the nobles to mobilize their personal ships to hunt down whoever sank Sheba."

      "So?  The Royal Fleet would have to stop them."

      "That would be civil war!" Keritanima said in outrage.

      "So?  The law would be on the crown's side.  Anyone mobilizing to sink us out of revenge would be revolting against the crown in the first place, since the crown doesn't condone piracy."

      Keritanima gave the Mahuut a hot look, then she laughed ruefully.  "You're right," she said sheepishly.  "But it wouldn't happen.  Letting them sink one ship is a much better option than having all of Wikuna descend into civil war."

      "That's not right."

      "Alot of things in politics aren't right, Zak, but sometimes a ruler has to decide between the good of many over the good of a few.  It's part of what makes a king a king."

      "Or a queen," Sisska added.

      "I'll leave that up to Jenawalani," Keritanima snorted, sitting down in a chair.  She stared at Allia, who was looking at her calmly.  "What?"

      "Just listening to a queen, that's all," Allia replied in Selani.  She had a very slight smile on her lips.

      "Don't even think that, sister," Keritanima grunted.  "That's exactly what I'm here to avoid."  She looked at Tarrin.  "You need to talk to Dolanna about that, Tarrin," she told him.  "Whatever it was you did, I didn't feel it at all."

      "I know, but it'll have to wait for her to get back," he replied.

      Kern came into the room.  "Are you alright, lad?" he asked in his gravelly voice.

      "I'm fine, captain," he said.

      "I wanted to, apologize, for picking you up like that," he said.

      "It was a good idea, captain," Tarrin replied.  "I don't mind being held by people when they have a good reason.  Don't worry about it."

      "Alright.  I just wanted to make sure you understood things.  By the way, thanks for watching my back.  Jameson said Sheba pointed a gun at me."

      "Any time."

      Kern nodded, then quickly and quietly left the small cabin, which was filled with several very large people.

      "I see you are feeling better, brother," Allia said, stepping up to him as Tarrin moved away from the door.

      "Aside from being stuck in here, more or less," he replied.  "I want to get moving again."

      "I do not like being stuck in here either," Allia said.  "Every time I take a step, I have to make sure there is not a tail in my path."

      "Well excuse us for being more blessed than you," Keritanima said with a wink.

      "You do not weigh much, Allia," Binter said dismissively.  "It would not bother me to have you step on my tail.  Azakar is another matter."

      "I only did it once," the large man protested.

      "And I will only pay you back for it once," Binter replied calmly.

      Azakar winced.

      Dolanna and the others returned just at sunset, and the Sorceress did not look happy.  There was a tightness about her eyes, and she kept glaring at Miranda.  The mink Wikuni seemed completely oblivious to the hot looks, removing a full cloak that she had used to hide her appearance to other eyes.  Miranda was nondescript as a Wikuni, but her blond hair, her insufferable cuteness, and her mink lineage made her very identifiable as Keritanima's maid.  "What did she do?" Keritanima asked with a sigh.

      "She left us not long after we left the ship," Dolanna said tightly.  "I dared not send anyone to look for her."

      "Miranda!" Keritanima barked.  "I ordered you to stay with Dolanna!"

      "And you expected me to obey you?" Miranda asked innocently.  "My goodness, your Highness, you've been associating with these humans too long."

      "Miranda!"

      "I had a good reason," she said in a dismissive tone.  "I'll explain later.  After we set sail."

      "It's too late and too dark--"

      "No, your Highness, now," Miranda said in a very steady tone, staring directly into Keritanima's eyes.

      "Now?"  Miranda nodded.  "Alright, but if you're wrong--"

      "Posh," Miranda sniffed.

      "I take it that I should go speak with Kern?" Dolanna said in a curious voice, all hostility gone from it.

      "It would be a very good idea, Dolanna," Miranda said calmly.  "Kern does not want to be in Roulet right now.  It would be very unhealthy."

      "There is little wind, and no tide," Dolanna said.  "To move the ship will require our assistance.  Dar, Allia, come with me.  Allia, wear the cloak that Miranda was using to hide herself, that will protect you from straying eyes.  Tarrin, you and her Highness remain below.  There is little we can do to conceal the two of you."

      "Tarrin's already been out, Dolanna," Keritanima told her.  "We need to talk to you about that after we get out to sea."

      "Alright, Miranda, talk," Keritanima said immediately after Dolanna led Dar and Allia out, Faalken fell in behind them silently, and the door was closed.

      "I know a few names of people willing to sell information in Roulet," she said simply.  "I asked around, spread some coins about, and learned quite a bit."

      "What?"

      "Where do you want me to start?" she asked, sitting sedately on the bed.

      "Just pick a place," Keritanima said in a voice near exasperation.

      "Well, now it's official," she began.  "Damon Eram has sent the entire fleet out to look for you.  He doesn't know which ship you're on, but Wikuni ships are scouring the Sea of Storms looking for us.  They're stopping and searching every ship they cross on the high seas."

      "Well, I more or less expected that," Keritanima grunted.  "What else did you learn?"

      "Tarrin isn't exactly a nobody anymore," Miranda said, looking right at him.  "I heard of a man hiring thugs, mercenaries, and cutthroats to look for him.  He described you very accurately, my friend," she told him.  "He wants you dead.  He even passed out silver-gilded daggers and swords to his hires, so it's apparent that he knows what you are."

      "Did you find him?" Keritanima asked.

      She shook her head.  "I didn't have the time.  Oh, yes, there's a good chance that there's a war in Sulasia."

      "What?" Keritanima, Tarrin, and Azakar gasped in unison.

      Miranda nodded.  "It was just rumor, but many of them say the same thing.  That the army of Daltochan came down out of the mountains and invaded eastern Sulasia.  That's about all I managed to find out about that.  I also heard that three Ungardt clans have invaded Draconia, probably over some kind of border atrocity.  You know how the Draconians are.  I also heard that the seas are absolutely crawling with Zakkite triads.  Every ship captain and sailor I talked to grumbled about having to run from triads, but for some reason, the triads didn't pursue anyone.  That's not like them.  It seems like they're looking for something specific."

      "But it's winter," Azakar protested.  "Why would armies move in the winter?  It's crazy."

      "You forget the prize, Zak," Miranda said.  "It's a good bet that we're not the only ones that know about the Firestaff.  The chaos surrounding it seems to have already started.  There are probably a few kings that would be willing to throw away half their armies for the chance to be a god."

      "Their whole armies," Keritanima agreed.  "What else did you hear?"

      "Not a whole lot," she replied.  "I talked to a Wikuni priestess, who told me that things at home are getting tense.  It seems that the nobility isn't too thrilled that your father is wasting so many resources in trying to track you down.  Most of them feel that your running away was something that shouldn't be stopped."

      "Why can't my father ever listen to other people?" Keritanima sighed.

      Tarrin moved away from the others, their voices fading away as he thought about what she said.  Why would people look for him?  That was an obvious question.  Kravon knew who he was, it seemed, and the man had already proved that he had considerable resources.  He probably knew Tarrin was looking for the Firestaff, but did he know that Tarrin was on a boat?  Were there agents of the ki'zadun in every city, or just the port cities?  He didn't know, and he wondered if there had been such men in Den Gauche.  If so, then the Were-cat female, Triana, may have saved his life by heading him off before one of them managed to get close enough to find him.

      That was ironic enough to make him chuckle ruefully.

      Another thought, and another worry, was this talk of war.  If Daltochan did invade, they would have moved through Aldreth.  The lives of those he knew in his home village were not guaranteed if something like that happened.  That worried him.  Though he'd never been popular in the village, he had many friends there.  What would become of them if Daltochan sent troops to occupy the northeastern marches of Sulasia?  Was Torrian a besieged city, the friendly, compassionate Duke Arren now walled up inside his famed fortress, facing off against Dal attackers?  Had they marched down the very roads that Tarrin and the others had travelled, claiming the land of his home for their own?  Sulasia probably had not been prepared for war.  Sulasia was not a very militant nation, depending on the Knights, the Sorcerers, and the famed Rangers to curb any aggression.  And they probably had never expected Daltochan to be the aggressor.  Sulasia and Daltochan had been very close trading partners for many years.  Most of the metal and stone the famed Sulasian craftsmen used came from Daltochan.

      It was concerning, but there was nothing that he could do about it.  If all this mess was over the Firestaff, then Tarrin did feel a little bit better about being stuck in this mission to find it.  If kings would destroy good relationships with other kings over it, send men to their deaths and cause untold destruction and chaos, then perhaps something like the Firestaff wasn't meant for them.

      "What's the matter, Tarrin?" Keritanima asked, putting her hand on his shoulder.

      "Just thinking about Aldreth," he sighed.  "If Daltochan did invade Sulasia, then it's probably being occupied.  I hope everyone's alright."

      "I wouldn't worry about it too much," she assured him.  "If your villagers are anything like you described them, they're all probably hiding in the Frontier.  I don't even think the Dals would dare to go in there after them."

      "I hope so," he said.

      The ship suddenly lurched slightly to the side, and Tarrin felt someone--three someones--using Sorcery above decks.  They had joined in a circle, and Dolanna was using weaves of air to move the ship.  "Sometimes Sorcery can come in handy," Keritanima chuckled.  "I wish I could be helping."

      "They can handle it, Kerri," he told her.

      "It's still not the same."

      "You just want an excuse to use your power."

      "Well, you didn't have to put it that way," she said, slapping him lightly on the shoulder.  "You make me sound like a braggart."

      "I'm so sorry that you can't handle the truth," he said absently.

      Keritanima stuck her tongue out at him.

      "Brat," he said to her.

      "Count on it," she replied.

      With the help of Dolanna and her pupils, the Star of Jerod slid out into the narrow harbor and through the inlet, and out into the open sea.  The ship's departure was very much noticed by Roulet, both in that a ship was somehow sailing out to the sea directly into a headwind, and that it was the Star of Jerod that was doing it.  The ship turned southward as soon as it cleared the shallows around the head of the inlet fortresses, angling on a southerly track that would take it out to the horizon.  As soon as the ship passed sight of the fortresses of Roulet, the non-humans and Azakar were allowed to come back up on deck, come back up to a rather dark night.  A cloud bank had moved in, and was concealing the light of the Skybands and the moons.  Yet Kern continued on his southerly course confidently, using a device called a compass, that pointed towards magnetic north all the time.  Tarrin was rather intrigued by the device, and Kern explained how it was done to him after he followed the captain into the navigation room.

      "It's easy, Tarrin," the captain said in his raspy voice.  "As long as we know what direction we go in and how long we go that way, we can figure out where we are on this map.  Then we can change our heading so we can travel to specific spots."

      Tarrin nodded.  "My mother taught me all about that, but the Ungardt don't use that little compass device.  They use the stars."

      "Any navigator worth his salt can navigate by the stars, but the compass makes it much more precise," Kern told him.

      "I don't know, Kern.  Some Ungardt navigators can put you within spans of where you want to go."

      "That's because they're experienced," Kern said.  "You can say that about anyone, if he has enough time doing it."

      "I guess.  How does this thing work?" he asked, pointing to a second compass that was mounted beside the map table.

      "Well, near as I can figure, that little needle was exposed to lodestone," he said.  "Lodestone sticks to metal, I'm sure you've heard, but it also always points to the north if you hang it from something.  Metal that's been stuck to a lodestone for a while can make other metal stick to it, just like a lodestone.  Well, it passes on that point to north trick too."

      "So, they make a needle, then stick it onto a lodestone, then when it's absorbed the lodestone's magic, they put it on that axle," Tarrin said.

      "Just about," Kern said.  "I ain't never seen them make a compass before, but that sounds like the way someone would go about it."

      Tarrin touched the compass' protective glass with the tip of a claw, tapping on the glass gently to see if the needle would react.  But it didn't.  "Be careful," Kern warned.  "That compass cost me five hundred gold."

      Tarrin watched the navigator, a slim man with gray hair named Luke, make some notes on a chart.  The map was a map of the coastline of Shacè, from Den Gauche to the town of Roulet, all the way down to the southwestern tip of the western continent, where the large island just off the Cape of the Horn held the island-city of Dayisè, one of the largest and best known port cities in the world.  Dayisè was utterly devoted to ships, trade, and cargo, from shipping companies to the famed shipbuilders on the north side of the island to the independent captains that called Dayisè their home port.  No ship that sailed the Sea of Storms of the Sea of Glass, to the south of the continent, had missed docking in Dayisè.  It was said that all roads led to Suld, which sat at the hub of an ancient road system built long before any of the modern kingdoms were forged, but it could also be said that all ships sailed to Dayisè.  The coastline of Shacè, it seemed, was rather irregular and jagged, with a multitude of tiny inlets and bays and coves, as well as innumerable small barrier and shore-hugging islands.  Those islands were the reason that the Star of Jerod was sailing so far out to sea.  That, and those islands were reputed to be the haunting places of some of the smaller bandit and pirate operations in Shacè.  Only the small ones.  The Pirate Isles, some two hundred leagues southwest of Dayisè, were infamous as the home base of many a famous pirate.

      Shacè was something of a lawless place, his father had told him once.  Because of the weakness of the king, the local Marquis, what Tarrin would call a Baron, actually ran the kingdom.  Because of that decentralized government, bandit gangs and organized crime were rampant all over the kingdom.  That lawlessness occasionally spilled over into other kingdoms, which was why Sulasia maintained the Line of the Hawk, a series of forts along the border of Shacè that discouraged armed parties from trying to slip into Sulasia.  Shacè also had trouble with the Free Duchies to the east, the remnants of what was once the kingdom of Tor, as well as a few desmenses of former Shacèan Marquis.  That was one of the most dangerous areas in the west, which was nothing more than a series of independent city-states, which controlled only the land around them.  The land between the city-states was often a no-man's land ruled by whatever warlord had the upper hand at the time.  More than once, a warlord had tried to reunite the Free Duchies, but the intense enmity between the city-states made that almost impossible.  The Free Duchies had been embroiled in a series of wars over the centuries that would have done Tykarthia and Draconia proud.              The only reason that the place didn't explode into all-out war was because that region of the Western Kingdoms was the richest, most fertile farmland to be found.  The Free Duchies were often called the bread basket of the west.  There was war and struggle, to be sure, but it always happened to occur after a harvest.  Not even the most maniacal ruler of a free city would march his army over the food that ran his city.  That huge production of food also tended to keep the citizens of the city-states content, and content citizenry rarely found the energy to support a war with some other city.

      "What is this place?" Tarrin asked, pointing to a strange triangular symbol on the map.  It was on the coastline, probably about twenty leagues from Roulet.

      "That?  Oh, that's Bajra Myrr," Luke replied, looking at the map.  "One of the Seven Cities of the Ancients."

      That was a name that he recognized, because they had talked about it in the Novitiate classes.  The Seven Cities were cities built and abandoned long before Suld was built.  Nobody knew who built them, why, or what happened to them, they just knew their names.  They were so ancient that even those that Tarrin referred to as the Ancients had no idea who they had been.  Though the old katzh-dashi were considered the Ancients, the peoples who built those seven cities were also called the Ancients.  But the two peoples shared nothing in common more than that term, because the true Ancients disappeared long before the katzh-dashi Ancients had settled in Suld.  To a Sorcerer it may seem confusing, but when one considered that only the katzh-dashi and those who had studied them called the old Sorcerers the Ancients, it made more sense.  Sorcerers called their ancestors the Ancients, but often called the denizens of those forgotten cities the Old Ones to separate them.

      According to those lessons, there was very little left of those seven cities.  Just piles of mossy stone, a few foundations, and a sense that there had once been something built upon those spots.  That was why it was so hard for scholars to even discover who had once been there.  There just wasn't anything left to use to learn more about them.

      "I didn't realize that it was on the coast."

      "Yeah, but nobody goes there.  It's said to be haunted, and sailors are too superstitious a lot to risk it."

      "Hmm," he sounded absently, but by then his attention span had dissolved.  He stalked out of the navigation room quietly, going back out onto the deck.

      It was later that day, nearly at sunset, when Dolanna sat Tarrin down near the bow.  From her scent, Tarrin could tell that she was a little agitated, but as usual, her appearance gave no clue as to her inner feelings.  "Keritanima tells me that you had something happen yesterday," she began.

      "Something, but I don't know what."  With slow attention to detail, Tarrin told Dolanna about what had happened with Sheba the Pirate.  He was careful to explain the way it felt.  When he was done, Dolanna was pursing her lips, her brows knitting together.  "I do not know if it was Sorcery or not," she finally concluded.  "You are right about that, dear one.  Since your cat form is so radically different than your humanoid one, perhaps the way Sorcery works while in that form is also different."

      "I don't know," he said.

      "Do you think you could do it again?"

      "I think so," he replied.  "It was something like a reflex, but I remember the way it felt.  It may take a while, but I should be able to do it again."

      "Well, we will work with that once we reach Dayisè," she said.  "Because of the confines here, we dare not experiment."

      "Yes, we may sink the ship by accident," he agreed.

      "Now then, how do you feel?"

      The way she said it made no doubt as to what she was asking.  Tarrin closed his eyes and turned away from her, and sighed.  "I don't feel anything, Dolanna," he told her in a quiet voice.  "Nothing.  I know what I did, but it's like it wasn't as serious as pulling out a splinter."  He looked at her.  "If I was put in that position again, I'd do the same thing.  Without regret."

      "That is your survival instinct talking," she told him.  "Once we are off this ship, and you are in a less stressful environment, we will see how you feel then."

      "No, Dolanna, this goes beyond that," he said, rubbing the metal of the manacle on his wrist.  "I'm just not the same as I was before.  I don't know if that's good or bad.  To be honest, it scares me half to death.  But I just seem to accept it, the same way I accepted this when it happened."  He held out his paw, pads up, for her inspection.  "I think back to what happened with the female, and what I did, and it doesn't even make me twinge.  Not even a bit."

      "Dear one, I told you long ago that you had to explore your feelings," she told him.  "I rather doubt that you've grown that heartless.  You would not still be wearing those manacles if you had."

      "I wear these for an entirely different reason, Dolanna," he told her, rubbing one of them.  "To me, these represent what happens when I let my guard down.  I did once before, and Jula used that collar to enslave me.  I paid dearly for that mistake.  It's never going to happen again."

      "I think you are too hard on yourself, dear one," she said soothingly, putting a hand on his paw, then grabbing hold of it and placing it between her hands.  "Do not dwell on such negatives.  It can only depress you.  Concentrate on the love you have for your sisters, and the friendships that you hold with many of us.  Even Kern and the other sailors are starting to relax around you.  They are beginning to understand you."

      "I don't trust them," he said in a blunt tone.  "Not one bit."

      "Kern says that you saved his life."

      "Out of respect," Tarrin replied.  "I respect Kern.  That doesn't mean that I trust him."

      "I would not find many that would take such an opinion, Tarrin," she said.  "How can you respect someone, yet not trust him?"

      "Easily," he replied in a blunt voice.  "I respect him, but I wouldn't turn my back on him."

      "Tarrin," she said in a chiding, slightly exasperated voice.

      "Think what you want," he said, pulling his paw away.  "I trusted someone once, and I had a collar put around my neck in return.  Never again."

      "You certainly do not act like they would put you in slavery," she said.

      "It's a small ship, they don't have the tools, and they couldn't get away from me if they tried it," he said in an ominous voice.  "That makes me a bit more relaxed about it."

      "Then why not use that to build friendships among the crew?  Kern told me that you took interest in the navigation charts today.  Why do you not go down there tomorrow and learn about navigation?"

      "No," he said.  "I won't be friends with someone I can't trust.  And I can't trust anyone I don't know."

      "Then get to know them."

      "I don't want to know them," he replied, giving her a steady look.  "I just want them to get me to Dayisè, then leave me in peace.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Until then, I'll help defend the ship, but they better stay out of my way."  He stood up.  "I think I'm done talking," he said, clenching a paw into a fist.  "I'm starting to get worked up talking about things like this."

      "Go on then, dear one.  Have a good night."

      "You too, Dolanna," he said, putting a paw on her shoulder fondly, then turning and stalking away.

 

      From not far away, Keritanima approached Dolanna, and then sat down where Tarrin had been.  Dolanna's expression was worried, brooding, and her scent betrayed her unsettled condition.  Keritanima had learned long ago that scents told the only truth about some people that there was, and she depended on her sensitive nose nearly as much as Tarrin did.  It was a rarity among Wikuni to have an animal sense, but she had never regretted having the gift.  "So," she said after a moment.  "What do you know?"

      Dolanna sighed.  "I would not tell anyone other than you or Allia, Highness," she began.

      "That's not a good sign," Keritanima said.

      "No, it is not," she agreed.  "Tarrin is turning feral."

      "Feral?  What does that mean?  I heard someone say that once before."

      "It means that he is withdrawing from civilization," she replied.  "At a more personal level, he is hardening to others.  He will not open himself to strangers, and he is developing a distrust of anyone he does not know."

      "That describes any number of people I know, Dolanna."

      "It is a very difficult concept to explain, Keritanima.  It has much to do with his Were nature.  When a Were-creature becomes feral, it will not trust anyone except those it trusted before turning feral.  It makes a Were-creature moody and potentially violent when it is exposed to civilization, or people it does not know.  Right now, Tarrin has around him people that he trusts.  If we were to die, or he were separated from us, he would most likely simply disappear into the forest, and never be seen again.  He would never trust anyone again, he would probably only speak to others of his own kind, and even them he would not entirely trust.  And he would never leave the place he considered his sanctuary unless forced."

      "That doesn't sound like much of a problem," Keritanima said.  "It's not like we're going to abandon him, and I don't have any plans on dying anytime soon."

      "It is very much a problem, Keritanima," she said.  "Tarrin will have to function in civilized surroundings.  And do not forget, Dala Yar Arak is the largest city in the world.  If he turns truly feral, his ability to control his violent tendencies will be greatly reduced.  He will strike out in anger or outrage much more quickly, and he will have little or no remorse about his actions."

      "So he scratches a few people.  They'll learn to leave him alone."

      "No.  Do you remember what he did to Azakar a few days ago?"

      "Yes, but what difference does that make?  Zak had it coming.  He should know better."

      "Azakar is his friend, someone Tarrin trusts.  Imagine what he would do to someone for whom he has no feelings."

      "A--oh.  So, you think he'd leave a trail of bodies behind him?"

      "I am saying it is very possible.  Tarrin cannot reconcile his feral nature with his human morality.  It will certainly unbalance him, and make him even more violent.  And that will start a pattern of slow but certain degeneration."

      "What can we do to stop it?"

      "Nothing," she sighed.  "It is something that he must work out for himself."

 

      For three days, the Star of Jerod moved generally southward in front of a stiff tailwind, a cool wind that propelled the old ship towards Dayisè much faster than Kern and his navigators expected.  The wind also carried upon it scents of the sea and land, of birds and salt and water and occasionally vaint traces of grass and trees.  Tarrin stood on the steerage deck with Allia early in the morning, greeting the rising sun coming over a horizon that Allia said held the edge of land.  Tarrin couldn't see it himself.  Allia's amazing eyesight was as inhuman as the shape of her ears.  She could read an open book from five hundred paces away, and her night vision was probably just as acute as his own.

      It was an asset that the captain had noticed.  Allia now spent some time each day in the crow's nest, where she used her eagle's eyes to watch for other ships, land, and possible dangers.  It had taken some serious goading from Keritanima and Kern to get her up there, because the raw truth of all the water around them was so blatant, but once she and Keritanima went up a few times, Allia developed enough of a tolerance against her fear of water to be able to look out over the vast expanse of ocean.  She still wouldn't go up if the seas were rough enough to make the crow's nest sway, but on a day like that day, with the seas generally calm and the skies clear, Allia would go up.

      Allia's strength never ceased to amaze Tarrin, and it made him feel a bit guilty.  His sister was willing to stand up in the face of her fears, and yet he still seemed to be struggling with his own.  But on the other hand, his fears were a bit more tenuous, dealing more in possibilities and conditions than physical things.  Allia was a wellspring of strength, and he always felt more comfortable, more confident, when she was near him.  That strength did help in its own way, mainly because he always felt more confident, calmer, much more relaxed around his quiet, unassuming sister.

      "Calm day.  The long-water is like glass," she noted in an idle voice, looking out over the water.  She spoke Selani, as she always did when addressing him or Keritanima.  The Selani language had no word for sea or ocean, so she had to adjust it to best describe the vast expanse of uninterrupted blue before them.

      "The captain said that if the wind doesn't pick up soon, we'll be stuck here all day.  Maybe even lose time," Tarrin replied.

      "How is that?"

      "The long-water has currents in it, like the flowing of a stream," he explained.  "There's one right here that flows back to the north.  We're moving slowly back the way we came.  If the wind doesn't pick up to counter that, we'll be going backwards."

      "Strange.  I never imagined something like this would flow.  I thought it would just sit here."

      "There's alot of things we don't know, sister," Tarrin said.

      "Truly."  She squinted a bit against the bright sunlight, then hooded those piercing azure eyes with her slim hands.  "If we are moving backward, how are they moving towards us?"

      "Who?" he asked, shielding his eyes from the sun and peering in the same direction.  It took his eyes a few seconds to see it, a tiny little smudge on the horizon.  But he knew that to Allia's eyes, it would be as if it were half as far away.

      "It's that bandit woman," she said.  "Sheba, wasn't it?"

      "It is?" he asked.

      She nodded.  "The ship is moving.  It's coming this way."

      "Maybe they have wind back there," Tarrin said.  "Sometimes the wind moves differently across the same field."

      "Possible," she agreed.  "But they've moving awfully fast.  They'll be upon us in about an hour at that speed."

      "You spot something, lass?" Kern asked from near the wheel, where he was standing watch with his steersman.

      "Yes, captain," she replied respectfully.  "It is that Wikuni pirate, Sheba.  Her ship is on the horizon, and it is moving this way."

      "You're certain it's her?"

      "I can see her on deck, master Kern," she said.  "It is her."

      "That's not something I want to hear," he grumbled in his rough voice.  "Sheba coming this way only means that she's after someone.  Probably us."

      "How would she know where we are?" Tarrin asked.

      "Because this is the fastest way to Dayisè," he replied calmly, pulling a spyglass from his vest and using it.  After a moment, he swore.  "It's about as far away as it can get before I'd miss that ship," he said gruffly.  "I can't make anything out, but there's only one black clipper on the seas.  That's Sheba, alright."  He lowered the curious metal device.  "All hands on deck!" he boomed.  "Rig up!  Rig up!  We got a pirate coming from astern!"

      That created a wild cacophony of activity on the ship.  Every sailor swarmed up from their duties and exploded into activity, working the rigging under the first's guidance to catch any breath of wind.  Dolanna and the rest of their group came from belowdecks not long after that, and they quickly learned what was going on.  They all gathered on the steerage deck, where Dolanna pressed Kern for information.  "You are certain she is coming after us?" Dolanna asked for the third time.

      "There ain't nobody else around, mistress," Kern told her after booming an order in a voice that probably could have been heard by the Wikuni pirates some distance behind them.  "Sheba is a pirate.  She has only one reason to be out."

      Tarrin watched with the others for a moment, then Dar posed a simple question that Tarrin hadn't considered.  "What will they do if they catch us?" he asked nervously.

      "They ain't," Kern said gruffly.  "Mistress Dolanna, if you don't mind, I think we could use some of that wind you used to get us out of Roulet."

      "Dar, Keritanima," she said immediately.  "Allia."

      "Me?" Allia asked in surprise.

      "I need all the help I can find, young one," she said calmly.  "In a circle, your power will be of great use to me."

      "I can help," Tarrin said.

      "No, Tarrin," she said gently, patting his cheek and looking him in the eyes.  "Your power would overwhelm us, and then we would not be able to move the ship."

      Tarrin's braid suddenly caught up in a breeze, and he turned to look astern in surprise.  "Maybe you won't have to tire yourself out either," he said.  "There's that wind that they're using."

      "Tack to the wind, mates!" Kern boomed immediately.

      The ship rocked slightly, and then the sails snapped taut as they were moved to catch the wind.  Kern's sailors were efficient and experienced, and they had the old galleon moving ahead of that wind in mere moments.  The black clipper was no longer racing towards them, it was now standing some distance off the stern, but it was obvious to Tarrin that the ship was getting closer.  Tarrin and Allia watched it for a goodly amount of time in quiet anxiety, watching it inexorably advance on them, and making him more and more certain that it was indeed gaining on them.

      Allia confirmed that.  "Captain, they are gaining," she told him, looking back at the ship.

      "She has more sail," he replied gruffly.  "Give it everything ye got, lads, or we'll be swimmin' home!" he barked at his men, and their activity became even more frenzied.

      There was a tiny puff of smoke that rose from the clipper, and Tarrin's ears tracked on the most curious buzzing, whining sound.  Then a spray of erupting water exploded from the sea some fifty paces behind the ship, sending a plume of white water very high.  "What was that?" Allia asked suddenly.

      "That was a cannonball," Keritanima said in a calm voice.  "It's a common technique to get range on a target."

      There was another blast of water, this one closer but off to the right, making Tarrin flinch.  What power!  He had never seen a device that could hurl steel balls such great distances!  Keritanima's stories seemed plausible when she told them, but to see the reality of it was something that was nearly overwhelming.  He realized that as the ship grew closer, it would come into range to hit the galleon with those steel balls, and they would get better and better at aiming them when the distance wasn't such a mitigating factor.

      It was a strange, frightening experience.  This was a contest between ships, vessels, and he felt helpless to do anything about it.  He knew that his Sorcery could probably do some damage, but with his lack of control, he couldn't tell who it would hurt more.  That left him feeling powerless, and that feeling angered the animal instincts within him.  That his life now hinged on the marksmanship of the man on the other side of that cannon was a very sharp realization to him, and it made him dig his claws into the railing in both fear and frustration.

      "Any ideas, Kern?" Dolanna asked.

      "I'm still thinkin', milady," he growled.  "I ain't never been caught like this on the open sea before.  I don't got many options."

      Allia put her hand over Tarrin's paw, and he looked at her.  Her nervousness over a new, strange, and fearful situation was plain on her face, but she still managed to give him a slight smile.  "Kern won't appreciate you tearing up his polished rail," she told him in Selani.

      Tarrin looked down, and saw that his claws had dug several very deep furrows in the highly polished wood.  "I'll buy him a new rail," he replied, looking back to the clipper again.

      Another cannonball came crashing down into the sea, then another, and yet another, and each time they hit closer and closer to the ship.  The last made Tarrin and Allia flinch away from the stern, and sprayed them with cool salt water.  It had struck not ten paces from the stern.

      "Their shots are getting closer!" Allia called urgently.

      "Dolanna, if ye got a trick, now may be a good time to use it," Kern told her bluntly.  "I don't have enough sail to outrun her, and her guns will chew us up if we turn around and try to engage."

      "Keritanima, do you know where they keep their gunpowder?" Dolanna asked immediately.

      "Unless they've refitted the ship, yes," she replied immediately.

      "Do you think a fire somewhere near that powder would persuade them to stop?" she asked.

      Keritanima chuckled, then flinched away as a spray of water from a cannonball sizzled across the sterncastle.  She sucked in her breath in both surprise and shock as the cold water knifed into her fur, then she let out a growling cry of fury as she snapped both arms down.  "This was a new dress!" she snapped in fury.  "Just get me close enough to that ship, Dolanna, and I'll blow it out of the water!"

      "Never mess with Kerri's wardrobe," Faalken said with a wink to Azakar.

      "So it would seem," he replied sagely.

      "No, Keritanima, to try to get that close would be suicide.  We will have to try to do this from a distance.  Kern, would you be so kind as to have your men ready the port catapult?"

      "Sure, but it ain't got the range to reach--"  His remark was interrupted by an ear-splitting boom that rocked the ship.  Flying bits of wood screamed through the air as the entire ship shuddered and jerked under them, sending many people to the deck.  Tarrin and Allia both were pitched backwards, struck the rail, and then tumbled over and found nothing but empty air beneath them.  He dimly spotted the railing, and his claws caught it by the very tips, snapping him to a halt as something heavy struck him at the base of his tail.

      No, something heavy was holding onto his tail.  He became aware of Allia's hands gripping his tail in a vise-like grip, and her screams managed to drown out the cracking and groaning of wood and the reverberations of the horrid sound that still bounced around inside the ship.  The weight of both him and Allia weren't even a challenge to his superhuman strength, but his very precarious position, the very tips of his claws caught on the very edge of the railing, made any sudden moves or attempts to use leverage very dangerous.

      Raising his feet, he drove them into the planking of the ship claws first, getting a very solid purchase. Using that, he grabbed hold of the railing with both paws, then lifted Allia up by snaking his tail over and up, literally lifting her to where she could get hold of the deck.  "What was that?" Allia demanded over the ringing in his ears.

      "I think one of the cannonballs hit us!" Tarrin replied as he helped her up, then someone grabbed her and pulled her back over the rail.  He froze when another loud bang shocked his ears, and he felt the concussion of another strike on the water slam into him like some kind of gigantic hand trying to flatten him against the wooden planking into which his footclaws were driven.  His claws were too deeply embedded to jar him loose, and he held that perch with trembling muscles as he was literally soaked with flying seawater.  That was too close!  Adrenalin began surging through him even as the fear and uncertainty of the dangerous situation began sinking into his mind, and he felt the Cat begin to stir, to rise up from its corner in his mind and see if it was important enough to attempt to take control to ensure survival.

      "No, no, no," he said through gritted teeth, frantically trying to maintain his control over his own mind.  Hanging on the stern with eyes closed, he barely felt or registered another stinging spray of seawater slam into his back as he struggled to keep control of himself.  He only dimly heard the shouts of people over him, then felt large, powerful hands grab hold of his paws.  He opened his eyes to see Binter and Sisska, each with a paw, pulling him back on deck by main force, tearing his claws out of the wood and pulling him over the rail.

      The scene above was one of chaos.  A huge hole cratered the steerage deck where the steering helm had once been, and a splatter of gore was all that was left of the steersman.  Kern lay near that hole, his left arm laying on the deck some paces away from him and his body almost totally covered in blood, being tended by a grim-looking Dolanna.  The hole widened until it reached the edge of the steering deck, and debris and blood were littered all over the deck below.  Sailors rushed about almost mindlessly, trying to tack to the wind as the ship began to list and turn to the starbord as others attempted to control the damage done by the cannonball strike.  The ship immediately began to turn against the wind, only to be pushed back by the blowing air.  The device that turned the ship had moved, and it was fighting against the blowing winds, and that was slowing the ship.

      Tarrin's mind was cloudy, befuddled, from the loud noises, the shock, and his attempts to retain control, but he fixated on Kern.  He pulled out of Binter's grasp and rushed over to the horribly injured captain, his eyes almost glowing as he reached out and put a paw on his mangled shoulder.  He touched the Weave, but in his mental state, he felt something more, something expansive.  He touched the Weave, and it responded to him gently, smoothly, with no sudden tidal wave of power that always wrested control away from him.  Weaving together flows of Fire, Earth, Divine energy, and Water, he laid his paw on Kern and released it, watching as the mangled stump of his shoulder quickly and effortlessly began to grow.  Bone and muscle raced away from the shoulder, more and more of it, filling in with sinew, tendon, and tissue, until it ended at the many bones of the wrist.  It feathered out from there, into fingers, and the grayish-red color of the muscle suddenly flushed with blood, then covered over with skin.  The sight was somewhat gruesome to behold, but the end result was a new arm to replace the one that was laying some paces away from Kern.  The grizzled old captain's gray eyes opened curiously, clear and lucid, and they stared up into the Were-cat's eyes in confusion.

      "Tarrin," Dolanna said quietly, her voice reverent.

      Another shockwave snapped him out of his reverie, and the Weave vanished from him like smoke.  He closed his eyes and put a paw to his head, trying to figure out what just happened, as Kern suddenly jumped up from the deck and put a hand on his new left arm, moving it and shaking it, then using it to point.  "Lock down that hatch!   Trim that sail, man!  Someone get below and try to turn the rudder with the rudder rope!  Everyone else take cover, and prepare to repel boarders!"

      "What is going on, Kern?" Dolanna asked urgently.

      "That ball shot took out our rudder," he replied, looking at the shattered place where the helm had been.  "We can't maneuver, and we're listing.  We're dead in the water.  Now it comes down to repelling boarders."

      "I think we can handle that, captain," Faalken said grimly.  "Zak, go get our shields!"

      "Yes, Faalken," the huge Mahuut man replied calmly, then he scuttled down the steep steps leading to the deck.

      "Why can you not shoot back?" Allia asked.

      "Our catapults and ballista don't have their range," he replied.  "They're too far away."

      Another loud splash erupted from the side of the ship, sending spray over the deck.  "They're going to pound us to pieces like this," Keritanima said.  "Sheba must have some serious gunners to hit us from this range."

      "Keritanima, Dar, Allia, with me," Dolanna said.  "We must protect the ship from any more strikes.  Link with me now!"

      The three students quickly joined their teacher, and Dolanna reached out to them.  Tarrin felt their union, felt them reach out and join their power into a united effort, which Dolanna directed.  She wove together a very impressive weave of air, forming a solid, invisible barrier that extended from the waterline to the highest mast, and just wide enough to cover the ship.  It was a wall of solid air, and the first cannonball to strike it proved that it was more than effective.  It exploded against the invisible wall, sending fiery shrapnel back in the other direction and sending a plume of white smoke into the air.  A shockwave rippled through the wall of air, but it held easily.

      "Alright men, prepare to repel boarders!" Kern called in his booming voice.  "Dolanna, can we shoot back through that?"

      "No, Kern, it is a solid mass," she replied in a calm, tightly focused voice.  It was obviously an effort for all of them, judging by the looks on their faces.  "You must keep the stern to them, Kern.  This is hard to maintain, and if I have to increase its size, it will not be strong enough to hold."

      "Aye, Dolanna, I'll do my best to keep them astern," he assured her.

      Two more cannonballs struck the wall or went wide in rapid succession, and Tarrin realized that they only had two or three weapons firing at them.  He remembered Keritanima's descriptions of a clipper, how most of the guns were along its flanks.  That getting broadside to a clipper was the same as falling on one's own sword.  They couldn't have more than five or six cannons that were shooting at them from the bow, and they were reloading them and firing again as quickly as they could.

      He wanted to do something.  He wanted to join with his friends and strengthen the wall, but his power was unpredictable, and it was very possible that he would destroy their attempts just by his presence.  He wanted to protect the ship, but the enemy was too far away.  He was helpless, unable to do anything.  All he could do was stand on the stern and look back, watch the black ship approach, and wait for them.

      "Son, I wanted to thank you for what you did for me," Kern said to him in a quiet voice.  "I didn't realize I lost my arm til I saw it laying on the deck."

      "It's nothing, Kern," he replied in a grim voice.  "I'm just glad I could help you after everything you've done for us."

      He cleared his throat.  "Yes, well, no offense or nothing, but I did that for Dolanna.  If it was anyone but her, I would've said no."

      "None taken, Kern," he said calmly.  "I don't expect much generosity from humans anyway."

      "Dolanna said that you were human yourself."

      Tarrin looked at him, his slitted eyes penetrating and direct.  "I was," he said in a blunt voice.

      Kern flinched slightly.  "Yes, well, I guess you're right.  You're what you are now.  If you'll excuse me, I have a fight to prepare for."

      "Just give the signal when you're ready.  I'll fight."  He extended the claws on his paw meaningfully.

      "I almost feel sorry for Sheba," Kern said in a grim chuckle, scurrying away.

      Yes, he was what he was now.  He just didn't know what it meant, or where it would take him.

      But there were more pressing and immediate matters.  The clipper had stopped shooting at them, obviously realizing that magic was defending their prey, but they were still coming.  Sheba knew that Kern had magical defense, but she seemed unconcered about it.  That meant that she had to have some kind of contingency for dealing with--

      The priest.  He remembered that priest from when they were in Roulet.  No doubt he would use his own magic in support of Sheba.  Tarrin had no idea what kind of magical powers a priest had, but Sheba's willingness to pit her priest against the magic Kern commanded was obvious.  That meant that he had to be a good priest.

      Dolanna couldn't do anything about it.  A Sorcerer could prevent a priest from using magic, but she was totally occupied with maintaining the sheild of air that was protecting them from being mauled by the clipper's cannons.  And Tarrin didn't know how it was done.

      A plan was forming in his mind.  He rushed away from the stern and up to Binter, who was standing between Keritanima and the clipper, using his body to shield her.  His massive warhammer was in his hand, and his expression was just as stony as usual.  "Binter, a question."

      "What is it, Tarrin?"

      "How far do you think you can throw me?"

      Binter's black eyes fluttered slightly.  "Well, I never thought to consider that," he admitted.  "Judging by your weight, I would say a good ten feet."

      "In spans, Binter."

      "About twelve spans."

      Tarrin turned and looked out over the stern.  "When the clipper attacks, what will it do?"

      "If she is interested in capturing us, she will try to come up alongside and secure us with grappling hooks," Binter replied.  Binter was well schooled in myriad forms of combat, on both land and sea.  As was only proper for the royal bodyguard.  "If she intends to sink us, she'll try to come up and get her broadside to us.  She'll be close to do it, so all her guns hit.  No more than fifty feet--about sixty five spans."

      "So no matter what, the ship will try to come up alongside," Tarrin said.  "And they'll be no further than sixty spans away."  It would work.  He'd jumped extreme distances before, and this time he would both have a boost and he'd be carrying a rope and grapple to snag into their rigging.

      No, there was a better way.  A much more effective way.

      "Nevermind, Binter," he said.  "I think I can do it without pulling you away from Kerri."

      "Do what?"

      "Sheba knows we have magicians aboard, and that doesn't scare her.  I think it's because of her priest.  I'm going to take that advantage away."

      "Tarrin, you cannot single-handedly take on an entire complement of Wikuni sailors," Binter told him adamantly.  "Especially these sailors.  They are all very experienced pirates, and that means that they are very good in a fight."

      "You have a better idea?"

      "Yes, I do," he replied bluntly.  "Let's first see what they intend to do.  If they try to sink us, we'll do it your way.  If they try to board us, let's do it mine."

      Tarrin gave him a long look.  "Alright, it's a deal."

      The entire complement of the Star of Jerod watched in tense anticipation as the black clipper approached from the stern.  It was no longer firing, but Dolanna maintained the shield to ensure that they didn't catch them unawares.  The strain of holding it for so long was clearly showing on the faces of all four of them, and Tarrin realized that they wouldn't have anything left after they stopped.

      The thought of his exhausted sisters, Dar, and Dolanna standing to face a swarm of angry pirates made his blood burn.  No less than the thought that gentle Miranda would have to take up a weapon and defend herself from bloodthirsty brigands.  They'd never make it that far, he'd make sure of it.  He rushed below decks and picked up his staff, then secured it onto his back with a length of frayed rope.  Then he returned above decks and found a coil of rope and a grappling hook, his face stony enough to make the concerned sailors get anything he asked for.  Once he had everything he needed, he effortlessly and gracefully climbed the mainmast, getting himself up onto the highest yardarm.  The sail attached to that wooden beam snapped and swayed in the wind, but Tarrin's feet and balance allowed him to walk upon it as if it were solid earth.  He squatted down, his claws finding purchase in the wood, and tied the grappling hook to the rope.  He snarled as his oversized fingers had trouble threading the eye of the hook with the rope, and he had to center himself and give himself human hands to do it.  The pain of it only sharpened his resolve, and burning green eyes turned to look at the black clipper as it quickly advanced on them from the rear.

      Tying the end of the rope to his wrist, just below the manacle, he stood on the yardarm and waited.  The wind snapped at his shirt and trousers, ruffed his fur, even pulled at his tail.  From that high up, he could see the Wikuni on the deck of the ship, fur and feathers and scales of them visible to him as the animal-people efficiently maximized the wind with their many, many sails and caught up to the galleon at a very brisk pace.  His sharp eyes caught sight of Sheba and her priest, standing by the helm just as Kern had done, and she was pointing around and shouting orders.

      "Tarrin!" someone barked from the deck.  He looked down, and saw that it was Miranda.  Sisska was standing beside her protectively, her huge axe in her hand and ready, but the other had Miranda by the shoulder, and she was pulling her away.  "What are you doing?"  When he didn't answer, he could even see the surprise in her eyes from that distance.  "Are you crazy?" she demanded.

      Maybe he was.  He wasn't really scared at what he had planned.  It was more of a calm emptiness, a knowledge that he had to do it to protect his friends.  He knew what he had to do, and he understood the danger involved.  He wasn't about to let Sheba overrun them and either sink them or flood their decks with her pirates.  He could take the fight to the clipper, and he was certain that with him on deck, they wouldn't be thinking about boarding the galleon.  They'd be much too busy.

      The ship was a stone's throw away.  At least for him.  The men aboard had abandoned some posts and taken up weapons, and several men stood on the port side with grappling hooks in hand.  Sheba meant to board.  That was so much the better.  The group of ten men at the bow with bows were the immediate concern, for the clipper wasn't too far from coming around the shield that Dolanna had raised, and that would expose the crew to arrow fire.

      It was time.  He was within reach of it now.

      Exploding from the squat near the mast, he raced along the yardarm, grappling hook in his paw.  When he reached the edge of it, he pushed off at an angle, sending him soaring away from the ship and towards the stern, some hundred and more spans in the air.  That altitude increased as he rose in an arc above the yardarm, giving him distance away from the ship, and for a fleeting moment he felt as if he were flying over the waves.  But the arc reached its zenith, and he began to fall.

      About halfway down towards the water, the grappling hook in his hand began to spin, and then was launched at the clipper.  He was directly in front of it, almost perfectly in line with the bowsprit, and the fifty spans of rope that had been coiled in his hand zipped out and away as the grapple lanced towards the black ship.  The grapple struck the foremast just above where the ropes holding the spinnaker sails were anchored.  The instant it hit, he yanked on the rope, locking it into the rigging, and he tightened the slack with another tug, then grabbed the rope with both paws and heaved.  The move caused him to careen towards the clipper in a sharp turn of direction, as his inhuman strength served to yank him towards the clipper.

      It was going to be close.  Tarrin cut the rope tied to his wrist with a claw and pulled his staff from his back even as he twisted in the air, using his cat-given agility and innate sense of where he was in the air and how he was aligned with the ground--or the sea, in this case.  The clipper had been further away than he thought.  He'd been aiming for the bow, but he was short.  He adjusted himself for the bowsprit, the long pole extending from the bow to which the spinnaker sails and the stay lines for the masts were attached.

      The landing was hard, but it was successful.  Tarrin landed right at the very tip of the bowsprit, but his force caused his foot to slide out from under him.  He grabbed the sprit with his free paw as he tumbled past it, and his arm yanked slightly out of its socket as his claws drove into the wood and arrested his fall.  The shock shuddered through the half-healed claw wounds in his stomach, gifts from the Were-cat female, but the pain only served to focus him even more on his task.  He was back on the sprit quickly, staff in hand, and he could see the archers through the ropes tied to the wooden spar.  Some of them had seen him land, and they looked astonished.

      There was no time to recover.  Exploding from the crouch he stood in after climbing back onto the sprit, he charged directly through the ropes, cutting them with the claws on his free paw and sending sails flapping into the wind as he rushed up the length of the bowsprit.  The archers began to call an alarm and turn their bows in his direction, but it was too late.  He came off the bowsprit and was on the deck in a heartbeat, and two more steps brought him right into the midst of the archers.  Only one had had the time to draw his bow, but the dog-faced Wikuni wouldn't have a chance to aim.

      Staff in paws, Tarrin cut the Wikuni bowmen down with savage efficiency, swinging the ironwood staff with his impressive might.  Every swing broke bows and bones, crushed organs, even took the heads right off a couple of his enemies.  His opponents didn't have weapons to counter his staff, and he killed them all before they had a chance to run, even to draw their cutlasses.  The blazing speed of his attack combined with their surprise at his appearance to doom them, and the ten Wikuni lay dead within heartbeats of Tarrin's arrival on deck.  "Repel the boarder!  Repel the boarder!" someone shouted ahead of him, and Wikuni that had once been gathered along the port now charged to the bow to deal with Tarrin.  They were disorganized, attacking as a group of men rather than an armed body, and Tarrin grinned viciously when he saw that.  The faster ones were going to reach him before the slower ones, allowing him to kill them one at a time rather than have to fight them all at once.

      With an incoherent roar, Tarrin charged the armed sailors, and that made the lead Wikuni, a big lion Wikuni, stop dead in his tracks.  Tarrin bored into him, knocking his sword aside and striking him with the forearm of his other paw, then picking him up and carrying him along.  Tarrin heard the cracking of his ribs and the whooshing of air from his lungs as Tarrin picked him up, then used him as a living battering ram, slamming the Wikuni's back into the next closest Wikuni and driving them both to the deck.  He was right in their midst then, and Tarrin's conscious mind was joined to his animal instincts, turning him into an effective, efficient killing machine.

      Staff whirling, he took on the entire group of Wikuni and their cutlasses.  His inhuman speed allowed him to strike and defend in the same breath, and the fury of his attack had put the Wikuni back on their heels.  One Wikuni cried out as he was caught right in the belly by a broad sweep of Tarrin's staff, and was picked up and hurled overboard as the Wikuni's body offered absolutely no resistance to the force of the broad swing.  Tarrin kicked a man that tried to stab him as he recovered from his swing, then his tail snapped out and struck another Wikuni in the ankle when he tried to attack him from behind, spilling the beaked hawk Wikuni to the deck.  The Wikuni were overmatched, surprised, and at a loss to deal with the invader, and Tarrin took full advantage of it.  Soon enough the surprise of him would fade, and they would begin to cooperate to deal with him, so he had to do as much damage as possible before they put him on the defensive.  He stabbed a Wikuni in the chest with the end of his staff, and the force of his blow plunged the weapon through his breastbone like a spear.  Tarrin turned and swept the staff with the body still impaled on the end into a group of four attackers, and they were driven to the deck when the body came free and bowled them over.

      The Priest.  That was the only reason he was here.  Turning away from a trio of attackers, he swept another overboard with a negligent swipe of his staff and charged towards the stern.  It was a fast advance, but the Wikuni moved to intercept him.  He didn't stop, he simply knocked anyone that tried to slow him down out of the way.  He cut a swath of destruction all along the port side, as Wikuni were tumbled over the rail and into the sea or literally trampled over as the Were-cat got them out of its way on its trip to the stern.  Head down, ears back, he knocked another man overboard, then felt an icy line run up his left side as another slashed him with his sword as he ran past.  The hit aggravated the claw wounds in his belly, causing him to stagger, and he stopped and turned on the sailor with a savage hiss and a snarl, then decapitated him with a single swipe of his staff.

      He had to spin aside as an arrow almost went right through his face.  Another hit him in the back, just under the right shoulder blade.  He dove out of the line of fire of the archers, who were near the stern, and paused behind the mainmast to snake his tail up, wrap around the arrow, then pull it out.  It stung like fury, and a glance at the arrowhead showed him why.  It was both serrated and barbed, to make the process of pulling it out as painful as possible.  A gruesome arrowhead, there.  Holding onto the arrow by the feathers, he spun around the mast and flicked it with a snap of his arm, sending it whizzing back down the deck with surprising force.  It hit a bear Wikuni in the belly, but it hit sideways, making the wooden shaft snap.  But it managed to surprise the Wikuni that were quickly being gathered near the stern to challenge his progress, who were being organized to deal with the inhuman attacker.

      They didn't concern him.  The Priest was his only objective, and he stubbornly stuck to his plan.  Sure, his presence was causing chaos, but that was only a side benefit.  Eliminating that Priest was the primary goal.  But the wisdom of just charging up on that priest, whom Sheba felt was enough to deal with the magic on Kern's ship, left Tarrin doubting the validity of his plan.  He saw a couple more arrows whiz by from his hiding place behind the mast as he considered what may happen if he just ran up the deck.  That priest may decide to use magic against him, and it would be crazy to walk into the jaws of a lion.  Besides, there were alot of Wikuni between him and the stern, and he didn't relish having to walk through a gauntlet of steel and arrows to reach it.  He needed a diversion, something to keep them off his back for long enough to get him to the stern

      The mast.  Of course!  It was worth the risk!  Closing his eyes, he centered himself, prepared himself for what he was about to do.  He had to do it very quickly.  Reaching within to prepare himself, he then reached out, and touched the Weave.  The raw power of High Sorcery seemed to respond to him, but the lesser concentration of magic in the region would give him the time to do what he needed to do before it could find him.  Weaving together a simple weave of pure air, he focused it down to a line so narrow that it would do the sharpest blade proud.  Then, with a broad sweep of his free arm and a growling cry, a gesture to help sharpen his concentration, he released it with all the speed he could put behind it.  The effect was a blade of pure air, driven with all the force of the winds of a tornado, and it struck the mainmast right at Tarrin's shoulder level.

      There was a loud crack, like the cracking of a whip.  The mast shuddered, and a thin, almost invisible line appeared.  That same line appeared in a pair of crates behind it, and would have appeared on the necks of the three big cat Wikuni beside them, had not a fountain of blood erupted from them in an instant and sent their heads tumbling from their bodies.  But their sudden demise was overlooked as a loud groaning heralded the shifting of the mast in the wind.  It slid along its former length, the freed pole beginning to twist now that it found freedom, and the ropes and rigging suddenly went very taut on one side and went very slack on the other.  Ropes began to snap and tear, making loud snapping noises like the breaking of branches, and the crow's nest swayed dangerously in the wind.  Every eye on the ship looked up just as the mast sagged, broke more of its rigging, and leaned dangerously over.  The base of it slid along the smoothly sheared top of the lower half, skidding along that slick surface, until it slid over the edge.  The entire mast dropped only a few spans at first, but the massive pressure it placed on the deck planking drove the mast through the deck, and it dropped almost ten spans into the ship.  Tarrin scrambled away as deck planking buckled and ripped, snapped like twigs as the mast began to fall to the side, then turn on the rigging that still secured it that had not yet broken.  It sent sails flying in all directions and ropes dangling like hanging moss from the spars and yardarms.  Most of the Wikuni that were still in the rigging were dislodged by the mast's settling, sending them plummeting either to the deck, or for the lucky ones, into the sea.

      The mast tore free of all the ropes holding it up, and it crashed towards the stern like a falling tree, trailing sail and rope behind it.  Sailors scrambled in every direction as Tarrin lunged aside, and the mast hit the deck.  The entire ship shuddered, and deck planking caved in from the hole in the deck already made by the mast towards the stern.  The end of the mast struck the sterncastle, shattering the left corner of it in a deafening collision that send wood flying in every direction.  It came to rest laying against the mangled sterncastle, and Tarrin's brief glance told him that it would make a perfect pathway to get to the stern and that priest.

      Using the mast as cover, Tarrin began racing towards the stern as soon as the ship was stable enough for him to run.  He kept the huge pole between him and the stern, keeping himself out of the eyes of the Wikuni as they shouted and milled around in total shock and confusion.  At least until they saw him.  When they did, they rushed him with bared weapons, understanding that the invader had somehow brought down the mast, and their very survival now depended on killing him before he could do any more damage.  He found himself facing six Wikuni, all cat types, and they quickly moved to encircle him.  One of them rushed in to skewer him with his sword, but a negligent flick of his staff sent the Wikuni sailing over the rail and into the sea.  He found himself being attacked from almost every direction at once, evading sword slashes in quick succession, reacting sheerly on instinct and Allia's training.  He moved like a blade of grass in the wind, bending, shifting, flowing out of the way of the reaping blades, as if he had not a bone in his body.  He worked himself to a point where he could retaliate, and the Wikuni behind him crashed to the deck when his tail swept the Wikuni's feet out from under him.  That tail snapped around and drove tip first into the belly of the Wikuni to his right, carrying with it enough force to fold the bobcat Wikuni around his tail and take his feet off the deck.  Tarrin stepped back into the hole and squared off against the other four, securing his flanks against further attack when a foot came down on the fallen Wikuni's chest with enough impact to shatter his ribcage and cause blood to fountain from his mouth.  Tarrin left a bloody footprint when he set that foot back down on the deck, and the other Wikuni paused to glance at the morbid condition of the body.

      That was all it took.  Twisting around, Tarrin was at a full run before they looked back up at him.  He was almost to the sterncastle, and the mast was raising up beside him, leaving room for him to duck under it and cross to the other side.  He did that quickly, then with a single leap, cleared the sterncastle and came over its rail.  He knew that he had to strike quickly and without hesitation, to get the priest before the priest could use magic against him.

      There were four people on the stern.  One was Sheba, in her trousers and shirt, and the other was the priest in his tunic.  Another was a steersman, and the fourth, a huge reptillian one, reminded him somewhat of Binter and Sisska, but this one had a differently shaped snout.

      He never had the chance to land.  The priest pointed at him, and a bright white light issued forth from his hand.  It turned into a intense white-blue bolt of lightning, and it struck him directly in the chest.  Searing, blasting pain roared through him as his vision darkened, and he dimly realized that the impact had thrown him back towards the deck.  He felt something sharp and heavy against his legs, then he was tumbling wildly, and then something hit him in the head.

      And then he knew no more.

 

      Still locked in a circle, the four Sorcerers watched helplessly as Tarrin made his way up the deck.  They still protected the ship's rear quarter against arrow fire, which became more and more sproadic as Tarrin's disruption of the enemy ship took hold.  It stopped completely when the mast of the clipper sagged, then came free of its anchorings, crashing to the deck.  When that happened, Dolanna broke their circle and wilted visibly.  "We no longer need the shield," she panted.  "Do what you can where you can."  Faalken took hold of Dolanna gently and led her to where she could sit down, for she was drawn and sallow, and the effort of it showed clearly on her face.  For Dolanna, it had been exhausting, because she was the one who was leading.  The others in the circle would fare much better than her.

