Tarrin Kael

Firestaff Collection

Book Three

Honor and Blood©

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    30    31    32    33    34    35    36    37    Epilogue   

End of Honor and Blood

 

 

 

 


To:   Title                     EoF

Chapter 1

 

      The morning air was cold, crisp, something that seemed unnatural for being just a few days past midsummer.  The dry air, devoid of moisture, would lose the fiery heat of the day very quickly after sundown, plunging the dry savannah into surprisingly cool temperatures.  The sun was a dim reddish disc on the horizon, calling the creatures of the day to awaken and begin their daily search for food and water, their daily watches for danger, their daily inspections of their territories.  It also called to the nightdwellers as well, a call that their night of searching for food, of stalking, was complete, and that they had earned their rest.  It was the changing of the guard, the transfer of ownership of the arid steppes from one class of creature to another, it was a cycle that had taken place countless times in the past, and would continue countless times in the future.  The first stirrings of the wind, which blew as the air heated during the morning and again as it cooled after sundown, had begun to unsettle the widely spaced raintrees and other exotic flora of this strange land, causing stirring herd animals to shiver as the sun's warmth began to heat the cold air, causing small burrowing creatures to retreat into the warm safety of their dens.  The huge herd animals, large, shaggy brown beasts with large horns, had started to move again, along with the white-and-black striped horse-like animals that tended to group with them, beginning to search for water.

      But not every animal belonged to this ecosystem of great beasts.  Sitting on a small, dead log was an animal that looked as if it belonged in a woman's boudoire than on the massive savannahs of Yar Arak.  It was a cat, a large black cat, wearing a simple collar of black metal.  The log was on a gentle rise, the closest thing approaching high ground in the flat terrain, and the small animal was surveying the movements of the great herd animals with mild curiosity.  The cat blinked slowly, turning its head to look at a pride of great cats, lions, as they began to settle down in an area of high grass, done with their night's hunting.  Predator and prey shared this great land, supporting one another and forming the web of interdependence that made life possible.  The singular cat understood this, deep in its soul, for it was indeed a part of the great cycle that existed here.

      Only in different ways.

      The cat was no normal animal.  It wasn't even a true animal.  It was a Lycanthrope, a Were-beast, a being that was both human and infused with the essence of a specific animal.  Part man, part animal, these unique beings existed in both worlds, living on the narrow ground that existed between human civilization and the great engine of nature.  Within the small cat was the instinctual knowledge and impulses of his animal kind, as well as a human intelligence and comprehension.  Unlike the animals around him, the small cat had more on his mind than food, water, and safety.  He had a great many things on his mind, and very few of them were pleasant.

      His name was Tarrin, and he was a Were-cat.  He had not always been so, however.  He had been born human, raised on a small frontier village called Aldreth, in a faraway land called Sulasia.  Misfortune had brought the Cat inside him, had changed him into what he was, what seemed like an eternity ago, though it had only been a little under a year.  In that year he had undergone many changes, more than simply his exterior appearance.  What had been a carefree, curious, good-natured young man had turned dark, suspicious, even a little sadistic.  Repeated betrayals and pressure from those around him had caused him to turn feral, to reject contact from strangers and outsiders, and it had become second nature to him to react with violence to things that he did not like or understand.  But that too was a part of him, a part that he accepted stoically.  Though he did things that occasionally haunted him, what he was had saved his life more than once.

      And he needed that now.  At that moment, he was the most sought-after being on the face of the planet.  Carried with him in a magical elsewhere created by the magical collar around his neck was an ancient artifact called the Book of Ages, an artifact he had stolen from the Empress of this vast kingdom, who was herself inhuman.  Within the pages of the Book of Ages, he had learned, lurked the location of an artifact known as the Firestaff, a legendary device that, when held at a certain time, would grant the holder the power of a god.  That artifact was what he was after, at the behest of the Goddess of the Weave, his goddess, to gain ownership of that artifact and prevent it from being used by anyone.  It was the most important thing in the world.  If someone got the Firestaff and used it to become a god, the other gods would be forced to rise up and destroy the interloper, and that would create devastation on the face of Sennadar not seen since the cataclysmic Blood War.

      But there were motivations, and there were motivations.  Tarrin did not care about the world.  He didn't care about the people who lived within it, he didn't care whether they suffered or not.  Being Were, and  being feral, had changed his outlook on things, had altered the value he placed on the lives of unknown people.  He did not care about the world that did not exist within his territory.  What he was doing was being done because the Goddess had told him to do it, not because he felt any noble need to protect humanity.  It was being done because she told him to do it, it was being done because there was a little girl in Suld named Janette, a beautiful little girl who had saved him from madness, who was depending on him to protect the world that would be hers when she grew up.  Tarrin did not care about the world, but he did care about Janette.  Janette's life depended on this world, and that made it Janette's world in his eyes.  That Janette's world would be the world he saved was nothing but fortunate coincidence.  The world meant nothing to him, unless its importance was attached to someone for whom he cared.

      In this he was a somewhat unwilling player, and what was behind him made him all that much more unhappy.  He turned to look at them, on the horizon.  Hundreds of individual campsites, each of which held at least one person who was chasing him.  They couldn't find him right now, because when the Book of Ages was kept in the elsewhere, it could not be located by magical means.  But as soon as he changed shape, returned to his natural form, their spells of location would work again, and they would be after him.  They were all after the book.  They all had dreams of acquiring the Firestaff and using it to gain ultimate power, unaware that that power would be the herald of their own destruction.  It fell upon him to save them from their own foolishness, whether he wanted to or not.  It was just as Shiika had said.  Every two-copper mage and apprentice in Arak was bearing down on him, for their spells could now locate the Book of Ages.  Most were behind, but he'd had encounters with some who attacked from the front, moving in from a city he had passed two days ago.  That kept him on his toes now, for there were more Arakite cities between him and the border of Saranam, and the mages within them were no doubt moving in his direction.  The Book of Ages almost seemed to be calling to them, beckoning, urging them to come to it and sample the vast knowledge locked within its ancient pages.  It was the only explanation he could think of for so many to be coming after him.

      But he preferred it that way.  He had come out here, changed into humanoid form intentionally to lure them, to protect the others.  For nine days he had moved northwest, into the heartland of this vast savannah, to draw these pursuers away from his sister and his friends.  If anything happened to them, the stress may make him go insane.  Allia was his sister, but by bonds of powerful love and friendship rather than blood.  She was Selani, a race of tall, lithe beings that dwelled in the Desert of Swirling Sands, a race of peoples who lived and died by a code of honor and proper behavior.  She and him had been together since she had arrived at the Tower, and the time there had forged between them a deep love that could not be broken.  Tarrin loved his sister in a way that nearly defied rational explanation.  It wasn't a romantic love, it was a deep, boundless love that he had always felt towards his family.  Allia was family to him, his sister, and he was so serious about their ties that he had allowed her to brand his shoulders in the Selani rite of adulthood, just so she could feel more like he was a part of her life.  They had been separated from him, and his heart yearned for them every moment he had time to think.  But it was necessary.  If he were with them, aboard the circus ship Dancer, they would be in extreme danger.  He wouldn't risk that.  He had already lost one of his precious friends, Faalken, killed by a powerful undead being called a Doomwalker, who was sent by an organization called the ki'zadun to find and destroy him.  He would not lose another friend to death.  He had vowed it.  On the land, where he had command of his own speed and direction, he was more than a match for any pursuer.  His inhuman endurance allowed him to outpace a horse.  He couldn't outsprint one, but over distance he could run a horse to death.  He probably had run a few to death, since his pursuers had managed to keep up with him.  But they'd be gone soon enough.  For nine days he had led them away from Dala Yar Arak at a pace intentionally slower than what he could comfortably maintain, had kept the attention of absolutely everyone who had any interest in the Book of Ages, had kept them following him rather than attempt to kidnap his friends to secure his cooperation.  He would move at his slower pace for one more day, giving his sister and friends a ten-day head start, and then he would simply disappear from them.  He would not shift into humanoid form anymore, he would not bring the book out to where they could use their magic to find it.  And then he would simply slink away, leaving them running in circles to find him.

      It was a very simple plan, simple yet very effective.  Or so he hoped.  Sarraya had thought that one up.  The little Faerie, who had lost her wings in the vicious battle with the Demon who had been guarding the book, was sitting down at the base of the log, dozing a bit before another day of being carried along on his head.  She was the only friend he had now, the only one he could talk to.  She was irreverant, combative, a bit surly because she couldn't fly until her wings grew back, but he could understand her irritation.  When not fuming over not being able to fly, she kept him distracted, entertained, with wild stories and crass humor.  Faeries were punsters, pranksters, flighty and impulsive, with a bent for humor and self-gratification.  But she had managed to subvert her own impulses around him, mainly because he wouldn't tolerate being the butt of her practical jokes.  She had learned that lesson the hard way, a long time ago.  A very hard lesson.  He looked down at her.  The gossamer haltar and skirt she wore were dirty and bedraggled, not a little torn, but her bluish skin was clean and shiny, and her reddish auburn hair was clean and neat.  She had healed herself of her broken bones with her considerable Druidic magic, but for some strange reason she couldn't cause her wings to regrow.  He had offered to heal her with Sorcery, but she had refused.  She had told him that her wings had to regrow naturally, that it was important to her health and her ability to use her innate magical abilities.  He didn't understand that response, but he would abide by her wishes.  She wasn't that heavy, even when she had to ride him like a horse when he was in cat form.

      The nine days had replenished him as well.  The activity had been good for him, and he felt fully restored after the vicious battle against the huge Demon that had been guarding the book.  It had been a momentous thing for him, for he had learned great things that day.  Tarrin was a Sorcerer, a being that had a natural connection to the matrix of magical energy that surrounded the world, a matrix known as the Weave.  Tarrin was more than an ordinary Sorcerer, however.  He was called a Weavespinner, a being who had the ability to call upon the might of High Sorcery alone, a being who could directly affect the Weave itself, something that a normal Sorcerer could not do without being linked together to combine their powers.

      But the battle with the Demon had showed him something new, something different.  Tarrin had used a spell of Druidic magic to finally defeat the monster, something that he never knew he could do.  It was something that he thought was impossible.  It was decreed by the Allmother, the Elder Goddess Ayise, ruler of the gods, that no mortal would be permitted to wield more than one order of magical power.  But Tarrin had used two.  The Goddess had explained to him that it was because he was not mortal that this was allowed to be.  Tarrin--all Were-cats, for that matter--were blessed with the ability to regenerate any wound not inflicted by magic, silver, or raw natural forces or unworked weapons of nature.  Aging did not seem to fall into any of those categories, so a Were-cat's body regenerated the effects of aging, rendering them virtually immortal.  A Were-cat lived until something killed it.  That made Tarrin more than mortal, something other than natural, and it allowed him to transcend that limitation and gain the ability to use more than one type of magic.

      He hadn't told Sarraya yet.  He didn't quite know how to broach the subject with her.  Sarraya was a Druid, a very powerful Druid, and she could teach him how to use Druidic magic.  But he wasn't quite ready to ask her yet, not until she got her wings back and wasn't quite so cross all the time.

      The Demon worried him a little bit, for that fight reminded him of Shiika, the Demoness who actually ruled Yar Arak.  She had been conspicuously absent after he killed the mortal Emperor she used to rule her empire, and levelled a good deal of the gladitorial stadium where he had caught up with her.  She had kidnapped his friends, annoyed him, made him very mad, so he had retaliated on a very grand scale, disrupting her very government by assassinating the Emperor she controlled.  The invasion of her Palace to claim the book from her still confused him.  He had buried her in rubble, but he had been in the Palace too long.  She must have freed herself. Why didn't she come for the book?  Perhaps she feared him.  Tarrin's powerful Sorcery could cancel out her Demonic magic, and he had found a sword that could harm a Demon after she destroyed his Ironwood staff.  Only objects not of this world could injure Demons, and the staff and sword were both otherworldly in nature.  But that wasn't like Shiika.  The Demoness never had to challenge him to simply take the book and hide it from him.  Now that he'd had time to calm down, he had to admit to himself that in a strange way, he liked the Demoness.  She really hadn't been that serious about killing him.  She did attempt to warn him off first, only trying to kill him after he ignored her warnings.  And though she had kidnapped his friends to gain his cooperation, she did release them without being forced to do so.  That told him that there was more to Shiika than he had first seen.  A great deal more.

      Tarrin's Were-cat mind wasn't like human minds.  What Shiika did in the past didn't hold as much water for him as it would for a human.  Tarrin did not hold grudges.  What was past was past.  He'd tried to kill his own friends and family before, and he meant it at the time.  But after he calmed down, it was as if it had never happened.  It was the nature of Were-cats to be that way.  Their fiery, unpredictable, and aggressively violent natures had earned them the distrust and scorn of the rest of the forest-dwelling beings, a loose society known as Fae-da'Nar, but that too didn't really bother the Were-cats very much.  They did as they did, and they made no excuses for it.  It was who they were.  Shiika's harms against him were balanced by her acts of contrition, not challenging him over the book, releasing his friends, so it gave her a clean slate in his mind.  If he met her again, she would neither be friend nor enemy.

      Not that he would trust her.  Tarrin's feral nature did not allow him to trust strangers.  He could barely tolerate being around them.  But trusting a Demoness would be insanity, even if he lacked that distrustful nature.

      He looked to the sunrise.  He was going the other way, to the west, a very long journey before him.  He had to return to the Tower of Sorcery, the base of power for the organization of Sorcerers known as the katzh-dashi.  The Goddess herself had told him to go there, because the information in the book was useless unless the book was in the Tower.  He had not opened the book yet--he had no intention of opening it until he was in Suld--so he had no idea exactly why he had to go to Suld.  But he would not disobey his goddess, no matter how nonsensical her instructions were.  She told him to go to Suld, so he was going to Suld.  She also told him not to get on a ship, and he would not get on a ship.  That meant that he had to travel across the entire continent on foot, would have to traverse the arid savannahs of Yar Arak, the dusty plains of Saranam, he would have to cross the Desert of Swirling Sands and climb the Sandshield Mountains, he would even have to travel across Arkisia and the Frontier to return to Sulasia, but that was the way things were.

      It would be a very long journey, but it was a journey he would undertake willingly.  He would do anything the Goddess asked him to do.  If she told him to jump into a bonfire, he would do it.  He was a faithful child of the Goddess, and he would do her bidding.  Not because he feared her or revered her, but because he loved her.  His relationship with the Goddess was much more than goddess and mortal.  It was personal, even loving, for she often directly spoke to him to give him instructions, grant him her wisdom, or nurture him in times of despair or confusion.  Her interest in him, her gentle aid, her love, her devotion to him had sealed him to her, had caused him to give her something that he would never give to another.

      His undying loyalty.

      He was her faithful child, and he would do as Mother asked, no matter what it cost him.

      It had become much stronger than it had been only days ago.  The trials of finding the Book of Ages had awakened his faith, had cemented it within him stronger than it had ever been before, had blessed him with a strange contentment and happiness he had never known before.  It was the contentment only a follower could feel when touched by the love of his goddess.  He could still feel it there, a strange connection to the Goddess that never seemed to go away, like a ghostly finger that reached down from the heavens and pointed into his soul.  But he welcomed it.

      Blinking, he looked down at Sarraya again.  It was nearly time for them to go.  One more day of moving at a pace just enough to kill their horses.  He had found that it was quite an art to run a horse to death.  He couldn't leave them in the dust, because it would discourage their riders.  On the other hand, he couldn't let them get close enough for those riders to throw magical spells at him.  So he had found that keeping them about ten minutes behind him, where he was more than well in sight yet beyond the range of any of the magical spells, was the most effective.  Being able to see him spurred them on, caused them to push their mounts past the point of exhaustion, literally running them into the ground.  He never looked back once he found his pace, unless the sound they made changed in some way to make him check, so he wasn't sure exactly how many horses had died in a vain attempt to catch up to him.

      Now that this phase of his plan was nearly over, he began to consider the next.  It would be daunting, surely.  He would have to travel from the middle of Yar Arak to the other side of Saranam, a distance of at least five hundred leagues, in cat form.  And his cat form was not large.  It would take him months to do it, but he had no real choice in the matter.  Those chasing him would certainly realize that he was fleeing back towards the West, and would overtake him in his slower form and try to catch him as he went through.  But most of them probably had no idea how stealthy a black cat could be in the middle of the night.  Tarrin had no intention of moving around during the day.  He was a creature of the night, more at home under the Skybands and the four moons than under the sun, and in the darkness he would have an overwhelming advantage over his pursuers.  The only reason he was running during the day was to ensure that they kept chasing him, that they didn't turn and try to go after his sister and his friends.

      Some were safer than others.  Tarrin still desperately missed Keritanima, and Miranda and the Vendari and Azakar.  They were his friends, but Keritanima was more than that.  She was like Allia, a sister in all but blood, the third of the tightly knit trinity of non-humans that had fled from the Tower of Sorcery so long ago.  Keritanima was Wikuni, one of the animal-people from across the sea, and she was a princess.  She had tried to flee from her duty, but her father had chased her down and captured her.  The Wikuni soldiers that had carried out the abduction had nearly killed him, shooting him with a silver-tipped arrow to prevent him from protecting Keritanima when they abducted her.  That was why she was so angry.  Keritanima was brilliant, highly intelligent and cunning, but she had grown up alone, fearing her own family.  Tarrin and Allia were her new family, the only family she trusted, so much so that she too had been branded in the Selani rite of adulthood, just so she could belong.  Belong in a way that she had never belonged among her conniving, murderous family, a family where her father and two sisters had repeatedly tried to have her murdered.  Her father, because he thought that she wasn't fit to rule, and her sisters just to get another obstacle between them and the throne out of the way.  Her father's misjudgment of her had been intentional.  Keritanima had used an alter-ego she affectionately called the Brat, acting like an empty-headed, vapid, spoiled brat to cause people to seriously underestimate her intelligence and skill at intrigue, a facade that had been so overwhelmingly successful that nobody realized that Keritanima was smart or experienced at playing politics.  It had been a ruse that protected her, but in its own ways it had also haunted her.  Tarrin had the feeling that her deception was part of the reason her father had been so vehement at bringing her back, rather than simply let her go and promote her next-oldest sister to the position of heir apparent.  And Keritanima probably would have been very happy about it.  But her father had erred badly when he ordered Tarrin killed to keep him from attacking anyone trying to take her.  That had been the last straw for Keritanima concerning her family.  So she had gone back to Wikuna to teach her father a lesson.  Tarrin knew that that lesson involved murdering him somewhere down the line, and when that happened, the Sun Throne of Wikuna would fall to her.  She was the crown princess, after all.  They had been separated from him nearly two months ago, and he had no idea how they were doing.  The amulet he wore would allow him to talk to his Wikuni sister any time he wanted, but part of him was afraid that his voice would interrupt her at a very bad time.  She was probably right now either plotting the death of her father or carrying it out, knowing her.  He had full faith in her, that she would be sitting on the throne of Wikuna before fall.  But until she contacted him, the only way he would know it was safe for her, he would be left guessing.

      He would see them again, he was sure of it.  Keritanima and Miranda, her maid, a cheeky beauty of a mink Wikuni who held a rather special place in Tarrin's heart.  Azakar, the monstrous Mahuut Knight, and Binter and Sisska, the quiet, ever-vigilant Vendari bodyguards that protected Keritanima and her maid at all times.  He wanted to talk to Keritanima, to see them again, but he had to wait.  Keritanima's safety depended on it, and she didn't seem all that interested in talking to him or Allia.  Perhaps what she was doing was too important, too time-consuming for her to spare the time.  He certainly hoped so.  He knew that she wouldn't forget about them.  Keritanima was his sister, and he knew her nearly as well as she knew herself.  The ties that bound the three of them together were too powerful for such a paltry thing as a few thousand leagues to get in the way of their relationship.

      Keritanima was family.  Allia was family.

      Tarrin seemed to have a great many families.  He had his own natural family, Eron and Elke Kael and his sister Jenna, who were in Ungardt right now to keep themselves out of the chaos going on in Sulasia.  Something he was very relieved that they had done.  He also had his sisters, Keritanima and Allia, who were all but accepted as sisters by his parents and natural sister.  They had never met Keritanima, but his parents had met Allia, had come to know her and love her, and who was welcomed at the Kael hearth at any time.  Being bound to Allia, that made them part of her clan, though he had never met any other Selani.  The fact that he was brother to a Selani and had to cross Selani lands would not help him.  He would only be welcomed by Allia's clan, and only if Allia were with him to introduce him.  The Selani would treat him as an enemy, whether he had the brands or not, and that was something for which he was prepared.  He also had his Were-cat bond-mother, Triana, who served as his mother and protector among the Were-cat society, and whom he also loved.  She was much like his natural mother, direct and outspoken, and he loved her just as much as he did Elke Kael.  Though Triana was his mother, her daughters were of no relation to him.

      That fact made him somewhat relieved.  Jesmind, Triana's daughter, was the one that had turned him Were.  They had had a very stormy relationship, full of both love and hate, and for some reason he could never forget her.  When he thought of a female, he thought of Jesmind almost every time.  Tarrin had very complicated feelings for the fiery-haired Were-cat, running from fascination and intense attraction to furious hatred.  He had been attracted to her from the first time they met, but actions both of them undertook caused them to be enemies.  That was when he hated Jesmind, and thinking about the times she tried to kill him still made his blood burn a little bit.  He figured he felt that way because of the way he felt about her.  Tarrin was still attracted to Jesmind, intensely so, and her turning on him had been a violation of his feelings all the way to the core.  Even now, he yearned to see her again, though he wasn't sure if he'd kiss her or try to strangle her if they met face to face.  The fiery intensity of their feelings for one another had caused more than a few rather complicated situations during their brief yet tumultuous time together.  She had tried to kill him more than once, but she had also seduced him on two separate occasions.  She was very forward with her feelings, and hadn't held anything back from him.  Jesmind was just as attracted to him as he was to her, and despite the rocks they had stumbled over, they had parted more or less on amicable terms.  Jesmind had had to leave, though she wouldn't tell him why.  He knew that whatever it was, it had to be important for her to abandon him.  At that time, she had taken responsibility for his learning to be a Were-cat and his well-being, and Jesmind was never one to shirk a responsibility.  If it had been serious enough for her to leave him, then he was satisfied that her reasons were good enough.  He had been a little mad at her for leaving him alone, though.  Even when they hated each other, her proximity had given him a very strange feeling of security.  She had been his bond-mother at that time, and it was like the child within was responding to the presence of mother, even though he had hated her.  That part of him took comfort that she would be close to him, and he hadn't appreciated how much it helped soothe him until after she was gone.

      Jesmind had managed to capture his interest, even now, but thinking of her made him give a moment of thought to Mist.  Mist was another Were-cat, a Were-cat whose feral nature was so severe that she wouldn't even trust her own kind.  Her mental state had come about because she had been wounded long ago, wounded in a way that made her barren, and her inability to have a child of her own had hardened her to the rest of the world.  Were-cats were beings grounded in instinct, and in the females of their kind there was no instinct more powerful than the instinct to reproduce and care for the young.  The denial of that most primal of instincts had probably been one of the reasons she was so intensely feral, being denied the one thing she felt she was born to do, taken away from her by the hatred and anger of humans.  But Tarrin had healed her of her barren condition, an act of impulsive compassion, an act that had caused the feral Were-cat to reach out to him and place her trust in him, the first time in centuries she had placed her trust in another.  Tarrin had felt so sorry for her.  She had been so tortured inside.  He had such compassion for her that he had agreed to father a child for her, her own child, the one thing that would make her life complete.  His human morality had been a bit outraged at the idea, it still was, but even it could not deny the lonely Were-cat the one thing in this world she had wanted above all others.

      Were-cat males didn't have a hand in the raising of the young.  After making her pregnant, she had left him, left him to return to her home to prepare for the coming of her child.  Tarrin hoped that she was well, and that the child would bring everything she hoped it would bring.  After all she had suffered through, she needed some happiness in her life.  Mist trusted him, something he was very proud about, something that he appreciated for its great value.  He hoped she was well.

      The sun was nearly fully above the horizon.  Sarraya groaned slightly and stretched her arms, then sat up and yawned languidly.  When she did so, he could see her bare back, a back that looked unusual with no diaphonous, multicolored wings attached to them.  She had two small ridges on each side of her spine, where her wings attached so they wouldn't hit her back when they fluttered, and the slits where her wings had been were still raw, open wounds.  He worried about them getting infected, but she had blown off his concern with that same careless frivolity that she used for anything that didn't interest her.  She turned and looked up at him quietly, then her tiny, pretty face broke into a bright smile.  Amber eyes gazed up at him, glowing in the morning sun, and he returned her gaze calmly.

      "Tarrin," she hummed.  "You should have woke me up.  It's already past sunrise."

      "You needed to rest," he answered in the unspoken manner of the Cat, a language of silent intent that all felines used to communicate with one another, a language that the Faerie could understand.  "They needed to rest as well."

      "Who?"

      "Them," he answered, nodding his head towards the southeast.  "They can't keep up if their horses start dying ten minutes after they start moving."

      Sarraya laughed in her piping, very high-pitched voice, a voice created by the fact that she was only about a span tall.  The sprite could squeak like a mouse if she wished to do so, her voice capable of reaching such high tones that no human or creature human sized could manage to find.  "You're certainly caring today," she grinned.  "I didn't know you cared about them."

      "Not them.  I do feel a bit sorry for their horses, though."

      Sarraya laughed again, standing up.  "Well, let me conjure up something to eat, and then we can move.  You hungry?"

      He shook his head.  "I caught a couple of mice before dawn."

      The hunting had calmed him.  In cat form, the instincts dominated him, and so he found absolutely nothing wrong with stalking, killing, and eating mice and other prey suitable for a cat, or doing any of the other little things that cats did.  He had a particular fondness for squirrel, though none lived in the savannahs of Yar Arak.  The rhythmic ritual of hunting had caused him to concentrate on it, to distract himself from his worries, and it had made him feel better.

      And those strange long-tailed mice were rather tasty.

      He watched absently as Sarraya conjured forth a few large blackberries, which seemed to be her favorite.  She rarely used her Druidic magic, and because of that, he only understood a few of the things that it could do.  He had seen her Conjure many times, to cause to appear small objects and materials, seemingly from thin air.  Related to that was Summoning, the apperance of a specific object by bringing it magically to the Druid's hand.  That had been what he had used against the Demon in their battle, Summoning his dropped sword to his paw after the Demon had grabbed him and was threatening to crush him.  He had seen her heal, a curious healing that was affected by magically accelerating the subject's own healing mechanisms.  Aside from those and the fact that Druidic power had a controlling influence on the Weave and Sorcery, he had never seen her do anything else.  He knew that she could use Druidic magic to send messages to other Druids, who were distant from her, and Triana somehow used her Druidic magic to cross an entire continent in the span of a day.

      He wondered how Triana was doing.  She was with his friends now, taking care of Jula.  Jula had been his enemy, a human female Sorceress who had been secretly working for the ki'zadun.  She had betrayed him, locked a magical collar around his neck to enslave his will.  He had escaped, and in retaliation, had ripped out a section of her spine and left her to bleed to death.  But she had managed to procure a vial of his blood, and used it to escape death, to drink it and become a Were-cat herself.  But unlike him, she could not control the beast within, and it had driven her mad.  The ki'zadun had sent her to Dala Yar Arak, a mindless, rampaging beast, to have her wreak havoc and cause the populace to turn against him and slow him down as he searched for the Book of Ages.  He could have killed her, but he didn't.  He had had something of a moral epiphany, looking down at her filthy, naked body, and had found it in himself to pity her.  He took her for his own daughter instead of killing her, separating her instincts from her conscious mind with Sorcery, giving her a second chance.  She had been loyal to him after that, because she understood that her only hope of finding balance within herself was to listen to him.  He'd only had her for a few days, before all the insanity with Shiika had turned everything on its head.  But even in that short time, he'd seen marked progress.  Triana had come to complete her training, and he felt more than confident that his aged, wise bond-mother could be as successful with Jula as she had been with him.  Not that Jula would like it very much.  Triana didn't know Jula, and she knew that Jula had once betrayed him.  Triana could be a bit rough with people she didn't like, but he wasn't afraid that Triana would just give up on his bond-daughter.  She would do her best to help Jula find her inner peace, to keep her from going insane again.  He knew his bond-mother, knew her well.

      He hadn't felt anything from Jula's bond for a few days now.  When he decided to take her for his own child, he had taken her bond, a mystical connection to her brought about by taking her blood.  It was something that all Were-cats could do, probably an extension of their affinity for Druidic magic, and he used it to gauge Jula's mental state and her general location.  He could feel it when she experienced powerful emotion or physical pain, something that hadn't happened for a few days.  He had known when Jula had met Triana for the first time, judging by the panic that roared through her.  She had felt several other episodes of powerful emotion since then, but nothing that compared to that first tidal wave of fear.

      Tarrin's feelings for Jula were rather complex.  He still didn't like her very much, but his parental duty to her overrode his distaste.  She had proved herself to him during those short days, by fighting with him against Shiika's minions, by doing as she was told with no argument.  His dislike for her had eased during those days, but his dislike was overshadowed by his powerful, instinctual impulse to protect who he considered to be his own offspring.  Jula was his daughter by choice and by bond, and he had a responsibility to her that superseded his own personal feelings.  Even among the males, who had little to do with the raising of a child, the instinct to protect the young was powerful, nearly overwhelming.  Shiika had come to discover just how far Tarrin would go to protect his child, a lesson that had cost her a few thousand of her Arakite citizens and more than a few buildings.  Were-cats were deeply based in their instincts, and the rages that could be spawned when those instincts were excited or outraged could be extreme.

      He felt...incomplete.  Now he knew how Jesmind felt when he had run away from her, a feeling that made what she did afterward much more lucid to him.  He had a daughter out there, a daughter that was not ready to be on her own, and he could not be there to teach her, to guide her, to protect her.  It was infuriating, something that ate at him every time he thought about it.  He trusted Triana to continue where he left off, but it wasn't the same.  He'd be almost insane with worry if Triana wasn't there, and would probably have abandoned what he was doing to seek her out and reclaim her.  That was how powerful the instinct to protect her was within him.  It would be worse if he felt constant negative feelings through her bond, but the lack of those bad feelings allowed him to more faithfully lay his trust in Triana.

      Sarraya finished her breakfast of berries, then stood up and tugged at her dirty skirt.  Both of them looked like they were in desperate need of a bath, and Sarraya's clothes were starting to tear in places that would compromise her modesty.  Not that he cared very much.  The concept of nudity was a very loose one among Were-cats, who weren't all that impressed by the gratuitous display of things humans preferred to conceal.  That change in him from human to Were had been a bit confusing at first, but he had completely shed his human conceptions about it very quickly.

      "Looks like they're getting ready to move," Sarraya said, shading her eyes against the morning sun and looking back to where their pursuers were arrayed.  "Some of them are moving, coming this way at a walk."

      "They're waiting for me to reveal myself to their magic," Tarrin replied sedately.  Some of them had mounted up and were slowly moving forward.  They knew that Tarrin was somewhere ahead of them, and they were trying to get closer to run him down before their mounts tired.  They just didn't realize that Tarrin had kept moving after changing into cat form, nearly half the night, to put them several longspans behind.  He doubted that very many of them understood the nature of their quarry.  He doubted that even a few of them knew very much about the nature of Were-cats.  If they did, they would have abandonded their vain pursuit long ago.  They simply would never catch him on open ground.  And even if some fluke did allow them to catch up to him, he would turn and attack, and that was something that they would not surive.  A Were-cat was as strong as five fully grown human men, even the weakest of their kind had that kind of inhuman power, and he was blessed with the dexterity and agility of the Cat to which he was bonded.  In a fight, Tarrin was an absolute nightmare, using his Were gifts with his extensive training in myriad forms of combat to destroy any who challenged.  No single human could ever hope to defeat him, and even a large group would have to be lucky to even lay a weapon on him.  Even if they did, his Were immunity to any weapon that was not magic, silver, or a raw natural force or unworked weapon of nature would protect him from a vast majority of his pursuer's weapons.  Their only true weapon against him was magic, and the fact that Tarrin was a Sorcerer, who could control the very arteries through with their Wizard magic travelled, made their Wizard magic a mere shadow of its former might.  Against a Sorcerer, a Wizard was powerless.  Without their magic, they had no chance.  Tarrin knew that.  It didn't make him arrogant or vain, it was more of a simple acceptance of truth.  He had fought against Jesmind when he was human, so he understood how powerful a Were-cat could seem to a human in a fight, and he had himself been overwhelmed by Sarraya's Druidic magic, so he could appreciate how having one's magic taken away could turn the tide of a battle.

      He could have turned around and attacked them all, slaughtered them to prevent them from threatening his sister and friends, but he didn't want to do that.  It wasn't what Triana would do.  Triana would simply draw them off, then leave them behind.  He had been striving to be less violent lately, since he'd realized that indulging in his first violent impulses was bad for his mental condition, making him even more prone to greater violence.  He had slipped badly after Shiika had kidnapped Jula, Allia, and the others, but in retrospect he couldn't blame himself for that.  He had killed a few thousand innocent people, but Shiika had done the one thing that she should never have done.  Tarrin blamed her for those deaths, not himself.  She had provoked him in the worst possible way.  Tarrin's protective instincts over Allia and Jula were absolutely overpowering, and when they were in danger, he would react in the most direct manner to protect them, no matter how much damage it caused.

      These were no threat, really.  They couldn't catch him, and they were now too far away to harm his sister or bond-daughter.  Triana wouldn't kill them, so he wouldn't kill them either.  He would leave them be.  If they got too close to him, then he'd change his mind, but as things were right now, there was no reason to kill them.  The only ones who had died were the ones that had come at him from in front, who had ambushed or attacked him.  Those who did not challenge him would not be killed.  If they wanted to waste their time by following him, that was just fine with him.  It was one less person to threaten his family and friends.  But they were safe now, safely out to sea where only ships could reach them.  And no ship would have a reason to attack an unarmed circus ship, carrying nothing but performers and their gear.

      It seemed too little too late, sometimes.  He had changed since he had left Aldreth, changed in ways that would horrify his mother.  He had become...evil.  There was no other way to say it.  That truth was something that gnawed at his soul, but not even he could deny it anymore.  He no longer cared about the people he had started out to save.  He didn't care about their lives, their health, their dreams, their rights to survive.  He didn't care about the land or the world, he didn't care about anything anymore.  Only those things immediately before him, only those things that were so deeply implanted within him that nothing could alter them, those were the only things he cared about anymore.  He was no better than a rampaging Troll, or the calculating Kravon.  It was only the cause of the destruction they wrought that differed.  Trolls or Kravon destroyed for pleasure, or power.  Tarrin destroyed in the name of saving the world, which was itself the greatest irony.  Whatever was left of the world when he was done would probably not be very fond of him.  Tarrin had killed just as many people as Kravon during this mad quest.  He had probably killed more than Kravon.  Sometimes Tarrin wondered just who was on which side.  And just like Kravon, he didn't think twice about the lives he snuffed out.  They were things, objects, inconveniences that stood in his path to victory, and that made them worthless in his eyes.  It was ironic that all his striving to become a better person, to conquer the savagery within, had turned him even more cold-blooded.

      He was no better than Kravon.

      That truth still hurt.  He hadn't wanted to turn out this way, and he was trying to pull away from his dark nature.  But it wasn't easy.  His feral nature made showing mercy or compassion very difficult for him, for he would have to show those things to people he did not trust, and his feral nature would not permit that.  He found it nearly impossible to extend his paw to someone his instincts were screaming at him to kill.  The only strangers for which he could allow that kind of compassion were children.  And even they weren't safe from him.  He was certain that he had killed children when he destroyed half the arena in Dala Yar Arak.  Beautiful children, innocent children, whose deaths had come simply because they were in his way.

      That had been the defining moment, he realized now.  When he had turned his power on innocents, when he killed hundreds of people just to slow Shiika down, he had gone beyond the point of reclamation.  His attempts to climb out of his pit seemed ridiculous to him.  He didn't even understand why he was bothering to continue with it.  What he did...there was no absolution for it.  None.  He had placed a deep black stain on his soul with that heinous act.  And even now, he felt very little remorse.  He had an awareness that what he did was wrong, but there was no real regret.  Given the circumstances, he would do the same thing again.  To know that he should feel guilt, to know that he had done wrong, yet feel no remorse for his actions...he didn't know what word described that, but he felt that evil came pretty close to the mark.

      There was no grief.  There was no happiness, no joy, no fear, no anxiety.  There was only the mission.  That was all he had left.  He had thrown away his life, destroyed his humanity, lost dear friends, sacrificed his very soul, all of it to save a little girl named Janette.  That was all there was, now.  It was the only thing that motivated him to go on.  And she was worth his effort.  She had saved him, saved him in ways that nobody could ever understand.  He would kill a million people for her, he would die a thousand times for her.  He would do absolutely anything he had to do to protect her life, protect the world that she would grow up to inherit.  And if it meant casting away everything inside him, if it meant becoming just as ruthless, monstrous, and evil as Kravon, then so be it.

      They were getting closer.  They would have to leave soon.  He considered shapeshifting and going out to destroy them, but he dismissed the idea immediately.  It wasn't what Triana would do.

      "We have to go, Sarraya," he called calmly.

      "I was about to say the same thing," she replied.  "You ready?"

      "I'm ready," he replied emotionlessly.  With barely a thought, Tarrin shapeshifted.  The large black housecat was suddenly replaced by a towering, menacing Were-cat male, more than a head taller than a tall man, with a stony expression marring a handsome face, and green cat's eyes that would make a man shiver to stare into them.  There was no light in his eyes, only a sinister quality that would make a grown man fear.  His cat's ears atop his head shivered, and his tail lashed only once before settling behind him.  He reached down and opened his huge paw, holding it flat for the small Faerie.  She stepped up into his palm and sat down, and he carefully lifted her up and deposited her on top of his head.  He felt her burrow her legs into his hair, sitting right on top of his head and between his ears, then grab hold of his hair with both of her exceptionally tiny hands.

      Without changing expression, the towering Were-cat turned and started off towards the northwest at a ground-eating lope, letting his long legs eat up the longspans, a pace that a horse could not match for very long.  He didn't look back.  He never looked back, unless the sound he heard coming from behind him changed enough to make him curious.  He knew that the men behind him suddenly could find him again, and those that hadn't already mounted up and started moving towards him were now scrambling to do so.  Those that had already began were spurring their horses into a flat sprint, trying to use their horses' superior speed to catch up to him before they tired out.  But Tarrin wasn't all that worried.  He was more than five longspans ahead of them, and that was a distance that very few horses could run at top speed.  Once they wore out, Tarrin would pull away, and this time he would not slow down to let them keep up with him.  By then, they'd understand that the Were-cat was just leading them away, had been playing with them the entire time.

      For the entire morning and most of the midday, Tarrin ran effortlessly through the savannah heat, keeping that same pace that had caused those chasing him to fall further and further behind.  It wasn't the pace he'd kept before, a pace that allowed them to keep up.  This was a murderous pace, a relentless expansion of the ground between him and his pursuers, a pace that killed quite a few of their horses as they attempted to maintain their distance from him.  Those that understood that there was no way to catch up to him had broken off or fallen behind, saving their mounts to get them back to civilization.  But Tarrin didn't really notice it.  His eyes were forward, his mind wandering as it tended to do while he was running, allowing his body to carry through the monotonous motions of running great distances and freeing his mind to pursue other matters.  But there were few matters that caught his fancy, causing him to run in a nearly dazed state of unawareness, a sense not of past or future, a condition with which he was familiar.  It was the eternal now in which animals lived, where only now mattered.  It caused him to blink as the sun began to shine into his eyes, a sun that was now lowering into the western sky.

      Tarrin pulled up slightly, then slowly brought himself to a halt.  He had run the entire day.  Sarraya was still on his head, but the feel of it was that she was laying down, tied down by his hair, and was probably asleep.  His belly was a little empty, but it was a sudden sense of thirst that got his immediate attention.  He was rather acclimated to heat, but he had run in the brutal savannah heat the entire day without stopping, even for water.

      A grunt from between his ears heralded a shifting in his hair.  "Wow, you actually stopped!" Sarraya said acidly.  "I'm tired, hungry, thirsty, and I'm about to wet your hair, Tarrin!  Put me down!"

      "You should have asked," Tarrin said bluntly, reaching up and letting her climb into his paw, then setting her down on the grassy ground, grass nearly as tall as she.

      "I figured we needed the distance," she grunted as she wandered into the grass and disappeared from his sight.  "Are you hungry?"

      "Thirsty," he said, turning around to look towards the east.  They were all long behind him now.  They'd catch up with him, there was no doubt about that, but by the time they did he'd be well away from where they sensed him last, in cat form.  They'd never find him out in the savannahs.  If they even knew what to look for.

      A thousand longspans.  That was about how far it was to the border of the desert, and he'd have to cross almost all of it in cat form.  A journey of months.  It was a daunting proposition for a little cat, but he had little choice.  They could find him unless he was in cat form, and only within the protection of the desert could he move about freely in his humanoid form.  Only the truly rabid zealots would dare enter the desert after him, and they wouldn't get far.  Tarrin himself would face resistance from the Selani, but at least he had an edge in that regard.  Allia's teachings about the desert and his ability to speak Selani would help him get across the desert in one piece.  And if it came down to it, he could defeat Selani in combat, where no human would stand a chance against the agile, speedy desert dwellers.  But he had to get there first, and that wasn't going to be easy.

      Movement to the south got his attention.  Tarrin turned and looked in that direction, where strange dark shapes had appeared near the horizon.  Strangely enough, they were above the land, which was why he noticed them.  Large birds?  Rocs, immense hawk-like birds with a wingspan around seventy spans, were an uncommon sight around Aldreth, but they did see them from time to time.  Perhaps Yar Arak also had Rocs, but he didn't see where they would roost.  The Rocs back home nested in the jagged peaks of the Clouddancer Mountains to the north, where this land was a flat table of dry soil.

      Whatever they were, they were a very long distance away.  The wind had begun to stir, as the heat of the sun began to wane, and the air started to cool and shift, and that was creating a shimmering haze that made it hard to see the birds, so far away they were from him.

      "Want some berries?" Sarraya called as she moved back towards him.  She had a large blackberry in her tiny blue hands, already gnawing a goodly sized divot out of it.

      "No, I'm more interested in water," he said, dropping down onto all fours and closing his eyes as he breathed the air into his nose.  His nose was more than just a decoration.  Tarrin's sense of smell was just as acute as a cat's, giving him the ability to track by scent, to identify people and objects by their scents, and to detect distant things by their scent as well.  The faint smell of water was reaching him, very faint, coming from upwind.  His tail slashing behind him a few times, he deduced that the water was a good longspan distant, but that it was a sizable pool.  "I can smell some nearby," he told the Faerie, rising back up to his considerable, intimidating height.  The Faerie barely crested the top of his furred ankle.

      "Sounds like a plan to me," she said, looking at his leg.  "Tarrin, you're fetting."

      "I'm what?"

      She pointed to his ankle, where long hair had appeared around the backs of his ankles.  "Fetlocks," she replied.  "Strange."

      "What are fetlocks?" Tarrin asked, looking down.  He'd never noticed that before.  And Tarrin was usually keenly aware of his own body.

      "Fetlocks.  Shaggy tufts of fur around the ankles.  Some horses have them," Sarraya told him.  "Were-cats fet too, but the fetlocks are small, only the males fet, and only the very old ones.  It's a Were-cat male's form of growing a beard, it's a sign of age.  That's why it's so strange to see them.  You shouldn't be fetting for another five hundred years."

      "I'm a changeling, Sarraya.  Maybe that affects it."

      "You have a point there," she agreed.  "The only male changelings I've ever seen didn't live long enough to find out."  She looked up at him critically.  "I need my wings."

      "Why?"

      "Tarrin," she said carefully.  "Do I look, smaller, to you?"

      Tarrin was taken a bit aback by her question.  What a silly thing to say!  But then again, looking down at her, he almost had to say yes to her question.  She did seem to be a little smaller.  "I think you do," he said after a moment of reflection.

      "Bizarre," she said, reaching out and putting her hand on his ankle.  He felt her do something with her Druidic magic.  "Tarrin, you're growing!"

      "What?"

      "You're growing!" she replied.  "You've been growing at an accelerated rate for a while now, but I didn't notice it!  Has something unusual happened to you lately?"

      "Like what?"

      "Anything unique," she pressed.  "Something had to trigger this.  It's not natural."

      "Unique?  Do you want a day by day dissertation, or would a blanket summary of the last two months of my life satisfy you?"

      Sarraya screwed her face at him, then she laughed.  "Point taken," she chuckled.  "But something had to trigger this in you.  You're growing, but the fact that you're fetting means that you're aging too, years for every day.  Let's try it this way.  Did anything extraordinary happen in Dala Yar Arak?"

      He looked right into her small eyes.  "I used Druidic magic," he told her directly.

      She gaped at him.  "You did what?  Why didn't you tell me!"

      "I was waiting until you weren't in such a bad mood," he replied calmly.

      She glared at him, then she gave him a rueful grin.  "Well, I'm certainly surprised that it took that long."

      "What?"

      "Tarrin, dear, my being here to control your Sorcery was only half the reason Triana sent me.  She could feel it in you, and so could I.  Any Druid can.  You have talent.  She sent me along to prevent you from realizing your ability, because it's way too dangerous to try to teach Druidic magic in anything but complete peace and isolation.  I guess I didn't do a good enough job," she grunted.  "Triana's gonna have words with me."

      "You knew I could use Druidic magic?"

      "Didn't I just say that?" she said waspishly.  "But even that shouldn't be having anything to do with this growth.  Did anything else happen?"

      "The Demoness drained me," he replied, shuddering a little bit.  That was not a pleasant memory.  The feel of her inside him, feeling her suck away his very life energy, it still made him cold inside.  A cold that always seemed to be there, and the memory of it made it worse.

      Sarraya pursed her lips.  "Now that could be it," she said.  "Those Succubi drain life energy, which is loosely associated with youth and vigor.  I've heard of what happens to humans that get drained.  They die as dried-up husks, looking like they're a hundred years old.  If she drained you, maybe your body is reflecting the loss of years, or more to the point, the advancing of years.  But since Were-cats don't die of old age, it's really just cosmetic.  You'll fet, and you'll grow to a height that corresponds with your body's new physical age.  You'll probably be able to look Triana in the eye.  It all depends on how long the Demoness drained you, how much she took."

      Tarrin took it as he accepted so many other things in his chaotic life.  It was simply the way things were.  There was nothing he could do about it, and to be perfectly honest, given what he already had to worry about, he wasn't going to even pay a thought to the idea that he was going to grow a few more fingers and develop little shanks of fur on his ankles.  That was not very high up on his list of priorities.  The Druidic matter, that was something else, though.  He looked down at her steadily.  "Will you teach me Druidic magic?"

      "Not now," she replied immediately.  "It's something I can't really do while we're running around the steppes of Arak, Tarrin.  You'll understand later, trust me," she said quickly when he gave her a disapproving look.  "Actually, you'd probably understand now," she said to herself.  "Let me put it this way, Tarrin.  Remember what happened when you messed up with Sorcery, when you were learning?  What happened?"

      "Usually, I'd lose touch with the Weave," he replied after thinking about it a moment.  "If I made a bad mistake, sometimes the weave would cause a wildstrike."

      "Well, when you're working with Druidic magic, there is no room for mistakes, Tarrin," she told him calmly.  "A Druid only messes up his magic once, and he won't live to learn from his mistake.  Any time you do something wrong with Druidic magic, it kills you.  It's that simple.  Now do you understand why I'm not going to teach you anything unless I have complete control of the environment?"

      Tarrin could appreciate her candor.  He nodded slowly, but he was still a little disappointed.  If he could learn Druidic magic, he could control his own Sorcery with it, without having to either depend on Sarraya or gamble that he could sever himself from his power before it destroyed him.

      "I'm glad you're not arguing," she said bluntly.  "Teaching Druidic magic is a very dicey undertaking.  It's hard to learn when you can't even make one mistake.  That's why there are so few Druids in the world.  Many have the spark, but most of them die long before they gain even a limited command of the power."

      "I'll trust you on that, Sarraya," he told her quietly.  "We'll have plenty of time later.  So long as you teach me, that's what matters."

      "I'll have to," she said.  "You used your power, and you'll use it again eventually.  You've opened a beehive, so now I have to teach you how you don't get stung while reaching for the honey.  I can supress your Druidic ability the same as your Sorcery, so don't worry about having an accident while I'm around.  I'll protect you until it's time for you to start learning."

      "That's good to know," he told her.  "I think the water is over that way.  Let's go find something to drink."

      "Wow, you're just so overwhelmed," Sarraya said acidly as he reached down and picked her up from the ground.

      "I have too much on my mind to be worried about one little thing, Sarraya," he told her in an emotionless voice.  "I've had too many of these little revelations go by to be terribly impressed by any one of them."

      Sarraya chuckled ruefully.  "I guess you would get numb after a while," she said as he reached down and scooped her up in his paw.

      "Numb is a good word," he agreed as he moved in the direction of the water.

      It wasn't very encouraging.  The water hole was little more than a muddy pool, the center of which bubbled and bulged as water siphoned up from underground.  The stamped dirt and mud around it, and the riot of conflicting scents crisscrossing the ground, told him that it was a very popular location in the area.  Tarrin knelt down by the edge of the pool, debating between drinking the muddy water or simply going thirsty.  But Sarraya made up his mind for him when he felt her use her Druidic magic again, and the muddy color of the water simply disappeared, leaving crystal-clear water in its wake.  The pool had some fish in it, and the bottom was a churned landscape of hoofprints, ridges, and holes where animals waded into the shallow pool to drink.  The water coming up from underground was muddy, and it was quickly beginning to stain the clean water Sarraya's magic had created.  They both quickly drank their fill before the water became contaminated.

      "Much better," Sarraya sighed, looking up at him.  Then she looked past him, and her expression turned grim.  "Uh, Tarrin, I think you'd better take a look."

      Tarrin looked over his shoulder, in the direction of her gaze.  The distant birds he'd seen before were much closer now, and it was apparent that they weren't birds.  He looked with a mixture of surprise and anger as six black-prowed ocean vessels drifted in the air about ten longspans to the south, their squarish sails and the flags on their masts marking them as Zakkite.  They were about a thousand spans in the air, and it was apparent that they were moving in his direction with impressive speed.

      Skyships!  How did the Zakkites get skyships so far inland!  Zakkite skyships could fly, but only for a limited amount of time.  They literally used flying creatures as fuel for their flying, draining away the life energy of avian creatures in special magical devices to give their ships the power of magical flight.  He'd seen them before, had saved an Aeradalla from one of those soultraps quite by accident while blowing it out of the sky.  No flying creature could have lived long enough to get a skyship so far inland!  Not even a mighty Roc could have given a skyship that much range.

      There was little doubt why they were there.  They too could detect the Book of Ages, and they had been tracking him just as the Arakite mages had been.  It had only taken them longer to reach him.

      "How did they get in so far?" Sarraya demanded in exasperation as he picked her up from the ground.  "There's not a living winged creature strong enough to power a skyship ten days inland!"

      "I really miss Allia about now," Tarrin said, shading his eyes from the setting sun and peering at the ships.  They were too far away for him to see very much.  Allia's incredible eyesight would have allowed her to count the men on the ships.  Even see which ones needed shaving.  Several smaller objects suddenly separated from the skyships, and Tarrin squinted to see what they were.  It took him a moment, but he realized that they were large winged beasts.  And by the shapes of their tails, they looked like Wyverns.

      "I think they're sending out scouts," Sarraya said.

      "They're not scattering," Tarrin said.  "They know exactly where they're going."

      "I think that means we should expect company," Sarraya said quickly.

      "Fools," Tarrin snorted, rising up to his full height and glaring in their direction.  How stupid could they be?  They should know that he commanded Sorcery that could sweep their ships from the sky.  They were fools for coming so close, for giving themselves away.  But the Wyverns were getting no closer, he realized after a moment.  They were moving to his left, not towards them, going somewhere else.  To his left was back the way they came, and the Arakite pursuers would be about where those Wyverns were going.  Were the Zakkites attacking the mages chasing him?  If so, why?  What gain could they get from such an act?  It would only help Tarrin, because the Zakkites couldn't bring their ships or their Wyverns close enough to threaten him.  If they did, he would respond with Sorcery, and rip them apart.  They were out of his effective range at the moment.  But if they came in range, they wouldn't be around long enough to realize their mistake.  "What are they doing?" he asked Sarraya.

      "I think they're either talking to or attacking the mages behind us," Sarraya replied.  "Can you bring the ships down?"

      "Not from here," he replied.  "They're too far away.  And they're not moving towards us anymore."

      "What do you think we should do?"

      "Hide," he replied.  "They aren't getting any closer, so let's hide from them and see what they do.  If they wander too close, maybe I can pick a couple of them off.  I do not want a pair of Zakkite triads chasing after us.  Zakkites are way too dangerous."

      "No argument here," Sarraya agreed.  "I guess this means that I'm going to have a sore butt tonight."

      "Better a sore butt than fireballs raining down on us from above."

      "Amen," she chuckled as Tarrin set her down, then shapeshifted into his cat form.  Sarraya climbed up onto his back and grabbed a couple of handfuls of his fur, and he turned and scampered away, towards the northeast.  But a housecat could not move very fast compared to the size of the animals and constructions chasing him, so the presence of those ships did not change for a good while as he moved away from them, looking back over his shoulder nervously every few moments.  The ships did not move, but they weren't getting any further away as he moved away from them.

      The presence of the Zakkites angered him.  Why couldn't they just leave him alone!  Couldn't he get at least one break?  Ever since he had started on this mad quest, everything seemed to be stacked in his way, lined up against him.  He'd had to overcome some ridiculous obstacles to get where he was now, and it looked like it wasn't about to get any easier.  Now, when things seemed to be going his way, the Zakkites had to show up.  Zakkites were a dangerous enemy, even for him.  Their command of arcane magic was impressive, and that made them very, very dangerous.  They couldn't get close to him or use their magic against him, but he knew from experience that there was often more than one way to go about capturing an objective.  He'd used his own magic in some rather creative ways against beings who were immune to it, so he wasn't about to get complacent enough to think that they didn't have something up their sleeves.  Zakkites were not fools.  They wouldn't just rush all the way inland like this if they didn't have a plan.

      That plan seemed to manifest itself as he fretted over things.  Two winged creatures separated themselves from the six ships, and it was obvious that they were moving in his direction.  Their size and silhouette against the setting sun made it very apparent that they were not Wyverns.  They were very large, taller than him if they stood straight up, with large bird-like wings and vaguely humanoid in form.  From the way it looked, both were holding long polearms.

      "What are those?" Sarraya asked as Tarrin stopped and turned around to get a better look at them.

      "I can't tell, my eyes aren't that good in this form," he replied.  In cat form, he had excellent night vision and the ability to make out shapes and see motion, but the clarity of his vision was poor.  Small features blurred together or were lost.  He could easily see a book in the dark, but he couldn't read what was on its pages if it were opened.  He could make out the shapes of those creatures moving his way, but any details about them were lost on him.  "And if I shapeshift, I'll give our position away."

      "Hunker down, let's see what they do," the Faerie offered.

      "Good idea," he agreed.  He laid down on his belly in the tall grass, causing his form to disappear, and then he felt Sarraya use her Druidic magic.  The grass around him shuddered, then pulled over him to form a tent of sorts to hide him from those above.

      They waited in quiet tension for long moments, watching them get closer, until the ground shuddered as one of them landed about two hundred spans away.  Even at that distance, he couldn't make out a great many features, but it was apparent that they were not even close to being human.  They were ten spans tall, and they were strangely birdlike.  As if they were crosses between humans and vultures.  They had arms and legs, but their heads held a large hooked beak, and they had huge wings on their backs.  They had those polearms in their hands, and they stood upon legs with backwards-jointed knees, just like birds.  Not only that, they also had vulture feet.  They were very ugly, even to his diminished vision.

      He had no idea what they were, at least until the wind changed and caused their scents to wash over him.  That made him nearly choke.  They smelled as if they were made up of pure, unadulterated corruption and unnatural evil.  They were Demons!

      "Demons!" Tarrin hissed in shock.  "Why would Demons be working with the Zakkites!"

      "Hush!" Sarraya hissed very quietly, kicking him in the side with her heel to emphasize her command.

      This was insane!  Demons couldn't be summoned by mages anymore, not since the Blood War!  How did two Demons come to be allied to the Zakkites?  Maybe they were the same as Shiika had been, Demons that had somehow made it to Sennadar of their own free will.  Shiika had not been summoned or conjured by anyone.  She was free-willed, ruling the largest kingdom in the world from behind the scenes.  He also had a suspicion that Shiika wasn't quite like other Demons.  All the stories painted Demons as utterly evil, sadistic and monstrous.  Shiika was no fair maiden, but she didn't seem to have those reputed qualities.  She was evil, there was no doubt about that, but she wasn't sadistic.  She was manipulative, but she wasn't monstrous.  Her evil was more of an underlying quality, something that accented her personality rather than defined it.  But he still didn't trust her.  After all, she was a Demon.  So were these two, and that made them a threat not to take lightly.

      Tarrin's ears laid back as they moved towards them, obviously searching for them, but seemingly unable to locate him.  They looked about carefully, moving step by deliberate step towards him, carefully examining the ground.  "What's taking you so long!" a disembodied voice emanted from the air between them.  "He has to be right there!  We saw him lay down in the grass, and he couldn't crawl fast enough to get away by the time you got there!"

      "Patience, human," a horrid voice came from one of them.  "He cannot escape."

      "Don't toy with me!" the voice replied hotly.  "I can banish you just as easily as I conjured you!  Would you like to go back to the Abyss without having your promised payment?  Just find him, and remember that we need him alive!"

      Conjure?  How could he conjure a Demon?  That was impossible!  Even if he could conjure a Demon, he couldn't control it if it appeared!

      But that meant little now.  They knew where he was, and it was just a matter of time before they reached him.  It was going to be a fight no matter what, so the warrior in him realized that it was best to start the fight on his terms rather than their terms.  At least they would have to be careful, where he would not.  They needed him alive.  He wasn't working under such a restriction.  It also meant that he had to bring those skyships down, or he'd never be able to get away.  They were watching him, no doubt with magic, and he'd never be able to get away from them so long as they could see where he was.

      "Sarraya, get down, carefully," he said in the manner of the Cat.  He knew exactly what he had to do.  The idea of battling a Demon didn't frighten him as much as it had before.  He had the sword, and it could harm a Demon.  He had fought one before, and he had won.  And these two couldn't fight back with the same fury that he would fight them with.  They were simply things, obstacles in his path, and it was his duty to deal with them and move on to the next obstacle.  There was very little emotion involved in it anymore.  There was very little emotion involving anything anymore.  "I'm going to bolt right and get them lined up, then turn on them.  If you could do something to distract the one on the left when I change shape, I'd appreciate it.  I'd rather not have to fight both at once."

      "Tarrin, are you crazy?" she hissed.

      "Crazy or not, we won't go another step if we don't deal with them right now," he replied as both looked in the direction of Sarraya's tiny, whispered voice.  Sarraya slid off of his back, and he tamped his feet to prepare to run.  "Three, two, one," he counted silently, then he rose up and charged to the right, in an arc that would try to take him around the two Demons.

      They instantly looked in his direction, but both cursed vehemently when the grass around them shuddered, and then literally came alive, growing from simple tall grass to huge tentacles of green plant fiber in the blink of an eye.  Sarraya's Druidic magic had taken hold on the grass, causing it to grow from simple grass to writhing tentacles of vines in a heartbeat, and it lashed out against the Demon on her left like an octopus, ensnaring arms and legs and twining around its thin midsections and wings.  Its strength easily broke the snaring vines, but it distracted it for a critical moment as Tarrin managed to get to where the two Demons were lined up before him.  He slid to a halt and shapeshifted in an instant, returning to his impressive, intimidating humanoid form, then reached over his shoulder and drew his sword even as he rushed straight at the surprised Demon.

      It did not consider him a threat.  It smiled evilly at him and raised its polearm, but not to fend against the sword.  It didn't know!  It didn't know that his sword could harm a Demon!  It was setting itself to swipe him to the ground regardless of what he intended to do with the sword.  It couldn't sense that the sword was otherworldly, that it had the power to injure it!

      Understanding that he'd only get one free shot on the first one, Tarrin ducked down as the distance between it and him vanished, slithering under the polearm's metal shaft as it tried to strike him to the ground with it.  The Demon was three spans taller than him, but the sword was nearly six spans of blade on its own, so it gave him all the reach he needed.  He ducked under the polearm and got inside the Demon's reach, then he drove the chisel-tip of the sword straight up the Demon's body.  It nearly sliced its chest, so close was it to the Demon as it came up, but the chisel tip struck the Demon just under the beak.  And the black metal blade of the sword continued, puncturing the weird joint between the end of the beak and the start of the neck, driving up through the beak, through the top of it and all the way up into the brain.  Just as quickly as it impaled the brain, Tarrin snapped the blade out and spun around the Demon, hiding the blade behind his body as he charged the one pulling itself free of the vines.  The one he'd stabbed was still standing, its body locked in a paralysis of death, unaware that the brain could no longer send it commands.  The entwined Demon raised its polearm and tried to stab Tarrin with it when he came into its reach, but the Were-cat leaped up and out of its path, seeming to hover in the air before it.  Tarrin's sword came around in a wide, whistling arc, black blood from the first Demon flying off the sword's tip as its edge homed in on the neck of the second, then neatly and quickly taking the ugly head right off its unnatural body.

      Tarrin dropped to the ground easily as both Demon bodies stood stock still, and then started to topple.  The first dropped its polearm, then fell over backwards to lay motionless on the grass.  The second slumped in its vine prison, held up by the clinging plants, as the head rolled to a stop some spans distant.

      Holding his sword low, dripping with the black ichor of Demon blood, Tarrin turned to look at the six ships.  They were nearly two longspans away, well out of reach of Sorcery.  They sat there, mocking him, threatening him with their presence, and he suddenly felt helpless to do anything about them.  That helplessness ignited a sudden storm of anger, anger that they would not come close enough to face him with honor, not come close enough to where he could kill them.  They would not threaten him!  He wouldn't allow it!  He had come out here to draw them away from his friends, but he would not run to the desert with six skyships hovering over him the whole way!  He focused on that single thought, letting the anger take him over.  Only in fury could he control his power, and he needed that anger now.  He had to work himself up to the point where it would be safe for him to use his power, because that power was the only thing that could get rid of the Zakkites.  He could feel it build inside him, and he fueled that anger with images of his sisters, his friends, in danger because of the Zakkites, because of him.  And that was all it took.  Even the fleeting thought of Allia or Keritanima in danger was enough to send him into a mindless fury, but this time all it did was give him the anger-fueled willpower to risk using his magic.

      Throwing the sword aside, Tarrin closed his paws into fists and raised them to his chest as his eyes suddenly ignited from within with a blazing, incadescent light as Tarrin reached out and touched the Weave.  The raw, unadulterated power of High Sorcery raged through the Weave and then broke over him, threatening to drown him with its incredible power, a power that no single living Sorcerer other than him could control.  His anger gave him the power, the will, to harness that rampaging flood of magical power, a power that caused his paws to limn over with the ghostly, wispy white radiance known as Magelight.  Tarrin absorbed the power that the Weave thundered into him like a thirsty man drinking water, allowing it to fill him, coarse through him, infuse him with the might of the Goddess.  Tarrin sought to draw the power faster than the Weave could supply it to him.  Tarrin threw out his paws as flows of the seven Spheres of Sorcery emanated from his body, the tendrils of magic of which the Weave was constructed, and they twisted and wrapped together into groups of seven flows as they issued forth from him.  Those braids of flows that struck the strands of the Weave held fast, while the rest dissipated, and when all of them had found purchase, Tarrin yanked on them.  In a visible flash, every twisted braid of flows that had touched a strand flared with a brilliant light, then vanished back into invisibility, itself a brand new strand.  The new strands were all joined together in a vast spiderweb of magical ropes, and they joined within Tarrin, giving him a direct pathway to the magic he sought.

      His entire body literally exploded into Magelight as the power filled him at a rate that would have destroyed lesser Sorcerers in the blink of an eye.  He screamed out his anger and the pain he felt at drawing such power, the living fire that ignited inside him as the accumulated power sought to consume him in holy fire from the inside out.  It hazed over his sight, but his control over that power did not waver in the slightest as he used the pain to drive his fury, to focus his attention on the distant Zakkites, the ones that had to be destroyed.  The anger, the pain, the power, they dulled his thinking as he devoted most of his conscious mind to controlling the rampage of unstoppable power that had pooled within him.  He only knew that they were out of range of conventional Sorcery.  That meant that he had to create a weave that would release near him, yet have a residual effect that would carry all the way over to them.  His first thought was the weave of pure, raw magical power of which he was fond, a beam of pure Sorcery whose destructive power was unrivalled for a weave of its type.  But such a weave required physical aim, and they were too far away for him to hit all six ships with it before he was drained to the point where the weave would dissipate.  No, that was too grand.  For this, he had to think small, use something elegant for its simplicity.

      Wind.  Wind, pure wind, a force that, if it was strong enough, could destroy almost anything.

      Tarrin's preference for air magic was something he had never actively admitted to himself, but the simple truth was that weaves of air seemed the most natural for him to create.  Tarrin reached out, reached within, using the vast power within him to draw out flows of Air from the Weave, draw them from strands a longspan away, a vast network of flows that all conjoined in the air above his head.  That confluence of combined power grew, and grew, and grew, growing systematically more vast, more energized.  Tarrin wove the single flow together in a simple weave whose dimensions were absolutely staggering, a feat that not even a Circle of joined Sorcerers could accomplish, a singular weave whose dimensions could be measured in longspans.  The effort had not only drained every fiber of magic out of him, it forced him to continue to feed the weaving by simultaneously drawing power from the Weave and then channeling it into the weave he was creating, something that he was told was impossible to do, yet he could do.  Such redirection of magic was ten times more exhausting than simply drawing power then discharging it, and the fringes of his vision began to blur as the monumental effort of creating such a massive weave began to make him feel as if his bones were turning to powder.  But his rage, his fury, absolutely would not allow him to falter.  His wobbling knees suddenly became strong, straight, and Tarrin raised up to his full height and looked up into the sky, looked up at the titanic weave forming over his head, feeling in one instant the horror of what he was about to do, the resolve to carry through to protect his life and Sarraya, and the ecstatic feeling of absolute invulnerability, the feeling of being the most powerful being on the world, a sense of nearly godliness.

      But all such feelings vanished as the glow around Tarrin's body suddenly went out, and he motioned in the skyships' directions with both paws in an overhanded sweeping motion.  He did this as he released the Weave.  And when he did so, the sky split open as a sudden shift in the atmosphere caused a powerful blast of wind, moving at the speed of a hurricane's gale, erupted from the magical spell over him and raged towards the south, expanding as it moved.

      Absolutely nothing could withstand the absolute power of the magic he unleashed.  When the weave touched the ground, it scoured absolutely everything away.  Grass, branches, raintrees, animals, even the upper layers of topsoil, absolutely everything.  It grew larger and larger and larger, growing wider and wider, until it formed a crescent dome whose edge was nearly half a longspan wide, whose top was more than a thousand spans high.  But this was no solid weave, it was simply the leading edge of a blast of wind that would last for nearly ten seconds.  The invisible weave began to take on coloring from the debris it scoured from the ground, turning a muddy color, hiding the ships from his view.

      Tarrin sagged to the ground, panting heavily.  He could feel the Weave begin to rebuild the energy he had expended, but then it suddenly drained away harmlessly from him.  Sarraya had cut him off, protected him from the power in his weakened state.  He could no longer see the skyships, but that no longer mattered.  They would not get out of the way in time, and the wind would hit them.  It would rip their ships to pieces, and everyone on those ships would die.

      They would not threaten him again.

      The weave dissipated about the same time he gathered his breath and managed to stand back up, Sarraya patting him on the leg in concern.  Before him, there was grass and life, but about two hundred spans past him there was nothing but a massive brown scar, an area of earth stripped of everything that had been over it just seconds before.  As if the grass had been a rug, and some immense hand had reached down from the heavens and plucked it up from the ground.  There was a huge cloud of dust to the south, but it was turning from brown to beige as the dissipated weave began to lose its energy.  He knew that the wind would continue in that direction, but it would not move at such incredible speeds.  It would simply be a strange gust of strong wind, that would move towards the south.  It would grow wider and weaker as it moved, until it finally expended its energy back into the atmosphere from which it had been formed.

      Tarrin looked at the devestation, and it did not move him in the slightest.  He had been threatened, and now he was not.  The how of reaching that conclusion did not matter to him.  Panting, feeling strength slowly seep back into his body, he knelt down for a moment to rest, to gather himself.

      "My, that was...excessive," Sarraya said carefully.

      "It got them, didn't it?" he said bluntly.  His body quickly melted down into his cat form, and he sat down sedately on the ground.  "Come on, we have to go while we have a good chance to escape unnoticed," he told her.  "Anyone close enough to chase us now has other things to worry about."

      "If they're still alive," she grunted as she climbed up onto his back, but then she slid off quickly.  "Wait, Tarrin, the sword.  It's laying over there.  We can't leave that behind."

      Tarrin looked to his right, and saw the black-bladed sword laying on the ground.  She was right.  He shapeshifted and reclaimed it, then shifted back and allowed her to climb back on.  "We can't stop tonight," he told her.  "We need as much distance as we can get.  We'll rest when the sun comes back up."

      "I really miss my wings," she muttered, then he rose up, turned towards the west, and started off at a bounding pace.  "Tarrin, I think we need to talk about your Sorcery," Sarraya said as he ran.

      "Why?"

      "You're getting stronger," she replied.  "Every time you use that much power, you seem to be able to handle more the next time you do it.  You're growing stronger, and you're going to grow past my ability to control you if you don't stop doing that kind of thing.  I'm not saying to stop using Sorcery, I'm just saying to stop trying to crush a bug with a mountain.  You need to learn how to do what you need to do without trying to drain the Weave dry.  If you don't, I'm not going to be able to control you much longer."

      That was something he never considered.  But...she was right.  He did seem to be able to go another step every time he drew power to his limit.  Almost like working a muscle, every time he exhausted it, it became stronger.  But it was not balanced.  His ability to control that power was not increasing with the power itself.  Sarraya was right.  If he exceeded her ability to control him, he was going to be in very real, very immediate danger.  And so would she.

      "I can't promise anything, but I'll try," he replied after a moment.  "Most of the time, I do things by impulse.  I guess it's a Were-cat thing."

      "Did I mention how much I hate Were-cats?" Sarraya said with a grunt as Tarrin bounded away from the devastation behind him.

      "I wonder how those Zakkites conjured those Demons.  Phandebrass told me that no Wizard would be insane enough to try."

      "You'd better ask him, because I have no idea," Sarraya replied.  "Then again, considering what we have, maybe they were insane enough to try."

      "You have a point," Tarrin acceded as he bounded into the setting sun, leaving behind him a scene of tortured landscape.


 

To:   Title                     EoF

Chapter 2

 

      Eternity.

      The days flowed together in an eternal moment, a sensation that time does not move.  Every day dawned just as the last, every day seemed to be the day before, every day became the day tomorrow would have been.

      Time flowed in different ways for many people, but for Tarrin in his cat form, it was a life of an eternal moment, where concepts of past and future blurred in the power of the moment.  It was the happenstance existence of the Cat, an animal who understood the concept of time of day, but could not distinguish one day from another within its memory.  There was only past, or present.  There was no future that did not exist beyond the setting or rising of the sun.  The days ran together within his mind one after another, becoming a jumble of sameness that could not be counted, nor even remembered.  Every day was the same.  He would sleep during the day in a covered place, a place to hide, oftentimes evicting or eating the prior inhabitant of his daily den.  The night was spent on the move, moving in the direction that the Faerie told him to go, a night spent in near complete silence and sensitivity to his environment.  Sarraya seemed more than happy to chat or while away the time, but the savannah was a vast plain full of huge animals, many of which would consider the small cat to be a meal rather than part of the surroundings.  There was no sense of progress, no sense of anything other than the needs of the moment.  He would sleep, eat, or move.  There was nothing else to him.

      He had no idea how long he had followed that daily pattern.  There were only very broad, vague concepts of the passage of time.  One was Sarraya.  At first, she rode on his back, rode him like he was a horse.  But her wings did indeed grow back--how long it took, he had no idea--and then a distinction arose in his mind.  There was the time when she rode him, then the time when she flew near him.  There was nothing to remember about the time when she rode him, but that memory remained inside him, a distinct memory of the past.  She had also changed during that time, that was another thing he understood as the Cat slowly dominated his thoughts, as it did when he spent extended amounts of time in cat form.  She had become less chatty and capricious, less irreverant and waspish.  She became quieter, more distant from him.

      Though he had a sentient mind, the time in cat form had brought the Cat out in him, causing his personality to succumb somewhat to the instincts within, and he had a strange feeling that that was one of the reasons Sarraya began to drift away.  The other was the emptiness within.

      Emptiness.  There was no other way he could describe it.  Despite his instincts and his animal-tinted view of the world, that emptiness stayed within him.  It was the emptiness of loss, the keen awareness that those he wanted to be near were not near him.  Every waking moment, every fleeting thought, they were images of those he yearned to be close to, those who were supposed to be by him.  Allia's face haunted him whenever his eyes were opened, a shady image of a beautiful dark princess, an empty feeling that the peace he felt when she was near had been taken away from him.  Keritanima's furry face was there as well, the sister long gone from him, whose absence was both dulled by the many months, and more sharp in its cut for the amount of time she had been gone.  Even in his diminished ability to track the passage of time, the sense of her distance was not lost to his conscious mind.  There were other faces as well, the faces and scents and feelings of friends and relatives, confidantes and siblings, a whirling jumble of security in his mind that had been taken away.  They were all gone, far away, stripped from him by his own choice, but that was little consolation to him now.

      The missing part of his life had drastically altered his behavior.  It was an eternity in pain, an endless moment of feeling the loss of something that was vital to him, a loss that he could not ignore, could not deny, could not dull.  The feeling of it did not change day after day after day.  Every day was as the last, a day of surviving, of running towards some distant goal which made no sense to his animal-dominated mind, and always there was the emptiness inside, a gnawing pain in his heart that told him he was not where he wanted to be.  It did not go away, it did not change, and it was something to which he could not grow accustomed.

      His animal mind was not prepared to deal with such a powerful memory, a powerful emotion.  It could not get away from it, and even its formidable ability to control him could not affect that singular feeling.  It was something against which even his instincts could not prevail.  Since it could not deny the feeling, and it was not capable of handling it, it surrendered to it, allowing it to remain in the forefront of his mind at almost all times.

      Because there was no moment that did not hold emptiness, Tarrin withdrew from Sarraya.  Nothing seemed to hold any meaning for him.  There was nothing but the emptiness, a consuming feeling that tainted everything he saw and felt and did.  When Sarraya spoke to him, he did not listen to her.  He did not reply to her.  She was a friend, but she was not one that made the emptiness go away.  He did as she said, if only because he understood that she knew where they were going.  Every day was as the day before, every day was a monotonous repeat of every other day.  Sleep, eat, run, always with the feeling that there was something missing from within him, and that missing something brought a strange hollow pain that would not go away.  Even though his conscious mind was still within him, even it began to succumb to the emptiness, making him listless and slow to comprehend things.  It was as if the emptiness were a blanket thrown over his senses, thrown over his coherent mind, forcing him to reach through it to see or do or feel anything else.

      There was little sense of continuity.  There was little sense of the passage of time, yet he seemed to be aware of time moving.  There was the time before Sarraya could fly, and the time after.  There was the time when he had a shiny coat, clean, and his body was strong.  But there was also the time where he was dirty and matted, after he stopped grooming himself, of when his limbs and body withered from great exertion with little food.  Hunting seemed to lose its importance in the face of the emptiness, as did everything else.  To do anything at all sharpened the empty pain inside, so to do anything was only done when absolutely necessary.

      It was an endless moment, an eternal now of empty pain, a pain within that would not heal, a pain that eroded him from within.  An eternity, and even his conscious mind seemed to dully realize that it was going to drive him insane if something was not done to end it.  That realization came as the sun rose over yet another day of empty sameness, a sunrise coming after a night of running.  The sun rose over the same flat land, as if he had done nothing but run in a great circle during the night, only to come back to where he began.  Tarrin sat on a dead log of a raintree, his head hung low as his eyes dully surveyed the land before him.  It was a day like any other, a day of weary emptiness, a day like the last.  The only thing different was the reawakening of his conscious mind, an act that required something significant from his conscious mind after so long in cat form.  But as his instincts affected his conscious thoughts, so they too were influenced by the human in him while in cat form.  He had learned long ago that even when he tried to bury his human mind, to forget it, it would not remain quiet forever.  It had finally stirred inside him, had finally rebelled against the slow degeneration of body and mind, had finally had enough.

      Sarraya landed just in front of him, on the edge of the log.  She was wearing a new dress, seemingly spun out of spiderwebs, and her new wings glistened in the cool morning air.  They looked just as the old ones did, chitinous wings mottled with a riot of rainbow colors, each of the four nearly as long as her body was tall, tapered to a smooth rounding end.  Just like a dragonfly's wings.  Her auburn hair shuffled slightly as the wind picked up, which was normal during the morning and evening as the sun warmed the air, or the setting sun's heat stopped warming it.

      He was tired.  Goddess, he was tired.  Tired and thin, dirty and bedraggled.  Looking down at his paws, he barely recognized his own forelegs.  He was nothing but fur and bones.  How long had he gone without any conscious reasoning?  It was impossible to tell time as a cat, but judging by his condition, it had to be a long time.  Rides?  Maybe a month?  The past was a jumbled blur, where only the sense of empty pain, of loss, was strong enough to be relived.  Despite what dangers it posed, he had to change form.  He just had to.  He needed time in his humanoid body, he needed time with his rational mind to make sense of how strongly his need to be with his sisters had obviously affected him.  He just needed a break from the emptiness.  A few hours in humanoid form wouldn't be that dangerous, and he realized that he had to face the danger, for his sanity if anything else.

      Jumping down off the log, Tarrin dredged the depths of his mind for a long moment, recalling just exactly what was required when he shapeshifted.  After he found what he was looking for, he willed it to be.

      The realignment of his thinking was profound, and the yearning for his sisters and friends immediately eased inside, now that his human mind could rationalize the feeling, and know that he would see them again.  He felt...weak.  Tired.  Exhausted.  He looked down at his paw...

      And realized that the ground looked further away.

      And the back of his head was very, very heavy.

      Sarraya turned and looked at him, then looked up at him with an expression of surprise and happiness.  "Does this mean you're going to talk to me again?" she asked with a broad grin.

      "I...I'm sorry," he said.  "I don't think the Cat was ready to deal with how homesick I am."  He looked down at his paws.  They seemed just a little bit bigger, and those fetlocks that Sarraya had described had indeed grown onto his wrists.  They filled up the space between his wrists and the manacles, and they pinched a bit whenever he moved his paws as the hair of the fetlocks caught on the metal cuffs.  The fetlocks weren't very long, but they were just bushy enough to be noticed.  They ran from just above his wrist to about a quarter of the way up his forearm, and they grew primarily on the palm side and outside edge of his forearms.

      "I could feel the edges of it.  By the trees, cub, you're as tall as Triana.  And your face is different.  More austere.  And you're thin!"

      "What?"

      "Remember what I told you before we started out?  That the Demon's touch caused your body to age?"  He nodded.  "Well, it seems that you didn't stop growing just because you were in cat form.  No wonder you were getting so thin.  Not eating much, running all night, and you also were burning food to grow."

      That little revelation seemed laughable to him, but...the ground did seem further away, and Tarrin was a being very much grounded in his senses.  He had an intimate understanding of where the ground should be, and it was further away than that.  The wind pulled at his hair, and he realized that almost a quarter of it wasn't braided.  Even his hair grew during that time, making the braid hang nearly to his knees.

      "I see my hair kept pace," he said with a grimace, reaching behind and pulling the braid over his shoulder.  "It's so heavy it hurts."

      "Then cut it off."

      "When I do that, it just grows back."

      "Foolish cub, didn't Triana teach you anything?" Sarraya chided.  "Were-cats are shapeshifters, Tarrin!  When you change form, you change into what you envision yourself to be, and your body responds to that image.  Were-cats have long hair because they want long hair.  If you want short hair, just want short hair.  Look at Mist, her hair is shorter than most human men's.  Cut it off, and it won't grow back."

      "I never really liked the braid before," he objected.  "It gets in the way."

      "Then you wanted something that you didn't like," she replied.  "Then again, you're Ungardt, aren't you?  Doesn't everyone in Ungardt have a braid?"

      "My father was Sulasian."

      "Who do you identify more with?"

      Tarrin looked at her, then he snorted with a smile.  "Well, I guess my mother," he replied.  "You mean I saw my mother's braid, and something under my conscious decided that I should have one too?"

      "That's the way it looks, isn't it?" she replied.

      "It seems pretty farfetched."

      "If you were a human, probably," she told him.  "You're not."

      "Point taken," he said.  He looked at the braid, then focused on his paw.  It looked a little bigger.  "How, how tall am I now?"

      "Eye to eye with Triana," she replied with a grin.  "And you don't look like a boy anymore.  You look like a man.  Boy, will be she surprised to see you."

      "I'll be surprised to see me," he told her.  "How long has it been?"

      "You mean you don't remember?"

      "Sarraya, I couldn't tell you what year it is."

      "Well, guess you regressed into your instincts just about as far as you could go," she snorted.  "It's been nearly two months since we saw the Zakkites.  Right now, we're just over the border into Saranam.  We're out of Yar Arak."

      "Huh," he said absently, surveying the land.  "It doesn't look any different."

      "Why were you so quiet?"

      "I don't think my instincts were ready to deal with my human emotions," he replied after a moment of reflection.  "All it could understand was the feeling of something missing.  Something it couldn't bury or translate into some feeling it could understand."  He shuddered.  "It's not something I want to discuss."

      "I think I understand," she said compassionately.  "Aren't you taking a risk by shifting back?"

      "I had to," he grunted, sitting down on the ground.  Sarraya flitted up and landed on his knee, looking up at him calmly.  "I just needed some time to sort things out without the Cat interfering.  As far ahead as we are, we should be alright.  I...I don't remember seeing anybody chasing us."

      "There were a few, but they passed us up during the day.  They're probably nearly to the desert by now."

      Tarrin sat down on the log, head in his paw, sifting through the pain inside.  He'd never felt anything like it, even when he had been with Janette.  But that had been a different kind of pain, caused by a different reason.  With her, he had felt the security that he so desperately wanted, where out here there was no such comfort.  Sarraya was a dear friend, but she wasn't enough to fill the void inside, not in the way his mind wanted.  He wanted to be protected, to be loved, to be kept safe.  They were things the immature child in him wanted, things the Cat demanded.  They were things that Sarraya couldn't provide.  He looked on her as his responsibility, his child to protect.  She could not give him the same feeling of security as he tried to provide to her.

      Nonsense.  He was craving security.  He was acting like a child.  The rational part of him understood that, but even it couldn't hold against so powerful an impulse.  He was an adult--his trials had made him older than most people three times his age--but beneath it all was still the vulnerable little cub that wanted to be held and protected.  There was no room for such frivolity out here.  He had half of the Known World looking to take what he had.  That was a little fact that overrode whatever childish desires he had inside.

      He was not a child.  Anything even close to childhood was lost in the instant that Jesmind's fangs sank into his arm.  He didn't blame her for it, but that was just the way it was.  Being turned Were had taken away his innocence bit by bit, and his position had robbed him of any right to feel the need to be protected like a cub.  There were people out there that needed his protection, and he couldn't protect them if he was wrapped up in feeling sorry for himself.  Allia and Keritanima were counting on him to keep the eyes of the enemy away from them.  Jenna and his parents were counting on him getting back to Suld, to find out if the Dals really had invaded his homeland, and if they had, to do something about it.  Janette was counting on him to protect her world, the world that would be hers, the only world that mattered in his eyes.  He couldn't do any of those things if he sat sulking on a dead log in Saranam.

      But the feelings weren't going to go away.  Even he had to admit that.  So that meant that staying in his cat form all the time wasn't going to work.  The emptiness was going to come back, and it would send him back into a depression.  He had to spend time in his humanoid form so his emotional state couldn't imbalance him again, and that meant that he was allowing his enemies to know where he was.  He would move faster, but he'd pay for every day gained with blood.  It would be much riskier, but he really had no choice.

      That seemed to have become the slogan of his life.  He had no choice.

      "Maybe talking to Allia would help," Sarraya said quietly, landing on the log beside him.

      "No," he said after a long moment.  "Talking to Allia would make it worse."  And it would.  It would only intensify all the negative feelings inside him.  Hearing her voice may make her seem closer to him, but the harsh reality of knowing she was out of his reach would hit him that much harder.  No.  He was alone, and that was how he had to remain.  Only if he had to talk to her would he call to her.  Not until then.

      "Maybe Triana?"

      "Triana?  I can't talk to Triana without talking to Allia."

      "Cub, don't be silly," Sarraya winked.  "I can talk to her any time I want.  I can fix it so you can talk to her too."

      "I forgot," he said.  Maybe talking to Triana would help.  He trusted her, loved her, felt she was one of his parents.  She was, actually.  She was as much his mother as Elke Kael was, in his heart and his mind.

      "I need to talk to Triana anyway," Sarraya added.  "She's been demanding a monthly report, and it's about that time."  She looked at him.  "Maybe I can let her see you.  Boy, will she be surprised."

      "Druidic magic can do that?"

      Sarraya laughed.  "Tarrin, Druidic magic can do anything," she said with a bright smile.  "It's only the weakness of the user that limits it."

      "What do you mean?"

      "I shouldn't really tell you this, but you'll have to learn eventually," she said, flitting up onto his knee and sitting down, then looking up at him.  "Druidic magic isn't really magic, Tarrin.  Well, it is, but it's not the same as Sorcery, Wizardry, or Priest magic.  It's entirely different.  All those reach out to some energy supply that exists somewhere else, a power that is just that, power.  Druidic magic taps into the living energy of the land, the soul of the world.  We draw on a power that makes even Sorcery look like a candle held up to the sun.  The power of Druidic magic is absolutely limitless, Tarrin.  Nothing is impossible with Druidic magic."  She looked right into his eyes.  "It's like having the power of a God, but without the rules and limitations they live with."

      "There has to be a catch somewhere," Tarrin said.

      She nodded solemnly.  "A very big catch.  The power is limited by the person using it.  A Druid can do absolutely anything, but only if he can handle the amount of power it'll take to do what he wants it to do.  Overstep yourself, try to do something that requires more magic than you can control--" she snapped her fingers-- "and it's over.  That's why you can't ever make a mistake, Tarrin.  Druidic power is limitless, and it's also merciless.  Make just one mistake, and it'll kill you."

      "That's pretty harsh."

      "Nature is not very merciful," she told him.  "Some of the things we all do are the things that are the easiest to do.  Conjuring, summoning, healing, influencing the growth of plants, they're very easy, because Druidic magic is the magic born of nature, so anything that operates within the constraints of nature doesn't take much power.  But try to do something unnatural, and the amount of power it requires shoots to the moons.  A Druid could literally resurrect a dead man, but the amount of power it would take would kill him."

      "Conjuring doesn't sound very natural to me."

      "That's because you don't understand how it works," she replied.  "Conjuring isn't literally making something out of nothing.  Everything I conjure exists, it's just not here.  The magic finds it and brings it to me.  The berries I eat were literally picked off some bramblethorn somewhere by my magic.  The only unnatural part of the process is having it appear here. Summoning is just conjuring a specific object.  The more attuned you are to it and the closer it is, the easier it is to summon.  That's why your summoning the sword worked.  It was yours, you were familiar with it, and it was only a few spans away.  So it required very little power to accomplish."

      "And if had been too much?"

      "Then you wouldn't be here," she replied calmly.

      "Then how do new Druids learn?"

      "Very carefully," Sarraya said emphatically.  "Usually they spend years studying with an experienced Druid, who evaluates the neophyte's capability.  Before they ever try to use their magic, they already know exactly how much talent they have, and what they can and cannot do.  Then the Druid teaching them teaches them what they can do, and lets them go.  Smart Druids never try anything other than what they were taught.  Those that don't usually end up dead within a year."

      "Well, if that's true, how do Druids learn new things?  I mean, isn't it possible that you could learn new tricks?"

      "It is, but I'm not willing to risk death to find out," Sarraya said calmly.  "There are a few Druids that do gamble, but I'm not one of them.  Triana does from time to time, but she's alot stronger than me.  When she finds something new I can learn, she teaches it to me."

      What she said seemed to make sense to him.  When he used Druidic magic, he felt a connection to something greater, something so immense that he couldn't fathom the edges of it.  That had to be this living soul Sarraya had mentioned.  If Druidic magic was indeed a magic born of the life of the world, then it made sense that its power was directly proportional to the amount of life in the world.  Counting plants and animals, that was a huge amount of life.  It also made sense that a single mistake could kill.  When trying to draw from such a boundless energy source, a single mistake opened the victim up to the full might of all that power.  It was only logical that it would kill.

      "So, cutting off other magic is easy, because that magic exists in nature."

      "No, only the Weave exists in nature.  We don't affect the magic, we affect the Weave.  Actually, Wizard and Priest magic are unnatural in origin, so it would take more power to affect it than a Druid could manage.  Let's not even talk about a Demon or some otherworldly creature.  But that power has to get here through the Weave, and that's where we attack it."

      "You can control the Weave?"

      "Not like a Sorcerer," she explained.  "We can simply do nothing more than restrict it or release it.  Anything else gets into that instant death area I mentioned before.  I use my power to choke you off, but if you were very weak, I could use my power to bring the Weave closer to you, to make it easier for you to draw magic."

      "That makes sense.  So, in a nutshell, Druids are limited.  No matter how much the magic can do, it's only as good as the person who uses it."

      "Well, that's a minimalist way to look at it," she snorted.

      "Minimalist works.  It keeps things in perspective.  What could I do with Druidic magic?"

      "I have no idea," she replied.  "I'd have to study you and take you through some basic exercises, and we don't have the time to do that.  Just please, don't get creative on me.  I'd hate to wake up one morning and find you laying dead on the ground.  It would ruin my day."

      "I won't experiment, I promise," he told her.

      "Alright, let me contact Triana," she said.  Tarrin could feel her using her power, felt the edges of her connection to this living soul, and then she made a little gesture with her hand.  "Triana, are you alone?" she asked immediately.

      "Where in the bloody hell on this ship could I go to be alone?" Triana's voice seemed to come from midair, a very irritated voice.  "Where have you been, you little pain?  I've been waiting days to hear from you!"  Despite the anger in her voice, Tarrin's heart soared just a little at the sound of that voice, the voice of his deeply loved foster mother.

      "I've been busy," Sarraya said curtly.  "Tarrin's here.  He wants to see you, and I want you to see him," she added in a wicked little tone.  "Do you think you could find someplace close to private?"

      "Give me a minute.  I'll kick Renoit out of his cabin," she said in a brutally practical voice.

      Tarrin laughed.  "That's Triana, all right," he said.

      A wavering image appeared in front of them, inside a glowing oval of swirling mist.  It was an image of Renoit's private cabin, a very messy cabin, and of Triana.  She was wearing a long-sleeved cotton shirt with ragged sleeves, dyed blue.  Her tawny hair and fur were clean and neat, and her handsome, powerful face stared back at him intently.  Her face was that same stony mask as always, but hints of the affection she held for him cracked her unwavering facade.

      Tarrin stood up immediately, displacing Sarraya, and almost tried to reach through the image to touch her, but he caught himself in time.  "Mother," he said urgently, lovingly.

      Triana looked him up and down.  "Tarrin!  What in the furies happened to you!" she immediately demanded.  "You look like you grew a thousand years in three months!  Sarraya, is he, taller?"

      "As tall as you," Sarraya said smugly.  "A side effect of his little exercise in Yar Arak."

      "Well, cub, it's good to see you, even if it's not exactly what I expected to see.  You're a mess."

      Tarrin laughed nervously.  "Well, it's been pretty hard on us, mother.  I'll clean myself up, I promise.  How is everyone else?"

      "Oh, fine.  Your bond-child and that Selani are at each other's throats most of the time, Phandebrass keeps trying to document my training of the girl, and those little drakes are driving me crazy.  They must think I'm you.  They keep trying to sleep with me."  She looked into his eyes.  "Are you alright, Tarrin?"

      "I'm fine now," he replied.  "I, I don't think the Cat was ready to deal with how I'd feel being separated from the others.  It's been a pretty rough couple of months."

      "Just hang in there, my son," she said gently.  "And you should avoid spending extended time in cat form until the feelings ease."

      "I sorta figured that out already," he told her.  "Is Jula going to make it?"

      "I haven't decided yet.  The girl has determination, but she's not as strong-willed as you.  I don't know yet.  Now tell me, what happened to you, cub?  You look my age."

      "He got the short end of a fight with a Succubus, Triana," Sarraya cut in with a grin.  "It tried to drain him, and you know how their powers work."

      Triana grunted.  "That would do it," she agreed.  "I thought he'd got tangled up with a Poltergeist.  They can age the living too.  Have you had any problems with it, cub?"

      "Mother, I didn't even notice it until now," he replied.  "I've been in cat form this whole time."

      "Well, you'd better take a bit of time to get used to it.  You're taller now, and your Were-cat body has changed.  You'll be stronger.  A lot stronger.  We only develop more as we age."

      "I'll help him adjust," Sarraya told her.

      "Have you had any trouble with being chased?" Tarrin asked.

      "Not at all," she replied.  "We did have a couple of episodes with pirates, but they didn't last long.  Where are you right now?"

      "Saranam.  Where are you?"

      "We just left Tor yesterday.  We should be back in Suld by this time next month."

      "That's good to hear," he sighed.  "When you get to Suld, would you have someone send a letter to my parents?  I think they need to know I'm alright."

      "I think Dolanna's been sending letters to your parents for a while now, though the trees know how she's getting them there," Triana grunted.  "She's been heavy with the pen for about a month now."

      "Why?"

      "War, cub, war," Triana replied.  "Sulasia and Daltochan are heavy into it.  The Dals are occupying most of the northern marches of Sulasia.  Draconia and Tykarthia are trying to exterminate each other, and Tor invaded eastern Shacè last month.  About the only kingdom that hasn't gone crazy in the West is Arkis."

      "Sulasia's being occupied?"

      "Parts of it, from what we've heard.  We may get back to Suld to find it surrounded by a Dal army."

      "That won't last long," Sarraya chimed in.  "The katzh-dashi will defend Suld.  They'll never get past the outer wall."

      "I know, but it still makes things nervous.  No city likes a hostile army camped outside its walls.  Have you been keeping my cub safe, Sarraya?"

      "As safe as possible," she replied.  "I've started teaching him the basics about how Druidic magic works.  I hope you don't mind."

      "No, but don't you dare teach him any techniques," she said sternly.  "He hasn't been evaluated yet."

      "Why didn't you tell me that I could use Druidic magic, mother?" Tarrin asked.

      "Because you had more important problems," she replied.  "And it's not something you try to learn when you're distracted.  If Sarraya taught you anything, it's that there is no room for mistakes when you use Druidic magic."

      "She made that point about a hundred times, mother."

      "Then that was about a thousand times too few," Triana grunted.  "I don't have much more time.  Do you need anything, Tarrin?  Are you alright?"

      "I'll be fine, mother.  I just needed to talk to you, that's all."

      The stony mask dissolved from her face, showing the loving parent that she was.  "I understand, cub."

      "Don't tell Allia or the others that we talked.  It makes me feel better to talk to you, but I think I'd feel worse if I talked to them."

      "I understand that too," she smiled.  "What I give you, you can take with you.  What they give you only makes you want more of it."

      He nodded soberly.  Triana was every bit as wise as she was old.

      "I have to go now.  Be careful, cub.  I love you."

      "I love you too, mother," he replied sincerely, just as the image of her wavered, then vanished.

      Tarrin sighed, then turned around.  Everything he wanted in life had just disappeared.  Family, home, children.  Peace and tranquility.  A place where he belonged.  It was the main part of his dreams of the future, if he managed to survive long enough to reach it.  Triana was a part of that dream, the mother of his new life, and seeing her made him yearn to be with the others, to be where he belonged.

      But it wasn't as bad as it would have been if he had seen Allia or Keritanaima.

      There was no way to go but forward.  He had to keep going, or he'd never find his peace.  He couldn't stay in cat form all the time now, not if he wanted to avoid the pain it caused to him.  That meant that things were going to be a bit more dangerous.  Without his cat form to hide the Book of Ages in the elsewhere, his enemies could track him down.  But he really had no choice.  Nobody ever said that the road ahead had to be an easy one.

      "Tarrin, are you alright?" Sarraya asked.

      "I'm fine, Sarraya," he replied quietly.  "I'm not ready to change back yet, so I have to keep moving.  We need to keep moving.  I can't stay in one place like this.  They'll be able to come right after us."

      "Tarrin, I don't think you're in any condition to keep running.  You're exhausted!"

      "Then help me find some food, and then we'll go."

      "There's nobody in sight, you blockhead!  What are they going to do, appear out of thin air?"

      Tarrin looked right at her.  "I'm not taking any chances," he said bluntly.  "If they did appear out of thin air, I wouldn't be very surprised."

      Sarraya threw her hands up in frustration.  "You're being paranoid!" she snapped.

      "One of us has to be."

      Sarraya growled in her throat, then landed on the log.  He felt her use her Druidic magic, and a small pile of apples appeared on the ground in front of him.  "There you go," she said grandly, motioning to the apples.  "Eat up, then we'll move on.  I'm going to go lay down.  Wake me up when you're ready."

      He did just that.  He sat down in front of the apples and wolfed them down like a starving man, considering what was to come.  Since he wasn't hiding anymore, they'd know where to look for him.  The Zakkites probably wouldn't be a problem, since they were so far inland now.  But the ki'zadun, that was another story.  They used Wyverns to fly around, Jula had told him so.  He had little doubt that a flight of Wyverns were right now being readied to come after him.  That was his greatest threat.  There were local mages and such as well, but they weren't as powerful or well prepared as those coming by air.  They knew of him, they knew what he was and how to attack him, where the local yokel did not.

      Even if they did find him whether they would attack him was also an issue.  Tarrin had demonstrated in the past that he had power enough to crush just about any challenger.  And his power was only getting stronger.  He wasn't sure the ki'zadun were crazy enough to throw away more lives to try to take the book.  They may try to steal it, but he wasn't sure they'd attack him unless they felt they had a serious counter to his advantage.  No, they'd tried that before, they'd learned their lessons.  The locals didn't know that, so they'd just come after him.  And they'd be no real threat to him.  It was the ki'zadun that was the main threat, and in their knowledge of him came his uncertainty.  What dirty trick would they try next to try to beat him?  They'd tried deception, kidnapping, assassins, they tried driving him crazy, they even sent Jula to ruin his reputation and slow him down.  They had to be running out of items in their bag of tricks.  They had to be getting desperate, and that made them dangerous.  Tarrin respected the resilience and staying power of his oldest enemies.  He hated them and wanted to destroy them, but even he had to respect their power.  He'd be a fool not to do so.  He'd been trained never to underestimate his opposition.

      The emptiness.  He still felt its fringes, and part of him dreaded going back to cat form.  The Cat lived in the moment, and that was the problem.  A feeling like homesickness, longing for family, it was a feeling that the Cat could understand, but could not completely comprehend.  That was the core of the issue.  The Cat could not forget, even as it lived within its eternal moment.  They were not with him right now, and right now was the only thing that mattered to it.  He'd have to avoid cat form for a couple of days, or use it only to sleep and hide.  In sleep, the Cat could forget the pain.

      It was time to go.  He'd stood in one place too long as it was, he was just making it easy for anyone chasing him to home in on his location.  In a way, he almost wanted them to find him.  He wouldn't mind a little bit of therapudic venting at the moment.  Take out his frustrations on whoever was unfortunate enough to be his playmate.  But with his luck, he'd end up facing an army of Demons, or a Dragon, or some irritated god.

      Better safe than sorry.

      He stood up.  It was time to go.

      "Sarraya," he called, shifting the precious pack on his back, with its priceless cargo.  "It's time to go."

      "Alright," she said in a yawning voice.  "You go on, I'll catch up in a minute."

      He nodded, looking up into the cloudless morning sky.  The Skybands showed him east and west, so it was very easy to move west.  West was the desert, and the only safety he would find in this hostile land.  The only place where nobody would dare follow him.  He set out slowly, feeling the poor eating in his muscles as they were forced to work more than normal, feeling the changes.  His legs were longer now, allowing him to cover more ground with each stride.  It felt strange to him, to feel himself with a higher center of gravity, to feel as if he was less stable than before.  He knew that that was just a combination of a taller body and lack of food for a while, but it didn't change the feeling all that much.  He ran for a few minutes at a slow pace, then gradually managed to increase it as he felt more and more comfortable with the new way things felt.  He finally settled into a ground-eating pace that few horses could hold for long, a pace that made him feel as if he was flying across the surface of the savannah, allowing his long legs to eat up the distance.  A pace that he felt he could hold forever, it felt so comfortable.  It was a pace that focused him on his running, that allowed his mind to drift just enough to allow the time to flow by easily.  It wasn't the eternal moment of the Cat, but it was still good enough to make him blink in surprise when he realized that the sun was directly overhead, and the dry plains of Saranam were decidedly hot.  Sarraya was flitting along just beside him easily, leaving him to his thoughts.

      He spotted them just as he began to slow.  Three specks to the northwest, close to one another.  They didn't have the shape to be birds, not with such unusually formed wings.  Tarrin slowed to a stop and pointed in that direction to Sarraya.  "What do you think, Sarraya?" he asked without any warning.  "Bird or not?"

      "Definitely not," she replied, shading her eyes from the light as she peered towards them.  "Whatever they are, they're big.  I can't tell which way they're going."

      Tarrin looked around.  On the horizon, there was a ridge that looked to be a city's wall.  That was possible, because they were standing on a slight rise which had another behind that wall.   A shallow valley, and that meant that there either was or had been a river flowing through it.  He couldn't tell, because the wind was coming up from his back, bringing nothing but the smell of dust, dry grass, and hiding animals to him.  There was supposed to be a good-sized river in Saranam, the lifeblood of the kingdom, where the majority of the Saranam peoples were located.

      "Is this a river valley?" Tarrin asked.  "And is that a city over there?"

      "I think so, on both," she replied, rising about thirty spans into the air and peering ahead of them.  "It certainly looks like a city, and this is about where the Sar river would be.  Think we can make it over to that city before whatever those things are up there reach us?"

      Tarrin reached behind him and unhooked his water skin, then took a long swallow.  "I think we can make it," he replied.  "It doesn't look all that far."  He wasn't really tired, but he was starting to feel a bit sleepy.  That would go away as soon as he started moving again.

      "How are you feeling?"

      "A bit sleepy, but not really tired," he replied.  "Those apples you gave me did the trick."

      "Well, we'll get a real meal in that city," she told him.  "I want you to eat until you can't eat anymore.  And you need meat.  Lots of meat.  That should rebuild what's wasted away."

      "Stopping may not be a good idea."

      "This isn't about a good idea, this is about what your body desperately needs," she told him bluntly.  "We don't have any choice, Tarrin.  If we don't stop and let you get back what you've lost, you're going to get sick."

      "We can't afford that."

      "Exactly.  You should listen to me, Tarrin.  After all, I'm much smarter than you," she said with a mischievious grin.

      "I'm so glad you think so," he said dryly, securing his waterskin, then starting out for the city.  "Use your towering intellect to keep an eye on those birds, or whatever they are."

      "Child's play."

      "Then it should be a challenge for you."

      "You," she huffed as she flitted up to a matching pace with him.

      There was something of an aire of urgency now.  Sarraya kept her eyes on the three aerial forms, who seemed to only get a little closer as the walls of the unnamed city grew more and more in front of them.  And spread out further and further.  Tarrin was a bit surprised to find that this city was quite large, built on both sides of a very wide, slow-moving river that was a very unhealthy brown color.  The stone of the wall was a curious whitish color, just barely tinged with the color of sand.  Tarrin wondered where they found that much stone; the plains of Saranam were dusty sand and loose soil, to find anything harder than wood on the windswept plains was an accomplishment.  They had to have brought it in from somewhere else, probably the mountains far to the northwest, or from the desert.  Either way, the city's walls became more and more distinctive to his eyes as they approached them, and as the flying forms seemed to continue to keep their distance.  Were they truly afraid of him now?  Were they just tracking him, waiting for reinforcements?  That would be the wisest course.  Only three would have virtually no chance of taking the book from him.

      He looked over the walls of the city, and saw something that he did not like.  It was a darkness, a swirling darkness, like some great cloud.

      A sandstorm!

      No wonder the fliers wouldn't approach.  A sandstorm from the desert had managed to come into Saranam, and it was threatening the area.

      "Sarraya, do you see that?" he called as he ran towards the city.

      "A sandstorm," she replied. "It's moving this way."

      "I didn't think we were that close to the desert."

      "We're not.  Sandstorms sometimes come halfway to Dala Yar Arak this time of year.  It's the beginning of the stormy season.  This must be the first one."

      "That must be why those fliers won't approach.  I don't think I'd want to get caught in a sandstorm while flying."

      "I think you're right there," she agreed.  "Well, Tarrin, now you know why they call it the Desert of Swirling Sands.  That storm would be three times as big in the desert.  They lose their power as they come into Saranam."

      "When did you learn about all this?"

      "I'm a Druid, silly," Sarraya said, coming up to his head level and looking at him as he ran and she flew.  "Part of it is magic, but part is study.  We study nature.  Weather is part of nature."

      "I'm surprised that you study weather in places you've never been."

      "Who says I've never been to Saranam?" she challenged.

      "Me."

      She laughed. "Alright, not Saranam, but I have been to the desert before.  There are Druids out there, and I've been to see a couple of them.  They taught me about desert weather."

      "Is that what we're going to be dealing with in the desert?" he asked.

      "Afraid so," she replied.  "This time of year, if you have a day where you can see the sky, it's a good one.  We'd better buy you some good storm clothes.  I'll make you a good visor to protect your eyes from the blowing sand, too."

      "Why is it like that?"

      "Climate," she replied.  "The Sandshield mountains generate wind gusts that expand when they get out over the open desert, fueled by the heat of the sand and rock.  It kind of snowballs from there into those big storms.  This is the rainy season in Arkis, so that means it's the storm season in the desert.  The rain winds get funnelled through the mountains and turn into sandstorms on this side."

      "That Druid taught you that?"

      "Some of it," she replied.  "I pieced the rest together based on my knowledge of the weather in Arkis.  I live just inside the Frontier on the Arkis side."

      "If you're experienced, then tell me we're going to get there before the storm does."

      "Tarrin, that storm is a long way off.  It's just so big, it looks close.  When it gets here, it'll be like looking at a wall of dark dust, five thousand spans high."

      "You're serious!"

      "Very," she replied.  "Seeing a sandstorm roll in is a unique experience."

      "How long do they last?"

      "This far from the desert, probably not long," she replied.  "Now you know why these plains are so dusty.  The storms blow it in.  Sometimes it takes a month for it to settle out of the air, if was a particularly nasty storm."

      The fields around the city appeared when they crested a slight rise, patches of green around the sand colored walls, but they were dwarfed by the huge number of fences for livestock that dominated the center of the wall, as if they were built there to use the wall to protect against blowing sand.  Wrangling seemed to be more important to the city than farming, and given the climate, he understood.  It was easier to raise sheep, goats, and cattle than it was to grow food in a land subject to scouring sandstorms.  The dusty plains had enough scrubby grass growing in the sandy soil to support herding.  He could also see the river better, and saw several ships on both sides of the city.  The sandy walls began to seem more and more like the bastion of human habitation as he neared them, and the ground just ahead showed signs that a herd of animals had recently gnawed down the wiry grass that grew in the arid plain.

      Tarrin pulled up and stopped, looking down at the city in the shallow valley.  "What is it?" Sarraya asked.

      "I think I need something to disguise me."

      "Why don't you just go human?"

      "Because I'm very tired, and I don't feel like dealing with the pain right now," he told her bluntly.  "Think you can make me something to cover me?"

      "Child's play," she winked, waving her hands grandly.  A large, voluminous cloak simply appeared in midair, made of soft, thin leather, almost like cloth.  It had a deep hood, and it was undyed.  The tan garment would blend in well with the arid plain, making it a sensible garment.  Tarrin caught it before it fell to the ground.  Sarraya grinned and flitted up to his face, then pointed her finger at his face--

      --and everything suddenly turned purplish.  Not only that, there was a sudden weight on his face.

      Recoiling, Tarrin reached up and found something sitting on his nose, wrapping around to hug his skull to keep it from falling off.  He grabbed it and pulled it off his face, and found himself looking at a strange formation of what looked like purple glass.  It was shaped to fit over the eyes, resting on the nose, and for a human they would rest atop the ears as well.  Since he didn't have ears there, they rested on the bone ridges above where his ears used to be.

      "What is this?"

      "It's called a visor.  The Selani make them," she replied.  "They shield your eyes from the sand, and their tint protects your eyes from the brightness of the sun.  In your case, they're also going to hide those cat's eyes of yours.  The humans won't look funny at you if you wear it.  Any serious traveller around here has one."

      "Strange.  Allia didn't have one, and she never mentioned it."

      "It's something so common, she probably wouldn't have thought to say anything.  If you didn't notice, Allia tends to leave out anything she considers common knowledge."

      "I noticed."

      "The problem is that her common knowledge is pretty uncommon," Sarraya grinned.  "How much has she told you about the desert?"

      "She told me about what it's like.  She also described some of the animals that live there.  I still can't believe there are lizards as big as a barn."

      "Believe it," Sarraya laughed.  "I've seen them.  They call them krajats.  There are others that aren't that big, but are no less nasty.  The desert is a very dangerous place."

      "What do they eat?" he demanded.  "There's not much out there."

      "Each other, most likely," Sarraya shrugged, then she looked him over from top to bottom.  "Well, that cloak manages to hide about everything.  Since those furry feet kind of look like boots if you don't look very hard, you shouldn't cause a panic."

      "Thank you so very much," Tarrin grunted, sliding the visor back over his eyes.  Before he put on the cloak, he realized that the hilt of the black-bladed sword under his pack was going to cause a problem.  Sarraya solved that by slitting it, so the hilt could come up through it, then using her Druidic magic to seal up the excess so that the cloak hugged the scabbard, to keep blowing sand from seeping under the cloak.  She even thoughtfully created a leather hood for the scabbard that tied on, to protect the delicate wire-wrapped hilt from the damage of blowing sand, should they get caught in the storm.  That done, Tarrin started off towards the city at a fast walk, which was nearly a running pace for a human.  His long, long legs consumed ground with every light step, carrying him towards the lone city in the vast empty wilderness.

      As he neared, he got a sense of the randomness of this city.  Fences and pens seemed to be erected wherever was convenient outside the walls, turning the trek to the visible gate something of a zigzagging course.  Animal manure made every breath of air a riot of unpleasant smell, not to mention making him pick his steps with exceeding care.  There were herd animals everywhere, in flocks and groups, staked to the ground alone, wandering aimlessly on ground long since stomped free of grass, kicking up a ceaseless cloud of dust that hung in a pall just over the ground.  There were sheep, cattle, horses, goats, and even stranger animals that he'd never seen before.  Long-legged animals with huge humps on their backs, which were even taller than he was.  Stocky cattle-like animals that had rounded horns rather than straight ones, like a ram, yet were grayish instead of brown.  There were even strange long-necked animals with wooly fur, like a sheep, yet stood as tall as a horse.  Tending the animals were dark-skinned people that looked like Arakites, but these people were rather skinny, wearing simple homespun tunics or robes, all the men of which wearing a simple white turban on his head, and all of the women wearing a shawl.  Many people had similar covers over their eyes as his own, looking to be made of glass or mica.  Tarrin wondered idly just how they were made, since the ones on his face did not distort his vision in the slightest.  They only dimmed the bright sunlight and cast everything with a slightly violet color.  Most glass was wavy or cloudy when one looked through it.  That these visors were perfectly polished so that they didn't distort things was remarkable.

      Moving through the patchwork of pens and wandering herds, Tarrin made his way towards the city.  Most of the people around him didn't pay him all that much mind, although some of them did stare when he came close to their animals.  The herd animals, smelling his predator's scent, bleated or cried out in sudden fear, shying away from him, and that reaction made their tenders wonder what had spooked them.  Tarrin didn't pay the animals that much attention, keeping one eye on the city, one on the storm, and turning from time to time to see where the airborne trailers were.  He judged that he would make the city well before the storm arrived, for he got an idea of its size as moment after moment passed, and the storm didn't seem to get any closer.  It truly had to be huge, and still some distance off.

      Moving near to the humans gave him a serious lesson in how different things were for him now.  They were so small.  Before, the tallest humans--aside from certain exceptions--topped out at the base of his chin.  Now, he hadn't passed a single human whose turban or shawl reached his collarbones.  He felt like he was an adult moving through a group of children.  Looking at the people around him without staring, he realized that he truly was Triana's size now.  Probably eye to eye with the massive Azakar.  He was used to being tall, but he felt distinctly unusual to tower over everyone else.  They were children now, little children who would break in his paws if he was too rough with them.  Was that how Triana felt when she dealt with humans?  Did Azakar feel the same way?

      Still musing over it, Tarrin finally reached the city's gates.  They were open, and they were busy.  The gates were very wide, and through them filed both people and herd animals, being shepharded either in or out.  Beyond the gates was a large open area, probably where herds were gathered before moving or just before sale, and inside the simple wooden gates stood two disinterested men wearing a leather cross harness and a plain white kilt-like skirt, and each holding a pike.  There was a crest in bronze at the crossing of the leather straps crisscrossing the men's chests, that of a sun cresting a flat horizon.  The cross harnesses left most of the men bare from the waist up as the kilts left their legs bare from the knee down to their tied sandals, and their skin was deeply burnished by the sun and the wind.  Each wore a small conical helmet, to which was attached a long tail of hair that wavered in the growing breeze heralding the approaching storm.  Judging from the rather nonsensical outfits, these guards were purely ceremonial.

      "Sarraya, are you still around?" Tarrin asked under his breath.

      "Of course I am," she replied from nearby, though she was hidden from sight.  "What?"

      "Just checking."

      As he passed by one of the guards, he noted idly that he was nearly as tall as the man's pike.  The guard stared at him for a long moment, but looked away instantly as Tarrin lowered his visored gaze on the man and did not look away.

      "Tarrin, pull in your tail," Sarraya hissed in a low whisper.  He couldn't hear her wings either, but from the sound of her voice, she had to be right near his ear, which was flattened a bit under the hood.  "You're bulging."

      He attended to that quickly, pulling his tail off the back of the cloak, pressing it up against his leg and wrapping the excess around his shin and ankle to keep it out of mischief.  If anyone noticed, they didn't tell him anything as he passed through the gate and beyond the large pen, moving into the city beyond.

      And he was not impressed.  This nameless city smelled ten times worse than any city he'd ever visited.  It was so bad that he had to put his paw over his nose, giving away the fact that he wasn't just a really tall human.  The place was a cesspool of every bad smell he could remember, peppered with brand new horrible smells he couldn't identify.  The city streets were unpaved dirt, dirt coated and salted with sand as people's feet and animals' hooves ground the sand into the packed soil of the street.  It was a good thing Saranam saw little rain, else the entire city would sink into the quagmire of mud that would surely result.  The lack of deep ruts in the streets said that there was little rain here to make paving the streets necessary.  But there was water, usually ditches running close to buildings made of brown mud bricks, liquid waste and urine tossed out from the low-built structures' upper story windows.  Dead rats and other unpleasant things floated in those open cesspits, which flowed slowly but inexorably downslope, towards the river.  The streets were populated with people dressed in plain, rugged robes and mantles of sturdy wool or that cotton-fiber, or plaxat fiber, the super-strong plant fiber clothing the Selani made.  He could easily see all of them, for there was nothing to obstruct his view of the streets except for buildings.  Not even the herd animals they kept in the city stood at his height, though there were some outside that were taller than him, and that allowed him to see as far down the street as he wished.  There was a noticable lack of horses, or of litters or carriages that marked the wealthy.  Everyone in this city seemed to work for a living, that, or the wealthy didn't come into the part of the city in which he currently moved.

      His first encounter with a Saranite was abrupt.  A child, no more than eight, bumped into his leg, then staggered back and fell down on his behind.  The child's eyes were at the same level as his knee when he was standing, but now they were just over his ankle.  He stopped and looked down at the young Saranite lad, who looked like an Arakite except for being a bit thinner.  The boy got a good look at Tarrin's foot, then he stared up at him in slack-jawed awe.  He sat there for a very long moment, then in a sudden burst of activity, he scrambled to his feet and rushed away.

      The smell of roasting meat seeped in over the horrible miasma in the city, stirring his stomach to respond.  That honestly surprised him, given that the place smelled so bad that, if he would have thought of food before that moment, it would have made him throw up.  It had been a very long time since he'd had anything filling, and the growing he did while in cat form had burned much of the food he'd managed to eat during that time.  Even with the place smelling as awful as it did, he found the need for a good meal irresistable.

      Mutton.  It was mutton.  Most humans didn't like mutton, but to Tarrin it had a texture and flavor that was quite good.  The smell was coming from a wide-doored building just down the street, a place that had the look of an inn or tavern.  It had no conventional door, just wide shutters that were tied open.  There was a window flanking each shutter at the door, which themselves had small shutters opened to each side of them.  A piece of faded red cloth, with fringe that had been tattered long ago, was stretched over the door, attached over the shutters and held up by a pair of poles staked into the sandy ground to provide patrons with a bit of shade before entering or leaving.

      Now that he noticed them, he saw alot of those shutters.  They flanked windows, they were outside doorways even when there were doors.  There was not a single door or window he could see that did not have shutters attached, and he understood why.  If sandstorms were a fact of life in the region, then the people would obviously have prepared their homes and shops for them.  The shutters would keep blowing sand out of their buildings.  The slightly scarred and pitted look of the mud brick of the inn showed that sandstorms did come in, and that also explained why he hadn't seen any painted or whitewashed buildings.  Everything was of that same mud brick, and it had to be.  The blowing sand would scour away whitewash or paint, would strip off polished exteriors of stones and maybe even gouge out the mortar holding them together, leaving them worn and weakened.  As damaging as the blowing sand was, it was only sensible to make buildings out of something that was cheap to replace and easy to repair.

      The doorway was too small.  He almost bumped his head on the entrance as he entered, as he turned to look towards the street warily as a shout arose, turning  back around and realizing his peril at the last moment.  He very nearly smacked his nose on the wall over the door before ducking under the mud brick wall and the doorframe which was attached to it.  He was used to ducking under doors, but that was the first time he'd ever had the top of the door staring him in the face, taking up his entire field of vision when he bothered to look in that direction.

      This height was going to take a lot of getting used to.

      The interior of the inn was a bit hazy with smoke from a firepit against the right wall, over which roasted an entire lamb.  There was boisterous carousing from the twenty or so men who were inside, drinking, eating, and talking among the tables set out in the floor and the booths built against the wall on the opposite side of the firepit.  There were two lanky men behind a bar across from the door, and four serving women in very low cut dresses moved quickly and effortlessly among the tables with wooden trays bearing food and drink.  It was much like many other taverns he'd seen in his time, but judging by the rather beaten look of the furniture in this place, it wasn't known for its well-mannered patrons.  This place was more of a seedy dive than a respectful eating establishment.

      Considering who he was, a seedy dive was probably a better place to be than some posh luxury inn.  So long as they were willing to give up that roasted lamb, things would be just fine.  There was bit of a lull in the conversations as a few of the patrons took notice of him, an unnaturally tall figure covered in a deep cloak.  If he were them, he'd take notice too.  It was only natural.  Tarrin was very much out of place here, and he felt that way keenly.  He didn't fear these strangers, not in the same ways that he felt in Dala Yar Arak, but the first twinges of anxiety at being among strangers was beginning to rear up.  Probably the two months of being with nobody but Sarraya had dulled him a bit to his feral rejection of people he didn't know and trust.  He didn't accept these people, but he didn't feel the same fear that he used to feel to come into their presence and possibly expose himself to whatever danger they posed.  Then again, he was so hungry that he didn't really care if he feared them or not.  The screaming coming from his belly, awakened by the smell of the roasting lamb, was enough to make him fight a Roc over it.

      Money.  He didn't have any money.  He'd need it to get the lamb.  "Sarraya, are you here?" he asked in the unspoken manner of the Cat.

      "I'm right here," she said in a whisper.  That was when he realized that she was sitting on his shoulder.  The cloak's weight caused him to miss her negligible weight.

      "I'm going to need some money."

      "I'll whip up something for you when you sit down.  I'll make a belt pouch and put it on your lap, just so you know where to reach."

      "Thanks," he replied sincerely as he stepped deeper into the tavern.  Most of the men were quiet now, watching him stride in on his long legs, moving directly to intercept one of the serving women.  She was forced to stop in front of him, barely reaching his chest, staring up at him with wide eyes and an open mouth.  She was a pretty little girl, with pattern Arakite dark skin, black hair, and brown eyes.  She was barely more than sixteen, with a chest not exactly equipped to being hugged by an open neckline, but she had a pleasing silhouette that made up for her lack of bust.

      "C-Can I serve you, good master?" she asked hesitantly in Arakite.

      "I want the lamb," he replied in fluent Arakite.

      "It's not fully cooked yet, good master," she replied.  "If you're willing to wait--"

      "I'll take it as it is."

      "If you really want it, good master.  I'll have someone cut you--"

      "You misunderstood me," he said in a calm voice.  "I want the lamb.  The entire lamb.  I'll pay a fair price for it."

      "Uh, uh, yes, good master.  If you want the whole thing, I'll get it for you.  Please find a seat, and I'll tell the barkeep what you want."

      That posed him with something of a problem.  There was no way he could hide what he was if he ate, but he really had no desire to take the lamb somewhere else.  He was tired, and he wanted to sit down and eat it like a civilized person.  And he intended to do just that.  He'd just sit out of the way of everyone else,

and if they made an issue of it, then he'd deal with them then.  Judging by the condition of the men in the tavern, there wasn't a single one there that could even make his eyebrow twitch.  None of them could challenge him.

      And that gave him a strange sense of security, a sense that made them seem non-threatening despite the fact that they were strangers.  He still didn't trust any of them, but knowing that none of them could hurt him, for the first time in quite a while, made him feel confident to be among them.  Always before, that knowledge that they couldn't hurt him didn't make any difference.  In fact, it made it worse, because he knew they couldn't hurt him, yet he still felt fear, and that made him angry.  That anger amplified his fear, which made him angrier, and created a deadly circle that usually made him very easy to rouse to violence.  Not this time.  He looked at the men around him, most of them staring at him in silence, and he felt very little anxiety being among them.  True, there was a bit of apprehension, but nothing like he would usually feel to be in the middle of a bunch of unsavory types like these.

      The time away from the others and in cat form really had had an effect on him.  He just wondered how long it would last until he went back to normal.

      He moved through them, towering over everyone else like an Ungardt in a nursery, until he reached an empty booth in the back corner.  He undid his sword and pulled it out from under his cloak, then laid it on the booth's table near the back.  Then he gathered up the cloak and sat down, having to fold his legs a bit to get them under the table without lifting it off the floor with his knees.  When he did so, he felt a sudden weight on his lap.  He parted the cloak and looked down, and saw a seamless leather pouch resting on his lap, and the weight inside told him that it had something inside it, like gold.  Sarraya's handiwork.

      "Thanks," he whispered to her.

      "Any time," she whispered back.

      He noticed that they were really staring at him now.  Taking off his sword had probably opened his cloak, and it had certainly let them see his paws.   Since he had their attention, it was probably the best time to make it blatant.  He would have to do it anyway.  He reached up and pulled down his hood, letting his ears pop back up from where the leather cowl was weighing down upon them, and then took off his visor.

      Their reaction was subdued.  They obviously realized that he wasn't human, but they weren't panicking.  They were dead silent, and just about all of them were staring at him, but there wasn't any screaming or running around.  That was always a good thing.  He was too tired and hungry to deal with a bunch of panicky humans.  Three men did leave, but there was no mass exodus towards the door.  That too was a good thing.  After the two months in an eternal moment of loneliness, even the company of untrusted strangers was better than being alone.

      A man that had been behind the bar approached him.  He was a rather short, thin Arakite-looking man, a bit bony and with very slight cheeks that made his face narrow and long.  Amber eyes glowed from under black brows, an unusual eye color for an Arakite-stock human, and they made the man very striking.  Though he was sitting, Tarrin's eyes were only slightly under the man's eyes.  "Sashi said you wanted to buy the entire lamb," the man said immediately.  "I usually don't do that, because I won't have anything to give my other customers.  But it's early yet, and I can get another one roasted before the dinner rush.  I'll give you the lamb for two gold vipers."

      Tarrin reached down and picked up the purse, then upended it on the table.  A large handful of pure gold nuggets clunked down onto the table, rolling a bit until they came to a stop.  "Take whichever one you want," Tarrin said evenly.  "I'll consider the extra a guarantee that I'll eat in peace."

      The man's eyes bulged slightly, and then he gave Tarrin a very wide, sincere smile.  "I think I can guarantee you a little peace," he said brightly, reaching down and selecting the largest of the many gold nuggets sitting on the table.  He bit it to ensure it was true, and then gave Tarrin a very satisfied smile.  "Arl, help me unspit the lamb for our customer!" he called loudly to the other man behind the bar.

      Sometimes the simplest things in life seemed to be the best.  Tarrin sat there with the roasted lamb taking up nearly the entire table, and he ate.  The conversation slowly picked back up, leaving him to himself, and allowing him to relish the simple activity of satisifying a hunger that run into his bones.  His wickedly sharp claws served as knife and fork at that meal, slicing apart the lamb systematically into managable pieces, then eating them with a casual slowness that belied his towering hunger.  It brought a calm feeling to him, to know that life's needs were satisfied for the moment, he was fed and clothed and sheltered after many days out in the wilderness, almost as if his mad escape towards the desert was delayed for a while, with all sides agreeing to a lunch break.

      The people in the inn watched in curious fascination as the entirety of the lamb was consumed, leaving nothing but cleaned bones when he was done later that evening, a meal that would have been hard for five men to finish at one sitting.  His Were digestion and healing, both powered by his quasi-magical abilities as a Were-kin, had already begun to rebuild what had been consumed to fuel his growth.  He could feel his muscles begin to reflesh, to return to their proper state, though it was a very slow process that made him feel like he was itching from the inside.  Much like Sarraya, when the need arose, Tarrin could eat much more than his stomach could hold, because his Were body could literally absorb the food nearly as fast as he could eat it.  His slow eating hadn't stretched out his stomach or made him feel glutted, allowing his body the time to empty his stomach at nearly the same pace as he was filling it.

      Setting down the last bone, Tarrin leaned back in the booth, feeling the backpack with the book press against him, feeling thoroughly content.

      Sometimes simple pleasures were best.

      Sighing in contentment, he set his elbows on the table and rested his chin on his paws, considering the next step.  One of the serving women set a mug of water down in front of him with something of a wary smile on her face, and he nodded to her absently and took a drink after smelling the water for purity.  The storm would make everyone take cover, and that would probably be the best time to leave.  With Sarraya's Druid magic to help, he should be able to travel during the storm, something that most of his pursuers would not be able to do.  That should get him away from the flying trailers for a while, and discourage any pursuit from the city itself.

      "She didn't bring me any water," Sarraya grumbled.

      "Considering she can't see you, I'd be surprised if she did," Tarrin replied under his breath.  "What have you been doing?"

      "Watching you eat like a horse isn't very entertaining, so I took a nap," she replied.  "Feel better now?"

      "A world better," he replied with a contented sigh.  "I can feel it working already."

      "Just take it easy for a while, and give your body a chance to mend," she told him.  "We can leave when the storm hits, so they can't follow us."

      "I thought the same thing myself," he agreed with her.  "And believe me, the last thing I want to do at the moment is move again."

      "That's because you stuffed your face like a pig."

      "Are you feeling alright, good master?" the serving girl who had waited on him asked as she passed.  "You were talking to me?"

      "No, young one.  I was talking to my other half.  It's being petulant at the moment."

      "I am not!" she said loudly, stamping her tiny foot on the top of the table.

      The girl looked genuinely baffled.  She heard the voice, but her eyes couldn't find its source.  She looked around on the table, knowing it came from that direction, but there was nothing there.

      "Don't leave the girl confused, my rash friend," Tarrin said with a mysterious smile.  "If they've seen me, seeing you won't make a whit of difference, and you'll give the girl something to tell her grandchildren."

      In the blink of an eye, Sarraya returned to visibility, standing on the table near the pile of bones.  She had a pouty look on her face, and her eyes were a bit sulky as she glared up at him.  "There, are you happy now?" she demanded.

      The woman stared in shock.  "Wh-What is it?" she asked in wonder.

      "She's a Faerie.  Sarraya, introduce yourself to the girl."

      "I thought Faeries were just made up," the girl said in awe, looking down at the exceedingly tiny, blue-skinned being.

      "I am not made up!" Sarraya said defensively.

      "Excuse her.  This mythical being has a little bit of an attitude," Tarrin said lightly, smiling down at his diminutive companion.

      "Tarrin!" Sarraya snapped, but the girl just laughed.

      "Well, pardon me for staring, good mistress.  I've just never seen anyone quite like you before," she announced.

      "You think on your feet, young one."

      "I'm a barmaid, good master.  We have to think on our feet, or we end up in some drunken rancher's lap," she said with an impish smile.  "And it's not like we never see non-humans here.  There's a tribe of Giants that live in the mountains to the north.  They come down here to trade sometimes, and they're allowed into the city.  They're very friendly and gentle."

      "Giants tend to be," Tarrin told her.  He'd seen them a few times himself, for they came down from the Clouddancer Mountains four times in his life to trade in Aldreth.  They were thirty spans tall, but aside from that and wide-browed heads with heavy features and a racial tendency to be stocky and barrel-chested, they looked completely human.  Very gentle beings, always careful where they put their feet.

      "Do you need anything else, good master?  More water?  Maybe wine?"

      "I'm fine, thank you," he told her.

      She bowed her head in a little bob, then scurried away.

      Cute girl.  A very smart young lady.  If he were human and three spans shorter, he may be interested in her.

      Tarrin and Sarraya passed the time in contemplative silence, listening to the other patrons talk or argue or carouse.  They had lost most of their interest in Tarrin, though Sarraya's sudden appearance had caused another round of staring.  But with such a unique person already there, her appearance wasn't so earth-shattering as it would have been if she were alone.  Tarrin let himself drift a bit in his thoughts as he settled his meal, let it do its work, feeling strangely secure considering he wasn't with his sisters or friends, that he was surrounded by strangers.  It was quiet time, devoid of worries or fears, absent of the loneliness he'd felt in cat form, and though he missed his sisters and friends, just a little part of him felt as if their spirits were with him at that moment.

      But time passes, as time inexorably does.  It reminded him of its passing with a keening howl from outside.  He looked up to see the barmaids closing the shutters, locking them down so the inn could ride out the approaching sandstorm.  It was evening now, close to sunset, and the massive sandstorm he'd seen earlier had finally managed to reach them.

      As nice a time as he had had in the seedy inn, it was time to go.

      "Sarraya," he said quietly, squeezing out from under the table and standing beside it.  He shook the cloak a bit, then decided to simply take it off so he could put the sword back in its place.

      "You feel ready?"

      "Feel ready or not, it's time to go," he told her.  "We have a long way to go."

      "That we do," she agreed as he took off the cloak.  The patrons stared at him without the cloak, at his inhuman height, at his sleek frame garbed by dirty, torn clothing.  Some of them saw the manacles on his wrists, partially hidden under the new fetlocks that had grown up under and around them.  He paid them little mind as he laid the cloak on the table by the plate of bones, then reached down and picked up the sword.

      He was in the act of sliding it back on under the backpack when the shutters holding the doorway opened with a bang, and the interior door opened quickly, bringing a blast of sand-filled wind into the inn.

      "Durn fools!" someone shouted.  "Shut the damned doors before we need a shovel to get out!"

      "It's in here somewhere," a voice called urgently.

      Tarrin stood up straight, his heart skipping a beat, then flowing over with a calmness.  Even here, in his moment of peace, they come to harass him, to disturb him.  He turned to see three men standing in the doorway as the shutters banged behind them, sand blowing in around them.  Two men in black robes, and one dressed in a chain hauburk and leather leggings, a sword strapped to his side.  All three looked like Arakites; they had to be locals.  The warrior's equipment was a bit beaten up, making him more likely a mercenary or freelancer than part of an army.  The tallest of the three was holding up a strange crystal, which was glowing with a bright amber radiance.  It reminded him of the amulets that Phandebrass made, one of which he still  had.

      All three fixed their eyes on him, in the act of resting his sword in its place on his back, and the mercenary man took a step back.  "If that's him, you don't have enough money in the world to make me fight him," the man declared immediately.

      "Turn around and leave," Tarrin said in a deadly voice.  "I'm going to pick up the rest of my things.  If you're still there when I reach the door, I'll kill you."

      "Jerlos, you're nuts!" the shorter robed man said as the taller one took a step forward.  "There's no way we can take the book from that!"

      "But he must have the book, Sashas!" the taller man said plaintively.  "Imagine what we could learn from it!"

      "It's not worth my head, you fool!" the shorter man snapped.  "Can't you feel it?  Are you that blind?"

      "What are you talking about?"

      "He's a Sorcerer, you idiot!" the shorter man said hotly.  "A powerful Sorcerer!  He could turn all three of us inside out without so much as twitching a finger!"

      That made Tarrin's eyebrow raise.  Wizards couldn't feel things like that.  Only Sorcerers--

      --of course.  He could feel it now.  The shorter one wasn't a Wizard, he was a Sorcerer.  Not one of the katzh-dashi or even trained by them.  He was self-taught, and judging from what he could feel from the man, he wasn't that shabby.  He had considerable natural potential, it only came down to how well he had managed to teach himself as to how powerful he was.

      "But he has the book!" the taller one whined.

      "If you want to take it from him, be my guest!" the shorter one said flatly.  "I'll make sure what's left of you is buried.  If you want to die, go ahead, but I'm not going to keep you company!"

      And with that, the shorter one turned and fled out into the storm.  The nervous mercenary took only one more look at him, then turned and followed the shorter man.

      The tall mage stood there for a long moment, his face an agony of indecision, as his desire for the book struggled against the healthy warning he was given.  Tarrin gave him an utterly emotionless look, his eyes flashing green briefly as he raised a paw and showed the man his very long, very sharp claws.

      That was all it took.  The man turned and fled back into the howling gale.

      "Well done," Sarraya chuckled from the table.  "I say, Tarrin, you actually managed to end a confrontation without tearing apart the other guy.  I don't see a single body part anywhere on the floor.  I'm very impressed."

      "Save it," Tarrin said shortly, picking up his cloak and throwing it over his shoulders in silence, with only the howling of the wind bringing sound into the room.  Every eye was on him, and those not sitting down were standing in place.  They were all worried, uncertain, and a few of them were a bit speculative.  He slid the cloak into place, then picked up the visor from the table and settled it over his eyes.  "We'd best go before they find their nerve."

      "I doubt that.  I think the short one left a puddle where he was standing," Sarraya laughed, flitting up into the air.

      Tarrin settled himself, readying to venture out into that stiff wind, with its blowing, stinging sand.  But a sudden presence at his side made him look down.  It was the pretty little barmaid, looking up at him with just a little bit of fear.  She was holding up a scarf of red wool, with tassels at each end, offering it up to him.

      "What is this?" he asked her defensively, his expression wary as his fear of strangers rose up in him with shocking speed.  For an irrational moment, he felt the impulse to either strike her down or get away from her, but he remembered that she had been kind to him.  She had talked to him when nobody else would, had smiled at him with sincerity in her eyes.  No, he would not hurt this human.  She was not threatening him then, and she was not threatening him now.  She was afraid of him, but that was only natural, given what he was.  That she would approach him despite her fear said much for her character.

      "It'll keep the sand out of your nose and mouth," she replied with a gentle smile.  There was absolutely no fear in her eyes now, as if she looked into his face and saw that he would do her no harm.

      He looked down at her for a very long moment, his feral fear of her battling against a human feeling, a feeling of--gratitude?  Compassion?  Something about her struck at the human in him in a positive manner, making him not feel threatened by her.

      She was giving him the scarf out of kindness.  She expected nothing in return, not like the weaseling cons that had shown him a veil of kindness, only to hide the ugly truth of what they wanted from him beneath.  She had nothing to gain from giving him the scarf.  Her act was one of genuine compassion for him, a kindness to him.  A sincere kindness.

      It had been so long since someone had shown him such sincere kindness.

      His rigid posture eased immediately.  He reached down and took the scarf, her tiny hand absolutely swallowed up by his massive paw as he took it from her, and in that fleeting exchanged he felt her skin against his pad.  It was warm, but it was calloused from her hard work.  "I--thank you," he said brusquely, not entirely sure how to respond to her.  As if he had forgotten what to do when faced with an act of kindness.  The only thing he could think to do was reciprocate.  "Here, take this.  I don't need it anymore," he said, handing her the pouch of gold nuggets.

      "What is this?"

      "A fair price," he told her, looking down into hazel eyes that showed no fear.  "It is a fair price."

      Tarrin wrapped the scarf around his neck, placing it over his mouth and nose, just under the visor.  Sarraya flitted up against his face, then climbed into the hood and found a sheltered spot within the deep cowl, partially under the scarf.  He gathered the edges of the cloak up in one paw and pulled the hood down over the visor with the other as he boldly stepped out into the storm, feeling the howling wind yank and tug at the cloak, at the hood, feel the stinging sand strike the visor as the dim light, almost like a cloudy night, forced his eyes to adjust to see.  He disappeared into the storm, barely hearing the doors and shutters close in the nameless inn behind him, both worried that someone would be lurking in the storm, and confused by the young girl in the inn.  Confused by her kindness, confused by his own reaction to that kindness.  No human had shown him such sincere compassion in so long, a compassion given with no ulterior motives, not since an old woman on a porch had shared a meal with him, giving him the kindness of her ear and the gentle wisdom of her age.  He couldn't remember her name, but she had been much the same as the young girl in the inn, a gentle presence that had soothed him in strange ways.

      It was something to think about once he was safe.  Right now, there were men out in this storm that wanted the book, and he had to get away from them.  Turning his face into the wind, lowering his head to keep the hood from flying off his head, he marched into the howling wind, the blinding sand, seeking to lose himself and his pursuers in the surreal environment of a raging sandstorm.

      The sand, driven by the wind, struck at the mud bricks of the city, slowly yet surely eroding them away, reducing them to dust and sand.  It was a slow yet efficient process, as the sand methodically wore away the baked bricks from which the buildings of the city were made in a cycle of sandstorm after sandstorm.  It was a process usually indetectable to the observing eye, a process of months and years rather than days or rides.  Yet it was a process that was undeniable.

      The driven sand of kindness had struck the stone wall erected around Tarrin's heart, and it too had started its slow yet irresistable work.


To:   Title                     EoF

Chapter 3

 

      I was like moving through an alternate reality.

      For the entire night, Tarrin and Sarraya slowly made their way through the howling sandstorm, the Faerie cowering within the safety of his hood as Tarrin stood against the fierce winds and blowing sand.  The sand removed any ability to see much past his own nose, which caused him to rely on Sarraya's Druidic ability to detect north after they left the nameless city.  That in itself had not been very easy, for the river stood in their way.  There were no bridges, nor would any boat go out in the sandstorm to ferry them across.  Tarrin had to rely on Sarraya to get across, as the Faerie used her magic to harden the water of the river in a narrow path, letting Tarrin walk across the water to get to the other side.

      Wet feet dried quickly in the howling wind, which intensified after they got outside the protection of the city's thick stone walls, after they abandoned any cover that would slow the gale down.  It was so strong that it nearly carried him off his feet several times, made him cower in his cloak and literally walk blindly as Sarraya called into his ear if he wandered off course.  He could not see, he could not smell through the scarf.  The wind howled, which was the only thing he could hear outside of Sarraya's shouting voice, which was itself barely comprehensible over the raging sound of the storm.  The cloak protected him from the driving, stinging sand, but he felt the sting of it against his feet as he walked, sure that the fur on his feet had been scoured off by the grinding action of the blowing sand.

      Time seemed to play tricks on him in the deprivation of the sandstorm.  It seemed as if he'd been walking for days, then it felt like he'd only been walking for minutes.  With no way to tell time, he was set adrift in a sea of his own speculation.  He had no idea if it was night or morning, or even afternoon, because the heavy wind-driven sand blotted out all light.  If there were any light to blot, anyway.  He had already been tired before he started out, so his physical exhaustion was no marker on time.  Fighting against the wind and the sand tired him even more, and his exhaustion added to his temporal vertigo.  Tarrin could go as long as he wanted without sleeping, just as he could sleep any time he wanted for as long as he wanted.  Because sleepiness never entered the equation, he had no stick by which to measure his exhaustion.

      The deprivation of senses, other than the loud howl of the wind, left him in a curious state of reverie.  Most of his thoughts focused on that girl in the inn back in the city, and the strange feelings she incited in him.  It had been a very long time since he'd felt those things.  It had been a long time since a complete stranger hadn't caused him to fear.  It had been so long.  He didn't quite know what to make of it, but he was relatively sure that it wouldn't be that easy.  He figured that his tiredness and his long isolation had caused him to want company, even to the point of quelling his feral impulses.  And the young girl was probably the only one who could have gotten that close, the one person in the inn that did not in any way present an openly intimidating or aggressive appearance.  She was a young girl, and Tarrin's human memories told him that young human girls were very rarely dangerous in a physical sense.  They may have a tongue like a razor, but a slap from one of them did little more than sting.  Because she did not seem threatening, Tarrin had allowed her to get closer than he would have allowed anyone else.

      Her getting close to him wasn't the core of his quandry, however.  It was how she made him feel.  When she handed him the scarf, he felt things that he hadn't felt in so long, he wasn't entirely sure what they were.  His entire life was dominated by suspicion, fear, and anger now.  Very few positive emotions managed to get through it, aside from his love for his family, friends, and his goddess.  The girl had caused him to feel...wanted.  That was the only way he could describe it.  She had given him her scarf, but she had also given him her trust, and her smile, and her attention.  It was something he didn't expect, nor did he expect to feel good about her attention.  To his own shock, he hadn't reacted to her badly, though she was a complete stranger.  That was the first time that had happened with someone other than a Were-cat since he left Suld.

      He just couldn't explain it, he couldn't forget it, and he couldn't let it go.  He played it over and over in his mind, his surprise when she handed him the scarf, the surge of impulse to fight or flee...then it just, went away.  That was all.  His defensive instincts just disappeared, washed away by the realization that she was being kind to him.  That had to be the last thing he expected, that was why it took him so long to understand what she was doing.

      Mist had changed.  Could he change too?  He doubted it, at least not so quickly.  Part of him didn't want it.  In this mad game he was playing, he needed his feral nature to help keep him alive.  After all, there was nobody he could trust out here, nobody he would trust.  Absolutely everyone out there would turn on him if they knew what he had.  Maybe even that girl.  Most likely, the combination of the long isolation and his weariness had subdued what he considered to be his normal reaction.  The girl's smile and her gift had helped ease the lonely ache in his heart, an ache for his sisters and his friends.  That had to be why he reacted to her in such a positive manner.

      He did find hope in the exchange, hope that he could lose some of his harsh ferality.  Despite needing it, it did cause him pain.  It hurt to be afraid all the time, it hurt to drive away people that, for all he knew, wanted nothing but to say hello and chat a while.  People that would probably make good friends, but for the fact that they were strangers, and that made them suspect in his mind.  He accepted what he was, and he lived with it, but he did not like it.  He did not like finding it so easy to kill, and have no regard for the lives of those around him.  He did not like seeing the fear in the eyes of those that met his.  It was why he had tried to change, at least before all the chaos in Dala Yar Arak ground his attempts to a screeching halt.  He wanted to be more like Triana.  He felt just a little hope that he could do just that, but it would have to be later, when he wasn't in so much danger.

      When he finally noticed light coming through the sand, he stopped and tried to figure out if it was morning or afternoon.  If they'd been walking for minutes, or hours, or maybe even days.  He'd been lost in thought, only responding when Sarraya told him he was drifting off course.  He noticed that the wind was starting to lessen.  "Sarraya, we're coming out of the storm," he called to her over the lessening wind.  It had gone from a ear-splitting shriek to merely a loud groan.  "How long have we been out here?"

      "I'm not sure," she shouted back to him.  "At least several hours."

      "That light means it's daytime, so it's been longer than that," he called back.  "Maybe morning?"

      "Like it matters," she shouted ruefully.  "Are you feeling alright?"

      "I think I have sand just about everywhere, but otherwise fine," he told her.

      The going became noticably easier as he walked.  The wind stopped trying to knock him over, and then walking against it became easier and easier as moments passed.  He didn't have to hold on to the cloak anymore, letting it go and flexing a paw that ached from holding a tight grip for a very long time.

      After some time of walking through the decreasing wind, he realized that it no longer howled.  It was merely a gentle breeze, and the features of the land were beginning to become apparent to him as the dust and sand in the air thinned out.  Most of it was caught up in the sandstorm, and he noticed curiously that it wasn't piled up all over the ground.  The ground looked windswept to be sure, nothing but clumps of some short, wiry grass that kept the soil from being picked up, but there were wide swaths of bare ground, eaten away by the wind to form gentle bowls in the earth.  Some of them were fifty spans across.  He'd walked through a few of them, so he knew that the bottoms of them did tend to collect dirt, dust, and sand as the wind eddied within them.  Visibility improved progressively moment by moment as the sandstorm's back edge passed over him, until the sun shone through the haze and he could see nearly half a longspan ahead.  The breeze dropped to a whisper, and there was a curious silence under the ringing in his ears caused by hearing the ridiculously loud wind howl in his ears all night.  He stopped, then turned around to see a black cloud of swirling shadows broiling behind him, moving away from them.  He lowered the scarf from his face and took off the visor, sneezing once before letting out a relieved sigh.

      "That's something I'll be sure to tell my children," Sarraya laughed as she came out from her hiding place in his hood.  She sneezed a few times, then put a bit of her gossamer gown over her mouth.  "I hope the dust settles," she complained.  "It's getting into my eyes."

      "It has to settle eventually," he told her.  "I get the feeling it's going to be in the air for a while, though.  Look how high up it goes."  He pointed up into the murky sky, caused by the dust.  It reduced the sun to a pale white disc that struggled to illuminate the ground beneath the cloud of dust.  "Be glad for it, Sarraya, and don't hope it settles any time soon."

      "Why?"

      "Because nothing in the air can see us," he told her calmly.  "If those flying things went around the storm, they could be very close to us.  This way they can't get an exact idea of where we are if they did."

      "Good point," Sarraya agreed.  "How long has it been since you slept?"

      "That doesn't matter," he said dismissively.  "What matters is what I can find to eat around here. I'm getting hungry."

      "Now that you've fleshed out again, I think you can make it on what fruit I can conjure til we get to a place more hunter friendly," she told him.

      "I'm certainly not going to find anything in this," he grunted.  "I can't even smell the ground.  All I smell is this scarf and dust."

      After stopping right where he stood and sitting down, he and Sarraya shared a meal of fruit and berries that the little Faerie conjured.  All of it had a faint taste of dust, which was understandable considering the fog-like pall of dust that hung in the air, but after a night of movement it was exactly what he needed.

      The wind began to pick up when they were done, when Tarrin stood up.  It blew and billowed the dust as it reached them, tugging at Tarrin's cloak, and the Were-cat realized after looking up that the wind was pulling the dust out of the area, blowing it towards the back of the sandstorm.  He cursed under his breath at the loss of their concealment, then reached under the cloak for his water skin.  It was only half full, but that was no problem.  Sarraya could conjure water as easily as she conjured fruit.  She had been the one to fill the skin he had.  She'd conjured the skin too.

      "What's the matter?" she asked.

      "The wind is pulling the dust out of the air," he told her, pointing up.  The dust was getting thinner and thinner, blowing towards the back of the storm.  "If those flyers went around, we're going to be exposed."

      "I think that's not much of an issue, Tarrin," Sarraya told him.  "I don't think the wind can completely get all the dust.  Besides, if it worries you that much, I'll go up and look."

      "That would make me feel better."

      Sarraya rose up from her seat on the ground and darted straight up, quickly leaving his sight.  Even the sound of her wings faded after a moment, leaving him to wait in relative silence for several moments.  Then he heard her winds again, growing louder by the second, and she appeared in front of him, moving towards him quickly.  "Nothing," she replied.  "I can't see around the sandstorm, but there's nothing in any other direction."

      "I guess that's a good thing.  How long would it take them to get around that storm?"

      "It would depend on how close they were when they started," she replied.  "But even if they started early, if I can't see them now, then they can't be anywhere near close to us.  We shouldn't be bothered all day by anything in the air."

      "That's a relief," he sighed contentedly.

      The wind did not get rid of all the dust, as Sarraya had predicted.  It hung like a dirty fog for most of the day, concealing the Were-cat from anyone who may happen to be overhead.  It was considerably challenging to run in the pall, Tarrin discovered, for his visibility was very poor, and many times he had to react with lightning speed to avoid running into the few obstacles the dusty plains could present.  But visibility improved as the morning progressed, allowing him to see further and further, until they came across a road.

      This baffled Tarrin, but only momentarily.  After all, there were trading posts on the border of the desert, and those posts had to have some way to move their goods back and forth to the rest of the kingdom.  Tarrin didn't see a road when he left the nameless city behind him, but that wasn't very much of a surprise, because he could barely see his own feet at that time.  The road was little more than a clean patch of sand and dirt running through the low scrub grass, the road's level below the land around it, wide enough for three wagons to pass one another.  The sandstorms had dug out the bare earth of the road and carried it away, leaving the road lower than the land around it by nearly a span.  The road was covered by at least three fingers of loose dust and sand, shifting and parting for his feet as he stepped into it, telling him that any wagon or cart would find this road very slow going.  It told him that he was on the right track, and it also told him that he was going to see some civilization before he crossed over into the desert.

      He followed the road for the rest of the day, moving more confidently in the dust-filled air now that he didn't have to worry about tripping over a log or running into the shallow gorges that tended to present themselves at inopportune moments.  The road's loose surface slowed him down a little, but not enough to make him feel as if he needed to abandon it for the scrubby grass.  The road proved to make time pass more quickly, because now he didn't have to worry about his direction or running into or over something.  He could simply follow the road and allow it to guide him.  It made for easy running, and that made the time flow by quickly.

      The dust had almost completely settled by sunset.  There were no objects in the sky, as Sarraya had predicted, but the clearing air did reveal something on the ground.  It was a wagon, a wagon with no animals to pull it, turned over on its top on the side of the road.  It rested on the gentle slope running from the ground above down into the road's relatively level middle, and it was rather large for a wagon.  It had curious wheels, made of some strange ivory-like substance which he couldn't identify, and they were about five times wider than standard wagon wheels.  That made sense, given the loose nature of the road on which it travelled.  The wide wheels would make it easier for the wagon to move.  The dust had stripped away any scents in the area, and the dust and sand carried along by the evening winds forced him to put the scarf up to keep it out of his nose and mouth.

      "Looks like someone didn't get to shelter," Sarraya said conversationally, zipping over the wagon.  The sand and dust had piled up around it like a snowdrift on the side that would have been leeward of the storm.

      "No tack or harness," Tarrin said.  "Either it was left behind, or the animals broke free."

      "You think there's anything in it?" Sarraya asked.

      "I don't know, but it'll serve as shelter for a night's sleeping," he said, reaching up and unclasping the cloak.  "It shouldn't be that hard to turn over."

      Settling himself beside the wagon, Tarrin sank his claws into the side of it, then began to pull.  As he suspected, the wagon wasn't very heavy--it had to be light, else it would sink into the road and be hard to move.  He turned it on its side, then slid partially under it and heaved it over and above him.

      The activity told him that he was stronger now.  He held the wagon completely off the ground, a feat that five men could not easily accomplish.  He turned towards the middle of the road and readied to set the wagon back down on its wheels--

      --and a sudden shrill scream nearly startled him out of his fur.

      Tarrin heaved the wagon aside, landing with a crash on its side beside him as he whirled around in the direction of the scream, claws out and eyes lit from within with their unholy greenish radiance.  Whatever had made that sound was right there, close enough to attack, and he hadn't sensed it.  Tarrin did not react well to surprise.  He growled loudly in his throat and laid his ears back, primal threat displays to whatever it was attacking him, telling it that it wouldn't take him without a fight.

      His surprise grew when he found himself looking down at a child of no more than eight years, screaming at the top of her lungs, pressing and shoving at a still form beneath her.

      A child!  All that nonsense over a human cub!  Tarrin rose up from his slouching battle stance, looking down at the little girl with annoyance and relief.  She was still screaming, trying to rouse another human beside her, an Arakite woman of youngish years.  The woman was breathing, if only just, and she had blood clotted with dust on the side of her head.  Around them were tattered canvas, broken shards of wood, and small bales of some grayish fiber.  Wool?  They must have been under the wagon, protected from the storm by the artificial cave in which they were trapped.

      The little girl was still screaming, staring up at him in terror.  All things considered, he could understand her fear, but she was starting to get on his nerves.  The woman, that was another story.  He approached them silently, ignoring the girl's increasing screams and the nearly hysterical look that had come into her eyes.  She was absolutely terrified.  He lowered his scarf and took off his visor to get a good look at the woman, ignoring the screaming cub as he knelt down by the woman's body.  She was still alive, but she'd hit her head very hard.  It was a nasty injury, explaining why she was unconscious.

      Almost immediately, a confrontation arose within him.  Part of him wanted to help the woman.  She was injured, and the child would not survive without the woman.  It would cost him very little to help the woman, and then he could send her and the child on their way with no trouble on his part.  But the other part of him rejected that idea.  The woman was a stranger, a potential enemy, and it did not want to aid an enemy.  Her life, her survival, would do nothing for him.  It meant nothing to him.  To leave her here to die would not affect him in the slightest.  To help her would mean getting close to her, exposing himself to her, and he did not want any part of that.

      But there was little even his feral instincts could do against the suffering of the child.  Seeing her reminded him of Janette, his little mother.  He would be devastated if she was left somewhere to die, if someone had had the chance to help her and refused.  The woman meant very little to him, but no part of him could refuse the suffering of the child.

      The little girl continued to scream, rooted to the spot.  Tarrin looked down at her in a way that made her immediately stop screaming, causing her to stare at him with fear in her eyes.  He looked away from her as Sarraya flitted over, looking down at the woman.  Her features made her the girl's mother, and she was dressed nicely enough to tell him that she was no servant.  She had probably owned the wagon that had turned over on them.  But why were they still here?  Surely she'd been travelling with others, and they should have stopped and helped them.  Maybe she could give him those answers.

      Reaching down with his paw, he absently reached out and touched the Weave.

      And what responded was enough to nearly make him faint.

      The totality of the Weave sought to infuse him within a heartbeat, a power greater than anything he had ever felt from the Weave before.  It did not try to flow into him.  It simply was there, all of it, as if the entire Weave had tried to place itself within him.  As quickly as it struck him, Tarrin reacted instinctively, pushing himself away from that staggering power before he could understand what had happened.  The backlash of his action was immense, almost mind-numbingly painful, and it tore a ragged cry from him.  The physical effect of the backlash, a sudden displacement of the air around him, ripped his shirt in a few places and caused the little girl to collapse on top of her mother in abject terror, hugging her as if Death Herself had come for her.

      Kneeling there in vacant confusion, Tarrin put a paw on the back of his head, panting heavily to overcome the intense pain of the forced separation.  What had just happened?  That wasn't supposed to happen!  There was no buildup at all, the power was just there!  Blinking, he looked around, and then he reached out with his other senses, reached out to feel what was around him.  And the backlash!  It was like nothing he'd ever felt before!  If it would have been just a little stronger, it may have killed him!

      Of course.  Stupid, stupid, stupid!  He was kneeling in a minor Conduit!  No wonder!  Teach him to go and simply try to use Sorcery without getting a feel for the local Weave!  The little girl's screaming and carrying on had distracted him, she and his internal conflict had caused him to ignore what he was feeling around him, because that was something that he would have noticed otherwise.

      "Tarrin, what happened?" Sarraya asked, winking into visibility.

      "I'm kneeling in a Conduit," he said, a bit chagrined.  "The cub's screaming distracted me, I wasn't paying attention when I tried to touch the Weave."

      Sarraya looked at him, then she began to laugh uncontrollably.  "A Doomwalker can't touch you, you eat Demons for breakfast, and you nearly get killed by a hysterical human child!" she said, nearly falling out of the air.  "This is just too much!"

      "Shut up," he growled in embarassment, reaching down and picking up the injured woman gently.  The little girl let go of her mother and stared up at Tarrin in confusion and fear.  "I'm not going to hurt you," he told the girl in Arakite.  "I need to move your mother over to the wagon so I can help her.  I can't do it right here."

      Accompanied by Sarraya's endless laughter, Tarrin looked down at the woman.  Part of him was ready to pick her up, but the other part resisted, caused him to kneel there for a very long moment and stare down at the woman like she was a live snake.  To reach down and touch her, to pick her up, it would be the point of no return.  He would be committed to the act, and for good or ill he would have to finish it through.  He felt foolish for fearing an unconscious, injured woman, but he simply could not help what he was feeling.  He looked down at her, and he felt the fear.  This was a stranger, an unknown, a person that could do him harm.  He could not deny that.  But he also couldn't deny that his need to help the child overwhelmed his aversion to exposing himself to this woman.  Feeling like he had very little choice in the matter, Tarrin reached down and scooped up the woman in his strong arms.  He picked her up and carried the human woman over to the wagon.  It had rolled back over on its top after Tarrin tossed it aside, and the Were-cat laid the woman on the underside gently as the little girl followed behind, finger in her mouth, her eyes still filled with terror.  But she would not leave her mother, so she remained close to him as he laid the woman down gently.  He reached down absently and scooped up the girl with a paw, making her squeak in fear, but she calmed immediately when he set her down beside her mother on the top of the overturned wagon.  Tarrin reached down and put his paw on the woman's chest, and after Sarraya came back, still laughing, he reached out and touched the Weave again.

      This time it was normal.  Tarrin resisted the incoming avalanche of power as it rushed into him, caused his paws to limn over in Magelight, until he felt Sarraya's Druidic constraints choke off that flood to a managable level.  With Sarraya's continuing laughter chiming in his ears, Tarrin sent flows of Earth, Water, and Divine power into the woman, and wove them together into the complicated weaves of healing.  He released the weave and allowed it to do its work, to attack the injuries within the woman, to mend them and restore her to health.  The woman's breathing became stronger, the grayish pall in her skin immediately cleared up, returned to a normal dusky brown.  The wound in her head knitted itself back to perfect health, though it was impossible to see under the ugly black mass of clotted blood on the side of her head.

      The Weave felt...different to him.  He couldn't quite put his finger on what felt different, but something definitely did.  Almost as if it were closer, somehow.  Of course, the very close proximity of a Conduit probably was causing that, but he wasn't quite sure if that was the case or not.  Sarraya was choking it off, but she wasn't choking off as much as she would have.  It was like he had more control of it now, able to manage more than before.  The closeness of the Conduit shouldn't have that kind of effect.  But there were other things to worry about now, he'd think about that when he had the time.  It wasn't an important issue at the moment, not as important as the unease he felt being near the strange woman.

      Letting go of the Weave easily with Sarraya helping him, Tarrin removed his paw from the woman's chest and looked down at the pair of them calmly.  The girl had seen the light around his paw, and she had been mesmerized by it, it seemed, for the fear that had been in her eyes had been replaced by wonderment.  Tarrin blinked and realized that he was within arm's reach of the woman, and quickly stood up and got a safe distance away.  His quick action startled the little girl in the act of reaching out to touch his paw, making her look up at him in confusion before leaning down and hugging her mother.

      Sarraya's laughing stopped, but she still snickered and giggled from time to time.  "How is she?"

      "She's going to be fine," Tarrin told her.  "She'll be alright, little cub," he told the girl in Arakite.  He took his first good look at the girl.  She was rather cute, in an Arakite sense, with pattern Arakite skin, hair and eyes.  Her features were a bit sharper than the standard Arakite, and he realized that she was very skinny under her pretty cream-colored dress, a dress now brown from dirt, dust, and sand.  Her cheeks were sunken, and her lips were swollen.  She was dehydrated.  It was amazing that she had the energy to scream as loudly as she did.  "You need some water, and some food.  I think I have some in my pack somewhere.  You just sit here and wait for your mother to wake up, and I'll get you something."

      Tarrin stepped away from the two of them, and Sarraya followed.  "I think a goodly amount of water is called for here, Sarraya," he told her quietly.  "Both of them are dehydrated.  They're going to need alot of water.  And we'll need some decent food.  They have a ways to go, so they'll need enough to get them back to that city too."

      "I can conjure up some bread and honey for them, but you know I won't conjure meat."  That limitation was a conscious one for Sarraya rather than a limit on her ability.  Sarraya refused to conjure any animal for food, since it would appear alive, and she objected to summoning animals from the wild with the implicit reason to kill them.  She didn't mind hunting, it was a natural process, but her reasoning was that a conjured animal had no chance to get away.  So she refused to allow that to happen.  If Tarrin wanted meat, he had to find it himself the old-fashioned way.

      "I think that will be enough," he assured her.  He looked back at them, and realized that he had to leave them quickly.  Stay long enough to make sure they were alright, then leave them.  They'd be in much more danger with him near than they'd be alone.  Besides, being close to them made him feel uneasy, uncomfortable, and those were very bad feelings for him.  It was only a two day walk back to that nameless city for a human, so it wasn't like he was abandoning them out in the middle of nowhere.  All they had to do was follow the road.  It gnawed at him a bit that he was leaving them alone, but the feral disposition in him squashed that feeling quickly and reminded him that whether or not they lived was none of his concern.

      Sarraya conjured up a large leather cloth, and then set to work conjuring a meal large enough for two starving refugees.  She had the foresight to conjure up several waterskins as well as a stone urn, and she filled all of them with water.  By the time she was done, the woman began to make low grumbling sounds.  She was waking up.  Sarraya winked out of sight as Tarrin picked up several of the skins and moved towards the humans.

      The woman opened her eyes just as Tarrin was approaching with the waterskins.  She looked up at her daughter, who was beginning to cry and hug the woman fiercely, then she turned and looked at him.  Her eyes widened in surprise, but there wasn't the irrational outburst that had come from the girl.  There was definitely fear in her eyes, but it was tempered by the fact that she was alive and whole, and that her daughter was unharmed.  The woman sat up and cradled the girl in one arm as her other hand touched the massive clot on the side of her head tentatively.  There was confusion in her eyes now, and she looked up at Tarrin with fear, bewilderment, and a little awe at his intimidating size.

      "It's healed," he told her in Arakite.  "You're safe for the moment."

      "Wh-Who are you?" she asked in a trembling voice.  "It's alright, Sami, it's alright.  Calm down now."

      "Who I am doesn't matter," he replied calmly.  "I'm going to leave you with enough food and water to recover, and enough to get back to a city.  There's a city two day's walk that way," he said, pointing the way he'd come.  "But I think you already knew that."

      "Sargon," she filled in.  "What happened to the others?"

      "I found you alone," he told her.  "They must have left you behind."

      "As bad as that storm was, I'd be surprised if they knew it by the time they got to Sargon," she grunted, looking at him.  "They probably looked around and realized that my wagon wasn't there."

      "Will they look for you?"

      "They'd better," she said ominously.

      "Then waiting here for a while may not be a bad idea," he said, throwing his cloak back over his shoulders.  "If they don't come back, then you shouldn't have too much trouble getting back to that city."

      "You're leaving?" the woman asked urgently.  "But I didn't get to thank you, or find out your name or anything!"

      "I am no one worth your time," he said simply.  "I was never here."

      "But what if something attacks us?"

      "There's nothing out here to attack you," he replied.

      "What about the Trolls?  They haven't come this far?"

      That made his ears pick up.  Were-cats--all of Fae-da'Nar for that matter--hated Trolls.  Goblinoids existed outside the natural order, destroying the balance of nature more aggressively than humans did, and that made them the mortal enemies of the Forest Folk.  Any Were-kin worth his fur would go ten longspans out of his way to kill a Goblinoid.

      But what were Trolls doing out in this arid plain?  This wasn't the range of a Troll.  They preferred forested foothills and mountains, a climate much cooler than the hot plains of the mid-continent.

      "I haven't seen any Trolls," Tarrin told her warily.  "I haven't seen anything, because of the storm.  What are Trolls doing in Saranam?  This isn't their range."

      "They started showing up about two months ago," the woman replied.  "At first, it was just one or two, but then we saw more and more of them north of the trading post.  About a month ago, we realized that there was all but an army to the north, and the Trolls were only a part of it.  They swept down about two tendays ago and took over the border with the desert.  We barely managed to get away."

      Trolls raiding in Saranam?  And they were spreading out along the border of the desert?  He'd seen Trolls working for his enemies before.  These Trolls would have no reason to block off the desert, but to keep him from getting into it.  Whoever had sent that Wyvern and the Trolls was up to his or her old tricks again, setting up a picket, a gauntlet through which he had to pass to reach the safety of the Desert of Swirling Sands.

      They knew where he was going.  He had never really made that much of a secret, and those that knew him knew that he was friends with a Selani, so it was no stretch to conclude that he was going to go to the desert.  Now he understood why they weren't actively hunting him down.  Why waste resources trying to find him on the vast plains of Saranam when they knew where he was going to be?  He had to cross that border to get into the desert.  So long as they covered a majority of it, they had a good chance to encounter him when he arrived.  And Trolls were one of the few enemies which Tarrin feared.  Not any single Troll, he was much too skilled and powerful to be bested by one, but Trolls fought in packs.  A single Troll was no problem, but thirty of them was another matter.  If he had to wade through a pack of Trolls to get to the desert, it put his success very much in doubt.  He would have to resort to Sorcery, and he had the feeling that his adversaries knew that he would have to resort to Sorcery...so they may have some sort of plan.  They wouldn't put their Trolls in jeopardy otherwise, it was a foolish waste of very powerful assets.  There wasn't an army in the world that would relish the task of having to face a horde of Trolls.

      No, he wasn't going to play their game.  He had the feeling that they had set the rules very much in their own favor.  Now that he knew what was waiting for him, he could devise a way to get past them safely before he reached that juncture.  If it took her twenty days to get this far in a wagon, then it would take him about ten to twelve days to run the same distance.  If he didn't hurry.

      "I haven't seen any sign of Trolls," he repeated.  "There's nothing between you and the city but an empty road.  If you're that worried about Trolls, then I suggest you walk fast."

      "You're going to abandon us?" she asked in disbelief.

      "What happens to you after I leave this place doesn't concern me," he said stonily, staring at her with emotionless eyes.  "If not for that child, I would have left you to die.  Don't push my patience, female, or I'll put you back in the same condition I found you in."

      She gaped at him, clutching at her child instinctively.

      "I am no savior or hero, female.  I am just a nameless traveller with too much of a soft spot for children.  I'll give you what you need to make it back to your city.  Whether or not you reach it all depends on you."

      There was nothing she could say in the face of such a statement.  She just clutched her child in tight arms and stared at him in disbelief, and not more than a little fear.

      Sensing her fear, angry with himself that he would fear someone who was obviously terrified of him, Tarrin snorted and threw the waterskins down near the wagon.  "There's a spread back there with enough food on it to last you to that city," he told them testily, pointing behind him.  He placed the visor over his eyes, pulled up the hood of the cloak, then wound the scarf around his neck, around the outside of the hood loosely.  "You should wait here for tonight, then start out in the morning.  Once you do, don't stop until you reach safety."

      He looked sideways at the little girl.  There was something about her, something curious.  It was something he was just starting to notice, as if there was an aspect of her that had been hidden from his view before, but was now becoming clear.  It wasn't just her.  He could almost see the Weave, almost as if he had charged the strands around him and set them glowing, but barely enough to see them in the daylight.  Despite that unseeing sense, he could feel them all around him much more clearly than he usually would be able to do.  Usually he could only feel the local strands, and discern a Conduit from a strand, but would have to touch the Weave to learn anything more precise.  But now each strand seemed to be distinct and separate, as if he could feel how large they were without touching the Weave, how much energy they possessed, and where and how they joined with Conduits or other strands.

      The little girl had potential.  Alot of potential.  She was a Sorcerer.  Or she would be, in about eight years, and a very strong one.

      That was why she seemed suddenly unusual.  He was sensing the Weave, and despite the fact that her talent had yet to manifest, it still connected her to the Weave in a manner unlike other people.

      "What?" the woman asked in a cautious voice.  Tarrin realized that he was staring at the girl.  He blinked and looked away, trying to understand this alteration in the Weave.  Was it in the Weave?  Maybe it was something of an aftereffect of touching the Weave inside that Conduit.  Perhaps it left him with a temporary connection to the Weave, a tenuous one through which he could do nothing but sense.  He'd never touched the Weave directly through a Conduit before--at least not willingly--so he wasn't very familiar with any possible side effects of such an act.

      Again, it was something that could wait until he had the time and opportunity to think it through.  Being so close to the woman was still making him just a bit edgy, which was probably why he didn't notice the expanded sense of the Weave sooner.  A small part of him had this irrational worry that she was going to suddenly jump up and attack him, and despite the fact that he knew he could kill her with no danger to himself, it just wouldn't go away.  And it was something that he just couldn't ignore, no matter how much his rational mind told him that the woman was no threat to him.

      His relief from his feral nature hadn't lasted that long.  The very first encounter with strangers after the girl, and he had quickly reverted to his old self.

      Tarrin levelled his gaze on the woman, who was now painted over in gentle violets through the tinting of the visor.  "In six years, take your daughter to Sharadar," he told her evenly.  "Take her to the Tower of Sorcery in Abrodar, and enroll her in the school there."

      "Why should I do that?"

      "Because in ten years, that girl will be katzh-dashi," he replied bluntly, using a term that the woman would certainly understand.  "The girl has considerable potential.  She'll be a strong Sorceress."

      He wasn't about to send her to Suld.  He didn't trust anyone in the Tower outside of Sevren and Dolanna.  If she had to learn about Sorcery, it was better for her to go to Sharadar.  In six years, Sharadar may have the only Tower left standing.  That depended on how quickly he could ferret out the spy in the Tower and get rid of her.

      "Stay put until tomorrow, then walk fast," he told her.  "Protect the girl.  In twenty years, she'll be a woman of great importance.  And thanks for the warning about the Trolls," he added as an afterthought.

      The woman stared at him in surprise, but he didn't pay her much mind.  He had a long way to go, and he had quite a bit to ponder while travelling.  He had to think up a way to get around the Trolls with a minimum of danger to himself, and he wanted to see if this curious after-effect of touching the Conduit would fade sooner or later.  He pulled the cloak over his shoulders, looking down at the pair one more time, then he started walking past them.  He kept his ears and senses open to feel or hear it if the woman suddenly rushed him, but such a thing didn't happen.

      She did call to him one more time, however, after he had passed her and started along the road towards the desert, a road whose end would present him with an exciting passage into the desert.  "Thank you!" she called.  "Thank you for saving us!"

      Tarrin made no visible sign that he had heard her, and there was nothing inside that reacted to her gratitude.  Helping her was only a means to protect the child.  That was all that really mattered to him.  There was nothing out in the plains to threaten them, so they would simply have a long walk ahead.  He expected them to make it with no problem, and that released him from any sort of feeling of responsibility for them.  He simply walked away from them, into the setting sun, leaving them to whatever fates smiled or frowned upon them.

      And he didn't think twice about it.

 

      It wouldn't fade.

      Tarrin lay in a shallow bowl, dozing after a morning of dreamless slumber in one of the shallow depressions caused by the wind, sandwiched between a sand-colored leather spread that concealed him from any observers and thick bales of wool that Sarraya had Summoned from where the woman and child had been.  He had moved on to get away from the woman, moved most of the night until his weariness forced him to stop.  It wasn't sleepiness, it was the exertion of nearly three days of constant activity with very little rest.  He still felt something of an aversion to shifting into cat form, so he had slept in his humanoid form under the leather cover that Sarraya conjured, laying on a bed of sheared wool that kept him quite warm and comfortable.

      Despite a night and morning, the sense of the Weave had not faded.  He could still almost see it, sense every strand around him, sense their sizes and power and position within the Weave.  He could feel the magic within them, feel it in a way that made the magic pulse with the beating of his heart.  It confused him that the sense of it had yet to fade, even after so long.  It made him start to wonder if it was going to fade at all.

      That wasn't the only strange feeling about his magic.  Before, when he had used it, he had felt...more in control.  Almost as if the power flooding him wasn't as intimidating as it had once been.  He'd still needed Sarraya to help control it, but she didn't have to work as hard as usual.  She even told him so.  Somehow, he knew that the sense of the Weave and this alteration in his Sorcery were related.  But what had caused the changes?  He hadn't really used his power since Dala Yar Arak, except for twice, and he hadn't felt any differences the first time.  Only now.  It made him think about what was different between then and now, what had changed that could possibly explain a change in the way he used Sorcery.

      Well, the one explanation was the Conduit.  He'd used Sorcery within a Conduit once before, but he didn't really remember that much about it.  It had been the first time he'd fought Jegojah, and the Doomwalker had pushed him into the Heart of the Goddess, the largest and most concentrated Conduit in the Weave.  But this time he remained coherent afterward, and it had been after that that he'd noticed the change.  So it was possible that the overload of trying to touch the Weave through a Conduit had created the change in feeling.

      The other explanation was him.  Shiika's draining kiss had done more than drain away his life energy, it had aged him.  He'd grown over a span since then, his hair had grown, his features had changed.  A Sorcerer's ability to use his magic was a direct relationship to his body.  It was the body's physical limits that determined how much power a Sorcerer could hold, and that amount almost never changed as the Sorcerer aged.  But Tarrin wasn't human, and his Were-cat body had a natural affinity and aptitide for magical energy.  Part of what he was, his very nature and composition, was magic.  The kiss from the Succubus had caused him to grow, to become stronger, to age.  If the aging had changed his body, it was very possible that it had also affected his Sorcery in a similar fashion.

      For Tarrin, his magic was very much tied up in his body, and his body was very much tied up in his magic.

      Of the two, the second seemed to make more sense.  If Tarrin's aged body had expanded its limitations of Sorcery, it would explain why it had seemed easier to use it.  But it didn't explain this sense of the Weave, why he could feel it around him so clearly now.  The Conduit theory seemed to support the expansion in sense better, but it did nothing to explain why Sorcery seemed more tractable.

      Well, there was one guaranteed way to find out.  This was something that he felt he'd better figure out before he went and fried himself by accident.

      "Mother," he whispered under his breath.  "Are you listening?"

      Of course I am, the Goddess replied immediately.  The sense of her presence still had yet to fade within him, so there was no expansion of self that he'd felt during her earlier visitations.  It was always with him now, a gentle glow just outside his soul that constantly bathed him with gentle love and assurance.  And the answer is the second.  Your body is different now, and it is why the Weave seems different to you.

      "But it feels...less overwhelming."

      As it should, she replied.  But that is no reason to begin experimenting.  You are stronger now, both in your ability to hold magic and your aptitude to control it, and those cancel one another out.  You must understand the dangers involved with the changes in your power.

      "What do you mean?"

      Those dangers haven't changed, they have just become more serious.  There is no room for error now, my dear kitten.  Your power is now beyond Sarraya's ability to control.  If you lose control, she cannot help you.

      "She helped me with the Conduit."

      No, you helped yourself when you tapped that Conduit, she corrected.  Remember the backlash?  Do you feel a backlash when Sarraya helps you?  Have you ever felt a backlash like that before?

      "No," he answered soberly, to both questions.

      That should tell you what happened, then.  You must be very careful, my kitten, very careful.  Sorcery is just like Druidic magic for you now.  You have no room for error, so you must exercise the most extreme caution when you use it.

      "But she helped me use it to heal."

      Yes, she did, but that was because you were not out of control, she replied immediately.  You were fully coherent, and you were aiding her by controlling the inflow of power over what she was restricting.  What I'm saying is that if you use your full power, you will be beyond Sarraya's ability to stop you.  And if you attempt to cut yourself off while filled with that power, it's very possible that the backlash will kill you.

      Tarrin absorbed that in sober silence.  Sarraya said that it may come to this, that he grew beyond her ability to control him.  Thanks to Shiika, that had happened.  It meant that there wouldn't be any mass rearranging of the local geography, and his idea to simply sweep the Trolls out of his way with magic was no longer a viable option.  Sarraya could help him control his magic when it wasn't his full power, but since he didn't know where the line was between her control and beyond her control, he wasn't about to experiemtnt to find it.  If he took in too much power for Sarraya to counter, then he'd be exposing himself to very real danger.  The backlash of cutting himself off may kill him.

      "I, I understand, Mother," he said grimly.  "So this sense of the Weave isn't going to fade?"

      No.  It is simply an aspect of your growing connection to the Weave.  You are coming into the fullness of your power, my kitten.  This will not be the first change that you notice, and you're going to find that Sorcery is much more versatile and useful than you believe.

      "How do you mean?"

      The Goddess chuckled in his mind.  Alright, I'll give you a hint.  What's the fundamental process to weaving?

      Tarrin groped for a moment to put into words something that he did without thought.  "Well, you touch the Weave.  Then you draw in the power, then you weave the flows, then you release it to let it do its work."

      Right.

      "And?"

      And what? she asked in a teasing voice.

      "That's the hint?" he asked in annoyance.

      I didn't say it was going to be an obvious hint, she told him with a giggle.  But since you're going to be dense, tell me the three strictures of using Sorcery.

      "You can't use Sorcery on yourself," he answered automatically.  "You can't weave where you can't see, and you can't weave a spell that requires more magic than you can hold.  Unless you know how to bridge the power," he amended hastily.

      I'm so glad you were paying attention when Dolanna was instructing you, the Goddess teased.  Now, to that third rule.  Why do you say it can be broken?

      "Because I've broken it," he answered, a bit pugnaciously.  "And Dolanna told me that there are advanced tricks to let experienced Sorcerers weave spells beyond their ability.  I don't know what they call it, but that's how it feels when I do it, so that's what I call it."

      Since you can break the third rule, doesn't it stand to reason that there are also exceptions for the other two?

      "Well, High Sorcery lets someone use Sorcery on himself, so that's the exception there.  And you can weave blind if you're very good.  Dolanna can weave blind."

      So, what do those exceptions show you?

      "What do you mean?"

      Think about it.  There is no rule that cannot be broken.  What does that mean to you?

      "That you make stupid rules?"

      Tarrin! the Goddess snapped.  She even used his name, so he knew he'd gone beyond the bounds almost immediately.

      "Sorry, but you told me to think about it," he said defensively.  "It doesn't make much sense to have a rule when you also have a way to make the rule pointless."

      Those rules exist for those just learning, so they know where not to go, she told him, a bit testily.  Now stop being irritating and answer the question.  What does it mean to you?

      Tarrin closed his eyes and considered it.  There was no rule that did not have an exception.  Outside of a rather bad rule system, what it told him was that there was alot more to the Weave, and to Sorcery, than one person could imagine.  The Ancients were said to have powers that made modern Sorcerers look like Initiates.  It stood to reason that they knew how to use the power in ways that the modern Sorcerer did not, which meant that they could transcend the rules by which the modern Sorcerer operates.  If there was no rule that could not be broken, then perhaps that meant that the modern Sorcerer really didn't know the true rules.  He only knew what small piece of the true rules he could understand, and pieced together an incomplete understanding of the rest.  And that adherance to things that weren't complete meant that he had little chance to reach beyond a plateau of ability.

      I'm impressed, the Goddess beamed.  Sometimes your intellect surprises me, kitten.  Now, what does that mean to you?

      "That the Ancients weren't inherently stronger.  They just knew more than we do."

      Yes and no.  Truth be told, the Ancients did have more aptitude than the modern Sorcerer, but you're partially right.  There are a good number of Sorcerers out there now that have as much aptitude as the Ancients.  In some cases, as you, Keritanima, Jenna, Dolanna, Sevren, all of the Council, Jula, and some you don't know, those Sorcerers have even more aptitude.  Their inherent aptitude is greater than the average Ancient.  So it stands to reason that you, or any of them, can do almost anything an Ancient can do, right?