      Keritanima rushed to the rail with Allia and Dar and watched with something approaching horror as Tarrin appeared again from behind the fallen mast, then vaulted into the air--

      --and then was struck my some kind of lightning bolt released from the stern.  It struck him like a giant's fist, sending him flying backwards.  He bounced off the fallen mast, and between the mast and the deck, Allia and Keritanima clearly saw him hit the rail and then tumble over the side.

      "What was that?" Dar asked suddenly, eyes wide.  "Is he alright?"

      "He went over!" Keritanima said in shock, and then a cold icy hand gripped her around her heart.  She'd felt that feeling once before, when Tarrin had been kidnapped by Jula, and she didn't like it.  She was stricken with shock and anxiety, uncertain if Tarrin even survived the attack.  Tarrin was family to her, the brother she never had, a brother that loved her and cared about her.  She felt that cold hand turn suddenly into a raging inferno in her breast, and raw, unmitigated anger and rage roared up in her mind, tinging her vision.  How dare they attack her brother!  They hurt him!

      They would pay!

      Fire exploded from her upraised hands as Keritanima shrieked loudly in inarticulate fury, the fire coalescing and condensing down into a ballista-sized arrow of pure fire so bright that it hurt the eyes to gaze upon it.  She pointed with a scream, and the bolt of fire lanced towards the black ship faster than the eye could track.  It struck in a gunport and drove through like a solid thing, then penetrated the wall behind that, and the wall behind that, until it struck yet another wall and then exploded with terrific force.  The explosion blew out the wall where the initial strike could not, and billowing clouds of intense heat and fire, and flaming spears of shattered woord, raged directly into the clipper's main powder magazine.  A burning shard of wood penetrated a tightly sealed barrel of gunpowder, and that started a chain reaction of explosions.

      The first ripped the side of the ship asunder and send a cloud of sooty fire billowing out from the wound, setting off smaller explosions of powder in the gunchambers that shattered the entire port beam.  That explosive shockwave slammed into the galleon, and knocked everyone on the Star of Jerod off their feet.  Keritanima and Allia were blown back, Dar landing on top of the Selani as the galleon shuddered away from the force of the blast, sending a few men on the other side of the ship over the rail.  The second erupted from around the fallen mast, causing it to shift as fire and explosive force pressed up against its weight.

      The third was a thunderous detonation, as the main powder reserves all exploded at once.  The entire middle of the ship suddenly disappeared in a horrendously loud blast of fire and smoke, sending shards of wood flying like cannonballs to rake through the galleon's sails and rigging.  Keritanima and Allia both screamed in surprise and fear, Dar trying to cover Allia as best he could to shield her from the blast, but their screams were swallowed up by a massive roaring, cracking sound that caused Keritanima's ears to bleed and left her dizzy and dazed.  The galleon rocked to the side, almost putting the port rail in the water, and sending men and supplies flying overboard.

      When the ship rolled back to where Keritanima could see the clipper, she was horrified.  The entire amidships of the vessel was just gone.  A gaping hole was there, as if some giant had reached down and scooped out the middle.  Her ears were ringing, so she couldn't hear what was going on around her, but her eyes were totally affixed to the black clipper.  There was no sign of life aboard, and the ship's bow was beginning to list to starbord as the stern started rolling backwards.

      Keritanima was stunned.  The ship had literally been blown in half.

      Flaming debris, bits of wood, and grisly pieces of what had been living things moments ago began to rain down onto the deck.  Keritanima got up onto her knees as Allia angrily pushed Dar aside and rose herself.  She was overwhelmed.  She had single-handedly destroyed the Black Clipper, and had probably killed the notorious Sheba the Pirate.  But that wasn't made her face so horrified.  She didn't know if Tarrin survived that explosion.  The thought that she may have killed her own brother was simply too much for her to face.

      Eyes rolling back into her head, Keritanima sagged forward, and then fainted dead away.

 

     The crew of the Star of Jerod watched in stunned silence as the two halves of the ship settled, listed, then slipped silently beneath the waves.


GoTo:   Title                         EoF

Chapter 3

 

      There was nothing left of the Black Ship, but there was plenty of it floating on the surface.

      Tarrin's eyes fluttered open, and he coughed out a mouthful of briny water as the sunlight stung at his vision.  He was floating on the surface, bobbing on the waves still lapping from the sinking of the Black Ship.  He only vaguely remembered the explosion of the vessel, the impact of which had driven him under and knocked him out.  Only his grip on his staff saved him, the Ironwood staff whose bouyant ability was so powerful that it lifted him back up to the surface.  The sun wavered on the edge of an inky black cloud of greasy smoke that billowed up from the surface of the sea, and smaller pieces of debris were still raining down from it, peppering the surface of the ocean like stone thrown into a pond by children.

      The injury to his chest throbbed with the beating of his heart.  The seawater only burned it more, and he clutched at it and panted for breath.  No wonder Sheba had been willing to pit her priest against Kern's unknown magic.  He'd never experienced anything quite like that before.  Just by touching the wound he could tell that the skin and flesh were charred, and because it was a wound inflicted by magic, it wouldn't simply regenerate.  Dolanna would have to heal it.

      Putting an elbow over his staff, he got control of the pain, shunted it aside enough to be able to think clearly.  He was floating in a debris field, and he wasn't alone.  Several other Wikuni also clung to twisted lengths of wood, and all of them looked the worse for wear.  He had no idea what made the ship explode, but he had a pretty good idea that Dolanna had something to do with it.  She would be the only one with the experience or training to lay an entire vessel low so effectively.  Many of them were wounded, some of them laying on flatter pieces of debris unconscious with other Wikuni making sure they didn't slip off and drown.  All of them looked stunned and dazed, and Tarrin couldn't blame them.  The sound of it, the pure concussive force, it was something that he could appreciate to create that kind of condition.  It had even knocked him out, and he was substantially tougher than a human or Wikuni.

      He could see the Star of Jerod.  It was a bit battered, some of its rigging was on fire, and a couple of sails were now laying on the deck, but it seemed to have survived more or less intact.  Kern's men were putting out the fires, and he could make out Binter, Sisska, and Azakar at the rail.  They were the only ones tall enough to stand out through the haze, steam, and smoke that clung to the surface of the sea after the explosion.  No doubt that Keritanima had to be close by, for both of the Vendari protectors to be in the same place.  That was a tremendous relief.  The galleon had been very, very close to the Wikuni clipper when it exploded, and that much destructive power could have ripped the old galleon apart.  It had certainly scorched her entire starbord beam, and chewed up the rigging a bit, but the masts were still standing, and it looked that Kern hadn't lost many men to the explosion.  Kern would have to make repairs before the ship could get under way, but at least they'd be capable of getting under way.

      One of the Wikuni drifted closer and closer to him, and he realized that it was Sheba herself.  She had her back to him, clinging listlessly to her ship's steering wheel, and a very wide swath of her fancy red coat's back had been ripped away.  A deep slash went across her furred back, bleeding liberally, and two small shards of wood were embedded high on her right shoulder.  Tarrin grabbed the wheel without thinking and pulled her closer, seeing that she was unconscious when he turned her around.  She was really rather attractive, in a feline kind of way.  The Cat in him could appreciate the grace of her hybrid features, the human head sporting a cat's slender snout and wide cheeks, and a pink button-nose.  Half of her right ear was missing, and the right side of her muzzle had a deep cut in it that sent a thin, steady rivulet of blood into the water.

      Without thinking, he reached over as he touched the Weave, and he wove together a spell of healing.  At his touch, those wicked slashes and lacerations healed over, and the missing section of her ear grew back and sprouted black fur.  She was an enemy, or she had been.  But now she was defeated, and the Cat held no grudges against an enemy that was honorably bested.  Neither did Tarrin.  She was no longer the antagonist, she was an injured victim in need of help, and Tarrin couldn't turn his back on her suffering.

      If only he could heal himself.

      Her bright green eyes fluttered, and she groaned.  Then they affixed on him and focused, but her expression of dull awareness didn't change.  "You," she said slurringly.  "What did you do to me?"

      "I healed you," he replied bluntly.  "You were hurt."

      "Why'd you have to go and do that?" she snapped at him with sudden energy.  "Can't you just leave me alone now?  You've won!"

      "I don't think anybody won here," he replied with a calm look.

      She snorted, and then to his surprise, she let go of the wheel.  She slipped under the water quickly, but fortunately he had enough presence of mind to snare her around the wrist with his agile tail and haul her back up to the surface.  She spluttered and spewed out a shocking amount of water from her mouth, then began to cough.  She had breathed in the water on purpose!  She tried to kill herself!

      Grabbing her by the scruff of her tattered coat, he hauled her back up onto the wheel, letting her cough all the water from her lungs.  "Are you crazy?" he demanded in surprise.

      "Just let me die, you fool!" she snapped at him.  "It's what's going to happen to me anyway!  Either going to the bottom or getting my neck stretched, either way I know how things are going to end up!"  She tried to struggle out of his grip.  "At least this way I won't be humiliated by hanging from a yardarm for the amusement of a bunch of clod-grubbing, dirty humans!"

      "Fine," he said gruffly, letting go of her.  "I don't care about you one way or the other.  If you want to kill yourself, be my guest."

      She glared at him, then the corner of her mouth turned up and she winked.  But any attempt to slide off the wheel again was stopped when a dark shadow loomed over them, making both of them turn and look.  It was the Star of Jerod, and either it had drifted over to them, or they had drifted towards it.  Azakar hung from a net ladder along the side, a dark hand reaching down and grabbing Sheba by the scruff of her neck and physically lifting her out of the sea.  Tarrin felt tremendously relieved for some reason when the Mahuut youth reached his huge hand down for Tarrin, and Tarrin reached up his paw.  He was pulled up out of the water, keeping a stubborn grip on his staff, then he was passed up to Sisska's waiting taloned hands.  Binter was the one to grab hold of him and put him on the deck, where he was immediately smothered by Allia and Keritanima.  He gasped when Keritanima crushed him in an embrace, which made her immediately back off and pull open his shirt.

      "Have I told you today that you are crazy, my brother!?" Allia raged.  "What possessed you to do such a foolish thing!  You could have been killed!"

      "The end justifies the means, sister," Tarrin told her weakly.  "I knew that they'd be too busy dealing with me to press an attack against the ship.  I was right."

      "You stubborn, pig-headed, suicidal maniac!" Keritanima bored at him, inspecting the wound.  "How dare you get yourself all torn up!  How dare you nearly give me a heart attack!"

      "Better a heart attack then an arrow in the chest," he told her.

      Her answer to that was to press two glowing hands against his chest.  It felt like the touch of a Wraith, and he rose up on his toes and gasped as furiously cold energies raced into him through his wound.  That cold was replaced with a surging heat, and the fading of the cold took the pain with it.  He put a paw to his chest, and felt smooth, pink skin where a charred hole had been.  When did Keritanima learn to heal?

      "Where is Dolanna?" Tarrin asked as he looked around.  All his friends were there except for Dolanna.

      "She's below, resting," Faalken replied.  "The circle took alot out of her.  I think one of her pupils was holding back some," he said, with an accusing look at Keritanima.

      "A circle is always most exhausting for its lead," she replied primly.  "I didn't hold anything back.  I gave her everything she asked of me, and more."

      "Well, it is much of what I can do to stand," Allia said.

      "Me too," Dar agreed.  "I think Dolanna took a few years of my life back there."

      Keritanima turned to where Sheba was sitting on the deck with several of her crew.  They were under the careful watch of Kern's men, holding swords on the seated, injured Wikuni.  Keritanima's amber eyes were blazing, and the look on her face was infurated, but it didn't seem to impress the notorious pirate.  "This is all your doing, you idiot!" she screamed at Sheba.  "How dare you attack the conveyance of the High Princess!  My father will--"

      "Your father was going to pay me a bloody fortune to drag your disobediant tail back to Wikuna," Sheba interrupted.  "I may be a pirate, but I have my own priest of Kikalli, wallflower.  You'd be flattered to know that your father is offering a fifty thousand crown reward for whoever returns you to him."  She looked away.  "I saw you in the porthole, and realized that you somehow convinced that cagey old Kern to give you passage.  Kern's usually not stupid enough to take on such a dangerous cargo."

      Keritanima drew herself up with an icy stare, and looked down at the panther Wikuni.  "I think we both know who's the bigger fool here," she said in a cold voice.  "I'm not a piece of jewelry you can lock in a trunk and deliver up to my father on a velvet cushion."

      "Yes, well, Trevon assured me he could counter the witch-cat Kern had on board.  If I'd have known he was carrying a pack of Sorcerers to boot, I wouldn't have taken you on."  She looked at Tarrin, then put her eyes on the deck resolutely.  "At least do me the courtesy of letting me jump overboard."

      "I think not," Keritanima snapped.  "You were going to collect a bounty on me, so I'm going to return the favor.  Dayisè would certainly pay me a pretty penny to hand you over to them, with as many Shacèan ships as you've sunk in the last few years."

      "You'll never get anywhere near Dayisè," she snapped in reply, her green eyes blazing.  "Damon Eram has every port from Suld to Tor blockaded.  Wikuni warships will intercept this ship and search it when you try to approach.  And you know what will happen if Wikuni ships find you."

      "Then I'll sink them the same way I sunk you," Keritanima told her with a snort and crossed arms.  "I'm not just a pretty trinket anymore, Sheba.  I have real power now, and I know how to use it."

      "What did they teach you, princess?" Sheba sneered.  "To roll over and play dead?  Maybe how to juggle fire?  Perhaps how to whine even louder to get your way?"

      Keritanima snarled viciously and grabbed Sheba by the collar, and cocked back her other hand as if to punch the woman.  But Sheba's sneering grin faded when fire erupted around Keritanima's closed fist, shrouding it in a fiery nimbus.

      "That's enough of that, miss," Faalken told her, pulling her away from Sheba with gentle force and holding her by the shoulders.  "It's not seemly to threaten the defeated.  It's bad form.  And the defeated had better remember which end of the sword is pointing at them," he said in Sheba's direction.

      "I think this one is the priest, Highness," Binter said in his deep voice as they looked at him.  He was holding a badly injured lion-Wikuni up by the back of his neck, like a large doll.  The figure had been wearing robes, but they, as well as most of his fur, had been burned off.  His right eye was lost, with a deep slash running above and below the bloody socket.

      "Is he dead, Binter?" she asked, her voice still quivering with anger.

      "Not yet, Highness, but he will be if he's not healed."

      Keritanima only hesitated a second.  "Throw him back over the rail, Binter," she said calmly.

      "What?" Faalken gasped, as Dar stepped into Keritanima's face and declared "you can't treat him that way!"

      "I'm not bringing a hostile priest aboard, Dar," Keritanima said bluntly.  "He can bring the entire Wikuni fleet down on our necks.  If we save his life, it'll certainly cost us our own."

      "It's not right to abandon the injured, no matter how potentially dangerous they could be," Faalken said adamantly.  "It's not right."

      "I'm sure that the Knights can afford right and wrong, Faalken, but things work a bit differently out in the real world," she replied in a very authoritative voice, as Kern's men took the injured priest from Binter and laid him out on the deck.  "The man is a liability, and a risk to our own safety.  I won't let him bring more Wikuni onto our tail."

      "To show no mercy to a defeated foe is dishonorable," Allia told her.  "He should be at least allowed to heal, and then set adrift with supplies.  That way he cannot bring harm to us, but we can show the mercy that honor demands."

      Cries from Kern's sailors brought attention back to the priest, and all of them watched in not a little shock as Tarrin casually brought his foot down on the injured Wikuni's neck.  The blow crushed his windpipe instantly, but the broken neck caused instantaneous death before he had a chance to asphyxiate.  Tarrin reached down with his clawed paw and picked up the body, and then callously threw it over the rail.  They all stared at him in surprise, and not a few faces had slightly horrified looks on them.

      There was no emotion in it for Tarrin.  He was an enemy, plain and simple.  And enemies were there to be eliminated.  He put his staff on his shoulder and regarded all of them with a serious face, devoid of any sign of guilt over his deed.  "The problem is solved," he told them all in a calm voice, then he swept that emotionless gaze across the sitting or kneeling pirates.  "And the same fate awaits anyone that causes trouble," he warned them in a cold voice, then he pointed to his friends with a clawed finger.  "They believe in mercy.  I do not.  The first time any one of you causes trouble, I'll kill all of you.  It's that simple.  You're nothing but dead weight to me, and if I had my way, I'd throw all of you over the rail right now."

      Without another word, Tarrin walked through them, knew they were watching, that they were surprised at what he did.  But he didn't care.  Dead weight, that's all those Wikuni were, and they'd be sure to cause grief.

      Well, he meant it.  The first time one of them caused trouble, he'd kill them all.  After all, they were warned.

      He walked through them calmly, almost serenely, then went below decks to check on Dolanna, to make sure she was alright.

      They meant nothing to him.

 

      "That was some cold-blooded--" Sheba began, but Keritanima cut her off.

      "Now maybe you understand what you're dealing with," she warned Sheba.  "I'm sure all of you know the kind of person that Royal politics produces.  Don't think I'd even blink over having all of you killed.  So that means that your behavior is a matter of life and death.  Don't forget that."

      But the worried look that passed between Keritanima and Allia, out of sight of the others, told the dark-skinned Selani that Keritanima was just as startled and dismayed over what they just watched their beloved brother do as she was.

      Allia understood that the transition for Tarrin had been very difficult.  She understood that much of what he did was actually the animal inside him reacting to the situation, and for many of his deeds, he could be forgiven.  But she had never seen him do, never believed him capable, of what she had just witnessed.  Those paws which were so gentle, which handled children with such painstaking care, whose very touch could transmit the warmth that flowed from his heart so freely, she had never before seen them as instruments of death, even when he used them to deliver mortal wounds.  She couldn't believe that the sober young man, with such a capacity and compassion for others, was capable of such callous diregard, of such calculated evil.

      Biting her lip, she gave Keritanima a very fearful look.  He said he had changed.  She still couldn't believe that he had changed that much.

 

      It was something of a reversal of roles for him, and it felt strange.

      Usually, it was Dolanna that seemed to be there when he awoke from whatever had tried to kill him this time.  It felt strange to him to be the one sitting on the edge of the bed, holding Dolanna's hand gently in his paw and waiting for her to wake up.  Faalken had assured him that it was nothing but simple exhaustion, and in that respect Tarrin agreed.  Leading a circle was an effort, and to use such powerful Sorcery for such a long time had no doubt taken its toll on Dolanna's strength.  Dolanna was very skilled, but even she admitted that as Sorcerers went, she was not among the strongest.  Where she lacked in raw power, she more than made up for it in skill and experience.  What Keritanima or Tarrin could have done without so much as a wave of the hand would put Dolanna on her knees.

      Dolanna.  She was so much to him.  She was a mother and protector, and a part of Tarrin's mind would always respect her, look up to her, seek her out for answers, and her presence always had a calming effect on him.  Without Dolanna, he would feel lost, and just the slightest thought that someone would hurt her was enough to make him growl in suppressed rage.  He loved her, loved her deeply, but it was a strong love of friendship and trust rather than a romantic interest.  Much like the love he held for his sisters.  Dolanna was a part of his family, and he would protect her.

      "How is she?" Dar asked as he entered.  The young Arkisian put his hand on Tarrin's shoulder and looked over him, down at Dolanna.  His face was pale, sallow, and it almost looked as if his cheeks were sunken.  The effort of the circle had worn on Dar as well, whose power was so new to him.  But he still managed a bright smile when Tarrin looked into his eyes, albeit a weary one.

      "Fine.  And you should be in bed," he said gruffly.

      "I'll be alright.  I wanted to make sure Mistress Dolanna wasn't hurt."

      "She's the same as you, Dar, tired," Tarrin told him.  "Now go lay down before you fall over."

      "Are you alright, Tarrin?" he asked in concern, the hand on his shoulder gripping slightly.  "I saw that burn, and--"

      "I'm fine, Dar," he said, cutting him off.  "Keritanima healed what I couldn't regenerate."

      "And what about the rest of you?" he asked in a compassionate voice.  "What I saw you just do wasn't something that the Tarrin I know would have done."

      "I do what I have to do," he said bluntly, brushing Dar's hand away.  "What you don't understand is that the priest would have done everything Kerri said.  This is the real world, my friend, and out here we have to play for keeps.  I won't allow any of you to get hurt, Dar.  I'll kill ten thousand Wikuni to keep just one of you safe."

      "Well, it's nice to be appreciated," Dar told him in a tired voice.  "I think I will go lay down.  See you later."

      Tarrin sat in silence, then was silently joined by Faalken, and they sat in quiet watch over the sleeping Sorceress.  Faalken's eyes were calm, but there was just a hint of disapproval in them.  Tarrin knew that Faalken disagreed with what he did, but he would live with it.  Faalken was a realist, and in time, he'd understand.

      After a time, Dolanna drew in a deeper breath, and they both leaned in as she opened her eyes.  Those dark eyes were clear and lucid, but her face still looked drawn and exhausted.  "What a welcome," she said with a gentle smile, squeezing Tarrin's paw fondly.  "I am flattered, my dear one, that you would stand vigil."

      "Of course I would, Dolanna," he told her gently.  "How are you feeling?"

      "I am tired," she announced.  "But a night of sleep will correct that problem.  Are we safe from the Wikuni?"

      "Aye, Dolanna," Faalken said.  "Tarrin's little stunt threw them into disorder, and after Sheba's priest whacked Tarrin with magic, Keritanima went nuts and blew up the pirate ship.  We have the survivors on deck."

      "Kerri did that?" Tarrin said in wonder.

      Faalken nodded.  "I guess she knew where and how to hit it," he replied.  "It took just one shot of Sorcery, and it went up in a fireball."

      "Keritanima would know where the ship's stores of gunpowder are kept," Dolanna said in a tired voice.  "What about our crew?"

      "No casualties aside from those taken before you raised that barrier," he reported.  "Kern's already repairing the damage, and he says we'll be under way by morning."

      "Excellent.  Make sure Captain Kern understands that haste is essential, Faalken.  We must be in Dayisè before the carnival leaves port."

      "I remind him about every hour, Dolanna," Faalken told her.  "Would you like some tea?"

      "Yes, please," she replied.  "Tarrin, a word with you," she said as Faalken left to fetch her some tea.

      "Yes, Dolanna?"

      "Never do that again," she told him adamantly.  "You scared a year from my life when you jumped out of the rigging."

      "Well," he said sheepishly, scrubbing the back of his head with his claws, "it was the only thing I could think of to keep a whole bunch of our people from getting killed.  I wasn't about to let them board the ship."

      "Tarrin," she said in exasperation, "I know you mean well, but you must start doing what I tell you to do.  Your constant rushing off to complete your own plans is eventually going to cost us."

      "Well, you never told me not to board their vessel, Dolanna."

      "Stop splitting hairs with me, young one," she said in a commanding tone.  "I will have your word that you will not do such a crazy thing again without at least warning me first.  Had I thought to have Keritanima tell me how to strike the ship with Sorcery, you would now be on the bottom of the sea."

      "Alright," he told her.  "No more crazy stunts."

      "That sounded suitably evasive to me, young one," she warned in a frosty tone.  "I will have your word not to strike out on your own without warning me first."

      He gave her a penetrating look, but there was no way he could match wills against Dolanna.  "Alright, alright, I promise," he said.  "I'll tell you what I intend to do."

      Faalken returned with a steaming cup of tea.  "Here we are," Faalken said, sitting down and handing the cup and saucer to Dolanna after she sat up and leaned against the back wall bracing the bunk in which she was laying.

      "Thank you, Faalken," Dolanna said.  "Now then, young one, I think you should go above and help with the repairs.  They could use someone with your advantages in their task."

      "Yes, Dolanna," he said automatically, and he stood up.  She smiled patted his paw, and that made him feel much better for some reason.  "I'll make sure we're under way by sunrise."

      Tarrin leaned down and allowed her to kiss him on the cheek, then he left her.  Now that he knew she would be fine, he felt alot better.

 

      The Star of Jerod was underway again by morning.  The sterncastle was only partially repaired, with planking laid over the wide hole caused by the attack, and a couple of the ship's sails had to be replaced.  A new wheel had been hastily built, which looked almost comically slapdash, but it worked.  The ropes that tied the wheel to the rudder had been repaired.  Tarrin, Binter, and Sisska had a great deal to do with the speed of the repairs.  Their inhuman strength, combined with their clawed appendages, allowed them to scurry up and down the masts and pull up booms, spars, and sails.  Tarrin was totally at home and at ease in the rigging, scampering from boom to boom and mast to mast with total disregard for gravity, focusing on the job at hand.  Direction from the sailors told him where to take what, and that allowed them to get the galleon back to where it could get them into port.

      The captured Wikuni had nowhere to be other than the deck because of a full hold, and that was where they stayed the night.  Tarrin watched them half the night, unable to sleep himself, watched them sulking and giving the men Kern put to guarding them dirty looks.  Tarrin had the feeling that his presence in the rigging was a very healthy deterrent to a possible attempt to escape their irons and try to take over the ship.  In all, they were defiant and abrasive, but he could smell their fear.  They knew what the shore held in store for them.  Sheba was listless and sluggish, and the other Wikuni seemed to be demoralized from their commander's lack of desire to try to escape.

      The morning was bright and sunny, surprisingly warm, and a strong wind pushed the Star of Jerod steadily to the southeast, to the island city of Dayisè.  Tarrin lounged in Miranda's lap as she worked her needlepoint with steady, smooth strokes, and nearby were Faalken, Azakar, Binter and Sisska undergoing their daily practice sessions.  Azakar hadn't really tried to bully him since he cut him, and Tarrin rather preferred it that way.  He didn't need a nursemaid.  He was sorry that he scratched the Mahuut, but he did like the way things turned out.  The captive Wikuni watched the four warriors practice with steady, emotionless expressions, seemingly understanding that they would be facing some serious adversaries if they tried to rebel.  Dolanna was recovered, and had the others below so she could instruct them in Sorcery without the presence of the Wikuni upsetting her students.  Dolanna was still unhappy that he didn't take part in her sessions, but she didn't understand things.

      If he did go to her instruction, he'd want to use Sorcery.  He'd already found out what kind of danger that possessed.  He wanted to learn about it, but not when it made him yearn to reach out for the Weave.  Before the power of High Sorcery found him, the feeling of the Weave was...sweet.  Almost a physical sensation of pleasure.  He liked touching the Weave, he liked using Sorcery.  But when it could cost him his life to do it, he couldn't afford any temptations.  He needed to talk to her about it, to explain it.  Maybe she would have an idea if he told her the same way he thought about it.  But when he talked to her, more often than not, his true feelings or ideas didn't seem to want to come out.  He didn't know why they did that, but they did.  Only Allia, who knew him so intimately, could manage to see to the heart of things where he was concerned, though Keritanima had gotten better and better at it lately.  He thought it was yet another aspect of the Cat rising up in him, making him want to be secretive, as cats tended to be.

      It did seem to fit.

      Closing his eyes the instant Miranda's fingers touched the back of his head, he submitted to her as she scratched him behind the ears.  "I'm almost finished with this," she told him, taking her hand away.  He looked up at it, and saw that it was a rather pretty embroidered representation of a shaeram, done on the breast of one of Keritanima's silk dresses.  Miranda's work was exacting, precise, and very elegant, much as the mink Wikuni's personality tended to be.  Miranda was a perfectionist, he'd learned, and she was good enough never to be too far off that lofty mark.  "I guess I have enough time to put some roses on the cuffs.  Binter, how far are we from Dayisè?" she called.

      "By this speed, we should make it in three days, Lady Miranda," he replied calmly, even as he used his heavy tail to bludgeon Azakar to the deck.  Binter and Sisska manhandled the oversized human youth in ways that Faalken never could, but it was good for him.  A good student was one that could be overmatched by his instructor.  That gave the student the respect he needed to accept training from the instructor, because an instructor that could be defeated by his student wouldn't be taken seriously by the student once he realized that.  "Keep your guard up, Azakar," Binter chided.  "Expect attack from any direction."

      "I'm still not used to the tail," he complained.

      "Then adjust," Sisska told him in a voice remarkably similar to her lifemate's.  "There is no room for error in battle, young one.  There is life and death, and death brings little honor."

      "And never underestimate the opponent," Binter told him again.  That was something that Binter preached.  "Treat any foe as if it were capable of killing you, because it can.  Give honor to your foe, as is only proper for one willing to gamble its life against yours."

      "I already learned that lesson," Azakar grunted, and Faalken laughed.

      "That he did.  Tarrin almost broke him over his knee," the Knight laughed.

      "Now, guard stance," Sisska ordered, taking her lifemate's place as Azakar's opponent.

      Tarrin watched Sisska maul Azakar for several moments, giving the young man a very pointed reminder that, though he was competent and well trained, he was still just a baby compared to grizzled veterans like Sisska, Binter, and Faalken.  But that was only entertaining for so long.  He felt the sudden urge to see if he could find that last rat that had managed to elude him down in the hold, so he jumped down from Miranda's lap and padded across the deck, heading for the stairs going below.  He passed in front of the seated, chained Wikuni without fear, ignoring their looks of fear and hate.

      But he had gotten just a little bit too close.  He glanced one of the Wikuni suddenly drop down, and then something hit him in the back.  He felt his back snap as something crushed him into the deck, and only air and blood escaped from his mouth as he was crushed under a great weight.  But the attacking object was neither silver nor magical, and his body mended itself almost as quickly as it had been injured.  Blind rage flew into his mind in a fleeting instant, and he quickly shapeshifted back into his humanoid form.  That move incited several gasps and cries of shock from the Wikuni, who had never seen him do that and probably hadn't realized that the witch-cat and the cat-like man were the same being.  But his attention, and his sudden anger, was directed at the large hyena Wikuni that had brought the heel of his boot down on his back, trying to kill him.  That Wikuni's eyes were bulging in confusion and fear, which turned to horror when Tarrin grabbed that foot by the ankle before he could draw it away.

      Tarrin's method of punishment was as final as it was direct.  Holding the Wikuni by the ankle, he dragged the hyena, who was now shrieking in terror, close enough to grab him.  Claws plunged into the Wikuni's chest, tearing a scream of agony from the hyena, which escalated into a ragged shriek when Tarrin's claws hooked into him and picked him up off the deck.  With that bloody hold on the body, the Were-cat reared back with a clenched fist and punched the Wikuni dead in the mouth, with enough force to snap the head back unnaturally far to the accompanying sound of breaking bone, and make the entire body shudder.  The impact was enough to rip his claws from the chest as the body recoiled from the power of the blow, pulling out a section of rib with it as the dead Wikuni dropped to the deck.  Tarrin relaxed his claws, dropping the length of pink bone absently, and glared at the remaining Wikuni with death burning in his eyes.

      "Tarrin, no," Miranda said in a sharp voice.  She was standing, the dress folded over her arm, showing no fear of the situation.  Tarrin's blood boiled, the Cat raging up from the corner of his mind in a fury, and his every instinct told him to kill these dangerous enemies before they did something else to mess things up, but the calm command in Miranda's voice took hold of him at that same level that caused him to be so infatuated with her.  He found himself stepping back from them almost unwillingly, eyes locked on Miranda, who showed no fear and did not blink when she stared him down.  "I think the survivors will be much more, tractable, now.  No doubt they'll prefer the hangman's rope over having you be the last thing they see."

      "By the Scar, Tarrin, do you always have to be so messy?" Faalken asked disapprovingly, looking at the wide pool of blood forming around the body of the Wikuni that attacked him.

      "Be a dear, Tarrin, and dispose of that," she said, pointing at the corpse.

      Without changing his stony expression, Tarrin picked up the body, by the free-moving  head, carried to the rail, and then threw it over the side and sent it into the deep.  He had no idea why he was obeying Miranda, but he was.  Much as he had once felt about Azakar, a subtle intimidation present in her eyes that was sufficient enough to force him to obey.  Almost as an afterthought, he picked up the rib and tossed it over the side

      "Now, it's your choice, honored guests," Miranda told the Wikuni bluntly.  "You can behave and live to see Dayisè, or Tarrin will kill you one by one.  It's your choice."

      "Here now, what foolishness is this?" Kern demanded as he scurried from the stern.  "Did ye just kill a prisoner, Tarrin?"

      "He was attacked first, Master Kern," Miranda said calmly.  "If he was a normal cat, it would have killed him.  I heard his back break."

      "Aye, Captain," Faalken agreed.  "I saw it myself.  The dearly departed smashed Tarrin to the deck with his foot as he walked past.  He got what was coming to him."

      Kern gave Tarrin a wary eye, then he nodded.  "Alright then.  Just be more careful, lad.  No need to tempt them into such things.  Just keep a good distance from them."

      Tarrin leveled a flat glare at Kern and growled at him, which made Kern take a quick step back.  "N-Now see here, lad, on my ship you obey my orders.  I tell you now to keep your distance from the prisoners."

      Still baring his fangs, Tarrin weighed the threat in that challenge.  Kern was respected, and Tarrin would feel bad if he killed him.  It wasn't seemly to kill respected individuals, unless there was a really good reason.  Kern was right that his authority on the ship was absolute, and Tarrin had to respect that authority.  It was only seemly to obey the laws of someone else's den.  Lowering his lips, hiding those long, white fangs, Tarrin only nodded with a grim expression, then turned his back on the prisoners, shifted into cat form, and padded over to the bulwark and laid down in a rope coil not far away.

      If anything, that one act had utterly silenced the Wikuni.  They no longer whispered among themselves, and almost every eye was pinned to where Tarrin lay, seemingly asleep.

      "Mind ye, if a one of ye gives him another reason to kill, I won't stand in his way," Kern warned them.  "Ye can hang from a yardarm in Dayisè, or ye can get your sorry carcasses tossed over the side.  As lady Miranda said to ye, it be your choice."

      That generally ended that.  Azakar and the Vendari went back to training with Faalken observing, and the Wikuni were very quiet and very still.  Kern returned to the sterncastle, but Miranda knelt by the rope coil and gave him a disapproving look.  "I don't know how you keep getting yourself into trouble, you wayward child," she told him with a sudden impish grin and a wink.  She reached down and picked him up, then settled him on her lap again as she sat back down to her needlepoint.

      Dolanna, however, wasn't quite so receptive to the news.  After they came back on deck from their instruction, he could clearly see her eyes flash, and see the infuriated expression on her face as Kern informed her of the incident.  Tarrin didn't quite understand why she was getting so angry.  The Wikuni had attacked first, and Tarrin had warned them what would happen if they tried anything.  There was no blame on him in the matter.  In fact, he had told them that he'd kill them all.  And he would have, if Miranda hadn't interceded.  They weren't important, weren't even worthy of having their sorry pelts pulled out of the sea.  They were pirates, predators of the shipping lanes, and they deserved to die for those crimes.  And every moment they were on deck was a blaring shout in his ears that his family was in danger.  He hadn't had any decent rest since they were brought on board, and he doubted he'd have any until they were gone.

      "Tarrin, come here," Dolanna ordered in a hostile voice, pointing to the deck in front of her.

      Tarrin looked up at Miranda, who calmly moved the dress and her arm so he could jump down from her lap.  He did so, approaching his mentor with not a little trepidation, sitting calmly in front of her and waiting.

      "What you have done is reprehensible," she told him.  "You specifically promised me that you would not do such things, and it took you all of a day to break your word.  You are coming close to forcing me to punish you, and that is something that neither of us will enjoy."

      "It wasn't my fault," Tarrin replied to her in the manner of the Cat.

      "Do not meow at me, student," she snapped in a commanding tone.  "Present yourself to me this instant."

      Tarrin forgot that she couldn't understand him like that.  He shapeshifted to his humanoid form, going from having her tower over him to towering over her, looking down at her with a curiously neutral expression.  "It wasn't my fault," he repeated.  "They attacked me first.  They knew the punishment for disobedience."

      "That is not your decision to make!" she raged at him.  "It is not your place to determine who lives and who does not!  This vessel is under the flag of Kern, and those matters are for him and him alone to determine!"  She crossed her arms and glared up at him, which took Tarrin aback.  This kind of vehemence was so totally unlike Dolanna that he wasn't sure if she was as well as she led him to believe.  "You are acting little better than them, Tarrin!" she said, pointing savagely at the captive Wikuni.  "You disappoint me."

      Tarrin lowered his head.  There wasn't very much he could say to that.  He had no regrets over what he did, only that Dolanna seemed to disagree with them.  Her opinion of him, and her friendship, were very important to him.  He stared at the deck in front of her plain brown dress, noticing that she was wearing new slippers.

      "Look at me, Tarrin," she ordered, and he met her gaze involuntarily.  "No more of this.  Do you understand me?  No more.  From now on, you adhere to the rightful law, rather than your own."

      "Yes ma'am," he said guiltily.

      "Now go below.  You are to spend the day in your room.  You may come out at dinner."

      He glared at her suddenly, more than a little irritated that she would dare to punish him, but the steel in  her eyes caused his indignance to fade to an expression of suppliance.  "Yes ma'am," he sighed, shuffling past her, shifting back into cat form, then walking slowly towards the stairs.

      In the tiny cabin he shared with Dar, Tarrin silently fumed.  The idea of being sent to him room was infuriating enough, but to be punished for something that was the right thing to do annoyed him to no end.  He wouldn't dare cross Dolanna, he had too much respect and love for her, and he admitted to himself that she was the dominant in their relationship.  She was like a mother-figure to him, and that alone was the only thing that made him obey her.  He would do almost anything for her out of love and respect, but that authority was enough to make him do the rest of it against his will.

      That he would show throat to someone he could break over his knee made him snort slightly, but that was the way things were.

      He paced back and forth on the floor, his mind racing, but then he began to calm down as the instincts of the Cat, so strong in him when in cat form, began to defuse his anger.  It saw no reason to be angry.  He was there because he agreed to it.  He could have refused.  And after all, the room wasn't that bad.  It had a nice bed with soft covers that were perfect for snuggling down and sleeping out a boring day.  He jumped up onto the bed and did just that, laying down on top of the goosefeather pillow, letting the scents of the wool and cotton and feathers mingle with the salt air and the tar and wood of the ship, and the lingering scents of Dar and his sisters, who visited the room quite often.  Those scents were the important ones, the smells of family.  It made him miss his natural parents and Jenna, dearly loved people whose faces and scents were still sharp and clear in his mind.  Those thoughts conjured up the vision of Janette, his little mother, and that immediately brought a blanket of content security and warmth over him.  Thinking of Janette never failed to make him feel like purring.  They were few, but they were his family, the people that he loved, and the only reason he was on the ship, heading out into unknown dangers against his own instincts, was because of them.

      So much of everything centered on them.  They were everything to him, and there wasn't anything that he wouldn't do, no depth to which he wouldn't go, to defend and protect them.  His sanity almost orbited his tight-knit group of friends and siblings.  Without them, there just didn't seem to be any reason to be here.  Every day he would look out over the sea, and the vision of his home would appear, the cool forests at the edge of the Frontier.  The place he grew up, the familiar paths and game trails, the little village with the hardy people who lived on the fringe of civilization and accepted life as it came to them.  He had no reason to be here aside from his oath to the Goddess and his friends.  But the word he gave to the Goddess was an intangible thing, and because of that, the Cat in him had trouble rationalizing his devotion to it.  But his friends were an immediate, tactile foundation to which to attach his life and his focus.  He had been withdrawn from them lately, not very talkative, existing at the edge of their circles, but they had become the totality of his life.  Without them, he would leave the ship, leave the quest, and return to Aldreth.

      At least he thought so.  It wasn't something that he thought of for very long, when he allowed himself to think about it at all.

      He had had enough of thinking for a while.  Curling his tail around himself, he settled in and, in an exercise that was no longer more than an idle thought, lured himself to sleep.

      That sleep was disturbed by the smells of pork stew.  Opening his eyes, he saw Dar entering the cabin carrying a thick bowl of it.  Dar was sweating, and the acrid scent of it marred his usually pleasant spice-like scent that all Arkisians seemed to have.  It wasn't all that warm, so he must have been laboring on the deck.

      "Tarrin," he said with a smile, holding up the bowl.  "I brought you some lunch."

      Jumping down off the bed, Tarrin shifted back into his humanoid form and looked down at the youth.  Dar's brown eyes were as compassionate and expressive as ever, eyes that could never hide the young man's true feelings.  Anyone with a mind to do so could read Dar's every emotion in those brown eyes.  Those eyes looked at him with friendship, even a little fraternal love, and he smiled as he offered the bowl.  Dar had always been a good friend, a true friend.  He didn't speak that much, intimidated by the august presences that surrounded him, and it was very easy to overlook him when he stood among the giants and rarities that made up Dolanna's rather unique travelling retinue.  He wasn't Were or non-human.  He wasn't powerful or massive.  He wasn't commanding and regal.  He was just Dar, and Tarrin wouldn't want him any other way.  A sincere young man with a large, good heart and the amazing ability to make friends with anyone.

      "Thanks, Dar, I was getting a little hungry," he said, taking the bowl.  "I'm surprised Dolanna let you bring it."

      "She didn't," he said with a cherubic smile.  "I didn't exactly tell her."

      "You'll get in trouble."

      "So?"

      Tarrin smiled in spite of himself.  "Is she still mad?"

      "Not exactly mad," he replied, sitting down on his narrow bunk as Tarrin did the same at his bunk and began to eat.  "I think annoyed would be a better term.  She was rather irritated that you did what you did."

      "He had it coming," Tarrin said immediately, enjoying the cacophony of various tastes in the stew.  Kern's cook was a skilled man, capable of doing wonders with salted sea rations, and Kern both cursed him for his eccentricities and praised him for the morale he brought to the crew.  He was a Shacèan, and they were well known for the many fine chefs that their kingdom produced.  Shacè was a kingdom of indulgent diners, so they demanded fine cuisine prepared by highly trained cooks to satisfy that desire.

      "That may be, but I think you'd better avoid Allia for a while."

      "Why?"

      "Because she is mad at you," he told him.  "She wasn't happy at all over what you did.  You know how Selani are.  She said what you did was dishonorable."

      "She'll get over it."

      "She will, but until she does, we have to suffer.  Have you ever seen her when she's angry?"

      Tarrin chuckled.  "I have," he said.  "Maybe you should send her in here."

      "I guess.  Maybe Kern will let me ride behind the ship in a rowboat until it's over."

      Tarrin gave him a slight smile as he got up and left, and he took that opportunity to finish his stew before Allia arrived.  When she did, he very prudently put the bowl under the bunk, out of her immediate reach.  She looked very hostile, and her scent was sharp and almost emanated her displeasure.  She glared at him a moment.  "Dar said you wanted to see me?" she said in a stiff voice, in common.  That was a certain signal that she was very unhappy.

      "I always want to see you, Allia," he told her.  "Now just get it off your chest."

      That was done with no reservations.  Tarrin's head snapped to the side when her open palm struck him in the cheek.  Allia was slender and had a very feminine form, but her wiry arms held deceptive, considerable power.  Arms used to swinging weapons put enough behind the blow to jar a tooth partially loose.  "You dishonor the clan, brother!" she snapped at him in Selani.  "You killed a defeated opponent, then you killed a prisoner, someone who could not fight back!  That is cowardice!  If the Holy Mother were to witness such dishonor, she would burn your brands from your shoulders!"

      Tarrin rubbed his cheek, looking at her calmly.  "Be that as it may, sometimes we have to do things that seem dishonorable to survive, Allia," he told her.  "Keritanima would agree with me."

      "There is no life in dishonor!" she raged.  "You have shamed the clan, and our family!"

      "Why?  Because I saved us alot of grief, or because I retaliated against someone who tried to kill me?"

      "What do you mean?"

      "Didn't they tell you?  That prisoner stomped on me.  He broke my back, and if I had been a normal cat, it would have killed me.  I may have killed a chained prisoner, but he tried to murder a defenseless animal."

      She looked a bit taken aback.  "No, they didn't tell me that," she admitted.  "In that situation, I guess it would be sanctioned to strike back.  He did hit you first, and so he was prepared to accept the consequences.  But that doesn't absolve you for the priest," she said sternly.  "Honor demands showing mercy to the defeated.  Killing him like that was dishonorable!"

      "He wasn't helpless, and he was far from defeated, sister," he told her.  "If he'd recovered, he would have used his powers to call the entire Wikuni fleet down on our heads.  I did that to protect us, and no other reason.  I wasn't about to let him call in more ships to try to sink us."

      "That doesn't matter, my brother," she said sternly.  "You can't judge people by what they might do."

      "I wasn't.  I was judging him by what he already did," he told her.  "They attacked us, Allia.  That made them enemies!  You told me yourself that you show no mercy to an opponent."

      "Unless the opponent surrenders!" she snapped.

      "He never surrendered."

      "He wasn't capable of surrendering!" she said, with a bit of exasperation in her voice.  "Stop trying to dance around the matter, Tarrin.  It's not going to work!"

      "Honor may not like what I did, but the situation justified it," he said bluntly.  "He was in a position to bring harm to us, and I won't let anyone hurt you, Allia.  I'll kill a thousand men to keep one from laying a finger on you."

      "I don't need your protection, my brother," she said in a cool voice.  "I am an adult, a branded member of society, and if you don't recall, I taught you how to fight.  I don't need you standing behind me with your arms around my waist."

      "It's not just you," he said, turning around.  "It's Kerri and Dar and Faalken and Zak and everyone.  You're all I have, and just the thought that something may happen--" he bowed his head and crossed his arms before him.  "I feel myself slipping more and more every day, sister," he said quietly.  "I'm changing.  I'm turning, hard.  And I don't care.  If someone were to hurt one of you, I don't know what I would do.  I'd probably destroy myself and everyone around me."

      "Tarrin," Allia said gently, putting a slender, four-fingered hand on his shoulder.  "You shouldn't worry about such things like that.  We are your friends, but we are not your children.  We can take care of ourselves."

      "I know that, sister, but I still can't help worrying," he said gruffly.  "I've heard Dolanna talking.  I know what's happening to me.  She says I'm turning feral.  Well, I guess she's right.  She keeps saying that you are the only things keeping me from slipping away from the civilized world.  I think she's right again.  If you were--" he stopped, then collected himself.  "If you and the others died, there wouldn't be anything left for me.  I don't think the Goddess herself could keep me out here.  There isn't a day that goes by when I don't yearn for the forest, for home, but my oath to the Goddess keeps me out here, on this damned ship, away from where I want to be."

      "Home is in your heart, not at a fire," she told him, embracing him from behind.  "I think you're wrong about things, my brother.  You're much stronger than you'll admit to yourself.  You don't have to cling to me, to cling to us.  You can stand on your own feet."

      "Sometimes I wish it were that easy, deshaida," he sighed.  "I've been trying."

      "That is why you're staying away?"

      "Partly.  I don't go to your classes because I don't want to learn Sorcery right now.  The main reason is, well, I guess I don't have much to say."

      "You've said a great deal to me today," she challenged.  "We are family, Tarrin.  These are things you should have told me rides ago."

      "Probably, but it's hard to put it in words, sister," he said.  "And I don't want to worry you."

      "We worry as a family, brother," she said to him in a voice of unshakable resolve.  "We are a family.  The burdens of the clan are shared equally."  He turned around and looked at her.  "Keritanima and I, we are your family, my brother.  There is nothing you can't tell us.  We will always be here for you."

      More than once, he'd seen Allia's nearly unnatural ability to completely overwhelm someone with an eloquent sentence or two.  She didn't speak much, but she always knew exactly what to say.  He embraced her wordlessly, letting her loyalty in him bolster him, calm his worries.  Allia was a being of unfathomable strength.  He tended to forget that, and the reminders of it always managed to surprise him.  With her support and love, he knew that things would eventually work themselves out.

 

      The morning was bright and sunny, but a bank of clouds hung heavily on the western horizon.  Tarrin sat sedately on Miranda's lap as she worked on a sleeve of one of Keritanima's dresses, her hands moving with that exacting precision and speed that always impressed the Were-cat.  She could write even faster.  She was embroidering tiny little roses on the cuff of the sleeve of the cream-colored dress.

      It was a day, much like any other on board the ship.  Azakar was being harried by Faalken, Binter, and Sisska near the stern, and Dolanna had Keritanima, Dar, and Allia near the bow, teaching them more and more about Sorcery.  Tarrin didn't really have anywhere to go, so he kept Miranda company.  Not that she needed company.  Miranda seemed to be perfectly content to be alone, just as she seemed to be content to be with company.  She was an enigmatic Wikuni, and someone to whom Tarrin could relate.  He rather enjoyed someone who didn't talk for the sake of talking, like some others did.

      "You're getting in the way, Tarrin," she chided, lifting the sleeve up so she could see what she was doing.

      He hunkered down, then laid down on her lap, letting her return to her more comfortable position.  His eyes were on the prisoners.  They sat amidships, under lean-tos made of sailcloth, with two cutlass-wielding sailors keeping an eye on them.  They were universally quiet and a bit sulky, and he could understand why.  But not one could look in his direction and hold his gaze for more than a moment, other than Sheba.  She seemed almost indignant in her glares at him.  She was chained to the other pirates, but she stood where they sat.  The days since the loss of her ship had seemingly returned her combative personality, as she shook off the defeat and the imprisonment.  She was nearly getting cocky again, being waspish with the men guarding her.  Her behavior confused him, because only a day ago, she was more than willing to jump over the rail and let the sea claim her.  Something had changed that had curbed her desire for self-destruction, but he couldn't imagine what it could be.

      He jumped down off Miranda's lap and changed form, then leaned against the bulwark and rail and looked down at the insufferably cute mink Wikuni.  She glanced at him and gave him a cheeky grin, then went back to her needlepoint.  "You want to talk?" she asked.

      "I guess," he replied.

      "Something had to get you off my lap and back on two feet," she said with a wink.  "The only thing you can't do like that is talk.  That kind of narrows the options, you know."

      "I'm just wondering what's made Sheba so happy," he said, looking down at his claws and inspecting them.

      "I'm not sure yet," she replied.  "I've been watching her, and she's definitely thinking that her flag's been raised to the top of the mainmast."  She bit the green thread apart, then pulled out a spool of red thread from the shoulder satchel she commonly carried about.  "I can't see a reason for it."

      "Do you think that it's dangerous for us?"

      "I doubt it," she replied.  "She only has twelve men, where we have nearly fourty, and several of which could kill her entire complement single-handedly.  She's not going to start trouble.  She'll be keelhauled if she does, and she knows it."

      "I've never understood that term."

      "What term?"

      "Keelhauled."

      "Well, when you keelhaul someone, you tie a rope to them then throw them off the bow of the ship," she replied.  "They get pulled under, and dragged against the ship's bottom.  That may not sound bad, but there are these little shellfish called barnacles that collect on a ship's bottom, and their shells are sharper than the edge of a good sword.  It's about the same as getting dragged behind a horse over broken glass.  There isn't much left that comes out from behind the stern."

      "Sounds unpleasant."

      "Slightly.  Ships have to pull up onto beaches from time to time to get their hulls scraped.  The barnacles slow a ship down.  It's a messy job, and most sailors that get roped into it have shredded meat for hands by the time they're done, if they're not careful."

      "I wonder who thought that kind of punishment up."

      "Not someone I'd like to meet, I assure you," Miranda said, threading her needle.

      "For someone who hates to sail, you know alot about sailing."

      "I'm Wikuni, Tarrin," she grinned.  "I may not like sailing or the sea, but I can't get away from it.  Not when it's my people's national pasttime."

      "You have a point there," he admitted.

      "This girl will keep her tail on dry land, thank you," she said.  "At least when I can."

      "How is Kerri?"

      Miranda glanced at him.  "That's a strange question."

      "Well, I haven't really been talking to her lately," he admitted.  "I haven't been talking to anyone, for that matter."

      "Whose fault is that?"

      "Let's not go there, Miranda."

      A sudden gust blew up, causing the sails above to snap against the force, making him look up.  The wind was picking up ahead of that line of clouds, obviously a storm line, and the ship began to pick up its speed.  It began to rock to and fro slightly as it plowed into the waves.

      "Looks like we'll be making up some time," Miranda said, looking up.  "That rainline won't hit us for hours, and it's going to push us ahead of it.  We may be in Dayisè tomorrow night."

      "I didn't realize we were so close."

      "How big do you think Shacè is,Tarrin?" she winked.

      "I grew up in a village, Miranda," he replied.  "To me, the next village was an entire world away.  The whole world seems big to me."

      "I guess it is, but to a ship, distances don't mean that much," she said.  "Only really serious trips, like back to Wikuna, take a long time."

      "How long did it take you to get here?" he asked curiously.

      "Almost two months," she replied.  It would take a little over a month to get back to Wikuna, if we were going that way."

      "Why the difference?"

      "It has to do with wind and sea currents," she replied.  "There are wind patterns and an ocean current that make getting to Wikuna from here faster than getting here from there.  To get here, a ship has to sail from the northern lattitudes.  That's why the Stormhavens and Suld are such large ports, and we visit them so often.  To get back to Wikuna, we'd have to leave from Dayisè and travel along the southern lattitudes, where the winds favor a westward journey."

      "I didn't know that," he said musingly.  "It's surprising the Wikuni go so far from home."

      "To most Wikuni, the sea is home," she replied calmly.  "Those back in Wikuna just hold down the homeland until it's their turn to go out."

      "Strange."

      "We're a race of wanderers, Tarrin.  I guess it would seem strange to someone that would have been happy sitting in one place all his life."

      "Oh, not me," he chuckled.  "I was getting out of Aldreth.  I wanted to see some of the world."

      "Well, you've seen some of it.  What do you think so far?"

      "I think I'd have enjoyed it a great deal better if things had gone differently," he said soberly, flexing his paw.  "Much differently."

      "Do you regret it?"

      He looked out to sea, his expression distant.  "I want to, but I can't.  Part of being like this is a sort of forced acceptance.  The instincts have imprinted on me, Miranda, in a way that makes it hard for me to remember how I used to be.  Even the first day after the change, I wasn't sure if I'd been born any other way."

      "Hmm," she said, putting a finger to her cheek and regarding him.  "I wonder what you looked like, before that happened."

      "Now that, I can show you," he said, closing his eyes.  It had been a while since he'd done it, and he had good reason.  Looking within, he tried to conjure up an image of himself before he changed, but it wasn't easy.  That part of his life seemed like ancient history, and he had to concentrate before he felt ready to attempt a change.  He gritted his teeth and did so, feeling his body contract slightly as it was forced to flow into a mold that didn't entirely contain it.  He felt the muggy sea air on his human hands and feet, felt it on his human ears, and felt the immediate nagging ache spring up throughout his entire body.  He turned to face her, saw her surprised expression, holding his arms out so she could see that he really didn't look that much different at all.

      "I didn't know you can do that," she remarked.  "Keritanima never told me."

      "I don't do it often, because holding the human shape is unnatural for Were-cats," he told her, feeling the aching turn into a pounding throb that coursed through his body, keeping time with his heart.  "It's painful."  He reverted back to his natural, humanoid form, and felt the ache immediately vanish.  He swished his tail a few times to get the tingles out of it.

      "Well, call me partial, but I like you better this way," she said with a wink.  "You look better with fur, Tarrin."

      "I would call you partial, Miranda," he said, running a fingertip up her white-furred arm.

      Keritanima, Allia, and Dar emerged from the doorway leading below, and they immediately rushed over to Tarrin and Miranda.  "You missed a great session, Tarrin!" Dar said.  "I managed my first Illusion!"

      "He's good," Keritanima admitted.  "I couldn't tell it from the real thing.  Dar seems to have a natural aptitude for it."

      "It's that artist's soul, sister," Tarrin told her.  "Dar has a vivid imagination,and that's vital for good illusions."  He turned to Dar.  "Show me."

      He nodded, closing his eyes and looking like he was concentrating.  That looked out of place on the dusky-skinned youth's usually amiable, carefree face.  Tarrin felt him make contact with the Weave, and a perfect image of a brightly-plumed, short-beaked bird, green with tail feathers of red and gold and a heavy, hooked beak that narrowed down to a very sharp point, appeared before them, flying in place.  There was no sound or scent to the image, for those required seperate weaves to create, but Tarrin had to admit that it looked absolutely real.  "Impressive," he said, looking at it.  "That's really very good work, Dar.  I think you found your talent."

      Dar absolutely beamed.

      "Is that what you studied today?" Tarrin asked Keritanima.

      She nodded.  "Dolanna's been teaching us weave by weave.  I wish she'd just show me all of them.  She knows I just have to see her do them, then have her explain to me which flows to nip and tuck to alter the weaves."

      "Put a sock in it, Kerri," Dar told her.  "At least you didn't complain today."

      "Complain?  What about?" Tarrin asked.

      "Dolanna usually teaches us weaves that our sister already knows," Allia replied to that.  "Our deshaida is easily bored, and she complains about it.  That interrupts our studies."

      "I can't help it if I learn faster than you two," Keritnaima said defensively.

      "You can't help it that Lula taught you all that when she wasn't supposed to," Tarrin retorted.

      "Well, that too," she admitted with a slight grin.  "Have our guests caused any mischief, Miranda?"

      "None today, Highness," Miranda replied in that calm, sober voice of hers.  "Sheba has been acting like the queen of Garramon, but there hasn't been any other unusual activity."

      "Is that so?  I wonder what's gotten her all confident all of the sudden."

      "Feel free to find out," Tarrin told her.

      She looked at him.  "You're awfully talkative today," she noted.  "Decided to give over on the isolation attitude and spend time with your sisters again?"

      "Want me to go back up the mast?" he asked pointedly.