      "I sorta figured that.  They call me a Weavespinner, and they existed back when the Ancients were still here.  It's why they couldn't train me, because there's nobody left that knew how Weavespinners used their magic."

      They did.  You're the first Weavespinner since the Age of Power.  But you're not the last.

      "Jenna," he said immediately.

      Among several, she affirmed.  The old powers are reawakening, kitten.  In you, Jenna, and several others you don't know.  It's also why you fought with those two Demons.  The Wizards and the Priests are also regaining powers lost to them for a long time, returning to the power they could hold before the Breaking.

      "But won't that just cause another Breaking?"

      In time, it could, she admitted.  But that's something that wouldn't happen for a very long time.  But we're getting off the point.  You just said exactly what I've been getting at, kitten..

      "I just--about there being nobody left that knows how Weavespinners use their power?"

      Exactly.  That should mean something to you.

      "It means that there's more than one way to use Sorcery."

      I'm so glad it seems obvious to you, the Goddess chuckled.  It's something you already know, after all.  High Sorcery is simply an alternative method of using Sorcery.  They're different, but they're also the same.  Each has its own set of rules and restrictions under which you have to operate, but when you boil it all down to stock, it's just two sides of the same coin.  But in this case, kitten, the coin has more than two sides.

      "You mean there's more than two ways to use Sorcery."

      Obviously, she told him offhandedly.  Your sense of the Weave has changed, my kitten.  Think about what that means, in more than narrow terms. Just don't try to solve this mystery today.  It's something that's going to take you some time.

      "Alright.  Goddess, what did you mean when you said that the old powers are coming back?"

      Just what I said.  Powers that have been sleeping for thousands of years are starting to return to the world.  You are one of them.  Your powers are one of the old powers, my kitten.  You're a Weavespinner.  And I think that now, you finally begin to understand what that truly means.  I told you once before that it was something that they call you without understanding its true meaning.  Now you begin to understand that meaning.

      "I think I do," he answered soberly.  "What made them come back?"

      That's something that would take years to explain, kitten, but the short of it is that it was the ordained time, she replied.

      "It seems awfully fast."

      Time is a subjective thing, kitten.  It moves at different paces for different things.

      "So this means that Wizards can summon Demons again?"

      They always could.  It's just now the spells that they needed to control the Demons work again--or, more to the point, they've finally rediscovered those spells after them being hidden for thousands of years.  Don't worry, you're not going to be rubbing elbows with Demonkind every other day.  There are only a handful of spellbooks left that hold those spells, and without them, no sane Wizard would dare try to summon a Demon.

      "That's a relief," he sighed.  "I'd rather not have to face them again."  He closed his eyes again.  "I take it that you're not going to teach me anything about Sorcery?"

      I can't do that for you, kitten.  I'm your patroness, and you're my direct agent in the game we play.  That means that I can't give you that kind of direct aid.  It's against the rules under which we operate.

      She said it with strange inflection, and when the Goddess did that, it told him that she was trying to pass along some information that she couldn't directly give to him.

      He mulled it over for a moment, but he decided that this too was something that he wouldn't solve quickly.  But he had the feeling that it would reveal itself in time.

      I don't have much more time, kitten.  All I can tell you is to keep going the way you're going, and be very careful when you get to the border.   You know what's waiting there for you, and now you understand the care you're going to have to exercise to get past it in one piece.  But you will.  I know you will.  I have great faith in you, my dear kitten.  I know you won't let me down.

      And when you get into the desert, you'll find an entirely new and exciting world waiting to challenge you.

      And then she fell silent, and Tarrin knew in his heart that she would say no more.

      As always, she left him with more questions than answers.

      But this time, she had left him with some interesting information.  That the old powers were returning to the world, and that his powers, as well as the powers of his enemies, they were all growing stronger.  It was an increase in the stakes in the dangerous game of chance they played with one another.  It certainly explained why the Zakkites had two Demons working for them.  Because now they could control the Demons they could summon from the Abyss.  It explained why he felt stronger now, and maybe it had nothing to do with Shiika.

      That, or Shiika's attack on him, her draining and the subsequent aging, had been ordained.

      That was something of a scary thought.  That what to him had been a completely random act, an act undertaken in the middle of a fight, had been something that was fated to happen, it worried him.  It made him wonder just how much had happened to him, how much he had done, had been things that would have happened no matter what.  It made him feel curiously helpless, as if he were nothing but an actor playing out a part, rather than a free-willed individual doing what he wanted to do.  Tarrin didn't like feeling helpless.

      "I heard half of that," Sarraya noted from just beside his head.  "What old powers are coming back?"

      "All of them," he replied quietly.  "She said that all the old powers were returning.  She said because it was the right time for it."

      "That's certainly interesting information.  I guess that means that we're going to be entering another Age of Power, and it's doomed to end in another Breaking.  Humans certainly won't learn their lesson from the last one."

      "I guess so," he sighed.

      "What was all that about other Sorcery?"

      "I think the Goddess was trying to tell me that I should be trying to learn how the old Weavespinners used their magic," he told her.  "She said that the changes I feel in the Weave are actually changes inside me, and that now I'm ready to try to expand my abilities.  She also told me why the Weave feels different to me.  Shiika's little gift did more than age my body.  It also changed my touch on the Weave.  It made me stronger."  He sighed.  "She told me that I'm beyond your power now, Sarraya.  If I lose control, you won't be able to stop me.  So I don't think you should try.  It might get you killed."

      "I knew it would come to this, Tarrin," she told him evenly.  "Your power has been growing ever since we met.  Every time you use it, you're stronger the next time.  Almost like every touch on the Weave brings it closer to you.  What this means is that now you can't use Sorcery unless we really don't have much choice, and when we do it, you have to be very calm, very collected, and know exactly what you intend to do.  And you can't do anything that I can't control."

      "I figured that already," he replied.  "I was going to use Sorcery to sweep out the Trolls at the border, but now we're going to have to find another way."  He looked up into the sky, at the Skybands.  "She said something funny.  She said that she couldn't teach me how to use Weavespinner magic, but she said it in a strange way.  I think she was trying to tell me that there is someone that can teach me that."

      "But all the Weavespinners are long gone," Sarraya protested.  "They disappeared with the Ancients and the Sha'Kar."

      "I know.  That's why I can't figure it out.  There's just nobody left to teach me something that disappeared a thousand years ago."

      "There has to be someone.  She wouldn't have told you that otherwise."

      "I know, but I haven't got the faintest idea who.  Not even the katzh-dashi know, and if anyone in the world would know, it's them."

      "Why wouldn't she teach you?"

      "She said she's not allowed.  She's my patron, and she can't give me that kind of help.  It's against their rules."

      "Well that's no big deal, Tarrin," Sarraya said impishly.  "Answer me this.  Do you think a God would know something like that?"

      "Well, they've been around since the age of Power, so they might," he said after a moment.  "I don't know if gods use Sorcery."

      "You're being very narrow-minded, Tarrin," Sarraya chuckled.  "Gods know lots of things that really don't do them any good.  It's part of what being a god is all about.  You know, that omniscience angle to impress the peons."

      Tarrin had to laugh at her irreverent tone.

      "And you've forgotten, you're an equal-opportunity peon.  You're walking around with more than one god under your belt.  I remember what Dolanna said about you, and about these," she said, and he felt her finger touch his shoulder, touch the fabric of his shirt, under which were his Selani brands.  "That when Allia put them on you, you became subject to the Selani goddess.  When you get into the desert, you think you could convince her to teach you what you need to know?  After all, she's not your patron.  She's just a goddess that has partial ownership of you.  She isn't bound by the same rules that your Goddess is."

      Tarrin sat up, then he looked down at the reclining Faerie with wide eyes.  What a clever idea!  Of course!  Fara'Nae wouldn't be bound by the same restrictions as the Goddess!  If he could convince her to teach him, she very well may be able to do so, provided that she knew about Sorcery.  When he passed into the desert, he would pass into her lands.  He would be right where he'd need to be to learn anything she was willing to teach.

      "Sarraya, if you weren't so small, I'd kiss you," he said sincerely.  "That's a very good idea.  She may not know what I need to know, but it's still a great idea."

      "Well, you finally admit to my superiority," she said with a wink.

      "Don't push it, bug," he teased with a smile, then he flopped back down onto his bedroll.

      It was certainly possible.  Only a god would really know what he needed to learn, and Fara'Nae did have a stake in him.  If she did know how Sorcery worked, she could conceivably teach him what had been forgotten by man for a thousand years.  It gave him a new reason to get into the desert, a greater motivation.

      All that stood in his way was an army of Trolls.

      He hadn't forgotten about that.  He couldn't just blast them out of his way now, so he had to come up with something else to get around them.  But he was a clever Were-cat, with a devious companion.  If he couldn't use brute force, then he could always use deception and subterfuge.  Tarrin could handle deception and subterfuge, and Sarraya was born with vast quantities of it.

      If there was a way around those Trolls, they would find it.

      But that was something that was still days away.  They had quite a bit of travelling to do first, and plenty of time to come up with a good plan to get them safely into the desert.  When the time came, they'd be ready.

      But until then, there was time to plan.  Time to prepare.  Time.  It was something that he'd felt was in short supply lately, but here, now, at least for this problem, he still had a great deal of it.  He felt nearly luxuriously afforded that precious item, at least for a little while.  Until his time ran out, anyway.

      Tarrin looked up into the bright sky, looking at the narrow white lines that were the Skybands as they crossed the empty, cloudless sky.  Yes, just this once, he had time.

      He would make the most of it.


To:   Title                     EoF

Chapter 4

 

      Sometimes, Sarraya's cleverness amazed him.

      If it wasn't enough that she was a strong Druid, her devious nature would still make her an invaluable companion and friend.

      What she had done, quite simply, was make Tarrin Kael disappear.

      Tarrin sat on the top of a rather beaten wagon, patches and slapdash repairs obvious to any onlooker, being pulled by a pair of old, tired-looking horses with reins that had been broken and tied in a knot.  The wagon was filled with baskets of carrots and bushels of raw wheat.  Tarrin drove the wagon, scratching at his bare forearm, cursing the nagging pain that came with holding the human shape.  Though it was Tarrin, the human driving the wagon looking nothing like the Tarrin that his opposition was probably expecting.  They were looking for a young, tall man with long blond hair.  What they were getting was a man with a curiously ageless face, looking neither young nor old, with short black hair, wearing a plain undyed robe and a turban.

      Sarraya had helped with what he could not fake.  They had gone back to the overturned wagon during the night that Sarraya had engineered the plan, and found the two humans gone.  Tracks and marks showed that someone had arrived in a wagon from the city by the river, picked them up, and gone back.  They had left the wagon, which was what Tarrin had returned to get.  He fixed it so that it was good enough for their plan, and then Sarraya conjured the two nags to pull it.  Then she conjured all the vegetables and wheat, and Tarrin had used the remains of the wagon's cover to fashion reins and some other things to make the wagon look well used.  After they were done with the wagon, Tarrin had taken the human shape to test out their plan.

      And that had been the first real surprise.  Sarraya had stared for nearly ten minutes, and he stared at himself in the reflection of water in a conjured pail.  He looked so different.  He still had his own features, but the young man that had been Tarrin was gone.  Replaced with it was a male version of Triana, an ageless face that emanated its own power, as if the twitching of an eyebrow could pronounce doom upon the onlooker.  Though he looked ageless, it was apparent to anyone looking at him that he was very mature, as if he was wise beyond his indeterminate years.  In human form, his features were a little sharper, and he was nearly a span and a half shorter.  He was still an immensely tall human, but nowhere near the towering height he possessed in his natural form.  Tarrin's human form was now just as tall as his hybrid, humanoid form had been before Shiika's draining kiss.  And because of that, it felt more correct to be at that height than it did in his natural form, for he still wasn't entirely used to the gain in height yet.

      The major blessing of the disparate heights was what it caused the amulet around his neck to do.  When he was in human form, the manacles went into the elsewhere because they would fall off his human wrists.  And when he changed from human to his natural form, it caused any shoes he was wearing to go into the elsewhere, because they were too small for his hybrid feet.  Now, when he took the human form, the backpack holding the Book of Ages also went into the elsewhere, because it was fitted for his much larger humanoid body.  What that meant was that it would not lead them to him while he was in human form, and it also meant that when he had the time, he could bring the backpack back, take it off, change back into human form, shorten the straps and put it on, then change back to his natural form.  Because the backpack's straps would be too small, it would put the book in the elsewhere.  It meant that he now did have a way to stay in his much more mobile natural form, yet not have the Book of Ages out to draw every enemy in range right to him.

      Tarrin didn't scoff at this most important beneficial side effect, but it made him just a little bit curious.  If things not fitted for the new form went into the elsewhere, then why didn't his clothes go too?  After all, they were fitted for his natural form.  When he changed into his human form, they were baggy and loose, and now he had to cinch up his pants to keep them from fallling off, and the shredded cuffs of the pants dragged the ground.  But they didn't.  This intrigued him, and it annoyed him just a little bit.  It seemed strange that the amulet would somehow distinguish between clothing and manacles, shoes and backpacks.  That it would pick and choose what it sent into the elsewhere.  After all, it should have been all or nothing.  It should either send everything, or send nothing at all.  Why only this item or that item?

      But he didn't have all that much time to wonder about that.  After they got the wagon fixed and Sarraya used her magic to summon horses to pull it, Tarrin got busy setting it up to look like he was a solitary trader, coming to the desert border to sell his food.  Sarraya used her magic to conjure up some dye for his hair, and Tarrin cut off his braid.  Then he dyed his hair and eyebrows black, and Sarraya used her magic to darken his visible skin, to make him look more like an Arakite.  There was nothing she could do about his eyes, but she solved that by making another visor, this one a smoky grayish color that hid his eyes behind a dark veil.  His ageless face made it hard to pin a nationality on him, so that helped even more.  Then she conjured up the material for a simple robe, he fashioned a turban from a torn cotton shirt he found in the debris of the wagon, and he was ready to go.

      After it was all done, Tarrin had to be impressed with how thoroughly different he looked.  There was no way anyone who knew him would be able to recognize him.  He looked like an Arakite, though a tall one with sharp features.  He looked just like what he pretended to be, a solitary merchant with a load of food.  With the Book of Ages in the elsewhere and Sarraya hiding invisibly, there was nothing to give him away but his eyes and his amulet, and both of them were concealed.

      That had been eight days ago.  Tarrin had been ambling along at a lazy pace for those eight days, getting progressively more and more uncomfortable in his human form.  He'd never held it for so long before, and he was starting to ache in all sorts of bad places, and his muscles were prone to cramping if he sat in one place too long.  Allia's trick to ignore the pain was the only thing keeping him from changing back, but changing back was no option now.  If he did, he'd tell everyone just where he was, and it would put his disguise in danger.  He didn't know how close he was to the border of the desert, but it couldn't be very far.  He'd yet to see any Trolls--or anyone, for that matter--but they couldn't be very far away.

      The weather had held as they travelled west.  There had been no more sandstorms, and the sky had even been a little cloudy a few days.  The thin, high clouds couldn't possibly deliver any rain, but they kept the brutal sun off of him.  But there had been other things in the sky as well.  At least once a day, he saw at least one trio of large flying objects in the sky.  None of them had been very close to his position, but they had passed at intervals that told him that they were looking for something.  Probably looking for him.  The fact that they weren't flying right over him told him that at least it looked like the disguise was effective.

      The disguise had been the second choice.  Sarraya had wanted to go with the most simple approach to getting past the Trolls, and that was to think small.  In cat form, Tarrin would be able to easily slip past their picket line in the night.  Or, if there proved to be too many, to wait for a sandstorm to hide their passing.  But ever since the pain he'd felt in cat form, he'd been...afraid, to return to that form.  He was afraid of the hollow emptiness he'd suffered while trapped in cat form, afraid of what it may do to him now.  He wouldn't be afraid of cat form forever, but for now, for a while at least, he wanted to be free of the anxiety of knowing what would await him when he took that form.

      But as second choices went, it was an excellent one.  The disguise was clever and complete, and it would allow him to get within spitting distance of the border, able to change form and run over it if needs be, before an organized attempt to stop him could materialize.  He knew that there were trading posts on the border.  Allia had told him that.  The woman showed him that it was normal for merchants to come and go from those trading posts, and the road would lead him directly to one of them.  All he had to do was misdirect whoever was there to prevent his passing long enough to get close enough to the border to get across.  Once he was in Selani lands, under the dominion of Fara'Nae, he doubted that they would pursue.

      Only a maniac entered the Desert of Swiling Sands unescorted by Selani.

      But Tarrin wasn't known for his sanity.  Kravon had seen to that, and his own nature had aggravated it.  Doing insane things was his meat and drink, often before he realized just how crazy his actions really were.  It was the impulsive streak in him, brought by the Cat.  The Cat was a creature grounded in the moment, and often had trouble planning for the future.  That caused his plans to only look a little bit into the future, and caused him to go by the seat of his pants once his brief plans ran out of steam.  That was why he was so thankful that Sarraya was with him.  He didn't want another repeat of the half-plans he'd used to get the Book of Ages from Shiika.  It nearly got him killed.  Sarraya was just as erratic as him, but at least she could look into the future better than him.

      Scratching at his forearm again in irritation, he looked over the flat expanses of the plains of Saranam, but they were growing less flat.  Gentle ridges and rolling irregularities in that flatness had begun to appear, and on the horizon, lit by the morning sun at his back, was the strange stone formations that Allia had described to him.  Sashaida Krinazar, the Mother's Fingers.  They were colums of rock that dotted the entire desert, irregularly shaped pillars, sculpted by the wind into all sorts of exotic shapes and colors.  Allia had told him that some were barely more than twice a Selani's height, and some were so tall that they had never been climbed.  Some were as thin as a sapling, some were so thick that a village could be placed atop it, with plenty of room to spare.  One, called the Sose Imune, or the Cloud Spire, stood in the exact center of the desert, and had a continuous cloud concealing its top.  If anything, the appearance of the Sashaida Krinazar told him that he could not be more than a day's amble from the desert.  He was getting close.

      "Why did I listen to you?" Tarrin complained in irritation.  "I feel like I'm being dragged through a bristle patch."

      "It's all part of the plan," Sarraya said from her seat on the top of his head.  "We had to be consistent.  We couldn't just appear on the road."

      "I could have hid under a robe.  I'm so sore and stiff that I can't even walk straight."

      "That's another part or the disguise," she said.  "They're looking for a young and trained Were-cat.  Not a stiff-jointed Arakite merchant with a bad attitude.  You move like a panther, even in human form.  I had to make sure you didn't have that warrior's swagger by the time we got to the border."

      "You could have just told me to walk different," he said sourly.

      "It wouldn't have mattered.  You can't take the swagger out of your walk any more than you can walk on your ears.  At least this way, you won't be faking anything."

      "You could have explained that to me days ago."

      "Then where would the fun be?" she said impishly.

      Tarrin muttered things Sarraya would not like to hear under his breath, adjusting the visor on his nose.  It pressed down on his nose in an uncomfortable way; it was smaller than the first visor she made for him, and the edge resting on his nose was almost sharp.  But the wind was starting to pick up--nowhere near a sandstorm--and it put the loose sand and dust of the plain into the air.  The Sashaida Krinazar began to get lost in the thickening haze caused by the wind sweeping over the plain, but he really didn't need to see them anymore.  He knew he was close, he knew that things were going to get serious very soon.

      It all came down to how well the disguise could fool whoever was waiting at the end of the road.  He felt confident that it was going to work, but things never worked out quite the way he expected most of the time.  He looked like an Arakite, and he could speak Arakite as well as a native.  His accent was a little strange, but he could pass that off as being from Yar Arak, rather than Saranam.  His disguise was an effective one, all the way down to the vegetables in his rickety wagon and the tired horses that were pulling it.  Judging from their condition and the fact that they were tamed, the horses had to be farm animals.  Tarrin wondered idly just from which farmer Sarraya had stolen the horses when she conjured them.  Tarrin hoped that it didn't put the man in a bad spot.  He grew up on a farm, he understood just how important farm horses could be to the production of the farm.

      He had everything he needed to get past the obstacle ahead.  All he needed was an absence of bad luck.  He didn't even need or ask for good luck.  Just an absence of bad luck.  He'd had enough bad luck over the last year, he didn't need any more.

      Tarrin scratched at his arm again, enduring the nagging ache of spending so many days in human form.  He only had a little more to go, then he would be free of this cursed endless pain.

      The stewing over the pain ended late that afternoon, as the sun began to creep towards the horizong, as they crested a small rise and found themselves looking down on what could only be called an army encampment.  Fires and ragged tents flanked a cluster of warehouses and buildings, and figures mulled about, sat by fires, or marched up and down or stood sentry to defend the encampment.  On the fringes of the fires were large pens, and some of them held Wyverns, which were being tended by human handlers.  Beyond the fires and the buildings, much to his surprise, was an expanse of bare rock, which simply stopped.  A cliff!  Beyond that cliff, a cliff that ran from horizon to horizon, was a bare expanse of beige, a wide swath of sand that extended to the limit of his vision.

      An escarpment!  He didn't know that was there!  And he had no idea how high it was.  This changed things, he realized.  With an escarpment there, it wasn't going to be just quite so easy as running over a border.  That escarpment may only be a few spans high, or maybe a few hundred.  There was an escarpment in Shacè, his father had told him, a gentle disruption in the grasslands south of the forest that was ten spans high, and ran for nearly fifty longspans from the east to the west.  Tarrin fervently hoped that this escarpment was similar to that one, an escarpment easy to navigate.

      Tarrin surveyed the land.  There was about a longspan of bare rock from the outer edge of the trading post to the escarpment.  From this distance, he couldn't judge the escarpment's height, because the featureless sand of the desert was unfamiliar to him and gave him no landmarks to use as a guide.  He had to get closer before he could make that kind of guess.  Judging from the fires and what figures he could see, there were a few thousand creatures here, and not all of them were the same.  Some were very, very tall, even taller than him.  Those were Trolls.  There were others too, smaller and stocky, with large ears on their heads.  They looked like Waern.  Some were obviously human, and he even saw a few dog-headed Dargu here and there in the throng.

      Again, he was amazed at how whoever had assembled them was keeping order.  Trolls considered Waern good eating, and Waern killed Dargu whenever they found them to cut down on competition for a territory's resources.  And all of them hated humans, and killed them whenever the opportunity arose.  Yet there were Waern and Trolls within spear's cast of one another, and Dargu and Waern actually crossing paths, with no bloodshed.  Something had to scare them so much that they wouldn't fight amongst themselves.  And anything with that kind of power was something Tarrin had better fear.

      The disparity of the group was one thing, but its numbers were the other.  The invaders surrounded the trading post--it had to be one, with the number of warehouses he could see--and hemmed the humans inside.  He could see some of them, rushing out in relatively empty streets, probably getting out of sight as quickly as possible.  He couldn't blame them.  There had probably already been any number of messy accidents and object lessons to keep their captive humans under control.

      Tarrin considered it.  He had to get into and through the post, travel a longspan, then navigate the escarpment to get into the desert.  Because of the distance he'd have to travel and the Wyverns that could quickly overtake him, the attempt was something best done at night, when he had the advantage.  It was about an hour or so from nightfall, so if he just ambled along and took his time, went slow once he got there and let them put him in the trading post with the other captives, he should be able to sneak out of the city after nightfall and get into the desert.  That seemed a good enough plan.

      "Look at them all," Sarraya breathed to him.  "Thousands!  And they're not fighting each other!"

      "I know.  I've seen this before.  There has to be someone commanding them that makes them so afraid they won't kill each other.  That's not someone I want to meet, Sarraya."

      "I can't argue with that logic," Sarraya grunted in agreement.  "It's about a longspan to that cliff there, and it's all desert past it.  We should try it at night."

      "I'm way ahead of you," he told her as he urged the tired horses into a slow walk forward.  "Do you know how high the cliff is?"

      "I didn't know it was there," she said hesitantly.  "Let me go see.  I'll be back in a while."

      He felt her lift up from the top of his head, and the sound of her wings faded quickly as she darted towards the escarpment.  Tarrin sighed in relief.  At least he would know if he'd be jumping off or climbing down the cliff before he got there.

      Moving as if he had all the time in the world, Tarrin's wagon approached the post and its occupying force.  Tarrin used the time to prepare himself, to suppress the urges he knew would come if he was put face to face with Goblinoids.  He had no idea who he'd be dealing with when he got there, whether he'd be trying to talk himself past a human or a Goblinoid.  He had to be ready for either eventuality.

      When he was about five hundred spans from the outer edges of them, two armed humans on horses rode towards him.  They wore black leather hauberks underneath a voluminous sand-colored cloak, and both of them looked uncomfortable wearing the armor in the dry heat of the summer afternoon.  One of them looked Dal, the other Torian.  Both had black hair, with one man stocky and muscled with wide features, the other built like a reed but with considerable height.  Tarrin let them ride towards him without stopping.  After all, he didn't know who they were and what they intended to do.

      "Hold!" the Torian said in harshly accented Arakite.  "What business you have here?" he asked in broken Arakite.

      "I speak the western trade tongue," Tarrin said in heavily accented Sulasian, which was something of the common trade language in the West.  An Arakite wouldn't know it to be Sulasian, so he didn't call it that.  "What is all this?  Are the Selani attacking?"

      "We ask the questions here!" the Torian snapped.  "Who are you, and what business do you have?"

      "I am Tek, a merchant," he replied in a quiet tone, trying to sound humble.  But sounding humble was difficult for him.  "I come to sell my wheat and carrots to the Selani.  But if they're trying to attack, I think I'll just sell them in Sargon."

      The man reached up and pulled off Tarrin's visor, staring into his eyes suspiciously.  "Strange eyes for an Arakite," he said dangerously.

      "My mother was Torian," Tarrin told him, reaching up and pulling off his turban, letting him see his black hair.  "It's the only way I favor her."

      The man seemed to try to take issue with that, staring intently at Tarrin's dress, his eyes, his face.  The man was looking for something to identify Tarrin as Tarrin, he realized.  Tarrin felt his heart try to speed up, but he kept himself looking calm and collected.  Just like Triana.  Give the man the face of stone and let him do the sweating.

      "You have bad timing, Tek," the man sneered.  "This region is now under the rule of the ki'zadun.  Your goods will be confiscated and you'll be put in the trading post with the other guests.  Step down and submit to search."

      "Key-who?" Tarrin asked. "Is that some kingdom I never heard about?"

      "You'll discover who we are soon enough," the Torian barked.  "Now get down!"

      Tarrin allowed himself to look irritated and outraged as he gingerly got down from the wagon.  Muscles locked in the human form for days protested at the activity, making him have to support himself with the wagon after putting his rough-shoed feet on the ground.  He stooped considerbly, both because his back hurt and to help hide his height.

      "What's the matter with you?"

      "I'm not as young as you, son," Tarrin told him bluntly, making it sound convincing, though Tarrin was probably younger than the man before him.  "You'll find out what's wrong with me when you get to be my age."

      The two men dismounted, and the Torian roughly searched him by patting down his robe.  He found only the small dagger Tarrin had put on his belt to complete his disguise, which he immediately removed.  He then was pushed back while the two men began going through the wagon.  But they found nothing out of the ordinary for a solitary merchant.

      "Why are you travelling alone?" the Torian asked harshly as they overturned a basket of carrots into the wagon.

      "Ain't nothing out here to attack a man, your honor," Tarrin replied calmly.  "No bandit in his right mind sets up this close to Selani land, cause there ain't nowhere to hide.  I travel alone when I can cause it cuts down on extra hands I have to pay."

      That seemed to quell the man's questions.  They finished going through the wagon, finding nothing that identified Tarrin as the man they were looking for, and Tarrin could see it in the Torian's eyes that his disguise had worked.  The green eyes had made the man suspicious, but the black hair, the dark skin, the manner in which Tarrin moved and the way he spoke, it convinced the Torian that Tarrin was not the man they were seeking.  That made him very much more relieved.  All he had to do now was wait for them to put him in the trading post and forget about him.

      Tarrin stood to the side patiently and waited for the men to finish, getting out of the wagon.  "Get back up and follow me," the Torian ordered.  "My silent friend here will follow behind, just in case you get any stupid ideas.  But I don't think an old potseller like you is going to be that stupid.  I think you know that those two nags could never outrun our warhorses, and resisting us will get you into a Troll's stewpot."

      Tarrin said nothing, just giving the man a hard look, then he limped back to the wagon and pulled himself into the seat.  He put his turban and visor back on, and took the reins as the two men mounted their horses.  He didn't look it, but inside Tarrin was silently rejoicing.  The disguise had worked.  Now he just had to wait for sunset, and he would slip right through them.

      The Torian led him right into the trading post, which consisted of a large circular area surrounded by warehouses and smaller buildings, all of which was surrounded by a very low stone wall.  It reminded him of the Green in a strange way, back in Aldreth.  The large field around which the village's buildings were arrayed.  This place was organized along the same lines.  The circular open space was empty, and fresh dust covered the hard packed earth that was blown in on the wind.  Everyone who was here was in the buildings, and there was no sign of wagons or other items of trade.  A patrol of ten men wearing similar devices as the Torian on their black tunics marched into view, looking to be doing a circuit of the outside wall.  He didn't see any other patrol; that one patrol may be guarding the entire post.  Then again, with all those Trolls out there, what prisoner in his right mind would try to escape?  It would be much safer inside the prison than outside in this situation.

      "Get down," the Torian ordered sharply as Tarrin reined in the wagon.  He set the brake and crawled down from the wagon seat slowly, rubbing his side gently after a rather bad spasm struck.  He spotted several faces staring at him from a window on the second floor of what looked to be an inn as he took off the visor to give his nose a rest, but they quickly disappeared when the Torian dismounted and approached.

      "Beggin' your honor's pardon, but when will I be allowed to leave?" Tarrin asked.  "I've got business to tend."

      "You'll leave when we tell you to leave," the man sneered, pointing to the building where Tarrin saw the faces.  "Go find a room over there in that inn, and make sure you stay out of our way.  You can go anywhere on the post's grounds you want, but if you're caught inside any warehouse or outside the wall, you'll be a Troll's dinner.  Is that clear, old man?"

      "Perfectly," Tarrin said with sudden sharpness, a sharpness that made the man look strangely at him.

      "Don't give me a reason to not like you, old coot," the Torian sneered even harder.

      The man's manner was getting to him.  Tarrin came out of his stoop, rising to his full height and staring down at the shorter man with hard, unforgiving eyes.  For a fleeting moment, Tarrin assaulted the man with all of his hidden power through his stance and gaze and posture, an aura of unshakable strength that told the man that his continued survival was determined only by Tarrin's will.  The man gaped up at Tarrin for a second, then stepped back unconsciously against such a blatant display of strength.  But Tarrin realized what he was doing nearly as he found himself doing it, and gently and smoothly returned to his stoop and put on a less intimidating expression.

      Silently kicking himself, Tarrin watched the man.  Now he had a good reason to think that Tarrin was something other than what he appeared.  A solitary merchant would not act in such a manner.  Part of him got ready if it came down to a fight, planning his actions.  Kill the man, run for the far side of the compound.  Hope that he could get to the escarpment before the Trolls could cut him off, and hope that it wasn't a fatal distance down to the desert floor.

      The man stared at him for a long moment, but for some reason, he only shook his head as he climbed up into the wagon.  Tarrin moved to step away from it, but the man's boot struck him in the chest, sending him staggering back wildly.  Tarrin's aching muscles couldn't find a center, and he toppled over onto his backside, sitting down heavily enough to feel his teeth click together.  He stayed where he was, watching the Torian take the wagon and its wares down the compound, towards a warehouse that had its doors open.  The Dal came up behind and took the reins of the Torian's horse, then followed silently behind the wagon, leaving Tarrin sitting in the middle of the compound.

      He waited until they entered the warehouse before pulling himself back up to his feet and sighing in tremendous relief.  He almost gave himself away.  The man's treatment of him provoked an instinctive response.  Tarrin was not used to showing throat, was not used to being submissive.  The man's threats had provoked his sense of dominance, had seemed to challenge him.  He came about a rat's tail from showing the man just who was the dominant of the two.  Blind luck, that, or the man was afraid of him.  One or the other had kept the man from doing something about it.

      The fluttering of chitinous wings heralded Sarraya's return.  She landed lightly on his shoulder as he limped towards the inn, aware that eyes were on him around the compound.  "I've got good news and bad news," she whispered in his ear.  "The bad news is that the cliff is about a hundred spans down where we are.  The good news is that the cliff's height lowers as you move to the north.  If you can get a longspan north, the cliff is only forty spans high.  You could jump that, there's a sand drift at the base to land in."

      That explained why it took her so long to get back.  "I've gotten past them," he told her in a bare whisper.  "I think we can make a longspan in the dark, because I'll be behind them."

      "Good. Where are we going?"

      "Where I was told to go."

      Tarrin reached the door of the inn and immediately opened it.  Beyond was a rather dirty common room, full of partially destroyed furniture sparsely scattered across a bare earth floor.  Inside was packed nearly fifty people, men and women and children, sitting on the few chairs and sitting or standing on the floor.  All of them had the look of a prisoner, despondant and wary, with the look of fear in their eyes.  They all wore dirty clothes, and most of them had dirt and dust streaked on their faces.  The majorty of them were Arakite, but he did see four pale-skinned faces in that crowd, what looked like Torians.

      This was not something he expected.  Being cooped up with so many strangers would certainly wear on him, and wear on him quickly.  The fact that he was already dealing with the aggravating ache of a body locked in an unnatural form for too long would make his temper very short, as it had been with the Torian guard.  These were all strangers, and what was worse, they were all potential enemies.  Any one of these would probably turn on him if they knew who he was, that they were looking for him, in the hopes that calling him out would get them released.

      There was nowhere to sit.  All of the few chairs were occupied by the largest of the men, who had probably bullied their way into them.  With no guards to separate the prisoners, Tarrin had little doubt that this inn was ruled by the largest and meanest of the humans, who took what he wanted from whomever he wanted.

      There was nothing like imprisonment to bring out the worst in a human.

      It would bring out the worst in him, and he knew it.  It was only about an hour until sunset, so he only had to stay out of the way until then, until it was dark enough for him to slip out and away.  But the first order of business was to get out of sight of the inn's bullies.  He was new, his ageless face made it easy to mistake him for an older man, and he was moving like he was old and weak.  That would make him a prime target for them.

      Tarrin grimaced slightly when one of the seated men suddenly stood, looking in his direction.  It certainly hadn't taken him long.  He was an Arakite, big and broud-shouldered, wearing a rust-spotted tunic that told him that this was a mercenary.  He was used to having armor over that tunic.  He had strangely wide features for an Arakite, with a scar puckering the right side of his nose.  He had his head shaved, but days without access to a razor had put black stubble over his forehead.  The man blocked Tarrin's path into the inn with hands folded before him, staring into Tarrin's eyes with an ugly look.

      "There's a tax for entering this inn," the man said in Arakite, in a dangerous tone and an ugly smile, which made some of his friends laugh harshly.  But that dangerous tone and ugly look became uncertain when Tarrin again rose up to his full height, suddenly towering over the man by half a head, looking down at him with a stony face that threatened violence should the man not tread carefully.

      "I'll only say this once," Tarrin said in Arakite, in an ominously quiet manner.  "The first man to put a finger on me dies."

      "Oh, what are ya gonna do, use nasty words?" the man before him asked, then he laughed at his own joke.  "Curse at me til I die?  You couldn't carry my shield, old man."

      "There's one way for you to find out," Tarrin proposed in an emotionless voice, his eyes narrowing.

      The man grinned nastily and held out a single finger, then purposefully reached over and poked it into Tarrin's chest.

      Tarrin lashed out with his left hand, grabbing that finger and breaking it, twisting it back over the man's hand and turning with it.  The man screamed in pain as his hand and arm followed Tarrin's pressure, until it was turned around with the palm up.  Muscles sore and aching for days became suddenly fluid and loose as Tarrin's other hand snapped forward, three fingertips striking the man squarely in the throat, crushing his trachea.  It was a Selani move, and it was a killing move.  And Tarrin had performed it perfectly.

      Tarrin let go and watched with distant, cold eyes as the man grasped at his neck with both hands, then sagged to the floor while making gurgling sounds.  Then he toppled over and fell to the floor with a crash.

      "Anyone else?" Tarrin asked with a brutal tone, looking around the room, at all the startled faces.

      There was silence.

      Giving the room a deadly look, Tarrin collected himself, stalking across the quiet room and taking the dead man's chair.  The other three men at the chair's table jumped up and abandoned their seats when he grabbed the back of the chair, and then sat down to an empty table with the rest of the room's complement staring at him and whispering in hushed tones.

      "My, we're testy today," Sarraya whispered impishly in his ear, but he ignored her comment, propping his chin with his hand, elbow on the table, waiting in sober silence for nightfall.  The rest of the people in the room began talking again in hushed tones, and a few of the more adventurous of them stripped the body of the man clean of anything useful, leaving it literally in its shortclothes.  Then it was carried back into the inn's kitchen, probably to be disposed.  He certainly hoped they didn't intend to cook it.

      He reflected momentarily on what he saw.  The ki'zadun was probably his very first enemy, the first ones to identify him and try to kill him.  He'd thought of them what he'd been told, as a secretive shadow organization that worked behind the scenes with spies, informants, and magicians.  He never dreamed that they had a standing army, not like the one he'd seen outside.  Certainly he knew that they had some sway with Goblinoids, but he never dreamed they could assemble a standing army.  An army that looked disciplined, well supplied, and well trained.  Now he saw a different side to his old enemy, a militaristic side.  They were more than a secret society that used intrigue and politics to gain power.  It seemed that they knew when the application of direct force was more appropriate, and kept that force on hand when it was required.  He wondered what kind of man could be part of that army, to know that he was working for the wrong side, to ally himself with Trolls and Waern and Dargu.  But that was something of a silly question.  Humans were humans, and a great deal of them had morals that only went as far as the money they were paid.  That was just they way they were.  He knew that for some men, if they were paid enough, they'd do just about anything.

      He had to admit, they also had a good idea and a good plan.  They couldn't find him, and any patrol that did find him out on the plains would be wiped out.  So instead of trying to hunt him down, they had set up so that they made him come to them.  They never intended to hunt him on the plains, not when they knew where he was going.  It was much easier and more sensible to assemble their forces along his path, to stop him before he could reach his objective, and bring along enough force to give them a reasonable chance to do it.  He could appreciate the strategy, even if it inconvenienced him.

      He didn't have to wait very long before things started to happen.  Not long after killing the bully, the door to the inn opened.  Tarrin turned to look, and saw himself staring at four ki'zadun soldiers, with the massive body of a Troll blotting out the view of the area behind them.  Behind the soldiers was a woman dressed in a black robe, a woman that looked young and vibrant, with honey colored hair and a tall, thin frame.  She was Shacèan by her features, a swallow-necked beauty with cold, dead blue eyes.

      That one was a magician.

      "It is in here," she reported in a serene tone, holding up one of her hands.  Tarrin looked at it, and his heart moved about two spans behind him when he saw what she was holding.

      A small shard of something that looked like thin stained glass.  Tarrin recognized it immediately as a piece of a Faerie's wing.

      The woman looked directly at him, and then those cold blue eyes turned hungry, and she gave him an evil smile.

      They couldn't find him, so they were magically tracking Sarraya!

      That Troll behind her told him everything he needed to know in one quick moment of lucidity.  They had set up before coming in.  They knew Sarraya was inside, and they knew she travelled with him, so that told them that he was also inside.  And he didn't doubt that the building was surrounded by Trolls, to stop him when he tried to run.

      There wasn't really any fear, just a relief that he didn't have to wait in suspense any longer.  If they wanted a fight, he'd be glad to give them one.

      He did it so quickly that it took the armed men by surprise.  He stood even as he changed form, shedding his darkened Arakite skin and expanding to his full height.  Before they could register that, register that he was acting, Tarrin grabbed the top of the square table before him and hefted it like it was a stick.  By the time the first scream of surprise was issued, he turned and swept the table around his body, throwing it like a dinner plate at the group of soldiers and the magician they were protecting.  It hit the lead man squarely, blasting him back and impacting those behind, knocking all five of them to the floor by the doorway in a spray of blood and a cacophony of shocked and pained cries.

      Conscious thought yielded to the animalistic power of the Cat.  Tarrin jumped up on another table and extended his claws as the Troll outside smashed its way through the door, breaking away the frame and a good portion of the wall to make a hole big enough to fit its massive bulk.  Crouching, Tarrin roared at the Troll in challenge, claws out and held low, eyes blazing with their unholy greenish fire.  The display made the Troll hesitate, then it brought up a huge wooden club and advanced on the ready Were-cat.  Tarrin darted aside just as the club shattered the table, landing on the side of his foot and immediately turning on the Troll.  But Trolls were deceptively fast and agile despite their bulk, and it managed to turn its club to meet the charge.  It raised it and tried to smash the Were-cat into the floor--

      --but a loud smack heralded the impact of the club on Tarrin's open palms.  The Were-cat caught the club and held it back, pushing it away as he rose up to his full height, a height that put his eyes at the Troll's collarbones.  In that fleeting moment, despite the fact that he was engaged in a life and death battle with a Troll, he finally understood just how tall he had become.

      The Troll looked genuinely shocked.  It pushed down on the club, grabbing it with both hands and using its height as leverage, but it could not bring it down.  Tarrin's strength, an awesome strength that was not apparent to the onlooker, held the club at bay, kept it from getting any closer.  They pushed against one another as Tarrin's claws sank into the club, sank into the dirt floor beneath him.  He bowed his back slightly, coming onto the heels of his feet, and it made the Troll growl in expectation and put everything it had into driving the club down, to bend the Were-cat's back and put him on his back.

      It did not understand.  It could not see, until it was too late.

      Tarrin's tail whipped up in the blink of an eye, and the tip of it wrapped around the hilt of the sword strapped under the pack holding the Book of Ages.  The member was more than twice as long as his arm, nearly as long as his body.  The tail pulled up on the hilt, then snaked around the blade in a manner that allowed his tail to draw the weapon.  It slithered down through the coil in Tarrin's tail, until the tip again wrapped around the hilt.

      The Troll's eyes widened in shock and sudden terror as Tarrin shifted under its relentless press, shifted so the tail could come around his body and hit the Troll without obstacle.  It tried to pull away, but the claws dug into the club prevented it from withdrawing the weapon when Tarrin shifted from pushing to pulling, and it stubbornly, dimly refused to let go.  The shift allowed him to turn sideways, and the sword sliced around his body, sweeping up from the floor and digging into the underside of both of the Troll's forearms.           The Troll released the club with a howl of agony, blood spraying from the bone-deep slashes in both forearms.  It staggered back a step, and focused on the Were-cat just in time to see its own club driving towards its head.  It saw a white flash, and then it saw no more.

      Tarrin threw the club aside and pulled his sword from his tail, thanking everyone available that his tail was so flexible.  He became aware of the frightened screams and chaos of the humans around him, then tuned it out as his conscious mind reasserted itself and dealt with the situation.  The ki'zadun soldidrs and mage were either dead or unconscious.  Blood pooled around the soldiers, and the mage, who had been behind them and not struck by the table, laid on her stomach and did not move.  They were not a threat to him at the moment.  They probably had the building surrounded, so he couldn't go out.  He had to either get above them or below them, out of the reach of the Trolls.  Below was out of the question with a dirt floor, so above was the only option.  The inn had two floors, and it was a pattern Arakite structure, with a flat stone roof and most likely a trap door or staircase that led to it.

      The buildings were not that far apart.  He could easily jump from building to building, until he was close enough to the wall to come down to the ground, and race the Trolls to the escarpment.  Tarrin claw's snapped out, and he picked up the closest human, a dirty-faced young woman too terrified to run.  "Where are the stairs to the roof?" he demanded in a hot voice, glaring at the woman in a manner that told her that her life depended on her ability to answer.

      She pointed dumbly to a door on the back wall.

      Tarrin dropped her, let her fall the nearly two spans to the floor, and was out that door before her rump hit the ground.

      He could hear them.  He could smell them.  Troll voices were suddenly barking, calling, outside the inn, as well as excited shouts and calls from others.  But the others didn't concern him, it was the Trolls he had to worry about.  Beyond the door was a kitchen, a kitchen almost stripped bare of anything edible.  In the near corner was a steep staircase leading upstairs.

      "Tarrin, what are you doing?" Sarraya demanded.  He'd completely forgotten about her.  He could hear her wings come up behind him; she must have gotten dislodged in his short exchange with the people in the common room.

      "The roof," he replied in a hasty voice, moving towards the stairs.  "I can get to the edge of the compound from the roof."

      "Good idea," she agreed.

      It took him a very short time to go up the stairs, see another set of stairs at the end of the hallway at the top, and then climb up onto the roof.  The setting sun was just on the edge of the horizon of the desert, and there were Trolls everywhere.  Trolls, men in black hauberks, men screamin and shouting and staying out from under the feet of the Trolls as they moved to encircle the compound.  There were several shouts from them when Tarrin appeared a the top, looking towards the west, to see how far away the next roof was, and the Were-cat had to duck when a few arrows came after him, but not before he saw that the roof of the warehouse beside the inn was very close.  It was just higher than the inn, making the jump a tricky one.

      "I think they want us to stay for dinner," Sarraya said archly as she zipped down under the ledge of the roof.  The angry buzzing of several more arrows followed.

      "The roof's in my range, but I need a running start," he told her, sheathing his sword, then scampering back to the center of the roof on all fours.  He rose up and accelerated nearly to full speed in two steps, and his foot hit the ledge and pushed off as he suddenly appeared over the rooftop.  Tarrin sailed through the air as if flying, paws leading as he rose up and moved over the heads of Trolls and men, until his paws hit the outer ledge of the warehouse's roof.  He used his inhuman strength to literally haul himself up and over before the archers could draw a bead on him, sliding over the ledge seconds before several arrows struck the space where he had been.

      "I think they like you," Sarraya teased as she zipped over herself, her form hidden from sight by her veil of magical invisibility.

      "Think you could stop making jokes and give me some help here?" Tarrin demanded hotly, swatting an arrow down that had come over the far side of the roof, fired at a trajectory.  He got up as Sarraya held her arms out, something she tended to do when using Druidic magic, and a glimmering field of soft glowing light appeared around his body, then winked out of sight.

      "There, arrows can't get through that," she told him.  "And since they can't see it, it'll give you several hits before they realize it's not working."

      Tarrin growled in his throat.  He'd been hoping for something a bit more substantial, but it was better than nothing.

      A quick glance over the far side of the roof showed that the Trolls were swarming out onto the rocky flat between the post and the escarpment, blocking his escape route.  Trolls, and more importantly, wizards, were rushing towards the warehouse, trying to surround it.  There were also men running into the warehouse on the far side of the alley, the warehouse to which he needed to jump to get to the edge of the compound.

      They were cutting him off!

      Swearing, Tarrin leaned back from sight of the archers and considered his options.  And just about every option he could think of involved Sorcery in one way or another.

      "Sarraya, I need some ideas here!" Tarrin said urgently.  "I'm going to have to use Sorcery!"

      "Tarrin, look out!" Sarraya suddenly screamed.

      But it was too late.  Something struck him in the back, struck him like a Giant's hammer, bowing him and knocking the breath from his lungs.  The sky blurred slightly, and he could feel himself hurtling forward, over the ledge of the roof and out into empty space.

      But there was no stomach-lifting sense of falling.  The force was still behind him, around him.  Something had hold of him!  And whatever it was, it was either thirty spans tall or able to walk on air!

      Greetings, came a highly amused voice, a voice that spoke directly inside his mind.

      It was feminine.

      Tarrin recovered his breath and his wits enough to look around and above him.  What he saw was the sleek outline of a female torso, and a large bat-like wing appeared over her back, swept down, and then rose back out of sight.

      Shiika!

      For a moment, he panicked.  Shiika probably wanted to take his head off and mount it on her wall.  He grabbed the hands locked around his chest and tried to pry them apart, writhing and struggling to get free of her.

      Stop, or you'll fall! she protested.

      Tarrin got a sense of that voice, and he realized that it didn't sound like Shiika.  He managed to get her scent, and was sure of it.  She was one of the Cambisi, one of Shiika's half-Demon offspring.  One of the females.  He looked down, and saw them soaring over the startled Trolls, out over the rocky flat towards the escarpment.  The Cambisi had him in a powerful grip around the chest, carrying him towards the desert.

      She was helping him!

      "What are you doing?" Tarrin demanded in confusion.

      What does it look like, you silly Were-cat? she replied mentally, her amusement obvious in her tone.  It looked like you needed a wing.  Just be glad I was in the neighborhood.

      Tarrin's mind raced as she crossed over the escarpment, then started descending towards the sandy ground.  Why was she helping him?  Shiika probably wanted him dead for what he did to her.  And Shiika's offspring didn't do anything without their mother ordering them to do it.  So Shiika had sent this one, but to help him?  That didn't make any sense!

      Her wings catching the air gently, the halfbreed carried him well out of arrow range from the escarpment, and for a moment Tarrin got caught up in the sensation of flight.  To see the ground flow underneath him so quickly, to feel the pull of gravity, yet not be a slave to it.  It was a feeling of exhilaration that overwhelmed his shock and confusion, caused him to look down with wide eyes and feel like a child again.

      And then it was over.  The Demoness pulled up, and then she set him gently on the sand of the desert.  They were nearly two longspans away from the escarpment, so far that no foot party could ever catch up to him.

      With a calm sigh, he realized that he made it.  He was now beyond their reach.  They weren't insane enough to come into the desert after him.

      I think that little bug will catch up in a few minutes, the halfbreed remarked mentally.  Tarrin turned around and got a good look at her.  It was the blond one, the tallest of the females.  She had her mother's beautiful face, but her features were a bit narrower, and she wasn't quite so busty as Shiika.  She wore a half-shirt that left her midriff bare, that was tied onto her so it didn't foul her wings, and a pair of undyed leather breeches tucked into soft doeskin knee-boots.  She carried one of those black-bladed swords in a scabbard on her belt, and three daggers were sheathed on the other side.  Surprised to see me? she asked with a disarming smile.

      "What do you want?" Tarrin demanded instantly, backing away from her.  "I'm not giving up the Book."

      I'm not here for it, she replied.  Mother was a bit put out with you over the damage you caused, but she likes you.  I'm sure you already know that.  She's more or less gotten over everything, and she sent me to watch over you.  And if you needed help, to put a hand in.  You and her are trying to do the same thing, you know.  Keep that book out of the wrong hands.  Since you took it from her, she decided that it was in her best interest to make sure it stays with you.

      "Shiika's helping me?" he said in surprise.

      I certainly hope so, since it's what she told me to do, she said with a bright smile and a wink.

      That bowled him over.  Helping him!  After everything that happened between them, Shiika was helping him!  How amazing!  He thought that she was certainly still miffed over his taking the book from her.  Shiika certainly seemed to be the kind that held grudges, but he saw that he was wrong.  He knew she wasn't lying, because it all made a strange kind of sense.  Shiika did send her, Shiika was giving him some help.

      I'm Anayi, she told him with that same smile.  And we've met.

      They certainly had.  She'd tried to kill him not too long ago.

      He wasn't quite certain what to do.  She was a stranger, but the strange circumstances of everything kept him from recoiling from her like other strangers.  After all, she wasn't the average stranger.

      "Uh, well, thanks," Tarrin said hesitantly.  "What are you going to do now?"

      Oh, I don't know.  Mother only told me to follow you as far as the desert.  We're here now, so I guess I'll go back.  I think she feels that you'll be alright now.

      Tarrin stared at her for a long moment.  He still couldn't believe it, that Shiika had sent one of her brood to help him.  But he couldn't argue with her reason.  It was in Shiika's best interests that Tarrin kept the book.  He guessed that she considered that more important than any personal animosity she felt.

      Sighing, gathering his wits, Tarrin rose up to his full height and stared down at the smaller female.  He was surprised she was strong enough to carry him like that.

      Panting, Sarraya caught up to them.  "You about scared me to death!" she screamed at both of them.  "Who are you, and what are you doing?"

      If the female replied to her, Tarrin didn't hear it.  But she must have, because Sarraya's angry expression lightened immediately, and then she laughed.  "I'm surprised her High And Mightiness bothered to help," she told the female.

      Strange.  He hadn't heard anything.  Perhaps the halfbreed could choose who she wanted to hear her and who would not.

      You certainly look...taller, Anayi remarked to him.  Your face is different.  What happened to you?

      "You can thank your mother for that," Tarrin said grimly.

      What do you mean?

      "When your mumsie drained Tarrin, it aged him," Sarraya said lightly.  "Actually, we should thank her.  Were-cats grow stronger as they age.  That Troll back there certainly looked surprised," she laughed.

      I would imagine it would.  Goblinoids don't like Lycanthropes, and I've felt Tarrin's sting.

      "Say, you think you could give us a lift to, say, Arkis?" Sarraya asked curiously.

      I would like to, but...I am not welcome here, she replied.  Whoever rules this land does not find my presence comforting.  Her anger is almost in the air.

      Tarrin didn't feel anything.  Then again, he wasn't half Demon.  Demons were mystical beings, and their senses worked differently than mortal kin.

      This is as far as I'll go into the desert, and I think I've come too far, she reported.  She looked at Tarrin.  I hope you realize that there are no hard feelings from my mother, or the other Cambisi, she told him.  We were trying to protect the book.  We regret losing three of our brothers, but they were starting to get annoying anyway.  I honestly believe that the book is in good hands now, so I don't consider losing it to you a failure.  You proved you're not going to lose it.

      Her admission and statements surprised him.  "Well, I'm sorry I killed your brothers," he said quietly.  "And I guess I'm sorry for all the trouble.  Did Shiika fix everything?  With the Emperor and all?"

      Anayi laughed aloud.  Fix?  You motivated her to do the one thing I thought I'd never see her do.

      "What?" Sarraya asked curiously.

      She took the throne herself, and she's not hiding what she is, she replied.  And do you know what's surprising?  The Arakites don't seem to care, she said with a look of slight confusion.  They know she's a Demon, yet they don't seem to care about that.  It's almost like they think she'll do a better job than the Emperors.  I don't think they know that she was controlling all the Emperors.

      "Probably not, but now that she has to take responsibility for her decisions, I think you'll see things get better in Yar Arak," Tarrin told her.  "One thing I noticed about Shiika, and that's that she's very smart.  Since she has to rule openly, you'll see her start changing things so things are better for the people.  If only to keep them happy and not thinking of revolution.  Happy people don't rebel."

      I've heard her make similar observations, Anayi agreed.  And I think you're right.  Mother raised us to think for ourselves, to not be dominated by the taint of our dark heritage.  She's a fullblooded demon, yet I think she's more humane than some of her children.

      "That makes me relieved," Tarrin said.  "She certainly kept confusing me.  Trying to kill me one moment, sparing my life the next."

      She likes you.  She is ruthless, Tarrin, she is a Demon and a political power, but she does have softness in her.  You're one of those soft spots.  She really respects you and admires you, and I think part of her is happy you beat her, if only to justify those feelings.

      Tarrin blushed at her praise.  "You should expect chaos from a Demon, Tarrin," Sarraya chuckled.

      Anayi smiled sweetly at him.  I think I've worn out my welcome here, Tarrin, she said, pointing towards the west.  Tarrin turned and looked, and saw a savage sandstorm approaching them, boiling up from the floor of the desert.  It was so big and so close that he couldn't have possibly missed it when he looked earlier.  It screamed of magical creation.  I think the goddess of this land is coming to toss me out the door, so I must be off before she gets here.  She stepped up to him and reached into her belt pouch, then pulled out a small black object.  This is from Mother, she told him, holding it out for him.

      "What is it?" Tarrin asked, holding out his paw.  Anayi's hand disappeared in the expanse of his paw as she set it into his paw, and her fingers were almost caressing as she slid her hand away.

      It was a small device that looked like an amulet, or charm.  It was made of black steel, almost the same metal as the amulet around his neck, and upon it was engraved a woman's face.  He turned it over, and saw that it had a dragon in profile on the back.  A coin?

      Mother made that, Anayi told him.  It's magical.  It works just like your amulet.  Just hold it in your hand and call Mother's name, and she'll be able to talk to you.  But it will only work once, so don't use it unless it's an emergency.

      "Why would I want to talk to her?"

      Mother is a Demon, Tarrin, and she's very powerful, Anayi chided.  If you need help or you're in big trouble, call on her, and she'll send something to help you.  You may not find what she sends to be very nice to look at, but it will be compelled to aid you in any way possible.

      "Another Demon?"

      Mother is a Succubus, Tarrin.  Their strength is manipulation and control.  Mother isn't very physically or magically powerful compared to other Demons, but her charms and games have quite a few Demons more powerful than her bound to her service.  She can call on them any time to do her bidding.

      Tarrin absorbed that, then he blew out his breath.  "Then why didn't she just do that when I was going after the book?  Unless--"  He looked hard at Anayi.  "She let me take the book!"

      You'll have to ask her about that, Anayi replied.  If she did, then she must have had a good reason.  But I don't think she did.  I can't think of any good reason why she would.

      Tarrin couldn't either.  It would be illogical to try to kill him one moment, then turn her back and let him take the book the next.  Shiika may be a Demoness, but she was also a smart Demoness.  She wouldn't do something like that without a very good reason, if she did it at all.  Without proof that she allowed him to take the book, he had to assume that she didn't.

      "I, I guess so," he said.

      I have to go now, Tarrin, she said.  The goddess of this land is picking up steam.  If I don't leave now, I may not get out anytime soon.  She stepped up boldly, something that took Tarrin by surprise, then she reached up and put her hand on the back of his neck.  Before he knew what was happening, she pulled down his head and gave him a light kiss on the cheek.  Be well, Tarrin.  Know that the Cambisi and Mother will be at your side if you need us.

      With a sweet smile, she stepped back, turned and spread her wings, and then vaulted into the sky.  Tarrin stood there for a long moment, staring up at her dwindling form in confusion and wonder, his paw on the cheek she kissed.

      Things just never made any sense in his life.

      He watched her fly away, Sarraya landing on his shoulder, then he turned and looked towards the west, towards the sandstorm.  He had made it.  They were in the desert.  Now, those chasing him could not touch him.  The desert was his sanctuary, his protector.  The might of the Selani and the wrath of Fara'Nae would keep them out, keep the Book of Ages out of their hands.  Now, he figured, they would go to Arkis, to catch him as he came out of the desert.  They knew where he was going.  But that was a worry for another time.  For now, he was safe.

      As safe as he was going to be.  The Desert of Swiling Sands was a dangerous place, full of huge reptillian beasts, all sorts of poisonous animals, and brutal weather.  Even now, on the very edge of the desert, he could feel the heat of the setting sun, feel the heat in the sand under his feet.  Tarrin was very tolerant of heat; the heat of the plains of Saranam had barely registered to him.  But this heat could not be denied, and it made him very glad for Sarraya's cloak.  He would battle the heat, the Selani, the animals of the desert, and the notorious weather of the desert, for late summer and early autumn were the seasons for savage sandstorms.

      But after what he had endured to get to where he was, he felt that crossing the desert was more of a chore than a life or death struggle.  With Sarraya's Druidic magic to help him, they would survive the desert's greatest dangers.  The lack of water and food were not issues.  Only the physical threats of the wastelands of the Selani could challenge him now.

      For a moment, he allowed himself to feel....safe.  If only for a moment.  But there was little comfort in that sensation anymore.

      Sighing, pulling up the hood of the cloak and fishing out his visor, he turned towards the setting sun, hidden behind the boiling sandstorm.  Now a new challenge awaited him.  He had to cross the vastness of the desert, and do it in one piece.  He had to solve the mystery of the Goddess' words, to find out if Fara'Nae could--or would--be able to teach him about the lost arts of the Weavespinners.

      More uncertainty.  Tarrin felt lost in a sea of confusion, where nothing made any sense anymore.  The only light illuminating the dark waters was the mission, the knowledge of what he had to do.  But it was little comfort.  He clutched at the amulet around his neck, knowing that the comfort of his sisters was only a call away.  He feared taking that step, unsure of how he would feel to hear their voices, and not be able to see them or touch them or scent them.  To know that he was alone, alone in a violent world that was trying to kill him.  It had nearly driven the Cat mad, that feeling of loss, something that he had hidden from himself.  Something he was afraid to face.

      "Well, on to the next game," Sarraya remarked absently.

      "Tarrin?"

      Before he really knew what he was doing, he had the amulet out, cradled in his palm gently.  Keritanima!  That was Keritanima's voice!

      "Tarrin, are you there?"

      "Kerri!" Tarrin said explosively, months of pent-up fear and worry for his silent sister flooding out of him in one exclamation.  "Kerri, why haven't you called to me?  Where have you been?  Are you alright?"

      "I've been busy, I'm still in Wikuna, and I'm fine," she replied with a toothy chuckle.  "Miranda, Zak, Binter and Sisska say hello.  I'm sorry I haven't spoken to you, but I've been very busy."

      "Kerri, what's going on?  Did everything go alright?  I was afraid to call to you, I was afraid that I'd interrupt you when he couldn't afford it--"

      "I know, Allia explained it to me.  She told me that you have the Book of Ages."

      "You talked to Allia?  Stupid question," he grunted.  He felt unbelievably relieved, as if the weight of his solitude had been lifted from his shoulders.  "I have the book."

      "Allia said you had quite a fun time getting it," Keritanima laughed.  "I've been having similar fun over here."

      "What's happened?"

      "Well, I'm the Queen now, but I think you knew that was going to happen," she told him, and the tone of her voice told him she had that toothy grin on her face.  "I canned my father two tendays ago.  I've barely had the time to think, let alone let you know what was going on.  I've been busy changing the government so it can run without me here."

      "Why are you doing that?"

      "So I can come back to you, silly," she laughed.  "But this time, I'm going to be coming with a few more titles, and a pretty little headdress and metal stick."

      "I'll be glad to see you again.  If you talked to Allia, then you know what's going on."

      "Some of it.  I almost had a fit when I heard that Jula was still alive.  Really, Tarrin, she's too dangerous to leave around."

      "You're thinking like a Queen, Kerri."

      "I am a queen, deshida," she said in a teasing tone.  "At least until I push the nobles over the line.  They really don't like my changes, because now they have to pay taxes, and the nobility doesn't hold absolute power anymore.  But they'll adapt to it.  I have confidence in them."

      "It sounds like you've been very busy."

      "That doesn't even start to describe what's gone on over here," she laughed.  "I heard that you've been pretty busy yourself, that you're by yourself."

      "Hey!" Sarraya snapped.

      "Almost.  Sarraya is with me."

      "Allia wasn't too keen on that," Keritanima chuckled.  "Then again, Allia wouldn't be satisfied unless it was her with you."

      "How is she?"

      "Fine.  They're in Tor right now.  The ship they're on got damaged in a battle with Zakkites, so they had to put in for repairs.  I have a squadron of ships there, and they're going to escort them to Suld."

      "You?  You control the Wikuni fleet?"

      "Tarrin, you dip, of course I do!" she laughed.  "What part of 'I am the Queen' do you not understand?  When I tell the fleet to go somewhere, they go!"

      Tarrin laughed sheepishly.  "Well, I guess I just sorta forgot.  I'm not used to things like that.  It just doesn't seem to fit you."

      "Well, get used to it.  I gave up some of my own Queenly powers in this new government, but I still have control of the military.  The Parliament can't interfere when I deploy the fleet."

      "Parliament?  What is that?"

      "It's part of the power-sharing government I set up, that's going to allow me to leave Wikuna without worrying about being overthrown while I'm away.  I've set things up so they can function without me for a while, but I can't leave until everyone gets comfortable with the new system."

      "Wow, you have been busy, sister," Tarrin whistled.  "It sounds like you mean to keep the throne."

      "I decided that if I have to be Queen, then I'm going to be the Queen," she told him seriously.  "And that means I have to put the needs of my people over any desire of my own for power.  My people need a representative government if we're going to be ready for the future.  I'm starting to get annoyed by my own handiwork, but I'll get used to it.  It was much easier when I could just say 'do this or I'll execute you.'  Now I have rules to follow."

      Tarrin laughed richly.  "Sister, now you sound like a Queen.  And you sound like everything that me and Allia hoped you'd be."

      She was silent a moment.  "I've missed you,  my brother," she said in a sincere voice, filled with emotion.

      "I've missed you too, Kerri, more than even I realized," he replied.

      "I don't know why, but that makes me feel a little better," she sniffled.  "Since I control the fleet, can I send you any help?  I can send half the fleet to get you to Suld if you can get to a port."

      Tarrin almost accepted her offer, but then he realized that the Goddess had already told him which way he had to go.  Maybe just escaping from his pursuers was only half the reason she sent him into the desert.  Maybe there was something else out here she wanted him to do, something he had to learn.  He remembered her telling him about the power of the Weavespinners, and Sarraya's idea that maybe Fara'Nae could teach him that power.

      "I'm sorry, sister, but I have to go this way," he told her.  "My path has been set for me, and it doesn't include any ships.  I'll get to Suld on my own."

      "Are you sure?  Allia told me why you're going the way you are.  I can make sure that nothing stops you, and nobody is going to catch you on a Wikuni clipper."

      "I'm sure, Kerri.  I think the Goddess means to teach me something out here.  I think I have to do it alone."

      "And now even you're forgetting about me!" Sarraya said hotly.

      He had.  He totally forgot about Sarraya, he was so wrapped up in the elation of hearing from his dear sister after so long.  He blushed slightly, then tapped Sarraya on the top of the head playfully.  "Well, not entirely alone," he amended, giving Sarraya a fond smile.  "I have Sarraya, and just knowing that I can speak to you and Allia keeps me from feeling too lonely."

      "Allia told me that you probably wouldn't answer if I tried, but I just couldn't help myself," Keritanima confessed.  "I've missed you so much, I just couldn't go another day without hearing your voice."

      "I've missed you too, Kerri."  The sandstorm was almost on top of them, and it was getting bigger, stronger, and nastier every moment.  "Sister, I have to go.  There's a huge sandstorm bearing down on me, and I have to get to some shelter before I get buried in sand.  I'm in a pretty dangerous place, so please don't contact me first.  Let me call you.  You may give me away when I'm trying to hide from something I'd rather not face."

      "Well, alright, but I'm not used to taking orders from a commoner," Keritanima teased.

      "Say that again when we're face to face," Tarrin retorted.

      "I'm not that stupid, my brother," she laughed in reply.  "Go find someplace safe, and I'll be waiting to hear from you.  Be well, my brother, and be safe.  I love you."

      "I love you too, Kerri," he said quietly, then he let go of the amulet before he stayed longer than was safe for him.

      It wasn't as bad as he thought.  He stood there for a moment, looking the fury of the desert in the face, and all he could feel was...contentment.  He had heard from his dear sister, a sister he hadn't seen in a very long time.  And despite his fear that it would make him feel worse, it had the entirely different effect.  Now, he felt, whole.  He knew that even though great distance separated him from his sisters, they were as close as his heart.  Their love was with him, and sometimes, that was all that mattered.

      Throwing the scarf given to him by the girl in Sargon over his face, he let Sarraya snuggle into his hood, pulled the cloak around him, and started towards one of the Goddess' Fingers, a shelter from the howling winds approaching him.  He padded into the Desert of Swirling Sands, one of the most dangerous regions in the world, with nothing but high hopes and expectations.  He knew that it would be a hard trial, that his optimism would soon die away, but that was the future.  And the Cat did not worry about the future.

      Now was all that mattered.  And at that moment, Tarrin was content.


To:   Title                     EoF

Chapter 5

 

      If anything could have changed the mood in the room, that was it.

      Keritanima took her hand off the silver amulet around her neck, blowing out a sigh of the most profound relief.  A smile graced her muzzle, the first smile since the day she took the throne, a smile that came from the heart.  It was the one thing that she truly needed to do, with all the insanity that was going on in Wikuna, one of the few pleasures she could afford herself at the moment.  Those with her in her inner sanctum, the ultimate privacy of her bedchamber, became visibly relaxed.  Of course, Binter and Sisska, Miranda and Azakar knew her well, so they understood just how important it had been for her to contact her brother and sister.  It was something that she needed to do to take her mind off the issues confronting her.

      It was also something that she'd been meaning to do for a while.  With the battle for the throne over twenty days ago, she should have been contacting them that night after putting down her father's hasty rebellion.  But one thing led to another, problems piled up on her desk, and she'd been sidetracked by the astounding amount of work that had inundated her since presenting the nobility with the document that would hamstring their power.

      And that had been her main headache.  Wikuni nobles being what they were, they accepted the constitution with graceful smiles, read it, then immediately threw it out the window and began plotting ways to either get around it, invalidate it, or even get rid of Keritanima and put a monarch on the throne that wouldn't change the order of things.  This, Keritanima had expected.  She just didn't expect it from every noble house.  Even the weakest of them were beginning to look for ways to put obstacles in Keritanima's path.  The only houses that weren't causing problems were house Eram, since it only had two members and she totally controlled her sister, and house Mation.  Praki Mation was absolutely terrified of Keritanima, and would do absolutely nothing to bring her wrath down on her.  What seemed like a personal insult was that Sheba was doing it too!  Over the twenty days, Sheba and Keritanima had more or less buried the hatchet.  Had even nearly become friends.  But now the former pirate was doing the same thing everyone else was doing, and that hurt the Queen more than a little bit.

      Their roadblocks had been both subtle and blatant.  Noble ships suddenly clogged all the harbors in northeastern Wikuna, strangling trade.  The commoners that Keritanima had invited to help with the transition were harassed on the streets, misdirected, blockaded in their homes by agents of the nobles, and a few of them even assassinated.  Nobles were continuously late to those meetings, forcing endless delays and changes in plans.  And Keritanima had it on good authority from Jervis that many of the nobles had met among themselves, and were cooperating.  And that they were attempting to hire every mercenary, sellsword, and two-bit footman they could find.  If they couldn't convince Keritanima to give up on her idea of a Republic, they were more than willing to fight her over the throne.

      This infuriated the new Queen of Wikuna, infuriated her in a way that few things could.  Her entire goal right now was to return to Sennadar, return to her brother and sister and be a family again, to help them in their mission for the Goddess of the Sorcerers.  The nobles were delaying her wishes, and they should have learned by now that getting in Keritanima's way was a very unhealthy thing to do.  She may have given away a portion of her own power, but she was still Queen of Wikuna, and her power was nothing to be dismissed.

      But it shocked her that the nobles would be willing to take it to the ultimate level, civil war.  If they'd just read the damn thing!  Read it and understand it, see the opportunities for prosperity that rested within the pages!  By surrendering some of their power and paying taxes, they would get the opportunity to take their house fortunes and quadruple them within twenty years.  But they were so stubborn!  All they could see was that the radically aligned new Queen was taking away their status as true nobles, as someone above the common man.  They were so arrogant!

      Perhaps that was her error.  She expected them to be receptive to change, and that simply wasn't going to happen.  They wanted to keep their power, to keep their feeling of control, to keep their arrogance.  They wanted things to stay the same.  They didn't want to take a chance on something that they didn't understand, didn't want to understand.  They wanted to stay in the closet.

      Well, that was tough.  She couldn't leave Wikuna without the Republic, because she couldn't trust the nobles not to mess things up in her absence.  If she left before then, odds were there would be a new monarch on the throne before her ship reached Sennadar, and they'd be sending assassins by the score to eliminate her.  Then they'd just tell the people that Keritanima's ship sank, and that would be that.  She was the Queen now, and she took that responsibility seriously.  She wouldn't leave Wikuna at the mercy of a new dynasty of bloodthirsty tyrants.

      Keritanima leaned back in her chair at her desk, as Binter and Sisska played chess on the chest Keritanima kept at the foot of her bed, Jervis watched the battle in keen interest, and Azakar helped Miranda wind a ball of yarn, sitting in a new rocking chair in the corner.  Binter and Sisska never changed, from their kilts to their leather harnesses, but Jervis' attire had improved since coming into the new Queen's inner circle.  He wore a spotless gray waistcoat that matched his fur, and his everpresent pocketwatch now had a gold chain holding it to his vest.  Miranda still wore daring dresses, but she still continued to wear simple dresses of her own making rather than jewelled or extravagant gowns favored by the nobility.  Today's dress was a cream-colored dress with a white sash, with a neckline that quite nearly reached the sash.  For Miranda, it was an "older" dress, a dress she wore when showing others that she wasn't as young as she looked.  Few young girls could possess Miranda's impressive attributes.  Miranda did not let others forget that she was a commoner, but she also didn't let them forget that she was a beautiful young woman either.  Azakar wore a simple brown doublet and leather breeches, the doublet carrying an embroidered Royal crest over his heart, clothing that would easily go under his armor if he had to quickly don it.  The crest marked him as a Royal servant, and it gave him protection and authority within the Palace.  Miranda had been dabbling in knitting lately, so her everpresent shoulder bag was now filled with ivory knitting needles and balls of yarn of every color.

      Yes, that certainly seemed to be the problem.  The problem here was that she was the only one trying to abide by the new rules.  She had been acting under the powers she afforded herself by the new system, when nobody else was.  The Parliament was not yet formed, and in reality it was Keritanima making all the decisions.  She had been doing it to get a feel for it, to get an understanding of what she had to do to make it work.  The nobles weren't playing by the new rules, because they didn't want to have any part of the game.

      If nobody else was going to play by the rules, then it would be silly for her to do it alone.

      Yes.  She could see that if she couldn't persuade the nobles with honey and sweetcakes, then she would stuff it down their throats with a ramrod.  If they wanted to play one last game of political chicken, she would be more than willing to oblige them.

      A plan already began to form.  The nobility ruled because they had titles and money.  All she had to do was take away what made them different from the common man, and give them a real reason to fear her.  It was very simple, very effective, and it would probably solve all her problems inside twenty minutes once she began.

      "Jervis," she said in a commanding tone.

      "Yes, your Majesty?" he replied immediately, looking up from the game.

      "Summon Mayor Trent.  Also, ask sashka if he would be so kind as to talk with me."

      Nobody commanded sashka.  Keritanima was well aware of that.  The Vendari weren't truly arrogant, but if Keritanima ordered the subject king of Vendaka, it would be an affront to his honor.  Damon Eram had made that fatal error, had alienated the Vendari, by whose suffrance a Wikuni monarch actually ruled.  Keritanima had no intentions of following in her father's footsteps.

      "I'll arrange it.  What time would you like to meet them?"

      "As soon as is convenient for sashka," she replied.  "Here."

      Jervis raised a brow.  If she was going to summon them to her private chambers, then what she had to discuss with them was something that she didn't want known.

      "I know that look," Miranda grinned.  "You're cooking up something, aren't you, Kerri?"

      "I'm tired of the noble houses trying to sabotage things," she said with a fret.  "I'm going to deal with them."

      "That sounds final," Azakar noted.

      "That'll be their decision, Zak," she told him casually.  "How they want to play the game is their choice, but they have to live with their own rules."

      Miranda giggled.  "Uh oh, that is final," she said, winking in Keritanima's direction.  "You want help?"

      "No, I've already wrapped this plan up, Miranda.  It's pretty simple.  Thanks for the offer."

      "With your Majesty's permission, I'll see to the summons," Jervis said.

      "Go ahead, Jervis.  Try to get them here by lunch, but don't press sashka."

      "You misunderstand sashka, your Majesty.  If I tell him you wish to speak with him, he will drop everything and come to you."

      "Probably, but I'm not going to order him."

      "Order him if you want, your Majesty.  He bows to your crown, so he will follow your orders willingly.  Don't let the fact that he literally put you on that throne cloud reality."

      Keritanima made a face at the rabbit.  She never forgot that it was sashka that put her on the throne, and that was probably why she always treated him with deferrence.  Mainly because she was more than aware that sashka could take her right off of it.  Unlike her father, Keritanima had a full grip on the true political situation in Wikuna.

      "I don't like ordering friends, Jervis," she lied to cover the truth.

      "Spoken like a true Queen," Jervis smiled, then he bowed and made his way out.

      "Care to enlighten us, Kerri?" Miranda asked.

      "It's simple, Miranda," he told her, turning in her seat to face them.  "I'm going to give the nobles a taste of what they're doing to me."

      "Clever," she applauded.

      "Thank you.  All I need to do is give a choice between a Republic and total head-crushing oppression."

      "A good plan, Majesty," Sisska said.  "But your own Constitution will not permit it."

      "It hasn't been ratified yet, Sisska," Keritanima said smugly.  "Until Parliament ratifies it as law, it's only law if I want it to be.  I've only been following my own rules to show the nobles that I'm serious about it.  But if they don't want to follow the rules, then I see no reason why I have to either."

      Miranda gave Keritanima a strange look, then literally fell out of her chair laughing.  "Beautiful!" she managed to wheeze.  "She's going to make them ratify the Constitution, if only to save themselves from her!"

      "Simple, isn't it?" Keritanima chuckled with a wicked glint in her eyes.

      Miranda continued to laugh, kicking the floor with the heels of her feet in glee.  "Beautiful!  Beautiful!  I can't wait to see the faces of the house leaders when they realize that they're causing their own suffering!"

      "That's what you're going to do?" Azakar asked.  "Scare them?"

      "Zak, I'm going to fix it so they demand that the Constitution be ratified," she said, flexing her fingers in an ominous manner.  "Part of the Constitution is designed to protect against tyranny.  I'm going to give them a tyrant to motivate them."

      Azakar looked at her, then he suddenly laughed.  "That's evil, Kerri."

      "Thank you.  I try."

      "Perhaps putting her on the throne was a bad decision, lifemate," Binter noted to Sisska.

      "I think not.  At least we can put her over our knee and spank her if she oversteps herself," Sisska replied seriously.

      Keritanima gave her Vendari bodyguards a wild look.  Humor!  Humor from Vendari!  Again!  What was going on with those two?

      "Wait a minute, Kerri.  If you're going to be a tyrant, won't it affect the commoners?" Azakar asked.

      "I'll make a politician of you yet, Zak," Keritanima winked.  "It could, but it's not going to come to that.  If I do things right, everything will be settled tomorrow.  You forget that I don't have to carry through on my threats.  All I have to do is make them.  I'm sure that the nobles will understand that if they don't stop interfering, my threats will come true."

      "What if they don't?"

      "Well, then things will get messy.  I'm going to plan for that, so the nobles don't take it out on the commoners.  I won't let my people suffer over what's going to be a personal spat between the Queen and her nobles."

      "They'd do that to their own people?"

      "Zak, to a noble, a commoner is, at best, only a tool, or at worst an expendable asset.  They don't see them as people, and that's what I intend to change.  Unlike most nobles, I trust the commoners alot more than I do the nobility."

      "That sounds like Yar Arak," he replied.  "All that suffering and pain just so the rich could get richer.  I never thought I'd see that here."

      "It's not as obvious here, but it does happen," she replied seriously.  "But I think you'll see things changing in Yar Arak."

      "What, Tarrin wiped it off the map before he left?" Azakar asked in a cold tone.  He had been a slave there, so his opinion of the empire was a very sour one.

      "No, they have a new Empress," she replied.  "Tarrin killed the Emperor."

      "He didn't!" Miranda gasped.

      "He did," she affirmed.  "Jervis got those reports two weeks ago, but he wanted confirmation.  Tarrin killed the Emperor, and it seems that he destroyed large swaths of the city to boot.  I can only imagine what drove him to that," she said, closing her eyes and feeling a bit of pain for her brother.  "He killed thousands, Miranda.  Thousands."  She opened her eyes and sighed.  "Anyway, after all that, he took the Book of Ages from the Emperor's wife, who it turns out happens to be a Demoness."

      Azakar gaped at Keritanima, but Miranda put a finger to her chin in thought.  "That's why he was so destructive.  If I remember my mythology right, no mortal can harm a Demon.  To fight something like that, he'd have to let everything go and face it with everything he has."

      "Most likely," Keritanima agreed with a somber expression.  "Anyway, that Demoness decided to come out of hiding.  She's ruling openly now."

      "That's supposed to make things better?" Azakar asked acidly.  "The largest empire in the world, ruled by a Demon?"

      "Of course it will," Keritanima said.  "Jervis' initial reports out of Arak are favorable.  This Empress Shiika has started her rule by trying to fix the mess caused by all the old Emperors.  I'll bet that the Demoness has been the wife of the last ten or twelve Emperors, and her domination of him made him listless and not fit to rule.  And that caused the degeneration of the Empire.  Now she's trying to fix that.  She's rebuilding the destroyed areas, and she's trying to do something about the armies of homeless and poor."

      "Killing them off?" Azakar asked with a rather nasty look.

      "Putting them to work," she replied.  "Anyone can work a day's labor and receive a hot meal, a good day's pay, and a bed for the night, at the Crown's expense.  It's a good way to get started, I have to admit.  Shiika is expanding the workforce to repair the damage and giving her poorest a chance to dig out of their holes. The Imperial family is rumored to have more money than any kingdom but Wikuna, so she can certainly afford it.   She may be a Demon, but I see already that this one is smart.  She's already identified her most pressing problems, and she's moving to correct them.  I think Yar Arak is in capable hands."

      "It just seems unnatural," Azakar complained.

      "From what Jervis has told me so far, so is Shiika," Keritanima told him.  "She's not your usual Demon.  She seems to lack the viciousness and pure evil common in Demonkind, but I wouldn't doubt that she's not a very nice girl if you get her mad.  I guess she just proves that anyone can be different from their kind, even a Demon."

      "Who would have guessed that a Demon could be something other than evil?" Miranda mused.

      "It just goes to show you, Miranda.  Life is weird."

      Both Miranda and Azakar laughed, and it got a mild look from Binter and Sisska.

      Life certainly was weird, Keritanima mused inwardly.  Here she was, the Queen of Wikuna, and she was about to start a revolution against herself.  The Queen of Wikuna, most powerful Wikuni there was, willing to surrender some of her power and change the face of her kingdom just so she could go chasing off after her brother and sister.  The Queen of Wikuna, paragon of all things Wikuni, icon of strength and intelligence, who suffered from a childish crush on a man.

      That had not gone away.  Keritanima's infatuation with Rallix had only intensified since taking the Crown, and many a night was spent in a girlish fantasy of wooing, luring, and capturing the badger's heart.  She still had designs on Rallix, but they were starting to evolve into something more than a crush.  Keritnaima had given over on girlish daydreams, and had begun to approach the Rallix problem like the seasoned political mistress that she was.  She already had started to devise a plan to winning her unwitting employee.  It was something that warmed her heart in all the madness surrounding her now, an oasis of gentle feelings in the desert of iron will that she had to present at all times.  There had never been a man that had captured her interest like Rallix, and she had been a bit embaressed when she asked Jervis to look into the man's past for her.  She had given the excuse of bringing the man in as an advisor, but she had the feeling that the foppish rabbit looked right through her thinly veiled excuse.  It made her wonder how much Jervis really knew about Lizelle.

      The reports told her very little more than she already knew.  She did find out from Jervis that Rallix had come from an orphanage, that his parents had died in a shipwreck when he was just an infant.  He had managed to work himself through the prestigious Ferring Cross academy, and that had to have been no easy task.  The academy was expensive, and the young boy would have had to work absolutely every moment not in school.  It certainly explained his exceptional skills for one so young.  Ferring Cross was a school that many nobles attended.  Keritanima hadn't hired him because of his background, she had hired him because she could see that he would make her business successful.

      It helped her get a better understanding of him, though, and that was important when she decided to finally stop putting it off and take him for her own.  But that would have to be later.  Right now, Rallix would be in danger if she made it known that she was interested in him.  Not right now, but soon, very soon, Rallix would find his heart under siege.

      And Keritanima played to win.

 

      As had become the norm within the Hall of the Sun, the throne hall of the Wikuni kingdom, the Queen was attended by a large complement of Vendari warriors as she took her throne before the quiet court.  Court was packed that day, the day after Keritanima spoke with Tarrin, because the Queen had summoned all the noble heads of all the noble houses.  She also summoned Mayor Trent, her legal council, her advisors, bodyguards, and the heads of the seven major academies and colleges in the city.  Shashka, the subject king of Vendaka, stood immediately before the dais and to the right, his head above Keritanima's eyes despite the fact that the throne was on a raised platform on the raised dais.  He stood beside the Captain of the Guard, who had his men arrayed by the dais to keep a cushion of protection between the Queen and her subjects.   The court was bowing or curtsying, holding their positions of deferrence as the young Queen of Wikuna seated herself on the throne.

      The mood in the throne hall was of apprehension.  The nobility--and everyone else, for that matter--knew that when Keritanima called so many people to court, she was about to make a major announcement.  Lately, those major announcements were nightmares for the nobles.  The nobles knew that she was aware of their attempts to stop her from changing the government, and most of them understood that this was going to be Keritanima's counterstroke to their resistance.  Many of them were only there to see how far the Queen intended to take this game of chicken.

      With Miranda on her left and Azakar on her right, with her Vendari bodyguards flanking them to create a wall of complete protection, Keritanima got comfortable on the massive throne of Wikuna.  She nodded vaguely for the assembled court to rise, and then fingered the sceptre of station which was one of her symbols of authority absently.  Then she put it on the arm of her throne and swept her gaze over the assembled court.  Mayor Trent looked a bit amused, for she had talked to him the night before, and he knew what was about to happen.

      He was the only Wikuni in the Hall who was smiling.

      "You disappoint me," Keritanima began in a cold voice, a voice that made the noble leaders flinch visibly.  Keritanima jumped to her feet, her purple Royal Robes flaring out before settling around her again.  "I don't think you understand your situation!" she told them in a hot voice.  "I am your Queen.  I won this throne from my father with no help from any of you!  My plans to alter the government to make it more efficient aren't dandle-chaff daydreams, my backwards noble cousins, and you know fully well what you're doing to put a stop to it.  I'm sure you know that I know what's going on, and I'm tired of it."

      She crossed her arms and let that sink in.  "I'm pretty sure that most of you know that this audience is my reply to your resistance, and I won't disappoint you.  What I don't think any of you understand is just how far I'll go.  You may not like the idea of the Republic, but right here, right now, at this moment, you are not dealing with the Queen of that Republic.  You are dealing with the Queen of the Wikuni Kingdom.  If you won't accept the Constitution, if you want to continue playing these stupid political games, I'll be more than happy to take it to you on that level."

      That made almost all the nobles take a step back.  The Queen's ability to play on that level were well known now.

      "If you don't want a Republic, I'll give you Tyranny!" Keritanima thundered at them.

      More than one's knees began to shiver.

      "If brute force is all you understand, then I'll give it to you," Keritanima seethed.  "You want a Queen?  You have one!"  She sat back down.  "I immediately decree that all  plaits of Noble Law are repealed," she said, glaring at them.  "Only the plaits of Common Law and Royal law are now binding.  Nobles will not be granted any legal protection for their station.  I also decree that from this day forward, no Noble House may carry a standing army greater than one hundreth of the quartered men of the standing Royal Army.  Since I have ten thousand men quartered at the moment, then no Noble House may have a total force greater than one hundred men.  I also decree that from this day forth, only the ships of the Royal Navy may be armed with cannons.  All private noble ships must disarm immediately.  I decree a freedom tax upon the property of all noble houses.  Anyone leaving your private property, my nobles, will cost you a thousand gold falcons for them to use my streets.  That includes the servants and commoners who work for you!"

      There was stunned silence from the court, but Keritanima didn't give them a chance.  "Do you like the new system, my nobles?" Keritanima asked scathingly.  "Would you like to hear what I have prepared to decree tomorrow?"

      "This is an outrage!" someone called from the court.  "We are nobles!  We are not chattel!"

      "You are Wikuni!" Keritanima thundered.  "Do you not understand that the only Wikuni above the law is me?  Since you've convinced yourself that you're a step above what you really are, allow this decree to convince you otherwise!  Effective immediately, I decree that all titles and lands granted by the Crown except my own are hereby taken back by the Crown!  All of it!  Every grain of sand, every blade of grass, every nail and board and brick, everything!"

      There was a stunned silence.  Noble houses owned more than was granted to them by the Crown, but the ancestral homes of almost all of them were originally granted by the monarch.

      "Now there are no nobles!" Keritanima snapped at them.  "Now face the truth, that your money and your lands and your titles are yours because I allow you to have them!"

      There was a sudden commotion, as everyone started screaming and yelling at once.  But it all ended immediately when the Vendari in the Hall took a single step forward and raised their weapons.  The raw power of the mighty Vendari cowed almost all of them into immediate silence.

      One noble stepped forward.  Vora Plantan, the methodical female bear-Wikuni whom often served as a steadying influence on the nobility as a whole.  She curtsied to the Queen with practiced ease, then gave the young fox Wikuni a penetrating look.  "You have made your point, your Majesty," she said with a calm demeanor.  "Surely you understand that carrying through with that decree will lead to war.  A war that everyone in this room knows you will win.  I am a practical woman, your Majesty.  I have tried my hand, and found it to be lacking.  I know when I'm on the losing side.  Now is the time to salvage as much as I can out of a bad situation.  I will support your new Constitution, if you will permit me to retain my title and granted lands."

      Keritanima leaned back in her throne, silently sighing in relief.  Good old Vora.  She always could see to the heart of the matter.

      "I'll accept your word that all these games will stop, Vora, but if I find out you made this promise and continue to resist me in any way, I'll crush you.  Do we understand one another?"

      "Perfectly, your Majesty," Vora said evenly.

      "Fine.  Then I exempt you from the decree.  House Plantan will retain its titles and granted lands.  Oh, yes, house Eram and House Mation are also exempted.  Neither of them have tried to resist me, so they shouldn't be made to pay for the mistakes the rest of you have made."

      One by one, the leaders of the nobles houses approached her and made the same offer.  Retaining titles and lands in exchange for the promise to stop resisting.  Keritanima accepted them, one by one, making every noble leader say it publicly in court so that there would be no weaseling out of it.  The most satisfying of them was when Sheba Zalan gave her stiff curtsy and pleaded to retain her house and titles.  Keritanima made her sweat for a moment by pretending to consider the matter, but finally agreed.