      "No!" she said instantly, putting her hands on his forearm.  "I'm not saying it's bad, I'm just saying you're doing it.  I'm glad you're talking again.  I missed you, brother.  I don't have anyone to laugh at when you're not around."

      He gave her a sudden glare, but she laughed and put her arms around him fondly, then gave him a light lick on the cheek.  Her version of a kiss.

      "Looks like Zak's getting beat up more than usual today," Dar said, looking to where the warriors were training.  Azakar was indeed being manhandled by Sisska, but that in itself wasn't unusual.  It was the blood flowing from the cut on his forehead and his shoulder that made it different.  Sisska was using a sword, and it was apparent she was sparring with full contact.

      "I don't know why they're so hard on him," Miranda said.

      "Because an enemy would be even harder on him," Allia answered.  "Right now, Azakar must learn how to focus through the pain of his injuries and keep his mind on the task at hand.  It is as much a training exercise as learning how to use a weapon."

      "My mother used to do that to me," Tarrin grunted.  "But she used a padded wooden pole."

      "Why not a sword?" Allia asked.

      "She didn't believe in scarring up her son," he replied.  "She believed that scars were trophies, and she wasn't about to give me any false trophies."

      "I've heard alot about your mother, Tarrin," Keritanima said.  "I'd really like to meet her."

      "She's curious about you," he said.  "So is my father."

      "Why is that?"

      "Because they know you're not a ditz," he told her.

      "You told them?"

      "Sure," he said.  "Because I know they won't let it go any further."

      "See if I tell you any more secrets," she fumed.  "I'm mad at you, Tarrin!"

      "You don't have any more secrets, Kerri," he said with an exaggerated calm.

      She was about to retort to that, but Dolanna joined them from the stern.  She was wearing a plain brown dress, just like many of her others, and she was carrying a book, held in the crook of her arm.  "Kern says that we will reach Dayisè tomorrow," she announced.

      "What will he do with them?" Dar asked, motioning at the prisoners.

      "Most likely, he will hand them over to the authorities," she replied.  "The amount of gold offered for their capture is considerable.  It will more than pay for the trouble we have caused him."

      "I'm glad he's getting something for it," Tarrin said.  "We've cost him crewmen, starved the ones that are still alive, forced him to dock in a pirate's nest, and gotten his ship beaten up."  He made a face. "Tomas is going to kill me."

      "I am sure that Tomas knew there was a risk that his ship would come under attack, young one," Dolanna assured him.  "That he was there to offer us passage was a gift from the Goddess."

      "Sometimes I think I wandered into his yard by more than accident," Tarrin said, mainly to himself.

      "I sure wish I could have met them," Dar said.  "From the way Tarrin described them, they were good people."

      "They certainly are, Dar," Dolanna agreed.  "They are very good people."

      "Tarrin knows how to pick friends.  After all, look who he has with him," Keritanima said with a roguish grin.

      "Sometimes I think I should have left a couple of them at the dock," Tarrin grunted.

      Keritanima stuck her tongue out at him.  "I'm going to go find out why Sheba is so happy," she said in a churlish tone.  "At least I know she's an enemy."  Then she stomped off, her tail lashing behind her.

      "That was unlike you, my brother," Allia said, but she had a slight smile on her face.

      "How do you mean?"

      "You left some skin on her."

      "Would you like to play some chess, Tarrin?" Dar asked.

      "Later, young one," Dolanna interrupted.  "I need to speak with Tarrin.  He will be available for you when we are done.  You and Allia should practice your weaving.  You will not improve without practice."

      "Yes, Dolanna," Allia said obediently.  "Come, Dar.  Let us find a quiet place to practice."

      "Sure," he agreed, and the pair moved towards the bow.

      "What did you want to talk about, Dolanna?" Tarrin asked as he fell into step with her, as she started walking along the bulwark.

      "Tomorrow we are going to reach Dayisè, dear one," she said.  "It is a very large city, and it is full of many people."

      He thought he knew where she was going.  "I'm not going to cause trouble, Dolanna.  Not unless someone does something to set me off, anyway."

      "That is only part of the reason I wish to talk to you," she told him.  "We must plan for the eventuality that our enemies know where we are headed.  We did stop in Den Gauche and Roulet, and there is a chance that the pirate priest gave away our location before the battle.  That means that there is a chance that we may find a hostile reception awaiting us."

      "What does that have to do with me?"

      "Of all of us, you and the Vendari are the most striking, my dear one," she told him gently.  "Allia can conceal herself beneath a cloak, and Keritanima is just another Wikuni.  But you stand out, and there is no way we can hide the Vendari.  They are simply too huge."

      "But you have a plan."

      "I have an idea," she agreed.  "Keritanima and myself are skilled enough to weave together Illusions, and hold them for a considerable amount of time.  But that leaves us one short.  We need to keep you concealed, dear one, so you have a choice.  You can take cat form and hide in Miranda's satchel, or you can take human form and travel with us openly."

      "I can't hold the human shape for more than about five minutes, Dolanna," he grunted.  "It hurts too much."

      "Have you been practicing?"

      He gave her a blank look.

      "Tarrin, Jesmind said herself that the ability to withstand the pain is a function of age and experience.  And experience is gained through practice."

      "Well, she did say that, but it never occurred to me," he said sheepishly.

      "You must practice, Tarrin.  You must practice shapeshifting, and you must learn more about Sorcery.  Even if you cannot use it, you must continue your education in its operation.  You cannot spend your days sleeping.  You have wasted two entire months, and we do not have the leisure to take our time."

      "I just didn't feel much like practicing, Dolanna," he said, absently ducking under a boom.  "I've had alot of things on my mind lately."

      "That is not an excuse," she told him flatly.  "Training and practice is a discipline, not a exercise.  You must train yourself to practice every day, no matter how you feel."

      "Well, I'll admit to that, but I don't really want to learn any more Sorcery," he told her.  "Not until I can use it."

      "Why not?  You can improve without the actual need to touch the Weave."

      "That's exactly why I don't want to learn," he told her.  "If I start learning Sorcery again, it will make me want to touch the Weave.  And that's a risk I can't take, not unless something serious depends on the outcome."

      She looked at him a moment. "Yes.  I guess you are right.  It would be frustrating to learn about something that can be dangerous for you, even when you want to practice with it."

      "Exactly."

      "Alright, you may forego training in Sorcery until we can devise a compromise.  But you should practice your shapeshifting every day.  You should try to hold the human form as long as possible every day, at least once a day.  I think you will find that your ability to tolerate the discomfort will improve, and you will be able to hold the form longer and longer."

      "I'll start with it today, Dolanna," he promised.

      "You should talk to Allia," she said.  "The Selani are very skilled in mental discipline.  She may be able to teach you Selani techniques to help deal with the pain.  It may increase your ability to tolerate it."

      "That's a good idea," he agreed, nodding.

      "Oh, and a private question."

      "What?"

      "Keritanima left this book in my quarters this morning.  I thought it to be just one in her collection, but within was the strangest thing.  It looked to be a tutorial on learning a foreign language, one which I have never seen before.  Do you know of this book?"

      Tarrin's eyes widened, and his tail stood staight out.

      "I think you do know of this mysterious book," she said with a sly smile, presenting the book to him.  "I would very much like to be privy to this, discovery, Tarrin.  I think I know what that book holds, but I would hear it from you first."

      "It's a primer to learn the language of the Sha'Kar," he told her in a very low voice.  "We discovered the original during our plans to escape from Suld, and Keritanima had Miranda transcribe them into this book.  We learned how to speak it, but we still haven't managed to learn the written language yet, because it's so strange.  I'll bet that's why Kerri brought the book.  She's been working on it for a long time now."

      "That is what I suspected," she said.  "I am amazed that the three of you managed to find something that every Sorcerer in the world has strove to discover for a thousand years."

      "We knew where to look," Tarrin grunted.

      "Where was that?"

      "In the Cathedral of Karas," he replied.

      She looked at him, then she laughed ruefully.  "Of course.  They would have lore about their ancient enemies, would they not?  I take it that that was why Keritanima had the plans of the Cathedral?  So the three of you could infiltrate it and find this hidden knowledge?"

      He nodded.  "We stole alot more than the primer, but we don't have it with us.  It's hidden back in the Tower."

      "What information is that?"

      "Assorted stuff," he replied.  "Kerri was the one that went through it, but even she didn't look very hard.  She was too excited over finding the primer.  Once she found that, she stopped looking at everything else."

      "I can imagine," Dolanna mused.  "Why did you not tell me this, Tarrin?"

      "I guess because it never occurred to me," he said.  "That information is tied up a great deal in the very personal issues me and my sisters have with each other.  I guess I considered it too private to share, even with you."

      "Well, I cannot fault you your loyalty," she sighed.  "But to think that all this time, this wonderful tome has lain within my reach.  Had I only discovered it sooner!"  She handed the precious book to Tarrin.  "I think you should return this to Keritanima.  And have a talk with her," she said with a smile.  "I get the feeling that she left this in my cabin on purpose."

      "Why?"

      "Because Keritanima the Brat was flighty and erratic, but Keritanima the Princess is a very calculating and careful woman," she replied.  "She would not leave something so vital laying about on purpose.  I think she wanted me to find it."

      "Maybe," he grunted.  "Not that it matters now."

      "I will see you later, Tarrin.  Remember to practice."

      Tarrin stood there a moment, looking down at the book.  He had no idea that she even brought it, that she would risk it.  But it was the one.  He opened it and looked at Miranda's exacting, precise writing, and he wondered just what in the furies Keritanima was up to.  Dolanna was right, she would never leave this book laying around for anyone to pick up.  But was it an honest accident, or was it Keritanima playing intigue again?

      Well, there was a very easy way to find out.  He approached the Wikuni from where she was standing off against the panther-Wikuni, Sheba, without fear.  As he approached, he heard the subtle,wicked barbs pass between them.  It was apparent that they didn't like each other.

      "Kerri, we have to talk," he said when he reached them, putting a paw on her arm.

      "It'll--"

      "Now," he said adamantly.

      "Oh, very well," she said, submitting to that tone of voice.

      "I see the cat has the owner on a leash," Sheba said with a sneering grin, looking right at him with her green eyes, so much like his own.

      Without batting an eyelash, Tarrin grabbed the pirate by the front of her shirt, then hauled her up off the deck.  He turned and swung her out over the rail, holding her at arm's length over the water with an ease that made it seem he was holding a coil of rope rather than a full-grown woman.  "Maybe you'd like to swim for shore," he said in a dangerous voice.

      She grabbed his wrist in both hands and gave him a nervous look, though she was trying to keep up her fearless front.  "I'm sure it would be good exercise, but I don't think I'm up for it right now," she managed to say, in a surprisingly steady voice.

      Tarrin had to supress the sudden, powerful urge to just drop her.  He dragged her back onto the deck, then tossed her down with a negligent flick of the paw.  She sat down hard and looked up at him, her eyes flashing in anger and outrage, but the lethal look in his own eyes cowed her immediately.

      "That's quite an arm you've got there, Tarrin," she said, giving him a false smile.  "I'm sure you'd play a killer game of wicket."

      "And I'm sure you'd love being the ball," Keritanima dug, getting a hostile look from the seated Wikuni.  "Come on, Tarrin.  I'm sure that Sheba has run out of things to say.  Her memory isn't quite that deep."

      Sheba glared murderously at the princess, but she led Tarrin away by the arm.  "What did you want?"  Without saying a word, he handed the book back to her.  "Oh yes, this.  Did Dolanna find it?"

      "And she looked right through your little game," he told her bluntly.  "What are you doing?"

      "I'm stuck, brother," she said sourly in Selani.  "I can't crack the Sha'Kar language.  I need help, and Dolanna is very educated.  After I teach her the spoken language, I think she can help me decipher the written language.  I wasn't sure if you and Allia would approve of adding her to our rather tight inner circle, so I did it the other way."

      "You should have asked us."

      "I know, but I absolutely need Dolanna, brother," she said defensively.  "If you or Allia said no, then I would have had to break your trust.  At least this way, you'll only be mad at me a while.  If I'd have had to do it the other way, you'd be mad at me for years."

      "If you would have made that clear, then I doubt Allia would have said no," he told her chidingly.  "Allia trusts Dolanna.  So do I."

      "I know, but I guess you can't change a Wikuni's fur."

      "Maybe the Wikuni should look into trusting her siblings."

      "That was low, Tarrin," she said sourly in Common.

      "Perhaps, but it was the truth," he replied bluntly.  "I didn't know you even brought the book.  I thought you left it in Suld."

      "No way!" she said adamantly in Sha'Kar.  That she would switch to that language made it apparent how serious she wanted to be about privacy.  That he could understand it so easily was a testament to how well she taught him.  "I can't stop 'til I find the answers, brother, and that means that the book stays with me.  Don't worry, I sleep with it under my pillow, and if I don't have it, then Binter or Sisska does.  Nobody will take it from them."

      "That makes my head spin," Kern said gruffly as he approached from behind.  They both turned to look at him.

      "What does, captain?" Keritanima asked in Common.

      "How you three always bounce around in languages," he replied.  "It makes my ears burn."

      "Some insults carry more impact in their native tongues, Kern," Tarrin said dryly, which made the grizzled old captain chuckle.

      "I'm teaching my brother Wikuni too," Keritnaima winked.  "That way we can insult each other on even more levels of subtlety.  If you want to insult someone, then use Wikuni.  The language was designed for it."

      Kern laughed.  "I speak a word or two of it, if only to not let Wikuni traders get the drop on me," he admitted.  "But I'd appreciate it if ye didn't bandy that about.  Wikuni don't like dealing with people who can understand how badly they're cheating them."

      "I didn't know that," Tarrin said as Kern ambled away.

      "What?"

      "That I'm learning Wikuni."

      "Well, you are now," she grinned.  "I feel jealous that Allia taught you her language, but you still haven't learned mine."

      "You never offered to teach it.  Now that I think of it, I've never heard you speak it."

      "That's because Wikuni usually don't use it unless only other Wikuni are around to hear it.  We're like the Selani, we like to keep our language somewhat secret.  It helps us cheat others."

      Tarrin chuckled.  "I knew all Wikuni were pirates at heart."

      "Not pirates, traders.  Pirates are people who can't haggle, so they're forced to earn a living the dirty way."

      "Same difference," he teased.

      "Believe it or not, we use Common in Wikuna almost as often as Wikuni.  Our kingdom has sorta become bilingual.  We teach Common to our children at the same time they learn Wikuni, because they'll eventually be dealing with people that don't speak Wikuni, and it always puts your potential trade victim at ease if you speak his language fluently.  Speaking Wikuni is saved for personal dealings, and we use it for all official court functions and ceremonies."

      "That's why they made you learn all the native tongues of your trade allies," he realized.

      "Exactly.  So I could put them at ease, then rake them over the coals with trade treaties," she winked.

      "It explains why you're so fluent too.  Allia still has trouble expressing herself in Common, and Dolanna always sounds so formal.  You have an accent, but it sounds more like a regional dialect than a non-speaker's accent."

      "Yup," she agreed.  "I'm used to speaking Common on a regular basis, so it makes me sound much more natural using it."

      "Do you speak Shacèan?"

      "Certainly.  They're strong trade allies with Wikuna.  They're the only kingdom we sell gunpowder to."  She glanced at him.  "I take it we're done talking about this?" she asked, holding up the book.

      "Not much we can do about it now," he said.  "We should tell Allia about it.  And if we explain the reason behind it well enough, she'll agree that it was necessary.  But she won't like you acting without letting us know first, Kerri.  Believe me, I get that from her enough as it is.  Expect her to be mad at you for a while."

      "Like I said, better a little mad than alot of mad."

 

      The night was clear, crisp, and cool.  The Skybands and the four moons, all slivers of light in the sky, competed with the brilliant stars to illuminate the night.  Nights were never fully dark on Sennadar, except when the clouds concealed the sky.

      The night sang to him, in ways that the others would never understand.

      Tarrin stood at the bow, to get as much of the ship out of his view as possible, and stared up into the night sky, his mind carried along by the song of instinct, the sounds of the sea, the smell of salt water and the hint of ground and earth carried in the air.  Cats were nocturnal creatures, always more active at night than during the day.  It made it hard to sleep at night, and often he wound find himself doing just what he was doing, staring up at the night sky and communing with the forces that shaped his life.  It was usually an intensely private practice, something he didn't even share with his sisters, because they couldn't fathom its importance to him or how it made him feel.  The night was his time, the time of the hunter, when the cloak of darkness enshrouded the land and allowed him to move in utter stealth and harmony with his environment.

      Of course, the ship was not the kind of place for that.  All the rats were long gone, hunted to extinction by Tarrin's nightly prowls, leaving the hunter with no prey, and nowhere to feel completely at ease.  So he stood at the bow, staring up into the night sky, knowing that the sky would look the same whether he was standing on a ship or staring up at the sky through a break in the forest canopy.  It allowed him to forget, if only for a little while, where he was and what he was doing.  It allowed him to ignore the constant nagging of his instincts to run to the forest, to take up his rightful place in nature.  It allowed him to feel what he was in a crystalline clarity that often was unattainable when outside of what he considered to be his own environment.

      It was the night, and it was his time.  He was a creature of the night.  He was the night.  Too long, he had forgotten who he was and where he was supposed to be.  Too long, it had been since the last time he had succumbed to the powerful instincts inside him and allowed them to join to his human consciousness seamlessly and without struggle.  Too long, had he turned his back on his kind.

      Too long, he had been aboard the cursed ship.

      Tomorrow they were supposed to get to Dayisè, and it would probably be in the rain.  The front line was barely a mile behind them, moving slowly as it chased the ship that day, an abrupt beginning of cloud that separated the sky.  He could smell the rain when the wind gusted from behind them, smell that it was a steady rain that farmers enjoyed, a rain that would last for a whole day and methodically saturate everything exposed to it.  He would be on dry land.  It would be among people, and it would only be an island, but it would be enough.  Two months trapped on this moving prison had nearly been more than he could stand.  Only the presence of his sisters, Dolanna, and Miranda had kept him calm enough to endure it.  Tomorrow would be a reprieve, a temporary stay of his punishment, where he could put his feet on soft earth and feel the wind in his hair, smell the scents of life once again.  Even if they were going to be smothered in the miasma of a foul-smelling city.

      Dolanna's warning was still in the forefront of his mind, but it would be worth the risk.  They may run into danger, but better to face danger than be pinned aboard the vessel for another day.

      Looking up into the night sky, Tarrin's mind wandered.  He wondered how his family was doing in Dusgaard.  He hoped that his little mother was doing alright.  He worried for Tiella and Walten, who were still in the Tower.  He wondered how Sevren was doing, trying to discover the spy within the Tower.  He feared for Aldreth, over the rumors that the Dal army had marched over his home village.  He hoped Jesmind was well, wherever she may be.

      Jesmind.  It had been a long time since he'd thought about her.  Part of the reason was because an idle thought of her conjured up more and more thoughts and memories.  There was a great deal of emotion tied up with his fiery-tempered bond mother, both positive and negative.  And though it seemed strange to him, even the bad memories could make him smile.  He understood her better now, understood what she was trying to do.  He missed her.  Even when they were enemies, he had a great deal of respect for her, and he looked up to her.  Few women--few living beings--could match her raw ferocity when fighting, a ferocity that could intimidate anyone.  She was fierce in everything she did, from fighting to looking for dinner to making conversation.  She attacked life, subdued it, lived every day as if it was both her first and her last.

      He doubted he would ever see her again.  He walked a different path, a path that would take him well away from his own kind, and it was a path fraught with danger.  He didn't know if he would live much longer.  And if he didn't, then so be it.  He was more concerned about his friends and family than himself, and so long as they were alright, then he was content.  They mattered more to him than him.

      Sprinkles of rain began to patter onto the deck.  He loved the night, but he hated getting wet.  It was time to go below.

     Tomorrow was a new day.


GoTo:   Title                         EoF

Chapter 4

 

      "Incredible," Dar mused.

      The city of Dayisè was presented for them dead ahead, and it was amazing.  The city was situated on a large island, and it spilled over onto two smaller islands that were very close to the first.  The three islands were ringed by a large network of small rock spires and islets, creating a natural breakwater that protected ships from stormy seas.  The central island had a large hill at its center, and built onto the sides of that hill were some of the most extravagant and fanciful estates and homes Tarrin had ever seen.  There were even two huge stone bridges that spanned from the center island to the smaller ones, spanning so high that a galleon could pass under it without losing its mast.  Like Den Gauche and Roulet, Dayisè's skyline was absolutely dominated by red, from the red tiles that they used to roof their homes and buildings.  Those buildings stood like trees in some vast forest, totally dominating the three islands upon which they rested.

      And the ships!  Ships of every type imaginable stood in the harbors, or sailed to or from the islands.  Ungardt longships, rakers, galleons, cogs, caravels, Wikuni clippers, even the military Wikuni frigates jostled with one another on the seas and along the docks, as smaller fishing vessels and private ships, even longboats and rowboats, moved between their larger neighbors.  The flags they flew represented nearly every seafaring nation, race, or culture that existed in the world and plied the twenty seas, from as far away as Godan-Nyr, Sharadar, Valkar, even the Utter East empire of Shin Lung, a place which only the Wikuni visited.  Only the hated Zakkites were not represented in the harbors.  The ships were packed in, and many of them sailed near to the islands, sharing the warm waters and taking up the wind

      The grand magnificence of Dayisè assaulted the young onlookers who stood at the rail.  Only Keritanima seemed unimpressed by the great metropolis.  Even Allia, with her dislike of the sea, stood gaping in wonder at the large city resting on the small islands.  But Tarrin was slightly disappointed.  He was hoping for a city on an island, not an island that was a city.  There was only a little green, and that was near the top of the hill on the central island.  The city had infested the rest of the land.  Nowhere but there could one look and see something other than the hand of man shaping the world to suit him.  He admitted that the city was impressive.  Grand, even.  But he was more impressed by a thousand year old oak tree than any construction ever assembled by human hand.

      "Arkhold is larger than this, but it's the way you see it," Dar added, staring at the city in the afternoon sun.

      "There are no farms.  How do they eat?" Allia asked.

      "Their food comes in on ships, Allia," Keritanima replied.  "At least everything but the seafood.  Fish is something of a staple in Dayisè, because imported food tends to be more expensive."

      It looked to Tarrin to be a good idea gone spiralling out of control.  He couldn't fathom why they would build a city on an island some fifty longspans off shore, and a small island at that compared to other human-bearing islands.  And why had it grown so large that it had totally displaced the natural habitat?  There was no food to grow, and nowhere to grow it.  What did they do to earn their livings?  There had to be alot of people on the islands, but a city could only sustain itself so much on inns and shops.  "How do they make money?" Tarrin asked curiously.

      "Most of Dayisè is devoted to trading, Tarrin," Keritanima replied.  "Merchants and agents of governments come here to buy and sell large amounts of goods.  The city itself is mostly made up of inns and boarding houses for the many sailors that come to port with the goods their employers are trading.  More money changes hands in Dayisè in one day than an entire month in Sulasia."

      "Shacè must be rich," Dar said.  "All that revenue must generate staggering taxes."

      "They wish," Keritanima replied.  "Dayisè is a Shacèan city, but they pay no taxes to the crown.  Why else do you think so many merchants choose to do business here?"

      "How did they get away with that?" he asked.

      "When Dayisè was founded, it was something of a penal colony," she answered.  "The king then had to make people come here, and part of the incentives were that nobody living on the islands had to pay a brass bit in tax.  Where King Louis screwed up was that he extended that moratorium to business done on the island as well, to entice craftsmen to move to the island, and the decree was made in such a way that it couldn't be repealed.  Merchants began to start taking advantage of it.  That is the result."

      "Why did he want a city way out here?"

      "At that time, they were having alot of trouble with raids from Trigador, an island nation some two hundred leagues south.  Dayisè was originally an outpost city and naval base, to discourage raiding."

      "I still don't see why some other king just made a new decree," Dar fretted.

      "Because of us," Keritanima said smugly.  "Queen Maria tried to do that, but the Wikuni threatened to embargo Shacè if she carried through with it.  By then, the Shacèans were absolutely dependent on the gunpowder we sell them to protect themselves from Trigador and what was then Rauthym.  Maria really didn't have a choice, so she killed the decree.  After Rauthym flew apart in a civil war and Trigador was mauled by Arathorn, they tried again, and Wikuna embargoed them."

      "Blockaded them," Dolanna corrected as she, Faalken and Azakar joined them.  "The Wikuni blockaded Shacè from all seaborne trade, and attacked Shacèan ships.  It was called the Veiled War, because no formal declarations had been made by either side.  The Wikuni triumphed, and Shacè agreed to drop the attempts to tax Dayisè.  But the ultimate result of that was the weakening of Shacè as a whole, and the undermining of the kingdom's rule.  It caused a revolution about ten years later, which is what caused the eastern duchies to break free from the crown and join what was left of Rauthym's duchies.  By the time the Crown regained control, it had weakened its position.  That position has weakened to its current state, where the king has authority only within his capital city, and the outlying aristocracy rule however they wish. Shacè is but a candle flame from igniting into another civil war."

      "That's how you see it," Keritanima sniffed.  "Wikuna had an absolute fortune tied up in Dayisè.  We had to protect our interests."

      "I have noticed that Wikuna often protects its own interests with no regard as to the damage they cause to others," Dolanna said with a calm look at the princess.  "No less than five revolutions, the collapse of Rauthym, and the destruction of Trigador can be traced back to the Diamond Throne."

      "You make it sound like the Wikuni are bullies," Azakar said.

      "They are," Dar said.  "And they've gotten alot worse over the last few decades."

      "Blame that on my father, not on me," Keritanima said defensively.

      "You all should be packing your belongings," Dolanna told them.  "We will be leaving the ship as soon as we dock."

      Leaving.  Tarrin turned and looked back at the old galleon, a legend on the Sea of Storms.  He hated being stuck on it, but it had served his group well.  Kern had delivered them to Dayisè, more or less on time, and things looked to be going well.  Dolanna didn't know if this Renoit was still in Dayisè, but at least Kern had gotten them there in enough time to make it possible, rather than certain, that he was gone.  Some of the delays hadn't been his fault, after all.  Being iced in in the Stormhavens had thrown a chunk of time into their trip, but Kern had pulled them through.  He had alot of respect for the grizzled sailor, even if he didn't entirely trust him.  Kern was, after all, human, and that was more than enough to make Tarrin stay on his guard.

      But it had been a good trip, all things considering.  They were still alive, at any rate, and that had to count for something.

      Going below, Tarrin and Dar packed their sparse belongings in relative silence.  Tarrin didn't own all that much, and his staff was now in Azakar's hands.  The Mahuut Knight couldn't look like a Knight, and the staff would help the disguise of an Arakite merchant.  Arakites were always armed, and well known to carry around either elaborately decorated walking sticks, canes, or staves, which doubled as weapons should they be under attack.  Dolanna had dressed up his Ironwood staff to go along with the very expensive silk robes she had made for him, the robes of a successful Arakite merchant.  Dolanna would pretend to be one of his wives, and the rest of their group would be his hirelings and bodyguards.  An Arakite merchant would certainly be travelling with either wives or concubines.  Faalken would be his bodyguard, for it was also common for Arakite merchants to travel with such men.  Dar was Arkisian, and because of that, he would serve as Azakar's doman, or heir, a youth in Azakar's trading house that was learning the business from his elders.  Allia would be Azakar's maidservant, wearing a heavy robe with a veil that would effectively hide the features that marked her as Selani, and would instead only let the onlooker see the dark skin that would make him assume she was Arakite.  Dar spoke Arakite, which was still the national language of Arkis, and had extensive education in economics, which would reinforce the illusion and help cover Azakar's mistakes.  Tarrin and Keritanima also spoke Arakite, and it was going to be their job to translate any Arakite dealings for the others.  He was going to ride in Miranda's satchel, but either Keritanima or Allia would be close enough to listen should he need to say something to them.  Keritanima and Miranda would also be merchants, but Wikuni merchants, with Binter and Sisska serving as their bodyguards underneath Illusions created by Keritanima and Dolanna.  For Wikuni and Arakites to travel together was not unheard of, especially if the Wikuni were courting the Arakite for the rare silks, chaba wood, gems, salt, or spices that Yar Arak exported.

      It was a very effective ruse Dolanna had devised.  Azakar's sheer size and his ability to intimidate would allow him to avoid the majority of attempts of others to talk to him, and Dar would be there to help him through any forced conversation with real merchants.  Because Arakite merchants travelled with such large retinues, and dealt so much with Wikuni, it would allow them to travel together without raising too much suspicion.

      "Catch, Tarrin," Dar said in Arakite, which caused the Were-cat to turn around in time to snatch a  sheathed dagger from the air.  It was Tarrin's, the dagger he'd won at the fair just before leaving Aldreth, which he had lent to Dar some days ago.  Dar grinned at him.  "I see you're not getting rusty," he continued in Arakite.

      "I don't get rusty with languages, Dar," he replied in flawless, fluent Arakite.  "It's a knack."

      "That accent is not a knack," he criticized.  "It's atrocious."

      "Blame my father.  He sounded the same way."

      "Then I'll have to have a long talk with him when we get back to Suld," he said, closing his pack and tying it shut.  "I'm ready.  I hope we'll have time to buy some new clothes."

      "Who knows how long we'll be here?" Tarrin shrugged, tying closed his own pack.  Tarrin only owned a few sets of clothes, the dagger, and a few other small personal items.  He didn't really need a great deal of excess baggage slowing him down.  That made his own backpack very light.  He slid it onto his back and settled the straps into a comfortable position on his back, then changed form to make sure the backpack would go into that elsewhere the same as his clothes.  It did so, and, satisfied, he shifted back to his humanoid form.  He touched the shaeram around his neck, remembering a time when he almost took off his own head to get rid of it.  How things had changed.  It meant much more to him than a collar now, it represented the Goddess, and it was something that never failed to send a little electric tingle through his fingers when he touched it.  It still represented a little bit of captivity, to the Goddess if anyone else, but she had already proved that she was the gentlest of mistresses, and someone whom he could tolerate for the time he would be subservient to her.

      There was a knock on the door, then it opened.  Azakar looked a bit silly in the robes, and the look on his face made it apparent how much he disliked Dolanna's plan.  "Mistress Dolanna wants us up on deck.  We're starting to get ready to dock."

      "I'm not ready yet," Dar said, pulling the robe she had made for him over his head.  He looked like a smaller version of Azakar in that robe.

      "Well, step on it, cousin," Azakar chided.  "We can't keep Mistress Dolanna waiting."

      "Zak, you look like a butterfly," Tarrin noted.

      "Please.  I've already been called a fluffy dandersnap by Faalken.  That was right before I threw him overboard."

      "You didn't!" Dar gasped.

      "Some insults can't be left unchallenged," Azakar said bluntly.  "He should be glad he wasn't in his armor yet.  His armor would have sent him straight to the bottom."

      Dar gave Azakar a strangled look, then burst out laughing.

      "Azakar," Tarrin said as he started closing the door.

      "What?"

      "Don't even think of trying to throw me over the rail."

      "I'm not that stupid, Tarrin," he said waspishly as he closed the door.  That only made Dar laugh harder.

      On deck, they were all there.  Faalken's hair was still damp, and the sight of it mad Dar explode into laughter yet again.  That drew a nasty look from the Knight, but it did nothing to make the young Arkisian stop.  Everyone was in costume, he saw.  Azakar and Dar wore flowing, voluminous robes of very bright reds and yellows.  Dolanna wore a simple silk robe of white with a veil over her face, which marked her as a married woman in Arakite society, and Allia wore a robe of green, which denoted her as a servant.  She too was veiled, allowing one to only see her dark skin and lustrous blue eyes.  Blue eyes were uncommon among Arakites, but not among halfbreeds.  And since halfbred Arakites were held in contempt, it was logical for one to be a servant.  Faalken wore his Knight's armor, which was good enough because only the surcoat held any heraldry that marked him as a Knight of Karas.  He wore a very plain wool surcoat now, dyed blue, with only a white sunburst design for decoration.  Keritanima and Miranda wore similar dresses of a very lustrous satin, a common material and cut for well-to-do Wikuni merchants, but Keritanima had changed her hairstyle from the flowing, curly way she usually wore it to a severe bun behind her head.  The move altered her appearance in a startling manner.  She looked much more mature, stern, august, almost a little severe.  Because the fact that her dress had no neckline, only a stiff collar that begun just under her chin, matched a very stiff-backed posture and appearance, it made her look like a completely different person.  The dress itself was just as severe as Keritanima's appearance.  It was gray, a gloomy, drab gray, and it covered everything but her head and her hands.  There was a bit of lace at the cuffs, and a bit more on the dress's high neck, with just a hint of lace running along the many little pearl buttons that went up the front of the bodice.  It was something a spinster would wear, and it made her look totally different.  Miranda's dress was the complete opposite.  Her neckline could almost be called a waistline, ending just above her belt.  A single band of cloth crossed over her breasts between the two sides of her neckline to make sure her dress didn't slip and expose anything best left unseen.  The dress's cream color blended in an odd way with her white fur, making it hard to find where the dress ended and the fur began.  It was an illusion of showing everything while only showing about half of everything.  The beaten gold belt and a ruby pendant necklace broke up that expanse of white.  What surprised him was that Miranda had dyed her hair and her tail both.  Where he expected that silky blond, he found instead a dark mahogany.

      "Wow," Dar said as he looked at the pair.

      "Impressive, isn't it?" Keritanima said with a wink, which dropped the stern expression and allowed a hint of the old Keritanima to peek out.  "Meet Kaylin, Mistress Merchant of House Eram, and her new partner, Allison, Mistress Merchant of House Alagon."

      "What do you think, Tarrin?" Miranda asked, turning around for him.

      "I think I'm talking to strangers," he replied.

      "That's the idea, silly," Keritanima chided.

      "Where are the Wikuni pirates?" Dar asked curiously.  Tarrin looked towards the amidships, and they were indeed gone.

      "Kern moved them into the hold while we were changing," Faalken answered, ruffing his hair with a hand, then shaking the water off of it.  His dark, curly locks were plastered to his face, and that made Dar giggle like a little girl.

      "We did not want them to see us in our disguises, so I asked Kern to put them out of sight.  Sheba could cause us trouble if she managed to make her Highness' location well known.  There is a reward out for her capture."

      "You look damp, Faalken.  Did you take a bath before changing?" Tarrin asked in a calm voice.  Faalken glared at him a moment, and that made Dar explode into helpless gales of laughter.

      "I see this mutinous dog stopped by your cabin," Faalken said darkly, pointing at Azakar.  "I hope we do get attacked.  I'm going to let them carve a few slices off your backside, Zak."

      "They can try," Azakar shrugged, but there was a slight smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye.  "I'm not so sure you could protect me anyway.  It's a good thing I'm here.  Old Knights like you should stay on the training field and leave the real fighting to us."

      "Here we go," Dolanna said in a low voice to Tarrin as Faalken and Azakar began exchanging barbs.  "Azakar has declared war.  Faalken will be unable to resist retaliating.  There will be a war of pranks."

      "At least we'll be entertained, Dolanna," Tarrin said sagely.

      "So long as they do not bring down the inn around us," she sighed.

      The group settled more and more into their disguises as the ship approached the city.   They passed the outer fringes of the anchored ships, ships anchored outside the city for one reason or another, probably to avoid paying a berthing charge.  It was about that time that a sleek Wikuni frigate, one of their purely military vessels, came into sight from behind another galleon.  It was a larger frigate, polished, clean, and immaculate, and it moved on the breeze directly in front of them.  Then it dropped its anchors and opened its gunports.

      "This is not good," Keritanima said suddenly, peering at the ship.  "It's military, but it's flying the flag of the House Zalan."

      "What does that mean?" Tarrin asked calmly, staring at the ship.

      "That means that it's acting directly under orders from Arthas Zalan," she replied soberly.  "Arthas Zalan is Sheba's father."

      "Do you think he knows we have her?" Dar asked a bit uncertainly.

      "I don't see how he could possibly find out, but he wouldn't be stopping us for no reason.  Especially when we're not in open water.  If he fires on us, he'll have hell to pay for it from the Dayisan Council.  And that doesn't even come close to what my father will do to him for tarnishing the Wikuni reputation."

      "I think that now would be a very good time to return below decks," Dolanna said urgently.  "We cannot let them see us in our disguises any more than we can Sheba."

      "I think you have a point, Dolanna," Keritanima said seriously, looking at the bristling warship.

      The others turned to go back to the cabins, but Tarrin didn't go with them.  He instead shapeshifted into his cat form, then padded along the busy sailors up onto the steering deck, to sit sedately next to Kern by the makeshift helm.  Kern was bellowing orders to lower sails and drop anchor, but he wasn't ordering them to prepare for combat.  Kern obviously felt that the Wikuni wouldn't dare shoot at them when they were sitting in the middle of a flotilla of civilian vessels.

      Tarrin watched as Kern's sailors expertly brought the ship to a stop not twenty spans from the frigate's broadside.  Easily within shouting range.  The wind blew the galleon to the side, and it rotated on its anchor chain to turn its side to the frigate.  Kern had them do that on purpose, so he could look right at the Wikuni ship's commander without having to leave the helm.

      "Ahoy, captain, yer blockin' my line!" Kern boomed.  "I'd ask ye to move yer ship out of my way!  I have right of way!"

      "I'm not here to accede to human demands," the Wikuni captain shouted back.  He looked like a peacock in his multi-colored uniform and jacket, with a ridiculous wide-brimmed hat on his head.  He was a dog-Wikuni, or some kind of canine, maybe even a wolf, tall and gangly with brownish fur and a white patch of fur over his left eye.  "You're holding Lady Sheba Zalan of the House Zalan!  You will surrender her to my custody immediately!"

      "You mean Sheba the Pirate?" Kern asked acidly.  "Aye, I've got her sorry hide on my ship.  And it'll take me a ride to scrub the stench of her out of the hold!  But I ain't gonna hand her over to ye, boy, cause ye'll just give her another ship to sail and send her back out to terrorize the sea lanes!  And there's the matter of the reward, too!"

      "That was not a request!" the Wikuni snapped, his fangs baring slightly.  "Hand her over, or I'll blow you out of the water!"

      "That'll be a neat trick, shootin' my ship out of the water without hurtin' yer precious Sheba, now won't it?" he asked with a wicked grin.  "Besides, if ye do take a shot at me, I'll toss her over the side wearin' ten leg irons!  I don't think she'll be swimmin' too well."

      That put the Wikuni captain at a loss.  He obviously hadn't considered what to do if Kern didn't hand her over.  He spluttered a few times, then seemed to regain control of himself.  "Father Tonta, would you kindly set fire to their sails?" he asked of his priest in a very loud voice, meaning for Kern to hear.

      But Tarrin was already one step ahead.  He jumped up onto the scarred railing and regarded the Wikuni frigate with glowing green eyes.  He touched the Weave smoothly and easily, feeling the itching of High Sorcery start to seek him out, but he had enough time to weave together a thick rope of air and divine power, then release it at the Wikuni priest.  It took the form of an invisible fist, and it struck the priest squarely in the middle of his ursine snout.  The big bear Wikuni crumpled to the deck, out cold.

      "It ain't that easy," Kern said with a waggling finger.  "Ye got yer magician.  I got mine.  And as ye see, my magician beats yer bear.  Now, if ye try that again, I'll have my magician tear out yer mainmast."

      The captain stared at the priest in shock, then gaped at Kern with something approaching horror.

      "Now kindly get that scowl out of my way, before ye make me angry," he snapped.

      "Not until you release the Lady Sheba!" he blustered

      "If ye want her that bad, you can fish her out of the Dayisè dungeon and deal with the Council, but yer not gettin' her off my ship!" he said adamantly.  "Not without paying me the reward!"

      That made him hesitate.  "What reward?"

      "There be a bounty on Sheba's head," he called back.  "Ten thousand gold crowns, dead or alive.  Pay me that reward, and I'll hand her over to ye."

      "That's piracy!"

      "No, what Sheba does be piracy.  What I be doing is called blackmail.  Ten thousand, take it or fish Sheba out of a dungeon cell."  He put his hands on the railing and gave the captain a savage grin.  "Would ye be wantin' her dead, or alive?"

      The ugly immediacy of Kern's threat hit the captain like a fist.  He stepped back visibly and regarded the grizzled captain with astonishment, then he tore his hat off his head.  "All right all right!  Ten thousand crowns!"

      "Cash."

      "How dare you--"

      "Send over a chest, or ye'll be gettin' yer precious Sheba back in six seperate bags," he warned.

      "I don't have that much money!"

      "Then ye be havin' a serious problem.  I'll just send ye as much of Sheba as ye can pay for.  I'll keep the rest."  He looked at his fingernails, then buffed them on the front of his canvas shirt.  "Let's say, oh, two thousand crowns a limb.  I'll give ye the torso for free. I be feelin' generous today."

      "That's monstrous!"

      "No.  Sending good men down just for what their ship carries be monstrous.  Yer precious Sheba be ten times more a monster than me."

      "I can pay you five thousand in cash, and I think I have cargo and some jewelry that will cover the remainder," the captain said after a moment of intense silence.  "It's the best I can do.  I just don't have any more."

      "I'll take yer five thousand, and I'll be takin' twenty kegs of gunpowder from ye to cover the difference."

      "I can't give you that!"

      "Then ye only be gettin' back half of Sheba.  Which half do ye be wantin'?"

      The captain glared furiously at him, but he finally slumped his shoulders in defeat.  "Agreed.  I'll start ferrying over your ransom.  But don't think I'll forget about this!  And neither will the Wikuni!"

      "I don't think the kingdoms of the West be forgettin' that a Wikuni noble house be comin' to bail out the worst pirate on the Sea of Storms," Kern shot back.  "After word of this do be gettin' out, there may not be many ports to welcome Wikuni ships."

      That made the captain stare at him in momentary terror.  Then he whirled around and started shouting orders.

      "That was nervous," Kern whispered to Tarrin.  "I do be appreciatin' yer help, lad.  Ye put the priest out."

      Tarrin jumped off the rail and onto the deck, then shifted back into his humanoid form.  With Sheba being released, there was little reason to hide from the Wikuni.  They'd know about him just as soon as Sheba started talking.  "Why did you give her up?" he asked Kern curiously.

      "Because I be in no shape to take on a Wikuni frigate," he replied calmly.  "Best to give her over and get what I can be gettin' in the bargain, since they'd be gettin' her back no matter what.  It be cheaper for them to buy her from me than it would be for them to be bribin' the ruling council of Dayisè.  At least this way, I be seein' profit from the exchange, rather than Dayisè."

      "True," Tarrin agreed.  The galleon was still damaged from the fight with Sheba, and the frigate had cannons trained on them already.  At such close range, they wouldn't last more than a few heartbeats.  Kern would end up either handing her over or killing her, and killing her would be a death sentence for the Star of Jerod.  At least by dragging money out of the Wikuni, Kern was getting something for his trouble.  "Why ask for gunpowder?" he asked.

      "Because I can sell it for a thousand crowns a keg," he said with a grin.

      "Good reason," he said, rubbing his chin absently.

      It took about a half an hour for the Wikuni to arrange the ransom in two longboats, then launch them.  Kern's men hauled up the cargo quickly and efficiently, and it was stacked after it was checked to make sure it was the real thing.  Kern then had his men bring Sheba and her surviving crew members up from the hold.  Sheba looked victoriously smug, even arrogant, and she immediately started issuing outrageous demands.  It only took seconds for her to get on Tarrin's nerves.  He'd never directly talked to her, never even so much as given her a second glance, and from the way she was acting now, he was glad of it.  He'd have killed her.  When she looked at Kern after the man had come down from the helm, Tarrin accompanying him, she gave him a smile, but had eyes full of hate.  "You're a dead man now, Kern," she warned with a bit of a sneer.  "The first thing I do after I get a new ship is come and hunt you down."

      "I don't think so," Tarrin told her, stepping between them and staring down at her with glowing, ominous green eyes.  "If you so much as touch this man or this ship, I'll make sure you wish I'd never saved your life."

      "I'm not afraid of you," she sneered.

      "Then you're a fool," he snapped, grabbing her by the shirt and hauling her off the deck.  He brought her nose to nose with him, her feet dangling over the deck, and he saw her eyes, eyes so much like his own, widen in fear.  "If you come within a mile of Kern, I'll hunt you down and gut you, then tie you to the mast by your entrails," he hissed in a savage voice.  "Don't think I can't do it.  Don't forget how I almost brought your entire ship down around your ears.  Now get out of my sight, before your father gets back nothing but a pelt."

      And with that, Tarrin threw her over the side.

      She made the most wonderful scream as she fell, which was cut off by her impact with the water.  He didn't look over, but the savage curses and vile promises hurled at him from below made it apparent that had her head above water.

      "Kern," Tarrin said in a steady voice, looking at him.

      "What is it, lad?"

      "I think you need to get yourself a cat."

      Kern looked at him, then his eyes widened, and he grinned.  "Aye, I do believe ye be right.  A nice black cat."

      "We'll find something suitable in Dayisè.  I'll give it some instructions."

      "I be appreciatin' that, lad."

      After Sheba was fished out of the sea, things went smoothly.  The panther Wikuni glared at him from the other ship, her eyes boring into him as she spoke to the ship captain in hushed tones, but Tarrin didn't give her much mind.  He turned and shifted back to cat form, then laid down by the ship's crudely fashioned emergency wheel.  After the Wikuni were loaded aboard the frigate, it raised its anchor and pulled away from the galleon without so much as a word from its captain.

      "I think ye can tell Dolanna to come back up," Kern told him as the galleon began moving towards Dayisè again.

      Tarrin nodded to him, then padded towards the steep stairs to the deck.  He shifted back into his humanoid form once he was in the companionway below, then opened the door to her cabin.  "Dolanna, the Wikuni are gone," he told her.  "We're moving again."

      "I felt the ship's motion, dear one," she told him lightly, adjusting the veil over her face a bit to get it off the base of her nose.  "Any problems?  I heard Sheba screaming."

      "She threatened Kern, so I tossed her overboard," he replied bluntly.

      "Well, I suppose she had that coming," she mused.  "Tell the others to go back on deck."

      "Yes ma'am," he acknowledged with a nod.

      He opened each cabin door and told the occupants that it was over, and they began to arrive back on deck.  Azakar still looked uncomfortable in his brightly colored robes, and Faalken's continuous jibes didn't help the matter.  The cherubic Knight was careful not to get within arm's reach of the hulking youth, mainly because he was wearing his armor this time.  Tarrin didn't waste time, he shifted back into cat form and climbed into Miranda's shoulder bag, then pushed and nudged at the contents until he could lay down somewhat comfortably.  He got jabbed by one of Miranda's needles, which required another round of settling in until the needles stuck into skeins of yarn and bobbins of thread no longer posed a stabbing threat.  Miranda picked up the bag after he stopped moving and rested it on her shoulder easily, looking down into the open mouth of it and giving him a cheeky grin.

      "How do they keep control of all this?" Dar asked curiously.  "There are so many ships.  How do they know where to go?"

      "Most of them don't," Keritanima replied.  "Most of the quays are first come, first served.  Some of them have specific berths.  Those are the ones that have the red paint along the edges of the dock.  That means someone owns that berth, and only certain ships can dock there.  The rest are run by the city."

      "It seems crazy.  How do they move their cargo if they don't know where they're going to be docking?"

      "That's how they've done it for hundreds of years," she replied.  "I don't know the specifics of how they transport cargo, but they must have some kind of system."

      Tarrin peeked out of the shoulder bag to see them approach Dayisè.  They had cleared the ring of anchored ships and were moving into the harbor.  He noticed that there were no sea fortresses, no naval defenses in place to defend the island city from shipborne attack.  Then again, who would dare attack?  The sheer number of ships coming and going, all of which would probably join in the defense of the important city, meant that an attacker would have to fight an armada of various ships to gain access to the islands.  Kern directed the ship into the middle of the rows of stone quays, until he pulled up to an open slip at the end of one of the larger piers.  It was painted red--Tomas must own the berth--and men were on hand to accept ropes thrown from the ship so it could be pulled in and secured.

      It only took about twenty minutes to go from the Wikuni frigate to being tied to the dock.  Once the ship was stable, the gangplank was lowered, and Kern approached them from the steering deck.  "Here ye be, Mistress Dolanna," he told her in his gravelly voice.  "I hope ye have a good journey."

      "Your aid was indispensible, Captain Kern," she replied with a gentle smile, letting him take her hand.  "We thank you, both for your aid and for your discretion."

      "Tell Kern to expect a new cat sometime in the next couple of days," Tarrin told Keritanima in the manner of the Cat.

      "Uh, Kern, Tarrin says to expect a new cat in the next couple of days.  If that makes any sense."

      "Aye, it makes perfect sense," he replied.  "He said he'd be teachin' a cat that looks like him how to act, so I can use it to bluff anyone who knows about him."

      "Clever," Keritanima said appreciatively.

      "Good journey to ye, Dolanna," Kern said.  "I got repairs to oversee."

      "May the winds ever favor you, Kern," Dolanna replied.  "Alright, my friends, let us find an inn, then I will attempt to locate Renoit. Keritanima, help me hide your Vendari companions behind Illusions."

      Dayisè's streets were wide, and there was a curious lack of horses that were common in Suld.  The place smelled of people and fish, rotting fish, and the wastes associated with both of them.  But the sea breeeze blew in from the ocean, cleansing it of much of the miasma that hung over Suld.  Tarrin peeked out of the shoulder bag and watched people go by, people dressed in every imaginable style and manner.  Suld was a port city, but Dayisè was a port first and a city second.  What caught his attention was that ever third person was Wikuni.  The Wikuni almost owned Dayisè, it seemed, for there were a tremendous amount of them walking the city streets.  Azakar led their group along the streets, following Dolanna's quietly relayed directions.  None of the Wikuni gave Keritanima or Miranda even a second look.  After all, Keritanima looked totally different from what she did now, and the Vendari bodyguards that always accompanied her were absent.  Nobody would believe that the fox-Wikuni was the High Princess.

      "Get down, Tarrin," Miranda said under her breath.

      Tarrin hunkered down a bit so he couldn't be seen, but kept looking about intently.  The architecture of the city was modest, most of the buildings being made of a grayish stone with white streaks in it, probably quarried from the islands themselves.   Most buildings were directly against the street, making the place feel more like a hallway than a thoroughfare.  Most of the buildings were inns or taverns, but that was a function of their location.  So close to the docks, they were in an area that catered either to cargo or to the men that crewed the ships.  Because sailors were a very rowdy bunch, most of the buildings showed some minor damage, and bits of broken glass and the occasional splinter or tankard shard could be found near the walls of the buildings.  The run-down appearance of the area told them that the owners weren't all that worried about appearances anyway.  There were very few horses, and the ones that were there were all pulling carts.  There were some litter-carriers, hauling about this or that rich person, even a coach or two.  But almost everyone was on foot, and most of them had the look of seafarers.  There were a surprising number of women about, obviously citizens who looked after the businesses that catered to the very many travellers and sailors that frequented the city, but a good number of them were wearing the revealing dresses and had the general appearances of prostitutes.  For such a group, there was no doubt that there were a good number of brothels in the city.  That didn't count the freelancer hard currency girls.  It was a Shacèan city, and his father had told him often than Shacèans didn't look down on prostitution.  It was a job, just like any other, and it wasn't a bad thing for a woman to be a prostitute.  There was a great deal of money to be made in the trade, if the woman had the right body and face.  Shacèans were a rather liberal sort when it came to that kind of thing, a facet of their general happy-go-lucky and free-wheeling culture.  But not every woman was wearing a dress with her breasts hanging out of it, and those women disappeared as they moved further and further from the docks.  Some were wearing very well-made dresses and jewelry, markers of either well-to-do husbands or good business practices, but most were dressed in simple garb that marked them as workers or servants.  Most of the rich-looking women were escorted by armed men who kept an eye on the other pedestrians, trained bodyguards not unlike Binter and Sisska.

      Dolanna's directions took them to a slightly better part of the city, a neighborhood where the paint was a bit fresher and the streets not as populated by salt-smelling men.  A residential area, where the citizens lived and the better or more refined inns and taverns could be found.  She pointed Azakar to an inn called the Dancing Swan.  "That is where we will go," she told him.  "I have stayed here before."

      "Looks common," Keritanima said, sniffing slightly.

      "It appears common, Kaylin," Dolanna said, using Keritanima's assumed name.  "But you will not find a more interesting innkeeper."

      "Really," she drawled as Azakar opened the door.

      The interior was clean, well maintained, and elegantly decorated.  Art hung on the walls, and a young, handsome boy sat in the corner playing a curious wooden instrument with strings that he held under his chin.  The sound of the instrument was haunting, and it was quite lovely.  The place smelled of humans and alcohol, but the most sumptuous smells of roasting beef, pork, and goose wafted from a door in the back.  A huge chaba wood bar, deeply burnished so the red hue of the wood shined, dominated the back wall of the inn, and the floor was peppered with a great many circular tables, all with padded chairs pushed underneath them.  There were a surprising number of patrons, filling the tables, as well-dressed serving maids moved between them with grace and poise.  A large man stood behind the bar, serving drinks, but it was not to him that Dolanna looked.  She looked to a man dressed in a white silk shirt with a brown vest, a man that looked young and vibrant, with dark hair and handsome looks.  He had a slightly narrow face and looked light-boned and slender, but the warm smile on his face seemed to brighten the room.

      "Snazzy," Miranda said, looking around.

      "Elegant," Keritanima agreed.

      Dolanna walked up to the table and lowered her veil, which made the man's face light in recognition.  "Madame Dolanna!" he said with a slightly twanged voice, a Torian accent.  "So good of you to visit with me again!  I didn't know that you had your eyes on marriage, or I would have suited you," he said with a sly wink.

      She smiled.  "A costume, nothing more, good Haley," she replied.  "I have need to move about without eyes following me.  How have you been?"

      "I've been destitute without your company," he said in a completely insincere voice.  "My nights have been long and lonely, and all the color has bled from the flowers."

      "Flatterer," she said with a slight smile, motioning for the others to join her.  When they got closer to him, Tarrin caught his scent, and it almost immediately made his hackles raise.  It seemed human, but there was something more in it, something extra.  He wasn't entirely human.  "Haley, you remember Faalken.  These are the other members of my group.  Azakar, Dar, Allia, Mistresses Kaylin and Allison, and their bodyguards Ben and Sestra."

      The man Haley seemed to stare at Binter and Sisska, then gave Keritanima a rather curious look, but then his smile returned.  "I see you travel with an unusual group," he said.  "I'm surprised her Highness there agreed to not be your shining star."

      Dolanna gave him a curious look, then she chuckled ruefully as Keritanima glared at him.  "I do hope you will be discreet, my friend.  This is part of the reason why we travel like this."

      "For you, Dolanna, I'll cut out my tongue and let you keep it until you leave," he said grandly.  "I take it you're looking for rooms?"

      "If you have them," she nodded.

      "Of course.  Nobody's rented the top floor suites, so consider it to be yours.  Seven rooms, with a view you'll not find anywhere else on the islands.  I'll even give it to you at cost, because you are an old friend."

      "You were always good to me, Master Haley," she told him gratefully.

      "What's 'at cost'?" Keritanima asked.

      "Why, it's a steal at ten nobles a night," he said with a bright grin.

      "Ten nobles!  That's piracy!"

      "For seven rooms, included meals, the services of a maid and page, and a view that will take your breath away, ten nobles is a bargain," he replied with a wave of his hand, as if her argument was baseless.  "The usual rate is twenty."

      "What is a noble?" Allia asked in a whisper to Dar, so quiet that only Tarrin's sensitive ears picked it up past him.

      "It's a coin worth five gold crowns," he whispered back.

      Tarrin converted it quickly.  For a night here, they could rent rooms in a boarding house for all of them for three months.

      "We accept, old friend," Dolanna said with a gentle smile, taking his hand.  "And tell me, has Renoit left for his spring performances?"

      "Renoit?  He's still performing in the Circus Square, so I guess he hasn't left yet," he replied.  "Did you want to see his troupe?  I have to admit, they are astounding.  More than worth an afternoon."

      "Perhaps we will at that," she said.  "If you do not mind, we really must settle in.  It has been a long journey."

      "Of course, of course!  Dareen, escort our guests here to the Grande Suites," he ordered one of the pretty young ladies standing behind him.  "They are to be treated like the old friends they are."

      "Yes, Master Haley.  If you would follow me please," she told them.

      "I don't like him," Keritanima said waspishly as they went up the stairs.

      "You just don't like someone that's more royal than you," Dar jibed.

      "He's much more of a princess than me," she shot back.

      The suite was huge.  It was a large central sitting room with six assorted bedrooms leading away from it.  It took up the entire top floor of the inn.  Each of the six rooms were large, but some were obviously meant for wealthy guests, and some were meant for their servants.  Each was well decorated, but the lavishness of the larger bedrooms was apparent to any who cared to look.  Tarrin remained in cat form as Dareen showed them the suite, then promised to have a very large meal brought up for them.  Only after she left did he wriggle out of Miranda's shoulder satchel and shift back to his humanoid form.

      "This room is mine!" Keritanima shouted from one of them, probably the largest and most luxurious of them all.

      "Six rooms, ten of us.  Some of us are going to have to double up," Faalken said.

      "I hope your snoring isn't as bad on land, Faalken," Azakar said.

      "I'll do my best to make it worse," he teased.

      "I really need to take a bath," Dar said, tugging at his robes.

      "Haley has a large bathing room in the basement," Dolanna told him.  "Or he will have a bathtub brought up to us, as we please."