      When the last swore to her, she stood up again.  "Don't even think that I believed a word of what you said," she said hotly to them.  "Right now, a force of thirty thousand Vendari are on the way from Vendaka.  Sashka has pledged his full support, and the Vendari will only obey the Crown.  If you care to mouth your platitudes while buying muskets, go right again.  I'll pit my forty thousand Vendari and the Royal Navy against everything you can hire.  You will understand right here, right now, that you either embrace change, or be crushed under its heel.  I'll continue with my plan, whether there are any nobles left to form a House of Lords or not."  She looked over them coldly.  "Understand one thing, my nobles.  You are alone.  The Vendari are behind me, and the commoners believe in the idea of a Republic.  We can go on without you.  You aren't needed anymore.  You can either march with us into the future, or be destroyed.  The choice is yours."  She crossed her arms and swept a powerful gaze over them.  "This audience is concluded.  Get out!"

      In total silence, the court withdrew.  Keritanima went through the back entrance with her retinue and sashka, and only in the antechamber where the Queen donned her Royal robes did she blow out a sigh of relief.  "That went as well as I expected," she told her friends.  "I appreciate your aid, friend sashka."

      "We are yours to command, your Majesty," he said mildly.

      "Do you believe in what I'm doing?"

      "This idea of a Republic is not our way, Majesty," sashka said calmly.  "It is against our nature.  So long as you do not impose it upon Vendaka, all will be well."

      "But do you think it's a good idea for us?"

      "I have read your papers.  You have vision, Majesty.  For the Wikuni, I believe it will be a good thing."

      "Then that's all I needed to hear," she said to him with a gentle smile.  "I trust your judgement, sashka."

      "My judgement will ever be at your command, your Majesty."

      "That comforts me in ways I don't think you can imagine, sashka," she said sincerely.  "Now I can get things moving for real."

      "Why the haste, your Majesty?" Sashka asked.

      "I have a promise to keep, sashka," she replied seriously.  "It's a matter of honor.  I have to return to Sennadar as soon as possible."

      "If it is a matter of honor, then your haste is understandable," he replied, his eyes approving.  "But do not let the haste cloud your judgement.  You cannot rush to Sennadar to save honor while losing it here."

      "I'm aware of that, but I do need to hurry," she told him.  "I want to be back in Suld inside four months.  I think that's a realistic timetable."

      "Workable," Miranda piped in.  "Now that you've cowed the nobles, you just have to organize the government, and find someone to act in your stead while you're gone."

      "I already know who that will be," she said.  She turned to the massive Vendari ruler.  "Would you do me the honor of serving in my place while I'm gone, sashka?  If there's anyone in Wikuna I can trust, it's you.  I have total confidence in your ability, and the nobles wet themselves at the sight of you."

      "You honor me, your Majesty," the Vendari replied in a serious voice.  "I am not worthy of the position, but if you wish it, I will do my best."

      Miranda laughed brightly.  "The nobles won't even think of trying to revolt while we're gone if sashka is serving as the Queen's regent," she told Azakar.

      "That's only a small reason," Keritanima said.  "Sashka knows Wikuna, and he knows what I'm trying to do.  His ability to govern is more important than his ability to intimidate."

      "But it doesn't hurt," Miranda added.

      "No, it does not," Keritanima agreed with a smile.

      She took off her crown and set it on a cushion with the sceptre, sighing in relief.  That was the last obstacle.  With the nobles under control, she would soon be on her way back to Sennadar, back to her brother and sister.  She had three months to prepare Wikuna for her departure.  Three months.

      It wouldn't be short enough for her.

 

      Heat.

      Burning sun, burning sand, burning rocks.  Tarrin had never known such heat.  It hammered into his body, it beat the energy out of him, it boiled him in his own fur.  His Were body was well suited to dealing with heat, but it began to tire him after only half a day of exposure to the powerful sun and baking ambient heat of the Desert of Swirling Sands.

      Tarrin huddled inside his leather cloak, using it to shield him from the merciless sun, which hung like a ball of molten bronze in the sky, a disc of pure fire that burned at him.  Its light was so bright that it reflected painfully off the sand and gravel, bright even under the protection of the tinted visor Sarraya had made, and every step burned the sand's intense heat into the pads on his feet.  He was sweating profusely within the cloak, but he knew that it would be ten times worse if the sun was directly striking him.  Sweat made his still-short hair wet to the touch, bleeding out the black dye that Sarraya had used to darken his hair.  His skin had lost its dark color, but his face was nearly as dark now from exposure to the sun, darkening in response to exposure to the blasting sunlight of the desert.  If anything, now he understood why the Selani had brown skin.  It had been burned into them to the point where it had become an inherited trait.

      Crossing the desert in the heat of the day hadn't been his first choice, but he was too close to the edge of the desert to suit him.  The sandstorm that sent him scrambling for cover the night before ended as quickly as it began, and just as mysteriously, making him wonder if the Selani goddess really did create the storm to drive Anayi out of the desert.  It had howled deafeningly for about five hours, and then it stopped.  Tarrin had spent the rest of the night sleeping, and when he awoke in the morning, he realized that he was entirely too close to the escarpment to make him feel comfortable.  So he had set out in the morning sunrise to put distance between him and the ki'zadun.  The morning had been cold, at first, but he expected that.  He'd heard many of Allia's tales about the desert, so he knew what to expect.  He moved quickly in the morning, and slowed more and more as the sun rose and started baking the land.  It wasn't even noon yet, and already it was nearly unbearable.  He knew that he had to stop soon, to find shade and rest during the hottest part of the day, and then start again in the afternoon.  That wasn't the Selani way, but then again, the Selani were born and raised in the desert, and were acclimated to the heat.

      He would adjust.  If his Were body was good for anything, it was adaption to new environments.  His system would get used to the heat, his body would adapt to the environment, and his regeneration would protect him from things like sunburn or heat stroke.  Dehydration was his primary concern, so he made sure to drink water often.  He'd get used to the heat and not sweat as much, but he had to keep water inside him until that happened.

      "Now...now I understand why the Selani are so fierce," Sarraya panted under his hood, hiding from the heat.  Her voice was listless.  "Anything that can live in this must be all but indestructible."

      "I thought you'd been to the desert before," Tarrin noted.

      "It was winter then, it's not as hot in the winter," she replied.  "And I visited the northern marches of the desert.  This is the southern marches."

      "It makes a difference?"

      "Entirely," she panted.

      The sense of relief he felt from getting here didn't quite overcome his sense of trepidation.  Now he was safe from those seeking the Book, but he just traded them in for beasts that were after him as a meal.  He'd already seen some tracks.  Tracks at least as large as his own feet, three-toed, and with divots at the ends of the toes that told him the toes sported some wicked claws.  The way it looked, it was a pack of them, and judging by the size of the feet, they had to be at least Tarrin's size, if not larger.  And if they weren't bad enough, he'd seen two Selani markers.  The Selani owned the desert, and they killed invaders.  He wouldn't be able to hide from them forever, but he hoped to get well into the desert before meeting up with any of them.  Add to that the challenges of surviving in such a hostile land, and it made for a relatively unpleasant experience.

      But he couldn't deny the stark beauty of the land.  That morning, after leaving the little cave in the side of a rock spire, he had to stop and marvel at how the light struck the many stone spires dotting the wasteland, at the different colors that banded them as they rose towards the heavens, reds and browns and yellows and even greens and blues.  The sun illuminated the scene in brillant reds as it rose, like fire sweeping across the desert, causing the stone to change colors as the sun rose from the horizon.  It was breathtaking.  He never knew unworked stone could look so beautiful.  There was an elegance to it, a simple beauty, as if the wind had taken up a paintbrush and left its mark upon the spires.  A little climbing told him that it was the stone itself that was colored, which was even more amazing.  Never before had Tarrin seen green sandstone, but yet here it was.

      Blowing out his breath, Tarrin stopped.  He had to stop often to drink, but stopping made him feel like he was standing on a campfire.  He dug his feet into the sand, sinking them down past the heat to the cooler sand beneath, and let his fur insulate him from the hot sand pressing up against his ankles.  He knelt down and spread the cloak out around him, shielding the sand from the sun so it would cool and take some bite off the inferno hitting him in the face while he rested.  He pulled the waterskin off his belt and shook it, then uncapped it carefully with his claws and emptied it of its contents.  The water was hot, but it soothed a parched throat, and sent a minor surge of energy through him.

      But not much.

      Crossing this land would be a trial.  He already knew that, but it took coming here, feeling the fire under his feet and the weight of the sun's heat on his head to fully appreciate how difficult it was going to be.  But why did he have to do it?  The Goddess had told him to go this way, told him to go into the desert.  She had to have a good reason.  After all, if Keritanima controlled the Wikuni fleets, that literally meant that she controlled the seas.  On board a Wikuni clipper, he would be completely safe.  He could go to the coast right now and call to Kerri, and she would send her ships to pick him up.  Why did he have to endure a trek across the desert?

      Because she told him to do it.

      Sometimes acting on faith was a chore.  Tarrin rose back up, staring out into the blasted lands of the Selani.  It was all sand and rock, and rock and sand.  Not to mention the sand and the rock.  Allia said there were plants in the desert, in some areas, and even then only if one knew where to look.  There were oases in the desert as well, but they were well hidden and well guarded by the Selani, for they represented life.  Most of them served as the Selani's home camps.  The Selani were a semi-nomadic people, traveling from oasis to oasis so as not to completely drain the water in an area and to find what forage they could for their animals.  They lived in tents mostly, but each clan had a permanent village where the clan-king lived.  They would be interruptions of the sand and rock, at least.

      In a way, Tarrin almost wanted a sandstorm to come in.  At least inside the howling winds there would be shade.  He shaded his eyes with a paw and looked at a distant rock spire, one of the large ones.  That was his goal, to reach that spire by sunset.  There was a smaller one about three longspans ahead, and that was where he intended to find some shade and rest through the hottest part of the day.

      There was some kind of dark disturbance on the horizon.  Tarrin watched as it seemed to take form, to expand and grow, and he realized that it was another sandstorm.  He focused on it, watched it as it grew larger and larger, and in growing horror he realized that it was getting larger because it was moving towards him, and moving faster than anything he'd ever seen move!

      "Sarraya, there's a storm coming in, and it's moving fast!" he said, jumping up and sprinting.  Three longspans.  For him, that was only ten minutes, a distance he could cover quickly and without worry.  But the sand grabbed at his feet, the heat drained his strength.  Even as he started to run, he began to doubt whether they were going to make it.

      "Good gods!" Sarraya said in a strangled tone as she came around and looked out of the front of the hood.  "Tarrin, run!  If that hits us, it'll pick us up, and you won't survive the landing!"

      "I'm running!" he snapped in reply, charging ahead in complete desperation.  Never had he seen anything move so fast!  It had to be unnatural!  In seconds, the edges of the storm were defined.  It was small, but it moved with incredible speed, and its broiling center churned with blowing sand and dust.  It was a dark cloud, a cloud of death, which would kill anything unfortunate enough to wander into its path.

      Step by step, Tarrin closed on the storm, trying to beat it to the rock spire between them.  Step by step, the storm loomed larger and larger, swallowing up the horizon, coming to dominate the region before him.  He could see the bulging clouds of sand making it up, see the edge of the powerful wind as it picked up everything in its path.  What ferocity!  And what speed!  It moved faster than the fastest horse, carried along by its own winds, racing across the desert like some dark phantom.

      They weren't going to make it!  He was barely halfway there, and the storm was directly before him, so close that the first stirrings of wind began to tug at his cloak.  In immediate terror, he realized that he had moments--seconds--before it hit them.  He had to think fast!  He skidded to a stop on a flat rock buried in the sand, its surface worn smooth by the scouring winds.

      "No!" Tarrin said in a growling tone.  "I didn't come this far to get killed in a storm!  NO!!!!!!!!!" he shouted at the storm, as his eyes flared with an incandescent light.  The power of the Weave rushed into him before he even realized what he was doing, so quickly that Sarraya hastily tried to control it.  But as quickly as he touched the Weave, the storm bore down on him like it was a thing alive, leaving him the shortest moment to brace for its impact.  He wasn't ready!  He didn't have enough magic built up to do anything strong enough to counter the power of the sandstorm!  He couldn't draw enough to control safely that would counter the power of the wind!

      In desperation, Tarrin wove a weave of Earth, and caused his feet to sink into the stone beneath them.  Then he crossed his arms before his face and braced himself.

      It was like being dragged through a briar patch by ten racing horses.  The wind struck him with enough force to knock the air from his lungs, and carried on it was the merciless scouring sand.  The sand and dust tore into him, tore his clothing, stripped the fur and skin from him, made a whining sound as it assaulted the nicked, pitted steel of his manacles.  Hot, slashing sand ripped into his face, and the force of the wind stressed the bones in his legs, threatening to break them.  Tarrin leaned into the wind, using his inhuman strength to resist its power, bent his knees to take the stress off his shins.  Sand invaded his mouth, drove into his ears, even ripped the tip of his left ear off.  The cloak around his neck shredded instantly from the immense power of the wind, nearly broke his neck as it was pulled by the wind.

      He only barely heard Sarraya's frightened scream as the clasp of the cloak broke, the laces were ripped apart, and the cloak was ripped from his back.

      "Sarraya!" he gasped.  She had been inside the hood, and he could hear her cry fade into the howling of the wind as she was carried away from him.  Sand filled his mouth, but the sudden fear for Sarraya, the instant horror that she might be dead caused him to lose his fear, lose his inhibitions.  Tarrin released all constraints and opened himself completely to the Weave, and allowed it to flow into him, through him.  The Weave was weak where he was, but he could still draw in enough to feel it racing through him, scouring the fatigue and aching within as the sand scoured away skin, hair, and fur without.  Tarrin felt the Weave fill him, infuse him, quickly go past the point where sweetness became pain, and warmth became burning heat.  The warning from the Goddess remained in the back of his mind, caused him to attempt to clamp down on the power rushing into him, but again he found that he could not.  The only way to free himself from the Weave would be to use the power within, the cut himself off before it had a chance to recharge.  The Weave was thin here, he'd have a very good chance of doing it without causing himself any permanent injury.

      He had to use it now, before it built past his ability to control.  It wasn't enough power to disrupt the storm, but that wasn't his intent.  Weaving together a spell of Air and Divine power, Tarrin released it and caused a wedge of pure Air to form before him, deflecting the wind from him enough to where it did not threaten to tear him apart.  Then he sent a tendril of Air behind, a spell of searching to look for Sarraya.  She was a Faerie and a Druid.  She could fly, and she had magic to protect herself from the wind.  He had no doubt that she would survive, but she may be injured by flying debris, and he wouldn't allow that.  He found her quickly, out of the hood, being carried along by the powerful wind as it ripped her dress from her body and stripped blue skin from her body.  He reached out with his tendril of Air and grabbed her, surrounded her with a barrier of protection from the wind, and then started carrying her back to him.  The wind pushed against him, tried to rip her from his magical grasp, but he would not yield.  It was so strong that he stopped concentrating on the wedge of Air protecting him from the force of the storm, diverted that energy into keeping his grip on the Faerie and keeping the killing winds away from her.  When he let the wedge dissolve, a furious blast of wind hit him in the face, tore off the rest of his left ear, blinded his left eye, but he ignored the damage, ignored the pain, concentrating solely and completely on his weaving.  Sarraya meant more to him than his own safety.  He inexorably pulled her back towards him, resisting the power of the wind, battling the power of the storm over the little Faerie.

      With bloody paws, Tarrin clasped them around Sarraya's quivering, naked body.  The wind had done its damage to her as well as him.  He cradled her like a baby, cradled her to his chest and hunkered down, then wove a weave of Air, a Ward to keep out the sand and the wind.  He laid it down around him, and when it took effect, the howling of the wind became a whisper, and the dusty air was unnaturally still.

      "Tarrin!" Sarraya suddenly cried as he opened his paws.  She began to cry, putting her bloody hands over her face and weeping into them.  She was shivering with fear, as any normal person would be after looking death so closely in the face.

      Tarrin was drained, weary.  He found cutting himself off from the Weave to be relatively easy, but the pain of the backlash felt as if he'd been filled to the brim with magic, rather than nearly completely drained.  The Ward itself shuddered from the magical effect of the backlash, a displacement of the air around him that caused what little remaining clothing on him to blow away from him.  He didn't have much left.  The pack was still intact, and its precious contents were safely on his back.  But all of the shirt he had on that wasn't under the pack was now gone.  His trousers had survived, but only just.  The pant legs were all but gone, leaving nothing but the leather from the mid-thigh up.  All of the fur on him that had been directly facing the wind was gone, and alot of his skin was stripped raw.  Much of the hair on his head had been plucked from its roots, but the itching he felt up there, and all over him, told him that already his body was beginning to restore itself.  Within an hour, he'd look as if he'd never been in the storm.

      "Sarraya," he said weakly, "are you alright?"

      "I'm alright," she said in a small voice, sniffling.  "I'm scared half out of my mind, but I'm alright.  Are you?"

      "I'm a little grated, but I think I'm alright," he told her.  It was hard to see her.  Both of his eyes had been struck by the corrosive sand, and they had been damaged.  She was nothing but a hazy blur, a smudge of blue in a brown hodgepodge of indistinct shapes.  "I can't see."

      "Hold on."  He felt her reach into that place where the magic of the Druids resided, and then heard the buzzing of her wings.  A tiny hand touched his face, and gentle warmth flowed through it.  His eyesight became sharper and sharper, more distinct, until he could see her clearly.  He held up his paw before him, and she landed lightly upon it as he managed to focus on her.  "Is that better?"

      She was a mess.  The wind and sand had ripped the dress right off her back, and her blue skin was striped in angry reds from the stripping of the sand.  Both of her wings had survived--actually, they were a bit brighter than before, having been polished by the power of the wind and sand--and alot of her auburn hair had literally been ripped from her head.

      "You're naked," he remarked.

      Sarraya blushed, then laughed.  "You wear a dress and manage to keep it on after that," she teased.  "The cloak didn't last long, did it?"

      "Would you expect it to survive that?" Tarrin asked, pointing to the fury outside the Ward.

      "Nope.  And I think we'd better not make that mistake again.  I'll make you a long-sleeved shirt and some rugged leather trousers when it blows over.  At least the sword and the pack made it."

      "They're up against me," he replied.  "I felt the wind trying to break the straps of the pack, but they held.  I guess I'd better grow out my hair again.  If anything, it'll keep the sun off my neck."

      "That would be a good idea," she said, sighing.  "I see one more thing as well."

      "What?"

      "I'm going to have to teach you some Druidic magic," she said.  "If I get separated from you or die, then you won't have anything at all to help you with your Sorcery, and you'll be stuck out here with no way to get water.  You'll die if I don't teach you.  Evaluation or not, I'm going to have to teach you."

      "I guess that makes sense," he said after a moment of consideration.  "But you don't have to worry, Sarraya.  I'm not going to let anything take you away from me."

      "I appreciate that, but let's be realistic," she said with a beaming smile.  "Why didn't you get picked up by the storm?"

      Tarrin pointed down with his other paw, and Sarraya followed his finger.  Then she laughed brightly.  "Tarrin, that was clever!"

      "It was all I could think of," he said sheepishly.  "If I'd really been thinking, I would have created a Ward like the one I have up now."

      "Well, live and learn," she chuckled.  "Let me get you out of there, and we'll see about making some new clothes.  You know something?"

      "What?"

      "I'm not hot now," she said.

      Tarrin gave her a curious look, then laughed.  Something he didn't do much anymore.  Only Sarraya would say something like that, and only Sarraya could make him laugh.  "I guess this is your fault.  You're the one who wanted a storm."

      "I guess I don't know my own strength," she said with a wry smile.

      "Be careful what you wish for," he said, quoting an ancient saying, "you may get it."

      "No argument here," she said with a laugh, and bent about the task of healing and clothing them.

 

      They reached the rock spire he tried to reach before the storm late in the afternoon, well after the sun began to sink towards the horizon.  It was one of the thick ones, hundreds of spans wide, and it had a nearly vertical surface that had deep ruts etched into it.  Some of them were thin, some wide, some shallow, some deep, and a little exploration showed one that had a bulging pocket near the ground, half-filled with sand, going deep enough into the rock spire to almost be called a cave.  It was large enough to serve as a den for the night.

      The savage sandstorm had kept them pinned in for most of the afternoon.  His Ward dissolved long before the storm ended, but Sarraya had used her Druidic magic to change the shape of the stone ledge upon which they stood, raising it to form a barrier against the wind, even curling it over to form something of a half-cave.  Sarraya wisely put the entrance so it faced the side of the wind rather than the back, to keep the sand from building up quickly.  It was a good shelter, so long as they paid attention not to let the sand build up at the entrance and bury them.  After it passed, Sarraya returned the rock to its original state, and they moved on.

      Tarrin leaned against the wall of the shallow nook, sitting on soft sand, while Sarraya lay on her back on the sand by his foot.  He was exhausted.  The heat had worn him down, and using Sorcery had brought him nearly to the limit.  As if that wasn't enough, the struggle against the storm had used up what energy he hadn't used in Sorcery, used up just about everything he had left.  The Weave in this region was curiously thin, and that had probably made using Sorcery much less taxing, much less dangerous to him than normal.  A thin Weave meant that it took considerably longer to build enough energy to weave.  That had kept him from attacking the storm directly, but it had also made it much easier to cut himself off.  He leaned against the rock, feeling its strange warmth, feeling the warmth of the sand beneath him in the cool shade of the pocket, let it seep into him and soothe tired muscles.

      The sandstorm had caused him to do one thing before setting out again, and that was to protect the Book of Ages.  He had placed it in the elsewhere, shifting into human form and tightening the straps of the pack holding it to the point where it would disappear when he changed back.  It was something that he was intending to do anyway, but the storm convinced him that getting it into the ultimate of safe places immediately was the wisest thing to do.  The sword, resting beside him at the moment, had jiggled around more than was comfortable for him after the pack was removed, but he'd get used to it.

      Sarraya's wings began to flutter, and then she sat up and yawned.  The Faerie showed no signs that she had been flailed by the driving sand earlier that day.  Her cobweb clothing was new, but this time she wore a costume much like Allia's desert garb, a loose shirt adjusted for her wings and baggy pants.  She had even created diaphonous shoes for herself, to protect her feet from the sun.  The ethereal material was brown, which covered most of her blue skin and made her less conspicuous to people when she wasn't invisible.  She had made Tarrin a new set of clothes as well, a loose long-sleeve shirt, the color of sand, made of some very light material he had never seen before.  It was so light he almost felt like he wasn't wearing anything, but he already found out that it was very strong and rugged.  The trousers were good old leather, undyed buckskins, and he'd already managed to put some tears in the cuffs when he was putting them on.  With feet as large as his, it was hard to get them into trousers fitted for his waist and legs without catching the claws on them.  She even made him a new visor to replace the one he lost in the storm.  He decided that letting his hair grow was the best move, to protect his neck, so he once again had a braid as thick as a child's arm hanging from his head, hanging down all the way to his backside.

      Sarraya had been right.  The length of his hair was something he could control by conscious choice.  As soon as he decided to let his hair grow again, it quickly grew out to its former length.

      "Well, are you ready?" Sarray asked.

      "Ready for what?"

      "For your first lesson."

      "Now?"

      "I wasn't kidding, Tarrin," she told him sharply.  "The sooner you can use Druidic magic, the better.  that means we start now."

      "I'm tired, Sarraya."

      "So am I," she snapped in reply.  "Now sit up and pay attention."

      He blew out his breath and sat up, pulling in his legs and crossing them, then looking down at the Faerie with a weary expression.

      "Druidic magic is nothing like Sorcery," she began calmly, taking a curiously serious, sober tone.  "So let's get that out right up front.  In Sorcery, you take in the magic to use, then make it what you want it to be.  Sorcery lets you hold the power and not do anything with it.  That's not how it's done in Druidic magic.  With Druidic magic, you have to know what you want to do before you do anything.  Then you come into contact with the All and will it to be so.  If you're strong enough, it happens.  If you're not, it kills you.  It's that simple.

      "Since you've used Druidic magic before, I'm not really going to go into the mechanics of how it works.  You don't need to know that, because you've already done it.  Druidic magic is like Sorcery that way.  Once you use it once, you'll always know how to use it again when you need it.  That's one of the main reasons I'm teaching you.  What you do need to know is that it works the same way, no matter what you're trying to do.  There are no spells, no formulas, in Druidic magic.  All you do is come into communion with the All and tell it what you want done, and it does all the work.  You're nothing more than a tool for it, an outlet for its power."

      "For everything?"

      "For everything," she affirmed.  "Conjuring a gnat or attempting to change the orbit of the Greatest Moon would be no different.  The only difference comes when the energy to do what you ask comes through you.  If your body can't take it, poof.  No more Tarrin."  She eyed him speculatively.  "You're a Were-cat, and you're also a Sorcerer.  I'll lay odds that that means that you're going to be a respectably strong Druid.  Your body is acclimated to dealing with alien energy, and your Were affinity for magic increases your tolerance to it.  But since I can't evaluate your power, we'll be depending a little on luck."

      "You don't exactly fill me with confidence, Sarraya."

      "I'm sorry, but that's the way it is," she sighed.  "Believe me, I wouldn't even be doing this if I didn't feel that your life depends on it.  I'm only going to teach you the basics, Conjuring, Summoning, some minor spells of healing and Creation."

      "If the All can do anything, why do you have to teach me anything?  Couldn't I just ask for it myself?"

      "And you wouldn't be here long," she replied.  "The All is very fickle when it comes to things like that, Tarrin.  It always seeks to grant the maximum amount of power required to do something.  Because it does that, you have to be very careful in how you envision what you want to do.  If you reach into the All and ask it to conjure apples without telling it how many, it'll try to conjure a few square longspans of them.  That would kill you.  And if you envision your request vaguely, or you're distracted when you make the request, the All takes liberties with your intent.  Those liberties usually end up killing you, because they get to be exotic.  Exotic is bad in Druidic magic.  That's why a Druid is trained exhaustively by his tutor before even trying to use his magic.  So he knows exactly what he needs to do to make it work, without killing him."

      "Oh," he said in a slightly worried voice.  "So, it can do anything, but you have to be careful to make sure it does exactly what you want."

      "Exactly.  I can't stress that enough," she said with a steely expression.  "That kills more Druids than anything, Tarrin.  They forget that fundamental rule, they get sloppy using their Druidic magic just once, and they're dead.  It requires discipline, Tarrin, more discipline that Sorcery requires.  Familiarity breeds sloppiness, and that's what gets them.  If you can survive the period after you get comfortable with Druidic magic, but before using it becomes second nature to you, you should be alright.  That's the most dangerous time for any Druid."

      "I guess that makes sense," he said.

      "Since I don't know exactly how strong you are, we'll stick to the simple things.  Conjuring should be easy for you, as long as we don't get greedy."

      "So, there are Druidic spells," he reasoned.

      "What do you mean?"

      "If you teach me exact ways to imagine what I want, then there really are Druidic spells.  A spell is a standard method of reaching a consistent result.  That sounds like what you're about to teach me."

      "Alright, if you want to get technical, then yes, there are Druidic spells," she said, a bit tersely.  "I don't like to think of Druidic magic in such confined terms, however.  It's degrading."

      Tarrin actually laughed.  "Such a big ego for such a little body," he teased.

      She glared at him, then laughed ruefully.  "Alright, listen.  Conjuring is easy.  It's probably the easiest thing we do in Druidic magic, that's why you see it used so often.  You've used Druidic magic before, but I think that it was a reflex action, so let's walk through how it works again."

      "Alright."

      "There are two steps to using Druidic magic," she told him.  "The first is forming intent, and the second is carrying it out.  The first step is the important one, Tarrin.  Always know exactly what you want to do when you use Druidic magic.  Form an exact image of what you want done in your mind, and don't let any stray thoughts interfere with it.  The All will catch any stray thoughts and try to use them to subvert your intent, and that can kill you.  So it requires absolute concentration.  Form your intent, and make sure that there is nothing else there to change its meaning.  Before moving to the second step, always make sure that your image and your intent are pure.  If they are, then you carry through with it.  You come into communion with the All.  It reads the image and intent in your mind, and then acts on what it finds there.  It requires no will on your part, no work, no effort.  The All looks into you and performs the task it finds there.  After it finds your intent, you'll feel the power come through you.  That's that feeling of greater you felt, Tarrin.  When you're in communion with the All, you become a part of its greater whole.  The experience never gets old," she said with a slightly dreamy voice.

      He remembered that.  It was a feeling of expansion, as if his mind and soul had gone beyond the constraints of his mortal form, and for the fleetest of moments he felt as if he were touching the soul of the earth itself.  It had been a very pleasant feeling, a feeling of security and belonging.  Feelings that were sorely lacking in his own chaotic life.

      "And that's Druidic magic," she said with a smile.  "It's the simplest form of magic, but it's also the most demanding and the most dangerous."

      "Mother always said that the simpler it is, the more dangerous it can be," he mused.  "But she was talking about plans then."

      "It's a wise saying," Sarraya agreed.  "Now then, since you're a brand new master of Earthmagic, let's showcase your towering abilities."

      "What?"

      "Let's Conjure dinner," she grinned.  "We'll start with apples."

      "Why?"

      "Why not?"

      Tarrin gave her a sideways look.  He couldn't answer that one.  He laughed ruefully.  "Alright, alright.  What do I do?"

      "Conjuring is the bringing to you of something not here, so the imagining of it isn't as important as the intent," she told him.  "Remember, the All reads both, and it's not always necessary to have both a mental image and the intent of effect.  Sometimes intent alone is all you need, for simple things like Conjuring or Summoning.  Will three apples to appear, imagine what kind of apples you want, and then commune with the All.  If you do it right, they appear."

      "What would happen if I didn't imagine what kind of apples I want?"

      "Then the All would decide for you," she replied.  "It would Conjure the three closest apples to your location, and they may not be good.  They could be too small, or rotten, or worm-eaten, or not ripe.  So you have to tell it what kind of apples you want, and it will find them for you and bring them to you."

      "Oh.  What happens when you Conjure something that doesn't exist?"

      "Then it becomes Creation," she replied.  "I call what I do with clothes Conjuring because that's a catch-all term for making things appear, but it's not the same thing.  I'm actually having them created from nothingness.  That's another trick you learn in Druidic magic, but it's a bit more advanced.  I'll teach you that one when you get comfortable with Conjuring.

      "Do I have to imagine where I want them to appear?"

      "Yes.  If you don't, they could appear anywhere around you.  Remember, anything you don't decide will be decided for you by the All, and it tends to get exotic.  And exotic is bad.  Now then, do it, Tarrin.  Imagine three good apples, will them to appear, and commune with the All.  Let's see it."

      Tarrin nodded and closed his eyes.  He formed an image of three large red apples, perfectly ripe, plump, sweet, and juicy, and then simultaneously willed their appearance in front of him and reached inside himself the same way he did so when he Summoned the sword.  He remembered how he did it, and found it to be effective.  The Cat within seemed to be connected to the All, so reaching within, through the Cat, brought him into connection with that power.  He felt the expansion of himself, the basking of his soul in the gentle warmth and power of the All, the wellspring of life from which all things took energy and granted energy.  He could feel the All infuse him, coarse through him with its power, actually feel it touch his intent, sample his image, and respond to them.  he actually felt the power come into him, come through him, using him as a bridge between the All and reality, but it was a brief sensation that disappeared quickly.

      The All drained away by itself, and three large red apples, glistening with dew, appeared on the sand between him and Sarraya.  It also left Tarrin feeling a bit tired.  Druidic magic did take some effort after all.

      Sarraya laughed and clapped her hands.  "Very good!" she commended.

      "The All disappeared by itself," he said in confusion.

      "This isn't Sorcery," she reminded him.  "Once the All finds your will, it does what you ask, and then it breaks the connection.  If you want to use Druidic magic again, you have to start over at the beginning.  Actually, that's a very good thing. If we stayed connected to the All after the spell takes effect, we'd be vulnerable to it.  It's much better that it breaks the connection rather than us.  Sometimes we get caught up in the feeling of communion, and that means we lose our discipline.  That can be fatal."

      "I see your point," he said seriously, remembering the pleasant sensation that came with using Druidic magic.  "That was easy."

      "And that's the danger," Sarraya said seriously.  "Druidic magic is never easy, because of the consequences if you mess up.  Never approach even the easiest spell with anything other than tremendous respect.  Treat every spell as if it were the hardest thing you have ever done.  That respect for the power will keep you alive, Tarrin."

      Tarrin nodded soberly.  "That's very good advice," he agreed.  "I see the truth of it."

      "A Druid that uses his magic impulsively dies quickly.  Don't forget that."

      "I won't.  I guess that's why you always seem to take a second to prepare yourself before doing anything with it."

      "My, you do pay attention," she grinned.  "That's right.  I won't even Conjure a grain of rice without stopping to prepare myself for it.  Because I give the power the respect it deserves.  It's one of the reasons I'm still alive."

      "If Druids train a long time before using magic, why are you going so fast?" Tarrin asked curiously.

      "Because this is an emergency," she replied.  "Your survival depends on learning at least Conjuring as quickly as you can, and that's about all I intend to teach you.  After you learn to Conjure, I'll start training you in some of the other applications, but we won't be using them."

      "Well, I guess I've learned to Conjure," he said, pointing at the apples.

      "Yup," she grinned.  "Let's eat the fruits of your labor and get some rest.  No more until after dinner and a short break.  The All does all the work, but it does take some effort on your part.  You should have felt it."

      "I did," he affirmed.  "As tired as I am now, I don't know if I should do that again."

      "I know.  I wanted you to feel it when you were tired, to fully understand and appreciate that Druidic magic takes work.  The more it takes for the All to do it, the more it tires you out as well.  You won't feel it as much when you're rested, but now you know not to tax yourself.  It's a better lesson."

      "You're a harsh instructor.  You remind me of my mother."

      Sarraya laughed.  "A drop of blood makes the lesson stick longer," she smiled.

            "That sounds like my mother, alright," he chuckled.


To:   Title                     EoF

Chapter 6

 

      He stood on a dark avenue.  It was dark and colorless, and there was a curious lack of scents around him.  He was surrounded by people wearing Arakite robes, young and old, men and women, adults and children.  They wore gray robes, all of them, and all of them had pallid, chalky skin.  They looked down, at the ground, and would not raise their heads to face him.  The buildings were also gray, the stone buildings common in Dala Yar Arak, with their smooth walls and flat roofs and the gardens hidden at the centers of their walled yards.  But all of the buildings looked exactly the same, as if a child's wooden toys had been set on each side of a line.  There was no disparity among the houses, nothing to distinguish one from another, just as all the people wore the same robes, had the same pale skin.

      Where is this place? Tarrin thought to himself, looking around.  The sky was featureless, dark, completely alien, with no moons, no stars, no Skybands, nothing but empty blackness.  Am I dreaming?  I have to be dreaming, I'm in the desert.

      There was no sound.  He realized that now, no sound coming from anyone before him.  Their feet made no sound, there was no wind, no talking, no clatter of hooves or squeaking of carts.  There was nothing but the sound of his own breathing, an eerie sound that echoed in his ears, a sound that made him feel unease, even fear.  What was going on?

      This has to be a dream, he told himself, looking around, slashing his tail in agitation.  Wake up, Tarrin!

      "There is no waking from this dream," a hollow voice intoned from behind him.  He whirled around, found himself facing one of the chalky denizens of this strange dream.   It was a young woman, a young and pretty woman, who would be beautiful if not for the chalky skin.  Her head was down, and a hood covered her hair.  "There is no escape from this prison."

      "Prison?" Tarrin demanded.  "This is a dream!"

      "What is a dream?" the girl asked in that same hollow, emotionless voice.  "Perhaps your dream is a reflection of another reality."

      "Speak sense, woman!" Tarrin said hotly, feeling his anger rise.  "I'm in no mood for games!"

      "Do you expect me to fear you?" she asked, raising her head.  Tarrin recoiled from her, feeling sudden panic within him.

      She had no eyes.  There was nothing but black sockets staring at him, staring into his soul, piercing him with the eyeless gaze.

      "The dead have no fear," she said in a resonant voice.

      "No fear," came a murmuring echo from everyone around him.  All of them stopped moving, became still as stone.

      "Who are you?" Tarrin demanded, feeling true fear creep into him.  Wake up! he screamed inside.

      "We are what you made of us," she said, her voice turning cold, like a knife.  "We are yours."

      "Mine?  What do you mean?"

      "We are those who died by your hands," she said, her voice taking on a power of its own, as if that admission released it from within her.  "See how many you have?  You make sure we are not lonely."

      Tarrin took a step back from her, looking around.  She was right.  There were thousands of people on the avenue, as far as he could see in both directions.  It couldn't be!  It was impossible!

      "Liar!" Tarrin accused.  "I've never seen you before!"

      Her form seemed to shimmer, to change, to take on color.  When it was done, he found himself standing before a petite woman, young and beautiful, with honey colored hair and wearing a simple blue dress that clung to her form appealingly.  In sudden horror, he recognized her face, recognized her dress.  She had been a servant girl under the Cathedral of Karas.  She had stood before him, paralyzed with terror, and he had struck her down mercilessly.

      He had killed her!

      "No!" Tarrin said in a strangled tone, backing away from the apparition.  "I was out of my mind!  I couldn't control it!"

      "Excuses do not concern the dead," the young woman said in a chilling voice, her color and features returning to their eyeless, fearful state.  "Do not deny your truth.  A murderer you are, and a murderer you shall always be.  Never will we be anyone's but yours."

      "We are yours," the people around him began to murmur.  They all turned towards him, ranks and ranks of the eyeless, their vacant gazes piercing his soul like spears.  He turned away from the woman, and found himself looking directly into the eyeless face of a child, a little boy with white skin and cherubic features.  A child!  He had killed a child!

      "No!" he said, closing his eyes and flinching away.  "It wasn't my fault!"

      "Deny your truth, but you will never deny us," the woman said behind him.  "We are yours, and we always will be.  We who fell for no reason other than it suited you."

      The blatant truth of her words drove into him like a sword.  "No!" he screamed at her.  "I didn't choose to kill you, kill any of you!  I had no choice!  I had no choice!"

      "There is always a choice," the woman said in a mocking tone.  "You have chosen to be what you are.  Do not deny it.  You have chosen to be evil."  The black eyes suddenly flared with a red light, the same light that came from Jegojah's empty sockets, and they were all around him.  "Face your choice, Tarrin Kael," the woman whispered to him, a whisper that thundered in his ears.  "Face what you have become."

      In her eyes, those red eyes, he saw himself.  He saw himself as the monster he had become, a heartless killer who had no regard for those around him.  A pure killer, unfettered by moral restraint.  The monster he had always feared.

      The girl reached out for him, and when she did so, so did all the others.  Thousands of hands reached towards him, seeking him, thousands of red eyes burned him with the knowledge that he had killed them all, killed people he had never seen, had never known.  He had killed children.  They reached towards him, moved towards him, surrounded him with the unholy accusation in their gazes, whispering over and over again for him to face his truth.  Utter panic swept over him.  He sought to flee from them, but there was nowhere to run.  He tried to touch the Weave, but even the sense of it was gone.  There was no Weave to touch.  He was surrounded by their eyes, by their hands, by what he had caused to be.  They reached for him, and then they touched him.  It was the touch of the Wraith, the cold of death, a burning cold that sought to draw the life from his bones.  Their hands were all over him, sucking away his life, draining the color from his skin, turning his fur gray, seeking to have him join them in their eternal prison of death.

      A terror unlike anything he had ever experienced swept over him, drove down into the very core of his being.  The Cat at first welled up, and then mysteriously shied away, retreated from the fear, leaving him alone to face it.  He felt paralyazed, helpless, unable to find his magic, unable to fight off the cold hands of death as they were laid upon him.  Hands pressed in on him, killing him, causing his knees to buckle as they pressed in on him, until he sank into a sea of gray death like a drowning sailor succumbs to the sea.

      "NOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

 

      "NO!" Tarrin gasped, jerking up, a heartbeat away from seeking the power of the Weave to fend off his phantom assailants.  He could sense it again, the strands crossing the area, the power they held within them.  He could smell Sarraya, smell the rock and the sand and the faint trace of dust in the air left over from the sandstorm the day before, and the return of sensations for his senses to sample reassured him more than anythng else that it had been a nightmare.

      A dream!  Tarrin flopped back down on the cool sand, breathing heavily to recover his composure.  It had been a long time since he'd had nightmares, but at least before, he couldn't remember them.  This one was lodged in his memory, every second of it, and it caused his entire body to shiver.  He'd never felt so afraid in his life!  But it was just a dream, just a dream.  It wasn't real.

      It wasn't real.

      It had certainly seemed real.  The pain had been real.  Even now he shivered, felt as if the heat had been sucked out of him, and he struggled to put it out of his mind.  But he just couldn't.  The image of that girl was burned into his memory, the pretty girl with the black eye sockets, and the sense of accusation that had been behind that eyeless gaze.

      So many...so many.  Had he really killed so many?  In his rages, sometimes it was hard to remember exactly what happened.  But there had been so many.  It gave him conflicting feelings.  The human in him was mortified at it, the thought that he had caused such destruction, but the Cat simply did not care.  It was a conflict inside, a conflict that was usually won by his feral nature.  But even he hadn't appreciated the damage he had done until then, until he could see it, see the numbers of people who had died because of him.

      But even as he appreciated it, the Cat within shrugged it off.  They were strangers, unknowns.  They did not matter.

      Closing his eyes, he sought to soothe himself, but found little peace.  He could tell that it would be useless to try to go back to sleep.  And sitting in the cave would be a torture for him.  So he stood up, stretching in the cold night air.  He would run.  He could try to forget if he started doing something, took his mind off of it, and it was about the only thing that he could do right now.

      "Sarraya," he called.  "Wake up.  We're moving on."

      "It's too early," she said in a muffled grunt.  He couldn't see her, but he could smell her, and he could see the displacement her body made in the sand in the back corner of the cave.

      "The more we move now, the less we'll have to move when it gets hot," he told her.  "Just conjure a sling, and I'll carry you.  You can sleep."

      "I guess," she grumbled, appearing before his eyes.  She sat up, then shivered a bit in the cold air, as if waking up alerted her to the temperature.

      In moments, without food or water or preparation, Tarrin was on the move.  Using the Skybands to tell direction, he travelled westward over sandy ground strewn with small pebbles, along and between the rock spires that peppered the region.  Sarraya was already asleep, snuggled into a leather sling he wore behind his neck, under his braid to give her warmth.  The activity gave him the distraction he needed to try to get away from the face of the eyeless girl, a face that haunted him no matter how hard he tried to forget.

      As usually happened for him, the time began to blur.  When he found himself thirsty, he slowed to a stop, and realized that the sun was about to come up.  He paused long enough to take a long drink of water, to feel the cold night air against him and allow his skin to warm after hours of running, and that was when he noticed the smell.

      Dropping onto all fours, Tarrin put his nose to the ground and studied the many scents he found there.  Most of them were unidentifiable, but the distinct coppery smell of the Selani was plain over them all.  Many Selani scents, male and female, and all of them moved in the same direction, to the north.

      Selani had passed through here, and had done it since yesterday.

      There were no tracks, no traces of their passage.  For so many to move and leave no trace, it was quite a testament to the Selani's stealth.  If they were that close, then their scouts, Selani with vision like Allia's, had to have seen him by now.  Allia told him how Selani moved, and that involved the employment of scouts both in front of and behind the group, to seek out dangers ahead and stalkers behind.  Those rear scouts had probably seen him, since he'd made no attempts to hide his passage through the desert.  They had to know he was here, but so far he hadn't seen any of them.  Then again, he hadn't been looking.  He stood up and scanned the terrain with his eyes, allowing his night-sighted eyes to show him what even the Selani could not see at night.

      There.  On that rock spire about two longspans north.  Three Selani, standing on its top.  They were too distant for him to make out anything, even which direction they faced, but he could clearly see their shapes, and the fact that they moved told him that they were not rock formations.

      There was a slight shiver in the ground under his feet.  It was faint, scarce, barely noticable, but his sensitive pads detected the disturbance.  Again.  There it was again.  And again!  They were rhythmic, predictable, occuring every second or two.  But it wasn't natural, and that raised all sorts of warning flags inside him.

      Raising up, he tested the cold air thoroughly with his nose, screening, sifting, classifying the scents carried in the night air.  The never stopped moving in the desert, but it was calm enough so that dust wasn't kicked up into the wind.  He turned into the wind and analyzed all the scents drifting in.  Though he couldn't identify most of them, he could discern animal from mineral, reptile from mammal, bird from insect.  All of them had basic elements to their scents that identified their kingdom.

      The shuddering stopped, and then it started happening very quickly.  As if something were running!

      Instinct taking over, he immediately understood what was happening.  He coiled his legs and jumped straight up, impossibly high, twenty spans into the air--

      --just as a massive reptillian creature charged under him, jaws snapping together in empty space where he had been standing instants before.

      It had come at him from downwind!  It was a massive, monstrous, unbelievably huge lizard, a lizard that walked on two legs!  He landed squarely on its back, a back covered in tan scales, a color that would allow it to blend into the desert.  A back fifteen spans off the ground!  It rose up, and he appreciated that it had a large head, and when it turned to look at him with those black, soulless eyes, he saw the teeth in its mouth.  Teeth as long as a child's forearm!

      What a monster!  It was a kajat, he realized, one of the cabin-sized two-legged predators of the desert.  An elongated body with a tail longer than its body, a massive tail like Binter's, used for stability.  It's frame was horizontal, and though its forelegs weren't long enough to let it walk on all fours, they were long enough to allow it to reach the ground when it leaned down.  The feet of those forelegs resembled hands more than feet or paws, and he could see them flailing, trying to reach behind itself and dislodge its potential meal.

      Allia had described them to him, but the reality was a thousand times more intimidating than the description!

      It began to writhe, and he heard Sarraya scream as he jumped away from it, getting clear so he could face it in a manner of his own choosing rather than getting knocked off.  Tarrin looked at the massive beast, the size of a Giant, and he felt both respect and fear for this monstrous lizard.  This was no animal to be taken lightly!  It had attacked him from downwind, a sure sign of cunning.  He wouldn't let the fact that it was an animal blind him to the fact that this was an experienced hunter.  As a fellow predator, he could appreciate its tactics, and he was amazed that something so big could move with such speed and stealth!

      "Tarrin, it's a kajat!" Sarraya screamed in fear, getting loose of the sling and flying away from him.  "Run!"

      He took a moment to appreciate his opponent.  It was just huge!  He'd never seen a living thing that large before!  It was twenty spans tall when it stood relatively upright, but it had to be seventy spans long, nose to tail, covered in tan scales that would allow it to blend in with the sand and rock.  The tail made up more than half of its length, but it didn't make it any less intimidating.  It was bipedal, with forelegs--arms--slightly longer than normal for a bipedal body, but not long enough to allow it to walk on all fours and keep its spine level.  It was built horizontally, not vertically, horizontally built around its powerful back legs, the long, thick tail there to provide balance for the body when moving.  He still couldn't get over how big it was!  It could swallow him whole!  That oversized mouth was filled with row after row of spearpoint-sized, gleaming white teeth, and he certainly didn't want to find out how sharp they were.

      There would be no running from this beast, he could see that already.  It was big, but it could move very fast, maybe as fast as him.  He wasn't about to try to run away and be forced to deal with it when it was behind him, when it had an advantage.  He couldn't give up anything to this beast and expect to live through his mistake.  Run, no.  Climb, yes.  There was a rock spire about a hundred spans behind him, a good thick one that the monster couldn't knock down.  He had to convince it that there were easier meals to be had, and use that momentary trepidation to get to that rock spire and climb to safety.  That, he could do without hurting it too much.  And if it was persistent, well, he'd never tried kajat before.  It could be tasty.

      It gave out a tremendous bellowing roar, and he could feel the wind of its breath on his face as it roared at him.  The breath was disgustingly foul, making his nose curl.  But before it could make a move, Tarrin suddenly exploded into action, going on instinct, not really feeling fear as the Cat rose up and joined with his conscious mind.  He streaked towards the massive beast, who seemed quite surprised that such a small thing would charge it.  He drew his sword as he rushed it, face expressionless, lost in the moment, feeling no fear, no danger.  He knew what he had to do, and he would go about it with the same gravity that some people felt when they peeled apples.

      It lowered its head to snap up the crazy prey, but jaws again snapped on empty air.  With all the speed of his breed, Tarrin sidestepped those jaws, slid up under the huge monster, then rose up the sword and stabbed it squarely in the tail.

      The bellow that rose up this time was one of pain, and the great beast sidestepped frantically as it tried to whirl around to face this cagey foe.  Tarrin moved with it, nearly getting trampled by its massive feet, jumped over it tail as its slashed aside, then reared back and used his sword to slice off the last half-span of the scaly tan tail.

      It bellowed again, trying to turn to face this foe, but Tarrin again dashed under it, using its own body as a shield from its sight, staying under and away from those jaws.  He again nearly got stomped by a thunderous slam of a foot into the ground, as it realized that its quarry was underneath it.  It stomped again, and again, and yet again, but Tarrin danced around the moving tree-trunk sized legs, using his speed to keep those huge feet from crushing him.  He turned after it stomped and whipped the sword around as he spun away, the very tip finding the beast's foot and slicing scale and skin.  It was a scratch, a superficial cut, but the beast howled again at this unknown sensation of pain and flinched its foot away.

      That was it.  He managed to get the beast turned so its back was to the rock spire.  It was confused, couldn't find him, and he used that momentary distraction to suddenly bolt out from under the monster, jumping again to avoid its whipping tail, and then sprinted all-out towards the rock spire.  He felt under his feet that it had stopped stomping, and the sudden furious bellow told him that it had turned enough to see him running away.  The stomping started again as he felt it in the ground, that it was rushing after him, but he could already see that it was too late.  He was more than halfway to the spire.  He sheathed his weapon on the run, slowing down only slightly to prepare for the critical first jump that would get him out of the beast's reach quickly.

      With a bounding leap, Tarrin vaulted twenty spans up the rock on the initial jump, and claws immediately found purchase in the sandstone of the spire.  He climbed quickly and easily, moving up the spire nearly as fast as a human man could run, literally climbing the spire by leaps and bounds.  In mere seconds he was more than halfway up the sixty-span high rock spire, and by the time the kajat reached the spire, he was on the top, down on all fours on the flat, narrow table-like top of the spire, looking down at the huge lizard with very little concern.

      "Tarrin, are you insane?" Sarraya literally shrieked at him as she reached him at the top of the spire, screaming at  the top of her lungs, sounding like a possessed fife.  "What in the Abyss did you think you were doing!?"

      "Buying enough time to get up here without getting my head bitten off," he replied calmly.  "I'm alright, Sarraya.  It's too slow to get me."

      "I should slap you!" she said vociferously.  "You scared me half to death!"

      "Sorry, but I wasn't in a position to explain it," he told her, looking down at the beast.  It was looking up at him with utter hatred in its eyes, burning with fury that it couldn't reach him.  It put its forelegs on the spire, pushed at it, even looked to try to climb up to him, but Tarrin wasn't that concerned.  He reached down and picked up a flat rock on the top, a rock the wind had yet to dislodge, then stood up and threw it at the monster.  Tarrin's inhuman strength gave the rock enough power to kill a human, and that deadly missle struck the kajat squarely between and just over the eyes.  It wasn't enough to kill a creature with such a thick skull, but it did make it shut up, take a step back while shaking its head.  It didn't kill, but it certainly felt it.  The monster looked up at him again and bellowed, but that bellow turned into a hiss of pain when another, even larger rock hit it right on the snout, nearly hitting it in a tooth.

      When Tarrin ripped out a rock large enough that no human could hold over his head, large enough to put a crack in its skull, then held it up in both paws and threatened to unleash it on the reptillian beast, the kajat wisely turned and stalked off.  It was indeed intelligent.  It understood that Tarrin could kill it if it pressed him, and realized that he was in no mood to be its dinner.

      "That's right," Tarrin called to it as it stalked away from him.  "Go find something else to eat."

      "Ooooh!" Sarraya growled in her throat.  "You didn't have to give me a heart attack, Tarrin!"

      "Explain that to him," Tarrin said to her, pointing at the retreating reptile.  "He started it."

      "Did you have to attack it?  Did you really feel that giving poor little Sarraya a heart attack was a good way for her to start her day?" she demanded hotly.

      "I couldn't just run away from it, Sarraya," he defended himself.  "It's big, but it's fast.  I didn't know if it could catch me, and I didn't want to find out the hard way.  I had to confuse it first.  Besides, I wasn't really in any danger.  Hmm, that piece of tail I chopped off is still down there, and I'm hungry.  I wonder what it tastes like."

      "I hate carnivores!" she screamed in exasperation, then she flew away.

      The experience did three things for him.  Firstly, it taught him that the dangers of the Selani desert were many, and that some were unexpected.  Secondly, the exercise helped him put the eyeless gaze of the dead girl out of his mind, allowed him to concentrate on other things for a while.

      Thirdly, he found out that kajat isn't that bad at all.

      Running with the heat of the rising sun on his back, Tarrin continued towards the west, towards his goal after the short scrap with the kajat.  Sarraya had flown off in a tiff, leaving him alone with his thoughts.  He wasn't that worried about her.  She was a grown Faerie, and few of the desert's denizens could so much as reach her, let alone threaten her.  When she was over it, she would come back.  Until then, he was left alone with his thoughts, and they mostly centered over the nightmare he'd had.  He still couldn't shake that face.  It seemed to be right behind his eyes, and whenever he stopped paying attention to what he was seeing, it appeared before him again.  It reminded him of the Cat, how it felt when he had first been turned, how it always seemed to be there whenever his mind wasn't focused on something else.  As before, he realized that the way to keep the face from him was to keep his mind occupied on other things.

      But that wasn't easy in a vast desert, where he only had himself for conversation at the moment.  So he spent the time running digging up absolutely everything that Allia had told him about the desert in their time together.  Some of it was useful at the moment, but most of it wasn't.  Most of it was just stories, stories of their clan's holdings, stories of the life of the Selani.

      They were semi-nomadic people with some permanent settlements where the water would support it.  They mainly herded animals for a living, subsisting off large, flightless desert birds and animals that sounded to him like goats.  They grew plants where it was possible.  Wandering tribes of a clan often stopped in at these permanent settlements to restock supplies, get more water, trade information, and renew kinships.  The denizens of these permanent settlements often didn't stay there more than five years, as they joined a wandering tribe and someone from the tribe took their place.  The Selani didn't like living in one place like that, so it was seen more as a chore than a privilege.  Clans were rivals, so it was rare that a tribe of one clan paid a visit to a tribe of another.  Clan chiefs did communicate with one another, and once every five years all the clan chiefs and many clan members met at some place called Cloud Spire for what Allia called kiswisa, or the Gathering.  From what he remembered, there was a Gathering to take place this year.  Last year she said it would be next year, so that made it this year.  She never said exactly when this Gathering took place, however.  He hoped it wasn't now.  If it was, then large numbers of Selani would be on the move all at the same time, and it would make crossing the desert more dangerous for him.

      That, more or less, was the life of the Selani.  They spent their free time training in the Dance and perfecting the skills that allowed them to survive in such a harsh environment.  A place like the desert demanded constant training, constant vigilance.  He already learned that lesson.  If he lived in a place where reptiles that weighed enough to shake the ground with a step could move with such stealth and speed that it could even sneak up on him, he'd be on guard all the time too.

      And kajats were only one of the types of giant desert reptiles.  Allia had talked about inus, smaller versions of kajats that were faster, smarter, travelled in packs, and were about ten times more vicious.  There were also anuka, monstrous four-legged animals with huge sail-like fins on their backs, who were also carnivores.  Those were the most dangerous ones.  There were smaller animals in the desert that were less dangerous, but most of them were poisonous.

      He wondered for a moment just how these animals survived.  A beast the size of a kajat must need huge amounts of water to survive, and that wasn't available here.  There wasn't very much in the way of hunting either, unless they preyed upon one another, and that violated his Cat-based concept of nature.  An ecosystem consisting of nothing but carnivores wouldn't last long, because there was no infusion of fresh energy, no beginning of the food chain.  But it was apparent that they did somehow find a way to survive out here.  He'd just have to figure out how they did it.

      Thirst returned him to reality, and he pulled up.  The sun was beating down on him, and without the cloak, he could feel it on his back.  His blond hair helped keep it off his head, but his ears were noticably hot.  But it wasn't as bad as it had been yesterday.  Even now, his body was quickly adapting to this new climate of extremes.  He pulled up his waterskin, but found it empty.

      Empty.  He needed water, but Sarraya wasn't here.  He could fill it himself with Druidic Conjuring, but Sarraya made him promise not to use his abilities without her unless it was an emergency.  She was still off somewhere in a tiff.

      Dropping down into a squat, nearly sitting on all fours like a cat, Tarrin debated with himself just what to do.  He was thirsty.  Very thirsty.  It wasn't a dire need, but his thirst was immediate and wasn't about to go away.  Without Sarraya, it meant that he would be using his very dangerous powers unaided, something she had drilled into him not to do.  But he was thirsty.

      Foolishness.  Tarrin stood up again, taking an aggressive posture as he decided that he didn't need Sarraya's approval.  She'd taught him how to Conjure, and it was something that he knew he could do.  He fully intended to be careful about it.

      Sitting down cross-legged, Tarrin held the waterskin before him.  The trick of it was to Conjure the water into the skin.  He considered what had to be done carefully.  The image would have to be water, but water inside the skin.  Envision a full skin, with the intent that clean water be inside it.  Yes, that would be the methodology for conjuring a liquid.  The liquid inside its container, where the intent was more important than the image.  Sarraya had told him that some Druidic magic used intent over image, and some used image over intent.  The key to a successful Conjuration would be to match up the right image with the right intent.

      He realized a snag.  When Sarraya did it, the skin didn't just go poof and was full.  It visibly filled.  If he tried to Conjure the skin full when the skin wasn't expanded to accept the volume of it, something unpredictable might happen.  He remembered Sarraya's warning's clearly:  Exotic is bad.

      So.  That meant that he had to somehow sustain the Druidic spell, make it progress to where he wanted it, then cut it off.  So, perhaps the image would be of water, and the intent was to have it appear within the skin at a set rate of appearance.  Like water pouring from a jug.  Yes, that would work.  Envision water, and the intent would be for it to pour from wherever it came from like water pouring from a jug.

      Fretting a bit, Tarrin put his chin in his palm and mulled it over.  He was starting to understand why  Sarraya was so serious about this.  Since he wasn't sure of the exact way to imagine what he wanted, of what kind of intent he needed, he wasn't sure if it was going to work or not.  And in Druidic magic, if you didn't know, you didn't try.

      But he needed water.  And it was starting to get serious.  He was really thirsty.

      Steeling himself, he decided to do it.  He wasn't going to suffer because Sarraya was mad at him.  He closed his eyes and used his training to sweep all irrelevant thoughts out of his mind.  He held up the waterskin and formed the image of water.  Pure, clean water, fresh and safe.  That image fully formed, he decided on his intent.  For water to appear inside his waterskin at the same rate that his mother's old battered pewter pitcher poured out water when it was used.  It would stop when the skin was full, just like filling a glass.  He blew out his breath, and then reached into himself, into and through the Cat, reached within and found that place where the gentle warmth of the All resided inside him.  He reached into it, touched it, felt it suddenly infuse him.  He felt it wash over his mind, see his image, sense his intent, and then he felt its power flow through him.

      From out of nowhere, the face of the girl struck him, like a hammer.  Her visage suddenly laid over the image of water, her eyeless gaze boring into him, the totality of his guilt and shame burned into his mind.  He recoiled from that image, from himself, and that seemed to suddenly twist and distort the energy flowing through him.

      The waterskin in his hand suddenly exploded!

      Water, a geysering torrent of it, suddenly exploded from the skin, and its direction was directly back into his face!  He inhaled a good lungful of it as he gasped when the power changed inside him, and then the force of it sent him flying backwards, tumbling along the ground.  He could feel the power still flowing through him, but it had taken up a life of its own, and it no longer depended on him to manifest in the real world.

      It was out of control!

      Control!  Get control! he thought to himself as he was pushed out of the stream of water erupting from thin air, saturating the ground.  He rose up onto knees and elbows and coughed out the water from his lungs, and quickly formed the intent that the water geysering from nowhere stop.  His reaching within was frenetic, hurried, but the All again responded to him, finding no image but sensing an intent, and then the power flowing through him increased considerably.  It rose up against the other power already moving through him, blocking it, restricting it, quickly and efficiently strangling it until it flowed no more.

      The intense geyser of water stopped as if an unseen hand had simply turned a valve.  The power flowing through him, all of if, simply stopped.  Unlike Sorcery, there was no pain, no sense of lessening from the experience.  It simply stopped.

      Coughing again, Tarrin rose up onto his knees.  He was soaked all the way to the skin, and was kneeling in a column of sandy mud caused by the geyser.  Most of the water created by it had already seeped into the dry ground, leaving a dark, muddy splotch behind, and a shallow gouge had been dug out by the water as it hit the ground forcefully, piled up into a little wet sandbar at the far end of the muddy streak.  A pool of muddy water quickly disappeared where it pooled up before the sandy barrier.  He shook his head, snapping his wet braid to and fro to get the water off his face, stop it from dripping into his eyes, making his ears twitch reflexively.

      Then he laughed.

      That wasn't quite what he had in mind, but he had to admit, he wasn't thirsty anymore.  The water had cooled him off, and the dry air and hot sun were already starting to dry him out.

      The little adventure showed him that Druidic magic could be a continuous process rather than the simple manifestation of power.  It had kept going within him, and he had the feeling that it would have kept going until he actively stopped it.  After all, the power wasn't coming from him, it was simply moving through him.  And when he opened the door, it would stay open until he closed it again.

      "Ande no adu bai!" came an amused voice.

      Tarrin turned to look, and found himself staring at two Selani.  Both were male, tall, thin, sleek, wearing the sand-colored baggy clothing for which they were well known.  It took him a second to translate that.  Ande no adu bai...You funny are.  He thinks it was some kind of joke!

      "Ande no doro na quiste dai, ne?" the second seemed to say to the first.  You think dangerous is?  Since Selani didn't employ pronouns when referring to an object, the context of the sentence made it clear he was referring to Tarrin.  "Sume no natta abuda-ko bakaida, suja."  Water from somewhere want-to-come, as-you-know...That water had to come from somewhere, you know.

      Shaking his head slightly to ready himself for whatever was about to happen, he sized up these two.  Thin, sleek, tall, standard Selani.  They moved like Allia, so they were quick, and they were old enough to be dangerous.  Both of them carried longswords in scabbards on their backs, but the shorter of the two, the one that spoke first, also carried a wooden spear tipped with a steel point.  But they had no idea what he was, or how to deal with him.  Against two, Tarrin had the advantage.

      And they had no idea he could understand what they were saying.

      "Well, he may be a magician," the first said, and now that Tarrin was paying attention, he didn't mull over translating.  "He's certainly no human.  Want to roll for the honor?"

      "I'll give you this honor, Var," the second said with a wicked little smile.  "You're the one looking to impress Suji.  Maybe a story of your skill and bravery against an unnatural invader will enhance you in her eyes."

      "Chuko," Var said, the Selani word for "come", waving Tarrin to stand up as he lowered his spear.  "Chuko."

      He wanted to fight.  A test of skill, a challenge to the invader.  It was the Selani way.  If an invader could best a Selani, he earned a day's reprieve from all other challenges, as a tribute to the honor and skill of the invader.  Of course, in actuality, it was win and die a day later, because the next day the entire tribe would come after the target.  So in this case, it was die, or win another day of life.

      Best get it started with some intimidation, he realized.  Against one, he had all the advantages.  He let the Selani approach him, spear levelled, get closer and closer.  Once he was just at the range of his own spear, he stopped, and Tarrin looked up at him calmly.  He wasn't afraid of a single Selani.

      Now that he was close, Tarrin got to his feet.  Slowly.  Rising up to the Selani's eye level, then over it.  And over it, and over it, and over it, until he absolutely towered over his smaller opponent.  He looked down at the Selani with an emotionless expression, standing fully erect and in a powerful posture that emanated strength and confidence.  Just like he'd seen Triana do it so many times, a stance that intimidated everyone around her.

      He could see it in this Var's expression.  He literally wilted under Tarrin's penetrating stare, taking a step back and clutching his spear in white-knuckled intensity.

      The other Selani laughed.  "Aren't you glad I didn't roll with you?" he called.  "You may have lost!"

      "There is no honor in showing your back," Var said under his breath, then he brought the spear up to a ready position.  But Tarrin seemed to confuse him, because he did not move.  He didn't move, barely breathed, kept his eyes locked on this Var in a way that unsettled the smaller opponent.  This Var didn't quite seem to know how to take that.  The usual reaction to being threatened with a spear was either retreat or preparation.  Var could see the sword on Tarrin's back, but he didn't go for it.

      "Just stick him, Var!  He knows he's in a fight, so there's no dishonor in it!" his companion called.

      Var moved to do just that, stabbing at Tarrin's middle with the spear.  But Tarrin's paw blurred as it moved to intercept the weapon, and he grabbed the wooden shaft in a crushing grip, and the muscles in his arm and shoulder locked.  Tarrin's inhuman power caused the spear to instantly stop, and it nearly dislodged Var from his grip as he staggered along the shaft of the suddenly immovable weapon.  With a quick snap of  the wrist, Tarrin ripped the weapon out of the Selani's hands, and he jumped back in shock and surprise and drew his sword as Tarrin pulled the weapon away from him.

      He pulled it in and took it with both hands, looking it over.  It was a very nice spear.  Good weight, nice balance, and its steel tip was well shaped and very sharp.  It was a bit oversized for the Selani, but it was also a bit too short for him.  He looked from the spear to this Var with his eyes only, and raised an eyebrow as he saw the Selani bring his sword up into a ready position.  It was a position Tarrin recognized, one Allia used when she wielded a longsword.

      Tossing the spear aside, Tarrin adjusted the heavy steel manacles on his wrists, doing little more than making this Var take notice of them.  Then he widened his stance and lowered into the wide-armed slouch he used when fighting.  He held out his paws and extended his claws slowly and deliberately, letting the Selani see what was waiting for him, and then he suddenly roared out in challenge, his eyes exploding from within with the greenish radiance that marked an angry Were-cat.

      Or in this case, was merely an exotic display of threat meant to intimidate the opponent.

      It worked.  Var took a quick step back, surprise showing on his face, and it was clear from his expression that he was now very uncertain as to what he'd just gotten himself into.  But, to his credit, his resolve was firm, and he shook of his surprise quickly.  He even smiled!

      "It looks like he'll be a challenge, Var!  I envy you!" the other Selani called.

      "A great challenge," Var said respectfully.

      Of course.  The Selani feared nothing.  They would battle with anything, anyone, and the more dangerous it was, the better.  It was a matter of honor to battle stronger foes, and even a loss to a greater foe was still a increase in honor.  The Selani gained honor in the fact that he did not back down, that he was willing to battle a stronger foe.

      Extending a paw, Tarrin crooked it at Var, urging him to come on.

      As was usual for seasoned warriors, the first blows were tentative, light, a feeling out to gain an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent.  Those first quick slashes of the sword showed him that Var was an apt pupil of the Dance, and that he was very quick, strong for his size, and had excellent control of his weapon.  Tarrin recognized the forms he was using, basic forms of the Dance meant to test an opponent's defenses.  Tarrin responded with sheer agility, using the bracers on his wrists as shields, turning the blade of the sword aside time and time again.  He was careful not to let elements of the Dance creep into his style.  He didn't want to give away the fact that he knew about the Selani, that he knew what to expect from his foe.

      When Var came, it was all out.  A sudden explosion of furious slashes assaulted Tarrin from every side at once.  Var was a bit more aggressive than what Tarrin would have expected, but not everyone fought the same way.  Tarrin deflected each and every blow expertly, causing a staccato chiming of steel on steel to emanate from between them as manacle blocked sword again and again.  Tarrin began to give ground as Var advanced, keeping up his furious assault, trying to overwhelm Tarrin quickly with blazing speed and careful control.  Tarrin moved to block another sword slash, but Var pulled it back and turned it into a quick stab, forcing Tarrin to twist aside or get steel in his belly.  The Selani's attack came so fast that Tarrin nearly missed it.  He had been intentionally going slower than he could actually go, to bait him into expecting a certain speed!

      This Selani was good.

      A feint inside a feint.  Clever!

      He realized that he shouldn't be playing with this Selani.  Selani were dangerous adversaries, and Var had just proved to him that it would be stupid to spar with him when the Selani was trying to kill him.

      That decided, Tarrin did what had served him so well against every other opponent he had faced.  It was time to use his Were-cat gifts.

      He fell into blocking again, waiting for an opportunity to put this Var down quickly, but not kill him.  Tarrin already knew that killing Selani would upset Fara'Nae, and he wouldn't offend a goddess when he stood upon her land.  He already knew what he wanted to do, he was just waiting for his chance to deploy it.

      What he got was another abrupt change in direction from Var's sword, suddenly jerking high and coming in over his bracer.  Tarrin felt the slip, turned away from the weapon so it couldn't bite deeply, but it still managed to hit him just above the elbow, slicing his shirt and sending a thin line of blood away from the sword's edge as it went whistling by.

      "First blood!" the other one called.  "He's good, but you can take him, Var!"

      Tarrin stepped back, and that confused this Var.  He dropped his guard and looked at his shirt.  There was some blood there, but not much, since the sword the Selani was using couldn't do him any permanent harm.  But it had cut the shirt, and that irritated him.  His face suddenly slightly perturbed, Tarrin backed up again when Var stepped forward, and started rolling up his sleeves.

      "I think he's serious now," the other one called with a chuckle.  "You'd better be careful!"

      "This one is full of surprises, Morin," Var told his companion.  "He moves like the wind, but there's a strength behind that fur that's not natural.  His arms don't buckle or move when they deflect my sword.  He's much stronger than he looks."

      Oh, he was very good.  Not many would have picked up on that.  Now Var knew that Tarrin was much stronger than he looked, and that meant that trying a quick power move may not be his best option at the moment.  But Var didn't quite know just how strong Tarrin was.  A quick power move was out, but a feint into a power move would be more useful in this situation.

      "Then maybe you shouldn't give him the chance to roll up his sleeves!" Morin laughed.

      "To attack an undefending foe is dishonorable!" Var said in shock to his friend.  "I'd never do such a thing!"

      "I was just kidding, Var," Morin said seriously.  "I know you'd never do such a thing.  You are an honorable man."

      "Then there is nothing for me to challenge in your words," Var grinned at Morin.

      Woah.  Var had just told Morin that he just avoided a fight to the death with Var.  Honor was a very serious matter among the Selani.

      Done rolling up his sleeves, leaving everything bare to the elbows, Tarrin widened his feet and settled into his slouching stance, then laid his ears back and fixed Var with an unholy stare.

      "He's serious all right!" Morin laughed loudly.

      It was the same, yet it was different.  Var came after him again with that same fast fury, moving with a swiftness that was impossible for a human, and Tarrin could pause long enough to appreciate his ability.  Var was an outstanding pupil of the Dance.  His forms were flawless, perfect, and he had the strength and dexterity to make them look like pure art.  Var was a poet of motion, a whirlwind of steely death that held a terrible beauty.  Tarrin ignored several opportunities to take Var down to test him, push him, to see how skilled he really was.  He was impressed by the Selani, very impressed, though the Selani's expression was one of intense concentration.  Seconds dragged into moments as the chiming ring of manacle and sword filled the air, as Tarrin allowed Var to dance and weave and flow before him and play out his full knowledge of the Dance.  Var's sword didn't so much as get inside his manacles again, despite several very clever tricks and feints to lure Tarrin out of position.  Now that he knew Var was a trickster, he was giving the fight all of his attention, and Tarrin was much better trained than Var.  Var seemed to sense that Tarrin was holding back, wasn't fighting with the same intensity, and it worried him.  He was trying to take Tarrin down quickly, before he did start fighting back.  Tarrin could feel it in the blows against his bracers, could see it in the narrow-footed stances Var used when moving through his forms.

      He wouldn't disappoint.

      In a heartbeat, things changed completely.  Tarrin stopped parrying, stopped evading, and was all over the smaller Selani.  The wicked sword was deflected by his manacles or simply slapped aside contemptuously by an open paw as Tarrin turned on Var, claws slashing the air as he sought to strip the Selani bare. The Selani retreated furiously to avoid those flashing claws, claws that shredded plant-fiber clothing with every swipe, drew blood without doing true harm.  The more he tried to stop those claws, the more they found him, slapping the sword away, slicing cloth and skin with every stroke, coming at him from every direction in rapid succession in a flurry that confused the smaller Selani.  Trying to slash the arms holding those clawed paws seemed to elude the Selani as he simply tried to get away from him.  Hooded head covering flying to the side, Var dove away from the Were-cat when an overhanded swipe threatened, to the Selani at least, to rip out his ribs.  He managed to get away, but not before losing his shirt to Tarrin's snagging claws.

      When he stood up, he was a sight.  Brown skin striped here and there by Tarrin's claws, some of them bleeding enough for it to ooze down his chest and back slowly.  He still had his sword, but a disbelieving look was stamped onto his face.

      "Ande no adu bai," Tarrin said in perfect mimicry of Var's own voice, then he crooked a clawed finger at him.  "Now, little man, let's dance," he said in Arakite.  He bent down more, spreading his stance and then drew his great sword in a slow, deliberate motion.  The sound of steel sliding over leather and iron was a grating, rasping sound, and he could see from there that it made the hair on Var's arms stand up.

      "He's playing with you, Var!" Morin called urgently.  "Be careful!  I don't want to tell Suji you lost a challenge of honor!"

      In seconds, it was all over.  The Selani came in bravely, refusing to back down, and that was his biggest mistake.  The first stroke of his sword sheared the majority of the Selani's blade off, blasting his arm to the side and knocking him out of position.  The second stroke, with the flat, caught the Selani just under the sword arm, hitting chest, and sent him flying to the side.  The Selani soared through the air and landed in a heap about ten spans from where he started, right in the mud, wheezing for breath and trying to rise up onto his hands and knees.

      "Mother's blood!" Morin called in shock.

      Rising up, Tarrin sheathed his sword with a practiced familiarity that made it look natural.  He crossed his arms patiently, tail slashing side to side as the Selani Var tried to find his breath.  Morin gawked at him for a moment, then rushed over to Var and knelt beside him.  "Var!  Are you injured?"

      "N-No," he wheezed.  "The man-cat was counting coup!  I think if he wished me dead, I would be dead!"

      "Truly, there is no dishonor in losing to such a warrior," Morin consoled him.  "You fought well."

      Snorting, Tarrin turned and started walking away from the pair.  He'd sampled a taste of what he could expect from the Selani.  Var had been a very worthy foe, but his unfamiliarity with Tarrin's nature had been his downfall.  He had lost himself when Tarrin turned on him with his claws, when he could have used his sword to make the Were-cat back off.  He had forgotten Tarrin's strength, and when he came at him, Tarrin used it against him.

      Even a Selani could be intimidated.

      "Hold, stranger!" the one Morin called in Arakite.  "To venture into our lands is death!  Your victory has earned you a day of protection, but no more!  I say to you now, as a warrior of honor, return to Saranam!  It would be a great loss to have to kill you!"

      Tarrin stopped, turning just enough to look back over his shoulder at the two of them.  "I spared him out of respect for the Selani," he bluffed.  "I won't be so gentle next time.  Remember that before you decide to chase me down."

      He looked down, and saw the Selani's spear laying by his foot.  Impulsively, he snaked his tail around the shaft, and pulled it up into his paw.  He hefted it once, then turned enough to lob it harmlessly in their direction.  Both of them stared at it for a long moment, then looked to him again.

      "Answer me one thing, stranger," Morin called.  "Where did you learn the Dance?  I saw its roots in your movements."

      "From the best," he answered honestly.  He wouldn't dishonor Allia, no matter what.  He looked right into their eyes.  "From the best."

      Tarrin turned and started walking away, but Morin called again.  "Show me the brands!"

      That stopped him in his tracks.  He turned and regarded Morin and Var calmly.  "What makes you think I have brands?"

      "You know the Dance.  No Selani would teach you the Dance unless you were deshida.  Which clan calls you brother?"

      "No clan," he replied bluntly.  He wouldn't dishonor Allia, but he wasn't about to get her in trouble either.  Allia's clan didn't know about Tarrin.  "My brands were for the sake of one, not for the sake of a clan.  Hers is the only honor I carry.  As far as you or any other Selani are concerned, I am kaiji, an invader."

      That seemed to intrigue both of them, wildly, but they said no more.  He left them where they were, moving off towards the west, muddy and a little bloody and a bit tired.  He had dealt with a kajat and he had made his first contact with the Selani, a meeting that had turned out more or less as he expected.

      But at least he wasn't thirsty anymore.

 

      The face wouldn't go away.

      He stood on one of the rock spires that dotted the desert that sunset, climbing up to look at the beautiful spectacle from a higher vantage point.  He had run the rest of the day, without water, to distance himself from the Selani behind him.  He was thirsty, very thirsty, but there would be time enough to drink later on.

      The day had been eventful.  He had seen a desert reptile up close, and had his first meeting with the Selani.  Both had bolstered him a bit.  Both had been exhilerating encounters, but had proved to be not too dangerous.  With some luck and patience, he had a good feeling that he'd get across the desert in one piece.

      At least physically.  The face of the girl was still there, behind his eyes, and he was tired.  He would have to sleep soon, and he was certain that she would be in his dreams, waiting for him.  That terrified him more than any kajat or Selani horde ever could.  From the girl with no eyes, there could be no escape, no quarter, no mercy.  The dead had no compassion.

      Sleep was something he did not want to face, but he had to sleep.  The desert really took it out of him, and he had to rest, to do more than just sit.  He had to sleep.  And he knew that she was going to be there.  The very thought of facing the dream again was almost enough to send him flying into a panic, but that wouldn't do him any good.  He would take the time before having to sleep and try not to think about it, enjoy his calm before the storm to come.  When it was time to sleep, then he would face the dream, face his punishment for his evil, stand before their accusing gazes and know that he had become what he had always feared.  It was unavoidable, inescapable, and the only solace in it was that he would eventually wake up, and it would be over.

      Again, it seemed that he had little choice in things.  But then again, the choice that would have avoided it had been made long ago.  And he had made the wrong choice.  Now it was time to pay for that mistake.

      The flutter of wings heralded the return of Sarraya.  He couldn't see her, but he could smell her as the wind picked up.  She was coming up from behind.  He heard her wings right beside him, and then a blur in the corner of his eye told him that she was visible again.

      "You're a mess," she said conversationally.  "What happened to you?"

      "I was dancing," he told her quietly, staring at the lovely sunset.  The sun was almost all the way down, and it painted the sky with breathtaking reds, yellows, and even some oranges and greens.  The Skybands were just beginning to flare into their colored brilliance, bisecting the sunset in a most breathtaking manner.  The desert was a land of extremes, both extreme dangers and extreme beauty.

      It was a land that mirrored his own soul.  A barren landscape of desolation, but with certain beauty, if one cared to take the time to look for it.

      "I'd hate to see your partner," Sarraya chuckled.  "I'm, I'm sorry I left you alone all day, but you made me really mad.  I left you out here all alone, with just one waterskin.  You must be parched."

      "I've had enough water today to last me a month, Sarraya," Tarrin said quietly, somberly.  "I'll tell you about it over dinner.  Come on, I found a nice little cave where we can spend the night."

            Tarrin began climbing down the rock spire, the stark beauty of the desert sunset forgotten in the moment.  But it was still there, waiting for someone to look up and take it in, to look beyond the harshness immediately before them and appreciate the beauty in the distance ahead.


To:   Title                     EoF

Chapter 7

 

      Gasping, sitting bolt upright, Tarrin recoiled from the dream in the cold night air, feeling the cold air all but freezing the sweat slicking his body.  His heart was racing, and that nameless terror had again swept over him.  He panted like he'd ran fifty longspans, his heart pounding in his chest and his paws trembling visibly.

      No rest.  For ten straight nights the dreams had haunted him, and he'd managed to get very little sleep.  Not even shapeshifting into cat form helped, which usually did when it came to dreams.  The lack of sleep had been getting to him, but not nearly as much as the dreams themselves.

      Ten days.  It seemed like an eternity of torture.  Ten days since he'd skirmished with the Selani, ten days since fighting with the kajat.  Since then, he'd only seen a few small desert dogs and a few oversized lizards, what Allia called umuni.  He knew to stay away from those, for they had the most potent poison in the world.  Umuni literally meant "killing lizard."  The lack of sleep and that eyeless face dogged him now, made him short-tempered--even for him--but there seemed to be nothing he could do about it.  The only thing he could do was wait for the dreams to fade, or make them stop somehow.  Ten days had not tempered the abject terror they spawned in him, a nameless dread that couldn't be denied.  This dream seemed just as frightening as the first, and it was the same dream, over and over and over again.

      He was sleeping in a boulder field, in a tent Sarraya had conjured which was attached to the flat side of one large boulder and staked to the ground everywhere else.  The sand between the great rocks was soft and strangely warm, even now, as if there were hot springs beneath the sand to keep the sand comfortable.  The irregular outline of the boulders would hide him from the Selani, he knew, and keep the larger reptillian predators from reaching him without giving him enough warning that they were on his scent.  It had been ten days since seeing anything large enough to threaten him, but that didn't meant that they weren't out there.  If something that weighed more than a riverboat could sneak up on him, he wouldn't assume much of anything about anything.

      Laying back down in the warm sand, he put a paw over his face and tried to recover his breath, slow his heart.  Why?  Why the same dream over and over and over?  It just didn't make any sense!  And why was he still afraid of it?  When it began, he knew absolutely everything that was going to happen next.  Why should it still frighten him?  And yet it did.  Just as strongly now as it had the very first time.

      It just didn't make any sense.

      Closing his eyes, he tried to think of something else.  He remembered Sarraya's lessons from the night before, lessons on how to conjure large things, how to conjure many of one thing.  Ten days of lessons also occupied his mind, and they all centered around conjuring.  It seemed to be the beginning for Druids, but then again, Sarraya said that she didn't intend to teach him anything else.  It certainly seemed to be useful.  And it was easy.  Like she said, maybe it was too easy.  His biggest problem was focusing through the ever-present face, the hauntingly beautiful young girl who had no eyes, whose empty gaze burned him with the searing purity of its accusation.  When he could push that memory out of his mind long enough, he could conjure.

      It was useless.  He was up now, and there would be no going back to sleep.  There never was, after the dream.  He sat up and sighed, looking over to Sarraya, who slept on a conjured cloth laying on the sand in the corner of the tent.  She would be alright for a while.  He crawled out of the tent and climbed up onto one of the boulders, looking up into the sky soberly, at the bright stars, the Skybands, at Duva and Kava as they began to set, and Vala as it began to rise.  Dommammon had risen before sunset and set about midnight, and by the look of the night sky, it was a few hours until dawn.  The gentle wind, carrying its icy bite, was almost devoid of any smell but sand and rock, but there was a hint of salt in the smells reaching him.  This wasn't a very populated area.  Probably because of a lack of water.  The Weave in this region was a bit thicker than it had been in the border of the desert.  The strands were larger, more charged, and a minor Conduit existed not far from where he was.

      His sense of the Weave had only increased in the ten days since meeting the Selani.  Now he could sense it all the time, as if here touching the Weave all the time, sense the strands, sense their power and size, sense their arrangement even beyond his sight.  It was an expansion of his former ability, and he had already become accustomed to it.  He could literally see the strands now, see them as if they were just beyond his sight yet were not, but he more or less ignored them.  They had become part of the background now, just like how he looked over the boulder field and saw rocks, but no specific rock caught his eye.  The Weave was there, but there was nothing to make him pay attention to it.

      Maybe now was the time.  He'd been in the desert for fifteen days now, and he'd yet to try to make contact with the Selani goddess.  A part of him was afraid to do it.  A part of him didn't want to do it while the dreams haunted him.  Another part of him shuddered at the idea of begging aid from a god other than his own.  That smacked of heresy to him.  The Goddess hadn't said if she would mind if he did that, but he didn't really want to take that step into blasphemy just yet.  He was hoping that Fara'Nae, the Holy Mother, would be the one to initiate contact with him.  He had hoped that the Goddess had spoken to her, asked her to teach him about ancient magic, but that hadn't happened.  None of it had happened.  He had come into the desert hoping to be taught old secrets, but the only thing that had really happened was the resurrection of old demons inside him, demons he thought he'd conquered long ago.

      He didn't know what to do.  He wanted to try to contact Fara'Nae, but a part of him rejected that idea.  He wanted to learn about the ancient magic, but he was afraid to take the first step.  In his mental condition, maybe trying to learn new magic wasn't a good idea.  The Druidic lessons had showed him that.  He had enough trouble concentrating as it was.

      In any event, the primary mission had not changed.  To get the book to Suld.  Everything else that happened would have to fit around that mission.  If it happened, it happened.  If it didn't, it didn't.

      Sometimes it felt so silly.  Here he was, Tarrin Kael.  The Tarrin Kael, the Were-cat who had stories, rumors, and now even legends being made about him out in the rest of the world.  The most notorious man alive, probably the most feared, and he was afraid.  Afraid of himself, afraid of the future, afraid of something as simple as trying to make contact with a Goddess when he spoke to a different one all the time.

      He just didn't feel quite as towering as others probably made him out to be.  Those were stories.  This was his reality.  And in reality, despite his size, despite his appearance, despite his history, he was still that innocent, slightly naive farmboy that had left Aldreth so long ago.  His outlook and personality may have changed, but it still rested deep inside him.  He could deny it, even to himself, but part of him knew that it was true.

      Tarrin Kael.  He forgot all about Tarrin Kael.  A tall, strapping young man who had dreams of being a Knight, of travelling the world and seeing exciting things.  A young man with an overprotective mother and a father so mellow that a rampaging Troll really couldn't put him out of sorts.  A young man with a cute little sister.

      Now he was just Tarrin, son of Triana.  Were-cat, Sorcerer, Druid, scourge, murderer, and all-around ruthless monster.  He was a Were-cat with a mission, and the Gods help anyone who got in his way.  Life had lost its luster, its shine for that Tarrin.  Everything was a chore, everything led to nothing but more bleakness.  There was no light in that person's life anymore, where Tarrin Kael always found the light in anything.

      Tarrin Kael had been an optomist.  Tarrin was fatalistic.  Tarrin Kael would have found the good in his current situation.  Tarrin just found it to be yet another needle in him, to go along with all the other needles.  Tarrin Kael would have looked up at the sky and said "Wow, how beautiful!"  Tarrin looked up at the sky and simply saw stars.  Tarrin Kael would sigh in relief when this was all over, and return to a good life.  Tarrin fully expected to die.  And if he did not, then there would no longer be anything left to live for.  He had done too much evil in this world now...he was beyond redemption.  The accusing gazes of the thousands of eyeless phantoms reminded him of that night after night.

      He wondered how his parents and Jenna were doing.  They were probably still in Ungardt.  It was summer there now, a very short summer, starting to wind down into winter.  His mother was probably with her father, Eron was probably learning how the Ungardt brewed their heavy ale and whiskey, and Jenna was probably breaking hearts.  It had been so long since he'd seen them, remembering how they looked seemed hard now.  And Jenna was a year older, she had to be taller, more like a woman and less like a little girl.

      It would be good to see them again.  But they were in Ungardt, and he was in the Desert of Swirling Sands.

      The wind picked up, blowing cold air over him.  The thong holding his braid untied, and his hair quickly unbraided itself in the steady wind, fanning out behind him like a yellow cloak.  It dragged the ground now when unbraided, and though he could change its length, something inside him liked it that way, despite the weight of the braid and the stress it put on his scalp.  Perhaps it was a masochistic bent.  Perhaps it was a reminder, a constant sensation to remind him of how it felt to feel pain when something inside him had become dead to it.  He really didn't know, all he did know was that it was something he preferred.

      He looked up into the sky again...and all he saw were stars.

      He closed his eyes and turned into the wind, feeling its icy fingers caress his exposed skin, felt it pull and tug at the fur on his arms and feet, felt it billow out his hair, felt it pool inside his ears as they caught it.  This was feeling.  Cold biting, the chilly domain of the desert at night, where the air stole away all the heat the sun imparted to things during the day.  This desert was two different worlds.  The burning fires of day, and the cold hand of night.  Yet they existed in the same place, separated by the movements of the sun, forever chasing one another across the land in an endless cycle of repetitive monotony.

      Two different worlds.

      A dark smudge appeared on the western horizon, and he'd been here long enough to comprehend what it meant.  A sandstorm was coming.  It was why the wind had started to pick up, it was the wind wall the preceded them.  The boulder field was a good place to weather a sandstorm, so long as it didn't bury them.  The boulders would break up the wind, protect them from the scouring power of the blowing sand.

      He had time.  He sat down and calmly rebraided his hair, watching the boiling fury of nature approach, studying it carefully to come to a better understanding of how they moved, how they worked.  This one wasn't that fast, but it was still pretty speedy as it neared him.  It was a big one as well.  He guessed that it would last for some time.  Maybe long enough to bury the boulder field in sand, if it died out over them.  Maybe taking a few precautions would be a good idea, and for that, he'd need Sarraya's help.  A couple of large Wards to deflect the sand would keep them from getting buried.

      The time for pondering was past.  The reality of the desert had intruded on his musings.  It was time to deal with things.

      He tied the thong securely around his braid, then scooted over the the boulder's edge and slid down.  Time to deal with reality.

 

      The sandstorm lasted for three days.  For three long days, Tarrin and Sarraya huddled in the boulder field, inside a tent protected by a strong Ward against the blowing wind and sand.  The wind howled and screamed outside his Ward, making it loud in the protected area, but at least the wind was kept off of the tent, denied the opportunity to rip the tent out of the ground and deprive them of their only shelter.

      The three days were very slow ones for Tarrin.  When not trying to sleep, Sarraya instructed him more and more on Druidic magic.  She taught him how to conjure water; it turned out that he had had the right idea when he tried himself.  Had he not gotten distracted while making the attempt, it would have worked.  She taught him more about conjuring many items, and taught him the techniques behind conjuring very large items.

      But through it all, it was still just Conjuring.  The core method of it did not change.  All she taught him were the little differences and tricks necessary to make it more flexible.

      "Well, that's it," Sarraya announced after Tarrin had conjured a stone about the size of a large dog.  "I've taught you everything you need to know about Druidic magic.  At least for now.  We'll have to find something else to talk about from now on."