      There was a knock at the door, which sent Tarrin back into cat form immediately.  Dar opened it, and found a young, slim, pretty girl in a black dress, with an apron.  Her blond hair was tied back in a tail, and it dangled all the way to her thighs.  The dress ended above her knees.  "Andevous, madamme.  Abuyi Lisette.  Jui sun cecì chate deaux?"

      "Do you speak the common tongue, young one?" Dolanna asked.

      "Oui, madame," she said in a heavy accent.  "Do you require anything?"

      "I think I need a cold bath," Faalken said, looking at the young girl.  That got him an elbow in the ribs from Keritanima.  She winced when her elbow made connection with the steel of his armor.

      "Just a meal for now, my dear," Dolanna told her.  "I will call you if we require anything more."

      "Oui," she said, giving a bobbing curtsy.  "I will hurry the meal."

      "Be still my breastplate," Faalken said, watching the door for a moment after she closed it.

      "I think it's your codpiece you should keep still," Keritanima said waspishly.

      "I love Shacèan maids," Faalken said with hearty sigh and a look at the door.

      "You love anything in a dress.  That's one reason I'm so worried about wearing the robes," Azakar told him, which made the Knight glare at him.

      "I think I broke my arm,"  Keritanima said sulkily, rubbing her elbow.

      "That'll teach you to elbow a Knight."

      "I'll just set fire to your breeches next time," she told him with a slightly ominous smile.

      "I think the maid already did that," Faalken said, which made Allia and Dar break out in laughter and drew a nasty look from Keritanima.

      "Children," Dolanna chided.  "We should settle in.  We will probably be here for a few days."

      "I don't see how someone so old can be a child," Keritanima said in a surly tone as Faalken and Azakar entered one of the rooms.

      "Faalken's temperament passes a great deal of idle time, Keritanima," Dolanna told her in a calm voice, though she was smiling.  "Given the choice of spending a month with him, or a month with you, I would choose him.  He is much more entertaining."

      "That was low, Dolanna," Keritanima said shortly.

      "At least he does not shed," she said, passing into one of the rooms.

      Miranda burst out laughing, but it came up short when Keritanima whirled on her and gave her an ugly look.  "Don't you start too!" she snapped.

      "Kerri, I never stopped," she said with a cheeky grin.  "And you do shed."

      Keritanima growled in her throat, then stomped into one of the rooms.  She made sure to slam the door.  Hard.

      Miranda giggled like a little girl, then looked down and gave Tarrin a cheeky grin.  Then she winked. "You two better claim rooms," Miranda told Allia and Dar.

      "What about you?" Dar asked.

      "My place is with her Royal Shedding Highness," she said simply.  "Binter and Sisska will get a room too.  They may be Kerri's bodyguards, but even they need time to themselves sometimes.  I'll keep an eye on her Highness."

      "We appreciate your consideration, Miranda," Sisska said in her deep, unfeminine voice.

      Tarrin jumped up onto the deeply cushioned couch, upholstered in dark satin, then laid down sedately near the arm.  "I think Tarrin is claiming this room as his own," Allia said with a smile at him.  Tarrin nodded to her.  "Alright then.  I think I would like to unpack this," she said, holding up her pack.

      All the others went into rooms, leaving Tarrin alone.  He didn't mind all that much, for he was rather tired, and it had been a long day.  The couch was soft and pleasant, and it would make a perfect bed for him.  Azakar was carrying his pack, so he knew where to go to get his things.  He had just drifted off to to sleep when the door opened, and two large men carried in a table.  More men behind them brought in chairs, and then a series of ladies lavished large amounts of sumptuous-smelling food onto the table.  Haley himself stood at the door watching the activity, and his smile returned when Dolanna came out of her room.  "As promised, one meal to die for," Haley told her, kissing her hand as the last servant filed out.  "After you dine, I'll have bathtubs brought up so you can wash the sea off of your skin."

      "That would greatly please me, Master Haley," she said sincerely.

      "You never told me you had a pet, Dolanna," he said, looking at Tarrin.  "I didn't see it when you arrived."

      "Mistress Allison was carrying him in her bag," she said calmly.  "The cat likes it in there, and it makes it easy to transport."

      "He's a big cat," he said with a smile, approaching Tarrin, as if to pet him.  But the closer he got, the more striking the dissimilarity of his scent became.  It was blazingly obvious to him that Haley wasn't human, wasn't what he appeared to be.  Didn't Dolanna know that?  Was he an enemy, a lurker, someone who preyed on the unwary?  Tarrin laid his ears back when Haley got near, and then hissed at him when he reached out to pat him on the head.  A clawed paw took a swipe at that hand, which was out of range, but it got his attention.  Haley backed off, slowly, giving Dolanna a rueful grin.

      "I am so sorry, Haley," she apologized as Tarrin growled at the man threateningly. "I have never seen him do that before."

      "Maybe your cat can smell me," he chuckled ruefully.  "I know I don't smell like a human."

      That got his attention.  That he referred to them as human meant that he wasn't one himself.

      "Tarrin's sense of smell is quite acute," Dolanna agreed.  "Now that I think about it, it makes perfect sense."

      "Tarrin?" Haley said with sudden interest, giving Dolanna a sharp look.  "You mean this is the Tarrin?"

      "How do you mean?"

      "Dolanna, how did you get this far?" he asked suddenly.  "Do you have any idea how many of us are looking for him?  I don't believe that you got all the way to Dayisè!"

      "We have been aboard a ship for two months, Haley," she replied.

      "Yes, of course," he said to himself.  "The search has been on land.  But you must have come ashore, or else Triana wouldn't have sent messages about him.  Did he really destroy half of Den Gauche?"

      Triana?  How did he know Triana?  He--

      --of course!  He was part of Fae-da'Nar!  But what was he?

      "You have me at a disadvantage, Haley," Dolanna said seriously.  "I did not think that you kept in touch with the others."

      "Dolanna, what have you done to me?" he groaned.  "I've already given you hospitality, but now I'm harboring a Rogue.  If the Circle finds out about this--"

      "They will not, Haley," she said.  "We will only be here for a few days, at the most.  Then we will be gone."  She looked at Tarrin.  "You can change, dear one.  He already knows who and what you are."

      Tarrin jumped down off the couch, then shifted into his humanoid form. Haley stared at him for a moment, eyes searching, then he sighed ruefully.  Then he chuckled.  "I don't believe this," he grunted.

      "Who is this, Dolanna?  You know he's not human, don't you?"

      "Tarrin, remember when I told you that I had a Were-wolf friend, who taught me most of what I know about Were-kin?"  He nodded in acknowledgement.  "Well, this is the Were-wolf.  Haley, meet Tarrin.  Tarrin, this is Haley."

      "Triana wasn't lying," Haley said appreciatively, looking up Tarrin's considerable height.  Tarrin looked down on the slender man, finding it hard to believe that he was Were.  He didn't look Were, though he did smell it.  But then again, Jesmind had told him once that Were-cats were unique in that their human shape was no longer their natural form.  It stood to reason that all other Were-kin could take a human shape.  And when he was in human shape, he looked just he had, completely human.  Haley, in human form, would look perfectly human.  "You're a bit raw on the edges, boy.  You need to leash that temper."

      "What are you going to do?" Tarrin asked bluntly.

      "Tarrin, Haley has welcomed us and given us hospitality," Dolanna said.  "That means that until we leave his home, he will protect and see to our needs.  Because he gave you hospitality, he will not do anything to you, or against you."

      "It's a Were-wolf custom," Haley told him calmly.  "Until you leave my range, you are pack-mates.  That makes you family.  But now that custom is making me choose between custom and law."

      "Law?"

      "You're a Rogue, boy.  I should be trying to rip your head off right now, but I've given you hospitality.  Every Were-kin, Dryad, Druid, Faerie, Pixie, Sylph, Nymph, Gnome, and Centaur in the West is hunting for you.  I'm shocked you made it this far without running into someone."

      "How did Triana get here before we did?  Is she still here?" he asked.

      "She didn't come here, boy.  Triana is a Druid, and Druids can send messages to other Druids.  I'm nowhere near Triana's ability, but I know enough Druidic magic to be able to receive messages.  Every Druidic adept in the West is hunting for you."

      "I'm not surprised," he said with a grunt and a sigh.  "Everyone else certainly seems to be after me.  Why not the Druids too?"

      "I am surprised at you, boy.  Do you have any idea how many people you killed in Den Gauche?  You wiped out nearly half the city!"

      "So?" he asked in a grim, blunt voice.

      Haley paled and stared at him in a bit of shock, then he cleared his voice.  He gave Dolanna a desperate look, but her own expression was just as calm, even cold, as his.  "Dolanna, you are my friend, but I just cannot allow him to go out and--"

      "You do not understand the situation, Haley," she said calmly.  "What happened in Den Gauche was entirely the fault of your Were-cat, Triana.  She pushed him into a corner, and he fought back in the only way he had available to him."

      "He's feral, Dolanna!  Almost as feral as Mist!  Maybe even more so!  He's not insane, but insanity would be better than this!"

      "Surprising that you can make that conclusion so quickly," she chided him.  "I will be the first to admit that he has developed feral tendencies, but given the tremendous amount of stress that has been placed on him, it is no surprise.  He is not truly feral, Haley.  Not yet."

      Tarrin looked down at the Were-wolf calmly, his green eyes boring into him, and the impulse to strike first, strike now, crossed his mind more than once.  This Haley wasn't coming across as someone that was going to be very helpful, and he had the power to bring the Druids down on him like a hammer.  He was hovering very close to being an enemy in Tarrin's eyes, and that was a very unhealthy position for someone standing within his paw's reach.  Haley looked up at him with his dark eyes, and he showed no fear.  No fear-smell flashed through his scent.  He was not afraid of Tarrin.  That may be a bad mistake.

      "Don't look at me like prey, boy," Haley warned him in a dangerous tone.  "I know how to fight Were-cats."  He turned his back on Tarrin deliberately, a clear indication that he had no fear, then walked to the door and opened it.  Then he turned and gave Dolanna a penetrating stare.  "I've given you hospitality, and that means that I won't raise my hand against you.  But I want you and him out of my inn tomorrow, Dolanna.  I won't harbor a Rogue for any more than I absolutely have to.  And after you leave, I suggest you make sure I don't find you.  If I do, then I'll have my duty to perform, and I fear it won't go over very well with you."

      "As you wish, Haley," Dolanna said calmly, and then he closed the door.

      Tarrin gave Dolanna a calm look, but she dismissed it with a wave of her hand.  "Do not worry about him, Tarrin.  Haley is a very old friend.  I will talk to him this evening, and hopefully we can reach accommodations."

      "You came here on purpose," he realized.

      "Yes," she admitted.  "Haley is a Druid.  I knew that, and I knew that he would know where you stand among his society.  That was information I needed to know.  But he also gives us a way to present a defense for you to them.  If I allow him to observe you, and let him understand why things have happened as they have, then hopefully he can convince the others that you are not as much a threat as they believe."

      "I guess," he said as Faalken and Azakar came out of their room.

      "I heard what was going on, Dolanna, but we decided not to barge in and mess things up," he told her.  "I doubt that two Were-kin on edge would be very receptive to party crashers."

      "Wise as always, old friend," she told him with a straight face.  "And I will tell you now.  Haley's condition is among one of the best kept secrets in Dayisè.  That secret will not be revealed by us.  Is that understood?"

      "Aye," Azakar said as Faalken nodded.

      "Is that clear, your Highness?" Dolanna called in a raised voice.

      From behind the door of the room she chose for herself, there was an angry stamp of a foot.

      "I am glad that that is settled," Dolanna said calmly.  "Now, our dinner has arrived.  Let us get to it before it gets cold.  Tarrin, fetch the others, if you please."

      The meal was spectacular, and the long rides living on sea rations made it that much more heavenly.  Tarrin found himself competing with Azakar over who would get the largest portions, even though there was more food on the table than the entire group could possibly eat.  Tarrin had forgotten what meat tasted like without a cup of salt on it to keep it from spoiling, and it had been since the Stormhavens since he'd had goose or venison.

      After the meal, Tarrin lounged on the couch lazily as Dolanna and Faalken went downstairs to speak with Haley.  The others said their goodnights and wandered to their own rooms, to partake of beds larger than rowcots that didn't sway with a ship.  Tarrin missed the swinging of the deck, in a curious way.  Such motion wasn't all that bad when one wanted to be lulled to sleep, but then again, he'd rarely slept in his bed in humanoid form.  His cat form was much more comfortable for sleeping in cramped conditions.  Now that he was thinking of it, he'd spent the last two months in cat form more than in his humanoid form.  He found it hard to believe that there had been a time that he didn't know how to shapeshift.  It was second nature to him now, something he didn't even have to think about anymore.

      He worried about Haley.  The Were-wolf was in a position to do some serious damage.  He could call on the others, and they could come, or at the very least try to get here before they left.  Tarrin wasn't all that worried about a fight with him, he looked rather scrawny and easy to overwhelm, but that possibility wasn't lost on him either.  He'd rather avoid fighting with him, if only because he was a friend of Dolanna.  That gave him a little respect in Tarrin's eyes.  Not much, but some.

      He wondered what it would be like to be something other than a cat.  Wolves were fairly large animals, and he rather doubted that there were any wild ones on the city-islands.  How did Haley stand it?  Surrounded by humans all the time, unable to express the other side of himself.  At least Tarrin could move about in his other form at will, being lost among the other domesticated animals.  But Haley was a large predator, an animal that organized into packs that cooperated with each other.  How did he translate that into living on the small island, surrounded by humans and Wikuni?  For that matter, why was he here in the first place?  A Were-wolf would have no business in such a place.  Maybe he did change form and go out.  Not to hunt people, or even animals, just to go out and walk around in his wolf form, pretending to be someone's pet.  A pet that would turn heads, but a pet nonetheless.  At least Tarrin didn't attract attention.  He was just another cat.

      Cat.  He had to find a cat to replace him on the ship.  He owed Kern that much for everything the grizzled old sea captain had done for them.  With everyone in bed and Dolanna downstairs, he figured it was the perfect time to go ahead and do just that.  It was dark, and that meant that the cats were out, searching for their nightly meals.  It wouldn't be that hard to track down a stray black cat and offer it a permanent home.

      Besides, after two months cooped up with the others, he wanted a little time by himself.

      Getting out of the inn was as easy as going downstairs and padding through the crowded common room, then out the open door.  Nobody noticed him in the bustle of serving girls and raucous patrons.  After slipping out, he was loose on the streets of Dayisè.  They were crowded streets, filled with many Wikuni and sailors of every nation on the planet, and it was still well represented by merchants and other business men.  The other business of the night was prostitution, and he only had to walk a few blocks before returning to the areas where hard currency girls plied their trade.  But his business that night had nothing to do with harlots or merchants.  The scents of other cats weren't easy to find, and he realized that the island nation didn't have a very large population of land-based animals common to mainland cities.  There were wild cats about, but they were very spread out and not easy to find.

      Tarrin spent a few hours tracking down the widely scattered wild cats, but none of them were suitable.  The cat had to be black, and had to be large enough to pass for him.  He found nine cats during those hours of slinking through alleys and winding streets, avoiding the humans and Wikuni, and none of them were the right coloration.  He worked his way back towards the docks, finding another scent in a filthy garbage-strewn alleyway that had human scents in it as well.  A relatively fresh scent.  Looking up, Tarrin realized that the smell, masked by the stench of the refuse, was strong enough to put the owner of it in the alley.  There was also a strong smell of blood.  He hadn't seen any humans when he came in, and there wasn't a blood trail to justify the strong smell.  But there was alot of blood near the alley's end, even spattered on the walls.  Whatever had happened had happened here, and that there was no blood trail leaving said to him that the victim had to still be here.

      It took only a moment to find the source of that smell, and the discovery filled him with a near rage.  It was coming from a very young woman, barely more than a girl, who had been thrown into a pile of reeking garbage.  She had been beaten so severely that he couldn't make out any facial features, and was still literally pouring blood from many savage lacerations and slash marks, saturating the garbage upon which she had been cast.  Someone had literally tortured the young woman, whose clothes marked her has a prostitute, then left her for dead.  Tarrin changed form and gently lifted her out of the pile, then set her on the dirty cobblestones of the alley's paved floor.  She was still alive, but that would only be for a moment longer.  She was nearly gone.  Tarrin instinctively reached out and touched the Weave, and placed a paw on her bare, slashed belly.  She had nearly been disemboweled by a knife.  She was injured both inside and outside, broken bones, cuts, abrasions, bruises to her internal organs, one of her eyes punctured by the point of a knife.  That someone would willingly inflict such ghastly injuries to a defenseless woman and leave her alive, letting her suffer until time took her from the world, seemed monstrous.  Utterly monstrous.  There was more, lower down, an anomoly in her body's chemistry--

      She was pregnant!  She was with child, and many of the injuries centered around her stomach.  Had the attacker known she was bearing life?  If so, had the attacker specifically focused on killing the unborn?

      High Sorcery would not be held back this time, but it didn't matter.  Tarrin's fury gave him an icy control that knuckled the awesome might of High Sorcery under, and without thinking about it, he managed to control that power that had always overwhelmed him before.  Tarrin's paws limned over with the ghostly radiance that marked the use of High Sorcery, and he wove together those flows of water, earth, and Divine power that made up a healing spell, then released it into her.  The girl's back arched severely as the intense cold sensation froze over the pain, but her slashes and lacerations stopped bleeding and began to seal over.  Hidden injuries also healed over at an astonishing rate.  Her eyes filled back in and repaired themselves, and her broken nose took on the shape it had originally held.  Bone marrow was magically incited to produce the essential elements that made up blood, and broken bones quickly and seamlessly set themselves and fused.   After the healing was done, Tarrin wove together a pure weave of Divine energy and released it into her, letting the power of the Weave itself infuse the girl to replace the vital energy she had lost in the healing.  She would still feel exhausted, but it would be more of a feeling of exertion than the usual feeling that someone had sucked all her blood out through her nose that accompanied normal Healing.  She was pregnant, and if he didn't replenish the energy she had lost, her unborn would suffer because of it.

      Her eyes fluttered open as Tarrin pulled his paw away.  They were beautiful eyes, blue as the sea, and they were well matched to her blond, honey-colored hair.  That anyone would try to kill such a pretty young girl itself was criminal.  She looked a bit confused, staring up at him blearily, then she coughed a few times to clear some blood from her lungs.  "Who did this?" Tarrin asked in a quiet tone full of promised vengeance.

      She looked at him, her eyes clearing.  "My, my, shado," she said in a heavily accented voice.  "My agent."

      "Agent?"

      "He who arranges my customers, yes."

      "Where is he?"

      "What will you do?" she asked after a moment.

      "What he did to you," he replied in a tone of utter emotionlessness.

      That made her eyes harden slightly.  "Go out and turn left.  Two streets down, in the Laughing Mermaid inn," she said.  "Make him hurt."

      "He'll hurt," Tarrin said in an ugly tone, flexing his claws menacingly.  He leaned down and sniffed delicately at her neck and shoulder.  His scent was still on her from his contact, and it sealed the man's doom.  That scent was blazed into his memory, and there was nowhere in Dayisè where he would be safe from Tarrin's avenging fury.

      It didn't take him long to reach the Laughing Mermaid.  It was a rangy, run-down place that catered to sailors and the prostitutes that served them.  The place had no door, just two shutter-like wooden panels hanging in the doorframe.  He pushed them open and stepped into the inn, his sharp eyes taking in all of the patrons in the large common room in a single glance.  Most were armed, and many of them had the look and bearing of men used to having the floor rock underneath them.  But one stood out, because his hair was wet.  It would need to be wet, because with as much blood as the girl lost, some of it had to get on her attacker.  Tarrin moved directly towards the man, who was sitting at a table in the back of the inn, attended by four young women who were dressed as prostitutes.  Tarrin knocked one drunken man out of his way as he moved directly towards the man, inciting a loud protest in a slurring voice.  But he paid it no heed.  He reached the table and stood there for a second, giving the ladies a chance to get out of the way.  The man noticed him and looked up, his face serene and a smile gracing his features.  "Well, you're an interesting Wikuni.  Have a taste for human girls?"

      Tarrin put his paws on the table and leaned forward, just close enough to get a very good whiff of the man's scent.  It was him.  And the smell of the girl's blood was still all over him.

      "You didn't clean off all the blood," Tarrin told him in an icy tone.

      That serene smile dropped, then turned into a mask of terror when Tarrin's eyes exploded into the green radiance that clearly marked his rage.  It would be the last thing the man would ever see.  The girls shrieked in terror when Tarrin's paw lashed out and hit the man square in the face, palm first, the padded palm breaking his nose and his claws punching through both eyes.  Tarrin's claws hooked into the sockets, and he dragged the man back across the table by that grisly clawhold, as the man shrieked in agony and grabbed his wrist with both hands.  Tarrin picked him completely up off the table by that grip, then slammed him down into it with enough force to shatter the table and drive the man to the floor.  Blood erupted from his mouth and sprayed on Tarrin's palm, when wood shard penetrated deeply into his body, stunning him enough for Tarrin to let go, then hold out a single finger with claw extended, a claw sharper than any knife.  He slashed the man five times, in the exact places where he had slashed the girl, then backhanded him to break his left cheekbone.  Claws punched into flesh as Tarrin picked him up off the broken table, then he turned and whipped him back down, letting him smash into the reed-strewn floor with enough force to break bones and split the wood beneath him.

      That was enough.  He wouldn't survive from those injuries.  Shaking blood from his paw absently, he stared directly at the four horrified young women, his expression blank.  They were clutching onto each other.  He noticed the dead silence in the inn; the fury and speed of his assault had taken them all aback, and he was done before even one tried to intervene.  "Don't grieve for him," Tarrin told them in a cold tone.  "What he got is what he gave to a young girl not an hour ago, something he would have done to any of you.  He got what he gave.  No more, no less."

      Then the turned and left the man to bleed on the floor, and wait for Death to come and claim him.

      That bit of business concluded, Tarrin walked out of the inn and into an alley, then changed form and stalked off.  He was still trying to find a cat to replace him, and he wasn't going to stop until he did.

 

      He snuck back into the inn close to dawn, his business finished.  He found a suitable cat about an hour after killing the man who had so grievously injured the young girl, and spent most of the rest of the night teaching it what it needed to know.  Once he had that done, and assured the cat that Kern would feed it and care for it, he took it to the Star of Jerod and woke up Kern.  He introduced the cat, explained how to instruct it to pretend to be him, then explained the cat's demands in return for this service.  Kern was very receptive, for a cat's demands usually went no further than a steady supply of food and a warm place to sleep comfortably.

      The inn's common room still had people inside it, but it was nearly empty.  Only a couple of patrons and a single serving girl remained in the room, the three men drinking from tankards and talking in low tones as the girl cleaned tables nearby.  Haley stepped from a door near the bar and his eyes seemed to be drawn directly to where Tarrin was standing, near the stairs.  He gave Tarrin a blunt look, then pointed to a table near the back, to which Haley moved and sat down.  He was demanding an audience of sorts, he guessed.  There was no real reason to refuse.  Tarrin jumped up onto the table and gave the Were-wolf a calm look.

      "And where have you been all night?" he asked in a slightly hostile voice.

      He didn't see any reason to reply.  He wouldn't understand anyway.  He just stood up and walked to the edge of the table, then jumped down and started for the stairs.

      Upstairs, he settled onto the couch just as the door to Allia's room opened.  She padded out on bare feet and a nightgown lent by Dolanna, looking like a dark-skinned rose in the pink garment.  Her long silver hair was a bit wild, and her eyes hung heavily.  The night without sleep didn't affect Tarrin at all, for he could go days, rides, without any real sleep.  Allia didn't sleep long, but she always had trouble waking up.

      "Tarrin," she said sleepily.  "Dolanna was looking for you.  You were gone all night."

      "I had to find a replacement cat for Kern," he told her in the manner of the Cat.  "It wasn't easy."

      "That Haley was also looking for you.  I don't know why."

      "He probably had a good reason," he said knowingly.

      Keritanima and Miranda came from their room.  Keritanima was wearing one of her dressing gowns and looked very much like herself, rather than the strict, stern Kaylin.  Miranda wore a soft robe that was tied loosely, hanging off one shoulder.  Miranda looked as if she wanted to go right back in there and go back to sleep.  "Morning," Keritanima said.

      Dolanna's door opened, and she stood in the doorway.  She gave Tarrin a blunt look, obviously she wasn't happy about something.  "Tarrin, come in here, now," she said in an authoritative voice.

      Getting up, he padded into her room calmly.  There really wasn't much she could say.  After all, she didn't tell him that he couldn't go out.  He sat on his haunches and looked up at her expectantly.

      "Change," she ordered, and he did so, going from looking up her great height to looking down at her.  She grabbed him by the paw and turned it over, looking down at the dried blood clinging to the pads.  "Really, Tarrin, can you not go out by yourself without killing someone?" she said in exasperation.

      "He had it coming," he said flatly.  "He nearly killed a young girl."

      "And when were you elected judge and executioner?" she demanded.  "They are not your fights, young one.  You should have turned him into the watch."

      "Some things can't be forgiven," he said in a ruthless tone, looking directly into Dolanna's eyes to challenge her position.

      "Word of it reached us," she told him.  "That an exotic Wikuni killed a man in the middle of an inn's common room.  The method of killing immediately told me who it was.  Right now, the Watch is hunting for you, so I do not suggest you go out in your natural form."

      "That's not a problem," he told her.  "Nobody's seen me change, so nobody knows where I am."

      "I do," Haley said from Dolanna's door.  Tarrin hadn't heard him open it.  That said a great deal for the Were-wolf's stealth.  "Dolanna, you lost all the ground you gained last night.  I'm not going to let him run through the streets and kill people whenever he feels like it."

      "Perhaps it would be best to hear his reasons before you pass judgement, Haley," Dolanna told him.  "Well, young one?  Exactly what did provoke this?"

      Without emotion, staring directly at Haley the entire time after he entered the room and closed the door, Tarrin recanted the story of how he found the young girl, then what he did to the man who put her there.  "I don't know where you grew up, but where I was raised we believe in an eye for an eye," Tarrin told the Were-wolf in a neutral tone.  "I did to him what he did to her."

      "And why didn't you turn him into the watch?" he asked.

      "Because they wouldn't have done what needed to be done," he replied calmly.

      "Why bother?" Haley asked.  "What was the girl to you?"

      "She was in need," he said, glaring at the Were-wolf.

      Sighing, Haley sat down.  "Boy, you just have no idea what you're getting yourself into," he said.  "Fae-da'Nar forbids us to act outside the laws where we are unless they jeopardize our own lives or livelihood.  I may not like what the man did, but I can't go around and dish out my own version of justice to whoever I feel deserves it."

      "I'm not part of your order," Tarrin told him.

      "You better be, boy," he replied bluntly.  "If you're not, then they'll kill you."

      "They can certainly try," Tarrin seethed.

      "I think we can dispense with the threats," Dolanna interrupted.  "Tarrin does not kill indiscriminately, Haley.  He usually has a good reason."

      "Boy, I'm not calling you down," he said.  "I'd probably have done the same thing myself.  I'm not heartless.  But I understand that the well being of the Forest Kin depends on us being able to function within the human society.  When among humans, it's important that we don't upset them, and we act more human.  If we mess that up, many of the things that we need will be out of our reach, because the humans won't trust us anymore."

      "So, what would you have done?" Tarrin asked, giving Haley a slightly cross look.

      "I don't really know.  But the point is, I would have weighed the consequences before just charging off.  That's something that you can't seem to be able to do, and that makes you dangerous."  He gave Tarrin a direct look.  "You're feral, boy.  You think you know what that means, but you're not even halfway close.  If you keep doing what you're doing, dishing out justice, killing anyone you deem in need of it, you're going to get harder and harder.  Killing will be easier and easier, and you'll find it to be the quickest and easiest way to solving your problems.  Dolanna told me you feared becoming a monster.  If you keep up the way you're going now, you're going to be that monster.  It won't be the savage mindlessness you fear, it will be a cold and calculating sadism that will make people fear you ten times more than if you were insane.  Were-cats are all half feral, that's one of the reasons the rest of the Were-kin don't like them.  But Were-cats like you and Mist define everything the rest of us don't like about your kind."

      Those words struck Tarrin, and they were right.  At first, he found it hard to kill.  Now it was as easy as deciding between having pork or beef.  But there was little remorse, little regret mixed up in it.  It was more of a declaration of what he was rather than a condemnation of what he had become.  He had to admit to himself that he was hard, that he was feral.  But the moral consequences slid off of him like water.  There was no impact there.

      "I can see that I'm right.  I can also see that you don't care," he noted.  "That's more or less what I expected.  You don't see anything wrong with what you've done because it makes perfect sense to you.  That's a function of the instincts inside you, instincts that have convinced your human mind that its way of doing things are best.  You have to do something about that.

      "Part of being able to function in a human society is being able to make hard choices," Haley said, staring into Tarrin's eyes.  "We all have instincts, and they're very strong.  You have to learn when to tell them no.  You've lost that ability.  If you hope to be accepted by Fae-da'Nar, you'd better learn how to do that again."

      "I don't want acceptance," Tarrin told him flatly.  He understood what was waiting for him if he became soft.  Enslavement, imprisonment, to be used by people he would trust for their own ends.  Deception, abuse, and sorrow.  He could do without that.  "I don't want to change."

      "Then you have little hope," Haley sighed.  "You seem to have conquered the madness, but if you can't conquer your instincts, they'll kill you."

      "Then let them try," Tarrin said, snapping his paw across his chest in a combative display.  "They can get in line behind everyone else."

      "Tarrin," Dolanna said quickly.  "Haley's eyes are on the manacles.  Why do you not explain to him how they got there, and what they mean to you."

      With no emotion, Tarrin stared right at him and related how Jula had betrayed him, and how he had been taken prisoner.  "These remind me of what happens when I trust people," he said heatedly, holding up his arms to let Haley see the heavy steel cuffs.  "These warn me of what happens when I let people get close to me, and I wear them so I'll never forget.  I'll never be put in a cage again.  Never!"

      "Tarrin's position is more than what you believe, Haley," Dolanna told him putting a gentle hand on Tarrin's arm.  "I cannot deny that he is what you believe him to be.  But how he got there is not because of his own choice.  To a Were-cat, there is nothing more terrifying than to be stripped of freedom.  Would you not expect him to erect a defense against it?"

      Haley only gave her a blank look.

      "Tarrin is not as controlled by his instincts as you believe.  Yes, he killed a man.  But it was a man that had attacked a defenseless woman.  Tarrin's instincts have merged with his human morality to create within him a very stark view of right and wrong, of proper and improper.  Tarrin said it himself when he told you that he gave to the man what he gave to the woman.  No more, no less."

      "I'm not disputing that, Dolanna," he said.  "I said that I probably would have done the same thing.  But I wouldn't have killed him in the middle of a common room with some fifty witnesses."

      "You are splitting hairs, Haley," Dolanna said with a slight smile.  "I know Tarrin.  He has triggers, and so long as none of those triggers are touched, he is perfectly fine.  To injure a defenseless woman like that is one of his more sensitive triggers.  Tarrin is extremely protective, even over those whom he does not trust, if he deems them incapable of defending themselves.  Especially children.  And the girl he described could not have been much older than a child."

      "You're talking to a blind man, Dolanna," Haley said.  "I'm not saying I don't agree or disagree.  Personally, I like the boy.  But speaking from the standpoint of Fae-da'Nar, his behavior is totally unacceptable."

      "Then why get me riled up?" Tarrin demanded.

      "Because you have to understand things," he replied calmly.  "If we were in the forest, I'd have no problem with what you do.  But this is human society, so there has to be constraint.  Gutting someone in a common room with people watching isn't much of an exercise in self control."  He pointed at Tarrin.  "The only place for you is the forest, boy.  You've proved that you can't function in human lands."

      "We have little choice, Haley.  I told you what we are doing."

      "I know, but you may want to think about leaving him here, then picking him up when you come back from Yar Arak.  Someone like him in Arak?  He'll depopulate half the country."

      "Maybe they are due for it," Dolanna said.

      Haley laughed.  "Probably.  I've never met an Arakite that wasn't a sadistic, arrogant brute.  But if the fact that he's a Were-cat were to be common knowledge, it would permanently damage our standing in human society."

      "So, you're saying that you don't disagree with what I do, only that I shouldn't do it in public?  Isn't that a bit hipocritical?" Tarrin asked him.

      "I never said that the rules had to make sense," he said with a rueful chuckle.  "There have been a few times I've felt the impulse to change form and take out someone's throat.  I just know better.  That's something you need to learn too."  He sat down in a chair.  "You're not the only one like you.  There's another.  Her name is Mist.  She's a Were-cat, and she's almost exactly like you.  The others don't let her come into human lands any more than absolutely necessary.  She has this bad tendancy to leave a trail of bodies wherever she goes, like another nameless Were-cat I'm not going to mention.  She never kills someone without a good reason, but the human law doesn't see it that way.  Fae-da'Nar tolerates her because she minimizes the damage by only coming out of the forest very seldomly.  So long as she stays outside of human eyes, the Forest Folk don't object to her.  It's when her activities start getting noticed by humans that they do something about it.  That's how it works, boy.  In the forest, we do as we please, but we act our environment.  When we go into human territory, we try to act human.  They have enough reason to fear us as it is.  We don't need to aggravate things."

      "So, I am to assume that you are finished admonishing him?" Dolanna asked.

      "It's not quite that bad, Dolanna," he replied with a grin.  "He just needs to learn the distinctions between proper and improper behavior.  I hope our little discussion helps you see that line."  He got up again.  "Now that that little bit of unpleasant business is behind us, why don't we go downstairs and get something to eat?  But you, boy, will either have to take human form or stay up here.  With what you did, it's best for you to keep that appearance hidden."

      "Come down, Tarrin.  It is a good chance to practice holding the human form."

      "Is he any good at it?" Haley asked.

      "He can hold it for a few hours, but there is always discomfort," she told him.

      "That's normal for Were-cats.  I've never quite understood why they're like that."

      "Jesmind told me that the Were-cats can't hold the human form long because it's not their natural form anymore," Tarrin told him, closing his eyes and bringing his human appearance to mind.  Then he willed the change.  There was an immediate odd sensation from where his tail and ears were supposed to be, there was a dimming of his vision and smell, sounds weren't as sharp or lucid, and he felt curiously diminished, and that constant nagging pain started taking its place in his body.  Allia's exercises and meditative training had helped with some of it, but he couldn't completely put it out of his mind.  "You said that all Were-cats are half feral.  That may be a reason why."

      "Or a symptom of what makes you different," Haley agreed.  "You look odd like that."

      "What do you look like when you do that?"

      "I guess I owe you that much," he chuckled, bending down and taking off his shoes.  Then he reached behind him and pulled a seam in his trousers apart, ripping the thread holding it together.  Then he changed.

      Tarrin was impressed.  Haley was huge.  He was just as tall as Tarrin, stocky and burly while remaining curiously sleek and sinewy, a perfect blending of wolf and human.  Lupine eyes, yellow and luminescent, capped a wolf's head, but he had human-like expression and intelligence.  He looked like a Wikuni, with his pelt of grayish and white fur, his long, bushy tail, and his long, clawed hands and wolf-like back legs.  Trousers that ended at the ankles of the slim man of medium height ended at the knees of his lupine hybrid form.  "Meet Scar," Haley said in a deeper voice, "something of my alter-ego.  Everyone thinks that Scar is a rogue Wikuni trader and fence.  Because Were-kin in hybrid form look almost exactly like Wikuni, it makes it possible for us to move around like this in coastal towns."  He held up a large, long hand, and Tarrin noticed the long yellow claws capping each finger.  They looked sharp.

      "I have forgotten how large you are like that, Haley," Dolanna said mildly, looking up at him.

      "I forget sometimes myself.  Unlike your kind, boy, we Were-wolves don't really like this form.  We'd rather be either in wolf form or human form.  This attracts too much attention when not along the coast."

      "We don't really have a choice," Tarrin told him, flexing some stiffness out of his human fingers, then becoming transfixed by the sight of them.  He'd forgotten what they looked like.  "What do Were-cats do when inland?"

      "The same," he replied.  "They're usually mistaken for Wikuni.  Most Were-cats move around too much anyway.  For a territorial breed, you never seem to spend any time in your range."  He flowed back into his human form, then put his shoes back on.  "Now you see why I wear a doublet and cape," he winked.  "It covers the rip in the seat of my breeches."

      "How often do you go around as Scar?" Tarrin asked curiously.

      "Not often," he replied.  "I don't really need to anymore.  Nobody bothers me.  I'm much too well established in Dayisè to be harassed."

      "I didn't realize it was a problem here."

      "Dayisè is a cesspool of intrigue, boy," he replied.  "Everyone plots around here, right down to the youngest scullery boy.  It's a Shacèan trait, that the Wikuni share only too closely.  I don't think there are two more underhanded races in the world."

      "Then why are you here?" Tarrin asked curiously.

      "I've never been what you'd call a backwoods Were-wolf," he winked.  "I like human luxuries and refinements.  My kin don't think too highly of me for that, so I decided to settle in the one place they'd never come to call.  Most of my kind would rather run through the forest and howl at the moons.  Me, I'd rather have a good book by the fire."

      "What about your instincts?"

      "Oh, I indulge now and again," he replied.  "I go on a hunting trip twice on the mainland twice a year.  Most people just don't know how I hunt.  I may like the city and humans, but I am a Were-wolf."

      Tarrin was starting to lose his suspicion about Haley.  Despite his seeming hostility, Tarrin understood that he was taking that stance because of Fae-da'Nar, not because of his personal feelings.  And now he had a better understanding of what that meant.  Haley himself was a rather friendly fellow, and the fact that he was Were allowed Tarrin to approach him on a more comfortable level.  He had made it clear why they would reject him, and what he would have to do to get them to accept him.  But what were they planning?

      "You said you got a message from Triana," Tarrin said suddenly.  "What did she say about me?"

      "Only that you destroyed half of Den Gauche," he replied.  "And anyone who sees you better contact her immediately.  Oh, we're not supposed to try to handle you ourselves," he winked.  "It seems that you frightened her.  That's impressive.  I didn't think anything could frighten Triana."

      "Did you contact her?"

      "Not yet, but I will," he said bluntly.  "I'm not stupid enough to get on Triana's bad side.  That's one woman you do not upset.  She won't let you forget about it.  Ever."  He gazed at Tarrin with sincerity in his eyes.  "After you leave my inn, I'll contact her and tell her you're in Dayisè.  If you're smart, you'll be gone before she gets here.  I have the feeling she has a rematch in mind, boy.  You don't get a second chance with Triana.  If you see her, you'd better run."

      Tarrin remembered their first meeting.  She had kicked him all over Den Gauche, beaten him senseless and made him feel like the half-whelped cub that he really was.  Only wild luck had saved his life.  No, he wouldn't let himself get anywhere near that dangerous Were-cat.  He feared her, and he had the feeling from Haley's talk that it was the smart thing to do.

      "With luck, we will be gone by tomorrow," Dolanna told him.  "I do not think it wise to tell you how we will leave, or with whom, because your friends may use that knowledge to try to find us."

      "I can live with that, Dolanna.  The less you tell me, the better.  You better have your people pack.  I still want you out of the inn after breakfast.  I'm not going to delay calling Triana, because she'll grill me when she gets here.  My story has to be solid, and that won't work if you're here a few days before I get around to it."  He glanced at Tarrin.  "It's nothing personal, boy, but I fear Triana alot more than I like you.  I'm not an idiot."

      "I'm not offended, Haley," Tarrin assured him.  "You have a duty to perform.  Sometimes duty makes us do things we don't like to do."

      "Now then, let me give you a farewell feast," Haley said.  "It's the least I can for having to throw you out like troublemakers."

      "We are troublemakers, Haley," Dolanna said with a slight smile.  "Just a different kind of troublemaker."

     Haley chuckled, glancing at Tarrin.  "There's no doubt about that," he agreed.


GoTo:   Title                         EoF

Chapter 5

 

      It was absolutely ghastly.

      Tarrin wasn't the only one to stare at the circus ship of Renoit's Most Excellent Travelling Circus in utter dismay.  It was hideous.  In his entire life, he didn't think he had ever--ever--seen such a horridly bright and glowing hue of pink.  It seemed to catch the light and shine it back in the viewer's face, bowling over any who stared at it and leaving spots in the eyes of people who stared at it too long in the sunlight.  It was horrible, it was almost embarassing to look at, it was so glaringly, blatantly loud that it almost made his ears twitch to look at it.

      How could a Shacèan galleon be transformed into such a blaring eyesore?  It was almost unbelievable that what was standing before them now was the same type of ship as the Star of Jerod.  If the paint wasn't bad enough, the shiny filaments woven into the ropes of the rigging gave the ship's sails a glittering, silvery appearance.  And the sails.  They weren't white or canvas, they were a patchwork of a riot of conflicting colors, as if a warehouse full of blankets and quilts had been sewn together to form the eleven sails hanging from the masts and between the foremast and the spinnaker.  Even the masts were painted that horrid pink color.  And not to be outdone, the visible helm was lacquered and laminated in bright blues, greens, and reds, sparkling in the sunlight, with little rhinestones and other sparkly things glued to it to make it scintillate in the rocking of the sea.

      "I am not getting on that thing," Keritanima declared adamantly, dropping her pack on the dock.  "I should order the Wikuni here to sink it as a public service to the world."

      "I never thought that I would see such a thing," Allia agreed.

      "I don't know, I kind of like it," Dar said, which earned him four very ugly looks.  "Hey, we always looked forward to seeing it.  They used to perform in Arkisia every spring."

      "The tragedy of a wasted youth," Azakar said.

      "I think I'd rather swim to Dala Yar Arak," Faalken muttered.

      "The ship carries a carnival, children," Dolanna told them.  "It is supposed to be as festive as the troupe which it carries."

      "That looks like it partied itself to death, Dolanna," Faalken grunted.

      "Be that as it may, Renoit has agreed to interview us.  This is our best chance, so do not do anything to ruin it for us."

      "There goes my idea," Keritanima muttered to Tarrin in Sha'Kar.  "I'd rather face my father's entire fleet than be seen on board that deck."

      "I thought you said you knew Renoit," Miranda asked.

      "I do, but you forget our ultimate objective.  To pass as carnival performers and be able to move freely in Dala Yar Arak, we must be carnival performers.  Renoit is going to place us within his carnival so that we may pass for real performers.  Some of us already have skills and abilities that will make this easy.  For others, it will not be quite so easy."

      "I'm starting to like your idea, Kerri," Tarrin replied to her in Sha'Kar.  "Should we sink it now, or sink it later?"

      "I will have none of that," Dolanna told both of them, in almost flawless Sha'Kar.  That made Tarrin gape.  How had she learned so quickly?

      "Magic," Keritanima told him when he gave Keritanima a curious look.  "She used Sorcery."

      "I didn't think we could do that."

      "Well, I certainly don't know how she did it, and she won't tell me," the Wikuni said with a hostile look at Dolanna's back.

      "Let us go aboard and meet Renoit's troupe," Dolanna announced.

      Tarrin scratched at the skin on his wrist.  The manacles were gone from his arms, locked in the elsewhere that the amulet provided.  They were too loose on his human arms anyway.  The itching was normal, just as common as the nagging pain that focused in those limbs and body parts that were most radically altered when he held human form.  Hands and feet, ears, skull, and his spine.  Actually his entire skeleton, for he was about a hand shorter when in human form than when in his normal form.  The tattering of his trousers, where his claws snagged on them when he put them on, had brought the ragged end of each leg close to his ankle, so they at least didn't look too much out of place.  But the shoes were another matter.  Haley had conjured them using Druidic magic.  One of Druidic magic's little unique tricks, the ability to summon or create objects made of natural materials, or which existed naturally.  He had conjured leather shoes that fit perfectly to his human feet, a parting gift for the Were-cat.  They felt wrong, after so many months walking around barefoot.

      Walking up the gangplank with all their belongings, they stopped just on deck.  The deck, thank all that was holy, wasn't painted.  It was varnished to protect the wood from the seawater, but at least it looked normal.  It was the only thing that looked normal on the ship.  Moving about on it were men and women, some young, and all of them looking to be in fantastic physical condition, wearing plain, drab clothing and no shoes.  Dolanna had once said that Renoit's performers doubled as the ship's crew.  Judging by the ease with which two young humans moved through the rigging, walking confidently along narrow ropes and along spars, he didn't doubt it.  Dolanna called to a young man with raven hair, telling him to go get Renoit, and the group stood there and waited.

      Tarrin scrubbed vigorously at his scalp, where his cat ear usually would be.  "Would you stop that?  You look like you have fleas," Keritanima told him.

      "It feels like someone glued my ears to my head," he replied, scratching harder.  "And these nails just can't get the job done.  I keep trying to extend my claws."

      "That would be a neat trick," she said with a toothy grin.

      The man that had to be Renoit arrived a moment later.  He was a tall man, but the rotund roundness of his body told him that he was no performer.  He was obese, but the way he moved said that he carried that weight lightly, easily, and that he was much stronger than one would think for such a large man.  He was a man unfettered by his own weight.  He wore a costume not too much unlike the garish uniform of the Wikuni captain, a blue waistcoat with a white vest and red shirt underneath, tan trousers tucked into black kneeboots, and a wide-brimmed with a large blue feather stuck into the brim.  He carried a polished ebony cane in his left hand, a cane with an onyx pommel and brass bindings.  "Ah, Dolanna," he said in a Shacèan accent.  "So good of you to come so quickly, yes.  These are your companions?"

      "Yes, Renoit," she said with a smile.  "You already know Faalken," she said, motioning to him.

      "A Knight.  A good bodyguard and strongman you will make, my friend, yes.  A carnival needs good strapping men to protect it."

      "This is Azakar, another Knight," Dolanna said, stepping up to him.

      "This is a man destined for the stage," Renoit said appreciatively.  "Such arms.  Such a chest!  He could pick up the mast!"

      "With help," Azakar said calmly.

      They moved forward.  "This is Miranda, an aide to her Highness."

      "What do you do, my dear?" he asked immediately.

      "What do you mean?" she replied.

      "What can you do?" he asked again.  "All who travel on this ship must contribute to the carnival."

      "I'm very good with my hands," she said.

      "Ah, but you have the body of a dancer," he said, looking her up and down deliberately.  "You will dance for us, Miranda, yes, and many hearts will flutter with the swaying of your hips."

      "As you know, her Highness travels with protection.  Binter and Sisska provide that," Dolanna said, introducing the two Vendari, who were hidden behind illusions of large, imposing human bodyguards.  "Because of the situation, these two you may not have, Renoit.  Their duties prevent them from being too far from their charges."

      "That, I can live with, yes," Renoit agreed.  "But you can also serve the Dancer with your swords as well as the Princess."

      "We would be honored to do so, Captain," Binter said in his deep voice.

      "The honor is ours," Sisska agreed.

      "This is Allia.  I'm sure that she can excel in whatever task you give her," Dolanna said, motioning to the Selani.

      "A Selani," he said in surprise.  "A great honor it is to have you here, maiden, yes.  Many skills you can show to my performers, and many things you can do to astound the audience."

      "If Dolanna so orders it," Allia said tightly.

      "I do so order it, Allia," the Sorceress said with hard eyes.  "This is Tarrin.  His worth to you will be more clear once we leave Dayisè, and we can show you his true talents."

      "Tall, slim.  Good legs.  This one is an acrobat, yes," Renoit said speculatively, looking at him.

      "More than you realize, Renoit," Dolanna promised in a light voice, moving down the line.  "This is Kerri.  I think it would be best for her to be known so.  Her longer name may incite worry among your crew."

      "Quite so," he agreed, assessing her.  "And what skills do you possess?"

      "I can juggle and perform sleight of hand," she replied calmly.

      "Jugglers I have, and there are no shortage of magicians here.  No, your body cries out to move to the beat of a tamborine.  You will dance for us, Kerri, and make men's knees turn to water."

      "I will not," she said in sudden icy fury.  "I will not abase myself in front of a crowd of lecherous--"

      "Dancing is beauty, young Wikuni," Renoit cut her off.  "Your beauty begs to be appreciated.  You have the body of a dancer, and a crime it would be, yes, to deny it the chance to shine."

      "Kerri," Dolanna said sharply.  "You agreed--"

      "I never agreed to being put on display," she seethed.

      "We will talk about this later," Dolanna promised, giving the Wikuni a flat look, then she moved on to let Keritanima fume.  "This is Dar.  He may appear young, but he has a talent which no other performer can match."

      "And what would that be, Lady Dolanna?" Renoit asked, giving him a curious look.

      "He is a Sorcerer, Renoit, whose aptitude in the art of Illusion is quite profound."

      "Yes, that is a skill any carnival would jump to possess," he agreed.  "As you know, Lady Dolanna, bringing your group aboard is not safe for me.  I must insist on the full amount we bargained, up front.  And there is the matter of lost revenue if we leave tomorrow.  Vordeaux does not expect us for another ride."

      "Vordeaux is not on the travelling manifest, Renoit," Dolanna told him.  "Because of our haste, we can only stop twice, and only then to allow the newcomers the chance to perfect their places in your performances.  You will be compensated for the missed bookings."

      "Where would you like to stop, then?" he asked curiously.

      "Tor, and Shoran's Fork," she replied.  "Both are large enough to take on all the supplies we will need, and provide enough of an audience for our new performers to become accustomed to performing before crowds."

      "I will have to send a letter of regret to Countess Jiselle," Renoit said with a sigh.  "Jan, show our new members to quarters," he called.  "Lady Dolanna and I have some business to discuss."

      A young woman, tall and slender, a bit flat-chested and narrow-hipped, scurried over.  She had the body of an acrobat, all wiry toned muscle and exacting movements.  She was rather pretty, with tawny hair that reminded him of Triana and a narrow face with a small nose and eyes.  A very faint scar ran over her left brow.  She wore plain trousers and a canvas shirt tied at her ribcage to expose a midriff of knotted muscle.  "Certainly, Renoit," she said in a Tykarthian accent.  "If you'll follow me," she said, motioning towards the sterncastle and the stairs going below decks.

      "I am not going to dance," Keritanima promised in a hissing voice.  "I won't!  I'll jump overboard first!"

      "Good luck changing his mind," Jan told her with a chuckle.  "Renoit has a miraculous eye.  He can always spot what someone can do best right off.  If he says you'll do best dancing, then you're probably a very good dancer."

      "Of course I am, but I'm not going to dress in a skimpy costume and shimmy my tail for the enjoyment of drunken lechers."

      "You make it sound so dirty," she giggled.  "It's alot of fun.  I wish I could dance, but Renoit keeps me with the acrobats.  He says I don't have enough chest to be a dancer."

      "I never realized that dancing invoved your breasts," Keritanima said in an icy tone.

      "I'm sure it doesn't, but it's what we'd call window dressing," she said, looking back and winking.

      "This from the same Wikuni that wore dresses low enough to show her belly button at the bottom of the neckline," Tarrin noted to Dar.

      "That's entirely different, Tarrin," she said waspishly.  "I wasn't jiggling my breasts in your face either."

      "Poor me," Tarrin said with a wink to Dar, which earned him a punch in the shoulder from the Wikuni.

      "All these cabins are empty," Jan announced, pointing down a hallway that Tarrin realized was where the hold should have been.  But since the ship carried only people, they had converted the hold into more quarters.  No doubt that they only had enough hold to carry the materials they used in their carnival.  "Everyone can have a room.  They're not luxurious, but they're big enough."

      "Thank you, Jan," Faalken said to the young girl.  "Alright people, pick a room, but leave the ones closest to the intersection open."

      Tarrin took a room between Keritanima and Allia, staying as near to his sisters as possible.  They always seemed to do things that way, even when they weren't thinking about it.  The room wasn't all that big, but it was clean, it had a sturdy, good-sized bunk built into the side of the wall, and a table and chair which were bolted to the floor.  A large chest stood in the corner of the room, also nailed down to keep it from sliding during rough seas, which was more than large enough to hold everything he owned with plenty of room to spare.

      He sat down on the bunk, feeling its firmness, and wondered about what they were doing.  After trying to stay inconspicuous, now he was going to be performing before live crowds.  He still wasn't sure how to take that.  It didn't make him nervous, but he didn't know how he was going to react to it.  He really didn't.  He was certain that he could do it, in his natural form, he could out-tumble any human alive, but he wasn't sure how it would feel.  He had never done it before, showed off to people who had paid to see him do it.

      Then there was the other thing.  They didn't know what he was, at least yet.  He had no doubt that Dolanna would warn Renoit, who would then warn the others on the ship.  He didn't really care anymore what other people thought of him, but the prospect of spending another two months trapped on a ship didn't appeal to him.  Especially with a bunch of strangers who would make him edgy when they were around.  Another group of humans to distrust.  And he was just getting to the point where he could tolerate Kern's men.  He almost liked Kern.  The man had certainly proved himself in Tarrin's eyes.  But he didn't know Renoit, and he had the feeling that Renoit was going to be as different to Kern as night was to day.

      The door opened, and Binter entered.  He looked funny with that Illusion hiding his true appearance, but at least the illusory mask fit him.  Stern, grim, unbending, that was the way he looked, just like the real Sisska.  "Sisska," he greeted as the massive Vendari closed the door.

      "You need to talk to her Highness," she said calmly.  "She is almost to the point of throwing things."

      "Why?"

      "Because she does not wish to dance," she replied.  "She finds it unacceptable."

      "I don't see why she's going nuts about this, Sisska," he said.  "She's shown more to perfect strangers than she would in a dancing costume, and she could really be a good dancer."

      "I think it is the fact that she would have to dance before crowds that disturbs her, Tarrin," she told him.  "Keritanima doesn't like being put on public display.  She has hated it ever since she was a child.  Dancing for spectators would certainly be the same thing."

      "She knew this was coming, Sisska," he said, standing up.  "Dolanna told her."

      "I think she would have been happier doing something less, noticable," she said delicately.  "Keritanima is a good dancer, and that will draw every eye to her.  She knows that."

      "She'll just have to live with it, Sisska.  We're not in control here."

      "And I think that is what annoys her more than anything else," she told him.  "Her Highness is not used to being in such a subservient position."

      "It's all water under the bridge," he said dismissively.  "I'll be over in a minute.  So long as she doesn't throw anything at me, I'll be happy to help."

      "Thank you," she said, then she nodded to him and left.

      He finished settling in and came out, to find himself staring face to face with a small red lizard-like creature, with reptillian wings beating at the air.  It had a maw full of needle-like little teeth, and its yellow eyes were lucid.  "Chopstick, come back here!" a male voice called, a voice that had the most curious warbling in it, almost like the man wasn't sure what tone of voice to use.  Tarrin stared at the little creature.  It was a drake!  A very small drake, a little reptile that looked like the Dragons of legend, only much, much smaller.  This one had red scales, iridescent and polished, and a narrow muzzle and little black horns that swept back behind its eyes.  It couldn't be more than two spans long from nose to tail, and would easily fit in his cupped palm, if he were in his normal form.  A thin man in a gray robe with white symbols sewn all over it came around the corner, wearing the most ridiculous conical hat that had to be nearly a span long.  His hair was white, but his face and skin was more approapriate for a young man who just left home.  "Oh my, you must be the new people," he said, beckoning to the little drake with a hand.  The little drake fluttered over to him and landed on his shoulder, regarding Tarrin with those staring yellow eyes.  "Allow me to introduce myself.  I am Phandebrass the Unusual, sage, explorer, student of the arts of Arcane Magic, and prestidigitator extraordinary."  He gave Tarrin a steady look.  "I say, have you seen my familiar?"

      "I think it's on your shoulder," he said.

      "Oh, dear me yes, how silly of me," he said with a rueful chuckle.  "Did I introduce myself?"

      "You just did."

      "Jolly good.  I always forget about that," he said in that strange voice.  "Have you seen my drake?"

      Tarrin wasn't sure if he was being serious or not.  And it wasn't exactly putting him in a good mood.  "Isn't it on your shoulder?" he asked in a less light tone.

      "No, my boy.  I say, you're remarkably dense for such a sensible looking young fellow.  My other drake."

      "How was I to know you had more than one?" he asked defensively.

      "I say, kids today," the man muttered.  Tarrin wasn't sure what that meant, for the man couldn't be more than twenty five.  "Turnkey!" he shouted.  "You're being a very naughty drake!  Come out this instant!"

      And with that, the bizarre man puttered down the companionway, shouting for his other little pet.  But the red drake turned on the man's shoulder and stared at Tarrin intensely, like a wary rabbit keeping an eye on a circling hawk.

      "You have to excuse him," a young girl, probably fifteen, said as she came around the corner.  She wore a simple dress of brown wool, a peasant's dress.  She had a rusty colored hair, a dark red, but not quite auburn, though her skin was dusky and swarthy.  She was either Arkisian or Arakite.  He'd never seen red hair on an Arkisian or Arakite before.  It was a rather exotic look.  "Phandebrass usually isn't this distracted.  I think he's been working magic again.  It always leaves him a little scattered."

      "That's not scattered, that's windblown," he told the girl, which made her giggle.

      "Well, he'll grow on you.  Just like a fungus," she winked.  "I'm Tess."

      "My name is Tarrin," he replied.  "Sorry to greet and run, but someone's waiting for me."

      "That's alright, I have to help Phandebrass find Turnkey."

      She gave him a bright, inviting smile, then she rushed off after the odd man.  That worried him more than the strange man did.  She had no idea just what she was making eyes at.

      Keritanima was obviously in a fury.  She sat on her bed, stock still and upright, and her amber eyes were absolutely blazing.  "You need to calm down, sister," he told her immediately.