      For some reason, this disappointed him.  "That's it?" he demanded.  "Sarraya, I've barely broken a sweat!  I can learn more!"

      "I know you can learn more," she affirmed.  "But I'm not a good teacher.  I'm not going to put your neck on the block, Tarrin.  I've taught you what I feel comfortable teaching you, and I won't teach you any more.  You know what you need to know to survive, and that's all I told you I was going to teach you."

      For some reason, he was bitterly disappointed.  Probably because he felt the same way about Druidic magic that he did about Sorcery when he first started.  He was wildly curious, interested, and he wanted to learn everything there was to know about it.  But he couldn't use his Sorcery without extensive preparation and help anymore, and there was nobody left to teach him anything.  So all he had was Druidic magic.  And now he couldn't learn any more of it, because Sarraya refused to train him.

      "I'm not worried about learning from you, Sarraya," he nearly pleaded.  "You've done a good job teaching me."

      "If you only knew," she laughed ruefully.  "Tarrin, I did a very bad job teaching you.  I didn't do anything that I was supposed to do, and I more or less just let you go on your own.  If Triana knew how I taught you, she'd rip off my wings.  You know how to Conjure, and you know how to Summon.  Because you know both of them, that means you automatically know how to Create--after all, Creation is just the Conjuring of something that doesn't exist.  Why do you need to learn anything else right now?  Just go with what you know for now, get a feel for the Druidic magic.  And when we get out of the desert, when we get back to Triana, she can teach you anything else you may want to learn.  Is asking you to wait such a bad thing?"

      He stewed for a moment.  "Yes, but I guess I don't have much choice," he grunted.  "I guess I'm unhappy because this is magic I can use."

      "Then why aren't we trying to work out what's going on with Sorcery?" she asked.  "Tell me what you feel from the Weave right now."

      "Everything," he replied automatically.  "I can feel every strand within a longspan.  I can tell how strong they are, and I can feel a Conduit about ten longspans south."

      "And this shouldn't be possible, should it?"

      "No, it's not," he replied.  "I should only be able to feel this when touching the Weave, and I still wouldn't be able to sense things much past a few hundred spans."

      "Me and Dolanna had some long talks about Sorcery.  Answer me this question.  When a Sorcerer is touching the Weave, then he can use Sorcery, right?"

      "Right.  It's what we have to do in order to use our magic."

      "Fine.  So, you say you can sense the Weave.  Ever think that that may be because you're actually touching it?"

      If she would have dropped a grain barge on his head, it would not have produced a more profound effect on him.  Of course!  The sense of the weave was exactly the same as when he was touching the Weave!  Exactly!  The only difference was that he wasn't actually connected to the Weave, there was no channel open between him and its power.  Outside of that one difference, everything else was the same.

      "Almost," he said immediately.  "I'm not actually connected to the Weave, but everything else is the same."

      "Says you," she replied.  "If you can sense the Weave, then there has to be a link between it and you.  Think you can find it?"

      "Why would I want to do that?"

      "Tarrin, you big silly, if you can figure out how you're linked to the Weave, then you could learn how to affect it through that link," she told him with a grin.  "And since this link seems passive rather than active, I don't think High Sorcery would be a threat to you."

      Tarrin stared at her for a long moment.  He could find no hole in her logic.  She was right!  She was absolutely right!  He now remembered a conversation he'd had with Dolanna a very long time ago, when she was teaching him about Sorcery.  As a Sorcerer learns more about the Weave, and practices, it brings that Sorcerer in a more intimate contact with the Weave.  That Sorcerer can draw energy from it faster, from a wider area, can weave flows together quicker, and can even directly affect the Weave without drawing in, she had told him when she was teaching him about Sorcery.

      Directly affect the Weave without drawing in.

      In other words, a Sorcerer with great experience could use Sorcery in a way not considered possible.

      It made him remember what the Goddess had told him, when she explained why his sense of the Weave had changed.  High Sorcery is simply an alternative method of using Sorcery.  She told him that Sorcery and High Sorcery were simply two ways to use the same power, and that there were also other ways to do it as well.  She told him that he could learn how Weavespinners learned their magic, that someone would teach him.

      She didn't mean the Selani goddess, she meant himself!

      It all made sense now.  Tarrin's connection to the Weave had increased, expanded.  It had extended beyond some mysterious threshold and caused him to elevate to a new level.  His many explosions of High Sorcery had intensified that connection, had brought him into touch with the true power of a Weavespinner.  He was just now starting to feel those connections, feel the fundamental changes in his magic caused by having his eyes opened to a new way to use Sorcery.  He was growing into his power, and like any growing process, he underwent a period of change, and a period of discovery.

      He had come to the desert thinking that Fara'Nae would teach him about Weavespinners.  Now, it seemed that he had come to the desert to discover that magic for himself.

      He sat down on the covered sand.  Hard.  Sarraya took one look at him, then started laughing delightedly.  "I take it you just underwent an epiphany?" she asked with a grin.

      "I think you're right, Sarraya," he said quietly, respectfully.  "Dolanna told me a long time ago that experienced Sorcerers could directly affect the Weave while touching it, even without drawing in the power to affect it.  The Goddess told me that there are more than two ways to use Sorcery.  It fits.  I think you're right.  If I can figure out how to affect the Weave through my sense of it, I may be able to use Sorcery without getting burned by High Sorcery.  I wouldn't be opening that direct link to the Weave, and that's how it gets to me."

      "Well, I'm glad I was able to help out," she smiled.

      "Sarraya, you are a wonder," he said with a smile.  "How can such a flake be so smart?"

      "Hey!" she snapped, then she laughed.  "Well, it's just truth in advertising," she admitted.  "So, what do you do to figure it out?"

      "Practice," he replied.  "Just keep trying until I finally figure out what works.  Since I'll be doing it with no idea what I'm doing, it'll just be luck."

      "Then again, that seems to work for you," she grinned.  "The less you know about something, it seems, the better it works for you."

      "Guess I'm not saddled with doubts and worries," he said ruefully.

      "So, what now?"

      "Breakfast.  I'm not ready to tackle this problem just yet, not so soon after learning Druidic magic.  I'll start on it tomorrow.  Hopefully this sandstorm will be past by then."

      "Then Conjure us some breakfast," she told him.  "Just make sure you get ripe fruit this time!"

      "I liked them like that," he teased her as he began the mental preparations necessary to use Druidic magic.

      The rest of the morning, and the day and afternoon and evening, for that matter, were spent in quiet meditation, as Tarrin sought to find this mysterious connection between himself and the Weave, tried to use Sorcery without touching the Weave.  The problem was that he had no idea what he was looking for, what had changed.  He felt no diferent than he did before this change inside.  His sense of the Weave had changed, but it seemed that nothing else did.  The first thing he tried to do was affect the Weave simply by willpower, but that didn't work.  It was like smoke, something he could see but not touch, a hazy illusion without substance.  He searched inside him for something new and different, but that too didn't work.  There was nothing different within him, nothing he could sense.  The attempts wore him out, physically and mentally, just as trying to touch the Weave for the first time had done to him so long ago.  The seeking of the magic required intense concentration and effort, and it took its toll on him as the day progressed.

      And behind it all was the eyeless face, disrupting his attempts to find this new form of magic.  Every time he reached a state of contemplation, it appeared in his mind, and upset his attempts to seek it.  The face did not lose its effect on him, even after so many days of enduring it.  It could still cause a mindless panic and terror in him, if it struck with enough force or he was unprepared to deal with the emotions it incited inside him.  He was forced to try to push it out of his mind and try to find a state of deep concentration at the same time, and that was not easy.

      The end result of it was that by sunset, as the sandstorm died out, he was mentally and physically exhausted.  So exhausted that he almost immediately fell into a deep, dreamless slumber after eating, a sleep so deep that even the dream could not find him.  He awoke the next morning feeling a bit woozy, but a night's complete sleep had done his body very well.

      The next morning had dawned clear and calm.  There was still a bit of a dusty pall in the air from the sandstorm, and climbing onto the boulder showed him that the strong Ward he had made had been a very good idea.  The Ward had about a span of sand built up around its border, and the sand was noticably higher between the boulders now than it had been before the storm.  A span of sand wouldn't have buried them, but it would have collapsed the tent and left them exposed to the power of the scouring wind.

      Sarraya flitted up and landed on his shoulder.  "Dusty," she remarked, then she sneezed.

      "The storm was a big one," Tarrin replied.  "It's going to be dusty for a couple of days, at least."  As he said that, he took the red scarf the girl gave him and settled it over his face, then donned his violet-shaded visor.  The sun wasn't bright enough through the dust to be painful, but it would keep the dust out of his eyes.  "You're going to have to navigate, Sarraya.  I can't see the Skybands in this dust."

      "Not a problem."

      "What about the tent?  Want to take it with us?"

      "Why?" she asked.  "If we need a tent, we'll just make another one.  Let the Selani have it."

      "I keep forgetting about that."

      "That's why I'm the brains of this outfit," Sarraya teased.

      "A Faerie, the brains of an outfit.  I'm doomed."

      "Hey!"

      Navigating the boulder field was easy enough for him, he simply jumped from rock to rock, hopscotching his way through it.  What made it a chore was that the boulder field was very, very large, longspans wide, and a couple of longspans of methodical jumping began to tire him.

      "I wonder what happened to put this many rocks in one place," Tarrin mused to Sarraya as he jumped onto a particularly big rock, towering over the others.

      "I'm not really sure," she replied. "The rocks don't look like they were in water, but something had to spill them out here."

      "How can you tell they weren't in water?"

      "They'd be smoothed down," she replied.  "Water is even more corrosive than a sandstorm, over time.  "Ever notice that the rocks you find in streams are smooth and look polished?"

      "I never thought of that," he admitted.  "You sound as smart as Phandebrass sometimes."

      "I'm not sure if that's a complement or not," she said uncertainly.

      The passage through the boulder field was more or less uneventful, at least up to a point.  It changed quickly when he jumped from one rock to another, and his feet immediately sank down into the rock on which he landed.  It wasn't stone!

      Dislodged by a sudden, violent shift of the rock beneath him, Tarrin was spilled to the ground as the rock on which he had landed seemed to unfold itself, unbend, and he found himself looking up into the hungry gaze of a small kajat.  It had huddled down, and it had looked so much like a rock with its brown scaly hide, he had literally jumped on top of it.

      Snapping jaws instantly sought him out, and in desperation, before he could even feel fear, he twisted on the ground and got a foot on the lower jaw and both paws on the upper.  Crushing pressure instantly struck him, and his foot was punctured by the spearpoint of a tooth, but his inhuman power proved to be the match of the monster's jaw muscles, if only just.  Trembling with effort, staring into the maw of the huge lizard, Tarrin struggled against the vice-like crush of the monster's jaws.  The pressure the monster put on him was astounding, threatening to shatter the bones in his arms and legs and he fought with all his strength to keep the jaws from closing on him.  The things' fetid, hot breath blew over him, fueling his purpose, inciting the Cat within to lend all of its strength to keep him alive.  With a growling roar of a cry, he pushed the jaws apart just a little, enough to straighten out his back and try to reach the sword on his back with his tail.  But the monstrous reptile picked him up off the ground and began whipping its head from side to side, seeking to dislodge its meal enough to where it couldn't resist its jaws any longer.  He hung on for dear life, both trying to keep the jaws from crushing him and keep his paws and feet where they were to keep the monster from killing him in one bite.

      His paws slipped.  He started falling backwards, out of its maw, but the fanged mouth snapped shut on his thigh, severing his right leg just above the knee.  He tumbled to the ground as the intense pain of losing his leg ripped through him, before quickly being replaced with the angry tingling that told him that the leg was already starting to regenerate.  The pain and the shock of the ambush pushed him over the edge, causing the Cat to rise up within him and cause his human consciousness to be shunted to the side.  He got up onto his one remaining foot and jumped up onto a boulder, eyes consumed with the unholy greenish fire of his anger as he roared his challenge to the massive reptile.

      It got a good look at him, got a sight of the rather gruesome process of regeneration when Tarrin lost a limb, as the leg literally grew out from the mangled stump bone first, fleshing out as it progressed, and then finally covering over with skin and fur grown from the stump down.  Tarrin put his weight down on his new right leg, anger and fury overwhelming good sense.  As the Cat always did, it sought out its most powerful, destructive option immediately, seeking to destroy the threat before it without considering the consequences of its actions.

      The power of the Weave suddenly rampaging into him, through him, seeking to burn him to ash within heartbeats, the Cat used raw fury to bring the maelstrom under some sense of control, ignoring the burning from within of so much power, a burning that was very real.  The kajat recoiled slightly as the fire-like numbus of Magelight suddenly exploded from the Were-cat's body, limning him in gentle bluish light that wavered and pulsated as if being carried by some invisible wind.  Weaving together a chaotic mixture of Air, Fire, Water, and Divine energies, with only token flows the other Spheres woven in to grant the weave the power of High Sorcery, the Cat used that Weave it had used so many times before, a weave of such power that nothing could withstand it.  The Cat rose a single paw and presented it palm-out to the beast, then thrust it towards the monster as it released the Weave.

      An incandescent bolt of pure magical power, carrying the heat of a thousand bonfires, unleashed from Tarrin's upraised palm, ripping through the air as it travelled from Tarrin's palm to the terminus of its power in the blink of an eye.  Its path carried it directly through the kajat's head, vaporizing everything it struck from just above that bloody maw to the top of its head in a perfect circle about a span across, then continuing on for nearly four longspans before the power of the weave reached its limit and dissipated.  A cracking sound, something like thunder, proceeded the blast of magical fury, the sound of the air being instantly displaced and superheated by the power of the weave.

      The kajat stood numbly for a long moment, then toppled to the side, partially on a large rock.  Tarrin found himself struggling against the unmitigated power of the Weave, as it almost instantly replaced all the energy he had expended creating the killing weave, feeling like a man drowning in a sea of fire.  But then the power flowing into him began to slow, and he sensed Sarraya using her Druidic magic to restrict that flow, to get it to where Tarrin could resist or control what was coming into him.  But she was a basket trying to hold an avalanche. He could feel her struggling with her Druidic magic with everything she had, reaching the limits of her power, and it had very little effect on his connection to the Weave.

      In that instant, as the Cat fled him, he understood the incredible danger he was in.  If Sarraya could not reduce what was coming into him, he could not cut himself off without having the backlash kill him.  If she couldn't, he would be burned alive from within, destroyed by the power of the Weave, he would be Consumed.

      It was just too much power.  He could feel that Sarraya was at the limit of her ability, and the power did not slow down enough to allow him to cut himself off without killing himself.  He threw himself into controlling that power, to push against what was coming into him, even going so far as to seeking to use the power within directly against the power outside, seeking to have them strike one another and cancel each other out, just as a misweaved spell fizzled if flows of the same Sphere touched.

      Fizzle!  Of course!

      In a terror-induced moment of brilliant clarity, Tarrin recalled one of the most basic rules of Sorcery; a Sorcerer cannot weave spells on himself.  An attempt to weave on one's self caused the weaving flows to contact the power within, and it made it drain back into the Weave through the flows.  Every time he had touched the Weave with his power, he had been drawing in, rather than trying to drain off.  If he attempted to weave on himself without High Sorcery, the flows would strike him, come into contact with the power inside, and then the power within would suddenly drain out of him.  The power of the Weave always follows the path of least resistance, Dolanna had told him so long ago.  It was why a Sorcerer couldn't use magic on himself.

      Reaching out, Tarrin accessed every strand near enough to him, and called all six Spheres from them.  Flows of all six sphere reached out like tentacles, reached out to him, and then he pulled them inside of him, having them make contact with the power at the core of his being.

      The effect was not what he hoped.  The power drawn within was that of all seven Spheres, where he was only attempting to drain off six.  The power within was held in a combined state because all seven Spheres were present, the sphere of Confluence holding the other six together.  He realized that when in contact with High Sorcery, trying to induce a fizzle to leech off power would not work.

      Unless...he fizzled a weave of High Sorcery.

      In the instantaneous spans of consideration, he realized that that was a paradox.  High Sorcery could not fizzle, because its very nature would not permit it.  A misweaved spell of High Sorcery could not fizzle, so logic dictated that it would always explode in a wildstrike if it went wrong.  An attempt to fizzle the spell in the weaving also wouldn't work, because a fizzled weave wouldn't drain off the power inside.  The spell would have to form and affect him, but that wouldn't do any good either.

      Or would it?

      Feeling his blood boil inside, feeling his organs expanding dangerously from the incredible heat, feeling the fur burn off his arms and legs and his skin begin to char, smelling his hair burning away, feeling internal tissues begin to sear from the power, Tarrin started again, weaving together a weave almost completely made up of Divine flows, with only token flows of the other Spheres to grant the weave the power of High Sorcery, to grant the weave the power to affect him.  Even as he weaved it, he fully understood that if this did not work, he would die, suffering the untold agony of being burned alive from the inside out, to die in a funeral pyre of his own creation, to be Consumed by the very power that had saved his life so many times before.  There would be no time to try something else, to try again.

      It was all or nothing.  Everything that he had done, everything that he was, everything that depended on him, it all focused down into that instant in time, when Tarrin used his last desperate ploy in order to cheat death one more time, risking everything on a simple rule of High Sorcery, a rule he had never really bothered to study, never really seemed important, until that moment.

      A Sorcerer using High Sorcery could weave spells that affected himself.

      Tarrin released it, and then he felt it pierce into him, pierce the core of him where his magic was building, was burning him, threatened to destroy him.  It infused into him, and then it started doing what it was intended to do, what it was woven to do.

      Drain off magical power.

      Where his attempt to fizzle failed, this did not.  The power within suddenly found an outlet through which to flow, siphoned away by the power of his own weave.  The sudden bottomless nature of his being seemed to strike back at the Weave, at his connection to it, making it shudder and recoil from him.  His powerful connection to the Weave faltered as the totality of the power within drained out, and in that unstable instant, Sarraya struck.  She attacked his connection to the Weave with every fiber of her Druidic power, and where she failed before, she succeeded now.

      Tarrin could feel his connection to the Weave break, and it did not cause a backlash.  The weave he wove on himself, no longer having anything to sustain it, unravelled harmlessly.

      Tarrin collapsed onto the rock, sucking in air like a man just pulled from the sea, feeling the intense burning ache from inside like an agony, like he'd been spitted on a red-hot steel spear.  Close, it was too close!  The Weave had done damage to his body inside, and he'd come a mouse's tail from being Consumed.  All because of a single moment of irrational anger.  His body was utterly, completely drained of everything he had, and it was an effort simply to breathe.

      "Tarrin!  Tarrin, are you alright?" Sarraya asked in a fearful voice, landing beside his head and putting her tiny hand on his forehead gently.  Her touch suddenly became warm, gentle, and he could feel her using her Druidic magic on him.  The burning and painful injury done to him by High Sorcery began to ease, covered over by a feeling of blissful warm softness, as she used her power to accelerate his own healing and numb the pain.  "Tarrin!" she called in a frightened voice.  "Answer me!"

      He was totally exhausted.  It was an effort to think, to move, to form coherent will in order to speak.  "Too close," he said in a weak voice.  "Sarraya."

      "I'm here, I'm here," she said assuringly.  "Does it still hurt?"

      "I'm tired," he said in a listless voice.  "So tired."

      "Then go to sleep, Tarrin," she said in a cooing voice.  "I'll be here to watch over you.  I won't let anyone hurt you."

      If she said anything after that, he would never know.  He almost immediately fell unconscious, a deep, dreamless sleep from which he could not be awakened.

 

      It was morning.  Tarrin opened his eyes to find himself looking into the large reddish disc of the sun as it rose from the eastern horizon.  The sun shone on him with the gentle warmth of the start of the day, warm rather than brutal, pleasant rather than oppressive.  The air was still cool from the night, but something was draped over him to protect him from the biting night air.  The smell of dried blood and the first stages of decaying flesh greeted him in that cool air.

      He was stiff, sore.  Weak.  He remembered what happened all too clearly, from the pain to the fear of it.  The Cat had used Sorcery, and Sarraya had not been able to contain him.  Had he not did some very fast thinking and done some creative experimentating with his power, he would be dead.  He had escaped by a whisker that time.

      Pushing himself up onto his arms, feeling the rock bite into him under his hip, he looked down at himself.  He was covered by a leather blanket, which had that strange uncorrupted scent to it that told him that it was conjured.  His sword was laying beside him, with a broken thong and some dried blood on the scabbard.  Sarraya was nowhere to be seen, but that didn't mean that she wasn't around somewhere.  The sky above him was cloudless, which was normal, but a great many vultures circled slowly over him, probably because of the kajat, but something kept them from landing to feast.

      He shifted into a sitting position, rising up to get his tail out from under him, then rubbed the back of his neck gingerly.  That was something that he never wanted to go through again.  He'd overextended himself before, but never had he felt so close to death than he did that time.  Always before, Sarraya or Triana or someone had intervened, had saved him, but that time he felt the stark reality that there was nobody that could protect him now.  He had saved himself, literally before jumping into the abyss, with a desperate gamble that literally came down to life or death.

      Once again, he managed to cheat Death.  He had the feeling that She was starting to get frustrated.

      The wind changed, and on it came the smell of Selani.  Very close Selani.

      Turning his head, he found himself staring at a Selani warrior sitting on a rock not far from him, covered from head to foot in the baggy clothing which they wore, head wrapped by sand-colored cloth and with a veil covering its face.  Brown eyes peered between the veil and the turban-like head covering.  He simply sat there, patiently, calmly, watching Tarrin with those unblinking eyes.  That he had evaded Tarrin's notice before the wind changed said something for the Selani's ability to remain still, like he was a part of the desert.

      It took him a moment to realize that the Selani had not attacked during the night, while he was unconscious.  Then again, no Selani would do such a thing.  Odds were, he was waiting for Tarrin to wake up, so he had the chance to defend himself.  It wasn't dishonorable to attack an unsuspecting foe, but it was dishonorable to attack one that was incapable of defending himself.  Ambushing Tarrin was perfectly fine, but attacking him in his sleep was not.

      "Ande no adu bai," the Selani said with amusement, pulling down his veil.

      It was Var!

      "Var!" Tarrin said in surprise.  "What are you doing here?" he demanded in Selani, forgetting himself.

      "You do speak the True Tongue," he said with a smile.  "I knew it!"

      "What are you doing here?" Tarrin demanded, trying to sound strong, even though he was as weak as a kitten.

      "Following you," he replied.  "I would not challenge you now, so don't worry.  I'll not challenge you after you're well either."

      "Isn't that against your custom?"

      "Custom is one thing, a debt repaid is another," he said calmly.  "You spared my life.  I have sat vigil over you so the little blue one could scout for kajat, so honor has been repaid."

      "And why are you here after ten days?"

      "I came to challenge you again, but found you like this," he replied with a calm expression.  "With a dead kajat not ten paces away from you.  I think I'll bow to your sword now, rather than lose to you again," he said with a light smile.  "There is no honor in foolishness.  I'll not challenge one capable of killing a kajat single-handedly.  My mother did not raise a fool."

      "I appreciate that, I'm not really feeling up to a fight right now," he said wearily.  "Believe me, the kajat gave back as good as it got."

      "The little blue one told me.  Bit your leg right off, she said, but I think she was making the tale more colorful."

      "No, it bit my leg off," he affirmed.  "It just grew back."

      "Truly?"

      "I'm a Lycanthrope, Var.  A Were-cat.  I can regrow lost limbs."

      "Ah.  That answers my next question," he said.  "If I may ask, why are you here?  Seeking to honor the one who taught you?"

      "Actually, I'm just passing through," he replied.  "I'm travelling from Saranam to Arkis, and I can't take a ship.  This is the only way to go, so here I am."

      "If you seek Arkis, you're going the wrong way," he replied.  "The Sandshield is impassible along its southern reaches.  If you intend to cross the mountains, you must cross over in the north."

      "I didn't know that," he said honestly.  "I thought there were some passes in the south."

      "There are, but they're impassible at this time of year," he replied.  "The storms coming out of the southern passes would kill you.  The storms you've seen here started there, and they're no less powerful for travelling so far."

      "I remember someone saying that the storms start at the Sandshield, but I guess I didn't think they'd be that bad," he fretted.  "But the passes along the northern reaches are safe?"

      "As safe as any pass in the Sandshield," he answered.  "If you seek Arkis, you should turn northwest.  It will save you time."

      "That's true, but it's a longer journey."

      "Much shorter than travelling west, then going north until you find a pass that's safe enough to use."

      "True," he said with a rueful snort.  "Guess I'm not thinking."

      "You're new to our lands, so there's no reason to feel foolish," he replied.  "I'd feel just as lost in the forests of Arkis."

      "So would I," he said absently as he pulled off the blanket and struggled to his feet.  His knees felt shaky, and the wind ruffled the fur on his right leg.  His new right leg.  The pant leg that had once covered his leg was gone, somewhere in the gullet of that dead monster, and what was left of his pants were covered in dried, hard blood.  His shirt was also spattered with dried blood, and the smell of it was enough to make him want to get rid of them.  He grabbed the shirt by the front and pulled it over his head, pulling his braid out with it, then cast it aside.  His torso showed his normal pale skin, where his face and neck, subjected to days in the sun, were as brown as a Selani.

      "Siswani," Var noted.  "I don't know that clan."

      "What?"

      "Your brands.  That's the clan brand of Faedellin.  We call that brand Siswani, the Brand of Clan.  I know the brand, but not the clan."

      "I don't either," he grunted.  "The brands were given to me by my deshaida, and she's not in the desert right now.  Her clan doesn't know about me."

      "So that's why you come as an invader instead of a brother," he said calmly.  "You have the mark of the Holy Mother?"

      Tarrin turned enough for him to see the sword-brand symbol of Fara'Nae on his other shoulder, and Var nodded.  "You took a good brand," he complimented.  "A much better brand than I expected to see on an outlander."

      "I'm not human, Var," he said calmly.  "My kind have a very high tolerance for pain."

      "A good trait."

      "That's a subjective point of view.  It can cut both ways."

      Var raised an eyebrow.  "Truly, you are fluent in the True Tongue.  I hear words from you I don't hear from scholars among my people."

      "My sister doesn't believe in doing anything half way," he grunted, slashing his tail a few times as the motion, the activity, returned strength to him.  As usual, his body was recovering very quickly, probably just finding itself after the long sleep.  He clenched his paw into a fist until his knuckles cracked, then he spread out his arms and stretched to get some blood flowing into them.

      "Are all your kind as tall as you?"

      "No," he replied.  "I'm tall for my kind, but almost all of my kind are taller than you."

      The buzzing of wings preceded Sarraya, who flew straight at him with a joyful cry.  She clamped onto his neck, hugging him exuberantly, giggling like a girl.  "I see you feel better!" she exclaimed.  "How do you feel, Tarrin?"

      "I'm alright, Sarraya," he replied gently.  He reached up and offered his paw to her, and she climbed into it and sat down in his palm.  He held her up before him so he could see her as they spoke.  "Are you alright?"

      "It never touched me," she replied.  "By the time I picked myself up off the ground, it was already dead.  Don't scare me like that!"

      "I didn't do it on purpose, believe me," he told her.  "At least we found out that the Goddess wasn't kidding."

      "No doubt," she said.  "How did you do it?  How did you weaken yourself?"

      "I got creative," he grunted.  "I used High Sorcery on myself.  It was the first time I ever thought to try it."

      Sarraya laughed.  "Well, it worked, but let's try not to do that again.  You're going to give me a heart attack at this rate."

      "No argument here," he grunted in agreement.  He looked to Var.  His suspicion hadn't really rose up yet, but then again, Var was all the way over there.  It would probably be best to cut it short, before he began to feel threatened by the Selani.  "Could you make me some new clothes?  Then we'll get moving."

      "Are you sure you're up to it?" she asked.

      "I'm fine, you little worrier," he smiled.  "I'm hungry and thirsty, but I can wait until we get the Selani behind us before I stop to deal with it.  I want to shake him first."

      "Alright, one new set of clothes, coming up," she said, flitting off of his paw.  "What does the master prefer?  Something stylish?  How about something with frills and fringe?  Maybe a nice waistcoat?  I hear straw hats are all the rage in Tu Lung."

      "How about the same thing you made last time," he retorted.

      "No imagination," she teased, then bent to the task.

      When the clothes simply appeared, Var stood up.  "Pardon my intrusion, but if you want to make it in the desert, don't wear the shirt," he spoke up.

      "What?  Why?"

      "Because you carry the brands," he replied calmly.  "They are true brands, and any Selani that sees them will know.  If you show the brands, you'll avoid a great many challenges.  You don't have to meet every clan you cross, but they won't chase you down if they see you."

      "I figured that I'd get into trouble if the Selani saw them," he said uncertainly.

      "You'll get in less trouble if you do," Var told him with a slight smile.  "You're not wearing clothes appropriate for the desert and you're still alive, so I guess that your kind are resistant to the desert heat.  If that's so, I suggest you go without a shirt."

      "What did he say?" Sarraya asked.

      "He told me I'll get into less trouble with the Selani if I show my brands," he told her.  "I thought otherwise, but I'll go on Var's word."

      "Var?"

      "He's the same one I fought," he replied.

      "I know that, but I didn't realize he gave you his name."

      "His friend did," he told her calmly.  "What do you think?  A black vest, to go along with my fur?"

      "May as well go with style," Sarraya grinned.

      "You don't seem too surprised about the clothes, Var," Tarrin noted as Sarraya conjured a vest.  It was black leather, as supple as cloth, plain and utilitarian.  Sarraya had even had the foresight to put slots in the back through which the sword's thong could pass.

      "I know that both of you are magicians," he said calmly.  "Surely one of you is using whatever magic you know to make the clothes."

      That legendary Selani stoicism.  Nothing really surprised them.  He put on the vest, and found that it fit well enough.  It left his chest and midriff bare, pale skin that was already beginning to visibly darken under the intensifying sun.  Without giving it a second thought, Tarrin pulled off the ruined trousers, then put on the new ones.  They too fit perfectly, mainly because Sarraya had conjured clothes for him so many times that she had the sizing down to an art.  He laced the thongs of his sword through the vest, a trick possible only because of his unnatural dexterity and coordination, then pulled it into place and tied the two ends together with a secure knot.

      The result was a curious sight.  Tan breeches, black vest, and it opened almost like curtains to proudly display the black metal amulet around his neck, the symbol of the katzh-dashi, the holy symbol of his Goddess.  It had been a long time since he'd left his arms completely bare.  He felt more uninhibited in the clothing than anything he'd worn before, and found almost immediately that he liked them.  He put on the simple belt carrying a dagger and a few other simple belongings around his waist, and found that he felt ready to move.

      "I appreciate your watching over me, but it's time for me to move on, Var," he said.  "I hope your journey back to your clan is a safe one."

      "You're leaving?" he asked.  "But I had many questions to ask you."

      "I'm not the kind of person you want to know, Var," he said grimly, looking directly into his eyes as he said it.

      "Perhaps I could travel with you?"

      "No," he said adamantly.  "If you could even keep up, I still wouldn't allow it.  I don't like strangers.  Call it a racial trait.  You'd find me to be more dangerous than that kajat was.  I can deal with you when you're over there, but if you get too close to me, I may strike at you without warning."  He settled the sword into place on his back, giving the Selani a calm look.  "You'll be much safer going back to your clan anyway.  I attract trouble like that carcass attracted the vultures."

      "A pity.  It would be worth the time to speak with you, to come to know one with such honor that a Selani would grant him blood kinship without the approval of her clan."

      "It's a very long story, and one that would change your opinion of me," he said directly.  "Just forget it, and forget me.  You're better off that way."  He shifted his thinking so that he could speak to Sarraya.  "Are you ready to go?  Anything in our path?"

      "Yes and not a thing," she replied.  "Finish scaring the Selani, and we'll be on our way."

      "What makes you think I'm scaring him?"

      "I can hear the attitude in your voice," she winked.

      Tarrin snorted, but he couldn't really argue with her.  He was trying to scare off the Selani.  He turned to Var as Sarraya flitted up and away, towards the west, to precede him and warn him of any dangers.  "I thank you for your advice, and I'm sorry if I sound cold, but reality is a cold place," he told him.  "Just go back to your clan.  You don't want any part of me.  Trust me."

      And with that, Tarrin turned and started bounding from boulder to boulder with the same ease that a human would walk along a street.  He quickly put the Selani behind him, going faster than he could follow, his mind already working to make sense of what had happened.

      And to deal with the strange sense of regret he felt at leaving Var behind.  Why would he feel that way?  Var was a stranger, an outsider, and Tarrin feared him.  But then he realized that speaking Selani, to hear it from a native, was kindling his yearning to be with Allia.  Var's voice and manner had reminded him of loved ones far away, and a part of him wanted to be near Var if only to feel that he was closer to Allia.

      But he wasn't Allia.  She was well out of the port of Tor, maybe even around the Cape of Storms, the peninsula that marked the end of the Sea of Glass and the beginning of the Sea of Storms, the southwestern tip of the mainland of Shacè.  She was on board a ship, surrounded by other friends, safely escorted by Wikuni warships as they sailed to Suld.

      Allia was far away.  He only had his memory of her, his love for her, to sustain him until they were again together.

      The other problem was Sorcery.  He remembered what had happened.  It was just like any other time he'd lost his temper, but this time, there was nobody there to reign him in.  And there would be nobody from now on.  He could not afford to lose his temper again, he knew that now.  If he went into a rage, and stayed in it long enough to prevent himself from using that same trick of High Sorcery to defuse himself, he'd end up dead.  The Cat didn't care about life or death, it was supported only by his own fury, and it would not seek to preserve itself so long as it perceived threat to itself.  He wasn't about to die now, after having come so far, having survived against all odds so many times.  He wouldn't get killed by his own temper.  He would not.  He had never had much success keeping his temper before, but now the stakes were much, much higher.  Now, he had a very good reason to do his absolute best not to fly into a rage.

      His very life depended upon it.

      Tarrin moved away from the Selani, mind working to deal with what had happened when he nearly lost control of the Weave, haunted by images of an eyeless girl whose empty stare chilled his soul, seeking something within that would allow him to use his magic safely.

      It was a mind heavy with problems.

 

      Up.  Down.  Up.  Down.

      The sea carried with it a kind of numbing monotony, rising and falling as the wind unsettled its suface, wind that could travel thousands and thousands of longspans without encountering something to oppose it.  Over this endless bobbing surface sailed eight ships, gathered together tightly, moving at a stately pace dictated by the ship in the center of the formation.  Seven of them were sleek, polished examples of maritime excellence, seven Clipper ships, among the fastest ships ever to sail the twenty seas.  All were heavily armed, packed to the rails with sailors and Marines, and ready to battle just about anything as they kept a protective ring around the eighth vessel.

      As ships went, this one certainly classified as being a unique sight on the water.  It was a Shacèan galleon, one that was painted the most hideously garish bright pink that one could comprehend.  Its blaring color clashed with the blue of the sea, caused anything within eyesight to be drawn to gawk at it in horrified amazement.  As if the pink hull was not enough, the ship's sails looked like a grandmother's quilt, a riot of conflicting colors, patches of different colored cloth sewn together.  Even the ship's rigging sparkled in the sun, looking as if the ropes were spun out of gold, shimmering in the sunbeams that managed to pierce between the clouds in the sky.  The paint of the ship was interrupted here and there by makeshift patches, proof that the old vessel had seen some action in the recent past.

      The ship was called Dancer, and it was a ship that fulfilled a specific objective.  She was a transport, carrying a troupe of circus performers from port to port, where they performed for the citizens.  This day, she was returning from the mighty city of Dala Yar Arak after the troupe performed at the annual Festival of the Sun, one of the high points in Arakite society.  On board her decks were circus performers, performers that would usually be manning the rigging and tending to the ship's needs as they plied the waves.  But those performers found themselves to be passengers now, shunted aside by a crack crew of veteran Wikuni sailors, sailors trained for sailing a galleon.  Wikuni sailors that had extensive battle experience, and could get the ship out of danger should it become threatened.

      The ship carried more than simple performers or Wikuni sailors.  Standing at the rail was a being that was rarely seen in the West, rarely seen anywhere except the trackless deserts that her people called home.  She was a very tall woman, sleek and slender, whose height defined her more than her appearance did.  Dressed in western trousers and a baggy white shirt made of silk that offset her dark skin, she looked very much unlike a lady with which a western man would identify.  She had dusky brown skin, the result of generations of evolution under a mercilessly strong sun, but her hair was a silvery white color, a color that made it well suited to deflecting the sun's heat away from her head.  Beyond her height or her hair, what made people stare at her more than anything else, was her exquisite beauty.  The dark-skinned woman, with her pointed ears and her four-fingered hands and her silver-white hair, was noticed not because of any of those things, but because her face was the absolute epitomy of breathtaking feminine perfection.  It was as if the anima that created the female had discovered the pinnacle of its achievement in the white-haired woman, and could now proudly boast of its creation.  Delicate eyebrows framed large eyes that were the color of the sky, a striking feature in one with brown skin.  A heart-shaped face sported high, ethereal cheekbones, a slender, pert little nose, and perfect lips that any man would find pleasure in kissing.  A sharp, slender jaw supported that feminine perfection, rounded out a face that any painter would kill to capture on canvas.

      The outstanding beauty of this woman could turn heads, but those with her had been around her for so long that her beauty no longer struck them with the same force at it had when they first saw her.  To them, she was not a paragon of feminine beauty, she was Allia.  A Selani, and a warrior at that.  A gentle-natured woman with highly refined ideals of conduct and propriety, with a pride that was not arrogance and a careful, methodical manner that made her seem dependable and steady, who also happened to be one of the most lethal, dangerous, most highly skilled fighters the world had ever seen.  She looked like a fragile maiden, but any who spent any time with her understood that there was nothing but steel beneath the silk of her skin.

      As with the best of nature's most successful species, this Selani beauty was much more than she seemed.  And therein lay her greatest advantage.  She was one of the deadliest warriors alive, but she was also a Sorceress.  Granted the innate ability to make contact with the magic of the Weave, it was an ability that most people overlooked in her, even herself from time to time.  Allia was not one to use her magic for her every mundane task.  For her, it was a tool that had use and purpose, but was not to be used unless necessary.  Though her magical ability was eclipsed by the raw power of her blood-brother, or the clever adaptability and versatility displayed by her blood-sister, in her own manner she shined as brightly as they did.  Among the trinity of the non-humans, who were studied and examined the world over, she was the one most often overlooked.

      And that suited her just fine.

      But these were not good times for her.  Her brother Tarrin was alone, with no one but the erratic Faerie Sarraya to watch over him.  Alone in the desert, her desert, a place with which she was intimately familiar, a place that would quickly kill the unaware or unfit.  It was not a place for her brother, at least not without her there to guide him, teach him, protect him.

      First Keritanima, her beloved bond-sister, was abducted by her father, and now Tarrin had also left her, leaving them to draw away those that sought to use them to get to him.  The loneliness she felt was dramatic, poignant, leaving her feeling as if everything she held dear was being stripped from her piece by piece.  She knew that she would see them again, but it was no substitution for having them there with her, to laugh with, to touch, to be near her and reinforce the powerful bonds of love and devotion that held them together.  Though all three were different species, they were a family, a family more tightly knit and loyal to one another than any family united by blood alone.

      Allia stood at the rail of the garish ship, staring out towards one of the escorting clippers with distant eyes.  She ignored the voices behind her, though her warrior's mind kept track of absolutely everyone on deck at all times.  Dolanna was behind her, seated on a small bench, talking with Triana.  Jula--that dishonorable sugo!--sat beside Triana, as was her direction.  Triana kept the younger Were-cat within arm's reach at all times.  Camara Tal's voice also reached her, up on the steering deck, as she conversed with Renoit and a rat Wikuni by the name of Kergon, the liason officer and de-facto captain of Dancer now that it was being manned by Wikuni sailors.  Phandebrass' rattling voice droned on and on as he interrogated one of the Wikuni sailors mercilessly, seeking some obscure bit of knowledge about which nobody other than him cared.  Dar was nowhere to be heard on deck, but that was not unusual.  Since Tarrin left, the yong Arkisian had been even more quiet than usual.  Tarrin had been one of the few people the young man felt comfortable speaking with, and without his friend there, he felt very much out of place among the older, more seasoned members of their group.  Dar found comfort in talking with her, but since Tarrin's departure, Allia had withdrawn herself from the others, and the young human did not wish to disturb her any more than necessary.

      Time.  It seemed so much the chore now.  Time would return her family to her, but the wait seemed unbearable.  She wanted to turn the ship around, to go back to the desert and find him, but she knew that that was impossible.  She wanted Keritanima to give up on her mission in Wikuna and return to her, but again, she knew it was impossible.  What she desired would come to her in time, but it was the time that she did not want to face.  But the person did not choose the time, time chose the person.  There was little she could do but endure, persevere, and wait out time's fickle nature.

      Time aboard a ship was a time of both endless slowness and swift passage.  The routine aboard a ship did not change from day to day, making every day drag from sunrise to sunset.  But the passage of those days was remarkably swift, leaving one in a curious state of feeling like one was aboard forever, yet finding one's self surprised when the destination appeared on the horizon.  It was so for Allia now, for many on the ship.  Time dragged by from moment to moment, but they were only days from Suld.  Days from where she met her brother and sister, days from the Tower of Sorcery, days from returning to the place they had fled so long ago.  It had been a little less than a year, but it seemed more like a lifetime.  They had left last fall, and here it was late summer, just before fall once again.  They were returning to the place where it had all begun, where she met her brother and sister, where they had learned what they were and what it meant, where Tarrin had come to terms with Jesmind, where Jula had betrayed them.  They were returning to the top of the circle, preparing to make another revolution.

      The others were preparing for it.  Dolanna had been preparing herself for the wait, in a place that would be hostile to them.  Triana had been preparing Jula for a return to civilization, and Phandebrass looked forward to delving into the Tower's library while awaiting Tarrin's return.  Dar seemed uncertain as to what he would do, for he was technically still an Initiate, and a runaway Intiate at that.

      There were other things to prepare for, and they all knew it.  The nameless traitor still resided in the Tower, so far as they knew, a woman with dark intent.  A spy and sycophant for the mysterious ki'zadun, a shadowy organization that had been trying to kill them for a very long time.  There would be the need to find and eliminate her, to keep their enemies from getting their hands on the Book of Ages.  The Sorcerer Sevren had been working within the Tower to find her while they were gone, but none of them knew what success, if any, they had had.

      And there were rumors. Rumors of war in Sulasia, of occupation by Daltochan, that Dal armies were marching on Suld.  The rumors said that they were doing it because they believed that the Firestaff was being held in the Tower of Sorcery, and they meant to take it by force if needs be.  They didn't know the vailidy of those rumors, but their Wikuni allies had told them that there were Dal armies in Sulasia.  There was indeed war.

      The idea that they may be sailing into a harbor besieged by enemy forces was a very real possibility, and that was something for which the others were also planning.  Dolanna seemed confident that no army could take Suld, but Allia was a warrior.  She knew that no defensive position was impregnable.  If the Dals threw enough men into it, they could swarm over the walls of Suld.  But she had to admit that Suld was a very large city, with a large standing army within its walls, and those walls and the city's defensive fortifications were kept in good repair.  Given enough of a defending force, and the Sorcerers and Knights to back them up, the city could be held against an army many times its size.

      There were many things that unsettled her, unsettled them all, but nothing would give them answers but time.  They wouldn't find out until they arrived, and until then there was nothing to do but plan for eventualities and prepare for the trials ahead.

      Putting her hands on the rail, she looked out past the ships, out over the endless blue water.  It used to frighten her, but so long aboard a ship had eased her fear of the water.  Beyond that endless sea, in a land beyond her imagination, her dear sister sat on a gilded throne and ruled her people.  Separated from her by need, she labored to return to them.  How she missed Keritanima.  She was one of the few that could make Allia and Tarrin laugh, truly understood both of them.  It had been too long since she had been with them.

      "What about Jula?" she heard Dolanna say.  Allia always paid attention when that hated name was uttered.  Allia did not trust Jula, did not like her, and only her vow not to harm her to Tarrin kept her alive.  They had crossed swords several times on the journey, and the fledgeling Were-cat had learned the hard way that her rage and power meant nothing to the lightning-fast Selani warrior.  Allia knew how to kill a Were-cat, and only the dishonor of breaking a vow stayed her hand on more than one occasion.  The repeated humiliation had had an effect on Jula as well, and she could see the fire in the Were-cat's eyes every time she looked in Allia's direction.  Jula wanted to pay her back for her embarassment, but she knew that against Allia, she had no chance of surviving, let alone winning.  She knew that if she took it over the line, the Selani would rise up and destroy her without a second thought or reservation.  Jula knew better than that, no matter how much it rankled her.

      "What about her?" Triana asked in her commanding voice.  Nobody on the ship, even the Wikuni, could deny that Triana was the one that ruled them all.   Her power and authority were palpable things, like an aura of utter control that surrounded her at all times, and nobody on the ship dared even give her a crosswise look.  That stare of hers was enough to cow even a rampaging kajat.  "She's not ready to be taken off her leash, but I think the exposure to humans will be good for her.  At least not these humans."

      "But she was once ki'zadun."

      "I'm through with them," Jula said in a shuddering voice.  That, at least, Allia believed.  Jula had suffered horribly at the hands of her former employers, and in that Allia did not doubt the Were-cat's sincerity.  Allia still felt her to be dishonorable and conniving, but her eventual betrayal of them would be for personal reasons rather than loyalty to her old organization.  "I already told you I'd help you find anyone I know in the Tower.  At least anyone still left."

      "I do not doubt that, but it is what your presence may foster that worries me," Dolanna explained.  "The Tower knows of your past betrayal.  You will not find open arms among them."

      "I, I don't belong there anymore," she said in a small voice.  "I can't go back to what I was."

      "I have little doubt that the Keeper will blame you for her losing Tarrin," Dolanna pressed.

      "Then she'd be right," Jula flared.  "It was my fault.  I already admitted to that.  Everything that happened to Tarrin is my fault.  Does that make you feel better?  Are you happy now?"

      "Cub!" Triana snapped, in a tone that no living being would dare disobey.

      Allia turned to look, and saw Jula looking at the deck, keeping her eyes averted from Triana's withering glare.

      "You forget yourself, little girl," Triana said to her in a hot tone.  "Now sit there and be silent.  If I hear a word from you until I give you leave to speak, you'll be swimming to Suld.  Do you understand me?"

      Triana did not make idle threats.  If Jula disobeyed, Triana would literally throw her over the rail.  The changeling Were-cat probably understood that intimately by now, having suffered many humiliating punishments from her demanding mentor, so she simply nodded emphatically while keeping her eyes on the deck.  Jula knew to "show throat" to Triana, as Tarrin would put it.  For that matter, everyone on the ship did.

      "I don't worry very much about them, it's that army that worries me," Triana told the small Sorceress.  "From what you told me, whoever's left probably can't stir up trouble.  But a Dal army is another matter.  Are you sure that Suld can hold?"

      "The katzh-dashi will defend the city if it becomes threatened, Triana," Dolanna said respectfully.  "That is a power that cannot be easily dismissed.  No army could breach the walls when the katzh-dashi do not wish it to be so."

      "I'm glad you're confident about it," Triana grunted.

      "In this matter, I am," she replied.  "Even if they could somehow breach the city, no army could get onto the Tower grounds.  The katzh-dashi would seal the grounds, and no force the Dals could bring to bear could penetrate it.  The Tower will persevere, as will any within it."

      "I don't much like the idea of being held prisoner in the Tower, so let's hope your friends can hold the walls," Triana snorted.

      "I have every confidence in them."

      "Good.  Now, let's move onto something much more important. Lunch."

      Allia let her attention drift away, fingering the amulet around her neck.  It was an alien symbol, the holy symbol of the Goddess of the Sorcerers.  It felt strange to her to know that another god watched over her, staked a claim on her, but it was the truth.  She and Keritanima and Tarrin all were owned by two goddesses, by virtue of the amulets about their necks and the brands on their shoulders.  But she and Keritanima were outside the hands of the Holy Mother, where Tarrin now rested within her protective embrace.

      At least she hoped it was so.  The Holy Mother was a strict and sometimes harsh goddess, seeking to improve her people through strife and hardship, nurturing them with a strong hand and making them proud and strong for their survival.  She had little doubt that the Holy Mother was testing her brother, seeking to place hardship in his path, assessing him in her own way to see if he was deserving of her love and protection.  In the eyes of the Holy Mother, the children had to first prove themselves before she granted them her gifts.

      This worried her.  Tarrin's physical ability was beyond reproach, but his character was not.  She loved him, and always would, but she was not so blind as to not understand him.  He was not the same young man who had received the brands so long ago.  His trials and tribulations had changed him, had shut him away from the world, had made him very much the object of fear some made him to be.  He was different now.  Harder, colder, more ruthless, maybe even a little evil, and those were traits of which the Holy Mother would not approve.  She would not grant him her gifts until he proved himself to her, and that meant that she would not accept him until he faced that part of himself, and conquered it.

      Tarrin faced a trial of fire in the lands of the Holy Mother, a trial he would not understand, an ordeal he would not realize was being thrust upon him.  The ways of the Holy Mother were subtle, even insidious, and she would come after him in every way she could to try to break him, to force him to struggle on, to make him grow and become better.  Not until he proved to her that he was deserving of her respect would she relent, and he would not be deserving of her respect until he faced and conquered the monster within.

            Allia looked out over the ocean, an ocean she no longer feared, silently praying to both the Holy Mother and the Goddess of the Sorcerers that her dear brother be safe and well, that they watch over him and help him to be what they wished him to be.  But for her, no matter who he was or what he became, he would always be her brother, and come what may, she would always love him.


To:   Title                     EoF

Chapter 8

 

      "Face what you have become," the words rushed over him, through him, strking him in the soul, forcing him to face the wrong he had done in his life.

      "No, not again," Tarrin raged within the confines of the dream, raging against the thousands of eyeless shades placed there to torment him.  "Not again!  I will not fear a dream!  You can't harm me, shadow!" he snapped at the face that had become burned into his memory, the pretty young girl with the chalky skin and black pits where her eyes had once been.  The dream would not stop, it would not leave him in peace, it was the same thing over and over, night after night, day after day, whenever he went to sleep.  Not again!  Not again!

      "We are yours," she said in that haunting voice, reaching out for him.

      He started awake before those killing hands could reach him, gasping for air and sitting straight up, claws out and ready to repel the attack.  Then he flopped back down on the leather floor of the tent, laid over sand, breathing heavily.  It wouldn't leave him alone!  Night after night, day after day, any time he closed his eyes and went to sleep, the dream came to him.  It haunted him, infused him even while awake, had begun to consume him.  The eyeless face was burned behind his eyes now, haunting him both in dreams and awake, giving him no peace.

      He had to get out, to walk around.  He left the tent Sarraya had made that evening and walked out into the frigid night air, breath misting before him as the sweat on his body threatened to freeze before it evaporated.  The cold air was better than a slap in the face, causing his mind to sharpen from its bleary haze and focus on reality.  Fifteen days now.  Fifteen days without any real sleep, fifteen days of repetitive torture from the beautiful face with no eyes.  He rubbed his face with his large paw, feeling the rough/smooth pad of his palm slide along his cheek, felt the clawtips digging into his scalp just below his ears.  Fifteen days without good sleep.  He felt so tired, so unfocused, but there was very little he could do.  Sleep always ended in the dream.  Attempts to meditate, as Allia taught him, ended just as quickly because of the face that stared back at him from the darkness of his mind.

      Why?  Why now?  Why did the dreams have to come now?  He needed to seek out this new way to use Sorcery, but the plague of the dream would not allow him to concentrate, would not give him the peace he needed to search himself for the answer.  It was always there, always, never giving him peace, never leaving him alone, a constant burning gaze of accusation that made him shudder away from it.  It had been making him edgier and edgier since the battle with the little kajat, fraying his nerves, making him even more short tempered.  And in his position, being even more testy was not a good thing.

      His fear angered him, and that anger festered inside.  Why should he fear a dream?  It was a shade, a phantom, something with voice and no substance, something that could not do him harm.  The Cat did not understand this Human preoccupation, nearly obsession with the image of the girl, and it began to grow impatient, even agitated.  The face was unbalancing his Human mind, and that put stress on the delicate balance between his Human and Cat parts, threatened the balance of his very sanity.  The Cat took that anger and fed off of it, nurtured it, turned it into an ember bed of seething discontent.

      He began growling low in his throat, and it turned into a furious roar.  He snapped his paws down to his sides and stared up into the sky, up at all four moons, seeing the ghostly image of the girl reflected back in all of them.

      "We are yours," he chiming voice rang in his ears, taunting him from within the ethereal mists of the dream, burning him with its accusation.  "Face what you have become."

      That had come from outside of him.

      Whirling, claws out and eyes blazing from within with their greenish radiance, he turned on that voice, fully prepared to destroy it, to get rid of the face haunting him, to be free of the torture.

      The face was there, taunting him, but it faded before him and left behind Sarraya, a very frightened Sarraya, who had backed up in the air and was making ready to flee from him.  "T-Tarrin?  Are you sleepwalking?"

      Blinking, coming out of his threatening posture almost immediately, he stood up to his normal height and blew out his breath.  It was Sarraya.  Had he mistaken her voice for the dream?

      He looked away from her.  "No, I'm alright," he replied quietly.

      "Are you sure?  Do you want to talk about it?"

      "No," he told her.  "I, I can't sit here any more.  I have to move."

      "It's the middle of the night!"

      "Then stay here," he told her in a curt tone.  "I can't rest any more.  I'm going on."

      "Tarrin, you're not being reasonable."

      "Like that matters to me," he growled, walking past her hovering form.

      He retreived his sword and belt and put them on, then gave her only a single look before turning his back on her and starting to run to the northwest.  He meant it.  If she didn't want to come, she could stay there and sleep.  She could catch up to him later.  He wouldn't sit there and endure the dream, the face any more.  It was better to move, to engage his mind and give it something else to do.

      For almost the entire night he ran, running to keep himself occupied, running because he dreaded what would come when he stopped.  He ran beyond hunger and thirst, ran in an almost perfect straight line, even stepping on a deadly imuni and never knowing it, the lethal reptile too stunned that a desert creature had the audacity to tread on it to retaliate before the offending foot was out of its reach.  He ran on, running in a kind of mindless daze, running both towards and away from the object that drove his flight.

      A beautiful face that had no eyes, whose gaze burned with towering accusation, revealed the dark blight within and forced him to face what he had become.

      It was a revelation he could not accept, and so he fled from it.  But there was no fleeing from a dream, no escape from that which came from within.

      Pushed beyond his endurance, Tarrin tripped on a rock and tumbled to the ground, body exhausted from lack of sleep and the night's efforts.  He lay there for a long moment, panting heavily, then he rolled over on his back.  He could still see the face before him, but he was too tired to care now, worn out by his hard running.  Panting, he lay there and let the cold air cool the sweat on his body, let the sensation of it drown out the pain inside, let physical feeling overwhelm internal emotion.

      Didn't they understand that it wasn't his fault?  When he killed, it was almost always because he was in a rage, and he had no control over himself then!  It was a Were-cat's nature to suffer the rages, Triana herself had told him that!  No matter what he did, no matter how hard he tried, he would never overcome that simple truth.  It was a part of what defined his existence.

      But even that wasn't an excuse.  When he destroyed a portion of the gladitorial arena in Dala Yar Arak, that had been a conscious choice.  He had deliberately done that, had intentionally destroyed it knowing full well that innocents were going to die.   He had killed hundreds in order to simply irritate Shiika, to pin her down and give him time to get to her Palace unhindered.  Those deaths were the ones that blighted him, had darkened his soul, had sent him beyond the point of redemption.  It had been an act of evil, and it made him no better than the men he hated for the same behavior.

      No matter what affected him, no matter how feral he was or how little others mattered, that simple blaring truth could never be forgiven.  He hadn't been able to even forgive himself, though he had buried it inside, drowned it in the gravity and importance of his mission.  But now, out here in the desert, there was nothing to stop it from returning, to rise up and remind him of his evil, to show him what he was now.

      Maybe that was it.  Maybe the dreams were his conscious, using the quiet time of the desert to finally voice its objections, to remind him of what had happened.

      But it didn't have to paralyze him!  He knew what he'd done, and he did feel remorse, but it couldn't matter now.  Nothing mattered but the mission!  The safety of Janette depended on him, the future of that little girl was now firmly in his paws, and he would let nothing stand in his way, not even himself.

      In this instance, the ends justified the means.

      That didn't make him feel much better, but it was a truth.  It was a powerful truth.  The deaths of a few thousand by his paw meant little in the face of the countless hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, who would die if he failed.  But they mattered very little to him, even now, so he had to rationalize his devotion to the mission by seeing it in the terms of one life, one future, a life and future that he very much intended to protect.  The rest of the world could sink into the Pit for all cared, it was Janette that mattered to him.  After everything that had been done against him, to him, he had no more compassion for the world that had destroyed his future.

      He sat up, seeing that the first hints of dawn had begun to appear on the eastern horizon, causing the Skybands at the horizon to take on that pinkish cast they showed just before the sun came up.  He couldn't go on with the dreams.  They were starting to affect him in very bad ways, even had started making him hallucinate.  He simply couldn't face what he had done, could not bear the merciless eyeless gaze that haunted him.  There was no hiding from the dream, but there was a way to draw its fangs.

      But the price of that may be more than his humanity, maybe even more than his soul.  To take the bite out of the dream, he would have to completely reject his humanity, to totally eradicate any feeling of pity or guilt inside.  He could do it easily, all it would take would be to find a new balance between him and the Cat, where its survivalist outlook on life would overwhelm his human emotions.  That would make him everything he did not want to be, a brutal reactionary being that existed for its own survival, at the cost of anything around it.  There would be no mercy in that being, and what was worse, there would be no constraint.  It would kill without reservation, without consideration, without hesitation.

      He could live with the memory of being a monster, or he could become one.

      Neither option seemed very attractive, and it left him feeling helpless.  That feeling made him angry, and that anger quickly built into an aimless fury.  It wasn't fair!  Why did this have to happen to him!  He'd been trying to change, trying to reclaim some of his humanity, lose some of his feral harshness.  Why did the dreams have to upset that?  They were forcing him to abandon his goal of being more like Triana, forcing him to become the one thing that he could not bear to become!

      It wasn't fair!  When was he going to finally get a break?  After everything he'd done, he deserved a chance!

      He accepted what he was, but he hated it.  He faced the possibility that he would be worse, and it frightened him...but wouldn't he just accept that too?  After all, in that state, he wouldn't care what he did.  But there would always be the human in him, trapped in the control of the Cat, screaming to the end of his days that what he was doing was wrong.  It would never go away, it would become the new face staring back at him, though it would have no fangs.

      Maybe he wasn't as well adjusted as he thought.  He accepted his condition now.  In many ways, he preferred it.  He was Were now, and it seemed inconceivable to be anything else.  But the Human in him still could not accept it, could not live with it.  It did not want to be Were.  It wanted its place back, to be the only voice inside him, unrestricted by the animal instincts that influenced his behavior.  He'd hated being feral for a long time, but there seemed to be nothing he could do about it.  A feral Were-cat was forever feral.  Just like being turned, there was no changing that.  It was a conditioned reaction to stimulus.  It was instinct, and there was no going against instinct.

      There was no going back.  Once one was turned, the transformation was complete, and there was no going back.  If something stripped his Were nature from him, it would kill him.   He accepted it because he had no choice.  He lived with it because he had no other way to live, and no matter how bad it was, his own nature would not permit him to give up.

      After so long, the Human in him had finally begun to stir.  He realized that, sitting there and looking at the horizon.  It had finally found the strength inside to challenge his Cat instincts for dominion of his mind.  That had to be it.  His attempts to curtail his feral nature had strengthened it, and only now had it begun to strike back at the instincts.  It explained the dreams, it explained a great deal.

      But it faced an almost insurmountable challenge.  And so, it seemed, did he.

      He sat there while the sun rose, watching it through hooded eyes, knees drawn up and chin resting on arms set across knees, tail wrapped around his ankles.  He watched the progression of darkness to light with little awareness of it, as night succumbed to day in varying degrees, consumed by his own internal conflict.  Even the flittering buzz of Sarraya's wings did not make him look away from the rising sun, nor did her landing on his shoulder make him move.

      "It helps to talk about it, Tarrin," she said gently, putting a hand on his cheek.  A very tiny hand.

      "I've been having a dream," he replied woodenly.  "It's the same dream over and over.  In the dream, all the people I've killed come back and haunt me.  One in particular stands out, and I see her face behind my eyes all the time.  It won't let me sleep."

      "That's your conscious talking to you, Tarrin," she said compassionately.  "Just be patient, and the dream will fade."

      "I can't take it anymore, Sarraya!" he said in pleading voice, charged with emotion.  "I see that face, and it reminds me of what I've done, what I've become!  And it's right!  I am a murderer!"

      "Life is never easy, Tarrin," she told him in a gentle voice.  "Part of life is living with the past.  Another part is living for the future.  You've been placed in a very difficult position.  It makes you do things you don't want to do, but you have to do them because things would be worse for everyone if you don't.  I don't really blame you for the things you've done, because if you hadn't, we wouldn't be here now.  You have to understand that.  The dream will fade, but it has to run its course."

      "I just can't face it anymore," he said wearily, tears welling up in his piercing eyes.  "I can deal with what's outside, but this never gives me peace."

      She reached up and put her hand on his temple.  "That's because you're tired," she told him, and he felt her well up with Druidic magic.  He could feel it in her hand, feel it through her touch, feel it flow into him.  "Lay back, Tarrin, lay back and let yourself rest.  I'll keep the dream away from you.  I'll make sure you sleep."

      He sniffled, and found himself obeying her, laying back on the hard rocky ground.  He felt that hand on his temple the entire time, until he was fully reposed on the rocky ground.  "I'm just tired of it, Sarraya," he said in a small voice.  "I don't want to face it anymore.  I don't want it anymore.  I want them to leave me alone."

      "I'll make sure they leave you alone," she told him in a motherly tone, cooing to him.  "Just close your eyes and go to sleep, Tarrin.  I'll be here to watch over you."

      He closed his eyes, and he felt something strange cover over his mind, like a heavy wool blanket that muffled his thoughts.  The blanket was drawn over the eyeless face, concealing it from him, and that immediately made his body relax.  It was gone, hidden away, and his mind seized on that cessation of the endless guilt and torture, let him drift into a dreamless, contented slumber.

 

      Sighing, Sarraya leaned against his shoulder, continuing to use her Druidic magic to subdue his mind, to give him the opportunity to rest without his memories coming back to haunt him.  She could feel it through her magic, feel the towering mountain of self-loathing and regret that had built up inside.  So much pain.  There was so much pain inside him.  How had he hidden it for so long?

      It saddened her, but it also gave her hope.  For too long, she had feared that he had become what she saw in him, but this told her that he had not.  He had teetered on the edge of that dark pit, had indeed fallen in for a while, but he had not surrendered to it.  He was trying to claw his way out of it.

      He was strong.  He could make it.  All she had to do was offer him a helping hand.  And that she could do.

      She had helped unbalanced Were-kin before.  It was one of the reasons Triana had sent with him.  She knew what to do to help him recover his humanity.  And she would be there for him whenever he needed her.

      She leaned against his shoulder, looking up into his face with tenderness.  Strange that a Faerie would become so attached to a Were-cat, but she couldn't deny it.  They had their moments of contention, but under it all was the genuine affection they had for one another.  He was so complicated, like an child seeing through the eyes of an adult, trapped between two worlds and unsure which was the one where he belonged.  It made him testy, unpredictable, and not a little violent, but the gentleness he used when dealing with friends and loved ones showed her the truth beneath that facade of ruthless strength.  His outward personality was nothing but a front, a shield to protect the young child inside him from the harsh brutatlity of the world.  But it couldn't protect him anymore, and his defenses were starting to crumble.

      But, truth was truth.  She loved him like a brother.  And because of that, she'd do everything in her power to help him.  She would help him find the truth inside him, help him discover who he really was.

      She would be there for him.

 

      The rest had done him good, but had done little to calm his mind.

      He ran over an area of stony hard desert, running on solid bedrock that had been stripped of all soil, a table of rock.  The rocky spires which dotted the desert were thick here, almost like a great forest of stone trees, spread out just enough so that it left wide expanses of relatively flat rock between them.  Piles of sand and dust had built up at the leeward sides of the bases of some of the pillars, but there was little more loose soil or sand to be found.  It was midafternoon, and the searing heat of the day had begun to wane with the lowering of the sun, but it was still blisteringly hot.

      But he barely noticed it anymore.  Fifteen days in the desert had given his body the time it needed to adapt to the brutal conditions, to build up a tolerance for the tremendous day heat and the biting night cold.  He knew that it was his Were regeneration that did that, that had changed his body to deal with a new environment, but he didn't think that much about it.  The sun had bleached his hair to nearly white, and the sun had darkened his skin so much that he looked like a Selani.  He looked like a true child of the desert, though it was still an unfamiliar and dangerous environment to him.  Sarraya too had seemed to adapt to the heat, but he had the feeling that her Druidic magic was working there somewhere to make her more comfortable.  She never seemed to sweat or complain about the heat.

      He felt...awkward.  Sarraya knew now, knew his secrets, and that made him feel strangely vulnerable.  She was a friend, but she saw him at his worst, had seen every aspect of his worst, and he wasn't sure how to take that.  His Were pride was stung; he had admitted weakness to an inferior.  Part of him wanted to prove to her that he was still strong, that he was still dominant.  Part of him wanted to prove it to himself.  The Human in him was glad that Sarraya was with him, for she gave him someone to talk to, someone to confide in, someone to hear his troubles with a sympathetic ear and provide comfort and reassurance.  She had allowed him to sleep, to rest without the terrifying nightmare to disturb him, and he couldn't thank her enough for that.  She was a companion out in this blasted wasteland, a safeguard against isolation.  He was both glad and unsettled that she was with him, but that was only natural for someone who often had two minds about everything.

      He ran on over the heated rock, on pads that had toughened to deal with the harsh things on which they tread, with Sarraya's buzzing wings telling him that she was close.  Fifteen days.  Alot had happened in those fifteen days.  He'd met a Selani.  Twice.  He'd seen the mighty kajats, had gotten into two fights with them.  He'd seen the killing lizards, the umuni, but he'd yet to see some of the other wildlife that Allia had described.  He hadn't seen any inu yet, but he figured that was a good thing.  The way Allia talked, the inu were the worst of them.  Inu literally meant quick death in Selani.  He wasn't sure if that was a testament to their speed, or how effective they were at bringing down a victim.  Either way, the Selani were very hard to impress, so if they gave a monster that kind of name, there was absolutely no doubt that it was a name well earned.  He hadn't seen the massive armadillo-like kusuks, fifty-span long beasts that looked like gigantic rolly-polly bugs that were often found under rocks.  He had yet to see a single chisu, moderately sized reptiles that ate whatever plants that they could find, and served as the main meal item for kajats and inu.  Allia said that the Selani didn't herd them because they had very nasty dispositions, and their flesh did not taste very good to Selani.  It had to be a reptillian version of mutton, an animal that humans herded for wool and food, but few actually enjoyed eating.  Nor had he seen the draka, insectoid creatures that looked like giant ants.  From what Allia had said, draka were very docile and gentle, and were often herded by Selani.  Not because they were good to eat, but because they could live well with the herd animals the Selani did eat, and they were very alert.  Draka were exceptionally gifted with sharp senses, and they warned the Selani when something dangerous to the herds was nearby.  In exchange for their service as sentries, they were kept fed and sheltered.  It was a mutually beneficial relationship.  The draka kept the Selani from losing their goats and sukk, the huge, flightless birds that served as the basic staple of the Selani diet, to roaming predators.

      But he was in the corner of the desert.  From what Allia described, most of it didn't look like this.  Most of it was barren soil dotted here and there with tough desert plants, just enough graze to support their animals.  This was a very barren part of the desert, all sand and rock, and there was nothing here to support any great amounts of wildlife.  He'd encountered two kajats, but he hadn't seen anything on which they could prey, so they had to be wandering, hunting for new territory.  Not all of the Desert of Swirling Sands was quite as desolate as this corner of it.

      Tarrin pulled up.  The western horizon, which was now off to his left since he'd been travelling northwest as per Var's advice, was starting to darken.  He knew what that meant.  "Sarraya," he called as he pulled up, "there's a sandstorm coming in."

      "I see it," she replied.  "This place is pretty bare.  We'll have to dig in."

      "Not much to dig into," he grunted, looking down at the bare stone beneath his feet.  "And it'll let the sand drain into whatever we make."

      "Then let's raise the stone," she replied.  "You think you can do that?"

      "Sorcery?"

      She nodded.  "I can't do that with Druidic magic."

      "It would be easy," he said after a moment of contemplation.  Basic Earth weaves.  Simple.  "I wouldn't even need High Sorcery for it."

      "Then I'll choke down on you pretty hard," she commented, flying up to him.  "This is as good a place as any."

      "No doubt there," he agreed.  The nearest rock spire, wall, or irregularity in the bare stone was a few longspans away, and they didn't have that kind of time.  "Instead of raising a stone shelter, why don't I just use a Ward?"

      "Because I'd rather have a shelter," she said.  "If your Ward fails, we'll be exposed.  The rock will still be there."

      "You have a point," he acceded.

      It was a pretty simple process.  He felt Sarraya's Druidic magic fall over him like a blanket, and he reached through that restrictive presence to the Weave.  It responded to him sluggishly, and he drew in the sweet power of it as quickly as the Faerie's barrier would permit.  When he had enough, he began weaving flows of pure Earth, sending them down into the ground as he released them, then he raised his paws in a gesture.  The stone in front of him began to swell, expand, then it suddenly began to rise from the rock table like a folded cloth pushed up by a pet beneath it.  Streaming the magic through him, letting it flow through him as it continued its work, he systematically raised up the stone to form a triangular wedge, very low to the rocky floor of the desert, and gently sloped on both sides so that the wind wouldn't eddy around the top and cause sand to build up on the leeward side.  It was just high enough to let him stand fully erect at the center without hitting his head.  The rock continued to move, to flow, changing its color as its substance shifted to his directions, and throughout there was a low grinding sound, as if the stone did not flow as smoothly as it looked to move.  He sealed up both sides of the triangular structure, then opened one side into a narrow entrance.  After that was done, he formed a crude door of stone,drawing the stone right from the earth, and attached it to the structure with simple eyes and hooks.  He remembered to make a slot on the back and on the walls flanking it to hold a bar, then formed a stone bar so the door could be secured against the wind.  The last little detail was a series of tiny holes in the top of the door, just enough for air to get in, but not enough for sand.

      Once he had the shelter formed, he used another form of Earth weaving to harden the stone to the wind, make it very hard to wear down, giving it strength to stand against the wind and the scouring sand it would carry within.

      Blowing out his breath, he let go of the Weave and surveyed his handiwork.  Then he marvelled at how it felt to use Sorcery safely, to be able to use the gifts granted him through birth without fear of them destroying him.  How much others took it for granted!  It wasn't until he let go of the Weave that the sweetness of it touched him, reminded him of what it once felt like to be a Sorcerer, to command the power and not fear it as he did now.  What would have been commonplace, child's play, for Dolanna, Dar, or Keritanima was something for which he had to prepare, plan, get cooperation from Sarraya to accomplish.

      How wonderful it would be to be able to use his magic the way they did.

      But such warm thoughts were doused when the eyeless face seemed to settle into the back of his mind, reminding him that there was no escape from it, reminding him of the darkness he had perpetrated, the darkness that had blackened his soul.  It effectively sucked away the joy, the satisfaction he'd felt at creating the stone shelter.  He sighed morosely and looked to the western horizon, guaging the speed and direction of the storm.  It was bloody fast, and it was coming right at him.  As all storms seemed to do.  At the most, they had about ten minutes before it hit.  It wasn't a very large one.  They'd be stuck in the shelter for at least a day, but no more than three, if he estimated the sandstorm correctly.

      A couple of days of forced isolation.  He hoped Sarraya could take it.  He hoped he could.  The eyeless face made him restless, and a day or more of being stuck in the shelter, with nothing more than Sarraya or the walls to look at, would not do him very much good.

      He was right to worry.  After retreating into the shelter, just as the wind wall struck, he immediately felt enclosed, restricted, isolated.  Sarraya sat down in the back corner of the dark, triangular structure, where he could not possibly hit her by accident, where she yawned.  "I don't think this is going to be very fun.  Want to play some chess?"

      "We'd better do something," he replied.  "I'm already starting to get anxious."

      But games only went so far.  After playing chess, stones, cards, even little stupid games of words and gestures, Tarrin grew bored.  Sarraya laid down to take a nap after conjuring herself some dinner, leaving Tarrin to sit and ponder and stew over what had happened in the last few days.  He had nearly killed himself with Sorcery--again--but this time he'd learned a new trick.  That trick of using High Sorcery on himself had worked, and had worked well.  He couldn't see any reason why it wouldn't work again, and that made him relieved.  At least now he didn't fear getting Consumed as he had before.  With Sarraya to help, he could cut himself off from the Weave before it got out of his control.  If things came down to him using his full power to survive, at least that option was again available to him.

      Perhaps the Goddess did send him out here to learn.  He had certainly learned that little trick.  He had learned things about himself he preferred not to know, and the eyeless face made sure he couldn't forget.  The desert was boundless, and it was empty.  It left him with little more than Sarraya's companionship, and though that was enough, it was still little enough to feel that he was out here more or less alone.  Tarrin didn't depend on Sarraya like he had Allia or Dolanna.  He loved the little pain, but she wasn't Keritanima or Jesmind or Triana.  She had a place in his heart, but she wasn't the closest of his friends.  She would help him, but he still couldn't feel as if he could open up to her as he could with Allia, to speak everything in his heart and seek wisdom and support.  She just wasn't like that in his mind.  Even now, after admitting how badly the dream scared him, he couldn't bring himself to admit it to her again.  Part of it was pride, part of it was uncertainty.  Sarraya was a friend, but she wasn't family, not like Allia.  He didn't feel comfortable saying things like that to anyone not family, like Allia, Keritanima, Triana, or even Jesmind.

      Jesmind.  Still it was Jesmind.  Why couldn't he get her out of his mind?  He hadn't seen her in so long, she'd probably forgotten about him by now.  She was a memory, and a rather dim one at that, but there was still something inside him that yearned for her, the way plants yearned for the sun.  In her was a woman that understood him, didn't judge him, was one of his kind.  She was a bad-tempered witch, but all female Were-cats were like that to varying degrees.  It was a racial trait.  She had been the first woman he'd been intimate with, and he guessed that a part of him just couldn't forget that.  That she had been the first to hear his deepest secrets, to become privy to his most private thoughts.  She had shared a part of him, and though they had been enemies, he hadn't really been able to bring himself to do her any true harm, outside that one ugly incident when he thought she was threatening his parents.  A part of him loved her, that was true, but a part also couldn't forgive her for abandoning him, hated her for her actions.  She had left him alone and exposed, and when she left, he became easy prey for Jula's scheming.  If she'd been there, she would have stopped Jula before any of that nasty business under the Cathedral happened, and he wouldn't have become feral.

      Or would he?  So many had tried a hand at killing him, who was to say how it would have affected him?  His ferality was a reaction to that, just as much as it was a rejection of humans and their society.  Kravon's group had been the most adamant about it, but Sheba the Pirate had tried, the Wikuni had tried, the Zakkites had tried, and Shiika had tried, and who knows who else had plans, but hadn't had the opportunity to carry them out.  He was the most sought-after being in the world right now, and outside the Wikuni and Shiika, the rest were still out to get him.  That would easily be enough to turn him feral.

      There was no real easy answer to that question.  So much had happened over the last year, too much.  It was all a jumble.  The black moods after leaving Suld, the fight with Sheba and the first outward signs of his feral nature.  The battle with the Zakkites, the wounding from the silver crossbow quarrel.  Learning from Triana, accepting her as his bond-mother, as much a part of his intimate family as his birth parents.  Just about everything that happened in Dala Yar Arak, from Jula to the battle to recover the book from Shiika.  And now he was out here in this barren wasteland, following nothing more than blind faith, seeking to cross the vast, dangerous desert and finding himself to be more of an enemy than the desert and all its dangers.  He was stronger now, both in body and magic, but that power carried a double-edge that cut him as much as it cut his enemies.  His powers were growing stronger and stronger...he could feel it.  He could still feel it.  His connection to the Weave was changing, growing, evolving, expanding, opening the sense of it to him at all times.  He knew that the power of the Weavespinners was out there, and if he could calm the eyeless face within his mind and find peace inside himself, he could find a way to touch that mysterious power.

      A power not seen in the world for a thousand years.

      But did he want that power?  He was already insanely powerful.  A single Weave from him could destroy entire ships, lay waste to large tracts of land, cause even Demons to fear him.  He could even change the weather.  But what did that power bring him?  It brought him more and more danger.  It brought him newer and more powerful ways to unleash his primal rage, to slaughter the innocent on scales inconceivable to the average killer.  It brought its own danger, for it was a power he could not control with his rational mind.  It brought him protection from his enemies--who would be foolish enough not to fear his power?--but that protection came at a cost he didn't think he was capable of paying.  He had gained power, but he lost his humanity in the exchange.

      Too great a price to pay.

      He flopped down on his back, hearing the wind howl outside, smelling the dust and the rock and the faint traces of sand drifting in through the airholes, felt the warmth still gathered inside the bare rock beneath him, feeling the Weave surround him, felt the pulse of the magic within the strands like the beating of the heart of the Goddess.  And if he had it all to do over again, what would he change?  Such a simple question, but with no clear answer.  Every act of dark intent he had done had ended up having a benefit he couldn't deny.  Every sacrifice he had made had brought to him a greater gain.  He had given away some of his humanity, and had received the power to do what the Goddess commanded him to do.  He had killed many, but had the Book...and that was the most important thing in the world right now.  He had become Were...but if he had not, then he probably wouldn't have Allia and Keritanima and Jesmind and Triana in his life, probably wouldn't have anyone in his life.  Mainly because he'd be dead.  Jegojah would have destroyed him the first time they met if hadn't been Were, if his own power hadn't burned him to ash.

      He had sacrificed his life in order to keep living.  He had sacrificed his soul to surrender it to a goddess.  He had sacrificed his humanity in order to save the very people he no longer cared about.

      It was no easy question, with no easy answer.  Every act he had done that he wished he could take back had had an effect that he didn't want to give up.  Without his Were nature, he'd be dead.  Without his power, his friends may very well be dead as well.  Without his feral savagry, he would not have the Book of Ages.

      And all it cost him was his peace of mind.

      Such a little thing when help up to the millions of lives that depended on him carrying out his mission.  Of course, he didn't care about them.  He rationalized it, as always, in simple terms using someone whom he did care about, Janette.  This was all about her.  She was the representation of the entire world, and saving her world meant saving it for everyone else.  She was still about the only oasis of calmness in his life, and thinking about her made the eyeless face shrink back into the dark tunnels of his mind.  Hers was a selfless, vibrant, genuine love, and she had been his savior.  She had literally saved him from insanity, and he would do anything for her.  She was as much a mother to him as Triana or Elke Kael, or even the Goddess, only she was the mother of the Cat within, where Triana and Elke were mothers of body and heart, and the Goddess was mother to his soul.

      If rationalizing things in simple terms was what he needed to motivate himself, then he just had to pit his Little Mother against the dark images that haunted him.  Let the eyeless face gaze into the loving heart of that wonderful little girl, and then he'd see if that haunting face could stare at him with the same venom afterward.

      His actions made him a monster, but what he held in his heart was pure, beyond the monster's reach.  And what was held in his heart more than anything else was the love of family, of friends.  The love of the Goddess, the love and respect for Elke Kael and Triana, the pure love for Allia, the deep love and affection he held for his other siblings, Keritanima and Jenna.  And of course, the shining, boundless love he held for Janette, his Little Mother.  That love couldn't be tainted by the darkness of his deeds, and it would always be with him.  Such powerful love could never be extinguished.

      He was tired.  He clung to that final though, the thought of the love of family, of letting the spirits that tortured him stare into the face of Janette, as he closed his eyes and allowed the howling of the wind to lull him to sleep.

      A sleep that was not plagued by the repeating nightmare.

 

      The sandstorm blew itself out by dawn the next day.

      The air was charged.  He could feel it around him, a kind of electric charge that hung in it, around him, giving the cold air more energy than felt normal.  It tingled his skin as he exited the little shelter he'd raised with his power, thousands of little pinpricks of energy that made him shiver.  He couldn't tell where it was coming from, but he could feel that the Weave was...disturbed.

      There wasn't another way to put it.  The Weave was as it always was, but there seemed to be something different in it now.  Something deep, something he'd never felt before.  The Weave felt normal, but beneath that he felt a kind of tension, a tautness in the strands around him that shouldn't have been there.  The pulse-beating of the energy within the strands was higher pitched, louder, more pronounced, and it seemed strange, unusual...strained.

      There was still a thin pall of dust in the air from the sandstorm.  Maybe that was it.  It concealed a part of the sky, forced him to breathe with the scarf over his face to keep the choking dust out of his lungs.  Dust sometimes carried static, and its movements could even generate little static zaps.  Maybe that was what he was feeling.  Maybe it was disrupting his sense of the Weave in some way.  After all, these senses were new to him, and he had no idea how they could be affected by external forces.

      He shook himself a bit to adjust to the cold, wishing that he'd Conjured up something that he could have eaten hot, or cooked.  Another breakfast of water and fruit did not sit well with him.  He was a carnivore...but the problem was that there was nothing to hunt out in this rocky waste.  He could Conjure animals himself, but he had to agree with Sarraya in that matter.  It did seem a bit, cruel, to Conjure an animal to its death.  Almost dishonorable to the animal.  Druidic magic respected the balance of nature and of life, and it just felt like a violation to do such a thing.  His belly and his Cat instincts disagreed, but he hadn't reached the point where he'd cross that line just yet.  He could tolerate another day of fruit, berries, nuts, and water.  After all, this place couldn't be a rocky table all the way to Arkis.  It had to end somewhere, and he might get lucky.

      It had been a strange night.  He didn't remember falling asleep, but he did remember the fact that he wasn't startled awake by the nightmare.  For the first time in many days, he'd slept through the night without Sarraya's help, slept without the dream or the face of the dead girl to haunt him.  That face was back, just behind his eyes, taking up its place within him, but the two consecutive nights of peaceful sleep had done much to renew his strength.  He felt ready to deal with its accusing, empty gaze today.  He felt ready for just about anything.  It was almost like the charge in the air was bleeding into him, energizing him in some strange way.  He felt almost optomistic, and was in a better mood than he'd been in for months.

      Sarraya flitted out of the shelter and gave him a calm look, but said nothing at first.  She pulled up a gossamer little bit of cloth over her face, coughed, then snorted loudly.  "Can't this place go one ride without choking me?"

      She seemed to be back to normal.  Maybe she'd blown off what had happened earlier.  That, or she was acting normal for his benefit, since she could probably tell that his earlier weakness had embarassed him.

      "It likes you," he said absently, looking up into the dust-hazed sky.  He could barely make out the Skybands, but he saw enough to determine which direction was northwest.  Visibility was poor, the dust acting like fog, but he could see about a half a longspan ahead.  And on this flat, rocky table, that was far enough.

      "The air feels weird," Sarraya complained.  "Like static."

      "I noticed," he replied.  "I think it's the dust."

      "I don't remember feeling this before."

      "I guess not every storm has the same effect," he told her.  "Want to ride or fly?"

      "I'm cold, so I'll fly for now.  The activity will warm me up."

      "I know the feeling.  Let's go," he agreed, then he started out at a ground-eating pace to the northwest.

      "Hey!  Wait for me!"

      He ran out of the dusty pall around midmorning, and the sun's blistering heat found him without the dusty haze to deflect its might.  The heat of the sun didn't really bother him much anymore, nor did the radiant heat of the rocks, or the air itself.  He had become truly acclimated to the savage heat of the desert, his body's Were aspects adapting him to his new environment.  He was much leaner now, lean and lithe and dangerous-looking, and his black for actually served to trap cooler air next to his skin, insulating his furred parts from the full fury of the sun and leaving him feeling much cooler than someone without fur.

      He still saw nothing, nothing but empty flatness, but the appearance of more rock spires on the horizon bolstered him.  He began to notice them at noontime, when they stopped to eat a Conjured meal of fruits and water.  The Fingers of the Goddess, they were called, reaching up from the desert floor.  There were a great many of them.  The last time he moved through one of those forests of stone, he'd seen a great deal of desert wildlife.  Maybe those rock spires harbored an evening meal.  Tarrin squatted down over the little Faerie, giving her shade from the merciless sun as he ate a curiously cold peach.

      Sarraya fanned herself with her wings, pulling on the neck of her gossamer gown repeatedly to circulate fresh air under her clothes.  She had done well in the desert heat, never complaining about it, but today she seemed to be affected by it.  "Is it just me, or is it really hot today?" she asked in a breathless voice.

      "It feels pretty hot," Tarrin agreed.  The midday sun was fully up, and that meant that it was blasting the rocky flat with its full fury.  It was the hottest part of the day.  "I've been wondering, how are you dealing with the heat?"

      "Faeries aren't as fragile as we look, Tarrin," she said primly.  "We're almost as rugged as you Were-kin."

      "And how much do you cheat?"

      Sarraya gave him a hot look.  "I don't cheat!" she flared, then she gave him a sly grin.  "Well, not much, anyway.  About noon, I'm starting to shield myself from the heat with Druidic magic, but I can take it most of the rest of the day."

      "It's strange, Sarraya, I'm totally used to it now.  I don't even sweat anymore."

      "You sweat, trust me," she said.  "It just evaporates so fast that you don't notice.  Anyway, you're a Were-cat.  Were-cats have that damned regeneration.  It adapts you to anything from this blasted wasteland to arctic tundra."

      "I already figured that out," he grunted.  "You want to ride for a while?"

      "I think I'd better," she replied.  "It's so hot, I'm even feeling it through my little magical shield.  I don't want to give myself a heat stroke by flying."

      "I wonder how far away those rock spires are.  The sun bends things, makes the distance--"

      Come to me.

      Tarrin's ears picked up, and he stood up and turned towards wherever that came from, towards the northeast.  He hadn't heard it with his ears, he'd sensed it some other way.  Almost like a whispering.  And the voice was unknown to him.

      Come to me, it repeated, that same inaudible whisper, yet it was plain to him.

      "Tarrin?  What's wrong?" Sarraya asked.

      "Someone's...calling me," he replied uncertainly.  "Can't you hear it?"

      "No, I don't hear anything but the wind," she replied.

      I know you can hear me.  It is time.  Come.

      There was a...rippling.  He couldn't describe the sensation.  Like ripples in the very air itself, shivering over him.  They came from the northeast, the same as the voice.  The sense of static in the air returned, more oppressive now, feeling like it was weighing down on him.

      Something deep inside him reacted to that sensation.  Before he realized what he was doing, he was walking towards the northeast, towards a cluster of rock spires that seemed to be separate from the others, sitting just before the horizon.

      "Tarrin?  Tarrin, what are you doing?" Sarraya called, flitting up from the desert floor and flying up to him.  She landed on his shoulder, then switched shoulders so the sun was blocked by his head a little better.  "What's going on?"

      "I can hear it, Sarraya," he replied.  "It's calling to me."

      "It could be a trick," she warned.  "I don't hear it."

      "I don't really hear it either.  At least not with my ears."

      "It could be a trap, Tarrin."

      "Then let's go spring it," he said calmly.  He was wildly curious about this.  It seemed to cause something within to respond to it, almost like an irresistable call, like the singing of a Siren.  He could not deny the power of the summons.

      "What did it say?"

      "Only to come," he told her.  "And it said that it's time."

      "Time for what?"

      "I guess we'll find out when we get there."

      He picked up into a trot, then that ground-eating loping run that allowed him to run all day without rest, a pace that covered a great deal of ground.  He ran in the direction that the calls had originated, his curiosity running wild.  He had no idea what he'd find when he got wherever he was going, but the irrepressible need to go there and seek out this strange voice did not fade in the slightest.  The thought of it absolutely consumed him all afternoon, even smothering over the eyeless face behind his eyes, dominating his thoughts.  The cluster of rock spires grew closer and closer as the afternoon progressed, and he seemed to sense that that was the destination.  That was from where the call had issued, that was where the answer to this mystery would be found.  He didn't ponder much on the manner of the call, only its substance, only its effect.  Sarraya rode along in relative silence, fretting and frowning just about the entire time, but she grew quiet when she realized that no amount of arguing, shouting, cajoling, wheedling, or even begging was going to turn him from his course.  Tarrin was dead-set to his path, and she could not cause him to drift from it.

      He reached the first rock spire about an hour before sunset.  The spires were clustered together loosely, a good distance between each one, and as he passed by the first, he slowed to a walking pace.  This was the place.  What had called out to him?  What was it that had incited such a powerful reaction?  The static charge that had been in the air was gone now, but there was something else.  It was a sense of...presence.  There was someone here, a someone whose very presence weighed down on the air itself.  The Weave itself seemed to oscillate, to shimmer, to vibrate in response to this presence, and the strands were actively leaning towards some focal point.

      As if the presence had the power to affect the Weave, just by its presence alone.

      Would he find Fara'Nae here?  Was this a place holy to her?  The only beings he could think of that could do such things were gods.  Was this collection of rock spires like the courtyard in the hedge maze back in the Tower?  It wasn't the Goddess.  He'd feel it if she was the one that was here.  Her sense of presence was completely different from this.

      At least that sense of presence acted as a beacon.  He could follow it right to its source.

      Sarraya began to get fidgety as Tarrin walked towards that sense of presence, slowly, calmly, more curious than worried.  "Tarrin?  I feel...."

      "I know.  I feel it too."

      "Is this what you heard?"

      "No, but this is what called me," he said.  He didn't know how he knew that, but he did.  "It's over there," he said, pointing.

      "That's not the only thing here," Sarraya said.  "I just saw a Selani."

      "Where?" he asked.

      "To your right," she replied.  "Just behind that rock spire over there."

      Tarrin turned and looked.  It was a smaller rock spire, as thick around as most large trees, and only about twenty spans high.  He couldn't see a Selani, but Selani were experts at hiding and stealth.  If Sarraya saw one, she saw one, and she was lucky to see the Selani in the first place.

      "I'll go see what else is around.  I'll be right back."

      "Be careful," he called as her wings began to buzz, and she faded from sight as she started towards the rock spire.

      Tarrin continued walking towards that sense of presence alone.  He wasn't really afraid.  There had been nothing in the call that invoked fear.  Even his feral suspicion seemed to be overwhelmed by the wild curiosity behind the strange, voiceless call.  All of him wanted to find out who this strange presence was, and why it called to him.

      For another ten minutes he moved towards that sensation, until he came around a small rock spire and got his first look at it.

      It was a humanoid, or at least he thought it was.  It was tall, and was totally garbed in a strange black cloak, a cloak so black that it consumed any sense of dimension the figure held.  It was as if the cloak had been cut from the most impenetrable darkness, and the figure he saw was nothing but a cut out sheet of paper held up to the sun.  It stood upon one of the rock spires, one of the smaller ones, and he couldn't tell if it faced him or not.  All he could see was a black shadow between him and the sun.  The only reason he could tell it was a cloak was because the afternoon winds pulled and tugged at it, making the dimensionless form before him waver and ripple like a reflection on dark water.

      He came to a stop about a hundred spans from the spire, looking up the thirty spans to the figure.  He was closer now, and he could see that it was indeed a cloak.  It opened occasionally in the wind to reveal a formless figure beneath, a figure wearing black garments that blended in with the utter blackness of the cloak, serving to distort the figure's shape and form from his eyes.  That opening told him that the figure faced him, but he could not see through the hood to discern any features.

      He still felt no fear, but he felt a powerful sense from the figure.  The Weave was bending in towards it, and just as the Sorcerer back in that city had sensed him, so he sensed it.  This figure was a Sorcerer, and its power was unfathomable.  He had never felt anything like it before.

      "Vosh," the figure intoned, and that made his jaw drop, intoned in a rich alto voice that absolutely had to belong to a woman.  That was a Sha'Kar word!  "Vosh.  Unda ne.  Vasti dosba no."

      He was absolutely stunned.  The pronunciation was much different from what Keritanima had taught him, but it was undeniable that it was Sha'Kar that the form was speaking.  "Time-ending.  Arrived have.  I for-you-waiting have been."   At last.  You have come.  I have waited for you.

      He was completely bowled over.  She spoke Sha'Kar!  That language was dead, nobody spoke it anymore!  And she spoke it like she'd spoken it all her life!

      "Do I surprise you?" she asked in Sulasian, and her pattern of speech was odd.  It was as if she spoke every word with absolute exacting precision before moving on to the next.  "You have come.  You are ready," she told him, reverting to Sha'Kar.

      Hearing her speak Sha'Kar invoked an automatic response in him, and his gift for languages rose up, instantly correcting the improper pronunciations that Keritanima had taught him when they were learning the language.  "Wh-What do you mean?  Who are you?" he managed to stammer, in a Sha'Kar dialect almost mirroring her own.

      "Who I am does not matter," she said, reaching up for the hood of her cloak.  "That you heard my call is all that matters now.  You are ready."  She pulled back her hood, and he almost fell to his knees.

      She was a Selani!

      Selani!  Her features were undeniable!  She actually bore a curious resemblance to Allia in her cheeks and her blue, blue eyes.  Her hair was silver where Allia's was white, shimmering in the brutal desert sun, and she had a faint scar on her left cheek, a dark line on her smooth, dusky brown face.  The scar did nothing to mar her exceptional beauty, it only accented the graceful beauty of her face to his eyes.  Almost as if it were a beauty mark.  Her face was lovely, but it was her eyes that captured his attention.  A deep blue, like Allia's, but behind them was a sort of deep ocean of knowldge and wisdom that made her eyes haunting, piercing, ensnaring the eyes of others yet making them worrisome and uncomfortable to stare into their depths.  Those eyes looked into you, and they exposed all your secrets, made her know every part of you, both good and bad.  There was no hiding from those eyes.  They were not the eyes of an ordinary mortal being, and they marked her for the kind of exotic, unique entity that she was.  Piercing blue eyes stared down at him, and the expression on the face was stony, unreadable.  She was obviously mature, but her features did not betray her age.  But there was a set in the way she held herself, the way she looked at him with those powerful eyes, a sense and feeling much like Triana.  This woman was old.  At least as old as Triana, and that made him make a vital connection.

      A truth crashed down on him at that moment.  Sha'Kar is alot like Selani, he had told Keritanima as he learned it.  The words are different, but the structure of both languages is similar, Keritanima had told him.  Almost as if they had been descended from the same root language.

      This strange woman wasn't Selani.  She was Sha'Kar!

      The Selani and the Sha'Kar were related!

      A  Sha'Kar!  A living Sha'Kar!  They were supposed to be extinct, the race snuffed out in the Breaking!  He took a frightful step back from her, fearing her now, because if she was a Sha'Kar, then that meant that she was an Ancient.  It certainly explained how her very presence seemed to attract the Weave, warp it, draw it to her.  Her power was incredible!

      "You see truth," she said in a calm voice.  "You know me now.  You fear it."

      "Y-Y-You're--You're a Sha'Kar!" he managed to get out.

      "If giving me such title pleases you," she told him mysteriously.

      "What do you want from me?"

      "You have heard my call," she said again.  "It is time."

      "Time?  Time for what?"

      "Time," she replied, pulling a slender arm from beneath her cloak and simply pointing a delicate finger at him.

      And with that word and gesture, the ground in front of him just simply exploded.  The impact of it blasted the breath from his lungs, picked him up, carried him along with the shockwave of the explosion as bits of rock and debris drove into him.  He felt himself flying through the air, and then was tumbling on the ground with a dozen shouts of pain emanating from various parts of his body.  He rolled to a stop, his body a bit dazed, but his mind whirling like a hurricane.  There had been no touching the Weave, no sense of Sorcery from her!  It was as if she'd woven the spell outside his senses!

      She attacked him!  She was a Sha'Kar, an Ancient, and she had attacked him!  How was he going to fight an Ancient?  How was he supposed to stand against that kind of incredible power?

      He rose up to his feet, crouching down over them, tail slashing back and forth as an instinctual need to face this challenger battled with the human realization that this was no being to fight.  Panting from the pain of the shrapnel, pain that eased as his body mended itself, he looked up and saw her descending from the top of the spire slower than would be natural, as if the air was holding onto her and lowering her gently to the ground.

      His mind raced through innumerable possibilities, but it kept returning to two simple conclusions.  One, that there was no escape from someone like this.  Her magic could easily keep him from escaping.  And since he could not flee, he had to fight.  Sarraya wasn't here, so that made his most poweful weapon unavailable to him, but that didn't mean that he was just going to lie down and die for her benefit.  He was a Were-cat.  He knew how to fight without Sorcery.

      That one thought nearly scared him into losing his composure.  Fight an Ancient?  It was madness!  Something very close to abject terror closed on him as the woman's feet hit the ground, as she lowered those eyes on him.  She outmatched him in every sense of the word...but then again, he'd been outmatched before, and he had found ways to win.  It was live or die, so he'd better get his mind going and find a way to either defeat her or escape from her.

      With deliberate slowness, he drew his sword, letting her hear the sound, trying to do anything to rattle her steely composure.  He was much taller than her, and he was a physically intimidating person.  It had worked on many others before her.  Perhaps it would work on her as well.

      She simply stood there, staring at him.

      He couldn't show fear.  Gritting his teeth, feeling like he was about to run into the mouth of some giant predator, Tarrin exploded forward out of nowhere, moving with all the speed and power his body could give to him.  Sword held point towards her, he covered the distance between them faster than a thoroughbred could sprint, his fear and adrenaline granting him incredible speed.  She simply watched him coming, and made no move to avoid him or defend herself.  He knew that that was a very important observation, but if she wasn't going to move, he was going to take his shot at her.  He charged right at her, on top of her in the blink of an eye, and he thrust the black-bladed sword directly at her chest.

      And she made no move to evade, until the very last second, when she pulled her cloak around her.

      The blade met nothing.  It simply kept going, and going, even as Tarrin's feet slid to a stop just before her.  It sank into the impenetrable blackness of her cloak, swallowed up by it, and it met nothing to slow it down.  He thrust through her so hard that his paw also dipped into that inky blackness, and when it did he felt an agonizing, biting cold slash through his paw and arm, like the touch of a Wraith.  Crying out, he recoiled from that icy cold, letting go of the sword in his haste to free himself from that painful touch.  He pulled his paw back, seeing that the fur had frost on it, and his fingers were numb and nerveless.

      The sword was simply gone.

      It had went inside the cloak!  The cloak wasn't natural, it was some kind of magical artifact!

      She gave him the slightest of knowing smiles as he staggered back away from her.  She reached within her cloak, and with deliberate slowness, drew out his sword, holding it by the middle of the blade.  It was nearly as tall as she was, but she held it with a surety and confidence that told him that she was much stronger than she appeared.  She glanced at the blade casually, then tossed it aside like it was so much dross.

      Feeling was returning to his paw.  He flexed it a few times as he took a few more steps back from her, trying to figure out what to do next.  But she only gave him a slight look, a shift in the set of her eyes, and that was all he needed to react to whatever was about to happen.  He spun aside and sprinted away from her, diving over a large rock, then turning and rushing towards the nearest rock spire.  This was insanity!  What was he supposed to do against something like that?  She couldn't be injured by weapons, and he'd destroy himself with Sorcery long before he got anywhere near her!

      He reached the spire, hiding behind it for cover, trying to recover his breath and his racing mind, as his heart pounded in his chest.  Think, he had to think!  He couldn't use Sorcery, and he couldn't fight her hand to paw.  That didn't leave him many options.  He could use some Druidic magic, but he'd never tried to use it in a fight before, at least not consciously.  And Sarraya had never taught him any Druidic spells that would be useful in a fight.

      "You shame us," the woman called out.  "Must I force it of you?"

      And with that, the rock spire against which he was leaning began to shudder and vibrate.  For a fleeting moment, he could feel the magic from her, feel it through the weave, a rippling and pulsating energy that vibrated through it like the plucking of a lute's string.  The sound of cracking rock reached him, and he looked up in time to see several large chunks of the spire beginning to fall down to the desert floor.  He scampered aside as a big one hit very close to him.  He raced away from the spire as it shuddered and groaned, then ear-splitting sound of ripping stone raked over his ears.  He turned back in time to see the entire rock spire shudder, then begin to topple to one side.  It struck the desert floor in a massive cloud of dust, with so much energy that the rock and ground beneath his feet heaved violently from the blow, nearly knocking him down in its convulsions.  The sound of the impact nearly deafened him, sent a huge cloud of dust roaring over him.

      Merciful Goddess! he thought frantically.  What power!  And without High Sorcery!

      She was just too powerful!  There was no way to fight her, no way to hide from her, no way to run from her!

      He had no choice.  He couldn't fight someone like this.  He needed High Sorcery.

      Paws limning over in Magelight, Tarrin reached out to the Weave, felt it connect to him, and then try to drown him in a tidal wave of its power.  More than ever before, he felt a modicum of control over the power, as if his abilities had reached a point where he could control High Sorcery to a limited degree.  He found that he could push against that power, resist it at least enough to be able to use the power within before it built up past the point where he could contain it.  It flooded into him, joined with him, and that power caused him to become more attuned and connected to the Weave.  He could feel her magic now, feel it flow and eddy within the strands.  With a primal scream, he harnessed that power within him, used it against the Weave, caused the strands to expel flows of the Spheres.  Those flows coalesced around his paws as he wove them into a spell, and then he released its power.  The weave manifested as a powerful blast of wind, shattering the dust cloud and then sending it back the other way.  The force of the wind was enough to pick up small stones, sending a cloud of debris flying back at the Sha'Kar with enough force to injure, maybe even kill if they hit right.

      But the cloud parted, then passed by on both sides of the Sha'Kar woman harmlessly.  She gave him a penetrating look, a look that unnerved him despite the distance between them, and then she gave him a chilling smile.  "Now," she said, and then she raised delicate hands limned over with the ghostly radiance of Magelight.

      She could use High Sorcery too!

      She was a Weavespinner!

      The sight of that caused his human mind to retreat, to literally drag the Cat out into the forefront.  He needed all his power, he needed the rage of fury to give him the power to control his own magic.  He needed everything he could possibly find, because he was facing an opponent who had the power to beat him at his own game.

      With a building roar, Tarrin's body exploded completely into Magelight as he relaxed the constraints he had placed on himself, and it responded by trying to burn him to ashes.  Rational thought was scoured away, leaving behind only the instinctive impulses of the Cat, a mind that did not need to think in order to function.  Power that would kill a linked Circle roared into him, through him, saturated his being with its power.  It sent a shockwave of pain through him, pain that his Cat nature could block, ignore, shrug off, as the animal within ignored the dangers to the body in order to protect itself from an enemy.

      So fast that most Sorcerers would not be able to follow it, with a speed borne of familiarity, Tarrin wove together that chaotic weave of Fire, Air, Water, and Divine flows, with only token flows of the other Spheres to grant his weave the power of High Sorcery, and then unleashed it on the dark figure.  A blinding, incandescent bolt of pure magical power, a bar of light containing heat beyond anything natural, ripped through the air as it hurtled directly at the Sha'Kar's body.  But the Sha'Kar slapped the bolt aside with a hand casually, and it deflected in its path and struck the ground a few hundred spans behind her.  That touch caused the rock to vaporize, and then to explode, sending a shockwave of flying debris, dust, and loud noise roaring across the small forest of rocky pillars.

      The Sha'Kar responded with a whip-like tongue of fire that emanated from her hand, and then she lashed it at him over the distance between them.  It moved with a speed that defied rational thought, but to Tarrin's heightened senses, it moved with a ponderous slowness that he could easily track.  He wove together a weave of Fire and released it, forming it around his paw, and he caught that tendril of fire as it tried to strike him.  He felt the nature of the weave, then charged it with a huge surge of Air.  The Fire mixed with the Air, and he sent it back towards the Sha'Kar like throwing a burning pot of pitch.  The tendril detonated along its length in rapid succession, but it winked out as the Sha'Kar countered with flows of Water into the tendril to counter the explosive mix of flows.

      He didn't hesitate.  His Cat mind was already working on the next gambit, weaving together a weave of High Sorcery that was primarily composed of Earth.  It was the magical effect he'd seen Jegojah use before, and he released it by stomping on the ground.  It created a seismic shockwave that raced in the Sha'Kar's direction at shocking speed, causing a line of dust and flying shards of rock to follow in its wake as it shattered the rock through which it travelled.  But the Sha'Kar rose up into the air, allowing the shockwave to travel under her harmlessly.  He felt her weaving spells now, using High Sorcery, a weave of Water, Air, and Divine mainly, and then she released it.  A pale beam of cold blue erupted from her hand.  He didn't have the time or the presence to study the weave and create a counter for it, so he simply dove aside as it hit the ground where he'd been standing.  He looked back, and saw that the ground had been covered by a thick layer of ice.

      The human in him wondered at this.  She was strong.  She could do all the things he could.  So why such small things?  Was she toying with him?

      There was one way to find out.

      Setting his feet apart, he wove on a massive scale, flows of Air mainly, forming the first stages of the air shockwave that had proved to be so devastating all the other times.  Eyes blazing with white light, a vicious snarl on his face, the air before him took on a reddish hue, an irregular reddish haze as the weave began to form--        

      --But a lance of Fire struck his weaving, Fire laced with weaves of Air.  The Air weaves in her counterstroke interacted with the flows in his, causing them to cancel one another out.  The weave collapsed in on itself violently, then the flows of Fire interacted with the remaining flows in an odd manner, reforming into a new weave that immediately manifested.  It formed as a ball of intense burning flame that suddenly exploded in all directions.  An inferno of hellish fire blasted towards him, and he barely had the time to erect a Ward of Fire flows, a shield against it, before it engulfed him.  He covered his face and flinched away instinctively as the fire blasted over him, but his Ward protected him from the fire.  The Ward itself seemed to be caught up into the fire, as latent magical flows in the fire itself attached to the Ward, consumed it, ate away at its integrity, causing it to fail.  But not before the fire exhausted its magical energy and dissipated.

      Even the Cat was impressed.  She used his own weaves against him!

      The fire winked out, and in its wake it left a rocky ground that was blackened and smoking.  The dirt and sand that had collected were now pools of clear glass laying on the blackened stone.

      She had struck at his weave!  While he was weaving it!  And she even set up her attack so it used the flows not cancelled out to reform into a new spell.  She had caused him to use up his own energy to create a spell of her design!

      This was a true Ancient.

      But the Cat understood its mistake.  The weave took too long to create.  Against her, he had to use fast weaves, things easy to create and with power.  If he gave her an openeing, she would destroy his attempts to weave, maybe even turn them against him once again.

      Weaving Air again, this time he used something fast and quick, something that could be realeased as quickly as it was woven.  It released as a scythe of pure Air, a rush of air with a cutting edge more lethal than any sword or blade, and it lashed out like a whip towards the Sha'Kar as she drifted to the ground.  The Sha'Kar simply raised her hand to meet the leading edge of that weave, then deflected it with a slash of her hand, deflected it to the side.  It continued on, striking a rock pillar, then slicing it in half at the base as neatly as a knife cut butter.  The pillar shuddered, then slid off its sliced base and then toppled over in an explosion of dust and a ear-splitting boom.

      The power rebuilt in him as quickly as it had been expended, and he felt the stress.  He was starting to wear out, to tire, and the power was becoming harder and harder to control.  But there was no room for weariness here.  The Sha'Kar was advancing on him confidently, advancing through the dust cloud that had concealed her for a moment.  He had to use something that would burn off the power inside, give him a chance to catch his breath, but not something that she could disrupt.

      He could feel her counterstroke building within the Weave itself.  Earth.  It had something to do with Earth.  Whatever she was doing wasn't High Sorcery...it was that other-magic that she used, a type of Sorcery he couldn't sense, couldn't see.  He reacted too late to sense the weave as the ground beneath him began to shudder.  He tried to jump aside, but a massive hand of stone rose up from the ground, and it closed over him.  Crushing pressure struck him, broke his tail and one of his arms, and it squeezed a ragged cry from him as the hand tried to snap him in half.  The power within shuddered as the pain made him lose control for a split second, then he quickly wove a weave of Air and Fire, then unleashed it outwards from his body.  The effect was purely explosive, like gunpowder put to the torch, and it shattered the stone hand in a loud blast of dust, fire, and black smoke.

      The pain had been too much.  The Cat rose up within in a heartbeat, going from unwilling participant to fully in control in the blink of an eye.  The Cat completely dropped all his defensive measures, opened itself up to the Weave without hindrance.  It thrust out into the Weave with flows, and then snapped them back to make them form a small spiderweb of little strands to feed his power, to directly connect him to the Weave itself.  The power that flooded into him went from a flood to an absolute deluge, causing the nimbus of Magelight around him to intensify, to expand visibly.  The connection to the Weave intensified his sense of it, and he could feel its power pulse and flow like blood, circulating through the Weave, but it coalesced in the strands nearest the Sha'Kar, as if her very presence saturated the strands with power.  In that fleeting moment he realized that all strands were not the same, that the power within one strand was not the same as all other strands, as he'd been taught.  It was something that he'd seemed to comprehend already, but he hadn't realized it until he saw the effect the Sha'Kar had on the Weave, an effect caused by her very presence.

      An effect caused by his presence.

      With a vicious snarl, Tarrin wove together a weave of Fire and Divine, and the ghostly aura of Magelight around him shifted from white to red.  He released it, and the aura around him suddenly expanded, grew, became a living thing unto itself, a massive bird made of pure fire.  He imparted the magical construct with self-animating properties, as if the very element of Fire were collected and fused into a coherent magical being.  He had no idea what he was doing, how he did it, but he knew what he'd just formed.

      An Elemental.

      A magical creature under his direct control.  It would obey him, do his bidding, until he dismissed it back into the Weave or it was destroyed.  He pointed at the Sha'Kar imperiously, and the Elemental understood exactly what it was created to do.  With a shrill cry, the bird of Fire streaked away from him, towards the Sha'Kar, talons extended and ready to attack.

      The Sha'Kar was smiling.  That only enraged the Cat even more, sent it spiralling into the abyss of utter rage.  She made a slashing motion with her hand, and he felt the eddies and currents within the strands shift, alter.  They suddenly became motive, as if she were controlling them, and they suddenly extended outside the Weave and formed into flows.  Flows of Water and Air.  They lashed out from the Weave itself, struck the Fire Elemental as if they were arrows, and the flows coalesced within the Elemental to counter the weaving he had done to create it.  The bird gave a startled cry, a cry of pain, as the Sha'Kar's weaving unravelled the very magic that made it what it was.  The fiery bird spread its wings and began to thrash, and then the fire that made up its form simply broke up and evaporated like smoke.

      The Sha'Kar didn't have time to gloat.  Another weave of Fire, Water, and Air formed in Tarrin's paws, and he unleashed it on the woman in the form of intense, powerful lightning.  She raised her hand, and he could sense the shift of the Weave as it seemed to respond to her.  Flows of Earth came free of the Weave and rose up from the ground.  The lightning hit that flow of Earth, and the energy of the lightning was absorbed harmlessly into it, deflecting the physical effect of the weave harmlessly.

      The power rebuilt within him instantly.  It began to haze the air around him as it heated him, heated it, the buildup of power so great that it started to distort the aura of Magelight around him.  The Cat sensed this, felt the fiery pain of being so filled with the Weave's power, but it was too angry to care.  It only saw the Sha'Kar, and it would not stop until it got her, no matter what the cost.  The Cat could shrug off the pain that would have left Tarrin squirming on the ground in agony, as pure, total fury, the need to kill, overrode all sense of self.  Tarrin wove again, weaves of pure Earth, sending them into the ground.  The weave was on a titanic scale, a weave so vast, so convoluted that the Sha'Kar actually seemed impressed, uncertain as to how to go about stopping it before it was released.

      The ground beneath his feet began to shiver.  Then to tremble.  More and more of the Weave's power infused it, causing it to vibrate in time with the pulsating power he pushed into it, causing the rock spires to sway and dust and rock to fall from them.  More and more power was charged into the rocky flat under his feet, until the very earth tingled and trembled, making sand drum up and rising up a cloud of dust from the rocky ground.  Tarrin closed his eyes and hunched his shoulders as the strain of weaving such power without releasing it began to wear on him.  Sweat streamed from his face, and his paws began to shake, but he would not stop.  Hair and fur began to shrivel, singe away from the internal heat of working with such power, but he would not stop.  Blood began to thicken as heat caused it to coagulate, but he would not stop.  Skin began to redden and blister as the awesome flow of energy through him burned into him like fire into paper, but he would not stop.  He let out a gasping cry from the effort, from the pain of such power flowing into and through him, power the likes of which he had never tried to manipulate before.

      His eyes snapped open, and he felt the last flows fall into place.  Then he released it.

      The ground suddenly split open like a melon dropped from a tree.  The sound it made was indescribable, as raw stone was split open on a massive scale.  The fissure opened just before him, and it raced away from him in the direction of the Sha'Kar, a shockwave of seismic force on a monumental scale, a shockwave so powerful the air above the ground was displaced with such force that it could kill.  The ground shook and swayed like a table with broken legs, and an explosion of dust erupted from the ground all around him.  One rock spire swayed too far, then toppled over, but the sound of its crashing to the desert floor was lost in the deafening cacophony caused by the rupturing of the earth itself.  The fissure ran so deep that it punctured the crust of the land, penetrated all the way down to where the molten core of the world laid hidden.  A geyser of ultra-hot liquid rock erupted from the fissure even as it continued racing away from him, spraying hundreds of spans into the air, literally burning the dust from the air as it started falling to the ground like a deadly rain.  The fissure raced right towards the Sha'Kar, but the woman made no move to evade or escape it.  She simply stood there until the last moment, when she vaulted into the sky with support from weaves of Air.  She rose above the shockwave, but not above the sudden spraying eruption of magma that spewed out from the fissure.

      Even lost in the throes of total rage, Tarrin was astounded by what he saw.  The magma struck the woman, struck her squarely and true, but it did no harm.  It simply clung to her like mud, neither burning nor searing.  But he knew it struck her truly, for her black clothing burned and seared from contact with it, all of it except that utter-black cloak she wore, for the magma simply struck its surface and vanished within its unfathomable depths. She brushed it away as she rose over the top of the spraying geysers of fire as if it were nothing but troublesome dust, leaving behind unharmed skin showing through the charred holes in her clothing.

      She was utterly immune to heat.  It could not touch her, it did her no harm whatsoever.  He could assense her, he realized that it was no spell or magical effect that was protecting her.  Her body itself was immune, though he could sense that the effect had been worked on her by some kind of magical process.  It explained her preference for Fire weaves...even if they were turned against her, they could not harm her.

      Tarrin and the Cat both were dismayed.  He had put almost everything into that weave, so sure they both were that if the shockwave didn't kill her, the spray of magma would.  They were both forces of such magnitude that even a Ward would not be able to resist their power.  He was exhausted, exhausted even beyond his rage, all his energy used up in the weave he had created, a weave that he now saw had done nothing more than tear a gash in the flesh of the earth, a gash that now bled profusely.  But his Cat half, his fury, would not permit failure now.  He had nothing left to Weave, but he would not stop.  The need to destroy overshadowed self-preservation.  Besides, now he was vulnerable, exposed.  He would not allow her to pick him apart in his weakness.  Better to die fighting.

      If Fire was her friend, then perhaps Water was her bane.

      He collected himself to try again, looking up at her airborne form with utter fury and contempt.  He reached out to the Weave--

      --something was wrong.  It was beyond his control now, it flowed into him like the ocean trying to fill a teacup, it flowed into him beyond the physical limits of his body.  A chain reaction had begun within him, as power beckoned to power, energy attracted energy, and his physical resistance to it had been overwhelmed.

      As the fur on his right paw suddenly singed away, as the exposed skin and flesh beneath blackened like wood in a kiln, he realized that this time, he had reached too far.

      He was going to be Consumed.

      That was when the pain of it struck him.  Drove into him like a spear.  The pain his Cat instincts had suppressed could no longer be denied, and it boiled into every fiber of his being along with the power of the Weave.  The entire might of the Weave was trying to flood into him, and he could no longer expend that power.  It had nowhere to go.  It was building inside him, building and building, and the power carried with it its lethal heat, energy that was not compatible with his body.  The energy brought pain, and it built more and more.

      The aura of High Sorcery around him shuddered as if struck, and then dissipated.  In its place came a terrible shimmering of the air, as it began to heat beyond even the heat of the desert, heated by his proximity.  The leather vest and trousers and scabbard began to smoke from contact with his body, a body that seemed paralyzed to him now, the commands to move lost in the molten sea of pain that raged inside.  Through that sea of agony he tried to move, tried to think, tried to regain his contact with the Weave and expel the power building up inside, but it was as if the Weave had become a one way door.  The power could come into him, but once within it became trapped by the attraction of the power with itself.  That was the mechanism of being Consumed, his rational mind concluded distantly.  The power reached a point where it would no longer move, it became bound to itself within, and its presence caused more power to join it.  The body was never meant to hold such power, the power of the Weave itself.

      Paws closed into fists, tail straight out behind him and trembling, Tarrin tried in vain to find a connection to the Weave that was not flooding into him, seeking in desperation to expel the power building up inside, but a part of him sensed that it could not be stopped.  He had crossed over the line, and now the power had a life of its own.  It was calling to its own, seeking to infuse him with the totality of the Weave, and that was a power that his body could not withstand.  Eyes that were about to boil in their sockets gazed down at trembling paws, watching in horror as the blackened skin began to split and crack, showing nothing but blazing energy beneath.  The pain scoured away all conscious thought, made the pain of being turned into a Were-cat seem like a skinned knee in comparison.  There was no stopping it, no controlling it, no defense against it.  The blazing energy dimmed, and then pure fire erupted around his paws, adding to the burning from within, tearing a ragged scream from him as the first physical signs of his impending doom showed themselves.

      It can't end this way! Tarrin managed to scream in the silent tunnels of his mind.  Not now, not like this!  He wouldn't die alone in the desert, not when so much depended on him!  His sisters, his family, Janette, they depended on him!  They needed him, and he would not surrender.  He would not!  But there was no quarter in this, no mercy.  He could do nothing against the power of the Weave itself.  That which had saved him so many times had finally turned against him, and his own connection to the Weave only served to strengthen its power to destroy him.

      For the first time, he was helpless.  But he could not accept it.

      "No," he gasped, forcing his arms up, forcing himself to stand up straight.  Beyond all defiance of rational comprehension, he stared the full power of the Weave directly in the face, stared into the heart of the Goddess herself, and refused to yield. "Not...like...THIS!" he screamed.

      But against that power, stubborn defiance could not last long.  Its might overwhelmed his attempts to shunt it off, to block it, to slow it down, saturating his body with its power.  The end of his tail burst into flame, the tops of his feet began to smolder, and the very air around him became alive with magical energy, charged by its proximity to him.  The power was building, building, eating him piece by piece, and he could sense that once it reached the point where it would fill him no more, it would destroy him in a cataclysmic explosion of energy.  Just as he had once charged Jegojah's body to the bursting point, so it was being done to him.  He had Consumed Jegojah, and now the restless spirit was seeing his measure of revenge.

      The pain taxed away what little he had left.  He began to sag to the ground, sagging into a funeral pyre formed from himself, and the stark reality of a violent death, a death of the most unimaginable pain, rose up before him.  He was too weary to care, the pain was too much to bear, even for him.

      This time, there was no escape.  Since there could be no escape, then there could only be release.

      He stopped fighting.  He opened himself completely to the Weave, opening himself in a way he had never done before, an opening without fear, without worry, without defense from the power.  It was an opening of utter totality, exposing his very soul to the raging torrent of energy that sought to destroy him.  In submission to the finality of his existence, he utterly surrendered to the might of the Weave, allowing it to do with him what it will.  So long as it was done quickly.  He didn't want to suffer anymore.

      The energy within, the energy without, it responded to that submission, responded instantly.  It drove into him with renewed vigor, with such speed and force that his body was literally picked up from the rocky ground.  In the blink of an eye, he was filled to the limit, reaching the maximum potential of his body.  The pain was consumed by that sensation of fullness, a power carrying a sensation that defied rational explanation, neither pain nor sweetness, hot nor cold, fast nor slow, gentle nor harsh.  It merely was, and in that instant, he understood that that moment of utter maximum, that he had reached the abyss.

      Yet he did not fall in.

      It was as if the power stopped.  He felt it radiate into him, through him, it reached out and touched the Weave, and then it bonded it to him.  The pain washed away, leaving behind nothing but a sensation of the power itself, and then that sense of power faded to the sense of the Weave.  And then it was gone.

      There was no sensation at first, neither within nor without.  Then he felt the Weave bend.  He felt it warp, shift, pull towards him, and his sense of it suddenly became as clear as opening his eyes.  He could feel the currents and surges within the strands, he could feel the pools and eddies and charges that existed within them.  He could see inside the strands, inside the Weave, as if the totality of it were revealed to him.  He could see things he had never seen before, sense things he could not before.  He could feel Allia and Keritanima through the Weave, could feel the pulsing of their hearts through the Weave, felt that they, and all Sorcerers, were linked to the Weave in ways the modern katzh-dashi could not even comprehend.  He could feel Jenna, knew exactly where she was, knew that she was pouting from some kind of punishment.  He could feel all of them, every single one, both near and far, old and young, friend and foe, weak and powerful, those long in their power and those who had never actively touched it before.  Their hearts, their souls, they were linked to the Weave, made up a part of the gentle rhythm of the beating of the Heart of the Goddess.

      And at the heart of it rested a pair of glowing, benevolent eyes, eyes that looked on him with love and gentle compassion.  The eyes of the Goddess herself looked upon him, and within them he could only see a loving benediction.  The eyes said everything without words.  He had surrendered to the power, and in that surrender, rather than destroy him, it had caused him to transcend the concepts of Sorcery.  He had crossed over into a new realm of magical communion.  He had become one with the Weave itself, and it was tied to him more closely than any katzh-dashi could realize.  He was the Weave, and the Weave was him.

      Through his mind's eye, he saw, felt the change in his amulet.  The concave star in the center of the device shifted, flowed, as two delicate tendrils of black metal grew out from each side of the central star, grew out, bent, then reached out to touch the triangles that surrounded it.  The eight lines merged with the six triangles, two each on the top and bottom triangles, one each on the four that formed the sides, and the central star took on the abstract image of a spider sitting within the center of its web of triangles, all held within a circle.

      Now, her voice echoed through his mind, through the Weave, through the entire world, now, my dear one, you are truly a Weavespinner.

      The power faded from him, and the eyes tumbled away from his inner eye as he lost contact with that sensation.  His weariness and weakened condition had overcome him, and he went from basking in the eyes of the Goddess herself to the blackness of unconscious oblivion.

 

      Half a world away, in a large courtyard in the middle of a cavernous maze of carefully tended hedges, there stood a large fountain.  The fountain was made of marble, and clear, pure water flowed within its base, the sound of its splashing a soothing sound to any who heard it.  In the center of this fountain stood a statue of a nude female, the carving of it defining perfection itself.  The face was a lovely one, gentle and kind, and any who stared upon it was calmed and felt peace.

      The eyes of the statue suddenly erupted with intense white light, and the features of the statue changed visibly, flowing from that gentle benediction to a sense of triumph, of victory.  The statue suddenly became surrounded by nimbus of soft bluish light, the light of High Sorcery.  And then it was gone, and the light within the eyes of the statue faded away, leaving nothing but the victorious expression upon the statue's lovely features.

 

      Within the huge central tower of the seven that made up the Tower of Sorcery, at its very core, flowed a magical feature known as the Heart of the Goddess.  It was the largest Conduit in the world, the main artery through which the lifeblood of Sorcery flowed.  It was the wellspring of the power of the katzh-dashi, a spring of energy from the Goddess herself.

      That pillar-thick Conduit of magical energy suddenly flickered into visibility, then flared with a soft bluish radiance.  But only for a moment.  It was enough for every Sorcerer on the grounds to stop in his or her tracks, to stop and clutch at his or her chest as the power of the Weave expanded, shifted, if only a little, a sense of alteration that no Sorcerer in proximity to the Heart could miss.

      It was enough for most of the citizens of Suld to stop what they were doing and look towards the Tower of Six Spires, the center of the city, where a pillar of soft light shimmered in the clear morning air, and then winked out.  Most of them simply shrugged and went back about their daily business, for such magical apparitions weren't uncommon when the Tower was concerned.

            But others understood it for what it was.  And they felt fear.


To:   Title                     EoF

Chapter 9

 

      It was like the Gods had come down to earth to do war.

      Sarraya flew at full speed through a blasted wasteland, a scene of carnage the likes of which she had never seen before, nor cared to ever see again.  Just the memory of it was enough to make her shiver.  The air was hot, nearly lethally hot from the lava, and the smell of sulfur and brimstone was heavy with the dust and the noxious gases erupting from the ground itself.  Rock spires were laying on the ground, some melting in widening lakes of liquid rock, sending smoke and flames from the impurities in the rock wafting into the noxious air.  The few pillars that still stood were all moved, leaning, and showed the signs that they had been subjected to unimaginable forces.  The heat was so intense that she had to use her Druidic magic to protect herself from it, else she would die quickly as she flew into the raging firestorm that ringed the central area where the main battle had ensued.  She darted through the surreal landscape, trying to find Tarrin before the pooling lava swept over him and burned him to cinders, her concern for her friend overshadowed by the awe of what she had just witnessed. 

      The power!

      She had never seen such a display!  The two of them had gone after each other with High Sorcery, and the earth itself had paid in blood for their conflict!  The wounds were deep, raw, bleeding.  Even now the fissure Tarrin had opened in the ground still oozed lava, and she could sense that it would become a volcano.  It would not heal itself, it would simply grow into a mountain.  The land had shaken, rock spires had toppled, and both the Weave and the All had shuddered violently in their battle.  The Weave had been twisted, bent, warped, it had even moved while they were fighting one another, as if the presence of both of them at the same time, both using powerful magic, was nearly too much for the Weave to bear.  It nearly tore, creating an effect similar to a miniature Breaking.  The All had reacted to the raw power they sent at one another, and it had reacted to both of their magical spells that affected the land.  Tarrin's little stunt with the fissure nearly sent the All spraying up out of the ground like the lava that still oozed forth, and that would have killed them all.

      But he was still alive.  How?  She could feel that he was still alive, but he had crossed the line.  He was being Consumed!  She first wanted to rush to him, but a Sorcerer of his power meant that being Consumed would be absolutely disastrous, so she fled from the area when she realized that he had passed the point of no return.  She had been feeling it, feeling the Weave itself writhe as the power of it tried to destroy him...and then it just stopped.  She was absolutely mystified by that.  It just stopped.  That was supposed to be impossible.  When a Sorcerer started the chain reaction of being Consumed, it was irreversible and unstoppable.  And yet when it happened to Tarrin, it just stopped.

      How?

      She finally spotted him, laying on a risen section of ground, risen over the pooling lava before it, and to her surprise, the other one was standing before him, looking down at him.  The ground had heaved and shifted when he made the fissure, and it made the start of it rise up as the land before it displaced the land surrounding it in order to make enough room to open the fissure.  At that close proximity, the ambient heat of the lava should have been cooking him, but he looked unharmed.  His hair and fur had even grown back.  The other one wasn't attacking him now, she simply looked down at him.

      A Selani with that kind of magical power?  No.  She had to be Sha'Kar.  The Sha'Kar looked much like the Selani, and many in the circles of the forest folk speculated that the two were related.  The Sha'Kar were long dead, but their affinity for Sorcery, and the agelessness it imparted to them, meant that it was entirely possible that at least one of them had survived.  Because of that, she wasn't entirely surprised to see a Sha'Kar.  This one was one of the Ancients, one of those Sha'Kar that had knowledge of the greatest of the secrets of Sorcery.  But why had she attacked him in the first place?  They were two unique beings.  She should have been happy to see him!  What provoked the assault, and the vicious battle that followed?

      She completely ignored the Sha'Kar, blazing a straight line right to Tarrin's side.  He lay on the hard ground, the leather clothing she made for him blackened and brittle from the heat of whatever happened.  It was even smoking a little bit.  But his hair and fur had regrown, and he had no obvious injuries.  She landed on top of his chest and put her hands on him, used her Druidic powers to assense his physical condition--

      --and she was taken aback.

      Something had changed inside him.  It was subtle, but it was there.  The power he'd used had had some kind of lasting effect on him, and she could sense that his connection to the Weave had changed in some unexplainable way.  The Weave bent towards him now, just as it did towards the Sha'Kar.  Outside of those things, he was perfectly fine.  His body was exhausted, but after a long rest, he'd be just fine.

      She darted up and was in the Sha'Kar woman's face in a heartbeat.  "Who are you, and how dare you attack him!" she demanded hotly in her piping voice, her face showing her outrage.

      The woman fixed the Faerie with a calm look, a look that shook the little Faerie's outrage-fueled indignation.  She flitted back and away from the woman, getting a full taste of the sheer aura of intimidation the woman exuded.  But Sarraya had spent much time around Triana, and the intimidating effect of the woman's presence didn't affect her for very long.  She returned to a dangerously close distance from the woman's eyes quickly, and recovered her look of furious outrage.

      "I did not attack him," the Sha'Kar snorted in a rich voice.  "I did what was necessary.  I hold no grudge against him."

      "What kind of lame answer is that!" Sarraya flared, putting her hands on her hips.  "I saw it with my own eyes!"

      "If I meant him harm, he would be dead," the woman said flatly.  "The Goddess sent me to test him."

      "The--The Goddess?  Tarrin's Goddess?"

      She nodded.  "As you may have realized, we are brother and sister," she said, reaching under her burned shirt and producing an amulet of untarnished silver.  Unlike most Sorcerer's amulets, hers was a little different.  The little concave star in the center had little lines running to the triangles, and it almost looked like a little spider.  "Mother was getting cross with him, so she sent me to provoke him into losing control."

      Sarraya's face turned a pale blue.  "Why would she do such a thing!"

      "Because he could not grow any more unless he faced his power," she replied with marked casualness.  "It is an ordeal that all Weavespinners must undertake if they are to realize their true potential.  Only in the moment of destruction can a Weavespinner attain communion with the Goddess.  If they succeed, they may progress and discover the secrets of the Weave.  If they fail, they die.  Mother was getting angry that he kept finding ways to avert fate, so she sent me to make sure of it.  His time is growing short, and he has no more time to waste floundering about."

      "What would have happened if--" Sarraya said, but the look in the woman's eyes said it all.  She swallowed.  "He would have died?"

      "It would have pained me to cause the death of a brother, but it had to be done," she said with genuine compassion in her voice.  "But now it is ended.  And I must go."

      The woman turned and started walking away, the utter-black cloak absorbing the light, making her look like a two-dimensional figure against the hellish backdrop before her.  "Hey, wait!" Sarraya shouted.  "You nearly kill him, and now you leave him here?"

      "He has you," she called without looking back.

      "You think I can move him before he gets baked by this heat?"

      She actually laughed.  "Think, you foolish sprite.  Should he not already be dead?"

      Sarraya had no answer.  If the heat was so intense that she had to protect herself with Druidic magic, then he should have been killed by it long before she reached them.  And yet he was unharmed.

      "Wait!" Sarraya shouted, but the shadow of the woman was gone, and something inside her told her that she was no longer there, even if she chased after her.

      Sarraya bit her lip, fretting.  What had just happened?  Why did this figure from the past return to the present, return to attack Tarrin, but not to hurt him?  What was this test the woman spoke about?  How did Tarrin survive?  It was madness!  She looked down at him, and then she remembered the woman's words as her eyes locked on his amulet, an amulet that had changed.

      Only in the moment of destruction can a Weavespinner attain communion with the Goddess.

      It was a test!  All this time, all those times he had nearly destroyed himself with Sorcery, they all were just precludes to this!  If he was to ever find his true power, to find the answers that his Goddess told him to find, he would have to face the possibility of destruction by the very power he sought to master.

      It certainly looked like he found that mastery.  He was still alive, for one, and his amulet now looked exactly like the Sha'Kar woman's amulet.  It had that same strange spidery-like alteration to the central star.

      Of course.  Sarraya chuckled.  If they were called Weavespinners, what better symbol to represent them than a spider?

      "I'm getting too old for this," she sighed, using Druidic magic to pick his inert form off the blisteringly hot ground.

 

      Light.

      There was light all around him.  He couldn't see it, but he could feel it deep inside, feel the radiant warmth of it as it shined upon him.  It flowed, this light, flowed and pulsed and shimmered from one place to another, moving in a vast cycle of uncountable paths that all eventually began and ended at the same place.  It was a heady feeling to sense the light, mystical in its underlying intent, moving of its own without rational rules to define its existence.  Beneath the flowing of the light was a strange sound, a sound he could not hear, yet he could.  It was a steady, rhythmic thumping, a gentle pulse of lifeblood through this ether river, a river that began where it ended and existed within a neverending cycle of self-replenishment.

      It was a heartbeat.

      That heartbeat was the collective energies of thousands and thousands of beings, all beating in perfect unison, hearts that sustained this vast web of interlaced rivers of light.  They did not know that they worked together.  They did not know that their lifeblood was also the lifeblood of this grand network.  From the wellspring this light flowed, flowed through the hearts of those who circulated it, flowed through the heart of the world, and then it returned to the wellspring from whence it had come.  It was an endless cycle, like the tides, the currents, the winds, the seasons.  It had a beginning and an end, but the end was naught but the beginning of the next cycle.

      He opened his eyes.  He found himself adrift in a sea of vast black emptiness, except for the crisscrossing rivers of light that flowed around him, in all directions, extending into infinity to light the void, but never so numerous that the void was consumed by their presence.  Those rivers nearest to him were warped, leaning towards him, yearning for him the way plants yearned towards the sun.  The sight of it was beautiful, so beautiful that his heart felt like the most breathtaking sunrise would seem as dull grays on slate in comparison.  His heart also sustained this vast web of light, but unlike others, he fully sensed what was happening, was aware of it.

      The Goddess gives the power, but it is the hearts of the Sorcerers that bring it from the wellspring and deliver it to the land, he thought in a moment of revelation.  Without the Sorcerers, there would be no magic in the world.

      "You see truth, my son," the voice of the Goddess shimmered through the rivers of light, through the strands of the Weave.  She was close, yet distant, near yet far, existing in a place that was both near him and beyond his imagination.  "You see the truth of things that few have experienced.  You have become what you were always meant to become."

      "But what is that, Mother?" he called out into the void.  "What good does it do me to know these things, when I can't do anything with them?"

      "You underestimate the power of knowledge," she replied from her unseen place.  "Did your battle not teach you that knowledge is the greatest form of power?"

      He blinked.  That was easy enough to agree with.  That Sha'Kar woman had taken everything he did and twisted it back on him, with contemptuous ease.  It wasn't because she was more powerful than him, it was because she had a greater knowledge about the Weave than he did.  That knowledge made her the better of them.

      "To influence a thing, you must first be aware of that thing," she told him.  "You cannot master things you cannot understand.  You cannot master your power without first understanding its truth."

      That made sense.  He couldn't deny that.  "Mother...what was I meant to be?"

      "What you are," she replied cryptically.

      "But...but I'm not worthy of any of this," he said meekly.  "I'm a half-crazy Were-cat who'd sooner kill you than shake your hand.  I don't deserve to see such wondrous things.  Why me?"

      "Why not?"

      She had asked that question of him every time he asked his own, and he still had yet to find a suitable answer for her.  In this crazy, illogical world, it was only fitting that a feral Were-cat be given the responsibility for saving the very people he did not care about.

      Fate, he had discovered, had a very strange sense of humor.

      "Don't worry at it too long, my dear kitten," she said to him in a silvery voice, a voice full of humor, warmth, and love.  "You have other things to consider."

      "What?"

      "You have faced your power, and have conquered it," she told him.  "You have crossed over into a new realm of magical ability.  You are now a true Weavespinner, in heart and soul as well as name.  But as with any new beginning, there is a period of adjustment, of learning.  And so it is with you, my dear child.  You are so fond of thinking of things in linear terms, so consider it this way.  One path has come to its destination, but another leads you off to the horizon.  Your body has changed, as has your connection with the Weave.  These are your first obstacles, the first challenges you must face and overcome."

      "Changed?  You mean I have to learn everything all over again?"

      She laughed lightly.  You see to the point, as always, she said winsomely.  You have crossed into a new realm, Tarrin.  In your prior land, you were the master.  Now, you are again the Novice.  You must relearn everything you learned before, because now, everything is different."

      "But, but that other one was using High Sorcery," he reasoned.  "That means that I can still use Sorcery the old way."

      "You can use Sorcery in the way that other Sorcerers do, but that is but one aspect of your power, and it is also something you must learn again.  Your connection to the Weave is different now.  Surely you remember Dolanna's lessons."

      He realized that he already knew the answer.  "Every Sorcerer has his or her own way of touching the Weave," he repeated the lesson.  "It's unique for every Sorcerer.  It's why no Novice is permitted to read or study Sorcery before their first lessons, because it may contaminate their ability to use their magic."

      "It is a personal communion, and it differs from person to person.  But now, my Tarrin, you are a different person.  So you must learn to touch the Weave anew."

      That proposition seemed daunting.  Learn it all again?  Go through it all again?  Suffer the dangers of his power all over again?

      "No, my kitten," she said gently.  "There is no more danger.  There will never be danger of that sort again for you."

      "What do you mean?"

      "You are sui'kun now, Tarrin.  That's a Sha'Kar term for Weavespinner.  A Weavespinner cannot be harmed by the power of the Weave."

      "I'm immune to Sorcery?"

      "No.  You are not immune to Sorcery.  You will simply never again be threatened by its power.  It cannot harm you, no matter how much of it you hold."

      "So I can't be Consumed?"

      "A Weavespinner cannot be Consumed," she affirmed.  "My time grows short, kitten.  You're about to wake up now, and you're not going to remember any of this immediately, because I don't want you interrupting your rest with your usual pondering.  But you'll recover your memory after you rest, and I want you to think about it when you do remember."

      "I will.  Mother, who was that Sha'Kar woman?"

      The Goddess laughed sweetly.  "That is none of your business.  But don't worry, you'll see her again someday.  I guarantee it."

      The sense of her seemed to both retreat and not move, a strange feeling of paradox, and then the web-covered black sky suddenly began to shift, then to spin.  He felt a strange sensation behind his eyes, as if the real world was recalling his soul from the nether regions to which it had travelled.  He closed his eyes as a sense that he was travelling a million longspans in a breath swept over him...and then there was nothing but darkness.

 

      Light.

      It seeped into his vision, interrupting the dark security of sleep, and it stirred him out of a deep, dreamless slumber, that and a strange sound that sounded like someone dragging a chain over stone.

      With awakening came memories, images.  A Sha'Kar woman, an Ancient.  An Ancient that attacked him!  They had fought, and he had lost control of his power, finally lost total control...but he hadn't been Consumed.  Something else had happened, something strange, something inexplicable.

      Something...beautiful.

      Groaning, Tarrin returned to full consciousness as his senses seemed to reawaken with the rest of him.  He could smell Sarraya somewhere about.  He could smell sand and rock and dust, but there was also a latent smell like sulfur, like brimstone.  A smell he had only just recently smelled, but the memory of it was very fresh.  His body was spent, exhausted.  The sun hung low on the horizon, meaning that it was either sunrise or sunset.  The stone around him wasn't radiating heat and the wind was just starting to stir, so he knew that it was morning.  The only reason he woke up was because he was hungry and thirsty.

      That wasn't the only thing he noticed.  He could see the Weave now, see it as a ghostly backdrop to reality.  He could see the strands crisscrossing through the sky and the land, see them yet not see them, as if they were ghostly after-images that faded from view if there was something solid behind them.  He could see them all, but it was as if he were looking upon them with a separate set of eyes.  The strands of the Weave didn't interfere with his normal vision in the slightest.  Almost as if both images were being imposed over one another, yet both were completely separate and could not interfere with one another.  He could see the strands, and he could sense the power within them.  Not just the flows and spheres, he could feel the true power within, the pulsating energy that flowed through them, and he could feel the eddies and currents, the bottlenecks and the rapids, the pools and the trickles that made up the energy of the strands.  It was an energy that was part of the Weave, created by the seven spheres interacting with one another in ways that the modern Sorcerers could not comprehend.

      The fight.  His body still shivered over what had happened between him and the Sha'Kar.  Magic on a level he didn't think possible had passed between them, and though he didn't remember it at the time, he began to recall the way the Weave shuddered as it struggled to meet the demands on it from the two of them.  Well, most of it had come from him, aimed at her.  He recalled that the Sha'Kar didn't really attack him with as much power as he used against her, using instead her experience and finesse to counter his attempts to use brute force.  But the sense of her had not lied.  He knew that she would have been able to meet him power for power, if it had come to that.

      The battle was confusing.  He was still alive, so why didn't she finish him off?  Why did she attack him in the first place?  She was Sha'Kar, an Ancient, and she had knowledge that didn't exist in the world anymore.  What he wouldn't have given to spend an evening talking with someone like her!  She was at least a thousand years old, and she had knowledge of the old powers, of the Weavespinners, knowledge he desperately needed.  Such vast knowledge, and she had used it to literally spank him in a magical clash.  He had no illusions about who had come out of their confrontation the winner.

      Maybe that was it.  Maybe she didn't come to kill him, but to test him.  Maybe she was just there to take a measure of him, for some reason.  She had to know something about him, after all.  There was no way that she could have found him, called to him in that weird way, without knowing who he was, what he was doing, and where to find him.  It was about the only reason he could think up for her to do such a wild thing.

      Or maybe she knew exactly where to find him.  She was a Sha'Kar, an Ancient, and that meant that she was a Sorcerer.  She had to have an amulet around her neck just like him, and she answered to the Goddess the same way he did.

      It had to be a test of some kind, because only about six people knew where he was.  Sarraya, Triana, Keritanima, Allia, Fara'Nae...and the Goddess.

      It was the only thing that made sense.  The Sha'Kar had been sent, sent to test him in some manner.

      But why?  That was the question.  Did the Goddess want him to get a taste of a real Weavespinner?  Was it a lesson?  An ordeal?  A test of loyalty?  A test of faith?  A test of power?

      On the other hand, if someone like that was really alive, what did she need him for anyway?  That Sha'Kar Ancient could have easily taken the book from Shiika.  She probably knew where it was all along.  She may even know exactly where the Firestaff was located.  Why send him, when she could have gotten it by now?  It was certain that nobody living on this world could possibly take it from her.  She was the paramount, the most powerful living being he'd ever seen.

      It made very little sense.  And since it had no easy answer, it was something best left to think about when he felt more rested.

      Just moving was an effort.  He was laying on his side, and his tail was numb from where he was laying on it.  He managed to slide a paw under him, then push himself off the bare rock, but it felt like he weighed a thousand stones.  He pulled himself off the ground, then pulled his tail out from under him and rolled over to sit down.  He dropped the limp tail in his lap, waiting for the blood to flow back into it and reawaken it.

      He nearly got knocked over when Sarraya slammed into him at full speed, her tiny body almost toppling him as she grabbed hold of his neck and hugged him fiercely.  "Tarrin!" she said in excitement and relief.  "You're awake!"

      "You nearly knocked me back out," he wheezed, putting a paw down to steady himself.  "For a little thing, you hit hard."

      "Sorry," she said, letting go and hovering before him.  "I take it you're tired?"

      "That's an understatement," he said tonelessly.  "I think the only reason I woke up was because I'm hungry."

      "Well, say no more," she smiled.  She motioned with her hand as he felt her come into contact with her Druidic power, and a large roasted goose simply appeared on the ground before him.  The smell of it wafted to him, and it caused his stomach to almost take control of his body.  "I usually don't steal like this, but this is a special condition."  Then she giggled impishly.  "I'm sure the cook who made it must be rubbing his eyes in disbelief about now."

      "No doubt," he said with a tired smile, reaching down for it.  It was still hot.  She must have swiped it right off someone's dinner table with her Conjuring.

      The goose was perfectly cooked--she'd probably Conjured it off some inn's main dining table--and the first bite unleashed an onslaught of ravenous hunger.  He stripped both drumsticks before Sarraya had much of a chance to do anything, and he began working on the main body of the bird with his claws and teeth by the time she was sedately perched on a rock facing him.  She'd Conjured up some berries for herself, and they shared a meal in relative silence, at least until Tarrin slowed down in his eating enough to speak between bites.

      "How long was I asleep?" he asked.

      "Just over the night," she replied.  "I brought you over here to get you away from that mess you made."

      "What mess?" he asked, but Sarraya was already pointing.  He looked in the direction she indicated, and he saw a black pillar of smoke boiling up from the ground some distance away, spreading out into the high sky.  The smoke was being distorted by the morning wind, wind caused by the sun's heating of the air, wind that rushed from the east to the west, then was turned back by the prevailing winds that came in from the west once the sun had heated the desert.

      "That's your doing," she told him archly.  "In ten years, there's going to be a mountain there."

      "A mountain?  What did I do?"

      "You ripped a hole in the earth that runs all the way to the magma," she said casually, but he could tell that just saying it was of monumental importance to her.  "I can't fix something that big, so it's just going to have to stay."

      "Magma?"

      "Liquid rock," she explained.  "The earth rests on an ocean of liquid rock, so hot that you wouldn't even have time to feel pain if you fell into it.  Not that you'd live long enough to get that close to it in the first place."

      "Oh.  My father calls it lava.  He saw some when a volcano in Shacè erupted."

      "Lava, magma, it's the same thing," Sarraya shrugged.  "Since your little hole goes all the way through, now it's spewing out of it.  It'll cool off and turn back into rock, then build itself up into a mountain."

      "The land isn't going to sink, is it?" he asked fearfully.

      Sarraya gave him a curious look.  "Whatever gave you that idea?"

      "You said that the land floats on it.  When you put a hole in a boat, it sinks."

      She glanced at him, then laughed.  "No, that's not going to happen.  You don't know very much about the real way the world works, do you?"

      "I'm not Phandebrass, Sarraya," he said defensively.  "I know what my parents taught me, that's about it."

      "All that time in the school in Suld, and you didn't learn anything?"

      "They didn't give me much time to learn anything but Sorcery," he grunted in reply.

      "Funny that you didn't know about the magma, yet you wove a spell to cause it to erupt."

      "I do things I don't understand when I do that," he told her.  "It's like when I'm like that, I know things I don't really know, and I forget them when it's over."

      "Probably because you're in touch with the Weave," she speculated.  "Nevermind.  You don't look like you're up to a debate right now."

      "No, not really," he said, looking back at the smoke.  "So, that'll be a mountain?"

      "A volcano, to be precise," she answered.  "We can call it Mount Fury."

      Tarrin chuckled ruefully.  "At least it'd be a fitting name."

      "Do you remember much about what happened?"

      "Some," he replied.  "I get the feeling that after a while, the rest will come back to me.  What happened to that Sha'Kar woman?"

      "She disappeared not long after you passed out," Sarraya said worriedly.  "Tarrin, you were being Consumed.  What happened?  How did you weasel out of it?"

      "I, I have no idea," he replied.  "I don't really remember very much about that."

      "The Sha'Kar spoke to me before she disappeared," she said.  "She said she was there to test you.  She said that she was sent to make you lose control."

      "I had a feeling that was the case," he said calmly.  "I thought about that a bit just before I opened my eyes.  I couldn't think of any sane or rational reason she would have come here and attacked me that way."

      "At least you're thinking," she teased, then she got serious again.  "She said that you had to lose control if you were ever going to get stronger.  She said that all Weavespinners had to face being Consumed.  She said that if you survived, you were a Weavespinner."

      "I thought I already was one."

      "Maybe in name, but I think you had to do that to be able to use the power that the Weavespinners use.  Can you feel anything different right now?"

      "I can see the Weave, Sarraya," he answered, looking around and surveying it with his strange second sight.  "I can see every strand, and I can feel the pulsing of the power flowing through them like blood through a body.  I can feel that power pool up in the strands nearest to me, and feel them bend in towards me.  Almost like I'm attracting them."

      "I think you are," she agreed.  "Look at your amulet."

      Tarrin picked it up off his chest, and immediately saw the difference.  The central star now had two bent lines coming out of each side, reaching out and touching the triangles that surrounded the star.  The star looked vaguely like a spider with those little leg-like formations extending from it.

      Spider.  Weavespinner.  How appropriate.

      He touched the new features in his amulet gently, feeling it through the pad in his finger, marvelling at it.  If this was what it meant to be a Weavespinner, why didn't he feel very much like celebrating?

      "I didn't get much out of that Sha'Kar woman, but she did say that she was sent by the Goddess herself.  I guess your patroness got tired of you figuring out ways to avoid losing control."

      Tarrin chuckled.  "That does seem to fit with what I know of her.  My Goddess isn't one to wait too long, for just about anything."  He stroked the amulet gently, almost lovingly, his emotions for his Goddess taking control of him for a brief moment.  "In a way, I'm glad she did it this way.  Better to face that moment here, against someone that wouldn't immediately finish me off if I survived, and where nobody else would get hurt."

      "Hmm.  That's a good point.  I didn't think of that," Sarraya grunted in agreement.  "Maybe it's why she told you to come out here.  If you would have failed, the result would have been...momentous.  To say the least."

      "I can imagine.  I remember a bit of what happened.  I was full of power.  When my body would have finally succumbed to it, all that power would have been released into the physical world.  It would have been released as a Wildstrike.  A really big Wildstrike."

      "I know.  When I realized what was happening, I tried to get as far away from you as I could.  I hope you don't mind," she said quickly.

      "I don't blame you at all," he told her with a warm smile.  "I would have done the same thing."

      "Good," she sighed.  "I didn't want you to think I was running away from you, or abandoning you."

      "You were doing the smart thing, Sarraya.  I won't be mad at you for that.  I completely understand."

      She beamed for a moment, then started on another berry.  "I hate to say it, but your sword is gone," she told him.  "It's still over there.  I was too busy worrying about you to look for it."

      "Not a problem," he told her, holding out his paw.  He was tired, but he felt strong enough to Summon it, and the sooner he did, the less energy it would take to retrieve it.  He reached within, reached through the Cat within, and made contact with the vast source of power known as the All.  The image and intent in his mind were clear, plain, and the All responded to the simple request immediately.  But Sarraya had suddenly jumped into the air and screamed "Tarrin, no don't!"

      But it was too late.  There was a shimmering to his side, and the sword appeared in his hand.

      A sword that was glowing white-hot from heat.

      His immediate reaction was to drop it, to let go of it, as the heat of it assaulted his senses.  He flinched away from it as he let go, rolling to the side as it clattered to the rocky ground, his heart going from slow to racing in half a breath.  Adrenalin surged through him as it anticipated pain from his blunder.

      Pain that never came.

      His breathing becoming quick and shallow, he looked down at his paw, and saw that it was totally unmarked.  Impossible!  He could feel the heat of the sword.  He could feel that it was so hot that it would instantly blacken flesh that came into contact with it.  Yet it had not so much as singed him.  The heat of it made his face feel tight, but it had not burned him.  How could he feel the heat, yet not be burned?

      "Tarrin!" Sarraya said in a strangled tone.  "Are you alright?"

      "It, it didn't hurt me," he said in confusion.  He reached out towards it, felt its heat...but felt no pain.  He reached closer and closer, but still there was heat but no pain.  Then he put a finger on it and immediately recoiled.  Again, he felt the heat, felt that the metal was a little rubbery from the heat, but there was no sizzling of flesh or singing of fur.  "Sarraya, I can feel the heat, but it's not hurting me!" he exclaimed in shock, touching the weapon again.  Then, courage bolstering him, he reached down and wrapped his paw around it, picking it up off the rock.  He could feel the heat radiating against him.  The air around it was so hot that it could burn the lungs, yet it did him no harm.  He held it close to his vest for a moment, a vest that was already blackened from the exposure to heat before.  He touched it to the leather, which immediately began to hiss and burn from contact with the blade.  Then he shifted it and put the flat of it against his chest.  Again, he felt the heat, but there was no pain involved with it.  He pulled it away from his chest, and saw that aside from a bit of ash from the leather of the vest that was left behind by the blade, it didn't leave a mark on him.

      "Amazing!" Tarrin exclaimed in awe.  "Is it the sword?"

      "It's you," Sarraya said quietly.  "That's what the Sha'Kar woman meant!" she shouted suddenly, startling him.  "That's what she meant when she pointed out that the heat should have already killed you!  Whatever it is that's doing it has to be--"

      "It's an aspect of a Weavespinner," he concluded for her.  "I noticed that in the fight, that fire wouldn't hurt her.  Oh, it burned her clothes, but it wasn't hurting her.  I guess Weavespinners can't be hurt by heat, or fire.  I wonder why."

      "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth," Sarraya laughed.  "Fire is one of the few things that can hurt you, Tarrin.  Or at least it used to be."

      It was a weird feeling.  He, Tarrin Kael, was now utterly invulnerable to heat.  But he just didn't feel very much different than before.  It's not like it was something flashy or gaudy, like when he was turned.  Not something noticable, something that separated him from the rest of humanity.  But Sarraya was right, it was very much welcome.  It would keep the desert's heat from bothering him, at any rate.

      But then again, it hadn't been bothering him before.  It did at first, but days went by and he felt more and more comfortable.  He thought it was because of his regeneration...but maybe it wasn't.  Maybe, as he grew closer and closer to this new level of power, maybe this aspect of it had begun to appear in him.  Maybe his tolerance for the heat had to do with his magical power and not his Were regeneration.

      Tarrin chuckled ruefully.  Cook a piece of meat enough times, it gets to the point where it can't get any more done.  Maybe that's what happened to him.

      "What do I do with this?" Tarrin asked, holding up the sword.

      "I can't cool it off, it may damage the metal," Sarraya replied.  "Just put it aside and make sure it stays flat.  It's so hot, it may bend if you don't lay it flat."

      He nodded, fidgeting the sword on the rocky flat until he found a position where the blade laid flatly on the ground.  The leather bindings around the hilt were burned off, but that wasn't a great problem.  "Alright, now what?"

      "Now?" Sarraya asked.  "Now we rest.  You need to recover before we can start off again.  While you're resting, I'm going to go over there and study it," she motioned at the pillar of smoke.  "I've never had the chance to study a rift before.  It should be interesting."

      "Make sure you take notes, or Phandebrass will never forgive you," Tarrin told her, rising up onto his knees, then shifting into cat form.  He then curled up into a small niche in the rock, near the heat of the sword, and closed his eyes.  "I'll be right here," he told her in the manner of the Cat.

      "Alright.  I'll see you in a while."

      Sarraya flitted off, leaving him to his rest.  It was the first time he'd been in cat form since the trek across the plains of Yar Arak, but there wasn't any hollowness or pain this time.  He was too weary, and he'd been too long in his humanoid form, had enough time to sort through the complex emotions that his cat side could not tolerate, the emotions that caused that pain in the first place.  The eyeless face that always seemed to be behind his eyes also dimmed with the shift, as human morality was subjugated to the purity of instinctual thinking.  It was something of a respite from the guilt that eyeless gaze incited in him, to lose himself in the serenity of the now, where the future and the past were nothing but empty shadows, and the present was all that mattered.

      He relaxed, and allowed himself to drift off into a contented sleep.  He'd have many things to think about later, but for now, all he wanted to do was sleep.

 

      A day's rest did wonders for his body, but did little for his mind.

      The memory of what the Goddess told him had slowly seeped back into his mind as he rested, and it caused him to have strange, disjointed dreams while sleeping in cat form.  He usually didn't have memorable dreams when he slept in cat form, because his thoughts were filtered through the instincts of the Cat, but these were powerful thoughts, powerful images, and they were strong enough to penetrate into his alternate mental state.

      He remembered the entire conversation with the Goddess as a dream, a dream he knew was nothing but recalled reality.  After that, he dreamed about Allia and those with her.  He dreamed that they were standing on a ship's deck, staring at a horizon filled with smoke, and a sense of foreboding seemed to hang over them like a pall.  There were dark shadows over them, over all of them, but they seemed to focus around Dar.  He dreamed of Keritanima, dreamed of her standing on a mountain of screaming skulls, weeping tears of blood as she ripped the fur from her muzzle and commanded the skulls to be silent.  He dreamed of Jenna, standing before a massive steel door that glowed red-hot from heat, reaching out to it with no concept of the danger it posed, walking towards it steadily and stepping over the burned, smoking bodies of their parents.  He dreamed of Faalken, his curly hair matted with spoor and the flesh torn from his face, standing on a rock spire and holding a flaming sword aloft.  Just behind him stood Jegojah, his sword bloody and a resolute look on his withered features.

      And he dreamed of Jesmind, standing in a small, cozy cottage before a fire, holding something small in her arms.  He could see nothing but her back, but there was a sense of resolve in her that radiated from her.  She turned to look at him, and the determination shone on her face like the sun.  She held out whatever it was in her arms, and when he looked down at it, all he could see was a mass of blazing light.

      The dreams disturbed him, deeply, because all of them held a grim sense of danger in them.  What danger could they be in?  And why did he dream of Faalken?  Faalken was dead, long dead.  What did the dreams mean?  Even in his slumber, he fretted at the meaning behind them, if there was any meaning at all.  It could just be his worry for his friends and sisters, his yearning for Jesmind, the sorrow over Faalken that had never truly eased inside him causing it.  After coming so close to being Consumed, after having his magical abilities altered in such a manner, maybe the dreams were just an extension of the anxiety he felt at what had happened to him, and what he would have to face in the future.

      After his mind settled enough, the dreams began again.  But this time, it was a different sense, a different type of dream.  He stood on a mountainside, looking down into a valley that held a large town, a town with no roads, no carts, only grassy pathways between houses and buildings, the smallest of them large enough to be called a mansion by any definition.  People in robes walked about in the town, and there was an odd sense from them, like they were ghosts of the past resurrected into the future.  The sky above was utterly black, but there was plenty of light by which to see.

      This is where I have to go, he told himself absently.  This is where the Book of Ages is going to lead us.

      With that thought, the dream dissolved, and he spent the rest of his slumber in dreamless rest.

      His mind didn't race again until he woke up, until he could apply his rational mind to the memories and images he's experienced while asleep. Everything they'd concluded was right.  The Sha'Kar had been there to test him, to force him into either taking the next step or being destroyed by his own power.  A power he could no longer touch, he knew now.  He was again a Novice, unable to use his power until he learned how, and that would not be easy.  He'd become so intimately familiar with his power that the very thought of having to use some other way to access it seemed alien to him.  He was tainted now, tainted by his own past experience, and he'd have to forget everything he once knew before he could learn what he had to learn to regain his powers.

      Sui'kun.  It was a Sha'Kar word, a word that translated as soul-fire.  The Goddess had used it to refer to him, told him that the Ancients used it to describe Weavespinners.  What he was now.  An entirely different kind of Sorcerer, and that meant that he had to learn an entirely new way to touch the Weave.  To do it all over again.  He remembered how aggravating and infuriating it had been the first time, and he knew it would be even worse now.  It would be worse because he could see the Weave, sense it, feel its pulse in his soul, and it felt as if it were a part of him.  That sensation made him feel like the Weave was but a thought away, but something told him that that was the very reason it was going to be so difficult to find his power again.

      Until then, he didn't have the power to use, didn't have it to protect him.  But he could still use his Druidic magic...so that meant harassing Sarraya for more indepth lessons.  He wanted to learn more of it so he could better defend himself until he managed to find his power again.  She'd argue, refuse, demand, even threaten, but she'd do it in the end.  Sarraya got a little mischievious thrill out of teaching him things he wasn't supposed to know.  It satisfied her rebellious nature.  All he had to do was appeal to her on those terms, and she'd do anything he wanted her to do.

      The dreams worried him.  They worried him nearly as much as the eyeless face disturbed the Human in him.  He could endure what hardship came to him, but he couldn't even stomach the idea that his friends and family might be suffering, might be enduring pain.  Especially if it was his fault.  He'd already lost Faalken, he didn't want to lose another friend, a sister.  But the dreams were short, vague, and there just wasn't much to remember other than a few images and the feelings that those images incited.

      There was so much on his mind, the last thing he needed was worries for the others to distract him.

      He opened his eyes and yawned, then stretched.  It was a little past midday by the sun, and it shone down on him with the full fury of its heat.  Heat he could feel, but could no longer affect him.  He was truly sui'kun, for the heat of the sun, of the rock, of the desert, it could not touch him.  He had even held a sword glowing from being immersed in lava--magma, whatever it was called--and felt no pain from it.  It hadn't even put a blister on his pads.  He wondered idly if he could still sweat, or if he needed to, or if alot of physical exertion would make him hot.  He wondered if his body could tolerate heat generated from within as well as it could tolerate heat that came from outside.

      It was so strange.  It was as if the power of High Sorcery had burned away the part of him that could be hurt by it, leaving the rest of him behind.  That was as good an explanation as anything.  He could feel the subtle differences inside himself, for he was very attuned to his own body.  He was the same, but the power had also changed him in small ways.  Small ways that had impressive outward effects.  He had an even more acute sense of the Weave now, able to actually see it, and he couldn't be hurt by fire.  Significant changes, but the changes felt very small when he sensed them inside himself.

      He rose up, stretched, then sat down on his haunches.  The sword was cool now, or at least it wasn't glowing anymore.  It rested close to him, close enough to feel the radiance of its heat when he was falling asleep.  Sarraya was still gone, probably hovering near the rift he'd made in the earth.  It felt a little frightening to wake up in this vast land and find one's self alone, but he knew that Sarraya was close by.  If he called out, he had no doubt that she would come flying back.  He shifted back to his humanoid form absently, then reached down and picked up the sword.  He would just wait for her to come back.  She wouldn't be long, and she'd watched over him for so long that he figured she deserved a little time to herself.  The sword was still a little on the warm side, but it wasn't so hot that it could hurt anyone.  More than likely it was hot because it was black, and had been sitting out in the sunlight since daybreak.  The metal showed no crystalization, no signs that the immersion in lava had damaged it.  He pressed on the sword's blade with his paws tentatively, and found that it was still strong, still razor sharp, and still virtually unbreakable.

      Whatever metal was used to make the blade, he just had to get more of it.  The stuff was absolutely amazing.

      Sometimes it made him laugh.  To think a weapon like this, a sword of legendary properties, had been sitting over a bar in Dala Yar Arak before he claimed it for his own.  He liked it, in a way, but it just wasn't his staff.  But that was spilled milk at any rate, because his staff was gone.  Destroyed by Shiika.  He was travelling west, maybe he'd find himself an Ironwood tree along the way.  Then he could make a new one.

      Looking up at the Skybands, Tarrin tried to touch the Weave, just to see what would happen.  He reached out to what he could see, what had always been there...and it wasn't.  It was like it had been moved on him, moved just outside his reach, taunting him with its proximity yet not allowing him to make contact with it.  That was generally what he expected to happen.  The Goddess told him that he'd have to learn how to touch the Weave all over again.  It was just strange that he was so attuned to it, so close to it, and yet he could not reach out and touch it.  He knew it could be done.  That Sha'Kar woman had used High Sorcery, and that required her to be touching the Weave.  So there was a way to do it...he just had to figure it out.  Without guidance, without instruction, without support.  Not that mattered much to him.  He was used to doing things by himself.

      "Alright then," he said quietly to himself.  "If that's the way it is, then that's the way it is."  He reached down and picked up the sword, felt that the leather bindings had been burned off the hilt, but that was easy to fix.  He'd rebind it tonight.  It wasn't like there was anything out in this rocky wasteland to fight.  He pulled off his scabbard, and found that while it was burned nearly to cinders.  What wood and leather that was left of the scabbard was brittle and weak.  His leather clothes as well were burned, gouged, and about ready to fall apart.  That, too was easy enough to fix.  He reached within, reached into the All through the Cat, and formed an image of new leather clothes and a scabbard exactly like the old ones.  He willed those items to appear before him, and the All saw into his intent and responded.  He felt the power flow through him, much more power than was normal for regular Conjuring, felt the drain it put on him to handle that extra power.  He realized that he wasn't Conjuring or Summoning, he was Creating.  Sarraya said that Creation required more energy than the other two related techniques.  But, it seemed that it was something that he was strong enough to do.

      While putting on the new clothes, he realized that the small pouch he kept on his belt was broken, and that the little coin charm device Anayi gave him was missing.  It must have fallen out.  He reached within again and willed it to appear in his paw, and the All responded.  The little device appeared in his hand...hot enough to burn cloth if it was placed on top of it.  It must have been laying out in that volcanic rift.  He set it aside and allowed it to cool as he went about Summoning or Creating new versions of all his little personal possessions that he'd lost during the fight.  He really didn't carry much, just the coin, a small dagger, and usually a small coil of leather thong for the bindings of the sword.  His claws tore them frequently, requiring him to rewrap the hilt from time to time.  After that was done, he finished putting on the new clothes and made sure the sword would fit in the new scabbard, then got ready to move.  He didn't feel very comfortable where he was, and too much had happened in the last couple of days.  He wanted to move on for the rest of the day, and then he'd talk it through with Sarraya in detail tonight, talk it through and have a chance to sort through it all.

      Now he just had to get Sarraya's attention.

      "Sarraya!" Tarrin boomed towards the rift, holding his paws up to his mouth to direct the sound.  "Sarraya, I'm ready to go!"

      He waited a few moments, but she didn't reply or appear.

      The rift was only a short distance away.  He started off in that direction, but before he got more than a few hundred paces towards it, Sarraya's tiny form appeared in the shimmering heat and haze from the sun and smoke of the rift.  Her blue skin was smudged with black here and there, and her gossamer clothing was a bit singed and blackened in places.  She came up to hover in front of him, a smile on her face.  "You look fresh," she noted.  "I take it we're leaving?"

      "I'm ready to go.  You have fun?"

      "Yes, I consider a stroll through a volcanic wasteland to be so enjoyable," she said in a sarcastic tone.  "But I did learn a few things."

      "Like what?"

      "Well, like lava can't melt other rocks immediately.  It needs time.  And that some kinds of rock won't melt.  I tossed some sandstone into the lava, and it exploded."

      "Exploded?"

      "Yes, it was pretty neat.  Maybe the sand that makes up the rock will melt, but the rock itself won't."

      "Sand melts into glass."

      "I know that, but the lava is too hot.  It makes it do something else."

      "Explode, from the sound of it."

      "I'd guess so," she said.

      "So, to put it in a nutshell, you were over there playing with the lava."

      "Sometimes play can be educational," she said primly.

      "Yes.  I'm sure it can."

      She slapped him on the shoulder.  "Let's go already!"

      Tarrin stood up to his full height and stared off towards the northwest, the way he intended to go.  It was shimmering in the day's heat, but he could make out a large expanse of flat rocky waste, but there were rock spires and some irregular terrain on the horizon.  With any luck, they'd come out of this barren expanse and get into the scrubby plains that Allia had described so often, plains where a surprising number of plants grew in the desert.  Enough to support minimal herding.  When he reached those plains, he would reach the Selani.  He wasn't looking forward to meeting the Selani, but he was getting tired of looking at sand and rock.  It would be nice to see some more of the desert.

      Northwest.  The way he was going.  He had a great deal to learn, a great deal to do, and he'd learn it and do it while he was over that way.  Quite a lot to look forward to.  It wouldn't be easy, but then again, anything easy wasn't worth the effort.  Part of him was dreading what was before him, but another part of him was looking forward to the challenge, looking forward to the experience.  It would be a long, hard road, but the rewards he would find at the end of it would more than make it worth his while.

      "Let's go," he mirrored her, and then he started off towards the northwest at a ground-eating pace that few could match for very long.

      As much as he was ready to move on, the weather wouldn't cooperate.  Tarrin and Sarraya were driven into a large cave before sunset by a small yet powerful sandstorm, and they'd had to retreat deeply into the cave to avoid the scouring wind.  The sandstorm gave them time to eat supper and rest a while, and to talk.  Tarrin related everything that had happened to him before he woke up, about his conversation with the Goddess, and he also told her about the dreams he'd had.  He made sure to explain as much as he could about both the conversation and the dreams, and when he was done, he sat back and allowed the Faerie to think it over.  Sarraya was a bit erratic and a little flaky, but she was exceptionally intelligent.  She was alot like Phandebrass, easily misunderstood because of her unusual outward personality.  He'd come to discover that Sarraya was both smart and keen, able to see to the heart of things very quickly.  He could rely on her in that manner.

      "Alright, so, whatever changed you altered your ability to touch the Weave," she said in a clinical voice, sitting on his knee and looking up at him.  "Have you tried yet?"

      He nodded.  "Nothing.  It's like it's not there.  And it's really annoying, because I know it's there.  I just can't find it."

      "Sounds like most of this is going to be getting over your frustration," she said with a little grunt.  "Knowing how you handle frustration, I think I'll keep my distance from you while you're trying."

      "That may be a good idea," he agreed seriously.  "I know it can be done, because that Sha'Kar woman was using High Sorcery.  She also used Sorcery in some ways I can't even describe.  I think those were Weavespinner ways."

      "Try."

      He groped for an explanation.  "She didn't use Sorcery," he said helplessly.  "It was like the magic was just there.  She didn't draw it or weave it or do anything you have to do to use Sorcery."

      "Well, your Goddess told you that there's more than one way to use Sorcery," Sarraya said.  "This must be some sort of direct use.  A way to use it that doesn't require any preparation or formulation.  Almost like Druidic magic, if you think about it."

      "How do you mean?"

      "She just wanted it to happen, and it did," she explained.  "That's the core of Druidic magic, if you recall.  But this was much faster, and if you didn't feel anything from her, then it either doesn't take effort, or you weren't sensitive enough to feel what she did.  Either would explain it."

      "It has to take some effort, so I'd say that I couldn't feel what she did," he said with a little sigh.  "That, or she did it so fast I couldn't make it out.  She was an Ancient, Sarraya.  She must be so good at magic that I couldn't even begin to keep track of her."

      "Could you keep track of everything else she did?"

      "Some of it," he replied.  "She could weave spells so fast, I barely realized that she was releasing them before they were coming at me.  She didn't use alot of power when we fought, she just out-wove me.  She taught me a few things about Sorcery, that's for sure," he said with respect in his voice.

      "Like what?"

      "How to not only disrupt weaving, but to turn it against the weaver," he answered.  "She attacked one of my weaves while I was weaving it, and caused it to collapse into an entirely different spell just by introducing a few stray flows into it.  Then it blew up in my face."

      "You didn't release it?"

      "When she attacked it, she gained control over it.  She was the one that released it, not me."

      "So, you learned something already.  You think you could incite another Sorcerer's spell into releasing before it's finished?"

      "I think I could," he said after a moment of reflection.  "Flows are flows.  What they do depends on who controls them.  I'm strong enough to wrest control from someone else.  At least I would be if I could touch the Weave," he added in a growling voice.

      "Well then, I'd say that the encounter did more good for you than we first thought," Sarraya told him with a smile.

      "I hope so," he said absently, turning an ear to the wind.  It was still howling outside.

      "I don't think you should start right now," Sarraya told him.  "Take a couple of days first.  Think about everything, rest a while.  You're not quite ready to take on something like this yet."

      "I know, but I do know that I can't waste too much time."

      "Why?"

      "You told me that the Sha'Kar said that my time was running out," he replied.  "I'm on a tight schedule here, it seems.  So tight that the Goddess had to send the Sha'Kar to move me along.  I'll wait a day, but that's all.  Tomorrow night, I'm going to start trying to find my power again."

      "I hate to say it, but you're right.  I hate working on someone's strings," Sarraya grunted.

      "We've been doing this since the start, Sarraya," he told her.  "Sometimes, I think that I was born with those strings on me."

      "Maybe.  But look at it this way.  At least you're having a very interesting life."

      He looked at her, then laughed in spite of himself.  "Want to trade?"

      "Ah, no.  I doubt I'd enjoy going through life as a boy."

      "What difference does it make?"

      "All the difference in the world," she replied.  "Bodies are bodies, but souls are the true gender.  If I were trapped in a man's body, I think I'd have a very hard time functioning in human society."

      "You do already."

      "I'm not human, am I?"

      "Neither am I.  At least not anymore."

      "Would you want to go back?"

      "I don't think about that, Sarraya," he said seriously.  "I never think about what could have been.  I can't change the past, so it's better if I don't dwell on things I can't change.  This is the way it is, and that's life.  I can't be changed back without dying in the process, so I'm stuck this way."

      "Just for argument's sake, let's say you could.  Would you want to?"

      He closed his eyes and leaned his head against the stone behind him.  When he closed his eyes, the eyeless face appeared in his mind, casting salt into his raw wounds yet again.  "I don't know," he said quietly.  "I've been this way for so long, I can't even imagine being another way.  But--I just don't know, Sarraya."

      "Tarrin...what do you think you'll do when this is all over?" she asked hesitantly.

      "I haven't thought about it," he told her.  "To be honest, I don't expect to live through this.  And maybe that's for the best."

      "Why say something like that?"

      "I have something to focus on now.  When this is over, I'll have nothing left in my life.  Kerri will go back to Wikuna, and Allia will go back to the desert.  I could visit, but I wouldn't be welcome in either place.  I know that already.  I'd have no purpose, no goal.  And without something in my life, my ferality will take over.  I'll end up like Mist, living in complete fear.  I think I'd rather die than face that."  He sighed.  "I'm a Weavespinner, Sarraya.  I know how powerful I am.  Do you want someone like me out there, with all this power, and no constraints about using it?"

      "Well...no."

      "I've done enough damage already.  I'm tired of destroying things, of killing people.  The best thing that could happen out of all this is I end up getting killed when it's over."

      "Well, I think that that's a defeatist attitude," she said sternly.  "Triana would slap you for saying such things."

      "Triana would understand," he told her.  "She wouldn't like it, but she'd understand."

      "Well, I don't understand, and I won't allow it.  I absolutely forbid you to die."

      Tarrin looked down at her, then chuckled.  "And who made you queen of the universe, little dolly?"

      "I did," she said flippantly.  "And as queen of the universe, you can't disobey me.  If you die on me, I'll kill you."

      Tarrin laughed.  "Yes, Your Majesty," he said in mock supplication.

      "Now let's get some sleep," Sarraya said.  "We have a long way to go."

      "Isn't that the truth," Tarrin agreed in a distant tone.  "A very long way to go."

 

      The last rays of the sun peered over the twin mountains known as the Earth's Breast, shining their last on the grim stone fortress built at the top of a sheer mountain.  It was known as Castle Keening, a name granted to it because of the fierce mountain winds that howled through the battlements at all hours of the day and night.  Its builders designed it to guard the wide mountain pass which it overlooked, a protection from raiding Goblinoid tribes that would attack mining caravans that extracted the precious metals, iron, and lead that were abundant in the range that surrounded the triple lakes known as Petal Lakes.  But as the Dals pushed the Goblinoids more and more out of the mountains to the south, the need for the grim fortress waned.  It was left abandoned, fell into disrepair, after its service was no longer required.  The memory of it faded as the deposits of metals were mined out in the southern reaches of the Petal Lakes region, as the miners moved to the north to exploit the mineral wealth that remained.  The wide pass below was dotted with abandoned villages and solitary inns, respites from hard mountain travel for the miners and the merchants that came to buy their ores, and the wagoneers that transported it.

      Now, the pass was filled with a thousand bonfires.  The fires were those of Goblinoids, returned to their ancestral territory, returned for a terrible purpose.  They stood in the shadow of the massive citadel on the mountaintop, a citadel that looked down on them with dark vision and inspired fear in them.  Not because of the old fortress of grim stone, but of those who were within.

      It was known as Castle Keening, but now the keening was rumored to be from the agonized screams of the many who had met their end within its walls.  It was a major stronghold of the ki'zadun, a powerful network of mages, priests, spies, and dark entities whose main objective was nothing short of world domination.  It was an organization that sought only to increase its own power, in any way possible.  They had agents and operatives in nearly every major kingdom or duchy, and their fingers were spread across the world.  Be it economical, political, or even militaristic, very little happened that the ki'zadun did not know about, or have a hand in.  From the plains of Valkar to the streets of Wikuna, from Dusgaard to Pyrosia, from Suld to Shu Tung, the ki'zadun poisoned the entire world with their dark purpose.

      Their nearest neighbors, Draconia and Daltochan, knew about Castle Keening, knew about who inhabited it, but that was of no importance.  The ki'zadun now controlled both kingdoms, and it was their hand that guided the war with Sulasia, a war that was progressing on schedule.  They had crippled Sulasia, and now their Draconian operatives had managed to incite war between Tykarthia and Ungardt, eliminating the greatest threats to them.  Now they could amass their true armies without fear of retaliation, without fear of a pre-emptive assault.  The dangerous Ungardt were now slaughtering Tykarthians, and the efficient armies of Sulasia were pinned back by the ears, trying to stop an invasion of Daltochan's armies and their Goblinoid allies.   And what was most important, the Sorcerers of the katzh-dashi were sitting in Suld, unwilling to aid the Sulasian armies until Suld itself became threatened.  The Dal threat kept them there, kept their members from travelling and seeking out the truth of the invasion, and their Goddess refused to grant them divine knowledge.

      They would not understand until it was too late.

      Kravon stood at the balcony of Castle Keening, staring down at the fires below, finding himself very pleased by the progression of events.  Despite their setbacks with the Were-cat, everything else was moving smoothly.  But, any good plan was bound to have a snag or two during its execution.  So on the whole, he was content with the performance of his sycophants.  He pulled his old cloak about him a bit as the wind took a raw quality, as the beginnings of winter had begun to show in the air.  Winter came early in the high mountains, and it lingered long after the lower elevations had spring blossoms budding in the fields.

      Yes, everything was running smoothly, except for one little snag.

      He felt an oppressive weight behind his eyes, and then something that could only be described as ultimate cold settled into his soul.  This is not the time to dawdle, minion, a disembodied voice drifted into the dark tunnels of Kravon's mind.  You have not carried out my instructions.

      "They will be done this night, my Master," Kravon replied aloud, replied in a very respectful tone.  "Everything we require for your plan is now available to us.  We will lay the enchantment as soon as the sun fades."

      This must be done correctly, the voice said in a stern manner.  Too much rides on this.  The Were-cat has unlocked his true power, and for now, he is vulnerable.

      "Pardon my ignorance, Master, but why is he vulnerable?"

      He has lost his connection to his power, the voice responded.  He must find it again before he can use his magic.  Until he does, he is vulnerable.  And it is in this window of opportunity that you must strike.  Without his magic, he cannot defeat Jegojah.

      "The desert Goddess may interfere.  Do you wish us to send additional forces to ensure it doesn't happen?"

      She will not.  The Were-cat has not earned her respect, and until then, she will not protect him.  Send only what I have commanded you to send.

      "I understand, my Master.  It will be done as you command."

      Do not fail me in this, Kravon.  And do not waste valuable assets in the future.  Releasing Jula was a mistake.  She is now in the hands of our enemy, and she can hurt us.

      "I'm aware of that, my Master.  I have already sent people to rectify the situation.  Let me say in my own defense that it was a good plan at the time.  None of us foresaw that the Were-cat could cure Jula of her madness.  We all thought it impossible."

      You are dealing with the Mi'Shara.  You must expect the impossible.  Do not bungle again.  I can replace you as easily as you replace your minions.  Do not forget that.

      "I never forget that, my Master," he said in a low voice.  "The sun is now set.  I will see to your instructions immediately.  Do you require anything else of me?"

      Not now.  Perform your tasks as I have given them.

      "At once, my Master."

      And with that, the tenuous connection dissolved, leaving Kravon chilled to his soul.  Telepathic communion with the Master always left Kravon shaken and pale, and he leaned on the bannister of the balcony for support until warmth and energy returned to his limbs.  The Master had given him a task to perform, a plan to carry out, and Kravon could appreciate the subtle effectiveness of this plan.  If the Were-cat had no connection to his Sorcery, then he was indeed vulnerable.  Very vulnerable.  His triumphs over Jegojah came because of his magical powers.  Without those powers, he would stand no chance against the Doomwalker.

      A good plan.  The Master never failed to impress him.  It was why he followed the Master.