      "Oh, no," she seethed.  "I am not going to dance.  I'll sink this ship first."

      "You're being silly," he told her.  "Dancing isn't that bad."

      "No?  No?  How would you like to wear a couple of ribbons and gyrate around while people try to look up your skirt!"

      "You never said you were wearing a skirt," he noted.

      She glared at him, hard enough to make him put his hand back on the doorknob.  She looked ready to bite him.  "Don't you start with me, Tarrin," she snapped.  "I don't see him making you wear a little bit of fluff and--"

      "Sister," he interrupted, approaching her and putting his hands on her shoulders.  The feel of her silky fur was odd under human hands.  "Before you go off the deep end, let's find out what Renoit wants.  Is that too much to ask?"

      "Oh yes it is," she said adamantly.

      "You're not being rational."

      "I don't want to be rational!" she screamed at him.  Since he was right in her face, her voice made his ears sting.  "You mark my words, Tarrin, if he tries to make me dance, I'm going to stick that feather of his up his--"

      He put a hand on top of her muzzle, which cut the location of that promise short.  She looked up at him with furious eyes, but he wouldn't back down.  "Let's not get nasty, Kerri," he chided.

      "You get nasty," she accused.

      "I'm expected to get nasty.  It's a cat thing."

      "It's not fair," she fumed.  "You get to have all the fun."

      "Want to trade?" he asked immediately.  "I'll wear a dress and dance, and you can be an acrobat."

      She gave him a strangled look, then burst out laughing.  "You'd look so darling in a dress," she said with a wink.

      "Only if I wear a matching hairbow," he told her dryly.

      She laughed again, then leaned up and licked him on the cheek.  Her version of a kiss.

      "Are we calm now?" he asked her.

      "A little," she replied.  "But I guess I'll have to take this up with Renoit.  Screaming and throwing things down here won't help."

      "I don't think so," he agreed calmly.

      "You look so weird like that," she noted, looking at him.  "It looks unnatural."

      "It feels unnatural," he agreed with her, flexing his fingers.  They all cracked audibly.

      "How is it?"

      "It's starting to throb a bit," he replied.  "I've been like this for about two hours.  I'm starting to reach my limit."

      "Dolanna said you have to stay like that til you can't take it any more.  And each time you do, you can stay like that longer the next time."

      "She's been right about that," he admitted.  "I can hold it a little longer each time.  I guess it's just like building up endurance when you run.  Every time you wear yourself out, you can run a little further the next time you do it."

      The door opened, and Faalken peeked in.  "Dolanna wants us in the hold," he announced.

      "Alright," Tarrin told him.  "Shall we?" he asked Keritanima.

      "Do we have a choice?" she asked.

      "I guess not, but we can pretend," he told her, which made her chuckle.

      The hold was more like a huge closet than a large empty space.  It was what was left of the original hold, and it was packed with boxes and crates, as well as a large canvas pile that had to be the tents they used.  Assembled inside was the entire carnival's staff, about thirty men and women of various sizes and shapes.  There were five Wikuni among them, a big cat like a cougar or puma, a wolf or dog, a bear, a bobcat, and a ferret or weasel.  The wolf-like one and the bear were huge, but the other three were sleek and looked very supple.  The humans followed the same templates.  Most were thin and looked athletic, but some were heavily developed and looked physically powerful.  They were almost equally split among gender, looking to be half and half, except for the Wikuni.  All five Wikuni were male, and they were already starting to give Keritanima and Miranda speculative looks.  The rest of his group was there as well, gathered together on one side.

      "I see the rest of you are here," Renoit said as Tarrin, Keritanima, and Faalken entered.  "Very good.  My friends, we have been hired by Lady Dolanna here for a special task.  That task is rather simple.  We will be performing in Tor and Shoran's Fork, then we will move on to Dala Yar Arak for the Festival of the Sun."

      "What about our other bookings, Renoit?" one of the performers asked.

      "Cancelled this year, or at least postponed.  Lady Dolanna has graciously compensated us for the lost revenue.  In exchange for that, we're taking her and her group to Dala Yar Arak.  While with us, they will perform in the carnival just like any other member.  We'll probably try to make up our missed appointments on the way back from Dala Yar Arak, but that's going to depend on how things turn out.  Sometimes Emperor Kartaka holds us over."  He pointed to the others.  "We have picked up two new strongmen, two dancers, two acrobats, and an Illusionist.  Lady Dolanna will act as a secretary and treasurer, and the two large people behind the Wikuni will be acting strictly as guards and defenders."

      Dolanna stepped forward.  "Certain truths must be made clear now, so there will be no misunderstandings later.  There are several things about us that you must understand, so that we have no friction.  The first is Tarrin.  Would you please, young one?"

      He knew exactly what she wanted him to do.  With a mere thought, he released himself from the human form, and returned to his natural humanoid form.  The aching throb vanished immediately, replaced by a sensation of rightness that marked the return of his paws, ears, and tail.  His shoes vanished into the elsewhere, and the manacles returned from it, trading places in a way.  He regarded the assembled performers with steady, emotionless eyes, daring them to stare.

      "As you can see, Tarrin is not human.  And you will find him to be no more or less amiable than any other person," Dolanna told them.  "Necessity requires him to hide himself in public, but when the ship gets under way, he will appear either like this, or as a large housecat.  It is in his power to assume that form."  She pointed to Binter and Sisska.  "They are the second issue.  Dar," she prompted.  Tarrin felt both of them touch the Weave, and then the illusions hiding them were gone, showing the performers a pair of monstrous Vendari warriors.  "They are Vendari, travelling with us for reasons best left undiscussed.  The third is Allia," she said, pointing.  "Allia is Selani, and her customs are not like those to which you are familiar.  Treat her with respect, and you will find her to be a good person.  I do not think I have to say what will happen if you do not."

      "So," Renoit said, stepping forward again, "we have some very special guests with us.  I would like to remind all of you that this is the best time to display the hospitality for which we are well known.  And remember, they will be performing alongside you soon, so welcome them into our family."

      Tarrin snorted, then turned his back to them all and started walking away.  More strangers was the last thing he needed.  Surrounded by strangers on another moving prison, and this moving prison looked like a floating perfume shop.  Embarassment added onto insult.  There were a few gasps from behind when he shifted into his cat form, gasps of surprise that he ignored as he padded through the open door.

      "You will have to excuse him, Renoit," he heard Dolanna say after he turned the corner.  "Tarrin is not a, friendly, person.  He is very hard to know.  Your people should approach him with care."

      Hard to know.  He wasn't hard to know, he just didn't want to be pestered by strangers.

      Tarrin spent the entire day in his room.  He didn't want to go out on deck and mingle with the performers.  He didn't want to deal with strange people.  What he wanted was to go back on land, go back into the city, but he had a good understanding why.  The cabin and the ship were already starting to seem too small.  The city was large, expansive, and though there wasn't anything natural left on the islands, it was unexplored territory that didn't feel like a floating cage.  Compared to the ship, it was almost a paradise.  He would even risk crossing paths with Triana just for one more night in a place which he couldn't cover in a matter of hours.

      It all seemed so ridiculously unfair.  This trip, this quest, everything, it just kept having less and less meaning for him.  He understood why he was doing it and the importance of it all, but more and more it was becoming a major chore.  He had no idea what he had done to deserve to be treated in such ways.  He wasn't sure why his mind and heart were changing, but he could feel it happening.  Perhaps it was the Cat, perhaps it was just his reaction to months of enforced limits.  He'd felt those limits keenly on the Star of Jerod, after spending so much time on the ship that he knew every nick and ding in the companionways and on the masts.  He'd developed cabin fever after about a month with Kern.  He already had cabin fever now, and the ship hadn't even slipped its hawsers yet.  He felt that the feeling of being trapped had started eating away at what civility he had left, and it was also making headway into undermining the underlying need of his journey.  If only they could get to Dala Yar Arak by land.

      The upcoming trip was looking to be extremely unpleasant, and there was no doubt that it would be hard on him and everyone around him.  He understood that he'd changed a great deal in just a couple of months.  He remembered a time when he would talk to strangers, to try to get to know them.  But that seemed a lifetime ago.  Now everyone that he didn't know was a threat, a challenge, an opponent.  Anyone he didn't already know was a potential enemy, and that wouldn't let him try to befriend anyone else.  But in his situation, he guessed that that was a good thing.  He remember what Miranda said about men looking for him.  There was no telling who was hired by the ki'zadun to track him down and try to kill him, so it was best to treat everyone like he was sent by Kravon to do him in.

      There wasn't going to be another Jula.

      He wasn't going to let an untrustworthy person that close to him again, and because he wouldn't let anyone get close enough to prove or disprove his trust, then that made everything all nice and neat.  There wasn't going to be another misplaced trust.  There wouldn't be another episode of believing someone was good just because they belonged to an order he thought was good.  No more turning his back on someone he thought was his friend.

      That still stung, and deeply.  He hadn't spent alot of time with Jula, but the time he had spent with her or around her had totally disarmed him.  She had with a few short meetings totally subverted his suspicions.  He was amazed that he had done what he did, now that he thought back on it.  He wouldn't have put down his guard around someone else he'd known as well as her.   Maybe he was just weak over a pretty young lady.  Perhaps that helped disarm him, then allowed her to strike the first time he let his guard down.

      Just for a fluttering instant, there was chagrin over what he did to her.  He had left her to die, knowing full well that he had delivered a mortal wound.  He had just walked away, leaving her to suffer in a pool of her own blood.  That seemed, callous.  But then he remembered what she did to him, and it suddenly didn't seem good enough.  He should have clawed out her eyes, tore out her tongue, broke all four of her limbs, then driven a spike through her back and let her try to find her way out of the room.  Instead, he had been merciful.  Well there wouldn't be any more of that.  Mercy was for the weak, and he wasn't going to be weak.

      That was the old Tarrin.  That was when he had the luxury to be friendly or trusting, before harsh reality had taught him some very hard lessons.  Out here, in the cruel world, he had to meet its cruelty head on.  He had to fight tooth and claw for what he wanted, or else he would never get what he wanted out of life.

      He was getting worked up.  He settled down and closed his eyes, conjuring images and memories of Janette.  That was always easier in cat form.  His memories of her all took place while he was a cat, and they were flavored by the cat's mind and instincts.  They always made more sense when he remembered them in cat form.  It never ceased to calm him down, to make him content.  Just the memory of her scent, a scent that had the power to make him feel completely secure, was usually enough to bring over him a kind of temporary feeling of safety, of home, though it was a mere shadow compared to being held in her arms.  When he was there, it seemed that the world was being held away, and she would be there to banish everything that made him worried or afraid.  That kind of security seemed so distant to him now, the selfless, almost blind trust that only a child or an animal could have for another being.  He had that kind of trust in his little mother, and to a much lesser extent, Dolanna.  She too could soothe him in ways that nobody else could, not even Allia.  Perhaps it was an extension of trust, a trust that she could make things right again, no matter how wrong they seemed.

      Had he been in humanoid form, he would have chuckled wryly.  The mighty Were-cat, so wrapped up in his self-reliance, was almost childishly dependent on others for his own sense of security.  Without Dolanna, Allia, Keritanima, and Miranda around him, he would feel totally lost.  Each of them had that strange unspoken power over him, the power to make him feel secure, something that he couldn't really bring to himself anymore.  They were family, and Tarrin's human part was powerfully grounded in family.  That was something that was strong enough to carry over, to make him want to form a new family group, so strong that it overrode the Cat's independent nature.

      It was just the situation.  He'd only been Were for about six months or so, and that was just a drop in the bucket compared to all the other craziness that went on after he got to the Tower.  It was all still so new to him after seventeen years as a human, no matter how normal it felt.  He was just what Jesmind called him, a cub, a mere child, and he had no guidance from his elders.  He was adrift on a sea of chaos, with a leaking boat.  That he'd gotten this far was amazing to him.  It gave him just a bit of hope he'd live to get the leaking boat back to land.  If someone else didn't come along and capsize him first.

      The door opened, and Allia entered the room.  She was wearing a loose fitting black vest that left her arms and midriff bare, showing off her brands and her tight stomach, not to mention her ample bosom, and a pair of sleek cotton trousers that hugged her full hips enticingly.  Her ivory amulet was displayed proudly, standing out in stark contrast to her chocolate skin.  He tended to forget how perfect, how beautiful, she really was, because he saw her every day.  To him, she was just Allia, not a stunning woman of exquisite beauty and formidible strength and skill.

      "Brother, Dolanna wanted you to know that we'll be casting off soon," she told him, then she seemed to notice that he was staring.  "What?"

      "I'm just remembering how pretty you are, sister," he told her in the manner of the Cat, a method of communication that her amulet would allow her to understand.

      "You've seen alot more than this, deshida," she said with a slight smile.

      "Sometimes it's not the product, it's the packaging," he told her, an old Wikuni adage Keritanima had used a time or two.  He wasn't quite sure what it was supposed to mean, but it certainly made sense in the context he was using.  "Where did you get those?"

      "Renoit's acrobats gave them to me," she replied.  "I was just glad to get rid of those Arakite robes.  They were stifling.  At least these fit well enough."

      "The vest is a bit loose.  Don't be bending over in front of any men."

      "Tarrin, brother, if they want to look, I'll open the vest for them," she said bluntly.  "I'm not a squeamish human girl.  They can look all they want, but touching is another matter."

      "They'll never ask, but they'll all want you to do that," he told her with a cat smile.

      "Whatever," she said, sitting down on the bed and looking down at him.  "Are you going to be alright?"

      "What do you mean?"

      "I'm not dead, brother.  I can see that you're upset."

      "I'm not upset, it's just more like I'm annoyed," he replied.  "I don't know if I can take being cooped up on this ship, surrounded by strange people, for very long."

      "Dolanna said it would take us about fifteen days to reach Tor," she told him.  "I know that Tor is surrounded by forest.  Maybe she could be persuaded to give you a day or two to yourself."

      "Goddess, that sounds like paradise," he said with a large sigh.  "To be surrounded by trees and green and smells again.  I'd drag a Giant by the ear for a longspan for that."

      "Patience, deshida," she said in a loving voice, reaching down and scratching him behind the ear.  "Sometimes you have to travel the saltflats to reach the oasis."

      "Patience isn't something I have alot of, sister," he grunted.

      "You should get some, then," she told him.  "The things I've taught you should show you the wisdom of patience."

      "Maybe, but I am what I am," he told her.

      "And I wouldn't have you any other way," she said with a warm smile.  Allia always did know exactly what to say.  Sometimes he seriously underestimated his quiet sister.

      "Come up on deck with me," she asked.  "I'll carry you.  You don't let me do that often."

      "You never ask."

      "You're always in Miranda's lap," she retorted.  "What is it about her that you find so interesting?"

      "I have no idea," he replied honestly as Allia picked him up.  "Something about her just sings to me.  I really think it's the Cat more than me."

      "Maybe it can see something that you can't," she proposed.

      "Probably," he agreed.

      The air was warm, promising the arrival of spring, and the sky carrying only a few clouds.  It was afternoon, nearly sunset, and the tide was falling so quickly that one could watch its retreat from the land. The four moons, which goverened the intricate and complicated tide action, had to be at a concerted point for the tide to drop so rapidly.  It did happen from time to time that the four moons all pulled the tide at the same time and in the same direction, creating what many sailors and historians called the Great Tide.  Be it low or high, it was always the most severe tidal movement of the seas to be seen, moving the sea in or out by as much as fifty spans of water at the northern lattitudes.  Tarrin watched the tide drag the ship away from the dock, being held comfortably in Allia's arms as she and Dar shared space at the rail to watch the ship leave.  The others were nowhere to be found, and the performers were all busy with getting the sails ready to be unfurled.

      But the tide didn't hold his attention for long.  She appeared between two warehouses and rushed out onto the dock, moving towards the ship.  But she seemed to realize that she wasn't going to be able to catch the ship, so she slowed to a standing halt and stared out at them with those penetrating green eyes.  She was everything he remembered her to be, and the very sight of her made his blood run cold.

      Triana.

      Tarrin looked at her, and he just knew that she could see him.  She was staring right at him, through him, her eyes hot and her expression obviously aggravated.  She frightened him.  He wasn't too proud to deny that simple fact.

      "I see her, brother," Allia said with a slight hiss as his claws dug into her skin.  "You can stop punching holes in me."

      "See who--oh," Dar said, shading his eyes and looking at the dock.  "Is that Triana, Tarrin?  She looks mad."

      "That is her, Dar," Allia answered for him, as they all stared at the imposing, intimidating Were-cat matron.

      And then her voice rang out, as if she was just in front of them.  "Count yourself lucky, cub," she said in a voice filled to near bursting with power and determination.  "If not for all these witnesses, I'd be over there right now to beat some manners into you."

      "She sounds mad," Dar breathed.

      "She is mad, Dar," Allia said in a testy tone.  "We have slipped through her fingers again.  Someone like her does not take well to failure."

      "Tell her to just leave me alone, Allia," he told her.

      "Don't bother, cub," Triana's voice rang out again.  "I can hear you just fine like that.  Don't be making your friend do your taunting for you."

      "It has to be magic," Dar said.  "A Druidic spell."

      "Obviously," Triana's voice snorted, which made Dar pale.  "Don't think you're getting far, cub.  It's not just me anymore.  After what you did in Den Gauche, now all of Fae-da'Nar is hunting for you.  Make it easy on yourself and surrender to me, and I'll do what I can to keep you alive."

      "I've seen what your forest kin have to offer, and I'm not afraid of it," Tarrin shot back pugnaciously.  "You better warn them off, Triana.  You may be able to handle me, but I doubt that they can.  I don't want to do it, but I'll kill anyone who gets in my way."

      "If that's the way you want it, then so be it," she said emotionlessly.  "I'm through with you.  The next time we meet, one of us won't live to the end of it."

      Then she turned and walked away, leaving the dock workers and pedestrians to gawk and gape at her passing.  Triana, being such an old Were-cat, was tall, much taller than most Wikuni.  That height made her stand out.

      "Strong words, brother," Allia cautioned.

      "I can back them up, sister," he assured her.

      "I certainly hope so," she said, turning around and carrying him from the rail.  "I certainly hope so."

 

      Renoit was a portly man who moved with an ease that hinted he was much stronger than he appeared.  His black hair was graying at the temples, but it was still full and long, curling luxuriantly around his shoulders.  His brown eyes were very lucid and bright, as if they displayed openly the vitality and vigor the man possessed.  He was absolutely everyone on the ship at once, both seeing to the ship's operation and talking to performers as they practiced on the deck.  He wore a frilly shirt with a vest over it this day, and a pair of black pants and boots with a red sash, a clean, very sturdy shirt that looked very new.  If he only knew how close he was to losing it.

      The battle had been joined.  Tarrin sat on a hatch in cat form not far from a group of seven slender young ladies, two of which were Keritanima and Miranda.  The dancers.   As promised, Keritanima had all but thrown a fit when the lead dancer, a tall, buxom Ungardt-looking woman named Lirenne, asked her to dance something that she knew so she could get an idea of the Wikuni's training.  The shouting had attracted Renoit, who was trying to sweet-talk and flatter Keritanima into dancing.  Little did he understand that he was dealing with a woman who knew how to sweet-talk better than anyone else on the ship.  That gave the Wikuni princess a considerable defense against it when used on her, for she was too wary and distrusting to fall into the trap of flattery easily.

      Tarrin stayed out of it.  Mainly because he didn't want to get within reach of his sister.  She had a tendancy to throw small objects close at hand when angry, and Tarrin fit that description.  He didn't relish the idea of being the world's first sentient projectile weapon, and Renoit certainly wouldn't appreciate getting a face full of four clawed paws.  Four of his five limbs ended in sharp, pointy appendages, which had the potential to do serious damage if there was enough force behind them.

      He hadn't seen a performance like this since the Brat.  Keritanima was in rare form, dressing Renoit down with a savage efficiency that left very little ground untilled.  She insulted him on every level she could think up, leaving no subject, no matter how low or personal, unused.  She waved her arms, shook her finger in his face, and reminded him in a shrill voice that she wasn't about to compromise her austere and royal dignity for anyone, no matter who he was or what it meant to her.

      "Well, just answer me one question, Kerri," he said in a mild voice.  Tarrin was impressed that he hadn't gotten angry.  "Did you dance at balls?"

      "Of course I did!" she spat.

      "Do you like to dance?"

      "Oh, no, we're not going there," she sneered.  "I danced because it was expected, not because I liked it.  And it certainly wasn't what you want me to do."

      "I want you to strut," he said bluntly.  "To challenge every eye that looks upon you.  To make humans wish they were Wikuni, and make Wikuni wonder why they never got the chance to meet a woman like you.  You were born to dance, young Wikuni, your body begs to be appreciated."

      "That's my business," she said ominously.

      "I am not going to argue, no," he said calmly.  "Dolanna told you to dance, so you will dance.  How you feel about it is of no matter.  You will do it because you were told to do it, and I know people like you.  Even though you hate it, you will do your best, because you could not live with yourself if you did badly on purpose."

      Keritanima glared murder at him, but said no more.  Clearly, Renoit had won this battle, but Keritanima's eyes promised that it was just the opening clash in the war.

      Speaking of wars, the war between Azakar and Faalken had escalated that morning.  Azakar came up from below with murder in his eyes, and missing all of the hair on the left side of his head.  Somehow, Faalken had snuck into the young Knight's room and shaved all the hair off the left side of his head while he slept.  Faalken came up not too much later, whistling idly to himself and looking for all the world that he had done absolutely nothing that made him feel guilty.  Tarrin felt that doing that was hitting below the belt, but then again, he wasn't quite sure what rules existed in a battle of pranks.  If there were rules.  Dolanna had taken enough pity on the young Knight to use her Sorcery to grow his hair back out, if only to stop the giggling and pointing from Renoit's performers.  Now Azakar would retaliate, but Tarrin had to admit that he'd have to really work to come up with something better than that.

      Laying down on the hatch, Tarrin closed his eyes and soaked up the late spring sunshine, tuning out the world.  He hadn't slept all that well last night.  Triana's appearance, and her promise, had upset him more than he let on.  Before, he wasn't sure if she was an enemy or not.  Now he knew, and it worried him.  She was not someone that he could easily dismiss.  She proved she could beat him in a fight, and that meant that he had to make sure that they didn't fight again.  Or, if they did, he to have an advantage over her.  Jesmind said that she may not be able to get him help.  He didn't really blame her, she did what she could.  It was just too bad.  He wanted to be accepted by his own kind, but they were so rigid, so unforgiving.  Before, Jesmind had denied him because of the Tower, and now he was being hunted because he was forced into a fight that he could have avoided if Triana would have only talked with him.  Instead, she made all those demands, and goaded him into a fight he would have preferred to avoid.  He meant it when he told her that he would kill any of the Forest Folk that threatened him.  What he was doing was way too important to let them stop him.

      He had to keep reminding himself of that.  More and more, what he was doing was becoming less and less tangible.  He'd noticed it before, but every day that went by made it less and less important to him.  He knew what had to be done, but it was starting to feel more and more like it was never going to be finished.  Too many people were trying to kill him, and he wasn't sure if he was going to live through it.  To spend the rest of his days in fear, hunted and pressured, seemed totally insane to him., but he was doing just that to himself.

      The sun was blocked, and he opened his eyes to see Allia sit down beside him.  She looked much more relaxed for some reason.  Usually her time on a ship put a tightness in her that only he could notice, a set to her body and a tautness in her expression that denoted her fear of the sea.  But it was gone, at least for now.  Maybe a day or so on land had reassured her that the land would always be there.  She didn't say anything, she just picked him up and put him on her lap, stroking him behind the ears, in all the places he liked to have scratched.  The scent and feel of her closeness overwhelmed him, and he began to purr in utter contentment.

      If there was more to life than that, then life needed to have its head examined.

      How long he laid there was lost to him, but he knew he could count on Renoit to disturb it.  "Ah, there you are, my dear," his voice called.  "It is time for the acrobats to practice.  Time for you and that other one to earn your passage.  Where is he?"

      "Right here," she replied calmly, running her four-fingered hand all the way down his back.

      "Oh, that's right, he can do that, yes," he mused to himself.  "Well, the time for laziness is over.  Work, it calls to you, yes.  Time to display what amazing talents you bring to my troupe."

      Tarrin opened his eyes and gave Renoit a flat look, then jumped down off of Allia's lap.  The portly man's image blurred as he changed form, until he was looking down at the man with his cat's eyes.  That seemed to make Renoit uncomfortable.  "This way," he said, motioning towards the stern.  There were ten slender figures there, two of them with tails. Wikuni.  The acrobats had gathered in the wide, empty deck space between the main cargo hold hatch and the sterncastle, with only the aftmast interrupting their practice area.

      They were all young.  Young, thin, and very athletic, the way acrobats should look.  There were six young men and four women, one of the young men being a sleek cat-like Wikuni, and one of the females being some kind of simeon Wikuni whose facial features were almost perfectly human.  Only the fur ringing her pretty little face and her brown-furred tail gave her away as Wikuni.  Tarrin and Allia absolutely towered over them, the oldest of which couldn't be more than nineteen.  The tallest of them only came up to Tarrin's collarbones.  The looks they gave him were pensive, uncertain, and not a little bit anxious.  Except for one.  The tallest of the young men, a dark-haired Shacèan with a wiry frame and a narrow, ferret-like face gave Tarrin a slightly hostile look.  The young man looked at Renoit and chattered at him in Shacèan, his tone not entirely friendly.

      "Henri, that is unseemly," Renoit said in common.  "You disrespect those who are not blessed to know the True Tongue."

      "I do not see why I must abase myself to speak such a filthy language," the man said arrogantly.  Tarrin developed an immediate and intense dislike for the young man.  From the look of her, so did Allia.

      "You will do it to accommodate those unlucky enough to not know it," Renoit said patiently.  "Not everyone is lucky enough to be Shacèan.  Now, show our two newcomers the ropes.  It is up to you as lead acrobat to work them into the act."

      Henri, the man, said something under his breath in Shacèan, which made a few of his companions giggle behind their hands.  "Alright then, what can you do?  You look too tall and gangly to be any good," he said to them.

      "I can do anything you can do," Allia said in a neutral tone.  She did dislike him.  Tarrin had to supress a smile.  He'd better keep his tongue in line, or Allia would tie it in a knot for him.

      "What about you, mongrel?"

      "I can do anything you need me to do," he said in a tight voice.  "And if you call me that again, I'll break both your arms and tie them in a knot."

      "I am the lead acrobat and third in command on this ship," he sneered.  "You will treat me with the respect due to my station."

      "You won't have much use for your title once I rip off both your legs," Tarrin told him in a hostile voice, narrowing his eyes and extending the claws on both his paws.

      "Tarrin," Allia's voice cracked, holding up an arm across his chest to hold him back.  "He is young and foolish.  Give him a chance."  She looked right at him, her expression sober and serious.  "You tread very close to losing your legs, young human.  We will treat you with respect, but we demand respect given in return.  It is the Selani way.  Insult my brother again, and I will show you how the Selani deal with insults.  That is also the Selani way."

      If the boy was frightened by Allia's declaration, he didn't show it very much.  "Whatever," he snorted.  "We will begin with a test.  Show me why I should allow you to perform with my troupe."

      "Let's cut this short," Tarrin said.  "Show us the hardest move you perform, and we'll do it."

      "It's not that easy," a young girl said, a girl with hair the color of eggshells, a curious beige color that wasn't quite blond, not exactly light brown, yet not quite white.  "Our hardest maneuvers are done while working together.  It's when we're doing the vaulting pyramid."

      "We are not up to that yet," Henri said.  "Prove you can move without injuring yourself first.  A good acrobat is flexible and limber."

      Without batting an eye, Allia reached down and grabbed the bottom of her foot, then pulled it out to the side.  And kept pulling, and kept pulling, until her leg was sticking straight up, held by the ankle.  It looked like she'd dislocated her hip to do that, but she was obviously not in any pain.  Allia was probably the most limber person he'd ever seen outside of himself.  His cat-augmented skeleton gave him a range of motion impossible for humans to duplicate.  He proved that by arcing his leg back and up while he hunched down slightly, until the heel of his foot was sitting on the top of his head, right between his ears.  He then wiggled his toes at Henri.

      "Wow," one of the young men breathed.

      "We are warriors, young human," Allia told him simply, putting her leg down.  "Both me and my brother are much more conditioned than you are.  A conditioned body is a paving stone on the path to victory."

      The beginnings of animosity appeared in Henri's expression.  He stepped back a pace and motioned at the deck.  "That is not proof of ability," he said.  "Show me you can perform without embarassing the rest of us."

      "I am finding you tiresome, human," Allia said, removing her dagger from her belt and placing it on the deck.  She stretched herself a few times, then stepped out onto the open deck and performed a complicated series of handsprings, then vaulted into the air and spun several times with enough speed to make her look like a little ball, then her feet landed lightly on the deck as solidly as if she were stepping over a rock.

      "I'd say that's good enough," one of the girls said, which earned her a hot look from Henri.

      "What about you?  Can you at least do that?" Henri asked, pointing at Allia.

      Tarrin looked up into the rigging.  It was high enough, he wouldn't be getting himself tangled into those ugly ropes.  He stepped into the open deck, bent down, then launched himself into the air.  He tucked into a ball and rotated with enough speed to make the deck and rigging-blocked sky trade place dizzyingly, but his cat instincts allowed him to know at all times where the deck was in relation to his position and facing.  He rose impossibly high, ten spans into the air, then dropped down and snapped into an extended position with perfect timing to put his feet on the deck solidly.

      Exactly where they had been before he left it.

      "I can do it again if you want," he said to Henri's flabbergasted expression, crossing his arms and looking down at the dark-haired youth.

      The look of surprise didn't last long.  It was quickly replaced with open hostility.  "I do not know what witchcraft you worked to let yourself do that, but I will not be party to it," he sneered.  "I will not shame this fine circus by displaying a freak!"

      He didn't say anything else after that. Tarrin's manacled wrist struck him squarely in the temple, and he went down in a twitching heap.  Tarrin whipped his paw around, flinging a little blood that was on the manacle onto the stunned performers, pointing at them.  "Anyone else want to call me a freak?" he demanded with glowing eyes, ignited from within with the greenish radiance that marked his anger.

      "I-Is he dead?" one of the girls asked in fear.

      "If I wanted him dead, he'd be laying in two different places," Tarrin said in disgust.  This was a monumentally bad idea.  He turned and walked away, leaving Henri to bleed on the deck as the acrobats, and most of the ship's passengers, looked on in silence.

 

      There was going to be fallout, he was sure of it.

      Tarrin laid on his narrow bunk in cat form in the darkness, a darkness that was not dark to him, staring at the blank wall.  From their viewpoint, a total stranger comes aboard, then whacks a respected member of the circus for what most would perceive to be no provocation.  Nobody would talk to him now, not that he really wanted it, but what was worse, the accusation would be there in everyone's eyes as he moved around.  He could tolerate the silence, but not the fear.  That had been what had driven him so crazy in the Tower, the fact that everyone walked around in utter terror of him.  He had been aboard the ship for less than a day, and already he had given them something about him to fear.

      And the part that would get him into the most trouble with the performers was that he had no remorse at all.  He'd do it again in a heartbeat.  That little punk had openly insulted him, even after he'd been so blatantly warned what it would cause.  But he did it anyway.  All the blame sat on Henri as far as he was concerned.

      And it hurt.  Tarrin could tolerate many things, but not being called a freak.  He would probably feel different if he'd been born Were, but he hadn't.  More often than not, he felt the freak, and to hear someone say it so openly had stung him more deeply than even he realized.  Henri's statement had struck at Tarrin on a level that most verbal abuse couldn't reach, and it was a miracle that he didn't take the little arrogant ass's head right off after he said it.  He had no idea what had held him back, but something certainly had.  He had no explanation for it.

      The door opened, and Dolanna stepped in.  He had been waiting for this.  No doubt she would harangue him about spoiling their one, only, and best chance to reach Dala Yar Arak and be able to move around openly.  She would look at him with those eyes, those eyes that said everything to him that her mouth was too afraid to say, eyes that would accuse, show disappointment, be frustrated with him.  Dolanna's opinion of him was something that mattered a great deal to him, and to see it damaged in her eyes always stung.

      "Change," she ordered in a calm, sober voice.  He sat up and did so, then sat down cross-legged on the bed from the squat in which he had appeared after shapeshifting.  "You disappoint me, Tarrin," she said bluntly.  "Renoit is starting to second-guess his agreement with us.  I explicitely promised him that we would cause no mischief, and you break that promise on the very first day.  What defense do you have for this attack?"

      "He called me a freak," he said in a savage hiss, anger boiling up with frightening speed, the Cat awakening from its dormant place in his mind at the smell of that anger, curious to see if it was something in which it should intervene.  "He was being really snide and snotty, insulting both of us.  Then he called me a freak.  I just couldn't take it anymore."

      "I see," she said, her tone slightly hostile.  "I see that it was not enough justification to strike him down.  Had I not healed him, he would have died."

      "Like that means anything to me," he grunted, looking at his feet.

      "And that is precisely my problem," she told him in a tone that made him look at her.  "I had hoped that it was the trauma that had turned you this way, that your ferality was a condition of your circumstance, but I see I am wrong, and Haley was right.  You are truly feral.  And there is no more hope for you now."

      She stood up, looking down at him with eyes that had absolutely no emotion in them.  "You will confine yourself to your cabin during daylight," she ordered.  "You will not interact with the performers.  You may only come out at night, and even then only in cat form."

      "You're grounding me?" he said incredulously.

      "No, I am isolating you," she replied, turning her back to him and walking towards the door, then stopping beside it and turning to face him.  "You have done enough damage, Tarrin.  Now I must contain it, and contain you.  Were it not for the seriousness of our mission, I would drop you off at the nearest land and let you go, but I cannot.  You cannot.  There will be no more unprovoked attacks, Tarrin.  I am tired of cleaning up the messes you make.

      "I cannot defend your actions any longer," she told him, putting her hand on the doorknob.  "I have tried to make you feel comfortable by treating you like anyone else, but I see that was a grave error.  From now on, you will not be treated like everyone else.  You have dug your own hole, my dear one.  Now you must stand in it."

      "How dare you pass judgement on me!" he suddenly roared, snapping to his feet by the bunk and glaring at her.  "If anyone could understand the way I feel, I thought it would have been you!  They were warned not to be hostile to me, Dolanna, and that kid did it anyway!  He called me a freak!  Do you have any idea how that makes me feel?  Do you think it doesn't remind me of what I used to be, and what I've lost?  I never asked for this, Dolanna, and now I'm being punished for it!  Do you have any idea how helpless it makes me feel to know that I never had a choice?  I had a life, Dolanna, and it was taken away from me with no regard as to what it would do to me!"  He turned from her and looked at the wall.  "When he called me a freak, all I could think of was that I am one!"  He whirled on her, holding out his clawed paws.  "Look at me.  Look!" he said in a nearly hysteric tone that made her take a step back.  "I used to have hands, Dolanna, human hands that could pick up a fork or spoon.  I used to be alone in my own head, I used to be in control of myself.  I used to be normal!  But now I'm not, and I never had a chance to be anything else!

      "Do you think I like being like this?" he said in a shrill voice.  "Do you think I like knowing that killing a man means as much to me as picking a burr out of my tail?  Do you think I like seeing the fear in people's eyes when they look at me?  I've lost everything I used to care about, and all I had left was my friends.  And now I'm losing them too!"  Tears formed in his eyes as he stared accusingly at Dolanna.  "I want my life back, Dolanna, and I can't have it!  I'm so tired of being this way, but I don't have a choice!"  He whirled around and put his back to her, paws on the sides of his head.

      "Tarrin, I--"

      "Get out!" he screamed.  "Leave me alone!"

      Wordlessly, Dolanna left.  Tarrin knelt on the floor, then put his forehead to the wood, weeping out the pain of deep wounds, wounds that he thought had healed long ago.

 

      Outside the door, Dolanna leaned against it, tears flowing freely down her face.  Allia and Keritanima stood in the companionway, ready to help subdue their brother had he stepped over the line.  That Dolanna now feared him, feared that the trust he had for her wouldn't be enough to protect her from him was enough of an indicator of how dangerous she felt he had become.  Tears stained her pale cheeks, and they were out of place with the wan smile that graced her features.

      "We heard the yelling, Dolanna," Keritanima said quietly.  "Is he going to be alright?"

      "Yes, Keritanima," she said wearily, tears and smile painting a paradox on her features.  "I think that he will be just fine."

      "It sounds like he is crying," Allia said in concern.

      "It is a long time coming, Allia," Dolanna said.  "Never before has he admitted, even to himself, the pain his condition causes him.  He has never mourned the loss of his humanity, of his former life.  What he is doing now is what he should have done the very first day after he was turned."

      Both of them stared at Dolanna for a long moment, then tears formed in Allia's eyes.  "My poor deshaida," she whispered.  "Even to me, it was as if he accepted it."

      "What choice did he have, sister?" Keritanima said with a sniffle.  "I know how it feels to be trapped in a life you don't want."

      "We should--"

      "No," Dolanna said, holding Allia back.  "This is not a time when he would appreciate company.  Leave him be."

     She gave the door a long, searching look, placing her hand upon it as if she were laying a gentle hand on someone's back.  "Just leave him be."


GoTo:   Title                         EoF

Chapter 6

 

      There just never seemed to be an end to it.

      Tarrin stood on the deck, near the bow, staring up into the clear night sky, up at the four moons.  The night was unseasonably warm, with a muggy wind blowing up from the south.  The sails had been raised and the sea anchor dropped so that the ship could sleep during the night, with only a trio of watchmen to look for danger and inform the navigator of how much they drifted during the night.  They left him alone.  They knew better than to bother him.

      It had been months since his transformation into a Were-cat, and he'd thought that the trauma of it had been dealt with.  But the simple fact of the matter was that he'd never faced it before.  The very moments after he woke up had been spent trying to deal with the new body, the instincts.  He'd never allowed himself to think about what he had lost, only how to make the best of a bad situation.  There had been laments, wistful thoughts, but never did he allow himself to dwell on what had happened.  Even when he had time to think about it, the chaos at the Tower always gave him something other to think about.  Staying alive had been a very large part of his life since being turned, forcing him to shunt away almost everything except that one simple goal.  To stay alive.  Part of the acceptance was because of the very instincts inside him.  They forced acceptance, had altered his mind so that it seemed natural to him to be what he was.  But it wasn't natural to him, a fact that he'd only now been able to face.

      He stared up into the sky, and what looked back at him was an image of how he used to be.  A very young, somewhat naive boy that had once been very friendly and outgoing, modest and thoughtful.  A boy that would spend days wandering the unexplored tracts of the Frontier for no other reason but to see new things.  A boy that was much too innocent for his age, whose life had been sheltered more than his parents realized.  But he was dead now.  There was no way to deny that.  Tarrin Kael died the instant that Jesmind's fangs sank into his arm, and the new Tarrin was born.  The change had taken time, as the newborn acclimated to new instincts and motivations, but that change was so terribly complete now.  He was nothing like he used to be, like the way he remembered.  Even if he could go back, to be human again, now it would be a hollow sensation.  Too much had happened, had tainted him, and he could never be that way again.

      And now he knew it.  He'd said it to himself, but maybe some little part of himself wouldn't accept it, had clung to the hope that he could rebuild his life the way it had been.  That was gone now.  There was nothing left but stark reality, the blaring truth that he was a Were-cat, and that could never be changed.  He had been thrown into the inferno, and finally he had admitted to himself that it had burned him.

      But there was no comfort in that confession.  There would only be the struggle to maintain some shred of his humanity in the face of his animalistic impulses, instincts that made him capable of killing.  He'd never believed that animals could be cruel, but in a way they were.  They weren't sadistic or evil, but they had little regard for the possible injuries they inflicted on others.  The hunter killed to survive.  It didn't relish inflicting pain on its prey--it didn't even understand that concept--but it was trained to kill, to inflict pain, from its earliest days.  To the Cat, the end justified the means, and that the means may hurt someone else were of no matter.

      And he had to live with that.  In a way, he didn't have a choice.  The Cat forced it on him, had changed him so that that concept of life seemed completely natural.  But every time he hurt someone, he killed, it hurt the human inside him.  And to isolate himself from that pain, he had buried that part of himself.  He had tried so hard to hold onto his sanity, and had succeeded.  But to keep from going mad, he had forced himself to sacrifice his humanity, to cast it aside and embrace the animal instincts that were the causes of the madness.  He had kept sane, but the cost to him seemed more now than going mad would have been, because at least in madness there would be no feeling of guilt over what he did.  Not like it was now.  Every life he took brought with it the deep feeling that it was wrong, yet he was totally incapable of stopping himself.

      Haley was right.  He had truly become a monster.  And what struck him hardest was that even now, with his realization and confessions of it, he really, truly, did not care.

      There wasn't much left for him anymore.  Just his sisters and his friends, and this intangible quest that made less and less sense to him every day.  Every time he thought he had overcome what he was, had found a peace within himself, it was stripped away from him, and left him to start anew.  This time, it had taken nothing more than an arrogant young man and the word freak.

      Sometimes it only took one word.

      The wind in his face made it hard to scent the approach of others, but the whispery footsteps that approached him from behind betrayed the presence.  By the sound of the slippers and the measure of the stride, he knew it was Miranda.  The mink came up beside him and put her hands on the rail, then looked up into the sky quietly.  Neither of them spoke for quite a while, simply sharing each other's company.  There was little doubt she knew.  She was Keritanima's closest friend, and there was nothing Keritanima knew that Miranda didn't find out.  Dolanna would have told Keritanima, and Keritanima would tell Miranda.  And that put Miranda here.  She obviously had something to say, so he simply waited for her to get around to it.

      "Are you feeling better?" she finally asked.

      "No," he replied in a quiet voice.  "Where are the others?"

      "Keritanima was very upset, so I put her to bed," she replied.  "Allia is with her.  I don't know about the others."  She put her hand on top of his paw.  "There's no need to be alone, Tarrin," she said reasonably.  "We can help."

      "Not with this," he replied gruffly.  "There's nothing you can do, or anyone else."  He looked down at the calm water, barely stirred by the lack of wind.  "I woke up this morning feeling just fine.  Then a single word makes me realize how angry I really am about what happened to me.  And then, after that, I stared at myself in the mirror, and realized exactly what was staring back at me.  It has not been a good day."  He closed his eyes.  "I've become everything I was afraid I'd be, Miranda.  I'm not a rampaging beast.  I'm worse.  I'm a cold-blooded murderer, and the real kick is that I don't care.  I know what I've become, but I don't care.  Isn't that strange?"

      "Hardly," she snorted.  "I've never seen you kill someone that wasn't deserving.  I've seen how gentle you are when you don't feel threatened, how tender you are with children.  You're not evil, Tarrin, you're just frightened.  And because of that, you react in an extreme way whenever you feel in danger.  It's a very basic reaction among animals, and humans and Wikuni, for that matter.  It's instinctual.  The only thing that sets you apart from us is that you're so powerful."

      In a strange way, that made him feel a great deal better.  "Thanks, Miranda," he said sincerely.

      "We're friends, Tarrin," she smiled. "Outside of Keritanima, Binter, and Sisska, you're my only friend.  And I don't let friends go around being all mopey."

      "Only friend?" he challenged.  "Don't you like Allia and the others?"

      "I know them, Tarrin.  I haven't decided yet if I like them.  They don't really understand me, and I don't bother trying to explain myself.  You don't require things like that.  You take me as I am, just as I take you as you are.  No questions, no regrets."  She looked down into the water.  "I'm really not a very nice girl, Tarrin.  I'm a spy, sneak, thief, and from time to time, an assassin.  I have more skeletons in my closet than you ever will.  People in my line of work have trouble finding friends, because we're all naturally suspicous and distrustful.  But from the first time we met, I just had this feeling that we were going to be friends.  Very good friends.  And here we are."

      "Here we are," he agreed.  He put his arm around her shoulder, and she leaned against him comfortably.

      They stood at the rail and stared up into the sky quietly.  Nothing more needed to be said.

 

      Despite the fact that Miranda had helped him feel much better about himself, it didn't change his restrictive punishment.  For four days, he spent his days in the cabin, and was allowed to come out only at night.  And even then he was restricted to his cat form.  The days were long and almost insufferable, because everyone was kept up on deck to learn their routines for the carnival performances.  They didn't have the leisure to spend time with him until well after noon, nearly sunset  Tarrin spent that time the only way he could, reading.  Keritanima had brought several books with her, two of which were the Sha'Kari language books.  It turned out it that Keritanima had used Sorcery to create written words, and used that the laboriously translate every word of Sha'Kar she knew into the common tongue, and the other way around.  The result was a dictionary of the Sha'Kar language, the closest thing to a comprehensive work on the Sha'Kar language that there was.  The other book was the original Sha'Kar instruction scrolls transcribed into the book, which she still studied nearly every day.  Tarrin didn't understand why she did that.  Keritanima had the amazing ability to remember almost everything she read or heard, with an exacting recall that was astounding.  Even things read or heard months or years ago were still immediately recalled whenever she needed it.  She had admitted that her memory wasn't perfect unless she studied the material a while or she was paying very close attention when she read or heard it, but she had had that book for months.  Certainly that was long enough for her.

      The time had had a souring effect between him and Dolanna.  He was somewhat angry that she had punished him, and stewing about it alone in the room day after day did not help that at all.  He was mad at her, but he already realized that it was like a rebellious adolescent stiffening against the orders of a parent.  Her rebuke of him had also stung him, stung him deeply, making him feel like he was starting to drive away his own friends.  His friends and family were dear to him; they were all that he had left in a very empty, cruel, and unforgiving world.  Without them, he would be utterly lost, and the very thought that Dolanna didn't like him anymore was enough to send a cold wave through his heart.  He wasn't sure why he could be both angry and afraid that she had rejected him, but he was.

      The fifth day of imprisonment began as the other four had, with him trying to sleep away as much of it as possible.  There was a kind of sublime forgetfulness in sleep, and being part cat, he had the ability to sleep whenever he wanted, for as long as he wanted.  But the sounds of laughter and voices would drift in from above, and it would awaken him with a sharp pang of loneliness and regret.  His cabin had no windows, forcing him to rely on the light of a candle, but it was currently out.  There was no need for light, and the light shining from the crack under the door was more than sufficient for him to see if he wanted to.  He couldn't read like that--it was too dim, and a cat's eyes couldn't see with the exacting clarity needed to make out letters written on a page--but he didn't feel much like doing anything that required rational thought.  He drifted in and out of sleep, trying to ignore the sounds of music above him.

      And then the entire ship rocked violently to the side, followed up by a ear-splitting crack that seemed to reverberate throughout the entire ship.  Tarrin was hurled off the bed and head-first into the wall some five paces away, so violently did the ship lurch, as if struck by some gigantic hand.  The impact dazed him, leaving him to lay on the floor woozily and try to stop counting all the pretty little stars.  After what seemed ten years, he finally managed to shake the cobwebs loose from his mind.  He pulled himself off the floor, fighting against a wave of intense pain that went up his skull and down his spine.  The impact had broken his skull, and it didn't seem to be healing back very fast.  He left his head drooping until the pain subsided, and then he quickly changed form and rushed out of the cabin.

      The companionway was clogged by several fallen beams from the ceiling above, and more than one small hole let murky light filter in from the sky above.  He slithered over and around several obstacles, and over the still form of Phandebrass the Unusual, who looked by casual inspection to be alive but unconscious, clonked on the head by a piece of wood.  He didn't have time to mess with that now, he had to get on deck and see what had happened.  He raced up to the steep stairs, then was thrown back to the deck as the ship shuddered again.  Tarrin clawed back to his feet as the ship swayed alarmingly back and forth, hearing the screams and the sounds above that sounded like breaking wood and general confusion.  The light from the outside streamed down the stairs, heavy with dust shaken free by the impacts.  Using the claws on his paws and feet, he pulled himself up onto the deck by steadying himself against the rocking of the ship by hooking into the walls of the staircase.

      Outside it was chaos.  The central mast was sheared off about halfway up its length, leaning heavily over and straining the rigging that held the masts and sails in place.  Debris littered the deck, as well as several still forms, and to the ship's left he could see a large fogbank.  Six large, sleek black ships hung lazily in midair, moving with a silent grace as they surrounded the garishly painted galleon, and he saw men along the sides, pointing down at the decks and unleashing small, sizzling missles that looked to be purely magical in nature.  Men and women rushed about mindlessly, screaming and seeking shelter, even as some of them fell to the magical attacks from the ships above.  Zakkites and their skyships, probably attacking by surprise from the fog.

      Tarrin simply stood there, and time seemed to slow to a crawl.  He surveyed the deck, looking for his friends, for his sisters.  Dar was hunkered under a fallen boom and sailcloth, looking up at the ships in raw panic.  Faalken had smashed a hold hatch and physically threw Dolanna into it before jumping in himself, just as a sizzling bolt of lighting hit the deck right where he had been standing.  Allia had pulled a young woman into another hatch near the bow before disappearing with her below decks.  Binter was sheltering Keritanima near the bow bulwark, holding onto her, as the Wikuni kicked and gouged and seemed to be screaming, but it was lost in the loud cracks and deafening din of the coordinated attack.  It was her eyes.  She was in a panic, and she was desperately trying to get free of her protector and run across the deck.  Tarrin followed Keritanima's eyes, and he saw them.

      Sisska laid still on the deck, her tail twitching spasmodically, and beside her laid Miranda, who had a wisp of smoke rising from her chest.

      He never remembered running across the deck.  One moment he was hunched in the stairwell, and the next he was kneeling beside Miranda.  Her simple peasant dress was scorched in several places, but it was the hideous charred wound in her chest, smoking above and between her breasts, that captured his attention. Her burned breastbone was clearly visible, and the flesh around gaping wound was seared.  The smell of burnt fur and flesh reeked from her.  Tarrin looked at her in stunned confusion, into eyes that were glassy and empty.

      "No," he said quietly, hugging her to his chest.  She was dead.  He couldn't believe it.  Miranda, gentle Miranda, with her quiet, wise ways and her cheeky grins.  Miranda, who always had a place on her lap for him, always took the time to pay attention to him when nobody else would or could.  Miranda, who probably understood him better than Allia, yet never sought to usurp Allia's rightful place in his life.  Always favoring the background, even with him, her presence was always noticed by him, even if it wasn't by anyone else.  She was his friend, one of the few that she trusted.  She couldn't be dead.  It was impossible!

      He stared into her empty eyes again, shaking his head.  The impact of something searing against his back barely registered to him, because his entire world seemed to be dissolving away.

      "No," he said more forcefully, as dumb shock was quickly being replaced by rage.  A searing, blinding, overwhelming anger that boiled up in him like an erupting volcano, but he did not fight it. He couldn't fight it.  Not like this, not now.  He welcomed it, joined with it.  He knew what it wanted to do, and he wanted that himself.  He set Miranda down on the deck gently.

      "NnnnnnnnnnnnnnOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" He shrieked as he lost himself.  Blindingly white radiance literally exploded from his paws, as the Cat took hold of the Weave and nearly ripped it asunder as he demanded its power, all the power it could give to him.  He jumped to his feet as that power began to build, faster than was possible for the richness of the surrounding Weave, until its light limned over his entire body.  The scream of denial transformed into an inarticulate bellow of pure, abject fury, so loud that it echoed back from the fogbank and made the entire ship vibrate with the immensity of its power.  He raised his paws against the nearest of the Zakkite skyships, which was about twenty spans in the air and about thirty spans off the rail, whose every eye was riveted to him.

      A huge bolt of pure, raw, magical power blasted from his paws, the same chaotic weave of Fire, Air, Earth, Divine energy, and token flows from the other spheres to grant the spell the power of High Sorcery.  It struck the Zakkite ship dead in the stern.  The instant it hit, the wood of the side of the ship simply disintegrated under the immense power of the weave, and debris and shards of wood exploded with the beam as it ripped its way completely through the entire ship.  He deliberately raked that magical onslaught across the entire ship's length, from stern to bow, literally cleaving the ship in half, implacably sending a steady stream of fiery debris flying from the far side of the ship as the beam burned and punched through the ship and continued on for nearly a league before finally dissipating.

      The attack sent the first ship tumbling to the sea with a loud, frothy splash, and suddenly every attacker's magical attacks came right for him.

      Riding a nearly euphoric sensation of the raw power of High Sorcery, Tarrin opened himself up to it more and more, drawing in the power faster than the Weave could supply it, surpassing what he could usually hold without injury.  His rage, his fury caused him to completely ignore the usual dangers of wielding that kind of power, and quickly his clothes and fur began to smolder as he drew in so much that his body could not contain it.  But he was beyond pain, beyond caring.  There was only those who had killed Miranda, and the overwhelming desire, the need, to make them pay for their crimes.  There could be no vengeance too merciless, too brutal.  They would suffer a million times more than what they had done to Miranda.  Tarrin swatted his arm to the side negligently, weaving together a spell made up almost purely of Divine power, with only token flows from the other spheres to grant the weave the power of High Sorcery.  The area around the galleon shimmered in a scillinting sphere, and all the magical attacks of the Zakkites struck that barrier, and were absorbed.  He turned his attention to the next ship, weaving together a nightmarish weave of Fire, Divine energy, and Earth, infusing it with such power that it almost completely drained him to create it, then he snapped the weave down and manifested it.  A black ball, crackling with electricity, appeared in his cupped palm, and he turned and hurled it at the next closest Zakkite ship in a sidearm motion.  The ball expanded as it soared at the ship's middle until it was the size of a wagon, causing the Zakkites aboard to turn and flee from it in terror.  But there would be no escape.

      The ball hit the ship almost perfectly amidships, and in that touch it doomed the black vessel.  Wood sheared and snapped as it was sucked  into the unimaginable void created by the weave, drawn into that black oblivion with such force that the air itself howled into it with hurricane force winds.  It picked up hapless Zakkites and anything not nailed down, sucking it into its effect, sending them into an abyss from which there would be no escape.  The ship compressed and crumpled around the black sphere, crushing and crunching to the sound of howling wind, ripping wood, and the screams of the doomed, until the last shards of the bow, the stern, and the masts were drawn into its black depths.  After the last pennon on the mast disappeared, the ball shrank steadily, until it too simply winked out of existence.

      The lull of sound was from the awed, stunned disbelief of the four remaining Zakkite vessels, and it gave Tarrin a chance to recharge.  The energy roared into him, but it did not come fast enough.  The Weave couldn't support the demands he made on it.  Eyes blazing with incandescent white light, he reached out his paws to the sky and forced the Weave to obey, drawing in energy of all seven flows, then sending them out from him in every direction.  They spiralled together as they radiated out from him in every direction, intertwining with each other in groups of seven, until they made contact with other strands.  When they did that, Tarrin pulled on them, causing each intertwined finger of flows to suddenly flare with bright white light, then fade into invisibility.  Along with the light came a shimmering bell-like sound that vibrated the very air, causing wind to blow away from him with enough force to tatter the fog bank that had been resting to their port.  The light faded to nothing, as did the sound.  The intertwined flows were gone.

      Leaving new strands in their stead.

      Standing in the center of a web of saturated strands, Tarrin immediately drew in more power than he could hold, so much that the air around him wavered and the deck beneath his feet began to blacken.  There was no pain in his fury, a fury unlike anything he had ever experienced, a fury that did not care if he survived so long as he took those responsible for Miranda with him.  He generated a weave of pure Air, not high Sorcery, but a weave of such titanic immensity that its physical manifestation was nearly as large as the ships it was created to attack.  It manifested as an invisible wall of pure air, and Tarrin made a pushing motion with one arm--

      --And there was a thunderous BOOM, as the Zakkite ship directly astern simply shattered against the force of a wall of air, as large as it was, striking it at supersonic speed.  There was no piece of it larger than a teacup, and the finely pulverized debris sprayed the water aft of the galleon in a spreading fan pattern that turned the waters gray.  The shockwave caused by the attack had kicked up a wave ten feet high, that went racing to the southwest at a speed that defied imagination.

      The other ships finally reacted.  The remaining three began to turn, to flee from this monster who could destroy entire ships with single spells, but they would not get far.  Still holding the air Weave, Tarrin sent it against the next nearest ship.  He slashed both arms down in a smashing motion, and the flat surface of the weave slammed into the top of the next nearest ship.  It didn't strike at supersonic speed, but it struck with enough force to shatter the masts and crush the ship underneath it.  An ear-splitting series of explosions of ripping wood heralded the death of the vessel, smashed into fragments that were slammed into the ocean with enough force to send up a splash hundreds of spans into the air.

      The toll of his actions slowly began to catch up to him.  Even in his rage, he began to feel the bone-weariness that working with such power was causing, an exhaustion that would kill him if he didn't stop.  But he would not stop.  Not until they all paid for what they did to Miranda.  But even in they purity of his rage, he understood that he had to do it fast.  Already, he could feel the burns, the injuries he had done to himself.  He understood that he was walking a razor's edge between being Consumed and dying from burning up all his own energies.  But there was no fear in it.  He would welcome either, so long as they came after he destroyed the Zakkites.

      There could be time for one more weave.  The remaining two ships were fleeing from the galleon, close to each other.  Tarrin reached out in his rage and drew in the power to weave, saturating himself with the power, the majesty, the might of High Sorcery.  His fur was all completely burned away, and his skin was smoldering as the power burned him alive from the inside out, but he did not stop.  Weaving together a weave composed primarily of Water, he raised both hands and released it.  Two massive walls of water rose up from the sea on both sides of the Zakkite vessels, who immediately tried to climb out from that valley of death.  The walls of water shimmered and pulsated, undulating like the surface of water blown by the wind in a pond, then their surfaces snapped taut, as if some giant had pulled the corners of a sheet laid over them.