      Feeling strength return to his body, Kravon pushed himself off the balcony, then turned and marched back into his laboratory without a glance behind.  His magical assistants and minions were working diligently on his behalf, preparing the compounds and charms that would be needed for the conjuration that would take place that night.  The Conjuring Circle had seen much activity lately, since the discovery of ancient spells that allowed the control of conjured Demons and other denizens of the Lower World.  Those spells had proven to be potent, and now Castle Keening was guarded and protected by Demonic forces, forces loyal to Kravon and his Master.  The messy examples they could set had inspired renewed loyalty and devotion to duty in the castle's occupants.  The Demons had been instructed as to who was expendable and who was not, so their continued occasional reminders would keep his people properly motivated.  One of them stood by the door, a huge vulture-like Demon called a Vrock, and another, a six-armed female with the lower body of a huge snake called a Marilith, was rifling through the library of magical spells in the library.  The Marilith was exceptionally intelligent, and she was willing to share her intellect with Kravon and his master Wizards.  She felt herself to be far above the humans she was tutoring, but her obedience to the Master kept her on her task.

      The vast knowledge of a Marilith at Kravon's command.  The might of the Demons to serve as the sword that would cleave the world in two, and make it the eternal domain of the Master.  He felt confident that the whole world would soon be bowing before the katzh-dashi.

      "The sun is set.  It is time to begin the spell," Kravon announced in his dead voice, causing all activity in the laboratory to cease.  "Are we prepared?"

      "We have but one more component to prepare, but it will be done within the moment, great Master," one of his master Wizards replied.  "It will be ready before we will begin."

      "Excellent.  Then let us go to the Conjuration Chamber and prepare."

      This was a spell they had performed several times before, more than necessary, to be honest.  The soul-trap that held Jegojah's spirit was ready, sitting on his desk, and a semi-conscious vessel that would serve as the Doomwalker's undead force was chained to the wall on the far side of the laboratory.  Both were retrieved, and the Wizards formed a grim procession as they undertook the mental preparations for casting such a difficult spell.  The Marilith tagged along at the end of the procession in curiosity, her sharp features showing her interest at seeing some human-magic.

      Within the Conjuration Chamber, all was prepared.  Three braziers on iron stands were lit, forming a triangle around the three-fold symbol inlaid into the floor with gold and other precious metals.  It was a pentagram within a thaumaturgic triangle within a concentric circle, a triple-layered symbol of great warding power that was needed to summon and control the most powerful of the extra-dimensional entities.  Such was necessary when summoning something as powerful as a Doomwalker.

      The nine Wizards took their positions around the symbol, and the material components were cast into the symbol as were required.  They would be the catalyst for the spell, causing it to activate.  After that was done, the spell began.  It began slowly, but built into a crescendo of magical power over time, as the nine voices joined into a discordant harmony with such power that it subdued the light of the braziers.  They rose to such a pitch that the very air seemed to vibrate from the power of their words, and the wind outside calmed, pulled away, as if nature itself recoiled from the dark evil being done within.

      Two guards threw the naked vessel into the symbol as the eight attendants fell silent, and Kravon's voice alone carried on.  The voice was perfect, flawless, reciting words of arcane power of such magnitude that they caused the natural order of life to be usurped.  He uttered one final word, a word that nearly put out the braziers, and then all was eerily silent.

      Then the braziers exploded back to life, exploded into columns of fire, and the spell began.  The man within the symbol suddenly screamed, jumping up off the floor like a dying fish, and then he thrashed about for a long moment as his screams echoed through the lit chamber.  Then he ceased his thrashing, held immobile for a moment, and his skin began to pale, to gray.  The figure stood up calmly as the mortal spirit of the man was cast out, and a dark shadow invaded what remained of the mortal shell.  The presence of that dark spirit caused the flesh to putrify, the eyes to melt, the skin and flesh and muscle to wither and tighten around the bones.  An arcane suit of armor wavered into being around the dessicated form, and red light erupted from the darkness of the eye sockets.

      The form, hunched over, stood up straight and tall, and turned towards Kravon.  "Why do ye summon Jegojah again?" it demanded in a rasping voice.  "Told ye, Jegojah did, better destroy me ye should, yes."

      "You are not here to bargain or threaten, Doomwalker," Kravon said.  "Your mission remains before you.  You have not completed it."

      "Jegojah, he does not carry out the impossible, no.  Be your maid, Jegojah would, before taking on the Weavespinner again, yes."

      "This time, you don't have to worry about his power," Kravon said smoothly.  "He has lost his magical powers for a time, and it is imperative you reach him and destroy him before he regains them."

      "More to that one, there is, than magic," Jegojah grated.  "A fine warrior, he is, a warrior of honor.  Jegojah can fight, but the outcome, it is not certain, no."

      "You are a Doomwalker," Kravon said coldly.  "No mortal can defeat you."

      "The Weavespinner, he is not mortal, no," Jegojah spat back.  "The winds of luck favor one such as him, they do, yes."

      "True.  I will accede that much to you.  That is why, this time, you will have help."

      "Help?" Jegojah spat, then he cackled in laughter.  "What help could ye grant Jegojah?"

      Kravon looked to the door.   The silent guard there opened it, and two mailed sentries escorted a third form through the door.  It was a form in black, burned armor, carrying a large sword in a withered hand.  The head of the figure was withered, decayed, with bone and gray flesh showing through the cracked skin, flesh infested with maggots, deteriorated long past the point of being recognizable.  The eyes were long gone, replaced by twin points of red light.

      It was another Doomwalker.

      Jegojah looked closely at this new Doomwalker, looked very closely.  The armor was familiar to it, it was a pattern and design it had seen before.  There was a rent in the breastplate, running from the shoulder to the waist, crossing the chest and abdomen.

      And beneath a wide burgonet helmet, there sprouted stray locks of curly black hair.

      "No right!" Jegojah exploded.  "No right, ye have, to disturb the rest of the fallen!  Return him, ye will, return him to his rest right now!"

      "You have no say in this," Kravon said in a dead voice.  "Complete your mission, and both of you will be freed to rest for eternity.  Refuse to obey me, and you will spend that eternity in the possession of my lovely associate here," he said, motioning towards the six-armed Demon.  "I'm sure you know what her kind do with the souls of mortals.  Is that fate what you desire?"

      If there was anything that the inhuman Wizard could have said to intimidate a Doomwalker, that was it.  There were some fates worse than death, worse that utter destruction.  "That fate, no, Jegojah does not want it," it said in sudden supplication.  "Jegojah will do as ye command.  But when this is done, freedom, it will be granted, yes.  One way or another."

      "Then begone, and carry out your assigned tasks," Kravon said with a dismissive wave of his hand.

      "As ye command," Jegojah said sullenly.  "Come, companion.  A long way, we must go, yes.  Let us get this overwith."

      With that, both undead forms simply sank into the floor, merging into the stone, and were gone.

      The whole thing was pleasing to Kravon.  Jegojah should be able to carry it out alone, but with the other Doomwalker to aid it, this time victory was guaranteed.

      It was worth the effort to find and retrieve that body.  Months of searching paid off.  When the Were-cat recognized the identity of the Doomwalker, the shock would be enough to give one of them the chance to finish it off.

      You interest me, human, the Marilith, who called herself Shaz'beka, remarked.  She did not speak, exclusively using the telepathic gifts common to her kind to communicate.  You would give me the soul of the Doomwalker if he fails?

      "My dear, consider his soul yours, whether he succeeds or not," Kravon said absently.  "Given his failures and poor attitude, I feel your tender ministration is suitable punishment for his disobedient nature."

      And the other?

      "Also yours, to do with what you will," he said, holding out a new soul-trap, a crystal that glowed with a golden radiance.  "But I can't give them to you until their mission is accomplished.  I do hope you understand."

      You are most generous, human.  I find my service here to be less tedious.

      "Anything for a fellow follower of the Master, my dear," he said magnaminously.

      Indeed.

      "We are finished here," Kravon announced.  "Let us return to our other duties.  Those two will not fail us."

            And with that, the braziers were extinguished, and the room was evacuated.  The doors were closed, and the room fell into darkness.


To:   Title                     EoF

Chapter 10

 

      "So.  How did it go?"

      Tarrin's response to that innocuous question was to smash his fist into the side of a boulder.  The manacle on his wrist struck the rock, causing the rather large stone to crack visibly from the impact.

      "Well, that's better than I expected," Sarraya chuckled, just before she wisely rose into the air and out of the Were-cat's reach.

      The sandstorm that kept them pinned blew itself out by morning, and they had moved on.  They had left the area of stony-floored barrens, and moved into what could only be called a sandy rock garden.  There were some plants in the sandy region, but only where they were sheltered from the wind by larger rocks.  But the plants meant they had returned to the living desert, where there were small mice and lizards to subsist off those sparse plants, and a few small predators like snakes that subsisted off the mice and lizards.  The place was rather pretty, in a way, but the rocks strewn on the ground slowed him down.  Sometimes it was no problem, but sometimes they were so thick he had to travel on top of them, and he couldn't do that at a full run.  They had stopped for the evening in a sandy meadow of sorts, surrounded by several boulder-sized stones that formed an irregular circle around the patch of sand.  There were some very stunted little shrubs growing on one side of the clearing, and the scents and signs were there that some mice and lizards lived in the rocks surrounding the little clearing.

      True to his word, he had left Sarraya around sunset and found himself a quiet place to sit and try to regain his power.  And it was a disaster.  He couldn't concentrate for very long, because every time he did feel himself beginning to come into a meditative state, the eyeless face would assert itself in his mind and disrupt his concentration.  He had been afraid of it when it first began to haunt him, but now it was more of an irritation than anything else.  It still incited guilt and remorse in him, but now it was keeping him from finding his center again, and that was life-threatening.  Without his Sorcery to protect himself from some of the desert's most formidable dangers, he was vulnerable.  And he knew it.  That knowledge only made his irritation worse, and it was frustrating to have his attempts to calm down and concentrate destroyed by nothing more than a shadow of a dream, something with no substance, something he should not fear in any way.  After all, it was simply a face, and nothing more.  It could do nothing to him, and yet he still feared it.  And that made him even angrier.  His pride was injured by that, the Were-cat pride that told him that the strong should not fear the weak.

      The outer distractions were one thing, but the single-most overwhelming source of aggravation for him was the Weave itself.  It was right there.  He could sense it.  He could feel it.  He could even see it.  But no matter what he did, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't find it.  It was like fog, or smoke, looking solid from a distance but nothing more than ethereal vapors once it was within reach.  The power melted away from him time after time, leaving him grasping nothing but empty air.  It reminded him of his initial training, when he struggled under Dolanna's watchful eye to touch the Weave consciously.  Before, the thing that had done it for him was to open his eyes, to satisfy his Were need to sense what he was trying to contact.  But this time, he could sense it all.  In much more detail and clarity than ever before.  Yet despite knowing exactly where it was and where to reach, it simply wasn't there.

      It was almost as if the Weave didn't want him to touch it.

      It was so infuriating!  He could see it!  He knew where it was, he knew how it felt.  But he couldn't come into contact with it!  It was almost like he was a ghost, incapable of interacting with the Weave in the same plane.  But he knew it was possible, he knew he could do it!  The Sha'Kar woman could do it, why couldn't he?  It made no sense!

      "You knew this was going to happen, Tarrin," Sarraya said from a safe distance.  "It's time to calm down and have dinner.  You can work yourself into a frenzy tomorrow."

      He glared at her.

      "Don't give me that look, young man.  I'll spank you."

      "Shut up," he snapped.  Then he dropped himself to the sand.  Hard.  Almost without thinking about it, he reached within, making contact with the All, and Conjured forth a large honeymelon.  He used a single claw to cut the thick outer skin, then split it into two halves.  He breathed in and out deeply while he was doing it, a stress-relieving exercise that Allia had taught him at the same time she taught him the trick to ignoring chronic pain.  It helped considerably, allowing him to get over his pique, allowed him to bury the frustration and aggravation for a while.  He'd stew over it again later, but that was because he needed to do it.  He had to analyze his failures so he didn't make the same mistakes, to help him succeed.  That was what his mother had taught him, and despite the many changes in his life, the simple lessons given to him by his mother still had more merit than almost anything else he'd learned.  He scooped the seeds and core of the melon out with two fingers and claws, casting them to the ground near the rocks.  It was bait for later.

      "Calm now?" Sarraya asked.

      "I'm not throwing this at you, am I?" he retorted.

      Sarraya giggled.  "No, as a matter of fact, you're not," she agreed, flitting down and landing on the sand before the melon.  "Is this mine?"

      "If you don't want to conjure your own," he shrugged.  "After I eat this, I'm going to see how many mice I can catch."

      "Eww," Sarraya said with a shudder.  "Don't talk about things like that while I'm eating."

      "Don't turn your nose up to it until you try it," he said, taking a bite out of the melon.  "Odds are they won't be that tasty, though.  They'll probably be as tough and stringy as a ten year old rooster."

      "I said not while I'm eating!" Sarraya protested.

      He glanced at her, and was about to say something, but another voice suddenly arose from between them.  "Tarrin?" Allia's voice called.  "Tarrin, are you there?"

      Without hesitating, his heart soaring a bit from hearing that voice, Tarrin put a sticky paw on his amulet immediately and willed that she would hear him.  "I'm here, Allia," he replied.  "What's the matter?"

      "Nothing is wrong, but Dolanna wanted me to contact you to make sure you were alright.  There have been some...unusual fluctuations in the Weave."  Allia had to struggle for words because such a concept was a hard one to phrase in Selani.  "She wanted to know if you were feeling the same things."

      "What is she saying?" Sarraya asked.  Tarrin quickly repeated Allia's words, and Sarraya chuckled.  "No wonder.  I'm surprised they felt it all the way over there."

      "I know what was causing it, sister," Tarrin said.  "It's not something I want to say like this.  Dolanna warned us that there may be unfriendly ears eavesdropping."  He glanced at Sarraya.  "Just tell Dolanna that it's nothing to worry about.  It shouldn't happen again."

      "I'll tell her.  How are you, brother?  I have worried for you."

      "I'm alright, sister," he replied sincerely.  "Alot has happened to me, but I'm still here, and I'm still on the move.  I miss you."

      "It's not right that I'm not there to guide you throught he desert," she said in a surly tone.  "I worry about you, because all you have is that flighty Faerie."  Allia had to use the Sulasian word for Faerie because no such word existed in Selani.

      "What did she say about me?" Sarraya demanded.

      "You don't want to know," he told her dismissively.  "Where are you, Allia?"

      "Right now, we're only a couple of days from Suld," she replied.  "We are all well.  Most of us are getting very unsettled from being on the ship for so long, but it'll be over soon."  There was a pause.  "Dolanna is here.  She wanted to know if you've been teaching Sarraya the special tongue we use when speaking privately."

      Careful, careful Allia.  She didn't even want to use the word Sha'Kar, even while speaking Selani through the amulet.  It made him wonder why she was speaking Selani.  Probably because someone else may be able to hear her on the ship, someone that wasn't a close friend.

      "Actually, I haven't," he said, a bit sheepishly.  "So much has happened here, sister, that was the last thing I would have thought to do."

      "Dolanna says that it is no excuse.  Sarraya needs to learn.  You have to teach her."

      "Alright," he sighed.

      "She said my name.  What did she say?" Sarraya demanded.  "You're getting on my nerves, Tarrin!"

      "I'll tell you in a minute!" he snapped at her.  "Now shut up and let me talk!"  He turned his attention to the amulet again.  "Is everyone else alright?  Is Dar alright?"

      "Dar?  I haven't seen much of him.  He's gotten a bit introverted since you left, probably because he doesn't really feel comfortable around us without you here.  But he is alright, I can tell you that."

      "Allia, he's your friend!  You shouldn't allow him to feel that way."

      "I know, but I haven't been one much for conversation lately either, my brother.  Having you parted from me has caused me more pain that I was prepared to endure.  I wish for nothing now but to have you and Kerri with me again.  I want my family back."

      "Allia, you have no idea how much I want that too," he said emphatically.  "We should cut this short, sister.  I want you to do something for me."

      "What?"

      "When you get to Suld, be very careful," he told her.  "I mean more careful than even Camara Tal intends to be.  And you have to keep an eye on Dar.  Keep him safe, sister.  He's going to need someone like you to protect him."

      "Why do you say that?"

      "It's just a feeling, but it's a very strong one," he answered.  "I've come to trust those feelings here lately.  So far, they haven't led me wrong."

      "Sometimes the heart knows what the mind is not ready to accept," she said sagely.  "If the feeling is that strong, then I will honor its intent.  I'll keep a special eye on Dar for you, brother.  He will find no harm while I watch over him."

      "Good.  That makes me feel much better.  I haven't felt much from Jula lately.  Is she still with Triana?"

      "I don't trust her, Tarrin," she said heatedly.  "Better that we get rid of her, one way or another.  But she's still here, still being taught by your bond-mother."

      "Good.  I was starting to wonder.  She hasn't had any spats of anger or humiliation for a few days now.  That's unusual."

      "She's been behaving.  Triana has had no reason to punish her."

      Tarrin chuckled a bit.  "I guess that explains it.  Any word from Kerri?"

      "She contacts me every couple of days.  Right now, she's working to change around her government so they'll run smoothly while she's gone.  She's gotten the cooperation of the nobles."  Allia laughed brightly.  "She said that they all about went up in flames when they found out that she intends to put a Vendari subject-king on her throne to run Wikuna while she's away.  I think a few of them had ideas to try to rebel or take over the kingdom while Kerri was gone."

      Tarrin laughed.  A Vendari on the throne meant that he would follow the absolute letter of the law.  And he would be totally unbribable.  If Kerri left her kingdom in the care of a Vendari, she was absolutely guaranteed to still have a throne when she returned.

      "Other than that, she said that the nobles are actually starting to warm a little to her new system.  She sat down with some of them yesterday and showed them how their noble houses could use the new system to their advantage, and make money.  That made them all more amenable to her ideas."

      "It would take money to appease Wikuni," Tarrin said.

      "That's no stretch of the truth, my brother.  I've never seen such a greedy group.  They're running this ship and escorting us, so I've had a great deal of contact with them."

      "Kerri said she sent her forces to protect you."

      "Seven clipper water-carriages," she reported.  There was no Selani word for ship or boat, so she improvised a bit to convey her meaningThere also was no Selani word for clipper, but there was no way for her to make up a meaning for that, so she simply reverted to Sulasian.  "Renoit said we couldn't be safer if were we being carried on the back of Saltemis."

      Saltemis was the Elder god of water and the oceans, one of the ten Elder Gods that represented the world's natural forces.  "I think you'd be a bit safer if you really were, but few ships on the seas are crazy enough to attack seven Wikuni clippers.  You should have no trouble getting to Suld."

      "Well?" Sarraya demanded.  "I'm getting tired of waiting!"

      "Sarraya is getting impatient, and we've already talked too long, my sister.  I should go.  I'll do what Dolanna wants.  I won't like it, but I'll do it."

      "I'll let her know.  Be well, my brother.  I'll contact you again if something important comes up.  May the winds ever be at your back."

      "May all the water you taste be sweet," he reciprocated in the ritual Selani farewell.

      And the connection dissolved.

      For such a short conversation, its effect on him was dramatic.  He suddenly felt much, much better, not even a bit frustrated or annoyed.  Allia's voice had always had that kind of effect on him, and hearing her after their long separation made him feel, if only for a moment, that she was still with him.  That took a great weight off his heart.  It reminded him of what waited for him in Suld, at the end of his journey, and it made everything he endured more than worth it.  He would crawl the entire way if it meant seeing Allia again.

      At least the change in the amulet didn't disrupt its abilities.  He hadn't really thought of that as a possibility, and in hindsight, that was probably a good thing he didn't.  The Book of Ages was kept locked within the magic of the amulet, and that was something he couldn't afford to lose.  The very thought of it would have made him retrieve it, and that may have alerted unfriendly people to exactly where he was in the desert, how far along he had travelled since escaping them.  They could possibly use that information as a guage, to tell them when and maybe where to station their forces to intercept him as he came out.  He wasn't about to give his adversaries any help if he could avoid it.

      "Well?  Spill!  Spill spill spill spill spill!!" Sarraya said in aniticipation, jumping up and down near the melon in time with her shouting.

      "In a nutshell, they're doing alright," he told her.  "Dolanna ordered me to teach you Sha'Kar, that's why we were talking about you."

      "It's about time!" she said with an explosive release of breath.  "I figured you forgot that we were supposed to be taught.  I was going to ask you to do it, at least when you weren't in such a cranky mood."

      "I thought Dolanna taught you."

      "She taught me a little," Sarraya told him.  "I still have a great deal to learn."

      "Alright.  I'll teach you as we travel.  That way I have the time after we stop to work on Sorcery."

      "That's fine with me.  It'll fill up all those dusty, boring hours we have while we're moving.  You sure you can run and talk at the same time?"

      "You sure you can fly and learn at the same time?" he shot back.

      "I've done it before," she said in a teasing voice.  "At least out here, there are no trees to crash into."

      "Sounds like you speak from experience."

      "When I was learning to fly," she grinned.  "No Faerie can say he or she has never crashed into a tree.  Or the ground."

      "Sounds like a dangerous business."

      "Flying isn't easy," Sarraya told him.  "It's as much an art as a skill.  It took me nearly thirty years of constant practice to master it.  Wow, you're suddenly in a good mood.  I think you should talk to Allia every night."

      "I wish I could, but Dolanna said that people may be able to listen in on us when we talk that way, so I can't do it in good conscious.  She was supposed to speak Sha'Kar, but I think she was up on deck.  Dolanna won't let us speak it unless nobody else can hear it."

      "Seems like a silly rule."

      "It's only thought of as a dead language if people believe that it's dead, Sarraya," Tarrin told her.  "I understand completely why  Dolanna wants us not to use it in public.  It's something we need to keep back.  A trump card."

      "I can understand it like that, but it seems silly not to use it," she said.

      "If I went around speaking in a language nobody knows, someone may get curious as to which it was.  Then you have to deal with a bunch of questions, or someone that's really smart and can piece it together without asking a single question."

      "I know, I know.  I'm saying it seems silly because that's how I feel."

      "I do alot of things I think are silly," he grunted.  "I gave up on trying to understand them a long time ago."

      Sarraya laughed.  "That's true," she agreed with a smirk.  "Now then, I have this melon here waiting for me, and if I don't eat it soon, it's going to dry out."

      That began a pattern of activity over the next five days, as they moved more and more out of the rocky terrain and more and more into the verdant belt of the desert, the land in the desert that was surprisingly vegetated.  Tarrin found himself picking his way through strange prickly shrubs quite often, and in one shallow valley they found the entire desert floor covered in small bushy plants that had wide, thick blades for leaves, and were lined and tipped with very sharp thorns and ridges almost like the blade of a knife.  As they moved during the day, Tarrin taught Sarraya Sha'Kar, and the little Faerie proved to be quite adept at learning.  At night, Tarrin continued to try to find his magical power again, but as it had been the first night, every attempt ended in failure after failure.  That, paired to the return of the nightmare that had haunted him, did very little to improve his mood.  He became short-tempered and downright nasty to Sarraya during the day, almost to the point where he didn't want to teach her anymore.

      The return of the nightmare was expected, but its effect had changed.  It still made him very afraid, but it also made him very angry now, nearly as mad as he was frightened.  He was pretty sure that anger was because he feared something that couldn't hurt him, and that defied the logic of his instincts.  Now that they had had time to work through his reaction to the dream, they were more outraged than they had been before.

      That was only one thing weighing on his mind.  It had been five days since talking to Allia, and that meant that they were now in Suld.  There was no doubt of that.  They were back in the Tower, most likely, and that meant that they were now in danger.  The mysterious spy for whom Jula had worked in the Tower, an agent of the ki'zadun, was still there.  Or at least he was pretty sure that she was still there.  He had little doubt that Jula's presence was going to incite her to strike out against his friends, to eliminate them before they became a threat to her.

      He thought of that as he moved along a butte of sorts, a long shelf of rock overlooking an irregular valley of sorts filled with rocky outcrops, spires, and some loose stones that were interspersed with a goodly amount of vegatation, both little shrubs, grass-like growth along the north side of the valley, and several strange trees that looked like almost all their branches pulled off.  They were gnarled and stunted, with only a few branches, and those branches held tufts of large needles.  The top of the butte was much easier travelling than down on the valley floor, and from there he could see a flock of sukk, the large, flightless birds the Selani herded for their livelihood.  They were quite distant from him, and he couldn't see an Selani around them.  It was a very small flock, which meant that it could possibly be wild.  He was worrying already about Allia, and the strange feeling he had about Dar.  Four days there, four days to get into trouble.  That worried him, worried him a great deal.  But Dolanna was there, and Triana was also there.  Triana would see to the heart of things, and her presence alone was enough to make himself feel foolish for worrying so much.

      From below came a strange sound.  He slowed down to a walk, then stopped and squatted down by the edge of the shelf, looking down some forty spans to the desert floor.  Coming the other way on the valley floor was a lone Selani, dressed in desert garb, with hood and veil down.  It was a female, a sharp-featured woman with long blond hair, dark skin, and striking hazel eyes.  She had come around a pile of loose boulders, and was running at full speed.  He looked closer at her,and realized that her scabbard was empty, her clothes were torn in more than a few places, and she was bleeding under those torn patches.  She had been fighting with something.

      That something--or more to the point, those somethings--came around the rocky pile a few seconds later.  They were medium-sized reptiles, bipedal ones that looked like miniature versions of a kajat.  Smaller, but they were also built more leanly, with longer, whip-like tails, and their forelegs were much differently shaped than the massive desert predators, ending in surprisingly long, wickedly curved claws, with similar claws on their feet.  They had the same generally shaped heads as a kajat, and those mouths were filled with rows and rows of sharp teeth.  Their hides looked scaly from that distance, a color not far off from sand, with dark mottled patches to serve as camoflage in the desert.  From the look of them, these had to be inu, the Quick Death, one of the most feared of the desert's predators.  There were about ten of them, and they were chasing down the Selani female with shocking speed for such strangely-built animals.  They looked ungainly, but their long tails served to counterbalance their forward-leaning bodies, giving them a center of gravity from which their powerful legs could work.  They looked strange, but their bodies were very much adapted for running.

      Between their speed and their natural weaponry, he had little doubt that the name Quick Death was well deserved.

      "It's a Selani," Sarraya noted aloud as she landed on his shoulder.  "That's a pack of inu."

      "I figured that out, Sarraya," he told her gratingly.  "It doesn't look like she's going to outrun them."

      "Then we should do something about it," she told him.

      "Why?  She's no concern of mine."

      "Because it's the right thing to do," she said crossly.

      "She's a stranger," he said bluntly, using the one term with which Sarraya could not argue, the term that would tell her why he felt as he did.

      The Selani was almost directly under them.  She tripped over something and fell to the ground in a cloud of dust, but was up and with her back to the wall before she came to a complete stop.  The inu slowed down and surrounded her, but they didn't simply lunge in for the kill after all the woman's escape routes were closed.  They hissed and growled at her, snapping at the air in her direction, pacing back and forth as the woman kept her back to the wall.  Odds were, he realized, that the inu had made the mistake of attacking Selani in the past, and they were afraid to make the first move.  They had cornered a solitary Selani, but now that they had her, they were reluctant to press in for the kill.

      That, or they were just toying with her.  One or the other.

      Something inside him shifted at seeing that.  Seeing a Selani cornered like that offended his sensibilities.  She was unarmed, incapable of defending herself.  His Cat side told him to leave her to her folly, to make it no business of his, not to get tangled up with a stranger.  But the Human inside, the Human looking for redemption for the evil that had been done in his life, couldn't abandon the Selani to fate.  This was a chance to wear away at the dark stain that had infested his soul, a little act of charity to balance the darkness of his past.

      This was his chance to set at least one small thing right.  For all the difference it would make.

      The inu surrounding the woman were getting closer and closer, working up the courage to attack, that, or tiring of the game.  One of the larger ones came out from the circle of them, a really big one with a scar on its snout, the claws on its forepaws showing that it had put a few marks on the Selani.  It hissed at the Selani woman, and then bunched up its legs beneath it.  It suddenly sprang out, rotating so the huge claws on its feet would rend the woman to pieces--

      --and it was suddenly being driven into the ground by Tarrin's feet, feet planted firmly on the base of its neck.  The forty span fall had given him terrific momentum, and that momentum crushed the aggressive reptile under him as he drove it into the rocky ground.  He felt bones shatter under his feet, and the breath was crushed out of the monster's lungs by the impact, lungs that would not refill.

      Kneeling on the shattered carcass, Tarrin turned to glare at the other inu, his eyes blazing from within with the unholy greenish radiance that marked his anger.  He drew himself up to his full height and drew his sword in one smooth motion, then roared his challenge to the pack.  All the frustration and aggravation he had endured for the last five days had suddenly found an outlet.

      The inu, sensing the unique aspects of this foe, were nevertheless incensed by his bellowed challenge, an affront to their superiority in the harsh desert.  They were almost compelled to attack.

      In the blink of an eye, two halves of the first inu to charge him went flying behind him, to each side, cleaved in twain as it lunged at him.  The Cat had control now, and it knew how to use the weapon in its paws, drawing that knowledge from the Human within.  Knowledge the Human freely granted to the Cat to aid in mutual defense.  Tarrin lunged forward, charging into the very center of the pack, his own shouts and roars competing with the screeching cries coming from the pack of reptiles.  He slashed another in half as three jumped on top of him, claws ripping and tearing, jaws clamping around one arm and teeth sinking into the back of his neck.  The pain was almost nothing to the Cat, wanting to dish out punishment more than it was ready to submit to pain.  A flashing paw took out the throat of one trying to tear his arm off with its jaws, and a swipe of the sword in the other sent the front half of the muzzle of the inu on the other side of him spinning away.  His free paw caught the clawed forepaw of the inu that filled the gap, crushed bones and sinew in his inhuman grip, then picked up the animal and whipped it into its fellows, with a small inu on his back the entire time, seeking to tear off his head with its jaws.  Tarrin reached up over his shoulder and drove his claws into the side of the inu on his back, and then he closed his fist.  Fingers sank into the flesh of the creature's side, making it shudder and recoil, then he pulled his paw away.  The wound he left behind was ghastly, with two ribs showing through as he ripped a huge chunk of flesh from the monster's flank, and it screeched in pain and let go of its biting hold on him.  He turned and slammed the back of his fist into the monster's head as it tried to jump off of him, driving it into the ground.

      But for each he killed or wounded, two more took its place.  He was again swarmed over by the surviving pack, and their claws and teeth sank into him, tore through muscle, tried to disembowel him, but the pain only made him more and more angry.  Even the Cat began to lose its composure, regressing into his primal state, a state where he felt no pain, felt nothing but raw fury, and his eyes hazed over with red as he felt himself snap in the face of the assault.

      Inu went flying in every direction as Tarrin exploded upwards, leaving the ground, using his inhuman strength to overwhelm the six uninjured combatants that remained.  He brought his sword down as he returned to the earth, in a vicious overhanded chop that was aimed at the head of the nearest opponent.  The sword swept through the monster with no effort, and drove partly into a stone beneath it, a stone partially buried in the sandy soil around them.  He delivered an elbow to the jaws of one that tried to come at him from behind, shattering teeth and bone and sending it staggering back, with blood and tooth shards flying in all directions.  Another lept at him, but the enraged Were-cat caught it by its foot, then turn and whipped it into the ground with enough force to split its belly.  But that wasn't good enough.  He picked it up and slammed it into the ground again, spilling its organs out onto the bare rock, then picked it up once more and hurled it in the direction of its packmates, sending bowels and other organs flying in an arc before it went spinning away.  Another lunged at him, dodging under the carcass of its packmate, but he raised the tip of his sword to intercept it, and it had nowhere to go.  It skewered itself on his weapon, and he turned and swung the sword, inu and all, at the one whose muzzle had been taken off earlier.  The blade didn't kill it, but the impact with the dead inu carried along with the sword did, crushing its head and spilling both carcasses to the ground.

      There were only three left, and one was wounded.  They looked around and suddenly began to make shrill barking sounds, and turned to flee.  But the enraged Were-cat would not accept that.  It rushed forward with blazing speed, taking the head off the injured one as it turned to run with a swipe of the sword, then the sword was cast aside as it grabbed the tail of one of the remaining two.  The creature barked in alarm, but that bark turned into a squeal when Tarrin yanked it into his clutches, then broke its back with an overhead smash of his other paw.  He put his claws into the wounded animal and heaved it over his head, then hurled it at the last one as it started to dash away.  The two collided several paces from him, and the weight of the thrown inu drove the other one to the ground.

      He was on them before they could even move, and with clawed paws, he took their throats.

      He stood up slowly, taking in the situation.  All the inu were dead.  There was another figure, back to the wall, not far away, and in his enraged state, he could not identify the figure as friend or foe.  He turned on that figure with a narrow-eyed hiss, then spread his paws and roared in challenge at it.

      "No!  That's enough!" a voice shouted at him, and suddenly a little blue winged thing dropped into view, hands out to stop him.  In his rage, he had trouble identifying this new interloper, but a part of him, somewhere deep inside, recognized this as a friend.  This was not one to kill.  He blinked as the rage drained away, as his conscious mind returned to full control, and he realized that Sarraya was before him.

      As always, he was a bit fuzzy after coming out of a rage.  He couldn't remember exactly what happened, what he did--that would return with time, as it always did--but he did remember that he was attacking a pack of inu.  He looked around, and realized that he'd killed all of them.  They were laying all around him, or at least parts of them were.  Some of them were more than dead.  He was covered in blood, and had quite a few deep gouges in him, gouges that were already regenerating.  He had one tooth sticking in his shoulder, lodged there by one of the inu, and he reached up and pulled it out absently as he realized that the figure was the Selani woman.  He looked at her, and saw that she was staring at him in complete shock.  And that her eyes were fixated on his shoulder.  On his brands.

      "You should be more careful," he told her in Selani, in a cold tone.  "Next time, I won't be standing on the rock over your head."

      "W-Who are you?" she demanded.  "I don't know the clan-brand you carry."

      "I'm nobody," he told her, feeling his distrust of her rising up already.  He looked at her face, and realized that she looked a little bit like Allia.  She had the same cheekbones.  But her jaw was a bit broader, and her eyes were golden instead of blue.  Her hair was about the same color as his, and she was shorter than Allia, shorter and if the fall of her desert garb were any indication, not as endowed as his sister with feminine curves.

      "I'm Denai Shu'Dellin, of the Clan Dellinar," she introduced.  "You saved my life.  I have blood debt with you."

      "Save it," he grunted.  "Consider your debt paid by leaving me be."

      "Debt is debt," she said sternly.  He took a good look at her, then sifted through her scent.  This one was very young, barely more than an adult.  She didn't have the sense to leave things alone.  She was so much shorter than him, so young, it caused him to look at her as a child, a little lost child far too away from her parents for her age, getting into more trouble than she was ready to handle.

      "Listen," he said in a sudden growl, a growl that made her put her back against the wall.  "I don't care what you think.  If you don't put it away and count your blessings, I'll leave you right here with the rest of this vulture food."

      "If that is how my debt is to be paid, then so be it," she said calmly, stepping forward.  She reached down and picked up his sword, drenched in inu blood, and held it towards him hilt-first, holding it by the blade.  "After what I just saw, I know better than to challenge you over your decision."

      Tarrin gave her a glance.  She was serious!  She'd let him lop off her head in a heartbeat, if that's what she felt that honor demanded.  Damned Selani and their honor!

      "Just drop it," he sighed, glancing at Sarraya.  But she only shrugged her shoulders.  He felt a bit wary to get too close to her, so he reached out carefully and took his sword, then pulled away more quickly than he intended.  The result was that he left two lines of blood on her palms, from where the lethally sharp weapon sliced into her as he recoiled.  She didn't even flinch.

      Now he felt foolish.  Before he realized what he was doing, he was in front of her, looming over her, her slender four-fingered hands caught up between his paws.  She looked like a child, a little girl, so close to her, and her small size compared to his own only reinforced that conception.  She looked up at him without fear, her amber gaze unwavering as he reached within, through the Cat and into the All, and then did what Sarraya had done for him so many times.  The will and intent within manifested without, and it caused the Selani's body to accelerate its healing process to such a degree that all her clawed gouges and her sliced palms healed over in mere seconds.  His intimate understanding and knowledge of the Selani made it very easy for him to accomplish, and so the Druidic magic did not tire him in any way.

      "You healed me!" she said in surprise, looking at her hands.  "You're a shaman."

      Shaman was a Selani term for magician, someone with the power to use magic.

      "Among other things," he said gruffly.  Where did that concern come from?  Just that close to her made his fear of her return, and it was all he could do to back away quickly.  It was almost as instinctual as his fear, he realized.  He saw her, thought of her as a little girl, and it incited a protective response in him.  Were-cat instinctual urges to protect children were powerful, even in the males.  He looked at her again, and again he looked at how small she was, how young she was.  That was it.  Looking at her and thinking that way caused the fear in him to ease, caused other, equally strong impulses to protect to rise up.  "What are you doing out here alone?" he demanded.  "This is not the place for a child!"

      "I'm not a child any longer," she flared.  "I wear my brands as proudly as you.  I was trying to catch those sukk, but the inu had the same idea.  After I killed a few of them, they decided to hunt me instead."

      This little slip of a girl, killing inu?  It seemed ludicrous, but he'd seen Selani fight.  This little slip of a girl had probably been trained in the Dance since she could walk.  He had no doubt that she had done exactly what she said she did.

      "I saw them bite you, but you have no wounds," she noted.  "Did you heal yourself too?  And what is that little winged thing?"

      "That is Sarraya, my friend," he told her.  "She can't understand what you say."

      "How about if I use the Western tongue?" she asked in Sulasian, which served as something of a common language throughough the West.  Most outside Sulasia could speak it who commonly dealt with travellers or traders.  It was heavily accented, but understandable.

      "Where did you learn that?" he asked in shock.

      "My father taught me the human tongues of both east and west.  I am training to be my tribe's obe."

      An obe was the tribe diplomat, of a sort.  They often advised tribal or clan chiefs in dealings with other tribes, clans, and humans.  They served as translators when necessary.  It was a very prestigious position, affording high honor, and only the brightest and most clever were trained for it.

      "Wow, a Selani that speaks Sulasian," Sarraya said in surprise.  "I thought Allia was one of the rare few."

      "I knew that obe worked as translators, but I never expected that they learned Sulasian this far east," Tarrin told the Faerie.  "We're still a thousand leagues from the Sandshield."

      "We are trained to serve, and serve in all ways," Denai told him.  "I would be of little use to my chief if I could not speak the Western tongue."

      "I'll give you that one," Tarrin told her.

      "Well, what are we going to do with her?" Sarraya asked.

      "Send her on her way, I guess," Tarrin told her.  "She can't be far from her tribe."

      "I have blood debt to you.  I will serve until that debt is paid."

      "I won't allow it," he told her ominously.  "I'm moving on, and I'll be long gone from here by tomorrow."

      "Honor is honor," she said pugnaciously.  "I know this region.  If you are moving west, as it sounds you are, then I can help guide you around the desert's dangers."

      "No," he said flatly.  "I don't like strangers."

      "I am not a stranger anymore," she told him calmly.  Then she smiled.  "I have told you my name.  That makes us more than strangers, does it not?"

      This little one was almost charming with that smile of hers.  He looked at Sarraya, but the Faerie only laughed.

      "Don't look at me.  I don't have the backbone to argue with her.  You do it."

      "How do you know I'm moving west?" he asked curiously.

      "You said you were still a thousand leagues from the Sandshield," she replied.  "The sandshield is west, and it sounds to me that it's your destination."

      "She's quick," Sarraya said in praise.

      "She wouldn't be obe if she wasn't," Tarrin told her absently.  Part of him absolutely could not believe what the rest of him was thinking.  It would be good to have her show him where the Selani were in the region, as well as the more dangerous areas.  It would save him time and potential danger.  Part of him didn't trust her...but part of him wanted to trust her.  She was Selani.  That gave her a measure of trustworthiness right there.  She wouldn't lie or connive.  She'd say her mind and be confident in what she said.  Besides, he was pretty sure that this determined young lady wasn't about to take no for an answer.  She had honor to repay, and he wasn't going to be able to stop her until she felt that honor was satisfied.  If he rebuffed her, she'd probably follow him.  And she was so young, having her tag along behind him wouldn't sit as well as putting her where he could see her and keep her out of trouble.

      Besides, travelling with her would be a challenge to the feral animal within, a decree to it that he would not be ruled by it forever.  Just like the girl in that Saranam city, the one that gave him the scarf, he was receiving something of a positive feeling from this little Selani.  If he was ever going to break his feral chains, he had to start somewhere, just like Mist did.  Mist reached out to him.  Maybe he could start by seeing how well he could tolerate this Selani.  If he could conquer his fear of her, perhaps there was hope he could conquer his fear of all strangers.

      "What do you think, Sarraya?"

      "She'll be better conversation than you," Sarraya shot back with a grin.  "Besides, a little guiding through this region may not be a bad thing.  She'll keep us from going into any box canyons."

      "I only did that once," he protested as he started to clean the blood off of him.  His clothes were pretty well torn, but that would have to wait.  He didn't want to linger near so many dead carcasses.  They would probably attract scavengers, scavengers not afraid to add a Selani and a Were-cat to the menu.

      "Once was all I'm going to give you," Sarraya winked.  "But the choice is yours.  She'll cause you more problems than me."

      "Cause problems?  How will I do that?" the Selani demanded.

      "By being here," Sarraya told her. "My large friend here isn't too comfortable around people he doesn't know.  Your presence may upset him."

      "I see the truth of it," Denai said.  "He turned on me after killing the inu as if I were his next foe."

      "He's like that, but don't let it confuse you.  He's really a little pussycat, once you get to know him."

      "Sarraya!"

      "Well, it's true," she grinned.  "You may be better off walking away, Selani.  Travelling with the likes of us won't be a very fun experience, and honor will be satisfied because you'll do it with his blessing."

      "Honor does not come to us without sacrifice," she said, quoting an old Selani saying.  "It is paid for in sweat and blood."

      "You'll earn it, girl," Sarraya said soberly.  "Believe me, you'll earn it."

      "I don't run away from my responsibilities."

      "Give it a few days, and then say that again," Sarraya said with a grin, then she laughed.  "I take it you're willing to give this a try?" she asked Tarrin.

      "May as well.  She may cut some time off our journey.  I'll risk a little anxiety for that."

      "Well, then," Sarraya said, then she laughed.  "This should be fun."

      "Only for you," Tarrin said, cleaning his sword.  Then he sheathed it.  His tail was slashing back and forth, and like almost everyone who first met him, her eyes were drawn to it almost immediately the first time he looked away from her.

      "I need to tell my chief and my tribe what I do," Denai said.  "They're only a short run to the north, and we should go that way to avoid the Great Canyon.  So it's not out of our way."

      "Great Canyon?" Tarrin asked.

      "A canyon so vast and so deep that nobody can cross it," she replied.  "We have to go around it.  If you're going to the Sandshield, you'll need to go northwest anyway.  You can't cross in the south during this time of year."

      "Does every Selani know that?" Sarraya asked, just a bit tersely.  "Var said the exact same thing!  How do Selani living on this side of the desert know about how to travel on that side of the desert?"

      "Common knowledge," Denai shrugged.  "It pays to know the paths of the desert, even the parts of the desert you rarely visit."

      "Makes sense, on what I know of the Selani," Tarrin told Sarraya absently.  "If we're going to go, let's go.  But one word, Denai.  I don't slow down.  If you get left behind, then go back home.  I won't wait for you."

      "That sounds like a challenge," Denai said with a smile.

      "It's a warning," he told  her.  "Nothing more, nothing less.  You should also know that I'm not human.  I'm nothing like you've ever encountered before.  I have impulses you don't understand, and I'll do things that make no sense to you.  Don't let your guard down around me, girl.  I tell you right now that if you surprise me or come to me when I'm not ready to deal with you, or if I'm very angry for some reason, I might attack you without warning."

      "That's no concern for me."

      "Just so you know.  Consider yourself warned."

      "Fine, I understand your warning.  If I'm to travel with you, may I know your name?"

      "Tarrin," he answered as he started at a strong pace towards the north.

      "Better move, girl," Sarraya said as he left them.  "He wasn't joking.  He'll leave you where you stand."

      "Nobody in my tribe runs faster or further than me," Denai called.  "I'll show you.  I'll be stride for stride with you once I find my sword."

      "Whatever," he said noncommitaly.

      It was insanity.  He knew it was.  Taking on this Selani was a bad mistake.  She was a stranger, and being around her made him anxious.  But another part of him wanted to feel that way, wanted to face his feral fear and conquer it.  The only way to do that was to have someone there to fear.  Besides, she reminded him of a child in many ways, and something in him wanted to protect her.  She could help them, if she was as well versed in the region as she led him to believe.  All he had to do was tolerate her presence long enough to take advantage of it.  He was both drawn to her and repelled by her at the same time.  He hoped it stayed that way.  And he hoped fervently that she kept up her guard around him.  She'd been warned.

 

      Denai proved to be a woman of her word.  She could not only keep up with him, she could outpace him on flat ground.  She ran with him for most of the rest of the day, leading him to the north, towards her tribe.  Ran in silence while Tarrin continued to teach Sarraya the Sha'Kar language.  The thought of entering a Selani group didn't sit well with him, did not sit well at all.  He understood the Selani, but such a group invited disaster.  There could be one or more within the tribe that didn't care for him, and may challenge him over his presence in the desert.  Among the Selani, that meant a fight.  Since he wasn't Selani, that made it a fight to the death.  He didn't much relish the idea of killing any headstrong Selani in duels of honor, because that would incite the others to side against him, and could provoke even more challenges.  He would take this Selani girl back to her tribe, but his intent was to hold back, let her go and get what she wanted, then move on after a little while.  She was a strong runner, she could catch up to him.

      They reached the encampment of the tribe just before sunset, and they had to come through a large flock of sukk and a small herd of goats to reach it.  The animals, sensing Tarrin's predatory nature, bleated and gave shrieking cries and shied away from him as Denai led him through their groups, clearing a wide path around the two as they moved towards an encampment of about fifty large tan tents.  Denai's tribe was very large, maybe the tribe that carried the Clan-chief within it.  A tribe was part of its clan, but the Clan-chief was known to stay with the tribe from which he came after winning the position.  He saw the first of them as he moved through the flocks, young boys and girls with long staves, herding and minding the animals.  Tarrin's presence sent most of them scurrying towards the camp quickly, and those that did not leave the flocks stared at him in open-mouthed astonishment.  He was already anxious over Denai, but now he was going to be absolutely surrounded by strangers if he didn't come up short of the camp.  It was what he intended to do in the first place.

      Now that he was closer, he could see the goings on within the camp.  He could see well over two hundred Selani in the camp, and they all had their hoods and veils off in the waning heat of the late afternoon.  They were bent to a variety of tasks, from making pottery jars to weaving ropes to tanning leather, to practicing their fighting forms and training with weapons.  A small group of Selani youths were on the near side of the camp, casting javelins at a gnarled stump protruding from the sandy soil.  The Selani disdained projectile weapons like bows or crossbows, favoring hand-thrown objects like javelins, axes, and daggers or knives.  The superior Selani foot speed and agility meant that they could easily get within that range when it was necessary.  But their preferred method of fighting was hand to hand, and it was here where they earned their reputation as some of the finest fighters in the entire world.

      Tarrin pulled up about a hundred paces from the outer tents.  Denai took a few more steps, then stopped and turned towards him with a curious look on her face.  "You should meet my tribe, Tarrin," she told him.  "They would welcome you.  You showed honor by helping me."

      "I told you, I don't like strangers," he said gruffly.  "I'm going to circle around to the north side of the camp and wait for you.  I'll give you until sunset, and then I'm moving again."

      "You mean to move at night?  Tarrin, that is not safe."

      "I can handle myself, girl," he said in a warning tone.

      "The Sandmen move at night.  It's not safe to move at night."

      "Sandmen?  Allia never described them.  What are they?"

      "Restless spirits of those who died from the desert's hardship," she replied.  "They are spirits of sand.  They can't be hurt, but they can suffocate with their sand.  They stay away from the lights of fires, so you are safe so long as you stay within the light."

      "Sarraya?"

      "I've never heard of them either," she told him.  "I could take one, though.  If it's made of sand, I can deal with it on that level."

      "Good enough for me," he said calmly. "You have until sunset.  If you stay here tonight, don't bother trying to catch up."

      "You are foolish to challenge the Sandmen," she warned.

      "I don't fear ghosts, girl," he replied with a level look.  "The ghosts had better fear me.  I'm much worse than they are."

      She gave him a sidelong look, then dazzled him what that charming smile.  "I think I've found someone who will fill the nights of my grandchildren with wonderful songs," she told him, then she started towards the Selani encampment.

      Tarrin snorted, then turned to circumnavigate the camp.  Sarraya floated along beside his head, looking around him at the Selani who gathered with weapons in their hands to observe them.  "They're a pretty paranoid bunch," she noted.  "The Selani I met when I was in the desert weren't so mean looking."

      "Sounds like this is a pretty rough stretch of desert," he replied.  "Allia never talked about these Sandmen, so they must only be native to this area.  Sounds like these Selani get lots of exercise."

      "That girl certainly seems adventurous.  I get the feeling she's so set on going with us just for the excitement of it."

      "Possible.  If she wants excitement, I'm sure she'll find lots of it.  Considering the way trouble always seems to follow us around."

      Sarraya laughed.  "That's for certain," she agreed with a continuing chuckle.  "You sure you're ready to deal with a stranger?"

      "No," he answered honestly.  "But something inside me wants to try anyway.  Maybe the part of me that's so tired of being what I am."

      "Nothing wrong with trying," she assured him.  "She seems pretty self-sufficient.  If we send her away, I don't doubt she'll make it back to her tribe."

      "She's just a girl," he snorted.  "She shouldn't be off her mother's leash."

      "The desert raises them young, Tarrin," Sarraya replied.  "Besides, Selani age slower than humans.  She looks eighteen, but I'll bet she's probably around twenty-five.  She's cute."

      "You're noticing the wrong things about the wrong gender, Sarraya."

      "Women can appreciate the beauty of another woman, Tarrin," she said curtly.  "And besides, she's not half as pretty as I am."

      "You certainly have a high opinion of yourself."

      "She's the wrong color.  All wrong.  How can she be truly beautiful unless she has blue skin?"

      "I think some racial prejudice is showing through."

      "Posh," Sarraya snorted.  "She's cute, I'll give her that, but nowhere near me."

      "Why all this sudden interest in how cute a Selani woman is, Sarraya?"

      "Just comparing, Tarrin.  Women like to do that.  It's not like I want to date her or anything."

      "I'm so glad to hear that.  I'm sure she would be too."

      "What a thing to say!"

      "It's true.  You're way too short for her."

      Sarraya glared at him, then she burst out into helpless laughter.

      Tarrin managed to skirt the camp, getting around on the north side, without too much trouble.  He displaced a smaller flock of sukk as he came around, the large birds wanting nothing to do with the Were-cat, and he found a nice rock upon which to sit while he waited for Denai, while Sarraya flitted off to go look at something.  He had no idea why he was waiting for Denai.  He should have just moved on, and let her decide whether it was worth the trouble to catch up with him.  Part of him wanted nothing to do with her.  But another part of him did want something to do with her, and for the first time in a very long while, that part of him was shouting louder than his fear.  It could have been because he saw her as a child, it could have been because she was Selani, and he trusted Selani up to a point, or it could have been that he was simply ready to see if he could tolerate strangers.

      He wasn't quite sure why he was afraid to go into the camp.  He'd gone into human cities alone, without his sisters and friends around him to give him some support and some familiarity to keep him calm.  He'd managed to go into that Saranam city easily, and though he'd felt anxiety and fear, it had been managable.  But these Selani...it seemed different somehow.  He trusted their behavior, up to a point, because of Allia and his understanding of them.  Yet he was afraid to surround himself with Selani.  Perhaps it was because, unlike humans, Selani did pose a danger to him.  Allia was more than capable of killing him, and he knew it.  That caused him to afford much more respect to a Selani opponent than a human.  And that was probably why he was afraid of them.  Respect caused him to fear them, fear them more than humans, simply because they could hurt him.  With humans, it was different.  The average human had almost no chance of doing him any harm, so he wasn't very worried about going out among them.  It took an extraordinary human, or one with knowledge that was not commonplace, to do him harm.

      Strange.  If that were the case, then maybe he was more tolerant than he thought he was.  If he was able to differentiate between those that could harm him and those that could not, and give each group a different level of caution, then perhaps he wasn't quite so feral as he believed.

      He watched the Selani as they watched him, gathered on that side of the camp, many of them holding weapons and watching to see if he did anything hostile.  He knew the sharpness of Selani eyes, so he knew that they had seen the brands.  That was probably the only reason they weren't attacking him as an outlander.  He was a mystery, an unknown, carrying the brands that would give him safe passage through the desert, but of a species they had never seen before.  The combination of those meant that they would simply not pester him.

      Well, at least most of them thought that way.  One rather tall Selani broke away from the group, holding a longspear in his hand.  He marched towards Tarrin calmly and steadily, but Tarrin gave no outward reaction to the man.  He simply watched him, with only his tail moving back and forth.  A surge of irrational fear rose up in him, but he rose up along with it and stomped on it.  He would not be a slave to his own fear.  He would not!  It was hard to scent the man through the dried blood that still stuck to him, from the fight with the inu, but once he got close enough, the coppery-flavored scent of the Selani reached him.  There was nothing in that scent to hint to him what the man intended to do.  Usually, a scent gave away fear, anger, even murderous intent.  But he couldn't find any of those things in this man's scent.

      The man didn't attack.  He stopped, about ten paces from Tarrin's rock, and grounded the butt of his spear in the dusty soil.  "You claim blood debt on my daughter?"

      "She claims it against me," he said evenly in reply.  "I already absolved her of any need to satisfy her debt.  What she does is by her own choice."

      "You carry the brands, so you must know of our custom.  You know she would not simply walk away."

      "I certainly tried to convince her.  I don't have time to shephard a child."

      "Speak carefully about my daughter, stranger," the man said with a bit of steel in his voice.  "Her brands give her the same rights as any of us."

      "Truth is truth," Tarrin said, rising up onto his feet, rising up over the Selani man.  To his credit, the Selani didn't flinch away from Tarrin's unnatural height.  "All of you are like children to me."

      "Seeing you like this, I see the truth of that," the man acceded with a hint of a smile.  "What my daughter does is her choice.  I have no right to force her.  Those rights were surrendered when she took the brands.  But I will not allow my daughter to travel into danger without understanding that danger."

      "I intend to let her guide me for a few days, then I'll send her back," he told the man.  "I'm not the kind that goes looking for danger.  I agreed to let her guide me so I could avoid dangerous areas."

      "She says you intend to move in the night.  That is seeking danger."

      "These Sandmen don't concern me, shih," he said, using the Selani term for honored stranger.  "I don't fear ghosts."

      "You don't understand the danger."

      "I understand the danger.  They are ghosts made of sand.  There are ways to stop sand."

      "My daughter said you are shaman.  Is this true?"

      "It is," he replied honestly.  "I also have an companion who is shaman."

      The man looked him up and down.  "My daughter is an adult, so I can't stop her.  But if something should happen to her, there will be blood between us, stranger."

      That was a Selani term for a feud.  "Whatever happens to your daughter is by her choice, not yours," he replied, looking down at the man.  "First she is old enough to make her own choices, now you seek to dishonor the choices she makes."

      "That is a father's right," he said evenly.  "Why do you seek to travel at night?"

      "To get away from you," he replied bluntly.  There was no reason to lie to Selani.  "I don't like strangers.  I can't find peace with them close to me.  So I will move away from you before I rest."

      "My daughter is a stranger."

      "Your daughter is one stranger.  One, I can tolerate.  A group is another matter."

      "A strange reasoning."

      "I'm not human, shih.  Don't try to judge me by any standard you're used to."

      "I've taken it," he said, using a Selani slang phrase for understood.  The Selani language had a kind of thing for the word take.  It appeared in many phrases and expressions, even when it made little sense for it to be there.  "If I may be so bold, what exactly are you?"

      "There's no word for me in your language," he replied.  "You can call me a man-cat.  That's the closest I can get."

      "It seems fitting," he agreed.  Denai appeared on the edge of the camp, with a pack on her back and trotting towards them easily.  She came up behind her father, who turned to look at her, and then she put her hand to his face in ritual farewell as he did the same with her.  "Go with caution, daughter," he warned.  "Don't let need for honor cloud your judgement.  A wise woman knows when a debt is repaid, and when the greed for honor has taken over."

      "I'll be alright, father," she replied easily.  "If that one can kill a pack of inu, I don't see much need to worry."

      "Be careful all the same," he warned.  "We'll sing for you each night until you come home."

      "I appreciate that, father," she said with that charming smile.  "I'll be home as soon as the debt is repaid."

      Tarrin settled his sword a bit on his back, then turned away from them and started off towards the northwest.  He'd give them a moment in private, and besides, seeing them like that made him miss his sisters, and his parents, and Triana.  It wasn't something he wanted to dwell upon.

      Behind him, the Selani camp arose in song.  The sound of it was haunting, as a multitude of gentle, soft voices joined together in what sounded to him was a benediction, and a plea for the safe return of their daughter.  The sound of it was haunting, complicated, as the many voices joined together to form a choral whole that was stronger than the sum of its parts.  It reminded him in a strange way of the Goddess, and the curious choral effect of her voice when she spoke to him, as if no one voice could contain all the power within it.  This wasn't the powerful choral quality ofthe Goddess, but the voices carried a strange power of their own.  It incited several memories of Allia and her lovely voice, how she would sing for him whenever he was feeling unwell or out of sorts.  Her voice was nothing like what he heard behind him, but the sound of it only made his longing for Allia's company that much worse.  He closed his ears to that sound, looking down at the ground as he left, picking up his pace to get out of earshot of their lovely song, a song that reminded him of the family he had left behind.

      And he was missing them more and more with every passing day.

 

      Denai was going to be a problem.

      He realized that while sitting around a campfire with her and Sarraya about midnight.  They had moved through half the night to get some distance from the other Selani, and had seen none of these mysterious Sandmen that the Selani warned him about.  They found a nice place in a shallow hollow in the side of a rocks spire, a hollow that caught the fire's heat and warmed the area much more than if they were out in the open.  Denai had brained a large lizard, nearly five spans long, with a slender throwing dagger, and that had been dinner.

      Denai was...energetic.  That was a kind term.  In actuality, she was hyperactive, overflowing with youthful energy and exuberance.  Her eyes were shining with that energy as they sat around the campfire, and she had trouble sitting still as she and Sarraya talked aimlessly about this or that.  She was a far cry from the dignified Allia, who moved so much less so than this girl.  Even Var, in the short time he'd observed him, didn't act quite like this young Selani girl.  Var was more lively than Allia, but nowhere near this.  That wasn't to say that Allia was unusual, but his sister had an aire of dignity and honor about her that made her seem different than those two, and she wasn't prone to fidgeting and waggling about as Denai was.  Denai was a talker, and that too seemed strange for a Selani.  She loved to talk, nearly as much as Phandebrass, but unlike him she would be silent and let those around her speak back.  She had an intense interest about him and Sarraya, and went on and on and on and on with her questions.  So many that she'd had to retreat to the far side of the fire when Tarrin fixed her with an ugly stare and laid his ears back at her.  Sarraya knew him and knew Were-cats, so she knew that it was time to separate the exuberant girl from the brooding Were-cat which was the focus of her curiosity.

      The follies of youth.

      Tarrin didn't consider the fact that Denai was probably older than he was.  He was only eighteen, but he'd seen so much in his short life that he felt much, much older than that.  Denai had that same fire, that spirit that he had had when he left home with Dolanna and Faalken, which was what seemed a lifetime ago. She saw their trip as an adventure, something exciting and fun, something to look back upon and remember fondly.  For him, it was yet another chore, yet another obstacle to overcome as he hurtled towards his own fate.

      In a way, he envied Denai.  She was young, and didn't know any better.  Everything for her was new and exciting, and her outlook on life was along the lines of "take no prisoners."  He could appreciate that.  He'd felt that way once, a very long time ago.  Too long ago.

      Tarrin listened to her drone on and on, absently looking down at the ground, and that was when he noticed it.  Gold.  A large nugget of it, just laying on the desert floor like a pebble.  He reached down and picked it up, and saw that it was indeed pure gold.  It wasn't as shiny as jewelry was, twisted a little into an irregular shape that resembled a peanut, but a clawtip showed him that it was indeed real gold.  Allia had said that the desert was littered with it, that it was holy to Fara'Nae.  That was the main thrust of the current frictions between Arkis and the Selani, that Arkisian gold hunters were invading the desert to get the gold that was literally strewn across the landscape.  There was a time when he would have wondered at finding such a thing, when gold meant something to him.  Now, it was just another pretty metal.  Gold, and the greed it incited, were primarily human wants.  His Were-cat mentality didn't see much use for gold.  He could provide for all his own needs, so money wasn't something that interested him.  Gold had no value other than what others were willing to give in trade for it.  And out here, where there was no one to trade with, it made it just as valuable as any other pebble laying on the desert floor.

      Well, if it was holy to Fara'Nae, he figured that it probably wasn't a good idea to disturb it.  He put it back where he found it, and turned his ears back to Sarraya and Denai.

      "I don't see why you'd need to learn all those languages if nobody ever comes into the desert," Sarraya said to the Selani.

      "Merchants come into the desert," Denai told her.  "They speak the four common trade languages, so the obe must know all four."

      "Four?  I thought there were two."

      "Four.  The common tongue of the west, the common tongue of the east, the language of the beast-men, and the language of the south."

      "Beastmen?  You mean the Wikuni?" Sarraya asked curiously, and Denai nodded.  "And which is the south?"

      "Sharadi," Tarrin said calmly, interrupting them.  "Dolanna told me that the common trade language of the southern continents is Sharadi."

      "That's it," Denai agreed.  "The obe serves as the translator for the chief, and also as an advisor.  It's a hard job, because obe aren't permitted to fight unless the chief is in danger.  We sacrifice much for the honor of the position."

      "I didn't know a Selani would agree to not fight," Sarraya teased.  "But to learn four languages at once, wow.  That's hard."

      "It's very hard.  I'm still learning.  We have to know the languages as well as those who learned it from infancy.  Sometimes I get confused, and start speaking in another language when I'm trying to use one of them.  I was taught all four at once.  Sometimes they get jumbled together."

      "Tarrin suffers from that too," Sarraya grinned.  "He's like an encyclopedia of languages.  I don't know anyone who can speak as many languages as he can.  But you know two that he doesn't," she told the Selani.

      "I do?  Which?"

      "Wikuni and Sharadi," she replied.

      "Keritanima and Dolanna were teaching them to me, but things kept them from finishing," he told the Faerie, gnawing a bit more on one of the bones left over from the lizard.

      "Then perhaps I can help settle my blood debt by finishing," Denai offered.  "It will help me get better by teaching you.  I can't teach you as well as those others could, but I'm sure you can learn something from me that you didn't know."

      "Maybe," he said indifferently.

      "How many kinds of jobs are there in the Selani camps, Denai?" Sarraya asked.

      "Jobs?  You mean positions of honor, like an obe?"

      "Yeah.  Tarrin knows all about it, but he won't tell me anything."

      "Well, there are the obe.  There are si'swan, the Scouts--"

      "Allia is a Scout," Tarrin told Sarraya.

      "Scouts are gifted with the Eyes of the Holy Mother.  That gift makes them perfect watchers.  There are the oribu'oni, the Weapons Makers.  They are a society of high honor, and it is great honor to be accepted into them.  We have shaman, the Voices of the Holy Mother, our healers and magicians.  They are the greatest of honorable societies.  Even a chief bows to the words of a shaman, because they speak with the voice of the Holy Mother.  We are all dutiful children, and we obey her words.  There are other societies--"

      "Societies?" Sarraya asked.

      "Think of them as guilds, or groups," Tarrin interjected.  "Members of a society can belong to different tribes or clans, but the bond of society makes them a group to themselves.  There is a society for every job or skill, from potters to warriors.  A Selani can belong to more than one society, if he has more than one skill.  Just to keep Denai from spending hours describing them."

      "You know much of our people, Tarrin," Denai said, her voice telling him that she was impressed.  "The shaman serve as the arbiters between clans or tribes when they have blood issues.  The Holy Mother does not permit us to fight among ourselves, so our societies allow us to reach across clan lines when the need is there."

      "I've been to the desert before, but we never really talked to the Selani," Sarraya told Denai.  "I was visiting another Druid--"

      "Druid?  You mean the Watchers?"

      "That's what he said you called him," Sarraya replied.

      "Watchers are men and women of honor," Denai said.  "They have always been helpful to our people when we've needed it.  The Holy Mother has decreed that Watchers are to be treated with courtesy and respect.  If you are a Watcher, then you're worthy of honor."

      "Well, it's nice to be appreciated," Sarraya said, giving Tarrin a teasing look.  "At least someone around here does."

      "Don't worry, Denai.  Sarraya will give you plenty of reasons not to think so highly of her in just a few days."

      Sarraya glared at him, but Denai laughed.

      "Well at least I don't snore!" she flared.

      "Says you," he replied mildly.

      She stuck her tongue out at him, then turned back to a smiling Denai.  "What is this Gathering I heard about?"

      "We gather together every year," she replied.  "We trade goods and stories.  We compete among ourselves in contest of skill, and the societies have a chance to gather and share knowledge and renew kinships.  It's also a time to find husbands or wives, because it's not good for the people as a whole if too many marriages are made within the same tribe.  We gather at the Cloud Spire, so its shade makes the long days less taxing on us."

      "Sounds like a huge fair," Sarraya mused.

      "Fair?"

      "A fair is a good comparison.  A fair is much like a Gathering," he told Denai.

      "I meant to ask you something, Tarrin."

      "What?"

      "Your brands.  Are you truly of the clan chief's blood?"

      Tarrin gave her a curious look, then he rememebered that the little line through the clan brand on his shoulder denoted "royal blood," and was something only the blood of a Clan Chief wore.  "My deshaida is the daughter of a clan chief," he told her.  "I've never met her clan.  She was the one who gave me the brands."

      "Strange for her to do it without her clan's permission."

      "She made it rather clear that it was unusual," he agreed.  "But the circumstances were unusual too."

      "What circumstances?"

      "None that concern you," he told her rather shortly, crushing the bone with his sharp teeth and drawing out the marrow.

      "Ignore him, Denai.  Until he gets to know you, he'll be about as warm as an angry hornet."

      "I meant no offense," Denai said contritely.

      "Don't worry about it," Sarraya told her.  "Old badger-butt over there doesn't like anyone at first.  Just give him time, and he'll grow on you."

      Tarrin fixed Sarraya with a flat stare, his tail stopping in mid-swish.

      "See?  Only someone who loved him would put up with that day after day," she said flippantly.

      Despite herself, Denai laughed.  "Why are you crossing the desert?  Why not use those water-carriages that the beast-people use?"

      "Ship.  They're called ships," Sarraya told her.  "We're travelling overland because it's a bit unsafe on the ocean right now.  Tarrin's brands give him safe passage through the desert, and none of our enemies will follow us here."

      "Enemies?  It sounds like you have quite a story to tell," she said, her eyes taking on a dreamy quality.

      "We do, but it'll have to wait for later.  Tell me about that singing I was hearing as we left your people."

      "They were singing for me," she replied.  "Singing a prayer of good passage, so that the Holy Mother may watch over and protect me on my journey."

      "Interesting.  Tarrin told me that the Selani love to sing."

      "Singing is the way the Holy Mother wishes us to say our prayers aloud," she told the Faerie.  "Because we sing our prayers, we've found singing to be soothing to us, or voice our contentment.  If you hear a Selani singing, then the Selani must be either feeling very good, or is a little upset."

      "What happens when you want to pray for something that you don't have a song for?"

      "The song is the prayer," she said pointedly.  "We build the melody as we go.  The better the song, the better the chance that the Holy Mother will answer the prayer.  From the time we can speak, we learn the concepts of music and melody and harmony, all so we can be heard above other Selani when we pray."

      "It sounds like a competition."

      "I guess it is," Denai admitted.  "Singing is one of the most serious competitions during the Gathering.  The greatest singer in the desert is afforded much honor."

      "What other competitions are there?"

      "There are alot of them.  One of the most honorable is the contest of the Dance," she said.  "There are all sorts of contests of skill with weapons and feats of strength or agility.  There are races and contests to see who can climb the highest up the Cloud Spire.  The societies compete among themselves to see who can make the greatest object, or perform their craft with the greatest skill.  The items that win those competitions stay with the winning Selani's clan until the next Gathering.  It's a matter of honor to own an object that won a society's contest at the Gathering."

      "What happens to them at the next Gathering?"

      "They are given to the most promising apprentices of the societies, so they can study them and learn the secrets of their crafts," she replied.

      "So, let me guess.  The apprentices compete to see who gets to keep last year's winners?"

      Denai nodded, reaching to her waist and pulling out a slender dagger.  "This was one of those objects, made for the competition between oribu'oni.  It was given to my brother when he won the right to own it, and he gave it to me.  It's the best dagger I've ever owned.  Its balance is perfect for throwing."

      "You call it a dagger, I'd call it a sword," Sarraya grinned.

      "Are all your people your size, Sarraya?"

      "Of course," she smiled.  "I'm actually a bit tall among my people."

      "I've never seen a race so small.  No offense," she said quickly.

      "None taken, Denai.  We know we're short.  We don't have complexes about it, you know."

      Tarrin snorted in derision.  "You stay out of it!" Sarraya barked at him, then turned back to Denai.  "Sometimes being so small has advantages.  You just have to look for the good in it, that's all."

      "Are all Tarrin's kind so, so tall?"

      "No," Sarraya replied.  "He's out of the ordinary for his kind, but as a whole, his kind are much taller than humans, or Selani."

      "It only goes to show that it's as the Holy Mother teaches.  That the world is full of great differences, and that those differences make the world richer for their presence."

      "That's very profound," Sarraya said with no hint of teasing or amusement in her voice.

      Denai gave Sarraya that charming smile, then took a sip of water from a waterskin.  "We'll continue this way for a day or two more," she said.  "But then we'll have to turn due north to avoid the Great Canyon."

      "How far away is this Cloud Spire?" Sarraya asked curiously.

      "It's in almost the exact center of the desert," Denai replied.  "Nearly a month of travel, north and west of here."

      "Really?  I didn't realize that the desert was so big."

      "It's nearly as large as the West," Tarrin told her absently.

      "It'll take longer for my people to get there because they'll have to avoid certain dangerous areas," Denai said.  "They'll spend almost as much time travelling south and east as they do north and west."

      "What kind of areas?"

      "The Great Canyon," she said, looking up as she thought.  "The Maze of Passages, the Great Salt Flat, and the Boiling Lake."

      "Boiling Lake?  What is that?"

      "A large lake, but the water is so hot it boils," she replied.  "My mother says it's because of heat that comes from underground.  The water boils as it comes out of the ground, and it has a bad smell.  The very air around the Boiling Lake is unhealthy, so we avoid it.  The whole region is empty, because the fumes from the lake and the water itself kill off any plants or animals that try to live there."

      "What is the Maze of Passages?"

      "It's an area of badlands," she replied.  "Raised rock crisscrossed with countless deep crevasses that serve as passages through the region.  The passages are infested with inu and kajat, preying off the animals and Selani foolish enough to enter the maze.  We'll pass by there in about ten days.  It's just past the Great Canyon's northern edge."

      "It's a good thing you're here, then," Sarraya said. "Tarrin would lead us right into it, and get us immediately lost."

      "You can fly.  Why do you care?" Tarrin shot back in reply.

      "I don't, but then I'd have to save you again and again, and you know old and boring that gets after about the fiftieth time," she teased.

      "Whatever."  He yawned.  "I'm getting tired.  I'm going to bed.  You two had better remember that we have a long way to go tomorrow."

      With that, he hunkered down and shifted into cat form.  Denai's startled gasp as she rose to her feet quickly made him realize that he hadn't warned her or said anything, but in reality, he really didn't care all that much.  He curled up near the fire and closed his eyes, allowing the care-free nature of the Cat soothe him and prepare him to sleep.  The dreams and the eyeless face had trouble finding him when he was in cat form, and so it had become his preferred way to sleep.  In reality, he preferred sleeping in cat form over his humanoid form most of the time anyway.

      "Magic!" Denai breathed.

      "Not magic, nature," Sarraya told her.  "He's a Were-cat."

      "What is that?"

      "Well, sit back down, and I'll explain everything.  I'll even explain a few things to you so you don't make a mistake around him.  He may look all cute and cuddly, but he can be as savage as an inu.  Well, actually, alot worse than that," she added as an afterthought.

      "He's that dangerous?"

      "He can be, if you're not careful around him.  But like many kinds of animals, he's only dangerous if you trigger a hostile response from him.  If you're careful around him, he can be as sweet and gentle as a newborn babe.  Just listen, and I'll tell you everything you need to know about Were-cats, and Tarrin, Denai.  When I'm done, you'll be an expert."

            Tarrin drifted off to sleep as Sarraya's voice droned on, explaining the nature of his kind to the young Selani.  Tarrin didn't mind.  Sarraya would teach Denai what she needed to know not to get herself accidentally killed around him.  That was always a good thing.


To:   Title                     EoF

Chapter 11

 

      Power.

      It was all around him.  He could sense it in the Weave, he could even sense it through the All, surrounding him, enticing him, causing him to reach towards it the way green things reached for the sun.  The Weave was strong in this region of the desert, with an unusual concentration of strands surrounding a minor Conduit and two medium ones.  That power pooled around him, coalesced in the strands immediately surrounding him, attracted to his presence by some unfathomable means.  It reached towards him the same way he reached towards it, but some unknown force or means prevented them from making contact with one another.

      Sitting in the full force of the sun, eyes closed and attention focused inward, Tarrin sought to find his way to that energy.  The heat of the sun was actually helping him, soothing him with its warmth, almost feeling like it was flowing through him the same way that the power of the Weave used to flow through him.  He could feel every nuance within the Weave, feel it for longspans in every direction, even deep under the earth.  He could feel the collection of energies around him, as the energy flowed through the strands to collect around him, to pool up as if to bask in his presence.  That strange energy always followed him around, and he still had no real true understanding as to what it was. He knew that it was a residual energy that was created by the interaction of the flows within the strands.  Almost like a by-product of the flowing of magical energy through the Weave.  It was also created when Priest or Wizard magic entered and exited the Weave.  Like a harmonic or echo of magical power, a harmonic spawned by the original, yet the harmonic remained inside the Weave long after the original was gone.

      Voices disturbed him.  Sarraya and Denai were chatting again, taking advantage of the break in their journey northwest to eat lunch and talk.  The two of them seemed to have struck up a good friendship.  Denai was even calling Sarraya shaida now.  The Selani hadn't really annoyed him so far today, but it was just the day before when they met.  She was bound to annoy him eventually.  Tarrin had spent the morning teaching Sarraya more and more Sha'Kar as they moved, and the little Faerie had so far proved to be an exceptional student.  She never forgot anything.  He felt some fringes of Druidic magic around her while he was teaching, so he had some suspicions that she was using her magic to boost her learning.  The same way that Dolanna had when she learned Sha'Kar in a matter of days.  The idea of teaching Sarraya with Denai in earshot had concerned him at first, but then he realized that she was Selani.  If he forced her to swear blood oath never to teach what she learned to someone else, then it would go no further than her.  He didn't entirely trust her, but he knew the Selani.  He trusted their culture more than their members.

      Nowhere.  He was getting nowhere again.  No matter how he tried to reach out to the Weave, it simply wasn't there.  Just a short time of trying had worked up his temper, and he knew that he had to stop before he got so aggravated that Denai's presence became dangerous.

      Opening his eyes, he blew out his breath.  He hadn't tried last night, and he wasn't about to let that go.  They had stopped twice to rest or eat, and both times he had sat down in a meditative position and tried to find his power again.  This was the third time, and it was no more successful than the other two.  He rubbed his eyes gingerly with a finger and a thumb, then uncurled his tail from around his legs.  The mental effort of reaching for the power was surprising, leaving him feeling a little tired every time he tried it.  That fatigue would fade quickly, so it wasn't a real problem for him.

      What was the answer?  It almost drove him crazy.  He knew that he could do it.  He'd seen that Sha'Kar woman use her power, and he knew that he could do it too.  But it was like trying to cage the wind.  He had tried so many different ways to reach out to the Weave, but it was like it was a ghost.  He could see it, but he couldn't touch it.  What made it worse was that his sense of the Weave grew sharper and sharper in the days since the fight with the Sha'Kar woman.  His sense of the Weave grew more and more clear, more precise, and he could sense it from greater and greater distances.  He had gotten to the point where he could almost see the energy flowing through it, like pulses of light travelling along the ghostly tendrils that hid behind the reality before him.  And it still pulsed in that sound that was like a heartbeat, expanding and contracting in time like blood flowing through vessels, like he was somehow inside the bodiless form of the Goddess herself, and could see the true workings of her wonders from the inside.

      At least today there were no real distractions.  The eyeless face was still there, lurking just underneath his conscious, but for some reason it had been unusually subdued today.  The emotions it incited in him were also more subdued today, allowing him to think more than feel, and not feel as if his world was floating on the blood of the innocent, innocents destroyed by his own hand.  He could still feel it there, but for a change, it did not attempt to torture him this day.          

      Denai approached him.  She was about average height for a Selani female, which made her unnaturally tall to a human, but she seemed almost laughably short to him.  She only came up to his chest.  With him seated, he nearly came up to her shoulders, putting his eyes on a direct level with her breasts.  She stopped a few paces from him, making sure that he had seen her and acknowledged her presence, then came within arm's reach of him slowly.  That close to her, her coppery scent washed over him like rain, making him miss Allia.  Denai's scent was markedly similar to his sister's.  The idea that she was standing but he was seated flitted through his mind, reminding him that he was at a disadvantage.  At first, he wanted to stand, but the part of him that chanted over and over again that there was nothing to fear from Denai made him stay seated, to stay in a vulnerable position, to see what she would do.  If she attacked, he was confident he could take her down with his tail, and then it was a simple matter of finishing her off.  "I made oatcakes, Tarrin," she offered.  "I even have some honey to flavor them."

      "I'm not hungry, Denai."

      "You haven't eaten all day," she protested.  "You need to eat, or the sun will drain you of your strength."

      "The sun doesn't bother me, Denai," he said calmly, looking up at her.  "I'm not human.  Heat doesn't bother my kind." Well, it was almost true.  Were-cats were highly adaptable.  Given about a month or so, the heat truly wouldn't bother one.

      "Fine.  Here," she said, holding out a waterskin.  "I know you need this."

      He looked at the skin with narrow eyes, his feral nature rising up.  The thought of what she did to that water rushed through him first, then he quashed such irrational thoughts deliberately.  The girl was a Selani.  She'd never intentionally poison someone.  That was inexcusably dishonorable.  He reached out carefully to take the skin, and as soon as he had it in his paw, he snatched it away from her, pulling his paw away from any possible danger.

      She levelled her amber eyes on him, eyes that reminded him of Keritanima, then she smiled that charming smile of hers.  "Look.  No blood," she said, holding up her hands palms out.

      He raised a paw, extended one finger, and showed her one of his long, wicked claws.  "Would you like some?"

      "Uh, no."

      "Then go away," he said dismissively, but the command was unmistakable in his voice.

      Denai said nothing more.  She turned her back to him and walked away, rejoining Sarraya near a small fire she had made to cook whatever crawly thing she had managed to spit on her dagger.  There were certainly enough crawly things out here.  The land was relatively flat, with clumps of strange brush or tough weeds here and there, scattered across the dusty ground.  The dirt had a strange reddish tint to it, and it was loose and compliant to the touch.  It was actually quite soft.  There were very few stones out here, and the ones that were here were very small.  He had the sneaking suspicion that they were only here because sandstorms had picked them up and placed them out here.  The vegetation could support life, but nothing on the scale of an inu, sukk, or kajat.  Most things out here were small and scuttling.  Lizards, bugs, spiders, a few mice, from the smell of things.  He did smell some residual scent from a bird of some kind, and there was a faint trace of what smelled like some kind of canine, though.  The grayish color of the ground to the west hinted that things were a little different over there, but that could also be the heat-haze rising up from the baking ground to distort the far landscape.

      "Here," Denai said.  Tarrin looked in that direction, and saw Denai and Sarraya hunching over something on the ground.  "This is a zubu.  That means slow walker.  It's one of the common spiders in this region."

      "Is it venomous?"

      "Sarraya, everything in the desert is venomous," Denai said with a little chuckle.  "My people have all but become immune to poison, with as many poisonous things out here that bite or sting us."  She pointed down.  "Zubu aren't really dangerous unless you annoy them.  They're very gentle.  Some of my people even keep them as pets."

      "Are they deadly if they do bite?"

      "Very," she replied.  "Their poison is almost as potent as an umuni."

      "Isn't it a bit strange to keep a spider for a pet that can kill you if it gets annoyed?"

      "What better pet to have?" she countered.  "I'll guarantee that you'll never take a zubu for granted.  It's a responsibility that you'll never dismiss."

      "How do you mean?"

      "Zubu get short-tempered when they're hungry," she answered.  "The best way to keep a zubu happy is to keep it well fed."

      "Oh.  I get it," she mused, then she laughed.  "What do they eat?"

      "Anything that they can bite," she replied in a light tone.  "They seem to prefer jumping mice and digger-beetles, though."

      "It's pretty big for a spider."

      "Yes, it's one of the larger breeds of spiders in the desert," Denai agreed.  "It's not very fast, so it relies on camoflage to protect itself.  And since it is so venomous, few predators will try to kill one unless they're very hungry."

      "If they're not so fast, how do they catch mice?"

      "Zubu are great hunters," Denai answered.  "They track down the mice and attack them in their burrows, where the close quarters keeps them from getting away.  Some also hunt by staying very still in a place that's well-travelled.  They move slowly, but they can move very fast in a short jump.  They use that to spring on unwary prey from ambush.  If something can evade that spring, they'll get away from it, because it can't move quickly."

      "Some of the spiders I know do the same thing," Sarraya told her.  "We call them jumping spiders."

      "That is what zubu do," she affirmed.

      Tarrin rose to his feet, swishing his tail a few times, then turned his back to the pair of curious women and looked towards the west.  He drank from the skin that Denai gave to him, finding the water to be somewhat stale and hot, but that was normal for water in the desert.  The noontime heat hid the far distant from his eyes, hiding it behind the shimmering haze caused by the hot ground, but he could still make out a single rock spire not too far away from them.  He was primarily looking for sandstorms, but he'd come to discover that it was rare for a storm to kick up during the midday heat.  The winds that fueled them died down during the hottest part of the day.  Only the big storms that came off the Sandshield rumbled across the desert in the midday hours.

      "You done?" Sarraya asked, coming up from behind and hovering just beside his head.

      "Guess so," he replied.  "No luck, though."

      "I sorta expected it," she told him.  "As soon as we eat, we can move on.  Are you hungry?"

      "Not really," he told her.

      Denai came up on the other side of him, rather close.  It concerned him a little that she would get so close to him, but she didn't seem to notice.  "That's the Lone Spire," she said, pointing to the singular rock spire in view.  "It's a landmark.  We're only about a day from the Great Canyon.  Do you want to see it?"

      "What do you mean?" Sarraya asked.

      "It's a little out of the way, but it's very beautiful," she replied.  "If you're curious, we can turn west and see it, then just follow the edge to where we can cross."

      "We're not here to sightsee," Tarrin told her gruffly.  "I have to cross the desert as fast as I can.  That's the only reason I'm bringing you along, girl.  If I'll lose time, then I'm not going that way."

      "It was just a suggestion, Tarrin," she said mildly.  "If you don't want to go, that's fine."

      "How soon will we reach it if we go the other way?" Sarraya asked.

      "About two days, but what you'll see there is nothing compared to what's that way," she said, pointing west.  "It's still a formidable canyon where we're going to cross, but there are paths to get down the canyon walls.  Over that way, it's just a cliff."

      "How long is this canyon?" Tarrin asked curiously.

      "If you're down at the base, it takes three days to run from one end to the other," she told him.  "But that's if it was an easy run.  The canyon floor is a maze of fallen rocks and rough terrain.  It takes alot longer than that."

      "What made it?"

      "Nobody really knows," Denai answered.  "There are smaller canyons in the desert made by old rivers that dried up, but the Great Canyon doesn't look the same as them."

      No river made it.  It sounded curiously like the Scar, the rift in northern Sulasia, only this one was considerably larger.  Considerably.

      "Your people go down there alot, Denai?"

      "Oh, no," she replied.  "It's a hunting ground for inu and kajat, the same as the Maze of Passages.  The faster we start up the other side, the safer we'll be."

      "There's enough food down there for them to survive?"

      "Water pools in the deeper areas of the canyon," Denai told her.  "The water supports plants, and those support enough prey for them."

      "How wide is it where we're crossing?"

      "About a morning's run," she replied.

      "A morning run?" Sarraya asked in shock.  "It has to be longspans across!"

      "I don't know exactly, but it's pretty wide," she replied.  "Wider there than most other places.  My father thinks that the width of the canyon there has to do with the fact that its walls aren't so steep."

      Now he was getting curious.  But it was a curiosity that would be satisfied in two days, when they got there.

      "Come on, I'm hungry," Sarraya said.  "Those cakes are getting cold."

      "What a strange thing to say," Denai chuckled as they left Tarrin.

      After the meal, they started out again.  Tarrin again instructed Sarraya in the Sha'Kar language, and Denai paced him step for step.  They moved from the sparsely vegetated area into a thickly grown region, the plants half-buried in deep sand and dust.  A sandstorm had passed through in recent days, leaving the area nearly submerged in sand.

      "How do the plants survive?" Sarraya asked as the other two ran.

      "They're used to being buried," Denai replied from behind her.  "They go dormant until the winds blow away the sand."

      "Makes sense," Sarraya shrugged.

      The afternoon wind kicked up as the sun began to set, and it was particularly fierce.  Tarrin and Denai had to turn their backs to it as it assaulted them in the face, but Sarraya used her Druidic magic to repel the blowing sand and dust.

      "This is almost as bad as a sandstorm!" Tarrin said in annoyance.

      "It's just the evening wind," Denai told him.  "It'll die down after sunset."

      "Then let's find some shelter.  I don't think a tent will stand up in this," Sarraya called.

      They found something that was almost a cave in a broken spire, a hollowed-out niche protected from the winds by the fallen top half of the rock column, forming an isolated courtyard of sorts covered by soft sand.  Sarraya conjured up wood for a fire as Tarrin hung up a leather sheet at the narrow side of the enclosure to break up the wind funneling through it.  Denai had left them to find something to eat, but returned moments after Tarrin got the fire going with an umuni dangling from her hand.  It had a small puncture wound in the top of its head, probably from Denai's dagger.  He'd seen that she was deadly accurate when she threw it.

      "I didn't think those things were edible," Tarrin said to her.  "They don't smell like they are."

      "Smell?  They're edible, so long as you don't eat the head," she told him.  "Why wouldn't they smell edible?"

      "Remember what I told you, Denai?" Sarraya reminded her.

      "Oh, yes.  Well, they're edible.  Not very tasty, but the sandstorm that buried the plants made all the animals I'd rather eat move on until the sand blows off.  I could use a chisa right now.  Even a sukk or a goat."

      "You can keep it," Sarraya said as she used her Druidic magic.  Several large apples, a pile of berries,  and a few tomatos appeared on the sand in front of her.  "I conjured up extra for you two.  It'll stretch out that lizard meat in a meal."

      "What are these?" Denai asked, picking up a tomato.  "And where did they come from?"

      That Denai wasn't too surprised to see them wasn't itself a surprise.  She had seen Sarraya--and even Tarrin--Conjure more than once since she joined them, and he had the feeling that Sarraya explained that to her while he was sleeping.  Denai knew that they were both shaman.

      "They're called tomatos," Sarraya answered.  "And they're from wherever they were when my magic picked them up.  Try it, you might like it."

      Denai bit into the tomato, and was a bit startled when its juices dribbled down her chin.  Then she laughed.  "It has its own water!" she said in delight.  "It's good.  Tangy.  My people like food with tang."  She took another bite.  "You can make anything you want appear?"

      "Within reason," Sarraya answered.  "I couldn't move a mountain, but I can conjure up just about anything I want to eat."

      "Even water?"

      "Even water," she affirmed.  "But it doesn't just appear.  It's borrowed from where it used to be, and appears here.  These fruits were all probably sitting on some tree or vine somewhere.  When I conjure water, I take it from somewhere else.  But don't worry, I'm careful to conjure a special type of water that doesn't exist in the desert," she said quickly.  "That way I'm not depleting the wells of your people."

      "There's lots of water here, Sarraya," Denai said dismissively.  "You just have to know where to look for it, that's all."  She motioned out towards the massive fallen rock pillar.  "All those plants out there don't live on air, you know."

      "I've been wondering about that," Tarrin said gruffly from where he was finishing tying down the leather, at the top of the fallen rock.  "I've seen way too many plants and not nearly enough water."

      "He does pay attention," Sarraya teased, then she laughed.  "I've sensed several underground rivers here, but they're very deep.  There's alot of water in the desert, but it's all deep underground.  I'll bet those plants have roots that are a hundred spans long, to reach down into that groundwater."

      "Those roots probably keep them from getting blown away in storms," Tarrin added.

      "Root fiber is what we use to make ropes," Denai told them.  "And some clothes.  It's very tough."

      "It would have to be," Tarrin said, dropping back down to the sand.  "So, if we dug a well, we'd eventually hit water."

      "Eventually," Sarraya agreed.  "It would have to be a really deep well."

      "Our clan-holdings have wells," Denai told them.  "Some of them go down so far that you can't climb out.  The ropes for the buckets could loop around buildings a couple of times."

      "So, the Selani do know about the water," Tarrin mused.  "Makes me wonder why they don't just dig deep wells and make permanent houses."

      "Because our herds would eat all the plants," Denai told him.  "We go where the foraging is best.  There are oases out there, and our shaman can create water when the need is very great.  But they won't do that unless there's no other choice.  The Holy Mother forbids it, except in emergencies."

      "That sounds a little mean," Sarraya said disapprovingly.

      "Not at all," Denai said.  "Our Holy Mother wants us to be strong, and be able to survive without her.  She won't let us depend on her, but she will be there when we need her help.  If we depended on the Holy Mother for water, we'd forget how to find it for ourselves."

      "Well, I guess so," Sarraya said.  "But I still think it's mean."

      "Well, let's cook this," Denai said, pulling her dagger.  "Umuni is horrible unless you cook it."