      When they did that, Tarrin slapped his hands together, which made the two mountains of water smash into one another with a thunderous noise, grinding the last two ships into small shards of waste.  The debris showered the sea all around them as the two mounds of water turned into a singular column of power that sprayed out as if a god had thrown a small island into the sea, spraying water, wood, and the mangled bits of the dead all over the water's surface for longspans in every direction.

      The last windrows of the sound faded away, and Tarrin sagged to his knees on the deck.  Charred paws came to rest on Miranda, where he had laid her so gently, and in that touch he could sense everything about her.  His awareness heightened by his touch on High Sorcery, still saturated with its power, he could assense her in a way that he had never been able to do before.  Her body was dead, but the soul within had not yet been released, as it awaited Dakkii, the goddess of Death, to come to claim her.  With a clarity that seemed unnatural, he understood the significance of that simple fact.  Sorcery could not resurrect the dead, but Miranda was not truly dead.  Not yet.  But Dakkii was coming--in his state of expanded awareness, he could feel her approach, knew that there wasn't much time.

      Reaching out one more time, understanding that to draw on the Weave again would be fatal, he drew in the power for one last spell.  There was no regret in the action.  The rage had subsided, leaving behind an emotionless sense of awareness that judged an action only by its rightness, and what he was going to do could not be any more right.  He leaned over and put one paw on Miranda, and the other on Sisska, then closed his eyes.  The black metal amulet around his neck flared into sudden incandescence as he wove together Water, Air, Earth, Divine energy, and token flows of the other spheres so that his weaving carried the power of High Sorcery, and then released them into the two females.  His touch became a searing flash of light, and both females suddenly bowed their backs and snapped their jaws tightly shut.  The weave of healing literally attacked the ghastly wounds which had killed both of them, reknitting flesh, smoothing away burned bone, reconstructing entire sections of body, and then infusing them both with the pure energy of the Weave.  That spark of power incited their hearts to beat, their diaphragms to flex, reawakened the souls that had been preparing to depart this world and move onto the next.  The power of his touch was more potent than any spell of destruction or battle, as if the Weave itself responded to him with a complete surrender that was missing when he used it in anger or to destroy, magnified by the utter saturation of energy that the new strands allowed him to bring to bear.

      As one, both Miranda and Sisska drew in a ragged breath, on their own.  They would make it.

      He had no more.  Still connected to the Weave, he no longer had the power to sever himself from it, or to let go of it.  But it did not rush into him as he thought it would have.  He was utterly defenseless to the Weave, yet it did not seek to fill him with its power.  Instead, it simply drained away, evaporated, letting go of him with a gentleness that made him blearily wonder what had happened.  But no matter how gently it happened, it still generated a backlash within him, one that his body simply could not tolerate.  Eyes rolling back into his head, he collapsed forward, and knew no more.

 

      "By all that's holy!" Dar said in utter awe, crawling out from his hiding place.  Keritanima stood not five paces from Tarrin, Miranda, and Sisska, hands held out.  He could feel her, feel the tremendous effort it had taken her to cut Tarrin off from the Weave.  Dar wasn't an expert on Sorcery, but he was positive that she just saved his life.  He was being Consumed, had drawn too much power to handle, and had she not stopped that, it would have killed him.  His body was burned, blackened, as if he'd walked through a fire, but Dar knew that those were only the injuries that they could see.  The same thing had been done to him inside, almost like he'd been cooked in an oven.  She stood there for a long moment, a look of terror and hope in her eyes.  It would have to have been Keritanima to do that.  Not even Dolanna had the raw power necessary to try to overwhelm Tarrin, even when he was in such a weakened state.  Keritanima was a powerful Sorceress, and would be among the very strongest, if Tarrin's power did not eclipse her.  Only she had both the power and the ability to even hope to cut Tarrin off from the Weave.

      He had never--never--thought that he would ever see anything like that.  He had felt it in his soul, a power so immense that anyone who could touch the Weave could not help but feel.  Tarrin had created new strands, built them out of flows pulled from existing strands, and for no reason other than the fact that he wanted to draw more power, faster.  Dar stood there and stared in mute shock as Keritanima rushed over the the inert trio, stared dumbly as Miranda took in a shuddering breath, and then sat bolt upright so quickly that it nearly scared him into wetting himself.

      "A Weavespinner," Dolanna said in reverence, coming up beside him, and seeming to know what he was thinking.  "That, my young pupil, is what being a Weavespinner truly means."  She touched the shaeram around her neck delicately, then grabbed hold of it in a strong grip. "Come, Dar, Tarrin is badly injured, and there are many in need of our aid.  I will need the power of a circle to help mend them."

 

      Crying.

      Someone was crying.  Someone was dead.

      Miranda!

      "Miranda!" Tarrin gasped, eyes fluttering open as consciousness flooded into him with a speed that left him disoriented.  He felt as if he'd been baked in an oven, and his entire body itched. And it ached with a weariness that seemed to have infected him like a disease, leaving him feeling feeble.  The recent past was lost in a haze of weariness and a memory of rage.  He had lost control of himself again, he remembered that, but as was normal for him, his actions during that period of frenzy were murky and indistinct.  Time would sort them out.  As if he really wanted to know what he had done this time.  He was too tired to brood about it, but he distinctly remembered what triggered it.  Seeing Sisska and Miranda laying dead on the deck.

      He was in his cabin.  Keritanima sat on the edge of the bed, Allia stood at her shoulder, and much to his eternal relief, Miranda sat on a plush chair that had not been in his room before, right at the head of his bed.  She had a blanket in her lap and was dressed in a soft blue dressing gown, and on her face was a look of profound relief.  The scents of his other friends were still strong in the room, hinting that he was being visited often, as was the smell of some kind of hot broth.

      That was an expression shared by all three women.  Keritanima's hands were on his shoulders, pushing him down, and Allia had a hold of one of his paws.  Both of them looked just a little haggard.  "You put yourself right back down, brother," the Wikuni princess said sternly, but the tears in her eyes gave away her concern.  "Don't you ever do that again!"

      "Wh-what happened?" he said in a bare whisper.  "I, don't remember very much.  Only seeing Miranda laying on the deck.  Everything after that is a blur."

      "Brother, let us just say that you avenged Miranda," Allia said gently.

      "As you can see, I'm just fine, Tarrin," Miranda told him, a voice that sang like music in his ears.  "A bit weak and a little tired, but otherwise fine."  She took a sip of that broth he had smelled earlier.  "Kerri's been babying me almost as much as you.  She won't let me walk ten steps by myself."

      "And if you do, I'm going to chain you to your bed," Keritanima said with a steely expression at her maid.

      "What happened?" he asked again.

      "Zakkites," Keritanima replied.  "Six of them.  They came out of a fogbank and hit us before we even knew what was going on.  They were about to sink us, but you showed up and destroyed them with Sorcery."  She shuddered.  "You nearly killed yourself, Tarrin.  If I hadn't been there to cut you off from the Weave, what's left of you would be in a little jar.  Don't ever scare me like that again!"

      "Azakar," he recalled blearily.  "I never saw Azakar.  Is he alright?"

      "We had to fish him and a few others out of the sea," Miranda replied, drawing a glare from Keritanima.  "He was thrown overboard after the first assault."

      "Sisska?"

      She's fine," Keritanima assured him.

      "Binter is tending to her," Allia told him.  "She is still recovering from her ordeal.  Binter agreed to allow me the honor of defending Keritanima until he can resume his duties."

      "That couldn't have been easy," Tarrin said weakly.  "I'm really thirsty, sisters.  Can I have something to drink?"

      Keritanima picked a cup of broth up from a small table, and Tarrin sensed her touch the Weave.  It began to steam slightly, heated by her magic, and she allowed him to take small sips.  The liquid was flavored with chicken, and tasted sweeter than any wine ever could.

      The door opened, and Dolanna and Faalken entered.  Their entrance cramped the small cabin somewhat, but Tarrin's eyes were locked on Dolanna.  She looked very tired and wan, with dark circles under her eyes.  Faalken was literally supporting her.  She smiled at him warmly, and that made Tarrin feel an entire world better for some reason, as if their fight had never been.  "Dolanna, you look terrible," he told her.

      "I look much better than you," she said in a weary tone, but her eyes danced and she gave him a glorious smile.  "After the fight, there were many people to tend.  You among them."

      "How bad was it?" he asked quietly.

      "By some gift of the Goddess, only two people were killed," she replied.  "The Zakkites struck during the breakfast meal, and most of Renoit's people were in the galley filling their plates.  Most of the injuries were very serious, but the conditioning of these people allowed them to live more than long enough for us to render aid."

      "It pays to be in shape, it seems," Faalken noted, as Miranda took another sip of her broth.

      "We did pick up a few survivors from the Zakkites.  All of them are slaves," Dolanna told him.  "One is an Aeradalla."

      "What is that?" he asked.

      "A race that is reputed to no longer exist," she said in a tired voice.  "Some call them the Winged Ones, winged, human-like beings that were thought to be long dead.  She has refused to leave until you recovered, even after I healed her of her injuries."

      "Refused?  How long have I been asleep?"

      "Nearly two days," Allia told him.

      "They had her in their soultrap," Dolanna told him. "It was her life force that was making the ship to which she was bound fly.  That is how Zakkite skyships defy gravity, by consuming the life force of flying creatures.  She managed to get free of it before what was left of the vessel sank."

      Tarrin sipped up the rest of the broth, then laid his head wearily back on the pillow.  Just the act of raising his head had completely exhausted him.

      "Tarrin, do you remember what happened?" Dolanna asked intently.

      "No, not really," he said.  "Just seeing Miranda laying on the deck.   Everything after that is a blur."

      "Let us hope that you can recall what happened," she said.  "You and I absolutely must discuss what you did."

      "Why, what did I do?"

      "Tarrin, you created strands," Keritanima told him in a gentle voice.  "You made them, but they're just like any other strand.  It's like you reached out and put new threads into the Weave."

      "That is exactly what he did, Keritanima," Dolanna assured her.  "It is something that is supposed to be completely impossible, and yet you did it."  She leaned against Faalken a bit more.  "If you can remember how you did it, then the possibilities may be boundless.  We could repair the thinned sections of the Weave and restore it to its former state.  Maybe even reclaim some of the power of the Ancients."

      She smiled and patted him on the arm.  "But that can wait.  Right now, you need rest, and your sisters need to sleep.  Neither Keritanima nor Allia has left this room since we put you here."

      "And she made me sit here when I wasn't in my own bed," Miranda said with a caustic little look at the princess.

      "I was not about to leave him alone, Dolanna," Allia said.  "He always knows when we are near, and it makes him rest better."

      "It's that nose of his," Miranda said with a cheeky grin.  At that moment, there was nothing more beautiful in the world to him than that quirky little cheeky grin Miranda had.

      "Come on, children," Dolanna ordered.  "Let us let him rest."

      "And you're going to bed too," Faalken told the Sorceress.  "You've been up almost as long as them.  You won't be any good to anyone if I have to drag your unconscous body around by the hair."

      "Right now, my friend, I am too tired to put up much of a fight."

      "That's good, because I wasn't looking forward to knocking you over the head with a belaying pin," he said adamantly.  "You push yourself to hard, Dolanna.  Now then, I'm going to take you to your room and put you to bed.  And if I see you out of that room until tomorrow, I'm going to borrow a nice heavy blunt object from Renoit and bash it over your head."

      Miranda grinned, but she had the sense not to laugh.  Faalken escorted Dolanna out of the room, forcefully.  Only after the door closed did she laugh.

      "I heard that," Dolanna's voice came through the door.

      Keritanima giggled, and Allia smiled.  "Bed sounds like a good thing, but I want--"

      "Go to bed, Kerri," he told her.  "I'll be alright by myself for a while.  You too, sister."

      "Alright, my brother," Allia said in a gentle voice, "but if you should need anything, just call for us, and we will be here."

      "Go on, I'll catch up in a minute," Miranda told them as they kissed Tarrin goodbye.  She stood and wrapped the blanket around her shoulders, ignoring Keritanima's heated look and dismissing her with a wave of her hand.  Tarrin's sisters filed out of his room, and Miranda sat down on the edge of the bed.  She stroked his unbraided hair back from his face tenderly, looking down at him with serious, sober eyes and a gentle smile.  "You saved my life, Tarrin," she told him calmly.  "You did more than that, actually.  I could feel Death coming for me, but you fought her off.  You brought me back from the edge of death.  I don't even know where to begin thanking you."

      "We are friends, Miranda," he told her weakly, exerting what little strength he had to reach out with a paw and take her small hand.  "If you haven't noticed, I'm very protective over my friends.  You're all I have, and there's nothing I wouldn't do for you, or any of the others either."

      She chuckled in her throat, smiling as she leaned down and gave him a kiss on the cheek.  "Be that as it may, I owe you a big one, Tarrin," she told him.

      "I'm not keeping score, Miranda," he replied in a voice barely more than a whisper.  Her form was becoming fuzzy, and he found it a sudden chore to keep his eyes open.  "I'd do...anything...for a friend...."

      And he surrendered to sleep, leaving whatever reply she had for him unheard.

 

      Miranda stared down at his inert form for a long time, stroking back his tangled blond hair, pulling it out of his ear gently.  The door opened, and Keritanima stood there.  "Regrets?" she asked simply.

      "No," Miranda replied.  "I don't love him that way, Kerri.  I'm just thinking about what friendship can really mean, that's all."  She stroked his hair again.  "I could feel it, Kerri.  When he healed us, he touched us.  I could look right into his soul.  He healed me and Sisska, knowing that it was going to kill him.  It would have killed him, if you hadn't stepped in and saved him.  I feel unworthy."

      "I think you're more than worthy, Miranda," Keritanima told her gently.  "And so did he.  If anything, you've been a good friend to both of us, and if he's taught me anything over these months, it's how important friends really are."  She was quiet a moment.  "What else did you see when you looked into him, Miranda?"

      Miranda's eyes were a mystery.  "A friend," she replied with a gentle smile.

 

      Her name was Ariana, and everything about her was exotic.

      Her wings absolutely dominated her entire appearance.  They were very large, bird-like wings with white feathers, some of which were over two spans long.  They folded nearly three spans over her head, and their tips brushed the wooden deck.  Fully spread, those wings had to have a breadth of nearly twenty spans.  She was very tall, seven spans in height, about Allia's height, thin, willowy, and maybe just a little bony.  Or she would seem that way, if not for the fact that she was generously buxom and had the wide hips of a heartstopper.  She was very sleek, athletic, and her visible corded muscles rippled whenever she moved.  The most surprising of her musculature had to be her rock-hard, ripped abdominal muscles, but then again, powerful abdominals would be necessary for a flying being whose wings were attached so far forward.  She would literally have to hold the rest of her body straight while flying, and that had developed exceptionally powerful muscles in her body.

      Her body was impressive enough, but aside from her wings, it wasn't the next thing that got one's attention.  It was her hair.  Tarrin had never seen such a deep shade of blue before, and had never dreamed to see it in a human-like being.  But her hair was undeniably blue.  A deep blue, like the skies over the sea, or maybe the water on a sunny day.  In a curious reversal of normal coloring, her eyes were an amber-like yellow not too far from Keritanima's eyes.

      If her appearance was striking, her clothing was not.  She was garbed in a ragged wrap that went around her neck and over her breasts, tying behind her, and a pair of loose-fitting cotton breeches given to her by one of the performers.  A piece of rope served to keep the garment from sliding off her hips.  She had been kept naked, Tarrin had learned from Dolanna after waking up, naked and chained to the magical device that drained her of life to make the Zakkite vessel fly.  She seemed unconcerned with the amount of skin she was showing, skin that was deeply tanned.  Exposure to the sea's uninhibited sun had left its mark on her.

      Tarrin thought he could understand how that would feel.  He had never felt so drained before.  He felt almost feeble, even after spending the entire day sleeping, but he couldn't tolerate laying in that bed any longer.  After having a nasty fight with Keritanima over going for a walk, he did so.  But it only took climbing the stairs to the deck to convince him that it may have been better to let Kerri win the fight.  But coming up had brought her into view, and then curiosity got the better of him.  He'd forgotten that she was still here, even after Dolanna had told him about her.

      Memories of the attack had started unravelling in his mind, and it scared him.  Not that he had lost control, but at the raw power which he had displayed.  It even frightened him.  Never had he performed such Sorcery before, and he doubted he could ever match that feat again.  It had taken losing a dear friend to bring that out in him, and he desperately hoped that it wouldn't ever show again.  He had no doubt that the carnival performers had to be absolutely terrified of him now.  He couldn't blame them.  He was a little frightened of himself.  That she had survived the onslaught was a miracle.  She had been on the first ship he'd attacked, the one he'd sheared in half.  Blind luck had separated the chains, and she had flown free of the wreck before it sank.

      She was one of six.  Five men and women, wearing wraps and borrowed robes, rested below under Dolanna's care.  They were traumatized and horribly scarred by their enslavement, both physically and emotionally.  Tarrin remembered the wicked, horrible scars Azakar had on his back, the visible reminders of life under an Arakite's whip, and he wondered if the other survivors were similarly marked.  That people could be so cruel to each other completely mystified him, but if there was one thing that life in the world had taught him, it was that human beings had no limit to the evil and cruelty they could inflict on others of their own kind.  They were the only race Tarrin could think of outside of goblinoids that were so self-destructive.

      The Aeradalla regarded him for a long moment. standing at the rail, then she beckoned to him with a long-fingered hand.  He approached her quietly, coming close enough to thoroughly analyze and memorize her scent.  It was light, metallic, curiously similar to Allia's.  But where Allia's scent was coppery, hers was more like bronze, but not unpleasant at all.  His tail swished back and forth rhythmically as he looked at her, waiting for her to say or do something.

      "You are the one?" she asked in a richly timbred voice, a contralto that would sound heavenly when put to song.

      "In what way?" he asked calmly.

      "You saved us," she said after a second.  "Your powers of magic are unparalleled, furry one.  Seeing it from the receiving end was very eye-catching."

      "Well, it's not something I do on purpose," he told her after a slight pause.

      "Yes, the Sorceress told me," she agreed.  "I am Ariana Ak'Kalani.  I am in your debt."

      "I think we can forget about debts," he told her immediately.  "To be honest, I had no idea you were on that ship.  Saving you was purely accidental."

      "I know, but credit goes where it is due," she said adamantly.  "I'd never have gotten away if not for your intervention.  That places a debt of life to repay to you."

      "Don't worry about it," he told her with a dismissive wave of his paw.

      "I'll not worry about it, but it will always be there," she told him.  "I'll leave it up to you when and how you wish it repaid."

      "Thanks," he said in a grunt.  That was as good as forgiven, as far as he was concerned.  "Dolanna said she thought your race was extinct."

      "It's a belief we encourage, because of the Zakkites," she replied calmly.  "They have hunted us for thousands of years to power their ships.  Those of us who remain live as far from their reach as possible."

      "How did they catch you?"

      "We can't survive without contact with the other races forever," she said.  "We usually trade with the Selani for what we need, but sometimes we have to go further.  I was caught in a Pelan border town by Arakite merchants, who sold me to the Zakkites."

      Tarrin thought about that.  Pelan was the small kingdom created after the Selani war with Yar Arak, placed between them as a buffer between the two bitter enemies.  The Aeradalla certainly didn't live in either Pelan or Arak, because of Arakite custom of enslaving non-humans.  That meant that they had to be coming from the other direction, from the desert.  "Pelan?  It would be safer going to Arkis."

      "True, but we don't trust Arkisians.  And Pelan is closer, and distance is serious when you have to fly back with what you've bought," she pointed out.

      "That would put your home somewhere in the Desert of Swirling Sands," he realized.

      "Where else is it safer from sea-going enemies than in a desert?" she pointed out with a smile and a wink.

      "Do the Selani know about you?"

      "Of course they do," she replied.  "We trade with them, remember?"

      "Allia's never mentioned the Aeradalla."

      "The Selani?  I think she's from a clan very far removed from our home.  We don't go that far to trade, and as you may have noticed, Selani clans don't communicate with each other very often."

      "I guess so," he agreed finally.  "Her clan territory borders Arkis."  The fact that Selani don't talk is relatively well known in the world.  Those who knew the Selani knew that the thirteen clans were generally  rivals with one another.  Though their Goddess forbade warfare between clans, there nevertheless existed real aggression and hostility between rival clans.  Raiding and abductions were a common occurance along borders between clans, and though there is no killing, there was nevertheless a state of bloodless war that raged between Selani clans.  It tended to be a war of prestige and honor, where the objective was to gain honor over other clans.  It was the one aspect of Selani culture that Tarrin could never quite understand.  Selani clans would battle each other in wars of intrigue and one-upsmanship, steal each other's food, water, and livestock, even occasionally battle each other in the Dance in a form of non-lethal combat, yet turn around and give food, water, or aid freely to the very same clan who had suffered a crisis or emergency.  That the Selani seemed to hate each other, yet maintained an exceptionally powerful racial unity, seemed illogical.  Allia explained that it was one way that the Selani kept in shape and fighting trim.  The Holy Mother, Allia told him once, put her children against one another to make them stronger against those from the outside.  Selani were clannish and very territorial, but would quickly dissolve those boundaries when an event occurred that threatened Selani lives.  Even the lives of the most bitterly rival clan.  "My brother the enemy," Allia had called it one time.  Odd.

      "There you are," she said with a chuckle.  "We never go that way, because we don't trust the exiled Arakites.  I doubt her clan has ever seen us."

      "Probably not."

      "You are unusual.  Dolanna called you Were-cat.  Is this so?"  Tarrin nodded.  "We have long debated whether to return to Fae-da'Nar.  I doubt that they remember us anymore."

      "I wouldn't know," he told her in a quiet voice.  "I'm not Fae-da'Nar."

      She gave him a startled look.  "A Rogue?  You are very brave, Tarrin of the Were-cats.  Few challenge Fae-da'Nar and live.  Their power is formidable."

      "I've never seen that power," he told her, leaning against the rail.  "They've tried to kill me, but they haven't been able to do it yet."

      "You are lucky, then.  A single Druid is usually all it takes."

      "I can deal with Druids," he told her.  "Not that I want to, but they don't really leave me much choice."

      She leaned against the rail with him.  "It's not my place to speak for you, but if you have any way to reach an agreement with Fae-da'Nar, I suggest you find it," she advised.

      "It's gone too far for that, Ariana," he sighed.  "I wanted to at one time, but it's too late now.  My bond-mother put her own needs over mine when mine were much more important, and it made me Rogue.  Then I damned myself in Fae-da'Nar's eyes when I killed innocents protecting myself from another one of them.  I didn't ask for them to be an enemy.  I've tried to resolve it without killing any of them.  But it's too late for that.  The next time Fae-da'Nar crosses my path, one of us is going to die."

      "Sad words," Ariana consoled.  "Sounds like a twist of fate."

      "There's nothing but twists in my fate anymore," he grunted.  "I think about it sometimes, standing up on a deck and looking into the stars.  I've lost my way, Ariana.  I don't really know what I'm supposed to be anymore, or where I'm supposed to be, or what people expect out of me.  I feel like a stranger.  And I have no idea why I'm talking about this to a complete stranger.  I shouldn't really be talking to you."

      "Why not?"

      "Dolanna calls me feral," he told her.

      "Ah, say no more," she said lightly.  "I guess I should feel honored that you'd deem me worthy enough to confide in."

      "I guess you're just a non-human face," he sighed.  "I guess I just don't trust humans anymore.  Not after everything they've done to me.  And to think that I used to be one."  He shivered slightly.  "I've never met one of you before, so I guess I haven't decided yet if you're a friend or foe."

      "Well, that's a gentle way to put it," she said with a slight smile.

      "Now that I've bared my soul to you, when are you planning to leave?"

      "Well, I was waiting to talk with you," she replied.  "To thank you and to tell you of my debt.  I guess that since that's done, I can return home.  It will be a long flight, but I'll enjoy every minute of it."

      "It must be something else to fly," he said, looking up at the sky.

      "There's nothing like it in the world," she said dreamily.  "I should get some rest.  I'll be flying out with the dawn.

      "I think I'd better go back down to my room pretty soon too," he said ruefully.  "It's starting to become work standing here."

      "I didn't realize you were ill," she said in concern.

      "Not ill, just weak," he replied.  "Doing what I did really drains me."

      "Do you want help?"

      "No, I'll be alright.  Besides, it looks like you wouldn't fit in the companionway with those wings."

      "Alright.  If I'm not here when you wake up, I just want to say thank you, and may your gods speed you on your journey."

      "Thanks.  Have a good flight home, Ariana."

      She took his paw, smiling at him warmly.  "If you ever need me, just call, and I'll come," she told him seriously.  "It's the least I can do for someone who saved my life."

      "I don't see when I'll need you that bad, but I'll remember it, Ariana,"he told her.  "I hope we meet again."

      "We will," she said with a smile.  "Trust me.  We will."

      Tarrin gave her a curious look, watching her move towards the large lean-to style shelter that was made for her on the deck.  For some reason, he had to agree with her.

      Absently swatting some insect that landed on his back with his tail, he turned and looked out over the calm seas, both paws on the rail.  The memories of what had happened had started unveiling themselves, and they worried him.  He understood why Dolanna wanted to talk to him so badly.  He remembered weaving together strands.  He knew how he did it, and he could do it again.  The amount of energy it required had been staggering, but it was something that he could accomplish.

      He had no idea how he knew how to do it.  In his rage, he was completely subjugated by his animal instincts.  Perhaps they had some sort of mystical connection to the Weave that he didn't understand.  Perhaps they could sense things that he couldn't when in control of himself.  Maybe it had just been blind luck.  Whatever it had been, it had worked, and worked too well.  He had wanted more power, faster, and that was exactly what he had gotten.  The fact that he used that power to destroy meant nothing to him; they had nearly killed Miranda and Sisska, so there was no mercy.  Not that he was ever overly merciful in the first place.  Regardless of why he had wanted it, the fact that he had managed to call it forth wouldn't leave his mind.

      The power had been incredible.  Now that he could remember what had happened, he could remember things that his animal instincts hadn't noticed in their rage.  About how beautiful it felt, to hold onto that much power.  Even when it was burning him, there was a nearly euphoric sensation involved in wielding that much power, a feeling that was odd, and a little frightening.  He was starting to fear that he was beginning to like using High Sorcery, and that would be a deadly attraction.  He had been lucky so far, either using Sorcery so quickly that he didn't have the chance to build enough power to cross the threshold, or managing to break away from the power when he did.  This time would have been it, if Keritanima hadn't been there to cut him off.

      It was sobering.  It was more power than any single Sorcerer could manage.  It was power that even a Circle had to work to contain.  Yet he could use it, alone.  That scared him, deeply.  He didn't understand what set him apart from all the others, and he was starting to worry that having that kind of power was going to become comfortable to him.  It would change him, if he allowed it to.  He would become used to it, and used to the pedestal on which it placed him over others.  That could lead to arrogance, conceit, maybe even belief that he was better than anyone else.  So much power was an allure, almost like a drug, and he realized now that he had to be careful, or he would be seduced by its dark promises.

      It's very good for you to understand that now, my kitten, the voice of the Goddess echoed within his mind.  Power is a sword with two edges.  It must be respected.

      "Goddess," he said in surprise, looking around.  "I thought you were gone."

      I may not speak to you, but I'm always watching you, kitten, she said whimsically.  It's good to see you up.  Are you feeling alright?

      "I'm still a little weak," he replied, looking down into the sea, at the wavering reflection of the greatest moon, Domammon.  Soon the twin moons, Duva and Kava, would rise, and just behind them, the red moon Vala would rise.  Behind the large white disc shimmered the colored pools of light on the water which reflected the Skybands.  They were much narrower now than he remembered them in Aldreth.  Keritanima told him that when someone was on the equator, they were nothing but a knife-edge in the sky, and only visible at night.  In the frozen expanses of the north, they took up the entire southern section of the sky, brilliant and scillinting in the night, and dulling the light of the sun a little during the day as it shined through them.  They seemed to be in front of the sun and moons, yet behind the clouds.  "But you already knew that."

      Of course I did, she said with a choral giggle.  But it seems to make you feel better if I pretend to ask about things I already know, rather than bowl you over with them.

      "Thanks," he said dryly.  "Goddess--that sounds so impersonal," he grunted.  "But maybe I should be more formal.   You are a goddess, after all."

      Let's not start that again, she warned in a dangerous voice.  You know how I feel about frivilous platitudes.  It's how you feel in your heart that concerns me, not how silly you can make yourself look for my benefit.

      He looked into the sea, quiet and brooding.

      I know, she said gently.  You should have expected it, my kitten.  You're a being of the wild, trapped on a seagoing ship.  It's only natural that you'd start wondering why you're here, and doubting what you're doing.  I don't blame you for it, because I know your heart.  You won't abandon me.  I count on that.

      "It's more than that," he sighed.  "I'm just not the same person anymore.  I've turned into everything I feared I become.  Even more."

      It's necessary, she said gently.  It's a process of discovery.  You've only been Were for about six months, kitten.  You haven't discovered what that means to yourself yet, and being on these ships isn't helping you.  But there's nothing I can do about that.  All I can tell you is that no matter how much you feel that you've lost yourself, you will always have the power to decide what you want to be.  It may not be an easy road to travel, but there's nothing stopping you from trying.

      "I know.  It's just so hard sometimes.  Sometimes, I feel like I should go back to Suld and gut the Keeper for doing this to me.  I should have killed her."

      No, she said sternly.  The Keeper had no choice.  She was acting on my orders.

      "Your orders?  You made them do this to me?" he asked in shock, his entire moral and religious foundations beginning to buckle dangerously.

      Yes, I did, she replied calmly, almost challengingly.  And the reason you are so weak is the very reason why.

      "What do you mean?"

      Kitten, you are a Weavespinner.  Maybe now you appreciate more fully what that title means.

      Tarrin blinked.  She was right.  The title wasn't some archaic, ambiguous term, it was a literal description.

      That's right.  You have the power to create and destroy strands of the Weave.  It's a very rare gift, something that even the Ancients didn't see very often.  My children may remember the title, but they had no inkling of what to do with you.  They trained you like a normal Sorcerer, because they didn't know any better.  They didn't realize that when they did that, they would have signed your death warrant.

      "What do you mean?" he asked in confusion.

      Weavespinners are so strong in the Weave that they can't survive being in direct contact with it, the way that Sorcerers contact it to draw power.  Had you remained mortal, were you still human, the instant that Jegojah pushed you into the Heart, it would have incinerated you.  Your Were body, with its inhuman endurance and ability to regenerate, was the only reason you survived.  And if it wouldn't have been him, it would have been something else.  The first time you would have touched High Sorcery, it would have Consumed you.  Being what you are is the only reason you can survive it.

      So, my kitten, I had you changed.   It was a simple matter of keeping you alive.  You may hate it, and you'll probably hate me for it, but there are some things that we all must do that we don't like.

      Tarrin turned that over in his mind several times.  That the being he looked upon as his patron deity had been at the center of his life's greatest turmoil shocked him to the core, but the logical part of his mind couldn't refute her explanation.  Pragmatism seemed to be a universal compulsion.  To save his life, she had ordered him turned Were.  And he had survived.  He was still struggling with those consequences, but as his mother would say, life was an opponent, to be challenged and battled.  There was a little sense of betrayal, but it came from the childish part of him that still believed in happily ever after.

      "You're right, I hate it.  But I can understand it," he said after a long moment, in an emotionless tone.  "But couldn't you have found something a little less...traumatizing?  I may not feel so alienated if I was a Were-wolf instead."

      There was nothing else, she replied.  Were-cats are the only breed of Were-kin that would have suited.

      "Why?"

      It goes back to the Breaking, kitten.  Were-cats are much different than other Were-kin, and it's much more than skin deep.  It happened to them in the Breaking.  The next time you see Triana, ask her about it.  She was born just after it happened, and she can explain some of it to you.  Anyway, after the Were-cats were changed, they were like you are now.  But what most outside of Fae-da'Nar don't know is that it gave the Were-cats some enhanced abilities compared to other Were-kin.  Were-cats retain their inhuman strength, speed, agility, senses, and their power of regeneration in any form, where in other Were-kin they only receive those gifts in their hybrid form.  It's the gift they receive in exchange for losing the ability to hold the human shape without pain.  It's also one of the reasons the other Were-kin resent Were-cats.  Only a Were-cat's body is suited to resist High Sorcery.  Using any other Were body would have still killed you.

      Tarrin considered that.  It was a bit surprising.  Jesmind had said that Were-cats were different, but it seemed that even she didn't understand the truth about their condition.  He wondered why that would make the other Were-kin resentful.

      Because they're a little jealous, the Goddess answered.

      "But they can take the human shape."

      So can you, if you're willing to endure the discomfort.  The only thing the Were-cats really lost was the ability to stay human for extended periods of time.

      "What caused them to change?" he asked curiously.

      The Breaking did more than kill mages and Sorcerers, and make magical objects explode, she replied.  It also affected some species with ties to magic, like Were-cats.  The Were-cat condition is something of a side-effect of the Breaking, an alteration brought about by the shift in magical power.  A mutation, in a word.

      "What does that word mean?" he asked.

      It's a rather technical term for when a child born of parents doesn't look like the parents, she explained.  I'm not talking about just facial features or hair color either.  Imagine if all human babies born after this moment had four arms instead of two.  That's a mutation.  That's what happened with the Were-cats.  All children born after the Breaking were like you and Jesmind and Triana.

      "If they were born changed, what happened to the parents?"

      They're all dead, she replied, a bit sadly.  They tried to raise their children, but they were very different from their parents.  The original Were-cats were very benign and domestic, where their changeling offspring were wild and grounded very much in their instincts.  That made the parents afraid of them, so they branded the Were-cat offspring to be Mal-de'Kii, or Children of Darkness.  The same title given to vampires, lamias, and other exotic creatures that prey on humans.  The parent Were-cats then tried to kill their children, deciding to reproduce by biting humans, to infect them with the same type of lycanthropy that they had.  Humans bitten by these elder Were-cats became the same type of non-mutated Were-cat.  By then, these changeling children were old enough to defend themselves, and there was a merciless war between the changelings and the original Were-cats.  It ended when the changelings wiped out their elders, replacing them in Fae-da'Nar as the new Were-cat society.

      "That's horrible!" Tarrin gasped.

      Yes, but it was a matter of survival, she replied gently.  As a Were-cat, I think you understand how savagely a Were-cat will fight to protect its life.  Tarrin was forced to nod in agreement there.  There was no other way.  I don't think that the changelings wanted to take it that far, but even one elder Were-cat had the power to bite humans to increase their numbers, then come after them again.  So they decided to exterminate them all.  It may be sad, but not everything in life or history is all light and sunshine.

      "I guess not," he sighed.  "Triana was involved in that?"

      She's the oldest of your kind, kitten, born just after the Breaking.  She was part of it.

      "It must have been awful, knowing you had to kill your own parents," he said compassionately.

      Hold on to that feeling, she told him.  There will come a time when what you say to Triana will decide whether you live or die.  Look at her before you answer.

      "What does that mean?"

      What you want it to mean, she answered cryptically.  Just remember what I told you, kitten, about Triana, and about the path you decide to take.  It's time for me to go.  Be well, and know always that I love you.

      And then the sense of her presence was gone, leaving him feeling like there was an emptiness inside.  And leaving him with more questions than answers.

      A path to take.  Maybe she was right.  Maybe, if he worked very hard, he could reclaim some part of himself that he'd lost to the Cat.

 

      Two days in bed had done wonders for Tarrin's health, but little for his ire.  And the main reason for that was standing at the doorway, in the form of Phandebrass the Unusual.

      The doddering mage had discovered that Tarrin's bedridden condition left him incapable of defending himself from the man's endless ranting.  He had a captive audience, he and his two little teacup dragons, and he had taken advantage of it.  Phandebrass had quite effectively bullied his way past Keritanima and Allia, and then he went to work on Tarrin.  The mage was fascinated with the Were-cat condition, asking endless repetitive questions about every facet of Tarrin's life, even the most intimate and private things, without so much as batting an eyelash.  He would write endlessly in his little book, with a drake on each shoulder looking down.  Even Sevren and some of the other Sorcerers hadn't hounded him as severely as Phandebrass did.  It was an ordeal for Tarrin, who had come close many times to breaking the man's arm just to make him shut up.  But the words of the Goddess always drifted back to him, about how the path he travelled was up to him.  Phandrebrass was aggravating, but he represented a rather grim challenge to the Were-cat, to keep from killing him as an exercise in self control.

      But as two days went by, something strange happened.  Tarrin started to like Phandebrass.  He was a bit scatterbrained, but he was very smart, and his questions were inciteful and searching.  He loved to talk, and he knew many stories.  When he wasn't grilling Tarrin about being a Were-cat, he would tell the most wonderful stories about faraway lands and times long gone, about dead legendary heroes and sinister villains.  Tarrin quickly became completely infatuated with the mage's ability to tell a tale, how his voice would reach out and grab hold of him, and not let go until the tale was complete.  It turned out that that was one of the things Phandebrass did for the carnival.  He was a storyteller who used his arcane magic to enhance the story, bring it to life, supplying visual and audial effects to add weight to the story's plot.   But even without magic, Phandebrass was exceptionally gifted in bringing a story to life with his voice alone.  But it was more than the stories.  Phandebrass was a bit addled, but he had a good heart, and his sincerity was worn on his sleeve.  Tarrin couldn't help but like him because he didn't feel in any way threatened by him, and the man was alot like Dar, having a nearly infectious personality that people couldn't help but like.  After he'd overcome his irritation with the human over his endless questions, Tarrin started liking the man.

      But where Tarrin was starting to warm to Phandebrass, he was not so friendly with the drakes.  Chopstick and Turnkey were small dragon-like creatures, but they were still animals.  Tarrin's scent was one of a predator, and his size made the Were-cat a perceived threat to the two little dragons.  They didn't like Tarrin, hissing and snapping at him whenever Phandebrass approached him, and that quickly rubbed Tarrin's fur the wrong way.  He'd already decided that the first one that bit him was going to lose all its teeth.  Maybe even the head in which they were rooted as well.

      It was a very unusual position for Tarrin.  He liked Phandebrass, despite his irritating personality, and it was obvious that Phandebrass was working very hard to befriend the Were-cat.  And what was the most confusing was that he still didn't entirely trust Phandebrass.  It was just like Kern.  Tarrin respected Kern, would even fight for him, but didn't completely trust him.  He had the feeling that it was because he was human.  Tarrin was very distrustful of humans, mainly because they had proven themselves to be untrustworthy in the past.  Phandebrass hadn't conquered his mistrust yet, and until he did, Tarrin wouldn't let the man get too close to him.  He did like him, but only from a distance.  When Phandebrass started trying to get close, Tarrin would stiffen his back and push the man away, forcing the mage to start all over again.

      He may be a bit more open, but Tarrin was still feral, and he understood that.  He doubted he would be anything but feral for the rest of his life.  He had simply been betrayed one time too many.  But what he was hoping was that he could dull that intense distrust of everything not known to the point where he could operate in a human society without killing someone.  That was his only realistic goal.

      The mage was there that morning, sitting in a chair usually reserved for Keritanima, wearing a silly black robe with patches portraying mystical symbols sewn randomly to the fabric.  And that hat.  It was a truly ridiculous conical hat, with a wide brim, that tapered to a sharp point some two spans over the mage's head.  It was Phandebrass' stage costume, and he was wearing it because he'd spilled ale on all his other robes.  A mug of ale was casually held in his left hand, threatening to soil the last garment the mage had left with each movement of his hand.  Turnkey and Chopstick--or was it Chopstick and Turnkey?--sat on his shoulders, glaring at the Were-cat as the mage finished off what was left in the tankard.  The two little drakes, with their reddish scales, looked almost exactly the same.  Their scents were different, but Tarrin had yet to figure out which drake was which.  Phandebrass rarely called them by their names, nor were they often separated from each other.  The mage was relaying a tale of the gods, of the twin gods of death, Dakkii and Dakkuu.  The origins and histories of the Elder Gods were very blurred and uncertain, but what was generally known of the twin gods was their roles.  Everyone referred to death as she because nobody wanted to see the male Death come to claim them.  Only those who had lived a live of selfishness or evil, whose afterlife would be a punishment, were claimed by Dakkuu, the male Death.  Those who had lived a good life, and were being carried on to an afterlife of reward, were claimed by Dakkii, the female Death.  When Death Herself came to claim someone, it was a fear only of what was lost.  When Death Himself came for a person,  it was a fear of what was to come.

      The story he told was the story of the twin gods' eternal hatred for each other.  So the story went, they had been borne at the same instant, and had originally been meant to be only a single entity.  But fate had split them into two, and each secretly felt that they were what was originally intended the god of Death to be.  Dakkii saw the god of death as a nurturer, to gently carry the souls of the deserving on to their patron gods, who would mete out justice.  Dakkuu saw Death as an avenger, someone to keep the souls of the damned and torture them for their failures and evil natures.  They had nearly went to war with each other, until Ayise, Allmother, the creator of the gods, stepped in and separated them.  To each she granted that position in which they believed.  Dakkii became the god of Death for the vast majority of the world, someone to ferry the souls on to their final destination, doing it with compassion and love.  Dakkuu became the punisher, who kept the souls that the other gods told him were beyond hope of redemption, to make them suffer for the hatred and evil he had in his own heart.  Because of the horrible finality of this punishment, the very name of Dakkuu became taboo to the world, and nobody ever spoke of death as male.  To be claimed by Dakkuu was a fate worse than a million agonizing deaths, because it meant that an eternity of torment awaited the hapless fool.

      "Of course, Dakkuu rails against this custom," Phandebrass concluded.  "Dakkuu wanted to be a punisher, and he became one.  But the fact that when everyone thinks of death, they think of his sister, causes him even more anger and frustration.  Ask a common man about death, and he'll tell you it's a she.  Ask him about what happens to the damned, and he'll tell you that it comes for them.  That's what Dakkuu has become to the world.  An it.  A nameless spectre everyone fears, but nobody completely understands."

      "Isn't it a bad thing to speak his name then?" Tarrin asked.  Tarrin was impressed.  He didn't know that.  He knew there were ten Elder Gods, but even he could only name nine.  The tenth was a mystery, a mystery that the mage had just solved.  He knew about the nameless reaper of the damned, but had never been able to put a name to it--no, he.

      "Oh dear me, no," Phandebrass chuckled.  "If anything, he probably appreciates the fact that some mortals remember him, and remember, Dakkuu is a punisher of the deserving.  If you're not deserving eternal torture, then you have nothing to fear from him.  I'm not saying he's going to appear before us and shake my hand, but I also don't doubt that he knows we're talking about him.  To mortals, Gods are capricious beings, my boy.  They seem to adore attention.  Why they adore attention is something that sages still argue about.  Us lowly mortals will probably never fully understand the minds and motivations of the gods."

      "Probably not.  If we could, we'd be gods too."

      "Excellent observation.  I must write that down.  I say, where is my pen?"

      "In your hand," Tarrin pointed out delicately.

      "Ah.  So it is."

      "I've been wondering, why are you in the carnival, Phandebrass?  You seem too, experienced, to be in a travelling circus."

      "True, my boy, but to be honest, I love telling stories, and it always makes me smile to see people marvel at my magic.  They see my magic, and some of them become interested, and want to learn about it.  It helps spread the learning of magic through the world, and if my efforts help bring only one child to the path of the Arcana, then it makes me happy.  And this circus visits some of the largest cities in the western world, where they have very comprehensive libraries.  I say, the fact that I'm allowed into the Imperial Library in Dala Yar Arak when we perform there makes my employment with Renoit more than worth what I lose in quiet study time.  That library has the most complete collection of magical works in the world.  Mages drool over the idea of being allowed unrestricted access to it."

      "So it's mutually beneficial."

      "I say, my boy, that's the best kind of agreement," he said.  "I do alot of experimenting on the ship.  I have my own lab, you know.  I just have to break my studies from time to time to go perform, which I don't mind doing at all.  Father always said I had a flare for the dramatic."

      The door opened, and Azakar stepped in.  "How are you feeling?" he asked Tarrin without greeting him.

      "I feel alright, Zak.  Dolanna says I'll be off bed restriction by tomorrow, but I think she's being protective about it."

      "You need to listen to her.  She's trying to keep you healthy."

      "Are you going to start trying to be my mother again, Zak?" the Were-cat asked in a dangerous tone.

      "Yes," he said flatly.  "You need to start taking better care of yourself, Tarrin.  If you're not going to do that, well, then I guess we'll have to do it for you."  He wiped sweat from his brow absently.  "Anyway, I'm done for today, and I was wondering if you wanted to play stones or cards or something."

      "Sure.  I think Phandebrass knows how to play King's Crown, and it's always more fun with three people."

      "King's Crown?  I say, do you know the tale behind the game?"

      "We can hear it some other time, Phandebrass," Azakar told him immediately.  "I can't concentrate if you're distracting me with your stories."

      Phandebrass glanced at Tarrin, then he winked.  "Well then, I'll just save it for later, then.  I say, you have a deck?"

      "I do, but only if you promise the dragons won't eat the cards this time," the huge Mahuut said steadily.

      "I scolded them for that, my boy," he replied with a straight face.  "I say, do you know that the suit of crowns started out as the suit of gold?  There were four suits, all named after precious metals.  The suit of gold, the suit of silver, the suit of copper, and the suit of platinum.  But time and the need for pictographic cards, which are easier to make, brought about the changes.  Now we have the suit of crowns, the suit of clubs, the suit of diamonds, and the suit of swords."

      The door opened again, and Dolanna entered with Keritanima, Allia, and Dar in tow.  Tarrin's small cabin wasn't really meant to hold so many people, so Allia and Dar stayed by the door as Dolanna and Keritanima entered.  "Gentlemen," she said brusquely, "your presence here is no longer required.  I wish to speak with Tarrin alone."

      "That's a sweet way of saying 'get out'," Azakar told Phandebrass.

      "If that is what you wish to hear, then get out," Dolanna said in a calm voice, but with a light smile that made her face radiant.

      Azakar chuckled, but Phandebrass gave the Sorceress a curious look, then he too broke out into laughter, giving Azakar a wink.  "Very well.  I say, this must be secret Sorcerer business.  They must be preparing to exchange the secret handshake."

      "I've seen it.  It's nothing compared to the Knights' secret handshake," Azakar said with a straight face.

      "I will give you reason to wish you were not here in a moment," Dolanna said flintily.  "Out."

      "Yes ma'am," Azakar said calmly, standing up.  "We'll play later, Tarrin, when Dolanna's not being pecky."

      "I am about to show you pecky," Dolanna challenged the huge Mahuut.  She pointed towards the door imperiously, her eyes hard and impatient.  Azakar, being taught the wisdom of retreat in the face of a more powerful foe, bowed out with an elegantly overwhelming bow to the Sorceress, nearly brushing his forehead to the deck.  She smacked him lightly on the top of the head when he started rising, making Phandebrass laugh heartily.  Then the two filed out between Allia and Dar, who closed the door behind them.

      "Now, down to business," Dolanna said.  She seated herself in the plush chair Keritanima had dragged in so she could sit with Tarrin.  That got her a nasty look from the Wikuni Princess, who sat down on the end of the bed as Tarrin sat up and sat cross-legged at the head.  Allia sat in the middle of the bed, and Dar took the sturdy wooden chair after moving the small end table aside, that had been put there to hold cards.  "It has been made clear to me that I was in grave error to allow you to ignore your training, Tarrin," Dolanna said.  "So we are here to study, practice, and learn.  The first thing we are going to do is listen to you explain exactly what it is you did to make new strands."

      "That doesn't sound much like instruction," he countered.

      "For us, it will be," she said.  "Perhaps the relation of your discovery will help us come into closer contact with the Weave, or learn new ways to apply its power.  Besides, a good Sorcerer learns everything he or she can, whether or not it is knowledge that can be applied practically."

      "I guess that's a good way to look at things," Tarrin admitted.  He closed his eyes and conjured up the memory he had of that, but it wasn't easy.  The entire affair was heavily tinged by his outrage and anger, and it made the dynamics of the act hard to recall in words that could easily be explained.  "I remember pulling out all seven flows, then sending them out in groups," he said in a quiet voice, as the others all leaned in to listen.  "Groups of flows that would make strands.  I braided them together and made them connect to existing strands, then I, well, pulled on them.  That's how I remember it, anyway."

      "You charged them with your power," Dolanna told him.  "That caused them to snap taut, just like loose-weaving a spell, then snapping it down to release it.  I suppose you charged them with enough energy for them to interact, and form new strands."

      "I remember that," Keritanima said.  "The entire Weave shifted when he did that."

      "It shifted because he was making it move with him," Dolanna replied.  "Do you remember that, Tarrin?"

      "I think so," he said, trying to pierce the veil resting over much of his memory or the episode.  "Maybe."

      "Do you think that you would remember how it was done?"

      "I could do it again," he told her confidently.  "I'd rather not, though."

      "I do not want you to, dear one," she told him immediately.  "The amount of energy it cost you to do it was staggering.  I am still shocked that you did not tear the Weave in the attempt, and that you were not burned to ash within seconds.  This is something I never want you to attempt alone again."

      "I saw the scorchmarks," he said quietly, memory of the pain making his spine tingle.  Up above, on the deck, were two blasted, charred marks that were perfect imprints of the bottoms of his own feet, right down the the texturing of his pads.  Branded into the deck as a testament to what had occurred.  "Was it really as bad as it looks?"

      "Worse," Allia answered evenly.  "You were all but on fire, brother."

      "I don't really remember that."

      "I think I'd be happy not to remember something like that," Dar noted.

      "No doubt," Tarrin agreed.

      "This is something that we will work on later, Tarrin," Dolanna said.  "For now, you are too weak to attempt anything, and I am unsure as to how safe it would be to try.  But I would very much like to see if there is a safe way, and that brings us to the real reason we are here."

      "What is that?" he asked.

      "I recall that the Tower never trained you in Circling," she announced.  "You will learn this skill with us."

      "What good will that do?"

      "I did not see what happened when you interposed yourself on the Council's Circle, but I did hear about what happened.  If you could circle with us, it may be possible for you to wield your power in a much safer manner, spreading it out among the five of us instead of shouldering the burden alone.  There would still be danger, but it would take much longer for it to reach a critical point.  In the interests of safety, we should practice and prepare for the possibility that we may have to defend this ship from marauders again."

      Tarrin mulled it over, and he found her reasoning somewhat sound.  When he had managed to hijack the circle of the Council, it did allow him to spread the burden of his power among them, allowing him to keep control of it much longer.  He remembered that clearly.  He even had the control necessary to let go of the Weave without having to sever himself and suffer a backlash.  He didn't like the idea of putting his friends and sisters at risk, for he remembered clearly the effect he had on the Council after the circle was broken.

      And he remembered what had broken the circle.  The Cat had done it, rejecting the intimate mental communion that came when Sorcerers formed circles.  Even if he was willing to learn, it was very possible that the Cat wouldn't permit him to form a stable link to the others.  "There may be a problem, Dolanna," he told her.

      "What with?"

      "Your idea is good, but they didn't tell you why the circle broke up when I got dragged into it.  The Cat rejected the link.  It took the circling link to be a foreign entity and attacked it.  If I hadn't released the Weave and dissolved the circle myself, the Cat would have broken in for me.  I remember that.  I'm not sure if I can circle."

      "Yes, but you know the four of us intimately.  There is a good chance that your trust in us will allow your instincts to accept our bonds."

      "Well, I'm not sure, but we can try.  If you're willing to accept the risks."

      "I'm aware of the risk," Dar told him.  "Dolanna explained it to us.  I trust you, Tarrin."

      That meant more to him than he could easily express.  He gave Dar a sincerely grateful look, then nodded.  "I know how my sisters will answer."

      "If I was not prepared to face danger for my brother, I would not have the honor to call him so," Allia said bluntly.

      "I'll do almost anything to further the cause of Sorcery, even if it wasn't my brother and sister doing the risking with me," Keritanima said with a toothy grin.

      "Very well then, it is decided," Dolanna said dismissively.  "To start, Tarrin, the key of a circle is communion.  The Sorcerers join together, both their power and their minds, forming a cohesive will led by the designated Sorcerer commanding the circle.  A circle cannot have more than seven, because too many minds in a circle cause the creation of a mass mind that dies when the circle is broken."

      "That's not entirely true, Dolanna," he said absently.  "Only seven of the same species can circle."

      "Where did you hear this?" she asked quickly.

      "I didn't.  I remember it from when I joined the Council's circle.  If you don't mind me sounding obvious, there were eight of us in it.  It didn't form a mass mind because my mind isn't human.  My different mind blocked it.  I realized it when I dissolved the circle.  I think that's one of the reasons why I had trouble holding it.  If it had been seven other Were-cats, I don't think the Cat would have rejected the contact."

      Keritanima gave him a strangled look, then she laughed.  "I forgot all about that!" she admitted in a loud voice.  "You even told me that!"

      "Kerri forgot something?" Tarrin asked, giving her a smile.  "Someone look out and see if the sea hasn't turned to glass."

      "Well, maybe not forgot.  Maybe more like misplaced," she said with a chuckle.

      "The theory does have merit," Dolanna said after a moment of tapping her chin, obviously in deep thought.  "A great deal of merit.  The reason a mass mind forms is because of the presence of numerous minds linked together in the communion of the circle.  It only stands to reason that a mind of a dissimilar nature would reject such a formation, and prevent the mass mind from forming.  The different mind would insulate the other members of the circle, protecting them from the formation of a mass mind.  After all, the mass mind cannot form unless all participants of the circle join with it.  If one does not, then all do not.  It is the very nature of a circle."

      "What does that mean to us students?" Dar asked curiously.

      "A circle is inclusive, Dar,"she explained.  "It is like a school of fish, or herd of goats.  Where one goes, all go, when one turns, all turn.  But if one does not jump off a cliff, for example, then none will."

      "Even if other goats go first?" he asked.

      "It is an abstract concept," she reiterated.  "Think of the herd being tied together with rope.  If the one goat that does not jump is strong enough, it holds all the other goats up, preventing them from falling to the bottom."

      "Oh," he sounded.  "I think I get it.  Even if all the other goats want to jump, they can't do it because the one goat that doesn't want to jump won't allow them to.  Because they all have to go together."

      "Pecisely," Dolanna agreed.  "They must go together."

      "So, if we had seven human Sorcerers aboard, we could conceivably make a circle as large as ten," Keritanima mused.  "The seven humans and use three non-humans."

      "Perhaps larger," Dolanna elaborated.  "There are many ways to circle, young one.  If the lead of a circle were to join to another circle, they could conceivably expand the total number to fifteen.  Seven in the first, seven in the second, with the non-human mind between them to act as a buffer."  She tapped her fingers on the bed.  "It certainly makes sense.  The old stories tell of the Ancients joining in circles numbering in the hundreds, to perform their mightiest magic.  That was when the Sha'Kar lived.  Non-humans, to buffer their circles and permit them to join in such large numbers."

      "Can we prove it, though?" Keritanima asked.

      "Actually, yes," Dolanna said.  "We have two humans here, and Dar knows how to circle.  Dar, Keritanima, join into a circle.  Keritanima, you lead it."

      Tarrin felt the edges of it.  Dar reached out to Keritanima in the oddest way, almost as if he were trying to touch the Weave.  But instead of touching the Weave, he was trying to touch Keritanima.  He felt Keritanima respond to that searching probe, and when they met, he felt their power pool together and expand.

      "Very good.  Now, Keritanima, join with me in another circle.  I will lead it."

      Tarrin felt it again, as Keritanima simultaneously maintained her contact with Dar, and reached out to touch Dolanna in the same manner Dar had reached out to her.  He felt Dolanna's reply, and then they too were linked together into a circle.  The pooled power of Dar and Keritanima suddenly expanded into Dolanna, joining the two human Sorcerers through their non-human conduit.

      "Yes, I think it does work!" Dolanna exclaimed.  "I can barely feel Dar at all!  Keritanima is isolating him from me, yet I can still access his power!"  She looked at Tarrin.  "Did you feel it?  How it was done?"

      Tarrin nodded.  "It was like trying to touch the Weave, except she was trying to touch you."

      "Try it," she urged.  "Reach out to me.  Try to touch me."

      Tarrin nodded and closed his eyes.  He knew how to touch the Weave; it was almost instinctive now.  He used the same sensation to begin, but instead of trying to touch the Weave, he reached out for Dolanna instead, using her scent and her feel and her presence to guide his awareness.

      It was shockingly easy.  He touched Dolanna, almost as if she were the Weave, and he felt her mind respond.  There was almost something of a door opening between them, and he found he could peek through it and look into her mind.  But she could also look into his, and the Cat took immediate notice of this unknown, strange sensation, of this strange presence.  It rose up to investigate, to challenge the interloper.

      Dolanna gasped audibly as the Cat invaded her through the contact between them, and he felt her mind attempt to push it back away from her.  He tried to rein it in, convince it that the mind in contact with them was a friend, not an enemy, not an attack, but the impulse was powerful and it was irresistable.  He felt the Cat rise up and smite the doorway between them, shattering it like a window.

      Both Tarrin and Dolanna cried out, reaching for heads that were suddenly splitting with pain.  The Sharadi Sorceress sagged in her chair and Tarrin's head banged into the wall behind him.  Keritanima winced, flinching away from the other two, but Dar made no outward motion at all that he felt anything.  "That was very unpleasant," Dolanna said delicately, rubbing her temples.

      "I felt it too," Keritanima said.  "What happened?"