      Tarrin looked into the fire as Denai spitted the large lizard and set it hanging over the flames, lost in thought.  Time seemed to be crawling by, but in reality a great deal of it had passed.  It had been three months since he left Dala Yar Arak.  The summer was gone, autumn nearly so, and winter was probably taking hold in Aldreth right now.  All the leaves were gone, and they'd probably had the season's first snow.  The desert was the desert, uniformly hot, except in the northern reaches.  It was hard to keep track of the seasons with as much travelling as they'd done, and most of it taking place in hot lattitudes.  So much time gone by, time more or less wasted in travelling.  They spent all that time to travelling to Dala Yar Arak, and they were there only for a few days.  Now he was spending all this time travelling to Suld, and who knew how long he was going to stay there before moving on?

      It seemed nearly surreal.  He had no idea how long it was going to take him to get through the desert, so he had no idea what kind of climate would be waiting for him when he managed to cross the Sandshield.  He had to cross in the north, where winter would be in full force if he came out at the wrong time.  They'd been in the desert about a month so far, a little more than that, and had barely managed to get very far at all.  The sandstorms kept slowing them down, kept forcing them to hide from them until they passed.  Those days waiting were a blur of monotony, and it made him feel like they'd been in the desert much less time than they actually had.

      He watched the fire dance a moment longer, his eyes lost in the wavering flames, then he blinked and looked up at the sky.  The White Moon, Domammon, was just beginning to rise.  The Red Moon, Vala, was hidden in its new phase, and would be so for the next few days, and the Twin Moons had yet to rise.  The Skybands cut the starry sky with an uncharacteristic brilliance that night, their stripes of bright color battling with one another to hold his eyes.  They had been steadily widening by barely perceptible degrees when they turned northerly, allowing them to see more and more of them as they moved away from the equator.  They had been a razor's edge at Dala Yar Arak, but at home in Aldreth, they took up about an eighth of the sky on a cloudless night.  His mother told him that they dominated the entire southern sky in Ungardt.  The Skybands in the south, and the Gods' Curtain in the north made nights in Ungardt very bright.

      From beyond the rocky pillar came a strange hollow sound, almost like a moan.  Tarrin turned his ears in that direction as it sounded again, an eerie sound that made the fur on his arms stand up.  It was a sound without feeling, without anything, like an anti-sound that sought to deaden his ears in a curious manner.   A sound without feeling, almost as if the voice was meant to take all feeling from those that could hear it and leave them numb.  The Cat in him seemed to respond to that sound instinctively, wanting to get away from it.  But Tarrin's human mind realized that it was an animal's reaction to an unnatural entity, much as it had been when he'd been confronted by a Wraith.  That reinforced Denai's description of them as ghosts.

      "What is that sound?" Sarraya asked, shivering her wings.

      "That's a Sandman," Denai replied to her, standing up with a sober expression.  "It's very close.  It's time for you to make more fuel for the fire, Sarraya, and we'll need to keep it bright all night.  Sandmen don't make noise unless they know living beings are close to them."

      "They won't come near us?" Sarraya asked.

      "As long as we keep the fire up," she replied.  "Sandmen don't like the light."

      There was another moan, and another, and they began to sound...eager.

      "Holy Mother," Denai said urgently.  "That's not right.  They must be chasing someone!" she said.

      "How do you know that?"

      "That's the sound they make when they try to kill," Denai told her.  "The eagerness in the voice gives it away."

      "Who would they be chasing out here?" Sarraya demanded.  "We haven't seen anyone since we left your tribe."

      "Maybe a Scout that didn't get back to a tribe in time," Denai told her.

      It wasn't a scout.  The object of the Sandmen's attentions came up and over the fallen rock spire a scant moment after Denai stood up, moving with tremendous urgency and haste.  So much haste that the figure slipped trying to come down, and ended up flopped unceremoniously on its back just inside the perimeter of the campfire's light.  The scent of the figure reached Tarrin's nose as he moved to rise, and much to his shock, he recognized it.

      It was Var!

      "Var!" Tarrin said sharply, coming up onto his feet as the Selani male sat up and looked up to the rock over his head.

      "Tarrin!" Var said in surprise, then he laughed.  "The Holy Mother must be guiding my steps to bring me so close to you at such a convenient time!"

      "What are you doing here?" Tarrin demanded hotly in Selani, glaring at the man.

      "Going to Gathering," he shrugged.  "My tribe means to take this route, and I'm scouting it.  I lost my fire-pack to an over-eager inu.  It's good luck that you happened to be nearby."

      "You know this one?" Denai asked curiously.

      Tarrin nodded.  "He came about this close to getting killed," Tarrin said, holding his finger and thumb barely apart.

      "He's of my clan, but not of my tribe," Denai said.  "Who are you, stranger?"

      "Will someone tell me what's going on?" Sarraya demanded.  "What is Var doing all the way out here?"

      "The stranger is a Scout for another tribe," Denai told her.  "He lost his fire-pack fighting inu.  He came here because of our fire."

      "Oh.  I know you speak the Western tongue, Var," Sarraya said sharply.  "If you're going to talk around me, do it that way.  I get cranky when I don't know what's going on."

      Tarrin raised his ears at that, but then he remembered that quite a while ago, Var told him that Sarraya had told him some things.  She couldn't do that if they didn't share a common language.

      "My apologies, friend Sarraya," he said with a grin, in accented Sulasian.  "He spoke to me in the True Tongue, and I responded in kind out of reflex."

      That made Denai's eyebrow rise.  "When did a Scout learn a trade language?" she asked him curiously.

      "When his mother is obe," he replied with a shrug, standing up.  "I know this is forward of me, Tarrin, but I need a fire this night.  May I join yours?  I'll do my part to keep it lit tonight, as is only proper."

      Tarrin blew out his breath.  Another stranger.  But he wasn't about to send him back out to those hideous moans, though.  Even he had limits on heartlessness.  Those moans totally smothered even his curiosity to see one of these mysterious Sandmen.  Tarrin knew Var, up to a point.  He felt that he could trust his presence for a night.  After all, Var already had an intimate understanding of how fast he would die if he did something stupid.

      "Just tonight," Tarrin told him bluntly.  "You already know how I feel about strangers."

      "I know fully well.  I'll stay on this side of the fire," he said, motioning towards Denai and Sarraya.

      "Sounds like you just made it, Var.  Literally," Sarraya grinned at him as Tarrin sat back down.  Denai did the same, and Var moved over to their side of the fire.  He dropped down in a cross-legged position beside the rock on which Sarraya was standing.  "From the sound of those moaning sounds, I don't think I'd want one of them joining us."

      "Sandmen are not to be taken lightly," Var said seriously.  "Were it not for those inu, I'd be tending my own fire right now."

      "Don't the inu have trouble with the Sandmen too?"

      Both Var and Denai shook their heads.  "Sandmen don't attack animals," Denai told her.  "They only attack intelligent beings."

      "But no animal will get anywhere near one," Var added.  "They run from Sandmen.  I've always wondered why, since the Sandmen won't bother them."

      "Because they're unnatural," Sarraya told him.  "Animals are sensitive to things like that.  They won't approach unnatural things."

      "I guess so," Var shrugged.  "A Selani with half a brain runs too."  He looked at Denai casually, then offered his hand to her, reaching over Sarraya's head.  "I am Var Dellin'Sun, of Clan Dellinar," he introduced in Selani.

      "I am Denai  Shu'Dellin, of Clan Dellinar," she replied in kind.  The two of them looked at one another steadily, then Denai took his hand and gripped it firmly.  "Honor to the clan."

      "Honor to the clan," he repeated, and then they let go of each other's hands.  "How did she come to travel with you?" he asked Sarraya.

      "Tarrin pulled her butt out of a pack of inu," Sarraya replied with a little laugh.  "She's guiding us around some of the bigger obstacles in payment for that."

      Var looked towards Tarrin, then looked at Denai, who looked a trifle embarassed at that revelation.  "Surprising that you'd change your mind now, Tarrin.  You told me that you wouldn't travel with strangers."

      "Why do you think I'm over here, Var?" Tarrin asked sharply.  "I didn't know that the desert was so hard to navigate in this region.  Denai is saving me time, nothing more.  When we're in the open again, I'll send her back to her tribe."

      "It's not your choice when I leave," Denai flared.  "I'll leave when honor is satisfied, and not a moment sooner."

      Tarrin narrowed his eyes and stared at her in a manner that made her flinch away from him.

      "Now now, let's not get into an argument," Sarraya said quickly.  "At least with another pair of hands, we can keep the fire going without losing too much sleep.  From the sound of it, we'll need it," she said after another of those hollow moans came over the fallen spire.  "That gives me the shivers."

      "Where did you meet them?" Denai asked Var.

      "I challenged Tarrin because we thought he was an invader," Var told her.  "It didn't last long," he said with a laugh.  "I haven't been beaten down like that since I was a child.  I decided to follow him after I was defeated and study him, maybe challenge him again.  After he killed a kajat single-handedly, I decided challenging him again was not wise."

      "He did that?" Denai said in surprise, looking at Sarraya.

      "He cheated a little with magic, but he did," Sarraya told her with a wide smile.

      Tarrin tuned them out as his eyes drifted back to the fire.  The scents of Var and Denai were unsettling him a little, invoking instinctive feelings in him to chase off the interlopers, instincts he strove to control.  He remembered Var very well from before, and his reaction to the male Selani was greatly different than it had been to Denai.  Denai was like a child to him, but Var was definitely not a child.  He was an adult, a dangerous adult well trained in the Selani fighting styles.  It was because of that, he realized, that he wasn't quite as willing to accept Var's company as he had been Denai.  Denai was also an adult, and probably well trained in the Dance, but he saw her as a child.  No matter how old she really was, her manner and look and scent decried her youth to him, and that protected her from the brunt of his hostility.  Var was another matter.  He was a mature Selani, an adult well into his prime, and that caused Tarrin's hackles to raise up and stay up.  His generosity to Var seemed misplaced now that he was stuck with the Selani male until morning.  For that matter, he was surprised he went that far.  Two rides ago, he would have thrown Var back out into the darkness without a thought as to whether he lived or died.

      That struck him, in a strange way.  That was true.  Two rides ago, he would have thrown Var out.  But now he would not.  Had he truly begun to change?  Had his feral nature softened in that time, as it had for Mist?  He didn't feel any different.  Truth be told, he felt even more edgy now than he did two rides ago, because of the damned face that haunted his dreams and his moments of reverie, and also his frustration at being unable to find his magic again.  But all things aside, he had to admit that he was doing something that he wouldn't have done two rides ago.  He wasn't about to accept Var into his company, but he felt he could tolerate him for one night.  That was something.  He hated being the way that he was, and before he always felt powerless to do anything to change it.  Even when he tried to change, it came to naught.  But, in his own defense, Jula's intrusion into his life and the chaos surrounding the Book of Ages had unravelled whatever progress he had made, and then the long time in cat form, forcing it to try to deal with emotions beyond its ability, undid the rest of it.

      Maybe he could change.  He knew that he could never be as trusting as he'd been before turning feral--there was no going back--but all he really wanted was to be able to look a stranger in the eyes and not feel so afraid, then feel angry at fearing a weaker being.  Mist had changed.  She had accepted Tarrin, accepted him completely and without reservation, something he never thought would happen.  He still felt intensely relieved, and a little proud of that fact, that he had managed to ease the horrific pain the Were-cat had endured for so many years.  He knew that he could never accept strangers as anything but strangers, but there were many kinds of strangers, just as there were many kinds of friends.  He had already began to rationalize his feelings for people not his friends, as he had for Denai, to classify them in levels of threat based on his impressions of them and their ability to threaten him.  He just had to take that a little further, reach a point where the fearful animal in him would listen to his rational mind when it told the animal that a stranger was no threat.

      Denai was a part of that.  Part of the reason he had accepted her was a need to prove to himself that he could function in proximity to a stranger.  But he'd chosen a stranger that he felt was no threat to him, barely more than a girl that he felt needed to be watched over and protected.  That wasn't really a challenge to his ferality.  He didn't particularly trust Denai, but he knew that he felt she was no danger to him.  He felt wary when she got too close to him, but he felt no true trepidation either.  He was hovering between pushing her away and treating her like a daughter, and he knew it.

      Small steps, his mother would tell him if she were with him.  One step at a time, and don't overreach.

      Strange.  Since he'd accepted Denai, the eyeless face that haunted him had eased considerably.  It was still there, but it was much as if its fangs had been drawn.  It felt little more than a kind of reminder now, an awareness of what would happen to him if he started back down the path of ruthlessness.  How could Denai's presence defuse that acidic image so?  It wasn't like she meant anything to him.

      It was something that seemed totally illogical.  So much so that it made his head a little woozy just trying to think about it, so he decided to think about something else.

      He watched the two Selani chat with Sarraya, not really listening to them.  They seemed...familiar.  Familiar with one another familiar with Sarraya, despite the fact that she was so obviously different than them.  Selani were a rather stoic lot, hard to surprise and even harder to unbalance.  It was a racial trait, something that they shared with Allia.  But there was no resolute stoicism in how they talked, or their body language.  Allia seemed stiff sometimes, but that was because she was thrust into an alien culture with little experience with it.  The fact that she wasn't too fond of humans exascerbated it.  But when they were alone, when she was among her friends, she was much as those two were now.  Looking at them, he couldn't imagine either of them being a threat to him.  Yet he knew that if he were to get close to them, they would suddenly seem much more threatening than they did now.  Even if they weren't, his feral instinct would convince him that they were.  Part of him wanted to be over there with them, talking about nothing in particular, getting to know them better.  But that part of him was enslaved to his towering fear of strangers, a fear so powerful that it would cause him to lash out in violence against anyone he felt was too dangerous.

      Strange that he would feel so alone.  It was an odd realization.  Watching them, listening to them, it made him feel...lonely.  Sarraya understood him, talked to him, but he knew that his quiet manner put her off.  He just didn't engage in idle chat, and that was what the Faerie needed right now.  She was better off with those two, getting to know them and making them feel more comfortable in his presence.  In any case, she couldn't ease the ache inside him.  She was a dear friend, and he was glad she was there, but she wasn't his sisters, she wasn't his parents.  Only they could fill the void left in him by their separation.

      As always, when he felt lonely or afraid or confused, all he had to do was look up.  He rose to his feet and turned his back on the three of them, raising his face to the White Moon.  That milky face stared down at him, sang to him in ways anyone not Were would never understand, and as always, the cheeky grin of Miranda seemed to shine down on him from that skybound moon.  Looking up at the moon appeased the animal in him, but it also reminded him of friends and family long away, friends and family who were waiting for him to return to them.  Miranda's cheeky grin was affixed into Domammon now, but it also invoked images, memories of dear sisters and beloved parents, memories of trusted friends and stalwart companions, memories of home.  He really didn't have a home anymore, but he knew that wherever he was was home, so long as those that made him feel safe were around him.  The human in him yearned for friends and family to be with him, but until that day came, the echo of it granted to him by Domammon would have to suffice.

      The White Moon was no friend, but it carried an echo of the feeling of belonging, an echo that soothed his troubled mind, if only for a little while.

 

      The night passed with no trouble.  The four of them took turns keeping the fire bright and strong, both warding off the night's chill and repelling the sand-ghosts that haunted the desert the night before.  The night allowed Tarrin to think, to look at the other three with him as they slept and ponder their presence, and how they made him feel.  It made him come to a few conclusions, conclusions that part of him still all but rioted against, so strongly they were aligned against the idea.

      If Var asked to travel with them, Tarrin would not say no.

      He'd decided that while throwing strips of bark into the fire in the dead of night.  He had to do what Mist did.  He had to confront what he feared, confront it and face it day after day after day.  He couldn't do that unless an object to fear was available.  Denai wouldn't be enough, she reminded him too much of a child for him to truly fear her.  Var was an adult, someone that the animal in him did indeed fear, but Var was also trained enough to be able to evade any sudden attack that he may initiate against him.  Given a little preventive education by Denai and Sarraya, the Selani male should be able to prevent himself from getting into any of those situations.  Something inside him told him that Var wanted to stay with them.  He didn't know what it was, but it was a strong feeling.  And given what had happened recently, he'd decided to listen very closely to that gut feelings.  So far, they had yet to lead him astray.  And Var's presence would force Tarrin to face his fear, face the demons inside that urged him to attack or to flee.  Given time, he hoped, he would find that fear was his enemy, not the people who created it inside him.

      It was morning, and the sun was rising over the eastern horizon.  With it came the morning winds, but they were broken up by the rock spire and the fallen rock that formed the enclosed space that they had used to set up their camp.  He couldn't really hear them whipping outside the camp, but it was early yet.  They were at their strongest about an hour after sunrise, after the sun had had some time to heat the air and cause it to move.  The others were also awake, eating a meal of toasted oat cakes Denai had made over the fire.  Var seemed completely at ease with the others, trading barbs with Sarraya lightly.  Tarrin had not spoken to any of them since the night before.  Then again, he had something to do, and it wasn't going to put him in a very good mood.

      It was time to aggravate himself.

      He wanted to do it last night, but even he wasn't crazy enough to go out into the darkness alone with those Sandmen out there.  He didn't want to do it near them, because their scents distracted him, and he had enough distractions already.  The top of the broken rock spire would do very well, he'd decided.  It was out of the way, yet not too far from the others.  They wouldn't bother him up there--at least they wouldn't if they knew what was good for them--and it would give him the isolation and peace he needed to try to regain his magic.

      "Go ahead and get started," he told them, without bothering to greet them.  "I'll catch up in about an hour."

      "Well good morning," Sarraya said acidly.

      "We'll not leave you behind, Tarrin," Denai said mildly.  "If you're not ready to leave, then we'll wait."

      "I guess I should move on," Var said with a bit of a sigh.  "But without my fire-pack, I don't do my people very much good as a Scout.  I can't set signal fires to warn them of possible danger."

      "I can whip up anything you need, Var," Sarraya offered.  "You name it, I'll Conjure it."

      "I appreciate the offer, friend Sarraya," Var said with a smile.  "That way I don't feel as if I'm dishonoring myself by abandoning my duty."

      "Accidents happen, Var," Sarraya told him dismissively.  "Especially when those accidents hunt you down and try to eat you."

      Var laughed.  "If it's alright with you, I'd like to travel with you for a ways.  This stretch of desert has proven to be dangerous, and as they say, safety runs in numbers.  I think that travelling with you would be much more interesting anyway, and right now, we're all going in the same direction.  I can do my duty to my tribe and scout, and travel with you at the same time."  He smiled.  "You could always use another pair of hands to keep the fire going, couldn't you?"

      Var looked at Denai, Denai looked at Sarraya, and Sarraya looked at Tarrin.  She knew that it hinged on Tarrin's consent.  Tarrin had already made his decision, but something in him told him not to tip his hand that he had.  He stood there and fixed Var with a suitably flat look, one that made the Selani take a step back, then he blew out his breath.  "Just stay away from me," he warned in an ominous tone.  "And don't bother me.  As long as you do that, you can do whatever you want."

      "Why, Tarrin, that's something of a surprise," Sarraya said in sincere consternation.

      "He's a pair of hands for the fire.  Nothing more," Tarrin growled in her direction, then he turned his back on them, and started climbing up the broken rock spire.

      "I think he likes you, Var," Sarraya said with a giggle, but Tarrin tuned them out before he heard any replies, using his claws to scamper up the sheer rock face with ease.

      He found a comfortable spot on the relatively flat top of the broken spire, sat down and wrapped his tail around his crossed legs, and began.  His method for trying hadn't really changed since the start, because it was the only thing he could think of to try.  He tried to reach out to the Weave and have it respond.

      And like every other time, it was nowhere to be found.  For well over an hour he attempted to make contact with the Weave, but it all came to naught.  As always, it was visible but untouchable, a vaporous ghost that slipped through his fingers when he reached for it.  Every time he reached towards it, it melted away from him.  It was the same aggravation, because he could sense the Weave, sense its every nuance for longspans in every direction, could feel the pulsing of the magical energy of it through the Weave, through his veins.  He could hear it, hear the choral echoing vibrations as the magic flowed through it, could almost hear the pounding of the Goddess' heart along the strands.  His ability to sense it was so incredibly acute that it mystified him that he couldn't find a connection to that energy, a bridge to bring its power to him.

      He concentrated on his sense of it, listening to it, feeling it more and more intently.  Maybe, he reasoned, if he could come to a more intimate understanding of it, it would be there when he reached for it.  Falling back on the skills taught to him by Allia, he emptied his mind of all extraneous thoughts, emptied his mind of all feelings and sensation.  He emptied himself of everything except for the Weave, of his sense of it, giving it the entirety of his concentration.  Eyes closed, his ears twitched with the sounds of the Weave, a eerie haunting melody of discordant notes that blended together into something that was disturbingly beautiful.  Like the haunting songs of the big fish that Keritanima called whales, echoing through the Weave.  He descended deeper into himself, subverted all thought in lieu of seeking the unspoken messages he hoped that would be in the Weave that could guide him to its power.  His expression became neutral, then serene as he raised his chin and opened his senses, seeking to touch the Weave with more than just his mind, trying to leave all distractions behind him.  Even the eyeless face fell away from his consciousness as he strove to reach above all other things, to rise above all distraction and seek to call in the power he sought.

      The attempt had a strange, unpredictable effect.  He became aware of a change, a fundamental shift in his senses, and when he opened his eyes, the desert was gone.  It had been replaced by a void of utter, unfathomable blackness, a darkness that went beyond any description of black.  It was an anti-light, an utter lack of anything.  His first reaction was one of fear, but that flowed away quickly when he realized that there was nothing there to harm him.  It was merely a place, like any other, and somehow he knew that he could return to where he had been at any time if he so wished it.

      At that realization, the void parted, opened like a blossoming flower, and the countless strands of the Weave seemed to wink into existence all around him, going off into infinity in every direction, even below him.  With the appearance of the strands, he recalled being in this place before, a place that did not exist, a place that existed somewhere outside reality.  The throbbing of the strands reached his ears, breaking the silence, and the pinpoints that marked the hearts of the Sorcerers appeared in the black sky, like stars of white light that winked and shimmered in the sky.  The scene before him was hauntingly familiar, but he couldn't quite remember exactly when and where and how he had come to be here before.  He recalled speaking to the Goddess in this place, and when he did, her words came from outside, not from within himself as they usually did.

      The Goddess.

      He knew this place now.  It was here where the Goddess explained what had happened to him after fighting the Sha'Kar.  He realized that he was not in that place, as he had been before.  He was merely looking within it from the outside.  How he knew that, he didn't know, but he knew it to be truth.  It was within the wellspring from which all magical energy flowed, and to which all magic in the Weave eventually returned once it flowed a cycle through the strands.  It was a heart of sorts, both sending out and calling in the magical energies that infused the world, using the hearts of the Sorcerers as the driving force which caused the magic to flow.

      Sorcerers.  In this place, they were all one, a unified whole working towards a common objective.  It was the life energy of the Sorcerers that caused the magic to flow, and that revealed to him a fundamental truth, a truth that seemed so obvious to him in that moment of lucidity.

      Sorcery was dependent on the number of Sorcerers alive to fuel it.  The diminishing of the might of the Sorcerers wasn't because of lost lore or disappearing Ancients or weakened natural ability, it was because there weren't enough Sorcerers left to support magic of that magnitude.

      The Goddess said that the old powers were returning to the world.  If that was so, it was because a new generation of Sorcerers had been born, born in such numbers that the Weave's ability to support magical energy had been significantly increased by their presence.  Even those who had never touched their power supported the Weave, granting their hearts to it.  It was why Sorcery was not a learned skill, but a natural ability.  Their presence would cause the Weave to expand, to enrich, to grow, and all who could access it, both directly and indirectly, would gain power from that enrichment.  Sorcerers would find that they could handle more power, weave new spells, expand their own personal maximums, and wizards and priests could again cast spells denied to them for a thousand years.

      The Ancients hadn't been more powerful at a basic level, they had simply lived at a time when the Weave was much stronger than it was now.  They had certainly had more knowledge of the Weave, but their power was due to the Weave, not their innate ability.

      But what about the Breaking?  They had taught him that the Breaking happened because too many magicians and too many magical objects placed such a strain on the Weave that it could no longer support the demands placed on it, and it tore.  The Ancients that existed before the Breaking simply vanished.  Did they vanish because they knew what was coming, or did they vanish because they were dead?

      And if they vanished because they were dead, wouldn't that mean that the Breaking happened because too many Sorcerers died at the same time, so many that their loss weakened the Weave to such a point where it could no longer supply the magical energy that the magicians and priests and magical objects demanded from it?

      You fool!  If you destroy us, you destroy yourself!

      The voice seemed to echo through the Weave, echo from a time and place distant from him, like a memory of a dream.  A memory of the past.

      The Tower of Dreams has been destroyed!  Thousands are dead!

      The Conduit at the Tower of Dreams has broken!  The shock of it destroyed the Tower of Stars!

      Mikan, you fool, don't you understand?  The Weave can't survive this!  It's going to tear!

      Where were the voices coming from?  They echoed through the Weave, like whispers from the past.  Were they truly the voices of the Ancients, still drifting along the currents of magic for a thousand years?  Or were they merely shades of the past, conjured by his own imagination?

      We have no choice, Keeper!  We must flee to the Lost City.  You know what's going to happen, and who will they blame?

      The Sui'Kun! a ragged cry called.  The Sui'Kun are dying, Keeper!  Their hearts are bursting like balloons!

      Voices.  More and more of them surrounded him, whispered and screamed and howled and cajoled and pleaded and demanded and begged and growled and beseeched and--

      Too many!

      They seemed to boil up from the strands, boil out of the Weave like bubbles from a boiling pot, assaulting his ears, all of them at once.  Too many for him to hear any one voice, too many to make sense of anything that any of them said.  They got louder and louder, as if they were vying to get his attention, trying to drown one another out.  Louder and louder, more and more demanding, all of them murmuring in his ears, turning into a chaotic cacophony that threatened to drive him insane, pounded in his ears, pounded into the core of him like a spike being hammered into his brain.

      "N-No," Tarrin grumbled, trying to push the voices away.  "I can't understand you!  You're hurting me!"

      The voices only got louder and louder, a thundering roar that made him feel like his head was going to explode.

      "No, stop!  Stop, you're killing me!  Stop!  STOOOOOOOPPPPPPPPPP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

      The blackness flashed, and then he felt himself tumbling down through the endless void, felt it as something inside him pulled himself away from the voices before they destroyed him.  The blackness flashed, and then there was an explosion of light before his eyes--

      --and he was clawing himself up to his feet, shrieking at the top of his lungs for them to stop, cold sweat drenching him in a sudden wave that made him feel cold.  Panting heavily, his eyes seemed blurry, uncertain, and then they focused on the sun-baked expanses of the Desert of Swirling Sands, adjusting once again to the light of the sun.  A moment of panic washed over him, but he realized he was back in the desert, he was back and safe, and there were no more voices.  The voices were gone, leaving him with a pounding headache.

      He flopped down onto his back onto the stone, panting heavily and trying to sort through the myriad of voices, trying to remember what he heard before they tried to drown him in their pain.  What horror!  Not just the words, but the emotions of those who had placed those voices in the Weave shivered through him, and an abject terror of an entire world seemingly going mad was the main core that unified them in his mind.   They had all been terrified, shocked.  It began to come back to him.  Was that what had really happened?  Had an attack of some kind at one Tower caused a Conduit to tear, which destroyed the Tower at the other end of that Conduit?  And had the loss of so many Sorcerers, thousands of them, caused the Weave to weaken under its burden, and then finally tear in what most people knew as the Breaking?

      He put his paw over his face as he got his breathing back under control.  He heard Sarraya's buzzing wings a second before she called out to him in concern and fear.  "Tarrin, what happened?" she asked quickly, coming up close to his head.  "Your ears are bleeding!" she gasped.

      He could feel it now.  The warmth flowing into his hair, oozing out of his ears.  It had been more real than just a hallucination.  It had been real.

      He sat up, causing her to have to move out of his way, finally feeling the wild emotions and terror flow out of him.  Those were not his emotions.  They were shades, memories of a past horror so powerful that they had been branded into the magic of the Weave for all time.  They were ghosts from the past, and they couldn't harm him now.

      "Sarraya," he said a bit wildly.  "I could hear them!"

      "Hear what?"

      "Voices from the past," he told her.  "Voices from the Breaking.  They're still in the Weave, Sarraya, echoing inside it for a thousand years, echoing until the end of time.  So many!"

      "Well, let's not dwell on that right now," she said, and he felt her touch her Druidic magic.  She put her hands on one of his ears, and felt her magic urge the bleeding to cease.  Somehow, some way, the wounds didn't immediately heal.  "Did you make any progress?"

      "I...I think so," he replied.  "I didn't find my power, but I did come into contact with the Weave, somehow.  I can't explain it."

      "I don't think I'd understand if you did," she said seriously.  "What did the voices say?" she asked curiously.

      "The Breaking happened because something terrible happened, so terrible that it made a Conduit break.  Some kind of an attack on a Tower.  It destroyed the Tower, and the broken Conduit destroyed the Tower at the other end.  So many Sorcerers died that it weakened the Weave, weakened it to the point where it couldn't support the magical demands placed on it, so it ripped.  Sarraya, the Sorcerers didn't cause the Breaking.  Whoever attacked that Tower did," he said seriously.

      "How could that happen?  Why would the Weave tear if too many Sorcerers died?"

      "Sorcerers are the Weave," he told her.  "Without Sorcerers, there would be no Weave.  The Goddess grants the power, but it's the Sorcerers that draw it out from the Heart.  The more Sorcerers there are, the more power gets drawn, and the more magic there is that comes into the world.  The more magical demands on the Weave, the more Sorcerers have to be alive to sustain it."

      Sarraya gave him a very long, very penetrating look.  "Tarrin, what you just said, you can never repeat it," she said in a voice so serious, so grim, that it took him aback.  "Do you understand me?"

      "Sarraya--"

      "Do you understand me?" she said fiercely.

      "I--alright," he said, uncertain in the face of such vociferousness from the usually capricious Faerie.  "Why?"

      "Because you just said the one thing that shouldn't be known," she said in a hiss.  "If people knew what you just said, the entire world would be in danger."

      "You knew?"

      "Of course I knew!" she said in a heated voice.

      "Then why did you ask?"

      "To see if you knew," she said in a muted tone.  "If certain people knew what you just said, and given how few of you there are right now, do you see why it's so very important for that not to be common knowledge?"

      He looked into her eyes, and understood immediately.  Sorcerers were rare.  In all but a very few kingdoms, they were reviled as the bringers of the Breaking.  They had to travel with Knights for their own protection from ignorant mobs of peasants who believed that Sorcerers were really witches.  If someone knew that the Weave depended on Sorcerers, they could conceivably kill off so many that the current Weave would collapse into another Breaking.

      "How did you know that, Sarraya?" he asked in surprise.

      "I'm a Druid, Tarrin," she said in a hiss.  "And I've been along a long time.  I know alot more than you think I know."  She flitted back a little, and composure returned to her.  "Are you feeling alright?  Ready to move?"

      "I think so," he told her.  "I'm just a little overwhelmed, that's all."

      "Let me go down there and assure Denai and Var you're alright.  That should give you enough time to recover yourself.  When you're ready, come down, alright?  There's no rush, Tarrin.  Come down when you feel ready."

      "Alright.  I'll be down in a little bit," he told her.

      The Faerie flitted down, leaving Tarrin to his thoughts, and to recover from the harrowing experience.  What had happened?  It was as if his consciousness had merged into the Weave itself.  But how was that possible?  To do something like that, he had to be in contact with the Weave, but at no time did he feel such a connection.  He could still sense the Weave, sense its every minute detail for over a longspan in every direction, but at no time did he take in any power, or even feel the sensation of touching the Weave.

      It still didn't explain what had happened.  Somehow he had communed with the Weave itself, and the Weave had granted him knowledge of events from a thousand years ago.  He had communed with it without directly touching it, from as near as he could tell.  He wasn't sure which was more perplexing, that he somehow gained contact with the Weave without actively connecting to it, or that it had imparted upon him lost knowledge without even his asking for it.  He had just thought about the Breaking, and all those voices seemed to bubble up out of the Weave, as if to give him insight into an ancient, misunderstood disaster.  Of its own volition.  The Weave had sensed his thoughts, and responded to it without his direction.  And it did all of that without him touching it.

      Maybe...maybe he couldn't touch the Weave because he was already connected to it.

      The thought just drifted by in his mind, and he locked onto it with ferocity.  He analyzed it, considered it, turned it over in his mind, seeking the truth of it.  He could sense the Weave, sense it in ways far beyond mere senses.  He could feel its power, and it was a sense of it very similar to what he had felt beforehand, when he used to touch the Weave and draw in its power.  That had to be a symbol that he was actively connected to the Weave.  Its power pooled around him, and the strands pulled towards him as he moved across the desert, moved through the Weave.  It explained why he was failing to find his power.

      He was trying to touch the Weave, when he was already in contact with it.

      Of course!  How stupid could he be!  The power wasn't responding to him because he wasn't trying to get in touch with that power!  He'd been trying to touch the Weave so he could try!  But he was already touching the Weave!  The contact was very light, very gentle, because the power of the Weave wasn't flowing into him, but it was a connection nonetheless.

      Stupid, stupid, stupid!  He was trying to use his power the way he was trained to do it, when the Goddess herself told him that his power was different.  He had to try something new, something he'd never tried before, in order to find his magic again.  He was pretty sure that he could use High Sorcery the same way he did before, but first he had to learn the new way to bring the power of the Weave to him, a way that didn't include wasting days and days trying to do something he had already accomplished.

      Quite deliberately, Tarrin leaned down and smacked his head against the ground.

      He felt so stupid!

      There was a chiming, cascading bellpeal of laughter from the Weave itself.  Don't beat yourself, kitten, the voice of the Goddess reached him.  Sometimes it takes a while for you to comprehend what you already know.  It happens to everyone now and again, even gods.

      "So I'm right?" he asked quickly, hoping she would answer before she thought about whether she was allowed to tell him that or not.

      Yes, kitten, you're right.  You've been trying to do what you've already done.  Now you just have to figure out how to make the power respond to you.

      He felt...triumphant.  Like he had solved one of the great mysteries of life.  But he knew that he had really just opened his eyes to a truth that he could have discovered if he'd spent five minutes thinking about it.  "Mother, what happened to me?" he asked.  He knew she would understand what he was asking.

      Nothing, she replied.  You were simply discovering for yourself one of those things that separate you from all other Sorcerers.  Your connection to the Weave runs so deeply that it defies a Sorcerer's normal concepts.  The Weave is much more than just a storeroom of magical energy, my kitten.  I think you're starting to see that now.

      He couldn't deny that.  The Weave was so much more complex than he ever imagined.  Even looking at it casually, the complicated relationships between flows and strands, strands and Conduits, and the residual magical energy the produced within themselves made that abundantly clear, and they were things he could spend his entire life studying and still not fully comprehend the total workings of it.  His little experience with the voices told him that there was more within the Weave than simple magical power.  There were other things, like memories of past events, and there were bound to be even more mysterious aspects of the Weave that would reveal themselves to him as he came into his power.

      "Mother, what were the dreams?"

      Yet another aspect of what you are, she replied.  Since you've already taken them seriously, then I can tell you that they were serious.  I am the Weave, my kitten, and you are one of my children.  All gods have the right to pass on to their followers certain information in the form of dreams, omens, and warnings.  Those dreams were warnings, warnings I wasn't permitted to give to you directly.

      "Why not?"

      Because it would have violated the rules under which we operate, she told him.

      "It, it seems strange that you would communicate with me that way when we talk all the time."

      She laughed delightedly.  Don't forget our basic relationship, kitten.  I am the god, and you are the follower.  That we happen to talk from time to time doesn't change that.  I'm still going to communcate with you in the boring old mystical standard ways that other gods communicate with their followers.  I have to keep my mysterious means, if only for appearances' sake, don't I?  I'd probably disappoint you if I didn't act godly in at least a few ways.  You'd think you had a boring goddess.

      That struck Tarrin as funny in some way, so funny he actually laughed.  "You don't have to impress me, Mother.  I'm impressed enough.  And you're never boring."

      I'm happy to hear that, she replied lightly.  He had the sense that she was beaming at him, for some reason.

      "I don't understand two of the dreams, Mother."

      I can't explain them to you, she warned.  I can only confirm what I know you already know.  You just have to work them out for yourself.  In time, I'm sure you'll understand their meaning.

      He more or less expected that.  But it disturbed him.  One of the dreams was about Keritanima in moral pain, and the other was about Faalken.  A dead Faalken, holding a flaming sword.  And Jegojah was standing behind him.  That one really upset him, because he had never forgotten that it was his fault that Faalken died.  If he hadn't lost control, flew into a rage, he could have protected Faalken, he could have saved him.  Faalken's death was his fault, his blood was on his paws.  If the dreams were a warning, then it meant that Jegojah was coming again, coming for him, and that Faalken had something to do with his return.

      Jegojah was coming, when Tarrin couldn't use Sorcery.

      The timing of that went beyond mere coincidence.  The ki'zadun must have known that Tarrin was unable to use his magic, somehow.  How was beyond him, since it happened out here in the desert, where no outsiders would dare go, but the how wasn't as important as the response.  But what they didn't know was that Tarrin could use Druidic magic.  He already knew exactly what he needed to do to level the playing field between himself and the Doomwalker, to turn it into a fair fight, a fight of nothing but swords, skill, sweat, and raw will.

      The mere thought of Jegojah made his blood boil.  Jegojah had killed Faalken, and though it had been Tarrin's fault it happened, the Doomwalker had been the one to deal the killing blow.  Now it was coming again, coming for him...and he wanted it.  He wanted the chance to rip the Doomwalker's head off.  He was different now, larger, stronger, faster, more seasoned.  He would be more than a match for the undead warrior, even without his Sorcery.  This time, he had the chance to pay back Jegojah in blood for everything it had done, pay it back without fear that someone else was going to get hurt in the battle.  There would be no constraints.

      This time, it would be settled, one way or the other.  Jegojah was not going to come after him again afterward.  This time, the Doomwalker would pay for killing Faalken, for attacking his family, for trying to kill Jenna.  Jegojah would be facing a much more dangerous Were-cat this time, a Were-cat that was absolutely determined to finish the nightmarish creature off for good.  A Were-cat that no longer feared the Doomwalker's power.

      Two would enter that last battle, but only one was going to leave.

      The Goddess had withdrawn from him in his moment of fury, probably leaving him to sort things out for himself.  He didn't mind that much.  He stood up and stared at the sun in the east, feeling the heat of it against his face, feeling the heat welling up inside of him.  The thought of finding his power again paled in comparison of the need to avenge himself against the Doomwalker.  Magic could wait.  This, this was personal.  Tarrin had been fearing and fighting Jegojah for over a year now, and that was just about enough.  It was time to finish it.

      There was blood to be paid between them, and Tarrin was going to collect on that debt.  Collect on it in a way that would make Allia proud of him.

      Turning, Tarrin started down off the spire.  He had alot to think about, alot to do, and it was best for him to sort it out as he ran.  That way he wasn't wasting any effort, maximizing his time, as Allia had taught him to do.

      Back on the top of the spire, in the uneven stone that made up the top of the sheared rock, rested two seared footprints, burned into the stone.  They were very large, very long footprints, human-like feet that were unnaturally long and wide, almost like a cross between a human foot and an animal's paw.  Gouges at the tips of the toes showed that the owner of those feet had claws, and the imprints were blackened and smoking.  Three figures and an extremely small fourth could be seen racing off towards the northwest just beyond the lip of the broken spire, figures distorted a bit by smoke and heat as they passed behind the wavering heat rising up from the two seared footprints burned into the continuity of the stone, leaving behind blackened scars.

            Omens of what was to come.


To:   Title                     EoF

Chapter 12

 

      Those two were something else.

      Tarrin squatted down beside an oasis, a pool of water that had formed inside a crack in the desert floor, surrounded by large, leafy plants and a single strange tree with ridged back and a puff of green at its peak, watching Var and Denai.  They had run for most of the day, and the setting sun was inching its way towards the horizon.  Tarrin had spent most of that time in a silent contemplation of what was to come, but he'd spent the rest of the time watching the two Selani.  He only knew one Selani, and this was the first time he'd seen two of them interacting at a social level.

      It was quite entertaining.

      Allia had never described this.  Var and Denai were, quite simply, dead set to prove that he or she was the better of the two.  They were ferociously competitive, turning absolutely everything into a challenge or competition.  From running to hunting to setting up tents, even to finding the better campsite for the evening, the two of them had pitted themselves against one another.  There was no animosity between them--indeed, they were very friendly and open with one another--but there was still that intense need to prove superiority over the other.  Gender had nothing to do with this competition.  Among the Selani, there was very little difference between males and females in size, strength, or ability.  Only gender separated the two, and that was no barrier to competition.

      So, the day had turned out to be one very long, ever-changing game between Var and Denai, as challenges were conceived and offered, then accepted and contended.  They had battled over things as serious as finding food, and as silly as who could reach the next rock spire first.  There were very few boundaries to their competitions, even going so far as to see who could tie the better tent knot.  Had he not been so preoccupied, he would have found their antics to be rather funny.  Sarraya surely did.  The only real areas not contested were areas of specialty, such as Var's Scout eyesight or Denai's obe knowledge of languages.

      All of that, the entire day of silly games had only been a precursor for this.  The challenge of who was the better fighter.  He watched them from a safe distance as they battled one another in the Dance, and from his short assessment of them, he had already chosen the winner.  Denai was fast and strong, but she was still very young, barely more than an adult.  Var had about fifteen years on her, and that difference in experience was the telling trait.  Denai was good, but Var would eventually beat her.  But Denai wasn't going to admit that easily.  Their fighting was full contact, and both of them were already sporting what were going to be some pretty impressive bruises.  Denai seemed to have a knack for getting Var to lower his guard on the right side, so his right eye was pretty swollen.  Denai, on the other hand, had a tendency to raise her guard, and Var was coming in underneath her arms and putting some shots in on her belly, hips, and legs more or less uncontested.  For some reason, Denai wouldn't block with her legs.  That was a defensive technique basic to the Dance.  But then he remembered that she was obe, and that her training in the Dance had probably been slowed down compared to others because of her additional duties.  She was making novice mistakes, but to give her the benefit of the doubt, she hadn't been as thoroughly trained as others her age.

      No need to make this easy.  Tarrin stood up and moved towards where the two of them were scrapping, in a nice flat dusty clearing not far from the oasis plants.  Sarraya flitted over to his side, and that made him stop.

      "Don't interfere," Sarraya told him.  "This is something they need to do.  I think it's a racial custom.  They're establishing the pecking order."

      "That's not social, that's instinctual," Tarrin replied gruffly.  "And I already know who's going to win."

      "Who?"

      "Var.  Denai's making too many mistakes."

      "We'll see.  Experience isn't everything."

      "Think what you want," Tarrin shrugged, and they fell silent.  But not for very long.  Var came at Denai on her left side, and baited her into shifting her guard to her strong side--Denai was left-handed--then he turned his side to her and kicked her in the hip with a thrusted foot.  Denai was squared against him, and the impact sent her driving to the side, and that totally lowered her defenses.  One of her arms came out, and the agile Var grabbed it in both hands and whipped her over his shoulder into the ground.  Denai had the presence of mind to bring up a foot and kick over her own head, but Var was expecting such a move, and had turned so that her foot only struck his shoulder.   He still had hold of her arm, and knelt behind her and twisted it behind her back, threatening to break it.  She struggled from her seated position to grab him with her other hand, kicking and squirming, but she couldn't get her arm behind her enough to grab anything sensitive enough to make him let her go.

      "Aija!" Denai gasped when Var wrenched her arm.  It was the Selani word for yield.  Denai was submitting.

      "You were saying?" Tarrin asked.

      "Hmph.  Denai should have grabbed him between the legs.  That would have stopped him."

      "You're talking about something most men go to great lengths to protect," Tarrin told her.  "Var would have seen that coming from a longspan away."

      Var released Denai, standing up as she rolled her arm in her shoulder socket a few times to work out the sting.  He was rubbing his face gingerly, from where she had walloped him a few good times.  Var had won, but it was obvious that it wasn't an easy victory.

      "How did you do that?" Denai demanded from the ground.  "I never put my arm out."

      Var was about to respond, but he backed off when he realized that Tarrin had come so close that he was looming over the smaller Selani.  Denai scrambled to her feet, and when Tarrin suddenly cocked a fist back as if to strike her, she raised her arms into the basic guard defense, a position from which she could move quickly to block nearly anything from any direction. But her arms were too high.

      "That's how," Tarrin told her bluntly.  "You keep your arms too high, and you don't block with your legs.  Var kicked you in the hip to turn you, and you threw your arm out to balance yourself.  You defeated yourself, Denai."

      "I was going to tell you that myself," Var told her calmly.

      "Teach her," Tarrin ordered Var, then he backed away from them enough to turn around without them being within striking distance of his back.

      He had his own issues at the moment.  Jegojah was coming, and just the thought of it made him snarl in anger and clench his fists.  He hadn't done any real fighting for three months, and against the Doomwalker, he had to be totally sharp.  Yet out here, there was nobody suitable against which to spar.  Var and Denai were too small, too weak, not as skilled, unable to challenge him in the slightest.  There were inu and kajat, but they were animals, and didn't fight with the same levels of subtlety he needed to sharpen his skills in preparation.  He had few options other than running the forms alone, but that wasn't as beneficial as actual sparring.

      Yet another reason to miss Allia.

      He considered trying to spar with Var and Denai in human form, but it wouldn't work.  He had a different body in his natural form, and training in one form and fighting in another would not work.  To train as a human would be to confine himself to a human's abilities, and that would get him killed against Jegojah.  The Doomwalker was no opponent that a human could defeat.  He turned back and watched as Var held up his arms with Denai in the guard stance, showing her where to adjust.  Denai had everything she needed to improve, a teacher better than her.  Var would teach her the right way to do things, and she would get better.  But Tarrin's teacher wasn't with him...and truth be told, she had stopped teaching him long ago.  Allia considered him trained, which meant that she had taught him everything she knew, and she could teach him no more.  Only the application of that knowledge through experience separated them, and that was something that he had to do for himself.

      He distanced himself from the others, on the other side of the oasis, and did the only thing that he could.  He sparred against empty air, conjuring up an image of Jegojah in his mind, dredging up everything he remembered about the Doomwalker, and imagining it attacking.  Jegojah was more than an undead creature or a magic-user, it had proven itself to be exceptionally skilled in fighting, among the paramount warriors in the world.  Even if it didn't have its magical powers--

      No.  It was wrong to think of Jegojah as an it.  The Doomwalker had shown personality.  It was not an unthinking automaton, a magical weapon.  It was individual, unique, with thoughts and feelings.  Jegojah was a he.  He certainly wasn't very friendly, but he had shown a propensity for honor.  That was a good indicator that the Doomwalker was more than just another magical creation.  He remembered past fights with him, how he had saluted him with his sword, how he had spoken of honor and fairness.  He remembered infusing Jegojah's body, feeling the link that ran back to his soul, the soul that Kravon used to animate the Doomwalker's body.  He remembered Dolanna and Phandebrass explaining exactly what a Doomwalker was, how they were created.

      He slowed and stopped, lowering the sword.  Of course.  Jegojah was no enemy to take lightly.  His skills were exceptional, and in a fair fight with no magic, the winner would be who was luckier.  But Jegojah was a sentient being, with thoughts and feelings.  And there was more than one way to fight.  Intimidation, blackmail, flustering, they were all psychological forms of fighting, a way to get an advantage.  Jegojah was very good at intimidating his enemies to give himself an edge, but perhaps that could work the other way as well.  He already knew how to even the playing field, how to strip Jegojah of his ability to draw energy from the land.  Maybe a little extra would frighten the Doomwalker and give Tarrin an advantage.

      Tarrin hated Jegojah with every fiber of his being, but he wasn't stupid enough not to respect the Doomwalker's abilities.  He'd take every advantage he could get.

      And so he continued.  The sword felt a little strange in his paws, not like how his staff felt natural, but he was very good with it.  His mother and Allia both had taught him the sword, and he could wield one with as much skill as either of them.  This sword was a bit different, for it was one of the rare few he had held that seemed to fit into his paws.  Months of practice and combat had given him an affinity for the weapon, but he still missed his staff.  The blade cut the air, whistling as it moved as he flowed through several routines of attack and defense, routines that incorporated punches, kicks, claw swipes, and even tail lashes into them to take advantage of his natural weaponry.  The sword, which wasn't much shorter than Denai, was perfect for his height, as if it had been made for him.  The single-edged weapon, its black metal shimmering in the waning sun, sliced through imaginary foes again and again, as Tarrin snaked and weaved and evaded phantom attacks.  He became caught up in the soothing rythym of the Dance, allowing it to take over his mind for a time, becoming nothing and everything, where there was no thought, no fear, no worry, only him and his sword and his opponent, moving together in a seamless symmetry of poetic motion.

      But it still wasn't good enough.  The sword just didn't feel like a part of him, and he couldn't afford to give anything away when he faced Jegojah.  He needed his staff back, it was just that simple.  But Shiika had destroyed his staff, and the Ironwood from which he had cut it was an exceeding rare wood, something he'd never find around here.  No other other wood would do.  He was too hard on his weapon for it to break easily, because of his inhuman strength.  Without Ironwood, he was without a staff--

      He was without his staff.  When Tarrin cut the Ironwood, he had made two staves.  He cut and made them when he was thirteen, when he knew he wasn't at his full height yet.  So he'd made the first for his height at that time, and made the second one very long, to be cut to the proper height when he was fully grown.  He'd used that first staff for about a year and a half, then he'd given it to Jenna when he outgrew it.  Jenna still had it, even though it did little more than collect dust in a corner of her room.

      He could conceivably get it.  He knew how to Conjure and Summon, but this was a little different.  For one, the staff wasn't his anymore, and it had been a very long time since he'd held it.  That would make Summoning the staff very difficult.  It belonged to Jenna, and that would also make it much harder.  But Jenna was his sister, so he hoped that would make it a little easier than if he'd given it to a complete strangers.

      He wasn't about to give up because of that.  He needed a staff, he needed an Ironwood staff, and that one was the only one he knew.  He was going to try to Summon it, no matter what.

      Blowing out his breath, he closed his eyes and reached within, through the Cat, reaching into the All.  the intent in his mind was clear, but the image inside him was a bit fuzzy.  He knew what he was trying to do, but he was uncertain as to where the staff was, so his image basicly boiled down to summoning the staff he had given to Jenna.  He just hoped the All would construe his wishes through intent rather than image.  He closed his paw as he felt the Druidic magic flow through him, a considerable amount that left him physically weakened for a moment.

      But his paw closed around wood.

      It had worked!  Tarrin held up the staff in his paw quickly, but he could hardly call it a staff.  It was a staff sized for a human child, so to him, it looked like a twig.  But there was no denying that it was indeed the Ironwood staff.  He had shaped it himself, and even after five years, its every scratch, bur, swirl, and contour were still in his memory.  It was dry and dusty, but he could sense the wood through his paw, sense that it was still alive, even after five years of neglect.

      Good old Ironwood.  Virtually indestructible.

      Since it was alive, that meant that he could affect it.  Despite being a little tired from the summoning, Tarrin reached within once more.  This time, his image and intent were perfectly clear, and the All responded.  The drain on him was noticable, but nothing like what he felt when he summoned the staff.  The magic infused the staff, revitalizing the wood, bringing it back to full vigor, and the magic urged the wood to grow.  The staff lengthened and thickened visibly, growing swiftly in his paw, until it had fleshed out to the exact dimensions he had envisioned.  A good staff should be slightly taller than its owner, and thick enough to be easy to grip, but no thicker than necessary.

      What Tarrin got when he was done was a staff that was an almost perfect replica of his old one, sized perfectly to his tall frame.  It resembled his old staff, even down to the scratches on it; Tarrin realized that he must have been imagining his old staff when he used the spell to make the staff grow, and the All had taken that image and made it a blueprint rather than a guide.  The new staff was proportioned for his new height, and it was a bit heavier, but other than that, it looked and felt exactly like his old one.  The weight was no issue, since he himself was now stronger than he had been before, thanks to Shiika.  Just looking at the staff made Tarrin smile just a little bit, and he felt as if some long lost friend had reappeared in his life.

      He put the staff into the middle grip and felt its balance.  It was perfect.  The All had done more than just change the staff according to his image, it had changed it according to his desires.  It had made him the perfect staff, the perfect weapon, and already, before he even swung it once, it felt like an extension of his arms.  It felt like a part of him.  And that was the key element that was lacking when he used the sword.  He was aware of the sword, thought of the sword, took account of the sword.  He didn't do that when using his staff.  He didn't have to.  He could fight with his staff in a state of total unthinking oblivion, working on reflex and training alone, and that gave him a reaction so fast that few could keep up with him, even when he was a human.

      The sword.  It was still on his back.  But he wouldn't throw it away.  Carrying it these months had taught him that each weapon had certain uses, and had advantages in some situations.  He would keep and use them both.  The sword would be used, but only when it had a greater advantage than his staff.  Fighting kajats was a good example.  His staff would probably just bounce off the scaly hide of one of those formidable reptiles.

      "Well now," Sarraya said, "I wondered when you'd think to try that."

      Tarrin shook off the reverie and looked towards the voice.  Sarraya was hovering in the air not far from the single tree, a berry of some sort in her hand.  "Conjured or Created?"

      "Summoned," he replied.  "I totally forgot about this one.  I made it when I was younger and gave it to my sister.  It's been sitting in her room for the last five years.  I hope she doesn't mind if I take it back."

      "She probably won't miss it," Sarraya said with a light laugh, but her expression turned sober.  "You've been over here a while.  What's bothering you?"

      "What do you mean?"

      "You usually don't do this," she replied.  "That means something has you unsettled."

      He blew out his breath, reminding himself that Sarraya wasn't half as scatterbrained as she seemed.  In that way, she was alot like Keritanima.  Sarraya had a keen insight into his mind.  He wasn't sure if that was such a good thing, at least for her.

      "Jegojah is coming," he announced bluntly, staring at her.  "Coming into the desert.  Coming after me."

      "Seems to be rather suspicious timing," Sarraya said after a moment.  "Convenient that he just happens to be on the way when you're unable to use Sorcery."

      Tarrin noticed that she didn't ask how he knew.  She just seemed to accept it as truth.  "I know.  The Goddess warned me about him coming, and I'm going to be ready.  That's why I summoned a new staff, because I fight better with a staff than I do with a sword."  He blew out his breath and looked right into her eyes.  "There won't be a next time, Sarraya.  This time will be the last time."

      "Unless you have a miracle in your pocket, I don't see how you're going to do that," Sarraya told him.  "If you destroy him, he'll just find another body and come back."

      "This time I'm not going to do that," he grunted.  "I've been thinking about this all last night and today, and I've come up with some ideas.  I think the best way to eliminate Jegojah would be to imprison him and leave him somewhere where the Selani won't accidentally release him.  So long as his current body isn't destroyed, I don't think he can just abandon it for another one."

      "Clever idea, but that won't work either," Sarraya warned.  "The ones who made him can recall his animating force and put it into a new body.  The only way to stop a Doomwalker is to take the soultrap the Wizards who Conjured him used to create him.  So long as they have his soul, they can just keep Conjuring him again and again, until they either get tired of it or he kills you."

      Tarrin frowned.  He hadn't considered that.  The prospect that he had no real way to put an end to Jegojah once and for all was disheartening, and it made him just a little angry.  There just had to be a way!  He wasn't going to fight Jegojah again after this next time, that was something he had absolutely sworn to himself.  There had to be some way to put Jegojah down permanently, something that didn't involve physically finding and taking the soultrap that held Jegojah's soul.

      That put his plans off a little, but the simple fact that he had to be at the top of his game when Jegojah did arrive was still high in his mind.  He'd have to think up some other way to permanently defeat Jegojah later, but for now, he still had to get ready for him.

      "I know the Doomwalker is a pain in the butt, but there aren't any human bodies out here suitable for him, Tarrin," Sarraya soothed.  "Chop him up and make him spend another couple of months travelling back into the desert."

      "No," he said fiercely, motioning in her direction with his staff.  "Jegojah killed Faalken, Sarraya.  It's my fault Faalken died, but it was Jegojah that killed him.  I'll never forgive him for that.  I'll destroy Jegojah once and for all, no matter what it takes."

      "And that," she said seriously, "is exactly what I'm afraid of."

      "Why?" he demanded, staring at her intently.

      "Because I've seen what happens when you get like that," she replied.  "You'll kill yourself if you think that you can take Jegojah with you.  Well, you're not much use to the rest of us dead, and I'm not going to be the one to go back to your sisters and Triana and tell them that I let you kill yourself in a tiff.  You can forget that," she snorted.  "Sometimes, 'at any cost' is a price too high to pay for the people you leave behind, Tarrin.  Sometimes it's a price too high to pay for you.  Think about that."

      With that, she turned and flitted back to the other side of the oasis, leaving him alone with her words, alone with his thoughts.

      Thoughts that could only agree with her.

 

      He was awakened early the next morning by rage.

      It startled him awake from his comfortable furry ball near the fire, assaulted his Cat-dominated mind and forced him to flounder to find full awareness.  It wasn't coming from him, this was something outside.  It took him a moment to sift through the strange feelings and realize that, that it wasn't him.  They were emotions that the Cat in him wasn't well equipped to handle, so he shifted back into his humanoid form and knelt by the fire, a fire that Var was tending silently to ward off any Sandmen in the area.

      It was coming from Jula.  He realized that immediately, because what he was feeling was coming through her bond.  It had been quite a while since he'd felt anything from her, so long he almost forgot about the bond, but this was intense.  As complete a rage as he had ever sensed, even in himself.  Only very strong emotions or strong disturbances in the mind or body's harmony came through the bond, serious ones that demanded the bond-holder's attention.  It was a mechanism for parents to monitor their volitile cubs, and in this case, it was working all too well.  Blind fury was raging through Jula's entire being, through her core, so intense was it that he could sense its depth from half a world away.

      But it didn't tell him why.  Jula was in a rage, but he had no idea what caused it, and what was happening to her now.  All he could do was hunker down by the fire and close his eyes, feeling the bond intently as the moments passed to sense any changes to what came through to him.  It was agonizing for him, knowing that something had set Jula off, and that at that moment any number of people he cared for may be desperately fighting her off.  He had absolutely no clue what had started this or what was happening now.  He was torn between his parental concern for Jula and his fear that someone he loved had caused her to snap, that she may be killing someone he loved at that very moment.

      "Sarraya!" Tarrin said loudly, so loudly that it startled Denai out of her bedroll.

      "What, what?" Sarraya asked woodenly, grumbling in her semi-aware state.

      "Wake up!" Tarrin snapped.  "I have to talk to Triana right now."

      "Now?  What--"

      "Now!" Tarrin thundered, opening his eyes and pinning the Faerie to the ground with a baleful glare.

      "Alright, give me a moment," she said.  "What's wrong?"

      "Jula is in a rage," he replied quickly, as if talking faster would make her move faster.  "If Triana's not there, she needs to be.  Triana may be the only one that can stop her."

      "She's probably in Suld now," Sarraya protested.  "The Sorcerers--"

      "Jula is a Sorcerer!" Tarrin snapped at her.

      "I--Oh.  Quite right.  I'll try to reach her, but she may not answer."  Sarraya probably realized the truth.  If Tarrin could use Sorcery in a fit of rage, so could Jula.  And in her rage, she would be capable of levels of magical power that would usually be beyond her ability.  That made her ability to destroy go up by several degrees, and it meant that Triana was probably the only one there that could handle her.

      "Who is Jula?" Var asked Denai, who only shrugged.

      It continued.  Jula's rage did not decrease over the eternal moments that Sarraya tried to make contact with Triana with Druidic magic.  There was no sense of injury from her, so that told him that either nobody was fighting back, or nobody had the means with which to combat the enraged Were-cat.  It kept on and on, wave after wave of fury crashing against him, enough to start unsettling him--

      --and then it simply stopped.

      Just like that.  It just stopped.  No slow period of calming down, no sense of anything now.  Jula was still alive, so that meant that whatever had happened to break her fury had been quick and harmless to her.  Tarrin blinked in confusion.  He never came out of rage like that before.  There had always been a sort of realization that the rage was no longer necessary, and then it bled out of him.  But this was like someone had reached inside Jula and snatched it out of her.  What had calmed her down?  For that matter, what had set her off in the first place?  He had no idea, and that was driving him crazy.

      "Sarraya--"

      "Don't put a knot in your tail!" Sarraya interrupted acidly.  "Triana's not answering me."

      "I think she handled it, then," Tarrin told her, blowing out his breath.  "Jula's not raging now.  I have no idea what just happened to her."

      "Alright, got her now," Sarraya announced.  Above the fire, that strange circle of energy appeared, a band of power within which a blue pattern swirled.  That pattern faded and solidified, forcing Tarrin to stand to look squarely at it, until an image of Triana greeted him.

      More than Triana.  She was in what was probably a very well-appointed bedchamber of some kind, furnished with antique furniture.  At least what was left of it.  The place was a disaster area, with shattered furniture, broken glass, and bits of torn cloth scattered about the room.  Behind her, Tarrin could see Jula's form sprawled on the floor, and it looked like she was sleeping.  He could feel that she wasn't dead--wasn't even hurt--so he had the suspicion that Triana had put her out with some kind of magical attack.

      "I was expecting to hear from you," she said shortly.  "Jula's alright."

      "What happened, mother?" Tarrin demanded quickly.

      "The Keeper said something that upset Jula.  A great deal," she snorted.  "The Keeper should be glad that the job has such a high bar for its holders.  If she'd been any less of a Sorceress, she'd be dead now.  Jula came at her with both magic and claws."

      "What did she say?" Tarrin asked.

      "I have no idea.  I felt it the same time you did, most likely.  I got here just in time to peel the Keeper off the floor.  Jula was about a heartbeat from ripping her head off."

      "Was anyone hurt?"

      "A couple of the Keeper's guards got a little banged up, but nothing life-threatening.  Lucky for them that Jula only went through them to get to the Keeper."

      Tarrin blew out his breath.  What a relief!  Though he had no idea what started it, at least nobody he cared about was dead.  "Thanks, mother.  I'm glad you're there."

      "Any time, cub.  I was waiting for something like this to happen.  It'll be a good learning experience for your wayward daughter.  This is the first time she's went off the wagon since I took her.  She needs to face that side of her."  She looked to the side.  "I can't talk anymore, Tarrin.  I'll contact you with an explanation, at least as soon as I get to the bottom of this mess.  Bah, what a bother.  This was not how I like to be woke up in the middle of the night."

      Tarrin still had trouble contemplating that.  Keritanima had told him that it took the sun time to travel around the world, and that the time in one place wasn't the same as the time in another.  When it was noon in Suld, it was sunrise in Wikuna.  Since they were so far east of Suld, that meant that it was much later where he was than it was there.  "Well, it didn't do me much more good.  Mother, is that what you felt whenever I--"

      "Of course it is," she interrupted.  "Welcome to adulthood, cub.  And all the headaches that come with it."

      "I think I liked being a child better."

      "Reality is a pain, isn't it?" she asked with a curious smile cracking the stony mask that usually graced her face.  "I have to go.  I'll talk to you soon."

      "Bye, mother," Tarrin said, and the image of her slowly dissolved.

      "You have a child, Tarrin?" Denai asked curiously.  "You never told us that."

      "Because it's none of your business," he said bluntly to her.

      "Was that your mother?" Var asked him.

      Tarrin fixed both of them with an ugly stare, then turned and stalked off from the campsite.

      "What's wrong with him?" Var asked curiously, in a low voice.  Tarrin could tell that he wasn't saying it to him.  Var probably didn't realize that Tarrin's hearing was so sensitive.  Even walking away from them, he could hear perfectly.

      "You forget, he doesn't trust you," Sarraya told them.  "He won't talk about private things with strangers.  Be lucky he talks to you at all."  He heard Sarraya snort.  "You're both starting to wear on his nerves.  Both of you had better back off from him, or he's going to do something you won't like."

      The matter was dropped after that.  Tarrin thought about what had happened with Jula through most of the day, between sessions of teaching Sarraya Sha'Kar.  He'd never felt rage from the outside before, and the experience had been unsettling.  The feeling of it from Jula invoked his protective instincts, but it had also assaulted him, almost as if it was trying to incite him into a similar rage.  It had been a frightening sensation, and something that he didn't care to go through again.  Carrying Jula's bond had always felt like a responsibility, but now he realized that it was a serious responsibility.  It was more than a symbolic representation of his duty to her as a parent.

      It had been quite a while since he'd felt anything through the bond, so long that he'd nearly forgotten about it.  That was certainly an attention-grabbing way of being reminded of it.

      They reached the Great Canyon at sunset.  That surprised Tarrin, because Denai told them that it was three days away, but they had reached it in two.  And he was very impressed.  It wasn't a canyon, it was a massive rift in the earth itself, just like the Scar in Sulasia.  It simply began, with no warning or change in the surrounding terrain, a cliff that descended a dizzying longspan at least, a cliff that dropped straight to the canyon floor so very far below.  The canyon itself was a mind-boggling twenty longspans across, by his estimation, the far wall almost lost in the shimmering heat of the air.  The walls of the canyon were rounded by the wind, showing many layers of rock of varying colors and textures, layers stacked one upon another as they descended down to the canyon floor.  But those walls were almost arrow-straight, and though the wind had dug pits and hollows out of them, it was still easy to see that they had originally been straight.  Almost as if they had been shaped by some titanic chisel.

      "Wow," Sarraya breathed as they all stood at the edge of it, looking down.  There was leafy vegetation at the bottom, and he could see large four-legged reptiles, larger than a horse, munching sedately on the plants.  They were grayish-green and rather chubby in appearence, with boxed snouts and a long, meaty tail.  They were called chisa, plant-eating cousins of the carniverous desert reptiles, and were most often the dinner of their cousins.  Allia said they were rather dimwitted and slothful, uncaring of anything that wasn't dangerous to them, but they were very, very skittish.  So long as they weren't spooked, they were gentle as lambs.  Frighten them, and they would go on a stampede that would kill anything smaller in their path.  That combination seemed a paradox to him, but many horses were the same way.  They were gentle and playful, but if you frightened them, they could be very dangerous.

      Tarrin knelt down and put a paw on the rock at the edge of the cliff.  He felt something...odd.  Putting his paw on the stone strengthened that feeling, a strange tingling.  He closed his eyes and felt the stone through his paw, felt into it in ways he wasn't quite sure he understood, reached into it as if reaching into water to find what was at the bottom.  The latent residue of it was still there, after all these years, a residue dating back more than five thousand years.  An echo, a memory of what had happened here before, back when the Desert of Swirling Sands was a lush verdant belt of fertile farmland.

      An echo of magic.

      Magic the likes of which had not been seen since, the magic left behind when a god took direct action.  This was Priest magic, of the highest order, a Priest beseeching a god to do something directly.

      It only made sense.  No magician, not even a circle of the most powerful Ancients, could have made this rift.

      "What is it, Tarrin?" Sarraya asked.

      "This canyon isn't natural," he replied in a distant tone.  "It was made.  The magic of its creation still echoes in the rock, after all this time."

      "Truly?" Denai said in wonder.  "What could have made something like this?"

      "A god," Tarrin replied, standing back up.  "Only a god could do this."

      "Why would they make something like this?" Var asked curiously.  "It serves no purpose."

      "Not now," he replied.  "But five thousand years ago, I'll bet that this made one terrific barrier."

      "The Blood War!" Sarraya said in surprise.

      Tarrin nodded.  "It fits.  This is from the Blood War.  Probably a barrier to keep the Demons on one side of it.  That side over there, if I remember my history right," he said, pointing to the far side.

      "Huh," Var grunted.  "My people always thought that it was shaped by the wind."

      "It has been since it was made, but it would take wind a million years to eat out a rift this size," he replied.  "You said there were plants, Denai.  That looks like a jungle down there."

      "The land below is below the water level," Var told him.  "It seeps out of the rocks and pools up, so it can support plants.  Most don't know that a verdant belt exists in the middle of the desert."

      "Do your people try to go down there?" Sarraya asked.

      Var shook his head.  "The lands below are too dangerous," he replied.  "There are a great many inu and kajat below, and the Cloudracers claim that area as their own.  We respect their claim."

      "Cloudracers?  What are they?"

      "Wait long enough, and you'll see one," Denai told the Farie.  "Tall people with wings."

      Tarrin raised an eyebrow and looked down at the Selani.  "Tall?  Thin?  With feathered wings?"

      Denai nodded.

      "So that's why she flew north," Tarrin said, piecing it together.

      "Who?" Sarraya asked.

      "Ariana," he replied.  "The Aeradalla.  Remember her?"

      "Oh!" Sarraya said in realization.  "They live in the desert?"

      "That would explain why nobody ever sees them," Tarrin reasoned, then he turned to Denai.  "Do you know where they live?"

      "Everyone knows," she replied.  "They live at the top of the Cloud Spire.  We'll begin to see them now, since we're moving into what's considered their territory."

      "Allia never said anything," Sarraya said, a bit annoyed.

      "We keep them a secret," Var told her.  "It's part of our pact with them.  No Selani will tell outsiders about the Cloudracers."

      "She wouldn't even tell me," Tarrin grunted.  "That must be a serious oath.  Wait, why did you tell us?"

      "Because it's something you would have found out on your own," he replied calmly.

      That surprised him a little.  Allia had kept a secret!  It made him wonder what else she hadn't told him, what else her Selani honor would not allow her to reveal.  He didn't really blame her, because he understood how she felt about oaths, but it made him a little curious.  He wondered what else she knew, how many more mysterious secrets she kept locked up inside her.

      Tarrin looked down again.  The Aeradalla would wait until later.  "Where do we cross this thing?" he asked.

      "That way," Denai said, pointing northward.

      "May as well camp here," Sarraya noted.  "It's getting dark, and you definitely don't want to wander too far in the wrong direction around here."

      "Truly," Denai said with a smile.  "I'll find a good site for us."

      "Not if I find it first," Var said in a swaggering tone.

      "We'll see about that, Var," she said, and then they both turned and raced off in different directions.

      Those two would turn absolutely anything into a competition.

      "Heh," Sarraya grunted.  "Want to wait, or find a site while they're busy trying to outdo each other?"

      "There's a good place right there," Tarrin said, pointing to a slight depression in the sandy, barren soil that would serve well to capture the heat of the fire and keep the site warm.

      "Boy, will they be disappointed," Sarraya grinned as the two of them moved to erect a campsite for the night.

      They settled in for the night, but Tarrin found himself unable to sleep.  He wandered away from the campsite, away from the protection of the fire, and found himself standing at the edge of the Great Canyon again, staring down into its black depths.  The rift ate at him in a strange way, both its presence and how he had sensed the magic that created it.  The land here had been a beautiful grassland when the rift was made, and in five thousand years, it had degenerated into this formidable desert.  It made him wonder what had caused such a drastic change, what had turned the rain away from this area and turned it into a sandy wasteland.  Could the rift itself had played a part in it?  Had it altered the water table in the region so drastically that it changed the weather patterns?  Anything was possible, but he knew that something outside of the natural order had to have a hand in changing this place.

      The memory of the magic was quite fresh, and he could still feel the tingles of the magical residue.  He had never had so sensitive a feel for magic before.  He hadn't been able to feel that before, but then again, he knew that everything about his magic was different now.  He had little doubt that such a sensitive feel for magic was common for Weavespinners, since from what he'd managed to piece together, they were much more attuned to magic than other kinds of magicians.  He couldn't make magic yet, but he knew that he had already awakened some parts of his magical ability, and this sensitivity had to be one of them.

      He touched the amulet around his neck and found that the sensation of active magic was quite different, kind of like a buzzing sensation along his fingers as they touched the black metal.  Touching it made him realize that he'd been feeling it for days now, rides, but the weight of the amulet and its presence, and everything that had happened, had made him ignore or overlook the sensations that the amulet caused in him.  The metal felt alive to him, and in a way, he guessed that it was.  His touch told him many things about the amulet.  That the magic that made it was ancient beyond understanding, from before the Blood War, and that it had been re-enchanted recently to add to its basic abilities.  One of them, he knew, was the magic that kept it around his neck.  He picked through the magical abilities of the amulet more closely, realizing that it was enchanted to do more than he thought that it could.

      That surprised him.  He thought that he knew everything of which the amulet was capable.  The magic was ancient, but it was still powerful, so powerful that it survived the magical rupture of the Breaking.  He closed his eyes and delved into the amulet, sorting through its many magical enchantments, magicks laid down successively over thousands of years.  Almost as if every owner of the amulet had added his or her own personal addition to its magic before passing it on to the next.  The roots of its magic were founded in the dimmest past, thousands of years before the Blood War, during the time of the True Ancients.  A time during which nobody knew its history.  That startled him.  The amulet around his neck had to be one of the most ancient relics on the face of Sennadar!

      Most of the enchantments within had faded or lost their potency over the years, but some of them were still active, still strong.  The elsewhere was its primary function, the original enchantment created into the amulet, but inspection of those magical enchantments told him that he hadn't even scratched the surface of the true power of the amulet's abilities in that direction.  Searching through the weaves of creation showed him their pattern, and he found that he could read those patterns like a book, read them to understand how they worked.  The elsewhere as he used it was its basic operation, what took no active will on the part of the wearer.  What he didn't know was that the wearer could banish to or summon from that elsewhere any object held or worn, with nothing but the will for it to happen.  The elsewhere was a non-place, but it behaved like a real place in respect to the objects stored within it.  They had physical location, so objects couldn't be placed in the same area within it.  That meant that if he had something in the elsewhere that had gone there from his left paw, he couldn't send something else into the elsewhere from that same paw.  Something would already be occupying that area of elsewhere.  He also couldn't send more into the elsewhere that, when taken all together, weighed more than he did.  That was its limit.  Size or volume were no barriers, it was its weight that mattered.  He also found that nothing alive could be sent into the elsewhere.  He found that by concentrating on it, he could sense what was within the elsewhere at any time he desired, an inventory of sorts of what he was carrying, and where it was in respect to knowing where and how it would appear when it was summoned forth.

      Tarrin blinked.  How clever!  Whoever made the magic of the amulet had done an incredible job!  It was no surprise that it had survived thousands of years, had even survived the Breaking.

      That was the first of its abilities.  The second was the ability to communicate over distance, placed within it after the Blood War, during what most called the Age of Power.  What he knew was that it worked from amulet to amulet, like how he communicated with his sisters.  What he didn't know was that its power originated from his amulet, and that it could be used to communicate with anyone who wore a Sorcerer's Amulet, and whose name he knew.  The amulets of his sisters were probably the exact same as his.  Little did they know that they had had the ability to communicate with any Sorcerer, anywhere, so long as he or she wore an amulet and they knew the Sorcerer's name.  He thought that it had been a part of a unifying weave that was also woven into the amulets of his sisters, but that wasn't the case.  The entirety of the weave was placed within his amulet.

      And that explained why using the ability tired out the person who originated the conversation.  Because that person was the one who was doing all the work.  After all, all he was doing was speaking through another's amulet, then listening for what was said in reply through the other amulet.

      He was again startled.  Such an ingenious idea!  He realized quickly that the Ancients probably all had this weave in their amulets, which would allow any Sorcerer the ability to communicate with any of his or her siblings at any time, from any place.  The weaves of the spell that gave it this ability seemed...routine.  He didn't quite understand how he knew that, but he could tell just by looking at the weaves that they were made by someone who had made this same weave time and time again.  There was no personal flare or style in this weave, as there was in the weave concerning the elsewhere.  It was an average, run-of-the-mill weave that had no sense of self.  In other words, it was a basic enchantment, and that lent credence to the idea that it was common among the Ancients.

      The Goddess had misled him!  She hadn't come out and said it, but when she explained this to him, she made it sound like he could only use it to speak to Allia and Keritanima.  That their amulets were linked, were special.  She steered him away from the truth for some reason.  That was something he meant to ask her the next time she visited.

      Of course!  They were linked.  If Allia and Keritanima could speak to him, then their amulets had to have the same weave in them.  All three were very, very old, ancient.  They looked now to him that they dated back to the time when his amulet received the enchantment that gave it this ability.  That made their three amulets unique, the only three known to have survived the Breaking intact.  In a metaphorical sense, they were linked.

      Another of its enchantments was a simple weave that hid the wearer's location from any kind of magical attempts to locate him.  That one was simple, and was very effective.  It was also one about which he knew.  The Keeper had also known about it.  He thought that the Keeper had made it, but she hadn't.  This magical weave predated the Breaking.  The katzh-dashi had probably come to discover this aspect of the amulet during their inspection of it.

      The last enchantment was the most recent, and it was the one of which he knew the most about.  And cursed, from time to time.  It was the binding weave, an enchantment that prevented him from taking it off.  It was so tightly woven into the fabric of the metal, into the fabric of the other enchantments, that any attempt to break or disrupt it would shatter the weaves that gave the amulet its powers.  Any attempt to take it off would disenchant the amulet, leaving it non-magical.  The complexity of the weave astounded him, and immediately he realized that the Keeper and the Council would be utterly unable to do this.  This was done by someone whose magical skills were beyond comprehension, who was so adept at weaving that they could interweave both modern and ancient magicks so seamlessly that there was no way to separate them.  That took an understanding of the ancient weaves that went beyond modern knowledge.  Looking into the weaves, he felt and saw and sensed a familiarity to them, a sense of presence left behind in the weaving, almost like a signature.  It was something with which he was intimately familiar.

      This was done by the Goddess.

      The Goddess had done this weaving, and she had absolutely made sure that the amulet's powers could not be used by anyone else but him.  If someone got the amulet off his neck, then it would be nothing but a very old piece of black steel.  If it survived the unravelling of weaves that had infused it for most of recorded history, at any rate.  The shock of it would probably destroy the amulet.

      Interesting.  Very, very interesting.  Without too much thought, he reached within, through the Cat, and came into contact with the All.  He then formed image and intent that Summoned his staff from where it was laying by the fire, and held it in his right paw.  Then, focusing on the amulet, he willed it to go into the elsewhere.

      And it disappeared.

      The sense of it was in his mind, hovering just outside reality, within the grip of his now empty paw.

      He willed it to return, and it did so, as his paw closed around it as it appeared within his grip.

      Tarrin smiled grimly.  This, this had some interesting possibilities.  This was instantaneous, not like Summoning, where he had work himself up to it.  The ability to instantly summon up a weapon had any number of clever uses in battle.

      Leaning on his staff, he looked down into the vast chasm before him.  Back when he was human, staring at such a massive gulf may have unsettled him, but not now.  The Cat had no fear of heights, for it was confident in its own abilities.  His toes gripped the very edge, his claws extending out into empty air that was supported by the ground over a longspan below him.  The wind picked up a little, a local effect caused by the rift, as the air was caught up inside and channeled to travel along its length.  It was a cold, dry wind, the cold of the desert night, but his feet were warmed by the last of the day's heat trapped in the rock under them.  The wind carried up the smells from the chasm floor below, scents of green things and reptiles, dust and rock, and of water.  They were very faint, but they were enough to remind him of the way the forest smelled, the place he had always and would always consider home.

      He wasn't really suited for all this.  That thought had never really crossed his mind before, mainly because he hadn't felt like he'd had much choice.  When Tarrin had no choice, he tended not to dwell on what he wanted or what could have been, trying to make the best of the situation.  But it was still there, the thought that he really wasn't suited for all this.  He was nothing but a village farmboy who had dreams of making a name for himself.  Well, that had happened, but it wasn't exactly the way he hoped it would come about.  He wanted to be a Knight.  He'd realized that dream, but it was under he most bizarre of circumstances.  They should have chosen someone else, like a great, courageous Knight, or some vastly educated Wizard.  Or maybe even that Sha'Kar woman.  Anyone but a teenaged villager from a place so remote that most people in the very kingdom in which it was located had no idea it was there.

      Strange that the gods would hinge the safety of this world on a raw-boned, rather naive young man, who turned out to be a murderous uncaring monster.  Maybe there was such a thing as a universal sense of humor.  Perhaps the universe thrived on irony.

      The voices of Var and Denai reached him, and he turned to look.  They were telling stories, boasting to one another with wildly elaborated tales of daring and courage.  Yet another in a long string of competitions.  The two of them seemed to fit together, somehow, in his mind.  Almost as if they belonged with one another.  Maybe this competition was their way of feeling one another out, to see if they were a good match.  He knew that they were.  Var had the patience and temperment to reign in Denai's youthful exuberance, and Denai would bring a fire into Var's life that seemed to be necessary.

      That was a strange thought.  Why should he care about that?  They were both strangers...and yet, being with Denai these days, he felt a little differently to her now.  She seemed like a child to him, and he was starting to warm to her under that concept.  Tarrin may hate strangers, but he never had nor never would extend his feral nature to children.  Var...well, Var was still a little disconcerting, but Tarrin was getting used to him.  He'd gotten used to Camara Tal, Sarraya, and Phandebrass as well.  Maybe that was a good sign.  Var and Denai kept him on edge when they were near him, but the sense of that fear had started to dull over the last couple of days.

      That wasn't the only thing.  Ever since the fight with the Sha'Kar, the eyeless face that had haunted him for so long had been slowly losing its potency.  It was still there, but now it did nothing more than remind him of what could happen if he lost control.  There was no more hatred or loathing or fear tied up in its gaze, almost as if it had lost its venom.  Jula's rage had reinforced that, reminded him how narrow a path he walked to keep his calm, keep his very sanity.

      "Quite a view," Denai said, coming up behind him.  Her voice startled him a bit...he thought she was trading stories with Var.  Had he been pondering that long?  But, to his credit, she didn't invoke a powerful response out of him.  Usually he would have turned on the object that startled him and challenged it.  But the realization that it was Denai smoothed over any hostile impulses immediately.

      "Something you don't see every day," he said mildly.  "What do you want?"

      "Do I have to want something?" she asked.

      He looked right at her.  "Yes," he said bluntly.

      She gave him a look, then she laughed, giving him that disarming, charming smile.  "Actually, Sarraya asked me to come get you.  We made dinner, we thought you may be hungry."

      He looked down at her.  She was so small.  She only came up to his chest.  She was cute, and had that charming smile, and she had a fearless temperment and adventurous spirit that would exasperate any male she married.  But there was something about her, that ethereal quality he noticed when they first met...Denai was affable, likable.  It was very hard not to be swept over by her charisma.  She was so much like Dar in that respect; Dar had this strange quality that made everyone like him, almost immediately after they met.  It was something that he had noticed, and was probably why they had paired Dar with him for his Novitiate.  They probably figured that if anyone stood a chance of not getting killed by him, it was Dar.  Denai had that same sense about her.  It was different in her, because she was Selani instead of human, but it was still there.

      "No, not really," he answered her, seeing that she was growing uncomfortable under his penetrating stare.  "Go back to the camp."

      "Why should I?" she asked petulantly.  "I rather like it here."

      "Did you think that I might want to be alone?"

      She grinned at him.  "I've been watching you," she told him.  "If you wanted to be alone, you would have growled at me before I got close enough to say anything."

      He would have, he admitted inwardly, if he knew she was there.  But he wasn't about to admit that she snuck up on him.  "Probably," he acceded.  "But I don't feel like talking."

      "Who needs to talk?" she asked.  "You look like you could use some company.  That doesn't take talking."

      Tarrin put a flat stare on and levelled it at her.  "Go back to the camp," he ordered.

      "No."

      That totally scattered him.  She disobeyed him!  It shocked him so deeply that it put him off balance.  How could she possibly not obey?  But then he realized that he was thinking like a Were-cat, and she wasn't a Were-cat.  Any Were-cat would have obeyed, because Tarrin was the dominant.  But to her, that didn't matter all that much.  Denai did as Denai wanted, and if that pushed the envelope of safety, that made it even more fun.  It was a part of her irresistable charm.

      "You'll go back.  Whether its whole or in pieces is your decision," he said threateningly, extending his claws on both paws.

      "Oh, put those away," she said with that charming smile.  "You're not going to hurt me.  I can tell just by looking at you.  It took me a while to see that, but now that I do, I'm not afraid of you anymore."

      This threw him off, because she was right.  Tarrin would never harm a child.  And since he saw her as a child, that meant that he would not raise his paw against her.  He realized that she was going to use that to basicly flaunt herself in his face.  And no matter how aggravated he got with her, it wouldn't come to an end with blood.  He didn't accept her as a friend, but he also wouldn't attack her as an enemy.  That put Denai in a curious gray area, where her presence bothered him, but he wasn't willing to put her off by force.

      "Now that we've established that, why don't you sit down and talk with me?" she invited.  "I'm curious about some things, and Sarraya won't answer my questions.  She said you had to tell me."

      So that's what this was about.  Denai was curious, that was all.  That was easy enough to assuade.  "The less you know, the safer you are," he said honestly.  "I've killed men over just thinking they knew too much, Denai.  I may not be willing to raise a paw against you for being friendly, but I will kill you if I think you know more than what's needful.  Do you understand me?"

      The sheer honesty in his voice put Denai back.  She stared at him in surprise for a long moment, then finally nodded her head.  "I don't think everything I want to know falls into that, though," she said.  "Tell me about your daughter.  How old is she?"

      That, he didn't mind talking about.  He looked down at her and gave her a neutral look, then stared out over the chasm in thought.  "She's older than I am," he answered.  "She's what you may call adopted."

      "Strange, but then again, you're not Selani, so you must have customs that seem strange to us.  Some of our customs must seem strange to you too."

      "Some," he agreed.  "Jula is like me, turned.  I took her in because she needed someone to help her adjust to it."

      "To what?"

      "To this," he answered, holding out his paw.  "I wasn't born this way.  I was changed into this by one of my new kind."

      "You're a Lycanthrope?" she asked in sudden intense curiosity.

      "I didn't think the Selani knew about them."

      "There are some stories," she told him.  "Old stories about creatures that wandered the desert, creatures that could change from humans into jackals.  One of the Watchers called them Lycanthropes, or Were-jackals.  The stories said that they preyed on our herds, so our ancestors chased them from our lands."

      "Possible," Tarrin mused.  "There are many kinds of Were-kin.  I've never heard of Were-jackals, but that doesn't mean that they don't exist."

      "What is this Jula like?"

      "I don't like her," Tarrin said bluntly.  "I did what I had to do because it was my duty, nothing more."

      "Honor and blood," Denai recited.  "Duty is honor, and the cost of that honor is blood."

      "It feels like it sometimes," he agreed.

      "Are all your people as tall as you?"

      "No," he replied.  "Only Triana, my bond-mother, is my size.  Everyone else is a little taller than you on the average."

      "Bond-mother?"

      "My patroness, much as I'm Jula's patron," he explained.  "Triana was the one who took me in and taught me how to cope.  Unlike Jula, I very much love and respect Triana.  She's my second mother."

      "It sounds like you have two families."

      "I have one, but it's rather large and diverse," he said with a wry smile.  "I have my original family, my blood-sisters, my bond-mother, and my friends.  They're all family to me."  He looked at her.  "My world is centered around family, Denai.  You're either family or you're not.  Family is trusted, everyone else is not."

      "Not even me?"

      "Not even you," he said bluntly.  "I'll talk like this with you because I see you as a child, and my kind have a strong impulse to protect children.  If I didn't see you as a child, I would have probably killed you the moment you said no to me."

      Denai blanched.  "Sarraya explained some of that, but I thought she was joking," she said in a slightly sick voice.

      "Believe her," he said gratingly.  "I'm not a gentle person, Denai.  Some would call me evil, and they'd probably be right."

      Denai snorted.  "Nobody who cares so much about family can be evil," she stated, looking at him with steady eyes.

      "That's your opinion," he told her calmly.

      "Well, what do you think?" she challenged.  "Do you think you're evil?"

      Tarrin was silent a very long time.  "Yes," he finally replied.

      "Well, you haven't done anything evil to me, so I say you're not," she said with her charming smile.  "Now then, I think our dinner is getting cold.  Let's go eat."

      "I'm not hungry," he told her.

      "You haven't eaten all day," she protested.  "Come on!  You're going to eat!"  She grabbed him by his tail and began to pull.  She wasn't strong enough to hurt him, but from the force she was exerting, it was clear that she had no intention of letting go.  "Let's go!"

      "You're toying with death, woman," he warned in a grim voice.

      "I live for the danger," she said with an impudent grin.  "Now are you coming, or do I have to pull this from your backside?"

      That sounded so familiar to him.  He had said that to a woman some time ago, and she had replied with the exact same answer.  But it had been so long ago, so much had happened, he couldn't remember who it was who said that to him.  Was it Allia?  Keritanima?  Maybe it was Camara Tal, or maybe Sarraya?  It irked him a little that he couldn't remember, but he'd had so much on his mind lately, it was amazing that he remembered his own name.

            Well...he was a little hungry.  Maybe a meal would help him remember.  Denai squeaked in surprise when Tarrin flexed his tail, pulling Denai up and off her feet.  She probably hadn't realized that Tarrin's tail was almost as long as she was tall, and he pulled it up to where she was yanked off her feet.  Her feet dangled only a finger or so off the ground, but it was enough.  He then moved her aside, and then dropped her back onto the ground.  Denai laughed delightedly at that, then let go of his tail and bounded up beside him as they returned to the campsite.


To:   Title                     EoF

Chapter 13

 

      "This is your idea of a path?" Sarraya said in surprise.

      It was late morning, and the four of them were on the edge of the vast chasm of the Great Canyon.  Tarrin and Sarraya looked down at what Denai had called a safe pathway down to the valley floor...which amounted to little less than an angled irregularity in the rock that formed a very steep ridge that descended to the valley floor so very far below.  The ridge was wind-eaten, and extended out from the chasm wall by no more than four fingers.  It was a toehold, nothing more, a toehold at about a fifty degree angle that plunged into the shaded canyon.

      "Compared to the rest of the canyon walls, Sarraya, this is as close to a pathway as you will get," Denai said defensively.  "We've used it before."

      "How can there be so many Selani when all of them are insane!" Sarraya said hotly, throwing up her hands and drifting out into the vast gulf.  Drifting out of reach.

      Tarrin didn't have his mind on that at the moment.  He was still trying to figure out Denai.  The Selani girl had slept close to him last night, and her presence had begun to wear on him in strange ways.  She didn't seem to be willing to give over on the idea of trying to draw him out, almost