      "Tarrin rejected the link," Dolanna replied.  "Violently.  The disruption of the circle fed back into us as a backlash."

      "I didn't do it on purpose," he said defensively.

      "I did not say that you did, dear one," she assured him.  "I do not wish to try that again any time soon."

      "I warned you it may happen."

      "So you did.  But we do seem to have unlocked a forgotten secret.  This is something I must write down and send back to the Tower for further study."

      "You're going to tell them?" Tarrin flared.  "I don't trust them, Dolanna!"

      "True, but we cannot allow knowledge to be cast aside," she said calmly.  "If we fail in our quest, we very well may perish.  I will not allow this to die with us."  She patted his paw.  "Besides, dear one, how can they possibly use this against us?  All of the non-human Sorcerers are right here.  This provides them with absolutely no hold over us.  Because of that, I see no reason not to share it."

      He looked for a good logical reason to object, but he couldn't find any.  He decided that logic was a great deal overrated.  "Well, I still don't like it," he snorted, crossing his arms.

      "I do not like it very much either, but I see little recourse," Dolanna assured him.  "Because of my newfound headache, I think we will stop for now.  After I recover some, we will continue with normal lessons."

      "That's fine with me," he said flatly.  But then the words of the Goddess, about how he chose his own path, echoed in his mind.  "We'll try it your way, Dolanna," he said, with considerably less hostility in his voice.  "I guess I can trust you to do the right thing."

      "I appreciate that," she said, standing up.  She swooned slightly, but Dar was there to give her a reassuring arm.  "I think I need to lay down a while," she announced.

      "I'll take you to your room, Dolanna," Dar said in a gentle voice.

      "Thank you ever so much," she said with a bright smile to her pupil.

      "Are you alright, brother?" Allia asked in Selani as Dar helped Dolanna from the room.

      "I'm fine, just a little headache," he replied.  "I think Dolanna took the brunt of it."

      "I think she did too," Keritanima agreed.  "It was about the same as being hit in the head by a cannonball.  I can only imagine how bad it was for her, since she was the lead."

      "Sorry," he apologized to Keritanima.

      She snorted.  "It was a calculated risk," she replied.  "At least it wasn't a complete failure.  I doubt we'll get you into a circle, but at least you remembered that part about non-humans.  That's new information, and that's always good to have."

      "Whatever," he yawned.  "How are dance lessons going?"

      Keritanima visibly bristled.  "You have alot of nerve to ask that," she said ominously.

      Allia giggled like a little girl.  "She has the other dancers in a state of terror," she told Tarrin.  "They're afraid she's going to pull out a knife and stab them."

      "What about you?" Keritanima challenged.  "Didn't you break Jak's arm this morning?"

      "I can't help it if he can't land on his feet," she shrugged.

      "Renoit's talking about making you dance instead," she told the Selani in a light tone.

      "Fine.  Unlike you, I find nothing wrong with dancing.  I enjoy it."

      That seemed to take the wind out of Keritanima's sails.  She gave Allia an irritated look, then took Tarrin's paw.  "Well, at least Tarrin understands," she grunted.

      "No, I don't," he said bluntly.  "But I'm not going to tease you about it.  If you don't like to dance, then that's fine."

      "Hmph," she snorted.  "I'm going to spend time with Miranda.  At least she doesn't make fun of me."

      And with that, she stormed out.

      "She'll never learn," Allia chuckled.

      "What were we teaching her?" Tarrin asked curiously.

      "That fear is there to be conquered," she replied easily.  "Keritanima is afraid of dancing in front of people.  Stagefright, I think Renoit called it."

      "That's a strange condition for someone who lived her entire life in the public eye," Tarrin mused.

      "True, but she was always in a position of control before, or at the very least she was on familiar ground," Allia reminded him.  "This time, she must dance to the beat of another's drum, in unknown territory.  It's an entirely different situation."

      "If you say so," he shrugged.

      "I do say so," she teased, poking him lightly in the ribs.  "And I also say that it's time for you to take a nap."

      "But I'm not tired."

      "But I am, and I miss napping with my brother," she said.  "I'm starting to chafe at the time they take from me to train."

      "I don't mind.  You don't have to be right beside me for me to know you're near."

      "Yes, but we don't talk as we used to do, deshida," she sighed.  "The loss of private conversation could make us drift apart again, and I won't have that."  She scooted up onto the bed more fully.  "Now make room."

      Tarrin gave her a light smile, then shifted into cat form.  She laid down on the bed without a word, and Tarrin curled up beside her.  His head nestled under her chin, he could hear the beating of her heart within the vessels of her neck.  He listened to it for quite a while, listening to it slow, become stable and calmed as Allia drifted off into sleep.  The sound of that, the coppery scent of her, the very feel of her closeness was usually more than enough for him to enter a state of utter security and contentment.  Much as he felt with Janette, Allia's presence made him feel totally safe and secure, knowing that she wouldn't allow anything to happen to him.

      Closing his eyes, he began to purr.  To him, there were few things better in life than peace.


GoTo:   Title                         EoF

Chapter 7

 

      The city of Tor was alot like home.

      Tarrin and the others stood at the rail, looking at the port city as they approached.  The city's architecture was dominated by wood, cut from the thick forests surrounding the city's stone walls and farms.  Wood houses with thatch or tiled roofs covered the visible city skyline, with the occasional stone house, tower, or turret breaking up the wooden monotony.  Very few of the houses were painted, the vast majority of them either whitewashed or covered with wattle and daub to protect the wood against the corrosive salt air.  The result was a city of white and brown, the white of the walls with the brown of the thatch or the slaty grayish color of those houses with either tiled or flat roofs.  Tor was a very large city, sitting in a very wide basin, almost like a teacup saucer, a depression in the land around the mouth of the River Tor, which bisected the city.  The buildings they could see on the waterfront were all warehouses.  Tor was a merchant city, dealing exclusively with the food grown in the breadbasket lands of the Free Duchies and sent down the river by barge.  It was the sole reason the city thrived.

      That wasn't the only thing to look at.  There were many ships in the city's wide, undefended harbor, and most of them were military in nature.  Tor maintained a decently sized navy to protect ships in its waters, but Keritanima remarked that they were rarely concentrated as they were now.  Cargo ships, fishing boats, and flat-bottomed barges being ferried out to a wide sand bar to the left of the city had to carefully wind their way through anchored naval vessels.

      "I wonder what's got Tor all stirred up," Faalken asked absently as they looked out at the city.

      "What do you mean?" Dar asked.

      "They have an army camped just outside their walls," he replied, pointing to the where the wall of the city descended right into the water.  "They're flying Torian banners.  It's a friendly army."

      "And they've called in their entire navy," Keritanima added.  "They're definitely worked up about something."

      "We are certain to find out soon enough," Dolanna said dismissively.  "Renoit said we would be here for nearly ten days."

      The performers were somewhat puzzled, and not a little worried, as the ship slid into port, its ropes being caught by dock workers.  Tarrin was in his human shape, using the meditative techniques that Allia had taught him to shunt the pain away to the side, to make it something not worth holding his attention.  Because he looked that way, the other performers had forgotten who he was, or perhaps didn't consider him to be dangerous, and had gathered around his group of friends.  "What's the matter?" Dar asked one of the gymnasts, a small, lithe young girl whose name Tarrin did not know.

      "There's nobody here to greet us," she said pensively. "Usually the Dancer attracts a crowd at the dock, and we greet them.  But there's nobody here."

      "Maybe they have something else to worry about," Faalken predicted.  "An army, a navy, and I don't see a whole lot of people moving around.  Something's definitely going on."

      Keritanima blew out her breath, then immediately looked at Miranda.  "Don't start," the mink Wikuni said immediately.

      "I'm certainly going to start," she said threateningly.  "You still haven't recovered from your injury yet.  You're going to take it easy, do you hear me?"

      "I'm not a china doll, Kerri," she said dismissively.  "If I've been well enough to dance, I'm well enough to do some of my real duties."

      "Come come, my friends, just because there is no crowd to meet us does not mean we are going to just sail away!" Renoit's voice boomed over the deck.  "We have a tent to raise!  Let us begin making ready!"

      Tarrin's position in the troupe had been redifined after the incident with the other gymnasts.  Now he was nothing more than a deckhand, hired help to aid the circus in setting up and breaking down their carnival.  He was confined to his human form when working in the public eye.  He moved with the others towards the hold, but Miranda took him by the arm and pulled him aside.  "I'm going to need someone to go with me," she said.  "Sisska will be busy with the carnival, and you're the only one she'll trust to take her place.  What do you say, Tarrin, want to be my escort?"

      "What are we going to do?"

      "I'm going to visit the Wikuni mission here in Tor," she replied.  "I happen to know the current lead diplomat personally.  We're old adversaries.  I'm sure he'd tell us what's going on."

      "What about Keritanima's little situation?  Won't he turn us in?"

      "No, not this Wikuni," she grinned.  "He owes me a favor.  I'll just call it on him."

      "That must be some favor."

      "Let's say that he owes me his ability to father children.  I don't know about Were-cats, but Wikuni men treasure that particular part of their anatomy more than life itself."

      "That must be quite a tale."

      "Not really.  I'm the one that was about to deprive him of it."

      "Then it must really be quite a tale."

      She laughed.  "So, interested?"

      "I guess.  It beats dragging canvas around, but we'd better get permission first."

      "Permission?  If I asked permission for half the things I did, I'd never get anything done," she said with a cheeky grin.  "The only permission I need is from Sisska.  We'll leave Kerri a note."

      "We'll hear her screaming in town."

      "So?"

      Tarrin gave her a look, at the mischievious glint in her eyes, and he had to laugh.  "Alright.  There's no fun in getting in trouble unless you have company."

      "That's the spirit," she said with a wink and a light poke in his ribs.

      After getting permission from Sisska and leaving the others a note, Tarrin and Miranda walked along the streets of Tor.  Very quiet streets.  For a city its size, the streets should have been absolutely packed with pedestrians. But the number of people on the streets looked more like it was midnight than daytime.  Every few blocks, a large party of armed men marched by, wearing the axe and crescent moons standard of Tor and looking very wary and grim.  Tarrin saw that the other pedestrians gave the soldiers a wide berth, but did not shrink away from them as if they were occupiers.  It seemed that the army's presence had at least some approval from the citizens.  But the soldiers didn't impede anyone or interrogate anyone.  They were merely asserting their presence within the city.  For what reason evaded Tarrin, but then again, they were on their way to find out.

      The Wikuni mission in Tor was a large stone building overlooking the city's main market square.  It was staffed exclusively by Wikuni, few of which paid Miranda much attention.  Tarrin, however, attracted more than a few glances, looks, and more than a couple of scornful glares.  They spoke to each other in Wikuna, and they were probably unaware that Tarrin could understand parts of it.  Keritanima had been teaching it to him, and he was a very fast learner when languages were concerned.  What he could understand wasn't very flattering, and he had to resist the urge to change form and smack some people around for their unflattering remarks.  They didn't challenge Miranda, however, nor did they challenge him, who was obviously in her company.  They moved along dark hallways lit by candles, with old wood panelling put there to give the stone structure some feeling of more than stone.  Miranda approached a desk on the second floor confidently, behind which sat a rather ugly-looking warthog Wikuni with a huge snout and tusks.  He lacked the humanization of his facial features common in most other Wikuni.  "What business you got here, missy?" he asked in a grating voice.

      "I'm here to see Jander," she replied calmly.  "I'm an old friend."

      "Alright.  Who should I say is callin'?"

      "Tell him it's the crazy lady with the scissors.  He'll know who that is."

      The warthog nodded and got up, then went into a plain brass-bound door behind him.  Almost immediately, a tall, lanky wolf Wikuni that looked shockingly similar to Haley's hybrid form appeared in the doorway.  He looked just like Haley, down to the gray fur and piercing eyes, but Haley's snout was a bit wider, and Haley was a bit taller and little more stocky than this thin Wikuni.  This Jander had no human-like hair like some Wikuni did, just a wild mane of wolf fur on his head that poofed out and made it look like hair.  "I never thought to see you here, my lady," he said in the doorway, with a wide grin.  "Come in, come in.  It's been years since we talked."

      Miranda led Tarrin into a spartan office about the size of his room back home.  It had a large stone-topped desk near the room's only window, which looked out over the market, and a leather-covered cushioned chair behind it.  The walls were the same wood panelling as downstairs, but his walls were decorated with a few wooden engraved plaques, a parchment framed and hanging on the wall, a portrait of an austere lion-Wikuni in a very elaborately decorated frame, and a sword and shield with a coat of arms enamelled to its metal surface on the wall opposite the portrait.  The man's slate-topped desk was clean, immaculately clean, with only a sheaf of papers sitting before where one would sit, and a pair of small wooden trays sitting on the opposite corner, beside an inkwell that was capped off.  Two upholstered chairs sat before the desk for whatever guests this Wikuni had in his office, one of which Miranda occupied after letting Jander take her hand in greeting.

      "Miranda," he said fondly, sitting in his chair facing them.  Tarrin sat down as Jander smiled at her.  "How have you been?"

      "Oh, same as always, Jander," she replied.  "Jander, I'd like you to meet Tarrin, a friend of mine.  Tarrin, this is Jander, one of my most favorite adversaries."

      Jander laughed.  "Was I.  Did she tell you that she once tried to cut off my--"

      "I told him about that," Miranda cut him off with a wink.

      "And she was only sixteen!  I never expected such ruthlessness out of a stripling maid."

      "It did get your attention, Jander," she grinned.

      "It did at that," he chuckled in agreement.  "Whatever happened to Duran and Lassiter?"

      "Duran was killed last year," she said with a little sigh.  "Lassiter works for the House Artep now."

      "Pity," he said.  "From what I heard, your employer hasn't changed.  And if you're here, then she's here."

      "Ah, but I was never here," Miranda told him with one of her devastatingly cute grins.

      "You see what I had to fight against," Jander said to Tarrin.  "The woman is a terror.  And she was even worse when she was a young girl."

      "I don't find her that terrorizing," Tarrin said absently.  "Just scratch her behind the ears from time to time, and she'll follow you around like a puppy."

      Miranda smacked him on the arm, and Jander laughed.  "You don't have to hide in here, Tarrin," he said.  "I'm sure you realize that I know who and what you are.  But you'd better stay hidden outside."

      "Why is that, Jander?" Miranda asked seriously.

      "It's just one of the things going on around here," he said soberly, leaning back in his chair.  "I'm sure you noticed the military presence."

      "King Rathbonne is flexing his muscles?" Miranda asked.

      "Hardly.  The southern Free Duchies have entered into a military alliance, and Tor is their target.  Rathbonne is mustering his army to fend them off."

      "An alliance?  They'd attack each other as soon as their armies came onto the same field," Miranda scoffed.

      "Believe it or not, they're working together," Jander said grimly.  "And it's all over a rumor that the Firestaff was hidden somewhere in the ruins of Old Tor.  Rathbonne has half his army here, and the other half is turning his kingdom upside-down and shaking it to see if it falls out."

      "A war, over a rumor?" Miranda asked incredulously.

      "This particular rumor had some basis in old historical documents," he replied.  "I think the Firestaff was probably kept in ancient Tor at one time, but it was moved long ago."

      "That's ludicrous," Miranda grunted.  "You don't start a war over a rumor."

      "When it's anything about the Firestaff, rumor is usually enough," Jander said.  "Right now, Sulasia and Daltochan are fighting it out south of the forests over the rumor that the Firestaff is being secretly held in the Tower of Six Spires.  Draconia joined Daltochan against Sulasia, and that immediately brought Tykarthia into it on Sulasia's side."

      "South of the forests?" Tarrin asked intently.  "Where exactly?"

      "From what I've heard so far, Daltochan owns all of northeast Sulasia," he replied.  "They were trying to capture Ultern, the last my reports said.  Marta's Ford, Two Forks, Arrigon, Torrian, they're all occupied by Dal forces.  What makes that so bad is that the Dals seem to have entered pacts with some Goblinoid tribes," he said grimly.  "There are Bruga, Waern, and Dargu running around up there wearing Dal livery, and you know how they are.  I'm glad I don't live in occupied Sulasia right now."

      Miranda put a hand on Tarrin's elbow, and he jumped slightly.  The very thought of Dargu or Waern occupying Aldreth made him want to jump up and ride home to kick them out.  They were his friends, his people, and they were probably suffering terribly under the cruel yoke of the Dal invaders and their Goblinoid allies.  He had no idea he had lost his concentration, and Miranda's touch brought a throbbing ache through his body as the pain of holding the human form reasserted itself in his mind.  Breathing a few times to center himself again, he forced the pain away from him, back into the depths of his consciousness, where it couldn't distract him from the situation at hand.

      "Have the Sorcerers stepped in yet?" Miranda asked.

      "They can't yet," he replied.  "They can't intervene, or they won't, until the invaders threaten Suld.  But right now there's chaos in Suld."

      "Why is that?"

      "King Erick Aralon is dead," he said bluntly.  "He died last month of a fever.  His wife, Amerine, gave birth to an heir about two days before he died, and she's declared herself regent until he's old enough to assume the throne."

      "Did the Sulasian houses accept that?" Miranda asked.

      "It looks like they have," he replied.  "Erick was an incompetent dolt, but Amerine is sharp and very skilled.  She's already made the very smart move of appointing Duke Arren of Torrian as general of her armies, and that made the Dal army grind to a halt at Ultern.  Appointing Arren was the smartest thing she could have done.  The noble houses realize that they need some stability right now, and Amerine can supply it, so they've thrown their lots in with her."

      "Ugly," Miranda sighed.  "What is the Wikuni position in the war?"

      "We have none, as usual," he replied.  "Damon Eram doesn't support either side."

      "Typical," she said critically.  "What else is going on?"

      "Just the usual degeneration of the world into unbridled chaos," he grunted.  "Wars have flared up all over the world, and it's all over the Firestaff.  Even the most wildly insubstantiated belief that it rests in one kingdom gives all its neighbors enough motivation to invade it.  Even Sharadar was invaded, believe it or not.  Stygia tried to invade across the Inner Sea, but it ended as disastrously as every other Stygian attempt to invade Sharadar."

      "Why is that?" Tarrin asked curiously, trying to shunt aside his fears for Sulasia.

      "The Sulasian Tower doesn't work with the kingdom," Jander told him.  "The Sharadite Tower is the kingdom.  Sharadar is ruled by a Sorceress, Alexis Firehair.  Stygia got their usual butt-stomping by the Sharadite Tower when they landed their marines on Sharadar's northern coast."

      "How could they do that?" he asked.

      "Tarrin, the Sulasian Tower has a thousand Sorcerers at the most," Miranda told him.  "The Tower in Sharadar has tens of thousands of Sorcerers among its number, and that doesn't even count the priests and arcane mages also living in the kingdom, attracted there by the receptive nature of Sharadar to magic and learning.  They have a literal army of magicians.  Few armies can stand up to that for long."

      "I guess not," he agreed after a moment.

      "So, the world has become a keg of gunpowder with a lit fuse," Miranda summed up.

      "More or less.  As to local matters, I suggest you keep a low profile, and I heavily suggest you don't go out alone, Tarrin."

      "Why is that, Jander?"

      "There's been a rash of pet murders, Miranda," Jander said seriously.  "Someone's been going around and killing cats with silver-tipped arrows."

      The importance of that wasn't lost on Tarrin.  Someone thought he was here, and they were trying to kill him.  It wasn't much of a surprise, but it seemed a little bit of a surprise in that it was the first time in a long while he was certain that people were out to get him, people who knew exactly who and what he was, and how to best eliminate him.

      "You can't find a cat anywhere in Tor, and the rat population has absolutely exploded as a result," Jander said sourly.  "I even found one in my bed a few days ago.  The people who own the cats that are still alive won't let them out.  There's been no absolute proof, but it looks like the kii'zadun is behind it.  A group of men arrived here last month and hired every cutthroat and thief they could find, with orders to kill any cat-like Wikuni they found.  Needless to say, tensions among our own people are very high right now, because they're still out there.  The idea of killing cats seems like a logical next step, and is probably being done by the same group."

      "Maybe.  Whoever ordered it certainly knows Tarrin," Miranda said thoughtfully.  "Or knows about him."

      "Half the world knows about you now, kid," Jander told him seriously.  "Your description has been floated around for nearly four months."

      "What do they say about him?"

      "Only that he's the Tower's horse," Jander replied.  "Since they know so much about the Firestaff, half the world wants to kill you to keep you from finding it, and the other half wants to either capture you or follow you so you can lead them to it."

      Tarrin was quiet and very sober.  It was nothing really new, just confirmation of what he and Dolanna had quietly feared would happen.

      "The kii'zadun has gotten maniacal about killing him, though," Jander added, looking at Tarrin.  "I think they hold you personally responsible for what happened in Suld.  There's a ten thousand crown price on your head."  He leaned back in his chair.  "They've hired most of the thugs and murderers in Tor, and they're all looking for you, the Selani, and the Princess.  I suggest all of you stay out of sight."

      "I'll see to that, Jander," Miranda said professionally.  "Is Damon Eram still chasing us?"

      He nodded.  "That hasn't changed.  He's even ordered the private ships of the nobles to hunt for her, but they don't know where she is now.  They caught the Star of Jerod and searched it, but she wasn't there.  The captain told them he'd put you all off in Dayisè, so they're back at the beginning.  With all the ships that leave Dayisè, you could be anywhere."  He chuckled.  "And now she's in my backyard.  I'm sure you realize how much trouble I can get into if they find out I know she's here, but didn't tell anyone."

      "You enjoy the danger," Miranda said with a cheeky grin.  "Besides, you'll be in even more danger if you blab.  I still have those scissors."

      Jander chuckled and winked at the mink Wikuni.

      "They didn't hurt Kern, did they?" Tarrin asked in concern.

      "The captain?  Of course not," he replied.  "They have orders to find the Princess, not sink every ship they cross.  I'm sure the King isn't too happy that this Kern transported her, but then again, he probably had no idea who he had on board until it was too late.  I certainly wouldn't take on such a dangerous passenger willingly."

      "That's a relief," Tarrin sighed.  Kern wasn't exactly a friend, but he had been a solid man, and Tarrin respected him.  He didn't want to see anything bad befall him because of the fact that he had taken them to Dayisè.

      "I think that's about it," Miranda said.  "How is life behind a desk suiting you, Jander?" she asked curiously.

      "It's not as exciting as the Service, but it has its moments," he replied.  "Instead of skulking around with a dagger, now I play wordgames and diplomatic chess with Torian lackeys."

      "Sounds safer."

      "It is, but it's still not quite as fun as the Service.  Before, we kept score by staying alive.  Here, it's more a contest of reputation, rumor, and hearsay."

      "You can keep it," Miranda said calmly.

      "Why don't you come join me?" he asked.  "I still have a place open in my staff for you."

      "I'm sure it also includes a place in your bed," Miranda winked.

      "Well, I'm sure you wouldn't find the idea to be repulsive," he said calmly.

      "I was never meant to settle down, Jander," she told him with a gentle smile.  "In a way, I'm already married.  It's just to my job."

      "Ah well, one can always try," he sighed, then he stood up.  "I think the two of you had best get back to where you belong.  If I stay in closed doors with strangers too long, certain people may get curious, and I'm sure that's something you'd prefer to avoid."

      "No doubt there," Miranda said as she stood.  Jander escorted them to the door, where he took Miranda's hands and gave her a lick on the cheek.  "You keep yourself well, Miranda."

      "I always do, Jander," she replied, patting him on the cheek.

      "What was that all about?" Tarrin finally asked after they had left the building.

      "Jander has a crush on me," she replied matter-of-factly, almost as if she were discussing the weather.  "I used to use that against him, back when he worked for Damon Eram."

      "That's mean, Miranda, playing with his affection like that."

      "I told you once before, Tarrin, I'm not a nice girl," she told him with a wink.  "In my line of work, love is a weakness to be exploited.  I'm not about to ignore such an available opportunity."

      "Sounds lonely."

      "It can be, but the rewards do occasionally make up for it," she told him.

      "How far did you have to go to do your job?" he asked in a hesitant curiosity.

      "Are you working around to asking me if I had to flip my skirt?" she asked, then she laughed.  "Sometimes I forget how naive you are, Tarrin.  I'm not a virgin, if that's what you're asking.  Sometimes luring a mark into bed was part of what had to be done to get information.  And it's not an entirely unpleasant thing to do, you know.  The right mark can make it very entertaining."

      Tarrin blushed, and looked away from her.  That made her laugh harder.

      "Come on, admit it.  I know you're not as pure as you're trying to make me believe.  That Were-cat blood of yours runs even hotter than ours.  I've heard yours and Allia's little discussions about that."

      "You're impossible."

      "No, I'm just not embarassed," she retorted, jabbing him in the ribs.  "I heard you and Jesmind had quite the emphatic relationship.  When you weren't trying to kill each other, you were--"

      Tarrin poked her in the belly, just hard enough to make her cut her statement short.  "What me and Jesmind did is no concern of yours," he said primly.

      "True," she admitted, "but neither of us are the angels you want to make of us.  I'll promise not to be shocked that you're not pristine, if you promise not to be shocked that I'm not either."

      Tarrin looked at her, then he laughed helplessly.  "I'm not used to this from you," he said.

      "You've never asked before."

      "You've just totally destroyed my vision of you," Tarrin teased.

      "Sure I did," she said scathingly.

      Tarrin laughed again.  "Well, I guess I can agree to that.  But I don't think I want to know any of the details."

      "Come now, Tarrin, I'm not about to spend days going over my numerous affairs and conquests with you," she grinned.  "I demand reciprocation when I do that, so you only have enough stock for one lurid tale.  And I just gave that one to you."

      "Lurid?  There was nothing lurid in that."

      "I'll just have to give you lurid, then," she winked.  "A garment by garment account of the first time I seduced Jander."

      "I think I'll pass."

      "Too late," she teased.  "Now you're going to hear it, whether you want to or not."

      "Not today," he said, then he lunged forward and started running away from her.

      "Tarrin!" she called in surprise, picking up her skirts and running after him.  "This is not funny!  My big sister will kill you if you leave me alone!"

      That was about the only thing that reminded him of where they were and what their position was.  He slowed to a stop and let her catch up to him.  Being playful was all well and good, but they were in a town which was full of potential enemies.  And what was worse, he just made Miranda shout out his name, which was probably heard by half the other people on the street.  He berated himself for his carelessness as she reached him, giving her a pained look.

      "I just messed up," he said with sincere chagrin.  "I'm sorry."

      "I did too," she said with a wince.  "I called for you out of surprise.  I know better than that.  A first mission rookie wouldn't have made such a stupid blunder.  Right now, we need to get back to the ship without attracting any attention to ourselves, and making damn good and sure nobody is following us."

      "I think that's a really, really good idea," he said, taking her arm after she offered it to him.

      Miranda didn't know the streets of Tor very well, and neither did Tarrin.  They meandered almost aimlessly while keeping the docks in view, which sat at the bottom of the shallow depression in which the city sat and were visible from almost anywhere in the city, to mark their progress as they moved towards them in their roundabout pattern.  Tarrin didn't really feel all that much fear or trepidation at what they were doing, but his mind was clearly focused on the task at hand, and his eyes searched the other pedestrians to see if they seemed hostile, or seemed to recognize the pair.  Miranda was the one who kept watch for anyone that may be following them.

      After nearly half an hour of zigzagging through the streets of Tor, Miranda pulled them into a narrow alley between two warehouses near the docks.  The alley was strewn with empty wooden crates and other refuse, some of it not smelling very pleasant.  "Come on, now we hide and see if someone comes looking for us," she whispered to him as they retreated down the alley.  Miranda silently cursed as they reached a corner of it, and found a stone wall blocking the alley some paces away.  The alley only had one entrance.  "Hide," she said, ducking behind a stack of crates near that corner.  The crates were old and rickety, and they had wide areas between the slats that would let someone look through them to see what was inside.  In this case, they let Tarrin and Miranda look up the alley with them blocking anyone from seeing them, for the alley's gloom made the crates' interiors dark.

      They waited in tense silence for nearly ten minutes, until a single lean man appeared at the end of the alley and stopped.  He was thin and wiry, rather tall, with greasy black hair and olive-colored skin that marked him as Torian.  He had a shortsword in his hand.  Another man appeared, then another, then another, and they kept appearing at the end of the alley, until nearly twenty men, all armed, blocked off the entrance to the alleyway.  From the lighting and the way the swords reflected it, Tarrin figured that they were either highly polished, or they were silvered.  He doubted such ruffians would take such care of their weapons, so he decided grimly that the weapons were silvered.

      Twenty men blocked off their escape, all of them holding weapons that could deal him real injury, and  Tarrin was unarmed.  But the alley was very narrow, only about eight spans wide, and it would prevent any more than two of them from threatening them at any one time.  Tarrin weighed the options quickly.  Sorcery was an option, but the Goddess' warning reminded him that he'd have to change form to try that.  He may have his regeneration in human form, but not his Were-cat body's power and resistance.  Just like when Sheba attacked, he thought if he could use it quickly, maintain contact for an absolute bare minimum of time, he may be able to get them out without endangering himself.

      That seemed to be the best course of action.  There were too many to fight, even for him.  He may have his Were-cat speed and power, but those were silvered weapons, and he could take no chances that a lucky stroke would put him down.  He had to protect Miranda.  Stepping back from her, he closed his eyes and changed form, feeling the ache vanish as his body returned to its natural state.  Staying behind the crates, as Miranda looked on, Tarrin reached out for the Weave--

      --and was suddenly assaulted by it!  Power flooded into him at a rate that shocked him to the core, a rate that defied the magical balance of the area.  There just weren't enough strands to support the amount of power he was drawing.  He didn't have time to think about where it was coming from, because he was almost immediately struggling against it.  It was too much, too fast!  Control was out the window in a heartbeat, and Tarrin's mind floated within a realm of pure magical energy.  But the Cat reacted where Tarrin's mind was incapable of doing so, beating back the magical onslaught to the point where his rational mind could respond to the crisis.  He had to sever himself, and he had to do it now, or he was going to die.

      It was the hardest thing he ever did in his life.  It was like trying to chop down a tree with a butter knife.  But he managed to turn the power flooding him against itself, using the power to choke off the rampaging inundation trying to fill him, until he cut the connection.  The backlash defied description, a blasting wave of pain that started in his soul and lashed out through his body, extending past his body to generate a short blast wind that stirred up the dust around him, knocked Miranda from her feet, and toppled the stack of crates behind which they were crouching.

      Panting, disoriented, Tarrin sagged towards the ground, trying to clear the cobwebs.  What had just happened?

      He recovered his wits just in time to see the point of a sword trying to stab him through the eye.

      Moving with a speed that startled his attackers, Tarrin smacked the sword aside by hitting the flat of the blade with his paw.  He felt the burning sting in that touch.  The weapon was silvered.  He was on his feet in an instant, hulking over the men filling the alley, eyes radiating that greenish aura that so clearly marked his anger.  He struck again at the man that tried to kill him before he could recover, slashing his paw down with all five claws out.  The savage blow hit the man in the forehead, claws shearing into bone as his inhuman power slammed down through the man's skull.  Tarrin's claws literally ripped the man's face off as they travelled down through the face, then ripped huge lines in the man's chest before his claws came free of flesh just below the breastbone.  The man went down, smashed down to the place where he had been standing.  Tarrin shook the tatters of flesh, hair, and bits of bone out of the hooks of his claws and gave the remaining men an evil look, and that made the others hesitate a moment.

      Tarrin extended the claws on his other paw and hunkered down into a wide-pawed stance, eyes blazing in his anger and a savage snarl twisting his expression.  Ears back, tail straight out behind him, fangs bared, he dared them to come within his reach by growling deep in his throat.

      "What are ye waitin' fer!" a man near the back called.  "Ye got the swords, an' he knows it!  Kill 'im!"

      The two in the front rushed forward as Miranda quickly crawled behind Tarrin, swords leading.  They slashed at him and stabbed at him at the same time, but Tarrin's paws whipped out to intercept them.  The manacles on his wrists suddenly became more than decorations, as he used them to parry the deadly silvered swords, letting their killing edges strike the black steel of the heavy manacles and using his strength to push them out of danger.  The two men were good, very good, using their weapons in a complementary fashion that didn't give Tarrin the time to strike back with his paws, and kept both his feet solidly on the ground to keep his balance.  The chiming sound of steel on steel rang through the alley as the Were-cat feverishly kept those killing swords at bay, blocking them with the manacles, smacking at the flats of blades with open paws, and evading whenever he could.  The two men worked in conjunction to keep him off balance, prevent him from using his power, forcing him to rely on his speed to keep himself out of harm's way.  But the two men began to show clear frustration that they couldn't reach the unarmed adversary, that no matter how clever or intricate they were with their feints and stabs, he could always intercept the blades before they reached his skin.  They didn't understand that Tarrin had been specifically trained for unarmed combat by Allia, Binter, and Sisska, that he had a keen understanding of how to use his Were gifts to be the equal of an armed opponent.  Humans that were well trained to fight were dangerous, as these two men admittedly were, but their fatal flaw against him was that they could not match his speed.  Tarrin fell back on the training he received, keeping their weapons away from him, making them get impatient or angry and make that fatal mistake that would let him turn the tables on them.

      And it came.  The man on the left stabbed at him as the man on the right raised his sword over his head in preparation of a vicious overhanded blow that Tarrin could not hope to parry with only one arm.  But Tarrin had one more limb, a limb longer than all his others.  As he parried a savage overhanded chop from the man on his left with both paws crossed to catch its edge in a V formed by the manacles, Tarrin's tail lashed out from between his own legs and swept up between the legs of the man on his left, who was pulling his sword back to stab at him again.  His tail slammed into the crotch of the man on the right, who immediately winced, cried out, and sagged towards the ground with his knees locked together and both hands cupping his injured groin.  Tarrin used that space to wrest the sword caught between his wrists to the right, then brought up his left foot and planted it in the man's belly with enough force to rupture internal organs, sending him flying back into the men behind him and giving Tarrin a precious few seconds to prepare for the next wave.  The sword dropped, but Tarrin caught it by the hilt even as his tail wrapped around the hilt of the sword the other man dropped, pulling it up into his paw.  The swords' hilts were almost too small for his oversized paws to hold, but he had enough space with which to work.

      These were not opponents he could fight hand to paw without taking a wound.  They were very well trained, very good fighters, and he afforded them the respect they deserved.  He needed the cushion of space a weapon would provide.

      An armed Tarrin advanced slightly, so that anyone trying to step over the bodies of the men in front would have to dodge his swords while they did it.

      "Who's next?" he asked in a cold voice.

      They rushed forward immediately, coming over the two bodies by stepping on them, and Tarrin met them.  They found out, to their shock and dismay, that Tarrin was more than competent with swords, even wielding two at once, and his inhuman power made trying to fence with him a deadly proposition.  Single parries and killing blows felled the first two to come over the bodies, as the power in the parry knocked each man out of position and set him up for the killing stroke.  Allia was a master of two-weapon combat, and she had taught some of that technique to her brother.  He now used that, falling back on forms she had taught him on how to move with and use the two swords to maximize the confusion and uncertainty of his opponents.  They never knew which would strike first, or how or when the second sword would strike like a viper at them while they were still engaged with the first.

      Tarrin cut down four more men in a fast, furious flurry of striking swords, cutting flesh, and agonized screams, until a knee-high knot of bloody bodies separated him from them.  The two men in front suddenly lunged towards the walls, opening a space between them right in the middle of the alley.  That was when he saw the crossbow.  He desperately slashed across his body even as the weapon discharged at him, hitting the heavy quarrel in midair as it buzzed angrily right for his heart and deflecting it to the side.  The edged head of the quarrel sliced across his upper left arm, leaving a bloodly line across it and creating a burning, stinging wound that he could feel was quite different from anything he had ever had before.  He reared back and threw the sword in his right paw back down that line, between the front men that had moved aside to let the crossbowman get a clear shot.  It hit the man pommel first, but it struck him right between the eyes, caving in the skull and making both of his eyes pop out of their sockets.

      The man to the right, that had moved out of the way, suddenly sprouted a dagger in his neck.  It was a little thing with a handle designed for throwing, but it was good enough. The man gurgled once before sagging to the ground, trying to hold in his lifeblood with his hands.  Tarrin glanced back to see Miranda, back on her feet and with two more of those little daggers in her left hand, and a third coiled back in her right, ready to be thrown.

      "He'll kill any man who comes over the bodies, and I'll kill anyone who stands around," Miranda warned in a loud voice.

      "She's only got three daggers!" one of the men bolstered the others.

      "Yes, but which three of you want to die?" she challenged in a calm voice, rearing the dagger back just a little more.

      It hung there for a moment.  The alley was too narrow for them to rush in all at once, and the bodies piled up between them and the Were-cat made trying to get close enough to use their swords suicidal.  They were a little taken aback that the Were-cat had deflected a quarrel shot at point blank range from a heavy crossbow, one of the most powerful missle weapons made.  And they couldn't just stand there, or the Wikuni would kill three more of them with her daggers.

      That made the men in front turn and flee, but the men behind, shielded from the daggers and hungry for the reward, refused to give ground.  They pushed at each other until one man screamed and went down with a sword in his belly, and that started a short, nasty fight between the former allies as the men in danger actually attacked the men keeping them from retreating.  Tarrin and Miranda wisely ducked around the corner of the alley and peeked around it, watching the short melee from the safety of cover.  Five more men died at the hands of their own, until they finally managed to move their brawl to the mouth of the alley, where they simply scattered.

      Tarrin blew out his breath, then winced when Miranda placed a torn piece of her dress over the bleeding cut in his arm.  "That was nervous," she said calmly, putting pressure on the wound to control the bleeding.

      "That was fast thinking," he complemented.

      "I'm paid to think fast, Tarrin," she replied calmly.  "It's something of a job requirement.  Is this alright?"

      "It burns like fury, but it's not deep," he replied, putting his paw over the cloth.

      "Let me get my dagger, and we'll get out of here," she said.  "I don't think we want to go out the same way they did.  You think you can jump us over that wall?" she asked, pointing to the wall blocking the alley.

      He looked at it.  It was only fifteen spans high.  He groaned audibly.  "I could have done that in the first place," he said contritely.  "We never had to get mixed up with them."

      "We didn't have time to do it before," she assured him.  "And I wanted to get a look at them.  What happened with, whatever it was you did?" she asked.

      He blew out his breath.  "Something I have to talk to Dolanna about," he said.  "I tried to use Sorcery, but--" he shuddered.  "I never had a chance.  I was completely overwhelmed, almost immediately.  That's never happened like that before."

      "Let's talk about it later.  Let me get my dagger, and let's get out of here."

      "Where were you hiding those?" he asked curiously.  The light, rather revealing dress she was wearing didn't exactly support little folds and gaps where daggers could be hidden.

      "You don't want to know," she winked as she approached the dead man with her dagger sticking out of his neck.

 

      Shirt off, Tarrin held very still while Dolanna sewed up the cut on his upper arm by the light of the lantern sitting by his bed.  It had missed his brand by a few fingers, fortunately, but he was more worried about Dolanna.  She sewed up the cut with no regard for her own safety, and he was keenly aware that a single pinprick could turn her Were.  That needle had his blood all over it, and it only took the tiniest drop to begin the change.  Tarrin marvelled at how fearless Dolanna tended to be around him, fully aware of the incredible danger he posed to her, and that never failed to endear her to him more and more.  That she could be so selfless, so confident that he wouldn't do anything to hurt her touched him deeply, and reminded him again and again how important the small, dark-haired Sorceress was in his life.

      She hadn't been as angry as he thought she would.  Keritanima was another story.  She had all but exploded when she found the note, and even now he could hear her berating Miranda in the next cabin, shouting at the top of her lungs.

      "I did not see anything wrong with you going out alone, Tarrin," Dolanna said calmly in a lull of Keritanima howling.  "You are a grown man, after all, and Miranda has the sense to not lead you astray.  I trust your judgement."

      "I appreciate that, Dolanna.  You think you can explain that to Kerri?"

      Dolanna gave him a light smile, then went back to her work.  "Probably not.  She is blinded by her love for both of you.  How did they track you down?"

      "By my stupidity," he said with a grimace.  "I was playing with Miranda, and I forced her to shout my name.  I guess someone that's not friendly overheard it.  When we ducked into an alley to see if we were being followed, we had no idea it was a dead end.  We had to fight."

      "An honest mistake," she said calmly, cutting the thread and tying it off.  "After so long on the ship, and after all that has happened, I cannot fault you for not being more careful in the city.  Just let this remind you to be careful in the future."

      "There's no problem with that," he grunted.

      The door opened, and Allia entered.  She looked a little annoyed for some reason.  She stopped when she saw Dolanna patting blood away from the sutured cut in Tarrin's arm.  "What happened?"

      "Me and Miranda got bushwhacked in the city, by men with silvered swords," he said.

      "Are you and Miranda well?"

      "We're fine.  I got this little cut.  Miranda came back without a scratch."

      "How many did you defeat?"

      "Six or seven," he said.  "I wasn't exactly counting.  I didn't kill all of them.  I left two of them alive."

      "You must count," she chided.  "You cannot sing of your honor without knowing exactly how much honor you have accrued, and leaving a defeated opponent alive is more honorable than killing.  Any child can kill, but a true warrior of honor can defeat foes without killing."

      Dolanna snorted slightly.

      "Why are you back?  Aren't you supposed to be raising the tent?" Tarrin asked her.

      "They will not permit the circus to set up," Allia announced.  "Renoit tried to get them to change their minds, but they did not.  They said that the circus would distract the soldiers from their duty."

      "A silly choice," Dolanna said an absent voice as she started wrapping a bandage around Tarrin's arm.  "The circus would put the citizens in better morale."

      "Guess they're worried more about the soldiers than the civilians," Tarrin said.  "What are we going to do now, then?"

      "I do not know.  I will have to talk to Renoit," Dolanna replied.

      "I know Kerri's happy about that," Tarrin chuckled.  "I saw the costume she was wearing.  If she were human, she'd be beet red from head to foot.  I think I saw less fur when she was naked."

      Allia giggled.  "I think Renoit put her in it just to annoy her," she said in a conspiratorial tone.  "I thought she was going to bite his nose off when he handed it to her."

      "We need to talk, Dolanna," he said calmly.  "About a few things."

      "Such as?"

      "Well, for starters, they've got people looking for me and my sisters," he said.  "Jander, the Wikuni at the mission, was really helpful.  He said there are armed men hunting for all three of us, and if this is any indication of what kind of reception we'll get," he said, patting the bandage on his arm, "I think it'd be a good idea for all three of us to stay out of sight."

      "Truly.  Allia, bring Keritanima to us, if you do not mind."

      "At once, Dolanna," Allia answered, and scurried out the door.

      "I think they also know about me," he said.  "About what I can do.  Jander said that men have been going around the city, killing cats with silvered arrows.  I think they're trying to pick me off, but that says that they know I'm a shapeshifter."

      "Certainly it does," she agreed.  "Because there are enemy agents in the Tower, we must assume that they know as much about the three of you as the Council did.  That means that they have access to a great deal of sensitive information.  But this is not critically damaging information.  There is little they can do with it aside from try to find us."

      "True, but if they know about Kerri, then they know about Miranda, Binter, and Sisska," he argued.  "That means we have to hide them too."

      "We must hide all of us," she said calmly.  "They no doubt know about Azakar, myself and Faalken, and Dar as well.  We are a rather unique group, my dear one.  I think it may be time for disguises again."

      "You don't think our carnival disguises are good enough?"

      "No.  They do not hide who we are, they just place us in a place that our enemies may not think to look for us," she replied.  "Of us all, only Dar does not stand out.  He is the only one that could probably move about without being hindered."

      Tarrin mulled that over, and found her to be right.  Faalken was too long a warrior.  The very way he moved gave away his training to anyone who knew what to look for.  Dolanna too stuck out like a sore thumb, because of her Sharadite features and the way she carried herself.  Azakar was simply too huge, too unique to not attract attention.  Dar was the only one that hadn't been trained to the point where the very sense of him seemed unusual or attracted the attention of a trained observer.  With a costume and a bit of coaching, Dar alone could travel through the city without enemies singling him out.

      "What good does that do us now?"

      "For now, little," she replied.  "But it is something important for us to know, in case we have need for an inobtrusive companion."

      The door opened, and Keritanima came in with Allia.  She was wearing a simple red robe, obviously over her costume, belted at the waist tightly.  Her face was tight.  She was obviously angry.  "The other problem is with Sorcery," he continued after nodding to his sisters.  "I, tried to use Sorcery to defend me and Miranda, and it was an absolute disaster."

      "What happened?" Dolanna asked.

      "I can't say I lost control because I never had control," he grunted.  "The absolute instant I touched the Weave, I was drowned by power.  I don't have any idea where it was coming from, because the strands around here couldn't support such a heavy draw.  I mean it was instant, Dolanna.  Usually when I use Sorcery, I can get away with it because it takes me time to charge up to that level, and I can weave together my spell and let go before I cross over into High Sorcery.  But this time, it was just there."

      Dolanna pursed her lips.  "Perhaps it was a freak occurance," she said.  "I cannot see how that could happen.  But with Keritanima and Allia here, I believe that we have enough power to counter you if you were to try again."

      "That's a good idea," he agreed.  "If this is going to keep happening, I want to know before my life depends on using it."

      "Alright, Keritanima, Allia, circle with me.  I will be the lead."

      He felt them join into a circle, then took a few deep, cleansing breaths.  If it was going to happen again, he wanted to be ready for it.  "Go ahead, Tarrin," Dolanna urged.  "We are ready."

      Closing his eyes, he reached out and touched the Weave, and it happened again.  The instant he opened that link between him and the Weave, the power poured into him like water down a wellshaft.  But this time, he was ready for it.  He managed to maintain control enough to channel that power back at itself, an attempt to sever himself from the Weave, and then he felt Dolanna and his sisters push at the connection from the other side, aiding him in getting away from it.

      And it worked.  Their efforts met in the middle, cutting him off from the Weave, but creating a painful backlash that felt like a Giant had stepped on him.  Tarrin gasped as the backlash washed through him, then he panted to regain his breath, flexing the fingers on his right paw absently.  "Just like that," he managed to say.

      "Strange," Dolanna said curiously.  "The instant you touched the Weave, the strands you tapped expanded, becoming like miniature conduits."

      "Isn't that supposed to be impossible?" he asked.

      "Yes, but you are a Weavespinner, my dear one," she replied calmly.  "There is no telling how your power affects things, because we do not understand completely how it works.  Since you have the power to directly affect the Weave, we must assume that this expansion of strands is an aspect of your capability.  If you can create and destroy strands, logic only assumes that you could also have the power to alter existing strands in just such a way."

      "But that would have to come from him, Dolanna," Keritanima objected.  "The strands are expanding when he touches the Weave.  I think it's the Weave reacting to him, not him affecting the Weave."

      "Perhaps," Dolanna pondered, tapping her chin.  "Either way, this is something that must be studied before we can make solid conclusions.  And I heavily suggest that you refrain from using any Sorcery until we come up with answers, dear one," she said sternly to Tarrin.

      "I don't think there's a problem with that," he agreed.

      "We will talk about this more in a while.  Right now, I must go see Renoit and find out what we are going to do next.  Until then, the three of you should stay out of sight.  Do not go on deck."

      Tarrin took her hand before she left, glad that she was there.  Dolanna always knew what to do.  After she left, he turned to Keritanima with a grin on his face.  "I hear you had a conniption today," he teased.

      "I'm about to have another one, Tarrin," she fumed.  "What possessed you to go running off--"

      "She asked, I agreed, because neither of us had anything to do.  Sisska felt we were safe enough to go alone, so I think you can cut us some slack, Kerri," he cut her off.  "And don't be so hard on her.  She's trying to help."

      "I know that," she snapped, "but I don't like seeing her put herself in danger like that."

      "She used to do it all the time for you back in Wikuna," he countered.  "Why worry so much about her now?"

      "Because we had the upper hand in Wikuna," she almost shouted in reply.  "Her risks were well known and calculated.  Out here, it's alot riskier, and the risk is unknown.  That makes it much more dangerous."  She grabbed him by the shirt.  "And I resent the implication that I just sent her out into danger without worrying about her," she seethed.  "I never sent her anywhere without Sisska and others nearby to help in case she got into trouble."

      "I never meant to imply that," he said calmly.

      "I think Tarrin is saying that you should let Miranda stand on her own feet, sister," Allia said sagely.  "That you worry for her is good, but you don't need to act like her mother."

      "I do no such thing!" she snapped at Allia.  "Miranda is my oldest friend.  I'd yell at any friend for doing something that stupid!  And you're next, boy," she pointed imperiously at Tarrin.  "What possessed you to take on a small army of armed men!  You should have grabbed Miranda and ran!  Those legs of yours let you jump onto just about any roof you please, even with Miranda weighing you down!"

      "I would have done that if I hadn't have tried Sorcery first," he replied calmly.  "I tried it first because I wanted to end it quickly.  But you saw what happened.  While I was recovering from the backlash, they engaged us."

      Keritanima seemed to analyze it, looking for any holes that would give her an excuse to rail on him, but she could find none.  Snorting, she crossed her arms beneath her breasts and gave him a flinty look. "Well, just don't do it again," she huffed.

      "I don't plan to," he agreed.

      "Fine."

      "Fine," he said calmly, sitting down on his bed and patting the cut absently.  It still burned.  He'd never been hurt by silver before, and it was certainly something he'd prefer to avoid in the future.  The wound buzzed, stinging and tingling, and it wouldn't let him put it out of his mind.  Even Triana's claws in his belly hadn't left such an unpleasant aftereffect.

      "Is it alright?" Allia asked.

      "It stings, but it'll be alright," he said.  "I've never been hurt by silver before.  It's not very pleasant."

      "Why didn't Dolanna heal it?" Keritanima asked.

      "She can't," he replied.  "She tried.  It seems that silver does me harm that even magic can't heal.  It'll just have to heal on its own."  Keritanima sat down in a chair as Tarrin sat down on the bed.  "Did Miranda tell you about what Jander said?"

      Keritanima nodded.  "It's nothing that we didn't expect, Tarrin," she told him.  "We'll just have to be more careful.  All three of us."

      "That goes double for you, sister," Allia said.  "You are too headstrong.  If we must stay hidden, so must you."

      "I don't take risks, deshaida," Keritanima said absently.

      "This from Kerri the Plunderer," Tarrin said to Allia with a slight grin.  "I remember a stranger in Kerri's body when we ransacked the temple in Suld."

      "Yes, that must have been someone else," Allia agreed with a staight face.

      "You two," Keritanima said, slapping Tarrin's leg.  "They left the cards.  Good.  Let's play King's Crown until Dolanna has some news for us."

 

      Things were all confused.

      Tarrin stood at the rail, looking out over the lights of Tor as members of the circus played instruments and danced on the deck behind him, illuminated in the dark night by torches and lanterns.  His presence didn't upset them, mainly because they didn't really see him come up on deck.  He was still under restriction, but Dolanna wasn't on deck, and he felt the need to be out of cat form.  To reduce tension on the ship he was in human form, tolerating the pain for the benefit of the others.  They weren't quite so afraid of him when he looked more normal.  The moons and Skybands were obscured behind heavy clouds, and there was an unseasonably cool quality to the wind that promised a heavy spring rain was coming.  That was very much needed, for the lack of rain had begun to take its toll on the crops in the fields surrounding the city.

      They were leaving tomorrow.  The Torians had absolutely refused to allow Renoit to set up the circus, even for one night.  The best that Renoit had managed was a small, spontaneous performance in the market square that afternoon, with only ten of his forty performers.  Dancing, juggling, and entertaining market goers for whatever coins they would scatter.  Renoit had found it humiliating, saying that it was like being a gypsy all over again, but his performers, itchy after so much time off season and on board ship, had jumped at the chance.  Now they would travel to Shoran's Fork, the westernmost port city of Arkis, some ten days travel east.  The music and dancing was the troupe's way to prepare for ten more days of sailing and practice, and hopes that the next stop would be better than this one.  It was also a time to remember the two men killed by the Zakkites, to honor their memories and remember their lives.  Tarrin had never seen anything quite like it before, he didn't even know their names, but his distance from the others had caused that.  The only names he could match to people aboard ship were Renoit, Phandebrass, and Henri.  He'd heard other names, but he didn't know who owned which name, and he really didn't much care to know.  The less he knew about them, the better, as far as he was concerned.

      He looked back out over the city, his human eyes making everything look dark and mysterious.  Only the lights of lamps and torches were discernable along the slope on which the city stood.  He never felt quite right in his human body anymore, despite the pain that it caused.  It just seemed to confining.  He didn't have his senses, and that left him feeling curiously vulnerable.  Not being able to scent or hear people as they approached made him wary and nervous when he was alone.

      The lights from behind were blocked, and Tarrin looked back to see Sisska approaching him.  The massive Vendari came up and stood by him at the rail quietly, her massive tail swishing behind her absently.  In human form, Tarrin barely came up to Sisska's chest, and he could appreciate how intimidated people were by the Vendari.  She and Binter both almost seemed mute sometimes.  They almost never talked, and their activity always centered around their charges.  But nobody ever failed to notice them when they were in sight.

      "Tarrin," she said in her deep voice.  Even when they spoke, it wasn't for very long.  Directness was a Vendari trait, almost as if it were a competition to see who could say the most with the fewest words.

      "Sisska.  Is Miranda alright?"

      "Fine," she assured him.

      "I'm, sorry I got her in trouble," he apologized.  "I should have done things differently."

      "If I did not trust you, I would not allow you to watch her," she said directly.  "That means that I trust her life to you.  You are more than capable of defending her."

      "I should have ran," he sighed.  "I shouldn't have tried to fight."

      "There is no honor in cowardice," Sisska said.

      "But there's no honor in fighting when you're responsible for more than your own life."

      "Wise.  Binter has been teaching you our ways."

      "No, it's just common sense, Sisska," he sighed.  "Something I seem to be lacking here lately."

      "You underestimate yourself," she said, looking down at him.  She put her hand on his shoulder, and his shoulder was too small to accommodate it.  "Did you do as you saw best at the time?"

      He stared up at her, at her boxy muzzle and her dead-black eyes, and blew out his breath.  "At the time, yes," he admitted.

      "Then there is no fault," she declared.  "The greatest fault comes when you do not believe in yourself, and trust in your own decisions."

      He looked up at Sisska again.  Her words were powerful, and he had no doubt that she believed them.  Vendari were absolutely incapable of lying.  Tarrin had been challenging his own self-confidence, and her words took him to task for it.

      "I must go.  Binter will be angry with me if I stay up too long.  He still believes me to be weak from my injury."

      "There's no need for that," Tarrin said, her words still whirling in his mind.  "You're fully recovered."

      "Tell that to a worried mate," she said, looking down at him with a rather frightening Vendari smile.  It was all teeth.  "Binter coddles me too much."

      "I think it's called love, Sisska."

      "Sometimes it can be a nuisance," she said in a level voice.  Tarrin looked up at her, and then he realized she was making a joke.  Sisska, making a joke!  He was quite bowled over by it.

      "Kerri would agree with you, but Allia says that a person is richer to have known love than one who hasn't."

      "Which do you believe?" she asked.

      "Sometimes I don't know," he answered honestly.  "I guess in my position, it's both a blessing and a curse."

      "Do not give much weight to the Princess.  Much of the time, it is her childhood talking.  She treasures you and Allia as the family she could never have, and her devotion to Miranda is unquestioned."

      "I know.  We don't pay much attention to her when she's ranting, Sisska.  We know she's just putting up fronts."

      "I have never thanked you for that, Tarrin," she said.  "Keritanima was a lonely girl before she came to the Tower.  All she had was Miranda and us.  Now she is happy."

      "No need for thanks, Sisska," he replied.  "I should be thanking you for helping to keep her alive so she could come into my life."

      "It is our duty."

      "I'd hope it would also be a privilege."

      Sisska looked down at him.  "At times, yes.  At times, it was a burden.  Her Highness was not what you would not call an easy assignment when she was younger.  She was filled with anger and hate, and that made her unmanagable."

      "I know."

      "I must go now, Tarrin.  Be well."

      "Be well, Sisska," he returned, and she quietly left him at the rail.

      That was an interesting talk.  Sisska was even more quiet than Binter, and people thought Binter was mute.  But in just a few words, she proved she was much more than just a towering wall of intimidation.  There was some profound wisdom lurking behind that monstrous facade.

      There was a smell in the wind, wind that was blowing in from the city.  Though his sense of smell in human form was nothing compared to his normal senses, it was nevertheless noticable.  A strange smell of decay, like someone had left a body sitting out for a month.  There was also a twinge of other smells wrapped up in it, like the dirt of an open grave.  He had smelled that before, and his mind searched for exactly what it was that smelled like that, but it wasn't easy.  The same thing smelled differently to him when he was human than it did when he was in his natural form, because of the differences in how his nose worked in the two forms.

      A shiver ran up his back.  Could it be another Doomwalker?  That was how that Doomwalker, Jegojah, had smelled, and that ran a shock of fear through him.  Jegojah had beaten him like a practice dummy the last time they fought.  Mindless of the gasps behind him, Tarrin returned to his natural form and tested the wind with his more acute senses, sifting through the unpleasant smells of a human city to isolate the scents he had smelled in human form.  And that made his ears go back.  It wasn't just another Doomwalker.  That was Jegojah.  The scent was exactly the same, right down to the slightest texture or nuance.

      How could he be back?  Tarrin had reduced him to ash with Sorcery the last time they fought.  He had no body left.  But Tarrin's nose wasn't lying.  That was Jegojah, and he was coming this way.

      Memories of their first battle whirled up in him, making him rub his shoulder absently.  It had been a brutal fight, with no mercy shown on either side.  It had ended when Jegojah made the mistake of pushing him into the Heart, but before that, Jagojah had been clearly winning.  Tarrin had given back some of what he had received, but Tarrin was the one in much worse shape when he got bulled into the Conduit.

      In any case, there were more lives at stake this time.  Jegojah had killed people at his parents' home when it tried to kill Jenna, then it killed people in the Tower when it came for him.  It would kill anyone between it and him, and the lives of his family, friends, and the performers of the carnival were now in very real danger.  He didn't doubt that it knew where was.  If the kii'zadun had been behind the men he'd fought earlier, they could have called the Doomwalker in to deal with him.  Right now, keeping it away from the garish ship, to hide the fact that the rest of his friends and family were nearby, was the most important thing to do.

      Ignoring the stares of the performers and the questioning look of Dar and Azakar, Tarrin rushed back down to his cabin and got his staff.  It had been totally useless against it the first time, but it had been a weapon nonetheless, something to use against the undead warrior's sword.  Tarrin could hurt it with his claws, and that would have to be how he would fight it this time.  Use the staff to deal with the sword, and strike with his free paw and feet.

      He went over what he remembered the Goddess saying about it.  That he absolutely had to fight it on ground of his own choosing.  That it had to have metal or stone under its feet to prevent it from drawing power from the earth.  But he remembered that the Doomwalker was rather unusual.  It wasn't mindless.  It had a personality, and it believed in honor, alot like Allia and the Vendari did.

      Perhaps he could use that against it.

      But now it was time to go, to find ground suitable for dealing with the Doomwalker's ability.  Ground of his own choosing.  Or in this case, ground that wasn't ground.

      Racing on deck, he dropped down to the stone wharf below soundlessly, with the performers, Azakar, and Dar looking on in confusion, just before Azakar rushed below to find his armor and sword.

 

      He remembered it from before, a stone quay leading out into the sea that had no ships docked to it.  The entrance was barred off by a wooden sawhorse gate, and the signs said that the quay was closed for repairs.  It was the perfect place.  There was nothing on the quay other than two stacks of old crates, and the wharf was a good twenty paces across and some hundred paces long, more than large enough to handle what was coming.  No people to get in the way, nowhere for the Doomwalker to go to draw him onto natural earth other than into the sea.  That was something Tarrin considered, but it was a risk that he was going to have to take.  There was no way he'd fight the Doomwalker in the city.  It would be much too easy for it to pry up stones and get to natural earth, and there was the fact that many innocent lives would be at risk.  The wharf was the best of his choices for ground of his own choosing.

      He stood at the very end of the quay, looking out into the sea, at the ships anchored out in the harbor.  There was no fear in him.  He was so used to fighting for his life, he had become numb to it.  But this was an opponent unlike any other, and he fully understood the risks.  This was an opponent that could very well kill him.  But he accepted that, because to reject the possibility you'd die in a fight was the quickest way to have it happen.

      He could smell it clearly now.  The cool breeze blowing in from the land carried its foul stench to him clearly, and he could hear its metal-shod boots rapping on the stone as it marched up the quay.  He didn't turn around.  He kept staring out into the sea, marvelling at the simple beauty that could be found in the sea and the ships that sailed upon it.  Maybe for the last time.  When it was about ten paces from him, his tail stopped swishing rhythmically, as it tended to do, and he lowered the paw holding his staff.

      "Clever," it said in that rasping, dusty voice.  "Twice have ye sensed my coming, and twice have ye brought me to your own battlefield, yes.  Clever Were-cat ye be."

      "I destroyed you."

      "My body, ye destroyed.  My spirit lives on, in this new body.  Never can ye defeat me, boy.  Destroy me, and again I will come back, yes.  Over and over, until ye finally fall."

      Tarrin turned around.  It didn't look any different.  It had the exact same taut skin-over-bone face, the same armor, the same sword and circular shield.  It even had the same scent.  Perhaps that was a function of what made it come back.  The wind pulled at his braid as he looked at the Doomwalker grimly.  "I'm not the boy you fought before."  He raised a paw, and it exploded into the ghostly limned radiance of High Sorcery.  This was a calculated risk, but it was absolutely necessary.  Tarrin fought to control himself, to not show the strain as the Weave tried to drown him with its power.  He could feel the Weave expand around him, saturating with magical energy, energy that he sensed the Doomwalker could feel.  "I don't even have to fight you to destroy you," he said in a tight voice.  "You can't get close enough to defeat me, Jegojah, because I could annihilate you where you stand.  But I don't want to risk destroying this city to deal with you.  So I offer a bargain."

      "Speak on," it said after a moment of silence.

      "I'll fight you, right here and now.  But neither of us use magic.  You know that if we use magic, you'll lose.  You can't even hope to match my power."

      "A strange bargain ye offer," it said warily.  "What proof that ye will honor it?"

      "Nothing more than my word," he said, severing himself from the Weave, and managing not to flinch when the shockwave of pain blasted through him.  It had been all he could to do cover his weakness.  Jegojah had to believe that Tarrin could wipe him out right then and there, and he couldn't suspect that Tarrin no longer had control of his own powers.  "The word of a man of honor."

      The Doomwalker gave Tarrin a long, searching look, then he stood up straight and drew its sword from its scabbard.  "Jegojah thinks the Were-cat would have done it already, if he could, yes.  Clever ye be to try to limit Jegojah to equal the battlefield."  It regarded him with those eerie red eyes.  "Clever ploy, Were-cat, clever indeed, but Jegojah does not fear defeat.  Jegojah will simply come back again and again."  It pointed its sword at Tarrin, and the Were-cat hunched down and held out his staff, preparing to dodge.  He remembed the last time Jegojah pointed his sword at him like that.  But this time, nothing happened.  "Jegojah respects ye, yes, ye be a worthy opponent, and no easy victory will be won over ye.  With pride will Jegojah remember this victory."

      "Fine," Tarrin hissed, laying his ears back.  There wasn't time to be disappointed.  It just meant that if Jegojah used magic, Tarrin would have to risk using his own in return.  "But you have to beat me first."

      Jegojah saluted Tarrin with his sword as the Were-cat hunched down, feeling the Cat rise up in his mind.  He accepted it, allowed it to merge with his human half to form a unified whole against such a dangerous threat.  Fangs bared, Tarrin hissed menacingly as his eyes lighted from within with the greenish radiance that marked his anger.  He lunged forward with inhuman speed, staff leading, but the Doomwalker moved with equal inhuman speed to intercept it.  The sound of wood on steel, a hollow thuk, rang loudly in Tarrin's ears as a furious battle rage welled up in him.  Holding his staff at one end and wielding it like a two-handed sword, Tarrin assaulted Jegojah furiously, mindlessly, smashing at it with all the strength he could muster.  Tarrin attacked it like an unthinking animal, and that was exactly what he wanted Jegojah to believe.  The last time they fought, Tarrin had lost control, and he had paid for it.  He was hoping that the Doomwalker would take the bait and think that he'd snapped almost immediately.  Sword and shield kept the staff away from its body, but the effort to maintain its defense against such savage power was clear in its movements.  With viper-like speed it retaliated, stabbing at Tarrin's belly after a broad stroke with the staff, but the Were-cat twisted aside easily, spun into the turn as he brought up his foot, and smashed it into the rotting face of the undead creature with claws leading.

      Jegojah staggered back, touching its face with the gauntleted back of its sword hand, then gave a raspy cackle.  "Clever, clever Were-cat.  Ye be full of surprises."

      "I'm just a surprise a minute," Tarrin hissed, hunkering down with his staff in the middle-grip.  "I'm not the half-trained boy you fought before.  I've been taught by the best."

      "Jegojah will enjoy the challenge, then," it cackled, then it waded back in.

      There was no feeling out this battle.  They had faced one another before, and Tarrin already knew the Doomwalker's strengths and weaknesses.  The fact that he had no weaknesses was the problem.  He was fast, agile, powerful, and impeccably trained in fighting.  He came in with a complicated series of slashes and thrusts that Tarrin remembered from the first battle, parrying or evading each one as it came in, but the Doomwalker turned and smashed Tarrin with his shield when he was expecting a high shallow slash in from the weak side.  Tarrin was pushed back a few paces, then snapped his head back just out of range as Jegojah's sword came for his nose in a powerful swipe.  He felt the very tip of it ghost against the tip of his nose as it whizzed by.  Tarrin pivoted from his off-balance position to the side, letting the momentum balance him as he brought up a foot to kick Jegojah's shield.  The move drove the Doomwalker back out and out of position for a backswing, but Tarrin's tail came around behind his leg and went low, the tip of it just hitting the undead creature in the ankle.  It was enough to take the foot out from under it, spilling the Doomwalker to the side, making it stagger to recover its balance.  Tarrin had his staff in an end-grip to take advantage of the distance between them, pointing the tip at Jegojah as it regained itself.

      It was unfazed by the strike, coming right at him with no fear of the weapon.  Tarrin blocked a series of powerful strokes, coming at him from every angle and with so much speed that he couldn't organize himself to strike back.  He lunged aside as it tried to stab him in the chest, then he hissed in pain when the Doomalker stopped the thrust and slashed him across the torso.  The slash wasn't deep, but it went from his ribs on the right all the way to his left hip, over the white lines left by Triana's claws.  The cut burned angrily, telling him that as before, it would not heal immediately.

      The last fight came back to him, and he realized that Jegojah was going to fight the same strategy.  Wear him down with a multitude of weak hits and nicks, whittle away his endurance bit by bit until he was either weak enough to finish off, or he snapped and lost control, which would make him easier to kill.  The sword.  It was everything in this fight.  He absolutely had to get that sword out of the Doomwalker's hands, because without it, it was at a serious disadvantage.  Unarmed, Tarrin could easily overwhelm the undead monster.

      Tarrin bided his time, defending and blocking, keeping himself out of harm's way with training and speed.  He fell back on Allia's training, becoming a reed in the wind, supple and flexible.  Jegojah's sword couldn't find him, for he was always just outside of its range, just to the side of it, always very close but never quite close enough to touch.  He waited until Jegojah tried to stab him again, stepping back and using his staff's length to make the Doomwalker back off, to force him to thrust.

      And it came.  At the end of another complicated and admittedly exceptional series of complex slashes and movements designed to confuse an opponent into defending high, then come in with a stab at the belly.  Tarrin slithered aside again as the thrust sought his belly, but this time he snapped his staff up across his twisting direction, a powerful underhanded parry to the thrust that hit the Doomwalker right in the wrist.  The hand was smashed upwards, the sword going with it, and Tarrin instantly reversed the direction of his move, going from a strong underhanded motion to a wickedly powerful overhanded chop, smashing the wrist again on the other side.  The power in the blow would have taken the hand right off a human, but the Doomwalker's skeletal hand remained affixed to its wrist.  But even its inhuman strength was not enough to keep hold of the sword's hilt as it was jarred in one direction, then the other.  The wire-bound hilt came out of its hand, skittering a few times on the stone before coming to rest at the edge of the wharf.

      Jegojah's answer to that was to grab the staff and drag Tarrin forward, then slam its helmeted head right into Tarrin's face.  His ears rang and his vision blurred as he staggered back, and he put a paw to his face and shook his head to clear the ringing and the cobwebs.  He cleared his vision in time to see the Doomwalker pick up its sword, then point it at him across the distance.

      He knew it was coming.  His legs coiled and then exploded, carrying him up and out of the path of the lightning bolt as it erupted from the tip of the sword.  He landed on the top of a stack of old crates, hearing them groan and shift under his weight, looking down the ten spans at the Doomwalker as its red eyes tracked his movement.  "Jegojah be impressed," it said in its raspy voice.  "Better ye are since the last time, yes.  Better, but not smarter."

      Jegojah raised his foot.  Tarrin remembered that one too, so he jumped again, well into the air and well clear as the Doomwalker's foot hit the ground and created a powerful shockwave that raced towards him at blinding speed.  It hit the stack of crates and smashed them off the wharf, crushing them and scattering shards of wood into the wide bay.  High in the air, thirty spans over the Doomwalker, Tarrin coiled up like a spring, then exploded into motion.  He came around in the air and whipped an arm out, the arm holding the staff, and he threw it like a spear.  His innate understanding of where he was in the air relative to the ground gave him deadly aim, and the tip of the staff shot down at the Doomwalker like a quarrel shot from a crossbow.

      It hit the Doomwalker squarely in the breastplate, and punched through.  It drove through its body and out at a very steep angle, exiting just above the buttocks, then drove fingers deep into the stone surface of the wharf beneath the undead creature's feet.  The end of the staff came to a rest just outside the Doomwalker's breastplate, the rest of its length jutting out of its back and into the stone beneath.  The undead creature was pinned to the wharf, bent back slightly by the force of the blow, left in a very precarious, unbalanced position where it could not stand up straight.

      Tarrin landed some spans from it, coming down on all fours to absorb the shock of such a long drop, then rose up to his height.  The Doomwalker had not moved, but it clearly was not dead.  Or whatever it would be, considering that it was already dead.  Then it cackled.  "Your staff, it can't hurt Jegojah," it cackled again.

      "I know it can't," Tarrin said in a deadly voice, extending his claws on both paws and laying his ears back.  "But it can keep you from moving."

      The Doomwalker gave him a strange look, then tried to step forward.  But it couldn't.  The staff was driven into the stone, deeply into the stone, and it discovered to its shock and dismay that the staff would not break.  It could easily pull itself free, if it had a few extra seconds.  But that was time that it did not have.

      Then Tarrin was on it.  The fact that it was pinned down like a seamstress's lace made it almost completely helpless, and Tarrin had little trouble swatting aside its sword almost negligently.  It was bent backwards, at an awkward angle, and all Tarrin had to do to get out of the reach of the sword was stay on the creature's left.  He ripped the shield off its arm, then he made an inarticulate cry as he went for its head.  Claws slashed, ripped, tore bone as Tarrin felt the Cat rise up even more, smell the chance of victory, give him more strength, and he began to lose himself to its instinctive urges.  Jegojah tried to fend him off with his arm, but he grabbed the limb with both hands, put a foot against the Doomwalker's breastplate, then pulled with all his might.  The sound of snapping bone and twisting metal heralded the removal of its left arm, which came off in Tarrin's paws.

      And then there was pain.  He hunched around the sword that had been stabbed into his right side, almost a span into him, just under the ribs.  When Tarrin ripped off its arm, its body had turned with the force of it, and brought the sword within reach of him.  He felt the steel, the angry pain drive under and behind his ribs, up at an angle, driving up and through his lung.  He staggered back with a paw against the deep wound, hunched over, then he coughed up a large amount of blood.  He could feel it filling his lung.  Laboring to breathe, he saw Jegojah power itself off the end of his staff, which was still embedded into the wharf solidly, pulling itself off its length with its remaining hand.  Its sword was laying on the wharf where it had dropped it to grab the staff's shaft.  Tarrin felt the pain, felt the blood in his lungs.  He was no longer capable of fighting against that sword, and in his weakened condition, he would have absolutely no chance to control Sorcery.  If Jegojah picked it back up, he was going to die.

      With a blood-flecked cry of effort, Tarrin threw the skeletal arm in his paw, hunching around the deep, dreadful wound after he let go of it.  The arm turned over and over in the air, flying across the space between them, and then hit the sword squarely just as the Doomwalker reached down for it.  It and the sword both slid across the stone, and then both dropped over the side and into the water below.  Heaving for breath, on his knees because of the blinding pain that throwing the arm had caused him, Tarrin gave the Doomwalker a vicious look, then struggled back to his feet.  Blood saturated his trousers and shirt, poured streaming from the corner of his mouth every time he exhaled, and the pain burned in him like a bonfire, but he was not going to give up.  He would fight to his last breath, and then spit in Jegojah's eyes just before he died.

      Jegojah didn't look much better.  Its breastplate was punctured and bent from its attempts to pull free of the stake which had been Tarrin's staff, and its face was mangled severely by the Were-cat's claws.  The entire right side of its face below the eye socket was just gone, showing the nasal passages inside the skull and the grisly gray ichor that had once been the body's brain, ichor that oozed over the torn and ripped bone.  The jawbone was torn off, laying on the wharf under it, and its left arm was ripped away, mangling the armor around the shoulder.  It moved with a curious gait, as if drunk, shuffling towards him and then coming to a stop.

      Left in a dreamy haze by the pain raging through the wound, along his body, Tarrin wondered what it was doing.  Then he remembered its magic.  It raised its remaining arm to point at him as Tarrin desperately fought to find the strength in himself to touch the Weave, to fend off the inevitable attack--

      --and then the Doomwalker crumpled to a heap when it was struck from behind.  Tarrin looked at it laying still on the wharf, its skull shattered.  The body began to steam, then smoke, then it simply disintegrated into dust.  Tarrin looked up, and if it not for the fact that his lungs were full of his own blood, he would have gasped.

      Holding his staff in her paws, Triana gave Tarrin a grim look.  He staggered back and away from her.  Not this, not now!  He was helpless against her, completely unable to defend himself, and her vehement proclomation the last time he saw her left little doubt in his mind as to what she was going to do now.  He tried to stand up straight, but it sent a blast of pain through him that nearly sent him to his knees.  Arm pressed tightly against the dreadful wound in his side, he spat out a mouthful of blood, laid his ears back, and extended the claws on his left paw.  Be it Jegojah or Triana, he still wouldn't go down without a fight.

      She just stood there, staff leaning lightly on her shoulder, regarding him in total silence.  "This would be too easy," she said conversationally as Tarrin's knees began to wobble.  "Then again, after what I just saw, maybe it'd be best to deal with you now."

      He could feel the blood pooling around his foot.  It was a strange warmth, when the rest of him was growing colder and colder.  His mind began to drift, as images of Jesmind looking at him the very same way began to merge with Triana, that same look of reluctant duty.  She didn't want to kill him.  She just felt it was her duty.  But it wasn't Jesmind.  It was Triana.  And at that moment, his life was in her hands.  There was no way he could stand against her.  Every beat of his heart poured more of his own blood on the wharf, and he knew he wouldn't even be conscious much longer.  Jegojah had dealt him a mortal wound, and if he didn't get help, he was going to die.

      Tarrin began to wilt like a dying flower.  His arms drooped, and his knees bent more and more, until he was hunched over on his knees, getting nothing but blood in his lungs as he tried desperately to breathe.  Triana fearlessly squatted before him, looking at him with those penetrating eyes, her face an emotionless mask.  He imagined that same expression on her face when she killed her parents, when she helped wipe out the elders of their kind.  An expression that gave no hint as to what she was thinking.  Was it how she dealt with the pain, the knowledge that she had been forced to kill her own people?  It seemed a bit cold-blooded to him that she could stand there and watch him die, but it was just the same as if she had struck the killing blow herself.  It was something that a part of him could understand.

      Her face began to look hazy to him, and his mind drifted.  He spit out enough blood to take in a partial breath, then he looked directly into her eyes.  "I guess you were right," he said with a weak chuckle, then he bent over, racked with spamsic coughs.  Each cough sent a shockwave through him, until it had subsided and left him enough lung to breathe.  "I guess one of us won't live through this."

      "You brought this on yourself."

      "I know," he said in a whisper.  "But sometimes...we all...have to make...hard choices."  He began panting shallowly, feeling the blood rise and fall in his throat.  "I'm sure...you know...all about that."

      He coughed again, and the pain was simply too much.  Eyes rolling back in his head, he sagged to the wharf.

 

      Triana looked at him in shock, paw half-reaching for him.  But then her fingers closed into a fist, and her eyes hardened.  "Hard choices," she said in a whisper to herself, putting her fist to her forehead and closing her eyes, an expression of tremendous pain and loss clear on her lovely features.

      Then they opened.  "Cub, you drive me crazy," she said in a clear voice, reaching down and touching him gently on the back of the neck with two fingers.  There was a visible light in that touch, as Triana used her Druidic power to enact Druidic healing on Tarrin's damaged body.  Under her ministration, Tarrin's body was urged to heal itself, and supplied the energy it would need to do it faster than was normal.  But the amount of energy she supplied was very small, allowing his body only to heal to the point where it was stable.

      To where he would live.

      "Your Sorceress can finish the job," she said to Azakar, who had tried to approach quickly yet quietly.  He was wearing his breastplate and helmet, and was carrying a sword.  "I just want you to know, I didn't do this.  It was a Doomwalker."

      "I saw it," Azakar said, coming to a halt well out of her reach and lowering his sword.  "Why?"

     She gave him a penetrating look.  "Because we all have to make hard choices," she said in a level tone, then she stalked up to him and wordless handed him Tarrin's staff.  There was no emotion in her expression, a face of stone, like a sculpture of beauty with no warmth.  She stared directly up into his eyes for a long moment, then she walked past him, back towards the city.  Azakar wasted no time in gathering up Tarrin's limp form, and rushing back to the Dancer, back to Dolanna.


GoTo:   Title                         EoF

Chapter 8

 

      "This is getting tiresome, Tarrin," Dolanna admonished him sternly as she put her hand to his forehead.

      He'd woken up in his bed.  Again.  But then again, he didn't think he'd be waking up at all.  For some reason, Triana had spared him.

      Maybe the Goddess' words about what him saying to her had made a difference.  She had spared his life.

      He felt remarkably well for someone who had had a span of steel shoved into his gut.  There was no pain, just the weak feeling that always accompanied a Sorcerer's healing.  He'd woken up to find Dolanna hovering over his bed, and feeling the ship rocking in a way that told him that they were back out at sea.  He'd slept through the night and half the morning, recovering his strength.  He was a little worried that Keritanima and Allia weren't there, but Renoit had them up on deck practicing, and Dolanna had ensured them that Tarrin's injuries weren't life-threatening.

      "I told you before, Dolanna," he said calmly, "I won't put you in danger because of me.  That was Jegajoh.  A Doomwalker.  If I'd have told you about it, and you and the others came to help fight it, it would have killed some of us.  I've fought it before, and to be honest, anyone else would have gotten in my way."

      "You assume much," she sniffed.  "We are a group, Tarrin.  We must act like a group.  We cannot help each other if you keep shouldering all your burdens alone."

      "I know, Dolanna, and I'm sorry.  If it would have been anyone or anything else, I would have told you.  But not a Doomwalker."

      "It sounds personal."

      "I guess it is," he said gruffly.  "He beat me the last time.  I guess the fighter in me wanted a rematch."

      "Pride is a dangerous emotion, my young one.  It can bring confidence, but it can also make one make foolish decisions."

      "May be, but I still wasn't going to put all of you in danger over me.  You're more important than I am."

      "And who made this decision?"

      "I did," he said pugnaciously, giving Dolanna a stern look.

      Dolanna gave him a long look, then she actually laughed.  "I am flattered, dear one," she said with a smile.  "I was also impressed.  You made all the correct decisions.  Allia and Binter have taught you well."

      "What do you mean?"

      "Dear one, that wharf was in plain view of most of the harbor.  There had to be hundreds of people watching.  We saw the entire thing."

      Tarrin gaped at her.

      "King Rathbonne sent you this, as a thank-you," she said, picking up double-bladed longsword with an elaborately jeweled hilt, the hilt resembling a dragon.  Wings formed the crosspiece, the body was cleverly wrapped in wire to make it look scaled, forming the handle, and the pommel was sculpted to look like a dragon's head.

      It was Jegojah's sword.

      Tarrin recognized it immediately, and it sent a pang through him.  "The Doomwalker killed a great many people when it came into the city.  That you had a hand in destroying it was not lost on him."

      "You mean people were watching?"

      "Of course.  Azakar had a jump on us all.  He saw you leave and followed you, but he did not get there in time to help.  Rathbonne's men fished this out of the sea.  He felt it only right that you should receive it."

      Tarrin took it from her, holding it out before him.  Just the touch of it made his fur itch.  He could feel the magic that made up part of its craftsmanship, an ancient weapon from time long past, that had only survived the Breaking because it was probably wherever the Doomwalker went when not stalking across the world.  It felt odd holding the sword that had spilled so much of his own blood.

      "I don't deserve this," he said, holding it back out.  "Triana finished it off, not me."

      "Triana is not here.  She did not fight it to that point, and she struck it from behind.  Besides, this is less than suitable compensation for what it has put you through.  I would say that you have much more of a claim on it than anyone else."

      "It's not cursed, is it?"

      "No, dear one," she smiled.  "It is merely an object, nothing more.  The good or evil it can cause depends solely on the hand wielding it."

      Tarrin looked at her, then looked at the sword.  It was truly an exquisite weapon, both in its forging and in its beauty.  The blade was etched with flowing dragons along both sides, something he hadn't noticed before, and it was much too light to be made of steel.  It almost felt made of wood, but Tarrin could personally attest to the strength of the blade, and its lethal cutting edges.  It would be the treasured possession of any warrior, a sword of paramount workmanship.  The fact that it carried a magical enchantment, something that was exceedingly rare, was only the icing on the cake.

      "Jegojah will come back for it," Tarrin said quietly.  "It told me itself that it can't be destroyed.  It will find a new body and come back, and I'm sure it'll be looking for this."

      "Perhaps.  But tell me, was it using the same weapons as before?  I remember the first battle you had with it, and it left its sword behind.  The Tower still has the sword it used in that fight.  This one is not the same."

      "It's not?"

      "No.  I saw it.  It was not this sword."

      "Huh," he mused, holding it up.  "It's too bad I don't really like swords.  This one is very nice."

      "Yes.  I pity the one the Doomwalker attacked to gain it."

      "I guess so," he agreed.  "Azakar uses a bastard sword, and it's a bit too small for him.  I think I'll give it to Faalken."

      "He will kiss your feet and wash your clothes for a year," Dolanna laughed.

      "He can do whatever he wants.  It doesn't really do me any good.  Best to give it to someone that can use it."

      "He will be thrilled," she assured him, taking it from him when he offered it and leaning it against the squat night stand.  "Now then, you are free to get up.  You were not injured as badly as I first thought."

      "It got me in the lung.  I thought I was going to die."

      "Your internal injuries were not that severe.  Perhaps Triana healed you before she allowed Azakar to take you."

      "Druids can heal?"

      "Yes.  Their healing is crude by a Sorcerer's standards, but they do have some ability."

      "What's the difference?"

      "A Sorcerer returns the body to its original condition," she explained.  "We cannot heal diseases as Priests can, nor can we heal those who are so weak that their body cannot withstand the healing, but any type of injury or wounding can be healed.  Druids only accelerate the body's natural healing process.  If an injury does not set or heal correctly, there is nothing more they can do.  Their healing also leaves scars, where ours does not."

      "I guess that makes sense.  Sevren once told me that Druidic magic is the magic of nature, so their healing would depend on the natural healing of the one being healed."

      "Correct," she smiled.  "I see you paid more attention in class than I previously believed."

      "I tried," he said with a small smile.

      "You may get up and move about, but do not exert yourself.  You may also go up on deck, but I do not have to--"

      "I'll be careful," he promised.

      "Renoit left you these," she said, patting a set of leathers sitting on the nightstand.  "He noticed that your other clothes are all getting a bit shaggy."

      "It's the claws," he said casually, throwing the covers aside.  He was nude beneath them, but he had no reservations about it.  Dolanna had seen him without his clothes more times than he could count, and it didn't bother him in the slightest to appear before others unclad.

      Dolanna stood up.  "I will see you on deck, dear one.  If you feel up to it, join us for our daily lesson in Sorcery.  At least after I drag my students away from Renoit's performers."

      Tarrin tested the fit of the leathers after putting them on.  There hadn't been a hole for his tail, but a claw fixed that problem.  They fit rather well, a pair of brown leather trousers and a simple brown sleeveless vest that left his torso, upper arms, and chest bare, and showed his brands to the world.  They were usually hidden beneath the cotton shirts he preferred to wear.

      Going up on deck, he ignored the looks and the stares from the performers, breathing in the fresh air.  Miranda and Keritanima seemed to excuse themselves from their dancing and start towards him.  Allia, much closer to him, rushed over and hugged him, and kissed him on the cheek.  "Dolanna said you were well," she said in Selani.  "She told us to come up and train.  I nearly spit her on my sword."

      "I'm alright, sister," he assured her.

      He embraced Keritanima, then took Miranda's hand gently as the Princess slapped him several times on the chest and shoulder.  "Stop doing that to me!" she demanded.  "What possessed you to run off and fight that thing alone?"

      "You have no idea what it is and what it can do, Kerri," he told her seriously.  "Leaving you behind probably saved your life."

      "I think you think I can't carry my own weight," she said scathingly.

      "Kerri, I wouldn't even let Allia fight that thing.  What do you think that means for you?"

      Allia gave him a penetrating look, and Keritanima laughed ruefully.  "I hate being the low girl in this totem pole," she said to them.

      "When I face it one on one, I know exactly what it's going to do.  If I'd have had others with me, it would have been unpredictable.  Trust me, sisters, the best way to go about it was to do exactly what I did."

      "I guess we must bow to your experience in this matter, my brother," Allia said.  "But I do not like it.  You dishonor me by treating me like a child."

      "No, sister, I'm keeping you alive," he told her.  "It can't be hurt by weapons that aren't enchanted by magic.  There's nothing you can really do against it other than be a target."

      "I can defeat you without magical weapons," she snorted.

      "I also feel pain, sister.  That thing is already dead.  It doesn't feel pain and it doesn't have any fear.  I ripped its arm off, something that would stop almost anything else, and it didn't affect it any more than using harsh language.  Kick me in the head, and I get stunned.  Kick it in the head, and it'll turn around and cut out your liver."

      "You have a point," she acceded.

      "I'm sorry if I worried you, but I did what I did for all of us, not just for me," he explained.

      "Your reunion, it is over, yes?" Renoit shouted at them from the stern.  "Practice, my performers!  There is only eight days to Shoran's Fork!"

      "I'm going to--" Keritanima started with a growl.

      "You're going to go practice," Tarrin cut her off.  "I'll still be here tonight, sister."

      "Alright," Keritanima chuckled.

      Tarrin watched his sisters and friend go back to their practice, sighing a bit.  He was just glad they were alright.  He'd fight the Doomwalker fifty times in a row if it meant keeping those he held dear out of danger.  He knew they'd all have to fight together at some point, but the longer that took, the happier he was.

      Tarrin went the rail and stared out at the landline on the horizon, a greenish-brown strip near the horizon.  He was still a little surprised that Triana had spared him.  The look in her eyes, the complete emotionlessness of her stare, it had convinced him that she was going to stand there and watch him die, to make sure of it.  But she had spared him.  The Goddess said that what he had to say to Triana would decide whether he would live or die, and it had come true.  He didn't remember what he said to her, but whatever it was, it had to have been effective.

      He hated it.  He didn't hate Triana.  She was strong, commanding, and just the sight of her seemed to both terrify him and bring to him a strange pride.  He knew she didn't hate him.  She was just doing her duty.  It was just like it was with Jesmind, but Jesmind had had a more intimate interest in him.  He wanted to learn from Triana, to get to know her, but fate had cast them down on opposite sides of a line in the sand.  He didn't want to fight the Fae-da'Nar, but he didn't have the time to stop and learn what they wanted to teach.

      It had been a hard choice, but it really was no choice at all.

      In a way, Fae-da'Nar and the Were-cats were a part of his family.  Jesmind had been his bond-mother, responsible for him, then she had become something more.  Part of him still yearned for her.  It hurt in the strangest way to reject them, to force them to have to try to kill him.  He had no animosity towards any of them, but they just wouldn't listen.  They were all too stubborn, too wrapped up in their law to understand that it only took a little bending of it to make everything alright.  Jesmind's pride had made them enemies, and now Triana's ferocious tenacity was doing the same.  Nobody would listen to him, listen to his side in their dispute, and that both frustrated and saddened him.

      To them, he was just a child.  Perhaps that made them think that they knew what was best for him.

      Jegojah was another matter.  At least he understood what the Doomwalker was doing now.  He would see it again.  And again, and again.  It would keep coming back until it finally destroyed him.  Jegojah was an enemy, but again, there was a curious lack of hatred in him for it.  It was a powerful fighter, cunning and highly skilled, and Tarrin had the oddest respect for his supernatural opponent.  He wondered where it had come from, what it had done when it was alive to learn what it had learned.

      Fighting the Doomwalker was going to be suicide.  It was just too skilled with its weapons.  They were nearly evenly matched now, because of the training he had received from Allia and Binter since the first battle between them.  The law of averages said that it was just a matter of time until Jegojah won a match.  And if it did, there wouldn't be another.  Sorcery could affect it, so that had to be his primary focus.  He had to get a handle on his power, to be able to use it.  Even if only for a moment or two, long enough to be able to deal with Jegojah the next time they crossed swords.  Tarrin would eventually run out of tricks, or run out of luck.  He needed to even the battleground between him and the Doomwalker to gain the advantage.  Tarrin's Sorcery was alot more powerful than Jegojah's magic.  He knew it, it knew it.  It was simple fact when he told it that if they both used magic, then the Doomwalker would lose.

      That was going to be a long road to travel.  He couldn't even touch the Weave anymore.  It was like it was a living thing, and when it sensed him come into contact with it, it reacted to him, tried to smother him in its power.  He couldn't handle the radical flood of magic for even a fraction of a second before it overwhelmed him.  What he did to try to trick Jegojah had been everything he could do.  It was the lightest contact with the Weave he could manage, and it took absolutely everything he had just to throttle it.  If he'd tried to use Sorcery, he would have removed that single tentative block against the power, and it would have drowned him.

      Right now, Sorcery was more deadly to him than Jegojah and Triana put together, if only because it was so easily at hand.  He had to get a handle on it before it killed him.

      Triana.  How did she find him so fast?  How did she get from Dayisè to Tor as fast as a ship?  That seemed impossible.  If Dayisè had been on the same land as Tor, it may have been possible.  A Were-cat could run at nearly full speed all day, faster than any horse.  But she'd have to get back to the mainland, and that would have taken time.  It took a day for them to get from the islands back to within sight of the mainland, and that day would have made it impossible for Triana to cover the distance in that amount of time.  How did she do it?

      He'd have to ask her, if he could keep her civil long enough the next time he saw her.  Putting his paws down and leaning on them, he stared absently at the landline, thoughts wandering in and out of the instinctual murmurings of the Cat.

      The land was a long way off.  It seemed strange to him now, knowing that they were out there.  Enemies.  Anyone who knew about the Firestaff was now an enemy to him.  So many that he couldn't count, and if they were even partially in the loop when it came to intelligence, they'd know who he was and what it meant.  That was a scary feeling, knowing beyond any doubt that half the world was after him.  He'd known it before, but it was intangible, a feeling that though he knew it, perhaps it wasn't really true.  Well, now he knew it was true, and it was like cold water thrown in his face.  It would make a drunk man stone sober.  And the ship, the ugly pink ship that had seemed so much the prison to him before, now it was his only sanctuary.  The land was the prison now, where he would have to hide and protect himself.  But on the ship, this ship, he could move about freely, without worry that someone was standing around a corner waiting to stick a silvered dagger in his back.  The only thing they had to worry about were pirates, Zakkites, and the Wikuni, and it was very hard to get close enough to surprise them.

      His prison was now his sanctuary, and every time he set foot on land, he would be in danger.

      It almost seemed ironic.  He leaned on the rail, looking down into the water where the gray fish that someone called dolphins swam alongside, breaking the water occasionally.  They moved in a group, swimming effortlessy at a speed faster than a fit man could run on land.  He wondered fleetingly what it would be like to be like that, to not have a care in the world, and have the entire world as your playground.  Even when he tried to not have a care in the world, they always seemed to seep back into him.  They had been what had brought him out of his instincts after he nearly killed his mother, that nagging knowledge that there were serious things out there that needed his attention.  He didn't much like knowing that so much had been set on his shoulders, but life was hardly fair.

      Holding up a paw, he absently ordered it to change, and it flowed and melted down into his human hand.  He could change into his hands, or his feet, could also get rid of the fur on his arms or his legs, but that was as far as he could go.  Doing anything else meant a full change.  He couldn't even change both hands and feet at the same time, or get rid of the fur on both arms and legs.  It still hurt, but Allia's concentration techniques allowed him to simply ignore the pain, shunt it away into a corner of his mind where it didn't distract him.  What amazed him was how quickly he had learned them, over the course of only two days.  The concept of meditation wasn't new to him, and it had been relatively easy for him to apply his prior training to what Allia was teaching him.

      He stared at the hand.  It looked so alien.  It looked as it had before he was changed, but it didn't change the fact that it looked like someone had stuck someone else's hand on the end of his arm.  He wiggled his fingers at himself, trying to remember what it had been like to see it every day, to never notice the hand because it was so normal.  Just something he saw every day, day in day out.  Just a hand.  Not anymore.  Now it was special, unique, probably the same way people thought of his paws and feet and tail.  What was normal to him was unusual for them, and the tables were turned.  What was normal for them was now unusual for him.

      Yet another way his life had been twisted all around.  Everything seemed as backwards as that anymore, but at least he could find ways to tolerate it.  He could tolerate being trapped on a moving prison surrounded by strangers.  He found that if he worked at it, he could even tolerate conversation with them, or being in close proximity for long periods of time.  He even found that he liked Phandebrass.  Why, he had no idea.  The man was a scatterbrained danderhead who just had a penchant for telling a good story, and his two pet drakes were very unfriendly to him.  Strange that not six months ago, being on a ship full of interesting people would have been wildly fascinating to him.

      It seemed like a lifetime ago, and his human, younger self seemed like a different person.  He had been so, sociable.  He'd liked people, and could talk to them.  He'd been curious about the world, absorbed in learning the arts of warcraft.  He'd wanted to be a Knight, riding out and doing grand deeds in the name of Karas and Sulasia.  He'd wanted to learn every language there was, since he'd found that he was so good at learning them.  It had been, and to be fair to himself, still was, one of his real talents.  But then Dolanna and Faalken came, and turned his life on its ear.  It really wasn't her fault, and he didn't blame her for it, but that had been the beginning of the end of his first life.  It started with Dolanna, and it ended with Jesmind.

      Jesmind.  Just thinking about her conjured an image of her, with her fiery red hair and powerful, determined look.  She was so much her mother's daughter, he'd come to find out.  He missed her, and part of him hoped that she'd be standing on the dock the next time they came into port.  Well, if he saw her again, first he'd throttle her, then he'd kiss her.  She left him, left him alone, and that still stung.  He'd had no idea how much he depended on her nearness until after she was gone.  Even when she was an enemy, a part of him took comfort in the fact that she was always nearby.  It was probably an aspect of Were that he still didn't completely understand, but it was there nonetheless.  Even now, a part of him yearned for her to be near to him.  It was related to the part that just wanted her.  She was the only female he'd ever been intimate with, and he wasn't so out of touch not to realize that he still had strong feelings for her, both emotionally and physically.  His feelings for Jesmind were a jumble of love, hate, anger, regret, frustration, and sexual attraction, and it certainly never made thinking about her boring.

      But seeing her again probably wasn't meant to be.  She'd left him, and he doubted he'd ever see her again.  If he even lived long enough for it to happen.

      Next on Renoit's schedule was the city of Shoran's Fork, the westernmost coastal city in Arkis.  He remembered the maps he'd seen of the area.  On the east bank of the River Ar, there was Shoran's Fork.  On the west bank of the river laid the city of Var Denom, an independent city not part of the Arkisian kingdom.  The two cities were supposedly friendly yet vigorous rivals, always competing with each other for ships to dock and trade with them, yet never coming to blows over their competition.  Like two friends who competed against one another.  Tarrin wondered fleetingly what made Renoit choose Shoran's Fork over Var Denom for his location.  Maybe Shoran's Fork had a large marketplace or empty area where the circus could set up its large tent.  Maybe Shoran's Fork offered Renoit money to come there rather than Var Denom.  Maybe Renoit liked things on the right rather than the left.  Maybe the ship couldn't make left turns.  He didn't know, and any of them were equally good reasons until he found out.

      It was one step closer to Arak.  He knew he wouldn't like going there.  Just saying that word made Azakar shudder.  The Mahuut had been a slave there, first working in the mines, then fighting in the gladitorial arena, a place where men killed each other to entertain the crowd.  Tarrin thought it was barbaric, and that was only the good things he'd heard about the place.  Arakites had nasty reputations outside their empire, well known to be egocentric, effete snobs who thought everyone else wasn't even human because they weren't Arakite.  A vast empire where slavery and barbarity were cultural requirements, where a man was only as good as the money he was worth.  A brutal society full of ruthless people, his father has told him a long time ago.  He knew that his father had been right on the mark.  Tarrin knew the Arakite language, and it was as harsh as the people who spoke it were reputed to be.  Full of hard sounds and gutteral pronunciations.  The Arakites and their language supported the idea that a language was a good indication of the cultural disposition of the people who spoke it.

      And getting there was just a part of their problem.  They had to look through the largest city in the world to find a single book.  It was an impossible task, and it was made harder by the fact that there were sure to be others doing the same thing.  If one of them found it first and got it out of the city without Tarrin knowing it, he could be there for the rest of his life undertaking a futile search.  That didn't sit well with him.  There had to be an easier way.

      If there was one, it wasn't presenting itself to him.

      He looked out towards the land again.  The sea was a brilliant blue, the wind was steady and cool, and the sun was warm.  The sky had only a few small clouds, puffy and well away from the sun, which were being pushed along by the steady westerly wind.  It was certainly pretty from so far away.  He glanced to his side, where a Wikuni acrobat was practicing handstands.  He wondered idly if they had any idea that Keritanima, their Crown Princess, was sharing the ship with them.  Nobody called her by her full name.  She was Kerri to the people on board, and they probably didn't identify her as who she really was.  They probably thought the Princess was some silk-clad figure escorted by armies wherever she went.  They probably had no inkling that the foul-tempered dancer was the woman that had once been destined to rule them.  Imagining their reaction if they found out never failed to make him chuckle.

      It was too bad they couldn't see her in less stressful circumstances.  Keritanima wasn't usually so vicious, but Renoit's games with her had worn her patience to the bone.  Keritanima had discovered, much to her shock, that Renoit was just as underhanded and subtle as she was.  The man never let up on her, not only making her dance, but making her suffer for her adamant refusal to do so with cunning set-ups and situations that humiliated her into compliance.  Keritanima was a very proud girl, a product of her upbringing, and those little humiliations made her utterly furious.  What probably made her more furious was the ease with which Renoit manipulated her into doing what he wanted her to do.  She had become waspish with the performers, and even a bit short-tempered with her friends, but they all understood why she was being that way.

      Allia seemed to have taken to her role a bit better.  She was no longer a performing acrobat.  Renoit wouldn't be able to display her in Arak, because they despised the Selani.  She was a teacher now, teaching the acrobats ways to make themselves even more flexible and limber, teaching them how to do more complicated and more difficult acrobatic feats.  The other reason for the change was her promise to Renoit that she was going to kill Henri if he disrespected her one more time.  After that blunt warning, Henri was removed as the leading acrobat.  He was taken completely out of the acrobats, sent to the jugglers to perform in that capacity as long as Allia was in the troupe.

      It was good that the others had managed to blend in so well.  Azakar and Dar were well liked by the performers.  Dar had quite a covey of the youngest women after him, though he was too young or naive to notice it.  Then again, he didn't have Tarrin's sense of smell.  He could smell it when women were after a man, because the texture of their scents changed.  Just the way he could smell fear.  Azakar wasn't pined over by the girls, but he had made solid friends among the circus people.  Dolanna was too mysterious to be approached by most, and none of them would try to make friends with Binter or Sisska.  The Vendari devotion to duty precluded such socializing.

      He didn't see them practice often.  He was still restricted off the deck during the daylight hours.  The performers were very afraid of him, and he had to admit that they had very good reason to be.  Of all of them, only Phandebrass would speak to him, and sometimes Tarrin felt that that was because the absent-minded mage didn't have the sense to be afraid.  Not even Renoit would approach him or talk to him without Dolanna.  That suited him just fine.  He had his friends and his sisters.  They were all strangers, and he didn't trust any of them.  So long as they stayed out of his way, he was perfectly content to let them hover about on the edges.  Their fear of him didn't sting as much as it used to, as it had when he was in the Tower.  He had grown used to it over time.

      Faalken approached him, and he looked like he was the father of Marcus Lightblade.  Pride exploded all over his face, and his scent couldn't contain the elation that he was obviously feeling.  "Dolanna said you were going to give me that sword," he blurted out, his dark, curly locks bobbing up and down as the Knight literally bounced in place.  "Was she toying with me?"

      "No," he said quietly.  "I don't like swords, and it's too small for Azakar to use.  You can have it."

      Faalken gave out a whooping sound, then grabbed Tarrin in a fierce hug and picked him up, then spun him a few times.  The move startled Tarrin, but the fact that it was Faalken doing it was the only reason he managed to keep his gizzard inside his belly.  "Have I told you today how much I like you, my boy?" he said with a laugh, then he literally ran towards the stairs leading below decks.  He left Tarrin standing there with a surprised look on his face, and all twenty of his claws extended.  He had to breathe deeply a few times to get over his shock, calming down to the point where he could sheathe his wicked claws and chuckle ruefully.  Faalken was an eternal child.  He would never grow up.

      Shaking his head, Tarrin changed form, the deck blurring until he gained a much lower perspective of it.  He padded over to a coil of rope and settled himself down inside it, laying his chin on the edge of it and closing his eyes.  There had been a time, which seemed a lifetime ago, when he would have done something like that.

      Sometimes it wasn't the days, rides, months, and years, it was what happened within them that changed someone.

      Tarrin drifted off to sleep, musing at how he had lived two lifetimes in only eighteen years.

 

      It was apparent to anyone looking that the two collections of buildings on either side of the wide river Ar were not the same.

      The buildings on the left were stone with tiled roofs, and the streets were narrow and very crooked.  It was an ancient city, with old buildings and a rambling layout that had probably been much neater some five hundred years ago.  The buildings on the right were timber and stone, with tiled roofs, but what made them so distinctive was that they were larger and more spread out than the buildings on the opposite bank.  Wide, straight avenues separated the buildings, apparent even from the ship, and the layout of the place was one of straight streets, gardens, and space making the place seem less cloying and restrictive.

      Var Denom to the left, Shoran's Fork to the right.  Two cities within sight of one another, yet visibly and obviously as different as night and day.

      The two cities were separated by the wide, slow-moving waters of the River Ar, fresh water that poured into a shallow yet very wide bay.  That bay was filled with many ships, alot like Tor had been, but what Tarrin noticed was the unusual concentration of Wikuni warships that were anchored off from the wharfs and quays of both cities.  There were even a trio of frigates parked squarely in the middle of the river's mouth.  There were alot more Wikuni ships here than there had been in Tor, and for some reason, that worried him.

      Tarrin stood at the rail with Dar, watching as a longboat rowed out to meet them as they carefully wound their way among the ships in the bay.  The man inside shouted out in Arakite, telling Renoit's ship to follow it to a wharf.  Dar looked a little wistful.  Arkis was his home kingdom, though Shoran's Fork wasn't his home city.  Dar was from Arkisia, the capital, a very large city on the coast closer to the Sandshield Mountains, which separated Arkis from the Desert of Swirling Sands.

      "Homesick?" Tarrin asked, flexing his human hand absently, getting used to the nagging pain, shunting it to the back of his mind so he could do his job without it distracting him.

      "A little, I guess," he sighed.  "My parents probably think I'm still in school at the Tower.  They'd have a fit if they knew what I was really doing."

      "At least mine know what I'm doing."

      "I'm surprised they're not right here with you."

      "You know, if it wasn't for Jenna, they probably would be," he said after a moment of thought.

      "It's strange hearing Arakite without an accent."

      "My accent isn't that bad," he protested.

      "Not bad at all, but you still lack the dialect of a native speaker," Dar teased with a smile.  "Look at all the Wikuni.  You'd think this was one of their naval bases."

      "I noticed.  I don't like it."

      "It makes me a little nervous too, but I doubt they'll find us.  Kerri doesn't look anything like what they think she'd look like, Binter and Sisska will be hiding behind illusions, and you and Allia won't be out there to give us away.  As long as we don't attract attention to ourselves, we should be alright."

      "I hope so, Dar.  I really hope so."

      The longboat directed them to the wharf at the very end of the city's docks.  It was a small quay, barely long enough to support the garishly painted galleon.  The wharf beside theirs was occupied by a Wikuni clipper, and he could see the Wikuni on board rush about, as if preparing to cast off.  There was an open area between the wharf, the city wall to the right, and the large warehouses to the left.  The place was empty, but that wasn't all that unusual for a part of the city that didn't have much traffic.  The wharf was in the corner of the city, and the wharf which probably supplied the warehouses across from them was empty.  It was probably a good place to have Renoit dock, where his troupe wouldn't interfere with the cargo loading and unloading where the docks were busier.

      Hawsers were thrown out and caught by men on the dock, which were then tied down.  Tarrin moved to help the others bring up the first of the poles that would form their large tent as Dar went below to Dolanna, where they would create the Illusions that concealed the Vendari's true identity.  They came up a few minutes later, Dolanna, Faalken, Binter and Sisska, with Keritanima and Miranda coming up behind.  Miranda was disguised as well, looking like a human woman of the same dimensions as she had when she wasn't hidden by Illusion.  Tarrin understood the strategy behind that.  Fox Wikuni weren't uncommon, but Miranda, with her mink features and very striking appearance, was very rare.  It was much easier for Keritanima to change her appearance without magic than it was for Miranda.  Keritanima took one look around, and immediately frowned.

      "What is it?" Miranda asked.

      "That's an Eram clipper," she said, giving the Wikuni ship beside theirs a cursory glance.  "One of my family's private commercial ships."

      "Do you think they will recognize you?" Dolanna asked.

      "I doubt it," she replied.  "Most of them have never seen me.  The Brat hated anything that even closely resembled work, so she didn't accompany her father to the docks very often."

      "I do not like this, Princess," Binter said quietly.  "This does not feel right."

      Tarrin looked at the huge Illusion's face, looking like a monstrously tall man with bulging muscles, knowing that he was really looking at Binter's chest.

      "Come, my friends, we must set up!" Renoit called from the stern.  "We will showcase Shoran's Field this day!"

      The gangplank was lowered, and the dancers filed down, carrying smaller bundles of rope.  Tarrin was among a group of eight, carrying the poles that would help raise the tent.  But when he got down on the dock, he stopped dead, making the man holding the back end lose the pole off his shoulder and start cursing.  Tarrin felt it slip off his shoulder, but he barely registered its presence.

      The men that had tied down the ship were nowhere to be seen.

      Fear began to rise up in him.  Where did they go so fast?  They should have stayed on the dock.  They would have had to run to get out of sight so quickly, and if they did run away, then they obviously knew something was about to happen.  Tarrin felt that was the case.  Something was about to happen, and it wasn't good.  The fact that there was a Wikuni clipper tied up right beside them was a good indication of that.  The man who had dropped the pole was cursing at him in Shacèan, reaching down to pick it up again.

      Tarrin heard something behind, something that made him turn to look.  A massive Wikuni frigate had moved in behind the galleon, cutting off any attempt for it to escape.

      It was a trap!

      He wasn't the only one to notice.  Sudden shouting erupted all around him, frightened screams from the performers, shouts of alarm from Faalken and Binter.  To his left, Tarrin saw armored Wikuni pouring out of the clipper beside them, and more of them flooding out from the doorways of the warehouses in front of them.  They were all armed with swords and those strange projectile weapons that Keritanima called muskets, firearms that shot small metal balls with the powerful force of gunpowder providing the power to make them deadly.  They took a long time to reload, giving each Wikuni only one shot, but there were twice as many Wikuni as there were carnival performers.  Enough to kill them twice over.

      He didn't know if they were going to fight.  He had to get back to Dolanna, get someone to tell him what they were going to do.  He could see Keritanima ahead of him with the other dancers, screaming, pointing at him frantically, then motioning back towards the Wikuni clipper.  He glanced over in time to see a line of Wikuni along the rail, holding muskets.  Except for a handful, which were armed with crossbows.  And they were all pointed at him and the other performers on the dock.

      Keritanima!  She was out in front, and she was unprotected!  Binter and Sisska were already scrambling forward, weapons in hand, moving to interpose themselves between the Princess and the Wikuni Marines rushing at her from the front.  But Tarrin was closer.  Changing form in midstride, Tarrin vaulted over a few people, charging ahead, then skidding to a stop in front of her, claws out, challenging the advancing Wikuni to try to get to her through him.

      They had made a good trap, Tarrin thought grimly.  Letting them dock in the corner, where the wall and the sea cut off any escape routes, and hiding a hundred men on the ship beside theirs and in the warehouses in front to cut off the other two escape routes.  They were surrounded, and the only way out was to fight against superior numbers.  It would be ten to one, because Tarrin didn't expect any of the performers to put up resistance.  This wasn't their fight, and he didn't blame for it.

      "Kerri, get out of here!" Tarrin snapped, laying his ears back and giving the Wikuni in front of him a murderous look.  "Get back to Binter!  Go!"  He half-turned towards her, motioning at her to run--

      --and then something struck him in the chest solidly.  And then there was nothing but darkness.

 

      Keritanima stared for a moment in dumb shock, then she gave out a strangled cry.

      Tarrin was splayed out on the ground, with a crossbow quarrel sticking out of his chest, which twitched sickeningly with every beat of his heart.  And he wasn't moving.

      Kneeling, mindless of the pool of blood forming around his chest, staining her fur, Keritanima put her hands on his chest and realized that he wasn't breathing.  He wasn't breathing!  The quarrel shouldn't have hurt him!  She'd seen him take worse injuries and not even flinch!

      In a panic, Keritanima grabbed the quarrel and yanked it out violently, feeling his body jump, hearing him take in a ragged, shallow breath, staring at the bloody head in horror.

      It was silver.

      "No!" she said in strangled tone, putting both hands down to stop that flow of red from his chest.  "No! Don't you die on me, Tarrin Kael!  I won't let you!" she screamed hysterically, touching the Weave.  Powerful healing energies welled up in her, and she sent them into him quickly, carefully.  But the truth became clear to her after only the briefest assensing of him.  The silver had wounded him horrifically, had struck as close to his heart as it could without piercing it, and his body wouldn't survive the stress that healing would place on it, even if she had the time and the power to try.

      Tarrin was going to die.

      She was only dimly aware of Binter and Sisska, of Azakar, surrounding her and Miranda with weapons drawn, holding off a large formation of Marines.  Tears streaming from her eyes, she concentrated all her energy on Tarrin, trying to heal him despite the fact that his body couldn't withstand it, desperate to do anything to try and save her brother.

      And found that the wound resisted any attempt to heal it.  She remembered numbly the stitches in Tarrin's arm.  Dolanna hadn't healed it, because she couldn't.

      Silver was bane to Were-creatures, and the wounds it inflicted couldn't be healed by magic.

      "No!" she wailed.  "You bastards!" she shrieked in rage, jumping up and running at the officer in charge of the Wikuni Marines, hands flaming with fire, fully intent to kill the lot of them.  But Azakar grabbed her around the middle and pulled her back, standing resolute as flaming hands burned him every time she grabbed at his wrist.

      "Your father wants a word with you, Princess Keritanima," the officer said bluntly.  "Surrender, or we kill everyone on the ship."

      Keritanima glared at the raccoon Wikuni, her lips passing horrible promises and curses.  "Why?" she finally managed to scream.  "Why did you shoot him!?"

      "Because we were fully aware of how dangerous he was," the officer said calmly.  "Any attempt to recover you meant that he had to be, removed."

      "I'll show you dangerous!" she screamed, raising her hands.  A vicious blast of fire erupted from her hands, and it hit the Wikuni officer dead in the chest.  The Wikuni managed to scream only once before he was reduced to a smoldering pile of melted steel and ash.

      "This is not the time, Kerri!" Azakar said, squeezing her around the middle.  "If you start killing them, they will start killing us!"

      "They killed Tarrin!" she screamed.  "They killed my brother!"

      "And you're going to lose your sister if you don't stop!" he said in a powerful voice.  "Look around you!  They have us surrounded, and Tarrin wouldn't approve if you got everyone else killed!"

      Keritanima looked around.  There was Allia, a murderous look in her eyes, but her head was tipped back with a dagger point held to her throat.  Dolanna was laying on the wharf, and Keritanima didn't know if she was dead or unconscious.  Dar had a bear Wikuni holding him in a powerful grip, a claw at his throat, and Faalken had his hands raised with muskets pointed at him, looking at Dolanna in clear worry and concern.

      "Bring them, quickly!" someone shouted from the ship.  Wikuni started jabbing at Keritanima and those around her with the bayonets fixed to the barrels of their muskets.  They were herded, Azakar still carrying Keritanima, to the gangplank of the ship, where what looked to be an Admiral or other very high-ranking officer stood at the top.  He was a leopard Wikuni, with spots over each of his yellow eyes and a scar running on the right side of his muzzle, the scarline devoid of fur.  "Come quietly, and we leave those behind alive," he said in a strong voice.  "Resist us, and we'll leave them all like your friend over there, but either way, you will be coming with us.  Even if we have to drag you back in chains."

      Keritanima glared her rage at the officer, but she remained silent.  Rage had overtaken grief, but she kept enough control of herself to know that it was not the time to fight back.  The lives of everyone else depended on her good behavior.  "Alright, but I promise you this," she said in a hissing voice.  "You will pay for killing my brother.  I swear it on Kikalli's spear."

      "Then blame Jander," the man said, staring right at her.  "He's the one who told us where you were, where you were going, and how to deal with the Were-cat so he couldn't destroy us before we could get control of you."

      "Jander!" Miranda gasped.  "Jander sold us out?"